Articles by

Joe DiStefano

Newsstand
09/03/20 12:49am

A spread from Don Irwin, clockwise from left: a mighty steak cemita, tacos al pastor, and tacos arabes.

Irwin Sánchez, a cherubic taquero from La Resurección in Puebla who started operating out of a window in front of the now moribund Cevicheria El Rey two weeks ago is passionate about his craft. I know this from talking to him, tasting his food, and getting a recommendation to try his comida from none other than Steven Alvarez.

At the recommendation of the specialist in taco literacy I went with a pair of flour tortilla wrapped tacos arabes and a corn tortilla with cochinita pibil. Don Irwin points out  a lot of cooks rely on spice mixes when making the Yucatán pork specialty. No such shortcuts are taken at Tlaxcal Kitchen where the meat is seasoned with clove, cinnamon, allspice, and bitter orange, among other things. Excellent on its own the cochinita pibil is even better with pickled onions and habanero that have just a whisper of clove.

Don Irwin is passionate about his craft!

For a guy who’s been covering food in Queens for more than 20 years I am woefully late to the tacos arabes game. “Taqueria La Oriental in Puebla City was one of the first places to serve tacos arabes,” Don Irwin schooled me as I happily munched on the flour tortilla wrapped pork whose origins lie with the Lebanese. “I tried to recreate the same flavors.” Those flavors include sumac that Sánchez sourced with the help of his son’s Lebanese music teacher and a fermented chipotle sauce. The fermentation was a happy accident. He couldn’t quite get it right and then he came upon a jar of it that he had accidentally let sit for two weeks.

Don Irwin is especially proud of his cemitas and makes the bread for the Puebla City style sandwiches from scratch several times a day. Listening to him wax rhapsodic about the sesame studded bun made me realize it is as important to a cemita as the right demi-baguette is to a proper Vietnamese sandwich.

Sánchez seemed disappointed I didn’t get a cemita so I promised to try one on my next visit. He wanted me to have the steak version, a gigantic well-fried slab that overhung the bun, which was smeared with refried beans and packed with quesillo cheese, pickled chipotles, and just the right amount of papalo, a lemony herb that is a must for cemitas.

My only complaint about the sandwich is that it was much bigger than I expected, leaving me jealous of my dining companions sumptuous looking tacos al pastor. I guess they will have to wait until my next visit.

It bears pointing out that like Dr. Taco, Sánchez is also an educator who has taught cooking classes and is as passionate about preserving Mexico’s indigenous Nahuatl language as he is about tacos arabes and cemitas. In facy his outfit’s name comes from the Nahuatl for tortilla.

Tlaxcal Kitchen c/o Cevicheria El Rey, 85-16 Roosevelt Ave, Jackson Heights

08/23/20 10:29pm

The newly opened Yun Café, situated beneath Diversity Plaza in Jackson Heights, Queens, serves excellent Burmese fare, including tea leaf salad (left), something of a culinary ambassador, and a less commonly known seafood salad.

They don’t call the open space above the Jackson Heights subway station Diversity Plaza for nothing folks. Upstairs there’s plenty of Tibetan, Indian, and Bangladeshi food to be had, in addition to the S & R Travel Agency, which predates the plaza itself, where one can book a passage to India. For a real gastronomic journey though, head down the subway stairs to Burma. Yes, Burma! Just past the Tibetan handicraft shop, the barbers and across from Jinme & Phuntsok of NYC, which sells lucky bamboo and candy, sits the newly opened Yun Café, surely New York City’s only Burmese restaurant located in a subway station. (more…)

08/16/20 10:03pm

I’m not sure whether the catfish pad prik khing from iCook Thai Cook falls under what’s sometimes referred to as Thai Royal Cuisine. What I do know is I can’t resist a punny headline. Nor can I resist Boonnum “Nam” Thongngoen’s vibrant Thai cooking. So I was very happy to hear her Elmhurst restaurant, which shares a space with the hotpot restaurant iCook, reopened on Friday for outdoor dining.

Like a lot of things these days, P’Nam’s menu has adapted. The major change is the addition of a half dozen $15 set menu items that I call Thai happy meals, each served with soup and rice. That’s where I found catfish pad prik khing.

“I have order envy,” my dining companion said eying the translucent fried basil leaves and curlicue of green peppercorns adorning the ruddy catfish. It tastes even better than it looks, thanks to the curry paste that hums with the warmth of chili and ginger and the perfume of galangal, lemongrass, and lime leaves. The fried catfish is lovely, and, like the paste itself, unabashedly spicy. So I was glad for the rice as well as a mellow bowl of kai pa lo, egg and tofu in a sweet five spice broth.

I would be remiss if I didn’t point out that in addition to offering extra rice, the waiter encouraged me to finish my soup. Welcome back P’Nam and company!

iCook Thai Cook, 81-17 Broadway, Elmhurst, 929-522-0886

07/29/20 1:46pm

The signature roast beef sandwich topped with cheese sauce and raw onions is worth a trip to Sheepshead Bay, Brookyn.

Even though I’ve made a career out of hating on Brooklyn in favor of Queens, my roots lie in the County of Kings where parents grew up. Perhaps my DNA makes me a sucker for the borough’s old-school neighborhoods and their culinary institutions. Today’s post is not about a certain antediluvian steakhouse in Williamsburg, but a rather another purveyor of meaty marvels: Roll ’n Roaster, a 50 year-old establishment that built its reputation on a rather sumptuous roast beef sandwich.

I was two years old in 1970 when Buddy Lamonica founded the Sheepshead Bay roast beef sandwich specialist whose slogan “We’re not so fast, Roll ’n Roaster,” became a staple of New York City late night TV in the 1970s. I didn’t grow up eating Lamonica’s creation—a glorious sandwich of thinly shaved roast beef drenched with gravy and topped with cheese sauce—that one of the restaurants many, many signs touts as “PERFECTION ON A ROLL,” but I wish I had. Instead we had Roy Rogers Roast Beef with horsey sauce. Imagine the greatness I would have achieved had I cut my teeth on Roll ’n Roaster instead of Roy’s! (more…)

07/21/20 10:25pm

Taco trio from Mi Dulce Mexico left to right: arabe, machaca, and birria.

I’ve been trying to meet up with Dr. Taco since this past spring, when we began exchanging Instagram messages. Finally on Saturday the stars, especially the one that’s been baking New York City, aligned and we set a rendezvous for one of his favorite foods, tacos at Mi Dulce Mexico. And not just any tacos, Sinaloense style ones from Northwestern Mexico.

Dr. Taco, whose real name is Steven Alvarez is an English professor at St. John’s University, where he teaches a course called Taco Literacy  that explores the foodways of Mexican immigrants in the United States. He’d originally suggested we meet for Colombian burgers, but I insisted on tacos, which is how we wound up at Mi Dulce Mexico. I’ve passed by the bakery/taqueria numerous times and never thought to eat there, but Alvarez told me that since February it’s been the new home of América Rodriguez, the chef of Taqueria Sinaloense, which closed a while back.

Since I skipped breakfast and am at root a glutton I was seriously considering a plate of machaca con huevos, a Sinaolense beef jerky cooked with eggs and tomato that is a typical breakfast, or chilorio, another specialty of the Nortwestern state. The latter is a life-changing heap of pork that’s been slowly cooked down for hours, then fried in lard, and lastly cooked in a ruddy concoction of chilies and other herbs and spices. When you’re dining with a professor of taco literacy though, tacos are the way to go. So we each got three: a machaca con huevos, birria de res, and tacos arabes. (more…)

07/20/20 8:35am

These Korean cold noodles are one of my favorite forms of edible air conditioning!

When the dog days of summer have got me panting I seek cold noodles: chilled Japanese soba, Chinese liang pi, Chengdu liang mian, and the chillest noodles of all, Korean naeng myun.

Think of the slippery buckwheat noodles as edible air conditioning. There’s a soup version, mul naengmyeon, which consists of the greyish noodles along with chilled beef broth, often with a small glacier of beef stock; cooling fruits and veggies like sliced Korean pear and cucumber; thinly shaved beef; and a hard-boiled egg. And then there are soupless varieties like hwe naeng myun, topped with raw fish.

I’ve never had the fish version and was eager to try it at New Hae Woon Dae in Elmhurst during what seemed like day 1,024 of quarantine and day 99 of New York City’s heat wave. “We don’t make it anymore,” the server told me, so I opted for the bibim naeng myun, or mixed naeng myun.

So much chili sauce blanketed the noodles that I could barely see them. Slices of daikon, Korean pear, shaved beef, and an egg were relegated to the side of the silver bowl, as if scared of the chili drenched strands.The server used her trusty noodle shears to deftly divide the bowl in four and advised me to add hot mustard and vinegar.

New Hae Woon Dae’s bibim naeng myun comes with a cold bowl of soup on the side to add. Slippery spicy noodles, crunchy vegetables and fruit, and that little bit of meat combined for a satisfying and refreshing summer lunch.

I still can’t wait to try the seafood version though. I’d love to know about your favorite cold noodles and soups. Let me know in the comments.

New Hae Woon Dae, 75-32 Broadway, Woodside, 718-397-5834

07/17/20 11:10pm

Tamarind and chili enriched crab noodles by way of Chantaburi and Khao Nom.

Once upon a time called the late 90s there was a tiny Thai restaurant in Woodside with harsh fluorescent lighting, three tables, and a looseleaf binder of photos that served as a menu. At the time Sripraphai was my kind of joint, a place with food that expanded my mind and my gustatory horizons. Thirty years later it’s three storefronts wide and many say the food has suffered, which is to say it’s not my kind of joint anymore. That’s okay though because in the past decade Elmhurst and Woodside have exploded with all manner of regional Thai specialists, some of whom only operate on weekends. Herewith three of my favorites for you to try.

1. Sen Chan Pad Pu, Khao Nom

76-20 Woodside Ave., Elmhurst, 929-208-0108
When this retro looking dessert cafe opened it featured a wonderful noodle dish from Chantaburi, sen chan, a spicy tamarind enriched forerunner of the now shopworn pad thai, which features several meaty prawns. Recently Khao Nom introduced the dish’s crabbier cousin, sen chan pad pu. It’s only available on weekends since that’s when Kukiat Chareonnan has the time to make it. It’s spicy, sweet, briny and thoroughly satisfying.

This funky, tart, and spicy papaya salad delivers flavor and electrolyte replacement.

2. Som tom pu pla ra, Pata Market
81-16 Broadway, Elmhurst, 347-935-3714
Down the road from Khao Nom at Pata Market one can procure bespoke packages of sum tom, or papaya salad. When the weather gets hot and humid my favorite version is som tom pu pla ra, which is made with salted black crab and fermented anchovy. Briny, spicy, and tart it’s like an electrolyte replacement therapy! Best of all the lady behind the giant mortar and pestle lets you taste it halfway through to adjust the flavor. It’s served with noodles, cabbage, a hard boiled egg, and sticky rice making for a nice summer meal.

3. Hor Mok, 3 Aunties Thai Market
64-04 39th Ave, Woodside, 718-606-2523
I’ve been a fan of the gals who run this adorable Thai grocery store in Woodside ever since I found out they sell the most amazing savory rice crackers studded with chili and minuscule shrimp. One Sunday I learned they also have another seafood specialty homemade hor mok pla, a fish custard flavored with red curry, coconut milk, Thai basil, and a hint of lime leaf. Not only is the version they make here delicious, it incorporates steamed cabbage and is gigantic. Best to show up around 2 or 3 o’clock since it takes them a while to cook it.

07/15/20 11:01pm

It’s not cheap, but it comes with a million dollar view . . .

Like many of us here in New York City I’ve been struggling with the new normal, but I’m hopeful. Trips to Rockaway Beach have helped. I’m trying to get there at least once a week. As always, there’s eating to be done. My first trip featured a massive feed at Whit’s End, the next a visit to La Cevicheria, and most recently a bit of New England via Rockaway Clam Bar. (I’m not counting the trip where I managed to give myself food poisoning by washing down a warm banana with hot Pellegrino.)

Rockaway Clam Bar is located in the Riis Park concessions, which reopened late last month. At one time they served clams on the half shell, which are always a favorite at the beach, but I didn’t see any on the menu yesterday. Instead I splurged for the lobster roll. At $22, it’s not cheap, but it was quite tasty, and as my pal pointed out, it comes with a “million dollar view” of the Atlantic. His fried clams were excellent. I was tempted to garnish my sandwich with the crunchy briny bellies, but kept it simple.

Since we were practically in Brooklyn we almost went to Randazzo’s Clam Bar afterwards. Instead we opted for a Queens classic, slices at New Park Pizza in Howard Beach.

Rockaway Clam Bar, Riis Park Bay 9

07/14/20 9:13pm

Take two plates of plov and call me in the morning.

One of my favorite things about Queens is that there’s deliciousness around every corner: killer tacos down the street from a sex toy emporium; Chinese style nougat outside the Flushing LIRR; even Mexican seafood cocktails in the back of a bodega.

Today’s Twofer Tuesday—Uzbek plov and fruit pie from Greenway Health & Pharmacy, a drugstore/butcher/glatt kosher market in Rego Park—falls squarely in the latter category. Plov is a hearty Central Asian one-pot rice dish scented with cumin and studded with sweet bits of carrot that I’ve come to know and love after 20 years of living in the neighborhood.

Greenway’s excellent version uses beef, and is heavy on luscious nubs of carrot and also has chickpeas, and naturally, cumin. It’s made by a grandmotherly woman stationed next to the butcher counter. She also cooks up bakhsh, a plov variant that gets its greenish hue from coriander, parsley and dill; and a third type that features raisins. (more…)

07/08/20 9:35pm

RCL calls it a sandwich, but it’s more of a platter.

Chef Bruce has been gone about four years now. I still have a jar of cayenne he gave me two years before he died. It’s as potent as the memory of the first time I dug into a gigantic bowl of graveyard shift curry laksa at Curry Leaves with him. The chef turned taxi driver introduced me to what I like to joke is downtown Flushing’s longest running popup, since an entirely different crew runs the late night noodle operation. We’d often text each other in the wee hours with the simple query: “Curry Leaves?”

He introduced me to many places in Queens including the soul food specialist Rockaway Fish House/RCL Enterprises in Jamaica. Despite the name and the excellent reputation for fried fish, we ordered from the well-stocked steam table. I don’t remember what he had, but I do recall my plate: pig ears in gravy with collards and macaroni and cheese. (more…)