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Kill Your (American) Idols

Strange that two NYC newspapers would both print articles about women and whiskey drinking within two days of each other: Strong Drink is Not for Men Alone and Whiskey Chicks (guess which one belongs to the NY Times). I suppose two writers could’ve had the same idea at the same time (one is more of a first person account, the other a newsier reported piece) but this is the kind of thing that makes me wonder about press releases, insider events and the like. Who knows, there was probably some recent bourbon tasting with brands geared towards ladies like that horrible (in concept—I’ve never actually tasted it) White Lie wine (whose website seems to no longer exist), or a study released about an increase in female whiskey drinking (I thought there was an upsurge in the Atkins era because hard liquor contains less carbs than girlie cocktails, duh). Anyway, I’m a whiskey drinker, myself, so I didn’t mind seeing two articles.

The world has gone weird. Today I interviewed at Fox News (yes, they have a library) and next week I interview a former American Idol contestent for an article I’ve been assigned. I’m so not about Fox News or American Idol. Sometimes I don’t know how these things happen to me.

Veg or Veggies Will Never Cross My Lips

I’ve never been one who gets all crazy over greenmarkets. Produce is ok, but I don’t soil myself over Fairy Tale eggplants or donut peaches. But last week on one of my many free days (after my Spanish lesson, which I’m going to have to quit because I can’t afford them anymore. I’m feeling guilty and haven’t told my tutor yet even though I’m supposed to get back to him today about scheduling the next class. I don’t know why I feel bad about depriving him of income when it’s not like anyone extends such courtesies my direction) I decided to hit Union Square for end of summer corn and heirloom tomatoes.

LTomatoesast week I made a rule that I’d try to eat more fruit and vegetables and fewer fatty and sugary items and exercise more and stay away from cigarettes. I’ve done decently, though not perfectly with the eating and activity aspect but my smoking (which I technically quit in 2003) is completely out of control. If I don’t watch it I’m going to get one of those raspy middle-aged voices (or lose my voice box altogether, which would be a shame because I have so many wonderful things yet to say). I put aside health concerns while in Barcelona early last month with the idea that I’d clean up my act when the vacation ended. That has yet to happen. I think today the carton of Export As that James bought in Montreal will run out and I won’t be able to sneak them anymore. And that’s good because I'm too cheap to buy my own.

So, over the past few days I’ve gone nuts with vegetables. And yes, I don’t deny that heirloom tomatoes taste a million times better than grocery store balls of red mush but they’re not the types of edibles that I have the wherewithal to track down on a regular basis. The dilemma is that when I have the weekday freedom to leisurely shop for food in non-nearby neighborhoods it’s likely because I’m not at work (there are a hell of a lot of people who don’t seem to have a care in the world. Today while walking to the subway around 1:45pm for my Monday 2:30-11:30 shift the sidewalks were clogged with couples walking dogs and sitting at cafes. Who the hell are these layabouts? And don’t tell me they’re all students or work nights) which means I don’t feel good about spending extra money on organic produce.

Tomato_saladTaste aside, I just like food (natural or not) that comes in bright colors because it’s pretty (I’ve also been fascinated by the white chocolate pirate M&Ms in pearly shades). Last night I made succotash, which I’ve never had freshly made and it was amazing, no doubt because it contained heavy cream, bacon and butter, duh. I also fixed an heirloom tomato and blue cheese salad (left) and stacked tomato salad with black olive tapenade and sweet basil dressing (despite being a Bobby Flay recipe. I know I’m not the only one disturbed by his attempt at “throwing down” the cooks at the Red Hook ball fields). I don’t know how long this fresh food bender will last. Probably until I get home late tonight and delve into the bag of junk food we bought at Target last week (I can’t resist the Halloween aisle). Mini Take 5s (my favorite vaguely new mainstream candy) Archer Farms Monster Bites and cinnamon apple caramel corn (I do love how non-NYC newspapers have blogs with subjects like snack food from Target) are going to be the death of me (if that irresistible nicotine doesn’t get me first).


