Flushing, NY food scene: New World Mall feels like China — it’s both yum & yuck

betty ming liu Food 17 Comments

Oh, my goodness. Wait ’til you see my photos from a new, food-obsessed mall in Flushing. When we were kids in Manhattan’s Chinatown, we dismissed this Queens-based Chinese community as a second-rate Chinatown. But Flushing is becoming Little China — which means that a recent adventure there stirred up intense, mixed feelings.

The other night, I had dinner with two of my homies. Neither of them wants to be identified so I will introduce them as beautiful Business Lady and delightful Dining Diva. Whenever I’m with these two middle-aged moms, we vent about work, family and what’s doing in Chinese America. New World Mall fit into the conversation on all fronts.

Business Lady wanted to meet at this hot spot (40-21 Main St.) which opened two months ago. It hasn’t yet been discovered by the mainstream so I hope you’ll enjoy this tour. (See my slideshow at the end of this post.)

We knew our experience would be authentically ethnic because of all the trash piled out front. Bleh. Inside, we were dazzled by long escalators, chandelier bling and a schlock China-meets-Las-Vegas decor that I will kindly describe as “kitsch.”

What a great place to play tourist. The mom-and-pop shops sell everything from wedding dresses to motor bikes. But the main event is food. And the offerings are so Chinese that there were things that each of us hadn’t seen before.

Prices run cheap to please everyone’s inner Chinese bargain hunter. Plus, the mall is easy to reach. It’s near the #7 subway line and there’s underground parking.

Warning: We went on a Tuesday night. On weekends, the crowds can be suffocating. The mostly-Asian mobs flock here for good reason. Here’s the dish on its three food scenes:

****Food Scene #1**** The Food Court They have big ones like this in China. You can chow for $1 or $15 at some 30 (!) food stalls. Tons of seating in a huge room.

Offerings include fresh noodles made on the spot, lobster on rice, desserts, hot pots, dumplings, fruit juices, scallion pancakes, sandwiches, teas, crepes, pizza, pumpkin cake…burp.

I want to go back and try sliced noodles, which are made at the counter pictured to your right.

Dining Diva tried to describe them but she said there’s nothing exactly like it. This could be a new item for foodies. Maybe.

****Food Scene #2**** JMart Supermarket An impressive, super-sized Asian supermarket takes up a separate floor. JMart, KMart…get it? This place has fruits and products that get pretty exotic.

FYI, me and my grrrls don’t really shop at Asian markets anymore. The problem is China’s terrible track record on food safety. Scandals abound over food processing corruption in China, which is both the world’s largest food producer and leading polluter. Our boycott of Chinese goods is somewhat irrational because Chinese imports are everywhere; in 2009, 70% of the apple juice Americans consumed was from China. By 2007, 90% of all Vitamin C was made there. Add to the list canned peaches, spinach, Mars and Cadbury chocolate bars, vanilla flavoring, tilapia….here’s a story about a new study by Food and Water Watch. It’s a scary and important read. But, ooops — I’m  digressing. Sorry. Back to the mall!

***Food Scene #3*** Grand Restaurant Like the other two food centers in this mall, Grand takes up an entire floor. It seats 1,150 people. Wow. In addition to the main dining room, it has private dining rooms with karaoke, a bunch of potentially naughty private karaoke rooms, a fish tank room swimming with your meal’s live catches-of-the-day, a mahjong room. The setup is very typical of the fancy, new money restaurants that are popular in China.

When we sat down for dinner, we knew nothing about Grand’s layout. Business Lady just wanted to try the food but had her doubts. After all, she discovered that this emerging eatery scored a pathetic two out of five possible stars from 16 Yelp.com reviewers. Their ratings were for dim sum (the Chinese equivalent of a small plate-styled brunch). Since there were no write-ups about dinner, we were on our own.

We ordered three dishes: fried fish belly hot pot (so-so); crispy-skinned chicken with garlic (quite good); and stir-fried leeks with garlic chives and some kind of fish (pretty good). Beer and wine was available (by the bottle) but we passed because we were dieting. Sort of.

Overall, dinner was decent. The friendly waiters were patient in dealing with us. We were three bossy moms with menus questions and demands for more water and tea. Whenever Dining Diva wanted this or that, I loved hearing her call out to the the waiters in Cantonese: “Hey, Pretty Boy!”

As for our conversation, it was the usual five stars. I can’t dish specifics but let’s just say that integrating rich Chinese immigrants into American culture is complicated. They’ve got all the usual Chinese cultural obsessions with money, prestige and pushing their kids to perform — but on steroids.

Thankfully, dessert put me in a better mood, especially since it was all free. The milky, mango tapioca soup came with a fresh melon dessert plate and cute gelatin goji berry squares. If that wasn’t enough, Business Lady insisted that the bill be split among our three credit cards. We signed three separate bills for an unbelievably measly $16.28 each. And then the waiter handed Business Lady a garage ticket along with $5 cash to cover the cost of parking — is she a smart businesswoman or what?!

After we finished eating, we wandered around. That’s when we discovered all sorts of interesting rooms that are still under renovation in this new restaurant.

Here is what I really want to show you. All this China money is creating a new entertainment sub-culture. Grand has an entire, dimly-lighted blue hallway filled with these private karaoke rooms. They have paneled walls, big TVs and long, satiny couches. What do you think the rich clients will be doing in there? Hmmm.

I’m sorry if I sound critical. But I am disturbed by many aspects of China’s new wealth culture. It’s a new pattern of Chinese immigration that we have no experience with.

Just when it seemed like Chinese-Americans were getting outside of the centuries-old pressure box and developing a broader sense of connecting and community, the rising power of the new Chinese immigrants feels like a setback. Their ambition is so raw. And based on what I’ve seen to date, this group isn’t into philanthropy. They are out for themselves in the new world.

Here’s my slideshow, just in case you want to explore this world too:

Comments 17

  1. Post

    i took all the pictures on my blackberry curve. i really like how it feels to snap a photo on my phone. it’s minimally invasive. of course, the polish is missing. but that’s often missing on my regular digital photos too — haha.

  2. Any chance that they have real Sichuan hot pot anywhere around? Bless you for all the hardcore investigation!

    Also, tell your friend to maybe name drop Think Tank Learning for some of her clients’ kids. Getting Chinese kids who don’t speak English into college is not fun, but lucrative :).

  3. Post

    winslowalrob, the food court does indeed have hot pot. we saw one stall which offered it for $5 and $7. they’re made on the spot and come in plastic containers. so much plastic garbage made at this food court. and of course, none of it is recycled. that bothered me too. i have one shot of hotpot in the slideshow. if i’m remembering correctly (it was overwhelming being around so many food choices), the hot pot stand even made fresh noodles that immediately went into the soup.

  4. You should have this published in the Travel section of the Sunday Times! I feel like I’ve visited myself, and now will make a point to go after reading your post!

    Love the photos…. it’s getting harder to determine if you’re a writer or a photographer.
    :) XoXo

  5. Ah the ethnic delights – the cuisine of our childhoods that speaks to the inner soul!In my case, being a WASP, that would be boiled potatoes, roast cooked to a Saharan degree of dryness, doused in a turgid, lumpy liquid served in a gravy boat but bearing no noticeable resemblance to that substance otherwise, and vegetables painstakingly reduced to a tasteless mush. Desert, of course, is jello.
    As in all cultures, special occasions and high holidays have their culinary traditions – in the case of the WASP, that would be plum pudding at Christmas. My dear grandmother always brought the plum pudding. Grandmother, imperious Victorian grande dame that she was. believed food, like every aspect of life, needed to be disciplined and kept in its proper place. In the case of the pudding, the proper place was in the tin mold, being steamed until it was reduced to a powerless, congealed lump, incapable of independent action and of a density comparable to a cannon ball. On one occasion, grandmother dropped the pudding as she entered the house on Christmas Eve. It cracked a floor board. The pudding itself was undamaged – or rather I should say there was no longer a power on Earth that could inflict further harm to it than had been done before it left its mold. This is why WASPS tend to be thin, in case you’ve wondered – or, as grandmother would have put it – “imperially slim.”

  6. Post

    ange, it would be fun to play tourist there. you get to see the new china without paying for the airfare and suffering through the 13-hour flight. the whole flushing scene blows me away. chinatown feels much more mainstreamed. i’m going down to manhattan chinatown today. having dim sum with a friend. it will be my first visit there since going to flushing. wonder how it will feel…

    and toby, reading your memories gives me that same sense of mixed feelings about ethnic heritage. just hearing the word “wasp” makes me tense. but i think you’re much more accepting of your memories; thanks for give me a calming morning does of your positive nostalgia. :)

  7. Betty — you nailed my sentiments about the “new Chinese immigrants” exactly. Even though ethnically I am tied more to the Mainland than to America, I can’t help but feel that this new generation is more money-driven, rather than survival-driven, than the generation our parents immigrated in. I try to understand the background and environment that they come from, but it is hard when we all end up getting lumped together.

    When I was living in Hong Kong, the blocks-long line outside the Louis Vuitton or the Gucci of Mainland Chinese coming for a “good deal” was enough to turn my stomach. I can’t imagine my parents or aunts or uncles ever standing in that line.

  8. Really great review. I like the breakdown of all the different food areas. I stopped by a few weeks ago and was impressed by the selection. Too bad about the dim sum, though, I thought it looked pretty good. I need to revisit the food court and try some of the great foods you listed. And the part about the blue hallway is a little scary..

  9. Hey Betty,

    Jack and I have been here. It was surreal, and I did feel like I was in China. Not only were there lots of good ethnic eats, which I was heartened by, but the dizzying array of goods for sale made me feel like I was in another country. A country where everyone is a size 2 or smaller. These were not clothes made for my Latina figure. Seriously. The itsy bitsy clothes most of which were Hong Kong fashions, the scooters for sale, the wedding salons, and, of course, the cutesy barettes, etc. worked to make it feel like another world.

    All in all it was fun to have such an out-of-New York experience just by visiting a mall, but I was there for very different reasons. Entertainment, it was. But in the end it didn’t leaving me wanting to come back. No worries though, there were plenty of people there willing to spend their money and come back for more…

  10. Post

    steph, you hit the nail on the head! the wealthy chinese immigrants who are flooding in are NOT survival-driven. but the core group from the early part of the last century was largely the poor folk. the new wave isn’t survival-driven; they’re status-driven. i feel a little bad about generalizing and truly hope to meet some folks who break the stereotype!

    connor and christina, i will go back at least once more to sample more food. i want to see what the place looks like on a weekend. is it as mobbed as people say? and i’d love to go back to grand restaurant after it’s fully operational. i wonder if the scene will make me feel claustrophobic.

  11. Post

    by the way, i just got back from having brunch in chinatown in manhattan. after flushing, my old stomping grounds feels so mainstream, like i’m in san francisco or something.

    i also want to share a link that a friend sent me. this is a long, interesting article about entrepreneurship in china. it interviews formerly poor folk who started businesses that make them players in the roaring, new economy. that spirit is indeed laudable. but there needs to be more soul to go with it. http://www.economist.com/node/18330120

  12. Betty,

    Man, this is investigative reporting at its tastiest! I love your writing about food, you connect to your subject so viscerally you make a terrific reporter. Also, neat Flickr widget, I want to try that too. I’ve been taking loads of pics with my iPhone and really enjoy how convenient it is. Gotta go eat now, too much drooling on the keyboard!

  13. Post

    thanks, joel! when my blackberry contract expires this fall, i might go iphone. then, i’ll be totally apple. flickr is great, btw. so easy to use. if you click through on any of the photos in the slideshow, it’ll take you to my flickr account — i have captions on each of the photos.

  14. Oh how this one makes me homesick. Wish I could call up my friends to coerce them into taking the 7 on a weekend into Flushing!

    I hear ya about the “bling” culture. I went to China 2 or 3 years ago and the parts of my journey that were in cities felt like I was in… well… New York. A doctor and a non-profit colleague invited me a dinner club where you first take a bath in the locker room jacuzzi (men in the men’s, ladies in the ladies’), then massage, then change into club-provided pajamas, then go have buffet dinner, then go sit in a TV theater to veg out, then play pool/table tennis. Spa castle, anyone? (Though I hear Spa Castle is Korean…)

  15. Post

    well, laura, whenever you get back to ny, i’m sure this mall — and others like it — will be waiting for you. and yes, spa castle is indeed korean. it’s right near flushing, in college point. thanks for mentioning it: http://nyspacastle.com/eng/main/main.php

    i’m gonna try a korean spa in august. it’s in new jersey. a korean friend is bringing me. it should be pretty interesting and i’m sure i’ll do something on the experience.

    btw, did anyone see the new york times story a few weeks ago? one out of every eight new yorkers is now asian. this is a first. http://www.nytimes.com/2011/06/24/nyregion/asian-new-yorkers-asian-new-yorkers-seek-power-to-match-surging-numbers.html?scp=1&sq=asian%20american%20population&st=cse

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