Saturday, February 23, 2013

What Jim Had For Dinner

I noted in my previous entry that "the general interest level in my food finds and opinions resembles Zagat's, circa 1985." And it's dawned on me that I'm addressing the people who'd likely be interested in hearing about those finds. So I'll dump some of my faves below.

Why such fits and starts? Understand: I'm deeply relieved to have been released from the obligation of relentlessly reporting every single find. Over time, that can get a bit surreal, and then exhausting, and, finally, maddening. As I blearily reported in the final installment of the "Chow Tour" I was sent on by my corporate overlords:
When I was assigned this project, my employer confirmed that I'd be entitled to weekends off, which helped the assignment seem more viable.

What was I thinking? Here's how it really went: I'd wake up on the morning of my supposed "day off." Before long, I'd grow hungry and head out to rustle up a bite. What do you suppose I was going to do, grab some Wendy's? No, I went out and chowhounded, of course. And, because I'd hate to miss good material, I'd grab camera, notebook, and recorder. And you know how the rest went. Off I'd go on adventures, tantalized by the hunt. days off!

But what is a day off from chowhounding? Eating poorly? This question haunted me throughout the trip. Even at the airport in Montreal with my stupid fajitas at a waiting-room bar, feeling as off-duty as I could possibly be, it was all still fodder for an unholy amalgam of work/play/life. There's a fine line (OK, no line whatsoever) between "the tour" and 1. other reporting I do, 2. the general chowconnaissance necessary to keep my knowledge up to date, and 3. my own personal life, given that we humans not only live to eat, but must, several times per day, eat to live...and I strongly resist doing so undeliciously.

All this troubled me in a way it never had before. The sheer intensity and staggering length of the assignment held a lens up to the chowhound's existential abyss. My friends keep asking me when the CHOW Tour will be over. I just stare glassily into space. I don't know how to explain to them that the CHOW Tour is never over.
Even so, every once in a while I should probably cough up an accounting. The following is a selection of places I'm currently fascinated with. It's not complete, but aiming for completion would toss me back into the aforementioned briar patch (plus, this list is already ungainly long), so the following will have to do. And if I attempted to write in a composed, thorough way about these spots, I'd never get this done. So I'm flinging the list at you in all its glaring, sloppy, first-draft, stream-of-consciousness rawness.

Note: This list jumps around, so you may want to read all the way thru (a lot are drive-worthy destinations, anyway)

Note: These are in the NYC Tristate region. I'll do a follow-up posting about nationally-available mail order favorites.

Note: The following are all great. Some are great only for certain things, in which case I've noted what those things are:

Genesis (538 W 207th St, Manhattan; 212-942-1222) is a known place, and well-rated....though still vastly underrated. It's not only the city's best Ecuadorian, it's one of the best restaurants, period. I dream of this place. There is a problem, however. This is the larger second location, and it will soon close as they consolidate back down to the smaller first place (at 511 West 181st Street). They promise to keep the good chef on, but last time I ate on 207th, it clearly was not the same chef's cooking. Instead of consistent 9s and 10s, everything was 8-ish. Still real good, but non-miraculous. So either the good chef was sick, or he's already moved back to 181st St, or something else is going on. Sussing such mysteries is part of chowhounding. Until it's resolved...caveat eater.

Same intersection: El Viejo Jobo (231 Sherman Ave, Manhattan; 212-567-5050) is about the best Dominican luncheonette I've found, for grandmotherly soul food like goat stew and pollo al caldero.

Same block: Los Compadres (524 W 207th St, Manhattan; 212-942-1300). I've never been (aforementioned Genesis is like a tractor beam), but the steam tables in the window are full of the most unbelievably home-ish looking Puerto Rican grandma soul food, including "pegao" (the rice that sticks to the pot).

On the same block, there's an Empanadas Guy with a cart at the southeast corner of Sherman and 207. The care he takes in all his items is near-heartbreaking. Very friendly, very cheap. Try everything, but don't miss the quipe (the Dominican variation on Lebanese kibbe).

Even better Dominican quipe is in Corona, at a hole-in-wall called Empanada Rosario (9807 37th Ave, Corona, Queens; 718-507-8668). Great roast chicken, too, and so, so friendly. Take-out only.

Tops on my radar (I haven't tried either yet, but both look fantastic): Upstairs at 319 5th Ave (enter on 32nd). is really trippy, minimal Korean Pub Pan, serving dinner only. Downstairs, Ishiama Japanese Restaurant is much higher class and has an interesting menu.

It's a Yelp favorite, but you don't hear much talk about Num Pang Sandwich Shop (140 E 41st St, Manhattan; 212-867-8889). Cambodians run it, and there are Southeast Asian touches, but, really, this is its own place. There's a vibe to the food here, and it begs further exploration (I've only scanned the surface, myself).

The Bengali Bread Ladies, who I've written about several times, at Tawa Deli Express (3738 72nd St, Jackson Heights, Queens; 718-457-7766) are still making their sublime roti, but the place, like the nabe, has been overrun by Nepalis. Here, it's an in-store concession with amazing momo (dumplings), either hot or frozen, and other Nepali dishes. If you can get them to make sweet/savory sel roti (no relationship to the Bengali bready roti; these are more like doughtnuts) to order, don't miss it, it's one of the best things you'll eat in NYC.

Best Pizza (33 Havemeyer Street between 7/8 718-599-2210) is another in the category of "not-unknown, yet still vastly underrated". I like it better than Difara's. I always get a slice each of whatever they've got set up on the counter. And the meatball parm heroes, made entirely scratch, are so good I don't get them much (1. I'm not deserving, 2. I don't ever want to get tired of them).

Lots of people know about Laziza Pastry in Astoria (at 23-78 Steinway, Astoria; 718-777-7676), but few seem to realize that the best/proudest/rarest item is Palestinian kunefeh. It's a whole different kunefeh than the usual stuff, revered in the Middle East, and is a very rare holy grail. Get them to heat your slice. It's pure bliss. Like many Palestinian businesses in NYC, they identify as "Jordanian", so I usually order it as "Jordanian kunefeh"...or, with a wink, the good kunefeh.

Grey Dog's Coffee 90 University Pl, Manhattan; 212-414-4739. Overcrowded, and many things underwhelm, but their cookies and brownies are killing.

Speaking of cookies, best I currently know are at sherry b dessert studio (65 King Street, Chappaqua, NY; 914-238-8300). It's painfully pretentious, and it's agonizingly expensive (both of which are telegraphed by the name's lower case), but if you can sell some old gear on eBay or take out a second mortgage on your house to cobble together sufficient cash to afford a cookie, you'll find it's actually worth it.

Mine is very much a minority opinion, but I like Schnippers better in just about every way than Shake Shack. Don't miss the green chili cheeseburger (really tastes like the southwest), the mahi mahi tacos, and the sweet potato fries. Good fancy milkshakes, too. I only know their location at 41st and 8th, but they have others.

Pecosa Bakery (2055 Front Street, East Meadow, Long Island) is a delightful Colombian bakery and lunch place (lunches are good-not-great). Best pastry is "casado", with caramel, guava paste, and cheese. Killerissimo.

In Westchester, Padamina's Brazilian Bakery (66 W Lincoln Ave, Mt Vernon, NY; 914-667-9101) is the only good local source for a holy grail: Brazilian biscoito de queijo, which are the ur-Cheetos.

Next door, J Lincoln Barbeque (68 W Lincoln Ave, Mt Vernon, NY; 914-665-8800) is scary, as it should be. It's a very very authentic refuge for Portuguese (not Brazilian, like the rest of the nabe) ex-pats, and does not pander to outsiders. They do serve meaty stuff (it'd only be labeled "bbq" in Portugal), best sampled on weekends when they do it outside over coals, but it's really an all-purpose Portuguese restaurant, and the most authentic one I know.

MINT (19 Main St, Tarrytown, NY; 914-703-6511) is such an oddball. It used to be a little "gourmet" store with takeout, but moved into a large space to include a real restaurant. The food is extraordinarily variable (never bad, but not always great). But the cheese counter up front has stuff you won't see elsewhere, such as Dutch potato cheese. They're generous with the tastes, especially if you show early on that you're actually going to buy stuff (always a chowhounding key). And the little gourmet-ish packaged items carelessly strewn around, which look like the usual gourmet shop food-kitsch, are actually mind-blowing. Lots of stuff that really oughtn't be here, such as Holland's best stroopwafels (Gilda's Gild), which you just don't find anywhere, Argan Oil from Morocco (a drop of it makes anything taste great), and an ever-shifting assortment of other mind-bending things, displayed and sold without the slightest fanfare. Closed Mondays.

Dante's Deli (429 Central Avenue, White Plains, NY; 914-946-3609) is a big deal in White Plains, but completely unknown outside. This is about as good an Italian deli as you ever need to find (arrive at peak lunch hour at your peril). I go crazy for their panini, especially roast veal panini with asiago, broccoli rabe, aged figs, and hot peppers. Jesus!

The only deli in their league is Mr. Sausage3 Union Place, Huntington; 631-271-3836), just off the main drag of Huntington Village (they have a satellite store in Elwood (2058 Jericho Turnpike, East Northport, NY; 631-486-4589). This is one of the few places I'll buy novelty ravioli. Rice balls are a huge specialty.

Favorite current corned beef hashes

Grandma's of Yorktown (3525 Crompond Rd. Yorktown Heights, NY; 914-739-7770)

Paradise Diner (579 Veterans Memorial Hwy Smithtown, NY)

Eveready Diner (90 Independent Way, Brewster, NY; 845-279-9009)

Community Food & Juice (2893 Broadway (112/113), Manhattan; 212-665-2800), corned beef hash is brunch only (though even better is the potato pancake w/Petrossian smoked salmon and caviar cream, and even better than that is the supernal butterscotch pudding).

Mikey's Burgers (134 Ludlow St 212-979-9211) makes burgers topped with corned beef hash. Canned, but, still....topped with corned beef hash!

Near the Paradise Diner, Tap and Barrel (550 Smithtown Bypass, Smithtown, NY; 631-780-5471) is an amazing and extremely out-of-place beer bar.

In the same shopping center as Eveready Diner, there's an even better beer bar tucked into a grocery store at Decicco's. They close early, though (when the store closes), but they have a high-tech growler system so you can take it with you.

Also close by, the best chicken parm rolls and eggplant parm rolls I know are at Aversano's (1620 Route 22 at rt 312, Brewster, NY 845-279-2233). Don't buy the rolls on Thursdays.

A few miles away, Stanziatto's (35 Lake Avenue Extension Danbury, CT; 203-885-1057) has excellent brick oven pizza and, again, a great beer selection.

A few miles even further east, Kabab Grill (35 White St, Danbury, CT; 203-205-2222) is the best North Indian/Pakistani in the tristate area. Zero ambiance, long wait times, sometimes spacey service, but...the food, oh, the food.

Best soul food I know in Bed-Stuy right now

Bed-Stuy Fish Fry (801 Halsey Street 347-405-9820) makes insane fish sandwiches, excellent mac and cheese, collards with neck bones (like pulled bbq), good ice tea, corn muffins are real (and better than they look). Sparkling and friendly and fresh and great food, but service is absolutely insanely inefficient and the dining area is, shall we say, a bit raw.

Halsey Street Grill (260 Halsey St, Brooklyn; 347-365-5075). Like the nabe itself, this place doesn't know if it's a down-home soul food parlor or a glimmering all-purpose yuppie takout grill. At the intersection between the two lies turkey wings, which are unbelievably great (and I'm not a big fan of turkey wings). Very friendly.

I need to check out Ma N Pop Soul Food (349 Lewis Avenue, Brooklyn; 718-574-6735) further. It's the polar opposite of Halsey Street Grill and its broad, intensely lit field of takeout options. Here there's only a severely limited, outsider-unfriendly menu (hamhocks, neck bones, etc), and one single reasonably nice lady (whose feet appear to ache) slowly making it all happen, one order at a time. But the place, which is only partially transitioned from its former life as a barbershop, conveys some shimmering joy. I once had baked chicken here with mesmerizingly deep flavor.

The Brooklyn Rectangle

Hidden on St. Marks Place between 4th and 5th Avenues is Die Koelner Bierhalle, a cavernous German bier hall that will make you feel like you're in Hamburg. They pour dozens of fine and obscure german lagers on tap (note: when I say "obscure", I say so as a die-hard beer geek; here's their tap list), serve some decent food (from an open kitchen). Downside is the noise level (it's a booming space with hard surfaces) and slow service (they get crushed at peak hours). Settle in and drink a Zwick'l Kellerbier from a pewter boot. It's light, bright, and quenching, yet so very deep and alive. I wrote a few months ago about a twilight state I'd sunk into after having drank a couple of Bud Lites in a painful bar. For days, I couldn't enjoy beer. I broke that curse here, drinking a Zwick'l Kellerbier.

Nearby is 4th Avenue Pub (76 Fourth Ave 718-643-2273). Other beer aficionado bars have much wider selection, but here you'll find a relatively modest number of carefully, lovingly chosen taps. And service is just so friendly. I've learned, from places like this, that you never want to drink in a town's first-tier famous beer places. The servers in those places are always arrogant, and the vibe is always joyless. (Yes, I do mean "always". There are no exceptions.) The 2nd and 3rd tier places are for me, and 4th Avenue Pub is a sterling example of why.

Pacific Standard (82 4th Ave Brooklyn, 718-858-1951), just down the block, is less friendly and more hipstered out. But they do offer different sorts of beers (mostly hoppy west coast products). Good for variety.

South Brooklyn Pizza (64 4th Ave, Brooklyn; 718-399-7770) is much better than it looks. I really like their pizza.

Just up and around on Atlantic Avenue is Nunu Chocolates (529 Atlantic Ave 718-834-1818), which makes incredible chocolate, pours a few esoteric beers (a couple of taps and a scattering of bottles, but all "WTF??" level exotica, carefully chosen), and makes beer/chocolate combos, and all sorts of other great bizarre chocolate things, including some of NYC's best hot chocolate. Cool relaxing little shop.


Dave said...

Wow! Thanks.

Anonymous said...

Just a correction: from the street address and phone number (and neighborhood description) I would guess that the Tawa Deli Express is in Queens (Jackson Heights?) not Manhattan.

Jim Leff said...

Thanks, fixed!

Does anyone see any other problems? As I said in the intro, I did this pretty sloppily, but I don't want to completely confuse anybody....

And I'll happily answer questions (or entertain arguments or other tips) here in the comments...

rajeev joshi said...

i second the wow.


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