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Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Feng Mao

Korean-Chinese restaurants – that is, restaurants serving cuisine of the Chinese immigrants in Korea – such as Hyo Dong Gak have been around New York for decades. I remember eating at one on Manhattan’s W. 32nd St. in the early ‘80’s… I wish I could remember the name of it (their jja jang myun was particularly hearty and comforting, with chunks of potato in addition to the usual ingredients - still perhaps my favorite version ever). But the Chinese-Korean restaurant (by which I mean food of Koreans living in China) is a relatively new phenomenon in New York. They started popping up in Flushing just a year or two ago, and now there are perhaps 5 or 6 of them, plus the stalls in the New World Mall food court. Two of them face each other on 41st Ave.: RiFu has been around a while, and Feng Mao (丰茂飯店 - fēng mào fàn diàn, or, roughly, "luxuriant abundance" restaurant) opened very recently in the space that used to be the late, lamented A Fan Ti. (There is a third just a door or two west of RiFu.)

Yanbian, the Korean autonomous prefecture in Jilin province of northeastern China, is the epicenter of this style of cooking. And it seems that there must be some sort of traditional association in that area with the phrase "fēng mào" (丰茂), as a Chowhound post reveals there is a restaurant in Los Angeles of the same name with proprietors from - you guessed it - Jilin province. It makes perfect sense that there are a lot of Koreans there – it shares a border with North Korea – and their cuisine has obvious characteristics of both countries. With Koreans, you always get banchan, those small dishes that precede and accompany the meal. Last night at Feng Mao, we were given four: salted roasted peanuts, a not-particularly-spicy kimchi of daikon radish shreds and red pepper, thin strips of seaweed with a bit of vinegar and red pepper, and a particularly nice combination of bamboo shoot and jalapeño pepper in a slightly sweet, vinegary sauce. (Photos courtesy of Pete Cuce)

We ordered entirely too much food for four people – six dishes in all (a seventh appeared halfway through the meal, compliments of the house) – and there was hardly an unsuccessful one among them, although the “cold noodles” (冷面 – lěng miàn, which turned out to be naeng myun, or buckwheat noodles in a cold spicy broth) were rather mushy.

Lao gan ma spicy spare ribs” was a winner. Its name in Chinese is rather long –老干妈铁板香辣小排骨 (lǎo gān mā tiě bǎn xiāng là xiǎo pái gǔ) – and presents a bit of a puzzle for the non-native. Tiě bǎn means “iron plate”, and sure enough, it arrives sizzling on an iron plate. Xiǎo pái gǔ means “small spare ribs”, and small they are, hacked into bite-sized pieces. is “spicy”, xiāng, savory or fragrant... so far, so good. But lǎo gān mā? I’ve seen this translated as “old grandma” (although gān means “dry”, implying a shade of meaning I think I’d prefer not to contemplate for too long)... whose dried-up old grandma are these spare ribs named after, anyway? Then I read that Lao Gan Ma is a famous brand of chili paste in China – I’m guessing it’s one of the ingredients. At any rate, the dish is quite tasty, although working around the bone shards can get on ones nerves. (Ed. I've since learned, through the magic of Twitter, that gān mā refers to a sort of adoptive mother figure, rather like a godmother.)

Probably my favorite dish on the table goes by the unassuming name of “sautéed chicken” on the menu, although its Chinese name, nóng fū chǎo jī (农夫炒鸡), means farmer, or peasant, sautéed chicken, making it sound instantly much more like my kind of dish. What arrived was something of a cross between a stew and a stir-fry of small hacked-up pieces of chicken (with bone, so once again, watch out for shards), black mushrooms, green and red bell peppers, and large rounds of potato in a light brown sauce. Delicious, and at 12 bucks, it was the best deal on the table.

