Chinese New Year Meal #1: 88 Palace

I celebrated Chinese New Year last weekend in NYC’s Chinatown. It was a time to reconnect with family and get my Hong Kong fix over the course of two lunches and a dinner.

It has been the tradition in my extended family to have the Chinese New Year reunion meal at 88 Palace – a restaurant which sits in the second story of a building along East Broadway perched under the Manhattan Bridge. 88 Palace was loud, crowded and chaotic — the embodiment of Hong Kong spirit in ways big and small.

Everyone was loud. The waiters had to scream to be heard and the diners were speaking at full volume in several languages and dialects. It turns out they were all quieter than the dragons. The dragons were crews of acrobatic dancers and accompanists on cymbals and drums. It is good fortune to give the dragons lucky red envelopes. They are called ‘Lai See’ in Cantonese and ‘Hong Bao’ in Mandarin. Yes, I know they translate differently but refer to the same thing, a red envelope with money that married people give to kids (and unmarried relatives) and everyone gives to dragon dancers. At 88 Palace, at least two different crews (from different clan associations) worked the room and collected envelopes. For at least forty minutes, this was the background track of the dining room. Click link for loud noises, put on loop and grab a snack to get the full experience.

The restaurant was crowded in a very Hong Kong manner. One of the things that amazed me about living in Hong Kong was the shrinking of personal space in unexpected ways. A crowded street or subway is expected. Having people hover over you when you eat to claim dibs on a table at an open seating restaurant or food court took a long time to get used to. Once I did, I could gleefully ignore the glares and hovers and incursions into my personal space. At 88 Palace last weekend, the arriving diners overfilled the entranceway and spilled into the dining area right behind me. Look at all those people behind my table. Don’t I (and my nephew who also lived in HK for a while) look at peace?

The last thing that reminded me of Hong Kong was the propensity of people to overdress relative to the climate. In Hong Kong, my friends had two or three weeks to rock the heavy leather coat or fur jacket when the weather dipped into the frigid 50’s. For the rest of the year, the weather was too warm and wet and those garments sat in dehumidified closets. For temperatures which merited a light sweater in the Northeast US, Hong Kong people broke out full winterwear. It was easily 80 degrees in the restaurant. Fellow diners were wrapped in bubbles of down jackets and scarfs without any discomfort.

The food at 88 was authentic Cantonese dimsum ranging from the familiar Har Gao shrimp dumplings to dishes only in local dimsum restaurants like green peppers stuffed and panfried with shrimp paste. Everything was hectic, just as I like it.

This is what I ate.

Chicken Feet

It seems like an improbable dish. Who would want to eat a collection of skin, cartilage and bones that you need to dis-assemble in your mouth, swallow only the skin and connective tissue and politely (if possible) spit out the bones? What if it was re-branded as Phoenix Talons, and simmered in a sweet and fragrant sauce? Now I’m all-in. Plus, it gave my mouth something to do while I waited for the ha cheung cart to arrive.

Crystal Dumplings

It’s the addition of potato starch to the wrapper that gives the dumpling a translucent of crystal appearance, as well as a gummier texture than har gao or shrimp dumpling skin. The filling is also less delicate, usually mushroom and pork.

Fish Balls

Rather than making a bad pun about balls, or saying something vapid about how fishballs are springy, I will just say that these were good. If fishballs are your thing, I recommend a noodle shop at the corner of Wellington St and the Mid-Levels Escalator in Sheung Wan, Hong Kong.

Ha Cheung (Shrimp in Rice Rolls)

Simple and delicious to taste, a feat of skill to get off the plate. The rice rolls are either glued to each other, fragile to the touch or oily for plastic chopsticks. Don’t get so upset when the rolls disintegrate when you try to serve yourself. Better souls than you have lost the shrimp between the serving dish and their plates.

Har Gao

Beginner level dim sum that’s hard not to love. I really should do a graph of har gao prices to the size and shape of the shrimp in the filling.

Siu Mai

Another beginner level dish that’s hard not to love. These were fairly utilitarian siu mai. At a fancier restaurant, you can expect a thin slice of scallop or shrimp on top and maybe even a green pea for garnish.

Stuffed Green Peppers with Shrimp Paste

The green pepper is a refreshing break from the noodle wrappers seen in other dim sum dishes.

Pork Ribs and Black Bean Sauce

Rich and fatty, a few nibbles of the pork ribs go a long way. Sometimes this dish has chunks of steamed taro absorbing the flavors of the pork and black bean sauce.

Sesame Balls

This is a sweet type of dim sum. Fried balls of rice flour dough stuffed with lotus paste and rolled in sesame seeds are deep fried until crisp at the edges. It is often cut with scissors by the dim sum ladies right before they pass it to you.

Taro Puffs

The skin is made from mashed taro and forms a nest-like exterior when fried. Inside is a savory filling.

Gai Lan

Gai Lan has a spinach leaf head and a broccoli stalk bottom. In this case it was stir fried, but also goes well with garlic or Chinese oyster sauce.

Beef Ho Fun

Rice noodles, bean sprouts and slices of beef fried with soy sauce for added flavor. When done well, there should be a charred taste from the high heat of the wok.

Crispy Seafood Noodles

Kudos to 88 Palace for the variety of seafood. In addition to shrimp, scallops and squid, the brown bits atop the noodles are sea cucumbers, which are marine invertebrates not vegetables. They taste like the ocean and have a cartilage texture.

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