In my previous series on finding Chinese food, I named Flushing as one of several sources of Chinese food in New York City. However, Flushing deserves a separate write-up of its own, as it may well be the most vibrant urban Chinatown in North America today. Yes, the Stockton Avenue shopping district in San Francisco is almost impassable during the day, but the sidewalks roll up around 6 or 7 pm. And East Broadway in Manhattan Chinatown is a madhouse on Fujianese Mondays when restaurant workers from all over the country arrive to spend their Mondays off. But for sheer continuous activity, Flushing has them both beat. Even as the 10 P.M. closing time approaches, the New World Mall Food Court on Main Street and Roosevelt Avenue in Flushing is as packed as at lunch time. And even as midnight approaches, there is still a lot of activity on the streets of Flushing’s Chinatown.
But it wasn’t always this way. When I first visited Flushing almost 20 years ago, I only received a handful of Chinese restaurant leads, mostly pointing to a place called Golden River Seafood. Arriving in Flushing “Chinatown,” I found myself a little disappointed. There were Chinese restaurants and stores, but there were just as many non-Chinese pedestrians and non-Chinese stores, as there were Chinese. Making my way to Golden River on 39th Avenue, my disappointment grew. The restaurant was a solitary structure at the back of a partly improved parking lot in an industrial area, with a view of Shea Stadium in the distance. For my safety, I parked as close as I could to the restaurant entrance. Inside, I did find a magnificent seafood palace belying the surroundings and enjoyed a wonderful meal. But I couldn’t get over the surroundings, and after dinner I headed another block west to College Point Boulevard, which was appeared more industrial and even sketchier.
But all that has changed. Flushing Chinatown is booming, with the Golden River (now Asian Jewels) parking lot now a high rise construction site for a Hyatt hotel and condominiums. College Point Boulevard still houses building supply businesses, but also has a new shopping mall with Target, Best Buy, and Old Navy. And the selection of Chinese restaurants in Flushing Chinatown has grown such that now there are more Chinese restaurants here than can be found in San Francisco’s Chinatown.
Several factors make dining in Flushing Chinatown unique among American urban Chinatowns. Possibly the most notable is the number of Chinese food courts, which are nearly unheard of in other American cities. There are literally dozens of Chinese eating establishments housed in Flushing’s food courts, serving really good and cutting edge Chinese food. My first food court experience was at the Flushing Mall, opened in 2000, with about a dozen stalls and little English language signage. Indeed, as I sat in the middle of the food court, it was the first time I ever had the feeling of being magically transported to somewhere in Asia and not being in the US. Two top spots in that mall (that now have English signage) include Diverse Dim Sum, which curiously opened after plans to demolish the mall were announced, and Hand Drawn Noodle.
It took an external event to really trigger the popularity of Flushing food courts. In the basement at 41-28 Main Street, the Golden Mall food court with another dozen eating spots sprang up. While the Flushing Mall food court was hardly upscale, the Golden Mall food court was downright working class, with few amenities, and no English language signs or menus. Then fate intervened. Celebrity food personality Anthony Bourdain showed up in the Golden Mall and profiled it on his Travel Channel show No Reservations. Golden Mall, and one tenant in particular, Xi’an Famous Foods, had been discovered. Suddenly the Golden Mall eateries had to erect English signs and provide English language menus for the hipsters and tourists now descending into the basement. The secret about Flushing food courts was out.
The crown jewel of Flushing Chinese food courts is the incredible New World Mall food court. Over 30 restaurants fill its basement food court, which would put the food court in any regional shopping mall in the country to shame. While there has been fair turnover among the tenants, all of the eateries appear to be doing a booming business. Some of the mainstays since the mall’s opening two years ago include Laoma Ma La Tang, Live Seafood, and Lan Zhou Hand Made Noodle.
If there is one thing almost missing from the New World Mall, it’s Cantonese-style food, represented only by Noodle Village. This is an indication that Flushing Chinatown is a different Chinatown because of a limited presence of Cantonese residents and Hong Kong/Cantonese-style food. This is not to say you can’t find Cantonese food in Flushing. Like any Chinese American community, even if there are few Cantonese residents, the biggest and busiest Chinese restaurants in Flushing are Hong Kong/Cantonese-style. That’s because all Chinese want to be able to go to dim sum at lunch time and hold their banquets at a Cantonese restaurant. Consequently, good dim sum and Hong Kong-style food may be found at large venues like Asian Jewels, Jade Asian, Lake Pavilion, Oceanica Seafood, Good Kitchen, and Grand Restaurant. The smaller Cantonese restaurants are much less common, though New Imperial Seafood Palace and Canton Gourmet are noteworthy exceptions.
With few small Cantonese restaurants in Flushing Chinatown, the attention shifts to other regional cuisines. Flushing has the country’s best concentration of Dongbei-style (formally known as Manchurian) food, at restaurants such as Fu Run, Lao Dong Bei, and Golden Palace. There is an amazing amount of Sichuan-style food to be found, including several stalls in the New World Mall food court alone. But the really outstanding Sichuan-style food is outside of the mall, such as at Spicy & Tasty, Little Pepper Hot Pot, and the dual purpose Hunan Kitchen of Grand Sichuan. And Flushing has the only Wenzhou-style food in the United States, Lucky Wenzhou Snacks in the Golden Mall.
Last but not least is the presence of Taiwanese food in Flushing. The Flushing Chinese community was originally founded decades ago by the Taiwanese, but until recently Taiwanese food in Flushing was seemingly becoming an endangered species. In the last couple years there has been a renaissance of Taiwanese food in Flushing with the opening of a number of new restaurants, including the new branches of two Los Angeles restaurants OK Ryan on College Point Boulevard (known as Canaan in Los Angeles) and Liang’s Kitchen on 39th Ave., as well as Homers Taste, also on College Point. These and other new restaurants add to existing stalwarts Main Street Imperial Taiwanese and Gu Shine to give Flushing an impressive array of choices in this category.
David R. Chan is a third-generation American who has eaten at 7,000 Chinese restaurants and counting. He maintains a spreadsheet of each of his culinary conquests — a document he began in the early 90s, when he bought his first home computer. “When I entered the workforce in the 1970s, that coincided with the rise of what we think of as authentic Chinese food in North America,” Chan told the LA Weekly Squid Ink blog. “As such, my goal was to try every authentic Chinese restaurant in the Los Angeles area at least once.” He has extended his list to New York, San Francisco, and thousands of restaurants beyond. Still, Chan admits, he can’t use chopsticks.