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.

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

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.
 
 

Boran

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 April 4 through 10, 2019.


On very rare occasion, I venture into a restaurant and know after a few bites that there is no choice but to return and work my way through the entire menu. That’s how the story begins at Boran, 462 Court St in Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn. Five of us enjoyed a compelling Thai meal (from multiple regions of Thailand I should add) that started magnificently and kept getting better with each course. Note that the selections I’m covering can be found in the Authentic Style (sometimes identified as “signature”) part of the menu or among the daily specials; they’re not included on the take-out menu or elsewhere on the dine-in menu.

Here they are, in no special order. (Click any photo to view in glorious high resolution.)

Meang Kham

There are some foods that are meant to be popped into one’s mouth whole, no biting allowed – Indian pani puri comes to mind. These are Meang Kham: dried shrimp, roasted coconut, roasted peanuts, shallots, ginger, lime and sweet shrimp paste all nestled in a betel leaf; open wide and let the flavors explode in your mouth.

Mixed Appetizers

This platter featured some universal favorites including chicken satay, grilled honey pork, Northern Thai style sausage (sai oua), and an assortment of tasty fried crispy treats, but a particular delight for me was the Sa Cu Sai Moo (you’ll see alternate spellings elsewhere) shown at the top of the photo reposing in their spoons. I first tasted these pork-filled steamed tapioca dumplings in a Thai restaurant in Manhattan that closed decades ago and have had difficulty finding them since; they’re often available with a peanut filling instead of pork, but that’s just not a moo-ving experience 😉. They’re also available as an appetizer item themselves, not as part of a mixed platter. Definitely try them!

Meang Pla Tood

Another flavor/texture bomb was Meang Pla Tood, one of their signature dishes: meang (you might see miang) refers to food wrapped in leaves, pla is fish, tood (you might see tod) means deep fried. This is deep fried boneless dorada with cashews and dried shrimp enhanced by ginger, red onion, bits of lime (even the peel) and lemongrass, one of those synergistic devils where the whole definitely exceeds the sum of its parts. Tasty, incredibly crispy fish and crunchy nuts in a perfect blend of sweet, sour, spicy, salty and bitter condiments that characterizes Thai cuisine. Frankly, this dish blew me away.

Khao Knook Gapi Boran

An excellent submission from among Boran’s signature dishes, Khao Knook Gapi Boran. In center stage, shrouded beneath the toss of cilantro, is the soul of this dish: fried rice infused with funky shrimp paste and topped with sweet pork. Decisions to be incorporated ad libitum from twelve o’clock, fried eggs, cucumber, red chilies, bits of pickled long beans, shredded green mango, dried shrimp, chicken sausage and red onion.

Nam Prik Aong

When you see Nam Prik on a Thai menu, you’re venturing into a fiery zone; it’s a condiment made from roasted red chilies, garlic, shallots, lime juice and fish or shrimp paste. Nam Prik Aong (you might see ong) zooms in on Northern Thailand; the dish adds nam prik to ground pork in a tomato-based sauce and is generally served with cucumber and lettuce for wrapping along with pork cracklings (you might see chicharrones 😉), freshly steamed veggies like broccoli and carrots and sweet kabocha squash. This plate also featured Sai Aua (you might see sai ua), addictive, spicy Northern Thai sausage.

Nam Ngeaw

A classic dish from Chiang Mai in Northern Thailand. Vermicelli rice noodles plus pork that’s been simmered in a spicy, garlicky, tart, tomatoey broth (nam means water, liquid, or juice) served with shredded fresh cabbage, bean sprouts and pickled mustard greens. I can’t think of a flavor that was missing.

Pad Thai

So after all of Boran’s spectacular, authentic, signature dishes I’ve been nattering about, I’ll leave you with just one more: Pad Thai. Now don’t go all anticlimax on me; this is not like any pad thai from your corner we-can-grab-lunch-here restaurant. Swaddled in a blanket of thin omelet, the steamy components maintain their heat as the crispy ingredients linger outside waiting for you to fulfill your role: break it open, mix it well, and enjoy it like you’ve never tasted pad thai before.
 
