Monthly Archives: June 2006

Bushwick observations and gastronomic sensations.

“Bullet Bushwick.”  At least, that’s what my friend Izzy used to call it.  It was usually as a punch line to some kind of commentary about how his financial circumstances would lead him to only be able to afford to live out past the warehouses on the “L” train – somehow ignoring other, less reputation-laden neighborhoods that lie on outer segments of other trains. (In fact, I believe he lives there now, or at close by, in the totally bullsh*t realtor fantasyland of “East Williamsburg.”)  This kind of leaden nickname from a native New Yorker who spends a lot of time in South Jamaica videotaping slap-boxing competitions was certainly enough to inspire curiosity, though perhaps not a great deal of eagerness in terms of organizing a visit.

My first visit to the neighborhood took place yesterday, in fact, in pursuit of total information awareness about local Mexican restaurants.  I need to do the spying because I’m taking a group to De Guererros next week and needed to be sure that what they serve is at least comparable to the places on the infamous list.  El Paisa, at number 66, was my destination.

As you get off the train at DeKalb Avenue (love how the same street names can carry you from Junior’s nearly to Queens), you’ll notice that Wyckoff Avenue (the main drag and the street which covers the L in this neighborhood) has a bustling little commercial strip on it that trails off as you go down the hill.  Coincidentally (or probably not) the downhill direction leads back towards the warehouse district, Office Ops, and lofts that seem, upon party-related visits two years ago, totally amazing, but are probably actually quite nasty to live in.  I walked two or three blocks downhill and hung a left on Suydam St.  A block later, I found the teeming Bushwick Park and, across the street, the practically-empty El Paisa.

Maybe some folks were grabbing takeout and going to check out the very active basketball courts – my presence and intention to stay and eat was noted with some bemusement, and my negotiations with the waitress took place at the intersection of my twenty or so words of Spanish and her probably twenty-five of English (her English being the better of the two, at any rate).  How much do I wish I knew Spanish?  Without begrudging my German any, a whole heck of a lot.

I ended up with one taco each of al pastor and carne enchilada ($2.25 a piece), as well as a plate of chilaquiles in the green flavor.  The tacos came first – the tortillas, as insinuated by Mr. Sietsema, are perfectly great (important, too, for the chilaquiles).  The meats…well…the meats were probably a half-step down from Pio Maya on a bad day, and it was tough to figure out which pork was which.  The al pastor couldn’t touch De Guerreros’ with a ten-foot tamale – where the Guerreros version was tender and perfectly flavored, El Paisa’s was relatively flavorless and crunchy in the way that suggested either inexpert cooking or (more likely) unfortunate reheating.  Carne enchilada seemed kind of like a less-flavorful version of Pio Maya’s chorizo, while retaining and worsening the textural issues that arise from the reheating (the fatty portions don’t re-render correctly, for instance).

The chilaquiles ($7-ish) was better, but not nearly possessing of the level of fire I expected.  The waitress made sure to check and see that I knew the dish was spicy before giving the chef the order, and it STILL was mild.  Maybe there was a miscommunication – it certainly wasn’t swimming in green sauce like the Guerreros version was, and perhaps they went easy on me regardless.  It is available with a red sauce, and with meat, chicken, or eggs chucked on top (I went with chicken, which was a good choice).  Interestingly, at the bottom of the plate were some extremely bitter greens that didn’t mesh well with the rest of the dish – evidence of the leftovers-catch-all genesis of the dish, I suppose.

Walking along Bushwick Park towards Starr Street after the meal, I noticed the housing stock take a turn for the dilapidated.  Indeed, along Starr Street between the park and Wyckoff, and along the section of Wyckoff near the Jefferson St. stop, the houses are as poorly maintained (in general) as any I’ve seen anywhere in NYC, including poor sections of Bed-Stuy and Rockaway.  This is not to say that the whole end of the nabe is like that (having not explored further, I’m in no position to comment), but given how close the block is to both subway and park, it was surprising to note the lack of reconstruction.

On the other hand, I met a woman this past weekend who said she lived until recently at the Jefferson St. stop – she said it was “scary” but did not offer any evidence, and she was hardly the type that realtors describe as “risk-oblivious youth.”  It seems Bushwick’s bark may be worse than its bite – kind of like El Paisa’s chilaquiles.

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Eats, records at EAT Records.

Ever been shopping for records on a hot, sticky weekend day and wish you could just take a quick pause midway through the “J” section and have a bite?  The owners of EAT Records, on Meserole Street in Greenpoint, hope so, as they’ve morphed over the last year or two from dusty and disorganized record store to slightly less dusty and slightly more organized record store with a café and limited brunch and lunch menu.  Never before have hipsters’ arty musical pretensions and egalitarian refueling instincts collided in such an interesting fashion.

I hear your skepticism.  Impossible to combine music and food, you say, without poorly executing one area or the other?  Not for these guys, whose record selection varies from visit to visit from “excellent” to “sublime.”  One visit produced a $20 copy of the ultra-rare Bob Seger album “Back in ’72,” while another’s difficulty was in choosing between a green vinyl copy of the Iggy Pop/James Williamson post-Stooges effort “Kill City” for $10, and an original US Capitol pressing (with rare insert) of Kraftwerk’s “Radio-Activity” for $13.  If all this detailed record nonsense makes your eyes roll back in your head, just know that, like most of the restaurants I review, they have things you can’t get in Manhattan at prices that are usually significantly easier on the wallet.

And, while the food selection is not extensive, what’s there is appealing.  I tried the tuna melt ($5), which betters the average diner’s variety by including red peppers and capers(!) in the tuna, and using a real piece of cheese (probably a mild cheddar) instead of the fake stuff.  It was sided, pleasingly, with a few freshly fried slices of potato (the menu indicates “chips” but these are more like home fries), some blueberries and a couple watermelon wedges (manna on a day like Sunday, where the temperature climbed to summer levels by lunchtime.

The menu also includes egg and pork delivery devices (in an upset, it’s not a veggie or fishitarian kitchen), at least one other melted sandwich, and the specials board had a freakin’ frittata on it yesterday – seems ambitious!  Need a jolt of coffee to keep yourself awake while browsing the (relatively Mantovani-free) dollar bins?  They’ve got it.  If you’ve already gorged yourself on the excellent Polish food in the area, and just need some kind of sweet in lieu of an entire meal, EAT usually has some kind of fresh-baked cookie available, too.  

When I left yesterday, some folks had set up on the table in the window with a game of Scrabble, tossing their record-purchases aside to drink iced coffees and engage in awkwardly witty banter.  I can’t think of any other place where this sort of thing is possible, can you?


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Gut, besser, Gösser.

Last night’s dinner, a group affair at Park Slope’s Café Steinhof, was probably more notable for its beer than its food.  That’s not to say that the food at Steinhof is bad – quite the contrary.  But there’s still a great thrill for me in being able to drink Goesser, one of the best national Austrian beers, “vom Fass” (on tap).  Thus, the evening (which ended in the watching of the second half of game 3 of the NBA Finals at a bar on 5th Avenue) turned into more of a mid-week cocktail hour than a meal worthy of the title of the blog.

That said, the food at Steinhof is almost as good as I’d remembered from the last time I was there (at least a year and a half ago).  The menu hasn’t changed much, if at all – the Kaesespaetzle is still the first dish on the entrée menu.  Unfortunately, particularly given how much I’ve plugged this comfort food to others, I was a bit disappointed – they’ve replaced their stinky Swiss or Swiss-like cheese with something blander.  Without the extra olfactory kick, the spaetzle doesn’t sparkle as much.  Nonetheless, two other at the table besides me were quite satisfied.

We were also quite satisfied with 90% of the cheese and charcuterie platter, the exception being the really terrible (even cat-food-like) pate.  The rest of the meats and cheeses and other goodies were quite nice, though I was surprised that the pickled red cabbage tasted like it had Japanese salad dressing on it (as it turns out, so did the salad that accompanied the spaetzle.

The bread dumplings (on the entrée menu, though we ordered them as an app) were also lovely – seemingly homemade and probably using the leftovers of the black and white bread basket that was plopped on our table (for the record, the bread isn’t quite stiff enough, but it’s serviceable).  With the dumplings swimming in a cream sauce with mushrooms, the forks flew fast and furious to the center of the table.

I heard good reports about the orecchiette (seemingly more Italian) and the chicken paprika (a Hungarian import), but did not taste them.  I did taste a chunk of the pork (Wiener) schnitzel, which was large, but not this large (scroll down).  The flavor was less traditional schnitzel and more breadcrumb-y, but it was relatively grease-free (for once), and I liked it nonetheless.

Viennese iced coffee was served last, and was basically a shameless delivery device for schlagobers (whipped cream).  If there’s anything I miss terribly about Austria, it’s the coffeehouses – stately, formal, perfect places to while away the hours with a newspaper.  I can’t say I’d mind doing the same at Café Steinhof’s bar, actually – and I can read the newspaper much more easily over here.    


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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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