Saturday, October 15, 2011
Tian Fu (New World Mall)
Opened just a few days ago, Tian Fu (天府) is the new occupant of stall 24, in the southeast corner of the lower-level food court in the New World Mall, and it's my latest Flushing obsession. They do one thing, and they do it superbly. But inherent in that one thing are possibilities of infinite variation.
What they do is 麻辣香鍋 (má là xiāng guō), sometimes called 老车记麻辣香鍋 (lǎo chē jì má là xiāng guō). As near as I can tell, lǎo chē jì means something like "old-fashioned". Má là xiāng guō is essentially a mixed spicy pot: má là is spicy and tingly, xiāng guō is fragrant pot, referring here to a sort of "dry" hot pot. The concept is simple: choose the type and amount of your ingredients from a wide variety on display, plus the level of spiciness desired. The ingredients are weighed – you’re charged by weight – and sent back to the kitchen. A few minutes later they emerge in a large metal bowl, having been stir-fried, along with some liquid, in seasonings that will be familiar to anyone who has enjoyed Chongqing-style dishes at any of the good Sichuan restaurants around town: ginger, garlic, scallion, at least two kinds of hot dried red peppers, Sichuan peppercorn, sesame seeds, and a sprinkling of fresh cilantro. (photos courtesy of Pete Cuce)
As to the ingredients available, there’s something to satisfy everybody. A partial list: shaved beef, chicken wing, chicken breast, spam (you MUST get some spam – whatever your normal feelings about spam, it is utterly delicious this way), shrimp, tofu, fish tofu, fish ball, lotus root, seaweed, rice cake, tofu skin, Napa cabbage, bok choy leaves, enoki mushrooms, tree ear, spinach, potato, and a bunch of other vegetables I can’t remember because... well, I tend not to pay all that much attention to vegetables. I would actually advise against getting beef – there are far better ways to enjoy the flavor of beef, and it tends to come out a bit chewy. Likewise, skip the strips of chicken breast - they cook faster than the other ingredients and dry out. Go for the chicken wing bits instead. They take "spicy" seriously here – if you ask for very spicy, it will indeed be VERY spicy! And the spice balance tends to be a bit heavy on the tingly/numbing Sichuan peppercorn. I like it, but it’s not to everyone’s taste.
(And, a photo of my own:)
And the price is definitely right: you can gorge yourself for eight bucks a head, tops – probably less. (Edit: That price was based on an introductory offer. Make that $10-12 - still reasonable!) And since you compose the meal yourself, the chances are good that it's going to be totally satisfying. Obviously, I love this place.
One of the guys behind the counter (the staff is young, energetic, and their English is generally good) told me this dish is from Chongqing, which certainly makes sense when comparing the flavors to other dishes labeled "Chongqing" I’ve had. And I got curious about the name Tian Fu, since this isn’t the first time I've encountered that name associated with Sichuan restaurants. A little research turned up a couple of tidbits of information – Tian Fu is the name of an important square in the center of Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan, and Sichuan province has the nickname tiān fǔ zhī guó (天府之国), a place blessed with abundant natural resources (tiān also means sky or heaven).
Tian Fu – New World Mall food court
Main & Roosevelt (enter on Roosevelt), Flushing 11354
(7 train to Main St.-Flushing)
New World Mall food court website