In January, when I first visited the food court of Flushing's Golden Shopping Mall, I had no idea that the mall's Mandarin name was Wong Jing Xian Chan. I don't speak or read Mandarin, although I am studying it. Most of the signage is in Chinese, but luckily I was armed with a cheat sheet from an industrious Chowhound. Unfortunately it covered only one stall, Cheng Du Tian Fu Xiao Shi, or "Chengdu Heavenly Plenty Snack Restaurant," which specializes in Sichuanese street food from the provincial capital Chengdu.
Next time I came better prepared. I brought a fluent Mandarin speaker, Fuchsia Dunlop. I toured the food court with the Chinese food expert and author of the recently published Shark's Fin and Sichuan Pepper for more than two hours. In that time we grazed our way through only a few stalls. Did I forget to mention that it's not a food court in the traditional sense, but rather a warrenlike collection of tiny restaurants?
Dunlop was amazed by the diversity of eats and gushed that it was "just like being in China." The folks at the food court were equally amazed by us—a British woman who behaves and speaks as if she's Chinese accompanied by an American shooting photos of every plate. What follows is a guide to what we ate combined with my subsequent experiences.
From Tianjin to Fuzhou in Mere Footsteps
First up was Wang Zhen Qing Zhen Xiao Chi, or Wang Zhen's Muslim Snacks. That's right, Muslim snacks, because Wang Zhen hails from the northeastern port of Tianjin, which has a large Muslim community. You won't find any bean pies here, but you will find chive pie, or jia cai he zi. The calzone-shaped pastry is filled with a delectable combination of chive, egg, bean thread, and crumbled you tiao, the gigantic Cantonese cruller. Those flat disks consist of layers of dough that have been filled with either sesame or peanut. They're incredibly dense yet tasty.
There's no pork to be had, but there's plenty of beef and lamb offal, including tripe from both and lamb heart soup. Less adventurous types will want to try the jiang niu rou, or cold sliced aromatic beef shin. It's so good that Dunlop tried to get Wang Zhen to divulge the recipe. I haven't had much luck translating his sign, but I do know that the sliced beef is the first $8 item in the second column.
Fuzhou lies some 1,000 miles south of Tianjin, but all you have to do get there from Wang Zhen's is cross the room. There you'll find Old Wong Kee. The folks behind the counter were mighty amused by Dunlop as she contemplated the menu. We shared a plate of ban mien, delicate ribbons of pasta in a light soy-peanut sauce and a tasty soup bobbing with balls of eel stuffed with meat. As we embarked for our next destination, Dunlop smiled and said, "I get this childish kick wondering what all these far-flung things are doing in this corner of New York City."
Xi'an: Land of Lamb Burgers and Cold Skin
By exiting the aboveground portion and strolling over to the subterranean section at the corner of 41st Road and Main Street and heading to the back, we traveled some 900 miles northeast to the city of Xi'an. Xi'an Famous Snacks is presided over by a friendly gent who goes by the nickname Liang Pi, or "cold skin." Liang pi is also his most popular dish; he sells between 300 and 400 orders a day.
Liang pi doesn't contain any flesh, though. It's a cold salad of squidgy wheat gluten chunks and wheat starch noodles mixed with cilantro, bean sprouts, a touch of chili oil and some Chinkiang vinegar. And it's one of the best things I've eaten in a long time. You can also take the carb trifecta route and get a liang pi jia mo, or "cold skin burger."
The lamb burger, or zi ran chao yang rou jia mo, obviously does contain flesh. And, oh, what flesh! Crisp chunks of lamb seasoned with cumin and hot pepper dressed with pickled jalapeños. At $2.50 a pop, it's become my go-to cheap sandwich now that banh mi are nearing the price of a gallon of gas. Bai ji mo jia la zhi rou, or the pork version are named after Bai Ji, a famous Tianjin street vendor. They're Xi'an's answer to pulled pork.
The Xi’an stall has become my favorite and not just because I can point to the pictures on the wall. Recently I figured out that they serve similar fare to A Fan Ti, the once great Northern Chinese joint. Lao huo zai, or tiger vegetables, is a bracing salad of cilantro, plenty of jalapeño, and green onions. Thanks to Dunlop’s book, I know that the peppers are “horse ear” slices and the spring onions are “fish-eye” slices.
Yiang xie zi, or veal neck, is so gloriously messy that it comes with a food prep glove. The only sloppier dish out there in my experience is Thai pickled crab. Hold the vertebra in your left hand and use your chopsticks with the other to get at the bits of meat and marrow. At $5.50 for four vertebrae, it’s one of the city’s tastiest and cheapest nose-to-tail treats. When you’re finished, stack up the bones and make your very own Lambhenge. There was so much tasty nerve matter in the bones that I thought I might wind up with mad sheep disease.
Liang Pi told us that, far from being a detriment, this dish is quite good for both "having babies" and "making love." Another newfound fave is biang biang mien, hand-pulled noodles that are so named because of the thwacking sound they make when slammed against the counter as they’re being pulled. Liang Pi’s become something like the David Chang of Main Street; he just opened up a satellite location at another food court three stores down. It’s aptly named Liang Pi Chinese Burger. On the wall there’s a picture of liang pi–making as it was done 2,500 years ago.
Back to Chengdu Heavenly Plenty
The last stop Dunlop and I made was the Chengdu stall. For those of you keeping track, Chengdu is roughly 400 miles southwest of Xi’an. The Chengdu stall is the first one you encounter if you enter from the corner of Main and 41st Road.
Dunlop spent many years studying Sichuan cuisine in Chengdu, and, as with everyone else that day, the workers were flabbergasted that she was speaking Chinese, particularly since it was Sichuan dialect. And Dunlop was pretty floored, too. “They’re speaking Sichuan dialect. I love it, Sichuan dialect is so lovely."
Even though we were absolutely stuffed, we ordered some huge pork-filled dumplings awash in a sauce that was sweet, hot, and salty and a plate of fu qi fei pian or "husband and wife" offal slices. The dish takes its name from a couple who had an especially harmonious marriage. It’s an offalicious mountain teeming with pleasantly funky-tasting sheets of tripe, thin ribbons of beef tendon, and rich beef tongue. The offal trifecta is bathed in chili oil and shot through with peanuts and Sichuan peppercorn. It will leave your mouth pleasantly humming with a combination of heat and the tingling effect of the Sichuan peppercorn. And it will have you coming back for more.
A Korean woman who shared a table with us was tucking into a plate of ma la tan, or hot pot. She looked up and said to Dunlop, “You speak perfect Chinese.” Oh, and, Fuchsia, if you happen to be reading this, I was disappointed that they were out of rabbit heads, too.