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The Poor Man’s Pupusas of Port Chester

11 Sep

El Tesoro II

14 South Main St.
Port Chester

When Gerry sent out the email revealing his choice for our most recent adventure, there were doubts among us of its authenticity. His first obviously mock pick, for some reason known only to Gerry, was a fictional restaurant in Brewster, Massachusetts. Even Zio, who has been slow, as he is on most things, in recognizing Gerry’s much too subtle sense of humor, knew that we weren’t schlepping five hours to Cape Cod for dinner.

A few days later, Gerry came up with another destination. This one, El Tesoro II, in Port Chester, New York, I knew was genuine. Zio, however, had his doubts. He responded in an email writing the following: “I take it this is one of Gerry’s confusing attempts at humor. If I can’t get there with my senior metro card I will be relaxed about sitting this one out.”

Port Chester is approximately 24 miles from Manhattan. Gerry has had us put on the mileage before; taking us to Yonkers, Valhalla, White Plains, Fort Lee, Jersey City, and, worst of all, Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn. When it’s Gerry’s pick, we come to expect to battle the rush hour traffic leaving the city. Apparently, Zio wasn’t going to take it anymore, yet when the day arrived, his attitude changed and he not only agreed to travel to Port Chester, but to chauffeur me up there with him.

Rick, however, who lives roughly 77 miles from Port Chester, was a game day drop out. Attributing his cancellation to a late work-related meeting, Rick needed no excuse. He was more than justified in bowing out—Gerry’s cruel joke could be taken only so far.

Zio and I expected a long haul up to Port Chester but as it turned out during this rush hour, there was no rush. The roads were surprisingly clear and we made it to the stark streets of Port Chester several minutes before the scheduled meeting time.

Those few minutes gave Zio and I time to take a look at the nearby eating offerings of Port Chester. Besides El Tesoro II, which claimed two Central American countries; Guatemala and Salvador as the cuisines featured, there were a couple of Peruvian diners, a chili dog dive, and, across the street where a monstrous, correctional facility-like mall stood, there was an Applebee’s and a Buffalo Wild Wings.

Two of Port Chester’s inviting eateries.

We passed a window where numerous colorful parrots frolicked at the Bird House of Westchester, and then entered El Tesoro. There were birds inside the tropically adorned restaurant as well, but these were chickens and they were stuffed.

One of the several stuffed hens at El Tesoro.

Our waitress, who Eugene, executing one of his lamer lines, asked if she claimed Italian heritage, revealed that she was, in fact, not from Guatemala or Salvador, but that she was from Honduras. And if there was a difference in the cuisines of the three Central American countries, she wasn’t telling us.

Guatemala or Salvador? Which is it?

From the Salvador-labeled section of the menu were the well-known pupusas which we celebrated many years ago at a restaurant in Washington Heights that still survives called: La Cabana Salvadorena.  (See Pupusa Love). As I vaguely recall, the pupusas were worth loving there and we had to try a few at El Tesoro.

No love for the pupusas of El Tesoro.

Also from the Salvador starters section were the tamales while, representing Guatemala, were the rellenitos, which Gerry bravely ordered. Our waitress described them as platanos (plantains) stuffed with beans. What she didn’t say what that the rellenito was of the sweet variety, deep fried and then sprinkled with granulated sugar? Even with the presence of the beans, you really just wanted to take the thing and dunk it in your coffee; it was that sweet.

Maybe Dunkin Donuts should consider adding the rellenito to their doughnut menu?

Eugene ordered the garanchas; tiny tortillas topped with beef, cheese and the Guatemalan version of pico de gallo, which, after sampling one, did not live up to the more familiar Mexican version.

Garanchas

As we proceeded to sample the food, what we tasted, unfortunately were mediocre replicas of the major influences from the north (Mexico) and the south (South America).

The carne guisada I ordered, familiar to me at other Latin restaurants as beef stew, was, here, more like ropa vieja; shredded beef in a very bland tomato sauce.

“It’s mushy,” Zio commented about the tamale. “I like Mexican tamales better.” The tamale was dense with corn masa and stuffed with pork but Zio’s description was accurate. It was mushy.

Salvadorian tamale

Mike from Yonkers did not expect potatoes added to the rice in his pollo saltado, the Guatemalan attempt at the Peruvian specialty. “Too much starch,” he said and, in a rare display, put his fork down well before his usual meticulous cleaning his plate.

Pollo Saltado

Zio had ordered the pollo frito in what the menu described as “our secret seasoning.” He offered a wing and/or leg of the chicken to any takers, but there were none. “The fried chicken was really dry,” he confessed to me on the way back to the city.

I’m not sure what was expected of the chile relleno Gerry ordered, but again, what I tasted of it was a poor man’s version of the Mexican dish. The flavor, or lack therof, just not what any of us were accustomed to.

Things weren’t all lackluster at El Tesoro. The Famosa beers were cold and delicious. The service was cheery. Even the incessant screeching of a toddler added life to the otherwise drab Port Chester experience and, not that it was what I was seeking, made me feel right at home.

Adventures in Chow City: The First Decade

27 Mar

This past January, our group celebrated ten years of traveling New York City’s environs searching for mostly unheralded, inexpensive, usually ethnic eating establishments. To honor this very important anniversary, we hoped to gather at a place somewhat representative of the restaurants we had been visiting the past decade. We were looking for something maybe slightly more broadly appealing than a place where cow foot soup and goat belly were the signature dishes. And since this was supposed to be a special occasion, we also decided to invite spouses, partners, significant others; anyone our members wanted to bring along.

Gerry recommended an old time Italian place in Mount Vernon, just over the Bronx border, called the Lincoln Lounge. From his description; “good pizza—old school, family-style Italian in a run down neighborhood with a full bar,” the Lincoln Lounge sounded exactly what we were looking for.

It took numerous group emails to nail down a date when all could attend. And then things happened. A wife dropped out due to family obligations; a girlfriend couldn’t come because of a conflict until we got an email from Rick saying “Sounds like its turning stag. Should we just commit to no wimmin?”

We never did commit to it, but as it turned out, no “wimmin” were in attendance.

And on the appointed day, neither was Rick; a family emergency denying him our celebration.

To make up for the loss of Rick, we were graced with the presence of original member, Charlie, who left us in 2005 for the greener pastures of the Lehigh Valley in Pennsylvania.

It was a Friday night and the Lincoln Lounge was mobbed with large groups; the small bar two deep with “regulars,” including one uniformed policeman who ate at the bar with his bullet-proof vest on and gun holstered around his waist.

No room at the Lincoln Lounge bar.

After we were seated; cramped in a corner, we quickly ordered a sausage pizza and here the Lincoln Lounge did not disappoint. With its thin crust, sauce bursting with flavor, nicely charred crust topped with fresh sausage; the pie, as it turned out was the highlight of the meal.

Lincoln Lounge’s excellent pie.

The antipasto salad, a bowl of greens topped with provolone, sopressata, and olives and doused in a vinegary dressing was passable while the steamed clams in white wine and garlic, standard and more than acceptable.

The calamari pasta, however, along with the shrimp scampi were disappointments. Apparently, when the dishes at the Lincoln Lounge are advertised as family style, they don’t mean our gluttonous family.

The shrimp, of which here they most definitely count, were barely enough for each of us to get a taste. As it turned out, a taste was more than enough.

The modest amount of spaghetti adorned with a light tomato broth and tiny pieces of calamari was devoid of flavor.

Calamari compromised

Zio shook his head as he gazed at the miniature calamari.  “I like big fat calamari rings,” he said. “Not these little ones.”

“Was it really worth slaughtering baby squid for this?” I questioned indicating the “family-sized” platter.

“Yeah, it’s inhumane,” Gerry said as he speared one with his fork.

Thankfully, the pork chops with peppers and onions were good enough to almost redeem the travesty that was the squid and shrimp.

Pork chops with vinegar peppers and onions

While we cleaned our plates, Eugene began to, once again, muse on a trip to a Caribbean all-inclusive he was soon to embark on. “You know what I like to do,” he swooned. “Eat a big breakfast, stay at the beach until two, take a nap, and then eat dinner. You never have to leave the hotel.”

Trying desperately to divert the conversation back to why we were at the Lincoln Lounge, I was curious about our group’s memories of the past ten years.

“Remember the bean dessert,” Eugene barked out. “At the Filipino place in Queens. The worst!”

“Yeah and the cheap Polish place in Greenpoint,” Zio added. “I went back once.”

“What about that one in Chinatown. The place with fish stomach and goose feet,” Mike from Yonkers reminisced.

“Sheesh, that was inedible,” Eugene spat. “Even Gerry had a hard time eating it.”

And from there they all came back. The highlights and a few lowlights of our ten years.

Chow City’s Top Ten Moments (Good and Bad)

Presented in chronological order:

  1. Eugene’s bean drink revulsion The Beans of Halo Halo
  2. Cherriolies and Kvass Kvass and Vodka  
  3. Pan fried chicken and old school soul   Across 125th Street
  4. Eating ribs in a South Bronx backyard junkyard Southern (Bronx) BBQ
  5. Traversing mountains of snow to get to the great Tandoori Hut. Dining With Sikhs

    Tandoori Hut

  6. The rending padang at Upi Jaya  Spice Tsunami
  7. An after dinner espresso served on my lap. The Un American African Place
  8. Broccoli rabe pizza, the choice meal of strippers. Bronx Broccoli Rabe From a Brother From Corona

    Bronx broccoli rabe

  9. Fuzhou fish stomach and goose feet. F(e)asting on Fuzhou Style Fish Stomach
  10. Zio’s upper body massage apres fufu and four fingers. The Bistro that Serves Fufu and Four Fingers

And let us not forget those who are no longer with us.

R.I.P

La Fonda Boricua

LeWoro Dou Gou

La Pollada de Laura

Southbound Bar-B-Que

M&G Diner

Bay Shish Kebab

Uncle Sal’s Ribs and Brew

Malaysian Rasa Sayang

Zabb Queens

Florence’s Restaurant

Yamakaze

Spicy Mina

World of Taste Seafood and Deli

Treichville

M&G Diner circa 2010

Colombian Air in White Plains

25 Oct

Aires de Colombia
64 West Post Rd
White Plains, NY

Zio was behind the wheel, stuck in bumper to bumper traffic on First Avenue. He was muttering and cursing, though clearly not under his breath. We were on our way to White Plains in the middle of rush hour to a destination chosen by none other than the innocent seeming, though truly sadistic Gerry who has tormented us with restaurants in hard to reach and traffic congested locales such as Sheepshead Bay, Valhalla, Jersey City, and Fort Lee, to name just a few. Was his motive in choosing these hard to reach destinations to exact revenge on those of us who live in the New York City environs and take for granted how easy it is, via public transportation, to experience worldly culinary pleasures in the city as opposed to the suburbanite who, with a few exceptions, is a prisoner to his vehicle and must commute to find food nirvana. We weren’t sure, but as we inched along on First Avenue, the conspiracy theories were percolating rapidly.

Rick had already bowed out of this adventure;  a trip from the city to White Plains during rush hour and then back to his money pit in Atlantic Highlands New Jersey, much too stressful on his already commuting-frazzled nerves.

“This better not be like that mother f*****g mariachi place in Yonkers. I couldn’t even eat that s**t,” Zio spat, referring to Gerry’s ill fated Yonkers’ Mexican choice, Plaza Garibaldi.

The venom was flowing from Zio’s rotund frame. It got so bad we seriously considered pulling over and eating at nearby Patsy’s Pizzeria in East Harlem, or, if the traffic continued beyond the entrance to the Bruckner, driving to Hunt’s Point for one of Fratelli’s broccoli rabe “Grandma” pies.

With our intentions now clear, Zio seemed to calm down and once we were able to get onto the Bruckner, the traffic dissipated and we quickly decided to go back to our first option and head on to White Plains. Gerry and Eugene were waiting outside Aires de Colombia on a strip populated by a variety of Latin restaurants.

Trump infested downtown White Plains

Looking at the restaurant, I recalled that when I was living in White Plains, the location of Aires de Colombia was near a bar I frequented back when the drinking age was 18 and I was a bit younger called DePalo’s Dugout. At DePalo’s each night there was a half hour where beer was free. My high school friends and I took full advantage of the offer, taking turns going up to the bar until our table was overflowing with pitchers and almost enough beer to get us through the night.

Back when I was filling up on beer instead of rice, beans, and chicharrones, which I was planning to do at Aires de Colombia, there were no Latin restaurants on this stretch of Post Road. And driving into White Plains with its many gleaming glass towers, I noted that there were no Ritz Carlton’s or Trump Towers either in the disco days of my youth.

Gerry had already visited Aires de Colombia and was disappointed to say that the television near our table and above the bar had been removed. When he visited he was entertained by Colombian dancing girls on the screen which, according to Gerry, only enhanced the dining experience. The bartender who also served as our hostess and waitress spoke little English but enough to say that she had two English language menus while the rest were in Spanish. Neither did me any good because it was much too dark where we sat for me to read any language. The bar crowd was amused at our pathetic attempts to converse with our waitress, which, to me, was a good sign. Our group being a silly spectacle for the establishment’s regulars meant that we had hit upon a truly authentic destination, though the inebriated grin directed toward Gerry from one the bar’s patrons had him slightly unnerved.

Colombian deep fried pork belly

We began with the aforementioned chicharron, a long, deep fried until practically charred, piece of pork belly, the intense saltiness paired beautifully with the cold Aguila beer I was drinking. The chicharron was accompanied by an arepa, Colombian corn bread topped with a heavy sprinkling of cheese. While waiting for our beef empanadas, I excused myself to visit the restrooms. On the way, I passed the half door opening that led to the kitchen and noticed a woman with a head scarf scurrying between the stove and a table where she was rolling out dough for the empanadas. The sight was more than reassuring and I was confident that Aires de Colombia would not be like “that mother f*****g mariachi place in Yonkers.”

Colombian condiments

The empanadas that soon arrived at our table were as good as I’ve had anywhere and remarkably, tasted as if they were hand rolled by a Colombian woman in a head scarf. But the “starters” were not light fare and when they were followed by enormous platters of meat; beef with French fried potatoes and onions known as “lomo saltado,”  rolled, stuffed pork, steak, more chicharrones, and lengua (tongue) described as our waitress in her struggling English as “sweet tongue” and all of the meats accompanied by rice, beans, tostones, maduras, yucca, aquacate (avocado) and a hard, dry round “arepa” that was the only disappointment of the night, it soon became a struggle to eat. There was, apparently, a bottom to our collective bottomless pits. The one exception to all the meat was a platter of shrimp in a creamy garlic sauce that, though tasty, not quite worthy enough to veer from the meat side of the menu.

An empanada, an arepa and more chicharrones.

The dishes soon were cleared except those in front of Mike from Yonkers who was still picking at the “sweet” tongue. The rest of us were glassy-eyed and dazed by the cholesterol onslaught.

“100 crunches every morning,” Eugene droned, patting his ridiculously flat stomach. “And no more junk for breakfast. Fruit. Granola. Oatmeal. .. ” The arrival of our check spared us from having to listen to Eugene anymore and after tallying it up, the result put us a bit above our $20 food budget.  No one complained that we had gone over budget. The hardship of getting to Aires de Colombia was temporarily forgotten in our food-induced stupor.  We gathered our things and went outside to listen a bit to the very noticeable silence on the deserted White Plains’ street before getting in our respective vehicles and driving home.

Unfortunately, we missed the great Oscar D’Leon’s performance at Prophecy.

Mariachi Blues

26 Jul

Plaza Garibaldi
134 Nepperhan Ave
Yonkers

The Mariachis of Plaza Garibaldi: Mexico City

Named after what is supposed to be a picturesque square in Mexico City where mariachis gather to perform, the Plaza Garibaldi where we were directed to by Gerry was far from picturesque. Located at the bottom of a dark hill lit only by the very bright neon of the next door Kentucky Fried Chicken, Plaza Garibaldi was Gerry’s choice, so we, of course, were in unfamiliar terrain. The destination was alien to most of us with the possible exception of Mike from Yonkers whose home turf we were now on. And despite the unfamiliarity, none of us got Lost in Yonkers except Mike from Yonkers, who, without any worthwhile excuse, arrived almost a half hour later than our designated meeting time. His tardiness did not stop him from devouring the slightly rancid, though highly addictive bowl of chips along with an accompanying lifeless salsa. Even Zio’s proclamation that he “killed a lot of cockroaches” on the street where Plaza Garibaldi was located did not stop us from stuffing our faces with the slowly sickening complimentary chips and salsa.

The Mariachis of Plaza Garibaldi: Yonkers

The large, garish restaurant was already decorated in anticipation of Valentine’s Day with cupids and hearts everywhere. Even the front cover of the colorful menu with a mariachi on horseback serenading a swooning senorita implied romance. But the mariachi stage was bare on this day and, along with the constant presence of the Yonkers’ police force, radios on alert while waiting for take out, put a damper on romance. So much so that the lone seller of roses was having a difficult time making a sale to the few customers in the restaurant. And all it took was one glance at our group and he moved on, taking his roses with him to try his luck at KFC.

Plaza Garibaldi

Plaza Garibaldi was a tip from Gerry’s client and contractor and I think we’ve learned that it can be dangerous to rely on tips from outsiders—the track record has not been good. But the bad chips and salsa aside, the selection of tacos we started with was encouraging. We had pork meat tacos, goat meat tacos, Mexican sausage tacos, beef steak tacos and aged beef tacos—though what made aged beef different from the traditional beef steak was lost on us.

And the KFC next door.

Despite the promising beginning, problems soon began to arise. Rick’s shrimp cocktail came in a tall sundae glass and was almost as sweet as that dessert, while the chicken in mole poblano Gerry ordered, coated thickly in a chocolate brown mole sauce, was like Rick’s shrimp sundae, just too sweet. Eugene did his best with the beef enchilada in green sauce but much of the concoction smothered in cheese and tomatillo salsa remained on his plate as did the “quezidilla” I ordered from the list of specials; this one stuffed with cheese and a mysterious pickled green vegetable. But the absolute proof that Gerry’s client had led us astray was the shock of seeing half of Zio’s chicken burrito untouched. Only Mike from Yonkers, maybe out of loyalty to the town of his moniker, seemed satisfied, deliberately but completely finishing off the enormous plate of “spicy seafood” he ordered. The final insult to injury was the tab—we exceeded our $20 limit though the beers we ordered and Zio’s regular over consumption of diet Cokes could have accounted somewhat for the overflow.

A Selection of Plaza Garibaldi’s offerings.

After our leaden meal, only Rick, possibly because of the ice cream sundae promise that was his shrimp cocktail, entertained the idea of ordering an ice cream or Popsicle advertised from the bright illustrations displayed above one of the restaurant’s counters. But in the end, even he declined.

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.

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