I've passed by Izalco countless times on our way to Sripraphai and incorrectly assumed that it was Mexican. It's tough because when I'm in the mood for Thai that's it. I'm hardly ever wavering between Latin American or Asian; when I leave the house I know what I want (and no, it's not always one of those two broad cuisines) and I can't deviate.

Izalco_enchiladaOn this occasion I was specifically searching for Salvadoran food because other than the pupusas I sampled at the Red Hook ball fields last summer, I'm pretty naïve about Central American food and need to at least know enough to come up with a paragraph or two on the subject. There are actually quite a few Salvadoran restaurants in NYC. I picked this one because I was already nearby in Jackson Heights and had been thwarted in my quest for Uruguayan meat by the huge crowd waiting to get in.

I immediately liked Izalco's indoor-outdoor décor. Only the finest establishments erect interior awnings to evoke the sense that you're dining on a veranda instead of feet from elevated subway tracks. They went a step further and had distractions like a stuffed armadillo standing on the faux tile roof sticking out from the wall. A taxidermied deer head also sat above our table and an iguana and owl also made an appearance. I don't think that any of those animals play a role in Salvadoran cuisine, however.

Izalco_curtidoI have a phobia about eating in places that are about to close and another about being the only diner. There was still nearly an hour left before Izalco's 11 pm shut down, but the one other table left minutes after we arrived and I started feeling the pressure despite our waitress being very helpful and open to questions. So, we didn't order anything extravagant (not that Salvadoran food seems particularly ostentatious) or labor intensive.

Izalco_pupusas_1 I got a sampler of the three types of pupusas: cheese, chicharrones and refried beans. The stuffed corn cakes come with curtido, a vinegary coleslaw-ish condiment that I really like. The pupusas are pretty heavy so a little crunch and tanginess is not a bad addition. You also get a red sauce that I think is basically pureed tomatoes, it's thin and not spicy in the least. James tried an enchilada, which is probably what we'd call a tostada. The base is a crunchy fried corn tortilla topped with shredded chicken and weirdo but not untasty things like chopped carrots, sliced hardboiled eggs and cucumbers. We also had two different Salvadoran beers, Suprema and El Salvador which were in a Budweiser league. That wasn't a bad thing. Something about this food, at least the few snacky items we ate, seemed like perfect drinking food and you don't need fine wine for that.

Izalco * 64-05 Roosevelt Ave., Woodside, Queens

El Chivito d’Oro

1/2 I really wanted Uruguayan food to be distinctly different from Argentinean so I could be more emphatic in my piece about unique Latin American food, but at least as far as grilled meat is concerned they're kind of interchangeable. There is an Uruguayan and Paraguayan bakery in Woodside but as far as sit down restaurants go, I'm fairly certain that Chivito d'Oro is the only Uruguayan restaurant in NYC.

For some unknown reason, 37th Avenue is home to a slew of parilladas. This strip also seems to have some rule about consistent awnings and storefront, many seem to have a '90s nearly suburban style. One block south on Roosevelt it's mish mash paradise, the signage is a mess and practically every Latin American cuisine you can think co-mingles with Thai, Filipino and Tibetan. 37th is steakhouses, but not in the Peter Luger dry aged vein. Mixed grills are the specialties and the bargain of $19.95 for a single serving ($27.99 for two) that easily feeds two (or three daintier eaters) isn't lost on patrons. On weekend, the foyer at Chivito is jam packed. We didn't even bother on a Saturday around 10pm and went to Izalco instead.

Chivito_doro_chicken Due to the Italian influence on this part of South America, pastas are prevalent, but I'm barely a fan of even exquisitely prepared Italian food by Italians (I know, I'm a freak) so I've never ventured to that side of the menu. James wanted to be different and opted for a chicken dish, which isn't necessarily lighter than the red meat. His chicken francesa consisted of two pounded, breaded cutlets in a lemon sauce. I didn't taste it but with rice it could've nearly passed for Chinese food.

Chivito_doro_parrilladaIf you order the parillada, which you should, your carnivore's delight comes on a little tabletop grill warmed by candles. The contents include skirt steak, another kind of steak that I'm not sure about, morcilla (my Spanish tutor didn't think I knew what this was when recounting my meal the following week. Hey, I'm all about sangre, no fears here. The blood sausage is actually one of my favorite parts of the whole shebang), ribs, pork sausage and sweetbreads. They went easier on the organ meats than the Argentinean steakhouse I tried a few years back. My choice of starch was roasted potato wedges. I made it through about half of the items. The vinegary chimichurri is a must and cuts through the richness. Of course, it's oil-based and rich in and of itself. You can't think about calories in these situations. You might as well stay home and eat microwaved Amy's enchiladas, if you have food fears.

Chivito_doro_potatoes The clientele was a mix on our weeknight visit. There were plenty of Hispanic families, but there was also a table of Eastern Europeans who came after us, breezed through their meat and left before our last bites. There also wasn't a shortage of Queens-y types getting take out and reminding the counter guy not to forget the rolls (which are quite good and charred with grill marks).

I'm not schooled enough to recommend Chivito d'Oro over nearby favorites La Porteña or La Fusta or countless others, though I don't want to say they're interchangeable either. It's worth a jaunt on the 7 train to investigate, though.

El Chivito d'Oro * 84-02 37th Ave., Jackson Heights, NY

Building Bridges

Tag2244Maybe it's age and the supposed wisdom that comes with it but I haven't felt like talking about myself much lately. That likely a blessing because I'd only bore you to tears. But this whole mess did originate as an online journal, not a happy go lucky blog, so indulge me for a post.

Recently I've been waking up feeling simultaneously blech and panic-stricken. It's probably normal to have bouts of self-doubt where you feel ineffectual and hopeless (though I bet these corporate goths never question themselves). The problem is that when you're busy and bogged down with a soul-crushing job you hate there's little time for dwelling. Now that I'm only working sporadically part time (just three days this week, probably more next week) I have the free time to do anything I'd like (I mean, creatively, not shopping, traveling or dining decadently, duh) but there's not an ounce of inventiveness in me. I'm as leaden and dull as a human can get and that's really annoying. I don't want to be the kind of person who needs a steady job to feel ok and secure. I've only been freelancing for a little over a week and I'm becoming all too keenly aware of my ingrained lack of self-motivation and direction. I'm so not a go-getter, I'm barely a get-out-of-bedder.

Free time is like that, though. If I remember correctly, I was unemployed in most of 2000 and 2003 and I didn't do shit. I have nothing to show for it except huge credit card debt (I think I'm trying to scare myself into action. Even though I know my short-term income will be spotty I went nuts on Sunday and paid off one of my credit cards [I have three] with the smallest balance, which was around $2,500. I might be hurting for that $2,500 at some point but I just couldn't stand having it around anymore and I was racking up a $50 or so monthly finance charge). And I know that I'm capable of more than shit. I swear, this is why people have children. At some point people just give into their mundane-ness and pin their hopes on the next generation. It's the circle of life(lessness).

I'm really jealous of passionate driven people because I swear if someone told me that I could do anything for a living that I wanted to (unrealistic or not), I'd be stumped. There was some promo for I don't know, maybe PBS, where a kid who was maybe ten was obsessed with building bridges. He wrote letters to companies, his family visited an engineering firm while on vacation (the staff even presented him with a bridge cake) and now he's all gung ho on doing well in school and taking the right courses in college. How do you get so set and focused like that, as a tot, no less? I don't begrudge those bridge-building types, I'm in awe. It's the ones who succeed because they've always been surrounded by financially supportive families that disturb me.

I feel paralyzed by the '00s and I'm sick of looking at and keeping up with food writing/blogging. I don't even like food writing. Everyone knows everything and it seems impossible to have a new thought. Or maybe I just don't have any. Every day a new site sprouts on the amateur front as well as the pro side (The Times recently went bloggy, then last week defunct print mag Chow launched The Grinder and New York started Grub Street). I can't keep up with all this shit and watch TV too. Yesterday, I was trying to come up with fresh pitches (I can usually rely on the section of the NY Post that I write for, for select items, but am trying to expand my scope) and getting exasperated because I'm not an insider or connected in any way to the food scene and I hate networking so it's hard to grab trends first (actually, I think this is a NYC dilemma because everyone is so hyper critical and snarky and the standards are insanely high. It got me thinking that I should look at markets outside of the city). I don't even know that I want to write about food, at least not in the precious produce fixated or family traditions ways that are pervasive and currently admired. (From this week's papers: Vegetable Love, Requited, Back to the Ranch, When Life Gives You Apples, Make Pie. Hmm, now that I'm looking The Chicago Tribune has some nutty stories about taste testing chain pizzas and how McDonald's might start serving breakfast all day. Weird place, that Windy City) I want to write about fun things. NYC is many things, but a funny city it is not.

Here's an example of how much things have changed in the last ten years. Before the Food Network hit big and everyone became an expert via blogs, writing about food wasn't terribly trendy. When I first moved here, I recall seeing Pete Wells's byline in Time Out New York quite a bit. He's become prolific and well-respected since then (and recently ruffled countless food bloggers' feathers when he essentially declared most of them a waste of time, which I'd actually agree with even though I'm also guilty of near-daily drivel. I'm not a food blogger, though, and I don't document my meals because I'm an aspiring food critic. It's just a compulsion that occurred to me around 2000, the same geeky impulse that had me tracking Henry Thomas's every move as a twentysomething and writing reviews of every Ray Bradbury short story in a notebook as a teen.) Now he's about to become the editor of the New York Times's dining section, which most would agree is a pretty big deal. So, I searched the Time Out NY archives to see what sorts of food topics he covered in the '90s and it was very telling.

The first piece I found was from 1996 and was about where you find restaurants with fireplaces. There's no way in a million years that anyone, including Time Out NY, would accept that idea today. It's way too simplistic and there isn't any newsy, hot trend angle. It's just, hey, it's cold out, here's where it's cozy. I also found another about where to eat in Coney Island, which I suspect would also be a no go today. Coney Island isn't as creepy (well, my sister's husband who apparently loves Wales, thought it was depressing if that means anything) and off the beaten path as it used to be. I'm not saying New Yorkers go their in droves, but now they have the Brooklyn Cyclones, the Siren Festival, and all sorts of urban renewal in the works. What's uncharted now? The Bronx and Staten Island definitely don't make it into many food sections. Hey, there's an idea…

Anyway, enough boo-hooing and overthinking. Whenever I get into a slump a little old fashioned cyber stalking always perks me up. I put my newly gained news library sleuthing skills to work and deduced that the guy I stalked in college who broke my heart (I still feel an itty bitty pang when I think about it) must've finally broke up with his girlfriend (wife?). They moved into a house she bought in 1994 and it appears that he moved into an apt. in S.E. Portland in 2002. There aren't any records for her with a newer address than the original N.E. Portland house, which I guess could mean that she's living with him and not on the lease but that doesn't really make any sense. Part of me would love it if their relationship dissolved because I firmly believe that everything eventually falls apart for everyone even though I really, really want to believe in true love forever. I mean, eight years for a college-started relationship is long is enough (though he was 24 and she was three years older, not exactly spring chickens, which is strangely NW). When I got out of Portland in the late '90s I was scared of all the settling down mid-20s freaks buying houses, gardening, microbrew drinking, dog walking and the like. Of course, now I'm re-facing the same issues a decade later which was bound to happen because 30s are all about that stuff. Talk to me in my 40s when I'm a real crab.

Honduras Maya

1/2 This was weird. I tried visiting Honduras Maya on a Tuesday around 7pm and it was closed up tight. When I lived relatively nearby I used to walk past on my way to the gym and always wondered how they stayed in business because there was never anyone inside. I feared they'd finally gone under, which would suck for my story I was trying to put together.

