My first dinner with the Insatiable Critic took place at Legend, a few blocks away from the bustling Chelsea Market. Although I’ve frequented many Chinese restaurants, I was no way whatsoever a pro at identifying any typical dishes. That was until I’ve befriended EthnoJunkie and Ling Tan.
Ling has taken me to a handful of dim sum and Malaysian restaurants in Chinatown. I owe my minute knowledge of dim sum to Ling, Szechuan to Gael Greene and Rich Sanders.
Since last year, I’ve gone to not one, or two, or three- but at least a dozen places with Gael. We were joined by TV/Film critics, book authors, and Citymeals patrons (you know- the ones with lots of mullah). I’ve played my part in the restaurant hopping adventures- taking everyone to my favorite Korean places scattered throughout NY (but that’s another story- I’ll write about the Korean stuff later on).
Our first Flushing adventure took place last year and we were led by none other than Rich Sanders who goes by the name: EthnoJunkie. He’s a fellow multi-tasker who’s a former music critic, a composer, holds a degree from Yale, and speaks about a dozen ethnic food languages. In other words- he may not be fluent in the language- but when it comes to food, he can get away with ordering what he wants, finding obscure ingredients in ethnic hoods, and can probably read the recipes in those foreign languages.
We visited the strip mall that used to be called Busy Bee’s back in the old days in Flushing and tasted what resembled large hand cut noodles immersed in cumin and lamb. Rich raved about this dish so much so- that I could’ve tasted the cumin all the way from New Jersey. I was underwhelmed (sorry Rich). The cumin got stuck somewhere in the back of my throat and I remember coughing some pepper and a noodle. I couldn’t stop overlooking to my right- where the Chinese vendors were hand -pulling noodles. I wanted to taste some of that- but we left all too soon- all underwhelmed.
We discussed returning to Flushing many times after that first visit and alas the date finally arrived. I wished I drove a black SUV with tinted black windows (the ones where celebrities and politicians ride)- it would be so much cooler than the silver crossover Chrysler (a nice ride nonetheless). I didn’t expect what we were about to encounter, having been underwhelmed the week before at the China Café, MSG with sticky tables and all. How good can Flushing be? Is this worth the trip? I was skeptical too.
I do have a bit of a soft spot for Kissena Blvd. That’s the old route I used to take when I walked home from my elementary school down the block. As we pulled up to the locale- I scanned the area and got a severe case of flashback memories. It’s amazing how much one can remember from their childhood. Kissena Blvd means a lot more to me than a good meal (one that concludes what Szechuan food should really taste like no less).
Dear Kissena Blvd:
I love you and I hate you.
You helped me discover endless amounts of 25 cent wise potato chips, the deli ham and cheese on a roll with mayo, and dollar pizza when Italians were still rolling the dough. With five years of fifty cent Italian ices and juju candy from Walgreens I consumed instead of real food, not once- not until now did I discover what you truly have to offer.
I love you because you helped me discover American food, that includes everything that’s good and equally as bad. I hate you because I gained some massive weight (fifteen pounds = death to a teenage girl) as a result of eating those processed foods. I was naïve, I was young, and I trusted those packaged foods not only tasted great- but that they were actually good for you. Because of you Kissena Blvd., I spent an entire decade trying to undue what was done in just five short years living near you. I gave up meat during this time not knowing there are consequenses for doing that if you don’t know your body’s missing proteins. I hate you because I loved those processed foods so much that I couldn’t resist the urge to binge every weekend in my room full of junk food. I called myself a vegetarian without really eating any vegetables because they were simply too heavy and made me feel bloated. I was again naïve and none of it made any sense except that the forbidden foods made me feel weird. So Kissena Blvd., thank you for just being you. You didn’t know any better and neither did I. If it weren’t for you- I would’ve never discovered vegetables later on (with the help of the vegetarian haters I met at culinary school and the irony of becoming a vegetarian blogger for a year helped me with this process). I now love vegetables, so much so that I’m growing a garden full of my favorite ones.
It actually took about twenty years to undue (ten to undue/ ten to re-learn) what I discovered in flushing, on Kissena Blvd.
I recollect all the months I spent in our tiny Colden Street apartment where I cautiously experimented with ramen. Deconstructing the thing, crumbling its dry mixture, then mixing scrambled eggs, adding dried vegetables, sometimes cooking it once and often times twice to blanche out the oil. I eventually graduated by making ramen and rice balls finished off in the oven. Ramen was the first thing I ever cooked. That’s how I spent my days after school. An immigrant with working parents, alone in the kitchen, experimenting with what we had (not much of anything). I was eight years old and learned how to cook by experimenting.
A lifetime later- I can say my diet has come to a full circle. No more wise potato chips, occasional pizza and lots and lots of good ethnic food.
My parents eventually gave me twenty dollars to buy a cookbook. I didn’t know any good bookstores at that time so I got mine from Walgreens. By then I was 13, an eighth grader with a copy of Betty Crocker’s cookbook making my first Thanksgiving meal for our extended family.
We left Flushing shortly after that and I haven’t visited Kissena Blvd since. It’s amazing how fast 20 years can go by.
While I was slurping through the Green Bean Jelly Noodles with Cucumbers and Bean Sprouts, I couldn’t help dissect the ingredients for a recipe. Luckily for me, our companion Ling served as the perfect translator and got Chef Li to spill out the recipe (at least most of it). Chef Li is an amazing man. He barely spoke any English- but his food spoke to us in our universal tongues: our stomachs. Our stomachs welcomed Chef Li. For me, this dish encompasses everything a noodle dish could be. It’s delicious, it’s refreshing, it’s not that heavy, and it’s very good for you except for the MSG that they put in there. In my perfect world, this green bean starch jelly noodle dish is my ramen reincarnated from a distant childhood. The chef and his wife duo are angels from my diet heaven who are now giving me answers to the ramen mysteries.
They’ve also concluded that Flushing should not be a place where one discovers processed foods, but on the contrary- it’s rich diverse immigrant community has jewels to offer if you know where to look. The Szechuan food we had not only tasted great- but it was probably somewhat good for us too. If I could go back in time, I’ld explore Flushing’s immigrant establishments instead of the corner deli. I’ld trade in my juju candy for the lamb cumin that was cooked perfectly, as cumin on lamb should never be delivered in it’s fine ground form. It (seeds) should be perfectly toasted in a pan, married with black mustard seeds for a perfectly balanced bite. At least that’s the advise I got from Chef Barry Wine when I told him about our Flushing adventure.
I’ve got the recipe ingredient list for that noodle dish. I’ll be spending the next couple of weeks testing it in my home kitchen. And before you know it, EthnoJunkie and I will be making it for our friends at an upcoming dinner party and guess who we’ll be making it for? Here’s a hint: some critical folks. So stay tuned….this adventure is not over yet.
If you’ld like to read Gael Greene’s review of Lao Dong Bei click here for the full monty.
Lao Dong Bei
44-09 Kissena Boulevard (Cherry Avenue)