Archive | November, 2010

Literary Tacos

30 Nov

We visited El Paso Taqueria, which is chronicled below, in the summer of 2003. It was the first Mexican restaurant we had been to since forming our group. I remember being very surprised as well as upset that soon after Charlie circulated his choice with the other members, the New Yorker magazine came out with one of their restaurant blurbs on, coincidentally, El Paso Taqueria.

El Paso Taqueria
1643 Lexington Ave
East Harlem

Charlie didn’t know that the New Yorker magazine would scoop him on El Paso Taqueria. If he did, he surely would have looked elsewhere to take the group. Once a restaurant is written up by the New Yorker, the kiss of death has been delivered at least for our purposes. A cheap “ethnic” restaurant mentioned by the New Yorker pretty much guarantees that there will be a major change in both clientele and attitude at the restaurant and that was, apparently, the case the night we visited. As a result, our sense of adventure was immediately deflated. But there are other problems: the influx of bluebloods from the neighborhood a few blocks to the south called “Carnegie Hill”, and their incessant questions about what’s on the menu, what to order, how spicy is it, etc., can also breed resentment on a suddenly overworked staff; and  resentment can lead to petulance and impatience. Unfortunately, at El Paso Taqueria, that scenario was playing out for us.

 

 

Our listless waitress asked if we wanted guacamole to start, as if we had a choice. Guacamole? Now if she asked us if we wanted the “corn fungus,” that was described in the New Yorker or a “flor de calabaza” quesadilla we would have been seriously impressed. Instead, we got guacamole which turned out to be her final suggestion for us. We were on our own, but maybe, in this case, that was okay. Zio wasted no time and actually restrained himself here and only ordered a mere six varieties of tacos, including tripe and tongue. The mention of tongue prompted Eugene, as if he had rehearsed it, to repeatedly state that he only had one preference for “tongue.” His sniggering comment got a minimal chuckle the first time we heard it, but he persisted with his sad routine until it soon became background noise. I delved in with an order of sopes; a thick tortilla covered with various meats and topped with soft cheese. Of the “platos tipicos” or typical plates, we all were interested in the mole poblano, and the “famous puebla stew.” Could we go wrong if it was so famous? Charlie suggested the “adobo de puerco,” spare ribs in a hot and spicy sauce, and Gerry opted for the exotic “cecina asada” salted beef with cactus jalapenos and onion. Was it enough, we asked the waitress? She shrugged.

It was enough. Everything came at once making the table look like one giant open-faced taco. Most of the dishes, certainly the tacos and sopes looked alike, with the meat simmered in a tomato and pepper sauce and sprinkled with cotija cheese. Only by sampling the meats, could you tell the difference between the tongue and the salted beef or the tripe and the spicy pork. The mole poblano was dark and rich with chocolate while Gerry’s salted beef was extremely high on the spice meter. Charlie’s spare ribs were an interesting variation, but at least from this experience, ribs are not what they do best in Mexico. The stew, with chicken, tomatillos, peppers, and potatoes, was hearty and comforting, but we still wondered what made it famous. Dessert was strawberries in whip cream or bananas in whip cream. We tried both. And, though nothing very exciting, they were a refreshing end to the meal.

 

 

From the New Yorker blurb, we learned that El Paso Taqueria began as a lunch truck feeding the Mexican immigrants that were new to the neighborhood of East Harlem, offering a quick, inexpensive and authentic taco or two before getting back to work. The lunch truck became so popular it sprouted the restaurant on 104th and Lexington where we were and a new one on 97th between Madison and Park. But after eating in the restaurant, I think the lunch truck, where you can savor one, two, or maybe three or four tacos at a time, is probably the best and most authentic way to enjoy the food and flavors of El Paso Taqueria. And you don’t even have to order the guacamole.

Looking back on what I wrote, I see how I let being scooped by the New Yorker cloud my summary of our El Paso Taqueria experience. I was hard on the restaurant though it was no fault of theirs. All I could do was complain that the guacamole was pushed on us and that the tacos looked alike. I’ve since reformed my ways and even have an El Paso Taqueria take out menu in my possession which my family uses as our first option when it comes to having Mexican delivered to our home.

The newest El Paso Taqueria complete with cevicheria and scaffolding.

Like the growing Mexican population in East Harlem—they now are the largest immigrant group in that community surpassing Puerto Ricans and Dominicans—El Paso Taqueria has grown as well. There are now three El Paso Taqueria outlets, including one on 116th Street and another across the street from the original that advertises a “cocktail list” and a “cevicheria.” For the record, there was no ceviche or cockails on the menu when we visited. The original location where we dined has been turned into a take-out taqueria (see photo above).  They also have a colorful website www.elpasotaqueria.com and a new, flashy lunch truck proving that, along with a pretty good taco, there’s nothing like what a little publicity from a renowned literary magazine will do for business.

Dem Bones

24 Nov

Continue reading

Cooked in Corona

23 Nov

A few weeks before our trip to La Pollada De Laura, we visited a Thai restaurant in Woodside called Arunee. At the time in 2003, the legend of Sripraphai, the most famous Thai restaurant in Queens, was already cemented. Arunee, on the other hand, in Jackson Heights, was still comparatively undiscovered until Eugene steered us in its direction.  The meal, I recall was spectacular, but, unfortunately it was one of the few, due to a family emergency at home, I never reported on. Queens was our destination again, and what follows is our experience at a Peruvian restaurant called La Pollada de Laura.

La Pollada de Laura
(R.I.P)

Zio’s misadventures driving around Jackson Heights searching feebly for Arunee, the Thai restaurant we last visited, convinced him to take the subway from his love nest in Astoria to our next destination, La Pollada de Laura in Corona.  I also planned on the subway, the 7 train, and before leaving we tried to coordinate it that we would meet at the 103rd St Corona station. To help we came equipped with cell phones.

The Peruvian restaurant Rick chose was located on Northern Boulevard. Having been in Corona only once, when my car broke down on the Long Island Expressway many years ago, I was clueless as to how to get to Northern Boulevard. The Colombians, Mexicans, Dominicans, and others Latin American immigrants were out in large numbers around Roosevelt Avenue on this pleasant Spring night, but getting an answer to my question; which direction was Northern Boulevard, spoken in English, did not produce immediate results. I tried calling Zio’s cell phone but another 7 train had rumbled into the station above muffling any chance I had of communicating with him. Finally, using sign language, I was pointed in the direction of Northern Boulevard. Once clear of the elevated tracks, I was able to make phone contact with Zio who had already found the restaurant. As I made my way the very long five blocks to Northern Boulevard, Zio and I had a running commentary on the bustling neighborhood where even the music from the ice cream trucks had a Latin tinge to it.

Gerry and Eugene were seated and the music was blasting as I entered La Pollada de Laura. Rick soon joined us and after Eugene regaled us with stories of his Times Square Madame Tussaud’s experience, as if we were interested, we were just about ready to order. The menu featured numerous ceviches, a Peruvian staple. Eugene, without elaborating, was determined to sample leche de tigre, otherwise known as “Peruvian Viagra.” The very friendly waitress happily explained the lore of the dish; that among its health benefits was an enhancement of male virility. Not that anyone of us, with the possible exception of Eugene, believed her, but it was the sweetly innocent way she explained it that made us order not one, but two leche de tigres.

Rick had mentioned that the owner of the restaurant, Manny, would help us decide what to order from the menu. But Manny had not arrived, so it was up to the ever-helpful waitress to recommend how we should proceed. Instead of a few different ceviches, she suggested we go with the ceviche mixto, which had a little of everything; fish, octopus, squid, shrimp and conch. I’ve had the famous Peruvian pollo a la brasa (roast chicken) at other Spanish restaurants, but wanted to try it here. We also ordered a jalea grande, a mix of fried fish, shellfish, potatoes accompanied with a salsa criolla, and with a nod from our waitress, lomo saltado de carne; beef with slices of onions, tomatoes and French fries.

While we waited, we were brought a pre-meal snack; tiny pieces of purple, salted corn kernels. They went well with our Peruvian beer, Cusquena. The leche de tigre was first to arrive at our table. Large shrimp and half a blue crab hanging over a tall glass filled with a milky liquid; the “tigers’ milk.” I immediately tasted a spoonful of the liquid—the “leche”—was the juice used to marinate, or “cook” the fish with lemon, lime, cilantro and peppers. And there was only so much of that juice you could actually drink without “cooking” the inside of your own mouth. Virility, male or female, was most definitely needed to down a big glass of leche de tigre.

At most of our food adventures, once the food begins to arrive, there is little room on our table. But we eat quickly not only because we can’t help ourselves, but because the quicker we eat and dispose of a platter, the more room will be found at our table for another entrée.  This night was no exception.  The delicious lomo saltado was devoured before the ceviche mixto even arrived, but still, our table was crammed with a whole pollo a la brasa and a monumental-sized mound of jalea, fried mixed seafood cooked to perfection.  When the ceviche arrived, we found room on the table for the equally large portion; the squid, octopus, fish and other seafood tenderly marinated, smothered in red onions and swimming in the lemon juice.

Manny eventually showed up and brought us his homemade hot sauce. Ignoring Manny’s warning of its intensity, Rick smothered his ceviche with the sauce and soon the sweat was flowing alarmingly from his forehead. Finishing what was on the table seemed impossible, but given time we did not disappoint. We even had room for dessert, trying Manny’s recommendation, mazamorra morada, a crimson-colored gelatinous mess that prompted Zio to make a comment about blood, brains, and shotguns. Though collectively not to our liking, Eugene could not resist mentioning that it was better than the infamous beans of halo halo from Ihawan, the Filipino restaurant we visited a year ago.

Amazingly, all of what we ate came under our budget and then some. As Zio and I tried to walk off the meal in the four blocks to the subway, we wondered how, with prices like that, La Pollada de Laura could actually stay in business. Before either of us could respond, the sound of the number 7 train drowned out any hope of further conversation.

In the book I write about New York City, I recommended pairing a meal at La Pollada de Laura with a visit to the nearby Louis Armstrong House Museum, where the jazz great lived from the 1940’s until his death in 1971. Unfortunately, several years ago, La Pollada de Laura closed thus answering our 2003 question wondering how they could stay in business considering the prices they were charging.

The Fusion Files: Part One

19 Nov

The first in a series now known as The Fusion Files.

 

Fusion? Or con-fusion?

 

 

See you next Tuesday with a new Adventure in Chow City.

 

 

Fire on Grand Street

16 Nov

When we visited Nyonya in early 2003, before the internet food site explosion, the Malaysian restaurant, though located in Little Italy a few doors from the great Di Palo Fine Foods, was still somewhat under the radar. At the time, it had a following, but nothing like it does now. It was our group’s first experience with Malaysian food and the unadulterated heat that distinguishes it.  We like unadulterated—heat or otherwise—so Malaysian food became one of our most repeated cuisines.

Nyonya
199 Grand Street
Little Italy

Zio confided that he had many options for our upcoming food destination, but the thought of crispy pork intestines, beef tripe noodle soup, fresh fish head cooked with lemon grass, and sooi pooi (sour plum) drink which Nyonya, the place he ultimately chose, offered, was too enticing for him to pass on. So all of us, Eugene excepted, who was on a Caribbean cruise and most likely at work on the unlimited buffet line, assembled in the bustling tiki-hut like restaurant in Chinatown. We were the few non-Asians in the restaurant; a very promising sign.

The menu was extensive and when not entranced by the bloated fish swimming in the tank behind our table, we had to concentrate on the task ahead: what to order. Crunch time came and all Zio could come up with after the promise of a variety of organ meats in coconut milk was the relatively conventional mango chicken. Eugene was probably experiencing more exotic fare on his cruise.  Zio’s selection was vociferously vetoed and after much urging switched to the more adventurous, kari ayam, described in the menu as chicken cooked over low heat with lemongrass and chili paste and simmered in thick rich coconut curry. Charlie stuck with chicken as well and gambled on the Hainanese chicken, steamed (room temperature) with a chef’s soy sauce. Gerry ordered the kang kung belacan, which translated meant sautéed “convolus” with spicy Malaysian shrimp paste sauce. We had to ask one of the dozen or so waitresses who were attending to our table for the translation of “convolus,” and were told that it was Malaysian string beans. Rick showed his fortitude by ordering cheng-lai stingray while I went with the comparatively mundane curry spareribs.

 

 

It wasn’t that the promise of gargantuan main courses was not enough for us. It was that Nyona’s appetizers looked much too good on paper to pass up. So we started with the so-called “Malaysian national dish,” roti canai, an Indian pancake with a curry chicken dipping sauce. Chicken satay and Poh Piah, a Malaysian spring roll stuffed with jicama and minced shrimp rounded out our first courses. To drink there was Chinese beer for most of us while Zio insisted instead on the fresh coconut juice. When his drink arrived in half a real coconut and a big straw, we wondered why the pink umbrella was missing.  Zio, oblivious as always, cradled the coconut in his hands and sucked the juice from the straw. We looked at him for a moment, savoring the absurd sight, and then went back to our beer.

The parade of waitresses began piling the food on our table almost immediately and just as quickly we began to devour it, eating the roti canai with our hands, dipping it into the murky, but very tasty curry, pulling at the tender satay, and wondering over the jicama in the spring roll. Rick’s sting ray (a.k.a. skate) was the first entrée to arrive and we picked at the perfectly cooked flesh, dipping it into a fiery sauce. At Nyonya, fiery was the theme; the curry spareribs particularly sinus-clearing while Zio’s chicken, also very spicy and falling off the bone. In fact, all of the food, including the sautéed “convolus” which tasted nothing like string beans, wax beans, green beans or anything else we had previously encountered, was hot with the one exception of Charlie’s wan-looking “room temperature” chicken, which many at the table found unappealing; though Gerry and I thought it’s blandness was the perfect antidote to the heat in the other dishes.

 

 

We worked through all the food at the table with only a few pieces of the above-mentioned Hainanese chicken remaining—and no volunteers to take it home. Our stomachs bloated, no one even mentioned dessert…not even the usually insatiable Zio. In Eugene’s absence, I was left to do the math and after tip and including drinks, we came in one dollar over our $20 budget—meaning, excluding the drinks, that we actually came under budget.


A few years ago Nyonya moved across Grand Street to a shiny new space. It also branched out to Brooklyn with two locations. I’m not sure if now Nyonya would qualify for our group. Too popular. Really almost a chain with three branches in the city. But that is now, and the above was then and none of us had any complaints about what we experienced in 2003.

La Pavoni Love Call

12 Nov

La Pavoni Love Call

Espresso, expresso, call it what you will.

It beckons me each afternoon,

until I’ve had my fill

One shot, two,

No more or I’ll quake, but

without the bittersweet brew,

I would surely ache.

 

Grind it long or short,

careful, not too fine.

I would not want my La Pavoni to

ever cry or whine.

Stamp it down, fit it in tight,

twist it on until it’s just right.

With your thumb, you press the button.

Hear the  hum and feel the warm flush.

But wait, it’s not time, there’s no rush.

 

Listen for the gurgle, and then the hiss.

In just a few moments, you’ll find bliss.

Soon you’ll hear her low earthy call.

Now’s the time for you to really stand tall.

Pull the handle down hard and fast.

No need to be gentle, La Pavoni is built

to last.

 

Hear her sing and watch the nectar

flow.

Sometimes fast.

Sometimes slow.

See the crema on top, so frothy and rich.

What is that stuff anyway?

How does it come out that way?

 

Sugar? No that’s for tea.

I like my espresso pure.

But that’s just me.

 

In the tradition of Don Fanucci,

I suck it down with zest.

You know who I mean,

the Godfather guy,

the one with the white vest.

Don Fanucci: Espresso Lover

And then it’s over,

my cup drained and done.

La Pavoni sighs,

her song sung.

And all that is left,

is a faint pungent flavor

on the tip of my tongue.

 

The Seoul of Jersey

9 Nov

The following trip to New Jersey for Korean food was our first expedition outside of New York City. Gerry, who lives in the suburbs, has been the boldest of us all in finding places beyond New York, often to the major chagrin of the others, myself included. But after our trip to Masil House, no one was complaining. Here is what we experienced in the Korean enclave of Fort Lee.

Masil House
400 Main Street
Fort Lee, New Jersey

 

Gerry was bold and brave in his choice for our most recent food adventure. Not only did he gamble by summoning us across the Hudson River to the shores of Fort Lee, New Jersey, he also chose a place that we discovered upon our arrival, had velvet-covered menus. More used to grease-smeared paper menus, the velvet-covered menus immediately sent up warning signs.  But his was no brash act by someone irresponsibly leading the group astray. No, Gerry deliberated long on the subject taking his assignment extremely seriously. He even committed a first in our year-long gatherings. He, as Rick aptly put it, “called an audible,” switching the destination almost at the last moment from a tofu-laden, seemingly all-vegetarian Korean restaurant  to another Korean restaurant, this one with a barbecue grill in the middle of our table. The barbecue brought with it the promise of an abundance of meats and, though we have nothing against tofu and all the health-benefits it contains, Gerry’s audible was quietly endorsed by all.

 

 

While we waited for Rick’s arrival, we sipped barley tea and studied the thick menus. Gerry suggested we skip the appetizers and stay for the most part with the entrees; that as part of the Korean meal, many side dishes are included with the entrees. After making a few suggestions of our own, we turned over the ordering to Gerry. This was his show. The only exception came from Eugene who insisted we include an order of the stewed baby chicken with ginseng. Eugene’s insistence was based on the claim that we all needed some of the attributes that supposedly are contained in the fabled ancient Asian root.  “Speak for yourself,” Zio barked back to Eugene. And really, where was Eugene when he had the opportunity for “Johnny to get up and stand up” by trying some of the Jamaican Irish Moss drink and some of the other  “health” tonics that were available at Toyamadel, our last get together?

As soon as Gerry completed the order with the patient waiter, the side dishes he had told us about began arriving; aromatic and spicy kimchi, salted anchovies, sugared seaweed, pickled turnips, sesame-seeded soy sauce, vinegar peppers, and other items unidentifiable to me. We began picking at  the condiments as the waiter prepared the barbecue. It was a cold night in New Jersey and the extra warmth from the barbecue as well as from the spicy food was welcome.

Once the coals and grate were hot, pieces of marinated beef short ribs, Bul Gol Bi, removed from the rib were put on the grill. While the beef cooked, we tasted the ginseng chicken, a pancake filled with assorted seafood including shrimp and squid, and a very spicy stew of octopus and noodles. All were flavorful and immense in portion, but it was the barbecue that was the highlight. Like a taco, we wrapped the cooked meat in a lettuce leaf stuffed with condiments such as raw garlic, hot pepper, a garlicky bean paste, and whatever else you wanted to add and ate lustily. Along with the two orders of short ribs, there was one order of sliced marinated pork with peppers and onions.

 

 

As we have been trained to do, we devoured just about everything on the crowded table with only a few small overly-charred pieces of meat remaining on the grill.  It didn’t take long for all the fragrant accompaniments; garlic, cabbage, salted, cured fish, and spices to begin oozing from our pores.  And at the time, sated and satisfied, none of us really cared how truly “aromatic” our Korean feast had made us.

Dessert, apparently, was not an option. We were, however, brought complimentary slices of orange. The oranges had a cleansing effect—a clearing of the palette from the strong redolent assault we had just experienced. The bill came and adding in a very generous tip due to the fact that actual cooking was done by the waiters at our table, it came to $20 each–exactly our prescribed limit.  As it was coming over, crossing the river via the George Washington Bridge back to New York, the traffic was light. Gerry’s Jersey gamble was a success.

I haven’t been back to Fort Lee for Korean food or any other reason since that night in early 2003. Gerry’s success in getting us out of our comfortable New York City environs on this night apparently led him to take even more gambles, with, in many cases, much more mixed results. You will read of them as these adventures continue.

Taco Heaven/Taco Hell

5 Nov

 

Where would He buy his tacos?

 

Heaven?

 

 

Hell?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Have a great weekend. See you Tuesday with a new Adventures in Chow City.

 

Cool Jerk

2 Nov

I had been to Jamaica many times for both business and for vacations and was very familiar with the food. I knew it would be hard to replicate my island experiences, but I was curious to see how this one compared when we visited in December of 2002.

Toyamadel
(Now Known As The Food Hut)
1709 Amsterdam Avenue
Hamilton Heights

The place formerly known as Toyamadel

The wind was howling down the northern fringes of Amsterdam Avenue on a frigid early December night. I was waiting for a transfer to the M101 bus from 135th Street to take me ten blocks up to my destination: Toyamadel, the Jamaican eatery I chose for our stouthearted group of diners. But on this night, the stouthearted were diminished in numbers. Charlie took an early exit by having a tennis match (indoors we hope) scheduled on the evening of our meet while Gerry, due to a family commitment was also absent. So when that 101 finally and thankfully arrived and shuttled me the ten blocks north to Toyamadel, only poor Eugene was waiting, cell phone in hand thinking he would be left deserted on that desolate night in the brightly-lit restaurant dining room surrounded by root tonics and coco bread.

Soon Zio appeared, layered in his favorite arctic gear, and then Rick, more urbane in his noir-New York threads. Whatever your attire, you had to keep the coats on here—the heat from the restaurant’s radiator was feeble at best. Toyamadel was not like our other experiences. With a miniscule dining area, the restaurant was mostly take-out. We didn’t waste time making small talk before ordering from the somewhat beleaguered woman behind the sturdy plexiglass shield.

By 7:30 the menu had been remarkably paired down. Many of the desired items typical of Jamaican cuisine had a blue star next to them. This blue star, we were told, signified they were out of that item. The curry goat was gone. The ital vegetable stew was history. The brown stewed chicken, a memory. The red and the blue snapper: finis.  And to Zio’s dismay, they were even out of the stewed cow foot. But that did not mean we didn’t have anything to choose from. There were still both vegetable and chicken patties available and we tried two of each. The jerk chicken was without a blue star so Eugene and Phil quickly ordered it. I went for the stewed codfish, an item from the breakfast menu that had remarkably survived until dinner while Rick decided on the oxtails. The next major decision was the size of our dinner. Behind the shield and near the menu there were displays of the $6, $8, or $10 portions. The empty $10 portion plate just didn’t look like much up there on the display, so, without really any hesitation, we went for the biggest portion.

 

 

The drink menu, though non-alcoholic, was extensive. None of us were courageous enough to sample any of the pricey herbal tonics on the menu such as “Doctor Bird Bitters,” “Sun Dial Wood Root,” “Groundation Root,” “Root Force,”  “Rage Roots,” “SSS Tonic,” and “Irish Moss” that promised, among other things, to help get “Johnny” in the words of Bob Marley, to “get up, and stand up.” The prospect that presented was, considering our motley group, just too frightening to even consider, so we stuck to more familiar fare; lemonade, ginger beer and the Caribbean Christmas specialty, Sorrel, which Eugene sampled and immediately approved of. Months after the sweet bean dessert experience at the Filipino restaurant in Queens, Eugene, it seems, was still having difficulties coming to terms with the fact that what was supposed to be a sweet fruit dessert had cannellini beans in it. Something about those beans had, evidently, struck a primal chord in his subconscious memory. But Eugene’s subconscious was an area we really did not want to explore.

The patties were slipped to us in a brown paper bag under the plastic shield. Topped with Pickapeppa sauce, both the chicken and vegetable varieties were quickly devoured. The $10 dinners came next; the tins in which they were served weighed down with meat, rice and peas, plantains and salad. My stewed codfish was tender and not overly salty. But the combination of rice and peas, yams and plantains—a serious starch overload—was doing me in.

Being the jerk aficionado I am, I had to sample Zio’s chicken. With the possible exception of what I’ve prepared on a Weber grill, back in the days when I had a Weber grill, I’ve not had jerk chicken replicated anywhere near what you can get in Jamaica. Toyamadel, I’m afraid, was no exception. The chicken was tender and the sauce flavorful, though not too fiery. But it just didn’t have that smoky, earthy flavor you get when ordering from an open air jerk stand on the island.

As usual, we over-ordered, the $8 plates would have been more than enough. But that didn’t stop Zio and I from consuming slices of a freshly made carrot cake. By the time we paid, $14 per person, well under our allotted $20, there were even more blue stars next to items. But the customers kept coming. And the door kept opening and closing with freezing regularity.

Toyamadel closed soon after we visited and reopened as “The Food Hut.”  I returned recently and noted that the menu was exactly the same as I remembered nor were any alterations made to the bare bones interior. Even the prices had remarkably held with plates ranging from $6 to $10 dollars.  I tried a veggie and beef patty; ordering at the steam table and then paying and receiving my order under the plexiglass shield just as I had eight years earlier.  Grateful that some things just don’t change, I found a seat at one of the tiny restaurant’s tables and ate the patties.


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