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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

Tacos Take Two: Top-Secret Edition

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Name Sets the Bar at Ricos Tacos

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

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

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

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

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

Piaxtla Es Mexico Deli on Urbanspoon

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

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

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

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

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

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

Taverna Kyclades on Urbanspoon

Portland Bagel Debacle

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

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

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

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

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

3220 SE Milwaukie
Portland, OR 97202

Kettleman Bagel Company on Urbanspoon

Tastebud 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

Octopying Queens, One Tentacle at a Time

When it comes to food, there is pretty much nothing I wouldn’t try eating at least once. And when it comes to blogging about it, the wackier the better. So when I heard about Sik Gaek, a Korean restaurant in Woodside, Queens that serves live octopus, known as sannakji, I knew I would have to try it. I heard about the restaurant from my friend, Dan Dan Noodle, who arranged a bachelor party there for his buddy, a former vegan. Needless to say this poor guy was traumatized for life by the experience of eating something that was still moving on the plate. In fact, he told me he recently, only half-jokingly, that he continues to have nightmares about it. This sounded like a fitting challenge for my trusted crew of hardcore eaters and me. I rounded up Dan Dan, Imperial Stout, Bagel with Lox, Oyster and my friend Mascarpone. Mascarpone brought along a friend who was visiting from Chicago, and Dan Dan brought his friends, Sgt. Pepperjack and Megabite. We were nine in all, putting us just above what I would consider the minimum group size (a one-person-to-one-tentacle ratio) necessary to tackle a meal here.

We were seated at a large wooden booth, partially tucked away behind a slatted screen. In the center of the restaurant, near the front were tanks filled with abalone and other sea creatures. We ordered bottles of plum wine, shochu and Obi and then set about determining what to eat. While Sik Gaek is best known for its octopus, the restaurant doesn’t always have it in stock. Anxious to prevent disappointment, I had called ahead of time and learned that Tuesdays and Thursdays are the days the octopuses are delivered. I dutifully scheduled our visit for a Thursday night. After having watched a clip of Anthony Bourdain and David Chang eating at the restaurant on Bourdain’s show “No Reservations,” we knew we had to order the fresh octopus hot pot, known as sannakji chulpan. But we didn’t want to stop there. Our server informed us that two octopuses came with the hot pot, so one could be served raw, as a celphalopodic sashimi of sorts. He also encouraged us to try the seafood pancake, and Imperial Stout suggested the rice cakes. We ordered all of these dishes and then dug into the eggs that servers had fried on our table while we waited.

The food began to arrive in short order, with the raw octopus and rice cakes leading the charge. To say that this octopus was still alive is slightly inaccurate; it was already cut into bite-sized pieces, which were scattered among whole cloves of garlic and slices of raw jalapeño. (Here is an example of eating an octopus that is actually alive.) But the octopus’s nervous system is a wondrous thing because those pieces were writhing around the plate, flipping jalapeños and latching on to garlic cloves. We were not deterred in the least. We popped these pieces into our mouths, dipping them first into one of two accompanying sauces and making sure to chew enough to guarantee the suckers didn’t enter our stomachs still twitching. The rice cakes, made with glutinous flour, had an interesting chew that reminded me of gnocchi. These came tossed with thin squares of fish cake and doused in a sweet-spicy red sauce made of Korean chili paste, garlic and scallions. The sauce took on a slightly funky fishy smell, which added complexity to the dish.

Next came the seafood pancake, which was replete with bright green scallions and large chunks of fresh seafood. Octopus tentacles protruded from one side. If our server hadn’t recommended we order this, I would likely have passed because I’ve tried pa jun so many times. But I would have been sorry if I hadn’t gotten to taste what was hands-down the best example of this dish I have ever had. It was crispy and not too greasy and really packed in a lot of high quality seafood. At some point, our server also brought over a complimentary platter of oysters on the half shell, which I thought were unremarkable, but which we all slurped down nonetheless.

Finally, it was time for the pièce de résistance: the fresh octopus hot pot. A team of servers deftly delivered a massive cauldron, filled with bubbling red broth and the largest pile of seafood I have ever dug into. “I don’t know if I’m at dinner or in a tidepool,” Sgt. Pepperjack quipped. On top of the mound of cherrystone and razor clams, shrimp, crabs, mussels, abalone and sea snails were the squirming tentacles of our second octopus and the flailing claw of a lobster. The lobster and the octopus duked it out for while as we watched in wonder and snapped photos on our phones. (“Let a [sic] octopus dance on a hot plate,” the menu had suggested.) We snapped up some pieces of still-wiggling octopus tentacle, but the movement in the platter soon began to die down. When that happened, our server returned with special scissors and set to work cutting everything into smaller pieces. We scooped and spooned the creatures and broth into our bowls, dredging up thick noodles beneath them. My first few bites of seafood were noticeably fresh and tender, although the broth didn’t seem to have much flavor of its own. As we worked our way to the bottom, however, the seafood, particularly the shrimp and clams, became increasingly overcooked. Such is the risk you run with hot pot.

Before embarking on this massive feat of consumption we noted that those tables that finished the hot pot could request that the broth be mostly drained and that fried rice with seaweed and roe be cooked in the same vessel. As we ate our way through the last of the seafood, it was fried rice or bust! We made it to the fried rice phase, and I’m sincerely glad we did. The rice took on some of the flavor from the broth, while the roe added a salty inflection, as well as an excellent textural dimension. I had thought I was full, but I gobbled up the rice and washed it down with one last sip of beer. I can’t say this was the best seafood I’ve ever eaten, but it was certainly among the most lively and exciting meals I can recall. When the food itself is dancing, it’s hard not to let your mood follow suit.

Sik Gaek
49-11 Roosevelt Ave.
Queens, NY 11377
(another location in Flushing)

Sik Gaek on Urbanspoon

Sik Gaek 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.”

Mapo BBQ Birthday Bash

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Report: Man Bites Dog at Bark

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

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

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

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


Bark Hot Dogs
474 Bergen St.
Brooklyn, NY 11217

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