Ma po pig brains are an offal lover’s version of the classic Sichuan dish.
As a rule I never put new, untried dishes on a food tour except when I choose to break that rule. On those rare occasions, the new item comes from a trusted vendor. Like the other day when I took my friend Giuseppe Viterale chef-owner of Astoria’s Ornella Trattoria on a culinary research tour of downtown Flushing’s Chinatown with the aim of showing him how the Chinese eat pork offal. I had blood, feet, and ears covered, but wanted a larger dish to share at the end of our gastronomic adventure. So before I met up with Giuseppe I stopped in Szechuan House to see if my friend Linda and her husband had anything that might fit the bill.
Among a baker’s dozen new dishes I hit paydirt in the form of No. 5, listed in English as “ma po brain flower.” Surely this is a mistranslation I thought to myself, but Lisa informed me otherwise. “It’s like ma po tofu, but we use pig brain instead.”
Many guests on my food tours of America’s Greatest Chinatown—aka downtown Flushing—have had soup dumplings. Xiao long bao virgins get a quick tutorial. Since the wrappers at my favorite spot in New York Food Court are super thin, I encourage people to avoid using chopsticks and gingerly pick up the package from the top with their fingers and place it on the spoon.
They may or may not choose to cool their dumpling in the accompanying black vinegar, but the next step is always the same: “Bite a tiny hole in the side like a vampire and slurp the soup out.”
The question I get asked most about my Queens food tours—besides “How do you stay so skinny?”—is “Do you give tours of Astoria?” I’m always somewhat ashamed to say. “No, just Flushing, Elmhurst, Jackson Heights and the entire 7 line.” Sometimes even the Culinary King of Queens needs to turn to an expert, or experts, and such is the case with Astoria. And the experts in question are my good friends Greg and Jumi at Food & Footprints, who did a video a while back that covered Greek Astoria and just dropped another one of an awesome late night tour of the Middle Eastern offerings along Steinway Street. Oh, and in case you are wondering this dynamic dining duo also leads food tours.
Top row: raw puerh tea from 2017, bottom the prized 1976 raw puerh.
Fang Gourmet Tea is one of my favorite places to take food tour guests when exploring the bustling neighborhood that is downtown Flushing. It’s a great way to get to know my new friends. Plus, they’re always surprised to find the oasis of calm lying at the back of a minimall, just steps away from the often chaotic energy of America’s Greatest Chinatown. The puerh tea that I typically order—Little Brick—is great for the digestion, and it’s always neat for my guests to see the bullion-sized break expand over the course of five steeps. (more…)
It’s not a Pop-Tart, but it makes a great breakfast.
Sun Mary Bakery lies across the street from Golden Shopping Mall and the Q-58 bus, which takes me from my home in Rego Park to America’s greatest Chinatown in downtown Flushing. On food tour days, I pregame there with a pineapple bun, so named for the sugary crust’s similar appearance to the tropical fruit.
In a lot of ways Sun Mary is a typical New York City Chinese bakery. The shelves are lined with buns filled with pork floss, and come fall there’s plenty of mooncake, but it also has a small sideline in Taiwanese treats, notably feng li su, or pineapple cake. Unlike its Chinese cousin, the golden brown buttery treat does contain fruit. Sun Mary sells the tiny pastries in little golden boxes, making them a perfect parting gift for food tour guests. Sometimes, they even have one with salted egg yolk.
“No more,” the lady behind the counter told me about a month ago when I asked for feng li su, indicating that they wouldn’t be back until next fall. Two weeks ago I noticed a flat pastry sitting in the spot on the counter normally reserved for the pineapple cake. Turns out it is gigantic version of the Taiwanese treat. Since I have no idea how long it will be around, I have taken to eating one after every Flushing tour.
Sun Mary Bakery, 133-57 41st Rd, Flushing, 718-460-8800
The fig and rosemary latte from Toby’s Estate Coffee Roasters.
I’d just wrapped up a rather epic food tour of the entire 7 line in Long Island City. Before parting ways with one of my guests we had a brief chat about overpriced coffee in L.I.C. and how he never patronizes the local cafes. After we parted ways I proceeded to one of the aforementioned cafes, Toby’s Estate Coffee Roasters for an espresso.
