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Thursday, December 29, 2011

Burma Restaurant

When Jose (my formerly frequent eating companion who has been out of town entirely too much of late) told me there was a Burmese restaurant in Washington, D.C., my curiosity was immediately piqued. So this evening I headed to D.C.’s Chinatown for dinner at Burma Restaurant.

As I have lamented before, the biggest drawback of traveling solo is having to try new restaurants alone, so I was only able to try two dishes. But they were both delicious... homey and satisfying. I started with a bowl of mohinga, the unofficial national dish of Burma. It is a rather thick fish soup, flavored with lemongrass, ngapi (fish paste), garlic, and banana tree stem, with some rice vermicelli, crispy onions, and toasted split chickpeas providing some textural contrast. The flavor is unusual but mellow, even comforting. You can spike it yourself with the provided condiments of ground red chilis, cilantro, lemon, and fish sauce (salty, as opposed to the sweeter Vietnamese and Thai versions). I do wish they had provided some of the other traditional accompaniments like boiled egg, fritters, or fish cake, but that’s quibbling. This was followed by a chicken curry with potatoes. More like a thick stew than traditional Thai or Indian curries, it was a big bowl of three or four pieces of falling-off-the-bone tender chicken that had been simmered a long time in a complex yellow curry gravy with pieces of potato. And since a Burmese meal revolves around rice, there was a big bowl of basmati rice, too. It felt and tasted like home cooking... good, honest food.

Even though I practically begged them not to tone anything down just because I was a Westerner, nothing was what I think of as spicy...at all. Some subsequent reading up on the subject suggests that Burmese food is not, in fact, particularly spicy in general. Prices are quite reasonable, and the portions are enormous. I wish I could try everything on the menu.

Burma Restaurant
740 6th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20001

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Jiang Li Restaurant (鴻意順) (CLOSED)

There seem to be Dongbei restaurants everywhere in Flushing now, and one of the newer ones is Jiang Li (鴻意順 - hóng yì shun, which, near as I can tell, means something like "great wish come true") on Kissena Blvd. It’s been open in this location somewhat over a year – before that, it was Hong Yi Shun down on Main St. I hear the chef/owner is from Dalian (Liaoning province), in case you want to place its specific geographic provenance within the Dongbei region. And I also hear that Wayne, the very pleasant fellow with great English who runs the dining room (he'll cheerfully answer any questions you may have) is the chef's nephew.

Jiang Li makes me miss Northeast Taste even more. This is not to slight Jiang Li - in fact, it's a compliment, because the cooking reminds somewhat of Northeast Taste's. But Northeast Taste really was something extraordinary, and served some unusual dishes I don’t expect to see in Flushing again any time soon. It also inspires in me a greater appreciation for the (formerly, at least) deft execution of the dishes at Fu Run. While the dishes at Jiang Li may not have the slickly polished presentation of Fu Run's, there is something very homey about the cooking here that is perhaps more satisfying. And there's the added bonus it's not as expensive!

It seems it's difficult to go wrong with casseroles here – I’ve tried three so far, and they have all been excellent. The beef stew with turnip casserole (蘿卜炖牛腩 - luó bo dùn niú nǎn) is memorably delicious, with a surprisingly complex, rich broth/sauce. I’m not particularly fond of turnip, but the dish was so tasty, I didn't mind a bit. (photos courtesy of Pete Cuce)

Beef Stew w/ Turnip, Jiang Li Restaurant (鴻意順), Kissena Blvd, Flushing, Queens
The name of the dish "small Chinese cabbage with pork short ribs" casserole (小白菜炖排骨 - xiǎo bái cài dùn pái gǔ)is a bit of a misnomer – it's small spare ribs stewed with bok choy and cellophane noodles, in a stellar broth. Great on a cool fall evening.

Small Chinese Cabbage w/ Pork Short Rib, Jiang Li, Kissena Blvd, Flushing, Queens, NYC
Perhaps my favorite dish here goes incognito under the name "pork with special sauce" (山東扣肉 - shān dōng kòu ròu). Judging from the name, it appears to be a Sichuan dish (扣肉 - kòu ròu richly seasoned steamed pork) by way of the nearby province (to Lianoning, that is) of Shandong. Whatever its origins, it is fabulous: sliced steamed pork belly in a wonderful sauce.

Pork w/ Special Sauce, Jiang Li Restaurant (鴻意順), Kissena Blvd, Flushing, Queens
"Chicken with pine mushrooms" (小雞炖磨菇 - xiǎo jī dùn mó gū) turned out to be our old friend "stupid chicken" (as it was called on Northeast Taste’s menu), of which there is a version at literally every Dongbei restaurant in Flushing: pieces of chicken stewed with wild mushrooms and clear noodles. Jiang Li's is my favorite version these days.

Stewed Chicken w/ Pine Mushrooms, Jiang Li, Kissena Blvd, Flushing, Queens, NYC
Fresh hot pepper with dry bean curd (尖椒干豆腐 - jiān jiāo gān dòu fǔ) is a standard northern Chinese dish, and Jiang Li's is especially tasty, adding some broth to the stir-fry of squares of dried tofu sheets and green hot peppers.

Fresh Hot Pepper w/ Dried Bean Curd, Jiang Li, Kissena Blvd, Flushing, Queens, NYC
Like Fu Run, Jiang Li has a quite a few Sichuan dishes on the menu. Their version of shuǐ zhǔ yú piàn (水煑魚片 - water-cooked fish slices, here called "poached fish with hot chili oil") is all right, but I would still save ordering it for a good Sichuan restaurant.

Fish Fillet w/ Fresh Hot Pepper, Jiang Li Restaurant (鴻意順), Kissena Blvd, Flushing, Queens
Dumplings are something I’m not eager to order again soon simply because you get twice as many top-notch dumplings for almost exactly the same price directly across the street at M & T. Still, the order of 10 three-treasure (pork, shrimp and chive) dumplings was very good.

Three Treasures Dumplings, Jiang Li, Kissena Blvd, Flushing, Queens, NYC
Maybe if I beg Wayne and his chef uncle they’ll make caramelized egg fritters one night for me for dessert.

Jiang Li Restaurant
44-18 Kissena Blvd., Flushing 11355

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

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Sol Hyang Gee (솔향기)

After reading about it several weeks ago, I finally rounded up enough people this evening – or more accurately, Audrey Lo rounded up enough people – to make a trip to Sol Hyang Gee worthwhile. And worthwhile it definitely was.

Sol Hyang Gee is yet another Yanbian restaurant on the Flushing eating scene, but this one offers something special. If you’re reading this, you’re probably familiar with Korean barbecue. This place does table-top barbecuing of skewers over... wait for it... wood embers! The number of Korean barbecue restaurants that use wood embers has been steadily dwindling over the years (I can think of only a couple of others that still do). Most never had them in the first place, and the handful that did have been little by little changing over to the boring gas grills. Sol Hyang Gee sets itself apart from the rest right out of the gate.

Order from a huge selection of skewers – some 25 varieties, including lamb, mutton, pork, beef, various offal, fish, and seafood. Most arrive at the table raw, but some have been partially pre-cooked in the kitchen to be finished at the table. The surprise hit of the evening was mutton. We weren’t quite sure what to expect from what is essentially old lamb, but it grilled up tender and flavorful, perfectly complemented by the salt-and-pepper cumin mixture provided for dipping. The lamb arrived partially cooked, with a nice vinegar and honey glaze. The pork intestine was really lovely – small rounds that crisp up nicely with a bit of char, but stay meltingly tender. The only dud was, oddly, the short ribs. Also pre-cooked with a glaze, the miniscule pieces were as much cartilage as meat – annoying to eat, and, in the end, unsatisfying. And at twice the price of everything else we ordered, definitely not worth the cost. Also note that each variety of skewer lists "number of pieces": one piece equals one small skewer, not the number of chunks on one skewer. Most varieties work out to about $1.20 per skewer.

We also ordered the "house special sizzling bean curd" (鐵板豆腐 – tiě bǎn dòu fǔ, or iron slab tofu), and it was fantastic: squares of very lightly breaded tofu on a bed of sweet sliced onions on a sizzling iron plate, with a beautiful dipping sauce on the side. If you like tofu at all, get it.

Most of the Yanbian places I’ve been to in Flushing feel somehow more Chinese than Korean (and Yanbian is in China, after all), but Sol Hyang Gee feels more Korean. However, the delightful banchan are Yanbian all the way: bean sprout salad, a shredded daikon kimchi with the typical Yanbian flavor balance of a bit of spicy coupled with more than a bit of sweet and vinegary, bamboo shoots with jalapeño peppers (this was not nearly as flavorful as Feng Mao’s version), and boiled peanuts.

If you go, know that their awning says "Sol Hyang Lee". It’s a typo – you’ve found the right place!

Sol Hyang Gee (솔향기)
136-73 41st Ave., Flushing 11355

(7 train to Flushing-Main St., walk 2 blocks south on Main, then left on 41st Ave.)

Monday, October 17, 2011

Golden Corner Noodles, formerly Gourmet Noodle & Delicacies

(UPDATE Feb. 2016: This place has changed names, but their menu and quality are still the same.)

There's a very small storefront on College Point Blvd. that dishes up some pretty fantastic food, at equally fantastic prices. Golden Corner Noodles is owned and run by folks from the city of Wenzhou, an important economic and industrial city in Zhejiang province, which is next door to Fujian province.

Apart from greens-stuffed bing, pork and chive dumplings (which no one seems to order), and about a dozen breakfast items, the offerings here fall into two main groups: noodle soups and prepared cold dishes. In contrast to the northern Chinese noodles shops, the reigning noodle here is the rice noodle. And the soup that reigns supreme is the stewed sparerib rice noodle soup (紅燒排骨粉 – hóng shāo pái gǔ fěn). It’s possibly the most delicious noodle soup I've ever had. Each portion comes with its own mini 3-or-4-rib rack of baby spare ribs, some pickled mustard greens, a rich, complex pork broth, and rice noodles that are just tasty and chewy enough to be interesting on their own. A perfect, self-contained lunch. And if, for some unfathomable reason, you don’t want pork, there are 8 or 9 other options of fish, seafood, vegetable, and wontons to satisfy you. The Wenzhou-style wonton soup is particularly nice (温州餛飩湯 – wēn zhōu hún tún tāng), with ultra-delicate little wontons, similar to those of Fujian.

As stellar as that spare-rib soup is, the center-stage spotlight here is held by the prepared cold dishes. There is a steady stream of customers all day that don’t order anything at all to eat there, but just drop in to buy food to take home. There are at least four dozen dishes listed in their lǔ wèi xiǎo cài (滷味小菜) menu, and I haven’t tried one yet that wasn’t delicious. One of the nicest was the very first thing I sampled, something from the glass case that looked beautifully fresh, and turned out to be goose intestine with mustard greens (I never did find out the name of this dish, but it has something to do with jiè cài – 芥菜 – mustard greens, and é cháng – 鹅腸 – goose intestine), tossed with just a touch of vinegar and oil until they glisten.

Almost everyone who walks through the door ends up leaving with at least one braised pork shoulder (滷扎蹄 – lǔ zā tí)... try one and it’s easy to understand why. The bone is removed, then a roll is made with the shoulder meat wrapped in the skin-like fat, which is then tied up with string, brined, and braised. They slice it into thin half-moons for you - with the vinegar dipping sauce, it’s difficult to stop eating it.

The beef equivalent, lǔ niú ròu (滷牛肉), is similar in idea and execution, and every bit as deliciously addictive.

Their chopped-up boiled chicken is cooked perfectly (白斩鸡 – bái zhǎn jī) – plain chicken does not often taste this good. Gāo liáng ròu (高梁肉) – thin sheets of pork jerky cured with sorghum (which lends a subtle sweet flavor) cut into strips – makes a fun snack. And their fish jelly (魚膠凍 – yú jiāo dòng) is marvelous. I know it sounds weird... just give it a try. At these eminently reasonable prices, one can afford to try lots of things.

(Ed. There is a different English sign now - I cannot now remember what it is - but they serve the same excellent food as of Sept. 2013.)

Golden Corner Noodles
42-15 College Point Blvd., Flushing 11355

(7 train to Main St.-Flushing, 5 blocks south on Main, then right on Sanford to College Point Blvd.)

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Tian Fu (New World Mall)

Tian Fu (天府), New World Mall, Flushing, Queens
Opened just a few days ago, Tian Fu (天府) is the new occupant of stall 24, in the southeast corner of the lower-level food court in the New World Mall, and it's my latest Flushing obsession. They do one thing, and they do it superbly. But inherent in that one thing are possibilities of infinite variation.

What they do is 麻辣香鍋 (má là xiāng guō), sometimes called 老车记麻辣香鍋 (lǎo chē jì má là xiāng guō). As near as I can tell, lǎo chē jì means something like "old-fashioned". Má là xiāng guō is essentially a mixed spicy pot: má là is spicy and tingly, xiāng guō is fragrant pot, referring here to a sort of "dry" hot pot. The concept is simple: choose the type and amount of your ingredients from a wide variety on display, plus the level of spiciness desired. The ingredients are weighed – you’re charged by weight – and sent back to the kitchen. A few minutes later they emerge in a large metal bowl, having been stir-fried, along with some liquid, in seasonings that will be familiar to anyone who has enjoyed Chongqing-style dishes at any of the good Sichuan restaurants around town: ginger, garlic, scallion, at least two kinds of hot dried red peppers, Sichuan peppercorn, sesame seeds, and a sprinkling of fresh cilantro. (photos courtesy of Pete Cuce)

麻辣香鍋 (má là xiāng guō), Tian Fu (天府), New World Mall, Flushing, Queens
As to the ingredients available, there’s something to satisfy everybody. A partial list: shaved beef, chicken wing, chicken breast, spam (you MUST get some spam – whatever your normal feelings about spam, it is utterly delicious this way), shrimp, tofu, fish tofu, fish ball, lotus root, seaweed, rice cake, tofu skin, Napa cabbage, bok choy leaves, enoki mushrooms, tree ear, spinach, potato, and a bunch of other vegetables I can’t remember because... well, I tend not to pay all that much attention to vegetables. I would actually advise against getting beef – there are far better ways to enjoy the flavor of beef, and it tends to come out a bit chewy. Likewise, skip the strips of chicken breast - they cook faster than the other ingredients and dry out. Go for the chicken wing bits instead. They take "spicy" seriously here – if you ask for very spicy, it will indeed be VERY spicy! And the spice balance tends to be a bit heavy on the tingly/numbing Sichuan peppercorn. I like it, but it’s not to everyone’s taste.
(And, a photo of my own:)

And the price is definitely right: you can gorge yourself for eight bucks a head, tops – probably less. (Edit:  That price was based on an introductory offer.  Make that $10-12 - still reasonable!)  And since you compose the meal yourself, the chances are good that it's going to be totally satisfying. Obviously, I love this place.

One of the guys behind the counter (the staff is young, energetic, and their English is generally good) told me this dish is from Chongqing, which certainly makes sense when comparing the flavors to other dishes labeled "Chongqing" I’ve had. And I got curious about the name Tian Fu, since this isn’t the first time I've encountered that name associated with Sichuan restaurants. A little research turned up a couple of tidbits of information – Tian Fu is the name of an important square in the center of Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan, and Sichuan province has the nickname tiān fǔ zhī guó (天府之国), a place blessed with abundant natural resources (tiān also means sky or heaven).

Tian Fu – New World Mall food court
Main & Roosevelt (enter on Roosevelt), Flushing 11354

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

Monday, October 3, 2011

Yi Lan Halal Restaurant

In my previous post, I wanted to reference what I thought was an earlier post about Yi Lan (一蘭飯庄 – yī lán fàn zhuāng: 一蘭 – yī lán means “orchid”), but when I went to look for it, there was none. How could that be? It’s easily among my top 5 favorite restaurants in Flushing, yet... I think I kept putting off writing about it until I tried just a few more dishes, and then forgot that I had not actually done the writing I intended to do.

The chef/owner is a Muslim from Tianjin, so Yi Lan serves Halal northern Chinese food. As difficult as it may be to imagine Chinese food without at least a little pork (at least it was difficult for me), the food is great, and – I never thought I’d find myself saying this – I don’t miss the pork at all. The menu is huge and the prices VERY reasonable, especially considering the high quality of preparation. I’ve been here well over a dozen times, yet have only tried a tiny fraction of the menu, in large part because a few them are so good it’s almost impossible for me NOT to order them when I go. I think I’ll just list 'em off here, starting with a couple of favorites.

Lamb shu mai (羊肉燒麥 – yáng ròu shāo mài) - My favorite shu mai anywhere. Juicy, tasty, palpably hand-made – there are 10 to an order, and an order costs six bucks, so it’s a great deal, too. (Photos courtesy of Pete Cuce)

Lamb Shumai, Yi Lan Halal Restaurant, Main St, Flushing, Queens

Sautéed sliced chicken home style (一蘭雞丁 – yī lán jī dīng) - The English translation does not even begin to suggest what this actually is: chunks of chicken (okay, that part, yes...) that have been stir-fried with diamond-shaped pieces of bing pancake (they crisp up beautifully so that the final effect is rather like hot, crispy pita chips), garlic, scallion, sesame seeds, dried red pepper, and thin slices of hot green pepper. It’s like the greatest snack mix on the planet – what Chex mix can only dream about being in its most secret fantasies.

"Hand-Teared" lamb hot pot (手抓羊肉 – shǒu zhuā yáng ròu) - Big chunks of lamb, carrot, and other vegetables in a wonderful broth. The dipping sauce they give you for the lamb is marvelous – I suspect it contains crack – and they happily refill the broth as you eat. Great cold-weather food.

Hand Teared Lamb, Yi Lan Halal Restaurant, Main St, Flushing, Queens

Eight treasure tofu (八珍豆腐 – bā zhēn dòu fǔ) - Cubes of fried tofu covered in a thick sauce of a LOT of seafood and some chicken. Lovely, and a bargain at $12.95.

Eight Treasures Tofu, Yi Lan Halal Restaurant, Main St, Flushing, Queens

Beef & tripe with special peppery sauce (夫妻肺片 – fū qī fèi piàn) - The classic Sichuan ox-tongue-and-tripe cold dish, although the meat is prepared with much more care than just about any other version I’ve this I’ve tried.

Ox Tongue & Tripe w/ Spicy Peppery Sauce, Yi Lan Halal Restaurant, Main St, Flushing, Queens

Stir-fried cake (炒饼 – chǎo bǐng) - Noodle-like strips of bing pancake stir-fried with egg, carrot, and cabbage. A fun change of pace.

Stir Fried Cake (烧饼 Shao1 Bing3), Yi Lan Halal Restaurant, Main St, Flushing, Queens

House special smoked chicken (一蘭熏雞 – yī lán xūn jī) - An appetizer plate of hacked-up pieces of chicken that has obviously been smoked in-house. Very nice.

Shredded chicken country style(天津拌大皮 – tiān jīn bàn dà pí) - I ordered this having no idea what to expect, so what arrived was a total surprise. Essentially a cold noodle dish, the noodles being those wide ones made of mung bean starch, with shredded chicken, some sort of green (it’s been so long I can’t remember now what it was), and a black vinegar sauce. Refreshing warm-weather food. I find the English "translation" of the name a bit odd – it bears no relation at all to the Chinese name, which means "Tianjin mixed big skin" (skin meaning the noodles here) – since the chicken is in a way the least important element of the dish.

Sliced potato with special sauce (熗土豆絲 – qiàng tǔ dòu sī) - Cold-appetizer version of the fairly standard shredded potatoes in vinegar and hot pepper sauce. Excellent.

Sliced Potato w/ Special Sauce, Yi Lan Halal Restaurant, Main St, Flushing, Queens

Spicy potato Tianjin style (天津辣子土豆絲 – tiān jīn là zǐ tǔ dòu sī) - Do NOT confuse this with the dish above. Shreds of potato stir-fried with hot green peppers and soy sauce. A LOT of soy sauce. This dish was so salty I could barely eat it, and I like salt more than most people I know. The only real dud I’ve ever had here.

Sliced fish in hot pepper (水煮魚片 – shuǐ zhǔ yú piàn) - This turned out to be a house version of the Sichuan "water-cooked fish" (sometimes called "fish in soup base"). Nice, but not great. If you like Sichuan food, save ordering this dish for a real Sichuan restaurant.

There are 12 to 15 soups here, too, including several hiding in a different section of the menu. The tomato egg soup is very comforting – maybe too comforting. I could see it was made from tomato, but almost couldn’t taste the tomato, it was so very mild. They have several "gē dá" (疙瘩) soups, too – soups made with the little lumps of dough sometimes called "dumpling knots". The Geda Soup Home Style (家常疙瘩汤 – jiā cháng gē dá tāng) means fish and seafood here – it was too bland for me, really, but at least one of my friends liked it a lot. Still, not a serious challenger to the supremacy of Fu Run’s "home style blotch soup". Instead, try the “sour pepper soup” (醋椒汤 – cù jiāo tāng) – essentially hot and sour soup. This lovely version uses chicken stock and leaves out the pork.

Dessert (at least I assume they still do sweet dishes – they’re on my old take-out menu but not the newer one, and I simply can’t remember if they’re still on the in-restaurant menu) is the typical northern Chinese "things in caramelized sugar" (拔絲 – bá sī). "Yellow vegetable" (黃菜 – northern Chinese for "egg") is sheets of egg dough – sweet, crunchy fun. The also do the same with mountain yam (山藥 – shān yào), pineapple (菠羅 – bō luó), and longan fruit (龍眼 – lóng yǎn).

Egg Fritters, Yi Lan Halal Restaurant, Main St, Flushing, Queens

Yi Lan Halal Restaurant
42-79A Main St., Flushing 11355

(7 train to Main St.-Flushing, then 8 blocks south on Main)

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Feng Mao

Korean-Chinese restaurants – that is, restaurants serving cuisine of the Chinese immigrants in Korea – such as Hyo Dong Gak have been around New York for decades. I remember eating at one on Manhattan’s W. 32nd St. in the early ‘80’s… I wish I could remember the name of it (their jja jang myun was particularly hearty and comforting, with chunks of potato in addition to the usual ingredients - still perhaps my favorite version ever). But the Chinese-Korean restaurant (by which I mean food of Koreans living in China) is a relatively new phenomenon in New York. They started popping up in Flushing just a year or two ago, and now there are perhaps 5 or 6 of them, plus the stalls in the New World Mall food court. Two of them face each other on 41st Ave.: RiFu has been around a while, and Feng Mao (丰茂飯店 - fēng mào fàn diàn, or, roughly, "luxuriant abundance" restaurant) opened very recently in the space that used to be the late, lamented A Fan Ti. (There is a third just a door or two west of RiFu.)

Yanbian, the Korean autonomous prefecture in Jilin province of northeastern China, is the epicenter of this style of cooking. And it seems that there must be some sort of traditional association in that area with the phrase "fēng mào" (丰茂), as a Chowhound post reveals there is a restaurant in Los Angeles of the same name with proprietors from - you guessed it - Jilin province. It makes perfect sense that there are a lot of Koreans there – it shares a border with North Korea – and their cuisine has obvious characteristics of both countries. With Koreans, you always get banchan, those small dishes that precede and accompany the meal. Last night at Feng Mao, we were given four: salted roasted peanuts, a not-particularly-spicy kimchi of daikon radish shreds and red pepper, thin strips of seaweed with a bit of vinegar and red pepper, and a particularly nice combination of bamboo shoot and jalapeño pepper in a slightly sweet, vinegary sauce. (Photos courtesy of Pete Cuce)

We ordered entirely too much food for four people – six dishes in all (a seventh appeared halfway through the meal, compliments of the house) – and there was hardly an unsuccessful one among them, although the “cold noodles” (冷面 – lěng miàn, which turned out to be naeng myun, or buckwheat noodles in a cold spicy broth) were rather mushy.

Lao gan ma spicy spare ribs” was a winner. Its name in Chinese is rather long –老干妈铁板香辣小排骨 (lǎo gān mā tiě bǎn xiāng là xiǎo pái gǔ) – and presents a bit of a puzzle for the non-native. Tiě bǎn means “iron plate”, and sure enough, it arrives sizzling on an iron plate. Xiǎo pái gǔ means “small spare ribs”, and small they are, hacked into bite-sized pieces. is “spicy”, xiāng, savory or fragrant... so far, so good. But lǎo gān mā? I’ve seen this translated as “old grandma” (although gān means “dry”, implying a shade of meaning I think I’d prefer not to contemplate for too long)... whose dried-up old grandma are these spare ribs named after, anyway? Then I read that Lao Gan Ma is a famous brand of chili paste in China – I’m guessing it’s one of the ingredients. At any rate, the dish is quite tasty, although working around the bone shards can get on ones nerves. (Ed. I've since learned, through the magic of Twitter, that gān mā refers to a sort of adoptive mother figure, rather like a godmother.)

Probably my favorite dish on the table goes by the unassuming name of “sautéed chicken” on the menu, although its Chinese name, nóng fū chǎo jī (农夫炒鸡), means farmer, or peasant, sautéed chicken, making it sound instantly much more like my kind of dish. What arrived was something of a cross between a stew and a stir-fry of small hacked-up pieces of chicken (with bone, so once again, watch out for shards), black mushrooms, green and red bell peppers, and large rounds of potato in a light brown sauce. Delicious, and at 12 bucks, it was the best deal on the table.

The most unusual thing we got was “fried popcorn in egg yolk sauce”(蛋黃玉米粒 – dàn huáng yù mǐ lì). Not quite correctly translated, since the “popcorn” turned out to be just “corn”, but it was still unusual: kernels of corn coated in egg yolk and stir-fried until dry and separate. But not too dry – the corn kernels still retained just enough of their juiciness, and the overall effect was oddly lovely. Definitely worth a try.

