Archive | Latin RSS feed for this section

Panic and Perseverance in a Peruvian Restaurant in the Bronx

21 Oct

La Granja

“Let me tell you, this food group is falling apart,” Eugene spewed. He was hot. He was irate. The scowl on his face was blood red.  Zio, Eugene and I were seated at a table for four at La Granja, the Peruvian restaurant I choose on 149th Street in the Bronx. The enticing aroma of chickens slowly rotating on a rotisserie filled the small restaurant. I had just received a text from Gerry that he would be late; that he was just leaving White Plains thus igniting Eugene’s tirade.

“First it’s Rick and his excuses, then it’s Mike, and now Gerry’s late” Eugene muttered with a shake of his head. “I’m wasting my time here.”

To get Eugene out of his funk, we wasted no time ordering a round of Cusquenas, Peruvian beers, and then proceeded promptly to the food. Eugene inquired about the “chicken in the window” to our happy waiter. He wasn’t sure what chicken Eugene was referring to, but assumed it must be the Pollo a la Brasa, the restaurant’s signature dish and whose aroma we were inhaling. Despite the waiter’s insistence that he would not go wrong by ordering it, Eugene instead focused on the “bird” section on the menu where he chose the pollo salteado.

“What is cau cau,” I asked the waiter. There was a photo of the dish in the window of the restaurant, but I could not identify it.

Smiling once again, the waiter, who could not translate what it was, rubbed his belly.

“Stomach?” I guessed in this game of charades.

He nodded. “ Yes, stomach.”

“I think he means tripe,” I said.

“Ah, trippa,” Zio intoned rhapsodically.

I turned to Zio. “Are you gonna order it?”

“No,” he said without hesitation, instead pointing to the arroz con mariscos (yellow rice with seafood) while I chose the jalea personal as opposed to the jalea familiar which translated to a mountain of fried seafood enough for a familia..

Does that look like "stomach" to you?

Does that look like “stomach” to you?

For starters we ordered the palta rellena, a whole avocado stuffed with chicken, but our starter arrived well after Eugene’s pollo salteado,  Zio’s arroz con mariscos and just in time for Gerry’s arrival.

Quickly ordering the ceviche mixto, Gerry was able to share the avocado that was stuffed with nothing more than chicken salad.

The Jalea Personal, accompanied by the house made hot sauce, though not a mountain was a big enough hill of crisply fried shrimp, squid, fish, and mussels for me to slowly shovel through, pausing only to remove the fibrous strings in the fried yucca that was part of the mound on my plate.

Jalea Personal

Jalea Personal

Turning to my left, I noticed Zio, head down, plowing methodically through his yellow rice and seafood, pausing occasionally to wipe the grease from his hands. Across the table we knew Eugene, after filling up on his ample plate of pollo salteado, was in a better mood when he teased the trio of Yankee fans at the table about their quick demise in the playoffs. Fearing a return of his dark mood, we took Eugene’s ribbing graciously and didn’t dare mention that his Red Sox had once again finished in the cellar of the American League East.

Gerry’s ceviche arrived last, but after a sample bite, it was certainly not least. Topped by strands of seaweed, the “cooked” raw fish was swimming in lime and cilantro and sprinkled with hidden bits of hot pepper that had Gerry guzzling his Cusquena.

Arroz con mariscos

Arroz con mariscos

Despite the abundance of seafood we devoured, we came in very close to our $20 budget. And after paying we conferred on our next date. When notified of that date Rick responded in an email: “I will endeavor not to be thrown overboard the righted ship,” which, speaking only for myself, did wonders in reinforcing his commitment to our monthly gluttony and its future prospects. On the other hand, Mike from Yonkers’ “Business should be slowed down by then,” just did not have the same effect.

La Granja

La Granja

500 E. 149th St.

Bronx

The Arepas of Astoria

28 May

arepas cafe

“Haven’t we been here before?” Eugene queried via email after Zio announced his choice, Arepas Café, conveniently located in his home base of Astoria.

“No,” I responded. “We’ve had cachapas, empanadas, and patacons from that Venezuelan place in Inwood (Stalking Corn on Dyckman Street).  But we have never had a Venezuelan arepa.”

“The Colonel and I ate there about five hours ago,” Zio told us in his email. “It was good, but I had to use hot sauce.” Not the most glowing praise, but time was running out and he had to make a pick. And we had to eat.

“Isn’t there a rule that you are not supposed to eat at the place before we all eat there?” Eugene bellowed as we convened, snuggled tightly together in the small restaurant.

“What’s with you and all the rules?” I said. “First you want Rick suspended for missing so many of our appointments and now you want to make it that we have to pick the restaurant sight unseen.”

“I don’t know, it feels like you’re cheating if you’ve been to the place.” Eugene said.

“Yeah, well maybe if you’d been to that falafel place near Columbia you wouldn’t have wasted our time that night.” I replied.

“Hey, he didn’t know what a falafel was until then,” Gerry chimed in.

We finally got off the subject of the rules of our group and glanced at the menu which featured a large selection of arepas, cornmeal or maize flatbread, stuffed with a variety of meats, vegetables and seafood.

“They have gazon,”  Mike from Yonkers announced.

“What’s that?” Eugene asked him.

“Baby shark,” Mike from Yonkers answered, reading from the menu.

“Ohhh, I want that,” Eugene declared.

“Ditto,” Mike from Yonkers said with a happy nod.

