Fong Inn Too is the oldest family-run tofu shop in New York City and, quite possibly, in the United States. Founded on Mott Street in Chinatown in 1933, it closes forever tomorrow--Sunday, January 15.
Third-generation co-owner Paul Eng showed me around the place. Upstairs, a massive noodle-making machine churns out white sheets of rice noodle, sometimes speckled with shrimp and scallion. Downstairs, a kitchen runs several hours a day with steaming woks and vats of tofu and rice cake batter, including a fragrantly fermenting heirloom blend of living legacy stock that dates back decades.
Eng's family came to New York from Guangzhou in the Guangdong province of China (by way of Cuba), like many of Chinatown's earliest immigrants. His grandfather, Geu Yee Eng, started the business, catering mainly to the neighborhood's restaurants. His father, Wun Hong, and later his mother, Kim Young, took over after World War II and kept it going, branching out from tofu to many other items, including soybean custard, rice noodle, and rice cake.
Brown rice cake waiting to be cut
The rice cake is the shop's specialty. It has nothing to do with the puffed rice cakes you eat when you're on a diet. This cake is fermented, gelatinous, sweet, and sticky like a honeycomb. It comes in traditional white as well as brown, a molasses creation of Geu Yee Eng, and it is an important food item for the community.
A few times each year, the people of Chinatown line up down the block for rice cake to bring to the cemeteries, leaving it as an offering to their departed relatives.
"It's a madhouse," says Paul. "They come early to beat the traffic and fight each other for the rice cake." No one else makes it--Fong Inn Too supplies it to all the neighborhood bakeries. "Once we're gone, it's gone." Customers have been asking Paul where they will get their rice cake for the next cemetery visit. "I tell them I don't know."
Cutting the white rice cake
The Engs have sold their building and Fong Inn Too goes with it. Business has been hard, though Paul's brothers, Monty and David, have done their best. Their father passed away earlier this year. Their eldest brother, Kivin, "the heart of the place," also passed. Their mother tried to keep it going, but "her legs gave out," and she had to stop. The closing, Paul says, has been hardest on her. "This place is like a child to her."
Paul is the youngest of his siblings and, while he worked in the store as a kid, he doesn't know the business anymore. Like many grandchildren of immigrants, his life is elsewhere. As for the fourth generation, there's no one available to take over.
"I'm in mourning," Paul told me--for the shop, for family, and for his childhood home. Maybe also for the Chinatown he used to know. "The neighborhood has changed a lot. When I was a kid this was all hustle bustle. Now it's so quiet. No one lives here anymore."
"No one" means no Chinese people. "Gentrification," says Paul, is "starting to trickle in. This old section of Chinatown is kind of orphaned off. It doesn't know where it's going to be." He wonders if it will become like the Chinatown of Los Angeles, with no Chinese people, just tourists and souvenir shops for tourists, a theme park of what a neighborhood used to be.
You have only this weekend to visit Fong Inn Too (46 Mott St.) and buy their delicacies. After tomorrow, they'll make no more.
The family will stay around to celebrate one last Chinese New Year on January 28 and February 4. They'll sponsor a few big dragon dances and then say goodbye.
The noodle machine in action--this photo by Paul Eng