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January 13, 2018

A Girl Walks into Chinatown

People talk about being a “regular.” They know the best thing on the menu. They know quirks about the staff. They talk about the perks. They brag about it. But they don’t often talk about the thing that drove them to become a “regular.” Sure, delicious food or well-poured drinks are a reason to go back. But what about the late nights at work, the bad dates, the insomnia, or the random pangs of loneliness? An undercurrent of melancholy often draws us into the energy of a place.

For me, Shanghai Café Deluxe is the only place in New York where I have been a “regular.”

My introduction was through my friend Erin, who took me there to try my first soup dumpling. Nibbling off the little top of the spiral wrapper, watching the steam escape, pouring in the magical vinegar, and then gingerly slurping up the broth before scarfing down the dumpling whole—I loved the drawn-out ceremony of it all. It was the complex enjoyment of simple food.

The second time I went by myself, stumbling through Chinatown, only remembering that the restaurant had “Shanghai” in the name and unsure if I was looking for Shanghai Asian Manor or Shanghai Asian Cuisine or Shanghai Cafe or Shanghai House or Joe’s Shanghai. As I wandered past the many iterations of Shanghai, I thought about home. In the middle of this organized mess of a city, was this anything like home for the people who lived here?

And then I thought of my own home.

After college, I hadn’t lived in more than one place for longer than 2 years at a time. After every move, I whittled my belongs down into a couple of suitcases and started again. I carried my home with me. This balmy New York night, home was in my head as I wandered lost down Mott Street. That night, home was also in the soup dumplings cooked by people who were maybe thinking of home too.

 

 

Over the course of the year, I became a regular at Shanghai Café Deluxe. I went about once a month, sometimes more, for that ritual slurp—though I never ended up going alone again. I could always find someone to initiate into soup dumplings. That year, this little gem in Chinatown became a kind of home for me.

Last April, I convinced a group of friends to join me on one of these monthly pilgrimages. Like always, the line for a table was long. I guessed about a 15-minute wait, given the cluster of groups nestled into the front of the restaurant. But as we waited, watching the bustle of the waiters, the hostess—a girl named Yili who held high command in her metallic perch—flagged me over to her post. We were immediately seated. I realized that I had inadvertently become a “regular.”

After taking my first swig of Tsingtao under the glow of the neon, I joked that maybe I should host my upcoming birthday here. It was, after all, the place I loved most in New York. We all laughed. And then a funny thing happened—we did it.

For one night last May, the frenetic and surreal beauty of Chinatown became the backdrop for Chinatown Get DownWith the help of a few very inspiring friends, my birthday was one for the books

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