Still reeling from the devastating effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, this guide will show you how to visit (and support) New York's family-owned shops and eateries in Chinatown.
Chinatown is one of New York City’s oldest immigrant communities and chock-full of vibrant, one-of-a-kind businesses, both old and new. As you wander its streets, you will discover memorable meals, unique sweets, cultural treasures, and much more. Sprinkled among the legacy shops run by multigenerational families are popular new spots from creative young entrepreneurs.
In the last century, Chinatown was centered on Mott, Pell, and Doyers Streets. Those narrow streets still hold a lot of history, but the community has spread out around them into a sprawling two-square-mile area, which continues to grow and is now one of the largest communities of Chinese people in the U.S.
The history of Chinese immigrants in New York and other cities has not been easy. Years of persecution, punitive immigration laws, and restrictions allowed them to work only in laundries, restaurants, and garment factories. But today, Chinatown is a living link to the past and one of the last Manhattan neighborhoods that haven’t been gentrified, where 94% of the businesses are still considered “mom-and-pop.”
Despite the challenges brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, many businesses are beginning to thrive again, thanks in large part to the determined families who often work together 10-12 hours a day, seven days a week. They have made Chinatown a bustling community of restaurants, bakeries, tropical fruit vendors, shops, Buddhist temples, tailors, food markets, herb stores, and butchers.
At night, the neighborhood streets are festively lit up with gayly colored lanterns. Many streets feature outdoor tables full of locals and tourists, enjoying dishes from classic Chinese, Vietnamese, Malaysian, Thai, Korean, and Japanese cuisines. Heaping plates of savory noodles, gleaming mahogany-colored roast ducks, a dizzying array of dim sum, and custard tarts with the flakiest pastry beckon visitors to explore the neighborhood with their tastebuds.
Top Picks for You
WHERE: 18 Doyers Street
Instead of coming home with a generic I ♥ NY sweatshirt, you can discover treasures in a postage-stamp-sized store that first opened in 1957. Traditional trinkets include wooden cricket cages, hand-painted snuff bottles, Chinese lanterns, calligraphy sets, fortune sticks, paper dragons, and tiny cat-shaped teapots. Three generations of Tings still care for this cozy corner shop, which has delighted generations of kids with classic toys, such as finger traps, wooden puzzles, piggy banks, tom-toms, and tin tops.
Wing on Wo
WHERE: 26 Mott Street
Chinatown’s oldest continuously operating shop, Wing on Wo, was founded in 1890 by the great-great-grandfather of the current owner, Mei Lum. While its focus is fine porcelain, the shop also carries a fun assortment of jewelry and accessories. Classic porcelainware patterns depict dragons, cabbage leaves (portending wealth and luck), and peaches (representing immortality). Mirroring Chinatown itself, Wing on Wo’s wares respect the legacy of its founders while adding vibrant new ideas with creations from contemporary artists. You may still spot Lum’s great aunt and grandmother in the shop and hear LPs playing Cantonese opera.
Grand Tea & Imports
WHERE: 298 Grand Street
Grand Tea carries hundreds of teas (green, black, white, oolong, and flower teas, such as rose and chrysanthemum). Alice Liu manages the store her parents started and still works 12 hours a day, seven days a week. Pu-erh, the most prized of all teas, is their specialty. Like a fine wine, Pu-erh is more appreciated as it ages. Flavors range from smooth, woodsy, earthy to smokey. Their tangerine Pu-erh comes packed inside a tangerine peel. If you have the sniffles, try Doctor Mei Fong’s Flu Prevention & Cure Tea. They also sell teapots, tea sets, and feng shui items.
Mott Street Girls’ Tour
WHERE: Mott Street
Chloe Chan and Anna Huang, who are second-generation Chinese-Americans, will take you on a fascinating tour through Chinatown, pointing out the Chinese opera house, New York’s oldest brick row townhouse, “funeral row,” as well as historical eateries, shops, markets, and other local businesses. Along the way, they explain Chinatown’s rich cultural heritage and the often difficult history of Chinese immigration, including the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act.
The tour is perfect if you want to understand the historical and cultural underpinnings of this unique neighborhood and appreciate the hard work of families who have made it all possible. The tour ends with local restaurant recommendations for you to stop by later.
WHERE: 13 Doyers Street
Opened in 1920 by the Choy family, Nom Wah is the oldest continuously running restaurant in Chinatown (it was initially a bakery known for almond cookies and mooncakes). In 1974, after working there 24 years, Wally Chang, a nephew of the Choy’s, bought Nom Wah. In 2011, his nephew, Wilson, took over and now serves dim sum all day. With green stools, red booths, and checkerboard floors, its charming interior delivers a time trip into the past. Their toothsome short rib rice rolls plop the meat on top instead of inside. Be forewarned: there’s almost always a line at this popular landmark.
