Is $8.00 too much for this meal?
The answer might depend on whether you’re the type of person to fork over $6 for bánh mì. After walking away from Bian Dang‘s stall at the still fresh Food Gallery 32, I proclaimed that their chicken leg dish was a tasty boatload of food for eight bucks. Nick, a serious Taiwanese eater who had called out Bian Dang on his blog for selling pork gravy and
I’m willing to live with the price as fair if not just. Bian Dang’s chicken leg and its accompanying mound of white rice, ground pork gravy and pickled greens are served in generous portions. My leg was zealously deep fried, developing a crisp skin that crackled in its most pleasurable moments but dried out when no one was looking.
The flavor of the leg definitely lagged behind its texture, but that shortcoming ironically compelled me to come back for the $4 rice bowl, which ended up being distinctly tastier than the hunk of meat it was meant to support. For now, I still see that forty-cent bowl of food as a treat – and that’s the reality of price discrimination. As long as there isn’t a Taiwanese grandma (or grad student) around to beat some sense into me, I’m sure this transaction will end up happening at some point in my future.
That point, however, won’t be reached until I’m done with Bian Dang’s $8 pork chop over rice. Large portions (two sizable pork chops) are even more prevalent in this dish, but what really makes it worthwhile is Bian Dang’s pitch-perfect fry job. Each chop is flanked by a rim of pork fat, rendered crisp by its oil bath and melting into creamy bits of flavor in each bite. While I don’t have time to research relative purchasing power, consumer price indices, business costs and produce a baller ass chart that breaks down exactly where my $8 might go, I’m more than happy to come back to this one the next time I’m in the neighborhood.
I’m even happier, though, to catch the train to Chinatown to eat more pork chops for less money – and thanks to recommendations from Danny and Nick, I was able to put my money where their mouths are. If that’s not an assist for lewd comments about porking, I don’t know what is.
Excellent Pork Chop House has built its chops up something serious, but one lunch stop there hasn’t convinced me that it’s the obvious winner in a bian dang (“lunch box”) face-off. That’s not to say it doesn’t serve a fantastic meal; the house’s chicken leg, while significantly smaller than the one at Bian Dang, was moist and flavorful in ways that Bian Dang’s was certainly not. Having tried the two virtually back-to-back, it seemed like both price points were sensible.
I got the same impression from Excellent Pork Chop House’s excellent pork chop. Seasoned liberally, the pork chop over rice here had a more clearly defined five spice flavor and was definitively moist. I found the house’s greens too sweet for my liking, but when mixed with pork gravy and rice they gave me no real reason to complain.
I’m glad my bian dang spin didn’t end there, because if one house in New York could convince me to renounce ever paying more than $5 for an excellent pork chop, it’s Hua Ji Pork Chop Fast Food.
Parked in a hole in the wall on Allen St., Hua Ji presents itself as “fast food” to the New Yorkers waiting on Chinatown buses along its stretch sidewalk. Its name, however, is actually “Hua Ji Pork Chop King.” Does this split in nomenclature say something about how Americans engage in price discrimination differently when it comes to food? Or is it just another wonderful sign that some parts of Chinatown are still perfectly content to flip a linguistic bird to anyone who thinks that fast food can’t be a king’s feast?
Hua Ji’s pork chop, a scissor-sliced beaut, could serve as evidence for the latter. Walked two steps from counter to table and accompanied by a takeaway bowl of thin sipping broth, this is what I can only imagine bian dang is like in Taipei.
The chop’s lightly dredged exterior comes out of the deep fryer a superb golden brown, adding a delicate crisp to every bite. The meat is as moist and flavorful as any of its competitors, and the runny mixture of pan gravy, cabbage and suan tsai beneath is totally satisfying in its minimalism. Bian Dang’s truck might be on the streets of Midtown, but Hua Ji’s own lunch box registers much more viscerally as street food to my taste buds.
In a fitting cap to my meditation on internal price tags, a bus rider from the sidewalk began to haggle with one of the pork chop kings behind the counter as I savored the last bites of my lunch at Hua Ji.
“$7 for chicken and fried rice?” he jabbed in a voice that was half chuckle, half bellow. “No, that ain’t right… This is Chinatown! What is this, the best food in all the world?”
|Bian Dang (Food Gallery 32)
11 W 32nd St.
New York, NY 10001
|Excellent Pork Chop House
3 Doyers St.
New York, NY 10013
|Hua Ji Pork Chop Fast Food
7 Allen St.
New York, NY 10002