On Mott Street in the heart of New York’s Chinatown, two restaurants sit side by side. One is at ground level and the other is in a basement accessible through stairs leading down from the street.
The signage looks nearly identical “Wo Hop” at 17 Mott Street and “Wo Hop” with “City Inc.” in a smaller font size at 15 Mott Street. In Chinese, one sign says, “Wo Hop”; the other says “New Wo Hop”.
They are essentially the same Wo Hop. Same owners, same menu, different kitchen serving the same dishes. Whatever “Wo Hop” you are at has little to do with the address and everything to do with the dishes ordered.
The first Wo Hop serves Americanized Chinese Food, the second serves authentic Cantonese food. If your table looks like the photo below you are at the first Wo Hop.
If you are happy eating your own big plate of lo mein noodles while your dining companion eats their own lo mein noodles, with a side of spare ribs or an egg roll, stop here.
You should know that the wait on the narrow, dingy steps down to 17 Mott Street can easily exceed one hour. Why do this to yourself if you are going to order the same dishes you can get from your local Chinese takeout joint? Look around when you are being seated. If you pass a table or two that looks like the photo below, and you are curious enough to try something worth the wait but don’t know where to start, read on.
To experience the second Wo Hop, the one with authentic Cantonese food, you don’t have to be Chinese, or speak Chinese – it helps, but is not essential. I say this from experience, having lived in Hong Kong for eight years and married into a large Cantonese family for the past 15 years. When we ordered, if possible, the names of the dishes were spoken in Cantonese to a waiter who replied in Cantonese. When we forgot the Chinese names of the dishes, we spoke English to the same waiter who understood English just fine.
The hope was that by flashing our Chinese bona fides, our food would have more ‘wok hei’ or flame from the wok and taste better. Wishful thinking perhaps. There were plenty of tables with authentic Chinese dishes ordered by people who weren’t Chinese. They just knew how to order well – and selected dishes which offered a variety of tastes and textures to be shared family style.
I created a radar map of the intensity of flavors/textures across ten categories. By overlapping the plots on top of each other you can see the difference in experience between the two Wo Hops. The plot on the left was from the first table (assuming they shared). The plot on the right was from the second table.
That jumble of lines represent variety. You can go to your favorite social media site and see lots of pictures of different dishes, without knowing what it is or how it tastes, just how it looks. As an aide, I mapped out fourteen dishes and their flavor profiles. Each of these dishes are standard Cantonese fare, and would likely be available at other restaurants that serve authentic Chinese food.
Salt and Pepper Squid
This looked similar to fried calamari. Instead of breaded batter, the squid was dusted in starch, deep fried and seasoned with the eponymous salt. Coated and fried green pepper, sliced spring onions and mild green chilis were served alongside the squid.
Crispy chicken is a poached chicken that is flash fried to create a crispy skin. It often comes with a small ramekin of flavored salt (likely MSG). The chicken was chopped Cantonese style, across the width of the chicken with little regard to the placement of bones. Depending on your luck, you may get white or dark meat, some, none or almost all bone. It is more interesting this way.
Beef with Chives
Tender cubes of beef with a generous amount of smoky chives.
Fried Fish Filets
The filets were removed, dusted with starch and deep fried. The dish was served atop the fish carcass (also deep fried) along with bok choi. To avoid confusion when ordering, I would show the waiter this picture.
Razor Clams with Black Bean Sauce
The long tender clams were such a hit, that the dish didn’t last more than a few seconds before everyone helped themselves. Too slow for this photographer.
Walnut Shrimp with Broccoli
When I lived in Hong Kong, this dish often preceded the cold appetizer plate at the start of a Chinese banquet. The sweet white sauce was a combination of mayonnaise, condensed milk and honey.
General Tso’s Pork
We ordered this dish twice. The first time we thought the kids would like it. It was orange, gloppy and sweet with a strong ginger powder (not ginger, just the powder) taste. We agreed never to order this again, but someone ordered it anyway. The next time, I will pay closer attention so it doesn’t happen again.
Snails in Black Bean Sauce
The snails were the size of a teaspoon and could be better described as a periwinkle or whelk than an escargot. They were served in a dark sauce with Chinese straw mushrooms. At the opening of the shell, there was a small scaly bit attached to the meat. Peel that off and scoop out the meat with a toothpick (provided if you ask) or just suck it out unabashedly.
Deep Fried Dumplings
Of all the variety of dumplings (steamed, pan-fried, etc) this was my least favorite. They were as large as an empanada, requiring several bites to eat. Because of the way that the dumpling skin was folded over, there was a lot of crispy fried dough to work through before getting to the filling. I was expecting something more delicate.
Eggplant with Salted Fish
This dish paired strips of soft eggplant with firm chicken meat in a ginger, garlic, and scallions sauce. Flakes of salted fermented fish added intense saltiness and marine funkiness in occasional bites and elevated the eggplant. To moderate the saltiness, mix in white rice at your plate. That is what the rice is there for.
Sauteed Pea Shoots “Dou Miao”
The small green leaves were sautéed lightly with garlic and covered in a light stock. Tender and sweet, like spinach. When in season, this is our go-to vegetable at Chinese restaurants. Ask for it, even if it is not on the menu, you might get lucky.
Singapore Fried Rice Noodles
Singapore fried noodles are from Hong Kong, natch. Fried rice noodles, egg, bean sprouts, green pepper, and shrimp are stir-fried in oil and given a liberal dusting of curry powder, the kind that was invented by the English. In one bite there is the burn from the wok (“wok hei”), heat of the curry powder, spring of fried rice noodles and bite of egg, sprout, pepper or shrimp. This also went too fast for photos.
Crispy Noodles with Seafood
The crispy noodles were the hardest to order. Depending on the restaurant, they go by different names; crispy noodles, pan fried noodles, crispy chow mein. Because chow means fried and mein means noodle and there are many ways of frying noodles, and chow mein sometimes doesn’t mean this at all in an American Chinese restaurant, the risk of confusion is high. In Cantonese it is called sang mein, which clears things up quickly. I am describing a nest of pan-fried noodles topped with stir-fried seafood and vegetables in a thick gravy. The gravy gradually permeates the noodles in the center of the dish, and in a bite you can eat a crispy noodle, a soft noodle and a morsel of seafood.
Yeung Chow Fried Rice
Yeung Chow refers to Yangzhou, a city in China closer to Shanghai than Hong Kong. Essentially it is the ‘all-in’ version of fried rice with roast pork, shrimp, eggs, scallions, peas and carrots.