>> Eat the World New York City

15 August 2017

Cafe Sabina


On a fairly sleepy commercial stretch of Avenue X in Gravesend and named after the daughter of the owners, Cafe Sabina has opened up in the former home of Turkish restaurant Wood Spoon. The gates were down over the windows and half-covering the door when I first showed up at 12:45pm on a Monday. Sitting across the street forming a plan B, everything popped up and suddenly they decided to serve food for the day. A sign on the front door confirmed what the internet had suggested: 10am was the supposed opening hour.

It was easy to see the reason after entering, as multiple tables were covered with what appeared to be a very large catering order. This had probably forced them to use all their manpower in preparation. Regardless, it was only a 10 minute delay and I was happy to take a seat near the window even if the proprietor shrugged his shoulders at my presence.

The shades inside Cafe Sabina range from purplish-pink to pinkish-purple, with purple artwork and a pink menu as well. Once they have a customer, the TV gets set to a Russian pop video Youtube channel.

In Russian, the sign outside advertises "Eastern" and "European" food, which is shorthand in Russian for "Uzbek" and "Russian" cuisine. The menu also veers a little bit all over the place, with a Ukrainian soup, a Georgian entree, and Korean influences like many Uzbek eateries.

This meal started with a nice bowl of shurpa ($6.50, above and below), a name derived from Persian meaning "salty stew." The thin broth indeed fits that bill, the type of meal you crave when you are sick. It is a soup enjoyed from the Balkans and Northern Africa in the west all the way to South Asia in the east.

Chunks of beef, chickpeas, and orange bell peppers make up most of the volume, while dill is the most prominent taste.

The order of a single tandir samsa ($2.50, below) was pulled out of the catering trays before coming to the table. I was having a hard time not laughing at this, knowing my pastry was going to be fresh but that others would be missing one. This version had a thick and very crisp blackened bottom, almost as if it had been left in the tandir oven slightly too long, but not in a bad way.

The lamb inside was a bit tough, but the spicing is excellent. An order of at least a half dozen should have been immediately placed.

More delicious lamb made its way to the table in the form of a lyulya kebab ($4.50, below), the ubiquitous ground meat shish kebab found in most Central Asian eateries. Discussions online are amazing concerning most foods, but the peculiar nature of lyulya kebab enthusiasts is particularly funny with most people decidedly unhappy at 99% of the versions they eat, but knowing that 1% is worth the trouble.

I am easier to please when it comes to this dish, almost always enjoying my lyulya kebab. Here at Cafe Sabina this is no different. And as an added bonus, their tomato sauce is actually quite good. I usually pass on this bland sauce served with every kebab, but thankfully gave it a shot here. Full of spice from garlic and plenty of depth from other herbs, don't make the mistake of not trying it here. Just maybe not before a first date.

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Cafe Sabina Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

14 August 2017

Papel贸n con Lim贸n


In every culture that enjoys drinking, their is an interesting culture of what might be called "drunk food." For longer than these pages have existed, Venezuelans in New York City proved their royalty in this arena with the Inwood truck called Patacon Pisao and/or El Dugout, depending on when and with whom you are speaking with.

Under the J and Z trains on Broadway at the border of Bedford-Stuyvesant and Bushwick, another truck has more recently opened up serving the same types of Venezuelan street foods. Opening up around the midway point of happy hour and closing sometime in the wee hours of the morning, the truck alternatively called Papel贸n con Lim贸n and Hungry Corner has a Venezuelan flag emblazoned across the front and an entire three-sided plaza for the use of its customers.

It seemed appropriate to attack the mother of all drunk foods, the pepito, a sandwich full of so many ingredients you would not know if they gave you the wrong meat until you bit down. The most expensive at $8, the beef version is called the Brooklyn Bridge (above). Both at $7, the Manhattan Bridge comes with chicken and the Queens Bridge has pork.

