June 30, 2011

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 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: