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A Pilgrimage to Queens to Pay Homage to a Falafel King

14 Jun

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“There ought to be a rule that you can’t pick a place in your neighborhood,” Eugene proclaimed as we sat down inside King of Falafel and Shawarma on Broadway in Astoria. Eugene always wants to amend the bylaws of our food group. The problem is, we really don’t have any by laws.

Still, it was a little convenient or maybe lazy even, for Zio to choose a place just a few blocks from his love nest. And coming on the heels of another Middle Eastern restaurant we just visited a month earlier; the Egyptian Tut’s Hub, made it even more puzzling. But we don’t want to get into Zio’s creative yet sometimes garbled brain here. This is about the food and the self proclaimed King of Falafel—whose humble beginnings as a food cart operator sparked his road to royalty. His falafel became so popular he moved up from a cart to a food truck where the lines in Astoria to sample his falafel  circled the block. It’s always good to be the king and it was so good for the King of Falafel that in 2016 he moved into a full-fledged take out restaurant, where we were currently assembled.

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The King’s falafel with humus and baba “ganooj” in the background

Since the falafel is legend here, our group easily decided the best way to sample that and other of the King’s specialties was to order the Mazamez or the King appetizer, a family style sampling of hummus, baba “ganooj,” grape leaves, tabbouleh, spinach pie and, of course, falafel. Instead of the round golf ball-sized falafels I’m familiar with, the King makes his oblong, fried to a dark golden brown and devoid of any grease. I admit to not being a falafel snob, but in my amateurish opinion, the King’s version tasted damn good.

Using the provided pita bread, we easily devoured the platter but then Gerry, whose appetite knows no limit, ordered another starter called Foul, pronounced, I believe as Fool. The Foul was a well spiced stew of fava beans in a hearty sauce that, combined with the other appetizers we just downed, was more than sufficient to appease our enormous appetites. But why stop at the appetizers when there was the shawarma to sample?

A sample of shawarma is one thing, but the weighty mound of chicken and shawarma coated in a very spicy chili tomato sauce layered on top of a king-sized bed of basmati rice, known as the “Omar,” that I ordered was a sample fit for a very large king, falafel, shawarma or whatever. This was a food challenge I knew I would not win.

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The “Omar” comin’

Gerry, however, was up for any challenge and, unfazed by the starters, ordered the most expensive and largest item on the menu: the “Teaser.” This teaser was a gargantuan platter of meats; chicken, shawarma, and kebabs over basmati rice, complimented by two more of the King’s famous falafels. Gerry worked through the meats meticulously and before Mike from Yonkers could even get halfway through his falafel platter, Gerry was done.

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The “Teaser”

Keeping his mouth shut from the spanking his Red Sox were getting from the Yankees, Eugene sullenly feasted on what was called the “Big Dady,” described as a “delightful mix of chicken and beef kabob over rice.” Whatever it was, Eugene showed no delight in his meal—but with Eugene that did not mean that he didn’t thoroughly enjoy it. You just had to ask him.

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The Big “Dady” for the Big Papi fan.

After the long two block journey from his love to the King of Falafel, Zio’s appetite was not as it could be. Still, he had no difficulties finishing his beef kebab platter. And we expected no less.

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Beef kebabs on Basmati rice

Trying to hide my embarrassment, I signaled for a takeout container; a first for me in the 15 years our group had been stuffing their faces at various restaurants in New York’s boroughs and suburbs. Piling the Omar into the container and securing the lid tightly, I departed the King of Falafel and Shawarma with enough in my bag for a happy Middle Eastern reprise. But only after I digested the one I just finished, which most likely meant in maybe 48 hours.

King of Falafel & Shawarma

3015 Broadway

Astoria

The Fateer Feast on Steinway Street

17 May

 

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“Is pigeon on the menu,” I asked Gerry after he announced his choice; an Egyptian restaurant on Steinway Street in Astoria named Tut’s Hub.

“No pigeon,” he answered and all of us in our quirky food group breathed a collective sigh of relief.

Pigeon was on the menu of our last foray, several years ago, to Steinway Street and another Egyptian restaurant (A Night on Steinway Street) . That one didn’t end well and maybe it was because of that greasy pigeon that we never returned to Steinway Street, but by now our informal statute of limitations had long expired and Gerry felt it was time we gave Steinway street another chance.

There was a sheet of water rushing down the glass façade of Tut’s Hub. The waterfall was part of the theme-park like restaurant where the five of us dined surrounded by statues of Egyptian gods and goddesses as if entombed in the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s, Temple of Dender. I was hoping for Im Ho Tep to show us to our table but instead we were greeted by a boisterous woman in jeans and a baseball cap. You can’t have everything.

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No mummies at Tut’s Hub

While archaeologists were busy in the back restoring the hieroglyphics on the inner walls of the restaurant, we sat close to the waterfall and perused the menu. Despite the kitschy surroundings, the food offerings looked authentically Egyptian. I didn’t bother to make a suggestion instead leaving the ordering to Gerry, with Mike from Yonkers in consultation.

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The Gold Chair was off limits.

We started off with Kushari, a mix of elbow macaroni, lentils, fried onions, and a tomato-vinegar sauce that prompted Zio to mutter: “What is this? noodle roni?”And as it turned out, the Kushari, though it arrived first, was least of all the dishes we were to sample in Tut’s temple that night.

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Kushari a.k.a. “noodle roni.”

Next came baba ghanoush with a basket of warm pita which we made quick work of along with two bowls of mulukyiah, a pureed soup of greens in a salty chicken broth that also went well with the pita bread. Soon, though, Eugene and I gave up on the pita and used our spoons to slurp the soup.

“And now we get deep dish pizza,” Zio remarked when the pastrami fateer, a pie stuffed with Tut’s Hub’s homemade Egyptian pastrami and veggies arrived on our table.  Zio wasn’t the only pizza snob at the table; none of us had any use for what might be found in a Pizza Hut in Indianapolis, but the Pastrami fateer was unlike any deep dish pizza we had ever had. It was so good Zio could be heard making strange noises of satisfaction as he feasted on the pie.

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Pastrami fateer

Tut’s mixed grill, chicken, lamb, sausage, and beef kabobs served on rice pilaf, and another fateer, this called Hawawshi containing spiced beef and pickled turnips that gave it an unusual and somewhat bitter taste, rounded out our “family-style” entrees.  Spoiled by the magnificent pastrami fateer, the Hawawshi, with the inclusion of those slightly bitter turnips, was an acquired taste—one that we soon acquired with Mike from Yonkers making sure to snag the last slice.

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Hawawshi fateer

Though by now, more than well fed, we decided to let the fateer feast continue ordering a “mixed nuts” variety for dessert. With Mike from Yonkers and his enormous appetite gone, there was more of the sweet pie, dusted with confectioner’s sugar and sprinkled with pistachios, raisins and coconut flakes, for the rest of us—as if we needed it. And, after consuming every last bit of crust and pistachios, apparently we did.

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And more fateer…the mixed nut variety

Tut’s Hub

30-91 Steinway St.

Astoria

Guyanese-Style Gizzards Found in the Bronx

12 Apr

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Like a laser directed drone strike, Gerry’s eyes found their target on the menu of the Coconut Palm Bar & Grill  under “chicken gizzards.” There was no talking him down. No dissuading him from taking the risk. It was gizzards he wanted. It was gizzards he was most definitely going to get.

“Jerk chicken wings?”  I offered.

“Sure,” Gerry said.

“What about the chicken dumplings?” I asked, hoping another appetizer would deter him from the gizzards. “She said they were one of the most popular items on the menu.” The she, being the illustrated woman of a waitress we had—her arms decorated in multi-colored tattoos.

“Sounds good,” Gerry said.

“So we’re set?”

“Mmmhmmm as long as we get the gizzards.”

So the gizzards were ordered…along with chicken dumplings and jerk chicken wings. And while Mike from Yonkers and Gerry sipped 12 year old, Macallan Scotch, certainly a first for our frugal food group,  and with soca coming from the sound system and a cricket match on the television, we scoured the menu for our entrees.

We were in the Bronx, under the 6 train tracks in the Castle Hill section of the borough at what was advertised as a Guyanese & West Indian restaurant. Near the bar, I noticed that the Coconut Palm offered “Pepper Pot,” a piquant Guyanese stew of meat parts cooked slowly in a syrup made from cassava called “cassareep.” I’ve had the Grenadian version in Grenada but never had a pepper pot in the Bronx. I was excited by the prospect.

“I’ll have to ask him when he gets back,” the waitress told me when I asked if there really was pepper pot available.

Who she had to ask was the owner of the Coconut Palm and I waited a long time for “him” to come back to learn that, no, there was no pepper pot. But there was “cook up rice,” a mix of rice, beans, chicken pieces; the Guyanese/Caribbean version of fried rice which I promptly ordered.

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Cook up rice

The gizzards arrived on our table, cooked crispy and coated in the light curry spice known as bunjal. Gerry wasted no time getting to them and Zio, also a renowned gizzard man, wasn’t far behind. The jerk chicken wings were tender and, as I expected, not quite as spicy as the authentic Jamaican jerk found on that island. Rounding out the trio of appetizers, the chicken dumplings were more reminiscent of fried wontons than anything Caribbean and were served with a sweet soy sauce.

