Monthly Archives: February 2006

Pam’s yum nam sod will atomize your tastebuds.

Occasionally, I’m surprised to report, truly excellent and reasonably un-adulterated ethnic cuisine docks in the island of Manhattan.  Usually, though, I’m the last to know or pay attention, which is my loss, I guess.  Generally I’ve had a greater success rate in the outer boroughs, and it’s more difficult to research restaurants in Manhattan (especially on chowhound – you’ve got to read between thousands of threads inquiring as to the state of Danny Meyer’s navel, etc.).

Sometimes you need to pick a restaurant based on location, though.  This problem arose as I was talking to Ludwig yesterday (he was much relieved that I’d liked Kebap G better than Asia), as my evening destination was Rudy’s, and I didn’t want to rely on their hot dogs (they ARE free, though, and the pitchers of Miller Lite are only $7.50 – extreme cheapwads take note).

After shooting a couple of suggestions my way which didn’t seem potentially spicy enough, Ludwig mentioned a place that jogged my memory banks: Pam Real Thai Food, on 49th just west of 9th Ave.  I’d not been there before, but a quick Google search returned an article I’d read by “my man Sietsema” that cast Pam’s food favorably.  That was all the impetus I needed, and I left work just after six with a serious appetite.

Not much of a crowd to be found – one table of theater-going oldsters who kept complaining about the chilly air, and one really awful middle-aged date.  Both situations would likely have been improved by a strong dose of whatever nuclearized the amazingly hot yum nam sod ($6), which is a salad of ground pork with a citrus dressing, avec cilantro, peanuts, and scallions.  I mean, this stuff was serious, which meant that I drank about five glasses of water during the course of the meal (turns out this is a good way to prepare for a night of birthday drinking, as I feel much better today than I should).  Not as fishy as I’d like (thankfully, they’ll believe you here when you ask for spicy, so next time I plan to bribe the chef to use her bottle of fish sauce liberally), but you’ll hardly notice in and amongst the beads of sweat.

I had started with the Thai beef jerky, which would indeed (“my man Sietsema” again) make a better bar snack than the afore-mentioned hot dogs.  The deep-fried dried beef, particularly in concert with the sweet-sour-spicy dipping sauce and a densely-packed cake of rice (which must be designed to eat by hand), cried out for a beer.

Alas, beer in the form of $7.50 pitchers awaited me at Rudy’s, so I stuffed my face and ran – running not because I was late, but because my mouth was on fire.  Thanks, Pam!

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Kebap G brings a taste of Berlin to the UES.

Some weeks ago, I wrote about finding the doner kebap at Memo comparable in content and quality (if not in size) to the fare at some of my favorite German and Austrian kebap stands.  I can say now that the bar has been raised, and it’s been raised in a location that many more will find reasonable to get to than Kings Highway, Brooklyn.  I’m very pleased indeed to report that Kebap G, on 2nd Avenue between 95th and 96th Streets, is the perfect replication of the standard Berlin doner kebap.

Upon consuming Kebap G’s medium doner kebap sandwich ($4.50 or so), which consisted of tasty well-cooked (and relatively low-grease) lamb shaved from the spit, a yellowish yogurt-garlic sauce, a red tomato-based hot sauce, as well as fresh cabbage, cucumbers and tomatoes heaped on top, I descended into a combination of food-bliss and nostalgic glow (just ask my girlfriend, who was extremely entertained).  It’s even served on bread that’s been warmed in a panini press – it’s more like Uzbek bread than a pita, but not remarkably close to either one – just like the kebap stand occupying the front room of a SPAR market across from Hackescher Markt.

Regardless of my loopy memories coming into play, it’s a damn good sandwich – the warm meat, cold veggies, and soft bread are similar to banh mi in their contrasting texture/temperature pleasures.  Also, given that the sandwich is inevitably assembled in front of your eyes, Kebap G offers the guaranteed customization that American fast food places don’t (unless we’re talking Roy Rogers and his “Fixins Bars”).  When I was there, one paramedic was trying to convince his skeptical partner of the merits of the various sauces, but you can get them on the side, if you’re unsure.  (By the way, if you’re a cop, fire fighter, paramedic, or hospital employee, you get 10% off.)

