Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Flush in Flushing at the 41-28 Main Street Mall

I recently went on a 12-day exploratory trip of (mostly) Queens. I stayed with Rachel, my daughter, who lives hard by the first Queens stop on the 7 line, and with her being out of town five of the 12 days, I had plenty of time to graze on interesting eats on my own. I hadn’t really planned to spend most of my free meals at the Golden Mall at 41-28 Main Street in Flushing, but it was there and drew me to it like a moth to a flame. This mall has been extensively dissected on chowhound.com , particularly a Sichuan outlet, Chengdu Tian Fu. It a warren of small food stalls serving food from different regions of China; little English is evident on the premises and it is probably the closest one can come to being in China without leaving the US.

On my first walkthrough of the 41-28 Mall, at lunchtime on a Wednesday, the Xi’an stall, whose name translates as something like Xi’an Famous Eats and offers precisely that, grabbed my attention with a picture of a platter of Rou Jia Mo, or Chinese “burgers”. These, unlike meat bingzi which are stuffed before cooking, are actually prepared and assembled like burgers, with the cooked meats and seasonings placed between two toasted flatbread disks. I pointed to the picture, asked “how much” ($2.50 each) and asked for two lamb rou jia mo. They came out in classic form, with shredded lamb seasoned with cumin, jalapenos and onions. I scarfed one down on the spot, and took the other one “to go” but devoured before I got back to the 7 Train. On subsequent occasions I tried the beef and pork versions, all spiced differently. The beef version seemed to be even better spiced than the lamb version, though I couldn’t put my finger on the difference. The pulled pork Rou Jia Mo was less spicy, more “cured” (salty) tasting. All were good

I returned to the mall for lunch on Friday, and decided to try another unusual cuisine, that of Wenzhou. The easiest place to find Wenzhou cuisine outside of China is said to be Paris, due to long standing connections between Wenzhou and the French automobile industry, but I decided Flushing would do for the moment. I ordered somewhat blindly, as a couple of well-known Wenzhou dishes I had Googled up didn’t appear to be on the menu, and ended up with a big bowl of noodle soup plentifully seeded with skinny fish cakes (which themselves resembled small fish). It was subtly seasoned and tasty, but not particularly exciting.

After my noodle lunch I wandered upstairs in the mall and discovered the Shandong Dumpling stall, and couldn’t resist sitting down to a plate of freshly made shui jiao (boiled dumplings, for which Shandong is famous). They were obvious cooked to order, not par-poiled, due to the elapsed time, and the skins were classic but the filling a bit on the dry and bland side.

On Saturday my daughter left town for five days and our prior dinner commitments were completed, so I returned to the 41-28 mall for dinner. The sight and sound of the young man making la mian (hand-pulled) noodles at the Shanxi place across from Xi’an stall captured my attention, and I ordered lamb la mian in soup. I asked for it “la” (spicy) but the woman server shook her head and pointed to a pot of chili oil on the table. The freshly pulled noodles in the soup were good, perfectly al dente. (I’ve often found hand-pulled noodles too soft unless they were left to “breathe” for a while before cooking.) The “lamb” (which was probably mutton), however, was tough, gristly and bony. It was only after I started eating that I noticed from the signage that this stall’s specialty was apparently not the hand-pulled noodles, but “dao xiao” (knife-shaved) noodles. Oh well, live and learn.

By Sunday, there was no keeping me away from the mall and the Xi’an Famous Eats stall, and I decided to try the Biang Biang noodles. These hand-torn noodles “as wide and long as a belt” are listed as one of the Ten Strange Wonders of Shaanxi Province, perhaps as much for the 57-stroke Chinese character written in duplicate to name them as for anything else. The noodles were fresh and toothsome, and interestingly and deliciously seasoned with a combination of (I think) vinegar, soy sauce, chili and onion, garnished with a veritable forest of cilantro. Avoid this dish if you dislike cilantro (fortunately, I love it).

On Monday I once again hit the mall twice in the same day, feeling the need to check out the shui jiao at the Nan Bei Dumpling shop in the back. These were better than the Shandong stall’s version, with better texture and juiciness to the meat filling, though sparse on the jiu cai component, They came quickly, and obviously been cooked before I arrived, but he turnover at this shop may let them get away with it.

When I returned for dinner that day, I had made up my mind to try another iconic Xi'an dish, yang rou pao mao. Traditionally, the customer is given some hard (stale?) flatbread to break into small pieces in a bowl, which is returned to the cook to simmer the bread in mutton stock and then add the other ingredients for a hearty lamb soup. The Xi’an stall short-circuited the process, using pre-broken bread, but the results were tasty nonetheless, with the flour from the cooked bread adding a comforting thickness with a rich mouth-feel. The server asked me if I wanted garlic (yes!) and handed me a baggie containing five whole cloves of deliciously pickled garlic which I garnished the soup with, along with a little chili oil.

On Tuesday I returned for dinner still craving a satisfying bowl of spicy lamb soup with lots of lamb in it after my disappointment at the Shanxi stall The Xi’an Famous Eats stall owner accommodated me (charging an extra dollar for the extra lamb, I think). I chose the toothsome “belt” noodles I had come to love. This dish also came with a lot of cilantro garnishing, and was spicy enough that I didn’t need to add any chili oil. This was a soup I could eat every day!

Wednesday, April 30 was the last day I had available for a solo dinner in Flushing, so I returned to (guess where). By then I was greeted as an old friend by the owner and his two female assistants. I was set on ordering another Xi’an specialty, Qishan Noodles. Seeing I had brought a beer (it’s BYO) the owner suggested I order a plate of lamb bones as well, because “they’re good to eat while drinking beer”. This dish may be a byproduct, but was one of most rewarding that I ordered, because there was plenty of meat left on the bones, as savory and as falling-off-the-bone tender as from any BBQ. The Qishan noodles (named after a county) are apparently known for the quality of the noodles and the particular spicing and garnishes used, as the dish was available with thin or wide noodles, and dry or in soup. I chose the wide noodles again, in soup. The dish was pleasantly savory but milder than the Biang Biang noodles, but it was the lamb bones that made me feel like Henry VIII.

After dinner, when we did our “zai jians” and exchanged calling cards, I asked the Xi'an stall owner his name. With a sheepish grin he told me he went by “Liang Pi” which means (or at least sounds like) “Cold Noodles.”