One food writer’s quick sprint through the real Chinatown
This past June, I had a few hours to myself while my wife, Jules, was busy running a marathon at Citi Field. She was bettering herself with exercise, so I naturally used this as an opportunity to engage in my own brand of physical activity—eating food while standing on various street corners in downtown Flushing. This is the story of that morning.
If you were to kidnap someone, blindfold them and drop them off in the middle of downtown Flushing without any context as to where they are or how much time it took to get there, it could be possible to convince them that they are, in fact, no longer in the United States. At times, Flushing, Queens, seems to be overflowing with people as the overcrowded streets and choked streets teem with people all on their way somewhere in a hurry. And if you should find yourself among the crowd, it’s best to just let go and allow the wave of humanity to pick you up and drop you off wherever it pleases.
Flushing’s greatest resource is undoubtedly its eating establishments. Tightly packed and found on every street in the neighborhood, the restaurants range from as small as the kitchen in a studio apartment to multi-shop buildings with corridors giving way to cavernous halls. Inhabited by one of New York City’s largest Chinese populations, restaurant owners know that they have to serve real-deal Chinese food in order to survive.
And there are so many food stalls that it can be a dizzying experience—especially in the summertime, when the threat of heatstroke caused by over-stimulation is a real danger. So, in the name of public service, here’s a plan should you find yourself spending a morning in Flushing with an empty belly and a few hours to kill.
If you’re a Long Islander like me, chances are you drove to Flushing. Some might direct you to one of the many parking garages or municipal lots, but since it’s so early in the morning, you’re likely to get lucky and find an actual parking spot. I know exactly where to go for a guaranteed spot, but rather than give it away and lessen my own changes of parking, I’ll instead give you a clue in riddle form: Where Roosevelt’s shoulder brushes against basketball courts (wink wink). OK, now that your car is safely in a central location, it’s time to go the rest of the way on foot and find your first snack.
I’m a big fan of any eatery that can be described as a “hole in the wall,” and in Flushing, everywhere you turn there’s a wall with a hole in it with people inside yelling and handing out authentic Chinese cuisine. Sheng Jin Eatery on Main Street is an ace in the hole, with red bean rolls, noodle soup, scallion pancakes and, my favorite, big, plump pork buns that are doughy and filled with smoky pork. Careful with that first bite, as these savory and sticky pockets are taken fresh from the steamer and reveal minced pork with an aromatic array of spices.
One of the best parts of being in Flushing is the feeling that you are constantly the lone newcomer in a room full of regulars—and also, no one speaks your language. Corner 28 on Roosevelt Avenue is loud, busy, confusing, full of energy and absolutely perfect in every way. The front window is lined with whole roasted ducks, chicken wings so shiny with honey-glaze that they are damn-near blinding, crisp pork belly, spare ribs and even pig heads. Even if you feel rushed into ordering, you’re still guaranteed to end up with a fulfilling meal, like roasted duck over rice with baby bok choy (and a bottle of water) for around five bucks. One bite and you’ll believe that not only can pigs fly, but they are called ducks. Crisp skin and luscious meat flavored with perfectly rendered fat, ducks truly are the pigs of the pond.
Before descending into the basement of the Gold Shopping Mall for noodle heaven, the entrance off Main Street is inhabited by more than a few ships, including a couple of food stalls. Honestly, you can’t go wrong with any of them, but the first dumpling stand on the right, Yoz Shanghai, offers some of the best spicy pork dumplings you could ever dream of eating. The fiery chilies mix with peanut oil for a spicy, peanut buttery mouthful that excites your palate as much as it confounds it. The heat will cause sweat to break free from your brow and you might invite an audience as you struggle to keep your composure, but it’s all worth it as the requisite bok choy is there to cheer you on.
When you’re in the mood for lamb noodle soup, where else would you go but a place called Lamb Noodle Soup? Tucked away and seemingly hidden on purpose, it’s a bit hard to find but it’s well worth the effort. Also, it might seem like the server is actively ignoring you, but press on, for this is just how they work. Ask for the lamb noodle soup and prepare for a rich and hearty soup that will make you nostalgic for a childhood you never even had. The noodles are soft, chewy magic and lamb adds just enough barnyard to the broth. Add a dash of vinegar and hot oil for good measure.
And here it is, your final stop on your Flushing food adventure: White Bear on Roosevelt Avenue. The sign on the door says they open at 9 a.m., but they’ll let you in when they are ready. Don’t even think about it, just ask for the no. 6—a gleaming order or 12 thin-skinned, glorious and glistening pork wontons that seem to glow with red chili oil and minced pickled veggies. These soft, sensual pockets might appear as though they are bathed in the fires of hell, but the ground chilies are far more smoky than incendiary, as the deep and bold flavors of the delicate wontons leave an imprint on your memory not soon to wear off.
If you are too nervous to explore the tiny, dingy shops in Flushing, you’re sadly missing out on crucial pillars of authentic Chinese cooking, prepared by people who have maintained a decades-long passion for their cuisine.
Downtown Flushing is easily accessible off exit 23 of the Long Island Expressway. All you need is a free morning, an open mind, cash and a willingness to point at the menu item you desire.