Fulton’s Steambuffets: Definitely Not Folly!

Okay, I freely admit it. I like steamtable buffets. The good ones, at least. Not because I harbor any porcine proclivities (shh!), but rather that I’m keen on the idea of tasting one bite of many dishes as opposed to sitting down to a plate of “hunk o’ meat and two veg”. It’s why I love dim sum in Chinatown. So you can imagine my delight when I discovered a row of mostly-Caribbean-but-bordering-on-African-with a-hint-of-Middle-Eastern steamtable joints while strolling along Brooklyn’s Fulton Street.

Here’s what you need to know to join in the fun:

Pricing can be tricky if you’re a newbie. Your container is weighed and priced by the pound. But that’s where things can get confusing. If you take mostly vegetables or less costly items like salad, one price applies; add some heftier proteins and the price per pound for your whole order goes up. And then there are certain “special items” (like baked salmon) that carry an even weightier price tag ($11.95 instead of $6.95 per pound, as a rough example). Grab enough of that one and the cost of what was mostly greens can escalate from lunch to dinner level. So choose judiciously. If you want to taste that $11.95 pasta and fish dish, put as much as you want in a small container and it will be weighed and priced accordingly. And how does that pricing determination happen? The person at the checkout station peers into your container and makes a decision. In my case, it was always more than fair. But forewarned is forearmed and there’s nothing wrong with checking out a couple of containers at different cost levels.

Some of the spots have excellent signage, both in terms of what the dishes are and what you’ll pay per pound for various choices. At the other end of the spectrum, some have no signs at all – neither price nor identification – and generally there isn’t much opportunity to ask questions. But again, I want to emphasize that in my experience, pricing will be fair and for the most part you’ll leave full and happy. In terms of what you’ll be eating – that’s the fun part: try a little bit of lots of things. Chances are you won’t be disappointed and you’ll be better informed on your return visits.

Do Not Break the FishIn many cases, you’ll find whole fish accompanied by a sign warning, “Please Do Not Break the Fish”. A good excuse to go with a friend, I should think. Each of you chooses a number of items, but only one of you lands a fish and then you can share when you get to your table. More fun and perfectly legitimate.

Most of these places are Halal, so if you see something that looks or tastes like pork or ham, it’s probably smoked turkey.

A few venues are worth a mention:

• Soldier Place at 1444 Fulton St. was as far east as I ventured for this run. There was an emphasis on Jamaican food here. Beef dishes were tender if not exciting. Chicken dishes were okay (skip the red sweet & sour variation), and remember that anything purporting to be jerk chicken at any of these restaurants is usually baked chicken with jerk seasoning as opposed to the real (wonderfully smoky) deal. There was serviceable mac ‘n’ cheese along with some Island specialties like bammy (Jamaican cassava flatbread) and dumplings. Standouts included most of the fish offerings like saltfish – and that pasta and fish dish was certainly tasty; tempting Jamaican escovitch fish came out as I was leaving. You may know that “ground provision” or simply “provision” is a West Indian catchall term that includes yams, cassava, taro, breadfruit, plantain and more and you’ll usually find them combined in a single dish. Here, each type of starch swims in its own container making it easy to cherry pick your favorite. Drinks included some delicious Irish moss and ginger beer. There were five tiny tables and a sign that promised ackee and saltfish for breakfast (so I’ll be back); a poster outside trumpeted “Big Buffet”. No lie.

• Smokey Island Grille at 1274 Fulton St. was home to hard core West Indian cuisine. You’ll score curry goat, oxtail, a number of varieties of rice, and reliable mac ‘n’ cheese along with a sizable array of other options; don’t forget the Caribbean desserts at the counter. Avail yourself of the hand sanitizer as you enter the steamtable area. Prices (variable, so pay attention) and choices are clearly labeled.

• Al Masry at 1178 Fulton St. was a blend: some soul food, some Island, and a little Middle Eastern. A good mix, but no labels. Certainly there’s nothing you won’t recognize, but if there are five dishes that are obviously chicken, you won’t be able to tell what they are without a scorecard. That’s true for all of these restaurants. Just another reason to take a tiny portion of each. Plenty of variety and lots of seating.

International Cuisine outside• In my opinion, the best of the lot was International Cuisine at 1174 Fulton St. A wide variety of offerings, some African food including couscous, porridge, and goat along with soul food and West Indian staples like oxtail and dumplings: the “International” moniker is appropriate. Not only does this place not label the food or the prices, but the restaurant itself is hiding in plain sight: no name on the front or even inside, and not even an address except on the building next door!

International Cuisine inside 1International Cuisine inside 2

But the food there was very tasty, the selection left nothing to be desired (see photos above) and there were plenty of tables. If you’re going to venture out along Fulton St., try this place first.

If, like me, you’re into African cooking, there are a number of markets along the way that can supply some basic needs like stockfish, smoked fish, and spices so you can make a day of it if you have the time and the inclination.

And that was only the south side of the street! Another visit beckons and I’ll add to this post as I stumble across more treasures.

 

¡Llame a la Llama!

Bolivian Llama Party display case

“Salteñas!” the jazzy sign exclaimed. “Not an Empanada!!”
“Hey look!” the passerby exclaimed. “Empanadas!!”

Um, not quite. Bolivian Llama Party is all about setting the record straight and the way they’re going about it might just get you hooked. The salteña is Bolivia’s answer to the empanada and to all outward appearances, they do look similar to other Latin American offerings. But take a bite (carefully – you’ll see why in a minute) and you’ll realize that that’s where the similarity ends.

First, the dough is not merely a delivery system for the filling; it’s flavorful in its own right – hand crafted, golden with aji amarillo (yellow hot pepper) and baked to perfection. And then there’s the delicious savory filling (do I hear music?) known as jigote. Juicy like a stew, you’ll find four varieties here: Beni (grass-fed beef), Chimba (free-range chicken), Cliza (mushrooms and quinoa), and Toco (three kinds of pork and extraordinarily scrumptious), all named for locations in Bolivia. Even the dark green hot sauce is outstanding, imbued with quillquiña (Bolivian coriander), but don’t fear the spice level – it’s easily managed and an integral part of the experience.

Biting into one of these treasures can be a bit messy – the word “gush” comes to mind – and there’s even a wry, tongue-in-cheek sign, “How to Eat a Salteña (Without Wearing It)”, outlining three skill levels for pulling off its consumption: Beginner, Enthusiast, and Master. Think of it as empanada meets soup dumpling.

The first Bolivian restaurant in Manhattan, Bolivian Llama Party is owned and operated by three brothers, all natives of Bolivia. Alex Oropeza (aka Llama Whisperer) explained the painstaking care that goes into making these authentic delights: one day to make the dough, another to create the filling, another to assemble them and braid the dough. Crafting that braid perfectly is one of the keys to success, because if one salteña breaks while baking, a pool of filling will escape and ruin the entire batch. Alex told me that the level of expertise required by a salteñero to perform that magic is akin to that of a skilled sushi chef – they both devote years to their training. As a matter of fact, Patrick Oropeza (BLP’s chef and salteñero) has been so swamped in the kitchen that, as of this writing, he hadn’t yet had time to visit the Turnstyle venue that opened at the end of April.

Toco SalteñaTriple Pork Sandwich de CholaBLP Decor

But wait, there’s more! BLP also offers a couple of Sandwiches de Chola, Bolivian street style sandwiches, available in brisket and triple pork (the standout of the two). Eliana (she’s a sweetheart) works the register; when you order, be sure to ask her for extra aioli for the sandwich. During my last visit I found a new addition – BLP’s version of an huminta. Humintas are tamales traditionally wrapped in a corn husk; these snacks are little cornbready treats in the shape of a madeleine, filled with quesillo cheese, kissed with fennel and anise, and served with seasoned butter on the side. Get them while they’re still hot if you can.

I won’t even attempt to describe the hip, colorful, crazy décor, but it pairs perfectly with the food. Check out their website for additional seasonal locations and more information.

Trust me, these guys are beyond awesome. Drop everything and go there. Now.
 
 
Bolivian Llama Party can be found at Turnstyle, the food court in the subway tunnel under Columbus Circle. Use any entrance (A,B,C,D,1 trains) at West 57th/58th Street and 8th Avenue.
 
 

I’m Just Wild About Harry (and Ida’s)

…Pastrami, that is.

Yes, they are purveyors of artisanal, in-house cured meats along with rows of mustards and pickles and the like…
Harry and Ida SignPantry
…and they cobble together a hefty sandwich of Benton’s ham, Edwards ham, andouille, and cured beef all nestled against a thick slab of mozzarella; and they feature their bespoke renditions of smoked bluefish and smoked eel (try it if the only eel you’ve ever tasted is Asian).
SandwichEel

But the reason to join the choir and sing the praises of Harry and Ida’s is their remarkable pastrami. This delicacy, the perfect harmonization of rich protein and buttery fat, is unlike any I’ve ever tasted – and I’m no stranger to pastrami. Simply put, this is not your mama’s pastrami. (Certainly not mine.)
Pastrami

Savoring this delight is like immersing yourself in a three-act opera: The story begins sweetly, betraying a gentle innocence unattainable by its crude, monotoned rivals. A moment later, a chorus of intense beefiness resounds, bullishly commanding your tastebuds. The finale peaks in a crescendo of spices bursting into peppery climax.

Yes, I like the stuff.

Oh, and lest I forget, they’re one of the few places in NYC that sells Foxon Park Soda, that splendid libation crafted in East Haven, CT and formerly known only to the fortunate denizens of the region. Perhaps I’ll wax rhapsodic about their Iron Brew or White Birch Beer in a future post; a serenade might be appropriate.
 
(Gosh, I think I got carried away with this one. Better go compose myself.)

 

Harry and Ida’s Meat and Supply Co.
189 Avenue A, New York, NY
(646) 864-0967
 
 

Hidden Pearls at Indo Java

Not far from the intersection of Broadway and Queens Boulevard in Elmhurst, tucked away amid a cache of Southeast Asian restaurants and snackeries, lies this gem of an Indonesian boutique. Unlike some nearby markets which tend to be either Thai-centric or comprehensively Southeast Asian, Indo Java concentrates on the delicacies of Indonesia.

The perimeter of the shop displays a wealth of products: packages of blended spice mix, dozens of snacks including an abundance of emping, cake and dessert mixes, a myriad of bottled sambals and sauces, and a small frozen food case. Attempting to focus on any individual item can be a little daunting at first, particularly because the venue is tiny and it’s easy to gloss over the hundreds of products competing for your attention. It’s worth taking a bit of time to zoom in, however: this Mickey Mouse brand of dried salted watermelon seeds is a good example.
Mickey Mouse Call-outMickey Mouse

But the most compelling feature of the store and one that begs a repeat visit, is the array of tempting prepared food that’s replenished every Saturday after 6pm. An overwhelming variety of Indonesian snacks, main dishes, and sweets grace a table toward the back of the shop. Elvi, the co-owner, will be more than happy to answer your questions and, if you’ve worked up an appetite while shopping and can’t wait to get home with your goodies, can point you in the direction of their sister restaurant, Java Village, nearby at 86-10 Justice Avenue – although my experience was that the store had a much wider variety of offerings than the restaurant.
Huge Array 2Huge Array

 
Here are a few of the items that came home with me after my last visit.

Pepes wrappedPepes Teri
Pepes refers to food, often involving fish, that has been prepared by wrapping it in a banana leaf and then steaming it (although it’s sometimes grilled); this pepes teri (anchovy) is a little sweet, a little spicy and also contains tofu, coconut, chilies, and galangal. Delicious.

Otak 2 bagOtak Otak
Otak otak ikan is sort of a leaf-wrapped fish paste (ikan = fish), but these tasty tidbits don’t really betray much fish flavor – only a slightly sweet, slightly oniony, slightly chewy snack accompanied by peanut sauce and it’s near impossible to consume just one. Incidentally, the repetition of a word as part of a grammatical construct is common in Indonesian and Malay, and in linguistics is referred to as reduplication (a word which itself seems redundant); cumi cumi (squid) and gado gado (a vegetable salad) come to mind. Often, as in this instance, appending a “2” to the word is used as shorthand. Yum2.

Arem in wrapperArem cut
This much larger arem arem was quite tasty as well. Along with coconut milk, the leaf flavors the rice that’s wrapped around bits of tofu and shredded chicken – but beware the hot red chili lurking within!

Bakcang Ayam WrappedBakcang Ayam UnwrappedBakcang Ayam Decimated
Bakcang beras – You’ve probably seen this pyramid of bamboo leaf-wrapped, glutinous rice (beras = rice) in Chinatown where it’s known as zongzi and filled with an assortment of savory tids and bits. In addition to pork, this one contained mushroom and preserved egg yolk. (After steaming it, I decimated the pyramid so you could see its inner workings.) Served with a sambal.

EmpalEmpal Lettuce
Empal – Sweet and spicy shredded beef. Typically the meat is boiled first along with aromatics and spices, then cut into lumps and pummeled just enough to loosen the fibers, then often fried. This version has taken its lumps and been beaten beyond recognition into shreds although there are a couple of chunks in there so you can get the idea. I found it perfect with rice or in a lettuce leaf wrapper with sambal oelek.

Ikan SalmonKerang
Ikan salmon asem manis – sweet tamarind salmon (asam = sour, manis = sweet, asem manis refers to tamarind). These fried bits are off the charts delicious, especially with the nasi kuning (rice with coconut milk and turmeric) that I made as an accompaniment. Yes, it’s oily, but so good.

Kerang – The word can refer to clams, scallops, mussels, or pretty much any bivalve. This dish of green mussels is very spicy and very good, here served with plain white rice.

Udang BaladoAyam Kaki
Udang Balado – Udang means shrimp and balado refers to the method of preparation: a tomato based sauce with lots of chilies and in this case potatoes. This rendition had more shrimp heads than shrimp which provided a tremendous amount of flavor and yes, can be eaten. I’ve also seen this dish prepared with stink bean (aka sataw, petai, peteh, bitter bean, and smelly bean, a vegetable common in Southeast Asia and nowhere near as nasty as it sounds).

Ayam kaki – chicken leg. I didn’t get the ingredients or even much of an explanation, but it tastes like it’s been marinated forever in sweet Indonesian soy sauce with perhaps some garlic and ginger and then probably barbecued. The tofu (tahu bacem or tempeh bacem to the left of the sambal) that came with it was amazing (probably marinated in the same stuff). The sauce only looked like sambal oelek but wasn’t as fiery and had a chickeny component.

Martabak 1Martabak
Time for dessert! Martabak manis: “pandan special mix” was good, but unusual. Murtabak (with a “u”) is a pancake wrapped around a variety of savory fillings usually including meat and egg that’s found in Malaysia and throughout the region. Martabak (with an “a” and found only in Indonesia) can be either the savory snack or a sweet one like this. It’s completely unlike its savory cousin: even the pancake is of a radically different texture – more like a crumpet. This one was flavored with pandan and the layers encased chocolate, peanuts, grated fresh cheese, and sweetened condensed milk. I warmed it up a bit and served it with coconut ice cream, which was the icing on the…well, you know.

 
Indo Java
85-12 Queens Boulevard
Elmhurst, NY
718-779-2241