Among the swirling trash and closet-sized perfume shops of Chinatown lies Joe’s Shanghai, the famed soup dumpling producer that originated in Flushing. I didn’t set out to try Joe’s when I met a couple family members for dinner on a warm summer’s eve; we sort of crash-landed there under the jolty controls of a Yelp search. I was coming down from a long and boring work week and greasy Chinese food sounded like sweet ambrosia to my exhausted ears. My mother and cousin were already in Chinatown and didn’t feel like walking anymore. Yelp’s convincing four-star approval of the restaurant was an easy solution to our search.
Chinatown has a strange juxtaposition of charm and filth, and Joe’s is located on a street that embodies both of those qualities. My mother and I were up for an adventure as always and weren’t bothered in the slightest. This may not have been the case for my cousin, but my growling stomach was pushing me forward in its single-minded quest for food, so I didn’t stop to ask his opinion (sorry, Ryan!). As we approached the restaurant, I noticed aging brick tenement houses, the lack of traffic that allowed for pedestrians in the street — and the odor of rotting substances wafting from tossed-out garbage bags. It comes with the territory and the food will be worth it, I thought. Then we saw the crowd.
Outside of the restaurant was a hoard of people standing in groups of four or so, all waiting for a coveted table. After putting our names down with the hostess I realized that the garbage bag smell was dangerously close to Joe’s portion of the sidewalk. Knowing that the wait would be long but that we could be called at any time, we stood strong next to the stench. I’m not a huge fan of Quickly, but since it was conveniently next door we darted in to dull the pain of waiting with bubble tea. The tea’s milk and powder sat in my empty stomach like dry chalk. My mom showed me a mini fountain she bought, and I asked her why in the world she needed a foot-high fountain. She didn’t seem to know. I kept my eye on the waiting Joe’s crowd, all of them laughing and ready to pounce like hyenas in the savanna. Again, I reasoned, The food must be worth it with all these people here.
The hostess, a brisk, small woman who would quickly cross your name off the list if you didn’t respond to your ticket number immediately, finally ushered us into the restaurant after about 45 minutes of lingering outside. She called in two other parties along with my party of three — we were bound for a communal table, I realized at the same moment I was cringing at the “B” health inspection grade inside the door. (Cole pointed out to me that a “B” is no big deal. In defense of the critical eye I turn toward health inspections, I once caught a tropical parasite and along with it, paranoia about food preparation. But that’s another article entirely.) Most of the tables, in fact, were communal, and many patrons were shouting at each other across lazy susans. The noise made the room blur; I didn’t notice the décor or walls, though I think they were green. Or maybe that’s just how I picture all Chinese restaurants — with pastel green walls. It was in that flash of green that we pushed our way to the back of the restaurant, dying for that first taste of long-awaited food.
In the next minute, I was uncomfortably gawking at the strangers with me at the table. To our left, a white guy sat with his parents and his Asian girlfriend. He had a ponytail, strange transparent brown glasses frames, a soul patch and seemed to fancy himself a Chinese cuisine connoisseur. He spent the entire meal explaining each dish to his parents while his girlfriend remained oddly mum. To my right, there were also two couples in their early 30s who appeared to have set out to drain their wallets on beer and dumplings, and they did just that. Sitting there quietly with my mother and cousin, it was difficult to shake the notion that all parties involved should have had separate tables.
As soon as we were handed the menus, our table’s three waiters asked what we wanted and quickly moved on to the 30-somethings as we studied the appetizer list, puzzled. “What’s the best?” I asked, frustrated in the face of decision-making. The tallest waiter of the three pointed to the pork soup dumplings and we all agreed to them, hoping for a chance to breathe, settle in and actually examine the menu before ordering an entree. Meanwhile, the volume of the dining room roared. Conversation and thought didn’t come easily; I thought about what a horrible place it would be for a date. It took particular effort to decide on a dish with so many voices ringing in my ears. When the same waiter who recommended the dumplings stepped on my foot while delivering the other patrons’ appetizer, my pent-up New York rage almost saw the light of day. The long day at the office combined with all of Joe’s annoyances was getting to me. At that point I was mentally threatening the wait staff, This food had better be delicious!
Finally the pork dumplings arrived and I gently lifted one onto my soupspoon. Following instructions from a cartoon I’d seen in Joe’s window, I bit a hole in the side and sipped the broth that spilled out. This led to a scalded tongue, but when their contents had cooled a bit the dumplings turned out to be quite tasty. The dough was heavy and chewy like the plain just-cooked pasta I used to rob from my mother’s colander as a child. The pork inside was shaped into a neat, seasoned meatball. Just four (a full order contained eight) proved to make a meal for me. By the time my Kung Pao chicken arrived, I was pretty much satisfied by the dumplings. Too full to eat with any respectable speed, I took about two bites of the entrée before it was swept into a takeout carton (the reheat was decent, but overwhelmingly spicy).
After the entire restaurant cheered on a patron at our table as he ate an extra order of dumplings all by himself (after eating his first eight dumplings and a full entree), we scurried out. It’s difficult to imagine taking comfort in the relative quiet of a Manhattan street, but that’s exactly what we did. Joe’s Shanghai had provided enough ear-ringing for the whole neighborhood.
It may have been a scrumptious departure from ho-hum General Tso’s, but like most Chinese establishments, Joe’s Shanghai might be best sampled from takeout cartons in the comfort of your own home. That’s exactly where we headed, enduring the long ride to my apartment with bloated stomachs. “I couldn’t hear myself think in there, but my plum chicken was really good!” my mom said, clutching her fountain, proving that you never leave Chinatown without a few quirky objects and a wacky dining experience.