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Chengdu Heaven -- the best Sichuan food in a tiny basement stall at the 41-28 Main St Mall, Flushing

I just ate at one of the best Sichuan restaurants in New York.

I walked along Main Street as the sun set, and when I got to 41-28, through a door and down a flight of stairs -- and suddenly I was back in Kowloon, in one of the warrens of food stalls between the huge apartment blocks on Nathan Road. That's what it felt like. If you've been to that mall, you know what I mean. If not, prepare for culture shock major.

The tiny stall named Chengdu Heaven was somnolent, almost empty. A woman carefully sliced a huge lung on a table while her husband ladled out soup. A young man hunched over a soup bowl, a tiny dog begging for scraps. (The dog is not usually there.) The menu was on the wall. Not a word of English written, not a word of English spoken. I recognized the characters for fish and bean in one dish, pointed to it. And then I waited.

Finally a man emerged carrying a big takeout soup container. Oh no I got soup! I thought. But it wasn't soup. That was the only dishes they had. It was a carefully layered masterpiece. On top, fresh cilantro and pine nuts. Below, pillow cubes of softest dofu were interspersed with nuggets of fish lightly coated with potato flour. Around all, a fiery red oily broth. Oh, it was wonderful. Swilrling currents of flavor in every bite. I'd asked for ma la (hot and spicy) and ma la it was, with chili and Sichuan peppercorns and clear sharp flavors I couldn't identify. As I was eating, people going to other stalls stopped and asked the owners what I was eating. I told them, and told them how fantastically good it was. That was fun. But the food was magical.

All too soon I finished and went back up the stairs. And it was the very same feeling I get when I see great art at the museum or a great film at a theatre, and then leave. The magic is over, the harsh light of reality intrudes. And yet... some of the magic stays with me.

Chengdu Heaven
Stall 31 (across from stall with "Happy Family" sign, also across from a shoe shop)
Mall at 41-28 main street, in the basement

Note on ordering. If you dont know Chinese, get a takeout menu at Spicy & Tasty. Take it with you and point to the dish you want. Of course, most of those dishes they don't have. I don't know what the dish I had is called, but they do have water-cooked beef which is called "Shredded Beef in fresh hot pepper" on the Spicy & Tasty menu.

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  1. Oh my God I love you. I will be at this place the day I get back from the culinary wasteland which I now live in (London. Christmas Break. Mmmm.)

    Do you think you can put together a bit of an ordering scheme? Do they speak Canto? If so I can easily get a friend to come.

    1. Appreciate the update on Chengdu Tian Fu ( http://www.chow.com/digest/1743 ). That fish dish sounds great!

      As of 9/06 this was the menu ... http://i127.photobucket.com/albums/p1... I gather it's changed, as last year's version doesn't seem to offer a dish with both "fish" and "bean." (If you think it's mostly the same as before, I can provide at least a partial translation.)

      29 Replies
      1. re: squid kun

        It's a new menu, three columns in yellow. But, just looking at the hot dishes at the bottom of the left hand column in your photo, it looks like it's mostly the same.

        I had no idea you had been there before. I thought I was the first. If I'd known someone had been, I would have gone sooner. I've been putting it off because of the risk it wouldn't be good. At least I was the first to eat at the Sichuan stand at 41-82 Main. http://www.chowhound.com/topics/248021 But that stand, incredible as it is, doesn't have the hot dishes that Chengdu Tian does... things like water-cooked beef, which I want to try.

        The main point of course isn't who went there first. The main point is that this place is so totally off the radar and unknown. There should be lines out the door. People should be saying, the line is just too long, let's settle for Spicy & Tasty. Instead it's empty, and the few locals from the neighborhood who come in are there for their very cheap soups. That's why all the regular Chinese patrons of that mall stopped to look at what I had ordered. They were so surprised to see such stellar stuff at that mall.

