A Volcano Fizzles in Port Chester

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“Nello Burgio told me about this volcano thing,” Eugene muttered as the waitress of Kiosko Mexican Restaurant and Bar hovered around him, ready for him to order. Eugene, based on the recommendation of Nello Burgio, who none of us knew, had summoned us to Port Chester, about a 40 minute drive out of Manhattan, for this latest Chow City adventure. And though I had very good Mexican food in Arizona just a few days earlier I was determined to keep an open mind in Port Chester where, I knew, there were many good Latin restaurants.

“Volcano?” She didn’t understand Eugene and it had nothing to do with a language barrier.

“Yeah, that’s what he said.”

While this went on, we sipped our Modelo’s patiently. “Eugene, just order already,” I finally told him.

The waitress came over with a takeout menu. “You mean this?” she asked, pointing to a photo of a molcajete, or a Mexican bowl used to make guacamole, overflowing with meats and vegetables.

“Is that the volcano?”

She nodded. “Yes ‘molcajete azteca’ the Volcano. $21.95. $40 for two people.”

“Any volunteers?” Eugene asked. “Nello says this is what you should order when you come here.”

I didn’t know Nello from Adam…or anyone else for that matter. And I wanted no part of a $40 volcano. Zio and Gerry showed little enthusiasm also, but Mike from Yonkers raised his hand willingly and even switched seats with Zio so he could be closer to Eugene and the forthcoming volcano.

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The volcano

As if we had all night to spend in the suburbs, Gerry made sure to order the one dish that, according to the menu, took “30 minutes to cook,” the mojarra sudada, a wrapped and steamed whole porgy with garlic and epazote (Mexican tea leaves). Why would it take 30 minutes to steam a fish—and not a big one either—none of us dared ask. But we did know that the fried porgy filet that Zio ordered would not take as long nor would the huaraches atilxco rib eye steak that I ordered. “You can bring our entrees before you bring out that fish. Make him wait,” I said, pointing to Gerry.

And after a half hour and nothing had materialized on our table besides chips and very mediocre salsa, I realized my request fell on deaf ears.

Finally the “volcano” was brought carefully to the table. Yes there was “smoke” coming from the molcajete which was overflowing with beef, chicken, strips of cactus and stuffed with some sort of clay-colored lava-like sauce within. The dish reminded me of the Mexican version of the Chinese sizzling Go Bar, but after a taste, minus the sizzle—not to mention the flavor.

I could smell the steamed porgy even before it came to our table. I didn’t know if that was a good or very bad sign. I wasn’t going to find out, but Gerry didn’t seem to have any problems with it. At least not that I heard about later. Zio’s fried fish was accompanied by a serious mound of steamed broccoli and carrots causing him to protest: “What is this health food I’m eating tonight?”

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Steamed porgy…30 minutes later

My steak arrived last. The sizable cut smothered in onions, resting on a salsa-covered tortilla, dare I say looked—delicious, but after sawing through the gristly meat, taking a not so flavorful bite and then trying the soggy tortilla, my formerly open mind had closed on Kiosko. My opinion is strictly my own, but judging from the lack of enthusiasm from Eugene and from everyone else for that matter, I think the consensus was pretty much in line with mine.

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Steak and onions, Kiosko style

The lesson learned in Port Chester, if there was one, is that what’s good for Nello Burgio just might not be good for the seasoned palates our intrepid group.

Kiosoko Mexican Restaurant and Bar

220 Westchester Avenue

Port Chester, NY

Two Grinches and a Scrooge Get Happy with Hunan

27 Dec img_20161211_120008208

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“You know what I look forward to most about the holidays,” I said. “January 3rd. Kids are back at school. And best of all, you start seeing dead Christmas trees on the street signaling the end of the holiday nightmare.”

“Yeah I love seeing that too,” Gerry said with glee. “$75 for a tree. Talk about a waste?”

“Happy f…ing New Year,” Zio spat. “What the f..k is there to be happy about. The world is ending for Christ’s sake!”

Zio, Gerry and I were huddled around a table near the door of Happy Hot Hunan, a restaurant the three of us decided to sample while the official food group took a December hiatus. And though there was a distinct draft coming from the front door, the sight of big bowls of food adorned with chili peppers gave us a warming sensation. We were the only non-Asians in the upper west side restaurant which was also reassuring.

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After more griping about the holidays, we settled down to order from the impressively Hunan menu. There were frogs legs, plenty of intestines, tripe, pork feet, drunk chicken, smoked pork and even a General Tso’s sighting. Really, we had nothing to complain about.

“Should I get the hot and spicy pork belly or the hot and spicy pork intestine,” Gerry debated.

“If you ask me, I’d get the pork belly,” I offered.

“I’m not asking you,” he replied, Grinch-like, and ordered pork intestines, also known to Gerry, as chitterlings or chitlins.

“Pork intestines?” The waiter looked at Gerry questionably. “You want that?”

“I want that,” he said, tossing back his menu.

“Most don’t,” the waiter said with a smile, impressed that someone of Gerry’s ethnic origins would take on the challenge that is Hunan pork intestines.

Zio wanted ribs and pointed to a plate a lone diner was devouring at a table near ours. “Are those the spicy pork ribs with hot green pepper?”

The waiter shook his head. “They sweet and sour ribs. You want spicy pork ribs?”

“That’s what I want,” Zio said and the waiter scribbled down his order.

I figured I would order one of the “hot chili dishes” that, in this Hunan restaurant meant a meat or fish in what was described as a “hot creamy chili sauce.” I was intrigued by the idea of hot creamy chili so I veered from pork and chose the fish. Closing out our order we added a vegetable, stir fried Hunan mustard leaf, “to keep us regular,” as Zio made sure to point out.

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Hot creamy chili fish without the cream

First to arrive on our table was the fish. The chili sauce looked like any other Szechuan chili sauce; a deep red broth, dusted with dried red peppers and showered with fresh cilantro. I noticed no cream, however, and after sampling it there was a noticeable, silken, to use a tired food adjective, quality to the sauce. Creamy or not, the three of us were in agreement that the fish was properly lip numbing to meet our Hunan and/or Szechuan specifications.

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Pork ribs with hot green pepper

Zio stared at his pork ribs when they were placed in front of him. “Hmmm they chopped them up,” he said with a bit of disappointment in his voice. The ribs were cut into inch-size pieces that you could only eat one or two at a time, careful not to swallow one whole. But the meat on them was tender and coated with a cumin-heavy, 5-spice sauce that was good enough to forget about the effort it took to eat them.

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Hot and spicy pork intenstines

After gnawing through the donut like spheres of pork intestine, Gerry said, “I should have ordered the pork belly.” I sampled one and though the flavor was very good, my teeth were just not sharp enough to break through the rubbery consistency of the intestine. But Gerry’s teeth, sharpened by many battles with tough squid, ate the pork intestines happily.

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Stir fried mustard leaf

While we ate, all the upcoming holiday madness was forgotten—at least for a couple of hours. It wasn’t until we were bombarded on the sidewalk after dinner with a Christmas carol coming from the open window of a double-parked car and a dollar store selling plastic green and red garlands and cheap chemically unsafe artificial trees that we were quickly reminded of the season.

“See you next year,” Gerry said to us as we parted ways.

“I can’t f..king wait,” Zio grumbled as we walked away from the happiness that was Happy Hot Hunan.

Happy Hot Hunan

969 Amsterdam Avenue

New York

Dining on Diversity Plaza on the Dawn of a Dark Age

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“Did you know this was once a porno palace,” Zio told us, gesturing to a marquee that now headlined Ittadi Garden and Grill, the Bangladeshi restaurant he chose for us on this occasion. We were assembled around a small picnic table on 37th Road, a block closed to traffic between 74th and 73rd Streets in Jackson Heights that is now a place where tables and chairs are set up and locals can sit and chat in a car-free zone.  How Zio knew of such things we didn’t ask.

“I miss those porno palaces,” I said.

“I don’t.” Gerry shook his head. “It’s much better now. You can get your porno right at home.”

“But what about the people who used to work at those places?” Eugene questioned. “The ticket takers, the people who cleaned up, the projectionist. Now they don’t have jobs.”

“Yeah, someone should do something about that,” I said. “We need to make porno great again.”

While we were discussing the golden years of pornography, a man in a red jumpsuit (courtesy of the Jackson Heights/Corona Business Improvement District) came and folded up our table—37th Road was apparently closing for the evening, at least in terms of the outdoor café it had been. Still, men in traditional, Indian and Pakistani clothing along with many wearing jackets and ties, lingered, smoking cigarettes and sipping tea, standing now instead of sitting. Bengali, Arabic, and Hindi blared from the nearby stores. No wonder the block was also referred to as “Diversity Plaza.”

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Diversity Plaza

The removal of our table was a signal that we should stop lingering and start eating, so we made our way into Ittadi Garden, down a narrow aisle and past a long counter of prepared foods behind glass and kept warm on steam tables. A man with a very wide smile and wearing a hair net guided us to a table. “What do we do here,” Eugene asked Zio. He wanted to know if we ordered from a menu or chose from the offerings under glass on the steam tables.

Zio, assuming the heavy burden that comes with making a pick for our group, got up to inquire about the ordering procedures. He returned a few minutes later with our host with the hair net. We were to follow him and point to what we wanted under glass and then our food would be brought to us. The offerings were staggering and we had no idea what most of what was in those steam trays. I had my eye a mound of rice with pieces of goat meat and whole hard boiled eggs labeled goat biryani, but then, like Zio and Eugene, pointed to the restaurant’s combo of rohu, a carp, that was sliced and cooked with squash and spices. With the combo we chose a vegetable—spinach, mixed vegetables and sauteed papaya. We also added two orders of garlic nan. Gerry was the only one among us who deviated from the fish, instead ordering what looked like mash of shrimp in their shells in a peppery stew of unidentifiable greens.

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A few of the unidentifiable foods under glass

We returned to our seats and almost immediately our food, delivered on paper plates and with plastic utensils, began to arrive at our table. With our orders there were two mountains of white rice and a bowl of lentil soup we were supposed to share among the four of us. Our table was so crowded we had to put one of the platters of rice and the bread on the bench next to where I was sitting.

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Rohu fish and plastic utensils

Our host with the hair net returned, smiling broadly and inquiring if everything was all right. “Do you want more bread? More rice? Soup?”

We decided on another bowl of soup and with it he brought a salad of iceberg lettuce, carrots, cucumbers, and topped with tiny green chili peppers. Using the plastic fork to put some of the salad on my plate, I made the mistake of also letting one of those peppers camouflage itself within the greens and eventually into my mouth. The burn was intense and water wasn’t helping to put out the fire. I began to shove rice into my mouth and then another piece of bread before the paid subsided.

“Pass me a slice of that pizza before you eat it all,” Zio grumbled.

“It’s nan,” Gerry corrected him.

“Indian pizza. Give it here.” Zio’s small hands reached for it greedily.

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Bangladeshi papaya

Once our table became strewed with the remnants of our meal; pieces of rice, salad, yellow papaya, and spinach, we followed the host with the hair net to the dessert section of the restaurant and picked out a few “sweets” including two pieces of syrup soaked gulab jamun; the others were tasty but unidentifiable to our not so diverse minds.

When we emerged from the former porno palace, Diversity Plaza was quieter. Despite the holiday lights, the Plaza seemed dark. There was a super moon up there somewhere. We just didn’t see it.

Ittadi Garden and Grill

737 37th Road

Jackson Heights

The Wurst of Oktoberfest

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When Gerry announced that we were going to a German place in Astoria called Max’s Bratwurst und Bier, I commented that it was apt for an October destination. “It will be like our own little Oktoberfest,” I told him. Not that I knew really what an Oktoberfest was beyond a celebration of German heritage with beer, schnitzel and sausages, and oom-pah music. “And it will please Eugene,” I added, knowing Eugene’s affinity for food festivals.

“Zactly,” Gerry replied.

The small corner bier hall on 30th avenue featured picnic tables in an enclosed porch as well as an interior, dining room. They even provided blankets if the October weather got too chilly while drinking and eating at the picnic tables. To make sure who the blankets were for, there was a sign in the basket that read: “Not for dogs—for humans.”

We were a couple of blocks from two other restaurants our group previously visited, chosen by Zio who lived nearby, including De Mole (The Mole-A in Astoria) and Ukus (A Bosnian Taste in Astoria). Gerry’s choice also was made in deference to Zio who had been under the weather lately. But despite Gerry’s concern, Zio was still too wobbly to make it over to our version of the Oktoberfest from his nearby love nest.

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What’s an Oktoberfest without beer?

The menu at Max’s featured an array of German sausages and a few exotic ones made with alligator and rattlesnake. Keeping in the German spirit, we avoided the exotic and stuck with the traditional. The schnitzel’s offered were a temptation, but since bratwurst was their signature dish, I decided on the “wurst plate,” which offered a choice of two sausages and two side dishes. Mike from Yonkers and Eugene also chose the wurst plate while Gerry veered slightly with the curry wurst, a plate of sliced sausage covered in what was said to be a hot curry sauce. What constitutes hot for Germans, however, is not on the same level as, say, Thai or Indian, so the heat in the curry wurst barely caused Gerry to blink.

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Curry Wurst

Of the many sausages, the two I chose were rindwurst, smoked beef bratwurst, and the grobe baeurnbratwurst, a mild farmer’s sausage. Each of us ordered different varieties but sharing was problematic. Even in the spirit of Oktoberfest, who really wants to share someone else’s sausage?

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The Wurst Plate

What we did share, however, were two orders of the Max’s light, fluffy potato pancakes served with chunky apple sauce and sour cream. And though I do not consider myself a potato pancake aficionado, Max’s were better than any I’ve had during Hanukkah or any other Jewish holiday.

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Potato pancake

As we enjoyed the moist, tender wursts, accompanied by German, vinegar-based potato salad, red cabbage and cold German draft beers like Radeberger Pilsner, Spaten Oktoberfest, and HB original lager, we glanced at the Cubs/Dodgers playoffs on the restaurant’s televisions. At this self made Oktoberfest, there was no oom-pah music or beer maidens in Bavarian garb and for that we were grateful. We did, however, need to finish up in a timely matter, meaning we had to prod Mike from Yonkers to stop with the deliberate little bites. It wasn’t so much that we needed to get home to catch the finale of the baseball game, instead all of us were anxious to witness the third part in that very popular reality show: the presidential debates.

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And as a testament to Max’s wursts, even the unappetizing  reality show  that was our post dinner entertainment, could not erase the good taste of all those sausages.

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4702 30th Avenue
Astoria

A Few Specialties of a Taiwanese House…Without the Rice

20 Sep dsc00629

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What do you do when you are on a month-long detox “diet” that pretty much wipes out all of your favorite food groups? No, you can’t have bread or pasta. Sugar, forget about it. Grains of any kind won’t do either. That means no rice—even if it’s healthy and brown. A piece of cheese? Some milk with your coffee? Not a chance. Okay, I’ll eat lots of beans. No you won’t. Not even that trusty legume the peanut. To compensate for all this loss, consuming quantities of organic vodka might get me through the month—that is if alcohol of any kind were allowed.

So that was my predicament when choosing our group’s next eating adventure. Should I just forgo the diet for one day or try to find a cuisine compatible to my food restrictions? Or should I just go with my instincts and pick the best possible place and hope I could make it work for me? Of course that best possible place couldn’t be Mexican or any Latin restaurants. Italian would not work either. Indian, with those delicious breads and rice would be too much of temptation. So I looked to other Asian possibilities and finally settled on a Taiwanese restaurant called, either Taiwanese Gourmet, as it is referred to on Yelp and other internet sites, Taiwanese Cuisine, Inc, as it says on the restaurant’s awning in Elmhurst, Queens, or Taiwanese Specialties, as it reads on the restaurant’s take-out menu. For one day I would not worry what was in the sauces used to prepare the restaurant’s dishes but would stay away from rice, noodles, and anything deep fried with a heavy batter.

“The busy season,” according to Mike from Yonkers kept him from the group on this night, but Zio, Eugene, and Gerry were in attendance and hungry. With Mike from Yonkers absent, Eugene made sure to continually question why Mike from Yonkers wasn’t penalized for ordering a $12 Manhattan at our last get together. “How do you get away ordering a $12 drink?” Eugene asked us incredulously. “And then we all have to pay for it? There’s got to be a rule against that in this group’s by laws.”

Finally, though, Eugene gave it up and concentrated on the multi-page menu even daring to ask the Chinese-speaking waitress, “what’s good here.” That got a roll of her eyes and he decided on the crispy fried chicken while Gerry and Zio were debating on what version of escargot to order. Zio was adamant in his choice of escargot, without the shell, with basil. Gerry was going to order the little snails in the shell with black bean sauce but instead opted for cuttlefish with celery. My choice was the shredded beef with yellow chives—beef and all meats, including pork and most importantly bacon being an integral part of my detoxification.

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Escargot in the middle, sauteed spinach in the back, and cuttlefish and celery on the right.

Since pork was allowed, we started with an appetizer of a pork roll. What wasn’t allowed in my diet was the breaded wrapping the pork roll was encased in. Do I sacrifice my journalistic integrity by not trying what was in front of me? Or do I bite the bullet and take a bite of what was against my diet’s “by laws.” I chose the latter and I am here writing this as healthy evidence that that bite did not throw my detoxification into a tailspin nor did it toss me off the 30-day wagon I was on.

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The forbidden pork roll

The shredded beef with yellow chives was “the best thing we ordered,” according to Eugene and I could not disagree. Though the escargot with basil had a very flavorful sauce, the little mollusks were not as tender as I would have liked causing Zio to question their authenticity. “Are these really escargot?” he wondered.

“Maybe the snails aren’t French?” I replied.

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Shredded beef with yellow chives

While we efficiently devoured our food, large groups of diners waiting to be seated eyed our half-filled round table enviously and before Zio even had a chance to shovel the last escargot into his hungry mouth, a check was placed on our table.

“It took me longer to get here than it did to eat,” Gerry observed after our rushed dinner.

