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There are many small Asian bakeries that populate 86th Street. These bakeries are full of hearty food, character and wonderfully cranky counter staff. I often find myself running through Bensonhurst trying to meet my Bean colleagues, interviewing oil recyclers and searching for Sandy Koufax – and in need of a quick and cheap bite.

The Yu King Bakery (2335 86th Street) is the spot for such a bite. I walked in and noticed a few older Asian women sitting at tables, drinking tea or coffee and holding court. I don’t know what they were holding court on, but I doubt it was about the Giants or Jets season, but you never know. They seemed content and at home as they offered a welcoming smile in my direction.

I wanted to order something light, and I approached the counter staff cautiously. Pork buns and thousand-year egg cookies stared back at me. I asked the staff if they had any food without meat, and the staff responded, “Meat?” Then, they scooped some meat from the steam ovens onto a nice plate and showed it to me.

I told them I wanted something with no meat and they put the plate into the steam ovens. When the oven was open, I noticed the familiar shape of a dim sum prize, the golden glove winner: Rice flour rolls.

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Photo by David Cohen

Oil Gorillas, a waste oil removal company, is no ordinary company. You may have seen the trucks around our neighborhoods, or sees stickers on the side of some of Bensonhurst’s markets and eateries. What you may not have seen or known is the story of owner and founder Eugene Komissarov.

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There is something about apples in a barrel. Something that says we can all get along. Unfortunately, the sour apple pickle at the Vicurria Market is the LAPD-meets-Rodney-King of pickles. It just doesn’t get along.

The first bite of this sour apple is not exactly traumatic, but somehow you instantly think of torture items thought up by the writers of Saturday Night Live. The first act would include being tied to a stretcher, forced to keep your mouth open and go through Oakley’s Car Wash ingesting the soap and suds and good old Oakley sweat.

Other types of sour apple torture could include: eating the chalked lines off a baseball field, attending a home-brewed vinegar party in the Appalachians, and being a participant on an extreme reality show called Lemonade Gone Wild! hosted by Lil’ Kim.

My second sampling of this pickle brought up slightly different images. The smell and taste brought to mind a big bag of Passover garbage with slightly spoiled Manischewitz mixing with the horseradish. Now that may be worth $2.19 a pound for some lucky pickle buyer, but I’ll stay on the sidelines.

A simpler reaction to this item is to just spit it out.

In fact, the car wash and other torturous sour apple pickle analogies are almost too generous. The aftertaste of this fermented concoction reminds me of really bad white wine. This reviewer imagined a wine made by his Great Uncle Shep on the roof of his Coney Island high rise using the finest white grapes available at Pathmark.

Uncle Shep could uncork this Luna Park Pinot Grigio made in a Ragu tomato sauce jar. It would have been full of bitterness and over acidity that formed during his process of fermentation. He would toast glasses, avoid the pigeon poop and talk about his work umpiring softball.

The sour apple pickle is a miss, and worth skipping. Save your hard earned pickle money for something a little more inviting, like a car wash!

Viccuria, 2275 86th Street, (718) 331-0100.

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Entering this maze of produce on a weekend feels like a whole different kind of Great Adventure. Viccuria Market (2275 86th Street) is an amusement park in its own right. The excitement begins with the smell of fresh vegetables, sawdust, meat and bleach as you enter the store. This produce park is like a roller coaster filled with fancy dates, Irish Soda Bread (with an English and Russian label) and a top-shelf pickle bar.

When rolling up to Viccuria’s pickle bar, one pickle that shouts out to you is the hot peppers stuffed with bread crumbs. Resting on the top row of the olive and pickle bar, the stuffed hot peppers gives the impression that it is meant for a higher class of customer. At $7.49 a pound, this isn’t your grandma’s shtetle pickle, this is a 21st Century pickle. This marinated pepper would be the choice of royalty, diplomats and anyone with a Lexus SUV.

