Not the sort of guy you picture violently tormenting his cousin's family, or holding Clint Eastwood at gunpoint...
It's been over a year since we met, and I now know Doua has far more fascinating surprises up his sleeve than I had even begun to imagine at that holiday party. He is certainly rising to stardom as an extremely gifted actor of both the stage and screen (people stop him on the street constantly), but his passion for the arts and the rich culture of his Hmong heritage has led him to explore his voice as a screenwriter, as well. Beyond the soft spoken and gentle man you first encounter, Doua harbors an uncanny wit and sense of humor, fascination with the human spirit, and is simply an old fashioned, good guy.
When he offered to show me how to get stuffed in Chinatown and spend around $10, while enjoying some of the best neighborhood secrets all within walking distance of one another, I jumped at the opportunity.
Our first stop was the counter at Sun Gai Gai Restaurant (220 Canal Street, 212.964.7256) for cha siu bau, or Cantonese barbecue pork buns. Imagine a somehow dense yet fluffy, seamless sphere of bread, packed full of slow-roasted pork tenderloin tossed in oyster sauce, hoisin sauce, and sesame seed oil. Literally the size of a full sandwich, it was utter deliciousness in a warm, rice flour yeast roll. It was so surprisingly delectable, we had nearly devoured them before remembering I needed to snag a picture. One pork bun = 80 cents. This had to be a dream...
Doua's next surprise was a place to which I will return again and again and again. Vanessa's Dumpling House (118A Eldridge Street, 212.625.8008) is home of what I believe must truly be the most incredible dumplings this side of the Pacific. Do not be turned off by the line... it moves along briskly. You even get to watch the cooks hand prepare the dumplings to order while you wait. Check out our tray of steamy scrumptiousness.
At the top: fried chive and pork dumplings (4 for $1); enormous slice of warm and doughy sesame pancake (75 cents); Monthly New Tasty Steamed Dumpling (8 for $4); throw in a Snapple, and we spent just about $4 per person. When Doua excused himself to wash his hands, a young couple came scrambling over. "Isn't he the guy from Gran Torino? What is he eating???"
Oh yeah, the monthly dumpling? Whole cubes of fresh salmon filet, with chives and cream cheese. Absolutely out-of-this-world.
Our next stop, Nha Hang (73 Mulberry Street, 212.233.8988) made Doua a little too excited, which made me a wee bit nervous. I've learned that anytime someone is particularly eager for me to try something, it's not because they can't wait for me to add it to my list of favorites. No, usually, the twinkle in the eye emits from a hunch that they are about to introduce my palate to something I would otherwise not ordinarily try.
Pictured above is a traditional Vietnamese soup, and one that Doua recalls most fondly from childhood. According to the take-out menu, Pho Tai Nam Gan is simply a rare beef brisket noodle soup. The dine-in menu, however, elaborates a little on the mystery ingredients, explaining that beneath the beef and thin rice noodles, you will also find tendon and pork navel. I have to admit that had I not known what it was, I would have assumed the tendon to be a misshaped noodle... in both appearance and taste. Though I failed to identify a pig belly button in my soup, it was an extremely filling, and wonderfully savory dish for only $5.50.
Taipan Bakery felt like a Chinese Wonka Factory, with cookies and desserts of every imaginable shape and color piled inside counter after counter.
My green tea egg custard, made that day on the premises, was the best $1 dessert I have ever enjoyed.
Doua chose a warm sesame bun ($1), filled with a sweet and smooth red bean paste. While the sesame shell was crisp and flaky, the doughy and chewy middle was a delicious contrast.
After our progressive dinner of traditional Asian favorites, Doua had me hooked. Although we had finished stuffing our faces with the most satisfying lunch I have ever enjoyed for $10, he wanted to take me grocery shopping, as he was preparing to cook a traditional Hmong meal for one of his friends.
We sampled a few of the dried fish, which honestly don't taste like much of anything until added to a dish.
Mott Street was lined with outdoor produce markets that receive fresh shipments every day. Inside the stores were cavernous rows of hundreds of grocery items of which I had never before heard in my life.
Doua explained that pregnant Hmong women eat this "silky" black chicken.
We finished our day with asian apple pears ($1). If blind-folded, my brain would have exploded. These crispy, water-filled fruits have the texture and shape of an apple, with the coloring and sweetness of a pear. They were a perfect palate cleanser for our simply incredible day.
To learn more about Doua's screenplay, or to contribute to its production, please click here.