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The Lamb in Sheepshead (Bay)

25 Jan

What made our journey to Bay Shish Kebab, the restaurant I’ve reported on below, so memorable was not so much the food, which I recall was very good, but the effort it took to get there. This was Gerry’s pick and his research did not figure in how difficult it would be to get to Sheepshead Bay, where Bay Shish Kebab was located, from our respective locations in Manhattan and Westchester. The first attempt to get to Bay Shish Kebab was thwarted because of bumper to bumper traffic on the West Side Highway. To get to Sheepshead Bay at anywhere near the appointed time was next to impossible. Communicating through cellphones, we diverted to a mediocre, thus, unmemorable restaurant in Chinatown. Gerry tried again a month later, but on the day we were to go there were several cancellations; enough to cancel the outing altogether. Maybe it wasn’t to be; maybe Gerry just had to pick another destination? But no, he was determined and a month later, we set out again for Sheepshead Bay.

Bay Shish Kebab
R.I.P

Gerry was insistent. He wouldn’t let the hour and a half drive to Sheepshead Bay be a deterrent in his pursuit of Bay Shish Kebab. Despite repeated protestations by his fellow food hounds and even after two failed tries, he would not give up his obsessive quest. This was becoming an Iraq-like fiasco with no end in sight. We had no choice but to gas up our vehicles and be prepared to sit in rush hour traffic in the middle of two of New York’s worst thoroughfares; the BQE for Gerry and Eugene and the West Side Highway for myself and Zio. But enduring the horrific drive would be the only way to free Gerry from the demons that were driving him to lead us all into the outer fringes of Brooklyn for what he had us believe would be the exotic cuisine of Uzbekistan.

 

 

There were no miracles; the trip did take an hour and a half with a foreboding sky-darkening downpour accompanying us throughout the journey. Even more foreboding was the fact that we were eating at a Muslim-run establishment on the beginning of the Jewish New Year. But, after numerous griping calls to Gerry as we sat in traffic, we finally made it to Sheepshead Bay and the elusive Bay Shish Kebab.

The restaurant, nestled prominently in the middle of a strip mall, was bright, and practically empty, yet the owners were waiting anxiously for “Gerry’s party.” Of course we were ravenous and thankfully pide, or freshly-baked Turkish bread, was brought to the table. The bread was Turkish, as were most of the items on the menu. There were a few Uzbek dishes, but the owner proclaimed that Bay Shish Kebab was a Turkish restaurant, not a Uzbek restaurant.

 

 

As soon a Rick arrived; his drive from Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn a mere 25 minutes, we began to order; cold mixed appetizers, mantu dumplings, and Turkish pies, similar to pizza, but minus the tomato sauce and heavy on the lamb. The mixed appetizers were mostly familiar; babagannus (as it was spelled on the menu), humus (also how it was spelled on the menu), stuffed grape leaves, tabuleh, but also a few surprises including a Turkish specialty called soslu patlican, eggplant with tomatoes, peppers, onions in a peppery red sauce. The pide was perfect to soak up the dips. Then the Turkish pies arrived along with the mantu dumplings, tiny ravioli-like dumplings stuffed with ground meat and swimming in Turkish yogurt.

 

 

Of course, the appetizers alone could have sustained us, but we were here for the famed kebabs. With the exception of chicken, the kebabs were all variations of lamb—hand-chopped, cubed, diced, and sliced. We ordered an assortment and one Uzbek specialty, palav, also known as pilaf, or rice with chunks of lamb, onions, carrots, and chick peas. The platters were gargantuan with the variations of lamb and chicken served either over rice or soaked in yogurt that was absorbed by cubes of bread and accompanied with hollowed-out, slightly hot peppers. The table suddenly became quiet as we began to work through the mounds of food, Zio, as usual, deft with his fork, leading the way. Gerry’s folly, and the long journey had been temporarily forgotten.

After all the meat, dessert was out of the question for me, but Gerry and Zio had much more in their reserves than I and ordered the Turkish rice pudding. They will have to elaborate on what made the rice pudding distinctly Turkish, as opposed to the familiar Greek variety.  Others thought coffee might help digest the enormous quantity of lamb we had just ingested, but the look on Eugene’s face when he took his first sip of his Turkish coffee was not promising. It brought back memories of the famed Filipino dessert with kidney beans and the Russian soft drink, Kavas; two of Eugene’s less than favorite exotic global eating experiences.

We were all quite content with Bay Shish Kebab and proclaimed it a winner until we received the check and Eugene added up the damage. We were way above our $20 budget for this one, but knowing how bizarrely meaningful this pick was to Gerry, let him slide. Next time, however, he will be held accountable.

 

 

Like Staten Island, where there are potentially many places that would fit our criteria, getting to Sheepshead Bay during the week at the height of rush hour, makes it next to impossible to venture. Maybe someday soon we will rise to the challenge. As for Bay Shish Kebab, my research has shown that it closed in mid-2010 for “renovations.” In other words:  R.I.P. Bay Shish Kebab.

Southern (Bronx) BBQ

18 Jan

Before our venture to the South Bronx and Uncle Sal’s, our group had a date at an African restaurant in Harlem called La Marmite. As I vaguely recall, only two or three of us showed up for whatever reason and I never summarized our experience there. We made up for it when we all were in attendance at Uncle Sal’s Ribs and Brew. It was early summer and our dinner there became memorable for many reasons, but probably most of all because it was the only one , in the over two years we had been doing this, where we got to dine “al fresco.”

Uncle Sal’s: circa 2004

Uncle Sal’s Ribs and Brew
R.I.P

After our previous debacle, when only the devoted few got to experience the delectable offerings served at the Senegalese restaurant, La Marmite, the group was now more than ready to reconvene en masse. Even Charlie, who will be relocating to the hinterlands of Emmaus, Pennsylvania with his wife, and soon to be born first child, was present as we made our way to East Tremont Avenue in the Bronx for a taste of Uncle Sal’s Ribs and Brew (formerly known as Uncle Sal’s Ribs and Bibs). We were enticed to this barren stretch of the Bronx just off the Cross Bronx Expressway with the promise of barbecue ribs created by a Sicilian immigrant and his Puerto Rican in-laws. Who could imagine what the end result of that amalgamation of ethnicities would result in? But the possibilities were very promising and incentive enough to make the journey.

Eugene and Gerry, the first to arrive, were a bit concerned when they entered the storefront and only noticed a few small tables. Their worries quickly dissipated when the boisterous Uncle Sal greeted them and directed them to a “backyard” where there were two large picnic tables surrounded by assorted junk; boxes, rusting industrial equipment, and a badly damaged fig tree. Still, on this warm June evening, what could be better than dining “al fresco” on East Tremont Avenue in the Bronx, the sounds of firecrackers in the air, and security cameras reassuringly eying the premises.

We were all present except Rick, who called Uncle Sal to say he was running very late. We did our best to accommodate our comrade by ordering an assortment of selected appetizers while we waited for him to arrive. Uncle Sal recommended the mozzarella sticks, fried ravioli, and chicken wings. None of these fast food offerings really excited us, but we couldn’t disappoint Uncle Sal.


We sat outside in the Bronx evening, sipping beers and listening to a boom box set up on a wobbly table outside waiting what seemed like an interminable time for the appetizers to arrive. When they finally did arrive, we quickly devoured the tasteless deep fried mozzarella, zucchini, and ravioli, and then estimating how long it took for the appetizers to arrive, decided we better get Sal going on main courses. The ribs, of course, were why we came here and we ordered a rack of both the “special cut” and the baby back ribs. The difference, explained Sal, was really just the size; the baby back being the smaller ribs. Besides the ribs, the menu here was vast including pizza, pasta, tacos, and Spanish food. Sal was pushing the shrimp scampi that was “not on the menu,” so we obliged him his Italian heritage and ordered it along with a philly cheesesteak sandwich, and, as a nod to his Latino in-laws, an order of fried pork chops with yellow rice and beans.

