#0 Cuba and/or China: Astorian Chino-Latino fusion

 

Nuevo Jardin de China is one of those places that I’ve walked past literally 100 times, without really noticing it. Chinese food in Astoria? Meh. Not when there’s baklava and mezedes as far as the eye can see.

But wait… “Nuevo Jardin de China” is, um, Spanish. Fine, it’s probably just one of those places that New Yorkers love to joke about: we have Mexicans who make Chinese food and Chinese immigrants who make tacos. This must be in the latter category, right?

Nope. This is authentic fusion: the restaurant is owned by ethnic Chinese immigrants from Cuba. Chino-Latino food used to be incredibly common in NYC, and there are still more than a dozen NYC restaurants owned by ethnic Chinese from Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, or Cuba.

If you’re not a veteran of the New York Chino-Latino scene, Nuevo Jardin can be a little bit disorienting. The staff all look Chinese, the small TV above the bar shows Sinovision, and the bar features gooey tiki-bar-type drinks. But the stereo was blaring salsa music when I walked in. I could swear that the Hello Kitty statue was totally moving her hips instead of just her paw.

Anyway, I was mostly curious about the “Latino” part of “Chino-Latino food”, so I ordered the lunch special of ropa vieja to go – literally, “old clothes,” a Cuban dish consisting of beef simmered in peppers and onions until it disintegrates into soft threads of meat.

Once I opened my to-go bag, I was even more disoriented. The bag contained odd array of condiments: sweet and sour sauce, soy sauce, butter, Italian dressing and a slice of lemon (for the iceberg lettuce salad), and two fortune cookies. The ropa vieja was also served with a chunk of baguette and shrimp-and-pork fried rice.

my stomach is about to feel great, but my brain really hurts just looking at this

my stomach is about to feel great, but my brain really hurts just looking at this

 

The ropa vieja looked and tasted like typical Americanized Chinese food: the beef and onions and peppers were stewed in a sweet, unnaturally red sauce – sort of like the sweet and sour pork sauce at, say, Panda Express. It wasn’t what I expected, since it didn’t remotely resemble any other ropa vieja I’d ever eaten before. I ate half of the dish, then put it aside while I survived a three-hour work meeting. I wasn’t excited to eat more of it.

After my meeting, I ate the other half anyway. Because, you know, it was food, and it happened to be in the same room as me. And a funny thing happened: I actually enjoyed it. Yeah, the sauce was on the sweet side, but not unpleasantly so, and it had a nice onion flavor to it. The fried rice seemed incongruous at first, but it was actually pretty good, and the extra bits of meat and egg and shrimp and oil mellowed out the sweetness of the sauce.

 

on closer inspection… not bad!

on closer inspection… shiny, but not bad!

 

So here’s the thing: at first, my not-totally-open mind was playing mean tricks on my stomach. When I expected Cuban ropa vieja, I thought the dish was gawdawful. But as soon as I forgot my expectations and energetically stuck my snout into the leftovers… well, it was actually a pretty tasty meal.

So yeah, maybe Chinese ropa vieja doesn’t seem to make much sense at first. And neither does a salsa-dancing Hello Kitty statue. But both could be kinda cute, right?

 

Nuevo Jardín de China Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Nuevo Jardin de China
32-05 Broadway, Astoria, Queens
Subway: Broadway (N, Q trains)

 

Nabaya Restaurant: everything but Gambian

 

As is often the case these days, I’ve bent over backwards to find Gambian food, and I keep failing… but sometimes, that isn’t so bad:

  • Gambian food fail #1: My wife’s brother’s ex-wife’s friend’s husband said that he knew a few Gambians who might be able to cook for me. Several emails and a few phone calls later, nothing happened. I tried to bribe them with Nigerian food, but I think they got tired of hearing from me.
  • Gambian food fail #2: A few weeks ago, I found an oh-so-faint internet ghost of a Gambian restaurant on Walton Avenue in the Bronx. I went there to investigate, and it was long gone, converted into a barbershop.
  • Gambian food fail #3: After leaving the barbershop, a friendly customer at a nearby bodega gave me vague directions to a restaurant that might serve Gambian food. (“Go down 169th, cross Webster, go down the hill, and it’s somewhere around there.”) I found the restaurant, but the owner was Ivorian. He insisted that he’d never heard of any Gambian-owned restaurants – even though we were in a Gambian neighborhood.
but at least I got some acheke and fried fish out of the deal...

but at least my new Ivorian friend fed me some nice acheke and fried fish…

 

  • Gambian food fail #4: After stuffing myself with (non-Gambian) fried fish and acheke, I made a 45-minute trek to a restaurant called Fouta, which had at least one Gambian dish — super kanja — on the menu. But the place was owned by a Senegalese family.
  • Gambian food fail #5: One of my very favorite food writers – Dave Cook at Eating in Translation – found a Gambian chef at Nabaya Restaurant in the Bronx, formerly known as Bate. To celebrate, I went to Nabaya with six friends, including Dave. But Dave was the victim of some miscommunication on his previous visit: the owner is from Guinea-Conakry, and her kitchen staff is from Senegal, Ivory Coast, and Burkina Faso.

I’d cry into my ginger beer, but I got another great meal out of the situation, and can’t be upset. Nabaya may not be Gambian, but it’s awfully delicious.

(cry)

ginger beer and sorrel; white-boy tears not pictured

 

 

I think this is one of the least-upsetting tables I’ve ever seen, especially since it includes acheke (toasted, shaved cassava, served with a spicy onion-and-pepper sauce and a ground-up Maggi cube) and a nice cassava leaf stew, among other treats:

food

 

I mean, there’s nothing wrong with a nice plate of braised lamb shanks:

braised lamb at Nabaya West African Guinean restaurant Bronx NYC

 

 

Or baked fish, served with a spicy onion sauce:

uh huh

 

Or guinea fowl, stewed in tomato sauce with a nice habanero pepper:

yeah

 

Or thiebou djeune – jolloff rice with fish, yucca, carrots, and a dark chile paste:

yeah

 

And you can’t go wrong with roasted chicken in another spicy onion sauce:

food

 

Or lamb dibi, featuring fried lamb with fried onions:

more lamb dibi

 

So yeah: I’ve failed to get Gambian food on five different occasions. But I ate so much lamb and fish and acheke that I can’t even be upset about the tall dude with the big camera who seems to be preventing the other dudes from eating. When the food is this good, why whine?

sit down, smart guy

Nabaya Restaurant
860 Melrose Avenue
Subway: Yankee Stadium (4, D trains)

Do you know any Gambians or Mauritanians who might be willing to prepare a simple dish, or at least have a good conversation about their native cuisines? If so, email me at unitednationsoffood@gmail.com, or find me on Twitter or Facebook.

(Almost) Costa Rica: Punto Sabroso / E&S Jugos

 

Of the 27 remaining hard-to-find cuisines, there are two that stick out like sore thumbs. Why haven’t I found Costa Rican or Nicaraguan food in New York City?!?! I have no idea. There’s a nice supply of Costa Rican restaurants in Connecticut and New Jersey, but none in New York. There’s even a Costa Rican eatery in Ridgway, Colorado, which has a population of 932.

But in New York? Nope, until… well, about three weeks ago.

If you gaze deeply into the Ticos en New York Facebook page, you might be lucky enough to find a hidden gem: there’s a brand-spanking-new Costa Rican place in Richmond Hill, Queens called Punto Sabroso. Well, sort of: thanks to the quirks of New York City’s business licensing laws, the restaurant is temporarily stuck with the establishment’s previous name, E & S Jugos. And as the name suggests, the place does serve fresh-squeezed juice, but it also doubles as New York’s only Tico restaurant.

