Tag Archives: Dining

A Few Specialties of a Taiwanese House…Without the Rice

20 Sep

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

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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.

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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.”

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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 Third Wonder of Woodside Avenue

24 May

 

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

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

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

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A Bhutanese retreat

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

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“Dry” pepper chicken

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

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

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Bhutanese fish sticks

 

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

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Dried pork

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

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Dry beef stew “moapa” style

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

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

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

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

Bhutanese Ema Datsi

67-21 Woodside Ave

Queens

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The Kare Kare from a Kitchenette in Queens

8 Mar

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When I think of a kitchenette, I think of a small, mini-kitchen equipped with just enough appliances to make a meal. So when Eugene chose Renee’s Kitchenette in Woodside, Queens I was concerned that what came out of that kitchenette couldn’t possibly satisfy our gluttonous crew. But then I thought that maybe the term kitchenette was just another way of calling a restaurant a luncheonette that was also open for dinner. Or was I just too caught up in semantics here?

After a week’s delay caused by a deluge which flooded roads and made transportation to the restaurant impossible, especially for those of our group who travel from Westchester, we finally got to Renee’s and when I saw the size of the restaurant and its kitchen, hardly a kitchenette, my fears were immediately allayed. Compared to another Filipino restaurant we recently visited which boasted a kitchen, not a kitchenette (see https://friedneckbonesandsomehomefries.com/2015/11/23/papas-karaoke-in-the-kitchen-blues/  Papa’s Karaoke in the Kitchen Blues), Renee’s kitchenette was plus-sized, as was the restaurant itself.

The restaurant was busy; filled mostly with Filipinos from the area. Our group of four fit snugly at a back table. After a number of experiences over the years with food from the Philippines, the menu offered regional favorites including the Philippine National Dish: Adobo, made with either pork or chicken. Eugene didn’t need any time to decide that he wanted to show his support to Philippine people by ordering the national dish with chicken. Zio seconded that endorsement by ordering the pork version of the dish.

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pork adobo

Oxtails in any meal are hard for me to resist and here they were included in the Filipino specialty kare kare. I felt guilty bypassing them, but Gerry made it easier on my conscience by ordering the dish and, knowing his generous nature, I was confident he would garnish my plate with at least one of those oxtails. What I traded the kare kare for was an order on the “veggie” side of the menu of ginataang pinakbet. Veggie, apparently at Renee’s meant shrimp and pork—along with a few vegetables. In this case the veggies were green beans and calabaze (pumpkin).

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BBQ combo

While we waited for our entrees we needed something to stuff our mouths with while drinking our Red Horse Filipino beer. We ordered the barbecue meat combo; a giant platter of grilled meats including beef on skewers, sausage, and a particularly moist and tender quarter chicken, that in itself, made Renee’s worth a return trip for.

The adobos, pretty much indistinguishable from one another visually, came to the table first. Both were in bowls swimming in a dark brown vinegar/soy sauce. Then the kare kare arrived, and, as I knew he would, Gerry shared on with me; the oxtail rimmed with fat keeping the meat tender, the broth a mix of peanut butter and soy. The ginataang pinakbet was overflowing with whole shrimp, eyes and head intact, pieces of pork, green beans and pumpkin swimming in a coconut milk and salty shrimp paste broth.

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ginataang pinakbet

It was the off season for sports: football was over, basketball in our town was not worthy of conversation, and baseball teams were just beginning to practice so talk was limited to Republicans and their slapstick debates. Soon, though, talk of presidential politics was enough to curtail our appetites so we ceased, instead concentrating totally on our food which we ultimately made quick work of.

After paying, we gathered on Roosevelt Avenue outside the restaurant. Zio, before he was drowned out by a 7 train rumbling above us, made a telling proclamation. “I would come back here,” he said and then thought for a moment. “I’d even bring the colonel with me.”

A restaurant couldn’t ask for more than that from Zio.

Renee’s Kitchenette

69-14 Roosevelt Ave

Woodside, Queens

A Feeding Tree Grows in the Bronx

5 Feb

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The snow was melting rapidly from a “historic” storm named Jonas. But there were still dirty gray mounds around the esplanade of Yankee Stadium, which happened to be just a block from where Mike from Yonkers summoned us. While Eugene was on his annual pre Super Bowl cruise; this time far away in the South Pacific, we were going to dream of warmer climes dining on Jamaican food at a place called The Feeding Tree.

