Chinatown, NYC

I’ve been lucky enough to visit Chinatown in both San Francisco and New York City multiple times. I say lucky, because it’s such a unique peek into an extremely different culture from my own.

It’s also a foodie adventure, as much of the food isn’t even recognizable to me.

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When I’ve visited Chinatown, it’s never to shop, because I’m typically staying at a hotel and not cooking. My visits are all about observing, learning, and taking photos.

The produce, whether on the sidewalks, or inside shops, is gorgeous. And just like in Europe, it’s impeccably arranged.

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The seafood variety is always impressive, and extremely interesting.

Dried seafood is ubiquitous.

Inside the shops, you see a multitude of boxes and cartons of goodness-knows-what, from teas to herbs, tinctures to rubs. I remember when deer antlers and other now illegal items were in full view.

One gentleman who was stacking fish decided my camera was in his way and he yelled at me. I felt badly, although I really didn’t feel like I was in his way, as someone who is an expert at respectably visiting markets as a tourist.

Plus, I’ve not ever been the only non-chinese person walking through Chinatown with a camera. But still, I felt badly, because I’ve managed to say “photo?” in many a language, and it is the polite thing to do. Before my next visit to Chinatown I will learn how to say “photo” in Chinese/Mandarin.

Exactly 20 years ago, my husband and I took our daughters to San Francisco, and of course Chinatown was on the agenda. We had a favorite dim sum restaurant that was our lunch destination, but before that we showed our daughters the entrance to Chinatown, and walked some of the main streets.

At the age of ten, my younger daughter had somewhat of a negative reaction to Chinatown. It had to do with the many window displays of hanging plucked chickens and ducks, live turtles in buckets, and so forth. That day she became a vegetarian. I kid you not.

We really didn’t think she’d follow through with it, but twenty years later, she’s still a dedicated vegetarian.

Being that she lives close to Chinatown, she is familiar with restaurants there, and joined us for dim sum at Nom Wah Dumpling Shop, a restaurant she recommended. It was excellent, although I do miss the little metal carts that used to be pushed around between tables in the old days. I guess these were deemed unsanitary.

So now you look at a photo menu of dim sum items, and then check off what you want on a piece of paper.

I really wanted to try chicken feet, but with a vegetarian and a really food-squeamish guy at the same table, I knew I’d be the only one eating them. So we stuck with the basic dumplings, fried rice, pancakes, and greens. All were fabulous.

The reason I posted on Chinatown, is because there really aren’t that many in existence except in big cities. So if you don’t live in these cities, or don’t visit them, you don’t get the fabulous experience of seeing how other people live and shop for food. Shy of actually visiting China, that is.

Except for being yelled at this one time, I will continue to visit Chinatown, wherever it might be. And you should too. Don’t let it feel intimidating.

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I really wanted to buy a durian and really see what one tastes and smells like, but I was afraid we’d get kicked out of our hotel!

By Published On: June 6th, 201668 Comments

About the Author: Chef Mimi

As a self-taught home cook, with many years in the culinary profession, I am passionate about all things food-related. Especially eating!

68 Comments

  1. Linda Duffin June 6, 2016 at 7:15 AM - Reply

    You should come and visit London’s Chinatown, Mimi, there are still dim sum restaurants with trolleys! Lovely pix; wise decision re the durian. There’s a reason they’re always displayed outside the shops! Lx

    • chef mimi June 6, 2016 at 7:17 AM - Reply

      Well how odd. As many times as I visited my daughter in London she never told me there was a Chinatown. And I didn’t even question it. Where is it?

      • Nadia June 6, 2016 at 7:32 AM

        Around Gerrard street in the City of Westminster. It is very small, nothing like San Francisco or NYC.

      • Linda Duffin June 6, 2016 at 7:36 AM

        It’s right in the heart of town, based around Gerrard Street in Soho.

  2. Nadia June 6, 2016 at 7:27 AM - Reply

    Luckily you did not buy one, they smell too terrible. Your hotel would definitely have kicked you out😂

    • chef mimi June 6, 2016 at 7:30 AM - Reply

      I’ve only seen them on tv, like Anthony Bourdain trying one and maybe a few other people… They’re just so intriguing! But I don’t like any bad smells so I don’t know why I’m so determined to even smell one, let alone have a taste!!!

