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Chinese Immigrant Cuisine on the Cusp (Elmhurst, Queens NY and Brighton Beach in Brooklyn NY)
Reviewed by: Harley Spiller
Summer Volume: 2004 Issue: 11(2) page: 21, 22, and 36
DAVID'S TAIWAN CUISINE at 84-02 Broadway in Elmhurst Queens is where a New Year's Banquet for Restaurant staff, family, and friends was happening. There, 'King David,' who is the owner of this eponymous Taiwanese Restaurant, whispers an invitation to his New Year's banquet to me. You can bet this reporter marks his calendar with indelible ink. 'King David' is a Taiwanese/English play on words--in Chinese, king dawei means 'big stomach' and it is a term used to describe big eaters. It is certainly an appropriate term for David, who caters to gourmands and big eaters. His Year of the Monkey staff meal had great promise, even if dinner was called for 10:30 pm on a wintry Sunday night far from home. The assembled guests were all born in foreign lands. Of the thirty diners, all were Taiwanese except for a Filipino boy, a Korean mom, a Oaxacan kitchen worker, and a New York State Buffalonian, that's me.
David's is one of my favorite restaurants. I have been a patron since his mom, Ruby Ling, opened the now-defunct Big Rice Bowls on Baxter Avenue in the mid-1980s. She had been working for an American doctor in Taiwan. He brought her along when his family returned to the United States. In the ensuing years, Ruby helped bring her family and friends from Taiwan to New York. Nearly everyone at the long banquet table had emigrated with her assistance. David has always taken me under his wing, sometimes literally, sharing tricks of the trade just inches from the flames on a very impressive line of woks and scalding caldrons at his restaurant aptly named David's Taiwan Cuisine. The Ling Family's three decades of success in the brutal New York City Restaurant world, where surviving five-years is considered a major accomplishment, is testimony to the consistency and clarity of their cuisine.
The hungry guests had gathered early and everyone talked about how they adjusted their eating regimen to prepare for the big feast. We were all well-versed in David's cooking prowess and all very psyched. While we waited for the kitchen to churn out its wonders, we helped ourselves to before-dinner drinks straight out of the glass refrigerator. People chatted, played cards or mah-jong, and nibbled at trays of watermelon seeds, dried fruit nuggets, etc. One native Taiwanese staffer told me, "without Chinese restaurants I could not live here, I have been a restaurant professional for twenty-three years." Some young boys got a tongue-lashing for having one too many beers. All in all, it was a cozy and comfortable setting, like home. After the big meal, which had not even a thought of dessert, people returned to these very same activities.
The dinner bell rang and chopsticks started clicking. The eight-course banquet included platters with head-on Salt Fried Prawns that covered a range of consistencies from the crispy calcium-packed shells, to dense and moist pink meat, to the creamy tomalley in the center. In the middle of the prawn platters sat cups made of iceberg lettuce, filled with fried pork spare rib tips, Pai Guat that were nearly oil-free, with just a little crushed dried red chili pepper. There was Roast Duck, moist and meaty, and Baked Chicken with a prodigious but not overly amount of scallions. Cut small and perfectly, the chicken niblets came off the bone with a modicum of toothwork.
Giant, Deep-fried Oysters in sweet chili sauce were lightly breaded and succulent with no hint of the sometimes off-putting slimy texture of such behemoths. The table groaned under the weight of four Whole Red Snappers, each weighing a couple of kilos, flayed fancifully and cloaked in David's signature sweet-and-sour sauce. Made of perfectly soaked black mushrooms that were neither soggy nor hard, fine Xiaoxing drinking wine, and special fruits, this dish is proof that David does not cotton to bright-orange sweet-and-sour sauce with candied maraschinos.
My favorite dish was Abalone with special oblong Fish Cake, Cabbage and Lettuce. The elegant texture of the abalone was soft like a cumulus cloud, and the hand-made fish cakes gave this succulent healthful seafood and vegetable dish a home-spun earthiness not found in precious and pretentious abalone treatments.
