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A Volcano Fizzles in Port Chester

17 Jan


“Nello Burgio told me about this volcano thing,” Eugene muttered as the waitress of Kiosko Mexican Restaurant and Bar hovered around him, ready for him to order. Eugene, based on the recommendation of Nello Burgio, who none of us knew, had summoned us to Port Chester, about a 40 minute drive out of Manhattan, for this latest Chow City adventure. And though I had very good Mexican food in Arizona just a few days earlier I was determined to keep an open mind in Port Chester where, I knew, there were many good Latin restaurants.

“Volcano?” She didn’t understand Eugene and it had nothing to do with a language barrier.

“Yeah, that’s what he said.”

While this went on, we sipped our Modelo’s patiently. “Eugene, just order already,” I finally told him.

The waitress came over with a takeout menu. “You mean this?” she asked, pointing to a photo of a molcajete, or a Mexican bowl used to make guacamole, overflowing with meats and vegetables.

“Is that the volcano?”

She nodded. “Yes ‘molcajete azteca’ the Volcano. $21.95. $40 for two people.”

“Any volunteers?” Eugene asked. “Nello says this is what you should order when you come here.”

I didn’t know Nello from Adam…or anyone else for that matter. And I wanted no part of a $40 volcano. Zio and Gerry showed little enthusiasm also, but Mike from Yonkers raised his hand willingly and even switched seats with Zio so he could be closer to Eugene and the forthcoming volcano.


The volcano

As if we had all night to spend in the suburbs, Gerry made sure to order the one dish that, according to the menu, took “30 minutes to cook,” the mojarra sudada, a wrapped and steamed whole porgy with garlic and epazote (Mexican tea leaves). Why would it take 30 minutes to steam a fish—and not a big one either—none of us dared ask. But we did know that the fried porgy filet that Zio ordered would not take as long nor would the huaraches atilxco rib eye steak that I ordered. “You can bring our entrees before you bring out that fish. Make him wait,” I said, pointing to Gerry.

And after a half hour and nothing had materialized on our table besides chips and very mediocre salsa, I realized my request fell on deaf ears.

Finally the “volcano” was brought carefully to the table. Yes there was “smoke” coming from the molcajete which was overflowing with beef, chicken, strips of cactus and stuffed with some sort of clay-colored lava-like sauce within. The dish reminded me of the Mexican version of the Chinese sizzling Go Bar, but after a taste, minus the sizzle—not to mention the flavor.

I could smell the steamed porgy even before it came to our table. I didn’t know if that was a good or very bad sign. I wasn’t going to find out, but Gerry didn’t seem to have any problems with it. At least not that I heard about later. Zio’s fried fish was accompanied by a serious mound of steamed broccoli and carrots causing him to protest: “What is this health food I’m eating tonight?”


Steamed porgy…30 minutes later

My steak arrived last. The sizable cut smothered in onions, resting on a salsa-covered tortilla, dare I say looked—delicious, but after sawing through the gristly meat, taking a not so flavorful bite and then trying the soggy tortilla, my formerly open mind had closed on Kiosko. My opinion is strictly my own, but judging from the lack of enthusiasm from Eugene and from everyone else for that matter, I think the consensus was pretty much in line with mine.


Steak and onions, Kiosko style

The lesson learned in Port Chester, if there was one, is that what’s good for Nello Burgio just might not be good for the seasoned palates our intrepid group.

Kiosoko Mexican Restaurant and Bar

220 Westchester Avenue

Port Chester, NY

The Guacamole Redemption

21 Jun


I was on a crowded Metro North train during rush hour. Commuters were making their way back to their suburban Westchester homes. It was standing room only—and I was standing. I wasn’t happy about that. I wasn’t happy that Gerry summoned our group out of the city and to the sleepy hamlet of Valhalla to a place called Kensico Kitchen.


The train finally pulled in and I joined the throngs exiting and heading to their cars in the parking lot. Just across the street from the train station and the Taconic parkway, I could see our group sitting on makeshift picnic tables on the sidewalk in front of Kensico Kitchen on Valhalla’s tiny main strip. The “Kitchen” was really a deli; New York lottery signs and tickets were plastered to the window along with stock photos of deli sandwiches, bagels, wraps and other traditional bodega/deli items. What had Gerry lured us into?


Though no menus were in front of us, Mike from Yonkers proclaimed that he was up for a ham and cheese sandwich. A ham and cheese sandwich? Was that why I rode the commuter special to this godforsaken sleepy hamlet?

“Are there menus?” I asked Gerry.

He shook his head. “The food will be coming,” he said and pulled a cold Corona out from a six pack at his feet and handed it to me. That was a good start.

When one of the owners of the Kensico Kitchen, apparently a Mexican family Gerry was familiar with, came to our table with a molcajete overflowing with green salsa and cilantro, things were beginning to get even better.


molcajete with salsa

“Guacamole coming,” the man said and soon it did come along with a massive platter of chips covered with an assortment of empanadas, beef, chicken and vegetable.


The platter had Mike from Yonkers rise in excitement and move around from his seat to eagerly shovel chips, salsa, guacamole and empanadas on his plate.


Eugene, fresh off his whirlwind, Southern Italy and Sicily tour where he proudly proclaimed: “We had pizza everyday…sometimes twice,” had no trouble veering to equally carb heavy cuisine of Mexico, devouring a plate of chips, guacamole and empanadas.


Nachos and chips topped by empanadas

One of the women in the family came to our table to tell us she would be bring us either chicken mole or pernil with chili rellenos poblano. “What about the adobo?” Gerry inquired.

“You want adobo too?” She checked with him. Gerry nodded. For him more was almost always merrier.

We were scraping up the remains of the guacamole and chips when plates began arriving; a quarter of a chicken in a red adobo sauce, some shredded pernil (pork) and a mound of yellow Mexican rice and refried black beans. As an accompaniment to our gargantuan plates, we were also served a platter of fried poblano chilies stuffed with queso.  As if we didn’t have enough; two plates of half chickens in a rich dark mole sauce were also presented, “so you can try the mole too,” our waitress cheerily said.


Adobo chicken, pernil, et al

Despite his strong start, Mike from Yonkers fizzled early leaving enough food on his plate to take home to his hungry wife. But he was the exception. Already weighted down by the empanadas and guacamole, I did admirable work clearing my plate, but all I could attempt of the chicken mole was a small forkful while the others showed what made them the gluttons they were devouring all that was placed in front of them.


Poblano chili relleno

My earlier sour mood was long gone now. I no longer cared that I had to commute to the suburbs for dinner—it was more than worth it. “I think we can all agree that after this inspired pick, we can erase that stain on your record.” I said to Gerry, referring to his unfortunate choice of a mediocre Mexican joint in Yonkers where we were treated to cookie cutter Mexican food and worse, serenaded by a Mariachi band (Mariachi Blues). “The misstep is now forgiven. You are redeemed.”

But my proclamation fell on deaf ears, drowned out by the blasting horn of a Metro North train as it rushed its commuters to Brewster…or Pawling…or some other suburban hamlet where, if they are lucky, there will also be a deli serving bagels, wraps, ham and cheese sandwiches, and mole and adobo.


Chicken mole

Kensico Kitchen

6 Broadway

Valhalla, NY



The Mole-A in Astoria

25 Nov

De Mole

Since moving to Astoria several years ago, Zio has brought us to a number of that neighborhood’s fine dining establishments. Who can forget the greasy Greek macaroni at now defunct Uncle George’s (The Greek Uncle)? Or the stupendous fish market cum restaurant, Astoria Seafood (The Ash Wednesday Fishing Expedition)? Or, the Afghani restaurant under the R train tracks (Eating Like an Afghan Family in an Afghani Restaurant in Astoria)? It was Zio’s turn to pick our destination and again he kept us in his comfy locale with a Mexican place called De Mole that was just a few doors down from another of Zio’s choices, the tiny Bosnian grilled meat joint Ukus (A Bosnian Taste in Astoria).

From Zio we expected something gritty where the waiters communicated with hand gestures, the lighting was bright, the menus and napkins of the thin paper variety, and the food prepared in a kitchen where we would never dare tread. Instead, when I arrived at De Mole, I was greeted by one of those obtrusive “A” grades on the big glass window storefront. Inside the restaurant was dimly or “moodily” lit; there were fancy marble tabletops and silverware was arranged on each neatly assembled burnished wood table.

“The tamales are real good here,” Zio boasted as our group of five settled in. Our efficient waitress spoke impeccable English and took our drink orders while we perused the menu that was stocked with standard Mexican dishes.

