Archive for the tag 'reviews'

papusa-1

THE BITEAfter wrapping up my visit to the Brighton Jubilee this weekend, I walked up Coney Island Avenue and passed one the neighborhood’s staple Mexican joints, Tacos El Rey (3168 Coney Island Avenue). It had been a long time since my last visit, and I spotted a sign in the window declaring that the kitchen now offered up pupusas, a traditional Salvadoran treat that has long been unavailable in this area. I had to give it a try.

We have "rich" pupusas.

We have “rich” pupusas.

With a sister-in-law of Salvadoran heritage, I’m no stranger to pupusa – but this neighborhood sure is. Think of it as a pan-fried pancake made of cornmeal and stuffed with beans, cheese and other assorted awesomeness. It’s been made in the Central American nation for nearly 2,000 years, but remained the secret of a small hamlet until migration carried it across the nation, then to bordering countries and to our shores over the past half century or so.

The fillings vary depending on regions, but cheese, pork and refried beans are usually on the menu (individually, or mixed). At Tacos El Rey, they also offer shrimp, chicken, and “queso y loroco,” cheese mixed with a vine from a Central American flower bud. The restaurant charges $5.00 for a plate of two, with shrimp costing $8.00.

Disappointingly, Tacos El Rey was out of loroco when I stopped by. So I went with beans and cheese and the revuelta – a blend of chicharron, cheese and beans.

It took some time to arrive at the table, suggesting it’s not a frequently ordered dish at El Rey and had to made from scratch. To bide my time, I ordered a limonada ($3.00).

limonada-1

If you’re thinking this is the lemonade you grew up on, you’re wrong (well, unless you’re Latin American). It’s made from freshly squeezed key limes, some water and a liberal amount of sugar – and then blended with ice into a heavenly froth. It is a spectacular refreshment on a hot summer day.

Just as I slurped the last drops through my straw, the pupusa arrived piping hot, followed by the traditional sides of curtido – think spicy, pickled cole slaw – and a runny tomato-based salsa.

The outside was crispy; perhaps a little overcooked to some, but just how I like it. And the cornmeal dough was grainy and a touch sweet; again, how I like it.

In hindsight, I regret ordering two fillings that were so similar. They were at first difficult to tell apart. Those that are thinking of chicharron as deep fried pork rind beware – although it shares the same name, Salvadoran chicharron is simply cooked pork meat, and in the pupusa it’s ground to a paste and mixed with the beans. While I couldn’t tell the two apart by looking them, the revuelta had noticeably more flavor.

After a taste, I heaped the salsa on top, followed by a mountain of the slaw and blissfully dug in. As good as the pupusa was alone, the curtido was the perfect companion, accentuating the grain’s sweetness with vinegar and a spicy bite. The salsa, unfortunately, added little flavor or heat and just seemed to make my pupusa wet.

The verdict? While it’s not the best pupusa I’ve had, it’s the only one I’ve seen south of Prospect Park and I’ll definitely be returning to satisfy my occasional cravings. And it was a damn good approximation – much better and more authentic than I had expected for a Mexican restaurant.

(Also: check out our previous review of Taco El Rey’s Burrito Grande and food from other Mexican restaurants.)

Tacos El Rey, 3168 Coney Island Avenue (at Brighton Beach Avenue), (718) 769-0116.

The Bite is Sheepshead Bites’ column exploring the foodstuffs of the Sheepshead Bay area. Each week we check out a different offering from one of the many restaurants, delis, food carts, bakeries, butchers, fish mongers, or grocers in our neighborhood. If it’s edible, we’ll take a bite.

Photo by John H.

Photo by John H.

Tipsters let us know that Pizza D’Amore is preparing to open up shop at 3003 Avenue U, the former storefront of Pizzeria Del Corso and Sammie’s Pizza.

It’s the latest outpost for the pizzeria, which also has locations in Mill Basin and Bensonhurst’s Ceasar’s Bay. The storefront is being fully renovated and the exterior got a major facelift.

