As an unabashed chow hound, I collect memorable meals the way some people collect baseball cards. I may not be able to tell you what day it is today, but I can tell you of every meal I ate on my first day in New Orleans in 1984 (breakfast: beignets, orange juice and cafe au lait at Cafe du Monde in the French Market; Lunch: oyster loaf, boiled crawfish and oysters on the half shell at the Acme, dinner: blackened redfish and dirty rice washed down with a dirty martini at K Paul’s Kitchen followed by a Mississippi mud candy from Laura’s around the corner)
There are restaurants that serve meals and there are restaurants that evoke religious transcendence and The Big Wong is one of them. Located on Mott Street in the heart of Chinatown it can be mistaken for a greasy spoon not worthy of a glance. To those in the know, it is a greasy spoon never ever to be missed, even after consuming a 10 course meal.
I was first introduced to The Big Wong in the early 1980’s when I was working as an expediter and spent every day at The NYC Department of Buildings at 1 Centre Street. This was in the days before computers, cell phones, central air conditioning and cubicles. Think the set of the sitcom Barney Miller. In the free wheeling days when David Koch was Mayor, long before Rudy Giuliani turned NYC into a police state, everyone on campus at the Building Department at lunch time went out to eat together- employees and public, bosses and secretaries, clerks and line standers. And anyone with a brain in their head went out to lunch with the inspector who’s beat was Chinatown- a cheerful, chubby fellow who absolutely lived to eat.
Chinatown was a great lunch spot. It was nearby. Service was fast. Food was cheap and plentiful and best of all tasted great. Cheerful chubby inspector would round us all up and we’d follow him like lemmings to some of the best meals I’ve ever had. His favorite spot was The Big Wong. We would fill up the joint and order plate after plate: twin lobsters in garlic ginger sauce, Peking pork chops, shrimp fried rice, congee, slices of cold bbq pork, silky skinless chicken and a fried duck egg draped over a bowl of rice. I’m drooling as I type this.
The Big Wong is not for the feint of heart and not for someone who eats to live. Don’t bother taking them there, they don’t deserve it. The floor is slippery with the same oil that it was coated with back in the 1980’s. The bathrooms rival those at CBGB’s in the 1970’s. One washes their hands then pulls their sleeves down to cover them so as not to let them touch anything on their way back to the table.
But the food is absolutely divine.
Last year, 2 miracles occurred: my best friend from high school, Leslie asked me if I wanted to go to The Big Wong for dinner and my riding buddy Val, swooned when she heard I was going, all in the same week. I thought The Big Wong was just my own culinary fantasy, long gone from Chinatown. Well. Not only is it still there, and now there’s an excuse to go, but now I have company, so I can eat from 10 different dishes instead of just 2.
Let me tell you about my friend Leslie. She and I go way back in our collective history of eating adventures and extravaganzas. We literally cut our teeth in Chinese restaurants in Chinatown, Portuguese restaurants in the Ironbound and Italian dives in the North Ward of Newark. Leslie’s father, Larry was our fearless leader. Larry loved to eat, loved good food and loved to share good food in the company of his friends and family. He would scour restaurant reviews, plot a course, make lists then tumble us all in a convoy of cars and vans and off we’d go. One in his company did not order for themselves. Larry had an agenda and he ordered family style. I had the best cold noodles in sesame sauce in my life at one of his picks in the late 1970’s, somewhere near the arcade where the Tic-Tac-Toe and Dancing Chicken were. None of this sticky peanut butter glop on wet mop strings you get now. Handmade noodles blessed with a light coating of sesame with slivered fresh scallions and chopped peeled fresh cucumbers. Sigh.
But I digress.
When Leslie calls and offers a chance to go to The Big Wong I pick up the phone. We went last week. She rounds up the people and orders for us all. She is her father’s daughter. Last week we went, accompanied by her husband JF, their sons Kip and Cole, Cole’s girlfriend and JF’s brother visiting from France. The 8 of us sat down. The waiter looked us over and decided we were a bunch of tourist rubes. Little did he know. Leslie ticked off “the first round:” Peking pork chops, 2 shrimp fried rice, twin lobsters (they were out last time we went, I was in tears.) Peking duck with all the trimmings, 1 whole soy sauce chicken, bbq pork, chicken and duck egg over rice bowl, 3 plates (not one) of garlic ginger sauce, broccoli in oyster sauce as the token green and 5 beers. The waiter kept looking at the list and repeating, “You sure? You know how much food this is?” We all replied earnestly, “if it’s not enough we’ll get more.”
When I know I’m going to The Big Wong I go into fast mode. I don’t eat all day and exercise like a fiend. Like a prize fighter I want to be at fighting weight, and I have to mitigate the weight gain as best I can. Something about The Big Wong turns me into an eating machine. I am a great white shark. Do not get in between me and one of the dishes if I have a fork or chop stick in my hand, you’ll get hurt. (I once chipped a tooth in an eating frenzy at the Peking Duck House but that’s another story.)
The first thing they give you when you arrive are tumblers of hot tea, a metal container full of forks, a pile of napkins and a large wrapped moist towelette, which is for the end of the meal, not the beginning, as we are literally covered in sauces and flecks of rice at the end of the adventure. Food came out in huge platters. Soon the table had not an inch to spare. It was better to stand up and do a boarding house reach across the table than pass anything. I ate almost the entire platter of Peking pork chops simply because it was in front of me and no one else could get to it.
All conversation ceased except frantic cries to pass the garlic ginger sauce. I think JF’s brother was alittle scared, but he kept up, he is JF’s brother after all. Cole’s girlfriend was enthusiastic and if we shocked her she was too polite to say. In about 15 minutes all food except for 1/3 of the broccoli was gone. We sat back and looked around wondering if that was enough. The waiter stared goggle eyed. Suddenly we were his best friends. Deciding we were satisfied we paid and left. No sense hanging around once the food was gone, it’s not that kind of place.
We figured it took us each an hour to get there, and there’d be another hour to get home. We were at The Wong for less than an hour, but any more would have been too much. We’re not gluttons you know.