30 June 2015

S & J Moroccan

MOROCCO

Thank you New York City, it is now possible to walk into a storefront in Astoria and feel completely at home in the residence of a lovely Moroccan lady. Rita (sp?) will welcome you in and make sure every part of every minute here is filled with hospitality and warmth. Do you have a Moroccan mother? Well, now you do.

Inside of a square shop underneath a nondescript awning with two letters, a couple steam tables are set up for a mostly to-go crowd. She says 70% of her business comes from the hospital across 30th Avenue, saying modestly "People seem to like my food."

Add me into this group of people.


Couscous seems to be around at all times, and the plate below came out to a whopping $3 somehow, and seems to be all you can eat. The steam table is help yourself, and she will make sure to tell you again and again to make yourself at home.


Harira soup (below) is on offer as well, and was either part of the couscous plate or never charged when she added things up at the end. Either way, it is a nice big bowl and I could not imagine any price she gave to be unaffordable. It is hearty and full of flavor.


A Moroccan man was dining on a fish plate when we walked in, so we pointed and asked what was available fresh from the kitchen. We went ahead and got what he was having, and were a full $5 poorer because of it. A nice big salad topped with many olives and some eggplant purees were served with it, making the range of tastes we had already off the charts.


For dessert, we had roti with honey and sweet mint tea, all of which seemed to cost $5 together. Tea service was also unlimited.


For those keeping track, the whole meal (done in her head at the end of the meal) came to $13 and was obviously underpriced. She definitely listed the prices I quote above out loud though, so it was not a mistake. I would have felt strange offering up the normal $16 or $17 for this kind of bill, so we just added $10 to our total and thanked her profusely.


Hopefully prices for walk-in customers are enough to keep her in business, as this place is really something special to find in Astoria. Go during normal lunch rush for the freshest variety.

29 June 2015

Keur Coumba #2

SENEGAL

There is a #1 in the city as well, down in Harlem on West 116th Street amongst many other West African restaurants. This outpost is special though in the northern reaches of the Bronx in a neighborhood more known for its Caribbean inhabitants, a chance to stand out from the crowd.

Early by more than an hour to meet a friend, I walked in to scope out the place and got weird (but friendly) looks when I asked about specific Senegalese dishes. "How do you know thieboudienne?" asked a patron scarfing down a whole fish with his bare hands. The place seemed to have their game together on first glance, and I walked out excited about my upcoming meal, past a man tearing apart a greasy paper bag full of goat meat known as dibi.

I walked a block away and wandered into a Jamaican bar full of men ready to give me equally strange and friendly looks for showing up. The evening was perfect already and by the time I left I was bought one shot from the man next to me and one from the bar. Along with my two Jamaican beers, I almost stumbled out to dinner. Thankfully this city is full of such opportunities, to really feel like you are traveling and to receive the full hospitality of strangers in another land, even if you are only a couple blocks from a 2 train station.


The aforementioned thieboudienne (above) is Senegal's national dish, a bed of rice topped with fish and cooked vegetables. The rice and fish are the central focus of this dish, which actually translates from Wolof to "rice and fish." Here it is made to perfection, the meat of the fish, the sauce, the soft vegetables. As always, one very spicy pepper is plopped on top which can be minced and mixed or avoided altogether.

Served exactly as if you were in Senegal

After seeing other lone diners chowing on it, and tasting it myself, my biggest recommendation here is the dibi. When you order a portion, it comes inside a greasy paper bag (above) and is served with a side salad.

One thing that disagreed with me a bit while in Senegal was the constant aroma of freshly slaughtered goat, which made experiences in a dibiterie start off slightly uncomfortably for my foreign nose. Most places are takeout, and once that bag of cooked meat was handed over, the meal could be enjoyed back at home. Here in the Bronx, you can avoid the slaughtering bit and go right for the meat.

Mustard is cooked into the meat with onions and once everything is ready, it is chopped up into bite sized pieces (below), but still make sure to bite slowly to avoid the bones. It comes with an extra side of mustard and a small container of delicious hot sauce that especially resonated with my friend, who asked for another to take home.


As the train rumbles by outside, West African men continuously stream in and out to pick up their takeout. A few dine in the restaurant, but that seems to be secondary business here. The ones that do though will be happy to start a chat with you though, making sure you are keen on the food from their home country. A great place to make some new friends.

Click to add a blog post for Keur Coumba #2 on Zomato

28 June 2015

Alexandrina Seafood Restaurant

EGYPT

The city of Alexandria in Egypt is a still prosperous place with a relationship to the sea that has defined and strengthened it over centuries. The symbol of its ruined lighthouse, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, and the second tallest building in the world when constructed (after the pyramids) adorns both the flag of the city and its coat of arms. Traders coming by ship used its beacon to guide them in, bringing all sorts of goods and fresh fish.

The latter is the specialty here in Bay Ridge's newest Egyptian restaurant, a market as well as eatery. The modest place as a couple television sets showing news in Arabic, and many photos of its namesake city on the walls. Not everything is always available, but they will hand out a list of fish with pictures including branzino, red snapper, orata, mullet, red mullet, porgy, whiting, perch, tilapia, salmon, and striped bass. You will be offered different methods of cooking including open-faced grilled and baked.


When ordering a fish, you can select from their many side salads, some of which are shown below:

Egyptian style potato salad

Shepherd salad

Eggplant salad

Babaghanoush

Mint tea (it's Lipton)

While our fish selections were being prepared, we got an order of the grilled shrimp ($10.95, below), which was generously bumped up from eight to ten pieces as our party was five. The oil here goes well with the rice, but really nothing is needed but some clean hands for picking the shrimp out of their shells and eating.


It seemed natural to order both selections from the menu described as "Mediterranean fish," starting with the orata ($16.95, below), which we had baked as per the proprietor's suggestion.


On this night the owner was unsatisfied with the size of his white perch ($12.95, below two photos), but still wanted us to try them grilled so brought out two fish for us, for the price of one.



The other Mediterranean fish we went with was the open-faced grilled style branzino ($16.95, below), which comes topped with a delicious sauce that unfortunately covers most of the taste.


The orata gets picked apart

The warmth and hospitality of a Middle Eastern restaurant should never be surprising, but we left feeling well taken care of anyways. The owner is such a great man and was clearly after our stomachs, the money was simply an afterthought. This is a really special place.

10 June 2015

DDM Yupdduk

KOREA

On streets of Seoul or other Korean cities, a popular snack food purchased from vendors is tteokbokki, a simple dish of rice and fish cakes in a sweet and spicy chili sauce. After (or during) a night of drinking, hungry youngsters will crowd under a pojangmacha tent selling these dishes and others. In New York City, we do not have something like this yet, but a couple places carry the dish, including new specialty shop DDM Yupdduk.

The popular Korean restaurant with full name Dongdaemun Yeopgi Tteokbokki has opened (and closed apparently) a shop in Palisades, New Jersey, and since October a small location on 32nd Street in Manhattan. The Korean store can be found listed as one of the spiciest places to eat in Seoul, an honor that should not be taken lightly as Koreans enjoy their heat. Here in Manhattan, diners are given the option of three levels of spiciness.

Since it was our first time, we opted for yupgi combo A ($26.99, below 4 photos), which allowed us to sample the specialty but also includes three other dishes that pair well.


Sundae (above) might sound like dessert, but comes out first and is a sausage made from cellophane noodles, a much watered down version of what this usually consists of: blood and intestines.


Skewered oden (above) is fish cake in a an oden broth. This is commonly borrowed from Japan and usually served with spicy soups purchased on the street, working somewhat as a tastebud relaxer.


An assortment fried set (sic, above) comes with a handy pair of kitchen shears. You will find within one sweet potato, one seaweed roll, one vegetable to be named later, and one piece of squid.

And the real reason to come here if you have not tried the dish already is the yupgi topokki (another version of the word tteokbokki we talked about before), the heaping casserole of rice and fish cakes. We went for the assorted yupgi topokki (below), which adds a boiled egg and a mess of mozzarella cheese on top of everything. On their three level scale, this was made as "spicy" (rather than mild or extremely spicy), and definitely had our brows sweating. The red chili pepper sauce is not all punch though, it is moderately complex and has a sweetness to it that makes you want to dip the fried pieces and sundae into it all night.


To round out our meal, the table also shared a plate of squid over rice ($10.99, below) which we all enjoyed. This spicy sauce was a bit different than with the yupgi topokki, but hard to tell apart once everything was tingling.


And furthering the amount of red things that entered our mouths, we also ordered the spicy pork over rice ($9.99, below) which came with the spicy red sauce and was served on a cast iron skillet. It was tasty in a way that marinated pork is always tasty, but lacked the depth of the other dishes.


On a sandwich board in front, the restaurant also advertises ramen, and this seems to be a popular option amongst diners as I saw it on quite a few other tables. At $7.99 for a big bowl, it also seemed like a steal.

Until Midtown Manhattan gets itself a pojangmacha, this restaurant is going to have to do the trick for Seoul street food. It is a completely unpretentious and reasonably priced place. If we had not ordered multiple rounds of beer, our bill would have been no more than $20 per head for the feast we ordered up.

Ddm Yup Dduk on Urbanspoon

09 June 2015

Souvlaki Lady Elpida

GREECE

For over 25 years, Ms. Elpida has grown in significance and character in Astoria, serving her beloved souvlaki. On Facebook, a review pronounces boldly "She's been feeding me for my entire life!" History is a big part of the reason to go here, and can probably be viewed with each visit. Neighbors seem to gather and greet here, argue, and laugh together.

The bare bones of souvlaki is grilled meat on a stick. She offers this as chicken and pork for $3. You can have your meat put into a pita ($4.50, below) as well, and this option also opens up the gyro (beef) meat.


The meats have obviously been marinating for a good long time, the smells are simply mouthwatering. They all seem to be a bit chewy, but in a good way. The platter ($6, below) gives you the option of your choice of all three meats served with rice or fries, accompanied with pita and salad. After comparing the options, I think filling up with rice is not my recommendation and would stick to the lesser items. One man continuously ordered simple sticks over and over as we ate, downing at least four.


She also advertises a few non-traditional recipes as "pita creations", but these are all achieved with sauces rather than marinades, and did not look as appetizing. Smothering a chicken souvlaki stick with caesar dressing just did not seem appealing to me after enjoying her real talent for the meat.

30 May 2015

MEI JIN Ramen

JAPAN

The Upper East Side always makes one of my eyebrows lift a little when it comes to the possibilities of good food. Even places that seem tested still give me doubt, and MEI JIN Ramen is no exception. On a sunny weekend, my group of four sat down at a table immediately in a fairly busy restaurant, talked to our Thai waitresses, and listened to the soundtrack of Ozzy Osbourne, an ominous start. The decor is minimal and tasteful, not either enhancing or distracting from the environment.

They have a couple craft beers and some good small brewery selections from Japan, making a meal a little more upscale or thoughtful than a trip to an izakaya paired with Sapporo pitchers. Whether that is positive or negative, I let you decide.

I am happy to report that all else aside, the food here will be determined to win you over, even if you did pass groups of high-fiving fraternity brothers on your walk over to 2nd Avenue. A decent list of starters is almost too difficult to turn down, and we definitely ordered too many, starting with the lovely tuna tar tar ($9, below). Evenly portioned basil sauce, ponzu, and Japanese mayonnaise are squirted over the small chunks of raw tuna, a fish best trusted to the Japanese. Chili oil provides a nice glow, while sliced almonds, smelt egg, and chives add small hints to a dish you are not going to want to share.


The Japanese fried chicken ($7.50, below) is very good, tender and moist within a fried shell that is not so crispy but absolutely perfect. Salt and pepper seem to be portioned equally but are hidden when dipped in the excellent spicy mayo.


The most exciting part of the Asian shrimp toast ($9, below) is the combinations of textures. Wonton skin, green onion and ooba leaf are within the thin crispy shell, while a creamy honey jalapeño sauce accompanies.


Most ramen is of course full of pork, the broth flavored by fatty pig bone. MEI JIN is however all about the beef, with strong marrow smells and tastes creating very unique ramens. The Japanese chef here has cooked in Japan and cooked in New York, and has decided to leave pork off the menu, concentrating on these beef bowls and mixing in some chicken.

The winner for me is by far the bowl of miso beef broth entitled MEI JIN ($13, below), which is like eating a bowl of delicious fat, the exact point of enjoying ramen in the first place. Besides this fatty heaven, the bowl is full of colorful vegetables, sesame, and chili oil.


If beef is your love, then the beef soy ($10, below) is the game you should play, as the marrow is almost visible as its fumes rise from the bowl.


Two versions of the spicy chili option ($11 for beef, $10 for chicken) are runners-up for best options here, see below. Their bright red bowls glow with rich color and piles of ground meats. The flavors of each respective meat do shine through, but the game here is all about the ra-jan chili oil and chili pepper.



A side of the menu that is just as well-represented as the ramen, but that we did not get to, is full of Japanese-style curry dishes, also based on beef broths. On another occasion, this will have to be sampled.


Meijin Ramen and Dessert Bar on Urbanspoon

28 May 2015

Immaculee II Haitian

HAITI

In this part of Brooklyn, most of the Haitian joints have a pretty familiar theme: Very modest yet respectable environment, a woman who seems not to like you but will later warm up, an owner that shows up midway with a wide smile and wishes everything is just fine for you, and food that is incredible. If you do not speak French, you will be the only one there.

They like to do things as meals or sets here, so it is difficult to get anything that is not gigantic. At first we were offered a two person set for $25 that we thought would be too much. As it was, our two individual portions could have fed at least three.


Each platter we ended up with came with plantains, salad, beets, and a small portion of macaroni and cheese. The meats we selected were then doused with gravy that we actually asked for more of after discovering how tasty it was.


The single (cough!) serving portions run just $10 and guarantee some leftovers. There are usually around four or five meat selections on the steam table here, as well as your choice of two different styles of rices and some different sides. The place is a bakery but by nighttime the baked goods case is empty.

I decided to let a fellow customer who had come in for takeout guide my selections and do the translations with the still grumpy server. She asked if we liked this or that, and came up with a good plan. I recall this happening at other Haitian restaurants as well, as the people of this small country are very proud of their cuisine and always want to make sure their guests are receiving a proper explanation.


This inevitably leads to over ordering and plenty of leftovers as stated, but that is half of the fun and great for interactions. No matter where you are in the world, walking into a new situation or one with a language barrier can always be made better with a simple smile. Prospect Lefferts Gardens is no different than Papua New Guinea in this regard.


A short walk away, or one subway stop south is the other Immaculee, the original I suppose. Considering the constant stream of takeout business happening at both, I would say this is the go to franchise of the neighborhood for Haitians.

Immaculee II Haitian Restaurant & Bakery on Urbanspoon