It used to be that chefs had to cut the chili peppers and pour on the MSG before unleashing a Chinese menu on the American diner. But these days New Yorkers seems to have the itch for creative Chinese food with authentic flavors–and they’re willing to take the heat (think Mission Chinese, Fung Tu, Biang!, Yunnan BBQ and the rooster-testicle slingers at MaLa Project). Now Williamsburg is getting another taste of the flame from Chinese Club, a reboot of Pasar Malam on Grand Street. “I believe that people are more open to trying new tastes and new flavors, and they don’t mind that extra kick,” said chef and owner Salil Mehta. “They can handle it now. It’s gone way beyond Sriracha.”
Chinese Club takes a lesser-known (in America) kind of Asian fusion as its subject: Indian-Chinese. Just as Chinese food has taken on a life of its own in catering to Western tastes, Chinese people in India adapted and mixed their dishes with India’s cuisine.
Besides a profusion of little bird’s eye chili peppers, Chinese Club’s kitchen is also stocked with plenty of other ingredients that are typically used to amp up the Chinatowns of Delhi and Kolkata: the three-Cs (cumin, coriander and cilantro) and piles of garlic and onion. Sure, these ingredients are found in many parts of China, too, but Mehta says the flavors are often heightened in India. “A hot and sour soup in Indian-Chinese cuisine is different because the hot is really hot and the sour really sour,” he explained. There are also typical Indian touches like mango lassi (and sesame-banana lassi), a fresh sugar cane press, and Thums Up cola.
Chinese Club is the second effort from Mehta and his wife, Stacey Lo, in Williamsburg. They originally opened Pasar Malam, a Malaysian restaurant, in the space (they also own Laut, another Malaysian eatery, in the Flatiron district), but despite the initial excitement and positive reviews, Malaysian fare failed to catch Williamsburg’s fancy.
So, the couple decided to try something closer to home. “It’s kind of a journey through Chinese food from myself and my wife,” Mehta explained. He is from Delhi and remembers growing up with Indian-Chinese restaurants as a kind of comfort food. His wife descends from a Hakka Chinese family that settled in Darjeeling, northwest India. In fact, the name of the restaurant takes its cue from Lo’s family background–her great-grandfather helped found the original Darjeeling Chinese Club in 1914, a kind of cultural refuge for the Chinese immigrants in the area.
To reflect the new direction, the decor now consists of red walls and green and white accents, like a Chinese temple. Among the personal touches are family mahjong tiles and a re-enactment of the original Darjeeling Chinese Club shrine. Mehta also had some posters made up with funny Chinese idioms, like “all men eat, but Fu Manchu.”
The affordable menu (most plates are under $10) takes a playful approach to the Indian-Chinese repertoire, like folding tandoori chicken into a kung pao dish, beer-battering General Tso’s chicken or covering fried ice cream with crunchy ramen noodles and honey. “It’s just to make you have a little bit more fun with it,” Mehta said. He even put a butter chicken dish (which has more to do with England than China) on the menu because his wife begged him to.
Because many Indians are vegetarian or don’t eat pork or beef, there’s also plenty of authentic Indian-Chinese options for non-meat eaters. “The vegetable-to-noodle ratio is very high,” Mehta assured me. He also pointed out the Manchurian vegetable dish: fritters of onion, carrot ginger, garlic and bell peppers placed in a bowl of fragrant brown sauce. “It’s very unique,” he said. “If you talk to someone from China and you ask him what’s a ‘Manchurian,’ I don’t think he’s going to know what it is. ”
Chinese Club, 208 Grand St., bet. Bedford and Driggs Aves., Williamsburg