New York has no shortage of greasy Chinese restaurants—takeout and eat-in—where you can score crab rangoon, General Tso’s, and anything enjoyed as next-morning leftovers adorned with a fried egg (a whole other obsession right there). It’s hard to differentiate, though, which of these restaurants will deliver a truly memorable and magical dining experience—something more than the routine (but always welcome) fortune cookies and complimentary orange slices. Which is why I always return to one spot, right in the heart of Chinatown, for guaranteed magic and memories. That spot is Great NY Noodletown.
Great NY Noodletown looks pretty identical to the myriad of ducks-in-the-window Chinese establishments found all over the five boroughs. But there is a difference. A quick Googling shows that everyone—from hundreds of Yelp users to Michelin food critics—hail Noodletown as a dive-y culinary beacon that shines as brightly as the yellow sign on Bowery that bears its name. That sign is almost as bright as the fluorescent lights inside the smallish space. So bright! But have no fear, ambience is part of the charm at Noodletown. Plus, do you really want dimly lit Edison bulbs and white tablecloths when you’ve stumbled in after midnight, ravenous and three cocktails deep? (It is open till 4 a.m., another great plus.)
Tables are covered with plexiglass, the menus stuck underneath to get you ordering as soon as you sit. The waitstaff is very rushed and bark Cantonese to each other, but will understand and tolerate menu questions. This may seem stressful, but consider it more charm. And the food is worth it—those fancy Michelin folks weren’t wrong!
The waitstaff is very rushed and bark Cantonese to each other, but will tolerate menu questions from you. This may seem stressful, but consider it more charm.
Dinner is best done family-style, whether there’s two or 10 of you. No matter where you sit, it’s possible that you’ll share a table with another party. Once, a friend and I had the pleasure of dining at a large eight-top with a Chinese grandmother and her two school-aged grandsons. She ate quietly and didn’t say much as the kids engaged in sibling rivalries, while we couldn’t help but wonder why this family affair was happening at 1:30 a.m. It was a school night for heaven’s sake!
I didn’t ask questions, though, and neither should you. You have more important things to do: Scan the menu and order a few dishes for for your party. The menu is huge and most everything is great, but allow me a cautionary tale: On one dining occasion here, a first date in fact, I adventurously ordered “frog congee,” congee being traditional Chinese rice porridge I’d wanted to try and frog being what I assumed was, well, “frog.” The waiter shot me some are you sure looks, but I barreled ahead with the “I-got-this” type of confidence you project when you’re trying to impress a first date. I mentioned this was a first date, right? The congee arrived, a bowl of piping hot porridge with frog all right—chunks of amphibian freshly hacked apart by a kitchen cleaver, bones (and everything else) still in. Later, the waiter took away the half-full bowl of congee and remarked, “That is a very traditional dish. I was not sure you’d like it.” He did try to warn me. In any case, you may not want to order this menu item unless you really, really love frog, especially if you’re on a first date. Which, you might remember, I was.
Instead, start with a duck roll to share. And then the noodles, of course. You can’t go wrong with any of the variations here, so try a few, including the lo mein and the pan-fried, which are crisped up perfectly with just the right amount of sesame oil. But this next item is nonnegotiable: You must order the ginger scallion noodles.
The airy noodles, sweet hoisin, and fresh ginger couldn’t be done better in a five-star restaurant. Top it off with roast pork and a roast duck from the window, and you’re set. When in season, Noodletown offers special salt-baked soft-shell crab…and you know the drill.
At the end of the meal, when you can’t finish all of it, load up on to-go boxes for tomorrow’s breakfast. And when the waiter slaps the check down on your table, hurrying to move you along, you’re allowed to linger for just a bit. Long enough to enjoy fortune cookies and orange slices, just like any other place you could have gone to. But this one was so much better, and you never would have known it from the outside. Now you do.