Archive | February, 2011

And the Answer is…

28 Feb

On Friday I gave you a simple red curtain. Here it is again.

Now,  a few hours after taking the above picture. They wait in line…

…to get here.

So they can eat this.

 

Burger Joint Burger

 

Yes, it’s the Burger Joint off the lobby of Le Parker Meridien Hotel.  The burgers here are rated by many as the best in New York City. And I just might have to agree. This one had you stumped.  No one knew what was behind that red curtain.  Last month’s was too easy; this one too difficult. Where is that middle ground? Maybe we’ll all find it the next time we play Name That Place.

Name that Place

25 Feb

The clamoring for another round of Name that Place has been deafening. So back by popular demand is the newest Name that Place challenge. In the last game, I was rightly criticized for making the image, along with a couple of hints, much too obvious. This time I plan on making all you contestants work a little.  Take a look below:

What’s behind that red curtain?

It’s a simple blood  red curtain, is it not? But often there are long lines to get to the carnivorous treasures  behind that curtain. And that’s as much as I’m saying.

Let me know your answers in the comments section below and on Monday I will reveal the “place.” Once again, all winners will be treated to a year’s subscription of Fried Neck Bones…and Some Home Fries; an award with an indeterminable monetary value, yet considered by many, priceless.

Spice Tsunami

22 Feb

Upi Jaya, of which I have written of below, was our first experience as a group with Indonesian food. We still had not replaced Charlie and for this venture were only four. After eating at Upi Jaya, I think those of us that were present were unanimous in proclaiming the restaurant, along with Tandoori Hut and Malaysian Rasa Sayang as our top three places in the three years we had been gathering for these dinners.

 

Upi Jaya
76-04 Woodside Aveue
Elmhurst


 

Upon awakening the morning after eating at Upi Jaya my youngest son shrieked, my wife cowered, and the dog sniffed curiously around me. It was as if there had been a full moon and I had been out all night stalking fresh meat in the forest. There was a raw, coarse odor permeating from my pores; something earthy, yet not of this earth.

It has been a very tough year for Indonesia. The tsunami devastated many of the islands and the earthquake last month added another tragic punch. We’ve all donated to tsunami relief, but I thought that bringing our intrepid group to eat at this Indonesian restaurant in Elmhurst, Queens, one of only five in New York, would, in some small way, help the suffering economy thousands of miles and half a world away. And at the same time we would be satisfying our collective consciences, we would be happily filling our already bloated stomachs.

 

 

Rick was a late scratch so there were only four of us for this outing, but Som, the owner of Upi Jaya and a very helpful host, had a table ready. He was anxious for us to try Indonesian cuisine and pleased that we were the adventurous types who were willing to take on anything. And here that meant pulling no punches when it came to the spice meter. None of us had really ever had authentic Indonesian food, so just about everything on the menu was virgin territory. We left the ordering in Som’s very capable hands.

While we waited for our food, Indonesian Karaoke tracks with videos were playing on the television. With the words slowly displayed on the screen, we soon were getting the hang of the tricky Malay language spoken in Indonesia. But the music and the videos were, after a bit, just a distraction to the food. To start, Som brought out one of the specialties of the house, gado gado, a mixed salad smothered in a spicy, though not hiccup-inducing, peanut sauce—kind of an Indonesian cole slaw. Along with the salad, we had pempek kapal selam, a broiled fish cake with a cooked egg yolk inside, served in a hot and sour, cold soup like sauce, and the one familiar item on the menu, beef sate, though the dark, spicy peanut sauce was different than what I’ve had in Thai and Malaysian restaurants.

 

 

The most famous item on the menu, according to Som, was rending padang, pieces of beef rubbed in a fiery paste and slow cooked to absolute tenderness. We ordered the small portion, which was more than enough for our group especially since, with the heat in the dish  being truly volcanic, a little went a very long way. Then there were the curry beef ribs in a chili/garlic coconut milk sauce and shrimp broiled and cooked with chopped chili peppers. The only relief for the spice assault was the white rice—and that, with shaved fried garlic bits on top, even had a bite to it. Finally, Som recommended a vegetable which we, thinking it would be a cooling alternative, gladly agreed to. But we should have known better; the sayur daun singkong, a soup of kale and coconut leaf also had a sizzling snap to it.

