Crying for Uncle

Photo: James Boo/ theeatenpath.com

Thirty years ago in America, you’d be hard-pressed to find Chinese food outside the culinary continuum of wonton soup, lo mein and sweet-and-sour chicken, a dish designed as a delivery system for sugar and red dye. But in the last decade, as sour-spicy Hunan and hot-and-numbing Sichuan restaurants fired up their woks, the country has been introduced to a growing galaxy of flavorful Chinese cuisine, not just deep-fried meat of dubious origin.

Of all the cuisines that have lately attracted our appetite — Southeast Asia–influenced Yunnan, seafaring Qingdao, hearty, dumpling-and-meat-heavy Dongbei — one school of cookery stands out: Henan cuisine.

Do not confuse this with Hunan. Located northwest of Shanghai, the cuisine of the Henan province, known as the breadbasket of central China, is heavy on noodles, dumplings and lamb. Garlic, Sichuan peppercorns, ginger, star anise and chili oil are common additions, though the fare is not as mouth-on-fire as Sichuan food.

In New York City, Henan cuisine has lately main inroads in both Manhattan and Queens, with the best eats found at the homespun Uncle Zhou. Like most Chinese restaurants, the frills-free décor runs a distant second to the food. There are a handful of tables and a refrigerated case displaying the day’s cold appetizers, including plenty of spicy mushrooms, shreds of pressed tofu and oodles of sliced offal.

They’re plenty tasty, but we prefer to reserve our stomach space for the bounty of wheat. The generously portioned boiled lamb dumplings are juicy as you will find. The spicy shaved-noodle soup is a tangle of chewy noodles, tender stewed beef and a restorative broth shot through with tingly Sichuan peppercorns and a slick of chili oil. The “dial oil” noodles are a tangy and garlicky, vinegar-doused delight.

Though it’s tempting to make a meal out of noodles and dumplings, the carnivore-appeasing entrées also merit exploration. Fried-crispy chunks of boneless lamb are coated in cumin seeds, while a whole fried fish is set adrift in a lake of sweet-and-sour sauce and topped with a pile of crunchy baked noodles. But if you’re making the trip to Queens to visit Uncle Zhou, you best order the “big tray of chicken.”

It’s a table-dwarfing platter of blood-red chili oil swimming with star anise, Sichuan peppercorns, chilies, cilantro and plenty of potato cubes, bony nuggets of chicken and noodles to wipe the plate clean. It's aromatic without being incendiary, finger-licking food finer than anything Colonel Sanders ever created.

It was much too much food to finish. You could say we happily cried Uncle.

Uncle Zhou 83-29 Broadway Elmhurst, NY 11373 718-393-0888

This story was originally published on Food Republic.

New York Press' Gut Instinct: Yolk-ing It Up

Hello there, sailor.

Much to my girlfriend’s dismay, in recent days I’ve begun agitating against eggs. “I just don’t like ’em anymore,” I said one morning. I rifled through the fridge and retrieved a pink grapefruit, using a fingernail to send citrus spraying across the room.

Her blue eyes bugged, as if I were Christopher Columbus telling her that the world was not lasagna-flat. “What do you mean you don’t like eggs?” To her, the egg is edible perfection. She devours them poached, hard-boiled, soft-boiled and scrambled and served between a buttered English muffin.

“It’s a great protein,” she said, with the conviction of a bodybuilder preaching the power of human growth hormone.

“Look,” I told her, “I think of eggs the same way as I do tomatoes: aces as an ingredient, terrifying as a main event.” Want to see me squirm like a hooked worm? Serve me bruschetta.

“But you love making breakfast,” she said. That is certifiable. Ever since I was wee, I’ve enjoyed flipping Bisquick-powered pancakes and doctoring scrambled eggs with onions and garlic. I still savor a.m. cooking; I’ve just ceased to enjoy eating eggs. That’s OK. People change, tastes change: this is a good thing.

Though I relished attending raves at age 19, I shudder at the thought of me still wearing baggy pants, staying up till sunrise smoking menthol cigarettes, chomping candy necklaces and giving strangers pharmaceutically aided hugs.

