Monthly Archives: December 2005

Questionably famous — undeniably spicy.

I realize that many people solve the problem of not knowing whether a restaurant is open on Monday by calling ahead, but for some (stupid?) reason, I never let my fingers do the walking.  As we found restaurant after restaurant on Woodside Ave. shuttered last evening, we felt a certain sympathy with the giant raccoon (my girlfriend insists it was a possum) we saw raiding the garbage, though not enough to keep us from hurrying past the hole in the fence into which it slipped.  We were starving, frigid, and in no mood to tangle with giant rodents.  (Side note – the biggest rats I’ve ever seen exist between 3rd and 4th Aves. in Brooklyn, on both Pacific and Bergen Sts.  You’ve been warned.)

Fortunately, we ended up having a good meal at the Elmhurst branch of Singas, on Broadway near the Elmhurst Ave. G/R/V stop.  After having heard good things, we had scoped it out on our last Elmhurst jaunt, noting their talent for self-aggrandizement (“if it’s not Singas, it’s not famous”).  Yesterday, after too much fruitless wandering, questionable claims of fame were less important than a hot meal, and we arrived hoping only to raise our blood sugar levels.  Good that we did, too – Singas’ pizza is good, though somewhat different than you might be expecting.

A simple storefront in a strip-mall (hard to believe that they exist in NYC, right?), the Elmhurst Singas has the ambiance of a Pizza Hut and the smell of a Round Table or Pizza Inn.  Thankfully, their product is much better – they turn out 10” personal pies that are amazingly low on grease and high on flavor, with a crust both crunchy and chewy.  They’re not traditional in any sense of the word, though – this pizza would make the Neapolitan pizzauoli stroke out.

Take, for instance, the newly-added “Bar-B-Q” chicken pizza ($6.35) – in many instances, this can be a pizzeria’s downfall.  My preference is for pizzerias to use regular chicken and a barbecue sauce, rather than barbecued chicken in sauce on a standard pie.  In this case, thankfully, the chewy mozzarella is paired with a cubed chicken cutlet and a barbecue sauce that, while very sweet, works well between crust and cheese.  Not up to the highest standard of the art, but pleasurably passable.

Our other pizza of the evening was a doozy.  Following a recommendation for the hot pepper pizza ($5.45), we received a normal-looking pie, except for the truckload of wheel-shaped slices of dark green pepper, loaded with seeds, distributed on top.  As it turns out, these are the same kind of jalapeños that my favorite purveyors of banh mi use – while the sandwich assemblers usually go easier than I’d like, Singas’ pizza had my whole gullet on fire after merely half of the pie.

Seriously, this might have been the hottest one-spice meal I’ve eaten since beginning this column.  I can’t describe to you how astonishingly hot it was, except to relate the tale of my girlfriend, who bravely ate a piece and immediately ripped the top off of her prefab Greek salad ($5.75), trying (somewhat successfully) to cool down with the help of leafy greens.  I wouldn’t recommend the salad, with or without the packet of dressing, for any other reason, but she was certainly glad she got it.  Soda, water, and other pizza won’t cut the spice out nearly as quickly.

I’m getting hungry just writing this, though – I can easily see the hot pepper pizza becoming a regular craving.   Something about that sensation of total spice K.O. is appealing, and while the reasoning is unclear, the feeling is primal indeed.  I’d also like to try the garlic, potato, and hamburger pies – perhaps there’s some pie that will more efficiently offset the peppers.  At any rate, I’m definitely going to bring my friends and challenge them to eat an entire pie.  At $5.45, it’s a bet that I can easily afford.

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Blintzes and bigos for brunch?

When my girlfriend and I located the Queen’s Hideaway, on an obscure Greenpoint street, we had been expecting the buttery popovers with fresh strawberry preserves, as featured in New York Magazine’s Cheap List entry.  Instead, we found that they didn’t serve brunch at all, with no evidence that they ever had.  The dinner menu sure did make us hungry, though.  So we wandered back down towards the Manhattan Ave. strip and happened upon “Polska Restauracja,” located at 136 Greenpoint Ave.

Besides the plain-Jane name, the premises were also humble.  Consisting of a large dining room long on faux wood paneling and short on the usual diner seating (the booth-dividers have chairs on either side), it would be wise to avoid sitting too close to the bathroom, due to the strong chemical odor (I thought it smelled like a cherry cough drop).  Signs advertising the beer called Zywiec abound, and I wish I’d tried one – for whatever reason, I felt like a Diet Coke was a more appropriate brunch drink.  Warm in the can, poured over ice (which instantly renders the soda flat), it reminded me of summers with my mother on the Cape.  (That’s my best Sietsema imitation, kids.)

Of course, with or without beer, the food at Polska Restauracja was excellent, and much cheaper than the higher-profile restaurants around the corner on Manhattan Ave.  My entrée was the combination plate ($7), which featured sausage, bigos (a hunter’s stew – long on the cabbage and short on the meat, in this incarnation), stuffed cabbage, two fried pierogies with a cheddar-potato filling, and a side dish of mashed beets.  Bread was also offered (we declined).

The sausage was surprisingly excellent – having had plenty of previously frozen, dry sausage in my time, the juiciness of this link was appreciated.  It also differed from your average grocery store sausage by virtue of its chunky filling – store-bought kielbasa always seems too dense.  The stuffed cabbage was filled with seasoned meat and doused in an orange sauce that seemed to have been derived from tomato soup – tasty.  The bigos didn’t really resemble the dish of the same name I was familiar with from Veselka, but admirably filled the spot on the plate I would ordinarily have filled with sauerkraut – just a few chunks of meat among the cabbage and soupy sauce.

The two pierogies were also excellent, and my girlfriend had an order of her own (8 for $4) as her entrée.  The menu advertised them as homemade – while I couldn’t tell if they were, they were certainly better than the equivalent at most of the East Village pierogi outposts.  Besides the potato/cheese combination, the menu offered beef and a mushroom/sauerkraut combination.  I can vouch for the beef and potato variety (didn’t try the kraut pies) in either the boiled or fried preparation.

Of course, we were at brunch, and some sweets were in order – the potato pancakes (5 for $3) were one more item to dunk in the large portion of sour cream that accompanied the pierogies.  Not too greasy, but not dry, they resembled silver dollar pancakes in diameter, if not in taste.  I also spread them with beets, which made something that looked like a cream cheese and jelly sandwich, while tasting as little as possible like one.

The undisputed heavyweight champion of the meal was the order of two filled crepes known as blintzes ($4).  Fresh-cooked upon ordering, and taking a few minutes longer to arrive at our table than the rest of the meal, one blintz was filled with sweet, curdy cheese, and the other with fresh strawberries.  Thankfully free of grease and (perhaps as a result) not soggy, the blintzes were gone in an instant.

I’ll be back to Polska Restauracja.  The combination of cheap food, large portions, and the total perfection of their blintzes makes it one of the top restaurants I’ve been to in the last month.

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Rice to Riches: much more than just pudding.

I’ve seen a lot of weird stuff since living in New York, but one of the weirdest things yet encountered is the astonishing popularity growth of Rice to Riches, on Spring St.  After first having patronized RTR on empty nights, cracking jokes aplenty about its alleged connections to a gambling ring, all the while secretly enjoying that I seemed to have the place (and its delicious puddings) to myself, the last few times I’ve been back have been a mob scene.  All seats and places at the standup table taken?  What the hell’s going on?

Barring some kind of mention in a NYU newsletter, I can’t figure it out, particularly since many of the patrons appear to be on the young side of their college years.  Maybe it’s gotten harder to drink in NYC underage lately – Saturday night at the rice pudding parlor wasn’t how I spent my four years (admittedly, Williamstown had no pudding amenities, unless you count the occasional tray of chewy bread pudding at Greylock dining hall).

At any rate, I should commend the whippersnappers on their taste – the rice pudding at RTR is extremely good.  Expanding on the staple dessert of many ethnic restaurants, the oval-obsessed parlor offers 20 or so intensely flavor-infused puddings that, while not the most effervescent variety you’ll ever have (read: gloppy and heavy), at least rate well against the average ice cream parlor in terms of my enjoyment level.

The best flavors, in my opinion, are among the most intense.  My personal favorite is the mascarpone with cherries, which is just this side of too sweet.  The maple and blueberry pudding is also tasty, though it’s hard to figure whether they’re flavoring it with real or fake maple flavor.  Chocoholics are not forgotten, either – they’ll enjoy the rocky road, which is loaded with cocoa, and made one friend of mine practically tear up with bliss.  (Note as of 12/9: According to their website, Rice to Riches seems to have Christmas flavors in stock right now.  Get in there before the kids eat them all!)

I’m less wild about the banana coconut and the caramel, which can’t seem to stand up to the more intense flavors.  Toasted coconut, bland?  Something’s amiss.  I’ve not tried the toppings of any kind – hard as it is to imagine a rice pudding parlor, it’s even harder to imagine a rice pudding topped with whipped cream or crumbled, toasted pound cake.  Besides, ya gotta get off the calorie train somewhere.  

Sadly, RTR recently raised prices and shuffled around the sizes of their containers a bit, which makes it a lot less of a good deal – everything got a buck or two more expensive, but the sizes only increased a bit.  No longer is the smallest dish available to split flavors, either (a big cost-saver).  As a front, weren’t they supposed to lose money?

Speaking of potential evidence: if I was a business professor, I’d love to take a class there and have students identify the many things that are ridiculously extravagant.  Custom manufactured dishes and spoons?  Check.  Four or five flat-screen televisions showing relatively little?  Mmm-hmm.  Failure to maximize floor space for patrons?  Definitely – see the weird stand-up table in front and weird booths in back; the rest of the floor is basically either counter or wasted space.  Private label bottled water?  Yes, and they carry enough of it to sponsor a marathon.  A taciturn, lantern-jawed man with a badge declaring him to be “operations manager?”  Uh, don’t hurt me, please, sir…

Don’t get me wrong – I love Rice to Riches.  It’s a truly oddball place with a crazy back story and a fine product.  True, I wish they hadn’t raised prices, but that doesn’t seem to have dissuaded the crowds at all.  Keep it up, guys and girls, and you’ll have that freshman 15 put on in no time.  At least it’s better than Cinnamon Toast Crunch in the dining hall.    


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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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