        1. re: Brian S

          I forgot... thank you, Squid-kun, for your offer to translate that menu. It's the dishes at the bottom left that interests me, the hot dishes. I can translate the third through seventh. Twice-cooked pork (回锅肉), and then water-cooked (水煮) fish slices, beef and pork. But what about the others? They might be wonderful.

          1. re: Brian S

            Is this the place at the bottom of the orange stairwell?

            I think we had it pegged at least as early as last year too, unfortunately I cannot find an earlier post where i went into its offerings in detail (including its exact address), but here is one 2006 reference: "[The J&L Sichuan stand] is one of the three most authentic Sichuan places we’ve found in Flushing -- the second one being Xiao La Jiao and the third one being small restaurant/stall located in a mini-mall on the corner of Main and 41st, on the corner closer to Sanford than Kissena. The mini-mall where this third place is located is on the same side of the street as the J&L food court. It is a downstairs mini-mall; look for the orange stairwell descending from street level, and walk down the stairs, the Sichuan place will be immediately on your left at the bottom of the stairs." We walked right by it the first time we walked down the stairs, it is postage stamp tiny.
            http://www.chowhound.com/topics/339644

            Perhaps it is time for an updated inventory of authentic Sichuan places in Flushing.

            Also in that same post, I listed common items at the Sichuan stalls and translations. I will try to clean the list up with better descriptions and post it separately, as these places can be intimidating for non-Chinese speakers.

            However, we haven't been to Flushing in so long and don't have plans to go until November. If someone happens to visit this stall and is able to snap a photo of the new menu and post it here, I'll try to weave its items into the translations list.

            1. re: eade

              Thanks for offering to translate! Here are some photos for your viewing pleasure. The 1st one is a wide angle shot and the rest are closeups.

              I had the aforementioned bean curd and fish dish tonight. It was quite delicious. I think it had dried and partially reconstituted (they were oddly chewy) soybeans rather than pine nuts. The dish I ordered is the item taped onto the menu, in the far right column ($9.99).

                1. re: Joe MacBu

                  Thank you so very much for these photos! I hope those who know can help translate them. I usually order from the fourth photo, the one on the far right, which is where you got your fish. So here's my attempt to translate some of the things on it, from top to bottom:

                  1 double-cooked pork
                  2 fish with tofu (what you ordered)
                  3 something with shredded pork
                  4 shredded pork with dry bean curd
                  5 water cooked fish
                  6 water cooked beef
                  7 something with intestines
                  8 something in hot chili sauce
                  9 ???
                  10 Mapo Dofu
                  11 (the big red square) Ma la soup

                    1. re: JFores

                      As you were writing the above, I was eating there. Thanks to you I had the mapo dofu and it was wonderful. After I ate, I walked around the basement. There are so many new stalls there! One from Xian, TWO with Guizhou food, a hotpot place, many others. Except I cant try it because if the Chengdu Heaven people found out they would say the Chinese equivalent of "Wassamatta, our food's not good enough for you anymore?" Besides, I love the Chengdu Heaven stuff so much, and they have added new things handwritten on those red pieces of paper. One with beef, I can't translate the others.

                      1. re: Brian S

                        I very nearly went today but I was hit with a stomach virus of sorts. I got lucky and had no vomiting, but I can't say the same for the rest of my family.

                        To Chengdu tomorrow! And yeah, they recognize me now and don't get that scared "Oh boy, how are we going to communicate with this kid" look now. Isn't their ma po do fu incredibly good? I thought it was leagues above Little Pepper and I love Little Pepper's.

                    2. re: Brian S

                      Brian, thanks for the translations of column 3. Here's the missing stuff:

                      3 Pointed pepper with shredded pork
                      7 Pointed pepper with intestines
                      8 Dry fried chicken
                      9 Fried green vegetables (?)

                      1. re: Joe MacBu

                        Thank you so very much for this. I was hoping someone would fill the gaps since I usually order from Column 3. Now I must get out there soon and try it! (And one TV station said that the 7 train WILL be running next weekend, this weekend is the last weekend it's closed for repairs)

                        1. re: Brian S

                          We need to meet up for a meal there sometime this summer. Four non-Asians at one stall in there all at the same time. My God, we would practically attract a crowd (judging by the amount of "Wtf?" looks I get from being there at all.)

