Articles by

Joe DiStefano

Newsstand
03/31/20 1:55pm

Sunnyside’s Butcher Block sells Irish candy among many other things.

I hope everyone is managing to stay safe and sane amid the COVID-19 pandemic. In an effort to be of service, I present this roundup of markets from some of Queens many culinary cultures. Some of my favorites, notably Patel Bros. in Jackson Heights, as well as some of the Chinese markets in Flushing and Elmhurst have temporarily shuttered, but as of yesterday all of the following were open. That said you should call ahead to check their status. Please stay local if possible, and let me know how you’re doing–and what you’re eating–in the comments.

1. IRELAND

Butcher Block, 43-46 41st St., Sunnyside, (718) 784-1078
In addition to a wide selection of Irish chocolate bars and crisps this Sunnyside shop sells prepared foods such as roast beef and sausage rolls as well as black pudding if you want to whip up an Irish breakfast at home. Hours are 8 a.m. to 7 p.m.

2. ISRAEL
Carmel Grocery, 64-27 108th St, Forest Hills, NY 11375, (718) 897-9296
A local friend tells me that this market/coffee roaster was one of the first to sell Israeli foods in Forest Hills. I’m not sure about that, but I do love their homemade dips, especially the hummus, white bean dip, and tabouleh. Right now my fridge is stocked with all of them. There’s also all manner of Middle Eastern breads and goodies like halvah. As of now they are open from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. and do not offer delivery.

3. JAPAN
Sakura-Ya, 73-05 Austin St., Forest Hills, 718-268-7220
Hello Kitty chopsticks, Vermont Curry mix, furikake rice seasoning, okonomiyaki sauce and the slimy fermented soybean delicacy known as natto are just a few of the items to be found in this tiny market. Grilled mackerel, sashimi grade tuna and when it’s in season creamy steamed ankimo, or monkfish liver, can also be had. Come early if you want to grab one of their excellent bento boxes. Open from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m., delivery minimum $50.

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Kanom Krok gear from Khun Noi

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4. THAILAND
Thai Thai Grocery, 76-13 Woodside Ave., Elmhurst, 917-769-6168
Noi Sila is a fixture in the bustling Little Bangkok that runs along Woodside Avenue and Broadway in Elmhurst. Her shop stocks all sorts of ingredients, including curry pastes and other spices as well as kitchen equipment like sticky rice cookers and Thai style mortar and pestle. Hours for now are 1 p.m. to 7 p.m, although she is wisely limiting access to the shop. “I have to take care of the community,” Sila said. Delivery can also be arranged.

5. GREECE
Titan Foods, 25-56 31st St., Astoria, 718-626-7771
For more than 30 years this colossus of a supermarket has been serving Astoria’s Greek community, offering everything from Ouzon (ouzo-flavored soda) and religious incense to fruity Greek olive oil and canned grape leaves. Just inside the door there’s an entire counter devoted to flaky cheese and spinach pies, including the spiral skopetiliki spanakopita. Feta is a mainstay of the kasseri counter, with more than a dozen types, including creamy Bulgarian, salty Arahova, and slightly funky goat feta. Hours are 8 a.m. to 7 p.m.

6. KOREA
Han Yang Mart, 150-51 Northern Blvd, Flushing, N718-461-1911
If I Iived closer I’d do all my shopping, pandemic or not, here. The aisles are stocked with all manner of Korean ingredients—an entire case is devoted to kimchi and banchan—and there are kits to cook Korean barbecue and other dishes at home. Preppers take note they have canned silkworm and tuna fish. Last I checked they were still open 24 hours.

7. RUSSIA & FORMER SOVIET UNION
NetCost Market, 97-10 Queens Blvd., 718-459-4400
The façade of the only Queens location of this sprawling supermarket chain depicts a globe in a shopping cart, but the shelves are mostly devoted to imports from Russia and the former Soviet Union, like caviar and Slivochniy Sort, an 82.5-percent butterfat sweet cream butter from Ukraine. The bakery counter abuts a seafood station with a staggering selection of smoked fish — from whole Norwegian semga, better known in the States as steelhead trout, to cold-smoked buffalo fish and hot-smoked paddlefish — and several types of salmon caviar. Hours are 8 a.m. to 10 a.m. for seniors with a closing time of 7:30 p.m.

03/09/20 11:06am

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.

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03/08/20 11:10am

A weekend special of xian da xia chow fun at Elmhurst’s Little House Cafe.

Little House Cafe, a gem of a Malaysian restaurant masquerading as a Chinese bakery, is one of my all-time favorite spots in Queens. Located on a stretch of Corona Avenue in Elmhurst that features several Chinese businesses it’s always a stop on my Elmhurst food tours, usually for the amazing chow kueh teow. The tangle of stir fried noodles shot through with all sorts of goodies—shrimp, squid, and fish cake to name a few—arrives at the table alive with the energy, flavor, and color of wok hei.

When I find myself in the neighborhood solo, I pop in to see what’s on the rotating menu of weekend specials. Which is exactly how I came to be eating a $12 plate of salted egg prawn chow fun for breakfast yesterday. Actually I suppose breakfast was the Malaysian style brown sugar cake and iced coffee that I sipped while waiting for my noodles. (more…)

01/26/20 11:42pm

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…)

01/22/20 12:09pm

Behold my new lamb rib crush.

It’s early days in 2020, but I’m confident to go on record that the Kashmiri lamb ribs that Chef Chintan Pandya just put on the menu at Adda Indian Canteen in Long Island City are the best lamb dish I’ve eaten this year. I am of course partial to the musky meatiness of lamb ribs, and still bemoan the loss of Peng Shun’s cumin-encrusted Muslim lamb chop.

There’s something about the combination of cumin, chili, and musky lamb that’s just perfect and Pandya’s lamb ribs are no exception. The two meaty specimens—available for $23 only at dinner—are stained red from a spice blend that includes cumin; red chili powder; and amchur, or dried mango powder. The combination of crunchy spice crusted mantle and tender meat is mindblowing. I gladly ate them as is, but the mint chutney did provide a nice cooling counterpoint.

“It is a very simple process to cook it’s just time consuming,” Pandya modestly says of his new creation. Part of that time is a leisurely simmer in a secret elixir for six or seven hours. Pandya says the inspiration for the dish is a Kashmiri classic called tabak maaz, where the lamb is first cooked in milk and then browned in butter.

“I don’t call it tabak maaz, I call it Kashmiri lamb ribs,” Pandya says because his cooking method is different. No matter, I call it delicious.

Adda Indian Canteen, 31-31 Thomson Ave., Long Island City, 718-433-3888

01/07/20 11:42am

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…)

12/27/19 4:33pm

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.”

 

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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…)

12/16/19 12:39pm

Tibetan stir fried beef with laphing conjures childhood memories of chow fun on Mott Street.

“The pork and mushroom was pretty good,” my friend Chef Jonathan Forgash said as we were deciding what to eat at Phayul, a Tibetan restaurant in Jackson Heights. We were at the new location, which sits across from the original second-floor location. For whatever reason they’re keeping them both open, which strange as it may seem businesswise, does means twice as much of Chef Chime Tendha’s delicious Tibetan food.

The menu at Phayul’s new, more elegant digs has several new items, including chicken tangkung, a soup of ginseng and jujubes that is Tibet’s answer to Korean samgyetang. We got the soup that evening, but didn’t order the pork and mushroom, instead opting for stir fried laphing with beef. Both of us are big fans of the slippery mung bean noodles, usually served cold in a sauce of vinegar and garlic, but had never had the hot version. (more…)

12/02/19 5:08pm

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…)

11/07/19 7:46pm

A bodacious haul of Japanese KitKats from Flushing’s Teso Life.

Now that fall’s here in full force I paid a visit to Teso Life in downtown Flushing to see if the purveyor of Japanese junk food had that most autumnal of Japanese KitKats—Kuranberi Almond KitKat. The dark chocolate covered wafers topped with toasty almonds and chewy sweet bits of cranberry are my all time favorite Japanese flavor.

There were no cranberry KitKats to be found at Teso, but I did see several  I’ve never encountered before: Setouchi Shio ando Lemon or Setouchi Sea Salt and Lemon; Ikinari Dango, named for a snack of sweet potato and red bean wrapped in mochi that’s popular in Kumamoto; Sakura Nihonshu or Sakura Japanese Sake; and Sutoroberii Chiizukeki Aji, or Strawberry Cheese Cake.

My favorites were the surprisingly refreshing lemon and strawberry cheesecake, which are both excellent chilled. Don’t worry if there’s no Japanese grocer near you, you can score your own Japanese KitKats and other goodies on my Amazon Store. Here’s what I’d really like to know though, what’s your favorite Japanese KitKat. Let me know in the comments!