 
Boran is located at 462 Court St in Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn.
 
 

MaLa Project

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 March 25 through 30, 2019.


I may be late to the game in terms of writing about MáLà Project, 122 First Ave in Manhattan, but that doesn’t stop me from working my way through their menu now. Their famous Dry Pot notwithstanding, four of us set out to explore other menu items, so we started with ten (count ’em ten!) dishes from the Appetizers, Snacks, Vegetables and Rice sections of the menu; I’m posting a barrage detailing the whole lot.

Here they are, in no special order. (Click any photo to view in glorious high resolution.)

MáLà Duck Neck

I’ve been nibbling my way around roast poultry necks since I was a kid. At Thanksgiving, some families argue over politics; we argued over who’s going to get the turkey neck. So I was happy that there were enough MáLà Duck Neck joints for the four of us. I don’t recall these being particularly spicy though, neither má nor là. Good anyway.

Husband and Wife Lung Slices

Fuqi Feipian 夫妻肺片 is a Sichuan málà classic. Choice of specific ingredients varies among chefs (not to worry, it never includes actual slices of lung) but tripe and tendon are traditional and ox tongue and beef shin can appear as alternate paramours – always two items though and always delightfully spicy.

MáLà Pickles

MáLà Pickles, 四川泡菜, from the Snacks section. Just what it sounds like: Sichuan homestyle spicy pickled vegetables of sufficient variety that we worked our way to the bottom of the crock with ease.

Fried Pepper with Thousand Year Egg

Shāo jiāo pídàn, 烧椒皮蛋. These eggs are of a certain age, but not in sync with their moniker; thousand year eggs, also known as hundred year eggs, century eggs and preserved eggs undergo a process that actually takes closer to weeks or months. They’re covered in a mixture of lime (the calcium compound, not the citrus fruit) and salt and packed into clay or ash to cure (a bit of an oversimplification, but you get the idea). As you can see, the yolk becomes greenish grey and the white a gelatinous translucent brown. The funky flavor pairs perfectly with the fried spicy green pepper.

Xiangxi Fried Rice

Xiangxi Fried Rice, 湘西炒饭, with egg, Chinese bacon, pickled vegetables and chilies. The waiter informed us that it would be spicier than its menu mate “Leftover Fried Rice”; I believe him having not tried the alternative, but this portion, although certainly delicious, wasn’t especially fiery. Good comfort food though.

Liangfen of Happy Tears

Liangfen of Happy Tears, Shāngxīn Liángfěn, 伤心凉粉. I’m not sure when shāngxīn (伤心) which I thought meant sad or heartbroken became “happy tears” but I suspect it has to do with the zesty deliciousness that this dish delivers. Liángfěn refers to mung bean jelly “noodles” – long, thick-cut, slippery, wobbly chopstick challengers (for some) in a spicy soy sauce based dressing. Good eats.

Candy Garlic

A powerful snack: Candy Garlic, 糖蒜.

😠 It’s Candy! 😣 It’s Garlic! ✋ Stop! You’re both right! 💑

Think pickled, not candied – neither dessert topping nor floor wax. Of course, if it’s date night you might want a breath mint after consuming a couple of them, but these piquant cloves are approachable…with Certitude 🙃.

#RUOldEnough2GetTheJokes

Eggplant with Roasted Garlic

Eggplant with Roasted Garlic, 蒜蓉茄子, is a surefire winner. Eggplant and garlic seem to have an affinity for each other like chocolate and nuts, or bacon and pretty much anything. Again, MáLà Project did a good job with this one.

Mouthwatering Chicken

Mouthwatering Chicken, 口水鸡, another classic Sichuan delicacy. Often made with white meat chicken (one of the few recipes in which it’s a worthwhile choice IMHO), it’s poached chicken in chili sauce and this version was excellent.

