‘Forget it, Jake. It’s Chinatown.’ Wander hungry, thirsty or just plain curious into the neon-lit streets of any Chinatown without knowing quite where you’re headed and you’d be forgiven for uttering that titular line from the Jack Nicholson classic.
Just how do you find the best spots among the enticing window displays, lantern-lined lanes, heady smells and promises of buffet brilliance? Should you opt for the busiest restaurant or the emptiest tea parlour? Do you go by internet reviews or trust that last fortune cookie? Does anywhere offer any peace and quiet?
As a fortnight of Year of the Dog celebrations kick-off around the world, we thought we’d seek the secrets of some well-travelled friends to ensure that whether you’re in Soho or Singapore, you know just where to eat, where to drink, where to shop and what to see… Waste-free cocktails, late-night doughnuts, hidden city gardens – you’ll never be without a Chinatown tip again.
Sarah Jappy, Mr & Mrs Smith contributing editor
Melbourne’s a city famed for feasting, but few feasts can top Ling Nam’s ghetto-fabulous pippis (clams) in XO sauce with Chinese doughnuts – doughnuts – which should ideally be consumed post-midnight and in a state reflective of one/a tonne too many cocktails. Service might be forgettable but the flamingo-pink walls are not. Since Ling Nam is open for 24 hours on Saturday and Sunday, you could feasibly have this dish for ‘breakfast’. I went in a fur coat on a date with a hot chef at some mad hour – but I still remember those doughnuts and that sauce.
Back in London, fans of the Prince Charles Cinema should swing by humble hero Jen’s Café pre- or post-flick, to enjoy a bowl of steamed snooker-ball-big Beijing dumplings (watch them being made fresh in the window) with lashings of Chinese vinegar and chilli soy-sauce – all for less than the price of your film ticket.
Madévi Dailly, Travel writer
Unusually in Paris there are two Chinatowns. Not that they are strictly Chinese: many Cambodians and Vietnamese made their home there in the 1960s and 70s. In the 13th arrondissement, there’s a huge Tang Frères supermarket where you can get any Asian produce you could ever dream of (and some you never would). In Belleville, head to no-frills Vietnamese canteen Dong Huong, where the service is gruff and the food tasty. Just as it should be.
In London, Beijing Dumpling is my go-to for soup dumplings, one of mankind’s finest inventions. You can watch the chefs make them in the front-of-house kitchen, though I still have no idea how they actually do it.
Rosie Lovell, Café owner and food writer
I love Sydney’s Chinatown, particularly the noisy, clattery, late-night seafood place, Golden Century on Sussex Street. The best hand-pulled noodles and the best un-smacked cucumbers are at Din Tai Fung – not officially Chinatown but quite authentically in a shopping centre.
David Weiner and Verena von Pfetten, Gossamer co-founders
David There might be better dim sum options in New York’s Chinatown. There might be cheaper options, too. But Nom Wah Tea Parlor is more than a restaurant: it’s a relic. For the first time visitor, it’s not what you’re expecting. It doesn’t have the big round tables and sea of dim sum carts you’ll find at the big banquet halls. Instead it feels more like a roadside luncheonette, at once both foreign to New York and a reminder of how the city used to be. Its seeming inauthenticity is actually what makes it authentic. It’s been unchanged for decades. It’s seen local fads come and go, competition rise and fall. The food has always been good, and will always be good. The decor will continue to age gracefully. Please go here so the city doesn’t lose yet another institution. Just not when I want a table.
Verena I would be remiss if I didn’t suggest Kissa Tanto: one of the most exciting restaurants to open in Vancouver in years and tucked in a jewel box of a space up a narrow set of stairs in East Pender Street. But spotlighting its modern mix of (astoundingly delicious) Japanese and Italian cuisine in a story about Chinatowns hardly seems fair. Instead, make a point before your dinner (and if you don’t have a reservation, plan on arriving very, very early) to spend some time at the Dr Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden, secreted behind a low white building just a few blocks away. Considered one of the best city gardens in the world, this tiny, tranquil space is truly worth the ticket – a neat interruption to the usual urban itinerary.
Lauren Sloss, Food and drink writer
In San Francisco‘s Chinatown hole-in-the-wall dim sum joints hold court next to hot new arrivals like Mister Jiu‘s and the Eataly-esque China Live. But the real secret sauce of Chinatown is its bars – the divey atmosphere and seriously local scene have a distinctive SF noir vibe (though it’s worth noting that both Mister Jiu’s and China Live’s hidden Scotch bar, Cold Drinks, have stellar cocktails, too).
The Bourdain-blessed Li Po is the most known entity, largely thanks to its dangerous Chinese mai tais, but there are other gems well worth discovering. Find a dark corner and a cold beer at Buddha Lounge; sip whiskey over a game of dice at Red’s Place; and indulge in your best-worst karaoke self at Bow Bow. Should you find yourself bar-crawling of a weekend, the legendary Sam Wo Restaurant stays open until 3am, in case late-night noodles are needed.
Chloe Sachdev, Travel writer
Two of my favourite bars in Singapore are both in Chinatown, completely unique and 100 per cent local. First is cocktail bar Native, helmed by Vijay Mudaliar. Using only southeast Asian everything (from the spirits and ingredients to the music), the cocktails themselves riff on traditional flavours (try the boozy mango lassi), but the bar’s badge of honour is its strict zero-waste policy. No ingredients get thrown out so old coconuts, banana peels, pineapple skins etc get reused in cocktail creation. In fact, the bar doesn’t use a single garbage bag.
Second is Smith Street Taps. Located in a hole-in-the-wall Chinatown hawker stall, it sells one of the city’s best selections of craft beers on tap. I love the authentic no-frills Singaporean atmosphere as much as I love the ice-cold beer.
Iroshini Chua, Doctor, jewellery designer, writer
Le Café Confectionery and Pastry is not technically in Chinatown, but this is Singapore and everything is just 10 minutes away. And Chinese New Year just isn’t the same without their pineapple tarts. Forget the ang bao, it’s best to run to the table and grab a few of these generously filled golf-ball-sized delights – the 1,000 calories are worth it.
If you’re making a new year feast at home, Poon Huat is the place to go: a wholesale supplier of all the kitchen equipment you could possibly think in a multi story building smack-bang in the middle of Chinatown.
Finally, who wouldn’t love to sink their teeth into a slice of thick butter and coconut jam sandwiched between crispy slices of bread first thing in the morning? It’s called kaya toast and Tong Ah Eating House has been feeding generations of Singaporeans this national breakfast according to their preference (thick or thin slice; heaped or sparsely jam-spread).
Featured image is Chinatown, New York City Credit: Getty Images