Brooklyn’s Homeslice Pizzeria

Instagram Post 1/30/2020

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Having gone to college in New Haven, I admit to harboring a wee bit of prejudice regarding pizza (you might hear “ah-BEETS”) since there are none better. Anywhere. But sometimes you just can’t travel two hours to stanch a craving. Of course, I also know that there’s some fine pizza to be had in Brooklyn (and if any Queenza aficionados want to hang out sometime and introduce me to their faves, I’m totally game). Which leaves us to consider the local neighborhood pizza joint, you know, the one you sail past on the way home, some of which are, um, less than stellar.


But others of that ilk have a signature move that, if not unique, give their handiwork a bit of an edge. And indeed, it’s the edge of this pie from Brooklyn’s Homeslice Pizzeria at 567 Vanderbilt Ave that grabbed my attention. Those are panko crumbs and they provide a crispy crunch that succeeds in making this slice a cut above.


With its thin, flavorful crust, easily folded over on itself (as pizza is meant to be consumed), a slender but sufficient layer of cheese (the kind you used to peel back as a kid) and a naturally sweet and tasty tomato sauce, some would identify this as classic New York Style (but I’ve heard enough definitions for that phrase that I’m not going anywhere near it. Even if I agree. 😉)

And yes, I’ll be back to try the toppings (I always go plain for the maiden voyage). Besides, Ample Hills Creamery is less than three blocks away. Win-win.
 
 

Thai Cook

Instagram Post 1/27, 28, 29/2020

I was no stranger to the food at Am Thai Bistro on Church Ave in Brooklyn and always thought it was a cut above the norm for the area (if not especially creative) so I surmised we’d be in relatively good hands at its owner’s new undertaking, Thai Cook in Elmhurst. Sharing space with iCook Buffet, a BBQ/hotpot place at 81-17 Broadway, the menu couldn’t be more different from its Flatbush sibling; IMO this venture is the real deal and easily stands up to its neighborhood Thai competitors of renown.

Ten of us assembled there for lunch (which is code for we had the opportunity to taste ten different dishes) and therein lies the rub: we all agreed that everything we ordered was outstanding, so I’m stymied by culinary mastery and can’t recommend favorites. Therefore let us stipulate that you won’t go wrong with any of the items in this post. Incidentally, don’t forget to order sticky rice with your meal. Some dishes do come with regulation rice – see photos – but all of the sauces are so delicious that you’ll surely want some sticky rice to soak up every drop!

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We started with Fresh Crepe: a rice flour wrap swaddling bean curd, sweet radish, and chives served with sweet soy-garlic sauce. I’m not certain what all those crispy bits were but they elevated the dish significantly.


Grilled Squid: amazingly tender scored squid with sweet/sour/spicy sauce and peanuts. More yummy crispy bits.


Tum Thai Cook from the Papaya Salad section of the menu. Mixed seafood (with that incredibly tender squid), blue crab, shrimp, and New Zealand mussels. Very spicy.


This is Aob Woon Sen. We opted for shrimp although crab and veggie versions are available; it highlights oyster mushrooms, celery, sliced ginger, pork belly, and glass noodles and is served with their signature Millionaire sauce. The sauce is chef Boonnum Thongngoen’s custom recipe for the classic Thai sauce of chilies, garlic, shallots, cilantro, sawtooth coriander, makrut lime leaf, fish sauce and lime juice. She named it in honor of her husband who lost a metaphorical million in failed restaurants back in Thailand but retained his family recipe for the bespoke sauce. Excellent.


Spicy Yummy Salad (in other words a Thai yum) with oysters (they’re in there) accompanied by red onion and scallions in cilantro/mint/lime sauce with crispy fried shallots on top and their signature Millionaire dressing on the side. Good stuff.


From the Steamed portion of the menu, sliced pork rolled around tiny enoki mushrooms with a lemongrass, mint, cilantro, chili, and fresh lime juice dressing.


Not a squid: those are the enoki mushrooms oozing out of the pork!


This is Coconut Crab Curry Noodle from the Noodle & Rice section of the menu. Spicy Southern Thai yellow curry with vermicelli noodles and pickled mustard greens. No discernable crab meat, but the flavor was there. And a hardboiled egg.


Also from the Noodle & Rice corner, Home Cooked Style Panang Curry (coconut milk) with beef. And a hardboiled egg.


From Mom’s Specials, Khua Kling, a spicy Southern Thai dish with dried beef and curry paste. And a hardboiled egg.

Thai Cook is located at 81-17 Broadway in Elmhurst, Queens. It shares a space with iCook Buffet and once inside it’s easy to access one from the other, but cognoscenti will use the entrance on the right and walk down the hallway to hit the heights directly.
 
 

The Case of the Uncrackable Case

(One of my “Favorites” that never fails to resonate this time of year. If you enjoy reading it, there are more in the column on the right side of my home page.)

Gong Xi Fa Cai! The callithump of Chinese drums and cymbals played havoc with my ears as the pungent miasma of spent fireworks assaulted my nose. “These are my people!” I beamed. An equal opportunity celebrant, I was in my element.

I picked my way through the ankle-deep sea of technicolor metallic streamers and confetti. “Looks like a dragon exploded,” I mused. Shuffling from market to crowded market, each festooned with the accoutrements of the holiday, I searched for authentic goodies with which to welcome the Chinese observance of the Lunar New Year in style.

Definition: Chinese New Year, also known as Spring Festival, is a dazzling two-week long celebration occurring in January or February, a banquet for the soul that is laden with more symbolism than a Jungian interpretation of a Fellini dream sequence inspired by a Carlos Castaneda novel.

The shape of the holiday’s foods suggests their analogue: dumplings are crafted to resemble Chinese gold or silver ingots, long noodles emblematize a long life, melon seeds epitomize fertility. Color plays a significant role as well: mandarin oranges allude to the color of gold. Sweets are often tinted red, the color of good fortune in Chinese culture.

But nothing is more traditional to the Chinese New Year banquet than food-word homophones. As any precocious third grader will tell you, homophones are words that sound alike but have different meanings (for, four, and fore in English, for example). At these festive gatherings, a whole fish will be served, because the word for fish (yu) is a homophone for surpluses. Also gracing the table will be Buddha’s Delight, a complex vegetarian dish that contains an ingredient the name of which sounds like the word for prosperity.

(We don’t have that kind of thing in western culture, but maybe we should. Imagine if you rang in the New Year at an American restaurant by ordering the surf ‘n’ turf, a certain portent that this would be the year that you meat your sole mate.

Just don’t wash it down with wine.)

And no traditional food is more important than the ubiquitous Chinese New Year delicacy, nian gao, a glutinous rice cake sweetened with brown or white sugar and a homophone for “high year” — with the connotation of elevating oneself higher with each new year, perhaps even lifting one’s spirits.

Now, I had seen nian gao dished up and steamed in aluminum pie pans in every market in New York’s five or so Chinatowns. But one particular variation packaged in a six-inch wide container shaped like a Chinese ingot (as many items are this time of year) caught my eye and beckoned to me. As I inspected it more closely, I realized that I could not for the life of me fathom how it open it! This fact alone was sufficient bait; I stood in line with my fellow revelers, paid, and took it home.

With bugged-out eyes and a glower that betrayed both puzzlement and frustration, I turned the semi-translucent vessel over and over again like someone who had reached a cul-de-sac with a recalcitrant Rubik’s Cube. The object was fashioned of two mirror image concave pieces of plastic fused together — plastic somewhat thicker than that of the average shampoo container — too thick to squeeze easily, for sure, and inseparable along the seam. I could make out an air bubble which migrated as I shifted its orientation, so I had a clue as to the texture of its contents — typical semi-firm glutinous rice cake, perhaps with a little syrup around it. Searching for an instruction manual, I found that Google had abandoned me: either no one else on the planet had ever encountered these contrivances or everyone else on the planet buys them every year and I am the only soul who is too inept to persuade them to yield their bounty. There was a tissue paper-thin label stuck to the bottom that showed the “best before” date as May, so even allowing for my customary procrastination, I had some time to solve the mystery. As long as that case remained closed, the case was not closed.

