Spicy

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.

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: All Work and No Play Makes Josh a Fast Eater

New York City has made me a creature considerably more loathsome than the lowly cockroach: the whiny workaholic.

“I’m so busy,” I’ll complain to friends’ deaf ears, eyeballing my BlackBerry as I feign weariness typically associated with mono sufferers and scandal-plagued politicians. “I’m completely overwhelmed.” Naturally, I’m ignored like a screeching subway preacher.

I receive zero pity because I toil until my eyes mimic an eyeliner-mad raccoon’s. My shoulder muscles become Boy Scout–knotted. And I snap at loved ones like a rabid poodle. I’m diseased by this sick, mutating notion of making it.

Five years ago, making it meant buying fluffy Charmin. Now, thanks to penny-filled coffers, I fantasize about visiting far-flung lands—Vietnam, Hong Kong—where folks with nimble fingers will sew me cheap, chic suits and serve me greasy skewered meat carved from cuddly, yet impossibly scrumptious critters.

To fund such follies I burden myself like Atlas with work, which cuts my lunch hour to 15 or 20 minutes. This allotment is scarcely long enough to wolf a sandwich while sauntering down a street. Irritating? No, I consider this time crunch a game-show challenge.

(Cue bombastic announcer): “Today on Workaholic Lunch we have Joshua M. Bernstein. Joshua, do you believe you’re too busy?”

“Yes! I’m so stressed out!” I blurt, twitchy from my daily pot of obsidian-black Gorilla Coffee (“bowel movements in 10 minutes or less, guaranteed!”).

“Are you ready for MAXIMUM INGESTION IN MINIMAL TIME?”

“Yes! I have the hunger!”

“THEN”—the audience chimes in—“LET’S…START…EATING!”

My recent trial run for Workaholic Lunch took me to the southeast corner of 46th Street and Sixth Avenue, home to Biriyani Cart. Inside, two Mutt and Jeff men—one skinny and old, the other young and plump, both sporting identical green smocks and brim-less white caps—fashion two-for-$5 kati rolls. They’re griddle-cooked chapatti flatbreads filled with veggies or flesh. Select from five, including spicy chicken buradi, lemongrass-y chennai and curried-potatoes-and-cauliflower aloo gobi.

“Hey, buddy, what can I get you?” the chubbier cook asked.

“Buradi and chennai,” I chirped happily. I’m a big fan of being called buddy, man or, be still my withered heart, hombre. Makes me feel wanted and loved, even if my only winning quality is my wallet.

“You got it, buddy” the chef said, working griddle magic. In minutes, I received rolls folded like Cuban cigars. Down tourist-choked Sixth Avenue I stumbled, chewing buttery, chewy chapatti and fowl that was fragrant, fiery and faintly gristly. I spit half-gnawed cartilage onto the sidewalk. A complaint? Heck no; it’s hard to quibble when only paying an Abe Lincoln.

The next day, my thriftiness—and need for human kindness—boomeranged me back to Biriyani Cart.

“Hey, buddy,” the cook welcomed.

“Hey, buddy,” I replied, “give me a couple aloo gobi.”

He did. I walked-ate the rolls, so relishing the zesty potatoes and cauliflower that I didn’t notice creamy red sauce leaking down my white T-shirt.

“Good lunch?” my boss asked at the office, examining my splatter stains. I looked like I’d just attended a pig slaughter.

I nodded sheepishly. How old is too old, I wondered, to wear a bib?

I aimed for cleanliness during another abbreviated lunch, sourced inside a dingy ex-newsstand (1013 Sixth Ave. betw. 37th & 38th Sts., 212-840-3767). It had transformed into an international food court including a sandwich deli, a soupy Latin-comestibles station and Khodiar Lunch Services. Its steam table specializes in northwest India’s veggie-heavy Gujarati cuisine.

“Thali?” asked the counterman. The $6.99 set meal included several mounds of veggies, soup, four roti pancakes, cardamom-flavored rice and a foil-wrapped salad of tomatoes and lettuce.

“Yup. Gimme something with heat,” I said. The counter guy ladled up several baby-food blobs, colored brown and purplish—mixed veggies and eggplant, respectively. I walked to a wobbly table, beside glum men wearing rumpled button-downs, and spooned up my mushy banquet.

One bite later, I considered kissing the cook. The veggie mash was fiercely flaming, while the okra possessed complex currents of curry. The feast was fit for two men; so obviously, I cleaned my plate in about seven minutes. I waddled officeward, feeling like a second-rate competitive eater about to, pardon the expression, lose his lunch.

But I’m a binger, not a purger, baby. I wedged myself into my desk, burping into one hand as the other massaged my belly mound, pregnant with food and the understanding that winning Workaholic Lunch would just be a tastier form of losing.