The staff at the lovely James Hotel in eminently sensible SoHo, seem amused by our requests for travel directions. ‘Sunnyside?’ ‘Flushing?’ ‘Astoria?’ Are we sure we wouldn’t prefer the West Village or even Lower East Side? But we’re not in search of culture or shopping (although the MoMa PS1 in Long Island City is definitely worth the trip); we are – as ever – all about the food.
The vast outer boroughs of New York are forging their own culinary identity; actually, they have been for years – it’s just taken a while for the rest of us to catch up. Brooklyn gets all the press over here, but Queens, the largest of the boroughs, is a vast county rammed with hundreds of ethnicities and communities, which, as we all know, means eating heaven.
First port of call has to be Flushing. Whilst Manhattan’s Chinatown has become a little sanitised and touristy, Flushing’s chaotic streets are as incomprehensible and impenetrable as anywhere in deepest Shanghai. We’re as bewildered as babes in the wood, piling into mall after mall, among them the ginormous New World Mall with its 30,000-plus square feet of supermarket – a sensory overload, like a vast deli crossed with a Hong Kong wet market, complete with tanks of wriggling live seafood. Up top is The Grand, a mammoth temple to dim sum consumption seating well over 1,000; in the basement is a food court punting everything from Taiwanese street food to bubble tea and hand-pulled lamian noodles. The ones at Lanzhou Handmade Noodles are unmissably good: vivid stock, springy noodles, gorgeous.
Or rickety, dingy Golden Shopping Mall, where the first ever outlet of critically-acclaimed Xi’an Famous Foods sells an array of savoury, pleasingly greasy, noodly things. The tongue-tingling cumin lamb burger is the star here. We think we’re being pioneers, but a mugshot of Anthony Bourdain tells us he got here ‘waaaaay’ before we did.
We go on a mini-dumpling crawl: the famous pork and greens wontons in red chilli oil from White Bear; delicate skinned, spicy and sour lamb dumplings from Biang!; pungent-brothed soup dumplings from Nan Xiang Xiao Long Bao. Then we sink into the ‘luxury’ of Tasty and Spicy. Funny how you can imagine yourself to be stuffed, and then the tingling ma-la (‘hot and numbing’) effect of Sichuan peppercorns gives you an appetite for dan dan noodles and pork-dressed spicy green beans. They can keep their notorious stinky tofu, though. Shudder.
Long Island City is never going to win any beauty contests. But two very different joints leave us as misty-eyed as if we were overlooking the Rialto. Manducatis is one of NYC’s genuine secrets – if a joint that has hosted many a star, from Tommy Lee Jones to Norman Mailer, and, unsurprisingly, David Chase, writer of The Sopranos, could be called a secret. Its almost rest-home-blank exterior hides a warren of curious rooms, and even curiouser clientele. It really doesn’t take a leap of imagination to suppose that Tony and Carmela Soprano might be in a hidden cranny enjoying Vincenzo and Ida Cerbone’s generous, family-style southern Italian food: a welcoming array of antipasti; homemade pastas – the wonderful ricotta gnocchi, maybe, or linguine with friarelli (here translated, of course, as broccoli rabe); and killer cannoli. Oh, and its cellar is stocked with over 8,000 bottles of Italian wines.
M Wells Steakhouse is a whole other ballgame – as contemporary as Manducatis is unreconstructed. Owners Hugue Dufour and Sarah Obraitis are no strangers to controversy – contretemps with critics, rumours of plans to sell horse and rattlesnake (and lion!) meat – but with their latest outpost they seem to have finally matured. Yes, it’s impossible to find, a former auto-repair shop that looks, well, like an auto-repair shop; there’s no signage (unless you count one that reads Collision Inc Bookshop). It’s rammed with eminently newsworthy features: a concrete fish tank teeming with live trout; caviar sandwiches; a glorious dessert trolley; a super-fatty wagyu-style cut aptly described as ‘beef butter’. It’s a grown-up pleasure with a wonderfully French-Canadian attitude to excess – the owners hail from Montreal, and Dufour worked at foie-heaven Au Pied de Cochon. The place looks amazing: less grunge and more gilded wallpaper glamour; and the steaks – every bit as good as those in the renowned, conventional US chophouses – are worth crossing any number of bridges for.
New York Magazine recently observed that in a seven-block stretch of Sunnyside’s Queens Boulevard (between 39th and 46th streets), you’ll find ‘vendors serving 30 cuisines from 27 countries and five continents’. Sure, I haven’t tried quite all of them, but the indisputable star is the wonderfully named Salt and Fat. In this basic little joint – I’m transfixed by the stained polystyrene ceiling tiles – chef and owner Daniel Yi marries a Seoul heritage with a Queens upbringing and delivers an offspring of insane deliciousness. Who else would think of offering a yellowtail tartare, to be mixed up with Japanese furikake (an umami-blast of spice and seaweed and sesame) and yuzu gel to be scooped up with cassava chips; the ultimate chips ’n’ dips? Or serve pillowy hirata buns stuffed with smoky slabs of own-cured bacon and a mutant version of Maccy D’s ‘special sauce’ spiked with togarashi and tobanjan (Korean fermented bean paste) and call it a BLT? Or shave frozen Hudson Valley foie gras over a mound of mandarin oranges and bacon brittle, so it melts gently like a snow of the gods? Yi describes his cooking as New American: it’s not in any way forced or fusiony. And I love every revelatory mouthful.
We feel as though we haven’t touched the surface; we haven’t ventured to Dutch Kills or Ditmars or Little Egypt. Queens is vast and hard to know, unlike the gridded streets of Manhattan. But for those of us in search of adventurous eats, it rewards exploration a thousand-fold.
By Marina O’Loughlin (@MarinaOLoughlin)
Written May 2014
Main image above taken by Gavin Hellier (Getty Images/Robert Harding Worl)