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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

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

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

Pok Pok Wing on Urbanspoon

Christmastime for The Jews at Legend

It is a custom that dates back to the first time our ancestors set foot on American soil—or a least to the first time a Jew tasted moo shoo pork. Every Christmas, in urban Chinatowns and suburban strip malls across the country, there are Jews tucking into meals of lo mein, General Tso’s chicken and wonton soup. The Jewish Christmas tradition of a Chinese feast, often followed by a movie, is almost as important to our cultural psyche as the Christmas goose or ham. It may, in fact, be even more important because it arguably unites us more as a people than any holiday of our own. If you have two Jews in a room, you have three opinions, as the saying goes, but the salty-sweet-spiciness of Chinese food is something we can all get behind.

In the age of the gourmet omnivorous Jew, the meal has taken a step up in authenticity and flavor. In many restaurants, bold regional Chinese cooking has replaced bland, gelatinous Chinese-American fare. In the case of Legend Bar & Restaurant, authentic Szechuan cuisine supplements a fairly unremarkable menu of Chinese-American standards. That’s where I went on Christmas Eve as part of a group of 17 Jews (we had some doctors AND a lawyer), plus a few gentiles with nowhere else to go. My friend Dan Dan Noodle, a yeshiva bachur in an earlier life, organizes the annual excursion. Imperial Stout and Sgt. Pepperjack were among those in attendance, in addition to a number of people I hadn’t met, including Dan Dan’s friends Perogie Officer, The Glutard and Roo-barb.

We were initially planning to make the trek out to our beloved Little Pepper in College Point, Queens, but Dan Dan ended up getting a gig at a cheesy bridge-and-tunnel Christmas party for later that evening and had to change our dining venue to Manhattan. Legend, formerly a Vietnamese fusion restaurant known as Safran, recently switched over to Szechuan and had gotten some positive reviews. We thought it would be worth a try. Dan Dan did his research and solicited menu requests in advance. He arrived with a copy of the menu he had printed out from the Internet upon which he had made check marks next to every promising dish. One of them was a dish provocatively called “Tears in Eyes.” Made of slippery, pearly bean curd chunks topped with roasted chilies and a sauce of fermented soy beans (see top photo), this dish was my favorite of the night. It was spicy, but not more so than some of the other dishes we tasted. Still, the unique texture of the bean curd and the deeply flavorful sauce kept my palate interested through every bite.

Among the other dishes, there were some classics, including dan dan noodles (of course!) and ma po tofu. The noodles were solid, although somehow not quite as good as Little Pepper’s version. And I prefer the fiery ma po tofu at Szechuan Gourmet, which has heightened flavors that are more mouth-numbing than Legend’s version. Pork dumplings were pillowy with juicy interiors, while cold jellyfish was noodle-like with a satisfying chew. There were blistered sauteed string beans with olive leaves paste and a not-too-spicy dish of sliced pork with crispy ricecake-like disks, which the menu called rice crusts. The uncured bacon sauteed with leeks was a little boring, though pork belly is never very far from delicious. Far more interesting, however, were the pork intestines with hot chili peppercorn sauce (see second photo). These had an excellent tender texture and packed a complex sweet-spicy punch. Plus, what would a Jewish Christmas been without hot pork intestines?

One of the spiciest looking dishes turned out to be fairly mild. The Chongqing chicken arrived submerged in a sea of dried chili peppers, but the tasty morsels of meat beneath them took on only the faintest hint of the toasty heat. (That is, unless you are Roo-barb and The Glutard, who later confessed to me that they each bit into one of the peppers and paid the price with their mouths and esophagi aflame for much of the rest of the evening. If a dish is 75 percent composed of one ingredient, you assume you’re supposed to eat it, Roo-barb reasoned. Not, it turns out, when that ingredient is dried hot peppers.) Chengdu braised duck was rich and tasty, sucked off the cleavered pieces of leg, thigh and rib bone.

There were two soups on the table: one made with fish and napa cabbage was beautifully accented with flashes of hot chili, while the second was a complex dark broth filled with crunchy bean sprouts and glassy cellophane noodles. This may sound like way too much food, but—call it a Hanukkah miracle— we managed to clean every plate and even save room for the requisite orange slices. That is not to say we didn’t all come away feeling completely stuffed. I know I did. In the great tradition of our ancestors, we overdid it just enough that we might not feel ready to eat again for at least another four hours. Tradition! Tradition! Even Tevya would have been proud.

Legend Bar & Restaurant
88 7th Ave.
New York, NY 10011

Legend's Bar & Restaurant on Urbanspoon

The Perfect Turkey (Or Why You Should Never Knock Martha)

My mom has been making the same Thanksgiving turkey recipe since I was in middle school. It isn’t a family recipe that was handed down through the generations. Neither of my grandmothers have ever been good cooks, and I doubt that either ever took much pride in the annual roasting of the bird. But in a way, my grandma, Trader Joanna, is responsible for introducing the recipe into the annals of our family tradition. It all began one Thanksgiving morning when Trader Joanna and I were sitting on the curved leather couch in the family room of our beach house on the Oregon coast. We had been watching the Macy’s parade on TV. After the last float went by, Trader Joanna scanned the channels, stopping when she reached the Martha Stewart show. Despite not being a cook, Trader Joanna had always valued the hostess-with-the-mostest skills Martha Stewart imparted. Like Martha, Trader Joanna has also made a name as a savvy businesswoman, although her empire extends roughly to the borders of the town of Cannon Beach (plus a few pocket fiefdoms in Portland).

Trader Joanna and I watched as the perfectly pasteled Martha showed us how to make a turkey that came out evenly browned, moist and flavorful every time. Martha’s trick involves draping the salted, peppered and stuffed bird with a length of cheesecloth that had been plunged into a pot of hot butter and white wine. She then puts the turkey in the oven to roast, opening the door every 30 minutes to paint the cheesecloth with more butter and white wine. On TV, Martha’s turkey emerged from its cheesecloth sheath looking like the cover of a magazine. “That seems like a good recipe,” Trader Joanna said. “We should do it that way.” As everyone in my family has learned over the years, when Trader Joanna says “we,” she almost always means “you”—in this case, my mother. Luckily, Mango Mama is not the type to brine in advance. She bought some cheesecloth and followed Martha’s instructions, producing a bird that exceeded all our expectations.

This year, my mom made Martha’s turkey (second photo) at her Thanksgiving dinner in Cannon Beach, and my aunt, Auntie Pasti and I made it (top photo) for our east coast feast on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. I convinced Auntie Pasti to order a heritage turkey from Robinson’s Prime Reserve in Louisville, Kentucky. They were having a 20% off sale on Gilt Groupe (my “gilt-y” pleasure), so I emailed her to see if she was interested. She went for it—all $130 of it. I covered the additional $30 shipping and handling fee that brought the 22 pound just-killed bird to her apartment on the Tuesday before turkey day. Mango Mama, on the other hand, secured her 20-plus pound Butterball for free. The Portland grocery chain, Fred Meyer had a deal where you got a free turkey by purchasing $200 worth of food.

Needless to say, Mango Mama and Auntie Pasti had already spoken on the phone and compared notes about their respective turkeys by the time Empanada Boy and I arrived on the Upper West Side Thursday morning. “I can’t believe I spent so much money,” Auntie Pasti said. Later when I talked to Mango Mama she said: “Free is a good price. I don’t mind a few chemicals in my turkey.” Two sisters on opposite coasts, so alike you can’t tell them apart on the phone, yet still so different.

In addition to preparing our turkey to the letter of Martha’s instructions, Auntie Pasti and I made a delicious green salad with snow peas, beans and lemon zest; a brussels sprout hash; buttery mashed potatoes and cubed sweet potatoes. And before I even arrived, Auntie Pasti made two kinds of cranberry sauce—one a tart relish and the other sweeter with cubes of pear mixed in—and two kinds of stuffing±one with currants and pine nuts and the other packed with smoky Spanish chorizo. Every 30 minutes, a timer went off, and we would drop what we were chopping to open the oven and baste with butter and white wine, she with a baster, and I with a brush.

Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday, closely rivaled by Passover, because I can think of almost nothing I would rather do all day than be in the kitchen making and tasting delicious food and chatting with my mom my aunt, my sister or anyone else who has been put to work. In recent years, Auntie Pasti has done more of the work, and I have been responsible for my traditional task of making the desserts. This year, I made my desserts, a pear tart with Poire Williams glaze and an apple-cranberry pie, the night before and the always resourceful Empanada Boy figured out how to carry them on the subway the next morning so I could help with the bird. It was a treat to see the meal through from start to finish.

The rest of the relatives and guests arrived, and Corn-y Uncle poured us some pre-dinner Champagne. As we toasted to the host and hostess, I thought to myself: “Martha Stewart would be proud.” Indeed, the turkey emerged from the oven about a half hour later, looking perfectly burnished and moist. Cousin Ketchup, the family expert on poultry carving after watching a New York Times instructional video last year, set about his task. I snuck a taste of the dark meat, and I have to say, it was the best turkey I have ever tasted. As Auntie Pasti put it: “It had better be.”

Noodles So Tasty Hurricanes Can’t Keep Me Away

If you are a human being on this planet with access to broadcast media, you undoubtedly know that a hurricane swept up the East Coast last weekend. To be precise, Hurricane Irene had become Tropical Storm Irene by the time she reached New York City. While the storm took its toll on other parts of New York, New Jersey, Connecticut and Vermont, the city was showered with more media hype than actual damage. In hindsight (and perhaps foreseeably) New York City politicians overreacted, evacuating thousands of residents and shutting down the subway from noon on Saturday until early morning Monday. After all, a politician has never been voted out for being overly cautious ahead of a natural disaster, but the alternative is tantamount to political suicide. Being the skeptical journalists that we are, my good friend Oyster and I had made a bet that the hype would be for naught. We scheduled a dinner meet-up at Tasty Hand-Pulled Noodles in Manhattan’s Chinatown for Sunday evening—a time when, if you believed the talking heads, we might have been floating toward the sea along with all our worldly possessions. I jokingly wrote to Oyster: “I would brave a tropical storm for hand-pulled noodles, but a hurricane might be a bit much.”

As it turned out, the storm had almost entirely passed by Sunday afternoon. There was one problem, though: We were in Brooklyn; the restaurant was in Chinatown and the subway wasn’t running. That problem would have been insurmountable for the weak and unresourceful, but not for us. We hopped on our bikes and pedaled over the Manhattan Bridge—enduring a few minor gusts of wind—to this hole-in-the-wall spot on Doyers Street. The restaurant was packed when we got there, and based on the number of helmets hanging off chair backs, it seemed we weren’t the only ones with that idea. The restaurant has a ground floor dining room, which offers views of the noodle-making master as he kneads, stretches and, with one pull, miraculously separates the noodles into strands. But there were no empty tables upstairs. Our server led us down the stairs, past a table where a woman sat stuffing dumplings with seasoned raw meat (awesome but definitely not up to code), to the last table in the back of the basement level. We sat next to some industrial-sized boxes of napkins and paper towels that were stashed in the corner. Clearly, this was the perfect ambience for some seriously good noodles.

In the wake of the storm, the air had cooled off a bit, which made the idea of ordering soup feel more bearable. From a list that included options such as oxtail, short rib and mixed fish ball, we selected our proteins. Oyster ordered roast duck, and I went for beef and beef tendon. We then had to select our noodle thickness and composition. Every soup and pan-fried noodle dish can be made with regular hand-pulled noodles, fat-wide hand-pulled noodles, knife-peeled noodles or big or small rice noodles. I went with regular hand-pulled, while Oyster opted for fat-wide. We also ordered a plate of steamed pork and chive dumplings, a cucumber salad and two Tsingtaos. Our server was largely absent throughout the entire meal. It took us walking up the stairs to the front desk to successfully put in our order, and the food took more time to come than one would expect with a soup for which most of the ingredients are premade. Oyster said the pace wasn’t typical, and we later overheard our server telling other diners that it was his first day on the job.

It was certainly worth the wait. The noodles had the wonderful chew that allowed me to bite into them without having them disintegrate in my mouth. The broth was flavorful, filled with herbs and scallions, and the meat added depth. The beef was rich and comforting and the tendon melted on my tongue. Oyster’s duck, which had the bones still in, fell apart in tender sections. The dumplings had the same snap to their shells as the noodles from the soup, and the pork filling was nicely seasoned. Cucumber salad was refreshingly crunchy and tangy in its vinegar-based dressing. All-in-all it was a near-perfect meal.

We paid our meager bill and started walking our bikes back across the bridge, chatting and enjoying the relative quiet of the city and the calm of the water below. At about the mid-point, we climbed back on our seats and rode back toward home. After all, a brisk bike ride is the perfect cure for hand-pulled noodle overload.

Tasty Hand-Pulled Noodles
1 Doyers St. #1
New York, NY 10038

Tasty Hand-Pulled Noodles on Urbanspoon

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

Xi’an Famous Foods Deserves More Than Its 15 Minutes

After taking my first bite of the spicy cumin lamb burger from the outpost of Xi’an Famous Foods inside the Golden Shopping Mall Food Court, I knew I would have to come back and sample more of the items off Xi’an’s menu. Memories of that burger wafted up again when Empanada Boy and I were looking for a place to meet for dinner the other night. I knew Xi’an had a couple Manhattan locations, but it turned out that only one of these—the one in the East Village—has tables. When I say tables, I meant about five tiny tables with plastic chairs and a thin counter along the wall, allowing space for a line to form at the register where every patron must order before sitting down. These are the kinds of sacrifices one is gladly willing to make in order to eat delicious, distinctive Chinese food.

As we stood in the not-too-long line, we scanned the photos of the dishes on the wall that serve as the menu and contemplated which to order. After some flip-flopping, I decided I couldn’t go wrong with that same cumin-coated lamb that had haunted me since the burger, so I ordered the spicy cumin lamb on hand-ripped noodles. EB ordered the pork “Zha Jiang” on hand-ripped noodles. And because we couldn’t resist the temptation, we got an order of Chang-an spicy tofu. As luck would have it, a tiny scrunched table for two opened up just as we were done ordering. We sat down to wait there and were soon able to move to a better, slightly less scrunched table in the window looking out to St. Marks Place.

Before I describe the food, I should explain how different the cuisine served at Xi’an Famous Foods is from what most Americans think of as Chinese food. The city of Xi’an in central-northwestern China was once the eastern terminus of the Silk Road, so the spicing is heavy and sometimes reminiscent of the Middle East. Such was the case with my lamb, which arrived redolent with cumin, almost popping off the plate with flavor. Beneath the chunks of meat were thick, wide, irregularly shaped noodles that literally seemed as though they had been torn from a sheet of dough. There is almost nothing it in the world so satisfying to eat! EB’s pork was ground, and the sauce on his dish was considerably sweeter and less spicy than mine. We had requested the dish as spicy, but it said “normal spicy” on our receipt, which made me think we should have requested “extra spicy” instead. Still, the sauce was nuanced and delicious and what could be disappointing about thick, rough, chewy noodles coated in glistening pork? The tofu was silken and spicy, sitting in its fiery broth. Each bite contained a bright green sprig of cilantro or a piece of crisp scallion, which added an herbal freshness to the dish.

Feeling full, but thirsty, we decided to walk over to Saint’s Alp Teahouse, a Hong Kong-based chain with locations in New York and Chicago. I ordered a gingerbread milk tea, and EB ordered a strawberry milkshake. Both flavors were distinctive, although mine might have played better in the winter. In the context of bubble tea, a milkshake is actually a thin, milk-based drink, not like the thick milkshakes we’re used to. EB ended up wishing he had gotten a smoothie, which is actually a thicker drink. Still the tapioca had a pleasant texture, and the drinks helped soothe our spice-laden stomachs.

Not that I mind that now-familiar burning sensation in my stomach. It’s that internal fire that keeps beckoning me back to regional Chinese restaurants like Xi’an Famous Foods.

Xi’an Famous Foods
81 St. Mark’s Place
New York, NY 10003
And three other locations

Saint’s Alp Teahouse
39 3rd Ave.
New York, NY 10003

Xi'an Famous Foods on Urbanspoon

Saints Alp Teahouse on Urbanspoon

Zuzu Ramen: Proof That You Really Can’t Go Wrong With Braised Pork

Perhaps Empanada Boy said it best when he observed: “The main difference between ramen and pho is that ramen costs at least twice as much.” While that’s certainly not a precise assessment, it captures the way I often feel when ordering ramen at a restaurant. I think to myself: “This had better be good because I’m paying $14 for this bowl of soup.” This thought crossed my mind the other day when EB and I met my friend Oyster at Zuzu Ramen, a restaurant on Park Slope’s industrial 4th Ave. Oyster lives nearby, and the pork belly in the signature dish had been tasty enough to beckon him back more than a few times. It turns out that Oyster’s instincts about this being more than the average ramen joint were right on. The chef at Zuzu, Akihiro Moroto, has worked at fine dining establishments such as the now-shuttered Lespinasse and at Jean Georges. But did that make a bowl of his Zuzu ramen worth $14? I was game to find out.

The small wood-panelled restaurant has high counters and tables, equipped with stools. It has large windows looking out into the street and windows at the bar, offering patrons views of the chef at work in the kitchen. As I sipped an interesting Japanese IPA, I watched the chef using a torch to crisp the long thin pieces of fatty pork that would soon grace our soups. Oyster and I ordered the namesake Zuzu ramen, with charshu (the blowtorched pork), bamboo shoots, bok choy, Thai basil, noodles and a slow-cooked egg, served in a slightly spicy, fragrant dashi broth. EB went for what turned out to be a somewhat spicier green curry-miso ramen, redolent with cilantro and featuring charshu and a slow-cooked egg. We sipped our beers and eagerly awaited the arrival of our soups.

In due course, three steaming bowls of soup were delivered to our table. I started with a bite of the charshu, which was floating, silken and buttery, at the top of my bowl. It was certainly tasty. The noodles had a nice chew to them and a springiness that shows they were fresher than average. Breaking the soft-cooked egg allowed some of the yolk to run satisfyingly into the broth. The broth itself was tasty, particularly bites that included Thai basil, but it was not remarkable. I preferred the green curry-miso broth in EB’s bowl. It was punchy and flavorful, but still nuanced, and set off the richness of the meat and the egg more clearly. It was also $11, compared to the $14 Zuzu ramen (the latter admittedly delivered in a slightly larger bowl).

There is no doubt that Zuzu makes the best ramen in Park Slope. It’s far better than the fairly generic bowls I’ve had at the recently-opened Naruto Ramen around the corner from my house. I don’t think it quite holds up to the addictive ramen at Ipuddo, the Japanese chain with a single New York location in the East Village. But then again, I’ve waited for a table at Ippudo for more than an hour and was once simply turned away at the door at 8:30 pm or so because the list of people waiting was so numerous. There would never be such a wait at the relatively serene Zuzu. And while I could always go to Chinatown and fill my soup craving with a $5.75 bowl of pho, there are times when the top-notch ingredients in a good bowl of ramen, and the subtleties of the flavors they create, really hit the spot. When that contemplative mood strikes me—or when I’m simply craving a nice slab of braised pork—Zuzu Ramen will be right there near the top of my list. Is that occasional feeling of pure satisfaction worth $14 a bowl? I suppose it is.

Zuzu Ramen
173 4th Ave.
Brooklyn, NY 11217

Naruto Ramen
276 5th Ave
Brooklyn, NY 11215

Ippudo NY
65 4th Ave.
New York, NY 10003

Zuzu Ramen on Urbanspoon

Naruto Ramen on Urbanspoon

Ippudo on Urbanspoon

Café Cortadito y Muy Rico

As regular readers of this blog know, I am not a big fan of going out to brunch. It costs too much; the lines are too long; and most of the food available could be made at home without much effort. But when you have to go to brunch, you have to go to brunch. When those times arise, I like to find places that defy my list of brunch negatives. One such place is Café Cortadito, a Cuban restaurant on the Lower East Side. I did a search for good downtown brunches, and the name came up. At $11.95 per person the price was right, at least relative to the rest of the overpriced New York brunches. So Empanada Boy and I arranged to meet our friends Baconhater and Halo-Halo there before they left the city to return to Cambridge.

Baconhater and Halo-Halo arrived before we did, and just to be sneaky, they sent me a text saying the lines were out the door. When we arrived at the pleasant, airy little cafe, they were seated at one of two populated tables drinking cafe con leche. We ordered some coffee, sangria and tropical fruit juice mimosas and got down to the business of ordering. While we waited for our food, the server brought excellent buttered toast triangles, which would later serve as the perfect egg-yolk mops.

Café Cortadito has about ten items on its brunch menu, all of which looked appealing in some way. EB ended up ordering Holguin: poached eggs over seared ham atop a croissant, finished with Creole sauce. This was the Cuban take on the breakfast sandwich, and it was a tasty take indeed. When punctured, the eggs ran over the whole thing and made it necessary to eat with a fork and knife. Halo-Halo ordered a delicious Cuban omelet made with potatoes and embedded with smoky, salty bits of chorizo. A piece of seared ham and two sausages balanced out the meat to potatoes ratio.

Baconhater got an exquisite dish called Camaguey. Made with fresh mango and papaya (both a little too green), plantain chips and grilled shrimp, the dish was colorful and light as a breath of tropical spring air. The shrimp was nicely cooked, but the downsides were the under-ripe fruit and the lack of sauce or cohesive seasoning over the dish. If even one of the fruits had been riper and more succulent, this dish would have been more successful. Camaguey had all the pieces, but didn’t live up to its potential.

My dish was Mazorca de Maiz Dulce Estilo Cortadito. A mouthful, both in name and in essence, it consisted of two fried eggs alongside sweet corn on the cob and a small green salad. The dish was simple and tasty, with corn that was actually sweet and perfectly fried eggs, but I would have appreciated a stronger sauce or some spices to jazz it up. The ingredients in my dish may have been a little too simple to justify the $11.95, no matter how cheap the restaurant was relative to its brunch neighbors. All in all, though, Café Cortadito fit my criteria for a worthy brunch place: The food was mostly flavorful and different from anything I would typically make at home. Which is not to say I couldn’t replicate these dishes— I’ll be working on my potato-chorizo omelet the next time I want something new to make for brunch at home.

Café Cortadito
210 E. 3rd St.
New York, NY 10009

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