Zio, Gerry and Mike from Yonkers were all present in the bright, spacious Feeding Tree dining room when I arrived. The menu featured familiar Jamaican fare: patties, jerk, curried goat, brown stew fish, oxtails, and escovitch fish. And like other Jamaican restaurants, eating after a certain hour of the day can be risky—the pickings usually scarce.

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“Jerk salmon,” Mike from Yonkers said to our waitress. “I’m going gluten free today,” he added as if any of us cared.

“Snapper,” she replied.

“Salmon,” he said again.

“We are out of salmon,” she informed him.

“Then I’ll take the jerk snapper,” he said with no remorse.

“Do you have patties,” I inquired.

“Patties are gone,” she said.

“Jerk shrimp?”

She nodded and we ordered six jerk shrimp as an appetizer.

“What about fish escovitch?”

She shook her head. “We have brown stew fish.”

I ordered it…as if I had a choice.

Zio looked at the waitress. “I’m easy,” he said. “Jerk chicken.” She must have liked that Zio was easy because she offered him a shy smile.

Hoping for the same result, Gerry said: “I’m easy too. Oxtail stew.” But the smile was gone and so was our waitress with our orders.

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Jerk shrimp

While we pondered what specialties Eugene was encountering on the all-you-can-eat buffet line of his cruise boat, a stranger approached our table unexpectedly apologizing for being late. We looked up and discovered that the stranger was no stranger at all, but our long absent eating companion Rick, who made the trip to the Bronx all the way from his money pit in New Jersey.

Thankfully, Zio had already devoured the spicy jerk shrimp that had been in his mouth for a millisecond before Rick’s arrival. None of us wanted to do the Heimlich maneuver on him unless absolutely necessary. We all quickly recovered from the shock of seeing Rick who had surprised us by his unannounced presence.

“I figured it best that I just show up. Better to walk the walk than the opposite,” he said.

“Yeah, you just came today because you knew Eugene wouldn’t be here to flog you,” Gerry said.

Our waitress returned with our food before Rick had a chance to order. “What’s easiest?” he asked. Rick wanted to be easy also.

She pointed to the oxtail stew that was in front of Gerry. “I’ll have it,” Rick said and a few moments later there were oxtails in front of him. There was also a brown stew snapper in front of me—and in front of Mike from Yonkers even though he ordered the jerk snapper. Last but of course not least, Zio’s jerk chicken arrived covered in a spicy jerk gravy rather than the dry jerk rub I am more familiar with. All the dishes were accompanied by a mound of rice and peas and cabbage.

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Oxtail Stew

The snapper, drenched in a rich brown gravy and adorned with onions and carrots was moist and full of flavor and with just enough of a spice bite. I did my best to keep the picked apart bones on my plate rather than scattered around the table while Mike from Yonkers didn’t seem to care that he piled his fish carcass on the table instead on his plate forcing our waitress to have to deal with all those bones with her bare hands. All the dishes were “browned” not that there was anything wrong with that.

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Brown stew snapper

After calculating what we owed and coming in just under our $20 budget, we wandered out onto Gerard Avenue. The lights on the hulking Yankee Stadium proclaimed that there were tickets available for the upcoming season. I wasn’t ready to splurge for Yankee tickets just yet, but when and if I did, an order of jerked or browned something would be a much better alternative to an overpriced hot dog.

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No game today

The Feeding Tree

892 Gerard Avenue

The Bronx

The Wong Wonton Mott Street Revolt

25 Jan

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I saw that on the door.”

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

“What?” The man was stumped.

“102 Noodles Town.” Zio repeated.

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

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

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

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

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

Neither of us really knew how to respond to that.

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

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

“You mean Big Wing Wong,” he said.

“Whatever.”

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Where the revolt took place

“So is the food still good?” Zio asked

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

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

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

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

“That’s why we are here,” I said.

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

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

“New owner,” she blurted.

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

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

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

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

“Yes I want that,” he huffed indignantly .

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

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

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

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

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Squid chop suey

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

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Wonton soup

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

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No gravy

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

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The beef tripe medley

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

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

Wong Kee

102 Mott St

Chinatown

 

Neckbones’ Calcutta Christmas Carol

23 Dec

Calcutta Wrap & Roll

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

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

That front entrance looks very familiar.

That front entrance looks very familiar.

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

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

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

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

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

Vegetable Chop

Vegetable Chop

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

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

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

Goat Biryani

Goat Biryani

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

Dr. B's Chicken Chatpata

Dr. B’s Chicken Chatpata

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

Piyali's Choice: Malai Kofta

Piyali’s Choice

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

The brown bonnet

The brown bonnet

Papa’s Karaoke in the Kitchen Blues

23 Nov

papas

“Are you ready to sing,” Beth, the hostess of Papa’s Kitchen asked me as I entered the empty, yet cozy Filipino restaurant on Woodside Avenue in Queens.

I was the first to arrive and her question to me caught me off guard. Zio had chosen this restaurant but with no mention of singing—or worse karaoke singing.

“Sing?” I shook my head. “No, but I am ready to eat.”

“Oh but you have to sing too,” she insisted

What had Zio gotten us into? I was debating whether to take off my jacket and stay or rush back to my car, but Eugene, Mike from Yonkers and Zio arrived before I could leave, thwarting my escape.

I glared at Zio. “Are you ready to sing?” I asked him. He saw the microphone. He saw the television with the Karaoke, both Filipino and English hits, strolling down. “What the…” was his startled response.

Eugene and I kept our heads safely down as we scanned the menu. Zio hesitated. Unbelievably, he was actually contemplating the karaoke thing.

“What about ‘My Way’?” Beth suggested. “Elvis or Sinatra.”

“I don’t know. Do you have ‘Get a Job’ by the Silhouettes?”  Zio asked for some bizarre reason.

Beth checked the seemingly endless scroll of possible songs, but couldn’t find the doo wop hit.

“What do you recommend to eat?” I interrupted hoping to get Beth off the karaoke obsession and onto what our task at hand was.

She ignored me and continued to press us into singing. Zio, displaying weakness of character, capitulated. He took the microphone.

“My Way?” Beth asked.

He nodded. What followed sounded like the vocal emissions of a man in serious bowel discomfort. My appetite was waning as rapidly as Zio’s sorry vocal chords. The end was definitely “near” and we all, thankfully, faced the “final curtain” on Zio’s rendition of “My Way.”

IMG_5259

“Can we please now order some food,” I barked.

“Who’s next?” Beth inquired, again totally ignoring my plea.

Finally, Eugene and Mike from Yonkers stepped in and Beth had no choice but to give us advice on what to order.

“Let’s start with Dynamite?” Mike from Yonkers asked.

Whatever dynamite was, it was listed as one of the appetizers and we wanted it.

What appeared soon after were thin crispy fried rolls stuffed with jalapeno and vegetables, served with a sweet, garlic chili sauce. And we ate them on plates adorned with banana leaves.

Papa's Kitchen

Dynamite!

Along with Dynamite, we settled on lechon kawali, deep fried pork belly, sitaw kalabasa, beans and pumpkin in coconut milk, the bicoli express, pork loin sliced in a stew of coconut milk and lastly, pancit palabok. When I asked about the pancit palabok, Beth mentioned that the noodle dish was more for Filipino tastes. Whatever she meant by that just confirmed our insistence in ordering the dish.

While we waited for our entrees, Beth once again tried to enlist our usually stoic group from the scourge that is karaoke. And once again, one of us succumbed. This time it was Eugene with a screechy, nails on the blackboard, rendition of “House of the Rising Sun.” Making it even more painful, was the accompanying video, a series of shirtless, buff Filipino men dancing and gesturing to languid, seemingly very bored, females.

Papa's Kitchen

Relax folks, it’s only a microphone.

The deep fried pork belly arrived to quell our collective indigestion from the Karaoke debacle and the addition of a pungent liver sauce was a more than welcome condiment to the crisped fatty meat.

Lechon Kawali

Lechon kawali

After sampling the pancit palabok, rice vermicelli noodles coated in aromatic sauce of fermented shrimp paste and garlic we understood Beth’s hesitance in recommending the dish to those not familiar with such funky exotica. To us, however, it was a revelation. The same, however, could not be said for the uninspired bicoli express, a stew of overcooked pork in a mild coconut milk broth. A similar, but much more flavorful coconut milk broth was the base for the sitaw kalabasa and the result was much more satisfying.

Pancit Palabok with sitaw kalabasa in the background.

Pancit palabok with sitaw kalabasa in the background.

“Now that you are finished eating, what songs will you be singing,” Beth asked hopefully.

There was only one song left and it was sung by Eugene. Without the aid of the microphone, Eugene smiled and sang those two precious words: “Check please.”

 

Papa’s Kitchen

65-40 Woodside Avenue

Woodside, Queens

The Return To the Senegalese Stomping Ground

30 Apr

Chez Alain

“I couldn’t find a mention of this place anywhere online,” Eugene said as he waited under scaffolding on the corner of Adam Clayton Boulevard (7th Avenue) and 122nd St, his shadowy visage blending into the dim surroundings. “How did you find it?”

“Yeah, how do you like that.?” I said. “It hasn’t even been Yelped yet.”

I was proud of myself, but really, the discovery of the Senegalese restaurant, Chez Alain was easy for me. Just a few blocks north of what was referred to in an earlier post here as the “Senegalese Stomping Ground,” was also not far from my place of residence. When we first started our urban food adventures almost 13 years ago we routinely discovered gems that had yet to be unearthed. Now finding a restaurant that hadn’t previously been on Yelp, Chowhound, Serious Eats, or written up by the New York Times or Village Voice was no longer easy. In fact, it was almost impossible

“Maybe we should revisit some of our old gems,” Gerry volunteered as we gathered at a table for five in the clean, practically virginal restaurant.”Do you think we can amend the group’s rules to allow that?”

It wasn’t a bad idea and just the suggestion alone brought back a reverie of names such as “Uncle Sals’ Ribs and Bibs,”(Southern (Bronx) BBQ),  Tandoori Hut, (Dining With Sikhs) Cafe Gelchick (Kvass and Vodka), and the long defunct Peruvian gem on Northern Boulevard, La Pollada de Laura, home of the legendary “leche de tigre” (Cooked in Corona).

I had stopped by Chez Alain the day before our meal to talk to the hostess who introduced herself as Marieselle, making sure she would reserve our table for five and that all the dinner specials would be available by the time we arrived in the evening. Many of the African restaurants do a very brisk lunch and afternoon business catering to taxi drivers on their breaks before the evening rush. As a result, often all the good offerings are gone by dinner.

I noticed that the thiebou djenn, the Senegalese national dish of rice and fish, was not included in the dinner specials. “You can order the thiebou djenne in advance,”  Marieselle said, “and we will save a plate for you.”

I did just that so when we arrived at Chez Alain, Marieselle reassured me that the she had the thiebou djenn for me.

“There’s something not right about that,” Eugene said when he learned that I had pre-ordered a dish. “I think that might be against the rules.”

“Don’t worry, Eugene,” I said. “I’ll make sure you get a taste.”

He muttered something under his breath and ordered the grilled fish with the “spicy” rice. Mike from Yonkers ordered the same, but with plantains and when Marieselle came to Zio he just laughed. “I’m gonna have the same thing,” he said to her. “The grilled fish.”

Thankfully, Gerry veered from the fish fest to order the lamb version of thiebou djenn.

For some reason, Eugene’s fish arrived first. A monstrous tilapia, its skin seared into slices and grilled to a crusty brown. “Is this one all mine?” Eugene asked incredulously.

The monster tilapia, Senegalese style

The monster tilapia, Senegalese style

When he saw Zio and Mike from Yonkers get the same size fish delivered to their seats he had his answer.

Finally the much anticipated thiebou djenn arrived; the short grain rice cooked in a peppery tomato sauce with chunks of fish layered on top along with eggplant and root vegetables. After a few bites there was no doubt in my mind that it was worth of reserving a day ahead.

Thiebou Djenn

Thiebou Djenn

As I happily devoured the thiebou, I watched the three of our group dissect the grilled fish. Eugene neatly excised the tender, moist meat from the bones and Mike from Yonkers, as is his custom, took his time in making sure not a piece of the favored cheeks and/or any other speck of fish remained. Zio, on the other hand, made no attempt at decorum. His fingers, coated in the oils of the fish, were his utensils of the night. His plate was a quagmire of skin, meat and bones all of which, whether he wanted to or not, he shoved into his mouth. But from the determined look on his face, despite the disaster that was his plate, no one would deny him the pleasure he was having by criticizing his methods.

“This one just might make our Chow City Hall of Fame,” Eugene declared to all as he finally put his fork down, his fish now just a bony carcass.

And with my plate cleaned, I couldn’t disagree at all.

After having settled our bill, well under our $20 per person allotment,  and on our way out, Marieselle told me that if I wanted the thiebou to call and they would always save an order for me. Being only a few blocks away from the northern border of the Senegalese Stomping Ground, that was more than a comforting thought.

Chez Alain

2046 Adam Clayton Blvd

Harlem

A Bronx Bacchanalia Courtesy of Carmine Sunshine

4 Sep

Patrizia's

“You better come very hungry,” Gerry warned us all in preparation for our impromptu dinner at a place called Patrizia’s in the Woodlawn section of the Bronx.

This deviation from our normal gathering routine where we take turns finding a restaurants that meet our budget requirements of $20 or less per person was based on Gerry’s insistence that Patrizia’s, though for our frugal selves, costly, worth the added expense.

What was this Patrizia’s place Gerry was so high on and how come I hadn’t heard of it if it was as good as he claimed. Sure it was hidden in an Irish enclave of Woodlawn, but with today’s media, social and otherwise, a restaurant would be hard pressed to find itself “under the radar,” as we used to say when such places existed.

Only Zio, who was assigned grandfather duty by the demanding and uncompromising Colonel, could not make it. Rick, a rare presence at our normal gatherings, even made it a point to drive to the Bronx on this pleasant August evening.

As we entered, Eugene, who has an uncanny memory for faces and names from his illustrious Battle Hill childhood, stopped short when the owner of Patrizia’s, greeted Gerry, his longtime business associate.

“Carmine Sunshine,” Eugene addressed the owner with a grin that almost turned into a smile. “What’s it been, 30 years?”

Carmine Sunshine shrugged as if he had no clue. And then the two men hugged.

“This is the guy that wouldn’t let me buy a slice at Sunshine Pizza,” Eugene said to us as we witnessed the reunion. “I felt guilty going in there. He wouldn’t take my money.” The connection, I was quickly to learn was that Carmine, the current owner of Patrizia’s was once the owner of a very popular pizzeria in downtown White Plains called Sunshine Pizza.

Carmine seemed overwhelmed by the adulation bestowed upon him by Eugene and was literally speechless. Instead, he led us to a huge booth in a private room and slid into the booth with us, apron tied around his ample waist. After some small talk with Eugene bringing up names from Sunshine Pizza’s past like Nicky, Sal, Joe, and Phil, Carmine stood up and did that thing chefs do when they are about to test their guests’ eating endurance—he clapped his hands and said: “So, any food allergies I should know about?”

Only Rick responded with a feeble, “Um…pine nuts. I can’t eat pine nuts.

Carmine nodded and headed off to the kitchen.

“Do we order?” Mike from Yonkers asked Gerry.

“No, he’ll just start bringing what he has.”

Mike from Yonkers flipped the menu away. “Okay, let him bring it then.”

“Oh he will,” Gerry responded, indicating he knew something we didn’t.

First to arrive on the table was a small pizza made in the restaurant’s wood burning oven. I have a faint recollection of Sunshine Pizza, but one thing I am sure of, that slice joint never had a wood burning oven. Carmine’s pizza was crisp, layered lightly with cheese and tomato sauce. It was a winning start.

Following the pizza, a waiter deposited a platter of coconut crusted shrimp on our table.

“This is the first time I can truly say I’ve had anything with coconut in an Italian restaurant,” I announced.

“Yeah, what was Carmine thinking?” Gerry wondered as he speared one of the jumbo shrimp and shoveled it into his mouth.

 

Fennel salad

Fennel salad

Carmine himself brought the next course; a fennel salad adorned with grilled calamari and dusted with…pignoli nuts. After presenting it he slapped the side of his own head realizing his mistake with the inclusion of the pine nuts and their toxic effect on Rick. “Okay, I’ll bring something else,” he stammered and while all but Rick sampled the aromatic fennel salad, he returned quickly with an overflowing platter of steamed little neck clams.

“Just ‘cause your allergic to pine nuts doesn’t mean you’re getting all those clams,” Gerry barked as he spooned a few onto his plate drizzling them with their own broth.

 

Steamed clams

Steamed clams

Before we could finish with the clams and fennel salad, another waiter presented a platter of roasted Italian peppers stuffed with cheese and sausage. With the previous four courses consumed the hunger that I was told to bring by Gerry had now faded, but that didn’t stop me from devouring one of the peppers, the saltiness of the sausage complimenting the sweet pepper and the mild mozzarella.

 

Stuffed peppers

Stuffed peppers

I sipped a glass of wine from the magnum of Cabernet on our table hoping to clear my palate and reintroduce that hunger before the next course but there was no time. Carmine appeared like a sadistic inquisitor with a platter of octopus cooked in his fiery wood burning oven. How could I resist?

Pulpo

Pulpo

I looked at Gerry. “Is this man planning to kill us here, so close to Woodlawn Cemetery,” I asked once Carmine was out of sight.

“Stop complaining,” Gerry said with disgust. “We haven’t even gotten to the pastas yet.”

And that was what I feared. I drank water and got up to go to the bathroom mainly just to stretch my legs and work off the first five courses. When I returned, there was a “family-size” platter of homemade cavatelli with more of that salty sausage and broccoli rabe sitting alongside another platter of what Carmine explained were “money bags,” or golf ball size dumplings stuffed with four cheeses in a rich mushroom and ham sauce. Both pastas were spectacular but also weighty on my already swollen belly. That didn’t stop me or others in my “family” from quickly consuming what had been assembled on the family-sized platters.

I paused to breath. I knew there was more to come. After all we had really only dined so far on the “primi,” even though the “primi” courses were coming perilously close to double digits.

 

Money bags on the left, cavatelli on the right.

Money bags on the left, cavatelli on the right.

“It’ll be awhile before the fish is ready,” Carmine explained; an almost evil smile on his face. “It’s cooking in the oven.”

“The pizza oven?” I asked.

He nodded. “Sure come take a look.”

Any excuse to get up and move; to stretch and work off whatever I could of what I’d already eaten was more than welcome.

In a pan close to the glowing embers were two huge branzino, also known as sea bass, juices simmering in the heat of the oven. They looked beautiful and momentarily revived my appetite. I lingered for a bit there, not wanting to get back to food quite yet even though I had a responsibility to fulfill.

 

Branzino in the oven

Branzino in the oven

When I returned to the table I saw, at least to my ancient eyes, what looked like a football covered in brown gravy. Upon closer inspection what was on the table was really an enormous shank of osso buco and it had been placed in front of my seat reminding me that there was work yet to be done.

Mike from Yonkers was now eating standing up and groaning while continually shoveling food into his mouth. Two huge bowls of chicken, potatoes and vinegar peppers  just added to the decadent misery we were experiencing.

I picked at a pepper.  I broke off a piece of the tender veal shank and nibbled at it. And then finally the branzino arrived—each fish in an individual platter coated in a light tomato sauce and topped with shrimp and clams. I pierced the skin of the fish and scooped out the white moist meat not bothering with the clams or shrimp. I just wanted to say I at least tried the fish. And then I couldn’t help myself. I filleted a little more and, finding reserves I never knew I had, finished it off.

I turned to Gerry. “If he comes back tell him ‘no mas,’” I pleaded.

“Yeah I’m done,” Rick muttered, a dazed look on his face.

Only Eugene remained unfazed by the feast. He was still glowing over the blast from the past in seeing Carmine. “He wouldn’t let me buy a slice? I couldn’t go in there anymore,” he repeated again as if we didn’t hear him either the first or second time he mentioned it.

Carmine slid into the booth again. “What about a steak,” he whispered to Gerry.

Gerry laughed and swiped his finger across his neck signifying that we were done.

“Okay I’ll just get dessert,” Carmine said, not waiting for us to protest the arrival of more food

A fruit platter followed and then, the finale, pastries, stuffed with molten dark chocolate cooked in the wood oven and topped with powdered sugar. I summoned my reserves and found room for both.

 

Osso Buco

Osso Buco

Mike from Yonkers took the Branzino that was untouched home to his betrothed while Gerry and I went out with doggie bags of the chicken and potatoes. Nothing remained on the shank of veal that was once osso buco. And all the money bags somehow had been disposed of as well.

We thanked Carmine Sunshine. Eugene gave him another hug. “I’ll see you in another 30 years,” he joked.

“Next time I’ll make you a steak,” he told all of us and maybe it was the short stroll to my car on now desolate Katonah Avenue that momentarily gave me a second wind, or maybe I had more in my reserve than I thought, because by the time I got into the car returning for a steak actually sounded like a good idea.

 

Patrizia’s

4358 Katonah Ave

Bronx

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