Archive | November, 2011

A Slice of Ernie Ottuso Square

29 Nov

Louie & Ernie’s Pizza
1300 Crosby Avenue
The Bronx

The day after dining at Louie & Ernie’s pizza in the Pelham Bay section of the Bronx, I saw a man wearing a John’s Pizza t-shirt that proudly and in quotes stated “No Slices.”  I’ve been to John’s on Bleecker Street several times. It’s one of just a few remaining of the city’s original Italian-American, coal-fired, brick oven places. And they make a decent pie, though now, with a branch in Times Square, on the Upper East Side, and in Jersey City, they have slipped a bit into tourist trap mode. And, no, they don’t serve slices. You have to wait for a table (and sometimes the waits are interminable) and order a whole pie. Now there is nothing wrong with that, but the proclamation on the t shirt was, after sampling Louie & Ernie’s where they, refreshingly, do serve slices, took, in my opinion, pizza arrogance to a level it should never go to. Maybe John’s really doesn’t mean it, but the “no slices” policy implies that because  they don’t serve slices, their pizza is better than those who do. Or maybe I’m just a little oversensitive.

Yeah, yeah, we know.

With our group in full attendance for this, Zio’s pick, we immediately found out that there was no such pretension at Louie & Ernie’s. Located below a typical Bronx 1950’s row house, on a stretch of Crosby Avenue renamed Ernie Ottuso Square after one of the original owners, and with the constant roar of arriving planes into LaGuardia above, this was old school New York pizza, slices and all.

The six of us squeezed into one of the small pizzeria’s largest tables and glanced at the menu. There were no surprises; pizza and calzones was all they served. Anchovies, meatballs, sausage, and all the other usual toppings were available. But, according to the accolades on the walls from various publications, it was the white pizza and the calzones, including a broccoli rabe calzone, that were the standouts at Louie & Ernie’s.

A slice of white.

We ordered three pizzas: a fresh garlic, sausage and onion, and a white pizza along with a few broccoli rabe calzones; the greens a little something to offset the starch onslaught.

All the pizzas had thin, nicely charred crusts from a conventional pizza oven. The combination of sauce to cheese was balanced properly and both ingredients fresh and flavorful. Oozing with creamy fresh ricotta and mozzarella was the white pie and it was as good as advertised.

The calzone

The sausage, out of its casing and crumbled in clumps, made in house was tangy with bits of fennel but unfortunately was paired with onion which overwhelmed both the sausage and the sauce. The pie with the addition of fresh garlic was a mistake and unnecessary. Good pizza really should be eaten with as little adornments as possible. Despite these very minor shortcomings, we devoured the pies, and the outstanding calzones, oblivious of the ongoing football game that was broadcast on the television in the front of the restaurant. Even our chatter was kept to a minimum, so intent were we on our mission.

Not even football could distract us from our mission.

With just a few bites remaining of the multiple pies, Zio turned to me and in a soft tone said, “Did you think the sausage was a bit undercooked?”

I replied that I did not and went back to finishing the pizza but was distracted when I noticed Zio’s finger in his mouth, probing for something.

Does the sausage look undercooked?

“I think I chipped a tooth,” he hissed.

On what, we wondered? The creamy mozzarella? The broccoli rabe? He opened his mouth displaying a tiny gap in his front teeth that wasn’t there before. He now bore an eerie resemblance to the British actor from the 1950’s Terry Thomas, but with a Sonny Bono haircut and smile. He had indeed chipped a tooth. But he shrugged it off, not holding it against Louie & Ernie’s, even ordering two broccoli rabe calzones to go.

Did Terry Thomas lose a tooth eating Louie & Ernie’s Pizza?

To add to our starch intake, Theresa’s Bakery next door offered freshly made cannolis. It was a mild night and we ate ours standing outside Louie & Ernie’s while children played, dogs were walked, and the planes above continued to make their descent into LaGuardia.

A Green(s) Thanksgiving

24 Nov

Chop and wash the collard greens (enough to fill up a large pot).

Chop one large onion.

