Chinese New Year 4718 (2020)

Instagram Teaser 1/25/2020

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恭禧發財! Gōng xi fā cái!

The Chinese celebration of the Lunar New Year is upon us!

4718 is the Year of the Rat 🐀. I’m no Chinese zodiac scholar, but based on what I see in our subway system, rats are extremely talented when it comes to accessing food and are happy to indulge in a comprehensive variety of cuisines, never playing favorites.

I can relate to this.

And apropos of eating, there’s one aspect of this spectacular holiday that I particularly enjoy and that’s the way wordplay and homophones factor into the selection of traditional foods. An example is nian gao, a glutinous rice cake sweetened with brown or white sugar and a homophone for “high year” – with the connotation of elevating oneself higher with each new year, perhaps even lifting one’s spirits.

But there was one year when my inner rat was thwarted in attempting to access a particular nian gao – and what should have literally been a snap turned into a complete mystery.

Curious? Please read my very short story, “The Case of the Uncrackable Case!”
 
 

Nan Xiang Xiao Long Bao

Instagram Posts 1/17 & 1/18/2020

Finally got around to visiting Nan Xiang Xiao Long Bao in their new digs at 39-16 Prince St in Flushing, Queens – or so the Google would have it: the first thing you need to know is that the entrance is actually on 39th Ave (133-42) at the corner of Prince St. Elusive geography notwithstanding, our hungry horde congregated to devour a representative sampling from their menu. Everything we ordered was tasty, but the soup dumplings overshadowed the dishes they consorted with.

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Arguably best known for their Xiao Long Bao (soup dumplings), we selected three varieties from among six options. These charcoal gray, brooding purses are fabricated from dough fragrant with black truffle, fulfilling my expectations; the soup, secure within, was fine.


Insider’s view of the Truffle Soup Dumplings revealing flecks of truffle peppering the pork.


Chicken Soup Dumplings. The soup brought a touch of spice and ginger to the meat, good contrast to the preceding round.


But the champion of the trio was their classic Steamed Crabmeat and Pork Soup Dumplings, the filling everything you could hope for, the soup surprisingly full-bodied and a bit sweet, the genesis of Nan Xiang’s reputation, and which may very well have been the highlight of our meal.


Pan Fried Pork Buns (aka Sheng Jian Bao) from the Signature Dim Sum section of the menu were top notch.


Four Happiness Kao Fu – braised wheat gluten with bamboo shoots, wood ear and shiitake mushrooms. I admit I’m a sucker for Kao Fu and I was pleased to see the dried lily flowers as a component – no guarantee of that in some versions.


Spicy Bamboo Shoots from the Little Cold Dish section of the menu; a little too chewy, could have benefited from a touch more spiciness.


Beef Tendon in Chili Oil from the same part of the menu. If I had been paying attention, I would have suggested the Spicy Beef and Tripe in peanut chili sauce (fuqi feipian). Next time.


Shanghai Pan Fried Noodle – thick noodles stir fried with bok choy, shredded pork and “house special sauce”. Nice chew, not bad.
 
 

Cupid Cheese Fruit Cake

Instagram Post 1/13/2020

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Cupid Cheese Fruit Cake, a relatively new kid on the block, is my new durian gateway drug dealer. Find them in Flushing (of course) in the New York Food Court at 133-35 Roosevelt Ave, Stall 18. The menu touts Regular Durian Pie and a Super Durian Pie that’s even more abundantly filled than the former (you’re lookin’ at it). I was more than pleased. A return visit is in order to sample some of the other flavors – mango, banana, raisin, hawthorn, dragon fruit, and seven fairies – the last two topping my list. Ice Rice is on the agenda as well, but not before I run the table of fruit pies.

I can only imagine what this would be like with a scoop of Flushing Ice Cream Factory’s durian melting on top!
🤤


The #obligatorycheesepull
 
 

E Dim Sum

Instagram Post 1/4/2020

A modest venue just around the corner from the main drag, E Dim Sum at 2006 65th St in Bensonhurst offers Brooklyn its inexpensive, no frills, homestyle Cantonese food.

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Steamed Minced Meat & Salt Fish, the better of the two dishes we ordered. The saltiness of the mackerel balanced the almost sweetness of the faintly garlicky ground pork patty which in turn complemented the bitter daikon. The essence of collaboration.


Potherb Mustard Pork Noodle, an herby concoction that included mustard greens, pork, and noodles. As alluded to.


The #obligatorynoodlelift
 
 

Szechuan House

One of my favorite Sichuan restaurants is Szechuan House at 133-47 Roosevelt Ave in Flushing, Queens (not to be confused with the nearby Szechuan Mountain House). I’ve dined there so frequently and created so many posts on Instagram that I decided to make a single page here featuring some of the best dishes I’ve enjoyed over the years. Everything you see was delicious and they’re presented here in no special order; I simply felt the need to mount a rogues’ gallery of some of my faves.


