Ask any resident of a major city, from San Francisco to Lima, Peru — or even citizens of not-so-major cities like Portland, Oregon; or Richmond, British Columbia — where the local Chinatown is, and they’ll have no trouble directing you to some dense enclave of Asian culture and businesses, where you can spend hours buying sake sets or lucky bamboo, and, of course, eating. In fact don’t ask. The Chinatown (or Barrio Chino) is probably clearly marked on your tourist map.
For Miami there is no such map. But there is a Chinatown, albeit not one with a big red-and-gold dragon gate: NE 167th/163rd Street (between roughly NE Sixth and Nineteenth avenues) in North Miami Beach. Ours is just sort of a stealth Chinatown. Even for lifetime locals it's easy to miss the large concentration of pan-Asian (though mainly Chinese) food opportunities this strip contains, because only a cock-eyed optimist would call it walkable. And who, whizzing down the multilane artery in a car, is going to notice holes-in-the-wall like Mary Ann Bakery, hidden in a nondescript minimall?
Answer: an Asian-eats addict whose back bumper is a mass of dents from being rear-ended while slowing down to find such a food fix on our Chinatown strip. And she'd assure you the street's four major pan-Asian markets alone make Miami's Chinatown a contender in any city.
Begin at the end of the strip near I-95, at PK Oriental Mart preferably on a Saturday or Sunday, for authentic Chinese barbecue. You'll find glistening roast ducks (heads, bills, and all) hanging in the glass case every day, along with juicy Chinese-spiced chickens and red strips of roast pork (but barbecue ribs and succulent deep-fried Pei Pa duck are served weekends only). To go with the 'cue is a huge range of instant yet delectable starch substances as well as fresh Chinese vegetables, including crisp winter bamboo shoots which, if you've had only canned ones, are going to change your life. Also try a packet of chewy Myojo Chukazanmai noodles (flavored with tangy, nutty sesame/rice vinegar sauce and hot mustard), and you'll never eat supermarket ramen again.
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On weekends only, by the cash register, the Vietnamese/Korean couple that owns Vinh An Oriental Market offers housemade Southeast Asian street snacks. Although a sort of cassava tamale was bland, a similarly leaf-wrapped steamed bundle containing what was identified as sticky rice and plantain tasted appealingly exotic and at home later, when sliced like a sushi roll, made elegant party finger food. Good bet: banh chung summer rolls (stuffed with shrimp, vermicelli, and mint, and accompanied by spicy peanut sauce). Even better, and available every day in the fridge counter, were two homemade Korean specialties: jerkylike strips of chili-spiked squid and beautifully balanced hot/sour/salty kimchi. For gift hunters, Vinh An offers the corridor's most comprehensive range of sake sets, from the tasteful (abstract earth-tone decanter and cups, packaged in a wooden box) to the tasteless (the same items shaped like nude female torsos, with hearts bearing "I Love You" on the crotch).
The last stop, almost at Biscayne Boulevard, was Chung Hing Oriental Market, which easily wins the award for Most Appalachian Front Window Display in any Chinatown anywhere. Outside, high piles of cardboard cartons, old plywood, and large, skuzzy major appliances entirely obscure three picture windows. Inside, though, the stock rivals PK's, especially the produce bin, featuring all types of authentic Asian greens, including freshwater chestnuts and equally hard-to-find Chinese long beans. There's no barbecue, but a big fish tank in back (buried under more clutter) contains the live carp and shellfish serious Chinese cooks insist on. And by the cash register are fresh-boiled blue crabs, easily hand-cracked, for about 90 cents each. Dents on the bumper and shellfish schmutz on the steering wheel? Well worth it. Any bottled Asian dipping sauce you might want is on Chung Hing's shelves.
True, some food items typical at other cities' Chinatown shops can't be found at any market or bakery in Miami's stealth Chinatown such as long strings of housemade Chinese sausages, or just-made, charmingly spongy stuffed steam buns. But who knows? Maybe I simply wasn't digging deep enough. Maybe next time, if I drive slowly enough.... What's one more dent?
Next week: Stealth sit-down dining