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A Dosa’ Inspiration at Mumbai Xpress

My friend Mascarpone emailed me the other day and suggested we get together for a bite. She added: “I have a car, so if there is any out-of-the-way place you want to try…let me know.” I scanned my must-try lists and came across a place on the New York Magazine Queens top 20 cheap eats list that seemed far enough away that I would never make it without significant effort or a car. The location: Floral Park, Queens (way the hell out there, virtually on the border of Long Island’s Nassau County). The restaurant: a casual snack shop, specializing in vegetarian cuisine from Southern India, called Mumbai Xpress.

One of the best meals I ever had while I was reviewing restaurants for Chicago magazine (and one of the best period) was at a vegetarian Indian place in a generic strip mall in an unmemorable corner of the Chicago suburbs. The depth of flavor that the vast array of traditional spices coaxes out of simple vegetables and grains makes this the only vegetarian cuisine I’ve tried that I could subsist on for any length of time without ever craving meat.

We found a parking spot almost directly in front of the restaurant, the first of many signs that we were not really in New York City anymore. (Another sign came later when Mascarpone talked her way out of a parking ticket after her meter expired.) The interior layout, decor and lighting were reminiscent of a cafeteria, complete with a metal-edged glass counter dividing the kitchen from the dining room and the universal use of plasticware and paper plates. The menu was long and a little intimidating, considering our limited knowledge of the cuisine from this region and the names each dish goes by. So when our server came around, we simply asked for her advice. Mascarpone knew she wanted puri, the hollow, crispy puffs, which can come with chutneys or cracked open and stuffed with vegetables. We ended up getting dahi batata puri: puri filled with potatoes and a little chili powder and topped with yogurt, sev (crispy fried strips) and cilantro and doused with sweet and spicy chutneys. These fall under the Indian snack category called chaat, and they made tasty one-bite (albeit large) treats, complete with crispness, soft depth, richness and kick.

Our next course was Mumbai Xpress’s version of a grilled cheese sandwich. This had three layers of grilled bread, such as would a club sandwich. The first two were spread with cilantro chutney and lined with soft potato, while the space between the other two was occupied by the mild Indian cheese, paneer, and thin slices of raw green peppers and raw onions. Mascarpone is not a big fan of raw peppers or onions, so this dish was not a hit with her. I happily gobbled it up, but I’m not sure I would order it next time. It’s not that the sandwich was bad, just that I’m sure there are many more remarkable dishes on this lengthy menu.

Despite that wealth of options, our final dish was one that I would be hard-pressed to not order again on any subsequent visit. This was a beautiful rectangular dosa, browned and lightly crisped to a flaky consistency. This came studded with thin slices of hot pepper and stuffed with a delicately seasoned blend of soft potatoes and peas. In addition to yogurt and chutney, this came with a small bowl of spicy stew-like sauce, meant, we assumed, for dipping the pieces of dosa we tore off. The stew tasted spicy, savory and delicious, but we found it difficult to scoop up much of it with the very lightly absorbent dosa. Perhaps we should have gotten ourselves a spoon? Even without this somewhat perplexing condiment, this dish was incredibly satisfying. As we finished up, another table of Indian people were being delivered a huge dosa made from a lacy rolled up pancake of sorts. That might have to be on the list next time.

And, as long as I can get Mascarpone—or someone else with a yen for adventurous eating—to drive me out there, with Mumbai Xpress, there will definitely be a next time.

Mumbai Xpress
256-06 Hillside Ave.
Queens, NY 11004

Mumbai Xpress on Urbanspoon

Brazilian Burgers Redefine Big at Hamburgão

I never thought of Newark, New Jersey as a culinary destination, but every city has its hidden gems. As an intern for Madison Square Garden, Empanada Boy got free tickets to see the New York Liberty, the city’s WNBA team, in their first playoff game. While MSG is being remodeled, the Liberty are playing at Newark’s Prudential Center. Now, I know you hardcore basketball fans are groaning at the very idea of attending a WNBA game, let alone in Newark. But really, what do I care? I’m up for pretty much anything, especially if it’s free. We took the PATH train from the World Trade Center to Newark Penn Station, which dumped us out right near the arena. The game was actually a lot of fun. We cheered on the Liberty, banging our blow-up noise makers at every opportunity, and booed whenever the ref made a call in favor of the Indiana Fever. The Liberty won 87-72, retaining a chance at the championship. We would soon be making a run for at the overeating championship because we were heading to the nearest location of Hamburgão, a small Newark chain, specializing in over-the-top Brazilian burgers, sandwiches and other grilled meat.

As I learned from a little pre-game Internet research, the Ironbound neighborhood of downtown Newark is known as Little Portugal because of the large influx of Portuguese immigrants in the 1910s and then again in the later 1950s. Immigration from Portugal is pretty much nonexistent today, but Brazilians and people from Portuguese-speaking countries in Africa, include Cape Verde, have continued to move to the neighborhood. As a result, Portuguese is often heard on the streets, and many signs are printed in Portuguese and English. The menu at Hamburgão is bilingual, but even if it weren’t, the sheer number of ingredients in each sandwich would have been enough to signal to the non-Portuguese speaker that this place is not messing around. In addition to burgers and burger-like sandwiches stuffed with nearly every ingredient imaginable, the menu features items like a hot dog topped with corn, red sauce, green peas, mayonnaise, potato sticks and grated cheese and a salad of shredded chicken, ham, corn, green peas, raisins, potato sticks, carrots, mayonnaise and olives. Figuring this might be our only trip to Hamburgão, EB and I decided to order what appeared to be the specialities (i.e. nos. 1 and 2 on the menu). EB also ordered a Brazilian soda, hilariously opting for the diet option with the feeble hope that it might help offset the heart attacks in sandwich form we were both about to eat.

What was in these sandwiches? I have been intentionally delaying describing them to drum up the suspense, but here goes: EB’s “Hamburgão Beef” was made with steak, mozzarella, ham, bacon, egg, corn, potato sticks, lettuce, tomato and mayonnaise. (Whew!) My “Hamburgão Frango” was made with all the same ingredients except for chicken instead of beef. I typically don’t order chicken at a burger place, but reviews I had read online had raved about this chicken sandwich, so I thought I should give it a try. We also ordered a large basket of fries to share. When the sandwiches arrived at our table, I let out an audible gasp at their enormity. We dug in, and I quickly realized that the wax paper wrapper that came around the sandwich was there for a very good reason.

EB’s steak had distinctive meaty flavor, nothing like that of a burger or even a typical American-style steak sandwich, and was a somewhat flaky cut. My chicken was tender, coated in the flavored mayonnaise, but somewhere between the ham and the fried egg, I started to get a little cholesterol overload. It took until I was three quarters of the way done with my sandwich to find the bacon, and by then my smoky, salty, pork limit had all but been reached. If this sandwich had just had the bacon, I could have finished it. I could perhaps have even dealt with the fried egg, but the ham simply set me over the edge. I ended up abandoning part of the bun and a chunk of the egg and ham before giving up. The fries, of course, only added to the feeling of fullness. They were the kind that have an extra layer of uneven crispies on the exterior, which is not a style I particularly care for. We didn’t finish the fries, but we both came close to finishing our sandwiches. Mentally vowing to never eat again, we cleared our plates and started uncomfortably walking back to the train station. I don’t know whether I could ever bring myself to eat at Hamburgão again (at least not for a number of years), but I’m certainly glad I came to Newark to give it a try.

288 Lafayette St.
Newark, NJ 07105
(two other Newark locations)

Hamburgao on Urbanspoon