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The Pupusa Novelas: The Final Chapter

20 Mar

tierras

When Gerry, freshly thawed from his ice fishing escapade, choose Tierras Centro Americanas as our group’s next destination, I was worried that I might have to eat more pupusas. Not that there is really anything wrong with pupusas, that Central American (Salvadorian in particular) street snack that we experienced twice in the last nine months, including Gerry’s last pick, El Tesoro II (The Poor Man’s Pupusas of Port Chester), and the one in Yonkers chosen by Mike from that same town (Living La Pupusa Loca); it’s just that maybe three pupusa adventures in less than a year is more than enough for me.

“Don’t worry,” Gerry said recognizing my trepidation as I arrived at the colorful diner-like restaurant. “The Guatemalan food is the specialty here.”

His words, I had to admit, were not reassuring, but I was hungry and Guatemalan food, or even another leaden pupusa would have been more than welcome in my famished condition.

We were just off Hillside Avenue and only a block from Sagar Chinese, the Desi Chinese place we experienced in January. For the first time in a long while our entire group was in attendance including Rick who was cherishing a rare few hours out and away from new Daddy duty.

Zio was the last to arrive and when he did he also had the, “oh no, more pupusas” look on his face that I did. So jaded was he with Central American cuisine, he didn’t even bother to look at the menu. “Order for me,” he said to me with a disinterested shrug.

Jacon

Jacon

There was a novela playing on the big screen television above our table and loud Latin music on the juke box making it difficult to hear Eugene’s booming voice. Taking Gerry’s advice, I stuck to the Guatemalan side of the bi-lingual menu and choose “caldo de pescado con arroz y tortillas,” translated to fish and shrimp soup with rice and tortillas. Without any ulterior motive, I picked the “jacon,” chicken in green hot sauce with choyote and green beans as Zio’s entree.

"Darling, my pupusas will make you swoon..."

“Darling, my pupusas will make you swoon…”

We let Gerry choose the “small orders,” and he went with the chile relleno along with “garnacha,” which resembled mini open-faced hard tacos with beef and the Guatemalan version of parmesan cheese sprinkled on top. We each sampled one leaving a few left. The leftovers were offered to Mike from Yonkers, but he had no interest, which was indication right there that maybe we were in trouble here. Despite their mediocrity, my hunger took over and showing no self control, I shoveled another garnacha into my mouth. The Guatemalan chile relleno, stuffed with beef, was also a disappointment; no better than a poor man’s version of the familiar Mexican specialty.

Garnacha

Garnacha

Rick did not hear Gerry’s spiel about the Guatemalan side being the better of the two-country menu and ordered “picadas,” from the “platos tipicos Salvadorenos” section. The mix of fried meats fried to dull grey oblivion, as it turned out, went mostly untouched.

Picada mista

Picada mista

When my fish soup arrived, I was greeted by two dark eyes peering from it belonging to one of the few shrimp, heads and all, that had boiled within. The first sip was salty and briny; no doubt fresh—so fragrant it was as if the soup was made from the waters of the nearby Jamaica Bay. The lumps of fish, bones intact, were tasty but also, for lack of a better word—fishy. My hands being of the asbestos kind were able to pull the fish from the scalding water and break off a few pieces, careful to excise the many bones from the flesh. The very fresh tortillas, the highlight of the meal, helped to mellow the broth but I could only get through about half of the bowl before I was done.

Caldo de Pescado

Caldo de Pescado

Even Mike from Yonkers struggled with his choice of salpicon, a room temperature, hash-like dish of chopped meats, onions, tomatoes and lemon. Only Eugene seemed satisfied with the very pedestrian shrimp in garlic sauce while Zio’s lone comment, positive or not, about the jacon was that he liked the choyote.

The highlight of the meal.

The highlight of the meal.

On the way back to my car I got a whiff of Sagar’s sizzling chicken which was around the corner from where I parked. I remembered how the vapors irritated our respiratory tracts when we were eating there (see Vanquished by Halal Vapors on Homelawn Street). But after the dull meal just experienced I would have happily welcomed those aromatic vapors into my lungs.

Tierras Centro Americanas
87-52 168th Street
Jamaica

The Astoria Ash Wednesday Fishing Expedition

20 Feb

Astoria Seafood

We got the email from Zio several days before we were to meet. That we were notified of his choice for our food group so far in advance was unusual for Zio. His normal procedure was to glean help from anyone he can and then, just a day or so before the assigned date, come up with a destination. So confident was he of his choice of Astoria Seafood that in his email to us he even did the research about the liquor status of the place.

“They don’t serve alcohol, but you can bring your own beer,” he wrote as if beer or something stronger was one of the criteria for our group. It wasn’t, but it was nice of him to think of what was truly important to us.

Eugene’s concern was more spiritual.  Eating meat, he explained, also by way of email, would be in conflict with his Ash Wednesday obligations. It was too late to reschedule to Fat Tuesday, and the next day was Valentine’s Day, so we stuck with the original Ash Wednesday date and assured Eugene that since we were eating at a place called Astoria Seafood, there should be no conflict.

To further assure Eugene, Zio dryly added:  “Wednesdays they serve tilapia from the Gowanus Canal.”

“Yeah, and don’t worry Eugene, it’s BYOA. Bring Your Own Ash,” Gerry quipped.

And so Eugene did—the ash in the middle of his forehead—its mark adding to his already shadowy complexion.

