In New York last week, lots of walking, a fair amount of slush, and, as always, chasing down good food (once I replaced snow boots that peeled like a third-degree sunburn). Several good things to report, but the most remarkable came from a trek to the end of the 7 train, the (subway/elevated) line that passes Citi Field on its way to the far reaches of the borough of Queens.
The 7 train is famous for passing through deeply ethnic neighborhoods, and I suspect at every stop once it crosses into Queens from Manhattan, there's interesting stuff. But I had a specific destination this first trip. Through my affiliation with Chowzter the international group of food bloggers, I'd met Joe DiStefano, the Chief Chowzter from Queens, and we'd decided to go Eating the next time I was in town.
The end of the 7 line is Main Street in Flushing, Queens, a very Chinese neighborhood, even more deeply authentic than Chinatown in Manhattan because fewer outsiders find their way there. Joe was aiming for Dongbei food, he said, out of northeast China, more or less what was once known as Mongolia. Dongbei is cold, affecting what they eat and what they grow, so this was going to be different from what we usually find in St. Louis Chinese restaurants.
We went to two different places, both only slightly bigger than holes in the wall. Both of them began the meal with two small bowls of what looked like kim chee, but proved to be milder and far less fermented, quite tasty and less intimidating to anyone who is a little more hesitant of palate. Coarse shreds of cabbage were one of the vegetables at the first spot we visited, Golden Palace, and the other vegetable was potato, in matchstick-sized strips. Potato in a Chinese restaurant? Yes. And it wouldn't be its only appearance. The second restaurant gave us more cabbage, perhaps bok choy, and slices of turnip.
At Golden Palace, we had chicken bones (yes), triple delight vegetable and a small flounder. The bones are an appetizer - my guess is the meat has been stripped from them for use in soups and stock, leaving bits here and there, and they're thrown into boiling oil to crisp up and then tossed with whole cumin, a spice in great abundance in this cuisine, and some chili flakes. They'd make a fine bar snack, although no liquor license at this little spot. Triple delight was eggplant, peppers and potatoes, somewhere between a braise and a stirfry in a brown sauce, rich with soy sauce and oil. Surprisingly tasty for what seemed to be a very simple dish. The flounder was fried whole, and absolutely showered with more of the cumin and chili flakes, extremely crisp because of its thinness, quite delicious.
But it was at Lao Dong Bei, our second stop, that I was blown away. Again, three dishes of Joe Di
Stefano's choosing. The first was called sour cabbage with rice noodle in casserole. The sour cabbage, a common ingredient, is sometimes likened to sauerkraut. But it lacks the funky tang of fermentation, and to me is much more like a pickle. This dish was more a soup with a high proportion of solids than what Americans would call a casserole, but when I took a siip from the soup spoon, I felt my heart lurch. I'd been fighting a cold and suddenly found myself downing Chinese penicillin. Shreds of cabbage, probably Napa cabbage, and wire-thin rice noodles nestled in a deliriously rich broth. Chicken, yes, but what else? The cabbage was silken but had almost none of the characteristic sulfurous odor of cooked cruciferates. What I was tasting was some acidity, perhaps a small dollop of black vinegar, adding to the richness. The closest comparison I could make was the Greek avgolemono soup's liquid, minus the eggs.
The main course turned out to be mis-named in two different ways. Joe refers to them as Muslim lamb chops. The menu at Lao Dong Bei calls them lamb chops in Xinjiang style. But they are not lamb chops at all. Rather, they're lamb riblets, braised, then thrown in hot oil to crisp up, then seasoned with a downpour of cumin and sesame seeds, plus a few chile flakes. Cut between each bone so they're eminently snatchable and snackable, it's a stunning dish, managing by turns to be crispy and meltingly tender, texture and taste joining forces to please the mouth. Alongside was another new dish, tiger vegetables. It's a salad, an honest-to-goodness salad, full of fluffy, fresh greenness. Cilantro leaves and a few tender stems are tossed with shredded green onion and green pepper and just a little fresh hot pepper, the whole thing dressed with a little oil and black vinegar and maybe an eensy bit of sugar. It's amazing, cool and crunchy and the perfect balance to the unctuous lamb.
A stunning meal. (That's Joe's photograph, by the way. Mine only shows the remains of the day, so to speak.)
Joe's a free-lance writer who blogs and does some consulting. He also runs food tours of Queens, so if you're intersted in snooping around off the tourist path, he's just the man for you.
Golden Palace Restaurant
140-09 Cherry Ave., Flushing, NY
Lao Dong Bei Restaurants
44-09 Kissena Blvd, Flushing, NY