Skip to content
November 10, 2017 / Katie

The Truth About Chinese Takeout

Several years ago when I still lived in Yorkville on the Upper East Side (after I moved out of Chinatown), my parents came to New York to spend the Christmas holiday with me. On Christmas Day, as our family tradition dictates, we found a local Catholic church and went to mass at St. Monica’s. For some reason, the altar server helping the priest (he was too old to be called an altar boy) and his blonde bowl cut caught my attention. So later, after mass had ended and we had walked over to the bus stop to head to Christmas dinner, my parents and I both laughed with surprise when we realized the same altar server was now standing in the Chinese takeout next door. Mass had scarcely ended, and here he was, ordering beef chow mein in a puffer jacket and jeans instead of his long, white robe. He had changed clothes, slipped out the backdoor, and raced over to Szechuan Kitchen in less time than it took us to round the corner of 79th Street and First Avenue—he must of needed that moo shu pork real bad.

That memory, of all things, has lingered in the back of my mind as I spent the last year photographing and interviewing Chinese restaurant and takeout workers. The ‘Chinese Takeout’ project, as I’ve dubbed it, first took shape in Jimmy Briggs’s Social Change Journalism class at ICP and then blossomed during my time as a TED Resident this past spring. My work is not done yet—I discovered too many incredible stories and characters to condense the project into a concise photo essay (my original intent), so I am actively pitching a longform article that I hope to find a home for soon.

In the meantime, you can catch a first glimpse at a few of the stories I uncovered through this 6-minute TED Talk:

October 24, 2013 / Katie

A Night at Mission Chinese

Mission Chinese's neon green storefrontAn abridged version of this article originally appeared in Open City Magazine in March 2013.

There’s no other way to say it. Mission Chinese is a tease. It lures you in with the promise of Chinese takeout favorites, free beer, and a piece of the foodie hipster scene. But just like at The Roxbury, a night at Mission Chinese should come with a disclaimer: The wait is long. The beer is weak. The food is, well, interesting. Results may vary.

Chef célèbre of the moment, Danny Bowien, opened the latest outpost of Mission Chinese–first conceived as a pop-up restaurant in San Francisco–on the Lower East Side last spring. Since then the joint has been mobbed nightly by droves of foodies, hipsters, and everyone in between looking to shock their tastebuds with a mouthful of mind-altering Sichuan pepper.


The chatter swirling around Mission Chinese has reached a fever pitch in recent months, with exalted reviews from The New Yorker and New York Magazine, along with nods from culinary heavyweights Martha Stewart and Anthony Bourdain. New York Times food critic, Pete Wells, wrote: “Mr. Bowien does to Chinese food what Led Zeppelin did to the blues. His cooking both pays respectful homage to its inspiration and takes wild, flagrant liberties with it. He grabs hold of tradition and runs at it with abandon, hitting the accents hard, going heavy on the funk and causing all kinds of delicious havoc.” Read more…

October 19, 2013 / Katie

What’s in a Name? Deciphering Chinese Restaurants in New York City

Chinese restaurants are a fixture of the American foodscape. As such, many of us are familiar with the slightly tacky, unintentionally funny names they give themselves (Fu King Chinese Restaurant in SF, anyone?). Restaurant names also tend to cater to the clientele they hope to attract. And in New York, even within the confines of Manhattan, every neighborhood has its own personality and distinct demographics. It turns out, where you eat says a lot about who you are. Can you guess the neighborhoods these restaurants belong to?

Festive Chinese

slurpversusYeah Shanghai Deluxe

China Fun‘s glossy website shows pictures of cheerful families enjoying the food and boasts a singing deliveryman who performs Bejing Opera nightly. The menu includes Filet Mignon Chinese Style along with sushi–which, in my opinion, is a dead giveaway that a restaurant is catering to people who don’t know the difference between Chinese and Japanese food.

Yeah Shanghai Deluxe Inc. has a similarly absurd name but falls at the other end of the spectrum. It serves typical Chinatown fare and Shanghainese specialties like xiao long bao. Read more…

January 4, 2013 / Katie

Would You Like a Side of Lotus Root with that Pork Butt?

hot or not?

A few years ago one of my uncles shared an observation that has stuck with me ever since. He said to me, “You know, when I was growing up being Asian wasn’t cool. Not like it is now.” I cocked my head to the side. Wait, it’s cool to be Asian?

He was right, though. America has one big giant Asian fetish these days, especially when it comes to food. In fact, 2012 has already been proclaimed the year of Asian Hipster Cuisine. Perhaps that Urban Outfitters catalog shoot set in a Chinatown restaurant was more prophetic than I gave it credit for.

Here’s what the foodie pundits have to say about the year ahead: Read more…

December 28, 2012 / Katie

A Horse is a Horse

One weekend at dim sum in Brooklyn, I happened to notice a kitschy painting hanging on the restaurant wall. I was able to make out the four characters printed in the corner: 马到成功 (mǎ dào chéng gōng). I translated the phrase literally in my head: horse arrives success. Or, perhaps, more emphatically: horse arrives = success!


Since when have horses been a symbol of success? Sure, I know the gold-attracting cat, but Mr. Ed with money bags? I shared my observation with a friend sitting next to me, and she responded matter of factly: “Yeah, when the horses arrive it means success.” Read more…

November 15, 2012 / Katie

Gentrification: Coming to a Neighborhood Near You

Chinatown is changing. Of course, all cities are living, breathing organisms that are constantly changing, adapting, sometimes deteriorating, and often transforming themselves in a dynamic give-and-take with dips in the economy, successive waves of immigrants, and bursts of urban renewal. But even so, there have been many recent changes in the neighborhood too big to ignore. Here’s a quick rundown.

Open City Mag reported on the unlawful eviction of tenants at 11 Allen Street this past summer. The Lo-Down just published an exhaustive review of the LES hotel boom, including the newly minted Wyndham hotel on Hester and Bowery that opened on Nov. 1 (and looks tacky as hell). Read more…

October 31, 2012 / Katie

After the Storm

The pieces Hurricane Sandy left behind—through the eyes of citizen journalists, tumblrs, and photographers. Hang in there, New York.

See photo credits in the gallery comments.

Share your photos with us at fivespicealley [at] gmail [dot] com.