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Dining on Diversity Plaza on the Dawn of a Dark Age

22 Nov

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“Did you know this was once a porno palace,” Zio told us, gesturing to a marquee that now headlined Ittadi Garden and Grill, the Bangladeshi restaurant he chose for us on this occasion. We were assembled around a small picnic table on 37th Road, a block closed to traffic between 74th and 73rd Streets in Jackson Heights that is now a place where tables and chairs are set up and locals can sit and chat in a car-free zone.  How Zio knew of such things we didn’t ask.

“I miss those porno palaces,” I said.

“I don’t.” Gerry shook his head. “It’s much better now. You can get your porno right at home.”

“But what about the people who used to work at those places?” Eugene questioned. “The ticket takers, the people who cleaned up, the projectionist. Now they don’t have jobs.”

“Yeah, someone should do something about that,” I said. “We need to make porno great again.”

While we were discussing the golden years of pornography, a man in a red jumpsuit (courtesy of the Jackson Heights/Corona Business Improvement District) came and folded up our table—37th Road was apparently closing for the evening, at least in terms of the outdoor café it had been. Still, men in traditional, Indian and Pakistani clothing along with many wearing jackets and ties, lingered, smoking cigarettes and sipping tea, standing now instead of sitting. Bengali, Arabic, and Hindi blared from the nearby stores. No wonder the block was also referred to as “Diversity Plaza.”

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Diversity Plaza

The removal of our table was a signal that we should stop lingering and start eating, so we made our way into Ittadi Garden, down a narrow aisle and past a long counter of prepared foods behind glass and kept warm on steam tables. A man with a very wide smile and wearing a hair net guided us to a table. “What do we do here,” Eugene asked Zio. He wanted to know if we ordered from a menu or chose from the offerings under glass on the steam tables.

Zio, assuming the heavy burden that comes with making a pick for our group, got up to inquire about the ordering procedures. He returned a few minutes later with our host with the hair net. We were to follow him and point to what we wanted under glass and then our food would be brought to us. The offerings were staggering and we had no idea what most of what was in those steam trays. I had my eye a mound of rice with pieces of goat meat and whole hard boiled eggs labeled goat biryani, but then, like Zio and Eugene, pointed to the restaurant’s combo of rohu, a carp, that was sliced and cooked with squash and spices. With the combo we chose a vegetable—spinach, mixed vegetables and sauteed papaya. We also added two orders of garlic nan. Gerry was the only one among us who deviated from the fish, instead ordering what looked like mash of shrimp in their shells in a peppery stew of unidentifiable greens.

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A few of the unidentifiable foods under glass

We returned to our seats and almost immediately our food, delivered on paper plates and with plastic utensils, began to arrive at our table. With our orders there were two mountains of white rice and a bowl of lentil soup we were supposed to share among the four of us. Our table was so crowded we had to put one of the platters of rice and the bread on the bench next to where I was sitting.

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Rohu fish and plastic utensils

Our host with the hair net returned, smiling broadly and inquiring if everything was all right. “Do you want more bread? More rice? Soup?”

We decided on another bowl of soup and with it he brought a salad of iceberg lettuce, carrots, cucumbers, and topped with tiny green chili peppers. Using the plastic fork to put some of the salad on my plate, I made the mistake of also letting one of those peppers camouflage itself within the greens and eventually into my mouth. The burn was intense and water wasn’t helping to put out the fire. I began to shove rice into my mouth and then another piece of bread before the paid subsided.

“Pass me a slice of that pizza before you eat it all,” Zio grumbled.

“It’s nan,” Gerry corrected him.

“Indian pizza. Give it here.” Zio’s small hands reached for it greedily.

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Bangladeshi papaya

Once our table became strewed with the remnants of our meal; pieces of rice, salad, yellow papaya, and spinach, we followed the host with the hair net to the dessert section of the restaurant and picked out a few “sweets” including two pieces of syrup soaked gulab jamun; the others were tasty but unidentifiable to our not so diverse minds.

