Tag Archives: Chinese Food

Two Grinches and a Scrooge Get Happy with Hunan

27 Dec

img_20161211_120008208

“You know what I look forward to most about the holidays,” I said. “January 3rd. Kids are back at school. And best of all, you start seeing dead Christmas trees on the street signaling the end of the holiday nightmare.”

“Yeah I love seeing that too,” Gerry said with glee. “$75 for a tree. Talk about a waste?”

“Happy f…ing New Year,” Zio spat. “What the f..k is there to be happy about. The world is ending for Christ’s sake!”

Zio, Gerry and I were huddled around a table near the door of Happy Hot Hunan, a restaurant the three of us decided to sample while the official food group took a December hiatus. And though there was a distinct draft coming from the front door, the sight of big bowls of food adorned with chili peppers gave us a warming sensation. We were the only non-Asians in the upper west side restaurant which was also reassuring.

IMG_20161221_192232336.jpg

After more griping about the holidays, we settled down to order from the impressively Hunan menu. There were frogs legs, plenty of intestines, tripe, pork feet, drunk chicken, smoked pork and even a General Tso’s sighting. Really, we had nothing to complain about.

“Should I get the hot and spicy pork belly or the hot and spicy pork intestine,” Gerry debated.

“If you ask me, I’d get the pork belly,” I offered.

“I’m not asking you,” he replied, Grinch-like, and ordered pork intestines, also known to Gerry, as chitterlings or chitlins.

“Pork intestines?” The waiter looked at Gerry questionably. “You want that?”

“I want that,” he said, tossing back his menu.

“Most don’t,” the waiter said with a smile, impressed that someone of Gerry’s ethnic origins would take on the challenge that is Hunan pork intestines.

Zio wanted ribs and pointed to a plate a lone diner was devouring at a table near ours. “Are those the spicy pork ribs with hot green pepper?”

The waiter shook his head. “They sweet and sour ribs. You want spicy pork ribs?”

“That’s what I want,” Zio said and the waiter scribbled down his order.

I figured I would order one of the “hot chili dishes” that, in this Hunan restaurant meant a meat or fish in what was described as a “hot creamy chili sauce.” I was intrigued by the idea of hot creamy chili so I veered from pork and chose the fish. Closing out our order we added a vegetable, stir fried Hunan mustard leaf, “to keep us regular,” as Zio made sure to point out.

img_20161221_193112193

Hot creamy chili fish without the cream

First to arrive on our table was the fish. The chili sauce looked like any other Szechuan chili sauce; a deep red broth, dusted with dried red peppers and showered with fresh cilantro. I noticed no cream, however, and after sampling it there was a noticeable, silken, to use a tired food adjective, quality to the sauce. Creamy or not, the three of us were in agreement that the fish was properly lip numbing to meet our Hunan and/or Szechuan specifications.

IMG_20161221_193548410.jpg

Pork ribs with hot green pepper

Zio stared at his pork ribs when they were placed in front of him. “Hmmm they chopped them up,” he said with a bit of disappointment in his voice. The ribs were cut into inch-size pieces that you could only eat one or two at a time, careful not to swallow one whole. But the meat on them was tender and coated with a cumin-heavy, 5-spice sauce that was good enough to forget about the effort it took to eat them.

img_20161221_193717284

Hot and spicy pork intenstines

After gnawing through the donut like spheres of pork intestine, Gerry said, “I should have ordered the pork belly.” I sampled one and though the flavor was very good, my teeth were just not sharp enough to break through the rubbery consistency of the intestine. But Gerry’s teeth, sharpened by many battles with tough squid, ate the pork intestines happily.

img_20161221_193119889

Stir fried mustard leaf

While we ate, all the upcoming holiday madness was forgotten—at least for a couple of hours. It wasn’t until we were bombarded on the sidewalk after dinner with a Christmas carol coming from the open window of a double-parked car and a dollar store selling plastic green and red garlands and cheap chemically unsafe artificial trees that we were quickly reminded of the season.

“See you next year,” Gerry said to us as we parted ways.

“I can’t f..king wait,” Zio grumbled as we walked away from the happiness that was Happy Hot Hunan.

Happy Hot Hunan

969 Amsterdam Avenue

New York

A Few Specialties of a Taiwanese House…Without the Rice

20 Sep

dsc00618

What do you do when you are on a month-long detox “diet” that pretty much wipes out all of your favorite food groups? No, you can’t have bread or pasta. Sugar, forget about it. Grains of any kind won’t do either. That means no rice—even if it’s healthy and brown. A piece of cheese? Some milk with your coffee? Not a chance. Okay, I’ll eat lots of beans. No you won’t. Not even that trusty legume the peanut. To compensate for all this loss, consuming quantities of organic vodka might get me through the month—that is if alcohol of any kind were allowed.

So that was my predicament when choosing our group’s next eating adventure. Should I just forgo the diet for one day or try to find a cuisine compatible to my food restrictions? Or should I just go with my instincts and pick the best possible place and hope I could make it work for me? Of course that best possible place couldn’t be Mexican or any Latin restaurants. Italian would not work either. Indian, with those delicious breads and rice would be too much of temptation. So I looked to other Asian possibilities and finally settled on a Taiwanese restaurant called, either Taiwanese Gourmet, as it is referred to on Yelp and other internet sites, Taiwanese Cuisine, Inc, as it says on the restaurant’s awning in Elmhurst, Queens, or Taiwanese Specialties, as it reads on the restaurant’s take-out menu. For one day I would not worry what was in the sauces used to prepare the restaurant’s dishes but would stay away from rice, noodles, and anything deep fried with a heavy batter.

“The busy season,” according to Mike from Yonkers kept him from the group on this night, but Zio, Eugene, and Gerry were in attendance and hungry. With Mike from Yonkers absent, Eugene made sure to continually question why Mike from Yonkers wasn’t penalized for ordering a $12 Manhattan at our last get together. “How do you get away ordering a $12 drink?” Eugene asked us incredulously. “And then we all have to pay for it? There’s got to be a rule against that in this group’s by laws.”

Finally, though, Eugene gave it up and concentrated on the multi-page menu even daring to ask the Chinese-speaking waitress, “what’s good here.” That got a roll of her eyes and he decided on the crispy fried chicken while Gerry and Zio were debating on what version of escargot to order. Zio was adamant in his choice of escargot, without the shell, with basil. Gerry was going to order the little snails in the shell with black bean sauce but instead opted for cuttlefish with celery. My choice was the shredded beef with yellow chives—beef and all meats, including pork and most importantly bacon being an integral part of my detoxification.

dsc00627

Escargot in the middle, sauteed spinach in the back, and cuttlefish and celery on the right.

Since pork was allowed, we started with an appetizer of a pork roll. What wasn’t allowed in my diet was the breaded wrapping the pork roll was encased in. Do I sacrifice my journalistic integrity by not trying what was in front of me? Or do I bite the bullet and take a bite of what was against my diet’s “by laws.” I chose the latter and I am here writing this as healthy evidence that that bite did not throw my detoxification into a tailspin nor did it toss me off the 30-day wagon I was on.

dsc00621

The forbidden pork roll

The shredded beef with yellow chives was “the best thing we ordered,” according to Eugene and I could not disagree. Though the escargot with basil had a very flavorful sauce, the little mollusks were not as tender as I would have liked causing Zio to question their authenticity. “Are these really escargot?” he wondered.

“Maybe the snails aren’t French?” I replied.

dsc00629

Shredded beef with yellow chives

While we efficiently devoured our food, large groups of diners waiting to be seated eyed our half-filled round table enviously and before Zio even had a chance to shovel the last escargot into his hungry mouth, a check was placed on our table.

“It took me longer to get here than it did to eat,” Gerry observed after our rushed dinner.

Still nobody was complaining—Zio even hinting that he might return with the Colonel. I wouldn’t mind joining them, but only if by then I can have a little rice with my shredded beef.

Taiwanese Cuisine, Inc

84-02 Broadway

Elmhurst

The Perfect Manhattan Fantasy Found in Westchester

16 Aug

DSC00579

When Mike from Yonkers alerted our group that his pick was a place called Fantasy Cuisine, my sometimes depraved mind immediately pictured an exotic food buffet where you dined among dirty books, x-rated videos and adult peep show booths. What a concept! Alas, it was just a fleeting word association and the fantasy cuisine in question was Chinese, Szechuan to be specific.

The restaurant was not far from another of Mike from Yonkers’ picks, Saigonese (https://friedneckbonesandsomehomefries.com/2014/09/18/vietnamese-by-the-numbers/), in the heavily populated Asian district of Central Avenue in Westchester’s Hartsdale. Upon entering the stand alone restaurant, I noted the faux waterfall, stemmed water glasses and neatly folded, albeit paper, napkins on the tables. “Mike is in trouble with this one,” Zio mumbled as both of us made our way to our table which was also equipped with do-it-yourself hotpot controls.

DSC00581

Elegance in Westchester

When the waiter arrived to take our drinks’ orders, maybe to help him weather whatever abuse we were going to heap on him, Mike from Yonkers splurged for a $12 “Perfect Manhattan” while the rest of us ordered Taiwanese beer.

“Do you know I have a friend who went to Italy and everywhere he went he tried to order chicken parmigiana,” Eugene announced to all of us as we were sipping our beverages. “It’s a disgrace. An embarrassment…you go to Italy and order chicken parmigiana…” Was Eugene just making conversation or was he delivering a social statement about the ugly American? No one knew and we were hungry so didn’t really care.

