Flushing Is the Hong Kong
We May Never See Again
THURSDAY, AUGUST 5, 2021 -- The bedraggled business traveler, black laptop bag slung over his shoulder, black rolling carry-on at his side, stood before the cramped check-in station at the Hyatt Place Flushing/LaGuardia. He asked a rational and oft-heard question: "Any good Italian restaurants around here for dinner?"

Standing behind him, I looked up from my phone and locked eyes with the affable but baffled check-in clerk.

"You do know this is a Chinese neighborhood?" he finally responded. "I don't think Italian is the way to go. There are some great Korean and Indian places nearby, too, if you'd like that."

I must have laughed too loudly because the business traveler wheeled around and eyed me warily. But he quickly decided I was one of the tribe.

"Was that a stupid question?" he asked earnestly.

"Of course not," I said. "But this is the greatest Chinese community in America. There are amazing places to eat without ever leaving the hotel complex. All the noodles you want. But pasta? Not so much."

I offered my fellow flyer a few tips, including Dan Dan noodles from a nearby Sichuan place. But let me go further here: Flushing, hard by LaGuardia Airport, is the closest thing to Hong Kong that I have ever experienced. And given how the Chinese Communist Party seems intent on destroying the Hong Kong we once knew and loved, Flushing may be more like the Hong Kong we remember than the Hong Kong we will find when we can travel there again.

The energy, the creativity, the English-language facade barely concealing a vibrant Chinese soul? That is the old Hong Kong. It is also Flushing now. The cheek-by-jowl humanity affecting a unique blend of Occidental and Oriental? That's the old Hong Kong. It is also Flushing. Not nearly as many good hotels in Flushing, of course. And no one could ever confuse cramped, still-under-renovation LaGuardia with huge, purpose-built Hong Kong International Airport. But, damn, the food. In fact, Flushing is a better foodie destination than Hong Kong because there's a much better representation of China's regional cuisines. If Hong Kong is Cantonese with a side dish of China's other cultures, Flushing is a glorious buffet of everything Greater China has to offer.

In the borough of Queens, where New York's two airports are located, there is not so much a melting pot as side-by-side saucepans of ethnicity. Chinese, Korean, Bangladeshi, Pakistani, Indian, Malaysian. Central and South American communities. African enclaves. But Flushing, just three miles from LGA, is the flashpoint of a modern Chinese diaspora. The Taiwanese came first, in the 1970s, according to commonly accepted wisdom. Then they came from the mainland: Fujianese, Hunanese, Sichuanese and even from the little-known Northeast provinces known as Dongbei.

And they don't leave. Unlike earlier waves of immigrants, Chinese residents of Flushing have no desire to move on up to the East Side or out to the suburbs. The kids grow up here, become adults and remain. They make their money here and they stay. Which explains the raft of luxury cars in the parking garage under the Hyatt Place, one component of One Fulton Square, a mixed-use complex that's the glossy heart of Chinese Flushing. What happens in Flushing stays in Flushing. Why leave? is the common refrain. Where would I eat if I left?

Quite apart from arriving at or departing from LaGuardia, I often prowl the streets of Flushing with the same goggle-eyed joy that I used to feel when I was able to visit Hong Kong. Every storefront is a new culinary discovery, a fabulous cultural adventure, a chance to learn something new, eat something new, share something new. And there's enough English spoken to make the endless mystery that is China seem understandable and accessible.

I won't lie. Flushing might be too big a stretch if you've only got an hour or two before a flight. New York traffic being what it is--and Flushing is Manhattan street chaos squared--it's easy to miss your flight. But if you've got an overnight to spare in New York, skip Manhattan and stay in Flushing.

Besides, it's closer and much cheaper than Hong Kong. And given what we know about Hong Kong now, it may be more Hong Kong than the Hong Kong we'll find after the pandemic passes.

WHERE TO STAY
The Hyatt Place is where to be. Physically, the hotel is no different than any other Hyatt Place--except for the congee on the breakfast buffet. And as part of One Fulton Square, you've got direct access to a baker's dozen of restaurants, including Japanese, Malaysian, Korean and several Chinese cuisines. The pricey ($35 a person minimum), slick Leaf Bar is perched on the roof. Nightly room rates swing wildly and can be as cheap as $150 or as costly as $499. ... A block away, the Sheraton LaGuardia East is getting a very disruptive makeover. ... The Fairfield Inn LaGuardia/Flushing is in isolated College Point, but it's literally across Flushing Bay from LaGuardia's runways. ... A Hotel Indigo is due to open next year.

LOCAL COLOR
Flushing is home to the National Tennis Center and Citi Field, home of the New York Mets. On game days, you will find groups of Mets fans chowing down, then taking the Number 7 train one stop to the stadium. ... The Number 7 is a straight shot to Grand Central Terminal, Times Square and the Hudson Yards stop near the Javits Convention Center. ... If you don't want to do Flushing on your own, there are guided walking tours. ... Commercial and residential rents are skyrocketing in Flushing as the children of the first generation of immigrants attempt to stay close to home. Case in point: The demise of Presso, a spacious, inventive Chinese-owned coffee bar on the street level of One Fulton Square. Despite raves, it shuttered because it couldn't handle the $30,000-a-month rent.

PANDEMIC AND PLACE
Even before the arrival of the Delta variant, Flushing was 100% mask-compliant, outside and inside. In fact, Flushing never stopped masking up. Don't even think of going without one unless you're eating. ... Masks are cheap and easy to find around the neighborhood. Even the street vendors, who usually sell exotic fruits and vegetables, peddle them. One grocery store gives away 10-packs of disposables with each purchase.

WHAT TO EAT
There are probably a hundred joints you should try. That said, some quick thoughts: Soup dumplings, the Shanghai specialty known as long bao, are best at Nan Xiang Xiao. ... If you crave traditional baked Chinese buns like char siu bao, try Taipan Bakery. ... Dumplings? The Tian Jin Dumpling House (41-41 Kissena Boulevard) operates from a streetside take-away shop. A dozen plump, juicy fried ones with a variety of fillings sells for $8. If you must have fancier digs, try the chef's Dumpling Galaxy. ... Noodles? Bet you never tried potato-based ones. Sample them in various soups at Siblings, Stall 21 at the bustling food court in the New World Mall. While you're there, stop by Stall 28, Zheng Zhou Noodles. It makes a greasy, glorious sandwich of cumin lamb and green peppers. ... Bubble tea is everywhere, including the branches of Taiwan-based Tiger Sugar and Xing Fu Tang, which creates the tapioca balls (called boba) right in the storefront's windows.

WHERE TO ENTERTAIN
Four years after The New York Times bestowed three stars and crowned it the best new Chinese dining room in a generation, Guan Fu Sichuan remains the go-to for grand entertaining. The menu is studded with authentic takes on Sichuan dishes familiar to Americans and a wide range of exotic fare. The room is large and comfortable, but service is often spotty. ... Two-year-old Jiang Nan flies under the radar, but it may be a better bet for entertaining. There's a festive pineapple beer (think shandy) served in a cute glass barrel with sake-sized glasses. It's low in alcohol and refreshing. The cuisine is fabulous, including exceptional Peking Duck, cumin lamb set alight at your table and a silky eggplant dish that really does melt in your mouth. ... Dim sum, primarily a Cantonese affair, isn't a big deal in Flushing, but you will do just fine at the sprawling, multi-roomed Asian Jewels.

A note to readers: This is a totally updated and newly reported version of a Brancatelli File column that originally appeared in 2017.