One dollar won’t buy much food these days in New York City. Walk into a chain drug store like Rite Aid or Duane Reade with a lone dollar and try to buy a can of Coke or a candy bar, and you’ll be left high and dry. I mean, you can’t even buy a newspaper for a dollar (well, you could buy the Post, but…).
What’s left for a dollar? Dollar pizza, maybe a tamale or an empanada, if you’re lost and lucky in some pocket of Queens or the Bronx… By and large, if you’ve got a solitary dollar, you’re going hungry.
With that in mind, I thought I’d pull your coat as to where a dollar will put something in you more substantial than the aforementioned bag of M&M’s. Walk into lower Manhattan’s Chinatown, and you’re entering into perhaps the last stretch of Manhattan below 125th St (or 116th on the east side!) where people still know the value of a dollar, and will actually sell you something for that dollar that isn’t a cup of coffee (side note: any neighborhood in NYC where you can’t get a cup of coffee for a dollar is trash).
There are many bakeries, small restaurants, and food stands in Chinatown that still have menu items for a dollar or less. When dollar Chinese food is mentioned, most people think of dumplings, but most dumpling spots in NYC haven’t had anything on the menu for a dollar for at least 10 years (I’m looking at you Vanessa’s… ).
But, there are still some spots out there. Jin Mei Dumpling House on Henry Street in a quiet section of Chinatown near the Manhattan Bridge is one of them. The sign may just say “Dumplings,” but the steamed pork buns are what’s really good.
I feel like I have may have ranted about this before, but Shui Jian Bao (steamed pork bun) and Sheng Jian Bao (pan fried pork bun) are the best dumpling-related Chinese food items around. The “steamed” part in the English translation is not quite accurate, usually these buns are simmered in a small amount of water, and end up crispy on the bottom. Honestly the above distinctions/translations could be completely off, I only know what I pick up from eating a lot and squinting at menus, and believe me, the Internet is no help at all with this stuff. Most people on there know less than me, and are proud to show it off.
Let’s break it down:
Dumplings (Jiaozi): eh, baseline, basic… I mean, they’re fine, and will do in a pinch, but there’s something sort of unsatisfying about them.
Soup Dumplings (Xiao Long Bao) : I GET IT, YOU LIKE SOUP DUMPLINGS. They’re a fun novelty, for sure. And they are tasty, but sometimes you don’t need your food to ejaculate into your mouth, you know?
Small Pork Bun (Shui Jian Bao / Sheng Jian Bao ): The best. Goes under a variety of names in English (my favorite is the dumpling spot by the library in Flushing that calls them “large sumo bun”).
Many dumpling places don’t serve Shui Jian Bao (shuttered hipster favorite rat hole Prosperity Dumpling did not have them), or they have them on the menu, but almost never actually have them available (Ahem, Vanessa’s again). Even if you can find them, it’s hard to find them done well. The skin on can be way to thick or too doughy, or the flavor of the pork inside can be bland.
The pork bun at the place on Henry St are a perfect ratio of filling to dough and the filling itself is nicely flavored. I mean, also it’s a dollar for 4 of these. If they:
B) fill you up
C) don’t make you sick
you’re coming out ahead in this transaction.
These are currently my favorite pork bun in Manhattan, for whatever that’s worth. If you spend a dollar on this and aren’t satisfied, you have bigger problems than I can help you with.