Queens Represent!: Better Chinese Than Your Neighborhood
Super Happy Fun Spicy Time! In this edition, J. Burger and I report back on our mission to Flushing (Queens) where we ventured in search of an authentic Chinese dinner. No General Tso’s here!
For this expedition, we brought along two dining companions – Edna Krabbapel, whose dining exploits have been featured elsewhere in these pages, and a mysterious frenchman named Francoise. Actually, he may not have been French, but he seemed to know an awful lot about France. We rode the 7 Train until its very end, where we reached the mecca of Chinese dining in New York City.
The challenge in Flushing is figuring out where to go – there are tons of Chinese restaurants, and you can’t just walk around until you see a nice one because (as we discovered), some of the best ones do not look attractive at all. But we knew we wanted a Sichuan place, none of our intrepid party being at all adverse to spice, and one that came well recommended was Xiao La Jiao Restaurant, translated as (and alternatively known as) “Little Pepper.” As it turned out, the place was indeed little, and the food was chock full of chili peppers.
“Little Pepper” had maybe 8 tables, filled almost exclusively with Chinese patrons. The decor was sparse and both the atmosphere and the physical space were grungy. However – the beer was cold and the service brisk and we were soon comfortable and ready to start eating. First up – Sliced Beef Tendon In Spicy Sauce: This was a cold dish, perfectly spicy and not chewy at (as one might fear), with a nicely funky flavor. This was both mine and J. Burger’s favorite dish of the evening, and was an excellent start to the meal, washed down with a cold Tsing Tao.
Next up: Rabbit Meat Sauteed With With Chili and also Tea-smoked Duck. Following the mantra of “one of every animal,” we set upon these dishes. The rabbit was fiery, chunks of juicy rabbit meat sitting on a deep bed of chilis and scallions. Francoise later declared this to be his favorite dish, and spent a good deal of time pulling out and devouring the chili-oil soaked scallions once the meat had been finished. In contrast, the duck was not spicy at all, but pleasantly smoky and tender (pictured: the duck is on the right, the rabbit is on the left. A close-up of the picture will reveal the sheer number of chilis included with the rabbit).
At this point, we realized that we had not ordered any rice, as we have been trained to do at all Asian restaurants in this country. However, three things happened: first, we looked around at the surrounding tables and noticed that none of the Chinese patrons had ordered rice. Next, we looked at the menu, and there wasn’t really any mention of rice, other than a fried rice dish. Finally, it was noted, and all agreed, that rice was okay but really it just filled you up and took up room in the stomach more properly devoted to other things. So we never ordered rice, and it was not missed. These dishes finished, it was time to to order the next course, and another round of beers.
For the second course, we looked to the other patrons of the restaurant for inspiration. A good number of number of them seemed to be enjoying some stew-type dishes, served in large metal tureens. So we ordered Braised Lamb In Spicy Soup Base. Having now consumed rabbit, cow and duck, and soon to add lamb to that menagerie, our stomachs were becoming a veritable Noah’s Ark (of sorts) – so we decided to give the animal kingdom a break for the next dish. The table next door had just received a particularly intriguing tofu dish, so we pointed to it – “bring us what they’re having.” As it turned out, it was Ma Pa Tofu – tofu in a spicy ground pork sauce. Francoise raised his eyebrows at the notion that tofu would be served with pork, but it was noted that the Chinese don’t eat tofu because they are vegetarian (as the contents of the menu made abundantly clear), but because they like the taste. And the dish was excellent – soft silky tofu in a rich gingery sauce flavored with diced pork. As it turned out, this was Edna’s favorite dish of the evening.
Finally, the braised lamb. Essentially, ultra-tender (and suprisingly non-gamey) strips of lamb, cabbage and bean sprouts, swimming in an angry red, spicy and oily braising liquid (the “Soup Base”), with a small mountain of garlic and herbs sitting on top (see picture above). Not for the faint of heart, to be sure. Each piece of lamb pulled out of the liquid was coated in garlic and chili pieces, but that wasn’t even the hottest part of the dish. The bean sprouts absorbed the spiciness more thoroughly than anything else and seemed to emit a cloud of heat such that, if one inhaled while eating a mouthful, would send searing vapors into the sinuses. We had weathered the previous dishes without flinching, but this one set off some rounds of coughing and led to sweating as well as very clear sinuses. Of course, more beer soon put out that fire.
Satiated, we lingered for awhile and let the fire die down a bit. When the check came, it was roughly $20 per person, including several rounds of beer. All agreed that it had been an excellent meal, and that every dish had been enjoyable.
The bottom line is this: if you can muster up the energy to ride the 7 Train all the way out to Flushing, there are great rewards awaiting you – namely, interesting, authentic Chinese food that is dirt cheap and will give you definitive bragging rights as to your adventuresome culinary spirit. So join us on our next trip to “Little Pepper.” There is a huge menu and much still to explore – as I learned later, the dish to get there, apparently, is the “Lamb With Cumin.” And of course, the traditional Sichuan “Hot Pot” remains to be tried, in addition to several dozen other dishes.