Still nobody was complaining—Zio even hinting that he might return with the Colonel. I wouldn’t mind joining them, but only if by then I can have a little rice with my shredded beef.

Taiwanese Cuisine, Inc

84-02 Broadway

Elmhurst

The Perfect Manhattan Fantasy Found in Westchester

16 Aug DSC00579

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When Mike from Yonkers alerted our group that his pick was a place called Fantasy Cuisine, my sometimes depraved mind immediately pictured an exotic food buffet where you dined among dirty books, x-rated videos and adult peep show booths. What a concept! Alas, it was just a fleeting word association and the fantasy cuisine in question was Chinese, Szechuan to be specific.

The restaurant was not far from another of Mike from Yonkers’ picks, Saigonese (https://friedneckbonesandsomehomefries.com/2014/09/18/vietnamese-by-the-numbers/), in the heavily populated Asian district of Central Avenue in Westchester’s Hartsdale. Upon entering the stand alone restaurant, I noted the faux waterfall, stemmed water glasses and neatly folded, albeit paper, napkins on the tables. “Mike is in trouble with this one,” Zio mumbled as both of us made our way to our table which was also equipped with do-it-yourself hotpot controls.

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Elegance in Westchester

When the waiter arrived to take our drinks’ orders, maybe to help him weather whatever abuse we were going to heap on him, Mike from Yonkers splurged for a $12 “Perfect Manhattan” while the rest of us ordered Taiwanese beer.

“Do you know I have a friend who went to Italy and everywhere he went he tried to order chicken parmigiana,” Eugene announced to all of us as we were sipping our beverages. “It’s a disgrace. An embarrassment…you go to Italy and order chicken parmigiana…” Was Eugene just making conversation or was he delivering a social statement about the ugly American? No one knew and we were hungry so didn’t really care.

The menu at Fantasy Cuisine compartmentalized standard Szechuan dishes into “styles.” From among the styles that were arranged from non-spicy to spicy to very spicy, you could order your choice of meat; chicken, fish, beef or shrimp. This was supposed to make ordering from what are usually text book-sized menus much easier. I, however, veered totally form the “Classic Sichuan Dish” style menu to order twice cooked pork belly.  The others went with the various styles; Gerry ordering fish “dry pepper style,” Mike from Yonkers, chicken “dry pot style,” and Zio, beef “red soup style.”

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Fish “Dry Pepper Style”

When the waiter came to Eugene, he too eschewed the various styles and decided on the house fried rice with chicken.

“You’re not ordering from one of the Szechuan styles,” I asked Eugene.

He shook his head. “There’s too much stuff in those.”

“What do you mean by stuff?” I wanted to know.

“Mushrooms,” he replied bluntly.

“What’s the matter, you scared of mushrooms?” Gerry teased knowing Eugene’s well documented aversion to fungi.

I looked at him seriously. “We come to a Szechuan restaurant in Hartsdale and you order fried rice?” It’s a disgrace…an embarrassment.” And then I stopped because the appetizers Mike from Yonkers chose were beginning to arrive on our table including summer rolls that, after a bite, would not be worth ordering in any season. The Dan Dan noodles that followed, usually a barometer to judge quality Szechuan came next and after we all sampled them, the barometer at Fantasy Cuisine was pointing down.

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These Dan Dan noodles were no fantasy.

But you can forgive a restaurant for its appetizer missteps. The entrees, with the exception of Eugene’s predictably pedestrian fried rice with chicken, were all top notch though Zio’s trough-like bowl of beef in “red soup style” being the exception, not as spicy as we were used to for authentic Szechuan.  The thinly sliced pork belly was tender and combined with smoked tofu, garlic stems and scallions in a salty black bean sauce was as good as I’ve had while Gerry’s “dry pot style” fish also worthy of any Szechuan joint I’ve been to south of Yonkers.

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Pork belly so good it was cooked twice

No one could forgive Zio for barely making a dent in the humongous bowl in front of him and after a while he gave up, telling the waiter he would bring the remains home. Mike from Yonkers, on the other hand, had no excuse; he was on the same pace as Zio but with half the food and even more unforgivably, had barely made a dent in the Perfect Manhattan.

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Zio’s feeding trough of beef “red soup style.”

Noticing our probing stares, Mike from Yonkers quickly downed the drink but leaving the maraschino cherry at the bottom of the glass. “All right,” he said a smile on his face and smacking his lips. Whether it was a Perfect Manhattan or not, the man from Yonkers, who now lives in Rockland County looked satisfied.

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The not so perfect Manhattan

“Are Perfect Manhattan’s allowed in the food group,” Eugene questioned, but before anyone could answer we were out the door.

Fantasy Cuisine

20 N. Central Ave.

Hartsdale, NY

 

The Guacamole Redemption

21 Jun DSC00566

 

I was on a crowded Metro North train during rush hour. Commuters were making their way back to their suburban Westchester homes. It was standing room only—and I was standing. I wasn’t happy about that. I wasn’t happy that Gerry summoned our group out of the city and to the sleepy hamlet of Valhalla to a place called Kensico Kitchen.

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The train finally pulled in and I joined the throngs exiting and heading to their cars in the parking lot. Just across the street from the train station and the Taconic parkway, I could see our group sitting on makeshift picnic tables on the sidewalk in front of Kensico Kitchen on Valhalla’s tiny main strip. The “Kitchen” was really a deli; New York lottery signs and tickets were plastered to the window along with stock photos of deli sandwiches, bagels, wraps and other traditional bodega/deli items. What had Gerry lured us into?

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Though no menus were in front of us, Mike from Yonkers proclaimed that he was up for a ham and cheese sandwich. A ham and cheese sandwich? Was that why I rode the commuter special to this godforsaken sleepy hamlet?

“Are there menus?” I asked Gerry.

He shook his head. “The food will be coming,” he said and pulled a cold Corona out from a six pack at his feet and handed it to me. That was a good start.

When one of the owners of the Kensico Kitchen, apparently a Mexican family Gerry was familiar with, came to our table with a molcajete overflowing with green salsa and cilantro, things were beginning to get even better.

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molcajete with salsa

“Guacamole coming,” the man said and soon it did come along with a massive platter of chips covered with an assortment of empanadas, beef, chicken and vegetable.

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The platter had Mike from Yonkers rise in excitement and move around from his seat to eagerly shovel chips, salsa, guacamole and empanadas on his plate.

 

Eugene, fresh off his whirlwind, Southern Italy and Sicily tour where he proudly proclaimed: “We had pizza everyday…sometimes twice,” had no trouble veering to equally carb heavy cuisine of Mexico, devouring a plate of chips, guacamole and empanadas.

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Nachos and chips topped by empanadas

One of the women in the family came to our table to tell us she would be bring us either chicken mole or pernil with chili rellenos poblano. “What about the adobo?” Gerry inquired.

“You want adobo too?” She checked with him. Gerry nodded. For him more was almost always merrier.

We were scraping up the remains of the guacamole and chips when plates began arriving; a quarter of a chicken in a red adobo sauce, some shredded pernil (pork) and a mound of yellow Mexican rice and refried black beans. As an accompaniment to our gargantuan plates, we were also served a platter of fried poblano chilies stuffed with queso.  As if we didn’t have enough; two plates of half chickens in a rich dark mole sauce were also presented, “so you can try the mole too,” our waitress cheerily said.

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Adobo chicken, pernil, et al

Despite his strong start, Mike from Yonkers fizzled early leaving enough food on his plate to take home to his hungry wife. But he was the exception. Already weighted down by the empanadas and guacamole, I did admirable work clearing my plate, but all I could attempt of the chicken mole was a small forkful while the others showed what made them the gluttons they were devouring all that was placed in front of them.

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Poblano chili relleno

My earlier sour mood was long gone now. I no longer cared that I had to commute to the suburbs for dinner—it was more than worth it. “I think we can all agree that after this inspired pick, we can erase that stain on your record.” I said to Gerry, referring to his unfortunate choice of a mediocre Mexican joint in Yonkers where we were treated to cookie cutter Mexican food and worse, serenaded by a Mariachi band (Mariachi Blues). “The misstep is now forgiven. You are redeemed.”

But my proclamation fell on deaf ears, drowned out by the blasting horn of a Metro North train as it rushed its commuters to Brewster…or Pawling…or some other suburban hamlet where, if they are lucky, there will also be a deli serving bagels, wraps, ham and cheese sandwiches, and mole and adobo.

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Chicken mole

Kensico Kitchen

6 Broadway

Valhalla, NY

 

 

The Third Wonder of Woodside Avenue

24 May DSC00548

 

DSC00548.JPGLittle did we know when we first visited Woodside Avenue in the fall of 2015 and the Filipino karaoke joint, Papa’s Kitchen (Papa’s Karaoke in the Kitchen Blues) that we would return again to this now fabled food boulevard two more times within the same year. We had no idea that there were three food wonders—all within a two and a half block radius—on Woodside Avenue in our food group’ mecca: Queens. I should have picked up on the hint in Zio’s email after I announced Renacer Bolivian (A Beef Rebirth at a Bolivian Restaurant in Queens) as our last destination: “That was gonna be my pick,” he wrote. “I saw it just before we were accosted by the karaoke queen. I guess I’ll go with the Bhutanese place.”

