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…)
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.
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…)
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.
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.
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…)
Before touring the countryside in a vintage bus, I enjoyed a traditional Japanese breakfast.
I recently took a whirlwind trip to Japan where I visited Tokyo, Hakata, Kurume, and perhaps my favorite destination of all the charming town of Hirokawamachi in the space of four days. The trip was organized by my good friend Kazuko Nagao, the Okonomiyaki Queen of NYC, and sponsored by the local government of Hirokawamachi. I’d like to thank the the Hirokamachi Board of Tourism for their gracious hospitality!
After seeing posts of my onigiri breakfasts in Tokyo, my good friend Stanford had encouraged me to try a traditional Japanese breakfast so I was glad to start day two of my Hirokawamachi adventure with just such a repast, prepared by Chef Kodai Nishizaka at Hirokawa Sato Cafe. It’s not on the regular menu, but Nishizaka-san prepared it especially for us that morning. It consisted of rice, homemade miso soup and cool tofu accompanied by grilled salmon, bean sprouts, tamago, and pickles. Along with a bright cup of green tea, the light meal was a great way to start the day.
Our destination as seen from the window of our ride for the day.
After breakfast I stepped outside and marveled at the green and beige 1965 retro bus. Every year during the last two weekends of November, the local tourism board provides free shuttle service for Taibaru Icho Meguri, or ginkgo leaf peeping using the vintage vehicle. Soon we met Kaoru Miyamoto, our driver who was clad in a snazzy chauffeur’s uniform. He’s one of only two men in town who can wrangle the 1962 manual steering schoolbus. Normally, it’s packed with leaf peepers, but that day our crew of four were the only folks on the field trip. “Sit up front next to the driver Joe-san,” Sakata-san instructed, so I did. We were soon on our way south to the golden grove of ginkgos. (more…)
Some local scenery, including golden gingko leaves.
As some of you may know last month I took a whirlwind trip to Japan where I visited Tokyo, Hakata, Kurume, and perhaps my favorite destination of all the charming town of Hirokawamachi in the space of four days. The trip was organized by my good friend Kazuko Nagao, the Okonomiyaki Queen of NYC, and sponsored by the local government of Hirokawamachi. I’d like to thank the the Hirokamachi Board of Tourism for their gracious hospitality and the cooking lessons!
After two days of seeing and eating as much as I could in the bustling metropolis of Tokyo it was time to head to the country, specifically Hirokawamachi. The good folks at the local tourism board specifically requested that I visit the week before Thanksgiving to partake in one of the country town’s most beloved traditions, Taibaru Icho Meguri, or gingko leaf peeping, as it was still autumn in Japan.
Since Tokyo’s on the island of Honshu and Hirokawamachi is on Kyushu we took a short flight to Fukuoka and then hopped on the Shinkansen—or bullet train—to Kurume. I was only there briefly, but it’s fair to say Kurume is to Tokyo as Oakland is to San Francisco. It’s also the gateway to Hirokawamachi and no visit is complete without checking out what Kazuko-san likes to call “Kurume Disneyland.”
Rather than a full-blown amusement park, it’s a mechanical taiko drum clock erected in 1999 to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the birth of one of Kurume’s great figures, Tanaka Hisashige, known as “the Thomas Edison of Japan. Every hour it plays a song by a different Kurume composer and gives a little show detailing Hisashige’s contributions. At noon that song is Hachidai Nakamura’s “Sukiyaki,” made famous in the States in the 1970s by disco diva duo A Taste of Honey. (more…)
Some scenes from two very intense days of eating and touring Tokyo, including deluxe salmon onigiri, Senso-ji temple, Asakusa noir, and breakfast omakase at Toyosu Fish Market.
As some of you may know I recently took a whirlwind trip to Japan where I visited Tokyo, Hakata, Kurume, and perhaps my favorite destination of all the charming town of Hirokawamachi in the space of four days. The trip was organized by my good friend Kazuko Nagao, the Okonomiyaki Queen of NYC, and sponsored by the local government of Hirokawamachi. Before getting into the wonders of Hirokawamachi—and there are many, from artisanal textiles to amazing matcha—this installment takes a look at what I ate in Tokyo. I would like to thank Kazuki Chito of @mcnaieatmecrazy who graciously guided me around Tokyo.
I’d arrived in Tokyo late the night before and hit the ground eating as best as I could. That is to say I ordered a sea bream ochazuke and some grapefruit juice from room service. The dashi broth poured over rice and fish proved most restorative after a long flight.
Luckily Kazuko-san picked a hotel attached to the Haneda Airport. Not only was this convenient for arrival, it was convenient for breakfast. Haneda’s domestic terminal and its shops lay just outside the hotel’s doors and is eerily calm and serene in the early morning. I quickly found Sato Suisan a gourmet rice ball stand. I was particularly impressed to see a gent making fresh onigiri with ikura, or salmon roe. I also took note of a really cute airplane-shaped bento named for the Blue Impulse (Burū Inparusu) the Japan Air Self-Defense Force’s equivalent of America’s Blue Angels.
Next time I find myself at a Tokyo airport snack shop I’m getting a Blue Impulse bento box!
The ikura onigiri—still warm and packed with salmon roe and salmon—was a fine breakfast, but by the time we got to Asakusa at 1:30 p.m., I was pretty hungry. “This is my favorite place for tonkotsu ramen,” Kazuki-kun said as we entered Urimbo. “It’s Hakata style,” he pointed out as he ordered the noodle with egg. I quickly took my guide’s lead and copied his order. Even though the broth was rich, it was cleaner tasting and less unctuous than tonkotsu I’ve had in the States. It knocked out the remnants of a lingering cold I’d brought to Japan from New York City. (more…)
Vibrant ceviche mixto, featuring shrimp and octopus, and the mighty bolon filled with pork, plantains, and mozzarella are just part of the evening’s menu.
Ask any old-school Queens food nerd, including yours truly, about Ecuadorean cuisine in the World’s Borough and the first thing that comes to mind will be the cluster of food trucks on Warren Street underneath the 7 train in Corona or perhaps the ladies who grill cuy—guinea pig—in Flushing Meadows Corona Park. About year ago though some very trusted Queens food nerds of a more recent vintage, like my pal Instagrammer @Wendalicious888 started to talk about a new place Rincón Melania on the border of Sunnyside and Long Island City.
“How good can it be? There are no Ecuadoreans over there,” I thought to myself. Good enough for a glowing review in The New York Times it turns out. Which is why I’m so glad that the next Queens Dinner Club will convene at Rincón Melania November 13th. Make sure you don’t miss out on this very special dinner by signing up for our mailing list here.