Articles by

Joe DiStefano

Newsstand
07/14/20 9:13pm

Take two plates of plov and call me in the morning.

One of my favorite things about Queens is that there’s deliciousness around every corner: killer tacos down the street from a sex toy emporium; Chinese style nougat outside the Flushing LIRR; even Mexican seafood cocktails in the back of a bodega.

Today’s Twofer Tuesday—Uzbek plov and fruit pie from Greenway Health & Pharmacy, a drugstore/butcher/glatt kosher market in Rego Park—falls squarely in the latter category. Plov is a hearty Central Asian one-pot rice dish scented with cumin and studded with sweet bits of carrot that I’ve come to know and love after 20 years of living in the neighborhood.

Greenway’s excellent version uses beef, and is heavy on luscious nubs of carrot and also has chickpeas, and naturally, cumin. It’s made by a grandmotherly woman stationed next to the butcher counter. She also cooks up bakhsh, a plov variant that gets its greenish hue from coriander, parsley and dill; and a third type that features raisins. (more…)

07/08/20 9:35pm

RCL calls it a sandwich, but it’s more of a platter.

Chef Bruce has been gone about four years now. I still have a jar of cayenne he gave me two years before he died. It’s as potent as the memory of the first time I dug into a gigantic bowl of graveyard shift curry laksa at Curry Leaves with him. The chef turned taxi driver introduced me to what I like to joke is downtown Flushing’s longest running popup, since an entirely different crew runs the late night noodle operation. We’d often text each other in the wee hours with the simple query: “Curry Leaves?”

He introduced me to many places in Queens including the soul food specialist Rockaway Fish House/RCL Enterprises in Jamaica. Despite the name and the excellent reputation for fried fish, we ordered from the well-stocked steam table. I don’t remember what he had, but I do recall my plate: pig ears in gravy with collards and macaroni and cheese. (more…)

07/07/20 11:10pm

Clockwise from bottom left: Southern fried chicken at Dylan’s and two ways of serving Papa’s bird.

Yesterday was National Fried Chicken Day, which as best as I can tell is an Instagram Holiday. The occasion got me to thinking that for someone who doesn’t cook I sure know a lot about fried chicken. I blame my parents who used several different recipes. My favorite was one with a craggy crust à la Kentucky Colonel as my father called KFC, but they also used a smoother buttermilk batter, and even experimented with cornflakes.

All of which brings me to the subject of today’s post: my two favorite new fried chicken spots in Queens. The first comes from Dylan’s Forest Hills. By all appearances it’s pretty traditional in its takeout box with a lovely biscuit and corn on the cob. A closer look reveals a uniform crunchy crust and a slightly smaller bird. Dylan’s uses flavorful free range fowl that’s encased in a corn flake crust to great effect. (more…)

06/30/20 10:39pm

Smoky jerk chicken and rich chicken foot soup at St. Best.

It’s usually my food photos—Thai steam table treats, tacos de birria and the like—that make my friend and partner in arms in Queens Dinner Club Chef Jonathan Forgash jealous, but recently the opposite’s been happening. Largely because he’s been on a jerk chicken binge for the past two weeks in Southeastern Queens, thanks to recommendations from friends at The BlaQue Resource Network, an online networking and resource community for black-owned businesses in Queens, that has been throwing their support behind Queens Together.

Even though I spent the first two years of my life in Queens Village, it along with the rest of Southeastern Queens is a neighborhood that I’ve been needing to explore more for a long time. I’ve had the pleasure of eating from the  soul food steam table heaven that is R.C.L. Enterprises, but that’s about it.

So on Monday I took the F train to the last stop in Queens and then hopped in Jonathan’s car for the drive over to Queens Village for out first stop, St. Best Jerk Spot. Like many of the best restaurants in Queens, it takes a bit of effort to get to, but it’s worth the trip. (more…)

06/29/20 10:28pm

Zhicay’s shrimp ceviche is stupendously good.

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…)

06/16/20 12:41pm

Soft shell crabs beached atop cheesy grits.

Like many of us I’m struggling with balancing social distancing and the onset of summer fun in these strange times, but that didn’t keep me from taking a ride to Rockaway Beach. My buddy and I stayed off the sand for this trip. Instead, we paid a visit to Whit’s End, a gourmet outpost by the sea that’s been masquerading as a pizzeria, since 2013.

Whitney Aycock, a chef perhaps best known in the press for speaking and cooking his mind, turns out some amazing pies, including a salciccia e vongole that rivals the clam pizza at New Haven’s Zuppardi’s. Instead of that pie, we had a surf and turf of a different sort cobbled together from the non-pizza side of the menu.

First up was “quick ass ceviche,” made with seabass and pineapple among other things. Next, came two soft shell crabs beached atop Georgia stone ground grits bolstered by smoked cheese. The whole affair was topped with bits of salty porchetta, peanuts cooked in brown butter, and chive buds. (more…)

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…)

05/05/20 12:37pm

Top: yen su ji, Taiwanese fried chicken, found at the otherwise deserted New World Mall. Bottom: Corner 28 may be shuttered, but sister restaurant Shanghai You Garden is now serving the famous duck buns.

It has been two months since I’ve been to America’s Greatest Chinatown, aka downtown Flushing. Normally, I’m there several times a week, whether I have a food tour to lead or not. A combination of sheltering in place and sadness over the state of affairs have kept me away.

Yesterday though, I had a doctor’s appointment in downtown Flushing, so naturally I had to find some lunch. Many of the restaurants on the strip of 40th Road—including Corner 28, a favorite for their Peking Duck buns—were closed. Then I noticed a tent in front of Shanghai You Garden, Corner 28’s sister restaurant, which lies across the street.

Installed in the front of the restaurant was a window with a sign that read “Peking Duck $1.50.” It sat above a realistic looking diorama of several ducks roasting over a glowing wood fire. I waited my turn while watching the face shield clad duo assemble the pillowy little sandwiches and then ordered two. They were as good as ever.

My spirits buoyed by this light lunch, I checked out another of my food tour haunts, the New World Mall Food Court. I expected the subterranean wonderland to be closed like many of the neighborhoods other purveyors of xiao chi, or small eats but was surprised to find it open.

Once downstairs though it was truly eerie how empty it was. Only five of the more than 30 stands were open. One of them being No. 27 a specialist in Taiwanese street food whose Chinese language sign features a jaunty chicken, midflight signifying that it specializes in yen su ji, crispy craggy morsels of salty fried chicken that are a favorite in Taiwan and downtown Flushing.

Like the duck, these crunchy nuggets of fowl were just lovely. I lingered a moment in the food court and ate a few. “Taiwanese food, no MSG,” the dude behind the counter informed me. Normally I would have made a comment about stinky tofu in Mandarin, but instead I just thanked him and walked upstairs to ponder the etiquette of removing my bandana to enjoy fried chicken while walking down the street.

Hao Xiang Chi Kitchen, No. 27, New World Mall Food Court, 136-20 Roosevelt Ave., Flushing; Shanghai You Garden, 135-33 40th Rd., Flushing

04/28/20 9:44pm

Chaikhana Sem Sorok’s lovely lagman soup.

“Is Bella Roza open?” my pal Rocky asked about two weeks ago about the Uzbek bakery/restaurant in Rego Park, where many restaurants have shut down due to COVID-19. “Pretty sure they are just closed for Passover,” I replied. Like me, Rocky’s a good—and single-minded eater—so a few days ago he messaged me that Bella Roza was open.

Samsa, plov, and lagman,” he responded when asked what he was ordering. The samsa—meat pies filled with either beef or lamb—are cooked in a tiled tandoor that sits behind the counter. Time it just right, and you can score one fresh out of the furnace.

So the other morning I strolled over to Bella Roza to mimic my pal’s order. The bakery was most definitely open, but it’s now under new ownership and has a new name: Chaikhana Sem Sorok. Other than that things looked pretty much the same, rows of samsa were arrayed in the glass case, and a giant pot of plov sat on the stove. (more…)