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The Best New Cheap Eats Cuisine

Henan: The Chinese Flavor of the Month.

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Henan Flavor  

Chinese cuisine, in all its diversity, has brought us bountiful Cheap Eats riches: five-for-a-dollar dumplings, Lanzhou hand-pulled noodles, lamb “burgers” by way of Xi’an. Over the past year or so, culinary ethnographers and intrepid food bloggers have hailed the arrival of yet another provincial style: Henanese fare, from an area variously referred to as the birthplace of Chinese civilization and the breadbasket of China, thanks to its ample production of wheat (not to mention, according to Wikipedia, 90 percent of the raw materials grown for the nation’s ranks of McDonald’s and KFC). Last year, Henan Feng Wei established a modest beachhead for the cuisine in Flushing (136-31 41st Ave., nr. Main St.; 718-762-1818), and this March, it spawned an offshoot in Manhattan’s Chinatown called Henan Flavor (68B Forsyth St., nr. Hester St.; 212-625-8299). Around the same time, Uncle Zhou opened in Elmhurst with a similar focus on hand-pulled noodles, soups, and dumplings (83-29 Broadway, nr. Dongan Ave.; 718-393-0888). All three restaurants are small and homey, and all have gained particular renown for a single showstopping dish: da pan ji, or big tray of chicken, an oversize platter of hacked bird and chunks of potato, submerged in a pool of oily red sauce seasoned with chiles, star anise, and Sichuan peppercorns. Interestingly, though, this dish is not native to Henan but to Xinjiang, the westernmost region bordering Mongolia and Kazakhstan. So what’s it doing in Henan, or at least on Henanese menus? A couple theories: When the Yellow River floods, neighboring Henanese seek temporary refuge in other provinces and absorb different cuisines; in search of prosperity, impoverished Xinjiang natives come to Henan for work, big tray in tow. The answer, of course, could be something much simpler. “The people in Henan really like this dish,” said Ran Zhou, the daughter of Uncle Zhou’s owner, Steven Zhou, who bolsters his da pan ji with a bed of the restaurant’s springy noodles for a triumphant cross-provincial fusion. Authenticity’s fine, but flavor trumps all.


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