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The Third Wonder of Woodside Avenue

24 May

 

DSC00548.JPGLittle did we know when we first visited Woodside Avenue in the fall of 2015 and the Filipino karaoke joint, Papa’s Kitchen (Papa’s Karaoke in the Kitchen Blues) that we would return again to this now fabled food boulevard two more times within the same year. We had no idea that there were three food wonders—all within a two and a half block radius—on Woodside Avenue in our food group’ mecca: Queens. I should have picked up on the hint in Zio’s email after I announced Renacer Bolivian (A Beef Rebirth at a Bolivian Restaurant in Queens) as our last destination: “That was gonna be my pick,” he wrote. “I saw it just before we were accosted by the karaoke queen. I guess I’ll go with the Bhutanese place.”

“Bhutanese?” I wasn’t paying attention until we filed out of Renacer and he pointed to the restaurant on the corner. “That place,” he said.

And a month later we were seated in Bhutanese Ema Datsi,  the restaurant on the corner a few doors down from Renacer Bolivian and across the street from Papa’s Kitchen. The restaurant was deserted and the limited decor featured panoramic posters of villages tucked into Himalayan mountain tops.  The menu was separated into three cuisines: Tibetan, Bhutanese, and Indian. Why go to a Bhutanese restaurant and order Indian food? None of us did. In fact, only Mike from Yonkers veered from the intriguing Bhutanese column on the menu when he ordered the Tibetan beef with oyster mushrooms.

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A Bhutanese retreat

We were without Eugene this evening meaning, because of his bizarre aversion to fungi, we were without guilt  in ordering dishes with a plethora of mushrooms.   Not that it would have stopped Mike from Yonkers—or Gerry for that matter—from indulging in the options on the Bhutanese menu. Gerry’s mushroom selection was the specialty of the restaurant, the ema datsi with mushrooms; a stew of vegetables along with the mushrooms and very hot green chilies combined in a mild gooey cheese sauce that was nothing like what you would get on a Philly cheese steak sandwich.

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“Dry” pepper chicken

Before ordering our entrees, however, we got started with two appetizers: the “pepper chicken dry,” a fiery plate of stir fried boneless chicken and peppers, and the sooji deep fried pomfret (fish).

“What’s a pomfret?” Zio inquired of our gracious, yet soft spoken to the extreme, waiter. Could it be that he was fresh off a vow of silence stint at a Buddhist monk training camp? No one knew for sure, but the words he mouthed after Zio’s question were inaudible to all of our aged ears. When the pomfret arrived looking like slightly upscale fish sticks we quickly sampled. One taste and all of us agreed that the pomfret  tasted suspiciously like tilapia—as if tilapia has any taste at all. Thankfully the fish was served with a house made chili sauce which gave it much needed flavor.

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Bhutanese fish sticks

 

Zio and I choose “dry” items on the menu. He went with the dry pork and I tried the dried beef curry “moapa” style. Zio’s appeared first; slices of dried fatty pork belly in a stew of thinly sliced potatoes. “No these aren’t potatoes,” Zio proclaimed after taking a bite. I sampled one. “It’s a radish, ” I told him

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Dried pork

The potato like chunks in my dried beef stew were indeed potatoes but the stew was devoid of the familiar flavor of curry. Not that it mattered; the dish was hearty and fiery enough to sustain a man on a frigid night in the Himalayas. I wondered why the waiter deposited toothpicks on our table along with our platters until I began picking pieces of the dried beef out of my teeth.

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Dry beef stew “moapa” style

Lastly, small bowls of from what I thought the waiter whispered was “seaweed soup” were given to all of us. I took a sip. I had heard correctly. Zio, however, heard nothing.

“I’m not sure if I’m supposed to clean my hands with what is in this bowl or eat it?”

Where do they get seaweed in Bhutan, I wondered aloud. No one answered. No one cared. Sometimes we need to put our heads down and just eat.

After cleaning our platters, our check arrived. We thought we might be helpless without Eugene present to tally up the damage. But there was no damage. We were well below our $20 per person allotment. And for all the very satisfying food we ate, that was a wonder in itself.

Bhutanese Ema Datsi

67-21 Woodside Ave

Queens

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The Happiest of All Hours: Spring Training at the Yankee Tavern

23 Mar

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Pitchers and catchers have long ago reported. They are now playing meaningless games in Florida. It is officially Spring. What better time to celebrate the season than for a Happy Hour beverage at the practically vacant Yankee Tavern.

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A fresco of two catchers

During the baseball season, fans spill out onto 161st Street before and after Yankee home games at the Yankee Tavern. Whether the Yankees win or lose, those crowds just do not make for a Happy Hour. What better way to enjoy this legendary dive than during the “exhibition” season. There are seats, many of them, at the bar. A meaningless Grapefruit League game is playing on one of the bar’s many screens. All I know that the game does not involve the Yankees.

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Grapefruit baseball

When the man behind the stick asks me what I want, I can hear him and he can hear me. We converse. He wants to know what my preference is. I tell him I would prefer something local. He ponders that for a moment.

