Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Dine in Brooklyn 2013: Dinner at Saint Austere

I've been reading a lot of Storm of Swords lately, and everyone likes to tell me the popular phrase, "Winter is coming," when they see me hold the heavy tome.

In New York, though, winter is not coming, winter has plopped its big, snowy white ass here in the city, and refuses to budge.  I'm so tired of winter, but I don't think I'll grow tired of winter comfort foods anytime soon.

Thanan and gang joined me at Saint Austere recently for Dine in Brooklyn 2013 (my favorite "restaurant week" type event here) - three sweet courses for a slim $28!

I started off with the polenta, with cipollini onions and sausage, and a dark, beautiful sauce.  Dude, was this forever good.  Creamy, savory with bits of spicy sausage.  I think about this dish every time I waddle to the train decked in heavy coats and garb (and okay, sometimes when I lie in bed at night) - it really is the ultimate winter comfort dish.

Thanan ordered the broccoli rabe, which sounded great, with hardboiled eggs, anchovies and parmigiano cheese, but it tasted something like you'd expect from a Chinese restaurant, which is fine, but completely boring compared to the polenta. (Get the polenta already!  Winter is here!  Fill'er'up!)

Harry ordered the pork belly croquettes - they resembled thumb-sized mozzarella sticks, had the creamiest paste interior devoid of all pork belly delightfulness, but came with a tasty little chicken liver dipping sauce.

My entree was the hanger steak, served atop buttery mashed potatoes and sprinkled with crispy onions.  I'm hoping that the regular menu offering of hanger steak is larger than this (came about four slices to the plate) for the $28 price, but this serving was fair for our tasting.

I had no trouble eating up this whole plate within a few minutes.  Dove each cut of steak into the mashed potatoes, scraping the plate clean, and crispy onions added the perfect bit of sweet crunch to every bite.

Small portions are definitely the theme for the night here, with Harry's entree of spaghetti and clams adorable, sufficient, but not altogether too filling.

The homemade cavatelli with pork sugo meatball looked like baby larvae, was cooked perfectly with a tasty thick tomato sauce.

The tiramisu dessert came in jars, a layered confection of dulce de leche cream, grainy espresso crunch of granita and cake.  It was rich.  It tasted like 1,000 calories.  It was delightful.

Saint Austere is a strange spot in Williamsburg - part casual bar, part tapasesque restaurant with tasty food.  The service is slow and leaves much to be desired, but that bowl of polenta might be worth the wait.

Han's Nonsensical Rating: I've been annoying myself lately by saying the following dumb rhyme in my head - "I just want some mo' po-lenta."  Gah, I'm hooked !  Only come though when you have time on your hands, as the service is super leisurely.

Saint Austere
613 Grand St
Brooklyn, NY
The Saint Austere on Urbanspoon

Saturday, March 23, 2013

The Fried Chicken Sandwich at Cheeky's Sandwiches

It's not often that I eat at a place and blog about it the same day, but I loved my experience at Cheeky's so much, that I just can't wait any longer to share it with you !

A couple years ago, I tried to visit Cheeky's for their fried chicken sandwich, only to find out they had run out, so I hustled my way over there around 11am to secure myself a piece of that golden poultry !

The place is nondescript aside from just looking out-of-place with its whitewashed wooden door,

and it's cute concrete entry area.

The place is reminiscent of New Orleans, funky and fun.  Cans of Cafe du Monde chicory coffee everywhere.  

Seating is tight, mainly red stools along the wall, but there is one large "table" that is a former cartoon sign.  I love it.  I want to take it home, where I have no room for it, but I'd cherish it forever.

The fried chicken sandwich comes on a homemade biscuit, topped with coleslaw and gravy, but I managed to sweet-talk to the owner into making me a fried chicken biscuit sandwich topped with scrambled egg.

He seemed nervous about it, "I've never made this before...how does it taste??" but he had nothing to worry about at all.  It was awesome.

The chicken was so moist, slightly tart from the tangy brine, and the egg was soft and lovely.  Together with the beautiful biscuit, I was in heaven.

