"I have the simplest tastes. I am simply satisfied with the best." - Oscar Wilde

"I came, I saw, I ate." - Au Gourmand

Thursday, March 10, 2011

C&L Imperial, Inc. (北港) - March 8, 2011

Taiwanese and other various regional Chinese cuisines of the great Middle Kingdom seem to have all agreed on one thing: They had left behind their culinary heritage back in the homeland in order to embrace the harsh new world of McDonald’s. Or the truly talented chefs have never left. Flushing has fared better than Chinatown in Manhattan, thanks to the royal Taiwanese community, albeit not as populous as little Taiwan over in California.

My fellow gastronomic crusader, the one and only with a proven track record, had wanted to drag me out to Flushing for C&L since last year, largely hindered by the unaccommodating weather condition in New York. C&L Imperial, Inc., or 北港 (named after a town in Taiwan; no, no relation to the “imperial”), is located across from the much noted Yeh’s Bakery(紅葉), which I had tried in the past by mistakenly walking from central Flushing on a summer. However, it was reassuring that the restaurant was 1) in an alternate and newer Taiwanese section away from the main streets of Flushing, and 2) yet able to consistently draw in a large crowd.

滷花生–Stewed and spiced peanuts

After some Q&A and lengthy eye darting among the red bannered menu– very different from what was actually printed on their plastic covered version – on the wall, I had settled on mere five dishes to be split between two people. The dinner started with a complimentary dish of spiced soft peanuts. The word “peanut” is a misnomer: It is actually a legume – a.k.a. bean – not a nut. Therefore, not surprisingly, you can boil peanuts until they are tender, whose texture and taste cannot be any more dissimilar to the dried and roasted version. Although the large plump peanuts provided were stewed well without any hard bad peanuts hiding anywhere, they lacked critically of the characteristic salt and spices.

蔥姜魚片–Sautéed fish fillets with scallion and ginger

Etiquette prevented me from outward pointing, but I coveted my neighbor’s fish, yes, I did – communal table makes gawking so much easier- and my eyes again proved me correct. The flaky tender fresh-water fish tasted mildly muddy (some fresh-water taste muddy due to the lack of fresh water flow in lakes or at the bottom of rivers; that is why no one is fishing in the Potomac River and why even when one catches cat fish there, one does not eat it because it truthfully stinks – without any exaggeration), which, however, was saved and elevated by the spicy presence of scallion and ginger and mellow rice wine: un unpleasantness turned pleasant by virtuosity. The result was a simple and yet elegant dish, well-balanced and seasoned just enough to let the ingredients stand on their own feet.

五味蝦–Five-spice shrimps

The five spices used in this dish vary. C&L used ginger, garlic, scallion and black vinegar and a little of soy sauce, differing from the more common chili pepper version. The shrimps were tender in a way that felt suspiciously similar to the effect produced by multiple freezing (or in the way of fresh-water shrimps sometimes get, however unlikely, due their large size). I understand the need to use frozen shrimps, but I prefer more succulent and firmer texture even when frozen. The shrimps were sweet but too lightly seasoned so the taste was vague; even dipping after shelling off the shrimps in the sauce was not sufficient.

清蒸臭豆腐–Steamed stinky tofu

Thick slabs of homemade – yes, Chef Lin makes them! – stinky tofu were generously covered by and poured on a spicy meat sauce. Stinky tofu is usually made by a chemical process nowadays, rather than through a true moldy fermentation process; therefore, the store-bought ones are often nose-bendingly malodorous while those served at lesser restaurants barely taste like the real thing, which still sell thanks to lack of supply – i.e. if you come across Poland Spring in the Sahara Desert, will you complain that you wanted Lurisia (well, if it is Dasani, I will really have to think about it, however)? The old-fashioned fermentation produces tofu that has a faint but sickly green hue and has a much deeper flavor, like an aged cheese. While I do not know how Chef Lin makes his stinky tofu (note: I will have to inquire upon return), his tofu had visible tiny holes left by, I presume, air bubbles. The flavor of the matured tofu was strong and yet mellow, and the texture was firm but crumbly. To this incredibly well-made stinky tofu, Chef Lin added a red meaty sauce that had chili peppers, garlic and sesame oil then steamed this devilish concoction into an intoxicating delicacy. Scoop after scoop, I was stunned again and again into silence by the juicy deliciousness.

紅糟筍片–Sautéed bamboo shoots in red “dregs”

紅糟 is the leftover “dregs” after making rice wine, whose distinct red color is due to the bacteria which ferments the wine. This “dregs” is usually used in marinating meats (e.g. the reddish roasted pork hanging in the shop windows). Much intrigued, since I had never imagined this in conjunction with bamboo shoots, I ordered it, however, to my dismay. The bamboo shoots were not fresh, which was probably due to seasonal unavailability, was bland; and, the red dregs failed to excite the taste buds.

炒高麗菜–Sautéed cabbage

When I was informed that this simple sautéed cabbage was one of C&L’s signature dishes, my right eyebrow was raised in disbelief. Nonetheless, this dish showcased the chef’s wok skill: The tender sweet cabbage leaves were so quickly sautéed that they retained the crunchiness or almost crispness. Salted delicately in a restrained manner, the cabbage’s sweetness shone through until the last leaf was properly munched away.

綠豆湯–Sweet mung bean soup

To end the meal, we were served complimentary sweet mung bean soup – one of my favorite dessert, which I sometimes eat for breakfast – warm. Like the peanuts, however, the soup was significantly lacking in flavor, namely, sugar. In addition, the beans were still a little too al dente. I hope this means that the complimentary dishes were prepared by the master chef’s underlings, not that the master could fail.


It must be noted that the rice used at C&L is not the prevalent long and dry variety (which go well with Southern Asian cuisines, but not anything north of that), but the real short-grain sweet (but not sticky) rice.

C&L Imperial, Inc. (北港)
Address:  59-14 A Main Street, Queens, NY 11355
Phone:  (718) 886-8788

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