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.

Cafe Rokhat on Urbanspoon

26 January 2015

8 Paet Rio


Despite the fact that the Southeast Asian communities in New York City still are quite small, Elmhurst continues to be the forefront of most of what good Thai cuisine we are afforded here. Red Hook, Brooklyn now has a champion, and Hells Kitchen still has a small list of adequates, but it is here where one can expect that any of the ten or so restaurants will be good examples of what the country can cook. Paet Rio is in its first year of business and is an easy inclusion on this list, the name a nickname for the chef's hometown of Chachoengsao, just east of Bangkok and probably one day swallowed up by its suburbs.

Unfortunately the dish called paet rio, (literally "eight slices," the method in which a fish is served in a local dish), is not on the menu. When I inquired about specials the place had, I was directed to all points out from center, somewhat disappointing when a place name shows up so significantly. Thankfully all the food was cooked terrifically, and the early disappointment quickly turned to smiling faces at our table.

On the menu, most of what seems interesting here shows up on the largest section, described simply as "House's Special." The chef directed us towards the dishes that seemed to be garnering the most attention in media, possibly a safe play in her mind for a table of non-Thais.

Before our entrees arrived, her first recommendation was one we took and really enjoyed, the miang kha-na ($10.98, above). Dried pork and peanuts make the bulk of the size here, but a healthy dose of chilis and lime wedge with rind on mix with shredded ginger and onion to create the multi-layered tastes you heap into a leaf of Chinese broccoli and place into your mouth.

After this gets your mouth watering, the sai krok isan ($7.98, below) seems very tame in comparison. This veteran dish of Isan and Lao cooking is always splendid, and the small wedges of sausage did not disappoint here, needing absolutely nothing for dipping or addition.

I was excited to cover the table with curries, and started with kaeng phet pet yang ($14.98, below), a red duck curry that usually features pineapple but here had lychee and grapes along with the basil and bamboo. This was definitely a first for lychee to appear in a curry I have eaten, and I would not hesitate to recommend this, as it seems like the perfect sweet fruit to hold in as much savory spicy curry as possible, giving a bite that literally bursts with all the dish has to offer.

Having recently been wowed by the dish at a new Brooklyn restaurant using it as a namesake, it seems khao soi ($10.98, below) is now making a surge in New York. Bowls I had here years ago always left me severely disappointed after enjoying the magnificent bowls you find in the north of the country. We were all very satisfied with our curry here though, finishing off the soft slippery noodles underneath, as well as the disappearing drumstick that no one claimed to have eaten.

If I had one dish I was not terribly fond of at the meal it was khua kling ($11.98, below), which did come heavily recommended. Typical of more southerly cooking, this is a dish of dried meat, here using pork belly which was far too soggy for my liking. I have had very good pork and beef renditions in southern Thailand and always found them to be a very sweaty and wonderful street eating experience, and while this did pack a nice punch, it just lacked the creativity of the other dishes on offer here.

My only real regret this night though was only having two dinner companions with me, we needed a larger assortment. 8 Paet Rio is the type of place that is not afraid to serve non-Thais with memorable fiery meals, and that is just one more notch in the belt of the burgeoning, but still tiny, Thai scene here.

8 Paet Rio on Urbanspoon

22 January 2015

BG Café Creole


According to the awning, this casual Haitian eatery is open 24 hours a day, but by the time the sun goes down it seems like they are past their prime. Walking in for a fairly early winter dinner, the selections were not exactly bountiful, and I hoped lunchtime saw greater options for patrons.

The wall behind the steam table lists all manner of choices written in nice handwriting, but it is best to simply check in with the person working and ask what is available. She will open compartments and show you dishes, maybe suggest a few here and there. We inquired about a few interesting things and were told they would have to be prepared, which seems like a normal scenario in a restaurant, but here seemed like the last thing they wanted to do. Our questions eventually become a hassle, but only because we were unfamiliar with the place I suppose.

The one main entree that was available up front was poule en sauce ($8, above and below), which goes by the name "stew chicken" in other Caribbean cuisines. We took it with rice and peas (beans), also available is white rice. She will ask if you want more sauce, and keep saying yes as this stuff is delicious and a lot is necessary to mix with the mountain of rice. All sorts of seasoning and peppers are in this sauce, a dark and delightful bite. Two fried plantains are also included.

When we seemed determined to have another dish, but none of our inquiries seemed desirable to cook, she went to the kitchen and asked us to wait. A minute later a small cup of legume ($8, below) arrived in our hand, which we immediately ordered. As you can see, I asked for more plantains instead of more rice, which we figured to have enough of. This is probably a mistake, as the thick vegetable stew needs rice. What might surprise a vegetarian is that legume, the french words for vegetable, actually contains chunks of meat and is completely unsuitable for them.

Thankfully for meat eaters, the stew is great and we polished it off. It is think and slimy and oily, but those are all used in positive ways here. Besides the rice, maybe a loaf of bread would suit it well.

This is an enjoyable place to hang out in, even if the jukebox does screech to a halt when you walk in. Haitian cab drivers and others fill the space with French language, and it all seems like a crowd in the know. I will try it again for lunch someday and report back the findings at midday.

Bg Café Creole on Urbanspoon

19 January 2015

New Topps Bakery/Restaurant


The awning of this Flatlands Avenue Caribbean joint is not necessarily enough to draw the casual explorer inside, but some of the exotic words on the glass storefront are. What exactly is oil down and tania logg anyways?

Speaking with the people here for a moment, it is clear that they want to have the moniker of being pan-Caribbean and not hole themselves into one or another of the island nations. Flags from many are displayed from each along the bakery counter in front. The one seen in the photo below is Dominica. The largest flag of the place, on the wall in front, is that of St. Vincent and the Grenadines, the home of the owner.

You can find oil down in a couple other nearby countries, but only Grenada claims it as its national dish, and furthermore uses it as the name of a neighborhood party you may be invited to if you happen to make friends. It is now on my bucket list to get invited to one of these possibly all-day parties where everyone pitches in to help prepare the dish.

What an oil down ($10, small portion, below) actually is, sensual massage jokes aside, is a very hearty stew of breadfruit and coconut milk, callaloo, dumplings, plantains, and an assortment of meat. An oil down comes to life when the oils from the coconut milk simmer out and combine with the other ingredients. It is all cooked in one pot and allowed to do this for quite some time. the lady here called the stew a curry, and effectively it could be as coconut milk and a generous amount of curry powder makes the broth.

Available Fridays and Saturdays only

Along the top of the photo above you see one of the extremely dense dumplings that are served in the dish, guaranteed to fill you up even in its small rendition. I was asked when I ordered if I wanted everything in it, and regardless of whether I know what the list of "everything" entails, I usually make it a point to answer this question in the affirmative. I was greeted with a dish of chicken, pork, and fish combined. A lot of the former two meats were very bony and seemed to be more for flavor than bites. A quick search online about it brings to light the fact that all manner of parts of a pig is usually included in the pot when this is cooking, and some of those are bound to end up on your plate.

I also ordered a cup of the Grenadian cocoa tea ($1.50, below), a smooth but barely chocolatey drink that was quite tasty. I did note a hint of something savory in it, but could not distinguish it.

I enjoyed sitting here and listening to the jovial singing and laughing of the cooks from the kitchen, which drowned out the Jesus-themed radio that was playing. I kept looking over to the bakery cabinets, wanting to have a sweet tooth, but on this day the baked goods seemed like an afterthought. Of the four or five customers that came in to grab takeout while I was sitting here, everyone went for hot meals. When one lady from Grenada spotted me eating my oil down, she asked me about it and was quite proud that I had ordered and enjoyed the dish. She and her companion ordered one to go, and if it were not for the scarves and hats and winter coats we were all putting on to leave, it could have felt like our own version of the island party.

New Topps Bakery Restaurant on Urbanspoon

18 January 2015

La Goulette


While Tunisian food does not separate itself much from Mediterranean cuisines further to the east, La Goulette seems to be the first restaurant I have seen in New York City that takes an active interest in calling itself specifically from this small North African country. It adapts that pan-Mediterranean blue and white theme and makes a special restaurant in Williamsburg of all places, an informal counter and dining room. Order from their colorful menu boards and take a seat and wait to be called.

The wait might be more than most counter establishments, but that only seems a result of the complex dishes served here, all of which seem to come out very fresh.

Dining alone, I settled on a dish that gave me as much of an assortment as I could get, the roasted cauliflower + artichoke over chicken shawarma ($10, below). Often in Lebanese or similar Mediterranean counters, I cannot resist the allure of roasted cauliflower in the case, but inevitably it disappoints me in its limp coldness. In this dish (and the $5 side that is served without the bed of chicken), the vegetables are warm and fresh, with burnt edges from the grill.

The shawarma is a softer (almost mushy?) cut of chicken than found on a spit, but is delicious. The whole thing could benefit from a healthy dose of toum, the garlic sauce native to the Levant, but alas is not widely used in Tunisian cuisine. The counterman will ask if you want your dish spicy, and saying yes is confirmed not to be dangerous in the least.

Obviously alcohol is not served here, and I decided for a cold beverage rather than tea. The La Goulette smoothie ($5, below) is banana, dates, and milk as per the menu, but has a fair helping of honey to give it a good sweetness. I taste a lot of banana, and the smoothie is good, but I would possibly ask for a higher date quotient next time since it is made fresh.

The small zone of the same name in Tunisia serves as the port of entry for Tunis, the capital of the country. This is a good metaphor for the first restaurant of its kind here in our city, a wonderful place to start.

La Goulette on Urbanspoon

17 January 2015

Amanda's Pupuseria


The "front" door on the side of this small hut fooled me with its open sign, making me wonder if it was connected to a dining room in the main building. On this sunny winter day I could not squint and see through the windows, and thus made the mistake. I found Amanda at her griddle, busy making the pupusas she is famous for, and scrambled to explain my error.

Needless to say, this is a strictly take away operation, but they do have a small table and a few chairs nearby for nice weather or optimistic winter days like this.

The little hut used to be a hot dog stand, and sits directly across the street from Maria Hernandez Park in Bushwick. The menu has about five or six options on it, but the lady before me and I kept ordering things that would require a wait. Her and I both ended up settling for chicharron y frijoles and queso y frijoles varieties. All options here are $2 per pupusa.

These thick corn tortillas are of course stuffed with their ingredients, and served with a small side of chopped cabbage and vinegar which is covered in a slightly spicy sauce, giving you the opportunity to create differently mixed bites. I hesitate to call this curtido because it is not fermented.

It is fairly obvious that Amanda has been in this game for a while, as the pupusas are excellent, especially for this part of the city. If you want your summer pupusas in a park and are tired of the scene in Red Hook, this will be a very nice alternative.

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