One of the better New York movie tropes is the busy professional, standing in front of an open fridge or sitting on a fire escape, grabbing pieces of kung pao chicken or shrimp lo mein from a pagoda-stamped paper pail, ostensibly because great Chinese-American delivery is everywhere. The city is home to a remarkable variety of excellent Chinese food — in the last couple of months alone, I’ve found vegan mapo tofu served in a pumpkin in Williamsburg and tanghulu from a stand in Flushing — and some people will look back wistfully on their local favorites (a friend raised in the West Village swooned over his memory of Song Chi Mei, which closed in 2008), but the reality of living here usually means wishing that the places closest to your apartment were at least a little bit better. This, it seems, is a timeless lament: “With an Empire Szechuan or a Hunan Cottage or a Charlie Mom on every block, and the stoop littered with carryout menus, we were drowning in a sticky hoisin swamp of mediocre mu-shu pork,” Gael Greene wrote more than 30 years ago.
Is it fair to assume that, in a city where Michelin-starred Shanghainese lives side by side with dry-pot potato chips and Anhui ban mian, we should also all have immediate and unlimited access to top-tier food that can be delivered right to our front door within an hour? Not really, but two relatively new spots seem to have perfected the model for excellent food that is also expertly engineered for travel. On Christmas Eve, I took a chance on Noodle Lane. The Park Slope restaurant opened about a year ago, after founder Lane Li had developed at Smorgasburg by serving dan dan and peanut noodles on the weekend for the past 12 years, which means she’s had more than a decade to build recipes that are essentially transitproof. The brick-and-mortar adds to her Smorgasburg fare with dishes like shrimp-paste fried rice and salt-and-pepper shrimp, as well as beef with broccoli and a General Tso’s chicken that my friend and I particularly enjoyed in its delivered version — large pieces of still-crisp chicken in a sauce that was pleasantly, but not overly, sweet.
Li grew up in Flatbush after moving from China with her family at 6. Her mother worked as a seamstress and her father was a cook in a Chinese restaurant, so naturally her family discouraged her from pursuing food at all. To balance their expectations, she attended the French Culinary Institute in the evenings while maintaining a day job in finance, which she kept up until the pandemic when a space in her neighborhood became available. Disappointed with the surrounding options, Li wanted to make the Chinese restaurant that she and her family would be happy to dine at, as well as one to serve the neighborhood, hence the inclusion of General Tso’s. Dumplings were another addition, and — despite its name — they should be the restaurant’s calling card. Every time I order Noodle Lane’s soup dumplings, they arrive intact within their thin pouches and filled with gelatin-enriched stock. They even deliver frozen dumplings, 20 for $20, which will be shipped separately from your hot food. A couple days after the beef in black-bean stir fry and string beans with pork were long gone, I grabbed the Ziploc of hand-formed dumplings and browned and steamed them according to the pot-sticker method.
Photo: Hugo Yu
I’ve been similarly obsessed with Fer, which opened at the end of November in Long Island City. The restaurant itself is bright, branded, and maybe one shade too Sweetgreen-y, but is doesn’t take away from the cooking: On my first visit, bitter melon salad was an immediate hit, and the drooling chicken — a cold Szechuan dish of salty poached chicken in a large bowl of chile oil — stole my heart.
Nigel Shifu, who immigrated to the U.S. from Sichuan province to study architecture, opened Fer after being similarly underwhelmed by the area’s restaurants. His food, in a way, comes from a family friend’s restaurant — he retired and offered his recipes to Shifu. Of course, Fer is only a “local” option for people who live nearby. I don’t. Even though I ate in the restaurant, I know Fer delivers well because my leftovers survived an hour-long ride home — with a pit stop at Dutch Kills in between — that is far more than would be asked of any reasonable DoorDash. An order of sesame noodles, which I added on before leaving, was still in perfect condition, topped with a snappy ring of shredded cucumber, while the leftover drooling chicken from dinner was somehow better after sitting longer in the bright, spicy chile oil.