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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

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Christmastime for The Jews at Legend

It is a custom that dates back to the first time our ancestors set foot on American soil—or a least to the first time a Jew tasted moo shoo pork. Every Christmas, in urban Chinatowns and suburban strip malls across the country, there are Jews tucking into meals of lo mein, General Tso’s chicken and wonton soup. The Jewish Christmas tradition of a Chinese feast, often followed by a movie, is almost as important to our cultural psyche as the Christmas goose or ham. It may, in fact, be even more important because it arguably unites us more as a people than any holiday of our own. If you have two Jews in a room, you have three opinions, as the saying goes, but the salty-sweet-spiciness of Chinese food is something we can all get behind.

In the age of the gourmet omnivorous Jew, the meal has taken a step up in authenticity and flavor. In many restaurants, bold regional Chinese cooking has replaced bland, gelatinous Chinese-American fare. In the case of Legend Bar & Restaurant, authentic Szechuan cuisine supplements a fairly unremarkable menu of Chinese-American standards. That’s where I went on Christmas Eve as part of a group of 17 Jews (we had some doctors AND a lawyer), plus a few gentiles with nowhere else to go. My friend Dan Dan Noodle, a yeshiva bachur in an earlier life, organizes the annual excursion. Imperial Stout and Sgt. Pepperjack were among those in attendance, in addition to a number of people I hadn’t met, including Dan Dan’s friends Perogie Officer, The Glutard and Roo-barb.

We were initially planning to make the trek out to our beloved Little Pepper in College Point, Queens, but Dan Dan ended up getting a gig at a cheesy bridge-and-tunnel Christmas party for later that evening and had to change our dining venue to Manhattan. Legend, formerly a Vietnamese fusion restaurant known as Safran, recently switched over to Szechuan and had gotten some positive reviews. We thought it would be worth a try. Dan Dan did his research and solicited menu requests in advance. He arrived with a copy of the menu he had printed out from the Internet upon which he had made check marks next to every promising dish. One of them was a dish provocatively called “Tears in Eyes.” Made of slippery, pearly bean curd chunks topped with roasted chilies and a sauce of fermented soy beans (see top photo), this dish was my favorite of the night. It was spicy, but not more so than some of the other dishes we tasted. Still, the unique texture of the bean curd and the deeply flavorful sauce kept my palate interested through every bite.

Among the other dishes, there were some classics, including dan dan noodles (of course!) and ma po tofu. The noodles were solid, although somehow not quite as good as Little Pepper’s version. And I prefer the fiery ma po tofu at Szechuan Gourmet, which has heightened flavors that are more mouth-numbing than Legend’s version. Pork dumplings were pillowy with juicy interiors, while cold jellyfish was noodle-like with a satisfying chew. There were blistered sauteed string beans with olive leaves paste and a not-too-spicy dish of sliced pork with crispy ricecake-like disks, which the menu called rice crusts. The uncured bacon sauteed with leeks was a little boring, though pork belly is never very far from delicious. Far more interesting, however, were the pork intestines with hot chili peppercorn sauce (see second photo). These had an excellent tender texture and packed a complex sweet-spicy punch. Plus, what would a Jewish Christmas been without hot pork intestines?

One of the spiciest looking dishes turned out to be fairly mild. The Chongqing chicken arrived submerged in a sea of dried chili peppers, but the tasty morsels of meat beneath them took on only the faintest hint of the toasty heat. (That is, unless you are Roo-barb and The Glutard, who later confessed to me that they each bit into one of the peppers and paid the price with their mouths and esophagi aflame for much of the rest of the evening. If a dish is 75 percent composed of one ingredient, you assume you’re supposed to eat it, Roo-barb reasoned. Not, it turns out, when that ingredient is dried hot peppers.) Chengdu braised duck was rich and tasty, sucked off the cleavered pieces of leg, thigh and rib bone.

There were two soups on the table: one made with fish and napa cabbage was beautifully accented with flashes of hot chili, while the second was a complex dark broth filled with crunchy bean sprouts and glassy cellophane noodles. This may sound like way too much food, but—call it a Hanukkah miracle— we managed to clean every plate and even save room for the requisite orange slices. That is not to say we didn’t all come away feeling completely stuffed. I know I did. In the great tradition of our ancestors, we overdid it just enough that we might not feel ready to eat again for at least another four hours. Tradition! Tradition! Even Tevya would have been proud.

Legend Bar & Restaurant
88 7th Ave.
New York, NY 10011

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Ping’s The Thing, But It’s No Pok Pok

Empanada Boy and I were in Portland for Passover the week before last. We had an amazing seder at my parents’ house, attended by a record 32 people, and complete with such delicacies as homemade gefilte fish (Auntie Pasti and Mushroom Maven’s handiwork), herbs from the garden for dipping in saltwater and just-laid hardboiled eggs. I made the main course—chicken with apricots and currants—and a side of roasted rosemary potatoes. The seder was fantastic, but even after putting on such a huge affair, Mango Mama still had all of us hanging around to feed. We ate at home a few other nights, but we also resorted to our Passover restaurant standby of Asian food. This only works if you are a Sephardic Jew (of Spanish or North African descent) and eat rice during Passover. Although we are technically Ashkenazic Jews (of Eastern European descent), I use the argument that I am distantly related to the great medieval Jewish scholar Maimonides, who was a Sephardic Jew if there ever was one. Having allowed ourselves that liberty, Mango Mama, Daddy Salmon, Cerealla, EB, Flava Flav, her boyfriend Mr. Market and I all decided to pay a visit the one-year-old multi-Asian restaurant Ping. By multi-Asian, I don’t mean Asian fusion, but rather a menu composed of individual dishes originating from countries like Thailand, Indonesia, China, and Malaysia.

The restaurant is inside the building that for many years housed the unfortunately titled Chinese restaurant Hung Far Low. Mango Mama remembers going there as a kid. The owners of Ping, who also own the awesome Asian street food destination Pok Pok, bought the building, giving it a beautiful, modern, but historically referential, makeover. The restaurant has been lauded by local and national media, from The Oregonian to Alan Richman in GQ. In general, I liked the food here, but perhaps because we couldn’t try any of the noodle dishes or buns, I found it significantly less exciting than Pok Pok. There were simply fewer bursts of flavor nirvana. The Yam Yai Salad of lettuce boiled egg, prawns, chicken, bean sprouts, pickled garlic and peanut dressing was disappointingly generic for all of its super-powerful ingredients. That said, there were definitely dishes worthy of mention. The fish-ball skewers, pictured above, were nicely browned so as to taste savory and not at all fishy. But even better were the chicken liver skewers— tremblingly tender pieces of perfectly cooked chicken liver, rubbed with cilantro root, pepper, garlic and sweet soy and accompanied by a spicy Isaan dipping sauce. We ate these with servings of sticky rice and Jasmine rice. Thinly sliced duck breast was well cooked but not memorable.

Mr. Market is a vegetarian, so we ordered a couple meatless options for his benefit. As it turned out, the two vegetarian dishes were the best things we tasted that night. One was a simple skewer of roasted, grilled and halved red potatoes drizzled with a spicy mayonnaise. These were like French fries with a couple extra dimensions of intense flavor. The other vegetarian dish was one I never would have tried without Mr. Market’s inspiration because it was unappetizingly called a “carrot cake” on the menu. The quotes around the carrot cake were necessary because the dish was actually made with pieces of daikon radish cake, stir fried with eggs, bean sprouts and Kecap Manis, the Indonesian sweet soy sauce. As it turned out, this dish had it all— sweetness, earthiness, saltiness and umami. Here was a flash of those flavor epiphanies I’d had at Pok Pok.

We finished off the meal with an excellent ice cream sundae of sorts: three green scoops of pandanus (tropical plant with pineapple-shaped fruit) ice cream, coated in peanuts and chocolate and set atop a plate of sweet sticky rice. The cartoonish color, satisfying taste and utter lack of pretension in this dish helped me end my meal at Ping in excellent spirits. The food may not have blown me away this time, but it was good enough to prompt a return visit when the culinary restrictions of Passover aren’t in effect.

102 NW 4th Ave.
Portland, OR 97209

Ping on Urbanspoon

Szechuan Gourmet Burns the Right Way

Pork BellyMy search for a great Midtown meal continued a few weeks ago when Empanada Boy and I were looking for a place to eat before the ballet. Many of the places near Lincoln Center are overpriced or just plain too expensive. But I remembered reading about Szechuan Gourmet in a 2008 two-star review by Frank Bruni in The New York Times. Bruni singled it out as a true example of ultra-spicy, pepper-infused Szechuan cooking outside the expected confines of Chinatown and Flushing. The restaurant has two, Midtown locations, but I wanted to try the original on 39th Street. EB and I met there after work.

Before I get into what we ordered, it’s worth emphasizing that this food is spicy. And when I say spicy, I mean burning your esophagus, numbing your lips, spicy. But the food can also be sweet or distinctively seasoned in a way that lets you taste and enjoy the complexities before the burn begins. The key ingredient in this heat is the Szechuan peppercorn, the outer pod of which is toasted and scattered throughout this restaurant’s menu.

LambEB and I started with mild, but delicious, appetizer of tender sliced pork belly with a fantastic chili-garlic soy sauce. The succulent flavors of this dish were just layered on: fat, sweetness, saltiness and a bite of scallion here and there.

As is turned out, we were glad we tasted this dish first because the dishes we ordered got progressively dominant in flavor. The next plate our server set down in front of us bore a mound of crispy lamb pieces, coated in a cumin-heavy spice powder. The dusty shell broke away upon biting to reveal tasty morsels of gamy lamb. The heat in this dish came from dried peppers that were scattered throughout. Everything was manageable until I bit into one of those babies. The burn lasted for a while so I didn’t end up eating many of them, and the bold spicing of the meat stood up well to the heat. My one complaint with this dish was that it was very dry. It’s not that the meat was overdone, but rather that there was no sauce or juices to it. I am assuming this is typical of the dish, but I found myself wanting liquids to sop up.

