The promise of food prepared before our eyes, just for us, is a big reason that we’re constantly spreading the good word about food events in and around New York. We’re especially fond of festivals and other gatherings held by members of a close-knit group – sometimes congregants of a church, temple or mosque, almost always folks who share the common bond of a previous homeland far away. Often their dishes are assembled by (gloved) hand immediately before serving for maximal stimulating freshness.
A few such events repeat periodically, but most, we know all too well, come just once a year. We’re always on the lookout, then, for businesses that take a similar up-close-and-personal approach.
Liang Pi Wang fills the bill. Although it’s one of two dozen stalls in the New York Food Court – by no means the largest assembly of food vendors in Flushing, Queens, home to the liveliest of New York’s several Chinatowns, but bustling nonetheless – Liang Pi Wang caught our attention on the very first visit. At many of the other stalls, even today, the counter that faces the communal tables is primarily a service area where customers peruse the menu, order their food and pick it up. But at Liang Pi Wang, this valuable real estate is also a showcase for food preparation.
Exposing the inner workings of his operation was presumably quite a change for the proprietor, Xin Hui Li, a native of Henan province in the breadbasket of central China. Through the interpretation of a counterwoman (our Mandarin is rusty, Mr. Li speaks no English and we speak no Henanese), he explained that he had spent years behind closed doors, cooking in other kitchens, before opening his own business, Liang Pi Wang or “King of Liang Pi,” in the late autumn of 2014.
His namesake dish, liang pi, is also known as “cold skin noodles.” They’re prepared from dough, though in such a curious fashion that some writers call this a “noodle-like” dish. Rather than being pressed flat and cut, the dough (made from wheat, in this case) is set into a bowl and rinsed with water, which becomes saturated with starch. The dough is removed and the water is allowed to rest; over the course of hours, the starch precipitates into a paste; a shallow layer of the paste is steamed in a broad pan until it sets; and the resulting floppy, shimmering disk, about 16 inches across, is added to the stack at the side of the counter. They sit at room temperature and are served that way, too. Each disk, when prepped, feeds one.
To be clear, the preceding process is not one we’ve witnessed (nor have we watched grass grow, or paint dry). What we enjoy instead, after placing our order, is the slicing of a disk into noodles; the addition, in the mixing bowl, of julienned cucumber and spongy slabs of wheat gluten; the drizzling of soy sauce, black vinegar, sesame oil and chile oil; and the brisk but not too fastidious tossing of our liang pi before it is plated and presented.
At Liang Pi Wang, the counter is a showcase for food preparation.
Because the mise en place is right up front, we can ask for a little less of this, a little more of that; we favor less soy, more vinegar. Sometimes we prefer our cucumber as an undressed thatch on top rather than mixed in with the rest. But, whatever our fancy, we must ask fast: The prep work, including the time required to slice the noodles, takes all of three minutes.
We have the same vantage when ordering jian bing. This griddled “Chinese pancake” – actually, it’s as thin as a crepe – is enriched with egg, dappled with chopped scallion and spread with hoisin sauce and, to our taste, chile sauce. Then it’s folded around a pair of crispy crackers called baocui (bow-sway) and, for a surcharge, “sausage.” (We’ve tasted its like at many a hotdog stand, so we skip it.)
Because jian bing is a common grab-and-go breakfast, at Liang Pi Wang it’s invariably served in an open-sided bag, even for customers who take a seat at one of the food court’s common tables. Like liang pi, it’s best eaten with chopsticks: We support our bagged jian bing with one hand, clamp it between chopsticks with the other, and guide the whole jian bing toward our mouth for each bite.
Mr. Li informed us that soon he’ll be opening a second stall in a not-yet-completed food court beneath a nearby supermarket. We imagine that his new location, like the original Liang Pi Wang, will offer more than liang pi and jian bing. Those other menu items, however, are prepared in the back of the stall, out of sight – we prefer to watch our food in action.