Every time I go to Uncle Lou’s, the dining room looks busier than last time. More couples sit in the double-topped rows along the exposed brick walls, more (and larger) families circle the lazy Susans on the circular tables that run down the center of the room.
If people are paying attention to Uncle Lou, it’s not because the restaurant on Mulberry Street just north of Columbus Park is packed with mysterious delicacies you can’t get anywhere else in the area. The opposite is closer to the truth. Uncle Lou’s extensive menu consists largely of dishes that have long become Chinatown standards.
Here, for example, there is steamed buffalo fish. As always, it sits in a little lake of soy and beneath a jagged trellis of ginger and scallions. Is the ginger more biting than usual? Maybe. Just about every texture that steamed fish can take on is present in this anatomy example: the thick collar, the tapering tail, sheer muscles, creamy streaks of streaky bacon, fragile and sticky flakes that have been basted with the delicious fish jelly melted cartilage off.
Now comes a casserole full of pork belly braised in soy. Next to it is a bamboo basket with folded half-moon buns, each ready to be made into gua bao, opened and filled with strips of striped meat and fat and chunks of pickled mustard greens, mixed with crumbs and pork chops — the delicious bottom-of-the-pan stuff that a Po’boy store in New Orleans would call “rubble.”
Other plates feature scallops and other sweet seafood fried in a salt-and-pepper fashion, with an urgent background of ground spices and green chilies, and the trio of fried eggplant, tofu, and green chilies, each stuffed with seafood paste and fried with an abundance of salty black bean sauce.
So many of these old chestnuts have been rounded up that it’s clear Uncle Lou is meant to be a love letter of sorts to his neighborhood. I’m tempted to call it a chinatown restaurant about chinatown restaurants, but that sounds ironic and effortful when it’s genuine and casual.
Postmodern food may appeal to younger crowds – it’s practically a requirement in Smorgasburg – but Uncle Lou is that rare new restaurant not run by younger people or catered primarily to younger people. I think it resonates because it appeals to multiple generations at once, and it’s not uncommon to see a grandmother with her children and grandchildren inspecting the char siu and sautéed yam leaves while at the next table a group of friends in their 20s scans the room looking for the best Instagram backdrop.
The largest and most rewarding section of the menu is headed Lo Wah Kiu Favorites, where lo wah kiu means “old overseas Chinese” in Cantonese. In other words, much of Uncle Lou is aimed squarely at Chinatown’s first-generation immigrants—the elders, or, to use another culture’s term, the old-timers.
The owner, Louis Chi Kwong Wong, is Lo Wah Kiu himself. Born in Hong Kong, he moved to Chinatown in 1970 at the age of 10 and stayed there. Eventually everyone called him Uncle Lou. In the midst of the pandemic, when he had more time than he knew what to do, he got the idea of running a restaurant. He hired some chefs he knew from the neighborhood to take care of the day-to-day cooking and opened Uncle Lou in December.
The space he built looks brighter than the historic neon lights and calling card designs at places like Wo Hop, and more restrained than the dragons and sparkling crystals at old Jing Fong.
A knick-knack shelf at the entrance contains a few waving lucky cats, a model motorcycle, a small collection of Uncle Lou baseball caps, and some one-month’s worth of Vita tea in individual boxes. Plant boxes filled with birch stumps form a kind of palisade fence between the foyer and the dining room, where two large squares of artificial plants simulate a green wall. Red paper lanterns dangle from the ceiling. A poster for the first Aces Go Places movie starring Sam Hui, the cantopop singer known as the god of song, hangs next to the toilets.
Mr Wong said the low wah kiu dishes on the menu come from the villages west of the Pearl River Delta, the region from which most Chinese immigrants to the United States came, at least until the 1950s. As the rural way of life in China disappears, the area’s rustic cuisine is increasingly a source of nostalgia for older Chinese, particularly those living abroad. In Chinatown, it was pushed aside by a new, more elaborate wave of Cantonese cuisine arriving from Hong Kong in the 1980s. Later, restaurants in Shanghai and Sichuan would further dilute what was once the prevailing village style.
Uncle Lou has Hong Kong-style dim sum items, but that’s no reason to go. With the exception of the thin-skinned won tons in a stick of chili oil, most are either clunky or bland. There are also a few Chinese-American hybrids on the menu – not the old warhorses like Egg Foo Yong and Chow Mein, but newer hybrids. For example, someone at the next table likes to eat beef with broccoli or sesame chicken.
And of course General Tso is ready.
But it’s the more homely, lo-wah-kiu fare that will draw me back to Uncle Lou, even knowing that the kitchen tends to get a traffic jam at peak times. Already planning my next encounter with something called “Homemade Seafood Skillet,” squid and deep-fried silverfish in long, noodle-like strands, sautéed with garlic chives and crunchy, watery sticks of jicama, doubled in crunchiness by jellyfish slivers.
At the next sign of a stuffy nose, I’ll be there for the classic beef goulash with radish. It might not taste quite as strong as star anise, but I’m almost positive it has healing powers. I might try the chenpi duck again, which will be a great dish if the kitchen can rein in the marmalade sweetness of the tangerine peel sauce.
On the other hand, I might just have to go for the crispy garlic chicken, in the spirit of the painted birds that grace the windows of Wah Fung No. 1 fast food and other nearby roast bars hanging. There’s a little lake of soy sauce around the chicken, topped with soft scallions and crispy golden flecks of fried garlic. This almost has to be eaten with rice and fried vegetables. I can’t think of a meal in Chinatown that better showcases the simplicity of Cantonese cuisine.
what the stars mean Because of the pandemic, restaurants are not receiving star ratings.