Flushing’s Yi Lan Halal Restaurant is New York’s first real Muslim Chinese establishment. While the city has seen plenty of Halal East Asian food (such as Brooklyn’s No Pork Chinese Kitchen), these places merely reconfigure Cantonese fare for observant devotees of Islam. By contrast, Yi Lan represents the cooking of the Muslim population of northern China. It resembles restaurants I’ve eagerly sought out in L.A. and the Silicon Valley, where a small number have flourished over the past decade, characterized by dome-shaped and seeded wheat breads, lots of familiar and unfamiliar seafood prepared in delightful and unusual ways, fist-size dumplings, and assorted lamb cuts that make their way into stir-fries, grills, and salads, sometimes fiery-hot.
What a welter of intriguing textures and crazy combinations awaited us at Yi Lan! The so-called dry bean curd with shrimp ($12.95) was anything but desiccated—an oozy swamp of rehydrated tofu that floated like tiny contraceptive sponges in the beige broth, with bobbing shrimp adding tasty nautical notes to an otherwise landlocked dish. By contrast, sautéed sliced lamb ($12.95) proved as dry and gritty as the Gobi Desert, though the cumin-scented squiggles were slicked with enough ovine tallow that they slid down the gullet easily, amid much lip-smacking. And in sea cucumber Shang Dong style ($16.95), jellylike globs of horny undersea worm lurked in a transparent broth hidden by pretty lily pads of yellow omelet—demonstrating, once again, the ubiquity of eggs in the northern Chinese diet.
Yi Lan stands among several other Mandarin spots on Main Street, a half-mile south of Flushing’s traffic-strangled downtown. So relaxing is the neighborhood that one diner at my table exclaimed, “This feels like a strip mall in St. Louis!” The restaurant is bright, comfortable, and minimally decorated. In contrast to Darda, in Milpitas, California, where photos of Mecca adorn the walls, there’s no sign that this is a Muslim eatery, except for “Halal” stenciled on the green awning, and chef Ling Da Wei’s knitted skullcap. Ling comes from Tianjin, a former city-state southeast of Beijing that’s known as the breadbasket of northern China. While there’s no domed bread on the menu, there are plenty of wheat products, including huge lamb dumplings puckered at the top that seem like a cross between Uzbeki manti and Shanghai soup dumplings. Try to keep the gravy inside from squirting you in the face. Another example is “stir-fried cake” ($5.95), a tangle of julienned vegetables and doughy shredded flatbreads unlike anything you’ve ever tasted, and entirely enthralling.
The stir-fried cake appears in English on neither the formal nor the carry-out menus; instead, it’s on a printed piece of typing paper that the waitress hands to first-time visitors. The page features explications and recommendations of menu items, originally posted on Chowhound by scoopG. Another of his excellent suggestions is designated “hand-teared lamb” ($13.95) on the English menu, a name that doesn’t go very far in describing a soup that boils in its chafing dish, featuring big bony hunks of mutton and tiny red dates, aromatic and stomach-soothing. As you eat it, the waitress replenishes the broth as if she were your mom. This could happily be your entire meal, but consider putting out the fire underneath unless your mouth is made of asbestos.
But even showing up having no idea what to expect, you’re likely to have a wonderful meal at this unique restaurant. For us, other highlights included “beef tongue and tail in brown sauce” (substantial-size caudal vertebrae matched with some of the tenderest glottal organ you’ve ever eaten, in a sweet-sour gravy reminiscent of German sauerbraten); sliced potatoes with special sauce (shredded raw spuds glistening with sesame oil and dotted with green chilies, making one of the world’s oddest potato salads); and sliced fish with hot pepper (poached fragments of fillet immersed in red chile oil with shredded Chinese leeks—irresistible!).
One Sunday afternoon, we asked the waitress what her favorite lamb dish was, since that meat predominates on the bill of fare. She eagerly ran her finger down the menu till it stopped at the blasé-sounding lamb home-style ($11.95). What arrived caused us to crane our necks: a vast yellow dome discernible through shimmering brown gravy. We drilled into it like oil-field roughnecks exploring a new strike, and rectangles of meat tumbled out. You might call the dish a deconstructed lamb omelet, yet it more closely resembles a dish I haven’t eaten in years. I swear it looked and tasted just like Chinese-American egg foo young.