When I arrived, Zio was in the process of securing our table in the combination seafood market and restaurant. The place was bustling; maybe others were observing Ash Wednesday by confining their diet that evening to fish. I could hear Spanish, Greek, and Arabic spoken from the customers (mostly men) at the restaurant’s tables as Zio and I surveyed the offerings on ice.

Seafood restaurant/fish market

Seafood restaurant/fish market

A young man wearing a Yankees’ baseball cap came over.

“Hey, how are you? “ Zio said to him.

The man smiled and stared somewhat dumbfounded.

“You remember me?  From the last time I was here?” Zio asked hopefully.

“Oh yeah, sure I do,” the man, who said his name was Matt replied as if he actually meant it.

From then on, Matt served as our guide and host in the somewhat complicated maze that was Astoria Seafood.

Our fishing expedition guide.

The guide of our fishing expedition.

“You pick out what you want,” Zio tried to explain to me. “They weigh it and then you tell them how you want it cooked.”

It wasn’t as easy as it sounded mainly because it was almost impossible what fish to choose much less how to prepare it. Should we stick with a whole fish? Something filleted. Fried? Broiled? Grilled? Raw? And what about shellfish? Those oysters, wherever they were from, were tempting. There were just too many options to consider.

We had to go through the procedure with Gerry and Eugene, but not Mike from Yonkers, who we learned when Gerry arrived wasn’t coming and had no other excuse than that he just forgot that we were scheduled to meet. There was no word at all from Rick and after waiting about fifteen minutes, figured he was a no show as well. The next day he attributed his not being there to what he called a “brain fart,” thinking Ash Wednesday was the following week.

So there were just four of us and we tried to order accordingly. Zio decided on a large freshly caught fluke that he asked to have deep fried. I saw others at a table sharing a platter of scallops and shrimp that looked like it was prepared scampi style. I asked Matt if he could put together a total of two pounds of shrimp and scallops and make up a scampi for us. He assured me he could.

Fluke before

Fluke before

I also noticed that everyone eating at the tables were indulging in a salad served on a large platter and coated in a feta laced dressing. “We have to have one of those,” I told Zio.

“Oh we will,” he said with confidence.

“And what about a cup of fish soup,” I said hopefully.

Matt our server looked at me.

“Fish soup for all of us,” I said to him. No one argued.

The soup came out first, a light tomato broth overflowing with pieces of white fish.

“There’s a lot of fish in here,” Zio said to Matt.

Matt smiled at Zio, his new”old friend.”

“I made sure of it,” he said.

Fish soup

Fish soup

The salad came out next along with a platter of toasted French bread coated with olive oil. It tasted as good as it looked. The fried fluke, filleted and battered in a light coating of bread crumbs, followed. The fish was big enough to feed six, but we were just four. Not that there was a problem. We worked through it with ease.

Fluke after

Fluke after

From behind the counter, one of the chefs was calling to Eugene. It was very noisy in the place and he cupped a hand to his ear. “What?” Eugene mouthed back to him.

The chef called out something again and Eugene nodded.

“What’s he saying,” I asked Eugene.

“I have no idea,” Eugene said.

Another waiter came over. “He wants to know if you want the lemon potatoes.”

Lemon potatoes? How could we resist?

The potatoes quickly appeared, halves of skinless potatoes, tender and tinged with lemon.

Lemon potatoes

Lemon potatoes

The addictive crunchy bread had long since disappeared and when the shrimp and scampi arrived on a gargantuan platter swimming in garlicky oil also flavored with lemon, we knew we needed more bread to soak up the “juice.”

“I’m sure I said two pounds,” I told our group as we stared in disbelief at the quantity of crustaceans in front of us.

“You did. I was there.” Zio remarked as he speared a scallop and swirled it in the sauce.

Multiple pounds of shrimp and scallops prepared scampi style.

Multiple pounds of shrimp and scallops prepared scampi style.

The mercury level in our blood rising fast, we were nearing exhaustion. Despite our best efforts, the four of us just could not finish the scampi. In fact, there was enough left for a substantial snack.

Matt brought our tab. We were considerably over our usual budget of $20 per person. Eugene deciphered the scrawl on the tab.

“They charged us for almost four pounds of shrimp and scallops,” he said shaking his head.

“That’s not right,” I said. “I told him two pounds.”

And then we just shrugged it off. The food was very good. And we could justify going over budget because we were minus two of our members. With six in attendance we wouldn’t have had to order anything else and would have easily come close to our $20 allotment.

We had the remains of the scampi wrapped up.

“Take it,” Gerry said to Zio. “You deserve it for picking this place.”

Zio grabbed the bag. “Now I know what I can give the Colonel for Valentine’s Day,” he said. “Who needs chocolates when you can have day old shrimp and scallop scampi.”

Zios Valentine gift for the Colonel.

Zios Valentine gift for the Colonel.

Astoria Seafood
37-10 33rd Street
Astoria

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

The Ring of Fire on Roosevelt Avenue

4 Dec

Little Pepper Hot Pot

Little Pepper Hot Pot
133-43 Roosevelt Avenue
Flushing, Queens

“I don’t think I like hot pots,” Gerry wrote in an email after I told him Zio and I were going to spend a Chow City interlude at the Little Pepper Hot Pot in Flushing.

Despite his hasty judgment based on one hot pot experience (Minni’s Shabu Shabu), Gerry agreed to meet the two of us there.

