Tag Archives: restaurants

Dissing Some Dim Sum

17 Sep

Nan Xian

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

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

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

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

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

“What now?” Eugene barked.

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

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

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

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

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

Dim Sum dissed because of this?

Dim Sum dissed because of this?

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

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

Crab meat and pork buns/soup dumplings

Crab meat and pork buns/soup dumplings

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

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

Rice cake, shredded pork and preserved mustard

Rice cake, shredded pork and preserved mustard

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

The  lone slice of scallion pancake before snared by Gerry.

The lone slice of scallion pancake before snared by Gerry.

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

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

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

Nan Xiang Xiao Long Bao

38-12 Prince St.

Flushing

Tibetan Obsession

30 Jul

Punda Tibetan

“Do you have a special affinity for the people of Tibet?” I asked Eugene when I met him on 47th Avenue in Sunnyside, Queens a few minutes before we were scheduled to dine at a place chosen by Eugene called Punda Tibetan?
“No. Why?” Eugene asked, perplexed by my question.

“Then it’s the food you like? Something about the momos?” I asked, referring to the Tibetan dumplings we’ve had before courtesy of Eugene. (See Momo Moments in the East Village)

“What?” Now he was really confused.

“Well, this is the third Tibetan place you’ve chosen since we’ve been picking,” I said. Along with Himalayan Café, Eugene also brought us, many years ago to Himalayan Yak ( See Yak Under the Tracks).

“It is?” He truly had no idea.

“And it’s not like Tibetan food is like…say…Chinese or Mexican.”

He shrugged. “I wanted a Greek place, but it was too expensive,” he replied. “So I found this one.” He was oblivious that, of all cuisines, he had latched onto the food of Tibet.

There were only four of us dining on Tibetan on this sultry summer evening. Rick was having chronic babysitting issues back at his Jersey money pit while Gerry opted to attend a “business” meeting at Yankee Stadium instead of coming to Sunnyside and eating more momos. “Really, Gerry?” Eugene scolded in a brusque group email to him when Gerry informed us of his decision.

Bush and the Dali Lama? Who knew?

Bush and the Dali Lama? Who knew?

The air conditioning was minimal in Punda Tibetan so even before we were brought our appetizers of shabhalap, a Tibetan version of empanadas, filled with meat and spices, and phag, small fluffy pieces of bland barley dough that were to be dipped into a savory meat gravy, we were beginning to sweat.

Phag

Phag

Adding to the sheen on my forehead were the abundant roasted chilies in the jhasha khatsa, a spicy chicken stew, I ordered. The side of Basmati rice helped douse the flames but an even better fire extinguisher were the two fleshy mounds of tingmo that accompanied Eugene’s dish of phing sa, a beef noodle stew.

Jhasha

Jhasha khatsa

“Oh we have play dough,” Zio said cheerily upon the arrival of the tingmo.

“Play dough or maybe the beginnings of the Pillsbury dough boy,” I said.

“What do you do with it?” Eugene asked our bewildered reticent waitress.

Using her hands to communicate, she showed us that the tingmo was to be torn with your hands and used to dip into the stews.

Tibetan Play Dough

Tibetan Play Dough

Mike from Yonkers even dipped some of the dough into his already starchy stew of cottage cheese or, as they say in the southern regions of Tibet: “paneer.” But after tasting the paneer at Punda Tibetan, the cheese had more of the consistency of tofu.

“At least there’s no tilapia here,” Zio commented as he slurped down his spicy Shabtak, a beef stew better suited for the harshness of the Himalayas than a sultry summer evening in Queens.

Shabtak

Shabtak

Once finished and after wiping the sweat from our collective brows, Zio limped wide-legged out the door of the restaurant into the equally steamy street. “I think my underpants are stuck to my ass,” he announced as if we needed such information.

“I already know the place I’m picking next,” Eugene declared as we headed down the street.

“Will it feature tingmos or momos?” I inquired, but Eugene didn’t bother to answer.

Punda Tibetan

39-35 47th Avenue

Sunnyside, Queens

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

30 Jun

fu run

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

“No thank you,” Eugene responded politely.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Muslim Lamb Chop

Muslim Lamb Chop

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

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

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

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

Pea shoot stems

Pea stems

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

A mountain of pork

A mountain of pork

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

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

Fish

Fish “home style”

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

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

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

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

“I guess you look tense,” I said.

