Kissena Boulevard is the strip-mall capital of Korean Flushing, lined with clusters of barbers and beauty shops, greengrocers and video stores, bars and restaurants—among them Haejo, billed as “Korean-Chinese” on the green awning. In its bright interior, shiny columns stand sentry along the walls, as rows of booths shape up on either side of a low wall. Curiously, a grainy black-and-white TV hovers up near the ceiling. As you try to make sense of the menu, you become aware of a rhythmic thud-thud-thudding from the direction of the kitchen, growing louder like Poe’s telltale heart. The sound synchs with a burly man on the monitor, yanking thick doughy ropes and smashing them against a counter with lethal force.
Though it offers nearly a hundred diverse dishes that spin Chinese food for Korean tastes, the raison d’être for Haejo is homemade wheat noodles of the sort that were carried across the Yellow Sea by Chinese refugees from Shandong province in the ’50s and are still made mainly by Chinese expatriates—inducing a Tampopo-ish obsession in Koreans. Several feet long and of squarish and inconsistent circumference, the noodles are never cut with a knife, but break off naturally when the guy’s done whacking. They may seem ordinary at first, but your appreciation for their resilience and flavor increases with every bite. The single variety is hidden in the second “Soup” section, near the end of the menu. Most popular among the teens who jam the place in the
early evening are the nearly indistinguishable “noodles with brown sauce” ($5.50), “noodles with special brown sauce” ($6), and “noodles with special brown Peking sauce” ($6.50). We splurged on the third and received a good-sized quantity sided with a bowl nearly overflowing with brown goo. Flecked with carmelized onions, it was beefy and much less salty than it looked. Though leaving something to be desired as a sauce, it triumphed as a lubricant. It would probably be equally effective on a car axle.
The noodles come with a pair of scissors, a necessity if you want to share or keep your shirt clean. Other noodle moisteners include the oxymoronic “gravy soup” ($7), a colorless and odorless viscosity enlivened with egg drops, scallions, mushrooms, and bits of seafood; and the more Korean-tasting “noodles with hot seafood soup” ($7.95), a characteristic Seoul-food broth of liquid fire. All noodle dishes are served with sides of kimchee and yellow pickled daikon.
Exploring the remote reaches of the menu would take more patience and money than you probably have, so here are a few tips. The price of “meat ball with Peking sauce” ($14.95) seems extravagant until it arrives—a hubcap of eight quarter-pound hamburgers in a vegetable-laden gravy with the merest chile bite, enough for an army. Pork with leek is similarly bountiful, thin tendrils of meat amid humid masses of scallions (no leeks in sight) ramified with clear vermicelli resembling fiber optic cables. A Shandong oddity that you’re unlikely to see on other Chinese menus is yang chang pee ($17.95), a regimented seafood and vegetable assortment including carrots, radishes, bellflower root, Napa cabbage, mushrooms, wood fungus, shrimp, squid, and, unfortunately, fake crab. The dish needs to be tossed like a salad with all the tangy mustard sauce. Watch out nose! But the best dish of all was gan poong sae woo ($16.95), a way-better analog of Chinatown’s salt-baked shrimp that features at least 12 jumbos fried in a thin and crisp breading doused with sweet chile sauce. Don’t be scared off by the peas.