For many visitors to New York, a trip to Chinatown means heading to Lower Manhattan. But the city has another Chinatown in Flushing, Queens, not as well known, but just as vibrant. It's a fun place to spend a day exploring, shopping and, above all, eating.
You can also celebrate the Year of the Tiger here: Flushing's Lunar New Year parade is Feb. 20. Typically some 4,000 people turn out for the spectacle, which includes dragon dancers, steel drummers and fireworks.
If you happen to be in Manhattan during Chinese New Year, getting to Flushing is a snap. Take the No. 7 train from Times Square, Fifth Avenue or Grand Central to the last stop, Main Street. You'll emerge from the subway into the heart of downtown Flushing at one of New York City's busiest intersections.
"If you come on a weekend, there's barely space to walk," said Shawn Choi, external affairs associate at Flushing Town Hall, a cultural center at 137-35 Northern Blvd. that sponsors performances, exhibits and educational programs. Events at Flushing Town Hall in honor of Lunar New Year include "Tigers in the House," an exhibit of tiger-inspired arts and crafts, Feb. 12-March 28.
As you stroll Flushing's busy streets, the mix of East and West is striking. Candy Shop USA at 38-03 Main St. sells familiar treats like Kit Kats as well as wasabi- flavored pistachios and sweets in "Hello Kitty" wrappers. The Xinhua bookstore, 37-19 Main St., is described by the "Not For Tourists" guidebook series as offering everything from "Kerouac to Harry Potter" in Chinese. But there's also a Macy's at 136-50 Roosevelt Ave., as well as a Mango, an outlet of the Spanish fashion chain, 38-21 Main St.
The Sheraton LaGuardia East Hotel advertises its "distinctly Asian flair" at 135-20 39th Ave., where a pair of lion statues guards the hotel entrance. Around the corner, St. George's Church, on Main Street between 38th and 39th avenues, offers Episcopal and Anglican services in English, Chinese and Spanish. Low-flying planes headed to LaGuardia create a startling image as they roar over the spire of the church's mid 19th century stone building.
Carpenter Tan, at 133-31 39th Ave. in the Flushing Mall, is part of a global chain of more than 800 stores, based in mainland China, which sells decorative hair combs and brushes. Manager David Ho says different types of hair require different types of combs; the combs range from $6 to $200, with the most expensive items handmade from sandalwood and mother-of-pearl. Traditionally, the most elaborate combs were offered by suitors to prospective brides. "If the lady accepts, that means yes," said Ho.
In the food court of Flushing Mall, wide, hand-pulled noodles are made on the premises at Xi'an Famous Foods. (Xi'an also has locations in Manhattan's Chinatown and in the food court of another mall, nearby at 41-28 Main St.) Celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain featured Xi'an on his No Reservations show for good reason: The noodle dishes, just a few bucks each, are delicious. Just be forewarned: Order something a "little spicy" here and it may well be the hottest dish you've ever eaten. A mall ice cream vendor can cool your taste buds with flavors like mango and green tea.
But save room, because there's much more food to sample. "It's hard not to find good things to eat in this neighborhood," said Ellen Kodadek, executive director of Flushing Town Hall.
At Fay Da, a Chinese bakery with several local outlets including 136-18 39th Ave., try buns stuffed with roast pork, bright yellow egg-custard tarts, and fried balls of dough covered with sesame seeds, filled with bean paste. The goodies are $1 a piece or less. You'll also want to stop at the Korean bakery, Koryodang, 39-02 Union St., for scrumptious croquettes, called koroke, filled with curried meat, potato or tuna. While you're there, buy a bag of bite-sized black walnut cakes, $5, to snack on later.
There are many choices for full sit-down meals in Flushing, and many restaurants are moderately priced. The cavernous Gala Manor, 37-02 Main St., is known for excellent dim sum, which consists of small, savory dishes like spring rolls, turnip cakes, stuffed eggplant, and shrimp-and-vegetable dumplings. Each plate is just a few dollars, and the offerings are served from a cart, rather than ordered off a menu. The best way to experience dim sum is with a couple of friends. Order adventurously, and share. For around $10 a person, you can have a fabulous brunch or lunch.
Any visit to Flushing must include a stop at Joe's Shanghai, 136-21 37th Ave., for the legendary soup pork dumplings. "We always come here whenever we are in New York," said Gerri Berlin of Beverly, Mass., as she lunched at Joe's on a recent winter day with her husband, Andy Cohen. Novices, beware: Nibble the edges of the dumplings carefully when you take your first bite, as they're filled with steaming hot broth. (You can also sample the dumplings in Manhattan at Joe's restaurants at 9 Pell St. and 24 W 56th St.)
At Ten Ren, 135-18 Roosevelt Ave., part of a Taiwan chain with more than 130 stores around the world, you can try trendy bubble tea, hot or cold, with bouncing pearls of tapioca.
A tour of Flushing is inevitably followed by longing for more of the wonderful food you had, so before you go home, stock up at Hong Kong Supermarket, 37-11 Main St. The store offers a huge variety of sauces, noodles, cookware and other ingredients and implements, allowing you to bring some of the flavors of Flushing to your own kitchen.