Tanks for the Memories: Live Seafood in Chinatown

“So what am I supposed to eat?” asked my son in a belligerent tone as he scanned the menu at Ping’s Seafood in Chinatown. “Dried frog? Organ belly?”

I had been told to expect changes in a sweet 12-year-old on the cusp of adolescence. But this boy had always been a fearless eater. He’d ordered chicken feet at the age of 4. What happened?

“Live seafood?” he continued in the same incredulous tone as he eyed that section, which included crispy live shrimp and “dungeons *sic]” crab. “No way!”

Like many downtown families, we are regular visitors to Chinatown. My son, who has been going there since he was in a stroller, not only knows where to find the best bargains in Japanese action figures, comics, video games and cards (learning along the way that bootleg videos seldom work, but CD’s are fine), he also knows most of the restaurants by now. There, as with the videos, we’ve learned mostly through trial and error. Our meals at the highly touted Joe’s Shanghai were a disaster. Shanghai Cuisine was better, but hardly dazzling. The dim sum at Golden Unicorn and Triple Eight Palace was fine, the seafood at Oriental Garden good. While inexpensive, these places are inconsistent, which makes you wonder if they’re really worth the trip if you live uptown. As soon as you find a place you like, the chef seems to move on. The last time we went to Jing Fong–our dim sum favorite for the past year–dish after dish arrived cold. Our waitress threw our dumplings in the microwave, making the dough taste like wet paper towels. We haven’t been back.

Since it opened a few months ago, Ping’s has earned raves from both critics and friends. Chef and owner Chuen Ping Hui grew up in Hong Kong and worked at Triple Eight Palace before opening his own establishments in Queens, and now in the heart of Chinatown. You enter through a glass door etched with carp to find a three-tiered bank of fish tanks stocked with snoozing lobsters, dancing shrimp, eels and bass. A few years ago, my son would have loved to watch them swim around as we waited for our table. When he sees them now, his face registers the sort of expression a PETA supporter would adopt at the sight of a woman in a floor-length mink.

Upstairs, the dining room–which has laudatory reviews pasted about its entrance–is decorated in typical Chinatown style, with operating-theater lighting and a pared-down, anonymous decor. The large, glossy menu has four pages of photographs depicting the house specialties in splashy color, of which the predominant hues are orange and green. Happily, the food here does not make many concessions to the American palate, and the fish could not be fresher. There is jellyfish, cuttlefish, sea cucumber, fish maw, frogs and two kinds of pig stomach if you’re feeling adventurous. If you’re not, there’s a list of Szechuan dishes–including moo-shoo pork and orange beef–that seems oddly out of place.

“How about ducks’ tongues?” I asked my son. In the picture, they looked like Mrs. Paul’s fish sticks.

He gave me a withering look. “Think of all the ducks that went into making that one small plate.”

By the time he’d counted 20 tongues, I’d lost my enthusiasm. (Granted, I’d tried duck’s tongue before and had been rather put off by that tiny bit of gristle running down the center.) I decided to order snails instead, but they had run out. The maître d’ suggested lobster, but I wasn’t in the mood to spend 45 bucks and listen to my son’s refrain: “How would you like it if you were a perfectly nice lobster and someone came along and took away your Mom or Dad and boiled them?” So we ordered one of the fish stick-like dishes: minced scallops and shrimp with apricot and apple wrapped in a crispy roll and served with a mayonnaise dipping sauce–pleasant but a little bland. We also had a plate of fried whitebait (“silverfish”) that were so heavily battered that it was hard to tell what was underneath, but at least they were crisp.

Ping’s fried dishes were its least successful. You are better off ordering the superb sautéed shrimp. Fragrant, sweet and crunchy, they were generously salted and could be eaten shells and all. Huge steamed oysters on the half-shell were topped with XO sauce–a Hong Kong specialty made with fish and soy sauces, sugar, dried shrimp and chilies–and garnished with fresh coriander. This wonderful sauce was sweet and salty, spicy and sour. It was delicious with scallops, which are also available with garlic or black bean sauces. The aforementioned “dungeons” crab, fresh from the tank and sautéed with ginger and scallions, was also wonderful, sweet under a sticky brown glaze. I also liked the iron pot of mussel stew, made with red and green peppers in a spicy Thai basil sauce. The house special fried rice was an unusual and subtle concoction, laced with raisins, baby shrimp and dried salted fish. It was a welcome departure from the more common shredded chicken or shrimp varieties (both of which Ping’s does very well).

“Can I show you the reason why I was cautious about eating this rice?” my son said, pinching an unidentifiable white sliver between his chopsticks.

“Just eat it. It’s delicious,” said my husband, who was beginning to lose his patience. Luckily, the waiter arrived just then with a platter of plump, juicy shrimp with black beans, broccoli and scallions, and everyone plunged in. When my son’s won-ton soup finally arrived, he drained the whole bowl, which was enough for two. “I could have had just this for dinner and been happy,” he said.

Thanks to the glorious soup, I was able to persuade him to try the dim sum at Ping’s another day. The dishes were very fresh and hot: steamed shrimp dumplings, meaty spare ribs, pan-fried minced pork dumplings, egg rolls that weren’t too greasy. Admittedly, we missed the din and bustle of the dim sum palaces a little, but if Ping’s keeps its food on this level, we’ll be back. I’ve almost convinced my son that the crispy fried frog tastes just like chicken.…

Ping’s Seafood

* *

22 Mott Street (at Worth Street)

602-9988

Dress: Jeans, pacifiers

Noise level: Fairly high

Wine list: Very short

Credit cards: All major cards

Price range: Main courses $6.95 to $30; live seafood, market price

Hours: Monday through Thursday 10 a.m. To midnight; Friday and Saturday to 2 a.m.; Sunday 9 a.m. To midnight

* Good

* * Very Good

* * * Excellent

* * * * Outstanding

No Star: Poor