Once known as Manchuria, the three provinces in China's far northeast are now collectively called Dongbei. This is coal mining country and was the first region of China to industrialize, but has lately fallen on hard times. Dongbei borders Russia and North Korea and was occupied by Japan during World War II. This sort of social tumult often leads to fascinating food, and that is certainly the case here.
For a decade Flushing has been accumulating Dongbei restaurants, which numbered six at their greatest concentration, including, in order of appearance, Golden Palace, Northeast Taste (closed), Rural Restaurant, Hong Yi Shun, Fu Run, and Lao Dong Bei. The current best is Fu Run, which changed its name recently to Fu Ran, as if having finally completed a lengthy footrace. The restaurant is a small, well-lit box just south of Roosevelt on Prince, and stands across the street from a city housing project called the Bland Houses — though the menu is anything but bland. In fact, Dongbei diners love powerful flavors, including strong vinegars, green chiles, fermented vegetables, Asian cumin, and pungent fresh herbs like cilantro, green onions, and Chinese celery. (These last three go into a refreshing, palate-cleansing salad called "tiger vegetable.")
The larder is equally distinctive. You might feel like you're in the American Midwest as you survey a menu brimming with potatoes and corn. Maize makes a dramatic appearance in a warm yellow salad called pine nut and baby corn ($10.95), which resembles succotash. "Sliced potato with special sauce" ($5.95) proves to be a nest of nearly raw shredded spuds and green chiles, a dish you may recognize from Sichuan menus. In fact, Sichuan influences abound on Fu Ran's bill of fare, with the heat usually intact but the peppercorns 86'd.
South across the Bohai Sea from Donbei is the province of Shandong, where the port of Qingdao was once a German colony, and where Tsingdao lager is still brewed to this day. It's tempting to suggest that the Germans might be responsible for what seems very much like sauerkraut in pork with sour cabbage and rice noodle ($13.95), a dish irresistibly delectable with its combination of tart, slippery, and mellow. It's not much to look at, though, a dull heap of tan and gray. On the other hand, you might also trace the idea of fermented cabbage to nearby Korea. Either way, any dish that contains "suan cai" (as this kraut is called) is recommended.
If you liked the translucent noodles in the pork with sour cabbage, don't miss country style green bean sheet jelly This is indescribably good. And so is the pork with sauerkraut. This giant salad arrives fashionably deconstructed into symmetrically arrayed heaps of cucumber, carrot, cilantro, pork, hijiki, shredded omelet, cloud ear fungus, and the namesake noodles, which have nothing to do with green beans — they're really fettuccini made with mung-bean starch. At the last minute the server tosses them with toasted tahini, making you feel like you're in a Middle Eastern joint.
No better lamb chops are to be found anywhere in town.
That tahini suggests the sorts of Silk Road influences which have extended to Dongbei, even though that ancient trade route technically ends in Xi'an, a thousand miles to the southwest. Other Silk Road flourishes are rife — in the sesame-dotted flatbreads that are preferred to rice at Fu Ran, and in the so-called "Muslim lamb chops." At $25.95, it's the most expensive thing on the menu, but well worth it. When the dish arrives, it looks like nothing but a heap of cumin seeds, but underneath lies an entire rack of lamb chops, partly battered, roasted to perfection, and sporting rib bones dyed bright red for no apparent reason. Perhaps it's a warning against overindulgence. No better lamb chops are to be found anywhere in town.
This munificence, alas, doesn't extend to country style pork chops ($12.95), which turns out to be a heap of porcine hip joints, fringed with fat and gristle, intended mainly for a long gnaw. A plastic glove is provided so you can pick the suckers up without fouling your fingers. On a recent evening there was a serving on nearly every table. But do order pork elbow, a heap of braised shoulder meat covered with a tarp of wobbly skin and fat — a Shanghai standard here divinely rendered and smothered in brown gravy.
Do order pork elbow, a heap of braised shoulder meat covered with a tarp of wobbly skin and fat.
Other "don't miss" dishes include any of the whole-fish presentations. The surprise favorite was sweet and sour fried fish. Who doesn't see "sweet and sour" on a Chinese menu and run in the opposite direction? But here the Dongbei version of the sauce is more complex than cloying, darkened with caramelized sugar and powerful rice-wine vinegar. You'll find yourself licking your fingers afterwards, because you've used them to pull every last little bit of sweet flesh from the bones. Alternatively, borrow one of those plastic gloves from another table.
Cost: One app plus one poultry, pork, chicken, or vegetarian entrée, including tax but not tip, $20 per person; $6 extra apiece if an additional whole fish is shared among four.
Sample dishes: Country style green bean sheet jelly, pork with sour cabbage and rice noodles, fresh fish in hot bean paste, Muslim lamb chops; for vegetarians, dried tofu with fresh hot pepper, pine nut and baby corn, leek and egg pancake.
What to drink: Hot tea, tap water, or Tsingtao beer
Bonus tip: The most adventuresome diners will want to try jelly flowers with shallot - jellyfish hearts that look like strange translucent blossoms, possessing a soft-crunchy texture and tasting like almost nothing. Jellyfish is cheap and sustainable, and may become a popular seafood choice in the future.