Noodles topped with a trio of fish roe sing with the flavors of Japan.
Last night I found myself wandering around the Lower East Side with a restless appetite. I considered eating at Wylie Dufresne’s new spot Alder then realized I was nowhere near it. Perhaps a bowl of Japanese bacon and egg mazemen noodles at the new Smorgasburg outpost inside Whole Foods. Alas they were closed. So I headed over to my favorite spot in the hood, Mission Chinese, for Danny Bowien’s mouth-blasting, palate-tingling take on Chinese food.
As I waited on line I weighed my spice-fueled options: kung pao lamb pastrami, thrice-cooked bacon, Chonqing chicken wings? When I took a seat in the dining room something delightfully odd happened. I was handed a slip of paper with the evening’s specials, two of which were Japanese. The first, cold tsukemen noodles ($16) with trout roe and sea urchin in bacon consommé sounded quite lovely. Turning back to the main menu I noticed beef heart and Hokkaido scallop sashimi ($13). I immediately ordered both, but felt quite strange. Was I really going to dine on Japanese fare at MCF with nary a hint of lip tingling Sichuan peppercorn? Apparently so. (more…)
Why opt for one type of smoked fish on your bagel when you can have three.
I didn’t grow up with the Jewish appetizer platter in my household. Every now and then though the old man would get some sable or lox, and I developed a taste for smoked fish. Occasionally I will get a sable and cream cheese sandwich at one of the local bagelries in my neighborhood. When I’m feeling especially decadent I’ll head to Russ & Daughters on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. The 99-year-old temple of appetizing makes a little forshpayz they call the meshugge ($20.75). It consists of a trifecta of smoked fish—sturgeon, sable, and salmon on a bagel or bialy—with cream cheese. This decadent bagel sandwich is worth every penny. Call me crazy, but I’ve a feeling I’ll be visiting R&D some time in the very near future.
Andy Ricker’s phat Thai is served on a banana leaf.
Spaghetti and meatballs is a dish I never order in a diner, because it is always terrible. Same goes for pad Thai, not that I’ve ever seen it served in a diner. It’s just that I’ve never had a good version of the dish so I never order it. Or at least I never did until I paid a visit to Pok Pok Phat Thai. Andy Ricker’s Lower East Side noodle house changed my opinion of the dish. In the phat Thai thamadaa ($8), rice noodles are fried in pork fat with tamarind, fish sauce, palm sugar, peanuts, dried shrimp, dried tofu, egg, garlic chives, bean sprouts, and chili powder. Thai spicy does not exist at this noodle joint. Per a sign on the wall “all dishes are prepared so that the seasoning can be adjusted to your taste (prung roht). Please use the condiments khruang prung…” And use them I did doctoring up the flat noodles with fish sauce and ground chili. Slurping the pork fat slicked fry-up as a mix of Thai covers of 1970s hits, including “25or 6 to 4” and “Boogie Nights”played was pure bliss.
Behold, the chicharron fongo at Albert’s Mofongo House.
Mofongo and I have a love-hate relationship. When the Puerto Rican specialty of mashed fried plantains seasoned with garlic and often shot through with chicharron is bad it’s really, really bad. A dense stomach spackle that leaves me questioning why I ordered it in the first place.
When mofongo is good, it’s still dense, but quite delicious. Such is the case with the chicharron fongo ($12.95) at Albert’s Mofongo House in Inwood. It is garlicky beyond belief and shot through with bits of chicharron. Not enough chicharron in the mofongo? Don’t worry Albert’s got you covered. There’s a pile of cracklingly delicious chunks of pork on the plate. The sidecar of broth is a nice touch too.
As befits a place with such a name there are 31 varieties of mofongo, including chivo fongo ($13.95) and Viagra fongo ($32.95). I’m not so sure I’m ready to spring for the Viagra variety, but the goat one sounds good.
