Being born in Singapore may not make me remotely Singaporean, but the coincidence of my birthplace has triggered a life-long affinity for Southeast Asian culture, people and, of course, the food. Therefore, the first place I dragged myself to when I moved to New York was Chinatown. Chinatowns, much like Starbucks, seem to be popping up all over the place. But I hadn’t lived near one since I was six years old — that is, if we count Singapore.
The most commonly known Chinatown in New York is located in the Lower East Side and has been the destination of choice for Chinese immigrants since the mid-eighteenth century. Somewhere around 70,000 to 150,000 people live there among hundreds of restaurants.
The subject of this article, however, will not be Chinatown. Rather, it will be Flushing — the bigger, better and downright sexier Chinatown of New York, located in northern Queens.
To talk about Flushing, you have to talk about Manhattan’s Chinatown first. In the last couple decades, a new wave of Chinese immigrants arrived in New York. But while the already-formed Chinatown consisted of mainly Cantonese speakers, this wave brought mostly Mandarin speakers. The resulting language barrier, as well as inflated housing prices in Manhattan, diverted many of the recent immigrants to Flushing, Queens, which soon picked up the name Little Taipei.
Flushing is poorer and clearly less visited than the incredibly touristy Manhattan Chinatown, which is why it evokes a special charm that Manhattan has struggled to keep hold of in recent decades. It is more authentic and diverse than its Manhattan counterpart. The Chinese immigrants who moved to Flushing hail from all provinces of China and brought with them a plethora of cuisines. Groups of Koreans and Taiwanese people have also come to New York, many settling in Flushing.
As a result, it is not just Chinese food that made me fall in love with the area, but the wide selection of Korean, Taiwanese and Malaysian restaurants. In fact, my favorite restaurant in all of New York City is a small, unassuming Malaysian spot fittingly dubbed Malay Restaurant.
I’ve taken too many people there to count, most of whom had even never heard of or tried Malaysian food — it blew their culinary palettes away. The puny authority I have on the subject of Malaysian food — one backpacking trip in Borneo, essentially, makes me a local — compels me to recommend the chicken satay, which is skewered chicken with a mildly spicy peanut sauce.
Another must-try is the beef rendang as well as the Asam Laksa, a spicy, sour rice noodle broth served with fish and a choice of an apple, pineapple or both. It is delicious and uniquely authentic. I was once asked by the people next to me if I like it because “most westerners don’t.” The place opens at 11:00 a.m. and is usually packed with Malaysians, which is always a good sign.
Another place I like to take my lucky friends, or usually just my lonely, sad self, is the wonderful Shanghai You Garden. Experiences at Shanghai You Garden follow this general order: You get no less than three dishes each because they each cost around six or seven bucks, leading you to believe they’ll be small. After your food comes you realize how very wrong you were as three huge, albeit delicious, meals crowd the table. The surprises keep coming as the waiters bring traditional pork soup dumplings free of charge, as well as other random dishes. By the end of your meal, half-eaten plates span the entire table end-to-end. You won’t like everything, but it will be an awesome experience and the insane kaleidoscope of food you and your friends try should cost less than $15.
Another great restaurant, especially if you’re into eating desserts that look like potted plants, is Spot Dessert Bar. I confess, when I first stepped foot into the eatery, I was looking for a real bar, but was not entirely disappointed when I figured out that it serves some of the best and most Instagrammable desserts in the five boroughs.
The Thai-inspired menu showed off a number of enticing options, including but not limited to the Mango Tango; champagne-infused mango; and a warm, buttery bun served with coconut sticky rice and coconut ice cream. But for those of us who like to live on the edge, The Harvest is the only real option. It looks like a potted plant, but is in fact a delicious dessert made of layers of berries, cheesecake, oreo crumbs with raspberry sorbet and a sweet earl grey milk tea that I hope was meant to be poured on top because that is what I did with it. If you want to eat a real potted plant, go to Brooklyn. I feel like that could be a thing there.
When it comes to drinks, Ten Ren on Roosevelt Avenue sells my favorite lychee bubble tea in a neighborhood with bubble tea at every second store. Personally, I love Ten Ren because one of the cashiers accidentally filled out their loyalty card for me so I tend to go back hoping to catch him on his shift again. Oh, and their tea is excellent. That is the drinking you were thinking of, of course.
If you do plan a trip to Flushing, make sure you leave earlier rather than later. From Fordham, you can either take a combination of the Bx9 and the Q44 or the 7 train from Grand Central. Either way, it will take you an hour or so to get there. Because of the commute, it’s best to do as much as possible while you’re there. Go to New World Mall on Main Street. Just do it. Hiding underneath it is a food court with 32 different ethnic food vendors serving inexpensive specialties from North to South East Asia.
Then head all the way up to the top floor, past dozens of other restaurants, and, if you’re lucky, you’ll get a glimpse of a Chinese wedding. Before you leave, you have to explore JMart, a huge Chinese supermarket on the first floor stocked with unfamiliar goods. If you like to cook, pick up a pack of dumpling wrappers, and try out something new at home.
I leave New York in three months, and Flushing, Queens, will be the neighborhood I miss the most, maybe because it reminds me of my childhood in Singapore. Many people, even lifelong New Yorkers, often fail to realize how special New York is, especially Queens. NYC contains a massive variety of cultures and cuisines, so get off your couch, hop on the D train, and go somewhere.