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Thursday, May 22, 2014

Tawa Tandoor

The Indian buffet is, at this point, pretty much a classic restaurant genre. Yet finding a decent one in NYC can be rather tricky. Sure, there's the Jackson Diner for Sunday brunch, but their kitchen has seen better days (and one actually has to get up in time to get out there for brunch...).  Indian Taj, a bit further up the block is okay in a pinch but just isn't all that good. Luckily, a newcomer has arrived to take up the slack: Tawa Tandoor.

Most of the cooking here is Indian food's first cousin, Pakistani, as are the owners. The charming matriarch of the establishment told me that they have cooks there from India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh, so there are all sorts of influences floating around here. But what makes this place stand out is the quality of its offerings. Everything is prepared with care and attention, with good ingredients, producing flavors are almost always fresh and vibrant - a rare thing for a buffet at this price point. And when that price point is $11.95 a head at dinner, it's practically a steal.

The restaurant is halal (no pork - and I didn't even miss it!), with a good selection of both vegetarian and meat options on the buffet. The spread is pretty much the same every day, with an item or two traded out occasionally. My perhaps-a-bit-too-hurriedly-taken photos don't do the food justice, but it will give you an idea.

From left to right: hakka vegetable noodles, vegetable fried rice, vegetable kofta (delicious "meatballs" made of vegetables), white basmati rice, and palak paneer (spinach and Indian farmer cheese, also known by the less specific, but more common, name saag paneer). The hakka noodles are fun and tasty, the vegetable kofta unexpectedly delicious (at least it was unexpected by me, confirmed carnivore that I am), and the palak paneer has a bit more bite (in a good way) than most versions you'll find.

Continuing the vegetarian offerings:

From left to right: aloo gobi (curried cauliflower and potatoes), poori bread, chana masala (curried chickpeas), and vegetable pakora and samosa. Most of these I have not, in fact tried (there is almost nothing you can do to cauliflower to make it appealing to me, and I prefer to get my starch overloads in ways other than pakora and samosa). But chana masala is an especially dark, rich version of this dish, and puffy, crispy poori bread is always fun - try to catch them just as they're bringing fresh ones from the kitchen.

And, finally, the meat:

From left to right: tandoori chicken, chicken jalfrezi, chicken tikka masala, goat curry, and chicken biryani. Once again, if you can catch the tandoori chicken on its way out from the kitchen, you'll be rewarded with some very moist, flavorful pieces of chicken. There are usually chicken kofta (lovely chicken meatballs in a complex gravy just spicy enough to be interesting) in the chicken jalfrezi spot, but the jalfrezi was in no way a disappointing substitute - chunks of chicken and vegetables simmered in a slightly spicy, yet soothing, curry sauce. The favorite of Americans, chicken tikka masala, has more kick to it - and firmer chunks of chicken - than almost any version I've tried, raising it far above the cloying glop one usually gets. I was told the goat curry is quite popular, and indeed it is some of the best goat I have had in this country.

There are also some salad and dessert items to round out the selection - rice pudding is on offer almost every day - and a fresh naan bread is brought to you almost as soon as you sit down.

Tawa Tandoor
37-56 74th St., Jackson Heights 11372

(E, F, M, R, or 7 train to 74th St.-Broadway/Roosevelt Ave.-Jackson Heights, then a short block north on 74th St.)

Wednesday, December 4, 2013


In the Norwood neighborhood of the Bronx, there is a relatively new restaurant called Sodesh that says it serves Bangladeshi, Indian and Pakistani food. Whatever style the food is that they serve, it's absolutely delicious. I'll go with Bangladeshi, since their versions of familiar dishes are stylistically unique in my experience.

Perhaps the term "restaurant" is overstating things just a tad... it was clearly one of those Chinese take-out counters that populate the less-gentrified neighborhoods of New York until quite recently, and has about 5 tables. No matter - the food is stellar.

We started with an assortment of kababs as appetizers:

There is the usual tandoori chicken, chicken tikka, and a seekh-style minced chicken kabab. But the winner was the one at the bottom of the frame, which I think is called chicken tirka (didn't get the name – but one can always just point!). Delicately flavored and moist – it was fabulous.

They serve the most subtly delicious chapli kabab I have ever tried (minced chicken with egg, diced tomato, green pepper, and spices):

Preceding the arrival of the entrées was a plate of rice for each person. I don’t know what is in it, but it is the most beautifully perfumed rice I think I have ever been served anywhere. It complemented particularly well the popular winner of the evening, butter chicken:

Every time I have ordered butter chicken elsewhere, what generally comes out is some sort of variation of chicken tikka masala. Not here. The menu says "boneless chicken, butter, ginger, tomato purée, yogurt, cream, lemon juice & all spices." The tomato purée was surprising to read, because I could not identify any tomato flavor at all.  This is not a bad thing.  All those ingredients are in perfect balance with one another to create a creamy chicken dish that is both light and rich at the same time. It's simply stupendous, and the caramelized onions that garnish almost all the dishes here are a delightful addition.

A seemingly close cousin of the butter chicken, chicken kurma, is, in the end, quite different in overall effect. The sauce is creamy in texture, but its base is ghee, coconut milk, and puréed nuts, which throws the aromatic qualities of the ginger and spices into sharper relief. Depending on ones tastes, this dish is as good or better than the butter chicken.

(And there's that beautiful rice in the background.)

On the menu is a northern take on the south Indian (Goan, actually) dish, vindaloo. I’d never seen beef vindaloo on offer before, so I had to order it (when, oh when is the original PORK vindaloo going to come to NYC?). It was spicy, but not overly so, and pleasantly vinegary, with the de rigueur potatoes. A nice, warming dish.

Goat biryani was aromatic and everything it should be, and the chunks of goat were actually tender

Their saag paneer is the tastiest, most interesting version of this dish I've ever tried. The spinach was perfectly cooked, and the texture of the homemade cheese was just right – it so often gets dry and grainy – and the fresh flavor, even better. The menu doesn’t mention tomato in this dish, and it's the one dish where I thought I could taste it. In any event, the flavor had a lot of dimensions to it – not something I normally associate with saag paneer!

Marvelously inexpensive - the only dishes over ten dollars are the shrimp dishes (and the goat biryani).

3111 Bainbridge Ave., Bronx 10467

(D train to 205th St., follow the signs for Bainbridge Ave., then half a block down the hill)

Monday, October 7, 2013

Mei Li Wah (羙麗華)

Roast pork buns are truly beautiful things, and my favorite baked ones (焗叉燒包 - jú chā shāo bāo) in the city are available all day until 10:30 p.m. at Mei Li Wah (羙麗華茶餐廳).

The filling is rich with chunks of pork and pork fat, and - most importantly - not too sweet. The yeasty dough always makes me happy. Their product is utterly consistent, making it one of the few things in life I can really count on. And they're under a buck apiece.

Another great thing here is the large steamed bun containing chicken, pork and salted egg (三星大包 - sān xīng dà bāo). A small meal for $1.60. Although I haven't tried any of the others, I'm told that all of the dim-sum-like offerings here - and there are quite a few - are very good. The "crispy egg shatters" (鬆化蛋散 - sōng huà dàn sǎn) - essentially a twist of fried wonton-wrapper-like dough drizzled with honey - makes a nice post-prandial treat after a Chinatown feast.

And because I'm fascinated by these things, the normal character for the měi of their name (beautiful) is 美 (and all of the on-line listings for this place have it as 美麗華). But the sign and menu definitely have the more archaic "羙".

Mei Li Wah (羙麗華茶餐廳)
64 Bayard St., New York 10013

(between Mott & Elizabeth)

Shanghai Café (上海喬家柵)

I had been curious to try Shanghai Café (上海喬家柵 - shàng hǎi qiáo jiā shān), in Manhattan's Chinatown, for quite some time now because of one dish I had read about on Lau's excellent blog.

I'm delighted to able to say the dish did not disappoint. "Stewed Pork and Tofu Skin in Brown Sauce" (百葉結烤肉 - bǎi yè jiē kǎo ròu) is, essentially knots of tofu skin added to braised pork belly. It's braised hóng shāo (紅燒) style - that is, in soy sauce, rice wine, sugar, ginger, and star anise. The result is rich and complex, and the tofu skin knots are the perfect foil for the tender chunks of delightfully fatty pork. I've had similar dishes in a couple of other Shanghai-style joints, and Shanghai Café's is by far the best. It's worth the trip here just for this dish, I think. (Photos courtesy of Jose - his turned out WAY better than mine did. Terrible lighting.)

The xiǎo lóng bāo (小龍包 - soup dumplings) here, as Lau rightly observes, are not particularly distinguished. If you must have them, do yourself a favor and just go out to Flushing and get some at Kung Fu Xiao Long Bao.

The "Braised Whole Fish with Ginger and Scallion" (蔥烤鰂魚 - cōng kǎo zéi yú), however, is distinguished. A whole tilapia is braised in a relatively rich - for fish - brown sauce (in fact, it's a lighter first cousin to the hóng shāo sauce of the previously mentioned pork dish) with a dozen or so whole scallions. One of the best new (to me) fish dishes I've had in quite a while.

Those "stripes" in the picture are whole scallions. I find the use of kǎo (烤) a bit puzzling here. Normally, it has the sense of "baked" or "barbecued". But as used in the names of both this and the pork dish, it seems to pretty clearly mean "braised". I have no idea - perhaps it's just Shanghai usage.

"Pork with Mustard Green and Salted Egg Soup" (鹹蛋芥菜肉片湯 - xián dàn jiè cài ròu piàn tāng) is a soup of pretty much what it says: sliced pork, mustard greens and egg, although we were expecting the egg to be salted preserved egg (it's just egg drop - perhaps the 鹹 in the name of the dish is merited simply because they salt the egg before pouring it into the soup). No matter - the flavors are clear and delicious.  (This photo was taken by Seth, who spotted this soup on the menu.)

"Seafood Pan Fried Noodles" (海鮮兩面黄 - hǎi xiān liǎng miàn huáng) is a solid take on this dish: a sauce of shrimp, scallop, fake crab, snow peas - and quite a bit of broccoli - poured over crispy thin egg noodles. Quite tasty.

The takeout menu calls the restaurant "Shanghai Café Déluxé" (sic), having little to do with its Chinese name 喬家柵 (qiáo jiā shān), which seems to be a well-known restaurant name in Shanghai. This is the best Shanghainese restaurant in Manhattan, and, since their menu is much larger and more varied than that of Kung Fu Xiao Long Bao, if you order carefully, perhaps the best in the city. Now if they would only add a pig intestine dish like the fabulous one up at Ala Shanghai near Albany.

Shanghai Café (上海喬家柵)
100 Mott St., New York 10013

(just north of Canal St.)

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Sammy's Halal Food Cart

It seems almost inconceivable to me that anyone interested in the kind of food I'm interested in doesn't already know about Sammy's Halal Food Cart, but for those one or two of you out there, you need this information. You see halal carts that offer grilled chicken and/or lamb over rice (or pita sandwiches) all over the city. This one is absolutely the best I've found, and is the standard by which I measure all other halal carts I try. A few come close, but none are better - there is a reason they won the 2006 Vendy Award.

You'd think this fare would be reasonably simple to prepare, but the number of possible pitfalls is somewhat suprising, all of which Sammy's avoids seemingly effortlessly. The chicken is always juicy, tender and flavorful, and nice-sized chunks that aren't so small that you wonder what, exactly, you're eating. Okay, the lamb is still ground, seasoned, and compressed before grilling (like everywhere else), but it seems to be a notch or two closer, somehow, to the original meat - and therefore, tastier - than all the others. Their rice is never dry or lumpy (surprisingly, I've had some truly lousy rice from halal carts) and the sauces are very good. They have just about the best hot sauce in halal-cart-land, and if you like spicy cilantro sauce, it's there - you just have to know to ask for it.

They're just a few steps from the 74th-Roosevelt-Jackson Heights transportation nexus, and they're open until 3 a.m. At 5 or 6 bucks, I can think of no more satisfying bargain in the late-night (or any-time) snack department.

Sammy's Halal Food Cart
73rd St. & Broadway, Jackson Heights, NY 11372


Friday, September 20, 2013

Coimbra Restaurant

Coimbra Restaurant is one of those places I've been meaning to write about for years, but just haven't got around to it until now (finally remembering to bring my camera helped provide some impetus). Named for Portugal's most famous university town in the middle of the country, it has the reputation of being one of the most authentic Portuguese joints in Newark, and from what I can tell, that reputation is most likely deserved.

I've eaten here at least a dozen times and have hardly had a disappointing meal (maybe one - a stellar record by any standard). For one thing, I do as I would in any restaurant in Portugal: order from the pratos do dia (daily specials) only. They're made specially that day, and are almost invariably more interesting dishes than those on the standard menu. Tonight I got borrego assado, oven-roasted lamb. In fact, mutton would, I believe, be the more accurate word, but don't be put off by the idea - it was delicious. Chunks of meat (on the bone, of course) pan-roasted slowly with white wine, paprika, bay leaf, plenty of garlic, and... lard! Accept no substitutes - it's what gives the dish its absolutely unmistakable "taste of Portugal" (specifically, the mountains and the northern regions).

I especially love the rib meat, and there's a nice chunk of it right there in front. And next to the dish, you can see the full-to-the-brim, 12 oz. glass of a quite decent Portuguese table wine that sets you back all of five bucks here. This dish is normally served with small, roasted potatoes, but luckily I remembered to ask about arroz de feijão. It's a traditional accompaniment to grilled, stewed, and roasted meats, and one of my most beloved Portuguese comfort foods. They pretty much always have it here, and it was cheerfully substituted for the potatoes. It's simply rice cooked with kidney beans, plus a bit of onion and tomato for flavor. One of those dishes that is somehow more than the sum of its parts.

This meal prompted me to ask just where the people doing the cooking were from. "Portugal," was the reply. "Well, yes, but WHERE in Portugal?" The answer confirmed my suspicions: the Serra da Estrela mountain region (which is due east of... Coimbra). No wonder the food was so very tasty - people do NOT cook this way in Lisbon, where I lived.

One of the handful of items from the regular menu I would recommend is the chouriço na brasa appetizer. It's hefty length of good chouriço, made by a local Portuguese butcher, grilled in front of you over flaming aguardiente in a traditional terra cotta dish designed specifically for that purpose. Only if you have someone to share it with, though - it's big, and the main dishes are huge. And one small caveat: do not expect wonderful vegetables here. Cabbage and greens are about the only ones the Portuguese consistently get right... those green beans were terrible.

I've only ever been here on weeknights, and only eaten in the (ample) bar area. On weekends, I understand this place becomes a different scene altogether, with the adjoining dining room full of families all day long. I need to check it out, though, because that's when they tend to have all my real favorite daily specials. Dishes such as leitão à Bairrada (roast suckling pig, Bairrada-style, one of the glories of Portuguese cooking - actually, they supposedly have it all week, but it will be freshly-roasted on the weekend), galinha em arroz de cabidela (my favorite Portuguese dish - see my description of it here), even sarrabulho, or so I'm told (chunks of pork, served with seasoned rice finished with pork blood). So who wants to meet out there and help me try things some weekend?

Coimbra Restaurant
637 Market St., Newark, NJ 07105

(from Newark Penn Station, walk 14 blocks east on Market St. - 15 minutes)

Thursday, September 19, 2013

天津餡餅 (Tianjin Xian Bing)

For a couple of years now, one of my favorite Flushing snacks has been the stuffed bǐng from 天津餡餅 (Tianjin Xian Bing) at the Golden Shopping Mall. The stall is not downstairs in the "food court", but up at street level, with a window that opens out on Main St. The energetic proprietor definitely seems to know what he's doing - he's opened another stall downstairs that offers a wide variety of Tianjin-style dumplings and cold prepared dishes, and I must say, they all look delicious.

Xiàn bǐng (餡餅) is essentially a pancake that has been stuffed with minced meat, then cooked on a griddle. In addition to the three types of xiàn bǐng - beef, pork, and lamb - they have other snacks, such as scallion pancakes, but I tend to get there late enough in the day that things are rather picked over, so I don't quite recall just what else they make.

(I THINK the yellow thing in the bottom right corner is stuffed with chicken, which would make it a first cousin to the Portuguese salgado pastry coxa de galinha, a kind of drumstick-shaped empanada.)

I can attest, though, that all three varieties of xiàn bǐng are delicious, but only because last night I was finally able to snag a lamb bǐng (yáng ròu xiàn bǐng - 羊肉餡餅). This seems to be the most popular kind, since literally EVERY time I have asked for one in the past (which is every single visit), they were sold out. It's pretty great, though the pork and beef are hardly less great.

The filling is delicately-seasoned minced meat, with just a bit of minced carrot and scallion. A small meal for two bucks.

天津餡餅 (Tianjin Xian Bing)
41-28 Main St., Flushing 11355

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