Ye Olde Chinese Banquet at the Grand Harmony

For most New York Chinese, the Grand Harmony Palace at 94 Mott St. probably stands a towering monument to the stereotypical Chinatown experience: the type of place serving mediocre dim sum without a touch of heart to it, by rude waitstaff who barely speak the National Language, let alone English, bearing the promise of unabashedly gunning after you for the forgotten 80 cent tip. I won’t lie- the place sucks. Still, it’s worth noting a restaurant has stood in the same place for a hell of a lot more than the twenty-odd years I’ve been in the country. An Inquiry in the Ascetic Tradition: What’s kept the Palace operating for so long?

Besides symbolizing bad breakfast and immigrant hijinks, the Grand Harmony is best known for its spacious banquet venue. It’s the classic; every bamboo rack and star (read: 1st and 2nd generation immigrants) knows the blueprint. You’ve got the tacky red curtains over the stage, the liberal use of front of house for storage of dirty linens, and the noisy, overcrowded dim sum space transforming into the noisy, overcrowded dining space in the span of a lunch rush. More than a few of our fellow Chinese have been married here, I guarantee you, and not because of the food. See, here’s the secret to the GHP’s success, what touches on every Chinese person’s soul, the ephemeral quality that brings to mind chopstick-spanked fingers and eating leftovers for three weeks straight:

It’s darn cheap.

Dirty laundry aired, let’s check out what the GHP is doing today, shall we? I was fortunate enough to visit the Palace for one of the many community events. I’ll hand it to the GHP, for cranking out mouthwatering banquet food in record time, the chefs there have got it down to a science. Check out the captions for a blow-by-blow:

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Who purloined my prawns? Melon, Apple and shrimp salad

 

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Steak and Peas! Bit of a curveball, very popular with western devils. Ever since the Chinese community started networking and intermarrying more with other folks, these have become more and more a favorite at banquets. Nothing special here, just a well-marinated steak and freshly wok’d peas. Juicy and delicious.
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Vividly Vegetarian: the abalone mushroom mimics its sea-faring cousin beautifully, though as neither foodstuff possess a face, I’m stumped as to the point of the dish. Slippery-smooth with savory oyster sauce and fresh bok choy
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The Ubiquitous Chicken: A must-have at every important event. Don’t ask me why, though, I assume it’s a sign of wealth just like everything else Chinese. The deep-fried rice crisps are a nice touch, and for those used to quaffing KFC, the juicy breast is a great Copernican revolution. Just try one for yourself!
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Ever hear of two people getting along like Squid and Milk? The milk is more of a custard, deep-fried, alongside sauteed squid in a garlicky sauce with sweet peppers. I’m pretty sure this dish evolved in this single restaurant alone; I’ve had it with deep-fried shrimp and walnuts, alongside melon pieces, all kinds of variations. Works surprisingly well, what with the competing textures and tastes.
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Just for the chok-sing: the ever-popular deep-fried spare ribs, tossed in salt and peppers. Usually over-battering works against a dish, but in this case the seasoned pork gets a helping hand from all the texture. Both thumbs up!
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Floundering for a Title. Deceptively strong with sesame and a little bit spicy, the flounder or cod (never found out which, probably the cheaper flounder) gets bulked out with the simple celery. Texture is helped along by a light coating of cornstarch or flour, probably deep-fried for a second or two.
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Mystery of the Background Bowls: SOLVED! A soup made from fish stomach, egg white and liberal cornstarch thickening. Extremely slippery, best slurped with red vinegar.

Why am I so hard on the GHP when there’s, in the words of the inestimable Alton Brown, good eats to be had? It’s kind of like your favorite uncle, the one who always shows up with the fireworks, or the best stories, or a treat for the young’uns, but inevitably sets the house on fire or cracks a perverted joke right after. Keep inviting him, but for Pete’s sake, don’t treat him seriously.

I remember coming here not long after I moved to America, and realizing with a start there were other people like me here, people black of hair and eye, who made the same bad jokes, who had the same taste for chicken feet and pig’s intestines. We could be as loud and as Chinese as we wanted to be at the GHP. The Palace was OUR place. For many of us, the Palace is a taste of home, however poorly recreated. Sure, there are authentic Shanghai, Vietnamese, and Cantonese restaurants just around the corner, but the Palace was the first of them, the place we all remember setting foot in at one point or another. Grand Harmony does so many things wrong because they offer a place for immigrants to work, for others to teach them how to adapt to New York, and to be around others like them so they can feel a little less scared. How much more American can you get? Grand Harmony Palace, may you live on another thousand thousand years.

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