The menu at Fantasy Cuisine compartmentalized standard Szechuan dishes into “styles.” From among the styles that were arranged from non-spicy to spicy to very spicy, you could order your choice of meat; chicken, fish, beef or shrimp. This was supposed to make ordering from what are usually text book-sized menus much easier. I, however, veered totally form the “Classic Sichuan Dish” style menu to order twice cooked pork belly.  The others went with the various styles; Gerry ordering fish “dry pepper style,” Mike from Yonkers, chicken “dry pot style,” and Zio, beef “red soup style.”

DSC00586

Fish “Dry Pepper Style”

When the waiter came to Eugene, he too eschewed the various styles and decided on the house fried rice with chicken.

“You’re not ordering from one of the Szechuan styles,” I asked Eugene.

He shook his head. “There’s too much stuff in those.”

“What do you mean by stuff?” I wanted to know.

“Mushrooms,” he replied bluntly.

“What’s the matter, you scared of mushrooms?” Gerry teased knowing Eugene’s well documented aversion to fungi.

I looked at him seriously. “We come to a Szechuan restaurant in Hartsdale and you order fried rice?” It’s a disgrace…an embarrassment.” And then I stopped because the appetizers Mike from Yonkers chose were beginning to arrive on our table including summer rolls that, after a bite, would not be worth ordering in any season. The Dan Dan noodles that followed, usually a barometer to judge quality Szechuan came next and after we all sampled them, the barometer at Fantasy Cuisine was pointing down.

DSC00585

These Dan Dan noodles were no fantasy.

But you can forgive a restaurant for its appetizer missteps. The entrees, with the exception of Eugene’s predictably pedestrian fried rice with chicken, were all top notch though Zio’s trough-like bowl of beef in “red soup style” being the exception, not as spicy as we were used to for authentic Szechuan.  The thinly sliced pork belly was tender and combined with smoked tofu, garlic stems and scallions in a salty black bean sauce was as good as I’ve had while Gerry’s “dry pot style” fish also worthy of any Szechuan joint I’ve been to south of Yonkers.

DSC00588

Pork belly so good it was cooked twice

No one could forgive Zio for barely making a dent in the humongous bowl in front of him and after a while he gave up, telling the waiter he would bring the remains home. Mike from Yonkers, on the other hand, had no excuse; he was on the same pace as Zio but with half the food and even more unforgivably, had barely made a dent in the Perfect Manhattan.

DSC00591

Zio’s feeding trough of beef “red soup style.”

Noticing our probing stares, Mike from Yonkers quickly downed the drink but leaving the maraschino cherry at the bottom of the glass. “All right,” he said a smile on his face and smacking his lips. Whether it was a Perfect Manhattan or not, the man from Yonkers, who now lives in Rockland County looked satisfied.

DSC00582

The not so perfect Manhattan

“Are Perfect Manhattan’s allowed in the food group,” Eugene questioned, but before anyone could answer we were out the door.

Fantasy Cuisine

20 N. Central Ave.

Hartsdale, NY

 

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.

IMG_20160120_185057052

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.

IMG_20160120_191727171

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.

IMG_20160120_190643105

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.

IMG_20160120_191401680.jpg

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.

IMG_20160120_190630487.jpg

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

 

Dissing Some Dim Sum

17 Sep

Nan Xian

“Okay, a heads up. We will meet in Queens for damn sure since I’ll be in the borough that day.”

This was written by Mike from Yonkers in an email just a few days before his long anticipated marriage. He was announcing to our group that his pick of our next food adventure would be somewhere in Queens. He just didn’t know where yet. Why he would be in the borough that day, we did not know at the time.

We found out after his extended honeymoon that we would meet in Flushing, on one of our more popular addresses: Prince Street, site of the Prince Noodle House (The Noodles on Prince Street) and more recently, Fu Run and its famous lamb chop (Eating a Muslim Lamb Chop During Ramadan in a Chinese Restaurant in Flushing). The restaurant chosen: Nan Xian Dumpling House, also known as Nan Xiang Xiao Long Bao.

Gerry and I slogged through the nearby US Open traffic to make it to Flushing just in time. Eugene took the train from Westchester; Zio the subway from Astoria. We were all assembled, waiting for our host for the evening, Mike from Yonkers who, apparently, was somewhere in Queens. The menu of dim sum looked promising. There were even photos adorning many of the offerings to help us decide. We were hungry and Mike from Yonkers had not yet arrived.

“Uh oh,” Gerry muttered, looking at his cell phone. “This is bad.”

“What now?” Eugene barked.

“’I’m stuck at the tennis center,’” Gerry read from a text just sent from Mike from Yonkers. “’I don’t think I’ll get there until very late if at all,’”

We looked at each other. A cloud of disgust was forming on Eugene’s already dark visage. “You mean he is watching tennis instead of coming here?” Eugene growled. “That’s as bad an offense to the food group that we have ever experienced.”

I nodded. “Yeah, it’s not good,” I said though wasn’t sure it was as severe as Eugene thought it was.

“So we eat without him,” Zio said with a compromising shrug.

“No, there should be a price to pay,” Eugene replied but thankfully didn’t pursue the previously mentioned by him, kangaroo court idea. We were here to eat, not to deliberate on penalties for bad food group etiquette.

Dim Sum dissed because of this?

Dim Sum dissed because of this?

As it turned out, Mike from Yonkers made a very good pick. It was his loss that he didn’t get to experience the scallion pancake with sliced beef that was so good we had to order it twice. Or the steamed crab meat and pork buns that quickly brightened Eugene’s mood and had him remark that they were “better than Joe’s,” meaning Joe’s Shanghai signature soup dumplings.

I really couldn’t say if the pork and crab meat buns, which were actually soup dumplings, were better than Joe’s or not. I was having a hard enough time keeping the soup within the dumplings from squirting out onto my already food-stained jeans. Still, what I could capture, the soothing soup paired with the distinctive fresh crab meat/pork combination, ignited happy food sensations within my mouth that demanded more of the same.

Crab meat and pork buns/soup dumplings

Crab meat and pork buns/soup dumplings

After the first round of dim sum plates were devoured and without hesitation Gerry said: “What’s next?”

We were ready for dim sum round two which had to include another order of the scallion pancake with sliced beef; the mix of beef, crispy fried pancake, scallions and sweet hoisin sauce a revelation. Along with the scallion pancake, we added a plate of rice cake with pork and preserved mustard, the rice cakes, bland pale spheres speckled in amongst the greenery. The Shanghai pan fried udon noodles looked attractive in the menu photos so we ordered a plate, and to offset the starch, two cold vegetarian dishes: soy peas, cabbage and shredded bean curd and cucumbers and garlic.

Rice cake, shredded pork and preserved mustard

Rice cake, shredded pork and preserved mustard

None of the dim sum disappointed and with our appetites finally satiated—well almost—Gerry snared the remaining chunk of scallion pancake; the only morsel of food left, “No sense in leaving it,” he said, we called for the check.

The  lone slice of scallion pancake before snared by Gerry.

The lone slice of scallion pancake before snared by Gerry.

Examining the total, Eugene shook his head and gave us a rare smile. “All that and a beer too for under $20. Perfect.”

“And you have Mike from Yonkers to thank,” I told him immediately regretting my words.

“Oh, I’m gonna let him have it tomorrow. Can you believe he didn’t show up at his own pick?  That’s got to be the worst offense we’ve ever experienced. It was bad enough Gerry missed the last dinner because of a Yankee game. But not making it for your own pick for tennis…” Eugene was rambling, but once we spilled out of the restaurant and onto the street, the overhead convoy of landing planes at LaGuardia, thankfully, drowned him out.

Nan Xiang Xiao Long Bao

38-12 Prince St.

Flushing

Eating a Muslim Lamb Chop during Ramadan in a Chinese Restaurant in Flushing

30 Jun

fu run

“Massage?” A tiny Asian woman, cell phone clamped to her ear, asked Eugene as he and I walked down Prince Street in Flushing.

“No thank you,” Eugene responded politely.

“Massage?” She asked again as she walked briskly behind him.

“No…no thank you,” he again patiently answered.

She continued her plea; wanting desperately to give Eugene a massage, but Eugene was not having it.

We had just finished feasting at Fu Run restaurant located also on Prince Street in bustling Flushing, where we could see and hear the  parade of  jets just above us descending onto the nearby LaGuardia runway .

Gerry had chosen Fu Run, finding a particular cuisine our group had not yet experienced called Dongbei, from the northeastern region of China. We were seated at a round table near the doorway and next  to a raucous group of Asian men drinking pitchers of beer and eating huge platters of meats and fish that none of us could identify—but wanted..

“You want to ask them what they are having.” I said to Gerry.

“I don’t,” he responded with a shake of his head for added emphasis and went back to look into the notebook that was our menu featuring an assortment of color photos of the dishes.

The photos in the menu were all impressive and made ordering difficult, but the standout picture was a spice-crusted piece of meat called “Muslim Lamb Chop.”

Muslim Lamb Chop

Muslim Lamb Chop

“Since its now Ramadan,” Gerry said, “we really should order it,” meaning the Muslim lamb chop. And I would have ordered it whether it were Ramadan, Passover, or Ash Wednesday, its look appealing very much to my secular appetite.

While Mike from Yonkers was spending a half hour searching for parking, we took the liberty of ordering, starting with steamed leek and pork dumplings. Along with the Muslim lamb, we added a “home style” fish with minced pork,” shredded pork with black bean sauce, and to offset the abundant meat proteins, sautéed pea stems with garlic.

The dumplings promptly were placed on our table and, after sampling, were pedestrian at best, helped by dipping into the soy vinegar sauce that accompanied it.

Instead of crowding our table with all the entrees at once, we were brought one at a time beginning with the pea stems. Sautéed to tender perfection, we made quick work of them.

Pea shoot stems

Pea stems

Waiters in stiff white shirts and ties quickly cleared the pea stems and next the pork arrived. Somewhat sweet, the moist, crisp strips of pork were as good as any bar snack and went well with our beer.

A mountain of pork

A mountain of pork

Just as we were finishing the pork, the majestic and sizable Muslim lamb chop was centered on our table. The crust of cumin, chili peppers, sesame seeds and other Middle-Eastern spices obscured the chops that looked more like a half a rack of baby back ribs. Though Dongbei cuisine is not noted for its spice, after a few bites through the thick crust on the lamb, a slow burn along the lips and inside the mouth took over appealing to our masochistic tendencies. Each rib was hefty enough to satisfy our well documented appetites, but Mike from Yonkers went back for more; the ribs were piling up on his plate.

I was also tempted to add a few more lamb chop bones on my own plate, but waited instead for our “home style” fish which arrived soon after and I quickly used my chopsticks to separate the juicy white flesh from the fish’s carcass. Even with a few yet to be gnawed on lamb chop ribs on his plate, Mike from Yonkers attacked the defenseless fish, turning it over expertly so he could shovel the the substantial flesh on its underside into his already overflowing mouth.

Fish

Fish “home style”

Nothing remained on our table and though our bill was slightly higher than we aim for, no one was complaining. Well, almost no one with the exception of Eugene whose numerous complaints are an essential part of our meal time discourse. Without them our conversation would be even more mundane.

““What was she saying?” Eugene asked me as we got into my car, referring to the woman chasing him down Prince Street.

“She wanted to give you a massage,” I told him.

“Why would she want to do that?” He asked, incredulous.

“I guess you look tense,” I said.

He looked at me; his dark eyes glowering. “Tense? Me?”

I said nothing instead concentrating on maneuvering the car away from the numerous garbage bags that were overflowing onto Prince Street and out of the congestion that was Flushing.

Fu Run

40-09 Prince Street

Flushing

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

Uni and Ovaltine

17 Mar

Cutting Board

I was in the rest room of the Cutting Board, on Bayard Street in Chinatown staring at the cheery murals in front of me when I heard Zio’s voice.  I got to the restaurant before Zio and he must have come in just behind me because now I could hear him speaking loudly from our table.

“I waved to him a few times: no response!” he said incredulously.

Was he referring to me?

I cleaned up and headed back to our table. He looked at me.

“What?” I wondered.

“You just ignore me on the street?” Zio asked.

“What are you talking about? I didn’t see you.”

“I waved to you a few times. Looked right at you. It was like I wasn’t even there.”

“Did you call out my name? Did you say hello?” I asked.

“No…but how could you not see me?”

It was another frigid night. Chinatown’s sidewalks were even narrower and difficult to navigate on this evening; dark overstuffed plastic garbage bags piled on top of, and next to gray mountains of ice that had not yet melted from the winter’s multiple storms crowded the sidewalks. I had my head down and was walking with a purpose. I was hungry. I just wanted to get out of the cold and to our destination.  Even if my head were up, I would not have noticed Zio. His rotund physique, stuffed into a dark down coat, rendered him camouflage amongst the garbage bags on the street.

But I didn’t tell him that. “Why would I be looking?” I said instead.

He just shook his head and stared down at the menu. Something we all decided to do.

Some of the happiness inside the Cutting Board rest room.

Some of the happiness inside the Cutting Board rest room

.The Cutting Board was my choice and picked because it was, according to my research, an odd amalgam of cuisines with a heavy Asian accent. Here you had your choice of Western starters like chicken wings, chicken tenders, and fried calamari, or the Asian standards; bbq spare ribs, edamame, and shrimp toast. And then there were the blending of cuisines like the Cajun fries with seaweed, the Caesar salad with pork katsu, or even the pasta with uni.

“What’s uni,” Eugene inquired.

For a man who had been dining with our group for 12 years, eating just about every type of ethnic food offered in the Tri State region, Eugene’s lack of food knowledge was disconcerting.

“Sea urchin,” Gerry told him.

“What’s sea urchin?”

“That spiny mollusk you don’t want to step on in the ocean,” I said.

“You eat that?”

“You scoop out the creamy stuff inside…” I tried to explain but wasn’t doing a good job of it.

“What’s it taste like?”

Eugene’s food curiosity was as impressive as his food ignorance. One canceled out the other in my opinion.

No one at our table could really define the taste of uni. It was more about its consistency.

Undaunted, Eugene put his menu down. “I’ll have the spaghetti with the sea urchin,” he told the waiter.

Spaghetti with sea urchin

Spaghetti with sea urchin

On the menu was something I had not seen before in a Chinese restaurant much less any other restaurant called “creamy rice.” Could it be a bastardization of Italian risotto? The idea was enough to convince me to give it a shot and I chose mine with “fatty beef.” Also intrigued by the concept, Mike from Yonkers tried the creamy rice with grilled chicken, which the waiter mentioned was one of the more popular items on the menu.

Gerry veered toward the “rice” section of the menu and zeroed in on the “classic beef in curry sauce.”

And then the waiter was hovering over Zio.

“Oh, um, I’ll have a fish sandwich,” Zio said and then added: “With Ovaltine.”

The waiter left and I stared at Zio. This time it was my turn to be incredulous. “You could have had the pork katsu spaghetti” I said. “You could have had the juicy bobo burger. You could have had the kimchee beef udon. But you chose a fish sandwich? Why?”

He just shook his head. “I…don’t know…” he muttered.

“All right, listen, if you’re good I’ll let you try my fatty beef,” I said. “And you don’t even have to give me a bite of your  fish sandwich. But I definitely want a sip of that Ovaltine.”

Cajun fries and clams

Cajun fries and clams

We started with a bowl of clams steamed in light red tomato, wine sauce that was good enough to soak up with a loaf of crusty bread.  Unfortunately all we were given was one thin slice of garlic bread. Along with the clams were the thinly sliced, tender barbecue ox tongues and a side of Cajun fries salted with dried seaweed.

Barbecued Ox Tongue

Barbecued Ox Tongue

Also arriving was Zio’s Ovaltine. The promised sip was offered to me. It had that same, bland taste with just a teasing hint of chocolate I remembered the last time I sipped an Ovaltine; probably 40 or more years ago. I chased the Ovaltine with a gulp of Sapporo beer and returned the paper cup to Zio.

Zio's beverage of choice

Zio’s beverage of choice

Our main dishes came soon after we devoured the starters with Eugene’s spaghetti with sea urchin the first to arrive. In the menu the sauce was described as a “pink creamy.” What appeared in front of Eugene had more of a yellowish hue to it. He shared with all. The spaghetti was,  as if I expected otherwise, overdone, the saltiness of the sauce the only indication that there was uni in it. Maybe it melded with a light tomato sauce to form the creamy, yellow consistency? Either way, Eugene was pleased and that was really all that mattered.

The creamy rice with the fatty beef that I was hoping would resemble Italian risotto was closer to Campbell’s tomato rice soup with thinly sliced chipped beef as a topping. But I didn’t hold that against it. The dish was hearty and comforting and Zio, who I shared some with, agreed.

Creamy rice with fatty beef

Creamy rice with fatty beef

The comfort level increased when Gerry’s classic beef curry arrived. More a diner/comfort food concoction than anything purely Asian, the beef was ground and the curry sauce strong flavored like the kind you might have found in a curry dish prepared in the UK decades ago. Topping the dish was an egg over easy and a side of potato salad.  And all of that for only six dollars. You really couldn’t get much more comforting.

Beef curry-Cutting Board style

Beef curry-Cutting Board style

Finally Zio’s fried fish sandwich arrived and was no different than any other fried fish sandwich you might find in a thousand restaurants and delis throughout the city. Zio made sure to apply tartar sauce.

Tartar sauce fish sandwich

Tartar sauce fish sandwich

Eugene had cleaned his plate of spaghetti and uni and nothing remained of either my creamy rice with fatty beef or Gerry’s classic beef curry. We all looked toward Mike from Yonkers.

“Some things never change,” Eugene said as he watched and  waited while Mike from Yonkers deliberately and methodically ate his creamy rice with chicken.

“I like to savor my food,” Mike from Yonkers said in response to he always being the last to finish.

“We do too,” I said. “We just savor it with much more urgency.”

With that, Mike from Yonkers shoveled down  the last kernels of creamy rice and the five of us left the warmth of the Cutting Board for the icy streets of Chinatown.

Cutting Board
53 Bayard Street
Chinatown

The Big Chifa of Northern Boulevard

22 Oct

 

Chifa

As we were presented with our check for our meal at Chifa, there was some grumbling from the Westchester contingent that it wasn’t right that Zio and I ordered soup as appetizers.

“I didn’t think we could have soup,” Gerry stated.

“Yeah, it’s against the rules,” Eugene bellowed.

“Show me where it says we can’t have soup in our rules,” I responded defensively.

“That’s just wrong,” Eugene said, shaking his head.

“Hey, you could have ordered the soup. Nobody would have stopped you.”

“But you can’t really share soup, so we don’t order it,” Gerry explained.

“All you had to do was ask,” I said. “I would have gladly shared my soup with you.”

“What are we gonna do share spoons? It just doesn’t work that’s why we don’t do it,” Eugene argued.

“How can you eliminate soup from the choices? I love soup,” Zio said.

Mike from Yonkers, technically also from Westchester, wisely abstained from the debate, content to slowly pick at the hominy kernels that surrounded what was left of his ceviche mixto.

Zio shrugged. “That duck soup was really good,” he said.

I nodded. “I know, the sopa pac pow was the highlight of my meal.”

And I wasn’t just saying that to further infuriate Gerry and Eugene who were still steamed that Zio and I had the temerity to order soup. It was the truth.

Sopa pac pow

Sopa pac pow

Granted, Zio and I ordered the soup before Eugene and Gerry arrived and without their consultation—we were waiting in the restaurant, along with Mike from Yonkers, for what seemed like a long time, later finding out there was some confusion on the timing of when we were to meet.

Zio’s pick, Chifa, was located on a small stretch of Northern Boulevard that wasn’t a car wash, lube job joint, gas station, or fast food place. Down the block was the Taste of Lahore, which was right next to a dark, inconspicuous Italian restaurant called Trieste.  Doing his due diligence as always, maybe Zio was drawn to Chifa, learning that its name translated to mean Peruvian Chinese food and that it was something our group had not yet experienced.  Either that or that it was not far from his Astoria love nest. Whatever the rationale for making the pick, Zio wasn’t divulging it.

Mike from Yonkers arrived a few minutes later and after sipping cold Cusquena beers while perusing the Chinese-dominant menu, we went ahead and ordered the soups and a couple of appetizers; “wantan frito” also known as fried wontons and “lomo asado,” Chinese bbq pork slices.

Gerry and Eugene walked in just as the soups arrived. The sopa pac pow was a steaming bowl of what seemed like a glorified egg drop soup; the big bowl thick with pieces of chicken, duck, asparagus pieces, and shrimp.

Eugene eyed Zio’s soup, redolent with tender slices of duck, noodles, and vegetables. “What’s that?” Eugene asked him.

“Duck soup,” Zio replied, his face down, steam coating his eyeglasses, as he carefully sipped the scalding soup.

“That was on TV the other day,” Gerry deadpanned.

“Hail, Freedonia,” I mumbled, not looking up from my own soup that also had a few slices of that tender duck.

Duck soup

Duck soup

After that there was no further discussion of the soups until the complaints at the end of our meal that I’ve already chronicled. Instead the others ordered beers and their own dishes including lomo saltado for Eugene, tai pa, for Gerry, the aforementioned ceviche mixto for Mike from Yonkers, while I went with a noodle dish, tallarin taipa, and Zio choose the pork with garlic.

Besides the gargantuan size of the platters—everything was big at Chifa—there wasn’t much to distinguish the Peruvian Chinese from the standard Chinese-American Cantonese that we are so familiar with.  The tallarin taipa, a “mei fun” type noodle dish with an assortment of meats: pork, chicken, baby shrimp, and the duck, was swimming in an oyster/soy sauce while Zio’s pork with garlic was just more of the roasted barbecued pork we had earlier now presented in a barely perceptible garlic sauce with the addition of a few vegetables.

The tai pa Gerry ordered, according to the menu, “Chifa’s most popular dish,” was more of the same; chicken, pork, shrimp, duck but with welcome addition of a quail egg and fish ball all combined on a large platter and coated with an oyster/soy based “special sauce.” Even Eugene’s traditional lomo saltado, a mountain of beef, French fries, and onions over rice was not up to my high Peruvian standards for the dish.

Tai pa

Tai pa

Maybe it was the addition of the controversial soup or maybe it was just that the dishes were so big, but both Zio and I went home with leftovers.

“And that ain’t right either,” Gerry remarked, his eyes on our packed doggie bags. “Maybe I’m still hungry? Did you think of that?”

Noting the size of the tai pa that Gerry was putting the finishing touches on, I hadn’t. But also knowing Gerry and his prodigious appetite, I should have.

No soup for you!

No soup for you!

Chifa
73-20 Northern Boulevard
Jackson Heights, Queens

 

 

Cantonese Cappuccino

1 Jul

Cafe Hong Kong

Cafe Hong Kong

I was the first to arrive at Café Hong Kong in Chinatown on a steamy evening when the cramped sidewalks of Bayard Street were overflowing with black plastic garbage bags, their stench signifying the true arrival of summer.  Rick had again passed on his appointed pick for our group, this time giving us a week’s notice instead of a day. Because of the semi-abrupt announcement, I suggested we convene at Café Hong Kong and resume our scheduled picks with Rick again attempting to commit to our next dinner, followed by Mike from Yonkers.

Café Hong Kong was packed when I arrived, but a table was put together for the five of us. When I sat down alone, a harried waiter immediately inquired if “my friends were coming.” I told them that they were. He quickly returned with tea.

“They coming now,” he asked again anxiously not daring to experience the ownership’s wrath by holding a table when other paying customers were waiting.

“As far as I know, they are on their way,” I said and then sent out urgent texts to Zio and Gerry to find out their whereabouts.

“Where are you?” Zio inquired via text. “I didn’t read the emails.”

I cursed under my breath. Zio had informed us that he had a commitment on the Lower East Side on the same day we had chosen. The Chinatown location of Café Hong Kong was picked in an effort to accommodate him. And he didn’t read the emails. Thankfully, Gerry responded that he was close and would arrive very soon.

While I waited, I flipped through the menu noticing immediately, the curious section titled “baked rice/spaghetti.” Also offered were bizarre—at least for Chinese food—options Chinese such as ham and egg sandwich, bacon and egg sandwich, and borsch (sic) soup. This was a “café,” however so allowances were made and along with Hong Kong-style milk tea, cappuccino, lattes, and macchiatos were on the full espresso bar menu.

When Gerry and Eugene arrived, our table was proclaimed legitimate and I was no longer harassed by the equally beleaguered waiter. Mike from Yonkers informed Gerry that he would be coming from the train and might be late. We were hungry and instead of waiting, ordered a soup, fish with bean curd, an appetizer, sweet and sour fish filet, and pickled sour radish.

Just as the reddish orange, sweet and sour fried fish filet, complete with the familiar pineapple chunks, arrived, Mike from Yonkers made his sweaty entrance.  The hot soup came next, administered by a more patient waiter into four smaller bowls. The soup dampening Mike’s shirt even further and his perspiration creeping alarmingly close to my food. After a few sips of the soup, fragrant with ginger, the broth refreshingly light and with chunks of fish and tofu, I no longer cared about Mike from Yonker’s sweat.

Soup for a hot summer's day.

Soup for a hot summer’s day.

What to order from the vast menu was our next business. Gerry warned me about the “baked” dishes when I asked if I should dare try one. “I don’t know—baked pasta?” he said dubiously. But I couldn’t resist. Where else could I have pasta, baked no less, in a Hong Kong-style café unless I ventured to Hong Kong and that was not happening anytime soon? I couldn’t, however, even though I was sorely tempted, choose the baked pasta Bolognese. Instead I decided on the baked beef stew. Eugene also picked from the baked section going with the coconut chicken. Sticking to more familiar and traditional Cantonese dishes, Gerry went with the salt and pepper squid while Mike from Yonkers decided on the fish filet bean curd casserole. Sautéed Chinese broccoli with garlic completed our order.

While we waited for our dishes to arrive, I noticed that there was a missed call from Zio. The sautéed Chinese broccoli came first. I quickly snapped a picture of the dark green, perfectly steamed broccoli on my phone camera and sent it to Zio. And then the enormous bowl of baked beef stew, the tomato sauce congealed on top of the spaghetti from the baking process. The baked coconut chicken also had a semi-hard topping, a few burn marks speckling the white exterior.

Chinese broccoli

Chinese broccoli

Just as I sent Zio more of the pictures to remind him of what he was missing at Café Hong Kong, his rotund frame appeared in front of us, and to all of our surprise, with the Colonel in tow. There was no room at our table and Zio and the Colonel grabbed an adjacent table. I muttered a quick hello and then tasted the sweet and sour “tomato” sauce that was drowning the overcooked spaghetti. Complete with thick layers of gelatinous fat over morsels of beef along with chunks of bland tomatoes, even a few tablespoons of freshly grated Parmigiano Reggiano, if offered, could not rescue this dish, Worse was Eugene’s coconut chicken featuring the same overcooked pasta with a white, sweet coconut cream Alfredo sauce, pieces of what seemed like canned carrots and peas, and chunks of chicken. The creation was like a Paula Deen nightmare. And you really can’t get much scarier than that.

Sweet and sour Chef Boy Ar Dee.

Sweet and sour Chef Boy Ar Dee.

Gerry’s salt and pepper squid was good, but not up to nearby Great New York Noodletown’s standards while the fish and bean curd casserole Mike from Yonkers ordered was a true winner. I realized that ordering the baked pasta at Café Hong Kong was like going to a burger joint and then ordering linguini with clam sauce. I should have known better and had no one to blame but myself.

The winner: fish and bean curd casserole.

The winner: fish and bean curd casserole.

As we were leaving, Zio and the Colonel were about to order the coconut chicken. Despite the unfortunate baked beef stew experience, I was in a benevolent mood and warned him off it, instead I gestured to the beef stew; making it his penance for not reading his emails. We said our goodbyes and went to cleanse our palates at the nearby Chinatown Ice Cream Factory.

“Why didn’t you warn me about that spaghetti slop,” Zio wrote in a text the next day. “It was worse than Chef Boy Ar Dee. Sickingly sweet with globs of fat and tired pale tomatoes. You’re killing me!”

Coconut Chicken

Coconut Chicken

“You should be grateful,” I wrote back. “I saved you from the coconut chicken.”

“Thanks for that,” he replied.

Cafe Hong Kong
51 Bayard St.
Chinatown

%d bloggers like this: