MaLa Project – Part 1

Instagram Post 3/25/2019

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

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.

[1] 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.

[2] 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.
 
 

Kung Fu Xiao Long Bao

Instagram Post 3/24/2019

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

Soup dumplings, Xiao Long Bao, XLB, 小笼包, call them what you will, are universally prized regardless of the appellation. Literally “little basket bun” because they’re steamed and served in a little basket often made of bamboo, the wrapper encloses a tasty meatball (usually pork), sometimes with the addition of crabmeat and/or crab roe, swimming in a rich broth (usually pork).

Fans champion just the right skins (a little elasticity, not too thick but not so thin that it breaks upon dislodgment from the steamer), just the right filling (flavorful, proper consistency, and moist unto itself), just the right soup (savory and porky, not playing second fiddle to the meat), and just the right ratio of soup to filling. In short, sort of like Goldilocks’ appraisal of Baby Bear’s personal effects: “juuuuuust right”.

[1] An oft-cited favorite purveyor is Kung Fu Xiao Long Bao, 59-16 Main Street, Flushing. On this visit, we ordered the Crab Meat XLB, pork with minced crab meat and roe.

[2] The salmon colored bit of crab roe peeking out of the topknot is the telltale clue as to what awaits within.

[3] Further evidence of crabiliciousness!
 
 

Ittadi Garden and Grill

Instagram Post 3/22/2019

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

Since I was in Jackson Heights the other day and since I love Bangladeshi food, both for the spice level and the mustard oil, a visit to Ittadi Garden and Grill was in order. It’s a steam table affair facilitated that day by an accommodating waitress who was kind enough to identify anything unlabeled.

[1] There was a wide variety of fish as is to be expected in a Bangladeshi restaurant, but only one was anonymous, a whole fish about six inches long. I was told it was Baila, aka Bele, and that it was less bony than Hilsa (which can be a challenge in that regard if you’re particularly hungry); I later learned that it’s a species of the freshwater goby. The sauce was savory, spicy, and splendid slathered over the rice.

[2] Another essential in Bangladeshi cuisine is vorta (you may see bharta, bhurtha, or the like), a vegetable or fish that has been boiled then mashed and seasoned with chilies, mustard oil, and spices, existing somewhere along the condiment/side dish continuum. I requested a mix and received (left to right) fish, potato, broccoli (top), eggplant, and onions & chili, each wonderfully spicy but with its own character.

[3] I asked about the golden shreds punctuated by slivers of green chilies in the vegetable section and learned it was papaya, but unlike any papaya I had experienced, ripe or unripe, for this was soft as a boiled vegetable and retained only a tiny trace of its papayaness; I enjoyed the preparation. Dal and a small salad came with the meal.

Ittadi Garden and Grill is located at 73-07 37th Rd, Queens. Always worth a stopover.
 
 

Ugly Baby – Part 3

Instagram Post 3/19/2019

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

Two more from one of my favorite Thai restaurants, Ugly Baby at 407 Smith Street in Carroll Gardens. Both of these seafood dishes were absolutely delicious.

[1] Khoong Muk Kai Kem featuring 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.

[2] 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.

 
 

Ugly Baby – Part 2

Instagram Post 3/18/2019

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

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. Having opened about a year and a half ago, it’s still one of my favorite Thai places but I’ve been remiss about posting photos. Fixing that now.

[1] Sting Ray Curry, Kang Ped. 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.

[2] 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.

More to come from Ugly Baby.
 
 

F.O.B.

Instagram Post 3/17/2019

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

F.O.B. abbreviates Fresh Off the Boat, the Filipino restaurant at 271 Smith Street in Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn, where the only boats that might sail nearby would be on the Gowanus Canal. You won’t find hard-core Filipino cuisine here, but what they do offer is tasty and competently executed. Here’s what came from the galley a few nights ago.

[1] Bola Bola. If you like big, overstuffed, beefy dumplings, these are for you. Seared on the bottom, steamed on top, sort of a potsticker on steroids.

[2] Grilled Tupa, the hit of our dinner. Sliced lamb marinated in coconut milk seasoned with shrimp paste, a triumph of the Maillard reaction. Spicy sauce on the side.

[3] Seafood Malabon, a stir-fried rice noodle dish (aka pancit). The menu states “in a sauce of minced shellfish & smoked fish, topped with shrimp, chicharron, and egg.” All of those were present but the shrimp were small, the smoked mussels were few and far between, and the chicharron should have been crisper. Fine, but easily overshadowed by the lamb.

[4] Tomato and Salted Duck Egg from the Sides section of the menu: fresh tomato, red onion, bits of salted duck egg (the star), and tamarind dressing – good but didn’t quite coalesce.

[5] Laing. I’m familiar with laing as taro leaves drenched in a creamy coconut milk/shrimp paste sauce, hopefully with a chili kick. This version consisted of chopped kale topped with a coconut milk sauce; it was fine but different from the norm. Additional sides were Garlic Rice and Kamote, mashed sweet potato with coconut milk, sweet and delicious.

I’m told the halo-halo is worth a try.
 
 

Cka Ka Qellu – Part 2

Instagram Post 3/15/2019

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

More deliciousness from our visit to Çka Ka Qëllu, 2321 Hughes Ave, Bronx, a couple of weeks ago.

[1] 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 a few days ago. 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.

[2] The Mantia served in their tava of creamy lava.

[3] Not to neglect our appetizers, each 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.

[4] And 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.

And in case you’re wondering, yes, I’m going back to Çka Ka Qëllu, 2321 Hughes Ave, Bronx. Gotta finish off the rest of the menu!
 
 

Cka Ka Qellu – Part 1

Instagram Post 3/14/2019

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

I had been clamoring to go to Çka Ka Qëllu ever since my friend Dave Cook wrote about it in his popular blog, EatingInTranslation.com, last November. I finally got the chance a couple of weeks ago when Dave and I and two other friends got together for lunch at this Albanian gem tucked away in Belmont’s Little Italy.

[1] Ground veal and creamy yogurt have starring roles in this cuisine, at least what we tried of it. That’s code for “must do a return visit posthaste” because everything we tasted was delicious and in many cases a little surprising. Case in point was this Qofte Sharri, ground veal mixed with kacamak (cornmeal) oozing melted kashkaval cheese; the pleasant surprise came in the form of a touch of spiciness, unusual for this cuisine.

[2] Fasule. 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. In retrospect, I think it might have been a good idea to cut it up into bits and stir it back in for the occasional unexpected nibble.

[3] 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.

Interested? More tomorrow!

Çka Ka Qëllu is located at 2321 Hughes Ave, Bronx.
 
 

Polish & Slavic Center Cafeteria

Instagram Post 3/11/2019

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

Ever since my Instagram friend @gustasian suggested it, I’ve been contemplating adding a new ethnojunket to my roster. The Greenpoint corner of Brooklyn boasts some hearty and delicious Polish provisions, not to mention more varieties of smoked and cured meats than you can shake a kielbasa at. To reconnoiter the area, we convened at the PSC Cafeteria adjoining the Polish & Slavic Center at 177 Kent Street where home-style comfort food is the order of the day.

[1] This is Kotlet Górski (Mountain Cutlet) a hefty pounded, breaded, and pan fried pork schnitzel topped with a runny egg and kept company by a scoop of gravy swathed mashed potatoes.

[2] Bigos (Hunter’s Stew) a Polish classic incorporating sauerkraut and sometimes fresh cabbage plus bits of whatever meat the aforementioned hunter bagged that morning. These days, it’s almost always pork, often in several manifestations like chunks of fresh meat and sausage, Poland’s answer to Alsatian choucroute garnie. Or perhaps it’s the other way around. Salatka z Burakow (Polish Beet Salad) on the side.

[3] And of course, an order of pierogies was essential: a dumpling by any other name would still spell a treat. Bits of bacon and sautéed onion adorned our Pierogi z Kapusta (cabbage) which we ordered because I like saying “kapusta”. Try it. Sour cream on the side.

Lots more good eats in the neighborhood. What do you think? Should I offer a food tour there?
 
 

Asian Bowl – Part 3

Instagram Post 3/8/2019

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

Two more from Asian Bowl, 101-11 Queens Blvd, the amazing new Burmese restaurant in Forest Hills that I just can’t get enough of.

[1] Nga-gin Curry. Nga-gin is a type of freshwater fish in the carp family; it’s bony, but not impossible to work around. Big, meaty chunks of fish lazed in a mild tomato-based curry that’s tricky to characterize: very rich, umami-laden, somewhat salty, a little sharp, certainly oily. Does that help? Let’s just go with delicious.

[2] Shan Khauk Swal Thoke. Shan is a state in the eastern part of Myanmar bordering China, Laos, and Thailand. Khauk Swal Thoke is a wheat noodle salad made with dried shrimp, herbs and veggies, fish sauce and lime juice, and topped with peanuts. A warm aura surrounded this dish that I can’t specify other than to state that it was different from its tablemates – the type of fish sauce perhaps? Once again the textural interplay between soft noodles and crispy bits so characteristic of Burmese thokes made this choice another treat.

That’s all for now – at least until I go back to continue working my way through the menu. What more can I tell you? I love this place. You will too.

Major h/t to Joe DiStefano (chopsticksandmarrow.com) and Dave Cook (eatingintranslation.com).