Here’s the thing about New York that a lot of people don’t know: You can travel the world without ever leaving the city. For many immigrants, New York City is their first port of entry. Many of them, not speaking the language and feeling alienated, tend to seek out others from their home countries — which is why you can go to parts of the city and be immediately transported to India, Mali, or China.
While millions of tourists visit the kitschy Chinatown in Manhattan, the real Chinatown of New York City is across the East River in Flushing, Queens. Here, all the store signs are in Chinese, few people speak English, and every dish is authentic. Sometimes, as I found out last week, a little too authentic, even for a gastro-tourist like me. Because, unlike Americans, the Chinese eat every part of the animal — nothing goes to waste. All those bits and bobs we throw out (or put into hot dogs), they lovingly prepare into elaborate dishes that would make even Andrew Zimmern think twice.
In preparation for a trip to China I’m planning for later this year, I decided to call Joe DiStefano, who runs the foodie site, Chopsticks and Marrow and does ethnic food tours throughout Queens, to take me on a tour of the real Chinatown. Joining us were my food-obsessed friends Andrew Gottlieb and Jon Hsia, who lived in China and is an expert on Chinese food. in the car ride over, Jon warned me, “Listen, in China, anything with four legs but a table and anything with two legs and not a person we’ll eat it.”
I started wondering just how long it was going to be until I broke down on the ultimate game of food one-upmanship and started screaming for pork fried rice.
Out first stop was J Mart, the Asian supermarket in the middle of the New World Mall. On the upper floor we found a vendor who allegedly sold beef heart. Joe picked out a solid looking heart for $5. Check out the tour through J Mart and the “beef heart” (which turned out to be a shin), below:
Our next stop was the cafeteria in the basement of J Mart for some lamb spine found at the Nutritious Lamb Noodle Soup shop (Stall 28) in the back corner.
“You have to ask for it specially because it’s not on the menu,” Joe explained. The girl behind the counter handed us the lamb spine with some plastic gloves (so you don’t get your hands too messy) for $10 and we went to town.
“As I predicted, it’s a lot like oxtail,” Andrew said.
“Delicious,” Jon agreed.
As for me? Well, it was fine. Good, even — once I got over the fact that it was a lamb’s spine I was shoveling in my mouth. I just got a little grossed out when Joe went for the spinal cord. Watch here:
“Spinal cord is the strangest thing I’ve eaten in a while,” Joe said.
“I wouldn’t mind a pot sticker at some point,” I said.
“I think some of these things we’ll eat will surprise you,” Joe said.
“Mmmmhmmmm,” I mumbled. I was yearning for a potsticker at our next stop — Tian Jin Restaurant, located around the corner from the New World Mall, which serves food from the Northeast of China, specializing in the pig.
“It’s like a pig charcuterie shop,” I said, as Joe ordered a pig tongue for $3.
Yes, I ate a pig tongue:
Afterward, I vowed not to eat anything else without a Diet Coke on hand to wash the taste down. I can eat anything as long as I know there’s a Diet Coke in the end, I reasoned.
Which is why I ordered a Diet Coke first thing when we sat down at the Crazy Crab, a Burmese Malaysian restaurant on College Point boulevard, where Joe had a pork face salad delivered to the table.
It was pretty, I’ll give it that. And … I hate to admit it .. it was tasty. Or at least it was until Joe said, “They shave the skin off the face for this salad and add in cucumbers, cilantro, pepper, lettuce, and peanuts. It’s a dish from Yunan.”
“What’s with this dimpling here?” Andrew asked holding up a piece of skin.
“Oh! did you get the beauty mark?” Joe asked. “That’s good luck!”
I ordered another Diet Coke.
All of this was just the precursor, the hors d’ouevres if you will, to the main course, which was at Biang, on Main Street, which serves food from Xi’an.
It looked like such a nice place, with exposed brick walls, hardwood floors, and Edison bulbs hanging from the ceilings. I had no idea what was about to happen. Joe quickly ordered the spicy tingly lamb face salad (good), cold skin noodles (DELICIOUS and, contrary to the name, didn’t have any skin in them at all), beef stomach skewers, and the pièce de résistance: pork intestine skewers.
Beef stomach skewers.
Spicy tingly lamb face salad.
Aaaaand: the pork intestine skewers.
As the dishes started rolling out, Andrew started to get cold feet.
“I haven’t had experience with this much offal before,” he said, eying the pork intestine skewers nervously as Joe ate the eyeball he found in the lamb face salad.
“Hey listen,” Jon said, “In China, for many years, people were starving. They learned how to cook anything and make it taste good."
And then they tried the pork intestine skewers.
Andrew made a face. “That’s the first thing I’ve had that’s possibly a step too far. It’s texturally off putting and there’s a funk to the bite.”
"There is a lingering taste,” Joe agreed. “Even though you know they clean it really well.”
And then it was my turn. I prepped with some Pepto-Bismol and two Diet Cokes at the ready:
Fun fact: to get the taste of pork intestine out of your mouth you have to gargle with an entire can of Diet Coke for at least 10 minutes.
It’s fine until you burp … and you have to deal with it all over again.
By that time I was crying uncle and begging for dumplings, fried rice — anything normal-ish.
So Joe led us to the Golden Mall, “the most down and dirty food court in the city,” he boasted. He was right. Located inside a rundown strip mall with a green and yellow polka dotted awning, the Golden Mall holds more food stands where we had the “husband and wife” salad at the Chen Du Tian Fu stand, which consisted of beef tongue and tripe slices … after which I broke down.
“No more!” I said. “I just want dumplings!”
I was in luck. The best pork and chicken dumplings in all of China (town) were eight feet away at Tiang Famous Foods. The dumplings were so good, Jon started moaning (“Oh YEAH! THIS IS LEGIT!”) and ordered 12 to go, so he could bring some home for his wife.
One cab ride and two more packets of Pepto-Bismol later, I was back home. I’d done a legit trip to China without the jet lag.