The previous tenant, Sammie’s Pizza and Restaurant, opened in 2011 and closed up shop some time ago after failing to make much of a mark in the neighborhood. And, to be fair, they had big shoes to fill after taking the spot over from Pizzeria Del Corso, run by pizza prodigy Nino Coniglio.

We’ve heard good things about Pizza D’Amore, though, and readers of our sister site Bensonhurst Bean nominated it as one of that neighborhood’s best slices.

Best of luck to the new owners, and we look forward to grabbing a bite soon!

Cafe Kashkar: lagman

THE BITE: Based on the menu alone, it’s hard to know whether you’re diving into a Uyghur dish or an Uzbeki one at Cafe Kashkar - or really what you’re getting into at all. But you won’t go wrong picking and choosing among the inexpensive dishes and sharing with a table of adventurous eaters.

This is one of the few restaurants in New York City serving food from the Uyghur region, and, as the one thing the menu does note, it’s named after the city of Kashgar, an oasis city in far western China. A predominantly Muslim region, the food focuses on lamb, noodles, and doughy breads.

Cafe Kashkar: manty

There were reminders of Tibetan momos in the manty ($6), large doughy steamed dumplings filled with lamb and onions, though without the saucy excitement (or spice, or much seasoning at all) of momos. The flavor was more reminiscent of Yemen dishes we’ve enjoyed, where the meat is the main attraction, so if you like lamb, and you like dumplings, you’ll be pretty happy.

Cafe Kashkar: lambpilaf

Because this is a basically a festival of lamb, we ordered up a heaping plate of lamb pilaf ($6), which was a straightforward meat and rice dish that won’t blow your mind, but would be plenty comforting on a chilly fall day after a stroll down the boardwalk. Much of our dinner had that appeal, the kinds of dishes you can imagine filling up on when, at last, the humidity has dropped.

You can see Marco Polo’s inspiration for pasta when a plate of geiro lagman ($6, pictured at top) is set on the table. The hand-pulled wheat noodles are topped with red bell peppers, lamb, and sauce and served up with chopsticks. The irregular noodles have a pleasant chew to them, the lamb was some of the best of the night. It was the definite favorite at our table – we’d come back for that, and would also love to try the soup version.

Cafe Kashkar: kebab

Another bite we could have had more of was the chicken (not lamb for once!) kebab ($3.50), which was juicy and nicely seasoned — though it also came with a thin sauce for dipping, which didn’t feel necessary, but introduced us to some more of the unique spices we’d come there to explore.

Cafe Kashkar: naryun

The naryn ($6) was the most unusual of the dishes we ordered, the most unlike anything any of us had had before. Cold, scrappy pieces of dough and crumbled lamb with slices of chilled sausage, it was mostly the texture and temperature (and yes, the grayish color of it all) that came as a surprise, but it grew on some of us.

Cafe Kashkar: tarragon soda

There’s no alcohol, but if you’re already exploring the food menu with abandon, grab a drink as well. The tarragon soda, a green the color of radiator fluid that seemed to sit on display like a dare, was gulped down by the youngest in our crowd, who experimented, happily, by mixing it with a bottle of mineral water — which was described by one diner who had grown up drinking it as “an acquired taste,” and perhaps unkindly but not entirely off-base, “sulfurous.” The adults agreed the tarragon soda tasted oddly familiar, a little like salt-water taffy. Skip the tea, though — steeping in a pot through the whole meal, it never seemed to get strong enough.

Cafe Kashkar, 1141 Brighton Beach Ave

Sampling a number of dishes, you get an impression of the style, something like a a cool-weather comfort food. Still, a number of fellow diners on a recent weeknight visit had come straight from the beach, and the space is so colorful and comfortable, you could easily linger a while after a day spent soaking in too much sun and sand. And once you’re filled with all that lamb, it may be hard to get up and go, anyway.

Cafe Kashkar1141 Brighton Beach Avenue, between Brighton 14th and Brighton 15th Streets, (718) 743-3832.

The Bite is Sheepshead Bites’ weekly column where we explore the foodstuffs of Sheepshead Bay. Each week we check out a different offering from one of the many restaurants, delis, food carts, bakeries, butchers, fish mongers, or grocers in our neighborhood. If it’s edible, we’ll take a bite.

octosalad-1

THE BITE: Most people know by now that Anatolian Gyro has moved off of Sheepshead Bay Road, around the corner to East 16th Street. What many might not realize is that they’ve also added a few new items to the menu.

Among them? The octopus salad ($13.50), sure to become a staple of this writer’s diet.

Let’s back up to the new digs. We don’t usually write about a restaurant’s physical space on The Bite, but the storefront deserves some attention. It’s very industrial chic, with bare cement floors, natural lighting and spartan decor.

Some might call it “Williamsburg-esque,” but I – and the restaurant’s owner, Metin Turan – call it pragmatic. Flooded out during Superstorm Sandy, Turan went for the hardscrabble look not just because it’s what passes for cool, but because it’ll be easy to clean out and restore if another flood occurs, allowing him to get back to business that much faster. Other local business owners should take note; pragmatic, flood resilient design should be the new normal around here.

With the location change, Turan has also moved around some staff, swapping talent here and there between Anatolian and his other area business, the Amberjack dinner-cruise ship.

That’s where the octopus salad and other menu changes come in. I ate it once shortly after the Amberjack’s opening and have craved it since. However, the Amberjack switched to a chartered operation, which means I couldn’t just walk in and demand my tentacled delight unless I had a bar mitzvah to celebrate or something.

Fortunately, it’s now available for landlubbers at whim at Anatolian – and it was just as good as I remembered.

Served in a large, deep dish and hearty enough to be a meal by itself, the salad isn’t just tasty, it’s a visual treat. Mixed greens are tossed with tomato, cucumber, purple onion and red peppers – and all the colors pop. An entire char-grilled octopus is sliced and spread over the top. It’s finished off with a proper dousing of vinegar and olive oil, with some fresh lemon juice and black pepper to boot.

The star here is, of course, the octopus. It was perfectly cooked – not chewy, not mushy; the large and mid-sized chunks a tender treat infused with a smoky flavor from grilling over hot coals. The tiniest of tentacles charred over the flames provided all the crunchiness in this dish, and it was marvelous. Croutons need not apply.

The whole thing is lent additional flavor by the vinaigrette. It’s a pretty standard dressing, but the freshness of the pepper stood out and was complemented by the fresh lemon juice, and both tamed any overpowering flavor of char from the octopus without wiping it out. It also seems the restaurant’s chefs have gotten the portion size down to a science. When I finished the last bits on my dish, there was not a drop of the dressing stewing at the bottom, a common faux pas at establishments looking to compensate for a lesser salad.

But Anatolian? No, nothing to compensate for here.

Anatolian Gyro, 2623 East 16th Street, between Avenue Z and Sheepshead Bay Road,  (718) 769-4754.

The Bite is Sheepshead Bites’ weekly column where we explore the foodstuffs of Sheepshead Bay. Each week we check out a different offering from one of the many restaurants, delis, food carts, bakeries, butchers, fish mongers, or grocers in our neighborhood. If it’s edible, we’ll take a bite.

samsa

A pumpkin manti from Nargis.

Nargis Cafe (2818 Coney Island Avenue) is in the limelight again, this time with the New York Times writing up the Uzbeki restaurant’s mouth-watering cuisine, and tracing the business from humble beginnings into a jewel of Sheepshead Bay.

The Times isn’t the only one to discover the central-Asian cuisine. In February, the FX show The Americans used the space to film some scenes there.

Of course, we’ve been on to Nargis’ exceptional delights for years, already having written up reviews of pumpkin-stuffed Manti and the spiced fries. But there’s always room for more attention.

In their article, the Times takes a peek in the back of this restaurant that serves “denizens of outer Brooklyn.”

Everything except a few desserts brought in from a local bakery is made in-house, including beef noodles pulled by hand, and dumpling casings and savory pastry crusts rolled early in the morning, long before the cafe opens. Mr. Bangiev performed the pulling and rolling and almost all the cooking himself in the fledgling years of Nargis. Even though he has entrusted the kitchen to his cooks, Mr. Bangiev can still be found each day and evening at the cafe, immersed in every aspect of his restaurant.

