Monday, December 06, 2010

A Culinary Adventure in the Mysterious Far East

OK, perhaps I’m exaggerating. When I say Far East, I mean 10 miles east of Manhattan. The borough of Queens. Not that I think New York is the center of the universe or anything.

The story goes like this. It is a chilly December afternoon and I find myself trailing after my college roommate “Ford McKenzie” on Main Street in Flushing, Queens. Ford was once a radical underground journalist and is now a respected member of the financial community and a connoisseur of the Manhattan Cocktail. We must navigate a crush of people. I’m not sure I’ve actually been to Flushing since the World’s Fair (the second one). Flushing was one of the first Dutch settlements established on Long Island in 1644. The intersection of Main Street and Roosevelt Avenue has a high concentration of Asian businesses and residents – and, street food. A mind-boggling choice of street food. It is said that Flushing’s Chinatown is the second-largest Chinatown outside Asia.

I’ve pressured Ford to take me on a tour, since he had visited Flushing’s Chinatown earlier this year. You may recall our incredible Beefsteak Adventure. Or the time we were bitten by the White Dog. Ford is my gateway to culinary excess. He gets me out of my comfort zone, or at least out of Nassau County.
The air is frigid, but we are engulfed in steam and cooking aromas. “It’s just like Hong Kong,” says Ford, and I must admit it seems as though we have entered another world. It is nearly three in the afternoon and there is an ongoing urban banquet underway. Everywhere we look, people are chopping, cooking, frying, steaming and eating. It is as if our only reason to exist is to cook and eat, and eat some more. We gladly succumb.

Near the Number 7 train station, we happen upon a takeout window where scallion pancakes are sizzling on a griddle.   The air is thick with the smell of frying oil and steam.   The steam rises from the feathery-light, savory pancake as Ford tears it in two.

All along the street there are stalls, or what might be described as a collection of mini-malls.   The options for merchandise and food are endless.   I follow Ford as he enters a door off the street and descends to a basement collection of food stalls squeezed into a cramped space.   It is a cacophony of food, cooking smells, and people perched on folding chairs consuming gizzards, pork buns and slurping deep bowls of noodles submerged in broth.  We quickly find a place to sit and order a serving of hot noodles drenched in chili sauce and a bowl of cold noodles topped with crispy pork.   While we have already agreed we will pace ourselves and only sample, the combination of the cold outdoor air and the heat of the spicy noodles is overwhelming.  We practically devour both servings of noodles. 

We stop to watch as a man rolls noodles by hand.

Down the street, we enter another collection of stalls where one can purchase street food, electronics, hand bags, wool hats or brassieres.  The smell is a fusion of new leather and soy sauce.   Three women are preparing steamed pork buns.  They work in a rhythmic fashion.  Two of them are chopping mountains of cabbage and pork for filling.  The third breaks off circular pieces of dough, places some filling at the center, works the dough up around the filling and twists it into a neat round bundle. 

At another stall, the pork buns are monstrous white pillows so we decide to indulge.  The buns are prepared in a tall multi-tiered steamer.   The proprietor suggests that we eat the buns with a touch of soy and chili sauce.  The steaming-warm, pure-white dough and hot savory meat is a carnal delight. 

We are momentarily distracted by the abundant selection of businesses in the area offering a one-hour foot massage.

“Why do you think it takes an hour?” asks Ford.

“Use your imagination,” I tell him, and I have to be fairly asserting in preventing Ford from adding a foot massage to our afternoon menu.

By this time, we have worked up quite a thirst and decide to make the journey to Union Turnpike in Fresh Meadows to check out the legendary cocktails at the restaurant King Yum. Ford is obsessed with the TV show Mad Men. He suspects that King Yum is exactly the kind of place where Don and Betty would have gone for a classy night out back in 1963. He’s probably right.  Dramatic gray clouds have gathered on the skyline, suggesting a dining experience of mystic proportions. 

We are greeted at the door by Helen, the enchanting and energetic hostess. “Have you been to King Yum before?” she asks. We tell her no.

“What took you so long? We’ve been here 57 years,” is her snappy reply.

King Yum consists of three distinct areas, a Polynesian Room, a traditional Chinese Dining Room, and a bar.   Helen seats us in the Chinese dining room where George is our waiter.  He is dressed in a maroon waist coat and black bow tie and is quite attentive.   We are hypnotized by the elaborate Chinese chandeliers and tiles that decorate the ceiling.   The first order of business is the exotic cocktails.   Ford chooses the King Yum special, a smooth concoction of rum and cognac.
I select the Mona Loa, which is about a quart of rum punch – on fire – and contained in a vessel the size of a large flower pot.   Paradise!   I lean in carefully with my straw, being careful not to singe my nose hairs.  