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

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

Fu Run

40-09 Prince Street

Flushing

The Arepas of Astoria

28 May

arepas cafe

“Haven’t we been here before?” Eugene queried via email after Zio announced his choice, Arepas Café, conveniently located in his home base of Astoria.

“No,” I responded. “We’ve had cachapas, empanadas, and patacons from that Venezuelan place in Inwood (Stalking Corn on Dyckman Street).  But we have never had a Venezuelan arepa.”

“The Colonel and I ate there about five hours ago,” Zio told us in his email. “It was good, but I had to use hot sauce.” Not the most glowing praise, but time was running out and he had to make a pick. And we had to eat.

“Isn’t there a rule that you are not supposed to eat at the place before we all eat there?” Eugene bellowed as we convened, snuggled tightly together in the small restaurant.

“What’s with you and all the rules?” I said. “First you want Rick suspended for missing so many of our appointments and now you want to make it that we have to pick the restaurant sight unseen.”

“I don’t know, it feels like you’re cheating if you’ve been to the place.” Eugene said.

“Yeah, well maybe if you’d been to that falafel place near Columbia you wouldn’t have wasted our time that night.” I replied.

“Hey, he didn’t know what a falafel was until then,” Gerry chimed in.

We finally got off the subject of the rules of our group and glanced at the menu which featured a large selection of arepas, cornmeal or maize flatbread, stuffed with a variety of meats, vegetables and seafood.

“They have gazon,”  Mike from Yonkers announced.

“What’s that?” Eugene asked him.

“Baby shark,” Mike from Yonkers answered, reading from the menu.

“Ohhh, I want that,” Eugene declared.

“Ditto,” Mike from Yonkers said with a happy nod.

“Is it ethical to eat baby shark?” I asked the two. “Shouldn’t you let the shark have the opportunity to grow to be a feared predator before you eat it?”

“I don’t care. I want it and I’m having it,” Mike from Yonkers responded callously.

Would you eat a baby shark?

Would you eat a baby shark?

While Eugene and Mike from Yonkers ordered the baby shark, Gerry and I choose the “mami,” or roast pork with avocado and “white” cheese.

“I’ll try ‘Riccardo’s Tuna,’” Zio told the helpful waitress.

“Who is Riccardo?” I asked her. “And what makes his tuna so special?”

“My father is Riccardo,” she answered, shaming me to silence.  “He’s the owner. And the tuna, I don’t know, it’s just his favorite.”

We started with appetizers of mini cachapas, corn pancakes with melted cheese and asked for the mini empanadas with chicken, shredded beef, and the aforementioned baby shark.

As we sipped cold Venezuelan Polar beers, the waitress returned.
“I’m sorry, we are out of the baby shark,” said announced.

Obviously baby shark was a delicacy cold hearted New Yorkers could not resist. As Mike from Yonkers and Eugene looked to change their arepa orders the waitress quickly returned.

“I just talked to the chef,” she said. “We do have the baby shark for the arepas, just not for the empanadas.” So they would have their baby shark after all.

The cachapas and the empanadas, minus the baby shark, came out first. The tiny cachapas were indistinguishable, but the empanadas were the perfect accompaniment to the beer. The golden-colored cornmeal crust had a delicate crunch to it and the shredded chicken and pork stuffing lightly seasoned and moist. But like Zio had warned, hot sauce was needed to complement the flavors.

Mini empanadas

Mini empanadas

The arepas were bursting with meat, and/or tuna and baby shark. The avocado and “white” cheese added a freshness to the hearty shredded pork. But again—hot sauce was needed.

“I don’t know, this just might not be enough for me,” Eugene said after devouring his arepa.

Gerry, of course, agreed. “I think another arepa is needed.”  And both ordered mixed seafood arepas.

Arepa "mami"

Arepa “mami”

“And can I have a tres leche cake,” Zio asked tentatively as if the waitress might just deny him his request.

“Me too,” Gerry said to the waitress before he even got started on his second arepa.

“Alright,” I conceded. “I’ll have the house salad.” I told the waitress.

“Some Italians eat their salad before the main course,” Zio offered as if questioning my choice and my heritage.

“Yeah, and some after,” I countered.

“I don’t know. Everywhere I’ve been the salad always comes first.” Eugene said as if settling the subject.

Whether settled or not, the subject was not worthy of further discussion and everyone, with the surprising exception of Mike from Yonkers who abstained from either a second arepa or a dessert, went to work on their encore dishes, quickly consuming them to oblivion.

Rompe Colchon (mixed seafood arepa)

Rompe Colchon (mixed seafood arepa)

As Eugene tallied up our bill he crowed about how good his arepas were. And then he looked at me. “But really? Who orders a house salad in an arepa place,” he said, shaking his head. “I think that might be against our rules…”

Arepas Cafe

33-07 36th Avenue

Astoria

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

The Little Shop of Dumplins

29 Jan

 

The Dumplin Shop

Eugene, Mike from Yonkers, Gerry and I were gathered around the bar in the adjoining cluttered dining room of the mostly take-out, Jamaican fish joint,  the Dumplin Shop.  Located just off the entrance to the New England Thruway in the Baychester section of the Bronx, the Dumplin Shop was an oasis in an otherwise food challenged wasteland. Each of us was nursing cold beers as we waited for Zio’s arrival to complete our party and proceed in ordering.

Plenty of beverage choices in the dining room of the Dumplin Shop.

Plenty of beverage choices in the dining room of the Dumplin Shop.

While Eugene was happily informing us of all the snowstorms he would be missing during his impending annual Punta Cana all-inclusive escape, my cell phone buzzed with a text from Zio. “I am still on the #5 stagecoach but I am coming,” he wrote.

Why is he taking a train all the way from Astoria we all wondered? Why didn’t he drive?

“You are insane,” I replied tersely.

“I’m hungry,” Eugene bellowed. “Do we have to wait?”

I texted Zio again. “You close?”

“Next  stop is 219th St,” he replied. That would be the stop he needed to get off and then walk the few blocks to 222nd Street and the restaurant.

“Alright, he’s close,” I told everyone as we continued to drink our beers and discuss deflated footballs. “He should be here soon.”

My phone buzzed. “Now 233rd.” It read.

“Uh oh,” I muttered. “He missed the stop or the train he was on was an express.”

“That’s it. We’re eating.” Eugene pronounced as he made his way into the take-out  part of the restaurant.

“Can I at least blame the Colonel,” I texted to Zio as we got in line at the counter.

“Of course, she took the car,” he quickly responded.

The woman behind the counter explained that at a restaurant called the Dumplin Shop they were out of dumplings…at least the boiled variety. They were also out of ackee and saltfish. And callaloo and saltfish. And the fish soup was gone too.

Some of what was left at the Dumplin Shop.

Some of what was left at the Dumplin Shop.

“See, I told you they would run out of stuff,” I said to Gerry. When he had informed me of his choice and asked my opinion, I mentioned that my only worry was that, based on experience, Jamaican take-out places tend to do a brisk lunch business and run out of many items by dinner

Still, they had snapper. They had porgy. They had oxtails if we wanted them— and chicken in brown gravy too. I ordered the porgy with rice and peas while Mike from Yonkers and Eugene opted for snapper. Gerry sweet-talked his way into a side of callaloo and we asked for a side of (fried) dumplings for the table.

We went back to the bar and our beers to wait for the food. There was another text from Zio. “Men I think I’m goin home,” it read.

I offered to drive him back into the city to a more convenient train to Astoria if he could get to the restaurant.

Zio's final response.

Zio’s final response.

It was just as well. Our food was ready and by the time Zio would have arrived they might have been out of porgy and snapper as well as ackee, saltfish and boiled dumplings.

As is the tradition at Jamaican take-out places, the food was served in a Styrofoam container; the porgy laying comfortably on a bed of rice and peas adorned with steamed cabbage and other spices. The porgy was meaty and moist and was a messy adventure devouring it without also swallowing any of its many bones.

Porgy served in a Styrofoam container.

Porgy served in a Styrofoam container.

A box of dumplings came out. They were fried and dense, but a good offset to the fish and beer.  We waited for Mike from Yonkers to cleanly excise flesh from bone on his snapper before heading out into the cold.

The hum from the traffic on the New England Thruway was the pre-dominant sound as we walked to our cars. Driving onto the Thruway, I wondered if the sign of the Dumplin Shop was visible from the highway. A vision of the sign while stuck in traffic or on the way back to the city from New England or Westchester would be like a welcoming beacon and a serious temptation to pull off the road for “the best fried fish and dumplings.” As long as the Dumplin Shop still had those dumplings.

The Dumpling Shop

 

The Dumplin Shop

1530 E. 222nd St

Bronx

A Feast for Five Faux Kings in Greenpoint

30 Dec

Jadlo

“I had one of those korytos at another Polish place here in Greenpoint,” Zio told us all just before we were to order one at Krolewskie Jadlo. “The meat was dry.”

We hesitated, looking at him. The koryto in question was a platter of assorted meats enough to serve either a group of three or four.

After a moment’s reflection and realizing his declaration put a damper on our group’s plans, he said “But we should get it anyway,”

“You’re just saying that because you want the wiener  schnitzel,” I said to Zio.

“Yeah, I want the wiener schnitzel,” Zio nodded. “But that koryto at the other place was dry.”

We were in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, reunited with Rick, who, in 2014 had been absent for most of our gatherings. This was his choice and his only hesitation was that the chef was “Nobu-trained.” What would that mean to our pedestrian group who were more used to dining in restaurants where the chefs were trained by their mothers and grandmothers than at a four-star Japanese restaurant? And, to be sure, our only other previous Polish experience most definitely did not have a Nobu trained chef (see The Pierogies of Old Poland). Still he took the chance and, despite the rain and that it was a “Gridlock Alert” day,” all of us were present with the exception of Gerry. “I’ve got to go to a business party,” was his excuse. “And you know, bizness is bizness.”

One of the blonde Polish waitresses, of which there were many at Krolewskie Jadlo, came to take our order.

“We’ll have the Koryto for Four,” Zio said to rectify his gaffe.

“And an order of wiener schnitzel,” Rick added. After all, we were five, if anything our group tended to err on the side of excess. We couldn’t take a chance that even a huge platter of meats for four would be enough for our gluttonous group.

The five of us were seated at a chocolate brown wooden table. There was a royal motif surrounding the restaurant including an armored knight placed strategically by the front door. The restaurant’s name translated, so we were told to “King’s Feast” and on this night, we assumed that we were the kings.

The King's guardian

The King’s guardian

While we waited for our feast, we sipped a Polish beer recommended by the waitress called Lech. The beer was a disappointment, the Polish equivalent of Michelob, but the enormous wooden platter shaped like a hollowed out boat filled with meats that arrived promptly was not.

Before I could dig in, the tender meat in the “hunter stew,” a big piece of pork shank was gone with the exception of its thick covering of fat. And despite my tendencies, I couldn’t eat the fat especially with so many other options in the koryto to choose from including the hearty blood sausage, the grilled pork and chicken, the kebabs, and the cabbage and potato pierogies. The plate of wiener schnitzel we ordered, two pounded and breaded pork cutlets topped with fried eggs, seemed minuscule in comparison.

Das Boot

Das Boot

The meal was accompanied by platters of krauts; cabbage, beet, and carrot along with thick bread and a garlic, butter spread. The food was more than plentiful, but Mike from Yonkers, who was at the opposite end of the table and not within a long arm’s reach of “The Boat,” feared he would miss out on some of the boat’s goodies, so he made a point of rising from his seat, his mouth stuffed with food and fork in hand, and  moved closer, hunching perilously over my shoulder,  and then spearing a piece of kebab and perogie adding it onto his already cluttered plate.

The boat looked like it would be a challenge, but for our group of five; a koryto for four was easy work. Even the addition of the wiener schnitzel could not halt our assault. The only food that remained of this “king’s feast,” was some of the kraut and the skin from the pork shank, though Zio was tempted to not leave that behind.

Schnitzel

A “minuscule” Schnitzel

There were dessert options that came out on a separate smaller menu—something we were not used to—so we politely declined. The bill, totaled by the ever reliable Eugene, was well within our allotted budget. As we gathered outside the restaurant in the rain to say our goodbyes until 2015 Zio nodded and said, “I’d come back here.”

“So would I,” I said.

And with those words, Rick’s choice just passed the most crucial test of our group’s assessment of a restaurant’s success.

The Mole-A in Astoria

25 Nov

De Mole

Since moving to Astoria several years ago, Zio has brought us to a number of that neighborhood’s fine dining establishments. Who can forget the greasy Greek macaroni at now defunct Uncle George’s (The Greek Uncle)? Or the stupendous fish market cum restaurant, Astoria Seafood (The Ash Wednesday Fishing Expedition)? Or, the Afghani restaurant under the R train tracks (Eating Like an Afghan Family in an Afghani Restaurant in Astoria)? It was Zio’s turn to pick our destination and again he kept us in his comfy locale with a Mexican place called De Mole that was just a few doors down from another of Zio’s choices, the tiny Bosnian grilled meat joint Ukus (A Bosnian Taste in Astoria).

From Zio we expected something gritty where the waiters communicated with hand gestures, the lighting was bright, the menus and napkins of the thin paper variety, and the food prepared in a kitchen where we would never dare tread. Instead, when I arrived at De Mole, I was greeted by one of those obtrusive “A” grades on the big glass window storefront. Inside the restaurant was dimly or “moodily” lit; there were fancy marble tabletops and silverware was arranged on each neatly assembled burnished wood table.

“The tamales are real good here,” Zio boasted as our group of five settled in. Our efficient waitress spoke impeccable English and took our drink orders while we perused the menu that was stocked with standard Mexican dishes.

We started with an order of tamales; one with the self-proclaimed mole, the other with a salsa verde. The tamales came steamed, wrapped in corn husks, and prepared lovingly. The mole version was dry and Zio asked for accompanying salsas. I slathered some of the “rojo” or red hot sauce on hoping to revive the otherwise lifeless tamale. The verdes con pollo  tamale, or chicken with green sauce fared better than the mole, but still needed an infusion of extra salsa verde.

Tamales

Tamales

“What’s spicy here,” Gerry asked the waitress hopefully. She suggested the enchiladas rojas con pollo and Gerry quickly ordered it.

“I think I’ll just have some tacos,” Zio said, the boredom in his voice evident from a man who, many times, had eaten the tacos at De Mole.

“What kind,” the waitress asked.

“Oh—the slowly cooked goat of course,” Zio replied as if she had to ask.

I veered from the tacos, burritos, tortas, and quesadillas on the menu to try one of the “platos principales;” my choice being the tinga de puebla translated to mean beef brisket stew. It was an abnormally cold November night—I craved a stew of any kind.

Mike from Yonkers chose the classic pollo con mole Polbano while Eugene ordered the same, but wrapped in a burrito along with a carne asada taco.

"Slowly" roasted goat in a flour tortilla.

“Slowly” roasted goat in a flour tortilla.

Our food came promptly; everything assembled tidily.  No one said much about what they were eating except Gerry who acknowledged his enchiladas were, in fact, spicy. Our waitress brought us a “complimentary” bowl of salsa with chips; the salsa also lacking heat or any real flavor at all.

The mole at de Mole

The mole at de Mole

The beef stew was hearty; the brisket shredded into thin strands accompanied with yellow rice and very good black beans. But where was the Cholula hot sauce when you needed it? De Mole unfortunately was that kind of place. Good, but lacking the grit our group strives to find.

Walking with Zio down 30th Avenue, you could sense his resignation. Almost admitting, without saying so, that De Mole was a disappointment; not what he usually strives for. No one complained. No one chided him on the lackluster choice. We all have off days. We knew Zio. We were confident he would do better next time.

De Mole

42-20 30 Ave

Astoria

Rum and Roti in Parts Unknown

27 Oct

Melanie's Roti

“Why isn’t The Bronx a city?” Eugene inquired as we sat around a table in Melanie’s Roti & Grill Restaurant on Castle Hill Avenue.

“It’s a borough,” Gerry explained.

“Yeah, but what’s a borough? Why isn’t it just another city? What is it with these boroughs? I mean, when I think of New York I think of Manhattan. That’s New York. The Bronx? Brooklyn? Boroughs? What’s that all about?”’

Zio, could only hear fragments of Eugene’s proclamations, but enough to test his patience. “Would you shut up already about the boroughs!” he yelled, his face contorted in rage.

Not long before I chose Melanie’s Roti & Grill Restaurant, CNN aired a program hosted by food and travel media celebrity, Anthony Bourdain called “Parts Unknown,” where the unknown part in this episode, at least to Bourdain, was the Bronx. After twelve years of foraging restaurants in New York, including all the boroughs that so perplex Eugene there were no more unknown parts in the city for our Chow City group. We’d been to almost all of them—and the Bronx, because it had long been neglected in the city’s food sphere has always been a particular focus for our group.

In the Bronx, our group uncovered ethnic joints where we’ve had, among other things, pizza, African, Vietnamese, Thai, Bangladeshi, Pakistani, Mexican, Barbecue, and Caribbean. The variety of food choices in the Bronx is almost equal to what can be found the city’s food epicenter, another one of those boroughs lamented by Eugene: Queens.

It was happy hour at Melanie’s and I got happy with a Heineken.

“They have Ron Zacapa 23 here,” Mike from Yonkers announced to all but especially to Gerry referring to the aged rum from Guatemala .

“I might have one or two of those,” Gerry said.

At Melanie’s the happy hour lasted from 4pm until 8. We were comfortably under the deadline.

“We are in a Guyanese place. Why not order an El Dorado 21 year old instead,” I suggested.

“Maybe I’ll have one of those too,” Gerry said with a sly smile.

Old rum for an old man

Old rum for an old man

That it was happy hour was a bonus, but we were at Melanie’s for the food.

It had been several years since we dined on Guyanese food and this one, located in the heart of a Latin neighborhood in the Bronx, seemed an anomaly until I noticed another “roti” restaurant a block from Melanie’s. Apparently there was a West Indian/Guyanese enclave within the enclave. Why should I be surprised? This was the Bronx after all.

With Mike from Yonkers’ insistence, and not that we protested, we started with an order of fried shark for the table along with a plate of channa, spiced and salted chick peas. The shark, also salty and fried into chunks went well with my Heineken.

Channa

Channa

The Guyanese like to offer westernized variations of Chinese food in their restaurants; lo mein, chow mein  and fried rice were available at Melanie’s. Though I would never order chow mein in a Chinese restaurant, I couldn’t resist trying it at Melanie’s and had what was called the “mix.”

“You want everything in it?” Our waitress and bartender inquired.

“I want it all,” I said without hesitation.

Guyanese chow mein with the works

Guyanese chow mein with the works

Though Guyana was a long way from Jamaica, the birthplace of jerk chicken, like all of the Caribbean, jerk has become a staple in that region and both Eugene and Zio ordered it at Melanie’s while Gerry, disappointed that there was no more goat available that day to have with his curry, substituted duck in its place. Mike from Yonkers also was intrigued by the duck, among other things, and chose the bunjal duck with Indian dhal and basmati rice.

“Oh and I can I have one of those roti things,” Eugene said, not knowing that roti was an Indian soft, flat bread wrapped into a narrow roll even though we knew he had had it before at one or two of our food choices throughout the years.

The portions were enormous; the mix in my chow mein included shrimp, beef, roast pork, duck, jerk chicken and vegetables. The noodles, as I expected were soggy but the vegetables crisp enough to compensate. The only real disappointment was the lack of spice from the jerk chicken, but the accompanying hot sauce more than made up for the lack of heat.

Duck curry

Duck curry

While we rapidly consumed our platters, Mike from Yonkers deliberately dipped his duck in the dhal, scooping a small portion of rice with it, and then wrapping it  into a portion of roti; the tedious process making us wait  until he finally finished before asking for our check. Eugene glared at him.

“Okay, I’m done,” Mike from Yonkers said, throwing up his hands.

On our way out and walking down Castle Hill Avenue with Zio, we passed  a familiar restaurant called Sabrosura.  It was familiar because a couple of years earlier we experienced the splendors of that Dominican/Chinese place and chronicled that experience in these pages( The Place Where They Don’t Count the Shrimp).  And like Sabrusora and so many others, Melanie’s was just another food find in Parts Unknown.

The Bronx

 

Melanie’s Roti & Grill Restaurant

1248 Castle Hill Avenue

The Bronx

Momo Moments in the East Village

31 Jul

Cafe Himalaya

“What made you choose this place?” I asked Eugene as our group convened at the Cafe Himalaya in the East Village.

“We’ve never had Himalayan food before,” was his response.

“Himalayan food?”

“Yeah.”

“You mean, Tibetan and Nepali food,” I said, pointing to what was written under the restaurant’s awning and on the menu.

“No Himalayan,” Eugene corrected me.

“But isn’t Himalayan food from Tibet and Nepal?” I queried.

“It is?”

“And didn’t you, several years ago, choose a place called Himalayan Yak?”

Eugene was perplexed. “I did?”

“Yes you did,” I said. “You don’t remember?”

He was lost for a moment and then waved his hand derisively. “How do you expect me to remember these things,” he snapped before quickly proceeding to bury his face in his menu.

This was our second attempt to get to the Cafe Himalaya. Our first, the previous week, was cancelled due to flooding on the Westchester roads. Everyone but Rick was available the following week so rescheduling was easy.

Seating was tight at the Cafe Himalaya. Zio was wedged so tightly between Mike from Yonkers and Eugene it was as if he was encased in a swarthy sausage casing. It didn’t help that the humidity was high and the lone air conditioner was struggling above the constantly opened front door.

Not much help there.

Not much help there.

Business was brisk, both outgoing and at the tables. Our harried waitress didn’t waste any time arriving at our table with pencil and pad in hand ready to take our order. Though we did visit a “Himalayan” place several years ago, Himalayan Yak (Yak Under the Tracks) did not have momos (dumplings) on the menu. Cafe Himalaya did, however, and we ordered two, one, pan-fried and stuffed with potato and the other, steamed and filled with ground chicken and herbs.

The café’s most popular dishes were written on the blackboard above the entrance to the kitchen and most of us ordered from there including myself when I ordered the tsel dofu, or vegetables and tofu in a spicy sauce.

Where the rest of us pointed to what we wanted on the menu or recited the corresponding number, Mike from Yonkers, in his best Tibetan, barked “Shapta,” to the waitress as she came to him for his order. But either she didn’t hear or she just wasn’t used to someone actually reciting the food they wanted to order.

“Shapta,” he repeated in a louder voice and this time she understood.

The momos came out first; the “tsel” or vegetarian, in my opinion, the better of the two. The chicken momo was an acquired taste and one I could not find it in myself to acquire. Despite our typically overwhelming hunger, there were momos left on our plates—a sign that at Himalaya Café the momos were mediocre.

Steamed chicken momos

Steamed chicken momos

When our entrees began to arrive the waitress called out “shapta.” I knew I didn’t order the shapta but no one was responding. She said it again and Mike from Yonkers waved his hand. “Shapta over here,” he said and she placed the platter of spicy, thinly sliced beef in front of him.

While Mike from Yonkers was examining his shapta, Eugene was quickly devouring the chicken curry, reminiscent, of Indian chicken curry but with the addition of yogurt giving the sauce a pinkish hue.

“How’s the Himalayan chicken curry,” I asked Eugene, not daring to sample any myself lest I risk getting speared by his rapidly plunging fork.

“It’s good,” he mumbled half-heartedly and then went back to silently devouring his food.

Shapta anyone?

Shapta anyone?

I wasn’t sure what it was Gerry ordered but noticed the pieces of white meat chicken and an abundance of broccoli.

“Chicken and broccoli?” I inquired

“Something like that,” Gerry said after a taste.

Zio’s  “chili chicken” pieces of thin, fried boneless chicken and vegetables, was, from my sampling, very much like Mike from Yonkers’ shapta; the same vegetable and sauce. Though advertised as spicy both dishes benefited by the additional zest provided by the restaurant’s hot sauce.

Spicy Dofu

Spicy Dofu

Crowds were beginning to mingle outside the tiny restaurant. Eyes were on our coveted table. I kept pace with the others as we made quick work of our meals.  Mike from Yonkers, however, crowds be damned, deliberately picked at his shapta, spooning small bits onto a few kernels of Basmati rice before shoveling it into his mouth. It was getting hotter inside the restaurant. Customers waiting for tables were hovering over ours.

“It’s time, Mike,” Eugene bellowed from Zio’s opposite side.

“All right, I’m done,” Mike from Yonkers announced, putting down his fork.

Our bill was quickly brought to us with the final result well under our $20 per person budget.

The view from our table.

The view from our table.

We sprawled out onto Houston Street and as we did, a group of eager Tibetan and/or Nepali food aficionados swooped in and took over our table for four where we had fit five. The momos weighed heavily in my belly. Sweat marks had formed under the armpits of Zio’s stylish extra extra large t-shirt. “Good job, Eugene,” he said. “But I have a question.”

“What’s that?”

“Do you have to wait for a table in Nepal?”

Eugene had no answer of course, but we could all clearly agree that our group of intrepid, yet slovenly diners, during our now 12 year run,  had yet to wait for a table anywhere in our cheap eats hot zone that encompassed, among other places, the Bronx, Brooklyn, Queens, Yonkers, and yes, even the rarefied streets of the East Village.

Cafe Himalaya

78 E. 1st St.

East Village

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