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Bo Ssäm Doesn’t Quite Bring Home the Bacon

A couple of months ago, I received a note out of the blue from Jicama, a family friend and almost-relative who I pretty much only see at various West Coast events. He lives in Berkeley, California, but he said he would be coming to New York for a few days and wanted me to join him and his friends for a meal. The meal he had in mind wasn’t just any meal. It was the much-raved-about bo ssäm at David Chang’s Momofuku Ssäm Bar. Bo ssäm is Korean dish, consisting of an entire pork butt (which is actually the shoulder) rubbed in sugar and salt and cooked on low heat for about six hours. At Momofuku Ssäm, parties of eight to 10 people can order them in advance for a total price of $250. Needless to say, I was in. I asked if I could bring a friend and invited Dan Dan Noodle to join me.

Ten of us arrived at the restaurant at around 5 pm, apparently the only time slot they had open for a large group. I had to take off early from work, but it’s the excitement of meals like this that reminds me why I work to begin with. The others in the group were mostly Jicama’s classmates from his not-too-distant undergraduate days at Brown. Indeed Dan Dan and I were by far the oldest, but there is nothing like a big piece of pork to unite the generations. We were seated at one of the larger tables, and the pork accompaniments soon began to arrive, including a platter of oysters. The pork would be falling off the bone, so we were to eat it with a little bit of rice, wrapped in some butter lettuce and topped with condiments. It is apparently also traditional to eat oysters alongside the meat in the little lettuce packets.

The lettuce was delivered as a lovely whole head, and it came with a variety of sauces, including two kinds of kimchi, scallion-ginder sauce and ssäm sauce, made with vinegar and fermented bean and chili pastes. When the meat arrived, our appetites had been whetted. Glistening and caramelized, the pork looked like heaven on a plate. We pulled off moist, tender chunks with tongs, assembled our little bundles and dug in. The lettuce was crisp, the sauces were vibrant, and the meat was rich and flavorful. But there was something lacking. It’s not that the melt-in-your-mouth quality of the meat was disappointing, it’s just that it became a little monotonous. I found myself wanting more texture in each bite. I wanted the charred edges and chew that you get with Korean barbecue.

With 10 ravenous people, even a huge hunk of meat goes quickly. Luckily for Dan Dan, who couldn’t reach the platter, I was somewhat aggressive in making sure we both got some meat before it was gone. For eight people, this might have been a huge meal, but for 10 it was moderate. I wasn’t starving, but I had been prepared to be much more full. All in all, I was grateful for the opportunity to sample such a delectable treat with an interesting group of people, but if pressed, I think I would probably pick a barbecue place in K-Town or Flushing over the Momofuku bo ssäm for my next large-group Korean feast. I prefer to come to David Chang’s restaurants for his innovative dishes like fried shrimp tails or chili soft-shell crab with tomatillo and mole. That is unquestionably where he shines. For everything else, there are traditional cooks throughout the city that can prepare a more pleasant feast at a similarly modest price.

Momofuku Ssäm Bar
207 2nd Ave.
New York, NY 10003
Reservations for bo ssäm are here.

Momofuku Ssäm Bar on Urbanspoon

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

At Chuko, Vegetables Are The Unlikely Stars

I never thought I would say it, but the vegetarian option was the sleeper hit at Chuko, a new-ish ramen place in Prospect Heights, Brooklyn. Well, that’s not exactly an accurate statement; I ordered the vegetarian broth…and then added pork. Still, I can say with some certainty that the broth was the best element of that dish. Flavorful and complex, it was replete with Brussels sprouts, kale, sweet potatoes, roasted squash and other fresh, seasonal vegetables. I ordered it with a soft-cooked egg, which ran into the steaming broth when punctured with a chopstick. The pork was medium-thick slices of smoky duroc. It was tasty enough, but I found it too lean for soup. A fattier cut would have melted luxuriously into the broth. Instead, this became slightly overcooked and chewy in the broth. Pork notwithstanding, that vegetarian broth was emblematic of the way the chef at Chuko (opened by three Morimoto alums) handle their vegetables. I ate dinner there last weekend with Cousin Ketchup and my friends P.C. Biscuit and Granny Smith.

The first evidence of Chuko’s vegetable prowess emerged with the arrival of the appetizers. We ordered all four on the regular (non-special) menu. Among these was a fantastic kale salad, made with a combination of raw and tempura-fried kale, pickled golden raisins, dressed in a slightly sweet white-miso vinaigrette, and topped with cripsy curls of Japanese sweet potato. The Brussels sprouts were deftly sauteed until their cut edges were lightly blackened. Then they were doused in pungent fish sauce and topped with crunchy peanuts and pickled peppers, yielding a divine assemblage of texture and sweet-salty flavor.

