There's no shortage of Sichuan food in New Jersey. And we've also got a good number of Shanghainese restaurants. But if you're looking to explore Chinese cuisine outside of those two regions, for the most part you're going to have to look elsewhere. Thankfully, that elsewhere isn't all that far. It's Queens, New York.
Somewhat related, I don't think it would be very difficult to make the argument that Queens has the most diverse food scene in all of the country. Or the world.
Back to Chinese food...
A friend pointed us in the direction of Lao Dong Bei, a tiny restaurant on Kinessa Boulevard specializing in cuisine of the Dongbei region of China. Yeah, I had to google it, too. Dongbei is the northeast bit of China, an area historically called Manchuria. This is the chunk of the earth that the chef hails from. This is the chunk of the earth that spawned the dishes below. I assume. I really don't know.
We were brought a small amuse of garlicky green beans. The texture reminded us of canned Del Monte. Somehow I don't mean that to be an insult. We devoured that bowl pretty quickly and the server brought over another. Good beans.
I was very keen on ordering the Sliced Conch in Hot Oil, but the server motioned that they didn't have that dish (there wasn't a whole lot of English here). Right above the conch on the menu (which is thankfully in English) was the Sliced Stomach in Chile Oil, and that's where my finger landed. Much to my wife's chagrin.
Readers of this blog may know that I am addicted to ox tongue and tripe, a dish that you'll find at Sichuan restaurants. After eating this stomach dish, I think my addiction just broadened.
The stomach was cut with a good amount of julienned vegetables, which created a textural contrast, and a cooling effect. The dish was chock full of pickled, fermented flavors, with a big punch of spice. I thought it was outstanding. Simply outstanding.
From our quick research, we determined that the Crispy Fish with Cumin dish is a good representation of this style of Chinese food. Crisp, fish filets, some heat, sliced leeks, and what had to be a full bottle of toasted cumin seeds. Don't order this if you don't like cumin. Don't even walk past the restaurant if you don't like cumin.
The fish seemed a bit dry, but I suspect that's the idea. I noshed on the (abundant) leftovers the next day for lunch. Cold, right out of the Tupperware. Piece by piece.
Then came the Tofu Stew in Casserole with Sour Cabbage and Pork, heated, presumably, on the surface of the sun. The broth in this cauldron was the essence of pork. I have no idea how many hogs were used to make the broth, but I'll guess five. Five hogs for this bowl of broth.
After the bowl cooled down to just blisteringly hot, we discovered big, luscious pieces of tofu, which had soaked up that porky broth, vermicelli, preserved cabbage, and slices of pork belly. This was one substantial dish (for about 11 bucks I should add). One of the best and most satisfying bowls of pork food that I've ever had? You betcha.
While we will no doubt return to explore more of the casserole options, I'm also interested in "orange sauce" and "sweet and sour" dishes. That sounds a whole like like Americanized Chinese crap, but I'm confident that there's some cultural significance at play here, and these dishes will be eye-opening.
They do serve beer at Lao Dong Bei. Tsingtao (Chinese Bud, to me), and maybe something else. Ordering that beer entailed walking up to the fridge and pointing. Ordering white rice led the server to pull out his translation app. Ordering the second round of beers was even more challenging. But fun.
Bring your translation app and appetite to Queens. Soon.
Lao Dong Bei : 44-09 Kissena Blvd : Flushing, NY