We started with an order of tamales; one with the self-proclaimed mole, the other with a salsa verde. The tamales came steamed, wrapped in corn husks, and prepared lovingly. The mole version was dry and Zio asked for accompanying salsas. I slathered some of the “rojo” or red hot sauce on hoping to revive the otherwise lifeless tamale. The verdes con pollo  tamale, or chicken with green sauce fared better than the mole, but still needed an infusion of extra salsa verde.



“What’s spicy here,” Gerry asked the waitress hopefully. She suggested the enchiladas rojas con pollo and Gerry quickly ordered it.

“I think I’ll just have some tacos,” Zio said, the boredom in his voice evident from a man who, many times, had eaten the tacos at De Mole.

“What kind,” the waitress asked.

“Oh—the slowly cooked goat of course,” Zio replied as if she had to ask.

I veered from the tacos, burritos, tortas, and quesadillas on the menu to try one of the “platos principales;” my choice being the tinga de puebla translated to mean beef brisket stew. It was an abnormally cold November night—I craved a stew of any kind.

Mike from Yonkers chose the classic pollo con mole Polbano while Eugene ordered the same, but wrapped in a burrito along with a carne asada taco.

"Slowly" roasted goat in a flour tortilla.

“Slowly” roasted goat in a flour tortilla.

Our food came promptly; everything assembled tidily.  No one said much about what they were eating except Gerry who acknowledged his enchiladas were, in fact, spicy. Our waitress brought us a “complimentary” bowl of salsa with chips; the salsa also lacking heat or any real flavor at all.

The mole at de Mole

The mole at de Mole

The beef stew was hearty; the brisket shredded into thin strands accompanied with yellow rice and very good black beans. But where was the Cholula hot sauce when you needed it? De Mole unfortunately was that kind of place. Good, but lacking the grit our group strives to find.

Walking with Zio down 30th Avenue, you could sense his resignation. Almost admitting, without saying so, that De Mole was a disappointment; not what he usually strives for. No one complained. No one chided him on the lackluster choice. We all have off days. We knew Zio. We were confident he would do better next time.

De Mole

42-20 30 Ave


South Bronx Comfort

21 May


When you read menus or recipes that claim to be classic American comfort food, meatloaf, hot dogs, hamburgers, fried chicken, turkey with stuffing, mashed potatoes and corn on the cob are the usual suspects. I’m not here to debate what constitutes American comfort food. I am here to report that one of those items usually on the American comfort food list; macaroni and cheese, I recently sampled at a small take-out joint in the South Bronx called Landin Macaroni and Cheese and Pizza. And I can decisively state that what I sampled at Landin, prepared by Mexican chefs, was possibly the most comforting macaroni and cheese I’ve ever had.

Nine options and three sizes.

The Mac and Cheese menu.

At Landin there are nine different macaroni and cheese options that come in three sizes: mini, small, and large. The mini, at $1.50 is the perfect portion if you want to try multiple macaroni and cheeses. And with nine to choose from, you will most certainly want to try more than one. I thought it was my duty to experience the Classic American to see how it might compare to other classic macaroni and cheeses. And it compared superbly. The elbow macaroni was rich with creamy cheddar and American cheese, the top, toasted to a golden brown.

The "Classic American"

The “Classic American”

Since Landin was run by the skilled hands of Mexican Americans, that more than justified my choice of the “Mexican” option.  The combination of pepper jack and muenster cheese along with a few tiny bits of shredded chicken and chopped spicy jalapeno peppers was a revelation.

The devouring of the "Mexican."

The devouring of the “Mexican.”

Eating two portions of macaroni and cheese, even if they were mini seemed decadent enough for me, but I couldn’t resist taking home the “small,” which was big enough to share with a family of four, of the “bacon,” option, mozzarella and muenster with pieces of chopped salty bacon. Again, Landin did not disappoint.

The "small" bacon to go.

The “small” bacon to go.

Oh, and I can’t forget the pastelillos. There they were; glistening under glass; beef, chicken, cheese and spinach. How could I resist? I had a beef and spinach tossed into my bag as well.



The damage was totaled on the cash register. All that creamy, delicious starch came to under $10. You really can’t get more comfortable than that.

Cinco de Mayo Tacos on Veinticinco de Abril

1 May

Los Portales Taqueria
25-08 Broadway

Cinco de Mayo was more than ten days away, yet Rick used the Mexican heritage celebration as his reasoning for choosing the Astoria-located, Los Portales Taqueria as our next eating destination.

A few hours before our assigned dining date, however, I received a text from Rick saying his boss was “urging” him to have dinner with him in New Jersey. So instead of celebrating an early Cinco de Mayo at a taqueria in Queens, Rick was in Newark eating red meat at a Brazilian steakhouse.

And it some ways, it was a good thing. As it was, we had to squeeze an extra chair around the biggest table at Los Portales to fit the five of us. If Rick were present, one of us would have had to eat at a separate table, which, depending on who was the odd man out, was not necessarily a bad thing.

Just beyond the portales of the taqueria was a cauldron of meats along with a burnt red glazed slab of pork (al pastor) on a spit. All of it looked authentically promising though that was expected when in Rick’s initial email declaring our destination he wrote “don’t try to call them—English is limited.”

A cauldron of meats.

The menu covered all the basics: tacos, cemitas, tortas, burritos, tostadas, quesadillas, and assorted familiar platters like pechuga de pollo, bistec en salsa rojo, and fajitas. There were also bonus items that we had no interest in like wraps, “hamburgesas,” vegetarian specials, and hard shell tacos.

Despite the limited English, hand gestures and finger pointing made ordering very easy. We started with two orders of guacamole. They came on plates with chips sticking out of the bright green mounds of guacamole like Mayan temples. With the guacamole we also tried the grilled green scallions, some so big they were more like spring onions; the char bringing out their sweetness.

Grilled scallions

Zio quickly gravitated to the oreja taco, known in English as pig’s ear while I started with a saudero (veal flank). Sprinkling some of the restaurant’s red salsa on it, I devoured the taco quickly. Zio was a little more hesitant with his pig ear taco, however. The tiny pieces of chopped ear were so smooth it was as if the pig had them waxed. Gerry noticed that Zio had left an assortment of the ear pieces on his plate. “You’re not eating those,” he inquired.

“What? You want some?” Zio wondered. “You can have them if you want.”

Gerry shook his head. “No, they’re all yours.”

“Thanks,” Zio muttered.

Pig’s ears tacos

Who am I to judge on what another man orders at an authentic taqueria? So I tried to keep my mouth shut when both Eugene and Zio chose the pedestrian chicken fajita. Gerry went a bit more adventurous with the chilaquiles with huevos; a variation of huevos rancheros; the eggs served over cut corn tortillas and doused in a green tomatillo sauce.

My choice; the al pastor cemita, a fresh sesame seeded roll stuffed with chunks of the burnt-red roasted pork, avocado, cheese, and salsa rojo was so good I plan on scouring the nearby taquerias of East Harlem to see if  the sandwich can be replicated thus saving me a subway ride to Astoria.

Al pastor cemita

While the rest of us had long finished, Mike from Yonkers was deliberately nibbling at whatever it was he ordered that included shrimp, and from what I could make out, also peppers and onions, and lots of them. The eating of the meal was a studied process. He would break off a small piece of the tortillas that came with his meal, scoop some shrimp onto it, add a little rice, then some beans, a drizzle of one of the salsas; sometimes green, other times red, and then slowly chew, swallow and then repeat the process.

When he finally finished, he abruptly headed to the rest room. His absence was not immediately noted; the hysterical clamoring from a Spanish-language comedy Zio dubbed the “Mexican Honeymooners” that played on the television in the restaurant distracting us from Mike from Yonker’s wherabouts.

When we were no longer amused by the bizarre comedy on the television, Zio proudly whipped out a card. “Do you know what this is?” He asked waving it in front of us.

None of us had a clue.

“With this I can get into the subway at half price,” he said. “One of the many advantages of becoming a senior citizen.”

Like Zio, Mayor Bloomberg is also very proud of his senior citizen metrocard.

Zio’s senior citizen metrocard held our interest for a few minutes more and when the thrill receded, I realized the seat next to me remained empty. Mike from Yonkers had been gone for a long time. “I hope he’s alright,” I said and as if on cue, he emerged from the rest room.

“Everything okay?” I asked

He sighed; his face a bit sallow. “Um…I forgot to tell you. I had Mexican food for lunch. Enchiladas.”

Mike from Yonkers’ downfall

With that admission, we all looked at each other. There wasn’t much to say. If a man wants to celebrate Cinco de Mayo ten days before the actual holiday with a double dose of Mexican food that is his right. But, still, we didn’t have to stick around to witness the potentially nasty consequences of such a decision. And with that we parted company.

Mariachi Blues

26 Jul

Plaza Garibaldi
134 Nepperhan Ave

The Mariachis of Plaza Garibaldi: Mexico City

Named after what is supposed to be a picturesque square in Mexico City where mariachis gather to perform, the Plaza Garibaldi where we were directed to by Gerry was far from picturesque. Located at the bottom of a dark hill lit only by the very bright neon of the next door Kentucky Fried Chicken, Plaza Garibaldi was Gerry’s choice, so we, of course, were in unfamiliar terrain. The destination was alien to most of us with the possible exception of Mike from Yonkers whose home turf we were now on. And despite the unfamiliarity, none of us got Lost in Yonkers except Mike from Yonkers, who, without any worthwhile excuse, arrived almost a half hour later than our designated meeting time. His tardiness did not stop him from devouring the slightly rancid, though highly addictive bowl of chips along with an accompanying lifeless salsa. Even Zio’s proclamation that he “killed a lot of cockroaches” on the street where Plaza Garibaldi was located did not stop us from stuffing our faces with the slowly sickening complimentary chips and salsa.

The Mariachis of Plaza Garibaldi: Yonkers

The large, garish restaurant was already decorated in anticipation of Valentine’s Day with cupids and hearts everywhere. Even the front cover of the colorful menu with a mariachi on horseback serenading a swooning senorita implied romance. But the mariachi stage was bare on this day and, along with the constant presence of the Yonkers’ police force, radios on alert while waiting for take out, put a damper on romance. So much so that the lone seller of roses was having a difficult time making a sale to the few customers in the restaurant. And all it took was one glance at our group and he moved on, taking his roses with him to try his luck at KFC.

Plaza Garibaldi

Plaza Garibaldi was a tip from Gerry’s client and contractor and I think we’ve learned that it can be dangerous to rely on tips from outsiders—the track record has not been good. But the bad chips and salsa aside, the selection of tacos we started with was encouraging. We had pork meat tacos, goat meat tacos, Mexican sausage tacos, beef steak tacos and aged beef tacos—though what made aged beef different from the traditional beef steak was lost on us.

And the KFC next door.

Despite the promising beginning, problems soon began to arise. Rick’s shrimp cocktail came in a tall sundae glass and was almost as sweet as that dessert, while the chicken in mole poblano Gerry ordered, coated thickly in a chocolate brown mole sauce, was like Rick’s shrimp sundae, just too sweet. Eugene did his best with the beef enchilada in green sauce but much of the concoction smothered in cheese and tomatillo salsa remained on his plate as did the “quezidilla” I ordered from the list of specials; this one stuffed with cheese and a mysterious pickled green vegetable. But the absolute proof that Gerry’s client had led us astray was the shock of seeing half of Zio’s chicken burrito untouched. Only Mike from Yonkers, maybe out of loyalty to the town of his moniker, seemed satisfied, deliberately but completely finishing off the enormous plate of “spicy seafood” he ordered. The final insult to injury was the tab—we exceeded our $20 limit though the beers we ordered and Zio’s regular over consumption of diet Cokes could have accounted somewhat for the overflow.

A Selection of Plaza Garibaldi’s offerings.

After our leaden meal, only Rick, possibly because of the ice cream sundae promise that was his shrimp cocktail, entertained the idea of ordering an ice cream or Popsicle advertised from the bright illustrations displayed above one of the restaurant’s counters. But in the end, even he declined.

Literary Tacos

30 Nov

We visited El Paso Taqueria, which is chronicled below, in the summer of 2003. It was the first Mexican restaurant we had been to since forming our group. I remember being very surprised as well as upset that soon after Charlie circulated his choice with the other members, the New Yorker magazine came out with one of their restaurant blurbs on, coincidentally, El Paso Taqueria.

El Paso Taqueria
1643 Lexington Ave
East Harlem

Charlie didn’t know that the New Yorker magazine would scoop him on El Paso Taqueria. If he did, he surely would have looked elsewhere to take the group. Once a restaurant is written up by the New Yorker, the kiss of death has been delivered at least for our purposes. A cheap “ethnic” restaurant mentioned by the New Yorker pretty much guarantees that there will be a major change in both clientele and attitude at the restaurant and that was, apparently, the case the night we visited. As a result, our sense of adventure was immediately deflated. But there are other problems: the influx of bluebloods from the neighborhood a few blocks to the south called “Carnegie Hill”, and their incessant questions about what’s on the menu, what to order, how spicy is it, etc., can also breed resentment on a suddenly overworked staff; and  resentment can lead to petulance and impatience. Unfortunately, at El Paso Taqueria, that scenario was playing out for us.



Our listless waitress asked if we wanted guacamole to start, as if we had a choice. Guacamole? Now if she asked us if we wanted the “corn fungus,” that was described in the New Yorker or a “flor de calabaza” quesadilla we would have been seriously impressed. Instead, we got guacamole which turned out to be her final suggestion for us. We were on our own, but maybe, in this case, that was okay. Zio wasted no time and actually restrained himself here and only ordered a mere six varieties of tacos, including tripe and tongue. The mention of tongue prompted Eugene, as if he had rehearsed it, to repeatedly state that he only had one preference for “tongue.” His sniggering comment got a minimal chuckle the first time we heard it, but he persisted with his sad routine until it soon became background noise. I delved in with an order of sopes; a thick tortilla covered with various meats and topped with soft cheese. Of the “platos tipicos” or typical plates, we all were interested in the mole poblano, and the “famous puebla stew.” Could we go wrong if it was so famous? Charlie suggested the “adobo de puerco,” spare ribs in a hot and spicy sauce, and Gerry opted for the exotic “cecina asada” salted beef with cactus jalapenos and onion. Was it enough, we asked the waitress? She shrugged.

It was enough. Everything came at once making the table look like one giant open-faced taco. Most of the dishes, certainly the tacos and sopes looked alike, with the meat simmered in a tomato and pepper sauce and sprinkled with cotija cheese. Only by sampling the meats, could you tell the difference between the tongue and the salted beef or the tripe and the spicy pork. The mole poblano was dark and rich with chocolate while Gerry’s salted beef was extremely high on the spice meter. Charlie’s spare ribs were an interesting variation, but at least from this experience, ribs are not what they do best in Mexico. The stew, with chicken, tomatillos, peppers, and potatoes, was hearty and comforting, but we still wondered what made it famous. Dessert was strawberries in whip cream or bananas in whip cream. We tried both. And, though nothing very exciting, they were a refreshing end to the meal.



From the New Yorker blurb, we learned that El Paso Taqueria began as a lunch truck feeding the Mexican immigrants that were new to the neighborhood of East Harlem, offering a quick, inexpensive and authentic taco or two before getting back to work. The lunch truck became so popular it sprouted the restaurant on 104th and Lexington where we were and a new one on 97th between Madison and Park. But after eating in the restaurant, I think the lunch truck, where you can savor one, two, or maybe three or four tacos at a time, is probably the best and most authentic way to enjoy the food and flavors of El Paso Taqueria. And you don’t even have to order the guacamole.

Looking back on what I wrote, I see how I let being scooped by the New Yorker cloud my summary of our El Paso Taqueria experience. I was hard on the restaurant though it was no fault of theirs. All I could do was complain that the guacamole was pushed on us and that the tacos looked alike. I’ve since reformed my ways and even have an El Paso Taqueria take out menu in my possession which my family uses as our first option when it comes to having Mexican delivered to our home.

The newest El Paso Taqueria complete with cevicheria and scaffolding.

Like the growing Mexican population in East Harlem—they now are the largest immigrant group in that community surpassing Puerto Ricans and Dominicans—El Paso Taqueria has grown as well. There are now three El Paso Taqueria outlets, including one on 116th Street and another across the street from the original that advertises a “cocktail list” and a “cevicheria.” For the record, there was no ceviche or cockails on the menu when we visited. The original location where we dined has been turned into a take-out taqueria (see photo above).  They also have a colorful website and a new, flashy lunch truck proving that, along with a pretty good taco, there’s nothing like what a little publicity from a renowned literary magazine will do for business.

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