|Field-trip to Flushing, the far east of New York|
"So which of you chose this place?" asked one of New York City's most revered food critics, beady of eye and round of tummy.
"Me!" My friend Aileen raised her hand, excited to welcome such a gastronomic luminary to our lunchtime plans, anxious as to hear whether her choice would receive his approval.
The critic grinned. "Well done for picking the weirdest restaurant in New York!"
The setting could easily have been plucked out of downtown Shanghai; garish signs promoted a confusion of Asian script; food carts and holes-in-the-wall served up fish balls and chicken gizzards. Crowded streets, exotic music, languages spoke in a dozen tongues. In fact we were in Flushing, Queens, a far-flung neighbourhood east of Manhattan that few outsiders ever stray into. Ever heard the often-quoted factoid about Manhattan's Chinatown being the largest Chinese population outside Asia? Flushing rivals it in terms of culture and political power, and is regarded as the most ethnically and religiously diverse community in the world.
We mooched outside the Minzhongle restaurant and waited for others to arrive. "I haven't eaten here," admitted the critic, "but I know somebody that has. Great reviews. They specialise in cuisine from the north-east border provinces of China."
Noting the sign on the door, Minzhongle also appeared to specialise in watch and cell phone repairs. In fact there was a small, living room-sized mall comprising of three other businesses inside; a repair stall, a booth selling assorted lingerie and adult products and a derelict takeaway closed down by city health inspectors. Fortunately the restaurant hadn't suffered any such fate; it was plain enough, clean, that timeless Chinese restaurant style that style passed by. Nine of us crammed round a Lazy Susan and perused the menus while Aileen's friend Ning dusted off his Mandarin to guide us through the dishes.
Several of the guests, myself included, were having seconds thoughts about Sunday lunch. We'd originally arranged to sample the best Dim Sum that Flushing had to offer. Then a friend of Aileen's connected her with the NYC food critic, and the bar had been raised accordingly. There were organs on the menu. Lots of organs. I couldn't stomach steak and kidney pie, and the texture of liver made me heave.
Ning and our special guest deliberated over the menu and and minutes later the plates arrived; lamb in cumin, blood sausage, tripe, sheep's testicles and fried bull's penis, 12 pieces for just ten dollars. At least I was spared the steamed pig elbows and "sheep muscle", whichever muscle that happened to be.
I tackled the bull's penis first. Each piece was a circular slice of brown gristle girdled by lighter fat, the size of a large coin, several pieces per skewer. Dipped in an accompanying spicy sauce (I didn't ask) I placed a piece in my mouth and hoped the best. "There's no muscle to speak of in the penis," explained the critic, "it's a purely hydraulic action. This is just cartilage." To be fair to the bull it was reasonably tasty cartilage, a meaty chew, like well-cooked beef fat . It looked far more appealing than the tripe, which was a piled-up mess of red guts and peppers, as if a plate had been slid underneath a freshly disemboweled cow. I also passed on the sheep's testicle since it was of a size and shape identical to my own. The surprise dish was the taro, a common Asian plant stem, fried and dressed with caramelised sugar. It had the look and texture of tofu pieces, the crucial difference been that it also had taste.
In the mood to celebrate not being sick in my own lap, we took to Main Street and lost ourselves in the crowds. A fog of aroma hugged the sidewalks, street food boiled and fried everywhere, a hatch on the corner served up steamed pork buns - four for a buck twenty five. Down a flight of stairs we went, into the Golden Mall, a Blade Runner-ensue vision of vendors crowded into booths beneath sterile lighting. Workers cast noodles into their mouths at speed, piles of fried duck heads caught the eye of unsuspecting passersby.
Across Kissena Boulevard, we stopped by an Irish bar to check on the Knicks score. Save for the barmaid, every face was Asian, every one of them hollering at both the basketball and a single screen showing horseracing results. At the far end of the finger-thin premises, a throng of customers exchanged money with one another. A door marked PRIVATE opened and a dozen men shuffled out, more disappeared inside. The door marked PRIVATE swung shut.
Eating organs and stumbling upon gambling dens isn't everyone's idea of a Sunday afternoon well spent, but my trip to Flushing was the embodiment of everything I adore about New York. There are so many faces to the city, such a cauldron of culture and language, architecture and tastes. Whatever your personal comfort zone, there's a New York City waiting for you, but be brave and you'll find a place like no other on Earth.