Mix in the sauce and dig into the best Sichuan cold noodles ever.
Cheng Du Tian Fu, or Chengdu Heavenly Plenty Snacks, is one of the first stalls I ever visited in the regional Chinese wonderland that is the Golden Shopping Mall. Back in 2007 there was hardly any English signage in the entire place and I was relying upon a rosetta stone of sorts from a Chowhound post. These days the menu is in English and there are dozens of items—beef jerky, fu qi fei pian, dan dan mian and more—shown in the mouthwatering photos that adorn the wall at the bottom of the stairs.
This Sichuan specialist has become a favorite of the Mission Chinese crew. Despite the vast selection I’ve gotten the same thing every time for the last 10 or more visits: cold noodles Chengdu style ($3.50). A palate-awakening sauce consisting of crushed chilies, Sichuan peppercorns, what looks to be MSG, black vinegar, and a prodigious amount of fine garlic paste tops the tangle of thin al dente noodles. Mixing the sauce to coat the noodles take a bit of effort. It’s worth it for the results, though. The bowl of noodles ping pongs between refreshing,fiery, palate-tingling, and pungent.
Cheng Du Tian Fu, No. 31, Golden Shopping Mall, 41-28 Main St., Flushing
Apparently Old Master Fu Zi liked his pork belly and his chilies.
Last night I had dinner in Flushing with two fellow food writers at a newish Sichuan restaurant that shall remain nameless for the purposes of this dispatch. Almost everything we ordered was stunning save for one item. As luck would have it, it was the one dish that I, Queens’ foremost Caucasian expert on Asian food insisted on ordering. I expected a pork belly creation like the one pictured above. To be sure what came to the table was pork belly in a steamer, but all resemblance ended there. For one thing it looked like a washed up version of mofongo and tasted rather like an English school lunch sitting atop bland mashed peas. The entire lot had been steamed into flavorless submission.
What I’d expected was something like a dish I’d had at Hunan House a while back: xiang shan ma la fu zi rou, or “Hunan house Old Master Fuzi meat dish.” It consists of pork belly and rice powder steamed for so long that the rice powder has melded with the pork fat, and vice versa. Each slice of the fanned out pork belly is rich and unctuous and can just barely retain its form. It’s tasty, but superfatty, which is where those pickled chilies come in. It’s the type of thing that’s best eaten with rice and shared with more than one person.
As for the nameless Sichuan restaurant, all I can say is not every dish can be a winner. It was just such a shock to see such a weirdly lackluster dish emerge from an otherwise accomplished kitchen. And it was of course a slight slow to my ego. I suppose such occupational hazards are part and parcel of being The Guy Who Ate Queens.
Prince Noodle House has undergone a transformation into Láo Chéng Dū.
“My Mom has a new place, you have to come try it,” Zhū Dà Jiě’s son told me about a week ago. “Call me, she’ll make you a few dishes to taste.” Big Sister Zhū is widely known among Flushing aficionados for making some of the best Sichuan food around. She has had a succession of small-scale food court stalls, and was most recently at a Chinese bakery. And that’s the type of set-up I expected to find on Prince Street. When I saw that her new place was a full-scale restaurant, Láo Chéng Dū, I was very excited indeed.
Zhū Dà Jiě now offers a full menu of Sichuan specialties.
When I entered the place the staff were wondering why I was outside taking photos. In a combination of Mandarin and English I made it understood that I was friend of Big Sister Zhū. I was so happy when I saw her. After following her and her fantastic food around for several years we have a connection. Lately I have come to realize that seeing her and eating her food reminds of eating homemade pasta with Big Ann, my mother’s aunt. And just like my Italian-American family Big Sister Zhū and the staff decided to kill me with kindness laying out way more than a few dishes.
At just under $10 this six-course meal of Sichuan snacks won’t break the bank.
Much like downtown Flushing’s Chinatown itself the New World Mall food court is diverse and constantly evolving. One of the latest additions is a two-week-old outfit that goes by the rather unassuming English name, “Szechuan Dish.” The Chinese on its sign “Mei Sichuan” and “Chéng Dū kǒu wèi,” which more or less says beautiful Sichuan, Chengdu flavor, gives a much better idea of the beautiful flavorful, fiery things coming out of Stall No. 25.
