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...