The rest of the dishes kept reminding me of others in the area. Their cumin beef (孜然牛肉 – zī rán niú ròu) is quite similar to M & T’s “Qingdao spicy meat”, with a spice combination veering a bit toward that of Fu Run’s muslim lamb chops. Very nice, but at 5 bucks cheaper, I think I’ll head to M & T when I get the craving, even if theirs is pork, not beef. (Click on the photo - the small version below does not do it justice.)

And the “dried tofu with seafood” (八珍豆腐 – bā zhēn dòu fǔ) turned out to be “eight treasure tofu”, just like at Yi Lan (they mean “fried” instead of “dried here). Cubes of fried tofu are covered in a brown sauce with chunks of squid, fish, shrimp, chicken, dried scallops, sea cucmber, and other goodies. Good, but Yi Lan’s is six bucks cheaper for a version that is every bit as good, or better.

The (complimentary on this occasion) rice cakes (打糕 – dá gāo) are just like RiFu’s across the street – dense, gooey chunks served with ground red beans for dipping. The slight sweetness of the red bean makes this dish very dessert-like.

As you’ve no doubt gathered by now, I do find this place rather expensive, especially when you consider what is available nearby. Prices are almost identical at RiFu for food of similar quality, although RiFu’s portions are ENORMOUS (and RiFu has the wonderful “slate tofu” – thick slices of palpably house-made tofu served on a hot stone plate, each with its own dollop of red pepper paste and some minced scallion). But it's a cuisine worth investigating, and if you'd like more information, head over to Joe DiStefano's World's Fare blog and read his piece on Minzhongle.

Feng Mao
136-80 41st Ave., Flushing 11355

(7 train to Flushing-Main St., walk 2 blocks south on Main, then left on 41st Ave.)

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Savor Fusion (Maple Snacks) (CLOSED)

A couple of weeks ago, I received a tweet from the intrepid Joe DiStefano, of the World’s Fare blog, about a truly great bowl of dàn dàn miàn he had just eaten at a new food court in Flushing. I trust his opinion more than just about any food writer I can think of, so I headed out the next day, in the rain, to find the Savor Fusion food court (although the Chinese characters on the awning – 楓林小吃 – mean “Maple Snacks”). What I found was a nicely-appointed, brand-spanking-new food court with eight stalls that serve some pretty damn good food at fantastic prices. It has become my latest Flushing obsession.

Of course, Joe managed to find it the very first day it was open for business (how on earth does he do it?), which means, I guess, that I was there on its second day. They are still putting on some finishing touches, and the promised English menus have yet to materialize, but it is surprisingly inviting for a Flushing food court, and a 洋鬼子 like me can almost always find a helpful translator when necessary.

Each stall has a placard above the counter with its menu – Chinese only, so far, except for the Shanghai stall – and stall number (somehow two stalls ended up with the designation “#1”, but no matter…). To hit the highlights of my explorations so far: the stall #1 at the very back of the court, away from the doors, is called 水餃 (shuǐ jiǎo, or boiled dumplings) and serves, true to its name, some stellar boiled dumplings. They have some half-dozen varieties that are frozen to take home, or they'll boil up and serve you. The first time I ordered 三鮮 水 (sān xiān shuǐ jiǎo – literally “three fresh”, or three treasure dumplings, the treasures in question being pork, shrimp and chive), I was presented with probably the most perfect dumplings I have ever tasted: the filling was the perfect balance of ingredients, the wrappers just the right consistency, and the two were perfectly wedded together. I subsequently discovered it makes a difference just who boils them up here – of the two guys behind the counter at various times, if there is a choice, try to get to the one with the more prominent, slightly “chiseled” facial features. Neither speak any English, so practice the phrase “sān xiān shuǐ jiǎo”, and for $3.50 you’ll be rewarded with an unbeatable snack.

Next door is #2, hand-pulled noodles. As far as I can tell, their menu is all noodles in soup (the fried noodle thing seems to be show up mostly in southern Chinese cuisines, and these guys are, I think, from the north). They also do knife-shave noodles – 刀削面 (dāo xiāo miàn) – made the real traditional way, shaving the noodles off the top of a block of dough with a cleaver into boiling water (be sure to watch the guy do it), not by using the machine that looks like a hand-held mandoline that I’ve seen in at least one stall in the New World Mall. You might want to ask for these to be cooked more “al dente” – mine had been boiled just a bit too long for my taste, but were otherwise delicious. English is good here, and they are happy to work with you to give you something you’ll like.

Just across the way that leads to the restroom (yes, there is a nice, clean restroom here!) is a Taiwanese stand (#3) called “Fried dumpling” that I haven’t tried yet, but I’m told has excellent má là tāng (麻辣汤, a spicy-tingly noodle soup with a little bit everything in it, plus your choice of meat). Just around the corner is #4, which has no English name, but the Chinese characters are 河南 (HeNan, as in the province). Among other things, they do two kinds of stuffed small steamed pancakes – one being a spicy cumin lamb filling very much like that of Xi’an Famous Foods (and every bit as good, if not better, because their pancakes tend to be fresher), and the other an utterly delicious chopped stewed pork belly filling (ask for 肉夾饃 – ròu jià mó). Their zhá jiang miàn (炸酱面 – noodles with a minced pork and brown bean sauce) is also very good, although next time I will ask them to leave off the bean sprouts.

Continuing to the right is stall #5, called Tian Jin (天津, the city near Beijing). I have not yet investigated this one, and can’t figure out what they do, but almost no item is more than $3.00 (I’m guessing a lot of breakfast items – on mystery Chinese menus, it’s a pretty safe bet that things under $2 are breakfast items). #6 to the right is another stall I haven’t tried with a very short, inexpensive menu that includes two things translated into English: vegetable roll and fried chicken wings. Not quite sufficient to pique my curiosity enough to try it. And all the way to the right, by the Main St. entrance, is the second stall marked #1, purveying Shanghai specialties. A menu placard completely translated into English appeared this week, and it definitely looks worth a try (I haven’t yet, but maybe later today...). Their offerings fall into two categories: almost two dozen prepared (cold) items are available by the pound (a lot of great-looking stuff here), and hot wontons and noodle soups.

But in between these last two is, predictably, my favorite – the Sichuan stall (#7). Thanks to Joe DiStefano, I know that 成都小吃朱大姐 is run by Sister Zhu, and she makes truly the most delicious dàn dàn miàn (担担面 – noodles with a spicy/numbing minced pork sauce) I have ever tried. But that’s only the beginning. Her fū qī fèi piàn (夫妻肺片 – cold ox tongue and tripe in spicy sauce) is a thing of beauty, and both her má là jī (麻辣雞 – cold spicy/tingly chicken) and má là yú (麻辣魚 – spicy/tingly fish, an especially good deal at 6 bucks for a an order of 5 or 6 medium-sized fish) are outrageously delicious. She also makes the best má pó dòu fǔ (麻婆豆腐 – bean curd with spicy minced pork) I’ve had in years, since the early days of Little Pepper (no more – they make it differently now). She really cares about what she serves, and her English is pretty good (if her son is working, his English is great - he’s very good with a wok, too). And her homemade sausages (香肠 - xiāng cháng) are probably the most delicious I’ve tasted in this country... the flavor kept reminding me of Spain, except the Spanish don’t use Sichuan peppercorn!


Savor Fusion (aka Maple Snacks)
42-01 Main St., Flushing 11355

(7 train to Flushing-Main St., then walk south 5 blocks on Main)

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Guh Song

I had begun to hear some murmurings (internet-style) that the best jja jang myun in NYC might be served at a place I had not tried yet. So after my recording session this evening, I headed out to Bayside, Queens, to pay Guh Song a visit.

Well, the rumors may be right. I was the only caucasian in the place, and when I ordered the gan jja jang ("special sauce" jja jang myun), the waitress emitted a surprised/pleased "Oh!" The sauce is more flavorful than either of the other well-known places in the city, Sam Won Gahk and Hyo Dong Gak, and the noodles were good. My other must-try dish at a Korean-Chinese restaurant, goon mandu (fried dumplings), didn't fare so well. The wrappers were too thick and actually came out somewhat tough and leathery, and the filling was too heavy on under-cooked chives.

However, this was not, in fact, what most people were eating here. Clams and large crab seemed to be on every table but mine, and it all looked spectacular. Unfortunately, I wasn't able to determine exactly which dishes on the menu they were, but if I can scrape up some company for a return visit, I intend to find out. Especially delectable-looking were the large platters of clams slathered in a brown sauce (possibly "steamed clams with oyster sauce") with some Chinese broccoli, next to a mound of noodles. The waitress mixes it all for you at the table. For the novice, it seems to me it would be worthwhile to really take your time ordering, have a good look around the room to see what's on other tables, and don't be afraid to ask questions!

Guh Song
47-24 Bell Blvd., Basyide 11361

(7 train to Flushing-Main St., then take the Q27 bus to Bell Blvd.)

Monday, August 8, 2011

Little Pepper - New Location

As some of you may know, Little Pepper was closed for several months while they moved to their new location in the College Point neighborhood north of Flushing. After four or five visits to their new digs, I'm delighted to report that the food is as good as ever and the prices barely changed. There are a few items from the old menu oddly missing from the new one, but if you ask, they can almost always do it for you anyway. And the new space is great - roomy, modern, clean. It's just a bitch to get to without a car!

Little Pepper
18-24 College Point Blvd., Flushing 11356

(7 train to Main St.-Flushing, then take the Q65 or Q20A bus to College Point Blvd. & 18th Ave.)

Friday, July 29, 2011

Chung Ki Wa

Until fairly recently, I had gone through life somehow never having tried bu dae jigae. But last year, my roommate Kerrick on the (now defunct) Philharmonic Orchestra of the Americas Mexican tour introduced me to it in Mexico City, so now I periodically get cravings for it. Such was the case this evening. Problem was, I didn’t feel like eating any of the ones I already knew around town—each one had a fatal flaw rendering it inappropriate for this evening. Having noticed some unfamiliar Korean restaurants in the Jackson Heights vicinity several days ago, I decided to go for a menu-browsing stroll. Chung Ki Wa won.

And boy, did it ever win. A quick scan of the menu elicited the information that they serve gobchang gui—a very promising sign. I only know of one other Korean restaurant in the New York area that serves this dish, automatically elevating Chung Ki Wa to rarefied status. But it was bu dae jigae night, so I ordered it and waited. Several minutes later I was presented with the most interesting and satisfying array of banchan I think I have ever been served. Whoever made these really knew what they were doing: they were scrupulously fresh and beautifully prepared. Often the solo diner gets short shrift in the banchan department, but not here. I was given at least eight dishes, including the standard fermented cabbage kimchi, oi kimchi (cucumber kimchi), some beef-less japchae, strips of vegetable pancake, a fresh kimchi made with romaine lettuce chunks, vinegared potato shreds (much like the northern Chinese cold dish), a light mushroom salad, and—my favorite—chunks of potato and pork knuckle preserved with red pepper and vinegar (I guess this makes it a kimchi)... fabulous!

I was just beginning to slow down on the banchan when the bu dae jigae arrived, bubbling hot in a stone dish (the kind used for dol sot bi bim bap) with some cellophane noodles forming a small mound in the center. Normally, I feel deprived if there aren’t some ramen noodles in my bu dae jigae, and a few pokes revealed that cellophane were the only noodles in there. Those pokes also revealed, however, that just below the surface of the fiery, smooth red broth, the bowl was packed solid with goodies. And I do not use the term “goodies” lightly: in addition to the standard shreds of kimchi, there were some decidedly unstandard chunks of wiener (not the grocery store kind, but tasting palpably of having come from a good, probably German, butcher) and Spam-like ham (but of the same high quality and provenance as the wieners), plus slices of rice cake, fish cake, chunks of obviously house-made tofu, and ultra-thin slices of dried beef and mushrooms. I did not feel deprived in the least. This was easily the best bu dae jigae I have ever had, and it’s difficult to imagine a better one. I can’t wait to try its “daddy” here—bu dae jeong gol, a casserole/hotpot of similar ingredients, but more of them.

It’s unusual for me to write about a New York restaurant after just one visit, but the quality of my meal was so uniformly high, it seems highly unlikely that it was a fluke. In cooler weather, I look forward to their gam ja tang (spicy stew of pork back and potato) almost assuredly taking its place as my favorite version around town. Chung Ki Wa is literally across the street from the 74th/Roosevelt/Broadway subway station, and it’s open 24 hours.

This place reminds me of why I used to like Korean restaurants so much.

Chung Ki Wa
40-06 74th St., Elmhurst 11373

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

Friday, July 22, 2011

Restaurante Nova Pérola

I knew I was going to love this place when I wandered in there my first night in Portugal last month, sat down, asked the waiter which of the pratos do dia he would recommend, and... he told me! Waiters in Portugal especially are guilty of rarely answering that question in a straightforward manner. Usually the dialogue goes something like this:

“O que pode recomendar hoje?”
“Carne ou peixe?”

(Waiter starts listing the meat dishes off the menu.)

But on this first night in Costa da Caparica, my guy (the heavy-set one with glasses and the gruff demeanor, but don’t be daunted) told me: “feijoada à transmontana. É boa.” He was right. It was muito boa. The best Portuguese feijoada I had tried in a very long time.

Needless to say, I ate there a lot during my ensuing stay there. The ladies in the kitchen at Restaurante Nova Pérola know what they’re doing, and literally everything I tried was made with care and competence. Stick with the pratos do dia (daily specials), though, if at all possible—they tend to be the most interesting dishes, and their quality is practically assured (not that that is an issue here). The feijoada had more pork products per square inch than any dish I’ve had in recent memory. They do a very creditable chicken cabidela (my favorite traditional Portuguese dish: chicken stewed with its giblets, with rice cooked in the stewing liquid and some chicken blood added at the end). And on Sundays, their bacalhau à Duque de Palmela is a thing of beauty: a big chunk of soaked, previously-dried cod fried with onions, then slathered with mayonnaise, run under the broiler, and served surrounded by thin fried potato rounds. The best 9,50€ you’ll spend that week. Prices, obviously, are extremely reasonable (that feijoada pictured above? 7,00€).

It’s easy to find, right on the main drag adjacent to the mercado. Closed Mondays.

Restaurante Nova Pérola
Rua D.João VI – Mercado, Loja 11
2825-342 – Costa da Caparica, Portugal
(+351) 21 290 2723

Thursday, July 21, 2011

La Mère Brazier

I was in Lyon, France recently for work, and the president of the organization for which I was working arranged a dinner one evening for our group at La Mère Brazier. Now, La Mère Brazier does not even remotely fall into the category of restaurant I normally write about—it’s far too expensive (and this was, unfortunately, a Dutch-treat affair)—but it’s difficult to resist saying a few words about what was probably the most beautifully-prepared meal I have ever been served.

La Mère Brazier has been around since 1921, but the kitchen has belonged to Mathieu Viannay since 2008, who is presumably responsible for the restaurant’s current Michelin 2-star rating (it had 3, once upon a time in its heyday). Viannay fuses elements of traditional Lyonnais cooking and modern cuisine, to my mind, completely successfully. It was a faultless meal—at least until the check came, which contained an egregious mistake in multiplication (why are these sorts of mistakes always in the restaurant’s favor?), cheerfully corrected once pointed out.

Since I was most definitely on a budget—relatively speaking—I ordered the most economical option, the menu de saison (58€ for 3 courses—around $85). It began with a paté en croûte of Bresse chicken and foie gras with a bit of warm black cherry jam. It could not have been improved: the crust light and flaky, the paté perfectly balanced, and the black cherry a marvelous counterpoint to it. This was followed by two of the most perfect chunks of milk-fed lamb imaginable on fried polenta with a jus reduction, accompanied by baby vegetables. Lovely. Dessert was a fabulous tarte soufflé au chocolat with vanilla bourbon ice cream: wonderful dark chocolate, and most importantly, for my palate at least, not too sweet. I did not feel the least bit deprived doing it on the cheap (once again, relatively speaking)... that is, until I got a whiff of what two of my companions at the other end of the table had ordered: poularde de Bresse demi-deuil. This is Viannay’s take on the classic Lyonnais dish created by mère Filloux of the original La Mère Brazier: Bresse chicken with slices of black truffle inserted between the meat and skin, then poached and served with vegetables, sauce and various pickled condiments. It looked and smelled absolutely divine, and my friends were audibly moaning the entire time they were eating it. I’d say they definitely got their 125€ ($180+!!) worth.

Still, with all its high art and perfection, this is not food that speaks to my soul. In fact, I had to be reminded of what exactly it was that I ate by looking at the website. (I did NOT, however, have to be reminded about anything concerning that chicken at the other end of the table!) It’s an experience definitely worth having, if you can afford it.

La Mère Brazier
12 Rue Royale
69001 Lyon, France
(+33) (0)4 78 23 17 20


Uncle Zhou

If I had written about Uncle Zhou (or 大河人家 - "big river people") when I first went there, it would have been the very first English-language notice about it on the internet (a Chinese soprano—from Henan—told me about it). But, I wanted to try more things before writing about it, and then procrastination set in, so here I am finally getting around to it 3 months later.

Comparisons to Henan Feng Wei are inevitable, since it is the only other Henan-style restaurant in New York (that I know of, anyway). The offerings are similar, but by no means identical. Both focus on noodles, dumplings, with some other kinds of dishes along for the ride, and both serve excellent food. And that’s where the similarity ends. For one thing, Uncle Zhou’s serves not only the hallmark handmade wide, ribbon-like noodles in soup (烩面 - huì miàn), but also the fine hand-pulled noodles (拉面 - lā miàn) and knife-shaved noodles (刀削面 - dāo xiāo miàn), a la Sheng Wang (although Uncle Zhou’s are, I think, a shade more delicate). The wide variety of noodle soups here includes something for every taste—I especially love the spicy beef hand-pulled noodle soup and the chicken knife-shaved noodle soup. But, of course, lamb soup with the wide noodles (滋补羊肉烩面) is the most typical Henanese offering.

My beloved dà pán jī (大盘鸡 - spicy "big tray chicken") is terrific here, and quite different from Henan Feng Wei’s. There the flavors are more concentrated and intense. Uncle Zhou’s version, while packing almost all of the same spice, is mellower, more like comfort food. And it comes served on a bed of the wide noodles—at Henan Feng Wei you have to order noodles separately. And like Henan Feng Wei, they have a few kòu wǎn (扣碗 - small casseroles of chicken, pork or spare ribs) and shāo bǐng (燒餅 - baked sesame pancake). The pork stuffed pancake seems to be off the menu at the moment, which is too bad—it’s better than the beef one currently on offer.

There are also a dozen and a half "house special dishes"—various braised and stir-fried dishes. I haven’t tried all of them—yet—but the "house special fried chicken" must surely be the standout on the list. It’s name, zhá bā kuāi (炸八块 – "fried eight chunks") is perhaps as good a description of it as any, and the execution is sheer genius: each "chunk" is made by peeling the dark meat down away from the leg or thigh bone so it forms a nice knot of meat attached to its own bone handle. They are then lightly seasoned and fried to juicy perfection. There are—you guessed it—eight pieces to an order. And be sure to check out the cold appetizers in the case up by the cash register. The marinated cucumbers (蓑衣黄瓜 - suō yì huáng guā) are especially good. Each small cucumber is intricately cut in a spiral pattern, rather like a Honeybaked ham, yet remains intact, reminding one of an accordion—all the better to soak up the sweet-sour-spicy marinade.

And with such eminently reasonable prices, one could eat here almost every day. I have a feeling some people do—I’ve seen quite a few repeat customers besides myself on my visits there. Open until 11 p.m.

Uncle Zhou
83-29 Broadway, Elmhurst 11373

(G, R, or V train to Elmhurst Ave., south on Broadway)

Friday, July 15, 2011

Phở #1

I keep lamenting the fact that NYC has almost no Vietnamese restaurants worth going to, so when I go somewhere that DOES, I get as much in as I can. As I mentioned in my Monte Carlo Restaurant post, I only discovered Gil's Thrilling (and Filling) Blog my last night in Albuquerque, and it led me to Phở #1. This made me very happy indeed.

Their specialty is Bò 7 Món, or 7 courses of beef, a something traditionally served at wedding banquets. The table next to me was enjoying it quite audibly. But I was just one person and wanted to try some of the other things on the menu I had never encountered before. They were all winners. First up was Bò Lá Lốt: seasoned ground beef wrapped in wild betel leaves (rather like smaller, thinner grape leaves, referred to on the menu, mysteriously, as "Hawaiian loaf leaf") and grilled. It's one of the Bò 7 Món courses, and it earns its place there: tasty and fun to pick up and nibble on. I also had a variety of phở I had never tried before, Phở Sate Đặc Biệt, or sate beef phở. In this case, sate does not refer to grilled meat skewers, but a chili and garlic paste typical of the Mekong River delta. This is my new favorite variety of phở and I'll definitely order it if I ever see it again on another menu... which will involve going someplace that has decent Vietnamese restaurants... okay, I'll stop now.

As great as that phở was, the grand prize of the meal went to Ram Chiên, translated on the menu as "Central Vietnamese egg roll". This does not even begin to suggest its beauty, and I'm very glad I asked about it: it's BBQ pork, shrimp, scallion, and bean sprouts rolled in a rice wrapper and deep-fried. The rice wrapper comes out both crispy and chewy, and the marriage of BBQ pork and shrimp is of the happiest possible kind... in short, magnificent, and I hope I get to eat it again some day.

Phở #1
414 San Pedro SE
Albuquerque, NM 87108

(closed Wednesdays)

Monte Carlo Restaurant

If you are planning to visit Albuquerque for any length of time and are interested in food (since you're reading this, I believe that can be assumed), do not fail to check out Gil's Thrilling (and Filling) Blog. He writes thoroughly and knowledgeably about every restaurant in the area worth going to, and--almost as important for a place like ABQ--a lot of places NOT worth going to. I was quite disappointed that I only found his blog on the last day of my most recent trip there. Still, it led me to Phở #1, so it's all good.

When my friend Thomas told me about Monte Carlo Restaurant, he thought it was my kind of place, and he was absolutely right. I later discovered that it had been featured on "Diners, Drive-ins and Dives": while that host is unwatchable (is there anything more irritating than Guy Fieri talking about... well, anything, much less something as important as food? I think not), the show's research team definitely knows what it is about (I wonder if they have any openings?). And finally, I discovered that Gil has written about it much more thoroughly and persuasively than I ever could. So, in brief: go! This place is fabulousness embodied, in a style that has practically disappeared. With dark paneling, neon signs, and Naugahyde half-moon banquettes, it looks like nothing has changed in 40 years, and it could not exist anywhere else but the American Southwest. It's owned by a Greek family that understands food. The steaks are great and the prices reasonable. And one of it's entrances is through the liquor store with which it shares a building. Monte Carlo Restaurant is what is now, unfortunately, a one-of-a-kind experience and should not be missed.

Monte Carlo Restaurant
3916 Central Ave SW
Albuquerque, NM 87105

Pro's Ranch Market

All the New Mexican food in in Albuquerque is great and all, but if you want something a little different, something a little closer to... oh... actual Mexican food, pay a visit to Pro's Ranch Market on the west side of town.

To say it's a big grocery store with a food court is hardly doing it justice, but that's essentially what it is. It's easily the most festive grocery store I've ever been to, and if only ALL food courts were like this. All the food preparation areas are visible to the public, so you can watch Mexican women make fresh tortillas (does that make them tortilleras?) or tamales--something I could do for hours. These chicks know what they're doing--they're real pros. There's a steam table with the dozen or so hot dishes prepared that day... I finally got to taste the birria I never got to taste in Mexico (delicious, of course). There's a huge--and hugely popular--juice and beverage counter, and my personal favorite, the torta counter. Their tortas are as good as I had anywhere in Mexico... if you like a little bit of everything (including head cheese, but you'll hardly notice it), the torta cubana is fantastic: your choice of grilled meat, plus two or three other coldcuts in there, plus cheese (normal and head) and avocado cream and... I know I'm forgotting something... on a toasted roll. When I saw torta ahogada up on the board, I got really excited, but a couple of questions revealed that what they make is not the classic torta ahogada of Guadalajara. Still, I'm sure it's great. The prices are, of course, super reasonable.

This is a mini-chain of markets--most of them are in Phoenix, with a handle of others in New Mexico and Texas. I wonder how we can get them to open one in New York City...

I can dream, can't I?

Pro's Ranch Market
4201 Central Ave NW
Albuquerque, NM 87105


Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Jeff's Joint BBQ

Taos, New Mexico, was not exactly the place I expected to have the best barbecue I've tried in years, but life is full of surprises. When I first drove past Jeff's Joint BBQ, I thought it looked promising somehow, and my instincts proved to be correct: this is the best BBQ I've had since Clark's Outpost in Tioga, TX (it was North Carolina before that).

The busy pitmaster (Jeff, presumably, although I did not have a chance to ask) wandered by the counter once or twice, and my inquiry as to the house specialty yielded the answer, "Ribs". Thanks. There are 4 kinds here: spare ribs, baby back, beef ribs, and short ribs. Naturally, I wanted to try all of them, and herein lies the biggest problem with going places solo as I so often end up doing. The intensely sweet but scattered woman behind the cash register was more of a hindrance than help with ordering, but in the end, I settled on a half rack of spare ribs over the baby back, plus half-pound orders each of beef ribs, short ribs, and sausage (to go--even I can't eat all that in one sitting).

It was all fantastic. This guy really knows what he's doing. The ribs all benefited from a nice dry rub, then were barbecued/smoked by an expert. The meat comes out so juicy and tasty that it hardly needs the tangy, not-too-sweet, house barbecue sauce served on the side, but is enhanced by it beautifully.

My big regret: not being able to try to the Saturday-only special, Stephane's grilled and sliced whole top sirloin. Maybe next time.

Closed Mondays, and be sure to get there before 9:00 p.m.

Jeff's Joint BBQ
1014 Paseo del Pueblo Sur
Taos, NM 87571


Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Hunan Kitchen of Grand Sichuan

Edited Jan. 2018: In recent months, the quality here has slipped to the point where I feel this place is no longer recommendable.

Perhaps my overall favorite Chinese restaurant in Flushing these days is the somewhat oddly-named Hunan Kitchen of Grand Sichuan. Generally wonderful, fiery food served in extremely pleasant surroundings... what's not to love?

I'm probably going to sound like a one-man PR department for this place, but with one or two exceptions--and I've tried a couple of dozen dishes here (less than a quarter of their huge menu)--I've loved everything I've tasted. Hunan food tends to be more straightforwardly spicy than that of neighboring Sichuan, the obvious cuisine for comparison. In fact, from what I've read, the Hunanese like to make fun of the Sichuanese liberal use of numbing Sichuan peppercorns--if you're going to eat hot peppers, why pussy-foot around? I must say I see their point, although I dearly love both approaches.

If asked, the helpful wait-staff will probably steer you towards the BBQ Fish, and they are not wrong. A whole tilapia arrives in a baking dish covered with diced potatoes and yams, scallion, ginger, garlic, roasted peanuts, and, of course, toasted dried red chili peppers. It's set atop a portable gas burner so it can bubble away as you eat it, and it's terrific. They also prepare duck and pig's foot this way--I think the BBQ pig's foot is perhaps even more successful as a dish than the fish (and that's saying something!), but it makes for pretty heavy eating... I don't think I'd want it in warm weather.

Equally good is the "big fish head in huge pot". You're given a choice, but get it spicy--you're at a Hunan restaurant, for god's sake! They don't exaggerate: a large carp's head arrives in a huge pot of broth spiked with pickled hot red peppers, and it simmers atop--you guessed it--a portable gas burner (practically every table in the place has at least one gas burner on it keeping something hot). When you're ready, the waitress will come by and dump a huge plate of vegetables and mung bean sheet noodles in. Probably the best "hot pot" I've ever had. And don't be put off by the "fish head" thing--carp's heads are surprisingly meaty.

Perhaps Hunan's most famous dish, here called "braised pork, Mao's style", is excellent. It was Chairman Mao's favorite dish, and he was said to have eaten it almost every day. Chunks of pork belly simmered in a sweet, spicy brown sauce. Even better, for my money, is an item not on the menu, but you should be able to get it by asking for the "pork leg dish like Mao's pork". Chunks of pork shoulder (one waitress kept insisting it was "leg" and not shoulder, but I know pork shoulder, and this is pork shoulder) braised in a complex brown sauce, not as sweet as Mao's pork, and with just enough red pepper to make it interesting. Served in a lovely mound surrounded by baby bok choy.

It's difficult to go wrong here. I've quite enjoyed all the cold plates I've tried: liquor-soaked duck (here the character 洒 in the Chinese name of the dish is more accurate: "sprinkled"), chicken with scallion and chili oil (not spicy--almost a pesto-feel to the sauce), and ox tongue and tripe in spicy pepper sauce (the meat is okay, but the sauce is the most complex and interesting of any version of this dish I've tried). The spicy cold noodles are reminiscent of their Sichuan counterparts, although the noodles here are a bit wider, and there is the bracing addition of a good dose of vinegar. Stay away from the soup dumplings--one of the only real misfires in my exploration of the menu so far--thick, leathery wrappers and almost no soup. The dipping sauce, though, is fantastic.

Speaking of soup, the hot and sour soup here is the best version I've tried anywhere, with lots of minced pork. And the tomato egg soup is marvelous--much more complex than I expected, yet still oddly comforting.

The chicken with hot red pepper and the Dong An chicken (named for a county in Hunan) are rather similar in overall effect. If choosing, it may come down to a question of bones: the former is small chunks on the bone, the latter boneless. Dong An chicken was an especially popular choice at a recent gathering there. As was farmer-style tofu: rectangles of firm tofu stir-fried with vegetables in a pleasantly spicy sauce.

I've certainly never had anything like the sliced cured pork with dry string beans and dry turnips before. All the ingredients are diced small and dry-fried with hot peppers, of course, and plenty of ginger. It makes for an interesting, surprisingly complex, concentrated flavor. Sauteed bok choy with preserved beans is one of the more unusual vegetable options here, and quite a tasty one. The also do an excellent version of shredded potatoes with vinegar sauce.

The only other dish I've tried so far that I would advise avoiding here is the "veal chop in casserole". I didn't actually expect what I think of as a veal chop, but I didn't exactly expect ribs (cut crosswise, à la Argentine tira de asado)--from what must have been a rather elderly calf--either. The meat was chewy and uninteresting, in an uncompelling sauce. At the above-mentioned gathering, it was left practically untouched.

Hunan Kitchen also has the great advantage of staying open late. The door says until 2 a.m., but upon inquiring it seems that midnight is closer to the truth. Still, a good place to know about for late-night eaters like me.

Hunan Kitchen of Grand Sichuan
42-47 Main St., Flushing

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

Monday, April 25, 2011

He Nan Flavor (Henan Feng Wei)

I've been meaning to blog about these places for months... only now do I seem to be emerging from my winter inertia. Much has already been written about these establishments in the meantime. Let me just add my small voice to say: go! They serve the freshest possible food at unbeatably low prices.

The original Flushing outpost is the more fun of the two, simply because if you hang around the counter after ordering, you can watch them make your food: the entire kitchen is there behind counter. You order noodles, and one of the women picks up an oval of dough and begins to stretch it, double it, and stretch it some more. Thirty seconds later she's cutting it into LONG, wide ribbons, which are dropped into a pot boiling on the stove. One evening I had the pleasure of watching the owner prepare the da pan ji (大盤鳮) I had just ordered. He obviously knew what he was doing, and the low-key mastery of his gestures was a thing of beauty. As was the final result (photos courtesy of Pete):

This dish is sensational: complex, spicy, bursting with interesting flavors. Bite-sized chunks of chicken are stir-fried, then braised briefly with some cubes of potato, a LOT of dried red peppers, ginger, garlic, scallion, Sichuan peppercorns, star anise, and god knows what else, topped with some cilantro. When you're halfway through with it, get a side order of noodle and add it to the pot--the perfect companion to soak up that great sauce. Interestingly, this dish isn't even from Henan--it's a Hui dish from Xinjiang. An opera singer I know originally from Henan, studying in the States, explained to me that, since Xinjiang is such a harsh, mountainous province, a lot of people leave it to go to Henan to work, buoying the dish's popularity there (although it appears to be popular all over China).

She also took one look at the menu I showed her and said the lamb noodle soup is an especially well-known Henan dish. It is lovely and soothing (with those great, wide, hand-pulled noodles), but perhaps a little too mellow for my taste (what can I say... I like robust flavors!). However, the zha jiang mian (炸酱面-noodles with pork and black bean sauce) is absolutely the greatest version of that dish I've ever had: those noodles, with a hearty sauce of minced pork and bean paste, topped with shredded cucumber and some baby bok choy leaves. Rather like the Chinese equivalent of pappardelle with ragù.

The small size ($4.00) easily satisfies one hungry person... get the large only if you're planning on sharing it. The noodle with tomato and egg (eggs scrambled, in case you were wondering) is also fantastic--quintessential comfort food.

There's a little something for everyone here: almost a dozen noodle preparations (the Manhattan restaurant, as I recall, lists all the noodle dishes as "lo mein" on the wall menu), soup dumplings, steamed dumplings, bing pancake, bing with pork filling. The Flushing location also has a selection of cold appetizers and small casserole dishes (meatballs in broth, a couple of pork preparations). The "crispy meat casserole" ("crispy" must refer to the meat being breaded and fried... after a minute in the broth, it ain't crispy no more!):

Unusual (in a good way), and quite tasty with a fair bit of ginger flavoring things. Pete liked the sour vegetable dumplings in soup a lot (I haven't tried it yet):

You'll really have to work to spend more than ten bucks here. But if, like me, you can eat an entire da pan ji in one sitting (exciting the curiosity--and commentary--of the guy in the kitchen once at the Manhattan location), you'll spend twelve.

He Nan Flavor
68 B Forsyth St., New York 10002

(between Grand and Hester St.)

Henan Feng Wei
136-31 41st Avenue, Flushing 11355

(7 train to Main St.-Flushing, 1 block south on Main, then left on 41st Ave.)

Café Kashkar

When I came across Robert Sietsema's mini-review of Café Kashkar, I realized that my quest to try as many different regional Chinese cuisines as possible had to include a trip to this restaurant. It ended up including several. Although Brighton Beach is a long way from Manhattan, it's worth the trip now and then for what is essentially home-cooking at marvelously low prices.

Of course, were it not for the vagaries of history, this would not in any sense be a Chinese restaurant at all, and there is indeed nothing overtly Chinese about it. Café Kashkar serves food of the Uyghurs, which is a Turkic ethnic group that comprises almost half the population of Xinjiang, China's westernmost province. Over the centuries, most Uyghurs ended up settling in what is sometimes called East Turkestan, and now comprises the western third of Xinjiang. Kashkar is the westernmost major city of the province. The area has gone in and out of being under Chinese rule, finally ending up as part of China, apparently permanently, in 1949. In the course of my conversation with the lovely fellow serving me on my first visit, the son of the owners, I learned that his parents are Uyghurs from Uzbekistan and, if I remember correctly, Kazakhstan.

In any case, the food at Café Kashkar has much more to do with Russian cuisine than Chinese, with some occasional cross-pollination. Since most Uyghurs are Muslim, the kitchen is halal--no pork! There is a fairly typically Russian selection of salads here; we had a rich, tasty eggplant salad (photos courtesy, once again, of Pete):

Lamb takes center stage here--it's in almost everything. One of the specialties of the house is lagman (notice the similarity to the word "ramen"?), a delicious, hearty noodle soup made with lamb and vegetables. "Hearty" accurately describes a lot of the menu's offerings... this is great cold-weather food.

Fried lagman is essentially Russian fried lo mein, with lamb, vegetables and egg:

Plov (pilaf) is Russian fried rice, with carrots and lamb. I liked this much more than my dining companions did, but I tend to love good fried rice:

Samsa are like baked rolls, filled with seasoned ground lamb--another house specialty:

That is one samsa there, with four parts, and it will set you back $2.50.

Manty are big dumplings filled with... your guessed it... lamb. We got ours fried:

Another cognate: manty is awfully similar to the Korean word for dumplings, mandoo. I'm crazy about the seasoning of their lamb filling. There are sauteed onions in there, and a subtle blend of spices I can't quite identify.

To complete the triumvirate of lamb-filled dough creations, we had to try the gusht nan, too. Anyone familiar with Indian food ought be able to form an idea what this is--a baked, lamb-filled flat-bread:

I suppose it is possible to overdose on lamb here... luckily, they have a selection of kebabs to add a bit of variety (and none more than $4.00): chicken, ground beef (lyulya), liver, veal, and, of course, lamb. The lamb rib kebab is really pretty great, I have to say--seen here with chicken:

Tender, juicy, and expertly grilled.

They had exactly one dessert the night we asked: homemade chak-chak. It's like a Rice Krispy treat made with fried noodles, and it's good:

Café Kashkar
1141 Brighton Beach Ave., Brooklyn 11235

(B or Q train to Brighton Beach, then 7 blocks east on Brighton Beach Ave.)

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Spicy Road

There has been a flurry of comments on the Chowhound boards lately about Deyi Peking Duck House in Flushing, and since I had been curious about Beijing-style food for quite some time, it seemed like the perfect introduction. So, a couple of game friends and I headed out there a few nights ago--Pete and I got there on time, but Alicia was going to be... *ahem*... "delayed" by at least 45 minutes. What to do... go in and start ordering anyway? Go for a stroll? It was then that eagle-eyed and intrepid Pete noticed the restaurant next door with no visible English signage, and before I could turn around, he was inside chatting with the manager. Eventually, we espied two English words in the window: the adopted English name of the establishment, Spicy Road.

It was quickly decided we should have a couple of appetizers here while waiting for Alicia, then move next door to our original destination when she arrived. The meal that followed at Deyi was good, but the appetizers at Spicy Road inspired us to return the very next night. Deyi specializes in, obviously, Peking Duck, but also a huge variety of Beijing-style banquet dishes. Spicy Road (the Chinese characters of its name translate as "Tianjin Beijing Restaurant"), on the other hand, serves more everyday Beijing-style cuisine (Tianjin is about 85 miles from Beijing), and there are very few dishes that appear on both menus. I find Spicy Road's fare far more interesting and satisfying... I guess I'll always be a peasant at heart.

In the course of two visits we were able to sample a wide variety of dishes, leaving us wanting to try more. Everything was deftly prepared with fresh ingredients. This part of China is known for its dumplings, and this place is right in line with tradition. The pan-broiled lamb dumplings were delightful and could hardly have been improved upon. (Many thanks to Pete for the photos.)

The Tianjin pork-stuffed buns--a house specialty--arrived in a bamboo steamer of six light, fluffy buns with an excellent filling. Yet these were somehow a bit less successful than the dumplings. I like a meat bun to be one integrated unit... perhaps I'm applying a false Western standard here--don't know--but when the pork filling has shrunk enough during steaming that it simply falls out when you bite into it, I find it a bit annoying. Still, delicious.

Based on one of the pictures projected on the television screen on the back wall, we ordered the pork with Chinese pickle noodle soup, which turned out to be... exactly what it says, plus a splash of rice wine. Lovely.

Chongqing Spicy Chicken, a house specialty, is a very northern Chinese take on a Sichuan dish. Every version of this I've had in a Sichuan restaurant has been bound together by a bit of oil. Spicy Road's is totally dry--and unbelievably flavorful. This dish was really hot, thanks to both a generous handful of dried red peppers and thin slices of fresh green hot peppers.

Shredded duck in oyster sauce turned out to be tasty bits of duck (in oyster sauce, true to its name) with sauteed bean sprouts and shredded fried egg, accompanied by fresh mooshu-style pancakes, and the attendant hoisin sauce. Final result: by far the most delicious mooshu I've ever tasted!

The soy sauce beef tenderloin casserole was another winner, although "tenderloin" was definitely a misnomer. It's made with the usual cut of stew beef--plus, of course, the "rind", for lack of a better word--stewed with Chinese cabbage, cellophane noodles and red pepper in a perfectly-balanced soy sauce broth.

Pete got an order of sliced fish in spicy sauce to go, which he reports was stupendous. Sizable slices of fish, lightly-breaded and fried, then tossed in peppery blend of spices with a hint of cumin. I have to say, it smelled great in the car on the way back! Do not be misled by the term "sauce" on this menu--here, it usually means something like the aforementioned, not some form of liquid (just so you won't be unpleasantly surprised).

Spicy Road
43-18 Main St., Flushing 11355

(7 train to Main St.-Flushing, then 9 blocks south on Main St.)

Friday, January 21, 2011

La Esquina Criolla

(Ed: As of September, 2013, this place is still going strong. Prices have risen a little, but considering the top quality, it's still a bargain.)

My friend Garrett had just flown back from Berlin yesterday and wanted a hearty to meal to keep him awake until a normal bedtime. When he suggested steak AND said he was willing to go to Queens, the decision was automatic: La Esquina Criolla in Elmhurst.

This is my favorite Argentine steakhouse in the city (and more than one Argentinian I've talked to agrees with me) ever since the demise of Moments in Sunnyside, and the quality here is better than what La Porteña's has been for quite some time. And when it comes to price, La Esquina Criolla beats them all hands down. Pretty much everything is good, and if you want to buy some beef to take home and cook for yourself, there's even a butcher counter toward the back.

If you go--and I highly recommend that you do--a few random thoughts:

All empanadas are made in-house, and the beef ones are especially good--be sure to ask for them fried.

A grilled chorizo criollo (beef and pork sausage) or two makes a great second appetizer course (this is in addition to the other plate of sliced, grilled salsicha parrillera (a smaller pork sausage) they automatically bring you).

If you like blood sausage at all, order the morcilla--best Argentine-style morcilla I've ever had. The sweetbreads (mollejas) are killer, too.

The mixed grill (parrillada) is a great deal, but be prepared for tripe. It's the one thing on it I'm not particularly fond of, and they'll cheerfully replace it with something else if asked.

A great side is papas a la provenzal (potatoes tossed with garlic and parsley)--be sure to ask for them fried.

Skip the house wine (it's all right) and ask for a wine list. At 18 bucks a bottle, the Nieto Malbec Reserva is a fantastic value.  Unless, of course, you're alone, in which case a glass of better-than-decent malbec will set you back all of six bucks.

Asado de tira (beef ribs cut cross-wise, creating steak-like strips) and entraña (skirt steak) are the most popular beef offerings, and deservedly so.

(a chorizo criollo, a No. 6 combination plate - 2 tiras and ¼ entraña, and some fried papas a la provenzal... and yes, I like my beef a bit bloody)

La Esquina Criolla
94-67 Corona Ave., Elmhurst 11373

view menu (old--add a dollar or two to all prices)
(M or R train to Grand Ave., then Q58 bus to Junction Bld. Or the 7 train to Junction Blvd., then walk 8 blocks south.)