Neighborhood Joint | Chinatown
Where ‘Chicken’ Actually Tastes Like Chicken
Annie Ling for The New York Times
By REBECCA FLINT MARX Published: September 20, 2012
IT was the vegan “beef chunks” that lured Chana Widawski to May Wah Vegetarian Market in Chinatown on a recent evening. “I’m an outdoors person and a big camper,” she explained. The chewy dried brown nuggets had been a hit with friends on a recent canoe trip — “Everyone loved them,” she said — and she was back for more.
Ms. Widawski, a social worker who lives in Hell’s Kitchen, is neither vegan nor vegetarian. But that hasn’t diminished her enthusiasm for May Wah’s offerings. When she stumbled on the place during a May Day rally two years ago, she recalled, “I thought: ‘Yes! That sounds awesome!’ ”
Going meatless presents little hardship in New York City. There are vegan and vegetarian restaurants of every description, to say nothing of cafes, ice cream parlors, doughnut shops, even food trucks. But May Wah fills a more unusual niche: selling meat substitutes. Near Chinatown’s border with Little Italy, its bright-green awning at the westernmost tip of Hester Street serves as a beacon to the flesh-averse and those who feed them.
With its lime-green walls, nonexistent décor and freezer section full of processed foods, May Wah looks less like a butcher shop than a 7-Eleven. But behind the freezer doors lurk soy doppelgängers of myriad cuts of the creatures of land and sea: black pepper steak, sugar cane chicken legs, citrus spare ribs, barbecue beef riblets, red spotted shrimp, imitation mutton, grilled eel and thick tubes of vegan ham. The frozen, sunny-side-up eggs are eerily perfect discs of soy and whey protein adorned with ersatz yolks the color of Doritos.
Flavor and texture can be less exacting matches. The “chicken” tastes like chicken, but some of the more exotic offerings are downright alien. Barbecue sauce gizzard is spongy and almost flavorless, while the (quite tasty) vegan shrimp resemble nothing so much as seasoned packing peanuts.
Lee Mee Ng, 58, opened May Wah in 1994 to satisfy her own craving for the fake meat she had eaten back home in Taiwan. At the beginning, business was fairly slow. But, Lily Ng, 28, her daughter, said: “People became more health-conscious over the last 10 years, and the younger generation is more animal-free. They ask their parents to get these items.”
Indeed, demand has been strong enough that May Wah has expanded twice to keep up, most recently three years ago. The store imports its products from Taiwan, where they are made by Taoist and Buddhist manufacturers; most bear the May Wah brand name. The inventory is 90 percent vegan and on its way to being completely animal-free. “There are more vegans these days,” said Ms. Ng, who helps manage her mother’s store.
May Wah’s customers include numerous churches and Buddhist temples that often buy whole “fish” and “chickens” for religious holidays, Ms. Ng said. The market also supplies many of the city’s vegetarian restaurants, though she preferred not to say which. “We also ship anywhere in the U.S.,” she said, motioning to an order slip she was filling out for a restaurant in Virginia. Unlike her mother, Ms. Ng is not a vegetarian (“I’m trying to transition”), but she has tried all of the store’s products. “It’s a requirement,” she said, laughing.
On a recent afternoon, Yuliya Tsukerman surveyed May Wah’s aisles before buying some vegan ham, a favorite. Ms. Tsukerman, 26, who is vegetarian, said the shop, which she first read about on Yelp, had been a boon for her home kitchen in Brooklyn.
“I go to restaurants that serve fake meat and thought there was magic involved, and that I could never make any of that stuff,” Ms. Tsukerman, a copywriter, said. “Then I found out all those restaurants get their meat from here. Why would I go to a restaurant when I can make this at home?” She laughed. “The charade is up.”