Kudos to Nargis for catching the Times’ fickle, Manhattan-centric eye.

One of the varieties of Russian black bread. (Photo by Bacon And Tofu / Flickr)

THE BITE: Many things can be said about the Russian community of Brighton Beach and Sheepshead Bay, but you can’t take away their authenticity. If you don’t get hit by a stroller overflowing with groceries, you’re doing something wrong.

There are over 20 fruit and vegetable stores within a 10-block radius, and that’s a scary thought. Politics and personal opinions about this aside, one of the most unique foods these places offer is a fresh baked hunk of chorniy hleb. 

You may know it as rye or pumpernickel, but I assure you, it’s infinitely more complex. Just google a recipe for “Russian black bread” and the ingredient list will surprise you. Fennel, caraway seeds, espresso, cocoa powder, and it doesn’t stop there. Hmm, that’s exactly why I prefer to buy the golden brown crack, er, bread, already made, sliced and ready for me to slather with salo; but more on that later.

There are many varieties, the two most common being Borodinsky and Litovsky. Where the names come from is a bit of a hard case to crack, as much of the available information is just urban legend.

Borodinsky is possibly named after the battle of Borodino, when the Russians fought against Napolean Bonaparte in 1812. It has a strong coriander scent and is sweetened with molasses. Litovsky hleb (bread) is much denser and usually darker. It is chewy and significantly sweet.

Black bread is to a Russian child what I imagine Wonder Bread is to a tot growing up in the states, except it remains flavorful, even as an adult. You better believe the little ones weren’t smothering the fermented sourdough with peanut butter and jelly. Although it’s delicious when eaten warm and adorned with a slick of butter, there are several classic toppings that ring bells in the minds and hearts of former USSR citizens.

Sandwiches are always open-faced, not unlike a Parisian tartine. Hungarian salami is a typical household cold cut, and brings back funny memories for me personally. In elementary school, all the kids who brought butterbrodi (open faced sandwiches) would stink up the classroom upon lunchbox retrieval. Instantaneously, the space could have been confused for an eastern European smoke shop.

Shproti are also a cherished “treat” from the motherland, delicately smoked and drizzled with sunflower seed oil. In case you aren’t familiar, shproti are smoked sardines (which is why I put treat in quotation marks). Traditionally, thin slices of toasted black bread are cloaked with slices of refreshing cucumbers and meaty sardines. It’s an acquired taste.

I’ve saved the best for last. You’ve probably seen it, heard of it, maybe even tried it. I’m referring to salo, a dieter’s paradise. Just kidding, it’s actually a nightmare for anyone trying to watch their cholesterol and/or general health.

Salo is cured pork that is sliced thin and served uber-cold over the chorniy hleb with a pungent scallion to cut through the fattiness. This butterbrod is as Ukrainian as it gets. If you’re not feeling ambitious enough to go and buy the counterparts, head over to your favorite Russian market or restaurant and place your order.

When you feel like getting creative in the kitchen, try making your favorite sandwich and discover all the new flavors that pop out because of this flavorful dough. I recommend a gluttonous corned beef sandwich with cheddar and brown mustard.

Here’s where to go to buy black bread:

  • Brighton Bazaar, 1007 Brighton Beach Avenue
  • Cherry Hill Gourmet Market, 1901 Emmons Avenue
  • Net Cost Market, 2257 East 16th Street
  • Sheepshead Bay Fruit & Vegetables Market, 1717 Avenue Z

Until next time, dasvidaniya!

Jane Poretsky is a Sheepshead Bay resident and lover of all things edible. She blogs about her own food creations at Caramelized Sarcasm.

The Bite is Sheepshead Bites’ weekly column where we explore the foodstuffs of Sheepshead Bay. Each week we check out a different offering from one of the many restaurants, delis, food carts, bakeries, butchers, fish mongers, or grocers in our neighborhood. If it’s edible, we’ll take a bite.

papaya

THE BITE: Thai food is one of my (many) weaknesses. I have a special place in my heart (read: stomach) for its spicy, sweet, pungent, sour, textural goodness. Complex and varied, I never get tired of it. Today on The Bite, we’ll delve into the wonders of green papaya salad, with the help of Thai Basil, at 3682 Nostrand Avenue, between Avenue W  and Avenue  X.

Green papaya salad is a ubiquitous dish in Southeast Asia, known in Thailand as som tam (literally translated as sour pounded). It is made with papayas that are unripe so they are tangy and not yet sweet, and in this dish they are cut into long thin strips so if you didn’t know, you might mistake them for some kind of vegetable stalks. The papaya is then pounded with lime juice, chili, palm sugar and fish sauce using a mortar and pestle. Next the papaya is mixed with the customers’ choice of sliced string beans, tomatoes, shrimp paste, and dried salted tiny shrimps. In Thailand this is done street-side and swiftly put into a clear plastic bag, juices and all, to be consumed without utensils, often together with fried chicken and sticky rice.

The Thai Basil version was Americanized in a few ways: a few leaves of lettuce were added at the bottom to more closely resemble what we think of as salad; they went easy on the fish sauce; and they excluded the shrimp. Instead of slicing the papaya lengthwise with a knife, it was prepared with a grater so the pieces were smaller and soaked up the lime juice dressing really well. These changes did not bother me in the least- the salad was delicious, super fresh and crunchy. The customer here doesn’t get a choice of add-ins, it just comes with sliced  tomato and string beans, but the spiciness level is adjusted to order- I ordered it extra spicy, and that’s just how I got it. Also, it comes in a dish with a fork, so it’s a little easier to eat than out of a drippy plastic bag.

At $6.00 for a nice portion size, my stomach (and heart) were really happy with this savory mound of shredded fruit.

Thai Basil, 3682 Nostrand Avenue, (718) 891-8889.

– Sonia Rapaport

The Bite is Sheepshead Bites’ weekly column where we explore the foodstuffs of Sheepshead Bay. Each week we check out a different offering from one of the many restaurants, delis, food carts, bakeries, butchers, fish mongers, or grocers in our neighborhood. If it’s edible, we’ll take a bite.

duck

THE BITE: Comrades! Today we admire Soviet kitsch in a Soviet kitchen: Back to USSR, at 2817 Coney Island Avenue off of Avenue Z.

Here you’ll find an oversized bronze monument of Lenin in the main dining room, and walls emblazoned with waving hammer-and-sickle flags in the side room. There’s 70s-style rotary phones hanging off the walls, and all kinds of memorabilia of the Soviet era.

The menu features 10 flavors of homemade infused vodkas and an extensive list of cleverly named Russian dishes printed in both English and Russian. I know, I’m supposed to be focusing on the food, but you can’t talk about this place and not mention the ambiance.

And, actually, after chuckling a little every time I passed, I was so very curious if it was a mistake that the definite article “the” was left out of the restaurant name. Is there a sense of humor about the good old USSR here?

Curiosity got the best of me. I gathered some friends and made the trip.

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tart

THE BITE: Way back in 2009 when Ka Ka Bakery opened at 1505 Avenue U, we all had a good laugh. Ned made some puns, got a pork bun, and invited us to share in the joy of this oddly named bakery. Maybe it means something in Cantonese or Mandarin? I don’t know. Anyway, good times.

Well, a few years later, it still stands, amid heavy competition. I think there are about four Chinese bakeries within two blocks of each other on that stretch of Avenue U by the Q train station, but the pink Ka Ka Bakery sign still got a smile out of me and I went in for a quick bite.

For 90 cents I decided to go with an egg custard tart, or dan tat, which I’ve seen (and eaten) at many Chinese bakeries.

There are two origin stories for this pastry:

  1. They were first baked by nuns in a monastery outside Lisbon over 200 years ago. These pasteis de nata became popular in Portuguese baking, and made it to the Portuguese colony of Macau, right next to Hong Kong, where they also took off and slowly seeped into the culinary awareness of Taiwan, mainland China, and eventually the rest of Asia.
  2. They were brought to Hong Kong and Canton (now Guangdong) by English colonists in the 1940′s and have evolved from English custard tarts with more egg and less milk. They were first popularized in China at cha chaan tengs, which were tea houses that served tea and Western-style foods and cakes to working-class Chinese at affordable prices. That was something unprecedented as Western food had previously been considered only for Chinese elite.

Whatever the true origin, I like that these are a little less heavy and less sweet than what you typically get from Western desserts. Each bakery seems to have their own specific take on these, and while you can find them in chocolate, green tea, or honey-ginger flavors at some places, plain sweet egg is the standard, and you will see some variation in texture from one baker to the next. The crust can be either buttery shortcrust or puff pastry, and the filling varies in ratios of egg yolk, egg white, milk, sugar, and gelatin.

Ka Ka Bakery’s egg custard tart has a shortcrust shell that is neither too thin nor too thick and in good proportion to the filling. The inside doesn’t come in any fancy flavors here, but it’s fluffy and not too yellow, which makes me suspect a higher ratio of egg whites. It’s got just a hint of jelly-like texture, holding everything together well enough and there’s a bit of sweet mystery liquid on top of the custard, which you can see glistening in the photo. Personally, I prefer these to be a bit less creamy and a bit more gelatinous (I’ve grown to like that wiggly texture) so I may be trying around the competitors just to see, but if you’re preference is for milky and not wobbly, these are for you.

Ka Ka Bakery, 1505 Avenue U, (718) 998-2229.

– Sonia Rapaport

The Bite is Sheepshead Bites’ weekly column where we explore the foodstuffs of Sheepshead Bay. Each week we check out a different offering from one of the many restaurants, delis, food carts, bakeries, butchers, fish mongers, or grocers in our neighborhood. If it’s edible, we’ll take a bite.

seaweed

THE BITE: Today on The Bite, it’s seaweed time!

Seaweed comes in many varieties as it is an umbrella term for all species of ocean plants, and it can be prepared many ways. The one pictured here is Korean kim (or sometimes spelled gim, pronounced with a hard “g”), which is actually a type of red algae. It is harvested in cold waters usually during the winter, and is boiled and dried in big lumpy masses.

This is the same stuff that gets fried up to make Welsh laverbread, or left in big plain sheets as nori to roll Japanese sushi. The type we have here is a Korean side dish where paper-thin sheets are toasted with sesame oil, cut into little rectangles and seasoned with salt. Not only is kim a popular dish in Korea, it is also the last name of about 21 percent of the population there.

Some people, including myself at times, can be averse to seaweed because of its slimy coldness, but this is a whole different textural experience. Gim is super crispy at first bite, sometimes leaving little green flakes behind. If you eat it too slowly, the heat inside your mouth makes it seem to melt on your tongue, which can be counted as a point for or against it, depending on what you’re into.

In the same way that American bars sometimes serve free pretzels or peanuts to keep patrons thirsty, bars in Korea and Japan sometimes serve this kind of seaweed as a salty bar snack. Surprisingly delicious as it is with beer (or soda for the kids), I don’t really see this taking off as a trend at Southern Brooklyn watering holes any time soon, so if you’re interested in trying it, better to buy it at Sea Bay Seafood & Meat Market Inc. (1241 Avenue U, at East 13th Street) where this A+ brand kim comes in a 3-pack for $1.39. Crispy, sesame-flavored, and salty, this is filled with all the goodness I would expect from kim.

If the super saltiness of it gives you pause, know that it also contains a wealth of nutrients, including iodine, iron, amino acids, B vitamins, and protein, so acquiring a taste for it has some perks.

Cheers!

Sea Bay Seafood & Meat Market Inc., 1241 Avenue U at East 13th Street, (718) 382-8889.

– Sonia Rapaport

The Bite is Sheepshead Bites’ weekly column where we explore the foodstuffs of Sheepshead Bay. Each week we check out a different offering from one of the many restaurants, delis, food carts, bakeries, butchers, fish mongers, or grocers in our neighborhood. If it’s edible, we’ll take a bite.

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