Rural Restaurant is one of four Dongbei restaurants in Flushing. Squeezed between North Korea and Russia in far northeastern China, Dongbei (pronounced “Dong-bay”) was once known as Manchuria. The food shows Korean, Mongolian, and Russian influences; incorporates elements of Japanese, Beijing, and Tianjin cuisines; and adds Silk Road and Sichuan cooking to a complex and pleasing mix. At Rural, anyone accustomed to only eating Cantonese food will have a jaw-dropping experience. The premise is small, boxy, and well-lit. Tables of sometimes boisterous diners chattering in the Dalian dialect—which one linguist has likened to speaking Mandarin with rocks in your mouth—knock back beers and nurse bottles of rice-wine liquor as they dig into giant platters of meat, seafood, and vegetables, with no rice.
Somewhat strangely, you can sit at one of the large round tables and have a meal that recalls the American Midwest. “Cron w. peanuts” ($7.99) could be mistaken for succotash—salty, oil-glossed corn kernels interspersed with pine nuts and green peas, cooked in a stock that surely contains pork broth, creating an exceedingly mellow dish that shouts “Iowa.” Beef stew with potato ($7.99) could be something made by a mom in Wisconsin, big chunks of spud and soft brisket in a decidedly Teutonic gravy, except for the star anise that gives the dish an aromatic jolt. The recipe reminds you that the city of Qingdao—where Tsingtao beer is still brewed, just across the Bohai Sea from Dongbei—was a German concession, and the city still boasts buildings reminiscent of Hamburg. (Because there are two Qingdao restaurants in Flushing, the dish could have arrived at Rural in a more direct fashion.)
Another thing that seems positively Teutonic—though I suppose it could have surfaced spontaneously anywhere—is the region’s obsession with suan cai, a shredded and fermented cabbage that might be mistaken for sauerkraut. If you happen to be wearing lederhosen, that is. Taste it in “preserved cabbage noodle” ($4.99), an elephant-size tureen of pale soup teeming with pork shreds, mung-bean noodles, and masses of suan cai. The bean threads are so slippery, they constitute a test of your chopstick proficiency.
Another dish on the wild and wacky menu seems like something out of ancient Rome, where salads were often composed of fresh herbs. “Coriander herb” ($5.99) is a salad Julius Caesar would have loved, a glistening, deep-green toss of scallions, mild green chiles, and some of the strongest cilantro you’ve ever tasted. The dressing is not quite a vinaigrette, though bright tasting and slightly tart. The menu also makes much of bean curd, often in startling ways. “Dry bean curd with spicy pepper” looks like a plate of linguine heaped up in a gravity-defying Matterhorn. Here and there are chile flakes that look like skiers schussing down the slopes, with fronds of coriander standing in for pine trees. These pressed tofu noodles would be a boon to carbophobes in the U.S.—if only they knew about them.
In fact, the bill of fare abounds in unusual pastas. In a recipe borrowed from a region southwest of Shanghai, shredded pork with vermicelli is the dish known at Xi’an Famous Foods as cold skin noodles. Here it’s more dramatically presented, with the broad translucent pasta underneath and the toppings laid out like furrows in a farmer’s field: bright yellow omelet, brown wood ear ‘shrooms, a carrot julienne, and wads of cilantro—surely the cuisine’s signature herb. In common with other northern Chinese restaurants in Queens, Asian cumin plays a big part, most pleasingly in sarony cumin lamb ($9.99, with “sarony” a misspelling of “savory”) along with chile oil and toasted chiles. There’s no better lamb deal in Flushing.
Speaking of deals, pescatarians will go gaga over the flounder version of the recipe—an entire fish thickly crusted with cumin, red-pepper flakes, garlic, and cilantro. With the exception of a few larger internal bones, the spines, tail, and small ribs are cooked to be edible, and the waitress will obligingly cut the critter into swatches for easy sharing. But the best dish my friends and I enjoyed on a recent visit went by the unprepossessing title of pork with brown sauce ($7.99). What appeared were thick slices of braised swine glossed with a thin trickle of flavorful, almost-French sauce. The only warning I must give: Can you stand to eat a single further bite of pork belly?