Then the very next day, Suany Carcamo (who I think is the owner) was mentioned in the first sentence of the New York Times's Under $25 column profiling the Red Hook Ball Fields, which seems to have hit mainstream media with a vengeance this summer. Just to pump myself up (believe me, no one else does) I must mention that I wrote about this venue May 2005 (and of course plenty of others covered it the year before) but it doesn't even come up in the first ten pages if you Google it so it might as well not exist.

I get the feeling that Honduras Maya functions more as a social club with sporadic hours and limited menu than a full fledged restaurant. They were open Thursday that same week and we weren't able to get sopa de caracol because the conch was too expensive to serve. Instead, we got baleadas, the ballfield specialty because sometimes it's best to stay simple. If you get a grilled meat plate with rice, beans, plantains, avocado, white cheese slice and salad, you'll also be brought a bottle of Kraft Italian dressing. Such is the side salad in most restaurants anyway.

We were the only proper diners, which lent a slightly spooky feel. There was a handful of  young guys going in and out who were drinking beer (which wasn't on the menu) and snacking on baleadas. As we were about to leave a typically "old" Park Slope dad with young boys came in. He seemed to know what he was doing and headed straight back to the kitchen to order, which you might have to do since there isn't a full staff or anyone to greet you when you walk in. I don't know if he was a regular or just bold. Or maybe I'm just a pussy.

Honduras Maya * 587 Fifth Ave., Brooklyn, NY

Sunday Night Special: Crispy Watercress Salad

I'm no recipe writer/developer and have never had desire to be one. The concept is foreign to me, kind of like writing a song or making up music. I played instruments growing up: piano, clarinet, drums, but I've never had the foggiest idea how people create songs from scratch. I never imagined that it was too difficult (it seems like I constantly get random My Space invites from unheard of bands–there are more bands then seconds in the day) I just didn't have the urge.

Last Sunday I didn't have the wherewithal to actually go to Sripraphai, but I was dying for their crispy watercress salad, which is like nothing else I've ever had at an NYC Thai restaurant. It's not like you can just skim through a cookbook and find a recipe. So, I was forced to make one up (based upon recipes from numerous books). It wasn't spot on, but it wasn't bad either.

The original uses squid but we didn't have any so I added more chicken and shrimp. It was a little too poultry-heavy, which made a heartier salad. I also realized that Sripraphai uses way more watercress, mine ended up being more of an accent than a component.

2 teaspoons chile paste (I used jarred namprik pao)
6 Thai chiles, chopped
2 tablespoons fish sauce
juice of one lime
2 teaspoons white sugar

Mix all the ingredients. These are approximate proportions. I'm still learning how to balance the hot, sweet, sour salty thing. I thought it tasted right, but when tossed with the salad the overall flavor seemed too tart and not spicy enough.

1 chicken breast, about 6 ounces
6 ounces shrimp, shelled
2 large handfuls of watercress
Small handful of cashews, salted is ok
¼ red onion, thinly sliced (shallots are more authentic but mine always rot on me)
2 tablespoons cilantro, chopped
4 tablespoons mint, chopped

First, poach the chicken breast. You just bring it to a boil in water and then turn off the heat and cover for an hour.

While the chicken is cooking, prepare the dressing, slice the onion and chop the herbs.

After the chicken is done and cool enough to touch, shred into bite size pieces.

Then it's battered, fried watercress time. Against my better judgment I used a tempura recipe from Tyler Florence (how do you trust a guy who calls jalapeños halapeenos. Bobby Flay also says peeno and it makes me nuts). It didn't adhere that well to the watercress. The original has a fairly heavy coating and isn't really tempura-like at all, now that I think about it. I fried the coated greens in a few inches of oil until golden, maybe a couple of minutes and then blotted on paper towels.

Lastly, briefly boil the shrimp, not longer than a minute.

Now you can toss everything together, the fresh stuff, cooked things and the dressing. Sprinkle with the cashews and enjoy.

This recipe could feed two people who really like crispy watercress salad or four as more of a dainty starter.

The Original

My Rendition

The Icing on the Cake

Last week I become mildly mesmerized by these demonic tots (that I found via Gawker which they found through Cityrag. I seriously still don't understand the whole blog attribution thing, possibly because I'm not a blogger at heart. Why couldn't I just directly talk about things on Plan 59 if that's where I found them? Am I linking to be proper, to give props or what?)

It made me think of one of my favorite photos that comes from 1964's The Seventeen Cookbook. That red-sweatered guy watching his cohort pondering a strawberry shortcake is totally up to no good.


Mi Bolivia

Mi_bolivia_aji_lenguaIt's hard to define an entire cuisine after a single meal. So, I won't. (But I will give an overview of Latin American cuisine  that's scarce in NYC.) Bolivian food is kind of meat and potatoes and thoroughly hearty. Must be the Andean air. Many of the dishes come with regular potatoes and chuños (a tiny freeze dried tuber) as well as hominy and rice. Lots of starch and chewiness. I had aji de lengua, tongue in a lightly spiced brown sauce. They also have a peanut soup, sopa de mani, that I've heard about but didn't try. Weekends are soupy at a lot of these places with changing menus of the day during the week.

Mi_bolivia_saltenas Salteñas are a heftier empanada with a stewier filling of either chicken or beef. They're served with a green salsa that our waitress pointed out wasn't called salsa. Instead of the Spanish word they use yagua. At least that's what she wrote down for me, but after some sleuthing it seems like llajwa is the more commonly used term. Either way, it's nice with a salteña. There is one other Bolivian restaurant in NYC named Nostalgias (love the added S, like how McGriddles is singular) and I'd definitely be willing to give it a try.

Mi Bolivia * 44-10 48th Ave., Sunnyside, Queens

Tierras Centro Americanas

Caldo_de_resOther the Pollo Campero, there aren't any other Guatemalan restaurants in the city that I'm aware of. And it doesn't appear that Tierras Centro Americanas is going out of its way to get the word out (my editor had to call and plead for 15 minutes to convince the owner to allow us to send a photographer for an article on lesser known Latin American food…and then they didn't end up using a photo anyway). This place used to be called Xelaju and appears to have recently changed names. There's also a Salvadoran flag on the wall and pupusas on the menu, which might reflect new ownership. The clientele seemed heavily Guatemalan, though.

Guatemalan_diner Unless you live in Eastern Queens, getting to this little storefront is a bit of a trek. And once you arrive, the scene might be mildly conflicting. On my visit the staff seemed very nervous and reluctant to approach us. I wasn't sure if it was the language barrier, if they thought I was going to deport them or what. I almost felt in need of one of those worry dolls. But the Sunday afternoon customers were insanely friendly. Nearly someone at every table wanted to help us order and make suggestions.

A large family suggested that I take a picture of who appeared to be the matriarch in a traditional dress. Unfortunately, I couldn't catch what it was called or the region it was from. A guy at the table on my other side confided that these handmade dresses can cost $1,000 and are for special occasions. Hey, why can't soup in Jamaica be a special occasion?

Salpicon I was only able to sample a few items so I can't speak with expertise on Guatemalan food. It's not like Mexican but they do serve thick fresh corn tortillas with everything. It was recommended that I order a soup so I tried caldo de res, a hearty beef concoction that felt fortifying and healthy as it was teeming with vegetables like green beans, chayote, potatoes, yucca, carrots and cabbage. That would've been plenty, but I had to try the salpicon because it sounded so crazy and un-Hispanic. With chopped beef, cilantro, onion, lime juice and radishes served with rice it was suspiciously similar to Thai larb. It's not spicy and has the oddball radish, but it felt Asian. James lamed out and had tacos, which are probably what Americans would call flautas, little rolled up things.

Guatemalan_tortillas Tierras is the kind of place where the jukebox will spontaneously blast Spanish death metal and then segue into a sappy ballad and Chinese women go table to table hawking bootleg dvds and customers actually buy them. One mom snatched up Snakes on a Plane (and a Sponge Bob disc) a day after opening in the theaters. That's so not Carroll Gardens and I totally appreciate that.

Tierras Centro Americanas * 87-52 168th St., Jamaica, NY