Mince two cloves of garlic.

Take a big pot and saute the onion and garlic in the olive oil until they soften, careful, don’t burn the garlic.

Throw in a few smoked turkey necks or turkey wings (optional).

Add the chopped greens until the top of the pot can barely be covered.

Add about three cups of chicken or vegetable stock.

Sprinkle in some dried hot red pepper.

Salt to taste.

Bring to simmer and cook about an hour or until the greens are tender.

Add a tablespoon of cider vinegar and a few dashes of Tabasco for some extra kick.

Enjoy with turkey.

He who hesitates…

The Place Where They Don’t Count the Shrimp

22 Nov

1200 Castle Hill Ave

Zio and I were waiting in front of Sabrosura for Gerry, Mike from Yonkers, and Eugene to arrive. The corner restaurant had a no reservations policy and also one where the full party had to arrive before being seated. The latter policy usually reeks of arrogance and over confidence; the restaurant thinking that holding tables with one or two people of a larger party will slow down the turnover.  But despite the policy, Sabrosura showed no signs of pretension or arrogance and when I first entered, the owner, a pleasant man of Chinese heritage, who, I later learned was born and raised in Santo Domingo, took my name and offered me a very small seat near the busy take-out section of the restaurant where I could wait for the others. The night was mild, however, so Zio and I chose to wait outside.

“The food’s the best around here,” said a man who had exited the restaurant behind me and observed my situation. “It’s worth the wait.”

After our last couple of outings; mediocre African in Harlem and tasteless Fujinese in Chinatown where we struggled through webbed duck feet, fish stomach, and a very spiny eel, I thought we needed to get back to basics. And Chino-Latino, the food offered by Sabrosura, was as basic as it got for me.

One of the first restaurants I dined in after moving into the city was a dingy place on West 72nd Street called La Dinastia. It served Latino specialties like rice and beans, huge plates of roast chicken with platanos or maduras (green or ripe plantains) ropa vieja (shredded beef), picadillo (spiced ground beef) and fried king fish along with Chinese-American staples; wonton soup, barbecued ribs, lo mein, fried rice, and sweet and sour pork. To me, at the time, it was a revelation. It was cheap. It was hearty. And the restaurant’s total lack of atmosphere perfect fodder to my then creatively downscale brain. Friends I brought to La Dinastia didn’t always agree and it was nicknamed by one as “Dinasty”. But that just spurred my loyalty to the place. Even the presence of a dead cockroach floating in the duck sauce one time I dined there did not sour me on the restaurant. That, in a way, was part of its appeal.

La Dinastia, now known as DInastia China

“They don’t count the shrimp or anything,” the man, who was in his early thirties, burly, wearing a tight sport jacket, neck tie loose and collar half turned up, who told us he was Dominican, added. “The other places around here…they only give you a few shrimps in your asopao. This is the place to come in Castle Hill.”

We didn’t have to prod him for information about Sabrosura or the state of dining on Castle Hill Avenue where Sabrosura was located; it flowed from him…until he got the signal that his take-out order was ready.

We spotted Eugene and Gerry in Eugene’s car looking for a parking spot. Zio and I went in the restaurant, but still they were hesitant to seat us. “Looking for a parking spot? Ha, that’s what they all say.”

Upon quickly glancing at the colorful menu filled with photographs of many of the various dishes, Eugene, obviously still stinging from our last inedible experience blurted; “Finally, there’s something we can eat here.”

And he was right, but the menu was vast and offered a number of combinations, some in triplicate, and even including Chino-Latino “Bento Boxes,” so the dilemma for us was to narrow the options down.

One thing La Dinastia, or most of the Chino-Latino restaurants I ever visited never had was that Puerto Rican/Dominican specialty, a mash of twice fried plantains, pork cracklings and garlic called mofongo. Sabrosura had a number of different types available and, as the menu stated “All mofongos normally include garlic and crispy pork skin; if you don’t want either, just let us know!” That was the kind of place Sabrosura was; anything for their customers. But we most definitely wanted garlic and pork skin with our mofongo and we wanted ours with shrimp. Gerry was concerned that one would not be enough until he saw that size of the bowl that was coming our way. The huge bowl was  a hollowed out mofongo filled with shrimp in a tomato-based gravy and topped with a few slices of avocado.

