Articles by

Joe DiStefano

Newsstand
06/01/20 11:04pm

Mmm . . . Malaysian glutinous rice doughnut.

There are many, many things I love at Elmhurst’s Little House cafe, a Malaysian bakery/restaurant run by Helen Bay and her husband Michael Lee. There’s the giant chicken curry bun; stupendously good chow kueh teow; specials like salted egg chow fun; and goodies baked up by Helen, including the amazing Malaysian style brown sugar cake. In fact there are so many sweet and savory things that the family rotates some of them out. What I love most about Little House right now though is that it’s back open. Well, that and the glutinous rice doughnuts, 夹粽, or kap zhong, that appeared as a special dessert over the weekend.

A while back, Helen’s daughter, Joanne, gifted me a black and yellow tote bag. One seam bears the legend, “Don’t ask just eat.” It’s a slogan I took to heart with the little box of ovoid kap zhong. Soft and sweet with a ring of brown dough enclosing a center of chewy glutinous rice, they’re sugary and oily in the best possible way. They call to mind the zeppole my mother used to fry up on St. Joseph’s Day.

Like many things at this little house that could, these treats, whose name means something along the lines of pressed from both sides, are only around for a short time. But Joanne tells me there will be a fresh batch tomorrow. I’m going to forego them this time, at my age, I can only eat such a thing occasionally. But you should try them while you can. To paraphrase the slogan on the bag: Don’t ask about the calories, just eat them.

Little House Cafe, 90-19 Corona Ave., Elmhurst, 718-592-0888

05/12/20 9:44pm

An especially happy Thai meal from Khao Kang. Clockwise from bottom left: fish with eggplant and green beans, spicy pork ribs, and caramelized pork with fish sauce.

Elmhurst, Queens, my fair borough’s second, smaller more Southeast Asian Chinatown—after the sprawling wonderland of deliciousness that is downtown Flushing— is slowly awakening from pandemic slumber. In addition to Chinese, Indonesian and Malaysian restaurants and shops, the neighborhood is home to the largest concentration of real deal regional Thai cuisine in all of New York City. Many of the shops and restaurants that have been regular stops on my food tours over the years are starting to reopen for takeout and delivery.

Two of my favorite Thai spots Khao Kang—a rice and three steam stable specialist where the offerings are indeed very special—and sister restaurant Khao Nom which excels in desserts as well as savory dishes recently reopened. Khao Nom has been offering set rice plates. I got there a little late today, so they were out of crispy pork, so I opted for dessert instead, more on that later. (more…)

05/05/20 12:37pm

Top: yen su ji, Taiwanese fried chicken, found at the otherwise deserted New World Mall. Bottom: Corner 28 may be shuttered, but sister restaurant Shanghai You Garden is now serving the famous duck buns.

It has been two months since I’ve been to America’s Greatest Chinatown, aka downtown Flushing. Normally, I’m there several times a week, whether I have a food tour to lead or not. A combination of sheltering in place and sadness over the state of affairs have kept me away.

Yesterday though, I had a doctor’s appointment in downtown Flushing, so naturally I had to find some lunch. Many of the restaurants on the strip of 40th Road—including Corner 28, a favorite for their Peking Duck buns—were closed. Then I noticed a tent in front of Shanghai You Garden, Corner 28’s sister restaurant, which lies across the street.

Installed in the front of the restaurant was a window with a sign that read “Peking Duck $1.50.” It sat above a realistic looking diorama of several ducks roasting over a glowing wood fire. I waited my turn while watching the face shield clad duo assemble the pillowy little sandwiches and then ordered two. They were as good as ever.

My spirits buoyed by this light lunch, I checked out another of my food tour haunts, the New World Mall Food Court. I expected the subterranean wonderland to be closed like many of the neighborhoods other purveyors of xiao chi, or small eats but was surprised to find it open.

Once downstairs though it was truly eerie how empty it was. Only five of the more than 30 stands were open. One of them being No. 27 a specialist in Taiwanese street food whose Chinese language sign features a jaunty chicken, midflight signifying that it specializes in yen su ji, crispy craggy morsels of salty fried chicken that are a favorite in Taiwan and downtown Flushing.

Like the duck, these crunchy nuggets of fowl were just lovely. I lingered a moment in the food court and ate a few. “Taiwanese food, no MSG,” the dude behind the counter informed me. Normally I would have made a comment about stinky tofu in Mandarin, but instead I just thanked him and walked upstairs to ponder the etiquette of removing my bandana to enjoy fried chicken while walking down the street.

Hao Xiang Chi Kitchen, No. 27, New World Mall Food Court, 136-20 Roosevelt Ave., Flushing; Shanghai You Garden, 135-33 40th Rd., Flushing

04/28/20 9:44pm

Chaikhana Sem Sorok’s lovely lagman soup.

“Is Bella Roza open?” my pal Rocky asked about two weeks ago about the Uzbek bakery/restaurant in Rego Park, where many restaurants have shut down due to COVID-19. “Pretty sure they are just closed for Passover,” I replied. Like me, Rocky’s a good—and single-minded eater—so a few days ago he messaged me that Bella Roza was open.

Samsa, plov, and lagman,” he responded when asked what he was ordering. The samsa—meat pies filled with either beef or lamb—are cooked in a tiled tandoor that sits behind the counter. Time it just right, and you can score one fresh out of the furnace.

So the other morning I strolled over to Bella Roza to mimic my pal’s order. The bakery was most definitely open, but it’s now under new ownership and has a new name: Chaikhana Sem Sorok. Other than that things looked pretty much the same, rows of samsa were arrayed in the glass case, and a giant pot of plov sat on the stove. (more…)

04/16/20 8:59pm

“It’s all gone. You should call ahead next time and pre-order,” my friend Elvi at Indo Java Groceries said the other day when she read the disappointment on my face. It was scarcely 1 p.m. and they were all out of the soup I’d planned to have for lunch.

I’d learned about the soup—whose name is lost in a fog of COVID anxiety—from looking at the store’s Instagram page, which I dutifully checked last night to reserve a plate of lontong cap go meh. Longtong, a pressed rice cake is often eaten with satay and in a spicy soup, but I’d never had this version. Chef Rebecca of Mamika’s Homemade Cuisine told me lontong cap go meh is a Central Javan specialty eaten on the 15th day of Lunar New Year.

It was sold as a kit of sorts at the shop. One compartment of the plastic takeout box was filled with chewy lontong topped with the ground soy bean that Rebecca characterizes as “a must,” and other devoted to a giant bag filled with a broth of chayote cooked in a chili-laced coconut milk broth. The last compartment was occupied by opor ayam—chicken cooked with onion, garlic, coriander powder, turmeric and coconut milk—and sambal goreng ati ampela, spicy chicken livers and gizzards. All in all it made for a very satisfying late lunch.

Like Fefe Ang of Taste of Surabaya, Rebecca is helping to feed workers at local hospitals. And like Fefe she delivers, just send a DM to her Instagram account. So even if you can’t make it to Indo Java, you can have a taste of Indonesia come to you. But if you can, you might want to stop by on Saturday’s when the market is stocked with all sorts of dishes trucked in from Philadelphia. Talk about brotherly love.

Indo Java Groceries, 85-12 Queens Blvd, Elmhurst, 718-789-2241

04/08/20 2:13pm

A visit to Joe’s Sicilian Bakery during somewhat happier times.

March 19 was scarcely three weeks ago, but it feels like years because of the soul crushing COVID-19 pandemic. My friend Robbie Richter and I took a ride to Bayside to Joe’s Sicilian Bakery for St. Joseph’s Day pastries. Social distancing was in effect on the line and in the shop itself, and we observed it, though at the time it seemed like an overabundance of caution. I’ll cop to having had a cavalier attitude toward the Corona virus, including posts on social media that made light of not being able to catch it from a walk through Flushing Meadows Corona Park.

A few days ago I visited Robbie after taking a hike through Forest Hills. We maintained our distance and he even gave me a mask. At the time I scoffed, now I wonder how to wear it without fogging up my glasses.

Everybody—and everything—has come untethered. Social media teems with jokes about days blending in to each other, I call it yestermorrow. In a quest for comfort and normalcy some bake bread and some watch Andrew Cuomo’s daily briefings. Every sniffle, ache, and the slightest respiratory difficulty prompt the question: “Do I have it? Or it just my seasonal allergies and my new demanding home fitness regimen?” Friends have lost their sense of taste and smell; I pray it’s all they lose. Several times a day I huff peppermint oil to make sure my olfactory receptors still function.

Chef Binder Saini (left) and Sonny Solomon are doing their part to feed hospital workers in Queens.

March 23 was supposed to be an epic Indian feast at Sonny Solomon’s Astoria restaurant, Kurry Qulture held by Queens Dinner Club. Instead Solomon shuttered his restaurant and has been working out of a commissary kitchen with the restaurant’s Chef Binder Saini to feed health care workers at Mount Sinai Hospital in Astoria. Along with Jaime-Faye Bean, my good friend Jonathan Forgash, a co-founder of Queens Dinner Club, has launched an effort called Queens Together. It’s working to keep numerous local restaurants afloat—including Ornella Trattoria Italiana, Bund on Broadway, Sac’s Place, Dino’s, Chakra Cafe, FireFly Petit Café Bistro, Cooldown Juice, Ricas Pupusas & Mas, Tangra Asian Fusion, and The Queensboro—by giving them the opportunity to feed doctors and nurses at hospitals throughout Queens.

Feeding the ‘epicenter of the epicenter.’ Top, Fefe Ang delivering home-cooked Indonesian fare; and Michael Mignano of Farine Baking Co. providing comfort food classics.

Others are doing their part too. Josh Bowen of John Brown Smokehouse has been feeding hospital workers across New York City, including those at New York Presbyterian in Flushing and has set up a GoFundMe. Chef Michael Mignano of Farine Baking Company in Jackson Heights is working with Queens Feeds Hospitals to prepare meals for Elmhurst Hospital, where he was born.

“As Chefs, our job no matter what is to feed people and bring comfort where we can through a great meal. I would love for our health care heroes to know that we appreciate them and understand the unrealistic challenges they have to face everyday. And I hope they can take 10 minutes out of the craziness to enjoy a thoughtfully prepared meal,” Mignano says. Fefe Ang, founder of Elmhurst’s Indonesian Food Bazaar and operator of Taste of Surabaya has been feeding workers at the “epicenter of the epicenter” as well. “I’m volunteering cooking Indonesian food not for looking popularity, but for humanity and thankful to all doctors and nurses. Just please pray for us,” she wrote on Facebook.

I awaken daily wondering what’s next for me, you, and Queens. And yet there is hope, nobody seems to have told the irrepressibly peeping birds and the blossoming dogwoods and magnolias about the pandemic.

In case you are wondering Joe’s Sicilian Bakery remains open for business from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. and will have St. Joseph’s pastries for sale until the week after Easter. Stay safe, dear friends.

03/31/20 1:55pm

Sunnyside’s Butcher Block sells Irish candy among many other things.

I hope everyone is managing to stay safe and sane amid the COVID-19 pandemic. In an effort to be of service, I present this roundup of markets from some of Queens many culinary cultures. Some of my favorites, notably Patel Bros. in Jackson Heights, as well as some of the Chinese markets in Flushing and Elmhurst have temporarily shuttered, but as of yesterday all of the following were open. That said you should call ahead to check their status. Please stay local if possible, and let me know how you’re doing–and what you’re eating–in the comments.

1. IRELAND

Butcher Block, 43-46 41st St., Sunnyside, (718) 784-1078
In addition to a wide selection of Irish chocolate bars and crisps this Sunnyside shop sells prepared foods such as roast beef and sausage rolls as well as black pudding if you want to whip up an Irish breakfast at home. Hours are 8 a.m. to 7 p.m.

2. ISRAEL
Carmel Grocery, 64-27 108th St, Forest Hills, NY 11375, (718) 897-9296
A local friend tells me that this market/coffee roaster was one of the first to sell Israeli foods in Forest Hills. I’m not sure about that, but I do love their homemade dips, especially the hummus, white bean dip, and tabouleh. Right now my fridge is stocked with all of them. There’s also all manner of Middle Eastern breads and goodies like halvah. As of now they are open from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. and do not offer delivery.

3. JAPAN
Sakura-Ya, 73-05 Austin St., Forest Hills, 718-268-7220
Hello Kitty chopsticks, Vermont Curry mix, furikake rice seasoning, okonomiyaki sauce and the slimy fermented soybean delicacy known as natto are just a few of the items to be found in this tiny market. Grilled mackerel, sashimi grade tuna and when it’s in season creamy steamed ankimo, or monkfish liver, can also be had. Come early if you want to grab one of their excellent bento boxes. Open from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m., delivery minimum $50.

View this post on Instagram

Kanom Krok gear from Khun Noi

A post shared by Jol (@hungry_eye) on

4. THAILAND
Thai Thai Grocery, 76-13 Woodside Ave., Elmhurst, 917-769-6168
Noi Sila is a fixture in the bustling Little Bangkok that runs along Woodside Avenue and Broadway in Elmhurst. Her shop stocks all sorts of ingredients, including curry pastes and other spices as well as kitchen equipment like sticky rice cookers and Thai style mortar and pestle. Hours for now are 1 p.m. to 7 p.m, although she is wisely limiting access to the shop. “I have to take care of the community,” Sila said. Delivery can also be arranged.

5. GREECE
Titan Foods, 25-56 31st St., Astoria, 718-626-7771
For more than 30 years this colossus of a supermarket has been serving Astoria’s Greek community, offering everything from Ouzon (ouzo-flavored soda) and religious incense to fruity Greek olive oil and canned grape leaves. Just inside the door there’s an entire counter devoted to flaky cheese and spinach pies, including the spiral skopetiliki spanakopita. Feta is a mainstay of the kasseri counter, with more than a dozen types, including creamy Bulgarian, salty Arahova, and slightly funky goat feta. Hours are 8 a.m. to 7 p.m.

6. KOREA
Han Yang Mart, 150-51 Northern Blvd, Flushing, N718-461-1911
If I Iived closer I’d do all my shopping, pandemic or not, here. The aisles are stocked with all manner of Korean ingredients—an entire case is devoted to kimchi and banchan—and there are kits to cook Korean barbecue and other dishes at home. Preppers take note they have canned silkworm and tuna fish. Last I checked they were still open 24 hours.

7. RUSSIA & FORMER SOVIET UNION
NetCost Market, 97-10 Queens Blvd., 718-459-4400
The façade of the only Queens location of this sprawling supermarket chain depicts a globe in a shopping cart, but the shelves are mostly devoted to imports from Russia and the former Soviet Union, like caviar and Slivochniy Sort, an 82.5-percent butterfat sweet cream butter from Ukraine. The bakery counter abuts a seafood station with a staggering selection of smoked fish — from whole Norwegian semga, better known in the States as steelhead trout, to cold-smoked buffalo fish and hot-smoked paddlefish — and several types of salmon caviar. Hours are 8 a.m. to 10 a.m. for seniors with a closing time of 7:30 p.m.

03/09/20 11:06am

Kurry Qulture’s samosa chaat is a riot of texture and flavor.

When it comes to dining out in Astoria, the first cuisine many people still think of is Greek. Truth be told though the neighborhood’s dining scene has been diverse for quite some time with Middle Eastern, Japanese, Eastern European, American comfort food, and upscale Indian. That last category is the sole purview of Kurry Qulture, which was opened by Astoria resident Sonny Solomon and Chef Binder Saini, both of whom hail from the North Indian state of Punjab. The boys and I at Queens Dinner Club love everything on the menu here, including the luscious lamb chops, but we we are also especially fond of the many vegetarian dishes, which is why we are so very excited that Sonny and Chef Binder have created a special vegetarian feast for the next Queens Dinner Club, which will be held March 23. Make sure you don’t miss this very special dinner by signing up for our mailing list here.

(more…)

03/08/20 11:10am

A weekend special of xian da xia chow fun at Elmhurst’s Little House Cafe.

Little House Cafe, a gem of a Malaysian restaurant masquerading as a Chinese bakery, is one of my all-time favorite spots in Queens. Located on a stretch of Corona Avenue in Elmhurst that features several Chinese businesses it’s always a stop on my Elmhurst food tours, usually for the amazing chow kueh teow. The tangle of stir fried noodles shot through with all sorts of goodies—shrimp, squid, and fish cake to name a few—arrives at the table alive with the energy, flavor, and color of wok hei.

When I find myself in the neighborhood solo, I pop in to see what’s on the rotating menu of weekend specials. Which is exactly how I came to be eating a $12 plate of salted egg prawn chow fun for breakfast yesterday. Actually I suppose breakfast was the Malaysian style brown sugar cake and iced coffee that I sipped while waiting for my noodles. (more…)

01/26/20 11:42pm

Chef Tom Lei puts the finishing touch on  a Shanghai specialty that will be served at the banquet.

A while ago I stopped by Chef Tom Lei’s restaurant Spy C Asian Cuisine in Forest Hills to review it for amNewYork. “What type of food would you like to eat?” the waiter asked. Chef Lei’s restaurant specializes in Sichuan food, but Lei, who studied at a top Beijing culinary school is conversant with a variety of Chinese cuisines, including Shanghai, Hunan, and Hangzhou to name a few. Since I was there to review the restaurant I couldn’t very well order any of these secret regional items, but I did have a great Sichuan meal, including mortar and pestle smashed eggplant (擂辣椒茄子, lei la jiao qie zi) and firecracker chicken wings (麻辣鸡翅, ma la ji chi). On a previous visit Chef Dr. Tom Lo, the restaurant’s culinary director, introduced me to Chef Lei’s take on crispy squirrel fish (松鼠鱼, song shu yu), a specialty of Hangzhou capital of Zhejiang so named because of the cross-hatched flesh appears when deep fried. It’s traditionally served with a sweet and sour sauce, but Chef Lei make his with a garlic sauce.

As I ate the squirrel fish and Chef Dr. Lo (an anesthesiologist by trade who is also a trained chef) waxed rhapsodic about Chef Lei’s smashed cucumbers in spicy sauce an idea came to me: Queens Dinner Club should have a multiregional Chinese banquet. Which is precisely what we are doing on the evening of February 10th. Make sure you don’t miss out on this very special dinner by signing up for our mailing list here. (more…)