Chinese food courts continue to be wildly popular dining destinations in Flushing, where eight have debuted over the last decade. Some, like Golden Mall, have been ramshackle affairs, while others, such as the one in Flushing Mall, might be at home in any shopping center in the nation—if not for the Asian chow. But a Moby Dick among Chinese food courts has recently surfaced, located in a brand-new mall that replaces the long-derelict Caldor at the corner of Main Street and Roosevelt Avenue.
Sounding like real estate developed by Christopher Columbus, New World Mall features a humongous JMart supermarket; a restaurant simply called the Grand that seats 1,100, making it the second largest in the city; a floor of small stores selling goods shoddier than you might expect; and—approachable by only the Roosevelt Avenue entrance—a basement food court. But what a basement! Shaped like a fat, stubby L, the chandeliered room is accessed by long escalators that descend like disembarkation chutes from a spaceship. The court is ringed by 28 eating establishments, and tables in the center provide seating for 520. Wow!
Vying to attract your attention is all manner of flashy signage. Unexpectedly, the most common message consists of the Chinese characters ma (“numbness”) and la (“hotness”), usually used to identify Sichuan peppercorns. Does this mean the food will be wildly spicy? To find out I brought a carload of diners and a speaker of Taiwanese, because it had quickly become apparent on an earlier reconnaissance mission that, despite the diverse regions of China represented by the stalls, most were aimed at Taiwanese shoppers. Which is not to say much of the food is identifiably Taiwanese: You won’t find stinky tofu or chicken roll among the offerings.
For the food court’s patrons, spiciness seems to have attained a sort of fad status, and six counters flaunt Sichuan food—including dumplings in chili oil, ma po tofu, and fiery soups. We wolfed down a fine bowl of “ma la tang” ($6) at Chong Qing Hot Pot, the soup containing oodles of shaved pork, bean-thread vermicelli, and dark green kelp. “That’s weird,” a friend noted, “seaweed in Sichuan food?” At SzeChuan Cuisine we ordered dan-dan noodles, and sliced beef and tripe in hot oil ($4.95 and $6.50, respectively). While the noodles could have been mistaken for spaghetti Bolognese, the cold cuts were relatively authentic, glistening slices of tongue and stomach. Though the dish was spicy hot, the anesthetic tingle of ma la peppercorns was entirely absent.
After being disappointed by the Sichuan fare, we quickly switched to other Chinese regions and found ourselves more satisfied. At a stall identifying itself as Beijing Cuisine, we ordered the specialty of cold skin noodles ($4), which featured shredded veggies, gobs of gluten, and white, translucent noodles in a delightfully sour sesame dressing. Not far away, Tianjin Foods slung the starchy provender of that autonomous Europeanized port east of Beijing, including excellent fried pork dumplings ($5.50 for ten) and a pumpkin pancake too small and greasy. At Lanzhou Handmade, the hand-pulled noodles served in soups were some of the best in town.
One stall served an adequate version of Malaysian fare, epitomized by a soup of chicken, potatoes, and soft noodles in a thick coconut curry; another offered live seafood directly plucked from tanks and cooked in your choice of culinary styles. We picked “ginger and scallion” for our bargain $13.50 lobster, which came with lots of side dishes. A further counter provided a pallid bowl of Vietnamese pho that lacked the tendon and tripe one looks for in such a potage.
Indeed, the most common items to be found in the food court are noodle soups, with dozens available. Then there are those places that dabble in European cuisines. The slices at Pizza 8 were among the worst I’d ever tasted, while the bacon cheeseburger at Burger Shack was quite good—and humongous for the $5.95 price tag. The same stall also provides Peruvian rotisserie chicken and a half dozen other South American specialties. Weird. Predictably, one counter is Japanese, and beyond boring.
Just as popular as food pretending to be Sichuanese are the dessert stalls. Six devote themselves to sweets—mainly fruity bubble teas and shaved-ice concoctions. The best is found at a place with the rollicking name of Noodle Village So Good. Heaping fresh berries and other doodads on vast floes of ice milk, the Fresh Fruit Creamy Infinite Ice is astonishing to behold. In fact, it’s probably just the sort of exotic treat you hoped to discover in the New World.