Great Gatsby Dumplings
Small dumpling shops on the periphery of Manhattan's Chinatown gave us our first glimpse of northern Chinese cooking. Standing at the counter we downed beggar's purses bulging with pork and chives, jellied beef reeking of star anise sandwiched on sesame bread, and hot and sour soup dense with bean curd, cloud ear mushrooms, and tiny lily bulbswith not a bowl of rice in sight. But what if, instead of two or three dumpling choices, you were faced with 59? Welcome to Flushing's Dumpling House.
Hard by a Buddhist temple that advertises karate classes, the café is a brightly lit box on Chinatown's outskirts, poised on the edge of a great depression that extends westward to Shea Stadium. The warehouses, auto body shops, and wooden houses become progressively more ramshackle as you descend. Seen by Nick from the train to East Egg, this is the landscape immortalized as the valley of ashes in The Great Gatsby, and apart from a new Home Depot, it doesn't look like it's changed since Fitzgerald's time.
The wealth of dumplings can be confusing. Grouped according to principal filling (pork, beef, lamb, seafood, fish, vegetarian, chicken, duck, and sweet), most also contain a secondary ingredient that is often surprising. In one vegetarian variety, scrambled egg is matched with dill, an herb I've never encountered in a Chinese restaurant before. Maybe it reflects the proximity of northern China to the former Soviet Union, where dill is czar of the herbs. Another shocker pairs lamb with slivers of orange calabaza squash that impart an agreeable sweetness to the lamb's strong flavor. That this filling would be entirely at home in a Pakistani restaurant points to a possible Islamic origin. While the best-tasting dumpling contained a combo of cilantro and beef, the most arresting, visually, was listed in the menu's small untranslated section (#52). Bite into one and out spills a dose of vaguely medicinal black chicken, made from chickens that really are black.
Dumplings come 12 to an order, ranging in price from $3.50 for chive with pork to $7.95 for triple fish delight. For an extra 50 cents, you can have the dumplings fried in pot-sticker fashion, leaving a crisp brown bottom and steamed top, increasing the grease level for better or worse. But you needn't tarry too long among the dumplings, since there are several additional menus plastered on the walls and scooted under the glass on each table. One lists chef's specials and extravagant casseroles, the best of which is made with venison rib and scallions ($14.95), the meat detached from the bone and the texture pleasantly mossy, while another features pheasant stuffed with ginseng-laced sticky rice ($12.95). Looking to Korea for inspiration, it's served in a jujube broth so good that you'll find yourself postponing the flesh till later. Stranger still is a chef's special of miniature crullers that look like caterpillars, stuffed with minced shrimp and saturated with an eggy lobster sauce ($8.95). Man, would this be good for breakfast!
But don't stop with the casseroles. A chalkboard menu offers small plates ($2-$3) which serve equally well as appetizers or side dishes. I'm not even going to speculate on the derivation of the cubed salad of tofu and "country-style egg" or the perky logjam of cucumber gobbed with garlic and chiles, though it seemed like the eggplant with basil sauce might have been borrowed from the local Italian restaurant. Still, if Nick were to disembark today at the Flushing station and walk two blocks west to Dumpling House, I bet he'd grab an order of the delicious pork and pickled mustard dumplings to eat on the train.
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