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The Middle Ages: The Ready Penny

When: Friday, 2:42pm

I imagine that on any given day, a parade of disconnected subjects may form the basis of bar stool stories. On this particular afternoon, hot topics at The Ready Penny involved stuffed cabbage and dental procedures, and these topics persisted the duration of two slowly sipped pints of Stella.

“That Stella is so strong first thing in the day,” was declared at one point in no reference to me. “Knocks your socks off.” Thankfully, I wasn’t wearing socks.

I only interjected myself into conversation once when no one else appeared to be familiar with Jeepers Creepers. Reinforcements were needed, even an introvert could see that.

Elephants also roam the bar

Elephants also roam the bar

One of the only four customers on the late side of lunch brought stuffed cabbage in to share and snack on, as one does at the only remaining dive bar in Jackson Heights. By chance, another regular who apparently had his teeth recently fixed (“It’s going to take some getting used to” was the sentiment expressed while he was in the bathroom) was making stuffed cabbage for dinner.

His recipe? I missed what made up the “meat mixture,” though I’m guessing pork and beef, plus white rice from a Chinese restaurant, fried onion and garlic, tomato sauce using canned crushed tomatoes blended with light brown sugar and apple cider vinegar. Everything gets seasoned with parsley, salt and pepper. Don’t forget the Parmigiano-Reggiano, which must be freshly grated and not shaken from a cellulose-filled container.

The smoke points of grapeseed oil were compared to olive oil. It was decided that seasoned breadcrumbs should never be bought and always made at home.
A good 30 minutes later, the single-minded gentleman with improved chompers announced that he had to run to the store. “I forgot an ingredient for my stuffed cabbage.”

An obsession with stuffed cabbage is not required to fit in. We brought in stuffed parathas and samosa chaat, no biggie.

An obsession with stuffed cabbage is not required to fit in. We brought in stuffed parathas and samosa chaat, no biggie.

Was I carded? No, not even a question. I can’t imagine anyone even approaching underage attempting to sneak in.

Age appropriate? 40 feels downright youthful, which is the hallmark of a good dive bar. And though no women other than the not-old Irish bartender were in evidence–public, weekday drinking is mostly the province of men–I wouldn’t say they are unwelcome as long as they can handle overhearing “a corker” describe how “maiden juice” is good for dental work and pubic hair great for flossing.

The lack of female-friendly bars in the neighborhood is not just my lament, it has become an intermittent topic on neighborhood message board Jackson Heights Life and I’ve recently started chiming in because I’m now a homeowner and be the change and all that. My favorite quote to date: “I’ve been waiting for a place where a woman of a certain age can go to spend time with her neighbors!!”

For now, this is it.

Singapore on the Hudson

The so-called Bourdain Market, which will purportedly offer food from around the world in 40 to 50 stalls, is certainly generating a lot of interest.

Though Calvin Trilling might argue otherwise (scroll to the very last paragraph), recreating the Singaporean hawker center experience in NYC has always been my fantasy, assuming that one day I became old, wealthy and persuasive enough to make it happen.

(Sometimes this fantasy goes a step further and I imagine having a superpower–invisibility and flying are so overrated–where you could beam yourself anywhere at any time so I could lunch on char kway teow or laksa in Singapore [though it would be the middle of the night] and then materialize right back at my desk afterward.)

Of course I wouldn’t call my food center Garcia Market because that would be really arrogant and stupid, plus it would cause people to expect nachos and I wouldn’t be selling them.

The latest news is that K.F. Seetoh, Singapore’s chowhound-in-chief, will be involved to some degree with Bourdain’s project. I’ve been to Seetoh’s highly curated Gluttons Bay, though sadly I only got some satay to go and took very few pictures because sickness become the overriding theme on that trip. I will say that five years ago I never would’ve imagined a NYC equivalent ever coming to fruition.

It can be fun watching food shows with people who have no interest in food or food personalities. An episode of Parts Unknown focused on Bahia, once appeared on my TV screen and Anthony Bourdain was sitting on a beach eating wedges of grilled cheese on a stick when the scene slowly faded to an attractive woman in a bikini showering al fresco. The cable-free friend posited how funny it would be with a gender reversal. Indeed, a weathered 58-year-old, white-haired woman in shades, drinking caipirinhas, morphing into a hot young man in Speedos would never ever be on TV–though it’s sadly hilarious to imagine it.

Soup’s On: Spicy Tibet’s Beef Thenthuk

spicy tibet soup

I will admit that I haven’t stepped too far out of my Thai, Mexican, and Chinese comfort zone with soups. At prime lunch time, I walk right past Ecuadorian and Peruvian chalkboards listing a sopa or two and I can never bring myself to take a chance. I’m scared of bland chicken and over-boiled beef.

Himalayan? I’m getting there. The thenthuk at newish Spicy Tibet is ok. It did its job, to warm me up and fill the space in my stomach that leftover Cheetos broccoli and clementines didn’t earlier. If I wasn’t on a soup-seeking mission, though, I would’ve preferred trying the tripe or blood sausage or even the chopsuey, described as “American.”

This soup is all about the starch–and there is a lot of it. I was almost knocked-out by the thick, fat ribbons of hand-formed noodles that are the focus. The broth was light and more garlicky than anything with some baby bok choy slithering around for greenery, plus a few small strips of beef and a touch of cilantro.

You can punch it up with a thick, orange hot sauce that’s presented in a squeeze bottle (as opposed to the chile oil in a glass container that sits on each table by default). It’s grungy and hot in that dirty way that implies dried chile origins rather than fresh (though the bright color indicates otherwise). Some might say earthy.

In my limited experience with Himalayan food, I would say starch prominent with some meaty accents on the side or stuffed in dough. A mother and daughter plowed through a plate of momos (steamed dumplings) tingmo (steamed buns) and something doughy and fried golden, which by the end had the teenager declaring “I’m sleepy.” Me too!

spicy tibet tea service

I may have been saved by yak-buttered tea, the Himalayan answer to Bulletproof coffee that’s free for the taking at a plastic dispenser near the cash register. Though it wasn’t the point, the hot beverage lent a pleasant, saltiness and creaminess to the soup. In fact, it was the buttered tea that stuck with me as I trudged home through the icy slush, completely fortified and toasty. Maybe there’s something to this drinking melted butter business, after all?

Spicy Tibet * 75-04 Roosevelt Ave., Jackson Heights, NY

My Only Nod to Super Bowl

Seahawks Frappachino anyone? #Seattle #seahawks #football #SuperBowl #starbucks #frappachino #yum #love

A photo posted by Kate Johnson (@kakelynsunshine) on

I have no horse (or bird or patriotic person) in this race, I just like making snacks, drinking a lot of beer and watching TV with friends.

And I always will love a nice limited edition food item in an atypical color…so, I’m feeling this blueberry blue (lavender, really) and green Seahawks Frappuccino from Starbucks. Matcha whipped cream? So on trend.

This seems like a missed opportunity for Dunkin’ Donuts, no?

(As an aside, people assume that because I’m a Northwesterner inside that I’m a Seahawks fan, but no. Portland and Seattle are very different cities, and pro sports were no part of my upbringing.)

The Week in International Intrigue: Chicken & Noodles

Photo: Jollibee

Photo: Jollibee

NYC may finally be getting the Ichiran, the Hakata-style ramen chain with partitions for solo diners, it was promised in 2007. Just in time to ride the pork bone broth wave.

Jollibee, the Filipino fast food restaurant that serves spaghetti with wieners, American cheese, and ketchup, is reportedly looking to buy a US chain. Speculation includes a range of brands including Popeyes, Sonic and Krispy Kreme. Now knowing that the Philippines is responsible for KFC turning fried chicken into hot dog buns, the acquisition may produce surprising results.

South African chicken chain Nando’s is a big deal in the UK. (We only have them in the D.C. area.) Here’s why (sort of) Also, anyone who watches Looking–didn’t you think that Dom’s peri-peri pop-up was really just an artisanal Nando’s?

Hooters didn’t just go big and bi-level in midtown, the wingery has serious international ambitions. Already in some of the touristy parts of Thailand, Southeast Asia, including Laos, Cambodia and Myanmar, will be the target of 30 new locations in the next six years.

Punch has an interesting account of a Guinness “Stout Evaluative Engineer” in Dubai. This is technically from more than a week ago, but I’m kind of a sucker for tales of drinking where it’s weird to be drinking.

By the way, Vice Munchies has been publishing a lot of interesting cool-to-me things lately, not subjects I see elsewhere, not big names, definitely not the big guy Action Bronson/Fat Prince stuff (which may or may not be good–I don’t like watching videos) but lots of posts with a strong international bent like an account of hospital food in Thailand, covert moonshine-making in Egypt, and what female members of ISIS cook for their husbands,

 

 

Newborn: Red Velvet Oreos

red velvet oreos

Like Argentina’s dulce de leche Oreos or China’s green tea localization, Oreo’s newest domestic flavor couldn’t be more quintessentially American. Yes, that would be red velvet.

Unlike the pumpkin spice and caramel apple limited editions released in fall, this special has one unique claim and that’s that the cookie itself is new, not just a reworking of the traditional or Golden Oreo with different fillings.

How does it taste? The stuffing, meant to resemble cream cheese frosting, is the most noticeable difference. It’s good, a little cupcakey, and not overpowering. Chocolate is chocolate, though, and isn’t red velvet just dyed devil’s food? I haven’t eaten a standard Oreo in some time, so I would have to taste the old and the new side by side for comparison. I could’ve been imagining a lighter, more cocoa powdery flavor with the red velvet simply because of the color.

And frankly, it’s the color that gets me. I’ll try anything rebooted into an unnatural shade.

You’ll be able to judge for yourself when these become widely available February 2. (And yes, this was a freebie.)

 

The Middle Ages: McSorley’s Circa 1970

Photo: JP Laffont/Sygma/CORBIS via EV Grieve

Photo: JP Laffont/Sygma/CORBIS via EV Grieve

Faith Seidenberg, a lawyer possibly best known for forcing McSorley’s Ale House to allow female patrons in 1970, died last week at 91. Whether or not as a 55-year-old woman actually wanted to drink at McSorley’s was beside the point. Women in bars, particularly non-young women in bars, is one of my dearest causes despite the surface frivolity.

Please do read this New York Times account from August 11, 1970 (subscription required) of the first day women gained entry. Fights broke out, insults were hurled, and a “stein of ale” was dumped over the head of Lucy Komisar, a vice president of NOW.

The best quote from an observer:

‘It’s not exactly First Avenue,’ commented one man, referring to the ‘singles’ bars on the Upper East Side.

So, then what was the East Village scene? According to a woman who’d stopped in with her husband:

…I don’t think many girls will come here. It’s a neighborhood place, and the neighbors are mostly Ukrainian women who aren’t interested in drinking beer.

exterior mcsorley's ale house macau

I have never been to the original McSorley’s, just the Irish wrapped in Italian conjured by Chinese outpost, established roughly 2008, inside The Venetian Macau where gender politics are probably not top of mind.

Soup’s On: Kitchen 79’s Tom Sabb Ka Moo

kitchen 79 hot & spicy pork knuckle soup big bowl

When you want something soupy, and you’re trying to avoid noodles but aren’t quite feeling bone broth (I’m still not getting the big deal with this craze beyond convenience–I spent less than $15 and 15 minutes prepping an enormous supply of chicken broth two weekends ago and have since moved onto what I’m calling beef broth but is really oxtail soup) Thai soups can be one way to go.

The tom sabb ka moo/hot and spicy pork knuckle soup at Kitchen 79 looks unassuming. The light amber broth is broken up by a floating slices of mushroom and pale red onion, the only edible vegetable matter. This bright soup is about the aromatics, filled with jagged strips of nearly medicinal galangal and citrusy from lime juice and woody spirals of lemongrass–and far spicier than the pale hue lets on.

You have to do a lot of fishing around to get a solid sip, free of organic debris. And even more so, depending on your tolerance for soft pork rinds. I like the rubbery, gelatinous skin encasing the wedges of meat, but I’ve seen others leaving the flab behind with the other tough-to-chew additions.

kitchen 79 hot & spicy pork knuckle soup small bowl

At $13, the pork knuckle soup is meant to share and easily fills four of the small glass bowls.

It may sound strange to call a pork-based soup light. Tom sabb ka moo, however, is a quick-simmered broth, nowhere near the intensity–in time or richness–of a Japanese tonkotsu broth. Now that I’ve worked my way through poultry and beef, I may tackle a similar porky soup at home next.

 

Shari’s

twoshovelAccording to my stats, someone from my hometown, Gresham, Oregon, United States, searched for Izzy Covalt using Bing.com 53 minutes and 36 seconds after midnight EST. Izzy’s (named for co-founder Mrs. Covalt), a pizza buffet, is one of those increasingly rare regional chains that no one outside of a state–and possibly a geographic neighbor or two–has ever heard of. As much as I enjoy American chain restaurants abroad, I do love place specificity in a world where borders (and you know, hindrances like human rights violations) no longer prevent mediocre barbecue ribs from being served in Myanmar.

I am also shameless about my love of old Portland nostalgia. On the what-homegrown-brands-are-left-in-Oregon beat, I can only think of the aforementioned Izzy’s, as well as Elmer’s, Taco Time, and Shari’s, which will be the heart of this discussion. (Carrows and the now-dead Lyon’s also belong to this third-tier category but are Californian.)

shari's cotati exterior

Shari’s is like a local Denny’s but pie-centric, and being more of a suburban fixture, rare in accommodating round-the-clock schedules. Shari’s is where those who are trying drink cup of coffee after cup of coffee with dinner because it’s the only acceptable vice remaining to them. Shari’s is where I went after senior prom, which I didn’t take very seriously and consequently have little fodder for Throwback Thursdays. I’m not sure that anyone purposely goes to a Shari’s–2002 was the last time I found myself approaching a Safeway parking lot housing the familiar low-slung concrete building topped with curved, clay shingles. It was the only place open near my mom’s mobile home park by the Nike campus where I could continue catching-up with an old pal who I’d met for Indian food in a “transit-oriented development” i.e. high-end ghost town in Hillsboro.

I definitely did seek out a Shari’s on purpose during my recent-ish visit to the Bay Area to hang out with distant cousins I’d reconnected with on Facebook. I had also recently reconnected with Shari’s on Facebook. Pretty much all I use Facebook for is reconnecting with brands and people from my past.

The two converged when one cousin, Angie, noticed my posting and informed that there is a Shari’s near her home in Cotati, a small town in Sonoma County more known for its hexagonal layout than wine, where my sister and I were planning to spend a few nights. I passed up an opportunity to eat at an In-N-Out (yes, better than Shake Shack), the other option I was given for an after-church (my sleeping in) meet-up. This was serious business.

shari's cotati

Despite its generic looks, Shari’s is not stuck in the past. Even the most uncool of chains make some attempts to be on trend. To wit: Shari’s advertises items made using Sriracha when Taco Bell acts like it’s cutting edge for adding the hot sauce in late 2014. Like Elmer’s, Shari’s has also starting touting local, seasonal credentials while remaining anything but artisanal, an attribute I guarantee the average diner could give a rat’s ass about. Shari’s is so Northwest, or rather just so un-NYC, that when I asked for seltzer and then corrected to club soda, our server said she’d have to check if they had “fizzy water.” As reads the website copy, illustrated by a snowy peak that I’m pretty sure is Mt. Hood:

Shari’s is committed to our Pacific Northwest roots. We source our foods and ingredients from regional farms and suppliers whenever possible. Our never-ending pursuit of fresh, regional ingredients extends across the great Northwest as we seek the sweetest berries, the freshest veggies and the choicest cuts of meat. That’s good for our local economy. And it’s good for your family.

Ok, but this Shari’s is in Sonoma County, one of six in the state of California.

Let’s not dwell on that.

Some time in the not so distant past, this Shari’s replaced Baker’s Corner, a restaurant I’d never heard of (same too, the nearby Black Bear Diner) My cousin’s husband was a regular there (and at least one of my second cousins worked there) and is now a regular at Shari’s, despite a menu change, and orders an off-menu skillet that he claims has its own button on the register (I did not fact check this!). Frankie also has his own table.

olive garden dressing

I looked for clues indicating family resemblances over this week. The fresh, unopened bottle of Olive Garden salad dressing laid out for our first dinner hit me over the head with “hospitaliano.” If I had any reservations about staying with blood-related semi-strangers, it disappeared upon realizing that I could finally use “When you’re here, you’re family” unironically. I would not, however, ever order a burger well-done, and I’d never heard of ordering fries cooked to the same degree of doneness, though I’ve since discovered it’s not all that unusual. People like their fries crispy and golden. If anyone had ordered steak fries, I would’ve had to have walked out, though.

shari's cinnamon roll french toast

Me, I settled on a nice little 1,100 calorie french toast crafted from three cinnamon rolls bathed in caramel sauce. If anything, the plate of sweet spirals made me impervious to the hard sell we were given on pies at the end of the meal. I half-seriously considered getting one to go, as suggested, but I knew I’d be eating at a Guy Fieri establishment for dinner, and that level of excess was a bit much for even me.

If you are fortunate to come across a Shari’s in your day-to-day life, please do have a slice of Velvet Chocolate Silk pie for me.

Shari’s * 301 Rohnert Park Expressway, Cotati, CA

 

 

International Intrigue: Brooklyn Donuts & Jars

Mister Donut, the American brand that turned Japanese, is the latest to appropriate the borough of Brooklyn for added cachet. For the new year, the chain has created a donut-danish mash-up called Brooklyn D&D (croissant donuts were so last year) available in flavors like chocolate-banana and strawberry.

If danishes don’t read as particularly Brooklyn, the other component to this promotion, so-called Brooklyn jars, kind of do even though they shouldn’t.

And now that Kraft has also started suggesting that home cooks serve food in Mason jars, can restaurants in Brooklyn and beyond begin retiring these folksy vessels in 2015?