Chinese Chop Suey Soup

Along with the mofongo to start, I couldn’t resist trying the “Chinese chop suey soup.” My experience at Chino-Latino restaurants was that the soups were actually very good; whether they were wonton, or called “Chinese soup,” or “Special Chinese soup,” they were usually in a light chicken broth, brimming with bok choy, cabbage, bean sprouts, noodles and bits of roast pork, ham, and shrimp. At Sabrosura they didn’t care if they used the very old school word “chop suey” to describe their soup and neither did I. What I tasted was reassuringly familiar and after finishing it, left me, predictably, with a slight MSG buzz.

Bourbon boneless ribs and plantains

The feast proceeded from there. Mike from Yonkers slowly devouring a monstrous platter of broiled fish that looked exactly as it did on the menu. Eugene working his way through a combination called the “Mojito;” roast chicken and boneless bourbon barbecued ribs.  Zio experimenting with a Bento Box of fried fish, pork, and anything else that might immediately stop his heart. Gerry digging through a mound of fried rice topped with shrimp and squid called chofan, and I with my old standby, ropa vieja with yellow rice.  No one complained. No one moaned. Everything was eaten.

“old clothes” with yellow rice

After a sampling of the restaurant’s excellent flan, we staggered out onto Castle Hill Avenue all of us very happy that at Sabrosura, they do not count the shrimp.

Saltfish Season

18 Nov

I’m not sure why,  but the chill in the air  and the impending holiday season brings on a distinctive and maybe unnatural craving for the taste of saltfish. Also known to Italians as baccala,(a ditty to that Christmas Eve treat was published in these pages last year titled Baccala Blues )to those of Spanish background as bacalao, and to the Portuguese as bacalhau,  Saltfish is the West Indian name for what we know as salt cod.

Not the most appetizing to look at or, for some, to smell, but after the dry, salted fish is soaked to rehydrate it to a moist tenderness and then simmered,  a man can get very used to the taste.

“Very well I like the  taste
Though the smell, sometimes out of place
It hard to take, but make no mistake
I want you to know, it’s because it extra sweet it smelling so boy it’s


The words above are from the great Calypsonian, Sparrow’s love song dedicated to saltfish’s wonderfulness named, appropriately, “Saltfish.” He does a much better job articulating the appeal of saltfish than I ever can, so I’ll let him do it for me.

F(e)asting on Fuzhou Style Fish Stomach

15 Nov

Best Fuzhou Restaurant
71A Eldridge Street

I got the call from Zio a few hours before we were all to meet at Rick’s chosen destination, Best Fuzhou Restaurant. “How you doing,” I asked.

There was a pause, and then Zio replied, “Not good.”

It was his knee, he explained. He did something to it and had to see a doctor in Connecticut the next morning. “I’m not gonna make it tonight,” he said.  I didn’t ask how it happened; I assumed it was in the line of duty. In Zio’s case, that meant possibly squatting in a crawlspace in search of termites or carpenter ants.

It wasn’t until later, after our Best Fuzhou experience that I suspected Zio might have just used the knee as an excuse not to be subjected to what we just were. That maybe he read the Robert Sietsema review of the place from the Village Voice that Rick attached to his email. I didn’t. I never read reviews of restaurants until after I’ve dined there. I didn’t even open up the link. Maybe if I did I would have seen the review’s headline and sub heading “Enjoy the Fish Stomach at Best Fuzhou: A Lower East Side Fujianese also Kindly Peels Your Goose Feet.” That might have at least tipped me off as to what to expect. As it was, I went in pretty much clueless except that I knew we were meeting in Chinatown for a regional variation on Chinese.

Our goose feet were peeled and cooked…I think.

Did Zio know that the aforementioned goose feet were, yes, kindly peeled, but also as inedible as the cow foot he tried to eat at Salimata, our previous restaurant? Did he know that the colorfully named “do do frog’s leg” that caught Rick’s attention on the menu required surgical precision to remove what meat there was on the frog’s skinny legs? Or that the conch that accompanied the goose feet (or web as it was listed on the menu) was as equally tough to eat? I wasn’t sure.  But one had to wonder.

When I arrived at the harsh fluorescently-lit restaurant on the Lower East Side fringe of Chinatown, the Westchester boys, Gerry, Eugene, and Mike from Yonkers had already arrived. I told them the news about Zio and hesitated before sitting while one of the waitresses grabbed a mop and began clearing the table next to ours and the floor around it from spilled, smeared brown sauce, and stray, smashed noodles. Rick showed up soon after and even with just five, the table seemed crammed; Zio’s girth would have severely limited any elbow space between us.

With the many exotic dishes on the menu and Sietsema’s apparently glowing review—the waitress, who spoke almost no English, proudly showed us a copy of it—Best Fuzhou seemed a natural for our group. For his part though, Eugene was immediately skeptical. Maybe the menu was a little too exotic. Studying it carefully and bypassing fish head with bean curd, crispy jelly fish skin, duck kidney with cauliflower, goose intestine with tender leek, stir fried pig stomach and other intriguing options, he finally settled on the safe, hot and spicy fish fillet.

On the other end of the spectrum, for Gerry, the more exotic the better and he gambled on eel with black bean sauce which carried no price, only the dubious “S.P” (Seasonal Price) next to it meaning it would be more expensive than anything else on the menu. To her credit, our waitress, in her struggling English, was able to make clear that the price for the eel in black bean sauce that was evidently in season was $28. Gerry hesitated, but only for a moment, before nodding that it was okay despite overshooting the $20 food limit stated in our very loose food group bylaws.

I tried to find a happy medium; something a bit out of the ordinary, but not a stretch like, do do Frogs legs, Rick’s choice. So I settled on the clams with pan fried noodles. As it turned out, the rice noodles lightly fried and speckled with strips of clam was the only dish we all enthusiastically approved of.

water melon with fish stomach and unidentifiable red stuff

The same couldn’t be said for the Sietsema recommendation, water melon soup with fish stomach, which arrived in a big bowl and was gingerly distributed into little bowls by our waitress who also added dollops of a blood red liquid I assumed was chili oil. After sampling the soup with the mysterious red condiment, there was no spice kick—no discernible taste at all.  Red dye? Fish blood? As I write this I’m still not sure what it was. The clear soup had chunks of water melon, a white, bland vegetable nothing like the watermelon we know surrounded by bits of fish stomach reminiscent to the egg whites floating in the opaque broth. Eugene could only manage a few sips. Only Gerry dared attempt a second bowl. And from there it got worse.

Mike from Yonkers, speaking loudly so he could be heard above the constant parade of big black garbage bags dragged on a noisy dolly through the small restaurant and out to the street, proclaimed to all who might think to listen that he never ordered the goose web. But the proof was on the menu and, unfortunately on our table. Again, it was Gerry who was the only one who could make any headway of the truly impenetrable peeled goose foot. Eugene would not even attempt a nibble and when the do do frogs legs arrived in a thick brown sauce, he picked up the serving spoon, noticed a few mushrooms surrounding the skimpy frogs’ legs and then put the spoon back down with a disgusted grunt. For a man who portends to have a worldly appetite, Eugene has an unusual aversion to mushrooms.

Eel with black bean sauce: (s.p) Good luck.

The final dish to crowd our not very appetizing table was the “seasonal” eel. After clearing a few dishes, the waitress found a space for the platter in the middle of table positioned so the eel’s head and cold, dark beady eyes were staring menacingly at Eugene. A few bites of the tough, bone-riddled eel in black bean sauce were more than enough for me…and everyone else including Gerry. This particular “S.P” delicacy was definitely wasted on us. Thankfully, we filled up on what on the menu were described as oyster pancakes, but more like a slightly salty Chinese version of the deep fried Mexican churro.

