A New Good Friend is even harder.
I’m very happy I’ve found one.
94-67 Corona Ave,
“How do you want your steak cooked,” the waitress asked in her heavy Spanish accent.
We were in Elmhurst at the corner of Corona Avenue and Junction Boulevard in what was advertised as an Argentinean/Uruguayan restaurant called La Esquina Criolla.
“That’s a first for our group,” Rick said after hearing the question from our waitress. And he was right. It was the first time in the ten plus years we had been convening that we were asked how we wanted anything cooked, much less a steak.
Did that mean our standards were changing? That now we were graduating to a different, higher quality of restaurant? I certainly hoped not and believed that the question before us was just a blip; an aberration in our continual journey to unearth diverse, ethnic eats within our frugal, even grubby, standards.
When I chose La Esquina Criolla, I knew I was treading on dangerous ground. That we would we probably be going over our $20 per person budget as well as dining at an established foodie destination where, what was confirmed later, wine was served in stemmed wine glasses. But that did not stop me. I went ahead with the choice anyway. Red meat was something our group rarely, if at all, dined on and I thought that for once we should have that experience despite the potential monetary risks. I believed this place, La Esquina Criolla would be our best bet to at least keep it close.
“You’re in trouble with this one,” Gerry teased, glancing at the menu and the prices next to many of the “carnes a la parilla,” which ranged from $16 to $24.
“I have an allowance,” I said, trying to rationalize the stark reality spelled out in front of us. “Most of my other choices were so under our budget, that I’m entitled to go over here and still, really, come out no worse than even. It’s called a carryover balance.”
Eugene’s reading glasses were balanced on the tip of his nose. “Uh huh,” he nodded dubiously.
The raw meats we were soon to order were displayed behind the counter; La Esquina Criolla doubled as a butcher shop. There was flank steak, skirt steak, shell steak, blood sausage, known as morcilla, chorizo, kidney, sweetbreads, lamb, and short ribs.
Displayed behind the counter adjacent to the meats were a selection of empanadas; meat, chicken and spinach along with a few other appetizers; marinated eggplant, beef tongue, and hearts of palm to name a few.
While we decided what to order, we were brought toasted bread and slices of grilled sausage. We knew we had to be careful how we ordered, but the temptations were many. The empanadas, of course were a must. A “parrillada completa,” or combination of a variety of meats made sense, despite the $38 price (for two). With it we would get to sample skirt steak, short rib, sweetbread, tripe, kidney, black and Argentinean sausage. To that we added another skirt steak for two, a flank steak, and an appetizer of grilled provolone in oregano sauce.
The entrees all came with side orders; a dry potato salad, potato, beet and hard boiled egg, a bland mixed salad, and plantains.
While we ate the buttery-crusted empanadas served with the tableside tangy homemade chimichurri sauce, a procession of ancient tango ballads played.
“Why does this music make me think of monocle-wearing Nazis,” Zio pondered.
“You’re confused,” Gerry said to him. “Those were the Boys of Brazil you’re thinking of. Wrong country.”
“Didn’t they escape to Argentina also?”
“Sure, there are plenty of retired Nazis in Argentina,” Rick confirmed. “And they love that old school tango.”
Halting the conversation was the arrival of a sizable silver serving tray adorned with a selection of charred meats. This was the “parrillada completa” for two, but judging from the size of it, was more than enough for three or four, even if the three or four included the gluttons in our group.
On separate smaller plates were the other meats; the flank steak and the skirt steak for two. Including what we got in the “parrillada completa,” if you did the math we had enough skirt steak for three, but who was counting?
The grilled provolone came as advertised, toasted on the outside, the cheese oozing from it when sliced and doused with oregano flavored olive oil. We sawed through the steaks, cooked as we ordered, medium rare; the juices flowing from them onto the platters.
While we chewed, moving from one cut of meat to the other, some of us paused to cleanse our palates with gulps of the Argentinean beer, Quilmes; Zio instead choosing the toxic sludge that is diet Coke to accompany his meal.
It was about then when, to my astonishment I noticed Rick sipping red wine from the aforementioned stemmed glass. He shrugged when he saw that I had noticed. He didn’t have to qualify his choice in any way. It was the glass that was more of note than what was in it.
