Friday, September 10, 2010

Falling for Flushing

Corner of 40th Road & Main Street in Flushing, Queens

Standing at the platform for the 7 train to Flushing, layers upon layers below Grand Central Station, it occurs to me that for as bustling and sardine-can-crammed as Manhattan seems at street level, at any given moment there are just as many scrambling people teeming several levels below me in the subways and pancaked layers above me in the skyscrapers, like some gigantic cosmopolitan multi-decker club sandwich of humanity.  It's simultaneously fascinating and humbling.

The subterranean 7 train platform, however, must surely be one of the lowest points of public access in Manhattan, as I lost both count and frame of reference after the fifth staircase and ramp descent towards the earth's core.  In the concrete tunnel of dense air, as I wait for a subway car to whiz me off to Queens, sweat drips down the domed ceilings in tiny zero-gravity streams of soot canyons above me.  Old hazard stripes painted along the tracks that were once crimson and white now resemble antique candy canes dredged through an ash tray.  Enormous jet plane turbo fans on the ceiling regurgitate the hot breath of stale subway air, while ziz-zagging fluorescent light tubes flicker like a Scrambler ride at some abandoned county fair.

Not a solitary smile penetrates the monotony.  The vacuous visage of each stranger glows jaundiced in the yellowish lights.  The handful of men and women lucky--or brave--enough to claim a seat on the single wooden bench sit in drained, wilted postures, too weary to even crack a book or unfold a newspaper for the afternoon trek home.  You weigh more at lower elevations, and we all can feel the extra burden.

The red-headed stepchild of the MTA, the 7 line is full of hand-me-down subway trains.  The one that achingly crawls into the station is no exception, like the Little Engine that Could... with a walker.  I immediately recognize it as a retired N or Q train, which have now been replaced with more pristine, contemporary models.  Despite soaring fares, the 7 train will wait years for refurbishing.  I step into the seasoned car, and grab a seat on one of the several benches of various hues of faded orange against scratched aluminum walls.

Once on the train, I notice that several passengers are now reading papers covered with Asian characters unfamiliar to me.  I recognize the script across from me as Kanji, and its reader is a frail, elderly Japanese man who makes me smile.  Easily eighty, he wears brown Doc Marten lace up boots, gray dress slacks, a plaid shirt, a black windbreaker with mudflap trucker girls stitched on the lapel in gold embroidery, and a navy blue ball cap advertising C.K. Pharmacy in yellow stitching.  His face folds in layers down over itself like little waterfalls of wisdom, and silver eye brows grown at least two inches long are combed away from his face, drooping like weeping willow branches.  Although I am now blatantly staring in curiosity of his story, he doesn't seem to take notice.  Is he reading or sleeping?  I cannot tell.  I want to ask him about his life, his family, was he born here?  What should I know about the neighborhood, and what are his favorite hidden gems?  Is he my Japanese guardian angel in a stripper jacket?

At the Vernon-Jackson stop, the last of the young professionals exit the train, most likely bound for one of those shiny new condo megaplexes in Long Island City that just somehow don't quite seem to fit New York City to me.

Finally, the train gasps for air as it emerges beyond the East River and speeds towards Queensboro Plaza, and like the train, every passenger seems revived by the fresh wash of sunshine.  The faded orange seats now somehow glow in the daylight like tikka masala, mango, and then juicy mandarin oranges as we speed past the graffiti-painted rooftops of Indian and Jamaican neighborhoods towards the circus of Asian wonders that is Flushing, Queens.  The penultimate stop is Citi Field, were a few tennis enthusiasts bounce out the door to the U.S. Open, now leaving me the only caucasian on the train, clearly the minority in both skin tone and knowledge of the neighborhood, the latter of which I am here to work on.

As the train again dips below ground and pulls into the last station on the line, my fairy-god-sensei folds his newspaper and takes a gingerly sip from a Poland Spring bottle, gathers the plastic bags at his feet, and leans back and sighs before balancing his wire-rimmed glasses on his nose.  I chuckle to myself and wonder why he removed his glasses to read, but now finds need for them.

I am about to find out.

Stepping through the subway doors, I am instantly whisked onto the streets of Hong Kong.  Motorola Droid ads appear in only Chinese characters, and the MTA snack bodega also sells bamboo plants.  Like being sucked into some enormously strong Pacific rip current, I try my best to blend with the crowd and follow where they lead me.  Briskly running up the stairs toward street level, I am hit with breezes of garlic, soy, and spices I cannot even remotely identify.  As the current flows me past a fruit market, we all giggle and hopscotch over a spilled crate of gigantic, ruby cherries dumped by a young boy, meanwhile the shopkeeper franticly scurries to gather them before being pureed in the melee. Middle-aged women tug at my sleeves offering massages, and when I ignore, the men tug at my sleeves.  I pass an entire block of butchers with whole ducks glistening in the windows, noodle shops, bakeries, and grocery stores before I finally find my feet and leap from the rapid stream of people swirling along the sidewalk.

I find myself standing under elevated railroad tracks on a row of what appears to be all street carts and tiny storefront windows selling scallion pancakes, noodles, pork buns, and skewers of every variety of meat and seafood imaginable.

I have no idea how I can possibly sample even a fraction of what is triggering embarrassingly primal growls from my stomach, but I quickly decide exactly where to start.  One window at the corner of 40th Road and Main Street advertises Peking duck buns for $1.  I duck down into the tiny opening to order one, passing my dollar bill.

In exchange, I receive a delicately fluffy mantou (steamed bun) folded with warm, slow-roasted duck with crispy glazed skin, slivers of cold and crunchy cucumber and scallion, drizzled generously with hoisin sauce.  The textures and flavors are all familiar to me, but have never quite harmonized in this perfect combination.  It's the ideal snack to start off with, and my palate is now whet for some serious tasting.  Mustering a surprising amount of self-restraint, I blind myself to the remaining beckoning food stalls, and shuffle purposefully down Main Street.  I may not be an expert, but this is certainly not my first time time in Flushing.

* * * * *

It's my second time, actually.  My introductory visit was two days ago for the Asian Feastival, a culinary event produced by Wendy Chan (founder and president of Definity Marketing), celebrating the local and authentic Asian cuisines of Queens.  From panel discussions to cooking demonstrations, a farmer's market, food tables from over 20 restaurants, and a walking tour of Flushing, it was a brilliant, vibrant, and gorgeously organized forum to explore Asian culinary arts in a way you otherwise simply could not in just one day.

While it inarguably offered a colorful sampling, it ultimately achieved a greater purpose, as I walked away amused, baffled, haunted, and hypnotized by some of the most interesting and delicious dishes I have tasted, and simply cannot find anywhere else.  The following is a sampling of just a few of the highlights from the Feastival that served as catalyst for what was surely the first of many explorations in Flushing to come.

Qingdao cold noodles from M&T restaurant were maybe the most unique and flavorful dish I tried.  Cold noodles made from gelatin extracted from seaweed, chilled, and served with shredded carrots and cilantro in a tangy vinegar and garlic sauce.  I've never tasted anything like this before, and it was absolutely delicious.

Egg yolk glazed baked buns with sweet bean paste filling from Deluge Restaurant were surprising baked bonbons of sweetness.

Traditional to the Zhongqiu festival, Moon cakes were filled with both red bean and lotus seed paste, and stamped with various Chinese characters, another sweet treat I experienced for the first time.

Banana langka toron from the only filipino restaurant featured, Payag, were phyllo-wrapped banana and jackfruit pastries drizzled with caramel sauce, a delectable Asian bananas foster that was a huge hit.

From the Indonesian restaurant Java Village, I enjoyed Mie Ayam with Baso Telur, tender and savory chicken noodles with quail-egg stuffed meatballs.

Tibetan yak momos from Himalayan yak, extraordinary dumplings stuffed with tender and delicious grass fed yak meat.

Lentil doughnuts (medu vada) and curried potato dosas were served up by Dosa Place on the outdoor patio.

One of the most graceful and captivating stations was presented by Nan Xiang Xao Long Bao, the Shanghainese Dumpling house.  Masterful cooks hand-stretched and cut the dough, then filled each soup dumpling to order, before steaming them on giant burners.

Each juicy pocket of steamed dough is filled with a tender pork and chive meatball, along with savory broth.  You carefully nibble at the pocket, sip the soup, and then devour the meatball. So beautiful.  So much tradition.  And so delicious.

Green Papaya grilled up wonderfully tender skewers of chicken and beef satay, accompanied by a Thai Peanut sauce for dipping.

The Asian Farmer's Market was loaded with fruits and vegetables I've never seen before.  I sampled Asian radishes and the notoriously stinky durian for the first time.

Believe it or not, dragonfruit is an actual, delicious, juicy, tangy fruit, not just a flavor made up for Power-C Vitamin Water.  It was absolutely refreshing and wonderful.

Inside, panel discussions were offered throughout the afternoon on a variety of topics.  Above, Top Chef contestant Lee Anne Wong moderates a panel discussion with Eddie Huang (Baohaus) and Akira Back (Yellowtail) about the new generation of Asian American chefs who are currently redefining the culinary landscape.

For those lucky enough to secure a spot (along with a few extra tagalongs) the afternoon ended with a Taste Hunting Tour of Flushing headed by Joe DiStefano of Edible Queens.  Our first stop was the Flushing Mall Food Court.

The braised tofu at Temple Snacks was firm and delicious, topped with cilantro and a chili jam.

I have to confess that certain offal remain my weakness.  I am sure these pork intestines with chili sauce were exquisitely prepared, but the funky odor quite frankly reminds me of a wet barn, which paired with the unctuous texture makes me altogether squeamish.  But I did try it... and will probably try it again.  It's an acquired taste I have simply yet to even remotely snag.

The Taiwanese sticky rice cakes are something to which I have almost no frame of reference for comparison.  Almost like savory, giant mochi, these sticky rice pockets are filled with endless combinations of toppings.  The green tea cake was stuffed with a blend of pork and seafood, while the red cake was stuffed with a smooth and mildly sweet red bean paste, and stamped with a Chinese character.

From Xi'An Famous Foods (of Anthony Bourdain fame) we sampled their A1 dish, the Liang Pi Cold Skin Noodles.  These playfully stretchy and chewy noodles are made entirely of wheat flour, hand-stretched and cut daily, served with cubes of spongy gluten, tossed in a peppery chili oil with slices of cucumber and fresh cilantro.

The next stop on our taste hunt led us to Tian Jin Chinese Restaurant (135-02 Roosevelt), which in actuality is more of a walk-up poultry counter with a few tables along the wall.  The owner, Ma Gennian, graciously setup a makeshift tasting table on the sidewalk for us, where we were presented with a generous array of meats for our culinary exploration.  Along with goose neck (shown above), we sampled tofu, chicken breast, rabbit, pig's feet, gizzards, liver, and pork tongue... all infused with a magnificently fragrant and tangy five-spice from a technique known as flavorpotting, which involves stewing the meats in a blend of soy sauce, rice wine, sugar, salt, and the five-spice powder.  As the brine ferments, it intensifies in flavor, and the brew at Tian Jin has been replenished over the course of years and years, resulting in a boisterous seasoning you will not find elsewhere.

Taking a brief intermission from the edible delicacies of Flushing, the gang next stopped at New York Tong Ren Tang, where we sampled therapeutic and bold cups of ginseng tea, while perusing the herbs and dried fish for sale.  

Our final destination, The Golden Shopping Mall, was undeniably the one that most captivated me, and has me almost obsessively craving to return again and again until I have sampled everything this magical cavern has to offer.  Hidden below street level, a labyrinth of hallways are packed with numbered makeshift stalls of Chinese street food.  Menus are duct-taped to support beams.  The tiled floor is slick with evaporated juices that have condensed and fallen again.  The air is thick with ginger, garlic, and even cumin, and the aromas are almost visible on the walls and tiny little stools lining the corridors.  Customers order steaming bowls of hand-pulled noodles, piping hot chive dumplings, and refresh themselves with bubble teas.

When we only sampled pieces of the gelatinous head cheese at Xie's Home Cooking (which was actually quite delicious), Eric Ripert's favorite, I knew that I would have to return soon to indulge in the other culinary offerings.  But after the tour, as our gluttonous mob dissipated, I found that I had not much room left for anything.

Not quite ready for this incredible field trip to end, my dear friend, Hayley, and I decided to set out on our own walking tour of some of the areas we had not been able to explore earlier.  Vendors offered curious morsels from every direction.  Crock pots were bubbling with skewers of spicy fish balls, bobbing up and down like tiny speared apples in a tub.

At Chang Jiang Supermarket (41-41 Kissena Blvd.) there was an entire aisle of every type of noodle imaginable.

The next row was strewn with a kaleidoscope of Asian sweets, as if some divine confectioner sprinkled technicolor candied confetti down a mile of shelves.  Though I wanted to buy boxes of each of the ten varieties of Pocky, we finally settled on an assortment of gummies, ranging in flavors from mangosteen to kiwi (with actual seeds inside the candy), muscat, and strawberry.

Unlike any grocery store I have seen, an entire section is devoted to rows and rows of glass canisters of exotic spices, herbs, and dried seafood.

Rows and rows of fish on ice are displayed above murky aquariums of even more fish of every size, shape, and color.  But this little girl isn't contemplating fish.  She is staring a tub of turtles sold for $6 each, and wondering which one would be perfect for soup.

