Posted: Tuesday August 29, 2006 4:12PM; Updated: Tuesday August 29, 2006 4:13PM
Jon Wertheim will answer questions from SI.com users in his mailbag every Wednesday.
Forget instant replay and line-call challenges. Never mind the dancing fountains and the suddenly un-bribable ushers. Ignore for the moment the USTA's noble decision to forego millions in naming rights fees and christen the National Tennis Center in Billie Jean King's honor.
No, the most radical upgrade at the U.S. Open might be culinary.
Year in, year out, the dining options at tennis' fourth Grand Slam get better and better -- a good thing, given that a day pass entitles the bearer to ingest eight or so hours of tennis. Much like the player field, the on-site dining options represent most of the globe. Try and name another sporting event where you can chose among sushi, ouzo-marinated shrimp, carne asada, empanadas and lobster salad.
Even at its worst, the U.S. Open food court fare is pretty darn good for ballpark eats. (Insipid as they were, give me the shrimp tacos I ate for lunch Monday over the Shea Stadium chicken fingers and oil-spill pizza any day.) At its best, the U.S. Open food is restaurant quality. Consider, for instance, the Indian cuisine. It's run by Baluchi's, a reliably good joint with 10 or so locations in Manhattan. They're serving tennis fans the exact same tandoori chicken or saag paneer they deliver to apartments and law firms every night.
And maybe it's a function of paying $3.50 a gallon for gas or a general immunity to gustatory gouging at sporting events, but the sticker shock seems to lessen with every year. Still they're not exactly giving the food away -- except, in full disclosure, to the media gluttons, who are accorded $20 in credit daily. If you have a hard time parting with $9 for a burger, $6.50 for a Ben and Jerry's milkshake, or $12 for the aforementioned tacos, ROAD EATS understands. For these folks we have a simple piece of advice: head east.
Downtown Flushing doesn't make too many New York City tourist board brochures, but it's home to a treasure trove of spartan, flavorful reasonably-priced ethnic restaurants.The main drag is one stop on the No. 7 subway -- less than a mile -- from the Billie Jean King Tennis Center. Put another way, you could walk to downtown Flushing between sessions, eat an exceptional meal, and amble back in time for the opening service game of the night session.
It's generally hard to go wrong on Flushing's densely-packed restaurant row. But your safest bet -- the equivalent of picking Roger Federer to win the men's title -- entails heading to Joe's Shanghai, an institution on 37th Ave. The clientele is the first hallmark of authenticity: if you order in a tongue other than Cantonese, you're in the minority. And while the expansive menu makes a grudging concession to the tourist trade and features the likes of General Tso, it's also flush with dishes on the order of duck's web with celery and diced kidney. While we couldn't mass the courage to sample those two, my party greatly enjoyed the vegetarian duck -- layered tofu stuffed with mushrooms -- and the shredded chicken with vermicelli.
Just as the Miami Joe is known for stone crabs, this Joe is known for soup dumplings or xiao lum bao. Sure, these purses of goodness are a bit gimmicky. A dumpling stuffed with soup sounds like a creation from the same cloying, can-you-top-this? chefs who serve beef foam and melon soup. But, soup dumplings have been around for centuries. And without putting too fine a point on it, soup dumplings are really, really good. Inside the dumpling, a small ball of pork swims in an ounce or so of savory crab soup. An order of eight is $6.75.
Incidentally, we learned the preparation trick: The filling is thickened with gelatin and stuffed in the dough casing. When the dumplings are steamed the gelatin liquefies. And presto, change-o: soup.
Dinner for five at Joe's Shanghai ran us $52, including non-alcoholic beverages and tip. With a deal like that, you'd think at least a few of the 650,000 tennis fans who will filter through the U.S. Open turnstiles would be interested. Yet when we asked our server at Joe's if he were expecting a spike in traffic on account of the tennis, he was dumbfounded. "Is there a big tournament going on or something?"
Joe's Shanghai 9 Pell St.; (212) 233-8888 & 136-21 37th Ave., near Main St., Flushing; (718) 539-3838.