Old skool Chinatown is dead. Long live old skool Chinatown

Fong Inn Too (photo credit: Patty and David) and Steve Cuozzo
Fong Inn Too (photo credit: Patty and David) and Steve Cuozzo

Steve Cuozzo — the Seinfeldian equivalent of an old man trying to return soup at a deli — has a new food-related lament in the Post this week. He details a rather a dystopian view of one of New York City’s most vibrant but rapidly changing areas — Chinatown.

Gentrification is nothing new in NYC and there is a certain type mourning that takes place when iconic establishments bite the dust.

A recent example of that is mom and pop noodle and rice shop Fong Inn Too, which had resided on 46 Mott Street since 1933. Now, it has shut its doors for good. The restaurant’s three-story building recently sold for $2.7 million.

Another sign of the dreaded g-word is the newly constructed 22-story, 225-room, glass-wrapped hotel on Elizabeth Street and the Bowery, which Cuozzo says sticks out like a sore thumb amidst the quaint narrow streets and 19th century tenements.

And while the death of the figurative flavor of the nabe pains Cuozzo, he is even more pained about the literal death of flavor, lamenting the closure of beloved old skool Chinese restaurants — many frequented by the neighborhood’s Chinese and low income residents . “It pains me to see 1 Mott St., an iconic address that was home to a long succession of Chinese cafes, now occupied by Ali Baba Organic Market.”

In their place he rues the cleaned-up versions of eateries, with their blaring, base-pumping music and “mixology-based cocktails” — places like “Pulqueria, offering fare scarce in any Chinese region — tequila and tacos.” He also notes that in place of traditional Cantonese eateries, “taking hold are Japanese ramen noodle joints — a sure sign of a culinary sea change.”

But Wellington Chen, president of the Chinatown Business Improvement District, disagrees that the number of restaurants offering traditional fare is dwindling, telling Cuozzo, “You’re the first one to comment that there’s less.” He reports that the BID notes there are 300 places to eat within the district.

Even though getting an exact number of past restaurants is difficult to pin down, one restaurateur agreed with Cuozzo on the shrinkage. James Tang, a grandson of legendary noodle master and Szechuanese pioneer “Shorty” Tang, concurred.

“There are not as many restaurants” as there were a few years ago, he says. Tang’s family plan to reopen Hwa Yuan at 40 East Broadway, a building they’ve owned for 40 years, but don’t expect it to be an exact replica. The three-story behemoth “won’t resemble the cheap, simply decorated original.” Tang said his “fine dining” version aims to attract mainly “ABC’s” — American-born Chinese. We suspect Cuozzo won’t like it as much as the original.

“This certainly isn’t the end of Chinatown, but even here, as with every corner of New York, gentrification, with all its discontents, marches on,” is Cuozzo’s final say on the subject. [NYP] 

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