Rejoicing in the Return of Great N.Y. Noodletown

The other night in Chinatown, as I made my way down the Bowery, I was suddenly enveloped by a pack of beautiful twentysomething women, galloping around me like wild horses. My chest tightened. Could they be headed to the same place that I was, and would they beat me to the last table?

As it turned out, the women were not bolting to Great N.Y. Noodletown—but they could have been! They should have been. In March, the intensely beloved fifty-eight-year-old Cantonese restaurant, which seemed to have weathered the pandemic O.K., closed abruptly. Though a notice on the façade explained that the closure was only for renovations, and offered assurance that the restaurant would reopen on the first of June, under the same management, some passionate patrons grew concerned as June came and went. In early September, when the metal gates were finally raised: rejoicement.

A soft-shell crab finds its light.

For my first dinner back, I was meeting a range of Noodletown aficionados. There was a Taiwanese American son of Chinatown who had recently, and reluctantly, left the neighborhood for Brooklyn, and a friend who, as a teen-ager living in Westchester, had been led on a Noodletown pilgrimage by a worldlier Manhattanite peer. There was a former barfly who had fended off many a hangover here, arriving just before the kitchen’s 4 A.M. closing time.

As has been lamented of late, New York is, at least for the moment, not quite the city that never sleeps. These days, the kitchen closes at ten o’clock Sunday through Thursday, and at eleven on Fridays and Saturdays; during two recent visits, employees began stacking chairs the second the clock turned over, dropping checks with gruff apologies.

It was just as well: the barfly has a baby now. More important, the food was as good as—if not better than—anyone remembered. I’d last been there in 2017, on an awkward double date with a couple whose obvious disharmony had not detracted from the lo mein with ginger and scallion, a slippery mass of thin, curly noodles which activated taste buds on the back of my tongue that I wouldn’t otherwise know were there.

Roast pork and spareribs hang in the window.

What a pleasure it was to be reunited with that sensation, and to be served a bowl of clear, fragrant broth dense with wontons bobbing like jellyfish, their ruffled bellies stuffed tightly with shrimp, their slippery wrappers trailing like tentacles. Behind the front counter, a man with a cleaver stood before a cylindrical wooden chopping block, upon which he hacked glistening golden ducks and swaths of sparkly suckling-pig skin into precise rectangles.

A handwritten bilingual sign announcing the return of soft-shell-crab season was tacked to a freshly painted wall. (The changes to the dining room appear to be mostly cosmetic—new flooring and wall tiles, new chandeliers offering brighter, cleaner light.) Each salt-baked crab was neatly quartered into segments, the delicate crunch of chitin and fresh green chili giving way to fleeting bits of sweet flesh.

Among old favorites I found new ones: thick e-fu noodles—made springy, traditionally, from the addition of carbonated water to their dough—strewn over a lobster chopped in its shell; a ceramic crock overflowing with clams, steamed in rice wine with great hunks of ginger and scallion, piled atop glass noodles. Long strips of sweet, buttery-fleshed eggplant were flecked with diced chicken and bits of salted fish, as funky and intoxicating as the finest aged cheese. Deeply bronzed eggrolls, fried to the edge of reason, shattered to release a generously packed mix of flowering chives and mushrooms.

A complimentary plate of orange slices signalled that our time was up. Tsingtaos drained, we stood on the corner plotting our next moves. “Is it raining?” someone wondered, puzzled by a rhythmic noise. The sky was clear. It was only the wind, rustling the multicolored pennants that had been strung to herald the grand—the great—reopening. (Dishes $3.95-$38.95.) ♦

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