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New York Dispatch: Driving off the Menu

You probably won’t believe me when I tell you that on the night of my first cab ride with a driver from southern China, I just happened to have a Cantonese-speaking friend along for the adventure. But that’s exactly what happened.

Even though the cabbie’s English was good, speaking Cantonese with my friend Judy gave Jin the luxury to elaborate on his itinerant life before delivering us to his favorite place to eat in Chinatown.

Before landing in New York in 1996, Jin spent 7 years working in a Chinese restaurant in Belize, but Belize “wasn’t stable.” Working the night shift, he witnessed murders and gun fights and decided that the tiny Central American country wasn’t where he wanted to raise his family or “live a long life.” In 1996, he made his way to the Big Apple and started working construction.

But five years ago, Jin noticed his body growing weaker. Besides that, construction jobs were thinning out, and Jin realized he couldn’t save enough money for his kids’ education. He decided to start driving a taxi, a job he loves for two reasons:

    1. He got enough cash together to buy a New York taxi medallion (no small feat, as they’re going for over $600,000 these days) and used the equity from his investment to send his two children to college.

    2. He never gets tired of studying the buildings as he drives around the New York City. As a former construction worker, he can appreciate them from the inside out.

When Jin stopped the taxi in front of Hop Shing on Chatham Square, he told us he’d brought us there because it’s a classic that’s been around for decades – and it’s easy for him to park out front and get something quick and cheap to eat.

After the cabbie gave Judy a detailed rundown of his favorite dishes, we ran into Hop Shing (which reopened on January 14th after losing its lease last June) and started negotiating with a friendly waiter.

Hop Shing may be known for dim sum, pineapple buns (Bau Lo Bao) and roast pork buns (Cha Siu Bao), but Jin steered us in a totally different direction. His ‘Lam Chops’ were on the menu, but his steamed catfish in black bean sauce wasn’t.

“If I walked in here tomorrow and ordered steamed catfish in black bean sauce,” I asked the waiter, “Would you make it for me?”

Yes, he assured me, they would. And they did. And it was good. Really, really good.

Yes, the bone-in catfish could have been a little fresher, but the black bean sauce – loaded with fresh ginger and garlic and scallions – was something I wanted to bathe in, something I wanted every grain of rice to soak up, something that distracted us completely from Jin’s ‘Lam Chops.’

Number 56 of the 150 items on Hop Shing’s menu, ‘Lam Chops’ is actually lamb stew in a clay pot with water chestnuts, bamboo shoots, mushrooms, scallions and cabbage.

Despite the chili pepper on the menu, the brown sauce that held the stew together was mild. The cabbage, buried beneath the lamb on the bottom of the clay pot, absorbed most of its flavor and turned out to be our favorite part of the dish.

Judy liked our lamb but told me they make a better version of this same stew at one of her favorite Cantonese restaurants: OK 218 on Grand St. Point to this sign if you want to try it:

Lamb stew at OK 218 on Grand St.

Meanwhile, don’t be afraid to venture off the menu for catfish at Hop Shing.

Hop ShingMap it
9 Chatham Sq (near East Broadway) – Chinatown
Tel. (212) 267-0220
Cash only
Open: Mon-Thur, 7am-9pm; Fri-Sat, 7am-10pm; Sun, 7am-9.30pm
Recommended: Steamed catfish in black bean sauce ($10.95)

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