Dim Sum Go Go
WHERE: 5 East Broadway
If you’d rather not battle the lines at Nom Wah, try this terrific spot a few blocks away. Dim Sum Go Go’s most popular handmade dumplings are roast duck, shrimp and chive, jade (asparagus and ginger), and three-star (lotus root, cabbage, and jicama). Owner Veronica Leung’s menu recreates her mother’s recipes and features loads of vegetables. Be sure to sample their homemade XO sauce (a labor-intensive preparation including dried scallops and dried shrimp); it zings up any dish and is also sold to-go. This repeat recipient of Zagat and Michelin nods sports a calming red and white interior.
WHERE: 16 Mott Street
Red willow patterned dishes atop large round tables form the perfect backdrop at this beloved restaurant. Try triple treasure (peppers, eggplant, and tofu stuffed with a delicate shrimp mixture), lobster Cantonese, and clams in a black bean sauce. Local mail carriers and judges from nearby courthouses flock here weekly for the $6.99 lunch special. Several walls display police patches from around the world. The original owner had two sons who were police officers. After 9/11, Hop Lee became “the place” for police and firefighters to eat. Now, it’s a tradition for officers and their families to lunch here after the yearly memorial ceremonies.
WHERE: 11 Mott Street
If you haven’t tried Hokkaido Style Cheese Tarts, now is your chance. The iconic treat, which started in Japan, fills buttery cookie crusts with warmly oozing cheesy centers. The tarts have found scores of fans across Asia and around the world. At Pinklady, the first place to offer these treats in NYC, Jean Lim and her twin sister Jen offer six flavors: original, matcha, ube, chocolate, black sesame, and original with blueberry filling. Magically, after a rest in the refrigerator, they firm up and transform into a cheesecake. Take a bite of a warm one and share your photo of the tempting, wobbly ooze.
WHERE: 89a Bayard Street
Janie Wang created Alimama in 2018 and introduced New York to Japanese-style, chewy, gluten-free mochi donuts. She was inspired by her gluten intolerance and creatively figured out how to feature her favorite flavors. Alimama’s treats include eminently Instagrammable donuts, such as onyx, brulée, and cereal. Their holes become warm mochi Munchkin Bites (in taro or matcha). Also on offer are decadent (non g/f) cream puffs stuffed with boba milk tea or yuzu cream and a selection of lovely hot and cold drink creations. Their lychee rose tea is the queen.
WHERE: 78 Mulberry Street
Look past the barrels of brooms and brushes outside KK Discount and let Ken or Vicky Li show you their handwoven bamboo strainers and traditional Chinese dishware with distinctive designs, such as cherry blossoms, roosters, and dragons. With over 1,000 items, you can find everything you need for the kitchen, from woks and cast-iron Japanese teapots to Western cookware. Chefs come here to buy their cleavers and fine mesh strainers. They also carry dozens of different mahjong sets. Thanks to their reasonable prices and warm service for over 30 years, locals affectionately call KK “the mom-and-pop Target.”
Buddha Bodhi Kosher Vegetarian Restaurant
WHERE: 5 Mott Street
Are you looking for a vegetarian or certified Kosher eatery in Chinatown? Or perhaps you want to try something different? Since 2004, Buddha Bodhi has been serving veggie versions of both dim sum and entrees. Most popular is their BBQ vegetarian meat (ala BBQ pork, but made with seitan). Other favorites include General Tso’s chicken, sesame chicken, and Buddha’s delight, which are made with soy protein. If you can’t decide, try the dim sum platter, which includes char siu buns, chicken sticky rice in leaf, shumai, and more. For dessert, sweet rice balls with peanuts or sweet tapioca dumplings. They have a gluten-free menu also available.
Tonii’s Fresh Rice Noodles
WHERE: 83 Bayard Street
Enjoy the ultimate comfort food at Tonii’s Fresh Rice Noodles. When you order rice noodles, one of Tonii’s workers will ladle rice batter onto a pan that is quickly steamed. Then they sprinkle on your choice of filling (shrimp, pork, or vegetables), roll it up, and hand you the most delectable freshly made rice roll.
Try all three sauces offered (hoisin, peanut, and house-made soy sauce). Husband-and-wife team Liz and Brian Yee own this little spot. Since Liz’s family also owns Kam Hing Bakery a few blocks away, you can try their famous puffy sponge cakes in flavors like pandan, coconut, butterscotch or, popular plain.
Yun Hong Chopstick Shop
WHERE: 50 Mott Street
For over 13 years, this little shop has celebrated chopsticks, from plastic pairs that cost a few dollars to bamboo, mahogany, or gold-tipped chopsticks that cost a few hundred dollars. Owner Yun Hong will help you find the perfect gift (such as chopsticks depicting signs of the Chinese Zodiac or elegant boxed sets for wedding presents).
Great N.Y. Noodletown
WHERE: 28 Bowery Street
Thick noodles, thin noodles, rice noodles, wheat noodles, egg noodles; noodles in soups or stir-fried with meat and vegetables—Great N.Y. Noodletown has it all. For over 40 years, New Yorkers have flocked here for comforting bowls of silky wonton soup, congee, and their famous Cantonese BBQ, featuring roast suckling pig, BBQ pork, or roast duck with shiny brown skin and five-spice powder permutating its tender flesh. Try the duck noodle soup, soy sauce chicken, or beef chow fun. When the salt and pepper soft shell crabs are in season between April and October, that dish is a must-order.
INSIDER TIPIf you’re new to eating softshell crab, go ahead and eat it all. Yes, even the tender claws and shell, which form a thin and crispy coating over the moist crab meat.
Chinatown Ice Cream Factory
WHERE: 65 Bayard Street
Chinatown Ice Cream Factory, a wildly popular spot, is open daily from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Their menu wryly classifies chocolate, vanilla, and rocky road as “exotic flavors,” while their biggest draws are the “regular flavors,” including durian, red bean, avocado, taro, ube, lychee, and wasabi. The award-winning shop was started in 1978 by Philip Seid and has since expanded and become another family business, now that daughter Christina Seid has taken over. Their cute dragon mascot is also available on T-shirts, face masks, and other merchandise.
WHERE: 21 Mott Street
You can’t miss the giant 3-D soup dumpling hanging above Shanghai 21, and you can’t go wrong ordering their pan-fried pork dumplings (aka pot-stickers), which pair a thin homemade dough with a juicy filling, then fry the bottom until it’s delightfully crisp. But this is the place to enjoy classic soup dumplings with pork, crab meat, or both. Shanghai 21 is also the best place to eat decadent black truffle soup dumplings with pork. All are made when you order them so that they are perfectly fresh.
INSIDER TIPTo eat a soup dumpling filled with scalding hot broth, gently place it in your spoon, add some julienned ginger and vinegar provided in the little dish, take a nibble at the top, and carefully suck out some broth before taking a bigger bite.
Pasteur Grill & Noodles
WHERE: 85 Baxter Street
Chinatown is also a welcoming home to find Japanese, Thai, Korean and Vietnamese restaurants. One of the best is Pasteur Vietnamese Restaurant. Their intensely flavorful pho broth takes seven to eight hours of careful cooking. Also recommended: shaking beef and Vietnamese rice flour crepe with shrimp and pork. Pasteur opened in 1987 and was named after Louis Pasteur, the respected French scientist whose first international institute opened in Saigon in 1891. Dennis and Lily Chung took over the business in 1995 and are now assisted by their son Tony, a medical researcher whose science background is handy in both the lab and the kitchen.
WHERE: 81 Division Street
Owner Paul Eng carries on the tradition started by his grandfather in 1933 of making delicate tofu by hand at Fong On. After a career as a professional photographer, Eng took inspiration from Hong Kong and Taiwanese food carts and offers the creamiest hot or cold tofu pudding with savory or sweet toppings, such as fried shallots, minced scallions, or golden ginger syrup. Red beans, grass jelly, and boba balls are their most popular combination.
Mee Sum Cafe
WHERE: 26 Pell Street
Slip into a Chinese diner from a by-gone era, where the old-timers still come for dim sum or a bowl of rice porridge to start their day. This spot has been a staple place for local workers to grab breakfast since 1967. Order a quick cup of their hot mulled ginger drink (“ginger lemon cider”), which will warm you up on a cold day and energize you on a scorcher. Grab a compact package of bamboo-leaf wrapped sticky rice stuffed with pork, peanuts, and mung beans to go with it. You’ll see a tray-full on the counter.
Renew Day Spa
WHERE: 10 Bowery Street, 2nd floor
As you trek and taste your way through this fascinating neighborhood, you may notice massage services are offered on almost every block. You could surely use an hour of having your feet kneaded and pummeled by a pair of strong hands, from your calves down to your pinky toes. Add a neck or shoulder massage to the package for even more relaxation. Renew Spa provides a clean, serene environment for various services, including reflexology, bodywork, and aromatherapy with a hot stone massage.
INSIDER TIPAfter your massage, check out Jung’s Dried Beef over on 58 Mulberry Street. Five generations of Chungs have made all-natural, Chinese-style beef and pork jerky in regular or spicy flavors. Locals shop early in the day, as they often run out.