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Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Bombay Frankie Roti Roll

One of the great tragedies of my neighborhood in the last few years was the closing of La Rosita. Facing an unconscionably large rent hike, they had no other choice (and now, almost 3 years later, the space is still vacant... might it not have been better for the landlord to accept a bit less rent than to collect no rent at all?), and my neighborhood lost a treasure. We are left with very few options for good, reasonably-priced eats in these parts. One of the only ones is Bombay Frankie.

Their specialty is the "frankie", kind of street food from Bombay that consists of roti bread rolled with various fillings. While word is that it's not particularly authentic, it's still pretty damn tasty, freshly prepared, and the price is right. My current favorite is the chana masala frankie ($4.50 - add egg for $1.00) - curried chickpeas. Ask for it spicy (even so, it's still quite tame).

Also good is the unda aloo masala frankie--egg with a spiced mixture of chickpea and potato, and the pickled paneer frankie is delightful. Oddly - especially for me! - I find the meat frankies much less interesting. If there was any actual spice involved in the preparation of the chicken malai frankie, I could not detect it.

Now if they could just make a cafe con leche like La Rosita used to... and while I'm wishing, perhaps a cubano sandwich...

Bombaby Frankie Roti Roll
994 Amsterdam Ave. (@ 109th St.), New York 10025

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Hyo Dong Gak

Comfort food has many forms, and for me one of them--most likely originating from my college days when I had quite a few Korean friends--is jja jang myun. There is something almost primal about a bowl of noodles with a dark brown (almost black), glossy sauce of meat, soy bean paste, and vegetables. And when I get that craving, I head down to Hyo Dong Gak, in Manhattan's Koreatown.

Jja jang myun is a Koreanization of the Chinese dish zha jiang mian, which shows up on Chinese menus as "noodle with Peking meat sauce", hence the fact that one must go specifically to a Korean-Chinese restaurant to get this dish. And, although both the Korean and Chinese versions have many of the same ingredients, somehow they taste nothing like each other. Hyo Dong Gak makes theirs, most importantly, with hand-pulled noodles--ask your waiter to bring over the scissors to cut them up before starting, or you're going to be in for an especially complicated eating experience. These delectable, springy strands are offered with four variations of jja jang sauce (myun=noodle)... my favorite is the one with ground meat as opposed to the small chunks. I can never remember which one that is, but your waiter or waitress will be happy to describe the differences between the sauces. All vaguely resemble oil slicks, so try not to be alarmed. To me the flavor is totally incongruous with the sauce's appearance--complex, yet soothing, with a mild earthiness. One of my Korean friends proclaimed that the jja jang myun "kinda sucked", but without a lot of specific childhood memories to live up to, I think it's delicious, and other Korean friends of mine like it well enough.

What ALL of my friends have agreed is spectacular, and the other real reason to go here, is the fried meat dumpling (goon mandu is also, for some reason, mostly the province of Korean-Chinese restaurants). Eight large mandu (twice the size of most Chinese dumplings), fried to a crisp golden brown--a bargain at around seven bucks. Mix your own traditional dipping sauce of half soy sauce, half vinegar right at the table (I like to add a little red pepper, naturally).

Be aware that there are two separate menus here: a Korean one and a Chinese one, and I don't think there are any dishes that appear on both. Ask for the Korean menu (they usually automatically hand caucasians the Chinese one)--General Tso's Chicken is not what makes this restaurant special and unusual.

Hyo Dong Gak
51 W. 35th St., New York 10001
view Chinese menu, if you're curious (the Korean menu does not appear to be online anywhere)
(between 5th and 6th Aves.)

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Happy Garden Palace, Redux

A few more dishes to touch upon after subsequent visits to Happy Garden Palace...

After reading a bit more about Fujianese cuising and learning that meals often count more than one soup among its dishes, I decided I needed to try some of them. Spicy and Sweet and Sour Fish Soup was definitely a winner. Not so sweet, really--it was very much like a clear-broth hot-and-sour soup with pieces of fish.

The Fish Head with Sour Cabbage Soup was also very good, and, perhaps oddly, quite soothing. The fish-head chunks are chock full of oddly-shaped bones, however--if such things annoy you (and I know many people that it does), skip this one entirely.

"Stew Duck over Rice" had a wonderful flavor (wine lees working its magic again), but also has the bone issue... all those duck bone shards were starting to annoy even me. At under four dollars for a big plate of it, though, it's a steal, shards and all. "Chinese Broccoli Sprouts with Red Wine" (wine lees again!) were actually leafy tops of mature plants. I thought they could have benefitted from a slightly longer cooking time... my friend Pan (of the Chowhound and eGullet boards) liked them "crisp" like that. "Chewy" is the word I would have chosen, but the flavor was great. And they make one of the best versions I've tried of my absolute favorite variety of fried rice--Salted Fish and Chicken Fried Rice. Once again, practically a steal at under five bucks for a small platter. It's usually twice that elsewhere.

Because the "Lamb with Bean Stick (Happy-Garden-Palace-speak for tofu skin) in Casserole" had looked so good at a neighboring table, I ordered it the next visit, and it's the only dish I've had here that I found somewhat less than enthralling. It's a Cantonese dish, so... no red wine lees. I know that ingredient technically doesn't belong there, but I couldn't help but think that it would have improved its relative blandness. The Beef Stew with Curry in Casserole remains unchallenged so far as my favorite dish here.

I'm afraid I enjoyed my meal this evening somewhat more than Pan did. A couple of the employees have a nasty habit of smoking right by the propped-open front door of the restaurant, whereupon the smoke wafts directly in, and Pan is quite sensitive to it. Four years of living in Portugal got me over that, but be forewarned of the possibility of cigarettes in somewhat closer-than-ideal proximity.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Café Sim-Sim, Redux (CLOSED)

More visits to Café Sim-Sim--this evening with avid "Tweeters" Gaspsiagore and JoseSPiano--have produced a new favorite kebab and acquaintance with some great dishes hitherto unknown to me.

The moniker "Potato homefries with Chanterelle mushrooms" hardly begins to suggest the refined deliciousness of this dish. Very thinly sliced potatoes, expertly fried, with chanterelles (Лисички) added at the end, somehow become ambrosia. And the Baku-style eggplant salad, an Azeri variation of Russian eggplant caviar, has more tomato than in other versions I've had, producing a somewhat sweet, rich, satisfying dip. Chicken "roulet" (рулет--cold slices of a roll of chicken and some minced vegetables) and meat kutabi (a crepe-like flatbread--the lavash of the lyulya kebabs--filled with minced lamb and folded over into a half-moon), while tasty and everything they should be, pale somewhat in comparison. But be sure to get a loaf of the delicious bread (лепёшка), which they serve warm. Round, with a depression in the middle, it looks a bit like an overgrown bialy.

Chicken "Tabaka" is a whole chicken that has been spatchcocked (yes, I enjoyed using that word, and thank you, Jose, for reminding me of it), then pan-fried and sprinkled with minced garlic. Sublime. And the kebabs continue to impress mightily. My new favorite is the "pork neck" kebab... eating it, it nevers occurs to one that the meat might come from some odd part of the pig: it's simply moist, delicious barbecued pork. The lamb lyulya kebab is just as great as its chicken counterpart. And the beef shish kebab was just as good as it looked at the neighboring table during my first visit. The fries remain spectacular.

[(l. to r.) Lamb lyulya, beef and pork neck kebab pieces, facing a pool of dipping sauce, with sensational fried potatoes discreetly holding up the rear.]

Azeri and Russian cuisines have a lot of dishes that are relatively unfamiliar to most Americans. The menu descriptions are generally pretty good, and the lovely waitress (same one on each occasion so far) will happily answer any remaining questions you may have.

There is one particularly unfortunate and mystifying listing: "Douches". A better transliteration of Дюшес would actually be "Dyushes"... it's a bottled drink flavored with duchess pear.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

New Tự Do

My friend Phương says there are no authentic Vietnamese restaurants in New York... that all of them are run by Chinese, and New Tự Do appears to be no exception. Having never been to Viet Nam, I'm no expert on authentic Vietnamese food, but I do know that most Vietnamese joints in New York do indeed suck, and this one is just about the only one I find myself wanting to return to regularly.

Occasionally, in winter, I will get the decliously rich chicken curry noodle soup (Ph Carry Gà, complete with a chunk of potato or two), but generally I never get anything but ph, and that's why you should go here. My usual is the No. 1 Đặc Bit Xe La, with all the beef cuts, and it's more than a meal. Sometimes, nothing but a big bowl of that renowned beef soup with rice noodles will do... T Do's has fresh ingredients, clear textures, clean flavors, and the broth tastes more or less right. Doctor it up to your taste with the condiments on the table and... what more could you ask for? Especially at six bucks, or less, a bowl!

New Tự Do
102 Bowery, New York 10013
view menu (old location)
(D train to Grand St., one block south on Bowery)

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Taste Good Malaysian Cuisine

Yesterday, I took a break from my restaurant hopping to actually do some rehearsing. Luckily, when we were done, my flute player friend Carla was up for a trip to Elmhurst so I could satisfy my craving for Hainanese chicken at Taste Good.

For me, Hainanese chicken is its own special category of comfort food. Essentially chicken that has been poached with ginger and scallion, it is served room-temperature along with rice that has been cooked in the chicken broth, with a little side dish of a gingery orange dipping sauce. Somehow it is much more than the sum of its parts... utterly delicious, and inexplicably comforting. I really need to have this every couple of weeks or so.

I truly want to work my way through the extensive menu, but I always seem compelled to order the same things. The classic Malaysian appetizer roti canai is superb--the moist-yet-flaky roti bread is totally delicious on its own... dip it into the cup of chicken-curry sauce served with it and enter nirvana. The Singapore kari laksa is outstanding, as I'm told all of the laksa (noodles in curry broth) soups are. The beef rendang is also outstanding--it's like the richest, most complex beef stew imaginable, with the slightest hot pepper kick to it. One should definitely try a belacan dish (sautéed with spicy shrimp paste)--I thought the kacang pendek belacan (string beans) was terrific. Sizzling bean curd is yet another winner, with the lighter-than-air beancurd pieces arranged around a sauce of minced pork.

For spice wimps, there is no need to fear the dishes on the menu with the little red pepper next to them. I have yet to taste any one of these that was actually spicy (at least in my book). And although the prices have gone up very slightly since the menu linked to below was printed, it is still dirt cheap.

I'm told this is place serves the best Malaysian food in the city, and I have no trouble believing it. It certainly blows a much more famous competitor that I visited last year right out of the water. Everyone I have brought here has absolutely loved this place (Carla was almost wet), even some normally very un-adventurous eaters. And do remember not to go on Thursdays, which is their somewhat odd closing day.

Taste Good
82-18 45th Ave., Elmhurst 11373
view menu
(G, R, or V train to Elmhurst Ave., then one block west on 45th Ave.)

Monday, September 14, 2009


First there was Roti Boti in Astoria, favorite late-night haunt of cab drivers. Then a branch opened in Jackson Heights. Then another Roti Boti opened directly across the street from the second one (owned by a relative of the owner of the RB2, I'm told). Then suddenly both Jackson Heights Roti Botis changed their names. (There were rumors of a lawsuit over the name.) For a few years now, every time a get that craving for Indian (or Indian-like) food, I would head to the original Jackson Heights Roti Boti, now renamed Dera.

The prices are rock-bottom, the atmosphere ain't much, and the cooking is a little inconsistent. But right now it's Ramadan, and this Halal-Pakistani place has a particularly festive feel after sundown. I'm no expert on Pakistani food and can't speak to its authenticity, but there sure are a lot of Pakistani families that obviously enjoy it!

Choose your food from the glass counters at the back--one for the prepared rice and curry dishes, and one for the kebabs, broiled in the tandoori when you order them. The staff will cheerfully answer any questions about the food you may have. My favorite offering here is one of the very simplest, the chicken tikka kebab--always juicy and tender, and just spicy enough to be really interesting. There's almost always a spinach dish on hand, usually with chicken, and it's always great.

Chicken makhni (butter chicken) is always a hit, too:  large chunks of chicken tikka in an ultra-flavorful, yet subtle, sauce. You'll want to be sure to have ordered some bread to sop it up with.

 After that, the "if-it-looks-good-it-probably-is" rule applies. I'm partial to the lamb shanks in curry, goat curry, various chicken keema dishes, beef behari kebab, goat pullao, onion kulcha bread, and garlic naan.

And for dessert, the last glass case contains the sweets of Mr. Shaheen, original occupant and owner of the building, who seems to supply desserts to most of the Indian restaurants in the tri-state area.

72-09 Broadway, Jackson Heights 11372

(E, F, G, R, V, or 7 train to 74th St.-Broadway/Roosevelt Ave.-Jackson Heights, then 2 blocks west on Broadway)

Golden Shopping Mall Food Court

I'm glad Jennifer was interested in meeting me in Flushing for a bite this afternoon--I might have wimped out on making the trek out there, but I'm always glad when I go. Today it was the Golden Shopping Mall Food Court, on the corner of Main St. and 41st Rd.

Much has been written about this place (by Chowhound-ers, Robert Sietsema, and others) so I'll simply add my voice to the chorus: if you want a unique food experience and to feel like you are no longer in the U.S. for a while, get on that 7 train and hie thee to Flushing. And at the Golden Shopping Mall, do not expect a food court anything like you'll find in your basic American shopping mall: here you'll find 8 or 9 cramped stalls along a lowercase-h-shaped passage on the lower level of the building.

With my particular food proclivities, three stalls stand out. The stall serving Sichuan food--just to the left of the bottom of the stairs at the Main St. entrance--is excellent. No English menu, and no English spoken. Ordering is a bit tricky for the non-Mandarin-speaker, to say the least, but some friends and I managed it on a previous visit. People say this joint serves the most authentic Sichuan food in New York. This may be true, but of the 4 dishes we tried, all were nearly as good or as good at Little Pepper. Where you can sit at a real table, have a little more confidence while ordering, and pay only very slightly more.

For me, the two real gems are side-by side at the back. You're likely to smell the cumin-infused lamb before you figure out which stall is serving it. Featuring specialties from Xi'an, the capital city of Shaanxi province, do not walk past without getting a "lamb burger"--ultra-tender chopped lamb seasoned with cumin, onions, and other spices, in a flat wheat bun ($2.50). Sauce made from that same lamb is served on handmade flat noodles that resemble thick pappardelle (made to order--you can watch the woman form them and drop them into the pot when you order) ($5.00). Stupendous.

(Sidebar to the employee of the Lanzhou noodle stall across the way who will never read this: if you expect customers to ever return to your establishment--and your stuff ain't bad, I've tried it--don't bitch them out for taking one lousy napkin off one of your tables.)

All the way at the back (or closest to the 41st Rd. entrance) is 南北水餃 (nán běi shuǐ jiǎo, or "south-north boiled dumpling"), a stall run by folks from Tianjin (near Beijing) that serves the best northern Chinese style boiled pork-and-chive dumplings I have ever tasted ($3.00 for 12).

(For contrast, try the equally wonderful but quite different Fujian-style pork and chive steamed dumplings at Sheng Wang.)

The same filling is used for the equally wonderful, albeit, by definition, much breadier steamed buns ($3.00 for 10). All the Chinese patrons eat these with dark vinegar and either minced garlic sauce or hot chili oil (and they're perfect that way), and more than one has asked me, "How did you find this place?"

Golden Shopping Mall Food Court
41-28 Main St., Flushing 11355

(7 train to Flushing-Main St., then 3 blocks south on Main)
Robert Sietsema's Village Voice article

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Solar do Minho

The weather in NYC had been disgusting all day... drizzly and windy (such a winning combination). The kind of weather that makes you want to light a fire and curl up with some red wine and some red meat. Luckily, I had arranged to meet my friend Ian (one of this blog's faithful followers) for dinner at Solar do Minho. Even luckier, my friends Michael and Elizabeth decided at the last moment to join us, guaranteeing enthusiastic dining partners and raucous, hilarious conversation.

When I discovered rodizio, the Brazilian all-you-can-eat grilled meat service (insert joke here), about 10 years ago, I couldn't believe it had been hiding from me in plain sight all that time. I mean, this is a meal designed with ME in mind - guys coming around to your table and cutting off slices of meat from huge skewers until you tell them to stop! A little salad, some side starches, but MEAT is the star of the show. Then arose the problem of where to get my fix (and I need a fix every month or two). First, there was Churrascaria Plataforma, back when it was affordable. But they seem to have become less interested in food and more interested in separating guys on expense accounts from their company's money. I mean, over sixty bucks a head?? And that's before you have a drink! Then, for a couple of years, a lovely place in Astoria reigned supreme until its untimely demise, a casualty of ConEd's failure to maintain its infrastructure in Queens. Since then, I have been casting thither and yon for a replacement favorite: Solar do Minho has held sway for a couple of years now.