The great ball of greasiness clearly comes from another planet. It stares at all customers with an alien, foreign-like shape that reminds this reviewer of baby gremlins. The pepper could have made an appearance with the Star Trek: The Next Generation crew, manifesting itself on the top of Captain Jean Luc Picard’s clean and shiny head. It would be eaten during times of great duress, like when the Klingons try to take over L&B’s.

My pickle partner and I were not in search of the final frontier, but more so a final snack of summer. A tribute to all the great tastes of July and August. Since this reviewer does his best to reduce, reuse, recycle, and rebuff, we brought our own plastic containers for the pickles and the staff at Viccuria was very receptive and helpful. The pickles needed to be weighed by the fancy deli staff. Our helper, decked out in black chef’s jacket and black chef’s hat that would allow him to fit in with Parisian literati, the prospect park drum circle crowd or an old school Black Panther Party party, was super friendly. He measured the pickles and even subtracted an estimated weight of the containers from the price.

The stuffed hot peppers were the first pickles we sampled. We let our hands explore the oily goodness of the pepper. My taste buds opened to spicy blend of salt and sour that brought up images of an old world grandma with a new pickle stand at the Barclay’s Center. Whoever she is, she sure knows her bread crumbs. The filling was sweet, salty and bready – like a pierogi from heaven.

We licked our fingers clean of the greasy, oily and beautiful taste. We silently thanked grandmas everywhere for their breadcrumbin’ and picklin’ skills. We hopped into the Lexus SUV and drove off into the end of our salty summer frontier.

The hot pepper made me feel safe and loved. It helped heal my lost kid trauma suffered in the husky section of the Alexander’s Department store in Kings Plaza, 1986. If only I had been lost with these Grandma Stuffed Peppers, with their top shelf of the old world quality, I may have turned out okay.

Viccuria, 2275 86th Street, (718) 331-0100.

Is there a restaurant or specific dish you think we should check out? Let us know!

Food Stuffs is a bi-weekly column examining the gastronomic landscape of Bensonhurst and the surrounding neighborhoods. Each entry will cover anything and everything even remotely related to food because here in Bensonhurst, food is always news.

As you walk along 86th Street in Bensonhurst you will start to see a different style of Chinese Restaurant than those that had populated this neighborhood in the past. In old Bensonhurst or Gravesend, you would have your ubiquitous Happy Wok or Big Chef next to the pizza place or the bakery serving up ample plates of General Tso’s chicken, pork dumplings and spare ribs. You could count on these neighborhood fixtures for lo mein, fried rice and a lunch special packed in styrofoam with an egg roll and wonton soup that would keep you stuffed well into dinner.

But the new Bensonhurst has Chinese restaurants that you would see in the Chinatowns of Lower Manhattan or Flushing or not too far away in Sunset Park. At the Lian Won Café, with the specials and sign menu in Chinese (I think Mandarin), it’s a different experience from the start. Instead of being met with takeout menus and bullet proof glass, you are served hot jasmine tea and greeted by waiters that speak little or no English. And I mean none, the words water and rice were missing from our server’s vocabulary. But that’s all part of the fun.

The menu, fitting for any Chinatown, is full of diverse items like chili pig intestines and various casseroles served in a steaming hot stone dish. My partner decided on the sizzling beef casserole over rice and I opted for the Buddha’s Delight over rice.The Buddha’s Delight was solid, with wok fried broccoli, black mushroom, shitake mushroom and and tofu skin served over bed of white rice. The broccoli was a bit undercooked, but the mushrooms were perfect and meaty and the tofu skin added a nice chewiness to the entire dish. For $4.50 it is a great deal that will fill you up and make you thank the Buddha for his generosity.

My dining partner was excited about the various meats, ducks, pork, chicken and beef. His casserole decision was a bit complicated, because the waiter needed us to draw circles around the menu numbers to make sure it was correct. The casserole came out in the stone pot and was sizzling, he shared that the meat was full of his kind of flavor. He enjoyed the meat and rice so much, that he ordered another dish beef over rice, which was essentially the same dish just not in the hot stone pot.  Fortunately, he was able to take most of that second dish home because it was too much for our lunch meal.

