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R.I.P. Big Nick’s Burger Joint

29 Jul

I learned of the demise of Big Nick’s Burger Joint the other day. I knew, of course, that a restaurant of its humble stature would surely be in peril during these distressingly haughty times, still I can’t deny that I was saddened. Here then is a photo tribute to what was surely a beloved institution.

 

 

Big Nick’s was a welcome hang out for common folk as well as countless celebrities who left their head shots on whatever spare space that could be found on the small restaurant’s storied walls.

 

 

Nick's

 

Entering or exiting Big Nick’s required careful footing. Despite the sign, there were often “flames.”

nicksBesides being the home of the famous “sumo” burger, Big Nick’s menu was more like a Michener tome where you could order everything from a Red Bull to fried pickles.

Nick's 1

 

Finally, Big Nick himself was a visible presence and his many credos were scrawled on numerous signs throughout the great restaurant. To disobey one, meant getting on his bad side; a place you did not want to be.

Nick's2

 

Goodbye to a “good place to eat.”

 

R.I.P La Fonda Boricua

15 Sep

This was the first very brief Adventures in Chow City post to appear on Fried Neck Bones…and Some Home Fries almost a year ago. Today we get the bad news that La Fonda Boricua in East Harlem has closed. A sad day for Friedneckbones. Here is the original post.

La Fonda Boricua
169 E. 106th Street
East Harlem

My wife commented, not too favorably, on the special “tostones” sauce at La Fonda Boricua. Of course she tasted it second hand. And with a flu-stuffed nose. To me that meant the sauce was a true success…as was the rest of the collective meal.

Kudos must go to Rick for experimenting with the chivo (goat) and Gerry, a brave man to eat those chicken gizzards. He deserved that six-pack of Corona Light. I guess the liquor license did not apply to wine. But who’s complaining? At least they finally took our order. Charlie met the match and delivered with an authentic global eatery for under $20. . .including flan…vanilla only.

The Ayala brothers, owners of La Fonda Boricua, are now interested in adding to the art on their wall. I hear they would like to contact the Puerto Rican artist who has scribbled the tiny portraits forming the thumbprint. What they are looking for now is a new theme; a portrait of Zio, in the shape of a big toe, which, coincidentally, resembles his physique, and a mountain of mofongo, slathered with brown gravy, in front of him.

The Bronx Banh Mi Incident

17 Aug

World of Taste Seafood and Deli
R.I.P

World of Taste Seafood Deli: Circa 2008

After several years now of conducting these eating excursions, most of us in our group understand that it is imperative to always double check on the status of the establishment chosen. And the more obscure it might be, the more diligence required. An African restaurant ballyhooed by the Village Voice in, say February, might no longer exist by July. This time it was my turn to choose our destination and always looking out for the oft-neglected food borough, the Bronx; I did my research and came up with the name of a Vietnamese restaurant situated in an unlikely location on a stretch of Jerome Avenue which runs just below the tracks of the elevated number 4 subway line.

The restaurant was named Phung Hung and, a few days before we were to meet, I called and spoke to someone who seemed to confirm I had found the right place. On the date of our scheduled dinner, I remembered at the last minute to call once more—just to be absolutely sure of its authenticity. This time there was confusion. Was this not, Phung Hung? Had I dialed a wrong number? Whoever answered lost patience with me and hung up. I quickly went onto the computer and typed in the address and found another option; a restaurant called World of Taste Seafood Deli. I called again and was told that the same restaurant was formerly called Phung Hung but its name had been changed. The man I spoke to also told me that he would hold a table for six for “Mr. Brian.”

Seeing the restaurant on the corner of Jerome and 193rd St, I realized why the name was changed. There were photos of fried fish, chicken wings, fries and other fast food Chinese items displayed in the window. It was an appeal to the demographics of the neighborhood to offer what was familiar and safe, but, thankfully, the Vietnamese menu was also available. Gerry and Mike from Yonkers had already arrived and seated at a small round table in the stifling, Vietnam-like climate of the restaurant where a ceiling fan and an enormous window air conditioner cooled only those in their immediate vicinity.

Jerome Avenue

Gerry had a six-pack of beer in a brown paper bag and, at first, was brusquely told he couldn’t bring it into the restaurant. A moment later one of the proprietors, a woman of color who seemed out of place working in an Asian restaurant, asked Gerry if he “talked to David earlier.” Gerry, understanding that it was I who must have spoken to David, who, we learned, was the person I contacted on the phone making the reservation for “Mr. Brian” nodded and, immediately, was granted permission to bring and drink the beer, as long as it was in a paper cup. Apparently “Mr. Brian” carries some serious influence.

Eugene was a late scratch and Zio and Rick were on their way. While we waited, I noticed that most of the cooking in the open kitchen was done by two tiny elderly Vietnamese women. The possibilities of what was to be created in the kitchen by their experienced and no doubt skilled and comforting hands immediately excited me. The anticipation along with the heat combined to form a growing sheen of perspiration around my face and neck. The proprietor, who mentioned she was David’s partner, must have noticed and offered us a table directly in front of the huge, loud air conditioner.

