Himalayan Yak Restaurant

Himalayan Yak Restaurant has been a Jackson Heights fixture since 2004. Specializing in Tibetan and Nepali cuisine with a soupçon of Indian and Bhutanese dishes sprinkled in for good measure, they’ve recently added a new “Yak, Yak, and Yak” section to the menu so, having dined there years ago, I had to go yak – er, back.

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My understanding is that the principal meat consumed in Tibet is yak, so we ordered the Yak Sizzler since it appeared to be the most straightforward presentation of the meat. Salubrious health claims notwithstanding, yak tasted a lot like beef to me but that’s giving it too much credit. To these taste buds it didn’t have a lot of personality and it was a little tough and chewy. It arrived with linguini-like noodles that stuck to the pan a bit which made for a little pleasant crispness, and that’s as it should be – it’s a sizzler after all – and they released when mixed with the meat juices. Since that “sauce” is primarily pan drippings (and perhaps some butter?), their flavor was intense and particularly good.


Yak Shapta (you might see shaptak) features the meat in a more elaborate guise, stir fried in a medium spicy chili sauce with onions, red pepper and scallions. Again, the meat was a little chewy, but that’s yak for ya.


Yak Gyuma Chilli. Gyuma is blood sausage, the Tibetan answer to morcilla and so many others, prepared from ground yak meat, chilies, and a starchy filler, served here with onions and bell peppers in that medium spicy chili sauce. Less dominant character than some blood sausages, but in this case, that’s a good thing.


Not to neglect yak appetizers, these are Yak Chilli Momo. Flavorful whole wheat dumplings filled with ground yak, onion, scallion, cilantro, garlic and ginger covered with onions and bell peppers in that familiar spicy chili sauce…


…and Yak Cheese. An Emmentaler doppelganger. Seems like the next word in sequence should be “expialidocious”. Go ahead, try it. I’ll wait. Apologies for the earworm. (Anyway, wasn’t Emmentaler-Doppelganger the third stop on the Orient Express?)
 
 
So I gathered a group of world food lovers for a subsequent visit. We tried almost everything above, in addition to these yakless selections:

Chili Momos with Pork. If you’re going to do Himalayan food, then you’re going to do momos in one form or another. These crunchy (because they were fried, not steamed) yumballs were slathered in that medium spicy chili sauce with red and green peppers, onions, and scallions rounding out the dish. Good way to start things off.


For a change of pace from steamed momos, we ordered Fried Momos with Chicken. Good, but they benefited from this array of sauces:

Akin to traffic light protocol, green was the mildest (avocado!), red warned us of spicy chili, and the yellow (well, sort of orange really, but I’m taking license – literary, not driver’s) fell somewhere in between.


Choila. A cold appetizer of chicken chunks marinated with onion, garlic, ginger and mustard oil. We enjoyed this particularly spicy Nepali dish so much that we ordered two.


Pork Labsha is a Tibetan radish curry; the word labu refers to daikon. The sweet pork contrasted perfectly with the slightly bitter daikon in this home-style dish – not spicy but quite good.


Gundruk Ko Takari. Gundruk is a fermented mustard green curry, a signature dish from Nepal. We opted for the vegetarian version which highlighted dehydrated potatoes and mushrooms. Kinda funky but in a good way, and a proper contrast to everything else we enjoyed that evening.

Fried Thenthuk. Pan fried Tibetan flat hand pulled noodles with pork, daikon and bok choy. Thenthuk noodles often show up in soups, but this stir fry was welcome in the context of our dinner.


Ngyashya Zema, a Tibetan chili fish recipe. Slices of tilapia, breaded and stir-fried with garlic, ginger, red onions, broccoli, mushrooms, and bell peppers, falling apart tender in a medium spicy sauce. Again, a tasty dish that was unique among our choices.


Sekuwa. From the Nepali side of the menu, tender lamb, marinated and charcoal grilled, served over crispy puffed rice. A fine example of the Maillard reaction; no complaints.

Alas, I didn’t get a photo of the Nepali Khasiko Sukka Masu, dry goat curry, but it was excellent – good to know in case you head out to Himalayan Yak.

Himalayan Yak is located at 72-20 Roosevelt Avenue in Jackson Heights, Queens.
 
 

Nurlan Restaurant

When I write about restaurants on Instagram, they’re usually brief takes accompanied by a photo or two. (You can see my feed right here on ethnojunkie.com, updated almost daily, by selecting the “Instagram” category from my home page – no signup required.) But because of Instagram’s character count limitations, it’s often necessary to break up a review into several parts. This one originally appeared as three posts, published on October 22, 24, and 25, 2019.


