Ten years ago we moved out of delivery range of Tang’s Garden, our favorite Chinese restaurant. It was a tough decision: four bedrooms, fireplace and washer/dryer vs spring rolls, crispy beef and Singapore mai fun. The fourth bedroom did it; seriously, had it been three, I wouldn’t have thought twice. For a while our family splintered. My daughter moved in with her grandmother, refusing to leave the twenty-block delivery zone. My son and I met her at the restaurant, on 76th and Third, for heated negotiations over moo shoo pork (extra pancakes) and sauteed sesame chicken with zucchini. The talks ended in tears on the sidewalk after fortune cookies. We reached a peace accord only after I agreed to twice-weekly meals at the restaurant in perpetuity. My daughter lives in California, now, with a fellow convinced that PF Chang’s is the benchmark of Chinese cuisine, but the agreement continues with my son, who is not subject to such lapses in judgement. We went there tonight, and boy was it good.
Tang’s Garden, previously known as Tang Tang, has occupied the same location on the ground floor of the Metallic Lathers Workers’ Union building on 76th and Third for at least twenty years. Our waiter has been there all this time - his daughter, the same age as mine, was a toddler when we met her father and is now an executive with Time-Warner. The Chinese grandmothers producing endless dumplings in the window are as unchanged as Yeats’s swans. Lacquered ducks, hung like little mummies, describe the perimeter of the open kitchen.
The restaurant is a stone’s throw from Lenox Hill Hospital, and the proximity ensures a constant flow of hungry and discriminating international eaters in search of comfort food which happens to be Chinese. It provides everything these diners want: honest fresh food made to order, served efficiently in clean and friendly surroundings. The portions offer plenty to share. There is no MSG, no puddles of cooking oil, and more than half the menu items are under $10. There are forty lunch specials priced between $6.40 and $6.95 that include a bowl of either hot and sour, wonton or egg drop soup, all of which are made with their superb broth.
This is where you come when you’re cold, hungry and tired and need the combined wallop of emotional and gustatory satisfaction that only a wonderful soup can provide. A gigantic bowl of steaming soup tangled with noodles, studded with savory meat wontons, and topped with fatty slices of red-cooked pork, shards of mahogany duck, or soy-glazed chicken will cure whatever could possibly be wrong. The meats are hacked to pieces with a cleaver and sprinkled with a shower of fried scallion ringlets. Listed under Cantonese Wonton Soup (w. Roast Meat), items 27a-39, you choose your noodles from skinny rice mai fun, flat and broad rice chow fun, chewy fat wheat udon, spinach, or slithery cellophane, and top them with one or two roast meats, which include roast duck, pork, chicken, wings, ribs, shrimp, stewed beef or fish balls. The soup, even without the added benefits of an instant facial and reviving hair curl, puts all other chicken noodle soups to shame, so don’t even start with your grandmother. Something about the size of the bowl, the way the steam envelops the eater’s head, the fact that you have to consume it two-handed with a flat Chinese spoon in one and chopsticks in the other, combine in a communion of soup that is the quiddity of soup. This phenomenal brew costs between $6.25 with ten wontons to $8.95 with wontons and any two roast meats. When you take what’s left home, they thoughtfully add a container of wondrous broth, so you don’t just end up with noodles.
We started with fried wontons -divine crispy bites of blistered dough hiding a meaty nugget- spring rolls, pan-fried meat dumplings and crispy beef. Their spring rolls are greaseless and stuffed with meaty strands of chicken, shrimps, toothsome slices of shitake and crunchy vegetables. I’ve noticed a disturbing trend in the addition of cinnamon to spring rolls (Ollie’s near Lincoln Center) which Tang’s Garden would never do. Their dumplings are a bone of contention with my kids, who do not find the wrappers too thick, while I’m convinced they are. I love dumplings steamed, with skins you can see through, but these are doughy when cooked that way. Pan-frying solves the problem, although the stuffing is moist and well-seasoned no matter how you have them. The crispy beef, Dry Sauteed Tangy Crispy Beef (A Must), item 89 at $9.25 under Appetizers, is exactly that: a must. Skinny slivers of chewy beef are marinated and deep fried to perfect dark brown crispness, achieving near caramelization, before being sprinkled with sesame seeds and served sizzling. There’s something about the way the little shreds are crunchy and sweetish outside, but salty and moist inside that confounds and delights when they burst on your tongue in umami blessing.
My son said we had to have the Cold Noodles w. Sesame Sauce (Voted best in NYC by Sunday News Magazine), item 47 at $5.75, and I agreed, but recommended we have it with sliced chicken breast, $2.00 extra, which he was against at first, accusing me of trying to add needless protein. Cold noodles are one of those ubiquitous dishes that everyone makes wrong. Although I haven’t sampled every example in NYC, I have avidly participated in the expansion of Chinese restaurants in New York, from the days when take-out and delivery didn’t even exist, through the city’s embarrassingly Western-European “discovery” in the 70s of regional cuisines of Szechuan and Hunan, to the thousands of Chinese food outlets that grace the city now. I’ve experienced heaven in the form of the in-room breakfast dim sum and congee menu I hung on my door for a delirious week at the Mandarin Oriental in Honk Kong. These are the things that qualify me to say that Tang Garden’s cold noodles are far and away the best I’ve ever eaten. They use a squared long wheat noodle, like the Italian pasta alla chitarra, which is firm and toothsome, and doesn’t sink to anonymity under its brown blanket of sesame sauce. Visually, the dish has little to recommend it; a plain brown-napped thing with flecks of scallion failing to relieve the monotony. But the unfurling depth of flavors and textures -rich roasted sesame oil, creamy peanut butter, the grit of sesame seeds, a pungency of garlic, the pervasive sweet heat of peppery hot oil that strikes the tongue as warm and spicy without a trace of burn- combine in a dish of masterful simplicity. The pillowy white strips of juicy boneless chicken breast add texture and tooth-feel as much as simple flavor, that my son claimed improved an already near-perfect dish. The restaurant serves the same dish hot, number 55, Tang Tang Noodles (Most popular in China), for $6.75, and the waiter tells me it is very popular in New York as well, but I’m really stuck on these flavors at room temp, and admit to never having sampled the hot alternative.
It often happens, as it did this evening, that our friend the waiter discreetly removes the menu from our hands and refuses to let us order any more, distracting us instead with fortune cookies and pineapple chunks. There are so many delicious things on their extensive menu that I have eaten, that I don’t hesitate to recommend those I’ve never tried. The tables full of happy eaters speak for themselves.
Tang’s Garden is wheel-chair accessible on the ground floor. There are often well-behaved children there. They are open 7 days a week from 11:30 am to 11 pm, 11:15 on Friday and Saturday, and deliver so fast that it gets there minutes after you hang up. They are located at 1328 Third Avenue, on the southwest corner of 76th. Their phone number is 212-249-2102. Although the food is terrific if you’re lucky enough to live in the delivery area, it’s so much better on the premises where you can hear everything sizzle.