Zio, a dreamy, whimsical smile on his face, walked in just as we moved. Before even sitting down, he announced that he grew up in the surrounding Kingsbridge neighborhood. Glancing around the restaurant but not really looking at anything, he began: “My grandfather had a fruit stand a few blocks up. . .there was a diner right over there on the corner. . .my father used to send money to relatives in Italy. . .” and on and on the reminiscing went. It took a jolt from the Vietnamese iced coffee he ordered, sweetened liberally with condensed milk, to revive him from his stupor and begin concentrating on the present business of stuffing his face.

As we expected, Rick was lagging behind; this time caught in Yankee Stadium traffic. We knew the scenario and began ordering with the assurance that Rick would be grateful with the scraps from our first course. We started with three “banh mi,” Vietnamese sandwiches served in a fresh loaf of French bread. The sandwiches were individual-sized but big enough to share knowing that there would be more. . .much more to come. The three sandwiches arrived looking like they belonged on the cover of Saveur, a glossy food magazine I used to scribble for. The three were banh mi xi mai, a Vietnamese meatball hero smothered in a bright red chili sauce, mi thit heo nuong, stuffed with grilled pork, pate, with sprigs of cilantro and cucumber peeking out, and the phung hung, looking like a traditional hero with cold cuts of ham, ground pork, and pate, but with the added zest of cilantro, chilies and soy sauce. The only complaint about the banh mi came from Zio who lamely claimed he could not negotiate breaking the phung hung version into sharable pieces without obliterating the beautifully prepared sandwich. But it was accomplished and though difficult, we were able to save a few samples for Rick who had just arrived.

Beautiful Banh Mi

Though not much deters us from over indulging on our food adventures, that there was nothing over six dollars on the menu made it practically impossible for us to resist what was to be a very public display of gluttony. We circled numbers that corresponded to the items on the menu and I brought it up to the proprietor who made it clear that she wanted me to read off the items by the number not by the Vietnamese name. There was number 25, country style beef cubes sautéed with scallion and onions, number 16, spring rolls with grilled pork and vegetables piled on rice vermicelli, number 30, shrimp with string beans, scallions and onion in a satea sauce, number 10, seafood with rice noodles soup, 35, beef noodle soup Hue style, and number 33, sautéed mixed vegetables. Once she wrote all the numbers down, needing two pages of her small pad to do so, she began barking out the numbers to the two Vietnamese women who immediately got to work.

Seafood noodle soup

“You know, they filmed Marty around here with Ernest Borgnine,” Zio blurted over the noise of the air conditioner.

Rick looked at him and as if on cue, shouted back, “You’re just a fat, little man. A fat, ugly man.”

Zio concurred: “I’m ugly! I’m ugly! I’m ugly!”

What do you wanna do tonight? I dunno. What do you wanna do?

The screen test ended when the parade of platters began arriving and even with two round tables pushed together, there was barely enough room to hold them all. So impressive was the display that it drew a comment from two diners who had come in after playing basketball at nearby St. James Park, the man shaking his head in awe while his female companion gazed incredulously. “With all that food, I was saying you all must be food critics,” the male basketball player said.

I waved his assertion off. “No, being critical about food just gets in the way of our eating,” I replied.

And there wasn’t much to be critical about at World of Taste Seafood Deli. If you wanted to be picky, the sautéed dishes; the vegetables and shrimp were nothing out of the ordinary, but maybe that was because we had become jaded after the remarkable banh mi, the spicy, beef noodle soup, and the seafood with rice noodles. Closing time was 8:30 and the staff was cleaning up while we were still picking through the remains of our feast. As they were leaving with their take out order, the basketball players glanced one last time at the devastation we created on our combined two tables and shook their heads in awe.

It hadn’t gotten any cooler once we vacated the World of Taste Seafood. Zio got that gaze on his face again and pointed to the train tracks above us. “Martin Sheen and Tony Musante—you know the movie. . .**“ But before Zio could finish telling us about the movie, the uptown number 4 train rumbling above us cut him off.

Sheen and Musante frolicking on the subway in the Bronx.

*World of Taste Seafood Deli sadly closed in 2009. Soon after, Pho Mien Tay, another Vietnamese restaurant opened in the same spot, but was short-lived followed by Pho Saigon #1, which also did not last.  Across the street is another Vietnamese restaurant, called Com Tam Ninh Kieu that has survived the turmoil at 2614 Jerome Avenue that specializes in Pho but without its quirky charms or the magnificent banh mi. Now, at 2614 Jerome there is a nail supply store with signs in Vietnamese.

**The title of the movie Zio was reminiscing about can be found in the title of this post.

World of Taste Seafood Deli: Circa 2011

Treichville Tasting Menu

9 Aug

Treichville
R.I.P

The path to Treichville was a circuitous one. Originally Rick’s pick and scheduled a month earlier, Rick chose the much anticipated Rudar Social Club in Astoria, but the date coincided with the closing of his newly acquired money pit in Atlantic Highlands. At first Rick did not think this would be a conflict; that the closing would be over before our dinner and it was, but seriously challenging his loyalty to his brothers in gluttony, he decided instead to take his lawyer out for a drink. That, coupled with Zio being stricken with a stomach virus so potent that just the thought of Croatian cuisine made him retch, led to us cancelling at the last minute. It took a month to reschedule and again, the Rudar Social Club was Rick’s choice, but this time thoughtfully, giving us a week’s notice, cancelled.

A restaurant posing as a car service

This time, instead of rescheduling, we shifted the choice to Mike from Yonkers, who was next in line. The short notice sent him into a minor panic and he quickly decided on African place in Fort Greene, Brooklyn. The problem, Eugene immediately pointed out via email, was that the place had closed several months earlier. After a few days, a replacement was chosen, a soul food joint in the heart of the trendy East Village, but after deliberating with an anonymous member of our group, Mike from Yonkers determined that the soul joint didn’t fit our criteria. For some reason, and after several years with our group, Mike was still struggling to comprehend our guidelines, loose as they are. But with a little counseling, again from the same anonymous source, he finally came up with another Treichville.  The Treichville we were visiting was not the one in the heart of Cote d’Ivoire, but in East Harlem, just a few steps from legendary Patsy’s Pizzeria.

Temptation around the corner.

From the outside on a block on east 118th Street, Treichville looked more like a car service operation than a restaurant. The only hint was the subtle sign above the door with the restaurant’s name and the proclamation of African cuisine. The windows were barred and a neon sign behind them flashed “Open 24 Hours.” I arrived early and hungry and Patsy’s was a serious temptation, but I thought it best to display some willpower. Soon the others arrived and we piled into the tight, low-ceilinged quarters where we were the only diners. The specialty here was West African, specifically the Ivory Coast, and the menu printed in both English and French. Drinks were the usual, ginger beer or sorrel, both homemade and satisfying. But it was the soups on the menu that interested us the most, particularly the pepe (pepper) soup; a combination of crab, cow feet, lamb, and tripe. The host/waiter announced that the pepe was not quite ready yet, but after nudging him wavered and said he would bring out soups for all. While he was at it, we asked for a sampling of Treichville’s specialties—kind of the poor man’s version of a “chef’s tasting menu.” He gladly obliged.

The five of us were first served huge bowls of soup with Eugene, Mike from Yonkers, and Gerry getting the pepe while Zio and I were given chicken soup. Noticing immediately that Zio and I were slighted, our host brought out two more bowls of the pepe.  I took a few spoonfuls of the chicken soup, which was more like a stew, enough to gush appreciatively over it and then offered it to the others for tastings while I sampled the pepe, which was not quite what was described in the menu—there was no meat, just fish, crab, mussels, and shrimp—more like a bouillabaisse with the sub-tropical addition of a whole, scotch bonnet chili pepper which Eugene ate inducing a bout of spasmodic hiccupping. Following Eugene’s lead and not knowing the pepper was a spicy garnish and not for eating, Mike from Yonker’s ate his and soon a fine sheen of sweat had formed on his forehead.

Meanwhile, despite my warnings to Zio to just taste both of the soups and not try to finish them all, I noticed the bones of the chicken from his soup picked clean and lined up neatly against the side of his now empty bowl and that he was busy extracting a piece of meat from a slender crab claw that was in his fish soup. When I warned him again, he threw up his hands defiantly. “What do you want me to do? I can’t just leave it!” he said.

Once the soup was cleared, we were all given salads with homemade vinaigrette which helped take down the heat from the soups. Following the salad, two platters of whole fish appeared; one, according to our host was grilled, the other fried, though I could tell no difference. Both were doused in a room temperature onion/mustard sauce and served with a mashed-like condiment of cassava and plantain called foutou. The procession continued with a platter of lamb shank, beef, and grilled chicken, all covered with the same onion/mustard concoction. With the addition of platters each of couscous, cassava, and white rice, our combined tables were overflowing.

The fish, whether grilled or fried, was perfectly moist and tender while the lamb shank, more than enough even for our colossal appetites. The beef and chicken were both fine, but really just pure excess at this point and after a few bites of the fish, I heard Zio groan repeatedly. “I can’t,” he stammered, “No more.” And so, for the first time in our long history of dinners together, Zio was done.  He was not alone. We were all pretty much done—the Treichville “chef’s tasting menu” just too much for us. So finally, with Treichville, despite the roundabout way he got to it, Mike from Yonkers nailed the concept of our group and deserved the accolades we heaped upon him at dinner’s end.

*Hoping to return to Treichville a few months ago, I came across thie signs, in duplicate, plastered underneath Treichville’s security gate and on its door.

I would have settled for a “C” grade, but this…

Guilt Among Gluttons

19 Jul

Spicy Mina
(R.I.P)

Zio didn’t plan that we would be dining in a Bangladeshi restaurant at the same time that nation was suffering from the effects of a deadly cyclone; that we would be stuffing our respective faces while many Bangladeshi people were without food and water. It was just one of those ironic coincidences. Would the circumstances induce guilt and inhibit our appetite? The family that ran Spicy Mina, including sari-attired Mina herself, certainly hoped not. There were only two other customers, Bangladeshi men chatting over tea, in the small restaurant located on an isolated portion of Broadway in Woodside the night we were there.

We were all assembled on time except Rick, who seems to enjoy making a grand entrance midway through our appetizers. This time, however, Rick checked in via cell phone to say he was stuck in traffic on the BQE and to start without him as if we might actually consider waiting. But with the arrival of the appetizers, a gamey lamb dish in a thick stew called haleem, something that looked like puff pastry filled with ground chick peas, called alur chop, and “loly-pop” chicken, the Bangladeshi-version of the Buffalo chicken wing, Rick wasn’t missing much.

Buffalo Chicken Wings: Bangladeshi-style

But we just couldn’t wait any longer. Eugene was merciless: “The BQE is a block away!” he intoned in his typically brash manner. And Zio was restless—the promise of “mastard” (sic) fish, had him anxiously chugging diet Coke’s. So we ordered without Rick, but included a dish for him—something he would appreciate, fish kofta curry, or as explained in the menu: fish balls.

Mike from Yonkers, suffering from a gravely throat, thought the palak paneer might offer relief but when it arrived it look different than any paneer I’ve ever seen; the spinach shredded spinach with crumbly, feta-like pieces of cheese, along with a few whole dried chilies. The taste was something reminiscent, according to Eugene, to broccoli rabe, and I couldn’t disagree; there was definitely an Italian flavor to it.

Gerry’s idea of relief was a vindaloo, specifically lamb and Mina’s version was fiery in a light, oily sauce, again nothing like your cookie-cutter variety vindaloo. The dal fry Mina special, mung daal in special spices was a nice accompaniment to the nan and roti bread we ordered, while the chicken tikka masala, in a rich, creamy yet spicy sauce had Eugene swooning, which, to be honest, was not a pretty sight.

Fish Balls: A.K.A. Fish Kofta Curry

The fish balls arrived just as Rick called again, this time to say he was still stuck on the BQE in the vicinity of the legendary Kosciuszko Bridge and was aborting any further attempts to try to make it to Spicy Mina’s. And though we ordered for six and now we were only five, the fish balls, light and with just the faintest hint of fish, were made short work of. The waiter slowly cleared our table, allowing Zio sufficient time to scour the remains of the whole fish searching for any stray pieces of edible flesh that might have escaped our intense scrutiny. It was unanimous; the fare at Spicy Mina’s was nothing like the $7.95 Indian buffets we were used to gorging ourselves on.

By the time the waiter returned with complimentary half-orders of rose water-accented rice pudding—perfect to cleanse our over-spiced palates—any guilty thoughts about the human suffering in Bangladesh that any of us might have had going into Spicy Mina’s was completely forgotten. But why then do I feel guilty about that?

Unfortunately, Spicy Mina didn’t survive the recessionary cyclone that ravaged many small business in New York the following year and  persists today.

The Last Days of Fufu on Eighth Avenue

28 Jun

It was early 2007, around the peak of the real estate boom that had overtaken New York City, when we traveled to Harlem to dine at Florence’s Restaurant.  The restaurant was located on Frederick Douglass Boulevard just a few blocks north of 110th Street. I don’t recall that the trendy moniker SoHa, meaning South Harlem, had yet been awarded to that quickly gentrifying neighborhood, but, as I wrote below, all the signs were there that soon this would be a place that would be awarded a trendy moniker.

Florence’s Restaurant
(R.I.P)

After lengthy and near hysterical deliberations, our disparate group finally agreed to a date. Our choice was a Friday, certainly not ideal for anyone, but the only day all could make it. Rick was saddled with the pick and had to take weekend traffic and restaurant crowds into consideration when choosing the destination. Those considerations eliminated Brooklyn and Staten Island. The Bronx was a possibility, but the Yankees were at home that night. There was always Queens, but Rick wanted a break from that food bounteous borough.  Downtown Manhattan could be risky, so that left Harlem. Rick’s research unveiled a conveniently (convenient to me at least) located African restaurant named Florence’s specializing in home cooking and, as Rick added: “that is if your home is Ghana.”  We expected our full group of six until Friday afternoon when Rick had to suddenly drop out due to a family emergency. Though it was his pick, it was too late to find another destination. We would meet at Florence’s.

What recession?

Walking up Central Park West and past 110th Street when it becomes Frederick Douglass Boulevard, or as it is also known, 8th Avenue, and passing the distinct signs of gentrification; where on every block new apartment buildings are rising and brownstones gutted and ready for renovation; where real estate is now into the multi-millions, there was Florence’s, a tiny and untidy symbol of resistance to change.

When I arrived a few African men were sitting at the Formica-topped tables adorned with cheap plastic table mats decorated with ducklings in bonnets. They were dining on large bowls of stews, using mashed fufu, a yellowish plantain meal formed into a smooth ball, as a utensil and scooping up the stew with it. A television was on to the news and a little boy was laughing and playing with books on the floor of the restaurant near where I was sitting. To capture my attention, the boy began to raise the level of his giggling. The owner, probably the boy’s father, scolded him. The boy went quickly silent.

Fufu

I was alone but given a table for five until a large group of young tourists staying at a nearby hostel entered. I gave up my table and switched to another, smaller table. I sipped a fiery, homemade ginger beer and tried calling Gerry and Zio wondering when they would arrive, but couldn’t get through to either. I was worried that with the group of tourists that Florence’s might run out of food as small, family-run restaurants like these are apt to do. I didn’t know then, but my worries were unfounded.

Zio waddled in soon after, fedora on head, followed by Gerry who announced that Eugene was out due to a work commitment. Mike from Yonkers completed the group and wasting no time, we perused the very informative menu. When we gave the waiter our usual spiel—that we like to sample the traditional favorites, he genially pointed out a number of Ghanian and Ivorian (Ivory Coast) specialties starting with the aforementioned fufu and groundnut (peanut butter stew). With it we had a choice of beef, chicken, fish, goat, or cow foot. Before I could say “goat,” Zio blurted out “cow foot,” his insistent craving for the gelatinous hooves that would accompany our peanut butter stew went without explanation.

Kelewele: peculiarly mouth-watering.

Our waiter also recommended the fried fish served with banku, fermented cassava dough and rolled into balls, the baked fish, an item called kelewele, sliced plantains seasoned with ginger, chilies, and cloves and fried giving it, according to the menu, “a peculiar mouth-watering flavor.” Lastly, we were steered toward a supposedly popular dish of black-eyed peas called “red red.”

The groundnut stew with cowfoot arrived first along with the mound of fufu. I picked up one of the hooves, found it impenetrable and quickly gave up on it, but Zio determinedly found a way to gnaw the clear gristle surrounding bone. Unlike the Africans, I tried to eat the fufu with fork and knife—a big mistake; it was like cutting through rubber. The banku that accompanied the excellent fried fish was a better option, soft and starchy, a nice compliment to the tangy sauce of the fish. The menu said the baked fish was bluefish, but devoid of that fish’s oily, distinctively strong flavor, it was more likely tilapia. Whatever the species, the fish was moist and full of meat and flavor.

“red red”

The last two dishes to arrive were the “red red,” a bowl of black-eyed peas drenched in an oily crimson-colored sauce that was, despite it’s appearance, rather bland, and the kelewele, plantains fried to a crisp, deep brown color and speckled with chilies and ginger, again not as spicy as it appeared. The four of us finished everything and were shocked at the miniscule bill for all the food we consumed. Had the owners of Florence’s not seen the construction that I saw? Did they look at the overpriced menu of the new, upscale Ethiopian restaurant with the fancy wine list across the street? Were they not aware that the immediate world around them was about to drastically change? I could only hope that they did not.

Brunch and dining “al fresco” where Florence’s once stood.

 But of course it did, though not without a serious bump. Construction in Harlem and elsewhere halted temporarily during the financial crises of 2008 and 2009, but the growth resumed in 2010. I ‘m not sure when Florence’s closed, but it couldn’t have been more than a year after our visit. Where Florence’s once was there is now a wildly popular beer garden called Bier International with “al fresco” seating featuring “brunch.”

A Tibetan Chef in a Japanese Kitchen in Sunnyside, Queens

21 Jun

The night after the Di Fara experience, our group dined at Yamakaze, on Queens Boulevard in Sunnyside, Queens. Apparently, Yamakaze is no more, but here is a brief testament to its short life.

Yamakaze
R.I.P

 The trip out to Sunnyside, Queens on the 7 train was an easy one especially compared to the previous night’s trek to Midwood. Eugene’s puzzling choice was a Japanese restaurant called Yamakaze. We were all more than familiar with the obligatory Japanese restaurant menu—the sushi, the tempura and teriyaki dishes, the udon and soba noodles, What would make Yamakaze a unique experience; one worthy of our efforts? I would withhold judgment. We all had confidence in Eugene’s peculiar, but effective approach to his choices. There was a method to his madness.  We hoped.

The carbohydrate-induced bloat in my stomach after Di Fara’s pizza the night before had subsided throughout the day, but to make sure I ate a light, fiber-rich lunch in preparation for the additional starch to come. The 7 train got me to the restaurant early where I saw Zio waiting outside, perusing the menu skeptically.

  “Whatta we gonna eat here?” he asked, gesturing dramatically with his hands.

  I shrugged and mumbled that maybe the noodles would be good. Again, I was resolved to withhold judgment.

Dazie’s : Live entertainment with your linguini, Thursday through Saturday.

 To kill some time, we walked a block for a drink at Dazie’s Italian restaurant. The bartender, who introduced himself as Dominick, informed us that they were “auditioning” piano players. Before we could withdraw our drink orders, Zio and I had the misfortune of sitting through an abbreviated set of “My Way” and “New York State of Mind.” Thinking we might actually consider returning to Dazies, Dominick gave us each a card and carefully wrote on the back that on Thursday, the entertainment at the piano bar would be “Danny” while on Friday and Saturday, “Jimmy” would be the featured act. We graciously accepted the cards and then got out of there as soon as we could suck down our drinks.

 Yamakaze was empty, but the waitress led Zio and I to our “reserved” table for six. Eugene showed up on time, but Gerry and Mike from Yonkers took a wrong turn off the BQE and ended up in Brooklyn while Rick was stuck in traffic near the Kosciusko Bridge. I’d often heard about the dreaded Kosciusko Bridge and the traffic jams attributed to it, but this was the first time somebody I knew was actually stuck in it.

Fun time on the Kosciusko Bridge

 Taking a look at the menu again, I did notice a few unusual, non-traditional Japanese items. Among them were “Buffalo wings,”  “chicken pocket,” and a Caesar salad.” But along with the above-mentioned non-appetizing appetizers was something called “choi-la,” spicy grilled beef and cucumber stick, and “alu tarkari” spicy potato on deep fried bread. On the entrée portion of the menu, there were others that looked promising like the “Himalyan rasha,” braised goat meat in Thai red curry sauce, and the “sha-ngopa”, sautéed beef or pork with jalapeno, garlic pepper and served with bread. These were definitely not Japanese in language or food. The waitress said that the chef was Tibetan and the menu included a few Tibetan dishes. Did Eugene know this was a Tibetan-Japanese restaurant? Was he, the man who brought us to Himalayan Yak, still fixated on the cuisine of Tibet? Or was it just coincidence? Eugene claimed the latter.

Once Gerry and Mike from Yonkers arrived, we ordered two of those Tibetan hot starters, the choi-la and the alu tarkari along with Japanese gyoza. Rick arrived just as we were cleaning up the very tasty alu tarkari with the deep fried bread and ordered another for him. Tibetan seemed the way to go here—not much excited us on the Japanese menu, but Zio and Eugene ordered noodles, ramen for Zio and thick noodles for Eugene. I mistakenly, maybe intrigued by the name, ordered something called momo which turned out to be the Tibetan version of gyoza. Gerry, who can never get enough of goat, couldn’t resist the Himalyan rasha. This Tibetan goat, however, didn’t meet the high standards set by the Punjabi or African versions of goat we enjoyed at previous outings.

Alu Tarkari: Fried bread and spicy potatoes

There was nothing really wrong with Yamakaze. Sure the muzak of Celine Dion and Barbra Streisand we had to endure while dining didn’t enhance the experience. But we met our $20 limit, even with a few rounds of hot sake. Everything was perfectly fine. That being said, I doubt any of us will ever return.

And no one did.

The Intestine Quandary

5 Apr

Just a few blocks from the Himalayan Yak and Braulio’s & Familia, Zio revisited the “epicenter” to discover Zabb Queens.

Zabb Queens
(RIP)

 

 

As is his modus operandi, Zio scoured the internet food blogs and websites to find an appropriate destination for our group. His meticulous research unearthed a restaurant in the shadow of the elevated number 7 train tracks on Roosevelt Avenue in Queens, in the area he has referred to as our “outdoor food court,” also known in our circle as “The Epicenter” or “Ground Zero” for cheap, global grub. This one, a Thai place called Zabb Queens, was just a few train stops from our other favorite Thai restaurant, Arunee.

Upon entering, I noticed a review from the New York Times prominently displayed. I pointed this out to Zio. A notice in the Times usually is a warning—a red flag that what was once an authentic local establishment would almost immediately become gentrified and dulled down to appease the masses. Zio just shrugged and I decided not to hold it against the restaurant. I had to keep an open mind.

Zabb, unlike Arunee, advertised as “Esan” Thai food. Of course we were clueless as to what Esan might be but Eugene, always handy with the print outs of reviews of the restaurants we visit, pulled out his file on Zabb and we learned that Esan was actually Isaan, the northeastern province of Thailand and close to Vietnam and Laos. We had no idea what made the food of northeast Thailand different from what was prepared in the southwest until we took a look at the booklet that served as the menu and noticed a variety of organ meats; intestines, offal, hearts, liver, stomach, and pork skin. Along with the organ meats, catfish was also plentiful on the menu. This was Thai soul food.

 

 

The clientele in Zabb’s narrow dining room was a mix of Asian and adventurous non-Asians like our intrepid group. Before ordering, we, pompously, explained to the eager waitress that we did not want to experience generic Thai food; we would not accept any compromises in heat or anything else—we wanted it the way she would have it. She understood and, though we passed on the chicken heart on a skewer, we bravely ordered the House special soup with liver heart and a choice of either pork or beef intestine. Don’t ask me why, but we decided on the intestine of the pig as opposed to the cow, and then to complement that, ordered the “pedestrian” tom yum soup with shrimp. A sip of the tom yum was anything but pedestrian. I immediately began to hiccup; a reaction I experience when something is so hot it is off the spice meter if there is such a thing. Hoping the House special soup would possibly cool my scorched palate I took a sip and chewed a piece of the aforementioned pig’s intestine. The heat from this soup, though not as brutally sharp as that of the tom yum, had more of a slow, yet just as fiery, burn. As my body adjusted to the heat, the hiccups calmed but the soups had elicited a sweaty sheen on all our brows with the exception of Mike from Yonkers , whose face remained dry and cool as he slurped down bowl after bowl.

 

 

The BBQ beef in a spicy sauce was mild in contrast to the soups as were the trio of salads we ordered, green papaya with salted crab, crispy duck, and crispy catfish. The latter two, the duck and catfish, crisped beyond recognition. Zabb’s rendition of pad Thai noodles was not on the same level as Arunee’s, but the sautéed drunken noodles, the Thai version of chow fun, with a mix of seafood in a dry curry sauce, was the consensus winner and almost instantly devoured. Eugene would not leave until his request for a plate of chicken panang was met. We had no choice but to accommodate him and though he grumbled that we never received rice, he was ecstatic, immediately claiming that it was the best panang he ever had, if that’s worth anything. Dessert was orange-coated sweet doughy balls that were stacked in plastic take out containers by the door and the less said about them the better.

Zabb Elee, formerly Zabb Queens

Though the original Zabb Queens we visited in 2006 is gone, it has been replaced with an even less pandering Thai “Isaan” (or “Esarn” as it is spelled on the menu) place called Zabb Elee that doesn’t even bother to include pedestrian Thai like panang or pad Thai (sorry Eugene) but keeps those favorites like grilled chicken liver and chicken hearts along with pork legs soup.  In fact, Zabb fever has gripped the city—at least the East Village—with two Zabb restaurants, a sister Zabb Elee and another called Zabb City. It’s encouraging to note that, at least in the East Village, there is now a demand for chicken hearts and snake head fish.

The Pierogies of Old Poland

15 Feb

I had never been to Greenpoint, Brooklyn before our visit to Old Poland Bakery & Restaurant in early 2005. It was an eye-opener in some ways to me. First, it’s not easy to get there from Manhattan via public transportation. The closest train is the G train which has no Manhattan stops. You need to take either the L to Lorimer Street in Williamsburg and switch to the G or take the 7 to Queens where you can connect to the G at 45 Road. Maybe because it’s so inaccessible that it has remained a strong Polish enclave. At least it was that way in 2005 when I visited and wrote what appears below.

Old Poland Bakery: circa 2005

Old Poland Bakery & Restaurant
(Now Northside Bakery)
190 Nassau Avenue,
Greenpoint

Rick deliberated long and hard before choosing the Old Poland Bakery & Restaurant in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. And the fact that whenever he called the place and asked—in English—about a reservation and to make sure they would be still open when we got there they hung up on him, was either a very good sign or we were in big trouble. But when we arrived, saw the faces that populated the restaurant—yes we were still in New York—and noticed the prices of the food written in magic marker on cardboard, we quickly realized that we might just have hit the mother lode. That this brightly-lit combination bakery and Polish diner was exactly what we all yearned to discover.

Of course there was a television and of course on the television was a Polish station with Polish cartoons and news of the Polish football league. Both were watched silently and intently by men with ample guts, close-cropped hair, ruddy faces and wearing colorful sweaters. Rick and I hoped for some help with the menu and some guidance on what we should order but our request was met with a blank stare and then a shrug by the pretty woman taking orders behind the counter. There was no table service here; you had to go up and pay when you ordered. We decided we should take shifts in ordering. I had the first shift and choose a selection of pierogies; meat, potato, and sauerkraut, and cheese blintzes. Inexplicably, the same pretty woman this time had no difficulty understanding me. While waiting we sampled a variety of Polish beers that, beyond their colorful names and labels, were not worth remembering though they did add a balance to the density of the pierogies. This starter selection of starch was seriously testing our mettle.

 

 

The next round—and really the last included something called a “Polish Plate.” With a name like that how could we pass it up? We also agreed on pork tenderloin, lima bean stew, and at Eugene’s unexplained insistence, that old Polish favorite, roast beef. The Polish plate consisted of a variety of Polish favorites like grilled kielbasa, potato pancake, more of those feathery pierogies, and an excellent meatloaf accompanied by pickled beets and red cabbage. The pork tenderloin was cooked perfectly and smothered in a thick, but not overly rich gravy. The surprise favorite of our selections was the lima bean stew, with chunks of smoked sausage and in a dense cabbage broth it was most definitely a hearty meal. The roast beef? Think college cafeteria.

Zio, who in less than a week would become a nonno, braved the bakery section and ordered carrot cake and a chocolate-covered cream puff, that was rivaled only by the sauerkraut filled pierogi in its density-quotient. But food density had yet to thwart Zio.

Though I wouldn’t put the cuisine of Eastern Europe high on my very long list of ethnic food favorites, a visit to Greenpoint where the Old Poland Bakery & Restaurant was located was worth it for the “we’re in another world” factor alone. Not to mention the ridiculously low tab of $11 per person including beers.

 

 

But things change. Though still a Polish enclave for sure, gentrification has crept into Greenpoint despite how difficult it is to reach via public transportations. The growth of nearby Williamsburg has extended into Greenpoint with new developments and restorations of single and two-family homes. Old Poland Bakery is now called the Northside Bakery (a Division of Old Poland Foods) and when I recently visited, I noticed that the space had been compressed into half of what I remembered. There is a small food counter and bakery space with now just a few tables. There was a television, and the patrons and women behind the counter were glancing at it, but not Polish news, cartoons, or sports;  instead they were all watching “The View.”

Malaysian Zoloft

1 Feb

I tried to stay away from politics and/or timely events while writing this recaps of our restaurant experiences, but this one, November 4, 2004, was just too close and fresh to just ignore. And in the case of Malaysian Rasa Sayang, our experience was affected by those events.

Malaysian Rasa Sayang
R.I.P

Bad

The rain was coming down hard—a sense of gloom had enveloped the city and was evident even in multi-ethnic Elmhurst, Queens. It was two days after the election of 2004. We had not planned this dinner to be a post-mortem, but the chance was always there and now it was up to Zio’s well-researched selection of Malaysian Rasa Sayang to boost our sagging spirits. Eugene was the first to arrive and it was evident that his spirits were far from sagged: he didn’t care that Bush recaptured the White House, all that mattered to him was that his Red Sox finally did in the Yankees and won a World Series.  Eugene was in prime form to sample the cuisine of Malaysia. And, so were we all—anything to divert us from the sad political reality of the day.

Worse

The menu featured 183 items plus 16 house specials, but Gerry’s eyes zeroed immediately in on the crispy pork intestines appetizer which he demanded we order. No one was in a debating mood and maybe a big plate of crispy pork intestines would zap us out of our collective funk. I was intrigued by item number 9, simply called “rojak,” described as a “cool delicious crunchy medley of pineapple, cucumber, jicama, and mango cubes with squid & shrimp crackers and our intensely flavoured shrimp-paste & pulverized peanuts.” Intense flavor is what we always seek, so rojak seemed like a natural. The popiah roll, a steamed roll filled with shrimp, tofu and egg was Zio’s recommendation while I suggested the roti canai,  a pancake-like bread served with a curry dipping sauce.

Intestinal relief.

The pork intestines, thankfully accompanied by two dipping sauces, was the first dish to arrive. They were followed by the popiah roll, the roti canai, and finally, a big plate of rojak, which certainly lived up to it’s intensely-flavored billing.

With help from our waiter, who had the look of an aging horse jockey, we began ordering more from the vast menu. He steered me confidently to the kang kung with belecan Sauce, kang kung, he explained as being the Malaysian equivalent of watercress. He also suggested number 66 on the menu, chow kueh teaw, which he claimed were noodles “very popular in Malaysia.” Zio, for some unknown reason was committed to the sarang burong, described as shaped fried taro with shrimp, chicken, and mixed vegetables topped with cashews while Eugene insisted on beef renang, cubes of beef shank slow cooked to “perfect tenderness” in a rich dry curry sauce.  Gerry settled on number 78, the steamed fish with bean sauce.

Kang Kung

In no particular order, the dishes arrived on our round table. The kang kung, looking like something found growing wild on the shores of the Amazon, was sautéed with garlic   had a crunchy, though not impenetrable consistency. The whole fish, a tilapia, taking up much of the space on the table, sat on a huge platter covered in a sweet and spicy bean sauce while the sarang burong appeared like hollowed out gourd stuffed with vegetables, shrimp, and chicken. Lastly came a big bowl of beef rendang, a fiery, Asian version of beef stew. I’m not sure of the exact moment, but it could have been when I was carefully excising a fish bone from the back of my throat when Eugene, as if we were interested, informed us that he once rode a bus to Radio City Music Hall driven by former New York Yankee, Joe Pepitone’s cousin.  It was soon after that, maybe when soaking up the sauce from the beef rendang in the coconut rice, when we all learned, also by way of Eugene that this day also happened to be Ralph Macchio’s (The Karate Kid) 43rd birthday. It was tidbits like these that made Eugene such a fountain of knowledge.

 

 

Again, as is our custom, all the plates were picked clean, including the skeleton of the tilapia. Our taste buds had been intensely flavored and for a few hours at least we forgot about the uncertain future. But then we walked out into the rain. And speaking for myself, it would take a few more meals on the level of Malaysian Rasa Sayang to ultimately remove the bitter taste in my mouth.

Now more than a full election cycle and a half since our dinner at Malaysian Rasa Sayang and it’s almost as if nothing has changed in terms of our “uncertain future.” The future for  Malaysian Rasa Sayang was even worse than uncertain. It is no more replaced instead by a Thai restaurant.

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