                          1. re: Brian S

                            There is free LIRR service to Flushing during weekends with the 7 line repairs.

                          2. re: Joe MacBu

                            Joe thanks for putting in that missing stuff in column 3. To celebrate the return of express service to the 7 train, I zoomed out to Flushing and had, appropriately enough, your number 7, pointed pepper with intestine. The pointed peppers were jalapenos, sliced. I used to think those were the hottest peppers around when I was a kid but they were pretty mild compared to the rest of the dish.

                            It was the husband who did the cooking and the dish took a long time. I never mind waiting there, it's such a joy to be immersed in that tiny and very Chinese world of the downstairs mall. The dish came dry, though dry is perhaps the wrong word since it had been cooked in a lot of oil and the oil had been absorbed. (That's what took so long) So the intestines were moist and delicious. Strewn all around was an incredible harmony in hot pepper: the jalapenos, pieces of dried red chili, Sichuan pepper, some fresh garlic and ginger, other tastes I didnt recognize. This guy is a master chef and this dish is another big winner.

                        2. re: Joe MacBu

                          The following is my attempt to translate column 2. I am a novice at this, so take it for what it's worth (and don't blame me if you get an ear instead of what I told you were noodles). Corrections welcome.

                          For those who don't know, "ma la" means spicy hot and numbing, due to a combination of chili pepper and Sichuan peppercorn.

                          COLD DISHES
                          Sliced beef & kidney 6
                          Ma la beef tendon 6
                          Boiled pork with mashed garlic 6
                          Ma la diced rabbit 6
                          Shredded ear in chili oil 6
                          Ma la shredded stomach 6
                          Tian Fu chicken 8
                          Five spice beef small-4 large-6
                          Marinated small pork shoulder(?) 6
                          Marinated pig's large intestine 7.5
                          Crispy spiced duck (half) 7
                          Marinated pig's foot (1 piece) 2.5
                          Smoked rabbit 6
                          Ma la shredded bamboo 3
                          Salad of three shredded ingredients 2.5
                          Cucumber salad 2.5
                          Pickled vegetables in chili oil 2.5
                          Dried bean curd with peanuts 3
                          Chuanbei rice noodles 3
                          Chengdu noodles 3

                          Is anyone working on column 1?

                          1. re: Joe MacBu

                            Awesome! Much thanks! I'll use it when I get back.

                            On my last meal there (and in New York till I come home this summer) I had three things. The ma po do fu again, because it's just too good to pass up. The fish and bean curd with what seemed to be semi-fermented soy beans. The double cooked pork. All three were INCREDIBLE and it was pretty funny when the green peppers used in the pork hit the pan and about 1/3 of the mall was virtually pepper sprayed by fumes.

                            1. re: Joe MacBu

                              I went there late tonight, around 10pm. They didn't want to fire things up so I was restricted to ordering from the column of cold appetizers.

                              Boiled pork with mashed garlic: This was sliced boiled pork belly with some minced garlic on top in a pool of sweetish soy sauce. It didn't seem very garlicky to me, but that sauce made it an enjoyable dish.

                              The owner recommended the five spice beef. It was thin slices of what looked like a beef version of head cheese. I didn't really detect the five spices. It wasn't very exciting.

                              The smoked rabbit came in chunks, with bone attached. While it certainly looked smoked with a pink exterior, the flavor was very subtle. It tasted better dipped into the accompanying mix of salt, chili pepper and Sichuan peppercorn.

                              The salad of three shredded ingredients consisted of thin glass noodles, carrots and seaweed. It was dressed with a vinegary ma la liquid.

                              The Chengdu noodles consisted of thick irregular noodles in a ma la sauce. Similar to the dan dan noodles of J&L fame, but down a notch or two.

                              Though I did, I wouldn't recommend making a meal out of just these cold appetizers. They're better suited to supplement items from the other columns.

                              As I was walking around the mall midway though dinner, I noticed a platter of delicious looking braised beef tendons in the stall next door. Next time.

                              1. re: Joe MacBu

                                Excellent. The boiled pork in mashed garlic and the pig kidney one you listed on the translation both interest me. It's cool that they have the accompanying dips. That's incredibly authentic; many Szechuan places seem to drop them. I go to noodle places for noodles so I'll pass on those for now.

                                Has anyone tried the place in the back of the mall which is mass producing and selling tiny buns at an astounding rate? At 4 for a dollar there's no wonder why.

                                1. re: JFores

                                  Yes, they have some of the best boiled dumplings in town (pork & chives). I have a big bag of frozen ones at home. They also serve good looking soups with or without dumplings, but I haven't partaken in those (nor translated the menu to know what exactly is offered). One of the dumpling mistresses is super grumpy though and I think she stiffed me on an order of xiao long bao because I only ordered $1 worth (she kept trying to get me to go for $2). They were heavy, doughy and past their prime. If you claim a seat at the tables, make sure you fork over at least $2 per person, or you risk being scowled at.

                                  1. re: Joe MacBu

                                    Brilliant. I was reading this just as you posted too! Haha! I'll check it out when I get back this summer.

                              2. re: Joe MacBu

                                Here's Column 1. Once again, please correct me if I goofed.

                                NOODLES & DUMPLINGS
                                Dan dan noodles 3
                                Fried minced pig's head wheat noodles 3.5
                                Red cooked beef wheat noodles 4
                                Intestine wheat noodle soup 4
                                Duck wheat noodle soup 4.5
                                Pork rib wheat noodle soup 4
                                Duck rice noodle soup 4.5
                                Stewed beef rice noodle soup 4
                                Intestine rice noodle soup 4
                                Stewed beef flat rice noodle soup 4
                                Pork rib rice noodle soup 4
                                Vegetarian (or plain?) hot and sour rice noodles 3
                                Intestine hot and sour rice noodles 4
                                Stewed beef hot and sour rice noodles 4
                                Fire pot rice noodles 3
                                Sichuan wontons in broth (long chao shou) 2.5
                                Sichuan wontons in chili oil 2.5
                                Hot and sour Sichuan wontons 3
                                Boiled dumplings in chili oil (shui jiao) 2.5

                                1. re: Joe MacBu

                                  Awesome!

                                  Try any yet? 3 bucks for dan dan noodles is a deal and a half.

                                  1. re: JFores

                                    The dan dan mian are good; but no version I've had compares to the ones from the J&L Mall (RIP).

                                    I also enjoyed the long choa shou. The wontons come in a small bowl of light pork broth. The relative blandness goes well with the ma la dishes. The texture of the dumplings is properly delicate.

                                    Incidentally, I had a killer bowl of suan la (hot & sour) noodle soup at Szechwan Gourmet last week. Next time I will try some of the suan la dishes at Chengdu Tian Fu to taste how they compare.

                                  2. re: Joe MacBu

                                    i haven't seen a better visual presentation. Thank you for the work

                              3. re: Joe MacBu

                                Errata:

                                I was mistaken in translating some of the noodle dishes. Some of the dishes that say "rice noodle" are actually cellophane noodles (aka glass noodles, bean thread, etc). As far as I know, this refers to the last 4 noodle dishes on column 1.

                              4. re: eade

                                Are those directions correct? I take it there is no sign in English, right??

                                1. re: erica

                                  Yes they are correct, if you go down the stairs that exit onto Main Street. It's stall number 31.

                          2. This post has made me so culinarily homesick that I'm going to attempt to cook all of my favorite Chinese dishes next week. I'm going to screw this up so badly! Alright so... rice cakes with pork... ma po do fu... Shanghai style pork shoulder.... Shanghai style eels... basically any seemingly odd combination of fish and pork in the same dish.... etc

                            Oh yes, it is time to freak out my dorm mates while waving a large wok about.

