Meet He Nan Flavor's fab black bean sauce lo mein noodles. Photo: Flickr/Eating in Translation
"Hon, hon!" I called, summoning my fiancée to my desk. "Come quick!" She dropped her Us Weekly and sauntered over. "What's so important?" she wondered, miffed that I shattered her R&R. "Look!" I said, pointing to the news broadcast on my computer screen: Flushing restaurant Henan Feng Wei had opened an outpost in Manhattan's Chinatown. "Really? You called me over to tell me that?" "It's amazing," I said, smiling wide enough to worry the Joker. "It's… something," she said, returning to celebrity gossip. I know, I know. Most New Yorkers, even the ones who love me most, probably greeted this news—if it even rated on their radar—with the same shoulder-shrugging befuddlement I have when I hear of American Idol also-rans. Each person geeks out differently. And for this hard-core fan of Far East eats, the announcement was groundbreaking.
Over the last decade, New York's most exciting Chinese food has been found in Flushing. In lieu of the lo mein and roast meats that are commonplace in Manhattan's Chinatown, Flushing features fiery Sichuan, sour-spicy Hunan and even the seafaring eats of Qingdao. It's the finest time to dine in Flushing—if you have time to ride the 7 train to its terminus. Sadly, my best intentions of culinary adventuring are stonewalled by the time-crunched reality of Big Apple living. Brooklyn to Flushing is a three-hour round trip I rarely take.
But lately, several Flushing restaurants have undergone a reverse migration. Foremost, Xi'an Famous Foods has long treated diners' taste buds to cumin-flavored lamb sandwiches and cold and spicy liang pi noodles. In late 2009, Xi'an brought its bites to eateries beneath Manhattan Bridge, on St. Marks Place and, coming soon, to Chinatown's Baxter Street. If you stuck a GPS tracker in my knapsack, you'd notice that I now trundle to Chinatown twice a week to order liang pi noodles. It's vegetarian cuisine of the first order, and one of the few meals that brings both my fiancée and myself belly-rumbling delight. "You shouldn't have," she'll say sweetly when I bring her a box of noodles—my foodoriented version of flowers.
Now, joining Xi'an in Manhattan's Chinatown is He Nan Flavor (68B Forsyth St., betw. Grand & Hester Sts., 212-625-8299). Like its Flushing sibling Henan Feng Wei, the restaurant focuses on the regional cookery of China's Henan province, located northwest of Shanghai. The cuisine features plenty of noodles, dumplings and lamb soups, often slicked with Sichuan peppercorns and chili oil (though not as mouth-on-fire as Sichuan food). I first went to He Nan about six weeks ago, sliding into the narrow, bare-bones storefront decorated with Chinatown's trademark rickety tables and fluorescent lighting. The friendly, red-hatted counter lady gave me the once-over.
Perhaps sensing my dumpling lust, she pointed to the sour-vegetable dumpling soup pictured on the wall. I nodded. I gasped upon receiving a steaming tureen bobbing with 15 pork dumplings cocooned in a chewy skin. The tart broth was a pleasing counterpoint to the meaty dumplings, which were best dressed with chili oil. I slurped and chewed till the bowl was as dry as the Mojave Desert.
Then I returned the next night for round two. Accompanied by friends Will and Aaron, I was able to dive deep into the menu. I discovered that the "pancake with pork" was a crisp moon of wheat bread stuffed with cilantro and shredded pig. At $2, it's a lovely lunch for a carnivore. Even better were the hand-pulled noodles floating in a subtle, milky broth alongside tender chunks of brisket. Less successful were the wan, deflated soup dumplings, which lacked the crucial component: a soupy interior. Yet all trespasses were forgotten with the arrival of the "spicy big tray of chicken." It was a cauldron of blood-red chili oil crammed with caraway, anise, Sichuan peppercorns and plenty of potato cubes and bony nuggets of chicken wings and thighs. It was aromatic without being overly incendiary, finger-licking food finer than anything Colonel Sanders ever created. We ate until we were stuffed, then I unbuttoned my pants and ate a bit more. If not for my oily digits, I would've stuck my hand down my jeans and sighed with satisfaction.
Since then, I've kept He Nan in constant rotation, devouring the wide-ribbon noodles wearing a crumbly-pork wig almost weekly. But it's the pancake that fills my clogged heart with glee. "Do you live around here?" the counterwoman recently asked, filling a steaming pancake with soft, hoisin-laced shards of swine. It was my eighth or ninth visit, and I'd reached regular status. "No, I live in Brooklyn," I told her. Her eyes went saucer-wide. "That's a long way for food," she said. "I've traveled farther," I replied.