I don’t make a habit of seeking out blue donuts but when they cross my path, I can’t ignore them. Flavor-wise, Dunkin’ Donuts India’s guava chilly and ladoo sound more appetizing than a mint, the herb that rarely shows up in American desserts without chocolate. That color though.
Quite often I have little sense of what others find fascinating (clearly). McDonald’s announcement about opening in Kazakhstan received a ton of press, which doesn’t seem any more interesting to me than a first-hand account of Iraq’s first Hardee’s, that Kenya not only now has a Domino’s, but that the name of the franchisee is Om Nom Nom Ltd., how Johnny Rockets will have opened 40 restaurants abroad by the end of the year and credits localizations like tandoori fries, avocado shakes and Spam burgers, or simply that Dairy Queen is entering the United Arab Emirates.
Speaking of Dairy Queen, if a middle American chain opens in NYC and no one blogs about it, does it really exist? Yes, there’s a Dairy Queen now in Queens. No thought pieces. No decrying the mallification of the city. Zero fanfare. I imagine the same treatment whenever the bar program-free Denny’s opens on Northern Boulevard. For all I know, it already has opened.
By the way, Red Lobster is doing gangbusters in Brazil even though Sao Paulo prices are higher than in Times Square, Tony Roma’s isn’t doing so bad either, and Dunkin’ Donuts will be trying to woo locals for a second time with more meat on the menu and maybe an acai donut.
I achieved two new neighborhood milestones today: I joined a gym ($15 a month? Seriously? I can barely complain about no longer having one in my building) and finally paid a visit to the Little Caesars.
Little Caesars itself isn’t terribly motivating. (I’d like to blame its weird lack of an apostrophe à la Tim Hortons.) It’s easy to lump in with faded brands like Boston Market and TCBY that somehow persist. In fact, growing up in suburban Oregon the TCBY and Little Caesars both lived in the same strip mall.
I can say with near certainty that the last time I ate Little Caesars pizza was in 1985 at a picnic table on a weeknight at Blue Lake park, a few towns over, with my family. There was live music, but I don’t remember it. I do remember the crew of unattended kids from middle school sitting a few tables away that triggered embarrassment I tried covering with petulance.
I hoped the group of budding stoners (more methy than potty) not friendly stoners, but girls, some with big waterfall bangs, some who also wore their bangs hanging over one eye and had boots from Wild Pair but didn’t listen to the same music and had older boyfriends they skipped school with and might glare at you in the hallway, couldn’t see me being subjected to a family outing.
I could only express my unease by picking apart the slabs of rectangular pizzas and question why there was a rainbow sheen on the surface of the ham slices. I didn’t eat.
Afterwards, we decamped to the home of a co-worker of my mom’s for dessert, maybe a peach cobbler, definitely with vanilla ice cream. The co-worker had hepatitis, it turned out, type A, I’m assuming, so the next week I had to be dragged to the hospital where my mom worked in billing for a shot, despite screaming and crying that I’d rather just take my chances on developing a liver infection. There wasn’t any choice.
Now I can make all of the poor health choices I’d like for myself. The pretzel crust I’ve seen advertised for the past few months combined with the fact that I now live one tiny block from one of Queens’ only two Little Caesars locations was all the motivation I needed.
If I couldn’t initially remember what the appeal of Little Caesars was, it quickly came to me: duh, it’s cheap. This large pie was $6.50 with tax. Little Caesars is for those who think Pizza Hut is getting too uppity with its Sriracha honey and balsamic drizzles. Also, Little Caesars had the pretzel crust first. There is no online ordering, no delivery, no pick of sizes, if you want a cheese or pepperoni pie you will be handed one HOT-N-READY® from a heated case, otherwise your only other choices are more or less Hawaiian, three meat or supreme. Oh, and there are wings, bread sticks and dipping sauces. That’s it.
I was afraid the takeout restaurant was abandoned when I walked in to a nice yellow, black and white linoleum scheme and silence. I’m not the sort of person to yell for service so after what felt like a full minute I reopened and shut the door very loudly just as the 7 train was passing overhead and got a young woman’s attention from the back. She really did smile, as per the Hot-N-Ready Promise posted on the wall: “Serve every customer with a smile and a perfect pizza, in less than 30 seconds every time!” My pizza would be ready in five minutes (which wasn’t even sufficient to finish this surprisingly lengthy A.V. Club interview with Megan Amram about Cheesecake Factory.) The only other customer during this wait was an Asian man, also on the young side but probably a dad, who got two of the readymade pepperoni pizzas.
Partially because of the sudden cold wave, but mostly because I was afraid of bumping into someone I knew (even though I know almost nobody in the area and it’s not as if most of my building’s residents could give a hoot seeing me carrying the embarrassing box that was radiating the scent of popcorn butter and pepperoni) I tried to get home as quickly as possible. Please no small talk in the foyer.
The thing is, there was nothing to be humiliated about because Jackson Heights’ pizza kind of sucks, frankly. It’s not as if I’m ignorantly shunning a Lucali or Motorino here. The prosciutto and arugula pizza, one of my go-tos, I ordered recently from a nearby place I won’t name was a travesty of heavy uncooked dough and what I swear were hunks of impossible to cut country ham and mealy tomatoes.
(I’ll concede that my recent Taco Bell excursion was egregious, considering the bounty of legit tacos nearby.)
The Soft Pretzel Crust Pepperoni Pizza, on the other hand, is pretty damn good for this genre. My favorite genre: vehicles for processed cheese. What I didn’t realize is that this pizza doesn’t contain tomato sauce, but a layer of creamy cheese sauce, supposedly cheddar, that’s topped by four more cheeses, Asiago, Parmesan, Fontina and white cheddar. 100% real is used everywhere in the ad copy, but I don’t know. It’s a lot of cheesiness, regardless.
I could see this being a very divisive pizza. It’s most definitely not gross, if you ask me, even though it has all of the characteristics. The crispy-edged pepperoni padded by soft gobs of cheese really hits all the sensory neurons and then you get a salt blast as you work your way to the butter-slathered pretzel rim. The bottom of the crust is also buttery so all the little crags almost take on a fried quality, especially after re-heating. Before you can intellectualize what you just tasted, you already want a second slice.
Pro tip: a hit of Trader Joe’s ghost chile flakes adds another dimension.
Arepa Lady Desserts can be a sticking point at otherwise fine restaurants. Post-tacos, curries or dosas, the sit-down Arepa Lady is fine for a sweet nightcap and open until 1am on weekends, to boot. A naturally sweet arepa de queso can be doctored by a number of squeeze-your-own sauces like pineapple, condensed milk and dulce de leche. Share with a friend at the bar if you’re too full, and if you’re lucky you may walk into one giant birthday party. If I understood correctly, the entire space, which isn’t saying much as it’s the size of a bedroom, was celebrating the Arepa Lady’s daughter’s birthday. We cracked open the leftover BYOB beers from an earlier meal at Kitchen 79 and were gifted a few shots of aguardiente. Salud!
London Lennie’s is so awesome I may have to dedicate two entries, one for food and one for the bar. Queens will never be allowed to be called “The New Brooklyn” as long as dollar oysters remain scarce. Offhand, Astor Room and London Lennie’s are the only two borough restaurants I’m aware of with such happy hour deals (I’m all ears, if you know more) and both require a bus ride. No one in Brooklyn, by which I mean Williamsburg, the epicenter of dollar oysters, refers to them as “Buck-a-Shuck” either. In Rego Park, they are available Monday through Friday, 4pm-6pm at the bar. On this occasion the oysters, just a little sweet and saline, were Rocky Reef from Long Island. You may also want big, fat battered fried shrimp, crab dip and oyster shooters. You may also be bought a shot of tequila when your new bar friends find out it’s your dining partner’s 40th birthday. There have been a disproportionate amount of shots consumed since I moved to Queens last month.
Raja Sweets & Fast Food Even though Jackson Heights is known for Indian food (I see the Jackson Diner is doing a pop-up at Diamond Bar?) it’s not what the neighborhood excels at. Neither are places to pass time leisurely. Initially, I popped into the reopened Jackson Heights Food Court for a snack to kill time while my apartment was being taken over by wallpaperers (my dining room and entryway kind of rule now) but no one behind the steam table would make eye contact or take my order. To its credit, it did give me that foreign dining feeling where I start questioning myself, “Am I not doing this right?” Carb coma-inducing chaat, more like two dinners than a snack, can be had for $4.99 down the street, so it’s all fine. Instead of being broken up to resemble a lettuce-free chopped salad, this samosa chat contained two nearly intact potato-filled specimens tossed with the requisite chickpeas, spicy sauce, yogurt drizzles and a slew of cilantro and raw chopped onions. Just the right balance of crispy-crunchy and mushy, punched up with heat and an optional diy swirl of sweet-tart tamarind sauce (not really chutney–it looks like ruddy sweet and sour sauce). I’ve had a few chutneys recently that are nearly dead ringers for pico de gallo. A Russian woman at a party last weekend claimed Russian food was like Mexican, which is one of nuttiest things I’ve ever heard. If you said Indian, I’d entertain your argument.
Any American chain that seeks acceptance abroad knows it must do at least a little surface tweaking to appeal to local tastes. And India might just have the most un-American menu of all since roughly 40% of the country’s population doesn’t eat meat and there are both Muslim and Hindu dietary practices to consider. Restaurants are forced to get creative with non-beefy-and-porky options that translates to a lot paneer, chiles, potatoes and a little chicken and lamb.
For example, Dunkin’ Donuts, which only arrived in 2012, has seen success with its yam, corn, potato, and chicken Tough Guy burgers (and recently introduced an insane line of donut flavors for Diwali, including guava and chile, rice pudding, and saffron cream and pistachios).
It’s arguable whether or not a Whopper is still a Whopper when formed from vegetables, chicken or lamb, but that hasn’t stopped Burger King from taking on India with its first store of 12 opening in New Delhi over the weekend. Burger King certainly had time to benefit from the lessons of those who went first–McDonald’s and its beefless Maharaja Mac have been in the country since 1996
As is the way of the internet, there are detractors on the brand’s Facebook page that, well, have a beef (sorry) with the lack of red meat. Burger King in Spain already got into trouble back in 2009 for being insensitive to Hindus, so playing it safe is probably wise.
There doesn’t appear to be an India-specific Burger King site yet, but based on Facebook the most localized items besides the Whoppers look like the Spicy Bean Royale, trying to draw in newcomers with a scattering of dried kidney beans…
and a series of Melts and Cheezos. Yes, Cheezos.
When: Thursday, roughly 8pm
Until that promised Señor Frogs opens in the base of my office building, Réunion will remain the only beachy drinking spot around Times Square. I had been under the impression that this was an after-work hangout–and maybe it is–but by true evening the subterranean space plastered with surfboards is occupied by a clientele that is obviously just post-college, recently transplanted–and not to the boroughs.
Upon squeezing into a space at the bar to try and peek at the taps (frozen drinks are more the thing) a young man seated on a bamboo stool handed us a drinks menu unprompted. Later, a different young man bumped into me and said “sorry,” further blowing my mind with politeness and the dawning realization of how abusive Brooklyn kids truly are.
Wholesome was the decided upon adjective for this scene. I’ve never seen an episode of How I Met Your Mother (I accidentally saw part of the series finale, I’ll admit) but this is how I imagine the characters being in the early seasons. And to further the model millennial atmosphere foreign to cooler neighborhoods, the crowd was surprisingly multicultural with every race downing Riptides (Midori, lemon juice and blue curaçao) in harmony.
Was I carded? Yes, and scrupulously so. It would only take a one-second glance up from the ID to recognize a face that’s no lie.
Age appropriate? Maybe on the earlier side. I shared a chuckle with an older blonde, business-attired woman in the bathroom when a guy walked in mistakenly as we were washing our hands, yet when I looked for her a few minutes later she was nowhere to be seen, making me think I’d been hallucinating the whole exchange.
That there are so many Queens Thai restaurants that one can focus exclusively on the super-authentic and semi-authentic is an amazing thing. Brooklyn Thai was kind of a struggle in comparison. My sensibilities are still so offended by Joya on Court Street that when I hear that commercial where people travel to the Upper East Side from Pennsylvania to eat at “the Jaiya restaurant” my head always jerks. But enough of my petty culinary grudges.
Kitchen 79 plays both sides, super and semi, with a slant towards pleasing others—and the surrounding neighborhood, which is not particularly Thai. No one will snicker if you order pad thai or ask for chopsticks. You can also ask for a caddy of chile flakes and chile-spiked condiments to doctor your food to your salty-sour-spicy liking, Thai-style, plus you will be taken seriously, not merely humored if you say you like hot food, which is sadly now Sripraphai’s M.O.
Which audience this newish restaurant that took over Arunee’s old spot is aiming for isn’t fully clear. The interior is all sleek black-and-white with a bar that’s still non-functional (BYOB while you can) and contains gothic Lolita meets steampunk flourishes like a clock topped by what I think is a ram’s head and featuring a faucet “pouring” liquid in a changing rainbow of colors.
I’ve eaten there enough times (thrice in person–and am waiting for delivery this very second) to determine that it’s safer to pick dishes that sound more traditional. Salads have been consistently pleasing (I haven’t ventured into the soups yet, but have a good feeling about them) while more ambitious dishes, some crossing the $20 mark, reach too far.
I don’t like seeing baby corn, carrots and cauliflower florets, for instance. It was the crispy onions in the description that sold me on the tamarind duck, which was a little overcooked and too sweet with a sticky glaze that tasted more Chinese-American. Speaking of, I just noticed crab Rangoon called geoy hor cheese on the lunch-only menu, so you know what I’ll be eating next time.
The stewed pork knuckle in a classic pad ka prao (chile and basil) preparation, though, was gooey in a good way–and spicy just as requested.
A light, citrusy seafood salad of mussels and grilled shrimp and squid, thick with lemongrass and celery leaves? Yes.
Yum sam gluer grob, which combines battered squid and shrimp with fried pork and cashews? More emphatically, yes. This salad is richer and does that fresh-meets-fried thing that Thai food excels at.
The profusion of lettuce leaves in the salads is all-American, really, and I’m not sure if broccoli belongs in a pile of drunken noodles. Neither touch qualifies as a buzzkill exactly; they’re just tiny representations of Kitchen 79′s tweaks.
Kitchen 79 * 37-70 79th St., Jackson Heights, NY
“Why?” I was asked on Facebook where all great questions originate. Well, because the Neverending Pasta Bowl has become a tradition, one I must heed despite little interest in flour and water formed into shapes, reconstituted (in unsalted water, of course) and coated in thick tomato sauces during my day-to-day life.
Pizzas may continue being overstuffed, or rather, turned into full-course meals, and burgers may blacken and pinken, yet some things stay staunchly the same. With the fate of autumn novelty, the McRib, up in the air this year, at least you can count on Olive Garden offering all-you-can-eat pasta for a price that still starts a penny shy of $10 some time toward the end of summer, usually August–this year it fell unusually late (and lasts through November 9).
Each of my experiences have gotten progressively weirder. I’m not really sure what the promotion costs in reality, despite scrutinizing the receipt. Small print on the website threatens the usual higher prices may apply in NYC garbage, but the base price appears to be $9.99 like anywhere else. As in previous jaunts, if you live in NYC the only clue that this deal exists may be if you catch a commercial on TV. There are no menu inserts or advertisements, no lent cheat sheet as in years past, just a quick verbal description with no prices given.
— Olive Garden (@olivegarden) October 17, 2014
I suppose one could follow Olive Garden’s millennial-baiting Twitter account for NEPB alerts. Weird Corporate Twitter has become the social media standard. The newish website is designed in that tiled Pinterest style with links to things young people care about like “culinary innovation” and “nutrition,” the redesigned logo curling like reassuring text on the packaging of an eco-friendly feminine hygiene product.
The thing is, the restaurant had no wifi, which won’t do for its intended demographic. I couldn’t even get a signal on my own, and I desperately wanted to Instagram the shit out of my progressing bowls (and ultimately typed bowel later while hastily trying to upload a picture before Gone Girl started because my biggest fear is becoming a during-movie texter, followed by an on-plane barefooter) and ping the brand for attention, but obviously no hashtags were displayed on signage because this NEPB is a stealth campaign of the highest order.
And the plan worked. Not a single diner in the eerie side room that was initially uninhabited, neither the young boy with a father who only ate a bowl of soup, the obvious tourist family of four, the solo lady who gave me faith, nor the girls’ night out crew, was partaking in the deal, and not out of any sense of dignity, I like to believe.
Olive Garden finally convinced me to spring for an extra topping because for the first time in history it wasn’t all sausage or meatballs, but also shrimp fritta a.k.a. breaded, fried shrimp ($4.99 surcharge). Every year two new sauces are introduced, and for 2014 that would be Spicy Three Meat (anyone’s guess which three) and Roasted Mushroom Alfredo, which I only know because of the very informative website. These too, come at a price in select locations. Maybe a dollar in Chelsea? Maybe someone would tell you if you asked? I’m not convinced anyone would know.
Cream sauce, penne and fried seafood? Yes, one bowl is plenty.
Bowl two is the size bowl one should probably be but would break the convivial spirit of NEPB. Scale is hard to parse–this meat sundae is roughly the serving of one generous scoop of ice cream.
Bowl three was forgone in favor of shared chocolate cake. Black Tie Mousse Cake, to be precise, which frankly doesn’t scream young and fresh at all and sounds like something from The Silver Palate Cookbook. If I were an 18-to-34-year-old I would’ve obviously ordered the “dolcini” because small desserts for sharing and health is where it’s at now.
Empanadas appear to be having a moment and for no discernible reason. First Gothamist, then Serious Eats…ok, that’s just two. Maybe it’s my own recent empanada bender that’s clouding my logic. I just ate two less than an hour ago. I suppose empanadas are pretty evergreen. (Even I did a round-up another lifetime ago.)
This weekend, with the help of an out-of-towner and stranger-now-acquaintance, I tried every empanada at La Nueva Bakery, plus two giant guava and cheese pastries, the triangular slices not the standalones. Honestly, I couldn’t even rattle off all 12 iterations, some finger-crimped and doughy, others golden and sealed with the tines of a fork, a few able to stand up on their own while most need to lie down. We didn’t dissect them; we just ate them.
There was definitely beef, pork, chicken, tuna, spinach, ham and cheese, and vegetable. Not all were Argentine/Uruguayan; the cafe also has a Colombian influence, not surprising considering the immediate neighborhood. The red salsa, though only mildly spicy and spiked with thick garlic slices, doesn’t strike me as very Argentine. It’s not a culture traditionally in love with hot food. You won’t even find black pepper on the table in Buenos Aires.
A pit stop at Mama’s Empanadas turned up more overtly Colombian pastries with some American flourishes. I mean, this is the mini-chain known for its Elvis (peanut butter and banana) empanada. This bunch is more motley with a mac and cheese, Hawaiian (I will never not order ham, cheese and pineapple if given the opportunity) another cheese and guava where all the cheese was on one end like a bad burrito, a yellowy corn flour empanada filled with shredded beef, and a beef and pork papa rellena.
Originally, I planned to add Mexican into the mix but imported chain Pastes Kikos was still closed at 1pm due to an issue with the oven. You know, because seven doughy items per person just isn’t enough.
The best? It’s all subjective. Either you prefer baked or fried, green or red sauce, traditional or otherwise. I’m a fan of the standard baked Argentine beef empanada, but must concede that the mac and cheese was pretty good despite never eating mac and cheese (I’ll always be a sucker for anything Hawaiian, though). La Nueva’s Colombian-style fried cornmeal version stuffed with pernil was a standout. The surprise was the moist, chunky tuna, which I’ve always avoided. It wasn’t dried out even after reheating.