Chinatown, if you give it a chance, can raise a lot of questions (and not just questions about corruption and incest). Founded roughly in the mid-to-late 1800s, the historic Chinese quarters of modern urbania were born from the ranks of discrimination, self-segregation and survival. As the years passed and industrialized nations began to construct our century’s norms of diversity, the original Chinatowns shifted character to adopt the burdens of historic self-representation and tourism. The remaining degrees of original community vary in their posts throughout the world, existing between evolution and erosion in an oddly pronounced kind of ethnic enclave.
To me, then, Chinatown has always been a bit of a stilted jumble of authenticity and artifice. Having grown up in eastern San Gabriel Valley, I find myself more at ease with the “new Chinatown” aesthetic of immigrant neighborhoods established during the 1970s and 1980s, where history takes a back seat to bubble tea. This instinct is what consistently draws me by way of a one hour subway ride to the Queens neighborhood of Flushing. Popularly referred to as New York City’s “true home” to Chinese, Taiwanese and Korean cuisine, Flushing is steeped in the immediate feeling of neighborhood-not-institution that I get when I step onto Webster St. in Oakland or drive along Colima Rd. in my native Rowland Heights.
Not coincidentally, I’m also drawn to this locale because on almost every corner of the downtown stretch of Main Street I can spot a stainless steel cart spewing meat-scented smoke into the Flushing sky. The Xinjiang BBQ cart, a streetside source of cheap, skewered BBQ hailing from the westernmost region of China, has been a prominent fixture along the busy blocks at the end of the 7 Subway line for over a year now. Their tenders spear chunks of chicken, lamb and beef, smoke them over hot charcoal, spice the meat with some mixture of salt, pepper, red chili and cumin seeds, then hand them over to passersby at the rate of $1 per stick. In a neighborhood packed with exciting eats, they’re the perfect primer for whatever may come next.
I’ve tried BBQ chicken and lamb from almost every one of these carts, and by and large the results have been just about what you could expect for a buck. At 37th and Main, the meat is noticeably cheap and unsavory, overpowered by a dose of salt that is not nearly salty enough to mask the musk of plainly bad chicken. At 39th and Main, the lamb is a bit slimy, the chicken humdrum, rubbery and rod-shaped. This might have something to do with the fact that the vendor who prepares the skewers here keeps his meat under plastic and ice in an adjacent shopping cart, unfurling the tarp concealing his supply every so often to deliver a re-up of raw chicken to a friend on a bicycle, but I’d prefer to preserve the idyllic value of that image and believe instead that he’s just a bad cook.
The meat at 38th and Main has more flavor and texture than its flanks, with a better crusting job and particularly fatty cuts of lamb. Still, even this sample of BBQ is only slightly less typical than the Main Street standard: an indiscernible serving of meat-on-a-stick with little inherent flavor or finesse. At $1 per skewer there’s little wrong with this picture- I gleefully finished everything I was given- but something vital is missing when BBQ can only go in the direction of salty.
Thankfully, this spark is restored at the intersection of 41st and Kissena, where Flushing’s premier Xinjiang BBQ vendor prepares the true artifact at the very same price of $1 per serving. His operation is clearly tighter and more studied than that of his peers; even his cart is constructed differently than the others on Main Street. Without the aid of a medical face mask, he slaves meticulously through billowing clouds of coal smoke, shifting the coals, sprinkling spices over the meat and turning the skewers at just the right moments. He fiddles with the rack and clips off unacceptably burnt morsels from the meat as if sculpting from ice, absorbed in his work through the casually steeled motions of a master.
The results yielded by all of this extra care smoke out the competition. At 41st and Kissena, the BBQ chicken is almost twice as heavy as its counterparts. Rather than a long, windy strand, it takes the form of robust, whole chunks of tender dark meat. Likewise, the BBQ lamb is a perfect balance of game and well-done, crisp, juicy and altogether flavorful. Unlike the other Xinjiang BBQ I’ve sampled, the meat here is well marinaded, giving it the strong, savory presence that other vendors attempt to wrap around the meat with seasoning. Every bite is a delectable testament to street food, cheap eats and smoked meat. While I might have more to say later about Flushing’s cultural draw and have much more of its culinary space left to explore, the perfect dollar skewer of BBQ, like a lightning rod of flavor, is enough on its own to keep me coming back to Queens, even though I live one metro stop way from Manhattan’s Chinatown.
The XinJiang BBQ Master
41st Ave. & Kissena Blvd.
New York, NY 11355