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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
A breath-freshening send off.