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Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Bhutanese Ema Datsi

Until last week, I had never tried Bhutanese cuisine before. In fact, I had never even thought to look for it. But when Charles, author of the wonderful blog United Nations of Food, mentioned Bhutanese Ema Datsi to me during a recent return trip of his to NYC, I knew immediately I had to try it. For me, it’s the most delightful new food find in many months.

It can take the food rather a long a time to emerge from the kitchen, but it’s worth the wait: everything is quite obviously freshly-prepared, and all flavors are clear and vibrant. The menu includes Indian, Tibetan, and Bhutanese specialties. Foregoing the Indian dishes for the time being, we began with shabaklep, Tibetan beef patties. These are first cousins to momo (also on the menu, naturally) – fried, good-sized flat dumplings. (More illustration of the perils of trying to take pictures of food in dimly-lit restaurants... sorry about that!)


The dough is a bit thick for many sensibilities, so be sure to eat them while they’re still warm – the dough can get a bit chewy when they cool down. The ground beef filling is subtly but nicely seasoned, which leads me to believe I will actually enjoy the momo here (I have yet to try any I actually like… they’re always too bland for me). They’re served with a side of a truly spicy red pepper sauce. Overall, delicious, and a great way to start.

Ema datsi (or ema datshi) is usually referred to as the Bhutanese national dish. I’ve certainly never had anything quite like before. Spicy green peppers are cooked with onion, garlic, and... wait for it... cheese. Not paneer-style cheese that is cut up and left intact in the dish, but melted cheese that forms a key element of the sauce. I have never seen cheese used this way in other Asian cuisines before. Traditionally, this dish is made with yak’s milk cheese, but since yak’s milk cheese is not imported to the U.S., feta is often substituted. I’m not quite sure what they use here... if I didn’t know better, I’d be tempted to guess Velveeta. Some may find the suggestion heresy – all I know is that it was utterly delicious. (Most dishes are served with your choice of rice. I highly recommend getting Bhutanese red rice, which can be seen in the background.)


The spiciness of this dish is considerable. It’s such a relief to go to a restaurant that is not afraid to serve spicy food to Westerners!

By contrast, the dish of puta buckwheat noodles (okay, you Spanish and Portuguese speakers, stop laughing!) was soothing and delightful: thick-ish buckwheat noodles (thicker, at least than Korean naeng myun) tossed with butter, scallion, and strips of omelet.


Meals here are served with a bowl of lovely, mild seaweed and milk soup:


There are several Bhutanese thalis on the menu. A thali is a meal consisting of a selection of small dishes, named for the round platter on which it is served (I will get a picture of it my next visit). Upon the recommendation of the extremely helpful waiter, we chose the sekam thali, which features as its centerpiece a dish of what the menu calls “dry pork” curry.


In this case, “dry pork” is cured pork belly, rather like an unsmoked, unsalted bacon. Sautéed with potato rounds in a curry sauce, it is hearty and satisfying. Also on the thali (on the left in the photo) is kewa datsi, Bhutanese potato cheese curry. This is as mild and soothing – yet rich enough to be interesting – as the ema datsi is bracing. Bhutanese red rice rounds out the thali triumvirate.

Prices are quite reasonable, and they’re open until 11 p.m. every day, 12 midnight on weekends.

Bhutanese Ema Datsi
67-21 Woodside Ave., Woodside 11377
718-458-8588

(7 train to 69th St., walk 2 blocks south on 69th, then turn right)
website

Saturday, July 25, 2015

Taqueria con Servicio de Bar “La Cabaña”

I’ve had tacos at quite a few places in Mexico – including some really great ones – but last night I was introduced to a place that outshines them all: Taqueria con Servicio de Bar “La Cabaña”. (Yes, that’s how the name is printed on the awning, and the only way one can find it listed on the internet.)

Located in the neighborhood called Azcapotzalco, it’s not exactly a place the casual tourist in Mexico City is likely to go, and I’d be hard pressed to recommend a special trip there. But damn, these tacos are good. Proof that all you need for great food is good ingredients and careful, competent preparation.


So, a quick slideshow tour showcasing the highlights... first up: longaniza and lengua.


Longaniza is a a type of sausage, crumbled and lightly fried. It was a deeply flavorful, pleasant surprise. Its companion in the photo is beef tongue: tender, moist, perfectly prepared. Both are simply stunning.

The obligatory pastor:


Every taco place in the city serves pastor (except the ones that specialize in other types), and, except for El Hequito, which is in a class by itself, this is surely among the very best. Beautifully marinated, spit-roasted pork with just enough char to make the texture interesting.

Costilla:


Another outstanding offering – slices of beef short ribs, utterly tender and delicious.

Chuleta con queso:


Marinated pork chop meat is lightly grilled, then cheese melted over it. Perfectly tender, and incredibly delicious. These may be the greatest tacos on the planet (with the longaniza and lengua here giving them a run for their money).

Sesos:

"I can smell your brains."

Considering the widespread fame of tacos de sesos, I felt I needed to try it in a place where it was likely to be excellent. And for brain tacos, it most likely is excellent. But I’ve never been much of a brains fan (at least when it comes to eating them), and I believe I can now safely cross them off my list of things to order again.

Cecina:


Cecina in Mexico is not the same as cecina in Spain, where it is beef that has been salted and air-dried, producing something akin to a beef equivalent of prosciutto (the deep, almost purple color is quite amazing). In Mexico, it is beef that has been salted and marinated, then cooked. In two nights worth of experience here, I’d have to say it’s a bit hit-or-miss. The first night, it was moist, tender perfection... the second night, a tad dry. Still, a taco well worth eating. (The picture is from the second night.)

The greens that accompany every taco order:


Lime wedges, cucumber slices, and pápalo (sometimes called “Bolivian coriander” – I can't make this stuff up...).

My friend Miguel loves the flan here and assures me it's some of the best in town. Before ordering it, you should know that, like cecina, flan in Mexico is rather different than flan in Spain. In Mexico, it's sweeter. Much sweeter. When I tasted it, I was fairly certain it must be made with sweetened condensed milk, and some recipes I found on the internet for Mexican flan confirm this. It's quite good... just far too sweet for me.

The prices are quite reasonable, and it’s open very late. It’s also locally quite popular: at midnight on a Friday night, there was not an empty table in the place.

Taqueria con Servicio de Bar “La Cabaña”
Eje 3 Nte (16 de Septiembre) 36 – Centro de Azcapotzalco, Azcapotzalco
Ciudad de México, Distrito Federal, México
(+52) (55) 1742 1343

Friday, July 10, 2015

Mom's Dutch Kitchen

Do you remember Dutch Pantry? It was a chain of roadside restaurants that used to dot highways in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Florida, and other locales. They served Pennsylvania Dutch-inspired family fare, sold kitschy Pennsylvania Dutch-themed souvenirs, and were built to evoke Pennsylvania Dutch barns - complete with hex signs! The chain collapsed in the late '80's (there's a fascinating nostalgia website devoted to Dutch Pantry here), but somehow a couple of Dutch Pantries managed to survive and continue to operate in Pennsylvania. I've eaten at the Clearfield one a couple of times on road trips in the past year. The former glory has faded a bit, but it's still one of the best roadside options you'll find on Pennsylvania's I-80.

That is, unless you're passing by Danville. If you are, a meal at Mom's Dutch Kitchen is obligatory. It is the real home-cooking counterpart of Dutch Pantry. AND you can get scrapple here (for you scrapple fans), which was never possible at Dutch Pantry.


No Pennsylvania farm breakfast would be complete without a nice slab of scrapple (and a bowl of sausage gravy):


The menu is large and varied, but for the real experience, stick to the homey items, like meatloaf, which is fantastic. It's accompanied by stuffing and real mashed potatoes, and yet another side dish of your choice. In the Dutch Pantry tradition, I got spiced apples - freshly made, and delicious. Soups are also great... their white bean with ham is stellar, and I got a bowl of chicken noodle soup that was more like a dish of grandma's chicken and noodles, moistened with a little broth. Delightful.

None of those photos turned out to be usable, unfortunately. I had better luck the evening I ordered country-fried steak. That's not something I would normally think of ordering outside of Texas (where it is, of course, called "chicken fried steak"), but when I read that they top it with sausage cream gravy here... well, how could I resist? I'm glad I didn't. (How do you make real mashed potatoes even better? Top them with sausage gravy, too!)


Dutch Pantry was famous for its apple fritters. When I spotted them on the menu at Mom's, I had to see how the compared. There is, in fact, no comparison whatsoever: Mom's Dutch Kitchen makes the greatest apple fritters I have ever had. Just light enough to be fluffy on the inside, and just crisp enough on the outside for the perfect texture contrast. Sprinkled with powdered sugar, they are one of the world's few perfect desserts as far as I'm concerned.



If that doesn't tempt you, they also have a great selection of Amish pies. If you've never tried shoo-fly pie, this just might be the place to do it. I did, and it's great.

Open from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m. every day, and located at the PA Rt. 54/I-80 interchange, Exit 224.

Mom's Dutch Kitchen
25 Sheraton Rd, Danville, PA 17821
570-275-0840

Friday, July 3, 2015

La Polar

My second trip to Mexico was drawing to a close and I still hadn’t tried the famous birria. David and Guadalupe assured me that the place to go was La Polar... and all of Mexico City seems to agree with them.

It’s been around for over 75 years, and birria is pretty much all they do. It’s usually described as a “spicy stew”. I would take issue with the description “spicy”, but it is tasty.

Soon after ordering, the condiments arrive:


Limes, chopped onions, avocado, and a mole-like sauce of chiles, chocolate and other spices.

Then the stew arrives:


Essentially a large bowl of stewed mutton in a light broth seasoned (very lightly) with cumin, some onion, oregano, and bay leaf, it is both hearty and soothing. I have to admit, though, that I didn’t find it very exciting. Good, but I’m not eager to have it again. Perhaps it’s better in its home territory of Jalisco.

The place is huge, and has a real party atmosphere. Be ready for a non-stop barrage of strolling mariachi musicians. Open until 2 a.m. every day.

La Polar
c/Guillermo Prieto 129 – Col. San Rafael, Delegación Cuauhtémoc
Ciudad de México, Distrito Federal, México
(+52) (55) 5546 5066

website

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Coox Hanal

Along with Oaxacan food, probably my favorite regional Mexican cuisine is Yucatán-style food. It’s almost impossible to find in the U.S., and even in Mexico City, places to sample it don’t seem to be particularly numerous. Luckily, just around the corner from where we are rehearse is a Yucatán restaurant – probably the best know one in they city, Coox Hanal.


The somewhat unusual name, according to the back of the menu, means “let’s eat” in the Mayan language. And here, it’s a most excellent idea. We started with one of the best-known (for good reason) yucateco dishes, panuchos de cochinita pibil. Essentially small, open tacos with a layer of refried black beans, topped with shredded suckling pig pibil and slices of cebolla morada (marinated purple onion). Pibil is the Yucatán preparation – meat that has been marinated in citrus and braised in a sauce of annatto seeds (achiote), which gives it its almost startling orange-red color. These panuchos are wonderful, with just the right balance between slightly crispy fried tortilla, frijoles, and luscious pork.


Next were the papadzules (en salsa de pepita con huevos). Papadzules are more or less enchiladas – corn tortillas dipped in salsa de pepita (pumpkin seed sauce), filled with chopped hard-boiled eggs, then covered with more salsa de pepita and a bit of chile habanero-tomato sauce. Lovely – light in flavors and textures. A unique dish.


Even with this stellar preamble, the star of the meal – and yucateco cooking, as far as I’m concerned – is chamorro pibil (pork shank). One is served a whole shank on an oblong plate, bathed in plenty of the pibil braising sauce. Eat with corn tortillas, cebolla morada, and, for spice lovers like me, some the wonderful homemade chile habanero sauce on the table. Easily in my top 10 favorite dishes of all time.


I was in such ecstasy from what had come before that I forgot to get a photograph of the pan de cazón con salsa de jitomate. It’s not a particularly distinctive-looking dish, in fact – two corn tortillas filled with chopped fish, covered in tomato sauce. But the cazón, a smaller member of the shark family (I used to eat sopa de cação, a staple dish of Alentejo cooking, in Portugal) and the brightly-flavored tomato sauce are an inspired combination.

Lunch here the very next day included all of the above, plus the somewhat odd-looking rellenos negros. These are tortillas (surprise!), filled with shredded turkey, covered in a black sauce. The sauce is black because of a condiment recado negro, the black component of which is chiles toasted until... they are completely black. The final flavor, though, is quite mild. I found myself wishing that this particular sauce, however, was a bit less watery. Still, a very nice – soothing, even – flavor. Those are wedges of hard-boiled egg swimming alongside.


Like so many restaurants in Mexico City, this one closes by 6:30 in the evening. A pity - this would be such a great place for an festive evening meal.

Coox Hanal
c/Isabel la Católica 83-2º piso – Col. Centro, Delegación Cuauhtémoc
Ciudad de México, Distrito Federal, México
(+52) (55) 5709-3613

website

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

El Hequito

This is not exactly an unusual sight in Mexico City:


...but this is the site of the best pastor meat I have ever tried. So often, it’s a bit too dry, or bit too greasy (although I do love my grease). And do not ever consider the stuff sold in America as pastor to be actual pastor meat. The pastor at El Hequito is always perfect. They do pastor – and very little else. When it’s this good, you don’t need to.

The taco pastor especial is a softball-sized portion of pastor meat, layered with sautéed marinated onion, guacamole, and an orange-flavored house sauce, with a small slab of queso manchego melted over it. Sublime.


If you’re especially fond of cheese, they’ve got you covered. Queso relleno “El Hequito” is pastor meat (of course), those onions and the house sauce, wrapped in a queso manchego crust, and mounted on a couple of flour tortillas. Ridiculously delicious.


Incidental intelligence (to borrow Martin Bernheimer’s phrase): their name refers to the tiny floor space of the original location (less than a square meter), nickname a “hequito” by their customers.

El Hequito
c/Gante 1 - Col. Centro, Delegación Cuauhtémoc
Ciudad de México, Distrito Federal, México
(+52) (55) 5521-8834
(several locations around town)

website

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

For all your cow's foot needs...

My friend Elizabeth – who is here in Mexico singing the living crap out of Salome – liked the duck tacos she had at El Cardenal so much that she decided to order some duck tostadas at Fonda Santa Rita this evening.

What she was presented with a few minutes later slightly horrified her.


She exclaimed, “It’s all fat!” I thought to myself, “That does NOT look like duck fat... besides, duck fat is delicious!” After a bit more discussion, I finally asked her to point to what she ordered on the menu. Tostadas de pata. “Um, duck is pato. Pata is an animal’s foot.” At first I assumed it was pig’s feet, but I’m pretty sure now it was cow’s feet. The chief discernible seasonings were vinegar and oregano. Not really my thing, and definitely not hers!

In the meantime, I had a very tasty sopa de fideos (noodles in a nice chicken broth spiked with some type of mild, red chile)...


...and two eggs, rice, and mole poblano.


This is a very “local” sort of a joint, with offerings somewhat similar to El Rincón Tapatío, but with a much larger space and more festive atmosphere. The food, however, is better at El Rincón Tapatío (just a couple of blocks away).

Fonda Santa Rita
Av. Independencia 10 - Col. Centro, Delegación Cuauhtémoc
Ciudad de México, Distrito Federal, México
(+52) (55) 5512-4485