The most unusual thing we got was “fried popcorn in egg yolk sauce”(蛋黃玉米粒 – dàn huáng yù mǐ lì). Not quite correctly translated, since the “popcorn” turned out to be just “corn”, but it was still unusual: kernels of corn coated in egg yolk and stir-fried until dry and separate. But not too dry – the corn kernels still retained just enough of their juiciness, and the overall effect was oddly lovely. Definitely worth a try.

The rest of the dishes kept reminding me of others in the area. Their cumin beef (孜然牛肉 – zī rán niú ròu) is quite similar to M & T’s “Qingdao spicy meat”, with a spice combination veering a bit toward that of Fu Run’s muslim lamb chops. Very nice, but at 5 bucks cheaper, I think I’ll head to M & T when I get the craving, even if theirs is pork, not beef. (Click on the photo - the small version below does not do it justice.)

And the “dried tofu with seafood” (八珍豆腐 – bā zhēn dòu fǔ) turned out to be “eight treasure tofu”, just like at Yi Lan (they mean “fried” instead of “dried here). Cubes of fried tofu are covered in a brown sauce with chunks of squid, fish, shrimp, chicken, dried scallops, sea cucmber, and other goodies. Good, but Yi Lan’s is six bucks cheaper for a version that is every bit as good, or better.

The (complimentary on this occasion) rice cakes (打糕 – dá gāo) are just like RiFu’s across the street – dense, gooey chunks served with ground red beans for dipping. The slight sweetness of the red bean makes this dish very dessert-like.

As you’ve no doubt gathered by now, I do find this place rather expensive, especially when you consider what is available nearby. Prices are almost identical at RiFu for food of similar quality, although RiFu’s portions are ENORMOUS (and RiFu has the wonderful “slate tofu” – thick slices of palpably house-made tofu served on a hot stone plate, each with its own dollop of red pepper paste and some minced scallion). But it's a cuisine worth investigating, and if you'd like more information, head over to Joe DiStefano's World's Fare blog and read his piece on Minzhongle.

Feng Mao
136-80 41st Ave., Flushing 11355

(7 train to Flushing-Main St., walk 2 blocks south on Main, then left on 41st Ave.)

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Savor Fusion (Maple Snacks) (CLOSED)

A couple of weeks ago, I received a tweet from the intrepid Joe DiStefano, of the World’s Fare blog, about a truly great bowl of dàn dàn miàn he had just eaten at a new food court in Flushing. I trust his opinion more than just about any food writer I can think of, so I headed out the next day, in the rain, to find the Savor Fusion food court (although the Chinese characters on the awning – 楓林小吃 – mean “Maple Snacks”). What I found was a nicely-appointed, brand-spanking-new food court with eight stalls that serve some pretty damn good food at fantastic prices. It has become my latest Flushing obsession.

Of course, Joe managed to find it the very first day it was open for business (how on earth does he do it?), which means, I guess, that I was there on its second day. They are still putting on some finishing touches, and the promised English menus have yet to materialize, but it is surprisingly inviting for a Flushing food court, and a 洋鬼子 like me can almost always find a helpful translator when necessary.

Each stall has a placard above the counter with its menu – Chinese only, so far, except for the Shanghai stall – and stall number (somehow two stalls ended up with the designation “#1”, but no matter…). To hit the highlights of my explorations so far: the stall #1 at the very back of the court, away from the doors, is called 水餃 (shuǐ jiǎo, or boiled dumplings) and serves, true to its name, some stellar boiled dumplings. They have some half-dozen varieties that are frozen to take home, or they'll boil up and serve you. The first time I ordered 三鮮 水 (sān xiān shuǐ jiǎo – literally “three fresh”, or three treasure dumplings, the treasures in question being pork, shrimp and chive), I was presented with probably the most perfect dumplings I have ever tasted: the filling was the perfect balance of ingredients, the wrappers just the right consistency, and the two were perfectly wedded together. I subsequently discovered it makes a difference just who boils them up here – of the two guys behind the counter at various times, if there is a choice, try to get to the one with the more prominent, slightly “chiseled” facial features. Neither speak any English, so practice the phrase “sān xiān shuǐ jiǎo”, and for $3.50 you’ll be rewarded with an unbeatable snack.