The less successful appetizers were those that contained meat, including the overly bready fried chicken wings which came with a fairly tame dipping sauce that was supposed to be spicy. These weren’t even in the same food group as the mind-blowing ones I ate at Pok Pok Wing. Also underwhelming were the pork-stuffed gyoza with a soy-based dipping sauce. It’s not that they were bad; they just weren’t particularly distinctive in the way that the kale and Brussels sprouts had been. I should have just ordered the headcheese special, but I wanted to put the core menu items to the test.

Next came the ramen, which comes in four broth varieties: soy, miso, pork bone and that tasty vegetarian one. In addition to the pork, there is the option to add chicken, which is lightly cooked and cut into silky smooth pieces. We ordered as many different combinations and permutations as we could among the four of us. P.C. Biscuit selected the pork bone broth, mixing things up (with the eager encouragement of our server) by adding the chicken to the mix. The broth and thinner noodles that came with it were nice, although I didn’t come away with an overly porky impression. He also got the hard-cooked eggs, whose static nature made them seem superfluous. The white rectangles of chicken were surprisingly flavorful, but the texture was almost slimy and would have benefited from a slight char on the grill. Granny Smith’s miso broth was tasty, with an almost milky cloudiness, but Ketchup’s flavor-packed soy broth with pork was probably my second favorite soup on the table.

The ramen at Chuko was good by Brooklyn standards, and at $12 a bowl, it’s more affordable than Zuzu Ramen. But if I come back to Chuko, it will not be for the pork or chicken wings—it will be for the vegetables.

552 Vanderbilt Ave.
Brooklyn, NY 11238

Chuko 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.

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

Zabb Elee: The Thai Food You Haven’t Tasted

Zabb Elee does not serve pad see eew, the dish made with wide rice noodles, a protein of choice and a hefty dose of oyster sauce. We found that out not long after we sat down at this cheery East Village restaurant. I should say that one of my guests found that out; after reading an article in the New York Times, I knew that Zabb Elee, which also has a location in Queens, specialized in food from Isan, a region in northeast Thailand. The food has Laotian influences, making it much different than the food serve in the ubiquitous Thai-American restaurant. That is exactly why I dragged my great uncle, Boureka and his partner Fancy Fresser there to begin with.

Boureka and Fancy Fresser were stopping in New York on their way back to the Bay Area from Israel, but they gamely agreed to take the train down to the East Village to meet Empanada Boy and me as I satisfied my craving for larb and green papaya salad. If Fancy Fresser was disappointed by the unavailability of pad see eew, she was a good sport and didn’t show it. After EB and I got our Thai and Laotian beers (Chang and Beerlao, respectively), we set about ordering. We started with the beef larb and the som tom muazuar. Larb is a minced-meat salad, made spicy and tangy with red onion, chile, lime and cilantro. While the flavor of the beef version was excellent, it looked a little more meager and boring than the images of the duck one from the Times and the opulent-looking pork and catfish options pictured on the menu. But then, I must save something for next time. Som tum is green papaya salad, and the version we got had barbecue pork and shrimp (Jewish dream), rice noodles, tomatoes and long beans. I’ve had green papaya salad many times, but this was by far the most eye-catching. The flavors were nuanced: pungent (fish sauce), bracing (lime juice, garlic) and sweet (palm sugar). The overall effect was a vibrant symphony of freshness.

Our next course, the pa ped moo korb, brought the meal back down to earth with its savory depth. This dish was composed of pork crisped on the outside and reduced inside to a nearly unrecognizable (yet somehow satisfying) chewiness. This was combined with Thai eggplant, wild ginger, basil and curry. We ordered the dish medium-spicy to accommodate all at the table, but the next time I go, I am pulling out all the spicy stops. A little bit of fire would add another amazing dimension to this already excellent combination of flavors and textures.

The people sitting at the table next to us inspired us to order our final dish because they were eating it when we walked in: a whole grilled tilapia stuffed with tamarind sauce, as well as Thai basil, onions, cilantro and other herbs. Rectangular pieces of the fish’s flesh were cut off the skeleton and fried separately into succulent, crispy morsels. The rest of the fish was crispy enough that one could pick up sections of skeleton and suck the meat and fried bits right off the bone. And, while I don’t typically eat the head itself, I am not one to let a good fish cheek go to waste. (I am Daddy Salmon’s daughter, after all.) EB and I extracted these tender bits of meat and ate them before pronouncing ourselves done with the meal. A few fish bones and some lettuce garnishes were pretty much all we had to show for it at that point.

For dessert, we decided to head back up the street to a place where Fancy Fresser had seen a sign whose bold assertion had caught her eye: “NY’s Best Egg Cream,” it read. To my surprise, this sign stood outside Gem Spa, an old-school newspaper stand at the corner of 2nd Ave. and St. Marks Place. We cautiously walked inside and inquired as to whether they actually did serve the city’s best egg cream. The guy behind the counter solemnly nodded in reply. Fancy Fresser and Boureka both got chocolate, and EB got vanilla. Those are the only two flavors. Having just made sure our plates were scraped clean at Zabb Elee, I got tastes of both of them. I am not an egg cream connoisseur, but I didn’t think these were half bad, based what I know of the tradition. Though their name might imply otherwise, egg creams are made with milk, seltzer water and chocolate syrup (or other flavoring of choice). Fancy Fresser knew enough to ask the guy at Gem Spa whether the chocolate was Fox’s U-Bet Chocolate Syrup, considered an essential ingredient by egg-cream purists. Indeed it was. To my taste, the chocolate was not sufficiently chocolate-y and the vanilla was just a touch too subtle, but perhaps my palate simply wasn’t prepared to scale back to an egg cream after the riotous party that was Zabb Elee.

Zabb Elee
75 2nd Ave.
New York, NY 10003

Gem Spa
131 2nd Ave.
New York, NY 10003

Zabb Elee on Urbanspoon

Xi’an Famous Foods Deserves More Than Its 15 Minutes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Xi'an Famous Foods on Urbanspoon

Saints Alp Teahouse on Urbanspoon

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

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

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

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

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

Zuzu Ramen
173 4th Ave.
Brooklyn, NY 11217

Naruto Ramen
276 5th Ave
Brooklyn, NY 11215

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

Zuzu Ramen on Urbanspoon

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Little Pepper Packs a Big Punch

When I met Dan Dan Noodles at a party last month, I quickly realized I had found a kindred spirit. We both take great joy in feasting with friends at out-of-the-way ethnic holes-in-the-wall. Dan Dan and I got to talking about a group of his friends that regularly gathers to eat at Little Pepper, a Szechuan restaurant once located on Roosevelt Avenue in Flushing (now being remodeled), which has recently opened up another location in the nearby Queens neighborhood of College Point. He kindly added me to the email list of the so-called Little Pepper Posse, but Empanada Boy and I ended up having a conflict on the day of their gathering. Dan Dan offered to arrange another dinner, an offer I took him up on when Flava Flav was visiting a couple weeks later. Flav, her friend Rye Bread, EB and I all took the train out to Flushing where Dan Dan picked us up in his car.

There are a couple of things that should be said about College Point, an area I had never heard of until Dan Dan’s first email. First, according to Wikipedia it was named for St. Paul’s College, a seminary that closed in 1850. (It’s now home to the Poppenhusen Institute, a former school that housed the first free kindergarten in America and which now operates as a cultural center.) The other important thing to know about College Point is that it’s not accessible by train, so our trek out there in Dan Dan’s car showed true dedication to the pursuit of excellent Chinese food.

We were the only non-Chinese people in the dining room when we entered. The woman who sat us knew Dan Dan and welcomed him warmly. We took this as a sign that we should simply leave the ordering to him. We were surely right about that much because when the food came, amazing dish after amazing dish was delivered to our table. And the dishes kept coming. We had a tofu dish with silky tofu, peanuts, scallions and a sweet-spicy sauce. There were two kinds of dumplings— one delicate and trembling pouches in a spicy, oil broth and another firmer half circles, dusted with sesame seeds. A plate of thinly sliced smoky pork with leeks, scallions and fiery dried peppers was followed by salty broiled green beans and a salad of tender bamboo shoots. There was cumin-coated lamb, wrapped in tin foil and served with the same dried peppers found in the pork dish. There were cold noodles in a spicy sauce, which I could eat any day of the week. And there were (of course) delicious dan-dan noodles, served warm with scallions and tasty bits of ground pork.

You might think that was enough food for five hungry people. But the dishes did not stop there. There was still tea-smoked duck, served with sweet red, yellow and green peppers, and a sizzling pot of wildly spicy oil in which pieces of tender fish were soaking up the flavors. By the time the latter arrived, I was too focused on eating to take pictures, but it was an impressive dish, to say the least. Throughout the whole meal ran a current of heat that filled our mouths, flecked the backs of our throats, ran down our esophagi and exploded in our bellies. This was the work of the Szechuan peppercorns, the essential spice in this type of cooking, responsible for the glorious, flavor-enhancing burn.

We left the restaurant with bellies aflame and a couple bags of leftovers in our hands. I can safely say this will not be my last trip out to College Point to dine at Little Pepper. I will be back soon because this restaurant is so crazy good that I won’t be able to stay away for very long.

Little Pepper
18-24 College Point Blvd.
Queens, NY 11356

Little Pepper on Urbanspoon

Little Pepper 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