The waiter kept the water coming, but it did nothing to diminish the heat in our mouths. Some might think eating hot spicy food like what was served at Upi Jaya is a masochistic experience, but they are wrong. If done right, as it was here, the experience is thrilling; almost cleansing in a way. We were having food that yes had intense heat, but it also had intense flavor and for the first time all winter, at least temporarily, my sinuses actually seemed clear. But would I risk a night banished from the bed and quarantined from my children to repeat the experience? I think, for another taste of the amazing rending padang, I might just risk it and I’m sure, if necessary,  Zio would allow me refuge at his Astoria love shack.

 

 

Upi Jaya is, thankfully, still in business but I, unfortunately, have never been back since that early spring evening in 2005. A big mistake on my part and one I hope to rectify very soon.

Goomba Joe’s Polpette

18 Feb

What’s with the meatball? It’s become the hot, trendy food item lately. You see them everywhere, made from all kinds of things. Lamb, beans, raisins, pine nuts, chicken, turkey, and salmon are just some of the ingredients you might find in what is loosely called a “meatball.” Then they serve it with brown gravy, chili sauce, salsa verde, or whatever else they might think goes well with their particular “meatball.” There’s even a place here in New York called The Meatball Shop where that’s all they serve—five different kinds of meatballs daily including a “special.” I haven’t been there yet, but when I do go, I want my meatball straight up.

When I was young, my family didn’t even call them meatballs. They were, I always thought, “porpetta;” the Calabrese dialect my grandparents used instead of the classic Italian “polpette.” Or maybe my grandparents pronounced it correctly and it was I who skewed it to “porpetta,” but I don’t think so. Anyway, my grandmother’s “porpetta” were as close to perfection as anything she made, and that’s saying a lot. And I’m grateful that the smell of the meatballs frying on a Sunday morning is permanently ingrained in my memory. When I got older and was on my own, I would watch her make them, but never really took notes and she refused to give out her recipes. I’ve tried to replicate my grandmother’s porpetta,  but have always fallen short in some way; too tough, too spicy, whatever.

About a decade ago, after moving into a new apartment building, I befriended an Italian-American neighbor who I bonded with through our mutual love of food, and Italian food in particular. He was a skilled, home-style cook and the smells emanating from his apartment were similar to what I remember coming from my grandmother’s kitchen. He often invited my family to dinners at his apartment where he would mix cuisines in the menu of the evening usually combining Italian with Puerto Rican food in respect for his long time partner who hailed from that Caribbean island. It might be, for example, spaghetti with homemade pesto (using basil grown on his terrace) along with pernil (roast pork) and rice and gandules. But no matter what was on the menu, you could always count on some sort of pasta dish. One of our first dinners together, my friend, Giuseppe, who I kiddingly called “Mamma G” because of his prowess in the kitchen, served my family meatballs. After a taste of one, I was astounded. Did he know Anna Magaro, my grandmother? These were very close to hers. I needed the recipe.

A few days later he emailed me his detailed meatball recipe, he titled “Goomba Joe’s Polpette.” I’ve copied below exactly what he sent me many years ago with a few of my own notes added, and it’s as reliable as you will find if you have any interest in making the traditional Neapolitan Italian meatball.

The meat.

Ingredients

1lb of ground chuck

½ lb of ground pork

(both in a large bowl)

Hard Italian bread (no shortening) about 1/3 of the meat volume. Soak in H20, squeeze well and crumble (irregular sizes ok) over the meat. (Never use bread crumbs, you get cement balls).

Never use bread crumbs!

Salt (careful, if cheese is salty)

Black pepper (I like corns, medium grind). I’m not stingy

2-3 eggs (size counts)

Romano or Parma grated cheese (more; less?; ample)

Fistful of Italian flat parsley, chopped coarsely (not minced)

2-3 cloves of garlic* minced coarsely (I have occasionally used minced onion, but that’s not Napolitano traditional).

The mess before mixing.

Mix the whole mess with hands so that all the stuff is more or less evenly distributed.

Roll into balls, size matters—whatever you want. (My Ma used to dip her hands in a bit of cold water as she rolled; I don’t seem to find that necessary).

Size matters.

Estimate ½ the altitude of the balls and pour olive oil (could be veggie), but don’t waste XV** for this. Bring to solid frying heat and FRY your balls. Don’t crowd. If oil is deep enough, you may get away with turning them over ONCE. They should end up golden brown. They may not be totally cooked inside, but since they will go into gravy***, not to worry. Drain on a brown paper bag (Ha Ha!). Cover lightly at back of stove till ready to “sauce.”

Don’t crowd them.

Eliz**** adds the polpette to the gravy only for the last ½ hour or so before serving. She says they rob the gravy of the liquid; also, they may break up. A longer time at low or warm would not be a tragedy.

Note: MB’s are not meant to flavor the gravy, so your marinaras should work well.

Another note: After frying, strain the fry oil for future use. Put some sauce in the pan and deglaze all those goodies. Put the stuff in the sauce (or gravy) pot for even added flavor.

My notes:

*I don’t believe my grandmother used garlic in the meatballs and I’ve since eliminated it. Garlic is my very good friend, but I put plenty in my sauce so a double whammy, I find, isn’t necessary and the meatball has a milder flavor and closer to what I remember from my grandmother’s.

**Giuseppe’s “XV’ was his abbreviation for Extra Virgin.

***He called it gravy. I called it sauce. The right terminology for what we were making was a constant battle between us but more on that for another day.

****Eliz was Giuseppe’s mother, now deceased.

Goomba Joe’s Polpette

In memory of Joseph “Goomba Joe/Mamma G” Peluso, July 17, 1929-February 7, 2011.

The Pierogies of Old Poland

15 Feb

I had never been to Greenpoint, Brooklyn before our visit to Old Poland Bakery & Restaurant in early 2005. It was an eye-opener in some ways to me. First, it’s not easy to get there from Manhattan via public transportation. The closest train is the G train which has no Manhattan stops. You need to take either the L to Lorimer Street in Williamsburg and switch to the G or take the 7 to Queens where you can connect to the G at 45 Road. Maybe because it’s so inaccessible that it has remained a strong Polish enclave. At least it was that way in 2005 when I visited and wrote what appears below.

Old Poland Bakery: circa 2005

Old Poland Bakery & Restaurant
(Now Northside Bakery)
190 Nassau Avenue,
Greenpoint

Rick deliberated long and hard before choosing the Old Poland Bakery & Restaurant in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. And the fact that whenever he called the place and asked—in English—about a reservation and to make sure they would be still open when we got there they hung up on him, was either a very good sign or we were in big trouble. But when we arrived, saw the faces that populated the restaurant—yes we were still in New York—and noticed the prices of the food written in magic marker on cardboard, we quickly realized that we might just have hit the mother lode. That this brightly-lit combination bakery and Polish diner was exactly what we all yearned to discover.

Of course there was a television and of course on the television was a Polish station with Polish cartoons and news of the Polish football league. Both were watched silently and intently by men with ample guts, close-cropped hair, ruddy faces and wearing colorful sweaters. Rick and I hoped for some help with the menu and some guidance on what we should order but our request was met with a blank stare and then a shrug by the pretty woman taking orders behind the counter. There was no table service here; you had to go up and pay when you ordered. We decided we should take shifts in ordering. I had the first shift and choose a selection of pierogies; meat, potato, and sauerkraut, and cheese blintzes. Inexplicably, the same pretty woman this time had no difficulty understanding me. While waiting we sampled a variety of Polish beers that, beyond their colorful names and labels, were not worth remembering though they did add a balance to the density of the pierogies. This starter selection of starch was seriously testing our mettle.

 

 

The next round—and really the last included something called a “Polish Plate.” With a name like that how could we pass it up? We also agreed on pork tenderloin, lima bean stew, and at Eugene’s unexplained insistence, that old Polish favorite, roast beef. The Polish plate consisted of a variety of Polish favorites like grilled kielbasa, potato pancake, more of those feathery pierogies, and an excellent meatloaf accompanied by pickled beets and red cabbage. The pork tenderloin was cooked perfectly and smothered in a thick, but not overly rich gravy. The surprise favorite of our selections was the lima bean stew, with chunks of smoked sausage and in a dense cabbage broth it was most definitely a hearty meal. The roast beef? Think college cafeteria.

Zio, who in less than a week would become a nonno, braved the bakery section and ordered carrot cake and a chocolate-covered cream puff, that was rivaled only by the sauerkraut filled pierogi in its density-quotient. But food density had yet to thwart Zio.

Though I wouldn’t put the cuisine of Eastern Europe high on my very long list of ethnic food favorites, a visit to Greenpoint where the Old Poland Bakery & Restaurant was located was worth it for the “we’re in another world” factor alone. Not to mention the ridiculously low tab of $11 per person including beers.

 

 

But things change. Though still a Polish enclave for sure, gentrification has crept into Greenpoint despite how difficult it is to reach via public transportations. The growth of nearby Williamsburg has extended into Greenpoint with new developments and restorations of single and two-family homes. Old Poland Bakery is now called the Northside Bakery (a Division of Old Poland Foods) and when I recently visited, I noticed that the space had been compressed into half of what I remembered. There is a small food counter and bakery space with now just a few tables. There was a television, and the patrons and women behind the counter were glancing at it, but not Polish news, cartoons, or sports;  instead they were all watching “The View.”

The Fusion Files: Part Three

11 Feb

If all else fails, there is salt and pepper.

Why does Spanish get top billing? They should at least consider listing their eating  options alphabetically to prevent any type of conspiracy thinking or to further fuel border conflicts whether in North America or South East Asia.

Have a great weekend. Adventures in Chow City returns on Tuesday.

Pho Unrated

8 Feb

Our visit to Pho Viet Huong marked our group’s third anniversary. It also was our first without original member, Charlie. We were now down to five and needed to decide whether to bring in a sixth again and if so, who might be a good fit for us. It had to be someone with the advanced qualifications of being able to eat huge quantities without shame and with no dietary restrictions or taboos. Also someone who might just display their own foibles while blending within the particular eccentricities of a few of our current members, myself included. It would be awhile before we found that person.

Pho Viet Huong
73 Mulberry St,
Chinatown

 

 

Eugene was becoming suspicious. Because we could not meet last month, he was beginning to believe that we were purposely delaying his well-researched pick of Pho Viet Huong on Mulberry Street in Chinatown; that the man who regaled us with tales of his “Crocodile Dundee (I & II)” viewings was somehow being slighted in our strict order of things. Nothing could be further from the truth. Eugene conveniently forgot that it was he who steered us to one of our greatest finds to date: Tandoori Hut; albeit the same man who made us trudge out to Brighton Beach for Café Glechick and the still talked about fermented raisin “soft” drink, kavas. After a two-month layoff for reasons beyond everyone’s control, we were more than ready to resume, minus Charlie who declared he would be on at least a six-month sabbatical while he sampled the culinary goodies around his new residence of Emmaus, PA, if there was such a thing.

 

 

But instead of gambling on a Queens or Brooklyn destination, Eugene played it safe with his Vietnamese Chinatown pick. And when, after Zio and I arrived in the restaurant and declared that we had previously eaten at Pho Viet Huong, recognizing it not by its name but by its location and decor, I could tell he immediately regretted not choosing the Tibetan place he had earlier hinted at.

I certainly wasn’t complaining that we were in Chinatown. The weather was typically miserable, as it often seems to be when we convene. An easy, safe destination was fine with me and Zio, though he had already dined at Pho Viet Huong, never had the opportunity to sample the frogs’ legs. He wasn’t going miss out this time.

Our very eager waiter was ready to get going. The menu was vast and needed intense studying. To make things somewhat manageable, we first concentrated on appetizers including the odd pairing of barbecue beef wrapped in grape leaves, something called grilled pork hash, and a Vietnamese crepe stuffed with shrimp and pork. I was suffering from a serious head cold and knowing how proficient the Vietnamese are with their soups, thought we should order one large soup to share. The waiter, for some reason, most likely a language barrier, seemed reluctant to admit that the $9 soup could be shared by all. A few minutes later, however, he returned happily with the huge bowl and five separate small bowls. The soup was hot and sour shrimp and it had enough fire to begin to open up my clamped sinuses. All the appetizers were exemplary, the barbecue beef wrapped in grape leaves nothing like what you would experience in a middle-eastern or Mediterranean restaurant.