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The gizzards

Displaying the East Indian influence on Guyanese food, the entrees of salt fish and stewed red snapper, ordered by Gerry and Eugene respectively, came with dhal, a soupy lentil condiment. Zio’s jerk chicken was the extended version of the chicken wings we already experienced, but his came with rice.

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Dhal

“Rice a Roni,” Zio muttered as the bright orange rice with peas was placed in front of him.

Mike from Yonkers was complaining as well. “There are too many bones,” he kept telling us as he gnawed through the “bunjal duck” he ordered, that was prepared in the same lighter version of a curry that the gizzards were.

I had no complaints about my cook up rice; it was what I expected and Mike from Yonkers’ loss was my gain as there were many tiny pieced of duck for me to pick through long after he had given up.

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Stewed snapper

Twelve year old Scotch aside, the Coconut Palm Bar and Grill easily fit into our meager budget and though there were gizzards, orange-colored rice, and numerous tiny duck bones to work around, the food just always seems better when eaten under the elevated subway tracks.

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Chicken dumplings

Coconut Palm Bar & Grll

2407 Westchester Ave

Bronx

A Taste of Heaven (and a little bit of hell) on Northern Boulevard

20 Feb

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After last month’s “disaster” in Port Chester and as the designated Grand Poobah of our now 15-year-old food group,  I quickly signed into order a temporary ban on Mexican restaurants for our group. No more tacos. No more enchiladas. No more grand volcanoes until further notice. Despite a mini-protest by the sudden activist, Eugene, no one dared question my motives or intentions. Eugene soon fell into line and Mike from Yonkers, whose turn it was to choose our next destination stuck to the ban and chose a Korean restaurant in Flushing’s Koreatown called Joah. While we have had enough of guacamole for awhile, we were starved for bulgogi and bibimbap.

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The Grand Poobah

I arrived early and had time for a beer, so I stumbled into a non-descript bar across the street from Joah. When I entered, the few heads in the bar turned to stare at me as if I were some sort of immigrant life form they had never seen before. There was a Korean couple at one end of the bar snuggled close to each other sharing cherry tomatoes and a bottle of Grey Goose and a lone older Korean man with three empty Coors’ Light bottles in front of him, two of the Korean female bartenders huddled around him lovingly. One of the bartenders reluctantly broke away to see what I wanted. I mentioned beer and she looked at me quizzically as if she didn’t understand what I said. And then she mimicked my words; her English almost non-existent. I dared not ask what type of beers were available and just went ahead and ordered a Heineken. She nodded and returned with a glass, a bottle of Heineken and a small dish of roasted peanuts. As I started in on the beer and the peanuts a loud wail ensued seemingly out of nowhere. I turned to see the man with the cherry tomatoes and Grey Goose bottle gripping a microphone. He was soulfully crooning into the microphone, the vodka fueling his passion as he sang along with the Korean pop tune. I made sure to applaud his performance politely when he finished and then, trying not to look too stressed, downed the beer as fast as I could and got out of there before I had to hear more karaoke, Korean or otherwise.

The quiet when I arrived at the sparsely populated Joah was appreciated. Zio waddled in a few minutes later and we sat and took a look at the menu which was a colorful notebook loaded with non-traditional Korean dishes. Where was the bulgogi? Where was the bibimbap? Instead there was page devoted to “hamburger steak,” including Turkish hamburger steak and hamburger steak and sausage. There was also a lengthy section of the menu on risottos and pastas; just what was expected in a Korean joint.

“You gonna get pasta, Eugene?” I asked him.

“No, I’m gonna get risotto,” he replied, surprising me as he ordered the “Gondre” seafood risotto in a tomato sauce.

“That’s what I was gonna order,” Mike from Yonkers whined.

“No one’s stopping you,” Eugene answered. And no one did. Both ordered the same risotto in a Korean restaurant.

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Korean risotto

I quickly decided that the Korean version of Italian food might be problematic to an Italian food snob like me, so instead focused on something I had never seen before called “Eggs in Heaven OR Eggs in Hell.” The difference between heaven and hell in this case meant that the eggs were either prepared in a cheese cream sauce (heaven) or in a tomato broth (hell). Though the idea of hell always sounds edgier, more exciting, I opted for more mundane heaven; eggs in a Korean made tomato sauce just did not appeal to my half Italian sensibilities.

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Eggs in heaven

Gerry wasted no time ordering the army stew, a soup of bacon, fish cake, sausage and noodles in the same, dark red tomato broth that coated Eugene and Mike from Yonkers’ risotto. “It’s a little sweet,” all of them, including Zio, whose spicy pork plate over rice was also red in color, intoned and I agreed after taking a bite of Mike from Yonkers’ risotto.

