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Vanquished by Halal Vapors on Homelawn Street

15 Jan

Sagar Chinese

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

Indian Chinese

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

Even the fried chicken...

Even the fried chicken…

...and the heroes on Hillside were Halal.

…and the heroes on Hillside were Halal.

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

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

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

No one disputed.

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

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

The resilient paneer pakoras

The resilient paneer pakoras

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

Masala Chow Mein

Masala Chow Mein

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

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

Gobi Masala

Gobi Masala

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

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

The vapors.

The vapors.

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

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

"Time to go."

“Time to go.”

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

Sagar Chinese
87-47 Homelawn St
Jamaica

Today’s Special

9 Jan

IMG_3134

 

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

The Fusion Files Follies

7 Dec

 

curry king 003

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh, that’s no more,” the voice said.

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

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

“No?”

“No one wants it.”

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

“What about the hot and sour soup?”

“Soup?”

“Yes, the hot and sour soup.”

“I have that,” he said.

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

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

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

Pakistani? Indian? or Bangladeshi?

Pakistani? Indian? or Bangladeshi?

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

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

“Hot and sour?”

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

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

Chicken soup on far left.

Chicken soup on far left.

“We can make it hot,” she said.

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

 

 

Biryani Joy

6 Dec

Rawal Ravail
641 Lydig Avenue
Bronx

A little bit of Pakistan in the Bronx

The din from the uptown/downtown 2 and 5 trains on the elevated tracks above White Plains Road was really nothing more than background noise to the constant cacophony that resonated in the frantic Morris Park section of the Bronx where Gerry had summoned us. It was our third straight session in that borough proving that the Bronx could hold its own with Queens and Brooklyn in ethnic food diversity. This time we were to sample Pakistani food; strictly Halal; meaning no pork and no alcohol.

Located next to the Islamabad Deli, an uplifting message on the Rawal’s window read: “Everyone brings joy to this restaurant. Some when they enter and others when they leave. Thank you. Management.”

Forced joy is not one of my strong points, but I told myself to at least make the effort. The lone person inside the restaurant—a young man wiping down a table—didn’t even notice me or my joy as I entered. Compared to the frenzy outside, even with the babble in Urdu coming from the gigantic flat screen television tuned to a Pakistani television station, inside it was calm.

The news from Pakistan was from what I could translate, not good.

No one else had yet arrived and due to a last minute work engagement where pork might be served and alcohol most definitely would be, Rick had already bowed out. Soon the others arrived including Eugene, who was daringly dressed in short pants.

Rawal’s only menus were of the take-out variety and we quickly discovered, pretty much useless. The dour owner begrudgingly had our group come with him to the steam table where he could explain what was available that day. There he pointed to each tray where there were various curries; chicken, goat, and kidney/liver, two vegetable dishes, three solitary small grilled fish, a tray of bright red chicken tikka, and another of chopped grilled chicken. He lifted up the rice containers; two biryanis and one with plain white basmati rice.

The process was more complicated than it should have been. To make things easier, we had him fix each of us a platter with a sampling of some of the dishes. And this he did with not a trace of joy.

Rawal Ravail’s steam blurred steam table.

Within a few minutes, a female server in traditional Pakistani dress, brought us a plate of lettuce, tomatoes, cucumbers, chilies, and a raita dressing. Soon, the man in charge returned, accompanied by his female helper with our individual plates and five, Frisbee-sized loaves of nan bread. Each curry, goat, chicken, and liver and kidney, were fiery. Even the channa (chick pea) and cabbage curry was hot. The only respite from the spice was the rice and bread. All the curries were delicious, but, with the exception of the unique texture of the kidney and liver, very much alike and, crowded on our platters, they bled together making them somewhat indistinguishable.

Channa and cabbage and…biryani

Despite the heat, we quickly devoured our plates with the exception of Mike from Yonkers who was deliberately picking at his liver and kidney, dabbing each forkful into the cooling raita. We tried to be patient and display some level of dining etiquette, but Eugene and I could wait no longer.

While Mike from Yonkers continued to maddeningly play with his liver, we headed toward the entrance of the restaurant where there was a display of sweets including a few that were alarmingly colorful. Among them was a tray of milk where blobs of dough bobbled, a pink rice pudding, an orange coconut pudding, and a carrot orange sweet along with a white, nut-filled sweet. Eugene took a bite of the latter and proclaimed it second only to the “lima bean dessert” we had years ago at a Filipino restaurant in Queens, as the worst dessert he ever tasted.

Dessert offerings.

Zio added that the carroty orange thing had a distinct cardboard taste. Everyone agreed that the orange coconut pudding was the best of the bunch, though Gerry had no complaints about any of them and what no one else would touch further, he piled in front of him to quickly finish off.

The tab; well below our group’s $20 per person allotment left plenty of leeway for a generous tip despite the lackadaisical service. And after handing over our cash to the owner, for the first time that evening a smile was apparent on his face. The message on the window, prophetic, for we indeed, upon our exit, brought joy to the restaurant.

Our tip left the staff of Rawal Ravail extremely joyous.

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