Like you’ve never had them before.
I had maneuvered the car on top of a mound of snow. I hesitated before opening the door. The temperature was barely in double digits and the city had just been blanketed with a foot of snow. I was a block from our destination, Brasserie Creole, on Linden Boulevard in the Cambria Heights neighborhood in Queens. I finally opened the car door and shuffled tentatively on an icy sidewalk toward the restaurant chosen by Mike from Yonkers.
Before I got to the restaurant I noticed the “Handz of Godz” barber shop across Linden Boulevard. I fumbled with my camera, reluctantly taking off my gloves; my fingers practically useless against the cold metal of the camera. I clicked a few shots and then moved my camera to Brasserie Creole, which, according to the sign said “La Boisserie”
As I was trying to focus in the limited street light, a voice in the dark called to me. “Hey, you. What are you doing?”
I ignored it at first. The voice, which had a Caribbean lilt to it, was not familiar and why would it be addressing me?
“I’m talking to you,” the voice said, making it clear who it was addressing. I turned to see that it was coming from a man in a parked car that had rolled down his window.
I wasn’t sure how to respond.
“I see you taking pictures around my neighborhood. Why are you doing that?” the man asked in a not very neighborly tone.
I was cold. I just wanted to get into the restaurant. I really didn’t know what to say to him.
“I…I…ah…I’m going to eat here,” I stammered, indicating Brasserie Creole, “I like to take pictures of the places where I eat.” He obviously was not familiar with the annoying food blog universe trait where everyone photo documents their meals; a trait I am admittedly often guilty.
“I know you are not from this neighborhood,” he added.
“No, I’m not,” I agreed.
I could see him nod from inside the car. “We need to know who’s in our neighborhoods. It’s dangerous out there.”
“Yeah, it can get dangerous,” I said with my own nod and shoved my camera into my coat pocket. “Now I’m gonna go eat.”
And with that I pushed open the doors to Brasserie Creole.
With the exception of a couple of patrons at the bar, the restaurant which featured a dance floor and small stage for live acts, a bar, and a dining area that wrapped around the dance floor, was deserted. We were seated at a table in the moodily-lit (meaning dark) dining area where cloth napkins were ornately tucked into stemmed water/wine glasses. Not a good sign for our unrefined group. And that I was still cold after taking off my winter coat, but keeping the other multiple layers on was another bad sign. Still I was excited. We were at a Haitian restaurant and though I’ve had Haitian food and liked it, for our group this was a first.
A tall man came by our table and introduced himself as “Alex.” He said he would help us with any questions about the menu.
He mentioned that the steamed fish was the most popular menu item.
“What kind of fish?” Zio inquired.
Alex thought for a moment. “It’s a big fish,” he said, opening up his arms to indicate how big. “The chef cuts it into slices.”
“Do you want to start with appetizers?” he asked.
There were no appetizers on the menu given to us.
“We can cook some up for you,” he offered.
“Sure, why not,” Mike from Yonkers said with a wide smile. “Make it enough for the five of us.”
Alex nodded and went into the kitchen.
It wasn’t getting any warmer in the restaurant as we waited. I was glad I was wearing long underwear, but even with two pairs of socks, I was starting to lose feeling in my toes. Our waitress and Alex returned carrying two large platters of assorted fried appetizers; calamari, chicken wings, accra (fried yucca) and fried plantains. On each platter was a small bowl of what looked like cole slaw but was actually a fiery hot sauce. The hot sauce was very welcome because without it the dense fried selection was just dull. We picked at the appetizers, leaving half of one of the platters untouched.
Taking Alex’s recommendation, three of us; Eugene, Mike from Yonkers and me, ordered the steamed fish while Gerry chose the fried goat and Zio the pedestrian. chicken Creole. We noticed people coming in out of the restaurant with orders to go and there were a few bar patrons eating, but it was primarily just our group that was keeping the kitchen busy.
Kompa, one of the many music traditions of Haiti, flowed from speakers on the stage as a sound technician worked on the audio equipment; the volume jumping between loud and not so loud. Over the music we listened and shivered as Eugene boasted about his upcoming Punta Cana all-inclusive.
“It has eight restaurants,” he said.
“Are you going to leave the property?” I asked.
He shook his head definitively.
“Yeah, and I’ll be in Puerto Rico,” Gerry announced out of the blue.
“When?” I asked.
“Tomorrow,” he said as if a trip to Puerto Rico during a polar vortex was no big deal.
Zio and I just muttered into our plates.
Thankfully the talk of tropical vacations was interrupted by our dinners—the portion of steamed fish placed in front of me enormous and accompanied with a family-style mound of rice and beans.
“This is the tenderest fish I’ve ever tasted,” Eugene shouted from the opposite end of the table.
It was tender; the flesh succulent and seemingly never ending. We may not have known the name of the fish we were eating, but after a few bites, we didn’t care. I piled some of the rice onto my plate and shoveled a forkful into my mouth. In the dark of the room, I hadn’t noticed the Scotch Bonnet pepper that was concealed within the rice and on my fork about to enter my mouth. Needless to say, the hiccups were fierce and a beer was very much needed to put out the fire.
Yet despite the heat of the pepper, my toes were still frozen.
“I can’t believe how much meat was on that fish,” Eugene again bellowed over the music.
Mike from Yonkers nodded his agreement as he slowly and methodically worked on the fish not caring that everyone else was done and waiting to get out of the frigid restaurant and into their comparatively balmy cars.
Feeling impatient eyes on him, he threw up his hands and announced that he was done.
But we weren’t done yet.
When our waitress asked about dessert, Zio couldn’t help himself and suggested we try the Haitian cake.
Apologizing, our waitress said they were out of the Haitian cake, whatever that was. So, thankfully, we all passed on dessert and began to assemble the layers needed to exit the restaurant when, from across the room, our waitress announced that she had “good news.”
“We do have Haitian cake,” she said.
The good news kept us waiting almost fifteen minutes for two slices of what was an ordinary, layer cake with colorful frosting. I had a few bites, but really couldn’t discern what distinguished Haitian cake from Dominican cake or any other cake for that matter. Most of the two pieces were left untouched especially after, along with the cake, we were brought our tab.
“We have a new record,” Eugene announced after tallying up the bill. “$38 per person.”
“Maybe now they’ll have the funds to turn on the heat,” I grumbled as we headed out into the polar vortex.
Only Gerry smiled. “Thank God. I’m finally off the hook,” he said. Our tab at Brasserie Creole had eclipsed the former record held by Bay Shish Kebab, the overpriced Turkish place in Sheepshead Bay, The Lamb in Sheepshead (bay) Gerry had burdened us with many years ago.
The next day Mike from Yonkers, still deflecting responsibility over the folly of his choice, sent an email explaining why we were way over our loose $20 per person budget. He wrote: “I’ll have you all know that the love-of-my-life forgot to tell me that Haitians charge an arm and a leg for appetizers! Could have been invaluable information, you think?” The “love of his life,” being his girlfriend, who, of Haitian descent, was the person who suggested Brasserie Creole for our group.
There was a lesson in there somewhere, I thought, but it had nothing to do with what Haitians charge for appetizers.
22702 Linden Blvd.
We had been informed by those who know about such things that a Polar Vortex had descended on the city. All I knew that it was very cold as I emerged from my car on barren 134th Street just off the Bruckner Boulevard. I was in what is known as the “Mott Haven” section of the Bronx. I know it as the south Bronx.
The wind was howling as I pushed open the non-descript heavy steel door and made my way up two flights to the world headquarters of the Tirado Distillery. I could hear music playing behind a closed door—disco from the 1970’s. I knocked. The music stopped. Dr. Renee Hernandez, the owner of, according to Dr. Hernandez, the Bronx’s first distillery since prohibition, was expecting me.
The heat was on in the brightly lit room where folding tables and chairs held samples of the products made at the Tirado Distillery, but I was still cold. I was more familiar with rum among palm trees and sugar cane fields; often being whisked beach side to warm weather distilleries. Now, however, I was exploring that same spirit on grimy city streets within the grips of a polar vortex. I tried to keep an open mind as Dr. Hernandez offered me tasting sips of his products. I started with the corn whiskey.
“It’s organic,” Dr. Hernandez told me. “We get the corn from farms upstate.”
I winced at the taste, not that it was bad , but that I wasn’t quite ready for the bracing jolt it gave me.
“Bronx moonshine,” Dr. Hernandez called it. “It goes great in a ‘sex on the beach,’” he said.
I looked at him. He had to go and mention the beach?
I next tried the black rum. It was hearty; heavy-bodied in the style of what is known as Navy rums.
“I like to mix it with passion fruit juice,” Dr. Hernandez told me and I couldn’t argue. It needed something to cut its denseness.
“Where do you get your molasses for the rum,” I inquired. “Puerto Rico? The Dominican Republic? Jamaica?”
“New Jersey,” he answered.
I nodded, but said nothing.
“From International Molasses,” he added.
I understood but didn’t inquire further as to where New Jersey’s International Molasses got their molasses.
Finally I sampled the distillery’s “Maple Delight,” a blend of whiskey with a hint of local New York maple sugar. Surprisingly smooth, the Maple Delight was my favorite in the Tirado Distillery repertoire.
The sips had taken the chill off and Dr. Hernandez took me into the production facility down the hall which featured rows of plastic buckets used for fermentation, a few small stainless steel stills and boxes of empty bottles ready to be filled and labeled. From the loft-like facility, you could see the flickering lights of Manhattan.
