Downtown Brooklyn ain’t pretty. But it reminds me of a kitchen catch-all drawer in that if you rumble around, amble along, you will eventually find some unexpected delights. You walk , often through throngs of people, past the blocky government buildings and the uninspiring Metro Tech campus…the fluorescent lit windows of the big box stores on Fulton Mall, the discount stores with their garish displays. The incongruous clutter overwhelms, until you duck into the warren of streets behind Fulton Mall, Lawrence Street, in particular, and you find your delight: Yaso Tangbao a restaurant that sells Shanghai street food, of all things!
Yaso Tangbao is perfect if you want Chinese fast food, but something better and edgier than Panda Express. It’s also the place to go if you’re craving soup dumplings and find yourself nowhere near Chinatown. That’s what I had when I went there for a quick bite one evening. And you have to know how to bite these soup dumplings—which range in price from $3.75/4 for pork to $3.95 for spicy pork, $4.25 for chicken and $5.25 for blue crab and pork.
You pour a little housemade ginger vinegar sauce on the flat cardboard spoon, gently plop one of the four dumplings, which look like tidy hobo bindles, in the vinegar and nibble a tiny hole in the dumpling skin. Then you can slurp the spicy goodness, which mixes deliciously with the vinegar, and chew on the skin all at once. I had the spicy pork, and I have to say these soup dumplings look like they might have arrived frozen from a central warehouse and had been thawed out and heated at the restaurant. Just don’t expect the quality of Joe’s Shanghai and you’ll be happy. In fact, expect “good enough” at this little attractive place, with its exposed brick walls, wooden tables, and friendly staff. In addition to soup dumplings I had soy garlic noodle with cilantro ($6.95). These dry noodles had the retro look and taste of chowmein noodles, but the combo of peanut oil, cilantro, garlic and crushed peanuts were fresh and satisfying. If I come back, I’ll be more bold and order the signature Shanghai snacks, like the two giant braised pork meatballs ($6.95) I saw one fellow eating from a bowl of steaming broth. And I’ll have the bao, those little doughy buns filled with pork, chicken and veggies, steamed or fried. They are so cute that two women just won an Oscar for making a short animated movie, about a Bao that turns into a baby. Don’t eat the baby!!!
While I was sitting in Yaso Tangbao, I got to wondering what REAL Shanghai street food is like. I looked at my phone’s “World Clock” and saw that it was 8 AM the next morning in Shanghai, where my son’s good friend Andrew works teaching English. Andrew happens to be just one of the nicest guys—he once accompanied Angus to see my frail, elderly mother in the Cobble Hill nursing home, now that’s nice! So I knew he’d help me out. I texted him that I was trying Brooklyn’s version of Shanghai street food and could he send me pictures of the kinds of street food he eats on his way to or from work. He enthusiastically obliged, and a few days later, I got these pictures (below).
Andrew told me that from the pictures I’d sent him of the Yaso Tangbao dishes, the restaurant was indeed serving Shanghai food, but he said that the real thing is a “lot more streety,” as you can see in the pictures. For example, they have a penchant for eating hard-boiled duck eggs. You can have a “soy glazed egg” for $1.95 at Yaso Tangbao, but I don’t think it’s a duck egg. He said he typically eats scallion pancakes and fried "baozi, filled with pork or vegetables. He told me “One baozi is 1.5rmb and a scallion pancake is around 2rmb, so that’s around 25 cents I think.” Wow! I’d be rolling to and from work on my bellyful of baozi at those prices. But it’s pretty expensive to fly all the way over to Shanghai, so take the 1,2,3,4,5 or R train to Boro Hall or an A train to Metro Tech and get your fix at Yaso Tangbao (now they have locations in Industry City and Midtown Manhattan, too).
P.S. Another Hidden Delight in Downtown Brooklyn
Another hidden delight at the intersection of Livingston and Boerum Street is the New York City Transit Museum. I hadn’t been there since the kids were little, but on the night I ate at Yaso Tangbao I was headed there to “Subway Sketch Night,” a first-time event hosted by the museum and led by artists Julia Rothman, Ebony Bolt, and Josh Cochran. You almost miss the subterranean museum, which is located, of course, down some steps in the old Court Street station. We kept our coats on as we descended even lower to the chilly platform, sketching in vintage cars from the early 1900s or the 1940s and, back on the first level, I enjoyed looking at great exhibits of subway maps and of cartoons involving the New York City subways. I even got to revisit Julio and Marisol, from La Decision, the successful H.I.V. AIDS awareness campaign in the form of a comic strip/soap opera. There’s bound to be another Subway Sketch Night since ours was sold out. So many talented New Yorkers were there!