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Panic and Perseverance in a Peruvian Restaurant in the Bronx

21 Oct

La Granja

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

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

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

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

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

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

He nodded. “ Yes, stomach.”

“I think he means tripe,” I said.

“Ah, trippa,” Zio intoned rhapsodically.

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

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

Does that look like "stomach" to you?

Does that look like “stomach” to you?

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

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

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

Jalea Personal

Jalea Personal

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

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

Arroz con mariscos

Arroz con mariscos

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

La Granja

La Granja

500 E. 149th St.

Bronx

The Big Ceviche Chill

26 Nov

El Miski

I had my gas tank full even before Gerry announced where we were to meet. There would be no doubt that he would have us (Zio and I) travel to Westchester.  And that county has more than its share of Chow City standouts (Chalanas) being the most the recent example. Unfortunately, El Miski, located in White Plains, which Gerry dubbed as El Miskito in his email to us was not one of them.

After dodging an obese panhandler claiming he was hungry in front of what looked like a former diner, I entered El Miski to find Eugene waiting inside. The front of the restaurant was narrow with a few small tables, booth and a counter with red swivel stools. The woman who was to be our waitress took us through the room, past a full festive bar still in Halloween regalia with the bar stools up on the bar, and into a big, frigid back room where one long table was centered. I sat, keeping my jacket on and zipped to my neck.

A bar only an evil clown could love.

A bar only an evil clown could love.

Zio walked in next, covered in a large goose down jacket making him look even more rotund than usual. In the cold room, he had the courage to unzip the jacket. Our waitress got on a step stool to turn the television on to a telenovela—maybe hoping the steamy drama would warm the room.

Gerry arrived next and as he sat down, his jacket still on, mentioned that the owner of El Miski was a client of his. Whether that was a good thing or not, we would soon find out.

“Gerry, do they have heat in here,” Eugene asked as if Gerry, because he chose the place and also because they were one of his clients was responsible.

“It’s not that cold,” Gerry said; his lips a bluish gray color.

Mike from Yonkers filled out our group; keeping the collar of his heavy fleece high up on his neck as he sat.

When the waitress came over with menus we asked about the heat. In her struggling English she explained that she just turned it on and that it should warm up soon.

One of the first Peruvian restaurants our Chow City group experienced was the tremendous, but now defunct, La Pollada de Laura (Cooked in Corona) in Queens. We have yet to replicate that experience including the Peruvian Chinese restaurant, Chifa, we visited on our most recent expedition (The Big Chifa of Northern Boulevard). The menu at El Miski was similar to what I could recall from La Pollada de Laura; a number of ceviche options, lomo saltado, jalea, and various mariscos dishes; some with fried rice, others with potatoes, and even a few with yucca. There were also special that included tallarin also known as Peruvian spaghetti, but more like lo mein noodles. After the unfortunate experience with Peruvian/Chinese at Chifa, none of us thought it smart to chance the tallarin dishes.

Gerry ordered the table a ceviche “mixto,” along with an appetizer recommended by the very affable waitress of mussels on the half shell. We learned well after asking for recommendations and some of us making our choices based on them that our waitress was new on the job—in fact it was her first week working at El Miski.

Ceviche mixto

Ceviche mixto

“They have good bread here,” Gerry said as we worked through the tart ceviche and mussels; both served cold.

“Are they gonna bring us any?” I asked.

Gerry shrugged.

By the time the various seafood dishes we ordered arrived, I was able to unzip my jacket. But as soon as I moved my fork through the mound of fried rice, soggy potatoes, and equally soggy fried fish, shrimp, and squid that made up my “saltado pescado, I had to stop and swat at an army of gnats that were hovering around my plate. I added each of the three hot sauces to my dish, pale green, green, and red, hoping the spice would keep the gnats away, but more seemed to arrive.

Pescado saltado

Pescado saltado

I noticed Mike from Yonkers also swatting at them—and Gerry and Eugene. If they were cruising over Zio’s picante de mariscos (seafood in a special Peruvian sauce) he didn’t seem bothered. He was, however, wary of the pinkish special Peruvian sauce. “It’s like Velveeta,” he mentioned, though not in a derogatory way.

Seafood with Peruvian Velveeta

Seafood with Peruvian Velveeta

“This place used to be called the ‘Oasis,’” Eugene, whose knowledge of White Plains’ past is legendary, said.

“Yeah, I heard rumors about it that this back room was used for…,” Gerry said.

“What???” Zio’s fading hearing had suddenly revived.

“Girls,” Gerry said. “A whorehouse.”

Eugene nodded. “That was the rumor.”

Our waitress returned and asked if we wanted more plates, napkins, water, beer, another ceviche…anything.

We told her we were good.

“What about dessert?” She asked.

Even though the gnat attack had not ceased, Gerry went ahead and ordered us a few Peruvian sweets including a dense bread pudding.

Bread pudding

Bread pudding

“Anything else? More beer. Cake?” Our smiling waitress inquired after we dug through dessert.

Eugene asked for the check, but before she went to tally it up, she told us that men come on weekends and use the back room.

“And there are women too,” she said innocently and with a smile. “For the men.”

Gerry raised a bushy eyebrow and looked at each of us. The look reminded me of the final shot in the original  The Taking of Pelham One Two Three, of Walter Matthau who realizes he just nailed the final accomplice in the subway robbery.

Did she say what we thought she said???

Did she say what I thought she said???

None of us dared inquire further; instead we surrendered to the invisible gnats and settled the check before heading back out onto the silent streets of White Plains.

El Miski
73 W. Post Rd
White Plains.

The Big Chifa of Northern Boulevard

22 Oct

 

Chifa

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sopa pac pow

Sopa pac pow

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Duck soup

Duck soup

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

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

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

Tai pa

Tai pa

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

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

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

No soup for you!

No soup for you!

Chifa
73-20 Northern Boulevard
Jackson Heights, Queens

 

 

Cooked in Corona

23 Nov

A few weeks before our trip to La Pollada De Laura, we visited a Thai restaurant in Woodside called Arunee. At the time in 2003, the legend of Sripraphai, the most famous Thai restaurant in Queens, was already cemented. Arunee, on the other hand, in Jackson Heights, was still comparatively undiscovered until Eugene steered us in its direction.  The meal, I recall was spectacular, but, unfortunately it was one of the few, due to a family emergency at home, I never reported on. Queens was our destination again, and what follows is our experience at a Peruvian restaurant called La Pollada de Laura.

La Pollada de Laura
(R.I.P)

Zio’s misadventures driving around Jackson Heights searching feebly for Arunee, the Thai restaurant we last visited, convinced him to take the subway from his love nest in Astoria to our next destination, La Pollada de Laura in Corona.  I also planned on the subway, the 7 train, and before leaving we tried to coordinate it that we would meet at the 103rd St Corona station. To help we came equipped with cell phones.

The Peruvian restaurant Rick chose was located on Northern Boulevard. Having been in Corona only once, when my car broke down on the Long Island Expressway many years ago, I was clueless as to how to get to Northern Boulevard. The Colombians, Mexicans, Dominicans, and others Latin American immigrants were out in large numbers around Roosevelt Avenue on this pleasant Spring night, but getting an answer to my question; which direction was Northern Boulevard, spoken in English, did not produce immediate results. I tried calling Zio’s cell phone but another 7 train had rumbled into the station above muffling any chance I had of communicating with him. Finally, using sign language, I was pointed in the direction of Northern Boulevard. Once clear of the elevated tracks, I was able to make phone contact with Zio who had already found the restaurant. As I made my way the very long five blocks to Northern Boulevard, Zio and I had a running commentary on the bustling neighborhood where even the music from the ice cream trucks had a Latin tinge to it.

Gerry and Eugene were seated and the music was blasting as I entered La Pollada de Laura. Rick soon joined us and after Eugene regaled us with stories of his Times Square Madame Tussaud’s experience, as if we were interested, we were just about ready to order. The menu featured numerous ceviches, a Peruvian staple. Eugene, without elaborating, was determined to sample leche de tigre, otherwise known as “Peruvian Viagra.” The very friendly waitress happily explained the lore of the dish; that among its health benefits was an enhancement of male virility. Not that anyone of us, with the possible exception of Eugene, believed her, but it was the sweetly innocent way she explained it that made us order not one, but two leche de tigres.

Rick had mentioned that the owner of the restaurant, Manny, would help us decide what to order from the menu. But Manny had not arrived, so it was up to the ever-helpful waitress to recommend how we should proceed. Instead of a few different ceviches, she suggested we go with the ceviche mixto, which had a little of everything; fish, octopus, squid, shrimp and conch. I’ve had the famous Peruvian pollo a la brasa (roast chicken) at other Spanish restaurants, but wanted to try it here. We also ordered a jalea grande, a mix of fried fish, shellfish, potatoes accompanied with a salsa criolla, and with a nod from our waitress, lomo saltado de carne; beef with slices of onions, tomatoes and French fries.

While we waited, we were brought a pre-meal snack; tiny pieces of purple, salted corn kernels. They went well with our Peruvian beer, Cusquena. The leche de tigre was first to arrive at our table. Large shrimp and half a blue crab hanging over a tall glass filled with a milky liquid; the “tigers’ milk.” I immediately tasted a spoonful of the liquid—the “leche”—was the juice used to marinate, or “cook” the fish with lemon, lime, cilantro and peppers. And there was only so much of that juice you could actually drink without “cooking” the inside of your own mouth. Virility, male or female, was most definitely needed to down a big glass of leche de tigre.

At most of our food adventures, once the food begins to arrive, there is little room on our table. But we eat quickly not only because we can’t help ourselves, but because the quicker we eat and dispose of a platter, the more room will be found at our table for another entrée.  This night was no exception.  The delicious lomo saltado was devoured before the ceviche mixto even arrived, but still, our table was crammed with a whole pollo a la brasa and a monumental-sized mound of jalea, fried mixed seafood cooked to perfection.  When the ceviche arrived, we found room on the table for the equally large portion; the squid, octopus, fish and other seafood tenderly marinated, smothered in red onions and swimming in the lemon juice.

Manny eventually showed up and brought us his homemade hot sauce. Ignoring Manny’s warning of its intensity, Rick smothered his ceviche with the sauce and soon the sweat was flowing alarmingly from his forehead. Finishing what was on the table seemed impossible, but given time we did not disappoint. We even had room for dessert, trying Manny’s recommendation, mazamorra morada, a crimson-colored gelatinous mess that prompted Zio to make a comment about blood, brains, and shotguns. Though collectively not to our liking, Eugene could not resist mentioning that it was better than the infamous beans of halo halo from Ihawan, the Filipino restaurant we visited a year ago.

Amazingly, all of what we ate came under our budget and then some. As Zio and I tried to walk off the meal in the four blocks to the subway, we wondered how, with prices like that, La Pollada de Laura could actually stay in business. Before either of us could respond, the sound of the number 7 train drowned out any hope of further conversation.

In the book I write about New York City, I recommended pairing a meal at La Pollada de Laura with a visit to the nearby Louis Armstrong House Museum, where the jazz great lived from the 1940’s until his death in 1971. Unfortunately, several years ago, La Pollada de Laura closed thus answering our 2003 question wondering how they could stay in business considering the prices they were charging.

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