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New York’s Chinese Supper Club

I first noticed them at Jay Street-MetroTech station in Brooklyn. Small, gray icicle-shaped formations dangling from the ceiling—New York City’s subway stalactites. A minor geological formation of crud may seem like a small thing, perhaps, but it was enough to inspire a pang of regret about having moved here from Beijing. While New York’s underground seems to be decaying, Beijing’s subway lines and stations are expanding like multiplying cells, from just two lines a decade or so ago to over 283 miles of track by the time I left last April after six years of reporting there.

But for those and other moments of reverse culture shock, New York has one ever-present salve: food. Any time I’m looking at my China-based friends’ Instagram feed with longing, or wondering if I was wrong to choose New York over Beijing, I remember that maybe I don’t have to choose at all. China is right here in New York, open for breakfast, lunch, dinner and late-night. All you have to do is search it out.

And so I found myself in Flushing, Queens, on a drizzling Saturday not long ago, with a large group of people who had recently gone through a similar transition as me. All of us had lived in China, and visiting Flushing is in many ways like going home. Flushing is so perfectly, hilariously, deliciously China that even the most hardened China-hand, blindfolded and airdropped into the neighborhood, might not realize he was in America. The people are Chinese, the storefronts Chinese, the advertisements, buildings, smells—Chinese. Flushing is different than Manhattan’s Chinatown, which has a cluttered, movie-set vibe. Flushing does more than just look like China—it feels like it. Like all Chinese cities, Flushing is both new and worn, shining and faded. Even Chinglish, that timeless curiosity, has found its way to the neighborhood: a few blocks from the subway station, for example, at New World Mall, visitors can treat themselves to a “Digital Perm” at Merry and Lancy’s Hair Salon (although I recommend the “Magic Straight Perm”).

Flushing has long been a neighborhood of immigrants. Years ago, it was predominantly Jewish and Italian, but then came large populations from Japan, Korea, Taiwan, and, in the 1980s, Mainland China. Flushing’s ethnic mix has not always lived together harmoniously; the rapid changes can be difficult even for more established immigrants. In 2011, Peter Koo, a Chinese-American who was born in Shanghai and is now a city council member who is known by some as the “Mayor of Flushing,” proposed a measure that would require all storefront signs to be at least 60 percent English, arguing that Chinese signage threatened to alienate non-Asian customers and residents.

But if you love Chinese cuisine—no matter your own background—Flushing is close to paradise, with a splendor of restaurants specializing in dumplings and noodles, hot pot and roast duck, bubble tea and dim sum, Sichuan and Shaanxi. It has extravagant banquet halls and dingy hole-in-the-walls (just like in China, your best bet is to always go with the hole-in-the-walls). On that damp weekend in January, my friends and I had gathered in New World Mall’s crowded, dimly lit food court, where we dove into ample bowls of malaxiangguo—dry hot pot—a fiery scramble of dried peppers, beef, chicken, tofu, mushrooms, and more.

When I moved to New York last May, it didn’t take long before I realized how much I took for granted the joys of eating in China. Food is treated differently over there. People indulge, and meals, even at the grimiest shack of a restaurant in a dusty second-tier Chinese city, are events—the end result of going from a country of scarcity to one of plenty. Patrons order much more than they can eat, simply because they can, and piles of food are often leftover. People stay at the table for hours after meals, smoking, chatting, nibbling, and drinking (and smoking some more). Large lazy-Susan tables define most Chinese restaurants, where a dozen or more guests share dishes. Dinner is almost always a collective affair.

For the full Flushing experience, you need to go with friends. Preferably a lot of them.

That’s why for the full Flushing experience, you need to go with friends. Preferably a lot of them. It wasn’t the first time the group I was with—give or take a few members—had met to feast on Chinese food. Call us the Chinese Supper Club (unofficial name, coined by me, right now). Our members come from California, Tennessee, Australia, Canada, and elsewhere; several are American-born Chinese. Our lowest common denominator is that we are all ex-expats, telling and retelling stories of our wild days in China, throwing out our Chinese language skills to the wait staff—much to their amusement. Whatever our reasons were for going to China, the country helped shape who we are today. And though we live in New York now, China is very much a part of us. We have a personal relationship with China, and food, we’ve discovered, is one of the best ways to keep it strong.

Not that I always loved Chinese food. Like many who were raised in the West, I grew up in a place where the Chinese restaurant was the worst place in town—serving bastardized versions of Chinese dishes tweaked for the North American palate, cooked by people who aren’t even Chinese. I met real Chinese food, with its wealth of diversity, for the first once I had moved there,: the spicy richness of Sichuan and Yunnan fare; thick Xian hand-pulled noodles; cumin-marinated Xinjiang lamb skewers; plump Dongbei dumplings; Beijing duck, crispy and fatty, wrapped in a thin pancake with spring onions, cucumber, and hoisin sauce. All of this was available within a few blocks of my Beijing apartment. Several times a week I would gather with friends for big, boozy dinners. Everybody was invited; the restaurants were cheap (though getting more expensive), the food delicious, and the companionship comforting to young expats in a foreign land.

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Soup dumplingPhoto by: Bonnie Arbittier
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Ingredients for hot potPhoto by: Bonnie Arbittier
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Beef noodle soupPhoto by: Bonnie Arbittier
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Dry hot pot, New World MallPhoto by: Bonnie Arbittier
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Dessert, New World MallPhoto by: Bonnie Arbittier
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Dessert, New World MallPhoto by: Bonnie Arbittier
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Dry hot pot, New World MallPhoto by: Bonnie Arbittier
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Sharing dumplings in FlushingPhoto by: Bonnie Arbittier

Not long after I moved to New York, friends I’d made in China periodically convened for lunches or dinners at Chinese restaurants. We met at Prosperity Dumpling on Eldridge Street in Chinatown (pretty good) and ate dim sum at Jing Fong on Elizabeth (so-so) and slurped $5 bowls of beef noodle soup at Lam Zhou Handmade Noodle on East Broadway (awesome). Our meals were irregular at first, but late last year some of us began meeting more frequently, animated by a new mission: search out the best Chinese restaurants in town, the kinds of places where the food brings us right back to our time in China.

In early December, a group of us booked a table at Spicy Village, a restaurant barely larger than a corridor that was recently written up in the New York Times. There were several characteristics about Spicy Village that attested to its authenticity: very little rhyme or reason to the décor; a Chinese waitress wearing these oddly attractive removable sleeves that I’ve never seen outside China; a large picture menu pasted to the wall. Not long after sitting, we all began shouting our orders to the waitress, loudly and in unison (and very much how it’s done in China). She scribbled furiously on her notepad. To start, we ordered a few roujiamo, fatty pork stewed in some 20 spices served in flaky flatbread—one of my all-time favorite Chinese snacks (and which my old Beijing roommates and I used to call “Roger Moores,” the sandwich’s phonetic brother). For a main course, we shared beef brisket noodles, vegetable dumpling soup, and dapanji (“big chicken plate”), a type of Chinese stew with chunks of chicken, onions, garlic, bell peppers, and chili peppers. This was it: the first Chinese meal I’d had in New York where I felt I could have been eating it in China.

Dessert at New World Mall. Photo By Bonnie Arbittier

The next Monday, we met for hot pot at Grand Sichuan on Lexington Ave., between 33rd and 34th, in Murray Hill, not far from Grand Central Station. The thing about hot pot is you’ve really got to be in the right mood. We were. It was cold outside—perfect for hot pot—and every person to arrive sat down and said, in more words or less, “I’m so excited for this dinner.” Into a cauldron of boiling water—divided into a spicy bowl and a mild bowl—we tossed thin-sliced beef, tofu chunks, string mushrooms, leafy greens, and noodles, all dipped in an incredible creamy sesame sauce, which is really the secret weapon of hot pot. Nobody left unsatisfied.

A week later, we were at it again, at Hunan Manor, also in Murray Hill. Every patron was Chinese—an excellent first sign. We ordered scallion pancakes; a garlicky dish of eggplant, green beans, and red peppers; a kick-ass plate of stir friend prawns with a spicy sauce; and a chicken concoction I forgot to record in my notebook because I was too busy marveling over the prawns.

In January, we began planning a group outing to Flushing. I had only been to Flushing once before, for dim sum, so I enlisted my Chinese tutor, Teacher Du, who comes from Qingdao but lives in Flushing, for assistance. Teacher Du and I meet once a week for a two-hour lesson at her windowless office on East Broadway, in Manhattan’s Chinatown. We spent the better part of our class searching online for more restaurants that we could possibly visit in an afternoon. She was baffled, I think, by my interest in traveling to Flushing, which is “hen wuliao” (very boring), in her opinion, but was happy to indulge my request for guidance nonetheless.

Teacher Du met our group in Flushing that Saturday and guided us to the mall. Our plan to do a big Flushing food-crawl was thwarted when our group split up and inadvertently ordered two massive bowls of malaxiangguo for the table. By the time we finished we were already full. But there was honor in that defeat. Eating malaxianguo in New World Mall’s basement food court immediately brought me back to a specific moment: A tiny restaurant in Beijing, a short walk from the Drum and Bell Towers. Winter. Sharing a big bowl of malaxiangguo with a few friends, drinking lukewarm bottles of Tsingtao beer, catching up. For me, this is part of the beauty of eating Chinese food after six years in China: each dish summons a different place and time.

Dumplings in Queens. Photo by Bonnie Arbittier.

Though stuffed, we managed to save room for one of my favorite Chinese delicacies: xiaolongbao—Shanghai soup dumplings. We walked a few blocks to Nan Xiang Dumpling House, a Michelin-recommended restaurant. The wait was over an hour, but completely worth it. The dumplings were, without exaggeration, as good as any I’ve had, even in Shanghai. From the first nibble of the thin skin, sipping the sharp soup, and the big bite that introduces the meaty nugget inside—so good. Eating a soup dumpling is a delicate process, not one to be rushed, a mistake I made as I inhaled my second dumpling, scalding the inside of my mouth and making for an awkward Instagram photo later (that’s me on the left, looking rough).

That dumpling-rookie move was a good reminder that I still have plenty to learn about Chinese language, culture, even food. The good news is I can keep learning them here in New York City.

Mitch Moxley
Mitch Moxley has written for publications including GQ, The Atlantic, and Grantland, and he is the features editor at Roads & Kingdoms. Follow him on Twitter.

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