Editor's note: In "Fast Food International," Krista Garcia will take us around New York to the many international fast food chains that have landed in the five boroughs.
Country of origin: Taiwan
Locations worldwide: Over 2,000 in twenty countries including Indonesia, Japan, South Africa, and the US
NYC locations: Six in Brooklyn, Manhattan, and Queens
Using an adverb as a name is often a tip-off that a business might not be American. And sure enough, Quickly, the bubble tea chain with cheery orange awnings, is from Taiwan. Popular with a younger crew, thanks to their student discount, the often-crowded café has a presence in all of the city's major Chinatowns: Sunset Park's, Flushing's, and of course Manhattan's.
Some of the branches also sell snacks like fried chicken, hot grass jelly (assuming you consider jiggly brown cubes to be a snack), and bento boxes, but the Grand Street location stands out from the rest with hot pots that they call shabu shabu despite not being particularly Japanese.
No, you won't find a flashy multi-level space, karaoke, TVs at the table or beer like you see at hot pot palaces in Flushing. This is fast food hot pot, at least in execution; the plastic-wrapped trays of food all come down from a dumbwaiter and there are only six tables in a brightly lit room adjacent to the takeout counter.
Unlike the more typical communal style, these hot pots are individual and inset in tables for two or four. Groups larger than that might be out of luck. You order by set menus where you pick your broth, protein and an iced beverage. The surf and turf combo ($17.95) allows three seafood choices and one meat. I opted for shrimp, scallops, squid, and beef. You can order extras a la carte, but there's really no need. The default add-ins were sufficient and more generous than I expected for the price. Even so, I noticed other tables ordering extras.
Okay, so you only get one each of many sides like the tofu rectangle, bean curd puff, pink-rimmed fish cake slice, imitation crab chunk, black mushroom, white fish ball, pink shrimp ball and mysterious brown springy ball—but they add color and variety. You also get rice vermicelli and udon, as well as vegetables like spinach, enoki mushroom, corn on the cob (impossible to eat with chopsticks) and a tomato wedge (not appropriate for hot pot, in my book). I happen to really like cabbage even though I know it's a cheap filler.
Three broths are available: standard, spicy Sichuan, and Korean kimchi. The flavor of the last is fairly mild unless you get a few chunks of the spicy pickled cabbage scooped up in your mini-strainer. As the broth boils down, it starts to concentrate and becomes stronger. That's just about the time when a server will come by with a pitcher of hot water to top off the metal vessel.
Where you really get to gussy up the flavor is with the customizable sauces at a small station against the wall. I honestly don't know what the ideal combination is, or if there is a traditional ratio of mix-ins, but I usually go heavy on the shacha (a thick brown soybean-based, lightly sweet, oily concoction) and plop in some sesame paste, chopped garlic, and scallions and chiles.
Like I said, this isn't fast food in practice. The pacing depends on if you like to leisurely cook a few tidbits at a time (I do) or just go nuts dropping in handfuls of meat and vegetables. And it's a great value—relatively healthy and better quality than I had expected.
On your way out--or if you're just passing by--don't forget to pick up cream cakes from the affiliated stand out front that perfumes the corner with a sweet waffle cone aroma. They're grilled on the spot in the style of Japanese taiyaki, but filled with custard instead of red bean paste and shaped like a half-husked ear of corn rather than a fish. At eight for $2, they're also a bargain meal-ender.
11 Pell Street, New York, NY 10013 (map)
5924 Eighth Avenue, Brooklyn, NY 11220 (map)
8306 Broadway, Elmhurst, NY 11373 (map)
136-49 Roosevelt Avenue, Flushing,, NY 11354 (map)
41-40 Kissena Boulevard, Flushing, NY 11355 (map)
About the author: Krista Garcia is a freelance writer and librarian (who does not work with books). Being obsessed with chain restaurants and Southeast Asian food, she would have no problem eating laska in Elmhurst and P.F. Chang's crab rangoon in New Jersey on the same day. She blogs at Goodies First.