Restaurant Review: A Postcard to Chinatown, Mailed from the Lower East Side

Potluck Club opened last summer on Chrystie Street on the Lower East Side — outside the old boundaries of Chinatown, in an area where younger Chinese businesses sidle up against tattoo parlors, oyster bars and candlelit cocktail lounges with disguised speakeasy entrances. It’s a perfect location for a neo-Cantonese restaurant that looks at Chinatown traditions from a slight distance, through the eyes of young people who grew up eating in and around the neighborhood but have spent most of their adult lives in other places.

Given all the threats facing Chinatown, Potluck Club could have come across as sentimental or wistful, but it’s not. It offers a fresh, energetic look into Chinese culture, and has fun with it, too. It isn’t a great restaurant, but it knows how to have a good time.

The atmosphere helps to put the idea across. The host stand is a green booth with a pagoda roof that looks like a ticket window out of the Sun Sing or the Music Palace, two long-gone Chinatown theaters where you used to be able to catch Shaw Brothers wuxia films. Just past that is a display of movie posters from the golden age of Hong Kong and Taiwanese cinema. A mural celebrates “Shaolin Popey,” the 1994 slapstick martial arts movie featuring two ass-kicking boy monks.

The dining room is full of references to the golden age of Hong Kong and Taiwanese movies including the slapstick kung-fu “Shaolin Popey” series.”Credit…Lanna Apisukh for The New York Times
Cantonese favorites like postickers make up the backbone of the menu.Credit…Lanna Apisukh for The New York Times

Zhan Chen, the chef, and Peter Chen, his sous-chef, are brothers and Chinatown natives who cooked Mediterranean and Italian food before coming to Potluck Club. They fill their menu with classic Cantonese dishes like rice rolls and pot stickers, then bring in flavors from outside the neighborhood.

On weekends, Potluck Club doesn’t serve dim sum. Instead it serves brunch, the most American meal of the week. You can get milk tea made with oat milk or an egg sandwich filled with bacon char siu. The restaurant keeps switching back and forth between cultures like this, a move that a lot of kids and grandkids of immigrants will recognize right away.

The owners grew up in and around Chinatown. From left, Ricky Nguyen, Cory Ng, Zhan Chen, Kimberly Ho and Justin Siu.Credit…Lanna Apisukh for The New York Times

The dish that best sums up Potluck Club may be a platter of fried chicken in a lacy, salt-and-pepper-style shell. It’s served with raised biscuits that might have been airlifted from a North Carolina dinner table, except that they’re flavored with scallions. A three-dimensional play on a scallion pancake, the biscuit can be split open, spread with sweet and smoky chile-plum jam, and dressed with a wheel or two of pickled jalapeño for a very entertaining chicken sandwich. When the biscuit’s gone, you’ll still have a few pieces of chicken and the jam to keep you company.

Then again, the rice roll noodles with asparagus and oyster mushrooms may capture the restaurant’s spirit more succinctly. The dish is virtually a straight throwback to vegetable chow fun (or beef chow fun, if you have ordered it with hanger steak). In this version, though, the char from the wok is more emphatic than usual and the sauce contains a spoonful of chile paste, which a cook on Mott Street would probably leave out. Best of all are the noodles, fresh and tender and almost transparently thin; when you bite through one of the rolls, you can feel what seems like every single layer.

The rice noodles, stir-fried with asparagus and oyster mushrooms, are very fresh and thin.Credit…Lanna Apisukh for The New York Times

The salt-and-pepper chicken should not be confused with the “crispy drunken chicken.” That one is marinated in Shaoxing wine and other flavorings. It isn’t bad, but tastes as if two or three recipes were locked inside it, each struggling for supremacy.

Potluck Club’s version of that Chinese-banquet standby, fried shrimp with candied walnuts, improves on the original. The mayonnaise, usually just plopped on the platter as a dip, is seasoned with Calabrian chiles and brushed all over the tiger shrimp, which gain some fire and keep their crunch.

In its homage to Chinatown’s vanishing traditions, both of living and cooking, Potluck Club resembles another fairly new local restaurant, Uncle Lou’s, on Mulberry Street. Uncle Lou’s tries to appeal to all generations; as the website says of its Cantonese dishes, “The ‘lo wah kiu favorites’ takes grandparents back to the Cantonese villages in Toisan, Sunwui, Enping, and Hoiping. ABC’s and ‘jook sing’ are comforted by classic meals they enjoyed between Chinese school and playing in Columbus Park.”

Lucky cats and other Chinese items beckon customers to a vintage vending machine.Credit…Lanna Apisukh for The New York Times
Zhan Chen, the chef, had never cooked Chinese food professionally in his decade-long career in restaurants.Credit…Lanna Apisukh for The New York Times

Lo wah kiu are older Chinese immigrants who were born overseas, while ABC means American-born Chinese, and it’s the ABC sensibility that Potluck Club reflects. It’s a restaurant for younger diners who grew up going to weddings at Jing Fong and eating at Nom Wah before it was cool. The Chen brothers give them the food they remember from childhood, but they’re well aware that their customers’ palates have been shaped by everything that’s happened to Asian cooking in New York since Momofuku Noodle Bar; they use more salt and chiles, pay closer attention to meats and produce, and summon a greater intensity overall.

Occasionally you may come across ingredients that should not have made the cut. The snow-pea stems in a stir-fry were a little tough and woody. The candied walnuts with the tiger shrimp were made from nuts that might have spent too long in storage.

Such lapses are made up for by the sweet and fat-moistened Berkshire pork in the pot stickers and the deep, rolling seafood flavor that XO sauce gives to the fried rice.

The “pineapple pineapple” soft serve is topped with pineapple bun crumbs and fortune cookies.Credit…Lanna Apisukh for The New York Times

And there is the drinks menu, built for people who have moved decisively beyond Tsingtao. Potluck Club has located a green-peppercorn pilsner, Jade Scorpion, brewed in Hong Kong; a pale ale made from puffed rice by a craft brewer on the mainland; and a few other cans and bottles that will be new to many New Yorkers. More familiar, but still welcome, is the assortment of bottles from natural winemakers like Vinyes Tortuga in Catalonia and Meinklang in Austria.

There is just one permanent dessert, a pineapple soft serve topped with two Chinatown signatures. First, there are crunchy, sugary bits from a crumbled pineapple bun. The other garnish is a fortune cookie. I’ve had the dessert twice, but I’ve never gotten a message I liked as much as the motto I once saw spelled out in black plastic letters in an illuminated movie marquee above the bar. It reads: “Here for a good time not a long time.”

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