Archive | October, 2010

The Cannoli Claim

29 Oct


Planet Earth's Best?

Somehow I missed the awards’ ceremony when the “Best Cannoli on Planet Earth” was bestowed on Caffe Palermo? Was it held on the same day they gave out the award for “Number 1 Dessert Capital in Little Italy?” Is it a lifetime achievement award as well or could possibly some other cannoli, made, say,  in a cafe in Addis Ababa supplant Caffe Palermo as best on planet earth.  And who gets to judge? I’d like to know.

Have a fantastically spooky weekend everyone. See you on Election Day with a new Chow City adventure.

Pupusa Love

26 Oct

Still in our first year, but now on our second round of picks, Charlie found La Cabana Salvadorena “in the heights”…several years before the musical of the same name opened. I remember driving up and around the hills past the George Washington Bridge trying to find parking. I also remember how glad the owners and chef were to have us at his restaurant. Something that happened quite often throughout our years doing this.

La Cabana Salvadoreña
4384 Broadway
Washington Heights

Having gone full circle; everyone fulfilling their responsibility and picking a restaurant within our still vague guidelines, it was back to Charlie, who led off last February with the Puerto Rican restaurant in El Barrio, La Fonda Boricua. Keeping in that Latin vein and also keeping us in Manhattan, Charlie chose La Cabana Salvadorena, on 187th street and Broadway, the northern fringe of Washington Heights. The food promised was not just Latin, but Salvadoran, a cuisine none of us had the pleasure of previously experiencing. I admit having come close while living in Los Angeles in the 1980’s. During my seemingly endless time behind the wheel of my wreck of a car, I would pass establishments advertising pupusas. These establishments were called pupuserias. Though always somewhat adventurous about food, I never had the nerve to pull up to a pupuseria in Los Angeles. Hot dogs were a big part of my subsistence while I struggled in Los Angeles and I ate all kinds there including a very memorable one called an Oki Dog, two hot dogs

wrapped in a big burrito-sized flour tortilla and stuffed with pastrami, cheese, chili and onions. The Oki Dog experience I still remember fondly as a youthful indulgence akin to experimenting with a hallucinogenic drug. I had no limits when it came to hot dogs, but I could not get myself to try a pupusa. There was the connotation with something cuddly that just turned me off.  So here, many years later on a cold damp autumn evening in Washington Heights, I think I was ready to try a pupusa.

Zio and I were the first to arrive at the brightly-lit restaurant. We choose the big round table next to the “Real Women Have Curves” poster. Our waitress came up immediately to begin taking our orders. I held out my fingers in the right manner to alert the waitress that there would be six of us and ordered a Presidente beer. The waitress obviously knew little or no English and Zio and I pointed to the menu helping her to understand. And looking at the menus, which were under the glass on the table, we noticed different variations of the same menus. One item on all the different menus, however, was consistent: pupusas.

After struggling to find parking, the others soon all arrived. I warned them that getting help on what to order from the exotic menu might be difficult considering the language barrier with our waitress. No sooner had I said that than Raul came to our rescue. Raul, it turned out, had no financial attachment to La Cabana Salvadorena; he was an electrician and a friend of the owners. He offered his bilingual services to us along with his expertise in choosing the best items on the menu. We gave Raul free reign as what to order for us. We trusted him implicitly. And Raul, despite being from Honduras rather than Salvador, delivered. He came back with pupusas, rice and corn flour patties, stuffed with beans, pork, and cheese. He picked a mixed seafood ceviche for us, a few platters of “Plato Tipico” a combination plate of typical Salvadoran food; thinly pounded steak, steamed chicken tamale in the husk, a cheese pupusa with “loroco” a grated cheese, sweet plantains, and a “tortilla;” an omelet with chorizo and onions. We engulfed it. Consumed it. Devoured it all including the tasteless cabbage salad that came in a jar and was on every table. While we were eating, the chef, who also spoke little or no English came out to check on our progress. Looking somewhat like the actor, Edward James Olmos, the chef was impressed with our work, though upset that Raul had neglected to order us the boiled beef, also a Salvadoran specialty. Next time, we promised. He went away smiling and satisfied the gringos were pleased.

