Yin Ji Chang Fen

Instagram Post 11/13/2019

It is not often that I have the opportunity to write about a restaurant so special that I am compelled to recommend it enthusiastically; Yin Ji Chang Fen, a well-known rice noodle roll chain from Guangzhou, China, made the cut. Recently opened at 91 Bayard St in Manhattan’s Chinatown, you can expect long lines so grab a take-out menu and hone your decisions while you’re waiting.

Cheung fan (Chinese rice rolls), amid alternate spellings, are enjoying a moment in the spotlight here in New York City. You’ve probably savored them at specialty venues, food trucks, and dim sum parlors; in essence they’re a thin roll of steamed rice noodle filled with seafood, meat, or vegetables or wrapped around youtiao (Chinese cruller). Now if you’ve been eating them forever, you’ll immediately recognize that these are a little different from what you’re accustomed to in at least three aspects: the noodle is thinner, they arrive doused with a bespoke soy sauce based mixture, and the proportion of filling to noodle is off the charts.

In addition to 16 kinds of chang fen, Yin Ji Chang Fen offers 14 varieties of congee (aka Chinese rice porridge), both with ample customizations available, and a few Asian snacks.

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Marinated Pork and Shrimp with Chives rice noodle roll; absolutely delicious. (Incidentally, portions are about twice as large as is customary around these parts.)


Inner workings: huge chunks of pork and whole shrimp.


Sliced Fish with Chives rice noodle roll. I thought I’d try an add-on so I asked for extra egg in this one. I was expecting to find the egg within, but what arrived was the rice roll as specified further enveloped in a thin omelet, a pleasant surprise.


Lai Wan Style Assorted Congee, topped with shredded egg, ginger, greens, peanuts and cilantro.


Inner workings revealed fish fillet, squid, pork skin, and more. Note that their congee may be a little thinner than what you’re used to. Although not canonical, you could unabashedly add some Spicy Chili Crisp, provided tableside, if you’re so inclined.


From the Asian Snacks side of the menu, Deep Fried Fish Skin; best I’ve ever had, ruined me for others.

Go here now. That is all.
 
 

Seafood Palace

Instagram Post 11/11/2019

Bensonhurst’s burgeoning Chinatown (yes, really) is home to a phalanx of Guangdong (Cantonese) and Hong Kong style restaurants as well as a few dim sum parlors (as you’d expect). The area is ripe for serious exploration, but to get things rolling my dining buddy and I did a survey of most of the eateries, noting which warranted further investigation. We settled on Seafood Palace, 2172 86th Street, Brooklyn, for lunch and despite the paucity of patrons that day, it did not disappoint.

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The menu calls this delectable item Sea Clams and Sweet Pea Pods with XO Sauce; the Chinese reads XO蜜豆桂花蚌 which I interpret as XO honey bean osmanthus mussel (or clam). The XO sauce part is a gimme and honey bean refers to sugar snap peas. The clams looked and tasted exactly like sweet razor clams but I’m told that “osmanthus clam” refers to something dissimilar. Assuming you like clams, treat yourself to this eminently accessible dish served with a mildly spicy sauce enhanced with ginger, scallions, green chili, red chili, Chinese chives, purple onion and what I suspect were tiny nubs of flavorful pork. Definitely good eats.


Pan Fried Egg with Noodlefish was a tasty, unpretentious dish obviously prepared with great care and admirable skill. The scrambled eggs were light, fluffy, pillowy and moist and the kind of preparation you’d expect from French cuisine. Noodlefish, aka ice fish, are related to smelts, so watch for the few unavoidable tiny bones.

And yes, I’m going back. Soon.
 
 

New Fully Bakery

Instagram Post 11/6/2019

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I often stop by New Fully Bakery, 82-24 45th Ave in Elmhurst, on my way to HK Food Court for these Guangdong/Hong Kong treats: wife cake, husband cake and sun cake (nope, neither a typo nor a pun). The three share a common flaky exterior since they’re all based on a rice flour dough enriched with lard and painted with egg-wash for sheen and flakiness. They’re sweet but not too sweet, which I know will be welcome news to many of you.


