Friday, June 16, 2017

Flushing Food Crawl

Considering how many food options there are in Flushing, we don't get out there nearly as often as we should. It's only a (relatively) short trip on the 7 train, yet almost all of it has been unexplored by us. For that reason, for one of our dining resolutions for 2017, we decided we should go on a dumpling crawl in Flushing. Last weekend, we did just that (and can finally check off our first fully completed resolution!).

Our first stop was Tianjin Dumpling House at the Golden Shopping Mall in the basement food court. Out of all of our stops on the food crawl, this was the one we had actually been to before, grabbing some dumplings before a wedding a few years ago in case it was like a typical Chinese wedding and the food wouldn't be served for hours. Their specialty is the lamb and green squash dumplings, although the lamb/carrot and pork/chive ones we got the last time (because they were out of the squash ones) were good too. (Just as a side note, probably best to not think of this as your typical "mall" or mall food court; it's a bunch of stalls in a cramped basement that have been there forever just serving good food.)

Each order of dumplings at Tianjin has 12 dumplings, and they range in price from $4 to $7. Really inexpensive. The lamb and green squash ones were $6, which was a great price for 12 dumplings. They were cooked to order so they did take a little bit of time to get, but they were totally worth it. One of our favorite things about the dumplings was the nice chewy wrapper which had sort of an al dente texture to it. We assume that the wrappers are handmade because you can't get that type of elasticity from a machine-made wrapper, and also because the dumplings are all different sizes.

The dumplings themselves had a mild lamb flavor but not an overpowering gaminess. The green squash added an interesting texture. We didn't get much flavor from the squash, but it added something of a "wetness" to the dumplings that helped ensure that they didn't get too dry. For dipping sauces, this no-frills place doesn't have any pre-prepared sauces available. Instead, they have bottles of soy sauce and vinegar and containers of chili sauce and a green-ish garlic sauce. We have no clue what made it green, but it was delicious and had a really nice sharp, garlicky flavor. This was our first stop of the day, but after discussing, we both agreed that it was the best.

Next up was probably the one we had been most excited about - White Bear. We had wanted to go to White Bear for ages, and every time we saw pictures of the wontons in chili oil, we wondered why we hadn't made it yet. These were also $6 for 12, and they came topped with scallions and some pickled vegetables along with the chili oil. (It's #6 on the menu if it's not obvious.) They were also supposed to have good dan dan noodles there, but we didn't want to overdo it and end our food crawl after two stops, so we didn't get those.

We liked the flavor of these dumplings, but we thought that they would be better. The way some people talk about White Bear, we expected this to be something like a life-changing dumpling experience, and it wasn't. It sounds like maybe our expectations were just too high, but while they were high, there was also the fact that we thought our first set of dumplings from Tianjin were better. The wrappers here were handmade and thinner, like a lot of wonton skins are, but that made them less chewy and in some cases, easier for them to fall off the filling. A couple of our wontons were either broken or broke as we tried to pick them up. Flavor-wise, we noticed that despite the chili oil, they weren't really very spicy at all. We've had wontons or dumplings like this before that were much spicier and thought those had more flavor. These were also on the salty side. The pickled vegetables here added some nice freshness and differentiated it from other dumplings we had in the past, but they also contributed to the saltiness.

We intended for our next stop to be more dumplings, but as we wandered around, we found ourselves in the food court at the New World Mall (this one, a more typical mall and mall food court). We walked around looking at all the stalls and all the many food options until we stopped in our tracks at Cheers Cut. When we were back in Vancouver, we had tried Taiwanese large fried chicken for the first time (post coming eventually in our trip recaps) and it was incredible. We had heard rumors that places in NYC were starting to make this, but didn't really know where to go yet. When we saw that Cheers Cut had large fried chicken, we had to stop the dumpling crawl and get some chicken.

Cheers Cut (apparently with two locations in NYC, as well as one each in Tampa and Philadelphia) had two sizes of large fried chicken - large (samurai) and extra large (ninja). We, of course, went with the ninja ($7.95) so we could try more, and in the choice between pepper and chili topping, went with pepper since it was closer to what we got in Vancouver. In style, it was very similar to what we got in Vancouver (and presumably what they serve in Taiwan, but A never had this there, and M hasn't been to Taiwan) - a chicken breast and thigh flattened into one large piece of chicken, breaded, and deep fried. The dark meat retained some of the bones, even in this flattened form, but there was a mix of white and dark meat in every piece.

While this chicken was good, we preferred the one we got in Vancouver. The breading on that one attached more to the chicken and didn't really get soggy and flake off at all like this one did in parts, there was a little more flavor in the topping, the breading, and the chicken itself in the Canadian one, and the chicken was a little juicier there. That said, until we hear about the location of another Taiwanese large fried chicken joint in NYC, we don't have anything to compare it to in this city, so guess it's the best one for now. Maybe someday there will be other places here to compare, but right now it's much cheaper going to Queens than flying back to Canada.

Our next stop we figured would be one of our last, since it was a full-service restaurant instead of a quick service place - Nan Xiang Xiao Long Bao. We were going, obviously, for XLB, but we also heard that they made good scallion pancakes. Since we'd pretty much been eating heavy food without vegetables all day, we also figured we should balance that out with a plate of cucumber and garlic ($4.50). That was nice and refreshing with good garlic flavor, although a couple of pieces of cucumber were a little on the bitter, softer side. It felt really good to eat all those cucumbers though, since we were incredibly dehydrated.

The scallion pancakes ($3.50) came first, since soup dumplings take a little bit of time to make. These were crispier and flakier than the scallion pancakes we're used to getting. Despite the crispy exterior, though, the insides were still soft and chewy just the way we like them. While these were quite good, the ones A's mom makes are better.

The last thing to arrive was the steamer of six pork soup dumplings ($5.95). These were quite delicious. The soup inside was rich and flavorful without being too scalding. The filling was also flavorful and soaked up a lot of the flavor from the soup. The really nice thing was that the wrappers were thinner than most versions you get in NYC. That was always our gripe with the offerings in NYC. While in overall rankings we'd rank higher the ones we got at Din Tai Fung in Asia and others we got in Vancouver, these are probably our favorite of the ones we've tried in NYC. We haven't tried everywhere in NYC though, so we're open to further comparisons, but so far, these are the best we've had here.

After all of that savory food, it was time to end the day with some dessert. We headed back to New World Mall to the food court, as we had been hearing a lot recently about some stall there named Erqal that served Uyghur ice cream. When we went on our walk through the food court earlier, we had seen it and mentally bookmarked it for dessert. With tax, a regular ice cream was only about $3, which was pretty good for such a large cup.

The first thing we noticed about the ice cream was how it was made. There was a giant whirring motor spinning a frozen metal bowl holding the ice cream base. In the bowl was also a large wooden paddle that provided the aeration required to make the ice cream. When it's fully frozen the wooden paddle is then used to scoop out the ice cream into another container so that it resembles a large clump. The ice cream definitely had a different texture from most of the ice cream we usually eat. It had hints of brown sugar and caramel in the flavor, and texturally it wasn't as creamy as any other ice cream we had ever eaten. It was more icy and watery for lack of a better term, and it lent itself to being eaten very quickly. It was an interesting experience, and we really enjoyed the ice cream.

We had a pretty productive day exploring Flushing, trying different foods from all over China, checking off our resolution to go on a dumpling crawl, and even seeing bits of history from the colonial era on our walk, like the Kingsland Homestead. We should definitely explore more neighborhoods in the city more often.

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