“A lot of people go to the spa to steam their face,” Joe Rong, the man behind Joe’s Steam Rice Roll (136-21 Roosevelt Avenue), says amid clouds of rice-scented steam. “I steam my face every day.”
There are many other places that offer chang fen, as it’s known in Cantonese, but no restaurant make rice rolls quite like Rong does at his stand, counter, and storefront in Flushing. What really sets his rice rolls apart is that he grinds the rice for the batter in an electric-powered stone mill daily.
The mill and the twin steamers, imported from China and each large enough to accommodate a broad sheet pan, sit in plain view: all the better to watch the steamed rice roll show at the hawker stand.
The mill cost about $1,000, and the shipping was more than $2,000. Rong discovered the grinder and large twin steam boxes when he went to Guangzhou to learn his craft.
“I didn’t know about this machine until I went back to China,” he says. Nor did he know how to use it when he first got it. He blew three fuses and feared he might destroy it before he even opened his restaurant.
At the front of the shop is a description of the history and benefits of steam rice roll written in Chinese. It describes, among other things, how every household used to have a grinder for grinding soybeans and rice. “A lot of people come and ask, “Can I pay you to grind rice for me?” Rong says. “I can’t do it.” He doesn’t have time.
The shop goes through about 40 pounds of rice a day. Rong begins his morning by making a batch of batter, combining rice and water and stirring as the grinder whirs away.
When he first started, he thought he could use just any kind of rice but quickly found out many types produce an inferior, gummy rice roll. “I tried almost 15 types of rice to find the right one. I shut down the store for two days just looking for the rice,” he says. He won’t tell what rice he’s using now.
Many rice rolls in dim-sum houses resemble flat, white enchiladas, while those from Flushing hawkers, are tight rolls. Rong’s earn their beautiful appearance because he has a much larger canvas. Order a rice roll with a choice of five fillings and Rong will first check the consistency of the batter before pouring it into the sheet pan. He makes sure the pan is coated then he pops it into the steamer. After about two minutes, he removes the pan and goes to work on the thin sheet of dough with two plastic pastry knives, first rolling it upon itself, then chopping it into inch-wide chunks.
Of the five versions on the menu, his favorite combination is beef and egg, adding that curry fish ball is a bestseller. “Hong Kong people like that one,” he says as he slides a pan into the steamer amid yet another cloud.