We were making very good progress; the meats on the platters were slowly vanishing.
“You want a beet?” Rick offered Zio from the platter of cold potato and beets.
Zio thought about it for a moment and then nodded. “Yeah, what the hell. Give me a beet.”
Soon all was gone with the exception of a shriveled piece of tripe and a “burnt end” of sweetbread that even Gerry would not touch.
Seeing that there really was nothing left in front of us, the waitress recited what was on the menu for dessert. Zio, who seemed to go silent after that last beet, perked up when he heard there was quince paste.
“I love quince paste,” he announced. “I had it the other day.”
“Bring us the check,” Eugene said, making the executive decision that there would be no dessert, as if we needed it after all that. No one, not even Zio and his penchant for quince paste, dared to stand up to Eugene’s resolve.
The check came. We waited silently as Eugene perused it. We knew we had done some major damage. I chewed on my knuckles in anticipation. My own self-imposed standards were on the line here.
“$30 each,” he said. I let out a sigh of moderate relief. We were over budget, but we had beer, some of us more than one, and even red wine—in a stemmed wine glass. That would account for at least $5. And of course our waitress deserved a generous tip for having to put up with us. It wasn’t as bad as it could have been.
We stumbled out of the restaurant. The tango music was still playing. I had a piece of parsley from the chimichurri sauce stuck between my teeth. There wasn’t much I could do; I would have to wait until I got home before I could attend to it.
I always thought of the mojito as an amateur’s drink. Part of my thinking was because of the rum used. I’m partial to the rums of either the West Indies; Jamaica, Barbados, Trinidad, etc., which are molasses-based, and robust, or the exquisite French island “agricole” rums of Martinique and Guadeloupe, made from distilled sugar cane juice. The rum traditionally used for the mojito is of the smoother, Spanish variety; Puerto Rican, Cuban, Dominican, etc. So smooth, in fact, that to me, the rum is indistinguishable; practically devoid of any flavor.
Further damaging the mojito appeal in my narrow mind was that the rum usually poured into the drink was the one with the enormous marketing budget making it, in my estimation, the Coca Cola of rums. And speaking of Coca Cola, the rum in question is usually best enjoyed in that abomination: rum and coke. But there I go again, displaying my rum snobbery by thrashing a drink enjoyed over the years by millions of people. It’s an unseemly trait of mine that, as I grow older, hope I am losing. Who am I, some sort of food and beverage critic or something? It’s not my place to belittle one’s rum preference?
A big part of my conversion to the mojito was the forest of mint that, since we moved to our new apartment, has accumulated on our terrace. Mint, along with lime, are the dominating flavors of the mojito and excellent bedfellows they make.
You can take your mint tea, mint ice cream, mint and lamb and whatever else you might use fresh mint for. I use it exclusively for the mojito. And yes, I do use smooth—err—bland, Puerto Rican rum in the drink (though not the Coca Cola of rums whose name will not be mentioned here). I wouldn’t dare attempt a mojito with a rum from Martinique or Trinidad. The result would be a completely different drink. The neutral rum from Puerto Rico seems to meld the other two dominant flavors of lime and mint perfectly in the cocktail.
What follows is my version of the mojito.
1 lime cut into tenths.
10 or more fresh mint leaves including sprigs.
4 teaspoons simple sugar syrup*
2 ounces of white Spanish rum (Puerto Rican or Domincan, if you can get Cuban, I’m sure that would work well too).
A splash or two of seltzer
*You can use superfine sugar, granulated sugar, or even confectioner’s sugar instead of simple syrup, but I prefer homemade syrup which eliminates having to dissolve the sugar into the drink. The recipe for simple sugar syrup can be found on my post, A Lime Cut Three Ways: The First Cut.
Add most of the lime and mint leaves, saving a few of each, to a highball glass. Mash and muddle the mint and lime together with a pestle or whatever type of apparatus you might have on hand.
Add the sugar syrup, the rum, and ice and stir.
Pour in a splash or two of seltzer to top off the cocktail and stir again.
Garnish with a couple of lime pieces and a sprig or two of mint.
Sit back, put your feet up, and enjoy.
I no longer demean the mojito and want to admit here that I was very wrong about its many merits. It is a summer cocktail supreme and I now count it as one of my go to drinks. Could it be that this public admission is testament that I am finally maturing? One can only hope.
On Friday I presented you with the following photos:
Note the tiny yellow speck of rice I thought was a giveaway.
And where else would you find such a combination of condiments.
With those hints I challenged you to Name That Place.
I thought the hints were more than obvious, yet I only received a few correct responses identifying the place that has this unusual kitchen apparatus.
Where if you open one of those drawers, you will find this…
Yellow rice. Which is a staple of this place and used when eating this:
As an accompaniment to this:
But that Chinese Zodiac paper place mat could confuse, as could the soy sauce above. Surely this is a Latin place with an Asian twist.
For forty plus years on the corner of 78th and Broadway, though remodeled several times, you can find this comidas china y criolla standby:
There were many times I would sit at the counter at the former incarnation of the place in question and stare at what you see in the following photo.
I’m sure there are other restaurant kitchens that have the same thing, whatever it’s called, but I had only seen it in use at this place and one of the reasons the restaurant was unique to me.
Perhaps one of you shared my curiosity and also wondered about the four-drawer compartment at this place. If so, you know the place and can reveal it without the following bonus photos.
Sure, hot sauce, ketchup, sugar, oil, vinegar, salt, pepper and soy sauce can be found in a million restaurants in New York. Or can they?
There is a subtle, or maybe not so subtle, hint on that Chinese zodiac place mat. And those are all the hints I can offer today without giving away the place’s identity.
I eagerly await your answers. As usual, leave them in the comment section below. The place with the mysterious stainless steel four-drawer compartment in the kitchen will be revealed on Monday.
The bells woke up me up. I could hear them from my open window coming from the street below. I was trying to sleep away the hot day. I forced myself out of bed. I had to get downstairs fast. I had to get to the bells.
I put on a dirty, ripped tee shirt and slid on my flip flops. I rushed out the door and started down the four flights to the street.
Mrs. Robbins was trudging up the steps. She was in a wrinkled house dress, holding an ice cream bar in one hand that was melting rapidly.
“You better hurry,” she said. “He’s selling out fast.” As she spoke she tried to catch the red cookie crumbs that were falling from the ice cream bar.
“You got strawberry shortcake?” I said.
“Always,” she replied. “And lucky I got there when I did. Those kids behind me are gonna be disappointed if they want their strawberry shortcake. And I know that geezer Baskin will blame me for eating the last one. Too bad, I say. Let him eat a toasted almond for a change. Nothing wrong with toasted almond. Or chocolate éclair. Now that’s a very fine ice cream bar.”
Mrs. Robbins could go on, but I had no time to listen. I ran down the stairs and out into the dusk. It was still brutally hot. I heard the bells, but they were fading. I wasn’t sure which direction to run.
A truck was slowly moving down the street and then stopped right in front of where I was standing. A man poked his head out. “I got ice cream here,” he said.
I stared at the rainbow colored ice cream cone painted on the side of the truck. “You want a Salty Pimp?” the man asked me, “or how about a Bea Arthur?”
I didn’t know what to say. And there were no bells.
“Okay, maybe next time,” the man said as he drove the truck away.
I listened for the bells again. I could hear them faintly, but soon they were drowned out by something else. That song. It was coming from that other ice cream truck. I covered my ears. Stop it, I cried to myself. I can’t stand it!
The loud truck parked in front of me. The music blasted. The ice cream head smiled cruelly at me; the source of so many nightmares.
I ran from it. Ran down the street as far away from the truck as I could get. The song faded. I turned down an alley. There it was. The old white truck. And I could hear the bells.
My flops flipped as I ran faster. I could see the man in the white suit and white hat by the side of the truck. There was a line of boys and girls waiting. I needed to get on that line. I shoved my hands into my pockets. And then I froze. “No,” I cried. “No! No! No!”
I forgot to take two bits for the ice cream. I sat down on a stoop and buried my head in my hands.
“What’s the matter, kid,” a gravely-voiced man asked me. “We all have bad days.”
I looked up. It was Carvel. The last guy I wanted to see.
“Forgot something, did ya?”