In lieu of eggs, I began favoring smoothies made with yogurt and bananas bought for a song in Chinatown. (Around 8 p.m., hit the northwest corner of Grand and Eldridge streets, where $1 buys enough bruised, dented bananas to feed an orphanage. Peel and freeze the decaying fruit as soon as you get home, and it’s smoothie sailing.) My girlfriend adored the smoothies, but sometimes I’d catch her wistfully staring at an egg carton in the fridge as if it were an old lover. Come back, sweet yolks, come back.

But a few weeks back, my breakfast routine was broken by the beautiful news of M. Wells (21-17 49th Ave. at 21st St., Queens, 718-425-6917). Located in a vintage Long Island City diner, M. Wells is helmed by wife-hubby team Sarah Obraitis and hugue Dufour, a former toque at Montreal’s Au Pied de Cochon—paradise for fans of foie gras and pig. Currently, M. Wells is open 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. weekdays, hours that only appeal to early-risers and the pseudo-employed. Like me.

On a recent Friday morning, my alarm beeped at 6:15.

“Why are you getting up so early?” my girlfriend asked, her eyelids heavy with sleep.

“Julie”—who awakens pre-dawn to bike—“and I are going to Queens for breakfast.

“I thought you didn’t like eggs?” she said. her tone insinuated that perhaps I was a liar.

“This is different,” I told her. “This is M. Wells.” I gave her cheek a peck, pulled on my black skintight cycling shorts and pedaled to Queens for my Québécois fix.

When Julie and I arrived, we were sweat-slicked and beet-faced. Sensing our imminent heat stroke, an angelic waitress fluttered over and delivered a carafe of cooling water. I wanted to smooch her, but such behavior is unbecoming for a taken man.

Once our core temperatures sank several degrees, Julie and I surveyed the menu. It ran from greasy-spoon staples such as egg sandwiches, doughnuts and biscuits (all homemade!) to a.m. curiosities such as beef tartar and pickled pork tongue. “I want everything,” said Julie, who’s never met a meat or sweet she didn’t want to eat.

Restraint was exercised. Strong Oslo iced coffee was ordered, as were several courses that made me rethink my stance on chicken embryos.

The scrambled-egg sandwich rose above its hot-griddle roots, thanks to a fluffy, house-baked English muffin, fat slab of sage sausage, smoked cheddar and several slices of pickled jalapeños. (I tossed the tomato to the side.)

This sandwich was transcendent, the everyday made exemplary, as was the crispy hash with a plank of crunchy bacon. On top, a slow-poached egg sat like a tiara. I punctured it, releasing yolk like a runaway river across the potatoes and contrasting bites of peas and mint.

Even the yogurt was tangy bliss, swimming with granola and a smattering of bright, fresh berries that were most certainly not Chinatown-bought. This was the best breakfast grub I’d devoured in months, a guaranteed way to start any day with a contented stomach and a smile.

“That was goooooooood,” Julie said, spearing an errant pea. “What did you think?” “I think,” I said, running my finger through a yellow dab of yolk, “I love eggs again.”

Read--and vote for--the original story at the Press' website.

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.

Dollar Dining: Roosevelt Avenue

me.jpgI am a cheap bastard. This much is true. For Web site Metromix.com, I am penning a recurring column wherein I find 10 things to eat for $1 apiece. Then I eat them. It is delicious. And sometimes horrible beyond belief. Below, behold my most recent dining adventure on Roosevelt Avenue. Eat it up!

Dollar Grub: Roosevelt Avenue Fertilized duck embryos. Unkown gray mush. Our cheap-hound braves $1 deals in Jackson Heights.

Consider Queens’ Roosevelt Avenue a food court of low-cost international eats, from Flushing’s plump dumplings to Sunnyside’s fatty Irish burgers. Yet the most pleasantly priced tummy-stuffers are found beneath the 7 train between Elmhurst and Jackson Heights—Mexico to India, in 20 scant blocks.

On an icicles-and-frostbite weekday, I decamp at Elmhurst’s 90th Street stop—a $10 bill in hand—and saunter past salsa-CD salesmen to Las Palomas (89-16 Roosevelt Ave., 718-533-7014), where a stout woman with several gold-capped incisors heats up a pot on a portable stove.

“Muy caliente,” she says, removing the vessel’s lid to reveal scalding, snow-color atole. A steaming Styrofoam cup of the cinnamon- and-vanilla corn-meal beverage warms me as I mosey to Cholula Bakery (88-06 Roosevelt Ave., 718-533-1171). Men solemnly munch greasy, overstuffed spicy-pork tortas ($4.95, darn it), but a glass display offers chocolate-drizzled cake slices crammed with custard—gooey, messy and priced just right.

I wipe my fingers on my jeans before entering Mi Bello Mexico (87-17 Roosevelt Ave., 718-429-4300), a convenience store where customers procure raw meat, cactus leaves and MSG-packed, corn-tortilla Takis snacks in flavors such as “fajitas,” “fuego” and “guacamole,” which I acquire. The crisp, highlighter-green cylinders look like leg-less caterpillars and taste like rotting salted limes.

The culinary gods’ wrathful vengeance continues at Jaff Candy Store (85-16 Roosevelt Ave.), a bodega with an impressive prophylactics selection and a heat lamp warming gray, desiccated chicken empanadas cooked—well, there’s no kitchen in sight. I chomp into gummy dough encasing flesh grisly enough to make Styrofoam seem like filet mignon.

Soldiering onward, I discover Bravo Comida Rápida (81-16 Roosevelt Ave., 718-429-6444), a neon-lit fast-food joint with a steam table where unidentified brown meat is stacked like firewood beside tureens of murky stews. Price tags are absent. “What’s a dollar?” I inquire of an officious man wearing a collar shirt. He points at slimy fried plantains and an orange half-moon. To the moon I go, devouring a delicious, corn-meal-coated mush of beef and potatoes spiced up with cilantro-flecked salsa.

Spirits rising, I shuffle several blocks to Cositas Ricas (79-19 Roosevelt Ave., 718-478-1500), a combination ice-cream parlor and steak house. At a counter, an aproned, balding man stuffs another deep-fried empanada—“beef,” he says with an undertaker’s solemnity—into a bag marked “barbecue.” This empanada has been deep-fried to disintegration. It’s like French-kissing a jug of Wesson.

I toss the artery-clogger into the trash, then notice a mural of a cake-carrying chef and enter the skinny, mirror-covered Miracali Bakery (76-04 Roosevelt Ave., 718-779-7175). On offer are fluffy bread, oily chicharrón and salt-covered, skin-on taters—40 cents apiece and soft as a teddy bear. I order two and dip them into a searing, sinus-emptying salsa. Bliss.

My veggie streak continues at Merit Kabab Palace (37-67 74th St., 718-396-5827). The steam-table joint with rickety, crammed tables sells me a flaky, triangle-shaped samosa bursting with curried peas, carrots and potatoes. Sweet heavens, it’s tasty.

Sweet heavens, why is Kabab King Diner (74-15 37th Road, 718-205-8800) selling Chinese food? I skip the chop suey and skewered $1.50 mutton kebabs and request a shami kebab. It’s a disconcertingly mushy patty of beef and spiced ground chickpeas—baby food for misbehaving infants.

Nine down. One left. What spot deserved my last buck? Phil-Am Food Market (70-02 Roosevelt Ave., 718-899-1797), a Filipino grocery vending four kinds of canned meats. I contemplate liver spread, then spot balut—fertilized duck embryos for 80 cents. I grab one and rush to the register.

“You know that’s no ordinary egg, right?” the cashier asks.


“Have you had it before?”

“Not exactly,” I answer, taking my partially formed, protein-packed treat to a quiet corner. I know I’m supposed to boil balut, but I’m feeling bold: I’ll pull a Rocky and down this baby raw. I crack the egg carefully, revealing red streaks and a tiny duck in the fetal position.

In the name of cheap eats I bring the egg to my maw. Closer, closer, I open wide—when my gag reflex revolts and I drop the duck, its final resting place an oil-stained driveway.

Reader, some bargains are no bargain at all.