I spent Saturday afternoon shopping for groceries with my parents in Flushing, Queens, in preparation for tomorrow’s Chinese New Year feast. More about our Chinese New Year dinner to come.
Flushing has become New York’s largest Chinatown, and the good Chinese restaurant scene has also largely shifted to Flushing. It’s evident in its greater diversification in Chinese regional cuisines and its recent press from the New York Times, Anthony Bourdain, and foodies as a destination for cheap, delicious, and most importantly, authentic eats (e.g. Xinjiang BBQ cart and Xi’an Famous Foods in the basement food court of Golden Mall). Julia Moskin from the NY Times reviewed Dongbei (or Northeast China) cuisine in Flushing this week, and while I’ve never been to Dongbei, I wanted to correct a fact [mis]represented in the article:
The Dongbei talent for mixing meat and fish bubbles away in Mr. Chen’s hot pot of pork belly, cellophane noodles and firm tofu, adorned with a whole fried fish (always served with the tail facing the most honored guest at the table).
I think this is incorrect. I’m 99.999% certain that the custom is in fact to serve the fish with the head pointing to the most honored guest (or most important person) at the table. This makes intuitive symbolic sense (head of the fish, head of the table, get it?), and from a culinary point of view, the head is where the best morsels of a whole fish are located (the cheek, and the top of the fish just behind where the head ends). This is the way I’ve always seen it, in America at Chinese dinners and with family in China. I also trust in my dad’s confirmation of my impression, as someone who grew up in China, has had to serve/orient the fish appropriately during important dinners he’s hosted in Beijing, and as someone who’s been the ‘most honored guest’ at a table before and has had the head, not the tail, facing him. As a bit of an aside, there’s some ceremony in formal dinners in China. With large parties and large tables, a lazy Susan is often employed, so the new dishes brought to the table are put next to the MHG first, and only after he or she has sampled it does it get rotated to everyone else. Another fun fact is that when toasting and clinking glasses, it’s proper form for the less important clinker in each pair to clink his/her glass slightly lower, as a gesture of respect. ::edit:: I was worried about regional customs, but today, fortuitously, one of our dinner guests is actually from Jilin province in Dongbei, and after questioning him he said that it was indeed the head that should point to the most important person at the table. He added that another custom was that if the most honored person didn’t eat the fish first, the person who did eat the fish first should jing or toast that person, and this is sometimes used as a pretext to start a conversation.
Back to the review. One of my favorite places to eat in Flushing with my parents, or with friends, is Szechuan Gourmet. Szechuan Gourmet also has a Manhattan outpost (at 21 W. 39th Street) that received 2 stars from Frank Bruni in 2008, but in my estimation the Flushing branch is the superior, and more adventurous, in flavor. The convenient Manhattan location, though, has become somewhat of a destination for Columbia debate team “alumni and friends” dinners with Josh, Matt, Caitlin, Ryne, Frank, etc. I’m told that esteemed economist/blogger Tyler Cowen, who enjoys spicy food, is a fan of the Manhattan Szechuan Gourmet as well. Neither restaurant does much in decor, and both employ the kitschy decorations commonly found in medium-class Chinese restaurants (I’ve never actually been to in a ‘fancy’ Chinese restaurant in the U.S.). As a badge of authenticity, the menu was comically rife with spelling errors. The drinks section, for example, was plagued with offerings of “Heinken” “Sappolo” “Tingtao” (seriously, this is a Chinese brand!) and “Dite Coca”. The level of spiciness could be modified to the “guest’s teste”. The focus of the restaurant is pretty clearly on the food.
We started the meal with two appetizers. There was the classic “ox tongue and tripe w/ roasted chili peanut vinaigrette” and the “spicy mung bean jello salad.” I’m pretty sure the former didn’t actually have tongue at all, but the meat element was actually shank (or more likely a cut of the cow’s calf), so there were strips of chewier tendon running through the slices of beef. I love this dish because of the balance of textures. The tripe is chewy, and the slices of beef are tough enough to feel substantial in your mouth, definitely not a tender cut that melts away immediately. The chili oil is captured by the natural pockets and projections of the tripe (stomach has a lot of surface area), and is absorbed by the beef. The sauce contains small pieces of crushed peanuts that provide an occasional crunchiness and surge of extra savory flavor. Bits of roughly chopped cilantro cool the tongue against the delicious tease of chili pepper that you can’t stop coming back to. While this dish is a bright, garish red from the chili-infused oil dressing, it’s definitely not unbearable.
Szechuan cuisine is about ways to pair heat with elements that accentuate it, and elements that balance it. The cilantro and peanuts dampened the heat of the previous dish, and the spicy mung bean jello w/ spicy sauce accomplishes the balance through temperature. This dish is basically noodles with a spicy chili sauce, but the noodles aren’t made from wheat. They are made from boiling mung bean [starch] in water, and then letting it cool and set in a refrigerator. The starch serves the same function as gelatin or agar, and the mixture sets like a translucent/semi-white jello, or, for those familiar with biology, an agarose gel for electrophoresis. The gel is too wobbly and delicate to easily cut, so normally it’s shaved using something similar to a cheese grater. The lightness, and cool temperature of the noodle, and the vinegar in the sauce, cut the spiciness of this dish.