When it come to highfalutin java I’m an espresso man, or if I’m feeling kind of fancy a cortado. I hardly ever get lattes, and certainly never flavored ones. But when I saw the sign on the counter for a $5 seasonal fig and rosemary latte, I couldn’t resist. If I’m going to overpay for a coffee, it might as well be a fancy one.
Thankfully both the rosemary syrup and fig preserves were on the light side, but it was definitely a sweet drink. In any case I’m sure it was way better than the ubiquitous pumpkin spice latte. So here’s what I like to know friends, what’s your favorite fall beverage? Let me know in the comments below.
Manhattan’s Fung Wong is where I tried my first mooncake decades ago.
Last week I paid a visit to Manhattan’s Chinatown with my brother John. The neighborhood has changed much since we used to go there with our father 30 years ago, but some things remain the same, notably the tea parlors and Fung Wong Bakery. The latter is where I used to get blobs of chewy sweet rice cake for dessert after hitting up Wo Hop with my parents. It’s also where I tried my first mooncake.
After John and I caught up over dim sum at Nom Wah, I poked my head into Fung Wong to see dozens of mooncakes lining the case and stacks of red boxes proclaiming, “BEST MOON CAKES IN CHINATOWN N.Y.” Back in Queens, I shared the treat with some dear friends. The filling of fruit paste and preserved duck egg had an old-fashioned feel to it, more of a rough texture than others, whose smoother paste seems more processed. The real thing that set it apart though was the dough itself, which was far less dense and sweeter than any I’ve had in recent memory. (more…)
“We’re here at Flushing’s oldest food court,” I tell my Chinatown tour guests as we stand outside the Golden Shopping Mall before descending the stairs to the gritty wonderland of regional Chinese food. “When I first came here, I had no idea what to order because everything was in Chinese,” I continue.
Once downstairs I point out Chen Du Tian Fu, noting that it has wonderful Sichuan food. Typically we forego the fiery fare at this stall in favor of Helen You’s Tianjin Dumpling House, which is a shame because Stall No. 31, downtown Flushing’s O.G. Sichuan street food specialist, is where a decade ago myself and many other non-Chinese speaking Chinese food nerds had our first experiences with Golden Shopping Mall thanks to a legendary Chowhound post by BrianS that translated the then all Chinese red and yellow wall menu. That translation ultimately led me to bring Chinese food expert and Sichuan food specialist Fuchsia Dunlop to Golden Mall in the summer of 2008.
“They’re speaking Sichuan dialect. I love it, Sichuan dialect is so lovely,” Dunlop exclaimed as we tucked into a plate of fu qi fei pian, a tangle of tendon, tripe, and beef bathed in chili oil singing with ma la flavor. In the ten years since my visit with Dunlop, Golden Shopping Mall has been discovered. Zimmern, Bourdain, the Times, even Mission Chinese Food’s Danny Bowien, who I once ran into dining there with his kitchen crew, have all taken a seat at the rickety stools.
Qing tuan, piping hot, each filled with a savory-sweet surprise.
As anyone who talks to me about xiao long bao for more than five minutes knows, my favorite soup dumplings in downtown Flushing can be had at Shanghai specialist Diverse Dim Sum in the New York Food Court. The skin is so thin as to be translucent, and the balance of savory pork and crab broth is perfect, making the little packages a staple on my Flushing Chinatown food tours.
Last week I had a guest with a gluten allergy. I knew the rest of her party would enjoy the soup dumplings, but also wanted to give the gluten-free guest a taste of Shanghai. And that’s where the trio of multihued spheres—purple, green, and yellow—come in. I first noticed them around Easter time and suspected they were a seasonal specialty. Normally I don’t chance trying new things on a food tour, but after learning they were made from rice and various sweet-savory fillings I made an exception. (more…)
Despite the somewhat generic name Sushma Thukral’s New Asian Food Products tucked away on Cherry Avenue just of Kissena Boulevard, has a specialty, Indian food, specifically roti and such vegetarian snacks as savory samosas packed with potatoes and herbs and crunchy fresh fried pakora as well as sweets, chai, and other snacks.
Over the course of my two decades of exploring downtown Flushing, I’ve probably stopped in two or three times, but now thanks to Sixty First Productions and the Greater Flushing Chamber of Commerce I’ll be stopping by more often and have even added it to my food tour itinerary. (more…)