Live lobsters, longan fruit and a small-town feel: Sunset Park’s Chinatown
Live frogs for $5.49 per pound, face masks made of snail slime and terrific tea.
Welcome to Sunset Park’s Chinatown, one of Brooklyn’s coolest places to shop. You may be familiar with the origin story of the neighborhood’s Eighth Avenue retail mecca, but it’s worth hearing again.
Starting in the late 1980s, Eighth Avenue’s high-vacancy retail corridor was revitalized by entrepreneurs who moved from Lower Manhattan’s Chinatown to Sunset Park, the Brooklyn Chinese-American Association’s website recounts.
The new arrivals to Brooklyn were joined by immigrants, initially from Hong Kong and later from Southeast China’s Fujian province.
Because eight is considered a lucky number in Chinese culture, Eighth Avenue is an especially propitious place to establish a business. According to the Brooklyn Chinese-American Association’s website, the Chinese words for “eight” and “prosper” even sound similar.
Also propitious? The presence of the N train’s Eighth Avenue and 62nd Street station, which offers convenient transit for all of us shoppers who live in other neighborhoods.
The subway station simplified the commutes of Chinese immigrants living in Sunset Park but working in lower Manhattan’s Chinatown; it was the first Brooklyn station on the N line to be above ground, according to association’s website.
They called it the blue sky station. It was immediately recognizable even to people who couldn’t read the English-language subway signs.
Eighth Avenue is vibrant and bustling. But for the most part, the buildings in which the shops and restaurants are located are rowhouses or other low-rise buildings, which gives the area a small-town feel.
We’ve rounded up our favorite places to shop — window or otherwise.
Fantasyland for foodies
First, let me show you the store with the live lobsters — which are $9.99 per pound — and the live frogs.
Fei Long Market at 6301 Eighth Ave. is a paradise for foodies. For photographers. For folks like me who get a kick out of encountering produce they’ve never seen before.
The seafood section of the store is spectacular. Gorgeous slabs of salmon range from $7.99 to $11.99 a pound.
Staples for your pantry include $2.49 packages of wide rice noodles from Hong Kong and many different varieties of soy sauce and sweet vinegar.
Intriguing-looking prepared foods can be found in the refrigerator cases. There’s a great variety of candy. Housewares include pretty tea cups for 99 cents apiece and $13.99 kettles for boiling the tea water.
The produce I saw on a recent visit included durian — which are spiky as hedgehogs — enormous cauliflower and the longest green beans I’ve ever seen.
There’s a food court that has gotten enthusiastic write-ups. I didn’t eat there because I’d already spent so much time at Fei Long Market that I was in danger of staying all day without visiting any other shops to tell you about.
One last thing. Non-food vendors occupy some of the supermarket space. One of them is selling toys, including a candy-apple-red, ride-on Mercedes Benz for kids. It’s priced at $268.
A facial treatment that’s green like Shrek’s skin
I bought the $2 face mask made of snail slime at the Face Shop, a cosmetics seller from Korea that has had a presence in metro New York since 2005. Its Sunset Park store is at 5913 Eighth Ave.
The shop has a wide selection of face masks and face packs.
It’s trendy to use snail secretion filtrate, which it’s also, more disgustingly called, as a moisturizing element in skin-care products. Don’t worry — the slime is harvested without harming the snails.
A Face Shop product that will make you smile: a face pack that’s called the Shrek Pack because it’s made with green clay that’s more or less the color of the famous Disney ogre’s skin.
Tea for two and two for tea
The terrific tea I mentioned at the beginning of this story comes from Ten Ren, where a pound of the shop’s highest-quality jasmine tea will set you back $110. There are several different versions of this tea with several different price levels. The lowest is $18 per pound.
There are some non-caffeinated tea options, such as $12 packages of rose petals.
Ginseng is another one of Ten Ren’s specialties.
The company was founded in Taiwan in the 1950s. The Sunset Park shop, which is located at 5817 Eighth Ave., sells excellent bubble tea.
The name Ten Ren means “heavenly love.”
So many bakeries
There are so many Chinese bakeries to choose from in Sunset Park. The one I’m obsessed with is Dragon Bay Bakery at 5711 Eighth Ave. because of its egg custard tarts.
They’re bright yellow like sunshine and cost $1 apiece. I discovered this dessert late in life and I’m trying to make up for lost time by eating it as frequently as possible.
This would be a good moment to mention that many of the restaurants, bakeries and bubble-tea places on Eighth Avenue are cash only. If you forget this, there are HSBC and Chase Bank branches on the avenue.
This would also be a good moment to mention something that has nothing to do with bakeries, but is important anyway. If you like to wear long, flowing dresses when you go out for summer strolls, don’t do so on Eighth Avenue shopping excursions.
Lots of merchants have outdoor displays of fresh fish on ice. They hose down the sidewalks frequently to keep things clean. Your hemline will soak up that fishy water like a sponge. You will not be happy.
Hot spots for cool produce
There are nifty food markets on every block. I’d particularly recommend two: New Zhong Hua Market at 5709 Eighth Ave. and M & K Market at 5601 Eighth Ave. — the latter because its longan fruit is priced at three pounds for $10. If you’re not familiar with the longan, its skin is brownish and rough, a bit like the texture of a potato skin.
Mary, Mary, quite contrary, how does your garden grow?
For all you gardeners out there, at 5701 Eighth Ave. there’s a tiny shop with a sidewalk display of ceramic planters. They’re graduated sizes that fit into each other like Russian nesting dolls.
The smallest planters are $5 apiece; the largest planters are $13 apiece.
For all you parents and grandparents out there, there’s a gift shop at 5309 Eighth Ave. that sells toys. It’s called the Sweety Shop. It’s got dolls and plush toys, stickers and art supplies, music boxes and dishware for toddlers.
Malaysian lunch and a Seventh Avenue tea house
There are lots of options for a great lunch in Chinatown. One of them is Langwaki at 5323 Eighth Ave., which serves Malaysian food.
The previous tenant of this corner storefront was a restaurant named Nyonya, which also focused on Malaysian cuisine.
One of Chinatown’s most charming businesses isn’t on Eighth Avenue, but it’s close.
Prince Tea House at 6122 Seventh Ave. focuses on dessert. There are some light entrees too.
When I stopped by the other day, I drank black foam tea, which is iced and really good. But if you want an old-fashioned tea house experience, order hot tea. It comes in a pot and is served in flowered porcelain tea cups.
Follow reporter Lore Croghan on Twitter.
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