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The Kare Kare from a Kitchenette in Queens

8 Mar


When I think of a kitchenette, I think of a small, mini-kitchen equipped with just enough appliances to make a meal. So when Eugene chose Renee’s Kitchenette in Woodside, Queens I was concerned that what came out of that kitchenette couldn’t possibly satisfy our gluttonous crew. But then I thought that maybe the term kitchenette was just another way of calling a restaurant a luncheonette that was also open for dinner. Or was I just too caught up in semantics here?

After a week’s delay caused by a deluge which flooded roads and made transportation to the restaurant impossible, especially for those of our group who travel from Westchester, we finally got to Renee’s and when I saw the size of the restaurant and its kitchen, hardly a kitchenette, my fears were immediately allayed. Compared to another Filipino restaurant we recently visited which boasted a kitchen, not a kitchenette (see  Papa’s Karaoke in the Kitchen Blues), Renee’s kitchenette was plus-sized, as was the restaurant itself.

The restaurant was busy; filled mostly with Filipinos from the area. Our group of four fit snugly at a back table. After a number of experiences over the years with food from the Philippines, the menu offered regional favorites including the Philippine National Dish: Adobo, made with either pork or chicken. Eugene didn’t need any time to decide that he wanted to show his support to Philippine people by ordering the national dish with chicken. Zio seconded that endorsement by ordering the pork version of the dish.


pork adobo

Oxtails in any meal are hard for me to resist and here they were included in the Filipino specialty kare kare. I felt guilty bypassing them, but Gerry made it easier on my conscience by ordering the dish and, knowing his generous nature, I was confident he would garnish my plate with at least one of those oxtails. What I traded the kare kare for was an order on the “veggie” side of the menu of ginataang pinakbet. Veggie, apparently at Renee’s meant shrimp and pork—along with a few vegetables. In this case the veggies were green beans and calabaze (pumpkin).


BBQ combo

While we waited for our entrees we needed something to stuff our mouths with while drinking our Red Horse Filipino beer. We ordered the barbecue meat combo; a giant platter of grilled meats including beef on skewers, sausage, and a particularly moist and tender quarter chicken, that in itself, made Renee’s worth a return trip for.

The adobos, pretty much indistinguishable from one another visually, came to the table first. Both were in bowls swimming in a dark brown vinegar/soy sauce. Then the kare kare arrived, and, as I knew he would, Gerry shared on with me; the oxtail rimmed with fat keeping the meat tender, the broth a mix of peanut butter and soy. The ginataang pinakbet was overflowing with whole shrimp, eyes and head intact, pieces of pork, green beans and pumpkin swimming in a coconut milk and salty shrimp paste broth.


ginataang pinakbet

It was the off season for sports: football was over, basketball in our town was not worthy of conversation, and baseball teams were just beginning to practice so talk was limited to Republicans and their slapstick debates. Soon, though, talk of presidential politics was enough to curtail our appetites so we ceased, instead concentrating totally on our food which we ultimately made quick work of.

After paying, we gathered on Roosevelt Avenue outside the restaurant. Zio, before he was drowned out by a 7 train rumbling above us, made a telling proclamation. “I would come back here,” he said and then thought for a moment. “I’d even bring the colonel with me.”

A restaurant couldn’t ask for more than that from Zio.

Renee’s Kitchenette

69-14 Roosevelt Ave

Woodside, Queens

Papa’s Karaoke in the Kitchen Blues

23 Nov


“Are you ready to sing,” Beth, the hostess of Papa’s Kitchen asked me as I entered the empty, yet cozy Filipino restaurant on Woodside Avenue in Queens.

I was the first to arrive and her question to me caught me off guard. Zio had chosen this restaurant but with no mention of singing—or worse karaoke singing.

“Sing?” I shook my head. “No, but I am ready to eat.”

“Oh but you have to sing too,” she insisted

What had Zio gotten us into? I was debating whether to take off my jacket and stay or rush back to my car, but Eugene, Mike from Yonkers and Zio arrived before I could leave, thwarting my escape.

I glared at Zio. “Are you ready to sing?” I asked him. He saw the microphone. He saw the television with the Karaoke, both Filipino and English hits, strolling down. “What the…” was his startled response.

Eugene and I kept our heads safely down as we scanned the menu. Zio hesitated. Unbelievably, he was actually contemplating the karaoke thing.

“What about ‘My Way’?” Beth suggested. “Elvis or Sinatra.”

“I don’t know. Do you have ‘Get a Job’ by the Silhouettes?”  Zio asked for some bizarre reason.

Beth checked the seemingly endless scroll of possible songs, but couldn’t find the doo wop hit.

“What do you recommend to eat?” I interrupted hoping to get Beth off the karaoke obsession and onto what our task at hand was.

She ignored me and continued to press us into singing. Zio, displaying weakness of character, capitulated. He took the microphone.

“My Way?” Beth asked.

He nodded. What followed sounded like the vocal emissions of a man in serious bowel discomfort. My appetite was waning as rapidly as Zio’s sorry vocal chords. The end was definitely “near” and we all, thankfully, faced the “final curtain” on Zio’s rendition of “My Way.”


“Can we please now order some food,” I barked.

“Who’s next?” Beth inquired, again totally ignoring my plea.

Finally, Eugene and Mike from Yonkers stepped in and Beth had no choice but to give us advice on what to order.

“Let’s start with Dynamite?” Mike from Yonkers asked.

Whatever dynamite was, it was listed as one of the appetizers and we wanted it.

What appeared soon after were thin crispy fried rolls stuffed with jalapeno and vegetables, served with a sweet, garlic chili sauce. And we ate them on plates adorned with banana leaves.

Papa's Kitchen


Along with Dynamite, we settled on lechon kawali, deep fried pork belly, sitaw kalabasa, beans and pumpkin in coconut milk, the bicoli express, pork loin sliced in a stew of coconut milk and lastly, pancit palabok. When I asked about the pancit palabok, Beth mentioned that the noodle dish was more for Filipino tastes. Whatever she meant by that just confirmed our insistence in ordering the dish.

While we waited for our entrees, Beth once again tried to enlist our usually stoic group from the scourge that is karaoke. And once again, one of us succumbed. This time it was Eugene with a screechy, nails on the blackboard, rendition of “House of the Rising Sun.” Making it even more painful, was the accompanying video, a series of shirtless, buff Filipino men dancing and gesturing to languid, seemingly very bored, females.

Papa's Kitchen

Relax folks, it’s only a microphone.

The deep fried pork belly arrived to quell our collective indigestion from the Karaoke debacle and the addition of a pungent liver sauce was a more than welcome condiment to the crisped fatty meat.

Lechon Kawali

Lechon kawali

After sampling the pancit palabok, rice vermicelli noodles coated in aromatic sauce of fermented shrimp paste and garlic we understood Beth’s hesitance in recommending the dish to those not familiar with such funky exotica. To us, however, it was a revelation. The same, however, could not be said for the uninspired bicoli express, a stew of overcooked pork in a mild coconut milk broth. A similar, but much more flavorful coconut milk broth was the base for the sitaw kalabasa and the result was much more satisfying.

Pancit Palabok with sitaw kalabasa in the background.

Pancit palabok with sitaw kalabasa in the background.

“Now that you are finished eating, what songs will you be singing,” Beth asked hopefully.

There was only one song left and it was sung by Eugene. Without the aid of the microphone, Eugene smiled and sang those two precious words: “Check please.”


Papa’s Kitchen

65-40 Woodside Avenue

Woodside, Queens

Who is Tito Rad?

18 Sep

Tito Rad's

Rick was waiting in his vehicle on Queens Boulevard a few minutes before we were to convene at a Filipino restaurant curiously named Tito Rad’s. He was deep in text mode when I roused him from his stupor by banging on his side window. Startled, he juggled the cell phone before cradling it safely back into his hands after he noticed that it was only me and not a potential carjacker.

After missing practically six months of our eating adventures, Rick had been shamed back into circulation. Not that he was complaining especially after glancing at the menu inside Tito Rad’s that featured, among other Filipino dishes, grilled tuna jaw. We were at our capacity of six for the first time in a very long time and I planned accordingly, making sure I reserved a table.  When we entered, the table we were directed to offered us a view of picturesque Queens Boulevard where there were police flyers on every post detailing an assault that took place in the very early morning hours just a few days earlier. It was still daylight when we entered so none of us were concerned with our physical well being. Our concern was what to order from the intriguing menu.