After reading blurbs about the restaurant, I learned that I could park in the garage of the nearby Sky View Center for free for up to three hours. I didn’t think it would take us longer than that to make quick work of Little Pepper’s hot pot so I pulled into the multi-level parking garage and walked through the gleaming, glass enclosed, Taipei City-like mall, passing such culinary stalwarts as Applebee’s and Chucky Cheese on my out to Roosevelt Avenue.

Where am I?

Where am I?

I found Little Pepper Hot Pot across the street from a 1960’s housing development and then recognized it as the location of the great and original Little Pepper (A Cold Sweat in Flushing), which has since relocated to  College Point Avenue.

The tables of the narrow restaurant were all adorned with an electric stove top heater. The menu was attached to a clipboard. What turned Gerry, and most of us off about the other hot pot experience was the chaos for first timers. We had no clue what to do and the servers at Shabu Shabu were just too busy to deal with our hot pot virginity.

The hot pot heating device.

The hot pot heating device.

At Little Pepper Hot Pot our waiter spoke perfect English and was patient with our ignorance of things hot pot related. Still, the three of us, sadly, are not quick studies and at first it was a struggle, especially for the menu-challenged Zio.

“I just have no clue,” Zio said, shaking his head and tossing the clipboard.

I took the menu and studied it. It reminded me a little of the SAT tests where you need to blacken little circles next to the correct answers. Where was Mike from Yonkers, the SAT specialist, when we needed him?

Finally, I think I figured it out and explained to Gerry and Zio that for the table we needed to order one hot pot for $25, which would serve as our cooking device. From there we could choose other meat and vegetable items from the menu to toss into the boiling cauldron.

There were three hot pot options: Szechuan (all spicy), half Szechuan and half “Original” (mild), or all Original. We like to think that we are very brave when it comes to spice. No one can tell us something is too hot for us. And there have been instances when condescending waiters, assuming because of our vanilla visages (speaking about my own only) that we cannot tolerate the same heat as those born with the spice resistance gene.

This was, however, an offspring of the original Little Pepper where they definitely did not pull any punches when it came to spice. So in this instance we decided to take the safe route and go with the option number two: the combination pot.

The pot was brought to the table, placed on the portable stove top and turned on. On one side was the chili pepper red Szechuan while on the other was the clear, milky Original—the two separated by a divider. It wasn’t long before both broths were bubbling furiously.

The yin and the yang of hot pots.

The yin and the yang of hot pots.

A gigantic tray of vegetables came with the pot: watercress, wood ear mushrooms, corn, bean sprouts, cabbage and a plate of “fatty beef.”

The veggies ready for the pot.

The veggies ready for the pot.

Fatty beef

Fatty beef

Using chopsticks, I started to drop the meat and vegetables into the hot pot.

“Use your hands,” Gerry barked. “You’re taking too long.”

I did as commanded and then the waiter appeared with the other items we ordered: fish, parsley meatballs, king oyster mushrooms, lotus root, cabbage, and enoki mushrooms.

More to go into the pot

More to go into the pot

“Now what the hell are we supposed to do with these?” Zio wondered, holding up one of the slotted, net-like spoons that came with the hot pot.

“Fish out the fish,” Gerry said.

I tried to fish out the fish from the Szechuan side of the pot and came up with something—maybe the wood ear mushrooms and some of that fatty beef. I shoved whatever it was into my mouth and almost immediately my eyes watered and nose ran and I quickly spat it all out. I examined what had flown out of my mouth and was now on my plate. In my insatiable haste, I almost ingested countless pieces of dried hot chilies.

“Next time maybe you’ll be more careful,” Gerry scolded.

And the next time I was able to fish out the fish and the other ingredients that were now all cooked through and deliciously infused with the accumulation of flavors the multiple ingredients gave the broth.

A bubbling cauldron

A bubbling cauldron

The piles of napkins on our table were dwindling at the same rate as the honking noise from our collective noses was increasing. Scooping the meats and vegetables from the “Original” side of the hot pot did little to ease the self inflicted pain from the heat of the Szechuan side. But no one was complaining. It was what we wanted. What we came here for.

Soon, with the exception of the dried chilies and a few enoki mushrooms, there was nothing much left in either side of the pot.

“I’ll be back,” Gerry, who was originally skeptical, said inferring that another trip to Little Pepper Hot Pot was needed.

“Yeah, me too, but not with the Colonel,” Zio said. The Colonel, who was Zio’s partner, had, as Zio made it known many times, a zero tolerance policy when it came to spice. “One sip of this stuff and her tongue would be fried. She wouldn’t be able to talk for a week. Though that’s not a bad idea.”

As I made my way through the enormous mall to try to locate the car somewhere in the bowels of the indoor parking garage, I could feel a burn in my gullet. It made me think of the song “Ring of Fire,” by Johnny Cash. I hummed it in the car driving back home.

The next morning the tune was still in my head, but it was no longer the Johnny Cash version I was humming. The burn had lingered overnight and the effects I was feeling the next morning were closer to how Ray Charles handled it: slow and deliberate and with a raw blast of the blues (see below). The burn and the accompanying pain, I knew, would fade but it wouldn’t be long before I, like Gerry and Zio, would eagerly go back for more of the same.

The Sweetbread Tango

26 Jun

La Esquina Criolla

94-67 Corona Ave,
Elmhurst

 

“How do you want your steak cooked,” the waitress asked in her heavy Spanish accent.

We were in Elmhurst at the corner of Corona Avenue and Junction Boulevard in what was advertised as an Argentinean/Uruguayan restaurant called La Esquina Criolla.

“That’s a first for our group,” Rick said after hearing the question from our waitress.  And he was right. It was the first time in the ten plus years we had been convening that we were asked how we wanted anything cooked, much less a steak.

Did that mean our standards were changing? That now we were graduating to a different, higher quality of restaurant? I certainly hoped not and believed that the question before us was just a blip; an aberration in our continual journey to unearth diverse, ethnic eats within our frugal, even grubby, standards.

When I chose La Esquina Criolla, I knew I was treading on dangerous ground. That we would we probably be going over our $20 per person budget as well as dining at an established foodie destination where, what was confirmed later, wine was served in stemmed wine glasses. But that did not stop me. I went ahead with the choice anyway. Red meat was something our group rarely, if at all, dined on and I thought that for once we should have that experience despite the potential monetary risks. I believed this place, La Esquina Criolla would be our best bet to at least keep it close.

Red meat for sale.

“You’re in trouble with this one,” Gerry teased, glancing at the menu and the prices next to many of the “carnes a la parilla,” which ranged from $16 to $24.

“I have an allowance,” I said, trying to rationalize the stark reality spelled out in front of us. “Most of my other choices were so under our budget, that I’m entitled to go over here and still, really, come out no worse than even. It’s called a carryover balance.”

Eugene’s reading glasses were balanced on the tip of his nose. “Uh huh,” he nodded dubiously.

The raw meats we were soon to order were displayed behind the counter; La Esquina Criolla doubled as a butcher shop. There was flank steak, skirt steak, shell steak, blood sausage, known as morcilla, chorizo, kidney, sweetbreads, lamb, and short ribs.

Displayed behind the counter adjacent to the meats were a selection of empanadas; meat, chicken and spinach along with a few other appetizers; marinated eggplant, beef tongue, and hearts of palm to name a few.

Empanadas…and more empanadas.

While we decided what to order, we were brought toasted bread and slices of grilled sausage. We knew we had to be careful how we ordered, but the temptations were many. The empanadas, of course were a must. A “parrillada completa,” or combination of a variety of meats made sense, despite the $38 price (for two). With it we would get to sample skirt steak, short rib, sweetbread, tripe, kidney, black and Argentinean sausage. To that we added another skirt steak for two, a flank steak, and an appetizer of grilled provolone in oregano sauce.

The entrees all came with side orders; a dry potato salad, potato, beet and hard boiled egg, a bland mixed salad, and plantains.

While we ate the buttery-crusted empanadas served with the tableside tangy homemade chimichurri sauce, a procession of ancient tango ballads played.

An Argentinean condiment supreme.

“Why does this music make me think of monocle-wearing Nazis,” Zio pondered.

“You’re confused,” Gerry said to him. “Those were the Boys of Brazil you’re thinking of. Wrong country.”

“Didn’t they escape to Argentina also?”

“Sure, there are plenty of retired Nazis in Argentina,” Rick confirmed. “And they love that old school tango.”

“Yes, herr commandant, I have heard about the tango classes at the Russian front.”

Halting the conversation was the arrival of a sizable silver serving tray adorned with a selection of charred meats. This was the “parrillada completa” for two, but judging from the size of it, was more than enough for three or four, even if the three or four included the gluttons in our group.

The Parillada Completa for two, flanked by flank steak on the left and skirt steak on the right.

On separate smaller plates were the other meats; the flank steak and the skirt steak for two. Including what we got in the “parrillada completa,” if you did the math we had enough skirt steak for three, but who was counting?

The grilled provolone came as advertised, toasted on the outside, the cheese oozing from it when sliced and doused with oregano flavored olive oil. We sawed through the steaks, cooked as we ordered, medium rare; the juices flowing from them onto the platters.

Grilled Provolone

While we chewed, moving from one cut of meat to the other, some of us paused to cleanse our palates with gulps of the Argentinean beer, Quilmes; Zio instead choosing the toxic sludge that is diet Coke to accompany his meal.

A beer and a glass…with a stem.

It was about then when, to my astonishment I noticed Rick sipping red wine from the aforementioned stemmed glass. He shrugged when he saw that I had noticed. He didn’t have to qualify his choice in any way. It was the glass that was more of note than what was in it.

We were making very good progress; the meats on the platters were slowly vanishing.

“You want a beet?” Rick offered Zio from the platter of cold potato and beets.

Zio thought about it for a moment and then nodded. “Yeah, what the hell. Give me a beet.”

Soon all was gone with the exception of a shriveled piece of tripe and a “burnt end” of sweetbread that even Gerry would not touch.

A sweetbread burnt end.

Seeing that there really was nothing left in front of us, the waitress recited what was on the menu for dessert. Zio, who seemed to go silent after that last beet, perked up when he heard there was quince paste.

“I love quince paste,” he announced. “I had it the other day.”

“Bring us the check,” Eugene said, making the executive decision that there would be no dessert, as if we needed it after all that. No one, not even Zio and his penchant for quince paste, dared to stand up to Eugene’s resolve.

The check came. We waited silently as Eugene perused it. We knew we had done some major damage. I chewed on my knuckles in anticipation. My own self-imposed standards were on the line here.

“$30 each,” he said. I let out a sigh of moderate relief. We were over budget, but we had beer, some of us more than one, and even red wine—in a stemmed wine glass. That would account for at least $5. And of course our waitress deserved a generous tip for having to put up with us. It wasn’t as bad as it could have been.

The rough life on the pampas of Elmhurst.

