Articles by

Joe DiStefano

Newsstand
01/06/22 4:23pm
Shaut thee thoke, or Burmese lemon salad, is a powerhouse of flavor.

In 2013 I had the pleasure of exploring Jackson Heights with Suketu Mehta a journalism professor at New York University who grew up in the neighborhood. Back in his day, many local businesses were Gujarati, including an appliance shop that Mehta said was run by two gents named “Raj.” “Indian immigrants coming to New York would visit two places, the Statue of Liberty and Raj and Raj.”

Mehta will be pleased to learn that visitors to Jackson Heights still visit the Statue of Liberty, but some like the young couple I met as I was emerging from COVID quarantine, visit Yun Cafe first.

“This tastes just like back home, the young man,” said of the homestyle Burmese cuisine made by Tin Ko Naing and Thidar Kyaw and the restaurant’s namesake, their daughter, Yun. (Sadly I was not able to tell them if the Statue of Liberty was open and instead recommended a Staten Island Ferry ride and a Sri Lankan food outing.)

My new friends were having some chicken soup and a mixture of laphet thoke—the classic tea leaf salad—and gin thoke, which features fermented ginger. Last I checked there were more than a dozen of thoke on the menu of the restaurant in the Jackson Heights subway station, including kaut swe thoke (a melange of noodles, potatoes, and curried chicken) pin le sar thoke, a seafood salad.

I’m slowly working my way through the thoke roster, but that day I wanted to try the shaut thee thoke or lemon salad, since I’d been hearing great things about it.

Lemon features prominently in shaut thee thoke, but like many Burmese salads, it’s a cavalcade of flavors, crunchy dried shrimp, sweet fried onions, insistently spicy green chili, raw garlic and pungent shrimp paste.

“It’s my family’s favorite,” Yun said when I told her how much I loved the dish. It’s also the epitome of the Burmese culinary concept “chin ngan sat,” or “sour salty spicy.”

I suppose it’s also a good way to test one’s sense of taste and smell after a bout with COVID. I wonder what other delicious secrets lurk among many other thoke I have yet to try.

Yun Café & Asian Mart, 73-05 37th Rd., Store #2, 646-920-7551

01/05/22 4:33pm


“We don’t eat pork or drink alcohol,” some guests on a Flushing Chinatown food adventure told me when asked about dietary restrictions for their upcoming tour. “Perfect time to check out that oyster omelet at the Fujianese joint in the New York Food Court that Dave wrote about,” I thought to myself, for you see, I don’t like to put anything on my tours that I haven’t vetted myself.

Oyster omelets are a hawker food eaten throughout Southeast Asia, but most famously at Taiwanese night markets. The first time I ate a Taiwanese one I had a raging hangover and couldn’t really stomach the gloppy consistency from the sweet potato starch. I wasn’t sure to what to expect of Minnan Xiaochi’s Fujianese version.

Unlike its Taiwanese cousin, the Fujianese version was almost paper thin and super crunchy from the egg itself as well as the plenty of green onions that were fried until crispy. What starch there was wasn’t gloppy so much as a binding agent. Hai li jian as it’s known in Southern Fujian made for a fine meal with a bowl of rice and an especially novel stop on a food tour.

Minnan Xiaochi, No. 13, New York Food Court, 133-35 Roosevelt Ave., Flushing

12/10/21 6:43pm
Lamb neck and pig face from Mandalay Club whose kitchen is ensconced somewhere in the odd looking Sunnyside Eats.

“After five or 10 minutes of trying to figure out how to order a guy my age will give up and go around the corner and get a slice of pizza,” I quipped to my new friend Calvin. “And not come back,” I thought to myself.

Thankfully my urge to try the Burmese food from Myo Moe’s newly opened Mandalay Club outweighed my frustration with technology and the disconnect I experienced at Sunnyside Eats, a ghost kitchen/food hall that as best as I can tell opened earlier this fall. Part of the disconnect was due to the use of the word “Food Hall” on the outdoor signage. I’d expected to walk around a food hall. Instead I found myself in a room that looked somewhat like a cross between a taxi dispatch office and the set of Squid Game.

“Is Mandalay Club open today?” I didn’t see them on the tablet. “Oh yeah, they’re new. You have to order from Uber Eats,” the guy behind the dispatch window told me.

After installing Uber Eats and fiddling around with it for another five minutes only to realize that Mandalay Club was not on the platform Calvin came over. By this time I’d figured out Mandalay Club was on DoorDash. “It should be about 20 minutes,” Calvin informed me after checking on my order. That order consisted of wettar thoke ($14)—a cold melange of various parts of pig face, cucumbers chilies and veggies that I hadn’t enjoyed since Crazy Crab in Flushing shut down a few years ago—and anya lamb curry seit thar natt ($18), an intriguing sounding lamb neck dish.

While I waited, I amused myself by seeing how many photos I could take in the lobby despite the fact a sign expressly forbids any photography and video. (For the record it was two.) And then I remembered that my friend Kazuko Nagao of Oconomi had opened at Sunnyside Eats, so she came downstairs and helped me pass the time as I waited for my meal.

The meal itself was quite excellent. The pig head dish was a wonderful balance of crunchy bits of ear, squidgy nose, and creamy cheek meat with cucumber, green chili, red onion and other veggies. The lamb neck was amazing too. Moe told me she sources it from D’Artagnan and then cooks it for an hour and a half in a gingery masala along with yellow split peas.

All in all it made for a fine meal on a chilly evening. In fact I’m looking forward to part two tonight. That said, I’ll stick to frequenting real food courts instead of ghost ones, which leave me hungering for human interaction. Guess this very very late adopter will be ordering Oconomi as well as the rest of Moe’s menu via DoorDash.

Mandalay Club, 40-05 Skillman Ave., Long Island City

11/29/21 7:48pm

Assemblywoman Jessica González-Rojas with Chef Bimla and the belt, this year’s map, and a bowl of buffalo johl momo.

“I can get momo any time. It’s just too much of a scene for me,” is usually what I say when asked about the Momo Crawl. “I prefer to pay my respects to the winner afterwards.”

“You could say it’s the SantaCon of momos but I prefer to say it’s the WrestleMania,” tweeted Jeff Orlick founder of the annual event, which brings hundreds of fans hungry for Himalayan dumplings, to the neighborhoods of Jackson Heights and Woodside, in a reference to the coveted Momo Crawl trophy, which is modeled after a championship wrestling belt.

For the past four years that trophy has graced the wall of Nepali Bhanchha Ghar, thanks to Chef Bimla Hamal Shreshtha’s piping hot momos, served in a fiery jhol broth humming with ginger, chili and other spices.
This year though not only did I pay my respects to the winner, I attended the crawl itself, and I’m glad I did. I ran into many dear friends old and new and frankly felt a sense of liberation despite my general distaste for crowds.

I tried only four of the 29 places on the crawl and couldn’t make sense of Momo Crawl mastermind Jeff Orlick’s map. “It’s a real Jeff Orlick special,” my pal Drew said with a chuckle. Later we sampled the winning momos from Nepali Bhanchha Ghar, which proved to be the hottest and freshest of the ones I tried, with lots of variety. I went for a trifecta of beef, buffalo, and goat with plenty of broth. The broth proved too spicy for my sweetheart Hannah’s daughter Vera, but that didn’t deter her appetite for more of the dumplings. In fact if she had her way I think she’d have done at least a half dozen more stops.

“They try very hard to win, and that makes a huge difference,” Orlick said of this year’s winner. “People seemed very happy to be there. Being outside also gave people some relief from being so concerned about coronavirus.”

This afternoon I took a long walk through the Heights to work up an appetite for a bowl of Chef Bimla’s momo. I opted for the buffalo. With a nip in the air and the second snow of the season falling it seemed like a perfect choice. Congrats again to Chef Bimla and Nepali Bhanchha Ghar, but most of all to Jeff Orlick for showing this sometimes jaded culinary king the joy of community in action.

Nepali Bhanchha Ghar, 74-15 Roosevelt Ave., (917) 745-0533

11/22/21 11:37am


The chef recommended I try the No. 12 at the newly opened Burmese bites, shown here unmixed.

Myo Lin Thway and his family who run Burmese Bites at the Queens Night Market, a specialist in palata—airy stuffed roti like bread made by Myo himself—and other goodies like ohno kaukswe, a wonderful coconut chicken noodle soup, have long been one of my favorite stands. I almost always get their noodles or palata on every visit to the market. There’s only one problem; I wish there were more options as well as the ability to get their Burmese cuisine year round. Well, thanks to the crew’s new location, which opened about a week ago in the Queens Center Mall Food Court, a venue better known for Panda Express than Burmese delicacies, both of these problems have been solved.

“What do you have that’s not at the Night Market?” I asked, looking at the roster of more than a dozen dishes. “You should get the Number 12, the shan kaukswe,” he said. “I know you’ll like these noodles because you appreciate Burmese food.”

In addition to the noodles I ordered tea leaf salad, or laphet thoke, a riotous blend of textures and flavors that along with the fish soup mohinga is considered by many to be the national dish of Burma. Just as Myo handed me my food who should I spy taking photos but none other than my dear friend Dave Cook of Eating in Translation. (We have been running into each other in my various Queens stamping grounds for years now and Dave joked that we need to develop a bat signal so we can know when an impromptu eatup is about to occur.)



Each dish came in a cardboard takeout box, the components waiting to be mixed. The shan kaukswe container simply labeled “Shan” held rice noodles topped with ground chicken and peanuts surrounded by pea shoots, scallions, pickled mustard greens, cilantro, and a little cup of dried chili. I started to mix the lot with fork and spoon, but quickly realized that closing and vigorously shaking the box—albeit carefully—would be more effective. This newly created Shan shake didn’t work so well for the tea leaf salad, which I tossed with utensils.

I’m glad I took Myo’s recommendation. The combination of the noodles along with the salty pickled vegetables, chili, garlic, and other components was utterly transporting. Dave ordered the shrimp curry and mango salad and subbed in tea life rice for white rice. All in all it was a great first meal at Myo’s new digs.

For a long time I’ve groused that the mall’s food court, known as the World’s Fare Café, was hardly deserving of the moniker since it didn’t reflect the delicious diversity of Queens. Now thanks to Burmese Bites along with its newly opened neighbor C Bao, a purveyor of Chinese pork and duck buns, it’s on its way to becoming a food court worthy of the World’s Borough.

Burmese Bites, Queens Center Mall, 90-15 Queens Blvd., Elmhurst

11/08/21 4:24pm
This Colombian style burger was not created by the Arepa Lady, but rather her daughter-in-law, Nelly.

Back when I first moved to Queens in the late 90s, The Arepa Lady—aka Maria Piedad Cano a former administrative judge from Medellin, Colombia, turned street food legend—served precisely two things from her cart outside a nightclub on Roosevelt Avenue. The first, arepa de queso was a puffy disc of corn flour sweet and gooey with crisped edges from a griddling in margarine and topped with salty quesito cheese. The second, arepa de choclo, was made from a sweeter corn enfolding cheese.

Both are equally delicious and both are still served at Areperia Arepa Lady, which her son Alejandro Osorio opened with her in 2014 to return the favor of his mother supporting him and his siblings through street food for decades.

“She’s old school,” Osorio says of his mother. “We can add new things, but we can’t mess with her recipes. Those things include arepas filled with shredded beef, the fried plantain sandwiches known as patacones, and most recently, a Colombian style hamburger.

Osorio’s wife, Nelly, who runs the Jackson Heights restaurant with him came up with the idea for the burger because many diners had been asking for a burger. For Colombians though the hamburger is quite a different animal than the somewhat austere version served at cookouts in America. In Colombia, the patty and the bun are a canvas for a carnival of fruity sauces, other meats, and other textures. Arepa Lady’s Colombian burger does not disappoint. It consists of a patty topped with American cheese; ham; and crisp fried bacon topped with a fistful of crunchy potato sticks, and finally crowned with a trio of sauces green garlic, pink sauce (a mixture of mayo and ketchup), and pineapple. (My waiter, Brandon, who hails from Cali told they are fond of the tart, sweet pineapple sauce in his hometown.) For an extra few dollars you can add shrimp, which I did.

Despite all those ingredients, this was no Frankenburger, but a seemingly restrained study in excess. (It was, however messy, and you may well want to remove bracelets and other jewelry to eat it.) All the flavors—juicy patty, salty ham, and smoky bacon—worked well together and the potato sticks and sauces completed the picture, though next time I’d skip the baby shrimp.

Dining across from me in the otherwise empty restaurant a maroon robed Tibetan monk and a young friend enjoyed some chicharron and an arepa. As I was leaving I almost told them they should try the burger next time.

“My Mom hasn’t tried it yet,” Osorio told me when I asked what the family matriarch thought of his wife’s creation.

Areperia Arepa Lady, 77-17 37th Ave., Jackson Heights, 917-745-1111

11/02/21 9:07pm
Why, yes that is a bag of fruit flavored Lay’s potato chips.

As many C+M readers know, I love Asian snacks and chips—some more than others—and some less. There’s even a Chinese Lays potato chip taste-off on my food tours of Flushing Chinatown. We walk down the third snack aisle—yes there are three—of the vast Jmart Chinese supermarket until we hit the Lay’s lineup.

“Does that logo look familiar?” I ask as everyone’s eyes go wide with wonder over flavors like numb & spicy hot pot, pickled fish, spicy crayfish, and beef noodle soup.

Usually we’ll pick three or four to try, some savory and/or spicy and some downright strange, like the one I like to call “mystery fruit.” My friend Daniele and her husband, Christian who run Arthur Avenue Food Tours, know a thing or two about Italian food, so when they joined a recent adventure, I insisted they try the “Italian Red Meat Flavor,” .

Daniele didn’t dig Italian Red Meat Flavor.

“It tastes like barbecue sauce,” Daniele exclaimed after a few bites. Everybody really liked the Sichuan-inspired hotpot crisps, which sung with the signature ma la flavors of Sichuan peppercorn and chili. (For the record Sichuan peppercorn is listed on the ingredients, along with sesame and artificial flavors.)

“It tastes like bubblegum,” said another guest who gave a thumbs up to the mystery fruit, but I think he was just goofing around for the camera.

I’ve always suspected that the mysterious fruit was some type of berry. When I sent her a picture of it my Chinese speaking IG pal heyheyyuchen excitedly told me that it is yangmei or Chinese bayberry and that the packaging reads sheng jin yangmei or “mouth watering Chinese bayberry.”

Truth be told, these pink speckled treats are no more mouthwatering than other potato chip, perhaps even less so. I think they taste like Sweet Tarts, which I rather enjoyed as kid, but not so much in a chip. The only potato chip stranger than this one that I’ve tasted is Lay’s Do Us Flavor Cappuccino.

11/01/21 3:39pm
Filipino breakfast of champions featuring a whole smoked milkfish, two fried eggs, eggplant, and tomato salad.

It’s been a while since I logged on . . . by that I mean posting on C+M, but more specifically filing a dispatch about Filipino breakfast. Many restaurants in Woodside’s Little Manila and elsewhere in Queens offer various silog platters including longsilog, which features sweet and fatty pork longganisa sausage, and tosilog, which highlights sweet cured pork. Today was the first time I saw tinapsilog ($11.20) on a Filipino breakfast menu though.

“It’s a smoked fish,” the waiter informed me. “Is it like dasilog?” I inquired further. “Yeah, but smoked,” he responded.

Not entirely sure what to expect, I decided to give tinapsilog a try, if only to better understand how they arrived at the price $11.20. I was absolutely floored by what landed on the table. I’ve seen plenty of whole fish before, but this milkfish was absolutely beautiful. A thin sheet of golden amber skin stretched over the flesh. Best of all, that skin was shatteringly crunchy and smokey, almost like a fish bacon. The platter came with two sunny side up eggs; some Chinese eggplant; tomatoes; the requisite sinangag, or garlic fried rice; and some vinegar to dip the fish into.

I’m not quite sure of the prep beyond the smoking, but I’m going to guess it was fried because every bit of skin and bone including the head and tail was super crunchy.

A lot of people ask what inspires me when it comes to food writing and my stock answer is usually something like: “Look, if I eat something absolutely amazing, I’m almost physically compelled to write about it immediately.” In case you are wondering today’s breakfast met that criteria.

Amazing Grace, 69-02 Roosevelt Ave., Woodside, (718) 335-7036

10/06/21 4:34pm

Even before I moved to the World’s Borough I’d often receive culinary gifts from abroad. In the 90s I befriended a Peruvian lady who sold ceviche out of a cooler. She bought me back a brick of King Kong, a famous and comically huge dessert of short bread slabs alternating with fruit spread and manjarblanco, or Peruvian dulce de leche.

These days things are no different. One of my favorite culinary gifts is a very special Indonesian bread called Matahari Roti that my friend Fefe Ang of Elmhursts fabled Indonesian Food Bazaar has given me on several occasions. Ask any Indonesian—go ahead I’ll wait—and they’ll recount fond childhood memories of this rich and sweet treat infused with rombutter, or Dutch style churned butter. Somewhere along the way I thought someone called it toast, so I’ve been toasting it and having it with my morning coffee. Turns out that might actually not be the right way to enjoy this very special loaf.

“You’ve been toasting it?” my friend Nigel Sielegar who hails from Surabaya, Indonesia exclaimed in mock surprise when I paid him a recent visit at the Queens Night Market. “It’s supposed to be gooey and buttery, just microwave it for like 30 seconds.”

Sielegar runs the wildly popular Moon Man stand at the Queens Night Market where he sells delectable Indonesian coconut pancakes as well as kaya jam, a coconut based confection. I purchased a jar of the pandan flavor, which is just delightful on the gooey properly cooked Matahari bread.

Incidentally not only did Sielegar teach me how to enjoy this childhood Indonesian treat, he helped me translate the verbiage on the packaging. Turns out Matahari is not named for the Dutch spy/exotic dancer but rather means “sun” in Indonesian, hence the rising sun on the packaging.

I have four slices left in my package of Matahari Roti and will try to dutifully eat them the proper way, but might experiment with microwaving then toasting. A cursory Google search reveals that may be possible to score this childhood treat online. Moon Man’s kaya jam is far easier to come by and can be bought here, or at the Night Market. Best of all its delicious on any kind of bread, toasted or not!

09/06/21 1:00pm

Like many a good eater, I’m a fan of crispy pork belly. Here in Queens, Colombian chicharron and Filipino lechon kawali abound. And in my little corner of the World’s Borough—Elmhurst’s Thai Town there’s moo krob—Thai style crispy pork.

At its best, it is shatteringly crisp, and last night I was quite pleased to have the best version I have ever eaten at Sabay Thai Cuisine. Run by Chef Busaya Jeamjenkarn, Sabay is a sleeper of a restaurant, better known in the local Thai community than by foodies. It boasts a vast menu, including lots of Isan specialties. I’m somewhat ashamed to admit that I’d never set foot in the place until I moved into the neighborhood last summer.

Until recently those Northeastern dishes like Isan style beef tartare and an excellent, well-balanced pad Thai were the sum total of my experience with Sabay’s menu. The other night I had a hankering for Thai style crispy pork though. “Is it really crispy?” I asked before ordering, since there’s little worse than soggy fried pork belly.

I opted for moo krob kra pow, a preparation made with a spicy Thai basil sauce. Soon a plate piled with golden brown pieces of pork belly along with blistered bits of skin all shot through with basil, chilies, garlic and onions appeared. I could hardly wait to eat it! I snuck a piece of crunchy skin to munch on before taking the requisite photo.

Ordered medium spicy, Sabay’s moo krob kra pow still packed respectable heat thanks to a trifecta of dried chilies, fresh Thai birdseyes, and long green hots. Typically I like to add a few spoonfuls of chilies in fish sauce, but not this time.

“You are making me hungry,” Chef Busaya said as she heard me happily crunching away on her creation. “How do you get it so crunchy?” I asked. “Do you pour hot oil on it?” “No we just boil and then let it marinate in vinegar and lime overnight,” she responded. “And then we bake it the next day. It’s easy.”

I’m not entirely sure, but I suspect that Chef Busaya’s moo krob recipe is slightly more complex than she makes it out to be. I’m absolutely certain that I will be eating much more of her crispy pork in the near future though.

Sabay Thai Cuisine, 75-19 Broadway, Elmhurst, (718) 424-9054