“Is it ethical to eat baby shark?” I asked the two. “Shouldn’t you let the shark have the opportunity to grow to be a feared predator before you eat it?”

“I don’t care. I want it and I’m having it,” Mike from Yonkers responded callously.

Would you eat a baby shark?

Would you eat a baby shark?

While Eugene and Mike from Yonkers ordered the baby shark, Gerry and I choose the “mami,” or roast pork with avocado and “white” cheese.

“I’ll try ‘Riccardo’s Tuna,’” Zio told the helpful waitress.

“Who is Riccardo?” I asked her. “And what makes his tuna so special?”

“My father is Riccardo,” she answered, shaming me to silence.  “He’s the owner. And the tuna, I don’t know, it’s just his favorite.”

We started with appetizers of mini cachapas, corn pancakes with melted cheese and asked for the mini empanadas with chicken, shredded beef, and the aforementioned baby shark.

As we sipped cold Venezuelan Polar beers, the waitress returned.
“I’m sorry, we are out of the baby shark,” said announced.

Obviously baby shark was a delicacy cold hearted New Yorkers could not resist. As Mike from Yonkers and Eugene looked to change their arepa orders the waitress quickly returned.

“I just talked to the chef,” she said. “We do have the baby shark for the arepas, just not for the empanadas.” So they would have their baby shark after all.

The cachapas and the empanadas, minus the baby shark, came out first. The tiny cachapas were indistinguishable, but the empanadas were the perfect accompaniment to the beer. The golden-colored cornmeal crust had a delicate crunch to it and the shredded chicken and pork stuffing lightly seasoned and moist. But like Zio had warned, hot sauce was needed to complement the flavors.

Mini empanadas

Mini empanadas

The arepas were bursting with meat, and/or tuna and baby shark. The avocado and “white” cheese added a freshness to the hearty shredded pork. But again—hot sauce was needed.

“I don’t know, this just might not be enough for me,” Eugene said after devouring his arepa.

Gerry, of course, agreed. “I think another arepa is needed.”  And both ordered mixed seafood arepas.

Arepa "mami"

Arepa “mami”

“And can I have a tres leche cake,” Zio asked tentatively as if the waitress might just deny him his request.

“Me too,” Gerry said to the waitress before he even got started on his second arepa.

“Alright,” I conceded. “I’ll have the house salad.” I told the waitress.

“Some Italians eat their salad before the main course,” Zio offered as if questioning my choice and my heritage.

“Yeah, and some after,” I countered.

“I don’t know. Everywhere I’ve been the salad always comes first.” Eugene said as if settling the subject.

Whether settled or not, the subject was not worthy of further discussion and everyone, with the surprising exception of Mike from Yonkers who abstained from either a second arepa or a dessert, went to work on their encore dishes, quickly consuming them to oblivion.

Rompe Colchon (mixed seafood arepa)

Rompe Colchon (mixed seafood arepa)

As Eugene tallied up our bill he crowed about how good his arepas were. And then he looked at me. “But really? Who orders a house salad in an arepa place,” he said, shaking his head. “I think that might be against our rules…”

Arepas Cafe

33-07 36th Avenue

Astoria

Man V. Mofongo: The Battle in the Bronx

26 Mar

Caridad & Louie's

When Mike from Yonkers sent out his email declaring Caridad & Louie’s the destination for our group, he prefaced it by stating: “I hope we didn’t frequent this place. (I have an odd feeling we have),” we could forgive him for his confusion. Even though he insisted his bride to be was doing all the work in preparation for his upcoming wedding and that he was just an innocent bystander, the overwhelming effects of that momentous day were obviously taking a toll on his psyche. We assured him that odd feeling was wrong. In our 13 years of scouring the boroughs (Staten Island excluded), Westchester and New Jersey, we had yet to visit Caridad & Louie’s (est. 1970) located on Gun Hill Road in the Bronx very close to our last group’s get together, The Dumplin’ Shop The Little Shop of Dumplins.

But something about that east Bronx location was a jinx for Zio. With his intentions set on joining us, a text blared on my phone just as we were assembling:  “Sorry, I will never be there in time. Stuck on the BQE. Going home.” I received a similar text when we convened at The Dumplin’ Shop.

When I informed Zio that Rick, who due to the harsh winter had not been able to escape his caretaking duties at the Overlook Hotel that was his house in Atlantic Highlands, was actually going to be in attendance but a little late, it still didn’t matter. “It’s out of my control,” he wrote, the disgust obvious in his text tone, leaving us to wonder why he was on the BQE in the first place.

It was that kind of winter for Rick.

It was that kind of winter for Rick.

We were seated in one of Caridad & Louie’s two massive dining rooms. The restaurant was sparsely filled, the bar area and second dining room was dark, but the steam table take out section was bustling. Claiming the “Best of Two Worlds,” Caridad & Louie’s advertised itself as Latin/Italian. But one look at the hefty colorful menu with photographs of some of the dishes displayed, the Italians in our group, not to mention the Jew and the African American, would not dare order from Italian food section.

Can't argue about the location, but the other claim???

Can’t argue about the location, but the other claim???

“I hear the grilled pork chops are good here,” Eugene announced.

“I heard that too,” Mike from Yonkers added.

So when they waiter came for our order, both Eugene and Mike from Yonkers chose… “bacalao.”

“Do you know what bacalao is?”  I asked Eugene.

“Codfish,” was his reply. “Also known as baccala.”

The waiter looked at me. “Since these two gentlemen have recommended the grilled pork chops, that is what I will have.”

Gerry also went with pork chops, but chose the fried variety while Rick ordered the pernil (roasted pork).

We couldn’t resist an order of mofongo de chicharron de cerdo,  smashed plantains with pork cracklings to start. When it arrived we each broke off a chunk of the mountain of mofongo. “Remember, Mike, there are five of us,” Gerry said to the voracious Mike from Yonkers who had been known to devour a dish meant for sharing leaving one of us without even a scrap.

After a few bites of the mofongo, I wondered if I had broke off a piece of one of my teeth.

“No, that’s just a piece of the cracklings,” Gerry said.

“What  happens when a crackling cracks a tooth?” I wondered out loud.

The Mofongo

The Mofongo

Before we could finish the dense mofongo, our platters arrived, all were momentous in size and all were accompanied by rice and beans.

The pork chops, though just a bit dry, were worthy of their previous accolades, but it was Rick’s pernil, tender, garlicky and with a nice charred skin on some of the pieces, that was the highlight.

The specialty of the house of Caridad & Louie

Grilled pork chops: The specialty of the house of Caridad & Louie

We were all finished except Mike from Yonkers.“How is the bacalao?” I asked him as I watched his unique method of spreading the codfish stew onto the rice as if he were coating a cracker with it.

“It’s good,” he said, “but the rest is coming home with me.”

Our group looked at each other. Mike from Yonkers was a notoriously deliberate eater, yet, as I’ve indicated here, a prodigious one, but here, at Caridad & Louie’s, to quote a once popular television program, “In the battle of Man Vs. Food, on this day: food won.”

Caridad & Louie’s

1660 Gun Hill Road

Bronx

The Big Chifa of Northern Boulevard

22 Oct

 

Chifa

As we were presented with our check for our meal at Chifa, there was some grumbling from the Westchester contingent that it wasn’t right that Zio and I ordered soup as appetizers.

“I didn’t think we could have soup,” Gerry stated.

“Yeah, it’s against the rules,” Eugene bellowed.

“Show me where it says we can’t have soup in our rules,” I responded defensively.

“That’s just wrong,” Eugene said, shaking his head.

“Hey, you could have ordered the soup. Nobody would have stopped you.”

“But you can’t really share soup, so we don’t order it,” Gerry explained.

“All you had to do was ask,” I said. “I would have gladly shared my soup with you.”

“What are we gonna do share spoons? It just doesn’t work that’s why we don’t do it,” Eugene argued.

“How can you eliminate soup from the choices? I love soup,” Zio said.

Mike from Yonkers, technically also from Westchester, wisely abstained from the debate, content to slowly pick at the hominy kernels that surrounded what was left of his ceviche mixto.

Zio shrugged. “That duck soup was really good,” he said.

I nodded. “I know, the sopa pac pow was the highlight of my meal.”

And I wasn’t just saying that to further infuriate Gerry and Eugene who were still steamed that Zio and I had the temerity to order soup. It was the truth.

Sopa pac pow

Sopa pac pow

Granted, Zio and I ordered the soup before Eugene and Gerry arrived and without their consultation—we were waiting in the restaurant, along with Mike from Yonkers, for what seemed like a long time, later finding out there was some confusion on the timing of when we were to meet.

Zio’s pick, Chifa, was located on a small stretch of Northern Boulevard that wasn’t a car wash, lube job joint, gas station, or fast food place. Down the block was the Taste of Lahore, which was right next to a dark, inconspicuous Italian restaurant called Trieste.  Doing his due diligence as always, maybe Zio was drawn to Chifa, learning that its name translated to mean Peruvian Chinese food and that it was something our group had not yet experienced.  Either that or that it was not far from his Astoria love nest. Whatever the rationale for making the pick, Zio wasn’t divulging it.

Mike from Yonkers arrived a few minutes later and after sipping cold Cusquena beers while perusing the Chinese-dominant menu, we went ahead and ordered the soups and a couple of appetizers; “wantan frito” also known as fried wontons and “lomo asado,” Chinese bbq pork slices.

Gerry and Eugene walked in just as the soups arrived. The sopa pac pow was a steaming bowl of what seemed like a glorified egg drop soup; the big bowl thick with pieces of chicken, duck, asparagus pieces, and shrimp.

Eugene eyed Zio’s soup, redolent with tender slices of duck, noodles, and vegetables. “What’s that?” Eugene asked him.

“Duck soup,” Zio replied, his face down, steam coating his eyeglasses, as he carefully sipped the scalding soup.

“That was on TV the other day,” Gerry deadpanned.

“Hail, Freedonia,” I mumbled, not looking up from my own soup that also had a few slices of that tender duck.

Duck soup

Duck soup

After that there was no further discussion of the soups until the complaints at the end of our meal that I’ve already chronicled. Instead the others ordered beers and their own dishes including lomo saltado for Eugene, tai pa, for Gerry, the aforementioned ceviche mixto for Mike from Yonkers, while I went with a noodle dish, tallarin taipa, and Zio choose the pork with garlic.

Besides the gargantuan size of the platters—everything was big at Chifa—there wasn’t much to distinguish the Peruvian Chinese from the standard Chinese-American Cantonese that we are so familiar with.  The tallarin taipa, a “mei fun” type noodle dish with an assortment of meats: pork, chicken, baby shrimp, and the duck, was swimming in an oyster/soy sauce while Zio’s pork with garlic was just more of the roasted barbecued pork we had earlier now presented in a barely perceptible garlic sauce with the addition of a few vegetables.

