Monthly Archives: June 2006

Out of the hot, into the cool.

I promised a group trip to Spicy & Tasty (menu) in my last group-dinner post – actually, I’ve been promising one for quite some time now to various friends. On Saturday, it was time to deliver – a pre-beer garden early dinner fiesta of spice.

Arriving at around four-thirty, we were immediately seated. The first thing you see as you walk into Spicy & Tasty is the estimable appetizer case – we all agreed that a strong visual argument was made for a tapas-style meal at some future point. Not everything was sublime – I ordered something called “beef tender in red chili sauce” that was either mistaken for another order or eerily reminiscent of a slightly spicy boiled bacon. Fortunately, the other two choices were impeccable: dan dan noodles, in a slightly sweet and slightly spicy sauce that made everybody go “mmmmm.”

The best thing we ate all day, however, was a small plate of “shredded chicken with spicy sauce.” This exquisite example of the sublime balance of Sichuan spicing arrives at the table looking like a bizarro version of a green papaya salad (everything is cut in similar stalk-like pieces). It’s also drowned in a red sauce that looks intimidating – fear not for your taste buds, though. The chiles’ influence is not undue, and the numbing effect of the peppercorns (here mysteriously blended into the sauce, not carelessly split and thrown in the pot like at Grand Sichuan) will give your roommate food-phoria. Or, at least, it did mine.

We also ordered two different kinds of balls (not the Rocky Mountain Oyster kind). The first was a lump of gelatinous pureed rice that arrived in a black-tinged (poppy?) unsweetened peanut sauce. Visually unappealing, tasted okay if not exciting. The sesame yam balls with black bean are much more recommendation-worthy, even for the yam-phobic.

Five entrees also graced our table. I’m sad to say that I didn’t do my usual good job of convincing the waitress to spice our dishes at maximum heat – usually, the “shredded pork in fresh hot pepper” is just as sublime as the shredded chicken, but this time was quite bland by comparison. It didn’t matter – we ate it all up anyway.

Other favorites were the “diced chicken with peanuts and hot pepper,” which wasn’t spicy at ALL, despite the chile next to the menu entry (sigh). Nonetheless, it was quite good – the peanuts were tiny indeed, and the sauce was slightly and pleasingly sweet.

The tea-smoked duck was the best I’ve had it in three tries – smoky and with the fat perfectly rendered, the top pieces (which lack inconvenient bone intrusions) got snapped up so quickly, I’m not sure my roommate got any. The other pieces require a lot more effort, unfortunately, and I’m not sure if the cost/benefit of this dish is really as good as it could be.

I wasn’t much of a fan of the “bean curd home style” which ruined some perfectly good tofu in the frying pan, giving it a leathery coating (and unappealing texture). Next time I’m sticking with ma po tofu. Again, not nearly spicy enough, considering.

The last dish wasn’t my choice, so I won’t judge it too harshly – “shrimp & green hot pepper in black bean sauce” seemed pretty much like a well-done version of the generic Chinese you can get on the corner. Not bad, but certainly not a delight.

I don’t mean to make it seem like we had a disappointing meal – the shredded chicken alone was worth the long trip and then some, and three of five entrees were good, if mild. But I wish I had remembered to shake the waitress by the lapel and beg for spice – my friends deserved better.

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Taco time.

In keeping with my recent Mexican binge, I’ve lately gone to Pio Maya twice.  Located on W. 8th Street between 6th and MacDougal, Pio Maya was enthusiastically recommended to me in a comment by Abe B some time ago.  Previous to this week, I had been there once before, but for a quick “on the go” burrito that I took to Washington Square Park and was disappointed by.

I can safely say I was NOT disappointed this time around, but there is some maddening variation in quality.  For instance, on Monday, I went and ordered four tacos – two with pork, and two with chorizo.  Given that the joint was a little busy at the time, and someone in front of me had ordered some kind of nachos with chorizo topping, the cook piled a huge heap of raw-looking chorizo on the grill.  While cooking, a period of time which felt like forever, the smell of the sausage permeated the entire restaurant and put my already-high hunger into overdrive.

When they finally were done, the chorizo tacos (in two corn tortillas, wrapped at one end to look kind of like a schwarma, and topped with pico de gallo, lettuce, and a not-so-spicy tomatillo salsa) were amazing, the meat being both flavorful and juicy and making me wish I had ordered about ten of them (though, to be honest, four tacos was one or two too many).  The pork was also excellent, not dry but retaining a bit of crunch and a bit of fat – it was up against some stiff competition, though.

Tuesday I went back again, and ordered two more chorizo tacos, as well as one featuring grilled beef (I was going to order a chicken one out of a sense of fairness, but my craving of the chorizo was too intense to ignore).  The beef, as you might have expected, was okay but not great.  Decent flavor, not too dry, but ultimately not that interesting.  The chorizo, sadly, wasn’t nearly as good as the first time.  My expectations of another pile of sausage being loaded on the grill were unfulfilled – the tacos came from the invisible back kitchen, with the meat being quite a bit crustier and a bit less flavorful than was ideal.  Still a good deal at $2.25 apiece, but not nearly the transcendent experience of the previous day.

My verdict?  Go get your chorizo tacos at a peak lunch hour, and be prepared to wait for them to make it fresh.  Or try demanding that they do so, even if you’re not there at a busy time (note that I have no idea if they’ll acquiesce).  Made fresh, they’re one of the most delicious bargain lunches in the entire West Village.


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Taquerias el fuego.

I have disparaged the Mexican food of New York City for the last time, quite possibly. A visit to the recently-reviewed-in-the-Voice De Guerreros Taqueria, at 719 5th Avenue in Greenwood Heights (that’s the south Slope to all of you with lying real estate agents) has put my qualms about the quality of local options to bed. No, De Guerreros doesn’t offer extensive moles, nor does it offer a burrito on the level of Lone Star or El Pelon. What it does offer is an unbelievable selection of tacos, sandwiches, and other meat-and-starch combinations at prices that will bring a smile to your face.

I went on a recent Saturday. Like my earlier visit, I took the R train solo to the nabe, this time actively hoping that I wouldn’t end up with burrito-bomb disappointment at the place next door. Fortunately, had De Guerreros been closeed, I had several other options in the area – Continental, apparently a Salvadoran restaurant, had a neon “OPEN” sign flashing a couple blocks up, and across the street was a holdover Czech-Slovak restaurant whose menu had my mouth watering before I pried myself away.

As much as I like Czech food, I had one of my intense spicy-food cravings and was determined to try the chilaquiles that gave Mr. Sietsema’s friend “Red Hook Kurt” the yelps upon tasting. While it didn’t make me initially gasp out loud, it certainly did make me breathe harder after eating half of it. I picked the green version (the red version substitutes a different chile sauce – no word on which is more spicy), and was presented with a delectable plate of barely-fried corn tortillas ripped in segments, drowned in the sauce with onions, topped with crumbled cheese and crema, and sided with fresh-tasting refried beans. The portion ($6) was big enough for two, particularly when you realize that you need to order other food to combat the spice.

My attempt to combat the spice was part guava juice, part taco – two of the latter, in fact. One was Suadero, which I had thought the menu explained as pork, but the internet seems to think it’s the meat from between the beef ribs. Either way, good, though undistinguished – of course, this may have been because the other taco, with pastor, was one of the best non-spicy things I’ve eaten in the last six months. I understand pastor (whose base is pork butt, and which is served in Mexico off of a doner kebap spit) has quite a preparation – marination of the meat in spices, etc. Whatever they did to the meat was breathtaking – I was absolutely stunned by the depth of flavor.

My entire meal came to ten bucks (an additional buck fifty for the guava juice), and I couldn’t finish the chilaquiles (a combination of being full and breathing fire). This humble spot is enough to make me wish I lived in Greenwood Heights – I’d be there nightly.

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Midnight at the Oasis.

MCCARREN PARK (HIP) – Mike King delivered the difference-making RBI double in the 3rd inning as the previously winless Karl Malone and the Mailmen finally delivered.

Boasting a new, augmented lineup of over twenty people, as well as a signature cheer of “Barcelona” (for the Olympic gold medal of 1992, the only title the team’s namesake ever won), Malone’s men (and women) were elated to finally taste victory.

“It was a big win for us, Hot Rod,” said King, a first-time kickball player. “Actually, I have absolutely no idea how I did it. It might well have been my status as the only actual Jazz fan on the team, I’m not sure, but nobody was more surprised than me. The team really came together around good pitching and fielding.”

How to celebrate a victory of such magnitude? Well, for the rest of the team, it was time to go play another game out in the rain. Feeling flush with my accomplishments, and not possessing of a desire to catch cold, I declined the invitation to return as a ringer, and set out in search of something to put in my stomach besides beer from a Styrofoam cup.

Thankfully, I wasn’t far from Williamsburg’s Oasis, located on N. 7th Street just next to the L staircase. Oasis, which reached #37 on Sietsema’s 2005 list, boasts a simple menu of Middle Eastern specialties. Last night, at about 9:30, I opted for the schwarma sandwich. Unfortunately, it wasn’t all that and a bag of chips – I thought the meat (supposedly a mixture of turkey and lamb) was dry, almost disconcertingly lacking in fat, and kind of flavorless. That said, the excellent toppings (including pickles, red cabbage, and marinated onions) brought the quality up considerably, and the spicy sauce was most excellent, indeed.

I’d definitely go back to Oasis – though the meat I had wasn’t great, I’m sure that the shish kebab or taouk would be better, and the mini-pizzas in the front case looked especially intriguing.

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Chancing Amanecer.

Continuing my search for a great and decently priced restaurant in the L.E.S., I and my roommate, along with another friend, went to El Nuevo Amanecer, at the corner of Stanton and Essex.  Actually, the original idea was to go to El Sombrero, but I convinced the gang to try Amanecer, which I’d heard somewhere was better.  Suffice to say that I am unable to summon much enthusiasm.

I ordered chicken enchiladas ($8), which arrived first under a layer of jack-like cheese – once this was removed, the actual chicken in the actual corn tortillas was quite nice – stewed with some kind of reddish sauce.  The beans adjoining the bright orange rice were much more Dominican than Mexican, but were well-cooked.  The dollop of guac was about the quality of the average Chinese-Mexican place.

My friend ordered a chimichanga ($8), which he described as “not as good as El Sombrero.”   He also complained about the percentage of white meat being lower than he’d have liked.  My roommate, having previously that day gorged himself on Taco Bell (what the…?), ordered the beef soup, which seemed like it could have come out of a Campbell’s can.  For $5, I again ask, “what the…?”

The real money was made for the restaurant in the margarita department – a standard-sized tumbler-full of cheap tequila and frozen stuff was $7.  I think they served it from a slushee machine, even.  Order yours “to go” and get it in a plastic cup, avec straw and classy brown bag.  Just the thing for a hot summer night, so long as the police don’t get wise.  Also, one was enough to get me a bit tipsy, so I guess they were cost-effective to a certain extent.

I suppose the prices weren’t awful, but there are better options for the price range, to be sure.  And the service was really surly, if that sort of thing bothers you.  The food wasn’t really that much different than the more-popular Sombrero, I thought, and it’s a far cry from what I’d consider “good” Mexican.  If you want a ‘rita before a show, though, I suppose you could do worse.

Speaking of shows, Gruff Rhys from the Super Furry Animals played a solo acoustic set at Tonic, and it was very good indeed.

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Kashkar superstars.

Last week I went back to Café Kashkar, armed with a group of friends with serious B-train-induced starvation.  As is our wont, we ate until we could not eat any more.  I didn’t have time to write this up before gallivanting off to California for the weekend, but Robyn fortunately was there to document it – her review more or less jibes with the one I would have written (the VERY DISAPPOINTING lamb ribs, especially – totally different than last time), and I’m additionally impressed that she wasn’t terrified by my friends.  Man-Voltron, indeed.  Also, her pictures ROCK.  Especially the one of my roommate – that cat is crazy.

I will say that the dumplings, both manty and samsa, were excellent and I wouldn’t go back without ordering them again (it helped that Ludwig was able to converse with the proprietor and discern that they were “fresh”).  And the geiro lagman, which is among the best noodle dishes I’ve ever had, impressed the hell out of everyone.  Kudos to the chefs, who we watched stewing the dish’s veggies and meat together in a pot that can only be described as “enormous.”

Next up on the group dinner tip is Spicy & Tasty, in Flushing, perhaps.

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Whole Paycheck?

Another day, another new New York food experience.  This time, it was a pre-movie bite at the Union Square Whole Foods salad bar type thing.  If you haven’t seen it (and I’m led to believe that I was the last person on earth who hadn’t), it’s a rather massive operation including some basic salad bar ingredients, some pasta and meat salads, more tofu than you can shake a skewer at (“whoop de damn do,” I exclaim, channeling Derrick Coleman), and some rather dodgy-looking Indian food.  Also available are sandwiches, focaccia laden like a pizza, various baked and fried chicken parts, and sushi.

The truth, as my friend explained, lies in knowing what the bargains are.  Unfortunately, he explained this to me AFTER I had spent $11 on a portion of food that in no way should have cost that much (the $2.20 beer eased my pain slightly, until I remembered that I was in a grocery store).  I remember the Stop & Shop salad bar being expensive, too, but…wow.  I still need to visit the Fairway Café, but I’m now wondering

Easing the pain slightly, two of my three options were good.  First pick was a chicken, walnut, and grape salad that would be more than welcome to inhabit my sandwich at any time this summer, even though the chicken (as always) was a little tough.  The other goodie was an unmarked (and freshly delivered) cold pasta with a hint of red sauce.  I think it had chunks of bland cheese in it (though it could also have been tofu – honestly, it was hard to tell, and there was only one chunk in my portion), and it certainly had grated parmesan on top.

I didn’t enjoy what was represented as “edamame succotash” – oily veggies that reminded me of something you’d put on a dry sandwich, in hell.  I guess I should have known from the name – it’s not succotash if it doesn’t have limas and corn, man.

I suppose the rule of thumb for any by-the-pound salad bar is this: things that have sauces or that have a high water content (think Indian, which is probably the most expensive of any food there, or the afore-mentioned edamame) are not going to give you the best bang for the buck.  Dry or lots-of-air stuff (Caesar salad or a relatively unladen pasta) might be better.

It wouldn’t be my first choice of places to eat regularly, but provided you get something that tastes good and isn’t a budget-buster, you’ll be okay.  Besides, there are a TON of cute girls (and guys) there – see and be seen.    

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