The 84-block trip south to Times Square is surprisingly speedy. But when I transfer to the 7 for the journey to Flushing–Main Street, its final stop, time slows. The train becomes elevated after entering Queens, rattling over a low-rise sprawl of dirt lots, gas stations, big-box stores, and midrise mid-century apartment blocks, and mile after mile of graffitied rooftops. It’s an interminable yet hypnotic transit the passengers endure with a very un–New York–like stoicism.
When I disembark, the world explodes into chaotic life. Downtown Flushing has the city’s third-busiest intersection and second-largest Chinatown. The sidewalks are packed with East Asians, many of them stiff-legged elders with canes; the buildings, architectural grab bags filled with chain restaurants, are hung with multistory, multilanguage signage. Blade Runner–esque neon, LED, and video displays color the sky.
Amid the visual cacophony, Minnis Shabu Shabu, John Hsu’s just-opened restaurant, comes as a relief. The ceiling is strung with neat rows of hand-tied rope, and the walnut walls and tables manifest a quiet cool. The clean, contemporary aesthetic, Hsu tells me, is deliberate. “You walk around Flushing, you see a lot of crap,” says Hsu, a compact, Taiwan-born 36-year-old, arms folded across his chest. “I’m a builder and developer myself, and I hate to see that. Developers here, they want to build quickly, sell, and make money. Same with restaurants—people just throw tables together, paint the walls, and open.” Minnis, which Hsu created hand-in-glove with Brooklyn-based architect Drew Lang, represents his design-driven approach to community-building. “I wanted to make something new for the neighborhood.”
When Lang arrives, we go to Hsu’s house, which the architect helped remodel. As we await a cab, I ask about the kitschy tiger painting in Minnis’s entryway. Lang, a somewhat enigmatic man, smiles. “It’s another layer,” he says. “John’s father is an owner of the restaurant—that’s his touch. Whereas for John, erasing the past is in a way the objective.”
This becomes clear when we arrive at Hsu’s house in North Flushing, a well-heeled bedroom community of mostly center-hall Colonials. Hsu had mentioned that, when he demolished the traditional house he’d bought and began anew, “the neighborhood freaked.” I understand: His reinforced-concrete box—next door to his parents’ and across the street from his brother’s classically conservative homes—is provocative. “John wanted to do what he wanted to do,” says Hsu’s Long Island–born wife, Shirlyn, as she lets us in, “and he did it.”
Shirlyn, an irresistibly friendly, funny woman at home with three children and her mother, shows me a house that delivers the comforts of suburbia in a resolutely modernist language. I take in the open-plan living/dining/kitchen space, mount cantilevered stairs floating behind a glass wall to visit the kids’ rooms and colossal master suite, then head to the basement, trailed by the Hsus’ four- and six-year-old daughters, where I find a den, a giant fish tank, and a second kitchen that services—shock of shocks—a backyard pool.
As a Manhattanite accustomed to small spaces, I am gobsmacked to find this abundance within the city. When I remark on how well constructed the house is, Shirlyn reveals that Hsu learned the trade from his father, a builder of the old school. “My father-in-law is more ‘let’s bang out a building, make some money, and call it a day.” That’s not what my husband is about.’” Shirlyn laughs. “When we started, John’s dad would come running from next door at seven a.m. when the construction guys came, and John would run out and yell, ‘I’m doing this with money I earned—you can’t say a word about how I’m building my house!’”