Monday, April 5, 2010

The Orient Local

Flushing’s Chinatown, the second largest Asian neighborhood in the city, is smack-dab at the end of the Number 7 line to Queens, about a half-hour ride from Grand Central to the Main Street stop.

“This is just like being in Hong Kong,” marvels Dave, who visited that city many times in his previous incarnation as an international banker. We wend our way past shops selling everything from Chinese DVDs to glittery little tchotchkes to barbecued squid and ducks, whose darkened carcasses hang from hooks in the storefronts. En route people thrust flyers into our hands for tuina and acupuncture, as well as coupons for discounts at McDonald’s, of all places, which I sincerely hope is having a hard time doing business in this district. Our goal is lunch at the Golden Mall, accessed via a nondescript stairway near the intersection of Main Street and 41st. Neither particularly “golden” nor technically a mall, this is an underground rabbit’s warren of modest eateries—small restaurants with booths and table service and open kitchens surrounded by five or six tables.

The hard part is making up your mind where to eat. Dave, the Moscow magnet—he just can’t seem to get away from these guys—considers the suggestion of a burly Russian dining with his Chinese girlfriend that we try some braised pig’s feet or beef shank. But the blackened chunks of meat don’t look particularly appetizing to me, and we gravitate instead to stall number 36, where a Hispanic woman is in charge of the miniscule kitchen and a couple of empty tables are available.

The offerings are pictured on the wall, prices ranging from $2.50 to about $8 in price: lamb offal soup, tiger vegetables salad, buckwheat cold noodles, spicy pig’s blood salad, spicy and tingly beef noodles, hot and sour soup, and so on. We order lamb cumin burgers, spicy pork noodles, sour honeydaw tea, and a diet Coke (total tab $8.50). The lamb burgers, subtly and pungently spiced slices of meat inside a bun that is like a flaky pita, are so good I find myself having visceral cravings for them in the days to follow. The spicy pork noodles are a tangled stew of long, wide strands of pasta, generous chunks of pork, scallions, onions and bean sprouts. Fabulous.

As we are scarfing these down, I notice a pair of schoolgirls in gray and blue uniforms staring pointedly at Dave and giggling.

"Dave,” I say, “I think those girls have the hots for you.”
Finally, one approaches and apologizes profusely for having splashed sauce on the back of his tweed jacket when we were in line. She offers to pay for the dry cleaning, which he, of course, refuses.

I am astounded. “My God, you would never have noticed this till later, if you noticed it at all. Can you imagine a little Park Avenue princess offering to pick up your dry-cleaning tab?”

Almost as surprising as this unexpected burst of adolescent altruism are the autographed photos tacked around the walls of Eric Ripert, executive chef of the four-star Manhattan seafood restaurant Le Bernardin, and Anthony Bourdain, host of No Reservations on the Travel Channel. Bourdain is perhaps not such a stretch as a visitor to this steaming underground foodfest, but the suave and dashingly gallic Eric Ripert? The last time I had dinner at Le Bernardin, about three years ago, a friend was treating me on my birthday, and the tab for two must easily have exceeded $300. Was he looking for inspiration or slumming with Bourdain? Or maybe he just got on the wrong train.

After a quick tour of the other Golden Mall restaurants (some of which specialize in hot-pot cooking at the table), we sample some bubble tea—which has a scoop of tapioca in it and strikes me as on a par with cotton candy for weird novelty foods—and head off to explore other parts of the neighborhood.


Val Landi said...

This is fascinating! I never knew Flashing had a Little Hong Kong ...going there asap. Keep up the great reporting!

Ann said...

Cece: Stay tuned. I will see what I can do about pilaf.

Am also doing some interesting experiments with silky chicken, strictly PG-rated.

Barbara Rachko said...

Ann, now that the weather is better, I can't wait to get on the # 7 and check out some of these places! Thanks for starting this blog.

randy said...

long overdue for someone intrepid to undertake a restaurant crawl of the outer boroughs...the writing is as delicious as the dishes and the photographs make it real