Finding legitimate chinese food in the United States is a tricky thing. Sure there’s a chinese joint in even the smallest small town, but they all dish up “American-Chinese food” a gloopy, uniform, selection of heavy items that only vaguely resemble their chinese counterparts.
Since I’ve come back from China this fake chinese just isn’t cutting it anymore. I’m obsessed with the real thing. I’ve had a couple of good leads- the closest being a legitimate hot pot place in suburban Virginia, but for the most part, I’m resigned to eating fried wontons and only dreaming of Gan Bian Dou Jiao and Bao Zi.
Until now. Now I’ve discovered Flushing’s Chinatown and nothing will ever be the same.
New York City is home to the largest ethnic Chinese population outside of China and has as many as NINE different Chinatown’s depending on how you count. Flushing’s Chinatown is bigger than the better known Manhattan version and only slightly smaller than the one in Brooklyn.
Kim, my adventurous eater partner-in-crime, and I took the subway out there on a Saturday afternoon to investigate. It took nearly an hour to get wind from Brookyln to Manhattan then out into Queens but oh was it worth it. Here’s a taste of what we found on our make-shift food tour:
We started our tour by following Yelp reviews into the shabby basement of a shopping center, where we uncovered a warren of tiny restaurants. We walked past the original Xi’an famous foods (Mike and I visit the Manhattan one every time we’re in town) and went straight for Chengdu Heaven.
Chengdu you may remember, in addition to being Panda HQ, has some of the most delicious food in all of China. The stall looked promisingly chinese: slightly grimy with small card tables and paper cups of bland tea.
Kim wanted Dan Dan noodles and I went for the cucumber salad. They were near perfect: delicate, crucnhy and mouth-numbingly spicy. The closest to the real deal I’ve found outside of China. I could have cried. I was tempted to order about 5 more things here but we needed to save stomach space to press on.
Soup Dumplings and More
I only spent a few days in Shanghai, but I remember standing in line for over half an hour to try the local soup dumplings. This time we waited outside of Nan Xiang Xiao Long Bao, possibly the most popular restaurant in Chinatown on a Saturday afternoon, for nearly half an hour.
It was worth it. We ordered a basket of soft pink crab and pork dumplings along with a side of beef filled scallion pancake. Carefully we balanced the dumplings on our chopsticks, bit off the tops and sipped the boiling broth inside. It’s a tricky, tricky delicious business.
A Taste of Taiwan
Flushing’s Chinatown is full of basement food courts hidden under malls and shopping centers. We wandered into one of the biggest, on the bottom floor of Flushing Mall, devoted entirely to Taiwanese cuisine.
I’m not as familiar with the food of Taiwan (although I’d really like to be!). We turned to the internet on this one and ended up ordering a quarter of a crispy duck and a bucket of shaved ice the size of my head.
The shaved ice was a unique mess of a masterpiece: fluffy ice smothered with multiple sweet syrups, gummies, red beans, tapioca balls, pineapple chunks and more. The two of us together only made it halfway through.
We also hit up a bakery and a couple of street stands but I could not leave the neighborhood without hitting up one of the aluminum carts selling street barbecue.
One of our favorite meals in Xi’an was Kou Ro, grilled lamb kebabs, bought for 1 yuan a skewer and eaten at an open air plastic table with some naan bread and beer. If I could go back to China for just one meal, this is what I would choose.
I was quite full at this point so I just ordered one skewer of lamb, doused in red pepper. It tasted rich, spicy and creamy. Just like I remembered (although at $1 each they were about 5 times the price).
I never was totally able to consider China home, but every once in awhile a taste comes along that makes me miss it viscerally. This afternoon was full of them.
So if you’re after real, legit Chinese food in New York City- Flushing has you covered. It’s not the most easy neighborhood to get to, but the cultural experience alone is well worth it.
I can guarantee you I’ll be back. Maybe I’ll even bring Mike this time, after all he misses China even more than I do.