The question I get a lot is "which of the hole in the wall places are actually good?" in other words, "where can I get a cheap and tasty meal that won't leave me feeling terrible the next day?" Yelp is not your friend in this case, unless you want to be seated next to someone who is as confused as you about what to order.
I am by no means the expert on all the restaurants in Chinatown, but I have explored and eaten around enough to be able to point you to a few of my favourite hole in the wall cheap eats.
Tiny window store selling the best rice rolls, Sung Hing Lung Co.
You'll notice that most of these are concentrated around Eldridge Street - this area of Chinatown is known as "Little Fuzhou" and named after the vast population of people from Fuzhou living and working in this area. There is a huge focus on "xiao chi" which literally translates to "little eats" (or less literally "street eats") from Fuzhou, hence the concentration of these hole in the wall joints.
If you wanted to try all of these places in one go, you can get one thing from each place and cover it for less than $15 - you don't even need to worry about tax and tip. But likely, you'll find yourself at at most three places before you tap out in food coma. And remember to leave your credit cards at home - it's the real experience here, so bring your dollar bills.
I was introduced to this place by my chef friend Dan at Daniel. (Enough said?) This not-so-3-star looking dining room does the best peanut sauce noodles and boiled pork and chive dumplings.
Must try: $2 Peanut sauce noodles (ask for the thick rice noodles over the egg noodles), boiled pork and chive dumplings
Address: 118 Eldridge Street
Peanut sauce noodles (ban mian) (photo credit)
Ting Jiang Fish Ball
I love it when I find a great place that isn't even listed on Yelp. Ting Jiang Fish Ball is one of those underground joints on Eldridge, on the other side of the road from Properity Dumpling. They have a pretty extensive menu for a hole in the wall joint, but I am a huge fan of their stir-fried rice cakes.
Must try: $3.75 Stir-fried rice cakes
You may have heard of this famous cheap as chips dumplings joint on Eldridge. It isn't one of those over-hyped places. They do the best fried pork and chive dumplings for a ridiculously good price. There is very limited seating and usually a long wait, so consider this as a take-out joint.
Must try: $1 for 4 fried pork and chive dumplings
Pork and chive fried dumplings
Two doors down from Shu Jiao Fu Zhou is the very popular Vanessa's Dumpling House. If you're just passing by, you won't know that inside the tinted windows, there is almost always a queue for their dumplings, noodle soups, sesame pancakes etc etc. My favourite things to order from this menu are their peking duck sesame pancake, and the egg and chive pancake. Skip the boiled dumplings - Shu Jiao Fu Zhou does it far better, but try the fried dumplings if the queue at Prosperity Dumpling is too long.
Must try: $3 Peking duck sesame pancake, $1.50 egg and chive pancake
Located in the basement of the East Broadway Mall, you know this is going to be as dingy as it gets, but trust me, the food is delicious and so so cheap. Any of the fried goods (eaten typically at breakfast) are good - my favourite would be the triangle (or sometimes rectangle) shaped deep-fried turnip cakes and wash it down with some Chinese soy milk (sweeter and thinner). Note: this place is so authentic that you're not going to see an English menu.
Must try: Deep-fried taro cakes (called yu tou gao), fried mini pork buns (called xiao long bao here too, but not to be confused with soup dumplings)
Address: 88 East Broadway (basement)
Front to back: deep-fried taro cake (yu tou gao), deep-fried oyster-filled donut (hai li jian bing), thin rice paper noodles in soup (guo bian)
Some of the freshest tasting jerky in Chinatown - they have chicken, pork or beef, then you can choose spicy or non-spicy. It makes for a great snack as you walk around the Chinatown.
Must try: Spicy beef jerky
Hands down best steamed rice noodle rolls I've ever had. You can choose from a number of flavours, then they make it for you FRESH from the liquid mixture, and you can mix your own sauces - I really like to overdose on everything (peanut sauce, soy sauce, sriracha).
Must try: Chinese sausage and mixed vegetable rice rolls, sweet silken tofu (not in English on the menu)