If you've been following SE:NY for the past few years, you've likely seen our coverage of Xi'an Famous Foods, the Chinese noodle-slinging food court stall turned mini restaurant empire, powered by an engine of chili oil, cumin lamb, and our collective hand-pulled noodle lust.
Xi'an's famous noodles, some of the best pasta in the city regardless of genre, come by way of David 'Liang Pi' Shi, the Chinese-trained immigrant chef dedicated to cooking the homespun food of his native Xi'an in Shaanxi province. The marketing, Westerner-friendly restaurant design, and voracious business savvy are the work of his son, Jason Wang, a 25 year-old who perfectly looks the product of Flushing's youth culture. Except that as a teenager he wasn't sipping bubble tea and playing DDR in the neighborhood's malls; he was at home studying.
Their business couldn't be a better immigrant success story, or a better father-son story, or a more inspiring account of the power of good food to break down cultural boundaries and let outsiders in to a foreign cuisine and culture. The XFF empire jumped the Queens-Manhattan barrier years ago, and is now looking out to conquer other cities around the country. But with the opening of Biang!, their first truly sit-down restaurant with an expansive, excellent menu that tops at $10, Shi and Wang have returned home to Flushing.
It's there that the segregation-busting Xi'an effect is most strongly felt. Shi's food and Wang's meticulous efforts have created a space where the Flushing old guard, local young eaters, and the city's most pampered gastrohipsters can eat together in harmony. And they've built that space without compromising the quality or spirit of the cuisine that's won them so much praise.
So that's where Robyn and I met up with Jason for an afternoon tour of his neighborhood, and a taste of where he goes to eat during the precious minutes he can steal away from his overclocked business. We expected some solid dumplings and roast duck over rice, and we weren't disappointed. But we also heard a local's story of a neighborhood in cultural and culinary flux, and got a look into the cutthroat, paranoid food industry where every third storefront seems to be a restaurant.
Enough of that for now though—on to the food.
View Flushing Food Tour with Jason Wang in a larger map
As the manager who's ultimately responsible for the company's stalls and restaurant ("stores," he calls them), Jason's rarely not working. "My personal life is basically on hold for right now." So when he does eat out, it tends to be at the quick, cheap spots Flushing is known for. That means dumplings on styrofoam, noodles in plastic tubs, and lots of roast duck over rice.
"I like the places with a homestyle vibe. There are places that have spent tons of money on decor, but to me they aren't personal; they feel cookie cutter-made." So when he wants bubble tea he often seeks out Ten Ren, the tea and ginseng parlor "that really focuses on the tea." And for dumplings he visits three nice Northern Chinese ladies with technicolor aprons, who cook purses of dough on a GE home stove in a corner of the Flushing Mall.
All the stops on our tour:
- Bubble Tea at Ten Ren
- Dumplings and Noodle Soup from Chinese-Korean Noodles & Dumpling at the Flushing Mall
- Pastries at Iris Tea & Bakery
- Lamb Noodle Soup from M. S. Hon Song Ting at the New World Mall
- Banh Mi and Roast Duck over Rice at Pho Hoang Vietnamese Cuisine
Hit up the slideshow for bites from each stop. Total cost if you ate a rational human amount of food—unlike us, as you'll see—at each stop? Under 50 bucks.
The Changing Face of Flushing's Food Industry
As we passed from stall to bakery, Jason talked with us about the local food industry he's found himself at the center of. We visited food establishments where the owners are proud of their homemade products, but less savory businesses can be nothing short of pirates. As XFF gained popularity, local stalls tried to steal their sauce recipe, while another went after replicating their liang pi noodles. Restaurant owners poach from each other all the time in Flushing, even going so far as to purchase components of their competitors' food retail and sell it dressed up with new packaging.
It's a hyper-competitive environment that he thinks has gotten worse over time. "Five years ago you had more interesting things like the Golden Shopping Mall; now a lot of places are more focused on the packaging. The media blew up the food industry, and everyone saw the potential to make money and got more into it."
The result is a new wave of food court stalls, bakeries, and tea houses that just don't keep the same focus on food above all else. They cater to trends, not lost tastes of an immigrant past. The clearest example, the bulk of the stalls that make up the New World Mall food court, are most visited by young American-born Flushing kids, who don't need to rely on food to bring them back home half a world away.
There's a funky appeal to shops like these, but they aren't the neighborhood's food culture at its most delicious, and ironically, not the best food to pull in visitors that the media has attracted in the first place. Flushing will probably always be a home to new immigrants, and we've seen plenty of restaurants that cater to new eaters and don't compromise their flavors. But as the children of the last few decades' transplants grow up as true locals, the scene definitely seems to be changing.
Perhaps we're overthinking it. "Maybe I'm just jaded. There's still a lot of good food here." And we'll agree in a heartbeat. Flushing may be changing, but that's just business as usual in the city's most bustling Chinatown. This neighborhood is still nothing if not the city's most frenetic, exciting, and endearing place to eat.
Hungry? Follow along on our tour.