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Archive for the 'Food & Nightlife' Category

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Lemon Grass Beef Rice Vermicelli

The latest eatery on 86th Street, Pho & Co, opened at the beginning of September. As promised when we wrote about it back in July, we stopped by for a bite.

The restaurant describes itself as a destination for “Vietnamese street food.” That kind of had me hoping for some extraordinary, exotic treats – like this rather grotesque squab porridge. But it turns out the menu is a slimmed down, somewhat Americanized version of what you’d find at other area Vietnamese restaurants – soups (pho), sandwiches (bahn mi), and meat-over-vermicelli dishes.

While some might consider a more limited menu to be a handicap, it’s actually quite liberating to not have to look over a hundred or so options and, in a spasm of indecision, order the same darn pho you always get. Here, you come specifically for the soups, sandwiches and noodles – no distractions.

One neat thing I noticed about the menu right away is several options of summer roll. Most Vietnamese restaurants serve these with shrimp only. The shrimp is steamed, chilled, and packed into a rice wrap with vermicelli, scallions and other veggies. At Pho & Co, other options include grilled chicken, B-B-Q pork, soft shell crab and tofu.

I went for the soft shell crab, but was disappointed to learn they were out. So I settled on the B-B-Q pork ($3.95). Once you choose traif, you don’t go back, pal.

summer-roll

B-B-Q Pork Summer Roll

Minutes passed, and the B-B-Q Pork Summer Rolls arrived. Having only had shrimp summer rolls, which are cold, I was surprised when the rolls came packing in hot meat. The pork was flavorful, if a bit charred, and neatly accentuated by bits of mint rolled into the vermicelli and lettuce. The accompanying peanut dipping sauce was much saltier than I’ve had at other places, but not overwhelmingly so.

I was struck by the relative sloppiness of the wrap itself. It was done a little too long and couldn’t support its own weight, and the wrinkled folds suggest someone who’s just getting the hang of it.

Since I was there on a hot day, I declined the pho and went for the Lemon Grass Beef Rice Vermicelli ($6.50) for my entree. The short version? The beef was dry and flavorless, the noodles clumpy and unevenly cooked, and they forgot the accompanying sauce (a heavenly concoction of sugar, water, fish sauce, and lime juice). The pickled carrots and cabbage that came with it were pretty spectacular, though.

So with an amateur’s hand putting together the summer roll, and lemon grass beef that had little hint of lemon grass, you’d think this an unkind review, right?

Wrong. I’m actually looking forward to Pho & Co upping its game because they have everything else they need to succeed. The staff was young, energetic, friendly and incredibly helpful. They were well aware they were just starting out, and no less than three people came by my table to ask for suggestions, feedback and recommendations – two of them more than once.

What they lack in experience, they make up for in drive, and I have faith that they’ll take that feedback and put it to use. It’s true, they need to work out the kinks in the kitchen, but they’re eager to learn – and I’ve seen restaurants achieve far more with a lot less than that.

As for me, I’ll be back in a month or two to try that soft shell crab summer roll. Because where else in Bensonhurst can you get that?

Pho & Co Vietnamese Street Food, 1927 86th Street, (718) 946-8686. 

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

Source: visualdensity/Flickr

School’s back in session, summer’s winding down and with that comes the mid-autumn festival, the second most important of Chinese holidays.

The mid-autumn festival falls on September 8 this year, when the moon is said to be at its fullest and brightest of the year. In Asian countries, festivities usually include moon-gazing and the creation of bright paper lanterns and decorations. It’s a period to give thanks for a bountiful harvest, and to celebrate family and unity.

An elaborate lantern display in Hong Kong during a recent mid-autumn festival (Source: doctorho/Flickr

Observed in Chinese and other Asian communities the whole world over, the 3,000-year-old holiday would be incomplete without the yolk-filled mooncakes.

The pastries can be found in elaborately decorated tins at Asian grocery stores. Many of these tins reflect famous characters of stories passed down from generation to generation, including the Moon Goddess. Folklore had it that she was a queen who escaped from a despotic emperor who was bent on taking an immortality pill and inflicting pain and suffering to those around him. She stole the pill and flew off to the moon to save the people from an unkind end and, the story goes, that the shadows on the moon belong to the Moon goddess.

Here are some of the interesting box cover designs:

mooncake

There are two different type of mooncakes: the traditional sweet pastry with a lard crust, lotus-seed paste and duck egg-yolk filling that’s favored by older customers. Then there’s ‘snowy mooncakes,’ gorgeous pastel-colored cakes that come in a variety of flavors and is supposed to be less fattening than its conventional counterpart. More chewy in texture, they have a green bean paste base and flavors include green tea, sesame, mango, pink guava and even blueberry jam.

Here’s a photo of the snowy-styled mooncakes:

mooncake2

Regardless of which style of mooncakes you prefer, these can be purchased locally in Asian bakeries or supermarkets. From informal surveying, I’ve noticed customers prefer to purchase their mooncakes at bakeries for freshness. For this reason, if you’re a last moment buyer, this might mean missing out on the popular flavored mooncakes as it runs out.

Being that the mid-autumn festival is family-oriented, tins of mooncakes are exchanged between family, friends and neighbors. For clients that you’re trying to impress, premium mooncakes can convey the full importance of relationships and connections that you’re trying to convey – so much so that mooncakes are included in China’s crackdown strategy against graft and corruption. Average prices of a box of mooncakes ranges from $25 to $35.

Typically four regular-sized mooncakes are contained in a decorative tin box. Mooncake flavors vary depending on the regions and style of preparation. There’s the ham and nuts version, which contains a mixture of sesame seed, walnuts, almonds, olive seeds and melon seeds. Background scenic photos of one’s hometown are sometimes reflected on the tin box itself, bringing a little flavor of home.

Buyers may also purchase single mooncakes and also miniature-sized mooncakes individually wrapped. Fruits such as the pomelo are an essential accompaniment to the mid-autumn festival as a way of balancing the sweet taste of mooncakes with the tart flavor of the fruit.

Where to get them? You can check any local Asian market or bakery. For fresh ones, we recommend Lily Bloom Bakery at 2220 86th Street (between Bay 31st Street and Bay Parkway). A box costs approximately $20; single mooncakes costs about $4.

Here’s to a happy moon-gazing and festive mid-autumn celebrations!

– Alina Tsui

lutzina2

Source: Lutzina

Lutzina Bar & Lounge, a posh new hookah lounge, karaoke bar, and dining venue is celebrating its one-month anniversary in Bath Beach this week.

Nesting at 2031 Bath Avenue, the lounge resembles a classy, contemporary page out of a Martha Stewart Home and Garden catalog.

Stepping in, you feel as though you’ve been whisked straight out of Bensonhurst. The pale-white ceiling above the bar resembles a cracked hard-boiled egg. The faux diamond chandeliers revive a 1920s speakeasy. The elegant white lilacs at the bar seal this entirely bizarre package with a bow and question where Lutzina came from and how long it’s planning to stay.

It sticks out in Bath Beach like a sore thumb. It’s an anomaly. It doesn’t fit in.

But that’s also part of its charm.

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cheese-baked-rice

Food Stuffs is a column exploring 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.

For those willing to explore it, the bustling Chinese restaurant scene on 86th Street beneath the D train offers a tour of numerous provincial cuisines and styles of cooking. It ain’t the old-school American-style take-out joints; there’s seafood restaurants, dumpling shops and bakeries, Cantonese twists and Fujianese turns. While not every province of China is represented, with its own unique set of flavors and traditions, there are plenty of options to check out.

Among them, H.K. Tea & Sushi at 2033 86th Street stands out. Serving up street foods from Hong Kong (alongside sushi and Japanese for the less adventurous), the extensive menu is loaded with items you won’t find on in many other local shops. And after a face-lift following a devastating 2010 fire set by an arsonist, the place has a very welcoming, modern interior.

While some say a “guide” is needed at ethnic restaurants to help explain dishes, I find it more exciting to just wander in with little-to-no knowledge and point at other people’s food.

There’s plenty of adventure to be found in doing that at H.K. Tea. You might end up with Fok Kin rice, or fried pig intestines. Or perhaps some pan-fried instant noodles with spam and egg, or something with ox tongue.

On my visit, though I spotted a dish I hadn’t tried before - a cheesy casserole thing that my waiter explained was “cheese baked rice.” I ordered one up, with Portuguese chicken.

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Source: Lioni Italian Heroes

Source: Lioni Italian Heroes

Two Bensonhurst delis are slinging some of the best sandwiches in Brooklyn, according to CBS News’ latest “Best of” list.

John’s Deli (2033 Stillwell Avenue) and Lioni’s (7803 15th Avenue) both made the cut in the unranked list of eight best sandwiches in Brooklyn.

John’s is singled out for their Godfather, a meat and cheese heavy hero that pops with color. But the ambiance gets a nod, too:

Walking into John’s Deli is a bit of a throwback – a narrow area to stand on line, signs that say things like “If you’re in a rush, you’re in the wrong place” – and a menu that has plenty of personality to fit right in.

Lioni’s, meanwhile, scores high for their fresh mozzarella and old world charm:

The sandwiches at Lioni are named after various Italian and Italian-American heroes, with Frank Sinatra at the top of the list: salami, fresh mozzarella, and a bit of seasoning (olive oil, salt, pepper, oregano). Have fun eating your way through the extensive herolist, or try your hand at creating your own combination – there’s no wrong way to put together a sandwich.

While Bensonhurst accounts for two of the eight spots – meaning the neighborhood sells one quarter of the borough’s best sandwiches, right? – eateries south of Prospect Park are well represented, with nods for eateries in Sheepshead Bay, Sunset Park and Bay Ridge.

Mama mia, what a pizza!

We were looking for someplace new to grab a slice last week, so we turned to our Facebook and Twitter readers to find out what they thought the best pizzerias in the area are. We asked that they put aside L&B Spumoni Gardens, figuring the tried-and-true neighborhood staple was too easy a fall back. What we got back was scores of comments naming 18 pie-tossing locales as among the area’s best.

See the list.

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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Source: Lioni Italian Heroes

Fan favorite and local deli Lioni’s Heroes (7803 15th Avenue) has decided to name a sandwich after Senator Martin Golden.

According to a Brooklyn News story, “The tribute was in celebration of Mr. Golden’s commitment to the community, the city and state.

“The Marty Golden” consists of breaded chicken cutlets, roasted red peppers, balsamic vinegar, olive oil, salt, pepper and Lioni’s homemade fresh mozzarella. How’s that for chewing your senator’s ear off? Wait, that might be a gross image.

Either way, it’s reported that Golden stopped by the eatery and enjoyed his namesake sandwich.

Screenshot from Vice’s video, showing Pinello serving a fresh white pie. Click to go to video.

In a new entry for Vice Magazine’s online show “Munchies,” Williamsburg “Best Pizza” owner and Bensonhurst native, Frank Pinello takes a tour of what he considers the best pizza shops in Bensonhurst on a nostalgic and delicious trip down memory lane.

The short film begins with Frank surrounded by his large and loving Italian family as they prepare to feast on his grandmother’s authentic Sicilian cooking which he cites as a major inspiration for his own pizza shop.

Action then shifts to Frank’s own “Best Pizza” in Williamsburg, a lively and fast growing hot spot for top notch pizza, made with fresh, high quality ingredients all cooked in a 100-year-old brick oven.

It is at this point when we meet Bill, Frank’s free-spirited, yet dedicated delivery man who joins Frank on his journey to Bensonhurst.  Both are determined to cram as much authentic Brooklyn pizza as possible, and they start at 6322 18th Avenue with J&V’s.

Frank lauds J&V’s square slice, for its “crispy bottom, a nice fluffy middle, [and] saucy, cheesy top to it.”

For round slices, Frank heads to 6514 18th Avenue for Da Vinci Pizzeria, which Frank describes as “Classic, these guys know how to do it right.” Bill giggles in approval.

For dessert, Frank and Bill head to 7001 18th Avenue for “Villa Bate Alba Bakery,” to pick up some world class espressos and cannoli. “Amazing,” is the response from a near speechless Frank.

Just when you think Frank and Bill have eaten themselves to death, they head back to Frank’s grandmother’s place for a huge Italian dinner featuring country style stuffed pizza, sausages, and Sicilian pasta.

Frank’s enthusiasm for cooking and food is best summed up by his father Steve.

“He loved to eat … he’d actually advice us on what spice to use every now and then, he’d put his own two cents in,” he said.

Correction (10/25/2012 @ 10:40 a.m.): The original version of this article incorrectly spelled Frank Pinello’s name as Pinelli. It has been corrected, and we offer our sincerest apologies to Pinello and our readers for the confusion.

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!

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