Tag Archives: humor

Found in Yonkers: Red Sauce and Scungilli

15 Aug

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When Mike from Yonkers informed our group that he would not be available to choose our next food destination due to a “family emergency,” I sent out a electronic telegram to all our member for a quick substitute.

“I got a place,” Gerry responded almost immediately.

The place Gerry got for us was located in Yonkers, ironically, minus Mike from Yonkers. On a dilapidated stretch of Broadway prevalent with Dollar stores and Mexican delis, Gerry discovered Silvio’s, an ancient old school red sauce Italian joint that none of the Westchester contingent, meaning Eugene, had ever been to.

The dining room, adjacent to the restaurant’s pizzeria, was empty except for our small group and because it was so quiet, the canned Italian red sauce music; Sinatra, Dean Martin, Jerry Vale, and others was even more obtrusive.

As soon as we were settled, our waitress, a buoyant Latina, brought us nicely toasted, hard crusted Italian bread with packets of butter that Eugene quickly opened to spread on the warm bread leaving a litter of butter packets surrounding his place setting.

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Bread and “old school” butter

The menu also had that old, 1950’s feel including the prices which seemed to be amended only slightly since Silvio’s first came to Yonkers. It wasn’t until we got our bill at the end of our meal that we discovered that those prices somehow found their way into the 21st Century—so much so that once again Gerry had brought us to a place where we were substantially over our allotted $20 budget.

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Maybe it was the Tito’s vodka Gerry ordered that tipped our scale—or the large slice of cheesecake (made the Italian way with sweetened ricotta cheese) that did it. Most probably, it was our gluttony that pushed us over the limit. We couldn’t help but order two appetizers, including a large order of clams oreganata with chopped clams and mussels in white wine and garlic. What made the final tally harder to take was that both appetizers were very disappointing; the mussels minuscule and the clams, when you could find them, buried deep under a heavy layer of moist breadcrumbs tough and seemingly fresh out of a can.

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Clams oreganata

The pastas appeared inexpensive on the menu but, of course, we couldn’t stick to the traditional menu, instead we ordered a rigatoni Calabrese from the “special” menu, a heavily sauced pasta with tomato sauce, cherry tomatoes, and sausage. There was nothing traditional about the combination of scungilli and calamari with linguini  unless you considered canned scungilli traditional.

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Rigatoni Calabrese

You would think two pastas might be enough for us but it wasn’t even close and, honestly, there was much more sauce than pasta on both platters and the sauce just wasn’t curbing our sizable appetites. We rounded out our meal with a beef braciole; one single braciole smothered in red sauce, a platter of veal Francese that included four small, pounded scallopini’s, one for each of us, in a lemony wine butter sauce and sides of broccoli and spinach. The morsels of veal, light and tender, was probably the best of what we had at Silvio’s and easily devoured.

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Veal Francese and linguini with calamari and scungilli

When the waitress returned to ask if we wanted dessert and before we could order what Gerry already knew would be the cheesecake, Eugene asked where Silvio was.

“You just missed him,” our waitress said with a smile.

I wondered if there really was a Silvio or was he, like the Sinatra music and the old school menu, a fictional creation to fit into the Italian red sauce fantasy we never tired of, yet so often were disappointed by.

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Searching for Silvio

Silvio’s Italian Restaurant and Pizzeria

352 S. Broadway

Yonkers

In the Heights (Hamilton’s) Eating Ecuadorian Food

19 Jul

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“This is the second Ecuadorian restaurant we’ve been to,” Eugene announced to all of us as we sat together in Ecuatoriana, the restaurant chosen by Eugene for our most recent eating adventure.

“What was the first,” I said, testing him.

“Braulio’s and Family,” Eugene responded correctly. I had to give Eugene credit; he did his research (Extending Familia).

Ecuatoriana was on Amsterdam Avenue located a block from a Jamaican restaurant we dined at back in the early days of our food group, meaning the first years of the new century (Cool Jerk).  Back then we were in Harlem but now we were in the “The Heights;” Hamilton Heights to be exact, named as such because of its proximity to the former home of founding father Alexander Hamilton. To be fair, the neighborhood’s moniker was created before Alexander Hamilton achieved excessive notoriety from the monster success of the Broadway show, Hamilton.  To make things even more confusing, the creator of Hamilton, Lin Manuel Miranda, also had a Broadway hit called In the Heights, about a neighborhood a little further north named after another founding father, George Washington. None of this has anything to do with Ecuadorian food so ignore it if you wish.

We were all examining the menus; reacquainting ourselves with the staples of Ecuadorian food; ceviche, steaks, pork chops, hominy, rice, and plantains when Zio boasted to all that he finally got hearing aids. The problem was, none of us could hear his proclamation because Eugene was bellowing about Houston Rocket, James Harden’s new contract.

“$572 thousand per game,” Eugene wailed. “Can you believe that? I’d have to work four years to make that much.”

I looked at Eugene. “Hey, you ain’t doing so bad,” I said, hoping to encourage him to glance at the menu instead of continuing to torment us by whining about James Harden’s riches.

Harden

The presence of a waitress helped spur our ordering and Gerry wasted no time in choosing a mixed seafood ceviche for the group; this one including the exotic “black clams.”

“They’re not clams,” Gerry said, as if he were an expert on Ecuadorian shellfish. “They are really mussels.”

“Why call them clams then?”

Gerry had no answer and I wasn’t sure he was right. But we did both agree on the same dish for our entree; the chaulafan, a fried rice-type of entrée with a mix of meats; sausage and beef, potatoes, plantains, and a scrambled egg all part of the dish. Thankfully the heaviness of the chaulafan was offset by the delicate ceviche, which indeed contained clams, not mussels, in a dark, cool broth. The ceviche was so inviting, Mike from Yonkers was hovering above Gerry hoping to get his spoon in the bowl before those black clams disappeared.

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There are black clams in there somewhere.

A whole red snapper was placed in front of Zio. It was a challenge, but at least he didn’t have to hear anyone or even talk to us as he went to work on it, slowly separating flesh from bone until all that was left was a cleanly picked carcass.

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A snapper for Zio

After the ceviche, Mike from Yonkers still had plenty of room for the fried pork ribs. The addition of white hominy along with mashed potatoes was just to ensure his starch intake was sufficient. Eugene’s pedestrian order of grilled shrimp arrived last, but amazingly he was the first to finish.

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Fried ribs with hominy

On this warm summer night, the streets of Hamilton Heights were brimming with activity and Eugene was impressed not only by his choice of restaurant, but also by the neighborhood. “We should come here more often,” Eugene said.

I wasn’t sure if that was invitation, a plea for more human companionship, or just Eugene making inane conversation. With Eugene, did it really matter?

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Chaulafan

Ecuatoriana

1685 Amsterdam Ave

Hamilton Heights (Harlem)

A Pilgrimage to Queens to Pay Homage to a Falafel King

14 Jun

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“There ought to be a rule that you can’t pick a place in your neighborhood,” Eugene proclaimed as we sat down inside King of Falafel and Shawarma on Broadway in Astoria. Eugene always wants to amend the bylaws of our food group. The problem is, we really don’t have any by laws.

Still, it was a little convenient or maybe lazy even, for Zio to choose a place just a few blocks from his love nest. And coming on the heels of another Middle Eastern restaurant we just visited a month earlier; the Egyptian Tut’s Hub, made it even more puzzling. But we don’t want to get into Zio’s creative yet sometimes garbled brain here. This is about the food and the self proclaimed King of Falafel—whose humble beginnings as a food cart operator sparked his road to royalty. His falafel became so popular he moved up from a cart to a food truck where the lines in Astoria to sample his falafel  circled the block. It’s always good to be the king and it was so good for the King of Falafel that in 2016 he moved into a full-fledged take out restaurant, where we were currently assembled.

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The King’s falafel with humus and baba “ganooj” in the background

Since the falafel is legend here, our group easily decided the best way to sample that and other of the King’s specialties was to order the Mazamez or the King appetizer, a family style sampling of hummus, baba “ganooj,” grape leaves, tabbouleh, spinach pie and, of course, falafel. Instead of the round golf ball-sized falafels I’m familiar with, the King makes his oblong, fried to a dark golden brown and devoid of any grease. I admit to not being a falafel snob, but in my amateurish opinion, the King’s version tasted damn good.

Using the provided pita bread, we easily devoured the platter but then Gerry, whose appetite knows no limit, ordered another starter called Foul, pronounced, I believe as Fool. The Foul was a well spiced stew of fava beans in a hearty sauce that, combined with the other appetizers we just downed, was more than sufficient to appease our enormous appetites. But why stop at the appetizers when there was the shawarma to sample?

A sample of shawarma is one thing, but the weighty mound of chicken and shawarma coated in a very spicy chili tomato sauce layered on top of a king-sized bed of basmati rice, known as the “Omar,” that I ordered was a sample fit for a very large king, falafel, shawarma or whatever. This was a food challenge I knew I would not win.

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The “Omar” comin’

Gerry, however, was up for any challenge and, unfazed by the starters, ordered the most expensive and largest item on the menu: the “Teaser.” This teaser was a gargantuan platter of meats; chicken, shawarma, and kebabs over basmati rice, complimented by two more of the King’s famous falafels. Gerry worked through the meats meticulously and before Mike from Yonkers could even get halfway through his falafel platter, Gerry was done.

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The “Teaser”

Keeping his mouth shut from the spanking his Red Sox were getting from the Yankees, Eugene sullenly feasted on what was called the “Big Dady,” described as a “delightful mix of chicken and beef kabob over rice.” Whatever it was, Eugene showed no delight in his meal—but with Eugene that did not mean that he didn’t thoroughly enjoy it. You just had to ask him.

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The Big “Dady” for the Big Papi fan.

After the long two block journey from his love to the King of Falafel, Zio’s appetite was not as it could be. Still, he had no difficulties finishing his beef kebab platter. And we expected no less.

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Beef kebabs on Basmati rice

Trying to hide my embarrassment, I signaled for a takeout container; a first for me in the 15 years our group had been stuffing their faces at various restaurants in New York’s boroughs and suburbs. Piling the Omar into the container and securing the lid tightly, I departed the King of Falafel and Shawarma with enough in my bag for a happy Middle Eastern reprise. But only after I digested the one I just finished, which most likely meant in maybe 48 hours.

King of Falafel & Shawarma

3015 Broadway

Astoria

The Fateer Feast on Steinway Street

17 May

 

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“Is pigeon on the menu,” I asked Gerry after he announced his choice; an Egyptian restaurant on Steinway Street in Astoria named Tut’s Hub.

“No pigeon,” he answered and all of us in our quirky food group breathed a collective sigh of relief.

Pigeon was on the menu of our last foray, several years ago, to Steinway Street and another Egyptian restaurant (A Night on Steinway Street) . That one didn’t end well and maybe it was because of that greasy pigeon that we never returned to Steinway Street, but by now our informal statute of limitations had long expired and Gerry felt it was time we gave Steinway street another chance.

There was a sheet of water rushing down the glass façade of Tut’s Hub. The waterfall was part of the theme-park like restaurant where the five of us dined surrounded by statues of Egyptian gods and goddesses as if entombed in the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s, Temple of Dender. I was hoping for Im Ho Tep to show us to our table but instead we were greeted by a boisterous woman in jeans and a baseball cap. You can’t have everything.

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No mummies at Tut’s Hub

While archaeologists were busy in the back restoring the hieroglyphics on the inner walls of the restaurant, we sat close to the waterfall and perused the menu. Despite the kitschy surroundings, the food offerings looked authentically Egyptian. I didn’t bother to make a suggestion instead leaving the ordering to Gerry, with Mike from Yonkers in consultation.

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The Gold Chair was off limits.

We started off with Kushari, a mix of elbow macaroni, lentils, fried onions, and a tomato-vinegar sauce that prompted Zio to mutter: “What is this? noodle roni?”And as it turned out, the Kushari, though it arrived first, was least of all the dishes we were to sample in Tut’s temple that night.

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Kushari a.k.a. “noodle roni.”

Next came baba ghanoush with a basket of warm pita which we made quick work of along with two bowls of mulukyiah, a pureed soup of greens in a salty chicken broth that also went well with the pita bread. Soon, though, Eugene and I gave up on the pita and used our spoons to slurp the soup.

“And now we get deep dish pizza,” Zio remarked when the pastrami fateer, a pie stuffed with Tut’s Hub’s homemade Egyptian pastrami and veggies arrived on our table.  Zio wasn’t the only pizza snob at the table; none of us had any use for what might be found in a Pizza Hut in Indianapolis, but the Pastrami fateer was unlike any deep dish pizza we had ever had. It was so good Zio could be heard making strange noises of satisfaction as he feasted on the pie.

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Pastrami fateer

Tut’s mixed grill, chicken, lamb, sausage, and beef kabobs served on rice pilaf, and another fateer, this called Hawawshi containing spiced beef and pickled turnips that gave it an unusual and somewhat bitter taste, rounded out our “family-style” entrees.  Spoiled by the magnificent pastrami fateer, the Hawawshi, with the inclusion of those slightly bitter turnips, was an acquired taste—one that we soon acquired with Mike from Yonkers making sure to snag the last slice.

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Hawawshi fateer

Though by now, more than well fed, we decided to let the fateer feast continue ordering a “mixed nuts” variety for dessert. With Mike from Yonkers and his enormous appetite gone, there was more of the sweet pie, dusted with confectioner’s sugar and sprinkled with pistachios, raisins and coconut flakes, for the rest of us—as if we needed it. And, after consuming every last bit of crust and pistachios, apparently we did.

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And more fateer…the mixed nut variety

Tut’s Hub

30-91 Steinway St.

Astoria

Guyanese-Style Gizzards Found in the Bronx

12 Apr

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Like a laser directed drone strike, Gerry’s eyes found their target on the menu of the Coconut Palm Bar & Grill  under “chicken gizzards.” There was no talking him down. No dissuading him from taking the risk. It was gizzards he wanted. It was gizzards he was most definitely going to get.

“Jerk chicken wings?”  I offered.

“Sure,” Gerry said.

“What about the chicken dumplings?” I asked, hoping another appetizer would deter him from the gizzards. “She said they were one of the most popular items on the menu.” The she, being the illustrated woman of a waitress we had—her arms decorated in multi-colored tattoos.

“Sounds good,” Gerry said.

“So we’re set?”

“Mmmhmmm as long as we get the gizzards.”

So the gizzards were ordered…along with chicken dumplings and jerk chicken wings. And while Mike from Yonkers and Gerry sipped 12 year old, Macallan Scotch, certainly a first for our frugal food group,  and with soca coming from the sound system and a cricket match on the television, we scoured the menu for our entrees.

We were in the Bronx, under the 6 train tracks in the Castle Hill section of the borough at what was advertised as a Guyanese & West Indian restaurant. Near the bar, I noticed that the Coconut Palm offered “Pepper Pot,” a piquant Guyanese stew of meat parts cooked slowly in a syrup made from cassava called “cassareep.” I’ve had the Grenadian version in Grenada but never had a pepper pot in the Bronx. I was excited by the prospect.

“I’ll have to ask him when he gets back,” the waitress told me when I asked if there really was pepper pot available.

Who she had to ask was the owner of the Coconut Palm and I waited a long time for “him” to come back to learn that, no, there was no pepper pot. But there was “cook up rice,” a mix of rice, beans, chicken pieces; the Guyanese/Caribbean version of fried rice which I promptly ordered.

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Cook up rice

The gizzards arrived on our table, cooked crispy and coated in the light curry spice known as bunjal. Gerry wasted no time getting to them and Zio, also a renowned gizzard man, wasn’t far behind. The jerk chicken wings were tender and, as I expected, not quite as spicy as the authentic Jamaican jerk found on that island. Rounding out the trio of appetizers, the chicken dumplings were more reminiscent of fried wontons than anything Caribbean and were served with a sweet soy sauce.

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The gizzards

Displaying the East Indian influence on Guyanese food, the entrees of salt fish and stewed red snapper, ordered by Gerry and Eugene respectively, came with dhal, a soupy lentil condiment. Zio’s jerk chicken was the extended version of the chicken wings we already experienced, but his came with rice.

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Dhal

“Rice a Roni,” Zio muttered as the bright orange rice with peas was placed in front of him.

Mike from Yonkers was complaining as well. “There are too many bones,” he kept telling us as he gnawed through the “bunjal duck” he ordered, that was prepared in the same lighter version of a curry that the gizzards were.

I had no complaints about my cook up rice; it was what I expected and Mike from Yonkers’ loss was my gain as there were many tiny pieced of duck for me to pick through long after he had given up.

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Stewed snapper

Twelve year old Scotch aside, the Coconut Palm Bar and Grill easily fit into our meager budget and though there were gizzards, orange-colored rice, and numerous tiny duck bones to work around, the food just always seems better when eaten under the elevated subway tracks.

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Chicken dumplings

Coconut Palm Bar & Grll

2407 Westchester Ave

Bronx

The Case for Polish Vodka

28 Mar

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Who do those Russians think they are meddling in our affairs? They fixed the election for their comrade Trump and now they are trying to disrupt all of Europe with their hacking and spying. Enough is enough, I say. No more borscht. No more blinis. No more Baltika beer. And most importantly, no more Russian vodka. Sometimes sacrifices have to be made for the sake of patriotism. I plan on doing my part by boycotting one of my favorite beverages. That means no Caucasians(white Russians), no martini’s with Stoli, and worst of all, no shots of lemon infused Russian vodka at the incomparable Russian Samovar. But I can only sacrifice so much, so instead of the Russian stuff, there is always our friends’ from Poland. They wouldn’t dare try to influence our elections. They have no aims to dominate the world. And they love America. In return, we love them. And now I plan to love their vodka.

I’m not sure Gerry shared my reasoning. Though he might not have been as passionate about my anti-Russian fervor, the prospect of a meal cooked by Polish grandmothers in the old-school cafeteria called Pyza, located a block from the liquor store on Nassau Avenue in gentrifying Greenpoint Brooklyn, was incentive enough for him to make the trip from Westchester.

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And he wasn’t complaining when he also agreed to accompany me to the Greenpoint Wine and Liquor store on Nassau Avenue where there was the opportunity to purchase budget priced but underrated Polish vodka. The store had a huge selection of vodkas including many Russians. There was Stoli. There was Imperia. There was Russian Standard and there were other, pricey Russian vodkas. There was no Putinka, however, the vodka named after the man behind the current mess we are in. Before we knew he was influencing our elections, I once bought a bottle of Putinka vodka and wrote about it in these pages  where I discussed the bizarre commingling of what was known as the a “vodka pizza” (On Pizza, Pomodoros, Putin, and Putinka).   Now, if I ever dare to order a slice of vodka pizza I’ll need to ask the pizza maker if Russian vodka was used in preparation. If so, it’s a no go.

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Soft vodka named after a hard man

At the liquor store I now defiantly bypassed the Russian stuff  and grabbed a bottle of Wyobrowa and another of Stravinsky while Gerry nabbed a Lukosowa.

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The menu at Pyza

With our vodka stash in hand, we headed down the block to Pyza. The inexpensive meals were posted on the restaurant’s menu on the wall near the cashier. Both of us decided that the Polish plate, a combination of goodies such as pierogies, kielbasa, sauerkraut, stuffed cabbage, and potato pancakes, would give us a representative sampling of what grandma was cooking back in that kitchen. And we were not disappointed. Could there be a heartier food to line our stomachs while navigating the snow mounds that remained from the previous week’s blizzard? The only negative was that we couldn’t crack open the bottles just purchased and wash down the meal with a shot of the clear Polish stuff.

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Two Polish plates

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A Taste of Heaven (and a little bit of hell) on Northern Boulevard

20 Feb

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After last month’s “disaster” in Port Chester and as the designated Grand Poobah of our now 15-year-old food group,  I quickly signed into order a temporary ban on Mexican restaurants for our group. No more tacos. No more enchiladas. No more grand volcanoes until further notice. Despite a mini-protest by the sudden activist, Eugene, no one dared question my motives or intentions. Eugene soon fell into line and Mike from Yonkers, whose turn it was to choose our next destination stuck to the ban and chose a Korean restaurant in Flushing’s Koreatown called Joah. While we have had enough of guacamole for awhile, we were starved for bulgogi and bibimbap.

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The Grand Poobah

I arrived early and had time for a beer, so I stumbled into a non-descript bar across the street from Joah. When I entered, the few heads in the bar turned to stare at me as if I were some sort of immigrant life form they had never seen before. There was a Korean couple at one end of the bar snuggled close to each other sharing cherry tomatoes and a bottle of Grey Goose and a lone older Korean man with three empty Coors’ Light bottles in front of him, two of the Korean female bartenders huddled around him lovingly. One of the bartenders reluctantly broke away to see what I wanted. I mentioned beer and she looked at me quizzically as if she didn’t understand what I said. And then she mimicked my words; her English almost non-existent. I dared not ask what type of beers were available and just went ahead and ordered a Heineken. She nodded and returned with a glass, a bottle of Heineken and a small dish of roasted peanuts. As I started in on the beer and the peanuts a loud wail ensued seemingly out of nowhere. I turned to see the man with the cherry tomatoes and Grey Goose bottle gripping a microphone. He was soulfully crooning into the microphone, the vodka fueling his passion as he sang along with the Korean pop tune. I made sure to applaud his performance politely when he finished and then, trying not to look too stressed, downed the beer as fast as I could and got out of there before I had to hear more karaoke, Korean or otherwise.

The quiet when I arrived at the sparsely populated Joah was appreciated. Zio waddled in a few minutes later and we sat and took a look at the menu which was a colorful notebook loaded with non-traditional Korean dishes. Where was the bulgogi? Where was the bibimbap? Instead there was page devoted to “hamburger steak,” including Turkish hamburger steak and hamburger steak and sausage. There was also a lengthy section of the menu on risottos and pastas; just what was expected in a Korean joint.

“You gonna get pasta, Eugene?” I asked him.

“No, I’m gonna get risotto,” he replied, surprising me as he ordered the “Gondre” seafood risotto in a tomato sauce.

“That’s what I was gonna order,” Mike from Yonkers whined.

“No one’s stopping you,” Eugene answered. And no one did. Both ordered the same risotto in a Korean restaurant.

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Korean risotto

I quickly decided that the Korean version of Italian food might be problematic to an Italian food snob like me, so instead focused on something I had never seen before called “Eggs in Heaven OR Eggs in Hell.” The difference between heaven and hell in this case meant that the eggs were either prepared in a cheese cream sauce (heaven) or in a tomato broth (hell). Though the idea of hell always sounds edgier, more exciting, I opted for more mundane heaven; eggs in a Korean made tomato sauce just did not appeal to my half Italian sensibilities.

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Eggs in heaven

Gerry wasted no time ordering the army stew, a soup of bacon, fish cake, sausage and noodles in the same, dark red tomato broth that coated Eugene and Mike from Yonkers’ risotto. “It’s a little sweet,” all of them, including Zio, whose spicy pork plate over rice was also red in color, intoned and I agreed after taking a bite of Mike from Yonkers’ risotto.

There was nothing sweet, however, about my eggs in heaven. “Make sure you mix it all up,” the waiter told me as he planted the very hot bowl in front of me. I did what he said, the eggs cooking in the hot cheese and cream sauce, all of it easy to scoop up with the saltine crackers and pieces of Italian bread that decorated the bowl. The bits of bacon in the eggs added much needed salt to the otherwise bland, yet somewhat comforting dish.

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Though we came expecting Korean food normalcy, we experienced something much different. The results may not have been what we wanted, but the adventure most definitely was. In that regard, Mike from Yonkers’ pick of Joah was a big time winner.

Joah

161-16 Northern Blvd

Flushing, Queens

A Volcano Fizzles in Port Chester

17 Jan

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“Nello Burgio told me about this volcano thing,” Eugene muttered as the waitress of Kiosko Mexican Restaurant and Bar hovered around him, ready for him to order. Eugene, based on the recommendation of Nello Burgio, who none of us knew, had summoned us to Port Chester, about a 40 minute drive out of Manhattan, for this latest Chow City adventure. And though I had very good Mexican food in Arizona just a few days earlier I was determined to keep an open mind in Port Chester where, I knew, there were many good Latin restaurants.

“Volcano?” She didn’t understand Eugene and it had nothing to do with a language barrier.

“Yeah, that’s what he said.”

While this went on, we sipped our Modelo’s patiently. “Eugene, just order already,” I finally told him.

The waitress came over with a takeout menu. “You mean this?” she asked, pointing to a photo of a molcajete, or a Mexican bowl used to make guacamole, overflowing with meats and vegetables.

“Is that the volcano?”

She nodded. “Yes ‘molcajete azteca’ the Volcano. $21.95. $40 for two people.”

“Any volunteers?” Eugene asked. “Nello says this is what you should order when you come here.”

I didn’t know Nello from Adam…or anyone else for that matter. And I wanted no part of a $40 volcano. Zio and Gerry showed little enthusiasm also, but Mike from Yonkers raised his hand willingly and even switched seats with Zio so he could be closer to Eugene and the forthcoming volcano.

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The volcano

As if we had all night to spend in the suburbs, Gerry made sure to order the one dish that, according to the menu, took “30 minutes to cook,” the mojarra sudada, a wrapped and steamed whole porgy with garlic and epazote (Mexican tea leaves). Why would it take 30 minutes to steam a fish—and not a big one either—none of us dared ask. But we did know that the fried porgy filet that Zio ordered would not take as long nor would the huaraches atilxco rib eye steak that I ordered. “You can bring our entrees before you bring out that fish. Make him wait,” I said, pointing to Gerry.

And after a half hour and nothing had materialized on our table besides chips and very mediocre salsa, I realized my request fell on deaf ears.

Finally the “volcano” was brought carefully to the table. Yes there was “smoke” coming from the molcajete which was overflowing with beef, chicken, strips of cactus and stuffed with some sort of clay-colored lava-like sauce within. The dish reminded me of the Mexican version of the Chinese sizzling Go Bar, but after a taste, minus the sizzle—not to mention the flavor.

I could smell the steamed porgy even before it came to our table. I didn’t know if that was a good or very bad sign. I wasn’t going to find out, but Gerry didn’t seem to have any problems with it. At least not that I heard about later. Zio’s fried fish was accompanied by a serious mound of steamed broccoli and carrots causing him to protest: “What is this health food I’m eating tonight?”

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Steamed porgy…30 minutes later

My steak arrived last. The sizable cut smothered in onions, resting on a salsa-covered tortilla, dare I say looked—delicious, but after sawing through the gristly meat, taking a not so flavorful bite and then trying the soggy tortilla, my formerly open mind had closed on Kiosko. My opinion is strictly my own, but judging from the lack of enthusiasm from Eugene and from everyone else for that matter, I think the consensus was pretty much in line with mine.

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Steak and onions, Kiosko style

The lesson learned in Port Chester, if there was one, is that what’s good for Nello Burgio just might not be good for the seasoned palates our intrepid group.

Kiosoko Mexican Restaurant and Bar

220 Westchester Avenue

Port Chester, NY

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

Dining on Diversity Plaza on the Dawn of a Dark Age

22 Nov

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“Did you know this was once a porno palace,” Zio told us, gesturing to a marquee that now headlined Ittadi Garden and Grill, the Bangladeshi restaurant he chose for us on this occasion. We were assembled around a small picnic table on 37th Road, a block closed to traffic between 74th and 73rd Streets in Jackson Heights that is now a place where tables and chairs are set up and locals can sit and chat in a car-free zone.  How Zio knew of such things we didn’t ask.

“I miss those porno palaces,” I said.

“I don’t.” Gerry shook his head. “It’s much better now. You can get your porno right at home.”

“But what about the people who used to work at those places?” Eugene questioned. “The ticket takers, the people who cleaned up, the projectionist. Now they don’t have jobs.”

“Yeah, someone should do something about that,” I said. “We need to make porno great again.”

While we were discussing the golden years of pornography, a man in a red jumpsuit (courtesy of the Jackson Heights/Corona Business Improvement District) came and folded up our table—37th Road was apparently closing for the evening, at least in terms of the outdoor café it had been. Still, men in traditional, Indian and Pakistani clothing along with many wearing jackets and ties, lingered, smoking cigarettes and sipping tea, standing now instead of sitting. Bengali, Arabic, and Hindi blared from the nearby stores. No wonder the block was also referred to as “Diversity Plaza.”

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Diversity Plaza

The removal of our table was a signal that we should stop lingering and start eating, so we made our way into Ittadi Garden, down a narrow aisle and past a long counter of prepared foods behind glass and kept warm on steam tables. A man with a very wide smile and wearing a hair net guided us to a table. “What do we do here,” Eugene asked Zio. He wanted to know if we ordered from a menu or chose from the offerings under glass on the steam tables.

Zio, assuming the heavy burden that comes with making a pick for our group, got up to inquire about the ordering procedures. He returned a few minutes later with our host with the hair net. We were to follow him and point to what we wanted under glass and then our food would be brought to us. The offerings were staggering and we had no idea what most of what was in those steam trays. I had my eye a mound of rice with pieces of goat meat and whole hard boiled eggs labeled goat biryani, but then, like Zio and Eugene, pointed to the restaurant’s combo of rohu, a carp, that was sliced and cooked with squash and spices. With the combo we chose a vegetable—spinach, mixed vegetables and sauteed papaya. We also added two orders of garlic nan. Gerry was the only one among us who deviated from the fish, instead ordering what looked like mash of shrimp in their shells in a peppery stew of unidentifiable greens.

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A few of the unidentifiable foods under glass

We returned to our seats and almost immediately our food, delivered on paper plates and with plastic utensils, began to arrive at our table. With our orders there were two mountains of white rice and a bowl of lentil soup we were supposed to share among the four of us. Our table was so crowded we had to put one of the platters of rice and the bread on the bench next to where I was sitting.

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Rohu fish and plastic utensils

Our host with the hair net returned, smiling broadly and inquiring if everything was all right. “Do you want more bread? More rice? Soup?”

We decided on another bowl of soup and with it he brought a salad of iceberg lettuce, carrots, cucumbers, and topped with tiny green chili peppers. Using the plastic fork to put some of the salad on my plate, I made the mistake of also letting one of those peppers camouflage itself within the greens and eventually into my mouth. The burn was intense and water wasn’t helping to put out the fire. I began to shove rice into my mouth and then another piece of bread before the paid subsided.

“Pass me a slice of that pizza before you eat it all,” Zio grumbled.

“It’s nan,” Gerry corrected him.

“Indian pizza. Give it here.” Zio’s small hands reached for it greedily.

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Bangladeshi papaya

Once our table became strewed with the remnants of our meal; pieces of rice, salad, yellow papaya, and spinach, we followed the host with the hair net to the dessert section of the restaurant and picked out a few “sweets” including two pieces of syrup soaked gulab jamun; the others were tasty but unidentifiable to our not so diverse minds.

When we emerged from the former porno palace, Diversity Plaza was quieter. Despite the holiday lights, the Plaza seemed dark. There was a super moon up there somewhere. We just didn’t see it.

Ittadi Garden and Grill

737 37th Road

Jackson Heights

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