Clues as to their inner nature. Wife Cake (aka Sweetheart Cake 老婆饼, lao po bing), top, is filled with a paste made from candied winter melon. Diverse recipes are legion (these are slender compared to others I’ve enjoyed) as are tales of how they got their name, but they invariably conclude with a love-conquers-all happy ending. Recently they’ve taken on a fresh identity as an emblem of resistance in Hong Kong.

Less common around these parts is the Husband Cake (老公饼, lao gong bing), bottom. At New Fully Bakery, they’re similar to the wife cake except for a swap-in of pineapple for winter melon plus a few almonds on top; elsewhere they possess a considerably burlier flavor profile due to ingredients like garlic, red bean paste, and star anise.

Sun Cake (太陽餅, tai yang bing) has its roots in Taiwan. Its chewy center, crafted from malt sugar and butter (perhaps honey and milk), arguably makes it the most satisfying of the three.


Close-up revealing sun cake’s delightful filling.


And speaking of Taiwan, I’m told that the owner of New Fully Bakery hails from there which didn’t surprise me because of these thick, sweet Pineapple Pies on display. (Taiwan was once the third largest exporter of pineapples worldwide and they’re still a significant contributor to their economy.) I might like these even more than their family of family cakes.
 
 

Yi Mei Bakery

Instagram Post 10/21/2019

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If other Chinese bakeries offer this item, it has eluded me. Called Ox Tongue Pastry (牛舌饼 – niú shé bing) because of its appearance (and similarly known as Horse Ear Pastry), I stumbled upon these at Yi Mei Bakery, 81-26 Broadway in Elmhurst. Although they can be fried like youtiao, these flaky (probably due to the presence of lard), soft white buns, about 7" x 2½" in size, are baked and surprisingly sweet because of their chewy malt sugar filling.

In all honesty, I cut the pastries as shown simply because a cross section best depicted the generous quantity of filling. But I suspect that those of you who are fascinated by pareidolia may perceive something beyond that. 🙃
 
 

King Dumplings

Instagram Post 10/12/2019

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Quick post about newish King Dumplings at 74 Hester St in Manhattan’s Chinatown; quick, because all we had time for was a plate of agreeable fried chive & pork dumplings (featuring one attempting an escape) – 4 for $1.50. According to reports, all dumplings are handmade by the chef of Prosperity Dumpling. The menu includes additional items like fried buns, sesame pancake sandwiches, and soups; frozen dumplings in quantities of 50 are available as well.


Innermost recesses – to give you an idea of the thickness of the skin and quantity of the filling.
 
 

Chinese Mooncakes Demystified

Or, The Equal Opportunity Celebrant – Part 2

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(Posted on September 6, 2019)
A visit to any Chinatown bakery this time of year will reveal a befuddling assemblage of mooncakes (yue bing) in a seemingly infinite variety of shapes, sizes, colors, ornamentation, and fillings, all begging to be enjoyed in observance of the Mid-Autumn Festival. Also known as the Autumn Moon Festival, this important holiday occurs on the fifteenth day of the eighth lunar month (around mid-September or early October on the Gregorian calendar) when the moon looms large and bright – the perfect time to celebrate summer’s bounteous harvest. They’re sold either individually or in attractive gift boxes or tins since it’s customary to offer gifts of mooncakes to friends and family (or lovers!) for the holiday. Since my porcine appetite apparently knows no bounds (2019 is the year of the pig – how appropriate 😉), I felt compelled to purchase an assortment of these delicacies in order to learn about their similarities and differences and to shed some light (moonlight, of course) on their intricacies.

The first point to note is that various regions of China have their own distinct versions of mooncakes. A quick survey of the interwebs revealed styles hailing from Beijing, Suzhou, Guangdong (Canton), Chaoshan, Ningbo, Yunnan, and Hong Kong, not to mention Taiwan and Malaysia. They’re distinguished by the types of dough, appearance, and fillings, some sweet and some more savory. In my experience, Chinese bakeries in Manhattan, Brooklyn (Sunset Park), and Queens (Flushing) favor the Cantonese style, but Fujianese mooncakes are easy to find along stoop line stands outside of markets in neighborhoods where there’s a concentration of folks from Fujian.
jinhua-hammoon-cake-mold
You’ll commonly find mooncakes with doughy crusts (golden brown, soft, somewhere between cakey and piecrusty, often with an egg wash sheen) as well as those with white, paper thin flaky layers that betray lard as a critical ingredient; chewy glutinous rice skins (these aren’t baked); and gelatinous casings (jelly, agar, or konjak), the most difficult to find in the city. Golden-baked, elegantly decorated Cantonese versions are round (moon shaped, get it?) or square, are fluted around the perimeter, and have been created using molds made of intricately carved wood to provide the ornate design or an inscription describing what’s inside (see photo).

joyful-lotus-seed-pastejoyful-lotus-seed-paste-inside
Fillings among the Cantonese types are dense and sweet and include lotus seed paste, white lotus seed paste, red bean paste, and mung bean paste, sometimes with one or two salted duck egg yolks (representing the harvest moon) snuggled within. In addition, there are five-nut (or -kernel or -seed) versions, packed with chopped peanuts, walnuts, almonds, pumpkin seeds, and watermelon seeds as well as a variety made with Jinhua ham, dried winter melon, and other fruits buried among the nuts; its flavor was a little herby, not unlike rosemary, but I couldn’t quite identify it. These last two were particularly tasty. All are about 3 inches wide and 1½ inches high and sell for about $4.50–$6; mini-versions are available as well.
five-seed-pastepineapple-lychee-pandan
A visit to Flushing exhibited all of these as well as some outstanding fruity varieties including pineapple, lychee, and pandan; these can be best described as translucent fruit pastes and are perfect for the novitiate – a gateway mooncake if ever there was one.
Here are two pandan mooncakes, one with preserved egg yolk and a mini version without, from Fay Da Bakery at 83 Mott Street in Manhattan’s Chinatown.

In another market, I found a white, flaky pastry version, Shanghai style, I believe; the filling was like a very dense cake with a modicum of nuts and fruits providing some contrast and crunch – certainly tasty.

durian-with-bean-paste-snowy-moon-cakeicy-moon-cake-boxes
chocolate-icy-moon-cakechocolate-icy-moon-cake-with-cream-cheesechocolate-pearls-in-pandan-flavored-bean-paste
Then there are trendy snow skin versions that hail from Hong Kong all of which are equally accessible and delicious. Think mooncake meets mochi: rather than dough-based and baked, the skins are almost like the sweet Japanese glutinous rice cake, but not quite as chewy. These snowy and icy mooncakes must be kept chilled. The snowy flavors are contemporary: strawberry, mango, orange, pineapple, honeydew, peach, peanut, taro, chestnut, green tea and red bean; one version featured durian flavored sweet bean paste with bits of the fruit and enveloped by a skin of sweet, almost almond paste texture and flavor. Icy mooncakes come two to a box (they’re smaller, about 2 inches by ¾ inch) with imaginative flavors like pandan bean paste with chocolate pearls (tiny crispy, candy bits, crunchy like malted milk balls, but probably puffed rice), dark chocolate bean paste (the skin is like mochi with chocolatey paste on the inside and a piece of dark chocolate or a bit of cream cheese nestled within), durian, mango, blueberry, custard, chestnut, black sesame, strawberry, and cherry. Prices range from $6–$9.50 each or for a box.


It seems that each year brings a fashionable new interpretation, eye-catching and tongue-pleasing, and 2019 is no exception. These sweet multihued gems came from Fay Da Bakery, a chain boasting a baker’s dozen locations (some outside of Chinatown). Our fascination with desserts that gush when pierced is serviced by Lava Mooncakes clad in colorful skins. Purple on the outside, golden within, the durian flavor was perfect; the green matcha member of team proved sweet; yellow custard was eggy – almost duck eggy – and in terms of flavor, a fair hybrid of classic mooncake and this modern rendition; orange was less about lava and more about marmalade, riddled with bits of orange peel – a pleasant surprise.


The Snowskin Mung Bean Mooncakes were also a treat: mango featured a good balance between mung bean and mango; strawberry tasted like strawberry preserves from a jar, not that it was bad, just how it was; purple yam was sweeter than I anticipated and quite flavorsome; durian, like its lava mate, was not overpowering but decidedly durian.

Even the Häagen-Dazs in Flushing’s New World Mall was touting sets of ice cream mooncakes!

fujianese-moon-cake-3-stampsfujianese-moon-cake-insidePerhaps the most unusual are the mooncakes found in Fujianese neighborhoods, particularly along East Broadway in Manhattan’s Chinatown. These round behemoths (about 8½ inches in diameter and an inch or so thick) are simple in appearance. Wrapped in a single flaky layer covering a more substantial crust (a mixture of rice and wheat flours) with red food coloring stamps on top to delineate varieties, they are an embarrassment of lard and sugar with the addition of chopped peanuts, dried red dates (jujubes), bits of candied winter melon and other nuts and fruits supported by sesame seed encrusted bottoms. I’m wary about cautioning you that these might be an acquired taste as they are certainly unlike anything you might find in Western cuisine and I don’t want to put you off; some friends liked them immediately, others had to think about it. In any event, the flavors will grow on you regardless of your starting point. These hefty disks exemplify the phrase “a little goes a long way” and a cup of tea nearby helps cut the oiliness. Cost is about $10 each.

I have to admit that I hit a wall in my attempt to decipher the inscriptions on the Fujianese mooncakes. Most bore a number of red sunburst shaped identifiers and were stamped, once, twice, three times or four. I was hard pressed to taste the difference between the single and double stamped versions; they were the simplest of the lot – sweet, lardy, and a little fruity perhaps. By the same token, the three-stamp and four-stamp versions were similar to each other and boasted the addition of sweet jujubes and other fruits – more interesting and better in my opinion, certainly sweeter because of the jujubes, but I couldn’t tease out the distinction between the two. Alas, there were other stamps as well – words, I suspect – but the color had run so they were undifferentiable to me. I have friends who can handle Mandarin and Cantonese, but not the Fujianese dialect, and none of the vendors had a word of English, so my questions were fruitless (unlike the 4-stamp mooncake). I’m not going to let this go, though, so keep an eye out for an update to this post.

Update as promised: Never one to be satisfied with “…and the rest” (as the theme from television’s Gilligan’s Island once crooned – but only for the first season), I had no choice but to return to East Broadway in Manhattan’s Chinatown where I had first tapped into the motherlode of Fujianese mooncakes.

On that visit, I had spotted one that displayed somewhat illegible writing rather than a mini-constellation of stamps but I had already purchased a surfeit of mooncakes that day and decided that I didn’t really need to buy one of each. Silly me; I should know better by now. So since that particular mooncake was eating at me (instead of the other way around), I hazarded $12 to try and solve the mystery.

This time the writing on the mystery mooncake was clear, but I’m still unsure about what it said. I see the character for “plus” over the one for “work”; if they were next to each other, it would mean “processing” (in addition to lots of other translations). In any event, it’s by far the best of any of that ilk that I’ve tried because of the ample addition of black sesame seeds and a plentitude of peanuts, so if you encounter it, that’s the one to get.

I’ve cobbled together a mini-glossary to help you decipher a few characters on some of the more popular fillings found in Cantonese mooncakes:

月                 moon
月餅             mooncake
白                 white
蓮蓉             lotus seed paste
紅豆             red bean
旦黃             single yolk
雙黃             double yolk
冰                 ice
冰皮             snowy
伍                 five
仁                 nut, seed, kernel, (benevolence)
金華火腿     Jinhua ham
棗                 jujube (red date)

Armed with these keys, you can combine phrases and discover the secrets hiding within. For example:

雙黃白蓮蓉 = double yolk white lotus seed
冰皮月餅 = snowy mooncake

So head to your nearest Chinese bakery and sample some of these autumn delights! If you can pronounce pinyin, say “zhōngqiū kuàilè” (which sounds like jong chew kwai luh). But in any language, here’s wishing you a Happy Mid-Autumn Festival!

中秋节快乐!

(Note: In 2019, the Mid-Autumn Festival occurs on Friday, September 13.)
 