I didn’t want to hear it from him. Taunting me with his toasted coconut marshmallow sundae; his brown betty’s. Knowing how loyal I am to the other guy. That I would never betray him.”
“Listen, kid, I remember that solid you did for me?”
“What?” I scowled. “What solid?”
“The time you helped me with the dry ice.”
I nodded. Yeah, I remembered. His truck broke down and I helped get his boxes of dry ice to his new store before all his ice cream melted.
“I never forget a solid,” he said.
He reached into his pocket, pulled out a fifty cent piece and flipped it to me. “Go on now. Go get yourself an ice cream.
I looked at the coin and quickly ran down the street. The line of children was gone. The man in the white suit and hat was getting into the passenger seat of his truck. He was leaving, but before he did, I could hear him clang the bells.
I ran right up to him. My face was red, dripping with sweat. He smiled at me. “Just in time, sonny,” he said and then slowly climbed out. “Can’t say there is much left back there though. Not on a hot one like this.”
I walked with him to the side of the truck. He opened the freezer. A wisp of fog drifted from the open door. He reached in. “Hmmm, I thought I had some left,” he said as his hand searched the freezer.
My face contorted. The tears were close. I tried to control them from coming.
“Oh…wait…” He smiled again. “One more. But you’ll have to take whatever it is.”
“I’ll take it,” I said, nodding eagerly. “I don’t care.”
He pulled out the last remaining ice cream bar. My eyes opened wide. So did my mouth. The ice cream was wrapped in blue paper. I knew what it was. The one with the chocolate candy in the center. God is good, I thought.
“Well, well, from that look on your face, I guess it’s your lucky day, sonny boy,” he said.
I gave him the fifty cent piece. He slid it into his changer and then clicked out two dimes for me. I waited a moment.
He looked at me and shrugged. “Sorry, sonny, you ever hear of inflation? The cost of ice cream is going up. Get used to it.”
I didn’t know what he was talking about and really didn’t care. I pocketed the twenty cents and moved away from the truck with my ice cream.
He got back in, started the truck up, and as he drove away, pulled the string to the bells a few times.
I returned to the stoop where I had run into Carvel and sat down. I unwrapped the ice cream and slowly, methodically, started to work on the chocolate icing.
The vanilla ice cream was revealed. I wanted to make it last before I got to the candy, but in the heat, I had to work faster than I liked. The tip of chocolate candy emerged. And then more until the chocolate candy center was totally exposed, clinging fragilely to the stick.
I started to lick it. I knew I had to be careful here. That it was delicate. But I was weak. I couldn’t resist. I took a bite, savoring the cold, rich chocolate. I wanted more and took another, bigger bite. Just as I did, the candy crumbled, pulling away from the stick. I frantically tried to catch it with my hand but only was able to rescue a tiny portion. The rest splattered on the dirty pavement.
I looked down at the glob of chocolate. An army of ants were on it immediately. I still held the stick. I licked it, making sure I cleaned whatever chocolate remained. I stood up, tossed the stick into the garbage.
The sun had gone down but my room was still stifling when I returned. I got back into bed. Tomorrow, they said, was going to be even hotter. I closed my eyes. I didn’t care. As long as I heard the bells.
Lechonera La Isla
256 E. 125th Street
Last year, around this time, when I started seeing the Puerto Rican flags streaming from car antennas, out of apartment windows, and draped across uptown streets, I immediately thought of the Cuchy Frito man, specifically, Cal Tjader’s rendition and the celebration of all pig parts fried Cuchy Frito Man.
I am seeing those same flags again now. And this year, instead of Cal Tjader and cuchifritos, I thought I would celebrate La Isla del Encanto by stopping by my local lechonera, Lechonera La Isla, for a taste of pernil, roast pork shoulder.
La Lechonera La Isla was quiet when I walked in; the few stools of the small restaurant counter were empty. There was beef stew available along with oxtails and roast chicken. And there were a few slabs of pernil that had been roasted to sweet oblivion.
“When do you close,” I asked the young man who was chopping the pernil into pieces for me.
“When we run out of food,” he replied, his cleaver slamming into the very dense crackling of the pig skin. “Basically, my Mom cooks everything in the morning and when it’s gone, I can go home.”
I was lucky; he hadn’t gone home.
Trying not to be too bold, I peered into the kitchen hoping to catch a glimpse of Mom at work. But from what I could see, the kitchen was dark and quiet. Apparently Mom had gone home.
He layered a generous portion of pork on top of rice and red beans. An accompaniment of a homemade hot sauce; onions marinated in scotch bonnet peppers and vinegar set my mouth happily on fire while a drizzle of a tangy mojo (garlic sauce) just added to the gathering of fiery flavors now imbedded there.
The traffic on 125th Street heading towards the Triorough (now known as the RFK) Bridge was bumper to bumper. Instead of Cuban-born Celia Cruz whose picture was adorned on the busy walls of the lechonera, or Tito Puente, who I once saw on 86th Street just after performing at the parade, sitting in the shade being fanned by a group of elderly ladies, the only sounds I heard while gnawing through the delicious cracklings, was that of honking horns. I really didn’t mind, the food provided all the music I needed.
In this, the second installment of The Bizarre Eats of Chow City, I seek out and sample the strange phenomena known as the boneless chicken wing.
I had heard about them. I knew that they existed, but never really gave them much thought. Recently, however, I would pass a placard near my home advertising them. I could no longer hide behind my prejudices and fears. I needed to walk the walk, before I could attempt to talk the talk. It was time I summoned the courage to actually try the boneless chicken wing.
Years ago, McDonald’s was pushing a boneless spare rib sandwich they called the “McRib.” I wondered about it just as I wondered about the boneless chicken wing, but never dared try one. The McRib was resurrected briefly a couple of years ago on a limited basis and still, I would not try it. For me, it is hard enough to walk into a McDonald’s much less order something so bizarre, so exotic as a boneless spare rib sandwich. I just couldn’t do it. I scoffed at the concept; repulsed that the mega corporation would stoop so low as to remove what makes the meat on the spare rib so delectable; the rib itself, just to convenience the already very lazy consumer. I was taking a very hard line and really, intolerant stance.
I think I have mellowed somewhat over the years. And for the sake of journalistic integrity, I now will take culinary risks to root out the truth. Thus, though the McRib is no longer available, the boneless chicken wing is.
There were plenty of sports’ bars and chicken wing joints I knew of that now offered the “boneless” chicken wing along with the traditional, two or three jointed wing whose tiny bones I had so many times plucked clean; the sauce, be it Buffalo, barbecue, jerk, happily licked and sucked from my greasy fingers. That tactile thrill, I knew would be gone, but that did not deter me. That a nearby Applebee’s advertised them out front made my quest an easy one. And that I would not attempt this folly alone; I had three very willing volunteers who agreed to take a break from their elementary and middle school studies to assist me on this project.
I called my local Applebee’s and after being placed on hold for what seemed like a very long time, I was able to put in an order of the boneless chicken wings. I had a choice of bleu cheese or Ranch dressing to accompany the “wings.” I choose the bleu cheese. Along with my three volunteers, we entered Applebee’s. I made sure not to stare at the diners and their multi-colored drinks, the overflowing baskets of fries, and frisbee-sized burgers. My order was ready. We paid, and then quickly exited the bustling restaurant.
Once home. I opened up the styrofoam container revealing the reddish-brown, oddly shaped, “wings.”
I gave myself and each of the volunteers including an added volunteer, my wife who showed none of the same fear or repulsion I had to the laboratory altered concoction that came in the styrofoam container, one “wing” each. We all sampled.
The younger of the student volunteers at first complained that they were too spicy. After a few sips of limeade and then another few bites, they no longer minded the spice and wanted another.
“It’s a composite chicken wing,” my wife said, referring to the composite Little League baseball bat we had heard so much about from the oldest of the student volunteers.
And they were a composite. Unlike the traditional chicken wing, these “wings” you could eat with a fork if you wanted. They were chicken “tenders” shaped into something resembling a chicken wing, breaded, and fried in the manner of the Buffalo chicken wing.
“Can we have another,” all of the volunteers asked.
They each got another. There were two left. The oldest student volunteer, even though he already ate a big sandwich, eyed them covetously. The youngest did not want a third. The oldest grabbed it. The “wings” were quickly devoured.
“Let’s get them again,” one of the students said. “They’re really good.”
I didn’t agree. To me, they were dry and had a chemical taste. And the loss of being able to really handle the wing with your fingers, making sure the bones were plucked clean, detracted just too much from the chicken wing experience. But if nothing else, this experiment taught me to once again restrain myself from imposing my personal preferences on others. If the people want a chicken wing without bones, who am I to deny them that right?
My first exposure to Brazilian food, if you can call it that, was at a three-level place in the theater district called Cabana Carioca. At lunch on all three levels, there was an “all you can eat” buffet were rice and beans, plantains, potatoes, hearts of palm salad, baby shrimp salad, chorizo, roast chicken and macaroni were some of the offerings. Depending what level you ate, was what you paid. The higher you climbed, the cheaper the buffet.
On the main level was a flat out, standard restaurant. I don’t think I ever ate there, but maybe I did. I just don’t remember. The second level, where the kitchen was located, was a bit more casual than the main level and the most popular of the three. It was on the second level where I ate most of my meals. The third level was bare bones; dark and usually empty—used probably only when the other two levels were packed or for private parties, but still serving the restaurants’ enormous portions of steaks, fish, shrimp, and the specialty: feijoada, also known as the “Brazilian National Dish.”
Cabana Carioca’s feijoada came in a cast iron pot stuffed with black beans and a variety of meats; pork shoulder, chorizo, kidney, beef, and other cuts that at the time, I could not identify. They were all coated in the black gravy of the beans and, really, since by then I was probably on my second or third caipirinha, no longer cared what I might be shoveling into my mouth.
Along with the alcohol’s numbing effect, the caipirinha, as opposed to beer, helped cut through the density of the feijoada and made it much easier to navigate. The only problem was the next day’s hangover from too much cachaca, the Brazilian spirit made from pressed and then distilled sugar cane juice and used to make the caipirinha.
I think the last time I had a caipirinha at Cabana Carioca was in 1998 watching Brazil lose to France in the World Cup. The restaurant, all three levels, closed soon after and now, both its caipirinha and feijoada are just memories.
I’ve never had the fortitude to try to resurrect the feijoada in my kitchen, but the caipirinha is a frequent guest. The ingredients are simple; cachaca (available at most liquor stores), sugar, ice, and of course limes. Despite the easy ingredients, making a really good caipirinha requires a little sweat, or, as they used to say, “elbow grease.” The result, however, is well worth the effort.
What follows is the first cut of the lime: the caipirinha.
1 or 2 limes
2 to 3 ounces of cachaca*
2 to 3 teaspoons of sugar syrup **
3-5 ice cubes
*Spirit importers are beginning to market “premium” cachaca, which really just translates into a glitzy bottle design along with an upscale marketing campaign all in the hopes of selling a much higher priced product. I advise you not to go that route when purchasing cachaca for your caipirinhas. In Brazil there are two very popular brands that are used at most restaurants and clubs in making caipirinhas and they can be found here for well under $20 a liter. Seek them out. I guarantee you will not be disappointed.
**Most caipirinha recipes call for granulated sugar. I prefer pre-made sugar syrup thus skipping the “dissolving” process that is necessary in making the drink. To make simple sugar syrup, combine equal amounts of sugar and water, bring to a boil, lower the heat and let cook until the granules have dissolved. The syrup will last for weeks in your refrigerator. I like to use Demerara brown sugar for my syrup, but basic white sugar works just as well.
To make the caipirinha you will need:
1 lime muddler. I have a parrot lime muddler that was given to me by my brother; a souvenir he picked up on a trip to Brazil.
Cocktail shaker and strainer.
Cut the lime into eighths or even tenths.
Toss the lime pieces into the cocktail shaker and using your muddler, it can be a pestle, if you have a mortar and pestle, or anything that can mash and muddle lime pieces, muddle mash the lime, extracting the juice from both the rind and the pulp. Don’t be stingy with that aforementioned elbow grease.
Add the sugar syrup, cachaca and a some ice cubes.
Shake vigorously and then strain into an ice cube filled glass.
Do not be fooled by the drink’s petite size. It will be tempting to down it in a few gulps, but try to sip slowly. Drinking the caipirinha too hastily will only mean a quicker return to the kitchen and more work for you to make another.