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When was the last time you looked up from the plate and proclaimed to your friends, “This food is amazing!” I had the pleasure recently at Henan Feng Wei (“Henan Flavors”), a newish northern Chinese restaurant hidden on a side street in downtown Flushing. Before me sat “fatty beef casserole” ($6), a rather ho-hum name for the reservoir of angry red oil that burbled in a metal chafing dish. Floating on top were wads of paradoxically lean brisket, bright green baby bok choys, cloud-ear ‘shrooms undulating like brown jellyfish, and orange jujubes—not the Western candy, but miniature Asian dates. A further surprise awaited us: Concealed below the surface were seaweed-like masses of yuba, a rubbery fettucine made from bean-curd skin and more fun to eat than you can imagine.
The restaurant presents food from Henan, a small-but-populous province that lies northwest of Shanghai just south of the Yellow River, regarded as the cradle of Chinese civilization. You’d never suspect Henan Feng Wei was so good just by gazing down at the basement premises from the street. Situated in a vertical mall of five stories populated by importers and massage parlors, the establishment occupies a painfully well-lit space approached from an exterior stairway. The dining room is boxy, with a counter than runs along two walls, behind which women in hairnets pat small thick flatbreads, prepare oil-slicked vegetable and offal salads, noisily slap noodles on the counter, and assemble soups and dumplings. That’s the totality of the menu, which is refreshing if you’re accustomed to plowing through the hundreds of dishes on most Chinese menus.
The place seems like a clubhouse, and many of the patrons are middle-aged men, who drop by for an evening meal and then sit for hours discussing business affairs and reminiscing about the past over a beer or two. Printed on a series of loose pastel pages, the bill of fare is simple and incredibly cheap, with most dishes costing $6. The priciest thing on the menu is “Big Tray of Chicken” ($12). What arrives is not a tray, but a wok filled with dozens upon dozens of small bony chicken fragments flavored with cumin, deposited in more of that red chile oil—reservoirs of it must be concealed beneath the floorboards. Fishing around for the bird parts is like bobbing for apples at a birthday party.
In the northern Chinese style, the dumplings are big and shaped like bowler hats, 15 for $6. Two types are available—pork with either bok choy or chives—and boiling is the only means of preparation. Not surprisingly, given Henan’s proximity to Shanghai, soup dumplings are also offered, but the gravy inside is not good enough to distract you from the regular dumplings, which are excellent. Speaking of soups, Henan Feng Wei makes a pair of notable ones, each using tart white broth: One is “sour dumpling soup,” containing jujubes, lotus shoots, and cilantro, in addition to dumplings. “Lamb innards soup” is the other—and when the menu says “innards,” it’s not kidding. The assortment was different every time we tried it, but one evening my crew and I disinterred liver, heart, and little lamb kidneys, which might have been dissected by some ovine pathologist, so easy was it to discern the renal pyramids, arterioles, and other anatomic details.
Since it contains no noodles or dumplings, the organ-meat soup came accompanied by one of the flatbreads you may have seen the cooks making when you entered. These same breads are used to construct what the menu calls “hot pockets” ($1 each) in emulation of something found in the supermarket freezer case. They’re also used to make “pork pancakes”: Stuffed with shredded meat and little else, these sandwiches are similar to the so-called pork burgers popularized by Xi’an Famous Foods. Meat lovers will also rejoice at the meatball casserole, which features a half-dozen or so carousing in a wonderful ginger broth. The fragrance alone is worth the $6.
There are only 24 dishes on the menu, but an off-menu selection of salads is also available—many lubricated with hot oil and Sichuan peppercorns. View them in the glass case on the left of the counter. Thin-sliced pig ears and coarsely chopped celery are both notably refreshing, but our favorite was a small pile of breaded chicken tidbits fried deep brown, spritzed with a sweet-sour vinaigrette, and decorated with star anise.
Taste it and I think you’ll concur the dish is deliriously good—what I might have more trouble convincing you of is that fried chicken tossed with a tart dressing qualifies as a salad.