One of the great things about living in New York City is the diversity of cultures that it represents. Daily, I encounter people of different ethnicities who speak foreign tongues, and I’m not just talking about tourists. This is one of the many reasons I love living here: I get exposure to a variety of cultures and lifestyles, and most important, I can taste foods from all over the globe in my town — though sometimes I may have to travel a longer distance, which I really don’t mind.
Having recently received some constructive criticism that Cravings only covers chefs and restaurants that are already established (which is not entirely true), I thought I would redeem myself by sharing some lesser-known establishments that I equally enjoy and appreciate. After all, the Cravings lifestyle is not just about fine dining but more about worthwhile dining. My goal is to keep learning and exploring, to keep an open mind and to get some insight into other cultures through their culinary lexicon.
September is cut short for me, as I am about to go on a ten-day trip to Vienna then Turkey, so I thought I would do a brief feature on some of the different ethnic restaurants I’ve been trying in the past month. I know that six eateries is a very small sample to call an ethnically diverse feature, but as always, this is just an introduction that will hopefully inspire others to embark on adventures of their own.
So go on out and explore the town! There’s so much to try and to be eaten. Though I am not traveling abroad as much as I’d like to, I consider myself pretty lucky that I have access to endless options in the City. Let’s traverse the world through the gateway of food!
Fried Cod Balls
806 Nostrand Ave
(St Johns Pl & Lincoln Pl)
Brooklyn, NY 11216
Flying Fish Cutters
1082 Nostrand Ave
@ Lincoln Rd
Brooklyn, NY 11225
On a recent exploration of West Indies cuisine in Prospect Heights, I got an introduction to the food of some of the Caribbean islands, including Barbados, Trinidad and Jamaica. Even just walking up and down Nostrand Avenue, within a couple of hours my friends and I were able to try seven different eateries and compare the foods. The different islands take influences from different places (for example, Bajan food reflects British and African influences while Trinidad’s cuisine has traces of Indian influence), but they are all distinctly delicious.
Feeding Tree, the Jamaican eatery, had the best platters. It serves daily specials, and we tried two: the oxtail as well as tripe and beans. Even the sides of mixed vegetables (cabbage, corn and carrots) and the macaroni pie (mac and cheese) were better than the other restaurants.
We chanced upon Gloria’s, a Trinidadian joint that sells the delicious fried tamarind balls known as
At Culpepper’s, we experienced unparalleled hospitality and enthusiasm to teach two Asians and a Frenchman about Bajan cuisine. The flying fish cutters (sandwich) came highly recommended. When placing the order, you need to specify one fish or two. I wasn’t exactly sure what this meant — if it was just a matter of it being a double order or not — but when faced with the question, the other diners waiting for their food resoundingly helped us respond by shouting “two” in unison. Once I took a bite of the sandwich, I immediately understood why you should get two. The flying fish is deep-fried, but each piece is thin and flat. So to get your fill, you need two pieces between the bread. The front of Culpeppers is for take-out, but there is sit-down dining space through a closed glass door. We also tried the steamed flying fish with cou-cou, cornmeal in gravy, but I prefer and recommend the cutters.
Waiting in the queue to place an order at Cock’s, another Bajan restaurant and bakery, was a truly eye-opening experience. Cock’s looks like just a bakery, even though there are a couple of tables and chairs in the storefront. The line is long, and it doesn’t move fast. The woman behind the counter writes each person’s order in a book that looks like an accounting ledger and tallies the cost by hand. In New York City everyone is constantly in a rush and impatient but in this neighborhood, and particularly at Cock’s, they move to a different beat. The pace is much slower, and you can choose to find it annoying or refreshing. The food is not going to come out any sooner, so panicking or throwing a fit isn’t going to help.
The fried cod balls from Cock’s were amazing. It’s interesting because I was expecting the cod ball to be like Japanese fish balls made from a paste of ground fish meat. But Cock’s cod balls are literally doughy bread balls deep-fried with cod meat rolled into them. The outside is crisp and the inside spongy. When I bit into them, I literally had to stop conversation to draw attention to how good these were. They taste better than Chinese or Japanese fish balls and better than Spanish cod croquettes. What a wonderful discovery!
While at Cock’s don’t forget to try some of their pastries. The coconut bread and
This excursion was just the beginning of my Carribean cuisine education. I could do a whole feature on Jamaican cuisine and restaurants in the City alone, but there are also other island cuisines I want to try, like Grenadian and Vincentian. If I can’t go to the Caribbean, at least I can bring the Caribbean to me.
Potato Burek Roll
221 W 38th St
(7th & 8th Ave)
New York, NY 10018
The Djerdan location in Manhattan is the third outpost of this restaurant. The first two are in Astoria and Pelham Parkway, respectively. Thankfully, there is a Manhattan location so that we have easy access to yummy Balkan bureks — layers of phyllo dough made into pies with meat (ground beef), cheese (feta) or vegetable (spinach) filling. The Bureks are sold by the slice, each one the size of a piece of pizza, so it’s very filling. All three stuffings are flavorful, it just depends on what mood you are in. The layers of phyllo pastry are nice and flaky, and the outer layers thin and crisp. Since the pies are sold by the slice, it’s ideal to take some home to savor, but don’t be lazy and use the microwave; make sure to reheat in the oven to get the desired phyllo crispness.
Burek is originally a Turkish treat, but it’s popular in the Balkans. In Bosnia, they have a special burek — thin layers of dough are stuffed then rolled. At Djerdan, the options for fillings are meat or potato. After trying both, I prefer the potato burek roll because it is almost like a knish but is tastier; the dough has more of a soft pretzel texture. There are juicy sautéed onions in the potato filling. I am a true potato lover, so it doesn’t matter what form it comes in — sliced, shredded, fried, boiled, baked or mashed — I will eat it and love it. But in recent years, I have not had many knishes because I find them a little dry. The potato burek roll has both more moisture and texture, so it’s an ideal alternative.
The rolled meat burek is also good, but I prefer the burek pie with meat because the phyllo dough is lighter and fluffier than the rolled burek dough and pairs better with the filling. The homemade yogurt is a must when eating the regular or rolled burek.
The cuisine at Djerdan represents flavors within the Balkan region but more specifically, Bosnian. The main dishes are all comfort foods like stews, stuffed peppers and beef goulash, but not as remarkable as the bureks and less worthy of mention.
On the night I visited, I was the only diner at the restaurant. Based on its location, I believe that the office crowd provides heavy traffic mainly for lunch. It’s a little lonely to sit at this restaurant and dine alone, but it’s a real treat to take home some of the burek pies and rolls to enjoy at your leisure.
Pork BBQ Meal
40-06 70th St
@ Roosevelt Ave
Woodside, NY 11377
"Home of the best barbecue in town" — that’s Ihawan’s slogan. And after trying their pork barbecue meal, I think they can legitimately lay claim to the best Filipino barbecue in town.
Ihawan is in Woodside, Queens — not far from my favorite Thai restaurant, Sripraphai — and conveniently located a block away from the 69th St station on the 7 train line. This is important information because once you try the Filipino food here, you’ll want to figure out the quickest and easiest way to come back. (The quickest and easiest way is actually to take the LIRR one stop from Penn Station to Woodside, if you are coming from Manhattan.)
Having grown up in Hawaii, where there is much Filipino influence, dining at Ihawan felt very much like coming home — diners and servers alike are friendly and laid back. The peculiar thing about this restaurant though, is that it closes at 8:15 p.m. on most nights. The ground floor is for take-out only, and if you didn’t know there was a sit-down restaurant section upstairs, it would be easy to miss. It seems that the bulk of the business from the restaurant is take-out, hence the restaurant’s early closing time. Regulars are used to the schedule, so it’s no big deal to them. This does pose a greater challenge if you work in Manhattan and can’t leave the office early enough to make it to Ihawan by 7:30 p.m., after which you have no choice but to order take-out (until 7:45 p.m.). But I would even settle for that rather than miss out on the delicious barbecues and lumpiang Shanghai.
The pork barbecue meal includes rice and two bamboo skewers of sliced, grilled meat that has been marinated in a sugar-and-soy-based marinade. This can serve as a meal in itself, and for $4.50 it’s a true bargain. If Ihawan would only set up a street cart in downtown or midtown Manhattan, it could make a killing. People would line up and willingly pay double the price for the barbecue platter.
My Filipino friend Eric, was eager to order the lumpiang Shanghai — twelve pieces of fried, wrapped minced pork and shrimp. He said that his parents used to make these by the dozens and he would just pop them as snacks, like potato chips. Turns out, the lumpiang Shanghai are like triple deep-fried spring rolls, or an Asian version of Combos. When this dish first arrived on the table, I was a little hesitant to try it, as it looked like I might have a heart attack after eating the super-deep-fried mini wraps. However, after tasting one, I understood why these little treats are as easy to pop one after another like chips. Eric managed to eat eleven of them throughout our meal, despite the fact that we shared eight dishes — I was eager to try lots of things! They may be deep-fried, but in some sense I feel that they are healthier than chips since the ingredients are fresh and not processed.
The lechon kawali, deep-fried crispy pork with liver sauce on the side, also came highly recommended by Eric’s sister. This was a very deep-fried evening — not for the faint of heart but oh so yummy! The outside of the pork is deep-fried to a crisp. It’s not breaded, so the texture is not thick like the battered fried-chicken skin. I could hardly tell that the sauce that accompanied was a liver sauce; it was just a tasty paste to dip the crispy pork in for more flavor.
In search of some greens, I ordered my favorite Filipino dish, laing, taro leaves and shrimp sautéed in coconut milk. The coconut milk makes this dish a bit heavy but also enhances the aroma of the leafy greens. I spied only one shrimp, but I think the shrimp is more for adding complexity of flavor to the dish rather than the meat itself.
The pansit palabok, soft rice noodles with shrimps, egg and shrimp sauce, was very interesting. The noodles were soft, round and short — not what I expected, as Chinese or Japanese noodles tend to be rather long and flat. The shrimp and egg were minced into the shrimp sauce so it was more like a paste on the rice noodles. Eric also polished off this dish, with very little help from me.
For dessert, all the choices sounded fun and interesting, but I had run out of room. Eric had the avocado con hielo, avocado with condensed milk and crushed ice, as a drink with his meal rather than dessert. Condensed milk and crushed ice makes everything taste yummy, and I’m a sucker for avocado, but I was not able to appreciate this as a drink because the avocado was so dense. I’m already planning to try the mais con hielo, sweetened corn with condensed milk and crushed ice, on my next visit.
There’s still so many things on the menu I want to taste, like chicken pastel (sautéed chicken with mushroom sauce, hot dog, quail eggs and water chestnuts). And, of course, I will need to satiate some cravings, like the pork barbecue, when I go back to Ihawan. But next time I will need a couple more mouths to help me clean house!
POLAM INTERNATIONAL MARKET
952 Manhattan Ave
(India & Java St)
Brooklyn, NY 11222
Smoked Bacon Spread
931 Manhattan Ave
(India & Java St)
Brooklyn, NY 11222
My Polish friend Kasia is very sweet but very opinionated. She has the brightest soul, and I adore her for her honesty. She tells it like it is. On a weekend when I decided to entertain some friends, she offered to take me to a Polish market in Greenpoint to buy some Polish goodies. We went to Polam International Market and pretty much stopped there because I had so much to carry home I couldn’t explore other markets along Manhattan Avenue.
Polam was an awesome discovery for me, as it’s a one-stop market that can fulfill most of your Polish needs. The Hungry Cabbie and I were talking about Polam, and he’s quite fond of the place — not only for its variety of sausages but also for its pickles — he learned about Polam’s pickles when he worked at Guss’. In addition to three buckets of pickles (younger to more aged), there’s also picked cabbage that you can choose from, too.
Upon entering Polam, to the left is the cash register and the right the prepared-foods section. Kasia insisted that I try a little bit of everything, so I bought boiled pierogies, fried fish patties, fried fish rolled with vegetables, pork chops and stuffed cabbage. The freshly made stuffed cabbage and pierogies are sold by weight, and, to my surprise, the cabbage averaged only 70¢ each. As Kasia says, one stuffed cabbage can be a meal for a girl and two for a boy. This is a really inexpensive way to feed guests, and it’s completely satisfying. The stuffed cabbage at Polam is delightful. The meat-and-rice stuffing rolled is rolled into the cabbage leaves, and is then simmered in tomato sauce and cooked just right.
The sausages hanging from the ceiling and all over were mesmerizing. From fresh to cured, big to small, they seemed to carry every sort of Polish sausage. I will definitely return to Polam to buy these goodies and throw a sausage fest.
As mentioned, in this one-stop market, you can find bread, canned goods, cheese, sauces, juices, spices, frozen goods — just about all that one could hope for. I would pick up some Polish bread in anticipation of what I want to share with you next.
Across the street from Polam, is Damis, a Polish American restaurant with jungle-themed décor. I tried the Polish platter to get a little taste of everything, which included a piece of kielbasa, three pierogies, a large stuffed cabbage, two potato pancakes and bigos, a sauerkraut stew with meat. Honestly, I wasn’t impressed by much on my plate, and the stuffed cabbage was really disappointing compared to Polam’s. Kasia had already eaten, so she ordered the red borscht with meat croquette, which seemed to be a perfect light meal, and a steal at $2.95. But the highlight was the spread they brought out with the breadbasket before our meal — yes, the free bread and spread. The spread was a white butterlike ball mixed with smoked bacon bits, parsley, and onions. It’s kind of like a German potato salad sans the potato. I wasn’t exactly sure what the white spread was because it looked like pure lard, and Kasia was reluctant to answer my question because she feared I wouldn’t eat fat. Little did she know that I live for fat and have no qualms about eating lard straight, it’s just that I wanted to know what it really was. So yes, it was lard spread with bacon, onion and parsley. You can tell it’s lard because when you put it on bread, it almost starts to melt and turn clear. Well, it can’t be that bad for you, can it? If you eat butter with bread, then this is the same concept but much better because it has bacon in it. How can you resist bacon?!
Lamb Gyro Platter
928 2nd Ave
(49th & 50th St)
New York, NY 10022
I have always liked Turkish cuisine, and as I am visiting Turkey next week, I’ve been rallying myself up for the adventure I am about to embark on. After reading Frank Bruni’s review of Sip Sak in the New York Times three weeks ago, I solicited two Turkish friends to try this Turkish restaurant with me.
One of the great draws of a restaurant is when it has things that are not on the menu. When you know about these items that are "off the menu," you feel like you belong to a secret society — the privileged few who know something that others don’t. Bruni’s review revealed these dishes, and now the secret is out. I’ve visited Sip Sak twice now, and, as it happens, these off-the-menu items are really just daily specials, a concept that is neither special nor innovative. So did I just fall for a PR gimmick? Regardless, there are some things I really like here, so I thought I’d share them.
Sip Sak is doing extremely well. During my visits (coincidentally both rainy nights), one on a weekend and the other on a weeknight, the restaurant was bustling. There was a wait for tables on both nights, but on the second, my friend and I opted to eat at the bar and were seated immediately.
The translation of Sip Sak is "chop-chop," or "quickly." And indeed, once seated, the ordered food appeared surprisingly speedily. On my first visit, I was still contemplating whether to add some appetizers to the order when all our dishes arrived.
The lamb gyro platter is one of the items Bruni mentions that does not appear on the menu. Its absence is explained by the fact that chef-owner Orhan Yegen does not want to serve the dish unless fresh ingredients are available to prepare it. Thin slices of lamb gyro are served over cubes of sautéed pita bread and dressed with yogurt and tomato sauce. Lamb gyro is not one of those things I naturally gravitate toward, and had this not been a special, I probably would not have tried it. But after two visits, it has made my cravings list. There’s something that truly hits the spot about this dish — it’s hearty and tasty, not heavy, but truly delightful. From the menu, I was rooting for the manti and baked lamb (with eggplant purée) but neither lived up to my expectations. Rather, the combination of tender and fatty gyro meat, garlicky yogurt and bread prevailed as the most popular choice and quickly disappeared. Part of what caught me by surprise was the texture of the bread. The outside is crunchy, but the inside is soft and chewy. Drenched in yogurt, the bread tastes heavily of garlic and is rather addictive.
The stuffed cabbage was also good. I’ve tried many stuffed cabbages lately, from Polish to Balkan restaurants, but none tasted as good as this one. Stuffed cabbage is one of those comfort foods that can be so satisfying. Served with rice, the rolled cabbages were also quickly devoured. I’d opt for this dish if the lamb gyro platter is not available.
Good things come to those who wait, and I must say that the end of the meal at Sip Sak is the highlight for me. The almond pudding is currently my favorite dessert. While not a traditional Turkish dessert (as my friends told me), we all loved it. The pudding is a cross between panna cotta and rice pudding — not too gelatinous and not too runny but just right — with sliced almonds in the pudding. I would go to Sip Sak just for the almond pudding and some Turkish coffee (even better if someone could read my coffee grinds afterward), but honestly, if I’m going to go for the pudding, I might as well have the lamb gyro platter, too, if it’s available that is.
1141 Brighton Beach Ave
(Brighton 14th & Brighton 15th St)
Brooklyn, NY 11235
A visit to Brighton Beach for Uyghur food at Café Kashkar has made me a richer person not only because I have fallen in love with Uyghur cuisine but also because the food has been a gateway for me learn a little about its culture. Admittedly, it was ignorant of me to be surprised when I asked the waiter what his country of origin was and he replied, “China.” He didn’t look Chinese to me, and the language he spoke sounded similar to Turkish. When I conducted a search on the Uighur online, I discovered the history behind the sensitivities between the Chinese and the Uyghur.
The Uighur is a Turkic ethnic group who live in the northwestern Chinese province of Xinjiang. While the Uyghur are one of China’s 56 recognized nationalities, they have strived for independence, like the Tibetans. In writing this feature, I wasn’t sure if I should use the Chinese or the Uighur flag to represent this culture. I discovered that the Chinese strictly forbid the use of the Uighur flag because of the independence movement it symbolizes.
The Uyghur are fond of barbequed lamb, rice pilaf and different forms of dumplings. In turn, I am very fond of Uighur cuisine, as I love all of what they eat. Interestingly, the Uyghur food is truly a cross between Chinese and Turkish foods, which in my book is a match made in heaven. Many of the noodle dishes have familiar northern Chinese flavors. But the Uighur’s love of meats and barbeque results in great kebabs.
Like the Turkish manti, the Uighur have a manty too. But the Uyghur manty (slightly bigger than a golf ball) is extremely large in comparison. It’s a dumpling filled with the tenderest lamb, onions, cumin and spices. The skin of the dumpling is thicker than wanton skins but thinner than ravioli, and the texture and proportion of skin to filling is just right. Khanum, large steam dumplings with potato filling, are also delicious ó the potato is shredded and the dumplings are dressed with a tomato-like sauce.
The salads are like Chinese cold-dish appetizers of mixed batches of vegetables, not like the green salads from the West. The eggplant salad is tasty with cubes of sautéed eggplant with red peppers, carrots, garlic, oil and vinegar.
The lagman noodles are homemade and whether pan-fried, served in lamb broth or without broth, each has a unique texture; all are scrumptious. All three versions are mixed with the same meat and vegetables and star anise flavors. The pan-fried noodles are thicker and shorter, while the noodles in broth are also short but flatter, and the regular noodles are like Chinese lo-mien, long and thin. Ugra, lamb broth with noodles and small meatballs and, chuchwara, little lamb dumplings in broth, were also heavenly. The question here is just which one of these noodles/soup/dumpling dishes to choose.
My favorite thing on the menu is the pilaf, fried rice with carrots, lamb and spices. The pilaf is neither like the dry long-grain pilafs we find in the U.S. nor like traditional Chinese fried rice. The rice seems to be steamed with spices first to give it a bright yellow-orange hue, then fried to give it a nice slightly crunchy texture. The Uyghur cook lamb better than anyone else, based on what I’ve tasted. The lamb in the pilaf comes in pieces on the bone, and it’s so succulent with the luscious rice and soft carrot shreds that everything just slides down your throat without effort. There’s also chickpeas in the rice, which add to the texture and flavor, too. After sharing the pilaf with friends, I ordered one to take home so I could savor the dish by myself.
If Café Kashkar were located in Manhattan, I would surely visit it once a week. It’s a great home-style neighborhood restaurant. Everything I’ve tried hits the spot, but since it’s a bit of a trip, I end up gorging rather than enjoying each dish properly. Regardless, the pilaf is in my dreams, and I plan to go to Brighton Beach, rain or shine, to fulfill this new craving. Just think how good the lamb will taste in the winter!
The fried cod balls from Cock’s were amazing. It’s interesting because I was expecting the cod ball to be like Japanese fish balls made from a paste of ground fish meat. But Cock’s cod balls are literally doughy bread balls deep-fried with cod meat rolled into them. The outside is crisp and the inside spongy. When I bit into them, I... full article
At Culpepper’s, we experienced unparalleled hospitality and enthusiasm to teach two Asians and a Frenchman about Bajan cuisine. The flying fish cutters (sandwich) came highly recommended. When placing the order, you need to specify one fish or two. I wasn’t exactly sure what this meant — if it was just a matter of it being a double... full article
The Djerdan location in Manhattan is the third outpost of this restaurant. The first two are in Astoria and Pelham Parkway, respectively. Thankfully, there is a Manhattan location so that we have easy access to yummy Balkan bureks — layers of phyllo dough made into pies with meat (ground beef), cheese (feta) or vegetable (spinach) filling. The... full article
Having grown up in Hawaii, where there is much Filipino influence, dining at Ihawan felt very much like coming home—diners and servers alike are friendly and laid back. The pork barbecue meal includes rice and two bamboo skewers of sliced, grilled meat that has been marinated in a sugar-and-soy-based marinade. This can serve as a meal in... full article
My Filipino friend Eric, was eager to order the lumpiang Shanghai — twelve pieces of fried, wrapped minced pork and shrimp. He said that his parents used to make these by the dozens and he would just pop them as snacks, like potato chips. Turns out, the lumpiang Shanghai are like triple deep-fried spring rolls, or an Asian version of... full article
The lechon kawali, deep-fried crispy pork with liver sauce on the side, also came highly recommended. This was a very deep-fried evening — not for the faint of heart but oh so yummy! The outside of the pork is deep-fried to a crisp. It’s not breaded, so the texture is not thick like the battered fried-chicken skin. I could hardly tell that... full article
Across the street from Polam International Market, is Damis, a Polish American restaurant with jungle-themed décor. The highlight was the spread they brought out with the breadbasket before our meal — yes, the free bread and spread. The spread was a white butterlike ball mixed with smoked bacon bits, parsley, and onions. It’s kind of like... full article
Stuffed cabbage is one of those comfort foods that transcend nationalities. The ones at Greenpoint’s Polish market, Polam, usually sell out quickly. The meat and rice stuffing wrapped in cabbage leaves, simmering in tomato sauce, is not only scrumptious but also unbelievably inexpensive. Part of the prepared foods section, it’s sold by... full article
The lamb gyro platter does not appear on the menu. Its absence is explained by the fact that chef-owner Orhan Yegen does not want to serve the dish unless fresh ingredients are available to prepare it. Thin slices of lamb gyro are served over cubes of sautéed pita bread and dressed with yogurt and tomato sauce. There’s something... full article
Josh leads a double life. He keeps his blogger identity a secret from his colleagues, so he is known by first name only, or by his blog persona, Cha Xiu Bao. For those of you who don’t know, cha xiu bao is a Cantonese dish of steamed buns filled with barbecued pork. He named his blog after his favorite food.
The focus of CXB is on Chinese... full article