Nice to have so many options, even if some of them are shitty.
339 Lexington Avenue
That a man was outside trying to get passers by to take the menus he was handing out was not a good sign. Still, it was what was on those menus that enticed me to try Hunan Manor. And when I relayed to Gerry some of those menu items: “steamed pork elbow,” “frog in spicy soup,” “cumin flavored beef on toothpics,” fragrant pig ears,” and “numbing—and—hot chicken,” it was very easy to entice him to join me as well.
Without taking a menu from the man outside the restaurant, we went into the generic, harshly lit, restaurant where there were plenty of tables available. In the back a large party shared a big round table. There were bottles on the table; wine, alcohol, soft drinks and they were loudly toasting each other.
Along with the big table in the back, all the patrons were Asian, Chinese I assumed, maybe even Hunanese, but assuming is something I try not to do.
Gerry and I wanted to sample authentic Hunan, as opposed to authentic Szechuan, and after looking at the long menu, the restaurant would have been a natural for our Chow City group. The only problem were the prices; not outrageous by any means, but a bit too high for our miserly standards.
Gerry is a prodigious eater and I certainly can hold my own, but even by extending our gluttony to unheard of limits, the two of us alone couldn’t do the menu justice.
Before we ordered, our waiter asked the obligatory “You like spicy?” question. Once we got that out of the way and affirmed our penchant for unadulterated Hunan, we proceeded to order.
Our first course was a soup to share; the Chinese yam with pork ribs. While we waited, a tiny, Asian woman took the table next to us. She was familiar with the management and spoke fluently to them, not even bothering to look at the menu.
Our soup arrived. We used the provided spoons to sip the clear, yet fragrant broth delicately and then fished out the chunks of pork ribs and tore meat from bone with our teeth.
While we made quick work of the soup, two enormous platters arrived in front of the woman sitting next to us practically obscuring her. One was some sort of meat sautéed with peppers and chilies while the other was pale; tofu, maybe…or something else we knew not what.
We looked at each other and then back at the platters on the table next to ours. Gerry raised his eyebrows at me slyly and then nudged his empty plate a little closer to the platters in front of the woman.
I admit to being a Hunan novice; I had no clue what it was that she was about to dig into. And I also admit to abhorring those who stare longingly at others’ dinners and then obtrude by pointing at it and asking, like I found myself doing: “May I inquire what that is?”
The woman next to us did not share my aversions. “Frog,” she replied pleasantly, not put off at all by my sorry table manners.
We looked at the other platter in front of her.
“Potatoes,” she said, indicating the pale mound of starch topped with strips of peppers.
Potatoes at a Chinese restaurant? We were now very intrigued and kept staring—longingly at the platters. Gerry pushed his empty plate a little closer to her, hoping that she would pick up on his no longer subtle movements.
Trying to help Gerry out, I forced an idiotic smile and said,. “They certainly give you a lot of food.”
She finally understood and smiled in return. “Yes, I can’t eat it all,” she said. “I’ll bring the rest home to share with my friends.”
His hopes dashed, Gerry inched his plate back in front of him and, thankfully, the smoked preserved pork shoulder with dried tofu we ordered arrived along with a plate of sautéed water spinach and sliced fish, Hunan-style.
The pork, a combination bacon/belly-like texture with a distinctive smoky flavor meshed well with the tofu while the fish, tender and moist, dusted with dry chilies, had a low key, yet distinctive kick to it, though not as fiery as the type I’ve experienced at various Szechuan restaurants.
Finally the dark green water spinach; the roots crunchy and bitter and sautéed with garlic rounded out the perfect blend of flavors our three dishes had.
Our waiter brought our check and asked again if we liked hot, Hunan food.
We told him we liked it very much.
He shook his head. “Some don’t like spicy,” he said. “Some run away.”
“They don’t know what they’re missing,” Gerry said, blowing his nose loudly into a napkin as the heat from the food had worked its magic on his sinuses.
As we left the restaurant, I glanced back through the window. I could see the woman who was sitting next to us. She was texting someone on her phone; the mound of food in front of her had barely been touched.
“I wish my friends would share their frogs with me,” I muttered.
“You just don’t have the right friends,” Gerry said. And then we both took menus from the man outside the restaurant and shoved them into our pockets before heading off.
What I mean when I say “Gourmet Comes to Harlem” is not this:
This new, welcome, trend in Harlem has, despite gentrification, transformed the word “gourmet” to a populist term.
At the gourmet deli, alongside fruits, vegetables, and homemade soups, you can also purchase a phone card.
Some delis have flashing and streaming neon lights, offer free delivery, and even sell fashionable hats and sunglasses.
Others have beautiful photographic displays of the delicious dishes they prepare along with the many combination options.
If you are short of cash, the gourmet deli conveniently provides the services of an ATM, with only a small, $2 to $5 surcharge.
Many of the gourmet delis also offer, along with soda and chips, games of chance like Lotto.
Depending on the religious convictions of the owner, beer is often available at the gourmet deli and sometimes even wine.
But religious convictions are never a consideration or factor regarding cigarettes.
Here’s one that hasn’t even opened yet. Welcome to the neighborhood A&A Gourmet!
256 W. 116th Street
Mike from Yonkers notified our group via email that he wanted to choose a place from his “old stomping ground.” Who knew that Mike from Yonkers’ old stomping ground was the area around 116th Street and Eighth Avenue known as Little Senegal? What we do know is that Mike from Yonkers has some sort of obsession or kinship with African food. In the past, he has directed us to the late, Treichville Treichville Tasting Menu, African American Marayway in the Bronx The Un American African Place, and Salimata Eating Guinea Fowl in a Guinean Place in Little Senegal, just around the corner from his most recent pick, Africa Kine. And like 116th being his old stomping ground, this obsession has never been explained.
I never claimed the same area as my old stomping ground, but having lived just a couple of blocks from it, I could have been justified for doing so. I even spent a few months volunteering at the community food bank next door to Africa Kine, just after the economic meltdown of 2008.
I worked at the soup kitchen washing pots and pans, bagging garbage, prepping food, and even shoveling ice and snow so the food trucks could gain entry to the kitchen. I stopped soon after the chef of the kitchen, who caught on that I was a writer, had me read the beginnings of his autobiographical novel and when, local Mormon missionaries began to flood in to help out making the kitchen more populated than one you would find at a four-star restaurant. But those are stories for another time and place.
Since my work at the food bank, a raucous, busy beer garden, called the Harlem Tavern has opened across the street, along with a meat market that specializes in local, organic beef and where the butchers wear pork pie hats while they work, and a cookie place where the cheapest, albeit, very good and very large cookie, is four dollars.
Those new establishments, among others made parking tough for the group, but Zio and I had no troubles getting to Africa Kine, which was enshrouded in dark netting along with scaffolding in front making it hard to distinguish. On the way in, we passed a legless beggar in a wheelchair and as we entered and started upstairs to the dining area, we both noticed a woman, face down, arms out on a prayer mat.
“Don’t take her picture,” Zio whispered to me. “It would be disrespectful. We don’t want an incident.”
Africa Kine is possibly the most notable Senegalese restaurant in Little Senegal. The dining area is spacious and modern, with high ceilings, comfortable booths, big tables and a number of flat screen televisions, and described in the restaurant’s elaborate website Africa Kine as “luxurious.” Either way, it was most definitely a far cry from what we experienced at either Salimata, Treichville or African American Marayway.
The others joined us soon after at a big table in the back of the “luxurious” dining room. While we sipped spicy homemade ginger beer, we perused what, by now was a familiar menu thanks to the African culinary education bestowed upon us courtesy of Mike from Yonkers. There was guinea fowl, chicken, lamb, goat, fish, grilled or fried, and steak. The entrees all came with a choice of one of an assortment of starches; couscous, rice, plantains, yam and a small chopped iceberg salad. Each dish came with onions, sliced, lightly grilled with a mustard-based sauce on them, and scattered over the meat and fish. Most of the entrees also included half a hard boiled egg.
I’m no expert on guinea fowl, but if I recall, the guinea fowl at Salimata was better, or maybe more distinguishable, than what we experienced at Africa Kine. The fish and lamb were also all solid, but there were no raves from our now very picky Senegalese aficionados. So, though the surroundings were comfortable, and yes, bordering on luxurious, the food was not as memorable as many of the more humble African places we have visited.
What there was at Africa Kine, however, was plenty of food; the portions more than generous.
“Really now, how can they say people in Africa are starving? Zio griped. “Just look at all this food?”
“Yeah, we just ate a village,” Gerry quipped.
And of that village, there were no leftovers.
317 W. 141st Street.
Zio and I were hungry. The next scheduled meeting with our group of gluttons had been postponed, but we couldn’t wait. We needed our food fix now. I suggested Margie’s Red Rose Diner on 144th Street, but when Zio and I arrived the gate was pulled down and there was a handwritten sign on it saying Margie’s would be closed in January, reopening February 28th. The date was March 8th. The gate was still down.
Plan B was a few blocks away, just down the hill from City College. A place I noticed while looking for parking when bringing my son to piano lessons at the Harlem School of the Arts. Queen Sheeba seemed like an odd choice for the neighborhood, but maybe not. It was advertised as Middle Eastern; halal, of course, and the specific country, Yemen.
There was a Hispanic couple at one of the tables in the ornately decorated restaurant along with a few children running around…obviously related to the owners.
