Articles by

Joe DiStefano

Newsstand
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

08/17/21 6:12pm


A trio of refreshing mariscos: aguachile mixto rojo, ceviche mixto, and the mighty chaparrita.

“There were no good places for mariscos,” Alonso Guzman told me when I asked why he and his wife Amy opened Mariscos El Submarino. Located in the heart of Mexican Jackson Heights, the seafood specialist with a yellow mustachioed submarine logo, is in fact a great place for mariscos–or Mexican style seafood–specifically as prepared in Sinaloa.

I first learned about Mariscos El Submarino from Professor Steven Alvarez, an expert’s expert in all aspects of Mexican culinary culture who teaches a course called “Taco Literacy” at St. John’s University. As part of an epic four-hour crawl of of the neighborhood’s best Mexican spots, we tried a torre or tower ironically called La Chaparrita ($20)—or the shorty—a stack of diced cucumber, octopus, shrimp, and avocado, surmounted by two teetering fried shrimp sitting in a lake of spicy cold broth accented with soy sauce. It was over the top and refreshing. Upon eating it, I immediately began plotting my return to this wonderful seafood emporium.

Next visit I tried Don Alonzo’s version of ceviche, specifically the restaurant’s signature Submarino. While I waited for my food, I attempted to translate the slogan on the wall “No hay mal que duran cien años ni cruda que un buen marisco no cure.” Soon I was digging into a plastic takeout container filled with shrimp, octopus, and fish topped with avocado. Thanks to plenty of lime juice and red onion the marinade was bracing and refreshing, good medicine for a hot humid afternoon. “I could get used to Mexican style ceviche,” I thought to myself not at all missing the potato and corn that grace the dish’s Peruvian cousin.

On a subsequent visit, I asked Don Alonzo what his favorite dish on the menu was and he immediately responded aguachile, a favorite from his home state of Sinaloa. As Norteño music blared from the sound system I eagerly awaited yet another restorative and refreshing dish from El Submarino. Soon Amy brought over the aguachile rojo mixto, a stone molcajete filled to the brim with shrimp, octopus, and fish in a fiery red sauce. The combination of lime, chilies, and cooling cucumber was just what I needed on a hot humid Queens afternoon. Don Alonzo told me that the cold broth is flavored with three types of chili peppers—Sinaloan chiltepin, red jalapeño, and chile de arbol—as well as tomato juice.

As for the slogan on the wall Amy translated it thus for me: “There’s no pain that lasts for a hundred years nor a hangover that good seafood can’t cure.” I would add dog days of summer malaise to the things that mariscos can cure!
Mariscos El Submarino, 88-05 Roosevelt Ave., Jackson Heights, 718-685-2780

08/10/21 5:02pm
The mighty wontons in chili oil at Beijing Dumpling House.

A case could made for my performing meaningful civic duty for the World’s Borough of Queens, New York City. After all what higher service is there than spreading the word about all manner of diverse Queens delicacies from Mexican birria tacos and seafood cocktails to Tibetan momo dumplings and subterranean Burmese hotspots? When it comes to more conventional civic duty I vote and have even served on a grand jury for several weeks. Despite having literally written the book on Queens I’ve never done jury duty service at Queens Civil Court in Jamaica, until today that is.

The main question I had was are they really going to send me to jail or fine me thousands of dollars if don’t show up where to eat? I vaguely recall a pupusa place and I know that the Hillside Avenue location of Sybil’s Bakery is nearby, but beyond that I was at a loss. So I turned to the newest expert on Queens cuisine my good friend Drew Kerr, who has been documenting chefs and their beloved objects from Rockaway to St. Albans since February, for The Queens Chef Project, a truly uplifting photographic and audio tribute to the chefs and food workers of Queens, who have made it through some of the most difficult times, that debuts this fall. Drew’s counsel was to hit up Beijing Dumpling House, an authentic Chinese spot just steps from the courthouse.

As I sat in the Room 173 straining to hear and see the video about jury duty service, I was eagerly thinking of lunch. And then they dismissed us at 10 a.m., making it my shortest jury duty stint.

“I guess I’ll have to eat at Beijing Dumpling House another time,” I mused as I exited the building to walk to the subway. It’s a good thing I looked up, I might have missed the fact that Bejing Dumpling House was open. After introducing myself to Pei Na “Sabrina” Zhang and learning that she and her mother, Yan Mei “Amy” Zhang, the head chef, hail from Guangzhou I started peruse the menu. Fried and steamed dumplings are a focal point, along with more than three dozen dishes, including noodle soups and the Sichuan specialty dan dan mian. I almost ordered the latter, but decided on another Sichuan delicacy, hong you shui jiao, listed on the menu as “wontons with spicy sauce.” Sabrina told me that the plain are spicy already, but for an extra buck I doubled down with the addition of garlic, cilantro, and more chili.

In a few minutes Sabrina presented me with a bowl packed to the brim with wontons showered in garlic, cilantro, and red chili. There were so many wontons into the plastic soup bowl that for a minute I couldn’t see the red oil beneath. Each dumpling was packed with pork, shrimp, and vegetables. Unlike traditional wontons, whether H.K. or White Bear style, these were huge. I don’t know if the size is due the fact that Chef Zhang makes hundreds of crescent-shaped jiaozi dumplings a day or her generosity. I suspect it is a combination of both.

It was the best Chinese breakfast I’ve had in some time and the certainly the best and only jury duty breakfast. I don’t have to do jury duty for another six years, but I plan to return to Bejing Dumpling House well before then.

Beijing Dumpling House, 88-38 Sutphin Blvd., Jamaica, 718-297-2935

04/01/21 12:35pm
El Lindor is a double play of flavor, an artisanal cold cheese slice!

Play ball . . and eat pizza. Just in time for the opening day of Major League Baseball, my favorite Queens pizzaiolo, Dave Acocella of Philomena’s has created a special pie devoted to New York Mets pizza loving shortstop Francisco Lindor.

Acocella got the idea for El Lindor when he heard Paquito profess his love for pizza the night of a preseason game against the Washington Nationals. “New York pizza is amazing!” Lindor said. “I’m looking forward to being in New York to eat pizza, but I’m a little scared because it might turn into eating pizza three or four times a week.”

Phase 1 of El Lindor, fresh out of the oven.

Lindor’s namesake pie is nothing to be afraid of though. The double play of flavors would make any shortstop proud. First, a round pie festooned with red onions, capers, kalamata olives, mushrooms, tomato sauce, and garlic is baked off. When someone orders a slice, Acocella reheats it and then tops it off with fiore di latte mozzarella, Calabrian chilies, basil, and parmigiano. The result is savory, salty, sweet, spicy and creamy—absolutely Amazin’.

In fact it’s so good that the other night I heard a Yankee fan singing its praises. “I hate to admit it, but it’s really good,” he said. “I hope Lindor doesn’t play as good as this slice tastes!”

Acocella says the shop’s most elaborate slice may not be available every day. You should definitely try one if you see it in the case though. For the record, the Mets lost that preseason game against the Nationals. Here’s hoping El Lindor brings them luck the next time they face off!

Philomena’s, 41-16 Queens Blvd., Sunnyside, (718) 255-1778

03/15/21 11:13pm
Chef Palm’s use of techniques like rosemary smoke and luxury ingredients like
wagyu beef, is balanced by a firm grounding in the fundamemtals of Japanese sushi.

Even though it’s the most diverse section of the most diverse neighborhood in the United States the area surrounding the Jackson Heights—Roosevelt Avenue/74 Street Subway is better known for Thai, Mexican, and Tibetan cuisine than for Japanese. There are few sushi places—mostly middling takeout and a Tibetan restaurant masquerading as a Japanese spot—and until January 2020 no omakase whatsoever. That’s when Chef Atip “Palm” Tangjantuk opened Sushi On Me, in a space that used to house a Thai bar. Chef Palm was born in Thailand and until he decided to take a job in a sushi restaurant 10 years ago in Chicago to help pay tuition for an M.B.A. at DePaul University, he never gave much thought to kitchen work.

If anything Chef Palm first started making sushi because it had a cool vibe and was a physically cool environment as opposed to a hot kitchen. Fast forward 11 years, including a stint working with sushi wunderkind David Bouhadana at Sushi by Bou, and Chef Palm has become a cool sushi chef in his own right. Like his mentor, Chef Palm presents his sushi as a speakeasy experience. There’s no sign, unless you count the one for East 21, an unaffiliated Japanese takeout located above his hip sushi den, and the sountrack runs to upbeat mellow jazz. Despite the omakase speakeasy vibe, there’s nothing pretentious or gimmicky about his 15-course omakase.

Great things lurk below.

On the night I visited his eight-seat counter the meal began with shimmery hotaru—tiny Japanese firefly squid with shiro miso—and its less exotic cousin, strips of ika squid in ponzu. This was followed by two lovely pieces of yellowtail sashimi. Many of the nigiri were quite Japanese in presentation, including creamy hotate, or scallop from Hokkaido, and silvery kohada, gizzard shad with with ginger and chive, but some were clear examples of Chef Palm’s artistry, like zippy seared white tuna with crunchy Japanese garlic and king salmon, or sake, which Chef Palm infused with rosemary smoke moments before garnishing it with ikura (salmon roe) and tamarind sauce. The latter is inspired by the Thai dish miang kum.

Clockwise: pristine yellowtail sashimi; seared white tuna
with crunchy chili garlic; kohada with ginger and chive; and Hokkaido scallop.

Even the most over the top course— a morsel of A3 wagyu beef topped with creamy toro and briny Maine uni—was perfectly situated in the flow of the meal, less of a flex and more of a crescendo. This isn’t surprising, since Chef Palm is a musician and used to perform in the very space where he now improvises works of a different nature. Just as a jazz musician changes things up, Sushi On Me’s omakase is ever evolving, but grounded in the fundamentals of artistry and top-notch ingredients. “It depends on my feeling at that time,” Chef Palm says. “Sometimes I prepare the menu already, but at the last minute I change.”

At $89 for 15 courses Sushi On Me’s omakase is quite reasonable, and frankly among the best I’ve had outside of Japan. In case you’re wondering, Chef Palm never did get that degree. His parents wanted him to become a university professor. These days he’s a teacher of a different sort. The last time I stopped by to say hello he was teaching two apprentices how to turn cucumber into paper thin ribbons.

Sushi On Me, 71-26 Roosevelt Ave., Jackson Heights, (929) 268-5691

03/10/21 7:30pm

“Sorry, we’re out of today’s special, it was Virginia ham and mutz,” the gent behind the counter said. The counter—in case you’re wondering—was located not in my home borough of Queens, but rather in Hoboken, N.J., birthplace of both Frank Sinatra and Fiore’s House of Quality.

As the sign in the window at Fiore’s says, the storied Italian deli has been making its famous mozzarella since 1913. (For those of you keeping score at home, that’s two years before Old Blue Eyes was born.) It’s also become famous over the years for its roast beef and mozzarella—or “mutz” as they call it here—and gravy sandwich, which is only available on Thursdays and Saturdays.

My pal and I found ourselves in Hoboken Monday evening so we were unable to get the shop’s most famous creation or the day’s special, so we went with that Italian deli standard, the Italian combo.

The guy at the counter rattled off the ingredients: pepper ham, salami, roast peppers and some others that I didn’t really catch because I was deliriously hungry. At Fiore’s one normally chooses the bread—either a skinny hoagie as long as your forearm or a roll—before approaching the counter. There’s no bread pawing during a pandemic so I asked the counterman for a whole sandwich to split. I almost ordered one for each of us, but I had a presentation to give later that night and didn’t want to fall prey to a food coma.

After cutting the loaf in half, my new friend began layering the ingredients—mutz, spiced ham, peppers etc.—so far so good. Then he picked up a knife and proceeded to cut it in half. When he raised the knife again I almost screamed in protest, but held my tongue.

“Geez, we’re lucky he didn’t cut the crust off,” I wisecracked to my friend as we made our way to the car. When we arrived at Frank Sinatra Park and unwrapped our feast, I soon realized why the guy at Fiore’s had quartered the our combo. One piece could barely fit in my hand. We ate it overlooking the Hudson. The combination of creamy mutz, garlicky roast peppers, and all that Italian salumi was almost better than the view. A quality sandwich for sure, I’ll be back for the roast beef.

Fiore’s House of Quality, 414 Adams St., Hoboken, N.J.

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

03/03/21 7:40pm

“Hugue literally said that you inspired the sandwich,” Sarah Obraitis told me via text. The creation in question? A foie gras sandwich that recently landed on the menu at their restaurant M. Wells in Long Island City. While I’m flattered by Chef Hugue Dufour’s comment, I take it with a grain or two of fleur du sel. As for the sandwich, I went to try it last weekend and wasn’t quite sure what to expect other than decadence. I did have a hazy memory of a photo of an orb of fattened duck liver that looked like it had been dispatched with an ice cream scoop.

The $24 sandwich consists of a generous ball of creamy foie perched atop a bun slathered with homemade membrillo, aka quince paste. Call it what you will, its tart sweetness is a great counterpoint to the rich, creamy foie gras. For a moment I considered smushing the orb down and eating the whole lot like an actual sandwich, but decided against that for two reasons: 1) it would be really messy and 2) I wanted to prolong my gustatory bliss for as long as possible. So I spread a good deal of it on the top bun and fell to.

A few words about that bun, it is a challah bread dough that’s been treated like a croissant and has a bit of smoked eel in it. The whole experience took me back to the first time I ever tried foie gras at the River Cafe 20 years ago.
The smoked eel in the bread was a mere whisper, but it did call to mind a smoked eel croissant that Chef Dufour dreamed up for a Queens Dinner Club Brunch. So I guess I am in some sense the inspiration for this sandwich.

I enjoyed my main course of monkfish well enough, but that sandwich was a tough act to follow. Next time, I’m getting two. I wonder if the kitchen would put it on a baguette. Do I dare to dream of a foie gras banh mi? After all stranger and tastier things have happened at M. Wells and hopefully will continue to do so now that restaurants are back open at 35% and the end of the pandemic is in sight.

M. Wells, Steakhouse, 43-15 Crescent St, Long Island City, NY 11101

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