Wednesday, March 23, 2011

It's hard to say how long Chinatown's dumpling houses have been around, but as I remember they really started becoming well-known five to ten years ago. Of course, this coincided quite well with the time I spent mostly outside NYC (six years before this past August), so I never really had the chance to try any of them. Not that I didn't make an effort. Several of my holidays from school involved long meandering trips around Chinatown, in vain search of a dumpling. I'm sure I passed a few places, but for one thing I don't think I was in the right part of the neighborhood, and for another all the places I passed had Chinese-only signs. I wasn't quite ready for that (I'm still not really ready for that, actually - does anybody around here read/speak Chinese and want to go on a food adventure with me?).

Now I love Ann Arbor and its food scene, but one thing it does not have in abundance is good Chinese food. Korean, yes - there are several excellent Korean restaurants around the campus area. But most of the Chinese is the greasy American variety - good sometimes, and especially for college students, but not for dumplings. Kansas City is similar if you replace "Korean" with "Vietnamese". Certainly no great Chinese there that I ever located. And rural Maryland...not so hot in general on the ethnic food (except for one excellent and surprising Mexican restaurant).

But back in New York since late summer 2010, I had plenty of chances to do my research properly and go find some dumplings. The first thing I learned is that Eldridge Street seems to be the dumpling locus for Manhattan's Chinatown. You have Vanessa's Dumplings, which is a wee bit touristy but still cheap and good; Prosperity Dumpling, which is a tiny shack of a storefront and probably the cheapest of the lot; and Shu Jiao Fu Zhou Cuisine (or just Fu Zhou), which, per its name serves shuijiao (boiled dumplings) rather than guotie (potstickers). Sadly I have not had a chance to try Prosperity's dumplings yet, although I will probably be doing so this Friday evening. Their pork buns (seasoned differently and round instead elongated, and I think pork buns are from Beijing as opposed to other parts of northern China) are excellent, though: crisp, juicy, and 4 for a dollar.

Fu Zhou merits special mention because of their menu and mode of dumpling-making. For one thing, you have two choices as far the dumplings go: "small" (7 for $2) and "large" (11 fo $3). None of this weird filling or fried/boiled stuff. The filling is standard (pork and chives), and the the wrappers are much more delicate than most, almost translucent. I normally like thick-skinned heartier dumplings, but these were an excellent change of pace.

After my few weeks of adventures in Manhattan's Chinatown, I moved to Elmhurst, Queens, and promptly found myself smack in the middle of another Chinatown. This one is a little more varied - so far I've seen Chinese, Thai, Indonesian, Vietnamese, Japanese, and Malaysian. I'm not sure it's possible to get a bad meal here, actually (with the possible exception of the pizzeria, but I haven't tried it so I can't say for sure). My first night here I went to a Vietnamese place for pho with my roommate, and we took a walking tour of the neighborhood on the way back to the apartment. He pointed out a dumpling house down one of the streets (Whitney St., I now know) and I made a mental note to try it. A few days later I got off at Elmhurst Avenue and tried to find the shop. I succeeded and was rewarded with four large and well-fried dumplings, along with a fantastic house-made chili sauce. I think the sauce is a variant on la jiao - it seems to be roasted or slow-fried dried chili bits in oil along with sesame seeds. It gives this amazing smoky spicy flavor to whatever it touches. Naming this dumpling house is a little more complicated - I think it's an outpost of Lao Bei Fang, which is down the street and is the subject of my next paragraph. However, at my last visit they had taken down the Lao Bei Fang sign, so it's hard to say for sure.

Lao Bei Fang (this time on Broadway) seems to be where the locals go - they have dumplings, noodle soups, hot pot, and various prepared dishes that are definitely not on the menu. The dumplings are very good - typically fried to a crisp, very large, slightly greasy - although that same house chili sauce cuts through that quite well - and slightly more expensive at $1.50 for four, but that's still quite a good deal. But for me the star is the la mian (hand-pulled noodles typically served in soup, becoming well-known from Xi'an Famous Foods and its ilk), the presence of which is announced by the noodle maker thwack-ing his dough on the metal counter near the back of the restaurant. Watching him is a lot of fun - if you really enjoy watching noodle making then the place to go is the Whitney St. outpost, as the la mian chef there is right up front next to the ordering window. The noodles end up chewy, springy, very wheaty, and with that slight variation in thickness that lets you know that they're really handmade. And for the kicker, giant bowls of soup - deceptively large, as you don't realize when you get the bowl that it's 2/3 full of noodles - cost between $4.50 and $6.25. It's certainly worth a stop if you find yourself in Elmhurst.

Vanessa's Dumpling House
118 Eldridge St., Manhattan
Highlights: potstickers, 4 for $1.25

Fu Zhou Cuisine
118 Eldridge St., Manhattan (this doesn't make any sense, but it's one storefront north of Vanessa's)
Highlights: boiled dumplings, 7 for $2 or 11 for $3

Prosperity Dumpling
46 Eldridge St. #1, Manhattan
Highlights: potstickers, 5 for $1; fried pork buns, 4 for $1

Lao Bei Fang (Whitney outpost)
86-08(?) Whitney St., Elmhurst, Queens (address is not exact but should be close)
Lao Bei Fang (main restaurant)
83-05 Broadway, Elmhurst, Queens
Highlights: potstickers, 4 for $1.50; 8 dumplings in soup for $3.25; la mian soups starting at $4.50

Up next: eating my way through the neighborhood, and a possible som tam comparison if I can get myself to enough Thai and Malaysian restaurants.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Minar in NYC

Last week, I went to visit Noah in New York, and when I got off the bus I needed somewhere to eat. Simple, right? Well, not so much. See, the trouble is that it's Lent and so until Pesach (it was going to be "until Easter", but I'm visiting Noah for Pesach and plan to go back to eating meat then instead, plus it's the week before Easter anyway so really I'll just be celebrating religion in two different ways) I'm not eating any meat.

Okay, we're in New York, the center of food life, so this still wasn't really that hard. It's just a little trickier if you're not already aware of where the good vegetarian food is in the city. I don't think I've ever consciously eaten vegetarian in NYC, so I had no idea. So I called Noah at work when I got off the bus and asked him to suggest something. I believe I used the approximate words, "anything between Times Square and your work [on the Upper East Side] is fair game". Noah pointed me to a little Indian restaurant near Times Square called Minar, and I set off to find it.

First things first: this place is small. And unassuming. How do I know? I went to the street it was on, and walked right by it because I was on the wrong side of the street. So I crossed the street and accidentally walked right by it again. Then I almost walked by it a third time before catching myself and going in. It's a small storefront on a street packed with small storefronts. The inside is pretty small, too--a couple rows of little tables, the front counter, a fridge with drinks (and pitchers inside; if you order water to drink you go and get it from the pitcher chilling in the fridge).

I ordered the saag paneer, because it's something I've gotten before at my favorite Indian place (Bollywood Masala in St. Mary's City, MD; I have eaten a ton of Indian food in my time and never will there be a better Indian restaurant) and I wanted to compare, and also because I believe that, unless you're someplace that has a very specific specialty that is highly publicized as The Thing To Get, you should start with something basic when you're trying a new place. If they care enough to do that well, they care enough to do everything well. It's why I always order fries with my meal when I go to a new BBQ place--if they put in the effort to do good fries as well as good meat, I respect them just a little more. The saag paneer was great, and fascinating because it was so different from the saag paneer at Bollywood. They're both spicy, but Minar's is differently so--a little smokier, deeper in different places. Very very interesting. I also had a samosa, which was good too. It had a nice dipping sauce, though at the moment I don't really remember anything about it except that it was delicious. The samosa was a little spicy as well, which was nice because some restaurants can make samosas kind of bland (it's the same "do the small things well and you can do the big things well" principle).

I would definitely recommend Minar to anyone in the city for a meal. I will, in fact, probably go there again if I'm back visiting Noah in the city and need lunch. The food is great, prices are good, atmosphere is good, people at the counter are friendly (I think it helped that I apologized profusely when I had to take a very important call while I was paying at the register).

138 West 46th Street
New York, NY 10036-8506

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Back in the saddle in Elmhurst

Well, I am sure glad that Florence has been posting to this blog for the past year, because obviously I haven't been doing anything with it. I could use as an excuse the fact that I've moved three times since May, but I actually just got really lazy and also stopped taking pictures. For some reason I don't enjoy taking pictures of my food - when I get something that looks amazing and delicious (either in a restaurant or at home) I just want to dive in with nothing in-between me and the food. Not even a camera for posterity's sake. Florence suggested that I do my posts more restaurant-review style, which I think is a great idea - reviews are typically light on the pictures and heavy on the content. I will endeavor to do the same.

My half of the blog is now being brought to you from Elmhurst, Queens, New York City. How did I end up here, you ask? It's...sort of a long story. I left Kansas City with Florence last May after completing graduate school there, and we moved into an adorable house in rural Maryland of which there are pictures several posts below. Unfortunately rural Maryland is not exactly brimming with jobs. We lived in a farm county, and retail was really the only option. Retail was barely paying my bills as was, and I knew that I had student loans coming up in a few months - I had to get a better job, and the only way to do that was to move home. So back to the NY suburbs for several months, and then a few weeks ago I decided it was time to move to the city. Not Manhattan - I think I would go crazy if I lived in Manhattan (not to mention the rent). But Queens - Queens is quiet enough and cheaper, and I unwittingly moved to an apartment about a ten-minute walk from Elmhurst's Chinatown. (Let me note that good Chinese is one of my favorites of all types of food.) From KC to a no-stoplight town to Westchester to Queens in under a year - it's been a little hairy at times, but I am more than ready to start writing about the foodways and delicious delicacies of this part of Queens.

Up next: dumpling houses, and an exemplary one just down the street.