The most intriguing dish was a Seafood Soup which contained fried quail eggs, canned oysters, dried scallops, dense porcini-like mushrooms, Napa cabbage, and fa tsai. That is the Chinese name for this black sea moss which sounds like New Year--as in Gum Xie Fat Tsai or Happy New Year. The thick broth was deep dark and musky, something like the common Taiwanese Oyster and Fine Noodle broth. The special soup contained no meats. The Chinese make such vegetarian dishes at the New Year to please Buddha and the Lo Han, his eighteen-man bodyguard team. Chock full of any number of ingredients, the Taiwanese call such corn-starch thickened soups ghee.
Only a few people requested rice with this massive banquet. One quiet and long-fingered tween-ager kept abashedly asking for more rice, knowing full well that white rice, a daily staple, is considered too plebian for a banquet. For many Chinese, it is just not a meal unless there is a copious amount of white rice.
This was not, however, your average meal. It was a thank-you banquet for family, friends and colleagues who know seafood inside and out. There were no typical banquet fillers, no meal-ending fried rice and noodles. These diners in the know knew just how to bulk up on the rare and hard-to-find specialties. The feasting was over quickly--restaurant staffers learn to eat fast--and David's guests shared a common feature--everyone at the table LOVES to eat. There was absolutely no fear of food--one youngster crammed an entire giant prawn into his maw and then joked, "Are you sure that was the head?"
The banquet lived up to everyone's expectations, proving yet again that David is a gifted restaurateur. There are some restaurants can make great banquet dishes but pay less attention to their regular dishes. David can do both. All of the above-described dishes can be special-ordered and the basement party room is perfect for groups of ten to forty. David is a Chinese history and art buff and the décor is more like that of a museum than a restaurant. The menu is a hand-made leather beauty, with reproductions of paintings of food by the respected Taiwanese painter Tzu Chi Yeh. David has exhibited antique Chinese embroideries, photographs, and drawings, and currently has on view antique leather armor, a straw raincoat, and a large wooden rice mill.
The servers at David's are keen to please but all too often will adjust the order to what they think you want, eliminating hot pepper and the like. It is best to be firm with your order but place it once and do not repeat yourself--if you send a plate back to the kitchen for a justified reason they will get the message that you want authentic fare, not a mild version for foreigners. Show them you mean business and order 'Stinky Tofu' and do see my description of it in my first-ever Flavor and Fortune review in Volume 2 (4) on pages 10 and 11. And, when you see big David huddled behind the counter say hello from Harley, and do ask him to recommend the vegetable and seafood of the day.
Diners at David's are well-advised to pick a fish from the immaculate tanks and get it steamed with ginger and scallions. The Chili Bean Sauce Fish is also excellent. Shellfish like live shrimp, crabs and lobsters are also supremely fresh. There are several sautéed squid dishes on the menu and these combine both dried and fresh squid. You can request fresh squid only, which is sometimes called 'white squid.' Squid with Celery is the best and Squid with Yellow Chives runs a close second. Pork with Hot Pepper and Dried Tofu is a classic Taiwanese scorcher that begs for white rice. Ask for it 'Ma La' meaning numbingly spicy with hot chili peppers and Sichuan peppercorns, otherwise it will be lame.
Zesty Intestine Hot Pot (what a great name for a dish) is a bubbling delight full of stomach, blood cake, pickled mustard greens, hot pepper, and more. It is amazingly hearty and filling, perhaps the most flavorful food in all of China, almost Germanic in its meatiness. Clam and Ginger or Oyster and Ginger Soups are scintillating and have been known to scare away colds! Loofah, a squash that Westerners know in its dried bath-sponge format. It can also be eaten fresh as a silky green vegetable. Combined with tofu and/or dried scallop, loofah makes a lovely summer dish. Always ask for A-Tsai, a Taiwanese green vegetable with a remarkably nutty flavor. It is all the rage in Taipei, after many years of being denigrated as animal feed or poor person’s food. House Pan-fried Noodle is excellent, particularly the lo mein or rice cakes. Ginger Chicken Casserole comes out of the kitchen regularly as do Clams with Basil and Black Bean. David’s white rice is of the highest quality and better than you will eat in almost any restaurant. If you really want Taiwanese soul food, be brave and ask for Quai Fa Pong--sea cucumber intestine. It’s a pricey, chewy, and a thoroughly worthwhile specialty.
