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For years, I've kept quiet about something, confessing only to my closest friends and family: I don't like meat on a stick. I've tried to love kabobs and always found them dry. I ordered rounds of yakitori like the cool kids, but it was rubbery and dense. The marinated chicken from Halal carts always smells so good, but again, what they offer is often stringy and tough.
I have tried to avoid the topic in social situations. We can talk about religion and politics, but the issue of kabobs is off limits. Apparently, everyone loves to tear chunks of meat off of a wooden skewer. Supermarkets sell them already assembled and marinating, and when grill season rolls around, Rachel Ray types inevitably go ga-ga over the beauty of speared meat, peppers, and zucchini all lined up together. I just didn't get it.
A trip to Flushing was the last thing I imagined would change my stance on this matter. I was looking for street food, but expecting stir-fries and roast pork and those mysterious hard-boiled eggs submerged in plastic buckets. I found none of these, but I smelled meaty smoke and followed that aroma to the corner of Main Street and 41st Avenue, where a metal shack, labeled "Traditional Xinjiang Barbecue" was billowing smoke out its top.
Inside, a man and woman were turning skewers of beef, lamb, and chicken over a trough of glowing charcoal. I tried one of each ($1 per stick), out of journalistic obligation and curiosityChinese kabobs? The chicken suffered a fate similar to its Halal cousins, but I was floored by the deliciousness of both the beef and the lamb. It's the kind of food that makes you say "Holy shit," out loud, to no one. Aside from tender and delectable fattiness of the meat, the really fascinating element was the spices. Whole cumin seeds were sprinkled over the skewers in the last moments of cooking, letting them toast in the heat, and generous pinches of Cayenne pepper went with them.
Xinjiang is a large region, technically part of Northern China for the last half century, but at times controlled by the Mongols, Russians, and various Central Asian tribes. Culturally and ethnically, this area is more similar to the former Soviet Republics of Kazakhstan and Kyrgystan than it is to traditional China. So it's no wonder the flavors are so dissimilar to the Cantonese and Shanghainese food we're familiar with.
A few blocks away, an almost identical cart was set up on Sanford Street, also right off Main. I had to compare, didn't I? Here, two men ran the operation, and there seemed to be a hierarchy to the business. One of them wore a polo shirt, smoked cigarettes, talked on his cell phone, and took orders from customers, who gathered in a constant flow. He told me the food was Mongolian. The other man, in a white jacket, didn't speak to anyone, but manned the grill with intense focus. He cooked the meat slowly (again, beef, lamb, and chicken for $1 each), turning the skewers meticulously. He used a piece of cardboard to fan the flames periodically and scissors to snip off the tiny bits that got too charred.
It took a few minutes, but this guy was a true grill-master. The meat was hot and full of melting fat, shockingly tender and juicy. Hey, who doesn't love meat on a stick?