20 May 2015

Sugar City Bakery


While the pastries are sweet, this is no cookie and cake shop like the name could allude to. Rather, "Sugar City" refers to the tiny Caribbean island of Saint Kitts, which most likely acquired this nickname from the almost complete dependence on the sugar cane industry on the island from 1640 into the late 1900's. Tourists there can now ride a complete loop on the railway lines designed originally to transport sugar cane from farms to factories in the city.

I walked in with a smile on my face and pretended to turn this experience into a small slice of tropical paradise in the Bronx, asking about the origins of the bakery and wanting to task specifically Kittitian baked goods. The lady who runs the operation is Jamaican like many in this section of the Bronx, and there is a lunch steam table with a few options tending towards that island, although the two cuisines are not entirely dissimilar. Her husband is the Kittitian and most likely the giver of the name, one of the proud people who make up the smallest sovereign state in the Americas with a population that could be multiplied 26 times and still be under the population of the Bronx.

I stuck to the baked goods here, and filled a bag with quite a few options. The unassuming, and simply named bun ($1.25, below) was satisfyingly sweet bread with a raisin or two inside.

The most interesting from the outside, probably due to its resemblance to a South American empanada, was the coconut tart ($1.25, below), a flaky pastry filled with coconut, sugar, butter, and maybe some nutmeg? Of all the items I bought, I think this was unfortunately my least favorite, mainly due to its dry nature.

Great Britain was the overlord of Saint Kitts & Nevis during colonialism and brought with them the rock cake ($1.25, below), basically a cookie (sorry, biscuit!) which gets its name from appearance. The outside is pretty hard but not crispy, while the inside is quite pillowy.

The nicest coconut option came in the form of the coconut roll ($1.25, below), another ode to combining coconut with sugar and surrounding it with carbohydrates. One any return visit to try lunch, I would probably take away these last two goodies after my meal.

The national dish of Saint Kitts & Nevis is stewed saltfish served with spicy plantains, coconut dumplings (droppers), and seasoned breadfruit. I put in a subtle hint that it would look nice on the sandwich board out front before saying goodbye to the sweet people here.

Sugar City Bakery on Urbanspoon

15 May 2015

Bismallah Kebab & Curry


Bismallah lies in far eastern East New York, just a couple blocks from the border of Queens and Ozone Park of which this section of Liberty Avenue tends to look more like. The sun was still creaking through some dark clouds, but heavy enough rain was falling that when I arrived a good crowd of Bangladeshis was seeking refuge inside, mostly over a cup of tea and friends. The place is an obvious hub for the small community here, as men discussed politics and gossiped. Some women came in for takeout, and the place seemed to be making their money in that way, as each of these men taking up a chair was only paying $1 for their sweet tea with condensed milk.

A big part of the reason to come here is precisely for the atmosphere, to soak in a cafe where you feel like a foreign traveler. The food is not bad, but it is not going to win any awards. These men are probably going to go home and eat their wives' cooking later, but you and I do not have a Bangladeshi wife now do we?

Taking my cue from the awning and name of the restaurant, I thought kebabs were the way to go and asked about the few they had listed on the menu. Some were unavailable, but thankfully the delicious shish kebab ($2, below is two portions) is always easy to obtain. It needs no sauce, or even the lettuce it is served with for that matter, and pops into the mouth easily after they cut it into small hunks for you.

When I inquired about the bihari kebab, the young man insisted the meat below to be it, but it was certainly just chicken tikka. Thankfully, it was an excellent chicken tikka and only costs $4 for the portion. When we shared things around the table, this was the dish that more hands went back to for seconds than any other.

A portion of veggies from the steam table were also enjoyed, including chickpeas and cabbage as seen below, welcome relief from the piles of heavy curry and meat seen later.

An appetizer that was not much enjoyed was the crispy fried roll below, costing $1 and not having much taste inside. It was just a little too greasy to enjoy, and should be picked up with a napkin.

Most of my party got options from the steam table, and here are a look at those plates. As often times happens at a South Asian steam table, the items contained a lot of similar tastes despite a varying range of colors.

Soon I will like to return to the area and continue a walk down Liberty Avenue and 101st Avenues, which split here and venture into Queens. The South Asian descendents of Caribbean islands become the neighborhood's main occupants, and seeing the crossover might be fun to explore.

Bismillah Kebab & Curry on Urbanspoon

14 May 2015



Blue and white, the colors of the Salvadoran flag, and matter of great pride for its people, are represented well here in Sunset Park's Usuluteco. Even the bricks on the facade have been given a coat of fresh blue paint, under the blue and white throwback awning advertising restaurant and country.

Inside, the colors continue and mirrors enhance the size of this small-ish place. It is a working class restaurant through and through, the tablecloths are worn, and the tired faces glance up to the four televisions. During weekdays, the servers join the customers to watch telenovelas, while on weekends fútbol rules.

Salpicon ($10, below) is a salad with finely chopped steak, but really gets its oomph from the mixture of onions, chiles, pepper, and vinegar. Everyone has their own recipe, but you also find tomato, oregano, and avocado in their sometimes, often served with rice or as a topping for tostadas. El Salvador is the origin of the dish, but it has made it to its neighbors Honduras and Guatemala, as well as into Mexico.

Don't forget to squeeze a lime over everything.

For many, Salvadoran food is all about the pupusas ($2 each, below), which come in standard varieties here and get the job done, if not spectacular. The fermented cabbage relish (curtido) here is also standard, but should be applied liberally. I do notice the place has a decent amount of younger kids from the neighborhood come in for their cheap meals, as two of these could be enough to fill a smaller stomach.

The chicken inside of the tacos dorados ($6 for two, below) is a dream, moist and so well spiced. A little too much iceberg lettuce adorns the top, but the cheese, tomatoes, and crispy shell (dorado means hard) make an excellent mixture of flavors and textures.

For another good chicken dish, try the simply titled pollo en salsa ($10, below), a boat of more good cuts of the meat in a bath of savory sauce. You have your choice of side dishes, but any dish like this deserves white rice, and I also chose the excellently meaty side of beans, highly recommended.

The service here is a bit hit or miss. Notes from my first visit describe "nice staff" but my latest meal was served by a very uninterested young woman. At any rate, a trip or two to the back bar to interrupt one of those telenovelas is probably happening regardless of the demeanor of the server on a given day, and pace can be a bit slow. So come prepared with your patience and have a nice time. Throw a couple coins in the jukebox, which obviously has its volume stuck on maximum.

Usuluteco Restaurante Salvadoreño on Urbanspoon

10 May 2015

Dub Pies


When I first moved to New York City in 2000, one of my first "adventures" was out to Windsor Terrace in search of the storefront used in the film "Smoke" which was quintessentially Brooklyn to me before I knew anything about Brooklyn. Even back then, five years after the film was released, the location was almost unidentifiable as the set of the cigar shop. Twenty years later, it has even further disappeared behind years of new tenants and renovations. Today it is occupied by the small Aussie/Kiwi meat pie shop and serves the stroller set. Quintessential Brooklyn!

The good news is that it is what is on the inside that counts, whether we speak of storefronts or meat pies. According to the owner, meat pie shops are so dear to the people of New Zealand, that their creations are competition and as such they keep improving. Try one for yourself before rolling your eyes, the pies are damn good.

For lunch, a favorite pairing of my mine is the excellently made flat white ($3.75, above left) and a steak mince and cheese pie ($7, above and below). The flaky pastry is filled with creamy fatty goodness and very tasty meat and Vermont cheddar mix. The onion gravy is what makes the pie.

I was in the the shop the day after Anzac Day (Australian and New Zealand Army Corps Day), a national holiday in both countries that also has it's own cookie, referred to as a biscuit of course down under. The oats, sugar, and coconut make up the bulk of the crispy yet moist Anzac cookie ($1, below). The shortened version of the story is something along the lines of these cookies not going bad and being sent far overseas by the wives to their fighting husbands in World War I.

The real reason to get a dessert in a place like this though is for a slice of Lamington ($4, below). From outer layer to inner, you see coconut again, chocolate sauce, sponge cake, and strawberry jam.

For those not interested in film history, or sitting on an F train for long periods of time, there is also a truck that the shop operates. Find it roaming the streets serving pies and coffee at various locations throughout the week.

DUB Pies on Urbanspoon

06 May 2015

Tortas & Jugos Don Pepe (Puebla Mini Market)


The first time I came to Don Pepe, it was a Saturday afternoon and things were tense. The interior was crowded with people ordering fruit shakes in the front and customers filled all six tables in the rear, more milled about waiting on orders. When I ordered a torta to go, a hurried man told me it would take 45 minutes. I was not sure of the true status of all orders pending, but I gave them the benefit of the doubt and imagined their delivery phone must be ringing off the hook. I said "no thank you" and backed away, hungry for one of their famous tortas a la plancha, which are grilled on a metal plate after preparation.

On weekday afternoons, the scene is much calmer and you can step right up to the friendly guys working in the back and place your order. Since everything is cooked to order, still expect to wait about ten minutes even when the place is empty.

The "official" list of tortas on the board is numbered up to 35, but hand-written additions are added on the counter, including a few breakfast options, making this a tempting place at all hours. Most on the list are $8 and $9, a couple bucks more than a normal torta in this city, but prepare for two meals as what you are given is definitely worth the money. I have never walked away without asking for my second half to be wrapped up to go.

Everything seems unassuming when you receive your sandwich, all wrapped up neat and tidy, but make sure to have plenty of napkins on hand. The plastic basket fits the oval-shaped beauty perfectly, but is useless for catching your scraps once things start getting ugly.

It will not be this neat for long.

One of my most recommended options here is the aptly named torta de la casa ($9, below), a dream made of pork. The thin spicy strips of carne enchilada and bulk of pernil inside make an excellent combination. The slice of ham in between the two is basically inconsequential, and it is not everyday that you can say that bacon also does not have much overall effect in the taste spectrum here. There are so many delicious tastes inside though that it is not noticed so much, especially given its location so close to the jalapeños. All of the tortas (unless specified in some special varieties), come with these peppers and avocado, tomato, and plenty of quesillo, the stringy white Mexican cheese originating from Oaxaca that usually adorns the sandwich.

Some of my other recommendations are below:

Torta ranchera ($9)

Torta tobasco ($8)

Torta arabe ($7)

Torta mixta ($8)

And do not forget that the place is not just about tortas, they also have an equally, if not more, popular fresh juice stand in the front that serves very interesting concoctions including spicy smoothies, hangover cures, and green power juices.

Ok, I am ready to anoint this man the king of tortas. All hail the king.

Puebla Mini Market on Urbanspoon



There is not much electronic about the small xian bing vendor in Flushing that has popped up, so I attribute the capital "E" in the English name of this place to boredom and/or fad. The three Chinese characters on the facade allude to prosperity and food and the only hint of "pie" is the round red disc surrounding the character for proper, but even this is a stretch.

The tiny sliver of storefront is half display case and half service window. Choose from one of the six "pies" on offer, four savory, two sweet, and hand over your cash. The case keeps them warm, but even more pleasurable is to wait a bit for a gooey fresh sample.

You will hear these interchangeably referred to as meat pies and pancakes, but either way, it is a quick snack for any time of day, not too messy if you eat it with care, and easy to transport. I was far too early for a recent afternoon Mets game, and stopped by Flushing to pick up a couple for lunch, but returned after downing two to grab three more for the stadium.

So far I have tried the juicy beef ($2), tender chicken ($1.75), and cumin lamb ($2.50), as the selected pork ($1.75) was unfortunately unavailable on my visit. I do not actually think one stands out from the rest, and your selection should simply be based on what meat you are in the mood for on a specific visit. Two is probably enough to fill a person.

Inside of each is a fairly greasy patty of meat and spices, with an ample amount of juiciness in any selection, not just the one that have "juicy" in the name. I did notice that the pies I ate later at the game had plenty of time for the bread to suck in most of the moisture and were not dripping like the first two.

The round discs are lightly grilled, creating a slight crispiness to an otherwise very doughy experience. For me, a case of these would be perfect for the end of any bar, as xian bing would definitely make an excellent drinking companion. In China, this is street food, and a typical stall will have plenty of freshly cooked bings ready to go.

E-Pie on Urbanspoon

28 April 2015

Punda Tibetan


The Himalayan community of Queens seems to be expanding out of Jackson Heights and taking over some turf in Sunnyside. Last year another Tibetan restaurant opened on 47th Avenue eight blocks down, in addition to the Nepalese mainstay on Queens Boulevard. Punda is the latest place to give it a try, a proper sit down restaurant from the chef of popular takeout spot Gangjong on Roosevelt Avenue in Jackson Heights.

The shop still has the smell of fresh paint and varnish, and unfortunately has no charm. Thankfully, with cooking this good, there should be plenty of time for that to change in the future. First and foremost, the momos here are off the charts, and come in a few options.

Beef momos ($7, above) are crescent shaped and appear more like their east Asian brothers. The pickled cabbage offers a sweet companion to your bites if you so desire, and the momo hot sauce is a must.

Chicken momos ($8, below) are the more typical round version you may be used to, and add $1 for any of your momos to be fried here. These guys got a round of ooohs and ahs from our table as we ate.

The group also ordered a plate of shabhalap ($7, below), a Tibetan patty stuffed in this iteration with meat but sometimes available with chicken or vegetables as well. The same dipping sauce is served with these, and inside to pair with your meat is added minced onion and coriander. I enjoyed the doughy crust and juicy interior combination.

When we brought in a couple six packs of beer (for now the bar here is unstocked and the place remains BYOB), our server recommended the chat phat ($7, below) for another appetizer we would enjoy. This is a crispy chicken dish (admittedly more crispy than chicken-y) that does qualify as South Asian bar food, greasy bits topped with onion, tomato, and green chili.

Our resident daal expert was enamored by the dal fry ($6, below), a simple dish on the small "Vegetable" section of the Indian page on the menu. The lentil-onion-tomato combination was spot on and seemed perfectly homemade.

After such a beginning, we all looked forward to our array of entrees, seen below:

Phing-sha ($9), Tibetan beef and potato stew with tingmo.

Shabtak ($9), spicy sliced beef with tingmo.

Langsha jintsel ($9), sliced beef with fresh celery.

Shabri sonam ($9), traditional Tibetan meatballs.

Ping-shogo ($7), vegetable stew with potatoes.

Tsampthuk ($7), barley soup, a Punda specialty.

Punda Tibetan Restaurant on Urbanspoon