Archive | September, 2014

Vietnamese by the Numbers

18 Sep

Saigonese

It was located on a decrepit stretch of Central Avenue, also known as Central Park Avenue, between Hartsdale and Scarsdale in Westchester.

“Remember what was across the street, Gerry?” Eugene said to his fellow Westchester lifer who, he thought would know such things.

Gerry looked at the wild growth of green space across from the restaurant. “Carvel?” He guessed.

I shook my head.  Even I knew that the Carvel, one of that ice cream franchise’s original stores, was down towards Hartsdale and I hadn’t lived in Westchester in almost 40 years.

We were stumped and that brought a proud smile to Eugene’s face. “Jesse’s hot dog truck,” he announced as if he just provided us with valuable information. “All he had were hot dogs with chili, onions, and mustard. None of that other stuff they put on hot dogs nowadays.”

We were in the parking lot of Saigonese, the restaurant chosen by another Westchester resident, Mike from Yonkers. The small oddly-designed structure looked like a former cat house and stood out among Central Avenue’s numerous hideous strip malls.

Inside the structure were an assembly of small tables; two were pushed together to make room for our party of five. Brightly lit with windows overlooking the adjacent gloomy stretch of landscape; muzak flowed from the restaurant’s sound system mirroring the dreary ambiance. But ambiance was not what our Chow City group was about. We’ve eaten in dumps without heat or air conditioning, off Styrofoam plates with thin paper napkins, but also where the food was so full of flavor, so memorable that it didn’t matter that you wouldn’t dare venture to the rest room—it was what we shoved into our mouths that counted. I was hoping that would be the result at Saigonese.

The menu offered no surprises; there was pho; there was bun and there were a number of grilled offerings. The only deviation was the addition of hot pots. But  taped over that section was a notice stating: “we no longer serve hot pots.”

“Is a summer roll the same as a spring roll,” Mike from Yonkers asked the waiter.

“On the west coast they call them spring rolls,” he said. “But they are the same.” And we had no reason to doubt his knowledge of such things.

For starters we ordered the exotic Saigon rolls and vegetarian summer roll along with the grilled spare ribs and the Vietnamese crepe, Saigonese style as if we knew any other style of Vietnamese crepe.

Four ribs for a party of five.

Four ribs for a party of five.

First to appear on our table were four grilled spare ribs. Now a spare rib is not an easy thing to share among gluttons so I volunteered to abstain, leaving the four ribs to the others. I made up for it, however, when the ample Vietnamese crepe appeared; a large pancake stuffed with shrimp, pork and vegetables that needed a jolt of something much more potent than the small bowl of sweetened fish sauce that came with it.  But there was no jolt to be had at our table.

“Chili sauce,” Mike from Yonkers, called to the waiter and he responded with a house made chili sauce and a bottle of Sriracha.

The exotic Saigon roll and the vegetable summer rolls arrived next. I examined them and then took a bite of the Saigon roll only to find out what supposedly made it exotic was the inclusion of Vietnamese sausage.

“Pass me one of those spring rolls,” Zio said to me.

“Unless we are in Los Angeles, I can only pass you the summer rolls,” I replied, but my reference to the West Coast/East Coast terminology for what was on our plates was lost on him.

East coast spring rolls served in the late summer.

East coast spring rolls served in the late summer.

Like the crepe, the rolls, spring or summer, exotic or not needed a jolt as well. I slathered one in the provided chili sauce and braced myself for a heat assault that, surprisingly, never came. At Saigonese even the chili sauce was tepid.

It was time to order and I had decided on a bowl of comforting pho; the traditional with beef brisket.

The waiter next looked to Eugene. “Number 29,” he said to the waiter.

“The house special with grilled pork and shrimp.” The waiter responded.

“Yeah that one,” Eugene concurred.

“Number 18,” Zio said, pointing to the number on the menu.

“Grilled chicken,” the waiter recited.

“The man knows his numbers,” I said.

“What’s number 31?” Gerry quizzed him.

“The mixed vegetables,” He replied with confidence.

“Can you make it spicy,” Gerry asked.

“How spicy?”

“As spicy as you would have it if you ordered it,” Gerry said. “I like it hot.”

The waiter nodded and then muttered, “Don’t complain if it’s too hot.”

“I’ll have number 15,” Mike from Yonkers said.

“Grilled chicken with lemongrass…”  Now the waiter was showing off.

Saigonese Pho

Saigonese Pho

The pho did offer the comfort I craved but I also wanted some zing. I stirred a few drops of the chili sauce into the soup, yet it remained comfortingly bland.

“They’ve Westchesterized this food,” I announced, meaning they dumbed it down, reduced the flavor and spice to appease the local clientele.

“Not this. This is hot!” Gerry said, his nose properly running and his eyes bloodshot from the excess spice added to his mixed vegetable dish. And then he looked around to see if the waiter was within earshot. “But I’m not complaining.”