After licking my fingers off, I dug into a bag of their "ben-yays" which come 3 for a $1.  Get a bag.  Or ten.

The beignets are small, but hit the spot oh so well.  Perfectly fried and dusted with powdered sugar, it's the only way to end such a delicious breakfast!

I also washed everything down with a cup of their ginger tea, made with real ginger, and the bite of the hot beverage tasted so good with the whole meal.  Definite recommend !

The chef / owner was absolutely adorable here, kind of like a fobby Asian character straight out of a TV sitcom.  I can find myself coming back a lot, especially with breakfast served all day, and seafood poboys (shrimp or oysters) calling my name and appealing to my New Orleans-loving heart.

Han's Nonsensical Rating: Stellar chicken biscuit sandwiches served alongside chicory coffee?  Yes, definitely, please and lots of it !

Cheeky's Sandwiches
35 Orchard St
New York, NY
Cheeky Sandwiches on Urbanspoon

Friday, March 22, 2013

Random Tasty Bites: Dumont Burger and Donuts, Num Pang and Ample Hills

Dude.  I've been eating a lot since I've been back.  

The first thing we ate was a burger at Dumont.  Cheese. Plenty o' fixins'.  Fries.  So American.

The burger is thick and juicy, perfectly seasoned, and paired with a beautiful, buttery brioche bun.

Not pictured: the macaroni and cheese, which was gushy and gooey and great, and the spiked Nutella shake with bits of toasted hazelnuts, which was tasty, but quite overpriced.

What is not overpriced are the adorable little donuts, fried to order, and come in a variety of flavors like cinnamon and ginger.  We got the dulce de leche which comes with a small cup of dulce de leche spread.  Grab a knife. Slather that luscious substance with each bite.  Swoon.  Repeat.

At work, I've been exploring a lot of Midtown options.  Midtown is one of my least favorite eating neighborhoods.  Thank goodness for Num Pang.

Why has it taken me so long to eat at Num Pang??

Cambodian sandwiches with beautifully toasted bread, lightly pickled vegetables including slices of Asian pear, and a variety of fillings like roasted cauliflower, catfish or brisket.

I can't seem to stop ordering the five spice pork belly though. 

It's just so hard to describe how delicious this is - the flavorful and succulent, fatty meat, the kick from the spicy mayo and jalapenos, and the crisp crunch of pickled veggies.

And that soft, freshly baked bread !  I think I might just be going to work just to eat this at lunch lately.  True story.  

After a charming stroll with the boy through Prospect Park, we found ourselves in Prospect Heights, and there is just one thing you should do when you find yourself in this neighborhood:

2) Order a gooey cake sundae.

There's so many fun flavors.  When we visited there was Bees of the Southern Wild, an Elvis tribute and more.  We stuck with their most popular flavor though - the salted crack caramel.

The salted crack caramel is crazy good.  Super rich, almost too sweet, and life becomes too stupidly good when you get bites of those crack cookies scattered throughout the scoop.  Ample Hills = heaven on Earth?  I do believe so.  (The gooey cake would make St. Louis proud, Diana!)

Han's Nonsensical Rating:  Num Pang probably ranks in the top ten sandwiches of my life.  Okay, maybe just New York.  No, my life.  God, it's so good.  That Ample Hills sundae is phenomenal too.  How is life so great ?!

314 Bedford
Brooklyn, NY 11211
DuMont Burger on Urbanspoon

Num Pang
(multiple locations)
140 E 41st St
New York, NY

Num Pang on Urbanspoon
Ample Hills
623 Vanderbilt Ave
Brooklyn, NY
Ample Hills Creamery on Urbanspoon

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Pork Chop Rice @ Taiwan Cafe

Taiwan Cafe has a special place in my heart (and many special places in my stomach). In college, friends and I used to go there all the time for cheap, authentic, tasty eats. 10+ years later, it is still one my of favorite places in the city. In fact, I have friends from Los Angeles, San Francisco, and New York who often visit, and the first place they want to go is Taiwan Cafe. They all miss the same thing: pork chop rice!!