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Sliced Pork with Chili Garlic

Delicious and just what it sounds like: slices of tender pork stir-fried with fresh green chili peppers, scallions, and suffused with indispensable garlic.

Poached Chicken and Crispy Soy Beans with Chili Sesame Sauce

The menu calls it “Poached Chicken and Crispy Soy Beans with Chili Sesame Sauce” in English, but the Chinese reads 口水雞, “Mouth Watering Chicken”, the classic name for this dish; IMO both are equally descriptive.

Braised Fish Fillet and Napa Cabbage with Roasted Chili

Nothing is more traditional to the Chinese New Year banquet than food-word homophones. The Chinese word for fish (魚, pronounced yu) is a homophone for abundance. Generally served whole, we opted for fillets – hope that doesn’t cut our surpluses.

Dan Dan Noodles with Minced Pork in Chili Sauce (擔擔麵)

The name dan dan refers to the pole that street vendors shouldered to carry their noodles and sauce as they walked about hawking their wares. The long noodles represent heartfelt wishes for a long life and are de rigueur at the Chinese New Year table.

Pork Dumplings in Red Chili Oil

Dumplings are another sine qua non for the holiday meal. Crafted to resemble Chinese gold or silver ingots, dumplings symbolize wealth and prosperity.

Hand Ripped Cabbage

Decidedly delightful with a presentation to match. Do note that there’s a bit of pork lurking within, so this is not a dish for vegetarians (it’s listed in the Pork section of the menu). Cabbage never tasted so good. (Probably the pork. 😉)

Thin Sliced Beef Tendon in Roasted Chili Vinaigrette

Szechuan House has a number of beef tendon dishes on their menu; I suggest this cold appetizer of splendidly spicy tender tendon to apprehensive first-timers.

Pig Kidney with Peppercorns

Find this one on the Specials menu. Organ meats rule in this nose-to-tail era of sustainability; this example has a delicate, velvety texture but expect a proper kick from dried red chilies. (Note that the peppercorns are not the numbing and spicy málà variety.)

Fried Tofu with Cumin

You may have marveled over the uncanny affinity cumin and chili have for lamb in certain northwestern Chinese dishes (and if not, you need to try some posthaste). I’m pleased to report that the piquant duo stands up to fried tofu with as much aplomb – pleased, particularly, because it gives my vegetarian friends the opportunity to savor the flavor combo in an excellent application. The tofu is fried to precise crispy crunchitude and the spice level is ideal.

Jumbo Shrimp with Dried Red Pepper

The herbaceous supple cilantro is a perfect foil for these crisp beauties. Yes, eat the shells; yes, eat the heads. You won’t know what you’re missing if you don’t.

Fried Shredded Beef with Celery and Chilies

Also known as Shredded Dry Beef with Spicy Sauce from the Specials menu. This one is a must-eat for the flavor, the texture, and just the sheer pleasure of it – highly recommended.

Squid with Pickled Pepper

Those are moderately spicy longhorn green preppers keeping company with the squid and baby bamboo shoots. Good stuff.

Chicken with Taro in Spicy Sauce

A flavor profile of a very different stripe. The taro was a doppelganger for potato in this context, but it was the sauce that was unique, at least to this meal: I detected cinnamon sticks, star anise, galangal, garlic, a little sweetness and perhaps five spice powder and cloves although I couldn’t verify any of it. I liked the change of pace.

Cumin Seasoned Lamb with Red Chili Pepper

“Are we going to order Cumin Seasoned Lamb with Red Chili Pepper?” I was asked more than once. But of course. It’s that spicy cumin lamb combination that seems to have a universal following that’ll keep you coming ba-a-a-a-ack!

Steamed Pork with Glutinous Rice and Red Bean Paste

Yes, that’s sugar on top and yes, its works!

Sauteed Towel Gourd

For those who demanded a green vegetable.

Black Fungus with Spicy and Sour Sauce

Also known as wood ear mushrooms, cloud ear, tree ear fungus, and a raft of other names. From the Cold Appetizers section of the menu.

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Spicy Paper Bag Sheep Leg

Leg of lamb, roasted to tender perfection not in paper but rather in aluminum foil. A treat.

Braised Whole Fish (Tilapia)

Mei Cai Braised Pork

Mei Cai refers to preserved mustard greens.

And now for something completely different:

Braised Ox Tendon with Scallion and Onion

Ma Po Brain Flower

Yes, brain.

Sauteed Pigs Feet with Pepper

Dessert:

Pan Fried Yam Cakes

Stuffed Sticky Rice Ball with Black Sesame in Broth

 
 
Szechuan House is located at 133-47 Roosevelt Ave in Flushing, Queens.
 
 

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.