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Wednesday, December 4, 2013


In the Norwood neighborhood of the Bronx, there is a relatively new restaurant called Sodesh that says it serves Bangladeshi, Indian and Pakistani food. Whatever style the food is that they serve, it's absolutely delicious. I'll go with Bangladeshi, since their versions of familiar dishes are stylistically unique in my experience.

Perhaps the term "restaurant" is overstating things just a tad... it was clearly one of those Chinese take-out counters that populate the less-gentrified neighborhoods of New York until quite recently, and has about 5 tables. No matter - the food is stellar.

We started with an assortment of kababs as appetizers:

There is the usual tandoori chicken, chicken tikka, and a seekh-style minced chicken kabab. But the winner was the one at the bottom of the frame, which I think is called chicken tirka (didn't get the name – but one can always just point!). Delicately flavored and moist – it was fabulous.

They serve the most subtly delicious chapli kabab I have ever tried (minced chicken with egg, diced tomato, green pepper, and spices):

Preceding the arrival of the entrées was a plate of rice for each person. I don’t know what is in it, but it is the most beautifully perfumed rice I think I have ever been served anywhere. It complemented particularly well the popular winner of the evening, butter chicken:

Every time I have ordered butter chicken elsewhere, what generally comes out is some sort of variation of chicken tikka masala. Not here. The menu says "boneless chicken, butter, ginger, tomato purée, yogurt, cream, lemon juice & all spices." The tomato purée was surprising to read, because I could not identify any tomato flavor at all.  This is not a bad thing.  All those ingredients are in perfect balance with one another to create a creamy chicken dish that is both light and rich at the same time. It's simply stupendous, and the caramelized onions that garnish almost all the dishes here are a delightful addition.

A seemingly close cousin of the butter chicken, chicken kurma, is, in the end, quite different in overall effect. The sauce is creamy in texture, but its base is ghee, coconut milk, and puréed nuts, which throws the aromatic qualities of the ginger and spices into sharper relief. Depending on ones tastes, this dish is as good or better than the butter chicken.

(And there's that beautiful rice in the background.)

On the menu is a northern take on the south Indian (Goan, actually) dish, vindaloo. I’d never seen beef vindaloo on offer before, so I had to order it (when, oh when is the original PORK vindaloo going to come to NYC?). It was spicy, but not overly so, and pleasantly vinegary, with the de rigueur potatoes. A nice, warming dish.

Goat biryani was aromatic and everything it should be, and the chunks of goat were actually tender

Their saag paneer is the tastiest, most interesting version of this dish I've ever tried. The spinach was perfectly cooked, and the texture of the homemade cheese was just right – it so often gets dry and grainy – and the fresh flavor, even better. The menu doesn’t mention tomato in this dish, and it's the one dish where I thought I could taste it. In any event, the flavor had a lot of dimensions to it – not something I normally associate with saag paneer!

Marvelously inexpensive - the only dishes over ten dollars are the shrimp dishes (and the goat biryani).

3111 Bainbridge Ave., Bronx 10467

(D train to 205th St., follow the signs for Bainbridge Ave., then half a block down the hill)

Monday, October 7, 2013

Mei Li Wah (羙麗華)

Roast pork buns are truly beautiful things, and my favorite baked ones (焗叉燒包 - jú chā shāo bāo) in the city are available all day until 10:30 p.m. at Mei Li Wah (羙麗華茶餐廳).

The filling is rich with chunks of pork and pork fat, and - most importantly - not too sweet. The yeasty dough always makes me happy. Their product is utterly consistent, making it one of the few things in life I can really count on. And they're under a buck apiece.

Another great thing here is the large steamed bun containing chicken, pork and salted egg (三星大包 - sān xīng dà bāo). A small meal for $1.60. Although I haven't tried any of the others, I'm told that all of the dim-sum-like offerings here - and there are quite a few - are very good. The "crispy egg shatters" (鬆化蛋散 - sōng huà dàn sǎn) - essentially a twist of fried wonton-wrapper-like dough drizzled with honey - makes a nice post-prandial treat after a Chinatown feast.

And because I'm fascinated by these things, the normal character for the měi of their name (beautiful) is 美 (and all of the on-line listings for this place have it as 美麗華). But the sign and menu definitely have the more archaic "羙".

Mei Li Wah (羙麗華茶餐廳)
64 Bayard St., New York 10013

(between Mott & Elizabeth)

Shanghai Café (上海喬家柵)

I had been curious to try Shanghai Café (上海喬家柵 - shàng hǎi qiáo jiā shān), in Manhattan's Chinatown, for quite some time now because of one dish I had read about on Lau's excellent blog.

I'm delighted to able to say the dish did not disappoint. "Stewed Pork and Tofu Skin in Brown Sauce" (百葉結烤肉 - bǎi yè jiē kǎo ròu) is, essentially knots of tofu skin added to braised pork belly. It's braised hóng shāo (紅燒) style - that is, in soy sauce, rice wine, sugar, ginger, and star anise. The result is rich and complex, and the tofu skin knots are the perfect foil for the tender chunks of delightfully fatty pork. I've had similar dishes in a couple of other Shanghai-style joints, and Shanghai Café's is by far the best. It's worth the trip here just for this dish, I think. (Photos courtesy of Jose - his turned out WAY better than mine did. Terrible lighting.)

The xiǎo lóng bāo (小龍包 - soup dumplings) here, as Lau rightly observes, are not particularly distinguished. If you must have them, do yourself a favor and just go out to Flushing and get some at Kung Fu Xiao Long Bao.

The "Braised Whole Fish with Ginger and Scallion" (蔥烤鰂魚 - cōng kǎo zéi yú), however, is distinguished. A whole tilapia is braised in a relatively rich - for fish - brown sauce (in fact, it's a lighter first cousin to the hóng shāo sauce of the previously mentioned pork dish) with a dozen or so whole scallions. One of the best new (to me) fish dishes I've had in quite a while.

Those "stripes" in the picture are whole scallions. I find the use of kǎo (烤) a bit puzzling here. Normally, it has the sense of "baked" or "barbecued". But as used in the names of both this and the pork dish, it seems to pretty clearly mean "braised". I have no idea - perhaps it's just Shanghai usage.

"Pork with Mustard Green and Salted Egg Soup" (鹹蛋芥菜肉片湯 - xián dàn jiè cài ròu piàn tāng) is a soup of pretty much what it says: sliced pork, mustard greens and egg, although we were expecting the egg to be salted preserved egg (it's just egg drop - perhaps the 鹹 in the name of the dish is merited simply because they salt the egg before pouring it into the soup). No matter - the flavors are clear and delicious.  (This photo was taken by Seth, who spotted this soup on the menu.)

"Seafood Pan Fried Noodles" (海鮮兩面黄 - hǎi xiān liǎng miàn huáng) is a solid take on this dish: a sauce of shrimp, scallop, fake crab, snow peas - and quite a bit of broccoli - poured over crispy thin egg noodles. Quite tasty.

The takeout menu calls the restaurant "Shanghai Café Déluxé" (sic), having little to do with its Chinese name 喬家柵 (qiáo jiā shān), which seems to be a well-known restaurant name in Shanghai. This is the best Shanghainese restaurant in Manhattan, and, since their menu is much larger and more varied than that of Kung Fu Xiao Long Bao, if you order carefully, perhaps the best in the city. Now if they would only add a pig intestine dish like the fabulous one up at Ala Shanghai near Albany.

Shanghai Café (上海喬家柵)
100 Mott St., New York 10013

(just north of Canal St.)

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Sammy's Halal Food Cart

It seems almost inconceivable to me that anyone interested in the kind of food I'm interested in doesn't already know about Sammy's Halal Food Cart, but for those one or two of you out there, you need this information. You see halal carts that offer grilled chicken and/or lamb over rice (or pita sandwiches) all over the city. This one is absolutely the best I've found, and is the standard by which I measure all other halal carts I try. A few come close, but none are better - there is a reason they won the 2006 Vendy Award.

You'd think this fare would be reasonably simple to prepare, but the number of possible pitfalls is somewhat suprising, all of which Sammy's avoids seemingly effortlessly. The chicken is always juicy, tender and flavorful, and nice-sized chunks that aren't so small that you wonder what, exactly, you're eating. Okay, the lamb is still ground, seasoned, and compressed before grilling (like everywhere else), but it seems to be a notch or two closer, somehow, to the original meat - and therefore, tastier - than all the others. Their rice is never dry or lumpy (surprisingly, I've had some truly lousy rice from halal carts) and the sauces are very good. They have just about the best hot sauce in halal-cart-land, and if you like spicy cilantro sauce, it's there - you just have to know to ask for it.

