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Monthly Archives: September 2008

Nahuatl for “Breakfast”

Tamal with Cheese and ChiliesMy sublet in New York wasn’t ready to move into until yesterday, so I’ve been staying with the supremely generous Aunti Pasti and Corn-y Uncle. Their apartment on the Upper West Side is a pretty luxurious place to stay. It’s also conveniently located near the 96th street subway station, within a few stops of Columbia. And next to that subway station is one of the best breakfast options in the city: The Tamale Lady.

Tamal with Chicken and Salsa VerdeOn the mornings before my 8:30 am class, the Tamale (Spanish: tamal, Nahuatl: tamalli) Lady has been a mainstay. An Ecuadorian woman with a talent for cooking and an entrepreneurial spirit, the Tamale Lady and her male assistant— who some say is her son— set up with a cooler near the 96th and 93th street subway entrances. When someone walks up to one of the coolers, their custodians open them to reveal a wealth of homemade tamales. These sell for a mere $1.50 each. The first one I tried (pictured here) was made with chicken and a spicy, fresh salsa verde. Wrapped tightly in its husk and a sheet of aluminum foil, the tamale stayed warm and moist until after my two-hour accounting class came to a close. The firm, slightly sweet masa was a pleasure to eat. My second tamale of the week was mixed with the chewy, stringy melting cheese and spicy blend of green and red chilies gave the tamale extra kick and texture. Another breakfast of champions.

Chicken Tamal from the Rhinebeck MarketBeing in the tamale mood, I decided to try another version at the Rhinebeck Farmer’s Market when I was visiting the Hudson River Valley town with Auntie Pasti over the weekend. We picked out the chicken and tomatillo combo and paid a full $4 for the privilege. “This had better be $2.50 better than the Tamale Lady’s,” I said. In fact, it was smaller and lacked the pleasantly toothsome density of the Tamale Lady’s creations. The chicken was fine, but we couldn’t detect any evidence of tomatillos. These may have been made with organic chicken, but I would take the delicious lard-filled authenticity of the Tamale Lady’s products any day.

The Tamale Lady
96th St. and 94th St. Subway Stations
New York, NY

Jumping Over the Mooncake

Vietnamese Spring RollsI arrived in New York safely last week just in time for orientation at Columbia. It was two days of solid information about the program and the school that made me all the more aware of how busy I will be during the next few months. I also got to meet my very impressive classmates and professors. I left on Friday feeling ready to go. Some of my ambition died down again for the holiday weekend, though. I had three days in New York and fewer assignments than I would ever have again. I decided to take advantage. I took the train down to SoHo to meet up with Red Pepper and McIntosh Apple, good friends from Wesleyan. They recently moved into the neighborhood, so they were just beginning to explore the dining options as well. McIntosh Apple had already landed on a favorite: Mooncake Foods. Just a block a way from their house, he had eaten there every day when Red Pepper was away on a two-week trip.

Steak SandwichMooncake is a pan-Asian cafe with a decidedly Vietnamese bent. Starters include edamame, vegetarian summer rolls and spring rolls like the shrimp-filled variety pictured above.Sandwiches and salads fill most of the menu, with a small section of plates like Shanghai Short Ribs and Lemongrass Shrimp at the end. While they’re not labeled as such, the sandwiches are basically bánh mì. That’s the Vietnamese name for a traditional class of sandwich wherein baguettes are stuffed with pickled vegetables and meat or pate. This supreme example of fusion arose during the French occupation of Indochina and has been popular street food there ever since. The U.S. has only recently caught on. I decided to try the steak and peppers sandwich with garlic-dill mayonnaise, pictured here. The meat was tender and juicy, abandoning some of its drippings on the crusty baguette. There weren’t quite enough red peppers to justify their presence in the title of the dish, but the garlic-dill sauce was packed with flavor. In fact, it was so garlicky that it almost tasted over-salted. The side salad was made with abundant fresh greens and a delicious carrot-ginger dressing. This was an enormous sandwich that could easily make a filling and satisfying dinner.

Wonton SoupMcIntosh Apple often orders the steak sandwich, but opted this time for a grilled chicken sandwich with Napa slaw. As with the red pepper, I thought there could have been more slaw in the sandwich. Still, it was a great mix of crunch, crusty bread and well-spiced chicken. Red Pepper had the wonton soup with snow peas, greens and roasted garlic. Our general consensus was that the soup was attractive but bland. The flavor was improved with the addition of some chili sauce and a little of the sauce from the spring rolls, but it was still lacking. Perhaps one of the meat soup options would have had more depth.

Outside WallMooncake Foods wasn’t quite as adventurous or authentic as the Vietnamese places on Argyle in Chicago, but it’s ingredients were a step above. And in a neighborhood that doesn’t seem to be characterized by a lot of good, cheap food, Mooncake Foods is undoubtedly a find. I would definitely be willing to explore the menu. I’m sure McIntosh Apple and Red Pepper will have worked their way through the menu there before you can say bánh mì up!

Mooncake Foods
28 Watts St.
New York, NY 10013

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