Their faces flare in the darkness; lightbulbs hanging from an awning illuminate the DVDs spread out on a table in front of them, and a TV fixed to the wall under the awning flickers as a movie plays. The three men are absorbed in a movie and don’t notice the pedestrians walking by. A little further on, an old man plays an erhu, and, at a diplomatic distance, another plays a violin—scraping out simple Western tunes like “Silent Night” and “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star”. It occurs to me to wonder if to a trained ear the tunes played on the erhu are comparable to “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star”.
It’s Friday night, and the retail shops on Flushing’s Main Street are closing up, but the bakeries, bubble tea shops, and dumpling houses are crowded. I am here to eat at White Bear, a modest establishment that has become a landmark among diners.
The menu at White Bear contains several dozen items, but supposedly they really only serve one thing, number six on the menu. Indeed, when I was there, someone asked for longbao (steamed dumplings), and was informed there weren’t any (“mei you, mei you”).
I didn’t get a chance to ask about dumplings.
“Yes, yes, number six,” the lady behind the counter cut me off as I was about to speak. “Sit, sit.”
“Number six” is wontons with hot sauce, White Bear’s famous specialty.
The distinction between wontons and dumplings may be a source of confusion, and I’ve found passionate debate online on whether there is any overlap between jiaozi (the little crescent dumplings traditionally eaten in northern China) and wontons. The word wonton derives from the Cantonese yuntun, meaning “cloud-swallowing.” Wontons generally have thin, pearly white wrappers haphazardly folded closed. When they are served in a soup, this can give them a cloud like appearance. (By contrast, jiaozi have thicker, cream-colored wrappers that are neatly pleated along a crescent moon shape.) In any case, wontons are all you are likely to find at White Bear.
White Bear has no more space than one of the cramped dumpling shops that line the dingy shopping malls and food courts along Main Street—it is distinguished only by having an outside awning. There are four tiny tables crammed close together, and there is little to look at, save for the menu and some bric-a-brac on top of a refrigerator. I sat and watched a pair of mosquitos that had come through the open door as I waited for my food.
I didn’t wait long. The wontons (brought to me with a sharp “eh!” as if I might have fallen asleep) were beautiful. Glowing white, sprinkled in blackened chili and pickled vegetables, splashed with chili oil, they were a pleasure to look at. And they were delicious. The pork filling was soft and succulent, and the chili gave it a deep smoky taste. The pickled vegetables sweetened and rounded out the dish.
The menu at White Bear, like the playing of a certain violinist, might be more aspirational than accomplished–but the wontons are certainly worth a visit.
135-02 Roosevelt Ave, Ste 5
Flushing, NY 11354
Thurs-Tues, 9am – 8pm