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

08/22/21 10:17pm
Gai yang, corn salad, and pork tongue made for a great late summer meal.

One of the best things about living in the heart of Elmhurst’s Thai town is that I have a front row seat to all the goings on in New York City’s hotbed of Thai culinary culture from the bad—like the closing of northern Thai stalwart Lamoon—to the good surprises like fresh durian at Thai Thai Grocery and new restaurants like Eat Gai, the Elmhurst outpost of the critically acclaimed Essex Market khao man gai specialist.

I’ve been eagerly watching the development of the Eat Gai space, which used to be Indonesian restaurant Upi Jaya, for months. I’m pretty sure owner Bryan Chunton and his partners got tired of me and every other neighbor stopping by to ask “You open yet?” Well, this Saturday as tropical storm Henri sidled into town Eat Gai opened its doors for a soft opening dinner. As a rule I don’t write about restaurants when they are in soft opening mode, but I made an exception, especially since I was eager to try what Chunton had described to me as Thai style rotisserie chicken. I’m a big fan of pollo a la brasa—whether Colombian or Peruvian—but I’d never had Thai style rotisserie chicken.

I found the specialty of the house gai yang or “roast chicken” just below and to the left of the menu’s tag line “Thai Chicken Specialist.” I opted for a half bird ($16.95), rounding it out with a Thai corn salad ($9.95) and roasted pork tongue ($7.95). The bird itself was fragrant, juicy, and tender. Chunton told me the restaurant uses smaller birds because they’re tastier. Something about really good roast chicken always makes me want to eat like a caveman and Eat Gai’s version was no exception.

The bird is served with two variations on jaew sauce, one is only slightly spicy the emphasis on tamarind, the other fairly vibrates with salt, chili, and lime leaf. I prefer the spicier version, but really chicken this good needs no adornment. The corn salad, a summery take on tom yum, rounded everything out making for a great meal on a rainy night.

Chunton was kind enough to introduce me to his chef, Mukda Sakulclanuwat, who hails from the town of Mukdan in Thailand’s Isan region. She shared a few of the secrets of her glorious chicken with me. For one thing she marinates it for two days in a mixture of lemongrass, cilantro, garlic, and coconut milk, rendering it tender and fragrant.

“I grew up with this food in my neighborhood in Isan,” she recalled. “Every day I helped my friend make this. After we would finish here Mom would let us go play.”

When asked whether she brushed it with anything while it was cooking, she thought for few beats and said, “Oh yes pork fat.” And that folks is why I always seek a specialist when it comes to street food.

Eat Gai, 76-04 Woodside Ave., Elmhurst

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

02/02/21 3:56pm
These savory sweet Phoenix cookies are known as little chicken cookies in Malaysia.

Longtime C&M readers know Little House Cafe, the wonderful Malaysian restaurant/bakery run by Helen Bay—who handles the baking, including the infamous Golden Pillow, a food tour favorite—and her husband, Michael Lee—who handles the savory dishes, like a bangup chow kueh teow and such creations as salted egg chow fun with shrimp—is one of my favorite places to eat in Queens.

After the pandemic hit they closed for a bit and reopened in May, but just for takeout. Since I moved to Elmhurst, I have taken to strolling over to the mini Chinatown spur of Corona Avenue to get some takeout and treats from the little house with the yellow awning.

My go-to treat is something the shop calls “Phoenix Cookies.” Each container holds some two dozen mahogany colored, crunchy sweet-savory biscuits studded with black and white sesame seeds. Toasty, and not too sweet with a hint of pepper they’re perfect with a cup of tea or coffee, which is how I enjoy them most every day.

The Chinese on the label reads ji zai bing, or “little chicken cookie,” as they’re commonly known in Malaysia, specifically in the the small town of Kampar, where they are said to have been created. Bay makes hers with fermented bean curd, candied melon, and pepper among other things.
Whether you call them chicken biscuits or Phoenix cookies, the irregularly shaped brown crisps are decidedly Southeast Asian.

Like all of the noodles at Little House the Singapore fried mee hoon is excellent.

As I mentioned I’m a big fan of all of the stir-fried noodles at Little House, so when I saw on the restaurant’s Facebook page that they were offering something called Singapore fried mee hoon, which bears a striking resemblance to one of my favorite noodle dishes, Singapore mei fun, I had to try it.

The tangle of vermicelli gone yellow from curry, shot through with fish cake, shrimp, beef, and squid is the best version of the dish I’ve ever had. Since it came from a Southeast Asian restaurant and had a different name, I thought I had discovered the mysterious origins of this American Chinese takeout classic. “No, it’s the same thing, mee hoon is just the Fujianese way of saying it,” my Malaysian pal Danny schooled me.

With Chinese New Year just around the corner my sincere hope for Little House Cafe and every cafe, dim sum house, restaurant, and hawker stand in every Chinatown is that it rises like a phoenix from COVID. Like many other Chinese and Southeast Asian restaurants Little House Cafe offers many treats that are only available during this festive season, check their Facebook page for details.

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

10/05/20 11:20pm

Spicy and herbaceous, a contender for Elmhurst’s best chicken feet.

Pata Market, located in the heart of Elmhurst’s Thai Town is many things to many people: a community bulletin board for those seeking apartments and jobs; a source for Thai snacks, including Lays chips; and a place to score bespoke tom yum and prepared foods.

A month ago I moved into the neighborhood and now I find myself at Pata Market more and more, which is how I found the subject of today’s post. When I saw the container marked kanom jeen nam ya pa on the counter whose ingredients included rice noodle and chicken feet, I was wondering where the noodles were, but my friend behind the counter pointed out another takeout container filled with noodles and all manner of herbs. (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

08/16/20 10:03pm

I’m not sure whether the catfish pad prik khing from iCook Thai Cook falls under what’s sometimes referred to as Thai Royal Cuisine. What I do know is I can’t resist a punny headline. Nor can I resist Boonnum “Nam” Thongngoen’s vibrant Thai cooking. So I was very happy to hear her Elmhurst restaurant, which shares a space with the hotpot restaurant iCook, reopened on Friday for outdoor dining.

Like a lot of things these days, P’Nam’s menu has adapted. The major change is the addition of a half dozen $15 set menu items that I call Thai happy meals, each served with soup and rice. That’s where I found catfish pad prik khing.

“I have order envy,” my dining companion said eying the translucent fried basil leaves and curlicue of green peppercorns adorning the ruddy catfish. It tastes even better than it looks, thanks to the curry paste that hums with the warmth of chili and ginger and the perfume of galangal, lemongrass, and lime leaves. The fried catfish is lovely, and, like the paste itself, unabashedly spicy. So I was glad for the rice as well as a mellow bowl of kai pa lo, egg and tofu in a sweet five spice broth.

I would be remiss if I didn’t point out that in addition to offering extra rice, the waiter encouraged me to finish my soup. Welcome back P’Nam and company!

iCook Thai Cook, 81-17 Broadway, Elmhurst, 929-522-0886

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.

06/01/20 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…)