Many people have asked me why I don’t review many Chinese restaurants, then promptly follow with the question “what’s your favorite Chinese restaurant”. Ask any Chinese person that question, and chances are it’ll be a restaurant you’ve never heard of, that doesn’t take cash, takes no reservations, and might not even have proper menus in English.
The same way you seldom see Japanese people at Nobu, you seldom see Chinese people at Chinese restaurants that are popular among mainstream Americans. I do enjoy the atmosphere of Shang, Tao, Mr. Chow, etc, but the food does not impress me as Chinese cooking. When I go for Chinese food, many of my favorite dishes I cannot describe in English, and contain ingredients you probably don’t want described in English.
During a recent dinner with Sarah of Fritos and Foie Gras, I was asked the same question again. Seeing that today’s diners are getting more adventurous, I decided to let the secret out, and give this small restaurant and its great chef some serious props.
Situated on Main Street in the southern tip of Flushing, right off the LIE, you’ll find Main Street Imperial Taiwanese Gourmet. However, if you’re talking to a Chinese person, mention “Bei-Gang” (which means Northern Seaport), because nobody in their right mind except hardcore foodies knows the English name.
The restaurant is small, does not take reservations, takes cash only, and have a very authentic Taiwanese menu. In addition to the menu items, there’re “specials” that are written in Chinese and line the walls. In fact, it seems that there are hundreds of dishes. Some dishes are simply called Chef Lin’s Famous Fish, or Chef Lin’s Famous Chicken, you order if you believe in Mr. Lin.
Believe in Mr. Lin you should. The chef, who hails from Southern Taiwan, is a master of stir fry on an open flame with a massive wok. Each morning you’ll find him personally hauling in the freshest ingredients in his Buick SUV, and each night you’ll find him in the kitchen stir frying away.
While it’s possible to enjoy this speaking only English, I urge you to find a Chinese companion to make ordering simpler.
Taiwan’s history was built with much hardship, so don’t expect anything fancy like Chinese banquet food. Historically, meats came at a premium, so the focus of Taiwanese cuisine is to deliver tremendous flavor in stir fry dishes that goes well with steamed rice. Even though today ingredients are no longer out of reach, the culture of delicious stir fry dishes remain. In fact when something goes “down easy with rice”, it’s taken as a compliment.
Most diners here start their meal with “Hakka Stir Fry”, a deceptively simple name with basic ingredients (celery, shredded squid, shredded pork intestine), yet pack a ton of flavor. Another hugely popular dish is the “Chives with Fly Heads”. Like “Ants on a Log”, there’re no insects here. This is a stir fry of deep fried ground pork with chives. Don’t be surprised if you’re through two bowls of rice as this point, it’s normal.
The frugal history of Taiwan also shows in the ingredients. You’ll see a lot of dishes with internal organs, because it was considered a waste to not consume it. In fact, perhaps the most famous dish at this restaurant is a stir fried pork kidney with sesame oil. This is one dish that’s nearly impossible to replicate at home, and Chef Lin does it better than anywhere else.
If pork intestine or kidney is not your thing, try starting off with stir fried duck intestine. In my opinion, nobody does it better. The soft crunchy texture doesn’t have much flavor on its own, but the seasoning more than makes it satisfying.
For the less adventurous, definitely try the “3 Cup Chicken” (a Taiwanese classic with its own Wikipedia entry!). Combining chicken with one cup soy sauce, one cup sesame oil, and one cup rice wine, cooked with lots of basil, it’s packed with flavor and cooked to perfectly tender.
Finally, if you still have room in your stomach, experience a true Taiwanese classic here: deep fried stinky tofu. The secret of enjoying this dish is to not think of it as tofu, but rather an ingredient that has been fermented in a similar way as cheese. Sure it may be pungent, but the taste is truly unique.
There you have it, my favorite Chinese restaurant in New York. Go hungry, stay adventurous, and prepare to eat a lot of rice.
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Main Street Imperial Taiwanese Gourmet
59-14a Main Street
New York, NY 11355