Feasting like a Princess in Queens

“But where in New York can one find a woman with grace, elegance, taste and culture? A woman suitable for a king?”

“Queens!”

If anyone else grew up in a household with two brothers and only basic cable, you too have probably seen Coming to America over a thousand times and when the New York City borough of Queens is mentioned, this line is all that you can think of. No? Just me? Again? Alright, this is enough already.

Seriously though, we did a food excavation of Queens on our most recent trip to New York. We had overlooked the boroughs on our last trip, and it was a hole in my eating repertoire that I was ready to fill. Fill I did, with Liberian stew, Egyptian offal and three separate trips to Flushing Chinatown. For regular readers of my blog this will not be surprising. I am a little late with this post, but I wanted to report back the best of my findings.

Kabab Cafe (Astoria)

Spices on a Plate As has already been discussed in numerous places on this blog, I’m a bit of a sucker for Anthony Bourdain. I am a wee bit embarrassed by it, however it has also lead me to more than one good meal. This is one of those good meals.

As has already been discussed in numerous places in the blogosphere, there are downsides to Kabab Cafe. It can be expensive. There is no menu. The dude is crazy. It’s small. They serve weird food. All of these are right. If these are things that will turn you away from a restaurant, I do not recommend Kabab Cafe.

If you’re like me, though, and bit parts of big animals served by a mad scientist from a kitchen the size of a gas station bathroom turns you on, this is the place for you.

A big portion of my enjoyment of the place was watching the owner/chef, Ali work. Not the part when he laid into his poor assistant (a thankless job, it appeared). Rather his flicking of spices this way and that, the clatter of pans and disorganized tossing of ingredients which all made their way to my plate, turning out as great dishes.

I was taken aback upon walking in, where I was gruffly asked, nay, barked at, what I wanted to eat. I didn’t know, so I was given the option of meat or veg. I caught up to the moment and mentioned I was here for dead animal–the good parts. We were seated and given plates (shown above) of spice along with bread and hummus for dipping. Then the good stuff started coming out. First was a rich sauce of braised cheeks and hearts over lightly scrambled eggs. I use ‘over’ loosely as it was sort of an un-pretty pile of reddish lump on my plate. That said, it tasted great. None of the dishes were overly photogenic, and in fact the next three looked so alike it took in depth analysis to remember which was what. Second up, though was sweetbreads. This was the most traditional of the dishes, followed by the brains, which were a favorite of mine–these pan-fried ones were significantly better than the steamed version I’d had in Laos. Finally we had to cry uncle after a plate of kidneys–we were too full to see what the mad scientist would bring us next. The total for this,  4 smallish plates with bread and snacks plus a few drinks was around $80 in the end. Not cheap. Be prepared for this if you go. But do go if you love great meat in interesting preparations. I thought the food was delicious and the setting unique and that it was worth every penny.

Kabab Café on Urbanspoon

Maima’s Liberian Bistro

Liberian Seafood Soup at Maima's

When I first read about Maima’s it was about Liberian food and that it seemed similar to Ghanaian, a favorite of mine. I stored it in the back of my head. Then it popped up again–winning an award for being one of the spiciest foods in NYC. Again, a favorite food of mine (anything spicy). It had to be done.

Had to, despite being a little out of the way and in a neighborhood that us two were so out of place in that we got asked twice in the block between the car and the restaurant if we were lost. By the cops. We were impressed-taking preventative measures or being helpful? Unclear. Once in the restaurant we would have been out of place, had there been anyone else there. We ordered seafood soup (pictured) and chicken stew.

Aside from containing nearly an entire crab, multiple prawns, clams and a good chunk of fish, the soup had tripe, chicken feet and a pork…knuckle? I was impressed at the array of stuff in it, as a sopped it up with fufu, the thick starch it was served with. It was spicy in the best kind of way, a slow burn that works its way into every part of your mouth, including the outside, leaving you with fruit punch lips akin to that kid in elementary school. The chicken was less spicy, but possibly even more flavorful–the underlying richness in these foods, the warmth and flavor that is cooked into them really sets them apart. A pair of gentleman in cable company uniforms sat at one of the other tables. They held their giggles at our tears of pain and joy regarding the spice level and asked us if we were enjoying it. We were. They were from Liberia, they told us, and loved the food at Maima’s. It was just like what their mama would make in Africa. If that is not what an immigrant cuisine restaurant can strive for, I’m not sure what is. All I know is that I’d like to borrow a Liberian mama (Maima?) to start a restaurant in Seattle.

Maima's Liberian Bistro on Urbanspoon

Xi’an Fine Foods

Xi'an Fine Foods Noodles Xi’an Fine Foods is no news to people in New York. I’d like to hope that anyone who truly loves great food wouldn’t find it news either. The shop we went to is in the basement of the Flushing Mall (Mall being a loosely used term). Zigging and zagging through a maze of deliciousness, we got distracted by a dumpling here, a soup there, before we got to this stand. Lamb hand pulled noodles were the only thing on my mind. Until I looked at the menu, then I wanted everything. But I was there for the noodles, and I’d found to many distractions on my way in to afford more stomach room.

Those noodles? the most friendly little texture a noodle ever did have. Filling my mouth with big thick noodle, then chewing apart with the lightest of toothy touches. The flavor stood up to the texture, spicy, savory, that combination of middle-eastern cumin edge with bright, popping Chinese cooking techniques. This is the noodle dish that (my) dreams are made of.

Xi'an Famous Foods on Urbanspoon

Nan Xiang Xiao Long Bao

We actually ended up going here twice by accident. That was a very happy accident. Disappointed that New Yeah Shanghai House, our favorite soup dumplings, or XLB, seemed to have closed, we had researched what the next best might be and come up with Nan Xiang. We went, just the two of us, and really enjoyed them. I didn’t think they were as good as New Yeah, but I did like it better than those from Joe’s Shanghai and a number of others in New York.

A few days later we were headed back to Flushing Chinatown with my friend T., a Flushing native–in fact, her dad owns a restaurant in the area, which has sadly been closed every time I’ve been in town! I’ve had his food though–me, her fathers lobster sauce and a 5 hour drive. It was not pretty. Right, back to Nan Xiang. T. was excited to bring us to her favorite XLB spot in the hood, which was, of course…Nan Xiang. She felt bad that we had already been, but us, having been already, were not complaining. The food was again great, this time we were able to branch out and try a few more things. I wasn’t a fan of their other dumplings, but the noodles and the rice cake dishes were both excellent.

Nan Xiang Xiao Long Bao Soup Dumpling House on Urbanspoon

And then…

We found a giant pile of frozen awesome

It was almost 100 degrees out and this was mango flavored frozen awesome from a basement of a mall behind Nan Xiang.

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Karama: An Exersice in Ethnic Eating

Being whiter than Weird Al, I often find satisfying my cravings for eats from random ethnicities to be a bit of an exercise in patience and rolling with the punches, though often with delicious rewards. Karama, a new self-described “East-African, Somali, Italian, Mediterranean and American” food restaurant was no different. Usually I will avoid any restaurant that claims to do that many different cuisines, but upon reading the menu and seeing what they offered, I instead rang up my friend M, who lived in Tanzania, and informed her of my findings.

We made a date and headed down with our boyfriends in tow. We had another event to go to, so had planned on having a fairly light dinner, picking three dishes off the menu for the four of us to split. The menu has many different categories, including appetizers (liver, foul madammas) and entrees as well as more entrees, including gyros and schwarma (I’m assuming that’s the Mediterranean) and we saw a guy getting an enormous platter of pasta, covered in some sort of orange-y sauce and dried herbs (Italian?).

As we were deciding, we were served a delicious, if greasy soup. The main flavoring, as far as I could tell was niter kibe, the Ethiopian spiced butter, but I’m sure it was just similar ingredients. A good way to start the meal.

We all immediately gravitated to the goat, simply described as ‘Somali-style’ with peppers and onions, then M. directed us toward the Kata Kata (chicken with chapatis, as a kind of stew) and Ugali (a corn based starch). We decided to order one of each of those three. Here’s where the mix up started.

“Have you been here before?” the waitress asked. We shook our heads no, and M. proceeded to order our food. On hearing her pronunciation or her choice of dishes, the waitress started “Oh, you have been here?” “Well, no,” M. explained her experience.

Unfortunately with all that explaining, what got lost in translation was our order. Four orders of goat appeared on our table. Four orders which each came with, I’d point out, a plate of salad, of vegetables and of chapati. That’s four plates of each of four dishes, so our table looked ridiculous. Sensing the problem slowly (dishes were delivered one or two at a time) we flagged someone down and explained that we had wanted to share. They removed two of the veggie dishes and two of the salads. We weren’t sure our message was across. We flagged again. I wasn’t around for this full discussion (I was grabbing water) but the woman seemed upset. And never brought us the other two dishes. Oy. However, considering the amount of food brought out for $40 and that we were heading to what turned out to be a hedonist bacchanal filled with free flowing beverages and platters of bone marrow and foie gras floating by, we just rolled with the punches.

But the food? Well the goat was spectacular! That’s where the reward part comes in for all the confusion. The veggies were awful, the salad was shredded iceberg lettuce with a drizzle of some dressing (didn’t try that) and the chapatis tasted like they’d been made longer ago than they should have been. But the goat, that was amazing. We all devoured ours, eating with our chapatis (“In my country, we use the chapati to eat the vegetables,” our waitress scoffed condescendingly when she saw us doing this. Ah, well), and liberally dousing everything with the excellent hot sauce (which I think may have just involved oil and raw garlic). While most of the side dishes were, well, nearly inedible, the goat was good enough that I left rather disappointed that we didn’t get to try the other dishes, and also good enough that we will be returning for sure!

So yes, if you want to know what you’re getting and want to be sure of it, perhaps eating at Karama or any other hole-in-the-wall not used to catering to the most American of customers is not the best idea. However, if you’re willing to pack a sense of adventure and to see what you can find you may just be rewarded with some super-tasty goat!