Regional Chinese Fare Hits Flushing Like a Ton of Bricks
Downtown Flushing has long been a Taiwanese stronghold. But now northern and western Chinese fare has flooded Main Street and its tributaries, represented by gleaming carts with strange round chimneys that vend cumin-dusted meat brochettes, from Xinjiang by way of Beijing. There are also hot-pot places and restaurants specializing in lamb and goat, all heavily influenced by the Silk Road cuisines of Central Asia. But the best examples currently occur not in restaurants, but in makeshift food courts. A year ago, we reported on J & L Mall, which recently went belly-up. Picking up the baton a few blocks north is Golden Shopping Mall, showcasing an even more arcane assortment of Chinese regional cooking styles.
The downstairs currently features nine food stalls, with more under construction. If you enter by the door on Main Street (there's another entrance on 41st Road), you'll find yourself at the upper-left-hand corner of the "T" in which the stalls are arranged. They're identified by numbers, and many have no English menus—no matter, there is invariably someone nearby who will volunteer to translate, and the proprietors are pleased to have you point, too. I went several times with a crew that included Chinese speakers; here are our notes.
On your immediate left, find Stall 31, also known as Chengdu Sky House, named after the Sichuan capital. The standard dan dan noodles ($3) are good, but even better are the composed meat salads, including one of tongue, tendon, and tripe which arrived plunged in an astonishing quantity of red chile oil, and dusted with Sichuan peppercorns and crushed peanuts. Printed on an orange cardboard sign, the stall's signature is hot pot noodles ($4). From its depths we pulled translucent sweet-potato noodles, pork, kelp, cloud ears, sprouts, Napa cabbage, and cauliflower. "This tastes like chai tea," Jorie exclaimed, noting the faint presence of cardamom and clove. Also delectable were the wobbly dumplings that looked like albino goldfish swimming in red oil.
Next-door, Stall 32 offers the food of Wenzhou, a coastal city in the Zhejiang province south of Shanghai. The stall offers finger-shaped fish cakes fried like tempura and deposited in a limpid sweet-sour broth ($3). The stall was out of the beef-noodle soup advertised, but they did have a selection of hearty cold dishes, including thick slices of pig's ear served with a deeply flavorful soy sauce ($5).
Directly across the hall, Stall 38 presents the food of Tianjin, a city-state just east of Beijing. A place from the same region in the old J & L Mall mainly sold the wheaten baked goods for which the city is famous, but this establishment concentrates on round steamed dumplings stuffed with leeks and pork. A couple of salads stood out: one of elastic bean-curd skin tossed with Chinese celery and salty boiled peanuts; and another of pressed and smoked tofu with cucumber spears in a light sesame-oil dressing. Tianjin food is known as some of the healthiest in China, and the stall's proprietor—wearing a baseball cap and a big smile—is an enthusiastic advocate for it.
West of 38 is Stall 36. As the sign proclaims, it vends the cuisine of Xi'an, the capital of Shaanxi and a city with a notable Muslim presence. The stall is justifiably proud of its noodles—thick wheat-flour ribbons sliced from a tubular roll in various widths, assembled into cold compositions or soups (try lamb noodle, $4.50) at a neat mise-en-place that includes wine vinegar, chile oil, mutton broth, soy sauce, and a dark sesame tahini. Another prominent ingredient is a spongy tofu that handily absorbs all the sauces rained upon it. Don't miss the so-called lamb burger ($2.50), a wonderful sandwich on a homemade pita layered with rich roasted meat and pickled chilies. ("The bread looks and tastes like an English muffin," Winnie noted.)
Stall 27 whips and smacks the same Lanzhou noodles we've come to love on Eldridge Street, while Stall 1A concentrates on dumplings. (Ignore the menu over the counter, left over from a previous occupant.) Sit at one of the tables and you'll be surrounded by people rolling dough and stuffing it with pork mixtures. The round steamed dumplings are exceptional. The proprietor and a female employee were busy nipping off bits of dough when Ray, one of our translators, stepped forward and joked that the guy wasn't working as fast as the woman. The proprietor—who comes from Tianjin—flashed an appreciative smile and replied in Chinese: "That's because she's my apprentice."
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