Meet China's Muslim Lamb Chop

Not too long ago in Morocco, I had the extreme displeasure of devouring a sheep’s rich, flan-like breast. It’s a memory seared into my synapses like grill marks on a burger. So imagine my fear when my friends suggested we travel to Flushing, Queens (home to New York City’s largest Chinatown), to feast on a breast of lamb.

“It’s not the same thing; it’ll change your life — in a good way,” my intrepid friend assured me as we drove to Fu Run. The lively, frill-free restaurant focuses on the cookery of northeastern China’s Dongbei region, which extends from Siberia to Beijing and abuts Mongolia and the Korean peninsula. With Dongbei food, expect plenty of pickled veggies, lamb dumplings dunked in black vinegar, chunks of taro, or sweet potatoes encased in caramelized sugar, hearty meaty soups and crispy, cumin-covered lamb.

My crew of diners took a seat at a table topped by a lazy Susan and ordered a plate of tiger vegetables, country-style cucumbers and what the menu described as a “Muslim lamb chop.” “That’s the breast of lamb,” my friend told me. I shuddered, reliving memories of that spongy mammary from northern Africa. The veggies came first. Rough-cut cuke cubes were coated in enough garlic to stop the True Blood cast at 50 paces. The tiger vegetables were a tangle of sesame oil–slicked cilantro and scallions. These dishes were a summery pleasure, worthy of any picnic. Once I’d chopsticked up the last green sliver, the waitress slid the monstrous lamb platter on our table.

“Holy sweet heavens,” I muttered, gazing upon the glistening flesh encrusted with cumin seeds, crushed chilies, and black and white sesame seeds. This was unlike any mint jelly–topped lamb chop or breast I’d ingested. It was actually a slab of ribs, akin to beef short ribs. Marinated, slowly braised, and fried crisp, Fu Run’s breast of lamb was transcendent enough to turn a vegetarian into a carnivore. Speckled with luscious fat, the lamb slid from the bone like the finest Memphis ’cue. The crunchy, aromatic cumin balanced the gently gamey, red-hued meat, creating a combination as addictive as any street drug.

One bite, and you’ll be a lamb-breast man too.

Gut Instinct: Flavor of the Month

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.

Read—and vote for—the original article at the New York Press website.

Sichuan Food: The Spice Is Right!

Makes your sinuses spontaneously leak, eh?

Heavens, I'll take second helpings of any spicy Sichuan food. It's my favorite cuisine, one that simultaneously numbs my tongue and sets my lips aflame. "Well, if you love it so much, why not write a story about it?" you ask. I did. Today's tale, the Bob Barker–referencing "Spice Is Right," is my survey of the Sichuan spots dotting our fair burg. Curious? Eat it up!

Gut Instinct: Carnal Pleasures

“Will you be good?” my girlfriend wondered, filling her luggage with frilly garments and bulky cameras. She was departing to a Delaware wedding; I wasn’t invited. No skin off my braces-straightened teeth—since committing to monogamy, nuptials have lost their luster. Wedding booziness is wasted if you’re barred from bridesmaid flirtations.

“Remember: inside voices,” she said.

“Just wait until you’re a bridesmaid.”

“You are such the romantic.”

“I try.”

“Not quite,” she said, smooching me good-bye. “Don’t do anything I wouldn’t do this weekend.”

Readers, that was a challenge. Removing the girlfriend shackles means rebellion. But a revolt requires repression. What’s my constraint complaint? I frequent bikini bars and often crawl home like—and possessing the verbal prowess of—a toothless toddler.

“Itsh fer work,” I’ll mumble, before crumpling to the floor like a dirty tissue.

My pie-eyed antics are permitted. Instead, she’s bothered by my love of flesh. She’s a staunch vegetarian. Despite my carnivorous leanings, I’ve long loved the meat-averse ladies. My first was an ecstasy-popping raver. We’d spend evenings munching Tofutti Cuties—dairy-free “ice cream” sandwiches—and discussing factory-slaughtered cows.

“Meat is murder,” she’d coo, seemingly auditioning for a Smiths cover band. “Killing creatures for food is wrong.”

I’d nod, pretending to agree with beliefs as phony as the ice cream.

“Read these,” she’d say earnestly, passing me PETA literature. “They’ll open your eyes.” Translation: To get in my pants, you won’t eat cheeseburgers or wear leather shoes.

Thankfully, my current girlfriend prefers a more laissez-faire meat stance. “It’s your heart attack,” she’s fond of saying, as I stuff down another avocado-crowned pork torta at Rico’s Tacos.

“At least I’ll die having known true bliss,” I reply, pointing at her wan vegetable tacos, loaded with limp lettuce and tomatoes the color of chewed gum.

Meat. No meat. It’s our culinary Mason-Dixon Line. But boundaries were busted last weekend, as I adventured deep into Caribbean Flatbush. At just-opened Jamaican bakery Tastee Pattee (3122 Church Ave. betw. Fairview & Raleigh Pls., B’klyn; 718-342-7670), I discovered flaky patties stuffed with chubby chunks of savory Angus beef and wild salmon, a welcome departure from the typical baby-food filling.

“Hungry, huh?” questioned a hair-netted counterwoman, smiling with new-parent pride.

“Hmmph,” I grunt-agreed, brushing yellow crumbs off my grease-stained tee.

Continuing my dietary disobedience, I climbed aboard my bike and pedaled past Utica Avenue’s auto-body shops to Boston Jerk City (1344 Utica Ave. at Foster Ave., B’klyn; 718-629-3002). Outside the corner spot, oil-drum grills spew plumes of fragrant smoke arising from flaming, fall-apart jerk chicken and a rarity: spicy and juicy jerk pork.

“Why eat junk food and feel guilty?” the menu questioned. “Eat right and feel healthy.”

To feel healthy, I ordered a half-pound of pork served in Styrofoam alongside foil-wrapped bread. The fatty-chewy pork is polished brown with racy seasonings, which I licked off my fingers like an enthusiastic puppy.

“No wasting that tasty sauce,” said a fellow diner, likewise engaged in porcine rapture.

“No sir,” I reply, burping for manly measure. He responded in kind. Who needed women? This was living.

The next day, I bid adieu to the Caribbean and traveled to China via Queens. My destination, Flushing Mall (133-31 39th Ave. betw. 138th St. & Main St., Flushing), is a rabbit’s warren of low-rent shops selling $10 tight jeans, Hello Kitty tchotchkes and dubiously legal DVDs. Such down-market merchandise is matched by a superb food court, which slings delicacies ranging from hand-pulled noodle soups to incendiary Sichuan cow tongue.

Not feeling offal, I headed to the sister-run Chinese Korean Noodle and Dumpling stand outfitted with pot-topped stoves, a minced-pork mound and a teensy-weensy counter. CK’s specialty is boiled pork-and-chive dumplings served with crisp kim chi—a mish-mash owing to the ladies’ Korea-bordering Jilin hometown.

“Two,” I said, extending an index finger toward dumplings.

“Two,” a cherubic woman echoed, tacking on a flood of words. I nodded enthusiastically, my catch-all method for dealing with language I’m too lazy to comprehend.

Normally, one indicates an order of four or five dumplings. But at Chinese Korean Noodle, one equaled 18 albino beauties. Steaming before me, plump and oozing greasy glory, sat 36 porky treasures. I’ve oft-boasted of devouring my age in dumplings, but the logistics grow more daunting with each passing year. Concerning dumpling consumption, pleasure becomes pain much easier at 30 than at 18—a lesson that extends to whiskey shots as well.

Instead of crying uncle, I summoned forth my girlfriend’s parting warning: Don’t do anything I wouldn’t do. Employing my newfound mantra, I separated wooden chopsticks and, one by one, belly distending with each succulent chomp, deliciously disobeyed orders.

Dollar Grub: Flushing

I slurp and burp my way through cheapskate heaven, high on buns and dumpling

Forget Manhattan’s Chinatown: Its Flushing counterpart is cheapskate-grub paradise, packed with pork-and-chive dumplings, ma po tofu, hand-pulled noodle soups—and nary a tourist searching for knockoff Louis Vuitton.

Armed with $10 on a balmy afternoon, I bike to Flushing’s bustling thoroughfare, Main Street, and park beside Corner 28 (40-28 Main St. at 40th Road, 718-886-6628). It’s a tiny takeout counter where a gloved woman gleefully rips flesh from a Peking-duck carcass.

She chucks duck chards into a rice wrapper, then adds garlic chives and hoisin sauce. The ersatz duck taco is moist and crisp, sweetened by the hoisin and the 75-cent price tag.

Emboldened, I shuffle past tchotchke vendors and, beneath an LIRR station, discover AA Plaza (40-40 Main St. at 40th Road). Behind a row of smudged windows, a man griddle-cooks $1 scallion pancakes as seriously as a scientist. I order a hot beaut: It’s vellum-thin, the onion’s crunch contrasting the warm dough.

My belly anchored by carbohydrates and grease, I enter multifloor Sunflower Delight (40-46 Main St. at 40th Road, 718-359-6655), which offers 10 percent off roasted meats, tureens of congee and 99-cent “sticky rice chicken.”

“Sticky,” I tell a waif-like woman, who passes me a leaf-wrapped square of rice that’s like sweetened Elmer’s Glue. But like buried treasure, its center contains soft chicken—veiny meat, rubbery skin and inedible cartilage included.

“Chewy,” I say, as my nose leads me around the corner to a cacophonous dumpling stall (41st Ave. between Main St. and College Pt. Blvd.) located across from Starbucks. There’s no English name for the red-awning shack, but a sorta translated menu lists vegetable-pork buns for a paltry 60 cents. The bun’s as big as my fist, and jammed with pink pork, green onion and zingy greens: a trio as addictive as cigarettes.

Know what I’ll never be addicted to? The 99-cent Prunella tea I discover inside Hing Long Supermarket (41-22 Main St. at 41st Road, 718-961-6128), a grocery selling live bullfrogs and mushrooms alike. The herb Prunella treats bleeding ulcers and excessive menstruation. It also tastes like Band-Aids mixed with dirt.

I ditch it and descend to Golden Shopping Mall’s underground food court. I snake past gurgling pots and soup-slurpers and find Dumpling and Noodle House (41-28 Main St. at 41st Road, downstairs, 718-930-6000).

“Hellloooooooo,” says a diminutive lady, resting her arms on a flour-smudged counter.

“Hellloooooooo,” I respond. “Big buns.”

“No big buns,” she says. “Small buns.” She passes me four steamed pork buns ($1), which I coat with chili oil. They’re a juicy, incendiary porcine pleasure.

By contrast, the four-for-a-dollar dumplings tonged from the steam table at closet-size Super Snack (41-28 Main St., on 41st Road, 718-886-2294) are cold and gummy. They’re like meaty Bubble Yum. Trashing them, I investigate Golden Mall’s main entrance.

Past a shoe-repair shop wallpapered with German-shepherd posters, there’s a glassed-in counter (no English name, 41-28 Main St. at 41st Road, main entrance) filled with circular sesame-seed bread ($1). It’s flaky and dense, fatty and desert dry. I’m no fan. Someone is.

“Where’d you get that?” asks a frizzy-haired lady.

I point, and she dashes away like an excited dachshund.

I stumble off like a bloodhound, sniffing out smoky meat at the Tian Shan Shish-Kebob cart (corner of Main St. and Maple Ave.). Charcoal-sizzled skewers—cooked by a mask-wearing woman—of corn, chicken or lamb are $1. I order lamb.

“Spicy?” the woman asks.

I nod. She coats my browned meat with red flecks, scissors off the stabby end and I chomp the lamb like a lollipop. The flesh is gamy and slightly gristly, but miles better than Midtown street meat.

By now, I’ve OD’d on flesh. I need a sweet end. I need Fay Da Bakery (41-60 Main St. at Sanford Ave., 718-886-4568). The squeaky-clean bakery offers inexpensive weirdoes such as corn buns, taro-puree puffs and “green tea sticky balls,” but I’m gaga for sweet, pillowy bread topped with coconut. It’s sliced down the middle and filled with thick ribbons of bone-white cream (80 cents).

I bite greedily and cloud-like cream oozes around my lips, making me appear like a scandalous porn star. I consider napkining off the wayward cream, but I paid good money for this sugary bliss. I lick my lips, then my fingers, trying not to waste a single delicious cent.