Our chile oil-soaked lips had reddened and plumped like they were fresh from a collagen session, and our tongue had that prickly sensation we recalled from many meals at Bowien's Mission Chinese Food. This was a Bowien-style dish through and through: in your face, put up or shut up. We put up and were rewarded with one of the best things we put in our mouths all year.
We also loved the stewed pork burger ($2.50), moist shreds of pork bathed in a sweet, vinegary sauce and scooped into a halved, bao-style soft bun ― we could have been at some roadside barbecue stand in North Carolina.
Xi'an Famous was the first stop on what we started calling "the Bowien Chinatown tour." Over lunch at Mission Chinese Food last month, Bowien overheard our intense New York planning discussion and began offering up his favorites (the chef once worked in New York). Needless to say, we scribbled diligently (well, took notes on an iPhone), then set aside a chunk of time in New York over Christmas to explore.
After Xi'an Famous it was Prosperity Dumpling, a grimy place that redefines the notion of cheap eats. For a paltry $1 you get five crisp-skinned dumplings loaded with pork and chives. We gobbled them down before lining up for another order. The sesame pancake with beef ($1.75) was an even better bargain. Studded with carrots and cilantro, it reminded us of banh-mi, only served in a warm sesame pancake the shape of a pizza wedge. Incredible.
We finished at Golden Steamer, which specializes in light, airy steamed pork buns ($.70 each). The exemplary buns were spongier, less dense than most in the Bay Area. And the pork, suffused with a sweet sauce that had a hint of cinnamon, was gristle-free. For dessert, we downed a steamed pumpkin bun ($.70), custardy and barely sweetened. Golden Steamer also sells takeout six-packs of ready-to-heat buns. We contemplated smuggling some west, but thought wiser of it. Miraculously, though, a quart of sour pickles arrived home unspilled.
So what did we learn about Bowien from his recommendations? First, he's the guy to turn to for recs if you have only a few bucks in your pocket. The places he turned us on to do such high volume they can afford to keep prices cheap ― the total for our New York Chinatown tour came in at less than $13 for two. Bowien says he hopes to do a Mission Chinese burger similar to the one at Xi'an Famous Foods, but can't get the price below $6.
Second, we learned that Bowien has an affinity for the divey. His picks were all minuscule (none seated more than four), and all made Mission Chinese Food look like Fleur de Lys. Bowien also recommended a roast duck spot, but we went to the wrong one by mistake (who knew that there could be multiple roast duck spots on the corner of East Broadway and Forsyth?). We're taking this as an excuse to mount another Bowien tour next time we're in New York.
Xi'an Famous Foods: 88 E. Broadway (at Forsyth), 212-786-2068.
Prosperity Dumpling: 46 Eldridge (at Canal), 212-343-0683.
Golden Steamer: 143A Mott (at Grand), 212-226-1886.