Simone Tong, 35, East Village
“If you can survive this shop, you can survive anywhere in Chinatown,” chef Simone Tong says as she pushes through swelling crowds at the narrow Deluxe Food Market on Elizabeth Street. “Logistically, this is a headache every time,” she adds, laughing and dodging a group that’s charging toward the shop’s produce room in back. Tong heads directly for the steamy buffet trays, admiring rotisserie chicken and a glossy braised beef tendon that shimmers with the same ruby sheen as a platter of General Tso’s chicken but is texturally worlds away from the Chinese-American dish.
Tong, who was born in Chengdu, China, spent her childhood in many places—Beijing, Shenzhen, Macau, Hong Kong, Singapore—before attending high school in Melbourne and graduating from the University of North Carolina in 2006. In 2010, back in Asia, she watched an episode of After Hours with Daniel Boulud and “immediately fell in love” with a featured restaurant: wd~50. She dropped everything to enroll in New York’s Institute of Culinary Education and, upon her graduation, secured a gig with chef Wylie Dufrense in his legendary and eclectic kitchen.
On her days off, Tong would head down to this market, not only to seek a taste of home but to source ingredients for laksa, dandan noodles or hand-pulled chicken, which she’d cook for the staff meals at wd~50. “When I first came to New York, I was really nervous to shop here. But now I’m like, ‘I got this,’ ” she says.
Today Tong is actively seeking a Chinese immigrant who is “good at handiwork” to assist with the dumpling making in her new restaurant, Little Tong Noodle Shop (177 First Ave). The East Village eatery opened last month and serves Mixian rice-noodle dishes, which originate from China’s Yunnan province and are still a rarity in New York’s growing Asian-noodle landscape. To find the perfect base for her dishes, Tong blindly tasted 25 types of rice noodle, many of which can be found in the basement of Hong Kong Supermarket, a fluorescent-lit metropolis stocked with everything from mung-bean linguine to soba.
Upstairs at the supermarket, she sniffs packets of Szechuan peppercorns, trying to single out the most fragrant and tingling. Passing tanks of live sea bass, crabs and lobsters, she stops to pay homage to a chili-oil hero, the woman on the front of a bottle of Lao Gan Ma, incidentally one of the most successful female entrepreneurs in China.
Outside in the chill, she stops once again to consider a group of elderly shoppers scrutinizing heads of cabbage. “They’re making sure they get the best one,” says Tong, noting that she rarely sees shoppers in their twenties or thirties at these Chinatown grocery stores. “I think [millennials] just want to go out to eat. Hopefully when they get older, this still goes on,” she says. “I come here and get really excited, discovering new things every time.”—Melissa Kravitz