01 May 2016

San Marino Ristorante


When driving inland from Italy's coastal city of Rimini, one notices a change in landscape as jagged cliffs start rising up. Unless signs are read, it could go unnoticed that technically the country has changed to San Marino, a microstate within Italy that has a happy population of 32,000.

Does anything set the cuisine of San Marino apart from the cuisine of Emilia-Romagna or Marche, the two regions of Italy that the small country touches? While a flight across the Atlantic Ocean is probably a better way to find the answer to this question, we in New York City have San Marino Ristorante, connected to the SoHo Four Points by Sheraton. Glamorous, I know.

I walked into the restaurant entrance an hour or so before traditional dinner hour (four hours before traditional Italian dinner hour). Passing an unmanned bar and down the narrow hallway to the a couple connected and empty small rooms that make up the dining area, I finally found a staff member who confirmed I could sit anywhere. I took a spot at the bar, which is mostly used for hotel guests as a hotel bar, connected to the lobby. While I took a beer and the menu, a couple guests stopped by for a drink before heading out.

A quick search online compared with items on their menu came up with one dish that matched both lists: the pasta e fagioli ($9, below), a bean soup that can also come with bacon upon request. It is not uncommon in parts of Italy as well, but residents of San Marino enjoy this dish around Christmas time.

Thankfully it was cold out and the night was proper for soup. After a dressing of parmesan started melting, the salty beans and pasta had enough texture and substance to be enjoyable. The shallow bowl did not offer many bites, but my kind bartender brought some bread and I continued reading about the wonders of the tiny enclave. It is a stretch to say that I had a Sammarinese experience this day, but sometimes New York City needs a little stretching. At least I learned a little bit.

Please let me know if anyone has leads on the cuisine Holy See or Lesotho, I might be on an enclave kick.

San Marino Ristorante Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

28 April 2016

Pho 18 Ave


It was only on my second visit here that I noticed the place had a second name. As well as its better known "Pho 18 Ave" which adorns the menus and business listings, the awning also declares this "18 Ave Soup Corp." Thankfully, this second visit had come about because the first visit was so good. Given the state of Vietnamese restaurants in New York City, I wanted to doubt myself and return for what would certainly be a lackluster meal.

Before this post, clicking on the Vietnam tab on this website would show results of which July 2012 was the most recent. I rarely write about Vietnamese restaurants here, not because I do not try all the new ones, but because the meals eaten around town do not deserve to be written about. I have tried them all, including more modern takes on the food that got a lot of buzz.

And all along is the pho shop we all wanted that cannot be described close to lackluster, it just happens to live in Bensonhurst, for better or for worse. Inside the space nothing stands out or is memorable except for the food, the oversized booths and walls are just background.

The crisp cha gio ($4.25, below) are served with a heaping side of fresh lettuce and a tiny portion of other herbs, close to what you should find in all Vietnamese restaurants. On both occasions we ordered this, the rolls were perfectly fried up and full of minced pork.

It makes sense that a soup corporation should make such a good bowl. The pho xe lua ($7.95, below) is listed first, is more expensive than others, more massive than others, and absolutely the nicest bowl north of Atlantic City. If you do not require any spice, the broth is so good as is, and does not need any additions. It is the kind of warmth your body craves on a chilly day, and the six different cuts of beef within make for quite a varied meal.

Good Vietnamese is hard to describe in comparison with bad Vietnamese, but half growing up in Northern California, I was given the treat of the former for many years. There is just a freshness to every bite and ingredient, and that is mostly true of the food here. The bun thit nuong ($6.75, below) is one of my favorite dishes, and did not leave me unsatisfied. The pork chop (more on this later) is well marinated and just a little tough. Dump the fish sauce that comes with the order right on it, and mix all the greens and sauce underneath the rice vermicelli noodles.

On a second visit, we were surprised that the com bo kho ($6.75, below) was served as a stew, as it is listed under rice dishes. No matter as again the broth is top notch and all the beef parts within are tender to the point of melting. Rice does indeed come with the bowl, but seems an afterthought of both the chef and eventually for the diner in love with their soup and all its beefy, salty, bony goodness.

In the appetizer section is suon nuong ($2.95, below), which is called out as one pork chop. As shown though, we were given two very large pieces, making this an absolute steal. The marinades here are quite good, but as mentioned, the meat is just a bit tough and gristly.

Rounding out the meals was the banh mi thit nuong ($5.25, below), which came on a big pillowy baguette that was toasted so well it seemed like art. The tomato wedges seemed odd, and the pork was more of the same, but the sandwich is satisfying and very large for the price.

It seems the bar for Vietnamese has been raised a bit for New York City. We can only hope for a similar renaissance like we are seeing for Thai food around town, as we continue to starve for most cuisines of Southeast Asia.

Pho'18 Ave Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Dimple's Bombay Talk


It is not all the time that you see a restaurant so popular that it needs to open a second branch one block away, but this is what has happened on a small stretch of Oak Tree Avenue in Iselin, New Jersey. Back in 1988, a small eatery called Dimple Restaurant was founded and after a quarter century started to expand into the three location mini-empire it is now. While it has expanded a bit, they are letting the world come to them instead of spreading themselves thin.

The area has a high density of South Asians and an extremely high density of South Asian restaurants and retailers, selling all manner of jewelry, saris, and whatever might be necessary.

You could approach your meal from many directions when coming here, as they offer what they call "fusion" but what is really a collection of different styles of food Indians eat for casual meals. We did not touch upon the Indo-Chinese and even Indo-Thai sections of the menu and went straight to the gold standard and what seemed to be their most popular dish, tokri chat ($6.95, below).

Thinly shredded potatoes are fried into a basket that is filled with all manner of edibles. From crispiest to softest, you will find a mixture of fried lentils, peanuts, onions, yogurt, multiple chutneys, and probably a few things I missed. The best part about any chat is the extreme contrasts of taste and texture, and that is done brilliantly here, as sweet tamarind combines with savory lentil and each bite has a layer of smooth over the intense crunch.

There are many types of chat (their spelling) on the menu as well as an array of puri dishes, Indian quick fixes that are usually found from street vendors. Throughout the country you see people milling around busy vendors with spoons and scoops, doling out their prizes as ordered. While sitting down for chat or puri is a much different experience, Dimple's is the place to do just that.

There is also a page of South Indian food, and we could not resist the massive (almost a meter) masala dosa ($7.25, below), which was described by our server as small compared to the similar paper version of the dosa.

Towards the center is a nice portion of potatoes that is not too spicy at Dimple's, or at least in ours. The dosa itself is finely crafted and perfectly crisp.

The "Bombay Sandwiches" section of the menu is probably my direction for the next visit, with creations like the junglee jumbo and vegetarian hot dog sandwiches. Also of note, the "Dear Patrons" section on the back of the menu, a worthy read of the letter of the law here at Dimple's. I approve.

Bombay Talk Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

26 April 2016

Norman's Cay


When you walk into the slim space that is Norman's Cay, in the Lower East Side, the idea behind the decor is immediately apparent. Using textures, sights, and colors of the Caribbean, the goal is a transportation to a warm island. I think this is difficult to do in such a tiny space so far north of that warmth, but most likely the mood of the patron is more important in deciding the success of this tactic. Either way, the slow reggae rhythms are there to accompany your meal.

I wanted to come here to try lionfish, a species native to waters of the Indian and Pacific Oceans that is currently wreaking havoc on populations of reef fish in the Bahamas as well as many other reefs of the Caribbean. The management of Norman's Cay is proud to bring the fish to New York City and do what they can to help the problem.

In addition to the main dish, we tried a few other plates and had a great meal. Service can be a bit haphazard at times, which seems to be the consensus from other internet reviews, but with nowhere else to be that evening we did not really concern ourselves with hiccups. Before some mains, we went for the conch fritters ($11, below), breaded and fried balls served with a dollop of guacamole and a sweet and sour sauce.

Our first main course was the marinated jerk chicken ($18, below), served with a pineapple salsa, mixed green salad, and Caribbean rice and peas. While it is not the type of chicken that changes your life, it was the kind of chicken that makes your head nod while you look at each other in agreement that it is tasty. The sweet rice and peas are very well made and go perfectly with this dish as well as another we ate.

The photo below of our fried lionfish ($35) does not really show the scale well, as the fish is quite large. We were nibbling on the very meaty animal for quite a while. On their website, they describe the sauce as "cajun" served the way Bahamians enjoy it. We certainly enjoyed it as well, surpassing our expectations by far. Not only is eating a lionfish sort of a novelty, it is actually quite delicious and worth coming here to sample. The price is quite hefty for a whole fish here in New York, but it does not seem unfair.

One odd thing was that we were aggressively steered away from ordering the grilled version of the fish, told it would take over an hour to prepare. Without even mentioning it took the better part of an hour anyways, we found this a bit off putting, but thankfully the fried version was indeed good as promised.

Lastly, we had the braised oxtail stew ($21, below), also served with rice and peas. Fatty hunks of meat sat within the rich brown stew, which also contained fava beans. If anything, this was the dish that was not quite adequate for sharing, as all three of us wanted more than a third.

For those of us that have never been to Norman's Cay in the Bahamas, it is most likely to be recognized from the film Blow with Johnny Depp, based on the true story of a drug smuggling operation. Thankfully it has cleaned up its image over the years and now is just your typical tropical paradise.

Norman's Cay Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

21 April 2016

Hua Ji Pork Chop Fast Food


Recently on my umpteenth visit to Hua Ji Pork Chop Fast Food since the incredibly appetizing Real Cheap Eats post by Nicolas Chen written about four years ago, I noticed I had never written up the place myself. It took two or three more visits to finally do just this, as I usually make excuses to visit Hua Ji on my way to or from jobs and the like, but rarely have my camera and notes at the ready.

On my very last visit, it all became much easier, as they had taken over the space from a next door bus company and set up more seating and much more elbow room. Since they opened in 2008 (or so?), eating in here was an exercise in sharing space, as their two counters had around six chairs, but comfortably sat only two people. Now ordering to stay entails paying at the old counter and walking outside and next door to the new space to wait.

If the awning did not give away what your order should be, let me be clear: this is a one hit wonder. The pork chop over rice ($5, below) is that wonder, a dish most people come for, and a dish they take good care of. Each piece of fried pork I have ever had here has been satisfying, tender and fatty and juicy.

An order here comes served over a healthy portion of white rice in a white plastic bowl no matter if you order to stay or take away. Their sauce is always worth noting, a delicious salty, pickle-y glutinous blend with small ground up bits of pork. This sauce over rice would be an enjoyable meal on its own, but the whole combination is about the best five dollars you are ever going to spend.

The only other option worth diverting towards is just one spot down on the menu. The black pepper pork chop over rice is the same price and just a way to put a little kick into your sauce.

Hua Ji Pork Chop Fast Food Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

20 April 2016

Argyle Restaurant


It was over 50 years ago that the Argyle first opened in Kearny, New Jersey, back then just serving a few groups at a time. You may not know the scope of the expansion now by dining in their front room, but a big dining hall in the back can open on large occasions. Originally it was mostly just a place to get the best fish and chips, and after all these years, that dish remains the reason to come as our waitress was keen to point out. Fresh catch is brought in daily for the fried dish ("fried dish" is a bit redundant with "food" in Scotland).

The main dining room reads like the cafeteria of a small church, an extremely informal setting with cheap furniture and tacky decor. I love it. A flag hangs, tartan patterns abound, a five foot high wainscot straight from grandma's half-renovated basement, and an attached gift shop selling all manner of "my ancestors might be Scottish" paraphernalia all add to the high level of charm. A Scottish person walking in would probably be horrified, the place is definitely American with Scottish inspirations straight from the book of stereotypes. Did I mention I love it?

Service is fun and friendly, if a bit stressed out. The place was not so busy, but we were in no rush to eat after a full day of enjoying New Jersey, so we settled into the rhythm and waited our turn. Our first choice was for one Scotch egg ($4.95, below), more delicious on paper than in reality, especially here. I fear that large batches of these are made and frozen, then fried up when the order comes in as there was just something ho hum about it.

I wanted haggis, but not a full dinner of it, so the Highland oysters ($7.95, below) provided the perfect vehicle. The menu never describes what haggis is, and it's probably unnecessary, as those ordering the internal organs would probably inquire before taking the leap. In fried form, the sheep's pluck is fairly tame, but the iron does come through the breading. A plastic cup of HP Sauce comes on the plate, despite a bottle being on every table. The dish even announces it comes with HP, a thoroughly British product (although now owned by Heinz and produced in Holland).

Craving scallops, we ordered the mixed fry ($17.95, below) with the option of fish, shrimp, and scallops. Crab cakes are also available, and no matter what, everything is fried and comes with a generous portion of fries. Cheap tartar and cocktail sauces come with it, as well as cole slaw. Besides its humble nature, and a real let down from the sauces, the seafood is all very fresh and in big portion.

The famous fish & chips ($13.95) can be upgraded to the Scottish surf and turf ($16.95, below), adding a "delicious meat pie" to the plate. Again the fish here is big and fresh and good, while the very tasty pie adds another side to a fine couple plates of seafood.

Even before our food started arriving, I noticed desserts coming fast and furious from the kitchen, apparently you are not supposed to leave here without a mountain of sugar after your meal. In this respect, we failed.

Signs were up for the upcoming Tartan Day festivities when we dined here on a Friday evening. We were joyfully encouraged to come, but figured a trip back to Kearny was unfortunately not in the cards for the weekend.

Argyle Fish & Chip Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

13 April 2016

Tacos Tijuana B.C


Before I really had a sense of what was good and bad Mexican food, or good and bad food in general, I had the chance to take a few trips down to Tijuana with some friends and coworkers from a university internship I had in San Francisco. Even back then I knew something special was in my mouth with each bite, as I wondered why Mexicans weirdly ate their tacos with soft shells.

Now that Old El Paso bakeable hard shells have been almost two decades removed from my life, those road trips down to Tijuana can be put in context. The city may get a bad reputation for its seedier dealings, but it also has one of the most vibrant food cultures in all of the country, a product of being an immigrant city. I would love to go back now that I have had a half dozen trips to other parts of Mexico and seen what can really happen, take a list of stands and vendors to patronize, and gain five kilos.

A $2.50 mug of avena

The Sunset Park address that is now home to Tacos Tijuana B.C (their punctuation) has been a purveyor of estilo Tijuana for a while now, as the old Tacos Cachanilla has morphed into this current rendition. What truly set the old and the new apart was their tortillas, which were always made in house, and make such a difference when biting into their delicious tacos.

On our first visit, we were literally told to stop ordering as the woman kindly noted that what we had was already too much for two people. We assured her we would take home the leftovers and went ahead. Prices here for a plate of tostadas ($12, below) are above the norm, so you know the plate will be a large order. Our cecina (salted beef) was nicely done, and the avocado and cream on top were simple but make you realize they care about ingredients here.

Carne asada seems to be the meat they promote most highly, and for good reason. The steak is terrific in the equally enormous tacos ($7.50, below), using good cuts of beef and more fresh greens. As stated before, the tortillas here are all fresh and it shows. Rather than being a tasteless vehicle, here they add to the depth and color of the flavors.

Another meal-sized portion of food arrived with the giant taco placero de huevos ($5, below), using a significantly larger homemade tortilla.

It is tough to realize the scope of this beast in one photo, so these three will do. The taco is brought out wrapped and held together by a toothpick so as not to burst on to the table.

The main ingredient is rice, but there are also slightly spicy peppers and fried potatoes in here along with whatever meat or topping you choose. It was before noon, so we went with eggs, which come hardboiled.

On a successive visit, we spotted a hungry customer eating the pancita de res ($10, below), a deep brown and red soup of beef tripe, and wanted to follow suit. The broth is not as flavorful as the color leads to imagine, but the tripe is clean and goes down easily. The pieces are quite large and could stand to be cut into smaller sizes, but the dish comes with tortillas and these can be used to cradle the intestine or soak up soup.

A small daily specials sign on the table that seems more permanent than daily offers six items, including the rollitos de pollo con rajas poblanas (below), rolls of chicken with pickled green poblano peppers. Served with a nice sour and salty broth, the dish is a good creation and is served with the house rice and beans.

Those house refried beans are actually the only disappointing thing about this restaurant, as they are thin and almost tasteless. A plate of them and rice is also served with another daily special, the albondigas enchipotladas (below), two meat and rice balls in a tremendous chipotle soup. Had the restaurant been less full, I may have licked the plate.

Luckily, I could use one of those tortillas instead.

Tacos Tijuana Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

11 April 2016

European Deli


Hungarian experiences are few and far between in and around New York City. New Jersey has an annual church event, and Long Island City had a very short lived bakery, but besides the occasional Hungarian goulash on the menu of an otherwise non-Hungarian restaurant, the chances are sparse.

Woodbridge Township, New Jersey used to be home to a small restaurant called Little Europe Hungarian Restaurant, but even that closed a few years back. A block or so away is European Deli, an even smaller Hungarian-owned shop that has been offering locals and mail order customers alike the chance to get great homemade Hungarian fare. Review sites are filled with customers all over the country ordering their food, and for good reason, the stuff is excellent.

Hungarian goulash and stuffed cabbage

I chatted up the owner as much as I could, given that she has a typically Eastern European demeanor, but was impressed by everything she said. For 50 years this place has been open, and she has owned it for the last 18. In the front is a case of very delicious looking fresh pastries, which we unfortunately did not sample because a day full of eating ahead.

In the refrigerator are four or five different prepared meals, including the two above which we both loved when eaten the following two days. The goulash is a pork stew with what appears like buckwheat kasha but is actually small nokedli, or Hungarian dumplings. The cabbage is stuffed with pork and beef, while surrounded by sauerkraut and kolbász, a type of smoked Hungarian sausage.

They also have chicken paprikas with homemade dumplings, cabbage and noodles, and six varieties of pierogies. They do not have any tables and probably do not offer heating services, so take out is the only option here, unfortunately, so include the deli as part of a driving day in New Jersey if you are coming from afar.

European Deli Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato