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Hot Pot Heaven at Mingle Beer House

Back in 2009, I invited a large group of friends to celebrate my birthday with a meal at Imperial Palace, an excellent Cantonese restaurant in Flushing. While waiting for our table to be ready, we stopped in at the only bar-looking place around. It turned out to be a strange amalgam of the newish kind of bar that serves high-end, mostly Belgian, beers and a Taiwanese hot pot and karaoke lounge. It was called Mingle Beer House, and it was clearly my kind of place. I made a mental note to come back and try the food, but it ended up taking until a few weeks ago to get back there. I went with my friends Imperial Stout, Plumlord, Forager, Sgt. Pepperjack and Sgt. Pepperjack’s girlfriend Princess Pea on a Sunday afternoon. We were seated in a well-lit dining area set back and above the bar. I could immediately tell that this place was classier than Shanghai Tide, the other Flushing hot pot place where I’ve eaten in the past. The table had the requisite spots for three pots to boil. It also had an Internet-enabled flat-screen computer that we assumed was for doing karaoke or playing entertaining videos while we ate. Luckily, my friends are not boring, and chatting with them was entertainment enough for me.

Hot pot, as a concept, is a beautiful thing. For a flat fee of $25 a person, you can order as many kinds of meat, seafood and vegetables a you please to dunk into boiling pots of flavored broth. Also included in that price is unlimited cheap beer. At Shanghai Tide, it is slightly warm Budweiser in a can. At Mingle, it’s Coors Light by the pitcher. Classy, I know. While it’s tempting to forgo it and order the fine Belgian brews the restaurant serves, there is actually nothing better than watery beer for washing down a spicy morsel, just plucked from a hot pot. Since there were six of us, we decided to order every flavor of broth, including half a pot of kimchi broth, half a pot of pickled-cabbage broth, half a pot of duck-meat broth and half a pot of the spicy broth laden with sweet, fiery Sichuan peppercorns. Since Princess Pea is a vegetarian, we also ordered a pot of the vegetarian broth, which truthfully looked like little more than water with a few vegetables in it.

Into the pot, we dropped thin slices of beef and pork, various kinds of flavorful mushrooms, udon and thinner wheat noodles, pork-filled dumplings, whole crab, water spinach, flaky white fish, thin, noodle-like tofu skins, taro root and surely other things that I can no longer recall. Each of the broths had its own appealing flavor profile, but my favorite was the kimchi. The spicy cabbage gave the food a dimension of heat that wasn’t quite as palate coating as the peppercorn pot. That broth, however, was probably my second favorite. The vinegary, sweetness accompanied by the burning sensation made it a wonderfully complex backdrop to the unseasoned meats and vegetables. The other broths delivered flavor, but were decidedly more timid in their approach.

Another appealing feature of Mingle that I don’t recall seeing at other hot pot places was the sauce bar. You could walk up to this station and fill small dishes with any combination of about a dozen sauces. I had no idea what most of them were, but it made for fund experimentation. As we fished the cooked meat and vegetables out of the pots (Plumlord developed a special aptitude for this art form), we dipped them in one of the many sauces before popping them into our mouths. Sometimes I would also ladle some broth into one of the smaller bowls and eat the noodles out of that, but mostly it was easier to just pop my chopsticks into the bubbling pot and pull out the next bit of food they encountered.

Mingle Beer House
34-07 Prince St.
Queens, NY 11354
718.939.3808

Mingle Beer House on Urbanspoon

Mapo BBQ Birthday Bash

My birthday was last week. It wasn’t a particularly important one, but birthdays are too easily overlooked as one gets older. If you don’t take the time to properly celebrate, you get old before you know it. (Sigh!) Of course, it was also a good excuse to organize a feast at a Korean restaurant in Flushing, Queens that I had been wanting to try for a while: Mapo BBQ. Mapo is known in foodie circles for its top-notch kalbi, short ribs marinated in a sweet, garlicky soy sauce and grilled on metal racks set into the table. At most Korean barbecue restaurants, the meat is cooked over a gas flame, but at Mapo, my research revealed, servers insert baskets of hot coals in the canisters embedded in each table. That distinction alone was enough to intrigue me. One thing that should be noted, however, is that Mapo isn’t exactly cheap. It easily exceeds the typical Mango Lassie price range, but hey, it was my birthday. Luckily, I have devoted friends. I invited nearly 30 of them to come. About 10 or 12 of them said they couldn’t make it, which proved key to fitting our party into the small restaurant. In the end, we were 17, including Empanada Boy; my cousins Ketchup, Leftover Girl, Bagel with Lox and Black Cherry Soda; my friends Curly Fries, Dan Dan Noodle, Fry Girl, Imperial Stout and his visiting buddy; my college friends Beefsteak and Varenyky; my work friends Dagashi and Pale Ale, along with Pale Ale’s friend, and last, but not least, my dear old friend Onion. I called the restaurant a couple of times to try to make a reservation in advance but was never sure, based on the broken English of her response, that the person on the phone understood me. Thankfully, my friend Saltman’s mother-in-law, who is Korean-American, kindly called the restaurant for me the day before to confirm. We were all set.

Google maps had the wrong address in its records, so half of us got there 20 to 30 minutes late. As it turned out, though, that was right on time for our numerous tables to clear out and be pushed together along one side of the restaurant. In all, we had three burners on our combined megatable—perfect for even meat distribution. I took the liberty of ordering bottles of the Korean beer Hite and kalbi for all (five orders per burner). Then the banchon started coming. Banchan, the collective name for the little dishes of pickles, kimchi, vegetables and salads, are perhaps the best thing about a Korean meal. And the quality of the offerings at Mapo was a step above the norm. There was fresh, crunchy kimchi made with whole bok choy, agar(!) cakes with roasted chilies, earthy sauteed mushrooms, cold glass noodles with vegetables, sauteed water spinach with sesame seeds, thin triangles of tofu, charred corn kernels and stone pots of fluffy steamed egg custard. As soon as we finished one plate, it was scooped up and replenished. These dishes help offset the $29-per-order price tag for the kalbi.

A team of servers soon brought baskets of charcoal and grill racks to our table, along with luscious pink slabs of heavily marbled deboned rib meat. They also brought bibs so large they looked like mini aprons. Most of us decided to take our chance, but true to form, EB and Ketchup proudly donned their bibs. As the meat began to cook, the servers flipped it and deftly cut it into squares with scissors. While we waited for the meat to cook, the head server came over to explain in stilted English that she would be bringing around complimentary seafood scallion pancakes, known as pa jun. Cut into triangles, these were crispy and less greasy than many versions I’ve had and were heavily laden with bright green scallions. I felt my first pang of fullness after eating my wedge of pancake, but I quickly dismissed it. We hadn’t even started on the meat!

The meat was ready, and it only took one bite for my hunger to return. This kalbi was truly in a league of its own. Tender and deeply flavorful, it was like the Kobe of Korean barbecue. We wrapped chunks of the meat in bright green lettuce leaves, stuffing them with spicy kimchi and adding ssam jang, the traditional spicy-sweet Korean barbecue dipping sauce. About midway through this meaty decadence, servers delivered bubbling cauldrons of soondubu jjigae, a spicy broth filled with quivering, silken tofu.

At one point, Curly Fries asked Dan Dan Noodle how to properly contain the meat in the lettuce leaf so that it didn’t fall out. Dan Dan explained that his method involved basically crumpling it all together, stuffing it into his mouth and hoping for the best. This is a pretty accurate description of my method, and it proved efficient for most of the rest of the table as well. We finished off the meat in relatively short order, with one end of the table snagging some extra meat from the other. Thinking we had all but completed our monumental task, we were soon surprised to find we were mistaken. Before our chopsticks had time to hit our plates, the army of servers descended again with three complimentary bowls of vegetable-packed bibimbap. I prefer bibimbap served in a hot stone dish so the bottom of the rice hardens like the sofrito in the center of a paella and the egg cooks as it’s mixed in. This bibimbap was served at room temperature, but it was tasty nonetheless. I downed a couple bowlfuls before reaching my limit.

Suddenly the lights dimmed and my friends started hushing each other. One of the servers carried a plate bearing a wedge of cheesecake with two candles in it. Happy birthday music piped in from somewhere started up. There was no singing on the recording, but it was one of the most hilarious renditions of the song I’ve heard. The music sped up and slowed down when you least expected it, and the shifting rhythms made it difficult for my friends to sing along. Imperial Stout described it well when he said he kept thinking it was the introduction and that the music was about to launch into the actual song. It never did, but the Korean waitstaff had no trouble joining in. They brought out the rest of the cheesecake, and Fry Girl did her best to dish it up to everyone using the butter knife they gave her. Not being a huge fan of cheesecake, I passed mine along to someone else. There was still bibimbap left in the serving bowls, and some of the more valiant eaters were not about to let it go to waste: “I’m still on savory,” Dan Dan Noodle said.

Indeed, I preferred to leave Mapo BBQ with the taste of roasted garlic, kimchi and that heavenly kalbi still foremost on my palate. It was a glorious birthday feast and an excellent way to welcome another year. In the spirit of Thanksgiving, I would like to add that I am truly grateful that I have friends and relatives who would trek out to Flushing and shell out a not insignificant amount of cash to share this meat-filled moment with me.

Mapo BBQ
149-24 41st Ave.
Flushing, NY 11355
718.886.8292

Mapo BBQ on Urbanspoon

Game, Set, Match for Lan Zhou Handmade Noodle

Empanada Boy and I went to Flushing Meadows to attend the U.S. Open a few weeks ago. We were set to watch Vera Zvonareva play Andrea Petkovic and then see Jurgen Melzer go up against Roger Federer. But before that, we faced the task of getting an early dinner. We knew the match could last until midnight or beyond, and we needed our sustenance. I had read reports about the menus crafted by top chefs that would be available on the grounds of the tournament, but suspected that nothing would come cheap once we were inside the gates. Flushing is home to some of the city’s best food, so why bother with the high prices and long lines? We took the train one extra stop to Flushing Main Street to eat before the match and went to the culinary mecca that is the Golden Mall Food Court.

I have never been to China, but the food court in the basement of this crowded mall is about as close as I can imagine coming to the look and feel of a Chinese city. The stalls are small, the ceiling is low and dirty from years of poor ventilation, everyone is speaking Chinese and the food smells amazing. There are simple, somewhat dingy, tables near each one table for patrons to sit and eat after they’ve ordered at the counter of their choice. EB and I decided to try Lan Zhou Handmade Noodle, which I had heard about from my editor Noodle. We could see the noodle-maker at work stretching pliable dough into thin noodles, moving his hands in and out as though he were playing the accordion. EB and I perused the large menu on the wall. He decided on the eel with noodles and broth, and I opted for the oxtail. We sat down at the faux wood-topped table nearby to wait for our soups.

The eel was tender and lovely, and the still-on-the-bone oxtail was richly flavorful. The broth was well seasoned and comforting, and the bok choy and herbs provided color and brightness to the dish. But the noodles, oh those noodles! They were among the best I have ever had. Their freshness was evident in their slight chewiness, and their flavor was noticeably better than standard dried, packaged fare. We slurped up our plastic bowls full, sampling some of the traditional condiments along the way. (I would recommend adding some spicy chili paste.)

The entire time we were eating, we couldn’t help but wish we each had two stomachs to provide us with enough room to sample the food at some of the other stands. A tofu dish that came from the stand directly in our view looked amazing. But most tempting stand was the one for Xi’an Famous Foods, which specializes in the distinctive food of Western China. Two parents and their grown son who were sitting next to us at the table had ordered a veritable feast, including noodles, the tofu and two cumin lamb burgers from Xi’an. The latter was served in a folded bun that had a similar spongy texture to the outside of a meat-filled bao. Our neighbors ate their way through many of the dishes, but one of those burgers remained untouched. When they saw EB getting ready to go order another dish to try, they offered us their extra one. They couldn’t eat anymore, they said, and they didn’t want it to go to waste. Needless to say, it did not. The cumin-coated lamb tasted juicy and smelled like I imagine the restaurants of the region might smell: redolent with dusty spice and savory meats.

We left the food court feeling full and ready for some edge-of-our-seats tennis. Federer and Zvonareva had other plans: Both won in straight-sets shellackings.

Lan Zhou Handmade Noodles
41-28 Main St.
Golden Mall Food Court, Basement
New York, NY 11355

Xi’an Famous Foods
Same as above
(and other locations)

Lan Zhou Hand-Pulled Noodle on Urbanspoon

Xi'an Famous Foods on Urbanspoon

Birthday Feast At Imperial Palace

SoupI turned 27 last week and decided to celebrate in the Mango way: with a feast. I had read New York Times restaurant critic Sam Sifton’s one-star review of Imperial Palace a few weeks ago and had been intrigued by the expertly made Cantonese seafood dishes he described. It sounded worthy of the trek to the Flushing neighborhood of Queens to try it out. (It’s also worth noting, as Eater did, that Sifton went to Queens within his first month on the job when most reviewers have stuck primarily to Manhattan.) Unlike most of the restaurants Sifton reviews, I figured this would actually be one in which my friends and I could afford to eat—and not just eat, but feast. With this goal in mind, we took the 7 train to the end and met on the corner of Roosevelt and Main Street.

Four of us arrived before the rest of the group and decided to get a drink while we waited. Suitable bars did not seem forthcoming until we happened upon Mingle Beer House, a Taiwanese bar with an international selection of beers, karaoke and what looked like delicious food. We ordered beers and sat at the neon-lit bar chomping those delicious Asian peanuts and listening to a female karaoke singer belt it out while a group of men dined on hot pot. It felt like a scene from “Lost In Translation,” and I loved it. I plan to go back for food soon.

Cold Jellyfish SaladWe finished our beers and then walked to Imperial Palace. In many ways, the large dining room with red-tablecloth-topped, round tables is like so many Chinese restaurants we’ve all been to. The difference here was that my friends and I were the only non-Chinese people in the near-full restaurant. We were immediately shown to an empty table and got down to the business of ordering. The only alcohol served here is beer—Tsingtao, Heineken and Budweiser. Tsingtao seemed the way to go. Following Sifton’s advice, we also started with soup made with pork, tofu and mustard greens. After the review’s description of the dish as “verdant, porky mustard greens and white pillows of tofu in a glistening broth,” I was frankly disappointed. The pork was dry and too lean, and even the pleasant gingery broth wasn’t enough to boost the flavor. I had not given up on Sifton yet, though, so we ordered the cold jellyfish salad, another of his recommendations. That dish (pictured here) was better. The texture of the strips of jellyfish reminded me of eating seaweed. They were chewy with a little crunch as you managed to bite through them, and the soy and black vinegar sauce kept them lively.

SablefishThe favorite dish of the evening was the sable, served on a sizzling cast iron platter and positively melting in a delightful savory pile of onions and salty black bean sauce. The crispy fried chicken was also a winner with its crackling exterior and moist, tender center. The sauce that came with it (Sifton described it as fermented red bean sauce, but it didn’t taste like that to me) was too thin and too mild. I wanted something spicy or with a punch of pungent flavor to complement the sweetness of the chicken. Still, we ordered a whole bird and left nothing on the plate.