There was nothing sweet, however, about my eggs in heaven. “Make sure you mix it all up,” the waiter told me as he planted the very hot bowl in front of me. I did what he said, the eggs cooking in the hot cheese and cream sauce, all of it easy to scoop up with the saltine crackers and pieces of Italian bread that decorated the bowl. The bits of bacon in the eggs added much needed salt to the otherwise bland, yet somewhat comforting dish.

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Though we came expecting Korean food normalcy, we experienced something much different. The results may not have been what we wanted, but the adventure most definitely was. In that regard, Mike from Yonkers’ pick of Joah was a big time winner.

Joah

161-16 Northern Blvd

Flushing, Queens

A Volcano Fizzles in Port Chester

17 Jan

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“Nello Burgio told me about this volcano thing,” Eugene muttered as the waitress of Kiosko Mexican Restaurant and Bar hovered around him, ready for him to order. Eugene, based on the recommendation of Nello Burgio, who none of us knew, had summoned us to Port Chester, about a 40 minute drive out of Manhattan, for this latest Chow City adventure. And though I had very good Mexican food in Arizona just a few days earlier I was determined to keep an open mind in Port Chester where, I knew, there were many good Latin restaurants.

“Volcano?” She didn’t understand Eugene and it had nothing to do with a language barrier.

“Yeah, that’s what he said.”

While this went on, we sipped our Modelo’s patiently. “Eugene, just order already,” I finally told him.

The waitress came over with a takeout menu. “You mean this?” she asked, pointing to a photo of a molcajete, or a Mexican bowl used to make guacamole, overflowing with meats and vegetables.

“Is that the volcano?”

She nodded. “Yes ‘molcajete azteca’ the Volcano. $21.95. $40 for two people.”

“Any volunteers?” Eugene asked. “Nello says this is what you should order when you come here.”

I didn’t know Nello from Adam…or anyone else for that matter. And I wanted no part of a $40 volcano. Zio and Gerry showed little enthusiasm also, but Mike from Yonkers raised his hand willingly and even switched seats with Zio so he could be closer to Eugene and the forthcoming volcano.

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The volcano

As if we had all night to spend in the suburbs, Gerry made sure to order the one dish that, according to the menu, took “30 minutes to cook,” the mojarra sudada, a wrapped and steamed whole porgy with garlic and epazote (Mexican tea leaves). Why would it take 30 minutes to steam a fish—and not a big one either—none of us dared ask. But we did know that the fried porgy filet that Zio ordered would not take as long nor would the huaraches atilxco rib eye steak that I ordered. “You can bring our entrees before you bring out that fish. Make him wait,” I said, pointing to Gerry.

And after a half hour and nothing had materialized on our table besides chips and very mediocre salsa, I realized my request fell on deaf ears.

Finally the “volcano” was brought carefully to the table. Yes there was “smoke” coming from the molcajete which was overflowing with beef, chicken, strips of cactus and stuffed with some sort of clay-colored lava-like sauce within. The dish reminded me of the Mexican version of the Chinese sizzling Go Bar, but after a taste, minus the sizzle—not to mention the flavor.

I could smell the steamed porgy even before it came to our table. I didn’t know if that was a good or very bad sign. I wasn’t going to find out, but Gerry didn’t seem to have any problems with it. At least not that I heard about later. Zio’s fried fish was accompanied by a serious mound of steamed broccoli and carrots causing him to protest: “What is this health food I’m eating tonight?”

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Steamed porgy…30 minutes later

My steak arrived last. The sizable cut smothered in onions, resting on a salsa-covered tortilla, dare I say looked—delicious, but after sawing through the gristly meat, taking a not so flavorful bite and then trying the soggy tortilla, my formerly open mind had closed on Kiosko. My opinion is strictly my own, but judging from the lack of enthusiasm from Eugene and from everyone else for that matter, I think the consensus was pretty much in line with mine.

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Steak and onions, Kiosko style

The lesson learned in Port Chester, if there was one, is that what’s good for Nello Burgio just might not be good for the seasoned palates our intrepid group.

Kiosoko Mexican Restaurant and Bar

220 Westchester Avenue

Port Chester, NY

The Wurst of Oktoberfest

25 Oct

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When Gerry announced that we were going to a German place in Astoria called Max’s Bratwurst und Bier, I commented that it was apt for an October destination. “It will be like our own little Oktoberfest,” I told him. Not that I knew really what an Oktoberfest was beyond a celebration of German heritage with beer, schnitzel and sausages, and oom-pah music. “And it will please Eugene,” I added, knowing Eugene’s affinity for food festivals.

“Zactly,” Gerry replied.

The small corner bier hall on 30th avenue featured picnic tables in an enclosed porch as well as an interior, dining room. They even provided blankets if the October weather got too chilly while drinking and eating at the picnic tables. To make sure who the blankets were for, there was a sign in the basket that read: “Not for dogs—for humans.”