Next door is #2, hand-pulled noodles. As far as I can tell, their menu is all noodles in soup (the fried noodle thing seems to be show up mostly in southern Chinese cuisines, and these guys are, I think, from the north). They also do knife-shave noodles – 刀削面 (dāo xiāo miàn) – made the real traditional way, shaving the noodles off the top of a block of dough with a cleaver into boiling water (be sure to watch the guy do it), not by using the machine that looks like a hand-held mandoline that I’ve seen in at least one stall in the New World Mall. You might want to ask for these to be cooked more “al dente” – mine had been boiled just a bit too long for my taste, but were otherwise delicious. English is good here, and they are happy to work with you to give you something you’ll like.

Just across the way that leads to the restroom (yes, there is a nice, clean restroom here!) is a Taiwanese stand (#3) called “Fried dumpling” that I haven’t tried yet, but I’m told has excellent má là tāng (麻辣汤, a spicy-tingly noodle soup with a little bit everything in it, plus your choice of meat). Just around the corner is #4, which has no English name, but the Chinese characters are 河南 (HeNan, as in the province). Among other things, they do two kinds of stuffed small steamed pancakes – one being a spicy cumin lamb filling very much like that of Xi’an Famous Foods (and every bit as good, if not better, because their pancakes tend to be fresher), and the other an utterly delicious chopped stewed pork belly filling (ask for 肉夾饃 – ròu jià mó). Their zhá jiang miàn (炸酱面 – noodles with a minced pork and brown bean sauce) is also very good, although next time I will ask them to leave off the bean sprouts.

Continuing to the right is stall #5, called Tian Jin (天津, the city near Beijing). I have not yet investigated this one, and can’t figure out what they do, but almost no item is more than $3.00 (I’m guessing a lot of breakfast items – on mystery Chinese menus, it’s a pretty safe bet that things under $2 are breakfast items). #6 to the right is another stall I haven’t tried with a very short, inexpensive menu that includes two things translated into English: vegetable roll and fried chicken wings. Not quite sufficient to pique my curiosity enough to try it. And all the way to the right, by the Main St. entrance, is the second stall marked #1, purveying Shanghai specialties. A menu placard completely translated into English appeared this week, and it definitely looks worth a try (I haven’t yet, but maybe later today...). Their offerings fall into two categories: almost two dozen prepared (cold) items are available by the pound (a lot of great-looking stuff here), and hot wontons and noodle soups.

But in between these last two is, predictably, my favorite – the Sichuan stall (#7). Thanks to Joe DiStefano, I know that 成都小吃朱大姐 is run by Sister Zhu, and she makes truly the most delicious dàn dàn miàn (担担面 – noodles with a spicy/numbing minced pork sauce) I have ever tried. But that’s only the beginning. Her fū qī fèi piàn (夫妻肺片 – cold ox tongue and tripe in spicy sauce) is a thing of beauty, and both her má là jī (麻辣雞 – cold spicy/tingly chicken) and má là yú (麻辣魚 – spicy/tingly fish, an especially good deal at 6 bucks for a an order of 5 or 6 medium-sized fish) are outrageously delicious. She also makes the best má pó dòu fǔ (麻婆豆腐 – bean curd with spicy minced pork) I’ve had in years, since the early days of Little Pepper (no more – they make it differently now). She really cares about what she serves, and her English is pretty good (if her son is working, his English is great - he’s very good with a wok, too). And her homemade sausages (香肠 - xiāng cháng) are probably the most delicious I’ve tasted in this country... the flavor kept reminding me of Spain, except the Spanish don’t use Sichuan peppercorn!


Savor Fusion (aka Maple Snacks)
42-01 Main St., Flushing 11355

(7 train to Flushing-Main St., then walk south 5 blocks on Main)