The Last Emperor of Flushing, his wife Wendy, my friend Karrie and I paid a visit to the Culinary Palace of the Ancient Kingdom of Queens–aka the Golden Shopping Mall in Flushing– last night. I’d been reading about this amazing basement food court packed with regional Chinese snack vendors on foodie websites like chowhound.com for months, but general torpor and malaise (more about that later), and my utter surety that There Is No Chinese Food In New York That Can Compare With Hong Kong’s kept me from taking the long subway ride out to the further reaches of New York’s borders.
But a few weeks ago the New York Times food page featured a full page article on Flushing’s Chinese food–basically a watered down summary of the Chowhound bloggers’ reports for a mass audience. Uh oh, I thought. Better get out there before it all disappears.
The Emperor kindly offered to whisk us to the Motherland in his royal Toyota chariot, thus sparing us an endless ride on the number 7 train. Flushing was rainy and cold when we arrived, but we found a parking spot close to Main Street right away, which the Empress proclaimed a good omen.
I’ll spare you too many details of our amazing meal, and anyway you can find the food kiosks and their various offerings obsessively documented on the Chowhound site, which even features a Rosetta Stone–a laborious line by line translation of many of the vendors’ hand-written Chinese character menus.
We split our dinner between two vendors–the guy from Xian who calls himself after his signature dish, “Cold Skin” 涼 皮–a fresh, chilly salad of hand-cut wheat gluten and wheat noodles tossed in a vinegar/hot pepper oil dressing and spiked with chives and cilantro. Mr. Skin speaks a fair amount of Cantonese (he kept dancing over to our folding table and saying “Hou meih doh!”) in addition to Mandarin and English. No fool, this guy–he had the NY Times article pasted on a post by his open kitchen stall, and kept egging us to order more dishes.
Everything was absolutely stunning. The lai mihn noodles which the ladies were pulling and cutting right in front of us, perfectly al dente, topped with yummy, cumin-scented lamb. We shared yummy mini-pita bread round sandwiches, stuffed with the same cuminy lamb–“Just the thing to pack for lunch on your Silk Road trip,” Karrie proclaimed. Cold Skin urged the Emperor to order yeung gwat, and shortly a huge heap of braised lamb ribs, muttony goodness clinging to the bones, arrived at the table. Indeed, hou meih dou.
We ate and ate, then got up, wandered around the tiny crowded, fluorescent-lit basement warren with electrical wires loose overhead ( better get here soon, before the NYC building inspectors do!), and ate some more. The tip on the Xian guy had come from the Chowhound chronicles, but this time we just followed our stomachs, and our hearts, to a small stall where a broad-faced woman in an apron was rolling out dumpling wrappers by the dozen at a little table. The sign at the stall was hand lettered, in rather nice brush calligraphy, “seui gao”. The calligraphy, coupled with the no-nonsense description, and the amazingly dexterous flour-dusted hands of the dumpling lady, called out to me. “Let’s try this place,” I said.
The dumplings arrived, all twelve of them ($3!!) steaming and cute as babies. I noticed a steam table with veggie dishes, and ordered a plate of slivered cold potato salad as accompaniment. The owner, a guy in a baseball cap, came over to chat in Cantonese and English. He is from Tianjin, and the dumpling lady is from Qingdao, same as the beer. The basement of the Golden Mall in Flushing is like a Chinese national food convention.
Or, more to the point, like the Wang Fu Jing food street in Beijing, where migrant workers from all over the country have set up stalls featuring the culinary specialties of their region. I’ve been to Wang Fu Jing. Trust me, this little basement in Flushing is just as good. It may even be better (The general quality of foodstuffs like pork and cooking oil is probably better in New York than in Beijing). What’s more–and this is the most shocking thing to me–there is no place in Hong Kong where you can go and eat mainland Chinese street food as good as this.*
I suppose it makes sense, when you think about it. Hong Kong’s immigration policy is tight, particularly towards its northern neighbors, and as a mainlander you’ll have a hard time getting in and staying there long enough to do something like open up a hand-cut noodle stall. And, even if you do, the paucity of mainland migrants from central and north China (and the general un-adventurousness of the average Cantonese palate) means your business will have trouble finding a clientele.
But Flushing is awash in mainland Chinese from Hunan, Wenzhou, Fujian, Chengdu. (The Last Emperor laughs wryly at this turn of events–when he grew up here, he and his Toisanese family were the only Chinese among thousands of Italians and Jews.)
Immigration. Freedom of movement. America, it is true, has a blemished history when it comes to giving foreigners, particularly Asians, the big “fun ying” 歡迎, or welcome. But on the balance, the door has been fairly open, especially since the 1960s, and all you have to do is look at the demographics to see it–by the middle of this century, the U.S. will be a nation of minorities.
And that, more than anything, is this country’s greatest strength. (Immigrants also are the strength of our even more open-door and fun-ying – ge neighbor Canada). Which brings me to the Olympics.
I’m not particularly interested in fighting battles over who’s winning medal counts on Yahoo or Baidu, or squabbling about underage gymnasts, or whether a Disney-perfect kid is prettier and more charming than a sweet, chubby-cheeked little girl with crooked teeth. (Okay, I’m not being completely honest–speaking as a ex-chubby-cheeked 7 year old with an overbite and a dream to be a singer, I wanted to shut my bedroom door and cry into my pillow when I read about Yang Peiyi. Who, by the way, I think is much cuter than her picture perfect “ringer”, and I don’t think I’m alone in my opinion).
But when I look at this media-fueled uber-nationalistic Battle For World Supremacy and Gold Medals what I notice is this. On one hand you have a country intent on muffling its national minorities, making Tibetans, and Uighurs vanish into the mythical homogeneity of a Great Motherland, and throwing near impossible hurdles in the path of a non-ethnically Chinese immigrant to become a citizen. (Not to mention all the new visa application hoops put into place since last April). On the other hand, you have U.S. Olympic teams where the best athletes include teenagers named Nastia and Raj and Sasha, and whose coaches come from Rumania and, yes, even from Beijing.
This is the season of gold. China’s Politburo dreams of a gold medal coup for its hardworking, super-humanly dedicated athletes, and of re-establishing the golden era of empire. Meanwhile, in the far reaches of New York City, in a golden mall named Wong Gam, immigrants from the four corners of mainland China have their eyes on a different prize. I’ll take another bowl, please, of those Gold Medal Noodles.
*Footnote–yes, it is true you can get very, very good northern-style dumplings in Hong Kong at Wang Fu on Wellington Street. But the dumplings I had last night i
n Flushing at the “Seui Gao” stand were fresher and better. And while I am recommending New York restaurants, I must shout out another surprising find, the Fukienese “Everett” restaurant on 8th Avenue and 56th street in Sunset Park’s Chinatown, where I ate an eel soup every bit as delicious as any such dish I’ve sampled in Hong Kong. Unexpectedly, as I head back to the Big Lychee just in time to watch the LEGCO elections, I’m overcome with culinary loss and regret…