28 April 2015

Punda Tibetan


The Himalayan community of Queens seems to be expanding out of Jackson Heights and taking over some turf in Sunnyside. Last year another Tibetan restaurant opened on 47th Avenue eight blocks down, in addition to the Nepalese mainstay on Queens Boulevard. Punda is the latest place to give it a try, a proper sit down restaurant from the chef of popular takeout spot Gangjong on Roosevelt Avenue in Jackson Heights.

The shop still has the smell of fresh paint and varnish, and unfortunately has no charm. Thankfully, with cooking this good, there should be plenty of time for that to change in the future. First and foremost, the momos here are off the charts, and come in a few options.

Beef momos ($7, above) are crescent shaped and appear more like their east Asian brothers. The pickled cabbage offers a sweet companion to your bites if you so desire, and the momo hot sauce is a must.

Chicken momos ($8, below) are the more typical round version you may be used to, and add $1 for any of your momos to be fried here. These guys got a round of ooohs and ahs from our table as we ate.

The group also ordered a plate of shabhalap ($7, below), a Tibetan patty stuffed in this iteration with meat but sometimes available with chicken or vegetables as well. The same dipping sauce is served with these, and inside to pair with your meat is added minced onion and coriander. I enjoyed the doughy crust and juicy interior combination.

When we brought in a couple six packs of beer (for now the bar here is unstocked and the place remains BYOB), our server recommended the chat phat ($7, below) for another appetizer we would enjoy. This is a crispy chicken dish (admittedly more crispy than chicken-y) that does qualify as South Asian bar food, greasy bits topped with onion, tomato, and green chili.

Our resident daal expert was enamored by the dal fry ($6, below), a simple dish on the small "Vegetable" section of the Indian page on the menu. The lentil-onion-tomato combination was spot on and seemed perfectly homemade.

After such a beginning, we all looked forward to our array of entrees, seen below:

Phing-sha ($9), Tibetan beef and potato stew with tingmo.

Shabtak ($9), spicy sliced beef with tingmo.

Langsha jintsel ($9), sliced beef with fresh celery.

Shabri sonam ($9), traditional Tibetan meatballs.

Ping-shogo ($7), vegetable stew with potatoes.

Tsampthuk ($7), barley soup, a Punda specialty.

Punda Tibetan Restaurant on Urbanspoon

15 April 2015

Garifuna Day


The Evangelical Garifuna Church and connected Community Center are not really the type of storefronts that you actively notice going about your business each day, but for one day in April the block of Brook Avenue between East 141st and 142nd Streets is taped off and the modest crowd spills out of the small venues into the street. The actual blocking did not necessarily appear to be sanctioned by the NYPD, but on this sleepy Mott Haven street, no one seemed to mind.

April 12th is Garifuna Day, in Central America and beyond, celebrating the first arrival of the Garifuna people in the area well over 200 years ago.

Inside, tables are set up and women in West African-like dresses speak to each other in Spanish. Yellow, white, and black dominate, as they are the colors that signify the Garifuna flag and culture from Belize to Nicaragua. I traveled in some parts of Garifuna Guatemala and Honduras, and was surprised after a long road in Central America to find people who spoke English. The Garifuna here in New York are mostly from Honduras and surprising to me, all spoke Spanish amongst themselves, rather than English or their Garifuna language.

Hand-written signs were taped to the walls showing off cities where presumably members of the community center were from, spanning all the countries. A table to the right had a wide assortment of sweets to choose from, which many were stacking and stuffing into bags to take home. Smiles were shown my way from everyone, as is usually the case when an "outsider" makes their way into a community. Many men shook my hand and all welcomed me.

Near the back, the prominent thud heard throughout the room was found to be a woman pounding plantain in the traditional way. She seemed to be very focused and only nodded her head when I said the word plantain as part of a sentence.

The only dish on offer from the kitchen in the back was machuca ($12, below), served as a bowl of coconut-based soup and a baseball-sized sphere of mashed plantain. The mash is dense and fills you up quickly, so tear it off sparingly and enjoy the contents of the soup first.

Garifuna people all live near the Caribbean coasts of their respective countries, and as such a big portion of their diet is based on fish and seafood. This soup had both, a nice hunk of fish was accompanied by a small amount of conch and one shrimp. If you sat down at a Garifuna table, everyone would have a bowl of the soup in front of them and a large ball of the plantain would be placed in the center for everyone to grab from while they ate, creating a very communal atmosphere. Here in the community center, I had only my own hands breaking off pieces from the ball.

"Machuca" actually refers to the plantain mash or paste.

Back outside after eating, a percussionist had set up and was entertaining the crowd. Later a man took to the keyboards and sang. For the most part, a DJ played upbeat Caribbean music that got everyone bobbing their bodies.

31 March 2015

We Are Georgian


There is a bit of confusion, and quite a bit of anger, with the naming of this restaurant. Most people walking by would probably think the name of this Kings Highway Georgian restaurant is Brick Oven Bread, a name it would share with two other establishments around town. Unfortunately this seems to be the handy work of the awning maker, who made the decision for the shop owner, who named the restaurant "We Are Georgian." However the menus say it too. I am confused, but the owner said very clearly the real name.

Pizza boxes are stacked high like in a pizzeria, but these are for khachapuri here, which obviously does a swift takeout business. In front of these and some Georgian imported goods, is a refrigerated display with takeout meals and desserts on top. The proprietor of the place, known as "Aunt" will guide you through the process of selection from start to finish, and be thoroughly tickled when you are happy with your meal or any part of the experience. She is proud of her cuisine and very delighted to share it with customers, especially it seems when those customers are not Russian or Georgian.

We went in a different direction this meal than the normal cheesy selections of khachapuri, ordering the lobiani ($7, below), a bean pie with crispy dough and a thin layer of mashed kidney beans.

Traditionally, the beans are boiled with smoked ham to give them a more flavorful taste. A round pie of about 12" is cut into slices and piled up, guaranteeing that a group of three will be quite full after finishing this and their other choices.

One of the most exciting dishes of the evening was the nigvziani badrijani ($8, below), an appetizer. Walnuts, garlic, and plenty of spices imported from Georgia are baked inside of thin eggplant slices. A lone pomegranate seed is inside each piece, creating myriad textures and tastes, each bite a nice pop.

One of my most distinct memories while traveling in Georgian was going to bars full of men eating khinkali and drinking beer, not sure which part of the combination was more important. These men would all have twice the dumplings and twice the beer I would, but I think I was able to enjoy it just as much.

The khinkali ($8.50, below) here are some of the best in New York City, without the intense saltiness that is often found. We even received a short lesson in eating with your hands (duh) after our Ukrainian friend decided to eat his with fork and knife. Amateur.

New to me was the chakapuli ($9, below), a tender lamb stew that gets its green color from herbs and tarragon. Six or so chunks of the meat sit in the hearty stew, which is also fortified with white wine. I am not sure what the bread situation is here, but this would be beautiful paired with some homemade bread fresh from the oven.

Remembering the beautiful satsivi we had at Toné Café in Brighton Beach (also the home of an oven spitting out amazing bread), we asked Aunt for this but were steered to the bazhe chicken ($11, below), a dish oddly listed under salads. The walnut sauce is much less intensely nutty than its friend, not scraped and licked up like we had that night. Each hunk of chicken was welcome though, the bird being left on the bone and wonderfully moist.

For dessert we gazed over at the counter to catalogue our choices. The first that came back was a square slice of what was referred to simply as "ideal cake" by aunt. A quick online search calls this "men's ideal cake" and translates from the Russian muzhskoy ideal. Regardless of the name, caramel butter cream oozes out between layers, a hint of brandy shines through, and walnuts again are used. It is quite a treat.

I am unclear on the prices, but our bill grew by a whopping $4 after the two desserts arrived. A small piece of Armenian cada (below) was our second selection, a crunchy sweet wedge that was much more moist than it appeared. Our table enjoyed every bite of our two desserts, despite being supremely full.

We Are Georgians on Urbanspoon

26 March 2015

La Morada


When people talk about their travels to Oaxaca, or give recommendations about the Mexican state to the southeast of the capital, most likely that conversation will revolve around food. I remember getting plenty of advice before my travels there, and being rewarded with a delicious plate at every meal. The biggest memory from my travels in the city also called Oaxaca was of a white sauce called mole blanco, as I was lucky enough to be traveling there around Christmas, one of the holidays where you usually find it cooked. Given the mixture of cultures that Oaxaca is known for, the cooking has evolved from many different directions over time and produces some thoroughly unique items.

Menus in New York do not include mole blanco, and to be fair, even the menu at La Morada does not have it! Some great reporting in Serious Eats last year sought it out, but it was still near impossible to get your hands on until the restaurant got the attention (with no credit to Serious Eats given) of the New York Times this year. Now apparently, you can roll up on any given Sunday and find the wonderful dish ready to go. In fact, four out of the five moles listed on the menu, plus the blanco were all available when I went.

Mole blanco ($12, below) is absolutely a star, but when tried, should be given a stage and served without other moles. It has the power of unseen chilis in its recipe, but its unique smoothness and nutty flavor beg not to be contradicted by other spiciness during the meal. It pairs better with rice and beans and cheese, maybe some plain tostadas or other unabrasive antojitos.

The nuttiness comes from four different nuts: two varieties of almonds, peanuts, and pine nuts, which shine through the brightest. It is a sauce of rare form and excellent craftsmanship. Those aforementioned chilis are habañeros, always playing their important role but never upsetting the balance between the nuts and garlic.

You knew I gathered my advice from before from experience (read: mistakes), so here were the other moles we ordered that afternoon in addition to the star. First, the mole Oaxaqueño ($12, below) which is the product of seven types of dried peppers that are rehydrated during cooking. It is the only mole listed as "VERY spicy" but we did not think it packed the punch even of the verde. The pork chops are the house recommendation for meat with this dish, but we found them less interesting than the succulent chicken.

The mole verde ($12, below) is good, and was the favorite of my two dining companions. This to me though is less unusual and contains all the very familiar (and very delicious) tastes of Mexican cuisine we usually eat, green chilis and habañeros. That being said, it certainly is worthy of being on any order here.

Towards the back of the restaurant is a large bookcase with quite a few titles and a makeshift lending library. One might think they were in an anti-establishment coffee shop had the smells been different. Protest stickers adorn different parts of the place, and you start to feel the owners are trying to stir more than their culinary pots. But those culinary pots are what will grab and hook you. The words "kushi vaa" are on the front of the menu and roughly translate to "healthy eating" in the Mixtec language of the owners, giving away the true higher cause of the establishment.

La Morada on Urbanspoon

23 March 2015

Atlas Mountain


Since Bay Ridge's La Maison du Couscous closed years ago, the city has in my opinion had a void in Moroccan food that is not quite filled by the options available. A couple new places have opened or reopened around town, and Atlas Mountain is the first of those I will check out.

In Morocco, eating out was limited from what I saw to locals finding their way to a bowl of harira at a night market. Most cooking went on inside of the home, and tourists were left with sub-par versions of Moroccan tagines and other dishes at restaurants that were only in existence to feed them. Pulling up to a bowl of harira, always served with a healthy slice of good bread was a treat in itself though, and something I usually did at least once an evening. I was early to dinner at Atlas Mountain and thought there could be no harm in ordering the harira ($3.50, below) to tide me over until my friends arrived. At this price point, I was very surprised to see a giant mug of the soup arrive with a full basket of bread. Technically this is a vegetarian soup, but it is filled with lentils, chickpeas, and small noodles, and so is very hearty. The broth is tomato based, but the spicing of saffron, ginger, and pepper is what really leaves the impression.

A cup of Moroccan mint tea ($2, above) is about as traditional as it gets with the cuisine, and tea service for four will run you $6, coming in a silver pot with glassware. Be sure to add a lot of sugar if they haven't already, for when in Rome...

In addition to the steam table of tagines, there is a cold case with mainly vegetable options. We asked for a variety plate ($8, below) which contained (clockwise from beets) pickled beets, red and green peppers, a smokey eggplant, and slightly sour spinach, all of which were enjoyed.

Tagines here do not come in the conically-lidded ceramic plates you usually find, but are well-stewed nonetheless. The lamb tagine ($10, below) is a very large plate with a Flintstones-esque hunk of meat on the bone served with stewed vegetables and yellow rice. It is more than enough for one person. The lamb is tender and fresh, falling right of the big bone.

Part of the joy of Atlas Mountain is the atmosphere, as most or all of your dining companions will be local North African families, with kids running around and adults discussing the politics that are on Arab-language Al-jazeera TV in the front. Either way, it is fun to soak it all in even if only here for a cup of sweet mint tea, and the proprietors will treat you as their friend just as they do their regulars.

Atlas Mountain on Urbanspoon

28 January 2015

Cafe Rokhat


Cafe Rokhat is sort of a unicorn, at least in the world of former Soviet establishments in New York City. The place is full of smiles and everyone takes very good care of the customers, even those with a lot of questions. Our main waiter was so friendly I had to comment on it with my dining companions multiple times.

"Rokhat" after all, translates to "enjoy" in Tajik, and they made sure we enjoyed every moment of our experience here. The food followed form exactly and also won us over, dish by dish.

Sometimes dishes are said to float here and there around the city from Tajik cuisine, but these often tend to be only things shared with Uzbekistan, in one of the city's many Uzbek restaurants. Here at Cafe Rokhat, the city's only primarily Tajik eatery, many things seem unfamiliar and turn out magical.

Despite this, first on our list of plates delivered to the table was the Tashkent salad ($8.25, below), a pile of shredded radish and veal tongue in almost equal proportion, as well as crispy fried onion, dill, and a creamy sauce. This dish for me was very new, and very delicious.

Without asking, we were still brought two pieces of bread ($1.75 each, below), but raised no protest as these fluffy discs are necessary for any Central Asian meal. It shows up as "kulcha" on the receipt, but this appears to be traditional Tajik non.

The non was amazing when dipped into the clay pot of piti soup rokhat ($8.95, below), which had very tender chunks of lamb inside its rich warm broth. This word "piti" comes from the glazed crock that is used to cook the dish, which also contains tomatoes, potatoes, chickpeas, and saffron as well.

Lagman ($7.99, below) is always a safe bet at Central Asian restaurants, and was as well here. Thick noodles serve as the base for this rich soup of meat and vegetables, which also affords more opportunities for the use of non.

We initially ordered a plate of samsa gizhda, four round meat pastries, but the restaurant was out this day and brought over a regular samsa ($3, below) and charged for it. This triangle is on par with others in the city, the meat and juices piping hot and falling out when opened up.

Do not schedule any first dates if you plan on ordering the homestyle potatoes with garlic and herbs ($5.95, below), which are very heavy on the garlic. Otherwise, these are tasty and addictive as fried potatoes tend to be.

The highlight of the night, and my most excited reason for being here, was the kurutob ($9.95, below), the Tajik national dish. The name derives from the Tajik word "qurut," which is the process of dissolving dried balls of salty cheese in water. This is poured over strips of flatbread, which make up the bulk of the calories in the dish. Fried onions and fresh cucumbers and tomatoes are poured over this yogurt-like arrangement. Traditionally you would start grabbing things with your fingers from a communal bowl, but we divided up the dish between ourselves timidly.

The national dish of Tajikistan, qurutob

We did not order any traditional kebabs this day, but did ask for the lulya kebab rokhat ($8.95, below), served in a bowl. The chunks of shashlik here are taken off the skewer after cooking and added to a wonderful oily goodness. I thought this was a definite step up from the normal kebab with side of tomato sauce that is usual for Central Asian meals.

Any Tajik meal is supposed to end with plov ($8.95, below), and that is what we did here. The lamb is very good, while the base of rice and vegetables is just so-so. After getting stuffed on so many delicious dishes already, we hardly thought twice about the semi-weak ending and were very happy diners.

It would be a definite step in the right direction if the city started to have more Tajik eateries amongst its vast sea of Uzbek food. The cuisines are similar enough to be indistinguishable with certain orders, but there are a few Tajik outliers that make it a very exciting meal. For now, Sheepshead Bay can offer you the whole experience.

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