If you’re vegan, vegetarian, or anywhere on the plant-based, whole-foods spectrum, Chinatown can feel simultaneously like a landmine and a goldmine. Any time you delve into the world of un-Americanized ethnic food, there is a certain risk (not to mention frustration) inherent in trying to find something you feel comfortable eating when you’re scarcely able to read the menu or to communicate with restaurant staff. In Chinatown in particular, there’s the added grossness factor of having to walk past windows full of hanging meats and, sometimes, whole animals.
All of these obstacles aside, when you step outside your comfort zone, you open yourself up to the opportunity of coming across delicious vegan eats that you never even knew existed. Thanks to the absence of dairy products and its genuine appreciation and celebration of vegetables, Chinese cuisine has incredible deliciousness potential for us vegans. The key is knowing where to look.
Last year, following a tip my husband randomly came across somewhere on the interwebs, he and I discovered Sun Hing Lung Ho Fun To Fu. A dingy storefront at 58 Henry Street, just west of the Manhattan Bridge, this tofu factory is where locals come to buy authentic, unbelievably cheap street food.
For $2, you get a Styrofoam clamshell container brimming with made-to-order rice noodle rolls with veggies (and/or meat if you’re so inclined). Every time I’ve ordered the “veggie noodles,” I’ve gotten something different (various mixtures of corn, scallions, cilantro, and Chinese pickled veggies), but I discovered today that you can specify exactly which veggies you want (by pointing, of course). The cook literally makes the noodles and adds the raw veggie filling in a special contraption right by the window, so you can watch her every step of the way and see exactly what’s going into your food. What really takes the deliciousness of this meal to the next level, though, are the sweet, spicy, and nutty sauces that they leave out for you on the counter to season (ahem, douse) the noodles. I could literally drink them from the bottle.
The only downside is that this is straight-up street food. It’s a lot of fun to stand on the street and make a mess of yourself slurping saucy noodles, but if the weather is crummy, or you’re not in the mood for an al fresco meal overlooking a concrete apartment complex and piles of trash, Sun Hing may not be your jam.
If you’re looking for more of a sit-down meal, here are a couple of my other Chinatown favorites:
- Buddha Bodai (5 Mott Street, New York, NY) Run by Buddhists and supervised by Kosher rabbis, the food here is entirely free of meat and dairy and offers an impressive array of traditional and regional dishes. They have great vegetable-focused options, as well as almost uncomfortably convincing and mostly homemade faux meats of every variety you can imagine (from shark fin to pork).
- Dim Sum Go Go (5 E. Broadway, New York, NY) I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been out for dim sum at popular spots in Chinatown and have been assured that a dumpling is vegetarian, only to bite into a huge piece of shrimp or pork. I’ve also tried the popular vegetarian spots out there, but every dumpling is centered on faux barbecue meat, which gets old fast. While they do serve animal products, Dim Sum Go-Go offers a whole vegetarian dim sum menu featuring dumplings that showcase interesting combinations of fresh veggies. It’s a great choice if you’re looking to eat out with omnivorous buddies.
Readers, how do you navigate your local Chinatown? Where are you favorite spots for a delicious vegan meal?