Tag Archives: Christmas

Two Grinches and a Scrooge Get Happy with Hunan

27 Dec

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“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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

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

A China y Latina Christmas Carol

21 Dec

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I woke with a start when I heard the honking of a car horn. It had been awhile since I’d heard car alarms. Maybe they got wise to the uselessness of them and didn’t bother making them anymore. Whatever, the one out my window was pretty loud.

I looked around the room. I didn’t know where I was or what time it could be. Outside the window, the sky was dark grey. How long had I been sleeping? I was confused.

Soon it came back to me. I remembered taking a nap after devouring three tacos; two lengua and one spicy chorizo. I washed them down with a big glass of cold horchata. The lunch had immediately made me drowsy and my belly wasn’t feeling quite right. Could the horchata been spiked with tequila or mescal? Was the lengua spoiled?

I sucked down a double espresso in hopes of reviving my energy. There was Christmas shopping to get done. There was baccala to soak. I had no time for a nap. But it was no use.

It was daytime when I lay down and now the sky was dark. How long was I out? I was still trying to get my bearings.

As the sleep slowly drifted from my eyes, I noticed a wisp of haze at the foot of my bed. I immediately panicked. Did I leave something on the stove? I sniffed. No, it wasn’t smoke. I sniffed again. There was the distinct odor of grease—one made by overcooked lard. It wasn’t an unpleasant smell—at least not to me. I was drawn to it.

I pulled myself closer to the wisp and it quickly enveloped me The haze was so thick I couldn’t see through it. What the hell? I had to still be dreaming. Either that or I was on some sort of drug trip. But I hadn’t taken any drugs. Just the tacos and horchata.

I don’t remember putting on a coat and hat. I don’t remember getting on the subway. But there I was at a place I hadn’t been in many years: a restaurant called Dinastia China or La Dinastia or derogatorily referred to by one particular hater as La Di Nasty. It was the first restaurant I dined in when I moved to New York in the final quarter of the previous century.

The wisp was by my side. I looked around me and noticed the hot dog joint on the corner of 72nd and Broadway and the subway station across the street. Beyond that it was too dark to see anything. A decorative Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer was in the window of the restaurant. I peered through the glass. The counters with the stools in the front were exactly as they were decades ago. There were liquor bottles behind the counter and a cash register.

Rudolph was the lone window decoration.

Rudolph was the lone window decoration.

I pushed the door open. Nat King Cole was singing “The Christmas Song” from the restaurant’s loudspeakers as I entered. The front wall was decorated with autographed photos of celebrities I had never heard of. Next to them was a calendar. I glanced at it and then looked again. That date couldn’t be right. It was an ancient December date I was looking at. Not 2012. I was suddenly chilled.

I turned to the wisp by my side. It just hovered there. Doing nothing. Saying nothing. But I noticed now that the greasy lard odor was gone replaced by the enticing smell of grilled red meat. It moved forward and as if I were a hound on a scent, I followed.

There were a number of waiters in white button down shirts scurrying about. None of them stopped to ask me if I wanted a table. I hadn’t been to Dinastia China since the last century, but I remembered that as soon as I would enter, a waiter, menu in hand, would appear and immediately escort me to a table. Choice tables were always available. Reservations were never necessary. In fact, they were probably discouraged.

I slowly moved past the front area into the dining room. To my right was the commander’s station just as I remembered it. A cluttered desk with a big microphone facing toward the front entrance. One of the waiters was there now and barking orders into it. From the microphone, I knew the orders were relayed to the kitchen and the chef.

The Commander's Station

The Commander’s Station

“Ropa vieja, arroz amarillo, frijoles rojo, platano frito, wonton soup,” I heard him say.

I didn’t speak Spanish, but I was proficient in China y Latina restaurant speak and knew that the order was for shredded beef, yellow rice and red beans, fried plantains, and wonton soup. Despite the leaden effect of the tacos I feasted on earlier, my mouth, I realized, was beginning to water slightly. The order passed on to the kitchen was one of my favorites. It was what I ordered countless times at Dinastia.

There were a few solitary men and women sitting at tables in the expansive dining room. Their heads were down and there were huge platters of rice, beans, beef stew, fried chicken and other Dinastia specialties in front of them. None of them bothered to look up from their food as the wisp and I moved through the room.

The dining room that time forgot.

The dining room that time forgot.

I followed the wisp, despite it’s delicious smell, reluctantly now, sensing I should stay back. That what it was drawing me to I should not see. Frank Sinatra suddenly began to sing over the loudspeakers.

     Oh by gosh, by golly,

     It’s time for mistletoe and holly

A waiter juggling three plates; a big platter of chuletas asadas (center cut pork chops), separate bowls of black beans and yellow rice, and another plate cluttered with fried plantains whisked by me as if I did not exist. I turned and followed the waiter’s progress as he deposited the overflowing plates in front of an older, heavy-set woman, a copy of the New York Post spread out in front of her.

Tasty pheasants, Christmas presents
                                Countrysides covered in snow

 The wisp spun around and around me forcing me to look away from those juicy pork chops and to follow it forward. And then there at a table in the back, near the familiar rest rooms, was another lone diner. I hesitated. I could only see the back of the diners’ head. It was a man and he was hunched over his food. The wisp prodded me closer.

Oh by gosh, by jingle
               It’s time for carols and Kris Kringle

I looked at the table. It was a mess. A disgusting mess. There were pieces of yellow rice scattered on the glass top of the table along with a stray black bean or two, napkins were all over the place. Some of the broth from what was left of a bowl of wonton soup spilled onto the table.

"it was a disgusting mess"

“it was a disgusting mess”

I couldn’t look anymore. I wanted to turn away, but the wisp would not let me. The aroma of fresh baked baguettes that now came from it forced me closer.

There was more. I could see crumbs from the dried noodles. Just a few broken pieces remained in the wooden bowl. There was even a lone noodle that had drowned in the accompanying duck sauce.

Overeating…

And there were bones…fish bones. It was a king fish—serrucho—and it was pan fried. I could see the brown, burnt bits of garlic and the fried pepper strips. There were a few red blots of hot sauce on what was left of the fish. And then I noticed that some of the tender white flesh still clung to the big center bone. Who would waste such a treat?

merry greetings…

Again I tried to turn around and get out of there. I could see no more, but the wisp blocked my way. I smelled fried chicken and was paralyzed.

     From relatives you don’t know

  I looked again at the table and knew I had to see who would create such a mess. At first I noticed the fingers. They were slick with grease. And then I saw the distinctive swirl of light brown hair on top of his head. And I heard myself gasp.

I turned to the wisp in shock.”How can this be? So…young…yet…such a slob.”

The greasy fingers reached into the duck sauce and fished out the drowned noodle.

“Please,” I pleaded. “Please don’t let me look at anymore. I can’t watch. Don’t make me watch. Please…”

   Oh by gosh, by golly

    It’s time for mistletoe and holly

 I wasn’t sure if I was crying or not. If I was, the waiters didn’t care. They just continued to go about their business as if I was invisible.

Fancy ties and granny’s pies,

       An folks stealing a kiss or two

      As they whisper

 I shut my eyes tight. I wanted to cover my ears.

   “Merry Christmas”

   to you

When I opened my eyes, I was just outside the same restaurant. I looked around. There was no wisp by my side. I sniffed. No baguette, grilled beef, fried chicken, or lard grease odor anywhere. I heard a car honk. It wasn’t a car alarm. Just a normal impatient honk. I turned toward Broadway. The hot dog joint was there on the corner, but beyond the subway station I could see a gleaming glass high rise with a Bank of America branch and a Trader Joe’s market.

dinastia 002

I looked into the window of the restaurant. Rudolph was where it was before. The tacos and horchata drink I had for lunch seemed to have been properly digested. I was now ravenous.

I pushed through the doors and walked briskly through the bar area glancing quickly at the photos of the unknown celebrities but making sure not to look at the calendar.

As I approached the Commander’s Station, a waiter met me, laminated menu in hand. I looked past him at the mostly empty tables. There was a family sitting at one of the big, center table and a policeman and policewoman in uniform at another. The other tables were empty.

“Table?” the waiter asked me.

I looked at him. He looked at me. I nodded.

“Just one?”

“Just one,” I said and he led me to a table.

Rod Stewart was singing a cover of the great Charles Brown’s “Merry Christmas Baby,” as I sat.

China

China

After devouring a meal of wonton soup, accompanied by dried noodles and duck sauce, followed by the serrucho ajillo (king fish with garlic and peppers), yellow rice and black beans, I wiped my fingers clean.

y Latina

y Latina

“Coffee?”my waiter asked.

“No, just the check,” I said.

A few moments later he returned with the check and a rolled up magazine, or something like that.

“What’s this?” I asked as I opened it up. It was a calendar with the restaurant’s name on it. I glanced at the date.

I looked up at him. “2013,” he said with a knowing smile.

As I gathered my belongings and headed out with the calendar in hand, he turned to me as he wiped the table clean. “And I see you next year.”

“Yes,” I said with a nod. “You will.”

dinastia 024

Santa’s Got Soul (Courtesy of Picasso)

30 Nov

Harlem’s Picasso that is.

Harlem's Picasso

The master himself putting the finishing touches on his seasonal creation.

Harlem Picasso

And below, a few glimpses of the Christmas collection at Jacob Restaurant.

Jacob Restaurant

Jacob Restaurant

The artist's signature confirms the work's authenticity.

Note the artist’s signature confirming the work’s authenticity.

So there is really no need to brave the midtown crowds for a peek at the windows of Sak’s or Lord & Taylor’s when you can come uptown to Harlem and not only admire Picasso’s work, but eat real good too.

Seven Fishes for Seven Dishes

22 Dec

The day before Christmas, it’s no meat for me,

Even though I’m a non-believer,

on Christmas Eve,

I only eat from the sea.

The feast should have seven dishes

of fishes that day.

No one really knows why,

it’s just what they say.

Here then are the fishes,

in no particular order.

For the feast,

I present to you.

On my own fingers I counted,

To make sure it’s true.

They call it squid, but it’s calamari we know.

Cook it fast or cook it slow.

Any other way,

and it’s a no go.

Stuff  with breadcrumbs, parsley and nuts.

Enjoy the stuffed squid,

but don’t eat too much.

There’s six more dishes to go,

before you bust.

scungilli

It comes from a snail, is what I’ve heard,

this thing called scungilli;

I know, it’s a funny word.

Italian Escargot?

The French shake their heads

and say, ‘oh no!”

Boil until it’s tender, and then chop it

real fine.

Add to a salad,

and maybe drizzle with lime.

Long and slithery,

it looks like a snake.

With dark beady eyes,

this fish is not for everyone’s taste.

We call it eel.

In Italian it’s  capitone.

Its flesh is oily,

its look surreal.

Be careful there are bones.

You don’t want to choke,

especially while giving the

Christmas Eve toast.

Chop into pieces,

then fry or grill.

With garlic and vinegar,

this eel will thrill.

When the faint of heart see it coming,

they shriek and wail,

‘cause it’s got a slimy body and a prickly tail.

It’s a small fish, the little anchovy,

but the flavor it packs,

makes up for any good looks it lacks.

Dissolve in hot olive oil with garlic, of course.

Add some peperoncini,

and a little broth.

Pour over spaghettini

and you’ll be one of the first,

to line up at the trough.

Four dishes done, three more to go.

The feast of seven fishes,

can become quite a show.

Along the way,

things could get bumpy,

causing anxiety and stress;

a chef could get jumpy.

Time to bring out the fish,

the one that no one complains.

The reliable flounder,

it causes no pain.

Bake it with butter or oil, some

lemon and herbs.

Its mild mellow flavor,

will take the edge off,

will ease the nerves.

It comes in all sizes, this mollusk of grey.

But I like the small ones;

what they call vongole.

Clean them and make sure the sand is all gone.

Add to a pot with oil, garlic and white wine.

When they open just a bit,

they will release their magical brine.

Eat them from the shell or over

linguini.

Either way, you can’t go wrong,

with a clam this teeny.

Oh it smells something fierce,

this fish called baccala,

Just wait till you see it;

it looks even worse.

In a pot or bathtub,

soak it for days.

Change the water

a few times or more.

Yes it’s hard work;

it can be a chore.

Do it until that fish;

the one that smells,

grows larger,

until it swells.

Steam or bake,

soon the tender flesh will flake.

With onions and garlic,

what a delicious dish

this hideous monster makes.

Its appeal is so huge,

There’s even a poem called,

baccala-blues.

The feast over;

all seven fishes you’ve tried.

But now your mercury level is high.

No fear, everything will be okay,

because Christmas comes the very next day.

There will be more food.

Another big feast.

And this one, I’m sure,

will include juicy red meat.

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