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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

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

Caracas Arepa Bar: Venezuela In NYC

Curiara La Popular“What is an arepa?” So asks the rhetorical question on the website of Caracas Arepa Bar. If you click on the link you learn they are “dense, yet-spongy corn flour rounds,” “pita-like pockets” “cake-swaddled melange” and “like a Latin Sloppy Joe,” among many other descriptors. But, as I found out recently the best way to really understand what they are is to try them yourself. I met up with my friend Onion there a few weeks ago to do that.

I learned about the restaurant from Sweet Tea, one of my colleagues, who is Venezuelan-American. I asked her if there are any good Venezuelan restaurants in New York City. She didn’t know of many, she said, but there was one great one I had to try. That place was Caracas Arepa Bar, which has outposts in Manhattan’s East Village and in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.

The Manhattan location is small and nearly always crowded, there happened to be a table for two waiting for us when we arrived. (It was also pretty dark inside, hence the poor quality of my photos.) Onion and I scanned the menu of arepas and liked the looks of too many of them to narrow it down. So we ordered, a curiara (Spanish word used in Venezuela for “dugout canoe”) filled with three varieties. The one we ordered, called La Popular, included two halves each of: La De Pabellón, with shredded beef, black beans, white salty cheese and sweet plantains; La Reina Pepiada, with chunky chicken and avocado mix salad; and La Mulata, with grilled white cheese with jalapeños, sautéed red peppers, fried sweet plantains and black beans.

TequeñosOur server convinced us we needed an appetizer too, so we ordered tequeños—little fried dough sticks filled with melted, stretchy cheese. Those came with a slightly spicy dipping sauce, and they were satisfying (if a little too bland) in the guilty way jalapeño poppers and cheese fries can be, especially when eaten between swigs from our bottles of Negra Modelo.

As it turned out, we probably didn’t need an appetizer. Our arepas arrived in a wooden serving dish that was indeed reminiscent of a dugout canoe, but this one probably would have sunk to the bottom of the river because it was so filled with food. The arepas were chewy corn pockets that made for easy finger food. The only problem with this kind of finger food is once you start eating one, you can’t put it down for fear of it falling apart completely. Instead, I end up eating everything a bit too quickly.

My favorite arepa was the beef one. The salty cheese was like the crumbly Mexican cheese cotija, and it accented the slightly sweet beef and the plantains nicely. The chicken one was my least favorite; the meat was a little dry and the avocado lacked kick to counterbalance its fatty richness. (I added some of that hot sauce I’d put on the tequeños for some extra flavor.) The cheese and jalapeño one was more interesting, having great texture, heat and sweetness.

All-in-all, three halves of an arepa amounts to plenty of food for one person and enough variety to keep even the most indecisive eaters happy. If you still don’t know what an arepa is after reading this post, I suggest you go out and try one yourself.

Caracas Arepa Bar
93 1/2 E. 7th St.
New York, NY 10009

Caracas Arepa Bar on Urbanspoon

A Cheap Date on Valentine’s Day

PhoI realize this post on Valentine’s Day is coming a couple weeks late. I’ve been busy with school, and the site was experiencing technical difficulties this week. Empanada Boy has successfully gotten us switched to a new server, and things seem to be running smoothly. It is in honor of the capable and dedicated EB, my Valentine, that I rewind a bit to recount the fantastic day we had on February 14.

Wine from AstorOriginally, we weren’t planning to do anything for Valentine’s Day because we’re poor and can’t afford the lavish dinner we would have wanted. But EB got the great idea of spending the day doing a list of some of the top cheap, but great, things we like to do together. After a morning class and lunch at home, EB and I took a long walk across the George Washington Bridge, which towers immediately north of our apartment building. the relatively mild, clear weather made for a good time and great views as we trekked across to Palisades Park in New Jersey. (We saw about 10 deer there.) We then walked back and took the train downtown to Astor Wines & Spirits. This East Village wine shop is a major destination for anyone looking for a great deal on a swath of interesting and well-selected wines. It reminds me very much of the Wine Discount Center, where I worked in Chicago. Thanks to the discounts we got with an in-store member card, we walked out with nine bottles for around $90.

Thai Son exteriorEB carried those in his backpack as we hopped on the train again to head down to Chinatown. In his even poorer student days, EB frequented the Vietnamese restaurants here. He always ordered pho, beef noodle soup, because it’s cheap, delicious and totally irresistible. We walked in to Thái Són, which was completely packed and which EB was sure he had visited at least once. It seems that many other diners— both in couples and in groups— liked the idea of a cheap Valentine’s day. We were seated quickly and immediately zeroed in on the meat combos we wanted in our pho. I require fatty brisket and tendon in my soup. EB agrees and usually adds tripe to the mix. Neither of us is a huge fan of meatballs, and lean brisket is hardly worth the time.

salad rolls2We also ordered salad rolls. These are an addictive combination of chewy noodles, tender shrimp and fresh herbs and are stellar when dipped in the accompanying peanut sauce. Typically, the soup came before the rolls, and we had to remind a random server that we were expecting them. But the soup was beautiful when it arrived. Unlike other places, which completely submerge the thinly sliced raw meat in the broth to cook it before it gets to the table, Thái Són left some pink pieces on top that we could plunge into the broth ourselves. This gave the meat a freshness and prevented it from becoming too cooked before we tasted it. I tossed in the basil, bean sprouts, lime juice and jalapeño slices, along with my typical douse of hot chili sauce and sweet hoisin. The soup hit the spot. The heat of the chilies, the variety of the herbs and the comforting warmth of the whole ensemble made it the perfect metaphor for a relationship filled with romance.

Astor Wine & Spirits
De Vinne Press Building
399 Lafayette (at East 4th St.)
New York, NY 10003

Thái Són
89 Baxter St.
New York, NY 10013

Astor Wines & Spirits on Urbanspoon

Thai So'n on Urbanspoon