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  IN SEARCH OF THE GOLDEN WOK: A YOKEL'S GUIDE TO CHINESE.  
   
   
  We've all eaten plenty of Chinese food. It's as much a staple of drunken, reckless after-bar consumption as the greasy pepperoni slice or the one night stand. Among its most important virtues is its availability: It's fast, it's open late for delivery, and above all it's dirt cheap.

Sometimes all you need to make it through a bout of liquor spins is a sticky box of General Tso's chicken at three in the morning, or a heaping pile of shrimp fried rice.

It was on a night much like that, drooling over a couple of egg rolls, that the question came up: Since regular old, broke-ass Chinese food is so chalked full of greasy goodness, then it stands to reason that really expensive gourmet Chinese food must be super extra good. Right?

To answer this question I sought out two rivals and pitted them against one another: the best, most expensive, gourmet Chinese versus the best, cheapest, hole-in-the-wall Chinese.

 
               
               
   

The Heir Apparent

66
241 Church Street
212-925-0202
The Chinese-inspired, fortress-like offspring of the
Jean-Georges empire, located on a broad, clean stretch of Church Street in Tribeca.

   

The Underdog

Joe's Shanghai
9 Pell St. between Mott St. and Bowery
212-233-8888
One of a million cheap-to-moderately priced Chinese joints crammed into the narrow, winding blocks of Chinatown.

   
               
   

 

 

         
 

66 is immaculate. The dining room is sparse and expansive. The furniture is earth-toned and tasteful. The lighting is dim and the ceilings are high. The people eating at 66 seemed relaxed and stylish, casually nibbling and drinking to a soundtrack of soothing trip hop and electronica.

A row of aquariums set into the back wall of the dining room allow a view into the kitchen beyond the exotic fish that troll gracefully around one another -- a small shark, a pair of flatfish, a tiger fish, an eel.

Long columns of red banners stamped with bold, white Chinese characters line the ceiling, playing expertly against the stainless steel mesh and frosted glass dispatched with careful precision in the dining area. It all combines to create a sort of Maoist-space-age-forbidden-city-dreamscape.


Soy-cured Salmon with Asian pear salad.

The appetizers completely stole the show. Velvety cuts of soy-cured salmon are wrapped ribbon-like around creamy dollops of crème fraiche, with Asian pear on the side, diced into microscopic perfection.


Lacquered pork belly with caramelized shallots.

Cubes of lacquered pork belly wear a bundled pompadour of caramelized shallots, tossed with bits of crunchy salty goodness. The corners of the meat are charred just enough to give you a little bitterness against the sweet sauce, or "lacquer." (Lacquer is not a nice word to describe something so tasty. It calls to mind summer days slopping toxic globs of Johnson's Water Seal onto unfinished backyard patios. Maybe it's just me.)

The touch of char also provides texture against the edges of jelly-like fat that melt onto the tongue, once again proving that pork is the most wickedly delicious food ever cleaved from a living creature. Luckily the tables are set at a tasteful distance from one another, so my carnal grunting was somewhat muted from the neighboring tables.

Make sure you've got a nice, stiff drink and a clean napkin to towel yourself off with before tackling the asparagus salad with Chinese mustard. After a few bites of these tender, green shoots with crunchy tufts of pungent chive and bean sprout - all tossed in dangerously intense pale, yellow mustard - you'll be the sweatiest, happiest salad-eater around. Once the burning subsides, that is.

With a drink or two and dessert (the Ovaltine pudding with bananas is scrumptious), a complete dinner for two, including appetizer and entrée, will run you in the neighborhood of $100.

 

Joe's Shanghai has got some serious odds to even, and by all appearances, the place is a mess. From a block away a chaotic line was visible stretching onto the sidewalk. Past the cramped doorway is a large, neon-lit dining room with all the ambiance of the DMV on a crowded Tuesday afternoon.

Numbered tickets are handed out, leaving people to wander dejectedly into the doorway or settle in front of the giant aquarium by the door for the estimated 25 minute wait.

To soften the blow, we ordered a round of Tsing Tao's and watched five or six enormous, whiskered coy fish, roam slowly through the cloudy, greenish water. One of them trailed a ribbon of shockingly thick fish crap.

Movement was unpredictable but swift. Groups of six were cobbled together, strangers with strangers, and herded away from the foyer in twos and threes by a nimble and overwhelmed hostess, hoarse from yelling names and holding the crowd back.

In true Chinatown fashion, events unfolded very quickly after this. We were seated and ordered inside of five minutes. Another round of Sing Tao's arrived and sets of chopsticks clattered onto the table from a passing waiter.

The noise in the dining room was deafening -- people arguing, laughing, toasting. Babies crying, cooks continually poking their heads out of the kitchen to yell at waiters who were yelling at the hostess. About this time, I was ready to call a preemptive victory for 66, but little did I know what was in store.


Pork and crab meat soup dumplings.

Seven minutes after sitting down, our first steamer of crabmeat and pork soup dumplings arrived. Dumplings with soup on the inside, that's right. It seems to defy some elementary physical law, and yet, here it is.

As it turns out, this is the true reason we're here. This is why everybody's here -- for the all-encompassing warp space of the incredible, impossible soup dumpling. About the size and heft of a hacky-sack, these satchels are brimming with a thick, luscious crabmeat stew, a tender bite of ground pork, and quite possibly a dash of ancient Chinese magic love potion.

But wait. There are questions to be answered and techniques to master before soup dumplings can be enjoyed properly.

 

 
       

#1. Take it slow. Though you'll be tempted, do not stick the whole dumpling into your mouth. This is critical. It is filled with delicious, scalding hot soup, and if you bite into it the inside of your mouth will burn, burn, burn. Instead, using your chopsticks, gently lift it off the steamer and lay it into your soupspoon.

   
 

 

 
 

#2. Be gentle. Do not bite down on the dumpling. It will burst, spraying delicious, scalding hot soup all over your date, your clothes and your neighbors.

 
 

 

 
       

#3. Suckle like mother's milk. After securing the dumpling on your spoon, bite a small hole in the top, and then slowly suck the delicious, scalding hot soup out, adding a spoonful of the accompanying vinegar/soy sauce provided.

Goddamn, that's good.

   
 

 

 
 

#4. Gorge yourself like a ravenous wolf. Once you've slurped up the delicious, scalding hot soup, then feel free to gobble up the succulent pork and dumpling shell. Then repeat until you're out of money, and don't forget to challenge your friends to a dumpling-eating contest. I finished ten in one sitting. Beat that, pussy.

Like all the greatest food-within-foods, from the cheese dog to the jelly donut, soup dumplings puzzle and delight on various levels.

There's the thrill of biting into one thing and getting something else, which is not always good, but always interesting. There's also the lingering question: How the hell did they get soup into a dumpling?

(The most likely theory is that the soup is frozen into molds, then the dumplings are wrapped, and when the time comes, tossed into a steamer.)

At about $1.50 apiece, Joe's Shanghai soup dumplings are good enough to make you forget about all the crap you had to go through to get them, almost.

But if it's true that we eat with all of our senses, and not just our mouths, then the soup dumplings alone cannot erase the crappy, yet distinctive, taste of Joe's Shanghai atmosphere and service.

My advice: get a few orders of soup dumplings to go and inhale them on the way over to 66, where you'll have ample time and comfort to contemplate their greatness over even more of the best Chinese food your broke-ass has ever tasted.

 

Brian Bernbaum writes a monthly 'Yokel's Guide' dining column for The Black Table. He is also the mind behind Hipsters Are Annoying.