As with most of our experiences, dessert was limited here as well. We all sampled a piece of what seemed like fried dough in sugar syrup. Eugene immediately proclaimed the meal as his favorite of the seven we had experienced. And it certainly fulfilled our original aim; even with beers and other drinks, our bill came under $20 per person. We were getting pretty good at this.

I returned to La Cabana Salvadorena recently.  I was glad to see that pretty much nothing had changed in the eight years since I’d last visited. They had no website and there were no stickers from Zagat, Yelp, Citysearch or anywhere else on their windows. The awning, small front counter, and dining room, with the exception of the “Real Women Have Curves” poster being gone, was exactly as I remembered it. But best of all were the prices—still frozen at 2002 levels.

Pig on Second Avenue

22 Oct

Graffit I like

At first I thought this was a sign for a restaurant specializing in roasted pig on a spit. But after further review, there was no restaurant. No pig on a spit anywhere in sight. Only this picture on a whitewashed wall in East Harlem with a parking lot behind it. Was there something I was missing? Was there a subliminal message in the art? Or was it just the tag of a hungry graffiti artist with a desire for charred pig skin?

Have a great weekend everyone and look for a new adventure of Fried Neck Bones…and Some Home Fries on Tuesday.




Spleen on a Bun

19 Oct

Rick was the last of us to make a pick during our first go round in this still experimental food group. His choice was a convenient restaurant close to his then apartment in Carroll Gardens called Ferdinando’s Focacceria. This was in 2002 and at the time I had no idea of the burgeoning gentrification and real estate boom that was happening in that neighborhood. I’m not sure Rick was even aware of it even while he was living in the midst of the boom. Looking back, the changing clientele in the restaurant at the time was a tip off though it was really just the start. Within a few years, townhouses that were owned for generations of mostly Italian Americans were being gobbled up for astronomical sums…and still are. The upward creeping prices at the ancient restaurant should have also been an indication. My recording of that meal in the fall of 2002 follows:

Ferdinando’s Focacceria
151 Union Street

The red flags went up soon after I sat down at Ferdinando’s Focacceria Ristorante on Union Street in the Carroll Gardens section of Brooklyn. Just a short walk from Rick’s apartment, Ferdinando’s was his pick, the last of our first go-round at this food adventure thing. The red flags were up because of what I noticed on the restaurant’s ancient (circa 1904) brick walls; plaques with a commendation from Zagat and another with a printed review by Eric Asimov of the New York Times in the $25 and under column he used to write. His review of Ferdinando’s appeared in 1993 when $25 and under went a longer way than $25 and under does now. And anyway, our aim wasn’t $25 and under, it was $20 and under. And commendations from popular guides like Zagat and of course from the Newspaper of Record meant that this was far from an “under the radar” establishment. Okay, so every place we go to can’t be a discovery, but could we at least be not too far off? I guess if you’ve been around since 1904 that’s pretty hard to do.

I’m mainly familiar with Carroll Gardens through Rick and the abundant barbecues he holds in his backyard. Whenever I visited, I’d see the old school Italian-Americans sitting in their rickety lawn chairs in front of their brownstones. These were the people, Rick claimed, who were the clientele of Ferdinando’s and that’s how he sold it. But on this Friday evening, the restaurant was inhabited not by those I used to see sitting on those lawn chairs on summer evenings. The diners at Ferdinando’s were more like the six (myself included) who waddled in from somewhere else. In other words, Ferdinando’s, like the neighborhood, was getting seriously gentrified. So because it had already been discovered by the New York Times and Zagat, and despite what looked like an intriguing menu, I was wary that Ferdinando’s might not pass the somewhat stringent and purposely vague criteria we had set for ourselves.

I confess as never having visited a focacceria and was unsure of what it was. I knew of foccacia and assumed Ferdinando’s specialized in typical focaccia, maybe with a brush of fresh tomato on top, or a sprinkling of olive oil and herbs. Ferdinando’s focaccia wasn’t quite typical. Rick recommended the “panelle” special so we had a few brought to the table. These “focaccia” were more like buns, made with chick pea flour and deep fried; the special was topped with ricotta and grated cheese. We also indulged on other of the smaller Sicilian specialties such as the “arancina,” a rice ball deep fried with chopped meat, peas and sauce, and an incredible “caponatina,” the famed Sicilian eggplant salad. No one, not even the adventurous Zio tried the “vastedda,” a sandwich made with calf’s spleen, ricotta and grated cheese. Zio, however, did not disappoint by quickly and decisively ordering his entrée of “trippa,” tripe stewed in tomato sauce with peas. Eugene was also very resolute when he ordered another Sicilian specialty, pasta con sarde, pasta with sardines, fennel, and pine nuts. Rounding out the orders were Rick with the pedestrian pasta con vongole, Gerry with linguini con seppia (squid in its ink), Charlie with the downright lame, chicken parmigiana and rigatoni, and myself with one of the specials of the day, pasta with baby polpo (octopus). As if that were not quite enough, Rick thought we should also try the calamari ripieni, stuffed calamari with mussels. The beverage of choice for most of us was the Italian beer, Peroni.



We soon finished off our appetizers and, while waiting for our entrees, devoured the endless baskets of fresh unadorned focaccia. Rick had noticed the diners as I had and a bit nervously assured me that whenever he had visited Ferdinando’s in the past, usually for lunch—the restaurant is only open until 9 on Fridays and Saturdays—that the locals; specifically, the old timers, were the only diners, not the gentrified groups we were seeing on this night. By then, though, I was no longer aware of the diners, only the food in front of me. The baby polpo on my linguini was perfectly tender, the sauce, sort of a sweet and sour sauce, maybe a bit too sweet for me. Zio’s “trippa” appeared hearty; the white lining of cow’s intestine swimming in tomato sauce.  And for some reason, with the exception of the courageous Gerry, he had no volunteers for samples. I was curious about Eugene’s pasta con sarde, but by the time I got around to asking for a taste, it was gone; Eugene enthusiastically proclaiming its virtues. Finally came the stuffed calamari and though Zio had previously and rancorously announced that he never ate anything “stuffed,” he relented and tried the calamari, which, filled with bread crumbs, garlic and herbs, he grudgingly acknowledged that it was “damn good for something stuffed.”

With the dry focaccia we cleaned the sauces on all our dishes reserving, incredibly, a bit of room for a cannoli sampling. This simple, classic Italian pastry was also worth noting for its perfection; the shell fresh, the cheese spectacular. Finally finished, our check was brought to the table. In the scrawl on a tiny piece of paper, Rick knew we had gone over our “budget.” Eugene did the math and the damage was $36 per person. It wasn’t as bad as it seemed at first glance. There were empty bottles of Peroni littering our table and drinks do not factor into our price limit, so that reduced the total somewhat. Add in the stuffed calamari extra and we were really only about three or four dollars over the $20 allowance. Rick did not meet the criteria. Not only did he not factor in our gluttony, had he read the Zagat review, he would have known that the total figured within that book was $22. Asimov’s $25 and Under review was another tip. Rick obviously just did not do his research. Not that I, or any of us were complaining

Looking back on our experience at Ferdinando’s, I’m very surprised no one had the courage to try the spleen. I think we were all a little raw at this and did not want to test our limits too much. That changed as the group evolved.  I  did revisit Ferdinando’s. It was probably in 2007 at the height of the real estate boom in Brooklyn. My experience was not as positive; the food not as good as I remembered from the above visit and prices had climbed so much that it was hard to imagine any of the old timers from the neighborhood (if any still remained) spending much time at Ferdinandos…even for lunch. Carroll Gardens was a much different place. Even Rick had fled.

Ode to Whoopie (Pie)

15 Oct

Ode to Whoopie (Pie)

Two moist little round mounds of cake,

usually chocolate in make.

Stuffed with white stuff, I know not what.

Maybe cream, maybe butter,

maybe corn syrup the bad.

So sweet, so delicious, it’s a pleasure to be had.

Press tenderly on those pliant brown mounds,

one above, one below.

Press firmer and the cream will flow.

Catch it quick, with tongue or finger,

don’t dare miss a bit.

Their likeness uncanny,

the pretenders are many.

There’s Ring Ding, Yodel, Oreo and Suzy Q.

None of them give the magnificent Whoopie its due.

I’ve had Whoopies in pumpkin, in chocolate chip, mint and

vanilla too,

but for me only the chocolate with the white stuff will do.

From Maine to Cape Cod,

Whoopie’s legend is secure.

In the Big Apple, they’re just not so sure.

Whoopie’s humble appearance—no

glaze, no sprinkles, no frosting adorns it—is

surely a deception.

This pie is simply pure perfection.

So eat your silky mousse,

your dark ganache, your sweet red velvet cupcakes.

For me, I’ll feast on the Pie of Whoopie

…until my jaw aches.


Have a great weekend everyone.  Look for a new Adventures in Chow City on Tuesday.

Kvass and Vodka

12 Oct

Soon after we started this food group, we learned that Eugene had friends of many different nationalities. We don’t really know why or how he happened to befriend so many from other lands, but he made it clear that he had them. At our dinners he would often refer to a friend from India, or China, or Peru, to name just a few. Eugene would then pick the brain of that friend asking for a recommendation; a place where we could find an authentic replication of the food of that person’s particular homeland. For his first pick, Eugene called on a Russian friend who suggested Café Glechik. Below is what we experienced on a warm summer’s night in 2002.

Café Glechik
3159 Coney Island Avenue

There was a slight delay in getting started on the trek to Brighton Beach, to the Ukrainian restaurant suggested by Eugene called Café Glechik. The delay was due to the sudden emergence of cockroaches and other less unsightly bugs in my kitchen. I needed expert help and there was no one else to call than Zio. For those not aware of it, Zio is a man of many talents. Not only can he make a first rate beef braciole,  he is also a talented illustrator. But it is his ability to kill termites, cockroaches, carpenter ants, the many variations of rodents, and all those other pests that is his true gift. I needed that gift and Zio delivered with a few well-placed shots of an extremely deadly, though not odorous concoction that the cockroaches, he claimed, just cannot resist. The other problem was the little bugs I had been seeing on the kitchen counter. We spent time shaking a few items in my cupboards seeking the source of these bugs, but were having no luck until we found a few lounging in a box of Festival mix I had brought back from Jamaica. Festival being the equivalent of fried dough and served usually with jerk pork and chicken. The bug Zio identified as a flour beetle. The Festival had to go. With it, I hoped also would go the flour beetles.

Finally we headed out, with Charlie in tow. Over the Triboro Bridge. Crawling through the BQE. Heading down Ocean Parkway. Finally, Coney Island was in sight and after an hour of driving, we made it to Café Glechik in the Russian/Ukrainian enclave of Brighton Beach.

The others were seated and waiting in the small, busy café when we arrived. The Café did not have a liquor license and Gerry had gone out in search of vodka. He was told there was a liquor store on a street called “Brighton 10.” He returned empty-handed. “Too many Brighton 10s,” he said shaking his head.  Apparently there was more than one. In the meantime, a young man called Vlad began to explain the items on the menu. He was helpful and patient though inexperienced. After a few really tough questions such as what would he suggest we eat to sample a true Russian meal at Café Glechik, he gave up and handed us over to another waiter, this one not as patient, nor as helpful. He wouldn’t even tell us his name he just wanted our orders—we were on our own here.

