Thanks to increased immigration from many provinces of China, this is the greatest era New York City has yet seen for Chinese regional cuisines. A partial list includes our original Cantonese, followed in the last few decades by the cuisines of Teochew, Taiwan, Fujian, Sichuan, Shanghai, and Hunan. These were joined more recently by Henan, Guizhou, Guilin, Lanzhou, Shandong, Xi’an, Yunnan, Dongbei, Hong Kong, and Beijing itself — the last two partly represented by restaurant empires based in China that have established branches here, like Tim Ho Wan and DaDong.
Another of the cuisines to try is Tianjin. This Yellow Sea port just southeast of Beijing with a population of 15 million has city-state status in the People’s Republic. In the 13th century, when Mongols made Beijing the capital, Tianjin was where grain was stored and thus became known as the Bread Basket of China. Later, it was dubbed Shanghai of the North, because of several European concessions (trading territories) established there in 1858, following a treaty forced on the Chinese by the British and French during the Opium Wars.
The result was a Chinese regional cuisine that has retained some of its European flavors in modern times (along with Japanese and Korean ones). A common Tianjin street food known as “ham sausage” for its smokiness, for example, resembles kielbasa. So when the stall called Tianjin Dumpling House opened in the basement of Flushing’s Golden Shopping Mall at the corner of Main Street and 41st Road a decade ago, there was a large, plump sausage resembling the Polish kind sticking out of the cold buffet, causing at least a few customers to marvel how it got there.
It was one of two dozen selections in metal pans from which one is invited to choose while sitting on a stool at the red counter of the stall. Picking an assortment of three is standard practice, possibly including pressed tofu slicked with gritty chile sauce, shredded potatoes, soy-braised gluten, edamame, tripe or pig ear, sesame oil tofu skin, cucumbers and crushed garlic, roasted peanuts, and pickled bamboo shoots.
But these savory dishes are only a prelude to the main reason for the stall, which is dumplings. Hand-fashioned as you watch, these are short, squat, and satisfying, in many ways the opposite of the delicate dumplings of the dim sum service. Many fillings are offered in a sign displayed above the counter, including pork with chives, lamb with green squash, beef with turnips, seabass, and pork with Chinese celery, for as little as $4 for a dozen substantial dumplings.
In addition, one is invited to add extra ingredients to the fillings, from a surprising roster that includes tomatoes, seaweed, shrimp, broccoli, squid, and sausage. Also on offer on top of the counter under a sheet of plastic wrap are soy-braised meats, often including pig feet and pullets, which are young chickens.
These same chickens are the star of the show, and a source of great pride, at Tian-Jin Chinese Restaurant, at 135-02 Roosevelt Avenue, a few blocks away on Prince Street near the corner of Roosevelt Avenue. It’s not really a restaurant, but a Chinese charcuterie with no seating; its offerings are limited to meats and poultry braised in a sweet thick soy sauce. The selection varies by day, but the small chicken, priced at $13, is a wonder. The skin is rubbery, and the flesh is infused with flavor. Nothing would make better picnic food, since the bird is normally served at room temp. Other regular offerings include cow tripe, and pigs’ trotters, kidneys, and liver.
For a peek at the home cooking of Tianjin, traipse down to Yi Lan Halal, a Muslim Chinese restaurant at 42-79 Main St., near the corner of Blossom Avenue, specializing in several northern cuisines. The chef Ling Da Wei was born in Tianjin, and many of the dishes on the lengthy menu designated Home Special Staple Food originated there. One remarkable dish is dough soup. It sports wiggly free-form dumplings something like German spaetzle. Lamb and cabbage, tomato and egg, beef and pickle, or dried shrimp can be added to the soup ($9 to $11), which can feed several.
Other highlights include seafood noodle Tianjin style, beef with rice noodles, chive pancake with egg, octopus home style (baby specimens in a warm salad), and the supremely wonderful braised lamb in brown sauce ($16.95). It conceals a savory lamb stew under a vast omelet dome, and smothers it in brown gravy. And really, there’s no more substantial and stomach-warming dish to be found on Main Street.