We’re always glad for a second bite at a wonton. At Maxi’s Noodle, in Flushing, this Hong Kong delicacy is notably larger than its Chinese forebears. The dumplings and fish balls at Maxi’s are hefty, too, each large enough to require two delicious bites, if not three. The size wouldn’t matter, however, if the wontons weren’t wonderful – the pale pink of fresh shrimp, combined with a little pork, gleams from within their translucent wrappers.
The restaurant’s namesake, Maxi Lau, 33, was born in Hong Kong. In 1997, not long before the handover of the territory from the United Kingdom to China, her family emigrated to the United States. They settled on Long Island, in the eastern suburbs of New York City, but the family did most of their shopping in Flushing – home to New York’s largest Chinatown – and often ate dinner there, too. It was a “second home,” Maxi says.
At 19, Maxi left school to join the working world, beginning as a cashier and rising through the ranks at a local branch of a nationwide home-goods retailer. She “always loved food,” “cooked a lot” and began putting aside money to open a restaurant, Maxi tells us.
So did her mom. Maxi’s parents owned a computer business; eventually it expanded to offer security services and karaoke systems as well. But when family friends in Toronto offered to share their private recipes, Maxi’s mom was ready for a change of career. Maxi’s parents sojourned up north, in Canada, while her mom mastered “the art of making wontons,” as Maxi has come to call it.
Those career plans changed, however, after Maxi’s parents returned to New York and her mom was diagnosed with cancer.
After she died, five years ago, “I mentally signed out of work,” Maxi says. Adrift, she received an offer from those same Toronto family friends: Come live with them and learn to make wontons by hand, just as her mom had done. Those friends suggested to Maxi, she recalls, that even if she didn’t open a place of her own, wonton-making would be a skill that she would “have in [her] back pocket.”
Maxi trained in Toronto for six months. She returned to New York confident that she was ready to go into business for herself – but her dad “put on the brakes.” Before going brick-and-mortar, he suggested to Maxi, perhaps they should begin with a pop-up. His sister owns a small Queens bakery-café that opens in the early morning and closes at 5 p.m. By evening, Maxi’s talents could be put to the test.
Needless to say, pop-ups don’t simply pop up. Maxi would arrive at 1:00 in the afternoon, six days a week, to make the filling, wrap wontons by the hundreds and otherwise prep for service. At 5 p.m., when the bakery-café transformed into a noodle-and-wonton house, her dad would preside over the small dining area, while Maxi ran a one-woman kitchen till closing time, at 10:00. Naturally, she then had to leave the kitchen spic and span so the bakery could open early the following morning.
Outside those hours, “I had to do my homework,” Maxi continues, to source ingredients of the same quality she’d trained with, especially the egg noodles that are essential to a wonton-centric restaurant. Maxi’s are made for her from a bespoke recipe developed by her uncle, who owns a noodle factory in Hong Kong, that relies on duck rather than chicken eggs.
Maxi’s food won accolades from local chowhounds, and then a favorable notice in The New York Times. Soon, Maxi tells us, even her dad was willing to say, “I think it’s time we found our own shop.” He’d already identified a fitting location a little ways from the most crowded corridor of downtown Flushing, on a relatively quiet side street featuring an unusually wide sidewalk for the neighborhood. Maxi’s Noodle opened in September 2019.
Six months later, Covid-19 arrived in Queens. After closing her restaurant for a week – “I was bored out of my mind,” Maxi remembers – she began preparing meals to donate to the overburdened staff of the nearby New York-Presbyterian Queens Hospital, where her mom’s oncologist was affiliated. Maxi also launched a side business, which continues today, offering raw and frozen products to go: wontons, dumplings, fish paste, noodles and her house-made chili oil.
During the pandemic, that unusually wide sidewalk and quiet side street now proved to be a blessing. In the months when indoor dining was prohibited throughout New York City, and even later, when many customers still weren’t comfortable with unmasking in enclosed spaces, most Flushing restaurants offered only takeout and delivery. Maxi’s Noodle, however, could set up plastic tables and chairs on the sidewalk; that’s where we enjoyed our first taste of Maxi’s cooking.
Since then, Maxi’s Noodle has added an extension, shielded from the elements, to the front of the restaurant. We sat there recently to take a fuller accounting of the menu. As much as we admire Maxi’s beef stew, sweet and spicy pork and fried fish skin – puffy and crunchy, it tastes of the sea – we adore the noodle-soup combo of hand-fashioned wontons, fishballs and dumplings. The duck egg noodles are terrific; so is the pork bone broth.
Today, Maxi no longer needs to wrap hundreds and hundreds of wontons herself; she’s trained a small staff to the “very high standards” passed down by those Toronto family friends. Maxi’s dad – “my rock,” she calls him – runs the restaurant on Monday, Maxi’s one day off. He joins her at work on Saturday, the busiest day of the week.
Maxi keeps a framed photo of her mom at the restaurant, too, and has her portrait tattooed on one arm. Maxi’s mom didn’t have time to open a place of her own, but now, in spirit, whenever Maxi is at her restaurant, her mom is right by her side.
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Published on November 25, 2022