Sunday, March 25, 2012

A Stroll Through Brooklyn Chinatown

Brooklyn Chinatown is a long shoestring of a Chinatown along 8th Avenue. When we visited Brooklyn Chinatown in the 1990s, it was all of four blocks long from 55th St. to 59th St. When I went back in 2006, it ran from about 48th St. to 61st St. Now it runs from 40th St. to 65th St. The reason for the shoestring development is that "8" is the luckiest number in Chinese culture. I don't know why, it's just something about the way the word sounds. Consequently, everybody wants to open a business on 8th Ave., and very few want to do so on any other street. As a result, Brooklyn Chinatown is now 25 blocks long and about 2 blocks wide.

As late as my 2006 visit to Brooklyn Chinatown, all of Brooklyn Chinatown was north of the N subway stop on 8th Ave.. So when I got off the subway I was surprised to see Chinese businesses to the south, so that's where I immediately headed. My first stop was at Chili & Chilly where I ordered the "fried shrimp dumpling", not knowing what to expect. When the waitress brought out what looked like plain old ha gow, I was a little disappointed. But when I bit into it, I discovered that the ha gow had been deep fried, despite the fact that the wrapper was still its regular white color. It was so delicious! Chili & Chilly was one of many storefront operations carved out of one block long building between 63rd and 64th Streets. I noticed several other eateries on the block, along with the sign "Fei Long Food Court." I had read about this newly opened food court on Chowhound, which was associated with Fei Long Supermarket and was surprised to see that the food court consisted of individual shops on the street, as opposed to a true food court. I was ready to head north on Eighth Avenue but I was a little puzzled about not seeing an entrance to the supermarket. I saw a map on the wall which pointed to the entrance being between two of the storefront restaurants. Funny, I didn't see anything that had looked like a supermarket entrance. I went back to that spot and only saw a narrow doorway covered by long thick vertical plastic strips, like you see sometimes at the entrance to a walk in refrigerator case. I stepped through and guess what? No, not the supermarket, but an indoor food court with a dozen Chinese eateries. And to think I almost missed the real food court if I hadn't been looking for the market. I checked out the various stalls and took a peek at the market which was further inside. I also sat down and ate some of the peanut noodles I had bought at Yuan Bao, which was another one of the exterior eateries.

Finally headed up 8th Street, I stopped at the dim sum house at 60th St. that was called Diamond on Eight (sic) in 2006, but was now Super Lucky Seafood. It was 3 pm, and I was lucky that they did have some beef cheung fun left among a very small dim sum selection. At 58th St., and actually not on 8th, I spotted the cleverly named Restaurant on 58th St. Chinese Restaurant. With a name like that I had to eat there, and since they served lunch specials until 3:30 pm I was able to get a nice order of tofu and fish for less than $6. However, my primary target for this excursion really was Pacificana Restaurant on 55th St., which opened up shortly after my previous trip to Brooklyn. I have often commented that New York City Chinese food is mired in the 1990s, far behind what one finds these days in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and in particular, Vancouver and Toronto. In reading about Pacificana, I thought that it might something better, more akin to our Elite, Sea Harbour, Lunasia, etc. in the San Gabriel Valley. However it was pretty clear that this was not the breakout New York Chinese restaurant I was looking for, with dim sum cart service and fairly ordinary varieties of dim sum.

The other target for the day was going to be Yunnan Flavor, the only Yunnan restaurant in the US aside fron the chain of Yunnan Garden restaurants in the San Gabriel Valley and Las Vegas. However, when I got there, I saw a long line--of mostly caucasians. Uh oh, the place was discovered. I figured it wasn't worth my wait so I trudged further up Eighth Ave. At 46th St. I spotted the strangely named Chen Fulin Kwok restaurant. Historically, Brooklyn Chinatown, like Manhattan Chinatown was exclusively Cantonese. However, the eastern part of Manhattan Chinatown has turned entirely Fujianese in the past 20 years or so. I had read that Fujianese were moving into Brooklyn Chinatown, too, and "Fulin" looked like the word "Fuleen", which is a name adopted by a number of Fujianese owned Chinese restaurants across the eastern, midwest and southern states. (Fuleen appears to be the Fujianese version of the name Fu Lin, a Chinese word which connotes happiness and fortune, and which has been attached to numerous Chinese American restaurants for decades. However, the name Fuleen has only popped up only in the last decade or two, and only in the eastern U.S. where Fujianese dominate the Chinese restaurant business.) I looked at the menu and to my excitement, I saw "fish dumplings", a common and favorite dish of mine at San Gabriel Valley Chinese restaurants but basically unheard of in New York. However, when I tried to order them, the lady said she was out. I then settled for something called "fish ball and fish" soup instead.

Reaching the end of Eighth Ave. Chinatown, I had traversed 25 blocks. Instead of walking the 22 blocks back to the N train at 62nd St., I had discovered you could catch the D train at Ninth Ave., which would drop me off directly under my hotel in Midtown Manhattan. Congratulating myself for being so clever, I headed over the Ninth Ave. I thought the stop was around 45th St., but I didn't see any subway station. Well maybe it was 49th St. No, not there. So I kept on going and headed all the way back to the N train. (As it turns out the subway station was just off of Ninth Ave., but it didn't matter since the D line was out of service for the weekend, as I would find out the next day.) At this point I was very tired, so I went back to the Fei Long Food Court, sat down, and ate up some more of my food. I opened up the fish ball and fish soup to find something that looked like wontons. Hmph. They messed up my order. I started eating them, and about half way through I realized that these won tons had fish skin wrappers, albeit not as elastic as other versions I've had in the past. Just shows you can never tell what the description of a Chinese dish might really mean.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

20 For the Price of 1-- Riding The Manhattan Chinatown To Flushing Bus

Well it took longer than I expected, but I finally made it onto the Chinese bus that runs between Manhattan Chinatown and Flushing Chinatown. For one thing, the one way fare is now $2.75 instead of $2.50, but it's still an amazing ride. I had used my previous visits to scout out how the bus operated. This was necessary because it's a rather unusual bus--the bus does not have markings saying where it goes, there are no marked bus stops, and the bus has no schedule but runs Disneyland style--the bus waits until it fills up, then an empty one pulls up behind it.

Shortly after arriving at my hotel in SoHo, I headed on out to the "bus stop". Sure enough there was a row of buses parked on Division St., a couple of people lined up in front of the lead bus, and a longer line behind the next bus. The lead bus appeared full so I got in line for the second bus. We started getting on the bus, and I made sure and asked the driver if this was the bus to Flushing. It was only a couple of minutes before all 20 seats were filled, as required for the bus to take off. With the bus holding 20 passengers and the fare of $2.75, the total fare for a full bus is $55, or exactly the same amount I paid the cab to ride from JFK into Manhattan the same afternoon. 20 for the price of 1, as compared to my single rider cab fare from the airport, is indeed a great value. We got to Flushing in about half an hour. However I've gone to Flushing often enough to know that the bus driver didn't get off at the regular exit from the freeway. Soon I saw he was driving through a residential neighborhood, rather than going to the commercial district, which I found interesting. He eventually stopped to let off a passenger--I don't know whether that was a regularly scheduled stop or by request. (My guess is the latter.) Shortly thereafter we were on Main St., and after a few more stops we reached our destination of 41st Ave.

The purpose of this trip to Flushing was to visit the food court at the New World Mall, which opened up this past summer. When the bus arrived at 41st Ave., I quickly made my way over to Roosevelt St. where the mall was (even though the mall's street address was Main St., a quirk of New York City's street address system). I had a little trouble finding the mall since I first went to the wrong part of Roosevelt, then ultimately discovered that the entrance was half a full block up from Main St. I had previously visited the other Chinese food courts of Flushing, which could be generously described as dives, if not worst. However, this food court is really nice, reminiscent of the food courts one finds in enclosed shopping malls.

The New World food court has 30 different eating places, but I had also done my homework about the mall and found that there were a large number of eateries I wasn't interested in--Sichuan style, Japanese, Korean, etc. Consequently the number of targets was much smaller. My first stop was Noodle Village where I spied the fish cake soup. It was really good--large, rectangular slices of fish cake cooked almost until they were crispy. Next was Hottest 86, not so named because they served spicy food, which they don't, since it's Hong Kong style, but because, well who knows why? (The 86 does refer to their main location on 86th St. in Brooklyn.) There I had the fish fillet in black bean sauce with the crispy coating which was pretty good. Also picked up the glass noodle soup from Sliced Noodle which was great when I sampled it on the spot. I also bought snacks for later, including a pumpkin pastry at Tianjin Foods, and a salty/sweet rough flatbread from Casserole Big Bowl of Noodles. I headed back to 41st Ave. to catch the bus back to Manhattan. This was a little more confusing because I poked my head into the first bus in line, and when I asked the driver whether this was the Manhattan Chinatown bus, he replied "Brooklyn." (Good thing he spoke English.) He then directed me to third bus in line, and I rode back to Manhattan.

While this may sound silly, riding the Chinatown to Flushing bus and visiting the New World Mall food court was a dream come true. I am really impressed with the Chinese bus to Flushing. It's incrementally more expensive than taking the subway to Flushing, which costs $2.25 on the #7 train, but it cuts travel time in half and makes Flushing more accessible to Manhattan than I would have imagined.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

The Frenchies Next Door, Explained

The house next to ours sat vacant for quite a while, as the real estate flipper/owner got caught up in the real estate downturn. While he did not buy the house at the peak of the market, he clearly jumped in too soon in putting in $1 million or more in upgrades. Unable to sell the property, he tried renting it out, but at $15,000 a month, there were no takers. After dropping the rental to $12,000 a month, or perhaps more, he finally found a renter summer before last, at least for four and a half months.

Now we still wondered what kind of person would pay that kind of rent, and only for a four month period. The family, husband, wife, small child and dog, were French speakers, and the husband introduced himself as Michel. However they kept to themselves, and indeed the husband wasn't around particularly much. My best guess was that the husband was in Los Angeles temporarily on business, perhaps in the entertainment industry. They had a couple of parties with loud music, once with French music and another time with 70s and 80s oldies, with the parties ending at a decent hour. (This was in contrast to parties thrown by the real estate flipper/owner, which typically started after midnight with rock music blasting and lasting until dawn, sometimes blocking the street with parked cars and taxicabs ferrying guests from the Hollywood clubs after closing.)

After four or five months the Frenchies were gone, and I never had any better indication of who they might have been. Then, a month ago I was flying back from New York on Jet Blue, watching the late night telecast from WNBC-TV with Jay Leno interviewing Jean DuJardin, the star of the movie "The Artist." While I enjoy watching Leno, I'm never up late enough to watch the Tonight Show on Los Angeles time, so this was a treat for me. DuJardin recounted how the movie was shot entirely in Los Angeles, that he had never visited Los Angeles before, and how he became accustomed to the daily commute from the large house he had rented in Los Feliz to various locations in Los Angeles where "The Artist" was filmed. Immediately bells rang. Was the Frenchie next door in town for four months to work on The Artist? That prompted me to try to find out more about the shooting of "The Artist" in Los Angeles, but information was sketchy. The City of Los Angeles did give an award to "The Artist" early this year for being the best movie shot in Los Angeles, but the news story referred to the movie being shot in Los Angeles over a "seven week period". That created some doubt in my mind, though it's possible that with pre-production and post- production periods, somebody involved in the movie might have had to stay in Los Angeles for four months.

However, the solving of the puzzle seems to have come from the telecast of the red carpet pre-Oscar show before the Academy Awards. I'm not one to watch red carpet shows, and indeed I can't recall watching more than a glimpse of any such show. Plus, I was actually at work when the telecast began. But it so happened that my son's girlfriend was fortunate enough to have been invited to attend the Oscar show at the theater formerly known as the Kodak Theater, prior to Kodak's recent bankruptcy filing. So I decided to tape the show to watch later to see if she might have been caught on camera while milling around the red carpet. No such luck, but there was another interview with Jean DuJardin, where he proclaimed his affection for Los Angeles based on his four to five month stay (he actually said "five or four months") in the city shooting the movie. Which means the Frenchie next door, Michel, was probably Michel Hazanavicius, winner of the Best Director Oscar for "The Artist."