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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

Madison Summer Needs Michael’s Frozen Custard

The first time I went to Michael’s Frozen Custard in Madison, Wisconsin was before I started writing this blog. At the time, I thought frozen custard was the same as soft-serve. I was soon set straight. While it bears some textural resemblance to this more-common cousin, frozen custard is made with egg yolks. So is it ice cream? Not exactly. According to the FDA, something marketed as frozen custard must contain at least 10% milkfat and 1.4% egg yolk solids. Anything less, and it’s ice cream. The result is a thick, rich, sweet substance, softer than ice cream and denser than soft serve. While it apparently started in Coney Island, frozen custard is a big deal in Wisconsin, where it is also the specialty at the legendary Kopp’s in Milwaukee. Open since 1986, Michael’s is a Madison institution. It seemed wrong that it wasn’t in the annals of The Mango Lassie, so I managed to convince a large group of my in-laws to go there while I was in Madison last weekend. (Not exactly a herculean effort.)

Our 21-person group (Empanada Boy has a lot of siblings, and they have a lot of kids) had spent the hot afternoon paddling rented kayaks, canoes and paddle boards on Wingra Lake. The 13 of us who didn’t need to return home for a nap, tromped across the sun-soaked field and went through the fence toward the red-and-white-striped umbrellas of Michael’s. Seating here is only outside, and all ordering is done at the window. Custard is the specialty, but Michael’s also serves savory food, which many of us decided to eat beforehand. EB and I both got Chicago dogs, which were topped with the requisite onions, tomato slices, pickle wedges and relish. (Spicy sport peppers were provided on request.) These were decent, but as should be expected by anyone ordering a Chicago dog outside of the Windy City, they weren’t quite up to the standards of the real thing. This was mostly because the dogs themselves were made by Red Hot Chicago, a Chicago company, but one whose seasoning is slightly inferior to the gold-standard Vienna Beef. EB also got some pretty tasty fried onions.

After we finished our dogs, burgers and very salty fries, we filed back up to the window to order our second course. Some ordered what they always do. My sister-in-law, Cerealla ordered her longtime favorite Mississippi Mud: vanilla custard topped with pecans, Oreos and coffee and drizzled with chocolate syrup. My niece, Linguine ordered the classic Turtle Sundae: vanilla custard with pecans, chocolate syrup and caramel syrup. Her sister Vegetable Queen ordered a simpler option, which was basically the Turtle sans pecans. (All sundaes come with a maraschino cherry.) My nephew Lobster Bisque ordered a cookie dough sundae, which came doused in chocolate sauce and smattered with perfect pebbles of dough. Peanut Butter Fudge Cake, one of the flavors of the day, swayed EB from his usual order. (My niece, the Reading Corndog also ordered it.) It was a truly decadent affair: vanilla custard, topped with a mouth-coating peanut butter sauce and chunks of chocolate cake. I took one bite and wondered whether I could even finish one. EB ordered a medium because it was a special (only $4.99!) and didn’t remember that a medium at Michael’s is positively enormous.

Even a small is huge, as I found out while eating my selection, the Muddy Banana: vanilla custard with chocolate syrup, Oreos and banana slices. Maraschino discarded, I dug into the rich, creamy sundae and quickly began to take note of the speed with which custard fills the stomach. It was like a banana split on steroids. By the time I had finished, I felt ready to roll away. EB, his sister Sous Chef and I decided to walk home, unable to face the thought of even bending our bodies enough to sit down in the car.

I thought I would never feel hungry again, but, of course, I did. Later that night, we went out for dinner at the Caribbean restaurant Jolly Bob’s (good drinks and atmosphere, unremarkable food). After dinner, Drumstix, Popcorn Princess, Cerealla, Croque Monsieur, EB and I went out for a drink at Vintage Brewing Company, a relatively new spot, focusing on European-style beers. We sat at a cozy booth with a view of the steel beer-making tanks over the back and a view of the eleventh-hour debt ceiling negotiations on the television monitors above the bar in front of us. We each ordered a different one, except for EB who couldn’t decide and ordered a flight. The Summer Sahti, my selection, was a delicious brew made in the Finnish style. It had a foundation of rye with hints of juniper berry in the finish and was quite refreshing.

