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Friday, December 25, 2009

Some Little Pepper pictures

(Little Pepper has moved.)
I can't think of any food I would rather have on a cold Christmas day than Little Pepper... I can almost feel these hot peppers warming me up right now. Luckily, it appears to be open (as are most Chinatown restaurants in NYC), so out I go--just as soon as I do some practicing!

Some pictures from a recent outing there by the tireless Jose...

Wontons in red hot oil:

The broth is not as fiery as it looks. In fact, the overall effect is (for me, at least) that of comfort food!

My favorite cold appetizer, chicken in spicy sauce:

My new favorite rice dish here, the fried rice with Sichuan brined vegetable (what the name doesn't mention is the minced pork!):

Enhanced pork (similar to twice-cooked pork):

Braised sliced fish in spicy soup base:

Cauliflower with smoked pork belly:

Shredded pork with dried bean curd:

And, what is probably my favorite dish here, the whole fish with spicy minced pork:

Little Pepper
133-43 Roosevelt Ave., Flushing 11354
(7 train to Main St.-Flushing, then a block and half west)

Monday, December 14, 2009

Café Sim-Sim, revisited (CLOSED)

Café Sim-Sim continues to be my all-round favorite restaurant in New York. I eat here on an average of perhaps once a week, and let me tell you, it is NOWHERE close to where I live. But for food of this quality, prepared with this kind of care, it is worth every bit of the effort it takes to get the there. And folks, it's not such a bad trip: 3 blocks from the Ditmas Ave. stop on the F-train. Go. Enjoy. Return. Try everything on the menu. I've worked my way through probably two-thirds of the menu and haven't hit a dud yet.

Here's some food porn from one of my many recent visits, courtesy of Jose. Unfortunately, we still don't have a picture of my favorite thing so far on the menu, the home-fried potatoes with chanterelle mushrooms (described here). And for you sturgeon fans, Aron cures all of his fish in-house and offers two kinds of smoked sturgeon--I am especially partial to the Sevruga. Also not pictured are the sturgeon kebabs, which are, as one would expect, fantastic. But this should entice at least a few of you to give this place a try.

The "Stolichniy" salad, or Russian salad--a delicious take on egg salad, with the addition of ground chicken:

The wonderful lipyoshka bread (лепёшка), served warm:

Piti, a hearty soup made with lamb on the bone:

Kharcho, a soup of lamb, vegetables (tomatoes, onions sweet red peppers), and rice, garnished with cilantro:

Kebabs and fried potatoes: chicken lyulya (each wrapped in its own piece of lavash flatbread), and a piece of pork neck:

My favorite kebab on the menu, pork neck, starring in its own solo shot:

As I recently found out the hard way, it's probably a good idea to call ahead just to be sure they're not closed for a private party. Although it's not a bad trip if one gets to eat upon ones arrival, it's a huge annoyance to be go and be turned away, and you'll get no apology from anyone for it.

Café Sim-Sim
312 Ditmas Ave., Brooklyn 11218
(F train to Ditmas Ave., then 3 blocks east)

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Lao Bei Fang Dumpling House

Tonight I understood that it's worth a trip from almost anywhere to eat the beef stew hand-drawn noodle soup at Lao Bei Fang Dumpling House. The noodles are pulled right when you order them, and the stewed beef is sublime (and not to be confused with the "beef hand-drawn noodle soup", which is just thinly sliced brisket--sort of--and beef broth). Be undaunted by the chunks of tendon and cartilage: they add flavor--not to mention texture--dimensions to the dish that are vital to its fabulosity.

I was also told here that hui xiang is dill, but it appears that fennel is the more accurate translation. I think I like the pork and hui xiang dumplings even more than the pork and chive ones.  (This place has since moved around the corner to 83-05 Broadway, where I don't actually know if it's still possible to watch them pull the noodles when you order them.)

Lao Bei Fang Dumpling House
83-05 Broadway, Elmhurst 11373
(G, R, or V train to Elmhurst Ave., 1 block south on Broadway, then left on Whitney)

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

New Broadway Seafood Restaurant

During a post- Chao Thai stroll in Elmhurst one evening, we happened to pass New Broadway Seafood Restaurant. My friend Elizabeth--who, at one time, lived halfway around the world--immediately recognized it as a Hong Kong style restaurant, which aren't so very common in NYC). We popped in to make a few inquiries, and, sure enough, she was right. Unfortunately, one of the queries elicited incorrect information as to how late they serve dim sum, resulting in an aborted dim sum mission the next day. It was quite a while before I got over my irritation sufficiently to try again, but I'm glad I did: New Broadway, while not quite on the level of the best places in Flushing, serves better dim sum than any place I've found in Manhattan. And the trip from Manhattan is a good 20 minutes shorter than the trip to Flushing.

The restaurant is spacious, but not huge, and there's a nice, bustling bunch of Chinese locals during lunchtime. (Curiously, on both occasions, I was one of two non-Asian diners in the place.) It seems to me that their steady stream of patrons--without the carnival-like atmosphere of some of the larger dim sum houses--makes it possible to regulate more effectively how the items come out of the kitchen. Nothing tasted like it had been sitting around too long, and the all of the fried and baked items were still warm.

They have most all of the standard offerings, and I got to try all of my favorites. And all of them were just a little bit different than what I was used to, presumably because this is a Hong Kong and not a straight-up Cantonese restaurant. It seems that meat is emphasized a bit more than seafood here--which is just fine by me! My number one favorite dim sum item, lo mai gai (sticky rice wrapped in lotus leaf and steamed), had no egg yolk, dried scallop, or, as far as I could tell, chicken... just meat!

While I like those missing ingredients, I can't say I really missed them. The filling was a delicious combination of ground and shredded meat, mushroom, and each one had a cube of roast pork and a piece of Chinese sausage. (This recipe seems to have changed recently. They're still pretty good.)

Haam sui gau, delightful deep-fried sweet rice flour dumplings filled with pork and vegetables (well, mostly pork), were still warm from the fryer.

The taro dumplings (wu gok) were likewise still warm--heavy on the ground pork filling and light on the shrimp and mushrooms (not complaining here, just different than what I'm used to). Char siu sou, those triangular, baked flaky pastry roast pork pies, were everything they should be. Pork shiu mai, which so often taste like they've been sitting in the steamer for six hours--and perhaps they have--were served with all flavors fresh and intact. There are a couple in the background, with beef chee cheong fun (steamed rice roll) in the foreground:

So often, chee cheong fun are somewhat leaden and taste-free. Not these. Flavorful, and almost light.

Turnip cake (lo bak go), another special favorite of mine, was the only offering I was less than enthusiastic about. The texture was rather heavier--and, therefore, gummier-- than I'm accustomed to. Still, because of the larger-than-average dose of ground pork it contained, the flavor was great.

The printed menu contains some intriguing items... one of these days, perhaps I'll make it there for dinner.

New Broadway Seafood Restaurant
83-17 Broadway, Elmhurst, NY 11373
(G, R, or V train to Elmhurst Ave., south on Broadway)

Monday, November 23, 2009

Au Pied de Cochon

I haven't been to any NYC restaurants lately the have inspired me enough to blog about them, but a conversation a few days ago reminded me of an incredible meal I had during a trip to Montreal a couple of years ago. A singer I work with was singing with the Montreal Symphony, so it was the perfect excuse to go (even if it was February and f#$%ing FREEZING!). Even better than my singer's beautiful performance was getting to see a dear friend I hadn't seen in years: Kathy, my old chamber music partner who now plays in the Montreal Symphony. She loves a great food experience as much as I do, so it was a given: we had to go to Au Pied de Cochon.

This isn't the sort of place I normally blog about... for one thing, it's much more expensive than just about any restaurant you'll see here. It is also justly famous--trust me when I tell you to save your pennies and go. There is a positively infectious joy in what they do and what they serve, and what they serve is REAL food, unlike any you'll eat anywhere else.

Perhaps their most famous dish is "Duck in a Can". We didn't order it, and I'm still kicking myself (even though I wouldn't have traded in anything that we did order, and it was PLENTY of food). There are many descriptions and photos of it elsewhere on the internet, but briefly, it's duck breast, foie gras, cabbage, thyme, and jus de viande, cooked in a sealed can and brought to the table that way. The waiter whips out a can opener, opens up the can and dumps it out on the plate! This presentation pretty much sums up the essence of the restaurant: the best ingredients prepared with serious skill, enjoyed with a maximum of relaxation and fun. Foie gras shows up in practically everything... maple syrup, almost as often.

We started with the plogue à Champlain appetizer, which is a buckwheat crepe with bacon, sliced potato, cheddar cheese and foie gras, with a sauce of jus de viande and maple syrup (!)--it was sensational, and set the tone for the rest of the meal. Main course was pied de cochon (how could we not order the namesake dish?). It wasn't just the pig's foot, but the whole shank, run under the broiler and served on a huge oval platter with a saute of probably a half dozen vegetables, mashed potatoes with roasted garlic and cheese curds (a kind of mashed poutine!) and a cream gravy. The whole delicious mess was topped with a couple of slices of seared foie gras. A Morgon Vieilles Vignes red was, for me, the perfect accompaniment. (There are some really serious wines on their list, but, of course, as poor, starving musicians--well, maybe not quite starving after that meal--we couldn't possibly afford them.)

The meal was capped by the best dessert I've had in ages, the pouding chômeur, a baked pudding of cake in the center surrounded by a bubbling maple syrup and butter sauce.

The whole meal was totally over the top--sort of a riot of flavors, none of which seem like they should work together, but somehow do. And I can't wait for another excuse to go to Montreal so I can eat there again.

Au Pied de Cochon
536 Duluth Est., Montréal, QC
There is a wonderful blog account of a visit, with pictures, here.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Cơm Tấm Ninh Kiều

I went to Cơm Tấm Ninh Kiều for the first time this evening after hearing about it from Michael and Elizabeth for weeks. Hands down the best Vietnamese food I have tried so far in NYC. (Ed.: As of June, 2013, it's still the best Vietnamese food I've found in NYC.)

Run by Vietnamese (as opposed to the usual-for-NYC Chinese), and full of Vietnamese patrons, the menu sticks to the basics: simple appetizers, soups, and grilled meats over rice or rice vermicelli. Everything we tried was top-notch: the fried spring rolls (chả giò) are the best I've had in years:

The barbecued pork over rice vermicelli (bún thiṭ nứơng) reminded me what great Vietnamese barbecued pork tastes like--it had been a long time. Best phở I've had in ages, too... it made me realize that most Vietnamese restaurants in New York tend to overcook both their rice noodles and the sundry meat products in the soup.

For a really warming dish, they serve a beef stew with either phở noodles or thin egg noodles (). It's marvelous: the chunks of beef are ALL tender, down to the very last one, and it has a rich flavor where all its individual components are somehow clear, almost light...I don't know how they do it. This is the mì bò kho:

With winter approaching, I have a feeling I'll be visiting this place quite a bit in the coming months.

Cơm Tấm Ninh Kiều
2641 Jerome Ave., Bronx 10468

(4 train to Kingsbridge Rd., then 1 block south)

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Królewskie Jadło

It had been a long week, and I was in the mood for something heavy and comforting to eat this evening. A quiet craving for Polish whispered to me, and I suddenly realized I hadn't had Polish food in over year. My favorite East Village joint, Christina's, had closed sometime in the last year or so and I could never get too excited about any of the other ones... this left Greenpoint, Brooklyn as the obvious destination. After a bit of internet research, I decided on Królewskie Jadło, which is Polish for "King's feast".

Not bad. Many of the things we tried were really very good, but not good enough to quell my yearnings for Christina's white borscht, or their breaded chicken cutlet--you could hear them pounding it in the kitchen after ordering it--or their sauerkraut with at least 3 kinds of meat baked in, or their cheese babka... KJ's chief attraction is it's utter cheapness: there is literally nothing on the menu that costs more than $9.00, and that is a combination plate of Polish favorites by all reports unfinishable by one person (except maybe me). Otherwise, it tops out at $8.50.

Upon being seated, you are immediately presented with a plate of excellent light rye bread, some homemade pickles, and a dish of smalec. The word is, obviously, the Polish cognate of "schmaltz", but this is all pork: lard, with pieces of bacon and onion. Spread it on bread, like butter. Eat. Experience nirvana. And the Żywiec beer on tap--reminiscent of the best Czech lagers--is the perfect accompaniment.

