28 August 2015

Lasani Restaurant


Lasani is definitely the benefactor of good location, hanging out right above the neighborhood's mosque, Masjid ar-Rahman. The mosque serves a wide array of Muslims who work in the area and plenty of cabbies, so the restaurant is a fun mixture of South Asians and West Africans, something you do not always see. They all need their halal fix though, and lucky for us, the food here is worthy of being their go-to spot.

On most days, two ladies run the front of the operation, the older one very businesslike, and the younger more friendly. She calls customers who arrive by name and always has a smile. The place is busy even during off periods of the afternoon between meals, as their customers don't have such a routine schedule. This keeps the steam table fresh, and the massive turnaround is always good for the product. Alas, not all steam tables are created equal.

On the recommendation of a very nice Facebook follower, I ordered a plate of their lovely haleem ($10, below, with rice AND naan, cheaper without). This is a beef dish, so the "Indian" on the front awning could just be to attract people who may feel unfamiliar with Pakistani or Bangladeshi food. When the meat is cooked, it is taken out and the bones are removed so that it can be crushed and put back in. The resulting texture is what you see below, and really needs a plate of rice to soak it up.

Wheat, barley, lentils, and loads of terrific spicing are also involved here in what is a lovely dish. Typically haleem is cooked for eight hours or so, but I did not inquire about the lengths they go to here.

I have been back for a full complement of dishes including chicken tikka, beef and lamb curries, as well as the spinach. The naan here is so hot and fluffy (made to order!), that an order is essential every time you come. As stated before, it seems hard to go wrong with their steam table selections as everything is always fresh.

As a spot for cabbies, and seemingly an open bathroom for anyone in need, this is probably the only part of the restaurant that I would tend to avoid if possible. A small sacrifice.

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26 August 2015

Guadalajara de Dia II


Sometimes I am a little worried when I visit the Bushwick/Ridgewood border these days, as the popular taquerias and delis have started jacking up their prices as the new residents start eating there. At this well kept place just over the border in Queens, prices are not rock bottom, but still far from stupid. Quality remains good as well, as their clientele can attest to at any given time.

Like many delis that find a niche serving their customers food instead of canned goods and sodas, they have cleared most of their deli products out of the way in favor of seating for dining inside. The kitchen is in the back instead of part of the room, but I definitely recommend taking a trip to the bathroom to see into the busy space and feel the heat of the grill. The dramatic music from afternoon telenovelas filled the air while we ate our lunch, and the proprietor had his eyes fixed intently on the action between taking orders.

Most places like this have a beer fridge but no liquor license, a quick recipe for a frown on my face. Here, that is not so, and they sell singles to accompany your meal.

An order of picaditas ($7, above) is well paired with tinga, a spicy chicken they do excellently here. Choose their green sauce, and carefully pick up these hard discs or use utensils if you must.

To get a sense of a variety of other meats, we chose three different tacos ($2 each, below), and ended up liking our cecina the best, which was spiced the best and seemed cared for. Barbacoa seems a bit more "goat-y" then usual, so good for people enjoying that meat the most, while the pastor flies very low and is not recommended.

On a normal afternoon, a second round of beers probably would have came out, but this day we had places to go and people to see, and we were back off into the heat. It's good to know that the area can still support some good, honest taquerias.

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18 August 2015

Plant Love House


It may not be saying much for New York City, but the Thai renaissance is definitely ongoing here over the past five years or so. Fantastic Thai restaurants are opening in Manhattan and Brooklyn. Another entry, this time in the epicenter of the Thai community of Elmhurst, Queens is Plant Love House, which has been around for about a year now.

A big chalk board dominates the place and serves as a place to look first for your meal. They have menus too, so pick some dishes from everywhere and get what sounds good. Maybe a recommendation from the server as well.

The menu is constantly in flux with shifting specials.

The first dish that arrived at our table was the green curry with chicken, eggplant and basil (Gang gai $6.95, below). As I like curries cooked at home (suckas!), it is served over a bed of vermicelli noodles rather than with rice.

When asked what kind of spice level we wanted for our larb, I piped up to say we wanted it extra spicy, and they did not have a hard time making this happen. Our minced pork salad (Larb moo, $8.95, below) was excellent, if a bit offal free, mixed with mint, onions, plenty of chili, and doused in lime juice.

Possibly the show piece of any meal here, and definitely the plate to order and share with friends is the khao pad nam prik pla too ($13.95, below). The two items that the plate centers around are fried rice (khao pad) and a spicy shrimp paste (nam prik) that serves as a dip for all of the other items, and also serves to burn the interior of your body from lips to stomach. The items that get dipped are a selection of vegetables and fritters, as well as a whole fried mackerel (pla too).

Dessert here is celebrated, and all the Thai tables will be ordering at least one of the large dishes to share. It is all the rage these days for the well off young people in Thai cities to order complicated sweet and sticky desserts that cost more than most people make in a day, and those have translated here to Elmhurst in a couple locations. If you need some sweetness at the end of your meal, you will not leave here disappointed.

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07 August 2015

Village Cafe

Five Star Village Cafe

Almost everyone in my group of five walked right past the small Village Cafe on Coney Island Avenue without noticing the restaurant, which is set at the back of the neighboring liquor store's parking lot. With it's colorful streamers, it all appears to be a working used car lot, and it takes further investigation to find that what is inside is actually some of the city's best Azerbaijani cuisine.

On their menu, the restaurant declares itself "Your Village Away From Home," and has a quaint rustic wooden environment for its patrons. The staff is more helpful than your typical NYC former-Soviet staff, and tables fill up with well-behaved customers, at least on a weeknight. Russian speakers are the only crowd here.

All of us were starving, so we charted a course to bring far too much food to the table and quickly, starting with Journey to Baku ($11, below), a dish of smoky grilled eggplant, tomatoes, and peppers, heavily laced with garlic.

After our journey to Azerbaijan's capital, we also tried the simple dish of kidney beans called lobio ($7, below), quite different from the walnut heavy version of neighboring Georgia. This also has some garlic, cilantro and cooked onions, but evens out fairly mild.

We were "upsold" on a basket of Turkish bread ($3.50, below), but did not mind at all as it comes fresh and hot. Azerbaijani food does not really have a good scoop quality to it, but the bread can be eaten alone or dipped in the soups that came later.

A must for any meal here is the assortment of kutaby ($2 each, below), a thin pancake with an even thinner layer of your choice inside. In the photo below are chicken, greens, and meat from back to front. We enjoyed the spices in the chicken the most, but the variety is nice and next meal we will certainly order more of these.

Also called "qutab"

Tea service comes in a big heavy and piping hot pot, costing $10 and enough for each person in our group of five to have at least two cups.

Kyufta-bozbash ($8, below) is a chickpea soup with a gigantic meatball plopped in the bowl next to a potato. The broth is warm and hearty, salty but not too much so and herbal.

Opening up the meatball reveals what I first took to be an apricot (after mistaking it for undercooked meat), but is supposed to be a sour cherry plum according to recipes. Watch out for the seed!

Our next soup was dushbara ($8, below), a soup with miniature homemade lamb dumplings. Needless to say, there was not enough to go around for a group of five, as we all thought this was delicious.

Our biggest leap of faith for the night was the djiz biz ($15, below), described on the menu as "Azerbaijani roast kidneys, heart, sheep testicles, liver, potatoes and onions." For something with so many "interesting" ingredients, I found that the potatoes and onions provided a lot of flavor, while the whole thing was quite greasy. Iron levels seemed low, and you probably would have no idea you were eating balls if no one told you. We felt some accomplishment after eating it, but no one particularly thought this was delicious.

Thin strips of handmade dough folded over each other are the yummy base for guru hingal ($12, below), which combines minced lamb and tail fat on top. These tastes are nothing extraordinary but classify 100% for comfort foods and create a very memorable dish.

Azerbaijani pilaf ($13.50, below) was highly recommended to us by the server, and was quite different from any other versions from Central Asia. Instead of a mixture, the non-rice ingredients are plated next to the rice, and include a hearty helping of dried plums, cherries, and apricots with the tender lamb. Very happy we got to try this unique version.

Two typical Azerbaijani pastries came to the table at the end of our meal under a soft blanket of powdered sugar. I first had shaker bura ($3 each, below) at the Baku Bakery in Bath Beach, and a couple times since in Georgian restaurants. They always seem to be vastly better in the Azerbaijani places, as they are here.

The two year anniversary of this restaurant has recently passed in June, but it seems to have very little recognition on the internet. Get a group together and enjoy this delicious secret for yourselves.

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04 August 2015

Puebla de Los Angeles


The southern Mexican states of Guerrero and Puebla are neighbors, and in this space on 5th Avenue, the former has passed the baton of ownership to the latter. Inside, not much of the decor or energy has changed, it remains a sleepy bodega with a sometimes busy kitchen and a couple tables in the back for the few people who don't take their food to go. The menu of the new kitchen is just as long as the old one, comprising much of typical Mexican dishes, but there are a few specialties worth looking out for now.

The sandwich of the house, called the cemita Puebla de los Angeles ($6.75, below) is stuffed with grilled steak, onions, and jalapeños. Their cemitas are all served with a nice layer of beans, lettuce, and cheese, and can include chipotle if desired.

More interesting, and not on a majority of Mexican menus in New York City is the fat taco placero, of which the one with a stuffed poblano pepper (when in Puebla...) is the most appealing. The chile relleno taco placero ($6, below) is almost a work of art, even if mine was basically reheated on a very slow day. The large pepper sits under a slice of white cheese and is stuffed with more cheese. It all sits on a bed of rice and well-seasoned potatoes and is far from wrapped with its oversized homemade tortilla.

Good luck picking this guy up without making a mess.

One drawback of the space still is the inability to purchase and consume beer while eating, but the fridge cases are full of Jarritos and other soda. As I popped the cap off one, the man in charge of stock smiled at me and later returned to ask if I could handle the spiciness of the taco. I assured him it was just to my liking.

30 July 2015

Taco Mix


When I lived in East Harlem for a year, Taco Mix was a place I came to often but never with a camera and notebook. It serves 116th Street efficiently, you hop in, eat on the small stand-up counter, or take your grub with you. No hassle, no fuss.

I recently walked by a couple successive days while working nearby and could not pass up the opportunity to pay the old place a visit. From the window, the view is exactly the same as it always was, a 3D menu showing you what to order without words. The beautiful trompo (spit, below) with pork rotates and advertises the big tacos al pastor ($3.25), by far the most popular item.

For the uninitiated, this type of taco is a cross-cultural product, a copying of Lebanese immigrants use of shawarma when they came to central Mexico. Of course, they would use other meats, but Mexicans love their pork and added their own touches to create this common sight. You can also see a gigantic circular cauldron bubbling to the right of the spit (above), which is cooking up the second favorites of the house, buche (stomach), and oreja (ear).

Some pineapple, cilantro and onion are used to top the simple looking but flavorful taco. If desired, their green salsa is also very good here and should be used. On the counter is self service radishes, peppers, and sauces, so help yourself.

Taco al pastor

An order of four tacos dorados runs $8, but if you ask nicely you can grab just one (below). This was eaten in the morning and was obviously yesterday's, but still good. A fresh order should be sought out later in the day. These come with a thin layer of beans, lettuce, crema, and a sprinkling of queso.

Come at the height of lunch time and fight for space with a bunch of hungry friends to be.

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25 July 2015

Bedawi Cafe


I do my best to ask about differences between countries when it comes to cuisines that have many similarities. One of these that I try with is Middle Eastern, a region that shares much of its cuisine from country to country. Of course there must be different ways to prepare items and subtle touches, but often in New York it is hard to distinguish and most restaurants get hurdled into a broad "Middle Eastern" category.

On its website, Bedawi Cafe calls itself out as a Jordanian establishment run by brothers from Amman, so I was very excited to speak with the people here and see what was on offer from this country that is otherwise unrepresented in this city. Unfortunately I was met with mostly what I would call a blow off, as the man who served us (definitely not the owner) was completely uninterested in talking about anything I brought up. When I made mention of mansaf, the national dish of Jordan and from the sound of it the most distinguishable plate, he simply said "Nah, you need a woman to make that." And so it went when I pressed for more, we basically received no information.

Luckily the night was not a waste at all, and the food here is very good. Here is what we went for:

Makdous: baby eggplant stuffed with walnuts ($5)

Hummus ($5)

Chicken ouzi: with vegetables, yogurt, rice inside phyllo ($13)

Bedawi pizza ($9)

Lamb pizza ($10.50)

Vegetable platter ($9.50)

Leg of lamb platter ($13)

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08 July 2015

Chiang Mai


On a recent visit to Kao Soy in Red Hook, we noticed that quality had not just gone down, but changed completely. The namesake dish was sickeningly sweet, just as one example. The staff seemed panicked too, somehow. We had happened to walk in for this meal on the night the head chef and brains of the operation left for personal reasons.

Thankfully it only took her just over a month to jump back onto her feet, bringing a lot of the same staff with her to a storefront just one block south on Van Brunt Street. It might even be better than the original, because she seems liberated here, and very happy. She talked to us our whole meal, swapping stories of food and ancient family recipes with my girlfriend who is also from Chiang Mai. I sat back and enjoyed my meal and the sounds of delight coming from her with each dish that came to the table.

We opened up with tum mamuang ($8, below), which used a mixture of green and yellow mangos in season. The defining feature and what makes this dish so hard to perfect is the combination of this fruit with anchovy sauce, done here to perfection. The dish is the spiciest we had, and picking up one of those innocent looking betel leaves to chew only makes it more so as they sit and soak in the chili.

We always ordered the nam prik ong ($8, below) at Kao Soy, and got it here as well. The paste is made up of pork, tomatoes, eggplant, and chili and is spicy but nothing compared to the first. Chayote and lettuce accompany the dish, as well as pork rinds as usual, making for many texture possibilities.

It was at the point when the jin som mok ($9, below) came out, that the girl to my right almost lost her chair and could not believe what a good representation of this Thai market specialty we were eating. Her only concern was not to let her mother know how much the dish costs here since you find it for well under a dollar in Thailand. Not for the faint of heart, but not that much of a stretch either, inside of the banana leaf is a sour fermented pork mixed with pork skin and ear, and a good amount of garlic. On the side for more texture awareness is lettuce, ginger, shallot, and peanuts.

And of course when in the north, one must eat the khao soi ($12, below), which is probably even better than it was in its best form a block north. The drumsticks are cooked perfectly, the thick egg noodles and rich warm curry broth dance together seamlessly. I prefer this thinner "bird's nest" fried noodles on top than before, but miss the papaya fritters. The pickled mustard greens and chili oil are there if you want, but are certainly unnecessary. This is splendid.

Our stomachs certainly said we should have stopped there, but we had the kitchen make one more dish that came recommended, the moo ping ($8, below). On point, these pork skewers gave me ideas for killer home bbqs, especially with the Central Thai chili-lime dip that comes with them.

This story will stay in flux for a bit, as the restaurant has "at least six months" in its current space. The chef wants to be permanent, but it is possible that the location will shift. No matter where it goes, we will follow.

Bravo, chef!

[UPDATE 22 JULY 2015: Photos from another meal]

Pla muk yang (grilled squid)

Krabong (papaya, taro, and banana blossom fritters)

Tum kanoon (young jackfruit salad)

Sticky rice

Kang hung leh (pork curry with salty rib tips)