Having eaten a hot dog (admittedly not a brat) and frozen custard and tried a delicious new beer, I felt like my long weekend in Madison had largely fulfilled my culinary aspirations for it. I could head back to New York with enough signature Midwestern flavors in my taste memory to tied me over until next time.

Michael’s Frozen Custard
2531 Monroe St.
Madison, WI 53711

Vintage Brewing Company
674 S. Whitney Way
Madison, WI 53711

Breakfast, Brats and Badgers

Last weekend Empanada Boy and I flew out to Madison where we met his parents and my parents and sister for an awesome long weekend. We spent most of the weekend at the house in Eagle River (Northern Wisconsin) that Popover and Tofutti Cutie co-own with EB’s aunts and uncles. But we started the trip off right by attending the University of Wisconsin-Madison homecoming football game, in addition to all the other events and traditions (many of them food related) that came along with it. We started the morning off at 9 am with some tailgating. But this wasn’t just any kind of tailgating. As it happens, Popover is a very important person in the UW world— a Regent on the board of the university system. That got us all an invitation to a tailgating breakfast at the UW president’s house!

We were all introduced to the president and then filed into one of the bright airy rooms of the stately UW-owned home where we lined up for Bloody Marys with a bunch of other red-clad folk. We then proceeded to the buffet table where we piled our plates high with fresh fruit salad, beef hash, homemade chicken sausage topped with mango salsa, croissants, cinnamon buns, cheese and egg souffle and tomato salad with balsamic vinaigrette. The food, catered by Viki Kohlman of Chez Vous, was much more high-class than my vision of tailgating fare, but it was quite tasty. The Bloody Marys were also remarkably good, considering their mass production. The only thing that left something to be desired was the coffee, watery and weak. As Mango Mama put it: “The president deserves to have better coffee.”

We finished our food and then headed to the stadium where pretty much the whole city was gathering in their red and white, badger-festooned regalia. EB, Flava Flav and I spent the first half of the game in the stands with fans of all kinds. From there, we had a perfect view of the marching band and cheerleading squad and watched as the Badgers outpaced the Minnesota Golden Gophers. It was more than 80 degrees that morning (crazy for October in Wisconsin) and we were in the direct sunlight, so we were glad when halftime came and Popover took us up to the Regents’ box where he, Tofutti, Mango Mama and Daddy Salmon had been watching.

The Regents and their guests had been snacking on brats and drinking soda (no beer— it’s college!), but alas, the brats had already been cleared away by the time we got up there. I didn’t want Flav and Mango Mama to go without trying a brat, so I went down to one of the peons’ concession stand, got a brat, dressed it with mustard, relish, onions and kraut and brought it back up to the box. Juicy and flavorful, it was gone before I even thought of taking a picture. That wasn’t the end of the feasting, though. Part way through the third quarter, pizzas were delivered to the Regents’ box (in case you weren’t full enough already). These came in sausage, pepperoni and vegetable flavors and were fairly unremarkable, but we tried them anyway. After all, this may well have been our only chance to check out the Regents’ box.

In the end, the Badgers won the game and we got a great lesson in UW tradition. The Badgers went on to beat top-ranked Ohio State this weekend, and I cheered like a true fan when I heard the news.

On Wisconsin!

Beer Takes Flight at Hopworks

Beer FlightEmpanada Boy and I are up in Northern Wisconsin at his family’s lake house. It’s cold, and the snow has been falling almost nonstop since we arrived here last night. It all makes you feel like drinking warm beverages and curling up in front of the fire, but there’s one cold beverage you always have to make room for when you’re here, and that’s beer. Wisconsinites take their beer seriously. But then, so do Oregonians. The difference is that Oregon beer tends to be more craft-oriented and less mass-market than Midwest brews. This is evidenced by the small temples to the art of beer springing up in my home state everyday.