We were a couple of blocks from two other restaurants our group previously visited, chosen by Zio who lived nearby, including De Mole (The Mole-A in Astoria) and Ukus (A Bosnian Taste in Astoria). Gerry’s choice also was made in deference to Zio who had been under the weather lately. But despite Gerry’s concern, Zio was still too wobbly to make it over to our version of the Oktoberfest from his nearby love nest.

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What’s an Oktoberfest without beer?

The menu at Max’s featured an array of German sausages and a few exotic ones made with alligator and rattlesnake. Keeping in the German spirit, we avoided the exotic and stuck with the traditional. The schnitzel’s offered were a temptation, but since bratwurst was their signature dish, I decided on the “wurst plate,” which offered a choice of two sausages and two side dishes. Mike from Yonkers and Eugene also chose the wurst plate while Gerry veered slightly with the curry wurst, a plate of sliced sausage covered in what was said to be a hot curry sauce. What constitutes hot for Germans, however, is not on the same level as, say, Thai or Indian, so the heat in the curry wurst barely caused Gerry to blink.

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Curry Wurst

Of the many sausages, the two I chose were rindwurst, smoked beef bratwurst, and the grobe baeurnbratwurst, a mild farmer’s sausage. Each of us ordered different varieties but sharing was problematic. Even in the spirit of Oktoberfest, who really wants to share someone else’s sausage?

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The Wurst Plate

What we did share, however, were two orders of the Max’s light, fluffy potato pancakes served with chunky apple sauce and sour cream. And though I do not consider myself a potato pancake aficionado, Max’s were better than any I’ve had during Hanukkah or any other Jewish holiday.

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Potato pancake

As we enjoyed the moist, tender wursts, accompanied by German, vinegar-based potato salad, red cabbage and cold German draft beers like Radeberger Pilsner, Spaten Oktoberfest, and HB original lager, we glanced at the Cubs/Dodgers playoffs on the restaurant’s televisions. At this self made Oktoberfest, there was no oom-pah music or beer maidens in Bavarian garb and for that we were grateful. We did, however, need to finish up in a timely matter, meaning we had to prod Mike from Yonkers to stop with the deliberate little bites. It wasn’t so much that we needed to get home to catch the finale of the baseball game, instead all of us were anxious to witness the third part in that very popular reality show: the presidential debates.

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And as a testament to Max’s wursts, even the unappetizing  reality show  that was our post dinner entertainment, could not erase the good taste of all those sausages.

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4702 30th Avenue
Astoria

A Few Specialties of a Taiwanese House…Without the Rice

20 Sep

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What do you do when you are on a month-long detox “diet” that pretty much wipes out all of your favorite food groups? No, you can’t have bread or pasta. Sugar, forget about it. Grains of any kind won’t do either. That means no rice—even if it’s healthy and brown. A piece of cheese? Some milk with your coffee? Not a chance. Okay, I’ll eat lots of beans. No you won’t. Not even that trusty legume the peanut. To compensate for all this loss, consuming quantities of organic vodka might get me through the month—that is if alcohol of any kind were allowed.

So that was my predicament when choosing our group’s next eating adventure. Should I just forgo the diet for one day or try to find a cuisine compatible to my food restrictions? Or should I just go with my instincts and pick the best possible place and hope I could make it work for me? Of course that best possible place couldn’t be Mexican or any Latin restaurants. Italian would not work either. Indian, with those delicious breads and rice would be too much of temptation. So I looked to other Asian possibilities and finally settled on a Taiwanese restaurant called, either Taiwanese Gourmet, as it is referred to on Yelp and other internet sites, Taiwanese Cuisine, Inc, as it says on the restaurant’s awning in Elmhurst, Queens, or Taiwanese Specialties, as it reads on the restaurant’s take-out menu. For one day I would not worry what was in the sauces used to prepare the restaurant’s dishes but would stay away from rice, noodles, and anything deep fried with a heavy batter.

“The busy season,” according to Mike from Yonkers kept him from the group on this night, but Zio, Eugene, and Gerry were in attendance and hungry. With Mike from Yonkers absent, Eugene made sure to continually question why Mike from Yonkers wasn’t penalized for ordering a $12 Manhattan at our last get together. “How do you get away ordering a $12 drink?” Eugene asked us incredulously. “And then we all have to pay for it? There’s got to be a rule against that in this group’s by laws.”

Finally, though, Eugene gave it up and concentrated on the multi-page menu even daring to ask the Chinese-speaking waitress, “what’s good here.” That got a roll of her eyes and he decided on the crispy fried chicken while Gerry and Zio were debating on what version of escargot to order. Zio was adamant in his choice of escargot, without the shell, with basil. Gerry was going to order the little snails in the shell with black bean sauce but instead opted for cuttlefish with celery. My choice was the shredded beef with yellow chives—beef and all meats, including pork and most importantly bacon being an integral part of my detoxification.

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Escargot in the middle, sauteed spinach in the back, and cuttlefish and celery on the right.

Since pork was allowed, we started with an appetizer of a pork roll. What wasn’t allowed in my diet was the breaded wrapping the pork roll was encased in. Do I sacrifice my journalistic integrity by not trying what was in front of me? Or do I bite the bullet and take a bite of what was against my diet’s “by laws.” I chose the latter and I am here writing this as healthy evidence that that bite did not throw my detoxification into a tailspin nor did it toss me off the 30-day wagon I was on.

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The forbidden pork roll

The shredded beef with yellow chives was “the best thing we ordered,” according to Eugene and I could not disagree. Though the escargot with basil had a very flavorful sauce, the little mollusks were not as tender as I would have liked causing Zio to question their authenticity. “Are these really escargot?” he wondered.

“Maybe the snails aren’t French?” I replied.

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Shredded beef with yellow chives

While we efficiently devoured our food, large groups of diners waiting to be seated eyed our half-filled round table enviously and before Zio even had a chance to shovel the last escargot into his hungry mouth, a check was placed on our table.

“It took me longer to get here than it did to eat,” Gerry observed after our rushed dinner.

Still nobody was complaining—Zio even hinting that he might return with the Colonel. I wouldn’t mind joining them, but only if by then I can have a little rice with my shredded beef.

Taiwanese Cuisine, Inc

84-02 Broadway

Elmhurst

The Perfect Manhattan Fantasy Found in Westchester

16 Aug

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When Mike from Yonkers alerted our group that his pick was a place called Fantasy Cuisine, my sometimes depraved mind immediately pictured an exotic food buffet where you dined among dirty books, x-rated videos and adult peep show booths. What a concept! Alas, it was just a fleeting word association and the fantasy cuisine in question was Chinese, Szechuan to be specific.

The restaurant was not far from another of Mike from Yonkers’ picks, Saigonese (https://friedneckbonesandsomehomefries.com/2014/09/18/vietnamese-by-the-numbers/), in the heavily populated Asian district of Central Avenue in Westchester’s Hartsdale. Upon entering the stand alone restaurant, I noted the faux waterfall, stemmed water glasses and neatly folded, albeit paper, napkins on the tables. “Mike is in trouble with this one,” Zio mumbled as both of us made our way to our table which was also equipped with do-it-yourself hotpot controls.

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Elegance in Westchester

When the waiter arrived to take our drinks’ orders, maybe to help him weather whatever abuse we were going to heap on him, Mike from Yonkers splurged for a $12 “Perfect Manhattan” while the rest of us ordered Taiwanese beer.

“Do you know I have a friend who went to Italy and everywhere he went he tried to order chicken parmigiana,” Eugene announced to all of us as we were sipping our beverages. “It’s a disgrace. An embarrassment…you go to Italy and order chicken parmigiana…” Was Eugene just making conversation or was he delivering a social statement about the ugly American? No one knew and we were hungry so didn’t really care.

The menu at Fantasy Cuisine compartmentalized standard Szechuan dishes into “styles.” From among the styles that were arranged from non-spicy to spicy to very spicy, you could order your choice of meat; chicken, fish, beef or shrimp. This was supposed to make ordering from what are usually text book-sized menus much easier. I, however, veered totally form the “Classic Sichuan Dish” style menu to order twice cooked pork belly.  The others went with the various styles; Gerry ordering fish “dry pepper style,” Mike from Yonkers, chicken “dry pot style,” and Zio, beef “red soup style.”

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Fish “Dry Pepper Style”

When the waiter came to Eugene, he too eschewed the various styles and decided on the house fried rice with chicken.

“You’re not ordering from one of the Szechuan styles,” I asked Eugene.

He shook his head. “There’s too much stuff in those.”

“What do you mean by stuff?” I wanted to know.

“Mushrooms,” he replied bluntly.

“What’s the matter, you scared of mushrooms?” Gerry teased knowing Eugene’s well documented aversion to fungi.

I looked at him seriously. “We come to a Szechuan restaurant in Hartsdale and you order fried rice?” It’s a disgrace…an embarrassment.” And then I stopped because the appetizers Mike from Yonkers chose were beginning to arrive on our table including summer rolls that, after a bite, would not be worth ordering in any season. The Dan Dan noodles that followed, usually a barometer to judge quality Szechuan came next and after we all sampled them, the barometer at Fantasy Cuisine was pointing down.

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These Dan Dan noodles were no fantasy.

But you can forgive a restaurant for its appetizer missteps. The entrees, with the exception of Eugene’s predictably pedestrian fried rice with chicken, were all top notch though Zio’s trough-like bowl of beef in “red soup style” being the exception, not as spicy as we were used to for authentic Szechuan.  The thinly sliced pork belly was tender and combined with smoked tofu, garlic stems and scallions in a salty black bean sauce was as good as I’ve had while Gerry’s “dry pot style” fish also worthy of any Szechuan joint I’ve been to south of Yonkers.

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Pork belly so good it was cooked twice

No one could forgive Zio for barely making a dent in the humongous bowl in front of him and after a while he gave up, telling the waiter he would bring the remains home. Mike from Yonkers, on the other hand, had no excuse; he was on the same pace as Zio but with half the food and even more unforgivably, had barely made a dent in the Perfect Manhattan.

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Zio’s feeding trough of beef “red soup style.”

Noticing our probing stares, Mike from Yonkers quickly downed the drink but leaving the maraschino cherry at the bottom of the glass. “All right,” he said a smile on his face and smacking his lips. Whether it was a Perfect Manhattan or not, the man from Yonkers, who now lives in Rockland County looked satisfied.

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The not so perfect Manhattan

“Are Perfect Manhattan’s allowed in the food group,” Eugene questioned, but before anyone could answer we were out the door.

Fantasy Cuisine

20 N. Central Ave.

Hartsdale, NY

 

The Guacamole Redemption

21 Jun

 

I was on a crowded Metro North train during rush hour. Commuters were making their way back to their suburban Westchester homes. It was standing room only—and I was standing. I wasn’t happy about that. I wasn’t happy that Gerry summoned our group out of the city and to the sleepy hamlet of Valhalla to a place called Kensico Kitchen.

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The train finally pulled in and I joined the throngs exiting and heading to their cars in the parking lot. Just across the street from the train station and the Taconic parkway, I could see our group sitting on makeshift picnic tables on the sidewalk in front of Kensico Kitchen on Valhalla’s tiny main strip. The “Kitchen” was really a deli; New York lottery signs and tickets were plastered to the window along with stock photos of deli sandwiches, bagels, wraps and other traditional bodega/deli items. What had Gerry lured us into?

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Though no menus were in front of us, Mike from Yonkers proclaimed that he was up for a ham and cheese sandwich. A ham and cheese sandwich? Was that why I rode the commuter special to this godforsaken sleepy hamlet?

“Are there menus?” I asked Gerry.

He shook his head. “The food will be coming,” he said and pulled a cold Corona out from a six pack at his feet and handed it to me. That was a good start.

When one of the owners of the Kensico Kitchen, apparently a Mexican family Gerry was familiar with, came to our table with a molcajete overflowing with green salsa and cilantro, things were beginning to get even better.

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molcajete with salsa

“Guacamole coming,” the man said and soon it did come along with a massive platter of chips covered with an assortment of empanadas, beef, chicken and vegetable.

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The platter had Mike from Yonkers rise in excitement and move around from his seat to eagerly shovel chips, salsa, guacamole and empanadas on his plate.

 

Eugene, fresh off his whirlwind, Southern Italy and Sicily tour where he proudly proclaimed: “We had pizza everyday…sometimes twice,” had no trouble veering to equally carb heavy cuisine of Mexico, devouring a plate of chips, guacamole and empanadas.

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Nachos and chips topped by empanadas

One of the women in the family came to our table to tell us she would be bring us either chicken mole or pernil with chili rellenos poblano. “What about the adobo?” Gerry inquired.

“You want adobo too?” She checked with him. Gerry nodded. For him more was almost always merrier.

We were scraping up the remains of the guacamole and chips when plates began arriving; a quarter of a chicken in a red adobo sauce, some shredded pernil (pork) and a mound of yellow Mexican rice and refried black beans. As an accompaniment to our gargantuan plates, we were also served a platter of fried poblano chilies stuffed with queso.  As if we didn’t have enough; two plates of half chickens in a rich dark mole sauce were also presented, “so you can try the mole too,” our waitress cheerily said.

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Adobo chicken, pernil, et al

Despite his strong start, Mike from Yonkers fizzled early leaving enough food on his plate to take home to his hungry wife. But he was the exception. Already weighted down by the empanadas and guacamole, I did admirable work clearing my plate, but all I could attempt of the chicken mole was a small forkful while the others showed what made them the gluttons they were devouring all that was placed in front of them.

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Poblano chili relleno

My earlier sour mood was long gone now. I no longer cared that I had to commute to the suburbs for dinner—it was more than worth it. “I think we can all agree that after this inspired pick, we can erase that stain on your record.” I said to Gerry, referring to his unfortunate choice of a mediocre Mexican joint in Yonkers where we were treated to cookie cutter Mexican food and worse, serenaded by a Mariachi band (Mariachi Blues). “The misstep is now forgiven. You are redeemed.”

But my proclamation fell on deaf ears, drowned out by the blasting horn of a Metro North train as it rushed its commuters to Brewster…or Pawling…or some other suburban hamlet where, if they are lucky, there will also be a deli serving bagels, wraps, ham and cheese sandwiches, and mole and adobo.

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Chicken mole

Kensico Kitchen

6 Broadway

Valhalla, NY

 

 

The Third Wonder of Woodside Avenue

24 May

 

DSC00548.JPGLittle did we know when we first visited Woodside Avenue in the fall of 2015 and the Filipino karaoke joint, Papa’s Kitchen (Papa’s Karaoke in the Kitchen Blues) that we would return again to this now fabled food boulevard two more times within the same year. We had no idea that there were three food wonders—all within a two and a half block radius—on Woodside Avenue in our food group’ mecca: Queens. I should have picked up on the hint in Zio’s email after I announced Renacer Bolivian (A Beef Rebirth at a Bolivian Restaurant in Queens) as our last destination: “That was gonna be my pick,” he wrote. “I saw it just before we were accosted by the karaoke queen. I guess I’ll go with the Bhutanese place.”

“Bhutanese?” I wasn’t paying attention until we filed out of Renacer and he pointed to the restaurant on the corner. “That place,” he said.

And a month later we were seated in Bhutanese Ema Datsi,  the restaurant on the corner a few doors down from Renacer Bolivian and across the street from Papa’s Kitchen. The restaurant was deserted and the limited decor featured panoramic posters of villages tucked into Himalayan mountain tops.  The menu was separated into three cuisines: Tibetan, Bhutanese, and Indian. Why go to a Bhutanese restaurant and order Indian food? None of us did. In fact, only Mike from Yonkers veered from the intriguing Bhutanese column on the menu when he ordered the Tibetan beef with oyster mushrooms.

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A Bhutanese retreat

We were without Eugene this evening meaning, because of his bizarre aversion to fungi, we were without guilt  in ordering dishes with a plethora of mushrooms.   Not that it would have stopped Mike from Yonkers—or Gerry for that matter—from indulging in the options on the Bhutanese menu. Gerry’s mushroom selection was the specialty of the restaurant, the ema datsi with mushrooms; a stew of vegetables along with the mushrooms and very hot green chilies combined in a mild gooey cheese sauce that was nothing like what you would get on a Philly cheese steak sandwich.

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“Dry” pepper chicken

Before ordering our entrees, however, we got started with two appetizers: the “pepper chicken dry,” a fiery plate of stir fried boneless chicken and peppers, and the sooji deep fried pomfret (fish).

“What’s a pomfret?” Zio inquired of our gracious, yet soft spoken to the extreme, waiter. Could it be that he was fresh off a vow of silence stint at a Buddhist monk training camp? No one knew for sure, but the words he mouthed after Zio’s question were inaudible to all of our aged ears. When the pomfret arrived looking like slightly upscale fish sticks we quickly sampled. One taste and all of us agreed that the pomfret  tasted suspiciously like tilapia—as if tilapia has any taste at all. Thankfully the fish was served with a house made chili sauce which gave it much needed flavor.

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Bhutanese fish sticks

 

Zio and I choose “dry” items on the menu. He went with the dry pork and I tried the dried beef curry “moapa” style. Zio’s appeared first; slices of dried fatty pork belly in a stew of thinly sliced potatoes. “No these aren’t potatoes,” Zio proclaimed after taking a bite. I sampled one. “It’s a radish, ” I told him

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Dried pork

The potato like chunks in my dried beef stew were indeed potatoes but the stew was devoid of the familiar flavor of curry. Not that it mattered; the dish was hearty and fiery enough to sustain a man on a frigid night in the Himalayas. I wondered why the waiter deposited toothpicks on our table along with our platters until I began picking pieces of the dried beef out of my teeth.

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Dry beef stew “moapa” style

Lastly, small bowls of from what I thought the waiter whispered was “seaweed soup” were given to all of us. I took a sip. I had heard correctly. Zio, however, heard nothing.

“I’m not sure if I’m supposed to clean my hands with what is in this bowl or eat it?”

Where do they get seaweed in Bhutan, I wondered aloud. No one answered. No one cared. Sometimes we need to put our heads down and just eat.

After cleaning our platters, our check arrived. We thought we might be helpless without Eugene present to tally up the damage. But there was no damage. We were well below our $20 per person allotment. And for all the very satisfying food we ate, that was a wonder in itself.

Bhutanese Ema Datsi

67-21 Woodside Ave

Queens

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