 

 

We now had the time to concentrate on entrees and Zio wasted little time requesting the frogs’ legs with curry in a casserole. Rick ordered the whole fish that, when it arrived, had been fried to oblivion and covered in a lemon grass sauce, that I could not really taste that was no fault of the restaurant’s but due to my taste buds being severely compromised by my head cold. I could, however, surmise that Zio’s frog’s legs were so tough they were pretty much inedible, that Gerry’s pork with black pepper in a brown sauce was too similar to the generic “brown sauce” I’ve experienced in numerous Chinese restaurants, and that Eugene’s curry shrimp over rice vermicelli, simple though it appeared and inexpensive at only $5 had the most flavor and, in my head-clogged condition was the best of our selected entrees.

 

 

Though not on the spectacular level of our previous outing, Malaysian Rasa Sayang, Pho Viet Huong, as long as you can pare through the extensive menu, concentrate more on the soups and appetizers, and ignore the temptation for the overly-exotic like frogs’ legs—something we, and Zio especially, have a tough time doing, was an admirable selection by Eugene.

Pho Viet Huong lives on and from what I can tell, has prospered. They’ve even received an “A” from the New York City Department of Health, which they display proudly and prominently in the restaurant’s front window.

Obsession Confession

4 Feb

I see the sign.

It says 17 Mott

I should move on.

I should not stop.

But how can I,

when the sign also says,

Wo Hop?

I look around,

I keep my head down.

No one must see me.

No one must know.

There’s still time,

I don’t have to go.

Down into the dark.

The steep stairs are in front of me.

I know what lies below.

I hesitate, for just a moment

before starting down.

One step, two,

I move very slow.

Three and four

Just a few more,

and I’m through the door.

My heart races at what I’ve done,

but I no longer care,

because soon

I’ll be eating chow fun.

I’m inside now, where the neon is bright.

The walls covered with pictures of celebrities,

some real, some slight.

Like me, they all succumb

to 17 Mott’s guilty pleasures,

like wor shu duck,

and vegetables subgum.

Someday I hope to have my picture on the wall.

The man in the blue shirt is there with water and tea.

Two clear glasses, brought only for me.

“You ready?” he asks as soon as I sit.

I’m too nervous to answer.

I don’t know what to say.

Disgusted, he leaves in a fit.

The men in the blue shirts.

The menu is so vast, I need my specs.

Why did I do it?

Why did I make the trek?

The food is no good,

at least that’s what they say.

Much better for sure, just a few blocks up the way.

Maybe there’s something wrong with me?

Maybe I’m a little insane?

But how can I resist,

the 3D lo mein?

He brings the soup

with the wontons and egg drop.

I look at him.

He knows I have no control

“Fried noodles?”

My head lowers in shame.

He knows I can’t stop.

The noodles, moist with fat,

come with mustard,

and duck sauce too.

The grease coats my fingers.

I want to lick them.

Oh, Lord, what am I to do?

The soup is gone.

My eyes droop

and my jaw goes numb.

I know what it is.

I know what makes it that way.

It’s supposed to be bad for you.

Yet I come anyway.

Now there’s more on the table.

A mound of chicken kew,

sweet and pungent,

and roast pork fried rice too.

I dig through the cornstarch-thickened glaze.

Shoveling it down,

eating it all,

despite my MSG-induced daze.

Many dirty napkins later,

he brings the little paper

with writing I do not understand.

And on top,

one plastic-wrapped fortune cookie.

I tear and I claw.

I bite and I chew.

It should be easy,

but it’s no use.

My fortune goes unread,

my fingers too greasy.

I’ve paid now.

It’s time to leave.

I walk up the stairs,

keeping my hat low.

Quicker now,

I’m almost out.

No one must see me.

No one must know.

I walk quickly away

from 17 Mott.

Never to return,

I say every time.

But then I’m on Mott Street.

And I see the sign.

Back up into the light.

Happy Chinese New Year to all my friends.  See you again on Tuesday for another installment of Adventures in Chow City.

