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Seduced by Singaporean Snacks on Sticks

7 Jun

Bamboo Tori

When Rick chose to continue with his fading softball career instead of taking on his obligation to provide our greedy and needy group with a food destination, we were in a temporary quandary. Though I would have preferred he hadn’t left us in such a precarious situation, I understood his decision. I did the same thing—for about ten years—before realizing only a visit to a “clinic” in Miami could help regain my youthful form in the field and power at the plate.

Eugene also deserted us when he announced, shocking all of us, that his girlfriend’s superiors had actually invited him to attend her retirement party. And he thought it wise that he not decline the invitation. We could not disagree.

We were four and though Mike from Yonkers was next in line to choose, we were given a unique opportunity. A fan of Fried Neck Bones…and Some Home Fries, and believe me, their numbers are just not that many, had reached out to me and remarkably, considering he had never met our motley crew, wanted us to assemble at his own eating establishment.

Now just because a restaurateur shows me some love doesn’t mean I’m an easy mark. I have my ethical standards and not just anyone who heaps praise on my work will get equal treatment on my very humble blog.  Jonny, however, the Indonesian born, Singaporean raised co-founder and chef of Bamboo Tori, made a strong case for our attendance. As I said above, any restaurant that would blindly consider allowing our group to convene at their tables has already displayed remarkable valor. Another reason that we considered the offer was that we had not yet been to a Japanese yakitori place, not to mention one that, Jonny explained was also heavily influenced by the Singaporean snacks served on sticks he recalled growing up there. Finally, Bamboo Tori was located in Greenwich Village, a place bustling with restaurants but typically not one where our group’s frugal criteria could be fulfilled. We would be dining in virgin territory.

On its website, Bamboo Tori bills itself as specializing in Japanese yakitori, and though I’ve had yakitori, the traditional Japanese featuring the funky chicken body parts excepted, the concept here, Jonny explained was different. Jonny and his partners Christophe, from Belgium, and Hendy from Haiti, wanted to make yakitori more accessible; meaning chicken hearts, butts, necks, and gizzards were not on their menu. After an exploratory eating trip to Singapore, the partners wanted to create at their venture more of what can be found served as street snacks there.

Mike from Yonkers, Gerry, Zio and I squeezed onto a hard bench in the slender, take-out mostly, restaurant as Jonny presented us with a selection of meats on sticks. Behind a glass front, there was a conveyor belt like machine where meats were put on their sticks and rotated around a hot fire while intermittently being dipped into a marinade. Passersby stared raptly at the mesmerizing process from the street.

The yakitori machine in action.

The yakitori machine in action.

Our first sample box of skewers included one stick each of asparagus bacon, chicken thigh, pork belly, and pork meatballs. Cooked to juicy perfection, each was coated with a bronze grilled yakitori glaze that Jonny informed me was provided by a close friend of his father’s, a Japanese chef of Hilton Hotels Indonesia.

The pork meatballs, made with ground pork, ginger and parsley had Gerry gushing and after a final tally, the consensus was that they were the standout among many standouts.

Pork meatballs

Pork meatballs

The next box included beef tri-tips, beef meatballs, chicken breast, and chicken thigh with scallions. And we made sure that every bit of meat was removed off each stick even if it meant scraping them with our teeth.

Finally, proving that Bamboo Tori can also satisfy the vegetarian, we tried skewers grilled with eggplant, zucchini, and grape tomatoes. From two seats down and over the din of the busy restaurant, I could hear Gerry gush again as he devoured the grilled veggies.

Grilled vegetables on a stick.

Grilled vegetables on a stick.

The final taste was a steamed pork bun stuffed with the aforementioned pork meatballs. The tiny sandwich epitomizing the term: street snack.

The used stick dispensary was stuffed with our skewers. We were done. We thanked Jonny and his partners for their service; very glad that we were introduced to their brand of yakitori, the trip to the heart of darkness known as Greenwich Village well worth it.

Steamed bun sandwich

Steamed bun sandwich

“How’d you come up with that name, ‘Fried Neck Bones and Some Home Fries’ anyway,” Jonny asked as I was leaving. “It’s cool.”

I explained how I thought the title of the Willie Bobo song as well as the tune itself was as good a representative of what I wanted to achieve in the website as I could find.

“I never heard of it,” Jonny said. And why would a man in his twenties be familiar with a Latin Soul tune recorded in 1966? “But I’m gonna check it out.”

The next day I sent him the link below to better help him check it out.



Bamboo Tori
106 University Place



A Considerable Taste

13 Sep

Taste Good
82-18 45th Avenue
Elmhurst, NY

 Taste Good was chosen by Gerry who usually sends us to the far corners of the tri-state region for better (Indian dosas in Jersey City, authentic Korean barbecue in Ft. Lee) or for worse (tacky Mexican in Yonkers and mediocre barbecue in Valhalla). This time he stuck closer to what Zio refers to as the “epicenter” of our food universe; the corridor around the number 7 train of Woodside, Jackson Heights, and Elmhurst, where Taste Good was located. But even this time, Gerry’s curse was not totally diminished when the roads close to the restaurant were closed due to a subway shooting. Still, no one was complaining and a few of us, Zio, Rick and myself even had a few extra minutes to browse the next door Hong Kong supermarket where baby bok choy was on sale along with a special on live frogs.

Frogs for sale.

All of us were in attendance including Eugene who displayed no side effects after the defeat of his Red Sox. In fact, he was suspiciously silent on the subject. To prod him, we made sure he was aware of the availability of sting ray on the menu and even our collective eagerness to order it in some preparation would not illicit any type of self-pitying response. Thus is the demeanor of the now jaded Red Sox fan.

The menu was large and our waitress intent on speeding up our ordering. Though her English was shaky, she was not shy about making suggestions, especially in the quantity of our orders. When we suggested an appetizer of  nasi lemak, a rice platter served with curried chicken, salty spiced pungent anchovies, and hard-boiled eggs, she wanted to know how many orders. When we asked if one was enough, coupled with two orders of roti canai, an Indian-style pancake served with a chicken curry gravy, and tahu goreng, deep fried bean curd stuffed with bean sprouts and sprinkled with a peanut sauce, she shook her head adamantly and said, “No. Two!”

Golden aromatic clams

When I, on name alone, wanted to order the “drunken clams” she shook her head. “This is no good,” she said. “Have this instead,” she said pointing to the clams in “aromatic flavor.” I wasn’t sure, but pretty confident that debating the choices was not an option. With the clams, the aforementioned sizzling aromatic sting ray, hokkien udang mee, a shrimp broth soup with noodles, fish cake, eggs, and greens, and one of our Malaysian favorites, beef rendang, here subtitled cleverly on the menu as “Love Me Tender,” which, of course, when it comes to beef rendang, is the only way to appreciate it, we thought we had enough, even for our crew.

“Not enough,” our waitress barked. Scrambling through the dense menu, the waitress and I collaborated on the choice of char kway teow, rice noodles with shrimp, fish cake, and egg. “Two orders,” she said. At this point she had taken over and all we could do was nod compliantly.

Char kway teow: Two orders please

As it turned out, we ordered so much that by the time the last dish, a huge platter that held the sizzling sting ray, arrived Zio was beginning to groan. Mike from Yonkers, who was seated next to me, however, was unfazed by the assembly of dishes. His secret to enduring the onslaught of food could have been his propensity to rise to a semi-standing position while piling portions from each dish onto his already congested plate; the physical act quite possibly serving to allow his stomach to stretch, creating almost unlimited consumption capacity.

Though he made a few disparaging remarks about the rapidity of the service as if he would be happy with more deliberate service, Eugene held no grudges to the sting ray, which was smothered in a spicy, muddy brown sauce, and dug in dutifully.

The clams were seemingly roasted in, as the menu suggested, a golden aromatic paste, and drunken or not, an excellent recommendation. There was so much that when a big bowl of soup arrived, we wondered if we actually ordered it believing that our waitress might have just “thrown it in” thinking we wouldn’t know any better. But in fact, it was the fiery hokkien udang mee and we indeed included it.

Hokkien udong mee

Quantity certainly did not detract from the Taste Good’s quality and the restaurant certainly lived up to its confident moniker.

And when all, with the exception of the bottom half of the sting ray had been devoured, Eugene looked at his watch, which he had been doing throughout our meal and then nodded. “All that food eaten in about a hour,” he said.  An impressive feat, but from the look on Eugene’s  face, we could do better.

A Malaysian Type of Place

13 Jul

Skyway Malaysian
11 Allen St

After what seemed like much too long, all were in attendance for our appointment at Skyway Malaysian. Tucked in the shadow of the Manhattan Bridge in Chinatown, my reservation garnered us a seat perched above the other diners under a pagoda canopy. Whether it was a choice seat or one where the wait staff could conveniently ignore our pleas for beverages and food was open to debate. We had plenty of room and our sometimes booming near-hysterical rants would not impose on the other diners. But from our table we also could not view the obligatory television tuned to Asian dramas with Chinese subtitles. Instead, while perusing the dense, six page menu, we could catch up with Eugene and his new-found love affair with Vegas, especially the bargains at the dining tables. Or listen to Zio bemoan the sudden rise in crime in Astoria where a murder had recently occurred just a few steps from his love nest.

While I tuned out both Eugene and Zio, I couldn’t help but read Village Voice food critic, Robert Sietsema’s review of Skyway that was blown up and hanging on the wall near our table, as well as many other very prominent locations throughout the restaurant. In retrospect, I should have paid more attention to Eugene’s typically dour playoff predictions for his beloved Boston Red Sox* instead of reading Sietsema.

Sietsema received maximum coverage at Skyway.

Robert Sietsema is a true explorer, unearthing obscure restaurants in all boroughs and a primary source for our own adventures. But instead of going with my own instincts on the menu, I let Sietsema sway me. Not that his 2005 review recommendations were off course or bad, but this was 2007 and the menu offered other wonders that might have led to our own personal discoveries. Thankfully, I welcomed menu feedback from Rick, Gerry and our persuasive waitress instead of completely following Sietsema’s lead. But when I was originally enticed by the prospect of java mee, egg noodles in sweet and spicy squid gravy (could it be anything like squid ink used in paella?) and shrimp pancake, Sietsema’s rave of banmee hakka noodle led me astray. The noodles, it turned out, were so bland that even the handful of dried anchovies tossed into the soup couldn’t save them. But Sietsema’s suggestion of the house special pork with dried vegetables, a thick, tender slab of pork belly on top of a dense, salty bed of now soggy greens was indisputable.

Before we even began to put together our own menu for the night, we made several attempts to hail a waitress for our “beer” order. Gerry rose to the occasion to summon one of the wait staff hovering below us and we ordered a round of Macau Chinese beer. Instead, we were brought Blue Moon, Belgium-style beer which we drank without complaint.

Since Skyway was my pick, it was my job to attempt to recite our order, badly mangling the Malaysian pronunciations of them, to our waitress. Thankfully she pointed out that there were numbers attached to each item sparing me further humiliation and especially helpful when I had to pronounce the appetizer, Skyway poh piah, a spring roll steamed and stuffed with jicama and served with a hard boiled egg, in this instance the egg just happened to be purple. Mike from Yonkers snared the purple egg and shrugging, pronounced nonchalantly that it tasted like an ordinary egg.

Gerry recognized beef rendang on the menu; a familiar item from our experience at the Indonesian, Upi Jaya; Skyway’s version was a bit less fiery, but no less palatable. To expand on our menu, the waitress suggested the hot and spicy crabs, but not the ordinary crabs—she insisted that we would like the “big crabs” much better. We knew that “big crabs” meantmore expensive crabs but she was so sincere, we couldn’t resist. It would be worth the extra money not to have to use micro-surgery to remove the meat from the smaller crabs. Along with the big crabs, she pushed a fish to round out our meal; our choice from the restaurant’s tanks was tilapia or striped bass. We went with the former and had it prepared steamed in a hot bean sauce. To make sure we had our daily consumption of green vegetables, we ordered a plate of kang kung belacan, watercress-like greens sautéed with a sauce made from shrimp paste.

The Skyway in Malaysia

By the time the monstrous plate of crabs and the whole tilapia crowded our table, we were ready for another round of beer, this time we did get the Macau, though after a few sips I was immediately nostalgic for the Blue Moon. Eugene was suddenly silent and Zio oblivious to any conversation as both worked diligently, picking through the spicy crab, while we made quick work of the tilapia, and is our custom, saving the tender cheeks for Rick. As if we hadn’t eaten in months, the feast was greedily devoured and though the dessert options, ginkgo nuts with barley and buboh chacha, sweet potato and yam with coconut, were intriguing, we were done. After sucking out the last bit of crab from shell, Eugene proclaimed that Skyway was “our type of place.” But only Eugene could really explain what that meant.

The Skyway near Skyway Malaysian in Manhattan

*Despite Eugene’s pessimistic prognostication, his Red Sox won the World Series a month after our dinner at Skyway.

Malaysian Zoloft

1 Feb

I tried to stay away from politics and/or timely events while writing this recaps of our restaurant experiences, but this one, November 4, 2004, was just too close and fresh to just ignore. And in the case of Malaysian Rasa Sayang, our experience was affected by those events.

Malaysian Rasa Sayang


The rain was coming down hard—a sense of gloom had enveloped the city and was evident even in multi-ethnic Elmhurst, Queens. It was two days after the election of 2004. We had not planned this dinner to be a post-mortem, but the chance was always there and now it was up to Zio’s well-researched selection of Malaysian Rasa Sayang to boost our sagging spirits. Eugene was the first to arrive and it was evident that his spirits were far from sagged: he didn’t care that Bush recaptured the White House, all that mattered to him was that his Red Sox finally did in the Yankees and won a World Series.  Eugene was in prime form to sample the cuisine of Malaysia. And, so were we all—anything to divert us from the sad political reality of the day.


The menu featured 183 items plus 16 house specials, but Gerry’s eyes zeroed immediately in on the crispy pork intestines appetizer which he demanded we order. No one was in a debating mood and maybe a big plate of crispy pork intestines would zap us out of our collective funk. I was intrigued by item number 9, simply called “rojak,” described as a “cool delicious crunchy medley of pineapple, cucumber, jicama, and mango cubes with squid & shrimp crackers and our intensely flavoured shrimp-paste & pulverized peanuts.” Intense flavor is what we always seek, so rojak seemed like a natural. The popiah roll, a steamed roll filled with shrimp, tofu and egg was Zio’s recommendation while I suggested the roti canai,  a pancake-like bread served with a curry dipping sauce.

Intestinal relief.

The pork intestines, thankfully accompanied by two dipping sauces, was the first dish to arrive. They were followed by the popiah roll, the roti canai, and finally, a big plate of rojak, which certainly lived up to it’s intensely-flavored billing.

With help from our waiter, who had the look of an aging horse jockey, we began ordering more from the vast menu. He steered me confidently to the kang kung with belecan Sauce, kang kung, he explained as being the Malaysian equivalent of watercress. He also suggested number 66 on the menu, chow kueh teaw, which he claimed were noodles “very popular in Malaysia.” Zio, for some unknown reason was committed to the sarang burong, described as shaped fried taro with shrimp, chicken, and mixed vegetables topped with cashews while Eugene insisted on beef renang, cubes of beef shank slow cooked to “perfect tenderness” in a rich dry curry sauce.  Gerry settled on number 78, the steamed fish with bean sauce.

Kang Kung

In no particular order, the dishes arrived on our round table. The kang kung, looking like something found growing wild on the shores of the Amazon, was sautéed with garlic   had a crunchy, though not impenetrable consistency. The whole fish, a tilapia, taking up much of the space on the table, sat on a huge platter covered in a sweet and spicy bean sauce while the sarang burong appeared like hollowed out gourd stuffed with vegetables, shrimp, and chicken. Lastly came a big bowl of beef rendang, a fiery, Asian version of beef stew. I’m not sure of the exact moment, but it could have been when I was carefully excising a fish bone from the back of my throat when Eugene, as if we were interested, informed us that he once rode a bus to Radio City Music Hall driven by former New York Yankee, Joe Pepitone’s cousin.  It was soon after that, maybe when soaking up the sauce from the beef rendang in the coconut rice, when we all learned, also by way of Eugene that this day also happened to be Ralph Macchio’s (The Karate Kid) 43rd birthday. It was tidbits like these that made Eugene such a fountain of knowledge.



Again, as is our custom, all the plates were picked clean, including the skeleton of the tilapia. Our taste buds had been intensely flavored and for a few hours at least we forgot about the uncertain future. But then we walked out into the rain. And speaking for myself, it would take a few more meals on the level of Malaysian Rasa Sayang to ultimately remove the bitter taste in my mouth.

Now more than a full election cycle and a half since our dinner at Malaysian Rasa Sayang and it’s almost as if nothing has changed in terms of our “uncertain future.” The future for  Malaysian Rasa Sayang was even worse than uncertain. It is no more replaced instead by a Thai restaurant.

Fire on Grand Street

16 Nov

When we visited Nyonya in early 2003, before the internet food site explosion, the Malaysian restaurant, though located in Little Italy a few doors from the great Di Palo Fine Foods, was still somewhat under the radar. At the time, it had a following, but nothing like it does now. It was our group’s first experience with Malaysian food and the unadulterated heat that distinguishes it.  We like unadulterated—heat or otherwise—so Malaysian food became one of our most repeated cuisines.

199 Grand Street
Little Italy

Zio confided that he had many options for our upcoming food destination, but the thought of crispy pork intestines, beef tripe noodle soup, fresh fish head cooked with lemon grass, and sooi pooi (sour plum) drink which Nyonya, the place he ultimately chose, offered, was too enticing for him to pass on. So all of us, Eugene excepted, who was on a Caribbean cruise and most likely at work on the unlimited buffet line, assembled in the bustling tiki-hut like restaurant in Chinatown. We were the few non-Asians in the restaurant; a very promising sign.

The menu was extensive and when not entranced by the bloated fish swimming in the tank behind our table, we had to concentrate on the task ahead: what to order. Crunch time came and all Zio could come up with after the promise of a variety of organ meats in coconut milk was the relatively conventional mango chicken. Eugene was probably experiencing more exotic fare on his cruise.  Zio’s selection was vociferously vetoed and after much urging switched to the more adventurous, kari ayam, described in the menu as chicken cooked over low heat with lemongrass and chili paste and simmered in thick rich coconut curry. Charlie stuck with chicken as well and gambled on the Hainanese chicken, steamed (room temperature) with a chef’s soy sauce. Gerry ordered the kang kung belacan, which translated meant sautéed “convolus” with spicy Malaysian shrimp paste sauce. We had to ask one of the dozen or so waitresses who were attending to our table for the translation of “convolus,” and were told that it was Malaysian string beans. Rick showed his fortitude by ordering cheng-lai stingray while I went with the comparatively mundane curry spareribs.



It wasn’t that the promise of gargantuan main courses was not enough for us. It was that Nyona’s appetizers looked much too good on paper to pass up. So we started with the so-called “Malaysian national dish,” roti canai, an Indian pancake with a curry chicken dipping sauce. Chicken satay and Poh Piah, a Malaysian spring roll stuffed with jicama and minced shrimp rounded out our first courses. To drink there was Chinese beer for most of us while Zio insisted instead on the fresh coconut juice. When his drink arrived in half a real coconut and a big straw, we wondered why the pink umbrella was missing.  Zio, oblivious as always, cradled the coconut in his hands and sucked the juice from the straw. We looked at him for a moment, savoring the absurd sight, and then went back to our beer.

The parade of waitresses began piling the food on our table almost immediately and just as quickly we began to devour it, eating the roti canai with our hands, dipping it into the murky, but very tasty curry, pulling at the tender satay, and wondering over the jicama in the spring roll. Rick’s sting ray (a.k.a. skate) was the first entrée to arrive and we picked at the perfectly cooked flesh, dipping it into a fiery sauce. At Nyonya, fiery was the theme; the curry spareribs particularly sinus-clearing while Zio’s chicken, also very spicy and falling off the bone. In fact, all of the food, including the sautéed “convolus” which tasted nothing like string beans, wax beans, green beans or anything else we had previously encountered, was hot with the one exception of Charlie’s wan-looking “room temperature” chicken, which many at the table found unappealing; though Gerry and I thought it’s blandness was the perfect antidote to the heat in the other dishes.



We worked through all the food at the table with only a few pieces of the above-mentioned Hainanese chicken remaining—and no volunteers to take it home. Our stomachs bloated, no one even mentioned dessert…not even the usually insatiable Zio. In Eugene’s absence, I was left to do the math and after tip and including drinks, we came in one dollar over our $20 budget—meaning, excluding the drinks, that we actually came under budget.

A few years ago Nyonya moved across Grand Street to a shiny new space. It also branched out to Brooklyn with two locations. I’m not sure if now Nyonya would qualify for our group. Too popular. Really almost a chain with three branches in the city. But that is now, and the above was then and none of us had any complaints about what we experienced in 2003.

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