Friday, October 19, 2007

Colleague Convos - Best Way to Spend $3.75 in Midtown

Before a colleague left to pick up lunch this afternoon, I asked him where he was going so I could give him some money to grab me a bite. He replied, "Oh - I generally don't know where I'm going until I get half way there, but it won't be some place like Cosi or Pret. It will be a hole-in-the-wall place, where I have trouble communicating with the owners. Last week, I ordered something and was surprised to discover that chicken feet were a large portion of the ingredients."

He returned with a fantastic $3.75 meal combo from a nearby Chinese restaurant, and after refusing to take my money, the following email correspondence ensued.

From me:
This email serves to confirm that I, [name removed], will remunerate [name removed]'s lunch gesture, involving a four-block, two-avenue excursion on Friday, October 19, 2008, in torrential climatic conditions. Recompense is due no later than 5-business days from the date of initial transaction.
Thank you.

- The Management

His response:
no rush, I'm glad to share my lunch experiences with someone else. Here's some reading material on the establishment. Note that this was in 2002, and prices haven't risen:

$25 AND UNDER; What Does $3.75 Buy? Lunch and a Trip Through Time
Published: February 6, 2002

HEMLINES, like the economy, may rise and fall, but the look of the garment center has barely changed in decades. A pedestrian, wandering the West 30's, can get lost in time, dodging rolling racks of clothes while gazing through the storefronts of wholesale showrooms, glancing at the button and spandex emporiums and wondering at the whirligig activity in the hidden upper floors of the squat and dingy buildings.

The workers, once mostly Eastern European, are now Hispanic and Asian. Still, their lunchtime needs remain the same: cheap food, fast. If the food is good, too, then it is something special.
The 38th Street Restaurant and Bakery, a Chinese hole in the wall, is indeed something special.

This counter-service restaurant is packed daily at lunch with an almost entirely Chinese clientele, which lines up out on the sidewalk from noon to 1:30. Service is fast. The food is already cooked. It's astoundingly cheap: two main dishes and rice -- a truly filling portion -- for $3.75. For steam-table fare, it's surprisingly delicious. Just don't expect coddling or creature comforts like china or glassware.

Once in the door, you'll find yourself in chaos in front of the steam table. Voices sing out in Chinese as the servers behind the counter take orders seemingly at random from the crowd in front. To the right, under a rack of barbecued ducks, chickens and pork loins, a man tap-dances a cleaver across a cutting board, transforming the meat into individual portions, heaped atop rice in carryout containers. It helps if you can yell, in Chinese. Failing that, you have to catch the eye of one of the legion of servers and hope for the best. Somehow, faith that you will be noticed and understood is eventually rewarded.

No one pays attention to the menu. Simply gesture at the dozen or so dishes on the counter, which, along with the barbecued meats, make up the selection, and then move toward the register. Somehow, you end up with the right meal, served whether you're staying or leaving in a plastic-foam container with a plastic fork -- no chopsticks here. Tables are communal, and groups will probably have to split up. Tea is self-serve, from a big urn in the middle of the bright, fluorescent room. The hard part is over. Now you can eat.

Barbecued meats are superb, beginning with a lacquered pork, tasting of honey, soy and five-spice powder. The duck needs a little more labor for removing the rich, moist meat from the bones, but it is well worth it. The chicken is succulent, flavored with ginger and soy.

I like to pair the meats with whatever vegetable looks best, like sparkling sautéed mustard greens, or bok choy, its white stems contrasting beautifully with the jade green leaves, or just-cooked green beans, tender yet still with a snap to them. Everything is served over rice, which itself stands out for its freshness and enticing, nutlike aroma.

While I find myself returning for the meats, other dishes from the steam table have been fine, like shreds of pork and cubes of soft tofu, eggs scrambled with shrimp and even thin, bladelike pork chops. More exotic dishes are available, including fish heads and stewed tripe.

Prime time is lunch, though a steady stream of breakfast customers stop in for congee ($1), a soupy rice porridge with fillings like pungent preserved eggs, and excellent pastries, including anise-scented roast-pork buns (60 cents). After 1:30 or so, the pickings turn slim, though the restaurant is open until 8 p.m. By then, the crowds have gone home, where they get ready to do it all again the next day.

38th Street Restaurant And Bakery
273 West 38th Street, Manhattan; (212) 575-6978

BEST DISHES: Barbecued pork, barbecued duck, barbecued chicken, pork and tofu, scrambled eggs with shrimp, sautéed greens, bok choy, green beans, roast pork buns.
PRICE RANGE: Lunch, two courses with rice for $3.75. Menu prices higher.
CREDIT CARDS: Cash only.
HOURS: Monday through Saturday, 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. Closed Sunday.
WHEELCHAIR ACCESS: Steps at entrance and inside. Crowded, with narrow aisles.

Articles like that are the reasons why I fall in love with New York over and over again.


Anonymous said...

that place is awesome. of course, it's a little grimey, but i just take it to-go so the interiors can't bother me too much. also, i can't believe they haven't raised prices in five years.. now that is a great deal.

Carrie said...

I've gotta check that place out...