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21 August 2019

Iraqi House Restaurant


Hints of a new Iraqi restaurant at this location started showing up way back in April as plans began to be posted. The main blue and yellow sign above was up by the end of May, but the gate remained stubbornly closed until just last week when all the paperwork was in order and the city finally came through with their visits. New York City now gets to enjoy the cuisine of Iraq, the latest nation to have its own exclusive restaurant.

The owner Mohammed is currently in charge of the entire operation, getting some help from family in the kitchen while he searches for a chef. He admits that the cuisine is very difficult to cook so finding the right fit will be hard, although he does not seem to mind doing the extra work himself for now.

Buraq ($4.99 for 3): an Iraqi-style spring roll.

The sign also makes the bold claim of "A Taste You Love," not speaking of the future when your mind will be changed but confident that the love already exists.

A trip to Paterson, NJ and the home of the area's only other Iraqi restaurant last year is plenty to convince you that love is imminent either way.

Kubba ($4.99 for 3): ground meat and onions within a fried rice crust.

Mohammed plans to expand the menu over time as the kitchen settles into a rhythm, but for now grab a group so that you can order a full complement of starters and appetizers. The two crispy nibbles above and two dips below were all great to start whetting the appetite and cure the hunger pangs.

For now the dips arrived with simple pitas, but the restaurant does plan on bringing in Iraqi bread as soon as possible.

Hummus ($5.99): spiked with a bit of paprika.

Jajick ($5.99): Yogurt dip with cucumber, garlic, and mint.

On weekends, Iraqi House Restaurant serves dolma ($13.99, below) which should not be skipped. Ground lamb, spiced rice, and garlic are halfway stuffed into large grape vine leaves.

Bamia ($13.99): Okra stew cooked with tomatoes and lamb.

Mohammed is obviously inspired by the fast food culture of the country he was born in as well, and has added a couple interesting items to the menu including an Iraqi burger, which was not yet sampled and the Iraqi wings ($9.50 for 5, below) which come served with a side of fries and soda.

The wings are described as being covered with their signature sauce, which is reminiscent of a spicy sweet and sour coating you might find on wok-fried chicken from a Chinese takeout. Now they just need a TV to show the big game.

As the main entrees start rolling out, the beautiful basmati rice used here becomes the focus. A touch of turmeric is used and creates the slight yellow color, while the rice is infused by bay leaves and cardamom. It made for a very nice base in each case.

Qoozi (more often Quzi) is a dish found in Iraq and its Arab neighbors around the Persian Gulf by different names, cooked in a few different styles that all require long preparation times and result in extremely tender meats. The qoozi lamb ($18.99, below) will probably be the focal point of many group meals here, and highest on the list of recommendations from the chef. In addition to lamb that practically melts away in your mouth, the fragrant rice is covered with small chopped noodles, yellow raisins, peas, and nuts, which all combine to create a slightly sweet blanket to wrap the savory dish.

The dishes are as if your grandmother made them, somehow the tastes feel like home.

For a little variety in an otherwise lamb-heavy meal, the qoozi chicken ($14.99, below) is presented in a similar manner. The leg and thigh have a delicious rub and the skin is slightly crispy by what appears to be a pan fry. Again the sweetness of the raisins and nuts creates wonderful warming tastes.

It would be a shame to have a meal without makhlama ($11.99, below), usually an Iraqi breakfast specialty, but opening hours here in Bay Ridge prohibit that. This does not necessarily need to be served with meat, but the version here cooks the requisite eggs together with lamb, the resulting concoction served over another bed of the basmati rice.

Versions of this can vary from extremely saucy pans that are drowned in tomato sauce or can be dry like this one, with the sauces and spices cooked down into the blend.

As with many Middle Eastern menus, there are also kababs available, but this group of six had reached its limit for one dinner. Follow up your meal with a cup of strong Iraqi tea ($2.50, not shown), meant for after the feast to help things settle.

If the menu does expand as promised, return visits to try the new items (and the burger) will be highly anticipated and of course updated here when they happen. Pay a visit to Chef Mohammed in the meantime and experience something very special.

Iraqi House Restaurant Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

19 August 2019

Djerdan Burek Brooklyn


If you were to dial 1-888-GO-BUREK right now, it would take you to the city's most famous purveyor of the savory (and sometimes sweet) Balkan pies, a 22 year old business built by a Bosnian family that arrived in the early 90's. A recent article in Culinary Backstreets was a good reminder that the Brooklyn location has been sitting on this author's to do list for many years, and served as inspiration for a visit.

Burek, when done right, is a simple and humble pleasure. There is nothing fancy about the finished product, but the skill involved in its creation translates directly to how tasty the end result will be. While differences do exist, the main idea of a burek is shared between the people throughout the Balkans, and thus enjoyed universally here in New York City. While this shop is Bosnian-owned, the customers in this part of Bensonhurst and Gravesend are primarily Albanian.

The menu could not be more simple. Unlike the original branch in Astoria, here Djerdan does not offer other Balkan items like ćevapi and keeps the focus on a mainly takeout business. A few tables are available in the space for dining in though.

A $5 burek slice (above and below) is available in cheese, beef, or spinach. Make sure to grab a cup of their traditional yogurt drink ($2) which is actually more for dipping than sipping, its sourness lending itself perfectly to savory flaky bites.

Both slices were enjoyed, although the cheese as usual is the winner. All three of these versions can be bought as a full pie for $18 if you bring a few friends along, or if you prefer more of the flaky crust in your ratios try the burek individual roll ($5, not shown), the same ingredients in a snake-like assembly that can also be enjoyed with potatoes or cabbage inside.

A big focus of the Djerdan business these days is right in the fridge as you walk in. They make all of their pies in frozen format, and you are likely to see a few customers coming in to pick these up to take home.

Save some room for their desserts as well, like the delicious čupavac ($2.75, left) and bombica ($3, right). The former is a sponge-like cake similar to the Australian lamington, while the latter is more dense, mostly chocolate, and more nutty. Both are covered in shredded coconut and excellent.

A meal here without at least one of them could never be imagined after this introduction.

Djerdan Burek Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

15 August 2019

Kopernik Polish Deli


The neighborhood of Rockaway Park is always spoken of as heavily Irish, but a walk down the two blocks of Beach 116th Street, the main commercial drag in the area, does not give this away. It has the feel of any random neighborhood in Brooklyn, Queens, or the Bronx with takeout Chinese and sushi joints, a red sauce Italian restaurant, pizzeria, some clothing stores, and yes one Irish pub. To get a better sense of the Irish community here, come on the day of the Queens St. Patrick's Day Parade, the second largest in New York City.

Amidst all of this, and just off of Beach 116th Street is a small and modern looking Polish deli by the name of Kopernik. This address has been home to a Polish deli for the better part of ten years, but this iteration is less than two years old. It does not seem like much on first inspection, but it turns out to be the perfect place to pick up food for a little picnic on the beach.

On any given day there are always plenty of gołąbki ($3 each, above), and these should not be missed. A solid filling of deliciously spiced minced pork is wrapped in boiled cabbage and can be sliced up easily even without a proper table or cutlery. A whole tray of these is usually available, but do not take too many as they are quite filling.

Instead, grab a cup of chłodnik ($3.99, below) also. This creamy beet soup is meant to be eaten cold and perfect for a hot beach day, nevermind the fact that you only have access to a cooler and not a stove or microwave. This is a staple of humid summers in Poland, immediately transforming your day at the Rockaways into the northern beaches on Baltic Sea shores. The beets, crunchy cucumbers, yogurt, sour cream, and dill all taste so fresh and act as an immediate coolant.

Another perfect score from the daily offerings is pasztet cielęco-wieprzowy (below) sold for $6.50/lb. This is a pork and veal pate or spread that is soft and savory. Unlike some French pâté, it seems lighter and not as liver-forward, allowing you to eat many slices of bread with it. A rack of loaves is there for selection, but the proprietor recommended a white rye bread (chleb zytni) to pair with it perfectly.

There are a few desserts available, but the iconic Polish pączek (below, plural: pączki) is irresistable. Grab one for each person in your group, as the fluffy pastry is hard to share given that the jelly filling never makes its way thoroughly through it and half the fun is finding that perfectly-proportioned bite. Unlike jelly donuts, 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. Chef's kiss.

On weekends the selection is larger, with pierogi and other items available for purchase already cooked. If they do not offer you a side automatically, grab a small container of sour cream and really get in the spirit. Kopernik also has plenty of packaged goods so all your crunchy and sweet beach snack needs can be fulfilled Eastern European style.

Kopernik Polish Deli Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

13 August 2019

Nurlan Restaurant 诺兰饭店


The food of Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region has always lived on the fringes of New York City, with sprinklings of its excitement here and there. Now closed Kebab Empire had a stall in the New World Mall of Flushing and a satellite branch in Hell's Kitchen called YANA, while the most notable and talked about restaurant is probably Brighton Beach's Kashkar Cafe. The problem with the latter, the new owner of Nurlan on Main Street in Flushing, is that the cuisine there is seen through the lens of Russians, who add far too much yogurt to many dishes and cook it not dissimilar to Uzbek cuisine.

This same type of outside focus can be true from the Chinese perspective as well, as in the new Jiang Diner in the East Village that replicates how the cuisine might be interpreted in Shanghai or Beijing. It even bills itself a "Northwestern Chinese" restaurant, completely erasing the identity of the Uyghurs (something of a habit for China), although this has not stopped local food writers to shamelessly fawn all over it.

At Nurlan, while still created with the neighborhood's Chinese population in mind, the owners describe themselves as "Central Asian style Turkic Uyghur food." Yogurt, it should be said, was only found in the form of a drink made from cow's milk in the fridge.

With all that being said, if you are familiar with Uzbek and other Central Asian cuisines, you will feel right at home here at Nurlan. Start off with samsa ($2 each, above), a racquetball-sized pastry filled with lamb and surrounded by slightly flaky yet moist dough. These pastries are a mainstay of any Central Asian kitchen and might come in different sizes and shapes depending on who is cooking them. Here while they might not make you scream in joy, they do the work and are satisfying.

A loaf of their Uyghur bread ($2, below) should always accompany the table during a meal, but do ask if it will be fresh as the one received on this day unfortunately lacked its normal crispness and seemed microwaved.

The Nurlan laghman ($12.99, below) is served in typical Uyghur style like a plate of spaghetti rather than in soup like its Uzbek and Dungan brethren. Like samsa, laghman is well known all over the region and cooked in many styles but all featuring meat, vegetables, and hand-pulled noodles. This version features wood ear mushrooms and a very slightly spicy and very tasty tomato sauce.

Despite being disappointed with the bread, the table continued to tear off pieces just to soak up each and every drop of the sauce once the noodles were eaten.

Even more exciting, and maybe making a debut in New York City is Ding-Ding laghman ($11.99, below) which features handmade extruded noodles that are cut into small pieces that resemble corn kernels before closer inspection. These are a pleasure to eat, but require putting the chopsticks down in favor of a spoon to scoop up equal portions of the oily noodles, meat, and peppers. Again the plate demanded to be mopped clean.

The restaurant has called in the talents of a nearby Xinjiang BBQ grill cart, which is now parked right in front of the door (see top photo). Any order of the lamb or chicken kebab ($2 each) from the main menu, or one of several from an addendum menu passed out in addition will see the griller get to work outside if he was not there already.

The three lamb kebabs seen below are just as good or better as the carts found up and down Main Street, and come dusted with a cumin-forward spice mix.

Listed on the menu as ravioli ($10, below), the bowl is what is better known as manti, small and delicate little dumplings served in a subtle meaty broth. While the first bite does not cause shock, the small nuggets are pleasingly addictive and on this occasion were gobbled up quite rapidly by three eaters.

Nurlan is clearly focused on its food. The humble space has about eight tables and not much else. The only splash of color comes from the psychedelic animal print tablecloths that seem to start moving by the time all the empty plates and bowls have been removed. Since this is an alcohol-free establishment, the food must have had a part in this. With a full stomach, it is clearly time to go and get started on planning that next visit with a larger group for dapangi ($20 or $30, not shown), also widely referred to as "big plate chicken" and one of the most famous dishes to originate in Xinjiang.

Nurlan Restaurant Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

12 August 2019

Perfect Taste


A few months after beloved Kopitiam moved to a larger space on East Broadway, Perfect Taste, another Malaysian cafe has decided to give the tiny space on Canal Street a go. It set up a little under a year ago, and seems to have a pretty healthy following, or at least as much as the room allows at any one time. One table with four chairs and two additional small counters allow seating for eight or so, but when that many people are there at once it can be a challenge just to get to the register.

But once you order and settle in, Perfect Taste has a charm to it that is enjoyable. The kitchen is hidden behind a half wall but you can still get a sense of what the chef is up to, cooking dishes one by one as Grubhub and Postmates runners wait impatiently outside. Inside, the man in charge takes good care of waiting customers, passing out water before being asked for it, and making sure things are tidy. The menu, despite being large in size, is small in options and fitting for the space. Hainan chicken, Singaporean laksa, kaya toast, coffee and teas.

If you have not already established the fact, Perfect Taste is not a place to come when you are in a hurry. If you pass this one criteria, and have a love for Hainan chicken, this can be a memorable meal. That most popular dish of Southeast Asia and especially Malaysia and Singapore is featured here, expertly poached chicken served at room temperature with fragrant herb rice that has been cooked with the chicken broth.

The plate of Hainan boneless chicken and herb rice ($11.98, above) is simple in appearance but certainly one of the city's best versions. The rice itself always competes to be the focus of the dish rather than the meat, and the small tray of sauces served alongside it make for a wide array of flavor combinations possible for each bite. The spicy red pepper sauce will almost always need a refill it is so good.

Three strips of the same poached chicken are used in their Singaporean laksa ($10.98, above and below), which is also available served with shrimp. This hearty bowl full of thick egg noodles is soft from coconut milk but edgy from spices and curry. Squeeze the lime they serve with it, as the initial balance favors the savory much more than the sour.

The bowl is a behemoth even if it does not initially appear to be, digging underneath the surface finds enough noodles to fill most bellies.

Pair your meals here with their special Ipoh-style white and black coffees ($4 each, not shown). Ipoh, in inland Malaysia is well-known as a coffee town, and both styles have a special brewing process. The white coffee is not white of course, but lighter in color than the black because the beans are roasted with sugar. The resulting "white" name is given because of the appearance after the mandatory condensed milk is stirred into the brew. It all sounds sickenly sweet to someone who drinks coffee without sugar, but give a try because it actually goes down quite well with the coffee able to shine through multiple layers of sweetness.

Even better than the main courses for enjoying this coffee with is one of their tasty kaya toasts ($4.98 each, below), available with butter, cheese, or peanut butter (shown). Even this dish seems to have a lot of care put into it, perfectly crisp bread holds very even layers of kaya and your choice of accompaniment.

Kaya is a coconut milk spread made green by pandan leaves and said to be an energy booster. It is commonly eaten for breakfast or during afternoon tea for a pick-me-up to get to the end of the day. Stopping in for a quick plate of this with coffee seemed to be a popular snack for several people on the occasion of the first visit here.

It is easy to imagine future visits to Perfect Taste for that sometimes necessary afternoon boost.

Perfect Taste Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

07 August 2019

Sakib Mediterranean Restaurant


It is hard to believe that it has been three years since a first experience with Eat Offbeat at the Queens International Night Market. That first taste offered small bites from Iraqi and Nepalese chefs, but the company has continued to grow exponentially, primarily as a catering source offering cuisines from the countries of its chefs, all refugees to the United States.

As the years go by and chefs make a name for themselves, even bigger things are starting to happen. Recently the company announced that Chef Diaa would be following another dream, opening up his own restaurant in Williamsburg, a neighborhood that could always use some better food options. This new place called Sakib opened on the 12th of July and is now in full operation.

Sakib (or Shakib) is a common name with origins in Sanskrit meaning either "reward" or "patient." It was not pressed during conversation whether this was the chef's own name or just the feeling he had when opening up this new restaurant, but either way the name seems fitting.

Again with the ketchup!

Dining alone only afforded the opportunity to try the classic Arabic shawarma ($13.50, above and below), but this ended up being almost a buffet as it comes served not only with the standard fries but also a decent amount of hummus and babaganoush. As you have seen, this type of shawarma plate has become something of a trend in recent years.

At this seemingly regular corner restaurant, order and pay at the start, find a seat, enjoy the sound of falling water from their homemade water features (one of which is not yet in operation and asks patrons to use their imagination), and your order should be ready soon.

The shawarma is good and benefits from its dips. And who knew how good babaganoush was as a complement to fries!

With quite a bit of hipster and upscale eating environments in this area, the simplicity and casualness of Sakib is a welcome relief when other business might bring you into the neighborhood.

A small conversation was desired before leaving to congratulate the chef on his "graduation" from Eat Offbeat and his new endeavours, but this turned into a chance for him to show his appreciation. A small package of cookies and slice of baklava were given free and greatly enjoyed as Chef Diaa was noticeably happy to have a customer who knew a bit of the history of his journey. It was a wonderful end to an all-around good experience.

Sakib Mediterranean Restaurant Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

06 August 2019

Birria-Landia Tacos


If you have been to Los Angeles in the past year, you have probably eaten from the truck on Slauson in South LA called Teddy's Red Tacos, which now commands multiple locations, a hoard of Instagram followers, and was even in a Super Bowl commercial. Even if you haven't, more than likely those famously red tortillas have probably graced your social media feeds in many ways, and always with that money shot of crispy tacos being dipped into cups of neon consome.

This and other trucks and restaurants like it serve birria de res, the beef version of the dish that many goat birria purveyors from central and southern México still laugh off amicably and otherwise. This is not that, birria de chivo (goat) is often something saved for weekends or special occasions, preparation starting at least 24 hours before a meal. People eat it in their best clothes after church on Sundays.

Let the sun go down before coming.

Birria de res has always been around though, savoured by the people in northern states of México and as far south as Zacatecas. In Los Angeles it was here and there, but the Michoacán and Jalisco-born generations of Mexicans who lived there still treated it without much respect. But a few years back the Tijuana flavors jumped the border and haven't looked back, the style seems perfectly suited for the culture of outdoor eating and food trucks and stands.

Most of these purveyors did not actually have roots in Tijuana, but when the style started to blow up got into the game fast. Pueblan taqueros are known to be the best in the business and can adapt to any taco desire. It is in this spirit that the non-TJ proprietors of brand new Birria-Landia Tacos have hit the street in Jackson Heights, seeming to have gone to study in Los Angeles and bring back the trend of birria de res and an homage to Teddy's Red Tacos at the same time.

Three tacos, mulita, small consome.

Jackson Heights and Queens and New York City as a whole can only hope that this truck is a starter point, a continuation of the trend here. Only three years or so behind? That is not bad for this town when it comes to certain things. But when it first rolled up two months back, the truck was just plain awful. Not expecting a meal here after an already large dinner, only a couple tacos were ordered because of necessity, but they were not finished out of utter disappointment.

Two months later, another shot seemed the right thing to do. They still are finding their legs, but the upgrades are evident. They are getting much better with their frying to get crispy tortillas, the birria spicing is improving by bounds, and their chile árbol salsa is a net positive although does not pack much heat. At $2, the small taco lines up with expectations of Roosevelt Avenue eating at night, but might still be their weakest link.

The mulita ($3, above) stands to take top prize here, using the same ingredients as the taco but adding cheese to melt it all together and that second tortilla on top. I heard the taquero describe it to a customer as a small quesadilla, but this interrupts the simplicity of a mulita, with nothing getting in the way of meat, cheese, and salsa. Those stupid Instagram boomerang pull shots of stringy cheese are just waiting to learn about Birria-Landia in New York City.

One normal courtesy of a birria de res vendor is a small cup of consome to use for dipping with your tacos, but this service is not offered here. Instead, grab a very worthwhile cup of consome for $3 (below) and make your own dipping station. This cup is not just liquid though, large pieces of the stringy beef are given in generous portion and ready to be ladled out.

One of the most interesting things about the truck is the curiosity that neighborhood Mexicans have for it. Our largest wave to this neighborhood came from Puebla, far from anywhere birria de res exists. As the truck still finds its legs and orders take a bit too long, waiting lets you hear the questions and see the faces that pass by, Birria-Landia is still foreign.

Their online hours show 5pm until late (later on weekends) but the proprietor says 6pm at the window. On this night, they had just arrived and started setting up at 6:30pm so a few beers were procured nearby. The smart move might be to give them a couple hours and not show up near any of these times, let them warm up and get into the swing of things as the summer sun sets.

After all, the grill needs to be extra hot to get those tortillas crispy and that cheese melted perfectly. Welcome to Tijuana.

Birria-Landia Tacos Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato