When Joe’s Steam Rice Roll opened in Flushing in 2017, it quickly turned the chewy dim sum favorite into a mainstream hit. Now, three years later, Rolls Rice, a new rice roll destination at 40-46 Main Street, at 41st Avenue, is capitalizing on that popularity with the addition of pan-Asian filings, sauces, and customizable rice rolls. The restaurant operates out of a small to-go counter flanked on both sides by the cafeteria-style Qing Dao restaurant.
“I think that people limit themselves as far as rice rolls are concerned,” says Taiwanese chef and co-owner, Richard Chan, who grew up in Singapore, a city-state known as a global food destination in big part due to its large immigrant population. The traditional Cantonese cheung fun (rice roll), a common breakfast dish, street food and dim sum item, is typically filled with whole shrimp, beef or pork and topped with a sweet soy sauce. “So instead of that, we want people to have more choices, taste the flavors of different countries.”
The restaurant’s seven “destination creation” rolls, named after airport codes in major cities in Asia include the BKK (Bangkok) which features Thai-style minced pork, peppers, basil and yóu cài Chinese greens; TPE (Taoyuan, Taiwan) which comes with braised, shredded pork, cilantro and greens; and SIN (Singapore) has shrimp, greens and a chile sauce that’s usually cooked into the classic Singaporean chile crab dish. The rice rolls cost either $5.50 or $6.50.
“So obviously, Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia flavors are very familiar to me,” says Chan. “I grew up in that environment in Singapore. And being Taiwanese, I learned to cook Taiwanese dishes.”
Customers can also build their own rice rolls with fillings like shrimp, roast pork, belachan (shrimp paste) or curry fish balls ($1 to $2.50), all of which are served with the option of adding toppings like fried garlic, braised egg, pork rinds, peanut-sesame sauce and chile oil.
“Cheung fun is actually a very blank white canvas with which you can paint so many different ingredients together,” says co-owner Samuel Lai. He grew up visiting family and eating street foods in Hong Kong. Initially the restaurant’s owners wanted to start with noodles — mei funs, pastas, egg noodles — as a base for varied cultural flavors. “But we realized that cheung fun is the way to go because it’s just one vast pan of something that you can add any flavor to,” says Lai.
The focus on rice rolls was also partly a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Chan found himself $80,000 in arrears for rent and utilities at his debut restaurant, Yummy Tummy, a popular Singaporean spot that opened in Bayside in 2018. “Because closing the restaurant [during the city-mandated shutdown] is one thing, but you’re keeping the refrigeration running, and the water and all the other appliances running, so those electrical bills and the water bills are also still running” says Chan. He also faced an uphill battle, first to establish a take-out and delivery model for the dine-in restaurant, and later to try to recoup losses when the city reopened indoor dining at 25 percent capacity. He decided to close up shop in August, take on new partners, and start something new.
“We figured we still want to introduce our flavors, but instead, we wanted to do a takeout or delivery thing,” says Chan. “People will come in, buy, go home, take the time to eat without the hassle of a full-service restaurant.”
Even the concept of the airport destinations was inspired by the pandemic.
“You’re transported to Taipei. You’re transported to Singapore,” says Vin Ho, the third co-owner and former maître d’ at Yummy Tummy. “We want you to think about that when you’re eating our food, because, being in COVID times, travel is not an option right now.”
The last few years have seen an unprecedented explosion of rice rolls citywide. Last year saw the debut of several new cheung fun shops including Yi Ji Shi Mo Noodle Corp. and the Guangzhou, China-based chain, Yin Ji Chang Fen, which opened in Chinatown, drawing lines of locals every morning. Rolls Rice is now the latest to jump on the cheung fun bandwagon.
The counter service spot is open Monday to Thursday from 9 A.M. to 6 P.M., and Friday, Saturday and Sunday from 9 A.M. to 7 P.M.