Articles by

Joe DiStefano

Newsstand
11/24/20 7:34pm

It’s been a little hard for me to muster up the enthusiasm to write about food finds these days, especially since my ideal subject is something so good I have to tell everyone about it more or less immediately. It’s a high—some would say unsustainable—standard. Nevertheless here are two things I simply have to share with the world. The first is a cheffed up fried chicken meal and the second an equally soigné soup dumpling.

I’m not one to wait on line for food fads or join waiting lists to score fancy pants pizza, but when I heard about the chili fried chicken dinners from Eric Huang’s Pecking House, I knew I had to have one. For one thing he was a sous chef at Eleven Madison Park, plus he was keeping his folks’ restaurant Peking House in Fresh Meadows, Queens, afloat with this new venture. So winner, winner fried chicken dinner!

Ordering from Pecking House takes some patience as one must first send a DM to their Instagram account @pecking_house, or in my case, several DMs. Finally they got back to me and provided me with a password an ordering slot. From there it was pretty easy and on Sunday night Eric himself delivered the meal straight to my door.

After a brief reheat the craggy red crusted chicken was ready to devour and devour it I did. It was crunchy, juicy and had just the right amount of spice. Huang wouldn’t divulge too much about his process, but he did reveal that the bird is soaked in buttermilk and that the spice mix includes Sichuan peppercorns and Tianjin chilies. It was so good I might have to get two orders next time. Dessert was peanut butter pudding with pretzels atop a layer of grape jelly. I don’t recall ordering two, but it gave me the opportunity to try one frozen, which I highly recommend.

As I mentioned the other really great thing I ate recently was a new soup dumpling from Nan Xiang Xiao Long Bao. Part of the Three Treasures XLB series created to celebrate the one year anniversary of the restaurant’s rebirth the red and white swirled dumpling is made with a very special ingredient, aged Chinese ham. The other two treasures were green, filled with braised abalone, and black, filled with spiked sea cucumber.

Thanks to my adventures in the world of charcuterie I’ve become something of an expert on aged hams, but I have little experience with Chinese ham. Clearly I need to eat more of it because these dumplings knocked my socks off. I was expecting a salty smoky meatiness and to be sure that was there to a degree, but what really struck me about these new XLB, was a deep funkiness that called to mind cheese. I cannot wait to try them again, especially since I’m told that they are looking to make this already amazing dumpling even better.

Nan Xiang Xiao Long Bao, 39-16 Prince St., (718) 321-3838
Pecking House available for order through IG: @Pecking_House

11/18/20 12:26pm


Delicias Caleña No. 2, a tiny bakery whose awning proclaims “100% Colombiano,” is wedged between a North Indian and a South Indian restaurant in a part of Jackson Heights better known for halal butchers and Tibetan momo parlors than Colombian bakeries. It’s the type of spot I love to duck into in the morning for a cup of coffee and a buñuelo—the golden fried cheesy orb—or, if I’m feeling a bit hungrier an arepa con queso and a hunk of chicharron. The subject of today’s post isn’t Colombian breakfast though, it’s American breakfast. One that’s near and dear to the heart of New York City folks, the bacon egg and cheese sandwich.

“It’s the best,” my buddy Jeff Orlick, who lives just down the street has been telling me for years. “They make the bread and they deep fry the bacon.” Soggy bacon has turned me more into a sausage and cheese man, so after having lunch around the corner from Delicias with Jeff last week I made a point to finally try this sandwich.

I was prepared to be disappointed for I’m well aware that in this age of Instagram and a constant hunger to feed the interwebs the very best X, expectation often far exceeds reality. All that said it was actually the best bacon egg and cheese I have eaten in Jackson Heights, and certainly the best one from a Colombian bakery.

Perhaps it was the fact that eggs were scrambled, and the bacon was crispy, and the fresh roll definitely played a huge part. More likely though it was the novelty of finding the sandwich in such unfamiliar surroundings. I may just have another for lunch today. For the record, my favorite sausage and egg breakfast sandwich remains Maialino’s spendy cotechino on a pecorino biscuit.
Delicias Caleña No. 2, 35-68 73rd St, Jackson Heights

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10/27/20 11:28pm

Two years ago I celebrated my 50th birthday with a weeklong trip to Mexico City. I stayed in the very chill neighborhood of Colonia Roma Norte on Tehuantepec. I ate and documented as many tacos, tortas, and other specialties as I could, took a couple of food tours and even ran into Rick Bayless. But there’s one experience I didn’t document, maybe because I wanted to stay in the moment, or maybe because it caught me so off guard.

On my last night in Colonia Roma Norte I took a walk down to the other end of Tehuantepec to check out the street food by the Metro. There were several stands with tacos, tortas, and some sort of soup, but none of them called to me. By this time I’d eaten tacos pastor de arrachera con queso at Taqueria Dos Parados where I ran into Bayless and enjoyed stellar seafood at Contramar, so perhaps my standards were higher than they would have been at the beginning of the trip, but I like to think that the food gods were guiding me toward a more special experience.

As I walked down Tehuantepec back to the apartment I noticed five EMTs jumping out of an ambulance and running toward a small shop. Wondering what was going on I ambled over and realized that rather than a medical emergency it was a street food pit stop. (more…)

10/07/20 10:13pm

Breakfast of chubby champions!

Breakfast is usually a simple affair at Chez Joe. A strong cup of coffee with a sweet Chinese bun and perhaps a banana works just fine. The other day though I paired my potassium booster with a savory Chinese bread, péigēn miànbāo, the infamous “bacon bread,” from New Fully Bakery. The wedge of spiral bread is filled with a double dose of pork in the form of salty, smokey bacon and slightly sweet pork floss.

On that particular morning said spiral was getting stale, so I warmed it up in the toaster oven. Then I remembered I had a jar of sweet Lily’s Filipino peanut butter. Thus was born the Filipino Elvis sandwich. It was a salty sweet, and, I suppose marginally healthy way to start the day. Since I now live around the corner from New Fully I’ve begun to wonder if they’ll sell me a whole loaf and whether I should make a gigantic bacon bread grilled cheese.

New Fully Bakery, 82-24 45th Ave., 718- 446-9058

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…)

09/25/20 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…)

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

07/29/20 1:46pm

The signature roast beef sandwich topped with cheese sauce and raw onions is worth a trip to Sheepshead Bay, Brookyn.

Even though I’ve made a career out of hating on Brooklyn in favor of Queens, my roots lie in the County of Kings where parents grew up. Perhaps my DNA makes me a sucker for the borough’s old-school neighborhoods and their culinary institutions. Today’s post is not about a certain antediluvian steakhouse in Williamsburg, but a rather another purveyor of meaty marvels: Roll ’n Roaster, a 50 year-old establishment that built its reputation on a rather sumptuous roast beef sandwich.

I was two years old in 1970 when Buddy Lamonica founded the Sheepshead Bay roast beef sandwich specialist whose slogan “We’re not so fast, Roll ’n Roaster,” became a staple of New York City late night TV in the 1970s. I didn’t grow up eating Lamonica’s creation—a glorious sandwich of thinly shaved roast beef drenched with gravy and topped with cheese sauce—that one of the restaurants many, many signs touts as “PERFECTION ON A ROLL,” but I wish I had. Instead we had Roy Rogers Roast Beef with horsey sauce. Imagine the greatness I would have achieved had I cut my teeth on Roll ’n Roaster instead of Roy’s! (more…)