I’d love to say that I stumbled upon Flushing’s infamous Golden Mall by accident, or that I’d perhaps heard about it through the whispers of Chinatown’s oldest residents, lamenting the commercialization of Manhattan’s most famous cultural neighborhood, whose streets were once overflowing with great traditional food joints like the Golden Mall. But I’d be lying. If the name sounds familiar, you might know what I’m talking about.
It was Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations that turned me onto this tiny underground food court. During a tour of the boroughs he spent too many years ignoring, Bourdain ate through the mall’s best stalls, admitting that it was some of the best and most authentic Chinese he’d ever had. Anyone who knows me knows that I idolize the man, so I had to check it out for myself; and I can’t say enough about it.
If you don’t know exactly what you’re looking for, you’ll likely miss the entranceway to the Golden Mall. The Golden Shopping Mall, a street-level food court, sits directly above the Golden Mall, and for our purposes is not where you want to be. Its storefront real estate dwarfs the small portal into this underground society of traditional food. You’ll want to look for the entrance pictured above, which will take you down a steep set of aging stairs into the basement, where a culinary world you’ve never seen the likes of before awaits.
Germaphobes and neat freaks be warned: the entrepreneurs in the Golden Mall are all about food, not presentation. The basement is literally packed with tiny food vendors, and its hallways are undeniably dirty, cramped and claustrophobic. “Grade Pending” signs dotting the walls are the icing on the “does the New York Health Department know about this place?” cake. I urge you, however, to overlook what you see, and instead embrace what you taste. After all, locals and world-renowned chefs eat here all the time, and don’t seem to mind at all.
Any user-generated literature you’d find on the Golden Mall will strongly suggest that you bring someone who speaks and reads mandarin to join you, and it doesn’t take long to understand why. Much of the mall’s vendors have left the english language out of the equation entirely (real estate, after all, is hard to come by in this little basement). Not to worry, though! Most of the vendors have someone who speaks at least a little bit of english, though it helps to know what you want. If the language barrier appears too great, the classic “I’ll have what that guy’s having!” with a helpful point of the finger is a good plan B.
While I pride myself on my ability to out-eat almost everyone I know, I was only able to make it through three of the stands before I was more full than I’ve ever been. I started at Xi’An Famous Foods, located in the back near the DVD shop. The “restaurant” is one Bourdain has visited and revisited many times, and for good reason. Celebrating Western Chinese cuisine, a fusion of traditional chinese and middle eastern foods, Xi’An specializes in hand-pulled noodles, lamb dishes, and a lot of spice. Try the spicy cumin lamb burger, a $3 firestorm with more flavor than your mother’s spice cabinet. I meant to take a picture of it, but realized by time I pulled my camera out of my bag that I had accidentally already scarfed down the whole thing.
Food vendor #38, whose name escapes me simply because it isn’t written in english anywhere, is more recognizable for what they’re cooking – handmade dumplings. Located in the main hallway (near the hot pot restaurant), these guys were hard at work making tray after tray of fresh dumplings. The best part? You may not even have to take your wallet out for this one. Priced at a mere $3 per 12 deliciously over-sized dumplings, your pocket change might just suffice.
The last vendor I sampled was Lian Pi Hand-pulled Noodles, a vendor I wish I could have offered more stomach space to. $5 will get you a bowl of beef hand-pulled noodles so big that you may need help bringing it to your table. In fact, it may just feed your entire family…. and all of your Facebook friends. Not bad. Not bad at all.
If you’re feeling adventurous some weekend, head to Flushing’s Golden Mall, and do it with an open mind. The flavors served up in this sometimes questionable basement are ones your appetite has no doubt been searching for for a very, very long time. Unless you’re bringing a date (assuming you’re dating someone awesome enough to want to go here), $7 cash should be enough to fill you up to the brim. Grab a traditional bubble tea on the way out and enjoy the happiest subway trip back to Manhattan you’ve ever taken.