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Papa’s Karaoke in the Kitchen Blues

23 Nov

papas

“Are you ready to sing,” Beth, the hostess of Papa’s Kitchen asked me as I entered the empty, yet cozy Filipino restaurant on Woodside Avenue in Queens.

I was the first to arrive and her question to me caught me off guard. Zio had chosen this restaurant but with no mention of singing—or worse karaoke singing.

“Sing?” I shook my head. “No, but I am ready to eat.”

“Oh but you have to sing too,” she insisted

What had Zio gotten us into? I was debating whether to take off my jacket and stay or rush back to my car, but Eugene, Mike from Yonkers and Zio arrived before I could leave, thwarting my escape.

I glared at Zio. “Are you ready to sing?” I asked him. He saw the microphone. He saw the television with the Karaoke, both Filipino and English hits, strolling down. “What the…” was his startled response.

Eugene and I kept our heads safely down as we scanned the menu. Zio hesitated. Unbelievably, he was actually contemplating the karaoke thing.

“What about ‘My Way’?” Beth suggested. “Elvis or Sinatra.”

“I don’t know. Do you have ‘Get a Job’ by the Silhouettes?”  Zio asked for some bizarre reason.

Beth checked the seemingly endless scroll of possible songs, but couldn’t find the doo wop hit.

“What do you recommend to eat?” I interrupted hoping to get Beth off the karaoke obsession and onto what our task at hand was.

She ignored me and continued to press us into singing. Zio, displaying weakness of character, capitulated. He took the microphone.

“My Way?” Beth asked.

He nodded. What followed sounded like the vocal emissions of a man in serious bowel discomfort. My appetite was waning as rapidly as Zio’s sorry vocal chords. The end was definitely “near” and we all, thankfully, faced the “final curtain” on Zio’s rendition of “My Way.”

IMG_5259

“Can we please now order some food,” I barked.

“Who’s next?” Beth inquired, again totally ignoring my plea.

Finally, Eugene and Mike from Yonkers stepped in and Beth had no choice but to give us advice on what to order.

“Let’s start with Dynamite?” Mike from Yonkers asked.

Whatever dynamite was, it was listed as one of the appetizers and we wanted it.

What appeared soon after were thin crispy fried rolls stuffed with jalapeno and vegetables, served with a sweet, garlic chili sauce. And we ate them on plates adorned with banana leaves.

Papa's Kitchen

Dynamite!

Along with Dynamite, we settled on lechon kawali, deep fried pork belly, sitaw kalabasa, beans and pumpkin in coconut milk, the bicoli express, pork loin sliced in a stew of coconut milk and lastly, pancit palabok. When I asked about the pancit palabok, Beth mentioned that the noodle dish was more for Filipino tastes. Whatever she meant by that just confirmed our insistence in ordering the dish.

While we waited for our entrees, Beth once again tried to enlist our usually stoic group from the scourge that is karaoke. And once again, one of us succumbed. This time it was Eugene with a screechy, nails on the blackboard, rendition of “House of the Rising Sun.” Making it even more painful, was the accompanying video, a series of shirtless, buff Filipino men dancing and gesturing to languid, seemingly very bored, females.

Papa's Kitchen

Relax folks, it’s only a microphone.

The deep fried pork belly arrived to quell our collective indigestion from the Karaoke debacle and the addition of a pungent liver sauce was a more than welcome condiment to the crisped fatty meat.

Lechon Kawali

Lechon kawali

After sampling the pancit palabok, rice vermicelli noodles coated in aromatic sauce of fermented shrimp paste and garlic we understood Beth’s hesitance in recommending the dish to those not familiar with such funky exotica. To us, however, it was a revelation. The same, however, could not be said for the uninspired bicoli express, a stew of overcooked pork in a mild coconut milk broth. A similar, but much more flavorful coconut milk broth was the base for the sitaw kalabasa and the result was much more satisfying.

Pancit Palabok with sitaw kalabasa in the background.

Pancit palabok with sitaw kalabasa in the background.

“Now that you are finished eating, what songs will you be singing,” Beth asked hopefully.

There was only one song left and it was sung by Eugene. Without the aid of the microphone, Eugene smiled and sang those two precious words: “Check please.”

 

Papa’s Kitchen

65-40 Woodside Avenue

Woodside, Queens

Dissing Some Dim Sum

17 Sep

Nan Xian

“Okay, a heads up. We will meet in Queens for damn sure since I’ll be in the borough that day.”

This was written by Mike from Yonkers in an email just a few days before his long anticipated marriage. He was announcing to our group that his pick of our next food adventure would be somewhere in Queens. He just didn’t know where yet. Why he would be in the borough that day, we did not know at the time.

We found out after his extended honeymoon that we would meet in Flushing, on one of our more popular addresses: Prince Street, site of the Prince Noodle House (The Noodles on Prince Street) and more recently, Fu Run and its famous lamb chop (Eating a Muslim Lamb Chop During Ramadan in a Chinese Restaurant in Flushing). The restaurant chosen: Nan Xian Dumpling House, also known as Nan Xiang Xiao Long Bao.

Gerry and I slogged through the nearby US Open traffic to make it to Flushing just in time. Eugene took the train from Westchester; Zio the subway from Astoria. We were all assembled, waiting for our host for the evening, Mike from Yonkers who, apparently, was somewhere in Queens. The menu of dim sum looked promising. There were even photos adorning many of the offerings to help us decide. We were hungry and Mike from Yonkers had not yet arrived.

“Uh oh,” Gerry muttered, looking at his cell phone. “This is bad.”

“What now?” Eugene barked.

“’I’m stuck at the tennis center,’” Gerry read from a text just sent from Mike from Yonkers. “’I don’t think I’ll get there until very late if at all,’”

We looked at each other. A cloud of disgust was forming on Eugene’s already dark visage. “You mean he is watching tennis instead of coming here?” Eugene growled. “That’s as bad an offense to the food group that we have ever experienced.”

I nodded. “Yeah, it’s not good,” I said though wasn’t sure it was as severe as Eugene thought it was.

“So we eat without him,” Zio said with a compromising shrug.

“No, there should be a price to pay,” Eugene replied but thankfully didn’t pursue the previously mentioned by him, kangaroo court idea. We were here to eat, not to deliberate on penalties for bad food group etiquette.

Dim Sum dissed because of this?

Dim Sum dissed because of this?

As it turned out, Mike from Yonkers made a very good pick. It was his loss that he didn’t get to experience the scallion pancake with sliced beef that was so good we had to order it twice. Or the steamed crab meat and pork buns that quickly brightened Eugene’s mood and had him remark that they were “better than Joe’s,” meaning Joe’s Shanghai signature soup dumplings.

I really couldn’t say if the pork and crab meat buns, which were actually soup dumplings, were better than Joe’s or not. I was having a hard enough time keeping the soup within the dumplings from squirting out onto my already food-stained jeans. Still, what I could capture, the soothing soup paired with the distinctive fresh crab meat/pork combination, ignited happy food sensations within my mouth that demanded more of the same.

Crab meat and pork buns/soup dumplings

Crab meat and pork buns/soup dumplings

After the first round of dim sum plates were devoured and without hesitation Gerry said: “What’s next?”

We were ready for dim sum round two which had to include another order of the scallion pancake with sliced beef; the mix of beef, crispy fried pancake, scallions and sweet hoisin sauce a revelation. Along with the scallion pancake, we added a plate of rice cake with pork and preserved mustard, the rice cakes, bland pale spheres speckled in amongst the greenery. The Shanghai pan fried udon noodles looked attractive in the menu photos so we ordered a plate, and to offset the starch, two cold vegetarian dishes: soy peas, cabbage and shredded bean curd and cucumbers and garlic.

Rice cake, shredded pork and preserved mustard

Rice cake, shredded pork and preserved mustard

None of the dim sum disappointed and with our appetites finally satiated—well almost—Gerry snared the remaining chunk of scallion pancake; the only morsel of food left, “No sense in leaving it,” he said, we called for the check.

The  lone slice of scallion pancake before snared by Gerry.

The lone slice of scallion pancake before snared by Gerry.

Examining the total, Eugene shook his head and gave us a rare smile. “All that and a beer too for under $20. Perfect.”

“And you have Mike from Yonkers to thank,” I told him immediately regretting my words.

“Oh, I’m gonna let him have it tomorrow. Can you believe he didn’t show up at his own pick?  That’s got to be the worst offense we’ve ever experienced. It was bad enough Gerry missed the last dinner because of a Yankee game. But not making it for your own pick for tennis…” Eugene was rambling, but once we spilled out of the restaurant and onto the street, the overhead convoy of landing planes at LaGuardia, thankfully, drowned him out.

Nan Xiang Xiao Long Bao

38-12 Prince St.

Flushing

Tibetan Obsession

30 Jul

Punda Tibetan

“Do you have a special affinity for the people of Tibet?” I asked Eugene when I met him on 47th Avenue in Sunnyside, Queens a few minutes before we were scheduled to dine at a place chosen by Eugene called Punda Tibetan?
“No. Why?” Eugene asked, perplexed by my question.

“Then it’s the food you like? Something about the momos?” I asked, referring to the Tibetan dumplings we’ve had before courtesy of Eugene. (See Momo Moments in the East Village)

“What?” Now he was really confused.

“Well, this is the third Tibetan place you’ve chosen since we’ve been picking,” I said. Along with Himalayan Café, Eugene also brought us, many years ago to Himalayan Yak ( See Yak Under the Tracks).

“It is?” He truly had no idea.

“And it’s not like Tibetan food is like…say…Chinese or Mexican.”

He shrugged. “I wanted a Greek place, but it was too expensive,” he replied. “So I found this one.” He was oblivious that, of all cuisines, he had latched onto the food of Tibet.

There were only four of us dining on Tibetan on this sultry summer evening. Rick was having chronic babysitting issues back at his Jersey money pit while Gerry opted to attend a “business” meeting at Yankee Stadium instead of coming to Sunnyside and eating more momos. “Really, Gerry?” Eugene scolded in a brusque group email to him when Gerry informed us of his decision.

Bush and the Dali Lama? Who knew?

Bush and the Dali Lama? Who knew?

The air conditioning was minimal in Punda Tibetan so even before we were brought our appetizers of shabhalap, a Tibetan version of empanadas, filled with meat and spices, and phag, small fluffy pieces of bland barley dough that were to be dipped into a savory meat gravy, we were beginning to sweat.

Phag

Phag

Adding to the sheen on my forehead were the abundant roasted chilies in the jhasha khatsa, a spicy chicken stew, I ordered. The side of Basmati rice helped douse the flames but an even better fire extinguisher were the two fleshy mounds of tingmo that accompanied Eugene’s dish of phing sa, a beef noodle stew.

Jhasha

Jhasha khatsa

“Oh we have play dough,” Zio said cheerily upon the arrival of the tingmo.

“Play dough or maybe the beginnings of the Pillsbury dough boy,” I said.

“What do you do with it?” Eugene asked our bewildered reticent waitress.

Using her hands to communicate, she showed us that the tingmo was to be torn with your hands and used to dip into the stews.

Tibetan Play Dough

Tibetan Play Dough

Mike from Yonkers even dipped some of the dough into his already starchy stew of cottage cheese or, as they say in the southern regions of Tibet: “paneer.” But after tasting the paneer at Punda Tibetan, the cheese had more of the consistency of tofu.

“At least there’s no tilapia here,” Zio commented as he slurped down his spicy Shabtak, a beef stew better suited for the harshness of the Himalayas than a sultry summer evening in Queens.

Shabtak

Shabtak

Once finished and after wiping the sweat from our collective brows, Zio limped wide-legged out the door of the restaurant into the equally steamy street. “I think my underpants are stuck to my ass,” he announced as if we needed such information.

“I already know the place I’m picking next,” Eugene declared as we headed down the street.

“Will it feature tingmos or momos?” I inquired, but Eugene didn’t bother to answer.

Punda Tibetan

39-35 47th Avenue

Sunnyside, Queens

Eating a Muslim Lamb Chop during Ramadan in a Chinese Restaurant in Flushing

30 Jun

fu run

“Massage?” A tiny Asian woman, cell phone clamped to her ear, asked Eugene as he and I walked down Prince Street in Flushing.

“No thank you,” Eugene responded politely.

“Massage?” She asked again as she walked briskly behind him.

“No…no thank you,” he again patiently answered.

She continued her plea; wanting desperately to give Eugene a massage, but Eugene was not having it.

We had just finished feasting at Fu Run restaurant located also on Prince Street in bustling Flushing, where we could see and hear the  parade of  jets just above us descending onto the nearby LaGuardia runway .

Gerry had chosen Fu Run, finding a particular cuisine our group had not yet experienced called Dongbei, from the northeastern region of China. We were seated at a round table near the doorway and next  to a raucous group of Asian men drinking pitchers of beer and eating huge platters of meats and fish that none of us could identify—but wanted..

“You want to ask them what they are having.” I said to Gerry.

“I don’t,” he responded with a shake of his head for added emphasis and went back to look into the notebook that was our menu featuring an assortment of color photos of the dishes.

The photos in the menu were all impressive and made ordering difficult, but the standout picture was a spice-crusted piece of meat called “Muslim Lamb Chop.”

Muslim Lamb Chop

Muslim Lamb Chop

“Since its now Ramadan,” Gerry said, “we really should order it,” meaning the Muslim lamb chop. And I would have ordered it whether it were Ramadan, Passover, or Ash Wednesday, its look appealing very much to my secular appetite.

While Mike from Yonkers was spending a half hour searching for parking, we took the liberty of ordering, starting with steamed leek and pork dumplings. Along with the Muslim lamb, we added a “home style” fish with minced pork,” shredded pork with black bean sauce, and to offset the abundant meat proteins, sautéed pea stems with garlic.

The dumplings promptly were placed on our table and, after sampling, were pedestrian at best, helped by dipping into the soy vinegar sauce that accompanied it.

Instead of crowding our table with all the entrees at once, we were brought one at a time beginning with the pea stems. Sautéed to tender perfection, we made quick work of them.

Pea shoot stems

Pea stems

Waiters in stiff white shirts and ties quickly cleared the pea stems and next the pork arrived. Somewhat sweet, the moist, crisp strips of pork were as good as any bar snack and went well with our beer.

A mountain of pork

A mountain of pork

Just as we were finishing the pork, the majestic and sizable Muslim lamb chop was centered on our table. The crust of cumin, chili peppers, sesame seeds and other Middle-Eastern spices obscured the chops that looked more like a half a rack of baby back ribs. Though Dongbei cuisine is not noted for its spice, after a few bites through the thick crust on the lamb, a slow burn along the lips and inside the mouth took over appealing to our masochistic tendencies. Each rib was hefty enough to satisfy our well documented appetites, but Mike from Yonkers went back for more; the ribs were piling up on his plate.

I was also tempted to add a few more lamb chop bones on my own plate, but waited instead for our “home style” fish which arrived soon after and I quickly used my chopsticks to separate the juicy white flesh from the fish’s carcass. Even with a few yet to be gnawed on lamb chop ribs on his plate, Mike from Yonkers attacked the defenseless fish, turning it over expertly so he could shovel the the substantial flesh on its underside into his already overflowing mouth.

Fish

Fish “home style”

Nothing remained on our table and though our bill was slightly higher than we aim for, no one was complaining. Well, almost no one with the exception of Eugene whose numerous complaints are an essential part of our meal time discourse. Without them our conversation would be even more mundane.

““What was she saying?” Eugene asked me as we got into my car, referring to the woman chasing him down Prince Street.

“She wanted to give you a massage,” I told him.

“Why would she want to do that?” He asked, incredulous.

“I guess you look tense,” I said.

He looked at me; his dark eyes glowering. “Tense? Me?”

I said nothing instead concentrating on maneuvering the car away from the numerous garbage bags that were overflowing onto Prince Street and out of the congestion that was Flushing.

Fu Run

40-09 Prince Street

Flushing

The Arepas of Astoria

28 May

arepas cafe

“Haven’t we been here before?” Eugene queried via email after Zio announced his choice, Arepas Café, conveniently located in his home base of Astoria.

“No,” I responded. “We’ve had cachapas, empanadas, and patacons from that Venezuelan place in Inwood (Stalking Corn on Dyckman Street).  But we have never had a Venezuelan arepa.”

“The Colonel and I ate there about five hours ago,” Zio told us in his email. “It was good, but I had to use hot sauce.” Not the most glowing praise, but time was running out and he had to make a pick. And we had to eat.

“Isn’t there a rule that you are not supposed to eat at the place before we all eat there?” Eugene bellowed as we convened, snuggled tightly together in the small restaurant.

“What’s with you and all the rules?” I said. “First you want Rick suspended for missing so many of our appointments and now you want to make it that we have to pick the restaurant sight unseen.”

“I don’t know, it feels like you’re cheating if you’ve been to the place.” Eugene said.

“Yeah, well maybe if you’d been to that falafel place near Columbia you wouldn’t have wasted our time that night.” I replied.

“Hey, he didn’t know what a falafel was until then,” Gerry chimed in.

We finally got off the subject of the rules of our group and glanced at the menu which featured a large selection of arepas, cornmeal or maize flatbread, stuffed with a variety of meats, vegetables and seafood.

“They have gazon,”  Mike from Yonkers announced.

“What’s that?” Eugene asked him.

“Baby shark,” Mike from Yonkers answered, reading from the menu.

“Ohhh, I want that,” Eugene declared.

“Ditto,” Mike from Yonkers said with a happy nod.

“Is it ethical to eat baby shark?” I asked the two. “Shouldn’t you let the shark have the opportunity to grow to be a feared predator before you eat it?”

“I don’t care. I want it and I’m having it,” Mike from Yonkers responded callously.

Would you eat a baby shark?

Would you eat a baby shark?

While Eugene and Mike from Yonkers ordered the baby shark, Gerry and I choose the “mami,” or roast pork with avocado and “white” cheese.

“I’ll try ‘Riccardo’s Tuna,’” Zio told the helpful waitress.

“Who is Riccardo?” I asked her. “And what makes his tuna so special?”

“My father is Riccardo,” she answered, shaming me to silence.  “He’s the owner. And the tuna, I don’t know, it’s just his favorite.”

We started with appetizers of mini cachapas, corn pancakes with melted cheese and asked for the mini empanadas with chicken, shredded beef, and the aforementioned baby shark.

As we sipped cold Venezuelan Polar beers, the waitress returned.
“I’m sorry, we are out of the baby shark,” said announced.

Obviously baby shark was a delicacy cold hearted New Yorkers could not resist. As Mike from Yonkers and Eugene looked to change their arepa orders the waitress quickly returned.

“I just talked to the chef,” she said. “We do have the baby shark for the arepas, just not for the empanadas.” So they would have their baby shark after all.

The cachapas and the empanadas, minus the baby shark, came out first. The tiny cachapas were indistinguishable, but the empanadas were the perfect accompaniment to the beer. The golden-colored cornmeal crust had a delicate crunch to it and the shredded chicken and pork stuffing lightly seasoned and moist. But like Zio had warned, hot sauce was needed to complement the flavors.

Mini empanadas

Mini empanadas

The arepas were bursting with meat, and/or tuna and baby shark. The avocado and “white” cheese added a freshness to the hearty shredded pork. But again—hot sauce was needed.

“I don’t know, this just might not be enough for me,” Eugene said after devouring his arepa.

Gerry, of course, agreed. “I think another arepa is needed.”  And both ordered mixed seafood arepas.

Arepa "mami"

Arepa “mami”

“And can I have a tres leche cake,” Zio asked tentatively as if the waitress might just deny him his request.

“Me too,” Gerry said to the waitress before he even got started on his second arepa.

“Alright,” I conceded. “I’ll have the house salad.” I told the waitress.

“Some Italians eat their salad before the main course,” Zio offered as if questioning my choice and my heritage.

“Yeah, and some after,” I countered.

“I don’t know. Everywhere I’ve been the salad always comes first.” Eugene said as if settling the subject.

Whether settled or not, the subject was not worthy of further discussion and everyone, with the surprising exception of Mike from Yonkers who abstained from either a second arepa or a dessert, went to work on their encore dishes, quickly consuming them to oblivion.

Rompe Colchon (mixed seafood arepa)

Rompe Colchon (mixed seafood arepa)

As Eugene tallied up our bill he crowed about how good his arepas were. And then he looked at me. “But really? Who orders a house salad in an arepa place,” he said, shaking his head. “I think that might be against our rules…”

Arepas Cafe

33-07 36th Avenue

Astoria

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.

Tamales

Tamales

“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

Astoria

A Bosnian Taste in Astoria

16 May

Ukus

Not many food dives escape Zio’s nose—and stomach. And the power walks he takes through his neighborhood of Astoria require nourishment. No doubt on one of those power walks Zio sniffed out the scent of grilling meat coming from a small Balkan restaurant in ethnically-diverse Astoria called Ukus Pie and Grill.  The Bosnian word “ukus,” I learned can be translated to mean “taste,” and after a taste of Ukus’s “mixed grill” and bean and smoked meat stew, Zio was hooked and was soon a frequent enough visitor to be able to address the owner of the restaurant by his given name.

“Say hello to Fico for me,” Zio told the man, who was not Fico, but who was serving us on the night our group got together to experience what Zio had become well versed in.

“You picked a winner,” Eugene bellowed at the end of our meal and after tallying up the modest bill.

And none of the five present in Astoria on what was a pleasant spring evening could disagree.

On this rare occasion, Zio took charge. As familiar with the Ukus menu as he was with the 1977 New York Yankee lineup, he got up and ordered at the counter/grill starting us off with a tomato and onion salad, followed by a two slices of pie; phyllo-dough layered bread stuffed, in our case, one with cheese, and the other with cabbage. The “slices” so large and dense they could sustain a man for days during a harsh Balkan winter.

Cheese pie

Cheese pie

Hearty, crusty bread also came with the tomato salad and was the perfect vessel to soak up the juice from the tomatoes.

The man who was not Fico made it easy for our group by splitting one order of the bean and smoked meat soup three ways. We slurped from three smaller bowls; the smoked flavor of the meat intense; the broth rich with pureed white beans.

Bean and smoked meat stew

Bean and smoked meat stew

The platter of grilled mixed meats came out next. Dark, charcoal-colored meats including a kebab of lamb layered the plate with a piece of grilled chicken being the only exception to this red meat extravaganza. Eugene quickly speared a piece of one of the charred meats and shoved it into his mouth. A grimace soon followed.

“No…no…liver,” Eugene spat, the frown still on his face as he forced the piece of veal liver down his throat.

Hearing that there was liver on the plate brightened Gerry’s sleepy eyes and he quickly zeroed in on the much-desired organ meat.

All the meats were accompanied by a bland cream cheese and a yellow-orange sweet pepper spread.

Mixed grill

Mixed grill

Rebounding nicely from the shock of the liver, Eugene proclaimed his approval for the piquant pieces of sausage that were on the grill plate. “You know what these remind me of,” he said, dangling a speared piece of sausage in front of all of us. “Slim Jims…remember them.”

We did remember the pencil-sized cut of beef jerky sold individually in the delis of our youth, but frankly, I didn’t get the comparison. Still, Eugene made a point of repeating his claim until the dishes were all cleared from our table.

A Bosnian treat?

A Bosnian treat?

Wandering a few feet to the counter, we spied several dessert options. Again, Zio showed his leadership capabilities quickly picking out a slice of baklava and another, a sphere-like object that was described to us as a coconut cake stuffed with chocolate.

And, once more, after sampling the coconut cake, Eugene displayed his baby boomer knowledge. “Just like a Hostess…whaddya call them?”

“Sno balls,” Mike from Yonkers said, quickly filling in Eugene’s blanks.

Bosnian sweets (sno-ball on the right)

Bosnian sweets (sno-ball on the right)

I took a bite from the Bosnian coconut concoction.  It was there—that distinctive taste and something I hadn’t experienced in many years. A Sno Ball.

snoballs

The starch of the desserts was the perfect accompaniment to the protein assault from all that meat. And also the perfect finale.

To conclude, we often ridicule Zio for some of his food choices on foreign turf, but in his ‘hood, the man knows where to go to find the gold.

A Creole Chill in Cambria Heights

3 Feb

Brasserie Creole

I had maneuvered the car on top of a mound of snow. I hesitated before opening the door. The temperature was barely in double digits and the city had just been blanketed with a foot of snow. I was a block from our destination, Brasserie Creole, on Linden Boulevard in the Cambria Heights neighborhood in Queens. I finally opened the car door and shuffled tentatively on an icy sidewalk toward the restaurant chosen by Mike from Yonkers.

Before I got to the restaurant I noticed the “Handz of Godz” barber shop across Linden Boulevard. I fumbled with my camera, reluctantly taking off my gloves; my fingers practically useless against the cold metal of the camera. I clicked a few shots and then moved my camera to Brasserie Creole, which, according to the sign said “La Boisserie”

Who wouldn't want their hair styled by the "handz of godz?"

Who wouldn’t want their hair styled by the “handz of godz?”

As I was trying to focus in the limited street light, a voice in the dark called to me. “Hey, you. What are you doing?”

I ignored it at first. The voice, which had a Caribbean lilt to it, was not familiar and why would it be addressing me?

“I’m talking to you,” the voice said, making it clear who it was addressing. I turned to see that it was coming from a man in a parked car that had rolled down his window.

I wasn’t sure how to respond.

“I see you taking pictures around my neighborhood. Why are you doing that?” the man asked in a not very neighborly tone.

I was cold. I just wanted to get into the restaurant. I really didn’t know what to say to him.

“I…I…ah…I’m going to eat here,” I stammered, indicating Brasserie Creole, “I like to take pictures of the places where I eat.” He obviously was not familiar with the annoying food blog universe trait where everyone photo documents their meals; a trait I am admittedly often guilty.

“I know you are not from this neighborhood,” he added.

“No, I’m not,” I agreed.

I could see him nod from inside the car. “We need to know who’s in our neighborhoods. It’s dangerous out there.”

“Yeah, it can get dangerous,” I said with my own nod and shoved my camera into my coat pocket. “Now I’m gonna go eat.”

And with that I pushed open the doors to Brasserie Creole.

With the exception of a couple of patrons at the bar, the restaurant which featured a dance floor and small stage for live acts, a bar, and a dining area that wrapped around the dance floor, was deserted. We were seated at a table in the moodily-lit (meaning dark) dining area where cloth napkins were ornately tucked into stemmed water/wine glasses. Not a good sign for our unrefined group. And that I was still cold after taking off my winter coat, but keeping the other multiple layers on was another bad sign. Still I was excited. We were at a Haitian restaurant and though I’ve had Haitian food and liked it, for our group this was a first.

Cloth napkins and stemmed water glasses at Brasserie Creole.

Cloth napkins and stemmed water glasses at Brasserie Creole.

A tall man came by our table and introduced himself as “Alex.” He said he would help us with any questions about the menu.

He mentioned that the steamed fish was the most popular menu item.

“What kind of fish?” Zio inquired.

Alex thought for a moment. “It’s a big fish,” he said, opening up his arms to indicate how big. “The chef cuts it into slices.”

“Do you want to start with appetizers?” he asked.

There were no appetizers on the menu given to us.

“We can cook some up for you,” he offered.

“Sure, why not,” Mike from Yonkers said with a wide smile. “Make it enough for the five of us.”

Alex nodded and went into the kitchen.

It wasn’t getting any warmer in the restaurant as we waited. I was glad I was wearing long underwear, but even with two pairs of socks, I was starting to lose feeling in my toes. Our waitress and Alex returned carrying two large platters of assorted fried appetizers; calamari, chicken wings, accra (fried yucca) and fried plantains. On each platter was a small bowl of what looked like cole slaw but was actually a fiery hot sauce. The hot sauce was very welcome because without it the dense fried selection was just dull. We picked at the appetizers, leaving half of one of the platters untouched.

Two platters of fried appetizers with Haitian cole slaw.

Two platters of fried appetizers with Haitian cole slaw.

Taking Alex’s recommendation, three of us; Eugene, Mike from Yonkers and me, ordered the steamed fish while Gerry chose the fried goat and Zio the pedestrian. chicken Creole. We noticed people coming in out of the restaurant with orders to go and there were a few bar patrons eating, but it was primarily just our group that was keeping the kitchen busy.

Kompa, one of the many music traditions of Haiti, flowed from speakers on the stage as a sound technician worked on the audio equipment; the volume jumping between loud and not so loud. Over the music we listened and shivered as Eugene boasted about his upcoming Punta Cana all-inclusive.

“It has eight restaurants,” he said.

“Are you going to leave the property?” I asked.

He shook his head definitively.

“Yeah, and I’ll be in Puerto Rico,” Gerry announced out of the blue.

“When?” I asked.

“Tomorrow,” he said as if a trip to Puerto Rico during a polar vortex was no big deal.

Zio and I just muttered into our plates.

Thankfully the talk of tropical vacations was interrupted by our dinners—the portion of steamed fish placed in front of me enormous and accompanied with a family-style mound of rice and beans.

“This is the tenderest fish I’ve ever tasted,” Eugene shouted from the opposite end of the table.

The "tenderest" unidentified fish.

The “tenderest” unidentified fish.

It was tender; the flesh succulent and seemingly never ending. We may not have known the name of the fish we were eating, but after a few bites, we didn’t care. I piled some of the rice onto my plate and shoveled a forkful into my mouth. In the dark of the room, I hadn’t noticed the Scotch Bonnet pepper that was concealed within the rice and on my fork about to enter my mouth. Needless to say, the hiccups were fierce and a beer was very much needed to put out the fire.

Yet despite the heat of the pepper, my toes were still frozen.

“I can’t believe how much meat was on that fish,” Eugene again bellowed over the music.

Mike from Yonkers nodded his agreement as he slowly and methodically worked on the fish not caring that everyone else was done and waiting to get out of the frigid restaurant and into their comparatively balmy cars.

Feeling impatient eyes on him, he threw up his hands and announced that he was done.

But we weren’t done yet.

When our waitress asked about dessert, Zio couldn’t help himself and suggested we try the Haitian cake.

Apologizing, our waitress said they were out of the Haitian cake, whatever that was. So, thankfully, we all passed on dessert and began to assemble the layers needed to exit the restaurant when, from across the room, our waitress announced that she had “good news.”

“We do have Haitian cake,” she said.

The good news kept us waiting almost fifteen minutes for two slices of what was an ordinary, layer cake with colorful frosting. I had a few bites, but really couldn’t discern what distinguished Haitian cake from Dominican cake or any other cake for that matter. Most of the two pieces were left untouched especially after, along with the cake, we were brought our tab.

The remains of the Haitian cake.

The remains of the Haitian cake.

“We have a new record,” Eugene announced after tallying up the bill. “$38 per person.”

“Maybe now they’ll have the funds to turn on the heat,” I grumbled as we headed out into the polar vortex.

Only Gerry smiled. “Thank God. I’m finally off the hook,” he said. Our tab at Brasserie Creole had eclipsed the former record held by Bay Shish Kebab, the overpriced Turkish place in Sheepshead Bay, The Lamb in Sheepshead (bay) Gerry had burdened us with many years ago.

The next day Mike from Yonkers, still deflecting responsibility over the folly of his choice, sent an email explaining why we were way over our loose $20 per person budget.  He wrote: “I’ll have you all know that the love-of-my-life forgot to tell me that Haitians charge an arm and a leg for appetizers!  Could have been invaluable information, you think?” The “love of his life,” being his girlfriend, who, of Haitian descent, was the person who suggested Brasserie Creole for our group.

There was a lesson in there somewhere, I thought, but it had nothing to do with what Haitians charge for appetizers.

Brasserie Creole
22702 Linden Blvd.
Queens

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

 

 

Who is Tito Rad?

18 Sep

Tito Rad's

Rick was waiting in his vehicle on Queens Boulevard a few minutes before we were to convene at a Filipino restaurant curiously named Tito Rad’s. He was deep in text mode when I roused him from his stupor by banging on his side window. Startled, he juggled the cell phone before cradling it safely back into his hands after he noticed that it was only me and not a potential carjacker.

After missing practically six months of our eating adventures, Rick had been shamed back into circulation. Not that he was complaining especially after glancing at the menu inside Tito Rad’s that featured, among other Filipino dishes, grilled tuna jaw. We were at our capacity of six for the first time in a very long time and I planned accordingly, making sure I reserved a table.  When we entered, the table we were directed to offered us a view of picturesque Queens Boulevard where there were police flyers on every post detailing an assault that took place in the very early morning hours just a few days earlier. It was still daylight when we entered so none of us were concerned with our physical well being. Our concern was what to order from the intriguing menu.

Once we were all in attendance, the hostess, who I will call “Sadie,” came over and in a soft, melodic voice announced that she was there to help us through the menu. To give us anything we might want—that she was very happy and honored that we had chosen Tito Rad’s. And then she looked at Eugene. “Where are all of you from,” she asked.

“White Plains, New York,” was his gruff response.

“Yonkers,” offered Mike from….Yonkers.

“Astoria,” Zio said.

Gerry, sitting across from Eugene and close to where Sadie was standing, mumbled incoherently. He had no desire to divulge his living information and before Rick or me, who were at the opposite end of the table could answer, Sadie was on to something else.

“I just like to know who is in my restaurant and where they are from,” she continued as we tried to be polite and listen to her while also taking peeks at the menu. We were hungry and anxious to order.

“I say that because we once were robbed and the other day there was an incident just across the street in the park,” she said, referring to the police flyers, her soft melodic voice turning now into an monotonous drone.

As she went on describing the robbery that occurred several years ago, I had decided on appetizers for our group.

“And we also had, you know, one of those house invasions, so you need to keep your eyes open…”

I couldn’t wait any longer. “I think we know what we want to start with,” I said, abruptly cutting her off.

Sadie, taking no offense at my interruption, departed and sent over a waitress with a t-shirt that read: “Got Tuna Belly.”

We started with the ukoy, fried bean sprouts, lumpiang Shanghai, Filipino egg rolls, and an order of barbecued pork on skewers. Gerry whispered to the waitress that he wanted another appetizer, but wouldn’t tell any of us what it was he ordered.

Filipino chitterlings

Filipino chitterlings

The appetizers came out quickly and even when it became known that Gerry’s order, chicaron bulaklak, fried pork intestines, also known as Filipino chitterlings, no one protested and dipped in the house vinegar sauce, was a nice start to the meal. The same, however, couldn’t be said about the lumpiang Shanghai. The egg rolls were dry, stuffed with an unidentifiable meat saved only when drenched in the accompanying sweet and sour sauce. Thankfully the tender, succulent barbecued pork was there to offset the onslaught of fried appetizers.

Lumpiang Shanghai

Lumpiang Shanghai

The entree options were vast and the choices many, but I quickly chose a Filipino standard, beef adobo, while Gerry went with my second choice, kare kare, oxtail in a peanut sauce, and Zio, also preferring beef, ordered the beef kaldereta, a supposedly spicy version of beef stew. Eugene is a coconut milk aficionado and ordered the manok sa gata, chicken with ginger in coconut milk.

Getting inspiration from our waitresses’ shirt, Mike from Yonkers chose the tuna belly also cooked in coconut milk and Rick, maybe because Mike from Yonkers already chose a tuna body part, passed on the tuna jaw and decided instead on the grilled Pampano, also known as “butterfish.”

While our appetizers were cleared, Sadie returned to ask how we liked the food so far. We, of course, told her we liked it very much.

“I am here to help,” she repeated. “Anything you need us to do to make you enjoy your meal here we will do.”

The restaurant was busy; all the tables occupied with Filipino couples and families. It looked like business was good at Tito Rad’s yet Sadie was working us hard. The appearance of our entrees saved us from more “small” talk from Sadie. I quickly dug into the slow cooked moist beef adobo, tangy from the vinegar sauce and then sampled Zio’s beef stew, also tender and falling apart, the peppers and olives giving it a Latin flavor that is typical of Filipino cuisine but minus the spice advertised.

Beef kaldereta

Beef kaldereta

“This is the best thing I’ve ever had,” Eugene said of the beef adobo after tasting it. We weren’t sure if he meant the beef adobo was the best of what we ordered that night or the best thing he had ever eaten. No one bothered to ask him to clarify his proclamation.

After tasting Eugene’s chicken in coconut sauce, I can safely say that it was not the best thing I’ve ever eaten…and not even close to the best thing on our table that night, but I never announced that. The oxtails in the kare kare were lean and the meat easily separated from bone and tendon, but the peanut butter sauce was just too bland for me. The addition of very pungent shrimp paste helped liven up the dish.

Kare kare

Kare kare

The tuna belly and pompano came out last. Anticipation was high. Zio took a piece of the tuna belly as did I. I chewed. He chewed. I looked at him. He looked at me. He shook his head. “This is bluefish,” he said in an uncharacteristically loud voice. “There is no way this is tuna belly.”

“It does taste rather fishy for tuna,” I said.

“I’m telling you, it’s bluefish…”

“Okay, don’t make a federal case out of it,” I said, noticing that Sadie was approaching and not wanting Zio to possibly upset our very good-natured host with his bold accusation.

Tuna belly or...

Tuna belly or…

The Pampano was—butterfish and grilled simply. Rick making sure, as he always does, to dig out the tender cheeks for himself.

“I hope you liked our food,” Sadie said as she stood by our table, her tone never wavering. “We always want to make sure our customers like our food. We are appreciative that you have come here today and hope that you will come again soon…”

Zio nudged my leg under the table. I got the implicit message.

“What do you suggest we get for dessert?” I quickly interrupted her.

“Well that’s a good question, it depends on what you like…”

Zio gave me another look.

”I think he might want to try the halo halo,” I said, indicating Eugene.

Halo halo is part of the now 11-year lore of Adventures of Chow City. Back in the first year of our group’s existence, we gathered at a Filipino restaurant not far from where we were on this day called Ihawan, and for dessert, Eugene sampled the halo halo (see The Beans of Halo Halo). At almost every meal since that one at Ihawan, he has made it a point to state that the halo halo was the worst thing he’s ever eaten—as opposed to the beef adobo, which we learned today was the best.

“How can you put lima beans in a dessert?”  he wondered incredulously.

Maybe sensing Eugene’s aversion, Sadie did not suggest the halo halo instead indicated that the “Tito’s Delight,” a sampling of three desserts, the avocado shake, and the fried sweet banana with ice cream would be a good choice for us.

Eugene was skeptical—especially about the avocado shake.

“In our country, we eat avocado like a fruit,” Sadie explained.

Avocado shake

Avocado shake

And in a shake it was remarkable; the best of the three desserts brought to our table. There was no halo halo revulsion, but the fried banana did get Zio to remark that it looked identical to the unfortunate lumpiang Shanghai.

“Who is Tito Rad?” Mike from Yonkers asked Sadie as we were reaching into our wallets to pay.

“Oh, one of those names is my nickname,” she answered coyly.

“Which one?” Eugene inquired.

“Well my friends know,” she said, a sly smile on her face.  “But I don’t know you well enough to tell you.”

None of us pressed her on it, instead we handed her the check with our money and thanked her for her attentive service.

“I just hope you enjoyed our food. We really do try to accommodate all your needs. Anything you request we can adjust….”

But we were gone before she could finish.

Tito Rad’s
4912 Queens Boulevard
Woodside

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