Must-See Chinatown

Michael Hsu

(Updated 12/21/2015)

With one of the densest populations of Chinese immigrants in the western hemisphere, Manhattan's Chinatown is a true New York story, the American Dream in action. The thriving immigrant population gives visitors access to far-flung wares and culinary delights, and to walk these streets is to walk through NYC's past (it's where much of the action in Martin Scorsese's Gangs of New York took place, though back in the era portrayed in the movie it was known as Five Points). A great starting point is Chatham Square, which is the intersection of eight streets (including major arteries like the Bowery and Mott Street)—a metaphor, perhaps, for the neighborhood's confluence of cultures. History buffs can admire Chatham Square's statue of Lin Zexu, a Qing Dynasty official who led the fight against Britain's illegal importation of opium. But most of us will want to start eating and shopping our way through the busy streets—there's a backstory in every bite. Read on to learn more about Chinatown's most exciting attractions.

Courtesy, Maya Lin Studio/MoCA

Museum of Chinese in America
215 Centre St., 212-619-4785
Since reopening in 2009 in a converted industrial space designed by Maya Lin, this museum of the Chinese-American experience, founded in 1980, has become Chinatown's most refined tourist attraction. The permanent exhibition space is devoted to telling the turbulent and relatively short history of the Chinese in this country, from the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 to the influence of Bruce Lee right up to today. The exhibitions are slick (floating projections and beautiful photographs abound) and interactive (sit in a worn wooden chair to hear the questions Chinese immigrants were subjected to upon arrival to this country). On the first Thursday of each month, the museum stays open till 9pm and admission is free.

Photo: Alexander Thompson

Aji Ichiban
37 Mott St.,212-233-7650
If you're new to the world of Asian candies and snacks, a trip to Aji Ichiban—more commonly known as Munchies Paradise—provides an essential crash course. The store is packed with all manner of sweets and savories in clear bins, so you see exactly what a flan-filled marshmallow or haw-flavored candy looks like before committing. Products are sold individually instead of in packages, so feel free to buy just a handful of those lychee milk hard candies and a couple of each variety of sweet pickled plum (sometimes sour, sometimes salty). You'll also find savory snacks, like wasabi peas, Japanese rice crackers and even dried squid and cuttlefish. And the store's open-tasting policy welcomes those who are just curious.

Photo: Man Mak

New Kam Man
200 Canal St.,212-571-0330
This tri-level grocery store is a one-stop shop for more than just Chinese ingredients and staples. You'll find a roasted-meats station near the front of the store, where you can have prepared pork and duck chopped to order, and a noodle bar toward the back that serves soups, bubble milk tea and other treats. There's even an area devoted to medicinal herbs, and the top floor is given over to beauty supplies. Most of New Kam Man's expansive lower level is filled with housewares. It carries all manner of fuzzy-logic rice makers and Japanese water boilers, as well as one of the most extensive selections of dishware in the neighborhood (especially now that Pearl River has moved to SoHo). One side of the floor has traditional Chinese porcelain, the other has dishes, bowls and cups imported from Japan. The chopsticks and chopsticks holders range in style from the whimsical (think "Lucky Cat") to the refined—and make an easy-to-pack souvenir.

Photo: Julienne Schaer

Columbus Park
Between Bayard and Worth Streets, and between Mulberry and Baxter Streets
To get a glimpse of the diversity of the neighborhood, head to Columbus Park, where the scene is usually bustling, especially on weekends. You're sure to find amateur troupes of Chinese-opera performers stationed throughout the park, residents playing mah-jongg and cards, folks practicing tai chi and learning kung fu, and the stray fortune-teller or two. In the summer, you might even stumble upon a symphony of singing birds, as pet owners often hang their birds' cages in the trees during the morning. Active types might take advantage of the 3.2-acre park's sports facilities: an Astroturf field for pickup games of soccer and volleyball; a basketball court; and, at the south end of the park, a large playground, complete with sprinklers and a wading pool for children.

Photo: Malcolm Brown

Kamwo Herbal Pharmacy
211 Grand St., 212-966-6370
Kamwo, one of the oldest and largest herbal pharmacies in the country, is a vintage apothecary in action. The walls are lined with drawers of medicinal herbs, which herbalists measure out with handheld scales. While the store mainly caters to practitioners of Chinese medicine, it also sells over-the-counter remedies for common ailments, like coughs and sore throats, and herbal patches for sore muscles and arthritic pain. "We're like an herbal Duane Reade," says CEO Thomas Leung. There are also licensed acupuncturists on hand (treatments $70–$120). Even if you're in perfect health, Kamwo is a great source for items like fine loose-leaf Asian teas and cooking ingredients such as cinnamon sticks, cloves, star anise and goji berries.

Photo: Alexander Thompson

Jing Fong
20 Elizabeth St.,212-964-5256
Dim sum can be just a meal—or it can be an experience. If you're up for the latter, few restaurants bring it on as fully as Jing Fong. The venue is massive—it just might be the City's largest traditional Cantonese restaurant—with one room that's big enough to host multiple banquets at once (as sometimes happens). During peak hours, the scale is a blessing; you'll rarely have to wait for a table. Unless your party is large enough to fill one of the restaurant's 120 oversize round tables, expect to sit communally with other noshers. The popularity of the restaurant ensures the traditional fare that makes its way through the restaurant—everything from shrimp dumplings to pig knuckles—turns over quickly. And if you're in the mood for more than small plates, you can order from a standard menu. The restaurant has more than 100 dishes on offer.

Courtesy, Mahayana Buddhist Temple

Mahayana Buddhist Temple
133 Canal St., 212-925-8787
If you find shopping, eating and karaoke aren't bringing you any closer to the noble truths, pay a visit to the Mahayana Buddhist Temple. It's free, open to the public and offers a large meditation area with plenty of space to rest and reflect under the gaze of a 16-foot-high golden Buddha. Just don't expect silence here; there's usually a festive sound track playing (this is New York City, after all). While the giant Buddha is the temple's main attraction, don't miss the series of intricate ivory carvings on display in the second-floor gift shop (none are for sale), including a depiction of the assembly on Vulture's Peak, carved into a whole elephant tusk.

Joe's Shanghai. Photo: Malcolm Brown

456 Shanghai Cuisine
69 Mott St., 212-964-0003
For years Joe's Shanghai dominated the soup dumpling debate; folks would travel from far and wide to sample them. No other restaurant seemed able to replicate the structural wizardry: how did they manage to seal so much flavorful broth inside the delicate skin of a pork-and-crabmeat-filled dumpling? More recently, a handful of Chinatown restaurants have elbowed their way into the conversation. At 456 Shanghai Cuisine, just a few blocks away on Mott Street, the wait is consistently shorter and the dumplings just as delicious. They're on the smaller side here, perfect for popping in your mouth all at once (after you've poked a hole to sip the hot broth, of course). Another must-try: the "fried tiny buns with pork," a white-bread bun, crisped on one side, that's filled with meat and—yes—that amazing soup-dumpling broth. Other local restaurants in the running: Shanghai Cafe, up toward Little Italy, and Red Egg, a somewhat more nouveau spot.

Courtesy, Nom Wah Tea Parlor

Nom Wah Tea Parlor
13 Doyers St., 212-962-6047
Originally opened in 1920, Nom Wah Tea Parlor is NYC's oldest dim sum parlor and is located in the heart of Chinatown. This throwback gem was recently remodeled, but it retains the old-timey charm that has kept it buzzing for almost a century. Longtime regulars and first-timers enjoy the incredible dim sum, such as har gow (a traditional Chinese shrimp dumpling) and the "original" egg roll (mixed veggies and chicken rolled in an egg crepe and then fried), plus other dishes like traditional pan-fried noodles.

Paris Sandwich. Photo: Alexander Thompson

Paris Sandwich
113 Mott St., 212-226-7221
213 Grand St., 212-266-3828

There's more to Chinatown than Chinese food. You'll also find terrific Vietnamese spots scattered throughout the neighborhood. For a casual lunch, a bánh mì sandwich is hard to beat. These Vietnamese subs are filled with various meats—grilled pork, shredded chicken or even sardines—topped with fresh and pickled vegetables, garnished with cilantro and served on a long toasted roll. Many foodies hail the sandwiches at Bánh Mì Saigon Bakery as the best in the City. But for a more varied menu, check out Paris Sandwich. In addition to standard Vietnamese fare, the spot also makes a simple ham-and-cheese sandwich (on its signature Vietnamese roll, of course). The bánh kep—a sweet green-tea waffle—is a perfect midday snack, especially when paired with a cup of strong Vietnamese coffee with sweetened condensed milk. On hot days, try the nuoc da chanh muoi—an ice-cold salted lemonade.

Photo: Nicole Honh

Kung Fu Tea
73 Chrystie St., 646-288-4936
234 Canal St., 212-334-3536
It's getting easier and easier to find bubble milk tea—that sweet, creamy drink garnished with gumdrop-size balls of dark tapioca—as Chinese restaurants and cafés alike are serving the once exotic drink. Still, specialized teahouses dedicated to the beverage tend to have a more refined drink (the tea flavor is more complex, the tapioca consistently fresher). Kung Fu Tea, which has two locations in Manhattan's Chinatown and close to 20 in the City, is one of the best. You can't go wrong with the basic Kung Fu Bubble Milk Tea, but if you're looking for more than just bubbles, try the popular Jelly Wow Milk, which adds a dollop of a mild-flavored herb-based jelly to the mix. The menu here is extensive; you'll find teas sweetened with longan honey, slushes made with passon fruit or red bean, and even icy coffee drinks with caramel or chocolate.