23 July 2016

Tacos El Bronquito

MEXICO

For months the awning has been up for the latest expansion of taco empire Tacos el Bronco, just a block away from their main restaurant location. The corner of 45th Street and 4th Avenue in Sunset Park is now home to smaller offshoot Tacos El Bronquito, which seems to have been set up as a quick stop for people getting off the R train at the corner. This subway stop is active 24 hours a day with people coming home from work, but unfortunately the hours of the new shop only extend to 11am during the week and 1am on weekends.

It seemed that paperwork was holding the place back, as I asked a couple times when I saw the gate up when the opening would be, only to get shoulder shrugs and frustration. But last night, a mariachi band played for hours in the extreme heat while the shop offered free food for all those that passed.

I hung out a bit and mingled, but thought it better to judge the food on a real business day. Fast forward to Saturday lunch and two plates of tacos al pastor ($7.50 for 3, below) were presented in front of us.


Like the famous fleet of Tacos El Bronco trucks, this little shop has a good looking trompo in front, the spinning wheel of meat. The menu has a lot more length in it than I expected for such a small place, but for this first visit we stuck to the what they are best at.

Put either red or green salsa on your tacos, squirt some lime, and bite into some of the finest tacos in Brooklyn. For a quick bite, this little expansion seems more proper than sitting down at the full service restaurant, but still not quite the atmosphere of the truck, especially late at night.

What we found odd was that they would not let us order tacos in any denomination other than three, and these three all had to contain the same meat. This may have just been a weird oddity of opening day error, but they stuck to their guns despite us wanting a couple other tacos individually. The menu shows the price for one, but it's not possible to order just one. The price also seems spiked, as these same small taquitos are $1.50-$1.75 at the truck. $2.75 gets you their massive version at the restaurant, so I am not sure if they are planning to tweak this as it is easy to predict business going in either direction to their other locations.

At any rate, updates will show up as needed. Welcome to the neighborhood!

Tacos El Bronquito Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

18 July 2016

Ripe Kitchen and Bar

JAMAICA

Over the years, there have been at least half a dozen moments when I had conversations with Caribbean people all over the city who told me to come to Ripe Kitchen and Bar. People in Westchester County storage units, bars in the Bronx, and even randomly in Brooklyn spoke of it as the city's gold standard for Caribbean food. It has remained on my list of places, attaining somewhat mythical status during this time. Hearing of the backyard, I always wanted to bring a group here and enjoy the outdoor space, but getting friends up to the last station in Wakefield and then still needing a dollar van ride or a long walk to arrive is somewhat difficult.

Finally in the past two months I have come here twice, although not with big groups as desired. The first time was before the beginning of Copa America, hoping the spot would be all fired up for games of the Reggae Boys, Jamaica's national team. Unfortunately the TV in the small bar area here is forever turned to a general interest Caribbean channel that no one pays attention to, the crowd finely tuned in for just the food and drinks. I hung around, had a couple of Guinness bottles while watching people down glasses of their famous house made rum punch, and eventually had the jerk steak quesadilla ($8.95, not pictured), the only dish I could think about eating standing up.


That appetizer big enough to be a main was not amazing and seemed a bit out of place for sure, but it was tasty and I enjoyed spending more time to people watch. The place was almost heaving with people revelling in happy hour and coming for dinner. I could not wait to come back, sit down, and have a proper meal.

If you do come, it is much more likely that a table is available inside and there is a wait for the patio. Take a drink at the bar if you can find space, and put your name on the waitlist, as the interior of the place is much less appealing as the lovely backyard.


Come here in a relaxed mood, maybe as if you were in the Caribbean already. The service can be a bit like it might be on one of the islands, always friendly but even more relaxed than your mood at times. With time, meals here are perfect, without it you may be frustrated.

The cocktail list has an assortment of interesting drinks, including the classic mojito ($9, above), which comes garnished with plenty of fruit and a thick wedge of sugar cane. As mentioned earlier, most of those around you will be enjoying the pink rum punch, and will recommend it to you at every opportunity.

We got into a conversation with the couple next to us halfway through our meal when the verbose woman said something that made everyone around giggle. She eventually recommended her plate, Ripe's "Big-Ass" Jerk Rib-Eye Steak ($22.95, not pictured), apparently the reason so many people come here due to its inclusion on some food show.


For a first proper meal at Ripe, we could not turn down Ripe's original "backyard" jerk chicken ($8.30 for 1/4 chicken, above), served with choice of white rice or rice and beans. It is good, and the jerk sauce it comes with would be great on anything. They cook their jerk here with less char and crisp than you usually see, letting the marinade and bird speak louder.

The Kingston curried goat ($12.95, below) comes with a warning that it is served "just like it would be in Jamaica" which just means it still is attached to the bones. I do not remember ever eating curry goat off the bone, so this warning (let's call it a diss) seems aimed at crowds more used to meals at McDonald's rather than Jamaicans. The curry itself is warm and rich and feels so real somehow. It was the highlight of our two plate meal for sure, and I could not imagine coming back and not having it again.


Outside on the patio is also a big jerk smoker and bar that was not in use on a Tuesday night. On weekends, the afternoon and evening parties here must be really lively, with the wonderful smells that come from the kitchen and grill and the rum punch flowing.

Ripe Kitchen and Bar is actually in Mount Vernon, a couple blocks north of the Bronx, but I have included it in both categories because it seems to belong to both places. New York City travelers can reach the restaurant by taking the 2 train to Wakefield or Nereid and walking 20 minutes or so, or getting off at 233rd Street and catching the dollar van that runs up Edenwald Avenue.

Ripe Restaurant Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

15 July 2016

Al-Basha Restaurant

LEBANON
PALESTINE
SAUDI ARABIA

Al-Basha is already a neighborhood favorite, no secret to anyone in Paterson. Along with the many middle eastern families and business lunches we saw on a Tuesday, locals of all stripes were coming in to enjoy what we discovered was a fantastic restaurant. The awning reads "Middle Eastern & Lebanese Cuisine" while the owner hails from Palestine. Their menu runs the gamut.

They were a little overwhelmed at the peak of lunch time, but this may have been due to a surprise visit from the health department that some of the employees had to cater to in the kitchen. Regardless, they handled it well and were always friendly. Our meal was only delayed slightly, and well worth the wait.

Lunch seems like a great time to come here, as they have a daily rotating specials menu that has interesting items each day. The national dishes of many countries of the Levant make an appearance. On Mondays, Palestinian dajaj musakhan, Tuesday has Saudi kabsa and Egyptian mloukhieh, Friday has Jordanian mansaf. While not national dishes, Yemeni mendi and Palestinian makloubeh show up on different days. While these versions may not adhere strictly to the cooking styles of each of those countries, you get the point. I actually looked at AirBnB listings in the area, thinking I could stay for a week and try everything.


Before our mains arrived, a plate of pickled turnips came, along with lovely bitter green olives. Seen above is also our plates of tabbouleh, one of which was not ordered. Generosity was not in question throughout our meal.

The restaurant has a fresh juice bar at the front and my ayran came in one of their cups.


To get a general sense of the restaurant's "regional" appeal, we ordered one relatively unadventurous and ubiquitous plate, the beef shawerma ($11.99, below) which comes standard with hummus, baba ghanouj, and Turkish salad. Even without tasting anything else, we would have known the place was special. The hummus is drop dead delicious, smooth and glorious in every way. Also smooth and creamy, the baba ghanouj has a slight tang that might be mistaken for sour cream but certainly could not be.

The meat might have taken second fiddle to these meze, but even it warrants praise. The knifed-off slices from the spit come with charred crispy ends and plenty of juiciness inside. The marinade is wonderful. I'm running out of superlatives with an even more delicious plate still to come!


Tuesday specials had three options, but I was most struck by the kabsa ($11.99, below), a dish named for the rice and spices and served throughout the region. It's origins are in Saudi Arabia, where it is considered the national dish.


The rice is infused with plenty of cumin and even pine nuts for a slight crunchiness that is excellent. They serve the dish with chicken here, a full half bird. The spices used are also superlative heavy, and the skin comes crisp. The only problem is getting pieces of that skin in every bite, but even without the meat of the bird is somehow so moist throughout. A really amazing dish.

I specifically remember the words "Holy Shit!" coming from my mouth after the first few bites.

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

14 July 2016

The Fish Dock

ICELAND


The Fish Dock is like a little secret that Closter, New Jersey is not really ready to share with the rest of Bergen County. When we visited, the place was doing a brisk business to locals picking up fresh filets of fish imported from Iceland, the home country of the owners. The only clue from the outside is a small Icelandic flag in the window that is surrounded by a bouquet of USA flags.

The selection of fish is actually quite substantial considering the origin is all one far away country in the North Atlantic. I imagined finding a few selections from Iceland amongst an array of other more local catches, but they stick exclusively to their homeland, errr... waters.


In addition there is a small cooler with packaged goods that have been imported like herring and caviar, as well as their house-made tartar sauce and wasabi mayo. They even sell lemons and potatoes to make sure you can go home and make fish and chips easily.


In a brief conversation with one of the owners, I learned that on Thursdays they make their own fish and chips, outside of the summer season. Expect this to start back up some time in autumn, adding even more excitement to the little spot.


The cod loins ($13.99/lb) looked perfect for fish and chips, so we purchased enough for a big meal and fried up some potatoes as well. Apparently the dish is a popular one for tourists in the country, if not really the locals. Any way to eat Icelandic cod seemed like a no brainer to me, the fish is fantastic.


Our home spread included a beer batter with paprika for a bit of spice, as well as The Fish Dock's tartar sauce, which is excellent and generous with the dijon.


Pulling apart the cooked fish was like looking into the inner workings of a piece of art. The cod was exactly the right taste and texture for fish and chips, smooth and buttery and extremely fresh.


The shop also has a small assortment of kitchen goods with fun names that makes you feel like you are in an upscale IKEA, a land where oven mitts are $15 instead of 2 for $1. Just like IKEA as well, there was also chocolate. The semi-sweet bar we picked up was good but did not knock my socks off. For now at least, Switzerland is safe. We'll be back for fish though.


In addition to our cod, we picked up arctic char ($16.99/lb) and wolffish ($12.99/lb) and will post those meals when they are cooked. Please share your meals and ideas if you happen to go to The Fish Dock!

[UPDATE 20 July 2016: Those fish were delicious too!]

Fillets of arctic char.

Bouillabaisse with Icelandic wolffish.

13 July 2016

Balimaya

MALI

The first time I walked by Balimaya in the Bronx, I simply took a photo and made a note to come back. A quick search online brings up almost nothing, except for a small Rachel Wharton Daily News article that mentions a customer from Mali. With my interest heightened but trying not to get too excited, I returned again, only to find nothing on offer for lunch during Ramadan. I did have a short conversation with the matriarch of the kitchen in her limited English and my very limited French, and ascertained that she was from Mali as well.

Patiently awaiting one of the five pillars of Islam to pass, I returned again last week after Ramadan for lunch and once again was faced with what seemed like an empty steam table. Luckily a couple lids were pulled off to reveal two available options: chicken and fish. The chicken seemed more appetizing, so I pointed at it and sat down. I was there around noon and told the soups come out around 1pm, so future diners should heed this advice.

It seems that Balimaya wants to advertise more than Mali for sure. Postcards of Alassane Ouattara, the president of Cote d'Ivoire are on the wall as well as an Africa's first presidents poster. Islamic texts in Arabic also adorn the walls, as does an advertisement for a tae kwon do course that looks to be taught by a West African.

I was asked whether I wanted a small or large portion, and if any experience in West African restaurants has gone to good use, it is to pick the small. What came to me was an $8 or $9 (depending on the price of the bissap drink I also ordered) mountain of chicken that was easily two full meals.


As seen above, the plate is also served with a large portion of puffy white rice and a small squirt of pepper sauce that should be approached, much less used, with caution. The sliced onions and tomatoes that top the chicken are part of a mustard and vinegar sauce that is used on many types of West African grilled meat dishes. Here the mixture is sharp and oily, both in favorable ways.

Those oils that collect at the bottom of your plate are perfect for adding to a spoonful of rice. The pieces of chicken, already expertly marinated, also take in the sharpness of the sauce, each bite a work of art. This stuff is good.


On this visit the woman from Mali was busy in the kitchen and I was served by another friendly woman, who was from Guinea Conakry, the country English speakers refer simply as Guinea, whose capital is Conakry. Not Guinea-Bissau, that is to say. Most of Guinea is closer to Bamako, the capital of Mali than further flung regions of the northeast such as Timbuktu which have little in common with the capital. The lingua franca of the three ladies working here I do not know.

My trip to these regions of Mali many years ago, written about in my book Calm of the Niger, was met with the unfortunate situation of never having delicious meals. When I first learned that the chef was from this lovely country, I admit to doubting the food. After one meal, these doubts are gone, and I am looking forward to coming back with some friends and having a larger spread.

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

02 July 2016

Gorditas/Esquites Vendor

MEXICO

Normally the family that causes pedestrian traffic on a corner to be impassable would be reason for anger, but in the case of the group that usually sets up shop on evenings in Sunset Park, it is cause for celebration. On the Northwest corner of 45th Street and 5th Avenue in front of the Metro PCS store, two brothers take and make orders, while mom (wo)mans the fryer, tucked behind a public phone box.

A long list of items is on multiple bright signs, advertising gorditas, empanadas, esquites, elotes, and all manner of drinks. Rarely a week passes that I cannot resist getting a cup of their beautiful esquites, some of the best in the city. Besides drinks, I rarely see anyone get much besides esquites and gorditas, and recommend you to follow form.


To avoid waiting for a bit, the easiest thing to do here is grab an order of esquites ($3, small, below), available in sizes up to $8. They customize every order and it is fascinating to watch the locals ask for their preparations just the right way. In my estimation it is best with everything, and that includes a thick slather of mayo, a nice sprinkling of grated cheese, a healthy squeeze of a lime, and topped with spicy pepper powder.


In Mexico, the larger street esquites operations will have a whole separate cart with self-serve condiments that always completely overwhelm me with options, so it is nice to have the guys here do it so spot on with their selections. Too much lime, and you kill your own creation.

The gorditas are served with either chicharron or chicken, and always come with at least a six minute wait, sometimes up to 15. Most of the people lingering around are waiting for their order, so it only makes sense to try them as well. If there is one thing I know about New York, trust a line, unless it is full of white people.


The gordita ($3, above) is probably not my favorite Mexican antojito to begin with, but the version here is clearly outshined in my mind by the corn. That being said, I can rarely resist ordering both together, so maybe I subconsciously like it more than I admit.

The meat portions are admittedly small and hidden inside, when you open it you see the freshly sliced avocado, their nicely picante salsa, and other dressings. This is meant to be eaten by hand and comes wrapped in foil.

They usually start setting up around 5pm, so come after that. For $6, you have pleasantly filled your belly, and had fun doing it. Your hands may be a bit dirty, but you brought a wetnap, right?

21 June 2016

Jeaw Hon New York

THAILAND

I never noticed what used to be above Playground and Taitoon Karaoke, two places that are popular with a late-night Thai crowd getting off work at other restaurants. Now there is a small neon sign with the words "jeaw hon" written in Thai, a type of hot pot popular in Thailand that uses broths made fiery with the spices from Isaan, the northeast of the country that is famous for its spicy foods.

Walking up the stairs from the street to this second level shop, you already get a sense that whatever happens inside, it is going to be fun. Neon and bright colors are generously used, and piles of funny Thai puns found on truck bumper stickers are mounted to the walls.


Every diner here starts with a 90 minute buffet that costs $12.99 and includes lots of vegetables and various meat balls. Prices start to rise when you order meats and seafoods, which will be necessary to round out your meals. Including one drink each, our group of five ended with a bill of $35/person.


The interior of the place seems designed to match these bumper stickers, with each set of doors and shutters a different bright color, while the fabric of the benches changes every foot or so. Here are some shots to get the feel:




They will bring out most of the food just after your broths come, so deciding what to put in and when is completely up to the diners. As with most hot pot outings, we dumped most of it in immediately and went fishing afterwards.




Two broths come in your hot pot, below on the left is the jeaw hon, the Isaan style the place is named for, and on the right is tom zabb, which is sour and even more spicy. No relief to be found on either side of this hot pot.



Each diner has unlimited refills on their sauces, from left to right a spicy seafood dip, nam jim jaew, and sukiyaki sauce. All three are quite good, while combining the seafood sauce and sukiyaki, the only non-spicy option, made for my favorite flavors.


Truth be told, the hot pot will not change your life. But coming here for the experience is reason enough. It is a lot of fun, and Thais from the area have already made it a busy spot even on a Monday night. The broths have room for improvement and the cuts of meat could be nicer, but there should be time for these things to get better. Even so, a night here with friends is a great decision.

Jeaw Hon New York Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

20 June 2016

Romanian Garden

ROMANIA

Romanian Garden has been on my to-do list since I started making to-do lists. Since that time, they have renovated and expanded, and with the passing of nearby Bucharest Restaurant and Ridgewood's Romanian Coffee, they are now the standard-bearers of Romanian food in all five boroughs. What brought me back finally was football, of course, and the Euro Cup game against Switzerland that they nobly tied.

As I walked in, I first thought they had the game tuned to Univision, as Romanian can easily be mistaken with other romance languages when not heard clearly. 

The menu here is quite large, so my solo visit does not come close to exploring much of it. A bigger group could take a nicer stab at the cuisine, which can be influenced and shows hints of all of its surrounding neighbors through history. I will update this post when I have the chance to come back with friends.


Per mL, Romanian beer and sparkling mineral water are about the same price. They each satisfy their job admirably, on this hot day with football on the television, I needed both.

Under the heading of "soup" on the menu is a list of items that almost exclusively are called ciorba, but this Romanian word is a bit more specific than just soup. It actually denotes a soup that is made sour by using lemons, sauerkraut juice, and/or bors, a bottled liquid ingredient consisting of fermented wheat or barley bran. Still interested? Try the delicious ciorba de fasole ($6, below), which simply goes by "bean soup" in English. Vegetarians beware though as the main ingredient is actually chunks of smoked ham. Perfect.


It was only in the city's Moldovan restaurant that I have ever tried mamaliga, so I decided to see what the similarities were as I retained fond memories of that meal. Here the appetizer mamaliga cu brinza si smintina ($8, below) is the yellow balls of cornmeal, or polenta, served hot underneath white cheese and dollops of sour cream.


While the dish goes well with beer, I sort of missed the bits of fatty ham that were present in the previous version. My decision to make it a main dish was probably an error, but by no means should take away from this being a part of your meal. Just by comparing the menus, mamaliga does not seem to be as strong a focus as it is in Moldovan cuisine, but it should definitely be a part of anyone exploring the food of Romania.

Romanian Garden Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato