Adventurous diners with a hankering for Chinese food have plenty to choose from in Manhattan. There are Szechuan firebrands and Cantonese warhorses, plus plucky newcomers hailing from obscure localities like Henan and Xi’an, all turning out destination-worthy eats smack dab in the center of everything. But for certain regional fare, you still have to hop on the 7 and take a long ride deep into Queens.
Out in Flushing, a stronghold of expats from Dongbei (once Manchuria) has formed, and a slowly expanding cluster of restaurants, including Fu Run and M&T, reflect their hometown food. The newest of the bunch is Lao Dong Bei, a tranquil spot half a mile removed from the fever pitch of Flushing’s Chinatown. Here, chef An Hong Li and his wife, Zhu Wen Xia, offer a six-table paean to the Northeastern China region, which is wedged between North Korea, Inner Mongolia and Siberia. Its unforgiving climate breeds food that’s tailor-made for winter, like the soothing spicy beef in casserole, a bubbling clay pot of supple meat slices, baby bok choy and glass noodles, all bobbing in a slow-burning chili broth.
But alas, the words bubbling and broth aren’t quite the sweet nothings that they were in January. We need food befitting the surging summer heat, and Lao Dong Bei obliges, if you know where to look. Start with the so-called green-bean jelly sheet—springy mung-bean-starch noodles tangled with cool cucumber, cilantro and chili flakes. You’ll want to drink the bright, rice-vinegary sauce sloshing below.
Lamb ribs, slow-braised until the meat teeters on the bone, are coated in batter and a cloudburst of cumin seeds, ground chili and sesame seeds. These smoky slabs—deep-fried to an impeccably crackly chew—are actually called a lamb chop in Xinjiang style, and, like their American kissing cousin, barbecue, they’re best attended by something slawlike to cut through the wobbly fat. Shredded cucumbers with ample garlic and sesame oil fit the bill, as do the tiger vegetables, a straight-shooting pile of slivered scallions, green chilies and cilantro leaves. Crack open a cold Tsingtao with the spread and you’ll be ready for summer indeed.
You’ll also want the crispy sliced fish, shatteringly crunchy from a plunge in hot oil and sprinkled with cumin and chili. Its crust boasts the wonderful, molar-clinging stickiness of the most expertly rendered pork skin; it’s the chicharrón of the sea. Ms. Zhu will encourage you to order a plate; listen to her. She speaks mostly Mandarin—English is left to a waiter-cum-translator—but that doesn’t stop her from tending to you as if she’s known you her whole life.
Order dessert and you might experience this hospitality firsthand. Fried chunks of sweet potato, taro and apple come piled high, lacquered with hot caramelized sugar that’s a cool breeze shy of setting; a bowl of water is placed next to it. If the setup gives you pause, Ms. Zhu will come to your table, lift a piece with her chopsticks, dunk it in the cold water so the sugar hardens and place it on your plate. You are left to crack the newly forged candy shell with your teeth, crunching its shards into the hot, soft flesh underneath.
Once you’ve finished and paid, she walks you to the door and wishes you good night. It’s not only the food that requires an outer-borough sojourn—you won’t find that kind of homestyle warmth at Gotham’s nerve center.
THE BOTTOM LINE
Meal highlights: Xinjiang-style lamb chop, green-bean jelly sheet, crispy sliced fish with cumin, spicy beef in casserole, mixed vegetable and fruit with hot syrup
Price per person: $25 for several shared plates if you’re feeling gluttonous, but you can easily spend less
Vibe: Bring a few friends, so you can order enough to make the trek to Flushing worthy of a feast, but not so many that you overrun the tiny spot
Cocktail chatter: Chef An Hong Li used to cook at Fu Run, another Dongbei spot with a cult following for its cumin lamb ribs. (It’s right down the street, if you want to compare.)
Soundcheck: Quiet, save for the noises of people eating, and perhaps occasional chitchat from the TV in the corner
By Daniel S. Meyer