AS A LONG-TIME resident of the Upper West Side, I’m thrilled when I get my notice for jury duty. Even though my neighborhood is no longer considered the restaurant wasteland it was when I first moved here, I love any excuse for an excursion Downtown that includes a lunch break. Back in 1981, as a sometimes literally starving artist, I quickly learned that the best and cheapest place to get an abundant, delicious meal was far from the Lincoln Center area where I still live. Of course I’m talking about Chinatown.
Sure, I’m older and wiser and can occasionally afford the prix fixe at Café Luxembourg, but the honor of serving on a jury also means the possibility of daily, exotic bargain dining experiences. It baffles me that so many Manhattanites don’t share the culinary joy of receiving that “you must appear” letter from Norman Goodman. On my most recent stint a few weeks ago I discovered why:They obviously don’t know Chinatown like I do.
I’ve served on juries before and was even sequestered once, which was the most fun ever, because we were taken out to dinner in Little Italy and the court picked up the tab. I dined on a tasty chicken piccata and my favorite dessert, cannoli. Oh, and we convicted some guy on all eight counts.
This time around, I got to know four women who could have been long-term dining buddies.We sat together on a panel all morning, a case where the accused had allegedly shot and wounded three people in a deli with a semi-automatic weapon. Peripherally, a food-related crime.
When we broke for a generous twohour lunch, the women stumbled out of the courthouse, disoriented. I dashed into the cheerful gray sunlight that filtered down through the depths of Lower Manhattan, contemplating bok choi drenched in oyster sauce.
“Where did you eat yesterday?” asked the grandmother from Harlem.
“I got a roast beef sandwich at Subway on Canal Street,” forlornly responded the recent Parsons grad.
“I paid $30 for linguini at some overpriced trattoria,” griped the cigarette-voiced Upper Eastsider wearing sweatpants.
“Well, I’ve been dieting,” said the skinny buyer who worked at Bloomingdale’s. “So I just had coffee at McDonalds.”
“You haven’t eaten in Chinatown?” I asked, astounded, having dreamt of dim sum every night since I first received my summons.
“I wouldn’t know where to go,” said the Parsons grad.
“Do they have any good egg rolls around here?” asked the grandmother, skeptically.
“I never come down here.” “I’m afraid I’d get lost.” “Me too.” “I don’t want to go somewhere expensive again.”
I couldn’t believe these women lived in Manhattan.
“I know a place,” I said. “Let’s go.” “Oh good, you can be our guide,” they all said, sounding relieved.
They followed me as I made a quick left onto Center Street and turned right, past lines of people waiting to visit inmates.
“I feel like we’re on a vacation tour,” my group exclaimed.
On Mott Street we were shown a huge round table at Big Wong, where several others were already shoveling mounds of saltand-pepper shrimp and steamed dumplings.
Busboys juggled dishes and chopsticks clattered as waiters slammed down glasses of hot jasmine tea in front of us.
“Is there alcohol in this?” asked the grandmother timidly.
“Does anyone want to split an egg roll?” asked the Bloomies buyer. For a moment I was anxious that my tour group was too overwhelmed to decide what to pick, but soon everyone was diving into the lunch spe cial, chicken and seasonal vegetables over rice. I was a little disappointed at the lack of adventure in their orders, but they were foreigners in this land and the price was right at $4.25 a person.
“What about coffee?” asked the Bloomies buyer.
“And dessert?” asked the Parsons grad. Now they were getting the hang of it. “Not many people realize, but the best coffee in the world is not in Rome, it’s in Chinatown pastry shops,” I said.
“Let’s go,” said the grandmother. In the end all four women were selected to be on the jury of the deli shooter.They were warned that the hearing could go on for months. Sadly, I was not among them. I was released after only two lunches. But I hope I provided my little tour group with the proper guidance, inspiration and menus to enjoy all the meals that are among the perks of a long, long trial.
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