Recently when Therese and I were having dinner at No. 1 Little House Restaurant in the FiDi, Therese remarked that it had been a long time since she had had a good egg roll. So the first chance we got, we shot off to Chinatown in search of that most iconic, ubiquitous appetizer of American Chinese cooking.
Why Chinatown? Two reasons. First, there is a concentration of Chinese restaurants there unparalleled at least in Manhattan. Second, the population of Manhattan’s Chinatown has traditionally been Cantonese, from Hong Kong, and I associate the egg roll with Cantonese cuisine – along with so many other conventional Cantonese dishes like Shrimp Toast, Scallion pancakes and Fried Pork Dumplings.
Now I should say just a few words about what we were looking for in an egg roll. The filling should have more than just cabbage and bean sprouts – hopefully there will be a couple other vegetables, like mushrooms, and meat and/or seafood is always welcome. But I don’t see anything wrong with a vegetarian egg roll, as long as the skin is right.
And what should the skin be? To me, it should not be rice paper – a roll wrapped in rice paper is, to me, a spring roll, not an egg roll. I look for a roll covered in a Wonton wrapper, deep-fried, so that the roll is bumpy, and when bitten into, is crunchy yes, but holds together and has a nice chewy, almost leathery texture.
My idea about where to search for our egg roll was to start at Canal Street and Mott Street, and then walk down Mott, branching off to Bayard and Pell Streets (and maybe Doyer Street). We would stop in every restaurant we found that (a) had an A Health Department Rating and (b) had an egg roll on their menu. We would buy one portion of 2 egg rolls (they always come in portions of 2 rolls, not 1) and when we finished our hunt, we would taste whatever we had purchased, side by side.
My friends, we did not have much luck. We found only 2 restaurants – yes, that’s right, I said 2! That met our two criteria. Many many of the restaurants, I am sorry to say, had B ratings – I am sorry that we did not sample their egg rolls, but hey, we don’t want to eat something that might make us sick. And a bunch of the restaurants that did have A ratings did not sell egg rolls! What, no egg rolls? We wonder if maybe the trend nowadays is away from egg rolls, toward spring rolls? Obviously, we need to do more research into this.
In any case, since we were not having much success in our egg roll search, in the middle of our trek down Bayard Street, we stopped to get some wonderful hand-ripped noodles at Xi’an Famous Foods. We have been to Xi’an’s sister restaurant, Biang in Flushing, and sure enough, many of the things we enjoyed there are also present at Xi’an – for example, the spicy cumin-seasoned lamb with large rustic hand-made noodles.
We nibbled and slurped, and then put our leftovers in go boxes and went back to our egg roll search, buoyed a bit by the yummy food in our bellies. And we did find one more egg roll to add to our sampling after that.
So which egg rolls did we try? The first was from Hoy Wong, on Mott Street not far from Canal Street. Indeed, this was the first restaurant we stopped in along our crawl.
The second one was from next door to Xi’an Famous Foods, at 69 Chinese Restaurant on Bayard Street. This place is noteworthy for its eccentric interior decoration – the walls, ceiling, and everything else is covered with dollar bills that have been signed by customers.
We finished up our crawl by walking down Doyer Street, where every restaurant on the street has a B Rating! and then decided to just hop in a cab, get home quick, and eat our egg rolls. And this is what we found…
Hoy Wong’s roll, while the size of a proper egg roll, is covered with rice paper. So while it had some nice flavor, I feel like it didn’t qualify as a true egg roll.
69 Restaurant’s egg roll was the real deal. Chewy wonton wrapper, lots of cabbage inside, held together well while dunking it in the usual day-glow sweet orange sauce that came with it.
OK, so we got one decent example of an egg roll out of our jaunt. Not bad. But I am convinced that there are more, and better, egg rolls to be found on the island of Manhattan! And Therese and I will find them. I can’t tell you when we will go on our next egg roll hunt, but I am thinking that it will probably be in Midtown Manhattan.