April 22, 2013 | BITE: My Journal
Manchurian Candidate: Lao Dong Bei
I’d probably come to Flushing again just for these fabulous cumin-soused lamb ribs.
All of us in our restless sixsome of hot-head eaters are ready to roll two or three times a month – in this case, at the drop of a lamb rib. That’s the temptation that brings us to Flushing tonight. Our scout, Rich, the Ethnic Food Junkie, lives in Brooklyn but shops and trolls for edible finds in Flushing. He also has a craving for lamb with cumin. He thinks we’ll flip out over the fatty, caramelized cumin-steeped lamb at Lao Dong Bei on a relatively quiet boulevard not far from the malls and temptations of Main Street.
Green bean jelly noodles above right, peppery quail below, lamb ribs on right.
He’s totally invested in thrilling us on this otherwise ridiculously drawn out excursion. I mean, don’t we have uncounted outlets for loving lamb without crossing a bridge out of Manhattan? When no one answers the phone at the restaurant as the day approaches, he rides his usual subway to Flushing – he’ll shop, he’ll graze, he’ll make it worth the trip and he’ll stop by the restaurant to reserve a table in person.
Chef An Hong Li and wife Zhu Wen Zia (picture doesn’t do her justice, alas).
Happily, our EthnoJunky knows enough words in Mandarin (and dozens of other languages), that he will never starve, wherever he wanders. That’s useful since the friendly and obliging owners here, Chef An Hong Li and wife Zhu Wen Xia, from Harbin on the border of Outer Mongolia, know almost no English. She bustles back and forth in a turquoise tee, charming la bourgeoisie, a hostess in her home, quite beautiful, especially her mouth and eyes.
When the Times dropped a couple of forks on Lao Dong Bei in January, bringing curious white ghosts to fill the seven tables in this bright, narrow, almost décorless storefront, the owners quickly recruited an English-speaking waiter. He’s not around to answer the phone by day.
Careful chewing tears crispy quail meat from tiny bones in this peppery toss.
But now he scoots around the tiny space, pouring water, collecting Tsingtao beer for us from the cooler, belatedly fetching glasses, delivering small saucers of blanched potato shreds and pickled jicama slices with jalapeno – Manchurian amuses. Periodically, the young man skates backward against the wall to get out of the way of the bodies hurtling from the kitchen to deliver multiples of dishes.
Chef Li says the green bean jelly noodles with cucumber and bean sprouts are his creation.
Rich has presumed to order his favorites here. We’re game. There are so many options, we wouldn’t know where to begin. Chef Li comes out of the kitchen to oversee the order. He urges us to try his best starter, “green bean sheet jelly.” Our Chinese teammate Ling translates. I wrestle with the challenge of chop-sticking the slippery, gelatinous noodles made from green bean powder in a cucumber-cilantro broth with bean sprouts – the chef’s own invention.
The women at our table are in love with it at once. When it’s time to remove the platter to make way for the next wave of offerings, one of them insists the waiter pour the last cup of sauce into a bowl so they can eat it with spoons. Flattered by such exuberant enthusiasm, the owners recite the secret ingredients – sesame oil, soy, MSG. Rina rolls her eyes, MSG, and writes down the recipe.
I’m quickly into a love-hate relationship with peppery and crunchy quarters of quail with scallion and onion – so delicious but so challenging to teeth ripping at strings of flesh. I try crunching the bones.
And then the so-called “Lamb Chops in Xinjiang Style” arrive. But it’s actually lamb breast, fatty ribs with a few little white bones, soft enough to chew, blanketed with toasted cumin seeds. Yes, definitely the best lamb with cumin invention I’ve tasted. But only seven ribs for the six of us…I am reluctantly forced to share the last rib with the table.
Only the EthnicFoodJunkie seems to like pork sweet enough to curl your teeth.
“Can’t we get another order?” I cry. Cooler heads suggest we wait till we’ve eaten the food just now landing. The Times raved about the Dong Bei version of sweet and sour pork – “Pork in Orange Sauce,” the menu has it, though I do not detect any citrus tang. Only cloying sweetness. I taste a slick coated triangle of meat, dripping syrup. Ugh. I taste again, thinking Maybe it’s just me. But only our Junk food guru seems to relish it. Battered fish puffs lightly spiced with cumin are perfectly cooked, but one or two is quite enough.
The mild fish inside cumin-scented fried puffs is delicately cooked but ultimately boring.
I’ve moved on to the chicken, Chongqing Style – crusty bites of bird, tossed with tree ears, lily buds and dried tientsin chili peppers that I carefully set aside. But suddenly my mouth is numb. The dish is larded with tiny Szechuan peppercorns.
Instantly the mouth numbs from the Szechuan peppercorns in Chongqing-style chicken.
Some of us are manifesting the heat, with sweating brows, gasping coughs, and splintered voices. I can imagine my late mother Saralee watching this and saying, “Are you all crazy?” Yes. Yes. Yes. We’re in hothead heaven.
“We should order a green vegetable,” I urge Rich. He ignores me.
“We have eggplant coming,” he says. “Deeped Fried Eggplant with Grounded Pork,” the menu reads. “Of course eggplant isn’t green,” Rich concedes.
Desperately needing greens, we order watercress and get Chinese water spinach.
“Let’s order a green vegetable,” one of the women says. It’s a chorus now.
“How about baby bok choy,” I say. “Or pea shoots.”
The choice is Chinese watercress. Without garlic gets one vote. With garlic gets five. But what arrives seems to be Chinese water spinach. Never mind. Green is green.
I’m wild about “Deeped fried eggplant with grounded pork” once my mouth recovers.
And the “deeped fried” eggplant is marvelous – lush but not oozing fat, properly sedate, and prettily laced with peas and greens and red peppers, both fruity and dry. We reject dessert: taro, sweet potato and apple battered and fried, then hardened by dunking in water. With most entrees $13 or less – the lamb is $21.50 – the bill is modest. Instead, the smart phone wizards among us, consult apps for the nearest ice cream parlor.
The wind is chilling. A storm is coming up. Li and Xia have followed us out onto the street. They thank us for coming and urge us to return soon. “He won’t let you order anything you ate tonight,” Ling translates the chef’s promise. “Next time you’ll taste everything different.”
I suppose we should return, if only for lamb and maybe the blotch soup – a broth with tiny bits of dough small as pimples, i.e. blotch. But I’m sure we’ll be on to the next ethnic detour. Rina, a teammate always game for any ethnic foray, came from deepest New Jersey to transport us to Flushing. On the way home, she insists we must taste Korean Chinese Food in the Pacific Palisades. I’m betting we will.
Lao Dong Bei 44-09 Kissena Boulevard near Cherry Avenue, Flushing, Queens. 718 539 4100. “Free Parking,” it says on the card. Probably the best time to reach an English speaking voice by phone is from 6 pm on. Daily 11 am to 11 pm.
Photographs may not be used without permission of Gael Greene. Copyright 2013.
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