I cannot seem to eat in any Polish restaurant without ordering żurek (white borscht), and tonight was no exception. Żurek is a soup made with fermented (sour) rye flour, usually filled out with sausage, potato, hard-boiled egg, and seasoned with marjoram. Królewskie Jadło's is rather pallid compared to Christina's, and not nearly sour enough for my liking, but the side dish of mashed potatoes with cubes of fried bacon, meant for mixing into the soup, helped liven things up a bit. Much more satisfying were the królewskie placuszki, or "King's pancakes": silver dollar-sized potato pancakes topped with herbed sour cream and smoked salmon:

The stand-out main dish appears to be the golonka pieczona w piwie, or roasted pork hock in beer. It was excellent--an inspired way to deal with a pork hock--accompanied by a dish each of grated horseradish and a fantastic German-style mustard. The gulasz wołowy, or beef goulash, is definitely not what I think of as goulash (but then again, goulash isn't what most people think of as goulash... that would be pörkölt)--it was a decently satisfying thick beef stew, with no discernible paprika flavor. The sides we tried were a bit odd: both the red cabbage and the sauerkraut were served cold. And I don't mean they had been allowed to get cold; they were chilled, and the sauerkraut, for my taste, had not been cooked enough in the first place. But the cardinal sin: nary a meat product contained therein. Definitely not my kind of sauerkraut. For 75 cents extra, you can get Polish-style dumplings with your entree, which are pellets of dense dough, boiled or fried as per your request.

The real star of the meal, though, was the final plate of jabłka w cieście: slices of apple dipped in a very light, sweet batter, fried perfectly, and served with powdered sugar and sour cream. Worth the trip to Greenpoint. I never had any nearly that good anywhere in the East Village.

The decor is kind of a hoot... there is a suit of armor stationed by the front door, and the imitation tudor and brick walls are dotted with caricature-like portraits, presumably of Polish kings. With the rather dim lighting, squint and you just might think you're in a medieval middle-European castle... maybe.

But for my sauerkraut fix, it looks as if I may just have to give the Christina's in Greenpoint a try. [Ed.: Tried it and no dice. Królewskie Jadło serves significantly better food.]

Królewskie Jadło
694 Manhattan Ave., Brooklyn, NY 11222
(G train to Nassau Ave., near Norman Ave.)

Monday, October 26, 2009

O Albertino

Mixing things up a bit... a new acquaintance and musical colleague has had me thinking about Portugal quite a bit the past few days. He is Portuguese, and I lived in Lisbon for several years in the '90's (and as it turns out, we performed together there when he was 14!). I get back there periodically--most recently, this past summer--and each time I am reminded that I believe Portuguese cuisine to be one of the great undiscovered cuisines of the world. Some elements, certainly, are very much like other Mediterranean cuisines. But there is a large part of the cooking repertory that is quite unlike any other, and it seems the only way to find out about it is to go there and immerse oneself. Portuguese cuisine does not travel particularly well--in large part because so many dishes depend on locally-produced ingredients, and if one element of a dish is even just a little bit off, the whole dish ends up not tasting Portuguese at all.

So, to give voice to my saudades, I thought I would write a bit about what is easily the most memorable meal I have experienced in Portugal so far. This occurred a few years ago, and, as I understand it, the place remains essentially unchanged. The town is Folgosinho, near Gouveia in the Serra da Estrela mountains, and the restaurant is O Albertino.

To get there, you must have a car--other than some rather attractive mountains, Folgosinho is not near much of anything. And the place is small, so the other absolute requirement is a reservation. The day I was there, businessmen had driven in just for lunch from both Lisbon AND Porto.

Upon being seated, I was presented immediately with a plate of regional items to nibble on: slices of chouriço, morcela (blood sausage), and queijo da serra (a locally-made soft, runny cheese--truly one of the great cheeses of the world) and a basket of incredible bread. And, naturally, some of the hearty local red wine. The waiter then came around and reeled off the four dishes they made that day... as my look of agonized indecision reached its zenith, he tossed in the final option "...ou um bocadinho de todos" ("...or a little of everything"). It took me about two nano-seconds to decide upon that one. First came a feijoada de javalí--a stew of pinto beans featuring wild boar--undoubtedly local--as its chief meat ingredient (with, of course, the usual hints of chouriço and bacon for extra dimension). Simple, honest....fantastic! Then came the cabidela de coelho. This is a variation of what is probably my favorite Portuguese dish, galinha em arroz de cabidela (galinha is chicken, or more properly, hen... arroz de cabidela is rice that is then cooked in the chicken broth with the giblets, then finished with chicken blood), except made with rabbit. Rice is cooked in the rabbit/giblet broth, and blood is added at the end--not too much... it's really not as disgusting as perhaps it sounds. Somehow, rabbit blood gives an overall silkier texture to the dish than that of chicken cabidela... it was, in a word, wonderful. This was followed by roasted kid goat (cabrito assado), served with small new potatoes that had been roasted along with it. Also delicious, although this was the only dish that was somewhat less than truly spectacular--I've had much better cabrito assado elsewhere in Portugal (and if you ask me REAL nice, I'll tell you where). The repast completely regained its footing with the final offering, leitão assado (roast suckling pig!). Made on the premises in a slightly different way than it's done in Mealhada, the leitão capital of Portugal, it's still tender, peppery, with the requisite crackly skin... superb. The meal was capped by the best leite creme I've ever had (and I've had a LOT of them), leite creme being a soft-ish eggy custard, very much like crema catalana, finished with a sprinkling of cinnamon and a burnt sugar crust on top (a la crème brulée and real crema catalana). All of this set me back.....are you ready?....about 10 dollars. With the dollar now totally in the toilet, it may be 20 bucks--but that is still, needless to say, a bargain.

Closed Sunday night and all day Monday.

O Albertino
Largo do Adro de Viriato, 8
Folgosinho 6290-081 FOLGOSINHO, Portugal
(+351) 238 745 266


Friday, October 23, 2009

M & T, Yet Again (CLOSED)

Another evening of deliciousness at the wonderful M &T Restaurant, and the table was once again populated with dishes unlike any I had eaten before. Always go here with as many mouths as you can gather, because you'll want to try as many dishes as possible. This time it was Jennifer, her visiting father, and Jose (who, as usual, has contributed the beautiful photos).

It definitely pays to check out what ones fellow diners are eating... otherwise, it never would have occurred to me, as much as I love sausage, to order the homemade cured sausage. They come in two "flavors"--slightly spicy, and slightly more spicy. We, naturally, got both, and they are even more delicious than they look:

The sour pickled cabbage and pork belly soup from the previous visit was so delicious we ordered it again, as well as more boiled dumplings--this time, the "three delicious" variety. While the ingredients--baby shrimp, ground pork, and chives--aren't quite so distinctive a combination as the baby-shrimp-egg-chive variety, they're every bit as delicious.

"Feihong Chicken Slices" is a dish named after... a snack food! Which was named after a Chinese cultural figure. (A tip of the hat to scoopG over at the Chowhound boards for background info.) I don't know who thought of adding party mix to a stir-fry dish, but the result is tasty and fun: peanuts and red peppers baked until crisp, added to lightly-breaded slices of chicken, with garlic and, of course, some more red pepper added for good measure. Basil leaves are the final touch of genius:

Yet another dish unlike any I have tried before is listed as "Fried Beacon (Spiced & Pepper)". "Beacon" turned out to be a charming misspelling of "bacon", but in fact it is pork belly. Strips are battered, more or less tempura-style (but then again, it could be beer batter--Qingdao is the home of Tsingtao beer, after all!), fried...

...and served with a dish of crushed Sichuan peppercorns mixed with salt.

The resulting combination is bliss:

The seafood fried rice, ordered as an accompaniment to the above delicacies, was chock full of moist, tasty bits of squid and other fruits de mer. I'm not much of a beer drinker--at least not with food--but Tsingtao beer (even though the pitcher says Bud Light) really was the perfect accompaniment to all of this.

I'm also not much for Asian desserts, especially the ones that contain sweet bean pastes, so when the waitress suggested the "Bird's Nest" dessert, I was more than a bit dubious. And once again, something showed up that was unlike any dessert I had ever experienced before:

Lumps of sweetened red bean paste, wrapped in shredded potatoes and fried to perfection. They really were extraordinary, and much lighter than I would have thought possible.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

M & T Restaurant Revisited (CLOSED)

Another stunning meal at M & T Restaurant with Jennifer and Jose this evening, with more pictures by Jose (check out his Flickr photostream). As in the previous visit, every dish we ordered was utterly unique in some way... the meal really felt like an adventure from beginning to end. It's impossible for me, as an American who has never visited China, to know if it is because the cooking of Shandong province is sui generis (is it so very unlike the food of other parts of China?) or if the proprietors are really just cooking for their peeps and not changing a thing for us Westerners. In any case, it's an adventure worth embarking upon.

We felt it was our duty to order the dish that showed up on every other table in the restaurant during our previous visit, sea worm with Chinese chives:

I don't know what I expected sea worm to taste like, but the flavor was still something of a surprise: light, slighty briny, definitely "of the sea" but not overpoweringly so. The sweetness of the chives was the perfect flavor counterpoint, and the lightly resilient texture of the sea worms was quite pleasant... a lovely dish. "Sea worm" goes, apparently, under a variety names: spoon worm, naked sea cucumber, sea intestine, even "sea chicken", and, for you scieintists, urechis unicinctus. Koreans (who call it gaebul) and Japanese eat them raw, and they are reputed to have a "male enhancing" effect. I wonder how much of that reputation stems from their appearance before cooking...

Sea worms

Jose and I were both blown away by the sour pickled cabbage and pork belly soup:

We both have had soups composed of similar ingredients in Chinese restaurants before, but never had they been so very flavorful and satisfying. The little red hot peppers floating around both filled out and clarified the other flavors.

The shrimp dumplings were both extraordinary and unlike any dumplings I have had before:

The filling, composed of baby shrimp, egg, and chive:

"Mushroom with Chinese Cabbage" turned out to be to baby bok choy with whole black mushrooms, in a sauce containing lots of garlic and some black vinegar--another excellent, well-composed dish.

Qingdao Xiao Chao ( -->青島小炒), or Qingdao stir-fry, was, once again, unlike any stir-fry I've ever had before:

This one isn't on the main menu or the house specials list, and the composition seems to change according to the whim of the chef (and, presumably, what happens to be on hand). This evening's version was almost a riot of ingredients: shredded carrot, cabbage, potato, pork belly, bean sprouts, squid, clams, and the stamens of a nocturnally-blooming flower that grows in Shandong province (the dark strands in the picture--the taste is vaguely reminiscent of lily buds).

The pumpkin cakes from the first visit returned for an encore performance--the perfect way to round out a brisk autumn evening's repast.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Chao Thai, Redux

A bit of food porn from last night's meal at Chao Thai. Once again, thanks to Jose for the pics!

Papaya salad: shredded green papaya, some chili peppers, some tomato, some peanuts, some lime. Totally fresh and totally delicious.

Yum Nam Sod: basically pork larb, kicked up a notch by the addition of shredded pork skin. You can see a hunk lurking in the far left of the frame.

Steamed whole sea bass with spicy lime sauce. This was really lovely... the raw garlic slices look more forbidding than they actually taste.

Snacking around Elmhurst

On a recent afternoon, Jose and I hopped the V train out to Elmhurst to try a particularly promising-looking dim sum place. I had been told just the night before that they served dim sum until 4, but when we arrived at 3:30 (admittedly a bit later than I had intended) and were told that dim sum had stopped. I was more than a little irritated. Luckily, the irritation didn't last long, thanks to some great snacks nearby.

First stop was Lao Bei Fang Dumpling House, a block north of Broadway on Whitney Ave (It has moved since this original post around the corner to 83-05 Broadway, and has expanded their menu.). The fact that the place was full at 3:45 p.m. boded very well indeed, and the expectations were justified. Although the boiled pork and chive dumplings at the stall in the back of the Golden Shopping Mall food court are still the best I have tasted, these are a close second.

Even better here are the fried pork and chive dumplings.

