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Thursday, February 21, 2013

Diana’s Pizza

Recently, I had a gig in Puerto Rico, and since it was my first trip to any place in the Caribbean, I was, naturally, curious to try comida criolla in its natural habitat. So, after a day of rehearsals at the Ferré Performing Arts Center, my flutist friend Josue suggested we go to "pizzeria" – the local moniker for Diana’s Pizza. Since I have virtually no filters, my first response was, "I did not come to Puerto Rico to eat pizza." I was assured I would be happy, and I most certainly was.

The food here is about as homemade as it gets for a small restaurant, made by someone who definitely knows what she's doing. It also made me realize just how bad most of the Puerto Rican and Dominican food in New York really is.

Carne guisada is surprisingly tender chunks of beef simmered with potatoes:

It’s a stew rich with the bright flavor of sazón, tomato, and onion – no muddy brown sauce here.

The arroz con pollo was marvelous – shreds of chicken in some beautifully seasoned rice (with side dishes of red beans, and a plate of tostones in the background):

Rice and beans are standard sides here, and in Puerto Rico, red beans are the norm. The beans are palpably homemade, and utterly delicious. Platanos maduros (ripe plantains) are called amarillos in these parts, and they are infinitely better than any I've ever tried elsewhere. For one thing, they are cut completely differently – into ribbons, rather than the mushy chunks one gets in New York (seen with a bottle of the signature Puerto Rican beer, Medalla):

And I have never actually enjoyed eating tostones (smashed slices of unripe plantains fried until crisp) before – I have no idea what the secret might be, but they make 'em the right way here.

Diana’s Pizza
126 Avda. De Diego – Santurce, 00911, Puerto Rico

(near the Doubletree San Juan hotel)

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Szechuan Dish - 美四川 (New World Mall) (CLOSED)

Quite a few stalls in the New World Mall food court have closed recently, followed by some new arrivals. For me, the most interesting of the newcomers, open just six days, is Szechuan Dish (美四川) in stall 25, sharing the southeast corner with the wonderful Tian Fu.

Manning the counter is an energetic and engaging young fellow named Michael who will happily explain any dish to you (his English is great - no language barrier here). I quickly guessed this was a family operation, and sure enough, his mother and father are the ones cooking in the kitchen. They are from Chengdu (the round badge in their sign has Chinese characters that mean "Chendgu flavor"), and are serving some dishes I have not encountered in New York before. I was told they import from Chengdu the preserved tofu used in the cold dish cōng xiāng dòu jīn (葱香豆筋), shreds of preserved tofu (often called "bean gluten") in a vinegar-scallion sauce, a dish of which they seem especially proud. And with good reason - it's unique and delicious: the bracing sauce is the perfect counterpoint to the heartiness of the slightly chewy preserved tofu shreds.

Also new to me is liáng bàn xīn shé (凉拌心舌), a cold "salad" of sliced heart and tongue in chili oil. It's marvelous - sort of the pig's response to the famous Sichuan dish fū qī fèi piàn (夫妻肺片) - ox tongue and tripe.

They're keeping it fairly simple to start off, with plans to expand the menu a bit later. So for now, there are dumplings in red hot oil (hóng yóu shuǐ jiǎo - 紅油水餃), some interesting-sounding noodle dishes (I'm quite eager to try ròu shào dòu huā miàn - 肉紹豆花面 - noodles with soft tofu and pork), and several other cold dishes. These include a má là crispy fish to rival Sister Zhu's of the now-defunct-but-resurrecting-at-some-future-date Savor Fusion (where is she now, anyway?), and the delightful liáng bàn jīn zhēn gū (凉拌金针菇) - enoki mushrooms in a tangy sauce. That's it there on the lower right:

So, stop by and welcome them to the neighborhood. You'll be rewarded with some unusual - and unusually tasty - cooking.

Szechuan Dish - New World Mall food court
Main & Roosevelt (enter on Roosevelt), Flushing 11354

(7 train to Main St.-Flushing)
New World Mall food court website

Friday, February 1, 2013

Lao Dong Bei (老东北風味)

When I first tried it about six weeks ago, Lao Dong Bei immediately took its place among my top three favorite restaurants in Flushing. We were so enthusiastic that the chef came out to chat with us, and we learned a couple of things: that he is the former chef of Fu Run, and that he is from Harbin, one of the northernmost cities in China, quite near Siberia. Ever since I moved to New York City... um... the first time, I discovered that the then-famous Harbin Inn on the Upper West Side had recently closed, and I, geek that I am, had wanted to try Harbin-style food ever since (not that the Harbin Inn necessarily served any of it - I haven't been able to find that out). And sure enough, the fare here tends to be hearty and warming. LDB is the only culinary representative of Heilongjiang province in NYC that I know of (there may well be others - the more I find out about Flushing, the more I realize there is to learn). Lao Dong Bei is also one of the few Chinese restaurants in Flushing whose "English" name is, in fact, the same as the Chinese name: lǎo dōng běi fēng wèi (老东北風味), or "old Dongbei (Manchurian) flavor".

The percentage of dishes I've tried here that I would gladly order again is extraordinarily high. Tonight's meal, however, was the first for which I actually remembered to bring my camera... I was also solo, so I could only order a couple of things (I'll add other standout dishes later).  The meal started with a delightful little free dish of pickled radishes (luó bo - 蘿卜).

Pickled in vinegar, soy sauce, garlic and hot pepper, I can't remember ever enjoying a radish so much in my entire life.

The weather having just turned colder, I was craving something really warming. I certainly got it! The "Baby Cabbage with Meat Ball Soup" (xiǎo bái cài wán zǐ tāng - 小白菜丸子湯) is possibly the perfect winter soup: warming, satisfying, but not heavy in the least.

That large bowl is not just some meatballs floating in broth - it's practically solid with meatballs and cabbage. The pork meatballs are actually somewhat delicate, and the broth is enlivened by some minced scallion and ginger shreds. A bargain at $7.50 - it can easily feed 4.

I think "Beer Duck" (pí jiǔ yā - 啤酒鴨) is a truly great dish.

Chunks of duck (on the bone, making it a bit difficult to eat for the uninitiated) braised in beer, star anise, ginger, and more dried hot pepper than you think at first - I noticed my lips were tingling after eating three or four pieces!  It's a warming dish in every conceivable way.

Another recent find here is "House Pork Elbow" (bā zhǒu zǐ - 扒肘子):

Slices of pork shank (for some reason, pork shank gets translated as "pork elbow" much of the time) are braised in an ever-so-slightly sweet broth until almost unbelievably tender, surrounded by baby cabbage halves. A really lovely dish.

There are several good versions of zī rán yú piàn (孜然魚片, or "Crispy Sliced Fish w. Cumin") in Flushing, and Lao Dong Bei's holds it's own in the top two or three:

Slices of deep-fried flounder filets are tossed in a mixture of cumin, caraway, and dried hot pepper.

During a recent visit, a free plate of Pork Skin Jelly (ròu pí dòng - 肉皮凍) just appeared. Its appearance was a most welcome one - cubes of pork skin in a milky-white aspic jelly with a dipping sauce of black vinegar spiked with minced ginger and garlic on the side.

 (Cue my mother's question to me years ago, "What's an aspic?"  When I replied, "Well, it's bigger than a toothpick..." I thought she was going to slap me.)

The chef also has his famous "Muslim Lamb Chops" on the menu (here called "Lamb Chop in Xinjiang Style" - xīn jiāng yáng pái - 新疆羊排). They are every bit as spectacular as they were at Fu Run.

I don't miss Fu Run one little bit.

Lao Dong Bei (老东北風味)
44-09 Kissena Blvd., Flushing, NY 11355

(7 train to Main St.-Flushing, south on Main St. to Kissena, veer left, then 6 more blocks)