Crying for Uncle

Photo: James Boo/

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.

Here's Why Boston Made Me Fat

Hello, precious. A lobster roll from Island Creek Oyster Bar.

I liken living in New York City to being trapped in a cocoon surrounded by a force field. There’s so much to eat and drink in the metropolis that it’s tough to break out. Weeks and months pass before residents escape the city limits.

This brings us to Boston. It had been too long since my wife and I had driven the 220 miles north, so we decided to spend a weekend diving face-first into the city’s food and drink scene. Here’s how we happily came back five pounds heavier.

1. Fried Mussels at Park Restaurant I typically despise mussels, but at Harvard Square’s recently opened Park, a subterranean boîte packed with comfy parlor furniture, a fine beer selection and even better cocktails, I found a mussels dish to make me a believer: The bivalves were coated in a batter cut with preserved lemon and fried till fluffy and crisp, then served with a zingy horseradish dipping sauce. It was sort of like eating seafood popcorn. 59 JFK St., Cambridge, MA, 617-491-9851,

2. Grass-Fed Burger at Craigie on Main Forget the Pat LaFrieda–blend burgers. At Craigie, chef Tony Maws mixes his grass-fed beef with umami-rich dehydrated miso and bone marrow — drooling yet? — and cooks the patty in a low-temperature, CVap steam oven to a juicy medium rare. The finishing touches: a quick char on a steel plancha, mace-spiked ketchup, aged cheddar and house-crafted red-wine pickles. The burger is a heap of yum. 853 Main St., Cambridge, MA, 617-497-5511,

3. Harpoon Brewery Cider While the Boston-born outfit is best known for its unfiltered UFO beers and floral IPA, a trip to Harpoon’s south Boston brewery clued me in on a few styles worth your stomach space. The newly released Rich & Dan’s Rye IPA is a citrusy, slightly spicy delight. But I was more smitten by the relatively rare cider. Made with nothing but juice from New England apples, including the McIntosh, the Harpoon Cider is a tart, lightly sweet treat that temporarily made me forget my love affair with beer. 306 Northern Ave., Boston, MA, 617-574-9551,

4. KK’s Bacon and Sea-Salt Pretzel Nuggets With Pimento Cheese Dip at Area Four Pulling quadruple duty as a coffeehouse, bakery, bar and restaurant focusing on local and season ingredients, Area Four might just be a jack-of-all-dining. The pizzas pulled from the wood-, gas-, and infrared-heated oven are finely crusty and charred, but I could happily — and gluttonously, I might add — subsist on the pretzel nuggets cooked in bacon fat and served with a pimento-cheese dip. Um, more please. 500 Technology Square, Cambridge, MA, 617-758-4444,

5. Ward 44 at Saloon Whiskey, grilled and roasted meats, and dark wood are the focus at this subterranean, well, saloon outfitted with arches, old-timey mirrors and an excellent cocktail list. Given the kitchen’s focus on the pleasures of the flesh, it follows that the most intriguing cocktail is the bacon-y Ward 44. Pork belly­–infused whiskey is the focal ingredient, providing a lingering smoky flavor, but lemon and grenadine add crucial balance. 255 Elm St., Somerville, MA, 617-628-4444,

6. Wormtown Brewery Be Hoppy IPA at Flatbread Company Long past the point of common sense, my wife and I wended our way to Davis Square with our bleary eyes set on the former Sacco’s Bowl Haven. Several years ago, the team from quirky Northeast pizza chain Flatbread took over the bowling alley — candlepin bowling, mind you — ripped out a few lanes, installed a pizza oven and stocked the bar with Massachusetts beer and cocktails made with regional spirits. Booze seemed like a bad idea, so I focused on Worcester-based Wormtown’s Be Hoppy, a pungent pleasure bursting with grapefruit bitterness. 45 Day St., Somerville, MA, 617-776-0552,

7. Lobster Roll at Island Creek Oyster Bar The Hotel Commonwealth is a dining and drinking powerhouse, counting buzzy brasserie Eastern Standard, comfortably mod lounge the Hawthorne (overseen by cocktail mastermind Jackson Cannon) and Island Creek Oyster Bar, which might just be Boston’s finest seafood restaurant. The oysters are impeccably sourced (“These are my favorite oysters,” my wife moaned, sucking down several buttery-briny Island Creeks), the breads are house-baked and the lobster roll was a lightly dressed beauty with an unlikely, but delicious addition of diced pickles. P.S. Come at brunch for the decadent lavender doughnuts. 500 Commonwealth Ave., Boston, MA, 617-532-5300,

8. Notch Session Saison from Craft Beer Cellar On a sunny Saturday afternoon, I forsook the fine weather and spent a few hours marinating inside Craft Beer Cellar, which is quite possibly Boston’s finest beer store. Amid the bottles of locally brewed beers like Slumbrew’s blood orange, infused Happy Sol and the lovely lagers of Jack’s Abbey, I found myself drawn to the low-alcohol quaffs of area outfit Notch Brewing. The brewery specializes in session brews like the crisp Session Pils and my favorite, the dry, peppery and compulsively drinkable Saison. 51 Leonard St., Belmont, MA, 617-932-1885,

9. Mashed Potato, Bacon and Scallion Pizza Slice at Otto When my wife and I were married in Portland, Maine, last summer, our rehearsal dinner consisted of inviting guests onto the evening ferry, supplying a couple coolers of beer and buying a boatload of thin-crust Otto pizza. So you can understand our excitement when we spied the Harvard Square outpost of the mini chain, which was serving slices to hordes of hungry customers. The plain cheese is commendable, but go big baller and get a slice topped with mashed potatoes, scallions and bacon. Don’t judge: It works. 1432 Massachussettes Ave., Cambridge, MA, 617-499-3352,

10. Super Duper Weenies On our trip to Boston, we made a most crucial stop in Connecticut at Fairfield’s Super Duper Weenies, a long-running hot dog joint focusing on beef-and-pork wieners crowned with from-scratch toppings. Fries are fresh-cut. Everything is cooked to order. I select skin-on fries and a New Englander, which is crowned with ’kraut, mustard, bacon, mustard and sweet relish. It's sweet-and-tart, snappy, zingy and rich as a Rockefeller. In other words, the weenie is just super. 306 Black Rock Turnpike, Fairfield, CT, 203-334-3647,

This story originally ran in Food Republic.