Once we were all in attendance, the hostess, who I will call “Sadie,” came over and in a soft, melodic voice announced that she was there to help us through the menu. To give us anything we might want—that she was very happy and honored that we had chosen Tito Rad’s. And then she looked at Eugene. “Where are all of you from,” she asked.

“White Plains, New York,” was his gruff response.

“Yonkers,” offered Mike from….Yonkers.

“Astoria,” Zio said.

Gerry, sitting across from Eugene and close to where Sadie was standing, mumbled incoherently. He had no desire to divulge his living information and before Rick or me, who were at the opposite end of the table could answer, Sadie was on to something else.

“I just like to know who is in my restaurant and where they are from,” she continued as we tried to be polite and listen to her while also taking peeks at the menu. We were hungry and anxious to order.

“I say that because we once were robbed and the other day there was an incident just across the street in the park,” she said, referring to the police flyers, her soft melodic voice turning now into an monotonous drone.

As she went on describing the robbery that occurred several years ago, I had decided on appetizers for our group.

“And we also had, you know, one of those house invasions, so you need to keep your eyes open…”

I couldn’t wait any longer. “I think we know what we want to start with,” I said, abruptly cutting her off.

Sadie, taking no offense at my interruption, departed and sent over a waitress with a t-shirt that read: “Got Tuna Belly.”

We started with the ukoy, fried bean sprouts, lumpiang Shanghai, Filipino egg rolls, and an order of barbecued pork on skewers. Gerry whispered to the waitress that he wanted another appetizer, but wouldn’t tell any of us what it was he ordered.

Filipino chitterlings

Filipino chitterlings

The appetizers came out quickly and even when it became known that Gerry’s order, chicaron bulaklak, fried pork intestines, also known as Filipino chitterlings, no one protested and dipped in the house vinegar sauce, was a nice start to the meal. The same, however, couldn’t be said about the lumpiang Shanghai. The egg rolls were dry, stuffed with an unidentifiable meat saved only when drenched in the accompanying sweet and sour sauce. Thankfully the tender, succulent barbecued pork was there to offset the onslaught of fried appetizers.

Lumpiang Shanghai

Lumpiang Shanghai

The entree options were vast and the choices many, but I quickly chose a Filipino standard, beef adobo, while Gerry went with my second choice, kare kare, oxtail in a peanut sauce, and Zio, also preferring beef, ordered the beef kaldereta, a supposedly spicy version of beef stew. Eugene is a coconut milk aficionado and ordered the manok sa gata, chicken with ginger in coconut milk.

Getting inspiration from our waitresses’ shirt, Mike from Yonkers chose the tuna belly also cooked in coconut milk and Rick, maybe because Mike from Yonkers already chose a tuna body part, passed on the tuna jaw and decided instead on the grilled Pampano, also known as “butterfish.”

While our appetizers were cleared, Sadie returned to ask how we liked the food so far. We, of course, told her we liked it very much.

“I am here to help,” she repeated. “Anything you need us to do to make you enjoy your meal here we will do.”

The restaurant was busy; all the tables occupied with Filipino couples and families. It looked like business was good at Tito Rad’s yet Sadie was working us hard. The appearance of our entrees saved us from more “small” talk from Sadie. I quickly dug into the slow cooked moist beef adobo, tangy from the vinegar sauce and then sampled Zio’s beef stew, also tender and falling apart, the peppers and olives giving it a Latin flavor that is typical of Filipino cuisine but minus the spice advertised.

Beef kaldereta

Beef kaldereta

“This is the best thing I’ve ever had,” Eugene said of the beef adobo after tasting it. We weren’t sure if he meant the beef adobo was the best of what we ordered that night or the best thing he had ever eaten. No one bothered to ask him to clarify his proclamation.

After tasting Eugene’s chicken in coconut sauce, I can safely say that it was not the best thing I’ve ever eaten…and not even close to the best thing on our table that night, but I never announced that. The oxtails in the kare kare were lean and the meat easily separated from bone and tendon, but the peanut butter sauce was just too bland for me. The addition of very pungent shrimp paste helped liven up the dish.

Kare kare

Kare kare

The tuna belly and pompano came out last. Anticipation was high. Zio took a piece of the tuna belly as did I. I chewed. He chewed. I looked at him. He looked at me. He shook his head. “This is bluefish,” he said in an uncharacteristically loud voice. “There is no way this is tuna belly.”

“It does taste rather fishy for tuna,” I said.

“I’m telling you, it’s bluefish…”

“Okay, don’t make a federal case out of it,” I said, noticing that Sadie was approaching and not wanting Zio to possibly upset our very good-natured host with his bold accusation.

Tuna belly or...

Tuna belly or…

The Pampano was—butterfish and grilled simply. Rick making sure, as he always does, to dig out the tender cheeks for himself.

“I hope you liked our food,” Sadie said as she stood by our table, her tone never wavering. “We always want to make sure our customers like our food. We are appreciative that you have come here today and hope that you will come again soon…”

Zio nudged my leg under the table. I got the implicit message.

“What do you suggest we get for dessert?” I quickly interrupted her.

“Well that’s a good question, it depends on what you like…”

Zio gave me another look.

”I think he might want to try the halo halo,” I said, indicating Eugene.

Halo halo is part of the now 11-year lore of Adventures of Chow City. Back in the first year of our group’s existence, we gathered at a Filipino restaurant not far from where we were on this day called Ihawan, and for dessert, Eugene sampled the halo halo (see The Beans of Halo Halo). At almost every meal since that one at Ihawan, he has made it a point to state that the halo halo was the worst thing he’s ever eaten—as opposed to the beef adobo, which we learned today was the best.

“How can you put lima beans in a dessert?”  he wondered incredulously.

Maybe sensing Eugene’s aversion, Sadie did not suggest the halo halo instead indicated that the “Tito’s Delight,” a sampling of three desserts, the avocado shake, and the fried sweet banana with ice cream would be a good choice for us.

Eugene was skeptical—especially about the avocado shake.

“In our country, we eat avocado like a fruit,” Sadie explained.

Avocado shake

Avocado shake

And in a shake it was remarkable; the best of the three desserts brought to our table. There was no halo halo revulsion, but the fried banana did get Zio to remark that it looked identical to the unfortunate lumpiang Shanghai.

“Who is Tito Rad?” Mike from Yonkers asked Sadie as we were reaching into our wallets to pay.

“Oh, one of those names is my nickname,” she answered coyly.

“Which one?” Eugene inquired.

“Well my friends know,” she said, a sly smile on her face.  “But I don’t know you well enough to tell you.”

None of us pressed her on it, instead we handed her the check with our money and thanked her for her attentive service.

“I just hope you enjoyed our food. We really do try to accommodate all your needs. Anything you request we can adjust….”

But we were gone before she could finish.

Tito Rad’s
4912 Queens Boulevard

Egg Rolls and Adobo by Candlelight

18 Oct

21-01 21st Street

Hobbling from a knee injury, I made the trek from the N train stop at Broadway in Astoria down to 21st Street. Turning right, I could see Gerry and Zio waiting in front of a White Castle.  And before I could even comment on Gerry’s new salt and pepper, heavier on the salt, goatee, Zio approached me anxiously.

“They have real tablecloths,” Zio said, his shame evident on the expression of his face. Could he possibly have erred so badly by choosing a place that might actually be a little too classy for the riff raff that was our group?

“Yeah, and from what I saw, they might even have candles on the tables,” Gerry added.

Linen table clothes and stemmed water glasses

Trying to ease Zio’s embarrassment, I reminded him that I noticed crispy deep fried pigs’ knuckles on the online menu he forwarded to me. That made him feel a little better and we walked the next block to Philippu the Filipino restaurant with the linen tablecloths and candles.

Eugene and Mike from Yonkers were already seated in the spacious, sparkling, mostly barren restaurant. The big flat panel television was on and tuned to a Filipino news network. Rick walked in a few minutes later and, with the exception of a few other diners, we had the restaurant to ourselves.

“I think this might be the cleanest place we’ve been in,” Eugene remarked innocently. “Did you see the bathroom?”

“Yeah, yeah,” Zio buried his head in the menu, trying to ignore Eugene and hide his disgrace.

And, despite the tablecloths, plasma television and clean bathrooms, the menu offered tremendous promise with items such as sizzling sisig (minced pork relish on a sizzling plate), dinuguan (pork and beef blood cooked in vinegar) and bopis (pork lungs and heart sautéed in tomatoes, chilies and onions). Yet with all the exotic choices, the best we could decide on was the grilled pork belly, sautéed taro leaves in coconut sauce, kare kare (oxtails in peanut sauce), chicken adobo, and deep fried sweet and sour fish.

Zio was a bit concerned that we neglected the appetizers.  We didn’t really; it was just that at Philippu, what was offered as appetizers were a challenge including a mix of the conventional; buffalo-style chicken nuggets, mozzarella sticks, and shrimp tempura, along with an assortment of Filipino-style egg rolls. We choose a sampling of the egg rolls and when the first one arrived in a soft, chow-fun like wrap, stuffed with a variety of vegetables, Eugene observed that it tasted like an egg roll with chop suey inside. At first it seemed like one of Eugene’s typically nonsensical statements, but after a few bites, we were in agreement—the vegetable stuffing was clearly reminiscent of cafeteria Chinese.

“Chop suey” stuffed egg rolls

The next selection was pretty much like the first but with a hard, crispy fried exterior like that of a fried Vietnamese spring roll with that same “chop suey” stuffing. The final selection was a platter filled with tiny, firecracker-sized fried egg rolls stuffed with something that was pretty much unidentifiable; maybe minced pork—maybe mushroom. I couldn’t tell and because the egg rolls were so dry only an abundance of the accompanying vinegary dipping sauce could rescue them.

Thankfully our entrees arrived promptly and the waiter could clear what was left of the unfortunate egg rolls. My first taste of the entrees was of the grilled pork belly; a piece of tender pork surrounded by a thick roll of fat in a slightly sweet, brown barbecue sauce. The chicken adobo was tender and swimming in a soy-vinegar mixture while the oxtails of the kare kare came in a big bowl of peanut sauce with string beans and greens. Lastly, the green taro leaves arrived, sautéed in mild coconut sauce.

Mild seemed to be the operative word at Philippu. The food had flavor, but lacked the edge, or bite that would make it really standout. The only foreign taste was the presence of very bitter, bitter melon that was hidden in a shrimp and vegetable noodle dish. It was as if the sterility of the restaurant contributed to the blandness of the food. Whether that blandness was perceived or actually a reality was hard to tell.

Kare Kare

For Philippu, there were no raves, bathroom cleanliness excepted, and there were no complaints. Our lack of enthusiasm was evident when no one had any desire for any of the dessert options.  But, despite our uncharacteristically mellow mood, all that remained was the fat from the pork belly and one, unpicked oxtail that even Mike from Yonkers deemed not worth the effort.

The Beans of Halo Halo

5 Oct

Our fourth expedition of 2002 took us to Queens again. Queens, I might point out, has probably been our most visited borough; the variety and number of restaurants that fit our criteria almost endless. This visit to a Philippine restaurant remains memorable by Eugene’s vehement, bordering on obsessive, dislike of a certain dessert he had. It has become the one dessert that, almost on cue, he reminds us of whenever the subject of dessert comes up. Here, then, is the origin of Eugene’s fixation.

40-06 70th Street
Woodside, Queens


Zio labored hard on his pick, our fourth since beginning these adventures. Not quite sure of himself and his instincts, he constantly sought out my consultation for his choice. This was the man who introduced me to the heavy brown sauces of subterranean Wo Hop, the sublime calamari marinara at Dominick’s on Arthur Avenue, the “zuppa di pesce” at the Pine Tavern on Bronxdale—well before the New York Yankees discovered it—one of Manhattan’s original Thai joints, the now defunct Bangkok Cuisine on Eighth Avenue, and the marinara pizza at Patsy’s in East Harlem. Now, years later, he wanted my advice. He can’t say that I didn’t warn him about what would happen if he moved to the food wasteland of Hartford, Connecticut.

What we ultimately came up with was a Philippine restaurant called Ihawan. The last time I had eaten Filipino food was in Los Angeles during my time as a starving screenwriter. There was a small, inexpensive family place near where I lived on Sunset Boulevard that specialized in Filipino dumplings and soups served by the very friendly daughters of the owner. The soups and dumplings were good, but I think I went more for the overly attentive service of the daughters.  What we were to experience at Ihawan was much different than my recollection of the Filipino food I had in LA.  Advertised as the “Home of the Best Barbecue in Town,” Ihawan was an easy find.  In Woodside, just off the BQE and under the number 7 train, Zio and I made it in less than a half hour, including the ten minutes we waited in front of the restaurant as a parade of busboys and kitchen help unloaded huge bag after bag of garbage into a garbage truck.  We were also, unfortunately, downwind of the truck and able to capture the alarming essence of the restaurant’s ripe leftovers.

Gerry and Eugene were already seated in the upstairs dining area. We would be a smaller group for this adventure with Rick and Charlie having to bow out due to last minute commitments. For a Tuesday evening, the mirrored, very bright dining room was bustling with local Filipino families, a variety of different ringtones constantly emanating from the multitude of cell phones. The menu was an immediate challenge to us. With items such as “milkfish in tamarind soup with vegetables,” “sizzling sisig” (pork ears and liver marinated with lemon and hot pepper on a hot plate), “dinuguan” (pork stewed in pork blood gravy), “laing” (gabi leaves sautéed in coconut milk), “kare-kare” (stewed oxtail in peanut butter sauce with mixed vegetables), and fried “lapu-lapu” (grouper) with sweet and sour sauce, we didn’t know where to begin or end. We started with drinks, Zio and I trying the cantaloupe juice, Eugene opting for the iced buko (young coconut juice), and Gerry, attempting the “sago at gulaman,” also known as sweet drink mixed with tapioca pearl and gelatin. The drinks came and we sipped, but none of us got much further. The sugar content would make a diabetic go into immediate insulin shock. And it was worse for Gerry; he had those multi-colored tapioca pearls to deal with.

The dinner plates began to pile onto our table soon after; chopped pork belly in liver sauce, deep fried marinated milk fish, sautéed long beans with shrimps and pork, the stewed oxtail in the peanut butter sauce, minced pork spring rolls, and barbecue pork and chicken on a stick. The tastes of the entrees were varied; there was Chinese, Thai, Vietnamese, and even Spanish mixed in there. The four of us easily consumed everything with the exception of Eugene, whose pathetic excuse for not finishing the pork belly in liver sauce was his lame claim that he ate too much the previous two days.

We forced ourselves to try the desserts; how often do you get to experience “mais con hielo” (sweetened corn with milk & crushed ice),  Filipino flan, and “halo-halo” (mixed fruits with milk & crushed ice), ?  As it turned out, the flan was the highlight of the desserts, denser and even more flavorful than the flan at La Fonda Boricua. Zio and Eugene took a few sips of the halo halo and while Zio finished the unusual offering, Eugene could not. Pondering the tall frothy glass that contained his drink, he said, “Sometimes when you order chili it comes with only meat. Other times it comes with just beans. I like to know what is in my chili when I order it.” I think what Eugene was really trying to say in his own bizarre way was: “Where the hell was the fruit? And why were there cannellini beans in my dessert?” Cannellini being the bean Zio thought they most resembled. Whatever they were, Eugene was actually offended by their presence in his dessert.



Despite the misfortunate, at least for Eugene, beans of halo halo, Ihawan, with its very exotic (to us) offerings proved to be a very worthy choice and at $13 per person, well under our allotted budget.

Ihawan is still around and doing so well that they have opened a sister restaurant. This one called Ihawan2 is located amongst the new condo empire of Long Island City. Though from what I can tell, maybe to best serve the demographic of that high rise haven, they do not highlight their Filipino food.  On their website,, they instead have opted to feature those two dreaded words: “Asian fusion.” So if grilled pork ears and snout (sisig) just don’t work for you, you now have other options like California rolls, tempura, and chop suey. And for dessert there is always halo halo.

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