A full staff of expert butchers filet whole fish to order with a few swift whacks of a cleaver.

The unpurchased bits return to the ice, hopefully to be snagged by another customer, perhaps for a fish stock or other exotic creation.

A great wall of aquariums line one corner of the vast supermarket, bubbling with every scale of seafood imaginable.  Live shrimp are rushed to local kitchens for immediate steaming, and whole eels are brought home to grill.

After paying for our sweets, we stood on the sidewalk in awe, collecting our thoughts.  What a vibrant, unique, and colorful pocket of such rich culture.  I knew we would both be returning soon.

Having meandered around the neighborhood and after gliding up and down rows of fresh produce, meats, and candies at the supermarket, a tiny new bit of appetite had made itself room in my stomach.  Of course I had to try a skewer of fish balls for $1.  What's not to love about these crispy and golden globes filled with sweet and salty fish cake?

For just $1.25 for four steamed pork buns, it seemed almost a crime to not at least taste these juicy pillows of Chinese barbecue.  And now that there was absolutely no room left whatsoever, we finally raised our white flags and returned home to Astoria, vowing to visit again very soon.

* * * * *

So today I am back.  It's only two days later, and I haven't been able to think about much else besides the sights, sounds, smells, and tastes that were introduced to me like a sensory explosion of fireworks just forty-eight hours ago.  Again today, scallion-speckled batter is smoothed into large discs on griddles to make pancakes, fish balls marinate in spicy broth, and noodles in every sauce imaginable are ladled into styrofoam containers to the point of bursting.  Though aromas from the street venders and the people crowding around them for afternoon snacks beckon me to join in, after I finish the Peking duck bun, I make a beeline straight for the Golden Shopping Mall, this time to sample more than merely a few slices of head cheese. 

This afternoon, the hallways are less crowded.  It's almost 4:30, shift change, and it seems to be the perfect time to explore with less hustle and bustle.  I walk to counter 36, Xi'An Famous Foods (also in the Flushing Food Court), and begin to attempt to place my order.  The words fall from my lips like a foreign language, because, well, English is the foreign language here.  After a bit of pantomiming, the cashier and I both laugh, and she finally motions to the wall.

I know it only serves to help bring them business, but to me, it's such a kind gesture to those of us unlucky enough not to speak a dialect of Chinese.  Framed neatly and covering the entire wall are pictures and names of all of the dishes.  This is something that not all of the booths do, but I am grateful Xi'An does.

I begin with the savory cumin lamb burger, and am simply flabbergasted.  The bun is toasted crispy on the outside, and soft inside, packed full of lamb meat that has been stewed for what must have been hours in a thick brown sauce almost like a peppery molasses of cumin, jalapenos, scallions, and onions... for only $2.50.  And though I want to pace myself and leave plenty of room, these flavors keep seducing the sandwich back to my lips.  It's addictive.

While I savor the sandwich, I actually have time to peruse the rest of the menu photos.  The dishes are fascinating.  Spicy pig's blood salad with garlic, the chilled blood pudding sliced over mixed greens.  Spicy and tingly lamb face salad.  Though I'm feeling adventurous, I'm not altogether quite sure just how adventurous.  Wiping my hands, I approach the counter again.  This time she understands me.  "You choose," I say... and point in a sweeping gesture toward the photo menu. I point to the sandwich and give a big thumbs up, and then point generally again at the whole wall.  "Anything...  you choose..."  She smiles and says, "okay... you sit down... I bring to you..."

From the table, I see her stretching noodles, steaming them, and then pouring a sauce, finally tossing them with some mystery ingredients.  I'm nervous, excited, and then ultimately... disappointed.  Misunderstanding my degree of enthusiasm for the lamb sandwich, she has prepared me the savory cumin lamb noodles.  That will teach me to moderate my dramatics, and make my own brave decisions.  Now, instead of on a bun, I behold the same toppings tossed with noodles.  But they are delicious noodles, and each one must be a yard long.  By the time I finish one noodle, nearly a third of the plate has disappeared.  Oh no... this stuff really is addictive.  Although I am slightly bummed not to have tried something new, I decide to move on to the next booth.

Xi'an Famous Foods on Urbanspoon

For $1, I enjoy a beef pie, golden crispy pastry filled with shredded beef, onions, and a sweet barbecue sauce, almost like a pork pun smashed in a panini press. It's good.  Really good.

Down another tunnel of this food maze, the hallway spills into a large open room, where a middle-aged man in a blue gingham apron grins to himself as he cuts dough for dumplings, which a woman behind the counter stuffs with a pork and scallion mixture and seals with a plastic fork, placing them on wax-paper lined cafeteria trays.  I can't resist, and so I place an order for dumplings and steamed pork buns, $6 total.

When the woman delivers three plates to me, she is giggling.  "You very hungry," she laughs.  $6 bought twelve pork buns divided onto two plates... well as a giant plate of twelve piping hot dumplings.  How on earth can they sell such massive portions of food for what breaks down to 25 cents a dumpling?  Though I pack the majority of these treats to go, the few I sample are unlike any dumpling I've ever had.  Never frozen, completely fresh, savory juice explodes from each scrumptious parcel with every bite.  I don't even use the condiments provided (various pepper sauces and vinegars) because the natural flavors are so perfect just as they are.

Since I've made a personal goal for the day of dining in at least one restaurant that I sampled at the Feastival two days ago, I pack my goods, and before exiting swing by the tea stand at the main entrance, with handwritten signs that boast every combination of tea fathomable.

Though I do love milk tea with tapioca pearls, my day has been full of some rather filling and rich dishes, so I settle on a green tea with bits of fruit jelly.  I ascend the staircase to street level as tiny jello orbs of citrus tickle the roof of my mouth.  I sip from the oversized pink straw, and then chew as I smile to myself walking down the street.  I know exactly which restaurant I want to try.

M & T restaurant (44-09 Kissena Blvd) is about a ten minute walk from Main Street.  It's the restaurant that served the curiously delicious seaweed jelly noodles, and they are known for serving traditional Qingdao dishes, a specific Chinese cuisine rarely prepared anywhere in America.  I quickly choose a few interesting dishes, as a pot of steaming tea is delivered.  Though the tea looks like green tea, it's brewed from bamboo from the Qingdao mountains.  The earthy, smoky blend instantly relaxes me to every extremity, and my toes tingle as the warmth reaches them.

While I wait for my order to arrive, the owner presents me with a small dish of salted peanuts and dried fish.  The fish are crunchy, becoming somewhat chewy, and surprisingly delicious.  I find myself picking around the peanuts for more bits of the tiny seafood snack.

Though I placed an order for the crab with egg, it is clam with egg that arrives at the table.  Another lesson driven home: always order by numbers if available.  I decide to withhold complaint, because this dish looks and smells divine.  Almost like a seafood omelette rockefeller, the eggs are beautifully scrambled with plump whole shucked clams and scallions.  They are simple flavors, really, but executed to perfection.  The eggs are light and fluffy, the clams juicy and tender, the scallions adding just enough bite to compliment the other two.

My main dish is enormous, still steaming, and other than broccoli, full of exotic morsels I have never tried.  Sea cucumber has been boiled, cooled, and rehydrated for two days.  Reminding me very much of the Qingdao noodles, these tiny slices of sea green are like tender, jellied, salty cucumbers.  They slide through my teeth, tickle my tongue, and instantly give way under my bite.  The sea cucumbers are generously blanketed over an enormous portion of pork elbow, which has been brined and slow roasted to the point of incomparable tenderness, with almost no fat.  The owner seems pleased by my facial reaction, and comes over to the table with a knife and fork.  "Let me cut that for you to make it easier," she offers, and then does just that, sweetly cutting my entire plate like a loving matriarch.  "There you go, enjoy..." and she disappears into the kitchen.

M & T Restaurant on Urbanspoon

With a full stomach, and now a full bag of groceries, I slowly make my way back down Kissena Blvd to the 7 train, my fascination and awe only stirred all the more.  As I wait at Queensboro Plaza to transfer to  the Q back to Astoria, I gaze in wonder at the Manhattan skyline.  What an absolutely incredible city I live in.

I know... the grass is always greener.  And don't get me wrong, I absolutely adore and cherish the avenue on which I live, lined with Greek cafes busy with both old and young olive-skinned men and women of Astoria sipping frappes and nibbling pita, gyros, and baklava.  For that matter, the inhabitants of Flushing would probably marvel at the old-fashioned country feast my grandmother prepares each Sunday in Indiana.  But after an excursion in Flushing, I smile to myself and cannot imagine living anywhere else on earth besides New York City, an authentic melting pot of every culture imaginable.  And I cannot wait for my next return visit.  I haven't even tried any of the dim sum palaces.  Do you have any recommendations?  Better yet, want to join me?

1 comment:

Jenny L said...

yes yes yes I want to join you! I cannot believe you went back without any of the foodmobsters.

Glad to see you found the supermarket.

Delicious words about the Far East just East of Astoria.

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