Moving on to entrees, which we shared family-style. I always encourage Americans dining in Chinese restaurants to eat and order family-style–you get to experience a much greater set of dishes in a cuisine bursting with choices. We shared three dishes: braised intestines with napa cabbage, roasted chili; stir-fried chicken w/ roasted chili (#70 on the menu, xiao jiao gan bian ji, for my own reference); and an utterly generic beef and vegetable stir-fry not worth describing, so I’ll talk about another dish instead.
A classic Szechuan dish is braised beef filets with cabbage, which comes as a still-boiling ceramic pot with cabbage on the bottom, slices of tender beef on top of that, and an absurdly crimson bath of chili-packed cooking liquid. Sometimes this comes in a smaller metal pot, and the heat is maintained at the table with a burning chunk of paraffin wax, so that the pot remains boiling-hot for most of the meal. As you can imagine, this dish preparation is not about balancing the heat, but rather kicking the crap out of your taste buds in an overwhelming onslaught of chili and heat that you can’t stop eating because it’s a) delicious and b) depriving your tongue of the distraction of physical stimulation allows the burning sensation to become front-and-center in your mind. Today, we had braised pig intestines instead of beef because I’ve had the beef version so many times, and I love offal (if you’re going to kill an animal, you should use all of the animal). The braising took out the chewiness entirely from the slices of intestine, and they were incredibly tender. In addition to the chili oil bath, there was a generous layer of coarsely ground chili pepper that clung to some pieces of meat, which added a second kick of heat and a sort of crunchy bite. I loved the intense flavors of this dish, but it was served in the ceramic pot that diffused heat quickly, and so it wasn’t as murderously hot in my mouth as I had hoped, and you didn’t fully get the synergy of taste heat and physical heat.
Ma Po tofu is a dish I’ve had here many times, though not today, and it is such hallmark of the cuisine that it would be remiss of me not to talk about it in this review. Soft tofu is cooked chili sauce, fermented black bean, a small amount of minced pork for flavor, topped with fresh scallions, and importantly, a generous amount of crushed roasted Szechuan peppercorn. It’s this last, pillar ingredient that makes this dish special, and novel. The Szechuan peppercorn creates a numbing, tingling, cooling sensation on your tongue (this combats the fiery heat of the chili sauce and, since this dish can also be served with the paraffin wax technique, the kinetic heat as well). As a pairing with chili, it constitutes the famous ma la flavor of Szechuan cuisine: ma for numbness, and la for spiciness. I think Josh ended up enjoying this dish the best when we ate at the Flushing location with Matt several months ago and I like to think of it as somewhat analogous to a miracle berry tasting, where half the fun is the playfulness of something totally new, taste and sensation you’ve never felt before on your tongue. The sauce was also generally delicious, slightly sweet from a touch of soy sauce, and was fantastic accompaniment to the rice.
My favorite dish of the meal was the stir-fried chicken with garlic, green and red chili peppers. Unlike the other dishes, which relied on chili suspended in sauces or oil, this dish introduced a purely dry delivery. The chicken pieces were cut bone-in, and cooking with bone always enhances the root flavor of any dish, whether it’s a T-bone steak, lamb shank, or whole fish. This chicken was unique because it was so incredibly crispy on the outside, and yet impossibly tender on the inside. I suspect it was not stir-fried at all in the home-cooking sense, but basically deep-fried in a smoking wok full of oil. In the transliteration above, gan means dry and bian means flat. In the context of Chinese cooking, bian refers to pressing an item against the searing hot side of a wok (like a short-order cook presses down on burgers) to produce the seared, gan crust. The outside ‘bark’ of each piece of chicken, sometimes with a crunchy attached piece of skin (this component reminded me of the expertly fried chicken skin “chip” Hung made in the “Manhattan Project” episode of Top Chef Season 3), had attained a fantastic sort of smoky, charred, almost chicharrones flavor. This is probably my biggest complaint of the Manhattan location (which also, I think, is less spicy): their production of this chicken dish is somehow not as crispy, dry, or charred, and therefore lacks the fundamental set of textures and flavors that differentiate this dish from every other stir-fried chicken out there.
Overall, I’d strongly recommend Szechuan Gourmet’s Flushing location to any readers out there who aren’t afraid of spicy food and want to adventure past the Americanized sesame chicken and beef w/ broccoli of routine Chinese restaurants. And if you’re making the trip, order real Szechuan food. Order the tripe, the intestines, the grenouille, the pork belly, the beef tendon, and the duck tongue. Try a regional specialty (to those critical reviewers of Szechuan Gourmet who complained about the dumplings or scallion pancakes… that’s like ordering Southern barbecue ribs at a New England chowderhouse; they’re only on the menu to cater to Americans ignorant of the inevitable regional variety in the fourth-largest country in the world), try something spicy and well-seasoned, and try something new!
Szechuan Gourmet: 4 / 5
135-15 37th Ave., Queens, NY