Flushing Food Cart Franchise Expands To Manhattan

If you know where to go, you can get one of the most authentic — and delicious — northern Chinese experiences in Manhattan. (Hint: it's on Broadway and 115th.)

Known on the Columbia campus only as "The Flushing Food Cart," the nondescript silver box without any real signs caught the university's attention when they popped up for a Chinese culture day celebration earlier this semester. Wang Hui Jun, owner of the cart, says they weren't actually planning to stay.

It was a long way to get to the Upper West Side that morning from Flushing, Queens. But that day, droves of Chinese students came up to Hui Jun, calling her Auntie (an honorific title) and telling her how much they missed home. They said it fed their soul to get authentic Chinese food again.

"We have to stay here," Hui Jun says. "These students are China's hope. Even if we don't make any money, we have to stay for them."

Their business model is based solely off these lonely students so far from home, so Hui Jun will stay open until 10 or 11 p.m. Monday through Saturday to make sure she feeds every last one getting out of class or the library. And the prices are set as low as they can manage.

They sell barbecued skewers for $1 each, as well as noodles and dumplings for $5, but it's not just pork or chicken here. They'll put anything on a stick, from quail and chicken gizzards to green beans, even "Chinese pancakes." Surprisingly enough, it's not just Chinese people eating the chicken hearts — Americans are willing to try anything, especially with the prices being so low.

"Even Americans tell us to charge more," Hui Jun admits. "But these students don't have a steady job and they're tired after studying all day long. I want to make sure they have access to and can afford real food."

After all, she knows how it feels. Hui Jun immigrated to the United States 10 years ago, leaving her husband and children behind. She had to come up with enough money to send home and keep herself afloat, but her job as a nanny wasn't cutting it.

Hui Jun makes light of her experiences, but her son Si Yu Ning, who's now joined her, tells it differently. "She felt terrible pressure to make a living. I needed money in China for school, and she had to survive in America by herself. She was very alone."

As Yu Ning tells it, his mom was never the type to be content as a nanny forever, so she decided to start a food cart. Part of it was to make money and start her own business, but Hui Jun says there was a much more important reason.

"When I came to America, I saw Chinese people eating junk food," referring to the food found in Flushing's Chinatown, widely accepted as the most authentic Chinese experience you can get in New York. Apparently, even that's been Americanized. "When you're tired after a long day of work and don't want to cook, it doesn't matter how much money you have, you can't buy the kind of food you want to eat — you have to make it."

So, Hui Jun bought a food cart.

Even she admits the food at first wasn't that great. But she slowly learned, thanks to feedback from customers and tips from other cooks. Nowadays, the food rivals any Chinese food in New York, with juicy handmade dumplings and more smoky skewers than any one person could ever eat.

Apparently, that's just a characteristic of Northern Chinese cuisine — strong flavors. "You see other people using soy sauce and vinegar and all sorts of sauces for their dumplings," Hui Jun says. "Not us — our pork and leek dumplings are so flavorful, you shouldn't eat them with anything."

After a moment, she adds, "That's just how food is in Northern China. If the flavor isn't there, we just don't eat it."

Marilyn He is a junior writer at The Daily Meal. Follow her on Twitter @Marilyn_He.