By Joe DiStefano
As the Culinary King of Queens, I’m so very fortunate to live in the most diverse and delicious destination in all of New York City. Really I’m not royalty though, I’m an ambassador, and a hungry one at that. Today, we take a trip to Sichuan, China, via a most unlikely location, Forest Hills.
The leafy streets of Forest Hills are worlds away from the maddening crowd of downtown Flushing’s Chinatown, where more than a half dozen restaurants traffic in the fiery fare of Sichuan. Nevertheless, those streets are home to one of the best Sichuan restaurants in Queens, Spy C.
Before I ate there, I was skeptical of Spy C for two reasons: the name and the location.
“What a goofy name, and how good can a restaurant in a neighborhood with so few Chinese people be?” I groused to myself.
Then I tasted the ma po tofu from Chef Zhen “Tom” Lei. The creamy curds of soybean bathed in a red chili sauce and shot through with ground pork sang with ma la, a combination of chili heat and Sichuan peppercorn tingle that’s a hallmark of the cuisine. I also thoroughly enjoyed the fu qi fei pian—listed on the menu as beef tripe with chili oil — a cool tangle of tendon, innards, and meat slicked with chili oil — better known among Chinese food cognoscenti as husband wife offal slices. Chef Lei turns that old warhorse spicy cucumber salad into a thoroughbred thanks to homemade chili oil and a perfect balance of sour, sweet, and spicy flavors.
The cool sweet and spicy cucumbers are a great counterpoint to some of the more incendiary fare like dry pepper chicken, golden brown chunks of fried chicken riddled with dried red peppers and flavored with Sichuan peppercorn oil. A chicken wing version of the dish is even better.
Other standouts include Hunan-style braised fish with pickled mustard greens — a study in sour and spice flavored with pink peppercorns and of all things sliced lime — and crispy shredded beef. The latter, crunchy tendrils of fried beef, is great with beer.
While the focus is squarely on the fiery bold flavors of Sichuan, not every dish relies on chili heat. One of the best things is the house special braised pork belly, wobbly, mahogany-colored chunks of meat resounding the flavor of five spice and soy. The deeply comforting dish, which Chef Lei says draws on the flavors of Shanghai, is one I will return to again and again this winter. The same goes for the deceptively simple sounding braised beef with tomato noodle soup.
All of the dishes at Spy C are remarkably balanced and often as as good or even better than their Flushing counterparts. That’s because the 34-year-old Chef Lei, who learned to cook at a top culinary school in Beijing, developed the menu for several of that neighborhood’s restaurants, including Szechuan Mountain House.
Even though we do not speak the same language I’ve gotten to know Chef Lei over the course of several visits. We share a more important common language, a passion for Chinese cuisine. When a mutual friend told me Chef Lei was pretty critical of most restaurants in Flushing, I struggled with whether to tell him about my favorite Sichuan spot Chengdu Tian Fu, which closed over the summer. Like a nervous schoolgirl I showed him a photo of their infamous cold noodles on my cellphone.
“Oh, yeah that place was great,” he said through a translator.
Even though I still really miss my favorite Flushing haunt, I’m glad to have a new favorite Sichuan spot in Forest Hills.