The Underground Gourmet always finds happiness in the part of Chinatown that lies east of the Bowery. At night, its streets are surrendered to ghostly constructs of trash, but during the day, the pavement teems with lobster wholesalers, fish merchants, retailers of ruminant entrails, and vendors of live frogs that writhe by the hundreds in barrels -- a Dante-esque spectacle that will shake the appetite of even the most dedicated ranivore. Yet I am always hungry when I step into J.M. Family Noodle Restaurant (19 Henry Street; 571-2440), a Cantonese place that expertly satisfies the food cravings of the customers crowding into it with their shopping bags.
J.M. Family Noodle Restaurant occupies what appears to be an abandoned but luxurious onetime public bathhouse at the corner of Henry and Catherine Streets. The walls and floors are covered by ceramic tiles, the mirrors are lit perfectly for a close shave, and a soap dish and long-handled back scrubber would not look out of place alongside the huge, steaming cauldrons behind the takeout counter. This kind of setup appeals to me.
On my first visit, a family that had been traveling down to J.M. Family Noodle Restaurant from the Bronx since the eighties helped me to order. Soon my table was gobbling up a plate of beef tendons ($3.25), melting, salty translucent squares served in a sugary brown oyster sauce; fresh, spongy beef honeycomb tripe ($4); crispy barbecued pig skin (extracted from an entire oven-cooked pig) that vanished in the mouth with a crackle ($5); an excellent steamed flounder ($11.95) that the waiter deboned in a jiffy; a mild but otherwise irreproachable Singapore chow mai fun (skinny rice noodles stir-fried with pork, egg, shrimp, bean sprouts, etc., and a hint of curry; $4.50); and chewy boneless duck breast served in black-bean sauce (half-order, $5.50).
But what stands out about J.M. Family Noodle is its soups. The seafood house special rice congee ($3.50) is a dense, marvelous puddle of goodies: peanut and green-onion fragments adrift on a rice soup stocked with squid, fish cake, bean cake, and other pleasures. (If you have congee for breakfast, eat it with a hot baguette-shaped, sugar-powdered doughnut.) And everything about the soy-sauce-chicken soup ($4.25) works: tender chicken, superior shrimp dumplings, fine rice noodles, and a broth that does not stray into oversaltiness.
I like this place. I may even try sautéed frog next time I go back.
J.M. Family Noodle Restaurant is open Sunday through Thursday 9 a.m. to 10 p.m., Friday and Saturday till 11. Cash only.