30 July 2015

Taco Mix


When I lived in East Harlem for a year, Taco Mix was a place I came to often but never with a camera and notebook. It serves 116th Street efficiently, you hop in, eat on the small stand-up counter, or take your grub with you. No hassle, no fuss.

I recently walked by a couple successive days while working nearby and could not pass up the opportunity to pay the old place a visit. From the window, the view is exactly the same as it always was, a 3D menu showing you what to order without words. The beautiful trompo (spit, below) with pork rotates and advertises the big tacos al pastor ($3.25), by far the most popular item.

For the uninitiated, this type of taco is a cross-cultural product, a copying of Lebanese immigrants use of shawarma when they came to central Mexico. Of course, they would use other meats, but Mexicans love their pork and added their own touches to create this common sight. You can also see a gigantic circular cauldron bubbling to the right of the spit (above), which is cooking up the second favorites of the house, buche (stomach), and oreja (ear).

Some pineapple, cilantro and onion are used to top the simple looking but flavorful taco. If desired, their green salsa is also very good here and should be used. On the counter is self service radishes, peppers, and sauces, so help yourself.

Taco al pastor

An order of four tacos dorados runs $8, but if you ask nicely you can grab just one (below). This was eaten in the morning and was obviously yesterday's, but still good. A fresh order should be sought out later in the day. These come with a thin layer of beans, lettuce, crema, and a sprinkling of queso.

Come at the height of lunch time and fight for space with a bunch of hungry friends to be.

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25 July 2015

Bedawi Cafe


I do my best to ask about differences between countries when it comes to cuisines that have many similarities. One of these that I try with is Middle Eastern, a region that shares much of its cuisine from country to country. Of course there must be different ways to prepare items and subtle touches, but often in New York it is hard to distinguish and most restaurants get hurdled into a broad "Middle Eastern" category.

On its website, Bedawi Cafe calls itself out as a Jordanian establishment run by brothers from Amman, so I was very excited to speak with the people here and see what was on offer from this country that is otherwise unrepresented in this city. Unfortunately I was met with mostly what I would call a blow off, as the man who served us (definitely not the owner) was completely uninterested in talking about anything I brought up. When I made mention of mansaf, the national dish of Jordan and from the sound of it the most distinguishable plate, he simply said "Nah, you need a woman to make that." And so it went when I pressed for more, we basically received no information.

Luckily the night was not a waste at all, and the food here is very good. Here is what we went for:

Makdous: baby eggplant stuffed with walnuts ($5)

Hummus ($5)

Chicken ouzi: with vegetables, yogurt, rice inside phyllo ($13)

Bedawi pizza ($9)

Lamb pizza ($10.50)

Vegetable platter ($9.50)

Leg of lamb platter ($13)

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08 July 2015

Chiang Mai


On a recent visit to Kao Soy in Red Hook, we noticed that quality had not just gone down, but changed completely. The namesake dish was sickeningly sweet, just as one example. The staff seemed panicked too, somehow. We had happened to walk in for this meal on the night the head chef and brains of the operation left for personal reasons.

Thankfully it only took her just over a month to jump back onto her feet, bringing a lot of the same staff with her to a storefront just one block south on Van Brunt Street. It might even be better than the original, because she seems liberated here, and very happy. She talked to us our whole meal, swapping stories of food and ancient family recipes with my girlfriend who is also from Chiang Mai. I sat back and enjoyed my meal and the sounds of delight coming from her with each dish that came to the table.

We opened up with tum mamuang ($8, below), which used a mixture of green and yellow mangos in season. The defining feature and what makes this dish so hard to perfect is the combination of this fruit with anchovy sauce, done here to perfection. The dish is the spiciest we had, and picking up one of those innocent looking betel leaves to chew only makes it more so as they sit and soak in the chili.

We always ordered the nam prik ong ($8, below) at Kao Soy, and got it here as well. The paste is made up of pork, tomatoes, eggplant, and chili and is spicy but nothing compared to the first. Chayote and lettuce accompany the dish, as well as pork rinds as usual, making for many texture possibilities.

It was at the point when the jin som mok ($9, below) came out, that the girl to my right almost lost her chair and could not believe what a good representation of this Thai market specialty we were eating. Her only concern was not to let her mother know how much the dish costs here since you find it for well under a dollar in Thailand. Not for the faint of heart, but not that much of a stretch either, inside of the banana leaf is a sour fermented pork mixed with pork skin and ear, and a good amount of garlic. On the side for more texture awareness is lettuce, ginger, shallot, and peanuts.

And of course when in the north, one must eat the khao soi ($12, below), which is probably even better than it was in its best form a block north. The drumsticks are cooked perfectly, the thick egg noodles and rich warm curry broth dance together seamlessly. I prefer this thinner "bird's nest" fried noodles on top than before, but miss the papaya fritters. The pickled mustard greens and chili oil are there if you want, but are certainly unnecessary. This is splendid.

Our stomachs certainly said we should have stopped there, but we had the kitchen make one more dish that came recommended, the moo ping ($8, below). On point, these pork skewers gave me ideas for killer home bbqs, especially with the Central Thai chili-lime dip that comes with them.

This story will stay in flux for a bit, as the restaurant has "at least six months" in its current space. The chef wants to be permanent, but it is possible that the location will shift. No matter where it goes, we will follow.

Bravo, chef!

[UPDATE 22 JULY 2015: Photos from another meal]

Pla muk yang (grilled squid)

Krabong (papaya, taro, and banana blossom fritters)

Tum kanoon (young jackfruit salad)

Sticky rice

Kang hung leh (pork curry with salty rib tips)

07 July 2015

Roka Turkish Cuisine


The world food diners of Kew Gardens do not have the array of choices that exist in most other parts of Queens, so when a decent Turkish restaurant moves in a few years back, it is something to be thankful for indeed. The dining room of this efficient place is on the neutral side, but trends heavy towards the typical Mediterranean blue and white and showcases some very elaborate mosaics.

The soup (above) was part of the daily lunch special, the Turkish bread was fresh, fluffy, and unlimited. On this warm day, we were in the mood for some cold meze and ordered the tabule ($4, below) and cacık ($4.50, below). The latter was the star of the two, and another plate of bread came out just to make sure everything was scooped from the bowl.

We also were excited about the mixed appetizer platter ($12.95, below), which had a fixed menu of four meze: lebni, a strained yogurt with walnut, garlic and dill; babaganush, the eggplant puree; special ezme, a smoky and spicy tomato, walnut, and garlic delight, and hummus.

The lunch special entree option we chose was the chicken kebab, which was probably the nicest tasting item on our table. The meat is marinated and grilled just right, served with a side of good rice and a forgettable salad.

The Turkish tea was not that, just served in a traditional glass, while the coffee was definitely Turkish, a thick oil of caffeine. Either way, a good ending to a good lunch in one of the greener neighborhoods of New York City.

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30 June 2015

S & J Moroccan


Thank you New York City, it is now possible to walk into a storefront in Astoria and feel completely at home in the residence of a lovely Moroccan lady. Rita (sp?) will welcome you in and make sure every part of every minute here is filled with hospitality and warmth. Do you have a Moroccan mother? Well, now you do.

Inside of a square shop underneath a nondescript awning with two letters, a couple steam tables are set up for a mostly to-go crowd. She says 70% of her business comes from the hospital across 30th Avenue, saying modestly "People seem to like my food."

Add me into this group of people.

Couscous seems to be around at all times, and the plate below came out to a whopping $3 somehow, and seems to be all you can eat. The steam table is help yourself, and she will make sure to tell you again and again to make yourself at home.

Harira soup (below) is on offer as well, and was either part of the couscous plate or never charged when she added things up at the end. Either way, it is a nice big bowl and I could not imagine any price she gave to be unaffordable. It is hearty and full of flavor.

A Moroccan man was dining on a fish plate when we walked in, so we pointed and asked what was available fresh from the kitchen. We went ahead and got what he was having, and were a full $5 poorer because of it. A nice big salad topped with many olives and some eggplant purees were served with it, making the range of tastes we had already off the charts.

For dessert, we had roti with honey and sweet mint tea, all of which seemed to cost $5 together. Tea service was also unlimited.

For those keeping track, the whole meal (done in her head at the end of the meal) came to $13 and was obviously underpriced. She definitely listed the prices I quote above out loud though, so it was not a mistake. I would have felt strange offering up the normal $16 or $17 for this kind of bill, so we just added $10 to our total and thanked her profusely.

Hopefully prices for walk-in customers are enough to keep her in business, as this place is really something special to find in Astoria. Go during normal lunch rush for the freshest variety.

29 June 2015

Keur Coumba #2


There is a #1 in the city as well, down in Harlem on West 116th Street amongst many other West African restaurants. This outpost is special though in the northern reaches of the Bronx in a neighborhood more known for its Caribbean inhabitants, a chance to stand out from the crowd.

Early by more than an hour to meet a friend, I walked in to scope out the place and got weird (but friendly) looks when I asked about specific Senegalese dishes. "How do you know thieboudienne?" asked a patron scarfing down a whole fish with his bare hands. The place seemed to have their game together on first glance, and I walked out excited about my upcoming meal, past a man tearing apart a greasy paper bag full of goat meat known as dibi.

I walked a block away and wandered into a Jamaican bar full of men ready to give me equally strange and friendly looks for showing up. The evening was perfect already and by the time I left I was bought one shot from the man next to me and one from the bar. Along with my two Jamaican beers, I almost stumbled out to dinner. Thankfully this city is full of such opportunities, to really feel like you are traveling and to receive the full hospitality of strangers in another land, even if you are only a couple blocks from a 2 train station.

The aforementioned thieboudienne (above) is Senegal's national dish, a bed of rice topped with fish and cooked vegetables. The rice and fish are the central focus of this dish, which actually translates from Wolof to "rice and fish." Here it is made to perfection, the meat of the fish, the sauce, the soft vegetables. As always, one very spicy pepper is plopped on top which can be minced and mixed or avoided altogether.

Served exactly as if you were in Senegal

After seeing other lone diners chowing on it, and tasting it myself, my biggest recommendation here is the dibi. When you order a portion, it comes inside a greasy paper bag (above) and is served with a side salad.

One thing that disagreed with me a bit while in Senegal was the constant aroma of freshly slaughtered goat, which made experiences in a dibiterie start off slightly uncomfortably for my foreign nose. Most places are takeout, and once that bag of cooked meat was handed over, the meal could be enjoyed back at home. Here in the Bronx, you can avoid the slaughtering bit and go right for the meat.

Mustard is cooked into the meat with onions and once everything is ready, it is chopped up into bite sized pieces (below), but still make sure to bite slowly to avoid the bones. It comes with an extra side of mustard and a small container of delicious hot sauce that especially resonated with my friend, who asked for another to take home.

As the train rumbles by outside, West African men continuously stream in and out to pick up their takeout. A few dine in the restaurant, but that seems to be secondary business here. The ones that do though will be happy to start a chat with you though, making sure you are keen on the food from their home country. A great place to make some new friends.

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28 June 2015

Alexandrina Seafood Restaurant


The city of Alexandria in Egypt is a still prosperous place with a relationship to the sea that has defined and strengthened it over centuries. The symbol of its ruined lighthouse, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, and the second tallest building in the world when constructed (after the pyramids) adorns both the flag of the city and its coat of arms. Traders coming by ship used its beacon to guide them in, bringing all sorts of goods and fresh fish.

The latter is the specialty here in Bay Ridge's newest Egyptian restaurant, a market as well as eatery. The modest place as a couple television sets showing news in Arabic, and many photos of its namesake city on the walls. Not everything is always available, but they will hand out a list of fish with pictures including branzino, red snapper, orata, mullet, red mullet, porgy, whiting, perch, tilapia, salmon, and striped bass. You will be offered different methods of cooking including open-faced grilled and baked.

When ordering a fish, you can select from their many side salads, some of which are shown below:

Egyptian style potato salad

Shepherd salad

Eggplant salad


Mint tea (it's Lipton)

While our fish selections were being prepared, we got an order of the grilled shrimp ($10.95, below), which was generously bumped up from eight to ten pieces as our party was five. The oil here goes well with the rice, but really nothing is needed but some clean hands for picking the shrimp out of their shells and eating.

It seemed natural to order both selections from the menu described as "Mediterranean fish," starting with the orata ($16.95, below), which we had baked as per the proprietor's suggestion.

On this night the owner was unsatisfied with the size of his white perch ($12.95, below two photos), but still wanted us to try them grilled so brought out two fish for us, for the price of one.

The other Mediterranean fish we went with was the open-faced grilled style branzino ($16.95, below), which comes topped with a delicious sauce that unfortunately covers most of the taste.

The orata gets picked apart

The warmth and hospitality of a Middle Eastern restaurant should never be surprising, but we left feeling well taken care of anyways. The owner is such a great man and was clearly after our stomachs, the money was simply an afterthought. This is a really special place.