TofuOur final dish was the ma po tofu, which is labeled with four stars (extra spicy) on the menu. Large, ethereally light, cubes of tofu are presented swimming in a pool of fragrant, slightly sweet, sauce. And then it hits you. The heat creeps across your lips and across your tongue, down your throat and into your stomach. The burn is both painful and pleasant. The sweetness of the sauce and the infusion of scallions comes through the heat, creating a symphony of components. We left feeling like we had eaten twice as much as our stomach muscles contracted with the heat of those chilies. Needless to say, it was a battle my stomach would be willing to fight again.

Szechuan Gourmet
21 W. 39th St.
New York, NY 10018

Szechuan Gourmet 56
242 West 56th Street
New York, NY 10019

Szechuan Gourmet on Urbanspoon

Szechuan Gourmet 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

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

Imperial Palace on Urbanspoon

Mingle Beer House on Urbanspoon

A Shady Chinese Food Ring Uncovered

Faux Kung Pao“I am not feeling good about this,” said my colleague, Chopped Salad, as a group of us stood on the northwest corner of Bryant Park, watching the cars and bicyclists go by. The minutes passed, but none of them brought our hook-up.

We were waiting for a stealthily arranged drop-off, a weekly rendezvous with an apparently addictive substance. My colleague Sweet Tea had put in the orders and organized the outing to the appointed spot.

“Don’t worry,” she said. “He’s never not come.”

“If a window opens and food comes out, I’m hitting the deck,” Chopped Salad said nervously.

Chicken with broccoliOur guy made us wait a bit, but after about 10 minutes, a bicycle pulled up at the curb. The rider was holding a white plastic bag from which a savory smell wafted. We quickly handed over the cash and went to sit down at the tables in the park. The moment of truth had arrived. Sweet Tea reached into the bag and pulled out a white takeout container. “This looks like Spicy Chicken with Basil,” she said, and handed me the box.

When Chopped Salad got his Chicken with Broccoli, he was finally at ease:

“There’s something about the light hitting the soy sauce,” he said philosophically when he opened his box.

This was not an illicit drug deal. It was a delivery of Chinese food from Home on 8th, a restaurant located on 8th Avenue, between 29th and 30th streets. Sweet Tea tried the place a while back and liked it so much that she decided she had to have it delivered once a week for lunch. The only problem was that our office is on 47th and 6th Avenue, well outside the delivery range of this establishment. Home on 8th does not deliver beyond Bryant Park in our direction— hence the meeting place. That’s right. Sweet Tea was able to sweet-talk this restaurant into delivering to her on a street corner at the furthest limit of its publicized range. The delivery has become a weekly tradition, but this was my (and Chopped Salad’s) first time trying it. There were six others along with us, most of whom were Chinese Tuesday veterans. I hoped it would live up to its reputation.

Chicken with basilIt was obvious from looking at the colorful, vegetable-laden food that the place uses better ingredients than your average greasy Chinese place. My dish, the chicken with basil (shown here), was no exception. The sauce was flavorful, but not as spicy as advertised. The sauce also didn’t achieve the earthy and slightly funky umami flavor I’ve gotten from the best authentic Chinese sauces I’ve tried.

To be fair, I likely didn’t order the best dish on the menu, which goes on for pages. In fact, the Kung Pao chicken (see top photo), which Sweet Tea and another colleague always order, had a much spicier, more lively sauce. They say it’s the best dish, and they are definitely the experts. The one thing I’m not so sure about, though, is my colleagues’ choice to order with fake chicken (ficken?) instead of real meat. They’re not vegetarians; they apparently just like the soy-based meat substitute. I tried a piece, and it definitely wasn’t bad, but real chicken has more flavor and a better texture to my mind.

The only really major critique came with the dish my colleague Salt Man ordered. He asked for chicken with Chinese broccoli, thinking it would be the same as Chopped Salad’s dish apart from the kind of broccoli. As it turned out, what Salt Man got had almost no sauce and was the whitest, plainest and blandest dish we ordered. He decanted some of our sauces onto his rice, but I could tell he was disappointed. Now we know what not to order.

Spring rollFinally, thrown into the bag were a number of very crunchy, very fresh spring rolls—a great showcase for the high quality ingredients Home on 8th uses. All-in-all, I could see why the place stood out to Sweet Tea, especially in the sea of bad restaurants that is Midtown Manhattan. I don’t know if I can afford (both monetarily and waistline-wise) to eat this every Tuesday, but I love the tradition and plan to participate as much as possible. After all, how many times in my life will I get the opportunity to become a member of a totally shady underground Chinese food ring?

Home on 8th
391 8th Ave
New York, NY 10001

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