There was a year back in high school when I got absolutely sick of Chinese food. I dreaded family dinners, which usually meant eating endless amounts of tofu and sweet-and-sour fish. Those days are no more, and while Chinese New Year celebrations may be so two months ago, it is still the year to eat like a horse! If there’s one thing I know, it’s that good food and good company are always worth celebrating.
For most people, holidays are all about the spirit of the season; they’re about something meaningful, such as independence or thankfulness or love. Flags and fireworks, ceremonies and services, holidays are a time for remembering something important about the human condition, like strength, perseverance, or kindness.
For my family, holidays are all about food. Sparklers and sprinklers are excellent ways to spend Independence Day, but only while we’re waiting for the barbecue. Christmas presents are a ton of fun, but it’s Christmas dinner that we’ll be talking about for the rest of the year. And of course we are so proud of you for turning a year older and being able to drive, vote, or rent a car. But really, we’re all here for the cake.
This year, when my birthday and Chinese New Year coincided in the same week (a phenomenon that hasn’t happened since my tenth birthday), my cousins elected to celebrate the only way we know how: by eating lots of Chinese food. Manhattan Chinatown, to the uninitiated, can be overwhelming, but Wonton Noodle Garden is always a hit.
Located at 56 Mott Street, the closest subway station is any Canal Street stop on 1, 6, A, C, E, N, Q, or R trains. Of course, I ended up at HK Wonton Garden until my cousin came and found me at the wrong place, so Wonton Noodle Garden may not be the easiest place to locate in the already-confusing web of Chinatown. (Where are the numbers?)
Wonton Noodle Garden, like a lot of Chinatown, is not known for its superior décor or its soothing ambience. It sort of has the vibe of Chinatown-bakery-meets-roadside-diner, which means that it’s noisy and a little grungy, but definitely comforting and predictable. When you have severe food allergies, it’s nice to have something predictable. Chinese food is as close to home as I can get, and all I have to do is avoid peanuts, which is relatively easy at Wonton Noodle Garden. Just double check with the server, and use the photographic menu as a guide.
Often confused with several other establishments, such as HK Wonton Garden (equally delicious), Wonton Noodle Garden has an enormous menu, so everyone, even your weird friends who “don’t like Chinese food,” will be happy! Like Disneyland’s Candy Palace, where you can watch the confectioners create English toffee, the front window of Wonton Noodle Garden features the cook making the wonton soup with similar expertise and love.
Of course, we ordered the wonton noodle soup (welcome to Obviousville) and beef chow fun (enjoy your visit to Obviousopolis), two staples of any cousin bonding experience. It is also customary to eat noodles on Chinese New Year. We also ordered sesame chicken and some roast duck, to make it a real New Year’s feast.
Bear oh bear, was it a New Year’s feast! The wonton soup had just the right noodle-to-wonton ratio, and the wontons were as delicate and delicious as if they really grew in a garden. The roast duck was savory and meaty, while the sesame chicken was sweet and crispy, just as it should be. The beef chow fun, as always, was perfect. (It’s really hard to mess up beef chow fun.) We scarfed up every bite, took a pile of selfies for our grandma, and laughed so hard that there were definitely tears in there with the tea. My cousins gave me a hilariously cheesy birthday card, and we spent the rest of the evening wandering around Union Square, looking for dessert and browsing bookstores.
I’ve seen some chatter on the Internet questioning Wonton Noodle Garden’s establishment and their claims about “since 1978.” To that, I would just like to say that Cantonese food has been at the center of American cuisine since before the California gold rush. Whether it’s from the Qin dynasty or from the 1970’s, Cantonese food has happiness and health all bundled up inside of it. Wonton Noodle Garden attracts the neighborhood regulars as well as hungry students, so the crowd is usually lively and looking for some noodles. PLEASE NOTE: Wonton Noodle Garden only accepts cash, so come prepared! (I’m not sure if it’s under a certain amount, or if that’s their blanket policy, but I have never not paid in cash here.)
Ever since my first week in New York, I often suffer from homesickness: for my bed, for the beach, but most of all for the food that my mom and my grandma make. As much as I love the city and it’s electric, eclectic energy, there are days where I hate it—the weather, the work, the wallowing in loneliness. Places like Wonton Noodle Garden offer the perfect antidote—nothing makes me feel closer to home than a big bowl of wontons and the company of my goofy cousins!