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Mystery Mall

Food court revels in a variety of regional Chinese styles

Not long ago "eade" posted a rough description on chowhound.com of a new food court on the southern end of downtown Flushing. To me it was like catnip. Across from the stone eagles of the U.S. Post Office, J&L Mall boasts a bright-blue awning, and the interior is configured in an upside-down "J." There are seven occupied food stalls, plus a larger space that flogs CDs and DVDs. Menus are posted, but only in Chinese. After a visit in which I spotted Sichuan, Fujianese, and northern Chinese fare, I assembled a posse of Chinese-speaking friends—including Irene, Winnie, and Jonathan—to help me unravel the mall's mysteries.

Numbering the stalls counterclockwise beginning on the right just inside the front door, stall one is Fujianese, offering a steam table of congee, noodles, excellent doughy dumplings fried on one side, and fish balls, which issue from a eccentric groaning contraption that looks like a cement mixer. The fish balls ($2 for five in light broth) have a surprise filling of chopped pork. "The pork in my fish ball is mainly lard," Winnie noted.

Stall two is vacant. Stall three features the food of Guizhou, a mountainous region southeast of Sichuan. Plates of soy-braised organ meats cover the counter; the thin-sliced beef tripe is inordinately delicious. The specialty of the house ($3.50) resides in a pot brimming with red oil on a side table. The friendly proprietor fishes out a hunk of tender braised beef, coarsely dices it, adds broth from a stock pot on the stove, drops in rice noodles or wheat noodles, then from a neat mise-en-place adds spices, green chiles, and cilantro. Double yum!

Next there's a seating area decorated with a picture of an 18th-century frigate, and then a Sichuan stall displaying the kind of appetizing dishes found at Spicy & Tasty, only tastier. Featured are incendiary oil-slicked peanuts, beef tendon, and sesame-dotted dried beef; and milder lily buds, sour cabbage, and smoked pig intestines. The best offering is a lush, grainy version of dan-dan noodles ($3.50) that will set your mouth on fire with chile oil, then anesthetize it with Sichuan peppercorns. At the apex of the mall, stall five is a Fujianese noodle maker such as you might find on the lower end of Eldridge Street. Tossed in bowls of soup featuring a choice of meats, Lanzhou hand-pulled noodles constitute a stall specialty.

Just below the inside curve of the J, and communicating via a door, stalls six and seven flaunt fried and steamed pastries, including cudgel-size crullers and pillowy white mantou loaves of inordinate size. After an animated conversation with the stocky and avuncular proprietor, Irene discovers he hails from Tianjin, an autonomous port city adjacent to Beijing sometimes called "the Shanghai of the North." Tianjin was once the granary for the capital, hence the emphasis on wheaten baked goods. When asked for the stall's specialty ($2), the dude cracks an egg, whips it, and pours it on the griddle. When it finishes cooking, he folds the egg around one of the blistered frybreads on the counter, first swabbing it with a tangy sauce. The result is yellow, crunchy, and scrumptious.

We stood in front of stall eight too stuffed to continue. "What's in that one?" I asked Irene. "Oh, just some Chinese snacks," was her deadpan reply.

 
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