I’ve been intrigued by the cuisine of the Uyghurs ever since I first experienced it at Café Kashkar about a decade ago. Primarily a Muslim ethnic group, they reside in the Xinjiang region of northwest China near Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan; as you’d expect, the fare is a comingling of Chinese and Central Asian cuisines. Because of the political conflict in the Uyghur Autonomous Region, the public at large is becoming more aware of the plight of the these people who are in essence being persecuted for aspiring to pursue their lives and their culture in a homeland of their own, an “Eastern Turkestan”.

In terms of the food, when you hear Uyghur you tend to think laghman, and when you hear laghman, you tend to think soup. Further into Central Asia the customary habitat of these hand-pulled noodles is indeed soup but here you’ll find them as the foundation for stir-fries or stews.

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Nurlan Laghman

At Nurlan Restaurant, 43-39 Main St, Flushing, one of several options featuring these chewy noodles was topped with a slightly spicy lamb and vegetable mélange. Any attempt to capture the obligatory noodle-lift photo proved nigh on impossible since this plate arguably contained one long, coiled noodle and hoisting it to the max would have crushed even Stretch Armstrong into humiliating defeat; happily, scissors are provided to ward off subsequent muscle aches. Acrobatics notwithstanding, it was a tasty dish.

Ding Ding Laghman

Geographically appropriate linguistic notes: laghman is a cognate of lo mein and ding, in Chinese food environs, refers to cutting into dice. So here we have diced noodles, with similarly sized bits of meat, scallion, onion, and red and bell peppers, easily as delicious as the Nurlan Laghman above. Personally, I think a big ol’ spoon is the best method of conveying them lipward.

Stir Fried Noodles

Stir Fried Noodles, here incorporated into rather than providing an underpinning for the stir-fry, strewn with sesame seeds. This one was kicked up with what I’m pretty sure were Sichuan peppercorns, a welcome contrast.

Sam Sa

If you’re at all familiar with Central Asian cuisines then you know samsa. The linguistic and culinary cognate of samosa found in India (and throughout Southeast Asia, Africa, and the Middle East to be sure), Nurlan Restaurant, 43-39 Main St, Flushing, serves up this authoritative Uyghur version. These plump, baked buns stuffed with chopped lamb and onion topped with two-tone seeds would make a satisfying snack by themselves had they not been part of a grander lunch.

The obligatory post-bite shot

Polo

More fun with cognates! This is Polo. Its pronunciation, puh-Law, makes the connection to pilau, pilaf, and plov an effortless one. The rice is cooked in broth (I’m assuming lamb) which produces a savory, perfumed dish enhanced by carrots and the lamb that gave its all to the stock.

Lamb and Chicken Kebabs

Tender and piquantly seasoned, that day they partnered with…

Freshly Baked Uyghur Bread

Dapanji

Dapanji, literally “big plate chicken” in Chinese, originated in Xinjiang, China and became popular there only about 25 years ago. This rich stew boasts flavorful and incredibly tender chicken and gets its heat from both dried red pepper and spicy long green pepper. It’s loaded with potatoes, of course, but it’s nothing without…

A great pile of noodles!

Ravioli?

The menu calls it Ravioli, the Chinese characters for wonton, 馄饨, were there too, but do as I didn’t and heed the photo: it’s a soup. I didn’t ask about specifics or the bit of writing (looked like چـۈچـۈرہ – Uyghur alphabet, based on Arabic) over the picture so I need to go back. (As if I needed an excuse! 😉)

Good eats at Nurlan Restaurant; definitely check it out. They’re located 43-39 Main St, Flushing, Queens.
 
 

Roasted Masala

When I write about restaurants on Instagram, they’re usually brief takes accompanied by a photo or two. (You can see my feed right here on ethnojunkie.com, updated almost daily, by selecting the “Instagram” category from my home page – no signup required.) But because of Instagram’s character count limitations, it’s often necessary to break up a review into several parts. This one originally appeared as three posts, published on October 15, 16, and 17, 2019.


There are scores of cookie cutter Indian restaurants in Manhattan; clones with pretty much the same mix-n-match menus: a predictable assortment of curries with your choice of protein. So as much as I love Indian dining, I sometimes leave wondering if that’s all there is around these parts. When I crave food from Goa, the Indian state that had been formerly colonized by the Portuguese, I usually head to New Jersey. But that may no longer be necessary.

Roasted Masala Indian Cuisine emerged at 914 Columbus Ave in Manhattan about eight months ago under the purview of Samson Severes, its co-founder and manager. Hailing from Goa, India, Sam’s family owns two restaurants, so his culinary bona fides in this arena are well established. We were treated to a lunchtime feast that day. In no special order, here are a few of the dishes we tried.

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Lamb Cafreal

A unique combination of flavors featuring tender lamb, coriander, mint, tamarind, green chilies and the distinguishing acidic note of this preparation, lime juice. Its roots are in the Portuguese colonies of Africa; cafreal (also made with chicken) made the voyage to Goa via the cuisine of Africans that had been modified by the Portuguese under whom they served.

Goan Fish Curry

Chilean sea bass in this case, served in a tasty but not spicy coconut sauce.

Katori Chaat

A katori is a bowl, in this case an edible one; chaat is an Indian snack and a popular street food boasting myriad variations. This one has been split to reveal chickpeas, crunchy mini croquettes, and lots more goodness plus pomegranate chutney, all topped with yogurt and sev (crispy noodle bits). Don’t try to deconstruct this savory appetizer, just dig in and enjoy!

Lasooni Gobi

This delicious starter from the Vegetarian Appetizers section of the menu is Lasooni Gobi; lasooni refers to garlic and gobi means cauliflower. I’ve seen this Indian-Chinese dish by other names like Gobi Manchurian but it’s the sweet-spicy element that’s so compelling regardless of the designation. Crispy outside, crunchy inside, with a sticky, ketchupy crust, this one is a crowd pleaser.

Chicken Xacuti

“Xacuti” (or a similar spelling) is your cue that it’s a coconut based curry. A classic in Goan cuisine, this version features roasted spices in a masala paste pureed with coconut along with fresh curry leaves. Spice level was noticeable, but not intense. Good eats.

Daal Palak

Yellow lentils and spinach, herby with a gentle touch of spice, from the Vegan section of the menu.

Boti Kebab

Grilled cubes of marinated lamb; green chilies in evidence and tastefully seasoned, but not overwhelmingly spicy.

Chicken Sorpotel

Back to the cuisine of Goa. Often prepared as a Christmas dish, sorpotel boasts a distinctive spice blend that incorporates vinegar, but don’t think “vindaloo” just because vinegar plays a role. Roasted Masala offers vindaloo as well – and that’s a significant factor in my admiration for this restaurant: if you’ve dined at any number of Manhattan’s Indian eateries, you’ll find tasty renditions of your favorites here, but Roasted Masala also provides an opportunity to taste some delicious Goan specialties that may be less familiar to you and that you shouldn’t miss.
 
 

Note: This was a complimentary meal sponsored by the management of Roasted Masala. The opinions expressed in this post are uninfluenced and impartial.
 
 

Tito Rad’s Grill

I recently brought a large group of fellow Filipino food fans to one of my favorite restaurants, Tito Rad’s Grill, the OG (since 2006), real-deal, pinoy restaurant at 49-10 Queens Blvd in Woodside, for a sumptuous repast. Since Filipino food is one of my favorites, I particularly enjoy introducing it to folks who want to learn more about it first hand. Here are a few of the delicious dishes we enjoyed on this occasion and from past visits, in no special order.

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Lumpia

Spring rolls, sprung originally from China. A savory appetizer or snack filled with chopped vegetables and sometimes meat, they’re deep fried and crispilicious.

Lumpia Sariwa

Lumpia are usually found fried. This version, Lumpia Sariwa (sariwa means fresh in Tagalog), springs from China’s popiah, and since I always take the road less traveled, we opted for these. Sautéed vegetables and chicken wrapped in a lettuce leaf that itself is rolled into a soft wheat flour crepe, served with peanut sauce.

Ukoy

Bean sprout fritters with shrimp and vegetables served with a spicy vinegar-garlic sauce.

Sizzling Sisig

One of my all-time favorite dishes, Filipino or otherwise. Chopped pork belly simmered until it surrenders into tenderness, grilled with onion and a little hot pepper until it achieves ultimate yummitude, served on a sizzling platter and topped with a raw egg. Take that photo fast, then stir in the egg while the dish is still hot so it cooks and brings its ineffable richness to the party. (Yes, that means I liked it.)

Belly Lechon (Before)

A stunning presentation, this is the “Before” picture. Slow roasted pork belly marinated with lemongrass and spices in all its crispy, porcine glory; this porky miracle has to be ordered a day in advance. Unless I’m mistaken, a collective gasp was clearly audible as the roast was reverently borne to our table. A hush fell over the assembled diners as we closed our eyes to take our first bite. And of course there was no loss of decorum as we scrambled to snatch up the ample leftovers. Of course.

Belly Lechon (After)

The “After” picture, a study in pulchritudinous rhizanthous verisimilitude. Looks like a pretty flower too.

Inihaw Tuna Belly

Inihaw means grilled. Inihaw Tuna Belly means decadent. This one must be ordered in advance as well; it’s available in three sizes, large shown here. Plays happily in the company of rice; excellent dipping sauce and achara (Filipino pickled green papaya) on the side.

Inihaw Tuna Belly

Alternately, you might want to take a deeper dive with Inihaw na Panga, Grilled Tuna Jaw. Also an advance order, it comes in three sizes – small, medium, and large. Don’t be intimidated by the jaw (or by the double basses you imagine you hear playing menacingly in the background 🦈). Even if you’re not familiar with tuna anatomy (tunatomy?), you’ll find it pretty easy to navigate and actually kind of fun. Did I mention that it’s delicious as well?

Ginataang Langka

When you see ginataang on the menu, that’s your cue that the dish is made with coconut milk; langka is the Tagalog word for jackfruit, in this case green, unripened jackfruit where it functions more as a vegetable than a fruit. And yes, there’s pork in this delicious dish, too, because even a vegetable side dish needs pork.

Palabok

Steamed rice noodles lurking under a cover of shrimp sauce, garnished with hard-boiled egg, crumbled crispy pork rinds and scallions.

Pinakbet

Ampalaya (bitter melon), calabaza squash, green beans and more, plus pork (of course), in a shrimp paste sauce. Another great dish from the Filipino repertoire.

Dinuguan

A rich stew prepared from pork in a luscious gravy that includes vinegar and pork blood. Now, don’t go running off! I’ve said it before: Numerous cultures are at home with it – blood rice cakes in China, blood pancakes in Sweden, in addition to sausages from Great Britain and Ireland, morcilla in Spanish speaking countries worldwide, boudin in France, and so many more in Northern and Eastern Europe. Pretty much everywhere actually. And you also know that I only recommend truly tasty food; I have never been one to embrace the sensationalism of “Look what gross thing I just ate!” No. This is genuinely delicious. Don’t knock it until you’ve tried it.

Sinangag

Garlic Fried Rice. Just what it sounds like, and it’s the perfect accompaniment for dinuguan.

Bicol Express

Another classic Filipino dish. Vegetables simmered in spicy (only slightly so here) coconut milk; we ordered the version with meat because I’m incorrigible. Named for the Bicol Express, a passenger train that ran from Manila to the Bicol region in the Philippines, I guess you could think of this dish that’s both creamy and spicy as running from one terminus on the flavor route to another.

Crispy Pata

In this context, the Tagalog word pata, as in Spanish, refers to an animal’s leg. Pig knuckle/trotter/hock, massaged with ginger and garlic, deep fried until the skin is crispy and the meat is falling apart tender, accompanied by a spicy dip and always served impaled on the best implement to rend it asunder.

Laing

Made from taro leaves and coconut milk – gotta get your greens, right?

Humba

Braised pork in a sweet fermented black bean sauce (the defining ingredient) with mushrooms and onions. And a hard-boiled egg.

Beef Kaldereta

Kaldereta, from the Spanish caldereta or cauldron (note the serving vessel), refers to a stew. This example is a mildly spicy rendition with beef, olives, potatoes, and other vegetables.

Lechon Kawali

The undisputed king of crispy deep-fried porky goodness, fried pork belly. Lechon is roast suckling pig and kawali refers to the way in which it’s prepared, deep fried in a wok (kawali). It’s sliced into delicious chunks and served with a vinegar garlic dipping sauce usually made with (but not really tasting like) liver. Crispy skin, meltingly tender pork belly – I have yet to meet anyone who doesn’t love this dish!

Masarap!
 
 
Tito Rad’s Grill is located at 49-10 Queens Blvd in Woodside, Queens.
 
 

Lamoon

When I write about restaurants on Instagram, they’re usually brief takes accompanied by a photo or two. (You can see my feed right here on ethnojunkie.com, updated almost daily, by selecting the “Instagram” category from my home page – no signup required.) But because of Instagram’s character count limitations, it’s often necessary to break up a review into several parts. This one originally appeared as four posts, published on 4/24, 4/27, and 5/19/2018, and 7/4/2019.


Northern Thai food is staking a claim in NYC and Lamoon at 81-40 Broadway in Elmhurst, Queens is the latest leader in the Chiang Mai charge. Don’t confuse Bangkok Thai and Isaan Thai (Northeast Thailand) cuisines with that of Northern Thailand; it’s spicy for sure, but it tends to be more herbal and less sweet. 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. If Otto is there, let him be your guide; he’s extremely helpful.

(Click any photo to view in glorious high resolution.)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!

Also from the appetizers section of the menu, fried fermented pork ribs, garlicky and distinctive.

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.

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.)

Tum Kanoon – crafted from shredded green jackfruit, ground pork, homemade shrimp paste, tomato, makrut 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!

Sai Aua – you might have seen it as Sai Oua – is classic Northern Thai ground pork sausage made with chili paste, makrut 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.

Thai Tea Pad Thai, a new member of the family. The noodles are prepared with Thai tea, a universal favorite, along with a palette of ingredients that results in a dish that doesn’t taste like you’d expect it to from its name – certainly not seasoned like the Pad Thai you’re accustomed to – and those shrimp were perfect.
 