The tai pa Gerry ordered, according to the menu, “Chifa’s most popular dish,” was more of the same; chicken, pork, shrimp, duck but with welcome addition of a quail egg and fish ball all combined on a large platter and coated with an oyster/soy based “special sauce.” Even Eugene’s traditional lomo saltado, a mountain of beef, French fries, and onions over rice was not up to my high Peruvian standards for the dish.

Tai pa

Tai pa

Maybe it was the addition of the controversial soup or maybe it was just that the dishes were so big, but both Zio and I went home with leftovers.

“And that ain’t right either,” Gerry remarked, his eyes on our packed doggie bags. “Maybe I’m still hungry? Did you think of that?”

Noting the size of the tai pa that Gerry was putting the finishing touches on, I hadn’t. But also knowing Gerry and his prodigious appetite, I should have.

No soup for you!

No soup for you!

Chifa
73-20 Northern Boulevard
Jackson Heights, Queens

 

 

The Pupusa Novelas: The Final Chapter

20 Mar

tierras

When Gerry, freshly thawed from his ice fishing escapade, choose Tierras Centro Americanas as our group’s next destination, I was worried that I might have to eat more pupusas. Not that there is really anything wrong with pupusas, that Central American (Salvadorian in particular) street snack that we experienced twice in the last nine months, including Gerry’s last pick, El Tesoro II (The Poor Man’s Pupusas of Port Chester), and the one in Yonkers chosen by Mike from that same town (Living La Pupusa Loca); it’s just that maybe three pupusa adventures in less than a year is more than enough for me.

“Don’t worry,” Gerry said recognizing my trepidation as I arrived at the colorful diner-like restaurant. “The Guatemalan food is the specialty here.”

His words, I had to admit, were not reassuring, but I was hungry and Guatemalan food, or even another leaden pupusa would have been more than welcome in my famished condition.

We were just off Hillside Avenue and only a block from Sagar Chinese, the Desi Chinese place we experienced in January. For the first time in a long while our entire group was in attendance including Rick who was cherishing a rare few hours out and away from new Daddy duty.

Zio was the last to arrive and when he did he also had the, “oh no, more pupusas” look on his face that I did. So jaded was he with Central American cuisine, he didn’t even bother to look at the menu. “Order for me,” he said to me with a disinterested shrug.

Jacon

Jacon

There was a novela playing on the big screen television above our table and loud Latin music on the juke box making it difficult to hear Eugene’s booming voice. Taking Gerry’s advice, I stuck to the Guatemalan side of the bi-lingual menu and choose “caldo de pescado con arroz y tortillas,” translated to fish and shrimp soup with rice and tortillas. Without any ulterior motive, I picked the “jacon,” chicken in green hot sauce with choyote and green beans as Zio’s entree.

"Darling, my pupusas will make you swoon..."

“Darling, my pupusas will make you swoon…”

We let Gerry choose the “small orders,” and he went with the chile relleno along with “garnacha,” which resembled mini open-faced hard tacos with beef and the Guatemalan version of parmesan cheese sprinkled on top. We each sampled one leaving a few left. The leftovers were offered to Mike from Yonkers, but he had no interest, which was indication right there that maybe we were in trouble here. Despite their mediocrity, my hunger took over and showing no self control, I shoveled another garnacha into my mouth. The Guatemalan chile relleno, stuffed with beef, was also a disappointment; no better than a poor man’s version of the familiar Mexican specialty.

Garnacha

Garnacha

Rick did not hear Gerry’s spiel about the Guatemalan side being the better of the two-country menu and ordered “picadas,” from the “platos tipicos Salvadorenos” section. The mix of fried meats fried to dull grey oblivion, as it turned out, went mostly untouched.

Picada mista

Picada mista

When my fish soup arrived, I was greeted by two dark eyes peering from it belonging to one of the few shrimp, heads and all, that had boiled within. The first sip was salty and briny; no doubt fresh—so fragrant it was as if the soup was made from the waters of the nearby Jamaica Bay. The lumps of fish, bones intact, were tasty but also, for lack of a better word—fishy. My hands being of the asbestos kind were able to pull the fish from the scalding water and break off a few pieces, careful to excise the many bones from the flesh. The very fresh tortillas, the highlight of the meal, helped to mellow the broth but I could only get through about half of the bowl before I was done.

Caldo de Pescado

Caldo de Pescado

Even Mike from Yonkers struggled with his choice of salpicon, a room temperature, hash-like dish of chopped meats, onions, tomatoes and lemon. Only Eugene seemed satisfied with the very pedestrian shrimp in garlic sauce while Zio’s lone comment, positive or not, about the jacon was that he liked the choyote.

The highlight of the meal.

The highlight of the meal.

On the way back to my car I got a whiff of Sagar’s sizzling chicken which was around the corner from where I parked. I remembered how the vapors irritated our respiratory tracts when we were eating there (see Vanquished by Halal Vapors on Homelawn Street). But after the dull meal just experienced I would have happily welcomed those aromatic vapors into my lungs.

Tierras Centro Americanas
87-52 168th Street
Jamaica

A Patacon for El Presidente

8 Mar

To mourn the loss and pay tribute to the beloved Venezuelan president, Hugo Chavez, I indulged in what might be his country’s greatest export to ours. I’m not talking about oil, baseball players, or beauty queens, but something much closer to my heart: the patacon. And I’m happy to report that the mashed green plantain sandwich stuffed usually with shredded pork, beef or chicken and topped with a “special sauce,” similar to that other place’s special sauce has become almost a staple in this country’s Latin communities, whether served from a food truck or a store front.

The Patacon

The Patacon

The government of Venezuela has instituted a seven day mourning period to honor the late president. Everyone mourns in their own way. Here those seven days can be filled with a variety of food tributes in the form of the Venezuelan sandwich: the patacon one day, a cachapas (corn meal) the next, the delicious yo yo (sweet plantain), arepa (sweet corn cake), and pepito (hard roll sandwich) on others all the while juggling different meats including pernil (shredded pork), chorizo (sausage), carne mechada (shredded beef) to name just some of the filling options.

Cachapas chorizo

Cachapas chorizo

Seven days of Venezuelan sandwiches might take a toll on your cholesterol, but remember, sometimes we all must sacrifice to show respect to the leaders who themselves have sacrificed so much for their people.

Hugo Chavez: R.I.P

Hugo Chavez: R.I.P

A China y Latina Christmas Carol

21 Dec

IMG_3050

I woke with a start when I heard the honking of a car horn. It had been awhile since I’d heard car alarms. Maybe they got wise to the uselessness of them and didn’t bother making them anymore. Whatever, the one out my window was pretty loud.

I looked around the room. I didn’t know where I was or what time it could be. Outside the window, the sky was dark grey. How long had I been sleeping? I was confused.

Soon it came back to me. I remembered taking a nap after devouring three tacos; two lengua and one spicy chorizo. I washed them down with a big glass of cold horchata. The lunch had immediately made me drowsy and my belly wasn’t feeling quite right. Could the horchata been spiked with tequila or mescal? Was the lengua spoiled?

I sucked down a double espresso in hopes of reviving my energy. There was Christmas shopping to get done. There was baccala to soak. I had no time for a nap. But it was no use.

It was daytime when I lay down and now the sky was dark. How long was I out? I was still trying to get my bearings.

As the sleep slowly drifted from my eyes, I noticed a wisp of haze at the foot of my bed. I immediately panicked. Did I leave something on the stove? I sniffed. No, it wasn’t smoke. I sniffed again. There was the distinct odor of grease—one made by overcooked lard. It wasn’t an unpleasant smell—at least not to me. I was drawn to it.

I pulled myself closer to the wisp and it quickly enveloped me The haze was so thick I couldn’t see through it. What the hell? I had to still be dreaming. Either that or I was on some sort of drug trip. But I hadn’t taken any drugs. Just the tacos and horchata.

I don’t remember putting on a coat and hat. I don’t remember getting on the subway. But there I was at a place I hadn’t been in many years: a restaurant called Dinastia China or La Dinastia or derogatorily referred to by one particular hater as La Di Nasty. It was the first restaurant I dined in when I moved to New York in the final quarter of the previous century.

The wisp was by my side. I looked around me and noticed the hot dog joint on the corner of 72nd and Broadway and the subway station across the street. Beyond that it was too dark to see anything. A decorative Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer was in the window of the restaurant. I peered through the glass. The counters with the stools in the front were exactly as they were decades ago. There were liquor bottles behind the counter and a cash register.

Rudolph was the lone window decoration.

Rudolph was the lone window decoration.

I pushed the door open. Nat King Cole was singing “The Christmas Song” from the restaurant’s loudspeakers as I entered. The front wall was decorated with autographed photos of celebrities I had never heard of. Next to them was a calendar. I glanced at it and then looked again. That date couldn’t be right. It was an ancient December date I was looking at. Not 2012. I was suddenly chilled.

I turned to the wisp by my side. It just hovered there. Doing nothing. Saying nothing. But I noticed now that the greasy lard odor was gone replaced by the enticing smell of grilled red meat. It moved forward and as if I were a hound on a scent, I followed.

There were a number of waiters in white button down shirts scurrying about. None of them stopped to ask me if I wanted a table. I hadn’t been to Dinastia China since the last century, but I remembered that as soon as I would enter, a waiter, menu in hand, would appear and immediately escort me to a table. Choice tables were always available. Reservations were never necessary. In fact, they were probably discouraged.

I slowly moved past the front area into the dining room. To my right was the commander’s station just as I remembered it. A cluttered desk with a big microphone facing toward the front entrance. One of the waiters was there now and barking orders into it. From the microphone, I knew the orders were relayed to the kitchen and the chef.

The Commander's Station

The Commander’s Station

“Ropa vieja, arroz amarillo, frijoles rojo, platano frito, wonton soup,” I heard him say.

I didn’t speak Spanish, but I was proficient in China y Latina restaurant speak and knew that the order was for shredded beef, yellow rice and red beans, fried plantains, and wonton soup. Despite the leaden effect of the tacos I feasted on earlier, my mouth, I realized, was beginning to water slightly. The order passed on to the kitchen was one of my favorites. It was what I ordered countless times at Dinastia.

There were a few solitary men and women sitting at tables in the expansive dining room. Their heads were down and there were huge platters of rice, beans, beef stew, fried chicken and other Dinastia specialties in front of them. None of them bothered to look up from their food as the wisp and I moved through the room.

The dining room that time forgot.

The dining room that time forgot.

I followed the wisp, despite it’s delicious smell, reluctantly now, sensing I should stay back. That what it was drawing me to I should not see. Frank Sinatra suddenly began to sing over the loudspeakers.

     Oh by gosh, by golly,

     It’s time for mistletoe and holly

A waiter juggling three plates; a big platter of chuletas asadas (center cut pork chops), separate bowls of black beans and yellow rice, and another plate cluttered with fried plantains whisked by me as if I did not exist. I turned and followed the waiter’s progress as he deposited the overflowing plates in front of an older, heavy-set woman, a copy of the New York Post spread out in front of her.

Tasty pheasants, Christmas presents
                                Countrysides covered in snow

 The wisp spun around and around me forcing me to look away from those juicy pork chops and to follow it forward. And then there at a table in the back, near the familiar rest rooms, was another lone diner. I hesitated. I could only see the back of the diners’ head. It was a man and he was hunched over his food. The wisp prodded me closer.

Oh by gosh, by jingle
               It’s time for carols and Kris Kringle

I looked at the table. It was a mess. A disgusting mess. There were pieces of yellow rice scattered on the glass top of the table along with a stray black bean or two, napkins were all over the place. Some of the broth from what was left of a bowl of wonton soup spilled onto the table.

"it was a disgusting mess"

“it was a disgusting mess”

I couldn’t look anymore. I wanted to turn away, but the wisp would not let me. The aroma of fresh baked baguettes that now came from it forced me closer.

There was more. I could see crumbs from the dried noodles. Just a few broken pieces remained in the wooden bowl. There was even a lone noodle that had drowned in the accompanying duck sauce.

Overeating…

And there were bones…fish bones. It was a king fish—serrucho—and it was pan fried. I could see the brown, burnt bits of garlic and the fried pepper strips. There were a few red blots of hot sauce on what was left of the fish. And then I noticed that some of the tender white flesh still clung to the big center bone. Who would waste such a treat?

merry greetings…

Again I tried to turn around and get out of there. I could see no more, but the wisp blocked my way. I smelled fried chicken and was paralyzed.

     From relatives you don’t know

  I looked again at the table and knew I had to see who would create such a mess. At first I noticed the fingers. They were slick with grease. And then I saw the distinctive swirl of light brown hair on top of his head. And I heard myself gasp.

I turned to the wisp in shock.”How can this be? So…young…yet…such a slob.”

The greasy fingers reached into the duck sauce and fished out the drowned noodle.

“Please,” I pleaded. “Please don’t let me look at anymore. I can’t watch. Don’t make me watch. Please…”

   Oh by gosh, by golly

    It’s time for mistletoe and holly

 I wasn’t sure if I was crying or not. If I was, the waiters didn’t care. They just continued to go about their business as if I was invisible.

Fancy ties and granny’s pies,

       An folks stealing a kiss or two

      As they whisper

 I shut my eyes tight. I wanted to cover my ears.

   “Merry Christmas”

   to you

When I opened my eyes, I was just outside the same restaurant. I looked around. There was no wisp by my side. I sniffed. No baguette, grilled beef, fried chicken, or lard grease odor anywhere. I heard a car honk. It wasn’t a car alarm. Just a normal impatient honk. I turned toward Broadway. The hot dog joint was there on the corner, but beyond the subway station I could see a gleaming glass high rise with a Bank of America branch and a Trader Joe’s market.

dinastia 002

I looked into the window of the restaurant. Rudolph was where it was before. The tacos and horchata drink I had for lunch seemed to have been properly digested. I was now ravenous.

I pushed through the doors and walked briskly through the bar area glancing quickly at the photos of the unknown celebrities but making sure not to look at the calendar.

As I approached the Commander’s Station, a waiter met me, laminated menu in hand. I looked past him at the mostly empty tables. There was a family sitting at one of the big, center table and a policeman and policewoman in uniform at another. The other tables were empty.

“Table?” the waiter asked me.

I looked at him. He looked at me. I nodded.

“Just one?”

“Just one,” I said and he led me to a table.

Rod Stewart was singing a cover of the great Charles Brown’s “Merry Christmas Baby,” as I sat.

China

China

After devouring a meal of wonton soup, accompanied by dried noodles and duck sauce, followed by the serrucho ajillo (king fish with garlic and peppers), yellow rice and black beans, I wiped my fingers clean.

y Latina

y Latina

“Coffee?”my waiter asked.

“No, just the check,” I said.

A few moments later he returned with the check and a rolled up magazine, or something like that.

“What’s this?” I asked as I opened it up. It was a calendar with the restaurant’s name on it. I glanced at the date.

I looked up at him. “2013,” he said with a knowing smile.

As I gathered my belongings and headed out with the calendar in hand, he turned to me as he wiped the table clean. “And I see you next year.”

“Yes,” I said with a nod. “You will.”

dinastia 024

Living La Pupusa Loca

18 Dec

pupusa loca 050

Sometimes the third time is the charm. At least that was the case for Mike from Yonkers who had to go to plan C for our latest outing.

Plan A was a “hot tip” on a place in Bloomfield, New Jersey. He kept the tip to himself, but we nixed schlepping to Bloomfield during the “gridlock alert days” we were currently experiencing.

“I’ll save that one for next time,” he slyly added, still keeping us under wraps on what we might encounter in Bloomfield.

