NYC: Discovering the underbelly of Flushing’s Chinatown

Katz's Deli

Due to previously discussed vehicle trouble we were left with little other options than to fly from west to east coast in order to catch our connection from New York City to London Heathrow. As we had more time on our hands than expected and weren’t having to make the gruelling three thousand plus mile drive back across the United States we decided any trip back to New York City warranted at least a 24 hours lay over. After all, summer in the city is a whole different story to winter. Temperatures rise into the 80s, trees and flowers are in bloom, the ever unpredictable summer fashion is evidential on the thousands of city dwellers you pass on the streets, and evenings are spent eating at ‘on-trend’ restaurants, sipping cocktails and partying until all hours of the night. It’s a joyous place to be.

New York

As both Lucy and I have visited this city on a number of occasions we took it upon ourselves to explore new areas of Manhattan and beyond. This time we found a suitable airbnb host in the Lower East Side where a melting pot of Jewish, Hispanic and Latino communities outnumber any other ethnic group , and easy access to the grungy East Village, buzz of Chinatown and uber-hip SoHo made for numerous food and drink options. Any trip to Manhattan wouldn’t be complete with an afternoon strolling around the city. My favourite region to take such walks are Midtown, Downtown and everything in-between, where you can marvel at the architecture of the Flat Iron Building, or the beauty of the New York Public Library’s inner halls. No other city in the world gives me such satisfaction just from walking the streets.

Flat Iron Building

After quenching our desires for the usual New York City staples like pizza and bagels we decided it was time to take our pilgrimage to new, untested regions of the city. Chinatown is a great place to start exploring food and culture you don’t normally see domestically, although I’ve always found the sheer volume of choice on offer daunting. This coupled with the amount of tourists flocking the streets, I find it hard to know what is truly authentic and what is being sold as imitation to satisfy western pallets. With that in mind we headed for the nearest metro station and began our journey to the furthest accessible region of Queens via the 7 train, Flushing-Main Street. I can’t say I know much about Queens (the largest of the five boroughs), in fact I had never been to this area of the city prior to this experience. I’m more of a Manhattan/Brooklyn kind of person but I’d come across Flushing a number of times when researching pockets of food culture in New York City.

New York Public Library

Flushing’s Chinatown is said to be one of the largest and fastest growing ethnic Chinese enclaves outside of Asia, as well as within New York City itself. Main Street and the area to its west, particularly along Roosevelt Avenue, have become the primary nexus of Flushing’s Chinatown. To this day it continues to expand southeastward along Kissena Boulevard and northward beyond Northern Boulevard. Given its rapidly growing status, Flushing’s Chinatown may surpass in size and population the original Manhattan Chinatown within only a few years, and it’s debatable whether this has already happened. The New York Times said Flushing’s Chinatown now rivals Manhattan’s Chinatown for being the centre of Chinese-speaking New Yorkers’ politics and trade. We began our culinary adventure on the bustling Main Street, where food vendors hawk to locals, shops and stalls sprawl out onto the already compacted streets and the wail of Chinese music blares from store fronts. It seemed like we were in the right place to sample some truly authentic food. First stop, Golden Shopping Mall, a labyrinth of tiny vendors crammed over two floors (street and basement level) with little more than a plastic stools and dim lighting to welcome you.

Golden Shopping Mall

Anyone who has visited the Far East will know that on seeing such underground ‘food malls’ you’re in for the real deal. We walked between stalls, silently browsing the dishes on offer until our rumbling bellies dictated what would begin our eating tour. We pulled up a few stools at the wooden bar of North-South Dumplings where, you guessed it, hand-made dumplings were the order of the day. Twelve pork and cabbage dumplings were hand-made to order, boiled till tender and presented no-frills style on a paper plate. The dumpling casing was soft and slightly chewy in texture, whereas the filling was moist and exploded with flavour. Doused with the questionable looking pot of fiery chilli oil these dumplings were to die for, and at $3 a plate it was hard to resist not ordering more on the spot.

North-South Dumplings

Resist we did and a few vendors down we found ourselves mesmerised by a worker hand-pulling noodles at Lan Zhou Pulled Noodles. We pulled up a couple of stools and watched as the noodle craftsmen began kneading and working an enormous block of dough until it was soft enough to stretch into long, thin strips, before doubling it on itself. This was followed by the craftsman violently smacking the dough on the countertop, as he beats it into shape, repeating the process, always manipulating the dough into smaller, thinner strips. After a quick dusting in flour, he pinched off a section and rapidly stretched it to his arm span, doubled it, and stretched it again. In a matter of seconds, as if by magic, an elegant ivory loom appeared between his fingers and our noodles were ready for the pot. Fortunately, eating a bowl of these noodles wasn’t nearly as labor intensive and we shared a huge, steaming bowl of pulled noodles swimming in a rich, savoury broth with chunks of roasted duck and Chinese vegetables. The star of the show was of course the bouncy, thick noodles, that soaked up enough sauce and flavour from the broth without loosing their delicious texture. Again, at $5.50 this hardly broke the bank and felt incredibly authentic.

Lan Zhou Pulled Noodles

At this point we were really starting to get into the swing of things, pointing at menu items and gawking at the food being brought to us each time. Next on the menu was skewers of marinated meat, barbecued over hot coals from Lao Bei Fang Kebab Shop. The meat in question was chicken, but not your everyday cut of breast or thigh, in fact today’s delicacy was chicken hearts in a robust chilli sauce. I’m not an especially big consumer of offal, mainly due to its scarcity in the UK and my lack of knowledge in the preparation and cooking, although I’m a huge fan of black pudding, liver pâté and a good old-fashioned kidney pie. In fact most of my offal experiences have been in Chinese restaurants and abroad, from tripe to chicken feet, though I’m not much a fan of the later offering. That being said our skewers came to us sizzling, with a smoky, barbecued aroma. The texture of the hearts was soft to the bite with a slight chew. I detected no traces of iron typical with liver and kidneys, and actually found the skewers very flavoursome. Once again these tasty treats were worthy of their $1 price tag and we left the basement dwelling of Golden Shopping Mall for natural light and a much-needed afternoon stroll.

Lao Bei Fang Kebab Shop

I will say, Flushing is not for everyone and I can imagine to some readers the prospect of dining on skewered and barbecued chicken hearts is quite repulsive. That being said there are some practices I found difficult to see when it comes to the Chinese’s desire for the freshest ingredients possible, and at times that often means live produce. I wouldn’t recommend walking around one of the numerous fish mongers as you will not only witness overcrowded tanks of fish, but creatures not commonly seen on UK supermarket shelves, like buckets of wriggling fresh water eels, boxes of live snapper turtles prevented from movement by netting, and varieties of crabs and lobsters clambering over each other for space where there is none. I found these sights difficult at times, although it’s not the first time I’ve witnessed them and it certainly won’t be the last, and it’s moments like these that it truly rings home where these products come from. Everyone should fundamentally understand and appreciate this when making their food choices, and at least the Chinese are honest enough to admit this themselves, instead of buying inferior product from supermarket giants. Despite this there are of course infinite amount of reasons to witness the wonderful, bustling Chinatown areas of Flushing, and I hope that you too will take the hour-long train from Manhattan, on your next visit to New York City, for some of the best food on offer in the five boroughs.

And with this final fleeting visit to New York City the journey ends. Six months, covering some 12,000 miles through sixteen beautiful states. There’s been laughter and tears, unforgettable experiences and all time lows, as well as incredible people and now friends made along the way that I will never forget and will definitely stay in contact with for future adventures on the other side of the pond.

America you’ve been great and let’s not be forgetting the culinary joys you’ve given over the last six months.

Road Trip America

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