Monday, August 6, 2007

Kvetching about Markets

Most foodies talk about restaurants and cafes; most NY food guides focus on eateries, not markets. But Noshnews and Noshwalks - and my book, Nosh New York, puts emphasis on both. If anything, I prefer the markets because I get a close up look at many more ingredients than I can taste in one place... (and I can't tell you how much odd stuff clogs my shelves at home). The pictures shows Ariana Afghan market on Main Street in Flushing. Those dour merchants don't own it anymore, but I think they're photogenic in a kind of ironic way and I love this picture!

Anyway, just a few thoughts : Truly the best food markets are in the boroughs or far from central Manhattan. Yes, of course, Zabar's and Fairway and Whole Foods are great, and, yes, I go to all of them. But when I REALLY want interesting food, I'd rather go to Sunnyside or Elmhurst or Astoria or Flushing or Richmond Hill or Brighton Beach... and Belmont for great bread, cheese and pasta. I even like to go to El Pais on St. Nicholas and 184th Street for certain things, but it's a MESS inside.

Harlem has NO good markets. (Young Spring on West 125th Street just east of Malcolm X Boulevard is OK, and the Sea & Sea My favorite African market closed a few years ago (the best are in the Bronx), although you can find ingredients for African cuisine in the neighborhood. (But I noticed huge jars of Skippy peanut butter in one place, presumably used for the mafe - peanut butter stew).

Forgive me - a few exceptions: International Market on 9th Ave, & 40th St.; Pars Persian market on West 30th just east of 7th Avenue (north side of the street), Kalustyan on Lex between 29th and 30th... and I'm a big fan of West Side Supermarket, but especially enjoy its lower-cost Bronx counterpart known as Garden Gourmet, on Broadway and 234th Street.

Do I sound like I'm kvetching? Maybe it's just that in its vast and rapid gentrification, Harlem is welcoming too many generic places, and I far this will happen in other neighborhoods.


Short takes

Yesterday - August 5 - I concluded my summer Noshwalk season with a tour of Ridgewood, Queens. It's one of those neighborhoods that neither artists nor hipsters have discovered, and the reason, probably, is that it's physically intact. There are no sprawling industrial blocks of former factories waiting to be rehabilitated. There isn't a poor community in pre-war housing stock waiting for newcomers to "upgrade" them. (I'm thinking of the Grand Concourse here.) Instead, there are blocks and blocks of brownstone-type homes and later constructions, most no higher than three stories, and many in pristine condition. The residents seem to represent a wide cross-section of immigrants from Central and South America and the Caribbean; Eastern Europe (especially Poland); some Chinese; and older residents with German, Romanian, Slavic and Italian roots.

On Fresh Pond Road we went to Catania Bakery and on the way passed the new Pharaoh Cafe, an Egyptian place. Are Egyptians among the newer-comers to Ridgewood?

An old diner on Myrtle Avenue has been converted to the very animated Monta's Restaurant (54-55 Myrtle), evidently the property oif a baseball-obsessed owner. Parrot Market at 58-22 Myrtle has food from all over the place; its owners are Bulgarian, and they have delicious fresh bureks and spinach pies as well as packaged goods. We got a wonderful Romanian sheep cheese there. Monreale Italian bakery had gelato for just $1.25 for one scoop and $2.25 for two. In Manhattan you'd pay at least twice that, and I don't know if they'd be as good.

Our last stop, by the way,was Bosna Express, one of two Bosnian eateries. We got a delicious lamb kebab. The chef was Mexican. The photos shows a few Noshwalks loving their kebabs!

In Astoria a couple of weeks ago, we stopped at a San Antonio #2, a Chilean bakery at 36-20 Astoria Boulevard. (#1 is in Valley Stream.) I've included it on my Astoria tour for years, but usually by the time we get there, towards the end, we've eaten so much that there's little space for anything else. I was happily surprised to see that the owners had renovated the exterior to make it much more attractive to visitors, creating a showcase of the empanadas and dulce de leche filled pastries that they make. But their specialty is actually a Chilean hotdog, with a topping combining guacamole and other flavors. At $3.50 it seems pricey, but it's very rich and we cut a couple of them into pieces to share tastes. The owners were very friendly and it's worth a visit!


Seen in Harlem: A Taste of Seafood on the southeast corner of Madison Avenue and 125th Street (50 E. 125th St.) continues to draw lines of customers in search of its fried fish dishes. About two or three months ago I saw that they're getting ready to move across the street to 59 E. 125th - a new facade and, I think, 2 floors. Interesting food-related developments have taken place on this stretch: Wimp's Bakery also moved into spiffy quarters with an extra floor (and a hot buffet in addition to their traditional baked goods); Manna's, which already has a soul food buffet place on the northeast corner of Madison and 125th, opened an outpost nearby on the south side closer to Malcolm X Boulevard. Charles' Southern Fried Chicken, whose main place is on Frederick Douglass Boulevard near 150th Street, has rented a portion of A Slice of Harlem, on Malcolm X BOulevard just north of 125th Street. Mo'Bay, an upscale seafood place, has been around for a while.

Gee - is it just a coincidence that Bill Clinton's NYC office is in the midst of all this, in the Carver Bank Building at 75 W. 125th St.? (And I wonder if his foundation, of the Upper Manhattan Empowerment Zone, have anything to do with all this.)


Borough Park always surprises me. Going in the summer usually means it's a lot slower - so many people are away. But the Zion Market, which has moved to a new, larger location on 13th Avenue between 38th and 39th Streets, is always busy. To my knowledge, it's the only Jewish Yemeni market in NYC. The space is about twice as large as the old one, and it felt oddly airy. I suspect that whatever law of physics it is (can't remember the name!) that says you'lol fioll out whatever space you have, or something like that, will apply in the case of this market: it will once again be very crowded. Best purchases there are their breads: a roti-like grilled bread and the "lachloof" (my spelling), which it the name of their injera-like Yemeni bread. The eggplant dip has a delicious smoky taste. I always love shopping there, and in this market, unlike most other in the neighborhood, people are very chatty with recommendations and encouragement. I was with a small family group on a tour, and we had a spontaneous "picnic" with our "finds" there in front of the store, where there was a flat surface that we turned into a table. Various customers - some clearly quite religious - either wished us a good meal or suggested something else that we may have missed.

Later in the day, when my clients had left, I wandered around on my own. Found a Salvadoran restaurant on 14th Avenue around 40th Street and a Hungarian eatery on 13th Avenue at 55th or 56th Street. It's more like a small diner that also has Hungarian dishes (not kosher), but since most Hungarian places I'm aware of have closed, this was a surprising find. I didn't have time to linger, but it's one of those places I mean to get back to. There are quite a few Polish markets and some Polish restaurants on the outskirts of the Jewish hub of Borough Park. I believe that many employees of the local markets are Polish.

I also noticed a large restaurant on 13th Ave. called Uzbekistan, near 42nd Street on the east side of 13th Ave.. Chances are it's been there for a long time, but the sign looked brand new. There has been a presence of Bukharan Jews in Borough Park for a while, including a run-down market and an unappealing kosher gyro place called Samarkand, on the west side of 13th Ave.. I take folks to the Tandoor Bakery on 48th Street between 13th and 14th Aves. One fellow in my group spoke Russian and convinced the owner to let him (and us) go to the back of the bakery to see the fresh bread being baked. A treat! Later the owner told me that the Bukharan synagogue in Borough Park is on 41st Street just east of 13th Avenue. It's really two attached houses serving as the synagogue, but I will be interested in seeing if they build a completely new structure at some point.

My point? That Borough Park, both in terms of its Jewish community and non-Jews, is more diverse than many people think.


More to come...

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Whither Harlem? (Observations on West African food)

Mor Thiane owns Keur Mamma Diallo, a wonderful, humble Senegalese restaurant (listed below) on Frederick Douglass Boulevard. It's one of those gentle gems, not showy but welcoming and delicious - that, I fear, is being obscured by some of the newer, more upscale places making their way into Harlem.

In some ways, Harlem is simply changing too fast. A few of my thoughts about Harlem follow below...

One of my two favorite restuarants in Harlem, Sokobolie, at 2523 Frederick Douglass Boulevard just north of 135th Street, is in the throes of change. Guinean owner Lariou Diallo, who opened his first place about 14 years ago (I'm not sure it was at this location then) has created a very popular venue with his West African buffet - the only one I know of in Manhattan. There I've had amazing oatters of peanut stew, okra stew, cassava leaf stew, with various combinatons of goat, lamb and beef. There are different types of rice and some couscous - long grained and short grained rices all prepared in different, delicious ways. I usually get a home-made, sinus-clearing ginger beer with my meals and have taken several tour groups there. It's the type of place I used to pass by many times - the exterior is entirely uninviting - until one day, a few years ago, I just decided to look inside and found a warm welcome.

Well, I've also been worrying about Sokobolie, because it's in a two-story building in an area of Harlem where new condos and fancy, upmarket rehabs are becoming the norm. Lo and behold, a few months back I noticed a new canopy across the street announcing the imminent arrival of "Baraka," featuring an African buffet. New competition, I wondered? But I hadn't noticed the small print: "The old Sokobolee" - yes, with a different spelling.

Then, in early June, Dario Diallo, Lario's sister, told em that the grand opening would be taking place on a Sunday evening when the prime minister from Guinea was in town. So I headed over for the event. Although I'd been told the ribbon-cutting would take place some time "after 7 PM," I wasn't expecting it to be at 9:45 PM, but so it was. By then, men and women - the women in gorgeous African gowns and headscarves - were packing the front of the restaurant and spilling into the street, which had been closed off for this event. (Fortunately, it was a comfortable summer evening.) The prime minister, Lansana Kouyate, wore a white tunic and a white fez-like hat. He cut the ribbon and an elite group of people crowded into the new restaurant, which was full of food. Being an "onlooker" and non-invitee, I went to the local deli, bought a vanilla "Coke Zero" and headed home.

Aliou had mentioned that he hired a Dominican chef to add Caribbean dishes to the new place, so that, effectively, this would be New YOrk City's first African-Dominican restaurant. It was larger than the original, and gorgeous. I couldn't wait to take folks there.

Two weeks later, I was leading a custom tour through the neighborhood, planning on ending at the new Sokobolie/Baraka. Alas, it was closed, but the old one was still open. Dariou was there, looking sad. "We still need to pass some inspections," she said, and couldn't give me an opening date.

Oh well.

I had a great meal recently at Keur Mamma Diarra at 2491 FDB (128th St). It's a 7-year-old Senegalese place that Mor Thiane has run for about 2 years. I had a peanut butter stew with lamb and basmati rice, so delicious I practically drank it. I also like to buy the thiakry there - it's either a breakfast or dessert, made with couscous, sour cream, and fruit. I presume a critical amount of sugar is added because it's quite sweet, and I'm not sure the sweetness comes only from the fruit! A nice feature of this place is the free coffee, and it is STRONG - just what I needed last time I visited. Thiane is a wonderful, welcoming man, who is pleased that more "white people," as he bluntly put it, are interested in his food. He already apparently is doing well, but is happy to benefit from increased Harlem tourism!

Tuesday, July 3, 2007

Kosher crossovers?

To what extent are bagels and challah becoming universal foods? Just another, well, food for thought here...

A Dominican bakery on Broadway near 228th Street in Marble Hill has "rogalitos" - rugelach.

A Colombian bakery on 37th Avenue in Jackson Heights sells "pan de challah."

A Mexican market on Roosevelt Avenue has, in neon, the words "tamales, tacos, bagels."

A trend?

Next time I'll get pictures!

Friday, June 1, 2007

Staten Island and some comments about Harlem

On Saturday, May 19, I went back to Staten Island for the first time in a year to lead a tour; I'm embarrased to say that I hadn't had time to prescout it, as I often do of places I haven't been to in a while, so I was curious to see what might have changed.
(The photo on the right shows the owner of Laxmi's Restaurant, which serves Sri Lankan food.)

In this corner of Staten Island, though, much was the same. The tour covers a short stretch of Victory Boulevard from its base at Bay Street almost to the top of the hill where it reaches Silver Lake Park. The boulevard itself spans the island, and I have to imagine that a ride along the entire route of the X61 bus would show me the spectrum of neighborhoods in Staten Island. frm immigrant and working class, to some of the townhouse developments now scattered throughout the island, to the older, more settled and affluent communities that are harder to reach.

This stretch winds through an area of low, old 2-story buildings at the base (it's walkable from the ferry, although we take the bus uphill to the beginning of Silver Lake Park and then proceed downhill to do the tour) and then passes some fascinating Victorian style houses as we ascend. Just before we reach Silver Lake Park, the houses begin to become more modern, more affluent. We usually stay on the bus a stop after the actual beginning of the park: it is a beautiful stretch of greenery, and from our vantage point, we are actually on a sort of bluff looking into a beautiful green valley. So much of Staten Island consists of vast, lovely parks!

Anyway, once we reach that point and start walking back, our experience begins. The neighborhoods are compact and eclectic, the buildings a throwback to the 1950s, and at this point, Victory Boulevard is clearly geographically, or geologically, too difficult to develop with the type of townhouse clusters that mark so much of Staten Island. There are quite a few old wooden homes, some built into steep bluffs, that would pose a challenge to any architect trying to develop housing with significantly more dwelling units - and that may be one reason why there isn't much here now.

At the intersection with Cebra Avenue, we come to a small cluster of Albanian and Sri Lankan shops and eateries - perhaps two of the oddest pairs of ethnic groups in one site. We go to Lanka Market to buy spices and Sri Lankan "spice coffee" (packaged, not fresh), which is a mixture of coffee with coriander and ginger. Don't try it plain - it clearly needs to be combined with sweetened condensed milk, and then you have a beverage of an almost ethereal flavor. You can also buy Mexican products here, so that Mexican chiles have their own section amidst the Asian curries.

Emil's market across the street, which used to be on the corner, has taken a larger space next door. It's an Albanian market selling products from the entire Balkan region, but its main attraction for locals is the halal meat market in the back. They smoke their own meat, so we were able to taste some of it, and it had a deep rich flavor - Albanian jerky!

Although the photo above shows the Sri Lankan restaurant Laxmi's on Cebra Avenue, our group that day had lunch at New Asha Restaurant, a small, simple place with a handful for tables. I asked the owner to put together a platter of different dishes for us, and the food - various curries, dals and spicy vegetarian dishes - were scrumptious. I "chased" it with a bottle of Thai basil seed drink. I've had Sri Lankan ginger beer, which is so-so. The most unusual dish for us was curried jackfruit. The blend of flavors and textures was wonderful - we used the roti bread to create wraps.

The photo below shows a chef handing me a delicious quesadilla... Besides me the other customers were Mexicans, and I knew I was getting something truly authentic!

We were too full to go to Rey's (not Ray's) Pizza across the street for a burek. Rey's is Albanian-owned. Two years ago there was a burek shop across the street, but Rey's had been around longer and I guess the clientele was more loyal, so the burke place closed and people buy their bureks there. Nearby we visited the Albanian Islamic Cultural Center and saw the prayer room. Two years ago, with a large group, we were given a quick tour. We were a smallish group (6 of us) on a rainy day, so we took ourselves inside.

We continued downhill, where we came to Fernandez Grocery to have some of the best tamales I've ever had. I confess that I don't even know all the types we had. I just pointed and asked for one of each, and they ranged from very spicy to almost sweet.

A few storefronts away we came to the Africa Homeland Store, a Ghanaian market that caters to a small West African community in Staten Island. I'm aware that many Liberians have made their home here and was told that further down on Bay Street, towards the Alice Austen House, I'd find a Liberian restaurant. That's for another day.

West Indian food can be found near the base of Victory Boulevard, including delicious wraps at Island Roti, being prepared in the photo!

Saturday, May 12, 2007

The multiple personalities of Sunset Park

This picture shows my very first tour group in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, all the way back in 2000, during my first tour season! I guess I was on to something....

And today I led the Sunset Park tour again, lucky to have the type of idyllic spring weather that sometimes blesses us in May! I had 10 heimische folks, including several members of a family from Montana. (They found me on the Internet.) They ooh'ed and ah'ed at all the exotica we saw on Eighth Avenue, the heart of Chinese Sunset Park. It was busy indeed, but nothing co,pared to the frantic crowds of the Chinatowns of Flushing and Manhattan - much more manageable for folks from out of town. It doesn't seem to have grown so much in the past year. In fact, the most significant change to me was that the old Edward Halvorsen Funeral Home near 53rd Street is now a Chinese funeral home, so the last vestige of the Norwegians of Sunset Park is all but gone. The changeover seems very recent: the canopy had just been covered with Chinese characters, but a plaque from the earlier home is still up. I wonder whether that will stay.

Just before we started, I ran into Hong Kong Supermarket and bought a package of chopsticks that people can keep. Then we bought some noodles at a sidewalk stand - chow fun with pork and beef. It was a tasty and spicy start. The Montanans were practicing holding the chopsticks and an elderly Chinese woman stood by watching us and smiling. We asked her to help, and she obliged. (Ach, no camera today!) It was a lovely moment, though.

As always, we visited the Birlik Market near 59th Street. That whole block of stores (and a restaurant around the corner) is owned by Turks, but I don't know if it's one family or an investment consortium. The building also houses a mosque, which opened in 1980. The folks there have always been friendly and have welcomed us inside - we've been allowed to visit the huge prayer area as well. It's spectacular, with original tiles from Turkey, a plush new carpet and a space that is truly mystical and sacred. Today I noticed that the balcony area, where women sit, had two flat-screen TVs on either end. This same space was once an Irish-Norwegian dance hall, I learned during a previous visit. (I always take my Sunset Park tours to see the mosque.) Sometimes I try to imagine the neighborhoods in their earlier incarnations, and I tried to picture the couples coming here to dance in the 1950s. It's somewhat easier in Sunset Park to have these reveries than in other neighborhoods because the architecture hasn't changed much, even if the retail facades have.

At 48th Street, we made our usual turn-off to see a house whose Guatemalan owner has a installed a wonderful birdhouse that he constantly rebuilds and remodels. It's quite large and is set at eye-level beside the stoop. One year I knocked on the door and he answered and explained that he uses architectural catalogs for inspiration and remodels the house each year. One year it even had its own satellite dish and a miniature birdhouse. This year it looked more like a split-level Levittown house - not satellite dish - but lots of miniature dogs and cats walking around it. (Wait - did Levittown have split-level houses, or did that come later?) I wonder if any birds actually use the birdhouse, or are the common charges too high?

Sunset Park itself is more beautiful than ever. I noticed a lot more gardening within the park, including, now, a small Chinese-inspired garden, with a miniature bridge and pagoda that reminds me of Suzhou, where my daughter was born. The day was crystal-clear, and the bview of the Harbor and Manhattan was spectacular. I still remember being able to see the Twin Towers from this location, and a photo I took for Issue #2 of NoshNews (1999) has an image of the towers in it. We had a picnic of dishes we bought at Nyonya, a Malaysian restaurant on 8th Ave. and 54th St. It's been there for years, and is dependable and reasonable. We'd bought beverages from Podlasie, one of two Polish markets on 8th Ave.

After the picnic, we visited Gran Via Bakery on 5th Ave. near 46th St.. It's noisy and friendly and always crowded. One man helped translate our orders without being asked. Others were curious about who we were. The owner's daughter, who manages it now, remembered me from two or three years ago, when I visited with another group, including Davia Nelson of the Kitchen Sisters. They were celebrating their 25th anniversary at the time and serving free cake on the sidewalk. I got two Gran Via T-shirts which I wear from time to time. You can get a strong shot of espresso for just 75 Cents or a "cortadito" - a small cafe con leche - for 85 cents. I'm temporarily swearing off pastries and other sweets (trying to lose weight slowly for my daughter's Bat Mitzvah in December 2008), but the folks on my tour indulged in flan, bread pudding, guava pastries and other wonderful goodies. I learned that the owner (whose name I plan to get next time) also owns the building the bakery occupies, so tenancy is not a problem. But Gran Via needs more space: It's the type of place where folks should be able to sit down, but I bet if the doubled the space, they'd just have double the customers and be as busy as ever. The daughter told me that the tenants on either side of the bakery (which occupy two different, small buildings) don't want to move because this section of Fifth Avenue is very desirable. At the corner, Pollo Compero (or something like that), a Guatemalan chicken chain, lasted less than a year - they couldn't pay the rent. But Tacos Matamoros, which used to be across the street, has moved into a larger, more attractive space. (But watch out: the woman at Gran Via says that the new space is "jinxed" - no one seems to be able to last there! We'll see.)

I regret that my Sunset Park tour just touches on the Latin American area of Sunset Park, so I'm going to return and explore Fifth Avenue some more - and Fourth and Sixth - and consider creating a Sunset Park tour that will focus just on that area, just as I've split my Astoria and Jackson Heights tours into two sections. I would start up at 60th Street, as I do with the current tour, and include Generoso's Italian bakery (yummy pignoli cookies) and the possibly a visit to the church on 6th Avenue, and we would weave our way through the stores and have a Mexican/Peruvian/Ecuadorian picnic in the park. What fun!

Thursday, May 3, 2007

Back to Belmont

I love shopping in Belmont, Bronx, (aka "Little Italy of the Bronx" or simply "Arthur Avenue") and have recently begun going there from time to time during the week late in the afternoon. I like to stop in at Joe's Deli on East 187th Street, where his son, Nick, who says he was "born" in the store (or at least raised there) is always extra helpful. Those quiet afternoons are a wonderful time to shop: You don't get the hectic energy of the weekend crowds, and you do have the delightful opportunity to buy what you want at Teitel's, or anywhere else, for that matter, without waiting on line.

Terranova Bakery sells its bread at a discount late in the day, which is nice to know, but Madonia doesn't, at least during the week. About 10 years ago, I had taken my daughter to the Bronx Zoo (she was in a stroller then), and we then headed to Belmont. It was a Saturday, also around 5 PM. Madonia was selling off a lot of its bread for half-price, so I indulged!

It seems like more cafes and delis are opening in Belmont, including a new Bistro owned by Roberto Paciello, who operates the famous Roberto's on Crescent Street (actually, it hasn't quite opened yet, but will soon), and Umberto's Clam House has already opened an outpost here. I wonder whether more of Manhattan's Little Italy places (not that there are too many left...) will similarly come to the Bronx.

But what is utterly striking is that you don't have to stray far from the immediate neighborhood to see how Belmont is almost an "alien presence" in the Bronx. I know my way around the many buses to Belmont and I sometimes like to take a different side street either to Fordham Road or Southern Boulevard when I'm heading home. It's one of those New York experiences: turn the corner and you're in a different neighborhood. It's almost eerie, but it underscores the extent to which Belmont is NOT residentially Italian at all (with a few older hangers-on; but even many of the older proprietors now live in Westchester, Long Island, or further north in the Bronx).

At one time Belmont's Italian center was considered fragile. The Bronx was in decline; neighborhoods were not safe; mass transit was unpleasant; the retail market was not fully occupied and not in good shape. Things began to change in the early 80s when community developers and business owners decided to go all out and make Belmont a destination, and they have succeeded wildly: the market was renovated (but still has a somewhat seedy air), and folks crowd in on the weekend. (It helps that Fordham University is across the street...). And the gourmet craze has helped enormously.

But this afternoon, as the stores closed and the "real" Belmont emerged, I wondered whether it is in fact a fragile neighborhood. The surrounding housing is nothing to shout about, unlike some neighborhoods (take almost all of Harelm for example!) that have beautiful housing stock.

So I shopped, schmoozed with a few market owners I know, and had a delicious slice of eggplant pizza at Giovanni's (whose owner is Albanian, like many places in Belmont).

(Here's a photo of the owner of Giovanni's - George - making a pizza.)

I bought two big cartons of strawberries for $1 each - wow - cannoli shells and cannoli cream at Egidio's, and mozzarella at Joe's Deli, which has become a favorite place ever since I got to know Nick, Joe's son, who's just a great guy. (He let me watch the mozzarella being prepared.) Of course I went to Borgatti's and got some fresh ravioli for my daughter. Then I turned the corner and was back in "the Bronx" and headed for the bus (actually two buses and a subway) to get home.

Monday, April 30, 2007

Reflections on overgrowth...

In the past couple of weeks I've led tours in Woodside, Queens; Borough Park and Brighton Beach, Brooklyn; the western Bronx (Morris Heights - West African, Mexican, Dominican); Irish Woodlawn; and a section of Astoria that tourists don't generally get to. My heart was broken in Brighton Beach to see that some of the old bungalows are being knocked down and replaced with hideous apartment buildings that not only ruin the visual context of the area but also erase its history and tradition. The architecture doesn't even try to blend in. Within a few years, I suppose more of the blocks between Neptune Avenue and Brighton Beach Avenue will be similarly transformed. So it goes throughout many neighborhoods like this.

Anyway, foodwise here are a few observations:

Mrs. Stahl's Knishes closed a couple of years ago after failed attempts to revive it, but, alas, the location is now a Subway fast food outlet. Yuch. But, truthfully, I never found the knishes especially good, particularly when they were over microwaved. (Does anyone have information on the original Mrs. Stahl?) But I had really good kebabs next door at Eastern Feast, an Uzbek place. I had thought Eastern Feast was Muslim-owned and served a halal menu, but this time I saw pork listed and the owner said his customers want pork, so he serves pork.
Eastern Feast served great kebabs for years, but I gather the high rentals this neighborhood now commands forced it out. Alas, the next-door replacement for Mrs. Stahl's is a Subway fast-food franchise.

Gourmet Plaza, the market at Brighton Beach Avenue and Coney Island Avenue across the street from the Washington Mutual Bank, has transformed yet again since I was there last summer. They've absorbed a produce market on the corner and now occupy almost all the retail space. It's ramped, has more cash registers, and is a much better shopping experience because a lot more of it is self-serve and you can get in and out faster. (I found Lionni's mozzarella cheese for $3.99/lb. - about half its price most other places.) Interestingly, M&I International on Brighton Beach Ave. by Brighton 2nd Street, remains packed with folks willing to wait on line for their favorites... no self-serve here. I remember over 20 years ago when M&I occupied 1/3 of the space they have no - no upstairs, no sit-down cafe, no outdoor patio. It's wonderful to see how it's grown, and the owner, Sophia Vinokur, has been very kind to me when I've brought groups there. She is a plain-looking, unassuming woman - and brilliant. Her operation also owns the National Night Club one block over.

The owners of Cafe Gleichik on Coney Island Avenue just off Brighton Beach Avenue opened their restaurant within months of arriving in the US, and quickly turned a profit. It's always busy, with really great food. I sometimes wonder at how much Russians can take in, when I see the crowds in the restaurants and markets!

My one M&I story: In the 1980s, I was leading Hungry Pedalers Gourmet Bicycle Tours to Brighton Beach, and one year I'd seen a tea cannister of "Royal Wedding Tea" with images of newlyweds Princess Di and Prince Charles. I'm not a huge tea drinker and didn't buy it, but had second thoughts when I visited the next year. Alas, there was none. I asked the counterwoman if they had it somewhere, and she looked at me and shrugged. Her response: "No vedding, no tea!"

What will happen with Coney Island in the next few years as a new developer has "plans" for condos and hotels? Actually, I'd love to see Bed & Breakfasts in Brighton Beach; not so sure I'd want to stay overnight at Coney Island, though! It would be cool to hop on the Q train, have a great meal (shrimp kebabs and pilaf would be just fine!), stroll on the boardwalk, and then plop down in a cute little room overlooking the ocean and then have breakfast there the next morning. I've been to Brighton Beach early on a Sunday when it's quiet and utterly gorgeous.

Oh yes - Melrose Caterers, the last kosher market on Brighton Beach Avenue, has closed! So it goes with the old Jewish community of Brighton Beach. Of course, there are plenty of synagogues in the area still, but I believe the congregations are aging, and it will be interesting to see what happens in the next few years... Will the beachfront apartments start to attract a new wave of yuppies with kids???

...and speaking of new waves, this last visit was the first time that I can say something good about the Oceana Condominiums that replaced the old Brighton Baths about a decade or so ago. (The baths themselves had been closed for years, and developers had to overcome litigation to build.) For a long time, I felt that the buildings were hostile to the community, gated in and facing away from the avenue. But now the "back yards" of the condominia have opened as public green spaces, and they're attractive and popular. It was refreshing to see people of many generations enjoying the space, and it positively complemented the activity on the avenue. Meanwhile, my favorite building in all of NYC (and I'm NOT prone to exaggerating!) is an Art Deco place next to Oceana, with the most beautiful facade and a gorgeous lobby that someone is clearly taking care of with great love. If it weren't 1:53 AM I'd go to my AIA guide immediately to see if it's there, or, at least, give the address.

Borough Park now has a Starbucks-like (kosher, of course) cafe-restaurant called Spoons on 50th St. & 13th Avenue. Zion Deli, the Yemeni market I love, has moved to 38th St. and 13th Ave. I was leading a custom group on Sunday and couldn't get to the new location, alas. I hope it's bigger - it's one of my favorite places in the neighborhood but has always been crowded, with aisles made for skinny people. (Fortunately, though I'm not skinny, I can negotiate the store with no problem.) The new address is two blocks further away from the Yemeni synagogue on 44th St. and 12th Ave.

BTW, we noticed that the branches of a small tree in front of an apartment building on 48th Street were full of dozens of pacifiers - a "binky tree," as a neighborhood woman told us. She said these were binkies that had been found on the street, and I guess one binky led to another. It was original and colorful. I took a picture and should certainly add it to this blog. (I'm still new to blogging...) The branches had little buds and I suppose the binkies will be hidden by the leaves in another couple of weeks. But I guess this is the Chassidic counterpart to Christmas ornaments.

