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Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Premium Sweets & Restaurant

The other place that the grocery guy pointed out to me was almost directly across the street from Mannan Supermarket, Premium Sweets & Restaurant. I can say with confidence right now that I'm going to be a regular here.

While I have yet to try any sweets here (desserts, with a few notable exceptions, are not generally my thing), the regular food offerings all look excellent: there is a long glass counter on the left as you enter with more than a dozen prepared rice dishes and curries, and on the right there is a shorter counter of tandoori and grilled kababs. And if their morog polao is any indication, they really are good - it is sensational.

The obvious drawback with this setup is that everything is made ahead of time, and when you order something, it gets dished up and microwaved. Rice dishes and curries like these don't suffer too much from this treatment, luckily. (Pre-cooked tandoori kababs, on the other hand...)  While Premium Sweet's morog polao is not as refined as Dhaka Garden's version, it is the style that I prefer - everything baked together, so that the all flavors intermingle. There's a delightful surprise in every bite - it may be a sultana or a crisped onion shred, or a dollop of spiced yogurt, adding richness to the well-seasoned rice. Ten bucks buys a generous portion with a whole chicken leg and a hard-boiled egg.

It tastes as if someone's Bangladeshi grandmother might have made it (my highest praise: I LOVE "grandmother" food). Not quite as recommendable is the "spring roll", filled with some deliciously-seasoned minced chicken (they are halal here, after all). If one could manage to get these fresh from the fryer, I'm sure they would be great. But it had been sitting around a while, and the wrapper was rather tough and leathery. Since it only cost one dollar, it wasn't a particularly vexing misfire.

They're open VERY late, maybe even 24 hours (I forgot to ask), and have other locations in Jamaica (Queens) and Parkchester (Bronx).

Premium Sweets & Restaurant
37-14 73rd St., Jackson Heights 11372

(E, F, M, R, or 7 train to 74th St.-Broadway/Roosevelt Ave.-Jackson Heights, walk a block northwest on Broadway, then right on 73rd St.)

Saturday, May 2, 2015

Dhaka Garden

Last weekend, I attended a concert at Alice Tully Hall in which two good friends were singing: Elizabeth Blancke-Biggs and Margaret Lattimore, both marvelous singers (go hear them if you can… better yet, come to Mexico City in late June and hang out with us as we all prepare and perform Richard Strauss's opera Salome). As luck would have it, my seat was next to that of an old friend and colleague, the artist manager Alex Fletcher, who very gently tendered a plea for a new blog post. I admit it has been far too long, and fortunately, inspiration presented itself just a few days later.

During a late-night trip to Mannan Halal Grocery, I was chatting with the lovely Bangladeshi fellow ringing up my purchases and happened to mention how much I liked the dish morog polao. He brightened up, ushered me to the door, and pointed down the street to not one, but two places he thought served a good morog polao. He was absolutely right. This evening I brought both my camera and my friend Alex (a mathematics professor, not the artist manager) to Dhaka Garden, where we enjoyed some exceptionally good food.

I had heard that their mughlai paratha was also good, so we started with an order of that. It is easily the best mughlai paratha I have ever tasted – fried with lightest of hands, and filled with subtly-seasoned minced chicken (rather than the usual beef one gets in Indian restaurants) and egg. Well worth the six bucks, and easily sharable by two or three people.

Also reputed to be good was kacchi biryani, so order it we did. It was excellent. The menu says it is made with "premium baby goat", baby goat being a relative term. In Spain, cabrito asado (roast kid goat) is generally no more than 45 days old. This goat was significantly more elderly than that, but had good flavor and was actually tender, in contrast to most of the goat one gets in Indo-Paki restaurants around town. The rice was delicious with complex, fresh flavors.

With biryani and polao dishes, Dhaka Garden offers a small dish of chicken, beef or goat curry for an additional $4.95. How can one pass that up? On our waiter’s recommendation, we got beef. The gravy was rich and complex, concentrated from long simmering until almost reminiscent of Indonesian rending. A recommendation we’re glad we heeded.

The impetus for the visit, morog polao, was indeed excellent. There are several styles of morog polao, apparently, and while theirs is not the style I prefer (I like everything baked together), the quality was so high that it made no difference. My friend Alex, who grew up in India, was particularly impressed by this dish (in fact, he was impressed in general, saying, “This takes me back to my teen years... I haven’t had food like this since I was in India!”). He repeatedly remarked on how fresh the chicken tasted, and indeed the menu boasts "live chicken": you get one half chicken – and a hard-boiled egg – that has been simmered in a seasoned yogurt and cream sauce, with a plate of very subtly-seasoned rice, rich with sultanas, fried onion shreds, and a few saffron threads, served alongside.

This feast set us back about twenty bucks apiece. They also offer a good selection of snacks/appetizers (including some Indian-Chinese items), tandoori kababs, curries (their fish curry is reputed to be excellent), breads, and breakfast items.  Open 9 a.m. - 11 p.m. daily.

(A postscript:  if any Bengali speakers happen to read this and would be willing to assist in the translation of some ingredients and amounts from a cooking video in Bangla, I would be most grateful. E-mail me at the address listed near the top of the page.)

Dhaka Garden
72-23 37th Ave., Jackson Heights 11372

(E, F, M, R, or 7 train to 74th St.-Broadway/Roosevelt Ave.-Jackson Heights, walk two blocks north on 74th St., then left on 37th Ave.)

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Ferry Street Barbecue

I almost didn't write about this place because, as I was taking the above picture, an irritating twat behind the counter said petulantly, "No photos allowed."

Surmising that the impromptu policy was not so much about culinary secrets as it was about the immigration status of most of the employees, I asked:

"Not even just the food?"


If the dictum "request" had been delivered with even the least iota of courtesy, I would have considered complying. But screw it. Businesses should really try to keep the cunts away from the public.

Sullen twats notwithstanding, Ferry Street Barbecue hawks some mighty tasty grilled chickens. Nicely seasoned, with the right amount of char, and (usually) juicy, a whole bird will set you back 11 bucks - 12 if you want rice or french fries with it.

As is probably obvious from the photo, this place is a barbecue in the sense of "meat grilled over charcoal", not "smokehouse barbecue". It's a very informal place - a counter and 6 or 7 tables - and almost everyone is there for the chicken, but they also do pork ribs, beef ribs, shrimp, and bacalhau.

Ferry Street Barbecue
89 Ferry St., Newark, NJ 07105

(from Newark Penn Station, walk 5 blocks east on Ferry St. - 5 to 7 minutes)
menu (add $2 to most of the prices)


I was picking up some Portuguese groceries in Newark this afternoon - one should never, ever run out of Delta coffee beans - and decided to stroll over to Portugalia Bar & Restaurant, a favorite of my good friend Michael's. This was not the first time I had reconnoitered the joint, but the pratos do dia (daily specials) had never been inspiring enough to get me to stop in... until this evening. There on the list was cabidela de galinha, probably my favorite Portuguese dish of all time.

Now, it may not look like much (and the lighting there did not help things one bit - my apologies for the dimness of the photo), but it is utter deliciousness. Chicken is stewed with its giblets, removed from the pot, and rice is then cooked in the same liquid. "What's that brown color, then?" you may ask. The dish is finished with chicken blood. When the chicken is killed, the blood is saved, with some vinegar mixed in to prevent coagulation. For my taste, there was just a bit too much of that vinegar in Portugalia's cabidela, but overall a good rendition of the dish.

Most of the patrons were eating either this, or the grilled chicken, which looked excellent (even better than Ferry St. Barbecue's). And the accompanying fried potatoes are the first and only I've seen in the U.S. that look exactly like they do in Portugal. I do believe that's what I'll be sampling my next trip here.

280 Ferry St., Newark, NJ 07105

(from Newark Penn Station, walk 13 blocks east on Ferry St. - 12 to 15 minutes)

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Tikka Grill

The first time I wandered into Tikka Grill, I immediately spied a fresh chicken tikka kebab on the bottom shelf of the glass case, dripping with yogurt and spices, and I knew I had to have it. It was so delicious, I have been unable to make myself try much of anything else here. It's only serious rival I've found in the NY metro area is at the Fiza Diner.

I can tell you, though, that the onion kulcha is excellent: a layer of tender onions enclosed in light, moist, and crispy bread.

On a busy corner of Astoria Blvd. near LaGuardia airport, this place is, in fact, rather easy to miss. Tucked in the ground floor of an unprepossessing low-rise building, it's almost literally a hole-in-the wall. If you go, you'll be rubbing elbows with a bunch of New York's Pakistani taxi and livery drivers, who are almost always eating curries, not kebabs. I'm sure they're great, too (the taxi drivers always know where to eat) - I just haven't got around to trying them yet.

Tikka Grill
24-02 82nd St., East Elmhurst 11370

Q33 or Q47 bus from Jackson Heights
menu (add $1 to most of the prices)

Friday, October 24, 2014

Upstairs at the New World Mall

On the main floor of the New World Mall, near the Jmart cashiers, is a counter I passed many times before deciding to investigate. It generally has a motley assortment of what look like savory pastries, cold "salad" items, and stewed meat items for takeaway, and the other day, some lovely-looking pork shanks caught my eye. How could I resist?

They call this jiang zhǒu zǐ (酱肘子), pork shank stewed in a soy, sugar, and star anise sauce, and it is DELICIOUS. Well worth the 8 or 9 bucks it will set you back.

It's the perfect edible souvenir after a meal at Tian Fu or Li's Noodles downstairs.

New World Mall
Main & Roosevelt (enter on Roosevelt), Flushing 11354

(7 train to Main St.-Flushing)

Cheng Du Heaven (成都天府)

Things are always changing in Flushing. Many of these changes are unwelcome ones, like the demise of Maple Snacks, the disappearance of Szechuan Dish, and the recent mediocre meal at Lao Dong Bei, ascribable to a different chef (one hopes this change is not a permanent one). But lately, I noticed that Cheng Du Heaven (成都天府 - chéng dū tiān fǔ), in the basement of the Golden Shopping Mall, has been, little by little, expanding its offerings – and seating area – while keeping quality high and prices low. And that it was high time it got its own blog entry here.

I remember the days when their menu was a single column of dishes listed on the wall by the counter. Now the menu boasts more than 50 dishes, with an additional 15 or 20 meal-sized soups, of both the má là tāng (麻辣湯 – the typical Sichuan spicy/tingly stews) and noodle soup varieties.

The "Wonton w/Chilli Oil Sauce" (紅油抄手 - hóng yóu chāo shǒu) appetizer is superb: practically perfect wontons in a beautifully balanced spicy sesame sauce.

While their Dan Dan Noodle (擔擔 面 – dàn dàn miàn) does not erase nostalgia for Sister Zhu's, it is one of the very best around. Another well-balanced spicy sauce lurks below those tender noodles. And the dusting of crispy-yet-tender minced pork is the perfect complement.

Their version of Ma La Beef Tendon (麻辣牛筋 – má là niú jīn) is as good as any around Flushing, too.

The Ma Po Tofu (麻婆豆腐 – má pó dòu fǔ) here is the best I've tasted in years. The tofu is soft, but not too soft, and the sauce is the perfect balance of spicy and salty, with just the right pungent accent from fermented black beans.

The only near-miss so far has been "Chicken with Family Sauce" (mmm... family sauce… my favorite!). A better translation of 家常熱窩鶏 (jiā cháng rè wō jī) would be “chicken home style”, and it was nice, but not all that interesting. Small bone-in chunks of chicken are lightly simmered in a mildly spicy sauce with two or three kinds of peppers and scallion.

Interestingly, the leftover portion when heated up at home the next day was better than on the first day. The flavors were both better melded together and more pronounced. My friend Audrey tells me that the characters 熱窩 mean, essentially, "warm, but not too hot", making the preparation true to its name. I would just prefer the dish to have finished cooking, I suppose!

Their Spicy Twice Cooked Pork (回锅肉 – huí guō ròu) is stellar – as good as any I've tried, with a real homemade quality to it.

Don't miss the array of appetizer dishes and snacks in the glass counter-case. The Ma La chicken wings are marvelous to keep around the house to snack on. And their Ma La Sausage (麻辣香 腸 – má là xiāng cháng) really is almost as good as Sister Zhu's from Maple Snacks:

Cheng Du Heaven serves, for my money, the best Sichuan food in Flushing at the moment (Little Pepper is in College Point). Because of the very spartan dining environs, one might wish that some of the dishes were a buck or two cheaper, but it's still a great value.

Cheng Du Heaven (成都天府)
Golden Shopping Mall basement food court
41-28 Main St., Flushing 11355

(7 train to Flushing-Main St., then 3 blocks south on Main)