Brooklyn's Great Unsung Chinatown: A Food Tour of Avenue U

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[Photographs: Rabi Abonour]

There are more Chinatowns than meet the eye in New York. In Brooklyn, Sunset Park gets all the attention, but locals know of another Chinatown farther south, a stretch of Avenue U from Coney Island Avenue to Ocean Avenue, that's been home to a growing Chinese community for the past 15 years.

Here Chinese businesses mix seamlessly with pizza joints, Mexican delis, and an Uzbek restaurant, as well as a residual smattering of Italian and Russian shops, holdouts from the neighborhood's past before Chinese entrepreneurs opened beauty salons, 99-cent stores, groceries, and of course bakeries and restaurants in droves.

It's truly culturally diverse, but have no doubt that the Chinese influence—Cantonese, specifically—is the dominant one. For the hungry, that means bustling Hong Kong-style cafes, crackly-skinned roast ducks, and worthy seafood restaurants, at a higher quality than what most of Manhattan's Chinatown restaurants are serving these days.

Here's how to spend a day feasting on Brooklyn's unsung Chinatown.

Breakfast: Porridge or Spam Soup

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Macaroni and spam soup

The bakeries on Avenue U handle the bulk of the breakfast rush. Apart from Chinese baked goods, Hong Kong-style Western cuisine holds the most interest in the neighborhood, with its own quirky appeal. This fare tends to draw on Western comfort foods, served in unconventional forms. There's a heavy reliance on pasta as a substitute for rice. Spaghetti shows up at lunchtime, baked in sticky-sweet sauces, and macaroni is there at breakfast.

Try the genre-defining macaroni and spam soup at Ka Ka Bakery, just west of the Q train's Avenue U stop. This soup is as humble as it sounds: macaroni and a slice of spam in a gentle chicken broth, topped with a fried egg. It's light and salty, a fun treatment of ham and eggs. Some Cantonese eat it to ward off illness; you can treat it as a stomach-coating way to start a day of more aggressive eating.

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For a more traditional Chinese breakfast, stick to congee, which almost every bakery on the avenue prepares in the morning. While there are various kinds of congee, the most popular and classic is a topping of minced pork and alkaline century eggs on top of the rice porridge. At Yum Yum Bakery, said congee comes in a plastic takeout container, whether you order it to go or to stay. The slivers of lean pork are plentiful, and the gummy segments of preserved egg bring all their briny depth. Most important, Yum Yum gets the consistency just right; the congee is neither starchy-thick nor watery.

First Lunch: Superlative Roast Meat

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Roast duck

The Cantonese restaurants in the area, like Cantonese restaurants and cafés anywhere, offer single-serving platters of food for lunch—meat and vegetable stir fries or meals carved from hanging gardens of roast meat.

In Cantonese, one would simply name a selection followed by faan ("rice") when ordering. In English, these platters are variously called "rice dishes," "dish over rice," or "lunch specials," for all of $4.50 to $5.95. One of the best places to enjoy these platters is at Golden Z, where the menu boasts over 50 options.

Roast duck here boasts crisp, cherry amber-colored skin thanks to deft roasting and an ample rub of anise-y five spice powder. The skin crackles on first bite, and a thin layer of fat underneath merges beautifully with the tender, moist meat.

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Beef with bitter melon

Add the Cantonese favorite of beef with bitter melon to your order, too. The Cantonese, long obsessed with cooking tender proteins, developed a sophisticated process of marinating meat with corn starch and baking soda. Unskilled chefs overdo it, which makes for mushy meat. Here it's just right, tender and almost refined, enough to make you think you're eating a pricier cut of steak. The bitter melon, tempered by soy sauce and sugar, is crisp and refreshing, a terrific foil to the meat.

Second Lunch: Dim Sum

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For those eager to try something more than a single platter of food—or for a second meal afterward—there is, of course, dim sum. The big dim sum house of note, Wing Hing, isn't serving the innovative stuff you'll encounter in Toronto's top tea houses or the San Gabriel Valley, but the steam-cart fare, classics from dumplings to meatballs to rice noodle rolls and buns, all falls along a continuum of good to excellent.

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Wing Hing's baked pork bun is better than their steamed. The filling hits the right balance of sweet and savory, and the bun itself is special. It's a light and airy pillow, so much so that it makes the pork filling take the backseat.

Pick-Me-Up Pastries

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Pineapple bun

With an array of Chinese bakeries on Avenue U, it's best to skip the pastries at dim sum and head out to find a snack post-meal at a shop that specializes in such treats. The best one on Avenue U is Long Wong.

You can find the usual pastry suspects here—various buns, rolls, and mini-cakes—but they're just better at Long Wong. Classic egg tarts are a prime example. Elsewhere along Avenue U they're only average; here's they're resolutely flaky, the shells deeply browned. You see them and know a trained baker had his eye on them in the oven, taking the crusts right up to the line of "too browned" without crossing it.

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The ubiquitous pineapple bun, another regular at Chinese bakeries, is another pleasant surprise. The bun is delicate, not coarse or dense, and it hides a gentle filling of sweet custard that hosts chunks of real pineapple.

Dinner, Light: Top-Notch Noodles

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Beef chow fun

By the evening, Avenue U's "rice dish" restaurants shift gears to dinner service, and if you're not full of starch yet, consider visiting one for some noodles. At Shing Wong, the beef chow fun puts your local takeout standard to shame. Wide rice noodles are stir-fried with onions, scallions, and bean sprouts in a searing hot wok.

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Seafood chow mein

Over at Season Restaurant, seafood chow mein is ringed by crunchy stalks of yu choy greens, enough to counterbalance fried noodles and a tangle of squid, shrimp, cuttlefish, and scallops, cooked just until done. The noodles are a treat—well crisped, but soft enough in the center to soak up the light gravy.

Dinner, Deluxe: Cantonese Seafood

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Wan yu with dried bean curd sticks

A Chinese "seafood" restaurant doesn't only do seafood, but it will have a bevy of fish to choose from. At one of the best, 1818 Seafood Restaurant, the obligatory tank of your dinner greets you right by the door.

The wan yu (commonly translated as carp but here called "buffalo fish") is prized for its sweet, delicate flesh. It's prepared very simply, steamed with ginger and scallions, or you can opt for a more elaborate braised casserole. If you want the latter, choose the version with dried bean curd sticks, a dish few non-Chinese ever order.

The dish showcases the fish's head, which is hacked up into small pieces, flash fried to a golden brown, then served in a quick braise with fried dried bean curd sticks that get coated in the rich sauce. It all rests on a bed of lettuce adorned with chunks of fatty, crispy roast pig. You have to work for your dinner, navigating the cartilaginous vortices of the fish head, but the mix of flesh and gelatinous connective tissue is a beautiful partnership.

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Minced pork with salted fish

While you're there, don't miss the steamed minced pork with salted fish. It's a classic homestyle dish so rustic that many restaurants don't even bother putting it on the menu, but there it is at 1818, executed so well you wonder if the chef's grandmother was called in just to make it.

The fatty pork, mixed with bits of chopped water chestnuts, is suffused with the funky essence of salted fish. The loaf is moist and smooth, not coarse in the slightest, with the water chestnuts providing intermittent contrasting crunch. True, it gets a little fatty, almost like the gloss of a fine olive oil, but it's easy to look past once you dig in.

Dessert: An Italian Diversion

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Chinese restaurants are notoriously limited when it comes to desserts. Many simply offer pedestrian orange slices, which is what 1818 Seafood does with your check. But, that's okay, because just a few doors down you can find a true neighborhood institution: Vito's Bakery.

Here all corners of the neighborhood rub elbows over biscotti and butter cookies. The latter, coated in eye-catching sprinkles, represent some of the bakery's best work. They're restrained in their sweetness but generous with their butter, both crumbly and hefty; a fitting way to end a day of feasting on Avenue U.