We stumbled out of the restaurant. The tango music was still playing. I had a piece of parsley from the chimichurri sauce stuck between my teeth. There wasn’t much I could do;  I would have to wait until I got home before I could attend to it.

The Noodles on Prince Street

22 May

Prince Noodle House
3717 Prince Street
Unit A
Flushing

I’ve gone over the rules of our Chow City group many times in these electronic pages. We look for $20 and under places. We do our best to unearth those that are under the foodie radar, which nowadays is practically impossible. We look for virgin territory in terms of cuisines, but after ten years, the only cuisines we’ve skipped are the big name items (French, German, “American,” nouveau or fusion anything).

But there was one clause that was really never discussed or spelled out in our unwritten rule book. It didn’t have to be; it was taken for granted. That was the concept of waiting in line for a table at a restaurant. It goes against everything we hold sacred when it comes to eating; it’s a shock to our eating sensibilities.

So when Rick suggested a very well documented—at least by foodies—noodles and dumpling place in Flushing called Nan Xiang Dumpling House, I gently pointed out that, from my knowledge of these things, the place has become a “foodie destination.”

Rick understood immediately and, knowing the unwritten (and never mentioned) rule, quickly dismissed his original choice and instead went with an alternate, quite literally, down the road from Nan Xiang, the road in this case being Prince Street, called Prince Noodle House.

Of our group, only Mike from Yonkers, who was called to an urgent co-op board meeting, did not make the trip to bustling Flushing. There was absolutely no wait or line to get into the Prince Noodle House and we were given a big round table next to a large celebratory party of Asians.

One of the reasons Rick decided on, first Nan Xiang Dumpling, and then the Prince Noodle House were the aforementioned dumplings; in particular soup dumplings. He wanted to experience the Shanghai-style dumpling where the soup is “frozen” within the dumpling only to melt inside when steamed. Prince Noodle had them on their menu, here called  “soup buns,” so we ordered the crab meat mini buns and the “special” mini buns for the table.

Crab meat soup buns

While we ate the soup buns, improperly at first and not with the provided spoons, the soup bursting all over our plates, Eugene told us of his trip to Jefferson City, Missouri where he attended a wedding.

“It was ridiculous,” he complained. “The wedding was catered. All they had was Mountain Dew, a keg of beer, and franks and beans. Can you imagine that?”

We couldn’t imagine it especially for a man used to the all you can eat buffets on the cruise ships and all-inclusive resort he regularly frequents.

While Eugene railed about his Jefferson City experience, I peered behind me at the big table. They were given one of those rotating round trays so they could spin it around making sharing easier. How come we didn’t get one of those, I wondered? The food was beginning to assemble on their table and I liked what I saw.

I asked our waiter about a dish they ordered that was a mix of a green, spinach like vegetable combined with what looked like tofu.

The waiter pointed to something on the menu called “malantou (kalimeris indica) w. dried tofu.”

“Indica means cannabis, or marijuana,” Zio offered as if he really knew of such things.

I ordered one for our table along with five spiced beef.

Kalimeris indica, also known as malantou with dried tofu

Served at room temperature, the malantou, vinegary greens mixed with dried shredded tofu, was a refreshing appetizer, though did not induce the melancholic buzz worthy of its name. The five spiced beef, on the other hand, thin slices of roast beef, cured with five spice powder and a sweet soy sauce drizzled over it, also served at room temperature, were addictive in a more familiar way, at least for us, than what Zio had presumed we would experience with the malantou.

Five spiced (roast) beef

Gerry immediately had his sight set on the “sliced fish swimm hot chili pepper sauce,” that was on the menu, highlighted in red to indicate that it was spicy. No one had any disagreement with his choice or of Rick’s twice sautéed pork belly.

I thought we should at least try some of the noodles at Prince Noodle House and ordered hot and spicy pork noodle soup. I added a rice dish, snow cabbage with rice cake and pork, while Zio studied the menu for one last dish.

The waiter hovered over his shoulder. “I want this,” he said, pointing to something on the menu.

The waiter bent down closer to see what Zio was pointing to.

“You want crap fish?” he said.

“Huh?” Zio immediately got flustered.

“The crap fish?” the waiter said again.

Zio looked at the menu. What he was pointing to read: “spicy bean paste Buffalo crap fish.”

“Yes, I want…number 102,” Zio concurred, indicating the number adjacent to the item where the a and the r had obviously and mistakenly transposed.

Sliced fish “swimm” in hot chili pepper sauce

First to come out was the family-sized sliced fish that, in an enormous casserole dish, was literally “swimm” in hot chili pepper sauce. A few bites brought tears to Eugene’s eyes, a sheen to Rick’s forehead, and loud honking from Gerry’s prominent, yet distinguished nose.

The noodle soup was equally spicy and the noodles, hand pulled, gelatinous in texture, lived up to its princely reputation.

Relief from the heat came with the arrival of the pork belly and the snow cabbage and rice cake. Covered with a one inch layer of fat and glazed to a burnished reddish color, the pork belly was ultra tender; the meat kept moist by its fatty coat and marinated with light soy sauce, sugar and rice wine.

Sauteed pork belly

Last to arrive was the whole carp. Smothered in a bean paste and topped with scallions and ginger, Zio was the first to sample it. He didn’t have much to say as he picked through the many bones. Gerry tried a few bites.

“Hmmm, crap fish has a very unique taste,” he said with a straight face.

There’s crap fish under all that spicy bean paste.

