While the entire metropolitan area of New York City has wonderful ethnic foods of all kinds, Queens has become the epicenter of ethnic dining in the region. As part of this, Flushing has become the epicenter of Asian dining in New York and one of the finest areas for it in the entire country. The sheer numbers of restaurants and culinary traditions make visiting the area a bit daunting and intimidating for the occasional visitor like myself. However, my friend and occasional Docsconz contributor, Michael Talalaev, is a frequent visitor to the area and is quite knowledgable about a wide variety of Asian cuisines. I had driven down to pick up my son, L.J. at JFK Airport as he returned from a trip to Spain that he will be writing about shortly and afterwards Michael met us in Flushing to take us to eat at some of his favorite places.
There are many different regional Chinese cuisines. Unfortunately, we only had the appetite and time to try a few of them. We started at Liang’s Kitchen in the basement of the Queen’s Court Hotel at 133-51 39th Avenue. Liang’s Kitchen, a small chain that originated in California specializes in Taiwanese cooking. The restaurant is located in a basement filled with Taiwanese air force photos and Chinese language television. It was already getting fairly late in the afternoon as we sat at a large table in the near empty restaurant and tried a couple of their specialties.
The first, the Shandong Beef Roll, consisted of scallion pancakes that were wrapped around cold marinated beef, sweet bean paste, pickled vegetables and cilantro, then fried crisp. The serving was perfect to share between two or three people as we received two rolls that had been cut into three sections each. This was delicious hearty fare, that would make a fabulous lunch just by itself. As it was the two pieces each were satisfying and not quite like anything I had ever had before. I would happily go back for more.
The other standout dish at Liang’s Kitchen was their knife cut noodles. Most noodles available on the menu or in the area are of the “hand-pulled” variety. Hand-pulled noodles are really fun to watch being made and are great noodles in their own right. The knife cut noodles reminded me of Italian “mal tagliatte” noodles, which are also knife cut and mis-shaped. The Italian noodles tend to be small and geometric, while these noodles were long with varied widths and thicknesses through the same noodles. We had the noodles with a fermented black bean sauce, but much like top quality Italian pasta, the sauce was secondary, as these noodles were all about texture. They had great “bite” and flavor on their own right. The added flavor of the bean sauce made them that much better These were a real pleasure to eat even if they weren’t the easiest noodles to get a grip on.
From Liang’s Kitchen we walked up to Main Street and took a right and walked under the 7 train elevated subway tracks past numerous street vendors, fruit stands, restaurants and a large NYPD observation tower to yet another below ground heaven of good food – the Food Court at the Golden Shopping Mall. Once down stairs, we entered a maze of stalls featuring different Chinese specialties, each awash in a variety of colors and Chinese language characters.
Our goal was to have dumplings at Tianjin Dumpling House, a small stand located along one of the internal alleys of the court. We were faced with a variety of fresh dumplings, each served only by the dozen. We selected two types – pork with cabbage and lamb with pumpkin.
While we waited, I walked around the food court stoking my appetite. In one stall, I spied a young man athletically hand pulling noodles like a magician doing a rope trick. I stopped to watch as the noodles transformed from a mass of dough to become long and delicate strands.
We each sat on a small stool at small tables under an even smaller counter and dove into 24 of the most delicious boiled dumplings that I have ever eaten.
The skins were thick enough to withstand the boiling, but still tender and delicate. The fillings were familiar, but still novel. The lamb had great lamb flavor and more and the pork with cabbage was superb. We bathed them in Chinese vinegar, soy and chili paste in varying amounts to alter the tastes and just to experiment. They were always excellent.
We could have happily eaten more dumplings as well as some of their other tasty looking treats, but we had one more destination to go. We climbed upstairs and back onto Main Street. Heading back in the direction we came from, we stopped at Biang!, a sharply styled restaurant from the people behind Xi’an Famous Foods, known for their grilled meats amongst other things.
The food at Biang! (named after the sound made when thumping hand pulled noodles against a counter) was very flavorful, especially if one likes cumin and szechuan peppercorns. I do. The peppery bite wasn’t quite as aggressive as at Mission Chinese, but it was definitely noticeable.
Lamb “burgers” consisted of sliced lamb along with red chile, cumin, spices, garlic, onions and scallions between two crisp flatbreads. These were delicious with great textural components – another dish I would happily return for.
Potatoes julienned and tossed in a sour and spicy vinaigrette with szechuan peppercorn oil were crunchy and very tasty. They looked and acted more like pasta than potatoes, which made them all the more intriguing.
It was the skewered meats that were why we came, though. These didn’t disappoint. Lamb was just as delicious as we had expected and the most conventional of the three skewers that we had ordered.
Chicken hearts reminded me of Peruvian beef heart anticuchos, albeit with a cumin and szechuan peppercorn kick. They were tender and delicious.
The most unusual item we had, though was the skewered grilled pork intestines. They were a little chewy and their shape reminded me a bit of squid, but their pork flavor shone through.
By this time we were quite full. It was getting late and we all had other things to do. Nevertheless, I was excited by all the wonderful flavors, textures and atmosphere that Michael had turned us on to. There are plenty of other places and plenty of other dishes that we could not get to. There may be some places that serve even better versions of the dishes that we had. The fun will be finding those places and all the other wonderful dishes to be tasted in this area.