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!
 
 

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!
 
 

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.
 
 

Lamoon – Part 3

Instagram Post 5/19/2018

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Still more deliciousness from Lamoon, 81-40 Broadway in Elmhurst, Queens, and their unique spin on Northern Thai food.
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1) Tum Kanoon – crafted from shredded green jackfruit, ground pork, homemade shrimp paste, tomato, kaffir lime leaves, cilantro and scallion. Served with sticky rice (always eaten with the fingers in Thailand) and some crispy pork rinds (think chicharrones but Thai) on the side. From the Main Course section of the menu, and another winner!

2) Sai Aua – you might have seen it as Sai Oua – is classic Northern Thai ground pork sausage made with chili paste, kaffir lime leaves, lemongrass, cilantro, and pork ear and served up with contrasting cooling cucumber. My only complaint is that I should have ordered more! A signature dish at Lamoon.
 
 

Lamoon – Part 2

Instagram Post 4/27/2018

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More buzz about Lamoon, 81-40 Broadway in Elmhurst, Queens, and their unique spin on Northern Thai food.
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1) Kanom Jeen Nam Ngeau. Kanom Jeen (you may have seen it as khanom chin) are the familiar rice noodles that are wallowing unseen at the bottom of this bowl; Nam Ngeau (aka nam ngiao) is the soup in which they are luxuriating. Spicy, replete with pork, pork ribs, cubes of pork blood (don’t knock it till you’ve tried it), and tomatoes, there’s a separate side dish of crisp, cool bean sprouts, scallions, and pickled veggies (it keeps the cool side cool and the hot side hot) for mixing in.

2) Fried Rice Nam Prik Noom. We ordered this one with chicken but only because we were already committed to consuming a pigful of pork. Delicious to be sure, but the addition of their homemade nam prik noom (roasted green chili paste) pitched it over the top. When you visit Lamoon, make sure you try this amazing smoky, spicy condiment. (I wonder if I can get a portion of it to go; it’s that good.)
 
 

Lamoon

Instagram Post 4/24/2018

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Northern Thai food is staking a claim in NYC and Lamoon at 81-40 Broadway in Elmhurst is the latest leader in the Chiang Mai charge. The word “lamoon” carries the connotations of delicate, mild, tender, or taking care, and there’s no doubt that they pamper their guests with flavorful dishes prepared with tender loving care, but they’re not shy about presenting authentically spicy food to which the words delicate or mild would never apply. Try powerful, intense, exhilarating, or just plain amazing.
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Two from the appetizer section: Kung Pare, Crispy Baby Shrimp Cloud. Crispy indeed and especially tasty dipped in the accompanying sweet sauce – I’d say you’ll be on Cloud 9 with this one, but I give it a 10 for sure.

Khao Kun Jin – Jasmine Rice and Ground Pork Marinated in Pork Blood. Don’t let the pork blood put you off; it provides color and a depth of flavor that makes this one something special. Once again, don’t neglect the sauce (this one is different) – it uplifts the dish and will do the same for your spirits!

If Otto is there, let him be your guide; he’s extremely helpful. And stay tuned for more favorites from Lamoon.
 
 

Wok Wok – Part 2

Instagram Post 3/29/2018

Part Two of my review of Wok Wok Southeast Asian Kitchen, 11 Mott Street, Manhattan with its dizzying array of Southeast Asian fare. Check out yesterday’s post below to see four more photos of their great cuisine.
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Spicy Sambal Seafood – plump and juicy jumbo shrimp sautéed in spicy Malaysian belacan sambal with onions and peppers was delicious – best enjoyed over rice.

Malaysian Salt & Pepper Pork Chop had a tiny bit of sweet and sour sauce gracing it. We’ve tasted versions of this dish that were crisper and thinner and unadorned by any manner of sauce. Not bad at all, but not what we were expecting from the name.

Four of a Kind Belacan – to me, the only thing these four vegetables have in common is that they’re all green! Beyond that, the flavors, textures, and even the shapes differ radically – and that’s a good thing in my opinion. String beans, eggplant, okra (not at all slimy), and sato are united by the medium spicy belacan sambal; the combo of stink bean and belacan work well together and are a singularly Malaysian flavor profile.

Stir Fry Pearl Noodle featured eggs, bell pepper, Spanish onion, scallion, and bean sprouts with pork. This is actually one of my favorite dishes and not all that easy to find. Pearl noodles, sometimes known as silver noodles, silver needles, and other fanciful names, are chewy rice noodles that are thick at one end and then taper to a point at the other (look closely at the little tail at the bottom of the photo). These are generally stir-fried to pick up a little browning and a lot of “wok hay”, that ineffable taste/aroma that can only be achieved by ferocious cooking over incendiary heat. Not at all spicy, this one is always a favorite.

Due to a communications mix-up, a couple of dishes came out that weren’t what we ordered. Everything we tasted that day was very good, but I want to make sure that you don’t end up with two or three similar dishes – one belacan and/or sato offering is plenty for the table, you see – because I want you to experience a broad range of flavors, and Wok Wok is most assuredly up to the task. Choose a wide variety of disparate dishes, perhaps even from different parts of Southeast Asia, and you’ll go home happy and satisfied!
 
 

Wok Wok – Part 1

Instagram Post 3/28/2018

Ever been up for Southeast Asian food but couldn’t decide which cuisine would best tickle your tastebuds? Then Wok Wok Southeast Asian Kitchen, 11 Mott Street, Manhattan, has your answer. They cover a lot of territory serving up dishes from Malaysia 🇲🇾, Thailand 🇹🇭, Indonesia 🇮🇩, Vietnam 🇻🇳, Philippines 🇵🇭, India 🇮🇳, Singapore 🇸🇬, and various regions of China 🇨🇳, and perusing their colorful menu is like taking a survey course in popular street food of the region.

Part One…. (Click on any image to view it in high resolution.)

We started with Original Roti, a dish you may know as roti canai, consisting of Indian style flatbread with a chicken and potato curry sauce for dipping. Properly crispy outside and fluffy within, it was the perfect medium for savoring the luscious sauce.

Roti Murtabak, another crepe folded around a spiced chicken and egg mixture also accompanied by the potato chicken curry, had a pleasantly spicy little kick to it. A cut above what we’ve had elsewhere.


Our soup course was Hakka Mushroom Pan Mee, a study in contrasts. Springy handmade noodles topped with silvery crispy dried anchovies, earthy mushrooms, chewy bits of minced pork, and tender greens in a clear broth that was richer than I anticipated.

Spicy Minced Chicken, Shrimp and Sato. Ground chicken and chunks of shrimp with sato cooked in a belacan based sauce. Sato, also known as petai and sometimes stink bean, is a little bitter, a little smelly perhaps, but quite delicious. Belacan is fermented fish paste; most Southeast Asian cuisines have their own spin on this pungent condiment, and it’s particularly characteristic of Malaysian food. Maybe it’s an acquired taste, but I think this dish is delicious.

Stay tuned. More to come tomorrow….
 
 

Sugar Club

Instagram Post 10/25/2017

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I picked up a couple of treats from Sugar Club, 81-18 Broadway, Elmhurst, Queens. The first is ขนมชั้น, Kanom Chun (you might also see it as Khanom Chan) – khanom means snack or dessert, chan means layer. The ingredients of this always colorful steamed Thai dessert are simple: coconut milk, sugar and flour (to hold it together) but the presentation is complex and beautiful.
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Since childhood, I’ve been intrigued by blue food and drinks, and to this day I never miss a chance to taste any I happen upon. The second photo shows Sugar Club’s NYFC Milkshake (vanilla ice cream with blue pea flower). The blossoms are used to impart a bluish tint to food without relying on artificial coloring like the swill I used to consume as a kid 😜; it’s sometimes used to color rice. I don’t think it adds much in terms of flavor, but how could I resist that color? Sweet!
 
 
[This venue has closed.]