While we polished off almost everything but the unfortunate carp, the dishes on the rotating tray on the table behind us kept piling up. We were done and they were just starting on a huge platter of lobster. Despite having completely stuffed our faces, we gawked enviously as we paraded out of the now fully booked restaurant.

Good thing we didn’t have to wait, I thought to myself as I made my way back to the parking lot where my car was parked. Once inside my car, I stared through the windshield at Prince Street. I noticed a line had formed outside of the Nan Xiang Dumpling House. Maybe the soup dumplings and noodles were better than the stuff we just experienced at Prince Noodle House, but I wasn’t going to wait to find out.

The line for soup dumplings at Nan Xiang

Cinco de Mayo Tacos on Veinticinco de Abril

1 May

Los Portales Taqueria
25-08 Broadway
Astoria

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.

A Double(s) Dose of Roti on Liberty Avenue

20 Mar

Singh’s Roti Shop
131-18 Liberty Ave
Richmond Hill

“Is it Jamaica, or Richmond Hill,” Zio asked frantically over the phone while cruising up and down Liberty Avenue looking for Gerry’s pick, Singh’s Roti Shop.

“Richmond Hill,” I said.

“Jamaica or Richmond Hill?” Zio asked again, his hearing aid obviously not functioning up to speed.

“Richmond Hill,” I repeated.

“Okay, I’ll be there soon,” he said.

I was in front of Singh’s when Zio called, after haven taken a brief walk around, peering in at the nearby Guyanese and Caribbean restaurants, the Brown Betty,” and Sybil’s Bakery, where there was a line waiting for Sybil’s offerings. Whatever it was they were waiting for smelled delicious.

There are rotis (Guyanese style) to be had at the Brown Betty.

There was a small line at the brightly lit Singh’s as well, and Gerry and Mike from Yonkers were already in the bar area to the left. Gerry with a plastic cup filled with vodka and Mike from Yonkers with a bottle of Carib beer. Eugene was once again a scratch; his expertise as a timekeeper for a high school basketball game the priority on this particular night.

While I sipped my own Carib, I wandered over to the steam table and tried to get a look at the many dishes that were available. I had my camera and began to take a few pictures. This brought the attention of a man behind the counter who seemed to be in charge of Singh’s intricate operations.

“Take a picture of him,” the man said, pointing to an Asian man who was carrying what looked like a stir fry lo mein-like dish. “He’s the chef.”

I obliged and snapped the chef’s picture who posed without affectation.

The “chef.”

Mr. Singh, the man in charge, then asked what we wanted. Despite the long line to order, he had one of the female servers “take care of us.” Maybe it was the camera. Maybe it was because we were obviously not from the neighborhood. Whatever the reason, Mr. Singh was giving us V.I.P treatment including a sampling of some of the offerings.

The sampling included pepper chicken; a fried, breaded chicken reminiscent of sweet and sour chicken, but with a spice kick that took that Chinese/American classic to a higher level. There was also stewed pork with vegetables, and something else, Chinese-like, with green peppers and onions, we could not identify.

Sweet, sour and spicy.

Singh’s served Caribbean Chinese food along with, what I thought was Guyanese, but after being chastised by Singh, told were Trinidadian specialties.

The Roti, an Indian bread stuffed with whatever you wanted; goat, beef, chicken, potato, was, of course, Singh’s specialty as was something called doubles; kind of a roti sandwich, a layer of roti bread lathered with chick peas and various condiments, and then topped with another flat roti, making a “double.”

Singh’s Doubles.

While we were devouring the sample platter, Rick called to say he was at Sandy’s Roti Shop, also on Liberty Avenue, but in South Richmond Hill.

“It’s Singh’s, Roti Shop,” I said to him.

“Not Sandy’s?”

“Not Sandy’s,” I replied.

“I’ll be right there,” he said. And then I realized I heard those same words from Zio quite awhile ago. And he still wasn’t here.

“Where are you?” I asked over the phone.

“I’m embarrassed to say I got lost,” he murmured sheepishly.

I gave him the address again and told him what Singh’s looked like.

“I’ll be right there,” he sighed.

And within minutes both Zio and Rick arrived. The line had grown while we were waiting for them, and Mike from Yonkers was anxious to get going—fearing Singh’s food supply might run out. Though from what I could see, that was a very slight possibility.

My new friend Singh again summoned one of his workers to put together our platters. I had no idea what was in most of the trays and when I asked, the female server impatiently blurted out what they were as if, in the bustle of the place, I could hear and register what she was telling me from the other side of the counter. So I ended up just pointing to things, more of that Chinese pepper chicken, a few orders of “doubles,” some of the mixed fried rice and the rice and peas, a container of dark green mashed callaloo, and stewed pork.

The “Chinese” side of the steam table.

We plowed through the food effortlessly. All of it, despite the cafeteria-style, seemed fresh and flavorful, in particular, the unique “doubles,” which, at $1 each, a hefty bargain and enough to fortify even our gluttonous appetites. This Trinidadian street snack was no light appetizer and one remained on our table throughout the rest of our dinner; untouched and tightly wrapped in wax paper.

Despite the mounds of food, Rick was not quite fully satisfied. “I think we should try a few more things,” he said.

No one disagreed.

I went with  him to the West Indian/Indian side of the counter where there were curries displayed along with more exotic dishes like conch (spelled “counch” on the menu) goat, and, something we couldn’t identify our server said was “goat belly.”

If goat belly was anything like pork belly, we had to try it.

The “West Indian” side. Note the doubles being prepared in the background.

Rick brought the second round of platters to the table. The stewed goat curry was tender, the meat easily coming off the bone. The conch could have used a couple more hours boiling, but maybe “al dente” is the preferred Trinidadian way. The goat belly, however, upon closer inspection, was a challenge, even for us.

Zio got close to it and sniffed.

“It’s smells like an old bicycle seat,” he said, and then bravely took a forkful.

“It’s trippa!,” he exclaimed.

The goat belly was indeed, tripe. Gerry sampled some. He shook his head. Mike from Yonkers, tried to chew a piece. “Un uh,” he muttered as he forced it down.

Goat belly and “counch.”

Thankfully, Rick had ordered a few pieces of roti bread to help us quash the foul taste of the goat belly.

We were done…almost.

There were a few brightly-colored sweets I was interested in including one that was purple. “Sugar cake,” was what our server barked out when I asked her what it was.

Singh’s sweets’ sampler.

I brought a small sweets’  sampler back to our table; one of the sugar cakes and a bun. Gerry peered at the bun that was speckled with raisins and other candied fruits. “It looks dry,” he said.

He broke off a piece and chewed.  He nodded. “It is dry.”

The desserts pretty much went untouched. We were done. The line at Singh’s was much shorter now. The damage to our wallets was light and our own belly’s full. We couldn’t ask for anything more than that.  Except for Zio, who, before we walked out the door, grabbed the one untouched, still wrapped, “double,” and shoved it into his pocket.

I looked at him.

“What?” He said. “It’ll taste even better tomorrow.”

The End

The Bistro That Serves Fufu and Four Fingers

22 Feb

Maima’s Liberian Bistro & Bar
106-47 Guy R. Brewer Blvd,
Jamaica, Queens

After learning that we would be traveling to Jamaica, Queens for our next eating adventure, Zio commented that it was our group’s first outing to that section of Queens. He was excited about it, but he had no idea at the time that before our dinner was over, he would, quite literally, be smothered in affection by the ample and genial, to the extreme, hostess/waitress of Maima’s Liberian Bistro & Bar.

I’m not sure why Zio was looking forward so much to visiting Jamaica. From my initial perspective cruising down Liberty Avenue, there wasn’t much more to it than countless auto glass repair service centers.

And then after passing the York College campus and turning onto Guy R. Brewer Blvd, things got even dicier. The streets had a dangerous aura to them. It wasn’t dark yet, but the area reminded me somewhat of the burnt out street of Baltimore depicted in the television series “The Wire.” The only bright spot on the street was my destination: Maima’s.

Omar coming…for some fufu.

Later, Zio confessed to “late night drives” through the neighborhood; his artistic eye appreciative of the dank, post-apocalyptic look of the place. Of course Zio, observed the neighborhood from the safe confines of his used BMW and, wisely, never got out of the car during those nocturnal excursions.

I was the first to arrive and the first to meet, Janis, the aforementioned hostess. Stevie Wonder was playing on the stereo. There was a small wood paneled bar and African-themed paintings on the wall. We’ve been to many other African restaurants over the years, but this was our first taste of Liberian food. And compared to the other African restaurants, (the late Treichville, Salimata, B&B’s African American Restaurant, and African American Maraway) Maima’s was by far the most “elegant,” thus the inclusion of the word “bistro” in its official name.

The Bistro menu of the day

With the help of one of the few African patrons in the small restaurant, Janis put together three of the tables to make room for our group of six. As soon as I sat down at the extended table, a cold Corona in front of me, Eugene, Mike from Yonkers, and Zio arrived.

After Eugene and Mike from Yonkers also ordered Corona’s, Zio  in as deep and manly a voice as he could muster, said to Janis, “And I’ll take a man-sized Coke.”

His deviation from what the rest of us were ordering and the authoritative way he said it must have stirred something deep inside Janis’s generous soul. Almost instantly there was “chemistry” between the two.

After maneuvering through traffic on the Belt Parkway, Gerry entered followed soon after by Rick. The menus were of the take out variety, but as take out menus go, Maima’s was colorful and printed on thick, glossy paper. Each day there were daily dishes offered. We were there on a Tuesday and had the option of either Spinach or Palm Butter, but by the time we were ready to order, Palm Butter had been erased from the chalkboard.

Besides the daily offerings, fufu & soup was available along with fresh fish, “fried, toasted, or steamed.” In fact, fufu, the ball of doughy, beaten (literally) down version of cassava, was available with everything, as we soon found out. The soup was pepper soup, that, according to Janis, was a mélange of meats; chicken and beef, and seafood along with a big pale ball of fufu.

We started with appetizers of roast meat and chicken on skewers, and pepper shrimp. The shrimp was smothered in a thick, burnt red paste. “Be careful,“ Janis warned, “the shrimp is spicy.”

Pepper shrimp

Gluttons for heat, we scoffed at her warnings and dug in. I tried peeling the shrimp but gave up, eating the thing whole. Before I got more than two bites in, however, I was overcome by an uncontrollable attack of the hiccups; a sign that I’ve surpassed my body’s spice index. Sucking down ice water, the hiccups subsided and maybe that I’d already numbed my lips and the lining of my throat; I was able to continue to eat the fiery shrimp.

Janis brought Gerry and Rick their “spinach” entrees. The spinach was served chopped in a bowl with bits of meats and seafood throughout. From what I sampled, those bits were more tiny pieces of meat attached to small bones. The spinach also came, of course, with a ball of fufu as did the pepper soup that Eugene and I were having.

