Every time I go to Uncle Lou, the dining room seems busier than last time. More couples are seated in the rows of two-tops along the exposed brick walls, more (and bigger) families are circled around the lazy susans on the round tables that run through the middle of the space.
If people take notice of Uncle Lou, it’s not because the restaurant, on Mulberry Street just north of Columbus Park, is full of mysterious delicacies you won’t find anywhere else in the area. The opposite is closer to the truth. Uncle Lou’s menu, which is extensive, is largely made up of dishes that have long since become Chinatown standards.
Here, for starters, it’s steamed buffalo fish. As always, it sits in a small soybean lake and under a jagged trellis of ginger and scallion matches. Is the ginger more biting than usual? May be. Just about every texture steamed fish can assume is present in this anatomy sample: the thick collar, the tapering tail, the sheer muscle, the creamy swaths of belly fat, the flakes flimsy and sticky that have been brushed with the delicious fish jelly given by melting the cartilage.
Now comes a Dutch oven full of soy-braised pork belly. Next to it is a bamboo basket of folded half-moon buns, each ready to be made into gua bao, opened and filled with ridged strips of meat and fat as well as pieces of pickled mustard greens mixed with crumbs and slivers of pork – the delicious casserole-bottom stuff that a New Orleans po’ boy shop would call “scraps.”
On other plates, scallops and other sweet seafood fried in salt and pepper, with an urgent rhythm of ground spices and green chilies, and the trio of fried eggplant, tofu and green chili , each stuffed with seafood batter and sautéed with plenty of savory black bean sauce.
So many of these old chestnuts have been collected that it becomes clear that Uncle Lou is meant to be some sort of love letter to his neighborhood. I’m tempted to call it a Chinatown restaurant about restaurants in Chinatown, but that makes it ironic and laborious when it’s sincere and not forced.
Postmodernism in food may resonate with young people – it’s practically a requirement in Smorgasburg – but Uncle Lou is that rare new restaurant that isn’t run or primarily aimed at young people. I think it’s catching on because it appeals to multiple generations at once, and it’s not uncommon to see a grandmother with her children and grandchildren inspecting char siu and sautéed yam leaves while that at the next table a group of friends in their 20s are scanning the room in search of the best Instagram backdrop.
The largest and most rewarding section of the menu is titled “Lo Wah Kiu Favorites”, lo wah kiu being Cantonese for “Old Overseas Chinese”. In other words, much of Uncle Lou speaks directly to Chinatown’s first-generation immigrants – the elders or, to use a phrase from another culture, the old chiefs.
The owner, Louis Chi Kwong Wong, is himself a lo wah kiu. Originally from Hong Kong, he moved to Chinatown in 1970, when he was 10 years old, and stayed there. Finally, everyone called him Uncle Lou. In the depths of the pandemic, when he had more free time than he knew what to do, he had the idea of running a restaurant. Enlisting chefs he knew in the neighborhood to handle the day-to-day kitchen, he opened Uncle Lou in December.
The space he built seems more cheerful than the historic fluorescents and business card patterns in places like Wo Hop, and more understated than the sparkling dragons and crystals of ancient Jing Fong.
A trinket shelf near the entrance contains lucky cats, a toy motorbike, a small collection of Uncle Lou baseball caps, and what must be a month’s supply of Vita tea in individual cartons. Planters filled with birch stumps form a kind of palisade between the foyer and the dining room, where two large squares of artificial plants simulate a green wall. Red paper lanterns hang from the ceiling. A poster for the first movie “Aces Go Places”featuring Sam Huithe Cantopop singer known as God of Song hangs near the toilet.
Mr Wong said the lo wah kiu dishes on the menu came from villages west of the Pearl River Delta, the region where most Chinese immigrants to the United States came from at least until the 1950s As the rural way of life in China fades away, the rustic cuisine of this region is increasingly a source of nostalgia for older Chinese people, especially those living abroad. In Chinatown, it would be pushed aside by a new wave of more elaborate Cantonese cuisine that began arriving from Hong Kong in the 1980s. Later Shanghainese and Sichuanese restaurants would continue to dilute the village style that had once been dominant.
You can get Hong Kong-style dim sum at Uncle Lou, but that’s by no means the reason to go there. Except for tons of thin-skinned won in a chili oil patch, most are either clunky or dull. The menu also includes a few Chinese-American hybrids – not the old war horses like egg foo yong and chow mein, but newer hybrids. Someone at the next table may be happy to eat beef with broccoli, for example, or sesame chicken.
And of course, general tso Is standing.
But it’s the homier lo wah kiu dishes that will bring me back to Uncle Lou, even knowing that at peak times the kitchen is likely to get crowded. I’m already planning my next encounter with what’s called a “seafood stir-fry at home”, fried calamari and silverfish in long mushy strands, sautéed with garlic chives and crispy jicama sticks and watery, their crunch doubled by slivers of jellyfish.
At the next sign of a stuffy nose I’ll be there for the classic beef stew with daikon radish. It may not taste as star anise as it could, but I’m pretty sure it has healing powers. I might try Chenpi duck again, which will be a great dish if the kitchen can slightly overpower the sweetness of the mandarin zest sauce marmalade.
Then again, maybe I should get the Crispy Garlic Chicken, very much in the spirit of the lacquered birds hanging from the windows of Wah Fung No. 1 Fast Food and other roast meat counters nearby. There’s a small lake of soy sauce around the chicken and, on top, softened green onions and crunchy golden pieces of fried garlic. It almost has to be eaten with rice and sautéed greens. I can’t think of a Chinatown meal that shows the simplicity of Cantonese cuisine better.
What do the stars mean Due to the pandemic, restaurants are not star rated.