Sheep’s cheese, one of the stranger Berlin ingredients, wasn’t available, though I didn’t really miss it – for the record, after my first month abroad, I decided I preferred mine without.   There were, however, shakers full of pepper flakes (not the pizza joint kind, for once), Ayran in a fruit punch fountain, and some rather off-looking grape leaves as well, not that you’d put the latter two on the doner.  I guess falafel and some other standard Mediterranean fare was also available, but I didn’t try any of it.

The pleasant owner and operator of Kebap G cops to his Berlin influences – he, like me, once lived there, and he harbors hopes of taking the Berlin kebap formula to US chain prominence.  Assuming the quality stays high and the prices low, I see Kebap G as a real contender – they should weasel their way on to MacDougal Street and put that awful Yatgan out of business.

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Noodles on the trailing edge.

Too often, restaurant critics ignore restaurants that have been around for ages in search of the new hotness.  While some of the reasons for that are quite solid (especially that restaurants, as a general rule, usually decline in quality as they age), it ignores the fact that people are still interested in and eating at these “senior” restaurants, and they deserve investigation and veneration or castigation, depending.

I mention all this having been to Koreatown’s Kum Ryong/Golden Dragon restaurant last night, which almost assuredly has seen better days.  The menu pages are torn and frayed, three or four of the dishes in each category are crossed out, and the dumpling lady in the window is pretty much a ruse to attract those who would otherwise be hitting up Mandoo down the block.

That said, I enjoyed what I ate at Kum Ryong – the reason I went in, indeed, was the awning-advertised fresh noodles.  Now, I have no idea whether the noodles with special brown sauce ($7) were actually fresh, because I didn’t see them pounded, but there were hints of irregularity in some of the noodles, and they tasted like the genuine article.

I give the restaurant bonus points for serving the noodles separately from the special brown sauce, too, so the pasta didn’t get soggy.  In said sauce, which was a quite dark and a slightly sweet concoction, I found slightly charred onions and nuggets of tough pork.  It reminded me of Sietsema’s description of the noodles at Samwongahk, which closed before I could get to it – I’m not sure whether the sauce could double as engine grease, but it sure looked like someone had used 10W30 in the preparation.

My friends’ choices were less satisfying.  I thought my paralegal buddy ordered his noodles in a hot chop suey soup ($8), but he ended up with a nuclear seafood broth with unshelled shrimp, octopus legs, mussels, clams, and god knows what else.  I liked the broth, which managed to be both spicy and fishy without being disgusting.

I can’t say the same for my roommate’s noodles with chicken soup ($8), which seemed to lack very much chicken.  Given the pervasive mushroom flavor and the predominant egg (which happens to soak up mushroom flavor quite effectively), the taste sensations were less subtle and more like a dull, throbbing headache.  A damn shame considering he had a headache already.  Sorry, dude!

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Carl’s vs. cart’s: Cheesesteak battle royale.

I may have admitted it before, but I’ll admit it again – my guilty pleasure was a cheesesteak from the cart just outside my office.  For $3.50, the dude did pretty well: the meat was precooked and sometimes on the dry side, but a squirt of hot sauce usually took care of it.  He also had a special trick to get the cheese to melt – put it between the beef and the bun.  Just the right amount of peppers and onions topped it off, as well as a squirt of mystery hot sauce.  Nothing fancy, just satisfying.

Anyway, for whatever reason (who knows why the carts migrate?), the old guy was replaced by a newer guy in a bigger cart who had frozen, uncooked beef (should be better, right?) but lacked the technique to really pull it off.  Still, when I was lazy, I’d have one and be reasonably happy.

Then we had a giant snowstorm and the big cart was replaced by a tiny, dirty cart, and a cook with enthusiasm but no reasonable technique.  The beef was always grilled within an inch of its life, no peppers were offered (the onions were raw, too), and the cheese rarely melted.  The last straw was a few days back, when he ran out of regular bread and offered to make me a cheesesteak on thick, store-bought pita.  It was pretty nasty.

