These are Taiwan-style pancake rolls (about $2 each), according to the owner, though she herself is indeed from Hong Kong. Each wears an artless "label" to indicate its filling. Even a first-time customer can "read" the ham, but to identify its companion two rolls to the left, you would need to know that, of all the fillings, only the fish is lightly battered and fried. Or you could close your eyes and take a bite — into scallion-flecked pancake, lettuce, mayo, and yielding chunks of flounder.
Hong Kong Bakery 807 42nd St. (Eighth-Ninth Aves.), Sunset Park, Brooklyn 917-455-7885
Poor or incomplete Chinese-to-English translations are a sticking point on many of New York's Fujianese menus. This item, for example, was billed as "salt cabbage fried buns," which would have been much easier to share among our party of three. More-patient analysis when ordering would have helped us ascertain that 糟菜粉干, or zāo cài fěn gàn, consists of rice noodles (fěn) that before cooking are dry (gàn) rather than fresh.
The noodles are added to a soup that can be rich with proteins or, in the case of this $3 bowl, accompanied by little more than blanched greens and sliced spring onions. On top is the distinctive dark slick of zāo cài — mustard greens preserved in a much-loved enhancement to Fujianese fare, the lees of red rice wine. Not bad, I think we all agreed, once we'd managed to divvy up our bowl.
Also shown: an untranslated section of this tiny shop's wall menu, surmounted by the featured ingredient in that Fujianese classic, noodles with peanut sauce.
Shaxian Delicacies 811 49th St. (Eighth-Ninth Aves.), Sunset Park, Brooklyn
Choose your ice cream methodology, asks the menu board: "N₂" or "fried." The shop's name alludes to the boiling point (-196 ºCelsius) of liquid nitrogen, or N₂, which chills the ingredients in a matter of moments. (A Williamsburg parlor, -321 º Ice Cream, applies the same technique but translates into Fahrenheit.) "Fried," however, is not fried. It's a slangy if misleading term that evokes the efforts of a short-order cook (see the process at another competing vendor) but describes what's often known as rolled ice cream.
Take a firm hand when ordering your toppings; except for the tapioca pearls, my counterman's choices were too sundae-like for this full-flavored pitaya ice cream ($5.50). As for "pitaya," it's a name you might expect to see several avenues away, at one of many Mexican shops. Here in Chinatown, the usual translation is not to Spanish but to English: dragon fruit.
Also shown, from nearby: a westward view at dusk.
-196 ºC Ice Cream 5302 Eighth Ave. (entrance on 53rd St.), Sunset Park, Brooklyn 917-459-9502
The kitchen, I'm told, is small, and so the handwritten menu at this family operation is devoted to classics with wide appeal and an emphasis on the personal touch: "hand cut" fries, "fresh made" chips and guac, a sandwich with "slow cooked" brisket, another with bacon, egg, and cheese. ("Runny yolk"? You got it.)
Hanging from the awning, to the left of the makeshift, curtainlike sunscreen, are a series of placards, not for this noodle shop but for nearby hostels and other budget accommodations. And just barely visible, on the narrow ledge inside the window, is a row of business cards also directed at recent arrivals to the neighborhood. These are signs of working man's fare. So is the wistful name Hometown Cuisine, a reference to China's southeastern Fujian province; a direct translation yields the even more evocative Hometown Fishball.
Shown below: a singularly unphotogenic bowl of bone marrow hand-pulled noodles ($5.50) and two bones, emptied by me; "seafood chow meat noodle" ($8.50). Perhaps naively, I thought that meat noodles might be a variation of the fish mein at Zheng's Family Garden, in which the noodles themselves incorporate fish. Here the noodles are just noodles, quick-fried, well-heaped, and slippery with oil, accompanied by head-on shrimp, squid, perhaps conch, clams in their shells — and halved pork meatballs.
In southern China, rice ball soups tend to be on the sweet side, the fillings more so than the soups themselves. At this Fujianese small-eats joint, whose terse menu includes nothing that you might mistake for dessert, the dumplings are stuffed with ground meat, probably pork. I'm not sold on the combination of glutinous-rice wrappers and savory fillings, but there's no arguing with the price for a bowl of ten: $3.
Also at the table: a Huy Fong squeeze bottle, on the left, and a shaker, front and center, that contained the sriracha and black pepper you'd expect. The other two squeeze bottles had been refilled with vinegar and soy sauce, presumably bought in bulk. The small Kikkoman dispenser, also repurposed, now held fish sauce.
Wan Zhoung Wang 773 60th St. (Seventh-Eighth Aves.), Sunset Park, Brooklyn 718-680-8886
The food played second fiddle: Mariachi music was the main attraction at this annual Thanksgiving eve festival. True, the chow was plentiful, inexpensive, and varied — chicharrones preparados, posole, tacos, tamales, flautas, chalupas, elotes, mangos enchilados, champurrado — but the enticing aromas of cooking in progress were absent from the concert venue, a school gymnasium. Top: piña colada cupcakes, one of which was my dessert after several hours in the nearest Chinatown. Bottom: one of many mariachi ensembles. When the broad-brimmed hats came off, they were just getting started.
Santa Cecilia Mariachi Fest (previously the Santa Cecilia Encuentro de Mariachis) Our Lady of Perpetual Help, 545 59th St. (Fifth-Sixth Aves., inside Notre Dame Hall), Sunset Park, Brooklyn www.Facebook.com/events/1497080397288433 (The 2015 festival was held on November 25)
Weekdays are crowded, weekends, more so. In Sunset Park, Brooklyn, the sidewalks that flank Eighth Ave. in the 50s and low 60s become even more impassable on Saturdays and Sundays, when a phalanx of additional street vendors hawk their wares. There's no hurrying things along; why not pick up a snack to tide you over? Sweet potato fritters filled with red bean paste (three for $2.50) are inevitably oily (snag some napkins), but if you're lucky they'll still be a little warm, too.
Fujianese stoopline stand Eighth Ave. near the southeast corner with 57th St., Sunset Park, Brooklyn Hours unknown, but midday on any weekend is a good bet
At one time this storefront was called El Comal, after the Latin American griddle; it prepared tacos, quesadillas, and the like. That menu is still available at a companion cart across the avenue, but the name of the shop now reflects what it does best.