As much as the Underground Gourmet enjoys a nice leisurely repast, there is something to be said for the fast and furious feed, and no one appreciates this more than the owners of Hong Kong Station, a snappy new noodle shop on the cusp of Chinatown. While Chinatown noodleries by definition specialize in lickety-split service, Hong Kong Station ups the ante on speed and customer satisfaction, inviting its time-pressed patrons to customize their orders with all manner of optional add-ons, and by serving these made-to-measure meals-in-a-bowl cafeteria style. That the experience doesn’t conjure up horrifying images of Rikers Island—or worse, junior high school—as cafeterias often do, is a testament to the tasty sum of the soup’s myriad parts. There’s also the slick-for-Chinatown look, with a staff clad in orange logo’d polo shirts and walls festooned with black-and-white vintage photos of Hong Kong.
This might be fast food, but Mickey D’s it ain’t. Forget about forming an orderly line: A pack of excitable, elbow-throwing soup lovers usually huddles around the glass-fronted counter, and if you don’t speak Chinese you’re at a disadvantage. But hang tough; eventually some kindhearted orange-visored crowd-control specialist will take pity on you and facilitate your order. First, choose a cooked-to-order noodle—fresh or dried, egg or rice. They’re all springy and delicious, just resilient enough, while the all-purpose chicken broth is rich and flavorful. As for the add-ons—there are no signs to guide you, so you can play it safe and point at what looks familiar (Chinese broccoli, turnips, shiitake mushrooms, chicken wings), or take a chance on what doesn’t (beef stomach, chicken gizzards, pig’s blood). Everything’s a dollar a pop, so the financial risk is negligible, and for every experiment gone awry you just might discover a new obsession—like the curry fish balls, six to an order, slightly spongy bite-size nuggets that give the soup a nice layer of heat.
Spam, ham, and hot dogs are unlikely hits among the Asian clientele, but the bilingual menu helpfully guides newbies to “Recommended Items” like brisket-tender cubes of stewed beef. There are balls and cakes of every persuasion (beef, fish, squid), and enough offal and variety meats to feed an army of Mario Batalis. Pork skin is slightly rubbery but tender enough, glistening with fat, and kind of addictive. There are gastronomes who might be capable of discerning the nuanced subtleties of pork and beef stomachs, but the distinction escaped us. And pork intestine is one of those strong, overly assertive acquired tastes that take more than one bowl of soup to acquire; it’s an earthy flavor that lingers longer than you bargained for. But the house curry sauce can right almost any wrong, and refreshing drinks like honey water and red-bean ice let you end your soup adventure on a sweet note.
A little farther uptown, Rickshaw Dumpling Bar offers another take on Chinese fast food, one that matches Hong Kong Station’s emphasis on speed and single-starch devotion. Comparing the two, though, is like apples and oranges—or at least pig’s blood and Peking duck. Rickshaw has all the blond-wood, corrugated-steel signs of a fast-food chain-in-the- making, plus the imprimatur of a star chef—Anita Lo, the Chinese-American force behind Greenwich Village’s breezily elegant Annisa. Her user-friendly menu at Rickshaw is built around a half-dozen dumplings, and encourages customers to supersize their orders with a pointedly un-Chinatownish mixed-greens salad, or a designated dressed-up noodle soup.
The dumplings themselves, showcased in steamer baskets behind the spic-and-span kitchen’s glass walls, are plump and tender, adroitly made, and filled with ingredients that are fresh and tasty, if at times too timidly seasoned. Order them steamed (good) or fried (better), à la carte or in soup; it takes longer to peruse the selection of dumplings and accoutrements than it does, seemingly, to cook them. By the time you round the corner to the pickup station, chances are your order will be waiting for you.
Lo’s kitchen crew has the system down to a science. Fried dumplings are seared on one side, crisp but not greasy. Accompanying dipping sauces taste fresh and vibrant, and the soups—all stocked with thick, soft Shanghai noodles—turn an order of dumplings into a filling meal. Chicken dumplings, stuffed with minced meat, glass noodles, and Thai basil, are submerged in a viscous, chili-pepper-flecked peanut-sate soup garnished with green coconut, cucumber, and lime. Moist, tender Peking-duck dumplings are almost confit-like, paired with the classic hoisin dipping sauce or set afloat in a shiitake broth scented with cinnamon and star anise. There’s a vegetarian option and a low-carb one, too, the classic pork filling wrapped in tofu skin instead of dough. It’s a rare Chinatown dumpling shack that offers drinks like Rickshaw’s icy green-tea milk shakes and refreshingly uncloying “watermelonade.” And even dumpling purists allergic to stylish décor and thumping music can’t deny that Lo’s lethal chocolate-soup dumplings—deep-fried bundles of black sesame mochi oozing melted chocolate and Plugrá butter—make the fast-food world an infinitely better place.