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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
718.939.3808

Mingle Beer House on Urbanspoon

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
718.470.0059

Mumbai Xpress on Urbanspoon

Octopying Queens, One Tentacle at a Time

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sik Gaek
49-11 Roosevelt Ave.
Queens, NY 11377
718.205.4555
(another location in Flushing)

Sik Gaek on Urbanspoon

Sik Gaek on Urbanspoon

Mapo BBQ Birthday Bash

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mapo BBQ
149-24 41st Ave.
Flushing, NY 11355
718.886.8292

Mapo BBQ on Urbanspoon

From Assyrtiko to Sardeles: A Greek Feast at Agnanti

I am part Greek. One-eighth, to be exact. I’m not sure whether I’ve mentioned it here, but it’s the only part of me that’s not Jewish. I went to Greece when I was in college and visited some relatives who took me to Medea, my ancestral homeland in the Peloponnessus, and to other parts of that region. I also spent some time traveling to the Ionian islands of Kefalonia and Ithaca. The food I ate in Greece was fresher, more vibrant and more distilled to its glorious essence than almost any cuisine I have tasted, and I have been looking for those flavors at Greek restaurants in the States ever since. Most of the time, of course, I am severely disappointed. So often meat is overcooked, salads lack acidity or fish is not as fresh. And sometimes there is just something indescribable (the breeze off the Mediterranean, perhaps?) missing that causes the meal to fall short. I had high hopes for Agnanti, one of the few authentic remnants of what was once a solidly Greek community in Astoria, Queens. The restaurant was listed at #17 on New York Magazine’s list of the top 20 cheap eats destinations in Queens. My friend Oyster had asked if I wanted to join him for dinner in Queens before a show he was going to in Astoria, so I seized on the opportunity to bring my total to four out of 20pretty weak, but starting to approach respectability.

Empanada Boy decided to join in, and we met up with Oyster about a half hour after we had initially planned. He had to stay longer at work than initially planned, but as Oyster jokingly chided me, I also happened to pick a restaurant that’s far away from pretty much everything. It was already becoming clear that Oyster would have trouble making it to the show. Still, he had come this far, and he wasn’t turning back. The restaurant was packed, with both indoor and outdoor tables filled. We waited in a disorganized jumble with other patrons for about 10 minutes until our server—who somehow remembered who had arrived when—came to seat us. We sat inside the restaurant, which looked like you might imagine a quaint cafe in a fishing village might look: simple wooden tables, thatched chairs, white walls with a few antique-looking tchotchkes on them and a little wooden hutch where the servers congregated.

The first step was to order wine. I have tasted a fair number of Greek wines, and while most of those available here are pretty mediocre, there are a few really great ones. Those weren’t on the list, and I didn’t recognize any of the ones that were. I asked our server about a wine from Santorini made with the varietal Assyrtiko. She said they didn’t have the one on the menu, but they had another one by a different producer. “Which producer?” I asked. She scurried off to find out. “Does it really matter? I mean, are you even going to recognize it anyway?” Oyster asked with his typical candor. He was (of course) right. I didn’t. But we ordered the bottle anyway. It was fine, not great, just as I expected. My expectations were higher for the food. We started with ntakos, a dish make with a cardboard-like Cretan cracker called a rusk topped with fresh tomatoes, feta cheese, olives, capers, oregano and olive oil. The tangy tomato juice and fruity olive oil soaked into the blank slate of the rusks, imbuing them with flavor. This was probably my favorite dish of the night. It was incredibly simple, yet pristine in its definition and very satisfying.

Next came the Greek sausages, which could be ordered with oranges or leeks cooked into them. I opted for leeks, and Oyster and EB went along with it. These charred knobs of sausage were beautifully spiced and juicy enough to deliver a burst of savory depth with each bite. From the portion of the menu somewhat distressingly headed “seafood creations” we ordered sardines, called sardeles in Greek. These were snappy little fish with bones still in, simply seasoned with salt, lemon juice, olive oil and rosemary. EB maintained that the bones were good to eat, but Oyster and I opted to remove ours. I did, however, eat the tails, which were crispy and salty like a potato chip from the sea. Our final selection was apparently the house specialty: a rooster cooked until tender in a tomato sauce and topped with little squares of pasta. EB thought that at least one of the large pieces of rooster wasn’t tender enough. I liked the rooster for its richness and slightly gamey chewiness, but I found the rest of the dish a little underwhelming. The pasta squares were buttery and al dente, but the sauce was pretty one-note and the dish as a whole could have been more lively with some fresh herbs or spices.

At this point, we might have ordered dessert, but our server was nowhere to be found. She eventually showed up carrying a complimentary plate with three pieces of halva politiko, the Greek version of halva. This is a semolina-almond cake, soaked in butter and orange syrup. It was served with yogurt topped with stewed cherries. The cake was not very sweet and perhaps a bit too hearty after a full meal, but it was a fittingly distinctive ending. We managed to flag down our server to pay the bill. Then we began the walk back to the subway, our mouths a bit salty from the food and the irregular water refills. The food hadn’t quite lived up to my Ionian taste memories, but it came close at certain points. By that time, it was past 10:30 pm, and Oyster had clearly missed his chance to see the show. I apologized again for keeping him from it with my hard-to-reach restaurant selection, but I was glad the show had motivated us to hike out to Astoria for a taste of Agnanti.

Agnanti
19-06 Ditmars Blvd.
Queens, NY 11105
718.545.4554

Agnanti Meze on Urbanspoon

Sripraphai Demands a Group and a Guide

It was perhaps my greatest moment of humility as food blogger when I admitted to my friends Dan Dan Noodle and Imperial Stout that I had never been to Sripraphai. They didn’t say it, but I could tell by their faces that they were questioning my foodie cred. “It just seems like you would have been there,” Dan Dan said. Oh, the shame! I immediately put the legendary (as I soon found out) Thai restaurant at the top of my must-eat list. I was further shamed a couple weeks ago when New York Magazine came out with its top 20 cheap eats in Queens, and I had only been to two of them (#3 Little Pepper and #20 Imperial Palace). Sripraphai was #12 on the list, so I figured it was as good a place as any to start the admittedly delicious process of repairing my reputation.

The restaurant is in Woodside, a very diverse neighborhood, almost exactly equal parts Asian, Latino and white. It is easily reachable on the 7 express train from Midtown, but not as easily reachable from Brooklyn, one reason why I don’t get out to Queens enough. (Not that I’m making excuses or anything.) I was coming from work, and Empanada Boy met me near my office to catch the 7 at Times Square. It was a record-breaking 104 degrees outside, so there was no way I was cooking dinner at home that night. Sripraphai is spacious, with a full restaurant’s worth of tables on both sides of the entrance. There were a number of empty tables when we arrived at 7 pm, but they were all full by the time we left at 8 pm. I opened the menu and was immediately confronted with a vast array of choices. Spiral bound, this menu is the thickness of a book and is probably 20 pages long. Between the two of us, we could only realistically eat three dishes. How would I know what to order?

We started with the roasted duck salad, something Frank Bruni had ordered and liked when he reviewed the restaurant in 2004. It was an old recommendation, but it ended up being the best dish of the night. The duck was tender, coming apart in soft, ragged pieces, still attached to crispy bits of skin. The salad itself was bright with wands of ginger, fish sauce, dried chili pepper, cucumber, scallions and fresh cilantro. The brightly colored dish was as much a symphony of flavor as the papaya salad at Zabb Elee had been. To select the next dish, I used my tried and true method of seeing something good-looking on the table of the people sitting next to me and asking what it was. In this case, the dish was sauteed crispy pork belly with chili, garlic and basil leaves. It sounded like we could not go wrong, and the two Thai women sitting next to us gave it their endorsement. As it turned out, it was a good, but not great, dish. The meat was a little too crispy in some places. One piece proved so tough I couldn’t even stab it with my fork. The dish was also less spicy than I had envisioned. Still, the better pieces of pork belly were pleasantly crispy and the dish had a good balance of seasoning. The last dish was selected from among the fish options because EB decided he wanted fish. Something did not compute, though, because we ended up ordering fish filets in chili, garlic, basil sauce, nearly identical to the seasoning on the pork belly. It turned out that the fish was also fried, so it was pretty much the same dish in fish version. The fish version actually tasted different, but it did not taste better. The fried exterior should have been crispier, and it was underseasoned. The fish itself was fairly flavorless and bit mealy.

At this point, I was experiencing some pretty serious orderer’s remorse. I envisioned Dan Dan Noodle and Imperial Stout tsk-tsking at my novice attempt. I realized then that I should have waited until they or someone else who knew how to navigate the lengthy menu could come to the restaurant and act as a guide. Anytime you have a 20-page menu, you are going to have some duds, and I needed a quick way of figuring out what those were. I had clearly not done enough research. The other option would be to come back with a large group and order double or triple the number of dishes, so that the duds got lost in the mix. Determined not to leave feeling disappointed, EB decided to take a chance on dessert. He ordered black sticky rice and taro root topped with coconut milk and ice cubes. This was a surprisingly tasty dish. The rice was steaming when it arrived, but the ice quickly brought it and the coconut milk to room temperature. As I scooped spoonfuls of the black rice and taro cubes up from their sweet milky bath, I hoped my next visit to Sripraphai would be more successful.

Sripraphai
64-13 39th Ave.
Queens, NY 11377
718.899.9599

Sripraphai on Urbanspoon

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
718.939.7788

Little Pepper on Urbanspoon

Little Pepper on Urbanspoon

Game, Set, Match for Lan Zhou Handmade Noodle

Empanada Boy and I went to Flushing Meadows to attend the U.S. Open a few weeks ago. We were set to watch Vera Zvonareva play Andrea Petkovic and then see Jurgen Melzer go up against Roger Federer. But before that, we faced the task of getting an early dinner. We knew the match could last until midnight or beyond, and we needed our sustenance. I had read reports about the menus crafted by top chefs that would be available on the grounds of the tournament, but suspected that nothing would come cheap once we were inside the gates. Flushing is home to some of the city’s best food, so why bother with the high prices and long lines? We took the train one extra stop to Flushing Main Street to eat before the match and went to the culinary mecca that is the Golden Mall Food Court.

I have never been to China, but the food court in the basement of this crowded mall is about as close as I can imagine coming to the look and feel of a Chinese city. The stalls are small, the ceiling is low and dirty from years of poor ventilation, everyone is speaking Chinese and the food smells amazing. There are simple, somewhat dingy, tables near each one table for patrons to sit and eat after they’ve ordered at the counter of their choice. EB and I decided to try Lan Zhou Handmade Noodle, which I had heard about from my editor Noodle. We could see the noodle-maker at work stretching pliable dough into thin noodles, moving his hands in and out as though he were playing the accordion. EB and I perused the large menu on the wall. He decided on the eel with noodles and broth, and I opted for the oxtail. We sat down at the faux wood-topped table nearby to wait for our soups.

The eel was tender and lovely, and the still-on-the-bone oxtail was richly flavorful. The broth was well seasoned and comforting, and the bok choy and herbs provided color and brightness to the dish. But the noodles, oh those noodles! They were among the best I have ever had. Their freshness was evident in their slight chewiness, and their flavor was noticeably better than standard dried, packaged fare. We slurped up our plastic bowls full, sampling some of the traditional condiments along the way. (I would recommend adding some spicy chili paste.)

The entire time we were eating, we couldn’t help but wish we each had two stomachs to provide us with enough room to sample the food at some of the other stands. A tofu dish that came from the stand directly in our view looked amazing. But most tempting stand was the one for Xi’an Famous Foods, which specializes in the distinctive food of Western China. Two parents and their grown son who were sitting next to us at the table had ordered a veritable feast, including noodles, the tofu and two cumin lamb burgers from Xi’an. The latter was served in a folded bun that had a similar spongy texture to the outside of a meat-filled bao. Our neighbors ate their way through many of the dishes, but one of those burgers remained untouched. When they saw EB getting ready to go order another dish to try, they offered us their extra one. They couldn’t eat anymore, they said, and they didn’t want it to go to waste. Needless to say, it did not. The cumin-coated lamb tasted juicy and smelled like I imagine the restaurants of the region might smell: redolent with dusty spice and savory meats.

We left the food court feeling full and ready for some edge-of-our-seats tennis. Federer and Zvonareva had other plans: Both won in straight-sets shellackings.

Lan Zhou Handmade Noodles
41-28 Main St.
Golden Mall Food Court, Basement
New York, NY 11355

Xi’an Famous Foods
Same as above
(and other locations)

Lan Zhou Hand-Pulled Noodle on Urbanspoon

Xi'an Famous Foods on Urbanspoon

Jackson Diner: Not Your Mama’s Diner

When I think of a diner, I think of the shining silver beacons shaped like Airstream trailers that serve up encyclopedic menus of so-so food, (including the requisite Greek specialties) 24 hours a day from the roadsides of New England and the Mid Atlantic region. Jackson Diner in Jackson Heights, Queens is a lot of things, but it is definitely not a diner—unless, of course, your diner serves dal, samosas and tikka masala. Empanada Boy and I decided to go out to Queens to have dinner with our friend Vladimir Pudding last Saturday night. He’s staying temporarily in Jackson Heights, a neighborhood we had passed through on our way to La Guardia Airport, but never really visited. Pudding informed us that Indian food was the neighborhood’s claim to fame, so I did a little research and happened upon Jackson Diner. It’s a favorite of food pilgrims, and we had to see what made it worth the trek. If nothing else, I was sure it had to be better than the generic options in Little India on East 6th street in Manhattan.

The restaurant is a big, duskily lit, rust-colored, open room with all the charm of a high school cafeteria. We started off the meal with three tall Taj Mahal beers and then got down to the business of ordering. Most of the menu is devoted to Northern Indian dishes, but there was a little paper tab attached to the inside with a few South Indian options. We decided to try one of them, the pani poori, for an appetizer. These were little hollow balls of light flaky dough filled with cumin-seasoned chickpeas and other spices. The sauce that came with them was unremarkable, but I loved the bright heat of the mint chutney, the sweetness of the tamarind and jolt of the pickled onions, that had been delivered with crispy pappadums at the beginning of the meal. The addition of mint chutney to the poori provided a welcome accent.

Having whet our appetites with these morsels, we were ready for the main courses. We ordered bhaigan bharta (stewed eggplant), saag paneer (stewed spinach studded with blocks of soft cheese) and goat curry. When we told our server that we wanted them spicy, he asked: “Indian spicy?” Intrigued at this possibility, we decided to order the two vegetarian dishes at the American spicy level and the goat curry at Indian spicy. I made the mistake of tasting the goat curry first. It was delicious, with the extra blast of heat nicely cutting the smooth richness of the sauce and the meat, but my mouth was already too much aflame to taste the real difference between the two levels of spicy.

Even amidst the heat, I was still able to enjoy the superior flavors and nuanced spicing of the eggplant and the relative freshness and vibrancy that the spinach in the saag maintained. The cheese in the saag was also delightfully firm and tasted as though it had just been made. Plain naan and garlic naan made excellent scoops for stuffing ourselves silly with both of these dishes. But my favorite dish still has to be that goat curry. The Indian spicing really took the dish to a level I don’t think it could have achieved otherwise. It’s almost as though we Americans have been missing out on the real deal this entire time. Providing, of course, that those servers weren’t still holding back on the heat for a trio of gringos.

Jackson Diner
37-47 74th St.
Queens, NY 11372
718.627.1232

Jackson Diner 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
718.939.3501

Mingle Beer House
37-04 Prince St.
Queens, NY 11354
718.939.3808

Imperial Palace on Urbanspoon

Mingle Beer House on Urbanspoon