The Mole-A in Astoria

25 Nov

De Mole

Since moving to Astoria several years ago, Zio has brought us to a number of that neighborhood’s fine dining establishments. Who can forget the greasy Greek macaroni at now defunct Uncle George’s (The Greek Uncle)? Or the stupendous fish market cum restaurant, Astoria Seafood (The Ash Wednesday Fishing Expedition)? Or, the Afghani restaurant under the R train tracks (Eating Like an Afghan Family in an Afghani Restaurant in Astoria)? It was Zio’s turn to pick our destination and again he kept us in his comfy locale with a Mexican place called De Mole that was just a few doors down from another of Zio’s choices, the tiny Bosnian grilled meat joint Ukus (A Bosnian Taste in Astoria).

From Zio we expected something gritty where the waiters communicated with hand gestures, the lighting was bright, the menus and napkins of the thin paper variety, and the food prepared in a kitchen where we would never dare tread. Instead, when I arrived at De Mole, I was greeted by one of those obtrusive “A” grades on the big glass window storefront. Inside the restaurant was dimly or “moodily” lit; there were fancy marble tabletops and silverware was arranged on each neatly assembled burnished wood table.

“The tamales are real good here,” Zio boasted as our group of five settled in. Our efficient waitress spoke impeccable English and took our drink orders while we perused the menu that was stocked with standard Mexican dishes.

We started with an order of tamales; one with the self-proclaimed mole, the other with a salsa verde. The tamales came steamed, wrapped in corn husks, and prepared lovingly. The mole version was dry and Zio asked for accompanying salsas. I slathered some of the “rojo” or red hot sauce on hoping to revive the otherwise lifeless tamale. The verdes con pollo  tamale, or chicken with green sauce fared better than the mole, but still needed an infusion of extra salsa verde.

Tamales

Tamales

“What’s spicy here,” Gerry asked the waitress hopefully. She suggested the enchiladas rojas con pollo and Gerry quickly ordered it.

“I think I’ll just have some tacos,” Zio said, the boredom in his voice evident from a man who, many times, had eaten the tacos at De Mole.

“What kind,” the waitress asked.

“Oh—the slowly cooked goat of course,” Zio replied as if she had to ask.

I veered from the tacos, burritos, tortas, and quesadillas on the menu to try one of the “platos principales;” my choice being the tinga de puebla translated to mean beef brisket stew. It was an abnormally cold November night—I craved a stew of any kind.

Mike from Yonkers chose the classic pollo con mole Polbano while Eugene ordered the same, but wrapped in a burrito along with a carne asada taco.

"Slowly" roasted goat in a flour tortilla.

“Slowly” roasted goat in a flour tortilla.

Our food came promptly; everything assembled tidily.  No one said much about what they were eating except Gerry who acknowledged his enchiladas were, in fact, spicy. Our waitress brought us a “complimentary” bowl of salsa with chips; the salsa also lacking heat or any real flavor at all.

The mole at de Mole

The mole at de Mole

The beef stew was hearty; the brisket shredded into thin strands accompanied with yellow rice and very good black beans. But where was the Cholula hot sauce when you needed it? De Mole unfortunately was that kind of place. Good, but lacking the grit our group strives to find.

Walking with Zio down 30th Avenue, you could sense his resignation. Almost admitting, without saying so, that De Mole was a disappointment; not what he usually strives for. No one complained. No one chided him on the lackluster choice. We all have off days. We knew Zio. We were confident he would do better next time.

De Mole

42-20 30 Ave

Astoria

Rum and Roti in Parts Unknown

27 Oct

Melanie's Roti

“Why isn’t The Bronx a city?” Eugene inquired as we sat around a table in Melanie’s Roti & Grill Restaurant on Castle Hill Avenue.

“It’s a borough,” Gerry explained.

“Yeah, but what’s a borough? Why isn’t it just another city? What is it with these boroughs? I mean, when I think of New York I think of Manhattan. That’s New York. The Bronx? Brooklyn? Boroughs? What’s that all about?”’

Zio, could only hear fragments of Eugene’s proclamations, but enough to test his patience. “Would you shut up already about the boroughs!” he yelled, his face contorted in rage.

Not long before I chose Melanie’s Roti & Grill Restaurant, CNN aired a program hosted by food and travel media celebrity, Anthony Bourdain called “Parts Unknown,” where the unknown part in this episode, at least to Bourdain, was the Bronx. After twelve years of foraging restaurants in New York, including all the boroughs that so perplex Eugene there were no more unknown parts in the city for our Chow City group. We’d been to almost all of them—and the Bronx, because it had long been neglected in the city’s food sphere has always been a particular focus for our group.

In the Bronx, our group uncovered ethnic joints where we’ve had, among other things, pizza, African, Vietnamese, Thai, Bangladeshi, Pakistani, Mexican, Barbecue, and Caribbean. The variety of food choices in the Bronx is almost equal to what can be found the city’s food epicenter, another one of those boroughs lamented by Eugene: Queens.

It was happy hour at Melanie’s and I got happy with a Heineken.

“They have Ron Zacapa 23 here,” Mike from Yonkers announced to all but especially to Gerry referring to the aged rum from Guatemala .

“I might have one or two of those,” Gerry said.

At Melanie’s the happy hour lasted from 4pm until 8. We were comfortably under the deadline.

“We are in a Guyanese place. Why not order an El Dorado 21 year old instead,” I suggested.

“Maybe I’ll have one of those too,” Gerry said with a sly smile.

Old rum for an old man

Old rum for an old man

That it was happy hour was a bonus, but we were at Melanie’s for the food.

It had been several years since we dined on Guyanese food and this one, located in the heart of a Latin neighborhood in the Bronx, seemed an anomaly until I noticed another “roti” restaurant a block from Melanie’s. Apparently there was a West Indian/Guyanese enclave within the enclave. Why should I be surprised? This was the Bronx after all.

With Mike from Yonkers’ insistence, and not that we protested, we started with an order of fried shark for the table along with a plate of channa, spiced and salted chick peas. The shark, also salty and fried into chunks went well with my Heineken.

Channa

Channa

The Guyanese like to offer westernized variations of Chinese food in their restaurants; lo mein, chow mein  and fried rice were available at Melanie’s. Though I would never order chow mein in a Chinese restaurant, I couldn’t resist trying it at Melanie’s and had what was called the “mix.”

“You want everything in it?” Our waitress and bartender inquired.

“I want it all,” I said without hesitation.

Guyanese chow mein with the works

Guyanese chow mein with the works

Though Guyana was a long way from Jamaica, the birthplace of jerk chicken, like all of the Caribbean, jerk has become a staple in that region and both Eugene and Zio ordered it at Melanie’s while Gerry, disappointed that there was no more goat available that day to have with his curry, substituted duck in its place. Mike from Yonkers also was intrigued by the duck, among other things, and chose the bunjal duck with Indian dhal and basmati rice.

“Oh and I can I have one of those roti things,” Eugene said, not knowing that roti was an Indian soft, flat bread wrapped into a narrow roll even though we knew he had had it before at one or two of our food choices throughout the years.

The portions were enormous; the mix in my chow mein included shrimp, beef, roast pork, duck, jerk chicken and vegetables. The noodles, as I expected were soggy but the vegetables crisp enough to compensate. The only real disappointment was the lack of spice from the jerk chicken, but the accompanying hot sauce more than made up for the lack of heat.

Duck curry

Duck curry

While we rapidly consumed our platters, Mike from Yonkers deliberately dipped his duck in the dhal, scooping a small portion of rice with it, and then wrapping it  into a portion of roti; the tedious process making us wait  until he finally finished before asking for our check. Eugene glared at him.

“Okay, I’m done,” Mike from Yonkers said, throwing up his hands.

On our way out and walking down Castle Hill Avenue with Zio, we passed  a familiar restaurant called Sabrosura.  It was familiar because a couple of years earlier we experienced the splendors of that Dominican/Chinese place and chronicled that experience in these pages( The Place Where They Don’t Count the Shrimp).  And like Sabrusora and so many others, Melanie’s was just another food find in Parts Unknown.

The Bronx

 

Melanie’s Roti & Grill Restaurant

1248 Castle Hill Avenue

The Bronx

Vietnamese by the Numbers

18 Sep

Saigonese

It was located on a decrepit stretch of Central Avenue, also known as Central Park Avenue, between Hartsdale and Scarsdale in Westchester.

“Remember what was across the street, Gerry?” Eugene said to his fellow Westchester lifer who, he thought would know such things.

Gerry looked at the wild growth of green space across from the restaurant. “Carvel?” He guessed.

I shook my head.  Even I knew that the Carvel, one of that ice cream franchise’s original stores, was down towards Hartsdale and I hadn’t lived in Westchester in almost 40 years.

We were stumped and that brought a proud smile to Eugene’s face. “Jesse’s hot dog truck,” he announced as if he just provided us with valuable information. “All he had were hot dogs with chili, onions, and mustard. None of that other stuff they put on hot dogs nowadays.”

We were in the parking lot of Saigonese, the restaurant chosen by another Westchester resident, Mike from Yonkers. The small oddly-designed structure looked like a former cat house and stood out among Central Avenue’s numerous hideous strip malls.

Inside the structure were an assembly of small tables; two were pushed together to make room for our party of five. Brightly lit with windows overlooking the adjacent gloomy stretch of landscape; muzak flowed from the restaurant’s sound system mirroring the dreary ambiance. But ambiance was not what our Chow City group was about. We’ve eaten in dumps without heat or air conditioning, off Styrofoam plates with thin paper napkins, but also where the food was so full of flavor, so memorable that it didn’t matter that you wouldn’t dare venture to the rest room—it was what we shoved into our mouths that counted. I was hoping that would be the result at Saigonese.

The menu offered no surprises; there was pho; there was bun and there were a number of grilled offerings. The only deviation was the addition of hot pots. But  taped over that section was a notice stating: “we no longer serve hot pots.”

“Is a summer roll the same as a spring roll,” Mike from Yonkers asked the waiter.

“On the west coast they call them spring rolls,” he said. “But they are the same.” And we had no reason to doubt his knowledge of such things.

For starters we ordered the exotic Saigon rolls and vegetarian summer roll along with the grilled spare ribs and the Vietnamese crepe, Saigonese style as if we knew any other style of Vietnamese crepe.

Four ribs for a party of five.

Four ribs for a party of five.

First to appear on our table were four grilled spare ribs. Now a spare rib is not an easy thing to share among gluttons so I volunteered to abstain, leaving the four ribs to the others. I made up for it, however, when the ample Vietnamese crepe appeared; a large pancake stuffed with shrimp, pork and vegetables that needed a jolt of something much more potent than the small bowl of sweetened fish sauce that came with it.  But there was no jolt to be had at our table.

“Chili sauce,” Mike from Yonkers, called to the waiter and he responded with a house made chili sauce and a bottle of Sriracha.

The exotic Saigon roll and the vegetable summer rolls arrived next. I examined them and then took a bite of the Saigon roll only to find out what supposedly made it exotic was the inclusion of Vietnamese sausage.

“Pass me one of those spring rolls,” Zio said to me.

“Unless we are in Los Angeles, I can only pass you the summer rolls,” I replied, but my reference to the West Coast/East Coast terminology for what was on our plates was lost on him.

East coast spring rolls served in the late summer.

East coast spring rolls served in the late summer.

Like the crepe, the rolls, spring or summer, exotic or not needed a jolt as well. I slathered one in the provided chili sauce and braced myself for a heat assault that, surprisingly, never came. At Saigonese even the chili sauce was tepid.

It was time to order and I had decided on a bowl of comforting pho; the traditional with beef brisket.

The waiter next looked to Eugene. “Number 29,” he said to the waiter.

“The house special with grilled pork and shrimp.” The waiter responded.

“Yeah that one,” Eugene concurred.

“Number 18,” Zio said, pointing to the number on the menu.

“Grilled chicken,” the waiter recited.

“The man knows his numbers,” I said.

“What’s number 31?” Gerry quizzed him.

“The mixed vegetables,” He replied with confidence.

“Can you make it spicy,” Gerry asked.

“How spicy?”

“As spicy as you would have it if you ordered it,” Gerry said. “I like it hot.”

The waiter nodded and then muttered, “Don’t complain if it’s too hot.”

“I’ll have number 15,” Mike from Yonkers said.

“Grilled chicken with lemongrass…”  Now the waiter was showing off.

Saigonese Pho

Saigonese Pho

The pho did offer the comfort I craved but I also wanted some zing. I stirred a few drops of the chili sauce into the soup, yet it remained comfortingly bland.

“They’ve Westchesterized this food,” I announced, meaning they dumbed it down, reduced the flavor and spice to appease the local clientele.

“Not this. This is hot!” Gerry said, his nose properly running and his eyes bloodshot from the excess spice added to his mixed vegetable dish. And then he looked around to see if the waiter was within earshot. “But I’m not complaining.”

Number 31 with added spice.

Number 31 with added spice.

The lack of flavor in the dishes was more than made up for by the surprisingly very good Vietnamese flan I had for dessert. Who would have thought that flan would be the standout at a Vietnamese restaurant but at Saigonese it was.

Vietnamese flan

Vietnamese flan

After settling our bill, we congregated in the small, now dark parking lot. I made the mistake of wondering out loud what would be the best route back to the city.

“Go back and take the Bronx River,” Gerry suggested.

“No, take Central Avenue and then get on the Deegan,” Eugene said.

“That will take forever with all those lights,” Gerry argued.

“No it won’t,” Eugene barked. “Ten minutes.”

“Yeah, Central Avenue,” Mike from Yonkers. “It’s the easiest.”

The wastelands of Westchester.

The wastelands of Westchester.

I couldn’t listen anymore and instead got into the car. I decided to pull out onto Central Avenue and take the scenic route suggested by Mike from Yonkers and  Eugene. Yes there were lights, but at each red light I was able to ponder the parade of strip malls glowing with colorful neon, the national fast food chains, car dealers, drug stores, pizzerias, diners, and Chinese restaurants and wonder at all the treasures that lay within.

Saigonese

158 S. Central Park Ave.

Hartsdale

 

A Bronx Bacchanalia Courtesy of Carmine Sunshine

4 Sep

Patrizia's

“You better come very hungry,” Gerry warned us all in preparation for our impromptu dinner at a place called Patrizia’s in the Woodlawn section of the Bronx.

This deviation from our normal gathering routine where we take turns finding a restaurants that meet our budget requirements of $20 or less per person was based on Gerry’s insistence that Patrizia’s, though for our frugal selves, costly, worth the added expense.

What was this Patrizia’s place Gerry was so high on and how come I hadn’t heard of it if it was as good as he claimed. Sure it was hidden in an Irish enclave of Woodlawn, but with today’s media, social and otherwise, a restaurant would be hard pressed to find itself “under the radar,” as we used to say when such places existed.

Only Zio, who was assigned grandfather duty by the demanding and uncompromising Colonel, could not make it. Rick, a rare presence at our normal gatherings, even made it a point to drive to the Bronx on this pleasant August evening.

As we entered, Eugene, who has an uncanny memory for faces and names from his illustrious Battle Hill childhood, stopped short when the owner of Patrizia’s, greeted Gerry, his longtime business associate.

“Carmine Sunshine,” Eugene addressed the owner with a grin that almost turned into a smile. “What’s it been, 30 years?”

Carmine Sunshine shrugged as if he had no clue. And then the two men hugged.

“This is the guy that wouldn’t let me buy a slice at Sunshine Pizza,” Eugene said to us as we witnessed the reunion. “I felt guilty going in there. He wouldn’t take my money.” The connection, I was quickly to learn was that Carmine, the current owner of Patrizia’s was once the owner of a very popular pizzeria in downtown White Plains called Sunshine Pizza.

Carmine seemed overwhelmed by the adulation bestowed upon him by Eugene and was literally speechless. Instead, he led us to a huge booth in a private room and slid into the booth with us, apron tied around his ample waist. After some small talk with Eugene bringing up names from Sunshine Pizza’s past like Nicky, Sal, Joe, and Phil, Carmine stood up and did that thing chefs do when they are about to test their guests’ eating endurance—he clapped his hands and said: “So, any food allergies I should know about?”

Only Rick responded with a feeble, “Um…pine nuts. I can’t eat pine nuts.

Carmine nodded and headed off to the kitchen.

“Do we order?” Mike from Yonkers asked Gerry.

“No, he’ll just start bringing what he has.”

Mike from Yonkers flipped the menu away. “Okay, let him bring it then.”

“Oh he will,” Gerry responded, indicating he knew something we didn’t.

First to arrive on the table was a small pizza made in the restaurant’s wood burning oven. I have a faint recollection of Sunshine Pizza, but one thing I am sure of, that slice joint never had a wood burning oven. Carmine’s pizza was crisp, layered lightly with cheese and tomato sauce. It was a winning start.

Following the pizza, a waiter deposited a platter of coconut crusted shrimp on our table.

“This is the first time I can truly say I’ve had anything with coconut in an Italian restaurant,” I announced.

“Yeah, what was Carmine thinking?” Gerry wondered as he speared one of the jumbo shrimp and shoveled it into his mouth.

 

Fennel salad

Fennel salad

Carmine himself brought the next course; a fennel salad adorned with grilled calamari and dusted with…pignoli nuts. After presenting it he slapped the side of his own head realizing his mistake with the inclusion of the pine nuts and their toxic effect on Rick. “Okay, I’ll bring something else,” he stammered and while all but Rick sampled the aromatic fennel salad, he returned quickly with an overflowing platter of steamed little neck clams.

“Just ‘cause your allergic to pine nuts doesn’t mean you’re getting all those clams,” Gerry barked as he spooned a few onto his plate drizzling them with their own broth.

 

Steamed clams

Steamed clams

Before we could finish with the clams and fennel salad, another waiter presented a platter of roasted Italian peppers stuffed with cheese and sausage. With the previous four courses consumed the hunger that I was told to bring by Gerry had now faded, but that didn’t stop me from devouring one of the peppers, the saltiness of the sausage complimenting the sweet pepper and the mild mozzarella.

 

Stuffed peppers

Stuffed peppers

I sipped a glass of wine from the magnum of Cabernet on our table hoping to clear my palate and reintroduce that hunger before the next course but there was no time. Carmine appeared like a sadistic inquisitor with a platter of octopus cooked in his fiery wood burning oven. How could I resist?

Pulpo

Pulpo

I looked at Gerry. “Is this man planning to kill us here, so close to Woodlawn Cemetery,” I asked once Carmine was out of sight.

“Stop complaining,” Gerry said with disgust. “We haven’t even gotten to the pastas yet.”

And that was what I feared. I drank water and got up to go to the bathroom mainly just to stretch my legs and work off the first five courses. When I returned, there was a “family-size” platter of homemade cavatelli with more of that salty sausage and broccoli rabe sitting alongside another platter of what Carmine explained were “money bags,” or golf ball size dumplings stuffed with four cheeses in a rich mushroom and ham sauce. Both pastas were spectacular but also weighty on my already swollen belly. That didn’t stop me or others in my “family” from quickly consuming what had been assembled on the family-sized platters.

I paused to breath. I knew there was more to come. After all we had really only dined so far on the “primi,” even though the “primi” courses were coming perilously close to double digits.

 

Money bags on the left, cavatelli on the right.

Money bags on the left, cavatelli on the right.

“It’ll be awhile before the fish is ready,” Carmine explained; an almost evil smile on his face. “It’s cooking in the oven.”

“The pizza oven?” I asked.

He nodded. “Sure come take a look.”

Any excuse to get up and move; to stretch and work off whatever I could of what I’d already eaten was more than welcome.

In a pan close to the glowing embers were two huge branzino, also known as sea bass, juices simmering in the heat of the oven. They looked beautiful and momentarily revived my appetite. I lingered for a bit there, not wanting to get back to food quite yet even though I had a responsibility to fulfill.

 

Branzino in the oven

Branzino in the oven

When I returned to the table I saw, at least to my ancient eyes, what looked like a football covered in brown gravy. Upon closer inspection what was on the table was really an enormous shank of osso buco and it had been placed in front of my seat reminding me that there was work yet to be done.

Mike from Yonkers was now eating standing up and groaning while continually shoveling food into his mouth. Two huge bowls of chicken, potatoes and vinegar peppers  just added to the decadent misery we were experiencing.

I picked at a pepper.  I broke off a piece of the tender veal shank and nibbled at it. And then finally the branzino arrived—each fish in an individual platter coated in a light tomato sauce and topped with shrimp and clams. I pierced the skin of the fish and scooped out the white moist meat not bothering with the clams or shrimp. I just wanted to say I at least tried the fish. And then I couldn’t help myself. I filleted a little more and, finding reserves I never knew I had, finished it off.

I turned to Gerry. “If he comes back tell him ‘no mas,’” I pleaded.

“Yeah I’m done,” Rick muttered, a dazed look on his face.

Only Eugene remained unfazed by the feast. He was still glowing over the blast from the past in seeing Carmine. “He wouldn’t let me buy a slice? I couldn’t go in there anymore,” he repeated again as if we didn’t hear him either the first or second time he mentioned it.

Carmine slid into the booth again. “What about a steak,” he whispered to Gerry.

Gerry laughed and swiped his finger across his neck signifying that we were done.

“Okay I’ll just get dessert,” Carmine said, not waiting for us to protest the arrival of more food

A fruit platter followed and then, the finale, pastries, stuffed with molten dark chocolate cooked in the wood oven and topped with powdered sugar. I summoned my reserves and found room for both.

 

Osso Buco

Osso Buco

Mike from Yonkers took the Branzino that was untouched home to his betrothed while Gerry and I went out with doggie bags of the chicken and potatoes. Nothing remained on the shank of veal that was once osso buco. And all the money bags somehow had been disposed of as well.

We thanked Carmine Sunshine. Eugene gave him another hug. “I’ll see you in another 30 years,” he joked.

“Next time I’ll make you a steak,” he told all of us and maybe it was the short stroll to my car on now desolate Katonah Avenue that momentarily gave me a second wind, or maybe I had more in my reserve than I thought, because by the time I got into the car returning for a steak actually sounded like a good idea.

 

Patrizia’s

4358 Katonah Ave

Bronx

Momo Moments in the East Village

31 Jul

Cafe Himalaya

“What made you choose this place?” I asked Eugene as our group convened at the Cafe Himalaya in the East Village.

“We’ve never had Himalayan food before,” was his response.

“Himalayan food?”

“Yeah.”

“You mean, Tibetan and Nepali food,” I said, pointing to what was written under the restaurant’s awning and on the menu.

“No Himalayan,” Eugene corrected me.

“But isn’t Himalayan food from Tibet and Nepal?” I queried.

“It is?”

“And didn’t you, several years ago, choose a place called Himalayan Yak?”

Eugene was perplexed. “I did?”

“Yes you did,” I said. “You don’t remember?”

He was lost for a moment and then waved his hand derisively. “How do you expect me to remember these things,” he snapped before quickly proceeding to bury his face in his menu.

This was our second attempt to get to the Cafe Himalaya. Our first, the previous week, was cancelled due to flooding on the Westchester roads. Everyone but Rick was available the following week so rescheduling was easy.

Seating was tight at the Cafe Himalaya. Zio was wedged so tightly between Mike from Yonkers and Eugene it was as if he was encased in a swarthy sausage casing. It didn’t help that the humidity was high and the lone air conditioner was struggling above the constantly opened front door.

Not much help there.

Not much help there.

Business was brisk, both outgoing and at the tables. Our harried waitress didn’t waste any time arriving at our table with pencil and pad in hand ready to take our order. Though we did visit a “Himalayan” place several years ago, Himalayan Yak (Yak Under the Tracks) did not have momos (dumplings) on the menu. Cafe Himalaya did, however, and we ordered two, one, pan-fried and stuffed with potato and the other, steamed and filled with ground chicken and herbs.

The café’s most popular dishes were written on the blackboard above the entrance to the kitchen and most of us ordered from there including myself when I ordered the tsel dofu, or vegetables and tofu in a spicy sauce.

Where the rest of us pointed to what we wanted on the menu or recited the corresponding number, Mike from Yonkers, in his best Tibetan, barked “Shapta,” to the waitress as she came to him for his order. But either she didn’t hear or she just wasn’t used to someone actually reciting the food they wanted to order.

“Shapta,” he repeated in a louder voice and this time she understood.

The momos came out first; the “tsel” or vegetarian, in my opinion, the better of the two. The chicken momo was an acquired taste and one I could not find it in myself to acquire. Despite our typically overwhelming hunger, there were momos left on our plates—a sign that at Himalaya Café the momos were mediocre.

Steamed chicken momos

Steamed chicken momos

When our entrees began to arrive the waitress called out “shapta.” I knew I didn’t order the shapta but no one was responding. She said it again and Mike from Yonkers waved his hand. “Shapta over here,” he said and she placed the platter of spicy, thinly sliced beef in front of him.

While Mike from Yonkers was examining his shapta, Eugene was quickly devouring the chicken curry, reminiscent, of Indian chicken curry but with the addition of yogurt giving the sauce a pinkish hue.

“How’s the Himalayan chicken curry,” I asked Eugene, not daring to sample any myself lest I risk getting speared by his rapidly plunging fork.

“It’s good,” he mumbled half-heartedly and then went back to silently devouring his food.

Shapta anyone?

Shapta anyone?

I wasn’t sure what it was Gerry ordered but noticed the pieces of white meat chicken and an abundance of broccoli.

“Chicken and broccoli?” I inquired

“Something like that,” Gerry said after a taste.

Zio’s  “chili chicken” pieces of thin, fried boneless chicken and vegetables, was, from my sampling, very much like Mike from Yonkers’ shapta; the same vegetable and sauce. Though advertised as spicy both dishes benefited by the additional zest provided by the restaurant’s hot sauce.

Spicy Dofu

Spicy Dofu

Crowds were beginning to mingle outside the tiny restaurant. Eyes were on our coveted table. I kept pace with the others as we made quick work of our meals.  Mike from Yonkers, however, crowds be damned, deliberately picked at his shapta, spooning small bits onto a few kernels of Basmati rice before shoveling it into his mouth. It was getting hotter inside the restaurant. Customers waiting for tables were hovering over ours.

“It’s time, Mike,” Eugene bellowed from Zio’s opposite side.

“All right, I’m done,” Mike from Yonkers announced, putting down his fork.

Our bill was quickly brought to us with the final result well under our $20 per person budget.

The view from our table.

The view from our table.

We sprawled out onto Houston Street and as we did, a group of eager Tibetan and/or Nepali food aficionados swooped in and took over our table for four where we had fit five. The momos weighed heavily in my belly. Sweat marks had formed under the armpits of Zio’s stylish extra extra large t-shirt. “Good job, Eugene,” he said. “But I have a question.”

“What’s that?”

“Do you have to wait for a table in Nepal?”

Eugene had no answer of course, but we could all clearly agree that our group of intrepid, yet slovenly diners, during our now 12 year run,  had yet to wait for a table anywhere in our cheap eats hot zone that encompassed, among other places, the Bronx, Brooklyn, Queens, Yonkers, and yes, even the rarefied streets of the East Village.

Cafe Himalaya

78 E. 1st St.

East Village

A Taste of Ghana on the Grand Concourse

25 Jun

Papaye

The palm oil, okra, and tomato sauce spiced with cayenne peppers coated the fingers of my right hand. The fish I had used those fingers on was now just a skeleton. The thin napkins I had quickly stained were done. I got up and went to the sink that was located in the back of Papaye, the restaurant on the Grand Concourse where our group had just dined. I cleaned the grease from my hands and wiped them dry with a paper towel. As I returned to our table, a man who I had noticed also eating fish with his right hand while deftly holding a phone to his ear, called across the table to me

“Have you ever been to Ghana,” he asked.

I pointed at myself. “Me?”

“Yes, have you been to Ghana?” he asked again

“No, never,” I said. “Why do you ask?”

“You eat the fish just like we do in Ghana,” he said with a smile. “So I think you might have traveled to my country.”

I shook my head. “No, I’m just an expert at eating with my hands…or any other utensil,” I added.

The utensil in question for this meal was actually a plastic-wrapped ball of banku. Following my eating instincts, I used it to scoop up the gravy from the bowl—with my right hand of course.

Banku. My utensil

Banku. My utensil

We were in the Bronx, steered there by Gerry after a seemingly inexcusable faux pas. Suffering from a momentary lock of his ancient brain, Gerry’s first choice was a Pakistani restaurant, also in the Bronx that he himself chose for our group several years ago called  Rawal Ravail and was written up in these pages (see Biryani Joy). When realizing his mistake, he righted himself quickly with his choice of Papaye. And after our delicious dinner there, his blunder was immediately forgiven.

Our waiter at the family-run Papaye struggled with his English and Eugene struggled with him. “You have to help me here,” Eugene pleaded to the waiter. “I don’t know what to order, but I want that fish.”

He pointed to the photo on the menu of the grilled tilapia smothered in peppers and onions.

“Fish?” the waiter wanted to make sure.

“Yeah, with the peppers and onions.”

“With fufu, plantain, rice?” the waiter asked.

Eugene was lost. If it isn’t something served in a chafing tray on a cruise boat buffet, it’s all foreign to him.

With our aid, Eugene settled on the accompaniment of jollof rice.

Jollof rice and fish

Jollof rice and fish

We started with skewers of meat; indistinguishably grilled beef that was high on the chewing quotient. Thankfully, the skewed meat was the only low point to our meal.

The meat options were limited, pretty much to either goat or fish with the variables in what accompaniment you ordered. I, as I said, chose the banku, a mound of mashed fermented cornmeal that was wrapped in plastic while the crimson-tinged jollof rice that came with Eugene’s bloated tilapia was enough for the five of us to share. Gerry and Zio both had fufu; mashed yucca formed into what looked like a softball floating in their rich gravies. Also within the spicy gravy were pieces of tender goat that Zio picked apart with the plastic utensils provided.

Fufu and goat meat stew

Fufu and goat meat stew

Mike from Yonkers, in an attempt for something firmer than the plastic spoon he was given, requested repeatedly for a metal  fork to be able to eat the goat and rice balls that came in his huge bowl. “I just can’t eat this with this thing,” he said, waving the greasy spoon at the befuddled waiter. Eventually a metal fork and spoon came his way and as he usually does, he then methodically worked his way through the bowl with uninterrupted diligence.

Goat and rice balls

Goat and rice balls

After cleaning my hands and accepting the compliments on my African eating habits from the man from Ghana, I sat back down and, along with the others, waited, as we always do, for Mike from Yonkers to surrender to whatever might be left on his plate before we could pay and make our way back out to the Grand Concourse.

Fish and goat stew with banku

Fish and goat stew with banku

Each of our one dish meals contained  enough food (and starch) to sustain a man (or woman) for many hours before their next meal. But in Zio and my case, that wait was just a few minutes as we spied a Carvel ice cream shop down the block also on the Grand Concourse.

“I think we need some ice cream to calm our over stimulated palates,” Zio suggested.

And I didn’t disagree.

Papaye
2300 Grand Concourse
Bronx

 

 

 

 

126th St Soul

23 May

soul3

To answer the question above: Yes, I am feeling hungry. My question is: Can my hunger be satisfied without conditions?

A Bosnian Taste in Astoria

16 May

Ukus

Not many food dives escape Zio’s nose—and stomach. And the power walks he takes through his neighborhood of Astoria require nourishment. No doubt on one of those power walks Zio sniffed out the scent of grilling meat coming from a small Balkan restaurant in ethnically-diverse Astoria called Ukus Pie and Grill.  The Bosnian word “ukus,” I learned can be translated to mean “taste,” and after a taste of Ukus’s “mixed grill” and bean and smoked meat stew, Zio was hooked and was soon a frequent enough visitor to be able to address the owner of the restaurant by his given name.

“Say hello to Fico for me,” Zio told the man, who was not Fico, but who was serving us on the night our group got together to experience what Zio had become well versed in.

“You picked a winner,” Eugene bellowed at the end of our meal and after tallying up the modest bill.

And none of the five present in Astoria on what was a pleasant spring evening could disagree.

On this rare occasion, Zio took charge. As familiar with the Ukus menu as he was with the 1977 New York Yankee lineup, he got up and ordered at the counter/grill starting us off with a tomato and onion salad, followed by a two slices of pie; phyllo-dough layered bread stuffed, in our case, one with cheese, and the other with cabbage. The “slices” so large and dense they could sustain a man for days during a harsh Balkan winter.

Cheese pie

Cheese pie

Hearty, crusty bread also came with the tomato salad and was the perfect vessel to soak up the juice from the tomatoes.

The man who was not Fico made it easy for our group by splitting one order of the bean and smoked meat soup three ways. We slurped from three smaller bowls; the smoked flavor of the meat intense; the broth rich with pureed white beans.

Bean and smoked meat stew

Bean and smoked meat stew

The platter of grilled mixed meats came out next. Dark, charcoal-colored meats including a kebab of lamb layered the plate with a piece of grilled chicken being the only exception to this red meat extravaganza. Eugene quickly speared a piece of one of the charred meats and shoved it into his mouth. A grimace soon followed.

“No…no…liver,” Eugene spat, the frown still on his face as he forced the piece of veal liver down his throat.

Hearing that there was liver on the plate brightened Gerry’s sleepy eyes and he quickly zeroed in on the much-desired organ meat.

All the meats were accompanied by a bland cream cheese and a yellow-orange sweet pepper spread.

Mixed grill

Mixed grill

Rebounding nicely from the shock of the liver, Eugene proclaimed his approval for the piquant pieces of sausage that were on the grill plate. “You know what these remind me of,” he said, dangling a speared piece of sausage in front of all of us. “Slim Jims…remember them.”

We did remember the pencil-sized cut of beef jerky sold individually in the delis of our youth, but frankly, I didn’t get the comparison. Still, Eugene made a point of repeating his claim until the dishes were all cleared from our table.

A Bosnian treat?

A Bosnian treat?

Wandering a few feet to the counter, we spied several dessert options. Again, Zio showed his leadership capabilities quickly picking out a slice of baklava and another, a sphere-like object that was described to us as a coconut cake stuffed with chocolate.

And, once more, after sampling the coconut cake, Eugene displayed his baby boomer knowledge. “Just like a Hostess…whaddya call them?”

“Sno balls,” Mike from Yonkers said, quickly filling in Eugene’s blanks.

Bosnian sweets (sno-ball on the right)

Bosnian sweets (sno-ball on the right)

I took a bite from the Bosnian coconut concoction.  It was there—that distinctive taste and something I hadn’t experienced in many years. A Sno Ball.

snoballs

The starch of the desserts was the perfect accompaniment to the protein assault from all that meat. And also the perfect finale.

To conclude, we often ridicule Zio for some of his food choices on foreign turf, but in his ‘hood, the man knows where to go to find the gold.

Scungilli and Red Sauce in the South Bronx

15 Apr

 

Venice Restaurant

I pulled into Venice Restaurant’s private parking lot just off 149th Street in the Bronx and noticed its neon sign claiming the restaurant’s establishment as 1951. How did an Italian restaurant in the Bronx that had been around for 63 years escape my radar? I was ashamed of myself.

“At work we take out from there every two weeks,” proclaimed Eugene in an email after Rick chose Venice Restaurant. Unlike the rest of us, to the grizzled Eugene, the restaurant was no secret.

With Rick back after a hiatus, this was the first time our group was fully assembled in over six months. The rust was evident as Rick first suggested a few restaurants that just did not meet our criteria including one our group, without Rick, previously visited. He finally settled on the Venice for its old school “red sauce” appeal. And there was nothing wrong with that as far as I was concerned. And that it had its own private (under 24-hour video surveillance) parking lot just added to the appeal.

Venice

The dining room had images of Venice painted over the walls while the tables were covered in mustard-colored glossy vinyl. Rick wasted no time in adding to the atmosphere by ordering a glass of Chianti. Old school red sauce aside, Gerry and I took advantage of the restaurant’s full bar and instead ordered Swedish vodka.

Old school appeal

Old school appeal

“How’s the Italian food in this restaurant,” I couldn’t resist asking Eugene, whose swarthy features were actually very similar to those of Sollazzo the Turk.

But, for whatever reason, Eugene was a bit slow and didn’t get the reference. So instead of responding with, “Try the veal. It’s the best in the city,” he just shrugged and reminded us that he only had take out. He did, however, whisper to Gerry that the fried calamari wasn’t very good.

"Try the veal, it's the best in the city."

“Try the veal, it’s the best in the city.”

We stayed away from the fried calamari but couldn’t resist the seafood salad and baked clams. Overflowing with calamari, shrimp, and, as a bonus for those who care about such things, sliced tender scungilli, the seafood salad was served family-style to the extreme and more than enough even for our gluttonous family.  The baked clams, though far from the best in the city, were good enough to quickly leave 12 empty shells floating on the oily breadcrumbs that remained on the platter.

Seafood salad

Seafood salad

“Whaddya gonna order?” I asked Zio.

“I dunno. I think a sandwich,” Zio responded with a straight face.

“A fish sandwich? Gerry joked, reminding Zio of his unfortunate choice at our last destination, The Cutting Board (Uni and Ovaltine).

“Maybe you’re right,” he realized. “I’ll try the veal and peppers.”

Keeping it safely within the red sauce barometers, I chose baked ziti with meatballs while Rick went with the white clam sauce and Eugene the red. Gerry veered somewhat by ordering the penne with sausage and broccoli in a white sauce. Saddled by a mild gluten allergy, Mike from Yonkers had to refrain from pasta instead choosing the balsamic chicken—with a side salad.

Soon enormous platters began to arrive on the already olive oil stained vinyl tablecloth. The pastas and entrees were all very close to family size. I picked at the baked ziti; the anticipated red sauce overly sweet and not up to my very high standards while the meatballs, though spiced correctly, a bit leaden. Zio’s veal and peppers, on the other hand, were smothered in a more piquant red sauce and outstanding.

Who says they don't know red sauce in Venice?

Who says they don’t know red sauce in Venice?

I looked at Rick’s platter of linguini with white clam sauce. “Are they canned?” I asked, referring to the clams.

Rick nodded. “Yeah, they’re canned, but I’m not complaining.”  And neither was Eugene who, working silently and with purpose, slowly devoured his monstrous platter.

The rest of us, however, on this evening, just did not have the stamina Eugene had and, possibly a first in the 12 years we had been doing this, had no choice but to ask the waiter to bag up half of all our respective dinners to be eaten for lunch the next day.

The shoveling of the red clams begins...

Devouring the red clams

As we headed to our cars in the private, security-maintained parking lot, no one had much to say about Venice which was maybe an indication why it had remained “undiscovered” for over 60 years. But despite the restaurant’s mediocrity, we were able to all convene again as a complete group and over a seafood salad that included scungilli. We couldn’t really ask much more than that.

Venice Restaurant

Venice Restaurant
772 E. 149th St.
Bronx

Uni and Ovaltine

17 Mar

Cutting Board

I was in the rest room of the Cutting Board, on Bayard Street in Chinatown staring at the cheery murals in front of me when I heard Zio’s voice.  I got to the restaurant before Zio and he must have come in just behind me because now I could hear him speaking loudly from our table.

“I waved to him a few times: no response!” he said incredulously.

Was he referring to me?

I cleaned up and headed back to our table. He looked at me.

“What?” I wondered.

“You just ignore me on the street?” Zio asked.

“What are you talking about? I didn’t see you.”

“I waved to you a few times. Looked right at you. It was like I wasn’t even there.”

“Did you call out my name? Did you say hello?” I asked.

“No…but how could you not see me?”

It was another frigid night. Chinatown’s sidewalks were even narrower and difficult to navigate on this evening; dark overstuffed plastic garbage bags piled on top of, and next to gray mountains of ice that had not yet melted from the winter’s multiple storms crowded the sidewalks. I had my head down and was walking with a purpose. I was hungry. I just wanted to get out of the cold and to our destination.  Even if my head were up, I would not have noticed Zio. His rotund physique, stuffed into a dark down coat, rendered him camouflage amongst the garbage bags on the street.

But I didn’t tell him that. “Why would I be looking?” I said instead.

He just shook his head and stared down at the menu. Something we all decided to do.

Some of the happiness inside the Cutting Board rest room.

Some of the happiness inside the Cutting Board rest room

.The Cutting Board was my choice and picked because it was, according to my research, an odd amalgam of cuisines with a heavy Asian accent. Here you had your choice of Western starters like chicken wings, chicken tenders, and fried calamari, or the Asian standards; bbq spare ribs, edamame, and shrimp toast. And then there were the blending of cuisines like the Cajun fries with seaweed, the Caesar salad with pork katsu, or even the pasta with uni.

“What’s uni,” Eugene inquired.

For a man who had been dining with our group for 12 years, eating just about every type of ethnic food offered in the Tri State region, Eugene’s lack of food knowledge was disconcerting.

“Sea urchin,” Gerry told him.

“What’s sea urchin?”

“That spiny mollusk you don’t want to step on in the ocean,” I said.

“You eat that?”

“You scoop out the creamy stuff inside…” I tried to explain but wasn’t doing a good job of it.

“What’s it taste like?”

Eugene’s food curiosity was as impressive as his food ignorance. One canceled out the other in my opinion.

No one at our table could really define the taste of uni. It was more about its consistency.

Undaunted, Eugene put his menu down. “I’ll have the spaghetti with the sea urchin,” he told the waiter.

Spaghetti with sea urchin

Spaghetti with sea urchin

On the menu was something I had not seen before in a Chinese restaurant much less any other restaurant called “creamy rice.” Could it be a bastardization of Italian risotto? The idea was enough to convince me to give it a shot and I chose mine with “fatty beef.” Also intrigued by the concept, Mike from Yonkers tried the creamy rice with grilled chicken, which the waiter mentioned was one of the more popular items on the menu.

Gerry veered toward the “rice” section of the menu and zeroed in on the “classic beef in curry sauce.”

And then the waiter was hovering over Zio.

“Oh, um, I’ll have a fish sandwich,” Zio said and then added: “With Ovaltine.”

The waiter left and I stared at Zio. This time it was my turn to be incredulous. “You could have had the pork katsu spaghetti” I said. “You could have had the juicy bobo burger. You could have had the kimchee beef udon. But you chose a fish sandwich? Why?”

He just shook his head. “I…don’t know…” he muttered.

“All right, listen, if you’re good I’ll let you try my fatty beef,” I said. “And you don’t even have to give me a bite of your  fish sandwich. But I definitely want a sip of that Ovaltine.”

Cajun fries and clams

Cajun fries and clams

We started with a bowl of clams steamed in light red tomato, wine sauce that was good enough to soak up with a loaf of crusty bread.  Unfortunately all we were given was one thin slice of garlic bread. Along with the clams were the thinly sliced, tender barbecue ox tongues and a side of Cajun fries salted with dried seaweed.

Barbecued Ox Tongue

Barbecued Ox Tongue

Also arriving was Zio’s Ovaltine. The promised sip was offered to me. It had that same, bland taste with just a teasing hint of chocolate I remembered the last time I sipped an Ovaltine; probably 40 or more years ago. I chased the Ovaltine with a gulp of Sapporo beer and returned the paper cup to Zio.

Zio's beverage of choice

Zio’s beverage of choice

Our main dishes came soon after we devoured the starters with Eugene’s spaghetti with sea urchin the first to arrive. In the menu the sauce was described as a “pink creamy.” What appeared in front of Eugene had more of a yellowish hue to it. He shared with all. The spaghetti was,  as if I expected otherwise, overdone, the saltiness of the sauce the only indication that there was uni in it. Maybe it melded with a light tomato sauce to form the creamy, yellow consistency? Either way, Eugene was pleased and that was really all that mattered.

The creamy rice with the fatty beef that I was hoping would resemble Italian risotto was closer to Campbell’s tomato rice soup with thinly sliced chipped beef as a topping. But I didn’t hold that against it. The dish was hearty and comforting and Zio, who I shared some with, agreed.

Creamy rice with fatty beef

Creamy rice with fatty beef

The comfort level increased when Gerry’s classic beef curry arrived. More a diner/comfort food concoction than anything purely Asian, the beef was ground and the curry sauce strong flavored like the kind you might have found in a curry dish prepared in the UK decades ago. Topping the dish was an egg over easy and a side of potato salad.  And all of that for only six dollars. You really couldn’t get much more comforting.

Beef curry-Cutting Board style

Beef curry-Cutting Board style

Finally Zio’s fried fish sandwich arrived and was no different than any other fried fish sandwich you might find in a thousand restaurants and delis throughout the city. Zio made sure to apply tartar sauce.

Tartar sauce fish sandwich

Tartar sauce fish sandwich

Eugene had cleaned his plate of spaghetti and uni and nothing remained of either my creamy rice with fatty beef or Gerry’s classic beef curry. We all looked toward Mike from Yonkers.

“Some things never change,” Eugene said as he watched and  waited while Mike from Yonkers deliberately and methodically ate his creamy rice with chicken.

“I like to savor my food,” Mike from Yonkers said in response to he always being the last to finish.

“We do too,” I said. “We just savor it with much more urgency.”

With that, Mike from Yonkers shoveled down  the last kernels of creamy rice and the five of us left the warmth of the Cutting Board for the icy streets of Chinatown.

Cutting Board
53 Bayard Street
Chinatown

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