04/01/21 12:35pm
El Lindor is a double play of flavor, an artisanal cold cheese slice!

Play ball . . and eat pizza. Just in time for the opening day of Major League Baseball, my favorite Queens pizzaiolo, Dave Acocella of Philomena’s has created a special pie devoted to New York Mets pizza loving shortstop Francisco Lindor.

Acocella got the idea for El Lindor when he heard Paquito profess his love for pizza the night of a preseason game against the Washington Nationals. “New York pizza is amazing!” Lindor said. “I’m looking forward to being in New York to eat pizza, but I’m a little scared because it might turn into eating pizza three or four times a week.”

Phase 1 of El Lindor, fresh out of the oven.

Lindor’s namesake pie is nothing to be afraid of though. The double play of flavors would make any shortstop proud. First, a round pie festooned with red onions, capers, kalamata olives, mushrooms, tomato sauce, and garlic is baked off. When someone orders a slice, Acocella reheats it and then tops it off with fiore di latte mozzarella, Calabrian chilies, basil, and parmigiano. The result is savory, salty, sweet, spicy and creamy—absolutely Amazin’.

In fact it’s so good that the other night I heard a Yankee fan singing its praises. “I hate to admit it, but it’s really good,” he said. “I hope Lindor doesn’t play as good as this slice tastes!”

Acocella says the shop’s most elaborate slice may not be available every day. You should definitely try one if you see it in the case though. For the record, the Mets lost that preseason game against the Nationals. Here’s hoping El Lindor brings them luck the next time they face off!

Philomena’s, 41-16 Queens Blvd., Sunnyside, (718) 255-1778

03/15/21 11:13pm
Chef Palm’s use of techniques like rosemary smoke and luxury ingredients like
wagyu beef, is balanced by a firm grounding in the fundamemtals of Japanese sushi.

Even though it’s the most diverse section of the most diverse neighborhood in the United States the area surrounding the Jackson Heights—Roosevelt Avenue/74 Street Subway is better known for Thai, Mexican, and Tibetan cuisine than for Japanese. There are few sushi places—mostly middling takeout and a Tibetan restaurant masquerading as a Japanese spot—and until January 2020 no omakase whatsoever. That’s when Chef Atip “Palm” Tangjantuk opened Sushi On Me, in a space that used to house a Thai bar. Chef Palm was born in Thailand and until he decided to take a job in a sushi restaurant 10 years ago in Chicago to help pay tuition for an M.B.A. at DePaul University, he never gave much thought to kitchen work.

If anything Chef Palm first started making sushi because it had a cool vibe and was a physically cool environment as opposed to a hot kitchen. Fast forward 11 years, including a stint working with sushi wunderkind David Bouhadana at Sushi by Bou, and Chef Palm has become a cool sushi chef in his own right. Like his mentor, Chef Palm presents his sushi as a speakeasy experience. There’s no sign, unless you count the one for East 21, an unaffiliated Japanese takeout located above his hip sushi den, and the sountrack runs to upbeat mellow jazz. Despite the omakase speakeasy vibe, there’s nothing pretentious or gimmicky about his 15-course omakase.

Great things lurk below.

On the night I visited his eight-seat counter the meal began with shimmery hotaru—tiny Japanese firefly squid with shiro miso—and its less exotic cousin, strips of ika squid in ponzu. This was followed by two lovely pieces of yellowtail sashimi. Many of the nigiri were quite Japanese in presentation, including creamy hotate, or scallop from Hokkaido, and silvery kohada, gizzard shad with with ginger and chive, but some were clear examples of Chef Palm’s artistry, like zippy seared white tuna with crunchy Japanese garlic and king salmon, or sake, which Chef Palm infused with rosemary smoke moments before garnishing it with ikura (salmon roe) and tamarind sauce. The latter is inspired by the Thai dish miang kum.

Clockwise: pristine yellowtail sashimi; seared white tuna
with crunchy chili garlic; kohada with ginger and chive; and Hokkaido scallop.

Even the most over the top course— a morsel of A3 wagyu beef topped with creamy toro and briny Maine uni—was perfectly situated in the flow of the meal, less of a flex and more of a crescendo. This isn’t surprising, since Chef Palm is a musician and used to perform in the very space where he now improvises works of a different nature. Just as a jazz musician changes things up, Sushi On Me’s omakase is ever evolving, but grounded in the fundamentals of artistry and top-notch ingredients. “It depends on my feeling at that time,” Chef Palm says. “Sometimes I prepare the menu already, but at the last minute I change.”

At $89 for 15 courses Sushi On Me’s omakase is quite reasonable, and frankly among the best I’ve had outside of Japan. In case you’re wondering, Chef Palm never did get that degree. His parents wanted him to become a university professor. These days he’s a teacher of a different sort. The last time I stopped by to say hello he was teaching two apprentices how to turn cucumber into paper thin ribbons.

Sushi On Me, 71-26 Roosevelt Ave., Jackson Heights, (929) 268-5691

03/08/21 1:41pm
Soybean Chen’s new location opened at Broadway Food Mart last week.

Last Tuesday I was on my way back from my weekly foray to Warung Selasa when I noticed a smiling Chinese man waving to me outside Broadway Food Mart. For a moment I didn’t recognize him. Then I realized it was Soybean Chen, the cheery face behind Flushing’s only spot for fresh creamy dou hua—silken tofu—and fresh flowers. The creamy, comforting pudding like tofu has long a staple of my food tours. I was curious what brought Uncle Chen to Elmhurst.

Soon he and his son Jimmy told me that they were opening a tofu stand in Queens’ second smaller Chinatown. Just like the original Flushing location, Soybean Chen’s Elmhurst satellite offers sweet ginger syrup and Chen’s spicy topping of pickled veggies, baby shrimp, and chili. It’s also added a few new toppings, including boba in ginger syrup, which I tried the other day.

Uncle Chen and me in the O.G. Flushing location.

I’m so glad that Uncle Chen’s tofu is now a mere 10-minute walk from my apartment. It’s sure to become part of my breakfast rotation as well as my Elmhurst food tours. By the way I have started giving tours to small groups once again. Please click here for more details.

Soybean Chen Satellite, Broadway Food Mart, 83-20 Broadway, Elmhurst

09/25/20 1:32pm

BapBap’s rolls include one featuring grilled squid with peanut sauce, another sporting smoked brisket, and a DIY bowl that features Angus short rib, brisket, and summer corn.

There are so many places in the further reaches of Flushing to score Korean BBQ and kimbap—the sushi-like rolls that feature ingredients like spicy tuna and cheese—I like to call it K-tropolis. BapBap, the latest Korean spot in the nabe, takes it cue from these classic Korean specialties as well as Manhattan’s temples of gastronomy. That’s because it was created by two fine dining vets, Nate Kuester—who was a sous chef at The Cecil and cooked for three years at Aquavit—and Jason Liu, who was Aquavit’s service director and was most recently general manager at Chef’s Table at Brooklyn Fare.

While at the Cecil Kuester learned to smoke brisket under the tutelage of Chef JJ Johnson. At BapBap, he smokes brisket and features it in a Bap Roll. Other rolls include spicy tuna and squid, a trio makes make a nice lunch for $12. That smokey meat is excellent in the roll, and even better when combined with angus  short rib, in the grilled kalbi ssambap, which also features grilled summer corn all over a bowl of rice. It comes with sheets of roasted seaweed, so you can roll your own ssam just as you would at a Korean BBQ joint. The combination of Korean BBQ and low and slow American cue is a tasty homage to Kuester’s Korean-American heritage. (more…)

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…)

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…)

07/17/20 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.

06/29/20 10:28pm

Zhicay’s shrimp ceviche is stupendously good.

I’ve always known Alfonso Zhicay, the Ecuadorean culinary star behind Woodside’s Casa del Chef Bistro knew his way around ceviche, but it took a pandemic and a vegetarian ceviche of all things to fully convince me.

Like many chefs, Zhicay has pivoted during the pandemic, launching a new concept called PapaViche, a collaboration with fellow Ecuadorean Chef Humberto Guallpa of Freemans. I wanted to do only potatoes and then he said, ‘what about with ceviche?’” Zhicay said. “Potatoes and ceviche, why not let’s do it.”

Opening night at PapaViche.

When it comes to ceviche I tend to prefer the bracingly citric Peruvian version to the soupier and sweeter tomato-based Ecuadorean version, but Zhicay’s shrimp ceviche—listed on the menu as Alfonso’s Ceviche—knocked my socks off. The plump shrimp lounged in an orange liquor that was as bright as a gazpacho, but also had an incredible depth of flavor. “It’s a twist. It’s not exactly Ecuadorean ceviche,” Zhicay says noting that one of the secrets to its depth is roasted tomatoes that are added to a shrimp shell consomme. (more…)

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.