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Sheepshead Bay

Saigon in Brooklyn? Pho Vietnam Goes Halfway There

Life has been crazy in recent weeks, and I haven’t found the time to post. As I write this, however, I am on a plane en route to Japan for a two-week trip, which should prove fertile ground for food adventures to fill this page. Before my brain and palate are consumed with thoughts and tastes of tofu, ramen, sushi and many other things I’ve never tried before, I want to go back and recount the Vietnamese dinner I shared a couple of weeks ago with a top-notch group of eaters at Pho Vietnam in the Sheepshead Bay neighborhood of Brooklyn.

A friend told me he had eaten a meal with a large group at the restaurant a few weeks earlier, and his descriptions of the food gave me a hankering for Vietnamese cuisine. I rounded up the troops, including Dan Dan Noodle, Sgt. Pepperjack, Mascarpone, Pale Ale, Imperial Stout, Auntie Pasti and my friends Ristretto and Grappa. We carpooled out to this small Vietnamese enclave in the depths of Brooklyn. The restaurant’s interior was completely generic—plain round tables ringed by supply-store metal chairs—and could have been the inside of any Vietnamese restaurant in any strip mall in America. The restaurant was packed when the first of us arrived, a decidedly good sign. We were soon seated at one of those round tables where we proceeded to comb the menu to compile a properly distributed smattering of dishes.

We started with the requisite salad rolls, also known as summer rolls, made from a rice paper casing stuffed with crunchy lettuce and tender shrimp. Dipped in their accompanying peanut sauce, these were tasty, but relatively standard fare. Spring rolls were fine, but perhaps even more unremarkable. Things got a bit more interesting when the banh xeo arrived. A Vietnamese style pancake filled with a medley of pork, shrimp, onion, bean sprouts and green beans, these were satisfying and not too greasy. They were reminiscent of Korean pa jun or Japanese okonomiyaki, further evidence that every culture has its pancake. (Incidentally, these pancakes are also the perfect late-night-drunk/next-morning’s-hangover food, perhaps the real reason for their universality.)

Almost every time I go to a Vietnamese restaurant, I order the traditional beef noodle soup, called pho. I love pho so much that I can’t not order it. And since I had never eaten Vietnamese food with a group before, I had never found occasion to branch out much. Considering this, I wasn’t going to leave without trying the pho. We ordered one bowl of the no. 1, which typically tends to be the most replete with various cuts (and mystery compounds) of beef. True to form, this no. 1 contained so-called “six differences” brisket, navel, frank, omosa tendon and eye of round. The meat was tasty, but I found the broth a bit lacking in nuance. That’s probably because I typically load my own personal bowl up with sriracha, hot peppers and holy basil before chowing down. We also ordered a pho with beef balls, which were somewhat leaden and flavorless. On the rare occasions that I do order beef balls, I am always reminded of why I rarely order beef balls.

There were a few other unsuccessful dishes. Among these was the seemingly appealing grilled shrimp on tiny rice stick with lettuce, cucumber and mint leaves. The shrimp were mealy and bland, and the rice sticks were more like thin, dry rice crackers than what I had envisioned. Beef with lemongrass, green pepper, onions and chili pepper sounded equally promising, but it turned out to be a thoroughly forgettable plate of meat and vegetables in a gelatinous, one-note sauce.

Far better were the spring rolls with grilled pork and lettuce on rice vermicelli and the same dish made with beef. When blended together with the accompanying sauce, these became almost like a Vietnamese bibimbap, a perfect one-man feast for those not interested in pho. My favorite dish of the night was the curry chicken with rice noodles. Oil slicked and redolent of curry, it had the consistency of a soup but was also nice spooned over rice. I particularly appreciated the bone-in, skin-on chicken wings floating in it. Perhaps most impressive dish of the night was the crispy whole fried fish with Vietnamese sauce. The exterior was delightfully crunchy, and even the small bones of the wide-bodied fish were tasty when eaten with that crust. Inside. The white flesh was tender and flaky. Accented with a dash of sriracha and that salty Vietnamese sauce, this yielded a highly satisfying bite.

Pho Vietnam
1243 Ave. U
Brooklyn, NY 11229
718.998.2858

Pho Vietnam Restaurant on Urbanspoon

Brennan & Carr: The Irish Italian Beef

It’s been more than three years since I left Chicago for New York, and I have few regrets about the move. But sometimes I’m hit with a wave of culinary nostalgia, whether it’s for the phenomenal sausages at Hot Doug’s, the tacos al pastor at Erick’s Taco’s or the top-notch beer list and mussels at the Hopleaf. Apart from Vienna beef Chicago dogs, one of the things I miss the most is Italian beef. Ostensibly invented in Chicago around the 1930s, Italian beef is thinly sliced roast beef, doused in meat juice, and served on a long roll. It traditionally comes topped with giardiniera (spicy pickled vegetables) or sweet Italian peppers. Empanada Boy and I used to live just down the street from Budacki’s Drive-In, a stand of the kind typical in Chicago, serving hot dogs, gyros, fries, meatball subs and, of course, Italian beef. At one point, EB developed something of an addiction to Budacki’s Italian beef. I would come home after going out to dinner with friends and ask him what he ate. He grin sheepishly, and I would know exactly where he had been. While I was in Yom Kippur services during the first year we lived together, EB decided to fast in solidarity. He held out until the afternoon, at which point he broke the fast—at Budacki’s. It was only appropriate that this year we designated the day after Yom Kippur for a trip out to Brennan & Carr in Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn, an Irish place, specializing in dipped roast beef.

My friends Tater Tot and Margarita had seen Brennan & Carr on an old episode of “Man vs. Food”. Being Midwesterners, they were intrigued at the apparent similarity of the restaurant’s specialty with Italian beef. I should say that Tater Tot was intrigued; Margarita is a very patient vegetarian. EB and I took two subways and two buses to meet them and their six-month-old baby, Half Pint, at Brennan & Carr. The restaurant is just off Avenue U, a street of vast ethnic diversity. In one telling example, a kosher deli stands directly across the street from G&S Pork Store. Brennan & Carr was established in 1938 when the area was entirely marsh land and almost entirely inhabited by Irish immigrants. I’m not sure if it’s original, but the restaurant’s exterior decor is reminiscent of a faux alpine ski chalet, complete with signs written in that old-fashioned Scandinavian-looking font. The door to the restaurant is next to a take out window, from which everything on the menu can be ordered to go. When we walked inside, the entranceway was dim. A old cash register stood by the door and cooks behind the counter assembled food beneath heat lamps. One of the servers, clad in a white butcher’s coat that looked like a lab coat, led us to a table in the better-lit wood-paneled main dining room. “I’d like a beer,” I said when our server asked us what we would have to drink. “Bud or Bud Light?” he asked. Brennan & Carr is that kind of old-school place.

Apart from its roast beef sandwich, Brennan & Carr is known for the Gargiulo burger, a roast beef sandwich with a burger patty and some cheese thrown in. While that sounded like something of a novelty, we decided to focus on the roast beef. Tater Tot, EB and I each ordered a dipped roast beef sandwich, and Margarita settled for some mozzarella sticks. Fries and onion rings rounded out a very healthy meal. The roast beef came on a round roll, already sodden with meat drippings, but still somehow spongy enough to be lifted to the mouth without disintegrating. The meat was achingly tender, and the jus brought another layer of moisture and flavor. The sandwich had no toppings. It really didn’t need them. I tried a bite with Guilden’s mustard and found the rich, silken meat was still bold enough to overshadow the condiment. The fries were decent and perhaps best used as tools to sop up the jus. Onion rings were fine, but nothing special.

Having finished our sandwiches, Tater Tot grinned and admitted to still being a bit hungry. Would someone would be willing to split another? EB uncharacteristically balked at the idea, but I was game. (Perhaps I was still making up from the previous day’s fast.) Before we ordered, I glanced over at the menu and noticed the roast beef platter. Our server informed us that this was a plate of beef, accompanied by one roll and two sides of our choosing. The three of us could surely stomach the meat, and Margarita pledged to do her part with the fries and onion rings. A pitcher of Bud was ordered to wash it all down. Roast-beef course number two proved to be a winner. The platter of meat arrived slightly pink on the edges and swimming in jus. As we ate our meat, we discussed the differences between Irish roast beef and Italian beef. Obviously, there was the matter of the roll shape and size. Italian beef is cooked to well-done and has more of a chew to it than the melt-in-your mouth Irish beef. In my opinion, the giardiniera goes a long way toward making the Italian beef as fantastic as it is, but Irish beef may be better able to stand alone. I’m not going to renounce my allegiance and devotion to the Chicago classic, but its New York cousin gives it a real run for its money.

Brennan & Carr
3432 Nostrand Ave.
Brooklyn, NY 11229
718.769.1254

Brennan & Carr on Urbanspoon

Ringing Out Summer at Randazzo’s

Empanada Boy and I didn’t get much of a vacation this summer. Between the time I had taken off for our trip to Spain in April and EB’s summer calculus class, we were left with very little free time. Instead our summer pleasures consisted of exploring and enjoying Brooklyn, making us (as much as I hate this recessionary buzzword) true staycationers. In that spirit, we spent our Labor Day weekend visiting parts of the city we don’t often visit: Dumbo, Flushing (see my next post for the food we ate there) and Sheepshead Bay. We went to Sheepshead Bay, which separates mainland Brooklyn from the eastern portion of Coney Island, for the express purpose of eating clams. In a review of the city’s various clam bars, Sam Sifton of the New York Times mentioned Randazzo’s Clam Bar, a Sheepshead Bay institution with great clams and a no-nonsense attitude.

The look and feel of Sheepshead Bay is about as far from that of Manhattan as you can get and still be in New York City. On the walk to the restaurant from the train we passed numerous Greek and Russian businesses and an astonishing proliferation of sushi restaurants. Most of the latter were offering half-price sushi and trying to outdo their nearby competitors with their version of the promotion. I made a mental note to do some research on these for a possible future blog post. Randazzo’s faces the bay and doesn’t seem to have changed much since the 1960s. Lucheonette-style tables covered with paper placemats bearing the map of Italy fill the room except for where the old-school white tiled bar juts out. Customers can sit either place. We would have preferred the counter, but those seats were full. We sat down and ordered two Sam Adams lagers, half a dozen little necks (small, raw hard-shell clams) and half a dozen cherry stones (larger ones). That was clearly not going to be enough food, so we also ordered a combo platter of calamari, mussels, shrimp and scungilli (large marine snails) and an order of fries topped with melted mozzarella. (It had to be done.)

The clams, from Blue Point in Long Island, were simply marvelous. Briny and bright, they needed no further embellishment than a squirt of lemon juice. We tried the cocktail sauce but found it overwhelmed the freshness and delicacy of the clams. The little necks were tasty, but EB and I both preferred the meatier, richer cherry stones. I couldn’t believe that food this good could come out of Long Island Sound! The combo platter had some hits like the incredibly fresh calamari and the near-perfect mussels. The shrimp were overcooked, and I didn’t much care for the scungilli, which had little flavor of its own, compared to the other seafood. The cheese fries provided a perfect compliment to the meal, soaking up the clam juices and adding some salty richness.

All of this food added up to about $65–a higher price than one might typically associate with a restaurant that serves on cheap cafeteria plates and offers only plastic cups. But when it comes to seafood, do you really want it to be cheap? I think the sign behind the counter says it best: “Cheap Seafood is Not Fresh; Fresh Seafood is Not Cheap”!

And it was worth every penny. As I was eating, I couldn’t help thinking that I was enjoying the lingering flavors of summer. It will likely be a year before I get to taste those briny clammy flavors again. This was a successful end to our summer of vacationing at home.

Randazzo’s Clam Bar
2017 Emmons Avenue
Brooklyn, NY 11235
718.615.0010

Randazzo's Clam Bar on Urbanspoon