Ethnic neighborhoods offer an international sampler A taste of New York

November 27, 1994|By Jana Sanchez-Klein | Jana Sanchez-Klein,Contributing Writer

New York's sprawling boroughs are home to countless ethnic neighborhoods, from old and established ones like Manhattan's Chinatown to ones filled with more recent immigrants, like Jackson Heights and its unique mixture of Indians, Colombians and Koreans.

If visitors had only one weekend to spend in New York and wanted to get a taste of international foods, they'd have to be selective.

There are far too many neighborhoods to see in one weekend, so on a recent trip my travel companion and I just picked the classics -- Chinatown and Little Italy -- and some newer, lesser-known places.

The best restaurants are not always in ethnic neighborhoods. But ethnic neighborhoods offer a trip within a trip -- a unique cultural experience within a sometimes overwhelming city.

Our trip was fat-laden and guilt-inducing -- but by selecting a few of the neighborhoods we surveyed, visitors could gain a world of experience in just two days and one city.

Ukrainian

The unobservant visitor could stroll through the Ukrainian neighborhood on 2nd Avenue between 8th and 9th Street, and miss its ethnic flavor -- and flavors. The Ukrainian shops, churches and cultural centers tend to blend into the vibrant, busy street, but visitors who slow down to stray will be rewarded.

Only the lucky would stumble into the cafeteria beneath the rectory at St. George's Church, where parish women cook overflowing batches of stuffed cabbage, potato-filled pierogi topped with caramelized onions, and babka (coffeecake) to raise money. It's no wonder they've been able to build a towering modern church just across the street, complete with intricate stained glass windows. At between 40 cents and 75 cents per item, visitors are indeed in for a real deal. Walk down the steps at 33 East 7th St. for a no-frills meal.

Not far from the church, sausages, cheeses, and imported canned goods to make your own picnic can be found at the East Village Meat Market, 139 2nd Ave., (212) 228-5590.

Several coffee shops serve inexpensive and huge blintzes, potato pancakes, pierogi and kasha (hot buckwheat cereal) -- all perfect for a fortifying breakfast -- along with more typically American breakfast fare. The lines are long, and the prices are low. Two such places are Kiev International Coffee House Restaurant at 117 2nd Ave., (212) 674-4040, and Veselka, 144 2nd Ave. at East 9th Street, (212) 228-9682.

The closest subway stop to the Ukrainian neighborhood is Astor Place on the L Line.

Chinese

Even the most unobservant visitor has no chance of missing Chinatown. It's a sprawling mass of herbal shops and electronics stores, restaurants, churches and vendors selling souvenirs. The energy of the streets sweeps visitors along at a rapid pace -- or runs them down.

We were fortunate enough to happen onto the Nom Wah Tea Parlor, 13 Doyers St., for take-out dim sum and were shepherded into the kitchen to hand-select succulent pork buns. fat and crispy egg rolls, and steamed dumplings. Wally Tang, the tea parlor's friendly, outgoing owner, sells dim sum items to other restaurants in Chinatown. The phone number is (212) 962-6047.

For many years New Yorkers have been feasting on Sichuan, Hunan and Cantonese. Less well-known is the Fujianese cuisine, from the southern Chinese province of Fujian (pronounced fu-kien). Several restaurants have opened recently on East Broadway off the Bowery.

At Lang Shine Restaurant, 53 East Broadway, the waiter pointed what we should eat, and after we agreed, served us something completely different. Foods under the heading Foo Chow (the English pronunciation of Fujian's capital, Fuzhou) were mostly large bowls of soups and noodles, but Lang Shine also serves Cantonese and Sichuan foods. The high point of our meal was the crispy fried Oyster Cake topped with Louisiana-style hot sauce. (212) 346-9888.

A local free weekly paper ranks Canton, 45 Division St., as the best Chinese restaurant. It's a cloth-napkin place with soothing pastel colors and plump egg rolls; call (212) 226-4441.

But 20 Mott Street Restaurant, didn't disappoint the palate with its superb hot-and-sour soup (my test of truly great Chinese restaurants), skinny crisp spring rolls and duck sauce reminiscent of apple butter. The decor was elegant, the service was faultless, and -- considering that we arrived about midnight and were the last to leave -- the patience and friendliness of the staff were a credit to the management. The phone number is (212) 964-0380.

Every meal we had in Chinatown was good -- except for one foray into "meat" made of wheat gluten. I don't recommend its chewy texture and chemical taste.

The subway stops for Chinatown and Little Italy are on Canal Street on any of the Manhattan subway lines that go there.

Italian

Our biggest problem, aside from indigestion, was trying to see and sample even a fraction of what the city has to offer. In order to sample the most different foods in the shortest period of time, we spent the bulk of our second day in Jackson Heights, `D Queens.

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