Sticky Rice Stuffed Lotus Root

Sticky Rice Stuffed Lotus Root, 桂花糯米莲藕 was delicious. The Chinese characters read osmanthus, glutinous rice, lotus root. As I understand it, the cavities in the lotus root are stuffed with sticky rice and the root is simmered in a sweet syrup, often with the addition of goji berries and red dates, until tender. It’s sliced and then gets a bath in its cooking sauce for serving. Osmanthus flowers adorn the top. It’s a sweet dish, but not intensely so. Excellent.

Okay. Next time, we’ll save room for the Dry Pot!

MáLà Project is located at 122 First Ave in Manhattan.

 
 

Ugly Baby

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, one from my first visit in October 2017 (the first three dishes), the others from a more recent excursion published in March 2019.


If I recall correctly, it’s a cross-cultural superstition and particularly so in Thailand: if you’ve just given birth to a beautiful baby, you proclaim it ugly lest an evil spirit punish your hubris and abduct your newborn. Such is the story behind the name of this outstanding restaurant, Ugly Baby, at 407 Smith Street in Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn. The chef, half of the team that graced us with Red Hook’s Kao Soy and Chiang Mai, is back with a vengeance, and authenticity seems to be the name of the game.

Here are a few of the extraordinary dishes we enjoyed. (Click any photo to view in glorious high resolution.)

Laab Ped Udon

Spicy duck salad. Could this be the best laab ped I’ve ever had?

Kang Hoh

Northern dry hung le (a curry paste) and red curry paste with pork shoulder, spare ribs and mung bean noodles. Not a dish you see everywhere: you definitely need to try this one!

Kua Kling

The menu describes this as “southern dry eye round curry – brutally spicy”. It was. Not a dry eye in the house! A high spice level – even for me and I have a high tolerance – so I suggest that you get at least one order of sticky rice and do a bit of the beef and a bit of the rice in each bite for balance. That way, you’ll actually get to taste the complex flavors of this dish (it’s not just hot!) and you’ll find it delicious.

Kang Ped

Sting Ray Curry. Topped with betel leaves, this spicy treatment of sting ray was top notch. That cluster of little beads on the right is a stem of green peppercorns; if you’re into cooking, you can find them in Thai markets brined in jars. Highly recommended.

Khao Soi Nuer

Northern egg noodle curry soup with beef shank. A popular street food in Northern Thailand, it’s a complex dish of contrasting textures and complementary flavors authentically executed here.

Khoong Muk Kai Kem

Khoong Muk Kai Kem features shrimp (khoong), squid (muk), and salted egg yolk (kai kem) – assuming I’ve decoded the Thai correctly. I admit to being an avid fan of salted egg yolk in all its forms; here it serves to thicken the sauce and add texture as well as flavor to the seafood. An excellent dish.

Kang Hoy Bai Cha Plu

Mussels, betel leaves, and cha-om in “ugly red curry”. Cha-om are the gossamer leaves of the Acacia pennata tree which can be consumed either raw or cooked; the betel leaves are the larger pieces you see in the photo. This dish is a good example of why I like Ugly Baby so much; another winner.

Lin Moo Yang

Grilled Pig’s Tongue. Lin means tongue, moo means pork (easy to remember because of the barnyard irony), and yang means grilled. Pig’s tongue is enjoyed by many cultures; my first exposure was as a kid – part of a soul food dinner – and I’ve been a fan ever since. Don’t be put off by the idea of tongue; it’s a delicious meat and when it’s grilled, especially Thai style (the cuisine has a way with a grill), it’s unforgettable. Try this one.

Moo Pad Kapi

Pork Belly and Shrimp Paste. You already know moo, pad is a stir fry (Pad Thai, right?), and kapi is shrimp paste. Cooling cucumber on the side, this dish with its red peppers, infusion of funky, salty shrimp paste, and crispy fried shallots perched on top was perfection with its sticky rice accompaniment.
 
 
Ugly Baby is located at 407 Smith Street in Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn. One of my absolute favorite Thai restaurants.