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The man behind the stick at the Yankee Tavern

“The only local beer is probably Yuengling,” he says. I quickly Google on my phone and see that the Yuengling Brewery is in Pottsville, Pennsylvania, which is approximately two and a half hours from Yankee Stadium. Despite the plethora of micro and imported beers now on the menu at the Yankee Tavern, I go with the “local.”

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The local beer

The late afternoon sun is streaming in through the high windows of the Yankee Tavern. I notice a fancy espresso machine behind the bar. A few patrons wander in who are, apparently, regulars as the bartender addresses them by their first names and pour them their drinks without asking what they want.

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I can hear the excellent juke box playing the Temptations, “Just My Imagination.”  I can watch  Grapefruit League baseball in peace.

Temptations

“running away from me…”

I finish my Yuengling, leave a tip, and head back out to the subway overlooking a vacant Yankee Stadium as the sun sets over the adjacent Major Deegan Expressway.

yankee tavern

Yankee Tavern

72 E 161st

Bronx

 

The Wong Wonton Mott Street Revolt

25 Jan

 

IMG_20160120_194318534_HDRThe winter of El Nino was finally becoming harsh and noodles and soup seemed like a good idea to both Zio and I. I had told him to meet me at a place called 102 Noodles Town, but before I got to the restaurant, I received a text from him. “I am at 102 Mott Street,” Zio wrote. “There is nothing about noodles or the town of noodles.”

Zio was waiting out front when I arrived. The restaurant at 102 Mott Street was now called Wong Kee, but in the window was a declaration from Zagat’s referring to “Big Wing Wong,” and describing the restaurant as “traditional” with “BBQ meats and soups.” Despite the confusion over the restaurant’s name, it had what we wanted and we wasted no more time out in the cold.

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We passed an open kitchen where soups were bubbling and where red-glazed ducks, roast pork and ribs hung. The menu was traditional, as Zagat proclaimed featuring congees, an assortment of soups, and barbecue meats over rice. We were about to order when a stranger who had just finished dining approached our table.

“How did you hear about this place?” the man asked us.

We looked at each other. We weren’t sure how to answer.  Zio mumbled something.

“It’s my job to know about these places,” I finally said.

“Did you know this used to be “Big Wing Wong,” he informed us.

“I saw that on the door.”

“We thought it was called ‘102 Noodles Town’,” Zio said.

“What?” The man was stumped.

“102 Noodles Town.” Zio repeated.

“I don’t know about that, but I do know that some of the people who work here worked at Big Wong before this place became Big Wing Wong,” he said

“Well we definitely know Big Wong,” I said, referring to another very good soup and noodle place also on Mott Street that both of us had frequented numerous times.

“Yeah, so a group of them left Big Wong,” the man said.  “There was a revolt,”

“A revolt?” Zio looked puzzled. “What kind of revolt?”

“I don’t know.” The man now had a sly smile. “They didn’t like working there. It was a communist revolt.”

Neither of us really knew how to respond to that.

“Yeah.” The man stood there. “I used to come here all the time, but not since they changed the name.”

“From 102 Noodles Town to Wong Kee?” I asked.

“You mean Big Wing Wong,” he said.

“Whatever.”

Big wong

Where the revolt took place

“So is the food still good?” Zio asked

The man shrugged. “I don’t know. The duck was a little tough. It didn’t fall off the bone like it used to.”

“Maybe it was just one tough duck,” I said trying to inject some humor into the bizarre interaction.

The man finally departed into the Mott Street chill and Zio and I were left to ponder the information we just received.

“I don’t care about the duck,” Zio said. “I want soup.”

“That’s why we are here,” I said.

“Ready now?” Our waitress asked as she approached our table, her pen and pad out.

“We thought this was 102 Noodles Town,” I said before we could order, hoping to clear up the confusion.

“New owner,” she blurted.

“What?” Either Zio’s hearing was going or he didn’t understand.

“New owner,” she barked again. “Ready now?”

I ordered the mixed shrimp, pork and vegetables dumplings with soup. Zio pointed to the beef tripe medley noodle soup on the menu.

“You want that?” Our waitress questioned Zio’s choice.

“Yes I want that,” he huffed indignantly .

She was ready to leave, but we called her back. We came all the way to Chinatown on a cold night. We couldn’t just have soup. I added a roast pork omelet over rice.

“You know you are ordering egg foo young, don’t you?” Zio told me.

“Yeah, but it says ‘no gravy’ here,” I said pointing to the menu. “Maybe I’ll get lucky and they’ll make a mistake.” The corn starch-thickened brown sludge usually poured over egg foo young was a guilty pleasure of mine.

Keeping our ordering very old school, Zio ordered the chop suey with pork, squid, and shrimp.

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Squid chop suey

Before deliberating further on Chinatown restaurant revolts, our soups came. The wontons in my flavorful chicken-based broth were fresh and stuffed with a combination of pork and pieces of shrimp. It was exactly what I wanted.

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Wonton soup

The roast pork omelet came before I could finish the soup; a large fried disc of egg and pork over rice, but, to my disappointment, with no gravy.

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No gravy

Zio was still gnawing through the tripe in his soup when the chop suey, an assortment of meats, fish and vegetables in an oyster sauce was placed in front of him.  Soon he gave up on the tripe and concentrated his efforts on the chop suey. Between the two of us there was nothing left.

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The beef tripe medley

Fortified now, we put on our winter gear; the soup and hearty hot dishes like another layer. Once outside I looked at the sign again.  “Do you think when they called it 102 Noodles Town they were borrowing from Great New York Noodletown?” I wondered referring to another excellent soup and noodles joint.

“Who knows?” Zio said with a shrug. “Maybe there was a revolt there too.”

Wong Kee

102 Mott St

Chinatown

 

Neckbones’ Calcutta Christmas Carol

23 Dec

Calcutta Wrap & Roll

Gerry, when he announced his pick, called the location we were to visit the “childhood home of our fearless leader.” The fearless leader he was referring to was me and I wasn’t so fearless in anticipation of driving out of the city at rush hour during the Christmas gridlock alert days but it was something I expected knowing Gerry’s sadistic tendencies. So when I knew I would be traveling to Ardsley, normally less than a half hour drive from my city home, and knowing there would be holiday traffic, I gave myself about an hour and a half to get there. I had the pleasure of Zio’s company for the ride out. Our destination was a joint called Calcutta Wrap & Roll, in the small town plaza surrounded on either side by the Saw Mill River Parkway and the Major Deegan Expressway.

Ardsley was my home in the middle years of the last century. In the Leave it to Beaver days of my youth, like the television in our living room, Ardsley was a black and white town, minus the black—or any other color.  I explained all this to the Bronx born Zio as we arrived about a half hour early narrowly escaping the hellish transverses out of Manhattan.

That front entrance looks very familiar.

That front entrance looks very familiar.

Since we had extra time, I took Zio past the modest suburban home where I spent my early school years. I noticed there was a Santa Claus with eight tiny reindeer on the roof of the house. All those years anxiously tossing and turning on Christmas Eve on the top bunk of the bunk bed in the room I shared with one of my brothers hoping to hear Santa on our roof, I never did. On this night when I planned to feast on Indian food there he was. And I no longer cared.

I showed Zio the route I would take with neighborhood friends from my house to the very small main street where we would plunder bubble gum dispensers not for money, but for the tasteless balls of bubble gum. I pointed out the small store that was called Big Top where I bought my baseball cards, comic books and my first 45 records, including the one below. Big Top was now a bagel shop.

Across the street from the bagel shop was a Mexican restaurant, a Thai place and Calcutta Wrap & Roll. Even the mention of such exotic cuisines when I lived in this town would have been incomprehensible. Exotic to me when Ardsley was my home was a soft serve chocolate ice cream cone at that local Carvel that was topped with chocolate sauce that hardened over the ice cream called a “brown bonnet.”  The Carvel was still there, though now sharing the space with a Subway sandwich shop. It looked nothing like the grand ice cream parlor I remembered.

Hunger thankfully ended my tour down memory lane and soon our group was seated in Calcutta Wrap & Roll deciding whether to go for the mysore masala dosa “hot!” exclaimed the menu, or the Calcutta lamb roll “house special” of which there were many on the menu. We decided on the latter, much to Zio’s disappointment. For reasons never explained, he had his heart set on that baseball bat-like dosa.

Along with the lamb roll, we ordered the Calcutta vegetable chop—also one of the house specials. The vegetable chop, a sphere of fried potato reminiscent to a extra large tater tot  but with Indian accents.

Vegetable Chop

Vegetable Chop

For my entrée, I chose “Dr. B’s chicken chutpata “hot!” the menu exclaimed but without a mention of who “Dr. B” might be. Eugene stuck to the traditional, though not for Ardsley circa 1964, chicken biryani while Zio wanted his Indian rice with goat meat.  Mike from Yonkers, who had to eat at an unusually, for him, rapid pace due to an appointment he needed to get to, chose the malai kofta, mentioned as “Piyali’s Choice,” again without a hint as to who Piyali was. This offering was garnered a “chef’s special” as opposed to the more mundane house special. Gerry rounded out the ordering by picking the Goan fish curry, which though “hot” was nobody’s special.

“Tilapia or salmon,” the waiter asked, giving Gerry a choice.

Gerry chose the tilapia and soon our food, dished out in plastic take out containers and served on cafeteria trays was in front of us.

Goat Biryani

Goat Biryani

Though the two starters, the lamb roll and the vegetable chop were pedestrian, the entrees were a cut above standard Indian take-out.  Coated in a blood red, “special hot sauce,” Dr. B’s chicken chatpata was the Punjabi equivalent of Buffalo chicken wings. All I needed was a beer and either a blue cheese sauce or at least an order or raita to offset the hot sauce. I had neither.

Dr. B's Chicken Chatpata

Dr. B’s Chicken Chatpata

Gerry’s fish curry was lip numbing and even the biryanis had a bite to them, while “Piyali’s choice,” the malai kofta; paneer with vegetable dumplings in a yellowish-cream sauce would have put out any fire it was that mild.

Piyali's Choice: Malai Kofta

Piyali’s Choice

For what was very good take-out Indian food, the prices were not very Calcutta-like. But we were in Westchester—Ardsley to be exact and real estate doesn’t come cheap in these parts no matter the ethnicity.  As we headed back to the city there remained a tingle on my lips from the heat of the countless chilies consumed and that was a good thing.  My only regret was that we didn’t stop at Carvel for a brown bonnet to help put out the fire…and for old times sake.

The brown bonnet

The brown bonnet

Luigi’s Prima Pasta & Pizza

12 Mar

(A menu inspired by the music of Louis Prima)

Chef Luigi

Chef Luigi

Welcome to Luigi’s Prima Pizza & Pasta where we serve the best in Italian-American cuisine. Come to our lively, festive restaurant where our beautiful hostess Felicia will show you to your table. Felicia, from Calabria, speaks no English, so Felicia…no capicia. But if you have any questions on the menu, Angelina, the waitress (at the pitzzeria) will be glad to answer them.

All dishes are prepared home-style and created from recipes evolved from Chef Luigi’s grandparents from the “old country.”

Here is a sample of Luigi’s award-winning menu.

Antipasto

Minestron’

Pasta fazool

Zooma Zooma Baccala (served  room temperature in a salad with hot cherry peppers)

Ol’ Fashion Salami

Brooklyn Pastrami

Cucuzza*

*”Cucuzza grows in Italy, they love it on the farm. Something like zucchini flavored with Italian charm”

 

Pizza

Tomatoes and fresh Mozzarella*

Sausage

Meatball

Fresh Garlic

Anchovies

Mushrooms

*Extra mozzarella, the way my cucuzza likes it, add $1.

 

Pasta

Lasagne

Ravioli (Luigi’s specialty)*

*Comes with one meatball. Extras are $2 each.

 

Primo

Cutlets Parmigiana  (chicken, veal or pork)

Steak Pizzaiola

Chicken Cacciatore

Virginia Ham (on the bone)

 

Sweets

Bananas (unless we run out and then, yes, we have no bananas)

Banana splits*

Spumoni

*A glass of ice water free with every banana split order.

 

Enjoy Yourself at Luigi’s!

 

Louis Prima’s Food  Discography

Angelina

Banana Split for my Baby

Closest to the Bone

Enjoy Yourself

I’ll Be Glad When You’re Dead (You Rascal, You)

My Cucuzza

Pennies From Heaven

Please Don’t Squeeza the Bananas

Yes, We Have No Bananas

Zooma Zooma

The Little Shop of Dumplins

29 Jan

 

The Dumplin Shop

Eugene, Mike from Yonkers, Gerry and I were gathered around the bar in the adjoining cluttered dining room of the mostly take-out, Jamaican fish joint,  the Dumplin Shop.  Located just off the entrance to the New England Thruway in the Baychester section of the Bronx, the Dumplin Shop was an oasis in an otherwise food challenged wasteland. Each of us was nursing cold beers as we waited for Zio’s arrival to complete our party and proceed in ordering.

Plenty of beverage choices in the dining room of the Dumplin Shop.

Plenty of beverage choices in the dining room of the Dumplin Shop.

While Eugene was happily informing us of all the snowstorms he would be missing during his impending annual Punta Cana all-inclusive escape, my cell phone buzzed with a text from Zio. “I am still on the #5 stagecoach but I am coming,” he wrote.

Why is he taking a train all the way from Astoria we all wondered? Why didn’t he drive?

“You are insane,” I replied tersely.

“I’m hungry,” Eugene bellowed. “Do we have to wait?”

I texted Zio again. “You close?”

“Next  stop is 219th St,” he replied. That would be the stop he needed to get off and then walk the few blocks to 222nd Street and the restaurant.

“Alright, he’s close,” I told everyone as we continued to drink our beers and discuss deflated footballs. “He should be here soon.”

My phone buzzed. “Now 233rd.” It read.

“Uh oh,” I muttered. “He missed the stop or the train he was on was an express.”

“That’s it. We’re eating.” Eugene pronounced as he made his way into the take-out  part of the restaurant.

“Can I at least blame the Colonel,” I texted to Zio as we got in line at the counter.

“Of course, she took the car,” he quickly responded.

The woman behind the counter explained that at a restaurant called the Dumplin Shop they were out of dumplings…at least the boiled variety. They were also out of ackee and saltfish. And callaloo and saltfish. And the fish soup was gone too.

Some of what was left at the Dumplin Shop.

Some of what was left at the Dumplin Shop.

“See, I told you they would run out of stuff,” I said to Gerry. When he had informed me of his choice and asked my opinion, I mentioned that my only worry was that, based on experience, Jamaican take-out places tend to do a brisk lunch business and run out of many items by dinner

Still, they had snapper. They had porgy. They had oxtails if we wanted them— and chicken in brown gravy too. I ordered the porgy with rice and peas while Mike from Yonkers and Eugene opted for snapper. Gerry sweet-talked his way into a side of callaloo and we asked for a side of (fried) dumplings for the table.

We went back to the bar and our beers to wait for the food. There was another text from Zio. “Men I think I’m goin home,” it read.

I offered to drive him back into the city to a more convenient train to Astoria if he could get to the restaurant.

Zio's final response.

Zio’s final response.

It was just as well. Our food was ready and by the time Zio would have arrived they might have been out of porgy and snapper as well as ackee, saltfish and boiled dumplings.

As is the tradition at Jamaican take-out places, the food was served in a Styrofoam container; the porgy laying comfortably on a bed of rice and peas adorned with steamed cabbage and other spices. The porgy was meaty and moist and was a messy adventure devouring it without also swallowing any of its many bones.

Porgy served in a Styrofoam container.

Porgy served in a Styrofoam container.

A box of dumplings came out. They were fried and dense, but a good offset to the fish and beer.  We waited for Mike from Yonkers to cleanly excise flesh from bone on his snapper before heading out into the cold.

The hum from the traffic on the New England Thruway was the pre-dominant sound as we walked to our cars. Driving onto the Thruway, I wondered if the sign of the Dumplin Shop was visible from the highway. A vision of the sign while stuck in traffic or on the way back to the city from New England or Westchester would be like a welcoming beacon and a serious temptation to pull off the road for “the best fried fish and dumplings.” As long as the Dumplin Shop still had those dumplings.

The Dumpling Shop

 

The Dumplin Shop

1530 E. 222nd St

Bronx

A Feast for Five Faux Kings in Greenpoint

30 Dec

Jadlo

“I had one of those korytos at another Polish place here in Greenpoint,” Zio told us all just before we were to order one at Krolewskie Jadlo. “The meat was dry.”

We hesitated, looking at him. The koryto in question was a platter of assorted meats enough to serve either a group of three or four.

After a moment’s reflection and realizing his declaration put a damper on our group’s plans, he said “But we should get it anyway,”

“You’re just saying that because you want the wiener  schnitzel,” I said to Zio.

“Yeah, I want the wiener schnitzel,” Zio nodded. “But that koryto at the other place was dry.”

We were in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, reunited with Rick, who, in 2014 had been absent for most of our gatherings. This was his choice and his only hesitation was that the chef was “Nobu-trained.” What would that mean to our pedestrian group who were more used to dining in restaurants where the chefs were trained by their mothers and grandmothers than at a four-star Japanese restaurant? And, to be sure, our only other previous Polish experience most definitely did not have a Nobu trained chef (see The Pierogies of Old Poland). Still he took the chance and, despite the rain and that it was a “Gridlock Alert” day,” all of us were present with the exception of Gerry. “I’ve got to go to a business party,” was his excuse. “And you know, bizness is bizness.”

One of the blonde Polish waitresses, of which there were many at Krolewskie Jadlo, came to take our order.

“We’ll have the Koryto for Four,” Zio said to rectify his gaffe.

“And an order of wiener schnitzel,” Rick added. After all, we were five, if anything our group tended to err on the side of excess. We couldn’t take a chance that even a huge platter of meats for four would be enough for our gluttonous group.

The five of us were seated at a chocolate brown wooden table. There was a royal motif surrounding the restaurant including an armored knight placed strategically by the front door. The restaurant’s name translated, so we were told to “King’s Feast” and on this night, we assumed that we were the kings.

The King's guardian

The King’s guardian

While we waited for our feast, we sipped a Polish beer recommended by the waitress called Lech. The beer was a disappointment, the Polish equivalent of Michelob, but the enormous wooden platter shaped like a hollowed out boat filled with meats that arrived promptly was not.

Before I could dig in, the tender meat in the “hunter stew,” a big piece of pork shank was gone with the exception of its thick covering of fat. And despite my tendencies, I couldn’t eat the fat especially with so many other options in the koryto to choose from including the hearty blood sausage, the grilled pork and chicken, the kebabs, and the cabbage and potato pierogies. The plate of wiener schnitzel we ordered, two pounded and breaded pork cutlets topped with fried eggs, seemed minuscule in comparison.

Das Boot

Das Boot

The meal was accompanied by platters of krauts; cabbage, beet, and carrot along with thick bread and a garlic, butter spread. The food was more than plentiful, but Mike from Yonkers, who was at the opposite end of the table and not within a long arm’s reach of “The Boat,” feared he would miss out on some of the boat’s goodies, so he made a point of rising from his seat, his mouth stuffed with food and fork in hand, and  moved closer, hunching perilously over my shoulder,  and then spearing a piece of kebab and perogie adding it onto his already cluttered plate.

The boat looked like it would be a challenge, but for our group of five; a koryto for four was easy work. Even the addition of the wiener schnitzel could not halt our assault. The only food that remained of this “king’s feast,” was some of the kraut and the skin from the pork shank, though Zio was tempted to not leave that behind.

Schnitzel

A “minuscule” Schnitzel

There were dessert options that came out on a separate smaller menu—something we were not used to—so we politely declined. The bill, totaled by the ever reliable Eugene, was well within our allotted budget. As we gathered outside the restaurant in the rain to say our goodbyes until 2015 Zio nodded and said, “I’d come back here.”

“So would I,” I said.

And with those words, Rick’s choice just passed the most crucial test of our group’s assessment of a restaurant’s success.

Rum and Roti in Parts Unknown

27 Oct

Melanie's Roti

“Why isn’t The Bronx a city?” Eugene inquired as we sat around a table in Melanie’s Roti & Grill Restaurant on Castle Hill Avenue.

“It’s a borough,” Gerry explained.

“Yeah, but what’s a borough? Why isn’t it just another city? What is it with these boroughs? I mean, when I think of New York I think of Manhattan. That’s New York. The Bronx? Brooklyn? Boroughs? What’s that all about?”’

