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Hot Pot Heaven at Mingle Beer House

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

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

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

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

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

Mingle Beer House 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.

Eating it up in Ávila, El Escorial and Toledo

Empanada Boy and I spent two of our five days in Madrid visiting nearby towns and cities. We woke up feeling better after our rough jet-lag plagued first night. Isla Flotante and Salmorejo picked us up from our hotel in Isla’s car for a drive out to the walled city of Ávila, the center of Spanish mysticism. Ávila is the home of Santa Teresa, a medieval nun and poet who wrote surprisingly erotic poems about her mystical communion with Jesus. It is also known for having some of the best beef in Spain.

After walking in the hot sun along the ancient, high walls that surround the outside of the city, we ate lunch at a spot called Restaurante Tres Siglos. Salmorejo selected a robust wine from Ribera del Duero, and we ordered two thin tenderloin steaks. Before those came, we ate a mashed potato dish, infused with smoky pimentón (Spanish paprika) and topped with crunchy pieces of ham. We also had gambas al ajillo (shrimp in a garlic oil sauce) and a platter of sliced chorizo and lomo (pork loin). Of these non-steak dishes I liked the pork platter the best. The potato dish was heavy, and the bacon pieces were too hard. The shrimp were measly, flavorless, cocktail adornments, not like the gambas we would see later in Barcelona.

But that steak was by far the best part of the meal. It was juicy and full of the flavor of the Castillian countryside. I prefer my steak to have gristle and chew—more ribeye than filet mignon—and this one had all of those elements expressed in their full glory. I could have taken or left the fries that came along with it, but this was a nice piece of meat.

We left Ávila after lunch and continued on to El Escorial, the town that houses the palace built by Felipe II, who was the king of Spain from 1556 to 1598. In addition to the austere, but impressive palace, the grounds house a crypt where nearly all of the Spanish kings (and their wives) from Felipe onwards are entombed. Empty tombs ominously await the bodies of the parents of the current king, Juan Carlos. There is also a series of adjacent rooms filled with the coffins of innumerable princes, princesses and other royalty. Needless to say, we emerged from our tour of El Escorial burdened with the solemn weight of Spanish Catholic history.

Luckily, El Escorial is also known for its churros con chocolate. We went to a nearby café and ordered some. They were crusty on the outside but perfectly light and chewy on the inside, and the chocolate was almost as thick as syrup and very rich. Churros must be accompanied with chocolate that’s much thicker than the typical drinking variety because they must retain the chocolate like sauce after being dipped. Isla Flotante told me the secret is to buy chocolate powder with flour mixed in for thickening. Inferior varieties use gelatin, which should be avoided.

A couple days later, EB and I hopped on a bus to Toledo, the home of El Greco and the marizipan capital of the world. Culinarily speaking, Toledo is known for small game like conejo (rabbit) and perdiz (partridge). EB and I wanted to taste some partridge, so we stopped for lunch at a restaurant called Restaurante Ludeña, which we read had it on the fixed-price menu del día. As it turned out, the less expensive menu del dia offered cordoníz (quail), which is basically like a smaller cousin. I decided to start with gazpacho and then order the cordonices. EB started with paella and then got merluza a la plancha (grilled hake).

The gazpacho was refreshing, although I couldn’t help thinking about Mango Mama’s complaint that it just tastes like watery, mild salsa. (That’s one reason I prefer Salmorejo, the bread-thickened gazpacho of Cordoba, or the Southern Spanish gazpacho de almendras made with almonds instead of tomato.) The cordonices were succulent, cooked in a rich sauce made with rum, bacon and onions. In typical Spanish fashion, the dish came with French fries. These were somewhat disappointing compared to the luxurious richness of the dish. They also did little to cut the considerable saltiness of the cordonices.

EB’s paella was excellent, with plump prawns and gently cooked mussels. The rice was al dente and evenly cooked. It was a substantial serving, so when the merluza arrived, it was almost as though another meal was being served—and eaten—in quick succession. The fish was perfectly done, but blandly seasoned and fairly boring. The plate, complete with the ubiquitous French fries, looked a little too white for my taste. Some fresh green herbs could have made that fish pop visually and flavorwise.

For dessert we ordered flan and natillas, another creamy, eggy pudding, typical of Castilla-La Mancha. The desserts were fine, but they set us over the edge in terms of fullness. We basically rolled out of Ludeña and gradually managed to work off the lunch through some aggressive touring of the mind-blowingly ornate cathedral, the El Greco sites and the ancient synagogues. By the time we had finished all of this, we were finally starting to get a bit hungry again. It was time for our merienda, the pre-dinner sweet snack, a meal that only the Spaniards could have invented. Luckily, I knew exactly where to go.

As I mentioned before, Toledo is known for its marzipan. The best marzipan in Toledo may well be the Mazapanes Santa Rita made and sold by the nuns in the Real Monasterio de Santa Úrsula. I never much cared for marizpan until I stopped in and bought some from the nuns when I was last in Toledo with Daddy Salmon, Mango Mama and Flava Flav. This has a soft chew to it and a genuine, sweetly almondine flavor, unlike others I had tasted that reeked of almond extract. Because this order of nuns lives a very cloistered existence the process of buying the marzipan is noteworthy. We walked into a dimly lit tiled lobby and climbs a few stairs to a door. Inside is a small window, occupied by a metal lazy susan turntable with a little wooden door on the other side. Then we rang a bell and a nun opened the little wooden door to request our order: the largest box full, of course. We put the money in our side of the turnstile, and the nun spun it toward her. She then sent it spinning back to us with our box of marzipan inside.

We ate a few marzipan, which come in different traditional shapes, as we sat and watched the sun set over the hillside. The candy was just as good as I remembered it. I could have eaten many more pieces, but EB and I wanted them to last. We ate our last one about 10 days ago. As with the madeleine for Proust, eating them will always bring me back to that sunset with the steep slope from the old city of Toledo to the new, coated in toasty almond gold.

Restaurante Tres Siglos
Calle de los Comuneros de Castilla, 11
05001 Ávila, Spain
920 228 772

Restaurante Ludeña
Plaza de la Magdalena, 10
45001 Toledo, Spain
925 223 384

Mazapanes Santa Rita
Convento de Santa Úrsula
Calle de Santa Úrsula, 5
45002 Toledo, Spain
92 222 235

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