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[Photographs: Joe DiStefano]

When I'm in Flushing's Chinatown, no matter what regional cuisine I eat—Hunan, Sichuan, Taiwan, or Xi'an—it's almost always accompanied by an ice-cold Tsingtao. The crisp lager cools and refreshes the palate, readying it for the next wave of flavor, whether it's spicy, salty, smoky, pungent, sweet, or a combination thereof. But as much as I love the green-bottled beer with the pagoda on the label, I have never eaten anything from the brewery's home of Qingdao, the seaport in Shandong province. So I was particularly excited when I heard about M&T Restaurant Inc., a month-old spot specializing in Qingdao cuisine.

It's always fascinating how the corporation name of Chinese restaurants winds up on storefront awnings. The owners tell me the characters above the English name read "Qing Dao Ren Jia," or “Qingdao people’s home.” The three characters above the pagoda-like structure are “Mei Er Te,” or “beautiful and extraordinary."

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20090915-mt-menu.jpgA meal at M&T always starts with a vegetarian amuse bouche. It's a nice touch, plus it gives one something to do while perusing the lengthy menu and marveling at the vast array of dishes taped to the mirror lining one side of the long room. On my first visit my posse and I snacked on xi cai hua sheng mia, a refreshing mix of boiled peanuts, celery, carrots, and dou fu pi (tofu skin), dressed with a whisper of chili oil (a full portion is $3.95). The second visit’s treat was crunchy slices of lotus root.

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One of my favorite Chinese dishes is cold slices of cucumber with minced garlic. M&T’s zhu tu rou ban huang gua ups the ante with chunks of what look to be mushrooms, but are actually bits of pork skin that have been prepared in a sweet sauce with just hint of anise. And it's not just any skin either—it comes from the head. A plate of pig head with cucumber is $3.95.

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Qingdao xiang chang, or Qingdao sausage ($6.95), is proudly listed under M&T’s cold appetizers. Unfortunately, they've been out of it every time I’ve eaten there. On my last visit I opted for what the menu lists as Qingdao Special Course ($7.99), or Qingdao xiao chao. It translates roughly to "Qingdao quick stir fry." Nevertheless, the heap of carrots, sprouts, garlic, firm planks of tofu, crunchy Chinese celery, bits of pork belly, and other Chinese veggies is delicious and is indeed special.

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One of the things that makes this dish special is quan tou cai, or clenched fist vegetable. Foragers will recognize this strange-looking veggie as young bracken fern.

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The cold appetizer listed on the menu as shrimp skin with hot pepper ($5.95) is the type of dish that prompts immediate ordering from adventurous eaters. After all, what could "shrimp skin" possibly be? As it turns out, jian jiao xia pi, is actually a heap of tiny dried shrimp and slivers of hot green peppers with just a touch of Sichuan peppercorn. It’s salty, spicy, and crunchy, and goes quite well with rice and ice-cold Tsingtao.

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Hu pi jian jiao, or hot pepper with chili ($8.99), is a spicehead’s dream come true. Not sure where the chili is, but the fried long green peppers scattered with garlic and green onions have more than enough heat on their own.

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Some might order the fu you chicken ($9.99), because of the funny name, but I chose it because I had a hunch it would be good. Turns out I was right. Fu you ji pian, or floating oil chicken slices, is a mix of crazy tender slices of white meat shot through with veggies, crowned with egg whites, and slicked with a savory sauce.

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If memory serves, jiao yan laoshan shen ($9.99) or salt and pepper Laoshan ginseng, is one of the specials listed on the wall that I learned about from an industrious Chowhound. The dish's name comes from a mountain in Qingdao that's one of the birth places of Taoism. Laoshan spring water is also reputed to be used to brew Tsingtao. I expected them to taste rather rooty, but the tempura-fried bits of ginseng had just a hint of mustiness. Dip them into the accompanying dish of salt and Sichuan peppercorn for a slightly healthier version of curly fries.

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Another of the many specials lining the mirror is jiao yan long tou yu ($15.99) or salt and pepper lizardfish. This Shandong specialty is also known as Bombay Duck. No matter what you call them, the crunchy chunks of salt and pepper battered fish are outstanding.

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As with many Chinese restaurants, M&T's menu lacks a dessert section, but I managed to find something sweet anyway. The very last item under noodles is pumpkin pancake ($5.95) or nan gua bing. With a name like that I was half expecting pumpkin flapjacks. The reality was even better: a sextuplet of crunchy fried disks filled with a shocking yellow sweet pumpkin pudding. I'd love to say that it was a perfect way to end a meal, but this dish didn’t come at the end of my repast—it came smack in the middle with the lizardfish. That didn’t really bother me though because it was definitely one of the more beautiful and special things I’ve eaten in a long time.

M&T Restaurant (aka Mei Er Te)

44-09 Kissena Boulevard, Flushing NY 11355 (map)
718-539-4100

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