So if you dine in a restaurant specializing in the delicacies of northeast China, while speaking frankly to your honey, have you gone on a Manchurian candid date? Groaning aside, if you want to try it, we have a place for you. Sol Hyang Lee, on 41st Avenue in downtown Flushing specializes in the hybrid cuisine of Manchuria and Korea. What sets it apart from other local restaurants promoting that style is that Sol Hyang Lee also offers tabletop barbecued kebabs.
In a slightly grungy setting, this restaurant has installed specially designed granite tables atop brick pedestals that accommodate rectangular barbecue pits designed to support skewers. When you order kebabs, a large scoopful of glowing coals is deposited in the pit. You or the server (I suspect it was done for us because we looked so cluelessly Western) keep turning the skewers at intervals until the kebabs are done to your satisfaction.
The Korean influence here is immediately revealed by the presentation of pan chan, those tasty little dishes of freebies ever present at Korean dining spots. Here the array is not elaborate, but temptingly savory with various pickled vegetables and sometimes including bits of liver or octopus.
The list of kebab possibilities is a dauntingly prodigious collection of meats, poultry, seafood and offal. We passed on the bull’s penis, the beef and pork intestines, and the blood vessel top of chicken heart, and zeroed in on the beef, mutton, lamb, and squid. All were tasty, and made even more so by dipping them in the dish of cumin with other spices provided for that purpose. While juicy and flavorful, there was plenty of both fat and gristle to be found to varying degrees in the meats. The lightly marinated squid was the most pristine of our choices. We wanted to delve further into the list, hoping especially to sample the short ribs, the prawns and the quail on a subsequent visit. Much to our disappointment, when we returned for lunch, we learned that the BBQ is only available in the evening.
Barbecue is, by no means, all this place has going for it. It has an intriguing menu of familiar and unfamiliar Chinese dishes with emphasis on spicy and/or fermented ingredients. A stir fry of dried tofu could have been mistaken for a noodle dish, with the texture of the “noodles” — actually strips of tofu — falling halfway between noodles and squid. The dried tofu is stir fried with incendiary chilies, bits of ground pork, and plenty of garlic. If you avoid eating whole chilies, which is easy to do if you are careful, this dish is pleasantly piquant without being a challenge to your endurance. If you occasionally bite into the wrong thing, you can rescue yourself with the iced barley tea that is poured into what you could easily have mistaken for water glasses.
Pork with kimchee — or maybe it is kimchee with pork — is another delight. This dish is loaded with thick slices of pork belly and shredded cabbage in a spicy red sauce. The slices of pork sport a thick edging of fat, easy enough to remove if you’re concerned. The sauce is just spicy enough to get your attention without making you suffer.
The dumplings here, only identified as “dumplings” without any elucidation of their contents, are filled with meat, presumably pork, and a green vegetable. A whole lot of them come steamed and accompanied by a soy-based slightly spicy, slightly pickled tasting sauce. “Where have I tasted this sauce before,” I wondered to myself. And then it came to me. It is the sauce described as “Manchurian” served in a variety of dishes at Indian Chinese restaurants. The dumplings themselves are bland, the defining flavor being a hint of star anise.
If you crave something stronger than iced barley tea to offset the spicy flavors, beer and soju (a clear rice-based spirit) is available. The place mats even promote a “breakfast” soju, perhaps for the sort of people who would otherwise pour vodka on their cornflakes.
Sol Hyang Lee is a great spot for adventurous diners who are always eager to experiment with something new. The clientel, as of now, is almost exclusively Asian, but they are welcoming to all, and do their best to explain their offerings to the uninitiated.
Suzanne Parker is the TimesLedger’s restaurant critic and author of “Eating Like Queens: A Guide to Ethnic Dining in America’s Melting Pot, Queens, N.Y.” She can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Sol Hyang Lee BBQ
136-73 41st Avenue (between Main and Union streets),
Price Range: BBQ: $3-12. Other dishes: $7-20
Cuisine: Manchurian/Korean hybrid
Setting: Small, fitted with the necessary trappings for the cuisine.
Service: Friendly, limited English.
Hours: Lunch & dinner daily, bbq served in the evenings
Alcohol: Beer & soju
Credit cards: No
Noise level: Acceptable
Handicap accessible: Yes
©2011 Community News Group
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