 

Old Luo Yang

Instagram Post 9/30/2019

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Many years ago, when I was investigating every single vendor (🐷🤷‍♂️) in the New World Mall Food Court, 136-20 Roosevelt Ave, Flushing, for my food tours, I was intrigued by the options at stall number 4, Old Luo Yang (Luòyáng is a city in Henan province). The phrase “Processed Noodle” grabbed my attention; seems like it was intended to describe Liang Pi (Cold Skin) Noodles which do indeed involve an elaborate process in their preparation: make a flour and water dough, irrigate it with more water, rinse it, discard the dough reserving the liquid, let it rest overnight to form a precipitate, dispose of the topmost liquid, pour remaining paste onto a tray, steam over boiling water, and slice into noodles. And that, dear reader, is a gross oversimplification.

For all that effort, the resulting noodles don’t have much flavor of their own; it’s more about what you do with them and every vendor/restaurant has a different strategy. Their flagship dish, Old Luo Yang Processed Noodle, arrives on a flat plate with so much (absolutely delicious) sauce, that it invariably spills onto the tray, and spills significantly. Mess notwithstanding, however, I strongly suggest that if it’s your first time here, that’s the one to order.

They have another area of distinction: they add vegetable juice to the recipe, infusing the noodles with color (but not really much additional flavor); adding carrot juice produces an orange noodle, then there’s spinach green, black rice, and purple sweet potato, shown here. The order comes with bean sprouts, slivers of cucumber, and gluten (looks like cubes of bread that soak up sauce like nothing else on the plate) plus (this is the altered part) three containers of sauce. The first time I ordered this, I wasn’t certain about how much of each sauce to use: I tried a bit of each individually, then in combination, and wasn’t really satisfied until I realized that the best approach was to use every drop of all three.

Maybe the inevitable overflow was the reason behind the division, maybe it was to account for varying tastes, but I found that for best results, combine everything together – including every dram of all three sauces – mix well, make a mess, and enjoy.
 
 

Great Taste Dumpling

Instagram Post 9/14/2019

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The sign read “Streaky Pork Old Bamboo Shoots Steamed Bun”. Kinda makes ya just wanna drop everything and rush out there and grab some, don’t it? Not me. Kinda made me just wanna drop everything and translate the Chinese characters.

See for yourself:

Here’s what I got:

手工切 = hand cut
五花肉 = pork belly
與筍 = with bamboo shoots
小籠包 = xiao long bao

Well, not quite the xiao long bao soup dumplings most of us associate with those characters, these are steamed buns filled with the aforementioned ingredients and Great Taste Dumpling at 4317 8th Ave in Sunset Park, Brooklyn’s got ’em. $2.75 for 6. And please, don’t ever change that glorious sign!

A quick snack for someone who was just passing through in search of Mid-Autumn Festival Mooncakes. (You did read my detailed “Chinese Mooncakes Demystified” post about that, didn’tcha?)
 
 

Qin Jin Taste

Instagram Post 8/28/2019

Qin Jin Taste (秦晋味道) is the latest addition to the New York Food Court, 133-35 Roosevelt Ave, Flushing, ensconced in stall #26. I went shortly after they opened so they didn’t have many of the dishes I was eager to try (“Next week!”), but they were able to provide their signature item, the Crispy Burger; I opted for the cumin lamb, one of six choices.

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It struck me a little as fusion cuisine: the deftly seasoned lamb and the perfectly crispy roll clearly declared Shaanxi but the lettuce, tomato and type of mayonnaise delivered a distinctly American accent. Truth be told, it could have use more sauce of any stripe since it was rather dry (I requested an additional dollop); still tasted good though.


Crispy and flaky. A fine example of this style of roll; tasted freshly made.


Cute and authentic. My research indicates that there’s at least one more of these restaurants in China, at Nanshi Jie Station in Suzhou.


I’ll definitely return to explore the extensive menu, but…“next week!”
 
 

Lan Zhou Ramen

Instagram Post 8/24/2019

Quick note regarding three items from last month’s Elmhurst foray with friends to begin exploring Lan Zhou Ramen’s extensive menu – stall #23 in HK Food Court, 82-02 45th Ave in Queens.

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In addition to noodz, they do an admirable execution of BBQ skewers: this plate was for the veggie lovers, beautifully blistered green beans and eggplant with a touch of char – not too shabby.


Of course, we followed the mellow slick road to Cumin Lamb Stir Fried Rice Noodle. Something for everyone: noodles and veggies and lamb, oh my.