Ed Schoenfeld Knows Chinatown

chinatown 1I arrive at Ed’s at noon. He’s in the kitchen of course. The crabs are fabulous right now, he exults from the stove. So fatty, the best in years thanks to our mild winter, and he can’t wait to buy more. He’d served a feast of them the night before, up until 4:30, and now he’s coaxing delicately sweet stock from the shells.

A restaurant consultant with a lengthy pedigree, Ed Schoenfeld is one of Brooklyn’s ultimate food connoisseurs and today he’s taking me to a few favorite gustatory haunts. His 28-year-old son Eric comes along.

Ed’s zip code, 11218, is the most diverse in the U.S. At Church and 2nd he explains the shifting sands. “When Eric was little we came here for lox and bagels. Now the Jewish stores are gone. Look at the ethnicity. Halal meat, Palestinian groceries, a sign in Greek, another in Hindi.”

Ed still buys the occasional rye at Korn’s Bakery. But you won’t hear him keening about the retreat of Jewish foods.”It’s so exciting, unbelievably diverse. All this within a mile of our house. Wait ’til we get to the good stuff.”

What’s the good stuff to him? First stop, Ba Xuyen for bahn mi, Vietnamese sandwiches. There’s a line at the counter. Ed orders the #5, Nem Nuong (BBQ pork), $3.00. Drinks include soursop juice, aloe vera juice, and shakes made to order: jackfruit, durian, papaya. We go for the avocado shake, creamy and sweet, pale green with a pink straw. The sandwich is piled with crisp shredded radish and carrot and long stems of cilantro. They’re exiled from a rice paper roll, stuffed into French bread.

“Vietnam was a French colony,” Ed reminds us. “They still have the bread to prove it. Bahn mi is the original fusion sandwich. And the avocado shake is the celery soda of Asian food.”

We’re in Chinatown, but Ed’s favorite dim sum is in otherwise-Italian Bensonhurst and he’s craving pork dumplings. We’ll be back here later for crabs.

World Tong Seafood smells sickeningly of Sterno. The host leads us to a table for eight where two strangers are mid-meal. When the carts arrive, Ed reaches in, lifting lids. We start with short ribs. Ed spits out the bone and proclaims that this is ethnic diversity at its best, but I see only Asian faces crowded around us.

Ed rolls his eyes. “Not the restaurant, Brooklyn.” He juts his thumb towards the window. “That way’s all Italian, the other way’s all Jewish, three blocks past that it’s Hispanic. In here could be Hong Kong, and we’re not even in Chinatown.”

Suddenly he’s standing over the next steaming cart, again lifting lids.

I didn’t know such self-service was permitted.

“He’s, um, assertive,” says Eric, who works at the UN.”My god this is beautiful food,” moans Ed. The dumpling dough is translucent. The filling, studded with meaty shiitake and giant peanuts, has the cinamonny warmth of five-spice powder. Eric waves the next cart away, but Ed overrules. Each pork dumpling is topped with shrimp, then crab eggs. Outside, we’re in Little Italy. The corner bodega sells cardoons. The pork store offers multitudes of sausages and cheeses, but not a word of English.

“The Chinatown fish stores sell eight grades of shrimp,” says Ed. “Here, they sell as many types of squid.”

We head towards Villabate, a classic Italian bakery which Zagat’s Brooklyn marketplace guide calls the best of Little Italy. It’s next to Dunkin’ Donuts? “No,” says Ed, “Dunkin’ Donuts is next to it.” He marvels at the marzipan. I recoil from the cakes. Dazzling with voluptuous out-of-season berries, they frighten me.

“What the hell’s wrong with you?,” demands Ed. “These are beautiful. Such fruit, such skill!”

Next stop: D. Coluccio & Sons, a food stuffs importer, with a mountain range of mineral-water cases out front and old women in shawls inside, clutching the camel coats of their tall sons. Ed steers me to the pasta: “Every shape, most you can’t find anywhere else, and if you can they’re four times the price. Look, 69 cents a pound. Plus amaretti, real balsamic, and the best salt-packed anchovies.”

The freezer offers rabbit, quail, fava beans, porcini, and pastry bags of cannoli cream. Canned tomatoes are half what they cost at Whole Foods. We hurtle back towards Chinatown. Ed can’t wait to buy more crabs. “Brooklyn’s Chinatown is really good now,” he says gravely. “I used to belittle it, but it’s gotten amazing, very vital, and even cheaper than Manhattan’s.”

At 58th and 8th, crates of fish spill to the curbs. Jonah crabs wrestle, shrimp teem, long skinny razor clams slither, and baby elephant-trunkline goeducks creep from their shells, then retreat. Frogs leap in Styrofoam coolers next to butterfish, tilapia, octopus, conch, tanks of eels, striped bass, carp, lobsters. A Latino with a pierced lip and bloodied apron carries a knife at his side and a turtle over his head, its 16-inch shell belly-up, feet pawing the air, but not for long.

Ed’s been haggling in Cantonese over crabs. He’s exuberant: “Feel the energy! You could be in Hong Kong! The architecture is New York’s but the vibrancy is distinctly Chinese.” Chicken feet, 99 cents a pound. Pig blood, cooked into solids, $2.89 a pound. Pigs feet, heart, intestine, piled high. Ed buys chicken thighs, pork belly, and a pound of ground pork to make sage breakfast sausage, but no crabs. “They weren’t as big today,” he sniffs. “I didn’t feel like picking apart 20 little ones.”

Back in the car Ed philosophizes. “Brooklyn’s become increasingly diverse, with a critical mass of many ethnic groups. Chinatown is incredibly energetic, one of the best food strips in the city. New York’s an exciting food town and Brooklyn holds its own. It has more diversity than you ever see in Manhattan. The foodways are so exciting, anything you want. And prices? You can make a great meal for 40 cents. The gentrification set is missing out. They stay in their brownstone enclaves, surrounded by great neighborhoods they never discover, places with exciting, fun, real foods, because they’re full of new immigrants with the taste for their foods of their country. I used to be guilty of that. Still there are whole worlds I don’t venture into. Foods of the Caribbean, Korea…” He accelerates at the thought, as if giving chase.

So what’s the “gentrification set” to do? Eric, quiet most of the day, suggests the answer: “Get a bus map.”

Editor’s note: World Tong Seafood has closed.

Ed Schoenfeld enjoying dim sum.