Malaysian Zoloft

1 Feb

I tried to stay away from politics and/or timely events while writing this recaps of our restaurant experiences, but this one, November 4, 2004, was just too close and fresh to just ignore. And in the case of Malaysian Rasa Sayang, our experience was affected by those events.

Malaysian Rasa Sayang
R.I.P

Bad

The rain was coming down hard—a sense of gloom had enveloped the city and was evident even in multi-ethnic Elmhurst, Queens. It was two days after the election of 2004. We had not planned this dinner to be a post-mortem, but the chance was always there and now it was up to Zio’s well-researched selection of Malaysian Rasa Sayang to boost our sagging spirits. Eugene was the first to arrive and it was evident that his spirits were far from sagged: he didn’t care that Bush recaptured the White House, all that mattered to him was that his Red Sox finally did in the Yankees and won a World Series.  Eugene was in prime form to sample the cuisine of Malaysia. And, so were we all—anything to divert us from the sad political reality of the day.

Worse

The menu featured 183 items plus 16 house specials, but Gerry’s eyes zeroed immediately in on the crispy pork intestines appetizer which he demanded we order. No one was in a debating mood and maybe a big plate of crispy pork intestines would zap us out of our collective funk. I was intrigued by item number 9, simply called “rojak,” described as a “cool delicious crunchy medley of pineapple, cucumber, jicama, and mango cubes with squid & shrimp crackers and our intensely flavoured shrimp-paste & pulverized peanuts.” Intense flavor is what we always seek, so rojak seemed like a natural. The popiah roll, a steamed roll filled with shrimp, tofu and egg was Zio’s recommendation while I suggested the roti canai,  a pancake-like bread served with a curry dipping sauce.

Intestinal relief.

The pork intestines, thankfully accompanied by two dipping sauces, was the first dish to arrive. They were followed by the popiah roll, the roti canai, and finally, a big plate of rojak, which certainly lived up to it’s intensely-flavored billing.

With help from our waiter, who had the look of an aging horse jockey, we began ordering more from the vast menu. He steered me confidently to the kang kung with belecan Sauce, kang kung, he explained as being the Malaysian equivalent of watercress. He also suggested number 66 on the menu, chow kueh teaw, which he claimed were noodles “very popular in Malaysia.” Zio, for some unknown reason was committed to the sarang burong, described as shaped fried taro with shrimp, chicken, and mixed vegetables topped with cashews while Eugene insisted on beef renang, cubes of beef shank slow cooked to “perfect tenderness” in a rich dry curry sauce.  Gerry settled on number 78, the steamed fish with bean sauce.

Kang Kung

In no particular order, the dishes arrived on our round table. The kang kung, looking like something found growing wild on the shores of the Amazon, was sautéed with garlic   had a crunchy, though not impenetrable consistency. The whole fish, a tilapia, taking up much of the space on the table, sat on a huge platter covered in a sweet and spicy bean sauce while the sarang burong appeared like hollowed out gourd stuffed with vegetables, shrimp, and chicken. Lastly came a big bowl of beef rendang, a fiery, Asian version of beef stew. I’m not sure of the exact moment, but it could have been when I was carefully excising a fish bone from the back of my throat when Eugene, as if we were interested, informed us that he once rode a bus to Radio City Music Hall driven by former New York Yankee, Joe Pepitone’s cousin.  It was soon after that, maybe when soaking up the sauce from the beef rendang in the coconut rice, when we all learned, also by way of Eugene that this day also happened to be Ralph Macchio’s (The Karate Kid) 43rd birthday. It was tidbits like these that made Eugene such a fountain of knowledge.

 

 

Again, as is our custom, all the plates were picked clean, including the skeleton of the tilapia. Our taste buds had been intensely flavored and for a few hours at least we forgot about the uncertain future. But then we walked out into the rain. And speaking for myself, it would take a few more meals on the level of Malaysian Rasa Sayang to ultimately remove the bitter taste in my mouth.

Now more than a full election cycle and a half since our dinner at Malaysian Rasa Sayang and it’s almost as if nothing has changed in terms of our “uncertain future.” The future for  Malaysian Rasa Sayang was even worse than uncertain. It is no more replaced instead by a Thai restaurant.

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