[ review ]
As Jack Nicholson and Faye Dunaway can tell you, Chinatown can be a bitch. Admittedly, their reasons are different from mine, which tend toward the temporary paralysis that's often a symptom of dining in this vexing warren of noodle shops, pho parlors and duck houses. The countless eateries, lined spine-to-spine like books on a library shelf, is a game of culinary Minesweeper. Some are transcendent, some are shitty and the majority dwell in the limbo between. Experimentation is risky business in Chinatown, which is why I wind up at the same places (Shiao Lan Kung, Nan Zhou) over and over again.
So it was with great trepidation I entered Red Kings, sandwiched on Race between pastry and beauty supply shops. This unassuming storefront looks no different from its neighbors: crimson awning, neon "open" sign, posters of bubble tea and dumplings tacked to the plate-glass window. But what would await on the other side of the door? Moving Chinese cooking or sweet, sticky slop? The lady or the tiger?
I knew the answer when the spunky waitress gently rebuffed my order for kung pao frog: "I'm sorry, no frog right now." She pointed down the street. "The frog store is closed already."
My hopes for kung pao Kermit were dashed, but my hopes for Red Kings were heartened. Buying live frogs to order from the Chinese fishmonger down the street says something about the restaurant's commitment to freshness. And that's no easy task with a menu of Kings' length; there are 202 items, an encyclopedia of Cantonese, Shanghainese, Sichuan and Thai recipes. Navigating the tome takes time, but the cheerful staff is patient. Our frog-denying waitress lavished us with attention, taking the group through a verbal tour of her favorites.
"Do you like pork belly?" she asked. "Do you like spicy?"
Clearly, she did not know who she was dealing with.
So out came the pork belly (crispy and greasy in all the right places) and out came the spicy (not so spicy, actually), part of a parade of plates that nearly swallowed the tabletop with each new addition. There were honeydew smoothies and Shanghai juicy buns, salt-baked spareribs and tendon lashed with chili vinaigrette. The other diners in Red Kings' tight, tchotchke-littered dining room, a mix of Asian families ordering in Fujianese and American empty-nesters, gaped at the furious banquet.
Shaved into long, wavy noodles, the double-cooked pork tangled with tender wok-fried greens. Crisp, greaseless scallion pancakes were addictive Chinese snack food of the highest esteem. Piquant green onions peeked through the translucent layers like flower petals pressed between parchment paper. Double orders of thin-skinned soup buns arrived in stacked bamboo steamers, unveiled by our server with a poof of fragrant vapor. They wobbled like water beds, each cradling a tablespoon or so of heady pork broth released with a well-placed nibble, or unleashed with a carelessly placed one. Anointed with a mouth-puckering dribble of black vinegar, each little orb of pork inside the buns rang like a church bell.
I'm guessing the vinegar was Chinkiang, the preferred xiaolongbao brand, but I can't say for sure, since Red Kings' mysterious owner clammed up like a suspect under questioning, declining to be interviewed for this review. You think Hop Sing Laundromat's Lêe is Chinatown's cagiest character? Just try getting a hold of this guy. I think he thought I was trying to sell him something, when all I wanted to know was how he gets the chilled, chili vinaigrette-kissed beef tendon so thin it looks like shavings of Pecorino (with a meat slicer?) and if cilantro is a traditional accent or something he (brilliantly) came up with.
If he is reading, call me, man. I'm still curious about the cuts of cow mingling with chewy udon noodles and perfectly poached egg in the beef "casserole" (more a hot pot, and chuck, brisket and tendon by my best estimation, all buttery tender) and the exact type of tea used to perfume the half duck, which after smoking is cleavered into strips of firm, floral meat lined with jellied fat that peeled off like banana skins.
He might not be happy to hear all my questions, like why the tame heat in the otherwise tasty sesame noodles with minced pork? It would be lucky to earn a 2 on the Han Dynasty scale. And what was up with the leathery strips of spare rib inside puffed-up salt-baked crusts? A field trip to the salt-baked sorcerers at Shiao Lan Kung is probably in order. Most of the food at Red Kings, though, I loved, and the welcoming servers compensated for their recalcitrant boss. Dining somewhere new in Chinatown isn't without peril, but Red Kings proved worth the risk. Kung pao frog, I'm coming back for you.
Red Kings | 933 Race St., 215-351-5388. Open Mon.-Thu., 10:30-a.m.-10:30 p.m.; Fri.-Sat., 10:30 a.m.-11:30 p.m.; Sun., 11 a.m.-10:30 p.m. Appetizers and soups, $1.75-$12.95; entrées, $6.25-$16.95. BYOB.