When we emerged from the former porno palace, Diversity Plaza was quieter. Despite the holiday lights, the Plaza seemed dark. There was a super moon up there somewhere. We just didn’t see it.

Ittadi Garden and Grill

737 37th Road

Jackson Heights

Vanquished by Halal Vapors on Homelawn Street

15 Jan

Sagar Chinese

The first sizzling platter flowed through the dining room of Sagar Chinese restaurant soon after our gang of five arrived. The fumes from the platter clouding the dining room and strong enough, if not to set off smoke alarms, to induce a coughing fit from Mike from Yonkers.

Indian Chinese

We were in Jamaica, on an incline of Homelawn street just off bustling Hillside Avenue, a Halal heavy destination we had yet to explore and one of the reasons why I chose Sagar Chinese. The other was the restaurant’s designation as “Desi” Chinese. I had never heard of “Desi” Chinese and my research revealed the designation to mean a combination of Bangladeshi, Indian and Pakistani style Chinese. I, nor anyone in our group, had ever experienced what Bangladeshi, Indian, and Pakistani style Chinese might taste. It was time to find out.

Even the fried chicken...

Even the fried chicken…

...and the heroes on Hillside were Halal.

…and the heroes on Hillside were Halal.

With a month-old baby boy now taking up some of the unused space in his gargantuan New Jersey money pit, sleep-deprived Rick was able to escape his parental chores for a couple of hours and dine with us in Jamaica. The only missing member of our group was Zio, who was reflecting on his life experiences exploring crawl spaces, boiler rooms and other dark, damp places in search of cockroaches and carpenter ants to an audience of undoubtedly rapt listeners.

We all glanced at the menu which featured traditional Chinese dishes; fried rice, General Tso’s (shrimp and chicken), sweet and sour, and that worldwide (minus China) Chinese favorite, chow mein. Along with the traditional, were a few Indo-Pak favorites like pakoras, gobi and “lolly pop chicken;” chicken manipulated into what looked like a lolly pop and presented with the “sucker” covered in aluminum foil. What made Sagar’s menu nontraditional was the melding of East Indian spices with Chinese. And one of those, the masala chow mein, immediately drew my attention.

“It’s Chinese food” Eugene declared. “We’ll order five dishes and share everything.”

No one disputed.

We started with appetizers of paneer pakora and something irresistible sounding on the menu called “chicken cake.” Making sure we choose one main course from each column; seafood, beef, chicken, noodles, and vegetable, we started with Manchurian fish, and given the choice of “dry or gravy,” choose the latter. The masala chow mein that I desired drew a weak, food snob sigh from Gerry, but was agreed to by all the others. From the vegetable column we went with the gobi masala while from the beef, decided to try the Desi Chinese version of sweet and sour. Finally, as other sizzling platters were parading through the dining room, held high by the restaurant’s waiters, the vapors clouding the room and again going right to our throats, we figured we had to try one and ordered the “Sagar sizzling chicken.”

The appetizers arrived first, identical in hue and fried golden. The pakoras were shaped like billiard balls, and after trying one, almost as impenetrable. The chicken cakes were flat round discs of spiced ground chicken and compared to the pakoras, tender as pillows. Each had their own dipping sauce and for the dense pakoras, a necessity.

The resilient paneer pakoras

The resilient paneer pakoras

After devouring the appetizers, the entrees began to make their way to our table with the sweet and sour beef leading the way. Since pork was not an option here, the beef equivalent of sweet and sour was, thankfully, not fried and battered, but sliced and the sauce, not as sticky sweet as the familiar version. The masala chow mein, a bowl of overcooked noodles with a combination of Indian and Chinese spices had a fiery kick and was a pleasant surprise, while the gobi masala in a spicy gravy that was identical to the gravy in the Manchurian fish, astounded Eugene.

Masala Chow Mein

Masala Chow Mein

“I don’t usually like cauliflower,” Eugene admitted. “But this is the best cauliflower I’ve ever had.”

Knowing Eugene’s limited background in cauliflower, we weren’t sure how much stock to put in his praise of the dish, but none of us had any complaints about it either.

Gobi Masala

Gobi Masala

We could hear the sizzling from behind the restaurant’s counter and soon the platter of smoking chicken arrived at our table. Mike from Yonkers began to cough uncontrollably. I covered my mouth and tried to push my seat a few inches away from Mike’s. I stubbornly refused getting vaccinated for the flu despite the slightly better than even 62 percent prevention rate of the vaccine. I thought my own odds in not getting sick might be just as good if I kept my distance from the hacking Mike from Yonkers, even if his cough was brought on by the Sagar Sizzzling Chicken and not the flu.

Once the smoke cleared, we dug in and made quick work of the dish, a platter of sliced white meat chicken and assorted vegetables in the familiar brown sauce accented by the presence of a few Indian spices.

The vapors.

The vapors.

While the dishes were cleared an extended East Indian family arrived, and took a large table at the other end of the restaurant. I noticed they ordered the loly pop chicken and, after we paid our tab; hitting the $20 mark exactly, numerous sizzling platters, the vapors flowing from them, made their way to their large table.

Mike from Yonkers began to cough again. Rick cleared his throat. Gerry rubbed his eyes. I could feel the burn of the fumes in my throat. “We’re about to be asphyxiated,” Mike from Yonkers hoarsely muttered.

"Time to go."

“Time to go.”

“Yeah, it’s time to go,” I said, standing up. And though the Desi Chinese experience was, overall a very good one, respirator masks would have been appreciated.

Sagar Chinese
87-47 Homelawn St
Jamaica

Today’s Special

9 Jan

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Maybe it’s just me, but if I’m getting a Mama Halim, I want it larze (sic).

The Fusion Files Follies

7 Dec

 

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“I’ll have a large General Tso’s Chicken,” I said into the phone.

There was silence on the other end and then: “Chicken? What kind?”

“General Tso’s,” I repeated, looking at the menu for Curry King that advertised Halal Chinese food. I was excited. I wanted to see if there was any difference between the standard Chinese rendition of General Tso’s as opposed to the Indo-Pak Halal version that Curry King was promoting. Besides the halal meats, what made Halal Chinese food unique? Would Indo/Pak/Bangladeshi Chinese automatically be spicier?  I wanted to know.

“Chicken curry?” the voice on the other end of the line asked.

“No, General Tso’s chicken,” I asked again. “From the Chinese section of your menu.”

“Oh, that’s no more,” the voice said.

“What do you mean?” I asked, the deflation apparent in my voice.

“We don’t make the Chinese food anymore,” he said.

“No?”

“No one wants it.”

I wanted it, but I didn’t tell him that. Would it have done any good?

“What about the hot and sour soup?”

“Soup?”

“Yes, the hot and sour soup.”

“I have that,” he said.

I was puzzled that the hot and sour soup was available but no General Tso’s.

“I’ll have it,” I said. And then I went on to order a number of either Indian, Pakistani, or Bangladeshi items—I wasn’t sure what distinguished one from the other.

When I arrived to pick up my order, I glanced at the Indian/Pakistani and/or Bangladeshi items in the steam trays behind the counter.

Pakistani? Indian? or Bangladeshi?

Pakistani? Indian? or Bangladeshi?

“Is that the soup?” I asked, pointing to what looked like chicken soup.

“Yes, chicken soup,” the woman behind the counter told me.

“Hot and sour?”

“Chicken soup,” she repeated. “It’s fresh and very good.”

I had no doubt of that. “But it’s not hot and sour?”

Chicken soup on far left.

Chicken soup on far left.

“We can make it hot,” she said.

I nodded,  but didn’t ask if she could make it sour.

 

 

A Bengali Buffet in the Bronx

3 Apr

Neerob
2109 Starling Ave
Bronx

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.

Eugene the Greek (or Arab, or Latino, or Sicilian, or Quasimodo) at the buffet.

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

Neerob’s  specials of the day.

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.

Some of the steam table offerings at Neerob.

“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.”

Roi fish a.k.a. Bengali Sardines

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.

Goat biryani

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.

Grilled tilapia, cheeks still intact.

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.

Matzoh balls the Bengali way.

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.”

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