 
Lamoon is located at at 81-40 Broadway in Elmhurst, Queens.
 
 

Phayul Restaurant

When I write about restaurants on Instagram, they’re usually brief takes accompanied by a photo or two. (You can see my feed right here on ethnojunkie.com, updated almost daily, by selecting the “Instagram” category from my home page – no signup required.) But because of Instagram’s character count limitations, it’s often necessary to break up a review into several parts. This one originally appeared as six posts, published on May 24-26 and June 21, 23,and 24, 2019.


If you liked the old Phayul where you climbed a dubious flight of stairs, turned a narrow corner, and waited patiently, hungrily, in anticipation of snagging one of the handful of tables for some great Tibetan food, then you’re going to love the new Phayul. Technically, the address is 37-59 74th St in Jackson Heights, but you’ll find the entrance on 37th Road, just across the street from the old digs – which, by the way, are still going strong. Phayul redux is spacious and agreeably appointed with the kind of lavishly art directed menu popular with nouveau Sichuan restaurants in Flushing these days. The food itself is top notch and the new menu yields a few surprises that will ensure my return. In no particular order, here are the dishes we enjoyed on two separate occasions.

(Click any photo to view in glorious high resolution.)Soup to start, specifically Shoko Phing Sha, a medium rich, beefy broth with tree ear fungus, vermicelli noodles, and potatoes.

Spicy Tofu, simple and potent, tasted as good as it looks.

Phaksha Solo Ngoenma – now we’re getting real. Fried pork with leeks and green pepper, a little kick, a little sweet.

Phaksha Gotsel Ngoenma. By way of comparison to Phaksha Solo Ngoenma above, described on the menu as pork with garlic and red pepper. The dish features chives along with the pork and peppers which add immeasurably to the mix.

The cuisine of the Himalayas is well represented in this area of Jackson Heights, and although Tibetan food is influenced by Chinese and Nepali by Indian, momos traverse the region with little regard to provenance. Thick skinned, steamed or fried, nobody doesn’t love momos. These were stuffed with beef and fried, and frankly I lost count of how many plates we ordered.

In my opinion, the fried chicken momos were even better than the beef because of their noteworthy savory seasoning.

Described simply as Cucumber Salad, this spicy, refreshing side was augmented by scallions and peanuts; cheers for the peanuts.

Chicken Chilly by any spelling would still taste as bright. The heat sneaks up on you, but it is perfectly spicy for sure; the occasional veggie provides an essential contrast. A dish that won’t leave you cold! 😉

Fried Lamb Ribs. Fried and lamb are two words that invariably leap off a menu at me, so we ordered these impetuously and they were great. Later I saw that there were a couple of dishes by the same name; it may have had more to do with size and cut rather than preparation.


Steamed Beef Momo. What can I say? You know they’re good, especially with a jot of hot sauce (two different types on the table along with vinegar and soy-based mixtures). Also available in vegetable or chicken varieties.

Gyuma Ngoe Ma. Fried blood sausage with onions & green chilies. I confess that I love this kind of thing but I was pleased that the rest of the group were into it as well, comparing its savory, mealy, grainy filling to ethnic food from their own diverse backgrounds like the Eastern European/Jewish dish, kishka (stuffed derma).

There are many soups from which to choose at Phayul, and Bathuk Tibetan Noodle Soup was high on my list because of its little hand-rolled noodles; they’re called bhasta and are often likened to miniature Italian gnocchi. The soup is meat-based and contains veggies and a blend of herbs that started us off in the right direction.

Chele Khatsa. My kind of food: red peppers, onions and garlic are the support system for spicy slices of beef tongue. A good choice – tender and savory.

Lhasa Fried Noodle. The menu offers this dish with chicken, pork, beef, or vegetables. Pro-tip: Ask for a mix and you can taste them all!

Chicken Manchurian. “Indian influenced,” I was told by the manager, Lobsang. “Another winner,” I was told by the group.

Shogo Khatsa, spicy fried potatoes, seemed so straightforward that I almost didn’t order it, but the group took a vote, yea or nay. And I’m glad we did because indeed, upon tasting it, the yays were overwhelming.
 
 
The new Phayul Restaurant is located at 37-59 74th St in Jackson Heights, Queens.
 
 

Little Alley

When I write about restaurants on Instagram, they’re usually brief takes accompanied by a photo or two. (You can see my feed right here on ethnojunkie.com, updated almost daily, by selecting the “Instagram” category from my home page – no signup required.) But because of Instagram’s character count limitations, it’s often necessary to break up a review into several parts. This one originally appeared as three posts, published on May 16-18, 2019.


