Monthly Archives: December 2005

McHale’s burger: for a limited time only.

The usual restaurant review coverage of any old neighborhood favorite about to close involves a lot of hand-wringing – I’m sure if it was one of my favorite restaurants, I’d be doing the same thing.  In this case, though, I can’t – not because the burger at McHale’s isn’t stellar, and not because the place itself isn’t worthy of continued existence (it is, in both cases).  It’s just that I might never have heard of the place if it wasn’t for the coverage of its closing.  Oh, the irony.

Located at 46th and 8th, McHale’s first announces its offbeat charm with a sign at the door proclaiming a minimum age of entrance – 23.  We weren’t carded at lunch hour, but it’s an interesting concept – “keeping out the 21 and 22 year olds certainly would cut down on the sparkly tube top crowd,” noted my girlfriend.  There were no bellybuttons on display that we saw, and, actually, few women besides the wait staff.  The faux-wood paneling, the black and white pictures of hockey players, and the well-worn booth cushioning point to a very male and very heavyset clientele – the burgers, too, point to the latter.

The McHale’s burger ($8) is CD-sized and an inch thick, and, unlike most bar burger places, McHale’s overcooks the burger a grade or less (i.e., when medium rare is ordered, a medium burger emerges, at worst).  The bun isn’t remarkable, or strong enough to sop up both grease and toppings, but with a burger this big, you don’t want to fill up on bread.  It’s a fantastic and delicious hunk of ground beef, falling somewhere in between the melt-in-your-mouth Corner Bistro burger and the more charred Shake Shack burger.

The burger comes with a generous portion of steak fries (fairly forgettable), lettuce, tomato, and onion, and for a quarter more, you can select the cheese of your choice – go stinky, with the gruyere, or standard (as I did) with a generous heap of melted cheddar.  

As I was eating my burger and chatting with my roommate and girlfriend (both of whom work far closer to McHale’s than I do and proclaimed that, if it wasn’t closing, they’d go back regularly for lunch), I tried to spy a bit on the crowd.  There was the nearly-hunchbacked old man drinking whisky at the bar – peaked cap on his head.  In the booth next to us, marked “reserved,” another older gent seemed to be selling cut rate cigarettes – a miniature chest of drawers served as a source for matches for a few different patrons.

A group of women, seemingly tourists, walked in as we were walking out.  As the hostess informed them that the burger had won several awards, including one guide’s best in NYC designation, they hesitated – perhaps overwhelmed by the atmosphere, physical or otherwise (the loudest belch I’ve ever heard in a restaurant was emitted from the region of the bar not long before the women walked in).  In the new New York, and particularly in the new Midtown, places like McHale’s are a dying breed.  Check it out, while you still can (apparently they’re open through the rest of December), and get a glimpse of Hell’s Kitchen and Midtown circa 1975, with a side of great ground beef.    

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Portuguese marisqueria seems fishy.

Another excursion to the Ironbound section of Newark last night, this time to celebrate a friend’s quitting her Newark-based job and starting one in Harlem next week (replacing one hell of a commute from Ft. Greene with another – what about good old Midtown?).

Some Portuguese friends of hers had recommended Seabra’s Marisqueria, at 87 Madison St. (just off of Ferry St), and we wandered in to the back of the tile-clad restaurant to be seated (there is a circular bar in front that provides a less stuffy atmosphere than the back room, and if I ever went again, I’d sit there).  Indeed, the back room seems to be set up for large families with tables that could be easily pushed together for groups of 20 or more – perhaps inspiring the recommendation.  The service was “relaxed” – perhaps the food took a long time to cook, but it was easily one of the longer pre-meal waits I’ve had in a while, particularly considering the emptiness of the space.

As to the dishes – I presented a glowing recommendation for bacalhau (cod) that had most of us jonesing for it, so my roommate and I ordered the special version called “Codfish with macaroni” ($13) – I figured this didn’t describe the dish nearly adequately enough, and I was right.  In a portion so big that three of us probably could have shared one bowl, a flavorful soup featuring big brown beans, kale, and mini penne (that certainly weren’t al dente) surrounded large hacked up pieces of fish – bone in.

