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Monday, April 25, 2011

He Nan Flavor (Henan Feng Wei)

I've been meaning to blog about these places for months... only now do I seem to be emerging from my winter inertia. Much has already been written about these establishments in the meantime. Let me just add my small voice to say: go! They serve the freshest possible food at unbeatably low prices.

The original Flushing outpost is the more fun of the two, simply because if you hang around the counter after ordering, you can watch them make your food: the entire kitchen is there behind counter. You order noodles, and one of the women picks up an oval of dough and begins to stretch it, double it, and stretch it some more. Thirty seconds later she's cutting it into LONG, wide ribbons, which are dropped into a pot boiling on the stove. One evening I had the pleasure of watching the owner prepare the da pan ji (大盤鳮) I had just ordered. He obviously knew what he was doing, and the low-key mastery of his gestures was a thing of beauty. As was the final result (photos courtesy of Pete):

This dish is sensational: complex, spicy, bursting with interesting flavors. Bite-sized chunks of chicken are stir-fried, then braised briefly with some cubes of potato, a LOT of dried red peppers, ginger, garlic, scallion, Sichuan peppercorns, star anise, and god knows what else, topped with some cilantro. When you're halfway through with it, get a side order of noodle and add it to the pot--the perfect companion to soak up that great sauce. Interestingly, this dish isn't even from Henan--it's a Hui dish from Xinjiang. An opera singer I know originally from Henan, studying in the States, explained to me that, since Xinjiang is such a harsh, mountainous province, a lot of people leave it to go to Henan to work, buoying the dish's popularity there (although it appears to be popular all over China).

She also took one look at the menu I showed her and said the lamb noodle soup is an especially well-known Henan dish. It is lovely and soothing (with those great, wide, hand-pulled noodles), but perhaps a little too mellow for my taste (what can I say... I like robust flavors!). However, the zha jiang mian (炸酱面-noodles with pork and black bean sauce) is absolutely the greatest version of that dish I've ever had: those noodles, with a hearty sauce of minced pork and bean paste, topped with shredded cucumber and some baby bok choy leaves. Rather like the Chinese equivalent of pappardelle with ragù.

The small size ($4.00) easily satisfies one hungry person... get the large only if you're planning on sharing it. The noodle with tomato and egg (eggs scrambled, in case you were wondering) is also fantastic--quintessential comfort food.

There's a little something for everyone here: almost a dozen noodle preparations (the Manhattan restaurant, as I recall, lists all the noodle dishes as "lo mein" on the wall menu), soup dumplings, steamed dumplings, bing pancake, bing with pork filling. The Flushing location also has a selection of cold appetizers and small casserole dishes (meatballs in broth, a couple of pork preparations). The "crispy meat casserole" ("crispy" must refer to the meat being breaded and fried... after a minute in the broth, it ain't crispy no more!):

Unusual (in a good way), and quite tasty with a fair bit of ginger flavoring things. Pete liked the sour vegetable dumplings in soup a lot (I haven't tried it yet):

You'll really have to work to spend more than ten bucks here. But if, like me, you can eat an entire da pan ji in one sitting (exciting the curiosity--and commentary--of the guy in the kitchen once at the Manhattan location), you'll spend twelve.

He Nan Flavor
68 B Forsyth St., New York 10002

(between Grand and Hester St.)

Henan Feng Wei
136-31 41st Avenue, Flushing 11355

(7 train to Main St.-Flushing, 1 block south on Main, then left on 41st Ave.)

Café Kashkar

When I came across Robert Sietsema's mini-review of Café Kashkar, I realized that my quest to try as many different regional Chinese cuisines as possible had to include a trip to this restaurant. It ended up including several. Although Brighton Beach is a long way from Manhattan, it's worth the trip now and then for what is essentially home-cooking at marvelously low prices.

Of course, were it not for the vagaries of history, this would not in any sense be a Chinese restaurant at all, and there is indeed nothing overtly Chinese about it. Café Kashkar serves food of the Uyghurs, which is a Turkic ethnic group that comprises almost half the population of Xinjiang, China's westernmost province. Over the centuries, most Uyghurs ended up settling in what is sometimes called East Turkestan, and now comprises the western third of Xinjiang. Kashkar is the westernmost major city of the province. The area has gone in and out of being under Chinese rule, finally ending up as part of China, apparently permanently, in 1949. In the course of my conversation with the lovely fellow serving me on my first visit, the son of the owners, I learned that his parents are Uyghurs from Uzbekistan and, if I remember correctly, Kazakhstan.

In any case, the food at Café Kashkar has much more to do with Russian cuisine than Chinese, with some occasional cross-pollination. Since most Uyghurs are Muslim, the kitchen is halal--no pork! There is a fairly typically Russian selection of salads here; we had a rich, tasty eggplant salad (photos courtesy, once again, of Pete):

Lamb takes center stage here--it's in almost everything. One of the specialties of the house is lagman (notice the similarity to the word "ramen"?), a delicious, hearty noodle soup made with lamb and vegetables. "Hearty" accurately describes a lot of the menu's offerings... this is great cold-weather food.

Fried lagman is essentially Russian fried lo mein, with lamb, vegetables and egg:

Plov (pilaf) is Russian fried rice, with carrots and lamb. I liked this much more than my dining companions did, but I tend to love good fried rice:

Samsa are like baked rolls, filled with seasoned ground lamb--another house specialty:

That is one samsa there, with four parts, and it will set you back $2.50.

Manty are big dumplings filled with... your guessed it... lamb. We got ours fried:

Another cognate: manty is awfully similar to the Korean word for dumplings, mandoo. I'm crazy about the seasoning of their lamb filling. There are sauteed onions in there, and a subtle blend of spices I can't quite identify.

To complete the triumvirate of lamb-filled dough creations, we had to try the gusht nan, too. Anyone familiar with Indian food ought be able to form an idea what this is--a baked, lamb-filled flat-bread:

I suppose it is possible to overdose on lamb here... luckily, they have a selection of kebabs to add a bit of variety (and none more than $4.00): chicken, ground beef (lyulya), liver, veal, and, of course, lamb. The lamb rib kebab is really pretty great, I have to say--seen here with chicken:

Tender, juicy, and expertly grilled.

They had exactly one dessert the night we asked: homemade chak-chak. It's like a Rice Krispy treat made with fried noodles, and it's good:

Café Kashkar
1141 Brighton Beach Ave., Brooklyn 11235

(B or Q train to Brighton Beach, then 7 blocks east on Brighton Beach Ave.)

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Spicy Road

There has been a flurry of comments on the Chowhound boards lately about Deyi Peking Duck House in Flushing, and since I had been curious about Beijing-style food for quite some time, it seemed like the perfect introduction. So, a couple of game friends and I headed out there a few nights ago--Pete and I got there on time, but Alicia was going to be... *ahem*... "delayed" by at least 45 minutes. What to do... go in and start ordering anyway? Go for a stroll? It was then that eagle-eyed and intrepid Pete noticed the restaurant next door with no visible English signage, and before I could turn around, he was inside chatting with the manager. Eventually, we espied two English words in the window: the adopted English name of the establishment, Spicy Road.

It was quickly decided we should have a couple of appetizers here while waiting for Alicia, then move next door to our original destination when she arrived. The meal that followed at Deyi was good, but the appetizers at Spicy Road inspired us to return the very next night. Deyi specializes in, obviously, Peking Duck, but also a huge variety of Beijing-style banquet dishes. Spicy Road (the Chinese characters of its name translate as "Tianjin Beijing Restaurant"), on the other hand, serves more everyday Beijing-style cuisine (Tianjin is about 85 miles from Beijing), and there are very few dishes that appear on both menus. I find Spicy Road's fare far more interesting and satisfying... I guess I'll always be a peasant at heart.

In the course of two visits we were able to sample a wide variety of dishes, leaving us wanting to try more. Everything was deftly prepared with fresh ingredients. This part of China is known for its dumplings, and this place is right in line with tradition. The pan-broiled lamb dumplings were delightful and could hardly have been improved upon. (Many thanks to Pete for the photos.)

The Tianjin pork-stuffed buns--a house specialty--arrived in a bamboo steamer of six light, fluffy buns with an excellent filling. Yet these were somehow a bit less successful than the dumplings. I like a meat bun to be one integrated unit... perhaps I'm applying a false Western standard here--don't know--but when the pork filling has shrunk enough during steaming that it simply falls out when you bite into it, I find it a bit annoying. Still, delicious.

Based on one of the pictures projected on the television screen on the back wall, we ordered the pork with Chinese pickle noodle soup, which turned out to be... exactly what it says, plus a splash of rice wine. Lovely.

Chongqing Spicy Chicken, a house specialty, is a very northern Chinese take on a Sichuan dish. Every version of this I've had in a Sichuan restaurant has been bound together by a bit of oil. Spicy Road's is totally dry--and unbelievably flavorful. This dish was really hot, thanks to both a generous handful of dried red peppers and thin slices of fresh green hot peppers.

Shredded duck in oyster sauce turned out to be tasty bits of duck (in oyster sauce, true to its name) with sauteed bean sprouts and shredded fried egg, accompanied by fresh mooshu-style pancakes, and the attendant hoisin sauce. Final result: by far the most delicious mooshu I've ever tasted!

The soy sauce beef tenderloin casserole was another winner, although "tenderloin" was definitely a misnomer. It's made with the usual cut of stew beef--plus, of course, the "rind", for lack of a better word--stewed with Chinese cabbage, cellophane noodles and red pepper in a perfectly-balanced soy sauce broth.

Pete got an order of sliced fish in spicy sauce to go, which he reports was stupendous. Sizable slices of fish, lightly-breaded and fried, then tossed in peppery blend of spices with a hint of cumin. I have to say, it smelled great in the car on the way back! Do not be misled by the term "sauce" on this menu--here, it usually means something like the aforementioned, not some form of liquid (just so you won't be unpleasantly surprised).

Spicy Road
43-18 Main St., Flushing 11355

(7 train to Main St.-Flushing, then 9 blocks south on Main St.)