Punto Sabroso owner Katrasha Her – a friendly, lovable Honduran chef who spent six years working in a Costa Rican restaurant in Connecticut – somehow squeezes some wonderful dishes out of her pint-sized kitchen, using a scrappy arsenal of plug-in hot plates and countertop appliances. The place is small – our gang of three occupied nearly every seat in the restaurant – but mighty.

You can never go wrong with a good stewed chicken, and Katrasha nailed it: it was fall-off-the-bone tender, in a refreshing sauce of onions, peppers, and tomatoes, served with corn tortillas, a small salad, white rice, and gallo pinto, Costa Rica’s beloved mixture of rice and beans:

food

delicious national obsession, with salad, rice, and stewed chicken

 

One of my companions ordered a perfectly cooked pork chop, served with the same array of sides, including more gallo pinto. I was an even bigger fan of the medallions of stewed beef tongue, slow-cooked in tomatoes, onions, and peppers until the beef had a silky consistency. I honestly don’t understand why beef tongue isn’t more popular in the United States: for my taste, it easily beats any expensive steak when it’s prepared well. The dish was again served with corn tortillas, salad, white rice, and gallo pinto:

food

no need for the filet mignon — just slip me some beef tongue

 

I’m told that gallo pinto is a national obsession in Costa Rica, almost as beloved as the national fútbol team. If you’ve ever been to Honduras, you might have enjoyed a similar mash of rice and beans, called casamiento. Katrasha – who is an excellent conversationalist, and wonderfully patient with my Tarzan Spanish – generously revealed the secret ingredient that distinguishes Costa Rican gallo pinto from the casamiento made in her native Honduras: Salsa Lizano, a vegetable-based sauce that gives gallo pinto its characteristic hint of sweetness.

secret incredient

shhhhhh…

 

So now you know the secret to good gallo pinto, as explained by a friendly Honduran. I can’t, however, tell you anything about the secrets behind our delicious dessert of chorreadas – thin, crepe-like pancakes made from corn and a nice dash of cinnamon:

chorreada

mmm… corn

 

If I have a complaint about the restaurant, it’s the fact that it’s small, and I can’t bring everybody I know all at once: the three of us happily occupied most of the restaurant’s seats, but the space is designed for takeout, not lingering diners. But there’s really, really good news on the horizon: Katrasha is working on expanding into a much larger restaurant, prodded by New York City Ticos who want a gathering spot to drink Imperial, eat gallo pinto, and watch their beloved national team. Stay tuned.

 

Punto Sabroso / E & S Jugos
86-21 115th Street, Jamaica
Subway: 110 Street (J train)

 

In case you’re wondering: since Chef Katrasha is not actually Costa Rican, this meal doesn’t “count” as part of my project — even if it’s delicious and features an appropriate dose of Lizano. But if you know any Costa Ricans who might be willing to prepare a simple Tico dish, please contact me at unitednationsoffood@gmail.com, or find me on Twitter or Facebook.

 

#141 Togo: Bognan International Corporation

 

To be honest, I don’t know how the heck I’m going to find food from these last few countries. I was just telling a friend that there’s no way that I’ll ever cross another country off my list by eating in a restaurant again – from here, it’s all about asking friendly people to cook for me. I mean, it’s not like there’s a Togolese restaurant in the Bronx or anything…

Oh, wait. Yeah, there is. Thanks to the great Jared Cohee from Eat the World NYC, I learned that I had my head wedged firmly up my ass: Bognan International Corporation in the Bronx is owned by a lively Togolese family who knows how to put their heart into an epic plate of food.

Um… am I hallucinating, or is that a chile-oil heart floating on my okra?

Um… am I hallucinating, or is that a chile-oil heart floating on my okra?

 

So I was in the neighborhood (Morrisania, in the heart of the Bronx) last week, chasing three (completely false) rumors of Gambian food nearby. I dropped by just to check Bognan’s hours, knowing that I’d be back for a meal a few days later. Bognan co-owner Fousseni Alidou – also known as “Ali” – introduced himself, and as I was leaving, he pressed two chunks of pan-fried chicken into my hands as a parting gift.

Dude loves feeding people. I trusted him immediately.

even German guys with microphones trust him

even German guys with microphones trust him

 

So when we appeared a few nights later for dinner, we put ourselves completely at the mercy of our Togolese hosts. We asked Ali and his team to make whatever they felt like making, as long as there were meals for our vegetarian and pescatarian (um, that’s a word, right?) companions, and something meaty for the rest of us.

Ali proceeded to absolutely bury the six of us – including a German public radio reporter, a Dominican-American student who wrote this article about the NYC Togolese community, and the founder of the Queens Night Market – in a mountain of food. For our vegetarian friend, he offered a bowl of stewed okra, topped with chile oil; the pescatarian received okra stewed with fish. Both dishes were served with a cornucopia of starches: white rice, fried plantains, some lovably thick spaghetti, and plenty of fufu – dense balls of pounded cassava that our German friend initially mistook for mashed potatoes.

If you’re the sort of person who eats like a hippo, Bognan is pretty much heaven: neither the vegetarian nor the pescatarian managed to even make a dent in their meals. And their plates were downright runty compared to the mounds of goat and bird the rest of us ate.

not runty

not runty

 

For two of us, our mountain of chow featured goat in a phenomenal tomato sauce, served atop an enormous bowl of joloff rice, along with a dark, delicious chili paste, a boiled egg, and a few fried plantains. A third friend received a gigantic bowl of chicken stewed in a tomato sauce, atop a dense mix of rice and black-eyed peas, accompanied by more pasta, more plantains, another boiled egg, and more of the dark chile paste. And meat-eater #4 received goat in a delightful peanut sauce, seasoned with a rivulet of chile oil.

You know, it would be easy enough to mistake Ali’s meals for generic West African fare: okra, tomato sauce, and peanut sauce are all standard in West African restaurants. But I have to give Ali his props: I rarely meet a plate of West African food I don’t love, but this stuff was even more flavorful than most, spiked with an extra bit of chile paste and curry and anise, among other spices. Plus, I love slime. No really: I freaking love some nice, slimy okra, especially when it has a kick to it.

You know what else I love? Watching my friends leave me as many leftovers as I can handle. One of my five companions ate about half of her entrée; the others didn’t even make it to the halfway mark before they surrendered to the hugeness of Ali’s plates. I liked my accidental buffet.

And in case you’re wondering, “Bognan” apparently means “one who is always there for others.” So you wanna be stuffed like a monstrous, happy teddy bear with a blissful food coma? True to his restaurant’s name, our man Ali is there for you.

and so is some nice goat

and so is some nice goat

 

Bognan International Corp Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Bognan International Corporation
590 E 169th Street, Bronx
Subway: Freeman Street (2, 5 trains)

 

Eating Germany: weisswurst, marzipan pig porn, and anchovy bologna

 

You wanna know why I like Germany? Germans have a deep respect for history. In Frankfurt, for example, there are magnificent statues of the city’s greatest historical figures, including this guy:

immortalized in bronze, just for being really good at eating

immortalized in bronze, just for being really good at eating

 

More importantly, German pigs seem to be unusually delicious. I’ll be honest: growing up in the Midwest, I frequently ate my face full of bratwurst, which was always good, but never blew me away. But there’s something special about the sausage in Germany. I don’t know what it is: maybe the pigs are tastier because they drink really good beer, or maybe German sausage-making skill was somehow diluted when German immigrants voyaged to the Midwest? I don’t know.

But a few days in Germany reminded me that sausage, done right, is pretty effing great.

no, I said that pig is not just good -- it's great

no, pig is not just good — it’s great

 

On our way to Namibia, we passed through Frankfurt for 24 hours, and later stopped in Munich on our way home. During our Frankfurt layover, the city’s Christmas market was in full swing: basically, the city center turns into a giant, chilly street party, filled with people eating sausage and drinking hot mugs of glühwein, a potent mulled wine seasoned with clove, cinnamon, orange zest, and sugar.

drink enough gluhwein, and this will start to make sense

drink enough glühwein, and this will start to make sense

 

Interestingly, a few of the glühwein sellers also offered hot caipirinhas. In case you’ve never had a caipirinha: it’s a Brazilian treat made from pounded limes, sugar, and a sugar-cane liquor called cachaça. Brazilians who love drinking caipirinhas on the beach would probably roll over in their graves if they saw a hot version – even if they’re not dead yet. But the hot caipirinhas were actually really appealing, sort of like a nice, citrusy tea – if tea could install an epic hangover.

hot caipirinha at Frankfurt, Germany Christmas festival

“tea”

 

But the best part of our (overly brief) time in Germany, other than our phenomenally lovable friend in Munich? Pig. I still can’t quite explain what made the bratwurst better than the stuff I grew up with in the Midwest. The flavors were subtler, somehow, and the fire-grilled meat was served on freshly baked rolls, instead of often-vapid American hot dog buns. (German baked goods, incidentally, are universally incredible, but rarely seem to receive much attention internationally. I don’t get it.) In Munich, I fell in love with onion- and parsley-flecked weisswurst (literally, “white sausage”); my lovely wife couldn’t stop eating currywurst, made from slices of grilled bratwurst, topped with ketchup and curry powder – which is much, much tastier than it may sound if you’re not a sausage or ketchup fan.

currywurst

currywurst

 

Since fire, pig, and Germans are clearly a winning combination, I immediately started searching for great German food when I returned to New York. I’ve had a fair amount of decent German food here. But after eating such wonderful pig in Germany, I figured that there had to be something even better somewhere in the city.

So I finally made the trek out to Zum Stammtisch, a much-beloved Bavarian restaurant in Glendale, Queens, just to see if the pig magic survived the trip across the Atlantic. For the most part, it did. But just because I used to be terrified of herring and feel obligated to continually practice my herring-eating skills, we didn’t start with pig, and instead started with a Bavarian herring salad, featuring beets, potatoes, pickles, tomatoes, and boiled eggs. It was not terrifying.

Bavarian herring salad Zum Stammtisch German restaurant NYC

 

For his main course, my dining companion, a charming documentary filmmaker of German descent who never eats German food, opted for bratwurst and knockwurst (a smoked pork sausage), served atop an epic mount of gently vinegar-y German potato salad and sauerkraut. And yup, both sausages tasted much like the lovely stuff we ate in Germany, other than the fact that it was missing the fire-induced char we enjoyed at the outdoor festivals. But the German sausage-making magic was intact.

Of course, I had to order something that sounded awful, figuring that it would be delicious, interesting, or both. I chose leberkäse – which our dirndl-clad (non-German) waitress described as “German bologna” – but only because it was topped with a fried egg and anchovies. Eggs and anchovies?! On “German bologna”? Sign me up.

To be fair, leberkäse does indeed resemble bologna, but it’s a relatively classy bologna, served at Zum Stammtisch as a lightly-charred steak that must have weighed at least a pound. And a fried egg always makes sense as a condiment. But an anchovy…?!

anchovy bologna

yes… an anchovy

 

It was actually delicious. I’m not joking. I didn’t know that leberkäse needed a nice strip of intensely salty preserved fish to bring out the best of its porky flavor, but apparently it does. I never thought I’d say this, but I totally wanted more anchovy with my German bologna.

And in case you’re wondering how leberkäse and other delicious German pork products are made, our friends in Frankfurt produced this how-to illustration in pink marzipan:

marzipan pig porn at Christmas market in Frankfurt, Germany

 

Zum Stammtisch Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Zum Stammtisch
69-46 Myrtle Avenue, Glendale, Queens
Subway: Fresh Pond Road (M train)