Last Sunday I tried liáng bàn xīn shé, a fiery cold salad of pig tongue and heart slicked with chili oil. And yesterday I stopped by for a fēng wèi xiǎo chī tào cān, or local flavor set meal. Think of it as a six-course Sichuan Happy Meal. For $9.50 I was one happy, happy eater. It was like a greatest hits of Chengdu street food: excellent dàn dàn miàn,noodles in a fiery sauce of ground beef and preserved vegetables; Chéng Dū hóng yóu shuǐ jiǎo, pork dumplings in soy sauce enlivened with chilies and no small amount of garlic; and hǎi wèi chāo shŏu, a flavorful wonton and seafood soup. The bountiful set also includes a cold two-veggie plate and a cold two-meat plate. Last night the meats were the aforementioned pig offal and excellent diced rabbit. The vegetable plate was preserved tofu and celery and an unidentifiable yet pleasantly chewy rooty type vegetable. If you’re into that sort of thing there is also a sweet fermented rice soup.
If you think this sounds like a whole lot of food for $9.50, you are right. It is also a whole lot of flavors: chili, garlic, salty, sweet, even a subtle smokiness from the vegetable plate. I haven’t been this excited about Sichuan food since I took Fuchsia Dunlop to the Golden Mall. It’s a game changer people.
Szechuan Dish, No. 25, New World Mall Food Court, 40-21 Main St., Flushing
Mào dòu, edamame’s more flavorful Taiwanese cousin.
If you’ve ever spent much time in an izakaya then you’re familiar with edamame. At its most basic the popular Japanese drinking snack consists of nutty tasting immature soybean pods briefly boiled in salt water. They’re fun to eat—just squeeze the fuzzy pod and pop out the smooth beans—and much better for you than pretzels.
Once I was enjoying a bowl in a certain Midtown izakaya and they had a incredible shrimp flavor. Boiling the beans with shrimp shells is a nice touch, but the most interesting treatment of edamame I’ve had was a Taiwanese version known as mào dòu. Tossed with sesame oil, cracked pepper, garlic, and just a hint of star anise they are absolutely wonderful. Best of all, mào dòu is easy to make at home just boil the beans briefly, shock them in cold water, and toss with your mào dòu fixins.
Those mào dòu fixins need not be limited to the ones I’ve mentioned either. Come to think of it a má là version with palate tingling Sichuan peppercorn and fiery dried chilies would be quite nice.
Hly’s fu qi fei pian is quite the harmonious marriage of offal.
With its ribbons of tongue and tripe slicked with chili oil and romantic back story, fu qi fei pian is one of the most intriguing and delicious cold Sichuan dishes out there. I honestly forget whether I read it in one of her books or whether she told me on a visit to Golden Shopping Mall, but Fuchsia Dunlop says it gets its name, “husband and wife offal slices” from an especially happy couple who created the dish many years ago in Sichuan.
It is commonly listed on menus as ox tongue and tripe in pepper sauce, perhaps to avoid tasteless jokes about cannibalism. There are almost as many versions of this dish in Flushing’s Chinatown as there are Chinese restaurants. The one that makes me happiest these days can be found at at Hly, a newish spot on the southern end of Main Street. Strewn with peanuts and bits of greenery it is plenty spicy but not ridiculously so. Consider it a more refined take on a Chengdu street food classic. Or perhaps an offal lover’s version of the American Chinese stir fry, Happy Family.
“Savor Fusion’s been DOH’d what shall I do w/o Sister Zhu,” I tweeted in no small amount of distress after Flushing’s newest food court was shut down by the Department of Health in September. I’ve been eating at Zhū Dà Jiě Chéng dū Xiǎo Chī (Big Sister Zhu’s Chengdu Snacks) in one incarnation or another for about three years. I’ve tried everything from springy dàn dàn miàn, noodles in fiery pork sauce, and homemade pork sausage scented with orange to the poetically named fū qī fèi piàn, husband and wife offal slices, actually cold ox tongue and tripe in an incendiary sauce, to Sichuan hacked rabbit. At Savor Fusion I became enamored of her má là yú, deliciously crisp fried fish, and a quite a deal at $6 for six.