I decided to clear out my bad thoughts with a trip to Carl’s Steaks’ Chambers Street location today, hoping to at least find something as good as my lost cart-savant had made.  What I found, however, was something of the same approximate genre that somehow managed to be appreciably better – justifying its increased price ($6) and its sister outpost’s inclusion on Sietsema’s 2005 list (at #35).

Start with the bread: the cart environment somehow promotes staleness, but some time on the grill would usually help matters.  Carl’s bread is either riddled with preservatives or very fresh, because it was soft enough at 2pm to impress me.  The loaf is much bigger, too, than the cart version, and I don’t foresee any pita substitutions being offered (can you imagine the outcry?).
The meat is probably the crux of the biscuit for any cheesesteak, and Carl’s somehow balances out natural (not reconstituted, like the oil from the squirt bottle on the cart) grease and tender, unburnt meat.  It was actually not gross to watch the drippings accumulate on my paper plate.  The sirloin (according to the menu, at least) had a much less synthetic flavor, too, like it hadn’t been sitting in a freezer for ten years prior to my consuming it.

You’re always at the mercy of a cart guy in terms of which cheese he’ll use and how melted it’ll be – Carl’s offers the Kerry Memorial Poor Cheese Choice Of 2004 (Swiss), as well as Whiz, provolone, and American.  Authentic Philadelphia sandwich-makers recommend Whiz (as do I), but I think you’d be pretty happy with melted American, too.  Provolone’s right on the line, man – don’t be that guy.

I asked for hot sauce and got a pleasant dose of sweet-hot peppers instead, though hot sauce was available from a squirt-bottle by the soda fountain.  There are a bunch more toppings available (as well as double-meat for $3, and double cheese for 50 cents), but I wouldn’t worry about them too much – I’d worry instead about the poor souls who order French fries with their sandwiches.  For me, the steak sandwich was more than enough.

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Montezuma’s table discovered seven blocks from Temple Square.

Hey folks!  I’m back, and thanks to last night’s 12 hours of sleep, fully recovered from three days of amazing powder skiing, one trip to the dentist (for two fillings), and a red-eye flight back to NYC.  Yes, I was a total zombie yesterday.

Beyond a career weekend of skiing for the four of us, the trip was also fantastic from a culinary standpoint – Salt Lake City’s Red Iguana was held by my three friends as best among the trip’s restaurants and I thought it was probably the best Mexican I’d ever had.

Salt Lake City literally has just about as many Mexican restaurants as New York has pizza joints.  Between local chains like Taco Time, national chains like Del Taco and Taco Bell, and plenty of ma and pa places (like the afore-reviewed Lone Star Taqueria, also a big hit with my friends) scattered throughout the valley, Utahns are nuts for Mexican and Tex-Mex food.

It’s only this kind of market saturation that can produce a restaurant of true excellence – Darwinian forces combined with enough popular enthusiasm have produced a restaurant that professes to specialize in “pre-Hispanic food, imperial Aztec cuisine, and Montezuma’s table.”  Best of all, for the tourists out there?  It’s located at 736 West North Temple Street, about five easy minutes from SLC International Airport.

You might be asking what, exactly, constitutes this pre-Hispanic (though not necessarily pre-Columbian) food?  One delicious word: Mole.  The Red Iguana serves not one or two, but fully SEVEN different kinds of Mole, each of which is totally delicious and unique.

I started, on a lunchtime run just after I picked up Sophmoricles from the airport, with the Mole Negro.  Strangely, this sauce more resembled the preparations of Mole Poblano I’ve had in NYC – a dark sauce with a distinct nutty flavor (the menu claims peanuts, almonds, and walnuts, along with fennel seeds and chile mulato), the sauce and the super-tender chicken contained within were, I’m convinced, as good as it gets.

Sophmoricles opted for the Mole Amarillo, which is advertised as “very spicy” but probably only gets to about 6.  It’s orange, and flavored with habanero and guajuillo chiles, and “fresh vegetables and spices,” according to the menu.  It had a flavor that neither of us could quite identify, though I thought it was vinegary and reminded me of vindaloo.  Extremely good stuff, it’s also paired with chicken with the consistency of pulled pork.

On the next visit, with the full group, my friend the Stanford math grad student opted for the Mole Poblano, which is served with turkey.  A lighter shade of brown than the Mole Negro, the poblano was a complex and satisfying mélange of chocolate and nuts.  I realize that this description doesn’t really explain anything, but, hell, it’s one of those things that’s too complex for me to parse into parts.  Apparently this sauce was concocted for visiting Catholic and Spanish officials by locals worried that the other available varieties would be too spicy.  Thus the inquisitive spice-phobe shouldn’t sweat ordering it – it certainly doesn’t lack in flavor, though.

Remember to order the corn tortillas to go along with these pots of heaven – the waitresses will frequently forget to ask, and the default offering (admittedly good, but not as functional as a sauce sop) is made of flour.

We had another Mole on our second visit, courtesy of a complimentary sampler plate brought by our overworked waiter (this was seriously the most crowded I’ve ever seen a SLC restaurant, and on Sunday night no less).  It proved just as popular a dip for the corn chips as the excellent salsa and the sublime guacamole ($5.00).

The pumpkin seed sauce known as Pipian is on the menu in an unusual red color, courtesy of the pasilla and guajillo chiles, I’m guessing.  It also made a very pleasant appearance in the Papadzules ($7.15), a specialty from the Yucatan which takes the concept of the enchilada one step further by adding Mole Verde, chopped boiled egg, and a sauce called “chilitomate,” which I can only assume combines chiles and tomatoes, because Google doesn’t know, and I don’t remember tasting it separately from the Mole Verde.

Speaking of Mole Verde, I didn’t know that it was also supposed to be made with pumpkin seeds – this version more closely resembled the Pipian I had at St. Francisco de Asis.  It’s available with chicken or turkey – or, like all of the moles, available in a cup on the side for $4.60 (the regular mole dishes with meat are $12.30).

I don’t remember that we tasted the Mole Coloradito, which features pine nuts(!), or the home-concocted almond mole (Almendras), which features a dried-fruit-stuffed pork loin.  Shame on us.

We did, however, try some other things.  The Enmoladas (located, appropriately, with the Papadzules in the menu category “Marvels of Mexico”), were folded dumpling-like pockets of beans in Mole Negro – the dumpling skin was, of course, a corn tortilla ($7.15).  It was delicious in a simple way, and a good vehicle for vegetarians to get on the mole bus.

The fajitas smelled good, but I skipped them in favor of the Chile Rellenos ($8.70).  You might recall my scathing review of the Mexicali attempt – believe you me, I wanted to erase that horrible memory.  The first step in the right direction is to use the correct kind of Anaheim chiles.  They’re big!  Stuff ‘em with jack cheese, fry them in an egg batter that’s got a little flour in it, and top them with a sauce just before serving, so the afore-mentioned batter doesn’t get soggy.

Fortunately, the Iguana did these things correctly, so what I got was a satisfying meal instead of shoe leather.  I still wouldn’t order them over the moles ever again, but if you like Rellenos, this is a good place to get them.

I would also be remiss in not recommending the Pozole soup, available at $4.50 a bowl as a special (Sunday – I don’t remember seeing it available on Thursday).  Brick red, with tender pork, hominy, and  two fried corn tortillas (tostadas), a lettuce/cilantro salad, and lime wedges on the side (all, presumably, to be added to the broth), it was acclaimed as a major triumph by all four diners.

It’s sad, but I’m not sure you can get all of this stuff in New York, and certainly not in the same restaurant.  I don’t know why – have we lost the Mexican-loving population to the likes of Chipotle and their 1,000 calorie burritos forever?  Or are the likes of St. Francisco harbingers of good things to come?  Hope it’s the latter.  Regardless, I have a new favorite Mexican restaurant, and I’ll be dragging my family and friends there every time I visit.  If you’re going skiing, hiking, or churching in Utah, don’t miss it.    

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Taking this week off.

Sorry for the lack of updates, gang – been very busy at work and am going back to SLC for a long weekend shortly.  I’ll return next week with more shizzle and more sizzle…

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Angular banjos sound good to me…at a low volume.

Occasionally, the circumstances of a restaurant jaunt turn out to be more interesting than the actual restaurant itself.  I want to give full credit to reader “Mad Ludwig” (not his real name), who I’ve been attempting to one-up in the realm of well-executed metaphor for several weeks via e-mail.  He suggested that we do an excursion to Asia – a Bukharan (Uzbeki Kosher) restaurant that his barber (from Samarkand) recommended.  Seemed interesting, particularly since said barber claimed that Cheburechnaya (obviously a favorite of mine) was crap.

I hope the barber is better at cutting hair than food criticism: judging by the food at Asia, he’s no gourmet.  For instance, the lagman soup’s veggies and broth seemed little better than canned minestrone with some dill sprinkled in, and the thick, round, irregular noodles that I thought looked hand-pulled turned out to be mushy.  The sliced tomato and onion platter called achik-chuck was better than your average sneeze-guard-protected salad bar offering (good tomatoes), but the piddling helping of hot peppers on the side seemed to indicate an unwelcome tentativeness on the part of the chef.  If you’re going to offer ‘em, stick ‘em in the salad – spice-phobes be damned.

For the mains, I was disappointed by the chicken tabaka – Ludwig had described it as encrusted in garlic, and this presentation certainly was not.  It reminded me of the baked chicken my mother made in my youth – neither the most flavorful dish nor the most succulent.  The canned peas and peaches on the side gave us all a chuckle, and the Korean carrot salad reminded me of a flavored version of the carrots used to top banh mi.  I would say that the oil needs to be changed in the fryer, though – the French fries were a bit skanky.

The kebabs were okay – the lamb rib was tough but flavorful, and the liver carried a pleasing charcoal flavor, though I haven’t had another liver kebab to compare it to.  The lyu-lya (often spelled lula, but Ludwig was kind enough to correct me with regards to the vowel pronunciation) wasn’t cooked all the way through, but the oniony ground beef certainly would taste good on a seeded roll with some ketchup.

The bread was, of course, fabulously dense.  And the other starch, a “green” plov that included plenty of dill and bits of lamb, was also quite good, if eerily reminiscent of the similarly-oiled fried rice at Chanoodle.  

I should make a note of the décor and ambiance, too.  According to family legend, my father once told my mother never to go to a bar without windows big enough to jump through in the case of emergency.  Suffice to say, Asia did not meet that criterion.  The entrance was windowless and marble-trimmed, with a door that I can only describe as “foreboding,” and the interior was similarly institutional: the dining room was banquet-hall-sized, and trimmed with purple cloth, much like a nursing home.

Ludwig told us that it’s typical of Moscow restaurants to have an enormous video screen, a stage upon which live entertainment frequently appears, and for both to be delivered at ear-splitting volumes.  Fortunately, the music wasn’t turned up, and there was no band of babushkas to bedevil us.  I can imagine that the restaurant must be pretty smoky during more popular dining hours – the only no-smoking sign being a tiny placard near the thermostat.

Really, the experience was made by the company.  My medical school friend (he has a half-assed blog and comments here occasionally, so I suppose I should start using his pseudonym, Sophmoricles) and I were regaled from West 4th Street to 50th St./New Utrecht Ave. and all through dinner by stories of Ludwig’s time in Russia.  The country sounds like a real mess, and I can’t say that he activated any latent desire to visit, but in the abstract, the stories were hilarious.  Overloaded puddle-jumper planes with tiny wings and engines that billow black smoke on take-off?  Car doors that fall open when you lean on them, and the drunken non-taxi drivers who are ferrying you around?  Making a hasty retreat from the scene of a bus crash (in Turkey, actually)?

Not all the conversation revolved around transportation near-tragedies, I should note.  In between his gabbing with the waitress in fluent Russian (she was impressed, as was I), the conversation was wide-ranging – a regular salon, avec Baltika (served from bottles that came out of a dorm-style fridge).  Can’t say I was very useful when the discussion turned to art (yes, indeed, I am a philistine in certain regards), but Ludwig was patient and willing to explain the background on things I probably should have seen at museums I probably should have been to already.  I’m sure I’ll get to them…err…right after I’m done eating, really.

Thanks, Ludwig, for your time and generosity, and especially for putting up with my massacring Russian pronunciation – I’m looking forward to the next dinner.

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