Number 31 with added spice.

Number 31 with added spice.

The lack of flavor in the dishes was more than made up for by the surprisingly very good Vietnamese flan I had for dessert. Who would have thought that flan would be the standout at a Vietnamese restaurant but at Saigonese it was.

Vietnamese flan

Vietnamese flan

After settling our bill, we congregated in the small, now dark parking lot. I made the mistake of wondering out loud what would be the best route back to the city.

“Go back and take the Bronx River,” Gerry suggested.

“No, take Central Avenue and then get on the Deegan,” Eugene said.

“That will take forever with all those lights,” Gerry argued.

“No it won’t,” Eugene barked. “Ten minutes.”

“Yeah, Central Avenue,” Mike from Yonkers. “It’s the easiest.”

The wastelands of Westchester.

The wastelands of Westchester.

I couldn’t listen anymore and instead got into the car. I decided to pull out onto Central Avenue and take the scenic route suggested by Mike from Yonkers and  Eugene. Yes there were lights, but at each red light I was able to ponder the parade of strip malls glowing with colorful neon, the national fast food chains, car dealers, drug stores, pizzerias, diners, and Chinese restaurants and wonder at all the treasures that lay within.

Saigonese

158 S. Central Park Ave.

Hartsdale

 

A Bronx Bacchanalia Courtesy of Carmine Sunshine

4 Sep

Patrizia's

“You better come very hungry,” Gerry warned us all in preparation for our impromptu dinner at a place called Patrizia’s in the Woodlawn section of the Bronx.

This deviation from our normal gathering routine where we take turns finding a restaurants that meet our budget requirements of $20 or less per person was based on Gerry’s insistence that Patrizia’s, though for our frugal selves, costly, worth the added expense.

What was this Patrizia’s place Gerry was so high on and how come I hadn’t heard of it if it was as good as he claimed. Sure it was hidden in an Irish enclave of Woodlawn, but with today’s media, social and otherwise, a restaurant would be hard pressed to find itself “under the radar,” as we used to say when such places existed.

Only Zio, who was assigned grandfather duty by the demanding and uncompromising Colonel, could not make it. Rick, a rare presence at our normal gatherings, even made it a point to drive to the Bronx on this pleasant August evening.

As we entered, Eugene, who has an uncanny memory for faces and names from his illustrious Battle Hill childhood, stopped short when the owner of Patrizia’s, greeted Gerry, his longtime business associate.

“Carmine Sunshine,” Eugene addressed the owner with a grin that almost turned into a smile. “What’s it been, 30 years?”

Carmine Sunshine shrugged as if he had no clue. And then the two men hugged.

“This is the guy that wouldn’t let me buy a slice at Sunshine Pizza,” Eugene said to us as we witnessed the reunion. “I felt guilty going in there. He wouldn’t take my money.” The connection, I was quickly to learn was that Carmine, the current owner of Patrizia’s was once the owner of a very popular pizzeria in downtown White Plains called Sunshine Pizza.

Carmine seemed overwhelmed by the adulation bestowed upon him by Eugene and was literally speechless. Instead, he led us to a huge booth in a private room and slid into the booth with us, apron tied around his ample waist. After some small talk with Eugene bringing up names from Sunshine Pizza’s past like Nicky, Sal, Joe, and Phil, Carmine stood up and did that thing chefs do when they are about to test their guests’ eating endurance—he clapped his hands and said: “So, any food allergies I should know about?”

Only Rick responded with a feeble, “Um…pine nuts. I can’t eat pine nuts.

Carmine nodded and headed off to the kitchen.

“Do we order?” Mike from Yonkers asked Gerry.

“No, he’ll just start bringing what he has.”

Mike from Yonkers flipped the menu away. “Okay, let him bring it then.”

“Oh he will,” Gerry responded, indicating he knew something we didn’t.

First to arrive on the table was a small pizza made in the restaurant’s wood burning oven. I have a faint recollection of Sunshine Pizza, but one thing I am sure of, that slice joint never had a wood burning oven. Carmine’s pizza was crisp, layered lightly with cheese and tomato sauce. It was a winning start.

Following the pizza, a waiter deposited a platter of coconut crusted shrimp on our table.

“This is the first time I can truly say I’ve had anything with coconut in an Italian restaurant,” I announced.

“Yeah, what was Carmine thinking?” Gerry wondered as he speared one of the jumbo shrimp and shoveled it into his mouth.

 

Fennel salad

Fennel salad

Carmine himself brought the next course; a fennel salad adorned with grilled calamari and dusted with…pignoli nuts. After presenting it he slapped the side of his own head realizing his mistake with the inclusion of the pine nuts and their toxic effect on Rick. “Okay, I’ll bring something else,” he stammered and while all but Rick sampled the aromatic fennel salad, he returned quickly with an overflowing platter of steamed little neck clams.

“Just ‘cause your allergic to pine nuts doesn’t mean you’re getting all those clams,” Gerry barked as he spooned a few onto his plate drizzling them with their own broth.

 

Steamed clams

Steamed clams

Before we could finish with the clams and fennel salad, another waiter presented a platter of roasted Italian peppers stuffed with cheese and sausage. With the previous four courses consumed the hunger that I was told to bring by Gerry had now faded, but that didn’t stop me from devouring one of the peppers, the saltiness of the sausage complimenting the sweet pepper and the mild mozzarella.

 

Stuffed peppers

Stuffed peppers

I sipped a glass of wine from the magnum of Cabernet on our table hoping to clear my palate and reintroduce that hunger before the next course but there was no time. Carmine appeared like a sadistic inquisitor with a platter of octopus cooked in his fiery wood burning oven. How could I resist?

Pulpo

Pulpo

I looked at Gerry. “Is this man planning to kill us here, so close to Woodlawn Cemetery,” I asked once Carmine was out of sight.

“Stop complaining,” Gerry said with disgust. “We haven’t even gotten to the pastas yet.”

And that was what I feared. I drank water and got up to go to the bathroom mainly just to stretch my legs and work off the first five courses. When I returned, there was a “family-size” platter of homemade cavatelli with more of that salty sausage and broccoli rabe sitting alongside another platter of what Carmine explained were “money bags,” or golf ball size dumplings stuffed with four cheeses in a rich mushroom and ham sauce. Both pastas were spectacular but also weighty on my already swollen belly. That didn’t stop me or others in my “family” from quickly consuming what had been assembled on the family-sized platters.

I paused to breath. I knew there was more to come. After all we had really only dined so far on the “primi,” even though the “primi” courses were coming perilously close to double digits.

 

Money bags on the left, cavatelli on the right.

Money bags on the left, cavatelli on the right.

“It’ll be awhile before the fish is ready,” Carmine explained; an almost evil smile on his face. “It’s cooking in the oven.”

“The pizza oven?” I asked.

He nodded. “Sure come take a look.”

Any excuse to get up and move; to stretch and work off whatever I could of what I’d already eaten was more than welcome.

In a pan close to the glowing embers were two huge branzino, also known as sea bass, juices simmering in the heat of the oven. They looked beautiful and momentarily revived my appetite. I lingered for a bit there, not wanting to get back to food quite yet even though I had a responsibility to fulfill.

 

Branzino in the oven

Branzino in the oven

When I returned to the table I saw, at least to my ancient eyes, what looked like a football covered in brown gravy. Upon closer inspection what was on the table was really an enormous shank of osso buco and it had been placed in front of my seat reminding me that there was work yet to be done.

Mike from Yonkers was now eating standing up and groaning while continually shoveling food into his mouth. Two huge bowls of chicken, potatoes and vinegar peppers  just added to the decadent misery we were experiencing.

I picked at a pepper.  I broke off a piece of the tender veal shank and nibbled at it. And then finally the branzino arrived—each fish in an individual platter coated in a light tomato sauce and topped with shrimp and clams. I pierced the skin of the fish and scooped out the white moist meat not bothering with the clams or shrimp. I just wanted to say I at least tried the fish. And then I couldn’t help myself. I filleted a little more and, finding reserves I never knew I had, finished it off.

I turned to Gerry. “If he comes back tell him ‘no mas,’” I pleaded.

“Yeah I’m done,” Rick muttered, a dazed look on his face.

Only Eugene remained unfazed by the feast. He was still glowing over the blast from the past in seeing Carmine. “He wouldn’t let me buy a slice? I couldn’t go in there anymore,” he repeated again as if we didn’t hear him either the first or second time he mentioned it.

Carmine slid into the booth again. “What about a steak,” he whispered to Gerry.

Gerry laughed and swiped his finger across his neck signifying that we were done.

“Okay I’ll just get dessert,” Carmine said, not waiting for us to protest the arrival of more food

A fruit platter followed and then, the finale, pastries, stuffed with molten dark chocolate cooked in the wood oven and topped with powdered sugar. I summoned my reserves and found room for both.

 

Osso Buco

Osso Buco

Mike from Yonkers took the Branzino that was untouched home to his betrothed while Gerry and I went out with doggie bags of the chicken and potatoes. Nothing remained on the shank of veal that was once osso buco. And all the money bags somehow had been disposed of as well.

We thanked Carmine Sunshine. Eugene gave him another hug. “I’ll see you in another 30 years,” he joked.

“Next time I’ll make you a steak,” he told all of us and maybe it was the short stroll to my car on now desolate Katonah Avenue that momentarily gave me a second wind, or maybe I had more in my reserve than I thought, because by the time I got into the car returning for a steak actually sounded like a good idea.

 

Patrizia’s

4358 Katonah Ave

Bronx

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