Main Course: Flushing

By Eleanore Ye

Walking the streets of Flushing, Dian Yu, director of the Flushing Business Improvement District, sees changes every day, and he compares the evolution of the neighborhood to the different versions of one of China’s most delicious and dynamic dishes.

“Beef noodle soup, one name, many different flavors, Taiwanese style, Szechuan style, Northern style, and it’s all very different,” Yu said. “Recently, I’ve been tasting the northern style, which is a little bit stronger in taste than the rest. But it has its own unique flavors, which is good because it has broadened my taste buds.”

The neighborhood’s wide variety of cuisines from different regions of Asia reflect the economic, demographic, and cultural developments in Flushing. Among the countries and regions represented in the vibrant dining scene are Taiwan, Shanghai, Vietnam, Malaysia, Canton, Hong Kong, Szechuan, Korea and Japan.

Flushing serves fewer tourists, than Chinatown in Manhattan, focusing on residents of the Asian communities of Queens. But recently, many visitors have been coming to Flushing to get a taste of the diverse food.

Gina Chen, a Flushing resident for 25 years and a Kiehl’s cosmetics counter manager at the Flushing Macy’s said, “Flushing is the little Chinatown, except it’s more where the commerce happens, it’s not the tourist Chinatown. The change itself has actually been really good for the commerce in Flushing. Flushing has grown exponentially, a large part is because of the influx of the Asian population.”

According to data from the 2010 Census, Asians account for 69.2 percent of the total population of 72,008. Compared with 2000, Flushing’s population grew 2,646, many of them Asian. And with the growth of the Asian population, the dining scene has also grown.

According to the travel website TripAdvisor, which posts reader reviews, Flushing has 381 restaurants. Many small restaurants find it difficult to compete for customers. Yu says, “People neglect to see the small businesses. It is not easy to survive in this community because of the cutthroat competition.”

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The area often has several restaurants serving the same food from the same region of Asia. On top of that, Chinese food chains have expanded and now dominate the market, limiting smaller, privately owned businesses’ ability to thrive.

For example, bubble tea has always been popular among the Asian community. Five years ago, the only bubble teashops in the area were Quickly’s and Ten Ren. Now, six popular chains of bubble teashops are within a two- to three-block radius of each other — Cha Time, Kung Fu Tea, Quickly’s, Comebuy, TenRen and Coco.

“In Flushing, it’s very competitive,” said Michael Chuang, owner of 101 Taiwanese Cuisine. “A lot of things change but a lot of things stay the same. Everybody is always out to make money in Flushing,” he said, adding that Flushing’s food industry is “extremely competitive and tiring,” and if he comes up with a genius food idea, he guarantees someone else will imitate it within three months.

Asked what is popular now, he said Taiwanese stinky tofu and popcorn chicken. “Our popcorn chicken is brought back from Taiwan,” he said. “It’s not like American popcorn chicken. There are different sauces you put on top of it, it’s more of a walk-around food.” In Flushing, residents and business owners always seem on the run, for work and for food.

Chuang says, “No matter how far it is, my friends and I are always willing to travel for food.”

Copious amounts of restaurants and food stalls exist in Flushing. For example, in the morning, people grab something like a small bun with a cup of milk tea from Taipan bakery. During lunch, workers tend to eat large portions to fuel for the rest of the day, like a large bowl of beef noodle soup from the New World Mall food court. Then, during dinner or for special occasions, people feast on plates of seafood, meat and vegetables from a more upscale spot, like Jade Asian Restaurant.

Chuang’s father, Timothy Chuang, is a board member of the Flushing BID and had a lot to do with drawing in visitors from outside of the area. “There’s a lot more development going on right now,” he said. “American people coming in, then our culture spreads out further, we get more business, and it helps everyone.”