I don’t know about you, but I’m not wild about fish with the bones left in – particularly not cod or cod-like fish, where the bones are not easily removed, or the meat easily picked off.  (Too many memories of improperly filleted bluefish from my youth, I guess.)  In stew form, this problem is magnified – the most efficient way to work with the dish would seem to be to fish out the fish and debone, which in part entails making smaller chunks, then throw it back in the stew.  Awkward, to say the least.  

It also didn’t help that the cod was dryer than it needed to be.  I assume this fish was fresh, given that the bones and skin remained, but I’ve had reconstituted dried bacalhau taste more moist and flavorful than this, thanks to my stepfather’s bacalhau stew.  The broth recipe, though, was spot-on: both I and my roommate noted that we would have gladly consumed just the soup, or the soup and noodles.

The job-changing friend got a different preparation of bacalhau, called grelhado ($18).  Again, not filleted – but this time served with some delicious stewed green peppers, a gravy boat full of sizzling oil with chopped garlic, and onions.  I didn’t taste the steamed potatoes that came with (skinned potatoes, but not skinned fish?), but my roommate said they were good, if you avoided the grease and oil.

Our last friend is a bit of a picky eater, apparently (I’m not sure how she survived Spicy Mina with me), and so ordered the special Beef Medallions ($15).  They (at least three huge pieces of meat) arrived on a huge platter, sided with rice and kale and topped with mushrooms that, while large, were certainly canned.  Disappointing, except for the fresh fried potato chips that were on the side (not as good as my roommate’s favorite Spanish restaurant, though).

I don’t know, I was expecting something more from Seabra’s, and it (unlike the excellent, earlier-reviewed Tapajos River Steakhouse) wasn’t really worth the trip to Newark.  I drowned my sorrows in some kind of pastry at the Rivera bakery on Ferry St. afterwards.  The combination of coffee, cigarette smoke, and pastry smells gave me a momentary European flashback – something Ironbound is always good for.

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San Francisco comes to Harlem.

Struggling last night with my roughly 10-word grasp of the Spanish language, my girlfriend and I pondered whether it would be at all feasible to go to a Spanish-speaking vacation destination, or whether we’d restrict ourselves to one of the former English colonies. The occasion for this problema was a meal at St. Francisco de Asis, located at 1779 Lexington Ave., and on the Sietsema 2005 list at number 25. Fortunately, the struggle with the language was more than worth it: the food was amazing, and I found the journey to and from the place to be more than edifying.

On one hand, it’s hard to believe that Lexington Avenue between 125th St. and roughly 105th St. is the same proud avenue that counts Grand Central, Hunter College, and Gramercy Park among its destinations. On the other hand, the ugly/relatively down-market commercial corridor has more continuity than you’d think north AND south of 96th St. (roughly the end of the UES proper, and of the towers that my girlfriend deems “frat guy heaven”). Other than several stretches of projects on both sides of the road (between 123rd St. and 112th St., mostly), the bodegas, low-end restaurants and bars abound.

St. Francisco de Asis is a hybrid of the latter two of these – a restaurant in the front, the rear is dimly lit in a fashion similar to several of the bar-like spaces further south on Lex. I read somewhere (Sietsema or chowhound?) that these darkened spaces cater to homesick worker-immigrants, who come for a taste of home cooking and to flirt with the short-skirted waitresses. It made me flash back to my days in Austria, where I’d sit in a darkened bar decorated like a TGI Fridays…okay, I’m making that up (there was/is, apparently, a Hooters in Graz, Austria, though. Insert your own Schwarzenegger joke here.).

I managed to make clear what we wanted, eventually, using my old favorite pointing and nodding trick (which actually DID make me flash back). Shortly, we found ourselves presented with two square-shaped tamales oaxaqueños, which seemed to be wrapped in banana leaves rather than the usual corn husks ($2.50 each, I think). Stuffed with corn meal and what appeared to be chicken, with a dash of a reddish sauce, they were among the best versions of these snacks I’d ever tasted.

The main course was, for both of us, a chicken leg sided with rice and queso-dusted beans – the only occurrence of a dairy product in the entire meal, for what it’s worth. The differences in our plates were the sauces in which the chicken was cooked – mine was the Sietsema-recommended pipian verde, which is green and made of pumpkin seeds, and hers was the mole poblano (both $9.50).