Called pai gu fan (排骨飯) in Chinese, it's a Taiwanese comfort food staple -- fried pork chop over rice, with stewed pork, pickled mustard, and an egg. That is all I need for happiness.

Take a look, and see if you don't fall in love yourself:

Taiwan Cafe's version is the best pork chop rice I've had in the States... and to be honest, I'm having trouble of thinking of a better place in Taiwan. It's THAT good. The breading is light, crispy, and slightly sugary -- gives the meat a lovely sweet taste. The meat itself is always tender and fatty as it should be. The stewed pork on the rice is also very flavorful. Don't forget to put a little of the picked mustard in every bite -- a sour kick is great with the pork! I also love the Taiwanese cabbage they include, makes me miss Taiwan so much!

The dish comes with chicken, corn, and egg soup.

Totally hit the spot.

Let's not forget about the other dishes at Taiwan Cafe, which are all soooo good. Exhibit 1: sha cha chinese watercress with beef.

Sha cha sauce is basically Chinese bbq sauce, and it is super addicting. Taiwan Cafe makes a mean watercress - perfectly cooked, bright, and fresh.

In fact, we like it so much that we also ordered the noodles with sha cha watercress and beef.

Basically, it's the same thing as the previous picture, plus noodles. Who can argue with that?? Kevin pretty much ate this whole plate himself.

Christine (our humble vegetarian) was in our midst, so we ordered a couple of veggie options for her. First, veggie dumplings.

Pretty solid. I will say that if you're looking for dumplings, go to Dumpling Cafe, as dumplings will be better there. But these held their own for sure.

We also ordered the ma po tofu.

Nice and peppery, this was also pretty good. This picture reminds me that we also ordered the scallion pancakes... apologies for lack of a better picture, but trust me, the scallion pancakes were superb!

Look how happy they are!

Well, maybe Kevin is thinking: man, we should have gone for multiple orders of pork chop rice.

Do it, Boston people. Go to Taiwan Cafe for pork chop rice. The faster, the better.

34 Oxford St
Bost, MA
(617) 426-8181
Taiwan Cafe on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Guat-a-trip ! Scenes and Eats from Guatemala

Hello, there !  I'm sorry it's been awhile.  (Again.)  I have good reason this time though !  Like...

Vacation !
Guatemala !
Adventures !

And to be honest, my mind is still on vacation.  While I was ready to come home to modern-life conveniences like one-stop-shopping stores, I do find myself missing the eternal spring weather, the food, and maybe the 8 to 1 Quetzal to US exchange rate.  Sigh !

Here's the kinds of things I've been reminiscing about !

The first thing I ate in Guatemala was churros from a random vendor at a strip mall-type market in Zone 1 of Guatemala City.

We had heard that Guatemala City was best avoided, since it was the most dangerous city in the country.  What people did not warn me about was how dangerously good their churros are ! Filled with some inexplicably delicious honey cream and rolled in the softest fat sugars, I could eat this whole bag in a heartbeat.

For dinner, we checked out Hacienda Real in Zone 10, specializing in steaks.  The restaurant has great decor (makes you feel like you are sitting in a real hacienda), with a large courtyard in the center, covered by a soaring canopy, as well as more dimly-lit interior seating.

The table sauces for random dish garnishment included lightly pickled carrots, bright chimichurri sauce, addictive habanero sauce and a simple but tasty tomato puree.

Refreshing beverages adorn nearly all Guatemalan menus like this sparkly citrus lemonade.

Complimentary cups of soup broth hit the spot - light and absolutely warming to the soul.

We ordered a plate of guac and beans for an appetizer.  Just giant plops of fun mush.  The beans were the smoothest puree I had ever seen, topped by a funny slab of cheese on top with the texture of tofu.

Every spot in Guatemala serves guacamole up like this - basically just mashed avocados and onions.  No tomatoes, no jalapeno distractions, no nothin'.  While it's fresh and good, I missed the usual spicy punch.

The guacamole was served with hot, thick tortillas.

I ordered the steak pimienta, sirloin steak doused by the most peppery sauce.  The plate comes with one small baked potato, a tiny ol' "salad" composed of tomato slices, lettuce and onion, and some corn on the cob ! 

The steak was good, but the sauce was mighty overpowering.  If you go, you should get this:

The lomito real !

Brilliantly tender.  The lomito had a light touch of citrus flavor enhancing the lovely cut of meat.  I stole so many bites of this steak, and I think about it too much still.

Dessert at Hacienda Real should be skipped - the macadamia pie is basically a dressed up cookie bar.

The tres leches had a maple-tinged whipped cream that didn't work well with the otherwise tasty, moist cake.

The next day, we took a flight to Flores to visit Tikal, one of the largest Mayan ruins in Central America, and a UNESCO World Heritage site.

If you want to stay in the area, there's really only two hotels you can stay at, the Jaguar Inn and the Tikal Inn.   Because the options are so slim, you can't help but think the hotels take advantage of visitors and provide less than satisfactory service because you have no other choice.  I wouldn't recommend the Tikal Inn, but I couldn't say Jaguar would be any better.  

Here's what you can eat at Tikal Inn.  (Options are limited.)

Breaded chicken.

Spaghetti bolognese.

Tikal is about 45 minutes from Flores, and if you have time before your flight out, definitely stop in to enjoy the water and some better cuisine!

Our Yaxta tour guide dropped us off at a random restaurant on the water, and we were too hungry to explore any other options, so we sat ourselves down by the lake, and ordered up some guacamole and burgers.

I don't remember much of this meal outside of these amazing drinks.  After two days of non-stop Mayan jungle trekking, these fresh fruit slushes were the absolute best things in the whole wide world.  We ordered cantaloupe and strawberry, and I could drown myself in a vat of this stuff, and feel entirely accomplished.

Later, we hired a boat (haggle aggressively - we paid 120Q for a round-trip, down from 250Q) to take us to the Petencito Zoo - an animal reserve in the middle of Lake Peten Itza.  Our waiter and tour guide both recommended the place to us, but it was probably the weirdest experience - being on a remote island by yourselves, looking at a random assortment of caged animals, with wild pigs and iguanas running around at your feet.  You can time it perfectly though and grab this kind of view on your way back to shore.

We began our next day in Antigua, brunching at Cafe Condesa - sipping on hot chocolate with surprise frozen, creamy bananas inside.


Blackberry shakes - without seeds ! What a marvel !

Roast beef sandwiches looked sad next to 

My fat and cheesy quiche lorraine !  

There's not much to see in Antigua outside of a few churches (beautiful sand art displays are made on the floors), 

a few ruins (bask in the sun under the flowering tree at the Capuchinas Convent)

And while the sights are limited, the food options are not.  

One of the best meals we had was at Hector's on the northside by the yellow church.  The tiniest ol' thing, with about ten tables wedged here and there, it's a must-visit. 

Pumpkin soup was slightly sweet, earthy and satisfying.

The roasted tomato appetizer, with gouda cheese, basil, balsamic vinegar and olive oil is sublime.  It doesn't sound like much, but goshdarnit were those tomatoes just brilliant - not too tart, not too soft, and herbaceously lovely.

The beef medallions and fried potato disks was a beaut.  The beef was so tender (as is the case with all the beef we had during our trip - I'm smittened with the country's cows!), and the chipotle blue cheese sauce had my companion's tongue positively wagging.

The grilled duck breast was encrusted with crushed peppercorns and topped with creme fraiche.  Though the duck was perfectly cooked with just the right touch of fat, the real stars were the sides.  A potato and carrot gratin that touched me all the way down to my toes !  So mind-meltingly delicious.  And can you just look at those roasted grapes?

Who knew you could roast grapes?  And why isn't everyone doing it?  Brilliantly caramelized, they burst in your mouth a blissful sweetness that puts an instant smile on your face.

With every dish a serious revelation, I regret not ordering any dessert here, but I hope you don't make the same mistake if you find yourself on Calle Poniente!

The next morning, we did a 6am hike up Volcan Pacaya.  You can get a $10 tour from any tour agency around town.  A 45 minute drive later, and ~hour hike up the dusty volcano will yield you beautiful views of Guatemala's amazing landscape and a roasted marshmallow snack, courtesy of a few volcanic fissures.

The guide dropped us off back in Antigua in time for lunch, where we beelined to Frida's, a Mexican restaurant dedicated to Frida Kahlo.  Sangria and strawberry daiquiri drinks are made fresh to order and are especially delicious after a hot hike.

A tiny complimentary appetizer whets the tastebuds with crunchy chips and awesomely spicy salsa.

The burrito supremo platter, with choice of two burritos (lomito, chicken, chorizo) is a delicious choice.  The burritos were the best we've ever tasted - fresh, devoid of filler like rice, and filled with tender cuts of meat.  The lomito is definitely the winner of the meats we tried.

I ordered the popular mango chicken, a light but flavorful option, tangy, fruity and fun.

I loved the surprise spinach and cheese quiche side.  I can totally dig quiche as a side ! 

We enjoyed our food so much, we actually ended up returning to Frida's again for a second meal where I enjoyed their lomito, topped with grilled scallions, accompanied by hearty, saucy beans and a side of mini quesadillas.  Yeah! Quesadillas as sides ! I am definitely be-side myself with Guatemala's fine eats.


We wrapped up our meal with some ice cream that's made locally at La Tienda de Dona Gavi.  It's a weird place that sells bath salts, jewelry, handmade soaps, and somehow ice cream.  About a dozen unique flavors outline the doorway, including carrot, coconut, local jocote fruit and others.

The boy and I grabbed ourselves corn and guava.  The corn comes topped with cinnamon, and I cornnot believe how tasty that combination was ! The ice cream is a bit rich, but that's what vacations are for !

That night, the boy and I embarked on what is the most challenging physical activity of my life - a hike of Volcan Santa Maria under the light of the full moon.  If you are looking for challenging and fun hikes, definitely stop into Xela and look up Quetzaltrekkers - they are a terrific volunteer-run organization that leads hikes and adventures in the area.  

After five excruciating hours hiking uphill on steep, rocky and sometimes slippery terrain, we were rewarded with the most amazing sunrise of my life.  I could barely breathe taking it all in.

The decline took 3 hours, and we found ourselves back in Xela at noon the following day, drinking flavored ice cream floats (lime sherbet with Sprite, orange sherbet with Fanta),

and eating some random fried chicken that was fried and spiced to perfection.  

We ordered these mollejas thinking that meant chicken nuggets, but they turned out to be a giant carton of fried gizzards.  Super chewy, but pleasantly battered and fried, I am just not sure how anyone can work their way through this whole thing.  Fun surprise though, right?

We shuttled back to Antigua for last minute R&R before returning to the states. 

Our first meal the following morning was at Dona Luisa, a bakery popular among the locals.  The courtyard is brightly lit and offers lots of seating.

After enduring two volcanoes in 24 hours, I decided a celebratory slice of tres leches was in order, and Dona Luisa's satisfied all my cravings completely.

Not too sweet, so moist, and just the right touch of condensed milk goodness.  

And heck, yeah we'll take a slice of your honey raisin pie also.  Crispy, buttery crust, creamy center with some chew - basically all kinds of yum in one bite.

And geez, I want to make love to this Cafe Glace in the most violently passionate way - so overwhelmingly, unexpectedly delicious.  At first glance it may appear it's just a coffee milkshake with a healthy dusting of cinnamon, but in reality, it's more like pure, unrefined, unadulterated happiness in a cup.

The boy ordered the traditional Guatemalan breakfast, which is eggs, more beans than you'd ever hope to ingest in one sitting, and some housebaked bread and butter.

I ordered the bacon pancake sandwich topped with sunnyside egg, and it was filled with more bacon than you'd like to admit you'd eat in one sitting, but would do secretly anyway.

The breakfast of champions.  (Watermelon and banana fruit shakes and hot chocolate are nice side drinks also).  If I had to go again, I'd just eat dessert and drink at least 5 Cafe Glaces, then go take a siesta in the shaded garden of Capuchinas.

We did a little shopping in the Artisan and Open Markets on the western edge of town (so fun), and checked out Juan Caravelas for lunch to see what Guatemala offered in the way of Peruvian-inspired sushi.

Refreshing lemonades and orange sodas.

The sushi roll menu was fun and creative, featuring deep-fried rolls with octopus and others dubbed mango madness.

While the ingredients were so fresh and tasty, the Guatemalans do not have the sushi rice perfected.  A bit heavy handed with overcooked rice on the rolls, the sushi is best skipped here.  Word is the sauteed octopus and dumpling dishes is where it's at, so do try those instead.

On the way to dinner, we passed by a vendor making chucos, a Guatemalan type of hot dog.  Options of meat include a variety of sausages; we elected chorizo.

The bread is placed on the grill and slathered with an herb spread and guacamole.

The bread is then topped by slightly pickled onions and lettuce mix and chopped up bits of chorizo.

You could get chuco with the works (ketchup, mayo and mustard in addition to salsa), but we got just the spicy salsa.

And for $1.50, we were handed this beautiful loaf, reminiscent of a banh mi sandwich in terms of freshness and light pickled flavor, but oh was this texture and flavor combination ridiculously addictive.  If only we had more nights allotted for carousing on the town, I could find myself back here eating these by the fistfuls.

Our final dinner in Antigua was at the French-inspired Meson Panza Verde.  The ambience at the restaurant was undeniably beautiful.  We sat in the open courtyard area with a spray of hanging ivy to provide our table with privacy.

Bread accouterments.

Warm, lovely pieces of bread.

The Golden Cadillac cocktail that reminded me of an adult version of the Cafe Glace.  Sweet, sweet candy.

The best thing we ordered was the escargot.  We shoulda ordered two dozen of these succulent little buggers that came in gorgeous pale pink shells that were filled with heavenly herbaceous butter.  I would basically eat the escargot and then pour the crack liquid all over those fine pieces of bread.

The honey roasted beets and avocado plate was fantastic too.  Slightly sweet and earthy.

The boy ordered the linguine and lobster, which smelled fantastic.

I opted for the pesto penne picante with added shrimp kebab, and it was a touch bland, a touch rich, and not very tasty.  I found myself pining for Hector's again, so if you had to pick between the two, opt for the Hect - about half the price and twice the satisfaction !

Guatemala is strange.  I found myself intrigued but not too enamored with the country while I was there, but the minute I left, I can't stop thinking about it.  I miss it, and would recommend anyone looking for some adventure (jungles, Mayan ruins, active volcanoes, and rebels!) to check the country out.  It's definitely a unique experience with the added bonus of delicious food.

Recommended places:

Guatemala City:

Hacienda Real
5A Avenida 14-67 Guatemala City, Guatemala +502 2380 8383


1a Calle Poniente  Antigua Guatemala, Guatemala +502 7832 9867

5a Avenida Norte #29, CALLE DEL ARCO, Antigua Guatemala, Sacatepequez

Dona Luisa
4a calle oriente #12

La Tienda de Dona Gavi
3a Avenida Norte #2, Antigua, Guatemala

Choco La La
chocolate shop near Frida's on 5 Avenida Norte - get the honey ginger ! We stopped by here everyday.


(for adventures) Quetzaltrekkers
Diagonal 12, 8-37, Zona 1, Quetzaltenango
(Note: I wouldn't recommend staying at Casa Argentina, the hostel their office is connected to, but it is cheap ~$15/night)

For shuttle service throughout the country:
Adrenalina Tours was fantastic, timely and the most affordable among places I researched