Most tourists — and New Yorkers, for that matter — think Manhattan’s Chinatown is the prime destination for authentic and cheap Asian grub. Location-wise, they’d probably be right. But in the further reaches of Queens lies a neighborhood so packed with bustling Asian food spots — some flashy, some rickety — that boarding the 7 train and making the long journey can be transporting in more ways than one. That hood is Flushing, Queens, a favorite destination of the adventurous and food-obsessed. And we’re about to bust it wide open. Welcome to our culinary tour of Flushing with chef Noel Cruz, owner of Carmine Club Cafe and the genius behind upcoming artisanal food pop-up “First Sinners’ Club,” as he takes us to ten of Queens’ best, not-so-hidden gems.
Dim Sum at Dong Yi Feng: Just off Main Street, Chef Cruz tells us that this two-floor dim sum emporium does brisk service on weekends. “I’ve come here with my friends before and the line is always out the door,” he explains. The Cantonese owners have dressed the cheery space with backlit scenes from China’s southern provinces, requisite circular ten-tops and red wall murals. Aside from a variety of carts on the weekends, they specialize in à la carte seafood dishes and it’s worth it to come during off hours to try plates like “delicious jelly fish” (an appetizer served cold in vinegar that is noodle like in texture) and fresh and fragrant steamed clams with garlic and greens. “This place has clean flavors, lighter preparations and quality ingredients,” says Cruz. 135-29 37th Ave. (Just off of Main St.) 718-886-8233
Soup Dumplings at Nan Xiang Xiao Long Bao: Sounds of clinking, slurping and cell-phone ringing can be heard at this homey two-room Shanghai soup dumpling spot tucked away on a side street. Popular with Flushing teens as in-the-know Manhattanites, the goodness goes beyond the steamy, silky broth in the dumplings made to order by hand in the center kitchen. “I like this place better than Joe’s Shanghai,” says Cruz. “These have better flavors and texture.” Beyond the trendy snack, spicy beef and tripe ($5.95), perfectly plumped pork buns ($5.50), crackly beef pancakes with a sweep of Hoisin sweetness and scallions, done Peking-style (only $3.75) are the secret finds on the menu. 38-12 Prince St. (b/w 38th & 39th) 718-321-3838
Breads & Bao at Apollo Bakery: Cravings for midnight microwavable pork buns, or bao, can be sated at this small shop off Main Street where they come in bags of six pre-steamed for takeaway. Bakers arrive at 5 a.m. each morning to turn out special versions of Taiwanese goodies like taro buns, rolled sponge cakes, pork pastries and their version of Pullman bread, a favorite of Cruz’. The warmth from the ovens heating our buns is tempered by cool attitude of cashiers, probably tired of being beleagured by foodies on bao pilgrimages, but don’t let that stop you. 135-36 39th Ave. (b/w Main St. & Prince St.) (718) 961-0596
Cold Noodles & Lamb Face Salad at Xi’an Famous Foods: Oh, the Flushing Mall. If the exterior neon lights don’t put you in a lighter frame of mind, the hawker-style food court stalls serving everything from bubble tea to Korean confections will. Tucked unassumingly at the end of the stalls, outpost #2 of much-loved Xi’an Famous Foods advertises its many types of handmade noodles, soups and stir-fries influenced by the Silk Road traders known for its use of cumin and chili oil. Xi’an’s Spicy and Tingly Goat Face Salad (E3) and Liang Pi Cold Skin pulled-to-order noodles (A1), are cheaper than St. Mark’s and better or maybe it’s just that the overhead mall lights and yellow-and-blue bench style seating leave little distraction for appreciating this intoxicating and numbing warmth of sichuan peppercorn-laced crack food. “The sensation of the peppercorns add such a deeper dimension not only in flavor, but also physically,” says Cruz. Flushing Mall, 133-31 39th Ave. @ College Pt. Blvd. & 39th Ave. (No phone or delivery orders at this time)
Bubble Tea and Shaved Ice at Water Empire: The most polished of the Flushing Mall stands, but the offerings lose no depth of flavor in their gleaming perfection. Plum ices, green tea ice cream and almond milk with tapioca bubbles are a refreshing and sweet quaff after a heavy food court meal. “It’s rich, but at the same time refreshing and light,” explains Cruz. Flushing Mall, 133-31 39th Ave. (@ College Pt. Blvd. & 39th Ave. (No website or Phone)
Duck Buns at Corner 28: Directly under the 7 Train overpass lies this part-take out, part sit-down restaurant where roast duck is basted in hot oil until crisp giving it a wonderful deep brown glaze and shine. “I was shown this place randomly after wandering the streets of Flushing after having a couple of dinners before. We just couldn’t resist,” says Cruz. At the takeout window, vendors carve tender pink two-inch selections from a glazed duck breast, then sandwich them between puffy white buns, topping them with generous hits of Hoisin and smatterings of slivered scallion. $2 for two buns is the deal, though it probably functions as a bait and switch, considering that in one bite, you’ll be tempted to go home with a whole or half duck, chosen from the many hanging seductively from the ceiling racks at the front inside counter. Pushy customers just bring out competitive streaks. 40-28 Main St. (@ Main St. & 40th Rd.), 718-886-6628
Scallion Pancakes at Flushing Snack Shop: “Embrace simplicity,” wrote Lao-Tzu. This nondescript street-side counter offers a spare, three-item menu of scallion pancakes, dumplings and purple steamed corn, keeping in line with the Zen principle. Once fried in a vat of vegetable oil, flour patties filled with snips of scallion are patted down on the griddle to build just the right amount of golden bubbly crispness. No weak, wimpy cake, these salty snacks hold up their sponginess for hours. “I like the flavor and texture and how they’re freshly made on the spot,” says Cruz. Go at night, since the small galley kitchen window operates a separate daytime business as well. 40-40 Main Street, 646-261-7518
New Year Sponge Cakes at Ding Tai Restaurant: Eye-catching displays of pastel-colored sweet rolls, cakes and confections draw passersby at this Taiwanese bakery and café. Chef Cruz didn’t have it on the list, but the pink, yellow and white sponge cakes made it impossible for us not to stop. During the new year, Chinese buy sponge cakes called nian gao to attract good fortune since nian sounds like “making money” and gao means “high” and “promotion.” Inside, cafeteria trays display cold salads and hot dishes and there’s also a quieter seating area in the back. 40-46 Main Street, 718-359-6655
Small Pork Buns, Fried Dumplings at Zhu Ji Guo Tie: An ethnically Korean family of vendors may run this no-frills snack portal on the downward sloping side street next to Main, but menu offerings reads like a “Best Of” list from all of China’s provinces. Green tea marbled eggs fill up white plastic buckets, supersize buns sit pleasantly on the counter, frozen dumplings fill the freezer cases and pressed soy bean milk in plastic to-go cartons are piled high near the cash register. Men of all ages amble in for elbow room at the tiny counter for post-work snacks. The snuck-in smile from the owner and the warmth generating from the extra-large woks and industrial style metal steamers are the only hint that this muscular food factory is all heart, but when you taste a bite of its panfried dumplings, there’s no surprise. 40-52 Main Street (window on 41st Ave.)
Grilled Meats at Xinjiang Barbecue Cart: Street meat of any kind brings out the inner nomad in us all, and at the Xinjiang Traditional BBQ cart across from the vegetable and meat market on Main Street, you’ll find lamb, chicken, beef and offal, such as chicken hearts and lamb kidneys (though you have to ask) fit for any warrior. Cruz found the cart while stumbling around one night and tells us that there’s always someone friendly helming the charcoal fired grill. For $1, $2 and $3, skewered meats are fired to order, then sprinkled with red spice powder (don’t try to ask what the exact blend is), but the sweet, smoky taste reminds you that China’s food history was also steeped on the steppes where Middle-Eastern tribesmen brought kabobs across the plains, adding more layers to its rich food cache. Even more interesting when you realize it’s made it’s way across the world again to Queens, and you learn this through a Bangladeshi customer, waiting right in line beside you. 41st Ave. @ Kissena Blvd.
Photos by Sheree Wu.
[EDITOR’S NOTE: After this story was published, it was brought to our attention that a similar food tour of Flushing’s Chinatown was also recently published on FoodMayhem.com. Check out the explanation from chef Noel Cruz and writer Meghann Foye.]