News of a Chinatown opening travels fast. Thus did word spread almost immediately via Twitter and text message when Beijing Pop Kabob appeared. Part of the frenzy was due to its unexpected location: on Mulberry above Canal, smack in the middle of Little Italy. And while it's not uncommon for a culinary interloper to appear in this neighborhood's crosstown thoroughfares, for a Chinese restaurant to break into the continuous row of Italian restaurants on Mulberry is almost unheard of.
What's more, Beijing Pop Kabob signals another first. Ever since Northern Chinese restaurants began appearing in Flushing nearly a decade ago, we've expected them to infiltrate Manhattan's Chinatown, which has remained steadfastly Cantonese and Fujianese, with some Sichuan and Shanghainese food thrown in. (Most of the northern-style dumplings and noodles are made by Fujianese.) But harbingers have been appearing ever since Xi'an Famous Foods established a stall on Forsyth beneath the Manhattan Bridge, and Silk Road kebab trucks began selling delicate, spice-rubbed meat sticks at $1 apiece on Bowery and East Broadway. Meanwhile, Xi'an was recently replaced by Taste of Northern China — which, despite the Mandarin focus, still fell far short of being an actual restaurant.
Now appears Beijing Kabob House, mounting a full Northern Chinese menu, with some nods to other regional cuisines, in a comfortable, full-service setting. Time to rejoice? Well, maybe. First off, how are the "kabobs"? Well, these are not the slightly dry miniature brochettes rubbed with cumin and cayenne that we expect to get from the carts. Instead, they are — to quote the title of a Who album — "Meaty Beaty Big and Bouncy." The chunks of meat are large and tender, and arrive extensively rubbed with red chile oil, priced at two for $3.50. They're spicy and tasty, but are emphatically not the Northern Chinese product we've become accustomed to.
Other Northern Chinese dishes represent head-scratching variations from the ones you find in Flushing. Thus, the menu offers the kind of noodles in fermented bean paste common to Beijing and Korea known as zhajiangmian. Curiously, the menu describes the gravy as "peanut sauce" — which is far from the truth. And instead of the pork or ground beef one usually finds as an add-on, a handful of shrimp have been flung on top. Strange, but very good anyway ($5.50).
The menu has a selection of chile oil hot pots, also a bit strange. The one named fisherman's spicy boiled beef ($12.95) makes you wonder what an angler is doing with so much beef. The waiter arrives with the chafing dish and starts a sterno flame underneath, but then doesn't cook it long enough to make the beef tender. The absence of Sichuan peppercorns is another serious defect. By contrast, "spicy shredded pork with garlic sauce" ($9.25) is lusciously tender, but makes unusual use of matchsticks of crunchy daikon, which is an ingredient not usually seen in this context. Is there a Japanese guy back in the kitchen?
The scallion pancakes ($1.75) — a northern standard long ago adopted in the south — are some of the best in town, and the steamed dumplings, filled with pork and leeks, are excellent, too, and a bargain at $3.75. You can really eat your ass off here on not very much money.
Ultimately, you've got to wonder who would mount such a quasi-Northern Chinese menu, where it isn't all that hard to make more authentic versions of these dishes. As I was pondering this question, my eye strayed to the wall, where what looked like a straw suit of armor hung. Where had I seen it before? In fact, it's made of palm bark and is a frequent decoration in Taiwanese restaurants. Mystery solved?
Beijing Pop Kabob
122 Mulberry Street