In downtown Flushing, residents enjoy Chinese delicacies from food stalls hidden from sight. Located across the street from Queen’s Library Flushing branch, this secret culinary treasure sits in the basement of the Golden Shopping mall, one of the hundreds of unimpressive low-rises in this Chinese-majority neighborhood.
From the outside, the mall’s distracting advertising signs make it rather difficult to find this entrance to deliciousness. Push through the glass door and walk down several steps, however, and you will discover a basement packed with food signs, stools and most importantly, powerful flavors —from lamb pie to savory crepes. In here, locals and adventurists enjoy delicious roasted chicken and Chinese-style kebabs along with dozens of varieties of dumplings and noodles, served from eight food stalls, each owned by different restaurateurs or families. The stalls serve several hundred customers a day with dishes like pork dumplings with chives, shrimp and eggs, 12 for $5, or a large bowl of northwestern-style handmade hand-pulled noodle with beef for $7.
This basement — dingy, crowded and clamorous — is regarded by some food lovers as a hidden star in Queens’ restaurant scene.
“It always comes up in food blogs. It’s like a little secret foodie hideout,” said Chris Blatchly, a food blogger and self-described street-food enthusiast from Sunnyside. “They have the little cool stools. And the smoke and steam is coming up in all those shops.”
It’s more than that, though. For many Chinese in the neighborhood, this little eatery feels like a home away from home. And for those who are visiting for the first time, eating here can a real adventure.
“It’s just like small China,” said Helen You, owner of the Tianjin Dumpling House, who serves northern Chinese style dumpling with their special garlic-and-soy sauce. “People don’t have to pay for the air tickets to go to China, they come here to feel like they are.”
This basement has bred the success, among others, of Xi’an Famous Foods, a pioneer of northwestern-style Chinese food in New York that has grown into 12 locations. The company’s first stall is located here. More of the food stall owners in this basement— most of them immigrants from China — say they are planning to follow Xi’an Famous Foods’ lead and expand to other locales. But all of them say they will keep serving customers here, in this basement, with its spice, heat and its unpretentious authenticity.
The owner of the Lanzhou Handmade Noddle, Jianchun Wang, recalled how this underground food feast started in the mid-2000s. “When we started in 2006, there were just us, the Tianjin Dumpling House and Xi’an Famous Foods,” he said. “Back then there weren’t many restaurants in Flushing.”
A trained cook who had been making handmade ramen for over a decade before immigrating to the United States in 2005, Wang said he realized there was not a single ramen restaurant in Flushing. So he decided to open the first one.
“A good ramen soup should have all its elements balanced. The noodle has to be crispy and the soup has to be flavorful,” said Wang, who is looking to open a ramen restaurant on the Upper West Side.
For You, the owner of Tianjin Dumpling House, another one of the stalls in the basement, the path to the restaurant business was a lot different. Born and raised in Tianjin, a city about two hours from Beijing in northern China, You came to the United States to attend college in the late 1980s’ and later worked on Wall Street. In 2006, however, she chose to quit her accountant job and come to Flushing to open up her own food stall.
“I just feel that I can have more freedom to carry out my own ideas,” said You. “So I decide to do my own business and to be my own boss.”
Her specialty: handmade dumplings that she learned to make from her mother and grandmother.
“We use fresh ingredients, that’s the key for the taste and [to create] juicy not so greasy dumplings,” You said. “All the meat is hand chopped and hand ground. All the vegetables are fresh daily.” Eight years into the restaurant business, You also opened Dumpling Galaxy, a sit down restaurant in Flushing that was reviewed by the New York Times.
“Ms. You clearly had a kind of genius for creating miniature worlds of flavor,” wrote Pete Wells, the Times’ restaurant critics.
Despite the restaurant’s success, You still also works the stall in the basement in Flushing. She said she has no plans to ever leave.
“This is my treasure, my first pearl, my real baby,’ said You. “I will keep it forever.”
That is a relief to the dozens of patrons that eat here every day, for sure. On this mid-day, Matt Lachman, a tourist from Cleveland, finished up his plate of dumplings and told the server at Tianjing Dumpling House, “I’m actually going to get something to go.”