Both sauces, I’m happy to report, were quite excellent. The pipian was considerably spicier than I’d expected, and the texture was unusual – it looked like a cross between a cream sauce and a salsa. Given that pumpkin seed products are a specialty of the afore-mentioned Graz, Austria, I’d thought I’d seen just about every possible cooked permutation of the savory seed – guess not!

The mole was not nearly as thick as the variety I’d recently sampled at El Huipil, but it was easily as delicious – the complex sauce/marinade/stew contained such a wide variety of sympathetic flavors, it was impossible for me to discern them – I assume that peppers and cocoa were a part of the recipe, and I think I saw sesame seeds, but I don’t want to start any rumors.

The assemblage came with a schwack of heated corn tortillas (the soft kind), which were good, despite being stuck together. Catering to the Tex-Mex crowd, I guess, I saw a packet of store-bought burrito-sized Mission flour tortillas sitting on the counter of the open cooking area. I’m thinking at this point that the restaurant’s estimation of us probably improved when we didn’t order them – I’m sure the filling would be fine, though.

My girlfriend and I enjoyed our food and experience at San Francisco de Asis greatly and would certainly go back, but last night, we might have even enjoyed the walk home even more. Maybe it was just the thwarted food coma manifesting itself as giddiness, but we were dumbfounded, impressed, and exhausted by the hill that exists between 102nd and 103rd St – a miniature version of St. Francis’ hilly western outpost transported to Spanish Harlem, in close proximity to the restaurant bearing his name. With the snow lightly falling, it felt to us like a street-scene snow globe.

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Enchilada cachet discovered in Boerum Hill?

Sticking to my recent resolution not to pay any more ATM fees has produced its fair share of strange detours in search of a Duane Reade or Chase branch; last night’s exit of the 4 train at Borough Hall produced, eventually, a culinarily serendipitous experience.  After strolling through the ‘redevelopment’ mess that is the Fulton Mall, I ended up on Smith St. walking south – considering whether to stick with Bedouin Tent as my destination, or to try something on Smith south of Atlantic.

Fortunately, my roommate texted me and claimed that the coldly-named Boerum Hill Food Company had “rocked [his] humble little Sunday.”  While I’m not sure how a day can, itself, be humble, I was nonetheless intrigued enough to check it out.

Entering the restaurant, it seems to have an identity crisis: it doesn’t know whether to be a coffee house or restaurant.  A counter bearing various pastries and a huge espresso machine dominate the rear of the space, the wall decorations are restrained, and in the windowed front of the restaurant, two overstuffed chairs straddle a table (how does one eat when one is sitting so low?).

The wait staff was similarly incongruous – a couple of pasty dudes in Penguin-style shirts, seeming like they just tumbled in from a new NYU catering fraternity.  Fortunately, they were attentive enough and attitude-free, so I’m willing to forgive the occasional preppy shirt or malapropism (unless they were also NRA members, someone should explain to the staff the difference between a cache and cachet, particularly in the context of weapons in Iraq).

I ordered the chicken enchiladas with a side of mild trepidation – I wasn’t going to get anything authentic, but the menu at BHFC is pretty limited, I suppose befitting its snack bar/coffee+grub status (or should I just call it a freaky-deaky diner?).  The good news came early – a buttery triangular biscuit, whose temperature belied the waiter’s claim of oven-freshness (and who bakes biscuits on Sunday night, anyway?), was nevertheless totally delicious when paired with the portion of raspberry jam.  It tasted like my grandmother’s thumbprint cookies.

Not long afterwards, my enchiladas emerged.  Three of ‘em, to be precise, sided with a mescalun salad with shallot vinaigrette, and topped with melted cheese, a thin green salsa, a squiggle of sour cream, and a perfectly even dusting of what looked like extremely finely grated horseradish, but was probably also some kind of cheese.  Taking the first bite, I discovered the filling consisted of diced chicken, rice, and tiny brown beans – a combination more befitting a burrito but quite tasty in the context of the toppings and their corn-tortilla enclosure.

Indeed, these enchiladas were tasty and well-spiced – I’m not sure where the spice emanated from (the salsa, perhaps?), but there was enough to go around, and I was spared the dullness of most of my recent Mexi-sludge dinners.  They weren’t greasy, either!

As I was carrying a slice of Junior’s carrot cake/cheesecake hybrid (not as good as the plain or the devil’s food – and especially not as good as a slice of plain left one extra day in the fridge, until the top gets a little crustier) in my bag, I skipped dessert, but they seemed to have plenty of sweets, to those who arrive without.

My roommate also raved about a chicken dish that he had (delivered) – he said that the food could have been hotter, which makes sense considering that I saw the delivery guy leave with three bags at a time, but that the dish and associated biscuitry (strangely sans jelly, which had come to me, in the restaurant, packed in a to-go tub) were outtasight.  Personally, I’m glad these guys deliver out to my lonely corner of Boerum Hill – if the recent weather is any indication, and the installation of several new couches next weekend goes according to plan, I might turn into a hermit on the weekends from now until March or so.

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Onions that RUBbed me right.

Sietsema’s “Best Use of Onions, 2005,” award went to R.U.B. (Righteous Urban Barbecue), on 23rd St. just west of 7th Ave.  Having tried to go previously and discovered it’s closed Mondays, my girlfriend and I had occasion to try again last night.  I’m glad we did – the onions were delicious, the meat was decent, and we were both extremely satisfied.

I have high standards for fried onions.  None of the dining-hall-ish gritty prepackaged and deep fried crap will satisfy me, and I avoid ordering them except at places that I know excel.  These high standards are a combination of my mother and father’s opinions of onions, I guess – Mom loves ‘em, Dad will pick tiny bits of them out of damn near anything.

Mom’s favorite onions were available at the late, lamented Philbrick’s (of Nauset Beach, Orleans, MA).  I was regaled as a child with tales of youthful runs to Philbrick’s from the beach, and instructed as to their onions being best, while rarely being allowed to partake.  Perhaps as a result of my parents’ generation’s newfound restraint with regards to fried food, Philbrick’s closed in the late 80’s/early 90’s (I remember family member outrage, but the date is elusive and Google seems not to help).  It was replaced, physically, by a new snack shack called Liam’s, but the fryer suffered – apparently the salty sea air was not the secret ingredient.

Philbrick’s stumbled into downtown Orleans for a time, closing after a few summers; since then, my mother’s beloved onions have been unavailable.  The good news is that R.U.B.’s onion “strings” are most likely every bit as good as Philbrick’s standard – and possibly even better.  The thin-sliced onions (“string” is not a misnomer) are battered ever so delicately (I’m guessing a light flour, but I’m curious as to any other ingredients) and fried; they come out looking like a bird’s nest sans chicks, but with a reddish spice layer on top that gives a nice flavor.  You’ll be scarfing them, a bit awkwardly due to their length and shape, while they’re hot – unless you’ve got an onion fiend in the group, though, they’d be tough to finish.  The portion is huge.

I don’t want to ignore the barbecue, either.  Neither of us was particularly hungry, so we opted to share the burnt ends platter ($20), and it turns out that was prescient – between the huge serving of onions, a pint of okay yellow-ish potato salad (two sides are included with most platters), and the chunks of tender, flavorful beef brisket, we were both stuffed at the end.

Ignore the laughable and near-stale slices of white bread that are included and try the beef with and without sauce – burnt ends are legendarily the most flavorful part of brisket, and, while I’m not a barbecue expert, I thought the meat was OK.  I’m not sure I’d have been as impressed with an order of regular brisket, though – the chunks of meat that had less crispy surface area weren’t as satisfying.  As to the sauce – it isn’t fiery, but adds a nice kick, and I ended up using it on the afore-mentioned interior pieces.

Combined with a couple beers (there’s a dark ale there that I don’t recall the name of – it’s quite tasty), R.U.B. probably won’t replace the best of Texas for aficionados.  It might replace Philbrick’s for my mother, though, and I’m pretty happy about that.


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Taste good? Yes, very good, but…

Yesterday night, in my continuing quest to cross off every restaurant on the current Sietsema list, two friends joined my girlfriend and I in Elmhurst, Queens – our destination was Samwongahk, on Broadway.  When we got there, however, we noticed that what was purportedly a diner-turned-noodlery had been converted to a steam table dishes-over-rice joint, and given a new name.  Hey, I guess we crossed it off!

Fortunately, Elmhurst, like its neighbor, Jackson Heights, offers a nearly limitless variety of Asian restaurants to choose from.  In easy walking distance from the eastern end of the Elmhurst Av. R/V stop were Singas Pizza (Indian-leaning), Thai, two Vietnamese restaurants, two Chinese steam tables, and a branch of the Malaysian chain Panang – after casing the neighborhood carefully, we opted for Taste Good, another Malaysian restaurant just off the Broadway strip on 45th Av.

Why did we choose it?  Well, a big reason was the Sietsema review in the window – Taste Good was the number 2 Asian restaurant on his 2002 list.  We had other good fortune, though, as far as recommendations were concerned: a friendly chowhound reader stopped on his way in and, as we were waiting for one of my friends to arrive, expounded upon his favorite dishes.

When someone stops on the street in NYC to offer an unsolicited opinion, and they’re not totally crazy, it’s generally a good sign.  So, after noshing on the pickle plate that arrived when we first sat down, we ordered, and included a couple of his dish ideas: salt and pepper squid ($9) and sambal shrimp ($15).  I was responsible for two orders of roti canai ($2 each) and a plate of beef rendang ($10) and my friends suggested the tahu emas (fried tofu blocks with sweet-hot sauce, $5) and the eggplant in shrimp paste sauce known as terung belacan ($8).

Sietsema’s review (conveniently also located under the glass layer of the table to my right) gave us a few more options.  Malaysian salad ($4.25), a bed of lotus root and cucumbers with fried shrimp crackers (actually good, for once), was smothered in a not-too-sweet peanut sauce.  Nasi lemak ($4.50) is a portion of coconut rice, adding sides of fried anchovy, boiled egg, peanuts, cubed cucumber, and a creamy bone-in chicken and potato curry (similar to the sauce part of the roti canai).

Of the dishes, the group’s favorites were absolutely the roti, rendang, and salt and pepper squid.  The roti was praised for its lack of greasiness and the spicy yet flavorful curry accompaniment.  The rendang was alternately chewy and tender, depending on the bite, but was flavored perfectly and stewed beyond reproach (all day, according to our new chowhounder friend).

I’ve had a lot of fried seafood, and it was with great surprise that I found the fried squid to have the lightest and most flavorful batter – beating even the sainted clam strips at Max’s in Wellfleet.  Salty, with just the right amount of grease, and helped by some kind of pico-de-gallo-like accoutrement, it was extremely satisfying.  The squid itself was a little on the chewy side, but not so much as to be disgusting.

I also want to sing the praises of my other favorites – the Malaysian salad and its mysteriously spiced peanut sauce were refreshing and delicious, and I was a big fan of the sweetened rice plus topping idea behind the nasi lemak (different textures as well as different flavors make for interesting eating).  The sweet-hot chili sauce also made the soft, fresh tofu blocks a particular treat.

After the meal, and after a long conversation with Helen, the owner, and our chowhound friend (he was convinced I was a fellow native Brooklynite and of Italian extraction, for some reason), we left the place feeling satisfied – my girlfriend even declared it her favorite of the restaurants we’ve tried together, so far.  Helen seemed genuinely interested in our opinions of her food, and it’s the kind of place where I can easily see becoming a regular, as our new friend had already.  (She even told us that Samwongahk had been sold for $70,000 – a princely sum in this part of Queens, I’m sure.)

Of course, there’s always the possibility for something going horribly wrong later, and, for one of our friends, it did – the future doctor among us complained of food-poisoning-like symptoms five hours after dinner.  While it seems unlikely, given that we all shared, it’s not out of the question – the shrimp and eggplant, coincidentally my least favorite two dishes, came out last, and I barely tasted them before declaring myself stuffed.  He, on the other hand, had quite a bit more of the two.

I was already wondering why Taste Good had gone from a prominent place on Sietsema’s 2001 list, and #2 on the 2002 list, to missing-in-action on the 2005 list – perhaps the odd case of bad food?  Nonetheless, three of us were very satisfied – we couldn’t finish all the food we had ordered, and if we had avoided the mediocre shrimp and the ehh eggplant, the check ($20 each with tip, shrimp included) would have been even lower.  I’m sure we’ll be back – probably without my med school buddy, though.

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