Maima’s spinach

I was about to try the fufu when Janis rushed to my side and added a dollop of the same peppery paste that was on the shrimp to the otherwise bland fufu. I used my hand to break apart the dense ball of fufu and added a small amount of the pepper sauce for flavor.

Fufu with a dollop of pepper sauce.

And then I turned my attention to the soup where a four-fingered hand or foot, I couldn’t tell, was jutting from. So life-like was this appendage that if I dared look closer I might have spotted fingernails or maybe knuckle hair. But for that reason, I kept my distance from it.

The broth was indeed peppery, but mild compared to the hiccup-inducing shrimp. Inside the broth, along with the appendage, were pieces of tripe, gelatinous beef tendon, small pieces of chicken on the bone and even smaller blue crab bits.

Waiter, there’s a hand in my soup.

With fork and knife, Mike from Yonkers delicately began the dissection of his “toasted” fish which, translated, meant that it was grilled while Zio’s approach to his fried fish was more primitive; pulling apart flesh from bone with his palm oil stained fingers. “What kind of fish is it?” I asked him.

“The fresh kind,” he muttered without looking up, his mouth partially stuffed with food.

Fish and fufu

It was about then when Zio noticed Janis bringing a bagged order to a customer waiting outside. Along with presenting him with his order, she gave the customer an overly friendly hug. When she returned, Zio, wiped the grease from his lips.  “I’m a little jealous now,” he said to her.

With that, she grinned, went behind him, wrapped her defensive lineman-like arms around him and began to smother him with affection. Thankfully, Zio had completely drunk the man-sized Coke to keep his now overworked heart stimulated otherwise we might have had to rush him to nearby Jamaica Hospital.

Rick was moaning as well, but not because of an outpouring of affection. The fufu had done him in. “I think it might be expanding in my stomach,” he said of the half ball of fufu he had already ingested.

Still we had to try the rice bread; a sweetened piece of cake that tasted like banana bread and was made, I presume from rice flour and bananas.

Rice bread

Our experience at Maima’s was certainly memorable even if the food did not quite make it to the top of our self-monitored charts. My only regret was that we never got to try the palm butter special.

“Next time you come, you can call ahead and they’ll hold it for you,” Janis said.

“Who do I call?”

“Just call Mama,” was her glowing response.

Eating Like an Afghan Family in an Afghani Restaurant in Astoria

10 Jan

Just about one year ago, our “gang” met in Astoria on a cold January night. I was laid up with a post-holiday stomach thing and had to bow out. Instead,  Zio was assigned to report on the meal. What follows is his interpretation of the dining experience that night.

Balkh Shish Kebab House
2310 31st St
Astoria

There were still some leftover glaciers under the el on Thirty First Street, remnants of the holiday blizzard. For a very short time the snow was pristine and white . Now as it melted and refroze it resembled an ugly kind of frozen gravy, riddled with dog piss holes and fossilized cigarette butts. Above me, the N Train crashed by and I thought of young Michael waiting for the same noise before shooting the veal parmesan out of Sterling Hayden’s throat.

“How’s the Afghani food in this restaurant?”  “Try the ‘manto’ it’s the best in the city.”

I guess I felt a little nervous. my thoughts were on the grim side, after all, Balkh Shish Kabob House was my first restaurant selection without Neckbones’ help and to boot he was AWOL. How friendly could the Afghani staff be when our military was sniffing around their country? I began to pace up and down the street checking the time every thirty seconds. I was sure nobody was coming at 6:59.

One minute later, they all showed up,  snapping me out of my anxiety spiral. The waiter seated us in a comfortable, secluded corner at a big round table near a huge hand painted map of Afghanistan, outlining all the regions. Eugene was quick to comment on the pleasing temperature of the room, maybe sensing my hopefulness.

We decided to pick four appetizers. , all of them were served with minted yogurt sauce. We knew to skip the samosas and ordered two kinds of dumplings. One was “manto,”  beef meat dumplings with curry sauce and yogurt, the other was “aushack,”  this was boiled and filled with scallions and herbs. Mike from Yonkers made it clear he would steer clear of the “bandanjan borani,”  fried eggplant, and the “borani kadu,” fried pumpkin with homemade sauce. We ordered them anyway. These were fresh tasting and personally I would almost eat anything in dumpling form.

While we were deciding what to order from the Balkh Special entrees list, we got help from the cook (I think), who said he would feed us like “An Afghan Family”. This took the pressure off and also gave us hope that we would have an authentic eating experience.

While we waited for the slaughter of the lamb, we heard the praying begin with earnest devotion. We countered the discordant chants with ramblings of our own which ranged from our favorite “Honeymooners” episodes to the fact that Ann Coulter is dating Jimmy Walker, the mystery of Alfalfa’s cowlick, Lee Meriwether, Spanky’s amazing performances as an infant, and of course the incredibly nubile “Darla”. ..This is why the rest of the world hates us.

Our “gang” at dinner.

Finally our entrée arrived, As I remember, it was a combo of a combo, kabli palow, and the fish combo. What we didn’t expect was that it came in a wheelbarrow. A mountain of tender lamb shanks and fish buried in basmati rice, raisins ,and carrots was placed before us.

A “mountain” of kabli palow

Our “family” did what it could so as not to offend our hosts. The large portion did cost us $75, one entrée multiplied by five plus the appetizers. We went over budget by five dollars each. Not too bad, but no way to treat a family.

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