“We’re not having dessert are we?” Eugene muttered once the plates were cleared from our table. Maybe Zio, if he was in attendance, would have insisted on trying the Fuzhou style eight treasure rice offered for dessert. For those of us who did attend, however, even eight treasures were not enough to entice us to try anything else Fuzhou style.

The Many Pizzas of Sal’s

11 Nov

Here in New York there was an overblown controversy about who retained the rights to be known as Ray’s Pizza. The original Ray’s, at least I think it was original, was in Greenwich Village on 11th Street and wildly popular for the excessive amounts of cheese piled onto each slice rather than for its overall quality. So says I, the pizza snob.

Ray’s popularity spurred a flurry of Ray’s imitators, or so “Original Ray” claimed. Lawsuits were threatened and to avoid them, the numerous Ray’s throughout the city slightly tweaked their names.  “Famous Ray’s,” “World Famous Ray’s,” “Original Ray’s” “Ray Bari” were some of them. There was even one called “Not Ray’s Pizza.” Soon the controversy fizzled and recently the Original Ray’s closed ending “Ray’s” pizza(name) dominance in the city.

You know it’s over for Ray’s when the name is blocked out and no longer “of Greenwich Village.”

On a smaller scale, but higher in the pizza royalty chain, was the battle over the use of Patsy’s in connection to pizza. There was the original Patsy’s on First Avenue in East Harlem that still remains. And then there was Patsy Grimaldi’s in Brooklyn, just over the Brooklyn Bridge who was legally forced to drop the “Patsy’s” part of his actual name and became known as Grimaldi’s.  Patsy’s revival and the ensuing controversy led to a chain of Patsy’s designed to emulate the original, but none had that pizzeria’s magical ancient coal oven and, as a result, the pizza just wasn’t of the same quality.

The original Patsy’s.

It is now my pleasure to report that probably the most prolific pizza name of all has not sparked any controversy or legal action that I know of. That name is Sal’s.

Still, though, many Sal’s have found it necessary to inject something else to their name to differentiate themselves from the other Sal’s out there instead of just relying on their location and the distinction of their pizza.

There are many Sal’s in New York, but obviously only one New York Sal’s.

If Sal were to have a pizza making partner, Carmine is a natural.

Sal’s of Little Italy is no ordinary pizzeria, it’s a cafe.

Now why did they have to go and make Sal fat?

I’ve often wondered why a man named Sal would allow himself to be known as Sally.

Sal’s even made it into the movies.


I make no judgement on any of the other Sal’s pizzerias, but for me, there is only one Sal’s Pizzeria.

Eating Guinea Fowl in a Guinean Place in Little Senegal

9 Nov

2132 8th Avenue
New York, NY

The bustle around Salimata.

I must have passed Salimata, the restaurant chosen by Mike from Yonkers, hundreds of times and really never noticed it there, not very far from where I reside. Maybe it was because it was located in the shadow of the Masjid Aqsa Mosque, kind of a community center for the areas West African Muslims who populate the area known as Little Senegal and always bustling with activity. Or maybe I was unaware of its presence because it just blended in with the many small, family-run African restaurants in the area.

The Mosque next door.

Like Gerry who chooses based on how long it takes us to get to a place, or Eugene who looks for the untried, no matter if edible or not (see Arzu), Mike from Yonkers has an African thing going; his last two picks; Treichville and African American Marayway  both featured the cuisine of the countries of West Africa. Salimata’s represented Guinea, though all of us would be hard pressed to distinguish the subtle differences between the food of Guinea with that, for example, of Ghana or even, Guinea-Bissau. But getting to Salimata couldn’t be any easier for me so I certainly wasn’t complaining about his choice.

Greeting us outside the restaurant was a burly man dressed in what looked like the sweat suit version of the traditional African buba. He had a big sack open and filled with a haphazard assortment of shoes he was selling. “Take a look at my shoes,” he asked, holding the bag open. “What size are you?”

We told him we were going in to eat at Salimata now. Maybe later, someone unwisely said thinking he might be gone by the time we finished. He nodded approvingly at our dining choice that, we soon found out, also served as his base of operations.

The only table big enough to handle our  group of six was close to the front door and  the constant commotion of take out customers and taxi and livery cab drivers moving in and out, had us keeping our jackets on to stay warm. All of us were  pleased that now, after two absences, Rick had rejoined us, and taking a quick glance at the menu and without any hesitation he decided on the guinea fowl, a variation on either pigeon or chicken, depending on how you approached it.

Guinea fowl: The before picture.

The menu was ample, but as is the case with many of the small African restaurants, it’s hit or miss on what will be available when you happen to be at the restaurant. In our case, some of the West African classics like thu djeun (stewed fish), chicken yassa, and lafidi (rice with roasted goat meat) were done for the day.

Our waitress who was scuttling back and forth between taking table orders and returning to the take out counter in the back of the slim restaurant, instead just recited the few items that remained such as grilled chicken, grilled fish, and steak. That didn’t satisfy either Gerry or Zio who persisted, pressing her with some of the other menu items forcing her to squint at the menu.

Zio was adamant about the “bouillon avec fonio” also known as cow feet soup while Gerry was intrigued by the “suppa kandja” a mix of lamb and fish in an okra sauce. Keeping it simple for our harried waitress, Eugene and I opted for the grilled fish while Mike from Yonkers ordered the grilled chicken.

There were two television monitors at either end of the restaurant where the only decoration was a poster endorsing “Boubacar Bah for President.” The televisions were tuned to CNN and after our enormous platters arrived at our table, President Obama was shown making a speech. The volume on the televisions were turned up and all the Africans either eating or waiting for their take out orders, including the shoe salesman who was leaning against a wall gnawing on a chicken leg, watched raptly.

Guinea Fowl: The after picture

We, on the other hand, did not show as much respect, loudly commenting on how Rick’s guinea fowl looked pretty much identical to Mike from Yonkers’ grilled chicken and both just as dry, while the fish Eugene and I ordered, which we later learned was tilapia looked like they had spent their early years swimming in what probably was a tank in a Bronx farm, consuming a steroid-rich diet, they were both that big. Despite their enormous size, the fish, unlike the chicken, was moist, smothered in a light tomato sauce and served with a mound of cous cous and mustard-flavored grilled onions. Gerry’s dark green mashed okra concoction had a gamey, overly salted taste that one most definitely would need to acquire to appreciate and the hard gelatinous cow feet anchored in Zio’s soup had him throwing up his hands. “I just can’t eat it,” he said shaking his head in defeat.

Impenetrable cow foot soup.

The ridiculously inexpensive check for all the food consumed softened the few misses and by the time our platters were cleared and we made our way out of the restaurant, the shoe salesman had returned to his position.  He looked at us hopefully and gestured to his sack of shoes with one hand while holding the half-eaten chicken leg in the other. “So, are you ready to buy some shoes now?”

Neckbones’ Rum Diary: The J.M Incident

4 Nov

After boarding the ferry in Dominica, I downed an extra-strength Dramamine. The weather was clear, the waters calm, yet I didn’t want to risk a bout of seasickness before arriving at my destination: the J.M Rum distillery in Martinique.

Keeping my eyes straight ahead and sitting upright, I ignored the young man next to me and the others around me who were retching into plastic bags given out by the ferry’s crew as the boat was pummeled mercilessly in the channel between the two islands, also known, as I found out later as the “Blue Vomit.”

The ferry on the seemingly tranquil “blue vomit.”

With Martinique in sight, I was a bit groggy and wobbly, but my stomach remained intact and, once I exited the ferry onto the streets of Fort-de-France, Martinique’s capital city, a taxi whisked me to the northeast tip of the island to a place known as Macouba. I knew we were close and as the taxi descended down a steep incline, the red copper-tin roofs came into view and I could see the steam from the stills rising from the distillery through the dense greenery of palm fronds.