Dungeness Crab and Sticky RiceAs a Northwesterner, I was looking forward to the Dungeness crab cooked in a steamed over sticky rice and river leaves. I continue to believe that Dungeness crab is sweeter and more tender than lobster, but Imperial Palace’s preparation did not do it justice. The crab tasted a little mealy and overdone, probably a result of the fact that it had to be shipped here from the Pacific. For this reason, it might have been worthwhile to try the more local lobster. The rice had good texture, but I found it surprisingly bland. I wanted sauce or ginger or heat or something to make it sparkle.

Clams in Black Bean SauceI felt a bit discouraged by the mixed bag of dishes we tried, but our grand finale the clams in black bean sauce was another keeper. The sauce was nuanced and coated each of the tender clams in a flavorful, salty bath. Scallions dotted the landscape. As we finished off the dish, our server brought plates of lychee and pineapple for dessert. It wasn’t exactly a birthday cake, but it was an appropriately authentic finish to our eating adventure. The food at Imperial Palace was successful in many instances but didn’t knock it out of the park. Still, it was a great place to share a meal with friends who are devoted enough to come to Queens and eat jellyfish, all to celebrate the birth of little ‘ole me.

Imperial Palace
136-13 37th Ave.
Queens, NY 11354
718.939.3501

Mingle Beer House
37-04 Prince St.
Queens, NY 11354
718.939.3808

Imperial Palace on Urbanspoon

Mingle Beer House on Urbanspoon

Shanghaied in Flushing

Hot PotThere’s something about cooking your own food at the table that makes it even more fun than cooking food yourself in the kitchen. Szechuan hot pot is a great example of this. Servers bring burners to your table and place pots of spicy peppercorn-infused, boiling broth atop them. Then come the trays of vegetables, noodles, meat and seafood, all to be dunked into the liquid with wire scoops. You can pull them out minutes later with the wire basket or your chopsticks.

There’s no use stoking the flames for just a few pieces of meat; Szechuan hot pot requires large groups of eaters. And ever since my friend Vladimir Pudding told me about the delicacy, I have been looking for a chance to get a group of people together to go out to one of the hot pot restaurants in Flushing, Queens. Nine of us, including EB, VP, Auntie Pasti, Cousin Ketchup, my cousin Bagel with Lox and three of their friends, took the 7 train to the end.

Greens and MeatFlushing is New York’s real Chinatown where a large portion of that community’s citizens now live. Vladimir Pudding spent a year living in China and speaks Mandarin well. This is a big help at many of the restaurants in the neighborhood. We walked down one of the side streets to Shanghai Tide, a restaurant VP had tried before. They had space for the nine of us, and we sat down. VP quickly took charge of the ordering. It’s pretty straightforward. Everyone pays $24 for as much food and beer (Budweiser in a can) as you can drink. There was shrimp, a strange spongy tofu, three kinds of noodles, mushrooms big and small, thinly sliced beef and lamb, bok choy and watercress. There were also fantastic soup dumplings and some doughier steamed ones. A nearby sauce bar had a vast array of options, ranging from peanut sauce to a green leek sauce.

Mixed hot potOur hot pots were divided in the center between mild and hot, but the hot was the only one with any flavor. It also wasn’t as hot as I was expecting it to be. I was hoping for some real sinus-clearing action that I didn’t really get. But the mildness meant we could eat as much as we could fit into our stomachs without concern for taste bud destruction. And eat we did, consuming nearly all of the large platters of food. VP and EB ordered some pig’s blood to add to the mix near the end, but even EB didn’t care much for the flavor. By the end of our meal, one of the pots had seen so much action that we couldn’t tell the mild from the hot.

Szechuan hot pot is a meal to mark occasions. Fittingly, it was Bagel WL’s birthday. I plan to come back for more the next time I have something to celebrate.

Shanghai Tide
13520 40th Rd.
Flushing, NY 11354
718.661.0900

Shanghai Tide on Urbanspoon