America’s oldest rescue mission, founded in 1872, stands across White Street from a 16-story building that is now mostly N.Y.U. dorms. Sometimes in the evening you can see a pack of young girls, tarted up for a night on the town, walking right past a line of shiftless men waiting patiently for a meal and a bed.
If you start at this intersection and walk east, under the bridge of sighs that connects the Tombs to the criminal courthouse, past the fortunetellers of Columbus Park and toward the curving red face of Confucius Plaza, you will come to a Sino-Vietnamese noodle house called Bo Ky.
Judging restaurants as if they are all bound to seek the same ideal makes no more sense than judging art that way, or human beings—things ought to be measured by how well they express their types. By that measure, Bo Ky may be the best restaurant in the city. (Whether you value the particular type is a different question, but if you don’t love Chinese noodles, I have nothing to tell you.)
The décor is plain, bordering on dirty, and the service becomes friendly only after several years of patronage. But one taste of the broth, salty and golden brown, ornamented with chives and bits of grayish meat, will make you imagine some 10th-century political refugee fleeing China for Vietnam with nothing but the clothes on her back and a carefully guarded jar of soup, whose template was passed on, preserved and eventually transported the many miles to Mott Street.
The egg noodles are delicate and chewy; the “gan cham” rice noodles, white, round and tapering, are a difficult test for chopsticks, but amply rewarding; dumplings filled with pork and shrimp are like succulent clouds; the fish dumplings are also filled with pork—their skins are made of fish. Hot tea arrives in a styrofoam cup, unless you ask for water; the duck is stewed, not roasted; a side order of vegetables in oyster sauce is always a good idea.
After years of ordering the same meal—dumpling soup with egg noodles—I began to wonder what I might be missing, so last week I ordered pigs’ feet. The waiter raised his eyebrows, but came back five minutes later with two demure brown trotters, the color of a fine cigar, placed gently on a bed of white rice, with a few sprigs of cilantro between them and some sliced pickled radish on the side. The skin, almost half an inch thick and lined with fat, was chewy, rich and more than I could handle; but underneath the trotters were hidden little nuggets of meat that fell apart like brisket, and the rice, stained black with pork fat, was delicious.
They were probably as good as pigs’ feet could be, and the waiter, as he cleared my plate, looked at me with new respect—but novelty is no substitute for perfection. Begin with the noodles.