Tuesday, February 24, 2009

An Oriental Adventure in Queens

I love ramen, I consider it as one of the major food groups. As I bought a few packs at Sea Land food market on Flatbush, the cashier asked "Ichiban, that's Japanese for number one, right?" I said yes. "So what's number two?" he asked again. I said "I don't know, I'm not Japanese. What's number one in Korean?" He replied "I don't know, I'm not Korean."

In New York we're surrounded by a rich diversity of food and culture, but much of our eats are misunderstood, or compromised to suit the neighborhood, for example: beef and cheddar negamaki with fries? Oi vey, the horror. To get the real deal one must stray from the usual path and abandon all diet plans.



Dan, Matt, and I made a mid-winter excursion to the food malls of Flushing Queens — a long journey to the end of the #7 line. Dan was a chef in another life, and Matt and I just love eating. Main Street was as crowded as a street scene from Blade Runner. As planes flew low over head, we walked past crowded food stalls that used every available space for steam tables, noodle stations, dumpling stalls, and grills. It reminded me of the markets in Hong Kong or old Makati Square.



The first stop on the map was at the Golden Mall for the elusive cumin lamb burger. The owner of Wang Zhen's Muslim Snacks is from northeastern China where lamb is the prevalent meat. We walked in, he said "Lamb Burgers" as if he read our minds — or maybe he read the glowing food reviews about his cooking, apparently Anthony Bourdain had beaten us to Queens, that bastard! The bread is similar to the ones used make Bánh Mì sandwiches, toasted but very soft and delicate. The lamb is spiced carefully and braised with a mildly sweet flavor.



He also recommended his own hand-cut chili noodles and the day's special, braised lamb spine. I'm sure it sounds better in Tianjinese, but never the less it was the best braised spine I've ever had, even Matt agreed. The total damage for three hungry men? $20. How can you beat that?



So the adventure continued to the next stall for smoke-cured pork, preserved beef, and chili-pork dumplings. One man asked why we were at this mall, so Dan showed him the printed article. He said that was he in the photo unloading supplies from the truck. He was impressed that we came all the way from Brooklyn for snacks. I asked him were the bathroom was. He pointed me the way, I followed the winding hallway but ended up in a Chinese DVD store. English is not readily spoken here. Anyone I asked for bathroom directions gave me a blank look and said "No!" in reply.



Onward, we meandered down the street through a few grocery stores and a home provisions shop to walk off the meal. Live food sat next to frozen and preserved foods. As frogs sat close in a tank next to the soft shell turtles and the live prawns, refrigerated cases stocked with chicken feet, pork belly, and different types of fish foretold their fate. Dan pointed out that much of the snack packaging had animal mascots that were more than happy to be eaten — most having two-word English translations such as Big Squid, Happy Anchovy, and Oriental Mascot. I didn't think anyone used the "O" word anymore. The home provisions shop had just about everything — travel gear, cooking equipment, traditional funerary supplies, a Hamilton Beach soy milk maker, and the like.



Shuffling through crowded main streets and side streets I wondered — if I stood in one place long enough would I have been knocked over by an old lady with a loaded grocery cart? Weary from walking we re-energized with a few more appetizers. Dan found a stall that sold Peking Duck by the piece — slices of crispy duck in a soft rice wrapper with Hoisin Sauce, cucumber, and scallion. He ordered six, Matt bought us some steamed fish balls while we waited in line.



The gorging didn't stop here. I suggested we take the train to Jackson Heights for Korean food. Instead we thought more sensibly and walked back to Roosevelt Avenue to the other food mall that we previously passed. And finally, a bathroom!



This mall was more low-key and a little English was spoken there — as in "No, pay now, then make! Sit now!" Dan and Matt pondered the menu: intestine with thin or thick noodles, fried chicken feet, Toa delight... they got two different noodles soups, chicken & beef, and pork dumpling respectively. We took a seat at the dumpling bar across from the large karaoke screen.



We split an order of beef and scallion dumplings, made fresh for us by the owner — this was the farthest thing from fast food. His wife rolled out each round thin wrapper with a dowel. He stuffed them and put aside to set. The tray resembled a minature armada of Portuguese Man of War — deliciously deadly on contact.



Technically these dumplings are not dim sum (served only as early tea lunch). The dumplings were pan-steamed until the skin was barely translucent. We dipped them in a light vinegar dressing and chili paste. Each bite had a taste of ginger, then scallion. Everything had such a delicate fleeting flavor.



Matt's pork dumpling soup was thick, it had a deeply smoked flavor but not overly salted. As we left he didn't want his soup to go to waste so he took it along on the train back to Brooklyn... then he went into a food coma. As we pulled out of the station I wondered if, like Shangri-La, all this would be gone when we return, leaving us wonder if it was all just a savory dream. Ordering Chinese food will be so disappointing from here on.

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