10 September 2014

Pico Rico

PERÚ

From the very beginning, Pico Rico seemed like a drinking establishment. Their menu is quite lengthy, and they advertise only food out front, but the interior space, alcohol lists including pisco and beers from Perú, and the existence of an actual bar in the rear make the place feel like the type of joint you meet your rowdy friends at and enjoy a game or party all night until they kick you out.

So it can be slightly forgiven that the food here is not the most excellent Peruvian food in the city or even the neighborhood, but the place makes up for it in charm and decent drinking snacks.

Usually a staple of Peruvian home cooking, the papa a la huancaina ($6, below), is offered here but does not even pack the punch of its description on the menu. The sauce is not as thick or flavorful as usual and seems very light, as if it is missing at least one ingredient. The potatoes are nicely fried and of course do their job soaking up alcohol, so by a few rounds this might be a tastier option.


The ceviche de camarones ($15, below) is very solid and appetizing, coming covered with goodies that all go in to a good mix. Plenty of lime has been used, the sharpness of the acid clear in every bite.


The highlight of this drinking party would definitely have been the jalea ($14, below, small order), a heaping plate of fried foods that are of course the perfect accompaniment to vast quantities of alcohol. I do not think there was an exception in the restaurant of each occupied table having one, sometimes the $23 large version. Included under the vegetables are all types of seafood, cassava, and corn kernels, all fried. This dish also has a fresh douse of fresh lime.


Two green salsas are on each table, and we all preferred the darker one which in large quantities will make you cry. Dipping all the fried shrimp and calamari into these creates a perfect bite.

Most disappointing might have been al ajillo de camarones ($15, below), which just seems too starchy and sweet, out of a box even.  A proper garlic sauce makes the dish of course, so we would probably pass on any further versions of this on future visits.


The bistec encebollado ($10, below) is also a bit disappointing and tough, but the sautéed red onions that cover the thin steak are delicious and almost worth ordering on their own.


Our meal ended on a very positive note though, with the enjoyable alfajores ($1.50) that they have for dessert. Even though we were past the point of stuffed, not a crumb was left.

Pico Rico on Urbanspoon

07 September 2014

Mitchell's Kitchen

JAMAICA

After taking the photo above, friendly Mitchell hands me a couple menus and asks me to help him out and spread the word about his tiny takeout Jamaican joint in Bedstuy. I smile and don't know how to tell him no one really reads my website, so I keep that to myself and sit down at the table he has set up outside. First things first, let's see how the food tastes.

The new awning has been installed and a few tables are planned for nice days like the one I stopped by on, because otherwise there is no place nearby to sit and enjoy the food. The tiny space only has room for a couple people to come in and bark their orders to the cook behind the bullet-proof glass.

The one page menu seems to go big with fish dishes, which take up the first half. A fish sandwich is the cheapest option, costing $4, while a large dinner of king fish comes in at $10 but will include some fixin's.


I was in the mood for stew chicken ($5, above, small portion) when I came, which is usually my #1 order at a new Jamaican place. The "small" plate is almost always too much for one person, and here is no exception, creating a very good value.

When ordering curries and stews you always get them served over a bed of the rice and peas and some pickled vegetables, which all combine to create delicious bites. I would next time ask for a bit more sauce for my stew as this was a bit on the dry side with the rice, but the meat is tender and juicy enough to not really need it. Every piece falls right off the bone.

The joint has a terrific neighborly vibe to it, and you will see Mitchell chatting with customers and nearby construction workers alike. Everyone around seems to know him well. We all should too.

Mitchell's Kitchen on Urbanspoon

Burmese Bites

MYANMAR

One of the most popular vendors at various Burmese festivals in the city has recently set up a roaming booth to attack the city's unwieldy street festival scene. These eyesores are full of bad arepas, Italian sausage, and plenty of music turned up too loud.

For this reason, it seemed that many curious folks were directing their glances, and wallets towards Burmese Bites in the short time I was around. It was definitely a little unicorn at the Broadway festival I found it at one summer Saturday. I am happy to see the main proprietor expanding his business and passion to more than just the Burmese community and the small amount of others that trickle through those events in Queens.


The most popular item is the tornado potato and is only $1. Basically it is homemade potato chips cut as a spiral on a stick, a fun way to present and eat such a treat. The booth also sells cheap snacks like spring rolls ($1) and vegetable fritters ($3), so two people can easily get one of each item and sample the range of offerings.


The cities of Myanmar have such a heavy Indian influence from the past when British colonialism did not really separate it from India, and many migrants came here in search of better opportunities. Naturally some cooking methods were adapted, and the main course cooked here is just that, and dish so common on the streets of Yangon and further afield. Available for vegetarians, the pea paratha ($4) is served with their curry and potatoes, as well as the namesakes. The owner of the stand was always the most noticeable at the Burmese festivals because you could see him preparing the dough for the paratha by twirling it up in the air and smacking it down on the table. This process still happens and all of the bread is deliciously fresh under the helpings of curry.


I ordered the meat-lover's version, the chicken paratha ($5, above) and was very satisfied with the complex flavors I always enjoy most about Burmese cuisine. The spice levels are not as high as its neighbors to the east and west, but there is so much going on here.

Various Manhattan/Queens Street Festivals

24 August 2014

Inle Lake Asian Fusion Food

MYANMAR

From outside, the restaurant does not seem like much, and is even sheltered by some trees when approaching from the south on Anderson Avenue. Most people might read the awning and pass by unaware of the treasures inside, as "Inle Lake" probably does not register in the minds of many. Word of mouth is going to have to keep this place going. The good news is that the chef and food inside are legitimate and a greatly welcomed piece in the world cuisine puzzle here.

I am writing a book about the Bay of Bengal and have had the pleasure of visiting Myanmar the past two winters doing research and exploring the amazing country. Last year I spent some time away from research in Shan State and Inle Lake, and found the food to be some of if not the best in the country. When word got to me about a Burmese restaurant specializing in Shan foods in Bergen County, New Jersey, I boarded the first NJ Transit bus I could and found myself a table.

I was positively giddy when the menu was put down in front of us, so many delicious temptations laid before our eyes. It took quite a long time to narrow down everything I wanted into the four selections we made. While we decided, I enjoyed the Inle salty plum juice ($3.99, below), a carbonated beverage that brings back very good memories.


Popular in many regions of Myanmar, the laphet thoke/Burmese tea leaf salad ($9.99, below two photos) here is by the far the best version I have ever had outside of the country. Over there when ordered, a shop owner will pick ingredients from many plastic jugs and bowls and mix it fresh for you, sometimes right in front of you while you wait. I enjoy the fact that they bring over a delectable plate full of individual ingredients here and mix it right before you eat.


Once fully mixed, you are free to add as much preserved garlic and hot pepper in as you wish to create the kick desired. The source of these fermented tea leaves needs to be closely guarded, as they are quite a few steps above anything else created in New York since I have lived here, including the delicious version that used to be made by the long-closed Burmese Cafe on Roosevelt Avenue. Peas and peanuts, toasted sesame, tomatoes, lettuce, lemon, and crispy fried garlic all combine with the tea leaves to create not only a complex flavor, but one of the most complex texture palates in one dish.


Our other appetizer was the Inle kin paung kyaw ($4.99, below), fritters of chicken and green onion that keep a spongy quality. Versions of this are all over the map in texture, sometimes on the opposite end and very crispy. The homemade "Marie Rose"sauce should be used sparingly as not to overwhelm the subtle tastes within.


In the last two years in Myanmar, I must have sat down for twenty bowls of Shan noodles ($8.99, below), which are also popular throughout the country. It is definitely one of my favorite dishes and always appears simple despite being anything but. The version here has longer noodles than you might find over there, and is presented fully put together. It is actually quite beautiful, and begs to be covered with the red pepper and pickled vegetables it comes with.


Sticking to the Shan theme, we were attracted to the Shan mala ($11.99, below), which is the only item on the menu that includes three red peppers behind it, serving as warning. As if that was not enough, the waitress also told us the same story and made sure we were prepared for the heat. The plate comes with a choice of meat, and the pork we ordered was slightly dry and tough, and would be changed to beef the next time ordered. The sauce and peppercorns made sure the focus was not on the cut of meat though, and our mouths and tongues were thoroughly numbed in the process of eating the dish. Burmese food is not as spicy as its neighbors in Thailand or India, so the top of the heat chart is not quite as high as it can be, so give the mala a try even if you might be initially afraid.


Arriving after we were already bursting was a small plate of complimentary beef curry (below) for our sampling pleasure. Curries in Myanmar tend both ways but this one definitely veers towards India rather than the coconut milk curries of Thailand.


Good things are happening here and great things are possible with some more time. I hope the "Asian fusion" theme never really catches on here and Burmese tastes grab hold in Cliffside Park. This menu is rich and deep, and for those of us that love the cuisine, does not need to be altered.

Inle Lake Asian Fusion Food on Urbanspoon

11 August 2014

Maima's Liberian Bistro

LIBERIA

Let me just go ahead and get it out of the way at the beginning. The only part of this lunch at Maima's I did not enjoy, was the fact that this day they were out of palm wine. Unfortunately they cannot import Liberia's own Club Beer, so the palm wine is the only alcoholic beverage that comes from home. If you have ever drank something in Africa or Asia referred to as "toddy," this is about the same thing, a usually less-than-delicious and very strong alcoholic beverage with one goal in mind.

At the time of this writing (and the time of me wandering up to the wrong shop across the street and asking the neighboring hair dresser if Maima's had been closed for long), the address on Google Maps was incorrect as the restaurant has completed a transition to a brand new space. When the hair dresser figured out what I was looking for, she raised her head and pointed at the clearly visible new storefront I had somehow missed.

The new space is very polished, yet inviting, and a Liberian flag is draped across each table. We arrived fairly indecisive and were thankful to receive a remedy which seems time honored and well served, the plate below which had samples of all her typical sauces of Liberia. With varying levels of sweetness, spiciness, and bitterness, all four options, including palm butter, palava, and peanut sauces, would have made a good selection, but we decided to take her other recommendation of whole fish in the end.


We also wanted to try the dish that Maima's seem to have become famous for, the pepper shrimp ($12, below), supposedly a fiery way to ignite your day or night. They certainly leave a tingle, but I have to say that they are either over-hyped as spicy or have been dumbed down over time for the non-Liberian crowd. That being said, the little guys do please, served whole and with shell on. Some Liberians eat these whole (pop it all in the mouth whole), so I did this for about half of mine, agreeable to my fingers which were getting very messy.

NOT the national dish of Liberia

The plate of whole grilled fish ($12, below) was a work of art I did not want to touch at first. Eventually it was devoured and thankfully so as the meat was so well-spiced and moist. It left us both drooling with each bite. The plate comes with two sides that you select, and the fish is blanketed with a layer of pickled vegetables and two sauces with different spice factors. One of these only required a tiny dab in a big spoon of other items to create a ball of fire in the mouth.


When we had originally asked her if this was too much food and explained our hunger situation, "maybe you eat it all" was her simple answer. We did not even come close.

If I lived closer, I could see myself coming in here for a quick beer and possibly an appetizer from time to time. The bar area is very inviting for one person to sit, and the room is very comfortable. Maima and what could be her daughter create a very friendly and warm atmosphere for all their guests. The big theater that was involved when she came to the table to put everything in takeout containers for us was almost too much, but each morsel was carefully packed away for us.

Maima's Liberian Bistro on Urbanspoon

08 August 2014

Little Nica'

NICARAGUA

I am normally not hot on pop-up shops, especially the food kind. But when word of one serving such a fond memory of mine from travels in Central America got to me, I could not resist to try it. Like most countries, Nicaraguans cover long intercity journeys on buses that have seen better days. And while this kind of travel creates wonderful stories, the most comfortable and relaxing time is spent at the roadside pitstops that happen every few hours. At almost every one of these, I could not resist ordering a quesillo, the simple form of which is a grilled tortilla with cheese, pickled onions, and cream.


They do the simple one ($5) here as well as a few fancied versions with meat and extras. The pictures here show the version with hunks of pork ($6.75) as well as an upgrade of pickled jalapeños ($1.50). The tortilla is cooked on the grill for crispiness but still remains flexible. The cheese was always the focus and most delicious part in Nicaragua and that remains true here as well as it oozes out onto your hands and lap.


The jalapeños add the necessary kick needed by anyone desiring spice in this meal. One is not huge but the contents are heavy and can be quite filling especially with meat. It might be ten times the price as those found a few countries south of here, but for what it is and where you purchase it, the deal is a good one.

145 Front Street (Summer 2014 location)
Little Muenster on Urbanspoon

21 July 2014

Leli's Bakery

MALTA

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

Gakyizompe

TIBET
NEPAL
BHUTAN

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