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Curry Exotica

2 Jan

Amarin Cafe

“Why did you pick this place,” I asked Eugene as we warmed up inside Amarin Café, the “modern” Thai restaurant he chose that was surrounded by Polish restaurants in Greenpoint, Brooklyn.

“Because  we haven’t had Thai in a while and I looked at the menu and it’s cheap,” he replied.

I tend to struggle with my picks for our group; trying to find something a little different, unique in its own way and of course meeting our group’s budget criteria. Unlike mine, Eugene’s process seemed effortless. Why had I not thought of it before?

There were four of us waiting in the small restaurant; an open kitchen providing well needed heat. Rick had put himself on the temporarily “inactive” list for our group as he dealt with family issues. But Zio’s absence was a mystery. No one had heard from him. I texted to see if he was on his way.

In the meantime, we went ahead and ordered appetizers; fish cake, Thai spring rolls and something I had never seen before on a Thai menu, mussels “a la mariniere.”

There was no response from Zio, so I tried calling him. He picked up after several rings. “Where are you?” I asked.

“Home,” Zio said as if my question was a dumb one.

“We’re at the restaurant,” I told him. “About to order.”

“Restaurant? What are you talking about?” Zio tends to get flustered, but this was worrisome.

“The food group? It’s today.”

“I didn’t know anything about that,” he said, now comprehending the reason for my call. Apparently, for whatever reason, he never got any of mine or Eugene’s emails. It was now too late for him to get to our table in Greenpoint from Astoria before our appetizers arrived. We would remain only four.

Before I could hang up, the fish cake, spring roll and a steaming bowl of mussels arrived on our table. The fish cake and spring roll were  standard Thai fare, but the “modern” mussels mariniere were nothing like you would find in a French Bistro or a New York Thai restaurant for that matter. The mussels were steamed in a herb broth made up of white wine, garlic, shallots and plenty of chopped Thai basil and chilies. The only thing missing was a loaf of crusty bread to soak up all that glorious broth. The lack of bread, however, didn’t stop Gerry from using his spoon and slurping it down like a soup.

Mussels Mariniere Thai style

Mussels Mariniere Thai style

The entrée decision came soon after we devoured the appetizers. As is our custom, we asked our waiter, one of two women also working the cash register, what the specialties were. She mentioned the “exotic” penang curry with salmon. Exotic curry appealed to me and I ordered it, but with chicken.

“How do you like it? Spicy?” she asked.

“I like it the way you like it,” I replied.

“I like it spicy, she said.

“Then so do I.” I nodded and she noted it on her pad.

“What’s the curry with the coconut milk? I want something with coconut milk,” Eugene barked to her.

“You like red curry then,” she said.

“If it has coconut milk, then I like it. With chicken,” he said, tossing his menu.

Mike from Yonkers ordered the same, but with shrimp while Gerry braved another offbeat Thai selection; the spinach spaghetti with shrimp. We rounded out our order with Pad Thai for the table.

A bowl of what looked like a tomato based curry was placed in front of me. There was chicken and a few other vegetables. I had a small taste. The heat of the spice instantly stimulated the nerve in my throat that controls my hiccupping reflex. The hiccups came despite swallowing some ice water and shoveling white rice into my mouth. Finally, my body adjusted to the spice and the hiccups subsided replaced now by a sheen of perspiration around my forehead. I had settled into hot sauce nirvana.

Exotic Penang Curry

Exotic Penang Curry

Eugene’s hiccups matched my own, though his red curry chicken was no match in terms of spice to my exotic Penang. Mike from Yonkers, deliberately mixing the white rice in with his red curry, taking his time to savor every curry-coated kernel didn’t have the same reaction as Eugene and I. And Gerry’s non-traditional Thai green spinach spaghetti coated in an Asian, cilantro, garlic and basil-based sauce, though not hiccup inducing, was a revelation.

Pad Thai

Pad Thai

“The only thing missing is a cold beer,” Gerry mentioned as we cleaned our plates.

“Maybe so,” Mike from Yonkers said. “But there is crème brulee on the menu.”

“Crème brulee? I don’t think so,” I said, maybe a little hastily after experiencing the anti-Thai mussels and spinach spaghetti. “Let’s go get some Polish vodka instead.” We were, after all in Greenpoint.

“Now you’re talking,” Gerry responded quickly rising from his seat.

Amarin Cafe
617 Manhattan Ave
Brooklyn

 

A Taste of Bronx Honey

24 Jan

Honey’s Thai Pavilion
3036 Westchester Avenue
Bronx

When asked why he chose Honey’s Thai Pavilion, Eugene’s response was: “Someone told me it’s the best Thai food in the Bronx.” And on the restaurant’s website, www.honeysthaipavilion.com, they repeat what Eugene heard and state it clearly on the site’s home page. I’m not sure how many Thai restaurants there are in the Bronx. And as far as I know, the Bronx is not known for its Thai food. Still the honor, however it was bestowed, was enough for Eugene to justify our gathering in the Pelham Park section of the Bronx, just under the number 6 elevated train, to see if we would concur with the restaurant’s lofty claim.

I arrived early and had a beer at Vivienne’s Bar next door to Honey’s. As I sat in the bar with a few regulars in this predominately Italian-American neighborhood, I wondered if Vivienne, who served a cold Corona to me personally, had ever met Honey next door. And then I wondered if there really was a Honey of Honey’s Thai Pavilion.

Vivienne, meet Honey. Honey, meet Vivienne.

Eugene and Rick were waiting as I entered the sparsely populated, sparkling, diner-like restaurant. Zio was risking the long train ride from Astoria and I noticed there was a message from him on my cell phone. Train troubles apparently.

Mike from Yonkers came in soon after I did, and we all perused the plastic-coated menu searching for something that might distinguish Honey’s as the best Thai restaurant in the Bronx. From a quick inspection, the evidence was not obvious. There was the jerky appetizer; pork or beef, and mussels on the half shells. We could try them and hope for the best.

We waited a bit longer for Zio and just a few minutes before he slowly made his way to our table, we ordered the fried fish cakes, the beef jerky, and a bowl of steamed mussels on a half shell in a spicy broth with galangal and lime. Galangal, to those unfamiliar with Thai ingredients, is the more robust sister to ginger.

Fish cakes: cooked to a perfect rubber-like consistency.

The silvery growth under Zio’s nose, also known to some as a moustache, was the source of our early conversation as we waited for the appetizers. We wanted his reasons for attempting such folly, but he had no explanation for it. Maybe he needed a few of the rubbery fish cakes to help jog his memory. Or maybe one of the over-cooked, and evidently frozen, mussels that were in what was a very good, spicy broth accented by the presence of the aforementioned galangal would do it. But neither helped Zio come up with a coherent answer to the moustache question. And by the time we devoured the addictive sweet and spicy beef jerky that was fried to oblivion and accompanied by a chili sauce (chilly on the menu) we realized Zio needed no justification for his facial hair choices.

Mussels (frozen) accented in a galangal broth.

The entrees were relatively pedestrian. I was hoping to find something unusual when I ordered the pad key mao, flat noodles with basil leaves, onions and peppers in a spicy chili sauce. Our waitress inquired if I wanted it spicy. I tried to tell her that I wanted it as it should be prepared. Not quite understanding what I meant, she retorted that there were four grades of spicy: mild, medium, hot, and very spicy. I was considering one of the latter two when she suggested the medium as if she knew my tolerance for heat. “I can bring you extra chili sauce if it’s not hot enough,” she reassured me. What arrived needed no extra spice—medium had my mouth nicely charred.

Pad Key Mao

Nothing else that I tasted would have me exclaiming that Honey’s was the best Thai food in the Bronx. And I think the others were in agreement. Mike from Yonkers complained that the chicken in his spicy phik king was over-fried while Zio’s curry noodles with beef brought out a twitch in his new moustache: “There’s no excuse for beef that tough,” he grumbled, though ate it all anyway.

The curry noodles with beef had Zio’s sorry excuse for a moustache twitching.

I know Rick and Eugene ordered entrees, but I have no idea what they were and I think that tells you all you need to know about Honey’s Thai Pavilion.

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.

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