Little Alley, 550 3rd Ave in Manhattan, is named for the network of interconnected alleyways that define erstwhile neighborhoods in old Shanghai; its chef, Yuchun Cheung, pays homage to his home and the cuisine of his childhood in this restaurant and the patrons are the lucky beneficiaries. Almost everything we tasted was outstanding. In no particular order:

(Click any photo to view in glorious high resolution.)Salted Duck Egg Fish Filet. I’ve enjoyed this elsewhere and it’s a favorite, but I’ve never had it prepared this perfectly. (Not to mention the fact that everyone at the table – all hardcore foodies, by the way – were in complete agreement.) First of all, IMHO, anything featuring salted duck egg is always wonderful and this version of the dish was set apart by the fact that the proportion of salted duck egg to (unusually) thinly sliced fish was about 1:1 so you could taste everything in its proper balance.


Rice Cake and Salted Duck Egg. As if to confirm the extent to which we all find salted duck egg irresistible, later in the meal we ordered this dish. Here, wonderfully chewy rice cakes get the treatment, and they’re perfect. Notice that the name of this dish fails to incorporate the word “shrimp”, but look closely at the photo and you’ll see them, camouflaged as rice cakes, an integral part of this entrée.

And while you’re there, you might try the Water Spinach with Fermented Bean Curd; it’s green simplicity offsets and complements the richness of the salted duck egg dishes.


Honey Kao Fu. Kao Fu is gluten. Yes, Gluten, the prevailing demon of reproving newtritionists. And please note that I’m not deriding people who have genuine sensitivity to gluten; I sincerely understand your struggle. It’s just that I’m old enough to remember when consuming eggs, butter and olive oil invited public shaming. I’ve actually seen bottles of gluten-free water and yet, when I shop in Chinese markets, I can buy packages of plain gluten. Some of my vegetarian friends use seitan, the same devil as gluten, as a meat substitute. Anyway, it’s the spongelike absorptive properties of this form of gluten that make it special and here the sauce is laced with honey to elevate it further. Keeping company with wood ears and bamboo shoots, it’s a classic Shanghainese dish and the best version I’ve ever had.

Spicy Lamb and Garlic Shoot. It seems like every cuisine in the world knows that lamb and garlic are soulmates, and this one is no exception.

This is Braised Pork with Preserved Vegetables, served with steamed buns (bao). Put a little pork and its savory sauce into the bun, add some of the preserved vegetables, fold and enjoy. My only (very minor) complaint is that we could have used a few more bao!

[Left] You’ve probably seen these Radish Puffs whizzing past on dim sum carts in Chinatown. A good (and good-sized) rendition here.
[Right] The xiao long bao, soup dumplings, were fine.
 
 
Little Alley is located at 550 3rd Ave in Manhattan. Yes, Manhattan. 😉
 
 

Little Pepper Restaurant

When I write about restaurants on Instagram, they’re usually brief takes accompanied by a photo or two. (You can see my feed right here on ethnojunkie.com, updated almost daily, by selecting the “Instagram” category from my home page – no signup required.) But because of Instagram’s character count limitations, it’s often necessary to break up a review into several parts. This one originally appeared as four posts, published on April 29–30 and May 1–2, 2019.


If ever there were a Sichuan standby, it’s Little Pepper Restaurant at 18-24 College Point Boulevard, Queens. Despite its move from Flushing to College Point, the kitchen continues to turn out solid journeyman work that’s difficult to find fault with, delivering exactly what you’d expect and precisely what you traveled there for. In no particular order:

(Click any photo to view in glorious high resolution.)Fresh Cucumber with Mashed Garlic Sauce is an exercise in balance. The dish only seems simple: seeded, smashed Persian cucumbers blanketed with a salty, sweet/sour garlic dressing. Applied with a heavy hand, it would have been suffocating, with a timorous touch, it would have been an afterthought; here, it’s a dexterous thumbs up.

Silken Tofu with Fresh Scallion. Gossamer cubes of cloudlike tofu in a very spicy, somewhat salty sauce dressed with peanuts and fresh scallions. So good.

Sliced Pork Belly with Chili Garlic Sauce from the Appetizer section of the menu. Unquestionably sweet, a little spicy, intensely porky, with a substantial hit of garlic because pork and garlic, right?

Braised Sliced Fish in Spicy Soup Base. Just what it sounds like – melt in your mouth fish in a spicy broth that begs to be poured over rice.


Dan Dan Noodle with Minced Pork – with a nice chew and redolent of málà oil, it’s a classic rendition. Second photo: the obligatory noodle lift.

Smoked Tea Duck Sichuan Style. Does this really need a description? Smoky, crispy, fatty, ducky, infused with star anise and other enhancements, the meat was so tender it practically fell apart. I could have eaten the whole plateful by myself. Next time, I just might.

Tree Mushrooms with Chinese Spices. You might see cloud ear, wood ear fungus, black fungus or a dozen other names, but it will appear as 木耳 (“tree ear”) on the menu. Garlicky, a little vinegary, and spicy from the red peppers, the cilantro was a necessary diversion. Did I mention garlic? Like all of the appetizers we enjoyed that afternoon, this was a bit salty, but in a good way.

Dried Sautéed String Beans. A prime example of wok hei (you might see wok hay, wok chi, or wok qi): “the breath of the wok”; its flavor and aroma are unforgettable – and nearly impossible to achieve in the home kitchen. Attainable by stir frying over incendiary heat, it’s a hallmark of Chinese cuisine; the char you see on the fresh green beans is its badge of honor. Tiny bits of Yibin yacai, the stems of pickled mustard greens, de rigueur in Sichuan cooking, provide contrast and are customary in this dish.

Minced Pork with Clear Noodle. I know this one by its more fanciful moniker, Ants Climbing Up a Tree. It consists of bits of ground pork in a bean paste based sauce poured over “cellophane noodles”, translucent noodles usually made from mung bean starch. The bits of pork (the ants) cling to the noodles (the tree limbs) because of the slightly sticky nature of the sauce, hence the name. Second photo illustrates. At various restaurants where I’ve enjoyed this, the sauce has ranged from almost soupy to rather dry which was the case this time; it was also less sweet, saltier, and spicier than what I’m accustomed to, but highly enjoyable.

I once made this for someone as part of a mini-banquet and she refused to eat it. I assured her that no ants were harmed in the making of this dish. She said she realized that, of course, but the idea of noodles made from cellophane put her off.

You win some, you lose some.

This is Sliced Pork with Wood Ear. You already know about the captivating flavor and aroma of wok hei, “the breath of the wok”, derived from stir frying food over intense heat; the pork in this dish is infused with that magic and at the same time is moist and tender, most likely the result of velveting, a marinating technique used in Chinese cuisine. A great choice.

Sauteed Snow Pea Leaves, for those at the table who crave their veggies; these are simply prepared and excellent.
 
 
Revisiting Little Pepper is like getting together with an old friend you haven’t seen for a while; not necessarily any surprises to shout about, just that warm feeling that everything you loved about them in the past is still going strong and had just been waiting for you to reconnect.

Cka Ka Qellu

When I write about restaurants on Instagram, they’re usually brief takes accompanied by a photo or two. (You can see my feed right here on ethnojunkie.com, updated almost daily, by selecting the “Instagram” category from my home page – no signup required.) But because of Instagram’s character count limitations, it’s often necessary to break up a review into several parts. This one originally appeared as four posts, published on March 14 and 15, and April 13 and 14, 2019.


If you’ve never tried Albanian food, here’s your chance. Tucked away in Belmont’s Little Italy, Çka Ka Qëllu can be found at 2321 Hughes Ave, Bronx and it’s a gem. Veal and creamy yogurt have starring roles in this cuisine and everything we tasted was delicious and in many cases a little surprising. Here are some of the top notch dishes we tried during our three visits.

(Click any photo to view in glorious high resolution.)

Dips from the Appetizers section

Each dip was different in nature and temperature (from top moving clockwise): Tarator, a cold yogurt dip with minced garlic and cucumber; delicious warm Sausage Dip made from Albanian veal sausage; Ajavar (you may have seen ajvar), room temp, a savory roasted red pepper spread.

Samun

Marvelous pillowy bread called Samun (sounds a little like salmon), so fresh and hot out of the oven that we literally couldn’t tear it barehanded. I’m usually unimpressed by bread but this was amazing; it was perfect with the dips.

Fli

A further surprise (because I had no idea what to expect) was this wedge of Fli, savory layered crêpes in the Brumat (Savory Dishes) section of the menu. According to the Albanian dictionary, brumat means dough – sounds about right; here, it seemed to be a repository for items that are not really appetizers, not really mains and not really sides, but all dough based in one way or another. A bit of cheese and pickled green tomato kept the fli company on its plank (which matched the table which matched the fli). I was told that it takes six to seven hours to prepare this dish; it took a tiny fraction of that to consume it.

Mantia

I expected the Mantia në Tavë (literally, mantia in a tava, a clay casserole) to be similar to their thin-skinned dumpling cousins called manti from neighboring countries, but was surprised by a drier, sturdier, baked pastry dough encasing the filling; they seemed more like goshtgizhda, the Central Asian meat pies I wrote about recently. These crisp bottomed bites were rescued by a much welcomed creamy sauce. Filled with ground veal (of course) and drenched with yogurt (of course), they were delightful.

Qofte Sharri

Ground veal mixed with kaçamak (cornmeal) oozing melted kashkaval cheese with a pleasant surprise coming from a touch of spiciness, unusual for this cuisine. A winner.

Skenderbeg

Skenderbeg is named for the 15th century Albanian national hero. It’s pounded veal rolled around a slender layer of smoked mish i thatë (literally “dried meat”) and kashkaval cheese, breaded, fried, and crowned with an aioli mayo. The smokiness leaps out on the first bite and distinguishes the dish from other cheese-stuffed veal dishes on the menu. Outstanding as well.

Kaçamak

Kaçamak is polenta that’s integrated with a sauce of slightly sour fermented kaymak; note that I said “integrated” and not “topped with” because the dairy is equally potent in terms of flavor balance; it’s the texture that betrays the presence of cornmeal. A friend who knows polenta proclaimed that it was the best he’d ever had.

Qebapa

Also known as ćevapi in neighboring Balkan countries, these are finger-sized skinless sausages made from ground veal (natch), onion, garlic, herbs and crushed red pepper (yes, there’s a welcome bit of heat). These juicy cylinders boasting crispy browned edges (bless you, Monsieur Maillard) and a wonderfully fatty mouthfeel come ten to a plate (no, that’s not too many).

Fasul

This thick, creamy, long simmered soup/stew of white beans and onions featured a chunk of smoked meat that infused the dish with its rich flavor. On a subsequent visit, I decided that it might be a good idea to cut it up into bits and stir it back in for the occasional unexpected nibble: yes, it was.

Sarma

Cabbage leaves stuffed with rice and vegetables. Well-seasoned, I detected paprika and onion powder as dominant.

Leçenik

Albanian style cornbread, dense and almost cheesecakey, distinguished by the bits of spinach within.

Bërxollë Dukagjini

Saving the fanciest for last (although everything was terrific). Pounded veal this time (not ground), kashkaval cheese inside: smoky, meaty, cheesy goodness topped with mushroom gravy. Even the rice was tasty. Superb!
 
 
Çka Ka Qëllu is located at 2321 Hughes Ave, Bronx.
 
 

Van Da

Instagram Post 4/27-28/2019

 
Don’t come looking for steaming bowls of pho, multilayered banh mi, or the ubiquitous bun/grilled meat/garden of herbs DIY platter; the recently opened Vietnamese restaurant Van Đa at 234 East 4th St in Manhattan’s East Village answers to its own muse. Self-characterized as “modern Vietnamese cuisine”, the menu items diverge from those you might find elsewhere and even familiar offerings display their own spin. A good part of the menu is composed of small plates with a few more substantial options to consider; all of our choices were tasty if mostly single bite morsels.

(Click on any image to view it in high resolution.)
From the Hanoi column, this comparatively ample dish is Cha Ca La Vong, turmeric branzino with a heap of fresh dill, bun (rice vermicelli noodles), scallions and peanuts. It was good, but I’ve enjoyed this dish in other restaurants where the turmeric and other ingredients made a more significant statement.

Red Curry Corn Fritters from the Street Food side of the menu were light, fluffy and a modest entry point to our meal although I don’t recall much red curry in evidence.

Banh Khot are described in the Hue column of the menu as turmeric griddle cakes with wild mushrooms, coconut custard, and cured egg yolk. I’m sure that’s true, but these might be better explained as bite-sized, crunchy, coconut-forward, mushroom and herb mini mouthfuls. Good stuff.

Banh Bot Loc (Hue as well) are shrimp and pork tapioca dumplings that arrive wrapped in the banana leaves in which they were steamed. Second photo shows the sticky, chewy delicacy lurking within. Also good stuff.

Pho Short Rib Grilled Cheese sounded to me like it might actually be a sandwich and indeed a pair of slender, crunchy, triangles featuring pho beef, caramelized onions, and melted provolone came to the table with a shot of pho broth for company. Since Vietnam had been colonized by France at one time, I surmised that the shot was less about something to swig and more likely Van Da’s answer to the French dip. But perhaps not.


Banh It Ram are mochi dumplings, crispy surface, chewy just beneath, filled with a mung bean mash and topped with fried shallots. Gotta love the textural interplay. See second photo for the inside scoop.

One of the more substantial (i.e., bigger than a bite or two) dishes we selected was Grilled Eggplant with bits of seasoned lamb and mint, served with nuoc cham, a condiment made from nuoc mam (fish sauce), lime juice, and sugar at the minimum, plus a garnish of crispy noodles that provided a welcome contrast.

Served in a ceramic cup about 2½ inches in diameter, these Banh Beo are steamed savory rice cakes with minced shrimp pointed up by a hit of scallion oil and garnished with crispy bits of fried pork skin.

Van Đa is located at 234 East 4th St in Manhattan.