A Sentimental Journey to New York Chinatown’s Wo Hop Restaurant
I’ve dined at Wo Hop perhaps 30 to 40 times ever since my first visit back in 1986. Every visit’s exactly the same. Almost to a science. And, that’s a good thing. The food here is consistently delicious.
Wo Hop City Inc. has been, and shall forever be, far more than just a Chinese restaurant.
Permit me to explain why this is so. It’s personal. It’s a love affair that’s lasted 25 years.
Located at 15 Mott Street towards the far southern end of New York City’s famous Chinatown, Wop Hop is one of the hundreds of similar ridiculously cheap Chinese restaurants seemingly wedged next to and seemingly stacked atop one another, almost all of which serve outstanding food and provide quick and efficient service. Expect classic Cantonese cuisine suited to conventional American tastes, although plenty of Asians seem to enjoy the food, as well.
I’ve dined at Wo Hop perhaps 30 to 40 times ever since my first visit back in 1986. Every visit’s the exact same thing. Almost to a science. And, that’s good. The food here is consistently delicious. Even the prices don’t seem to have increased much over the past two decades. My bill always tallies less than twenty dollars — whether I dine solo or with someone else.
Speaking of someone else, that’s your first (and only) hint as to why Wo Hop will always be special. But now I’m getting ahead of myself.
After a night spent in the West Village, by 2 am I’m hungry again. That calls for yet another culinary pilgrimage. Indeed, one wonderful thing about Wo Hop is you know it’s always going to be there. No worries about if it’s moved or under new management. A second thing is — it’s always open. A third thing is — the food never changes.
Tonight, I order exactly what I order just about every other time I’ve come in, and that’s the beef fried rice. Anticipate a steamy mountain of rice piled high on a plate cooked to perfection, with generous portions of sliced beef, onions, shallots, carrots, sprouts, and a fried egg. Oh, and it’s drenched in soy sauce and then wok-fried, one of the signature techniques of cooking this staple food in this way. Most of the places outside of New York don’t douse the rice with soy until after it’s fried. For that reason, it doesn’t taste nearly as good anywhere else as here.
My starter was a steaming bowl of hot won ton soup, with noodles made fresh (not rubbery). I also sipped from a large pot of fresh hot Chinese tea. For dessert, I was given half an orange and the traditional fortune cookie.
Total Price: $11.17
Be warned. Wo Hop has no frills. Waiters speak in broken English. Look for red suede-leather booths and white Formica tables, populated with an odd mix of clientele — from police officers on breaks to other working Asians, from Park Avenue types to construction workers and taxi drivers. This place attracts all walks of life. Want a slice of New York? Forget pizza. Never mind the subway. Make a hop over to Wo Hop.
This brings me finally to what makes this smallish and utterly indistinct restaurant special and for me, so deeply sentimental.
Twenty-three years ago, a courageous young woman boarded a TAROM Airlines flight from Bucharest bound for New York’s JFK Airport. She was traveling to a new place she had not visited before. This young woman prepared herself to leave everything behind and live in a new country. She landed at 6 pm and within a few hours, we were together and haven’t been apart since.
By now, you might have guessed that remarkable young woman’s name was (and is) Marieta.
Late that same night in 1991, our first American meal together ended up not being American, at all. Then again, it was distinctly American — a cuisine that had come here from abroad and stayed, and ultimately been embraced by nearly everyone. Our first meal in the United States together — the first of perhaps 10,000 or more since that memorable occasion — took place in New York’s Chinatown, at 15 Mott Street.
We ordered beef fried rice, won ton soup for two, and shared a pot of hot Chinese tea.
This is why Wo Hop shall forever remain such a special place.
Important Note: This review is for the upstairs Wo Hop, which is more like a diner and is open 24/7. Another version of Wo Hop is downstairs in the basement at 17 Mott Street, which is open only until about 10 pm. While both are very good, I prefer the plainer-looking upstairs location.
Photo Credit: nitrolicious.com