Tuesday, March 24, 2009

O Fortuna

"You will travel far and wide, both pleasure and business. Daily numbers: 3 2 9."

I have a lost memory from my childhood that only remains connected to my brain by a fading scent. In my mind I see nothing but a brick wall, and what lies on the other side I only imagine. I taste nothing, feel nothing, hear nothing. But I smell fresh fortune cookies being baked en masse. The smell was so delicious and powerful, and, at that time in my young life, so new, that it has followed me to present day as a small memory of one of the best smells in my tiny universe.

As a result, I love fortune cookies. I always sneak a few extra if given the opportunity, especially the good kind - the ones that don't taste and look like plastic. The golden brown ones. Not the yellow ones.

"You are heading for a land of sunshine. Daily numbers: 7 3 0."

On a sunny New York Monday afternoon (yesterday), I decided to explore Manhattan's Chinatown. As fate would have it, on my quest to find fresh fortune cookies, I found new and interesting things that my palate might otherwise have missed.

Chinatown is not an escapist adventure to the Far East. You know you're still in New York by the 10-for-$3 "I heart NY" t-shirts and the hordes of tourists in search of $25 Louis Vuitton bags. I immediately veered off Canal Street and headed South on Mulberry for respite. I ducked into Lung Moon Bakery (83 Mulberry) and crossed my fingers... nope, no fresh fortune cookie smell here. They sold them by the bag, but upon close inspection, I noticed that they were made off-site and individually pre-wrapped. Not quite what I was looking for. When I snapped out of my obsessed and focused daze, I realized I was alone in the store. Fortune cookies aside, everything around me looked fresh, good, and pleasantly oversized. I wanted one of each. When I noticed the sticky rice balls, I swallowed hard, a little frightened. My previous experience with a Chinatown sticky rice ball last November was a heartbreaking letdown that needed redemption. A young woman emerged from the back of the shop. I took a deep breath, ordered one sticky rice ball and left the store, hoping that I wouldn't regret my decision. I didn't - it was the perfect texture. Yum!

I thought about turning around and going back to fill up on all the goodies they had to offer, but upon the discovery of this wonderful place, I decided to revise my mission: snack through Chinatown, and if I happen to come across fortune, that will be up to fate to decide.

"Find release from your cares, have a good time. Daily numbers: 4 2 9."

So I let myself go. On Mott Street I discovered tasty Wonton Noodle Soup at the New Wonton Garden (56 Mott). Attracted by the kitchen at the front of the house that allowed me to watch the noodles go in and out of the pot, and by the ironically somber servers in Hawaiian shirts, the stark, hospital cafeteria-like interior was a welcome contrast to the vibrant visual stimulants of the streets. The barbie-pink bubble tea place on Bayard Street (with the big, cartoon-y vending machines, dispensing everything from Hello Kitty accessories to mini Jelly Belly dispensers) and the fish-balls-on-a-stick from the street vendors (all the Chinatown kids snack on fish balls, like, duh!) made me feel 8 years old again. The guava candy, found all over Chinatown in shiny green plastic, is my new guilty pleasure. At 25 cents for four pieces, I felt like I still had plenty of allowance and lemonade stand money left over for more peach bubble tea and a Hello Kitty necklace (but I'm saving up for the Snoopy chopsticks at Yunwong's Chopsticks on Mott Street).

My favorite snack of the day came unexpectedly while perusing the tiny (and eerily quiet, by Chinatown standards) storefronts on Elizabeth Street, North of Canal. A place called Malaysian Beef Jerky (95 Elizabeth) where you can get slabs of spicy pork jerky, pork jerky, spicy chicken jerky, chicken jerky, spicy beef jerky, and beef jerky by the pound, was the highlight of my journey. That place makes Slim Jim look like a punk.

"Stop searching forever, happiness is just next to you. Daily numbers: 3 7 0."

As the afternoon sun faded, I walked down Mott Street again. The weird thing about city streets is that you can walk one way, but switch directions or cross to the other side and you have a whole new perspective. It's as though you can't really see a whole city until you've seen it from every angle. In my earlier walk on Mott, I had totally missed a bakery called Golden Fung Wong (41 Mott). It was probably the only bakery left in Chinatown that I had not yet stalked in search of fortune cookies. When I walked in, I could see all the way into the massive ovens in the back. The front looked like most of the bakeries I had already been inside. I inhaled... nothing was being baked at the moment. I turned to leave when I saw them: a bag of fortune cookies! Not individually wrapped! I snatched the bag off the shelf and asked the woman behind the counter excitedly if they were made in-house. She had no idea what I was saying. She found someone to translate, and yes, they were baked earlier that day! "What time will you bake your next batch?" I asked the two young apron-clad translators, "I really like the smell." Sometimes I confess my inner thoughts a little too freely. They gave me a deserved look that said "you are weird," then looked at each other and shrugged. I decided that was probably my cue to pay for the cookies and go home. Fate had smiled upon me, and now I was pushing it. Perhaps I'll drop in another day and see what happens.

Photos below: (1) The noodle guy at New Wonton Garden (2) I had no idea there were so many different kinds of ginger! (3) Candy on every corner (4) At Uiui Bubble Tea, Homer Simpson greets you with a smile (5) Fish ball on a stick, $1 (6) My new favorite snacking joint!

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