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Monthly Archives: January 2012

Tacos Take Two: Top-Secret Edition

We all know that, despite the complexity and creativity restaurants offer our palates, there is sometimes nothing better than home-cooked food. Many chefs strive to recreate this homey quality with comfort-food menus and dishes prepared like mama would have made them. But what if, instead of the restaurant becoming the home, the home becomes became the restaurant? That is what has happened at Taqueria Juquilita, a world-class taqueria run by a Oaxacan couple (with assistance from their English-speaking son) out of a tiny second-floor apartment in the Columbia Heights neighborhood of Washington, D.C. That’s where my dear friend Honey Roasted Peanut lives. I was lucky enough to be in town visiting her last weekend when she got the idea to give Juquilita a try. My friend Po’boy, who also happened to be visiting from New York that weekend, joined us. HR Peanut had been searching for good tacos in her neighborhood and came across a glowing Yelp entry for a place that appeared to be just one street away. But if she hadn’t read that review, she never would have known it was there.

Taqueria Juquilita has been run for 10 years out of the same eat-in kitchen of an apartment in a dingy high-rise. It started even more informally as a way to serve friends and family the comfort foods of home. Visitors would call up to the apartment and the son who serves as host, waiter, translator, etc., would throw the keys on a lanyard out of the window and down to the person on the street. As tends to happen when phenomenal food is being sold and served on a mostly regular basis in a semi-public way, word of the restaurant fell into the hands of a less-than-trustworthy source who proceeded to post the address and phone number on Yelp for all the desperate foodies of the world to see. As irksome as it might have been for our host and his parents to have their details published and to deal with the inevitable wave of gringos, I am glad that Yelp review was created. We stood outside the tall brick building and nervously called upstairs. (I promised them I would not divulge their location or contact info here.) Moments later the keys were flying down to us, and we were taking the rickety elevator to the second floor. Inside the apartment, there was a long rectangular table ringed by metal folding chairs. On it were pots of salsa, including pico de gallo and a fiery habañero, guacamole, lime wedges and radish slices. There was also a relish made of lightly pickled red onions and habañero slices.

Some among us had been out until the wee hours and were embarking on this, our first meal of the day, with some degree of a hangover. I scanned the taco menu, which included cabeza de res (cow’s head), cabeza de puerco (pig’s head), cesina con nopales (beef strips with cactus), sesos de res (beef brains), lengua (tongue) and carnitas (fried pork), and determined that we would need one of each. Po’boy and HR Peanut readily agreed to share. Not only were these tacos beautiful to look at when they arrived at the table, but they turned out to be some of the tastiest I’ve tried. All the meat was well-spiced. My favorites were the falling-apart-tender cabeza de res, the surprisingly meaty beef brains and the meltingly fatty cubes of carnitas. There weren’t any major duds, although we were all slightly less inclined to the pig brains, which had a notably gelatinous texture.

We topped these with the salsas—HR Peanut wisely avoiding the habañero options as Po’boy and I proceeded to light our mouths and lips aflame. Tall cinnamon-spiced glasses of horchata, made excellent salves for our battle-scared tongues. In addition to the tacos, we ordered a quesadilla filled with flor de calabaza (squash blossoms) and a light mild cheese. Huitlacoche is also available as a quesadilla stuffing, but the squash blossoms came more highly recommended by our host. These were mild but slightly crunchy, which made for a unique textural contrast. Despite its unique filling, this was the least interesting item we tried. The tostada topped with chicken tinga may well have been a better bet.

After we had ordered, a group of about five people, some of whom were seasoned Juquilita veterans, came and sat at the other end of the table. They ordered the goat stew and some of the other dishes we didn’t have room to try. I heard the guy sitting next to me ask our host if they had chapulines that day. Lest we finish off this fabulous meal in an uninteresting way, our host informed us that there were indeed chapulines—tiny fried Mexican grasshoppers, served in a tortilla with cilantro and onion. Po’boy and I knew we had to try these, but HR Peanut was squeamish. When they arrived, she bravely took a small bite. I ate an entire tacos worth of the tiny little buggers. They were cured in the traditional way with garlic, lime juice and salt. But I found them a little too salty and limey. They would have been better served as a crunchy accompaniment to one of the softer meats. Still, these were vibrant flavors made from recipes and ingredients that were nothing if not authentic. The tacos at Juquilita were some of the best I’ve had in the U.S., an appropriate accolade for a restaurant in our nation’s capital and a fitting reminder that the best food is still cooked at home.

Taqueria Juquilita
Second Floor Apt.
b/n 14th St. and 16th St.
Columbia Heights
Washington, D.C.

The Name Sets the Bar at Ricos Tacos

When I looked up the restaurant listing on New York Magazine’s website for Piaxtla Es México Deli Ricos Tacos y Antojitos (commonly known as Ricos Tacos), the site listed the restaurant as Rico’s Tacos, as if Rico were a guy who had opened up this hole-in-the-wall taqueria in the heavily Mexican, Brooklyn neighborhood of Sunset Park. But there shouldn’t be an apostrophe in the restaurant’s name; “ricos,” in this case, is an adjective referring to the tacos, and it means delicious. It is a name that sets a high bar, and I wanted to see if the food measured up. My friend Fry Girl, who has spent some time in Mexico, gamely agreed to come along and to drive me to the restaurant in her car.

The inside of the restaurant has all the charm of a dingy diner, with faded orange formica booths, a high counter displaying prepared foods, a glass-doored fridge filled with Mexican sodas and a small jukebox on the wall. Much like it was during my visit to Tulcingo Deli VI, also in Sunset Park, we were the only gringos in the place. We sat at a booth in the corner and proceeded to order a veritable feast’s worth of food. It was a cold night, so soup sounded like a good first course. There was pozole, the traditional Mexican soup made with pork and hominy, and there was menudo, another traditional soup made with tripe in a chili-based broth. They were both cheap, so why not order one of each? The pozole wasn’t the best example of this soup I’ve tried; it could probably have used more seasoning. But it was rich and thick with a creamy consistency that comes from the blend of stewed hominy and fat. In other words: pretty satisfying. The menudo was tasty too, replete with big chunks of tripe that melted in the warm, spicy broth. Fry Girl isn’t a big fan of tripe so it was up to me to tackle most of this one. Luckily I didn’t finish it because there was a ton of food still to come. I washed the spiciness down with a sip of the restaurant’s sweet horchata (cinnamon rice milk).

Next came the tostadas. Thinking these would be as small as their $3 price tag, we ordered three of them in addition to three tacos, which were also $3 each. Notable among these were the tostada de tinga–a crispy corn tortilla topped with a sweet-spicy combination of shredded chicken blended with salsa, vinegar and white onion, and the tostada de enchilada—a spicy combination of shredded meat coated with tomato and chili sauce. The latter was tender and complex, our favorite dish of the evening. All came topped with lettuce, cilantro and crumbly cotija cheese. The al pastor was best of the three tacos we tried, although even that was not up to the standards of Tulcingo Deli (let alone my beloved Erick’s Tacos in Chicago). I found it a little sweet and not nearly as nuanced as other preparations I’ve tried. The beef taco was a bit dry and bland, and the chorizo was unimpressive. The restaurant’s tasty salsas, including a spicy salsa verde, a smoky salsa rojo and an avocado sauce, made the less worthy tacos more lively. Of course, it’s possible that the reason we started losing interest had more to do with having eaten far too much than with the fact that the food could have been better. Most likely, it was a little bit of both.

So did these tacos live up to their name? They were tasty enough, but even in Brooklyn, I’ve eaten tacos more ricos than these.

Piaxtla es México Deli Ricos Tacos y Antojitos Mexicanos
505 51st St.
Brooklyn, NY 11220
718.633.4816

Piaxtla Es Mexico Deli on Urbanspoon

Taverna Kyclades: Authentically Greek From Start to Nudge Out the Door

My friend Kebab and I went to the Jim Henson exhibit at the Museum of the Moving Image in Astoria last weekend. While Kermit and Miss Piggy would have been enough to lure me out to Queens on a sunny Saturday afternoon, the promise of a post-museum Greek feast added extra incentive. Kebab lives in Jackson Heights and had scoped out the scene in Astoria, so I left the restaurant selection in his hands. Based on the 15-minute wait at 4 pm at the seafood-focused Taverna Kyclades, it appeared that his pick was a winner. But when someone said my name while I was waiting near the door and I turned to see Imperial Stout, I knew for sure that we had come to the right place. An Astoria resident, Imperial Stout was just stopping by to pick up a loaf of bread, but he assured us that we would not be disappointed.

Half of the tables here are under a tent whose sides are open in the summer and sealed and heated in the winter. We were seated in the other half–the normal indoor restaurant. Servers carrying plates of lemon wedges and loaves of crusty, oiled and herbed bread bustle in between the jumble of wooden tables and chairs packed with hungry patrons. Above them, the ceiling is lined in Aegean blue. Apart from the people speaking Spanish at the table next to us, it felt a lot like Greece. Our first dish was a plate of grilled octopus–tender with a perfect edge of char–sitting in a shallow pool of deeply flavorful olive oil inflected with dried herbs and scattered with cucumber slices. I topped each bite with a squirt of lemon and could almost feel myself back at the water’s edge in the Peloponnese.

Even though I am typically against the consumption of fresh tomatoes during the wintertime, I couldn’t resist the look of the Greek salad that sat on so many tables while we were waiting to be seated. Filled with vibrant chunks of tomatoes, cucumbers, peperoncini and slivers of red onion, the salad came topped with a thick slice of feta dusted with herbs. I ordered a small one (which turned out to be huge) and was not disappointed. The cheese was fresh and not too salty, and the salad had great texture. Granted, summer tomatoes would have been brighter and sweeter, but these were the best that January had to offer.

For our main course, Kebab had his heart set on the grilled sardines. And I am certainly not one to say no to a fresh sardine. These arrived, eight to a plate, headless, skin striped with grill market and drizzled with olive oil. There was nothing fancy about the way they were cooked, but the fish was obviously of high quality. We pulled the rich and deeply flavorful meat off the skeletons, leaving only the tails on our plates. On the side, we ordered potatoes peeled, cut into chunks and infused with lemon and olive oil before being cooked to tenderness. After our plates were cleared, our server returned to see if we wanted dessert. As I quickly learned, there is no dessert menu at Taverna Kyclades. In fact, there is only one dessert served: galaktoboureko, a custard made with semolina and topped with a phyllo crust. It is like the Greek version of flan. We asked for coffee to go with our meal, but they don’t serve coffee here. It makes sense because people tend to linger over coffee, and Taverna Kyclades doesn’t like a lingerer. Indeed, when our desserts arrived, they were accompanied by the bill, a not-so-subtle hint (and a prime example of the characteristic Greek pushiness) that we were on the verge of overstaying our welcome.

Taverna Kyclades
33-07 Ditmars Blvd.
Queens, NY 11105
718.545.8666

Taverna Kyclades on Urbanspoon

Portland Bagel Debacle

Every time a relative came from New York to visit us in Portland while I was growing up, he or she would come bearing bagels. Occasionally, there would be a chocolate babka or rugelach from Zabar’s, but the bagels were the one standing request. My mom’s favorites were (and still are) the bagels my uncle, Second Breakfast, buys at The Garden in Greenpoint. The reason was simple: there were no decent bagels to be found in Portland. Instead, we had what I have dubbed “faygels”—puffy white bread formed into a bagel shape. When I moved to New York three years ago, I also took on the responsibility of bagel delivery. I would freeze a dozen bagels from Absolute Bagels on the Upper West Side, or once I moved to Brooklyn, from Bagel Hole or Terrace Bagels in Park Slope, and bring them to work with me, convincing the guys downstairs in the cafeteria to keep them in the freezer for me. Then I would stuff them into my already overloaded carry-on bag and stash them underneath the seat in front of me. Thanks to my short legs, I made a fairly adept bagel mule.

But about three years ago, the bagel-delivery responsibilities of the New York contingent began to diminish. That’s because Kettleman Bagel Company, which was founded in 2006, began to expand throughout the city. Jeffrey Wang, the owner, (and a non-Jewish Chinese dude) studied under bagel masters in New York for 17 years before opening up in the midst of the Portland bagel wasteland. It’s not that Kettleman’s dense, chewy boiled bagels, were the only game in town. Tastebud, a fantastic pizza place, in Southeast Portland started making the slightly sweeter Montreal-style bagels in its wood-fired oven. But those could only be purchased at the restaurant and in limited quantities at a farmer’s market or two. (They are now available at select locations of New Seasons Market.) Finally, a good bagel had become widely available. The Jews and gourmets of Portland rejoiced! First, a Kettleman location opened up near my sister Flava Flav’s apartment, so she was put in charge of picking them up and bringing them over to my parents’ house for brunch. Finally, Kettleman opened up a shop near my parents’ house earlier this year. It was what we had all been waiting for.

I came home to Portland for a quick visit on Thursday night. On Friday morning, Daddy Salmon went out to pick up some bagels from Kettleman. It was while I was digging into my tasty, though not-quite-as-good-as-New-York, everything bagel that I learned the bad news: Einstein Noah Restaurant Group, which owns its namesake brands as well as Manhattan Bagel, announced plans to buy Kettleman for an undisclosed sum at the end of November. Portland foodies erupted into outraged blog posts and Facebook tirades. Willamette Week, Portland’s alternative weekly, dubbed the controversy “BagelGate.” Confirming everyone’s worst suspicions, Einstein Noah stated in its press release that it “expects to rebrand all five locations into one of its other brands in the future.” In a rush to assuage distraught customers, Kettleman put out the word the following day that its recipe would remain the same, but it seems to me that the writing is on the wall. It is only a matter of time before Kettleman becomes Noah’s and starts serving what the Portland Mercury (another alt paper) called “squishy bread.”

The Mercury also named Kettleman the worst sellout in Portland history. While I respect the desire of Jeffrey Wang to take his profits and retire, I might have to agree. When Kettleman becomes yet another purveyor of faygels, Portland will be taking a major step back in its culinary trajectory. A decade’s worth of bagel progress will be lost to time. And, at least until another enterprising bagel maker opens up shop, my New York relatives and I will have to resume our cross-country bagel transport.

Kettleman Bagel Company
2235 SE 11th Ave.
Portland, OR 97201
503.238.8883
(and four other Portland locations)

Tastebud
3220 SE Milwaukie
Portland, OR 97202
503.234.0330

Kettleman Bagel Company on Urbanspoon

Tastebud on Urbanspoon