Articles by

<Katie Robbins>

01/20/10 3:30am

Despite their ubiquity and comforting uniformity, no two city bodegas are exactly alike. One has an inexplicable dearth of dish soap. Another has particularly ripe mangoes. And a handful serve up some of the finest cheap eats—from roast beef to roti—in the city.

Hana Food Corp
534 Metropolitan Ave, Williamsburg
This 24-hour Lorimer stop deli counter offers all of the classics, including a fine egg and cheese, along with an impressive variety of vegetarian options. The real standouts, though, are sandwiches with names like the Douche Bag and the My Girlfriend is a Whore, creative pairings of meat, cheese and bread that not only satisfy late-night cravings, but also allow the orderer to express pent up aggression with the world.

Tehuitzingo Mexican Deli
695 Tenth Ave., Hell’s Kitchen
In the back of this small Mexican grocery, a tiny kitchen whips up what may be the best tacos in Manhattan. For either $2.50 or $2.75 a pop, you and a few friends could afford to try one of each of the almost 20 taco fillings, but whatever you do, be sure to try the wonderfully chewy, salted beef cecina and the rich, tender suadero (beef belly). Or the carnitas. Or the chorizo with potatoes. Oh try them all.

Sorriso Italian Salumeria
44-16 30th Ave, Astoria
For just a few quarters more than a Subway footlong, this deli and meat store offers up classic Italian heroes like a messy, comforting eggplant parm or a prosciutto, mozzarella and roasted-red pepper panino. Also on hand are some of the biggest rice balls in the city, stuffed with pork, onions and peas, and deep-fried to a crunchy, golden perfection.

Sunny & Annie’s Deli
94 Avenue B, East Village
This bodega takes some of the city’s best flavors, from spaghetti sauce and meatballs to barbeque and kimchi, slaps them between bread, and transforms them into cheap and hugely satisfying sandwiches. Craving Vietnamese? Try the P.H.O. Real, a crazy banh mi/pho mash-up—roast beef, bean sprouts, cilantro, Sriacha, and onion all on a surprisingly fresh roll.

Kam Hing Coffee Shop
119 Baxter St, Chinatown
It may not be your classic bodega, but this teeny tiny coffee shop is otherwise unclassifiable, so it might as well go here. While they sell your typical deli shrink-wrapped muffins and cookies, come here for their signature Chinese sponge cakes. These subtly sweet, eggy delicacies are truly revelatory and together with a small cup of coffee will only set you back a buck thirty.

Fast & Fresh Burrito Deli
84 Hoyt St, Cobble Hill

Hidden among the brownstones of Boerum Hill, this small deli lives up to its name with rapidly made-to-order burritos, tacos and tortas. The breakfast options, which are available all day, are standouts. Especially fine is the huevos a la Mexicana—a morning-style torta, served on a crunchy grilled torpedo bun, filled with rajas, eggs, refried beans, loads of pungent jalapenos, and ooey gooey melted cheese, all for $3.50.

Butcher Block
43-46 41st St, Sunnyside
This Irish deli is a one-stop wonder. Pick up a pound of mince, a couple of packets of prawn-flavored Taytos, a refrigerated shepherd’s pie, and a freshly made baked ham hero. If you’re feeling particularly gluttonous, try the sausage roll—an absurdly juicy mound of sausage wrapped in flaky, buttery dough. It’s the Irishman’s Croissan’wich.

United We Stand Deli
814 Tenth Ave, Hell’s Kitchen
Hell’s Kitchen is full of similar delis, serving up sandwiches to area high school students, office drones and taxi drivers. But few offer as wide a range of comfortingly familiar sandwich options, including a fantastic roast beef, mushroom and brown gravy hero, while simultaneously making you feel like a good New York patriot. United we stand, indeed.

Evelyn Mini Market

4011 Fifth Ave, Sunset ParK
Most bodega delicacies lurk hidden deep within, waiting for serendipitous discovery. The gem at this Sunset Park deli, however, is outside for all to see—a small tamale and juice stand, strangely attached to the mini-mart’s exterior. Be sure to try the chicken tamale, perfectly formed and stuffed with moist pollo, jalapenos and red salsa for $1.25. The stand’s proprietor often takes breaks inside the deli, so don’t fret if the stand is unmanned; just ask at the bodega counter and pretty soon tamale goodness will be yours.

Punjabi Grocery and Deli
114 E 1st St, East Village
A favorite among cab drivers and drunken East Village hipsters alike, this taxi stand Indian is the perfect end to a long, booze-soaked night. You probably won’t get a seat, and the Styrofoam bowls bend a little under the weight of the substantial rice and three veggie special, but even in our 24-hour city, there are very few places where you can find so much flavor at all hours of the day. A must try: a hearty bowl of creamy, savory samosa chat, for just $2.

12/08/09 1:00pm

This is part three in Katie Robbins series looking at the life and times of the city’s small ethnic restaurants. Part one is here, part two, here.

Descriptions of The Islands, a Jamaican restaurant that inhabits a diminutive storefront just off Eastern Parkway, tend around a similar theme.

Many of the restaurant’s returning customers refer to it as a home away from home. “It’s like being in your own kitchen,” is a common refrain. One frequenter prefers to think of it as his personal lounge.

The owners of The Islands concur, but they push the metaphor further.

“It’s Washington Avenue’s Peyton Place,” Marilyn, who prefers that I not use her last name, tells me, laughing as she packs UP an order of jerk chicken to go.

Her partner Siobhan calls it “The Cheers of the Caribbean in New York City.”

Like Cheers or Peyton Place, The Islands has a cast of regulars. There is the home health nurse who comes in each day to pick up food for her 90-year-old charge, an elderly woman who loves the macaroni and cheese and chicken with no rice.

“Will she eat some roti?” asks Marilyn as she puts the order together.

There are two little boys who come by each day after school. Jordan, the younger one, and the restaurant have grown up together. As an infant, he came in the arms of a babysitter who liked to hang out at the then brand new restaurant’s four-seat counter and chat; now as a fourth grader Jordan stops by to visit on afternoons when he doesn’t have basketball practice. Marilyn calls him “her best little friend.” Fifth grader Omar, the son of the restaurant’s landlord, takes pride in helping out, carrying heaping plates of Jamaican specialties one by one up to the tiny dining room just above the restaurant’s even tinier open kitchen.

There are the parents with their small children, many of who throw intimate birthday parties in the upstairs room at the insistence of their tots. There is the local celebrity whose regular appearances in commercials are compared and discussed. Then there is Sean Scarborough, who owns the pharmacy on the corner, but who says that he spends more time at The Islands then he does at his own establishment. He misses it when he’s away for longer than a few days. “As soon as I got back from Aruba,” he tells me of a recent trip home to visit family, “I put my bags down in the house in Canarsie and came straight here.”

The stars of this show, however, are Marilyn and Siobhan, whom Scarborough describes as “two crazy Jamaican broads.”

The two women have been friends since kindergarten in St. Ann, Jamaica, remaining close even after Marilyn moved to New York in 1975 to study criminal justice at John Jay College. Although she found her new city cold and a bit lonely at first, Marilyn quickly settled in Brooklyn and established a community for herself, going on to receive a Master’s in public administration before immersing herself in a career in what she not so nostalgically refers to as “corporate America.”

Siobhan stayed in Jamaica and after marrying an executive chef, she says she entered the restaurant business “by default,” partnering with her husband on a number of restaurants on the island.

Over the years though the two women regularly bounced around the idea of opening their own restaurant someday in a big city. Marilyn, who had learned to cook from her mother and a series of housekeepers, loved hosting dinner parties for her friends, whom Siobhan says she used as “guinea pigs for her culinary experiments.” If they felt like lab rats, they didn’t let on however, and in fact they regularly encouraged Marilyn to open a restaurant of her own.

11/10/09 12:30pm

This is the second of a series in which Katie Robbins meets the personalities behind the city’s most vibrant ethnic restaurants. Read part one here.

Akram Nassir knows Atlantic Avenue. He easily spouts off information about shifts in demographics (“It’s changed a lot. It used to be all Lebanese and Syrian,” he says. “It’s all Yemeni people now”) and patterns of store ownership (“This block alone was probably owned by one person, and he sold it off.”) He rattles off the numbers of the various buildings he lived in growing up and where he lives now (“Always on the Avenue,” he says.)

Atlantic Avenue knows Akram Nassir. Its residents have watched him grow from the little boy who used to run home from PS 29 to play at his family’s restaurants to the young family man who now runs his own.

Akram Nassir is the scion of Atlantic Avenue.

Together with his uncle, Al Subadi, Nassir runs Yemen Café, the restaurant that Al Subadi and Nassir’s father Hatem opened in 1986. It was by no means the family’s first foray into the business. The stretch of Atlantic between Henry and Court Streets has been known for its swath of Middle Eastern restaurants for over forty years, and Nassir is the progeny of one of its first families.

His grandfather and uncles first came from Yemen to New York in the 60s and quickly opened the first of the family’s restaurants, Adnan. They’d cooked in Saudi Arabia and in other Middle Eastern countries, so it made sense to bring that food to their new home. His grandfather found success, and so other family-run establishments soon followed—Almontaser, the Atlantic House, Moroccan Star (whose lamb steak the New York Times, in a 1984 article, referred to as “a juicy, intensely flavorful slab of meat”), and Near East Restaurant. In 1977 Hatem left his job at Windows on the World because the presence of alcohol on the menu violated his religious beliefs, and together with his brother Al Subadi opened a restaurant of their own called Sanaa. A write-up of the 5th Annual Atlantic Antic in 1979 praises the brothers for the “verbal gusto” with which they sold lamb meat in front of one their restaurants.

When the brothers opened Yemen Café, however, it marked a departure from the kind of food the family had been serving since coming to this country. The previous Atlantic eateries had all served European, North African, and other Middle Eastern cuisines. “The food was more modernized,” explains Akram Nassir. With this new restaurant they were for the first time going to offer “straight Yemeni food,” and when they did, customers responded immediately, Nassir tells me. “People were in shock.”

I certainly was the first time I wandered into Yemen Café a year and a half ago. The flavors are familiar. Spices like cumin, fenugreek, and coriander make appearances in ways reminiscent of other Middle Eastern and even South Asian cuisines, but the way they are used in the Yemeni dishes sets them apart. As Nassir says, “Their cooking is completely different. More spicy. In Yemen there is no spicy. They eat spicy on the side.”

Beyond commenting on the lack of piquant burn to the restaurant’s dishes, Nassir is hard pressed to describe the flavor behind each item. When I ask him to describe the taste of a lamb curry, he stops and thinks for a moment, licking his lips slightly and looking up at the ceiling, recalling the taste of the familiar food. And yet, perhaps like being asked to describe one’s own features, it is too close for him to explain. “I don’t know,” he says, giving up eventually. “To me a piece of meat has flavor. It just tastes good.”

He then asks me how I would describe the food that I’ve tasted at Yemen, and I think back to the number of dishes I’ve sampled from the menu, which Nassir says hasn’t changed since the restaurant first opened 23 years ago. There is the fassolia, a kind of hash of tomatoes, white kidney beans, and onions, savory and satisfying like a very thick chili. Then there are the eggs, served scrambled with large chunks of sautéed tomato and onions, similar to the egg and tomato dishes eaten in China. Hummus, babaghanouj, and foul make appearances as well, and are fine representations of these dishes. All of these are scooped up with bits of bread, torn from the large round loaves that accompany meals here. Served piping hot from the clay oven, the bread is chewy in the center, with brown crispy air pockets on the surface, rivaling the best toothy Neapolitan pizza crust. “That bread is so good,” says Nassir.

10/28/09 12:00pm

It’s a rainy Saturday afternoon when I pull up a chair to join Lobsang Sherab and Karma Lama at Shangri-la Tibet Kitchen in Jackson Heights. I’m wet and cold, and the warm mugs of milky-looking tea sitting in front of them look particularly inviting. After a few minutes of niceties Sherab, the restaurant’s owner, offers me a cup, and I’m thrilled, thinking of the Indian masala chai that their drinks so closely resemble.

But before I can say yes, Lama, who is not officially associated with the restaurant but who spends most of his time here since being laid off from his construction job, stops me.

“You want Tibetan tea or sweet tea?” he asks, his voice thick with a kind of playful foreboding.

“Tibetan tea,” I say without question.

“It’s very salty,” he says.

Intrigued, I insist and Sherab calls in Tibetan to a woman who is folding napkins.

As we wait, Lama explains that the tea, transliterated as bocha or po cha, is made creamy with butter, which provides extra calories needed at the high elevations in Tibet and neighboring countries where many Tibetan exiles live. In Tibet, the butter is made from the milk of dris, female yaks, but here in Queens, where Sherab has run Shangri-La Tibet Kitchen for the last year, cow’s milk butter stands in. The tealeaves, however, are authentic. Sherab has Chinese and Indian businessmen bring them back for him when they travel to Asia. He says you can’t get them in the local Indian markets where he does much of his shopping.

When my drink arrives, the two men look at me expectantly. I take a surreptitious sniff, and then a small sip. A savory warm broth, more soup than tea, fills my mouth. You can easily imagine that in mountainous Tibet, it would be incredibly soothing and nourishing. Here at ground level, it’s delicious in the way that a buttery sauce might be, rich but a little overwhelming. The two men are drinking their cups slowly, taking a sip only every few minutes. I follow their lead.

While the tea is good and very similar to what he drank before coming to this country, Lama tells me later, there is a lingering feeling that “you didn’t get the right butter, and so it’s not right.”