The Brancatelli File By Joe Brancatelli
HOME    E-MAIL JOE    PRINT    2017 COLUMNS     JOE'S ARCHIVES     SEARCH     LOG OUT
Hong Kong, By Way of LaGuardia Airport
Thursday, November 16, 2017 -- The bedraggled business traveler, black laptop bag slung over his shoulder, black rolling carry-on at his side, stood before the cramped check-in station at the Hyatt Place Flushing/LaGuardia. He asked a rational and oft-heard question: "Any good Italian restaurants around here for dinner?"

Standing behind him, I looked up from my phone and locked eyes with the affable but baffled check-in clerk. This would be interesting.

"You do know this is a Chinese neighborhood?" he finally responded. "I don't think Italian is the way to go. There are some great Korean and Indian places nearby, too, if you'd like that."

I must have laughed too loudly because the business traveler wheeled around and eyed me. But he quickly decided I was one of the tribe.

"Was that a stupid question?" he asked earnestly.

"No, of course not," I said. "But this really is the greatest Chinese community in America. There are amazing places to eat without ever leaving the hotel complex. All the noodles you want. But pasta? Not so much."

I gave my fellow flyer a few tips, including Dan Dan noodles from Spicy and Tasty, an excellent Sichuan restaurant across the street from the hotel. But let me go further here: Flushing, hard by LaGuardia Airport, is the closest thing to Hong Kong that I've ever experienced.

The energy, the creativity, the English-language facade barely concealing a vibrant Chinese soul? That's Hong Kong. It is also Flushing. The cheek-by-jowl humanity affecting a unique blend of Occidental and Oriental? That's Hong Kong. It is also Flushing. Not nearly as many good hotels in Flushing, of course. And no one could ever confuse battered, cramped LaGuardia with Chek Lap Kok, the huge, purpose-built Hong Kong airport. But, damn, the food. In fact, Flushing is a better foodie destination than Hong Kong because there's a much better representation of China's great cuisines. If Hong Kong is Cantonese with a side dish of China's other cultures, Flushing is a glorious buffet of everything Greater China has to offer.

In the borough of Queens, where New York's two airports are located, there is not so much a melting pot as side-by-side saucepans of ethnicity. Chinese, Korean, Bangladeshi, Pakistani, Indian, Malaysian. Central and South American communities. African enclaves. And these new immigrants have replaced the European arrivals of decades past.

But Flushing, just two miles or so from LaGuardia, is the flashpoint of a modern Chinese diaspora. The Taiwanese came first, in the 1970s, according to commonly accepted wisdom. Then came the immigrants from the mainland: Fujianese, Hunanese, Sichuanese and many more. They came even from the little-known Northeast, the provinces we call Manchuria but the Chinese call Dongbei.

And they aren't leaving. Unlike earlier waves of immigrants, the Chinese residents of Flushing have no desire to move on up to the East Side or out the suburbs. The kids grow up here, become adults and remain. They make their money here and they stay. No Manhattan or tri-state suburbs for them. Which explains the raft of luxury vehicles in the parking garage under the Hyatt Place, one component of mixed-use development called One Fulton Square, the glossy heart of Chinese Flushing. What happens in Flushing stays in Flushing.

Why leave? is the common refrain. Where would I eat if I left?

Quite apart from arriving at or departing from LaGuardia, I prowl the streets of Flushing with the same goggle-eyed joy that I feel when I'm in Hong Kong. Every storefront is a new culinary discovery, a fabulous cultural adventure, a chance to learn something new, eat something new, share something new. And there's enough English spoken to make the endless mystery that is China seem understandable and accessible.

I won't lie. Flushing might be too big a stretch if you've only got an hour or two before a flight. New York traffic being what it is--and Flushing is Manhattan street chaos squared--it's easy to miss your flight. But if you've got an overnight to spare in New York, skip Manhattan and stay in Flushing.

Besides, it's way closer and much cheaper than Hong Kong.

WHERE TO STAY The Hyatt Place is where to be. Physically, the hotel is no different than any other Hyatt Place you know--except for the congee and kimchi on the breakfast buffet. There's an indoor pool, a rarity in New York. As part of the One Fulton complex, you've got direct access to a baker's dozen of restaurants, including Japanese, Malaysian, Korean and several Chinese cuisines. Flushing's hangout of the moment, the loud, slick Leaf Bar, is perched on the roof. There's also a free shuttle to LaGuardia. One caveat: Nightly rates swing wildly and can be as cheap as $140 or as pricey as $499. ... The indifferent Sheraton LaGuardia East is a block away. It's getting a room refresh. ... The Fairfield Inn LaGuardia/Flushing is in a more isolated portion of the neighborhood called College Point. It's literally across Flushing Bay from LaGuardia's runways.

LOCAL COLOR Flushing is home to the National Tennis Center and Citi Field, home of the New York Mets. On game days, you will find hordes of Mets fans chowing down, then taking the No. 7 train one stop to the stadium. ... The Number 7 is a straight shot to Grand Central Terminal, Times Square and the Hudson Yards stop near the Javits Convention Center. It's cheap, convenient and crowded at all times. ... If you don't want to do Flushing on your own, there are guided walking tours. ... Rents are skyrocketing in Flushing as the children of the first generation of immigrants attempt to stay close to home. Case in point: The demise of Presso, a spacious and inventive Chinese-owned coffee bar on the street level of One Fulton. Despite winning raves, it shuttered because it couldn't handle the $30,000-a-month rent.

WHAT TO EAT There are probably a hundred joints you should try. That said, some quick thoughts: Soup dumplings, the Shanghai specialty also known as long bao, are best at Nan Xiang Xiao (38-12 Prince Street; 718-321-3838) ... Dumplings? Go to the basement of the dumpy Golden Shopping Mall for Tian Jin Dumpling House (41-28 Main Street), a dump with folding tables and chairs and an unbelievable array of choices for about $6 a dozen. If you must have a fancier place, try the chef's newer Dumpling Galaxy. Prices are higher. ... Noodles? Bet you never tried potato-based ones. You can sample them in various soups at Siblings, Stall No. 21 at the bustling food court in the New World Mall. While you're there, stop by Stall No. 28, Zheng Zhou Noodles. It makes a greasy and flavorful sandwich of cumin lamb and green peppers.

WHERE TO ENTERTAIN Ready to sit down? Try Fu Run, the best-known Dongbei place in Flushing. The Muslim Lamb Chop, a rack of cumin-crusted ribs, is addictive. You also can sample the remarkable Di San Xian, the classic Dongbei stir fry of potatoes, Chinese eggplant and peppers. It's called Triple Delight Vegetables here. ... If you want to entertain grandly, the restaurant of the moment is Guan Fu Sichuan. It scored three stars this summer from The New York Times ... Dim sum, primarily a Cantonese affair, isn't a big deal in Flushing, but you'll do just fine at the sprawling, multi-roomed Asian Jewels.

This column is Copyright 2017 by Joe Brancatelli. JoeSentMe.com is Copyright 2017 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved. All of the opinions and material in this column are the sole property and responsibility of Joe Brancatelli. This material may not be reproduced in any form without his express written permission.