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Offal Business With the Innard Circle

It’s not every meal where a course of frog legs stands out as tame. But when a meal includes duck kidneys, duck tongue, goose-feet webbing and pig stomach, frog legs seem downright chicken-like. I ate all of these dishes and more a few weeks ago with the members of a small eating group that alternates among calling itself the Innard Circle, the Organ Meat Society and the Organ Grinders. They are a group of foodies—including journalists, designers and one notably food critic—devoted to sampling offal, animal organs, at restaurants throughout the city. My colleague, Goulash, was writing an article about the group, and I had the opportunity to tag along with him to one of their meetings, this time at the Fujianese restaurant Rong Hang in New York’s Chinatown.

The restaurant is as brightly lit as a Wal-Mart isle, and thirsty diners must reach into a glass-doored refrigerator for their own Heineken or Coors Light. The group’s resident food critic, Robert Sietsema of the Village Voice, and it’s only Mandarin speaker teamed up to do the ordering. Our first dish was duck kidney, which had a slight funk of liver-ishness but was otherwise satisfying and savory. It was soon followed by my favorite dish of the night: thin curls of goose intestine, served with beautifully julienned scallions. It would have seemed right at home on a four-star tasting menu. Other successful dishes included slightly crispy (though bony) duck tongues and pig stomach. I even liked the goose-foot webbing, which looked gelatinous, but actually yielded a sort of melt-in-your-mouth quality between the chewier cartilaginous pieces.

On the less successful side of the ledger was an unremarkable non-organ meat noodle dish, a water spinach dish with the most overcooked, mealy shrimp I have ever tasted and bright red, too-sweet lychee pork with rice. But, to my mind, the only dish that was truly inedible was the beef large intestine, cooked in Fujianese red wine paste and served with mushrooms. Let me just say that as you move closer to the end of the digestive system, the organs begin to taste more and more like the food that once passed through them. In other words, these large intestines tasted like shit—literally. After gagging down a few bites, Goulash and I left that dish up to a couple of the more hardcore members at the table. Some foods, it seems, are not even palatable to the average adventurous, open-minded eater. After all, it’s not called the Innard Circle for nothing.

Rong Hang
38 Eldridge St.
New York, NY 10002
212.625.8999

Bo Ssäm Doesn’t Quite Bring Home the Bacon

A couple of months ago, I received a note out of the blue from Jicama, a family friend and almost-relative who I pretty much only see at various West Coast events. He lives in Berkeley, California, but he said he would be coming to New York for a few days and wanted me to join him and his friends for a meal. The meal he had in mind wasn’t just any meal. It was the much-raved-about bo ssäm at David Chang’s Momofuku Ssäm Bar. Bo ssäm is Korean dish, consisting of an entire pork butt (which is actually the shoulder) rubbed in sugar and salt and cooked on low heat for about six hours. At Momofuku Ssäm, parties of eight to 10 people can order them in advance for a total price of $250. Needless to say, I was in. I asked if I could bring a friend and invited Dan Dan Noodle to join me.

Ten of us arrived at the restaurant at around 5 pm, apparently the only time slot they had open for a large group. I had to take off early from work, but it’s the excitement of meals like this that reminds me why I work to begin with. The others in the group were mostly Jicama’s classmates from his not-too-distant undergraduate days at Brown. Indeed Dan Dan and I were by far the oldest, but there is nothing like a big piece of pork to unite the generations. We were seated at one of the larger tables, and the pork accompaniments soon began to arrive, including a platter of oysters. The pork would be falling off the bone, so we were to eat it with a little bit of rice, wrapped in some butter lettuce and topped with condiments. It is apparently also traditional to eat oysters alongside the meat in the little lettuce packets.

The lettuce was delivered as a lovely whole head, and it came with a variety of sauces, including two kinds of kimchi, scallion-ginder sauce and ssäm sauce, made with vinegar and fermented bean and chili pastes. When the meat arrived, our appetites had been whetted. Glistening and caramelized, the pork looked like heaven on a plate. We pulled off moist, tender chunks with tongs, assembled our little bundles and dug in. The lettuce was crisp, the sauces were vibrant, and the meat was rich and flavorful. But there was something lacking. It’s not that the melt-in-your-mouth quality of the meat was disappointing, it’s just that it became a little monotonous. I found myself wanting more texture in each bite. I wanted the charred edges and chew that you get with Korean barbecue.

