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Stalking Corn on Dyckman Street

31 Jul

Cachapas y Mas
107 Dyckman Street

There was a small booth on Dyckman street where corn along with other farm fresh goods were being sold. Across the street a vendor was selling roasted corn and batata (sweet potato) cooked on a gas grill. Further down the block another vendor had homemade empanadas hanging on hooks inside his makeshift cart. This was the scene I encountered on Dyckman Street on a humid summer evening on the way to Cachapas y Mas, the Veneuzuelan fast food place Zio had chosen for our group.

Roasted corn for sale on Dyckman Street.

Besides the abundance of corn, Dyckman Street, in the Inwood section of upper Manhattan was bustling; teeming with urban humanity—the street congested and loud with honking livery drivers. On the sidewalks, microscopic shorts for women hugged tightly over curvy female mannequins, while for men there were flamboyant, colorful dress shirts on racks. Wedged between the retail stores were an assortment of fast food fried chicken places, Dominican bakeries, and a number of Latin-style steakhouses; in other words, my kind of street.

Cachapas y Mas was clean, with a row of wooden picnic tables along with a few smaller, plastic-topped tables and chairs. A slick, flat screen television broadcast soccer from a Spanish language station. The menu was displayed on a digital screen above the cashier that electronically would shift from a picture of “cachapas,” to one of “patacones,” to one of “arepas,” and finally to “yoyos;”

Yoyos, patacones and empanadas.

I did scant research once Zio announced his pick, but enough to learn that the food was Venezuelan and that the specialty were meats sandwiched between either griddle toasted corn cakes (arepas and cachapas) or fried green plantains, also known as tostones (patacones) or yellow plantain, i.e. maduros (yoyos).

Our group of five, soon to be six once Rick arrived, grabbed one of the picnic tables and added two of the plastic chairs at either end to accommodate all of us. From where I sat, my eyes were just not up to the task of reading anything from the digital screen so I got up for a closer look.

The “man in charge,” either the owner or manager, noticed my curiosity—and my trusty camera—and offered advice. He suggested a drink called papelon to start. Over the din and through his accented English, he explained that the drink was made from lime with brown sugar—two of my favorite ingredients. How could I resist?

The papelon was a bit too sweet for me, but I found it refreshing. A little less sugar and maybe a shot or two of rum would have transformed the drink into a very exceptional cocktail.

Papelon: The Venezuelan cocktail, sans rum.

I brought the drink back to the table. A line to order was beginning to form. Though proper etiquette would have us wait until our party of six arrived; we were still waiting for Rick, but Mike from Yonkers and Zio, especially when noticing the line, would never let etiquette stand in the way of their gluttony, immediately got on the line.

Eugene, Gerry and I shook our heads at the rude behavior of our comrades.

“No class,” Gerry said, glancing at the time. “It’s not like Rick is more than a few minutes late.”

“I know. It’s pitiful. Sad, really.” I added while shaking my head at their disgraceful behavior.

Eugene said nothing; instead he rose and joined the line.

I sipped my papelon, squinted at the digital menu again, peered out onto Dyckman Street and not seeing Rick, took my place on the line behind Eugene.

As the line moved slowly forward, I turned around. Rick had arrived and was already on the line, a few spots behind me.

Yoyos or patacones? Those were the two finalists. But stuffed with what? They all pretty much had the same choices; cheese, ham and cheese, chicken, shredded beef, roast pork, steak, chorizo, grilled chicken or, if you had a thing against meat, and if you did, why were you here, then there was the avocado salad arepa offering.

I decided on a shredded beef patacone along with a pastelito; an empanada like snack the owner recommended that was stuffed with meat and cheese. What harm would a little more grease do?

All of us returned to the table to wait for our names to be called with our orders. Of course, Mike from Yonkers and Zio were first. Both ordering cachapas; Zio’s stuffed with chorizo, Mike from Yonkers with shredded beef.

Chorizo cachapas

Zio generously offered me a taste. The corn cake was slightly sweet and dense, but rich with the flavor of fresh corn. It complemented the salty chorizo perfectly. While they ate, I dug through the pastelito. It reminded me somewhat of a meat and cheese calzone, but with a Latin flair.

I heard the Spanish sing song of my name and shot up from my seat returning moments later with the patacone. Using the plastic fork and knife provided, I tried to saw through the fried green plantain. Both utensils were not up to the task, bending to the tough tostone exterior. Giving up, I ate it how it probably should have been eaten; like a sandwich. And though I was able to maneuver some of the juicy shredded beef into my mouth, much of it dropped onto my plastic tray.

Patacone with shredded beef

Zio easily finished the chorizo cachapas, but despite its gargantuan size, it just was  not enough for his prodigious appetite. “I need more,” he mumbled and got up and ordered a beef empanada. The ground beef, onions and spices stuffed into a cornmeal pastry.

After taking a few bites, Zio put the empanada down. “It has a distinctly Alpo-like flavor,” he commented.

Nothing Alpo-like about this empanada.

He offered the remains of meat pie to me. I took a bite. “Hmmm, maybe, but it’s the best Alpo-like empanada I’ve ever had,” I said approvingly. The cornmeal pastry was crunchy with bits of coarse ground cornmeal and the meat was pungent, even aromatic, I was guessing from the amalgam of spices.

We make quick work of the cachapas, patacones, and empanadas and soon the dirty paper plates and napkins were piled high on our trays. With the exception of not experiencing a yoyo, I was more than satisfied with Cachapas y Mas.

The mess left behind.

As I made my way to my car, I could feel the patacone and all the other bites I had at Cachapas y Mas laying heavily in my belly.  The buzz on Dyckman Street had subsided somewhat.  I noticed that though the men’s flowered dress shirts had been removed from the street, the microscopic shorts on the female mannequins were still on display.  Dyckman Street, I realized, was a place for those with better self control than I.  I would be back.  But it wouldn’t be soon.

A Lime Cut Three Ways: The Second Cut

20 Jun

The Mojito

I always thought of the mojito as an amateur’s drink. Part of my thinking was because of the rum used. I’m partial to the rums of either the West Indies; Jamaica, Barbados, Trinidad, etc., which are molasses-based, and robust, or the exquisite French island “agricole” rums of Martinique and Guadeloupe, made from distilled sugar cane juice. The rum traditionally used for the mojito is of the smoother, Spanish variety; Puerto Rican, Cuban, Dominican, etc. So smooth, in fact, that to me, the rum is indistinguishable; practically devoid of any flavor.

Further damaging the mojito appeal in my narrow mind was that the rum usually poured into the drink was the one with the enormous marketing budget making it, in my estimation, the Coca Cola of rums. And speaking of Coca Cola, the rum in question is usually best enjoyed in that abomination: rum and coke. But there I go again, displaying my rum snobbery by thrashing a drink enjoyed over the years by millions of people. It’s an unseemly trait of mine that, as I grow older, hope I am losing. Who am I, some sort of food and beverage critic or something? It’s not my place to belittle one’s rum preference?

Cuba Libre??

A big part of my conversion to the mojito was the forest of mint that, since we moved to our new apartment, has accumulated on our terrace. Mint, along with lime, are the dominating flavors of the mojito and excellent bedfellows they make.

A forest of mint.

You can take your mint tea, mint ice cream, mint and lamb and whatever else you might use fresh mint for. I use it exclusively for the mojito. And yes, I do use smooth—err—bland, Puerto Rican rum in the drink (though not the Coca Cola of rums whose name will not be mentioned here). I wouldn’t dare attempt a mojito with a rum from Martinique or Trinidad. The result would be a completely different drink. The neutral rum from Puerto Rico seems to meld the other two dominant flavors of lime and mint perfectly in the cocktail.

