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In the Heights (Hamilton’s) Eating Ecuadorian Food

19 Jul

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“This is the second Ecuadorian restaurant we’ve been to,” Eugene announced to all of us as we sat together in Ecuatoriana, the restaurant chosen by Eugene for our most recent eating adventure.

“What was the first,” I said, testing him.

“Braulio’s and Family,” Eugene responded correctly. I had to give Eugene credit; he did his research (Extending Familia).

Ecuatoriana was on Amsterdam Avenue located a block from a Jamaican restaurant we dined at back in the early days of our food group, meaning the first years of the new century (Cool Jerk).  Back then we were in Harlem but now we were in the “The Heights;” Hamilton Heights to be exact, named as such because of its proximity to the former home of founding father Alexander Hamilton. To be fair, the neighborhood’s moniker was created before Alexander Hamilton achieved excessive notoriety from the monster success of the Broadway show, Hamilton.  To make things even more confusing, the creator of Hamilton, Lin Manuel Miranda, also had a Broadway hit called In the Heights, about a neighborhood a little further north named after another founding father, George Washington. None of this has anything to do with Ecuadorian food so ignore it if you wish.

We were all examining the menus; reacquainting ourselves with the staples of Ecuadorian food; ceviche, steaks, pork chops, hominy, rice, and plantains when Zio boasted to all that he finally got hearing aids. The problem was, none of us could hear his proclamation because Eugene was bellowing about Houston Rocket, James Harden’s new contract.

“$572 thousand per game,” Eugene wailed. “Can you believe that? I’d have to work four years to make that much.”

I looked at Eugene. “Hey, you ain’t doing so bad,” I said, hoping to encourage him to glance at the menu instead of continuing to torment us by whining about James Harden’s riches.

Harden

The presence of a waitress helped spur our ordering and Gerry wasted no time in choosing a mixed seafood ceviche for the group; this one including the exotic “black clams.”

“They’re not clams,” Gerry said, as if he were an expert on Ecuadorian shellfish. “They are really mussels.”

“Why call them clams then?”

Gerry had no answer and I wasn’t sure he was right. But we did both agree on the same dish for our entree; the chaulafan, a fried rice-type of entrée with a mix of meats; sausage and beef, potatoes, plantains, and a scrambled egg all part of the dish. Thankfully the heaviness of the chaulafan was offset by the delicate ceviche, which indeed contained clams, not mussels, in a dark, cool broth. The ceviche was so inviting, Mike from Yonkers was hovering above Gerry hoping to get his spoon in the bowl before those black clams disappeared.

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There are black clams in there somewhere.

A whole red snapper was placed in front of Zio. It was a challenge, but at least he didn’t have to hear anyone or even talk to us as he went to work on it, slowly separating flesh from bone until all that was left was a cleanly picked carcass.

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A snapper for Zio

After the ceviche, Mike from Yonkers still had plenty of room for the fried pork ribs. The addition of white hominy along with mashed potatoes was just to ensure his starch intake was sufficient. Eugene’s pedestrian order of grilled shrimp arrived last, but amazingly he was the first to finish.

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Fried ribs with hominy

On this warm summer night, the streets of Hamilton Heights were brimming with activity and Eugene was impressed not only by his choice of restaurant, but also by the neighborhood. “We should come here more often,” Eugene said.

I wasn’t sure if that was invitation, a plea for more human companionship, or just Eugene making inane conversation. With Eugene, did it really matter?

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Chaulafan

Ecuatoriana

1685 Amsterdam Ave

Hamilton Heights (Harlem)

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

Two Grinches and a Scrooge Get Happy with Hunan

27 Dec

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“You know what I look forward to most about the holidays,” I said. “January 3rd. Kids are back at school. And best of all, you start seeing dead Christmas trees on the street signaling the end of the holiday nightmare.”

“Yeah I love seeing that too,” Gerry said with glee. “$75 for a tree. Talk about a waste?”

“Happy f…ing New Year,” Zio spat. “What the f..k is there to be happy about. The world is ending for Christ’s sake!”

Zio, Gerry and I were huddled around a table near the door of Happy Hot Hunan, a restaurant the three of us decided to sample while the official food group took a December hiatus. And though there was a distinct draft coming from the front door, the sight of big bowls of food adorned with chili peppers gave us a warming sensation. We were the only non-Asians in the upper west side restaurant which was also reassuring.

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After more griping about the holidays, we settled down to order from the impressively Hunan menu. There were frogs legs, plenty of intestines, tripe, pork feet, drunk chicken, smoked pork and even a General Tso’s sighting. Really, we had nothing to complain about.

“Should I get the hot and spicy pork belly or the hot and spicy pork intestine,” Gerry debated.

“If you ask me, I’d get the pork belly,” I offered.

“I’m not asking you,” he replied, Grinch-like, and ordered pork intestines, also known to Gerry, as chitterlings or chitlins.

“Pork intestines?” The waiter looked at Gerry questionably. “You want that?”

“I want that,” he said, tossing back his menu.

“Most don’t,” the waiter said with a smile, impressed that someone of Gerry’s ethnic origins would take on the challenge that is Hunan pork intestines.

Zio wanted ribs and pointed to a plate a lone diner was devouring at a table near ours. “Are those the spicy pork ribs with hot green pepper?”

The waiter shook his head. “They sweet and sour ribs. You want spicy pork ribs?”

“That’s what I want,” Zio said and the waiter scribbled down his order.

I figured I would order one of the “hot chili dishes” that, in this Hunan restaurant meant a meat or fish in what was described as a “hot creamy chili sauce.” I was intrigued by the idea of hot creamy chili so I veered from pork and chose the fish. Closing out our order we added a vegetable, stir fried Hunan mustard leaf, “to keep us regular,” as Zio made sure to point out.

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Hot creamy chili fish without the cream

First to arrive on our table was the fish. The chili sauce looked like any other Szechuan chili sauce; a deep red broth, dusted with dried red peppers and showered with fresh cilantro. I noticed no cream, however, and after sampling it there was a noticeable, silken, to use a tired food adjective, quality to the sauce. Creamy or not, the three of us were in agreement that the fish was properly lip numbing to meet our Hunan and/or Szechuan specifications.

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Pork ribs with hot green pepper

Zio stared at his pork ribs when they were placed in front of him. “Hmmm they chopped them up,” he said with a bit of disappointment in his voice. The ribs were cut into inch-size pieces that you could only eat one or two at a time, careful not to swallow one whole. But the meat on them was tender and coated with a cumin-heavy, 5-spice sauce that was good enough to forget about the effort it took to eat them.

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Hot and spicy pork intenstines

After gnawing through the donut like spheres of pork intestine, Gerry said, “I should have ordered the pork belly.” I sampled one and though the flavor was very good, my teeth were just not sharp enough to break through the rubbery consistency of the intestine. But Gerry’s teeth, sharpened by many battles with tough squid, ate the pork intestines happily.

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Stir fried mustard leaf

While we ate, all the upcoming holiday madness was forgotten—at least for a couple of hours. It wasn’t until we were bombarded on the sidewalk after dinner with a Christmas carol coming from the open window of a double-parked car and a dollar store selling plastic green and red garlands and cheap chemically unsafe artificial trees that we were quickly reminded of the season.

“See you next year,” Gerry said to us as we parted ways.

“I can’t f..king wait,” Zio grumbled as we walked away from the happiness that was Happy Hot Hunan.

Happy Hot Hunan

969 Amsterdam Avenue

New York

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

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 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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