With 10 ravenous people, even a huge hunk of meat goes quickly. Luckily for Dan Dan, who couldn’t reach the platter, I was somewhat aggressive in making sure we both got some meat before it was gone. For eight people, this might have been a huge meal, but for 10 it was moderate. I wasn’t starving, but I had been prepared to be much more full. All in all, I was grateful for the opportunity to sample such a delectable treat with an interesting group of people, but if pressed, I think I would probably pick a barbecue place in K-Town or Flushing over the Momofuku bo ssäm for my next large-group Korean feast. I prefer to come to David Chang’s restaurants for his innovative dishes like fried shrimp tails or chili soft-shell crab with tomatillo and mole. That is unquestionably where he shines. For everything else, there are traditional cooks throughout the city that can prepare a more pleasant feast at a similarly modest price.

Momofuku Ssäm Bar
207 2nd Ave.
New York, NY 10003
Reservations for bo ssäm are here.

Momofuku Ssäm Bar on Urbanspoon

Hot Pot Heaven at Mingle Beer House

Back in 2009, I invited a large group of friends to celebrate my birthday with a meal at Imperial Palace, an excellent Cantonese restaurant in Flushing. While waiting for our table to be ready, we stopped in at the only bar-looking place around. It turned out to be a strange amalgam of the newish kind of bar that serves high-end, mostly Belgian, beers and a Taiwanese hot pot and karaoke lounge. It was called Mingle Beer House, and it was clearly my kind of place. I made a mental note to come back and try the food, but it ended up taking until a few weeks ago to get back there. I went with my friends Imperial Stout, Plumlord, Forager, Sgt. Pepperjack and Sgt. Pepperjack’s girlfriend Princess Pea on a Sunday afternoon. We were seated in a well-lit dining area set back and above the bar. I could immediately tell that this place was classier than Shanghai Tide, the other Flushing hot pot place where I’ve eaten in the past. The table had the requisite spots for three pots to boil. It also had an Internet-enabled flat-screen computer that we assumed was for doing karaoke or playing entertaining videos while we ate. Luckily, my friends are not boring, and chatting with them was entertainment enough for me.

Hot pot, as a concept, is a beautiful thing. For a flat fee of $25 a person, you can order as many kinds of meat, seafood and vegetables a you please to dunk into boiling pots of flavored broth. Also included in that price is unlimited cheap beer. At Shanghai Tide, it is slightly warm Budweiser in a can. At Mingle, it’s Coors Light by the pitcher. Classy, I know. While it’s tempting to forgo it and order the fine Belgian brews the restaurant serves, there is actually nothing better than watery beer for washing down a spicy morsel, just plucked from a hot pot. Since there were six of us, we decided to order every flavor of broth, including half a pot of kimchi broth, half a pot of pickled-cabbage broth, half a pot of duck-meat broth and half a pot of the spicy broth laden with sweet, fiery Sichuan peppercorns. Since Princess Pea is a vegetarian, we also ordered a pot of the vegetarian broth, which truthfully looked like little more than water with a few vegetables in it.

Into the pot, we dropped thin slices of beef and pork, various kinds of flavorful mushrooms, udon and thinner wheat noodles, pork-filled dumplings, whole crab, water spinach, flaky white fish, thin, noodle-like tofu skins, taro root and surely other things that I can no longer recall. Each of the broths had its own appealing flavor profile, but my favorite was the kimchi. The spicy cabbage gave the food a dimension of heat that wasn’t quite as palate coating as the peppercorn pot. That broth, however, was probably my second favorite. The vinegary, sweetness accompanied by the burning sensation made it a wonderfully complex backdrop to the unseasoned meats and vegetables. The other broths delivered flavor, but were decidedly more timid in their approach.

Another appealing feature of Mingle that I don’t recall seeing at other hot pot places was the sauce bar. You could walk up to this station and fill small dishes with any combination of about a dozen sauces. I had no idea what most of them were, but it made for fund experimentation. As we fished the cooked meat and vegetables out of the pots (Plumlord developed a special aptitude for this art form), we dipped them in one of the many sauces before popping them into our mouths. Sometimes I would also ladle some broth into one of the smaller bowls and eat the noodles out of that, but mostly it was easier to just pop my chopsticks into the bubbling pot and pull out the next bit of food they encountered.

Mingle Beer House
34-07 Prince St.
Queens, NY 11354
718.939.3808

Mingle Beer House on Urbanspoon

Taking Stock at Foodstock

As an alumna of Wesleyan University, I knew I was back on campus when I passed a stop sign bearing stickers with the words “don’t” and “believing” framing the word “stop.” Some things never change. Some things, however, change a lot. One of these is the sheer number of self-professed “foodies” that walk those hallowed halls and tree-lined pathways. The school paper, which I edited back in the day, now boasts a food section. A student-organized farmers’ market sets up shop a couple on campus times a month. There’s a program house dedicated to cooking, known as “Full House.” Even the campus catering is done by Bon Appétit Management, known for its local, sustainable sourcing of ingredients. It’s not that I’m shocked by this transition—there was a student protest while I was at Wesleyan to get the on-campus grocery store to stop selling eggs laid by caged chickens—but it is a reminder of how quickly food awareness has sprung up in the American consciousness. Some of these Wesleyan foodies (members of the class of ’12, ’13 and ’14, if you can believe we’re that old) organized a conference on food writing called Foodstock, at which I—along with others more accomplished and more luminary—was asked to speak.

The morning was occupied by two conversations led by the Connecticut Public Radio cooking-show host, Faith Middleton. The first was with former New York Times restaurant critic and Gourmet magazine editor, Ruth Reichl, and the second was with New York Times wine critic (and Wesleyan grad) Eric Asimov. The afternoon schedule would be packed with more notable names, including Raymond Sokolov, Dorie Greenspan, Jane Stern and Molly O’Neill. But first, it was time for lunch. Talking about food is all well and good, but what kind of food conference would be complete without a feast to gorge on? Lucky, the smarty-pants Wesleyan students who planned Foodstock were on top of their game in this department as well. They recruited a small fleet of food trucks to come to Middletown and park in a lot near the science center. Naturally, I had to scout out the full range of options before deciding what to eat. I passed on Ethiopian, grilled cheese and a pizza truck with an internal oven and opted for three tacos from Hartford-based Lucky Taco.


I tried one filled with carnitas, one with chicken and one with beef. It didn’t take me long to realize that the carnitas is where it’s at. The meat was tender and porky, and the cabbage slaw in the taco added crunch and moisture. I dumped the entirety of my salsa verde cup on top and chowed down. The other two tacos were far less remarkable. The chicken was bland and uninteresting, and the ground beef cried out for seasoning and textural character. Both of these tacos also came with fresh tomatoes on top, which are simply a watery disappointment until tomato season starts in earnest. The remaining two cups of salsa were also tomato based, and they lacked the kick of smokiness or spice I was craving. I sat down on a curb in the parking lot—between Eric Asimov and some undergraduates—to eat them. Ah, the democracy of food carts!

As I sat there eating my less-than-stellar tacos, I overheard numerous passersby raving about the Lebanese fish wrap from the Munchies Food Truck. I felt a pang of orderer’s regret. Then I stopped myself. Why worry about having missed out on the sandwich when I could buy it and eat it for second lunch? I did just that, although I didn’t end up eating it until later. The battered, fried flounder was tender and moist and evocative of the Northeast region, while also bringing in a kick of the Middle East with tahini sauce and a crunchy salad. The pita was that thin pliant variety that really holds a sandwich together well. This may well have been the best item available at the food trucks assembled in that parking lot, but what struck me the most about these food offerings was the sheer variety at that level of quality. These carts were reflective of what college students wanted and found delicious. Even the little gourmet on-campus market and the vegan cafe of my undergraduate days did not rise to this level of sophistication. Would my classmates and I have thought to plan a conference based purely on the enjoyment of food? Probably not. But, in the age of the foodie, it seems, we are all more conscious of what we eat and how we document its every detail.

Pickles, Oysters, Red Bean Cakes—Oh My! (Or The Many Fried Things On Sticks I Ate in Japan)

Yes, my friends, you’re seeing it right. Pictured here is a REALLY HUGE PICKLE on a stick. I bought it from a street vendor in Kyoto on the road leading up to Kiumizudera, a prominent old temple complex that’s sort of like the Acropolis of Japan. Anyone who knows me well knows that I absolutely adore pickles. (Longtime readers of this blog know that I even make them myself.) Luckily for me, Japan is a veritable pickle paradise, and cucumbers are just the tip of the, um, cucumber. Whether it’s vegetables like burdock root and cabbage or fruit like the brutally sour umeboshi plum, Japanese cuisine is replete with cured items. As a result, there are also a lot of stores selling pickles, with most of them cut up and placed in bowls to enable patrons to taste before buying. Taste I did. But I am going off on a tangent: Pickles were only one category of the many fascinating and delicious street foods I ate in Japan, a country where even the tiniest detail (or bite, as the case may be) receives a stunning amount of attention.

Another major class of street food was what I like to call “fried things on sticks.” Among these was the maple leaf-shaped treat pictured here, which had a sort of rubbery tofu-like texture and was studded with pieces of octopus. Momiji, the maple leaf, is the symbol of Hiroshima and its neighboring island Miyajima, because of the area’s stunning fall color. To be quite frank, this particular momiji looked much better than it tasted, but perhaps the other flavors, which included shrimp, cod roe, sea eel and cheese, would have redeemed the concept. Other fried treats were far more successful. At the open-air Nishiki Market in Kyoto, Daddy Salmon got something that looked almost like a Twinkie on a stick. Inside the fried shell was a rich, soft squash filling, which was such a pleasant surprise that it prompted Mango Mama to take a few extra bites, all while declining to get her own, despite Daddy Salmon’s protests.

For a country that supposedly frowns on walking while eating, handheld creations were not difficult to come by. Another favorite came in the form of steamed buns with characters edibly imprinted on their plush, rounded tops. The first one of these I tried, in Miyajima, was stuffed with a mix of conger eel and vegetables. The bun had a pleasant chew, giving way to the warm, soft filling, but I found the flavor of this one to be a little meek and the texture a little mealy. Later in the trip, when descending from Kiumizudera in Kyoto via that same road that yielded the pickle on a stick, we found another stand selling similar looking buns. This time the filling was beef with burdock root, and I purchased one for each of us. These were deeply savory, well spiced and had a great textural contrast, thanks to the mushroom-like pieces of burdock root. I could eat these beautiful buns for breakfast, lunch or dinner and at all points in between.

Of course, this being Japan, seafood was another major street-food category. One of the best street snacks we tried were fried oysters in cream that we happened upon during a rainy-day walk in Miyajima. Rich and molten in the center, these were like eating a rich oyster chowder in a glorious handheld pocket of friedness. But probably the most impressive bit of street fare we tried was a baby octopus on a stick. Called tako, these guys are delicious, tentacles and all. It took us until the first person bit into it the head to realize that this octopus’s noggin was stuffed with a bright yellow, hard-cooked egg yolk. The yolk was perfectly done, not chalky in the least, and the textural contrast between the taut octopus meat and the gentle softness of the egg bordered on a revelation.

Last, but not least, let us turn to desserts. We didn’t eat much street food in Tokyo, but I was astonished by the uniformly high quality of the Parisienne-style bakeries there. At one particularly museum-like spot where the counter ladies all wore impeccable uniforms, I ordered a near-perfect creme puff, paid the ladies, nodded courteously and then walked outside and proceeded to chow down. Heavenly! In Miyajima, the momiji makes its most famous appearance in little maple-leaf shaped filled cakes, known as momiji manju. While the most common fillings are red bean, green tea and chocolate, I also tasted strawberry, orange and a few other wacky flavors. Call me a purist, but I liked the red bean one best. That’s because it strikes the best balance between sweet and boldly savory without the overwhelming saccharine sweetness of flavors like strawberry or the weakness of the chocolate. A final favorite dessert was actually part of our breakfast sampler at Nishiki Market in Kyoto. Having refused to buy her own fried, spiced squash thing on a stick, Mango Mama spotted a sign that said “Tofu Doughnuts.” Intrigued, she ordered a bag of them. These were tasty, light little fried rings of dough. We didn’t quite see where the tofu came in—maybe they were made with soy milk—but we were more than happy to eat them, nonetheless.

Cheap Eats of Japan Not Lost In Translation

I’ve been back from Japan for a week now, and while I’ve fully recovered from jet-lag, I am still thinking about the stunning beauty and myriad mysteries revealed to me on the trip. The tastes and textures of the food I ate there—some familiar and some completely novel—played major roles in my experience of the country. Japan has a reputation for being pricey. Daddy Salmon, Mango Mama and I did have some expensive meals. But many of the best-known restaurants are relatively inexpensive places that have gained their reputations by focusing on one dish and learning to make it to perfection. The first such place we visited was a ramen spot in Tokyo called Sapporo Junren, specializing in Sapporo-style miso ramen. Although Sapporo Junren is pretty famous and is widely regarded as the best place in Tokyo to get miso ramen, we would likely never have known to look for it (let alone know how to find it) if it hadn’t been for our intrepid guide, Yakitori. An American photography writer living in Tokyo, Yakitori is the son of a college friend of Auntie Pasti and Corny Uncle. He occasionally does tours of Tokyo on the side, and he knew exactly where to bring us when I told him that food was a top priority.

Takadanobaba, the neighborhood where the restaurant is located, is has become the ramen capital of the city because of its proximity to a couple universities. The line was out the door when we showed up at the restaurant (a good sign), but it moved pretty quickly as people got up from their stools at the counter that formed a three-sided rectangle around a serving area connected to the kitchen. As with seemingly everything in Japan, we ordered our ramen from a vending machine in the restaurant’s vestibule. To be precise, we picked out the kind of ramen and toppings we wanted and paid for them at the vending machine, which then printed out a ticket, which we then passed along to the server who submitted it to the kitchen staff. All-in-all, it was a highly efficient operation. We all ordered the spicy miso ramen (sans pork for Daddy Salmon). The broth, thick with miso paste and redolent of pork and chilies was one of the best I’ve had. The pork melted in the mouth, noodles were al dente with excellent chew and bamboo shoots, scallions and ginger added essential textural contrasts. Within one bite, this soup had put all New York City ramens to shame.

Our next chance to try a Tokyo favorite came the following day when we were out wandering in the high-end Harajuku shopping district. I had read about Maisen, a restaurant known for tonkatsu (breaded pork cutlets). Numerous people had also recommended it to me before I left New York. It happened to be in the neighborhood, and we needed lunch. Unfortunately, we did not have Yakitori to guide us, and we had not mapped out the restaurant’s location before leaving our guesthouse. Streets aren’t really named in Tokyo, and addresses are mostly absent from buildings. The guidebook’s map was sketchy at best. We were mere blocks away, but none of the people we asked had any idea what we were talking about. After walking in a series of frustrating circles, our hunger overcame us and we sat down to eat at another cafe. It was only after eating that we walked a bit further down Omotesando (the Madison Ave. of Tokyo) and saw a sign pointing to Maisen. I wasn’t exactly starving then, but hey, there’s nothing wrong having a fried pork cutlet for dessert, right? Unfortunately, we didn’t have the appetite or inclination to sit down to another meal, so we didn’t get to see the interior of the restaurant, which is apparently a former pre-World War II bathhouse. Instead, I stepped up to the restaurant’s outdoor takeout window and ordered a classic tonkatsu sandwich, made with a folded piece of thick flatbread, shredded cabbage and a piece of tonkatsu doused with a sauce made from ketchup, Worchestershire, sake, mirin, ginger, garlic and sugar. The bread may have hindered my appreciation of the cutlet’s perfectly crisped exterior, but there is no denying that this was a tasty sandwich.

Our travels soon took us out of Tokyo. The next chance we had to try a classic spot, with a specialty dish came in Kyoto. While Daddy Salmon was off fishing with his new Japanese buddy, the latter’s wife Matcha took Mango Mama and me on a tour of some Kyoto sites. In between temples and gardens, we stopped at Omen, a Kyoto landmark, serving thick chewy udon noodles. The two-storey restaurant was packed with people, and the line extended out the door. After about 10 minutes we were seated upstairs. Matcha’s English skills were quite limited. Our Japanese skills were all but non-existent, but at Omen it’s easy: all you do is order “Omen.” What arrives first is a platter of vegetable trimmings, including bean sprouts, green beans, daikon, spinach and scallions, along with a bowl of toasted sesame seeds.

Next comes a bowl of hot (or cold, depending on how you order) seasoned broth and another bowl of udon noodles, cooked and sitting in warm, unseasoned water. Matcha showed us how to add our desired combinations of vegetables and a couple spoonfuls of sesame seeds to the broth. We then lifted the udon from its bowl and dunked it in the seasoned broth before popping it in our mouths and slurping it down. While not as complex as the ramen broth, this had a cleaner flavor that was obviously intentional. The slightly salty richness seasoned the vegetable additions and added the perfect slick of flavor to the excellent noodles. I’m pretty sure I could eat this soup once a week, whether in hot or cold form. As it turns out I might be able to. While we were eating, Matcha told me that, in addition to its other Kyoto locations, Omen has a New York location on Thompson Street in SoHo. I’m planning to check it out as soon as I can get down there. The menu looks pretty different from the one in Kyoto, but it does offer “homemade udon made in our traditional style.” It’s funny how sometimes you have to travel around the world to realize the greatness of what you have back at home.

Sapporo Junren
3-12-8 Takadanobaba
Shinjuku-ku, Tokyo, Japan
+81.35.338.8533

Maisen
4-8-5 Jingu-mae
Shibuya-ku, Tokyo, Japan
+81.34.370.0071

Omen
74 Ishibashi-cho, Jodo-ji
Sakyo-ku, Kyoto, Japan
+81.75.771.8994

Saigon in Brooklyn? Pho Vietnam Goes Halfway There

Life has been crazy in recent weeks, and I haven’t found the time to post. As I write this, however, I am on a plane en route to Japan for a two-week trip, which should prove fertile ground for food adventures to fill this page. Before my brain and palate are consumed with thoughts and tastes of tofu, ramen, sushi and many other things I’ve never tried before, I want to go back and recount the Vietnamese dinner I shared a couple of weeks ago with a top-notch group of eaters at Pho Vietnam in the Sheepshead Bay neighborhood of Brooklyn.

A friend told me he had eaten a meal with a large group at the restaurant a few weeks earlier, and his descriptions of the food gave me a hankering for Vietnamese cuisine. I rounded up the troops, including Dan Dan Noodle, Sgt. Pepperjack, Mascarpone, Pale Ale, Imperial Stout, Auntie Pasti and my friends Ristretto and Grappa. We carpooled out to this small Vietnamese enclave in the depths of Brooklyn. The restaurant’s interior was completely generic—plain round tables ringed by supply-store metal chairs—and could have been the inside of any Vietnamese restaurant in any strip mall in America. The restaurant was packed when the first of us arrived, a decidedly good sign. We were soon seated at one of those round tables where we proceeded to comb the menu to compile a properly distributed smattering of dishes.

We started with the requisite salad rolls, also known as summer rolls, made from a rice paper casing stuffed with crunchy lettuce and tender shrimp. Dipped in their accompanying peanut sauce, these were tasty, but relatively standard fare. Spring rolls were fine, but perhaps even more unremarkable. Things got a bit more interesting when the banh xeo arrived. A Vietnamese style pancake filled with a medley of pork, shrimp, onion, bean sprouts and green beans, these were satisfying and not too greasy. They were reminiscent of Korean pa jun or Japanese okonomiyaki, further evidence that every culture has its pancake. (Incidentally, these pancakes are also the perfect late-night-drunk/next-morning’s-hangover food, perhaps the real reason for their universality.)

Almost every time I go to a Vietnamese restaurant, I order the traditional beef noodle soup, called pho. I love pho so much that I can’t not order it. And since I had never eaten Vietnamese food with a group before, I had never found occasion to branch out much. Considering this, I wasn’t going to leave without trying the pho. We ordered one bowl of the no. 1, which typically tends to be the most replete with various cuts (and mystery compounds) of beef. True to form, this no. 1 contained so-called “six differences” brisket, navel, frank, omosa tendon and eye of round. The meat was tasty, but I found the broth a bit lacking in nuance. That’s probably because I typically load my own personal bowl up with sriracha, hot peppers and holy basil before chowing down. We also ordered a pho with beef balls, which were somewhat leaden and flavorless. On the rare occasions that I do order beef balls, I am always reminded of why I rarely order beef balls.

There were a few other unsuccessful dishes. Among these was the seemingly appealing grilled shrimp on tiny rice stick with lettuce, cucumber and mint leaves. The shrimp were mealy and bland, and the rice sticks were more like thin, dry rice crackers than what I had envisioned. Beef with lemongrass, green pepper, onions and chili pepper sounded equally promising, but it turned out to be a thoroughly forgettable plate of meat and vegetables in a gelatinous, one-note sauce.

Far better were the spring rolls with grilled pork and lettuce on rice vermicelli and the same dish made with beef. When blended together with the accompanying sauce, these became almost like a Vietnamese bibimbap, a perfect one-man feast for those not interested in pho. My favorite dish of the night was the curry chicken with rice noodles. Oil slicked and redolent of curry, it had the consistency of a soup but was also nice spooned over rice. I particularly appreciated the bone-in, skin-on chicken wings floating in it. Perhaps most impressive dish of the night was the crispy whole fried fish with Vietnamese sauce. The exterior was delightfully crunchy, and even the small bones of the wide-bodied fish were tasty when eaten with that crust. Inside. The white flesh was tender and flaky. Accented with a dash of sriracha and that salty Vietnamese sauce, this yielded a highly satisfying bite.

Pho Vietnam
1243 Ave. U
Brooklyn, NY 11229
718.998.2858

Pho Vietnam Restaurant on Urbanspoon

Roberta’s Shows Hipsters Know Their Pizza

I had read plenty about Roberta’s, the wood-fired pizza palace in Bushwick, Brooklyn that former New York Times critic Sam Sifton boldly (and muni-centrically) called “one of the more extraordinary restaurants in the United States” in his two-star review of the place. I had thought about making the trek out to try the place, but Bushwick seemed a long way to go to wait in line for an hour with a bunch of hipsters to sit at a table and eat pizza that could not possibly be as good as everybody said. It took an invitation from an Israeli visiting New York to finally get me out there. And while Sifton’s comments revealed his limited exposure to the great regional restaurants of the U.S. (Nostrana in Portland, for example, has been making top-notch pizzas alongside a phenomenal menu of locally-sourced fare since well before Roberta’s was a twinkle in its tweed-clad founder’s bespectacled eye), I will admit that these hipsters make a pretty good pizza.

I was introduced to Cauliflower, a fellow journalist visiting from Tel Aviv, by our mutual friend, Dr. Shakshuka. Cauliflower’s army buddy, Olivero, is a musician and graduate student and lives in Bushwick within walking distance of Roberta’s. So it was that Cauliflower proposed we meet there for dinner there. I put our party on the list when I got there at 8:30 and edged my way through a crowd of skinny-jeaned, florescent-thrift-shop bedecked twentysomethings to the bar for a beer. The wait for a table ended up being somewhere around 40 minutes—not a short time, but not as bad as it might have been. We decided to order two pizzas to share, a meat plate and an octopus appetizer.

I rarely meet and meat plate I don’t like, but this one was particularly well-sourced from the artisanal American producers widely considered to be the exemplars of their craft. There was prosciutto from La Quercia in Iowa, finocchiona (fennel sausage) from Salumeria Biellese in Manhattan and sopressatta from Alps Provision Company in Astoria, Queens. Of these, the bold finocchiona won the day, although even it may have been overshadowed by the torn-off chunk of excellent crusty bread that Roberta’s makes in its wood-fired ovens. My Israeli friends hadn’t eaten much octopus, but they gamely sampled the dish after I suggested we order it. Cooked to tender perfection, with a slightly charred exterior, this octopus came with the treviso, a kind of radicchio with long leaves like an endive; a deeply flavorful fermented garlic called black garlic; and sea beans, a sea-salty, bright green stalk whose texture resembles thin, tender asparagus. This was a balanced, yet fairly complex dish that included two ingredients I had never tasted, and readers of this blog know that I have tasted a lot. Two points for Roberta’s.

Finally it was time for the pizzas. We ordered one Tracy Patty, made with mozzarella, ricotta, boquerones, savoy cabbage, roasted garlic and black pepper. Boquerones, cured Spanish anchovies are flat out one of my favorite foods in the world, and the riotous, salty, oily flavor the lent to this pizza did not disappoint. Creamy, mild mozzarella and sweet ricotta offset those flavors nicely, and the cabbage provided wonderful crunch with a less-pungent Brussels sprout-like flavor. The second pie was the Banana Hammock, topped with bechamel, mozzarella, pork sausage, garlic, red onion and banana pepper. Once again, the contrast between the creamy bechamel and the spicy pork sausage, not to mention the kick of pepper and onion, made this pizza a standout. I preferred the boldness of the Tracy Patty, but Olivero came down on the side of the Banana Hammock. The crusts on both were delightfully light and chewy with perfect blackened pockmarks around the edges—absolutely nothing to complain about here.

What did I conclude after finally hauling out to Bushwick to try Roberta’s? It is an excellent and enjoyable restaurant, which might even be worth the wait, providing drinking can be done in the interim. Like a true gentleman, Cauliflower covered my cab ride home to Park Slope, but Roberta’s might even be worth the money it takes to haul oneself home full, slightly drunk and happy at the end of a good night.

Roberta’s
261 Moore St.
Brooklyn, NY 11206
718.417.1118

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A Dosa’ Inspiration at Mumbai Xpress

My friend Mascarpone emailed me the other day and suggested we get together for a bite. She added: “I have a car, so if there is any out-of-the-way place you want to try…let me know.” I scanned my must-try lists and came across a place on the New York Magazine Queens top 20 cheap eats list that seemed far enough away that I would never make it without significant effort or a car. The location: Floral Park, Queens (way the hell out there, virtually on the border of Long Island’s Nassau County). The restaurant: a casual snack shop, specializing in vegetarian cuisine from Southern India, called Mumbai Xpress.

One of the best meals I ever had while I was reviewing restaurants for Chicago magazine (and one of the best period) was at a vegetarian Indian place in a generic strip mall in an unmemorable corner of the Chicago suburbs. The depth of flavor that the vast array of traditional spices coaxes out of simple vegetables and grains makes this the only vegetarian cuisine I’ve tried that I could subsist on for any length of time without ever craving meat.

We found a parking spot almost directly in front of the restaurant, the first of many signs that we were not really in New York City anymore. (Another sign came later when Mascarpone talked her way out of a parking ticket after her meter expired.) The interior layout, decor and lighting were reminiscent of a cafeteria, complete with a metal-edged glass counter dividing the kitchen from the dining room and the universal use of plasticware and paper plates. The menu was long and a little intimidating, considering our limited knowledge of the cuisine from this region and the names each dish goes by. So when our server came around, we simply asked for her advice. Mascarpone knew she wanted puri, the hollow, crispy puffs, which can come with chutneys or cracked open and stuffed with vegetables. We ended up getting dahi batata puri: puri filled with potatoes and a little chili powder and topped with yogurt, sev (crispy fried strips) and cilantro and doused with sweet and spicy chutneys. These fall under the Indian snack category called chaat, and they made tasty one-bite (albeit large) treats, complete with crispness, soft depth, richness and kick.

Our next course was Mumbai Xpress’s version of a grilled cheese sandwich. This had three layers of grilled bread, such as would a club sandwich. The first two were spread with cilantro chutney and lined with soft potato, while the space between the other two was occupied by the mild Indian cheese, paneer, and thin slices of raw green peppers and raw onions. Mascarpone is not a big fan of raw peppers or onions, so this dish was not a hit with her. I happily gobbled it up, but I’m not sure I would order it next time. It’s not that the sandwich was bad, just that I’m sure there are many more remarkable dishes on this lengthy menu.

Despite that wealth of options, our final dish was one that I would be hard-pressed to not order again on any subsequent visit. This was a beautiful rectangular dosa, browned and lightly crisped to a flaky consistency. This came studded with thin slices of hot pepper and stuffed with a delicately seasoned blend of soft potatoes and peas. In addition to yogurt and chutney, this came with a small bowl of spicy stew-like sauce, meant, we assumed, for dipping the pieces of dosa we tore off. The stew tasted spicy, savory and delicious, but we found it difficult to scoop up much of it with the very lightly absorbent dosa. Perhaps we should have gotten ourselves a spoon? Even without this somewhat perplexing condiment, this dish was incredibly satisfying. As we finished up, another table of Indian people were being delivered a huge dosa made from a lacy rolled up pancake of sorts. That might have to be on the list next time.

And, as long as I can get Mascarpone—or someone else with a yen for adventurous eating—to drive me out there, with Mumbai Xpress, there will definitely be a next time.

Mumbai Xpress
256-06 Hillside Ave.
Queens, NY 11004
718.470.0059

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At Chuko, Vegetables Are The Unlikely Stars

I never thought I would say it, but the vegetarian option was the sleeper hit at Chuko, a new-ish ramen place in Prospect Heights, Brooklyn. Well, that’s not exactly an accurate statement; I ordered the vegetarian broth…and then added pork. Still, I can say with some certainty that the broth was the best element of that dish. Flavorful and complex, it was replete with Brussels sprouts, kale, sweet potatoes, roasted squash and other fresh, seasonal vegetables. I ordered it with a soft-cooked egg, which ran into the steaming broth when punctured with a chopstick. The pork was medium-thick slices of smoky duroc. It was tasty enough, but I found it too lean for soup. A fattier cut would have melted luxuriously into the broth. Instead, this became slightly overcooked and chewy in the broth. Pork notwithstanding, that vegetarian broth was emblematic of the way the chef at Chuko (opened by three Morimoto alums) handle their vegetables. I ate dinner there last weekend with Cousin Ketchup and my friends P.C. Biscuit and Granny Smith.

The first evidence of Chuko’s vegetable prowess emerged with the arrival of the appetizers. We ordered all four on the regular (non-special) menu. Among these was a fantastic kale salad, made with a combination of raw and tempura-fried kale, pickled golden raisins, dressed in a slightly sweet white-miso vinaigrette, and topped with cripsy curls of Japanese sweet potato. The Brussels sprouts were deftly sauteed until their cut edges were lightly blackened. Then they were doused in pungent fish sauce and topped with crunchy peanuts and pickled peppers, yielding a divine assemblage of texture and sweet-salty flavor.

The less successful appetizers were those that contained meat, including the overly bready fried chicken wings which came with a fairly tame dipping sauce that was supposed to be spicy. These weren’t even in the same food group as the mind-blowing ones I ate at Pok Pok Wing. Also underwhelming were the pork-stuffed gyoza with a soy-based dipping sauce. It’s not that they were bad; they just weren’t particularly distinctive in the way that the kale and Brussels sprouts had been. I should have just ordered the headcheese special, but I wanted to put the core menu items to the test.

Next came the ramen, which comes in four broth varieties: soy, miso, pork bone and that tasty vegetarian one. In addition to the pork, there is the option to add chicken, which is lightly cooked and cut into silky smooth pieces. We ordered as many different combinations and permutations as we could among the four of us. P.C. Biscuit selected the pork bone broth, mixing things up (with the eager encouragement of our server) by adding the chicken to the mix. The broth and thinner noodles that came with it were nice, although I didn’t come away with an overly porky impression. He also got the hard-cooked eggs, whose static nature made them seem superfluous. The white rectangles of chicken were surprisingly flavorful, but the texture was almost slimy and would have benefited from a slight char on the grill. Granny Smith’s miso broth was tasty, with an almost milky cloudiness, but Ketchup’s flavor-packed soy broth with pork was probably my second favorite soup on the table.

The ramen at Chuko was good by Brooklyn standards, and at $12 a bowl, it’s more affordable than Zuzu Ramen. But if I come back to Chuko, it will not be for the pork or chicken wings—it will be for the vegetables.

Chuko
552 Vanderbilt Ave.
Brooklyn, NY 11238
718.576.6701

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