Mojito mix

What follows is my version of the  mojito.


1 lime cut into tenths.

10 or more fresh mint leaves including sprigs.

4 teaspoons simple sugar syrup*

2 ounces of white Spanish rum (Puerto Rican or Domincan, if you can get Cuban, I’m sure that would work well too).

A splash or two of seltzer

*You can use superfine sugar, granulated sugar, or even confectioner’s sugar instead of simple syrup, but I prefer homemade syrup which eliminates having to dissolve the sugar into the drink. The recipe for simple sugar syrup can be found on my post, A Lime Cut Three Ways: The First Cut.

Add most of the lime and mint leaves, saving a few of each, to a highball glass. Mash and muddle the mint and lime together with a pestle or whatever type of apparatus you might have on hand.

Add the sugar syrup, the rum, and ice and stir.

Pour in a splash or two of seltzer to top off the cocktail and stir again.

A splash of seltzer.

Garnish with a couple of lime pieces and a sprig or two of mint.

Sit back, put your feet up, and enjoy.

The mojito

I no longer demean the mojito and want to admit here that I was very wrong about its many merits. It is a summer cocktail supreme and I now count it as one of my go to drinks. Could it be that this public admission is testament that I am finally maturing? One can only hope.

And the Answer is…

18 Jun

On Friday I presented you with the following photos:

Note the tiny yellow speck of rice I thought was a giveaway.

And where else would you find such a combination of condiments.

With those hints I challenged you to Name That Place.

I thought the hints were more than obvious, yet I only received a few correct responses identifying the place that has this unusual kitchen apparatus.

Where if you open one of those drawers, you will find this…

Yellow rice. Which is a staple of this place and used when eating this:

Rice and beans

As an accompaniment to this:


But that Chinese Zodiac paper place mat could confuse, as could the soy sauce above. Surely this is a Latin place with an Asian twist.

For forty plus years on the corner of 78th and Broadway, though remodeled several times, you can find this comidas china y criolla standby:

Le Caridad 78


Lechonera Encanto

8 Jun

Lechonera La Isla
256 E. 125th Street

Last year, around this time, when I started seeing the Puerto Rican flags streaming from car antennas, out of apartment windows, and draped across uptown streets, I immediately thought of the Cuchy Frito man, specifically, Cal Tjader’s rendition and the celebration of all pig parts fried Cuchy Frito Man.

I am seeing those same flags again now. And this year, instead of Cal Tjader and cuchifritos, I thought I would celebrate La Isla del Encanto by stopping by my local lechonera, Lechonera La Isla, for a taste of pernil, roast pork shoulder.

Plenty of room at the lechonera.

La Lechonera La Isla was quiet when I walked in; the few stools of the small restaurant counter were empty. There was beef stew available along with oxtails and roast chicken. And there were a few slabs of pernil that had been roasted to sweet oblivion.

The day’s remains soon to be devoured.

“When do you close,” I asked the young man who was chopping the pernil into pieces for me.

“When we run out of food,” he replied, his cleaver slamming into the very dense crackling of the pig skin. “Basically, my Mom cooks everything in the morning and when it’s gone, I can go home.”

I was lucky;  he hadn’t gone home.

Trying not to be too bold, I peered into the kitchen hoping to catch a glimpse of Mom at work. But from what I could see, the kitchen was dark and quiet. Apparently Mom had gone home.

Sawing through the good stuff.

He layered a generous portion of pork on top of rice and red beans. An accompaniment of a homemade hot sauce; onions marinated in scotch bonnet peppers and vinegar set my mouth happily on fire while a drizzle of a tangy mojo (garlic sauce) just added to the gathering of fiery flavors now imbedded there.

Roast pork and rice and beans.

The traffic on 125th Street heading towards the Triorough (now known as the RFK) Bridge was bumper to bumper. Instead of Cuban-born Celia Cruz whose picture was adorned on the busy walls of the lechonera, or Tito Puente, who I once saw on 86th Street just after performing at the parade, sitting in the shade being fanned by a group of elderly ladies, the only sounds I heard while gnawing through the delicious cracklings, was that of honking horns. I really didn’t mind, the food provided all the music I needed.

A smile from Celia Cruz to help the pernil go down.


The Marathon to Malecon.

8 Feb

Malecon Restaurant
4141 Broadway
Washington Heights

It took three attempts for our group to get to Rick’s pick,  Malecon in Washington Heights. The journey to the busy corner of 175th Street and Broadway where Malecon is located had its winding trails and steep inclines, but in the end was worth the effort.

Malecon was touted by Ubie, Rick’s hairdresser/stylist/barber, as the best place for “Dominican” food in New York. And though we don’t know anything about Ubie’s food savvy, Rick’s hair is definitely impressive, so we just had to go on that.

The first detour on our trip to Malecon occurred a couple of months earlier when on the date we were to gather, Rick informed us that there was an event at the Brooklyn Brewery in Williamsburg featuring the barbecue of Myron Mixon.

The Brooklyn Brewery: The first leg of our journey.

Though I’ve been through a few barbecue wars myself, I don’t follow them on television. Apparently Myron Mixon is a barbecue celebrity and had just written a book on his expertise. This event was in celebration of that publication and included barbecue prepared by Mixon himself. Rick’s influence got our group invites to the event and he presented us with the option of the “Dominican place” or free barbecue and beer. Our decision was unanimous. We would postpone Rick’s pick to experience the Brooklyn Brewery and Mixon’s renowned barbecue.

After arriving promptly at the Brooklyn Brewery on an empty stomach and quickly downing two very cold and very delicious beers, while waiting (and waiting) for Mixon to lay out his food, I desperately reached for the pickles—the  only thing to eat—in hopes of not passing out in a mound of barbecue. Finally the ribs and brisket were assembled on the steam tables and our group, showing the skill and confidence accumulated by years of experience, positioned ourselves at  the front of the buffet line.

Our plates piled high, we began to dig in. The ribs were worthy of Mixon’s reputation; seasoned perfectly, smoked to moist tenderness topped with a subtle glaze of semi-sweet sauce. The brisket, however, even sliced thin, was like eating shoe leather. How could a barbecue master allow such a debacle? Shouldn’t pride itself prevent one from tarnishing one’s revered status? In other words, if I were Mixon, I would have dumped all the inedible brisket rather than foisting it upon the scavengers lining up for the buffet. But that’s just me.

Myron Mixon displaying his gnawing ability.

A few weeks later, channel surfing, I noticed Mixon’s silver-bearded visage on television. He was on a barbecue competition called “BBQ Pitmasters” on TLC (The Learning Channel). I watched as he competed in the “ribs” category and came in third behind a man named Tuffy Stone and the winning team called “Slap Yo Daddy,” comprised of Asian-Americans from California. When the results were announced, Mixon had the same look on his face that I did when sampling his brisket.

A month later, we tried again to visit the “Dominican place” recommended by Ubie. Late on the afternoon of our scheduled gathering, Rick emailed to say a work crisis had come up and he would have to cancel. I was on my way to a Little League tournament game with my son in the Inwood section of Northern Manhattan. I thought I might be able to get to the dinner in nearby Washington Heights, son in tow, if his game ended promptly. But Eugene was cranky and wanted to meet sooner than later; bitter that when most of the world was sleeping, he would be camped out on the RFK Bridge overseeing construction there. Since this was Rick’s choice, it didn’t make sense to assemble without him, but I was away from my email and deferred the executive decision whether to cancel or not up to Gerry. He, wisely choose to cancel.

Malecon’s cafe con leche receptacle.

We quickly rescheduled and this time there were no cancellations. I admit to not being a stranger to the food of Malecon. Though the Malecon I was familiar with was on the upper west side and known, to me, as “El Malecon.” A visit to Malecon’s website revealed that they were related.

The Malecon in Washington Heights was most definitely the big brother of the two. Not only was it located in the heart of New York’s biggest Dominican community, it was larger than “El Malecon” and its menu was much more extensive.

My experience with El Malecon centered around the monstrous roast chicken dinners they featured that included rice and beans or other starches like yuca, tostones or maduros. That and the restaurant’s addictive café con leche that went perfectly with its “desayuno,” the hearty Dominican breakfast comprised of longaniza (sausage), eggs, mangu (mashed green plantains) and guineo (boiled green bananas).

The self-proclaimed King of Roast Chicken.

The Malecon in Washington Heights had everything El Malecon had on the Upper West Side and much more including a large selection of mofongos, parrilladas (grill combinations) and something called picaderas.

Gerry ordered a pequena (small) picadera plate that was big enough for at least half of our rotund group and included a combination of fried meats; sausage, beef, pork, and chicken along with fried plantains.

Picaderas: the “pequena” plate.

Big brother Malecon, unlike El Malecon, was much more festive with tropical murals, meringue blasting and offering ice buckets of Presidente beer which, without hesitation, we crowded our table with.

There were side dishes and a few appetizers that looked tempting and Rick considered a few. I shook my head. “It will be too much,” I said, recalling my previous El Malecon experiences. And I didn’t get an argument from anyone.

A Presidente to accompany the King of roast chicken.

The vast menu made choosing difficult but I narrowed my choice down to one of that day’s specials—Malecon has a number for each day of the week—thinking I might get the roast pork or the bbq beef ribs. I went with the latter along with gandules (pigeon peas) and rice. Mike from Yonkers was considering a mofongo, but realized he didn’t get rice and beans with it…as if he needed more starch. Instead, he chose the codfish stew.

Bacalao guisado

Along with touting the restaurant, Ubie recommended Malecon’s legendary chicken and Rick ordered a “whole” as opposed to a half, which would have been more than enough. Both Eugene and Zio had the “fish of the day,” which was something fried and filleted and even smothered in an unknown sauce was, according to Zio, “still crispy.”

As I expected, the platters were large, the food densely delicious, though the ribs a tad on the sweet side, and the Presidente the perfect accompaniment. It was no reflection on Malecon’s quality, however, that everyone, excluding Eugene and myself, had leftovers; a first for our group.

Despite being overstuffed, I couldn’t resist sampling the coconut flan while Rick and Mike from Yonkers were easily convinced by our waitress to try the tres leches (three milk) cake. The flan I had was as dense as the rice and gandules, but the tres leches was moist, dripping with sweet milk and so good that it alone would make another journey,  detours and all,  to Washington Heights a high priority.

Tres leches cake.

The Place Where They Don’t Count the Shrimp

22 Nov

1200 Castle Hill Ave

Zio and I were waiting in front of Sabrosura for Gerry, Mike from Yonkers, and Eugene to arrive. The corner restaurant had a no reservations policy and also one where the full party had to arrive before being seated. The latter policy usually reeks of arrogance and over confidence; the restaurant thinking that holding tables with one or two people of a larger party will slow down the turnover.  But despite the policy, Sabrosura showed no signs of pretension or arrogance and when I first entered, the owner, a pleasant man of Chinese heritage, who, I later learned was born and raised in Santo Domingo, took my name and offered me a very small seat near the busy take-out section of the restaurant where I could wait for the others. The night was mild, however, so Zio and I chose to wait outside.

“The food’s the best around here,” said a man who had exited the restaurant behind me and observed my situation. “It’s worth the wait.”

After our last couple of outings; mediocre African in Harlem and tasteless Fujinese in Chinatown where we struggled through webbed duck feet, fish stomach, and a very spiny eel, I thought we needed to get back to basics. And Chino-Latino, the food offered by Sabrosura, was as basic as it got for me.

One of the first restaurants I dined in after moving into the city was a dingy place on West 72nd Street called La Dinastia. It served Latino specialties like rice and beans, huge plates of roast chicken with platanos or maduras (green or ripe plantains) ropa vieja (shredded beef), picadillo (spiced ground beef) and fried king fish along with Chinese-American staples; wonton soup, barbecued ribs, lo mein, fried rice, and sweet and sour pork. To me, at the time, it was a revelation. It was cheap. It was hearty. And the restaurant’s total lack of atmosphere perfect fodder to my then creatively downscale brain. Friends I brought to La Dinastia didn’t always agree and it was nicknamed by one as “Dinasty”. But that just spurred my loyalty to the place. Even the presence of a dead cockroach floating in the duck sauce one time I dined there did not sour me on the restaurant. That, in a way, was part of its appeal.

La Dinastia, now known as DInastia China

“They don’t count the shrimp or anything,” the man, who was in his early thirties, burly, wearing a tight sport jacket, neck tie loose and collar half turned up, who told us he was Dominican, added. “The other places around here…they only give you a few shrimps in your asopao. This is the place to come in Castle Hill.”

We didn’t have to prod him for information about Sabrosura or the state of dining on Castle Hill Avenue where Sabrosura was located; it flowed from him…until he got the signal that his take-out order was ready.

We spotted Eugene and Gerry in Eugene’s car looking for a parking spot. Zio and I went in the restaurant, but still they were hesitant to seat us. “Looking for a parking spot? Ha, that’s what they all say.”

Upon quickly glancing at the colorful menu filled with photographs of many of the various dishes, Eugene, obviously still stinging from our last inedible experience blurted; “Finally, there’s something we can eat here.”

And he was right, but the menu was vast and offered a number of combinations, some in triplicate, and even including Chino-Latino “Bento Boxes,” so the dilemma for us was to narrow the options down.

One thing La Dinastia, or most of the Chino-Latino restaurants I ever visited never had was that Puerto Rican/Dominican specialty, a mash of twice fried plantains, pork cracklings and garlic called mofongo. Sabrosura had a number of different types available and, as the menu stated “All mofongos normally include garlic and crispy pork skin; if you don’t want either, just let us know!” That was the kind of place Sabrosura was; anything for their customers. But we most definitely wanted garlic and pork skin with our mofongo and we wanted ours with shrimp. Gerry was concerned that one would not be enough until he saw that size of the bowl that was coming our way. The huge bowl was  a hollowed out mofongo filled with shrimp in a tomato-based gravy and topped with a few slices of avocado.

Chinese Chop Suey Soup

Along with the mofongo to start, I couldn’t resist trying the “Chinese chop suey soup.” My experience at Chino-Latino restaurants was that the soups were actually very good; whether they were wonton, or called “Chinese soup,” or “Special Chinese soup,” they were usually in a light chicken broth, brimming with bok choy, cabbage, bean sprouts, noodles and bits of roast pork, ham, and shrimp. At Sabrosura they didn’t care if they used the very old school word “chop suey” to describe their soup and neither did I. What I tasted was reassuringly familiar and after finishing it, left me, predictably, with a slight MSG buzz.

Bourbon boneless ribs and plantains

The feast proceeded from there. Mike from Yonkers slowly devouring a monstrous platter of broiled fish that looked exactly as it did on the menu. Eugene working his way through a combination called the “Mojito;” roast chicken and boneless bourbon barbecued ribs.  Zio experimenting with a Bento Box of fried fish, pork, and anything else that might immediately stop his heart. Gerry digging through a mound of fried rice topped with shrimp and squid called chofan, and I with my old standby, ropa vieja with yellow rice.  No one complained. No one moaned. Everything was eaten.

“old clothes” with yellow rice

After a sampling of the restaurant’s excellent flan, we staggered out onto Castle Hill Avenue all of us very happy that at Sabrosura, they do not count the shrimp.

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