Dumplings are a bit pricier here than at Golden Shopping Mall--4 for $1.25. Lao Bei Fang also advertises "hand-drawn noodles" and, sure enough, there's a woman behind the counter pulling noodles in full view as they are ordered. They noodles in beef soup looked particularly wonderful, and I'll be returning for some soon.

We undoubtedly would have had some of those noodles on the spot if we hadn't already decided that the second course was going to be a block away at Phở Bắc. This Vietnamese restaurant really is run by Vietnamese, and they serve the best Vietnamese food I have tried so far anywhere in NYC. The Phở Gà Xé had been highly recommended to me, and it did not disappoint: rice noodles, chicken broth, shredded chicken, and all the phở trimmings... perfect.

Good chả giò spring rolls:

Jose got "Vietnamese ham and fried tofu on rice vermicelli" (Bún Chả Lụa Đậu Hủ Chiên) Vietnamese ham is essentially a first cousin to Spam. It looked great, and I can't imagine why I didn't steal a taste:

Everything was made with fresh, good-quality ingredients, and the prices are more than reasonable. I'll be returning regularly.

Lao Bei Fang Dumpling House
83-05 Broadway, Elmhurst 11373


Phở Bắc
82-78 Broadway, Elmhurst 11373
(G, R, or V train to Elmhurst Ave., then 1 block south on Broadway)

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

South China Garden, formerly Cantoon Garden (CLOSED)

As near as I can tell, Oriental Garden is the finest Cantonese restaurant in Manhattan's Chinatown. It is also ungodly expensive. If you want affordable Cantonese food in Manhattan and are willing to settle for the barest notch below the very best, go to South China Garden.

This place was, until quite recently, called Cantoon Garden, but the kitchen, the management, and the menu are all still the same (and a recent banquet for 15 people confirmed that the quality has not slipped in the least with the name change). I've been here many times, and now can't even remember what dishes I've had (what I get for not blogging about a place right away, I suppose), but I do know I've never had a dud. This is a place to go with a lot of people if you can, as the portions are most definitely on the large side. One tip: grab a take-out menu before you sit down. For some reason, the rice and noodle dish sections are not on the menu they hand you in the restaurant (and, conversely, soups are not on the take-out menu). And you definitely want a fried rice dish... they're done right here.

Beef and Chinese parsley soup is soothing and tasty, and the "small" generously feeds two, even three. For the real family-style Cantonese experience, get a casserole dish--there are almost three dozen to choose from. I have been fairly un-adventurous in this department so far, but the beef stew with curry sauce casserole was great. I have got to get together a large group of people here sometime (not a single casserole was ordered as part of the recent banquet, alas)...

Seafood dishes comprise the most extensive part of the menu, and seems to be what the Chinese clientele order the most. I tend to go in more for meat, but I can tell you the clams with black bean sauce were everything they should be, and the conch and scallops with fried stuffed tofu was marvelous.

The most memorable dish on recent visits, though, was the crispy fried chicken (ask for it with garlic sauce). It's sold by the whole or half chicken, and I'm still not quite sure how they do it. My best guess is that the whole chicken is steamed, then dunked in the deep-fryer at the end to crisp up the skin. It is then chopped up in the usual more-or-less-rectangular bite-sized pieces. It is spectacular... prefectly done, incredibly moist, with nice crackly skin.

The attentive reader will probably already that my favorite rice dish from the southern part of China is salted fish and minced chicken fried rice. Cantoon/South China Garden makes the best version I've tasted in NYC (Happy Garden Palace--at about half the price--is a fairly close second). So good that I may never get to try "Fook Ken" or "Love Bird" fried rice, both of which have certainly piqued my curiosity.

If you absolutely must pay twice as much for a meal, by all means go to Oriental Garden a few doors down. But for great Cantonese food in Manhattan at a more reasonable price, this is the place.

Cantoon Garden
22 Elizabeth St., New York 10013
on-line menu--click the link below restaurant name, and add about a dollar to all the prices
(one block south of Canal St.)

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Chao Thai

The one unfortunate side-effect of eating at SriPraPhai regularly (well, one of two, if you count prodigious after-burn... which I don't) is that it has made me rather a snob when it comes to all other Thai restaurants (Me?? A snob???? Okay, all together now: show me your shocked faces... excellent!) That is, until this evening. Chao Thai is damn close to the same league as SriPraPhai. They even do some things better.

If the two salad dishes we had are a reliable indicator, and I believe they are, the salad appetizers are especially good. Both the beef larb and the squid salad fairly screamed "freshness"--the flavors of the chilis and the lime juice retained all of their character while blending with each other perfectly, garnished with some impeccably fresh mint leaves. An especially nice touch was that the beef used in the larb appeared to have been chopped by hand rather than simply having been put through a grinder: most places, the beef in this dish has the same consistency as hamburger.

The crispy pork in basil sauce was stunning: cubes of pork belly (which, for the uninitiated, is bacon before it is cured) fried until just crisp enough, yet tender beneath the surface, stir-fried in a sauce of chili, garlic and basil. Sweet sausage fried rice--rice fried with bits of egg, scallion and slices of sausage much like Chinese sausage but more refined--was perfectly executed, delicate and surprisingly subtle. I've made my feelings about pad thai known elsewhere on this blog, but even that was worth eating.

For you hot pepper mavens: spicy here really does mean spicy, and they will take you quite seriously if you ask for it. And once the helpful and chatty young waitress realized just how thoroughly we were enjoying the food, she was full of suggestions for things to try on subsequent visits, all of which I intend to, and soon.

Chao Thai
85-03 Whitney Ave., Elmhurst 11373
old menu--prices have gone up a couple of dollars for most dishes
(G, R, or V train to Elmhurst Ave., south on Broadway a block or two, then left on Whitney)

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

More Little Pepper

(Little Pepper has moved.)
A bit of food porn from last night's outing to Little Pepper. Thanks, once again, to Jose for the pics, and Jennifer the great company. This is not to say that Jose isn't great company, too...

The complimentary Sichuan pickled vegetables and peanuts:

Noodles with spicy meat sauce (the first cousin of dan dan noodle):

The last page of the menu is comprised of several dishes called "griddle-cooked... (fill in the blank)". At Little Pepper, "griddle" is, apparently, what they call a non-stick pot--a good-sized potful of whatever you have ordered arrives, spiced for the fearless. I don't get to order these very often because I'm rarely with enough people that can agree on one of these dishes, but on this occasion we were all of the same mind and got the griddle-cooked beef and lamb. As you can probably see, it's beef and lamb, thinly sliced, cooked with a generous shovelful of dried red pepper, ginger, garlic, Chinese parsley and Sichuan peppercorns, and some potato and lotus root thrown in for contrast. It is, one need hardly add, as good as it looks:

And a spoonful of it on the plate (with lotus root prominent):

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Sam Won Gahk

My meal at Hyo Dong Gak last week made me curious to revisit the first restaurant I ever found in New York that served jja jang myun made with hand-pulled noodles, Sam Won Gahk. The location I used to go to in Elmhurst closed a few years ago, alas, but the Flushing/Murray Hill outpost is still going strong.

These two appear to be the best-known purveyors of hand-pulled jja jang myun in NYC, and, in terms of quality, I would have to say they are comparable. The fried mandu at Sam Won Gahk have a slightly more flavorful filling, but are otherwise similar to Hyo Dong Gak's (even they aren't quite so huge).

I have no firsthand knowledge by which to judge whose jja jang myun is more authentic... it may simply come down to taste. I can tell you the noodles at Sam Won Gahk are a bit firmer, a bit more like fresh ramen noodles--Hyo Dong Gak's are a bit "springier".

While HDG's sauce ends up being somewhat on the goopy side, I ultimately prefer the flavor to SMG's--it's a bit more "filled out" and mellow. This evening, my friend Jose got the item listed as "noodles with Peking meat sauce"--the same noodles with a similar sauce, but made with minced beef instead of than pork. I liked it rather better than my gan jja jang.

Bottom line: you'll get a great, cheap meal at either place. Sam Won Gahk also has a location at 21901 Northern Blvd. in Bayside, Queens.

Sam Won Gahk
144-20 Northern Blvd., Flushing 11354
view old menu of Bayside location--add $1.00 to most prices
(7 train to Flushing-Main St., walk 3 blocks north to Northern Blvd., turn right and walk 5 blocks east, or hop a Q13 or Q28 bus)