21 July 2014

Leli's Bakery


It is difficult to locate cuisines that do not exist in any form in and around New York City. Sometimes it is the cuisine of a similar neighbor (many West African countries come to mind), or sometimes a popular dish of one country can be found in the restaurant of another (Jordanian mansaf in a Lebanese place, for example). You would think that of all possibilities, the tiny island nation of Malta, which occupies a space of the Mediterranean Sea close to Sicily, Tunisia, and Libya, might be one that proves impossible. You would, however, be wrong.

Leli's in Astoria might appear like any other European bakery in the city, but the small chalkboard above the refrigerator reveals the specialties that are unique to Malta, and thus the special reason for coming here to eat.

I ordered a plate of each one of the three options of pastizzi ($1.75 each, below). Each pastizz is a phyllo-dough savory pastry, and comes with ricotta, spinach and feta, or beef and vegetable. This type of food can be found by street vendors in Malta and sometimes at bars, and is the most popular food of the island, showing up in multiple daily expressions (think hotcakes).

Also available with similar fillings is another Maltese specialty, the qassatat (not pictured). These use a more typical dough and are shaped to appear like a mini volcano, with the fillings showing at the top of the cone and sometimes overflowing.

The coffee here is decent too, and conversations in Italian and Greek can be overheard by your dining companions. The joint is local flavor at its best, and spending an hour here with coffee and some pastries is a real joy of experiencing Astoria.

Leli's Bakery & Pastry Shop on Urbanspoon

10 June 2014



Sunnyside has always been one of my favorite neighborhoods in the city, with its makeup represented by quite an interesting mashup of peoples and cultures, none of them dominant. In recent years, many Tibetans and Nepalese have been moving in, and this has resulted in a few dining options. Two weeks ago, another Tibetan place has opened in a modest storefront mid-block on 47th Avenue.

Walking into the long space is a surprise from what it looks like outside, but there is plenty of room for groups and gatherings. In fact, the name of the restaurant translates as "happy gathering" and we can only assume the area's Himalayan communities will indeed have such events here. A TV in the back of the space plays Bollywood musicals, and beyond that is the kitchen. When I sat down here on a Monday at noon, the place was empty but the sounds of a busy kitchen were in the air. Takeout customers came in periodically.

While the Dalai Lama smiled down on me from the back of the room, I was enticed by the Bhutanese dish aima dhatse ($6, below), which I chose to have with chicken. This national dish of Bhutan can be found on a few menus in Queens, and always attracts my attention. I now have a new favorite rendition as the one here is simply beautiful. The server returned a couple minutes after taking my order to ask if I wanted it spicy, as I think the chef was worried about me. What arrived was indeed spicy, the real deal from what I have read about the dish in its native environment. This plate was less cheesy and less soupy than other versions, but was delicious. Killer peppers were littering the plate, and I ate them all up as I could tell both the server and chef were sneaking glances at me to see how I was holding up. As my eyes watered and my forehead started sweating, I smiled in bliss.

I have a real memory lapse every time I eat at a Himalayan restaurant and order bhoejha ($1, below), a salty butter tea even though I know I don't like it. It just seems so typically traditional that I have to try again each time.

I was also trying to waste a little time and gain more stomach space to go for a second meal. After 30 minutes of break or so, I ordered the vegetable thenthuk ($6, below), a Tibetan soup made of sliced noodles.

The noodles are similar to "peel noodles" in some Chinese places, and are obviously homemade here. For a vegetable soup, it is amazing that a broth can be so hearty and rich, the dish is comfort food at its best. A little jar of chili paste is brought out with it to "personalize" your spice level.

I will enjoy returning to this spot when I can, and it completely holds its own against the good spots in Jackson Heights. Sunnyside just keeps on getting better.

Gakyizompe on Urbanspoon

09 June 2014

Crazy Crab 888


Crazy Crab is a difficult place to figure out. In it's interesting location right under the tracks of the Long Island Rail Road, it occupies a space that has obviously went through a few iterations. On the wall is a map of Mexico on a Corona advertisement, a beer they happen to sell as well. The menu and sandwich boards outside offer Burmese, Thai, Malaysian, and Yunnanese food, and of course the place has a specialty of crab.

When I asked our server about the odd mashup, he told me "My boss is Burmese and Yunnanese and Taiwanese and brings back things she eats and likes." Food from Burma and the Chinese province of Yunnan could be called rare in New York City, so the proposition of the restaurant is definitely an interesting one, although the follow-through, at least so far, leaves a bit to be desired.

The mohinga ($8.95, above) is Burmese breakfast food, a fish noodle soup that is different at every street vendor you sit down with in their country. The version here is lifeless and mucky, I had to add all the lemon juice I could squeeze in, and plenty of red pepper.

We had a bit better luck with the Burmese salads that are made here. The ginger salad ($8.95, below) is about half the right way towards what sort of crunchiness and crispiness a real version would have. The tastes were decent in bringing back good memories, and the rest at our table seemed to enjoy it.

The other, tea leaf salad ($9.95, above) was also enjoyed but made me feel a little like Uncle Scrooge. I would say it needed about five more flavors and three more textures to do its job properly.

The Yunnan yellow tofu salad ($10.99, above) had no resemblance to the many Burmese versions I had right across the border. Not sure if that is because this is the style or they just cut corners here, but these lazy tofu hunks are just topped with something like hoisin sauce.

The shredded pork with bamboo shoots ($8.50, above) is run of the mill Chinese food, but with that being said, was quite tasty.

The crab is the specialty of the house it seems, and they certainly take it seriously, with buckets of seafood arriving wrapped in plastic bags. Plastic gloves are provided for all, and if you don't wave them off, they'll put on your bib for you. The blue crab ($11.95, above and below) comes with your choice of three seasonings. If you ask for their recommendation of the three, they will tell you that when they eat it, they mix all three together. The product of this, as seen in the photos, is what seems like a decent curry sauce.

So after eating Burmese dishes with a spoon and fork, then crab with plastic gloves over hands, we move on to Chinese and chopsticks with an order of Yunnan rice noodle soup ($8.99, below). The spicy flavor nicely tops the neutral broth and pork chunks, while the noodles involved here strongly resemble spaghetti.

So many nice things to say about this place Jared? Ok, so not really, but the craziness of the combinations and rarity of cuisines involved are definitely worth some words. The clients here are just your average Flushing Chinese, and the brightly lit diner style and very friendly service are enough to consistently pack the place.

Crazy Crab on Urbanspoon

27 May 2014

Eat the World Cup 2014 New York City

The World Cup officially begins on Thursday the 12th of June, but the 32 countries involved have been qualifying and getting into form since Spain secured the title four years ago in Johannesburg, South Africa. This year the competition takes place in Brazil over the course of one month, where the next champion will be crowned on the 13th of July.

Some of the most interesting action always takes place in the group phase, when all 32 countries still have dreams, and their supporters halt their lives around the world to watch. New York City is unique in the fact that football fans can use this as an opportunity to do a little cultural travel throughout the five boroughs, New Jersey, and Long Island.

During the Cup four years ago and qualifying the past three, I have enjoyed joining these communities to cheer on their countries and sample some of their best foods. I gathered with fans from Mexico, Uruguay, USA, Paraguay, Germany, Netherlands, Nigeria, Brazil, Chile, and Switzerland, and stuffed my face with all of them. This year I want even more, and have prepared the following list and Google Map with my findings, pulled both from places I have already been to for this website as well as some additional scouting done recently. I am happy to report that you can experience the 2014 World Cup through the eyes and hearts of all 32 countries.

If you want to see where I will be headed for games, please follow me on Twitter for game time decisions. Here is your travel guide for the 2014 World Cup:

Brazil, Cameroon, Croatia, Mexico

Thursday 12 June (16:00 v. Croatia)
Tuesday 17 June (15:00 v. Mexico)
Monday 23 June (16:00 v. Cameroon)
The hosts are sure to put on a good show this year, and the large Brazilian community in New York City is sure to be out in force to support their country. Any Brazilian establishment will most likely be playing not only the games of their country, but also each and every game of this cup. 46th Street in Manhattan between 5th and 6th Avenues, known as Little Brazil, will be the center of the action, and a walk down this strip will afford plenty of boozy, raucous choices. For my money, I would arrive early and snag a spot at the bar of Emporium Brasil Restaurant (15 West 46th Street, Midtown) and enjoy their giant screens. Astoria will be jumping as well, with televisions on in places like Rio Market (32-15 36th Avenue, Astoria, Queens) and Pão de Queijo (31-90 30th Street, Astoria, Queens) offering non-alcoholic locations to cheer, and what better game food than the delicious X tudo burger. Newcomer Beija Flor (38-02 29th Street, Astoria, Queens) has a dining room with a very large projection and bar area with Tvs that should be excellent places to order beers and snacks. Back in Manhattan, arrive very early to get a spot in tiny BarBossa (232 Elizabeth Street, Nolita), which always gets full during game days.

Friday 13 June (12:00 v. Mexico)
Wednesday 18 June (18:00 v. Cameroon)
Monday 23 June (16:00 v. Brazil)
While no restaurants in the city call themselves Cameroonian, Africa Kine (256 West 116th Street, Harlem) will be showing games and a gathering place for the country's supporters. Even more unique might be the chance offered by the Permanent Mission of Cameroon to the United Nations (22 East 73rd Street, Upper East Side), which will have viewing parties on weekday games. I am unclear about the food and drink prospects available.

Thursday 12 June (16:00 v. Brazil)
Wednesday 18 June (18:00 v. Cameroon)
Monday 23 June (16:00 v. Mexico)
Astoria is also the place to be for supporting Croatia. Two social clubs that have turned into restaurants are probably the best bet for experiencing the whole package. Given Croatia's rough luck in drawing Brazil in the first game, the basement of Istria Sport Club (28-09 Astoria Blvd) might be the best place to hunker down and prepare for the worst. Rudar Soccer Club (34-01 45th Street, Astoria, Queens) will be bursting at the seams both upstairs and downstairs and offering food and drink, while Scorpio Bar (35-15 Broadway, Astoria, Queens) will require getting there early for a spot inside under the Croatian jerseys that hang from the ceiling. Try Ozujsko or Karlovacko beers for the complete Croatian experience.

Friday 13 June (12:00 v. Cameroon)
Tuesday 17 June (15:00 v. Brazil)
Monday 23 June (16:00 v. Croatia)
In 2010 a quick walk down Roosevelt Avenue in Jackson Heights afforded many sports bar opportunities, where horns blare inside of every bar when El Tri scores. Try Cafe 75 (75-18), Scorpion Bar (75-16) and El Abuelo Gozon (79-03) to get in the middle of the action. To sit down with a more family-friendly atmosphere (no cerveza allowed), try El Tenampa (706 4th Avenue, Greenwood Heights, Brooklyn) for some of the best food in the city.

20 May 2014

Progreso Honduras Restaurant


Honduran flags fly over the awning, in the window, and inside of Progreso, the only catracho joint in New York City off of Staten Island. The owner, who must hail from El Progreso, a city in the northwest, also has a small grocery and deli at 4503 Fort Hamilton Parkway of the same name. That location serves steam table foods and has a wide range of Central American products.

At the restaurant though, the menu is quite extensive and the city's small Honduran community can really get a familiar taste with a wide range of meals and three popular beers from back home.

The space is covered in blue, with tablecloths and walls all taking their image from the Honduran flag. A jukebox is available as well as two very large screen TVs for futbol. Scenes from El Progreso decorate the walls.

When I sat down for a late lunch, a table of five large women were gossiping at a decent volume, but once their five large platters arrived, the delicious smells almost drove me and my empty stomach mad.

I ordered the daily lunch special ($8, below) which gives you either chicken or steak with beans, a coleslaw like salad, and rice. The chicken version you see comes with a nice stewed red sauce, although the beans seemed like an afterthought and not typically Honduran.

Despite being alone and not being able to split an order of baleadas sencillas ($5, below), I went ahead and ordered the Honduran specialty and took most of it home. The beans, cheese, and cream inside are just about perfect, and this is certainly my favorite baleada I have ever eaten outside of Tegucigalpa.

My only concern was the stubbornly mean server and her complete disregard for any form of friendliness. When the word "lunch" slipped into my otherwise Spanish sentence, she spat "No inglés!" back at me and was thoroughly unconcerned with any of the patrons.

I do look forward to being here for some big games, cheering on one of the smallest countries to make the World Cup in 2014. This is definitely the spot for that to happen!

Progreso Honduras Restaurant on Urbanspoon

19 May 2014

Indonesian Food Bazaar

This event is put on by Indonesian Foodie & Goodie NYC:

Here are just a few of the scenes and things on offer from this year's festival in Forest Hills:

The 2nd Annual event took place on Saturday, May 17th in the auditorium of the First Presbyterian Church of Forest Hills, 70-35 112th Street.

18 May 2014

Sodesh Restaurant


I love a shop that is full of patrons gossiping and discussing politics from back home, which I have no way of verifying, but am 100% sure was happening with multiple groups of men when we walked into this tiny restaurant in Norwood. This newcomer seems to be an instant hub for the Bangladeshi community in the area. The sign in Bengali on the shop's window translates to something like "from one's own country," and is also the name of the restaurant.

The space was obviously used for a Chinese takeout before, as south Asian dishes are now backlit above the counter rather than photos of General Tso's chicken and beef with broccoli. A giant photograph of a popular marina restaurant in Hong Kong still is the restaurant's only decoration.

The vegetable samosas ($1 each, below) here don't appear to be much more than any other joint, but we looked at each other in surprise after our first bite of the delicious, if reheated, appetizer. Some serious effort has gone into refining the spices used inside of this pastry.

Without much room in our stomachs, we opted for a light vegetable dish in the bhendi masala ($9, below). It comes with a healthy serving of rice, and while served more in the north of India, we did not feel too bad about asking for it since the dish can be found throughout Bengali regions and Bangladesh as well.

After some great experiences eating biryani in Bangladesh, I usually cannot refuse to make this dish part of my meal at any Bangladeshi restaurant back home. I wanted to show my knowledge and talked about the famous shop in Dhaka called Haji Biryani, a local institution serving only one dish: mutton biryani, cooked all day in earthenware pots. People would start lining up at the shop before the 4pm opening. I walked away from this place with the kind of smile you get only from a dish worthy of pilgrimage.

Apparently the shop owner here disagrees with me, as he waved his hand without the slightest interest in my trip to Dhaka and said they cooked it here in the style of what sounded like "Tommy." I have looked this and other spellings up without success.

While I am not a convert from the lamb biryani ($10, below) here, I would like to find this version on the streets of Dhaka for comparison. I doubt they have large earthenware pots in the back kitchen, but this dish does seem to be cooked for a good amount of time and the meat is really good.

My only complaint about Sodesh is probably something they cannot avoid, and that is gearing their menu to a more user-friendly pan-south Asian array of dishes that anyone in the area will feel comfortable ordering. You can find chicken tikka and saag paneer. Unfortunately none of the tables here when we arrived were eating, so I could not gather suggestions easily from their choices. Next time I might have a longer conversation with the shop owner or some of the patrons to ascertain the reason they are meeting here.

Sodesh Restaurant on Urbanspoon

17 May 2014

Sanbra Door Restaurant


A theme of many West African restaurants, especially in West Harlem and the Bronx is a thick black mirrored glass on the storefront that prevents anyone from seeing inside. This is always intimidating because what is on the other side of the door is completely unknown until the moment you open it.

Here at Sanbra Door, a newcomer on East Tremont Avenue, you will find a long space with abundant seating and room for the kids to run amok, an event that accompanied my meal here. The steam table in the back is where you do your ordering, for I only found one menu in the whole place and it is better to ask what is fresh and ready. A kitchen is behind open doors in the back, and they seem ready to churn out most everything on the menu if it is not already prepared on the steam table.

Small portions are never available in a West African restaurant, and my pleas for keeping my plate light just made eyebrows lift. I had other meals to eat on this day though, and substituted rice for the usual fufu with my palm nut, peanut, and pepper soup ($12, above and below).

This order came from the steam table and was an erroneous result of me asking for mafe and then saying the word peanut somewhere in my request. All for the best though, the soup was outstanding in an excellent sauce that was surprisingly peppery and spicy. The fish within is very nice, the bones pretty much falling off and not creating a problem, while some beef pieces on bones were too tough. There was another kind of beef that was shredded and fatty that was delicious.

I found it a bit difficult to communicate here or to ask questions, so a previous knowledge of the food and customs will definitely be a plus for anyone dining here, unlike the very user-friendly Papaye Restaurant. Technically there is a spacious bar, but I did not see any trace of alcohol, and it seems like seating only for takeout customers while waiting.

Sanbra Door Restaurant on Urbanspoon