It happens about every 2-months. I get this overwhelming urge to escape. An itch, if you will, to break free from the never-ending crowds in the streets - the nauseating, ear drum-piercing horns and ambulance sirens - that uber-narcissistic, "me, me, me" girlfriend that you just want to punch (Oh, come on, we alllllll have at least one of those!) - dating drama - emails that I need to respond to - and all of my other petty, "white people problems" grievances.
Question: How much physical distance do you think it takes to really feel as though you've escaped? Trust me, it's much less than you think. Are you ready? The answer is - wait for it - just about 11 miles!
On Saturday afternoon, I had lunch plans with one of my most loyal readers and her boyfriend. After going back and forth over cuisine options and neighborhoods, we unanimously decided to head to Flushing's Chinatown (Queens). Why leave the borough for Chinese food, you ask? Well, because a) I had never been to Flushing's famous Chinatown (How fcuking embarrassing is that?), b) it's the second-largest Chinatown outside of Asia, and c) I'm obsessed with Chinese food.
We secured a legit parking spot close to the Queens Botanical Garden and walked up Flushing's Main Street. The first businesses we passed along the way were Middle Eastern. From shop windows showcasing brightly colored saris, to markets carrying a bountiful array of fragrant spices and exotic ingredients, it was like Christmas morning for my eyes and nose. I even picked up a Pakistani newspaper (...so that I could later view its restaurant listings).
As Arabic writing on shops and restaurants slowly morphed in to Mandarin, we found ourselves in the heart of Flushing's Chinatown. My first observation was how much more civilized, clean, and spacious it felt compared to Manhattan's Chinatown. More notable, however, was the fact that there was room - and air - to breathe. People were not packed in the streets - or the shops - or restaurants like sardines. And, speaking of sardines, the air did not reek of dead fish.
As we made our way further up Main Street, we found ourselves chatting with a pair of teens who recommended that we dine at "the place with the long line...by the restaurant with the green awning." So, armed with that information, we hooked a left, followed by a sharp right on to Prince Street, and grabbed three seats at a communal dining table at Nan Xiang Xiao Long Bao.
We ordered with the mindset that we would be "restaurant hopping." Obviously, we wanted to taste offerings from as many establishments as our stomachs would allow. But, you know, it's a funny thing: Whenever I order dishes at a Chinese restaurant, my eyes always end up being much bigger than my stomach. Moderation, in any sense of the word, is just not something I have mastered...
Pork & Vegetable Wonton in Casserole While I'm not quite sure what they mean by "casserole," the wontons were served over a delightfully thick, peanut-based soy sauce. Perhaps "casserole" is intended to mean "thick" or "abundant?" Who knows. I could tell that the wontons had been assembled onsite, as the wrappers were slightly gummy and glutinous, and not pristinely packaged (which is a key observance in trying to decipher whether or not a wonton/dumpling is homemade).
The pork filling was dotted with green flecks, which indicated the presence of either chives or spinach/greens.
Scallion pancakes Buttery and crisp on the outside - soft and doughy on the inside - these savory, scallion-flecked pancakes really hit the spot. Especially since just moments prior, in a fit of gluttonous haze/rage, I purchased a scallion pancake from a street vendor that was beyond bland.
Xiao Long Bao (pork soup dumplings) How could we possibly go to a restaurant - with "Xiao Long Bao" in its lengthy name - and not sample its namesake dish? Served atop a cabbage leaf were six piping-hot pork soup dumplings. I was certainly impressed by the thinner dough/skin exterior, as most dumplings I've had in the US are too thick and gummy. While the interior pork meatball was tasty, I found its surrounding soup to be utterly flavorless.
My idea of the perfect soup dumpling is one where the accompanying soy/vinegar sauce is not necessary for a flavor transformation - only a flavor accentuation. To this day, no one does it better than my beloved Din Tai Fung.
After what we thought was round one of our restaurant-hopping tour, we headed to Jmart in the New World Mall. Imagine, if you will, 30,000 square feet of pan-Asian grocery-shopping heaven. I awed beautiful, magenta-colored dragon fruit, sampled even more scallion pancakes, spotted an overly-crowded eel tank (I find eels to be quite fascinating creatures), and watched - in my Western-hemisphere horror - as live frogs got their heads chopped off at the butcher's counter. It was a feast for every one of my "vanilla" senses!
Our next stop was at Fay Da Bakery, so that I could get my bubble-tea fix. The woman behind the counter insisted that I try taro-flavored tea, "smoothie" style. This just meant that the tea was blended with ice before being combined with tapioca "bubbles." And, she was right - it was delish! For those of you who don't know, the black dots in the photo, below, are the tapioca "bubbles!"
Midway through my tea inhalation, I realized that there was no way in hell I could fit another thing in my stomach. So, in an effort to solely pay our respects, we took a quick stroll through the Golden Shopping Mall, where Xiang Famous Foods, the stall that Anthony Bourdain made famous on his No Reservations episode in NYC, was born.
On the drive back to Manhattan, I couldn't believe how refreshed and renewed - and uncomfortably full - I felt. If only for a couple of hours, I was able to completely immerse myself in Flushing Chinatown's myriad of deliciously affordable and fascinating sights, sounds, smells, and tastes. One of my favorite occurrences that happened repeatedly throughout the day were the low-flying, LaGuardia-bound airplanes landing ridiculously close to where I was standing. Oh, how I wish that I could have just propped myself atop the roof of a car - a-la-Wayne's World - and gawked as the jets touched down at the airport...
If you've not yet been to Flushing's Chinatown, I highly recommend making the 11-mile journey. I cannot think of a better, more affordable way to feel transported to another hemisphere. To forget, if only for a few hours, all of the bullshit that weighs you down just across the East River. To immerse and educate yourself in new cuisines, shopping experiences, and languages. Flushing has inspired me to seek out more cultural pockets across all five of these fabulous boroughs. After all, it is this multitude of diversity that attracted me to New York City in the first place. Shame on me for not having experienced this neighborhood sooner.
Places I visited/recommend:
Nan Xiang Xiao Long Bao (restaurant) - 38-12 Prince Street - Flushing, NY 11354 - *cash only*
Jmart (pan-Asian grocery store) - 136-20 Roosevelt Avenue - Flushing, NY 11354
Fay Da Bakery (bubble tea, bakery items) - 41-60 Main Street - Flushing, NY 11354 - *cash only*
Until we eat again,
The Lunch Belle