They're just a few steps from the 74th-Roosevelt-Jackson Heights transportation nexus, and they're open until 3 a.m. At 5 or 6 bucks, I can think of no more satisfying bargain in the late-night (or any-time) snack department.

Sammy's Halal Food Cart
73rd St. & Broadway, Jackson Heights, NY 11372


Friday, September 20, 2013

Coimbra Restaurant

Coimbra Restaurant is one of those places I've been meaning to write about for years, but just haven't got around to it until now (finally remembering to bring my camera helped provide some impetus). Named for Portugal's most famous university town in the middle of the country, it has the reputation of being one of the most authentic Portuguese joints in Newark, and from what I can tell, that reputation is most likely deserved.

I've eaten here at least a dozen times and have hardly had a disappointing meal (maybe one - a stellar record by any standard). For one thing, I do as I would in any restaurant in Portugal: order from the pratos do dia (daily specials) only. They're made specially that day, and are almost invariably more interesting dishes than those on the standard menu. Tonight I got borrego assado, oven-roasted lamb. In fact, mutton would, I believe, be the more accurate word, but don't be put off by the idea - it was delicious. Chunks of meat (on the bone, of course) pan-roasted slowly with white wine, paprika, bay leaf, plenty of garlic, and... lard! Accept no substitutes - it's what gives the dish its absolutely unmistakable "taste of Portugal" (specifically, the mountains and the northern regions).

I especially love the rib meat, and there's a nice chunk of it right there in front. And next to the dish, you can see the full-to-the-brim, 12 oz. glass of a quite decent Portuguese table wine that sets you back all of five bucks here. This dish is normally served with small, roasted potatoes, but luckily I remembered to ask about arroz de feijão. It's a traditional accompaniment to grilled, stewed, and roasted meats, and one of my most beloved Portuguese comfort foods. They pretty much always have it here, and it was cheerfully substituted for the potatoes. It's simply rice cooked with kidney beans, plus a bit of onion and tomato for flavor. One of those dishes that is somehow more than the sum of its parts.

This meal prompted me to ask just where the people doing the cooking were from. "Portugal," was the reply. "Well, yes, but WHERE in Portugal?" The answer confirmed my suspicions: the Serra da Estrela mountain region (which is due east of... Coimbra). No wonder the food was so very tasty - people do NOT cook this way in Lisbon, where I lived.

One of the handful of items from the regular menu I would recommend is the chouriço na brasa appetizer. It's hefty length of good chouriço, made by a local Portuguese butcher, grilled in front of you over flaming aguardiente in a traditional terra cotta dish designed specifically for that purpose. Only if you have someone to share it with, though - it's big, and the main dishes are huge. And one small caveat: do not expect wonderful vegetables here. Cabbage and greens are about the only ones the Portuguese consistently get right... those green beans were terrible.

I've only ever been here on weeknights, and only eaten in the (ample) bar area. On weekends, I understand this place becomes a different scene altogether, with the adjoining dining room full of families all day long. I need to check it out, though, because that's when they tend to have all my real favorite daily specials. Dishes such as leitão à Bairrada (roast suckling pig, Bairrada-style, one of the glories of Portuguese cooking - actually, they supposedly have it all week, but it will be freshly-roasted on the weekend), galinha em arroz de cabidela (my favorite Portuguese dish - see my description of it here), even sarrabulho, or so I'm told (chunks of pork, served with seasoned rice finished with pork blood). So who wants to meet out there and help me try things some weekend?

Coimbra Restaurant
637 Market St., Newark, NJ 07105

(from Newark Penn Station, walk 14 blocks east on Market St. - 15 minutes)

Thursday, September 19, 2013

天津餡餅 (Tianjin Xian Bing)

For a couple of years now, one of my favorite Flushing snacks has been the stuffed bǐng from 天津餡餅 (Tianjin Xian Bing) at the Golden Shopping Mall. The stall is not downstairs in the "food court", but up at street level, with a window that opens out on Main St. The energetic proprietor definitely seems to know what he's doing - he's opened another stall downstairs that offers a wide variety of Tianjin-style dumplings and cold prepared dishes, and I must say, they all look delicious.

Xiàn bǐng (餡餅) is essentially a pancake that has been stuffed with minced meat, then cooked on a griddle. In addition to the three types of xiàn bǐng - beef, pork, and lamb - they have other snacks, such as scallion pancakes, but I tend to get there late enough in the day that things are rather picked over, so I don't quite recall just what else they make.

(I THINK the yellow thing in the bottom right corner is stuffed with chicken, which would make it a first cousin to the Portuguese salgado pastry coxa de galinha, a kind of drumstick-shaped empanada.)

I can attest, though, that all three varieties of xiàn bǐng are delicious, but only because last night I was finally able to snag a lamb bǐng (yáng ròu xiàn bǐng - 羊肉餡餅). This seems to be the most popular kind, since literally EVERY time I have asked for one in the past (which is every single visit), they were sold out. It's pretty great, though the pork and beef are hardly less great.

The filling is delicately-seasoned minced meat, with just a bit of minced carrot and scallion. A small meal for two bucks.

天津餡餅 (Tianjin Xian Bing)
41-28 Main St., Flushing 11355

(7 train to Flushing-Main St., then 3 blocks south on Main)

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Kungfu Express cart

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

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

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

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

(1 train to 116th St.)

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Northwestern Famous (中國西北名吃)

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

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

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

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

(1 train to 116th St.)

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Kung Fu Xiao Long Bao (功夫小龍包)

Until the other night, easily the best xiǎo lóng bāo (小龍包 - "soup dumplings", although foodies tend to refer to them as XLB) I had tried in New York were those served by Diverse Dim Sum in the Flushing Mall. They're excellent, but those at Kung Fu Xiao Long Bao (功夫小龍包) are even better. Thin, translucent wrappers, meat and crab fillings of the proper texture, and tasty broth - all are as they should be. Perhaps enjoying them in a comfortable, tranquil restaurant environment - as opposed to a food court - gives them the edge, but I think they actually are slightly better.

On offer here is a decent-sized menu with a lot of standard Shanghai dishes, and a large selection of breakfast, Shanghai dim sum, and noodle soups. In addition to xiǎo lóng bāo, most of the Chinese patrons had noodle soups on the table, and they looked excellent. We were not, however, in the mood for soup, so we got other stuff. The cold appetizer called "Shanghai Special Chicken" turned out the be the house version of wine-marinated (or "drunken") chicken (sān huáng jī - 三黃鷄), the nicest take on this dish I've ever tried.

(The literal translation of the name of this dish is "three yellow chicken", and it appears that "three yellow" can refer to, among other things, a particular breed of chicken.)

Shredded Beef with Chili Pepper (xiǎo jiāo niú ròu sī - 小椒牛肉絲) is another very good dish: beef shreds stir-fried with shredded spicy green peppers and onion. Clean, fresh flavors, nicely balanced. I have friends that liked to order this dish at New Green Bo (now called Nice Green Bo, an especially ironic name considering the disposition of most of the staff) in Manhattan's Chinatown, way back when that was an acceptable place to go for people who like food (this was a long time ago)... Kung Fu Xiao Long Bao's is on another, higher plane entirely.

For me, the real revelation here is the Braised DongPo Pork (rě wèi dōng pō ròu - 惹味東坡肉). The expression rě wèi means "rich" (with thanks to Audrey Lo - I would never have figured that one out on my own) - a seemingly unnecessary modifier, since DongPo Pork (pork belly slow-braised in wine, soy sauce, and sugar) is itself a pretty rich dish to begin with. It comes in what looks like a large coffee cup or tiny soup tureen, fragrant with star anise and cassia (and looking almost like chocolate pudding, or raw liver):

As it turns out the 惹味 is not, in fact, descriptive overkill - this really is the richest, most flavorful version of this dish I have ever tried. It's pretty extraordinary. (The picture of a slice of it on rice did not turn out well at all, but perhaps it gives you an idea.)

Kung Fu Xiao Long Bao (功夫小龍包)
59-16 Main St., Flushing 11355


Thursday, June 20, 2013

City Island

Sometimes, you just want to be somewhere else besides New York City, although you happen to be in it. And sometimes, you just want to chow down on some fried fishy bits. When those two urges coincide, I advise heading to City Island and eating at Johnny's Reef.

Johnny's is basically an old-fashioned fry shack kicked up a notch or two. They fry fish and seafood, and they do it well. There's also a raw bar (excellent clams) and a bar that serves cheap, STRONG drinks, the kind you haven't seen on offer in 30 years (Planter's Punch, anyone?). The quality is great, and the prices are reasonable. What more is there to say?

The fried scallops and the fried fish filets are the must-haves for me here. Those fried calamari were good, too. And their fried clam strips taste like clam strips used to taste.

It's very informal – everything is sold cafeteria-style, and there's some indoor seating. But go when the weather is nice and sit at the picnic tables outside where there's a gorgeous view of Long Island Sound, with the Throg's Neck Bridge and parts of the almost-forgotten metropolis of New York City in the distant background.

Johnny's Famous Reef Restaurant
2 City Island Ave., Bronx 100464

(6 train to Pelham Bay Park, then take the Bx29 bus to the end of the line)

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Lao Dong Bei (老东北風味), pt. 2

Lao Dong Bei (老东北風味) has held its undisputed place as my favorite restaurant in Flushing for over 6 months now, and, after trying yet another stellar dish this evening, I realized it's time for a new post.

Another delightful little freebie made its appearance tonight:  green beans pickled with a bit of carrot and garlic, with what is essentially kimchi. A bit spicy, but only just enough to tickle the taste buds:

I always find it interesting to try to guess from the name of the dish whether it's going to be "dry" or in some sort of sauce. When I ordered Hot & Spicy Ribs (xiāng là xiǎo zhū pái - 香辣小猪排), I somehow just assumed it would be simmered in a sauce. So, I was a little surprised when this came out:

The surprise, however, was by no means an unpleasant one. Chunks of pork spareribs were fried until just crispy on the outside, moist and tender on the inside, with dried red chili peppers, ginger, scallion, and garlic (and, if I'm not imagining it, a hint of cumin). They were then tossed with whole roasted peanuts and cilantro stems. The result, as with any great dish, is more than the sum of its parts. I thought the dish was balanced perfectly: every time I wanted a contrast to the pork, I had a few peanuts, and the cilantro stems were the perfect aromatic counterpoint and just-different-enough kind of crunch to hold ones interest completely. The amounts of each at the end turned out to be exactly right.

On the menu, there is a misprint of one letter in the name "Fresh Fish in Hot Bean Pasta", but it’s an important difference: it should be "Hot Bean Paste" (dòu bàn huó zé yú - 豆瓣活鰂魚, the fish in question, 鰂魚, being tilapia). Most versions of this dish I've had come out red with chili... this one, as you can see, is all brown, and barely spicy.

No matter – it’s a rich, satisfying, earthy flavor. And the tilapia, naturally, is done perfectly.

If the gauge is "number of times ordered", my favorite dishes here are Baby Cabbage with Meatball Soup and the Chicken in Orange Flavor (chén pí jī - 陳皮雞). Chén pí (陳皮) is literally "dried tangerine peel" (often used medicinally in China), and that is exactly what is used. While the sauce is sweet, the bitterness of the dried tangerine peel - and the zing of the dried red pepper - perk up the flavor considerably, eliminating completely the danger if it becoming cloying. Although it's an overused word in food writing, "addictive" - it least when it comes to me - is the right word here.

There's another "orange" dish on the menu here, one of which the establishment is quite proud, Fried Pork in Orange Sauce (guō bāo ròu - 鍋包肉). This seems to be a classic northern Chinese dish (other northern Chinese restaurants in Flushing offer it, like Spicy Road), but its character is quite different from the above chicken dish. No tangerine peel, for one thing, and no hot peppers - the sweet, sticky sauce is similar, though, subtly flavored with orange and ginger. My Chinese vocabulary guru Audrey tells me that guō bāo means that the meat (ròu) has been marinated with rice wine, salt and chicken stock before deep-frying. Which seems entirely plausible. An excellent dish, however it's done.

Another northern classic, jiān jiāo gān dòu fǔ (尖椒乾豆腐 - Dry Bean Curd with Hot Pepper), is, I think, on the menu at every northern restaurant in Flushing. Lao Dong Bei's is as good as any version around:

Hóng shāo ròu (紅燒肉 - Braised Pork) is another pork dish with yet a completely different character. Hóng shāo refers to a dish that is simmered in soy sauce and sugar (there's usually some star anise in there, too) – it means, literally, "red-cooked". A classic preparation and a wonderful way to cook pork belly. It's divine comfort food. (Pardon the reflective glare... STILL getting the hang of the picture-taking thing.)

I've had a small spate of experiences lately where I have been made to feel like a rather unwelcome outsider at some Chinese restaurants around NYC (this is often a problem at Fujianese restaurants, but certainly not limited to them). So it delights me to be able to tell you that the charming hostess - the wife of the chef - appears, even though her English is quite limited, genuinely pleased that you are dining in their establishment. And the invariably excellent food makes you pleased you're dining there, as well.

Now open until midnight - a welcome development for someone of my nocturnal habits.

Lao Dong Bei (老东北風味)
44-09 Kissena Blvd., Flushing, NY 11355

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

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Xiao Du Hui (小都會)

I recently ran across a reference to Xiao Du Hui (小都會) online and wondered why I had no clue as to what it was. I have walked past the place dozens of times and never noticed it. But sure enough, there it was, right where the address said it should be. The menu looked interesting and the prices were most definitely right, so in I went.

Xiao Du Hui (小都會 - xiǎo dū huì, which seems to be a way of saying "small town") serves Fuzhou-style food, Fuzhou being the capital of Fujian province in the south. It's a tad surprising to find a Fujianese restaurant in Flushing, bastion of the northern Chinese that it is – most of the Fujianese in New York gravitate toward Manhattan and Brooklyn Chinatowns. But it's there, doing a brisk business for what I have to believe are mostly Fujianese workers around town. The décor is not much to speak of – it is, in fact, a bit dingy – but that’s not why I go to restaurants, obviously. The food is honest cooking for ordinary people. There are very few frills, and it seems that, besides a better-than-average English menu translation, very few concessions are made for Westerners. It may not be for everybody, but it is for me. And it is most definitely a bargain.

Ye frugal diners out there will want to turn directly to the end of the menu, where the heading is not translated into English, but the price of $12.99 is prominently displayed. This page is a sort of family menu, and the price of $12.99 includes one soup from a list of 15 or so at the top (and one soup is large enough to feed 2 or 3) and TWO dishes from a list of almost 70 below that. And if you’d like an additional dish from the list, it's an extra $5.00. Two moderately-hungry eaters (or, that is to say, one of me) will be sated by the two-dish-plus-a-soup menu. Add another dish and you’ve got a small feast for two big eaters... for 18 bucks!

A free dish of preserved radish immediately appeared on ordering. It bears only the most superficial resemblance to the luó bo (蘿卜) at Lao Dong Bei.

Xiao Du Hui's is sliced thicker, not at all spicy, barely vinegary, and slightly sweet. And almost as nice, in fact – just completely different.

I went with the "Golden Fish Soup" (jīn qián yú tāng - 金錢魚湯), mostly because I had no idea what to expect. Even so, it was unexpected: a clear soup of small slices of what seems to be called argus fish or spotted scat in English and slices of winter melon in a sour broth. This fish is not for people who are put off by particularly "fishy-tasting" fish... it’s slightly oily and has a strong flavor. But it works beautifully with the winter melon, and the sour broth cuts the oily quality perfectly.

The "Beef Short Ribs with Salt and Pepper" (jiāo yán niú xiǎo pái - 椒鹽牛小排) were thin slices of cross-cut short ribs (on the bone, of course) coated in a salt-and-pepper seasoned breading, deep fried, then tossed in some chopped scallions and spicy green pepper slices. Delicious

If I hadn't learned some Chinese characters along the way, the "Grilled Meat with Garlic" (suàn miáo là ròu - 蒜苗臘肉) would have been a total shock. But I was ready for the stir-fry of slices of preserved pork and garlic greens that arrived at the table. This is pork preserved in a completely different fashion than that of my Hunan meal the night before – Xiao Du Hui's is a bit sweet and not the least bit smoky. Garlic greens always taste like leeks to me… I guess I'm just not as discerning when it comes to vegetables as I am when it comes to meat. A nice, homey dish.

On a subsequent visit, I tried the seaweed, tomato and tofu soup (fān qié zǐ cài dòu fǔ tāng - 蕃茄紫菜豆腐湯) It was less interesting than the Golden Fish Soup, mostly because the tomatoes – under-ripe and of the supermarket hothouse variety – almost completely lacked flavor. Since tofu hasn't much flavor on its own, this meant the soup was dominated by the taste of the (to my mind, overcooked) purple seaweed (nori). I thought the whole thing was under-seasoned, but that could just be my penchant for strong flavors. Personally, I'd advise skipping it.

五更牛什 (wǔ gēng niú shí) goes by the curious name of "Wu Gen Beef Muscles" on the menu. The literal translation is hardly less curious: Fifth-Watch Beef Entrails. Apparently, the name is taken from the period of time just before dawn, which is supposedly when one needs to start cooking the beef bits in order for them to be ready by lunchtime. And there is quite the assortment of beef bits here - brisket, various sinews, and at least three kinds of tripe – stewed with celery, peppers, and sour cabbage. It's a bit spicy and quite sour, and tastes very southeast Asian to me – rather like a sour curry. It’s not quite my thing – I do seem to prefer the cooking style of Chinese parts a bit farther north – but I think the dish was well-prepared, neophyte that I am to Fujianese cooking.

"Chicken with Food Chow Sauce" (sic) (糟雞 - zāo jī) is my favorite dish here so far. It turned out to be ultra-tender, juicy chunks of on-the-bone chicken simmered with that signature Fujianese ingredient, red wine lees (紅糟 - hóng zāo). Besides ginger, I couldn’t actually figure out what else was in the sauce. All I know is that whatever they do here, it makes the chicken taste like the chicken I used to eat in Portugal… more "chicken-y", somehow, than most chicken in the U.S.  It's a mild dish – don’t be misled by its startling color – and, unlike so many other dishes made with wine lees that I've tried, not the least bit cloying. Absolutely delicious.

The rest of the menu is huge and varied, with a lot of dishes you don't see just anywhere. Lots of noodle soups and rice noodle dishes, too. And they're open until 4 a.m.!

Xiao Du Hui
135-19 40th Rd., Flushing 11354

(7 train to Main St.-Flushing, 1 block south on Main, then right on 40th Rd.)

Saturday, June 8, 2013

Hunan House (湘水山莊)

I had eaten at Hunan House (湘水山莊 – xiāng shuǐ shān zhuāng, or Xiang River-the symbol for Hunan province-mountain villa) a couple of times before and somehow didn't love it. Then they were closed for a while for renovations, and recently re-opened. I had been hearing good things and decided to give it another try this evening. I'm glad I did.

Their version of the cold ox tongue and tripe appetizer fū qī fèi piàn (夫妻肺片) is quite competent. While the sauce is not as complex and interesting as Hunan Kitchen of Grand Sichuan’s, the quality of the tongue meat and tripe is much better.

The "Lamb in a Wooden Bucket" (木桶羊肉 - mù tǒng yáng ròu) turned out to be a delightful, spicy stew of lamb rib meat and rind, peppers, scallions and straw mushrooms. Beautifully rounded flavor – just delicious. I realized as I was eating this that I had never been served straw mushrooms before that weren't from a can. I had no idea that fresh ones were so lovely!

The real star of the meal for me, though, goes by the name of "Steamed Preserved Meat" (臘味三蒸 - là wèi sān zhēng) on the takeout menu. It's not even listed on their quite haphazardly-organized in-restaurant menu, and I'm certainly glad I asked about it. Ever since I ran across Fuchsia Dunlop's recipe for "Smoky Flavors Steamed Together" in her Revolutionary Chinese Cookbook, I had been wanting to taste such a marvelous-sounding dish, and, as far as I can tell, none of the other Hunan restaurants around town offer it. Hunan House's version is spectacular, with Chinese bacon, preserved beef, preserved duck, thin slices of smoked bean curd, and just enough hot pepper to cut through the dense thicket of flavors. Definitely more than the sum its parts, I could eat this dish every night for the next week.

The experience produced one sour note: since this place is a bit more expensive than most of the places I write about (but still a good value), I decided to charge the meal to a credit card. (Unlike most of the places I write about, they do accept credit cards). The check folder and takeout menu both say they accept American Express, but when an American Express card was tendered, we were told they don't accept it. They either need to start accepting the damn card or stop indicating to the public that they do.

Hunan House
137-40 Northern Blvd., Flushing 11354

(7 train to Main St.-Flushing, north 4 blocks to Northern Blvd., then right 3 blocks)