I suppose my use of profan*ty in the title makes me a real New Yorker. And in a way that sort of bothers me, so every now and then I need a break. Sure, it’s great to schlep out to the Hamptons or fly down to Florida for the weekend, but there is no better trip you can take on a whim than up to Flushing. Obviously, this is going to be a food-centric trip, but don’t get me wrong, you will most certainly feel transported nonetheless. When you get off the 7 at the end of the line on Main St., it looks like China; it smells like China. And if you are rolling your eyes at this point admiring the rhetoric but doubting the advice because you’ve been to Manhattan Chinatown (around Canal street) or (just because there was nothing else to eat on Xmas eve), thinking it’s a waste of time, I completely agree. Manhattan Chinatown sucks. But Flushing is different, so read on…
Once you’ve taken it all in and resisted the urge to run over to the first (of many) bubble tea joints that catches your eye, you’ll want to punch the directions to Hunan House into your mental GPS. North from the 7 stop to Northern Boulevard a few blocks, East a couple more. The Michelin guys have already figured this one out, having awarded Hunan House the Bib Gourmand award (interpret as: “fit for foodie” vs. a 1-3 star designation which instead generally translates to “fit for Frenchie,” and usually complete with a commensurate attitude and requirement for a fully-feathered wallet, unlike the true gourmet value finds signalled by the Bib designation), which may catch your eye on the long window out front…that is, of course, because it won’t be the throngs of people inside which catch your attention. Because there usually aren’t too many. Admittedly, the lack of a crowd at Hunan House remains incredibly curious to me as New Yorkers seem to have this knack of figuring out all the great haunts which offer some semblance of “value” at a reasonable price point – think Ippudo, Shake Shack, Ramen Totto, Artichoke, Momofuku Noodle Bar, among many others. I don’t even think the lack of popularity can be justified with the “middle of nowhere” argument either, because SriPraPhai is in bumble * too (not my term – just the Manhattanite reference for “not in Manhattan”), two thirds of the way to Flushing, and there is an obnoxiously long wait for a table there as well. At SriPraPhai the food isn’t half as good and the neighborhood isn’t a quarter as cool. So, I continue to struggle with my recommendation of Hunan House. Not because I doubt that it’s good and not because we need the validation of a crowd, but rather because I dread the inevitable day that I’ll be waiting around the block for my favorite Chinese food the same way that you do for your Shack burger in Madison Square Park. It’s ok though, because these guys deserve it, and here’s why.
I guess I should warn you before we pick up our chopsticks and dig in (don’t even think of asking for a fork – you’ll feel like enough of an outsider just being the only non-Chinese person in the place) that the food is spicy. Like serious spicy. Like not-for-beginners spicy. Not like “someone put a dash too much Tabasco or horseradish in your Bloody Mary at brunch” or “mistakenly ate a whole slice of Jalapeno” spicy. If you’ve never had the pleasure of coming into contact with Sichuan flower peppers, it sort of feels like your whole mouth went numb. Like at the dentist’s office. Actually, scratch that, comparing anything to the dentist’s office is not going to help my case here – but you get the point that this is interesting food, in a pain equals pleasure kind of way. Knowing this, you can still navigate the menu and still have a good time if you’re not into spicy food, but just make it clear to the friendly wait staff when ordering. They will be more than happy to adjust accordingly. (David Chang, that comment was for you: they are accommodating to their customers…imagine that, they actually like their customers, so NOT New York) I told you it was going to be like a little trip…
Ok, so you’re pretty hungry now after that subway ride to the edge of the earth. And then the behemoth arrives at the table. The Menu. Where to begin? With some critical advice: and don’t screw this one up…Don’t forget the foreplay. Most people when they go for Chinese food can’t wait to dive into the searing just-left-the-wok [insert American Chinese food dish name here], though maybe a little hot and sour or won-ton soup to start. If you did that at a proper Chinese restaurant though, you’d be missing out big-time. Oftentimes, one of the most interesting parts of the menu is the section with the cold dishes, which customarily are served at the beginning of a Chinese banquet. They are quick to come out of the kitchen, helping to take the edge off, as well as a great way to start the meal and warm up your taste buds (quite literally, “amuse bouche”). You really can’t go wrong by making a few choices to share from the cold dishes at Hunan House, but some favorites from recent visits have been Cold Tofu Hunan Style, Spicy Pickled Cucumbers, Cold Ginger Leeks and Spicy Husband-Wife Special ($4-7 each); the brilliance here being the interplay of simple but unique flavors as you alternate between bites of each.
“The Menu. Where to begin? With some critical advice: and don’t screw this one up…Don’t forget the foreplay.”
Start with the knock-out punch delivered by Husband-Wife Special, strips of ox tongue and tripe (if you don’t know what it is then don’t Google it until after you’ve tasted it) tossed in a spicy oil laced with Sichuan flower peppers. The addictively searing sensation will begin to numb your lips and tongue after a couple of bites, at which point you will begin to relish the slightly chewy texture which is usually quite foreign to the Western palate. When you can’t take any more heat or need to change it up to avoid biting your tongue (magic trick: where did it disappear? Bet you can’t feel it anymore!), reach in for a sliver of cold tofu in a sweet ginger-garlic vinegar sauce to cool you down. Ready for more heat? Persian-style cucumbers marinated in a spicy sesame sauce will do the trick, introducing you to a very different spice profile, featuring a more piquant sensation vs. the characteristic numbing sensation from flower peppers. The leeks would round out the first course well with a light and fresh bite. I know that you’ll still be eyeing the Husband-Wife though, as there’s no going back from the first time you taste those flower peppers, but before you can reach into the dish for thirds, you are barraged by the arrival of the main courses…Here are some notable examples:
Steamed Whole Fish with Ginger and Scallions (MP, between $16-20). If you’ve ever been to Hong Kong, you’ll really appreciate this one. It’s a perfect example of why great Chinese food needs not be heavy or sticky – you can’t eat much more healthily, or deliciously than this: I’d call it Mediterranean – Chinese fusion, except that it’s characteristically and quite authentically Chinese. The description is pretty simple: start with a very fresh whole fish (usually sea bass or snapper), steam until perfectly cooked and sear skin with a few table spoons of blazing hot sesame oil before garnishing with light soy, ginger and scallions. The result is wonderfully complex: light and moist flesh heightened by the smoky aroma of the sesame oil, enlivened by the freshness of ginger and scallion. It’s worth the trip for this alone. (Folks, this one is G-rated on the spice meter, no peppers at all – if you’re still craving heat, though there are also delicious options for whole fish cooked in different styles with a variety of peppers).
Then there’s the pork belly, a signature dish. Oh, the pork belly. After my tirade on pork fat in my discussion with Used York City last week, it would be nothing less than hypocritical to order the Steamed Pork in Rice Powder ($15). So to preserve my integrity with you, the reader, I promise that I did not order it. And I did not taste it. But my dining buddy, Ray the Man (whom he shall be dubbed for evermore in Treasured Tables – how apt, as it is short for Ray Deng Man which was his Chinese name adopted in the first year Chinese class we took together) swears by it. He says the pork is soft and succulent as presented in the ideal vehicle of rice powder, which perfectly captures the richness of the pork and essence of the lotus leaf. Pickled peppers add a briny and welcome kick. Naturally, I’m still lifting an eyebrow. Skip the pork fat – anything properly steamed and wrapped in a lotus leaf at a good Chinese restaurant is going to be delicious. Trust me on this one.
Other notable dishes are Chicken with Hot Red Pepper, Beef with Cumin Flavor, Sauteed Water Spinach and Spicy Blue Crab ($6-18). Almost everything is truly delicious, but the strengths generally lie in the vegetable and fish preparations, while the weakest links are likely the lamb and noodle dishes. As in the vast majority of Chinese restaurants, though, dessert is let down. Plain and simple, quite literally. Except for the fried buns with milk custard – a favorite of UYC Editor Jessica Tiare, and also excellent for a mid-meal cooldown. Skip dessert though, and go wandering in Flushing instead. If you have a sweet tooth, stop in at Tai Pan for the light-as-air Hong Kong Style pancake which looks like a round disc of bubble wrap and tears apart into little puffs of goodness; or Macanese egg custard tarts (Ray likes to buy a dozen to last him a couple of weeks but inevitably finishes the lot on the train ride back). The last stop you need to make before heading to the city though, is JMart. If I could open up a franchise, I would – it’s the Chinese version of Fairway, and it’s pretty awesome. Mr. Fish head sends his regards…
WHERE: Hunan House Flushing: 137-40 Northern Blvd, between Flushing Main St. and Union St. $20-35 per person Rating: Just shy of food porn.
Honorable mentions on the authentic Chinese food theme:Cafe China Midtown East: 13 East 37th Street, between 5th and Madison Same price, almost as good as Hunan House, plus 50% for the pleasure of being in Manhattan Rating: Add to the once-a-month rotation. Hakkasan Times Square: 311 West 43rd, between 8th and 9th $ Nosebleed expensive.00 …plus tax and tip Rating: All-out X-Rated: It doesn’t quite hit the mark of the original in London which is one of my favorite restaurants in the world, but it’s pretty close and absolutely awesome nonetheless; inevitably it will be the subject of a future entry.
By: Adam Gross