Flushing’s Chinese Food Courts

Although Manhattan’s Chinatown is the best-known of the city’s many Chinese enclaves, other pockets of settlement that draw far fewer tourists and don’t really cater to non-Chinese speakers exist all over the five boroughs. The biggest, most crowded, and most interesting to explore is the Chinese neighborhood in Flushing, Queens. Sitting in the shadow of Citi Field and the remnants of the World’s Fair, Flushing is a massive Chinese neighborhood with a dense concentration of restaurants, shops, and arcades. It sees far fewer tourists than Manhattan’s Chinatown, so navigating it can be a little trickier if you don’t read and speak the language. Many signs have no English translations (some have Spanish translations), and many shop proprietors speak very little, if any, English. But fortune favors the adventurous, and you can generally get along just fine so long as you recognize the fact that, unless you are Chinese, you are the minority here.

I’ve been meaning to make the trip out there for a while, but of course things always come up. However, when I heard one of the signature destinations — the venerable Flushing Mall — had either been demolished, was about to be demolished, or had just been saved from demolition, I figured it was high time I made the long trek up to have a poke around and eat my way through the neighborhood. Because that’s what Flushing is known for. I always like to hunt for interesting DVD and music shops, but if you are looking for those in Flushing or…well, pretty much anywhere, at this point… you are out of luck. In many streets and three Chinese shopping malls, I found a single DVD store, and all they had was terrible looking bootlegs. But for food — ah, my friends, for food this is one of the best neighborhoods in the five boroughs. And because it is off the beaten tourism track, the price for fantastic food is ridiculously low.

It was a gorgeous end-of-winter day when we got to the teeming neighborhood, and right away I knew I was going to have a good time, music shops or no. Streets are packed with people and lined with food stalls, counters, and windows. One of our first stops was the Peking Duck Sandwich Stall (40-28 Main St, on 40th Rd), a crowded and bustling window where you can get a Peking Duck sandwich for a buck. They are delicious — crispy and perfect and topped with hoisin sauce. No better way to start the day. The entire street is lined with such places, and you can eat pretty much anything you’d want so long as you can manage it while standing and dodging the throngs of people intent on doing the same.

From there, it was across the street to the New World Mall (136-20 Roosevelt Ave. near Main St.). If you’ve never been to a Chinese mall, they are about 70% hair salons, 25% clothing stores, and the rest is a smattering of places selling video games, Gundam models, knock-off Hello Kitty stuff, and phone cards. New World is a little different in that its first floor is a massive Chinese grocery and beer store that is well worth poking around in for a spell. Maybe pick up some snacks (White Rabbit chews! Koala Yummies!) for the road. The other floors are as described: mostly hair salons. But the basement…oh, my brothers and sisters! The basement is a humongous, busy food court. We aren’t talking any Manchu Wok sort of nonsense here. This is the real deal, everything from soupy dumplings to hand-pulled noodles to bamboo bowls full of beef tendon and tripe. There is no going wrong down here, and I recommend traveling with a pack so you can buy stuff from a bunch of different places and try a variety. Unfortunately, there were only two of us, and since bowls of soup and noodles are massive and dumplings seem to come no fewer than a dozen to an order, we had to be strategic in our choices.

So we went with the oft-recommended Lanzhou Handmade Noodle. Chinese hand-pulled noodles are a personal favorite of mine, and New York is a great place for finding them. My default is a place called Xi’an, which got its start in Flushing before becoming a metropolitan darling (and deservedly so) after opening up outposts in the East Village and Manhattan Chinatown. Lanzhou isn’t going to unseat Xi’an as my favorite, but they were still good. For those who haven’t had them, hand-pulled noodles are doughy rice noodles served in a broth or gravy, usually along with some sort of spicy meat. We went for broth and lamb, and I was a happy lad.

Knowing there was a lot yet to eat, I had to hold myself back from just going restaurant to restaurant and ordering something from all of them. Instead we sought out the relative calm of Beautiful Memory Dessert (formerly known as Manji Dessert, but since they stole that name from a place in Hong Kong…well, I guess they got caught), one of the few places that has its own seating. But seating wasn’t my main priority. I was there for the mango desserts. Specifically, Mango Glutinous Dumpling — gooey gluten balls filled with fresh-cut mango. Rice gluten is sweet, soft, and chewy and not everyone digs it. Not having grown up with anything like it, it took some getting used to for me but now I like it. And once you hit the ripe, juicy mango in the center — very nice. This was augmented with an order of sweet sesame balls in sesame soup and almond milk tea. Black sesame freaks some of people out because of its color, but don’t worry. It tastes sort of like peanut butter. The “soup” and “tea” are actually more like pudding, and they work well together. I hear the place they ripped off in Hong Kong is much better, but Hong Kong is even harder than Queens to get to by subway from Brooklyn. And anyway, I thought the place was good. Be forewarned — the waitresses here do their best, but the ones we had did not speak a lick of English. Luckily, they have Japanese style plastic models of the desserts out front, so you can at least figure it out ahead of time.

After mid-lunch dessert, it was time to head over to the one-time king of the neighborhood, Flushing Mall (133-31 39th Ave), which we were not even sure still existed. Reports conflicted on the internet, but we were assured by a food journalist who knows the neighborhood that Flushing Mall was still alive and kicking. Well, it is still alive, but it’s more on life support than kicking. We came in the side entrance, and most of the shops there are now vacant. An antique dealer remains, and a store selling Hello Kitty pencils and massaging flip-flops and that sort of thing. The rest seem to have packed up and gone looking for greener pastures. There is one food stall here, but we made our way past it, past the one part of this wing of the mall that was still kicking — the ping pong tables — and into the other wing of the mall, where there is a little more life. Most of the stores here are actually places you can go to learn something: painting, English, dance, singing, chess…if you ever wanted to know how to play the pipa or er-hu, there’s a place that will teach you. There was also a mysterious looking nightclub or strip club or something. Most of them were closed, but that had more to do with it being a Saturday I think. The rest of the main wing of the Flushing Mall is taken up by a big indoor courtyard that was full of senior citizens chuckling and pelvic thrusting as they followed the lead of a woman on stage teaching about the benefits of laughter and stretching.

The mall’s main food spot is in here too, set up like a cafeteria and serving mostly dim sum. There’s a few different places, and it can be a bit confusing to figure out where you pay for which one. We ended up at Diverse Dim Sum, because it sounded pretty diverse. Folks here speak even less English than at New World. While ordering is easy enough — the menus are translated, and you can get by with numbers and pointing — you have to keep an eye out for the order once it’s finished, since chances are someone will just yell out your order number in Chinese. Had tiny soupy dumplings and crab roe shumai, because a white guy always has to order the shumai. The dumplings were good, but there are way better both in Chinatown and elsewhere in Flushing. Crab roe shumai was also good, but it tasted pretty much like all shumai. The best part of the meal was the laughing, dancing, thrusting old folks. I hate to kick a place when it’s down, but if you are on a time, money, or stomach space budget, you can skip Flushing Mall. Unless you want to see some seriously psychedelic floor tiling.

Our final stop was back on the main drag, Golden Mall (41-28 Main St). It’s easy to miss. The entrance is just a couple ratty looking glass doors between newsstands. Past those is an even rattier stairwell, and you will be wondering what the hell you are doing and why are you going to eat in a Saw movie as you descend the dingy steps. But all is made right when you get to the bottom and enter a world that looks like it was ripped out of some crazy, surreal Wong Kar-wei film. Low ceilings are battered by column after column of steam. Uneven, patchwork floors meander through a maze of food stalls crammed shoulder-to-shoulder and pumping out fantastic dim sum, pulled noodles, soup, and dumplings. Hungry patrons are gathered around rickety old picnic tables or along lunch counters bathed in steam and neon. Every movie should have a scene that takes place here.

Although New World is the most polished and modern and large, Golden Mall is far away my favorite. There’s a Xi’an Noodles here, and another Lanzhou. Xi’an Famous Foods deals hand-pulled noodles that have a thicker gravy and spicier meats. One of the best meals in New York. Also stuffed into the overwhelming, raucous subterranean labyrinth are some top-notch dumpling stalls. Seek out Xie Family Dishes or North-South Dumplings. Eat some spicy pig ears. It’s a jumbled madhouse, and you may not even be able to tell where you are ordering from. If you can make it out of here without someone walking up to you and saying, “He say you Blade Runner,” then you’ve done a man’s job, sir. The basement at Golden Mall…my friends, this is why you came all the way out to Flushing.

If I could give any further advice, it would be to go with a few people. Like I mentioned earlier, there is a ton of stuff to try, and most of it is cheap and in large quantities. If you are alone or with only one other person, you’re going to be satisfied but feel like you missed out on so much (you did). Three would do nicely, four is better and the max — you won’t be able to find seating at the busy New World or the cramped Golden Mall with more than that. Flushing can be an overwhelming experience the first time out, but don’t worry. Worst comes to worst, go blind and just order random stuff. Chances are you will come across something unexpectedly delicious.