Scenes From the Roosevelt Food Court
Flushing food courts are clearly here to stay. As fast as the landlords or Department of Health and Mental Hygiene can close them, others materialize in different spots. But that's a good thing, because the food courts represent our best chance to sample cutting-edge regional specialties recently arrived from China.
The latest to appear is Roosevelt Food Court, conveniently located steps from the terminus of the 7 train at Main Street and Roosevelt Avenue. The place sports an orange awning, and the premises are newly built out, with white walls, modern wiring, and a spacious, clean restroom. The lights are bright enough to do brain surgery, and the place stays open until around 9 p.m. every evening. At the moment, there are seven occupied stalls, numbered B1 to B5 on your left as you enter, and A1 to A6 on your right. Unaccountably, there are no stalls designated A4 and B4—maybe it's a matter of feng shui. Where B6 should be, there's a dining area. Some English is spoken at every stall—a real innovation for the Chinese food courts.
Visible through the front window, B1 is dubbed Eyili Kabab King, with a menu in Chinese, English, and Arabic. The jocular man behind the counter hails from the extreme western province of Xinjiang, and wears a blue pillbox skullcap appliquéd with white shapes of inscrutable symbology. This represents the first time the scrumptious Silk Road kebabs ($1 each), dusted with cumin and cayenne, have moved from outdoor carts into solid real estate. B1 also offers a pilaf of carrots and mutton ($3.99), baked-lamb turnovers called samsas, and chai tea.
B2 is a bubble-tea emporium, with an expansive menu of tapioca-bearing beverages. B5 ladles a broad selection of noodle soups, featuring noodles mostly made in the food court's basement: rice noodles, Lanzhou hand-pulled wheat noodles, and egg noodles. Two dozen receptacles display add-ins—sliced meats, pickled and fresh veggies, mushrooms, gingery relishes—that go into the soups. The limpid broth is excellent, and a bowl of soup noodles with three or four additions runs at $5. The couple that operates the stall emigrated from Liaoning, a heavily industrialized province to the northeast of Beijing, as their daughter excitedly told me.
B3 sells a dozen different dumplings, served boiled or available to take home frozen. On one visit, I brought L.A. food critic Jonathan Gold to help me identify regional specialties. He instantly spotted "scallion pie with beef" ($3) on the English menu, which you have to request. It was a roll-up of five-spice beef and cucumber spears in a dense scallion pancake, which Gold said originated in Shandong, a coastal province in the delta of the Yellow River that points like a turtle head at South Korea.
Crossing to the other side of the central corridor, A1–A2 is a duplex Taiwanese stall specializing in snacks and sweet things. The handbill menus are in Chinese, but once the counter guy realizes you're not Taiwanese, he hoists a big handwritten placard that spells out the options in English. Most remarkable is a wobbly white pudding made of rice powder ($3), topped with a thick, chunky sauce of pork and pickled mustard greens. There are also bright-red agar-agar pastries shaped like fish and filled with red-bean paste.
A3 is the Sichuan stall you've come to expect in every Flushing food court, displaying cold buffet items—tripe, crunchy pig ear, little nuggets of burdock—to be sluiced with chile oil and Sichuan peppercorns prior to serving. There's also a toss of enticingly vinegary but alarmingly white chicken feet with garlic cloves and fresh red chilies. The dan dan noodles ($3.75) are prodigal, dressed with a beany tahini, chile oil, ground beef, dried chilies, and, of course, Sichuan peppercorns.
The proprietors of A5 are from Shenyang, the capital of Liaoning. A small refrigerated counter sells sushi (the province is proximate to Japan and Korea), and there are noodle dishes, too, dressed from a mise-en-place behind the glass display panel and featuring 20 or so substances of a flesh and vegetable nature. You'll see the stall's finest production being cooked on a griddle at the rear—a flat stuffed pastry called shar bing ($1), stuffed with pork-sausage meat studded with scallions. The bing is beyond tasty—though you'd better hold it at arm's length to avoid bathing yourself with grease. Still, that would be a small price to pay for enjoying this amazing Chinese pastry.
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