At the end of the meal, lunch for two came to $14.50 and we tipped well in hopes of bridging the communication gap. The meal could have easily been under $10 and certainly filled us up with quality food and a new experience. Of course, I brought my chopsticks home to re-use and my non-environmentally friendly lunch partner packed his leftovers in styrofoam and took a plastic bag. He enjoyed the leftovers though, and I am still enjoying the chopsticks.

I would certainly return to the Lian Won Café and sample some of their other vegetable dishes. And my partner seconded that thought and said he would also consider bringing his own takeout container for leftovers. So be brave and be daring and try all the fun Chinese restaurants under the tracks on 86th Street. We will be reviewing more soon!

Lian Won Café, 2012 86th Street (718) 333-1666.

Is there a restaurant or specific dish you think we should check out? Let us know!

Food Stuffs is a bi-weekly column examining the gastronomic landscape of Bensonhurst and the surrounding neighborhoods. Each entry will cover anything and everything even remotely related to food because here in Bensonhurst, food is always news.

My adventures in pickling continue through the bright buckets and barrels at the Cherry Hill Market on 86th Street. While circling the pickle bar, I stop and notice the vibrant red color of a baby tomato.

In the world of pickles – tomatoes are definitely the most delicate. They can be too firm or too soft. They can become mushy liked canned crushed tomatoes. They can absorb all the pickle brine and explode like a sour fruit.

Growing up in Southern Brooklyn, my mom used to grow tomatoes in our backyard and we always had too much of everything. She was not a pickler or a preserver and after years of gardening the abundance was too much for her. My dad installed a wooden deck over the garden patch. I only wonder if my mother had tried some of these more exotic pickles (and yes, pickled cherry tomatoes are exotic to my parents), would she still be gardening and growing wonderful things on East 31 Street.

Pickling tomatoes is a delicate process, and when you have a good one, you certainly feel appreciative.

To have a successful pickle we need to avoid the mush, avoid the toughness and avoid the vinegar bombs. It’s a delicate flower. One should also be prepared for the sweet side of this pickle. Like pickled beets or pickled carrots, the sugar in the tomato is going to change the flavor of your normally salty pickle expectations. Just roll with it, roll with that salty fruit sugar.

Cherry Hill Market’s pickled tomatoes are fine. They are not too mushy and not too firm. The bright red color makes you excited about the first bite, and they don’t explode with vinegar juice. The subtle sweetness is a great addition to pickle diversity. The baby tomato pickles are some of my favorites. They remind me of spring, of gardens, of new seasons. The other good thing about this tomato, totally off the record, is that it is small enough to sample. So while you are packing them up (and remember to re-use your containers or bring some Chinese soup containers from home) feel free to sample and see if this is your kind of snack.

Of course, 86th Street is also the place for food and pickle deals. At $2.25 and with tomato season nearly over, it’s an exciting time for pickles like these.

Biting into this pickle in the middle of Bensonhurst may wake up some of those thoughts for you as well. Even as the D train roars above the elevated tracks, the pickle gives you some kind of peace.

Until the next brine!

Cherry Hill Market, 2278 86th Street at 23rd Avenue, (718) 373-4900.

Is there a restaurant or specific dish you think we should check out? Let us know!

Image courtesy of David Cohen

Food Stuffs is a new column examining the gastronomic landscape of Bensonhurst and the surrounding neighborhoods. Each entry will cover anything and everything even remotely related to food because here in Bensonhurst, food is always news.

Some foods make me feel all patriotic and nostalgic. They remind me of when I used to watch the Macy’s Fourth of July fireworks on my parent’s Panasonic TV. Or the first time I went to see those same fireworks, standing in the crowds on the temporarily closed FDR expressway. These feelings of summer and Brooklyn and sticky nights come back to me with that refreshing, bright red fruit, the watermelon.

As my adventures in pickling continue, I was drawn to the watermelon. It is a comfort food for so many of us. It brings people together. A friend of mine, who I lived with while traveling in India, made a watermelon song. It goes like this, “Watermelon, watermelon – I love you love” and repeat. Now, even the most cynical and Brooklyn-to-the-core readers may have appreciated that hippie music sampling. I certainly hope so.

Looking at the big chunks of watermelon in the pickle brine, I could only appreciate how flexible a fruit watermelon is. In the Middle East, folks save and roast the seeds and eat fresh watermelon with feta cheese. In the South, people pickle the brine with all sorts of sweet and salty flavors. Across colleges all of the country, rowdy students intoxicate the watermelon with liquor to get themselves a bit looser. And if you really want a summer treat here in Brooklyn, find yourself a watermelon-flavored Italian Ice.

I re-used a plastic fruit bag, much to the chagrin of the market cashier and paid for the two chunks of melon, one for me and one for my companion. As we left the market on 86th Street searching for a place to savor the bright pickles, I noticed a September 11 mural across the way with bright stars and stripes and an eagle reminding us to “Never forget.”

There, I thought, that’s the place to eat pickled watermelon.

We stood proudly against the mural, imagining that we were welcoming summer a few weeks before Memorial Day. Somehow, this is as close as we would get to military service.

As I bit into the tip of the watermelon triangle, I enjoyed the mixture of sweet and pickle. The first bite tasted like watermelon with a vinegary salad dressing. I was into it and continued my way down to the rind. The rind is really the best part of this pickle. Generally, when eating watermelon you would ignore the rind, but here you savor every pickled bit. The rind is firm and crunchy yet full of flavor and refreshing, salty moisture. I found myself wanting to eat through the rind to the skin, but I stopped myself, as the pickled goodness had not permeated the protective layer of the melon. This watermelon is as tough as Bath Beach.

Standing on the corner, by the 9/11 mural, eating my pickled watermelon, I looked forward to more pickles, more murals, fireworks, chants of USA and more Bensonhurst treats.

Cherry Hill Market, 2278 86th Street at 23rd Avenue, (718) 373-4900.

Is there a restaurant or specific dish you think we should check out? Let us know!

The site of the former bank.

On  August 22, 1972 the normally quiet strip on Avenue P between Ocean Parkway and McDonald Avenue took center stage in a hot summer drama that is still remembered today.

John Wojtowicz and Sal Naturile attempted to rob a Chase Manhattan Bank on the corner of East 3rd Street and Avenue P. The robbery led to a hostage situation, a 12-hour standoff with police, and a ride to the airport that ended in Naturile’s death.

This story has been made famous by the Sidney Lumet film Dog Day Afternoon starring Al Pacino. The original Time Magazine article about the robbery, “The Boys in the Bank,” was the basis for the screenplay and can be found here.

Former bank teller and Vietnam Veteran Wotjowicz, portrayed in the film by Pacino, was motivated to rob the bank because he needed money for Ernest Aron’s (his boyfriend) sex change operation. For the crime, he served 20 years in prison.

This may be the most dramatic incident to ever take place on this small stretch of the avenue.

The intersection on Avenue P and East 3rd Street is now a quiet hub in the Orthodox Jewish community. It is a predominantly Syrian Jewish neighborhood bordering Gravesend.  Today, the area feels calm and somewhat empty with most of the residents having gone to the shore during the summer months.

450 Avenue P was most recently a medical center but is currently vacant. The sides of the building are covered in graffiti and the parking lot is full of weeds. Neighboring the now vacant building is a kosher sushi restaurant, a florist that is closed for the summer and a Middle Eastern grocery.

One longtime resident of the area, Claire Lesser of 1500 Ocean Parkway, remembers returning from work 40 years ago and not being able to take her regular route home.

“I normally got off the train and walked down Avenue P,” recalled Lesser. “But they had closed off the streets because of the commotion so I had to go up East 2nd and walk down Avenue O.”

Directly across the street from the former bank is Edward’s Hair Salon located at 455 Avenue P. Edward’s now caters to immigrants of Russian and Israeli decent. One of the oldest barbers in Edward’s is Sal Cannarella.

Sal Cannarella

Cannarella started working at the barber shop three months after the attempted robbery. He heard many stories from his co-workers at what was then called Dino’s Barber Shop. The FBI used Dino’s to stage their negotiations until Dino’s was ready to close for the night, then the FBI had to move to a different barber shop on the corner.

Cannarella recalled when Wotjowicz was released from prison, “he came with a Canadian camera crew, and went in the bank and asked to be security there.”

“The gay was in the car too,” he added, referring to Elizabeth Eden, Aron’s post-op girlfriend’s name and the muse of the robbery.

The barbers at Dino’s also played a prank on the bank when after the incident they sent in their shoe shine wearing a ski mask. The bank staff pushed the panic button and police once again flooded the avenue.

Cannarella recalled that many of the businesses have changed since the robbery.

He said, “There used to be a luncheonette, a butcher shop, a bakery and a fish store on the block, but they are all gone.”

Cannarella also mentioned that Frank’s Pizza, further down the block at 424 Avenue P was the pizza place that served the robbers and the hostages during the standoff.

When asked about the events on the block 40 years ago, Vito Cusumano, the new owner of Frank’s Pizza, simply replied, “It was a long time ago.”

The preserved plums at Wah Fung New York Mall

Food Stuffs is a new column examining the gastronomic landscape of Bensonhurst and the surrounding neighborhoods. Each entry will cover anything and everything even remotely related to food because here in Bensonhurst, food is always news.

Hidden in the quiet Asian Grocery stores of Bensonhurst are many treasures. Some are appetizing, some are intimidating and some are just funky. In the Wah Fung New York Mall at 2286 86th Street, among the dried coconut, 30 types of ginseng, withered mushrooms and cranky staff members are jars of colorful preserved plums. Could there be a better way to start a pickle column than with a rainbow of shapes, sizes, textures, flavors and types?

The preserved plum pickles have a bizarre taste that reminded this reviewer of a chemical mixture of cotton candy and frozen orange juice. The aftertaste recalls lollipops children are given in doctor’s offices after an injection: sweet and also, somehow, sad.

I was conservative and chose only the plums that were $3.80 a pound, and almost a week later I still have most of them. If you want to try these odd and intense plums – you can certainly do it on a budget.

I also sampled the preserved mandarin, which I enjoyed. It had the bitterness of citrus skin and the taste of lemon-scented pledge.

One darker preserved plumb was more expensive at $9.40 a pound. It looked more like a dried piece of steak than dried fruit. That plum was the most palatable, having the texture and aftertaste of licorice. Imagine a fine anise-flavored liquor injected into a Jujy Fruit.

If the neon plum parade is not reason enough to visit 86th Street, you should know that the staff in the mall were extra friendly. They refused to allow any photos of the plumbs, even after I purchased them. I also had to ask six times how to prepare the dried coconut – the one word answer – soup! But the Bean’s talented photographer was able to sneak a couple of shots, as if we were in the middle of a communist cell meeting or a Central American civil war circa 1980.

The staff also checked my plum bag to make sure I hadn’t taken the expensive plums. I will note the helpful assistance of the plum police after I struggled with the tight lid of a preserve jar and one strong staff member was able to pry it open without injuring me, the plums or himself.

I will say this, if you love pickles, if you love preserves, you should go and sample all of these strange fruits. It will help you grow some hair on your chest and give you some serious Bensonhurst street cred.

Until the next barrel.

Wah Fung New York Mall, 2286 86th Street.

Is there a restaurant or specific dish you think we should check out? Let us know!