Wait a minute. What if some sort of key was hiding beneath that slip of a label? A slot to pry the two halves apart or a helpful arrow embossed on the obdurate plastic? Slowly, carefully, I began to peel back the label. THHHHPPP! The tiny air bubble instantly expanded to fill half the case as air rushed inside. Could it be that this gossamer leaf was the only protection the rice cake had from the elements, furry predators, and me? Such was the fact.

But then, I was confronted with a further conundrum. Lurking beneath said label was a hole the size of a half dollar. (Remember those?) This carapace was obviously a mold constructed so that its contents would delight the eye when served. But the only way I could see to get to the goods inside was to dig the stuff out with a fork! Not what they intended, I was certain. Somehow, there had to be a way to pry the halves apart without damaging the springy contents.

I hooked my thumbs on either side of the hole and yanked. Gnrrgh! Nothing. I laid it on the kitchen counter and pressed down with as much muscle as I could muster hoping that it would split along some weak, unseen fault line without damaging the contents. Again, it did not succumb to my efforts. I grabbed my nastiest knife and attempted to slice through the case along the seam. Nope, that’s not it either, I thought as I licked my finger where I had cut myself when the blade slipped.

Silently, the ingot mocked me. Was it designed this way on purpose? Some sort of arcane object lesson about anything worth achieving is worth struggling over? Or conversely, was it perhaps trying to tell me that I would never achieve riches, no matter how much I persevered?

Frustrated, I stashed the thing in a corner of my fridge. Days passed. The days melded into weeks. It was time to begin plans for Thanksagaingiving.

Definition: Thanksagaingiving is a joyful, annual family ritual. Not content to celebrate the merely dozens of diverse international and American holidays, each with its own panoply of tempting traditional foods, I created one more.

Over many years, I have developed, tweaked, and perfected an elaborate Thanksgiving menu that I prepare annually, much to the delight of my clan. And over those many years, we would ask ourselves, why don’t we do this more often? Pondering the possibility, we recognized that just about every month has some delectable holiday or seasonal foods associated with it. But there is that frigid, desolate chasm between Chinese New Year and the promise of tender spring vegetables that cries out for a joyous — and delicious — festival to uplift us from our disheartened doldrums.

Enter Thanksagaingiving. When we give thanks. Again. And rerun the whole November spectacle.

Invariably, each day as I loaded the fridge with more ingredients for our feast, it became necessary to move the Chinese ingot around to make space for the latest bounty. Now onto the second shelf, the customary residence for leftovers, now far back into the lower left corner where that jar of homemade boysenberry jam had been languishing for the last three months, now precariously balanced on a tall bottle of pandan syrup lying on its side in the least accessible corner — where the ingot unfailingly teetered, slipped, and fell, locking its neighbors into an exasperating jigsaw of jars and urns that prevented anything from being extricated from the shelf.

I had no choice but to toss it.

Our annual Thanksagaingiving tradition came and went. We happily devoured our Roast Turkey with Chestnut Cornbread Stuffing, Dandy Brandied Candied Yams, Maple Sugar Acorn Squash, Corn Pudding, Scalloped Potatoes with Leeks and Bacon, and the subsequent procession of turkey sandwiches, turkey tetrazzini, turkey burritos, and turkey soup.

The fridge was once again barren. Wistfully, I gazed at the empty spaces that my forlorn little nian gao had been sequentially evicted from. Had I forsaken it prematurely? Would one more hour of negotiation have solved the mystery? Nostalgically, I remembered all the time we had spent together getting to know each other.

But then, I realized that all was not lost — come next Chinese New Year, I could purchase another ingot-encased nian gao and try again. I felt my spirits lifting.

And suddenly, I comprehended what had come to pass without my even being aware of it. In the light of that existential moment, the words “come next Chinese New Year, I could purchase another…and try again” echoed in my mind — and the cosmic meaning of this episode, the raison d’être for this tortuous journey became brilliantly clear:

It had been the maiden voyage of a new annual tradition!

 


(And speaking of maiden voyages, please join me on one of my ethnojunkets, food-focused walking tours through New York City’s many ethnic enclaves. Learn more here.)
 
 

Chinese New Year 4718 (2020)

Instagram Teaser 1/25/2020

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恭禧發財! Gōng xi fā cái!

The Chinese celebration of the Lunar New Year is upon us!

4718 is the Year of the Rat 🐀. I’m no Chinese zodiac scholar, but based on what I see in our subway system, rats are extremely talented when it comes to accessing food and are happy to indulge in a comprehensive variety of cuisines, never playing favorites.

I can relate to this.

And apropos of eating, there’s one aspect of this spectacular holiday that I particularly enjoy and that’s the way wordplay and homophones factor into the selection of traditional foods. An example is nian gao, a glutinous rice cake sweetened with brown or white sugar and a homophone for “high year” – with the connotation of elevating oneself higher with each new year, perhaps even lifting one’s spirits.

But there was one year when my inner rat was thwarted in attempting to access a particular nian gao – and what should have literally been a snap turned into a complete mystery.

Curious? Please read my very short story, “The Case of the Uncrackable Case!”
 
 

Filipino BBQ

Instagram Post 1/23/2020

The last time I was there, it nearly broke my heart: half deserted both by vendors and customers, unclear if it was coming or going, the verdict still in abeyance. Two of my dining pals had alerted me to the presence of a new Filipino BBQ stall at the moribund HK Food Court. I was skeptical. But last Sunday, with some confidence, they shepherded me inside; I entered slowly, cautiously, against all hopes and wishes, thoughts and prayers.

And surely, like a phoenix rising from the ashes of stall 31 [cue choir of coloratura soprano angels], there appeared a sign on high, oversized and starkly white, boldly (for that was the font-weight) proclaiming “Filipino BBQ” demanding my attention and barely giving me the opportunity to mourn its fallen neighbors.

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What? Oh. The food. Masarap! (Delicious!) This is the Bila-o Special, intended to serve two, but the three of us were well provided for. My bias notwithstanding (Filipino cuisine is one of my three favorites), there wasn’t a disappointing bite on the tray.


The annotated version.

They’ve been open for only about three weeks and I’m eager to return (82-02 45th Ave, Elmhurst, Queens) to try more, in particular the promised “turo-turo” (“point-point”) that I’ve enjoyed elsewhere: point to whatever of this, that, and the other that tickles your fancy. Stay tuned for more.
 
 

IGA’s Kalimantan Bazaar

Instagram Post 1/22/2020

Quick post about two soups selected by my dining pals at the Indonesian Gastronomy Association’s Kalimantan Bazaar this past weekend. (Incidentally, Kalimantan is the Indonesian part of the island of Borneo, shared with Brunei and East Malaysia, and will ultimately be the new home to Indonesia’s capital.)

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Soto Banjar is a delicious Indonesian soup from Banjarmasin, the capital of West Kalimantan/Borneo, with chicken, noodles, hardboiled eggs, crispy fried shallots and (I think, because I was distracted) perkedel, potato patties.


Tekwan. Fish soup with top-notch dumplings make from ground fish and tapioca flour, served with wood ear mushrooms and veggies.

Follow IGA on Facebook or on Instagram @iga_newyork to stay apprised of their schedule; find them at the Elmhurst Memorial Hall, 8824 43rd Ave, Queens, monthly.
 
 

The Making of Martabak

Instagram Post 1/20/2020

I’ve posted before about martabak (or martabak manis – manis means sweet), one of my favorite Southeast Asian desserts; it’s usually available at one of the three monthly Indonesian food bazaars, but this past weekend, the Indonesian Gastronomy Association (IGA) outdid itself by presenting a live demonstration revealing the way it’s made.

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Without giving away any recipe secrets, batter is added to a special lidded frying pan that cooks and steams the pancake; a leavening agent causes it to rise into its characteristic honeycomb sponge-like consistency. The green color comes from pandan (screwpine) paste; it’s my favorite variety and highly recommended.


It’s slathered with margarine (which is considerably more malleable and easier to work with on the sunny streets of Indonesia than in the chilly atmosphere of a capacious Elmhurst assembly hall).


The sweet stuff which can appear as any or all of chocolate sprinkles, cheese, nuts, and sweetened condensed milk is added over half; the plain side is folded over the top (and I do mean over-the-top) of the enhanced side…


…and cut into serving pieces.

More photos of the event to come.

Follow IGA on Facebook or Instagram @iga_newyork to stay apprised of their schedule; find them at the Elmhurst Memorial Hall, 8824 43rd Ave, Queens, monthly.
 
 

Nan Xiang Xiao Long Bao

Instagram Posts 1/17 & 1/18/2020

Finally got around to visiting Nan Xiang Xiao Long Bao in their new digs at 39-16 Prince St in Flushing, Queens – or so the Google would have it: the first thing you need to know is that the entrance is actually on 39th Ave (133-42) at the corner of Prince St. Elusive geography notwithstanding, our hungry horde congregated to devour a representative sampling from their menu. Everything we ordered was tasty, but the soup dumplings overshadowed the dishes they consorted with.

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Arguably best known for their Xiao Long Bao (soup dumplings), we selected three varieties from among six options. These charcoal gray, brooding purses are fabricated from dough fragrant with black truffle, fulfilling my expectations; the soup, secure within, was fine.


Insider’s view of the Truffle Soup Dumplings revealing flecks of truffle peppering the pork.


Chicken Soup Dumplings. The soup brought a touch of spice and ginger to the meat, good contrast to the preceding round.


But the champion of the trio was their classic Steamed Crabmeat and Pork Soup Dumplings, the filling everything you could hope for, the soup surprisingly full-bodied and a bit sweet, the genesis of Nan Xiang’s reputation, and which may very well have been the highlight of our meal.


Pan Fried Pork Buns (aka Sheng Jian Bao) from the Signature Dim Sum section of the menu were top notch.


Four Happiness Kao Fu – braised wheat gluten with bamboo shoots, wood ear and shiitake mushrooms. I admit I’m a sucker for Kao Fu and I was pleased to see the dried lily flowers as a component – no guarantee of that in some versions.


Spicy Bamboo Shoots from the Little Cold Dish section of the menu; a little too chewy, could have benefited from a touch more spiciness.


Beef Tendon in Chili Oil from the same part of the menu. If I had been paying attention, I would have suggested the Spicy Beef and Tripe in peanut chili sauce (fuqi feipian). Next time.


Shanghai Pan Fried Noodle – thick noodles stir fried with bok choy, shredded pork and “house special sauce”. Nice chew, not bad.
 
 

Homemade Pumpkin Pie – 2019

Instagram Post 1/16/2020

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One more from my holiday home cookin’ collection. Believe it or not, it took years to get this Pumpkin Pie recipe right – years, because I only make it biannually so the upgrade opportunities are few and far between. First trick is to use only fresh pumpkin, and the small sugar pumpkins at that – none of that canned stuff. (Yes, I’ve read the propaganda from some who claim that it’s all the same – IMO they know not whereof they speak.) My recipe includes three milks (inspired by tres leches cake): sweetened condensed milk, evaporated milk, and heavy cream along with brown sugar, eggs, spices, and such. Here, it’s topped with homemade Pecan Brittle and whipped cream.


The view before slicing and adorning. (Yes, I add the pecan brittle at serving time so it doesn’t get icky.) The crust has been another labor of love, intended to evoke the taste of a cinnamon sugar cookie. (Perfect with pumpkin, right?) The flavor is spot-on, but the texture needs a bit more finessing. Ah well, back to the groaning board. 😉
 
 

Scalloped Potatoes with Leeks and Bacon

Instagram Post 1/15/2020

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Okay, you asked for it – and thank you so much for your input! Here’s another home cooked holiday dish (my own recipe once again), Scalloped Potatoes with Leeks and Bacon: layers of Yukon Gold potatoes, crumbled bacon, leeks sautéed in bacon fat 😲, plus heavy cream and seasonings. For some reason everyone tears into this baby first until they finally get around to noticing that there’s turkey on the table. (I suspect their attention is redirected birdward because of the cornbread chestnut stuffing with dried cranberries, currants, aromatics, all the herbs in the Simon & Garfunkel song, and then some. Just not photogenic though, so no photo.)


How it looked fresh out of the oven and before it met its demise at the table.