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March 23, 2005

Philadelphia: City of Brotherly Love by Harley Spiller

It only takes $10 and two hours to travel by bus between Chinatowns in Manhattan and Philadelphia, so I hopped aboard to satisfy my curiosity about the similarities and differences between these two major cities-within-cities. Two bus companies, New Century and Today, departs from under the Manhattan Bridge and leave you smack in the middle of Philly’s Chinatown, which extends from 9th to 12th streets, from Vine to Arch. Squeezed between Center City’s bus depot, the Reading Terminal and Market, The Pennsylvania Convention Center, the Vine Street Expressway and the trendy food-filled Reading Terminal Market, Chinese businesses and homes do not really spread beyond the confines of Chinatown as they do in New York.

Pennsylvania’s largest Chinatown is a mixed neighborhood. The presence of quite a few raffish characters explains the unfriendly “bathroom for customers only” signs in the front of nearly every Chinatown restaurant. Except for a small concentration of industrial and commercial operations north of Vine near Callowhill Street, Chinatown stays within its borders. It seems that most Chinese restaurants outside this area are of the thoroughly Americanized ilk.

The first Chinese business in Philadelphia history was Lee Fong’s laundry, which opened in the 1860s at 913 Race near Hutchinson Street. The first Chinese restaurant in Philadelphia was also at 913 Race, on the second floor above the laundry. It was called Mei-Hsiang Low and it opened in 1880. The ensuing history of Chinese people in Philadelphia mirrors that of New York’s population, with exclusion laws and bachelor society holding firm until the mid-20th century.

Harley Spiller

The oldest extant shop in Chinatown appears to be Tuck Hing, at 218 North 10th Street, but their antique-looking celadon green shelves hold distinctly modern merchandise. The Chinatown Friendship Gate, a beautiful structure at 10th and Arch Streets, is a symbol of cultural exchange between Philly and its sister city, Tianjin, China. It’s claimed to be the first Chinese gate built in the U.S. by artisans from China. Weighing approximately 88 tons, the archway stands forty-feet high. There’s not much other authentic Chinese architecture in Chinatown, but the corner of 10th and Winter Streets features a giant and lovely mural depicting Philly’s Chinese history.

In recent years, the Chinese community banded together to battle Philadelphia’s City Hall and its plans to further hem in the community with a ballpark on the outskirts of Chinatown. Community leaders were successful in their efforts to get the stadium built elsewhere, and a lovely bi-product of the fight is that the Chinese community is now very tightly bonded.

Like their brethren across the U.S., the majority of early Chinese-Philadelphians hailed from Canton, until President Nixon’s efforts in the 1970s helped open doors for immigration from other regions of China. As a result, there are about a dozen old-time Cantonese restaurants among Philly’s pantheon of Chinese restaurants. Besmirched carpets and sour wait staff speak of better days, and these old warhorses seem destined to soon go the way of Chi Mer and other now-defunct New York Cantonese halls. When an old-timer goes out of business though, the address doesn’t stay empty for long, and slick new places like Rising Tide at 937-939 Race Street remodel and open in the blink of an eye.

Far and away the most crowded restaurant in Philly’s Chinatown is Sang Kee, at 238 N. 9th Street. Also known as Peking Duck House, Sang Kee is filled to the gills on weekend nights. Two chefs were spotted with a slightly glazed look as they eyed the evening’s 5 giant pails of raw ducks to be roasted. Word has it that Sang Kee is the first Chinese restaurant to operate a franchise in a National Football League stadium, Lincoln Financial Field, the home of the Philadelphia Eagles. They are offering a fusion dish called “Cheese Steak Egg Rolls.” This might come as no surprise to locals in love with Philadelphia’s signature sandwich, but it surely must shock Chinese people who know not much about cheese. There are a million cheese-steak purveyors in Philly, but let’s hope there is no malice intended in the name of The Northeast neighborhood’s 50-year-old favorite cheese-steakery, Chink’s.