The couple was talking loud, commenting favorably on the food and trying to engage the host/waiter/owner and then us into their conversation.
“Are those your grandkids?” the man at the table, gesturing to the children, asked the owner, who’s English was either truly limited or just pretending that it was so he had an out when it came to talking to his clientele.
He nodded that they were.
“How old are you?” the man at the table asked.
“Fifteen,” he replied with practically a straight face; the curve of a mischievous grin barely apparent.
“Okay, you don’t have to tell me. But you look great,” the man said. “Me, I’m 52.”
I took a closer look at him from our table. He didn’t look so great for 52, but I kept my mouth shut.
The female half of the couple saw me peeking. “Try the rice, it’s really good,” she said to Zio and I.
“Yeah, everything is good here,” her companion said in a booming voice so the owner would hear. “The lamb. The chicken. We’re coming back again. Enjoy your meal.” And then the two of them waddled out.
Zio and I started with the restaurant’s baba ghanoush, which, drizzled with olive oil and garnished with pimento-stuffed olives, ranked in the upper echelon in the unofficial baba ganoush ratings. The pita bread it came with was warm and was the perfect texture for scooping baba ganoush.
Though Zio was tempted by the picture of the spaghetti displayed on the restaurant’s window; spaghetti—Yemeni-style would be adventurous to say the least, he couldn’t get himself to order it. Zio tends to be a wee bit predictable at times and if there is fish on the menu, that’s where he invariably goes. At Queen Sheeba, he stuck to his pattern and tried the lightly stewed tilapia while I was intrigued by the “Yemen Dish” called Saltah.
A salad came out first. It looked undressed and there was a greenish sauce that came with it. Zio sprinkled it on the salad and so did I. As we took our first bite of the chopped iceberg lettuce, we winced; the sauce was no dressing but a spicy condiment for our meals. Even though it brought tears to our eyes, we were undeterred and ate all of the crispy hot sauce drenched salad.
Next we were brought bowls of muddy brown soup; a beef broth that was rich and thickened somewhat with mashed lentils…I think. I asked our waiter what type of soup it was. The answer was undecipherable. Whatever the soup was called, it was—and I’ll make an exception here and use the word I try to avoid when describing anything I eat—delicious.
Our entrees followed; Zio’s fish smothered in a onion, tomato, and pepper sauce accompanied by the highly praised rice.
The satah arrived in a bowl; a comforting stew of vegetables with bits of ground lamb. Though there were a few distinct middle eastern spices in the stew, it reminded me of was a dish my grandmother used to make for me she called “cucuzza longa;” stewed pieces of a long squash that my grandfather grew in his garden, peeled, chopped and served in a tomato-based broth with ground beef. Who knew Yemen had anything in common with Calabria?
Zio was having trouble finishing off his fish, but I made quick work of the satah, catching any remains of the stew with what was left of the pita bread.
The owner/waiter, whose name, we learned was Ali, smiled in pleasure when he saw how well we ate. He brought us Yemen tea, fragrant with cloves as a digestif which I drank along with a fresh, very moist slice of baklava (spelled on Queen Sheeba’s menu as baklawa).
Since I live in Harlem, though not within walking distance of Queen Sheeba; I asked if they delivered to where I live. I told him my address but he shook his head. “You don’t?” I asked, disappointed.
Ali went to the counter near the restaurant’s entrance, found a pen and business card and returned to us. He had me write my address and phone number on the card.
“We’ll deliver to you,” he said.
I looked at Zio. “See, you’re special,” he said to me.
“Yeah, how about that,” I said, making sure to slip a take out menu into my coat pocket before we both left.
Tap A Keg: A Hell of a Joint.
Like the Subway Inn, the first installment of The Happiest of All Hours Subway Inn, it had been several years since I visited the Tap A Keg. And I remember distinctly why I have stayed away for so long.
I, along with the softball team I played for, used to frequent the place after games uptown in Central Park. Beers were cheap; a prerequisite, the juke box eclectic—they had an impressive selection of blues, and you could bring in pizza or anything else you wanted to eat without complaint by the establishment.
One year, however, we began to notice that in addition to the assortment of scruffy regulars at Tap A Keg, there were now a number of four-legged patrons. The place had become a refuge for dogs and their beer-drinking owners. They walked free throughout the bar, some big, some small, some curiously sniffing around our post-game sweat and scavenging the pizza scraps on the floor.
I had no problem with the dogs; their presence contributed to the dive’s diversity. That is until one day, a not very well trained, four-legged regular could not control its bowels and did it’s “bizness” in the middle of the bar.
Now I have had dogs. There’s one padding around our apartment as I write this. Sometimes they f**k up; they make mistakes. I can forgive them for that. But what I couldn’t forgive at this hell of a joint, was the negligence of its inebriated owner. The steaming mound sat there as I sipped my beer and munched on the house popcorn. And it sat there while I ordered another bottle. After the second beer, I knew the Tap A Keg romance was over. There were limits on what one could tolerate in a dive.
I returned to the Tap A Keg recently to see if anything had changed. The dogs still roamed free. The regulars were still scruffy. The bar prices had not been affected by inflation. The popcorn was still complimentary. The happy hour extended. The juke box as good as I remembered. And, thankfully, the floor was poop-free.
After listening to Bobby “Blue” Bland’s “Member’s Only” on the juke box while sipping an ice cold Corona, I decided it was time to let bygones be bygones. I could now accept the concept of “pet friendly” in a dive bar.
After all, there were much worse things than pet friendly. The place could become “kid friendly.” Then it would truly be a hell of a joint.
2109 Starling Ave
Eugene’s already swarthy skin was a shade darker when he walked into Neerob, the Bengali place in the Parkchester section of the Bronx he choose for our group’s tasting prompting Zio to comment that he fit right in with the rest of the restaurant’s clientele. And it was true. Eugene could pass for a Bengali. He could pass for an Arab, Latino, mulatto, Greek, or Sicilian. He had that versatile, dusky look; our own Anthony Quinn.
His skin had darkened from a week in Punta Cana, at a resort where he happily exclaimed that you never had to leave the property. “They had 11 restaurants,” Eugene crowed. “Italian, Asian, Tex-Mex, a Brazilian where they come and slice the meat for you. The place was so big they take you around on mini buses.”
Apparently there was no Bengali food at the Punta Cana resort though and when Eugene looked around the small restaurant he nodded approvingly at his choice. “Now this is the kind of place for us,” he proudly proclaimed.
He made no mention of the framed New York Times review on the wall. Or of the Daily News and Time Out New York blurbs that were also displayed. And when we first started convening, now over ten years ago, framed New York Times reviews would have been a problem. If the Times had written it up, the place had officially been “discovered” and we had very loose rules against that. We needed to make the discovery and let the Times unearth it after our experience, and many times that is exactly what happened. Now, however, the restaurant world, even the one we lived in, had changed. Nothing was undiscovered anymore whether by the Times or on the internet
As it had at Singh’s Roti Shop, (A Double(s) Dose of Roti on Liberty Avenue) where we last met, that I was taking pictures of the restaurant and its food, caught the eye of Neerob’s owner. The camera being a giveaway that this group of non-Bengalis (Eugene aside) and non-Parkchester regulars, were either food critics or food bloggers. He immediately took an interest in our group, arranging tables so our party of six would have enough room and then bringing us a sampling of vegetable pakoras accompanied by squeeze bottles of a hot chili sauce and a cilantro based condiment.
Once everyone found parking, which wasn’t easy, and got to the restaurant, we crammed around the glass enclosed steam table looking at the offerings. Our very friendly host explained what we were gaping at; goat biryani, chicken curry, fried whole tilapia, bright red chicken tikka, saag with chicken, okra, lentils,and a smaller whole fish smothered in a red, tomato-based sauce.
“It’s a fish like we have in our country,” our host said when I asked him about the smaller fish. “Like a sardine. One bone. Very good.”
He pointed to something that looked like semi-mashed vegetables and said that these accompany the fish.
I knew I wanted it and the others let him know what they were interested in.
“Leave it to me,” he said.
And we did.
A few moments later, the paper plates and bowls with our favorite utensils; plastic forks and spoons, began to arrive.
The mashed vegetables were placed in front of me. They were powerfully flavored and fiery in spice, obviously an accompaniment to the main dishes. I found out later that they were called “bhartas.”
The small fish was delectable, moist with oil, and separated easily from the small bone. We somehow ordered two plates of goat biryani but no one was disappointed; the tiny pieces of goat a gamey match to the bland basmati rice.
We shared the bowls and plates as they made their way around the table, the fish cheeks of the tilapia, however, were gone before they got to Zio and I; Rick making quick work of them.
Whatever was left was easily finished with the accompanying warm nan bread. And though we ate like the gluttons we are, we wanted more. There were sweets and our host wanted us to sample some. Who were we to refuse?
He brought fried gulab jamun balls in syrup and two, pale sweet balls that had Zio scratching his thinning hair. “It’s a matzoh ball?” he said, staring at it curiously.
But it was more like a sweetened cottage cheese ball. And it and all the sweets helped take the fire out of our mouths.
The almost indecipherable check was brought to us. Eugene squinted but was able to add it up, and when he told us what we owed for the feast we just devoured, I, and everyone else, couldn’t care less that the New York Times, among others, had scooped us. Neerob, in Eugene’s words, was most definitely, “our kind of place.”