The distillery in Macouba

As we pulled in front of the old distillery, I smelled the alcohol-tinged cane juice as it was being “cooked” in the stills. Taking a healthy whiff, the vapors immediately restored my equilibrium, still somewhat shaky from the Blue Vomit nightmare.

Passing barrels of rum and ignoring a tour of the facilities, I headed straight to the tasting room/gift shop. A sample of J.M’s velvety white rum improved my situation even further but it wasn’t until I sipped the brand’s  VSOP “rhum vieux”  that I knew I had finally found what I was seeking. The taste was something so pure; so delicately smooth that the horrors of the Blue Vomit were worth the ordeal just to sip this amber nectar.

Stills and barrels of rum

My mission complete, I bought a bottle and returned to Fort-de-France where the next day I was to board a plane to San Juan and then another back to New York.

Keeping my precious cargo close by in my carry on bag, I was instructed by security at the Martinique airport to put the rum in a clear plastic bag. I did as told and was granted access to the plane.

Rushing through San Juan’s Luis Munoz Marin International Airport to make my connection to JFK, I waited on line at security. When it was my turn to pass through the gates, an overzealous customs officer, and most likely a rum aficionado, spied my bottle of J.M.

“You can’t take that on,” he said gruffly.

“But it’s in a clear plastic bag,” I pleaded.

“You could go back and check it in,” he offered, obviously knowing I had no time to do so. “or…I’ll have to take it from you.”

I stared at him. He stared at me and then held out his hand. I had no choice. He took the bottle, hiding a satisfied grin behind his bogus official demeanor.

The shock hit me as I settled into my seat. I was trembling. Once we were in the air and I knew my prized possession was gone, tears came to my eyes.

“Why are you so sad,” the abuela  who was sitting next to me and on her way to visit her daughter and grandchildren in the Bronx,  asked. “Have you left a loved one behind?”

I turned to her, dabbed at my eyes and nodded.

“I’m sorry,” she said. “Time will cure your sorrow. Watch the movie. It’s funny.”

I looked up at the small screen. It was something with Adam Sandler. I didn’t laugh.

Even the comedy of Adam Sandler could not penetrate my sorrow.

The wise abuela was right. Time did heal the deep wound of loss. When I first returned to New York, I frantically searched the many liquor stores looking for the J.M VSOP Rhum Vieux, but with no luck. I abandoned my search and resigned myself to settle for other “old” rums.

But then, one evening when dining at a cacophonous, yet delicious high end eatery downtown, my eyes were drawn to the offering of Rhum J.M VSOP on the restaurant’s cocktail menu. My heart pounded. I looked for my waiter and saw him at another table. I waved. I snapped my fingers. I rudely whistled. People were staring. I didn’t care.  I needed him now.

Seeing my frantic state, he rushed over. “I want that!” I pointed to the listing of the J.M VSOP on the menu.

I tried to control my excitement as I waited at my table. I tapped my foot. I chewed on my lower lip. I stroked my cell phone and then it arrived. The beautiful amber fluid, served with just a twist of lime. I sipped. It was exactly how I remembered it. “Where,” I asked my waiter, “can I buy this?”

Liquid gold

He said he would check with the beverage manager. He returned with the name of the liquor store on a business card. I knew the place. I checked my watch. It wouldn’t be open now. I would have to wait until the next day.

I slept little that night, got up early and headed to the store to wait until they opened. As soon as the gates were pulled and the doors unlocked, I rushed in and found the rum section. There it was. The price was astronomical, at least twice what I paid for in Martinique, but I didn’t care. I bought a bottle that came in decorative box.

The rum now sits in a glass cabinet. I have yet to open it. I tried one evening, but I couldn’t do it. If I opened it, I would begin to drink it and eventually, maybe in a month, maybe more, the bottle would be empty. The thought chilled me to the core.

I’ve come now to accept that I will never open it, yet I do not care. It is mine. I possess it. And no one can take it away again…

Mine. All mine.

The Mysteries of 67th Road

1 Nov

101-05 67th Rd. Queens Boulevard,
Rego Park

Eugene, when it is his turn to choose one of our eating destinations, takes his responsibility very seriously. He painstakingly researches what possible cuisine we have not yet experienced and, sometimes regardless of other factors, makes that his primary choice. In our most recent case, Eugene not only unearthed an obscure cuisine, he found one that was also in an indeterminable location making it a challenge for a GPS machine, Mapquest, Google maps, Yahoo maps, or any other electronic direction device. Was Arzu, the name of Eugene’s selection located in Flushing, Queens? Was it in Rego Park or Woodside? Was it on Queens Boulevard. . .67th Rd.  . .67th Ave. . .67th Place? No one really knew for sure.

After finally locating 67th Rd. . .but no Arzu, I found the restaurant tucked away on a side street on the opposite side of Queens Boulevard of where my Google Map had originally directed me. It helped that Eugene’s lean, dark, melancholic figure was standing outside of the restaurant or I would have missed it on my first go round. The others had not arrived, but Eugene and I went in.

Thinking Arzu was in Flushing, I assumed that the cuisine was regional Chinese, but inside, the patrons and staff looked like extras from the movie Borat. I asked Eugene if he knew what kind of food we would be eating. He just shrugged. “I don’t know. It’s something different,” he said with a shrug. He was as clueless about it as I was.

A quick glance at some of the grilled kebabs on long cutlass-like skewers that were appearing at other tables and I surmised that we would be dining on some variation of a “zikastan.” And after looking at the menu, which proclaimed Arzu as Kosher, the only hint of where the nation of origin for the food we were about to eat was the mention of Uyghur—as in “Uyghur hand-made Lagman (noodle soup with meat and vegetable.)”  The others in our group were late. I was hungry. I ordered a bowl.

Lagman soup

Just as I was about to begin slurping the “lagman,” my cell phone rang. It was Gerry. There was desperation in his voice. “Can you please just walk out of the restaurant and wave,” he pleaded.

I took the phone and went out of the restaurant, waved, but in the darkness of 67th Rd, there would be no way he could see me. I told him it was directly across Queens Boulevard (also known as the Boulevard of Death) from the Starbucks; a landmark Gerry quickly identified. A few moments later, Gerry, along with Mike from Yonkers and Zio filed in.

Neither Zio, Mike from Yonkers, nor Gerry were familiar with the cuisine of Uyghur nor did they know where that country might be located. It took a session with my son, the geography whiz to learn that Uyghur is in fact, the name of the peoples who populate East Turkistan bordered by China on the east and Kazakstan on the west. And, with the exception of the very smooth, slightly spicy soup, we soon learned that the food is as rough as, undoubtedly the terrain of that region.

I wonder if there is a 67th Road in the Uyghur Region?

Eugene’s very limited charm was having no effect on our waitress as he tried hard to get her to help us in making our choices from the undecipherable menu. She was able to figure how many orders of meat pies and steamed dumplings appetizers would be suitable for our party of five and brought them to us immediately.

After severing through the almost impenetrable crust of the pie, the indistinguishable chopped meat within tasted as if it had been sealed inside for months and was as equally tough as the crust; a small sample would have been more than enough of the meat pie.

The steamed dumpling platter included half stuffed with sweet pumpkin while the others contained the same mystery meat that was in the pies. No wonder most of the patrons at the restaurant knew to bring their own bottles of vodka. Now if Eugene provided us with no other information than that, his duty would have been more than fulfilled.

There wasn’t much to say about the shish kebabs. They were what they were: grilled meats on a skewer. The soup had helped satisfy me, but Zio wanted more and unashamedly scooped the remains of the meat pie onto his plate. “Yeah, I know its dog food, but I’m still hungry,” he said.

The others were, not surprisingly, feeling somewhat undernourished, but none dared return to the meat pie. Instead we tried the local “halvah” dessert; a tiny, pistachio-dusted diamond that surpassed anything else we ate that night along with Azrzu’s other dessert offering, a mound of dried Chinese noodles soaked in honey that, sadly, was the perfect complement to the unfortunate meat pie.

The mystery of the meat pie can be found buried within. Open at your own risk. 

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