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Chef and Restaurateur Sam Yoo’s Guide to New York City’s Chinatown

One of Manhattan’s most rapidly rising chefs and restaurateurs, Sam Yoo, gives his top tips on how to explore the borough’s Chinatown.

A view of Chinatown in Manhattan
Hi, I'm Cassandra!

Cassandra Brooklyn is a freelance travel writer, guidebook author, and international tour leader based in New York City. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, National Geographic, Lonely Planet, and The Daily Beast.

Chef and restaurateur, Sam Yoo, is both the classic, storybook New Yorker, and the exception. Like many born-and-bred New Yorkers, Yoo was born in one borough (Queens) and attended school in another (Manhattan), his childhood thoroughly steeped in the city’s tremendous cultural diversity. Raised on his Korean mother’s home cooking, then trained in classic French and Italian culinary traditions, Yoo appreciates good food regardless of its influences.

So he went on to do what few New Yorkers have—he built a successful, eclectic restaurant that satisfies both long-term and new-to-the-neighborhood residents in Manhattan’s Chinatown. “I love seeing a Chinese family that’s lived in-area for decades, sitting alongside a group of young adults that just moved to Brooklyn,” says Yoo.

His restaurant, Golden Diner, is a nod to the city’s classic diner tradition, with an emphasis on higher-end diner fare that remains accessible to the broader community. “In New York, you have Greek diners, Puerto Rican diners, and all sorts of diners that reflect on who the owner is,” says Yoo. Golden Diner looks and feels like a classic New York diner but when you glance over the menu, you immediately notice the Asian American influence.

With that in mind, here are Yoo’s top recommendations for making the most of a visit to Manhattan’s thriving Chinatown.

A brief history of Manhattan’s Chinatown

San Francisco may be the country’s oldest Chinatown (established in 1848), but just a few decades later, another Chinatown would emerge in New York City—one that would go on to become the largest in the country. Many immigrants came directly from China, mostly from Cantonese-speaking provinces in the 1840s and 1850s, while another wave of Chinese railroad workers came in from western states in 1869 after the completion of the transcontinental railroad. As the neighborhood grew in size and influence, bilingual street signs were installed in the 1960s. (About 100 of them still can be found around the area.)

Manhattan’s Chinatown isn’t the only one in New York City, however. Both Brooklyn and Queens also have sizable Chinatowns, in the Sunset Park and Flushing neighborhoods, respectively. But, when most people think of New York’s iconic Chinatown architecture, infrastructure, and design, they’re thinking of Manhattan’s Chinatown. And while Chinatown is best known for being a historical enclave for Chinese and Chinese Americans in New York City, the neighborhood (and its food) is as diverse as the Big Apple itself, boasting excellent restaurants specializing in dishes from Vietnam, Korea, Taiwan, and other Southeast Asian countries.

Paper lanterns strung across the streets of NYC's Chinatown.
Chinese paper lanterns flutter above the streets of NYC's Chinatown.Foto: Emily Marie Wilson / Shutterstock

Sam Yoo’s Chinatown recommendations

1. Top Chinese food, and beyond: According to Yoo, Mei Lai Wah is the go-to spot for pork buns while Golden Steamer makes a mean egg yolk bun. For what Yoo dubs “regular Chinese food,” the new Lady Chow is the place to be and he recommends their shrimp with XO sauce chen cun fun, an intensely flavorful rice noodle dish. No visit to Chinatown is complete without dim sum, either, and, while there are plenty of dim sum restaurants to choose from—many even serving the traditional brunch fare all day long—Yoo recommends Dim Sum Go Go where “all of the vegetarian dim sum are phenomenal.”

Yoo’s own restaurant, Golden Diner, is another must-visit. There, you’ll find dishes that blend the ingredients and traditions of several East and Southeast Asian cuisines, because he believes “there’s beauty and flavor in all of these areas.” While some of the restaurant’s most popular dishes are familiar diner fare such as burgers and chicken clubs, you’ll also find Thai tea tres leches cake, Korean fried chicken wings, and—one of Yoo’s favorites—the mushroom Reuben quesadilla (which can also be made vegan).

Yellow and white dim sum dumplings in a steam basket at a restaurant in Manhattan's Chinatown.
Sample traditional dim sum and more in Manhattan's Chinatown.Foto: Theerawan / Shutterstock

2. Lesser-known shops: Manhattan’s Chinatown is more than a series of restaurants and gift shops, so to get a sense of the diversity of this deeply historical area, you’ll want to take some time to browse its shops. Yoo recommends bypassing the shops that only sell “I <3 New York” shirts and spending some time in the more unique, generations-old establishments that helped build what the neighborhood is today.

He recommends Ting’s, a trinket shop on the corner of Doyers and Pell, that offers wind chimes, Asian fans, tea sets, and Chinese figurines, as well as Wing on Wo, a gift shop specializing in hand-painted table sets, porcelain jewelry, and one-of-a-kind ornaments, vases, and home decorations.

3. Take a whistle stop tour: If you have just one day to explore Manhattan’s Chinatown, arrive early so you have time to space out the many meals you’ll want to consume. In between meals, you can peruse the previously mentioned gift shops and pick up a book by an Asian or Asian American author at the women-owned Yu and Me Books. For a bit of a history lesson, head to the Museum of Chinese in America, where their collection of over 85,000 artifacts documents the Chinese American diaspora since the early 1900s. To wind down the day, Yoo recommends his “go-to chill bar,” Forgtmenot, for its relaxed, homey vibe and “lovely owners.”

The entry to MOCA, which is the Museum of Chinese in America, in New York City's famous Chinatown.
The Museum of Chinese in America is a must-visit in New York City's Chinatown.Foto: DW labs Incorporated / Shutterstock

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