New Year celebrations may be behind for most people, but I’m still looking forward to my favorite of the year: Chinese New Year. It’s about a month away, and as with Thanksgiving day and Christmas day, I’ll likely spend it in a Chinese restaurant in Seattle. Or, more likely, Bellevue, as that’s where the better Chinese restaurants are—specifically the Sichuan ones.
But what if I could be anywhere in America for Chinese food? The San Gabriel Valley in the Los Angeles area would tempt me (and wouldn’t disappoint), but at this point, I find myself leaning toward Flushing, New York.
Flushing? Yes. Get out of Manhattan, taking the #7 train to its last station. Better yet, fly into LaGuardia Airport, and you’re just a stone’s throw away. There’s an international melting pot of food in the borough of Queens, and Flushing’s the place if you want a full array of Chinese cuisine.
Now, if you’ve not been, I recommend you meet a man with passion and a plan to show you around: Joe DiStefano. He writes Edible Queens’ World’s Fare blog (stop the presses…it’s now the Chopsticks + Marrow blog), and based on what I’ve seen, he’s sampled so much of the street food and more in Flushing and beyond. DiStefano offers a variety of culinary tours of the area. He’ll likely greet you wearing a Mets cap and a #7 train t-shirt, with the fuchsia-colored logo bright on his chest. After “How do you do?” exchanges, a “Have any dietary restrictions?” conversation (hopefully not!), and then a “Hope you’re hungry!” admonition, you’re immediately into the hustle-and-bustle of the Flushing street scene, which feels a bit like Hong Kong.
As someone who’s been to Flushing before, I took a bit of a modified tour with DiStefano. It’s an absolute feeding frenzy, mostly from take-out joints, food courts, and the like, but it’s a great way to sample the variety of Chinese cuisine (Fujian, Xi’an, Sichuan, and on and on…) in a rather compact area of Queens. DiStefano has many interesting stories to share and can throw in stops from little shops (like a Malaysian mom-and-pop place) to large supermarkets (like the Assi Plaza Korean market, loaded with lots of kimchi), demonstrating that Flushing is far from just Chinese-populated.
Read on for photos of dumplings, buns, pork tongue, xiao long bao, and other highlights from the tour. Included you’ll find a few dishes from “Biang!” restaurant. We decided to do this one sit-down place, as I’d gone to Xi’an Famous Foods—whose popularity pushed the opening of the more upscale “Biang!”—just the day before. Photos from my meal at Xi’an and a few other New York City area Asian (and a couple of non-Asian!) restaurants are also included below.
First bite of the tour: These guo tie dumplings from “Jiao Jiao” at the New World Mall food court. The dumplings remain open at the ends but are still juicy (with crisp “wings”). I enjoyed watching the same vendor make hand-shaved noodles.
While waiting for the dumplings, Joe went to get the pork buns from elsewhere in the same food court.
Here’s the menu from Soy Bean Chen Flower Shop, a tofu store that’s basically a window on Roosevelt Avenue. I can’t help but laugh at the spelling. “Soybeancurd” is right to start, but then comes “Saline Deancurd” and “Cold Beabcurd.” I’m not sure what “Horsebean” and “Fried Rise twig” are.
Scooping some of the silken bean curd.
Here’s the soft beancurd. I like this version of dou fu fa, as the sweet syrup is comforting.
And here’s the “saline” version, topped with chili oil and scallions.
Around the corner from the tofu shop is Tian Jin, which is basically a little Chinese charcuterie shop.
Slow-cooked pork tongue from Tian Jin.
While I was in Tian Jin, a simultaneous purchase at White Bear, next door. Note that so many of these hole-in-the-wall places get an “A” rating from the Health Department.
Wontons with hot sauce from White Bear. Hard to resist.
As a sex educator, I did a double-take when I saw this sign. Upon second reading, I realized it doesn’t say “genitally.”
Some ping pong action at the Flushing Mall.
I was skeptical, but these xiao long bao (both pork, and pork-and-crab) from Diverse Dim Sum at the Flushing Mall were delicious.
Biang! is the evolution of Xi’an Famous Foods in Flushing. Momofuku-like, you don’t see many sit-down restaurants like this in Flushing’s Chinatown. These are boiled cubes of pig blood “tofu” with garlic, chili oil, soy sauce, and vinegar. I love pork blood!
At Biang!, spicy cumin lamb biang biang noodles. If I go back, I want to eat more spicy cumin dishes, including the grilled skewers.
Fiddlehead fern salad with Szechuan pepper oil and black vinegar at Biang!
Still at Biang!, quail eggs on sausage and toasted mantou slices.
Getting stuffed on the tour, I couldn’t resist a bowl of lamb noodle soup at the Golden Mall. I love the various noodles, with black vinegar and pepper to perk up the soup. (There would actually be more food to follow on the tour, including Qingdao jelly, with no need for dinner that night.)
The day before the Flushing tour, I went to Manhattan’s Chinatown. Having been to Xi’an Famous Foods when it was a hole-in-the-wall in Flushing, I was curious to try one of the three new Manhattan locations. This curiously delicious dish is called “spicy and tingly lamb-face salad,” which is “cooked lamb cheeks, tongue, eyeballs, and palate meat served chilled with bean sprouts, cilantro, celery, scallion, cucumber; spiced with Szechuan pepper and proprietary spicy sauces.”
Also at Xi’an, I absolutely loved the liang pi “cold skin” noodles: “wheat-based cold and chewy ribbon-like noodles, with seitan (wheat gluten) slices, blanched mung-bean sprouts, cucumber and cilantro; dressed with chili oil, soy sauce, and vinegar” (just $5!).
After Xi’an, some people recommended a stop for xiao long bao at Shanghai Cafe Deluxe. The red-light district-like interior made photography challenging. The xiao long bao were ma-ma (so-so).
It’s all about the buns at Golden Steamer. So many sweet and savory choices; I went with a lotus bun, which I enjoyed.
Some of the selection at New Beef King in Manhattan’s Chinatown. My pick: spicy beef tendon chunks.
I love that, as elsewhere, Little Italy is next to Chinatown in Manhattan. How could I not try a slice of New York Pizza? Actually, on my walk from Grand Central Station to Chinatown (pre-burn of calories!), I tried this slice from Famous Roio’s Pizza in West Village, the place the original “Ray” recently opened. This brought back good memories, but perhaps just a little too much cheese.
While reminiscing about New York food, here’s a shot of my sesame bagel from Brooklyn Bagel & Coffee Company. Now that’s a bagel!
…and that’s a cream cheese selection!
I passed through Queens again in October, so I asked Joe for a place that would be open when my plane landed at LaGuardia about 7am. He didn’t steer me wrong. Curry Leaves in Flushing is essentially a restaurant that turns into a hawker stand from 4am to 10am. This bowl of laksa, with items I could add a la carte, hit the spot. (I added two fishballs, fried tofu with pork, fried wontons, and curry chicken.)
I wanted to compare the xiao long bao at Diverse Dim Sum with these, from nearby Nan Xiang Dumpling House. I had fond memories of them, but turns out that Diverse Dim Sum’s are better.
Later that day, driving back through Queens to catch a flight home from JFK Airport, I simply had to stop at Uncle Zhou to compare the lamb noodle soup to the one I ate on the tour at the Golden Mall. I loved Uncle Zhou in the past, and this version remains my favorite.