Other places teeming with business are Wong Wong at 941 Race and its kitty-corner competitor, David’s Mai Lai Wah at 1001 Race. Many Philadelphia Chinatown restaurants do not open until at least 11 am, but Wong Wong’s is open early with clean, classic, bountiful and inexpensive Cantonese fare including roast meats, congee, stuffed rice noodle, and wonton noodle soups. While Cantonese restaurants remain the mainstay, there are many places claiming to serve Sichuan, Hunan, Mandarin and other Asian cuisines. I did not see any exclusively Sichuan or Taiwanese places like the ones now flourishing in Flushing, but Philly’s Chinatown boasts several Japanese and Thai restaurants; two or three Vietnamese places; and Burmese, Malaysian and Indonesian spots as well.

Philly Chinatown is also home to Ray’s Café and Tea House, 141 North 9th Street a “cult” place catering to health-conscious locals with Chinese food and pricey gourmet drinks. There’s one fancy bubble-tea merchant called Zen Teahouse at 225 N. 11th Street, and a handful of small shops also sell a full range of these fruity and fun teas also know by the playful names “frog-eyes” and “dragon-eggs.“

There are plenty of places specializing in Peking Duck, seemingly the meal of choice for Occidentals in Philly Chinatown. There are quite a few options for vegetarians, some of which keep kosher. There are also a couple of upscale places like Michael Ly’s at 101 North 11th Street, and Azure which promises “vacation style” cuisine.

The grand dame of Philly’s upscale Chinese restaurants is the impeccably appointed Susanna Foo’s, serving French-Chinese fusion cuisine at 1512 Walnut Street (see Flavor and Fortune vol. 2 no. 4). Undaunted, Joseph Poon, at 1002 Arch Street, gives Susanna a run for the money with a friendly and open attitude. He teaches about Chinese cuisine in tours called “Wok & Walk” (215-928-9333). Mr. Poon can be seen demonstrating recipes on the internet, at www.ntdtv.com/xtr/eng/aReadArticle.jsp?id=17809

The Greater Philadelphia Tourism Marketing Corporation offers excellent tours called “Voices of Chinatown,” and more information about Phildelphia Chinatown can be gleaned from the commercial website www.PhillyChinatown.com. Scholarly information is available at the following websites:
http://www.gophila.com
http://www.ushistory.org/tour/tour_china.htm
http://citypaper.net/articles/2002-11-14/naked.shtml
http://www.folkloreproject.org/about/news/2002-sept.shtml

No self-respecting foodie should pass up a chance to snack and stroll in Philadelphia’s pungent Italian Market, with its energetic hawkers, innumerable shops, and 19th-century wooden pushcarts still in use. Don’t even think about sustenance from the bullet-proof windows of ABC Wok Restaurant, 1303 E. Passyunk Avenue near the intersection of Geno’s v. Pat’s, famous battlers for the title of king of Philly cheeseteaks. Instead, try a working-person’s spot that’s less expensive and far superior, George’s Sandwiches at 900 S. 9th Street. George’s plebian specialties including juicy tripe, or pork and provolone sandwiches, enlivened with beautiful-bitter broccoli rabe.

Not surprisingly, low rents at the south-eastern extreme of the Italian mercato have enabled a new Philadelphia Chinatown to blossom, anchored by the gigantic Southern Sky, 801-21 Washington Avenue, which purveys traditional Cantonese dim sum, deep-fried American favorites, and Phnom Penh noodle soups in a 600 person banquet hall with “a dancing pool, fancy spot lighting and excellent amplifier in order to make your party ore enjoyable.” Around the corner on 8th Street, there exists an ethnic enclave with a handful of Vietnamese and other south-Asian businesses including petite Asia@Cafe at 1030 South 8th Street near Washington Avenue. The owner of Asia@Cafe prepares a mix of Malaysian and Indonesian fare like Roti Canai, Gado-Gado, Rojak, Mee Goreng, and Chow Kueh Teow. She nodded to a display of lurid color photos of General Tso’s chicken; beef and broccoli; and other U.S. Chinese standards; and proffered a bone too slim for any Flavor and Fortune aficionado: “We do have the Chinese-American food,” she smirked.

With time for only one meal, I headed back to Chinatown but passed on the intriguing menu at kindly family-run Good Luck Café on N. 10th Street. I also took a rain check on the plebian but decidedly delicious-smelling Lakeside Chinese Deli on N. 9th Street. Instead, I narrowed the search to two newish Chinese places with Northern wheat food offerings

Jia Quan, a bright yellow and red lunch room at 902 Arch Street, offers dumplings and a variety of soups and noodles, but Lan Zhou Hand Drawn Noodle House got my vote because I wanted to try their “hand-shaved” noodles, something I’d never seen or tasted. Once I saw “knife-cut noodles” on a menu but skipped them because I mistakenly thought, “how silly, aren’t all noodles cut with a knife?”

Lan Zhou is a clean and family-friendly three-person operation. A television blares Chinese news amid a typically Chinese pale pink and green décor – need I say more? Very popular with young kids, Lan Zhou’s clear and tasty wonton soup has very delicate wrappers with the least amount of filling I’ve ever seen. These baby wontons are very easy to slither into your mouth and there’s lots of floppy wrapper for kids to spoon around in their bowl like goldfish tails. A worker made more wontons at a table, using just a tiny daub (maybe a ¼ teaspoon) of ground pork filling smeared into the middle of the square wrapper. To seal the wonton, she simply scrunched the bundle together into her palm using all five fingers.

Next I tried Lan Zhou’s hand-drawn noodles with pork and soy sauce, known in Mandarin as Xia Jia Mein. The chef went to work, magically turning a wad of dough into long strands of noodle with twists, stretches, and loud smacks on the work table. Tiny nuggets of coarsely ground pork stew sat above the delightfully gummy noodles, which were nested on shards of iceberg lettuce. It went well with the superb house-roasted hot chile pepper oil. The handmade noodles were of uneven width, just like the old handmade floor boards in the many 18th and 19th-century homes in this historic city. Combining all the ingredients of the Xia Jia Mein into single mouthfuls provided a juicy, gooey, mildly unguent, and thoroughly satisfying meal.

I took an order of Meat Ball Noodle Soup to go, and was delighted to discover Lan Zhou had placed the hand-shaved noodles in a separate container so they wouldn’t be overcooked in the hot soup. To make these noodles, the chef takes a block of raw dough that resembles a loaf of bread, and starts whittling away at it with a sharp long blade. At first I thought he was removing the hardened bits, as one does with the rinds of cheese, but I was wrong. The whittlings are the actual noodles.

The fresh shards of dough are then cooked in the soup and their ragged, deckled edges and varying thicknesses and textures make them a highlight in the world’s noodle pantheon. The soup’s “meatballs,” which seemed for all the world like normal wontons, were made of slightly sweet pork and chopped vegetables wrapped in a dough skin. The lovely broth was completed with a bountiful amount of fresh spinach, providing healthful balance.

Lan Zhou Hand Drawn Noodle House is at 927 Race Street, telephone 215-923-1550. Their hours of operation are as uneven as the shape of their noodles: Sunday through Wednesdays from 11 am to 9 pm, and on Friday and Saturday from 11 am through 10 pm. Beware of shortened hours on Thursday, from 11 am thru 4 pm.

All told, Philadelphia’s Chinatown is a microcosm of New York City’s five Chinatowns, except Philadelphia is perhaps 8 years behind New York, which is currently experiencing an influx of Northern, Western and Southern Chinese restaurants, including a handful of Muslim Chinese restaurants and a recent spate of Indian Chinese restaurants. While New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles and Seattle are much larger magnets for Asians, there’s no doubt that Philadelphia has one of the busiest and best-stocked Chinatowns in the U.S.A.

Many thanks to Didier, Bridget and Margot for their hospitality, and to Cara Schneider of the Greater Philadelphia Tourism Marketing Corporation for her many kindnesses.

Posted by BKG at March 23, 2005 02:16 PM

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