“We only produce around 300 bottles a year and concentrate on making our products, clean and smooth. You won’t get a hangover from our rum or whiskey.” Dr. Hernandez proudly proclaimed.
I thanked him for the personalized tour and made my way back out into the cold. I got into my car and turned up the heat. The last time I made the rum rounds was on the island of Martinique. There are eleven rum distilleries on that French Caribbean island and the local tourist board promotes visiting them with what they call “la route des rhums.” Here in frigid New York, after Tirado Distillery, I had two more to visit. Would my escapade qualify as a route des rhums?
My next stop was Brooklyn and I soon found myself in an industrial, truck-crammed area similar to Mott Haven. I was in Williamsburg—or was it Bushwick—searching for my destination TNE (The Nobel Experiment)NYC, the distillery that makes another New York-produced rum called Owney’s. And I soon found it—the TNE NYC painted in big bold black letters above a graffiti-strewn steel door.
On one of my tropical, beach-centric rum assignments many years ago I met Owen Tulloch, the master blender for J. Wray & Nephew’s Appleton Estate rums in Jamaica. At the time, the esteemed Mr. Tulloch was grooming his young associate, Joy Spence, in both the scientific and the sensory ways of blending fine rums. Soon after we met, Mr. Tulloch retired and Ms Spence became the spirit industry’s first female master blender.
Now, almost twenty years later, many miles north of the Caribbean during—I have to say it again— a polar vortex, I was greeted by Bridget Firtle, the CEO and founder of TNE who is not only another female master blender of fine rum, but one who also operates every physical aspect of the rum making process as well as distribution. The Noble Experiment is literally a one-woman show.
What can you say about a young, up and coming Wall Street and hedge fund mover and shaker who gives up that potentially very lucrative, yet soulless career for one that , albeit risky, actually enriches others’ (speaking of my own) lives by following her passion and creating a beloved (by me) hand-crafted spirit in her polar vortex-challenged hometown? That is what Bridget Firtle has done and some might think that maybe inhaling too many alcoholic vapors might have compromised her career choice decision while others, me included, applaud her for chasing her dream.
The Noble Experiment, so named as a nod to one of the terms associated with Prohibition when rum running was the rage, was housed in an open, airy room where towering mashing tanks and copper pot stills glittered in the natural light that poured through the big windows. The machinery looked imposing to me, but Ms. Firtle learned to handle them all expertly enough to churn out 23,000 bottles in her initial 2012 batch, and to also earn Owney’s Rum, named in another nod to the Prohibition Era after notorious bootlegger, Cotton Club owner, and gangster, Owney Madden, a silver medal at the 2013 New York International Spirit’s Competition.
Fortified with sugar cane molasses from Florida and Louisiana and made with that same coveted New York water that is credited with making New York bagels and pizza so good, Owney’s is a smooth white rum. The sip offered me at the handsome wood burnished bar in the lobby of the distillery reflected that distinctive water; clean enough to enjoy on the rocks with a wedge of lime or, even better, as the soul of a classic daiquiri. Firtle’s own experiment is not only noble, but very impressive and though Wall Street might be the “poorer” for losing her talents, the New York rum establishment, such as it is, is much richer for it.
I wasn’t far from the next stop in my urban rum route, also in Brooklyn, and even though I found my way to Red Hook, I wasn’t really sure exactly where I was going and what I was going to see. My interest was in Cacao Prieto rum, but did that mean I needed to go to the Widow Jane bourbon factory that was associated with Cacao Prieto, which was also, as its name connotes, is a chocolate making enterprise. I noticed the colorful mural of workers harvesting sugar cane on the wall of a warehouse. I knew I had to be close and then around the corner saw the old brick building with the prominent “Cacao Prieto” sign on it. I was where I wanted to be. At least I thought I was.
The doors were locked but a sign on it left a phone number to call to gain entry or to “knock loudly.” I knocked loudly. A man in worker coveralls opened up. I told him what my interest was. Another man, bearded and heavily tattooed with a roguish, Captain Jack Sparrow smile, introduced himself as Vince Oleson. “I’m a distiller,” he said.
A distiller at a rum distillery could certainly help me. And Mr. Oleson did. He took me past the American and French oak barrels, copper pot stills, through a small yard where live chickens roamed, and then to the fermentation tanks in a back room. Oleson told me how the rum was made from organic sugar cane from Daniel Preston’s, the owner and founder of Cacao Prieto, family’s farm in the Dominican Republic where the cacao for the artisanal chocolate made at Cacao Prieto also came from. He explained how the water used was from the “Widow Jane” mine in the Catskills and packed with minerals adding even more depth to the finished product, and how the cacao beans were actually fermented with the white rum to create their signature and unique “Don Rafael Cacao Rum,” and “Don Esteban Cacao liqueur.”
I did a lot of nodding as Oleson schooled me in the Red Hook rum making process. It all sounded almost too impressive. No one ever emphasized the water during my various other Caribbean rum tours. No one blended organic cacao with organic sugar cane in Martinique, Jamaica, Barbados or any of the other rum-making islands I’d visited. But this was Brooklyn, home of the artisanal food movement: I should have known.
After the tour, Oleson set me up at their tasting bar with samplings of a number Cacao Prieto’s rums including a small batch produced of what they call Widow Jane Rye rum, or rum aged in the oak barrels formerly used to age the company’s rye. The result was a subtle smoky flavor from the rye. “With this you could make a rum sazerac,” I said.
“Now that’s a great idea,” Oleson replied, again with the rougish, Jack Sparrow smile.
After that sip I was full of great ideas and it got even better when I sampled Cacao Prieto’s Don Rafael Cacao rum; the company’s smooth white rum infused with their own rich chocolate. But this wasn’t just chocolate, this was “cacao,” and the flavor was both intense and clean. Finally I sipped the white rum. Like Owney’s, it’s was fresh, fortified by that mineral-rich New York water and would work just fine on the rocks or in a lightly flavored drink like a daiquiri or even a French Caribbean Ti Punch.
I let Mr. Oleson get back to work. There were rums to distill. My self guided route des rhums was over and I was stuck in traffic on the BQE. The windshield of my car was beginning to ice and I turned on the defroster. Now that my hometown had its own burgeoning rum making industry did I really need to travel all the way to those lush, warm tropical islands to experience what had been lacking here? As I pondered that question, there was more blather on the radio about the polar vortex. By the time I crossed the Kosciusko Bridge into Queens, I pondered it no more.
755 W. 134th St.
The Noble Experiment
23 Meadow Street,
218 Conover Street
Red Hook, Brooklyn
“Why did you pick this place,” I asked Eugene as we warmed up inside Amarin Café, the “modern” Thai restaurant he chose that was surrounded by Polish restaurants in Greenpoint, Brooklyn.
“Because we haven’t had Thai in a while and I looked at the menu and it’s cheap,” he replied.
I tend to struggle with my picks for our group; trying to find something a little different, unique in its own way and of course meeting our group’s budget criteria. Unlike mine, Eugene’s process seemed effortless. Why had I not thought of it before?
There were four of us waiting in the small restaurant; an open kitchen providing well needed heat. Rick had put himself on the temporarily “inactive” list for our group as he dealt with family issues. But Zio’s absence was a mystery. No one had heard from him. I texted to see if he was on his way.
In the meantime, we went ahead and ordered appetizers; fish cake, Thai spring rolls and something I had never seen before on a Thai menu, mussels “a la mariniere.”
There was no response from Zio, so I tried calling him. He picked up after several rings. “Where are you?” I asked.
“Home,” Zio said as if my question was a dumb one.
“We’re at the restaurant,” I told him. “About to order.”
“Restaurant? What are you talking about?” Zio tends to get flustered, but this was worrisome.
“The food group? It’s today.”
“I didn’t know anything about that,” he said, now comprehending the reason for my call. Apparently, for whatever reason, he never got any of mine or Eugene’s emails. It was now too late for him to get to our table in Greenpoint from Astoria before our appetizers arrived. We would remain only four.
Before I could hang up, the fish cake, spring roll and a steaming bowl of mussels arrived on our table. The fish cake and spring roll were standard Thai fare, but the “modern” mussels mariniere were nothing like you would find in a French Bistro or a New York Thai restaurant for that matter. The mussels were steamed in a herb broth made up of white wine, garlic, shallots and plenty of chopped Thai basil and chilies. The only thing missing was a loaf of crusty bread to soak up all that glorious broth. The lack of bread, however, didn’t stop Gerry from using his spoon and slurping it down like a soup.
The entrée decision came soon after we devoured the appetizers. As is our custom, we asked our waiter, one of two women also working the cash register, what the specialties were. She mentioned the “exotic” penang curry with salmon. Exotic curry appealed to me and I ordered it, but with chicken.
“How do you like it? Spicy?” she asked.
“I like it the way you like it,” I replied.
“I like it spicy, she said.
“Then so do I.” I nodded and she noted it on her pad.
“What’s the curry with the coconut milk? I want something with coconut milk,” Eugene barked to her.
“You like red curry then,” she said.
“If it has coconut milk, then I like it. With chicken,” he said, tossing his menu.
Mike from Yonkers ordered the same, but with shrimp while Gerry braved another offbeat Thai selection; the spinach spaghetti with shrimp. We rounded out our order with Pad Thai for the table.
A bowl of what looked like a tomato based curry was placed in front of me. There was chicken and a few other vegetables. I had a small taste. The heat of the spice instantly stimulated the nerve in my throat that controls my hiccupping reflex. The hiccups came despite swallowing some ice water and shoveling white rice into my mouth. Finally, my body adjusted to the spice and the hiccups subsided replaced now by a sheen of perspiration around my forehead. I had settled into hot sauce nirvana.
Eugene’s hiccups matched my own, though his red curry chicken was no match in terms of spice to my exotic Penang. Mike from Yonkers, deliberately mixing the white rice in with his red curry, taking his time to savor every curry-coated kernel didn’t have the same reaction as Eugene and I. And Gerry’s non-traditional Thai green spinach spaghetti coated in an Asian, cilantro, garlic and basil-based sauce, though not hiccup inducing, was a revelation.
“The only thing missing is a cold beer,” Gerry mentioned as we cleaned our plates.
“Maybe so,” Mike from Yonkers said. “But there is crème brulee on the menu.”
“Crème brulee? I don’t think so,” I said, maybe a little hastily after experiencing the anti-Thai mussels and spinach spaghetti. “Let’s go get some Polish vodka instead.” We were, after all in Greenpoint.
“Now you’re talking,” Gerry responded quickly rising from his seat.
617 Manhattan Ave
I had my gas tank full even before Gerry announced where we were to meet. There would be no doubt that he would have us (Zio and I) travel to Westchester. And that county has more than its share of Chow City standouts (Chalanas) being the most the recent example. Unfortunately, El Miski, located in White Plains, which Gerry dubbed as El Miskito in his email to us was not one of them.
After dodging an obese panhandler claiming he was hungry in front of what looked like a former diner, I entered El Miski to find Eugene waiting inside. The front of the restaurant was narrow with a few small tables, booth and a counter with red swivel stools. The woman who was to be our waitress took us through the room, past a full festive bar still in Halloween regalia with the bar stools up on the bar, and into a big, frigid back room where one long table was centered. I sat, keeping my jacket on and zipped to my neck.
Zio walked in next, covered in a large goose down jacket making him look even more rotund than usual. In the cold room, he had the courage to unzip the jacket. Our waitress got on a step stool to turn the television on to a telenovela—maybe hoping the steamy drama would warm the room.
Gerry arrived next and as he sat down, his jacket still on, mentioned that the owner of El Miski was a client of his. Whether that was a good thing or not, we would soon find out.
“Gerry, do they have heat in here,” Eugene asked as if Gerry, because he chose the place and also because they were one of his clients was responsible.
“It’s not that cold,” Gerry said; his lips a bluish gray color.
Mike from Yonkers filled out our group; keeping the collar of his heavy fleece high up on his neck as he sat.
When the waitress came over with menus we asked about the heat. In her struggling English she explained that she just turned it on and that it should warm up soon.
One of the first Peruvian restaurants our Chow City group experienced was the tremendous, but now defunct, La Pollada de Laura (Cooked in Corona) in Queens. We have yet to replicate that experience including the Peruvian Chinese restaurant, Chifa, we visited on our most recent expedition (The Big Chifa of Northern Boulevard). The menu at El Miski was similar to what I could recall from La Pollada de Laura; a number of ceviche options, lomo saltado, jalea, and various mariscos dishes; some with fried rice, others with potatoes, and even a few with yucca. There were also special that included tallarin also known as Peruvian spaghetti, but more like lo mein noodles. After the unfortunate experience with Peruvian/Chinese at Chifa, none of us thought it smart to chance the tallarin dishes.
Gerry ordered the table a ceviche “mixto,” along with an appetizer recommended by the very affable waitress of mussels on the half shell. We learned well after asking for recommendations and some of us making our choices based on them that our waitress was new on the job—in fact it was her first week working at El Miski.
“They have good bread here,” Gerry said as we worked through the tart ceviche and mussels; both served cold.
“Are they gonna bring us any?” I asked.
By the time the various seafood dishes we ordered arrived, I was able to unzip my jacket. But as soon as I moved my fork through the mound of fried rice, soggy potatoes, and equally soggy fried fish, shrimp, and squid that made up my “saltado pescado, I had to stop and swat at an army of gnats that were hovering around my plate. I added each of the three hot sauces to my dish, pale green, green, and red, hoping the spice would keep the gnats away, but more seemed to arrive.
I noticed Mike from Yonkers also swatting at them—and Gerry and Eugene. If they were cruising over Zio’s picante de mariscos (seafood in a special Peruvian sauce) he didn’t seem bothered. He was, however, wary of the pinkish special Peruvian sauce. “It’s like Velveeta,” he mentioned, though not in a derogatory way.
“This place used to be called the ‘Oasis,’” Eugene, whose knowledge of White Plains’ past is legendary, said.
“Yeah, I heard rumors about it that this back room was used for…,” Gerry said.
“What???” Zio’s fading hearing had suddenly revived.
