Sunday, September 28, 2008

Taco Chulo

Priya, Jonathan, and I met for dinner in south Williamsburg and, after some wandering, ended up at Taco Chulo, on Grand near Havemeyer. It seemed like it was getting busy, but we got a seat without waiting.

And then proceeded to wait. And wait, and wait. We looked over the menu and weren't very excited by it--we didn't see anything that appeared to be worth the price they were charging for it. Chips were $2 (plus $1 for salsa, I think) per basket! (shouldn't a restaurant be giving these fairly inexpensive items away like bread?). A michelada was $3 more than a regular beer! At most places it's the same price, or MAYBE a dollar more (all it is is a beer with a glass of ice, some salt, and lime juice). The entrees all looked like they were maybe $1-2 more than they really ought to be.

We were wrapped up in conversation or we might have simply left without placing orders beyond the drinks and chips we'd ordered when we sat down. (I had an horchata, which tasted more of "red cinnamon" than "brown cinnamon", probably meaning it was overcinnamoned?) Fifteen minutes went by, and no waitress appeared to take our orders. Finally, a gentleman (maybe the manager) saw us craning our necks and came over and took our order, apologizing and saying, "She's really busy right now, we just got slammed, lots of phone orders..." (the place was full but not packed, from what I saw).

And again we waited...and waited...and waited. Forty-five more minutes went by with no sign from the kitchen--no food, no waitress coming by to check on drink refills...our $3 basket of chips was long since emptied and we didn't want to pay for another. My stomach growled.

Jonathan espied an almost-full basket of chips on a nearby empty table and, without warning, jumped up and made for it. Too late, Priya and I saw that the girls who had been there had left their purses on their seats--they were just having a cigarette or something. We yelled, "Jonathan!" but someone was quicker--the manager guy made a beeline for him and barked, "Sir! Sir! Those women are still here." (no idea why he was so attentive to that kind of thing, yet couldn't be bothered to check on our food).

Jonathan covered well. He muttered something about how we had dared him to do something, and he was just joking. He returned to the table, abashed, and we continued to sit.

Caputo randomly arrived and sat with us. He ordered some tacos and beer. After more than an hour's wait, our food showed up (and Caputo's came not too much later). The people next to us had been seated, ordered, eaten, and left by the time our food had come at all. there was no explanation, no "we'll throw you guys some chips or drinks" or anything.

and the food was fairly standard. I had opted for a pork taco, which was flat-out okay. nobody else seemed very impressed, either. no pictures because it was dim, and anyway the food wasn't really worth discussing in detail.

won't be returning.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Kabab Cafe

Sam, Erum, Priya, Sirin, and I (and Sam & Erum's not-quite-six-month-old cutie Nooria) had planned to venture to Queens for Sripraphai tonight, but a phone call to make reservations revealed that it was closed for the next seven days for vacation! That's the second time in the immediate past that our plans for awesome Thai were scuttled at the last moment.

We decided to take advantage of the opportunity to go to a place we'd long wanted to try--Kabab Cafe in the Little Egypt section of Astoria. My Arabic instructor, Ustaz Ahmad, had exhorted us to try some restaurants in the area, so I was sort of doing homework as well.

When we entered the Kabab Cafe, I was immediately struck by how tiny it was. We knew it was going to be small, but three tables? To make things odder, there was nobody inside. In the dimly lit, oddly decorated space, squeezed behind a tiny counter, an old Egyptian man with a beret eyed us balefully. I guessed it was Ali El Sayed, and I was kind of trepidatious...chowhound and yelp and other food sites are full of stories about his moodiness, and since this was the kind of restaurant in which you basically throw your fate into the palm of the chef's hand, a bad-mood day might mean a crappy meal.

Thankfully, Ali greeted us warmly (I mean, we were the only people in his restaurant, so he kind of had to be nice to us), and immediately helped us find a place for Nooria and her stroller. Once we were settled, he came over to talk to us about what we might want to eat. Salads? Appetizers? Vegetarian? Meat? (he said he had everything--chicken, beef, lamb, goat, duck, rabbit) Fish? We decided to skip the fish--it seemed expensive from poking around online--and ordered an array of meat and vegetable dishes. A little nervous about not seeing any prices or even being clear on what the specific foods were, we needed a moment to talk things out and he graciously stepped aside. I got the impression that he was not the disorganized, explosive auteur he was often made out to be--he knew exactly what to ask to find out what we wanted, was genuinely offered us everything he had available, and wasn't offended when we needed to nerd out a little and strategize about our choices. He's seen it a million times from extraborough foodbloggers, I'm sure. Once we'd ordered, the food began to come out and (as the restaurant had begun to fill up) we found ourselves pressed for space. Ali advised that we eat everything on a dish quickly when he put it down so he could put down another. Okay.

We began with a double order of mezze featuring baba ghanoush, hummus, ful moudammas dip (pureed fava beans), and falafel. It really began the meal with a bang--the baba ghanoush had the most noticeable wood-smoked flavor I've ever tasted in the dish, and it wasn't over the top at all. The hummus was very fine, and the fava bean dip was the best of all--lemony, rich, and tangy. But the falafel...probably the best I've ever had. The balls were teardrop-shaped, not round, and neither greasy nor overfried, with a flavor more pronounced and less pasty than any I've had before. I've heard that Ali makes them with fava beans, and I think that I can no longer say that bright green Israeli falafel is the best way to do it. I also liked the crispy-fried greens--kale?--that added a great texture to the creamy dips.

We asked for both of the salads on the menu--beet salad and artichoke hearts salad. I wasn't expecting too much from these. I hadn't read much about them, and beet salad can be excellent, but it's usually pretty simple...throw some goat cheese, nuts, and beets together, hope you have good-quality ingredients, and charge 12 bucks for it. And artichoke hearts? 99% of the time, they're from a jar, pickled, boring, not artichokey at all. I should've had faith, though--both of these salads were fantastic. The beets were tiny--nickel- and quarter-sized--and mixed with apple slices, caramelized onion hearts and garlic, and sprigs of fresh dill, with a dusting of Egyptian spices and viniagrette. The artichoke hearts were clearly cut from real, house-roasted artichokes, big C-shaped spears of solid artichoke meat, sometimes with a tiny charred leaf still attached. Mixed with chopped tomatoes, orange peppers, basil leaves, grilled onions, and lemon dressing (and also dusted with a fine coating of za'atar), the salad was what I always wish "artichoke heart" salads would be (though they never are).

The next item up was the sweetbreads, sauteed in a lemon sauce. I'd really pushed for these, and everyone else seemed kind of iffy about them, but I'd never had sweetbreads before and had heard (from Wooh) that the offal at Kabab Cafe was not to be missed. I gotta say that Wooh was right. They were delicious--soft and chewy in a way that makes you think that maybe you're eating a piece of fat at first, but then the fattiness giving way to a real meat chew and flavor, finishing with a very rich, proteiny taste, kind of like foie gras melting in your mouth. Again this was mixed with peppers and onions and basil and a delicious thin dressing, which Sam continued to scoop up and eat long after everyone had abandoned the fried thymus glands to me.

Another must-have item was the kafta (the closest thing the menu had to "kababs"; when we asked about kebabs, he dismissed us with a wave of his hand, saying "That just means meat. Meat!"). We had been hoping for chicken, but no dice--only beef. That was fine with me. The kafta was kind of like heavily spiced meatballs, grilled over fire rather than baked in an oven, with beefy juices soaking the rice below to such a degree of deliciousness that Priya exclaimed about it. Much better than the Lebanese kafta I used to eat regularly at the Reef Cafe in Allston!

We decided we didn't want little lamb chops, but we did want lamb, so we got a date-stuffed breast of lamb with a ridge of dark mallow greens (I think) tucked around it and a smear of labneh cheese on top. Perfectly cooked to the point of extreme tenderness and highly flavored, we only wished it had more of the meaty part. I was pretty happy gnawing the fatty meat off the bones, though. And I didn't see any whole dates--I think they were more in the glaze/sauce than "stuffing".

Next Ali brought us two vegetable dishes: the moussaka (less liquidy and more flavorful than the Lebanese version I've eaten before, and much preferably to the Greek version with its ground meat and layers of cheese) and kushari. I'd been hoping Ali would offer us kushari, and when he did I pounced on it and ordered it. One of Egypt's big "national dishes", kushari is a gross-sounding mixture of rice, macaroni, lentils, tomato sauce, and charred onions that comes out absolutely delicious when made by the right person. I guess Ali was that person. It had a sweet, powerful flavor that was enhanced by the whole cinnamon sticks stewed in with the makings, and the dark color and delectable flavor of the macaroni made me wonder how on earth he did it without sauteeing them in beef grease.

Still feeling a little hungry, we put in a late order for a half chicken cooked with vegetables, and that provided a sort of dessert for us. The cafe's trademark char was evident all over the dish, and thinly-sliced potatoes on the side were steeped in the juices that were flowing from the dark-brown, well-marinated grilled chicken as it lay over rice. While enjoyable, the dish was, at heart, chicken with grilled peppers and zucchini and onions, so I wasn't overly impressed. But as marinated grilled chicken goes, it was near the top.

We all lowballed our guesses on the bill, which came out to $135 (including $5 for 5 bottles of water--Ali refused to give out tap water). With tip, it was still only a little over $30 each, which isn't a "cheap eat", but is nowhere near what a similar meal would cost in a more conventional sit-down restaurant. And we'd BYOBed, drinking Lillet mixed with water and pear cider, so we didn't have alcohol expenses.

All told, a great meal that lasted a few hours and didn't cost so very much.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Five Guys burgers

It's unfortunate when some local stores close to make way for a chain outlet--usually a cell-phone store or bank or something else interminably boring--but I heard a lot of excitement from people that some less-flashy businesses had closed in Park Slope to make way for a Five Guys Burgers & Fries. Lots of excitement in the best-burger-ever vein...and this for a chain? Anyway, with its recent opening, I had to try it, so I went before a co-op shift...

The restaurant was surprisingly empty--I'd thought it might be packed at 7pm with people eating burgers. I was second in line and placed my order pretty quickly. Then I stood and watched while they cooked my burger to order, assembled it, and passed it on to the bagger and fry-guy. Apparently they were going for an In-and-Out Burger-like "made to order" thing. So good so far.

But my burger continued to sit, waiting for fries. And sit. And sit. They fry-guy would take out a fresh basket of fries and immediately use the whole basket to fill the three-fry order of a big beefy guy getting sacks of food for his construction buddies. Then the next order had Cajun spices on it, so the next basket was spiced and thrown in the Cajun tray. It took ten to fifteen minutes before I got fed up (and started hearing numbers AFTER mine being called) and said something, and the guy apologized and said that he hadn't seen my bag in the back.

Kind of annoying experience, but the burger was still in pretty good shape. I'd gotten a simple cheeseburger (it comes with two patties; you can also get a "little burger" with one) with free toppings of grilled mushrooms and onions. I also got the smallest fries they had (which were huge) and the smallest soft drink. They didn't have any kind of combo meal--all a la carte. Total? $12.50. For burger, fries, and drink, all as simple as possible.

I'm not sure that this qualifies as "fast" food, nor as inexpensive food. But the burger was really delicious--kind of Shake Shacky, with a fast-food style bun and non-crappy beef with really good flavor. Too many fries, and I don't much like the kind with the peels left on, but they were good and clearly quality stuff.

I might be back, but is it really better than Bonnie's, for about the same price factoring in tax and tip? Eh.

Friday, September 5, 2008


Priya let it slip that she did not know how to pick and clean a lobster, and, since there's a seafood distributor right near my school in Chinatown that sells live ones not too expensively, I thought lobster would make a good first-week-of-school dinner.

the previous night, I made Rhode Island clam chowder in preparation--didn't even have to use chicken broth, because the clams were enough. Priya picked up some surprisingly delicious corn and bread, and I bought two half-pound lobsters (softer shell, for about 7.50 per pound--$24 total) and raced home as they wilted in the heat. they were still wiggling when I popped them into the pots to steam.

great dinner. lobster is really delicious for how simple it is. I'm also at the point at which I know how to get the delicious knobs of body meat out--at a big lobster dinner, as everyone's throwing their bodies away, Mary Tess and I will fight over them and end up with four, five bodies each, bursting with meat that usually gets thrown away by people unwilling to crack open the ribcage.

Priya was a little discomfited by the whole operation, but ignored the prickliness of the shells and gamely cleaned the bugs as per my instructions. she also enjoyed the clam chowder, I think, despite her worrying beforehand.

goodbye summer!

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

West Indian Labor Day parade in Crown Heights

as I did last year, I went over to Amanda's place in Crown Heights to watch the West Indian Labor Day parade down Eastern Parkway (which is one block from her). we met up after wandering around in huge crowds for a while and began to buy food items to eat. I got:

bottle of sorrel for $3
bottle of mauby for $3
jerk pork with rice and vegetables for $6
goat roti for $7
quenepas for $2

the sorrel was slushy-frozen and delicious, and I've had it a lot before, but something about the taste was more familiar than it should be...eventually I looked it up online and yes, it's one and the same with the hibiscus ("jamaica") agua frescas I've had at Mexican places! the West Indian one is thicker and sweeter, while the agua frescas are always choked with ice and more fruit-punchy.

the jerk pork was OK. Jason bought a container from the same place I did and got all fat and skin, while I got a lot of really good meat chunks. it wasn't quite spicy or sauced enough, though, and instead of cabbage they gave us basically carrots and green beans and corn frozen mixture. pfeh.

the goat roti was also delicious, but not as good as the ones from Stir It Up on Atlantic Ave. also, I know the bones are the best part, but sometimes I wish I'd just gotten a chickpea roti so I could eat it like a burrito instead of picking through it with a fork.

the mauby was really interesting. I've probably ordered it a dozen times at West Indian places and they're always "out", but there it was in a cooler for three bucks. It was pale golden in color, like apple juice, and really sweet at first, but swiftly giving way to a prolonged bitter aftertaste. very strange flavor combo of sweet + bitter, but I did finish the bottle and make steps toward getting used to it.

the quenepas were a good little snack, sweet globules, better than lychees, in lime-like rinds. I even got a twin-seed, which I think for women means they'll one day have twins.

Sorry my pictures were so terrible--there were like 3 million people pushing and I had5 food items in my arms and was eating standing up and, well, they are what they are. (I took the quenepas pics when I got home, since I couldn't finish them there).

Roebling Tea Room

I live maybe 40 feet from the Roebling Tea Room and, despite its interesting menu, I'd not yet been. It always seemed so crowded for brunch, a bit expensive for regular dinner...on Sunday, unwilling to venture far, Priya and I went there for brunch and found that Labor Day had cleared the crowds out tremendously.

Things had changed a bit since Priya's last visit...the quirky antique saltshakers at each table had been repeatedly stolen by hipsters and were now replaced by regular ol' dented steel-topped glass shakers. I got excited about the "bone marrow breakfast" and asked the waitress about it, and she said they were out. I pressed her--"What IS it, exactly?"--and she couldn't tell me. Pulling over another waitress, the two of them figured out that perhaps it was bone marrow spread on toast, with an egg. But they didn't have it. In fact, they never really had it. Evidently, it's just one of those things that ends up on a menu to make it look more sophisticated, but no one ever really orders it. (Once in Maine, my dad ordered grits, hearkening back to his Southern childhood; the chef himself came out to meet my dad and said that nobody had ordered grits for like three YEARS, and he kept them on the menu because he liked 'em, but they didn't have any in stock).

So I went with the red flannel hash with goat cheese, while Priya got baked eggs with cheddar. Now, to me "red flannel" hash describes corned beef hash that might include beets, while "vegetarian red flannel hash" is just beets 'n' potatoes (like Brooklyn Label's offering). The internet supports my point of view. However, there was no corned beef in the hash I received, just beets and potatoes and corn kernels, all bound together with melted goat cheese.

I don't even want to complain, because it was darn good. The goat cheese binder was a great idea, and cut the beetiness of the beets--and so did the sweet corn and starchy potatoes. Maybe they could've spent 10 cents more and given me two eggs instead of one, though.

Priya had ordered her baked eggs "rare", but they arrived with the perenniel problem of mostly-hard-cookedness that neither restaurants nor we could solve ("They do it fine in France," shrugged Priya). still good, though, pretty salty, nicely cheesy, and with a side of cheese grits that started good but soon grew gummy as they cooled.

I wish the Tea Room had had all of the exotics listed on its menu, and I wonder what else is more showpiece than actual dish...


though sick, I went to Enid's with Priya for brunch after our trip to the greenmarket. I wasn't sure what I would find appetizing, but it was nearby and the wait wasn't terrible like we'd expected.

I got a homemade biscuit sandwich with sausage, egg, and gravy, with cheese grits on the side. They were out of iced tea so I had to make do with hot tea. They were seemingly having beverage problems (I guess everyone was getting bloody Marys), because Priya got shitty Country Time lemonade (and when she complained, they instantly brought her a glass full of lemon juice and water and gave her simple syrup to make real lemonade with. I guess most people don't complain).

My biscuit was pretty okay, nothing special...I would've preferred bacon or something instead of sausage, and it wasn't really eatable like a sandwich because of the gravy smothering it, but it was passable, though a bit overpriced.

Priya got huevos rancheros which were perfectly passable as well, although the tortilla was not fried. In the end, it was a pretty average brunch, but with my sense of taste all screwed up from illness, it was pretty much what I needed.

Monday, September 1, 2008

Chicken soup

I was, unfortunately, very sick on Thursday night and all day Friday, and, recovering over the long weekend, I made some chicken soup to soothe my sore throat and general malaise.

very easy--I boiled a whole chicken for about an hour, then threw in some whole leeks, carrots, celery, parsley root (from the greenmarket), etc. and boiled it for another hour. Strained it, threw away all the vegetables (which were mush by now), and added new chopped leeks, celery, and carrot to cook in the brother while I picked apart the chicken. once finished, poured it over some egg noodles and cut a big piece of crusty white peasant bread, and I was all set for dinner (and feeling much better already).

I ate it over the next few days, finally finishing it off with Christina for dinner tonight (along with octopus salad from Di Palo's and some of the aforementioned cabbage slaw).

using up the chick peas

I soaked and cooked a big pot of chickpeas, with an eye toward making a couple of dishes with them that might last me for a while. The following night Priya came over and kindly assisted me in making my dream a reality.

Priya took the lead on the ginger-tamarind chana masala. Meanwhile, I made African peanut chicken stew with sweet potatoes. Everything was going smoothly until I realized that I had only made half the chickpeas I'd intended--one cup instead of two (which transformed into four cups cooked instead of the eight I'd planned). Okay, so the chicken stew ended up chickpealess. But over the next few days, the stew and the chana masala provided several meals and side dishes, and I still have some of the chana masala in the freezer right now.

it all came out excellent. I've made the chana masala dozens of times, so no big surprises anymore (and Priya, though this was her first time being forced to follow Julie Sahni's recipe, was an all-star and pulled it off), and the chicken stew I've done a bunch, too, but always slightly differently. This time I was careful to let the sweet potatoes stay whole, instead of pulping them into the gravy to make it thicker. I always try to use on-the-bone chicken, usually thighs, which I think helps the flavor tremendously.

Later, eating it for dinner with Priya, we made cabbage salad (shredded red cabbage, thinly-peeled carrots, parsley, dill, vinegar, oil, mustard powder) and, while she was uncomfortable with such a syncretic dinner, I kind of love it.

Chopp saw me eating it at lunch and asked for some, so he got a thigh and and chana masala. he seemed to enjoy it!


On one of the last days before the kids returned to school, we took advantage of our long (hour) lunch (which is usually spent hastily gobbling something while trying to make copies or watch detained kids) to venture a bit further than normal. "Italian sandwiches?" I said to Wooh. He nodded and rounded up a few more people, and we headed to Alleva on Grand Street.

Alleva is just past Di Palo's (a fine cheese shop run by a cranky old guy who glared at me for asking if they made sandwiches once--and Wooh told me the same thing had happened to him) and just before the Italian Food Center (which is very similar, but with a bigger selection and more of a crowd). At Alleva's, the menu has just four or five sandwiches (although of course you can ask for different combinations) and there's rarely more than two or three people ahead of you. Everything is $7.50.

I got the Italian combo (soppresatta, salami, prosciutto, roasted red peppers, balsamic vinegar, and with fresh mozz instead of the provolone it comes with), as usual. I can usually only eat one half, but today I got them both down, sitting outside near the track with the other teachers. The sandwich is great in its simplicity. There's no lettuce, tomatoes, pickles, extra this, extra that, mustard, whatever. it's just a thick pile of heavily spiced meat, some cheese, and the roasted red peppers providing a bit of vegetable. Wooh likes to get all prosciutto and fresh mozz, but a wad of prosciutto an inch and a half thick kind of turns my stomach (it reminds me of visiting a girlfriend who lived in Parma, and eating prosciutto three times a day for the entire week I was there).