Monday, October 20, 2014

"Great Dumplings of New York" Tour

I led a "Great Dumplings of New York" tour last weekend (in support of Leanne Brown's charitable "Good and Cheap" project; read her account of the tour here), and I thought I'd share the itinerary. Considerable time and advance research was invested in the venue choices:

Pirosmani (2222 Avenue U, Brooklyn; 718-368-3237)
...for Georgian khinkali (steamed soup dumplings full of soulful ground meat* and dill-flecked broth, with a doughy button baked in for easy hoisting). These are good ones, achieving the trick of being sturdy yet melting. It killed us not to dig into a host of other great Georgian treats (platters of garlicky roast potatoes and shimmering katchapuri kept sweeping by), but a dumpling tour's a dumpling tour. Onward, to....

* I'd always assumed khinkali were made with lamb, just out of sheer blind idiotic assumption, but I just realized with a sudden epiphany that I've never eaten one with the least lamby flavor (I see my food knowledge as perennially blurry, and always coming into greater focus.....and contentedly so, because I long ago resigned myself to the fact that no one can possibly know everything about cuisine). Wikipedia says it's pork and beef, and, of course, Wikipedia's never wrong).

Li's Henan Food (136-20 Roosevelt Ave, Flushing, Queens at the New World Mall, stall 12; 718-888-9393.
I found out about Kaifeng-style dumplings only recently. Take a look:

Photo (and venue discovery) credit: ace trumpeter Jerry Sokolov

Viewed from the top, it's a huge mottled, crunchy, oily crepe, but flip it over and you'll see that dumplings adhere. My guess is they fry up a starchy slurry along with the dumplings, creating an irresistible crunchy mass. I'm pretty sure this is the only place you can find it in NYC. Read more discussion (including, alas, much baseless conjecture further down) in this Chowhound thread. Nice review (with photos) of the venue here.

Note: I've been tracking Flushing shopping mall food court food for many years, and New World Mall is really the apotheosis of the genre. One of our group had recently been in China, and said this enormous, almost overwhelming basement felt more like China than many places she'd seen in China.

Henan Feng Wei (136-31 41st Ave, Flushing, Queens; 718-762-1818 )
Alas, we couldn't get here before closing. A shame, as these may the best B-flat boiled pork & chive dumplings in town. Interestingly, this place is from the same province as Li's Henan Food, but they don't make the weird crepey dumplings (I showed the staff a photo once, and they wagged their heads ruefully, clearly recognizing the dish).

Kung Fu Xiao Long Bao; 59-16 Main St, Flushing, Queens; 718-)
These are my current picks for XLB right now (conveniently right off the LIE exit for Main Street, perfect on the way to the airport). Nan Xiang Xiao Long Bao on Prince Street in Flushing is the more popular contender, but I tasted both back to back last week and there's no contest. As I reported on Chowhound:
"every time I go [to Nan Xiang Xiao Long Bao], I'm less and less happy and this was no exception. Service was horrendous (there's a very strong not-giving-a-crap vibe, though when they first opened - I was one of their first customers - these guys were fastidious). The crab/pork XLBs were extra crabby, but it was a trashy crabbiness, tasting as much like shell as crab meat. Whatever the opposite of "refined" is, that's what they were. Unfocused, with thick and extra sticky wrappers. Just not real good.

Immediately after, I hit Kung Fu Xiao Long Bao. Huge diff. Night and day. There was a cleanliness to the flavor utterly lacking at Nan Xiang. Really true crabmeat flavor, more generous broth, and better textured and flavored wrappers.
Alas, the XLB cook had left early, a mortal wound to the heart of the tour. We could have sampled some of the fine-looking Shanghai cold appetizers, but instead we moved on to....

Gangjong Kitchen, 72-24 Roosevelt Ave, Woodside, Queens; 347-848-0349)
I predicted over a decade ago that this micro-nabe would become Little Nepal (and that Elmhurst would be Little Banghkok), and I guess I was right. You could throw a tennis ball at three, maybe four Nepali or Tibetan eateries from here, and this tiny one's the least well-known and least presentational. But I love everything about it, especially their devastating red sauce. Tibetans feel unrestrained pride and affection for two things: their Dalai Lama and their red sauce....not necessarily in that order. There's no one recipe - each sauce is a snowflake - and the one here is great.

We got chicken momo because it was all they had left. Also, they steamed them, though I'd asked for fried. The chicken wasn't quite robust enough, and without the requisite pan frying, they reminded us of mini kinkhali. But damned good mini kinkhali! Their fried beef momo, though, are devastating.

Quick non-dumpling stop at my beloved Bangladeshi Bread Ladies (aka Tawa Food, aka Dhaulagiri Kitchen, 37-38 72nd St). Like the nabe itself, this storefront is Nepalicizing. Back in the day, it was a time machine portal where Bangladeshi women doggedly pounded out roti and paratha in the back and grilled them on an enormous, ancient grill (Tawa). Then a Nepali concession took a share of the already-tiny space, making a few things better than anyone else in the neighborhood (momo - not as good as the more recent Gangjong - and tsel roti, still the best anywhere and one of the most delicious things available in NYC). We arrived late, and Nepalis had completely taken over the joint. We did buy some bags of alu paratha and whole wheat roti left by the Ladies, but we got very lucky and tsel roti were just coming out of the oil. These are huge loops of crunchy fried rice flour, impossible to analyze or describe as the brain refuses to do anything but undulate during their ingestion. They rated a "10" on my surprisingly unditzy scale for rating foods (and other things) on a scale of 1-10.

We passed the new Arepa Lady restaurant (owned and operated by her kids, who are very nice but who disprove Lamarckism with every good-not-great corncake they churn out), and moved on to the real thing. The Arepa Lady, at her cart, was in fine form, though she's making her arepas de choclo (the sweetish crepes made from fresh corn) ahead and rewarming to order. The arepas were better than the tsel roti. Better, in other words, than a "10".

Philosophical question: is pie a dumpling?
We decided that an essential characteristic of dumplings is their compact portability. Which, of course, raises the question of mini-pies.

Forgot to hit: Cassinelli's (31-12 23 ave, Astoria; 718-274-4881) (or, at least, the deli next door, which sells lots of Cassinelli's products, frozen, 24 hrs/day)...for NYC's best ravioli (I like the spinach cheese) and tortellini.

Three great-looking new (or, at least, newly noticed by me) non-dumpling places spotted en route:
Moldova Restaurant (1827 Coney Island Ave, Brooklyn; 718-998-2827)
Rural Restaurant (42-85 Main St, Flushing; 718-353-0086), and...
Chicken on Fire (94-09 101st Ave at Woodhaven Blvd, Ozone Park, 718-845-6433)


Erika C said...
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Erika C said...

Love this blog and can't wait to try out some of these places. Just one little note. Khinkali is not a "soup dumpling". What you called the broth is actually the grease from the meat that comes out while it's cooking and the dill is most likely coriander (since they love to add it to all their dishes in excess). Also you can get it with lamb and if you are vegan there are three options...cheese, mushrooms, or potatoes (usually mashed).

I can't wait to try out the crepe-y one and the Nepali restaurant.

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