Speaking of Borough Park (but not of food just now), I took a double-take when I realized that the beautiful Temple Beth-El on 14th Avenue had been demolished by its new owners - a Chassidic group (I don't know what sect) who replaced it with a more modern structure. Actually, this change was brought to my attention by a local guy; I had realized something seemed "wrong" in my orientation as I took folks around. The earlier temple was a classic 1920s structure, and I knew that it had been sold, because Borough Park no longer has a Conservative Jewish community, and even the modern Orthodox shuls have dwindling, aging memberships and are being replaced by Chassidic communities. But this was somewhat shocking - that an entire particular Jewish heritage was erase. Ironically, the tiny Borough Park Progressive congregation on 46th Street manages to hold on somehow; the average member's age is something like 75, but I gather survival has to do with merging with a similar congregation in Flatbush, and they chose to come to Borough Park.

Gotta go...

Sunday, April 15, 2007

What will happen...

... to some of my favorite neighborhoods as new development takes over?

I'm worried about the direction of areas of Harlem, Greenpoint, the Lower East Side and so much of the Lower East Side as impersonal upscale buildings erase the areas' traditions and sensibilities. I don't lead a 9th Avenue tour anymore for that reason. My last visit to the Lower East Side was jarring, as I saw various new glass condos interrupting the traditional skyline.

Places like Russ & Daughters will retain their character and survive, even with soaring real estate prices (and the imminent arrival of a gigantic Whole Foods store a few blocks away...) because the Federman family had the foresight to buy the building they occupy - and stay abreast of the times, drawing on the Internet to market their great stuff and updating their offerings to accommodate a more diverse customer base. (I love caviar cream cheese, but I doubt Grandma Russ was peddling that back in 1913...)

I've seen this evolution, too, in some of the markets I visit elsewhere in NYC. at Balady, a wonderful Palestinian market on 5th Avenue in Bay Ridge, not only beautifully expanded their store to include a wide range of gift items, but also sells cookbooks featuring Middle Eastern and North African cuisine. Think about it: Balady's traditional Bay Ridge customers , coming from Lebanon, Egypt, Morroco and elsewhere in that region of the world, don't need cookbooks, so who is Balady reaching out to? Folks like those who come on my NoshWalks!

Yesterday I led a walking tour in Woodside, Queens. We stumbled on a flea market at a Korean Church, where the ladies were also selling Korean snacks. They beckoned us to the church kitchen, where they were preparing omelets with all sorts of wonderful spices and big chunks of onion. "Korean pizza!" they said! It was delicious. We also stumbled on the aftermath of a wedding a St. Sebastian's Church, as the wedding party exited to post for pictures.. My guess is that the family were Ecuadorean. Someone who joined previous Woodside tour told me that St. Sebastian's used to be a movie theater, and if you look at the building, the frong section appears to have been added on, and, indeed, it was a theater.

This part of Woodside isn't likely to change much because of geography: the odd angles of Roosevelt Avenue here make major development impossible, and the stretch from 52nd to 69th Streets is dotted with small markets, bakeries, pubs and cafes.

Oh yes - we noticed a new Venezuelan place, too, but actually not really new: Krystal's Cafe Venezolano existed in a different location, and at about one-third the size, some four years ago. It's run by the same owners of Krystal's Filipino bakery-restaurant. I remember it as a grim and unpleasant place, and it wasn't open yesterday. On the other hand, I like Krystal's restaurant a lot, and we often conclude ou tour there with savory sticks of barbecue chicken, which cost $1.50 each - a bargain!


Monday, April 2, 2007

Odds & ends...

Manna's, the soul food buffet place with three long-time outlets in Harlem and one in Brooklyn, has just opened another on 125th Street between Lenox Ave. (Malcolm X Blvd.) and Fifth Ave. Is it a coincidence that it's across the street from the office building where Bill Clinton sometimes hangs out? I love their collards cooked with turkey. Interestingly, Manna's was founded by a Korean family - the Parks. I don't know if it started as a produce market or was always a salad bar. Evelyn Park (who I met once - she also owns Pier 2112, a restaurant on Adam Clayton Powell Blvd. just north of 125th St.) is very smart and has hired wonderful cooks for Manna's' branches.

I made reference to my favorite African restaurant in an earlier post but didn't name it. It's Sokobolie on Frederick Douglass Blvd. - west side of the street - just north of 135th St. If you didn't already know about it, you'd probably just walk by. It's the only self-service African restaurant I know, and its stews are amazing. Just GO there and let me know what you think! They often also have home made ginger beer, guaranteed to clear sinuses, even if they're not stuffed! The food is priced by weight, which makes a lot of sense. The people there are great.

In my own neighborhood of Washington Heights, a new Argentinian parrilla, Don Ricardo, has opened on Broadway and 190th Street. I wonder what this area will look like in five years - the owner's wife has her own great place, a sit-down bakery called Dona Carmen, where she also now has a liquor license. It's a half-block north of Don Ricardo and across the street from a former gas station that has closed. Rumor has it that condos will be built there.

Belmont, Bronx - Little Italy - is becoming ever more crowded as even more cafes and restaurants open in the compact stretches of 187th Street and Arthur Ave. Best time to come is during the week, when the tourists aren't there. It's still great for shopping. I used to avoid the Modern Foods supermarket on Arthur Ave. because, well, it looked too much like a supermarket. But it has a lot of the Italian imports you'll find in the Arthur Ave. retail market (indoor stalls dating to the LaGuardia era) but often for much less. For instance, liter-sized bottles of Manhattan Special, the fabulous espresso soda from Brooklyn (the name is for Manhattan Avenue in Williamsburg, where the Passaro family started the company about 100 years ago, I think) are $2.49 - a tiny 10 oz. bottle in the Retail market is $1.50.

Quinoa - selling for high prices in health food stores - is just $1.59 in El Pais, a supermarket on St. Nicholas Ave. at 183rd Street. I've become a recent quinoa convert and will be making a quinoa dish for Passover tomorrow night after making sure that quinoa (which appears to be a seed related to a type of spinach plant) is kosher for Passover. I also saw quinoa for sale last week at Sunflower Market, a Persian-Jewish market on Queens Boulevard in Rego Park!

More to come soon!

Sunday, April 1, 2007

Handing down food traditions

Yesterday I led a NoshWalk in Bay Ridge, a neighborhood I really love. It's one of the few that's not being corrupted (yet) by any of the intrusive type sof developments that are ruining neighborhoods elsewhere, including the Lower East Side and Hell's Kitchen. I'm afraid that Greenpoint will be another casualty at some point. Areas of Harlem are being so rapidly gentrified, with small businesses replaced by Duane Reades and Chase Banks that they are losing their flavor (literally!). I'm thinking in particular of stretches of Frederick Douglass Boulevard, where new luxury buildings are making the neighborhood look like other areas of Manhattan - just as mediocre and anonymous! I realized recently that my favorite African restaurant is in a two-story building that coulde be very vulnerable... and I wonder where the owners would go if they lost that property.

Anyway, I noticed something interesting in Bay Ridge that I've been tracking elsewhere. Many of the local merchants on Fifth Avenue are Lebanese or other Middle EaStern and this is the case increasingly on Third Avenue, too. I like Cangiano's Italian Market on Third near Ovington Street very much, and I always love taking people to the back of the market, where the baking takes place. Cangiano's makes some really great bread and it's very, very cheap. Well, the baker was getting ready to go home; it was 3 PM and he'd been up since 5 AM. We bought a delicious prosciutto bread, which was $1.99, and I'm not talking about a roll but the size of a full-length Italian loaf, packed with enough meat to make several large sandwiches. I asked the baker where he was from, and he grinned: "Puerto Rico! Puerto Ricans make the best Italian bread!" His name is Jose.

At the cashier, I heard one of the men speaking in Arabic and I asked him who the owners were. I had a feeling... and was right... that he was the owner. He's from Lebanon, he told me, and bought the store six years ago. Since I was leading a tour, I didn't have enough time to linger, but would have liked to find out if he had partners and what other businesses he owned.

I'm interested in tracking how some of the great ethnic markets in NYC are maintaining their traditions even while the neighborhoods themselves change. Mt. Carmel Wines and Liquors in Belmont, Bronx, which carries a huge inventory of Italian wines and liquors, is now owned by Raymond Polanco, a Dominican businessman who knows his wine - and runs a gorgeous operation. Calandra Cheese, also in Belmont, is now owned by the Alcocers, a Bolivian family that used to manage it. Elk Chocolates in Yorkville, once owned by Germans, is now owned by Albanians. The phyllo dough used in Poseidon Pastries on 9th Avenue is made by Puerto Ricans who have learned this skill. And so on.

I'd love to hear from othner folks who follow this kind of thing...

Thursday, March 29, 2007

First tastes

This is my first-ever blog posting!

I've been a passionate NYC explorer for well over 20 years, focusing on food as the gateway to neighborhoods all over NYC. In the 1980s, I founded and co-led "gourmet bicycle tours" in the five boroughs. (Many people would say "gourmet" was a misnomer, but "delicious" was not!) In those days, touring Harlem, Bushwich and the boroughs was not trendy, but that's where we went.

I launched a newsletter, NoshNews ( in 1999 and a walking tour business ( the following year. My book, Nosh New York, was published in 2003 by St. Martin's Press. I'm hoping to do an update soon, but, in the meantime, I thought I'd get this blog going. The "Nosh New York" image on my blog was the proposed design for my cover. I loved it and the final cover retains most of those elements.

Oh yes - NoshNews has been on hold since have 2004, when I began the looooong process of getting ready to move from an apartment I'd occupied for nearly 24 years to a larger place. I didn't realize how much moving would affect everything else in my life, including my publishing endeavors! Also, I changed computer systems... and have not fully gotten everything back on track. BUT NoshNews will resume shortly.

In the meantime, I will soon begin talking about various food discoveries I've found in neighborhoods around NYC. But it's early in the morning and I have to get ready for the "real job" I hold that supports my passion!

So this is just my first-cup-of-coffee greeting! (Oh, by the way, you can find the best, and cheapest, espresso in NYC at Gran Via Bakery on 5th Avenue in Sunset Park. Ooops, I'm getting ahead of myself. I have to run!)

Myra - your
Nosh New Yorler!