                            BTW, can anyone recommend a good authentic Chinese cookbook? Szechuan and Shanghai are my favorites by a long shot; they're about all I eat as far as Chinese goes if I'm not having congee, rice casserole, etc.

                            7 Replies
                            1. re: JFores

                              Land of Plenty by Fuschia Dunlop is the best Sichuan cookbook i have ever used (and I have used alot). It is a really fantastic book. The stories and recipes are great.

                              The author, Ms. Dunlop, is the first foreigner to ever be trained at Sichuan Province's best cooking schook, the prestigious Sichuan Institute of Higher Cuisine.

                              I highly suggest this book. Fuschia Dunlop also has a Hunan cookbook I believe which is also supposed to be very good.

                              1. re: SamScaff

                                I second Land of Plenty, whole heartedly.

                                  1. re: Joe MacBu

                                    Oh my! That has to be the best review I've ever read on this. It's a shame she didn't try a little more at Chengdu as I'd like to hear a wider opinion of how it stacks up in comparison to other spots around the world. I know for a fact that Chengdu Heaven is vastly better than London's (arguably but almost 100% fact) best Sichuan restaurant, Snazz Sichuan. The added benefits of Chengdu Heaven include literally 75% off London's prices, much better food, MUCH friendlier staff, and the liberal use of hua jiao.

                                    1. re: JFores

                                      Have you tried Bar Shu, the restaurant that Fuchsia Dunlop supposedly is a consultant to?

                                      1. re: Xiao Yang

                                        Bar Shu is dreadful compared to Snazz Sichuan. Also pricier.

                                1. re: JFores

                                  Here is a link to a discussion on Chinese cookbooks that has links to five other discussions. http://www.chowhound.com/topics/377927 But even if you manage to duplicate what I ate, you can't duplicate the atmosphere... lots of stalls, lots of people milling about, browsing at the stalls or eating at one of them.

                                2. When is this place (41-28 Main St Mall) open, or can I find out?

                                  4 Replies
                                  1. re: avi

                                    I don't know the hours. But my guess would be that the mall opens every day in the early morning, because the first we heard about these two malls was H Ling's lovely report of an early breakfast at the other mall, at 41-82 Main St. Then the mall stays open through the day. I've seen it open as late as 9 PM, I think. But different food stalls keep different hours, and you should not count on eating as late as 9 PM.

                                    -----
                                    Golden Shopping Mall
                                    41-28 Main St, Queens, NY 11355

                                    1. re: Brian S

                                      Oh, one more small bit of info, vital if you are coming from Manhattan. There is a public restroom on the ground floor of the mall, one flight above this Sichuan stall, in the back, near what I think is the famous lamb soup place. But no paper is provided!

                                      1. re: Brian S

                                        " But no paper is provided!"

                                        Talk about an authentic China experience! I hope they are not "squat" toilets, though.

                                    2. I've been to Chengdu Heaven twice since writing this review. The first time was a slight disappointment, but the second time was, well, heavenly.

                                      On my first return visit I had water-cooked beef. It was nice and fiery, but there was very little beef, mostly lettuce. The broth, though, was the best I've ever tasted in this dish.

                                      I went again tonight. The two big tables were jammed. Not families, but groups of friends, I think. I ordered double-cooked pork. It was wonderful. Succulent strips of bacon (and lots of them), Sichuan peppercorns, green peppers, chives, fire-red chili oil and even some of the tiny fermented beans found in black bean sauce. Each bite exploded in flavor. The Platonic ideal of a dish that is all too often lackluster.

                                      The chef seemed thrilled that I liked it. But I'd be a fool if I didn't.

                                      1 Reply
                                      1. re: Brian S

                                        Yeah, the water cooked beef is lacking on its name sake, but it's still delicious. My companion expected more beef to be under the top layer, but there really wasn't any. However, the beef itself was INCREDIBLY tasty.