Zio, could only hear fragments of Eugene’s proclamations, but enough to test his patience. “Would you shut up already about the boroughs!” he yelled, his face contorted in rage.

Not long before I chose Melanie’s Roti & Grill Restaurant, CNN aired a program hosted by food and travel media celebrity, Anthony Bourdain called “Parts Unknown,” where the unknown part in this episode, at least to Bourdain, was the Bronx. After twelve years of foraging restaurants in New York, including all the boroughs that so perplex Eugene there were no more unknown parts in the city for our Chow City group. We’d been to almost all of them—and the Bronx, because it had long been neglected in the city’s food sphere has always been a particular focus for our group.

In the Bronx, our group uncovered ethnic joints where we’ve had, among other things, pizza, African, Vietnamese, Thai, Bangladeshi, Pakistani, Mexican, Barbecue, and Caribbean. The variety of food choices in the Bronx is almost equal to what can be found the city’s food epicenter, another one of those boroughs lamented by Eugene: Queens.

It was happy hour at Melanie’s and I got happy with a Heineken.

“They have Ron Zacapa 23 here,” Mike from Yonkers announced to all but especially to Gerry referring to the aged rum from Guatemala .

“I might have one or two of those,” Gerry said.

At Melanie’s the happy hour lasted from 4pm until 8. We were comfortably under the deadline.

“We are in a Guyanese place. Why not order an El Dorado 21 year old instead,” I suggested.

“Maybe I’ll have one of those too,” Gerry said with a sly smile.

Old rum for an old man

Old rum for an old man

That it was happy hour was a bonus, but we were at Melanie’s for the food.

It had been several years since we dined on Guyanese food and this one, located in the heart of a Latin neighborhood in the Bronx, seemed an anomaly until I noticed another “roti” restaurant a block from Melanie’s. Apparently there was a West Indian/Guyanese enclave within the enclave. Why should I be surprised? This was the Bronx after all.

With Mike from Yonkers’ insistence, and not that we protested, we started with an order of fried shark for the table along with a plate of channa, spiced and salted chick peas. The shark, also salty and fried into chunks went well with my Heineken.

Channa

Channa

The Guyanese like to offer westernized variations of Chinese food in their restaurants; lo mein, chow mein  and fried rice were available at Melanie’s. Though I would never order chow mein in a Chinese restaurant, I couldn’t resist trying it at Melanie’s and had what was called the “mix.”

“You want everything in it?” Our waitress and bartender inquired.

“I want it all,” I said without hesitation.

Guyanese chow mein with the works

Guyanese chow mein with the works

Though Guyana was a long way from Jamaica, the birthplace of jerk chicken, like all of the Caribbean, jerk has become a staple in that region and both Eugene and Zio ordered it at Melanie’s while Gerry, disappointed that there was no more goat available that day to have with his curry, substituted duck in its place. Mike from Yonkers also was intrigued by the duck, among other things, and chose the bunjal duck with Indian dhal and basmati rice.

“Oh and I can I have one of those roti things,” Eugene said, not knowing that roti was an Indian soft, flat bread wrapped into a narrow roll even though we knew he had had it before at one or two of our food choices throughout the years.

The portions were enormous; the mix in my chow mein included shrimp, beef, roast pork, duck, jerk chicken and vegetables. The noodles, as I expected were soggy but the vegetables crisp enough to compensate. The only real disappointment was the lack of spice from the jerk chicken, but the accompanying hot sauce more than made up for the lack of heat.

Duck curry

Duck curry

While we rapidly consumed our platters, Mike from Yonkers deliberately dipped his duck in the dhal, scooping a small portion of rice with it, and then wrapping it  into a portion of roti; the tedious process making us wait  until he finally finished before asking for our check. Eugene glared at him.

“Okay, I’m done,” Mike from Yonkers said, throwing up his hands.

On our way out and walking down Castle Hill Avenue with Zio, we passed  a familiar restaurant called Sabrosura.  It was familiar because a couple of years earlier we experienced the splendors of that Dominican/Chinese place and chronicled that experience in these pages( The Place Where They Don’t Count the Shrimp).  And like Sabrusora and so many others, Melanie’s was just another food find in Parts Unknown.

The Bronx

 

Melanie’s Roti & Grill Restaurant

1248 Castle Hill Avenue

The Bronx

Vietnamese by the Numbers

18 Sep

Saigonese

It was located on a decrepit stretch of Central Avenue, also known as Central Park Avenue, between Hartsdale and Scarsdale in Westchester.

“Remember what was across the street, Gerry?” Eugene said to his fellow Westchester lifer who, he thought would know such things.

Gerry looked at the wild growth of green space across from the restaurant. “Carvel?” He guessed.

I shook my head.  Even I knew that the Carvel, one of that ice cream franchise’s original stores, was down towards Hartsdale and I hadn’t lived in Westchester in almost 40 years.

We were stumped and that brought a proud smile to Eugene’s face. “Jesse’s hot dog truck,” he announced as if he just provided us with valuable information. “All he had were hot dogs with chili, onions, and mustard. None of that other stuff they put on hot dogs nowadays.”

We were in the parking lot of Saigonese, the restaurant chosen by another Westchester resident, Mike from Yonkers. The small oddly-designed structure looked like a former cat house and stood out among Central Avenue’s numerous hideous strip malls.

Inside the structure were an assembly of small tables; two were pushed together to make room for our party of five. Brightly lit with windows overlooking the adjacent gloomy stretch of landscape; muzak flowed from the restaurant’s sound system mirroring the dreary ambiance. But ambiance was not what our Chow City group was about. We’ve eaten in dumps without heat or air conditioning, off Styrofoam plates with thin paper napkins, but also where the food was so full of flavor, so memorable that it didn’t matter that you wouldn’t dare venture to the rest room—it was what we shoved into our mouths that counted. I was hoping that would be the result at Saigonese.

The menu offered no surprises; there was pho; there was bun and there were a number of grilled offerings. The only deviation was the addition of hot pots. But  taped over that section was a notice stating: “we no longer serve hot pots.”

“Is a summer roll the same as a spring roll,” Mike from Yonkers asked the waiter.

“On the west coast they call them spring rolls,” he said. “But they are the same.” And we had no reason to doubt his knowledge of such things.

For starters we ordered the exotic Saigon rolls and vegetarian summer roll along with the grilled spare ribs and the Vietnamese crepe, Saigonese style as if we knew any other style of Vietnamese crepe.

Four ribs for a party of five.

Four ribs for a party of five.

First to appear on our table were four grilled spare ribs. Now a spare rib is not an easy thing to share among gluttons so I volunteered to abstain, leaving the four ribs to the others. I made up for it, however, when the ample Vietnamese crepe appeared; a large pancake stuffed with shrimp, pork and vegetables that needed a jolt of something much more potent than the small bowl of sweetened fish sauce that came with it.  But there was no jolt to be had at our table.

“Chili sauce,” Mike from Yonkers, called to the waiter and he responded with a house made chili sauce and a bottle of Sriracha.

The exotic Saigon roll and the vegetable summer rolls arrived next. I examined them and then took a bite of the Saigon roll only to find out what supposedly made it exotic was the inclusion of Vietnamese sausage.

“Pass me one of those spring rolls,” Zio said to me.

“Unless we are in Los Angeles, I can only pass you the summer rolls,” I replied, but my reference to the West Coast/East Coast terminology for what was on our plates was lost on him.

East coast spring rolls served in the late summer.

East coast spring rolls served in the late summer.

Like the crepe, the rolls, spring or summer, exotic or not needed a jolt as well. I slathered one in the provided chili sauce and braced myself for a heat assault that, surprisingly, never came. At Saigonese even the chili sauce was tepid.

It was time to order and I had decided on a bowl of comforting pho; the traditional with beef brisket.

The waiter next looked to Eugene. “Number 29,” he said to the waiter.

“The house special with grilled pork and shrimp.” The waiter responded.

“Yeah that one,” Eugene concurred.

“Number 18,” Zio said, pointing to the number on the menu.

“Grilled chicken,” the waiter recited.

“The man knows his numbers,” I said.

“What’s number 31?” Gerry quizzed him.

“The mixed vegetables,” He replied with confidence.

“Can you make it spicy,” Gerry asked.

“How spicy?”

“As spicy as you would have it if you ordered it,” Gerry said. “I like it hot.”

The waiter nodded and then muttered, “Don’t complain if it’s too hot.”

“I’ll have number 15,” Mike from Yonkers said.

“Grilled chicken with lemongrass…”  Now the waiter was showing off.

Saigonese Pho

Saigonese Pho

The pho did offer the comfort I craved but I also wanted some zing. I stirred a few drops of the chili sauce into the soup, yet it remained comfortingly bland.

“They’ve Westchesterized this food,” I announced, meaning they dumbed it down, reduced the flavor and spice to appease the local clientele.

“Not this. This is hot!” Gerry said, his nose properly running and his eyes bloodshot from the excess spice added to his mixed vegetable dish. And then he looked around to see if the waiter was within earshot. “But I’m not complaining.”

Number 31 with added spice.

Number 31 with added spice.

The lack of flavor in the dishes was more than made up for by the surprisingly very good Vietnamese flan I had for dessert. Who would have thought that flan would be the standout at a Vietnamese restaurant but at Saigonese it was.

Vietnamese flan

Vietnamese flan

After settling our bill, we congregated in the small, now dark parking lot. I made the mistake of wondering out loud what would be the best route back to the city.

“Go back and take the Bronx River,” Gerry suggested.

“No, take Central Avenue and then get on the Deegan,” Eugene said.

“That will take forever with all those lights,” Gerry argued.

“No it won’t,” Eugene barked. “Ten minutes.”

“Yeah, Central Avenue,” Mike from Yonkers. “It’s the easiest.”

The wastelands of Westchester.

The wastelands of Westchester.

I couldn’t listen anymore and instead got into the car. I decided to pull out onto Central Avenue and take the scenic route suggested by Mike from Yonkers and  Eugene. Yes there were lights, but at each red light I was able to ponder the parade of strip malls glowing with colorful neon, the national fast food chains, car dealers, drug stores, pizzerias, diners, and Chinese restaurants and wonder at all the treasures that lay within.

Saigonese

158 S. Central Park Ave.

Hartsdale

 

Momo Moments in the East Village

31 Jul

Cafe Himalaya

“What made you choose this place?” I asked Eugene as our group convened at the Cafe Himalaya in the East Village.

“We’ve never had Himalayan food before,” was his response.

“Himalayan food?”

“Yeah.”

“You mean, Tibetan and Nepali food,” I said, pointing to what was written under the restaurant’s awning and on the menu.

“No Himalayan,” Eugene corrected me.

“But isn’t Himalayan food from Tibet and Nepal?” I queried.

“It is?”

“And didn’t you, several years ago, choose a place called Himalayan Yak?”

Eugene was perplexed. “I did?”

“Yes you did,” I said. “You don’t remember?”

He was lost for a moment and then waved his hand derisively. “How do you expect me to remember these things,” he snapped before quickly proceeding to bury his face in his menu.

This was our second attempt to get to the Cafe Himalaya. Our first, the previous week, was cancelled due to flooding on the Westchester roads. Everyone but Rick was available the following week so rescheduling was easy.

Seating was tight at the Cafe Himalaya. Zio was wedged so tightly between Mike from Yonkers and Eugene it was as if he was encased in a swarthy sausage casing. It didn’t help that the humidity was high and the lone air conditioner was struggling above the constantly opened front door.

Not much help there.

Not much help there.

Business was brisk, both outgoing and at the tables. Our harried waitress didn’t waste any time arriving at our table with pencil and pad in hand ready to take our order. Though we did visit a “Himalayan” place several years ago, Himalayan Yak (Yak Under the Tracks) did not have momos (dumplings) on the menu. Cafe Himalaya did, however, and we ordered two, one, pan-fried and stuffed with potato and the other, steamed and filled with ground chicken and herbs.

The café’s most popular dishes were written on the blackboard above the entrance to the kitchen and most of us ordered from there including myself when I ordered the tsel dofu, or vegetables and tofu in a spicy sauce.

Where the rest of us pointed to what we wanted on the menu or recited the corresponding number, Mike from Yonkers, in his best Tibetan, barked “Shapta,” to the waitress as she came to him for his order. But either she didn’t hear or she just wasn’t used to someone actually reciting the food they wanted to order.

“Shapta,” he repeated in a louder voice and this time she understood.

The momos came out first; the “tsel” or vegetarian, in my opinion, the better of the two. The chicken momo was an acquired taste and one I could not find it in myself to acquire. Despite our typically overwhelming hunger, there were momos left on our plates—a sign that at Himalaya Café the momos were mediocre.

Steamed chicken momos

Steamed chicken momos

When our entrees began to arrive the waitress called out “shapta.” I knew I didn’t order the shapta but no one was responding. She said it again and Mike from Yonkers waved his hand. “Shapta over here,” he said and she placed the platter of spicy, thinly sliced beef in front of him.

While Mike from Yonkers was examining his shapta, Eugene was quickly devouring the chicken curry, reminiscent, of Indian chicken curry but with the addition of yogurt giving the sauce a pinkish hue.

“How’s the Himalayan chicken curry,” I asked Eugene, not daring to sample any myself lest I risk getting speared by his rapidly plunging fork.

“It’s good,” he mumbled half-heartedly and then went back to silently devouring his food.

Shapta anyone?

Shapta anyone?

I wasn’t sure what it was Gerry ordered but noticed the pieces of white meat chicken and an abundance of broccoli.

“Chicken and broccoli?” I inquired

“Something like that,” Gerry said after a taste.

Zio’s  “chili chicken” pieces of thin, fried boneless chicken and vegetables, was, from my sampling, very much like Mike from Yonkers’ shapta; the same vegetable and sauce. Though advertised as spicy both dishes benefited by the additional zest provided by the restaurant’s hot sauce.

Spicy Dofu

Spicy Dofu

Crowds were beginning to mingle outside the tiny restaurant. Eyes were on our coveted table. I kept pace with the others as we made quick work of our meals.  Mike from Yonkers, however, crowds be damned, deliberately picked at his shapta, spooning small bits onto a few kernels of Basmati rice before shoveling it into his mouth. It was getting hotter inside the restaurant. Customers waiting for tables were hovering over ours.

“It’s time, Mike,” Eugene bellowed from Zio’s opposite side.

“All right, I’m done,” Mike from Yonkers announced, putting down his fork.

Our bill was quickly brought to us with the final result well under our $20 per person budget.

The view from our table.

The view from our table.

We sprawled out onto Houston Street and as we did, a group of eager Tibetan and/or Nepali food aficionados swooped in and took over our table for four where we had fit five. The momos weighed heavily in my belly. Sweat marks had formed under the armpits of Zio’s stylish extra extra large t-shirt. “Good job, Eugene,” he said. “But I have a question.”

“What’s that?”

“Do you have to wait for a table in Nepal?”

Eugene had no answer of course, but we could all clearly agree that our group of intrepid, yet slovenly diners, during our now 12 year run,  had yet to wait for a table anywhere in our cheap eats hot zone that encompassed, among other places, the Bronx, Brooklyn, Queens, Yonkers, and yes, even the rarefied streets of the East Village.

Cafe Himalaya

78 E. 1st St.

East Village

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