For over seven years I’ve rushed down Main Street, Flushing for the next 7 train, the next Q58 bus, the next Q27, but I’ve never slowed down to seriously explore its nooks and crannies. That is, until its familiar signs and sidewalks appeared on my TV screen during an rerun of Andrew Zimmern’s exotifying Travel Channel show, Bizarre Foods. On both Bizarre Foods and Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations, Flushing Main Street was featured as a culinary oasis for authentic, delicious Chinese food. A very specific place grabbed my attention – the Golden Shopping Mall’s food court. It’s a hidden hot spot that’s attracted polarized reviews from Yelp foodies like Peter Y., who calls it a “claustrophobia inducing, hard to find grimy ‘mall” with “the best Chinese noms,” all in the same sentence. All this hype stirred a ravenous, trendloving frenzy within me, and I leapt on the bandwagon with high hopes and mild trepidation for the potential language barrier. Sadly, the food turned out to be underwhelming, but experiencing the mall’s colorful atmosphere made up for it.
Arriving at the mall was as nerve-wracking as diving into the deep end of a pool. Tucked between a brightly lit 99 cents store and computer repair shop was the entrance: metal and glass double doors, obscured with gray dirt, and topped with an equally dingy yellow sign that proclaimed, “Golden Shopping Mall” in faded red letters. Softly, the doors closed behind me and muffled the street’s noisy traffic. I began my descent down industrial steel stairs to a basement lit with horror movie white fluorescent lighting. But once my heels clacked down the final step, I realized that the basement was more a humid, white linoleum -tiled indoor market rather than an episode of Kitchen Nightmares. In such a confined space, the number of food stalls overwhelmed me, some with bright neon handwritten paper signs, and others with menus overflowing with text, amid glossy pictures of steaming dumplings, soups, and noodles. Casting aside my initial jumble of nerves with a firm plan in mind, “Xi’an Famous Foods” was my target destination for its popular spicy cumin lamb burger.
Unlike my entrance, ordering and eating at Xi’an Famous Foods wasn’t an intimidating affair, but a surreal one – it was like a museum and restaurant rolled in one. Despite my expectations, nearly every stall, not just Famous Foods’, had menu translations in English for their diverse diners. To wait for my burger, I sat down in a plastic folding chair. On the walls were nine redframed newspaper articles about the stall’s owner and entrepreneur, Jason Wang; his photos sent down creepy, bland, businessman smiles at the patrons as they ate.
A wallhung television at the back continuously played TV spots about Xi’an Famous Foods, including reruns of No Reservationsand Bizarre Foods. Anthony Bourdain’s droning voice seemed to rise above the din of oil popping and scattered conversations in a variety of languages. The dining table consisted of joined aluminum counters that rose a little above my chest, littered with the occasional scrap of noodle or grease, but not the “grime” Yelp's Peter Y. griped about. I was close enough to bump elbows with other diners even though the basement wasn’t particularly crowded. We were so oddly close that once my burger was done, I stayed seated as the cook handed me its warm, cuminfragrant, orange oilstained paper packet over the counter.
Starting with the lamb burger, the most famous foods were bland compared to their setting. The advertised crispy crunch of the burger’s flatbread was more like the dry, tasteless crackle of stale toast. The paltry, sprinkled green of jalapeños was as spicy as specifying, “just a little bit of hot sauce” to the owner of my neighborhood halal cart. Ultimately, the actual lamb in the lamb burger was delicious – savory and tender, but there was so little of it between those two pieces of cardboard that I scraped the bottom of the packet with chopsticks for more. Was there anything else to try in this sweltering basement that could match the hype? Plenty, actually, but Halloween was nigh, and kids in costume started to scurry around with demanding cries of “trickortreat!” to harried, sweating cooks. I decided to grab a crepe at a stall right next to the exit before it got too difficult to maneuver among plastic jack o’lantern baskets and shrugging, tinsel-framed fairy wings.
Even on the run, stopping to watch a crepe being made was a beautiful process. The phrase, “enjoy life; stop and smell the roses” came into mind. Yellow scrambled eggs, green spring onions, and vibrant, possibly food-colored red sausage were chopped together to create a colorful crepe medley. The crunch of a fried wonton folded in half and the confident, steady scrape, scrape of metal spatula upon pan made for a nice melody, too. Unfortunately, another saying, “looks deceive,” came into play: the crepe’s satisfying crunch was the only highlight of a soggy one-two punch of sweet sauce and salty ingredients. Disappointed, I left the cloying heat of the basement and climbed the metal stairs to freezing, blustery winds, mouth still half full of food that felt like a chore to finish.
The Golden Mall was exactly the opposite of what reviews and TV shows lead me to believe. Rather than a hidden treasure, a culinary wonderland that promised an authentic Chinese market experience, it was a fairly popular spot with English translations at every turn. The basement location was unusual, but not overly lacking in cleanliness. Plus, the one aspect of the place that drew my appetite, its food, wasn’t that tasty. Despite my disenchantment, the experience was pleasant enough that I’ll clickclack my heels down those stairs again when my stomach starts to growl for protein and carb laden eats at the Q27 bus stop. But next time, I’ll turn off the Yelp app, try some lamb and green squash dumplings at Tianjin Dumpling House in peace, and draw my own conclusions.