On the streets of Venezuela where this is enormously popular, you may find versions that are more simple and focus on the cuts of meat between bread. Here that is not the case, and two types of fried potatoes, lettuce, cheese, onions, ketchup, mustard, and mayo all adorn the sandwich. By the time the bread is finished, half of what was inside will have dropped to the plate so consider taking a fork at the beginning.

The truck is named after a popular drink of raw sugar cane juice and lime, so it was a no-brainer to order a papel贸n con lim贸n ($2.50, above) to wash it all down. It is still tasty in winter, but summer days just scream for this refreshing beverage which is made to order.

Also available are arepas, cachapas, and pinchos, skewers of grilled meat. The plaza that is home to the truck is an enjoyable place to hang out, even if the music is turned up quite loud.

The only thing missing is the alcohol, but you came full of that already didn't you?

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09 August 2017

Cemitas Puebla Y Taqueria

M脡XICO 馃嚥馃嚱

On an extended walk through Hudson County, NJ a few months ago, the first impression of Cemitas Puebla Y Taqueria was immediately wanting to eat a sandwich here, the famous cemita, a torta from Puebla. The restaurant occupies a corner building of a somewhat slow intersection, a colorful facade and sign hinting at what lives within the brick walls.

When the chance finally came for that sandwich to be eaten, opening the door to this establishment turned out to be a revelation. As it swung open, it was like hearing holy sounds come from above. The interior takes the entire floor of the building, much larger than it seems from first glance. What I mistook for a small sandwich counter was actually a full-fledged Pueblan restaurant and taqueria. I thought the "taqueria" was just a nominal addition to the restaurant's name, but the steaming cauldron of taco meat options inside and al pastor trompo immediately proved me wrong. One chef seemed to be in charge of all the ingredients pertaining to tacos, and was taking his job very seriously.

Our biggest mistake was coming with only the appetite to split one cemita.

No matter how large or small your order, the beautiful four part ceramic salsa holder above is brought to your table with a basket of tortilla chips. From the salsa roja at the top and continuing clockwise, the spice levels drop from high to medium to mild. The pico de gallo is not hot at all, but still very fresh and good.

The chips are fine, and easily made tasty with these delicious homemade salsas, but they beg to be used for greater purposes and wait for the cemitas to arrive.

A glass of their homemade agua de jamaica ($2, above) is recommended to wash everything down, not as sweet as some and very refreshing. This purple/magenta drink gets its color from hibiscus and is a popular drink throughout M茅xico. Often the versions found in Brooklyn and Queens can seem too sweet and are probably not homemade, but this one is just right.

When the beautiful cemita de bistec empanizado ($8.50, below) arrives, jaws immediately drop to the table surface. A cemita gets its name from the bread roll it is served on, and the sesame-crusted roll they use here scores 10 out of 10.

The ingredients of a cemita, shown in section view below, are somewhat different between the bun as well. The deep-fried meats might be found in any old torta, but the use of the leafy herb p谩palo creates a unique taste. This restaurant uses a wonderful chipotle salsa underneath it all, with thin slices of avocado accenting the mountain of white Oaxacan cheese.

If there were a calendar made with photos of cemitas, this one would be January.

Regardless of how good the food is here, the vibe is also very warm and festive with smiles and fun music. Mexican blankets used as window treatments seem to dictate the wall paint colors and general design scheme. An overall care of environment was even visible outside, where a new wall mural was being painted towards the back.

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Cemitas Puebla Y Taqueria Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

04 August 2017

Tota's Bakery & Restaurant


From the moment Tota's opens it doors, Caribbean reggae music is blasting from inside. On a first visit, Jamaica's Bob Andy seemed to be the artist of the day, his most popular hits audible for at least two blocks. Like the music, the food here seems to be traveling through the Caribbean, most likely satisfying to all the neighborhood's residents. Everything has Guyanese roots like the owners, but it does not limit itself.

The music can be inconvenient during orders, especially if you have questions. The soft spoken woman who runs the place smiles and answers but does not really try to compete with the volume levels.

Although this is a bakery and a restaurant, the baked goods seem to be a select few loaves of bread. They are not an afterthought though, looking fresh and constantly being ordered by takeout customers.

