Friday, March 26, 2010

Flushing Queens: Nan Xian

38-12 Prince St.
Flushing, NY 11354
between Main Street and College Point Blvd

(718) 321-3838

Saturday, my friend from work took a few of us for soup dumplings in Flushing (Queens). I feel like I know flushing so well because my amazin’ly terrible Mets play there. I’m familiar with everything you see coming in and out of the stadium; mostly chop shops. But Gastropolis had a few essays about the ethnic food in Queens and my friend Irene raves about a place with bad ass soup dumplings.

The seven train and I trundled passed the parking lot that used to be Shea, and the stadium that will host another horrible season, out to Flushing Main Street where I immediately got turned around. The numbers were not going up or down and I walked the same block about four times before I realized that I had been pacing in front of my destination (Nan Xian). Turns out that the first number shown in an address is the street and the second is the building number…would have been awesome to know before I went.

Inside, everyone was waiting, soup dumplings (listed on the menu as soup buns or something) had been ordered since they take a while and the discussion was about what else we should order.

Hot (savory) Soy bean tofu was a soup. I enjoyed it, the soft texture of the tofu mixed with the warm soup and it reminded me of the very few, homemade tofus I’ve tried, but it was not my most memorable. The meal just progressed till we were eating things so yummy, I almost forgot that we’d had the soup.

Turnip Cakes were little fried sweet veggies. Like a vegetable tempura meets a fritter. My friend Kelly, sitting next to me, took the smallest possible piece of one while I popped the whole bite in my mouth. The sweet turnip flavor knocked me quick and I remember thinking “woah. Kelly is going to regret only eating a quarter of one of these things, but I’m going to scoop up the rest of hers immediately!” By the time I chewed and swallowed, my plan was thwarted. She loved it just as much as I did.

Crispy noodles with seafood were really good. The small wiry noodles underneath the seafood and vegetables were crispy in some places and had sopped up some of the broth and oil in others. It was a fun texture and the flavors were really nice. I had a small second scoop but once the Beef and Green Pepper Noodle Soup was put on the table, those poor crispy noodles fell several rungs down the all-time-favorites ladder.

The Beef and Green Pepper Noodle soup was really meaty, even in bites where you didn’t have meat. The broth was just completely fragrant with beef. And the noodles were super-fresh (everyone was saying they must have been made that day if not in-house. The kitchen was pretty tiny so, for the sake of the chef, I’m hoping they were simply made that day). It was really messy and tricky to serve. The long noodles would slip and slide of my chopsticks, soup splattering all over poor Dan across from me who merely shrugged and said “I seem to be wearing Chinese food today.” Thankfully, when it was his turn to dish up, he had just as much trouble. When the third person started slipping and sloshing, we were all laughing hysterically. There was nothing to be done and this soup needed to be eaten! A perfect bite with noodles and soup, a piece of beef and a slice of pepper was meaty and spicy with the starch backdrop. Seriously, this was good soup.

When the scallion pancake came to the table, Irene sang “and this is Aw-SOME” as she jumped in and grabbed a slice. It was more of a scallion pancake sandwich. There was a thin slice of beef in between and a slathering of hoisin sauce. The cakes had been fried as well so the entire experience was ridiculous. Dan, who teaches recreational cooking classes at few place in the city noted that this was unlike any scallion pancake he’d ever had or made.

Rice Cakes with Seafood was something I was completely unprepared for. You’re picturing some sort of dry sad diet food maybe? Or a cake made of rice and fried would even possible. But no! It’s a rice product that is more like a noodle thank a cake…made of rice. Irene likens it to gnocchi, It looks like fat slices of water chestnuts. And the sauce is viscous and dark with sweet and saltiness. The seafood on top was good and texture-wise stood against the rice cake-noodles well. Bites with sauce, squid and mushrooms were probably my favorite. This magic thing actually came pretty early in the meal and I kept taking small “seconds” scoops. Eventually, as people forgot about it, the dish found a permanent resting place next to me where I could carefully eat all of it somewhat under the radar. (or not. I tried.)

The finale, and it did take quite a while to make them, were the soup dumplings. They came in a steamer basket stack with the pork on the bottom level and pork-crab on the top. Irene demonstrated the technique that we had been discussing at the office all week. She bit a tiny hole in the top of the dumpling (after it had been oh-so-carefully pinched with tongs and put on a soup spoon) and slurped hot soup from the opening. Then, she drizzled some of the accompanying ginger sauce into the hole, letting it smoosh around the meat inside and mix with what was left of the soup. Then slurp again, then bite as you want.

This was an eye opening experience for me. Seriously! The soup was flavor packed and boiling hot. The ginger sauce was freaking great! and the meat was really good too. I’d bite mine in half after the slurp, sauce, slurp experience and then dump the second half with all the meat, soup, sauce, dough mixed into a crazy-good bite. I liked the crab-pork combo better than just pork. But honestly, they were the best. I was hooked.

I looked around at the rest of the place, strategizing my return and realizing that I will stick out just a bit in my Mets clothes, but um…oh well. I promised myself I would be back as a scooped a final rice cake and we left (four people, tons of food, $62 including tip).

We battled through the line of soup dumpling lovers on our way out the door and headed for Flushing Mall. There was a little food stand on the ground floor that was actually manufacturing cream puffs as we watched. Attendants piped dough into a mold (shaped like a cob of corn), then some custard. The molds closed and moved along a hot conveyor belt that cooked, flipped and cooked them. Then, there was a little shoot that they went through when they’d cooled for cellophane packaging. And all of this happened right there at the stand. Can you imagine watching them make your pretzels at the mall? From scratch? We got to try them hot off the conveyor belt. They were good. Not very sweet, with just the smallest bit of custard.

The big surprise, after I recovered from the warm custard puff stand, was the cafeteria. The Mall Food Court…all malls have ‘em right? It was packed! And there were stands and menus everywhere that had things on them I’d never thought of. Translations were funny too. Meat in Hot Oil for example. One stand had a woman calling orders over a mic that sounded like she was rallying a sports team.

Dan pointed out the different containers that were walking by, filled with all kinds of food. I was transfixed by an enormous ceramic sea-shell that a few people had which afforded tons of space to keep shrimp and beans and vegetables and whatever else very far apart while on the same plate.

The scariest thing by far, was the dessert. Shaved ice (Taiwanese or Malaysian style) with red bean, tapioca, apple jelly, fruit jellies and condensed milk. Let me paint a picture for you here. There is a huge bowl of shaved ice and a bar of condiments (like going to Coldstone or a salad bar) that you can order onto your ice. With gaping mouths, we watched a few of these get assembled before Irene suggested we order our own. There were beans. Red beans like you’d see in a salad with feta and olives, but sweet. There were jellies that were multi colored and rectangular, there was something that looked like mint jelly from your mom’s lamb dinners, there were large black tapioca balls…and then other similar things. At the end of all of this, the woman would grab a red ketchup bottle and squeeze condensed milk all over the top. It looked grosser than it sounds.

But after we’d convened in a corner, giggling like children at a dirty movie, we tried it. It was good. One condiment at a time I tried it. The beans were good, sweet and starchy against the ice. The multicolored fruit jellies were like gummy bear heads. The green apple jelly was a bit crunchy somehow (maybe sugar?) and tart, the tapioca were just as they should have been and the condensed milk actually pulled it all together so there was something common throughout. I will tell you, it was good! I still can’t completely get my head around sweet beans that are still in bean form, so I won’t be begging for that part again, but I would absolutely enjoy the rest another time.

Our final, quick stop was for duck buns. When I asked Irene where the tiny storefront actually was, what it might have been called, she said “Corner 28 (Peking Duck Corner) with the small window.” Oh. Ok. So that’s where you go if you want these awesome little pillows filled with scallions, succulent duck and a healthy amount of hoisin sauce. They were consumed in two perfect bites and we were on our way home. What a day!


My post script for this post is that, craving soup dumplings from the moment I got home, I looked into finding a Manhattan stand-in for nights that I can’t get to Flushing. I decided to try Joe Shanghai, where Irene said that I could find most of what we’d had that day; but not as great.

I found myself with an evening free. My drinks with a friend ended early, Jack had to study for a test, and there was a Joe Shanghai near my house. I ordered the Pork-Crab Soup Bun and some Fried Rice Cakes. When the soup dumplings came, my waiter asked me if I knew how to eat them. I very proudly (too proudly) said that I did and went straight for the tongs. He paused to observe and lucky me, I picked the one dumpling not on the cabbage leaf. Instead, I went for the one that was steam-stuck to the boards. When I started to lift, the bottom broke and soup went everywhere. I was embarrassed; a failure. When he left, I managed to eat one without spilling a drop.

The dumplings were a far cry from the clean, smooth flavors of Nan Xian. They were still good and I’m sure that if my first experience had been there, I would have been a convert. Instead, I was sad by the amount of oil in my slurp and the meatier flavor of the crab pork combo. The ginger sauce was still good though and while my fried rice cakes didn’t have quite the same magic, they hit the spot. They were a good stand in till I can get to Flushing again. But for soup dumplings, I’m takin’ the train.

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