This past summer I was lucky enough to spend a month in China between Shanghai and Beijing. Food was a highlight of my trip, but I also loved the Chinese culture and people that I encountered. I felt so welcomed and happy there that I want to go back to continue to explore other parts of the country. China is a huge country with so many different provinces each with their own ethnic group and culture. This diversity is also translated into their cuisine. Each region of China uses different flavors and cooking methods to prepare their meals. The first week of school, I passed by the Chinese food carts on Broadway and 118th and immediately was reminded of my amazing time this past summer. Every since then, I have been wanting to try them and writing this blog presented the perfect opportunity.
There are “eight culinary cuisines” of China: Hunan, Cantonese, Anhui, Shandong, Fujian, Szechuan, Zhejiang, and Jiangsu. The differences between them are a result of availability and accessibility to certain resources affected by climate, geography, and history. This allowed for individual cooking styles (and also lifestyles) to emerge among the Chinese in different regions. The foods of different regions of China have their own flavors and textures. But, despite the differences in the cuisines, each meal includes a staple food, which can be rice, noodles, or bun and cooking methods that rely on preservation (drying, pickling, salting, and fermentation).
I cannot admit to be an expert on each kind of Chinese cuisine, but it is only fair that I acknowledge the variety. This being said, I am sure that the food at these carts is not representative for all Chinese food, but it is more authentic than any Chinese takeout I could get. So I knew I had to try the dishes offered.
There are always long lines outside of the carts and my reluctance to wait has kept me from going in the past. However, I have learned this is not a legitimate enough reason. There is practically no waiting time once you order and the food is worth the wait. It is not difficult to notice that the majority of the people on line are foreign students from China who are probably even more nostalgic than I was for authentic version of their national food. Knowing that they are probably much more knowledgeable about what to order, I really enjoyed (and I suggest that any first timers do the same) striking up conversations with them about their favorite dish. A general consensus was that everything is good and there is such variety that many of them try different things each time they go. One girl I spoke with suggested I get a combination plate with eggs and tomato, a dish that every Chinese family makes at home according to her. So to get the full selection, I made sure to stop at a majority of the carts and order a meal from each of them. Most of the things on the menu are the same, so my tip is to go to any cart. I would say go to the one where the line is the longest since I figure that the one with the highest demand must be the best. But, this method is not always true. I asked each person I spoke to which cart was their favorite, and, to my surprise, someone told me they just go to whichever has the shortest line. So, I think it is fair to conclude that there are not huge differences in the food (certainly not in the selection, but not in the taste or freshness either). So go wherever your heart desires. Don’t let the abundance of carts and food options overwhelm you (like it did for me). Just go! They are there for you to try and you will have a good meal! Oh, and before I forget, the portions are large and the prices are amazing! College students need a break from the dining halls without breaking their bank account, and this will do the trick.
Now, onto the feast… My menu consisted of pan-seared pork buns, a pork sandwich, a combo platter (including tomato and eggs over rice, green vegetables, and kong po chicken), another tomato and egg plate (for comparison), a wonton soup, a beef noodle soup, and soybean milk. Each dish was from a different cart, and there was not one that was bad.
This was my first time having pan-seared buns. They have a nice crunch to the outside, but are still fluffy on the inside with a juicy filling. These are bready and some find the filling to bun ratio too small, but I enjoy the softness of the bread (which is also good to dip in soup broth). The filling of the pork sandwich was delicious, very fatty, with parsley, celery, garlic, and ginger, but the bread was a little tough in my opinion, which made it difficult to eat.
My favorite thing that I ordered was the combo platter. Tomato and egg is such a great combination. I had it many times while I was in China. It is the perfect balance of savory and sweet (sugar is added). The texture has the potential to turn some off since it can be a bit watery, but this is soaked up when it is over rice. The kong po chicken is spicy and nutty and the slight bitterness from the vegetables counters the oiliness from the chicken really well.
The soups do take a bit longer to make, but still not long compared to any restaurant. The broth of the soups is quite bland unless spice is added. But the filling, whether it was beef and noodles or wonton, is really good. The wontons were my least favorite. The soup was only dumplings and broth (with very little parsley garnish). All the other dishes were bursting with flavors and ingredients, but this dish was not.
This food is quick, delicious, and cheap – the perfect trio. The only thing to be warned is that the food can be a bit greasy and salty, but as long as you prepare yourself for that, there should be no reason not to enjoy any food bought at these Chinese food carts.