The spate of northern Chinese restaurants crowding into town has made the gastronomy of the world’s most populous country the most exciting in Gotham. While Flushing now has nearly a score of places representing such far-flung locales as Tianjin, Qingdao, Lanzhou, Henan, Xi’an, Dongbei, and Beijing itself, Manhattan—still in the thrall of Cantonese and Fujianese food—has followed slowly, like a wayward child.
Starting 11 years ago, dumpling stalls began appearing along Eldridge and Allen streets, endearing themselves to immigrants, students, and foodies by providing their opulent, pork-stuffed purses at the bargain-basement price of five for a dollar. There was nary a grain of rice in sight. Sesame flatbreads amazed diners weaned exclusively on over-rice stir-fries, and what a contrast the thick-skinned dumplings made to the delicate har gow of the southern-style dim sum parlors!
Hand-pulled noodles originating in Lanzhou were the next northern phenomenon to hit Manhattan, and the thrump-thrump-thrump of stretched dough on counters all over the Lower East Side haunted our dreams. Following that, a cart vending cumin-dusted lamb kebabs materialized in the shadow of the Manhattan Bridge, demonstrating the Mandarin penchant for Silk Road spicing. Finally, in a stunning development, Xi’an Famous Foods arrived to occupy a narrow space in the building that housed 88 Palace, one of the Chinatown’s foremost Cantonese spots. It was like a small Rebel Alliance starship docking illicitly in the flank of a huge Galactic Empire vessel in Star Wars.
Nowadays, there’s even a branch of Xi’an Famous Foods in the East Village, and the Lower East Side has its first Henan restaurant, originating in a region of China that lies along the Yellow River. Given real estate constraints, we shouldn’t be surprised that diminutive He Nan Flavor focuses on noodles, which is all that many immigrants can afford. Located on Forsyth Street across from Sara D. Roosevelt Park, it lies amid Fujianese institutions, including the New Fuzhou Senior Association right next door. In the front window of the café, a woman stands methodically making noodles.
The dough is rolled out like pie dough then cut with a blade into wide, irregular fettuccine. Variously called hu mei, line noodles, or knife noodles, these make their way into beef and lamb soups that, like the pig-foot broth at Ippudo, are cloudy, rather than clear. The menu refers to them as “sour soups,” priced at $4.50 for a standard bowl, $5.50 for a bathtub. These come slightly sweetened with miniature red dates called jujubes. Two great choices present themselves: One features chunks of lamb (skin and integuments flapping), the other what is referred to with Appalachian gusto as “lamb innards.” Oxtails, clams, and mixed seafood constitute some of the other choices.
The noodles can also be deployed as bedrock for stews. Beef brisket hu mei ($6) is the most delicious—big, fatty hunks of cow in an agreeable brown gravy. It tastes like something you might eat in the American Midwest, till you dump on the rice vinegar, that is. Another topping emphasizes eggs and that newest of Chinese ingredients, tomatoes. Like something you might find in Beijing, a third over-noodle selection flaunts preserved black beans, ground meat, scallions, and baby bok choi. Even the things that seem vegetarian incorporate meat broths, so herbivores will have to content themselves with a cold-but-delicious appetizer assortment that includes seaweed, peanuts, and compressed bean curd turned into an approximation of chicken breast.
He Nan Flavor bakes the wheaten flatbreads we have learned to love at Xi’an Famous Foods, either plain (50 cents) or stuffed with meat ($2) to create what have come to be known as Chinese hamburgers. Hands down the most festive dish (and biggest feed) on the menu is “spicy big tray chicken” ($12), which is actually served in a wok. Laced with Sichuan peppercorns and cumin, the hearty red braise contains shards of bone-in chicken and slabs of potato, with a hidden flavor vector provided by fermented brown beans that look like limas. Once the solid parts have been consumed, the waitress offers noodles to soak up the wonderful sauce. Alternately, you can perform the same task with flatbreads.
A couple of anomalies on the menu might make you scratch your head. The soup with pork-stuffed fish balls is intended as a sop to Fujianese folks who dash in for a quick bite, while a dish called “sesame chicken” ($4.75) makes you wonder if it’s the same sticky, deep-fried staple served at neighborhood Cantonese restaurants. Speculate no longer: It is and the only thing in the place served over rice. As it happens, the sesame chicken is probably intended for you.