40-09 Prince Street, Flushing, NY 11354 (b/n Roosevelt and 40th Rd; map); 718-321-1363
Setting: Comfortable and better decorated than your typical Flushing sit-down.
Service: Friendly and accommodating. Imperfect English but nothing too challenging.
Must-Haves: Muslim lamb chop, fried fish in hot bean paste, triple delight vegetables
Cost: $7 to $20 for family-style dishes. Expect to pay about $25/person for food.
Recommendation: A must for northern Chinese in NYC.
You see it on almost every table.
Servers in white button-down shirts present it whole, then carve it tableside and serve each diner. You take a bite of the Muslim Lamb Chop ($21.95) and wipe the juice from your lips. By the time you reach that first fatty morsel, it's obvious that Fu Run is not your typical Chinese restaurant.
More on that in a minute, but first, the lamb. It's a rack of fatty ribs that are cooked until the meat is ready to slump off the bone. Then it's smothered in spices—whole cumin seeds, predominantly, but also chili powder and white and black sesame—and coated in a thin batter, and deep fried. It stinks of cumin the way a burger joint kitchen reeks of salt and beef. Beneath the crackling crust, the lamb's fat is meltingly soft and its flesh is gamey but spoon-tender. It is not a dish to order for those afraid of assertive food.
We've talked about that lamb chop now and again, but never about the restaurant as a whole. But as more Dongbei-style restaurants open in Flushing, it's time to come out and say why Fu Run remains one of my favorite Chinese restaurants in New York.
Fu Run specializes in food from Dongbei, the far northeast region formerly known as Manchuria. Northern Chinese cuisine is more rustic than its southern counterparts and less aggressively seasoned than Sichuan fare. Think wheat noodles and pancakes instead of rice; stewed and fried meat instead of Shanghai's steamed dishes or Sichuan's chili-laden concoctions. Potatoes make their way into stir fries; pickles are pungent palate cleansers.
But Fu Run, just minutes from the Flushing Main Street 7 stop, is not a rustic restaurant. You could take your parents or a date there, joining the crowds of families and Flushing locals enjoying a nicer night out than the more bare-bones restaurants in the neighborhood offer. The dining room is bright and cheerful, with wooden accents and red lanterns hanging from the ceiling. Not all the servers speak English especially well, but they're familiar enough with non-Chinese eaters that they're happy to take care of you—without steering your attention away from the dishes you should be eating.
The menu is huge with its fair share of mistranslations, but after many visits, some clear favorites emerge. There's the lamb chop, of course, the most expensive item on the menu and an absolute must-order. But I love the Fried Fish in Hot Bean Pasta (sic; $18.95) just as much. It's a whole flounder with a paper-thin crust and flesh as tender as a scrambled egg. It comes smothered in a sauce of bean paste, not too hot despite the name and ever so slightly sweet. Dig in with a crowd; plates here are portioned for family style eating, and you have a lot you should be ordering.
Triple Delight Vegetables ($8.95) are a Dongbei classic: potatoes, eggplant, and green pepper shallow fried until crisp on the outside, then tossed in an oily brown sauce of soy and its discontents. If it sounds like ordinary home-style food, it is, but you'd be remiss not to order it. The jumble of custard-like eggplant, sturdy potato, and slightly hot pepper is the best rendition of the dish I've had outside of Asia. Also with potatoes, and also worth ordering: Sliced Potato with Green Pepper ($6.95), cold, oil-slicked potato threads tossed with spicy green peppers. It's a textural pleasure, with potatoes taking on the crisp bite normally reserved for slaw and the lithe flexibility of pasta.
The kitchen at Fu Run knows how to fry. Those who want fish without the bones should consider Crispy Sliced Fish with Chili Pepper and Cumin ($12.95), two-bite flounder filets cooked just until done under their thick batter, and tossed with restrained amounts of the eponymous spices. You could call them Fish McNuggets for the craving. I've also enjoyed Deep Fried Eggplant with Minced Pork ($9.95), poofy pillows of eggplant stuffed with salty ground pork, with a pile of salt and pepper on the side for dipping.
The menu is not all fried food, starch, and meat (though diet fare this is not). Stir fried snow pea leaves are as smart a vegetable decision here as anywhere else, and a cold appetizer of crisp Country Style Cucumber ($5.95) with raw garlic, sesame oil, and a little sugar is nice way to refresh yourself between heavier dishes. Cucumbers also make their way into Green Bean Sheet Jelly with Red Oil ($8.95), wide slippery mung bean starch noodles tossed with cabbage, cucumber, cilantro, and mild chili oil. It's a more subtle dish than the renowned Cold Skin Noodles at Xi'an Famous Foods, lacking the blustering heat and spongey cubes of gluten, but it'll still put a smile on your face.
And then there's the really home-style stuff. Griddled wheat pancakes, the starch of choice at many a Dongbei meal, get their own section of the menu. Plain yeasty Home Style Pancakes ($3.95 for two) are good sauce soppers, but the meat-stuffed versions are too messy for their own good. Nearby on the menu you'll find a selection of dumplings. They're skippable; stick to the pancakes.
It doesn't get more rustic than Country Style Pork Chop ($9.95), which is neither a pork chop nor the appetizer its menu placement would suggest. (The Chinese reads as "Dongbei-style.") It's actually a mess of stewed joints and marrow bones, stained by soy sauce but otherwise left alone in their porcine nakedness. Chopsticks help coax marrow out of narrow cavities, but you really have to dive in with your hands and teeth. (Plastic gloves are provided.) For marrow fanatics it's a feast and a bargain; for others, not a must-have, but $10 is not much for a one-time experience.
After all this comes dessert. Sliced oranges, of course, but pay heed the selection of "Sweet Dishes," a list of starches including taro, sweet potato, and apple. Order one ($8.95 each) and a few minutes later your table will receive a pile of sticky brown chunks and a bowl of cold water. That's your chosen starch coated in molten sugar, which forms threads of pure caramel as you pull a piece away. Dunk it in the water for a second or two, then bite: the sugar will harden into candy and the starch will be fluffy and steaming within. Eat your share quickly before the mess hardens into an immoveable mess—with the awareness that you may burn your mouth in the process.
A meal at Fu Run costs a little more than what you'd pay at more casual Flushing restaurants. But the priciest dish on the menu is all of $22, and eating here comes with the creature comforts of friendly staff who'll treat you well.
And a meal here is more than just a meal: it's a window into a part of Chinese cuisine with only a few ambassadors in New York. It's an accumulation of small experiences: carving and sharing lamb ribs, poking around fried fish, gnawing on marrow bones, making sweet potato candy. Those moments add up to something, and make for a restaurant that feeds you more than just what's on the plate. Fu Run isn't the only restaurant of its kind in Flushing, but it's a special one all the same.