 

 

It was dark now and one bright bulb lit up the backyard. Sal had switched the radio station appropriately from hip hop to blues. Rick ambled in just in time to salvage a few remaining, now cold zucchini sticks. As the fried food sat heavily in our stomachs, the main courses arrived and despite the density of the appetizers, we had no problems picking apart Sal’s very good ribs, slathered in a not too sweet, subtly tangy sauce. The cheesesteak, cut into six pieces, was also a winner but the scampi, Sal’s praises notwithstanding, tasted like the kind of shrimp scampi you might get at a barbecue joint. Finally, we divvied up the pork chops, sampling some of the rice and beans and the “sides” like corn, cole slaw, and corn bread.

Once we finished, Sal came out, a cigar in his mouth, a rum and coke in his hand, and a satisfied smile on his face, to sit and regale us with stories about his life in Sicily—how he came to America when he was 16, and about his adventures in operating the restaurant. Eugene and Zio were a rapt audience, especially when it came to the stories concerning the health department and health code violations. Sal, unfortunately, does not deliver his ribs to Manhattan, but knowing they are attainable just off the Cross Bronx Expressway might make for a pleasant way to sit out a traffic jam on that cursed thoroughfare.

What’s left of Uncle Sal today.

I never did make it back to Uncle Sal’s before he closed. I recently drove to the still restaurant-remote area of East Tremont in the Bronx to see what had replaced Uncle Sal’s. In its place was a restaurant called Manny’s, specializing in Latin American “cuisine.” I went inside to see what else had changed. Instead of the deli-like interior, there was a full bar. I asked the bartender what happened to Uncle Sal’s. “He left a long time ago,” she said. “But he still own the building.” On the awning next to Manny’s, I noticed the Protective Security Service, Inc, and on the side of the awning “Uncle Sal’s Ribs and Brew, Inc.” I guess security services have much more appeal in the East Tremont section of the Bronx than do Uncle Sal’s ribs.

BBQ in the ‘Burbs

14 Dec

Our first out-of-town odyssey with Gerry was our venture just across the bridge to Fort Lee and the Korean, Masil House (see archives for November 9). When his turn to pick came up again, he took us further, a continuing theme for Gerry, when we traveled to Westchester for the not very exotic, though maybe it is for Westchester, barbecue. Here is what we experienced in the in Valhalla, New York in the fall of 2003.

Southbound Bar-B-Que

R.I.P.

 

 

It was a bit confusing to begin with. We were heading north looking for the Southbound Barb-B-Que. And north, in this case wasn’t the Bronx, it was Westchester, Valhalla to be precise, conveniently Gerry’s hometown as well as the final resting place of Babe Ruth. Rick had obliged to haul those of us who lived in the city in his all-wheel turbo Ram out of the bright lights and into the dark roads of Westchester. Gerry is a bit of a barbecue aficionado, so we all very much anticipated his choice despite the schlep out of New York City’s environs. Using my increasingly fading memory of Westchester and the vague directions Gerry gave me, we were able to find the restaurant without too much trouble. Stepping out of the “Ram,” I sniffed. There was nothing yet. . .nothing to indicate that we were in very close proximity to a self-proclaimed “butt kickin’ rib joint.”  But as we got closer two huge exhaust ventilators were spewing the reassuringly familiar perfume of smoking meat.

The restaurant was painfully bright especially after navigating the black streets of Westchester. Gerry and Eugene were already present and so was our table for six. All of the other tables were occupied making Southbound Bar-B-Que one of the most popular of places we have experienced. Could there have been a little blurb in the New Yorker? Or was it that this was the real deal? Service started off slow, but the delay was more than compensated by very cold mugs of beer, endless baskets of freshly-made potato chips that kept arriving on our table, and recollections by Eugene about his first experience watching ESPN at the former incarnation of Southbound Bar-B-Que, a German restaurant named Franzl’s.

Southbound Bar-B-Que’s former incarnation.

As is the case with most barbecue joints, the menu was not very extensive. Ribs were the advertised specialty and available in a half or  full rack. The other typical barbecue items were pulled pork, smoked chicken, sausage, and beef brisket. With the exception of the chicken, we ordered everything, including two full racks of ribs. Then there were the sides; corn bread, baked beans, macaroni and cheese, corn, and “freedom” fries because the place would have been empty if they used the other F* word to define their fries.

David Wells and his bad back was not good for the Yankees or my appetite.

Our food began to arrive around the first pitch of Game 5 of the World Series. And by the time David Wells left the game because of a bad back, the Valhalla chapter of the Hells Angels had entered the restaurant and took seats directly behind us. But neither the intimidating presence of the Angels nor the unwelcome David Wells’ situation deterred us from devouring the variety of smoked meats placed in front of us. The ribs, though spiced a bit blandly, were cooked perfectly, and the pulled pork was a true winner as was the beef brisket. The sides were nothing more than adequate; the corn bread a bit sweet and the macaroni and cheese unmemorable. The sauces were also a disappointment; all were overly sweet for my palate and the desserts good but indistinguishable. But I guess, despite the shortcomings, ribs cooked very closely to perfection in, of all places, Westchester, is a triumph in itself. I just hope the close proximity to barbecue doesn’t make Gerry complacent and limit his excellent efforts in that very same department.

I’m not sure when Southbound Barb-B-Que closed, but Gerry assures me it’s been gone a long time and that the food, after several visits following ours, went downhill very quickly. So, according to Gerry, its demise was no loss to him. The Yankees lost the World Series a few days later; David Wells’ injury pretty much doomed them and it wasn’t until six years later when they got back to the Series.

*The F word in the fall of 2003 was “French” for French fries. This was during the ridiculous hysteria during the lead up to the Iraq invasion when the French and their anti-invasion stance was vilified by Rupert Murdoch’s minions.

Across 125th Street

7 Dec

For years I would drive past the M&G Diner on 125th Street and wonder at the restaurant’s flamboyant signs “Soul Food” and “Southern Fried Chicken.” The signage looked authentically from the 1960’s and 70’s and I was curious if the food was, as another one of its signs said, “Old Fashion’, But Good!” Yet I continued to just “drive by;” never getting out of the car to check it out. When it was my turn to pick our destination in September of 2003, the time had finally come. Below is our M&G Diner experience.

M&G Diner: Circa 1974

M&G Diner
R.I.P

If it weren’t for the small poster tacked onto the entrance to the 125th St. subway station announcing an upcoming rally for “Reparations: It’s Time They Pay,” I would have thought I had just stepped onto the set of a 1970’s blaxploitation movie. There was the West African Hair Groomers just a few doors down from Showman’s Café, est. 1942 and on the corner of 125th and Morningside, the big neon “soul food” sign at the M&G Diner. Gerry and Eugene were waiting outside when I arrived. Eugene had arrived first and was marveling at the contrasts found on 125th street where in one store an NBA jacket sold for almost $800 while in another pants were selling for $1 each.

Peering into the spectacularly unadorned diner, I noticed only a few tables; this Harlem legend which I had never experienced was much smaller than I had thought. I suggested we take one of the tables before they disappeared. Rick had already bowed out of this trip due to an attack of either too much drink the night before, some tainted food, or the combination of both. That made five of us—the capacity for one of the tables at the M &G.

“What they do!…they smile in your face…”

“Back Stabbers,” by the O ‘Jays was playing when we entered. We were off to an excellent start.

It had been almost two months since our last venture and judging by Zio’s trim appearance a few minutes later, the layoff had been very good for his waistline. But we were now in a self proclaimed soul food restaurant and we couldn’t worry about our waistlines.  While we waited for Charlie, we perused the succinct menu: fried chicken (leg or breast), short ribs of beef, meat loaf, shell steak, chopped steak, chitterlings, smothered pork chops, ham hocks, fish and grits. With each dinner you were to choose two sides including soul food standards like lima beans, green beans, macaroni and cheese, collard greens, black eyed peas, and yams. Even though the options were not foreign to us, deciding what to order, as it always does, requires deep clear thinking. While looking at the menu, Eugene mentioned jokingly about ordering eggs and despite the music playing loudly from the jukebox, the lone woman behind the counter heard him and barked: “No breakfast served now!” The hand-written signs on the walls announced that the M&G was open 24 hours and that breakfast was served daily but only between 12:00 am until 1:00 pm. You obviously don’t joke about defying the one written rule of the M&G Diner.

We had given Charlie a half hour grace period and he still hadn’t arrived; it was time to begin the ordering process. The woman came from behind the counter equipped with pad in hand. She was running the show; handling all the tables, the counter service and the outgoing orders with brisk, yet good natured efficiency. Now she had moved to our table; she wanted decisive answers—waffling would not be tolerated. After each of us recited our dinner orders, she barked out “Sides?” We were ready for her with our responses and then: “Dinner roll or corn muffin?” Despite her formidable presence and our novice status at the M&G, we handled the drill reasonably well. Zio and Eugene went for the fried chicken, Gerry the smothered pork chops.

“Short ribs,” I said to her when it was my turn to order, but then the pressure got to me and my response of macaroni and cheese and collard greens came out with a slight stammer. I could tell she sensed weakness in me so, in response to the bread query, I rallied with a strong, definitive “corn muffin.”

Charlie walked in soon after we ordered with the lame excuse of being stuck in the office as an alibi for his tardiness. There was no way we were going to risk the wrath of the M&G Queen by summoning her to our table again, so we sent Charlie to the counter to put in his own order.

 

 

With nothing to munch on and the beverage choices being soda or overly sweet lemonade, all we could do while waiting for our food was listen to the Main Ingredient remind us that “Everybody Plays the Fool.” And then the M&G Queen arrived with our orders, carrying a few plates at a time without, as far as I could tell, even breaking a sweat.

The chicken had been proclaimed in our research as a highlight, and judging from what I saw and sampled, that assessment was accurate; tender and lightly pan-fried the way fried chicken was meant to be prepared as opposed to deep fried in a heavy batter. My short ribs were perfectly cooked, the meat separating cleanly from the fat and bones; the brown sauce, however, a bit thick and bland for my taste. The corn muffins were warm and not overly sweet and Gerry’s pork chops, tender and seasoned perfectly.

Despite the gargantuan portions, almost all of us were willing to sample the cakes and pies for dessert. I was the lone dissenter instead choosing an extra fork in which to pick at all the others. I tried a bit of Zio’s coconut cake, a bit more of Gerry’s sweet potato pie and almost all of Charlie’s chocolate cake and immediately regretted my decision in not ordering a slice of cake for myself. So impressed were we by the desserts, we asked if they were made at the diner. The M&G Queen said no and held out for a minute in revealing where they were from. Without too much coaxing, she gave in and, finally, offering us a smile as well, said they came from the H&H Bakery in Brooklyn as if that meant anything to any of us.

Our tab came in well under the $20 limit and as we were leaving, I heard O.V. Wright on the jukebox moaning something about “A Nickel and a Nail.”  We went our separate ways at 125th St, and as I walked toward the subway,  I noticed that the velvet rope was already out in front of Showman’s Café.

 

 

The M&G closed in 2008. A new condo tower had been proposed to be built on the corner where it was located. That project fell through; a casualty of the recession, but the damage was done. M&G was gone and I guess it gave an already struggling business an early out. It’s not easy for something “old fashion’ But Good” to compete with “DD,” “BK,’ “MickeyDs” and the other fast food joints that are now, unfortunately a permanent part of the 125th Street landscape.

Cooked in Corona

23 Nov

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

La Pollada de Laura
(R.I.P)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Life Before the GPS

1 Oct

Back in 2002, none of our group had GPS navigational systems yet.  And I’m not even sure if they were around at that time.  For those who drove, getting to our third destination, an African restaurant in the now bustling, and renamed by real estate prospectors “Gold Coast” of Harlem, was comical.  What follows is my depiction of that experience in the spring of 2002.

Leworo Dou Gou
(R.I.P.)

When I arrived at Leworo Dou Gou restaurant, after getting off the B train at 116th Street and walking two blocks up “8th” Avenue to 118th street, I was relieved to see Charlie already at a table and waiting. In fact, he was the only one waiting in the restaurant. Our dinner was scheduled for 7:30. Charlie and I waited, inhaling the pronounced aroma of a fish market mixed in with other strong, yet unfamiliar smells. The aroma, coupled with the fuzzy reception of “Wheel of Fortune” on the restaurant’s television, was beginning to make me feel a bit dubious about this outing, our third of 2002. I glanced at the menu and was relieved to see that none of the “Natural African Dish From the Motherland” were priced above $7. At Leworo Dou Gou we would be very hard pressed to surpass the $20 limit we imposed on ourselves when beginning this venture.

The Motherland encompasses a very vast mother of a land, but Leworo Dou Gou claimed to represent the Ivory Coast portion of that continent. Charlie and I were still waiting when my cell phone rang. Zio was close by, searching for Eighth Avenue. I told him to look for Frederick Douglass Boulevard, which on maps and in the phone book goes by the name of Eighth Avenue. A few minutes later, he walked in. So now there were three of us. The smells, which were beginning to test my stomach, immediately enticed Zio.  But Zio would salivate at the smell of burnt toast. While we waited for the remaining three in our party, we studied the menu wondering what “dry okra sauce,” “cassava leaf,” and “LaFide” might be. There was also something called “agouti.” The name was familiar and I recalled that I actually tasted agouti on the island of Grenada in the Caribbean. It was in the rodent family and I remember it being very tough and gamey. That not so complimentary description only reinforced Zio’s determination to taste the rat.

The three of us continued to wait, we were beginning to worry. The phone rang in the restaurant and a woman behind the take out counter of the restaurant answered. I could hear her struggling, in her English with strong French inflections, to give directions. One of our own was lost. A few minutes later, Rick pulled up. He had been searching for Eighth Avenue. A big mistake, as we were beginning to find out, since there were no street signs proclaiming the street we were on as being Eighth Avenue. After a few more minutes the phone rang again. Again the same woman was attempting to give directions. She gave up and handed the phone to a man who was sitting behind us, the owner, we later learned. He spoke perfect English and explained, on the phone to whomever he was talking to, that Frederick Douglass Boulevard was Eighth Avenue. He had been, it turned out, talking to Gerry and a few minutes later both he and Eugene walked in.

By now, either the smells had mellowed or I was too hungry to notice or care anymore. We all were ready to eat, but we had no clue what to order. We did learn that there was no more grilled fish, and to Zio’s disappointment, no agouti. Rick made the wise choice, he told the waitress to bring six dishes, a combination of some of the different items on the menu. While our food was being prepared we all had homemade ginger beer, tangy with a sharp hint of lime along with the zesty ginger. To entertain us while we drank and ate, the owner switched from the fuzzy network television, to a video of “soukous” music from West Africa, some of which, he claimed he personally photographed while at a concert back in the “motherland.” The music was infectious and the video production, gritty especially the scenes with the dancing midget. Or was he a dwarf?

Our food came, one heaping plate at a time. Fried whole fish (croaker) with plantain. Fried whole fish with cassava and yams. Stewed “hard” chicken, grilled chicken and beef on a stick, stewed fish in okra sauce, and an aspic-type wedge of what seemed to be pounded banana, which, by itself was bland, but worked with the sauce from either the stew chicken or fish. We were given forks and knives, but noticed that one of the restaurant’s customers expertly ate his meal without either. Even with forks and knives, our hands got greasy and we made what probably was the unusual request at Leworo Dou Gou for napkins. What we got were sections of paper towels.

The six of us soon devoured the food leaving only fish bones and cleanly picked pieces of chicken. Everything else had been eaten with Zio and Gerry even sucking up the last of okra sauce with the remaining few kernels of rice. There was no mention of dessert on the menu and the owner wasn’t offering anything but coffee, so we ended it there. All that for only $12 dollars per person left us wondering how Leworo Dou Gou could stay in business.

Leworo Dou Gou did not stay in business for long. Within a few months of our visit it was gone.  But that’s not uncommon among the African restaurants around the area of West 116th Street known as “Little Senegal.” They come and go with great frequency.  Though as the neighborhood changes and rents increase, I wonder how long the African influence in the area will remain. In 2002 there were vacant lots and tenements surroiunding Leworo Dou Gou. Now, across the street from where Leworo Dou Gou was there is a market price condo with a Chase bank, Starbucks, and a gourmet supermarket. A few blocks up an Aloft Hotel ( a divison of  W Hotels) will soon open while new restaurants are so prevelant on Frederick Douglass Blvd that some are saying the street will become Harlem’s “Restaurant Row.” But will they qualify for our $20 and under crowd?

The storefront that was once Leworo Gou Dou

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