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Monthly Archives: July 2011

Sripraphai Demands a Group and a Guide

It was perhaps my greatest moment of humility as food blogger when I admitted to my friends Dan Dan Noodle and Imperial Stout that I had never been to Sripraphai. They didn’t say it, but I could tell by their faces that they were questioning my foodie cred. “It just seems like you would have been there,” Dan Dan said. Oh, the shame! I immediately put the legendary (as I soon found out) Thai restaurant at the top of my must-eat list. I was further shamed a couple weeks ago when New York Magazine came out with its top 20 cheap eats in Queens, and I had only been to two of them (#3 Little Pepper and #20 Imperial Palace). Sripraphai was #12 on the list, so I figured it was as good a place as any to start the admittedly delicious process of repairing my reputation.

The restaurant is in Woodside, a very diverse neighborhood, almost exactly equal parts Asian, Latino and white. It is easily reachable on the 7 express train from Midtown, but not as easily reachable from Brooklyn, one reason why I don’t get out to Queens enough. (Not that I’m making excuses or anything.) I was coming from work, and Empanada Boy met me near my office to catch the 7 at Times Square. It was a record-breaking 104 degrees outside, so there was no way I was cooking dinner at home that night. Sripraphai is spacious, with a full restaurant’s worth of tables on both sides of the entrance. There were a number of empty tables when we arrived at 7 pm, but they were all full by the time we left at 8 pm. I opened the menu and was immediately confronted with a vast array of choices. Spiral bound, this menu is the thickness of a book and is probably 20 pages long. Between the two of us, we could only realistically eat three dishes. How would I know what to order?

We started with the roasted duck salad, something Frank Bruni had ordered and liked when he reviewed the restaurant in 2004. It was an old recommendation, but it ended up being the best dish of the night. The duck was tender, coming apart in soft, ragged pieces, still attached to crispy bits of skin. The salad itself was bright with wands of ginger, fish sauce, dried chili pepper, cucumber, scallions and fresh cilantro. The brightly colored dish was as much a symphony of flavor as the papaya salad at Zabb Elee had been. To select the next dish, I used my tried and true method of seeing something good-looking on the table of the people sitting next to me and asking what it was. In this case, the dish was sauteed crispy pork belly with chili, garlic and basil leaves. It sounded like we could not go wrong, and the two Thai women sitting next to us gave it their endorsement. As it turned out, it was a good, but not great, dish. The meat was a little too crispy in some places. One piece proved so tough I couldn’t even stab it with my fork. The dish was also less spicy than I had envisioned. Still, the better pieces of pork belly were pleasantly crispy and the dish had a good balance of seasoning. The last dish was selected from among the fish options because EB decided he wanted fish. Something did not compute, though, because we ended up ordering fish filets in chili, garlic, basil sauce, nearly identical to the seasoning on the pork belly. It turned out that the fish was also fried, so it was pretty much the same dish in fish version. The fish version actually tasted different, but it did not taste better. The fried exterior should have been crispier, and it was underseasoned. The fish itself was fairly flavorless and bit mealy.

At this point, I was experiencing some pretty serious orderer’s remorse. I envisioned Dan Dan Noodle and Imperial Stout tsk-tsking at my novice attempt. I realized then that I should have waited until they or someone else who knew how to navigate the lengthy menu could come to the restaurant and act as a guide. Anytime you have a 20-page menu, you are going to have some duds, and I needed a quick way of figuring out what those were. I had clearly not done enough research. The other option would be to come back with a large group and order double or triple the number of dishes, so that the duds got lost in the mix. Determined not to leave feeling disappointed, EB decided to take a chance on dessert. He ordered black sticky rice and taro root topped with coconut milk and ice cubes. This was a surprisingly tasty dish. The rice was steaming when it arrived, but the ice quickly brought it and the coconut milk to room temperature. As I scooped spoonfuls of the black rice and taro cubes up from their sweet milky bath, I hoped my next visit to Sripraphai would be more successful.

64-13 39th Ave.
Queens, NY 11377

Sripraphai on Urbanspoon

Hipsters, Heat and Not-So-Cheap Eats at Smorgasburg

Ever since the New York Times began its love affair with Smorgasburg, I have been wanting to visit the new food extension of the Brooklyn Flea. It’s a farmer’s market that has more prepared-food vendors than growers and bakers, and it sets up every Saturday on the Williamsburg waterfront. I finally made it there with Empanda Boy in tow (one hour trip, thanks to the MTA) on Saturday afternoon. We wended our way from the Bedford Ave. L train stop towards the waterfront through throngs of hipsters embarked on their weekend plans. The waterfront area, officially known as East River State Park, was redone in 2007 and has the spare, geometrical feel of new parks like Brooklyn Bridge Park and Chicago’s Millennium Park. The grass is bright green and is trimmed tightly within its angular, concrete boundaries. The only trees are short and provide no shade, and there are clusters of pseudo-architectural benches atop lots and lots of concrete. The lack of shade was immediately evident as we passed through a crowd of people scrunched together in the 90-degree heat, eating in the shadow of one of the new high rises.

There is no shade whatsoever within the confines of the market itself, which is set up on one side of the park inside a chain-link pen in a gravel area that is used for concerts. My friend Crawdad was supposed to meet us later, but it was already 2 pm, so EB and I got down to the business of deciding what to eat, meandering our way among the booths as the sun beat down. We started with a sandwich from a stand called Bocata that was too beautiful to be ignored: spicy Spanish chorizo, infused with smokey pimentón de la Vera and topped with a flame-roasted red pepper. The flavors immediately transported me back to my beloved Spain! We ordered it with salted, blistered padron peppers, which were mostly sweet with just a hint of heat and were totally addictive. The sandwich with side came to $10, a bit steep for a relatively small plate, but undeniably unique and delicious. Avoiding the sun-baked picnic tables, we sat down to eat in the meager shade of a concrete ledge and planned our next move. Now stuck in Spanish nostalgia mode, I decided to try the boquerones en vinagre (vinegar-cured anchovies) from Bon Chovie (punny names abound at Smorgasburg). These are apparently new to the menu, which otherwise focuses on fried anchovies. The fried ones looked delicious, but I wanted something clean and refreshing on such a hot day. The tangy boquerones atop toast with bright red tomato cubes fit the bill. They tasted like they had just been pulled from the sea, helping to justify their $6 price tag.

Still hungry, EB went to wait in line for a BLT from Landhaus. We had seen people carrying these throughout the market, and with their incredibly thick-cut bacon slabs, they looked like a cartoon version of a BLT, something Fred Flintstone might snack on. Landhaus also sells the maple bacon by itself, served on a skewer, which I was tempted to try. But if you’re getting the bacon, then why not get the whole sandwich, right? As it turned out, the sandwich was a tad bit disappointing, and not because there was anything wrong with the flavor. The bread was fresh and crusty, the tomato ripe, the mayonnaise lightly seasoned and the lettuce properly fresh and undoubtedly local. The problem was in the texture: Usually the thin, crispy bacon gives the BLT the crunch it needs, but here the thick-cut bacon was too chewy and fatty to deliver that effect. Next time, I would order the bacon on a stick and be done with it. Still, at only $5, it’s not like this BLT was breaking the bank.

Crawdad arrived while we were waiting in the Landhaus line. Without pondering for too long she ordered just what I had hoped she might: a lobster roll from Red Hook Lobster Pound. I had been wanting to try one of these but feared that getting one for $16 would have maxed out my food budget in one fell swoop. Crawdad took the plunge, and came back from the stand with a toasted white bread roll overflowing with big chunks of glistening lobster. She must have seen the longing in my eyes because she kindly offered me a bite. The flavors were pretty straightforward, just sweet, tender pieces of lobster lightly slicked with mayonnaise and topped with a dusting of paprika and chopped scallions. Crawdad thought the sandwich a bit too simple to merit the price, and I can certainly see that point of view. But in this case, I suppose you are paying for the ingredients. And sometimes it takes the most practiced hand to know when to leave naturally occurring perfection alone.

Finally, it was time for dessert. After hours of scoping the scene, I knew I wanted a chocolate-dipped frozen banana from the Nana’s Bananas stand. (Fans of the show “Arrested Development” will immediately think of the Bluth family’s banana stand.) I opted to have mine rolled in candied nuts and sea salt. It was a magnificent dessert, offering all the satisfaction of an ice cream bar made with the best chocolate around. The sea salt enhanced the other ingredients, giving it a heightened flavor profile. EB got a tasty, but unremarkable “You’re Berry Nice” smoothie (told you there were lots of puns) from Salud, and Crawdad got a rhubarb shaved ice from People’s Pops (too much ice, too little rhubarb).

The food at Smorgasburg was very good, though slightly monotonous in its artisanal, organic, hyper-local, gentrified-ethnic way. It was also little pricier than I would have liked. But, hey, this is Williamsburg, not Queens. Most of all, though, I think everything would have tasted better if I had had a shady place to sit and eat it.

Between North 6th and 7th Streets on the East River (close to Kent Avenue)
Williamsburg, Brooklyn

For a complete list of vendors go here.

The Red Hook Lobster Pound on Urbanspoon

Salud Organic Goodness on Urbanspoon

People's Pops (Chelsea Market) on Urbanspoon

Fourth of July in Hudson, NY

These ribs were not as good as they look. They weren’t smoked long enough for their considerable ribbons of fat to be fully rendered into tender deliciousness, making them chewy and somewhat bland. The sauce that accompanied them was cold, thin and tasted like it had been bottled. Empanada Boy was still hungry when he finished gnawing on them. The ribs, accompanied by collared greens, and a marginally more successful sandwich of brisket topped with tangy coleslaw were our unfortunate culinary introduction to the riverside town of Hudson, New York, where we spent Fourth of July weekend.

As it turns out, Hudson is actually a pretty good dining town. We had been considering having our first meal there at Swoon Kitchenbar, a much-lauded locavore mecca that redesigns its menu daily based on what’s available in the Hudson Valley. I had successfully gotten a last-minute reservation but decided at the last minute that were were too poor to shell out for the $30 entrees. We also had our dog, Percy, who suffers from separation anxiety and would not have done well had we left him at the home of Vladimir Pudding, our friend and host in Hudson. This combination of factors led to the decision to stop in at the outdoor food cart for American Glory BBQ. The American-flag bedecked food truck, which looked like it had been designed by Harley Davidson, was set up in an empty grassy lot not far up the street from the bricks-and-mortar restaurant on Warren Street, Hudson’s main drag. I should have known better once I saw the empty picnic tables out front. (Vladimir Pudding later said he should have warned us about the place: not only is the food mediocre, but he’s convinced the owner is a Republican. Not a huge leap, based on the decor.)

Feeling unsated, we consoled ourselves with a cone from Lick, an artisanal ice cream shop, also on Warren Street. Empanada Boy ordered a cone of apricot-orange blossom ice cream, from which I took my requisite tax. The ice cream was of the thick, rich and creamy variety (none of this gelato-inspired business). With chunks of apricot and enough orangey aroma to revive the most barbecue-beleaguered palate, the flavor tasted exactly like it sounds—heady, exotic and delicious. Lick would make another appearance the next evening at the barbecue we had in Vladimir Pudding’s backyard. The grilled skirt steak tacos (my creation) were followed by ice cream sandwiches, which we assembled with Lick’s fantastic gingersnap ice cream and its chewy ginger cookies.

The next morning we braved the pouring rain for coffee. Vladimir Pudding’s French press was broken, and my fuse was already getting short by the time we made it to Strongtree Organic Coffee Roasters. As the name implies, Strongtree makes some excellent full-bodied roasts and brews them into powerful, flavorful cups of coffee. Their espresso machine was out of commission, so we all got mugs of American-style brew and sat outside on the bench in front to watch the rain come down. Coffee makes everything better. (I also liked the cappuccino and the vibe at Swallow the next day.) Our heads were finally clear enough to plan our next move. With the downpour, there would, alas, be no hiking until later that afternoon, so we opted for the next best thing: a big breakfast.

We knew we wanted bloody Marys, so a place without a liquor license just would not do. We headed over to Red Dot, a friendly and cozy cafe, also on Warren Street. The bloody Marys were sparsely garnished with one stalk of celery each. But pine as I might for pickles and olives, the drink itself was well made with a good thickness and just the right amount of horseradish. For food, I ordered the croque madame, the typical French bistro sandwich made with ham, Gruyere and bechamel. The feature that distinguishes this sandwich from its husband, the croque monsieur, is the egg on top, which is supposed to be sunnyside up. Which is why I was surprised when our server asked me how I would like my egg cooked. Um, sunnyside up, of course! When the dish arrived, I was a little disappointed to see that my egg looked more overeasy than sunnyside up. There was no bright yellow yolk beaming from the top of the sandwich ready to be dispersed with a swift puncture from the fork. I did find the yolk, but the disappointment continued in the bread (not good quality and not toasty enough) and the bechamel (undersalted and soggy). My companions ordered more successfully, particularly those that got the latkes, which were thin and crispy, just like I like them. EB ordered eggs benedict with latkes in place of the English muffin. It was a brilliant substitution, if you ask me. There was also a very successful dish with poached eggs and smoked salmon on top of latkes, something I might be eating for breakfast when Hanukkah rolls around.

Hudson had its hits and misses, but it is a fine place to eat and drink casually and revel in the simple, oh-so-American, pleasures of a quaint riverside town.

American Glory BBQ
342 Warren St.
Hudson, NY 12534

253 Warren St.
Hudson, NY 12534

Strongtree Organic Coffee Roasters
60 South Front St., at the Train Depot
Hudson, NY 12534

Red Dot Bar & Restaurant
321 Warren St.
Hudson, NY 12534

Zabb Elee: The Thai Food You Haven’t Tasted

Zabb Elee does not serve pad see eew, the dish made with wide rice noodles, a protein of choice and a hefty dose of oyster sauce. We found that out not long after we sat down at this cheery East Village restaurant. I should say that one of my guests found that out; after reading an article in the New York Times, I knew that Zabb Elee, which also has a location in Queens, specialized in food from Isan, a region in northeast Thailand. The food has Laotian influences, making it much different than the food serve in the ubiquitous Thai-American restaurant. That is exactly why I dragged my great uncle, Boureka and his partner Fancy Fresser there to begin with.

Boureka and Fancy Fresser were stopping in New York on their way back to the Bay Area from Israel, but they gamely agreed to take the train down to the East Village to meet Empanada Boy and me as I satisfied my craving for larb and green papaya salad. If Fancy Fresser was disappointed by the unavailability of pad see eew, she was a good sport and didn’t show it. After EB and I got our Thai and Laotian beers (Chang and Beerlao, respectively), we set about ordering. We started with the beef larb and the som tom muazuar. Larb is a minced-meat salad, made spicy and tangy with red onion, chile, lime and cilantro. While the flavor of the beef version was excellent, it looked a little more meager and boring than the images of the duck one from the Times and the opulent-looking pork and catfish options pictured on the menu. But then, I must save something for next time. Som tum is green papaya salad, and the version we got had barbecue pork and shrimp (Jewish dream), rice noodles, tomatoes and long beans. I’ve had green papaya salad many times, but this was by far the most eye-catching. The flavors were nuanced: pungent (fish sauce), bracing (lime juice, garlic) and sweet (palm sugar). The overall effect was a vibrant symphony of freshness.

Our next course, the pa ped moo korb, brought the meal back down to earth with its savory depth. This dish was composed of pork crisped on the outside and reduced inside to a nearly unrecognizable (yet somehow satisfying) chewiness. This was combined with Thai eggplant, wild ginger, basil and curry. We ordered the dish medium-spicy to accommodate all at the table, but the next time I go, I am pulling out all the spicy stops. A little bit of fire would add another amazing dimension to this already excellent combination of flavors and textures.

The people sitting at the table next to us inspired us to order our final dish because they were eating it when we walked in: a whole grilled tilapia stuffed with tamarind sauce, as well as Thai basil, onions, cilantro and other herbs. Rectangular pieces of the fish’s flesh were cut off the skeleton and fried separately into succulent, crispy morsels. The rest of the fish was crispy enough that one could pick up sections of skeleton and suck the meat and fried bits right off the bone. And, while I don’t typically eat the head itself, I am not one to let a good fish cheek go to waste. (I am Daddy Salmon’s daughter, after all.) EB and I extracted these tender bits of meat and ate them before pronouncing ourselves done with the meal. A few fish bones and some lettuce garnishes were pretty much all we had to show for it at that point.

For dessert, we decided to head back up the street to a place where Fancy Fresser had seen a sign whose bold assertion had caught her eye: “NY’s Best Egg Cream,” it read. To my surprise, this sign stood outside Gem Spa, an old-school newspaper stand at the corner of 2nd Ave. and St. Marks Place. We cautiously walked inside and inquired as to whether they actually did serve the city’s best egg cream. The guy behind the counter solemnly nodded in reply. Fancy Fresser and Boureka both got chocolate, and EB got vanilla. Those are the only two flavors. Having just made sure our plates were scraped clean at Zabb Elee, I got tastes of both of them. I am not an egg cream connoisseur, but I didn’t think these were half bad, based what I know of the tradition. Though their name might imply otherwise, egg creams are made with milk, seltzer water and chocolate syrup (or other flavoring of choice). Fancy Fresser knew enough to ask the guy at Gem Spa whether the chocolate was Fox’s U-Bet Chocolate Syrup, considered an essential ingredient by egg-cream purists. Indeed it was. To my taste, the chocolate was not sufficiently chocolate-y and the vanilla was just a touch too subtle, but perhaps my palate simply wasn’t prepared to scale back to an egg cream after the riotous party that was Zabb Elee.

Zabb Elee
75 2nd Ave.
New York, NY 10003

Gem Spa
131 2nd Ave.
New York, NY 10003

Zabb Elee on Urbanspoon