“Some Columbia students told me the Chinese food around campus wasn’t that great,” Wang Yuanzhen tells me in Mandarin, nodding suggestively at Ollie’s Restaurant across the street. “So I opened a cart here.”
And not a moment too soon. After three years of suffering through oily fried rice and greasy lo mein from Morningside’s uninspiring Chinese joints, this little food cart feels like a blessing.
For a month now, Wang’s Northwestern Famous has been serving up delicious, cheap, and authentic Chinese street food next to the Columbia main gates on 116th and Broadway.
When I’m in line, I trade knowing smiles of anticipation with other savvy eaters as we eagerly await famous specialties like spicy cumin lamb skewers, egg and tomato rice, or pork sandwiches. This is the real deal, and we all know it. After seeing a picture of the cart on Facebook, one of my graduated friends bitterly wails:
Wang, who comes from Henan province in China, explains that his recipes are di-di dao-dao– a Mandarin expression that literally means “according to the method of the original place.” And it shows. The cumin lamb
skewers ($1 each) are nearly indistinguishable from the ones I devoured after bar-hopping nights in Beijing – tender and bursting with juicy flavor, with just the right amount of kick. The handmade dumplings ($5 for 10) are packed with fresh chives, and will be instantly recognizable to anyone who has ever spent time wandering local restaurants in China. The lunch special, a hearty rice platter topped with eggs, tomatoes and a side of cucumbers pickled in vinegar and honey ($5), is so legit that you’ll think you’re a Chinese schoolkid eating what your mom or dad packed you for lunch.
Which may not be too far from the truth. Wang, a father of three, prepares all of the ingredients by hand in his home in Queens. Once at Columbia, he cooks them to order with the help of assistant cook Xie Yunfeng. The service is light-speed, and usually delivered with a big smile. “I don’t speak a lot of English,” says Wang (in Mandarin). “But Columbia students have been really nice to me. And they seem to like all of my food.”
Wang shows no sign of stopping. He works seven days a week, much of that spent standing inside the cart during its hours of 11:30 a.m. to 8:30 p.m. I ask him what he does when he has free time. “I make Chinese food,” he says, breaking into a smile. Business is good, he says. If he saves up enough money, he’ll upgrade to a bigger cart so that he can expand the menu. For now, though, he’s happy.
After eating at Northwestern Famous, so am I.