Friday, March 4, 2016

Wonderful, Wonderful Woodside Avenue

In order to get this out there during a busy time in my Real Life, I didn't do much proofreading or polishing. Consider this an informal data dump.

The most intriguing short stretch of road I currently know is Woodside Avenue in Queens (one side of the street is in Woodside, the other in Elmhurst, complicating web searches). I'll focus today on three extraordinarily good, friendly restaurants serving seriously rare cuisines (Bhutanese, Indonesian, and Bolivian). All three deserve individual treatment, but this is not a food blog, so I have no aspirations of thoroughness.

Bhutanese Ema Datsi (67-21 Woodside Ave 718-458-8588) is the only Bhutanese restaurant to open in the Tristate area during my lifetime, and a quick Google search seems to confirm my suspicion that this is the only entirely Bhutanese restaurant in America, and perhaps in the western hemisphere. That would be enough, but it's also great. And friendly. What's more, while you'd expect Bhutan to be a slightly different inflection on Tibetan and Nepali-style cooking, nyuh-uh. Befitting the country's isolated geography, it's totally its own thing. The only culinary connection I make is to Jamaica, of all places, because the combination of tangy cheese (the Bhutanese are even more cheese-crazed than middle-Americans) and searing peppers is a dead ringer for Jamaican scotch bonnet mac-n-cheese.

I've fallen into habitual ordering there, only because this combination works so great:

Puta noodles - originally ordered because I was dining with native Spanish speakers who couldn't stop howling with laughter at the name (and, yes, the pasta puttanesca jokes have already been done). They're buckwheat, very soba-like, but there's also some numbing Sichuan peppercorn action in there, which makes little sense, geographically.

Dried beef with string beans (I forgot the Bhutanese name)

Keyroa Datsi - "Datsi" is the class of dishes available in different configurations that every cuisine seems to feature. It's a garlicky, chili-hot cheese sauce. Ema datsi, the national dish and the restaurant's namesake, is the default choice, and it's largely just the sauce (which absolutely deserves to stand on its own). Shamo datsi, with mushrooms, is damned tasty. But keyroa datsi has potatoes. Nuff said.

Tingmo (Tibetan steamed bread) and momo (Nepali dumplings) are both better than at restaurants specializing in their respective cuisines. The Bhutanese touch is a good touch.

Note: I called this an "entirely Bhutanese restaurant" even though they offer Tibetan, Nepali,and Indian dishes, because 1. it's flamingly Bhutanese (the name is literally "Bhutanese Ema Datsi"), and 2. those other things seem to be almost condescendingly offered, the way a diner might include a pasta section (I'm sure those dishes are great, though; the chef's a magician).

Upi Jaya Indonesian (76-04 Woodside Ave, Elmhurst, NY; 718-458-1807; closed Mondays

This was once my favorite Indonesian restaurant in New York, but it's been on a long downhill jag. On the other hand, they started out so lofty that they're still a very worthy eat, especially given how hard it is to find good Indonesian. Compared to other local choices, I prefer a downhill Upi Jaya to the others in their prime (though my heart belongs to Hardena, the Philly restaurant run by the former chef of the Indonesian consulate basement cafeteria which I featured in my first book).

Also, they do a great version of melinjo krupuk (a.k.a. emping), a hard-to-find fave of mine: crispy crackers made from bitter nuts.

I'm putting Renacer Bolivian Restaurant 67-03 Woodside Ave 718-476-2200, closed Tuesdays) third, to make room for photos (please click on each for the full porn). I ate there last night amid a mad screaming, dancing, singing scene of football madness, but the sheer quality of the food lifted me through the ordeal.

The mountainous Incan-descended cuisines of South America are all similar, so you taste lots of flavors familiar from Peruvian and Ecuadorian cooking, but there's a special touch. In all these countries, the mountain food is a whole different creature than the coastal food, and this place specializes in the former.

They were out of the potato soups I was hoping for (Chairo, freeze-dried potato soup, and Sopa de Locro cheesey potato soup) but we enjoyed the hell out of sopa de mani, ultra-creamy peanut and potato soup studded with shreds of carrot, curiously perfectly bisected green peas, and topped with french fries, unceremoniously dumped on like Paul Bunyon's potato sticks.

Salteñas are baked empanadas. They're sweet and oniony/raisiny like Chilean, but these guys also add mustard (I'm not sure how much of a Bolivian thing that is). Good pastry here.

Falso Conejo "False Rabbit" made with very thin, breaded fillets of beef topped with a sophisticated sauce studded with yellow peppers. As with the Italian dish of the same name (a connection I don't understand; Bolivia's not like Argentina or Uruguay, with their large Italian populations): they're not imitating rabbit so much as treating meat with sauce you'd normally use with rabbit.

Majao Cambita: tendrils of dried beef cooked into rice, along with onions, yellow plantains and egg. A seemingly random aggregation of foods, but this is deep Bolivian soul food, and it all works beautifully together. Sorry for the dark photo; I figure it's better than nothing.

Charquekan The stand-out. Dried beef - teased into frayed cords fried to a nearly glass-like crunchiness, served atop mote (big boiled hominy corn) with boiled potatoes, boiled egg (a whole boiled egg, in its shell), and blocks of (very good) cheese. At this point I've remembered to turn on the flash. Definitely click to expand that shot.

As a side, we ordered Chuño , dark mountain potatoes, which are alien-looking. Served very plain on a dish.

Spudophilia compels me to note that the boiled white potatoes included as afterthoughts amid some of the juicier entrees were splendid. Cooked not to the right point, but to the right nano-second, they were silken and somehow subtly different in every application. Bolivia is for potato lovers.

Moqochinchi is a refreshing drink of dried peaches and cinnamon. Order a pitcher.

Api is a purple corn drink, like Peruvian chicha morada, only here it's served infernally hot, murdered with big hunks of terrifying spices (you can see some spiky spear of something emerging from the muck) and thick as pancake batter. Delicious, but a not-in-Kansas (NIK) experience.

Dessert evoked deep contemplation. Huminta sounds like a misspelling of "humita", the Ecuadorian word for tamal. And, indeed, this is steamed in corn husks. But the interior, which is tamal-ish coarse corn studded with some cheese, had a different flavor and texture than anything I've ever eaten. Really, it could have been from, like, Bhutan. It took a couple dozen bites before I realized what it reminded me of: cake. Humintas are more like cake than cake itself. Don't ask me to explain, I'm powerless on this one. Go try it, and you try to explain!

We hit most of the purely Bolivian menu items, but, alas, didn't get any Pikacapas Cochabambinas, red-topped slighly spicy, cheese-filled round empanadas popular during Carnival.

Other Woodside Avenue Fascination

The fact that Ayada Thai (7708 Woodside Ave 718-424-0844) merits a mere honorable mention speaks to the stupendous fascination of this stretch of road. Ayada once served me perhaps the best dish I ate in all of 2010, but only one subsequent version has been its equal.

I've never given Spicy Shallot (77-05 Woodside Ave 718-672-5266) a proper try, though I jotted down at one point that they offer homemade sun-dried sausage. Khao Kang (76-20 Woodside Ave 718-662-8721) is another Thai I need to explore more. I guess Ayada Thai acts like Jupiter, its substantial gravity repelling lesser objects.

At the other end of the Avenue, near Roosevelt Avenue, Cuckoo’s Nest (6104 Woodside Ave) is reputed to make excellent burgers and curry fries, and Ottomanelli runs a renowned butcher shop at 6105 Woodside Ave and an equally renowned burger place at 60-15 Woodside Ave. Finally, of course, the legendary H Mart/HanAhReum Korean supermarket at 59-18 Woodside Ave

I hasten to add that there's a LOT more goodness in this stretch. I've only just begun. But with three Jupiters in this planetary system (not even counting Ayada), it's going to be awfully slow exploration.

Alert readers may have noted that dried beef was an important ingredient in both the Bhutanese and the Bolivian. You'd imagine they might agree to share a source. But, curiously, even amid the extreme melting pot of NY restaurants, I've only seen one single food item jointly sourced by multiple ethnicities: Korean dduk and Taiwanese rice cakes are considered interchangeable by both parties. Just that one instance!


Peter C said...

Jim, have you tried the Gyuma (blood sausage) at Ema Datsi? One of the best things ever.

No order is complete without it.

James Leff said...

No, need to try it! Looks a little like the (Colombian) version at Seba Seba on N. Blvd.

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