“Girls,” Gerry said. “A whorehouse.”
Eugene nodded. “That was the rumor.”
Our waitress returned and asked if we wanted more plates, napkins, water, beer, another ceviche…anything.
We told her we were good.
“What about dessert?” She asked.
Even though the gnat attack had not ceased, Gerry went ahead and ordered us a few Peruvian sweets including a dense bread pudding.
“Anything else? More beer. Cake?” Our smiling waitress inquired after we dug through dessert.
Eugene asked for the check, but before she went to tally it up, she told us that men come on weekends and use the back room.
“And there are women too,” she said innocently and with a smile. “For the men.”
Gerry raised a bushy eyebrow and looked at each of us. The look reminded me of the final shot in the original The Taking of Pelham One Two Three, of Walter Matthau who realizes he just nailed the final accomplice in the subway robbery.
None of us dared inquire further; instead we surrendered to the invisible gnats and settled the check before heading back out onto the silent streets of White Plains.
73 W. Post Rd
“Happy hour is two for one,” the bartender, a woman in a black “Bronx Beer Hall” t-shirt told us as we settled into chairs at the bar in the relatively quiet Arthur Avenue Retail Market where the Bronx Beer Hall was located.
Despite the calm inside, Eugene was having trouble hearing. “Whats’ that?” he asked the bartender while bending over the bar, his hand cupped over his ear in a feeble attempt to hear her.
I was with the Westchester contingent; Gerry and Eugene of the Adventures in Chow City group for a pre-meal drink before one of our interim dinners at a restaurant a block up on 187th Street.
“She said it’s two-for-one,” I said to Eugene in a voice loud and clear enough so he could hear me.
“Buy one beer and you get the second free,” the bartender, who we later learned was a senior at nearby Fordham University, explained.
I was very familiar with the happy hour concept as was Gerry and, I’m sure, so was Eugene. Maybe it was the cavernous indoor market that made it hard for Eugene to hear. Or maybe it was just that he was old and nature was taking its course. I wasn’t far behind him in age, but I could hear the bartender clearly as well as the falsetto singing voice of Anthony Gourdine, also known as “Little Anthony,” as “I’m on the Outside (Looking In),” played in the background.
The beers on tap were mostly Bronx-made, which made me, even without tasting one, very happy. Some were made by the Jonas Bronck’s Beer Company while others were from the City Island Beer Company.
One of the day’s specials was the “Kingsbridge Kolsch” made by the Jonas Bronck’s Beer Company. I was given a sample and immediately after tasting the fragrant icy blonde I ordered a pint. “I’ll have one of those also,” Eugene told the bartender.
“Big Apple Cider,” Gerry said to her, also one of the blackboard specials.
“Cider?” I had never known Gerry to order cider, hard or not.
“It’s supposed to be good for gout,” he said.
I didn’t want to know more than that.
The beer was cold and delicious. We chatted with the bartender who, with the exception of only two other customers, had only our group to attend to.
“You get a lot of Fordham students in here?” I asked knowing the proximity to the Fordham campus and recalling my own now very distant college days and how loyal I was to the two-for-one institutions near my university.
She shook her head with a smile. “No, we are the only place around here that actually cards them.”
“You didn’t card us,” Eugene said, feigning outrage.
She smiled at his quip and then said, “We get people who come in here shopping. A lot of old people. Seniors…you know.”
Gerry looked at me. I looked at him. Was she going there to be funny or did she not know any better. Either way there was no need to dwell further on the Bronx Beer Hall demographic. My beer was empty. It was time for the second of the two for one.
I glanced at the t-shirts for sale in the t-shirt booth next to the bar. Most were Italian-themed with stereotypical slogans like “fuhgeddaboudit” and “Leave the gun, take the cannolis.” There was a whiff of tobacco coming from the adjacent cigar factory, La Casa Grande Tobacco Company. Our bartender wanted to know if we were interested in food from Mike’s Deli, one of the most popular spots within the market. We declined, telling her we were eating at a nearby restaurant.
While we sipped the delicious Bronx beers, Eugene began reminiscing about the “old days,” back in White Plains and if we knew so and so who was once very pretty but, “you should see her now.” And then he started talking about his recent 40th high school reunion including listing off several names of people unable to attend due to the fact that they were no longer alive.
I drained my second pint while over the loudspeakers in the now almost deserted market, the Crests were singing “Trouble in Paradise.” Another two-for-one round of Kingsbridge Kolsch was a temptation. I hadn’t eaten; more beer on an empty stomach would be a serious mistake.
“Where’s the bathroom in this place,” Eugene wondered out loud.
“I was gonna ask the same question,” Gerry said.
I looked at my empty glass; only a thin foamy head remained on the bottom of it. If I have learned anything over the years, it was to know my limitations.
“Follow me” I said
And that was that.
The Bronx Beer Hall
Arthur Avenue Retail Market
2344 Arthur Avenue
As we were presented with our check for our meal at Chifa, there was some grumbling from the Westchester contingent that it wasn’t right that Zio and I ordered soup as appetizers.
“I didn’t think we could have soup,” Gerry stated.
“Yeah, it’s against the rules,” Eugene bellowed.
“Show me where it says we can’t have soup in our rules,” I responded defensively.
“That’s just wrong,” Eugene said, shaking his head.
“Hey, you could have ordered the soup. Nobody would have stopped you.”
“But you can’t really share soup, so we don’t order it,” Gerry explained.
“All you had to do was ask,” I said. “I would have gladly shared my soup with you.”
“What are we gonna do share spoons? It just doesn’t work that’s why we don’t do it,” Eugene argued.
“How can you eliminate soup from the choices? I love soup,” Zio said.
Mike from Yonkers, technically also from Westchester, wisely abstained from the debate, content to slowly pick at the hominy kernels that surrounded what was left of his ceviche mixto.
Zio shrugged. “That duck soup was really good,” he said.
I nodded. “I know, the sopa pac pow was the highlight of my meal.”
And I wasn’t just saying that to further infuriate Gerry and Eugene who were still steamed that Zio and I had the temerity to order soup. It was the truth.
Granted, Zio and I ordered the soup before Eugene and Gerry arrived and without their consultation—we were waiting in the restaurant, along with Mike from Yonkers, for what seemed like a long time, later finding out there was some confusion on the timing of when we were to meet.
Zio’s pick, Chifa, was located on a small stretch of Northern Boulevard that wasn’t a car wash, lube job joint, gas station, or fast food place. Down the block was the Taste of Lahore, which was right next to a dark, inconspicuous Italian restaurant called Trieste. Doing his due diligence as always, maybe Zio was drawn to Chifa, learning that its name translated to mean Peruvian Chinese food and that it was something our group had not yet experienced. Either that or that it was not far from his Astoria love nest. Whatever the rationale for making the pick, Zio wasn’t divulging it.
Mike from Yonkers arrived a few minutes later and after sipping cold Cusquena beers while perusing the Chinese-dominant menu, we went ahead and ordered the soups and a couple of appetizers; “wantan frito” also known as fried wontons and “lomo asado,” Chinese bbq pork slices.
Gerry and Eugene walked in just as the soups arrived. The sopa pac pow was a steaming bowl of what seemed like a glorified egg drop soup; the big bowl thick with pieces of chicken, duck, asparagus pieces, and shrimp.
Eugene eyed Zio’s soup, redolent with tender slices of duck, noodles, and vegetables. “What’s that?” Eugene asked him.
“Duck soup,” Zio replied, his face down, steam coating his eyeglasses, as he carefully sipped the scalding soup.
“That was on TV the other day,” Gerry deadpanned.
“Hail, Freedonia,” I mumbled, not looking up from my own soup that also had a few slices of that tender duck.
After that there was no further discussion of the soups until the complaints at the end of our meal that I’ve already chronicled. Instead the others ordered beers and their own dishes including lomo saltado for Eugene, tai pa, for Gerry, the aforementioned ceviche mixto for Mike from Yonkers, while I went with a noodle dish, tallarin taipa, and Zio choose the pork with garlic.
Besides the gargantuan size of the platters—everything was big at Chifa—there wasn’t much to distinguish the Peruvian Chinese from the standard Chinese-American Cantonese that we are so familiar with. The tallarin taipa, a “mei fun” type noodle dish with an assortment of meats: pork, chicken, baby shrimp, and the duck, was swimming in an oyster/soy sauce while Zio’s pork with garlic was just more of the roasted barbecued pork we had earlier now presented in a barely perceptible garlic sauce with the addition of a few vegetables.
The tai pa Gerry ordered, according to the menu, “Chifa’s most popular dish,” was more of the same; chicken, pork, shrimp, duck but with welcome addition of a quail egg and fish ball all combined on a large platter and coated with an oyster/soy based “special sauce.” Even Eugene’s traditional lomo saltado, a mountain of beef, French fries, and onions over rice was not up to my high Peruvian standards for the dish.
Maybe it was the addition of the controversial soup or maybe it was just that the dishes were so big, but both Zio and I went home with leftovers.
“And that ain’t right either,” Gerry remarked, his eyes on our packed doggie bags. “Maybe I’m still hungry? Did you think of that?”
Noting the size of the tai pa that Gerry was putting the finishing touches on, I hadn’t. But also knowing Gerry and his prodigious appetite, I should have.
73-20 Northern Boulevard
Jackson Heights, Queens
The growing season on our terrace was an uneven one. Most of the spring was very cool and wet. By the end of June and early July we entered a brief period of extreme heat followed by an abnormally cool late summer concluding with a warm, dry early fall. The tomatoes didn’t fare so well, but the chili peppers were abundant and as of this writing continue to thrive.
Last year I grew “Portugal Hots,” and “Fresno,” peppers. They too were prolific and, as chronicled in these pages, I used the excess to make pepper sauces. See A Pair of Pepper Sauces.
This year I mixed it up a little planting hot cherry peppers and cayenne’s. As always, I freeze most of the crop and use them when needed; adding the peppers to soups, sauces, Asian or Indian stir fried dishes or anything else I’m cooking that could use a spice kick. But there is always much more than I will need to last a year. So what to do with the excess?
This year I decided to pickle the peppers. There is nothing like a few slices of hot vinegar cherry peppers on an Italian hero or chopped into an antipasto or baccala salad, so instead of buying a store brand, I figured with all I had, I could make my own.
I deliberated over what then to do with the cayenne peppers. I was very tempted just to make another pepper sauce, maybe something very much like Tabasco, which uses cayenne peppers. Instead I took a much easier path deciding to chop up the fiery red peppers, squeeze them into decorative jars, add hot white vinegar and let the vinegar infuse in the spice of the chilies.
My estimation is that after two weeks, I’ll be able to sprinkle the vinegar on collard greens, Swiss chard, rice and beans or anything else that might welcome the combination flavors of hot and sour. Check back with me later on that prognosis.
Here are the very simple recipes for both.
Pickled hot cherry peppers
1lb of red cherry peppers
2 cloves of peeled garlic
2 bay leaves
20 black peppercorns
2 cups of white vinegar
¼ cup of water
1 tablespoon of sugar
½ teaspoon of salt
Add the vinegar, water, sugar and salt to a saucepan and bring to a boil.
In the meantime, make a few incisions near the stem of the cherry peppers.
Make sure the jars and tops are sterilized by boiling them or putting them in the dishwasher.
In each jar (how many you use depends on the size of your jars) add one whole peeled clove of garlic, a bay leaf and a bunch of the peppercorns.
Stuff in the cherry peppers tightly.
When the brine has boiled and the sugar and salt has dissolved, pour the liquid into the jars covering the cherry peppers leaving about ¼ inch of the jar empty.
Seal the jars tightly.
Can in a water bath for about 15 minutes.*
Remove the jars and if you hear that pop signifying that the jar has been vacuumed-sealed or you see that the lid is slightly indented, chances are very good that your pickled cherry tomatoes are properly sealed.
*I had never done the water bath thing before. I have always been wary of improperly sealing the jars thus imperiling my loved ones with contaminated food. This time I took a chance and all the signs seem to indicate that the canning was successful. Again, check back with me later on that.
Cayenne Pepper Vinegar
Chop up the peppers, making sure to use gloves before handling them.
Bring the vinegar to a boil. How much you use depends on how many peppers you have, and how big or also how many jars you intend to make.
Stuff the chopped peppers into your jars. I used a decorative salad oil/vinegar receptacle.
Using a funnel, unless the top of your jar is wide enough, pour the hot vinegar over the peppers leaving ¼ inch of space from the top.
Put the top on and store in a cool dry place for at least two weeks before using.
Because you’ve made vinegar, a natural preservative, there is no need to seal these jars. The vinegar should last months, if not years, but you will probably finish it before you’ll have to worry about such things.
Arthur Avenue in the Bronx, once a prominently exclusive Italian/American neighborhood, has over the past couple of decades, opened its welcoming arms to immigrants from other countries, in particular Albanians.
You will also now find Mexican and Japanese restaurants nestled side by side and close to both an Italian cheese store and a dried sausage place where they co-exist peacefully.
But Arthur Avenue can be fickle about newcomers. Several years ago, McDonald’s made an attempt to infiltrate the block. Thankfully they were soundly rejected.
And then a legendary downtown seafood joint, Umberto’s Clam House; it’s legend born from the graphic and gruesome blood and tomato sauce murder of a famous mobster, tried to make it in the Bronx on Arthur Avenue on the site of what once was a live poultry store.
Umberto’s tenure on Arthur Avenue was longer than McDonald’s, but whether it was just because most people can’t name the mobster who was gunned down at the original Umberto’s it was so long ago, or that the ghosts of thousands of butchered chickens have cursed the location, it is now gone, replaced by a “Mediterranean” restaurant.
So today, with so many very good, established pizza options on the block…
…should Arthur Avenue accept this new interloper from downtown?
Can another pizzeria survive on this glutenous stretch of landscape? Will the display of co-allegiance to the Garden State forever diminish the reputation of this fabled establishment? And finally, will the restrictive and somewhat haughty “no slices” policy be amended to reflect the open door sensibilities of the neighborhood?
Only time will tell.