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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.)

Monday, January 10, 2011

Café Trang

It's too bad there are no Vietnamese restaurants of the quality of Café Trang in New York--I would be eating Vietnamese food a LOT more often when home. The phở is fantastic--rich beef broth, and the usual accompanying fresh ingredients. Even better is Bún Bò Huế Đặc Biệt (Chả Huế): a phở-like spicy soup, except with slightly thicker rice noodles, seasoned with lemongrass and fortified with ham hock and Huế ham, a cured meat product that resembles Spam. Marvelous on a cold afternoon. Another winner is Bò Lúc Lắc: stir-fried seared cubes of seasoned filet mignon with shallots.

It's not long on atmosphere, but don't let it put you off--they know what they're doing in the kitchen.

Café Trang
230 Louisiana Blvd SE
Albuquerque, NM 87108


Little Red Hamburger Hut

If you're craving a burger in Albuquerque, skip the chains--skip EVERYWHERE else--and head to Little Red Hamburger Hut for the best red chile burger on the planet.

It's in a funky old adobe building that used to be a Wimpy's, so there was already an established hamburger tradition in that spot. And if you come here, you'd best be craving a burger, in fact, because there's precious little else on offer: fries, or a bowl of red chile (or slap 'em together: chile cheese fries!)... that's about it. But the burgers are so good, it won't matter. Served any way you want: on a bun, on a tortilla, with or without red chile, cheese, tomato, onions, pickle, mustard... you get the idea. They utter the phrase "satisfaction guaranteed" so often and with such heartfelt gusto that I honestly believe they would have cheerfully refunded my money if I had expressed any complaint whatsoever. But that was not to be--I, instead, returned to the counter and ordered a second double red chile-cheeseburger.

They can be closed at unexpected times--and they're always closed by 8 p.m.--so it's a good idea to call idea to be sure they're open.

Little Red Hamburger Hut
1501 Mountain Rd NW
Albuquerque, NM 87104


Duran Central Pharmacy

New Mexicans have fierce running debates about who has the best red or green chile... many would say that the top contender in both categories can be found at the Duran Central Pharmacy.

This place serves what was easily the best red chile I tried anywhere--even better than Mary & Tito's. The green chile I sampled was also the best I have ever tried, although I don't order it very often. Good, solid New Mexican fare at very reasonable prices--I had a beautifully seasoned beef burrito, wrapped in a lightly-toasted, ultra-fresh flour tortilla... it could not have been better, and it cost about eight bucks.

Skip the more touristy places and go for this local institution (or Mary & Tito's). Enter the pharmacy, and the counter area with a few tables is in the back.

Duran Central Pharmacy
1815 Central Avenue NW
Albuquerque, NM 87104

Mary & Tito's Cafe

After two extended trips to Albuquerque, I can unequivocally say that the best traditional New Mexican cooking I tried was at Mary's & Tito's Cafe. Everything about the place fairly shouts "grandma", from the old-style southwest diner decor to, most importantly, the cooking.

No surprises on the menu... it's typical enchilada/burrito/taco/tamale fare, but everything is prepared carefully and--dare I say it?--lovingly. Everything on the combination plate I ordered was fantastic: a beef taco, a cheese enchilada, and the most perfectly-fried chile relleno I've ever had, surrounded by superb red chile. (The local joke--Q. "What's New Mexico's state question? A. Red or green?"--is answered almost invariably "red" by me.) One can order a side of carne adovada for five bucks, and it's great: lots of carne (pork) seasoned with adovo, almost like a New Mexican pulled pork. So often it's a dish of adovo with little bits of carne swimming in it.

Prices are eminently reasonable... they're downright cheap when you consider that Mary & Tito's was recently awarded the James Beard Foundation's 2010 America's Classics Award. They definitely deserved it!

Mary & Tito's Cafe
2711 4th Street NW
Albuquerque, NM 87107