Albert’s Mofongo house 4762 Broadway, Inwood, 212-567-3052
When it first opened back in 2003 Sake Bar Hagi was a gem of an underground izakaya. It was almost exclusively the province of Japanese office workers. That was before humble food scribes like myself and bigger names like Peter Meehan and Anthony Bourdain blew the cover of what was once Times Squares’ best kept secret sake bar. The specials always featured two or three edible oddities like the noxious homestyle squid guts and the surprisingly tasty pickled firefly squid. These days it’s still attracts a certain breed of extreme eater. As Justin Warner of Brooklyn’s Do or Dine once put it, “You don’t go to Hagi because you’re really into Japanese food; you go to Hagi because they have some really weird shit on the menu.”
These days there’s less weird stuff on the specials board at Hagi and more gaijin in the seats. One thing that hasn’t changed is a $7.50 dish that goes by the name “sweet fatty pork.” I had some there the other night after seeing Django at the AMC in Times Square. It was as good as it was a decade ago when I first started hanging out at Hagi with my pal William C. Wallis who would always order it by the Japanese name tontoro. I have never been sure whether the cut used is neck or cheek, but it is sweet, fatty and possessed of a rich porkiness. A squeeze of the accompanying lemon wedge and some green onions round out the flavors perfectly. William is the man behind the lovely chopsticks and marrow photo treatment that appears on the C+M banner. He remains as good a friend as ever just as Hagi remains as a good place to hang out as ever, even if the food isn’t quite as odd as it once was.
Sake Bar Hagi, 152 West 49th St., Manhattan, 212-764-854
Shocking and intense—like my passion for Danny Bowien’s food.
The other night I asked Danny Bowien, the blonde-haired madman behind Mission Chinese Food to marry me. I’d just finished the meal pictured above—thrice cooked bacon ($12), tingly tea smoked chicken ($9), and Beijing beef pancake—while seated at the bar at MCF NYC under the light of a scarlet dragon. As I paid the check my mouth was still buzzing from the Sichuan peppercorn and chilies.
“Danny Bowien will you marry me,” I asked poking my head into the kitchen. “I’m already married,” he said. “If you were a polygamist you could cook for me,”I responded. I can just imagine it. Bowls of the Sichuan-peppercorn dusted fried tripe that comes with MCF’S chicken wings; kung pao lamb pastrami for breakfast, lunch, and dinner; and mapo tofu for when I have a cold. I suppose it’s too much to ask for, which is why I can often be found seated alone at the bar underneath the red dragon that winds its way through the dining room. I eat at MCF alone for two reasons: a) I am greedy and b) I like to eat the leftovers for lunch the next day over rice. Once I ate there with five or six fellow food writers. We all fell quiet as we dug into Bowien’s explosively spiced food. All I could think about was how those tripe garnished wings were on the far side of the table—and whether I’d get my share.
A better look: Beijing beef pancake, thrice cooked bacon, and tingly tea smoked chicken.
“You work within your limitations,” a guy with a camera much better than mine said when asked how he takes photos in the scarlet-hued light of what I like to call the Red Planet. The only other restaurant that was as difficult to shoot food in was the purple spaceship of a Thai joint called Kurve in the East Village. Speaking of limitations mine do not include the inability to appreciate authentically inauthentic and vibrant spins on Chinese food such as Bowien’s. I have a friend who holds that, “Mission Chinese is a crude parody of Sichuan food for people who can’t be bothered to develop a palate for the real thing.” I am fortunate enough to have developed a palate for both.
I expected the beef pancake to be just that, a flat griddled cake, a gussied up scallion pancake of sorts. Nevertheless I rolled with the presentation: sushi-like roulades of flatbread filled with confit of beef shoulder and potatoes and topped with salted chilies. The tingly tea smoked chicken was as advertised, silky morsels of poached and smoked bird that left my mouth humming from the “chili sediment” and Sichuan pepper. The incendiary thrice-cooked bacon with chewy rice cakes, black beans,and winter melon was also excellent.
Danny, if you’re reading this my proposal still stands. If not I’ll see you on the Red Planet.