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Monthly Archives: March 2011

A Princely Pho at Nha Trang Palace

Last weekend was deceptively cold in New York City, and I had to spend part of it doing our taxes. The only thing that could penetrate these doldrums was a steaming hot bowl of pho. Empanada Boy and I have eaten numerous bowls of pho in Chinatown at Thài Són and places like it, but we wanted to try something new. Apart from banh mi and Italian food, Park Slope’s ethnic offerings tend toward the bland and Americanized. I’ve noticed only one restaurant serving pho, and it was made with chicken. Where are the tendons, tripe and fatty brisket of my fantasies? For the Park Slope resident seeking pho, the answer is found just a few subway stops south on 8th Avenue in Sunset Park— the Chinatown of Brooklyn. After a bit of research, we headed off to Nha Trang Palace, a Vietnamese restaurant whose pho came highly recommended by the crazy chatroom participants at Chowhound.

Based on what I saw in the couple blocks from the N train to the restaurant, Sunset Park’s 8th Avenue had nowhere near the bustle of the Chinatowns of Manhattan or Flushing. People were waiting outside one dingy looking bar for the bus to Atlantic City, and there was a Japanese place that look fairly decent. A number of other shops were closed for the night. The decor inside of Nha Trang looked pretty much like every other pho place I’ve ever been: one mirrored wall, a couple large, round tables and numerous smaller square ones, a sign made of florescent paper with the specials scrawled across it in English and Vietnamese and a few gold-embellished Vietnamese wall hangings. EB and I were seated right away and set about ordering. We started with the Goi Cuon (pardon my lack of Vietnamese orthography), a summer roll, which was supposed to have shrimp and pork wrapped into its rice paper wrapping. We only detected shrimp, but we liked them nonetheless, especially after they were plunged into chunky peanut sauce.

Then we selected from the list of pho combinations. There are 20 in all, including a couple pork, seafood and, yes, chicken options. EB went with no. 3, the Dac Biet, a “special big bowl,” which included “six difference” brisket, navel, frank (?), omosa (tripe), tendon and eye of round. The six difference brisket is brisket cut from different parts, variously emphasizing meat, cartilage, fat, etc. I ordered no. 4, Tai Nam, which on paper had most of the same things, minus the frank, and had plain brisket instead of six difference. As it turned out, both bowls of soup looked and tasted just about the same. That was fine by me (although, I never did figure out what frank is…) because the bowls of aromatic soup laden with cilantro and slices of still-pink brisket was just what the doctor ordered. The tendon, simultaneously chewy and melt-in-your-mouth, is still my favorite element, but I was a big fan of the omosa. I’m not typically a huge tripe person, but this kind is slightly chewy and almost noodle-like in its thinness (see photo). I slurped it up.

While Nha Trang Palace certainly does not offer the world’s best pho, it upholds the standards of the dish quite adequately. I would rate it on par with the aforementioned Thài Són. In fact, when I got home and did some research, I learned that there is a Nha Trang Centre in Chinatown, right near Thài Són. To complicate the comparison even further, a little deeper digging revealed that Nha Trang and Thài Són have the exact same pho menu— I mean copied down to the last word. Is there a company out there that sells pre-made pho menus? How will I ever know which is better? Does it even matter? Pho is such an emotional food that one bowl might taste better depending on the level of my need for it at that very moment. And knowing that respectable pho exists just a few stops down the N line from my house in Brooklyn is fine comfort indeed.

Nha Trang Palace
5906 8th Ave.
Brooklyn, NY 11220
718.492.8916

Nha Trang Palace on Urbanspoon

Little Pepper Packs a Big Punch

When I met Dan Dan Noodles at a party last month, I quickly realized I had found a kindred spirit. We both take great joy in feasting with friends at out-of-the-way ethnic holes-in-the-wall. Dan Dan and I got to talking about a group of his friends that regularly gathers to eat at Little Pepper, a Szechuan restaurant once located on Roosevelt Avenue in Flushing (now being remodeled), which has recently opened up another location in the nearby Queens neighborhood of College Point. He kindly added me to the email list of the so-called Little Pepper Posse, but Empanada Boy and I ended up having a conflict on the day of their gathering. Dan Dan offered to arrange another dinner, an offer I took him up on when Flava Flav was visiting a couple weeks later. Flav, her friend Rye Bread, EB and I all took the train out to Flushing where Dan Dan picked us up in his car.

