Sunday, March 14, 2010

Flushing with Dave

Henan bread soup

I started day two of my Flushing binge solo, with a spot of dim sum at 9:30 as I awaited the arrival of my partner in culinary exploration. Ah, the joys of a holiday in Flushing, to roll out of bed into a dim sum palace before the hordes arrive. But I'll talk about the dim sum another time.

Dave Cook, who blogs at Eating in Translation (where he has already covered most of the dishes we sampled), had arranged to join me for a half day of meganoshing. He rang my cell phone at about 10:20 to announce that he'd be getting to Flushing in about twenty minutes. We had decided to meet at a Malaysian restaurant, Curry Leaves (135-31 40th Rd.), to start the day with rich, condensed milk-sweetened Malaysian coffee and some kueh (Malaysian sweets). There I chose a combination container with two different types of kueh, one made, I believe, from mung bean and coconut and another from tapioca starch and coconut milk with pandan for a bit of flavor and a neon-green color. But I also couldn't resist the pandan chiffon cake, which looked like a St. Patty's Day pound cake. And it was pretty much a pound cake, with just a touch of aromatic pandan flavor. It was a happy complement to the coffee.

Our bloodstreams tweaked by caffeine and sugar, we set out in earnest in search of savory delectables. At the top of my agenda was a visit to the Golden Mall (41-28 Main St.), a ragtag aggregation of food stalls from far-flung regions of China, the source, I'd heard, for some of the best and cheapest Chinese food in the city.

Unlike Flushing Mall, which is a shopping mall with a food court and a common seating area, Golden Mall is mostly about food, and each vendor has their own limited seating. One of the most esteemed vendors at both malls is Xian Famous Foods, which serves specialties of Shaanxi province in central China (Xian is the home of the famous terracotta warriors). But since they've recently opened a branch in Manhattan's Chinatown I decided I wouldn't populate valuable gastrointestinal real estate with their delights this particular time. Instead we started at another acclaimed Golden Mall stalwart, Chengdu Heaven (stall 31).

fish filet with tofu at Chengdu Heaven

We shared an order of the fish filet with tofu, which combined wonderfully sensual silken tofu and lightly battered fish filets (alas, the ubiquitous farmed tilapia, now the generic "fish" of choice in Asian restaurants). In a sauce liberally flavored with Sichuan peppercorns and chilies, it's kind of a cousin to ma po tofu. The dish was garnished with what looked at first to be peanuts, but turned out to be crispy fried soybeans. The dish was excellent, and it makes me want to work my way through their entire menu of Sichuan specialties, which happens to be quite extensive for such a little stall.

dried bean curd with chili (cold)

From there we moved on to a stall that had mostly northeastern Chinese cold dishes on display (including head cheese and a sausage that's a dead-ringer for kielbasa). There we chose the dried bean curd dressed with chilies and a mix of other spices (probably ginger among them). This dish cried out for beer. (Stall 38, House of Xie. The owners are from Tianjin in Shandong province.)

We left Golden Mall and walked down Main St. Dave wanted to point out a storefront (41-40 Main St.) that featured three or four individual vendors and tables that served for all. At the back was a northern Chinese Muslim vendor, which Dave has identified as Sheng Jian Muslim Little Kitchen. We just had a pastry filled with fruit paste and nuts, but the various buns, big scallion pancakes and savory dishes were filed away in my culinary wish list. I was thrilled to learn of this place, having enjoyed the hearty cuisine of the Muslim Chinese in Beijing and San Francisco, but never New York.

Chinese Muslim pastry

We walked further down Main Street to try a Qingdao-style place that Dave had noticed on a prior Flushing visit (Lu Xiang Yuan or Hong Shun, depending on whether you believe the menu or the sign). Qingdao is a coastal city in Shandong province that is the home to Tsing Tao beer (Tsing Tao is the same city in the old Wade-Gilles Romanization). I expect to write more about Qingdao cuisine at a later date, after a visit to a different, well-received Qingdao restaurant. All I'll say now is that this lesser-known Qingdao eatery ranks as one of the worst Chinese restaurant experiences of my life.

We couldn't end the day on such a sour note, so I suggested we return to the Golden Mall. There we struck gold at a stall we had seen earlier in the day, a joint venture between a Taiwanese shaved ice vendor and a woman who cooks hot food from Henan province (not to be confused with Hunan).

There was a photo menu on the wall, and the most interesting-looking dish was a soup that was shown with some kind of bread or pancake at the side. The woman from Henan didn't speak any English, but the Taiwanese ice lady told us we could get it with either chicken or beef. Since I'm always wary about what cuts or quality of beef we might get, I suggested we go with the chicken. "It comes with these?" I asked, pointing at the bread in the picture. "Inside soup," the woman said.

Heavens to Betsy, this was wonderful, delicious, complex. The broth was spicy and flavored liberally with numbing Sichuan peppercorn as well as an herbal flavor we couldn't identify. There were cubes of the dense bread along with fried tofu cut to about the same size, dark meat chicken, mushrooms, and three kinds of noodles, intertwined: clear bean threads, green bean threads, and bean curd sheets cut into vermicelli strips. This was quite possibly my favorite dish of the entire weekend.

Then Dave and I split up. I went to the Louis Armstrong house in Corona and Dave stayed in Flushing to troll the local fish markets, attempting to solve a nagging sea creature mystery.


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