>> Eat the World NYC

15 October 2019

Yafa Café

YEMEN 🇾🇪

A few months ago, a space that used to be a Chinese takeout restaurant started to come alive with signs of life after a fairly quick renovation. A few doors down from Yemeni-owned Yafa Newsstand & Deli, which has served the corner of 4th Avenue and 45th Street for many years, Yafa Café has now been born.

For the better part of a couple months, only drinks were offered, but an open kitchen and the eager stories of its new operators (from the same family as the Yafa Deli) promised a marriage of foods from Brooklyn and Yemen, an exciting proposition.


In the past few years, a hipster-oriented coffee shop had come and gone on busy commercial 5th Avenue nearby, but Yafa seems to be more oriented towards the entire community rather than just the newcomers. Sunset Park is still very strong when it comes to resisting changes, but I think the neighborhood might have a place in its heart for Yafa, whose coffees can nevertheless get pretty expensive with a lovely $7 Yemeni pour over available at the high end of the scale.

When the sandwich board finally announced that breakfast and lunch were being served, the former was the goal on a first pass. Along with oats, bagels, and a gussied up bacon, egg and cheese sandwich lives the Yemeni breakfast ($10, below), which revolves around their excellent flaky traditional flatbread called khubz and a variety of "breakfast dips."


From left to right above, the khubz is served with scrambled eggs with diced peppers, ful medames, and two slices of what appear to be the French Laughing Cow cheese. Their ful, a stew of fava beans and spices, is much less sour than usual and will probably appeal to a wider audience. Its spices are delicious, so it combines well with both the eggs and the khubz.

For a light lunch or the starting course of a larger meal, try the Yemeni shurba ($6, below), a tasty soup made of tomato puree and bulgar wheat. The garlic sourdough served on the side make this actually quite filling by the bottom of the bowl.


Many Yemeni-operated bodegas around town are known to have a small case of halal fried chicken. These may not warrant gallons of ink to be spilled, but are always sneakingly satisfying especially later in the evening. No matter how long the wings and thighs have been sitting there in the hot case, the temperature and texture seemed to be just right, with a dash of Yemeni hawaij to give it a unique taste.

The standout star of Yafa Café builds on this tradition with their Yafa fried chicken sandwich ($10, below), which comes on a plump soft brioche bun and is served with potato chips.


The sandwich is handsome upon arrival but it was the first bite that was a revelation. The chicken is supremely crispy and spiced perfectly with hawaij, while each end of the bun is slathered with a wonderful homemade plum chipotle sauce. Welcome to Sunset Park.

The bite-away view below reveals the all important fourth and fifth components of the sandwich: a Brussels sprouts coleslaw and generous use of pickles. Expectations were high when the order was made, but the reality blew this out of the water. This sandwich deserves some high acclaim.


Other customers seemed to be ordering the shakshuka ($10, not shown) in high quantities, a classic breakfast plate of eggs and tomatoes that they serve here on its cast iron skillet.

Also of note is lamb haneeth sandwich ($12, below), which probably plans to be the star of the show but is just a bit off from that so far. The lamb itself is slow cooked and has a lovely texture but they seem to be playing it safe with their spices, unsure maybe of the customer reception. When they go for it, it will be a pleasure to retry this sandwich.


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

13 October 2019

Thai Cook (at iCook)

THAILAND 🇹🇭

With only some notes in the city's Thai Facebook groups, a tiny sandwich board outside, and obviously successful word of mouth, the second weekend of life for Thai Cook was a very busy one. Venturing in both days over this past weekend found excited Thai diners filling many of the establishment's tables, a common occurrence in a neighborhood where news travels fast of new openings.

The new restaurant actually exists within the confines of iCook, the all you can barbecue and hot pot joint that took up residence here a couple years ago. Thai Cook brings its own energy to the space, which often would find itself empty during off hours. Hopefully this relationship works out for both, as each might bring the other unique customers.

The Thai Cook side of the operation.

The chef here actually started her career in Brooklyn, cooking at the tiny Thai takeout called AM Thai Chili Basil and later moving to a more thorough operation. When it opened, it was one of the only acceptable joints in Brooklyn to find the real food of Thailand. Apparently enough customers asked why she had not opened up a restaurant in Elmhurst, and here we are to watch her next stop.

They make many of their drinks in house, including the matcha milk green tea (below), which tastes much more like the versions you would find in Thailand, sweetened up to the country's tastes unlike their Japanese counterparts. A table of three Thai women near us was going absolutely mad and making videos in awe of the drink.


Back in Brooklyn, the chef was always known for her tasty som tum creations, which have the whole center section of the menu devoted to them here. Two large wooden mortars are visible in the back and always in use, a very good sign. There are ten different options, including the tum salted egg yolk ($8, below), which again ran on the sweet side through an abundance of peanuts.

All the base of a wonderful salad was there though, so with a few squeezes of lime juice and a bit of chopped up Thai chili, the salad was really rocking. If was the first and last dish to be tilted and drank when finishes as not to lose any of the wonderful juice.


Noodle soups come in three options all for $5 each here, small portions that allow for the table to order quite a few other dishes without filling up too fast. This style is often seen at the noodle houses in Thailand, where small bowls of noodles can be ordered and re-ordered until full. What translates on their English menu as "braised pork noodle" is nam tok ($5, below), full of thinly sliced cuts and balls. The broth trends a bit towards the sweet side but naturally this soup desires to be spicy, so ask for the condiment rack and go for it.



Best of the three noodle soups was probably the tom yum noodle ($5, above), which had a great balance of all requisite flavors. The thin noodles let the ground pork and sweet and sour broth do most of the talking, while the chilis made sure to catch up to you a few bites in.

With an extra -ur in the name for some reason, the yen ta four ($5, below) was interesting and enjoyed although entirely different than many versions in the neighborhood. The sweetness in this bowl almost had the character of barbecue sauce, but somehow worked well with the shrimp and noodles.


In the "steamed" section of the menu were many seafood options, but the lime pork slice ($6, below) was calling out with extra force during this meal, and for good reason. This was the dish that caused surprised looks over the table, as the sour and spicy citrusy green sauce was out of this world.

The pork slices are rolled around greens and mushrooms, creating a bite full of crunch and chew. This should not be missed and this section of the menu will be worth exploring on return visits.


There is also a "yum yum" section of the menu, dedicated to Thai salads (yum) composed around meats and seafoods. Only the beef in the yum sliced beef ($8, below) was lackluster, but for this price point you could not ask for much more. The salad around it was beautiful and vibrant, full of fresh vegetables, chilis, and a sauce again worth licking up at the end.


If it was not already obvious, Elmhurst is not going to be stopped. New Thai eateries keep opening up these last few years and expanding the base of what New York City has in its playbook. Thai Cook is a good new addition and worth checking out to see how it evolves.


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ELMHURST Queens
81-17 Broadway
Thai Cook (at iCook) Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

09 October 2019

Hokkaido Ramen Santouka

JAPAN 🇯🇵

The first ever shop of this Hokkaido-based ramen chain was opened in 1988 in Asahikawa near the base of Mount Asahi, but the story begins a few years prior to that. The founder had been inspired by the 1985 film Tampopo, a comedy that was all about ramen, and felt that the options he and his family had available were not good enough.

Nowadays the company is located throughout Japan and even has a branch on tiny Okinawa. Its expansion to seven other countries in Asia and onto North America just seems natural. In the United States, many of the branches are located inside of Mitsuwa Marketplaces, like the one here in Edgewater, New Jersey.


They do have other offerings, but the original and unique offering of Santouka is the tokusen toroniku ramen ($12.50 for small, below), a bowl of the shio (salt) ramen in white tonkotsu soup with toppings served on the side. This is the classic and what they promise will be mild and perfect, not too salty even to the last slurp.

In that side dish are six slices of perfectly cooked fatty pork cheek meat to supplement the pork bone broth, along with bamboo shoots, chopped green onion, and red pickled plum. This can be added as desired piece by piece or all at the beginning.


Not shown well here, but also of note is the story of Santouka's custom bowl, or donburi. They use a thick porcelain that retains the heat of the soup and are always a pleasing blue color with white rim. No matter where you eat Santouka in the world, the bowl will always be the same.

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Santouka Ramen Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

01 October 2019

Just Pho

VIETNAM 🇻🇳

With only a small ripple, the city's newest entry into a lackluster pho (and Vietnamese) landscape recently opened in the shadow of Madison Square Garden. The promise of "just pho" is almost accurate, as the menu concentrates on four versions of the noodle soup, cooked in the Northern Vietnamese style which you might find in Hanoi.

While the fourth option is a shredded chicken pho gà xé, the first three focus on either cooked or raw beef and a combination of the two. This seems to be the focus of their energy and a natural first order. The bowl below is pho bò tái ($11 for small (shown) and $13 for large), their signature "raw" beef pho which probably translates better as rare despite what it says on the menu.


The thin strips of beef will cook themselves in the bowl, arriving slightly pink but quickly changing to brown. As you will find in Hanoi, the broth does not arrive super complex and full of different savory, sweet, and/or funky elements as a bowl in Saigon might. The soup base is simple and savory, with hints of anise and cinnamon and possibly cloves.

This might be initially off putting to fans of pho, but know that it is intentional, as is the lack of herbs served alongside a bowl. Instead, thinly sliced green onion and cilantro is added before serving. Take a few sips when it arrives piping hot, but then grab the condiments at the side to suit your needs. This is the real magic, as their house made vinegar-garlic-chili sauce (toi ngam giam) is just waiting to do tricks for you.

Flat and wide northern style noodles.

Once the pungency levels are to your tastes, add a squirt of sriracha for the necessary kick and pick up the wide noodles found in northern-style phos. With all of these little things done right, and the background of actual Vietnamese being spoken between the staff, it almost feels like you are not in New York for a moment.

They also do hot Vietnamese-style coffees and an iced green tea lemonade (trà chanh, $3) that is really outstanding. Just Pho is a great addition to the city!

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Just Pho Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

30 September 2019

La Estancia de la Espiga

MÉXICO 🇲🇽

Besides two storefront addresses and one phone number, the nondescript green awnings over La Estancia de la Espiga match the rest on the block yet give little hint of what takes place inside. On one it says simply: Bakery. On the other: Restaurant. On a sunny weekend with eyes squinting to avoid glare, you can barely catch a glimpse of what takes place through the open doors and on the other side of two big windows.

Because of these factors, the first notice of this restaurant actually came through Instagram as the owners are using it quite proficiently to announce the daily guisados available on weekdays. Dig in a bit further though and you might catch what is not announced much any longer: Weekends here bring some outstanding barbacoa and carnitas starting very early, and the neighborhood does not need social media to remind them.


Once your eyes do adjust inside, the combined space and tables are often buzzing, especially on Saturdays and Sundays when families sit down together and place big orders. Cars are double parked and men carry multiple bags out of the store to take home. When you see this occurring, you should always investigate more to see what is so popular.

A bright orange sign outside uses a popular meme of carnitas preparation (see end of article below) and wordplay of the Spanish for Frosted Flakes cereal (Zucaritas) to announce different types available. Just inside of this window, a woman keeps the giant cauldron moving, the simmering meats giving the air a deliciously appetizing layer.


In the other window a bucket full of masa is leaned on its side and regularly scraped from, as giant light tortillas are made to order for each taco and as accompaniment to soups. This station is also in charge of shaping masa discs for tlacoyos, sopes, and all the rest of the antojitos available.

Noon on a Sunday ended up being too late to procure any of the weekend special barbacoa (the server said it was gone "muy temprano" on this day), but there was still consomé de chivo ($8, below), a beautiful bowl of tender meat and bone broth served with three of the aforementioned tortillas. A side of cilantro and onions came as well for those wanting to turn the goat into tacos.


Going back and forth between enjoying the tacos and the consomé on its own seemed to be the best way to go about things, the rich broth on its own needing to be cut by citrus and fresh greens every now and then. Two homemade salsas in ketchup and mustard bottles provided nice additions to anything they came into contact with. The tomato-based red salsa here is a smack in the face, use with caution.

Invited in by the sign, three tacos de carnitas ($4.50 each, below) were ordered in three different varieties. Maciza is the beginners carnitas, simply lean meat, while buche is made from the stomach and surtida is a combination of everything. You can order these on packaged tortillas for a dollar less, but this seems like a bad decision and no one was taking that route.


Buche.

As expected from the visual clues so far and the delightful aromas, each carnitas taco was excellent. After the initial disappointment of being to late for barbacoa, these quickly erased all bad mojo from the meal.

The restaurant seems to be a fan of memes, between bites be sure to look on the walls to enjoy a couple more. The meal was also joined by the random karaoke performer that wandered in with his own equipment and sang mellow ballads to the dining room from right next to the carnitas cauldron.


At the last minute a picadita ($6 with cecina, above) was thrown into the order as a way to "make up" for no barbacoa, but this turned out to be unnecessary. The salted beef was good enough, but the deep fried masa base and simple adornment of Oaxacan cheese was a far cry from the other items it shared the table with on this day.

When the normal cutoff times for getting barbacoa were inquired about, the server was hesitant to give a specific answer. On this day she spoke of large orders that had come in early in the morning and taken most of the available stock. It sounds like it will always be a crap shoot for this, but coming as close to their opening time as possible would always be the best bet.


[UPDATE 05 OCTOBER 2019: A quick return trip for the weekday menu]: As alluded to earlier, a rotating schedule of guisados is ready to go each weekday, keeping La Espiga busy during most lunches. On a recent Thursday, the temperature dropped dramatically and promised rain, so the chef decided to offer the pozole that is usually available on the weekends.

Pozole blanco estilo Guerrero ($12, above) is a rich, fatty pork wondersoup and cured all the ails of bad weather a few spoonfuls in. While green and red versions are everywhere, you do not often see this white version, made in the style of the chef's home back in Acapulco.


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La Estancia de la Spiga Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

29 September 2019

Zööba

EGYPT 🇪🇬

There are a lot of cultures currently offering their "street food" in New York City, but until this past Friday Egyptian was not quite one of them. You will find many Egyptians on the street serving great food at the city's halal carts, but these generalized menus do not really show the diversity of what you might find in Cairo, where Zööba started in 2012.

In its first move outside of Egypt, one of the co-owners has chosen his mother's home city as the popular chain's first stop. In a colorful, modern space the team here were all super busy on day one preparing foods for all the curious New Yorkers and homesick Egyptians who had had their way here for the opening.


If you have ever been to Cairo, you need no explanation about their most popular item ta'ameya. Often referred to as "Egyptian falafel," it is impossible to avoid but very unique because it is made with fava beans rather than chickpeas. Fava beans make each ball a bit denser and moister than your average falafel, and the taste you can judge for yourself. Each portion is fried to order and matched with various sauces and fresh greens depending on which you select.

Both the ta'ameya and the hawawshi (below) are inside of Zööba's freshly baked baladi bread. Travelers will also remember smelling this iconic bread around every corner in Cairo or Alexandria, each circular disc is made with whole wheat flour, has its top cut off after baking, and is stuffed with the contents of choice. The bread is a real treat.


Often a hawawshi is ground or minced meat combined with vegetables and spices, but here the beef is made of larger chunks which they claim are 45% vegetables. The cheese hawawshi ($8.50, above and below) adds an Egyptian roumy cheese along with arugula and tomato onion relish inside the baladi.

The bread holds up much better than your average hand held pita, making these options very good for takeaway meals during good weather. Don't worry though, there is seating inside, and once the initial crowds die down (this sandwich took about 25 minutes to obtain) the dining room should have a standard level of comfort for fast casual.


Zööba also serves a beef liver sandwich, koshari on the weekends, and a whole array of side dishes, dips, and freshly made teas and limeades. With this kind of spread available, grab a group and plan to eat at their large communal table in the back.

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Zooba Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

26 September 2019

La Churreria N.2

CUBA 🇨🇺

Cutting through Union City, West New York, Guttenberg, and North Bergen, this section of Bergenline Avenue is one of the East Coast's gems. It would be difficult to decide on any moniker to call the neighborhood by because despite Spanish being the only language heard, the area is quite diverse. After filling up with Dominicans and Cubans near the middle of last century, more recent waves have brought in Mexicans and Central Americans, but smatterings of South Americans are throughout as well.

So far there are no Canadian restaurants, but other than that if it exists in the Americas, you can probably find it in these four neighborhoods. During the day, most establishments are up and running but at night the true nature of it all gets going with families outside meeting their neighbors and of course eating. Restaurants and bars are full and the energy is fantastic.

Empanadas de guayaba y queso.

La Churreria is a workaday Cuban cafe in the southern reaches of all this that opens early enough for breakfast but really is a go to for affordable lunch and dinner specials. It fills up with a varied crowd of old guys talking politics, office folks coming for lunch, stragglers grabbing cubanos and coffee, and families. On weekends these families might be wearing their Sunday best and taking over multiple tables pushed together.

Working class Cuban diners like this are not so prevalent in the city anymore for whatever reason. Cuban cuisine is "cool" enough that many of the eateries are hip and modern, bordering on fancy. Dominicans running counter service diners throughout the five boroughs can certainly cook a great cubano, but a full menu like this is a rare sight on the other side of the Hudson. Here they are everywhere, and La Churreria is one of the best.


It can also be a great place to break up a longer journey, the comfortable dining room usually has at least a couple tables open and cheap bottles of beer are always cold. Eventually an order of one of those respectable cubanos (above and below) will happen, and that is when life starts getting very pleasant.

Always arriving super thin because of their toasting method, the sandwich is nonetheless filling and packs in all the necessary savory and sour parts that it is known for. Not shown is their excellent medianoche, the same ingredients on a delicious sweet bun that might even be a better choice.


Despite being such an economical place, the tastes are of true comfort and soul warming. From the daily specials list, the bistec a la palomilla ($8.95, below) will not knock your socks off with an amazing cut of meat, but the simple seasonings on this thin steak make you think of grandma even when grandma is from Iowa.

These specials always come with two side dishes, of which the black beans here are a revelation and should never be passed on. The cup comes thick with smoke and pork, and a plate of beans and rice would be enough to satisfy on days that require pinching pennies.


On the way out you may notice that like many Cuban eateries up and down Bergenline, La Churreria announces itself as "El Rey del Pan con Bistec," the king of the steak sandwich so popular in the neighborhood. That title might be given to "two friends" further north, but after this steak you might vow to give it a try next time.

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La Churreria Restaurant & Cafeteria Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato