Khao Nom – Crispy Catfish Salad

Instagram Post 6/22/2018

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When Khao Nom, 76-20 Woodside Ave, Elmhurst, first opened, I regarded it as the sweets counterpart to its sister Khao Kang, the eye-opening steamtable spot that fronts around the corner. Known for its Thai desserts (which I’ll feature in an upcoming post), Khao Nom also boasts a significant number of savory dishes that wouldn’t be suitable for a steamtable staging area like this beauty: Crispy Catfish Salad (Yum Pla Duk Foo). Pounded catfish deep fried to a satisfying crunch paired with a spicy, chili-lime-cilantro dressed partner of shredded green mango, carrots, red onion, and cashews, it’s a study in contrasts and one of those remarkable dishes that hits all the right notes.

Yum indeed!
 
 

Lahi – Sisig Bangus

Instagram Post 6/21/2018

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There’s excellent Filipino food waiting for you in Elmhurst, Queens at Lahi, 51-24 Van Loon St. I initially encountered them last year at the Queens International Night Market and I’m happy to report that their brick and mortar establishment is top notch!

It’s easy to think of Filipino sisig as delicious sizzling crispy pork parts, but this mouthwatering dish comes in a many varieties. Here’s Sisig Bangus, chopped crispy milkfish with onions floating on a sizzling hot plate. I’m especially partial to their presentation; it leaves no doubt as to what you’re about to dive into!

More dishes from Lahi to follow.
 
 

Chao Thai – Tod Mun Pla

Instagram Post 6/20/2018

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Always a favorite, here’s Tod Mun Pla from Chao Thai at 85-03 Whitney Ave, Elmhurst, Queens. This deep fried fishcake appetizer with its contrasting dipping sauce is a Thai classic that never fails to satisfy. (Sunlight courtesy of a table near the window! 😉)

More posts with more dishes to follow.
 
 

Durian’s Best Kept Secret

Back in the seventies (ahem), Saturday Night Live did a sketch about Scotch Boutique, a store that sold nothing but Scotch Tape. They carried a variety of widths and lengths to be sure, but that was it. Just Scotch Tape.

MK Durian Group at 5806 6th Ave in Sunset Park, Brooklyn sells nothing but durian. They carry a variety of cultivars and variations to be sure, but that’s it. Just durian.

And the durian they carry is wonderful.

You’ve probably heard the oft-quoted aphorism about it, “Tastes like heaven, smells like hell” (some would have the order of the phrases swapped but you get the idea), so much so that the fruit is banned from hotels, airlines and mass transit in some parts of the world. (And yes, I’ve been known to smuggle some well-wrapped samples home on the subway.) If you’ve never tasted durian, you might discover that you actually like it; a number of folks I’ve introduced it to on ethnojunkets have experienced that epiphany. There are gateway durian goodies too, like sweet durian pizza (yes, really), durian ice cream, candies, and freeze dried snacks and they’re all acceptable entry points as far as I’m concerned.

It’s difficult to pinpoint what durian smells like. The scent appears to defy description; I’ve encountered dozens of conflicting sardonic similes, but suffice it to say that most people find it downright unpleasant. Although I have a pretty keen sniffer, somehow its powerful essence doesn’t offend me although I am acutely aware of it – just lucky I guess, or perhaps I’m inured to it – because this greatly maligned, sweet, tropical, custardy fruit is truly delicious. So I was thrilled to learn about MK Durian Group (aka MK International Group) from Dave Cook (Eating In Translation) whom I accompanied on a visit there.

Often called the King of Fruits (perhaps because you’d want to think twice about staging an uprising against its thorny mass and pungent aroma), it comes by its reputation honestly but with a footnote. The divine-to-demonic ratio varies depending upon the cultivar and, if I understand correctly, a window of opportunity when certain cultivars are sweet and nearly odorless simultaneously. This, I believe, is durian’s best kept secret. But more about that in a moment. (Click on any photo to view it in high resolution.)

MK Durian Group works directly with plantations in Malaysia and is a wholesaler and distributor to restaurants and retailers in addition to catering to walk-in customers. We entered the commodious space with its many tables, all unoccupied at the time. Chinese-captioned signs showing photos of fifteen cultivars and another seven in English decked the walls along with a menu that, in addition to a price list for the fruit itself, included durian pancakes, mochi, and a variety of cakes, buns, and biscuits, a concession to the timid, perhaps. Durian cultivars are typically known by a common name and a code number starting with the letter “D”, so you might see Sultan (D24) or Musang King (D197), but sometimes you’ll find just the code numbers or sometimes just names like XO or Kim Hong. Scientists continue to work on hybrids to maximize flavor and minimize unpleasant smell.
Fion, without whom I would have been at a complete loss, urged us to get the Musang King, often regarded as the king of the King of Fruits. She selected one from the freezer case and microwaved it for a few minutes to thaw it but not warm it up. Our four pounder, stripped of seeds and rind, ultimately produced about one pound of (expensive but) delicious fruit.Using an apparatus that looked a little like some sort of medieval torture device to crack the husk, she then adeptly removed the yellow pods; each pod contains a single seed that can be used in cooking like those of jackfruit. We took our treasure to one of the tables where boxes of plastic poly gloves were as ubiquitous as bottles of ketchup would be on tables at a diner.

That Musang King was perhaps the best durian I had ever tasted, so much so that my new personal aphorism is “Durian: The fruit that makes its own custard.”

You may have seen durian in Chinatown in yellow plastic mesh bags where the fruit is often sold by the container and you don’t have to buy a whole one; you might conceivably experiment with whatever is available. But these were a cut above. As we left, I realized that something about the experience had been unusual: I asked Dave if he had noticed any of the customary malodourous bouquet. He replied no, but he thought perhaps he was a little congested that morning. I knew I wasn’t congested that morning. There had been no unpleasant smell to contend with. Had we stumbled upon that elusive golden window of odorless but sweet opportunity? Was that particular Musang King odor free? Or perhaps all of them in that lot? Did it have something to do with the fact that it had been frozen and thawed? We were beyond the point of going back and asking Fion, but I think it’s worth a return visit to get some answers!
 
 

Pikine

Instagram Post 6/19/2018

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Pikine, a West African restaurant at 243 West 116th St in Manhattan is definitely worth a visit, particularly if you’re unfamiliar with Senegalese food. Portions are large (suitable for two, I’d say) but be forewarned that oftentimes many dishes are unavailable, sometimes because they’re served only on certain days of the week (typical for many African restaurants) but sometimes just because the kitchen reports that they’re out.

We ordered Senegal’s national dish, Thiebou Djeun – spellings vary widely but pronunciation is close to Cheh-boo Jen – and to call it rice and fish is an understatement even though the words translate as rice and fish. It’s made from “broken rice” (easily found at nearby African markets) and if you look closely you’ll see its short grains, but it begins its life as standard untruncated rice that breaks in the field or during processing or milling; the shards are sorted by size and are highly desirable since they cook faster and absorb flavors more readily than whole grains. The rice, combined with chopped onion and garlic, is cooked with tomato paste that lends its deep red color and rich flavor, plus okra, carrots, cabbage (your vegetables may vary) and perfectly seasoned fish.

Our second dish was Maffe (often spelled Mafé), lamb stew with vegetables in a tomato/peanut butter sauce, another Senegalese classic that’s not to be missed.
 
 

Lucky Pickle Dumpling Co.

Instagram Post 6/18/2018

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Yes, Lucky Pickle Dumpling Co. at 513 Amsterdam Ave in Manhattan has dumplings and noodles too, but the attraction for us was the soft serve ice cream available in two flavors, matcha and pickle; of course we went for the pickle since that’s their claim to fame. Perusing my mental catalog of pickle families, I was hard pressed at first to identify its tribe other than cucumber-based. Sour pickle? Not even close. Kosher dill? Nope, no garlic (thank goodness). Then I finally hit upon it: bread and butter pickles! The sweetest in the clan and always welcome at the table. I mean, how else could you get down to the bottom of that cup and not wonder if it would have made a good sundae with a little pastrami topping?

(Remember when a craving for pickles and ice cream was considered a litmus test for pregnancy?)
 
 

Chao Thai

Instagram Post 6/16/2018

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The venerable Chao Thai at 85-03 Whitney Ave, Elmhurst, Queens had always been a standard bearer for Isan (Northeastern) Thai food; since I hadn’t visited in years, I was overdue for a refresher. It’s still good, but there is a lot of competition in that category now, not to mention the burgeoning popularity of Northern and Central Thai cuisines.

This whiteboard special caught my eye so I gave it a try. Called Northern Style Green Chili Dip, it would make a worthy addition to their regular menu. Surrounded by an assortment of fresh vegetables including cucumber, broccoli, long beans, carrots, cauliflower and (happily) Thai eggplant in addition to sweet potato and crispy crackly pork rinds, the zesty, dominant dip was a perfect partner to the gentle, submissive accompaniments.

More posts with more dishes to follow.
 
 

Hong Kong Taste

Instagram Post 6/15/2018

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Hong Kong Taste, 47-21 90th Street at the corner of Corona Ave in Elmhurst, Queens, brings a bright, airy, youthful feel to cha chaan teng (tea restaurant) dining. There are three things I particularly love about this place. First, the vast and incredibly well organized menu of delicious, authentic Hong Kong specialties featuring everything from congee to dumplings to fried popcorn chicken along with an abundance of soups and rice and noodle dishes, not to mention milk teas and the like.

Second, and perhaps their claim to fame, is their Cart Noodles 🍜. It’s a mix and match bonanza where you get to choose your noodle from among nine styles (thin, thick, wheat, rice, egg, etc.) and then top it off with your choice of 26 add-ons including curry fish ball, chicken wing, pork hock, fried wonton, radish, fried egg and lots more. Here’s a bowl loaded with Hong Kong style thick noodles plus beef tendon ball, beef brisket, radish, and beef omasum (aka book tripe).

Which brings me to my third favorite aspect of Hong Kong Taste. Every table is provided with a sea of condiments, of course, but two are not to be missed: their homemade curry sauce and garlic sauce. These were truly remarkable. And sure enough, when I looked closely at their menu later that day, I saw that they sell them by the quart to take home. Guess I have to go back!
 
 

Bake Culture

Instagram Post 6/14/2018

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As I continue to update my Manhattan Chinatown ethnojunket, I find that there’s always a new bakery that has popped up, and although they sell many similar items, there are often a few surprises. Bake Culture at 48 Bowery has a branch in Flushing and its roots in Taiwan and presents a clean, sleek image to its millennial customers. The brainchild of three Taiwanese boy band members, they offer items that are touched with whimsy like Seashell Bread, Chocoholic Bread, Hot Dog Bunnies, and this Chocolate Dipped Coconut Sheep Bread. It’s actually not bad; chocolate dipped horns and candy eyes with a tasty version of that eggy yellow coconut filling that you’ve probably sampled before.

Photo #2 – To reacquaint yourself with the filling.

Photo #3 – They simply call this one German Pudding, a common name in Singapore for this kind of custard tart; it sports a crust that’s a bit more sturdy and flavorful than a standard Chinatown dan tat and a filling that’s a little lighter and less dense than others I’ve tried around these parts. Good stuff!

(I guess this is how these former musicians are making their bread these days! 😉)
 
 

Al-Mazaq Restaurant and Bakery

Instagram Post 6/13/2018

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An Iraqi (🇮🇶 – not often do I get to use that flag!) meal at Al-Mazaq Restaurant and Bakery at 46 East Railway Ave in Paterson, NJ turned out to be a novel experience. Al-Mazaq (المذاق) is the Arabic word for taste and I assuredly tasted some flavors I hadn’t come across before. A family operated business, our food was appropriately homespun and humble, elevated by the charming assistance of sisters Riyam and Hiyam.

[1] From the breakfast side of the menu, we ordered the Bagila Platter, seasoned broad beans (bagila) with eggs served over a foundation of Iraqi bread, languishing there to soak up every bit of flavor. But what was that vaguely familiar but elusive dusty seasoning?

[2] The mystery close up. Many questions and a lot of research later yielded the answer: البطنج – butnij, or crushed, dried river mint, a first for me.

[3] Next up were gaymar, a homemade fresh cheese supplemented with clotted cream and “black honey”, [4] and its accompanying kahi, squares of syrupy bread; dishes that when consumed together were elegant in their simplicity but ambrosial in their lusciousness. I found a similar cheese in a nearby market and intent upon reproducing this delicacy at home, tried numerous permutations of honey, pomegranate molasses, and date molasses along with clotted cream and heavy cream. Alas, I never even got close.

h/t Dave Cook, @eatingintranslation and by extension, Peter Cucè, @baoandbutterblog