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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)

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Kungfu Express cart

Next to the Northwestern Famous cart on Broadway by Columbia University is Kungfu Express, a cart run by a woman from Henan.

I asked for some guidance as to what I should try, and sure enough, she steered me toward the Henan-from-Xinjiang favorite dà pán jī, listed as "chicken over rice" (大盘鸡盖饭 - dà pán jī gài fàn , or over handmade wide noodles, if you prefer) on the posted menu. Of course, it's impossible with a cart to make each order on the spot like they do at HeNan Feng Wei, but she scooped up a nice, mild, homey version from a waiting pot: chunks of chicken stewed with potatoes, tree ear fungus, and just enough red pepper and spices to be interesting.

She also does some nice grilled skewers - over charcoal, no less! The Chinese sausage (烤香肠 - kǎo xiāng cháng) was delicious - sweet, with a bit more complexity of flavor than most Chinese sausages - and a chicken skewer I saw looked quite good - not the usual tiny chunks of meat.

Kungfu Express cart
Broadway, east side, @ 117th St., New York 10027

(1 train to 116th St.)

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Northwestern Famous (中國西北名吃)

My neighborhood, Morningside Heights/Columbia University, like the Upper West Side in general, is a notorious wasteland when it comes to actual good food. Yes, there's Bombay Frankie, and an uptown outpost of Legend (though not blog-worthy, quite decent) recently opened on W. 109th St. But the scene recently brightened considerably with the arrival of Northwestern Famous (中國西北名吃), a.k.a. Uncle Luoyang (洛阳大叔) food cart by the main entrance of Columbia on Broadway.

中國西北名吃 (zhōng guó xī běi míng chī) means "China Northwest Famous Food", earning it a place on a very short list of establishments where the English name is an accurate translation of the Chinese one. My curiosity was definitely piqued wondering what, exactly, "Northwestern" refers to. The answer appears to be Shaanxi province (there's a lot of China further north and much further west than that, but I'm still getting acquainted with these subtleties of terminology). The signature offering is là zhī ròu jiā mó (腊汁肉夾饃), or "Stewed Pork Burger", a specialty from Xi'an. This is a first cousin to the cumin "lamb burger" sold at Xi'an Famous Foods (although pictured on the side panel of the cart, it's not actually on offer here at this time). The spices are milder, but the pork version is just as satisfying as the cumin lamb: juicy bits of long-simmered, ultra-flavorful meat in a round, wheat flatbread. (There is a highly informative article on traditional là zhī ròu jiā mó here.) A hearty snack for the princely sum of 3 dollars (the list menu in red letters seems to be the real menu here).

And now a woman from Henan has set up a cart next to Northwestern Famous, which I plan to check out soon. It's odd - I am utterly unaccustomed to actually wanting to eat in my neighborhood! Thank heaven some people with an entrepreneurial streak have finally figured out that there a LOT of Chinese students at Columbia that might like a taste of home. Here's hoping the trend continues.

Northwestern Famous (中國西北名吃), a.k.a. Uncle Luoyang (洛阳大叔)
Broadway, east side, @ 117th St., New York 10027

(1 train to 116th St.)