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Pack(age) Rat: Amul Pure Ghee

For reasons no one needs to hear about, I recently ended up at the giant Food Bazaar on Northern Boulevard three times in two days. (Aside: despite aisles and aisles of international groceries–and even warm beer–the Middle East is not represented one bit. Where does one get pomegranate molasses in this part of Queens?). Amul Pure Ghee’s colorful can demonstrating leaping and stretching silhouettes mixed in with flowers and butterflies makes eating butter seem like the pinnacle of health. I’m sure someone somewhere is putting it in their coffee.

Photo: Amul

Photo: Amul

Amul is also genius enough to include an ad archive on its site. Processed cheese that’s “easy to use as a cheesy alternative to chutneys, sauces, ketchups and dips?” It’s almost as if Amul is seeing into my soul. Also, mozzarella is simply called “pizza cheese.”

I’ll just leave you with this.

Eaten, Barely Blogged: Housewarming, Heartwarming, Housestinking

la esquina de camerones prep

I was growing concerned about my unintentional trajectory on the path to becoming person who never eats in Manhattan or Brooklyn and then Queens became number one in the universe so now it’s ok. (I’m hoping my plan to snag a seat at the new Momofuku Ko over Christmas week will help provide some balance.)  I didn’t know that yet, though, when I threw a housewarming party meant to feature neighborhood food.

la esquina de camerones sign

La Esquina del Camaron Mexicano. Shrimp cocktail signifies class, and therefore I wanted all the seafood in a chilled red sauce as possible at my party. Ok, the real motivation was seeking out dishes that didn’t have to be served hot. This Mexican coctele specialist is an operation in the back of a bodega that also makes fish tostadas and empanadas, but on the weekends is an outdoor affair even when it’s literally freezing.

party seafood cocktail

The mixto, here, combines shrimp and octopus in a tangy tomato-based sauce that ends up being like a more robust, less tart ceviche even with all the fresh squeezed lime juice. Avocado, cilantro and onions get chopped and tossed in (only if you want all three garnishes) and thick orange Valentina sauce gets drizzled on top if you want more heat. Saltines are the traditional starch on the side and really puts this dish in a class of its own.

party nam prik

Sripraphai is not technically a neighborhood restaurant, but I can walk there and that’s where I turn for my fiery dipping needs. Nam priks need more love, though I’m pretty sure I converted no one. They are hotter than most expect–there was some hand-waving in front of mouths–and the one with fermented fish truly stinks.

Before the dinner rush, Sripraphai Tipmanee, herself, was on hand and walked me through all ten or so small plastic tubs in the refrigerator. Which is the hottest and which one is the mildest? “All are medium,” she said. Probably not for a lot of people, an irony considering a medium-spiced dish at Sripraphai is now pretty tame.

sripraphai nam prik

The tamarind-based one that simply says tamarind sauce on the label, was new to me and chosen after asking which would be suitable for friends who don’t like spicy food, really was the mildest, though not mild in the least. Nearly whole chiles are visible in the paste but this dark, glossy dip is also sweet, sour and a little fruity. You could almost put this with a cheese plate and pretend it was chutney if you were mean.

Pla-ra-sub, yes, this includes the fermented fish that truly is pungent enough to be used as a weapon. The label just innocently says anchovy, chile, garlic, galangal and salt. Not only is this nam prik strong smelling, it’s also swampy looking and pretty damn hot Definitely advanced level.

Nam prik-pao-pa is one I often keep around the house, though I prefer the slighter sweeter variation. This is hot, shrimpy with earthy galangal undertones.

It’s healthier and more traditional to eat these nam priks with a variety of raw and blanched vegetables (there were no Thai eggplants to be found, though I know they exist in these parts) but they’re also good with chicharrones and chicharrones de harina for the vegetarians who are ok with shrimp and fish.

party empanadas

Argentine empanadas from La Nueva? You already know about them. The beef pastries lie on their sides while the spinach ones stand up straight with a crimped spine.

maharaja mithai

Maharaja Sweets and Rajbhog Sweets and Snacks. Mithai are an obsession of mine, not just from a visual standpoint like my former obsession with Malaysian kueh, which don’t always taste as good as they look, but from a too much sugar is never enough angle to the point where I wonder if I’m disordered. I will never understand people who max out over one piece of mithai or cut them into little slices. I picked so much at the pound I bought three days early (above) that I had to go back (not to Maharaja where I spied the same woman inside, but Rajbhog where they’re cheaper and no one would recognize me) and buy more two days later. Luckily, a friend brought even more mithai so no one suffered.

Sadly, arepas didn’t lend themselves to the set up, so I settled on auguardiente for my Colombian contribution and even picked up plastic shot glasses that I completely forgot to bring out at the appropriate moment. It was for the best, if you’ve already imbibed and partaken to the point of forgetfulness you probably don’t need anise-flavored firewater.

indian breath freshener

A breath-freshening send off.

 

 

(Un)International Intrigue: Dairy Queen Queens

little chief

No one would argue with a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup Blizzard cake, which is what I ended up with for Thanksgiving. Yet it’s still not the “Little Chief” ice cream cake with two tones of green icing and Thanks! piped somewhere on the surface as I specified in my online order more than the requisite 48-hours in advance.

I spend so much time wondering about foreign chains that I forget how badly NYC messes up everything middle-American, a brutal irony considering so many would prefer these businesses stay away in the first place.

I don’t think Corona realizes Dairy Queen is about ice cream or more accurately, soft serve. No one was eating any on the afternoon I showed up (which to be fair, was wet and sleety–and dare I say blizzardy?). The large multi-door freezer case where the ice cream cakes should’ve been stood dark and empty.

A manager (one of three I was directed to) was candid in saying that business hadn’t been as strong as expected in the two weeks since opening on Veterans’ Day. I do wonder if the key to success is brand recognition and nostalgia, not just appearing as another place to get fast food burgers and fries, because Manhattan’s first DQ drew a great deal of attention (lauding and detracting) and I’ll admit I was pretty excited when a branch opened in the Staten Island Ferry terminal last year. Junction Boulevard isn’t exactly teeming with suburban transplants.

“You had the Dora cake, right?” Um, did I? After 15 minutes and numerous interactions with different staffers, phone calls being made to other managers, and passwords needed to look up online orders, I started forgetting why I was at Dairy Queen in the first place. Oh right, my cute anachronism did have a brown bowl cut. Just think if I took the suggestion to change the hair color from the special requests ad copy online:

“Do you want us to change the decoration in some way? Make the hair blonde, change the number on the jersey, don’t use red, ….”

Not "Little Chief"

Not “Little Chief”

I just nodded. “Yes, the Dora cake.”

There would be no Dora cake until Friday. My order hadn’t been received until Tuesday, despite my email confirmation at 9:46am on Monday.

dq cake remains

When it was all said and done, a Reese’s Peanut Butter cake was produced from somewhere in the basement and it was only $13, a new store half-price promotional discount, and I’ve been eating it gradually for the past two weeks.

It’s still no Little Chief, though.

I also can’t believe I just devoted this much energy to a bungled ice cream cake, but that’s what happens when the sun goes down at 4:27pm and you don’t leave the house over the weekend.

The Week in International Intrigue: Artisanal, Upscale, Oversaturated

I’ve only lived in Jackson Heights two months and I’m already getting uppity and unrealistic. (Well, not like posters on community message boards who seem to think the neighborhood demographics would support a Whole Foods and love Chipotle, the chain whose fanaticism I’ve never quite understood, while deriding Panera as declassé.)

A photo posted by Krista Garcia (@goodiesfirst) on

No, we don’t have a lot of  nice things. It’s ok. I’m down with the Pecoshitas (whose name’s meaning is lost on me but appears to be a riff on Pecositas, a legit bakery in Medellín) that’s about to open even if there’s not exactly a shortage of Colombian bakeries already.

But couldn’t we also have a Devotion Botica del Cafe, the artisanal Colombian coffee chain that just opened in Williamsburg?

I don’t suppose Colombians are the target market for its first US location. Maybe they should be?

* * *

100 Montaditos, the Spanish mini sandwich chain, also has notions about aiming higher to broaden its NYC appeal. The nearly new Lower East Side location has already shuttered and has vowed to come back with an “upscale concept,” whatever that entails.

* * *

I don’t have the wherewithal at the moment, but I’d like to pinpoint when stunt food at foreign chains reached peak blogginess. Even two years ago, it felt peripheral and five years ago it was unheard of. Using myself as a lens, simply because that’s what I know best, in 2008 I blogged about McDonald’s doing Olympics-themed items after seeing it in The Wall Street Journal. and Serious Eats/A Hamburger Today picked it up and that was the end. Today, every food blog, even those not focused on fast food or burgers, would have some rebloggy take and it would be in my Twitter feed for days.

This is all to say that this week Burger King Japan’s fondue burger was the subject of coverage overload and even mainstream news outlets like USA Today are producing videos about it.

Burger King Korea already had a fondue burger as far back as August, by the way. And that’s the last thing I’ll say about the subject.

Oh, and that Dunkin’ Donuts India, which has been doing better with its beefless burgers than donuts, introduced a new sandwich this week, the Naughty Lucy, which is also pretty oozy, fondue-y and odd. Specifically, the “patty gushes out warm, loving cheese.” It’s a grotesque global trend.

Er, and Pizza Hut Australia did something with Doritos that did not involve gushing

Ok, for real let’s never speak of international stunt food again.

 

 

Soup’s On: El Toro Bravo Pancita

el toro bravo pancita bowl

The first time I visited NYC, twenty years ago, I ended up having a falling out with my travel companion, also a recent graduate who had no clue what to do with a fresh B.F.A. I kept pestering and pestering, literally asking “What are you going to do?” as if she must’ve known the answer since she was a decade older. After a stint on a floor off Avenue C, we ended up at a budget hotel, The Roger William, and eating lunch at a Chinese restaurant on the ground floor.

The friend wouldn’t eat soup. “Soup is too wet,” she said. I knew what she meant but pretended I found it absurd to further antagonize her.

Pancita is a wet soup. Pancita is also confusing. On the west coast I’d never heard Mexican tripe soup called anything except menudo even if my experience with it was primarily from a can until adulthood. My dad liked it from a can, so I liked it too.

el toro bravo pancita

In NYC, we have pancita, which at least at El Toro Bravo does not have the heft and starch of the hominy kernels characteristic of menudo. (To confuse things further, I once had a version called pancita in Oaxaca that used chickpeas) Pancita is for purists, just broth fortified with cow’s feet for body, and tripe for chew.

I can’t help but think that the soup’s reputation as a hangover cure has something to do with stomach soothing a stomach (a cabeza taco would probably also be in order). The blobs of soft and jiggly honeycomb tripe combined with the hyper-red, oil-slicked broth, works, though. The spice is strong, a building tickle that never turns brutal.

Pancita will not convert tripe-haters because there is little to distract from the meat, even though the flavor is mild and not gamey in the least (or I could just be lacking scent receptors because I’ve never seen this soup described as anything but funky). A squeeze of lime perks up the broth, but isn’t needed for masking purposes. And don’t forget the onion, if only to add contrasting texture and bite to all the smoothness and, yes, wetness.

El Toro Bravo * 88-12 Roosevelt Ave., Jackson Heights, NY

Soup’s On: Uncle Zhou’s Spicy Beef Knife-Shaved Noodle Soup

I would like to take partial credit for spurring the brodo trend (of one, currently). I’ve long been outraged by what I call office ladies, others call basic, and their obsession with fat-free yogurt. If one were watching calorie intake and in need of a snack, broth seems so much more sensible and satisfying to me than cracking into a disgusting container of Chobani. (Based on Facebook feedback, I was alone in this, it turns out, and everyone apparently loves the flavor of fat-free dairy and it has nothing to do with weight-watching and I’m horrible and judgmental.)

brothy

Anyway, my new winter project is to start eating more soup. This is harder than it seems because soup often sounds like the least interesting thing on a menu to me. Pancita when there are tacos? Tom yum instead of crispy pork with chile and basil? It is practical, though, in my neighborhood where there’s tons of exploring to do and a dearth of dining companions. Soup’s a warming meal for one. I’m going to embrace it–and maybe it will love me back.

uncle zhou spicy beef noodle soup

Yes, yes, Uncle Zhou is all about the big tray of chicken. I also had a brief Thanksgiving fantasy of ordering the $225 Four Treasures a.k.a. the Chinese turducken (quail in a squab in a chicken in a duck). You won’t suffer too greatly if you simply order the spicy beef knife-shaved noodle soup with fat, irregular squiggles of dough cut by hand rather than twisted and pulled into strands. The chile oil-enhanced broth is light and doesn’t detract from the star, which is the slick and chewy (dare me to say toothsome?) starch. The thin slices of stewed beef are more of a hearty condiment, floating along with a handful of chopped cilantro.

After burning your tongue, the soup may also sober you up pretty nicely if you’re the sort who thinks day drinking and shopping at Target is a good idea (it’s kind of not).

uncle zhou tripe

If you’d like, also pick a cold dish from counter like these frilly strips of tripe. Unlike Sichuan preparations, the Henan approach retains the chile heat while going easier on the oil and eschews the metallic peppercorn zing altogether.

The Mandarin-speaking couple seated next to me peppered their conversation with English phrases like “Jackson Heights,” “chicken with broccoli,” and “shrimp fried rice.” Someone, somewhere was being mocked. That will not be you slurping your noodle soup.

Uncle Zhou * 83-29 Broadway, Elmhurst, NY

When Life Gives You Shrimp in Top Hats

One woman’s deal-breaker is another’s aphrodisiac. This final straw described on The Cut made me chuckle at first:

He was a bartender — and I’m amazed, in retrospect, that he had gotten through so many years as both a Brooklyn bartender and a guitarist without getting any tattoos. Then a tattoo parlor opened across the street from the bar where he worked, which had a cheeky $5 special on a particular (usually hideous) tattoo design. And suddenly he kept showing up for dates with new tattoos. Hideous ones he clearly had only gotten because it was the $5 tattoo special. It wasn’t until a few weeks into this spree that he showed up with new ink in the shape of a shrimp wearing a top hat.

And then sit upright, realizing she’s describing the Bubba Gump logo.

So yes, aphrodisiac.

Color Me Bad: Dunkin’ Donuts India Mint

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.

Chain Links: Hardee’s Iraq, Dairy Queen Queens, Red Lobster Brazil

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.

 

New(ish)born: Little Caesars Pretzel Crust Pizza

little caesars slice

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.

little caesars pretzel crust pizza

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.

little caesars takeout

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.

little caesars photo

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.