CAFE KASHKAR at 1141 Brighton Beach Avenue in Brooklyn NY; their phone is (718) 743-3832, is a Central Asian/Georgian place in Brooklyn's Brighton Beach. It is near end of the earth on Brooklyn's Atlantic seaboard; and a home for Halal meats and Oygur International Food. Check it out, it is between 14th and 15th Streets and, open seven days from 10am to 10 pm. Their free delivery minimum, per order, is fifteen bucks.
Flavor and Fortune, you may remember, reviewed it in their Volume 11(1) issue on pages 9, 10, and 37. The March 16 issue of this year's New York Times ran a story on the Xinjiang area of Central Asia, home to many people of the ethnic group called Uygurs. Called the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region, the Chinese government considers Xinjiang a province, and therein lies a great struggle. Xinjiang shares borders with Mongolia, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Tibet and the other disputed lands betwixt Pakistan, India and China. This old Silk Road area, is hot, very hot, in all meanings of the word.
I had read about this rarest of Chinese restaurants, the kind specializing in the foods of Central Asia, in Robert Sietsema's Village Voice column and in the above mentioned article in this magazine's last issue. But I did want to see for myself how it stacked up to the Uygur food I had tasted in Shanghai. You can read that particular article in Flavor and Fortune's Volume 10(2) on pages 33 and 34.
One day I scoured Brighton Beach Avenue to no avail. I had noticed a new place with a riotous awning, but did not peg it as the Uyghur spot. The next week I was back, address in hand, and realized that it was indeed the place. The bazaar-like banner, with variant spellings of foods, some familiar and others unknown, held great promise. The staff did not recognize the few Uyghur words I had learned in Shanghai, and their language, look, and demeanor seemed more Russian than Middle Eastern. They had come from Xinjiang, a big area with lots of ethnic groups cooking similar foods.
Inside, Café Kashkar is pretty and ladylike, not what one might expect from its calamitous exterior. I found the room anchored by a humongous, slightly tattered refrigerated case with machine-shredded salads and skewered kebabs ready for grilling. The kitchen was wide open and I could see everything in it on my way to the immaculate bathroom.
The service was perfunctory, until I flashed a copy of Flavor and Fortune with its recent review. The tall, dark featured waitress became friendly, a lady chef beamed a smile through the pass-through, and the burly owner even came out of the back for a hearty handshake and a big smile.
I ordered the Fried Lagman and was rewarded with a gritty wheat-noodle dish reminiscent of the earthy Uyghur flavors I experienced in Shanghai. The handmade noodles had three different textures due to their uneven nature and nonchalant wok-frying. There were dozens and dozens of cubettes of spiced lamb, some still on the bone. The outside edges of the meat, dusted with cumin and other spices, were as dry as the Xinjiang Taklimakan desert, but inside the meat was moist as could be. Redolent red bell pepper was cut into pretty octagons and looked like something from R. Buckminster Fuller's drawing board. Well-cooked snippets of snake beans, those very long and firm Chinese green beans, fragrant Chinese celery, and loads of cilantro made for deeply tasty mouthfuls. The fried noodles went well with both the dried ground chili pepper and moist hot pepper paste on every table. I slurped Chuchuara, a consomme loaded with fresh, flavorsome lamb dumplings, a welcome change from the common Chinese pork and chive dumpling. Samsa, clover-shaped meat pies that break into four small pieces, are piled high on the counter. The sesame-topped pie crusts are perfectly baked and the coarsely ground meat within is moist, deeply-flavored and scrumptious.
The menu had been revised since the first folks from Flavor and Fortune had been there and reported to you. A few new items had been added to the menu, and I was already eager for a second visit. And when I came the following week I paused outside Kashkar to jot down what it says on their jaunty awning: PLOW, LAGMAN, MANTU, SAMSA, PELMENI, BEEFSTROGONOV, GULYOSH, NARIN, SAMBUSA, SWEETS. The bright yellow sign features bold red letters with bright blue drop-shadows. It beckons with illustrations of hot steaming tea with bright orange cake, flaming red kebabs and lime-green vegetables. An additional sign, in yellow and blue, has even more offerings, all written in their native alphabet.
Kashkar's boss was preoccupied and did not recognize me. A different waitress gave me such a cold shoulder it truly felt like I had gone to the end of earth, even further than Brighton Beach, to the plains of Central Asia. I tried to order new things, dishes trumpeted on their sign, and items I had not tried on the first visit, but was rebuffed. The dour matron stabbed her stubby finger at the menu and barked: "only 1, 4 and 8" and she did not mention the three rather plain looking salads in the cooler. Nor did she offer the dessert dish which looked something like elbow macaroni.
I pointed at the rice (pilaw) on the next table and was informed that it was the last one and that I ought to take kebabs. I settled for black tea and the first dish on the menu, Shurpa, a delicious soup with mandolin-thin crescents of celery, cubed red pepper, a big potato, diced fresh turnip, a few short ribs barely clinging to their bones, and copious amounts of dill, cilantro, and fresh onion slivers. The broth was thin yet hearty, and could only be more satisfying if it came in a larger portion. The tea came in a pretty blue pot that was covered in a layer of oily dust.
The mismatched plates and cups foretold the present, maybe the future, that Café Kashkar was having a bad day. The boss and chef were arguing ferociously, but almost silently. Still, their body language spoke volumes and the glint of a cleaver flashing in the mirror was all too clear. The waitress from my first visit came out of the back, recognized me, but was hard-pressed to make amends. Immigrant life is not really about running restaurants. It is a fight for survival on a cusp that has taken people to the edges of the earth.
M & I INTERNATIONAL FOOD between Brighton 1st and Brighton 2nd Streets on Brighton Beach Avenue offeres many Central Asian bites. Any foodie worth their salt will spend an hour or two scouring their offerings that palpably show that Russia is indeed a neighbor of Mongolia and other Asian territories at the fringes of Chinese foodways. The rollicking M & I bazaar has thousands of offerings at dozens of counters staffed and frequented by women with matching outfits, makeup, and eyeglasses. M & I makes Zabar's look like a common corner deli. Try any number of their ground meat croquettes, chicken kishka, and red or green borscht with garlic-dill rolls to die for.
GEORGIAN BREAD at 265 Neptune Avenue in Brooklyn NY is a new takeout joint to be tried. The same edition of the New York Times that discussed the problems in Xinjiang also contained a story about the turmoil on Georgian borders. The jaunty Georgian owner speaks no English but called upon a neighbor to recite their offerings in English. I asked about the namesake bread, as there was none on display, and was told that the baker has not yet arrived in the U.S.
Georgian dishes are commonly prepared with copious amounts of hot pepper and I tried dill-sauteed mushrooms, eggplant with walnuts, spicy kale, and a mutton stew baked in a crock. The shelves here were stocked with sauces made of green, purple and yellow plums, and a real bargain, four-dollar quarts of a recent health-food trend, pomegranate juice. When I got home with all my goodies, I was shocked to see that the Georgians had not taken the stew out of the crock but had merely wrapped the whole thing in a plastic bag. The portly hand-painted stoneware will decorate my kitchen for years to come, a reminder of food and life on the cusp.
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