04/18/14 10:45am
SHAKSHUKA

Saleya’s shakshuka is amazingly photogenic.

“Pretty sure that shakshuka always photographs like it’s already been digested,” I wrote on Facebook a while back. The less than appetizing observation came after reviewing some unflattering photos I took of the shakshuka at Grill House, my local Israeli spot. Many of my friends, food photographers and chefs among them, all agreed with my observation about the egg, tomato, and pepper concoction. (more…)

02/26/14 9:59am
SABICH

Sabich, the falafel sandwich’s lesser known cousin.

When I was in my twenties running around the East Village smoking more marijuana than I care to remember I ate more falafel than I care to remember. Had I known about the sabich, a lesser sung Israeli sandwich, I’d have added some variety to my midnight munchies. The combination of fried eggplant and hard-boiled eggs sounds odd at first, but it’s actually quite good. I’m fortunate to be able to procure one at Grill House a tiny Israeli joint that’s a 5-minute walk from my house.   (more…)

10/07/13 12:30pm
SPICYBURGER

Like a Big Mac, but much spicier and much, much more kosher.

The last time I ate a kosher burger was more than five years ago. It was such a disappointment I’ve given  little or no thought to repeating the experience. That is until I came across Burgers Plus out on Union Turnpike in the part of Flushing locals call Hillcrest. Still dubious I asked my pal Meir—my go-to guy for Israeli grub—about it. “It’s really good,” he enthused. “We should have lunch there.”

The menu at Burgers Plus lists four burgers, including a 220-gram lamb number ($10.95) that the grill man said was his favorite. In 2013 Burgers Plus seems to be the only the burger joint that has caught onto the metric system.  I followed Meir’s lead and ordered the 150 gram (5.2911-oz.) house spicy beef burger ($7.95). The burger is also available in a non-spicy version, given the option I always choose spicy. (more…)

04/24/13 10:21am
Grill Point’s shwarmic wonder wheel beckons passersby.

Grill Point’s shwarmic wonder wheel beckons passersby.

Spell it shwarma or shawarma, I don’t care. Either way, the Middle Eastern sandwich of stacked meat roasted on vertical spit is one of my all-time favorites. Truth be told I am mesmerized by rotating, roasting meat whether it’s a whole goat or a tower of chicken or lamb slowly browning, just waiting to be shaved off into sandwiches. One of the best places in Queens to get an Israeli version of this sandwich is Grill Point, where they spell it shuwarma. Grill Point lies on the largely Israeli end of Main Street in Kew Garden Hills. It’s an area I wish I visited more often. So when my pal Meir suggested we have lunch there I immediately said yes.     

The turkey lamb shuwarma has a perfect balance of crunchy browned bits and succulent meat.

The turkey lamb shuwarma has plenty of crunchy browned bits.

I ordered the lamb shuwarma ($10.10) and got a surprise, turkey. At first when I read “pita lamb turkey,”on my receipt I thought it was a mistake. The grill man assured me though that the spit he was carving from was composed of 60/40 blend of lamb and turkey, a meat that I begrudgingly eat every Thanksgiving. I was tempted to ask him whether Grill Point uses meat glue to bond the two, but I’m pretty sure the wonder substance is not kosher. In addition to the wonderfully sweet and spicy meat alloy, my pita was packed with creamy hummus, Israeli salad, and fried eggplant. Best of all there was a perfect balance of crunchy browned meat from the shwarmic wheel’s exterior and succulent  flesh from within. Truly one of the best “shuwarma” in recent memory. (more…)

02/27/13 10:06am
A Jerusalem street food classic by way of Rego Park.

A Jerusalem street food classic by way of Rego Park.

Sandwiches can be roughly divided into two categories: neat and dainty or messy and manly. The true test of how messy a sandwich is not whether its ingredients overflow from the bun. It’s whether I remove my watch to eat it. The Jerusalem Mix ($14) at Grill House is such a sandwich. It sounds like a world music collection, but Jerusalem Mix, or Meurav Yerushalmi in Hebrew, is a popular Israeli street food.

Grill House’s version consists of a trifecta of meats—chicken, lamb, and beef—sautéed with a heady mix of spices and onions. Rama Hababa, Grill House’s matriarch, knows her way around the spice cabinet too. She used to run Pereg, the wonderful spice shop in the Israeli section of Main Street in Flushing. The shop is now closed, but Hababa still uses the Israeli company’s spices. She seasons the meats with Pereg’s shawarma seasoning, which if I had to guess includes such aromatic spices as cumin, coriander, cinnamon, and cardamom along with garlic and other goodies. Hababa wouldn’t tell me what’s in the shawarma seasoning, but did reveal another surprising ingredient in her Jerusalem Mix, mango powder.

The end result served on a hero with a shmear of hummus is a true hungry man sandwich, packed with sweet and spicy morsels of meat. It is even better with some fiery schug and creamy tahini. At first I tried to pick up this dreadnought of a sandwich. Eventually I succumbed to using a knife and fork. As I put my put my watch back on, I had a brief moment of buyer’s remorse. Fourteen bucks is a lot for a sandwich, but it’s still way cheaper than airfare to Jerusalem.

Grill House, 63-55 Wetherole St., Rego Park, 718-897-1575

02/26/13 2:02pm
Japanese shishito peppers, mellow by any true chili-heads standards.

Japanese shishito peppers, mellow by any true chili-head’s standards.

As the old Power Station hit goes, “Some like it hot and some sweat when the heat is on/Some feel the heat and decide that they can’t go on,” I fall squarely in the chili-head camp, gleefully slathering Israeli schug on shawarma and perking up ceviche with Peruvian aji verde. Iindulge in fiery fare from Sichuan to Liberia and points in between. Sometimes, though, I can’t stand the heat. Take Thai spicy, please, as in, “Take it away.” After one too many experiences with the sensation of receiving a tongue tattoo with a hot needle I have given up ordering food “Thai spicy.”

In the past when I have ordered a dish “Thai spicy” the server usually approaches, filling my water glass and asks, “Too spicy? Are you okay, sir?” “Oh, no this is good,” I’d gamely respond eyes tearing, nose running, and lips burning as I tried to power through an incendiary meal. It’s been about two years since I’ve uttered the words, “Thai spicy.” Thankfully I can always adjust the spice level of Thai dishes by adding pickled chilies or dry roasted chili powder from the condiment caddy that graces the table.

Here’s what I’d like to know: What’s the spiciest thing you’ve ever eaten? Where do you draw the line? And when you’ve crossed it, how do you cool down? Tell me in the comments or hit me on the Twitter, @JoeDiStefano.