The path from the parking lot to the new Flushing Mall passes a political convention’s worth of flapping banners and pennants, and on a recent Sunday afternoon an Ecuadoran jazz combo had set up out front, the electrified notes of their panpipe eerily summoning customers. Inside, however, the mall seemed nearly empty until my friends and I worked our way downstairs, where we found a food court hopping with young Asians. Eleven illuminated menus overhang prep areas where dishes are assembled to order. To secure your selections, step up to the nearest register, place and pay for your order, then return to the counter to retrieve it. Keep track of what you’ve chosen—though the menus are bilingual, the pickup ticket is printed only in Chinese.
At Tasty Congee Shop, we acquired a steaming bowl of “healthy vegetable porridge” ($2.50), the usual soup of liquefied rice crammed with mushrooms and ginkgo nuts. The flavor was already rich, but we amped it up with vinegar, dark soy sauce, and chile oil from the condiment island in the middle of the court. From another counter called Cheng Du we enjoyed a plate of cold Sichuan noodles swimming in chile oil and topped with crushed peanuts, a lively variation on sesame noodles. Fried string beans ($2.95), coated with a thin layer of corn starch and a few shakes of red pepper powder, then deep fried in a wok for 30 seconds, was the biggest hit at Taiwanese Food.
About 60 percent of the court provender falls within the dim sum bailiwick, encompassing soups, dumplings, and noodle dishes. The most interesting in the last category is found at the counter called—with lavish use of hyphens—Ay-Chung Rice-Flour Noodle. The namesake ultrathin noodles fan out in a small bowl, floating like Ophelia’s hair in the Millais painting. The thick brown sauce tastes like hot-and-sour soup. Oddly, the adjacent Imperial Duck had no duck for sale (though they had it on a subsequent visit); we settled for a tasty trio of pork chops ($2.95) glazed with a sweet fish sauce on a bed of rice.
Two activity areas depart from the format. Shabu-Shabu is a minimart of plastic-wrapped fixin’s for hot-pot cookery, and the tables right in front are outfitted with individual radiant-cooking stations. At the end of the room, Sushi King features a high-tech conveyor belt, a stainless-steel steeplechase on which nori rolls chase nigiri sushi in a clockwise direction. Place your bets.
Ever seen tripe in a Jamaican joint before? I hadn’t, until I stumbled over the sidewalk chalkboard menu at TUMMY PARADISE (932 Utica Avenue, Brooklyn). Thick pillows of well-tenderized cow stomach recline in a tasty stew flavored with allspice, the brown terrain varied by humongous white beans. Pick white rice or rice ‘n’ peas to accompany. Though bony, Tummy’s goat curry is similarly lip-smacking and abundant. Other entrées on a Saturday evening included curry chicken, brown stew chicken, and escabeche fish, with fish cakes, fried dumplings, and the long doughnut dubbed “festival” offered as snacks.
LIL’ FRANKIE’S (19 First Avenue, 420-4900), the diminutive offspring of Frank’s on Second Avenue, is driven by a wood-burning oven that allegedly includes stone from Mount Vesuvius (who cares?) and reaches a temperature of nearly 900 degrees. The pizzas, offered in 11 combos with a few specials, are superb—thin-crusted, of irregular shape, and boasting top-quality ingredients. The polpettine, littered with tiny meatballs and flavored with sage, is a particular favorite. Alternatives include a modest selection of roasted poultry, fish, and vegetables. Skip the pastas, which get mushy in the oven.