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Learning to Love Queens: Flushing

I got into a car accident a little over a month ago, which left the driver’s side of my vehicle pretty banged up.  The repairs were just completed, so I went to pick up my car at the collision shop in Queens.  When I got there, I found they still needed to make some adjustments so I had about a half hour to kill and scope out some cheap eats for lunch.  Queens is the largest and most ethnically diverse borough in New York City, so there are a lot of options.  This post barely begins to scratch the surface of what’s available out there.

the bustling intersection where Main street and Kissena Boulevard merge

The shop is located at a bustling commercial hub right at the end of the no. 7 subway line in the heart of Flushing.  One of the largest communities in Queens, Flushing boasts a larger Chinese population than Manhattan’s Chinatown, and for $2 a ride, you can take a shuttle bus directly from one to the other.  The neighborhood is home many other ethnicities though:  Korean, Vietnamese, Indian, Mexican, Colombian, and West Indian, just to name a few.

Growing up, I spent many Sunday afternoons here, accompanying my mom as she did her weekly grocery shopping.  I had forgotten how crowded the streets were – there is definitely a different perception of personal space and many of the immigrants who live and work here are accustomed to overcrowded cities such as Hong Kong, Shanghai and Mumbai.  Indeed, to look around at all the different faces and storefronts bearing signs in an array of foreign languages, one might even feel as if he or she had been transported to another country.  There is a vibrant yet frenetic energy that can be somewhat overwhelming.  Nobody thinks twice about crossing against the light, double-parking or stopping in the middle of an intersection.  I couldn’t help feeling a little like the foreigner here, cheerfully walking around with my earth-friendly canvas bag from Whole Foods as other pedestrians shoved past me, chattering to their friends in languages I couldn’t understand and hurrying about their business.  Yet despite their differences, the many ethnic groups have found a way to co-exist here.

Get your noodle fix til 5 a.m.
Get your noodle fix til 5 a.m.

The first stop on my half-hour mini-tour was a tiny dumpling stand next to the commuter rail station.  I was craving a roast pork bun – marinated roasted pork tenderloin, chopped and baked inside a brioche-like bun.   So I asked for a “cha tsu bao.”  Instead the clerk handed me a small Styrofoam box containing four small pork dumplings.  I explained that I wanted a pork bun and he said it was called “da bao.”  I was confused.  “Cha tsu” definitely means roast pork, “bao” means bun, and that’s what I’ve been calling them all my life.  “Da-bao” turned out to be a doughy white steamed bun filled with a pork meatball, still not what I wanted.  I tried to explain again and the clerk finally told me that they didn’t make “cha tsu bao.”  So I paid for my “da-bao” and continued along my way.  Despite the confusion my “da bao” was delicious.  Even though the stand is tiny, all the dumplings appear to be made on a couple of stoves behind the counter.  And what a location!  I imagine the stand must be pretty busy during the morning rush hour, with commuters lining up to grab a quick “bao” before getting on the train.

Forget about doughnuts and coffee, this trainstop stand sells tea and dumplings instead

So, nibbling on my “da bao” I continued up Main Street past several shops selling knick-knacks (and knock offs too, probably), and a number of small groceries with outdoor fruit stands.  There were also a couple Chinese herbal shops displaying boxes of dried ginseng, seaweed, mushrooms and gobi berries outside.  It reminded me of mom’s medicinal broths – bitter brews of chicken stock, ginseng and all manner of dried roots and mushrooms.  One formula was supposed to be good for your immune system, another “cleansed your blood” and yet another was “good for women.”  As a child I often had to hold my nose to drink them down, but now I was making a mental note to learn more about these traditional remedies.

Just a few storefronts south of the big public library on Main Street, I found a little Latino eatery nestled among all the Asian ones.  The awning simply read “Latin Bakery & Restaurant” then underneath “Pollos y Carne a la Brasa.”  Hmmm.  I suddenly had a craving for empanadas, so I checked inside to make sure there were indeed Spanish speaking patrons and employees inside (I’ve seen way too many Chinese-run “Tex-Mex” take-out joints in Queens that make burritos strangely reminiscent of moo-shu).  This place seemed promising.  All the menu offerings were listed in Spanish and included lunch specials of roast chicken, chicharron (fried pork rind), and tongue, with rice or potatoes and salad – all for under $10.  But I wanted empanadas, so I ordered one beef and one chicken empanada with salsa – both for about $3.  The chicken and the beef were really tender, moist and flavorful, and I appreciated that the two had different seasonings. I did happen to be in the neighborhood again that week and stopped in a second time at the Latin Bakery to get my empanada fix.  Maybe they had been sitting in the case for a while, but for some reason the pastry on the beef one that day was a little tough and chewy.  Boyfriend was with me and he ordered some chicarrones, which were not that crispy, also probably from sitting under the heat lamps.  The soup that day, Sopa de Tostones seemed to be flying across the counter, so I asked for a cup to go.  It was a comforting stew of green plaintains (tostones), potato, and beef that was so tender it just fell apart.  Hearty and delicious, with topping of their cilantro salsa verde, it was clear why this sopa was so popular with the regulars.

Beef empanada

Munching on my empanadas, I rounded the corner at the library and headed up Kissena Boulevard.  As I finished the last bite of beef, I noticed a little stand selling bubble tea -the perfect dessert drink to finish off my wanderer’s lunch.  My personal favorite is the taro milk tea and every time I’m in the neighborhood I have to have one.  The creamy iced milk drink has purple tinge from the taro and comes with a giant straw to sip up chewy marble sized pearls of black tapioca from the bottom.  Aside from the fact that I love the flavor, there’s a strange, childish appeal to sipping the flavored milk, then fishing around with the straw for the bits of tapioca.  It’s kind of like drinking Nestle Quik with bits of Jello, but not gross like that sounds.  Anyway, bubble tea in hand, it realized it was time I made my way back to the collision shop to retrieve my car.

Taro milk bubble tea

Another day I met my parents in Flushing for lunch at Phô Vietnamese noodle house on Prince Street.  My mother ordered classic phô: thin rice noodles in a clear broth with thin slices of beef.  My father had phô with marinated grilled chicken, and I ordered a beef satay noodle bowl instead.  A tray on each table held the usual condiments:  siracha, chili sambal, fish sauce, soy sauce, sugar…oh, and salt and pepper of course.  The waiter also brought a plate of fresh bean sprouts, cilantro, and lime wedges for the phô.  My beef satay noodle bowl came with a generous portion of tender, thinly sliced beef atop a heap of wide hand-cut rice noodles (chow-fun) in a thick curry-like gravy of peanut and coconut milk.  The flavor was an aromatic combination of sweet and creamy coconut milk, and salty peanuts and sesame.  A generous garnish of chili sambal for that spicy punch, and some lime juice to cut through the creaminess of the gravy and it was perfect.  My mother’s phô was lighter option.  It had an equally generous portion of beef and noodles, but was in a clear broth instead.  The flavor of the beef was good and it was tender, with a hint star anise and fennel flavor not unlike Chinese Five Spice powder.  But in the broth, I found this classic phô seasoning was so overpowering that none of the beef flavor came through.  The same broth was used in my father’s phô, but the grilled chicken was delicious.  It was a lot of food, and for $6 a bowl, this place was definitely a bargain.

Classic pho (top left), fresh garnishes (top right), sauces and condiments (bottom left) and satay beef noodles (bottom right)

After lunch I accompanied my mom as she did some grocery shopping.  When I was a kid, there were always small grocery stores, fish markets, and butcher shops catering to the Chinese and Asian population, but Kam Man was the only big Chinese supermaket in the area.  Now there are several options for Asian supermarkets and they carry an even wider array of items.  There is the Korean chain, Hmart, and Hong Kong supermarket, but my mom prefers the Gold City Supermarket.  I could see why.  The produce section is huge, and stocks both familiar and more unusual items. The same is true for the meat and fish departments.  Behind the meat counter, I think I counted four or five clerks taking orders, and three other butcher staff portioning and keeping the cases stocked.  If you know how to de-bone a fish, you can take home a whole fish for about $3.00 /lb, and everything seemed really fresh.  There were fish on ice as well as live fish in a wall of tanks behind the counter.  I stood by and watched as one fishmonger wrangled some live prawns into a net for his customer.

Imported mangosteens (top left), kohlrabi (top right), burdock (bottom left), and the dreaded and infamous durian fruit (bottom right)

There is also a good selection of Asian dry goods and specialties.  The tea selection ranged anywhere from $3 for a box of green tea bags, to $18 for a tin of specialty loose tealeaves.  I have to admit one thing that did skeeve me out a bit was using the rest room there (What is it about Chinese bathrooms?  I never wanted to use the scary bathroom at Grandma’s).  Maybe it was a fluke, but the soap dispenser was empty, so I really hope there is another hand washing station for the employees, and that they use it.  Anyway, online reviews of the Gold City Supermarket warn that weekends are madness, especially in the parking lot.  Thankfully, one of the perks of restaurant life is that I have weekdays off, so I can avoid the usual crowds at places like the grocery store, the bank and the post office.  So lucky for Mom and me it was a Tuesday afternoon.  It was busy, but the store wasn’t crowded or overwhelmed with shoppers, so we were able to find parking easily, and didn’t have to wait in line to check out.

I’m going to have to find a recipe for these!

Yes, that is what it says

A wide array of fresh fish and seafood

Fishmonger wrangling live prawns into a plastic bag for a customer
Fishmonger wrangling live prawns into a plastic bag for a customer

So, after Mom finished her shopping, we headed next door to a crowded little Chinese bakery so I could finally satisfy my craving for “cha tsu bao,” and get another bubble tea, of course.  As I made my way up to the counter, I overheard one of the clerks at the counter was chatting with an older woman.  “There you go mammy,” she said as she handed the customer her goods.  “See you next time.”  I smiled to myself upon hearing this Latino term of familiarity emerge in a Chinese accent as the clerk addressed a regular customer – an older Caucasian woman picking up some of her favorite Chinese baked goods.  So there was Flushing, summed up in this brief exchange – a deliciously random confluence of culture, food, and language.  Maybe just maybe, there’s something to the melting pot theory after all.

Latin Restaurant & Bakery
4141 Main St
Flushing, NY 11355
(718) 961-8900

Phô Vietnamese Restaurant
3802 Prince St
Flushing, NY 11354
(718) 461-8686

Gold City Supermarket
4631 Kissena Blvd
Flushing, NY 11355
(718) 762-7688

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Recipes from this post:

Vietnamese Phô with Beef

Also posted this week:

Braised Pork Belly Tacos

Tomatillo Salsa (Mexican Salsa Verde)

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