We have a bit of a friendly debate with George.   He wants us to try the calamari, but we’re leaning towards a few classic Chinese American dishes made popular in the fabulous fifties.   George consents to our wishes and brings King Yum’s classic Chicken Chow Mein and Egg Foo Yong with a side of white rice.

I’m not sure I’ve ever had Chow Mein freshly prepared. It is silky, crisp and delicious. The Egg Foo Yong is a satisfying and rich egg omelet filled with bean sprouts, water chestnuts and roasted pork. Helen says the recipes are exactly what they’ve followed since 1953.

Ford throws in a Mai Tai for good measure, but I’m now suffering from culinary jet lag. George packs up the leftovers for us in cardboard takeout boxes and places it all in a white plastic bag with a yellow Smiley Face on it.

We promise Helen that we will not wait 57 years to return. King Yum is everything we hoped it would be.

My white cardboard boxes tucked under my arm, Ford drops me at the Atlantic Terminal station in Brooklyn and soon I am making my way via high speed train back to the relative quiet and casseroles of suburbia.

©2010 T.W. Barritt All Rights Reserved


My Carolina Kitchen said...

Having not lived in a city in a zillion years, it looks intimidating. I would definitely need a knowledgeable guide such as Ford to help me through this culinary experience. Tell Helen if I'm ever up that way, I'll be right over. Sounds divine. (And I loved her snappy response - at least she cares in a world where few employees still do.)

Julia said...

What a fun afternoon!! I'm especially jealous that you found the hand-pulled noodles (la mein), since we don't have in Boston. And in fact that only time I've seen it is in Hong Kong.

lostpastremembered said...

The Mad Men joint looks divine. Now that I am learning the ways of mixed drinks (having been a devoted wino for most of my life...eschewing the cocktail) well I am loving these 19th century rum/brandy/juice combinations ... and that flowerpot drink??? Vavoom!
I haven't done a Flushing crawl in many a have inspired me utterly!

T.W. Barritt at Culinary Types said...

Sam - Ford is always willing to lead a tour, and Helen has already invited us back for karaoke night. You should come!

Julia - Good to hear from you! Thanks for the additional info on the hand-pulled noodles. The one drawback is that without a guidebook, we sometimes didn't know exactly what we were observing.

Deana - Three people could do laps in the Mona Loa! You will love it.

Mary said...

There is nothing better in the world than Chinese junk food - save your descriptions of it. So, exactly why does that foot masssage take an hour :-). Have a great day. Blessings...Mary

Fresh Local and Best said...

I keep on telling myself that I will visit Queens and all this wonderful exotic food, but life has been so awfully busy here. I am inspired again by your post and the pictures. I'd love to try those scallion pancakes and pork bao. Also, I'd love to see hand-pulled noodles live. Perhaps when things slow down over the holidays I'll hop onto the 7. Which stop did you get off of?

T.W. Barritt at Culinary Types said...

Hi Christine - we traveled by car, but I'm told if you take the #7 train to the very last stop, you will be at Main Street and right in the thick of the food district. Let me know if you make the trip. It's worth it!

veron said...

Can I impose on you and your friend to take me to Flushing next time I'm in NY? Did you see any dried scallops there, I've been on the hunt for some good ones. :)
The pork bun is what we call siopao in the Philippines, our family restaurant was very popular with these pork buns. :) The one who made them would come in at 10 pm and work through the night and have them available fresh the next morning. We had stacks of huge bamboo steamers to cook and keep them warm...ahhh memories...

T.W. Barritt at Culinary Types said...

Veron - the next time you're in New York, we're on our way to Flushing!

tasteofbeirut said...

Helen reminds me of a waiter at a dumplings joint in Dallas (small) Chinatown who crossed his arms and said pursing his lips " Vat du yu wun?"
great trip reading this, I sense the relief of going back on that train to peace and quiet of suburbia/ am I right?

Stacey Snacks said...

Yours Truly was born in Flushing, Queens, on Kissena Blvd. (in a hospital that is no longer there). A lot has changed since then!
They now have better Chinese food than China!

pierre said...

I also love to wander through our Chinesetwon here in Paris this is so incredible and you can find herbs and veggies like nowhere else !
Come and visit me if you like inventive food made by an amateur !!
Cheers de Paris

T.W. Barritt at Culinary Types said...

J - I'll have to check out that joint in Dallas. Relief? Indeed! I didn't eat for another 24 hours!

Stace - Born and bred in Flushing! No wonder you're so into food!

Pierre - Welcome! Perhaps someday I'll be able to visit the Chinatown of Paris.

Velva said...

Every time I visit NYC I feel like I am standing in the middle of the world. I visited China town and had some amazing local dumplings that were dirt cheap, authentic and delicious. Now, the Chinatown in Flushing is just another great place to visit next time while in the city.

What great way to spend your day!

Happy holidays to you!

Helene said...

I have to go visit. That food looks so good.