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August 15, 2012 / Katie

My Chinatown: Craig Nelson

photo by Doug Kim

I first met Craig Nelson, in the way that you can now make “internet friends,” through the twittersphere. Craig has a keen affection for all things Chinatown, and I quickly realized we were buzzing about the same things. What’s even cooler is the fact that he’s created a handy app, Chinatown Chowdown, that gives you the 411 on all the best hole-in-the-wall, (tasty) basement dives in the neighborhood. So how did Chinatown reel Craig in and make him a local expert on hand-pulled noodles and corner street carts? Here’s what he had to say in a recent Q&A.

What do you do? 

I’m a Senior Editor at Zagat helping to create content for new city guides. Before that I worked at Not For Tourists as Managing Editor and that’s where I fell in love with Chinatown. My wife and I also have a blog, Across 106th Street, where we chronicle happenings in Spanish Harlem–my other favorite neighborhood–along with thoughts and photos from our travels, music, urban issues, etc. It’s really whatever we’re thinking about at the moment.

How did you get to know Chinatown so well?

For five years I worked in the heart of the neighborhood on East Broadway thanks to my gig at NFT. At first it was a little overwhelming with packed sidewalks, unique smells (especially in the summer!), and incredible food everywhere you look. But slowly I really started taking notice of all the food carts, markets, and hole-in-the-walls that can easily blend into the background if you don’t keep an eye out. From morning until night I was able to explore all of the nooks and crannies of Chinatown, and every day was an adventure. I would grab a coffee or breakfast treat in the morning at a bakery, get a cheap lunch from a steam table or street vendor, and then sometimes finish with a drink at Winnie’s or a late night snack.

How did you come up with the idea for the Chinatown Chowdown app?

As I started stumbling over more and more food spots that don’t always get coverage in local magazines, newspapers, guidebooks or blogs, I realized it would be cool to have all my favorite under-the-radar Chinatown spots in one place. I decided the app would be a great tool to help me explore even more and also be a resource for folks wanting to find something different in Chinatown as well as help all of the local businesses get more exposure.

What is your favorite Chinatown memory?

I had visited the neighborhood many times since I was a kid and young adult in the 80s and 90s, but I was always playing the tourist. So when I finally started working down there full-time, the life changing moment came the first time I went to Sanur on Doyers Street in 2005 and figured out you could get four homemade Malaysian items over a giant pile of rice for only $2.75. I was hungry, I was poor, and I was hooked right then and there on eating in Chinatown for the long haul.

Describe a perfect day spent in the neighborhood.

It would involve spending as little time as possible on crowded Canal Street, so start in the morning at Columbus Park to watch locals do tai chi and conversation, then hit up a Chinatown bakery for a breakfast treat (sponge cake or egg bun). Then I would make my way to the Manhattan Bridge at East Broadway to explore the indoor malls and markets and maybe grab a few snacks from the vendors under the bridge. Lunch is probably the most exciting part of the day with so many options, but Fuleen Seafood has unbeatable lunch specials. In the afternoon, head for the Museum of Chinese in America (MOCA) which always has thought provoking exhibits. Hit up a bubble tea spot and maybe a jerky spot for another snack and head back to Columbus Park to see some live music and watch people play board games in the shade. The neighborhood starts to quiet down when dinner time comes around. After grabbing something more to eat (maybe great dim sum at Nom Wah, a Vietnamese feast at Cong Ly, or wonton soup at East Corner Wonton), walking around Chinatown once night falls is actually quite peaceful and beautiful. Optional ending with a drink at the famous dive bar Winnie’s or a scoop of ice cream from the Chinatown Ice Cream Factory depending on your mood.

Chinatown in one word.

Real.

If you had to choose one place out of all the listings in the Chinatown Chowdown app, what would it be?

Wow, that’s like asking which one is your favorite child! To be honest it changes by the day, but one place I’ve really fallen for lately is Yuen Yuen. It’s a tiny spot on Bayard serving cheap, down-home Chinese cooking like tasty rice plates and a range of herbal soups that are only listed on the wall. During lunch you’ll see a great mix of old-timers, postal workers, and even college kids returning to the neighborhood to get their fill. They’re super friendly, and even better, they have a fresh juicer in the front squeezing OJ and a range of other refreshing drinks–perfect in summertime!

Follow Craig at @across106th or checkout the Chinatown Chowdown app here.

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