My mom and her siblings grew up around Two Bridges. I spend a lot of time out there. Like, A LOT of time. Maybe I’m trying to find some sort of cross-generational common ground between me and my aunts and uncles. Maybe I’m fed up with choosing “Two or More Races” on job applications, and want to skew the biracial polarity closer to my Chinese side. Maybe I just really like the Cheung Fun at Sun Hing Lung. Maybe I like visiting my aunties because I know they’ll take any excuse to feed my skinny frame. Whatever the case, it’s a safe bet I’m bumbling around somewhere in Chinatown at any given moment.
And now for a history lesson nobody asked for, by somebody unqualified to give it:
Two Bridges retains its cultural bubble within Chinatown, squeezed between two literal bridges, and gerrymandered between the Financial District and the rest of Lower Manhattan. It’s a maximally Chinese neighborhood, and the operant businesses within it wear the same suit. This crowded river-front section of lower East Manhattan finds hundred-year-old tenements squeezed between Catholic, Presbyterian, and Buddhist houses of worship. Layer upon layer of history remind current residents—mostly first- and second-generation Chinese families—what it meant to come to a new city, a new country, and make it in a society that wouldn’t hold their hand.
A few upstart bars, restaurants and cafes have tried to sprout down under the shadow of the Manhattan bridge overpass, though few have survived much longer than a year or two. I don’t know if it’s an inability to penetrate that aforementioned cultural bubble (these 80-something-year-old Popos (婆婆) aren’t going to be caught sipping single origin drip coffee), or if it’s just a general lack of foot-traffic. The lack of bustle might be why I spend so much time bumbling around here. No brunch lines in sight. Familiar interactions between neighbors living in two completely different project housing complexes. I’m not the authority to speak on the above effect - but observationally, I suspect those businesses didn’t serve the true, daily, survival-related needs of the residents, and died out as a result. And we Chinese are nothing if not utilitarian.
Enter: Golden Diner.
I don’t suspect the same fate awaits Golden Diner, whose short, distinctly Asian-tinged menu of breakfast and lunchtime classics serves the neighborhood openly. It’s a welcome change from what most expect from a typical diner menu, a playground where choice paralysis unapologetically rears it’s ugly head.
“Why are there 25 different types of omelettes? Blueberry or banana walnut pancakes? Why is spanakopita on here twice? Is this place cash only?”
- Probably you at a diner at some point in your life.
Fear not, worrying patron. A mantra for you, that I discovered at Golden Diner.
“Keep it simple, stupid.”
- The U.S. Navy, but also Golden Diner.
Samuel Yoo, formerly of Momofuku Ko and Torrisi, is transporting diner fare into this time period. Yoo grew up in Queens eating at diners, and his concept aims to, “preserve diner culture.” Yoo’s take on this is keeps it fresh and vibrant, appealing to denizens of the neighborhood and newcomers alike. The lack of pretense here, not to mention very fair pricing, is refreshing.
Let’s talk about the food.
His short menu sports a colorful selection of diner favorites new and old, from kaffir lime leaf avocado toast, to matzoh ball soup. Some highlights from what I’ve tasted:
As a rule, I try not to pay for avocado toast. The overhead for most places on it is maybe $2.50 (their costs being bread, 1/2 an avocado, and if they’re feeling generous, some combination of feta/tomatoes/microgreens). Dude. I can make that better at home AND save $13.
But this? I can’t make this at home. And I’ll break my own rules for it. Golden’s version of avo toast finds kinship with the congee dish bubur ayam and is distinctively Indonesian, topped with Kaffir lime leaves, Thai basil, fresh turmeric root, pickled red onion and galangal. It’s harmonious. It’s explosive in flavor. And I’ll pay for it any day of the week.
Chicken Katsu Club
Oh, you were wondering about their rendition of a club sandwich? Well, it’s Chicken Katsu. Look at god.
It’s simple. Fried cutlet, BLT, red cabbage, and bulldog sauce, directly to the face. One of the most texturally dynamic and delicious club sandwiches I’ve had in a long while. Please don’t play yourself - get it deluxe with fries and a Pickle Guys pickle, PLEASE.
If you thought Einstein was a genius, think again. I don’t remember Albert ever putting crispy hash browns inside a breakfast burrito. You know who did? The boys and girls at Golden Diner. Genius.
This humble tortilla houses what is, in my opinion, an exceedingly good breakfast burrito. Eggs, those crispy potatoes, black beans, pico, and cheese. Perfect for inducing comas, or curing hangovers.
Matcha Coffee Cake
It would be bad behavior to leave here without ordering this for the table (or yourself). Start or end your meal with this, and find true contentment. Streusel topped, moist, with that delicate blades-of-grass-like Matcha flavor baked in.
It’s a diner. Through and through.
The vibe inside reflects everything this place is - equal parts old-school-cool and reformist in the same vein. Big windows let in tons of light, and sea-foam green bar seats overlook the shotgun kitchen. The walls are covered in original artwork and photography from local artists, thematically centered around the neighborhood and its rich history.
Come here. It doesn’t need to be some big event. You won’t need to call ahead, or plan around wait times. This is new, eclectic, comforting, and simple diner food in a familiar space.
Golden Diner is a welcome edition to the neighborhood, and it’s here to stay. For a long time, I hope.