Coated in Sichuan peppercorn and hot pepper these fish are delicious.
I’d given up finding her ever again, and then she reappeared, in a bakery of all places. I’d stopped in with a friend to grab a coffee milk tea and a pork bun and then I saw them. There was no mistaking the cook behind the hotel pan of chili crusted fish on the counter. “Zhū dà jiě!,” I exclaimed pointing to the fish. And out she came from the back. “Hey, my friend. How are you,” she asked with a broad smile. The pork bun was quite good, but what I really wanted was some fish. That crunchy, fiery fish that calls to mind Wise BBQ potato chips, had they been created in a Chengdu snack shop.
Sister Zhu is lucky to have a new home.
I’m pretty sure my big sister from Chengdu has never heard of a pop-up restaurant, but I am ever so glad that she popped up where she did. The other week a buddy and I stopped in for some of that fish and an order of tofu skin with hot peppers. The crunchy coating of the fish sang with the classic má là,or numb-hot flavor that comes from the combination of chilies and tongue-tingling Sichuan peppers. And the hot peppers and chewy tofu skin called to mind a flavor from my childhood, hot sopressata.
I have a feeling that if Sister Zhu moves again I’ll be able to find her. Not because of some cosmic culinary connection, but mainly because I’ll be sure to keep tabs on her. It’s not every day one finds fried fish that good after all.
Shocking and intense—like my passion for Danny Bowien’s food.
The other night I asked Danny Bowien, the blonde-haired madman behind Mission Chinese Food to marry me. I’d just finished the meal pictured above—thrice cooked bacon ($12), tingly tea smoked chicken ($9), and Beijing beef pancake—while seated at the bar at MCF NYC under the light of a scarlet dragon. As I paid the check my mouth was still buzzing from the Sichuan peppercorn and chilies.
“Danny Bowien will you marry me,” I asked poking my head into the kitchen. “I’m already married,” he said. “If you were a polygamist you could cook for me,”I responded. I can just imagine it. Bowls of the Sichuan-peppercorn dusted fried tripe that comes with MCF’S chicken wings; kung pao lamb pastrami for breakfast, lunch, and dinner; and mapo tofu for when I have a cold. I suppose it’s too much to ask for, which is why I can often be found seated alone at the bar underneath the red dragon that winds its way through the dining room. I eat at MCF alone for two reasons: a) I am greedy and b) I like to eat the leftovers for lunch the next day over rice. Once I ate there with five or six fellow food writers. We all fell quiet as we dug into Bowien’s explosively spiced food. All I could think about was how those tripe garnished wings were on the far side of the table—and whether I’d get my share.
A better look: Beijing beef pancake, thrice cooked bacon, and tingly tea smoked chicken.
“You work within your limitations,” a guy with a camera much better than mine said when asked how he takes photos in the scarlet-hued light of what I like to call the Red Planet. The only other restaurant that was as difficult to shoot food in was the purple spaceship of a Thai joint called Kurve in the East Village. Speaking of limitations mine do not include the inability to appreciate authentically inauthentic and vibrant spins on Chinese food such as Bowien’s. I have a friend who holds that, “Mission Chinese is a crude parody of Sichuan food for people who can’t be bothered to develop a palate for the real thing.” I am fortunate enough to have developed a palate for both.
I expected the beef pancake to be just that, a flat griddled cake, a gussied up scallion pancake of sorts. Nevertheless I rolled with the presentation: sushi-like roulades of flatbread filled with confit of beef shoulder and potatoes and topped with salted chilies. The tingly tea smoked chicken was as advertised, silky morsels of poached and smoked bird that left my mouth humming from the “chili sediment” and Sichuan pepper. The incendiary thrice-cooked bacon with chewy rice cakes, black beans,and winter melon was also excellent.
Danny, if you’re reading this my proposal still stands. If not I’ll see you on the Red Planet.