  3. cookingwithshy June 6, 2016 at 8:02 AM - Reply

    Love your posts on NYC…Lived in New Jersey for a couple of years and often came into the city..Yet there is still so much more to explore…we now live in Mumbai…perhaps a visit someday:))

    • chef mimi June 6, 2016 at 8:33 AM - Reply

      Oh I would love to see Mumbai, or any city in India! It’s on my long list…

      • cookingwithshy June 6, 2016 at 9:33 AM

        Hope you get to visit sometime:))

  4. dcclark13 June 6, 2016 at 8:38 AM - Reply

    How fun and what a great adventure!! Love all the foodie pictures, looks like you had an absolute blast! I also ask before photographing and the first time I heard no, I was surprised and politely moved on – especially difficult when there’s a language barrier.

    • chef mimi June 6, 2016 at 8:42 AM - Reply

      It definitely is. I guess I was too relaxed. At European markets, I rarely see people with cameras, although I’m usually in villages with mostly locals, maybe a few Parisiens. In Chinatown, it seems like half the people are taking photos and are obviously not locals, so I got too relaxed. I did feel badly.

  5. My French Heaven June 6, 2016 at 9:20 AM - Reply

    It maybe my favorite post of yours ever! I like it when you do travel posts. I do miss Chinatown. If you ever go back to San Francisco, you must try You’s Dimsum on Stockton right by the Ritz-Carlton. I don’t know if it’s even still there… Gorgious post!!! Always fun to see Emma too :0)

    • chef mimi June 6, 2016 at 11:24 AM - Reply

      It’s really true, Stephane, that Emma became a vegetarian at 10 because of Chinatown. It was too traumatic for her! I think everything has been toned down over the years, which in a way is sad. I certainly hope to go back to San Fran. Can’t remember the name of where we went multiple times. Isn’t it sad that they don’t use the carts anymore?

      • My French Heaven June 6, 2016 at 11:27 AM

        They don’t?? Sad indeed. It was such a big part of the appeal… I just posted if you want to go see. I keep using the same picture you took of me. It’s the best picture (by far) of me that I have.

      • chef mimi June 6, 2016 at 12:02 PM

        I guess it’s a sanitary thing. Definitely sad. I’m so proud you use that photo – it was a happy day! I miss that hotel! I will find your post – I still don’t get notifications of your posts in any manner. so so strange.

  6. Jenny June 6, 2016 at 9:23 AM - Reply

    Great photos! It’s fun to travel vicariously through your post! :)

  7. anyone4curryandotherthings June 6, 2016 at 9:27 AM - Reply

    Mimi, althou I know I will never travel to San Francisco now, but it always great fun to read articles like yours with nice photographs to go with it. Thank you. Take my word for it, you do NOT, repeat NOT want to try either smell nor eat Durian – nobody will even come near you :) A.B. is another matter, this super man has tried and will try anything – all in the line of his job (?). Re unknown food, the first photo on the left right at the top looks to me like a vegetable which, as a German, I love – Kohlrabi. Am I right? Take care, Carina

    • chef mimi June 6, 2016 at 11:22 AM - Reply

      Hahahahaha! I’ll take your word for it! Ah, it could be kohlrabi. I don’t get it where I live but now that you say that, i think I remember what it looks like. The one that looked like an elongated beet was interesting, too!

  8. Gerlinde de Broekert June 6, 2016 at 9:55 AM - Reply

    I love Chinatown in San Franciso and I can visit often because I live an hour away. Over the years it has become very touristy. I also love Chinatown in Honlulu, it is more authentic and I had a great dim sum with trolleys . I will post about it soon, I hope.
    Thank you for posting about New Yorks Chinatown because I am going to be there in Sepetember. I already bookmarked your restaurant visit from a previous post. Have a great week.

    • chef mimi June 6, 2016 at 11:21 AM - Reply

      I can’t count the number of times I’ve been to Hawaii, but I always go to the other islands. Now I’m rethinking visiting Honolulu! The Nom Wah restaurant was fabulous, and do go to the Grammercy Tavern! I’m excited for you!

  9. cheri June 6, 2016 at 11:53 AM - Reply

    Hi Mimi. sounds like a great experience and that you travel alot, I have been to the one in SF but not in NY, someday…….

    • chef mimi June 7, 2016 at 7:42 AM - Reply

      Honestly, I don’t love NYC, but because our daughter lives there, we’ll be traveling there more often. It’s kind of like Paris and Rome to me – once is enough. Of course that’s not really true, but I’m just not a lover of big cities!!!

  10. lulu June 6, 2016 at 5:07 PM - Reply

    No matter what Chinatown I’ve experienced, it is always an adventure. In Houston, I’m crazy about going to the Hong Kong market to food shop as it is filled with unfamiliar things.

    • chef mimi June 7, 2016 at 7:41 AM - Reply

      You know, I lived in Houston and didn’t realize there was a Chinatown. But this was back in 1982-84. I do remember a wonderful Asian grocery store, but that’s it.

  11. Francesca June 6, 2016 at 5:14 PM - Reply

    It is always a good day out visiting Chinatown. Looks like you had a great day out. We have one big Chinatown in Melbourne, very touristed too, but the smaller Chinatowns in the suburbs are more appealing, and I do tend to shop at those fairly often..I have been to the one in New York- we stayed nearby when were there.
    Although I studied Mandarin for some length of time, my ‘ Ni Hao’ is sometimes returned, but usually met with a dazed stare. Most of our Chinese community don’t speak Mandarin necessarily. Many might be from Southern China. Same with the word for photo. A little wave of the camera and a questioning expression always works well.
    I once withdrew my little discreet camera in a food basement floor in Shinjuku, Tokyo. Invisible security people appeared from nowhere, all blocking my view with their arms.

    • chef mimi June 6, 2016 at 5:20 PM - Reply

      Oh my gosh – that must have been scary!!!

  12. anotherfoodieblogger June 6, 2016 at 6:27 PM - Reply

    What a fabulous post on Chinatown and the images are lovely! I’ve only ever driven by Chinatown in SF, I should make it a point to actually visit it next time I go there.

  13. ladyredspecs June 6, 2016 at 9:23 PM - Reply

    In NYC in the 1990s I had film taken from my camera for photographing the decor of a tea room we visited. I was too intimidated to resist, now a grumpy shopkeeper wouldn’t deter me. Yum cha is still served from trolleys In Australia, but you can visit Hong Kong to the full experience.

    • chef mimi June 6, 2016 at 10:05 PM - Reply

      wow, really? I wonder why? that’s really crazy!

  14. memarose3 June 6, 2016 at 10:20 PM - Reply

    I’ve been to China Town in SF both during the week and on a weekend. They are completely different – the weekends are all about tourists – during the week it’s the “real” China Town. How would you compare NY & SF?

    • chef mimi June 6, 2016 at 10:27 PM - Reply

      Interesting question. Sadly, it’s been a while since I’ve been in SF. But someone told it it’s gotten more touristy. That surprises me, actually.

    • chef mimi June 7, 2016 at 7:38 AM - Reply

      Ah, interesting. we were mostly likely not there during the weekends. The last time I was in San Francisco was, sadly, 20 years ago. A friend has told me Chinatown has changed. My memories of what it was, assuming it hasn’t changed, was a more quaint, less busy and less hectic experience. But nothing is compared to NYC, right?!!

  15. Fine Dining at Home (@fdathome) June 7, 2016 at 7:48 AM - Reply

    Hi Mimi, I concur with everyone on the durian. Disgusting things. I actually had durian crisps though! They were quite nice, bizarrely enough.

    • chef mimi June 7, 2016 at 12:33 PM - Reply

      Is the smell worse than the taste? Or vice versa?

  16. The Gourmet Gourmand June 7, 2016 at 11:13 AM - Reply

    Oh god, durian is definitely one thing I can’t do. One time my uncle brought us durian candies (as a prank) from Singapore and I almost choked. Great street photos though- it’s a public space so you are well within your right to take as many photos as you please :)

    • chef mimi June 7, 2016 at 12:33 PM - Reply

      Oh my, that is some prank! Well, regarding taking photos, I am respectful and never thought I was this man’s way. But I don’t like being yelled at!

  17. Mary Frances June 7, 2016 at 5:21 PM - Reply

    This is just a few minutes walk from my office, always fun to grab something different from here on the way home! Glad you had a wonderful time!

    • chef mimi June 7, 2016 at 7:55 PM - Reply

      Oh that’s so wonderful! My daughter lives on Orchard Street, so she’s close to both Chinatown and Little Italy. So jealous!

  18. aranislandgirl June 7, 2016 at 6:24 PM - Reply

    So many strange yet interesting foods. Wish I could smell and taste them all, so curious!

  19. SF Chinatown is such an adventure, thank you for this post. I have tried chicken feet, they are quite good and I enjoyed them.

  20. chezlerevefrancais June 8, 2016 at 12:23 PM - Reply

    Fabulous insight. I love seeing new foods and these look amazing. :)

    • chef mimi June 9, 2016 at 8:38 AM - Reply

      It’s really a fun adventure!!! But I wish I could ask questions!

  21. Elaine @ foodbod June 9, 2016 at 2:03 PM - Reply

    Great tour, thank you for sharing so many photos :)

  22. Michelle June 12, 2016 at 11:03 AM - Reply

    Oh, how I love Chinatowns (and Japantowns and Koreatowns….). And Nom Wah, too! I think there are still lots of places serving from carts, and that’s always great fun (except I always have to be the one to sit closest to the carts so Steve doesn’t point at EVERYTHING that comes by). But I have to admit the food tends to be better when cooked to order.

    • chef mimi June 12, 2016 at 12:04 PM - Reply

      That’s a good point regarding the cooked-to-order. Glad to know some places still use the carts, though. We’ve always ordered too much – it’s just so easy! One of the best and cheapest meals I’ve ever had was in Vietnam-town in Boston. Love those places. It has a great little Italy, too.

  23. Abbe Odenwalder June 15, 2016 at 10:41 PM - Reply

    Philly has a great Chinatown, as does Chicago. I love the one in NYC and San Fran. London’s was great too! I love Chinatowns wherever I go, because they are always the same. So much fun and the food is always grand. Even when you aren’t in a foreign country it feels like you are. Can’t wait to see what they are like in China. Love reading about your adventures, Mimi!

  24. David Scott Allen June 16, 2016 at 11:15 AM - Reply

    Wow. I haven’t been to Nom Wah since I was in college in the 70s! I am heading back to NYC in a couple of weeks, and I will definitely go back. Thanks for the reminder – I am glad it is still there! Thanks also for the suggestion to learn “photo” in Chinese. Will try to get both Mandarin and Cantonese versions.

    • chef mimi June 16, 2016 at 11:19 AM - Reply

      Hahahaha! It’s a good idea! I didn’t know Nom Wah had been around that long!

  25. eliotthecat June 21, 2016 at 7:24 AM - Reply

    Yes, you might have gotten yelled at again at the hotel if you had toted in a durian! :)

  26. April July 15, 2016 at 8:05 AM - Reply

    I recognized the signature “blue cabinetry and young waiter” combo right away! I’ve visited Chinatown many times, and had never ventured toward the inner parts (as is where the restaurant is located) until I took a “pay what you want” tour around the area. Man, thinking about it is getting me hungry now.

    P.S. Props to your daughter for becoming vegetarian and sticking with it! It takes determination.

    • chef mimi July 15, 2016 at 8:30 AM - Reply

      Hahahaha! I should take a tour – it would certainly help with identifying unique foods. Good idea. Yes, we never suspected that our daughter would remain a vegetarian after being traumatized in Chinatown, but she still is today at 30. Although, legally a pescatarian.

      • April July 15, 2016 at 8:42 AM

        I recommend Free Tours by Foot. All the info is on their website. By the way, have you ever tried durian before? People say you either love it or hate it. It’s banned from carry-on in airplanes, due to the strong smell.

      • chef mimi July 15, 2016 at 8:48 AM

        No I haven’t. I’d just like to smell it and run away. My nose is terribly sensitive!

  27. tonyzheng987 July 21, 2016 at 3:00 PM - Reply

    Amazing photos of daily objects (⊙o⊙)

  28. Devz | The Savorist August 4, 2016 at 11:22 AM - Reply

    How interesting! I just moved to SF from NYC and your post has put Chinatown on my radar. I’m quite looking forward to exploring china town in SF. :)

    • chef mimi August 4, 2016 at 2:27 PM - Reply

      You will love it! There’s a beautiful red gate/entrance into Chinatown that is so pretty. I’d love to hear how you think they compare!

  29. Jordan September 23, 2016 at 7:09 AM - Reply

    Love the photos! Good choice opting out of the chicken feet. I’ve had them – not in a hurry to eat ’em again. My wife and her family love them, of course, and always tease me when I choose not to partake. In the streets here in Dalian we have a wide selection of sea food, so we get a bunch of interesting choices – squid, shrimp, fish, crabs, lobsters, sea cucumbers, etc. Often some of them are still alive and other times they just stare at ya from buckets of ice.

    • chef mimi September 23, 2016 at 11:58 AM - Reply

      I now have to figure out where Dalian is! I do wish I had Asian markets where I live.

  30. ijdorfman November 4, 2016 at 2:38 PM - Reply

    I love the Chinatown in Bangkok. It actually has streets that are crazier than in China. And great street food too!

    • chef mimi November 5, 2016 at 5:53 AM - Reply

      I can’t even imagine! Hope I can go one day.

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