Lunchtime as a Food Adventure… The 38th St. (Chinese) Restaurant & Bakery
There are a lot of reasons to travel. Some people travel to see sights, experience different cultures, meet new people. I travel to eat. To me there’s nothing more exciting than visiting another country and experiencing the food. Get to a museum and find out it’s closed… eh, no big deal. Force me to waste a meal on bad food, and you will see one pissed off traveler. It helps that I’m pretty much willing to eat anything, so the language barrier is not a huge issue. If it looks like it tastes good, and people are eating it- I’ll eat it too. Pig intestines in Bali, anything off the street in Thailand… bring it on.
Last week, I found a place for lunch that made me feel that way, without leaving Midtown. It’s Chinese, and in the Garment District, and eating there made me feel transported to a different country. I’m not saying the food was the best, most authentic Chinese food I’ve ever had (far from it). I’m saying that this place was a dirty hole, packed with people speaking a different language. I had no idea what I was ordering, sat at a cramped table with three people I didn’t know (who also didn’t speak very much English)… and I loved every minute of it.
Just like most eating in Foreign countries, this place is not for everyone. The food is hit or miss, the place is real dirty, and you don’t necessarily know exactly what you’re eating. But the price is right (it’s super cheap), and if you like meals to be adventures, this is as good as it’s going to get in Midtown.
Pictures, what I ate and the +/- after the jump…
On 38th St. btw. 7th & 8th in the Garment District there are actually two Chinese restaurants across the street from each other. Rong Bao Fast Food and the 38th St. Restaurant & Bakery. Both serve super cheap Chinese lunch from steamtables (3 items for $3.75), both look like they could have been transported from Chinatown, and it’s no real secret why both places are there (there are a lot of Chinese people working in the Garment District). I chose the 38th St. Restaurant & Bakery for two specific reasons. #1. The word “Bakery”. (That one is pretty self explanatory). And #2. The 38th St. Restaurant & Bakery has roast duck and roast pork (hanging in the window). Rong Bao doesn’t. Simple enough.
You actually have two choices when eating at the 38th St. Restaurant & Bakery. The roasted items in the front window, or the items from the steam tables. Either way, lunch is $3.75. If you want the roasted items you can get 1 item over rice with a vegetable, or a combination of any two or three. Roast pork, roast duck or roast chicken. Unfortunately, because of the language barrier, I didn’t find this out until after I had ordered just roast pork- but if the pork alone was any indication, this station is a real winner. It was awesome, they give you a ton of it, it comes with your choice of vegetable (I had bok choy) and it was freakin awesome. It wasn’t warm, but even borderline cold it was delicious. I don’t doubt that the duck is equally good (if you like greasy, Chinese roast duck).
The steam table is where things get a little more adventurous. There are about 10 items to choose from, and nothing is labeled. The people scooping aren’t much help either. They can tell you chicken, pork or beef but other than that, it’s a real crapshoot. Just point to what looks good. Three items and rice for $3.75. I went for the pork chop, and something that looked like little stewed chicken bits on the bone. After I selected those two items, the lady steered me toward a choice of vegetable. I’m not sure if I could have ordered another meat item as my third choice, but clearly they want you to get two meats and a vegetable so I didn’t push it. They had a lot of veggie choices, including bok choy, chinese broccoli, string beans, cabbage and what I believe looked like eggplant, but I can’t be absolutely positive.
It was actually a tough choice because nothing looked absolutely amazing. In fact, there are probably alot of people who would think it all looked disgusting. There’s no Orange Chicken here. No egg rolls. No bail out dishes for that co-worker who doesn’t like chinese food (i.e. Beef w/ Broccoli). It’s the real deal. I feel like I got pretty lucky. The pork chop was really tasty, and tender enough that you didn’t need to saw at it with a knife. The chicken was even more tender, having been stewed in a some sort of ginger sauce. Sure I ate a big hunk of ginger, thinking it was a slice of chicken, but what do you expect. It cost $3.75.
There’s also free black tea (to cut through the grease), and free soup out of a large metal container alongside the steamtable. If you do take the soup, make sure you scoop it out of the container yourself. If you take an already poured cup from the table, it might be cold (like mine was).
And then, there is the bakery! Before 10am and after 3pm the steam tables are replaced by all sorts of baked goods, like the kind you would find in Chinatown. Coconut buns, custard buns, moon cakes, pork buns and custard cups to name a few. Stop by for breakfast, or for an afternoon snack. If you need a post lunch dessert, they have a limited number of items during lunchtime in a large oven behind the counter. Chinatown prices apply! (i.e. everything is pretty much 60 cents)
Now, here’s my disclaimer… so please read carefully. NOT EVERYONE WILL LIKE THIS PLACE. NOT EVERY MEAL WILL BE GREAT (OR EVEN GOOD). For $3.75, places like this are very hit or miss. Sometimes you will get the best cut of roast pork (or duck), sometimes your pieces may be too fatty. Sometimes you’ll choose correctly (I liked my pork chop), and sometimes you won’t. And there’s always a risk of stray bones, a giant piece of ginger, or the food just being too greasy. That’s what you get for $3.75. This ain’t Panda Express, cookie cutter, mall food court Chinese food.
This is a place for people who want their lunch hour to be a mini adventure, driven by fear of the unknown. Enjoyment that comes from risk, and loneliness, surrounded by people all speaking another language. Crammed at tables in the back, with strangers (no seat is left unused), eating food in a place that is exciting because it is dirty… if this sounds appealing to you- than 38th St. Restaurant & Bakery is your new lunchtime oasis.
- Lunch as a food adventure. A little slice of Chinatown in Midtown.
- The roast pork is awesome. If you want to try this place, but are unsure of all the unknown stuff in the steam tables, just order the roast pork over rice with bok choy or chinese broccoli. It’s something anybody can enjoy (if you like pork). If you are even less adventurous, I’m sure the roast chicken is good as well.
- The price. $3.75 for three items and rice. Can’t be beat anywhere in Midtown.
- The bakery items. As good as Chinatown, and super cheap (60 cents apiece)
- To alot of people, nothing on the steamtable is going to look good.
- Nothing is labeled, and some of the people working there don’t speak very good English
- Everything is pretty heavy and greasy
- It’s going to be hit or miss. You could have a great meal there on one day, and a disgusting meal there another day
38th St. Restaurant & Bakery (btw. 7+8th), 212-575-6978