The last time we were in Portland, EB and I did a beer tasting with Flava Flav and Daddy Salmon at Hopworks Urban Brewery, a quintessentially Portland spot, decorated with bicycle parts hanging from the ceiling and the bar. When we were there, Hopworks was offering a great deal: 10 3-ounce pours of its proprietary brews for a mere $7.50. That’s just under two pints for about what one would cost you in New York. EB drank one whole sampler himself (obviously), but Flav and I shared and Daddy Salmon opted for a pint of IPA. Beers ranged from the Organic Hub Lager (5.1% alcohol by volume) to hoppy seasonal brews with more than 9% ABV and came on a tray lined with tasting notes. All were delicious and distinctive, but these are not weak, watery beers, and even the staunchest beer drinker cannot hope to get through a flight without some food to line the stomach.

PizzaDaddy Salmon, Flav and I shared a large pizza, one of the focal points of the Hopworks menu. We got the Gatherer topped with mushrooms, caramelized red onions, marinated artichoke hearts, roasted garlic, bell peppers and black olives. Unfortunately, the pizza sounded more delicious than it turned out to be. The crust was a little dry and lacked the chew of a wood-fired oven. Some of the toppings—olives, artichoke hearts—came from a can, and the mushrooms were basic buttons, not the more flavorful wild mushrooms that typically grow in Oregon. One noteworthy detail, however is that most of the ingredients are organic.

BurgerAs soon as I saw EB’s burger, I realized I should have ordered that instead. It was huge and cooked to a perfect medium rare. Tillamook cheese melted on top and large French fry wedges came on the side. The standout burger made me wonder about the other sandwiches on the menu like the one made with Pilsner-cured sausage or the laden Hopworks Sub. I’ll probably try one of those the next time I’m feeling like drinking a whole lot of flavorful Oregon brews and need something substantial to line my stomach.

Hopworks Urban Brewery
2944 SE Powell Blvd.
Portland, OR 97202

Hopworks Urban Brewery on Urbanspoon

Burger Joint Behind the Curtain

Burger SignMuch has been said about the lack of good-tasting, inexpensive, food in Midtown Mahanttan, and for the most part, I agree. But I had been eager to try Burger Joint at Le Parker Meridien since reading about its top-quality burgers last summer. Empanada Boy and I got the perfect opportunity to try it before a Carnegie Hall concert a few weeks ago.

To get to Burger Joint, you walk inside the lobby of Le Parker Meridien, one of Manhattan’s chic hotels. You look around, unsure of where you’re going, until a hotel porter clad in a dark suit wordlessly points you down a black-curtained corridor. You know you’re on the right track when you see the steaming burger neon sign hanging on the wall ahead of you. Then, suddenly, you’re in a small, funkily decorated, wood-paneled room, crowded with booths, tables and a counter, behind which a cook stood flipping burgers and frying French fries.

Ordering at the CounterThe line at the counter was fairly long when we walked in, but it moved pretty quickly. We ordered two medium-rare burgers, two orders of fries and a pitcher of Sam Adams (not a bad deal compared with the by-the-glass price). Besides one or two other drinks, there is virtually nothing else on the menu. It is not called Burger Joint for nothing. The guy behind the counter handed EB the pitcher. Unfortunately, every table was full. We stood menacingly near one of the booths making it clear we wanted them to hurry up and eat so we could have their seats. That happened just in time for the arrival of our food.

Burger and friesThe burger didn’t look that impressive on arrival. The bun was a bit smashed, and the iceberg lettuce seemed sad. The fries looked tasty, so I started with one of those. Indeed, they were perfectly crispy and salted on the outside with a pleasantly soft interior. I dipped them in mustard and noted that the restaurant only serves Dijon. A wise choice, if you ask me. Then it was time to try the burger, which came topped with tomato, pickles and a specially seasoned mayonnaise.

