Chili-scorched chicken, cumin-showered lamb, hand-stretched noodles, treasure-filled hot pots. These new arrivals on Long Island’s Chinese restaurant menus can be found in profusion inside the narrow triangle whose points are Selden to the east, Centereach to the west and Setauket to the north.
This is Stony Brook Chinatown, and it may be the most exciting place to eat on Long Island right now.
Ten years ago, Chinese restaurants in and around the university served the same egg rolls, sesame chicken and orange beef found all over Nassau and Suffolk. Nominally Chinese, these dishes are, in fact, exemplars of a hybrid cuisine that evolved over decades, as immigrant chefs modified their food to appeal to the American palate.
In 2009, Beijing-born Tony Chen launched an authentic Chinese shot across the bows of local restaurants. Noting an increase of Chinese students at Stony Brook University, he opened Tao’s Delicacies in an unassuming Selden strip mall. At the time, he was cooking for the Three Village Central School District, and he was well aware there was no true Chinese food for miles.
Chen also figured the location was too far for car-less undergrads to drive, and his business plan was simply to deliver lunchboxes to campus. “The boxes were just ‘over-rice’ dishes,” he recalled. “I’d take orders the day before, and then tell the kids which parking lot to meet me at.”
But almost from the start, the students wanted to know the address of the restaurant. And somehow, they made the seven-mile trip to Selden. “At first we weren’t really a restaurant,” he said. “But every day we were packed.” From Chen’s kitchen issued pork and noodles in a sour broth, stubby Northern-style dumplings, and plenty of bones, heads and innards.
Chen was the first to capitalize on Stony Brook’s surging Chinese enrollment, but not the last. Over the years, more than 10 restaurants have opened within seven miles of the university. Chinese students make up a majority of their clientele, but they also have been a godsend for American fans of real Chinese food.
In 2006, Adam Yao arrived in Stony Brook from Shenyang (in China’s Northeast) to start his freshman year. At the time, he said, he was one of only 50 or so Chinese students on campus — by the time he graduated in 2010, “there seemed like thousands.” But in 2006, three years before the opening of Tao’s, the dining pickings were slim. In general, Yao found the Chinese food here “too sweet and, when it was supposed to be spicy, not spicy enough.”
As he approached graduation, Yao, who studied mathematics and mechanical engineering, was having trouble finding a job. “I didn’t have a green card, and no one wanted to hire me,” he said. So he suggested to his friend Phillip Zheng that they open their own business. (Zheng left the partnership in 2016.) The original idea was to open a restaurant within walking distance of campus, but the rents were too high. They found a space on Middle Country Road in Centereach, about two miles west of Tao’s.
Unlike Tao’s Tony Chen, however, neither Yao nor Zheng was a professional cook. But they knew a few restaurant owners in Flushing and got a recommendation for a chef, Jerry Chen (no relation to Tony Chen). “We were like kids to him,” Yao recalled. But the chef trusted his young bosses enough to take the job and, with his wife, moved to Long Island. (Yao rented a house for the restaurant’s staff so they would not have to commute from Queens to Centereach.)
When Yao’s Diner opened in 2011, there was no English on the menu and little spoken in the dining room. As with Tao’s, the students swarmed. Yao recalled his own undergraduate years, when “we went to Flushing to eat about twice a month. It took an hour and a half on the train. Now people don’t have to go.”
In 2015, Yao doubled the size of his dining room. The menu was eventually translated into English, and now he estimates almost half his customers are American. “But they are coming here for real Chinese food,” he said. Instead of the Northeastern food Yao grew up with, though, he decided to serve a mostly Sichuan menu. “In China,” Yao said, “it’s the most popular food.” In fact, while Stony Brook’s students come from all over China (as do the area’s Chinese restaurateurs), the incendiary cooking of Sichuan province, smack in China’s center, dominates most menus.
At Yao’s, the most popular dish is chongqing chicken, nuggets that are first deep-fried and then stir-fried with tiny red chilies and Sichuan peppercorns before being buried in even more chilies and sesame seeds.
“Sichuan food is a national sensation,” said Jun Liu, of the university’s China Center (see page 41). He is from Shanghai. “Young people especially like spicy food — in China and here on Long Island.” A gourmand with international tastes, Liu wishes there was more variety among the area’s menus. He especially misses the subtlety of China’s Guangdong (Canton) cuisine. The food of the South relies on very few ingredients but absolute freshness,” he said. “With Sichuan, it’s all about the spice.” There are exceptions to the Sichuan rule. Ten89 Noodle House has a Shanghai orientation, and Red Tiger Dumpling House specializes in Shanghai-style soup dumplings, as well as dozens of varieties of Cantonese dim sum.
After a year-long renovation-expansion, Tony Chen reopened Tao’s Delicacies in 2015 as Tao’s Fusion. Here, “fusion” does not refer to the ubiquitous Long Island style of combining American Chinese with sushi and pad thai. Instead, Chen tries to showcase as many regional Chinese cuisines as he can.
“In China,” he said, “most restaurants now are not regional. They serve food from all over the country.” Tao’s follows suit. This is one of the few places on Long Island to make its own Peking duck, a days-long process in which the birds are bathed in syrup, fanned dry and taken from refrigerator to freezer to oven, where they are hung so the excess fat drips away. Chen laments that his chamber oven is fueled by gas and not, as is traditional in Beijing, by the wood of fruit trees. (These Selden ducks are served as well at Chen’s restaurant, Tao’s Peking Duck House, which opened in 2017 in Glen Cove.)
Chen also will use classic recipes as jumping-off points. He recently started making a less-incendiary version of Sichuan boiled fish, wherein fillets are poached in a cauldron of crimson chili oil. Chen’s cooking medium is a shockingly verdant broth-sauce of spinach, jalapeños and cilantro.
In 2014, Chen opened Tao’s Bakery & Dim Sum, a tiny Stony Brook storefront that serves snacks and street foods from all over China — Cantonese dishes familiar from the dim sum repertoire (crystal shrimp dumplings) but also the wheaten meat pies and flatbreads of the North, and Sichuan ma la tang hot pot, whose name derives from the numbing-spicy sensation bestowed by the inclusion of Sichuan peppercorns.
Ma la tang, a kettle of simmering broth in which diners cook a variety of vegetables and meats, is usually on the table when Jack Yu eats at Tao’s Bakery. Yu, who is from Shandong Province on China’s east coast, is a passionate eater who will be a Stony Brook senior this fall. He cooks in his dorm, he loves Mexican and Indian and pizza, but he is grateful that when he needs one, he can find “a taste of home.”
During orientation, a fellow student took him to Ten89 Noodle House. Next, he tried Green Tea, one of the area’s most refined restaurants, and was comforted by the sautéed string beans. “It had the right taste,” he said. “Not identical to what I had at home — but even in China, different restaurants cook differently.” Ultimately, he found his happiest place at China Station, which opened last year. This raucous, budget-priced eatery has about 30 seats, half of them stools facing either the street or the open kitchen.
Yu comes here for the hot-and-spicy sauté pots served in enormous wood-parquet salad bowls, and the soups laden with lamien, the hand-pulled noodles of Gansu province, which neighbors Sichuan. Through China Station’s front window, you can usually see a fellow stretching, folding and stretching the supple wheat dough into ever-thinner strands.
What’s even more extraordinary is that China Station is not the first restaurant in Stony Brook to make hand-pulled noodles; that distinction belongs to Splendid Noodle, established in 2016, four miles to the south. With a smaller menu and a more sedate vibe, Splendid Noodle more than earns its name. The best soups feature beef tendon and pork intestine, both of which are outshone by the cold noodles, smothered with fragrant, savory minced pork and garnished with plenty of cilantro and cucumber to cut the richness and heat.
Such culinary riches would have been unimaginable a decade ago — and still are in most corners of Nassau and Suffolk. But in Stony Brook Chinatown, the food just keeps getting better.
THE BACK STORY
Today, out of 27,000 students enrolled at Stony Brook University, about 10 percent come from Mainland China. In fact, more than half of all international students at SBU are Chinese.
The increase is the result of a concerted effort on the part of the administration, according to Jun Liu, the university’s vice provost of global affairs and founding director of the China Center. He came aboard in 2016 with the express mission of “getting more visibility for Stony Brook in China — not only to attract ‘inbound’ students but to expand programs for ‘outbound’ students as well as to strengthen our research partnerships.”
Liu travels to China three or four times a year, often in the company of other SBU colleagues. In the spring, he was joined by university president Samuel L. Stanley on a three-city tour (Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou).
“With the Chinese economy booming,” Liu explained, “parents can afford to send their children abroad. And they consider the USA to be the top destination.” Over the past five years, he said, there has been a 326 percent increase in the number of Chinese students enrolled in U.S. universities.
Stony Brook, whose U.S. News & World Report ranking is 97, punches above its weight in China. As a public university, its tuition (currently $23,000 a year for undergrad) is lower than those of private schools. There’s its proximity to New York City. And there’s its relationship to Charles Wang, the Shanghai-born philanthropist and founder of CA Technologies, whose $40 million donation enabled the university to build the Charles B. Wang Center, dedicated to the celebration and exploration of Asian and Asian-American art and culture. (Liu’s China Center is inside the Wang Center.)
But it also has a China connection that goes back more than 50 years: Chen-Ning Yang, the Chinese physicist who taught at Stony Brook from 1965 until 1999. In 1957, Yang and his partner, Tsung-Dao Lee, became the first Chinese citizens to win the Nobel Prize. Although both worked in America, they became superstars in China, and, throughout his career, Yang advocated closer ties between the countries. When he retired from Stony Brook, he returned to China and became honorary director of Beijing’s prestigious Tsinghua University.
“C.N. Yang established the initial relationship between Stony Brook and China,” Liu said. “Now we are building on it.”