Plan B illustrated that Mike from Yonkers was experiencing much holiday duress. Under pressure to select a destination, he mistakenly consulted New York Magazine and choose the wildly popular Brooklyn Thai  restaurant, Pok Pok. That he didn’t realize that a place given multiple stars (whatever they mean) by New York Magazine wouldn’t be mobbed by voracious foodies can only be excused by a combination of work and holiday stress. To make it clear to him, we sent him links with actual photos of some of the long and legendary lines waiting to dine at Pok Pok.

One thing Mike from Yonkers did know, at least we hoped he did after almost eight years as a member of our group, was that we never wait on line to dine. The options are too many for that. So one look at the links and he knew he had to go to Plan C.

Now, under immediate pressure, he went to his own backyard.  His pick: a Salvadorian place just over the Bronx border in Yonkers called La Pupusa Loca.

Welcome to Yonkers

And despite it not being in the five boroughs, La Pupusa Loca fit right into our criteria. A brightly-lit cafeteria where English was very foreign and Spanish novelas blared from multiple televisions, La Pupusa Loca featured large tables offering our group of five—Rick being absent after the very recent birth of his first child—plenty of room for food and flesh overflow.

Serious happenings on the tube.

Serious happenings on the tube.

Mike from Yonkers and I were the first to arrive, followed soon after by Zio and at that time, the lone waitress was ready to take our order. I started with a Pilsener, a Salvadorian beer, but waited on ordering food until the others arrived. By the time Gerry and Eugene arrived, however, the waitress was occupied with others and the wait seemed interminable.

“Is this the longest we’ve had to wait,” Eugene asked.

“I’m hungry,” Gerry bellowed. “I haven’t eaten since lunch.”

Finally, visibly harried, the waitress came to our table and took our orders. I needed to discover what the restaurant’s namesake, the pupusa, tasted like and ordered a bean and cheese.  Foolishly thinking it would be too much for me, I passed on what I saw someone else in the restaurant getting: the “mariscada especial;” an enormous bowl of fish soup where, lobster, shrimp with the heads on, and crab claws overflowed from. Instead I went with a seafood combination of shrimp and fried fish, casamiento, a mash of beans, rice, garlic and other herbs, and chimol, a Salvadorian salsa.

Gerry and Eugene both also ordered fish; Eugene the whole red snapper with onions and Gerry the fried porgy.

“Where does porgy come from?” I asked.

“Long Island Sound,” Zio answered.

“Yeah and that’s why I ordered it. To support our local fishermen,” Gerry cracked.

An enormous platter of pork chops passed our table and Zio’s weary eyes were immediately drawn to them. “I’ll have what they’re having,” he said repeating the oft-used line.

After studiously perusing the menu, Mike from Yonkers went with the steak combination which included an egg, scrambled according to the waitress.

“Can I have it fried,” Mike from Yonkers pleaded, giving her a look she could not refuse.

The pupusas arrived first, which came with a tomato sauce on the side and a big container of homemade pickled cabbage. Our waitress said the cabbage was eaten as an accompaniment to the pupusa.

“Its Salvadorian sauerkraut,” Zio announced after trying the cabbage. And so it was, but not really needed, in my opinion to enhance the already deliciously crazy pupusa.

Salvadorian sauerkraut

Salvadorian sauerkraut

The platters began to arrive. First were Gerry’s and Eugene’s whole, fried fish, both smothered in onions. Next were the super-sized pork chops. After inspecting their enormity, Zio groaned realizing what he was in for.

Only Mike from Yonkers’ family-sized combination platter exceeded Zio’s. On the platter was a selection of beef cuts, two long “maduros,” sweet bananas, a wedge of salty hard white cheese, and a mound of rice and beans; all of it topped with the requested fried egg.

Meat combo with fried egg.

Meat combo with fried egg.

When my comparably miniscule plate arrived, the discrepancy was noticed by all. On it was just a small wedge of fish filet and a few “medium” shrimp, along with the casamiento and chimol. It was as if I ordered from the kids’ menu, if there was such a thing at La Pupusa Loca.

“Don’t worry, you can have some of mine,” Mike from Yonkers generously offered.

But I had my pride. I figured I would finish what was on my plate first before I began scavenging for more. It didn’t take long; only the dense casamiento slowed me down.

The kids' platter; fish and shrimp.

The kids’ platter; fish and shrimp.

Mike from Yonkers had hardly made a dent in his platter by the time I finished. In fact,  Zio polished off the monstrous pork chops before Mike from Yonkers even touched the cheese.

Finally, I conceded. “I guess I’ll take you up on your offer,” I said to him. It wasn’t really that I was still very hungry, it was more as a prod to get him to work with a little more purpose on his platter.

He cut me a sizable wedge of “bistec,”  thinly pounded grilled steak, but by the time I got to it, the meat was cold and tough as a hockey puck.

I wasn’t the only one to notice how long it was taking him to finish the gargantuan platter “Geez, we’ll be here all night,” Gerry barked.

Sensing pressure from the group, Mike from Yonkers pushed the platter away from him. “Okay, that’s it. I’m done,” he announced.

A snapper drowning in onions.

A snapper drowning in onions.

While we waited for the check, I walked around the restaurant and noticed that the placemats under the glass tabletops all had maps of Honduras. This was a Salvadorian place, wasn’t it? Was there a difference between a pupusa from Honduras and one from Salvador? Frankly, I didn’t care.

La Pupusa Loca

297 S. Broadway

Yonkers

Cuban Chuletas in a Casa in Chelsea

20 Nov

Rick’s choice of a Venezuelan place in Chelsea quickly raised some eyebrows amongst our group when we were notified. A few months earlier, we traipsed to Inwood for Venezuelan cachapas on Dyckman Street Stalking Corn on Dyckman Street.  It wasn’t only the relatively quick repeat of a cuisine that was odd, it was also the location. Chelsea, in its present incarnation, is not a neighborhood where we would think to find our kind of restaurant; meaning one suited more for our penny pinching tastes.

Still, we gave Rick the benefit of the doubt and to El Cocotero we all planned to meet. But a couple of hours before our meeting time, Rick sent an email that read as follows:  “Guys. Just got a call from the wife and we have to go to the hospital! It may be a false alarm, but please go enjoy Venezuelan food without me.”

The false alarm was a reference to the impending birth of his first child; the due date set for early December. We all wished the best for Rick, but his pronouncement was just too sudden and late in the day to stop us from heading to Chelsea.

Before anyone else had arrived at El Cocotero, Zio had scouted it out. “It’s so dark in there, you won’t be able to find your mouth with your fork,” he wrote in a text.

You couldn’t tell that power had been restored weeks ago in Chelsea judging by the lack of light in El Cocotero.

When I entered, I immediately thought Zio was exaggerating. It was dim, for sure, but the flickering candlelight wouldn’t stop me from stuffing my face. Reading the menu, however, was a more challenging issue. Without my reading glasses, the menu print seemed as insurmountable as trying to read a Russian novel without a magnifying glass.    Thankfully, Eugene’s eyes were stronger than mine and he informed all of us that the cachapas were ten dollars—almost $4 more than what we paid at Cachapas y Mas on Dyckman Street.

To make matters worse, the table we were given was so cramped that there was the very frightening prospect of rubbing thighs with Mike from Yonkers while trying to get the food from fork to mouth.

“This is a date place,” Eugene blurted out.

Indeed it was, and Mike from Yonkers was not my date. Since Rick was not going to be joining us, there was no reason to endure eating at a romantic restaurant with the likes of Eugene, Gerry, Mike from Yonkers and Zio—and I’m sure the feeling was mutual.

Our group slunk out of El Cocotero, lamely apologizing to the manager as we exited.

The prospects of finding something Chow City like in Chelsea, we knew, were not good, but we had to try. I knew of a nearby Szechuan place that I liked, though it was probably as expensive as the Venezuelan we just left.

And then I remembered passing a Cuban diner on 8th Avenue on my way to El Cocotero that looked like something closer to our criteria. I mentioned it and our ensemble headed in that direction.

In front of Casa Havana was a placard advertising Thanksgiving dinner for $10.95 and another displaying a glistening suckling pig for $12.95. Eugene didn’t have to see anymore to be convinced. He was halfway to a table when Gerry, still out on the street, whined that he had eaten Cuban food the previous day.

We looked at him. You could never tell whether Gerry was joking or serious.

“Really, I did—in Montclair,” he said.

We all hesitated. Eugene came back out of the restaurant. “What now?” he barked.

This was becoming a fiasco and Gerry knew it.

“All right, let’s just go here,” he gamely conceded.

While our Mexican waitress brought the Cuban menus to our ample table, Dominican meringue played over the restaurant’s loudspeakers. Glancing at it, I noticed that the prices were lower than what we would have experienced at the Venezuelan place around the corner, but more than we would have paid for similar food uptown.

There was nothing out of the ordinary on the menu; rice and beans, fried pork, fried fish, roast pork, shrimp in garlic sauce, beef stew, etc.

“Do you have the turkey?” Eugene asked our waitress, referring to what was advertised outside the restaurant.

She shook her head. “No, we just have that for that other day,” she said, meaning Thanksgiving.

Instead, he settled on shrimp criolla while Zio, keeping to his fishy pattern whenever we gather,  ordered the “lubina frita,” fried bass.

After his Cuban meal in Montclair, Gerry eschewed the entrees and instead chose a Cuban sandwich with a small bowl of black bean soup. Mike from Yonkers was rebuffed by his first choice of fried snapper and had to go to plan B: the baked chicken. I decided on the “chuletas,” (pork chops) in red sauce with yellow rice and black beans.

While we waited for the platters to decorate our table, all of us except Zio, who sipped a mango “batido,” had $5 Mexican beers.

Embargo beer options at a Cuban Restaurant.

The food came and we plowed through it without many exclamations. No one complained. No one praised. The chuletas were skimpily thin and swimming in a non-descript tomato sauce that benefited greatly by a large dousing of the house hot sauce.

Shrimp Criolla, yellow rice and black beans

Because the food did not inspire discussion, we had no choice but to listen to Eugene describe the annual Christmas party he attends—the one with the Viennese dessert buffet—as well as the many meals he eats at the all-inclusive resort he frequents in the Dominican Republic.

Who knew Shakespeare vacationed in old Havana?

Gluttons for punishment, to name just one of the things we are gluttons for, we could have just called it a night in Chelsea. Instead, hoping we would find something to praise, we all had dessert. Sadly, even the desserts; coconut pudding, coconut cake, tres leches cake, and chocolate cake, did not surpass uptown standards.

And, as he suspected it would be, Rick informed all of us that indeed the trip to the hospital was a false alarm. If only we could have said the same thing about our trip to Chelsea.

Some Good News About Sandy

31 Oct

It’s been downgraded to a lechonera.

Time to remove the plywood and roast some pork.

I hope all my friends and followers are safe and moving forward post-hurricane.

%d bloggers like this: