The Ultimate Queens Dumpling Crawl

Between the Meadows and Kissena

When the village of Flushing was incorporated into the borough of Queens (and thereby into New York City) in 1898, it ended its two-hundred-year history as an independent farming village, first Dutch, and then English. (Matinecoc, before it was either, but that's a different story.)

It was an early home of religious dissent and ethnic and cultural diversity, a trait the "village in a city" retains to this day. The Dutch were replaced by English, who were replaced by Irish, who were replaced by Jews, who were replaced by Chinese, who are being replaced by Indians. But the physical presentation of the neighborhood is, at least still in 2019, unmistakably and brilliantly Chinese.

Flushing is walled off from the rest of the city by Corona Park and the Long Island Expressway, which gives it a certain feel of independence. You can't easily walk in or out: you either live there, or you don't and you came there by taxi or subway.

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The stalls and stores sell everything from durian to duck, but if one food item says "Flushing" more than anything else, it is the Chinese dumpling.

Starch, fat, heat

"Dumpling" is a category of food that is so broad that you can find an example in just about any cuisine. The word in English has an uncertain etymology, probably related to "dough". But the sense is always broadly the same: a hunk of some kind of starch, stabilized with some kind of fat, cooked.

China loves a good dumpling. Like much of Chinese cuisine, it has a northern and southern form, the former based originally on millet (now on wheat) and the latter based on rice. The jiǎozi is a plain wheat/millet flour sheet, wrapped around something greasy (pork is good), and then generally boiled and served with a soy/chili sauce. That same raw dumpling, pan-fried, becomes a guotie or pot-sticker.

In the South, the classic dumpling is the wonton, with a thicker, more glutinous dough (sometimes made with rice flour) and generally served in a broth.

A final – but by no means least important – type of dumpling is the xiaolongbao, or soup dumpling. Southern and coastal, it is made of a very thick, almost bread-like dough around a hot liquid soup in the center.

The crawl

My wife's cousin Vijeta was kind enough to take us on a dumpling crawl she occasionally runs in Flushing, Queens, the other weekend. This post is an attempt to capture the experience and, hopefully, give some tips to anyone who wants to try the same.

Tian Jin

The first stop was Tian Jin, a tiny stall in the basement of the Golden Shopping Mall at Main Street and 41st Road.

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"Authenticity" is a problematic concept that too often becomes the tail that wags the culinary dog, but there was something just viscerally authentic about this place. Crowded, tiny, loud, constantly in motion: Tian Jin is the real thing.

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With four of us perched among three chairs and a narrow counter, passing sauces and napkins and chopsticks back and forth, we plowed through two plates of the lamb and squash dumplings.

They were simple. The dough yielded easily to your teeth and the salty, fatty juices dripped into your mouth, but the squash provided the filling with enough stability to keep together. The chili/soy oil opened up the flavors: the earthiness of the squash and the simple, unseasoned pork fat both tasted stronger at the end of the bite.

Xian Famous Foods

Next we went to Xian Famous Foods, a sit-down storefront on Main Street and 41st Avenue next to a Starbucks with Chinese signage. Sitting much more comfortably on barstools around a table, we ordered lamb dumplings.

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These were tremendous. A thicker dough than Tian Jin's, but still one that you could bite through easily. But the lamb inside – smokey, sweet, with a hint of cardamom and a lot of black pepper, all drowned in an exquisite chili oil. These had a more Central Asian feel: silk road travelers' snacks, say, or the camel-drawn food cart at some oasis east of Samarkand. The spice profile was much more dense and mature than the relatively simple flavors at Tian Jin.

White Bear

Moving on, we came to our first carryout, White Bear.

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A tiny counter in a quarter-lot storefront, White Bear can easily seat three, four in a pinch. But on a random Sunday afternoon there were a good dozen people ordering there, and happily eating them outside despite the temperature being in the 20s. And how right they were.

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These were true wontons: a stickier, wetter dough that does not simply break under your tooth but makes you gnaw through it. And once you have, the explosion of pork, pepper, and chive is like being slapped. This plate was garnished with the ubiquitous chili soy oil, more chives, and a pickled cabbage to bring that needed acid to the front. This was my favorite dumpling of the crawl.

Most of White Bear's business is apparently selling bags of frozen dumplings to be boiled at home, but unfortunately (or fortunately) we had a bus ride back and couldn't transport them.

Nan Xiang Xiao Long Bao

Two blocks up Prince Street, between 39th and 38th, we went to Nan Xiang Xiao Long Bao, a famous soup dumpling house. This is a full-on sit-down restaurant with multiple dining rooms. We had a jasmine tea to settle down the previous dumplings, and ordered two baskets of the famous longbao.

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People will tell you all kinds of secret tips for eating these: bite off the very top, bite a corner, use a straw… if there is a universal answer, I don't know it. My advice is: use the big spoon, and just accept that you're going to get delicious broth all over yourself.

The dough here was quite thick, almost like a breadbowl; it has to be to hold the broth inside. The filling in this case was crab – it was a little overwhelmed by the soup, but it added a sweetness that I appreciated.

China Dumpling

Our last stop took us back to Main Street, to China Dumpling in the basement of New World Mall.

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It was as different from Golden Shopping Mall's basement as jiǎozi is from knödel. Open, spacious, almost aggressively opulent, with seating for hundreds around metal tables (and yet, it was harder to find a seat here).

We came here for pot stickers, and we were not disappointed.

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The excess bits of dough were crunchy and slightly sweet, while the body of the dumplings were what I would call al dente in an Italian context: just strong enough to slightly resist a bite, but completely yielding with enough force.

The pork filling was a bit lost in all the crunch, and it had more seasoning than the first pork dumplings we tried, but not seasoning I could place specifically.

With fried dumplings, rather than ruin the texture by pouring chili oil over them, people often alternate bites with a chili-oil-pickled cabbage. This was a brilliant side and helped bring out some of the more buried flavors in the dumplings.

I obviously don't know anything like all of the dumpling opportunities in Queens, but I feel like I could easily have picked five worse, and would have been hard pressed to pick five better. Thanks again, Vijeta!

To doe good unto all men and evil to noe man

In 1657, a group of Dutch farmers presented a petition to Peter Stuyvesant, requesting that his proposed ban on Quakers in New Netherland be suspended. They closed their letter with these remarkable paragraphs:

The law of love, peace and liberty in the states extending to Jews, Turks and Egyptians, as they are considered sonnes of Adam, which is the glory of the outward state of Holland, soe love, peace and liberty, extending to all in Christ Jesus, condemns hatred, war and bondage. And because our Saviour sayeth it is impossible but that offences will come, but woe unto him by whom they cometh, our desire is not to offend one of his little ones, in whatsoever form, name or title hee appears in, whether Presbyterian, Independent, Baptist or Quaker, but shall be glad to see anything of God in any of them, desiring to doe unto all men as we desire all men should doe unto us, which is the true law both of Church and State; for our Saviour sayeth this is the law and the prophets.

Therefore if any of these said persons come in love unto us, we cannot in conscience lay violent hands upon them, but give them free egresse and regresse unto our Town, and houses, as God shall persuade our consciences, for we are bounde by the law of God and man to doe good unto all men and evil to noe man. And this is according to the patent and charter of our Towne, given unto us in the name of the States General, which we are not willing to infringe, and violate, but shall houlde to our patent and shall remaine, your humble subjects, the inhabitants of Vlishing.

You may recognize "Vlishing" as the Dutch form of what's now the greatest ethnic crossroads in the world, and one of the premier sources of dumplings.

Lumps of dough

It's probably impossible to say why some foods take off and others don't; why mustached and fedorad white hipster chefs will sell $25 bowls of phở but dumplings are still $6.50 for a plate. I mentioned above that "authenticity" can be a problematic concept to work through, but it's probably worth trying to from time to time.

Dumplings are, everywhere, a comfort food: the combination of fat, salt, and starch guarantee that. And it strikes me that they are everywhere an "amateur" food, at least in premise: even very stringently folded and shaped dumplings must look like they are lumps of dough that happened to fall together that way.

I mentioned that the New World Mall is very different from the Golden Shopping Mall; that was an almost comic understatement. Golden was a pre-existing building (it had previously housed Jewish tailors and delis) filled by 1st generation Chinese immigrants cooking the food they knew. New World Mall is a new(ish) building, built by 2nd-generation Chinese-Americans on a much grander budget (and plowing up a pre-existing mall where more modest 1st generation restaurants once stood).

While we waited for our potstickers, we watched, almost hypnotized, as a chef hand-stretched noodles in one of the large stainless steel open kitchens. But I couldn't help thinking that this was a show, in a way that the chef preparing noodles in a cramped tile kitchen in Golden Shopping Mall wasn't – this was no longer the keeping open of a connection but the working out of a lost one – the difference between the first and second generation to find themselves having to cope with what being American means.

Thanks again to Vijeta for the tour, and I really encourage anybody who wants to experience some amazing dumplings to try these, or any other place in Flushing that looks good.

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