Restaurant Review: Uncle Lou in Chinatown

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Each time I go to Uncle Lou, the dining room looks busier than the time before. More couples are seated at the rows of two-tops along the exposed-brick walls, more (and bigger) families are circled around the lazy susans on the round tables that run down the middle of the space.

If people are catching on to Uncle Lou, it isn’t because the restaurant, on Mulberry Street just north of Columbus Park, is brimming with arcane delicacies you can’t get anywhere else in the area. The opposite is closer to the truth. Uncle Lou’s menu, which is extensive, is largely made up of dishes that long ago became Chinatown standards.

Here, for one, is steamed buffalo fish. As always, it sits in a little lake of soy and beneath a jagged lattice of ginger and scallion matchsticks. Is the ginger more biting than usual? Maybe. Just about every texture that steamed fish can assume is present in this sample of anatomy: the thick of the collar, the narrowing tail, pure muscle, creamy expanses of belly fat, fragile and sticky flakes that have been basted with the delicious fish jelly given off by melting cartilage.

Now comes a Dutch oven full of soy-braised pork belly. Next to it is a bamboo basket of folded half-moon buns, each one ready to be made into gua bao, opened and filled with streaked bands of meat and fat as well as bits of pickled mustard greens mixed with crumbs and shards of pork — the delicious bottom-of-the-pan stuff that a New Orleans po’ boy shop would call “debris.”

On other plates are scallops and other sweet seafood fried salt-and-pepper style, with an urgent backbeat of ground spices and green chiles, and the trio of fried eggplant, tofu and green chile, each stuffed with seafood paste and stir-fried with an abundance of salty black-bean sauce.

So many of these old chestnuts have been rounded up that it becomes clear Uncle Lou is meant as a kind of love letter to its neighborhood. I am tempted to call it a Chinatown restaurant about Chinatown restaurants, but that makes it sound ironic and effortful when it is sincere and unforced.

Postmodernism in food can resonate with younger people — it’s practically a requirement at Smorgasburg — but Uncle Lou is that rare new restaurant that isn’t run by or primarily meant for younger people. It’s catching on, I think, because it appeals to several generations at once, and it’s not unusual to see a grandmother with her children and grandchildren inspecting the char siu and sautéed yam leaves while at the next table a group of friends in their 20s scans the room looking for the best Instagram backdrop.

The largest and most rewarding section of the menu is headed “Lo Wah Kiu Favorites,” lo wah kiu being Cantonese for “old overseas Chinese.” In other words, much of Uncle Lou is pitched straight at Chinatown’s first-generation immigrants — the elders or, to take a phrase from another culture, the old heads.

The owner, Louis Chi Kwong Wong, is lo wah kiu himself. A native of Hong Kong, he moved to Chinatown in 1970, when he was 10, and stayed around. Eventually, everybody called him Uncle Lou. In the depths of the pandemic, when he had more time on his hands than he knew what to do with, he came up with the idea of running a restaurant. Enlisting some chefs he knew from the neighborhood to take care of the day-to-day cooking, he opened Uncle Lou in December.

The space he built looks more cheerful than the historic fluorescents and business-cards motifs at places like Wo Hop, and more low-key than the dragons and sparkling crystals at the old Jing Fong.

A knickknack shelf by the entrance holds some waving lucky cats, a model motorcycle, a small collection of Uncle Lou baseball caps and what must be a month’s supply of Vita tea in individual cartons. Planter boxes filled with the stumps of birch trees form a kind of stockade fence between the foyer and the dining room, where two big squares of artificial plants simulate a green wall. Red paper lanterns dangle from the ceiling. A poster for the first “Aces Go Places” movie, starring Sam Hui, the Cantopop singer known as the God of Song, hangs by the restrooms.

Mr. Wong has said the menu’s lo wah kiu dishes originate in the villages west of the Pearl River Delta, the region where most Chinese immigrants to the United States came from at least until the 1950s. As the rural way of life in China vanishes, this area’s rustic cooking is increasingly a source of nostalgia for older Chinese people, particularly those living abroad. In Chinatown, it would be nudged aside by a new, more elaborate wave of Cantonese cooking that began arriving from Hong Kong in the 1980s. Later, Shanghainese and Sichuanese restaurants would continue to dilute the village style that had once been dominant.

You can get Hong Kong-style dim sum items at Uncle Lou, but they aren’t the reason to go by any means. With the exception of the thin-skinned won tons in a patch of chili oil, most are either clunky or dull. The menu also goes in for a few Chinese American hybrids — not the ancient war horses like egg foo yong and chow mein, but more recent hybrids. Somebody at the next table may be happily eating beef with broccoli, for instance, or sesame chicken.

And of course, General Tso is standing by.

But it is the homier lo wah kiu dishes that will draw me back to Uncle Lou, even knowing that at busy times the kitchen is apt to get backed up. I’m already planning my next encounter with something called “home-style seafood stir-fry,” squid and fried silverfish in long, pastalike strands, sautéed with garlic chives and crisp, watery sticks of jicama, their crunchiness doubled by slivers of jellyfish.

At the next sign of a stuffy nose I’ll be there for the classic beef stew with daikon radish. It may not taste of star anise quite as much as it could, but I’m almost certain it has healing powers. I might try the Chenpi duck again, which will be a great dish if the kitchen can slightly rein in the marmalade sweetness of the mandarin-peel sauce.

Then again, I might just have to get the crispy garlic chicken, very much in the spirit of the lacquered birds that hang in the windows of Wah Fung No. 1 Fast Food and other nearby roasted-meat counters. There is a small lake of soy sauce around the chicken and, on top, softened scallions and crunchy golden flecks of fried garlic. This almost has to be eaten with rice and stir-fried greens. I can’t think of a Chinatown meal that better shows off the simplicity of Cantonese cuisine.

What the Stars Mean Because of the pandemic, restaurants are not being given star ratings.

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