There are a couple of things that should be said about College Point, an area I had never heard of until Dan Dan’s first email. First, according to Wikipedia it was named for St. Paul’s College, a seminary that closed in 1850. (It’s now home to the Poppenhusen Institute, a former school that housed the first free kindergarten in America and which now operates as a cultural center.) The other important thing to know about College Point is that it’s not accessible by train, so our trek out there in Dan Dan’s car showed true dedication to the pursuit of excellent Chinese food.

We were the only non-Chinese people in the dining room when we entered. The woman who sat us knew Dan Dan and welcomed him warmly. We took this as a sign that we should simply leave the ordering to him. We were surely right about that much because when the food came, amazing dish after amazing dish was delivered to our table. And the dishes kept coming. We had a tofu dish with silky tofu, peanuts, scallions and a sweet-spicy sauce. There were two kinds of dumplings— one delicate and trembling pouches in a spicy, oil broth and another firmer half circles, dusted with sesame seeds. A plate of thinly sliced smoky pork with leeks, scallions and fiery dried peppers was followed by salty broiled green beans and a salad of tender bamboo shoots. There was cumin-coated lamb, wrapped in tin foil and served with the same dried peppers found in the pork dish. There were cold noodles in a spicy sauce, which I could eat any day of the week. And there were (of course) delicious dan-dan noodles, served warm with scallions and tasty bits of ground pork.

You might think that was enough food for five hungry people. But the dishes did not stop there. There was still tea-smoked duck, served with sweet red, yellow and green peppers, and a sizzling pot of wildly spicy oil in which pieces of tender fish were soaking up the flavors. By the time the latter arrived, I was too focused on eating to take pictures, but it was an impressive dish, to say the least. Throughout the whole meal ran a current of heat that filled our mouths, flecked the backs of our throats, ran down our esophagi and exploded in our bellies. This was the work of the Szechuan peppercorns, the essential spice in this type of cooking, responsible for the glorious, flavor-enhancing burn.

We left the restaurant with bellies aflame and a couple bags of leftovers in our hands. I can safely say this will not be my last trip out to College Point to dine at Little Pepper. I will be back soon because this restaurant is so crazy good that I won’t be able to stay away for very long.

Little Pepper
18-24 College Point Blvd.
Queens, NY 11356
718.939.7788

Little Pepper on Urbanspoon

Little Pepper on Urbanspoon

Challah Back! Where’s the Good Challah At?

When Empanada Boy and I moved to Park Slope, Brooklyn from Washington Heights, the heavily Dominican and Puerto Rican neighborhood at the northern tip of Manhattan, I thought that even though we might be leaving tostones and arroz con pollo behind we would at least be getting some good bagels and challah. After all, Brooklyn has the largest concentration of Jews outside Israel and Park Slope is home to the largest reform Jewish temple in Brooklyn. When we got here, there were delicious bagels aplenty, but finding good challah was a struggle.

Back in the Heights, we typically bought Zomick’s challah (see above), which is made on Long Island and is sold at most New York grocery stores in a green-checkered plastic bag. It’s soft and fluffy, with a slight chew and a little sweetness. It makes a pretty good French toast (essential to preserving my family’s Saturday morning tradition). It also miraculously stays fresh-tasting for much longer than it probably should and only comes in plain or raisin varieties. Do poppy and sesame seeds just cut too far into the already slim challah profit margins? I’m not sure. All I know is that after doing our best to sample all the challah varieties that our Brooklyn surroundings have to offer, we are now back to where we started, buying Zomick’s at the grocery store, and no closer to the challah ideal than when we first arrived in New York. How did we get here, you might ask? Allow me to recount the steps.

The first place we tried after moving to the south end of the Slope was Lopez Bakery. It was an unlikely first choice because it’s a Mexican bakery, specializing in various kinds of pan dulce and some basic breads. We selected it for it’s proximity and for the fact that it’s actually a bakery, meaning breads are baked on the premises. This turns out to be a very rare thing in Brooklyn and in New York in general when it comes to savory breads. In Portland, I can count at least five bakeries that make their own breads, including fantastic challah— and it’s not exactly a Jewish hotbed. But I digress… the challah from Lopez actually tasted a lot like pan de muertos, the egg bread made for Day of the Dead, minus the anise flavoring. While this traditionally has many of the same ingredients as challah, it also tends to be dry and a little stale tasting, which this challah also was. Our next thought was to try the challah made by Hudson Valley bakery Bread Alone. This one is sold at our food coop, where we do almost all of our shopping. But like nearly every other Bread Alone product I’ve sampled (so overrated!), this one was dry, bland and disappointing.

Our third try was somewhat better. We have always liked Amy’s Bread one of a handful of great bread bakeries in New York City. When we saw that Grab Speciality Foods, a gourmet mini mart near our house at the time, sold challah by Amy’s, we thought we had finally found a surefire winner. Amy’s makes a long, flattish loaf with a matte surface, compared to the glossy, egg-coated Zomick’s (see above photo). The bread wasn’t bad, but it didn’t taste like challah. It took us a few bites to figure it out, but this challah tasted like bagels. It was ultra-chewy and somewhat dense, but its flavor really reminded me of biting into a bagel. The problem is, I’ve had much better bagels and much softer, eggier and more flavorful challah. This leaves Amy’s challah a middling choice, which we promptly checked off our list of worthy candidates.

Feeling frustrated, I complained to my colleague Salt Man who lives on the Upper West Side (a veritable challah heaven with Silver Moon Bakery leading the way). We happened to be stopping in at Mahattan Judaica near our office to buy Hannukkah candles during our lunch hour, and Salt Man had the bright idea to ask the shop’s owner where to get the best challah in Brooklyn. The owner thought for a moment and said, “Well it depends on whether you like sweeter or more savory challah.” I said I liked it more savory, but the truth is I just wanted to know what was THE BEST in his mind. My wish was granted when, without further hesitation, he said: Ostrovitsky Bakery.

Ostrovitsky is a kosher bakery in the heavily Jewish Midwood neighborhood of Brooklyn. It’s not that far from our house, but it’s definitely not close enough to walk. And it’s a hike from the nearest subway station to the bakery itself. But EB and I decided we had to try it, so one Friday he put his bike on the subway and rode to the Avenue I stop on the F train. He then rode up to the bakery where patrons in various degrees of Orthodox garb were snatching up loaves of some beautiful looking challah. When we ate our shining poppyseed (!) loaf that night, we knew we had found the challah ideal. It was perfect in every dimension: fluffy with just a hint of chew, slight sweetness, delicious eggy exterior, I could go on and on. And the French toast the next day was amazing. That guy at Manhattan Judaica really knew what he was talking about!

So after hitting challah nirvana, why are we back to eating Zomick’s? Convenience—perhaps the single most important factor in any New Yorker’s life. We just don’t have the time to trek over to Midwood every Friday afternoon. My fundamental question is why can’t good, fresh-made challah make its way to Park Slope? There are plenty of hipster artisans looking to revive old crafts in the neighborhood and surroundings. Couldn’t they abandon their now-tired cupcake shops and pickling companies and open a bonafide neighborhood boulangerie instead? One that makes a good challah would be ideal. I’m sure I wouldn’t be the only one to abandon supermarket challah and start shopping there.

Zomick’s Challah is sold at:
Union Market
754-756 Union St.
Brooklyn, NY 11215
718.230.5152
and many other locations.

Lopez Bakery
647 5th Ave.
New York, NY 11215
718.965.0289

Bread Alone challah is sold at:
Park Slope Food Coop
782 Union St.
Brooklyn, NY 11215
718.622.0560
and many other locations.

Amy’s challah is sold at:
Grab Specialty Foods
438 7th Ave.
Brooklyn, NY 11215
718.369.7595
and many other locations.

Ostrovitsky Bakery
1124 Avenue J
New York, NY 11230
718.951.7924 ‎

Ostrovitsky Bakery on Urbanspoon