In the annals of Rhianna as Picky Eater (we will touch on these annals numerous times, I am sure), Chinese food stands out as a cuisine I have always avoided despite having easy access to it. I would argue that for most of my life, what could be accessed easily was in no way noteworthy. Chinese food was in every mall food court in Edmonton—I should say that winter-for-eight-months-of-the-year Edmonton had many a mall—and it was not at all hard to find a “Chinese/Western Food” restaurant in one of the city’s (also many) strip malls. My family did not even really eat at the Chinese restaurants in Chinatown. By the time I was a child, it had morphed more into a Little Saigon and that ended up being of more interest to our tastes.
But given this access, if there was an ethnic cuisine I should have nostalgia for, it is Chinese (Cantonese, specifically). But nope, the unnatural colours, gloopy cornstarch sauces, heavy batters, and fried rice from steam trays I believed were in abundance never took hold of my heart. Extended family celebrations or Friday nights out that occurred at such places had me sitting in front of a plate of steamed rice and vegetables that I had picked from other dishes. In my twenties, I had too much fun trying to explore other cuisines to think back to Chinese. Even when I moved to Vancouver (a mecca of Chinese food), my motivation was low; a little voice always said, “But you don’t like Chinese food.”
A week before I left Vancouver for New York, I finally had Chinese food that brought me round. It was at a restaurant that was about a three-minute walk from the office that I had worked at for nearly three years. Do not worry, I have slapped myself silly for my stubbornness. Why I finally went? I wanted to try dan dan mian—spicy, porky noodles that are often listed in the appetizer section of Sichuan-style Chinese restaurants. The prospect of a bowl of chewy noodles definitely has power over me. That is why I eventually also found a taste for ramen as well. Almost too al dente is how I like my noodles, and the ones at Peaceful were perfect for schooling this picky eater. I was smitten.
This did not mean that once I arrived in this East Coast mecca of Chinese food that I was all about finding more noodles. Smitten—not in love. There was too much good pizza and too many good sandwiches for me to indulge in here in New York before I could make time for exploring Chinese. Still, for a long time, I wanted to make the big foodie trip out to the Chinatown in Flushing, Queens to hit a bunch of different places on one visit and appreciate the variety of tastes that Chinese cuisine has to offer. Finally, this summer I did so. Located at the end of the 7 subway line, Flushing is not really a place you visit for a quick noodle fix. I hit up many of the stalls and quick-service restaurants that make it easy to get one thing, eat, and then move on to the next. There are too many resources that list what the greatest hits are and where to find them, so I will refrain from repeating what a quick Google search will yield. (But I did like this one for the inclusion of the map.)
Not surprisingly, the biggest hit for me that day in Flushing was the plate of Chengu-style cold noodles from Chengdu Tian Fu. The Sichuan kiosk is in the basement of the Golden Shopping Mall. And that is “mall” in the loosest sense of the word. Based on a post by a Queens-based blogger, I was there specifically for these noodles and these noodles alone.
Dreams came true that day. The noodles were oh-so-chewy and cool for the summer heat. The garlic was aggressive in a way you secretly always want it to be despite knowing you might have to talk to someone afterward. The chili oil and black vinegar resulted in a perfect sour-spicy kick, with the heat registering more as tingly lips than a burning throat. I think that is the special ma la quality often spoken of in regards to Sichuan peppercorns.
All I could think of on the train ride home was, more. More soon.
Less than two weeks later I was back. Turns out Flushing could be a place for a quick noodle fix.
So, when the heat subsided and a fall chill made itself apparent, I went back to the basement to try the dan dan noodles. Although warm instead of cold and with a good dose of ground pork, the dan dan noodles were almost like the fraternal twin to the cold ones. The same chew, the same heat, but with just a few other extras like the pork and bok choy. A strong arm for mixing is required to ensure all the good bits are scattered thoroughly and the sauce evenly coats. But the work is well rewarded by mouthfuls of slick strands.
More soon, says the Chinese food convert.