Monday, August 31, 2009

Epicurean Adventures: Vietnamese in the North

Ethnic food is something I've mentioned I miss about New Orleans. So yesterday, over my extremely active weekend, Boy, my baby sister, and I went out west in search of both furniture and things that were delicious.

Wanting to furnish our new home (...yes, I know it's jumping the gun to hunt for furniture before we even have a closing date on the house) in the commercial/industrial minimalist modern style, there aren't a lot of showrooms in Long Island that are conducive to this task. So off we went to the CB2, Crate & Barrel, and West Elm in the city!

Sunday seemed the perfect day for such an activity. Rather than taking the train from Ronkonkoma, I opted to drive out to Flushing, Queens (the new authentic Chinatown) where parking is free (but only on Sundays) and most points in Manhattan are an easy subway's ride away. The reasoning for this decision also goes beyond that -- Boy was excited, as always, at the prospect of dim sum, or yum cha, and it seemed as good a way to start the day as any.

Dong Yi Feng
(I think) was good as usual, the pineapple buns warm and crusty. Even better (and cheaper) is the place up the block on Prince Street, but that's been closed for the past three dining attempts, so we've given up on it.

I'm going to end my story of dim sum right here, since I'm sure you've heard enough about bamboo steamers and 5-bite dumplings, and head on to the other gastronomic highlight of the day -- Vietnamese food.

It was to our greatest disappointment when we arrived in Long Island's hot, balmy summers to find that we couldn't easily refresh ourselves with a tasty, light, sweet, and warm vermicelli rice noodle bowl. Similar to a salad, with cooked but cooled noodles over a bed of shredded Romaine lettuce and fresh bean sprouts/mung beans, topped with crushed peanuts, meat of choice, and sweet fish sauce "dressing," this rich and flavorful dish manages a refreshing crispness that is surprising for the depth of flavor and complexity of tastes. It's hot but it's cold; it's light but filling; it's a superb study in contrasts that work together perfectly.

Bun, or said vermicelli noodle bowls, were my sticky weather go-to, since salads don't fill me up (I was raised on hot foods, so all cold foods are just "snacks" and not meals) and hot, hot meals are just too heavy during this season.

Anyway, yeah -- according to Google, the closest Viet joint was all the way in -- you guessed it -- Flushing.

So after our jaunts about in Manhattan, we headed back to the car and delicious Vietnamese bun in a bowl. We figured we'd head down Main Street, and a few wrong turns later and wandering in circles due to sudden changes in direction and opinion, found ourselves facing two Vietnamese restaurants -- Pho Hoang and Pho Bang.

I was more drawn to the roast meats dripping into metal trays hanging in the window of Pho Hoang, but Boy had peeked into the window at Pho Bang and noted that it was far more packed out than the place with the barbequed animals. Wanting my little sister's first experience with the delectability that is Vietnamese cuisine to be a good one, we went for the obviously tried-and-true, the one filled with people speaking a tongue I didn't understand. Pho Bang it was!

After a very brief wait and fast and fancy footwork through the crowded dining room, we were seated in the very, very back, in the left-hand corner. The smell of chargrilled meat and sugar-cane infused fish sauce pervaded the air -- mmm; familiarity!

We ignored the small cloud of gnats that lazily hovered over us, reminding ourselves that holes in the walls that were a crowded, a little sticky, and of questionable cleanliness often had some of the most flavorful food. The steaming bowls of hot pho that floated past us and big leafy greens made us feel a lot better about the buzzing pests, as did the extremely reasonable prices. I was pleased to be able to order my usual, the lemongrass beef with egg rolls, for under $8. Woohoo, right? I thought so.

I took the waiting time to go wash my hands in a bathroom that wasn't necessarily filthy but pretty standard for an older place in Flushing, and peeked under the hanging vertical blind panels (not full-length -- they were as big as the top section of a Dutch door for a similar effect) at the kitchen. Commercial, generic Wendy's tiles on the floor, a bunch of feet, and a lot of stainless steel legs was the most I could see, and the floor was reasonably clean. Hoorah.

Service was hard to judge. Our waiter was a sweet little old man in owlish spectacles, and one of the guys got up from his own dinner at a table to refill our water glasses, which was really nice, but two of the waiters blatantly avoided eye contact and several loud, "Excuse me! Sir?"s.

The food was great, though. All the necessary and familiar condiments were there, from Hoisin sauce in a squirt bottle to house sweet chili paste to Sriracha sauce. It was all the implements you could use, soup spoons, little dishes, chopsticks, and napkins all a free-for-all, which is a refreshing change from Chinese restaurant policies, where you got one napkin and considered yourself lucky for it.

Anyway, back to the bowl. I realized after the fact that I did bring my camera, but it was too late, and the accompanying picture is by a dude from Yelp! (as much as I don't support that site ...). However, the bun eaten by a "Jared C." is pretty darn close to what I had, but I have to say, Vietnamese in New York is definitely different than that in New Orleans.

The summer rolls looked about the same, plump shrimp, rice vermicelli, and cilantro rolled tightly into translucent rice paper wrappers. The only remarkable difference was a thick, raw lemongrass "handle" sticking out of it. Meh, whatever.

At first glance, the vermicelli bowls looked the same, too ... but they weren't.

Instead of thin-sliced meat, they were cubes of beef, delightfully surface-charred and bursting with flavor. Tender enough to bite into, they were well-seasoned and delicious. Unfortunately, while favorites like Pho Tau Bay offer a nice pile of meat, Pho Bang only gave about five chunks of meat. Five! Have you ever?

The fried spring rolls were also the same but different. Deep fried and greasy, as they usually are, they were filled with seasoned ground pork, carrots, and whatever other mystery goodness goes in them. However, rather than the thin, flaky spring roll crust I'm more accustomed to, they were wrapped in a doughier, thicker wrapper, whose uneven thickness smacks of "house-made." Always a plus, even if it's not necessarily what I'd expected. Another upside was there was a hell of a LOT of egg rolls in my bowl.

Minuses? No dried shallots! I LOVE dried shallots and had been talking them up! And of course, the quantity of meat.

Pluses were that the sweet fish sauce dressing was delectable. The noodles were a nice lukewarm, room temperature which is an ideal layer between the hot meat and egg roll topping and the cold veggie base. The portions were average, and the peanuts on top were sprinkled by a generous hand. But the last and final plus? It was Vietnamese food, and scratched that itch that's been festering since I left the muddy banks of the Mississippi.

Ohhhhh, yeahhhhhh.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Eater's Remorse: Woe Is Lunch

It's always during lunchtime that I miss New Orleans the most. Well, lunchtime and the time spent walking from my front door to my car ... and the my little Baxterbear's walk-times ... and bar-times. But seriously, lunchtime in Long Island has proven to be the most painful hour spent away from the city of my heart.

A part of my long silence on this blog is due to nothing more than pure lack of inspiration. The other parts are due equally in part to the job-hunt (which is over -- I am again gainfully employed! And for grown-up money, finally!) and the house-hunt (which is almost over -- we're officially in contract!). However, if I were to eat something exceptional, believe you me that I'd be writing in my blog pretty soon after consumption of said exceptional foodstuff. So obviously, I haven't had anything super special (aside from my dad's ribs and lo mein ... I went on a rib-eating spree while I was depressed about the job situation when I had no situation) in a long while.

So anyway -- lunch.

In my days as a project manager at Mudbug Media in downtown New Orleans, we were walking distance to many a delicious and affordable lunch. The temperature specials at Palace Cafe during the summer were surprisingly reasonable. The way this promotion went was that the high temp of the day was the cost of a lunch that day. For example, if the high were 98 degrees Fahrenheit, lunch was then $9.80.

Across the street was Felipe's Taqueria. Sweet fried shrimp in burritos! Madness and brilliance all smooshed together in a flavorful explosion of vegetables, rice, beans, cheese, sour cream, lettuce, and pico de gallo! Oh, how I miss thee, fried shrimp in burrito.

I also miss fried shrimp in French bread. In Long Island, fried shrimp is breaded in bread crumbs, not batter, and it's served on Italian bread with tomato sauce and mozzarella cheese. It's pretty decadent, but honestly, I wish I had the option of crusty little shrimp on crusty, flaky bread, hot pickle-flavored mayonnaise oozing out, and cold shredded lettuce pouring down my shirt.

My favorite burger joint in all the world, Yo' Mama's, wasn't far either. Just a brisk walk down towards Jackson Square for the most inventive and flavorful $9 burgers I've ever had the pleasure of stuffing my face with. You felt bad about eating half a pound of seasoned meat with real bacon, an inch of peanut butter, mayonnaise, or any other seemingly vile combination of condiments and toppings, but not bad enough to opt for salad instead of a perfectly baked potato.

