Tag Archives: Indian

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

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

Vanquished by Halal Vapors on Homelawn Street

15 Jan

Sagar Chinese

The first sizzling platter flowed through the dining room of Sagar Chinese restaurant soon after our gang of five arrived. The fumes from the platter clouding the dining room and strong enough, if not to set off smoke alarms, to induce a coughing fit from Mike from Yonkers.

Indian Chinese

We were in Jamaica, on an incline of Homelawn street just off bustling Hillside Avenue, a Halal heavy destination we had yet to explore and one of the reasons why I chose Sagar Chinese. The other was the restaurant’s designation as “Desi” Chinese. I had never heard of “Desi” Chinese and my research revealed the designation to mean a combination of Bangladeshi, Indian and Pakistani style Chinese. I, nor anyone in our group, had ever experienced what Bangladeshi, Indian, and Pakistani style Chinese might taste. It was time to find out.

Even the fried chicken...

Even the fried chicken…

...and the heroes on Hillside were Halal.

…and the heroes on Hillside were Halal.

With a month-old baby boy now taking up some of the unused space in his gargantuan New Jersey money pit, sleep-deprived Rick was able to escape his parental chores for a couple of hours and dine with us in Jamaica. The only missing member of our group was Zio, who was reflecting on his life experiences exploring crawl spaces, boiler rooms and other dark, damp places in search of cockroaches and carpenter ants to an audience of undoubtedly rapt listeners.

We all glanced at the menu which featured traditional Chinese dishes; fried rice, General Tso’s (shrimp and chicken), sweet and sour, and that worldwide (minus China) Chinese favorite, chow mein. Along with the traditional, were a few Indo-Pak favorites like pakoras, gobi and “lolly pop chicken;” chicken manipulated into what looked like a lolly pop and presented with the “sucker” covered in aluminum foil. What made Sagar’s menu nontraditional was the melding of East Indian spices with Chinese. And one of those, the masala chow mein, immediately drew my attention.

“It’s Chinese food” Eugene declared. “We’ll order five dishes and share everything.”

No one disputed.

We started with appetizers of paneer pakora and something irresistible sounding on the menu called “chicken cake.” Making sure we choose one main course from each column; seafood, beef, chicken, noodles, and vegetable, we started with Manchurian fish, and given the choice of “dry or gravy,” choose the latter. The masala chow mein that I desired drew a weak, food snob sigh from Gerry, but was agreed to by all the others. From the vegetable column we went with the gobi masala while from the beef, decided to try the Desi Chinese version of sweet and sour. Finally, as other sizzling platters were parading through the dining room, held high by the restaurant’s waiters, the vapors clouding the room and again going right to our throats, we figured we had to try one and ordered the “Sagar sizzling chicken.”

The appetizers arrived first, identical in hue and fried golden. The pakoras were shaped like billiard balls, and after trying one, almost as impenetrable. The chicken cakes were flat round discs of spiced ground chicken and compared to the pakoras, tender as pillows. Each had their own dipping sauce and for the dense pakoras, a necessity.

The resilient paneer pakoras

The resilient paneer pakoras

After devouring the appetizers, the entrees began to make their way to our table with the sweet and sour beef leading the way. Since pork was not an option here, the beef equivalent of sweet and sour was, thankfully, not fried and battered, but sliced and the sauce, not as sticky sweet as the familiar version. The masala chow mein, a bowl of overcooked noodles with a combination of Indian and Chinese spices had a fiery kick and was a pleasant surprise, while the gobi masala in a spicy gravy that was identical to the gravy in the Manchurian fish, astounded Eugene.

Masala Chow Mein

Masala Chow Mein

“I don’t usually like cauliflower,” Eugene admitted. “But this is the best cauliflower I’ve ever had.”

Knowing Eugene’s limited background in cauliflower, we weren’t sure how much stock to put in his praise of the dish, but none of us had any complaints about it either.

Gobi Masala

Gobi Masala

We could hear the sizzling from behind the restaurant’s counter and soon the platter of smoking chicken arrived at our table. Mike from Yonkers began to cough uncontrollably. I covered my mouth and tried to push my seat a few inches away from Mike’s. I stubbornly refused getting vaccinated for the flu despite the slightly better than even 62 percent prevention rate of the vaccine. I thought my own odds in not getting sick might be just as good if I kept my distance from the hacking Mike from Yonkers, even if his cough was brought on by the Sagar Sizzzling Chicken and not the flu.

Once the smoke cleared, we dug in and made quick work of the dish, a platter of sliced white meat chicken and assorted vegetables in the familiar brown sauce accented by the presence of a few Indian spices.

The vapors.

The vapors.

While the dishes were cleared an extended East Indian family arrived, and took a large table at the other end of the restaurant. I noticed they ordered the loly pop chicken and, after we paid our tab; hitting the $20 mark exactly, numerous sizzling platters, the vapors flowing from them, made their way to their large table.

Mike from Yonkers began to cough again. Rick cleared his throat. Gerry rubbed his eyes. I could feel the burn of the fumes in my throat. “We’re about to be asphyxiated,” Mike from Yonkers hoarsely muttered.

"Time to go."

“Time to go.”

“Yeah, it’s time to go,” I said, standing up. And though the Desi Chinese experience was, overall a very good one, respirator masks would have been appreciated.

Sagar Chinese
87-47 Homelawn St
Jamaica

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