“Bhutanese?” I wasn’t paying attention until we filed out of Renacer and he pointed to the restaurant on the corner. “That place,” he said.

And a month later we were seated in Bhutanese Ema Datsi,  the restaurant on the corner a few doors down from Renacer Bolivian and across the street from Papa’s Kitchen. The restaurant was deserted and the limited decor featured panoramic posters of villages tucked into Himalayan mountain tops.  The menu was separated into three cuisines: Tibetan, Bhutanese, and Indian. Why go to a Bhutanese restaurant and order Indian food? None of us did. In fact, only Mike from Yonkers veered from the intriguing Bhutanese column on the menu when he ordered the Tibetan beef with oyster mushrooms.

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A Bhutanese retreat

We were without Eugene this evening meaning, because of his bizarre aversion to fungi, we were without guilt  in ordering dishes with a plethora of mushrooms.   Not that it would have stopped Mike from Yonkers—or Gerry for that matter—from indulging in the options on the Bhutanese menu. Gerry’s mushroom selection was the specialty of the restaurant, the ema datsi with mushrooms; a stew of vegetables along with the mushrooms and very hot green chilies combined in a mild gooey cheese sauce that was nothing like what you would get on a Philly cheese steak sandwich.

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“Dry” pepper chicken

Before ordering our entrees, however, we got started with two appetizers: the “pepper chicken dry,” a fiery plate of stir fried boneless chicken and peppers, and the sooji deep fried pomfret (fish).

“What’s a pomfret?” Zio inquired of our gracious, yet soft spoken to the extreme, waiter. Could it be that he was fresh off a vow of silence stint at a Buddhist monk training camp? No one knew for sure, but the words he mouthed after Zio’s question were inaudible to all of our aged ears. When the pomfret arrived looking like slightly upscale fish sticks we quickly sampled. One taste and all of us agreed that the pomfret  tasted suspiciously like tilapia—as if tilapia has any taste at all. Thankfully the fish was served with a house made chili sauce which gave it much needed flavor.

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Bhutanese fish sticks

 

Zio and I choose “dry” items on the menu. He went with the dry pork and I tried the dried beef curry “moapa” style. Zio’s appeared first; slices of dried fatty pork belly in a stew of thinly sliced potatoes. “No these aren’t potatoes,” Zio proclaimed after taking a bite. I sampled one. “It’s a radish, ” I told him

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Dried pork

The potato like chunks in my dried beef stew were indeed potatoes but the stew was devoid of the familiar flavor of curry. Not that it mattered; the dish was hearty and fiery enough to sustain a man on a frigid night in the Himalayas. I wondered why the waiter deposited toothpicks on our table along with our platters until I began picking pieces of the dried beef out of my teeth.

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Dry beef stew “moapa” style

Lastly, small bowls of from what I thought the waiter whispered was “seaweed soup” were given to all of us. I took a sip. I had heard correctly. Zio, however, heard nothing.

“I’m not sure if I’m supposed to clean my hands with what is in this bowl or eat it?”

Where do they get seaweed in Bhutan, I wondered aloud. No one answered. No one cared. Sometimes we need to put our heads down and just eat.

After cleaning our platters, our check arrived. We thought we might be helpless without Eugene present to tally up the damage. But there was no damage. We were well below our $20 per person allotment. And for all the very satisfying food we ate, that was a wonder in itself.

Bhutanese Ema Datsi

67-21 Woodside Ave

Queens

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A Beef Rebirth at a Bolivian Restaurant in Queens

20 Apr

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Ernesto put down the guitar he was strumming and wandered over to our table. Besides Ernesto and another man, our group of five were the only people dining at Renacer Bolivian. Seemingly one of the proprietors, Ernesto quickly made it known to us that he had no ownership stake in the restaurant. He was just a loyal Bolivian who came to sing (literally) Renacer’s praises.

“This is the only Bolivian Restaurant in New York,” Ernesto proclaimed. “And the best.”

We didn’t question his knowledge or opinion but welcomed his cheerful enthusiasm for his country and its cuisine. After 14 years of scouring the city and its environs for every ethnic possibility our group had yet to dine at a Bolivian restaurant. And I can’t deny that was the primary factor in making it my choice. My research on the restaurant also explained the restaurant’s name. In Spanish, renacer translates to mean “reborn.” Who or what was reborn was another question. Was it the restaurant? The Bolivian people? It was a question that I did not get an answer to, not that it really mattered.

Similar to other land-locked Andean countries, the cuisine was hearty and with an emphasis on beef and Renacer’s menu was proof of that. Not wasting anytime, Gerry zeroed in on the anticuchos, or sliced beef heart, grilled and served in a peanut sauce as an “aperitivo” while deciding that the best thing to accompany beef heart as his entrée would be the aji de lengua, or beef tongue stew.

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antichuchos

“You want some heart?” Gerry asked Eugene when the charred tender meat grilled on skewers came to the table.

Eugene declined politely, instead opting to sip on a bowl of blanched white peanut soup. “But it don’t taste like peanuts,” Eugene muttered after sipping it.

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Bolivian peanut soup

When his entrée arrived, Gerry prodded Eugene again. “What about some tongue?” he said waving a piece impaled on his fork, coated with tomato sauce and onions.

“No thank you, Gerry,” Eugene responded, trying to avoid looking at the severed beef tongue dangling in front of him and doing a very good job of not rising to Gerry’s bait. It helped that there was an enormous platter of majao camba, bits of dried beef jerky in yellow rice topped by an fried egg in front of him that he could quickly turn his attention to instead.

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Plato paceno

While Eugene was refusing Gerry’s offerings, Mike from Yonkers was slowly dissecting the plato paceno in front of him—thinly grilled steak, a section of white hominy corn on the cob, hearty fava beans and served with a chunk of fried cheese on top. My platter, called soltero, also featured thinly grilled steak, that same cob of white hominy corn and fava beans, but instead of fried cheese, the soltero included a piquant tomato, onion and cheese salad. Before I could dig into the soltero, however, I had to indulge in an apertivo. Despite the protestations of the waitress who was there to recommend some of the better Bolivian selections, I insisted our group share the salchipapas. What other cuisine could feature an appetizer of cut up hot dogs and French fries? Sadly, none of the others shared my enthusiasm for this particular Bolivian apertivo.

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Salchipapas

Zio, whether he wanted to be contrary or not, dared to veer from the beef that populated the menu by ordering the lechon (fried pork chunks).  Thankfully the waitress returned shortly to inform him that there was no lechon available and instead, still resisting the beef, ordered the thimpu, boiled lamb chops topped with an onion sauce and served with potatoes and rice.

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Soltero

As we were waiting, as usual, for Mike from Yonkers to finish, Ernesto began serenading again. He sang to a small table of friends; Bolivians, who, with electronic tablets out, made sure his music was recorded on YouTube. When the song concluded we applauded generously.

“Thank you for coming to this Bolivian restaurant,” Ernesto, the unofficial and unaffiliated host and troubadour said. “And thank you for trying our food. Please come again.”

No matter how we felt about the beef at Renacer Boliviano, Ernesto made us an offer that was just too gracious to refuse.

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Renacer Boliviano

67-03 Woodside Blve

Queens

The Happiest of All Hours: Spring Training at the Yankee Tavern

23 Mar yankee tavern

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Pitchers and catchers have long ago reported. They are now playing meaningless games in Florida. It is officially Spring. What better time to celebrate the season than for a Happy Hour beverage at the practically vacant Yankee Tavern.

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A fresco of two catchers

During the baseball season, fans spill out onto 161st Street before and after Yankee home games at the Yankee Tavern. Whether the Yankees win or lose, those crowds just do not make for a Happy Hour. What better way to enjoy this legendary dive than during the “exhibition” season. There are seats, many of them, at the bar. A meaningless Grapefruit League game is playing on one of the bar’s many screens. All I know that the game does not involve the Yankees.

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Grapefruit baseball

When the man behind the stick asks me what I want, I can hear him and he can hear me. We converse. He wants to know what my preference is. I tell him I would prefer something local. He ponders that for a moment.

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The man behind the stick at the Yankee Tavern

“The only local beer is probably Yuengling,” he says. I quickly Google on my phone and see that the Yuengling Brewery is in Pottsville, Pennsylvania, which is approximately two and a half hours from Yankee Stadium. Despite the plethora of micro and imported beers now on the menu at the Yankee Tavern, I go with the “local.”

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The local beer

The late afternoon sun is streaming in through the high windows of the Yankee Tavern. I notice a fancy espresso machine behind the bar. A few patrons wander in who are, apparently, regulars as the bartender addresses them by their first names and pour them their drinks without asking what they want.

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I can hear the excellent juke box playing the Temptations, “Just My Imagination.”  I can watch  Grapefruit League baseball in peace.

Temptations

“running away from me…”

I finish my Yuengling, leave a tip, and head back out to the subway overlooking a vacant Yankee Stadium as the sun sets over the adjacent Major Deegan Expressway.

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Yankee Tavern

72 E 161st

Bronx

 

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