After my contact lenses cleared from glancing at the Russian language side of the menu, I was able to discern what we might be eating, starting with herring with potato, smoked mackerel and “vareniki,” the Russian version of a pierogi. We ordered one stuffed with potato and another with meat. After Rick, Eugene, and Charlie made the mistake of asking Waiter Number Two a few questions about some of the items on the menu, his glare flustered them so much they ordered whatever blurted from their tongues; in this case it was chicken stroganoff, beef stroganoff and grilled chicken breast respectively. Zio, aware of the wrath of Waiter Number Two, wasted no time ordering the rabbit stew.

One of the few things my Ukrainian-born Grandmother was able to cook competently was stuffed cabbage. It had been well over 30 years since I last tasted that stuffed cabbage, but it was a distinct taste and I was curious to see how this would compare, so my choice seemed easy. Under the pressure of the moment created by the gruff waiter, we didn’t realize until our main courses had arrived and that Gerry forgot to order one so, to the mix, and to Waiter Number Two’s rolling eyes, he quickly added stewed “Odessa” in a pot, a Russian variation on beef stew.  For our beverage, we all ordered the local carbonated, non-alcoholic drink called Kvass. It was said, though I don’t know who said it, to be a very good chaser for vodka.

To calm our nerves, we needed more than Kvass and this time Vlad gave us clearer directions to a liquor store. Gerry and I took a walk while the others waited for our food and drinks. The Russian-owned liquor store which shared a storefront with a video store had many Russian vodkas I was unfamiliar with. They were cheap and seemed like worthy companions to a Russian meal. But the store owner steered us away from the Russian stuff instead urging us to buy Absolut, proclaiming that it was much better. It was also much more expensive which might have been why he was pushing it.


The Kvass and the herring and mackerel were waiting for us when we returned. The Kvass, like the cantaloupe drink at Ihawan, turned out to be another unfortunate beverage choice. Made with water, yeast, sugar and raisins, it tasted like a sweetened version of the malta drinks popular with Hispanics. I’ve washed down rum with coconut water, ginger beer, and a grapefruit soda called Ting, but chasing the Absolut with Kvass just wasn’t working for me. It did not, however, dampen mine or anyone else’s appetite once the food began piling on our table. The vareniki, freshly made and as light as something so dense could possibly be, still began to weigh us down. That didn’t mean there were any leftovers. Everything was scraped clean. Soon the clay pots, in which all the entrees were served, began to arrive. We slowly cleared through them, picking at the meats, scooping up the sauces, not leaving anything. The meats were tender, the sauces heavy and bland. The stuffed cabbage still had that distinctive taste but was better than I remembered it. This was good hearty fare for a brisk night in the Ukraine. But it was summer in Coney Island and now our meal was weighing on us a bit uncomfortably.

When Waiter Number Two came to take our dessert order we were hesitant. We made the mistake of asking what was on the dessert menu. He responded brusquely with “fancy cake and cherry vareniki.” We shrugged; we would try one of each for the table. Apparently he took that to mean we all wanted to try a piece of the “fancy cake,” so he returned with six pieces of a non-descript cream-filled cake along with a huge platter covered with 100 pieces of vareniki dripping with sour cherries and their syrup. To Zio’s failing eyes the platter looking like what he called “cherriolies,” or cherry ravioli. I tried a few but almost lost a front tooth when biting into the so-called pitted cherries.


Despite the dessert oversight, and not factoring in the kvass or vodka, the meal came in just under $20 each. That was the good news. The not so good news was that it took the hour ride back, and then some, for the dead weight that had amassed in my belly after the feast at Café Gelchick to dissipate. It was dark when I got back. I turned on the lights in the kitchen. There were no bugs scurrying. The roaches were gone. And for that I was happy.

I’ve never been back to Café Glechik, but from what I can tell it’s been a very good eight years. The restaurant, much bigger now has the prerequisite website; And on that website I noticed that scary word I see much too often at ethnic restaurants: “fusion.” In this case it’s called “Ukrainian Fusion,” whatever that might mean. In 2006 the New York Times reviewed the restaurant in the paper’s “$25 and Under” column. Anthony Bourdain featured it on his program “No Reservations” on the Travel Channel. You can, of course, follow Glechik on Twitter and Facebook. They even opened another Café Glechik; this one in Sheepshead Bay. There’s also a full bar at the restaurant now and I’m sure kvass is available.  That funky beverage has prospered as well. Earlier this year, the Coca Cola company made a deal to import Kvass to the United States and a few weeks ago, at a nearby Whole Foods Store, I noticed that samples of the drink were being given out.  A server smiled and asked if I wanted to try some. I politely passed.

Recession Special

8 Oct

Why are pineapple juice and OJ exceptions? And what happens if you raise the prices of your recession special during a recession? Just asking.

Have a great weekend. Look for a new post on Tuesday.

The Beans of Halo Halo

5 Oct

Our fourth expedition of 2002 took us to Queens again. Queens, I might point out, has probably been our most visited borough; the variety and number of restaurants that fit our criteria almost endless. This visit to a Philippine restaurant remains memorable by Eugene’s vehement, bordering on obsessive, dislike of a certain dessert he had. It has become the one dessert that, almost on cue, he reminds us of whenever the subject of dessert comes up. Here, then, is the origin of Eugene’s fixation.

40-06 70th Street
Woodside, Queens


Zio labored hard on his pick, our fourth since beginning these adventures. Not quite sure of himself and his instincts, he constantly sought out my consultation for his choice. This was the man who introduced me to the heavy brown sauces of subterranean Wo Hop, the sublime calamari marinara at Dominick’s on Arthur Avenue, the “zuppa di pesce” at the Pine Tavern on Bronxdale—well before the New York Yankees discovered it—one of Manhattan’s original Thai joints, the now defunct Bangkok Cuisine on Eighth Avenue, and the marinara pizza at Patsy’s in East Harlem. Now, years later, he wanted my advice. He can’t say that I didn’t warn him about what would happen if he moved to the food wasteland of Hartford, Connecticut.

What we ultimately came up with was a Philippine restaurant called Ihawan. The last time I had eaten Filipino food was in Los Angeles during my time as a starving screenwriter. There was a small, inexpensive family place near where I lived on Sunset Boulevard that specialized in Filipino dumplings and soups served by the very friendly daughters of the owner. The soups and dumplings were good, but I think I went more for the overly attentive service of the daughters.  What we were to experience at Ihawan was much different than my recollection of the Filipino food I had in LA.  Advertised as the “Home of the Best Barbecue in Town,” Ihawan was an easy find.  In Woodside, just off the BQE and under the number 7 train, Zio and I made it in less than a half hour, including the ten minutes we waited in front of the restaurant as a parade of busboys and kitchen help unloaded huge bag after bag of garbage into a garbage truck.  We were also, unfortunately, downwind of the truck and able to capture the alarming essence of the restaurant’s ripe leftovers.

Gerry and Eugene were already seated in the upstairs dining area. We would be a smaller group for this adventure with Rick and Charlie having to bow out due to last minute commitments. For a Tuesday evening, the mirrored, very bright dining room was bustling with local Filipino families, a variety of different ringtones constantly emanating from the multitude of cell phones. The menu was an immediate challenge to us. With items such as “milkfish in tamarind soup with vegetables,” “sizzling sisig” (pork ears and liver marinated with lemon and hot pepper on a hot plate), “dinuguan” (pork stewed in pork blood gravy), “laing” (gabi leaves sautéed in coconut milk), “kare-kare” (stewed oxtail in peanut butter sauce with mixed vegetables), and fried “lapu-lapu” (grouper) with sweet and sour sauce, we didn’t know where to begin or end. We started with drinks, Zio and I trying the cantaloupe juice, Eugene opting for the iced buko (young coconut juice), and Gerry, attempting the “sago at gulaman,” also known as sweet drink mixed with tapioca pearl and gelatin. The drinks came and we sipped, but none of us got much further. The sugar content would make a diabetic go into immediate insulin shock. And it was worse for Gerry; he had those multi-colored tapioca pearls to deal with.

The dinner plates began to pile onto our table soon after; chopped pork belly in liver sauce, deep fried marinated milk fish, sautéed long beans with shrimps and pork, the stewed oxtail in the peanut butter sauce, minced pork spring rolls, and barbecue pork and chicken on a stick. The tastes of the entrees were varied; there was Chinese, Thai, Vietnamese, and even Spanish mixed in there. The four of us easily consumed everything with the exception of Eugene, whose pathetic excuse for not finishing the pork belly in liver sauce was his lame claim that he ate too much the previous two days.

We forced ourselves to try the desserts; how often do you get to experience “mais con hielo” (sweetened corn with milk & crushed ice),  Filipino flan, and “halo-halo” (mixed fruits with milk & crushed ice), ?  As it turned out, the flan was the highlight of the desserts, denser and even more flavorful than the flan at La Fonda Boricua. Zio and Eugene took a few sips of the halo halo and while Zio finished the unusual offering, Eugene could not. Pondering the tall frothy glass that contained his drink, he said, “Sometimes when you order chili it comes with only meat. Other times it comes with just beans. I like to know what is in my chili when I order it.” I think what Eugene was really trying to say in his own bizarre way was: “Where the hell was the fruit? And why were there cannellini beans in my dessert?” Cannellini being the bean Zio thought they most resembled. Whatever they were, Eugene was actually offended by their presence in his dessert.



Despite the misfortunate, at least for Eugene, beans of halo halo, Ihawan, with its very exotic (to us) offerings proved to be a very worthy choice and at $13 per person, well under our allotted budget.

Ihawan is still around and doing so well that they have opened a sister restaurant. This one called Ihawan2 is located amongst the new condo empire of Long Island City. Though from what I can tell, maybe to best serve the demographic of that high rise haven, they do not highlight their Filipino food.  On their website,, they instead have opted to feature those two dreaded words: “Asian fusion.” So if grilled pork ears and snout (sisig) just don’t work for you, you now have other options like California rolls, tempura, and chop suey. And for dessert there is always halo halo.

Life Before the GPS

1 Oct

Back in 2002, none of our group had GPS navigational systems yet.  And I’m not even sure if they were around at that time.  For those who drove, getting to our third destination, an African restaurant in the now bustling, and renamed by real estate prospectors “Gold Coast” of Harlem, was comical.  What follows is my depiction of that experience in the spring of 2002.

Leworo Dou Gou

When I arrived at Leworo Dou Gou restaurant, after getting off the B train at 116th Street and walking two blocks up “8th” Avenue to 118th street, I was relieved to see Charlie already at a table and waiting. In fact, he was the only one waiting in the restaurant. Our dinner was scheduled for 7:30. Charlie and I waited, inhaling the pronounced aroma of a fish market mixed in with other strong, yet unfamiliar smells. The aroma, coupled with the fuzzy reception of “Wheel of Fortune” on the restaurant’s television, was beginning to make me feel a bit dubious about this outing, our third of 2002. I glanced at the menu and was relieved to see that none of the “Natural African Dish From the Motherland” were priced above $7. At Leworo Dou Gou we would be very hard pressed to surpass the $20 limit we imposed on ourselves when beginning this venture.

The Motherland encompasses a very vast mother of a land, but Leworo Dou Gou claimed to represent the Ivory Coast portion of that continent. Charlie and I were still waiting when my cell phone rang. Zio was close by, searching for Eighth Avenue. I told him to look for Frederick Douglass Boulevard, which on maps and in the phone book goes by the name of Eighth Avenue. A few minutes later, he walked in. So now there were three of us. The smells, which were beginning to test my stomach, immediately enticed Zio.  But Zio would salivate at the smell of burnt toast. While we waited for the remaining three in our party, we studied the menu wondering what “dry okra sauce,” “cassava leaf,” and “LaFide” might be. There was also something called “agouti.” The name was familiar and I recalled that I actually tasted agouti on the island of Grenada in the Caribbean. It was in the rodent family and I remember it being very tough and gamey. That not so complimentary description only reinforced Zio’s determination to taste the rat.

The three of us continued to wait, we were beginning to worry. The phone rang in the restaurant and a woman behind the take out counter of the restaurant answered. I could hear her struggling, in her English with strong French inflections, to give directions. One of our own was lost. A few minutes later, Rick pulled up. He had been searching for Eighth Avenue. A big mistake, as we were beginning to find out, since there were no street signs proclaiming the street we were on as being Eighth Avenue. After a few more minutes the phone rang again. Again the same woman was attempting to give directions. She gave up and handed the phone to a man who was sitting behind us, the owner, we later learned. He spoke perfect English and explained, on the phone to whomever he was talking to, that Frederick Douglass Boulevard was Eighth Avenue. He had been, it turned out, talking to Gerry and a few minutes later both he and Eugene walked in.

By now, either the smells had mellowed or I was too hungry to notice or care anymore. We all were ready to eat, but we had no clue what to order. We did learn that there was no more grilled fish, and to Zio’s disappointment, no agouti. Rick made the wise choice, he told the waitress to bring six dishes, a combination of some of the different items on the menu. While our food was being prepared we all had homemade ginger beer, tangy with a sharp hint of lime along with the zesty ginger. To entertain us while we drank and ate, the owner switched from the fuzzy network television, to a video of “soukous” music from West Africa, some of which, he claimed he personally photographed while at a concert back in the “motherland.” The music was infectious and the video production, gritty especially the scenes with the dancing midget. Or was he a dwarf?

Our food came, one heaping plate at a time. Fried whole fish (croaker) with plantain. Fried whole fish with cassava and yams. Stewed “hard” chicken, grilled chicken and beef on a stick, stewed fish in okra sauce, and an aspic-type wedge of what seemed to be pounded banana, which, by itself was bland, but worked with the sauce from either the stew chicken or fish. We were given forks and knives, but noticed that one of the restaurant’s customers expertly ate his meal without either. Even with forks and knives, our hands got greasy and we made what probably was the unusual request at Leworo Dou Gou for napkins. What we got were sections of paper towels.

The six of us soon devoured the food leaving only fish bones and cleanly picked pieces of chicken. Everything else had been eaten with Zio and Gerry even sucking up the last of okra sauce with the remaining few kernels of rice. There was no mention of dessert on the menu and the owner wasn’t offering anything but coffee, so we ended it there. All that for only $12 dollars per person left us wondering how Leworo Dou Gou could stay in business.

Leworo Dou Gou did not stay in business for long. Within a few months of our visit it was gone.  But that’s not uncommon among the African restaurants around the area of West 116th Street known as “Little Senegal.” They come and go with great frequency.  Though as the neighborhood changes and rents increase, I wonder how long the African influence in the area will remain. In 2002 there were vacant lots and tenements surroiunding Leworo Dou Gou. Now, across the street from where Leworo Dou Gou was there is a market price condo with a Chase bank, Starbucks, and a gourmet supermarket. A few blocks up an Aloft Hotel ( a divison of  W Hotels) will soon open while new restaurants are so prevelant on Frederick Douglass Blvd that some are saying the street will become Harlem’s “Restaurant Row.” But will they qualify for our $20 and under crowd?

The storefront that was once Leworo Gou Dou

%d bloggers like this: