Take the whole world and squeeze it into 109 square miles of land.
Welcome to Queens.
It’s the most ethnically diverse place on Earth, and with over 140 languages spoken and nearly half of its population having been born overseas, it truly feels like the entire planet has been packed into one beautiful mess.
There are areas in Queens that are at once some of the most foreign-feeling places in the country and yet the very embodiment what it means to be American: for what’s more American than a Colombian grocery store flanked by a Chinese herbal medicine market and a Korean BBQ joint?
To speak of Queens’ entirety in one article would be a negligent heresy I won’t dare commit. I myself have only scratched its surface and will likely never succeed in peeling back its many layers. Where then to start? When my girlfriend asked to “go deep into NYC”, there was one place that for me stood above the rest. To feel transported, mystified, questioned…this place is where you begin.
Few who visit New York City venture outside the usual stops in Manhattan and Brooklyn and even many who live here have never ridden the 7 Train to its eastern terminus at Flushing-Main Street. The ride itself seems to prepare you for your impending entrance into another dimension: the 7 is elevated for its whole length within Queens until at the last moment it dips underground right before the Downtown Flushing stop.
Walk up the subway stairs and you’ll arrive on the other side of the world. Flushing is the largest Chinatown outside Asia (by number of persons born in China residing there, though some will debate that other parts of South Brooklyn rival this claim and I’ll counter that they lack the density and coherence to be considered true “Chinatowns” but alas we digress…) and home to many other Asian nationalities, including the Taiwanese, Koreans, Vietnamese, Malaysians, Mongolians and more. Downtown Flushing’s main hub, the corner of Main Street & Roosevelt Ave, is the third busiest intersection in all of New York City (after Times Square and Herald Square) and man do you feel it! The experience of walking down the main drag is impossible to articulate in writing…a living and breathing clusterf*** of humans from every major Asian country (and countless more from countries you’ve never heard of), old Chinese men slinging alternative medicine on megaphones, fruit stands with produce you’ve never seen in your life and maybe never will again, signs upon signs upon signs that you’ll never learn to read and people selling live frogs for your next frog-centric dinner entrée.
In other words, it may well be my favorite part of New York City.
Flushing is the anti-thesis of Manhattan’s Chinatown. No tourists. No souvenir shops, no I Heart NY memorabilia… none of that crap. People live here. It is this fact above all others than makes a visit so appealing. We got a brief glimpse of daily life for many Asian immigrants to our city, and it’s quite simply like nowhere else in New York.
Our first mission was to find me somewhere to pee (I have interstitial cystitis, a cruel disease generally reserved for women over 40 somehow inflicted on me by the wrathful God of the Old Testament that makes you have to pee up to 60 times a day and a never-ending struggle in a city with hardly a public bathroom in site, and yes expect a mellifluous (no pun intended) article on my favorite places to pee in The City That Never Leaks, mark my friggin’ words). I’ve come to almost appreciate my pathetic bladder as it’s inadvertently dragged me into random nooks and crannies of New York I’d never have examined otherwise. We rushed into New World Mall to find a bathroom and in the process stumbled into the heart of Asia. I was immediately transported back to my experience exploring giant malls in Taipei, Taiwan alone when I lived there in 2009. The many Asian fast food chains with strange menu items would take a lifetime for an ignorant white guy like myself to decipher, with my curiosity most consumed by the whole squid available deep-fried for eight bucks.
We left the mall and headed back out into the madness that is Main St & Roosevelt Ave, stopping for a second to take in the scene before dipping into Maxin Bakery (be aware, there are several, go to the small one at 40-06 Main St). Don’t let its tiny size fool you. This place is next level when it comes to bang for your buck. Spend ten bucks and you’ll be more than full, spend fifteen and your whole crew will leave with an assortment of familiar and not-at-all familiar baked goods for the rest of the day.
After Maxin’s we worked our way through a series of markets that again, felt far more like being in actual Asia than at an Asian market in the US (as is more often the case in ethnic neighborhoods). It’s not an exaggeration to say that you could’ve dropped us in some of these groceries and with no context I’d be positive I was back in Taiwan. Live eels, frogs, toads, crabs, bins full of dried starfish and dried deer tendons (for medicinal purposes only, of course), a laundry list of fruits and nuts I’ve never seen and countless more packaged goods on the shelves that will forever remain a mystery. The time we spent in the grocery stores made me eager to come back and learn more about Chinese culture, hopefully with a couple of Mandarin phrases on lock by then.
Overwhelmed by the extraterrestrial produce and allegedly edible creatures, we trekked on in search of food.
My girlfriend noticed steam bellowing from a restaurant down the road with loads of people waiting and suggested we investigate. The place, Shanghai You Garden Dumpling House, ended up have the best dumplings I’ve ever had, in or out of Asia. Period. We were the only non-Asians in the place and holy f*** was it packed. They ask you to order while you’re still outside? Then they bring it to the table, though there’s still 15-minute wait at the table? Sometimes the give you a buzzer, other times a piece of paper with scribbling on it? (I only know this because I’ve since been back) If they tell you the wait is 20 minutes it may be 5 or 45?? There’s no telling.
Never mind the odd sequence of events in getting the food, just know that rays of Buddha-Nature beam from the Center of the Known Universe directly into the pans of this place’s kitchen, searing your dim sun with the heat of Ultimate Reality to yield the best f***ing food you’ll eat all week. The fabric of space-time bends and the Eternal Tao humbly bows towards Queens while plates and plates of nearly-free (oh yeah, I forgot to mention it’s cheap as sh**) food are ushered out to your temporary throne as Emperor of the Culinary World. Cremate my body with their wontons and baptize my children in the juices of their pork buns. Read the menu at my funeral and put their name and only theirs on my will. I demand it.
No superlatives, no further grandiloquence, no egomaniacal 55 year old retired public employee Yelp reviewers will do the place justice, so just go. This isn’t some whatever landmark like Times Square or the place that invented the Cronut. This is the mother-f***ing Shanghai You Garden Dumpling House at 135-33 40 Rd in Flushing, Queens, New York Goddamn City.
And with that, I invite you once more to check out Flushing. There’s more to the place and our journey did not end with the dumplings, but I’d encourage you to go do some of your own exploring (also check out my forthcoming video episode when it drops next month).
Go buy a MetroCard and take the 7 train to the other side of the world.
You’ll thank me later.