Next to a stand of dragonfruit, durian, guavas, lychee, and mangosteen on the corner of Main Street and 41st Rd, a nondescript door presents itself in a drab, frosted white. Above the door the words “Golden Shopping Mall” appear in a golden sans-serif font, which are the only clues that through the door and down the stairs lie culinary gems of New York City.
Downstairs, you’ll find Tianjin Dumpling House, Lan Zhou Noodles, and the original Xian’s Famous Foods, all cramped into a tiny, poorly ventilated space. We all have our vices – mine include the lamb dumplings from Tianjin Dumpling House, which I’ve always kept a bag of sitting in my freezer. They’re plump, juicy, thicc, and life-changing.
New York City. A city that has attracted immigrants from around the world for a million different reasons, where a cacophony of languages, cultures, and experiences harmonize. Flushing represents an experience of Asian-America that shares cultural roots yet is different in every other way from my hometown of Cupertino. As I’ve gotten to know Asian-Americans who grew up in Queens, our conversations have uncovered stories of children who had to translate for their parents at a young age or hide in work closets because there wasn’t enough money for childcare.
My grandparents came to the United States with roughly enough money to buy a dining table and a TV, stopping in Flushing for less than a year before moving to Houston where they live today. In a recent conversation with my grandma, she told me about the restaurant on Main Street where she would buy roast duck during the first six months they spent in the States as they learned English. Today, scenes of the immigrant work ethic are still visible in Flushing, where new immigrants continue to live the life that my grandparents experienced thirty years ago.
Down the little alley known as 40th Road is Shanghai You Garden, where they make soup dumplings by hand in the front of the restaurant for all to see, reminding me of Taiwan’s legendary Din Tai Fung. Walk a few doors down and you’ll find Yifang Taiwan Fruit Tea, a gem of Taiwan’s most notorious culinary export: boba.
There’s no contest when it comes to two types of foods that I will never tire of: noodles and tacos. Despite what the average New Yorker may believe, New York City is a medieval backwater when it comes to tacos – sure you have Los Tacos #1, but anyone who’s had any random taco truck in Los Angeles can tell you that Los Tacos is merely passable in comparison. When it comes to noodles, however, New York’s got an endless variety: Singapore Laksa, Khao Soy, Beef Noodle Soup, Bun Bo Hue, Biang Biang Noodles from places like Tasty Hand Pulled Noodles, Taste Good Malaysian Cuisine, Dun Huang Beef Noodle, and so on.
It’s been almost three months since I’ve left New York City, but I still get flashbacks of the anticipation on 7 train between Mets-Willets Point and Flushing Main St. Or the time that, upon finishing an episode of Parts Unknown at 11pm, my friend and I ventured into the cold for the same living octopus that we just watched Bourdain eat on TV. I’ve tried so many new cuisines in New York City – Sichuan, Colombian, Greek, Uyghur, Tibetan, Brazilian, Malaysian, all without venturing more than a few subway stops from my apartment in Queens.
I’d love to say that every place I’ve tried in New York has been nothing short of stellar, but the reality is quite the opposite: for every place that has left me with a new appreciation for a certain type of noodle, meat, or vegetable, many others have left me disappointed or unsatisfied. I’ll never understand why New York City has a disproportionately high number of mediocre and expensive ramen restaurants, or the poke shops that are more pleasing to the instagram than the taste buds.
I think back on it now with a kind of nostalgic Stockholm Syndrome. Faded are the irritations of getting to see sunlight for mere minutes everyday, fighting for personal space on a subway train with a broken AC, and the city noises that never shut up. These days, I’m soaking up all California has to offer by wandering through the desert, the forest, the mountains, or the beaches, wondering how I ever was able to function in such an excessive concrete jungle. The food certainly made it more stomachable.