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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 Case for Polish Vodka

28 Mar

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Who do those Russians think they are meddling in our affairs? They fixed the election for their comrade Trump and now they are trying to disrupt all of Europe with their hacking and spying. Enough is enough, I say. No more borscht. No more blinis. No more Baltika beer. And most importantly, no more Russian vodka. Sometimes sacrifices have to be made for the sake of patriotism. I plan on doing my part by boycotting one of my favorite beverages. That means no Caucasians(white Russians), no martini’s with Stoli, and worst of all, no shots of lemon infused Russian vodka at the incomparable Russian Samovar. But I can only sacrifice so much, so instead of the Russian stuff, there is always our friends’ from Poland. They wouldn’t dare try to influence our elections. They have no aims to dominate the world. And they love America. In return, we love them. And now I plan to love their vodka.

I’m not sure Gerry shared my reasoning. Though he might not have been as passionate about my anti-Russian fervor, the prospect of a meal cooked by Polish grandmothers in the old-school cafeteria called Pyza, located a block from the liquor store on Nassau Avenue in gentrifying Greenpoint Brooklyn, was incentive enough for him to make the trip from Westchester.

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And he wasn’t complaining when he also agreed to accompany me to the Greenpoint Wine and Liquor store on Nassau Avenue where there was the opportunity to purchase budget priced but underrated Polish vodka. The store had a huge selection of vodkas including many Russians. There was Stoli. There was Imperia. There was Russian Standard and there were other, pricey Russian vodkas. There was no Putinka, however, the vodka named after the man behind the current mess we are in. Before we knew he was influencing our elections, I once bought a bottle of Putinka vodka and wrote about it in these pages  where I discussed the bizarre commingling of what was known as the a “vodka pizza” (On Pizza, Pomodoros, Putin, and Putinka).   Now, if I ever dare to order a slice of vodka pizza I’ll need to ask the pizza maker if Russian vodka was used in preparation. If so, it’s a no go.

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Soft vodka named after a hard man

At the liquor store I now defiantly bypassed the Russian stuff  and grabbed a bottle of Wyobrowa and another of Stravinsky while Gerry nabbed a Lukosowa.

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The menu at Pyza

With our vodka stash in hand, we headed down the block to Pyza. The inexpensive meals were posted on the restaurant’s menu on the wall near the cashier. Both of us decided that the Polish plate, a combination of goodies such as pierogies, kielbasa, sauerkraut, stuffed cabbage, and potato pancakes, would give us a representative sampling of what grandma was cooking back in that kitchen. And we were not disappointed. Could there be a heartier food to line our stomachs while navigating the snow mounds that remained from the previous week’s blizzard? The only negative was that we couldn’t crack open the bottles just purchased and wash down the meal with a shot of the clear Polish stuff.

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Two Polish plates

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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

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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The Happiest of All Hours: Spring Training at the Yankee Tavern

23 Mar

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Pitchers and catchers have long ago reported. They are now playing meaningless games in Florida. It is officially Spring. What better time to celebrate the season than for a Happy Hour beverage at the practically vacant Yankee Tavern.

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A fresco of two catchers

During the baseball season, fans spill out onto 161st Street before and after Yankee home games at the Yankee Tavern. Whether the Yankees win or lose, those crowds just do not make for a Happy Hour. What better way to enjoy this legendary dive than during the “exhibition” season. There are seats, many of them, at the bar. A meaningless Grapefruit League game is playing on one of the bar’s many screens. All I know that the game does not involve the Yankees.

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Grapefruit baseball

When the man behind the stick asks me what I want, I can hear him and he can hear me. We converse. He wants to know what my preference is. I tell him I would prefer something local. He ponders that for a moment.

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The man behind the stick at the Yankee Tavern

“The only local beer is probably Yuengling,” he says. I quickly Google on my phone and see that the Yuengling Brewery is in Pottsville, Pennsylvania, which is approximately two and a half hours from Yankee Stadium. Despite the plethora of micro and imported beers now on the menu at the Yankee Tavern, I go with the “local.”

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The local beer

The late afternoon sun is streaming in through the high windows of the Yankee Tavern. I notice a fancy espresso machine behind the bar. A few patrons wander in who are, apparently, regulars as the bartender addresses them by their first names and pour them their drinks without asking what they want.

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I can hear the excellent juke box playing the Temptations, “Just My Imagination.”  I can watch  Grapefruit League baseball in peace.

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“running away from me…”

I finish my Yuengling, leave a tip, and head back out to the subway overlooking a vacant Yankee Stadium as the sun sets over the adjacent Major Deegan Expressway.

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Yankee Tavern

72 E 161st

Bronx

 

A Feeding Tree Grows in the Bronx

5 Feb

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The snow was melting rapidly from a “historic” storm named Jonas. But there were still dirty gray mounds around the esplanade of Yankee Stadium, which happened to be just a block from where Mike from Yonkers summoned us. While Eugene was on his annual pre Super Bowl cruise; this time far away in the South Pacific, we were going to dream of warmer climes dining on Jamaican food at a place called The Feeding Tree.

Zio, Gerry and Mike from Yonkers were all present in the bright, spacious Feeding Tree dining room when I arrived. The menu featured familiar Jamaican fare: patties, jerk, curried goat, brown stew fish, oxtails, and escovitch fish. And like other Jamaican restaurants, eating after a certain hour of the day can be risky—the pickings usually scarce.

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“Jerk salmon,” Mike from Yonkers said to our waitress. “I’m going gluten free today,” he added as if any of us cared.

“Snapper,” she replied.

“Salmon,” he said again.

“We are out of salmon,” she informed him.

“Then I’ll take the jerk snapper,” he said with no remorse.

“Do you have patties,” I inquired.

“Patties are gone,” she said.

“Jerk shrimp?”

She nodded and we ordered six jerk shrimp as an appetizer.

“What about fish escovitch?”

She shook her head. “We have brown stew fish.”

I ordered it…as if I had a choice.

Zio looked at the waitress. “I’m easy,” he said. “Jerk chicken.” She must have liked that Zio was easy because she offered him a shy smile.

Hoping for the same result, Gerry said: “I’m easy too. Oxtail stew.” But the smile was gone and so was our waitress with our orders.

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Jerk shrimp

While we pondered what specialties Eugene was encountering on the all-you-can-eat buffet line of his cruise boat, a stranger approached our table unexpectedly apologizing for being late. We looked up and discovered that the stranger was no stranger at all, but our long absent eating companion Rick, who made the trip to the Bronx all the way from his money pit in New Jersey.

Thankfully, Zio had already devoured the spicy jerk shrimp that had been in his mouth for a millisecond before Rick’s arrival. None of us wanted to do the Heimlich maneuver on him unless absolutely necessary. We all quickly recovered from the shock of seeing Rick who had surprised us by his unannounced presence.

“I figured it best that I just show up. Better to walk the walk than the opposite,” he said.

“Yeah, you just came today because you knew Eugene wouldn’t be here to flog you,” Gerry said.

Our waitress returned with our food before Rick had a chance to order. “What’s easiest?” he asked. Rick wanted to be easy also.

She pointed to the oxtail stew that was in front of Gerry. “I’ll have it,” Rick said and a few moments later there were oxtails in front of him. There was also a brown stew snapper in front of me—and in front of Mike from Yonkers even though he ordered the jerk snapper. Last but of course not least, Zio’s jerk chicken arrived covered in a spicy jerk gravy rather than the dry jerk rub I am more familiar with. All the dishes were accompanied by a mound of rice and peas and cabbage.

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Oxtail Stew

The snapper, drenched in a rich brown gravy and adorned with onions and carrots was moist and full of flavor and with just enough of a spice bite. I did my best to keep the picked apart bones on my plate rather than scattered around the table while Mike from Yonkers didn’t seem to care that he piled his fish carcass on the table instead on his plate forcing our waitress to have to deal with all those bones with her bare hands. All the dishes were “browned” not that there was anything wrong with that.

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Brown stew snapper

After calculating what we owed and coming in just under our $20 budget, we wandered out onto Gerard Avenue. The lights on the hulking Yankee Stadium proclaimed that there were tickets available for the upcoming season. I wasn’t ready to splurge for Yankee tickets just yet, but when and if I did, an order of jerked or browned something would be a much better alternative to an overpriced hot dog.

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No game today

The Feeding Tree

892 Gerard Avenue

The Bronx

The Wong Wonton Mott Street Revolt

25 Jan

 

IMG_20160120_194318534_HDRThe winter of El Nino was finally becoming harsh and noodles and soup seemed like a good idea to both Zio and I. I had told him to meet me at a place called 102 Noodles Town, but before I got to the restaurant, I received a text from him. “I am at 102 Mott Street,” Zio wrote. “There is nothing about noodles or the town of noodles.”

Zio was waiting out front when I arrived. The restaurant at 102 Mott Street was now called Wong Kee, but in the window was a declaration from Zagat’s referring to “Big Wing Wong,” and describing the restaurant as “traditional” with “BBQ meats and soups.” Despite the confusion over the restaurant’s name, it had what we wanted and we wasted no more time out in the cold.

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We passed an open kitchen where soups were bubbling and where red-glazed ducks, roast pork and ribs hung. The menu was traditional, as Zagat proclaimed featuring congees, an assortment of soups, and barbecue meats over rice. We were about to order when a stranger who had just finished dining approached our table.

“How did you hear about this place?” the man asked us.

We looked at each other. We weren’t sure how to answer.  Zio mumbled something.

“It’s my job to know about these places,” I finally said.

“Did you know this used to be “Big Wing Wong,” he informed us.

“I saw that on the door.”

“We thought it was called ‘102 Noodles Town’,” Zio said.

“What?” The man was stumped.

“102 Noodles Town.” Zio repeated.

“I don’t know about that, but I do know that some of the people who work here worked at Big Wong before this place became Big Wing Wong,” he said

“Well we definitely know Big Wong,” I said, referring to another very good soup and noodle place also on Mott Street that both of us had frequented numerous times.

“Yeah, so a group of them left Big Wong,” the man said.  “There was a revolt,”

“A revolt?” Zio looked puzzled. “What kind of revolt?”

“I don’t know.” The man now had a sly smile. “They didn’t like working there. It was a communist revolt.”

Neither of us really knew how to respond to that.

“Yeah.” The man stood there. “I used to come here all the time, but not since they changed the name.”

“From 102 Noodles Town to Wong Kee?” I asked.

“You mean Big Wing Wong,” he said.

“Whatever.”

Big wong

Where the revolt took place

“So is the food still good?” Zio asked

The man shrugged. “I don’t know. The duck was a little tough. It didn’t fall off the bone like it used to.”

“Maybe it was just one tough duck,” I said trying to inject some humor into the bizarre interaction.

The man finally departed into the Mott Street chill and Zio and I were left to ponder the information we just received.

“I don’t care about the duck,” Zio said. “I want soup.”

“That’s why we are here,” I said.

“Ready now?” Our waitress asked as she approached our table, her pen and pad out.

“We thought this was 102 Noodles Town,” I said before we could order, hoping to clear up the confusion.

“New owner,” she blurted.

“What?” Either Zio’s hearing was going or he didn’t understand.

“New owner,” she barked again. “Ready now?”

I ordered the mixed shrimp, pork and vegetables dumplings with soup. Zio pointed to the beef tripe medley noodle soup on the menu.

“You want that?” Our waitress questioned Zio’s choice.

“Yes I want that,” he huffed indignantly .

She was ready to leave, but we called her back. We came all the way to Chinatown on a cold night. We couldn’t just have soup. I added a roast pork omelet over rice.

“You know you are ordering egg foo young, don’t you?” Zio told me.

“Yeah, but it says ‘no gravy’ here,” I said pointing to the menu. “Maybe I’ll get lucky and they’ll make a mistake.” The corn starch-thickened brown sludge usually poured over egg foo young was a guilty pleasure of mine.

Keeping our ordering very old school, Zio ordered the chop suey with pork, squid, and shrimp.

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Squid chop suey

Before deliberating further on Chinatown restaurant revolts, our soups came. The wontons in my flavorful chicken-based broth were fresh and stuffed with a combination of pork and pieces of shrimp. It was exactly what I wanted.

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Wonton soup

The roast pork omelet came before I could finish the soup; a large fried disc of egg and pork over rice, but, to my disappointment, with no gravy.

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No gravy

Zio was still gnawing through the tripe in his soup when the chop suey, an assortment of meats, fish and vegetables in an oyster sauce was placed in front of him.  Soon he gave up on the tripe and concentrated his efforts on the chop suey. Between the two of us there was nothing left.

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The beef tripe medley

Fortified now, we put on our winter gear; the soup and hearty hot dishes like another layer. Once outside I looked at the sign again.  “Do you think when they called it 102 Noodles Town they were borrowing from Great New York Noodletown?” I wondered referring to another excellent soup and noodles joint.

“Who knows?” Zio said with a shrug. “Maybe there was a revolt there too.”

Wong Kee

102 Mott St

Chinatown

 

Neckbones’ Calcutta Christmas Carol

23 Dec

Calcutta Wrap & Roll

Gerry, when he announced his pick, called the location we were to visit the “childhood home of our fearless leader.” The fearless leader he was referring to was me and I wasn’t so fearless in anticipation of driving out of the city at rush hour during the Christmas gridlock alert days but it was something I expected knowing Gerry’s sadistic tendencies. So when I knew I would be traveling to Ardsley, normally less than a half hour drive from my city home, and knowing there would be holiday traffic, I gave myself about an hour and a half to get there. I had the pleasure of Zio’s company for the ride out. Our destination was a joint called Calcutta Wrap & Roll, in the small town plaza surrounded on either side by the Saw Mill River Parkway and the Major Deegan Expressway.

Ardsley was my home in the middle years of the last century. In the Leave it to Beaver days of my youth, like the television in our living room, Ardsley was a black and white town, minus the black—or any other color.  I explained all this to the Bronx born Zio as we arrived about a half hour early narrowly escaping the hellish transverses out of Manhattan.

That front entrance looks very familiar.

That front entrance looks very familiar.

Since we had extra time, I took Zio past the modest suburban home where I spent my early school years. I noticed there was a Santa Claus with eight tiny reindeer on the roof of the house. All those years anxiously tossing and turning on Christmas Eve on the top bunk of the bunk bed in the room I shared with one of my brothers hoping to hear Santa on our roof, I never did. On this night when I planned to feast on Indian food there he was. And I no longer cared.

I showed Zio the route I would take with neighborhood friends from my house to the very small main street where we would plunder bubble gum dispensers not for money, but for the tasteless balls of bubble gum. I pointed out the small store that was called Big Top where I bought my baseball cards, comic books and my first 45 records, including the one below. Big Top was now a bagel shop.

Across the street from the bagel shop was a Mexican restaurant, a Thai place and Calcutta Wrap & Roll. Even the mention of such exotic cuisines when I lived in this town would have been incomprehensible. Exotic to me when Ardsley was my home was a soft serve chocolate ice cream cone at that local Carvel that was topped with chocolate sauce that hardened over the ice cream called a “brown bonnet.”  The Carvel was still there, though now sharing the space with a Subway sandwich shop. It looked nothing like the grand ice cream parlor I remembered.

Hunger thankfully ended my tour down memory lane and soon our group was seated in Calcutta Wrap & Roll deciding whether to go for the mysore masala dosa “hot!” exclaimed the menu, or the Calcutta lamb roll “house special” of which there were many on the menu. We decided on the latter, much to Zio’s disappointment. For reasons never explained, he had his heart set on that baseball bat-like dosa.

Along with the lamb roll, we ordered the Calcutta vegetable chop—also one of the house specials. The vegetable chop, a sphere of fried potato reminiscent to a extra large tater tot  but with Indian accents.

Vegetable Chop

Vegetable Chop

For my entrée, I chose “Dr. B’s chicken chutpata “hot!” the menu exclaimed but without a mention of who “Dr. B” might be. Eugene stuck to the traditional, though not for Ardsley circa 1964, chicken biryani while Zio wanted his Indian rice with goat meat.  Mike from Yonkers, who had to eat at an unusually, for him, rapid pace due to an appointment he needed to get to, chose the malai kofta, mentioned as “Piyali’s Choice,” again without a hint as to who Piyali was. This offering was garnered a “chef’s special” as opposed to the more mundane house special. Gerry rounded out the ordering by picking the Goan fish curry, which though “hot” was nobody’s special.

“Tilapia or salmon,” the waiter asked, giving Gerry a choice.

Gerry chose the tilapia and soon our food, dished out in plastic take out containers and served on cafeteria trays was in front of us.

Goat Biryani

Goat Biryani

Though the two starters, the lamb roll and the vegetable chop were pedestrian, the entrees were a cut above standard Indian take-out.  Coated in a blood red, “special hot sauce,” Dr. B’s chicken chatpata was the Punjabi equivalent of Buffalo chicken wings. All I needed was a beer and either a blue cheese sauce or at least an order or raita to offset the hot sauce. I had neither.

Dr. B's Chicken Chatpata

Dr. B’s Chicken Chatpata

Gerry’s fish curry was lip numbing and even the biryanis had a bite to them, while “Piyali’s choice,” the malai kofta; paneer with vegetable dumplings in a yellowish-cream sauce would have put out any fire it was that mild.

Piyali's Choice: Malai Kofta

Piyali’s Choice

For what was very good take-out Indian food, the prices were not very Calcutta-like. But we were in Westchester—Ardsley to be exact and real estate doesn’t come cheap in these parts no matter the ethnicity.  As we headed back to the city there remained a tingle on my lips from the heat of the countless chilies consumed and that was a good thing.  My only regret was that we didn’t stop at Carvel for a brown bonnet to help put out the fire…and for old times sake.

The brown bonnet

The brown bonnet

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