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Dining on Diversity Plaza on the Dawn of a Dark Age

22 Nov

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

“I miss those porno palaces,” I said.

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

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

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

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

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Diversity Plaza

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

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

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A few of the unidentifiable foods under glass

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

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Rohu fish and plastic utensils

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

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

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

“It’s nan,” Gerry corrected him.

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

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Bangladeshi papaya

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

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

Ittadi Garden and Grill

737 37th Road

Jackson Heights

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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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

Vanquished by Halal Vapors on Homelawn Street

15 Jan

Sagar Chinese

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

Indian Chinese

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

Even the fried chicken...

Even the fried chicken…

...and the heroes on Hillside were Halal.

…and the heroes on Hillside were Halal.

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

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

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

No one disputed.

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

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

The resilient paneer pakoras

The resilient paneer pakoras

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

Masala Chow Mein

Masala Chow Mein

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

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

Gobi Masala

Gobi Masala

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

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

The vapors.

The vapors.

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

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

"Time to go."

“Time to go.”

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

Sagar Chinese
87-47 Homelawn St
Jamaica

Today’s Special

9 Jan

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

The Fusion Files Follies

7 Dec

 

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh, that’s no more,” the voice said.

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

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

“No?”

“No one wants it.”

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

“What about the hot and sour soup?”

“Soup?”

“Yes, the hot and sour soup.”

“I have that,” he said.

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

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

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

Pakistani? Indian? or Bangladeshi?

Pakistani? Indian? or Bangladeshi?

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

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

“Hot and sour?”

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

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

Chicken soup on far left.

Chicken soup on far left.

“We can make it hot,” she said.

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

 

 

Today’s Special

7 Nov

 

So good, it’s worth having twice.

 

A Bengali Buffet in the Bronx

3 Apr

Neerob
2109 Starling Ave
Bronx

Eugene’s already swarthy skin was a shade darker when he walked into Neerob, the Bengali place in the Parkchester section of the Bronx he choose for our group’s tasting prompting Zio to comment that he fit right in with the rest of the restaurant’s clientele. And it was true. Eugene could pass for a Bengali. He could pass for an Arab, Latino, mulatto, Greek, or Sicilian. He had that versatile, dusky look; our own Anthony Quinn.

His skin had darkened from a week in Punta Cana, at a resort where he happily exclaimed that you never had to leave the property. “They had 11 restaurants,” Eugene crowed. “Italian, Asian, Tex-Mex, a Brazilian where they come and slice the meat for you. The place was so big they take you around on mini buses.”

Apparently there was no Bengali food at the Punta Cana resort though and when Eugene looked around the small restaurant he nodded approvingly at his choice. “Now this is the kind of place for us,” he proudly proclaimed.

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

He made no mention of the framed New York Times review on the wall. Or of the Daily News and Time Out New York blurbs that were also displayed. And when we first started convening, now over ten years ago, framed New York Times reviews would have been a problem. If the Times had written it up, the place had officially been “discovered” and we had very loose rules against that. We needed to make the discovery and let the Times unearth it after our experience, and many times that is exactly what happened. Now, however, the restaurant world, even the one we lived in, had changed. Nothing was undiscovered anymore whether by the Times or on the internet

Neerob’s  specials of the day.

As it had at Singh’s Roti Shop, (A Double(s) Dose of Roti on Liberty Avenue) where we last met, that I was taking pictures of the restaurant and its food, caught the eye of Neerob’s owner. The camera being a giveaway that this group of non-Bengalis (Eugene aside) and non-Parkchester regulars, were either food critics or food bloggers. He immediately took an interest in our group, arranging tables so our party of six would have enough room and then bringing us a sampling of vegetable pakoras accompanied by squeeze bottles of a hot chili sauce and a cilantro based condiment.

Once everyone found parking, which wasn’t easy, and got to the restaurant, we crammed around the glass enclosed steam table looking at the offerings. Our very friendly host explained what we were gaping at; goat biryani, chicken curry, fried whole tilapia, bright red chicken tikka, saag with chicken, okra, lentils,and a smaller whole fish smothered in a red, tomato-based sauce.

Some of the steam table offerings at Neerob.

“It’s a fish like we have in our country,” our host said when I asked him about the smaller fish. “Like a sardine. One bone. Very good.”

He pointed to something that looked like semi-mashed vegetables and said that these accompany the fish.

I knew I wanted it and the others let him know what they were interested in.

“Leave it to me,” he said.

And we did.

A few moments later, the paper plates and bowls with our favorite utensils; plastic forks and spoons, began to arrive.

The mashed vegetables were placed in front of me. They were powerfully flavored and fiery in spice, obviously an accompaniment to the main dishes. I found out later that they were called “bhartas.”

Roi fish a.k.a. Bengali Sardines

The small fish was delectable, moist with oil, and separated easily from the small bone. We somehow ordered two plates of goat biryani but no one was disappointed; the tiny pieces of goat a gamey match to the bland basmati rice.

Goat biryani

We shared the bowls and plates as they made their way around the table, the fish cheeks of the tilapia, however, were gone before they got to Zio and I; Rick making quick work of them.

Grilled tilapia, cheeks still intact.

Whatever was left was easily finished with the accompanying warm nan bread. And though we ate like the gluttons we are, we wanted more. There were sweets and our host wanted us to sample some. Who were we to refuse?

He brought fried gulab jamun balls in syrup and two, pale sweet balls that had Zio scratching his thinning hair. “It’s a matzoh ball?” he said, staring at it curiously.

But it was more like a sweetened cottage cheese ball. And it and all the sweets helped take the fire out of our mouths.

Matzoh balls the Bengali way.

The almost indecipherable check was brought to us. Eugene squinted but was able to add it up, and when he told us what we owed for the feast we just devoured, I, and everyone else, couldn’t care less that the New York Times, among others, had scooped us.  Neerob, in Eugene’s words, was most definitely, “our kind of place.”

Guilt Among Gluttons

19 Jul

Spicy Mina
(R.I.P)

Zio didn’t plan that we would be dining in a Bangladeshi restaurant at the same time that nation was suffering from the effects of a deadly cyclone; that we would be stuffing our respective faces while many Bangladeshi people were without food and water. It was just one of those ironic coincidences. Would the circumstances induce guilt and inhibit our appetite? The family that ran Spicy Mina, including sari-attired Mina herself, certainly hoped not. There were only two other customers, Bangladeshi men chatting over tea, in the small restaurant located on an isolated portion of Broadway in Woodside the night we were there.

We were all assembled on time except Rick, who seems to enjoy making a grand entrance midway through our appetizers. This time, however, Rick checked in via cell phone to say he was stuck in traffic on the BQE and to start without him as if we might actually consider waiting. But with the arrival of the appetizers, a gamey lamb dish in a thick stew called haleem, something that looked like puff pastry filled with ground chick peas, called alur chop, and “loly-pop” chicken, the Bangladeshi-version of the Buffalo chicken wing, Rick wasn’t missing much.

Buffalo Chicken Wings: Bangladeshi-style

But we just couldn’t wait any longer. Eugene was merciless: “The BQE is a block away!” he intoned in his typically brash manner. And Zio was restless—the promise of “mastard” (sic) fish, had him anxiously chugging diet Coke’s. So we ordered without Rick, but included a dish for him—something he would appreciate, fish kofta curry, or as explained in the menu: fish balls.

Mike from Yonkers, suffering from a gravely throat, thought the palak paneer might offer relief but when it arrived it look different than any paneer I’ve ever seen; the spinach shredded spinach with crumbly, feta-like pieces of cheese, along with a few whole dried chilies. The taste was something reminiscent, according to Eugene, to broccoli rabe, and I couldn’t disagree; there was definitely an Italian flavor to it.

Gerry’s idea of relief was a vindaloo, specifically lamb and Mina’s version was fiery in a light, oily sauce, again nothing like your cookie-cutter variety vindaloo. The dal fry Mina special, mung daal in special spices was a nice accompaniment to the nan and roti bread we ordered, while the chicken tikka masala, in a rich, creamy yet spicy sauce had Eugene swooning, which, to be honest, was not a pretty sight.

Fish Balls: A.K.A. Fish Kofta Curry

The fish balls arrived just as Rick called again, this time to say he was still stuck on the BQE in the vicinity of the legendary Kosciuszko Bridge and was aborting any further attempts to try to make it to Spicy Mina’s. And though we ordered for six and now we were only five, the fish balls, light and with just the faintest hint of fish, were made short work of. The waiter slowly cleared our table, allowing Zio sufficient time to scour the remains of the whole fish searching for any stray pieces of edible flesh that might have escaped our intense scrutiny. It was unanimous; the fare at Spicy Mina’s was nothing like the $7.95 Indian buffets we were used to gorging ourselves on.

By the time the waiter returned with complimentary half-orders of rose water-accented rice pudding—perfect to cleanse our over-spiced palates—any guilty thoughts about the human suffering in Bangladesh that any of us might have had going into Spicy Mina’s was completely forgotten. But why then do I feel guilty about that?

Unfortunately, Spicy Mina didn’t survive the recessionary cyclone that ravaged many small business in New York the following year and  persists today.

Stars Across the River

24 May

Five Star Punjabi Indian
13-05 43rd Avenue
Long Island City

I emerged from the station at 23rd St/Ely Avenue to hear the rumbling of another train above. It was dark, cold and windy. I could see the lights of Manhattan flickering across the river. I really didn’t know where I was going as I made my way down the desolate street toward 43rd Avenue in Long Island City passing warehouses and seemingly empty factories, my eyes on the alert for signs of life; for a tavern, restaurant, deli—anything. Like a welcoming beacon, in the distance I could see bright neon lights. I wasn’t sure what it was. A car wash, maybe—service station—something automobile-related. And then I got closer and could read the lights: “Banquet Hall.”  Peering inside, a slim diner-like dining room  was in disarray and obviously closed. Could this be the Five Star Punjabi Indian Restaurant? Had Zio not done his homework and the restaurant was closed?  But then I saw activity in an adjacent room—a lone diner was eating and I noticed an unused steam tray. The room was brightly lit and just as I was about to enter, Zio emerged from his car. “This can’t be it,” he exclaimed.


But it was. Between the dilapidated “diner” and a vacant “banquet hall” was the Five Star Punjabi Restaurant. The room was nondescript and mainly empty. We were given an ample table to accommodate our group along with menus that were written on decorative swiveling paddles. Gerry, Eugene, and Mike from Yonkers arrived followed soon after by Rick. All were wary and doubtful that they were in the right spot. Zio and I assured them that we were.

Those swiveling menus featured familiar Indian items, pakoras and samosas for appetizers, a variety of breads, assorted tandoori, and an array of vegetarian dishes and curries. The lone diner, an Indian talking quietly through a headphone attachment on his cellphone, was brought a huge platter of tandoori chicken. Rick eyed the platter covetously and immediately put in an order in for the same only to have his hopes just as quickly dashed when the waitress informed him that the Five Star Punjabi Indian restaurant had just run out of tandoori chicken. As an alternative, Rick, with the group’s unanimous approval, opted for the fish tandoori. Though there was nothing on the menu that described what chicken mughlai might be, Zio, for reasons known only to him, was determined to try it. On the other hand, Eugene, after learning that the chicken tikka was both boneless and prepared spicy, was sold on the dish, while Mike from Yonkers went for the tried and true, sag paneer. It was now up to Gerry and I to find something a little bit out of that ordinary that might justify this journey to the wastelands of Long Island City. The best we could come up with was the mutton roganjosh and the goat curry.

Zio’s Ship of the Damned

While the bottles of Taj beer began to crowd the table, Zio regaled us with his adventure on the high seas and his narrow escape from the cruise vessel that carried 2,800 passenger, of which 700 were stricken with a “norovirus” including three that, according to Zio, were “mouldering (sic) in a freezer somewhere in the bowels of the ship.” Zio was particularly graphic in his description going on to tell us that “in the close quarters of the ship’s hold you could hear people retching and gagging. But this still didn’t stop them from clamoring for the next buffet, after all, some of them had not eaten in a half hour.”

Zio was particularly grateful for useful tips from the cruise boat crew.

Despite Zio’s grisly tale, once the food arrived and in absolutely no particular order; the fish tandoori first followed by bread, then the entrees, and lastly, the mixed pakoras we requested as an appetizer, we began to stuff our own faces. And we didn’t stop until the plates were wiped clean with the bread.

 Everyone seemed satisfied with their food, though I’m not sure any of us were ready to award the restaurant five stars. Rick was pleased with the fish tandoori which might actually have been quickly fried in its rub as opposed to slow cooked. Not a bad alternative considering the fish was tilapia and most assuredly would have dried out if slow cooked in a tandoori oven. Gerry, however, was not as enamored with the goat. What was wrong with it, I asked?

    “All I got was bone,” he answered incredulously.

    I shrugged. “Yeah, it can be like that with goat.”

Goat curry: Bones included.

When we visited Five Star Punjabi in early 2007, the condo boom in Long Island City was just beginning.  In the four years since, high rises abound yet the funky Five Star has survived the change…at least for now.

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