Medium RareWhen I bit into the burger, I was pleased to find it juicy and flavorful and cooked, as requested, to medium rare. (There are much fancier restaurants that can’t seem to get this final detail right.) The lettuce was flavorless, but provided crunch and, despite being smashed, the bun still tasted better than many I’ve tried. The pitcher of beer may have been a bit overkill, especially before a concert, but we almost managed to finish it off. Next time, I hope to try the milkshake on Burger Joint’s menu. I imagine it will be as pure an expression of the classic ideal as the burger and fries manage to be.

Burger Joint at Le Parker Meridien
119 W. 56th St.
New York, NY 10019

Burger Joint at Le Parker Meridien on Urbanspoon

Birthday Feast At Imperial Palace

SoupI turned 27 last week and decided to celebrate in the Mango way: with a feast. I had read New York Times restaurant critic Sam Sifton’s one-star review of Imperial Palace a few weeks ago and had been intrigued by the expertly made Cantonese seafood dishes he described. It sounded worthy of the trek to the Flushing neighborhood of Queens to try it out. (It’s also worth noting, as Eater did, that Sifton went to Queens within his first month on the job when most reviewers have stuck primarily to Manhattan.) Unlike most of the restaurants Sifton reviews, I figured this would actually be one in which my friends and I could afford to eat—and not just eat, but feast. With this goal in mind, we took the 7 train to the end and met on the corner of Roosevelt and Main Street.

Four of us arrived before the rest of the group and decided to get a drink while we waited. Suitable bars did not seem forthcoming until we happened upon Mingle Beer House, a Taiwanese bar with an international selection of beers, karaoke and what looked like delicious food. We ordered beers and sat at the neon-lit bar chomping those delicious Asian peanuts and listening to a female karaoke singer belt it out while a group of men dined on hot pot. It felt like a scene from “Lost In Translation,” and I loved it. I plan to go back for food soon.

Cold Jellyfish SaladWe finished our beers and then walked to Imperial Palace. In many ways, the large dining room with red-tablecloth-topped, round tables is like so many Chinese restaurants we’ve all been to. The difference here was that my friends and I were the only non-Chinese people in the near-full restaurant. We were immediately shown to an empty table and got down to the business of ordering. The only alcohol served here is beer—Tsingtao, Heineken and Budweiser. Tsingtao seemed the way to go. Following Sifton’s advice, we also started with soup made with pork, tofu and mustard greens. After the review’s description of the dish as “verdant, porky mustard greens and white pillows of tofu in a glistening broth,” I was frankly disappointed. The pork was dry and too lean, and even the pleasant gingery broth wasn’t enough to boost the flavor. I had not given up on Sifton yet, though, so we ordered the cold jellyfish salad, another of his recommendations. That dish (pictured here) was better. The texture of the strips of jellyfish reminded me of eating seaweed. They were chewy with a little crunch as you managed to bite through them, and the soy and black vinegar sauce kept them lively.

SablefishThe favorite dish of the evening was the sable, served on a sizzling cast iron platter and positively melting in a delightful savory pile of onions and salty black bean sauce. The crispy fried chicken was also a winner with its crackling exterior and moist, tender center. The sauce that came with it (Sifton described it as fermented red bean sauce, but it didn’t taste like that to me) was too thin and too mild. I wanted something spicy or with a punch of pungent flavor to complement the sweetness of the chicken. Still, we ordered a whole bird and left nothing on the plate.

Dungeness Crab and Sticky RiceAs a Northwesterner, I was looking forward to the Dungeness crab cooked in a steamed over sticky rice and river leaves. I continue to believe that Dungeness crab is sweeter and more tender than lobster, but Imperial Palace’s preparation did not do it justice. The crab tasted a little mealy and overdone, probably a result of the fact that it had to be shipped here from the Pacific. For this reason, it might have been worthwhile to try the more local lobster. The rice had good texture, but I found it surprisingly bland. I wanted sauce or ginger or heat or something to make it sparkle.

Clams in Black Bean SauceI felt a bit discouraged by the mixed bag of dishes we tried, but our grand finale the clams in black bean sauce was another keeper. The sauce was nuanced and coated each of the tender clams in a flavorful, salty bath. Scallions dotted the landscape. As we finished off the dish, our server brought plates of lychee and pineapple for dessert. It wasn’t exactly a birthday cake, but it was an appropriately authentic finish to our eating adventure. The food at Imperial Palace was successful in many instances but didn’t knock it out of the park. Still, it was a great place to share a meal with friends who are devoted enough to come to Queens and eat jellyfish, all to celebrate the birth of little ‘ole me.

Imperial Palace
136-13 37th Ave.
Queens, NY 11354

Mingle Beer House
37-04 Prince St.
Queens, NY 11354

Imperial Palace on Urbanspoon

Mingle Beer House on Urbanspoon

Stuffing Ourselves at Schnitzel Haus

SchnitzelApart from visiting my relatives, getting to eat bratwurst is one of the best things about going to Wisconsin. The last time I was there, around July 4, I think I ate three in four days. But a full German meal, complete with sauerkraut and potatoes, spaetzle or another weight starch, is probably a once-a-year affair for me. This is true simply because I typically leave these meals thinking I’ll never be able to eat again. If there’s an ideal place to have that once-a-year German experience, it might be Schnitzel Haus, a truly authentic eatery in the Bay Ridge neighborhood of Brooklyn.

Now before you jump to the conclusion that my craving for German food ran so deep that I scoured uncharted depths of Brooklyn to find this place, let me enlighten you. Empanada Boy and I found out about Schnitzel Haus from a couple we met through our wine club. Margarita and Tater Tot are both from the Midwest and met in Menomonie, Wisconsin where German roots and German cuisine run deep. They now live in Bay Ridge where they were naturally drawn to Schnitzel Haus. They encouraged us to come out and check it out, and the schnitzel and brat cravings started stirrimg in my stomach. We drove out last Saturday to meet them there.

BeerWe started things off in the traditional way with liters (2-plus pints) of beer. I had the Spaten Oktoberfest, one of many German options to chose from. Margarita, who doesn’t care for beer, ordered a dry Riesling. When the beer arrived, I was shocked to see how big the glasses were. I guess the metric system just doesn’t register in my mind’s eye. I could barely lift the stein to my lips to drink, but I was determined to finish it off.

The menu at Schnitzel Haus does devote a lot of space to its namesake dish, but it also includes a long list of sausages and other German specialties like Sauerbraten, Kassler Ripchen and Rindsgulasch mit Nudeln. (What exactly these are I will leave to your imagination.) EB ended up ordering the Paprikaschnitzel (see top image), a pork cutlet, breaded and fried with paprika gravy. The color was beautiful, but I found the sauce a bit lacking. It seemed like it should have been spicy or at least zesty. Instead, the sauce was bland and heavy with little of the smokiness I find in other paprika sauces.

BratwurstI was set on eating sausages and studied the options carefully. Knackwurst, Weisswurst and the sausage sample platter all sounded appealing, but I could not resist the Bratwurst, which came with a pile of bacon-laced sauerkraut and a massive ball of mashed potatoes. Tater Tot ordered the same thing. The sausages were delicious, with just the right snap and a great blend of spices. But two sausages, plus the flavor-packed sauerkraut (which achieved an essential balance of tang and fatty richness) left me little room for the mashed potatoes. As in most instances, I found those to be little more than filler and generally uninspiring. Oh, and must I remind you that I still had most of my liter of beer left to drink?

SpaetzleMargarita had the unique experience of being a vegetarian at a meat-centered restaurant, but even she found plenty to eat. In addition to two crispy potato pancakes, she got a plate filled with spaetzle, a type of traditional egg noodle. Both were tasty, although I would imagine it was tough to consume that much starch in one sitting.

Needless to say, I fulfilled my destiny when it comes to German restaurants and over-ate to the point of discomfort. After finally managing to gulp down my last sip of beer, I was about ready to roll out of the place. The food at Schnitzel Haus is excellent, but all I could think as we got up to leave was that my stomach might not be ready for another meal there until after about a year of recovery.

Schnitzel Haus
7319 Fifth Ave.
Brooklyn, NY 11209

Schnitzel Haus on Urbanspoon