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Monthly Archives: November 2011

Mapo BBQ Birthday Bash

My birthday was last week. It wasn’t a particularly important one, but birthdays are too easily overlooked as one gets older. If you don’t take the time to properly celebrate, you get old before you know it. (Sigh!) Of course, it was also a good excuse to organize a feast at a Korean restaurant in Flushing, Queens that I had been wanting to try for a while: Mapo BBQ. Mapo is known in foodie circles for its top-notch kalbi, short ribs marinated in a sweet, garlicky soy sauce and grilled on metal racks set into the table. At most Korean barbecue restaurants, the meat is cooked over a gas flame, but at Mapo, my research revealed, servers insert baskets of hot coals in the canisters embedded in each table. That distinction alone was enough to intrigue me. One thing that should be noted, however, is that Mapo isn’t exactly cheap. It easily exceeds the typical Mango Lassie price range, but hey, it was my birthday. Luckily, I have devoted friends. I invited nearly 30 of them to come. About 10 or 12 of them said they couldn’t make it, which proved key to fitting our party into the small restaurant. In the end, we were 17, including Empanada Boy; my cousins Ketchup, Leftover Girl, Bagel with Lox and Black Cherry Soda; my friends Curly Fries, Dan Dan Noodle, Fry Girl, Imperial Stout and his visiting buddy; my college friends Beefsteak and Varenyky; my work friends Dagashi and Pale Ale, along with Pale Ale’s friend, and last, but not least, my dear old friend Onion. I called the restaurant a couple of times to try to make a reservation in advance but was never sure, based on the broken English of her response, that the person on the phone understood me. Thankfully, my friend Saltman’s mother-in-law, who is Korean-American, kindly called the restaurant for me the day before to confirm. We were all set.

Google maps had the wrong address in its records, so half of us got there 20 to 30 minutes late. As it turned out, though, that was right on time for our numerous tables to clear out and be pushed together along one side of the restaurant. In all, we had three burners on our combined megatable—perfect for even meat distribution. I took the liberty of ordering bottles of the Korean beer Hite and kalbi for all (five orders per burner). Then the banchon started coming. Banchan, the collective name for the little dishes of pickles, kimchi, vegetables and salads, are perhaps the best thing about a Korean meal. And the quality of the offerings at Mapo was a step above the norm. There was fresh, crunchy kimchi made with whole bok choy, agar(!) cakes with roasted chilies, earthy sauteed mushrooms, cold glass noodles with vegetables, sauteed water spinach with sesame seeds, thin triangles of tofu, charred corn kernels and stone pots of fluffy steamed egg custard. As soon as we finished one plate, it was scooped up and replenished. These dishes help offset the $29-per-order price tag for the kalbi.

A team of servers soon brought baskets of charcoal and grill racks to our table, along with luscious pink slabs of heavily marbled deboned rib meat. They also brought bibs so large they looked like mini aprons. Most of us decided to take our chance, but true to form, EB and Ketchup proudly donned their bibs. As the meat began to cook, the servers flipped it and deftly cut it into squares with scissors. While we waited for the meat to cook, the head server came over to explain in stilted English that she would be bringing around complimentary seafood scallion pancakes, known as pa jun. Cut into triangles, these were crispy and less greasy than many versions I’ve had and were heavily laden with bright green scallions. I felt my first pang of fullness after eating my wedge of pancake, but I quickly dismissed it. We hadn’t even started on the meat!

The meat was ready, and it only took one bite for my hunger to return. This kalbi was truly in a league of its own. Tender and deeply flavorful, it was like the Kobe of Korean barbecue. We wrapped chunks of the meat in bright green lettuce leaves, stuffing them with spicy kimchi and adding ssam jang, the traditional spicy-sweet Korean barbecue dipping sauce. About midway through this meaty decadence, servers delivered bubbling cauldrons of soondubu jjigae, a spicy broth filled with quivering, silken tofu.

At one point, Curly Fries asked Dan Dan Noodle how to properly contain the meat in the lettuce leaf so that it didn’t fall out. Dan Dan explained that his method involved basically crumpling it all together, stuffing it into his mouth and hoping for the best. This is a pretty accurate description of my method, and it proved efficient for most of the rest of the table as well. We finished off the meat in relatively short order, with one end of the table snagging some extra meat from the other. Thinking we had all but completed our monumental task, we were soon surprised to find we were mistaken. Before our chopsticks had time to hit our plates, the army of servers descended again with three complimentary bowls of vegetable-packed bibimbap. I prefer bibimbap served in a hot stone dish so the bottom of the rice hardens like the sofrito in the center of a paella and the egg cooks as it’s mixed in. This bibimbap was served at room temperature, but it was tasty nonetheless. I downed a couple bowlfuls before reaching my limit.

Suddenly the lights dimmed and my friends started hushing each other. One of the servers carried a plate bearing a wedge of cheesecake with two candles in it. Happy birthday music piped in from somewhere started up. There was no singing on the recording, but it was one of the most hilarious renditions of the song I’ve heard. The music sped up and slowed down when you least expected it, and the shifting rhythms made it difficult for my friends to sing along. Imperial Stout described it well when he said he kept thinking it was the introduction and that the music was about to launch into the actual song. It never did, but the Korean waitstaff had no trouble joining in. They brought out the rest of the cheesecake, and Fry Girl did her best to dish it up to everyone using the butter knife they gave her. Not being a huge fan of cheesecake, I passed mine along to someone else. There was still bibimbap left in the serving bowls, and some of the more valiant eaters were not about to let it go to waste: “I’m still on savory,” Dan Dan Noodle said.

Indeed, I preferred to leave Mapo BBQ with the taste of roasted garlic, kimchi and that heavenly kalbi still foremost on my palate. It was a glorious birthday feast and an excellent way to welcome another year. In the spirit of Thanksgiving, I would like to add that I am truly grateful that I have friends and relatives who would trek out to Flushing and shell out a not insignificant amount of cash to share this meat-filled moment with me.

Mapo BBQ
149-24 41st Ave.
Flushing, NY 11355

Mapo BBQ on Urbanspoon

Report: Man Bites Dog at Bark

I am a fan of the classic New York hot dog. They may not be quite as good as my beloved Vienna Beef Chicago dogs or the beer-boiled brats I eat when I go to Wisconsin, but sometimes a hot dog from one of the Sabrett carts on every New York street corner can really hit the spot. One of those times is late at night after a few drinks. Unfortunately, many street-corner hot dog vendors have packed up by then. That’s the genius behind Bark, the carefully sourced hot dog spot on the edge of Park Slope, that is open until 2 am on Friday and Saturday nights. Empanada Boy and I stopped in on Friday on our way home from seeing “Sleep No More,” the fascinating interactive production of the story of Macbeth being staged in a Chelsea warehouse. We had an early start time for the performance and had not had time to eat beforehand. We also had drinks at the venue’s bar, including potent absinthe and elderflower cocktails. The combination was enough to have me conked out on the subway. Only food could revive me at that late hour. Bark was open and ready to receive us.

The inside of the restaurant is typical Brooklyn minimalist, with a number of long, high communal wooden tables and a few smaller individual tables. Patrons sidle up to the counter and order from a large chalkboard menu. This includes hot dogs with seven or eight different toppings, such as the bacon cheddar dog and the chili cheese dog. There are also burgers and other sausages like brats and weisswurst, in addition to various kinds of French fries, shakes and a few other sandwiches. Always one for a classic, I orders the Bark dog, made with sweet pepper, onions and yellow mustard. EB went for the pickle dog with two kinds of house made pickles, mayonnaise and mustard. We also asked for one order of fries to split between the two of us and sat down at one of the high tables to wait.

The dogs and fries were delivered in short order, and we ravenously began to dig in. The hot dogs, made exclusively for Bark by Hartmann’s Old World Sausage in Rochester, NY, had a commendable snap to them, their skins releasing flavorful juices with each bite. But the toppings on my dog were fairly unimpressive: Chopped red onions were pedestrian, and sweet peppers were few and far between. EB’s toppings were a little more noteworthy. His dog sported crunchy sweet and sour pickles, which set off the richness of the mayonnaise. The buns had more flavor and more satisfying chew to them than your average street corner hot dog, but nothing can replace Chicago’s traditional poppyseed bun in my mind.

Nontheless, we downed those puppies in a matter of minutes, pausing only to snag some of the thin, crispy fries. I like to dip my fries in mustard (ketchup being a little too sweet for my taste), and I was delighted to find both plain yellow and Dijon varieties on the table. There was also malt vinegar, another favorite condiment of mine. According to the detailed “Resources Menu” section of Bark’s website, all condiments are house made except for the ketchup (Heinz’s), yellow mustard (French’s) and mayonnaise (Hellman’s). Bark doesn’t hold a candle to Chicago favorites like Hot Doug’s in my mind, but for a New York dog, this is about as good as it gets.


Bark Hot Dogs
474 Bergen St.
Brooklyn, NY 11217

Bark Hot Dogs on Urbanspoon

Food and Music Get Funky at Kombit Creole

When Empanada Boy and I walked into Kombit Creole, a Haitian restaurant on the border of Park Slope and Prospect Heights, on a cold night last weekend, a six-person band was already steaming up the joint. A rasta dude with dreadlocks played the bass alongside a trumpeter whose thick, unkempt beard, stretched-out wool sweater and serious music-school chops allowed me to guess with 99% certainty that he went to Oberlin. The hostess rearranged some tables in the crowded restaurant to make room for us to sit against the wall. We sat took our seats and contemplated the menu, signing our plans to each other over the raucous din of the music. I had read about lambi, a traditional Haitian conch stew, and one of Kombit’s specialities. I was set on trying it, despite the $22 price tag. Conch can’t be that easy to get around here, I figured. EB wanted the goat tasso: cubes of sauteed goat meat, served with rice and disks of fried plantain.

Trying to be authentic, we both passed up the familiar Jamaican Red Stripe and ordered bottles of the Haitian beer, Prestige. It turned out to be a fairly watery, nondescript lager, but at least we were blending in with our surroundings. Soon the lambi was delivered. Thin strips of chewy conch were stewed in a tomato-based broth, which included garlic, onions, parsley and a sweet edge of tomato paste. In addition to the slightly rubbery texture of the conch, the meat imparted a strong flavor like the bottom of the ocean, infusing the tomatoey broth. In fact, the flavor was so strong that it recalled the pungency of offal. I enjoyed the dish, particularly when mixed with the accompanying bean-speckled rice, but I simply couldn’t finish off the entire plate of conch stew.

Much to my surprise, EB’s dish continued in the offal vein. The pieces of goat had the funky edge of organ meat, and while I was pretty sure they weren’t actually pieces of goat liver, I wouldn’t be shocked to learn that they came from some other nearby part. The meat was tender, if a little overpowering in its flavor. Luckily, EB is a huge fan of calves’ liver, so this meal was right up his alley. The dish came with some of the same rice, a mild dipping sauce and a coleslaw-like salad that ended up being remarkably spicy. The spicy slaw provided a nice contrast to the sweet disks of crispy fried plantain, which were a bit undersalted, but generally tasty.

The band played on through our entire meal as one of its members passed a hat to collect money for a group planting trees in Haiti. While planting trees might not have been my first priority for rebuilding a poverty-stricken country, recently devastated by an earthquake, it was hard to say no. Like the assertive flavor of the conch and goat meat, the appeal was a reminder that Haiti’s spirit is alive and kicking.

Kombit Creole
279 Flatbush Ave.
Brooklyn, NY 11217

Kombit Creole on Urbanspoon