>> Eat the World NYC

18 October 2019

Babka Bakers


Babka Bakers is a little shop that specializes in wholesale, but their Maspeth storefront is also open to the public. Whole loaves of many types of bread, as well as sweets sold by weight are displayed for walk in customers, who seem to be plenty. The neighborhood has fallen in love with Babka since they opened in 2014.

Their story is one that is more and more common as the people in this country care more about what they put in their body. Everything is made on site by hand, fresh without any GMO products. The rye flour is even imported from Poland because their home country was very proactive in the banning of all Monsanto products. This is reason enough to come support them.

Their breads are mostly made with sourdough, advertised as easy to digest and full of critical nutrients while having low sugar content. While waiting to get to the front of the line, quite a few of these loaves were the choices made by the folks further up. If you are close with any Europeans, you know how much bread means to them and how disappointed they are with the options in this country.

Next time a situation like this arises, send them to Babka to see what they think.

It is quite difficult to leave a Polish bakery without at least one pączek ($2, above and below),  the country's masterful jelly-filled donut. This of course is giving the pastry short shrift though, as it is so much more than that. The pączki here come in different options depending on the day, but this beauty is filled with plum jam.

Pączki dough is made with a small amount of grain alcohol that acts to keep any of the deep frying oils from getting to the chewy interior, as shown by the bite-away view below.

The most exciting purchase of the morning may have been the Kraków-style cheesecake ($8.50/lb, above and below), a crumbly and dry version of one of New York City's favorite desserts. The defining characteristic besides that texture is the use of dried sultana grapes and the lattice pattern on top formed with a buttery crust.

This same crust is used on the bottom as well rather than the more common cookie crumb version. A line of some type of sweet jam also runs through cake parallel to the crust.

A $2 slice of sernik Krakowski.

Babka Bakers Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

16 October 2019

Nana's Kitchen


On the street in front of Nana's Kitchen, just off Morris Park Avenue, you can barely notice some color that had long ago been painted right on the asphalt. It is so faded that the intention does not come to you immediately, but the three bands of red, white, and green that used to be bright and crisp were actually the Italian flag.

Back when these colors were laid, the space here was a bagel shop and across the street was a busy Italian cafe. This specific block of Hone Avenue had been given the name Rocco Miano Way shortly after the death of the namesake Italian-American man who lived here and had a larger than life presence in Morris Park.

But as time passes, the character of neighborhoods shift. As has happened in Belmont's "Little Italy," Morris Park has also seen quite an influx of Albanians over the years. Across the street from each other right at the point of that faded Italian flag are now a popular Albanian sports bar and Nana's Kitchen, which moved in about six years back.

Come at anytime during the morning, afternoon, and evening, and you will find its tables filled my mostly Balkan men. You are likely to be greeted in Albanian if you could pass as one, for there are not many others showing up here and speaking different languages. For this reason, it is easy to skip the portions of the menu that do not focus on Albanian specialties, backed up by the fact that plates of qebapa are arriving at almost every table.

This meal started with a small bowl of fasul ($4, above), which they simply describe as "bean soup" on the menu. You sometimes see this also called grosh, but here the hearty white bean stew feels very homemade and rustic, as if nana herself brought it out to you. Certainly there are onions and tomatoes and olive oil used but also chopped herbs and chili.

Do not pass up a nice byrek, available here in either cheese, meat, or spinach varieties. The cheese byrek ($5) below had a very thin exterior that got crisp in the oven but was otherwise very soft and savory. Five dollars does not often fill you up these days, but if you came in for nothing else, hunger would probably be avoided for quite a few hours. Grab a cup of yogurt for $2 to go with it if you enjoy dunking your byrek in something creamy and slightly sour.

Those aforementioned plates of meat are available focusing on one meat or as a combination of three. Upgrade to the shop salad for $1 extra, a fresh mix of tomatoes, cucumbers, and onions rather than lettuce. Most of the other tables had made this move as well.

The combination ($13, below) comes with five skinless sausages known as qebapa, a ground beef patty called qofte, and suxhuk, a dried and spicy sausage full of red pepper. They throw a slice of feta cheese in there that combines nicely with not only the meats but the shop salad, and of course no Albanian meal is complete without a basket of their freshly baked bread.

Stuffed peppers ($11, below) come full of ground beef, but it is the sauce that really gives this dish its punch. That basket of bread will come in handy to mop every last delicious drop off the plate. The table had that awkward moment late in the meal where the kind server wanted to clear dishes, but with some of that orange-red delight still left, it had to be rescued.

If desired, wash it all down with a refreshing Albanian orange soda called Ivi ($3, below). This is not overly carbonated and is not too sweet, making it quite a good drink, helping to cut the grease from the meat.

Enjoy your stay in Morris Park! Both sides of the Adriatic are both alive and well.

Nana's Kitchen Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

15 October 2019

Yafa Café


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.

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

13 October 2019

Thai Cook (at iCook)


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.

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

09 October 2019

Hokkaido Ramen Santouka


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.

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

01 October 2019

Just Pho


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!

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

30 September 2019

La Estancia de la Espiga


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.


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.

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