By Brian Yarvin
Sunday, March 21, 2010; F06
Even though I go to Flushing, N.Y., fairly often, I'm always caught off guard by how quickly things change in the Queens neighborhood. Sometimes it will be just a new restaurant, or maybe a new hotel, but last year, as my train was pulling in, I noticed a whole new stadium. Shea was gone, and Citi Field was in its place. The area has an energy to it that I just want to bottle and sell.
Most out-of-towners will head toward Flushing for Citi Field or its neighbor, Arthur Ashe Stadium, and if they're not in the loop, they'll take in a baseball game or a tennis match and leave. The rest of us know better. Here's a neighborhood that really seems to be part of China, only with New York City street signs. When I step off the train at Main Street, get my first whiff of scallion pancakes, make my first sighting of a new menu or find some ingredient that exists nowhere else in the Eastern United States, I know that I've come to the right place.
I'm not kidding about the stepping-off-the-train thing. There are Chinese street food vendors right under the elevated tracks. With those pancakes, some fried noodles, maybe a bowl of that rice soup called congee and a few steamed buns, I'll sometimes fill up before I even cross a street. This can be a problem, because when you cross the street, there's more food and different food, and it goes on for a solid half-mile in any direction.
If I'm meeting people, my favorite place is Chao Zhou Restaurant. Not only does the giant bright red bowl of noodles on the roof make it easy to find, but the menu of Chaozhou and Cantonese specialties also features both familiar touchstones and adventurous treats. It starts with the suspiciously British-sounding Hong Kong Style Breakfast Meal (fried eggs and a choice of sausage or bacon), moving through noodle and rice soups and on to a list of stir-fries and casseroles. My choice? Pork Bellies With Preserved Vegetable in Brown Sauce or Half Chicken With Ginger and Scallion in Spicy Sauce.
I also love dim sum with the locals. At a place like Dong Yi Feng, with its old-school red and gold Chinatown decor, I can sit and watch the interplay between the regulars and the staff. The servers will try to tempt the diners with carts filled with all sorts of dumplings, soups and snacks, while the customers will buy just the bare minimum that allows them to occupy the seat without an argument. They even bring their own newspapers and containers of takeout coffee.
When it comes to shopping, I always set out with a goal; it could be a pair of jeans, an ethernet cable or some cereal bowls. And I can guarantee that I'll never find what I want and will come home with something else. Last time, it was my favorite Fisherman's Friend cough drops in Chinese packaging. The neighborhood is filled with malls that look more like third-world market stalls, and a small storefront could be a gateway to dozens of tiny vendors and even more food. My favorite is the biggest: the Flushing Mall, with its startlingly authentic food court. This is the home of Xi'an Famous Foods. Their lamb "burger" was immortalized by Anthony Bourdain on his TV program, "No Reservations," and is just one of dozens of items worth eating here. Believe me when I tell you that I've tried every one.
Flushing Meadows Corona Park never seems to be on anybody's list of favorite parks. After all, it completely lacks the tranquility of Prospect and Central parks. Yet in its own way, with those 1939 and 1964 World's Fair relics on its grounds, it's more compelling than just about any other park out there. I always visit the two rockets outside the New York Hall of Science, one an Atlas booster with a Mercury Capsule and the other a Titan II with a two-man Gemini capsule. For manned spaceflight buffs or anybody who remembers the optimism of the 1960s, the sight of those rockets is gut-wrenching. They seem to be yearning for the astronauts who once rode them into space.
At the Queens Museum of Art, there are the sorts of exhibits you almost take for granted in New York; installations of found objects, videos, sculptures and -- depending on your perspective -- either fascinating or overly clever supporting text. Go past the art and head for "The Panorama," a model of New York City as it existed in roughly 1992. At 9,335 square feet, it's the world's largest architectural display. I can't visit it without crying. Sometimes I check out where my grandma lived, or I'll recognize the place where an exceptionally bad relationship ended. If you've had a special moment of one sort or another in New York, the Panorama has a way of bringing you right back to it.
As if I haven't confessed enough in the ways of gluttony here, I'm a sucker for the cafes with teas, coffee and an even greater variety of snacks. At Sago Tea, I'll sit down to a big glass of cold passion fruit green tea and a plate of Hong Kong-style peanut butter French toast. Exactly what it sounds like, it's as modern as tomorrow and yet just another kind of Chinese food.
At the end of the day, take a walk down Main Street. Embrace the crush of the crowds, browse in the shops, grab a few snacks and pretend for a moment that you're in Asia. I did that while strolling there not long ago. Just as I was thinking that this was as urban as a place could be, I heard a rooster crow.
Yarvin is a writer and photographer in Edison, N.J.