The real show though is all the prepared foods set up in old, dripping coolers with condensation that sometimes obscures the contents. It is apparent that these have held decades of curries. The well worn walls and furniture hold in them decades of happy customers. A framed portrait of "The President of the United States of America" is a photo of Barack Obama, for a moment it allows for time travel and relief.

What goes for a small portion here is actually quite large, an order of the goat curry ($7, below) was plenty for a very filling lunch.

Guyana, like its Caribbean neighbors Suriname and Trinidad & Tobago, is full of intersections of people, culture, and traditions. This of course always leads to outstanding foods like this intensely spiced curry. Each bite kept getting better, and gravy does a wonderful job saturating the rice below.

There is only one table here as most people don't stay to eat and takeout orders are the rule. I have sat down there twice now though, and had good company each time. It seems there is always someone just hanging out, listening to the music or reading a copy of the Trinidad & Tobago newspaper that is available.

Tota's also offers a bit of the popular Guyanese-style Chinese food, but our meals here stuck with Guyanese proper with not enough bellies to enjoy it all. Do not miss a chance to end your meal with a cup of their housemade custard flavor soft serve ice cream.

A second meal consisted of the baked chicken ($7, below), one of three styles of chicken offered including jerk and bbq. The baked has similar tastes to jerk chicken and is again full of flavor. While the baking may have dried out the bird a little, this is nothing that a few scoops of the gravy can't fix.

The spinach rice is unseen in both photos above but recommended over the white rice for the base. It just adds more herbs and spices to each bite, hard to resist even when you start getting stuffed.

On each visit I ordered the cassava egg ball ($1.50, below), the no meat Caribbean version of a Scotch egg. The cassava mash is full of spices and has a soft, spongy texture that is very pleasant.

On the second visit, Marcia Griffiths blasted from the speakers, another famous Jamaican singer. Further research into her career found that for five years she performed in a duo named "Bob and Marcia" with none other than Bob Andy, the star of the first visit.

If you have the time to enjoy the atmosphere here at the restaurant and can tolerate the volume, grab a bottle of their homemade peanut punch (below). This version is sweet of course, but not too sweet and very good.

The steady stream of takeout customers is proof that things here are going fairly well and my initial impressions of the food must be shared by their loyal following. A good history seems to ooze from every surface.

When the sun goes down, a big black jerk drum is wheeled in front and the smells of jerk chicken waft through the night air over Utica Avenue. The party moves outside, and revelers come from their own parties to fuel up before going home.

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Tota's Bakery Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

03 August 2017

Al-Humza Halal Restaurant


Around the corner from the restaurant, the modern spotless masjid un noor lives in a two story pale pink building and sees a steady stream of mostly Pakistani men and women with a few neighborhood Africans as well. Along with this house of worship, the other hub of the community seems to be Al-Humza, which offers both a halal meat counter and grocery store as well as full service restaurant.

Last year, the building had a large awning that properly described its contents inside, but now the only hints of the food being prepared within come if the weather is nice and the door is open. No matter though, walk-in customers are few and far between in this driver's borough, and all the Pakistanis nearby seem to know about the good food here already.

The menu has most everything you might expect, and even a weekend specials section that includes haleem ($8, above). This stew is often found in bazaars and on the street in Pakistan, but is thankfully available to us in local restaurants. It pairs perfectly with a fresh piece of naan ($1, above), which is not quite enough to scoop up all of this generous portion.

It was fun to eat slowly here and relax, taking in the comings and goings. On this Saturday, extremely large takeout orders close to $100 seemed to be the norm. There are at least a dozen tables, but most were empty as food was taken home much more frequently than eaten here.

5 mangos imported from back home for $24.99

Other weekend special items include nihari, a slow-cooked stew of lamb and bone marrow, and paya, a spicy stew made from the hooves of cow or goat.

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Al Humza Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

02 August 2017

The Gumbo Bros


The popup to bricks and mortar phenomenon has taken hold quite a few times in New York City, but is rarely the type of experience written about here on these pages. One 8-month old restaurant in Boerum Hill, Brooklyn has convinced us otherwise though, offering a very simple menu of gumbo and po' boys, the staples of Louisiana cuisine these "brothers" grew up on.

The simplicity of the menu is also its strength. And in all serious, who really needs more than the three items listed on the storefront: gumbo, po' boys, and cold beer? The third item in that list is catered to mostly by Abita, Louisiana's favorite brew.

During a couple visits last month, it was apparent that the early hubbub from the New York Times review had died down, but the tiny restaurant had settled into a rhythm of catering to its neighbors. A diverse group of Americans were coming in for orders, mostly for takeout.

The name of the establishment gives a good hint where to start with an order. The gumbo comes in two meat options and one vegan. On the menu, they note that the vegan version is important for Good Friday fasting in Catholic households across the deep south. A quaint story for sure, but the call of protein won out on this order of cajun chicken & sausage gumbo ($12, below).

The creamy dark base of the stew comes from a much-loved two day roux, an oil, flour, and fat thickener. The sausage adds the most taste to the mix, but shredded hunks of chicken are definitely not afterthoughts. If the heat scale is dialed back too much for New York City palates, handy bottles of Louisiana-made Crystal hot sauce are on every table.

The tastes that hit your mouth while eating the catfish po' boy ($12, below), are all straight from the south and very familiar to those who grow up on them. For me, there was no emotion biting through the bread shipped in from a New Orleans bakery, the Mississippi-raised catfish, or the South Carolinian mayo, but I could get excited for those that would feel more. In New Orleans, if your po' boy did not have the right kind of bread, an emotional person might slap it right out of your hand. Luckily there is no risk of that here.

The fried fish is obviously the highlight, and should be just like the fried shrimp in the other version they offer. The only complaint might be about the underwhelming iceberg lettuce and pale tomato that could be removed if they were not carrying so much of the good mayo. The fish is done very well, ready to magically melt in your mouth. The spice seems to come from the crispy fried batter, but again that little bottle of Crystal is ready just in case.

Our tiny bowl of $6 crawfish mac n' cheese (below) was enough to probably not order sides in the future. The tiny pieces of crawfish were scarce, everyone took a bit or two and returned to their stews and sandwiches. On another visit requiring a side, a short inquiry to the chef might be wise to see what is better on the day.

The location is convenient enough for people working in the government buildings of downtown Brooklyn or on jury duty. I have found that I rarely have time for the delicious Yemeni restaurants when I am around here and usually end up at The Soul Spot. Having another option for a great lunch is definitely an improvement for downtown and Cobble Hill customers.

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The Gumbo Bros Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

01 August 2017

Western Yunnan Crossing Bridge Noodle


In some of the most exciting news to hit Sunset Park in a long time, a new Yunnanese-style rice noodle shop has opened at the intersection of 7th Avenue and 59th Street. Ever since tiny Yun Nan Flavour Snack upscaled into Yun Nan Flavour Garden, the market for these southwestern Chinese rice noodles has not been the same.

At 3pm on a Monday, the neighborhood already declared that the restaurant was very good with a line out the door even in the middle of the afternoon. This continued throughout our meal and four or five people were waiting when we exited around 3:45pm. It only took a few tastes to figure out what all the fuss was about, these bowls were delicious.

The focus of the restaurant is one famous dish from the Yunnan province of China, a place world's apart from the capital Beijing. This province makes up most of China's border with Myanmar, all of Laos, and half of Vietnam, so the cuisines and cultures stray a bit towards those of Southeast Asia, and the people are the most diverse in all of China with many ethnic minorities living here.

"Crossing the bridge noodles" (the literal translation) is the most famous Yunnanese dish and is known throughout China, so it is no surprise that all the residents of Sunset Park are flocking here to get a taste. There is some debate about the origins of the name and story behind these noodles, if you have a moment dig into this fun rabbit hole. 10 options are available, from the "original" version to pork chop, beef, and kimchi, amongst others.

Served traditionally, a tray of ingredients (above) comes out while the soup broth is heated up. Thinly sliced meats, pickled vegetables, lettuce, a quail egg and chicken wing make up some of the items that will eventually make their way into the soup. In Yunnan, rice noodles are eaten almost exclusively as the southern climate supports this staple over northern grains. A bowl of hot cooked rice noodles (below) is brought out just before the broth.

When you walk into the restaurant, there is a poster that details the steps an eater should take to prepare their soup ingredients correctly, but the employees here actually do it all for you. When the hot stone bowl arrives, the thinly sliced raw meat and quail egg will be added first, followed by everything else, with the rice noodles being added last.

After everything is together, the original crossing bridge rice noodle ($7.95) looks like the bowl below, a massive amount of food at this price point. Since the noodles and especially the bowl are so hot, it takes a while for everything to cool. As opposed to the version over on 8th Avenue, the broth here is light years ahead, full of chicken bone stock savoriness.

A cup of red chili oil is on each table if you want to add spice to your bowl, or you could try an already spicy version like spicy beef navel rice noodle ($9.95, below x2), the most expensive of the lot. This bowl follows the same ceremony, but comes with cuts of beef and a spicy beef bone broth.

This had a nice kick to it and did not need additional chili, as seen below in a glossy red sheen. Both bowls were wonderful, and the other eight versions of the crossing bridge noodle are all looked forward to on future visits. They also have a small menu of side dishes, but we did not see anyone ordering these during the visit. To be honest, these thick rice noodles are quite filling to begin with and a solo diner or couple probably has no need for the sides.

With interest in Yunnan province already heightened in the last few years for various cuisine and pu'er tea reasons, this restaurant offers New York City a non-fancy way to experience this region's most famous dish.

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Western Yunnan Crossing Bridge Noodle Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

28 July 2017

Timbuktu Islamic Center Vendors

MALI 馃嚥馃嚤

Nine out of every ten Malians practices Islam, so naturally the ones that have made their lives in New York City have set up a cultural center and mosque for their daily prayers. On a Friday as the imam called for jumu'ah, or the weekly congregational prayer, taxis had basically double-parked the entire block with the faithful coming to pray. While non-practicing folks will not go into the mosque, there are a couple interesting vendors just outside the building offering some tastes from back home.

While most Muslims conduct their five daily prayers individually, Friday is special because everyone makes a point to join the jumu'ah. The day is also the only time you will find the vendors at the Islamic Center due to the higher volume.

I have been wanting to visit this particular vendor pictured above since it was reported in Eating in Translation. It now seems that two vendors come on Fridays, the one not pictured serving full boxed meals including fish and atti茅k茅, cassava that is fermented and grated. She will have to wait for another day, as there was only room in the stomach for dessert on this Friday.

The vendor and I unfortunately shared no common language, but a friendly patron also buying items was happy to answer any questions and was quite friendly. She became very happy when our conversation shifted to my travels in Mali and enjoyment of thiakry during that trip.

A table full of items available each Friday.

You can find thiakry (below) throughout West Africa, a sweet dessert made from the staples of the region. A couscous made from millet creates the base, while the sweetness comes from condensed milk and sourness from fermented milk.

The whole set came to $5.50.

I had just had a nice version of thiakry from a Senegalese vendor at the Go Africa Harlem festival a couple weeks before, and was hungry for more. The version she makes here is lighter than most and almost fluffy. With a sweet tooth, it also pairs well with a bottle of homemade bissap juice, the purple liquid shown above. It is slightly spicy with hints of ginger within, and syrupy sweet just as West Africans prefer. They are brought here frozen, so the extreme cold helps to cut the sweetness.

The only thing not included as far as I could tell, were nuts and dried fruits to sprinkle on top of an order.

Also pictured above was a small package of three bread discs that are slightly sweet. I think I was told that these were best served with the other porridge available here (seen on the table photo above) which was served hot. Unfortunately I could not accommodate everything and just grabbed them to go.

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