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New York, NY

Offal Business With the Innard Circle

It’s not every meal where a course of frog legs stands out as tame. But when a meal includes duck kidneys, duck tongue, goose-feet webbing and pig stomach, frog legs seem downright chicken-like. I ate all of these dishes and more a few weeks ago with the members of a small eating group that alternates among calling itself the Innard Circle, the Organ Meat Society and the Organ Grinders. They are a group of foodies—including journalists, designers and one notably food critic—devoted to sampling offal, animal organs, at restaurants throughout the city. My colleague, Goulash, was writing an article about the group, and I had the opportunity to tag along with him to one of their meetings, this time at the Fujianese restaurant Rong Hang in New York’s Chinatown.

The restaurant is as brightly lit as a Wal-Mart isle, and thirsty diners must reach into a glass-doored refrigerator for their own Heineken or Coors Light. The group’s resident food critic, Robert Sietsema of the Village Voice, and it’s only Mandarin speaker teamed up to do the ordering. Our first dish was duck kidney, which had a slight funk of liver-ishness but was otherwise satisfying and savory. It was soon followed by my favorite dish of the night: thin curls of goose intestine, served with beautifully julienned scallions. It would have seemed right at home on a four-star tasting menu. Other successful dishes included slightly crispy (though bony) duck tongues and pig stomach. I even liked the goose-foot webbing, which looked gelatinous, but actually yielded a sort of melt-in-your-mouth quality between the chewier cartilaginous pieces.

On the less successful side of the ledger was an unremarkable non-organ meat noodle dish, a water spinach dish with the most overcooked, mealy shrimp I have ever tasted and bright red, too-sweet lychee pork with rice. But, to my mind, the only dish that was truly inedible was the beef large intestine, cooked in Fujianese red wine paste and served with mushrooms. Let me just say that as you move closer to the end of the digestive system, the organs begin to taste more and more like the food that once passed through them. In other words, these large intestines tasted like shit—literally. After gagging down a few bites, Goulash and I left that dish up to a couple of the more hardcore members at the table. Some foods, it seems, are not even palatable to the average adventurous, open-minded eater. After all, it’s not called the Innard Circle for nothing.

Rong Hang
38 Eldridge St.
New York, NY 10002
212.625.8999

Bo Ssäm Doesn’t Quite Bring Home the Bacon

A couple of months ago, I received a note out of the blue from Jicama, a family friend and almost-relative who I pretty much only see at various West Coast events. He lives in Berkeley, California, but he said he would be coming to New York for a few days and wanted me to join him and his friends for a meal. The meal he had in mind wasn’t just any meal. It was the much-raved-about bo ssäm at David Chang’s Momofuku Ssäm Bar. Bo ssäm is Korean dish, consisting of an entire pork butt (which is actually the shoulder) rubbed in sugar and salt and cooked on low heat for about six hours. At Momofuku Ssäm, parties of eight to 10 people can order them in advance for a total price of $250. Needless to say, I was in. I asked if I could bring a friend and invited Dan Dan Noodle to join me.

Ten of us arrived at the restaurant at around 5 pm, apparently the only time slot they had open for a large group. I had to take off early from work, but it’s the excitement of meals like this that reminds me why I work to begin with. The others in the group were mostly Jicama’s classmates from his not-too-distant undergraduate days at Brown. Indeed Dan Dan and I were by far the oldest, but there is nothing like a big piece of pork to unite the generations. We were seated at one of the larger tables, and the pork accompaniments soon began to arrive, including a platter of oysters. The pork would be falling off the bone, so we were to eat it with a little bit of rice, wrapped in some butter lettuce and topped with condiments. It is apparently also traditional to eat oysters alongside the meat in the little lettuce packets.

The lettuce was delivered as a lovely whole head, and it came with a variety of sauces, including two kinds of kimchi, scallion-ginder sauce and ssäm sauce, made with vinegar and fermented bean and chili pastes. When the meat arrived, our appetites had been whetted. Glistening and caramelized, the pork looked like heaven on a plate. We pulled off moist, tender chunks with tongs, assembled our little bundles and dug in. The lettuce was crisp, the sauces were vibrant, and the meat was rich and flavorful. But there was something lacking. It’s not that the melt-in-your-mouth quality of the meat was disappointing, it’s just that it became a little monotonous. I found myself wanting more texture in each bite. I wanted the charred edges and chew that you get with Korean barbecue.

With 10 ravenous people, even a huge hunk of meat goes quickly. Luckily for Dan Dan, who couldn’t reach the platter, I was somewhat aggressive in making sure we both got some meat before it was gone. For eight people, this might have been a huge meal, but for 10 it was moderate. I wasn’t starving, but I had been prepared to be much more full. All in all, I was grateful for the opportunity to sample such a delectable treat with an interesting group of people, but if pressed, I think I would probably pick a barbecue place in K-Town or Flushing over the Momofuku bo ssäm for my next large-group Korean feast. I prefer to come to David Chang’s restaurants for his innovative dishes like fried shrimp tails or chili soft-shell crab with tomatillo and mole. That is unquestionably where he shines. For everything else, there are traditional cooks throughout the city that can prepare a more pleasant feast at a similarly modest price.

Momofuku Ssäm Bar
207 2nd Ave.
New York, NY 10003
Reservations for bo ssäm are here.

Momofuku Ssäm Bar on Urbanspoon

Hot Pot Heaven at Mingle Beer House

Back in 2009, I invited a large group of friends to celebrate my birthday with a meal at Imperial Palace, an excellent Cantonese restaurant in Flushing. While waiting for our table to be ready, we stopped in at the only bar-looking place around. It turned out to be a strange amalgam of the newish kind of bar that serves high-end, mostly Belgian, beers and a Taiwanese hot pot and karaoke lounge. It was called Mingle Beer House, and it was clearly my kind of place. I made a mental note to come back and try the food, but it ended up taking until a few weeks ago to get back there. I went with my friends Imperial Stout, Plumlord, Forager, Sgt. Pepperjack and Sgt. Pepperjack’s girlfriend Princess Pea on a Sunday afternoon. We were seated in a well-lit dining area set back and above the bar. I could immediately tell that this place was classier than Shanghai Tide, the other Flushing hot pot place where I’ve eaten in the past. The table had the requisite spots for three pots to boil. It also had an Internet-enabled flat-screen computer that we assumed was for doing karaoke or playing entertaining videos while we ate. Luckily, my friends are not boring, and chatting with them was entertainment enough for me.

Hot pot, as a concept, is a beautiful thing. For a flat fee of $25 a person, you can order as many kinds of meat, seafood and vegetables a you please to dunk into boiling pots of flavored broth. Also included in that price is unlimited cheap beer. At Shanghai Tide, it is slightly warm Budweiser in a can. At Mingle, it’s Coors Light by the pitcher. Classy, I know. While it’s tempting to forgo it and order the fine Belgian brews the restaurant serves, there is actually nothing better than watery beer for washing down a spicy morsel, just plucked from a hot pot. Since there were six of us, we decided to order every flavor of broth, including half a pot of kimchi broth, half a pot of pickled-cabbage broth, half a pot of duck-meat broth and half a pot of the spicy broth laden with sweet, fiery Sichuan peppercorns. Since Princess Pea is a vegetarian, we also ordered a pot of the vegetarian broth, which truthfully looked like little more than water with a few vegetables in it.

Into the pot, we dropped thin slices of beef and pork, various kinds of flavorful mushrooms, udon and thinner wheat noodles, pork-filled dumplings, whole crab, water spinach, flaky white fish, thin, noodle-like tofu skins, taro root and surely other things that I can no longer recall. Each of the broths had its own appealing flavor profile, but my favorite was the kimchi. The spicy cabbage gave the food a dimension of heat that wasn’t quite as palate coating as the peppercorn pot. That broth, however, was probably my second favorite. The vinegary, sweetness accompanied by the burning sensation made it a wonderfully complex backdrop to the unseasoned meats and vegetables. The other broths delivered flavor, but were decidedly more timid in their approach.

Another appealing feature of Mingle that I don’t recall seeing at other hot pot places was the sauce bar. You could walk up to this station and fill small dishes with any combination of about a dozen sauces. I had no idea what most of them were, but it made for fund experimentation. As we fished the cooked meat and vegetables out of the pots (Plumlord developed a special aptitude for this art form), we dipped them in one of the many sauces before popping them into our mouths. Sometimes I would also ladle some broth into one of the smaller bowls and eat the noodles out of that, but mostly it was easier to just pop my chopsticks into the bubbling pot and pull out the next bit of food they encountered.

Mingle Beer House
34-07 Prince St.
Queens, NY 11354
718.939.3808

Mingle Beer House on Urbanspoon

Saigon in Brooklyn? Pho Vietnam Goes Halfway There

Life has been crazy in recent weeks, and I haven’t found the time to post. As I write this, however, I am on a plane en route to Japan for a two-week trip, which should prove fertile ground for food adventures to fill this page. Before my brain and palate are consumed with thoughts and tastes of tofu, ramen, sushi and many other things I’ve never tried before, I want to go back and recount the Vietnamese dinner I shared a couple of weeks ago with a top-notch group of eaters at Pho Vietnam in the Sheepshead Bay neighborhood of Brooklyn.

A friend told me he had eaten a meal with a large group at the restaurant a few weeks earlier, and his descriptions of the food gave me a hankering for Vietnamese cuisine. I rounded up the troops, including Dan Dan Noodle, Sgt. Pepperjack, Mascarpone, Pale Ale, Imperial Stout, Auntie Pasti and my friends Ristretto and Grappa. We carpooled out to this small Vietnamese enclave in the depths of Brooklyn. The restaurant’s interior was completely generic—plain round tables ringed by supply-store metal chairs—and could have been the inside of any Vietnamese restaurant in any strip mall in America. The restaurant was packed when the first of us arrived, a decidedly good sign. We were soon seated at one of those round tables where we proceeded to comb the menu to compile a properly distributed smattering of dishes.

We started with the requisite salad rolls, also known as summer rolls, made from a rice paper casing stuffed with crunchy lettuce and tender shrimp. Dipped in their accompanying peanut sauce, these were tasty, but relatively standard fare. Spring rolls were fine, but perhaps even more unremarkable. Things got a bit more interesting when the banh xeo arrived. A Vietnamese style pancake filled with a medley of pork, shrimp, onion, bean sprouts and green beans, these were satisfying and not too greasy. They were reminiscent of Korean pa jun or Japanese okonomiyaki, further evidence that every culture has its pancake. (Incidentally, these pancakes are also the perfect late-night-drunk/next-morning’s-hangover food, perhaps the real reason for their universality.)

Almost every time I go to a Vietnamese restaurant, I order the traditional beef noodle soup, called pho. I love pho so much that I can’t not order it. And since I had never eaten Vietnamese food with a group before, I had never found occasion to branch out much. Considering this, I wasn’t going to leave without trying the pho. We ordered one bowl of the no. 1, which typically tends to be the most replete with various cuts (and mystery compounds) of beef. True to form, this no. 1 contained so-called “six differences” brisket, navel, frank, omosa tendon and eye of round. The meat was tasty, but I found the broth a bit lacking in nuance. That’s probably because I typically load my own personal bowl up with sriracha, hot peppers and holy basil before chowing down. We also ordered a pho with beef balls, which were somewhat leaden and flavorless. On the rare occasions that I do order beef balls, I am always reminded of why I rarely order beef balls.

There were a few other unsuccessful dishes. Among these was the seemingly appealing grilled shrimp on tiny rice stick with lettuce, cucumber and mint leaves. The shrimp were mealy and bland, and the rice sticks were more like thin, dry rice crackers than what I had envisioned. Beef with lemongrass, green pepper, onions and chili pepper sounded equally promising, but it turned out to be a thoroughly forgettable plate of meat and vegetables in a gelatinous, one-note sauce.

Far better were the spring rolls with grilled pork and lettuce on rice vermicelli and the same dish made with beef. When blended together with the accompanying sauce, these became almost like a Vietnamese bibimbap, a perfect one-man feast for those not interested in pho. My favorite dish of the night was the curry chicken with rice noodles. Oil slicked and redolent of curry, it had the consistency of a soup but was also nice spooned over rice. I particularly appreciated the bone-in, skin-on chicken wings floating in it. Perhaps most impressive dish of the night was the crispy whole fried fish with Vietnamese sauce. The exterior was delightfully crunchy, and even the small bones of the wide-bodied fish were tasty when eaten with that crust. Inside. The white flesh was tender and flaky. Accented with a dash of sriracha and that salty Vietnamese sauce, this yielded a highly satisfying bite.

Pho Vietnam
1243 Ave. U
Brooklyn, NY 11229
718.998.2858

Pho Vietnam Restaurant on Urbanspoon

Roberta’s Shows Hipsters Know Their Pizza

I had read plenty about Roberta’s, the wood-fired pizza palace in Bushwick, Brooklyn that former New York Times critic Sam Sifton boldly (and muni-centrically) called “one of the more extraordinary restaurants in the United States” in his two-star review of the place. I had thought about making the trek out to try the place, but Bushwick seemed a long way to go to wait in line for an hour with a bunch of hipsters to sit at a table and eat pizza that could not possibly be as good as everybody said. It took an invitation from an Israeli visiting New York to finally get me out there. And while Sifton’s comments revealed his limited exposure to the great regional restaurants of the U.S. (Nostrana in Portland, for example, has been making top-notch pizzas alongside a phenomenal menu of locally-sourced fare since well before Roberta’s was a twinkle in its tweed-clad founder’s bespectacled eye), I will admit that these hipsters make a pretty good pizza.

I was introduced to Cauliflower, a fellow journalist visiting from Tel Aviv, by our mutual friend, Dr. Shakshuka. Cauliflower’s army buddy, Olivero, is a musician and graduate student and lives in Bushwick within walking distance of Roberta’s. So it was that Cauliflower proposed we meet there for dinner there. I put our party on the list when I got there at 8:30 and edged my way through a crowd of skinny-jeaned, florescent-thrift-shop bedecked twentysomethings to the bar for a beer. The wait for a table ended up being somewhere around 40 minutes—not a short time, but not as bad as it might have been. We decided to order two pizzas to share, a meat plate and an octopus appetizer.

I rarely meet and meat plate I don’t like, but this one was particularly well-sourced from the artisanal American producers widely considered to be the exemplars of their craft. There was prosciutto from La Quercia in Iowa, finocchiona (fennel sausage) from Salumeria Biellese in Manhattan and sopressatta from Alps Provision Company in Astoria, Queens. Of these, the bold finocchiona won the day, although even it may have been overshadowed by the torn-off chunk of excellent crusty bread that Roberta’s makes in its wood-fired ovens. My Israeli friends hadn’t eaten much octopus, but they gamely sampled the dish after I suggested we order it. Cooked to tender perfection, with a slightly charred exterior, this octopus came with the treviso, a kind of radicchio with long leaves like an endive; a deeply flavorful fermented garlic called black garlic; and sea beans, a sea-salty, bright green stalk whose texture resembles thin, tender asparagus. This was a balanced, yet fairly complex dish that included two ingredients I had never tasted, and readers of this blog know that I have tasted a lot. Two points for Roberta’s.

Finally it was time for the pizzas. We ordered one Tracy Patty, made with mozzarella, ricotta, boquerones, savoy cabbage, roasted garlic and black pepper. Boquerones, cured Spanish anchovies are flat out one of my favorite foods in the world, and the riotous, salty, oily flavor the lent to this pizza did not disappoint. Creamy, mild mozzarella and sweet ricotta offset those flavors nicely, and the cabbage provided wonderful crunch with a less-pungent Brussels sprout-like flavor. The second pie was the Banana Hammock, topped with bechamel, mozzarella, pork sausage, garlic, red onion and banana pepper. Once again, the contrast between the creamy bechamel and the spicy pork sausage, not to mention the kick of pepper and onion, made this pizza a standout. I preferred the boldness of the Tracy Patty, but Olivero came down on the side of the Banana Hammock. The crusts on both were delightfully light and chewy with perfect blackened pockmarks around the edges—absolutely nothing to complain about here.

What did I conclude after finally hauling out to Bushwick to try Roberta’s? It is an excellent and enjoyable restaurant, which might even be worth the wait, providing drinking can be done in the interim. Like a true gentleman, Cauliflower covered my cab ride home to Park Slope, but Roberta’s might even be worth the money it takes to haul oneself home full, slightly drunk and happy at the end of a good night.

Roberta’s
261 Moore St.
Brooklyn, NY 11206
718.417.1118

Roberta's on Urbanspoon

A Dosa’ Inspiration at Mumbai Xpress

My friend Mascarpone emailed me the other day and suggested we get together for a bite. She added: “I have a car, so if there is any out-of-the-way place you want to try…let me know.” I scanned my must-try lists and came across a place on the New York Magazine Queens top 20 cheap eats list that seemed far enough away that I would never make it without significant effort or a car. The location: Floral Park, Queens (way the hell out there, virtually on the border of Long Island’s Nassau County). The restaurant: a casual snack shop, specializing in vegetarian cuisine from Southern India, called Mumbai Xpress.

One of the best meals I ever had while I was reviewing restaurants for Chicago magazine (and one of the best period) was at a vegetarian Indian place in a generic strip mall in an unmemorable corner of the Chicago suburbs. The depth of flavor that the vast array of traditional spices coaxes out of simple vegetables and grains makes this the only vegetarian cuisine I’ve tried that I could subsist on for any length of time without ever craving meat.

We found a parking spot almost directly in front of the restaurant, the first of many signs that we were not really in New York City anymore. (Another sign came later when Mascarpone talked her way out of a parking ticket after her meter expired.) The interior layout, decor and lighting were reminiscent of a cafeteria, complete with a metal-edged glass counter dividing the kitchen from the dining room and the universal use of plasticware and paper plates. The menu was long and a little intimidating, considering our limited knowledge of the cuisine from this region and the names each dish goes by. So when our server came around, we simply asked for her advice. Mascarpone knew she wanted puri, the hollow, crispy puffs, which can come with chutneys or cracked open and stuffed with vegetables. We ended up getting dahi batata puri: puri filled with potatoes and a little chili powder and topped with yogurt, sev (crispy fried strips) and cilantro and doused with sweet and spicy chutneys. These fall under the Indian snack category called chaat, and they made tasty one-bite (albeit large) treats, complete with crispness, soft depth, richness and kick.

Our next course was Mumbai Xpress’s version of a grilled cheese sandwich. This had three layers of grilled bread, such as would a club sandwich. The first two were spread with cilantro chutney and lined with soft potato, while the space between the other two was occupied by the mild Indian cheese, paneer, and thin slices of raw green peppers and raw onions. Mascarpone is not a big fan of raw peppers or onions, so this dish was not a hit with her. I happily gobbled it up, but I’m not sure I would order it next time. It’s not that the sandwich was bad, just that I’m sure there are many more remarkable dishes on this lengthy menu.

Despite that wealth of options, our final dish was one that I would be hard-pressed to not order again on any subsequent visit. This was a beautiful rectangular dosa, browned and lightly crisped to a flaky consistency. This came studded with thin slices of hot pepper and stuffed with a delicately seasoned blend of soft potatoes and peas. In addition to yogurt and chutney, this came with a small bowl of spicy stew-like sauce, meant, we assumed, for dipping the pieces of dosa we tore off. The stew tasted spicy, savory and delicious, but we found it difficult to scoop up much of it with the very lightly absorbent dosa. Perhaps we should have gotten ourselves a spoon? Even without this somewhat perplexing condiment, this dish was incredibly satisfying. As we finished up, another table of Indian people were being delivered a huge dosa made from a lacy rolled up pancake of sorts. That might have to be on the list next time.

And, as long as I can get Mascarpone—or someone else with a yen for adventurous eating—to drive me out there, with Mumbai Xpress, there will definitely be a next time.

Mumbai Xpress
256-06 Hillside Ave.
Queens, NY 11004
718.470.0059

Mumbai Xpress on Urbanspoon

At Chuko, Vegetables Are The Unlikely Stars

I never thought I would say it, but the vegetarian option was the sleeper hit at Chuko, a new-ish ramen place in Prospect Heights, Brooklyn. Well, that’s not exactly an accurate statement; I ordered the vegetarian broth…and then added pork. Still, I can say with some certainty that the broth was the best element of that dish. Flavorful and complex, it was replete with Brussels sprouts, kale, sweet potatoes, roasted squash and other fresh, seasonal vegetables. I ordered it with a soft-cooked egg, which ran into the steaming broth when punctured with a chopstick. The pork was medium-thick slices of smoky duroc. It was tasty enough, but I found it too lean for soup. A fattier cut would have melted luxuriously into the broth. Instead, this became slightly overcooked and chewy in the broth. Pork notwithstanding, that vegetarian broth was emblematic of the way the chef at Chuko (opened by three Morimoto alums) handle their vegetables. I ate dinner there last weekend with Cousin Ketchup and my friends P.C. Biscuit and Granny Smith.

The first evidence of Chuko’s vegetable prowess emerged with the arrival of the appetizers. We ordered all four on the regular (non-special) menu. Among these was a fantastic kale salad, made with a combination of raw and tempura-fried kale, pickled golden raisins, dressed in a slightly sweet white-miso vinaigrette, and topped with cripsy curls of Japanese sweet potato. The Brussels sprouts were deftly sauteed until their cut edges were lightly blackened. Then they were doused in pungent fish sauce and topped with crunchy peanuts and pickled peppers, yielding a divine assemblage of texture and sweet-salty flavor.

The less successful appetizers were those that contained meat, including the overly bready fried chicken wings which came with a fairly tame dipping sauce that was supposed to be spicy. These weren’t even in the same food group as the mind-blowing ones I ate at Pok Pok Wing. Also underwhelming were the pork-stuffed gyoza with a soy-based dipping sauce. It’s not that they were bad; they just weren’t particularly distinctive in the way that the kale and Brussels sprouts had been. I should have just ordered the headcheese special, but I wanted to put the core menu items to the test.

Next came the ramen, which comes in four broth varieties: soy, miso, pork bone and that tasty vegetarian one. In addition to the pork, there is the option to add chicken, which is lightly cooked and cut into silky smooth pieces. We ordered as many different combinations and permutations as we could among the four of us. P.C. Biscuit selected the pork bone broth, mixing things up (with the eager encouragement of our server) by adding the chicken to the mix. The broth and thinner noodles that came with it were nice, although I didn’t come away with an overly porky impression. He also got the hard-cooked eggs, whose static nature made them seem superfluous. The white rectangles of chicken were surprisingly flavorful, but the texture was almost slimy and would have benefited from a slight char on the grill. Granny Smith’s miso broth was tasty, with an almost milky cloudiness, but Ketchup’s flavor-packed soy broth with pork was probably my second favorite soup on the table.

The ramen at Chuko was good by Brooklyn standards, and at $12 a bowl, it’s more affordable than Zuzu Ramen. But if I come back to Chuko, it will not be for the pork or chicken wings—it will be for the vegetables.

Chuko
552 Vanderbilt Ave.
Brooklyn, NY 11238
718.576.6701

Chuko on Urbanspoon

PDX+NYC= Love and Pok Pok Wing

For the past few years, New York has been engaged in a love affair with Portland, Oregon. That is to say, New Yorkers of a certain political and socioeconomic bent have come to idealize my hometown for its reputed liberal leanings, bicycle friendliness, chill vibe, hipster-artist culture, dominance in coffee and microbrews and culinary badassedness. There seems to be another article every season in the New York Times, extolling the virtues of Portland. These are certainly worthy things to love about a city, and Portland is worthy, if not always accepting, of that love. But the food and drink producers of Portland have been increasingly taking advantage of the instant cache that their city delivers by expanding their empires to New York. Andy Ricker, the chef and owner of Portland’s fantastic Southeast Asian restaurant Pok Pok, is the latest Portland culinary star to bring his brand to the Big Apple. Ricker is preparing to open a full-service restaurant in the Red Hook neighborhood of Brooklyn, but he is already hard at work whetting New York’s appetite with a small counter-service-only spot on the Lower East Side called Pok Pok Wing.

As a Portlander and a foodie New Yorker, it was incumbent upon me to give Pok Pok Wing an early assessment. I got Dan Dan Noodle and Imperial Stout to meet me there last week, and we proceeded to order almost everything on the menu. While it was plenty of food, that sounds more impressive than it actually is because Pok Pok Wing has only three dishes on its menu, plus a rotating special. These include: papaya pok pok, a green papaya salad, which can be (and was) ordered with salted black crab; khao man som tom, a green papaya salad served with coconut rice and shredded pork; and the star of the show, Ike’s Wings. Dan Dan and Imperial Stout scouted for a table as I pushed my way through the crowded dining space, where diners stood or sat on stools in front of high tables, to the front counter. The special was a pork-shop sandwich. I ordered that too. Pok Pok Wing serves no alcohol, but it does offer the ultimate in unique beverages: drinking vinegars. These are tart, fruit-flavored vinegars blended with soda water. They come in tamarind, honey, apple and pomegranate. I ordered all but the more pedestrian-sounding apple, and we waited in the tightly packed space for our food to be ready.

While we waited, I recognized a fellow Portlander and New York transplant sitting at the counter. I hadn’t seen him since we did drama camp together in middle school, but this was a fitting forum for a reunion. Soon our food was ready and a seating nook was cleared. We sat down with our paper plates to dig in. Let me first just state the obvious and say these wings put the standard sports bar fare to shame. In fact, they wouldn’t even be recognizable as the same cut of meat. That’s because Pok Pok’s wings are served whole with an extra bony joint off which one can suck the meat and succulent skin. And it is truly succulent; marinated in fish sauce, garlic and sugar, deep fried, caramelized and tossed in another fish sauce and more garlic, these are at once sweet, pungent and fiery. We ordered the spicy version, which offered a kick of chilies at the end. I had tried the papaya pok pok in Portland and had loved the complexity and vibrancy of the combination of crispy green papaya, tomatoes and long beans, dressed with fish sauce, Thai chilies, garlic, dried shrimp and peanuts. But I had not sampled the extra spicy version with the salted black crab. The black crab was particularly surprising, not only for its extreme saltiness, but also because it was the crunchy shell we were meant to eat. There was no meat to be had, the server explained to me when I picked up the plate. This dish was also quite spicy, an effect moderated by the balls of sticky rice we ate it with.

The pulled pork with its accompanying green papaya salad was tasty, but the sweet, fragrant coconut rice was probably the best thing on the plate. Lastly, there was that pork chop sandwich, which looked like something Fred Flintstone would have eaten for lunch. A massive crusty roll was toasted on both sides and lined with a whole Niman Ranch bone-in pork chop. There were no condiments spread on the bread— just the juice from that pork chop. I found this dish unwieldy, a bit dry and somewhat pointless. But I was thankful that the only dud on this menu was not a staple. The drinking vinegars were quite interesting—invigorating, yet fruity and sweet. The pomegranate and tamarind actually ended up being a bit too sweet for my taste, but I was surprised to find that the natural acidity of the honey aided the vinegar in balancing out that flavor.

Pok Pok Wing will be an even better place to stop in when summer rolls around, and I can take my food outside. But even in the cramped space, there was much to love about this Portland transplant. I’m still not sure that Pok Pok needs New York, but New Yorkers are definitely reaping the rewards of its presence.

Pok Pok Wing
137 Rivington St.
New York, NY 10002
212.477.1299

Pok Pok Wing on Urbanspoon

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

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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

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