Since it's a Portuguese restaurant and not a Brazilian one (biggest bummer on that front: no pão de queijo, those wickedly addictive little balls of Parmesan cheese "bread" - more like little popovers), the variety of grilled meats in the rodizio is slightly reduced (no chicken hearts, alas), but there are still 10 or 12 cuts to satisfy the hungry carnivore. And all of them are of excellent quality, grilled by guys who know what they are doing - much higher quality than any of the places in neighboring Newark. And although the prices have risen slightly since their online menu was posted, at $24.75 a head (as of this writing) (ed.: now $29), it's still an excellent value.

Some of the carnage (all puns intended):

And I swear they must sprinkle crack on those french fries. They are some of the best fries I have had in any restaurant, anywhere.

Solar do Minho also serves some of the best Portuguese food I have tasted outside of Portugal, if one orders with some care. On this front, your menu perusal should begin with the daily specials. Sunday is a particularly good day to go here, because that's when they usually have cabrito assado à moda de Monção (which they may call "à moda da casa" or "à nossa moda"--I forget), one of Portugal's great dishes from the north: kid goat roasted so that the juices drain into rice cooking below it, which in turn has been fortified with onion, a cured pork product or two, and saffron. Sublime. At some point during the week they usually have an excellent version of what is probably my favorite Portuguese dish, galinha em arroz de cabidela. This is chicken which has been stewed with the giblets, served with rice that has then been boiled in the chicken giblet liquid, with some chicken blood added at the end. The day they serve it varies - call ahead and they will happily tell you.

As far as the regular menu goes... this evening, a neighboring table ordered bife na telha (steak cooked on a terra cotta roofing tile). It looked and smelled just right. The chouriço assado (a chouriço sausage flamed tableside in brandy) is an excellent appetizer and everything it should be. The bacalhau com natas appetizer is not bad, although a bit pricey, and served covered with a gooey white cheese... most un-Portuguese. There are a couple of pitfalls on the regular menu to watch out for. The "chicken and rice Melgaço style", although tasty enough, is something I might expect to be served in a Dominican or Puerto Rican restaurant, not a Portuguese one. I never had a rice dish remotely resembling this anywhere in Portugal, much less anywhere near Melgaço. And if you have enjoyed the justly famous dish carne de porco à alentejana in Portugal, under no circumstances order it here. The traditional dish is essentially cubed pork seasoned with garlic and paprika, fried with clams. It in no way resembles the runny stew I was served here. A travesty, and a lousy one at that. Stay either with the straightforward, or the daily specials.

Their leite creme, on the other hand, is as good as any I tried in Portugal. More or less like crème brulée, complete with burned sugar crust.

Unfortunately, not easy to get to via public transportation, although it is possible. And when you gotta have that unlimited meat fix, it's worth the trouble.

Solar do Minho
15 Cleveland St., Belleville, NJ 07109


Friday, September 11, 2009

Choong Moo Ro (CLOSED)

In fact, I believe they are officially listed as "Chung Moo Ro", but "Choong" is actually a better transliteration of the first syllable (yes, I'm a total geek and learned the Korean alphabet many years ago). (8/2010: the place has been re-modeled and is now called Miss Korea... unclear if it's the same management or not)

I love the fact that there is an entire sub-genre of "24-hour Korean BBQ restaurants" in New York! This is probably my all-round favorite restaurant in Manhattan's Koreatown, and I had another good meal there this evening with a tenor friend (who's dating a Korean girl, no less, and proclaimed it much better than the Korean restaurant she took him to!). Sure, some things may be a bit better at other restaurants in the area, and a beloved menu item or two they may not have at all (for the unutterably fabulous spicy black goat meat stew, you gotta go to Kang Suh... and pay those prices!), but I find myself returning to Choong Moo Ro more often than any of the others. And it doesn't hurt that the prices here tend to be a couple of dollars cheaper than those of most of its neighbors.

Service is pleasant and efficient (okay, I had crappy service once, but I've never seen that waiter there again). The panchan (or banchan--the little dishes that come out first to accompany the meal, and almost always includes a couple of kinds of kim chee) are plentiful, well-prepared, and fresh--this last quality can most definitely not always be assumed at all Koreatown joints!

People usually want to know about the barbecue... in fact, I would never order the barbecue here because, like most other places in Koreatown, their table-grills are gas and not the traditional wood embers. Only Wonjo, across the street, still uses wood embers, so that is my default barbecue of choice. But that said, the barbecue here looks very good (a suprisingly accurate gauge, I've found) and I hear, although I missed it on the menu by not even looking at the barbecue section, that they offer a special barbecue combination of 3 meats, plus a stew dish, for $48. This should easily feed 2 big eaters, and ought to be enough for 3 with an appetizer or two, making it pretty damn good deal. This is almost certainly what the neighboring table this evening ordered, and they were enjoying it immensely.

Me, I'm a sucker for jae yook bok eum (stir-fried pork and vegetables in hot pepper paste), and it's great here--my favorite version of the probably dozen I've tried in Koreatown. My tenor friend's jap chae (clear noodles with suateed beef and vegetables) was also excellent. All the soup/stews I've tried have been very good (if only they had black goat meat... but mae woon kal bi tang--beef short ribs in a spicy broth--is a decent second choice). This is also a very good place to get dol sot bi bim bap: rice with meat or seafood, and/or vegetables, served in a hot stone bowl--you mix it up when it arrives and it finishes cooking in front of you. Their pa jeon--Korean pancake, with various ingredients cooked in--is much better than most places, too.

And... they're always open!

Choong Moo Ro
10 W. 32nd St., New York 10001
between Broadway and 5th Ave.)

Wednesday, September 9, 2009


Since I mentioned SriPraPhai in my previous post, I thought a fuller mention was in order. This is a place any serious fan of Thai food should know about. From what I understand, it's considered to be one of the best, if not the best, Thai restaurant in the country. For you outer-borough-phobes, just get over yourselves and GO--15 minutes on the 7 train, and in the evenings 61st St. is an express stop, so you'll be there even faster.

First things first: I am not particularly a fan of Pad Thai (I just don't find it to be that interesting a dish), so all I can say about the Pad Thai here is that it's okay. I tried it, it tasted like Pad Thai, big deal. Friends who are Pad Thai fans say it's not all the great in the grand Pad Thai scheme of things. Couldn't care less. Everything else I have tried here is great-to-spectacular.

I see no point in describing the dishes--if you know Thai food, you pretty much know what to expect from the menu listing, and if you don't know it, you figure it out quickly--with one exception. Perhaps the best dish here, for my taste, is the "fish topped with curry sauce". (For those of you clever enough to have already clicked on the restaurant website link below, it is F-6 on their menu.) With all fish dishes, one has a choice of whole red snapper or two sizes of sea trout filet, but the real star is the sauce. Behind the unassuming moniker of "curry sauce" is thick, complex, indescribably delicious concoction that has, since I have been coming here, gone under at least two other names in the history of their menus--"choo chee curry" and "brown curry". Do not miss it under any cirumstances.

After that, I'll just list some personal favorites, but it's almost impossible to go wrong here:
  • ground meat salad, or larb (A-13. Specify "beef"--I think it works better in this dish than ground pork)
  • B.B.Q. pork salad (A-9... gotta love a cuisine that takes a ground or barbecued meat, adds a little greenery, douses it with chili, mint, shallots, and lime juice and calls it salad!)
  • papaya salad with dry shrimp & peanut (A-1)
  • shredded green mango salad with shrimp, squid & chicken(A-4)
  • broiled catfish salad (A-43)
  • pork leg with mustard greens over rice (O-1)
  • roast duck green curry (C-25)
  • any red curry (C-24)

And... hmm... it appears there are some relatively new items in the curry section of the menu that I need to try! At least one of your rices should be a coconut rice--it's particularly delicious with the fish with curry sauce.

For fans of "my ass is on fire!"-level spiciness, you can try to convince your waiter to tell the kitchen to make it "Thai spicy". Even then, most of the time they don't believe you and don't do it, but occasionally it works. Their normal spiciness level is quite manageable for the average palate.

One important thing to remember before making the trek to Woodside: they're closed Wednesdays.

64-13 39th Ave., Woodside 11377
(7 train to 61st St.-Woodside or 69th St. It's one-half block north of Roosevelt Ave., between 64th and 65th)

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Happy Garden Palace

The name of this restaurant almost inevitably makes me think of my friend Pace. An enthusiastic and knowledgeable dining companion--on the rare occasions I can actually convince him to pry his ass out of his apartment and join me, that is--he is convinced that Sripraphai, which he simply refers to as "Unpronounceable", is actually Thai for "Lucky Dragon Bamboo Hut". I'd be curious to know if Happy Garden Palace really is the English translation of its Chinese name.

This place seems pretty obviously to be geared towards Fujianese immigrants in New York that want a hearty, inexpensive meal like they might get back home (and boy, is it inexpensive!). It's open until 2:00 a.m., and, based on a couple of visits, appears to be a small gathering place for folks who want a late-night beer or snack after work. As you might expect, there is zero "atmosphere" here.

No matter, though--the food is fantastic. Generous dishes that fairly scream "home cooking"--MY kind of food! "Red wine lees"--Fuzhou red wine fermented with glutinous rice--figures in lots of the dishes here, and it adds several flavor dimensions difficult to describe: wine-y, yes, but also slightly vinegary, slightly sweet, and fairly earthy. Case in point: tonight's Spare Rib Fuzhou Style (Fuzhou is the capital city of Fujian). Spare ribs dusted in with corn starch and fried, and if I'm not mistaken, there was some orange along with wine lees in the complex sauce. Salt chicken was a) a bargain, at 6 bucks for a half a chicken, and b) apparently really the result of having been preserved in salt. Perhaps a bit drier than what other places offer under similar names, it had a real "preserved" taste and texture--I thought it was great. Pork fried rice was delicious and everything it should be... first and foremost, it was white, not the brownish travesty one gets at Americanized Chinese restaurants. On a whim, I also ordered a taro cake (cost: 60 whole cents), which turned out to very similar to turnip cake dim sum. I have no idea how this is traditionally eaten, but I confess I kept wishing for a little dish of oyster sauce to dip it in like one gets in the Cantonese dim sum houses.

Earlier in the week I had what is my favorite dish here so far, the Beef Stew with Curry in Casserole. Interestingly, curry was the least obvious element of the dish. Wine lees, once again, yes... something like cinnamon or star anise, ginger, garlic and sesame oil. But curry was only in the background. Utterly delicious. And their "Golden Silver Egg Fried Rice" was somehow much more than the sum of its parts: egg, a bit of scallion, and rice. It was perfectly cooked--light, moist... ambrosia.

There is a huge list of "over rice" dishes that includes a generous selection of their entrees, and they are all around 4 dollars for a quite sizable plate of food. Fujian is especially famous for its soups, and I'm looking forward to cooler weather so I can work my way through their list of two dozen or so.

Happy Garden Palace
54 East Broadway, New York 10002

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Little Pepper

(Little Pepper has moved.)
Once people find out about my food obsession, very often the first question is, "What is your favorite restaurant?" For someone who loves as wide a variety of food as I do, there is rarely a simple answer to this. But if one applies as sole criterion the number of meals eaten there, there is an unequivocal favorite: Little Pepper, in Flushing, Queens.

So often, I find myself making the trek out to Flushing alone. But luckily, three of my friends were free (and hungry) this evening and felt like braving the subway trip. As usual, we were almost the only non-Chinese in place, which was probably a good thing. Put four opera and musician types together for a meal, and... well, let's just say it's fortunate there was no possibility of offending fellow diners with our salty--and at times, downright graphic--animated conversation!

This also meant we could try a much wider selection of dishes than I am normally able to by myself, and we ordered up a top-notch feast. Noodles with Minced Beef in Hot Sauce (a first cousin of dan dan noodles) and Sliced Beef Tendon in Spicy Sauce (cold dish) were the starters--both exemplary, as usual. Beef tendon has become one of my favorite appetizers. It's not nearly as strange as it sounds... it has an almost springy texture, a bit like firm, thinly-sliced pastrami trimmings, and the fiery dressing is the perfect foil.

The table favorite was the Lamb with Hot & Spicy Sauce with Cumin. This one of Little Pepper's most famous dishes, and deservedly so. Lamb is sliced and marinated, then sealed up in a foil pouch with onions and red pepper and scallions--and, of course, cumin--and baked. (I'm told this dish is an homage to the way lamb is prepared in neighboring Shaanxi province... my experience at the Xi'an stand at the Golden Shopping Mall certainly bears this out.) We also got my personal favorite dish, fresh whole fish with spicy minced pork. As I understand it, this is not technically a traditional Sichuan dish, but something the chef came up with himself based on traditional elements. Well, this guy's a f@#$ing genius, because it is superb... every bit as delicious as it sounds. (The exact same thing is true for my other favorite cold appetizer here, the "Chicken in Spicy Sauce". The name ain't much to go on, I realize, but just trust me and get it if you go.)

Shredded Potato with Pickled Cabbage--vinegary and delicious--and a couple of plates of fried rice rounded out the repast. The fried rice with scallion sauce complements the lamb with cumin especially nicely, to my mind

In the course of my dozens of visits here, I have tried most of the menu, and there is hardly an item on it that is less than first rate. They also do traditional Sichuan hot pot here, but be forewarned: the menu for that is in Chinese only.

My friends unanimously agreed: well worth the trip.

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

Friday, September 4, 2009

Taverna Kyclades

Yet another excellent meal at Taverna Kyclades this evening. Although this place is hardly a secret, at least not to the Astoria locals, somehow not all that many people seem to know about it. For Mediterranean seafood preparation it has few peers in any borough, at any price. Scrupulously fresh seafood, simply prepared is the reason to come here. Scallops are especially good--get them fried rather than broiled--as are the grilled calamari. Here, if it sounds good it probably is, although on a past visit the sole fillet stuffed with crabmeat was rather dry (I wonder if one can ask them not to broil it quite so long...). Stellar lemon potatoes. The only slight disappointment this evening was the cold antipasto, which is the usual trio of Greek dips: skordalia, taramosalata, and tzatziki. They all seemed a bit over-processed and bordered on gumminess (the dips at Uncle George's--the Astoria Greek restaurant internet foodies love to hate, though I have never had a bad meal there--have been superior on every occasion).

Still, overall the best Astoria Greek restaurant I know, and the quality/price ratio is excellent.

Taverna Kyclades
33-07 Ditmars Blvd., Astoria 11105
(718) 545-8666
(N or W train to Ditmars, then a block and a half east)

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Café Sim-Sim (CLOSED)

(This restaurant is now, sadly, closed.)

Since the raison d’être of this blog is to spread the word about worthwhile food experiences that people may not know about, this restaurant seems like the perfect way to begin. Of course, “worthwhile” means different things to different people, but for me it means good food (always subjective) at a fair price (somewhat less subjective). Café Sim-Sim passes muster with flying colors. Located in the Kensington neighborhood in Brooklyn, it specializes in Azerbaijani food, which seems to be a cheerful amalgamation of Turkish, Armenian, Persian, and Russian cuisines.

On the basis of the three dishes I tried this evening, this restaurant has catapulted itself to the front rank of my favorite restaurants in NYC. I started with dushbara (дюшбара), a wonderfully satisfying soup of hearty meat dumplings wrapped in delicate dough-skins in a palpably homemade chicken broth seasoned with chopped mint. A little of the accompanying sauce of chopped garlic in red wine vinegar improves it further.

Predictably, kebabs hold center stage in the main dish department. Not so predictable was the first-rate quality of the kebabs—even the accompaniments were stellar. When I was told they would be served with french fries, I thought, “Oh, well… nothing says I have to eat them, and I don’t need the carbs anyway.” But when I was presented with some of the best fried potatoes I have tasted anywhere, all thoughts of leaving even a single fry vanished completely. These fries were obviously whole potatoes very recently, at no point frozen, fried perfectly (well, as perfectly as possible without frying them twice, that is) and sprinkled with some fresh dill. The lamb shish kebab (listed, mysteriously, as “lamb pulp shish kebab”) was top-notch. Chunks of good-quality lamb expertly grilled over charcoal… one could hardly ask for more, and the beef shish kebab at a neighboring table looked every bit as good.

Halfway through my lamb kebab, I realized I couldn’t leave without trying something else, so I ordered another kebab. This one was called “chicken lyulya kebab”. The word lyulya appears several times, unexplained, on the menu—it simply means “ground”. Armed with this information, freshly-imparted by the charming waitress, I was still not prepared for what I received: five juicy, kofta-like flattened meatballs of seasoned chicken, charcoal-grilled on a skewer, then individually wrapped in strips of lavash (Caucasian flatbread, rather like a moo shu pancake) and sprinkled with dried sumac. Stupendous.

Prices are eminently reasonable. Most of the soups and starters are $5-$8, and the kebabs are $7-$9, with fish offerings costing more. Considering the quality of preparation and ingredients, an unbeatable value.

Before my soup was finished I was already plotting my next visit, and I’m determined to try everything on the extensive menu. Whereupon, I will, of course, report back.

Café Sim-Sim
312 Ditmas Ave., Brooklyn 11218

(F train to Ditmas Ave., then 3 blocks east)