Drago's charbroiled oysters are also sorely missed. They sure as hell don't have oysters like that in Long Island, regardless of the fact that Blue Point oysters have built themselves a reputation. Fat, juicy, and unafraid to swim in hot butter, these babies were the best.

On days that we'd venture out further, the Marigny was always a happening place to grab some grub. Sukho Thai, with its sweet Dirty Noodles, crunchy broccoli, and super slow but intimate service, was always one of my absolute favorites. Not only does the food make me pine, but it seems wrong that my Thai food these days are served by people that are NOT my friend Curly-Headed Dude.

We went to Mona's pretty often, too. Mm, meals ending in Jordan almonds, those Easter Egg-looking hard candy-shelled nuts that threatened to break the enamel of your teeth before you could get to the flesh of the almond. The deep-fried cheese that fried but did not melt nor goo. It was a great conversation piece every time, and how often can you call a conversation piece delicious?

The Warehouse District was not without its attractions, either. John Besh's Luke's prix fixe lunches are beyond compare, and at (if I do recall) $15 for a three-course special, how can you go wrong? Cochon BUTCHER is a delight in pigging out on pig. La Boca's Argentinian steaks was also good value, as was U.S. Prime, whose crabcakes I pronounced, on the record, as "the best I've ever had!" (Yes, that's me quoted in their ads!) Crescent City Steaks can't be beat for classic sizzling butter goodness and affordability, with $5 sides.

Mat and Naddie's buffet lunch for $10, with outdoor dining; Lebanon Cafe's garlicky falafel and creamy babaganoush; Nirvana's $10 Indian lunch buffet; Domilise's tartar-sauce and Creole mustard covered po-boys; homemade salsa from Juan's Flying Burrito ... these are only the tip of the iceberg.

Faced with Bohemia, Long Island's options of McDonald's, Applebee's, Wendy's, Panera Bread (which actually is very good ... but lacking in originality and spirit), Subway, and other chain restaurants, I've grown despondent over my midday meal and have all but boycotted it. I know I still have some exploring to do to find the Mom and Pop shops that so liberally litter New Orleans, but they seem to all be pizza, bagel, or Chinese joints. I grew up on those three major food groups, but after five years in the Crescent City, they fail to satisfy my need for ethnicity and variety.

And so, with my newfound grown-up money, as soon as I can, I'm hopping a plane to Nola to stuff my gut. House-poor-dom be damned! Mama needs to eat.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

I've Got Nothin'

I know - I suck. I haven't eaten anything particularly interesting as of late, other than having tried Panera Bread (that place is DELICIOUS!), since my options are pretty limited out in Eastern Long Island. Think franchised chains. Generic bagel shops and pizza joints. Even (*shudder*) fast food.

I've got nothing so far. This can also be partially attributed to the fact that I was broke for a while since I was job-hunting for a solid month, but now that I've rejoined the ranks of productive society and am once again gainfully employed, that'll change. Really.

Okay, realistically, probably when all of my free time isn't expended house-hunting. I've been looking at one depressingly antiquated (and not in the good way -- I'm talking 1970s antiquated, wood paneled walls and all ...) or gutted (why?! I can understand in New Orleans the plethora of gutted homes, but wtf happened here on Long Island?) or insanely small/dark/dreary homes. Pretty depressing, isn't it? Especially coming from a city full of picturesque cottages, stunning Mediterranean manors, and Victorian estates, while my new options are stilted Capes, boxy split-level high ranches, or ranches that need expanding. Unfortunately, all of these options are in nondescript blocks in nondescript suburbs.

I did, however, find my dream house in the exclusive and prestigious neighborhood of Idle Hour in Oakdale, Long Island, a mere two blocks from the docks. Unfortunately, although we presented a reasonable offer, the owner (who is currently living out of state) is refusing to negotiate due to "sentimentality about the house." Wtf?! Why is she SELLING the house then, at all? It's a niche market that would want a weathered wood-constructed contemporary home on a small lot with a loft master bedroom and Montauk stairs. No family will buy that dangerous of a house, and most young professionals like Boy and I are either living in lofts closer to the city or looking to buy a family home as a starter, not a dangerous but super-awesome-looking place. This irks me.

Anyway, once I get settled in, I can start exploring the town I'll eventually live in and tell all you good folks about what there is to eat there. But until then ...

Just wait for it ... ;)