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Guan Fu Szechuan

I recently had the pleasure of dining with a bunch of food friends at this new Szechuan joint in Flushing called Guan Fu. They do an incredible job of showcasing the different kinds of spice that the cuisine is known for (numbing as well as heat), while also developing intense, robust flavors that you can actually taste. Contrast with many other Szechuan joints in NYC that just blow your mouth out with heat and numbness, leaving you unable to actually enjoy the food.

That’s not to say that the food here isn’t spicy. It sure as heck is! But the balance is so well done that it’s quite impressive. But let me get down to business, because we tried 17 different dishes here. There is a lot to discuss…

The first four dishes were cold preparations.

1. Thinly Sliced Pork Liver

This was nice. No mealy texture or gamey flavor. Good heat from the red chilis. Excellent citrus-flavored sauce.

2. Sweet Fried Pork Ribs

These were awesome. Great crispy texture, super tender, and with just a little bit of heat to gently contrast the sweet.

3. Razor Clams

These were served with Mexican green peppers (likely a poblano or hatch variety) as well as some red Thai chili peppers. Great preparation, and the clams were perfectly cooked.

4. Bean Jelly

This was one of my favorite dishes of the night. The bean jelly was reminiscent of a snappy, thick noodle. This was served with chili oil, peanuts, sesame seeds and scallions.

Okay now onto the warm food.

5. “Water Fish” Tilapia

This was both numbing and heat spicy. The fish was served in an over-seasoned broth so as to get all the flavors into the flesh of the Tilapia. In fact, the sauce/broth isn’t meant to be eaten, as is the case with many of the dishes we were served.

6. Dry Pot Frog

This was another favorite of the night. The frog was so tender on the inside and crispy on the outside. It was served with crisp, fried potatoes and lotus root in the mix too. That textural contrast really blew me away. Just be careful of the tiny bones in the frog meat!

7. Sliced Beef With Pickled Cherry Peppers

This was a really fun dish. The peppers were pickled, but the beef and cucumber cooked in the sauce were both fresh (meaning not pickled). Really nice.

8. Hot Pot

In addition to cabbage and mushrooms, this also contained slices of lamb meat and beef meatballs. Awesome flavors going on here when you mixed it all together, and a little bit of numbness from those famous Szechuan peppercorns.

9. Sweet & Crispy Corn

This was a nice way to knock back any heat that might be lingering in your mouth. These little nuggets were a perfect snack. Juicy inside, bursting with kernel corn flavor, but crispy and batter-fried on the outside.

10. Kung Pao Chicken

This is a famous dish, but done right and as close to authentic as you’re going to get. Lots of heat, really tender meat, and a great contrast of flavors and textures in the stir fry mix.

11. Ma Po Tofu

This is another famously spicy dish from the Szechuan region. The sauce here is a blast of heat and numbing spice, meant to be eaten with rice. I skipped the rice, though, and was just spooning the sauce into my mouth, gulp after gulp. It was great!

12. “Fishy Pork”

There is no actual fish in this dish, but it is made with the intent of giving the diner the essence or flavors of fish. The actual protein here is shredded pork, and it is delicious.

13. Hand Ripped Cabbage With Pork Belly

Bacon makes everything better, especially cabbage. This was a really nice way to get a veggie into the mix other than incorporating peppers and onions into a stir fry.

14. Double Pepper Chicken

Wow. Just when you thought Kung Pao was a kick in the balls, you discover double pepper chicken. The two peppers are green chilis (jalapeños) and red chilis (Thai chilis). But the sneaky spice here is the numbing Szechuan peppercorns that are also worked into the dish. Excellent.

15. Shrimp

These head-on giant shrimp were excellent. They even serve small shrimp where you can eat the shell as well.

16. Green Beans

I love how the veggie comes out last. These were simple and delicious though. A welcome addition to the meal.

17. Fried Sesame Cakes

I’ve had these babies before and I love them. These were filled with a squash mash or paste of some kind. I generally like the red bean or mung bean pastes better (they’re a little sweeter).

That about does it. I really want to come back here and try more stuff, or even just put down full portions of my favorite dishes from this trip, like the bean jelly and dry pot frog. Get your ass out here and try this stuff ASAP!

GUAN FU SZECHUAN
39-16 Prince St
G01
Flushing, NY 11354

White Bear

My buddy and I stopped into White Bear after a Charcuterie event in Flushing to try some dumplings / wontons in hot chili oil. The funny part is that the woman working there just brought out the plate of dumplings before we even ordered.

But I guess it kind of makes sense: Every white person that was in before and after us within the 20 minute span of time we were there ordered the same thing. She knew.

For $6 you get an order of 12. They were very tasty and well made.

WHITE BEAR
135-02 Roosevelt Ave
Flushing, NY 11354

Cafe Istanbul

Cafe Istanbul is a brand new middle eastern joint in Astoria that offers late hours, belly dancers, hookahs and great food.

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The owner, Sonny, is from Bombay, India. His love of food began when his mother inspired him to cook at age 15. Owning and operating a restaurant was his dream.

Chef Fathi hails from Egypt. Prior to Cafe Istanbul, he was a 13-year veteran of another popular middle eastern restaurant in Astoria. His cooking style is a blend of Mediterranean, Egyptian and Turkish cuisine.

The air in Cafe Istanbul is filled with delicious aromas and the sweet smells of hookah smoke. The best move is to get a few different teas and order a hookah right off the bat, that way you can sip and puff throughout the entire meal.

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I tried three teas: Moroccan, Egyptian and Turkish. My favorite was the Egyptian, which was similar to a sweet black tea. If you want something more mild, then go for the Moroccan tea, which is similar to a green tea variety.

We started the meal with some baba ganoush and  hummus, both of which were fantastic.

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I, in particular, really enjoyed the baba ganoush. I’m generally not an eggplant fan, but it was creamy, smooth and flavorful.

We slurped on some garlicky lentil soup as well, which was really warming on such a frigid winter night.

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We tried a duo of these wrapped “cigar” apps too. One was filled with melty, stretchy cheese, and the other with ground, spiced chicken. Both were good but if I had to choose a favorite, it would be the cheese.

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This simple chopped salad of lettuce, tomato, cukes, herbs and dressing was certainly my speed as far as salads go. I don’t like overly complicated salads with unidentifiable greens lurking within.

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We tried three entrees. First, the Istanbul steak:

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This was a thin cut boneless rib eye steak that was coated with a variety of very interesting spices – like sumac – grilled up, and then sprinkled with finishing herbs. At just $21 this is a good deal, and the robust and unique flavor profile is a great way to dress up a cut of choice beef. Ours was cooked to medium, which was appropriate for this particular cut. As it turns out, the eye portion was slightly more flavorful than the cap, which is an interesting anomaly for me to note for future reference.

Next up: lamb chops.

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The platter contained a mix of both lamb T-bones and rib chops, all seasoned in a similar manner as the rib eye steak above, with sumac and interesting middle eastern spices. I think I actually enjoyed the lamb more than the steak! I know – blasphemy – but these guys really nailed it with the lamb.

The final entree was actually my favorite of the three: shrimp tagine.

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You guys must think I’m losing my mind: the steak guy, not only liking the lamb better than the beef, but liking the shrimp above all! What can I say? It was perfect. The shrimp were cooked just right, and the sauce in the tagine was a nice, thick, tomato-based stew that really hit the spot.

And the rice! I usually despise rice. It’s boring! But here, it was really tasty, and I found myself just spooning it into my mouth over and over, all by itself.

Dessert was fun. We did some more teas, and a trio of nice end-of-meal selections.

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Baklava: This still retained a crunch while also benefitting from a good coating of syrup/honey and flavorings.

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Creme brulee with assorted berries on top:

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This was much lighter and fluffier than all the creme brulees I’ve had in the past. I liked it a lot! Sometimes custard can be heavy at the end of a meal, but this was the opposite.

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And almond rice pudding.

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This was actually my favorite of the three, because it was the least sweet. It was just right after a good meaty meal; delicate and mild.

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Definitely give this place a shot; especially if you’re out in Astoria on a regular basis. Heck; from midtown it was just a quick 30 minute subway ride and walk combined. Right now they’re open from 2pm to 2am, but in the future they will be open for lunch, and eventually breakfast as well.

Note: I was invited to dine as a guest of this establishment and received a complimentary meal. This was not in exchange for a positive review; all opinions expressed are my own.

CAFE ISTANBUL
25-47 Steinway St
Astoria, NY 11103

Jimbo’s Restaurant & Bar

Jimbo’s is a spacious neighborhood Greek bar and restaurant in Astoria, right near the Astoria Blvd subway stop. Inside there’s a nice long bar that serves up all the standard favorites, along with some Greek specialty cocktails, like Ouzo lemonade, which is a must try. From what I understand, some nights they have live music and dancing, late into the wee hours, 11pm-4am.

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Large door-style windows grace the street-side of the joint, which open up nice and big on sunny days – a real treat for the tables situated along the window. We saw a rainbow after a downpour.

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With a focus on fresh ingredients, Jimbo’s serves up some really nice cold spreads for snacking with pita bread at the start of your meal. We tried a trio with a salmon caviar spread, tzatziki and a potato spread.

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All were excellent, but the standout was probably the caviar spread. It was fluffy, light and had a natural brine flavor from the roe. This is a great deal for $10 and the amount that you get.

Speaking of good deals, appetizer portions are massive here, so be warned! We tried the grilled octopus and grilled sausage apps, and by time we were ready to receive the entrees, we were almost at full capacity. In fact we had to take some of the sausage home!

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The sausage was really excellent. It almost reminded me of blood sausage at times, but without the mealy texture that you can sometimes experience with that. It was spiced with really aromatic stuff like cumin, and had a robust and perfectly grilled earthy flavor. I would even love this chopped up a bit finer and served in a pita with tzatziki, cucumbers, tomatoes and lettuce. Perfection. Perhaps that item would be a nice fit for the lunch menu?

Jimbo’s offers a really interesting Greek burger on a pita with melted feta, which I had ordered, but I think that is really only offered on the weekend brunch menu. So instead I was served a standard burger with fries. I added some tzatziki on top from the cold spreads to boost it up a bit, since it didn’t have cheese.

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My wife had this really nice baked casserole dish with lamb and orzo called Arni Youvesti.

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It comes with a dish of grated parmesan cheese for the top, which is key, because it adds the necessary salt element into the dish. My advice is to pour it all in! The lamb was cooked perfectly. It was extremely tender and the meat was high quality.

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And the orzo underneath was a nice way to make this into a hearty stew. The pasta really took on the flavor of the tasty tomato sauce.

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Another enticing dish on the casserole menu is Arni Kleftiko, which is lamb with potatoes, herbs and lemon in extra virgin olive oil. Unfortunately, they did not have this available when we came for dinner, but I’d definitely try that on another trip.

The dessert menu also has some great looking items. In particular, Loukoumades, which is lightly fried dough served with honey and cinnamon: Greek zeppoles. And Galaktobouriko, which is baked Greek custard cream in phyllo dough and honey syrup. They were out of Loukoumades, and we initially planned to get that and Galaktobouriko. But after our entrees, we were too stuffed to even think about dessert! Next time we will know to manage the large portions a little more carefully so that we have room for dessert and Greek coffee.

FYI: Jimbo’s served us a free meal in exchange for an honest review.

JIMBO’S RESTAURANT & BAR
3005 Astoria Blvd
Astoria, NY 11102

Pao de Queijo

My friend Jeff from Foodmento organized an instagrammer event at Pao de Queijo, a Brazilian sandwich and burger joint in Astoria. Lucky for me, I was invited!

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This place also slings some really great smoothies and shakes, like this “Verano” shake, with pineapple, coconut and graviola (similar in flavor to a mango).

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This hit the spot and was super refreshing on such a hot, sunny day.

With a bunch of instagrammers on hand, there was a barrage of sandwich pics and stack shots going on.

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I managed to grab half of two sandwiches/burgers that I was really interested in trying. On the top/right in the pics below is the “X Banana” burger, which is a beef burger with banana, cheese, corn, potato sticks, lettuce, tomato and mayo. On the bottom/left is the “X Brazil” sandwich, consisting of sliced beef, cheese, egg, Brazilian sausage, corn, potato sticks, lettuce, tomato and mayo.

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Both were really great. I preferred the burger over the steak sandwich, mainly because the burger was more properly seasoned, and that banana was a great surprise that really drove some standout flavors. The burger patties have herbs and spices in the mix, which make these burgers very unique among the landscape of other burger joints.

“X Banana” Burger:

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The “X Brazil” was great in concept. I have two critiques: I think the steak just needed a bit more salt before it hit the grill, and perhaps the sausage should be chopped up a bit before it gets put onto the sandwich, that way your teeth don’t have to work through the snappy casing as much when biting down. Otherwise I loved it, and I would definitely order this again without any second thoughts.

“X Brazil” Sandwich:

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The best part about these sandwiches is that they’re properly constructed to minimize slippage and crap falling out the sides, which could otherwise make for a messy eating experience. The bread surrounds the contents nicely, and they’re wrapped compact enough so that it’s easy to get your whole mouth around for a bite.

There is so much more to try on their menu, like a burger with pineapple, or sandwiches with ham and chicken thrown into the mix. The sandwiches and burgers run anywhere from $3.75 for a simple ham and cheese to $12.50 for the “X Brazil.” Very reasonable.

Fries come separate at $3, and they’re really great when you add some of the green sauce on them, which you can find on each table.

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But the real star(s) of the “side show” are the restaurant’s namesake: Pao de Queijo, or cheese breads.

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These toasty little balls are a bread dough that’s been kneaded and mixed with cheese. The outside is crisp and warm, and the inside is a cross between bread and cheese. So awesome, so soft, so tasty… but beware: these things are fucking addicting.

In fact, as a promotion from this Instagram event, when you go here, if you mention the word “acai” you will get three free Pao de Queijo (three balls).

And speaking of acai, if you’re still hungry for dessert after all that sandwich gorging, or if you’re dieting for some ridiculous reason, then grab an acai bowl while you’re here.

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This one has acai puree on the bottom, which was like a cold berry soup, and is topped with bananas, mango, granola and mint.

PAO DE QUEIJO
31-90 30th St
Astoria, NY 11106

Via Vai

Located right at the end of the N/Q in Astoria is an amazing Italian joint called Via Vai (translation: Coming and Going).

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I was invited here for a free press dinner, but I can tell you honestly that this is some of the best Italian food around – especially the pizza. The flavors are not hidden with grated cheese or pepper on top at this place. You’re dealing with naked and natural dishes made from top quality ingredients. Everything comes to the table already nicely seasoned, and with great cooking technique there is no need for extra grated cheese or cracked pepper.

The first thing I noticed was that the staff can all speak Italian. In fact both people we met were from Italy. Valentina was from Genoa, and Manuel was from Rome. The crowd was good too; a full house by 7:30pm. Lots of neighborhood regulars were coming in, and the staff was eager to greet them. They even waved to people walking by on the streets – more neighborhood regulars that they know by name and sight. In fact the people next to us had clearly been there before, based on the conversation I overheard. They also spoke constantly about how great their pasta, shrimp and grilled veggies were. It seems like they had a great meal just like we did.

We started with some drinks: a Picus red wine, which was a nice blend of sangiovese and montepulciano. Very smooth. We also had a Staten Island hefeweizen from Flagship. It was the filtered wheat style: good flavor.

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The first thing that our lovely waitress Valentina brought to us was this plate of warm flatbread foccacia, which was like a pizza crust that was ever-so-lightly salted. It was served with olive oil that had a garlic clove and a rosemary sprig in it. Light. Perfect. I could eat this shit all day.

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Next up was a pizza, fresh from the brick oven:

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While I’m more of a traditional margherita pizza guy, this shit was so fucking good that I could see myself having this shit at least two or three times a week. A light, airy dough is made in house and allowed to rise for 48 hours. It gets crispy, soft, fluffy and absolutely perfect in terms of texture. This particular pie was topped with a fig marmalade, prosciutto, gorgonzola, truffle oil and arugula. This was Valentina’s favorite pizza on the menu, and Manuel told us that this is how he used to eat pizza in Rome.

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Next up was polpette (meatballs). The sauce was chunky and fresh, nicely seasoned. The balls were very soft, and made from all beef, which I like. Lots of times the pork, veal and beef mixtures can get too dense. I tend to be a picky meatball guy and I really liked these. I still like my mom’s better because she fries them in a pan first to give them a crispy crust before plopping them in the sauce – so you get crispy outside and soft inside.

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Then we got to try this really interesting gnocchi special. The purple color is from the beet and ricotta based pasta dough (all pasta is made fresh in house). The sauces on top were twofold: parmesan fondue porcini mushroom. The dish was then finished with some truffle oil and crushed hazelnuts. This was unique and very different, and stunningly gorgeous to see in person. They were like pasta bubble gum balls. I didn’t really taste any beet, but the flavor was really good.

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Last, we had some kickass desserts. The absolute best panna cotta I’ve ever had. It was insane. Realllllly smooth and creamy consistency. The texture was flawless. Not overcooked at all. It was like creme brulee but not as eggy, not too sweet.

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Last was tiramisu. This was super light and whipped, with cocoa sprinkled on top. There were thin layers of cake between the ricotta, and there was just a light hint of coffee flavor, which I appreciated (I’m not into heavy coffee flavors in dessert).

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Clean bathroom too – that is always important!

UPDATE 4/3/16

My wife and I came back here to try out their brunch/lunch options. They offer a great deal where you get two entrees/items and a dessert for $28. This is probably enough to split between two people, but my wife and I each did our own to maximize the items we wanted to try out.

Our “starters” were a spinach and egg pizza, and a spinach and asparagus crepe. The pizza was great, once again. The egg really brought home the breakfast feel, and Manuel even drizzled some truffle oil over the top to give it an earthy punch.

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The crepe was light and fluffy, and thicker than one might expect when hearing the word “crepe.” It was somewhere between an omelette and a crepe, I would say. It was covered with a light tomato sauce and filled with cheese, spinach and asparagus. Beautiful to look at, and even better to eat. This was a perfect brunch item.

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We tried two pasta dishes for the “entrees.” First was this bucatini carbonara. Bucatini, if you don’t know, is a thick spaghetti that has a hole through the center, like a straw. The sauce was nice and creamy without being too heavy. The portion size was great for the price, and the onion, pancetta and seasonings were all top notch.

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The other pasta dish was a rigatoni alla grecia, which was similar to the carbonara but without the creaminess. This ate much lighter, but both dishes contained perfectly cooked pasta that was just the right amount of al dente.

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By then we were full, so we brought some of the pasta home with us, but we couldn’t pass up on the dessert. We shared the panna cotta, which we knew that we loved from our earlier visit. I had forgotten how smooth and creamy this was. Just perfect. This time the plating was a bit nicer too, with some orange slices and pistachios.

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I highly recommend this place, especially for the pizza and pasta.

VIA VAI
31-09 23rd Ave.
New York, NY 11105

Rockaway Brewery, Meat Hook & Stagg Jam & Marmalade

I recently went to a release event for Rockaway Brewery’s newest beer, “Meat in the Middle,” with the man behind The Dishelin Guide.

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“Meat in the Middle” (4.8% abv) is a rauchbier that’s brewed with slow-smoked NY State barley. What makes it special and “meaty” is that it’s smoked with cherry wood at Brooklyn specialty butcher and sandwich shop, The Meat Hook.

The beer itself is pretty good. You get a hint of that smoke in there, with a malt-forward beer flavor. Very nice. I tried it in a flight of some other goodies. In this photo, it’s all the way on the left:

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The porters and dark beers here are really fantastic:

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After working up a little buzz, we hopped on one of the brewery tours and picked up some additional info about the brew process:

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By then we were hungry, so we ventured upstairs to try some of the sausages that The Meat Hook was selling.

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We tried both the Long Dong Bud and the Beet & Onion sausages.

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Check out the color on the Beet & Onion. Incredible! It was really nice, and topped with a kale kimchi type of slaw that really made the flavors pop.

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Long Dong Bud was topped with some shredded cheese, and a pineapple relish. It definitely had more of a traditional German type flavor profile, other than the relish.

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We were torn on which we liked best. I went one way (Long Dong Bud), and Jay went the other (Beet & Onion). In any event, if you can get over to The Meat Hook and try these, I highly recommend them.

Ben Turley, a butcher from The Meat Hook, gave us a demo of how he breaks down a “rear quarter” of a cow – a beef shank (a back leg).

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As he explained what he was doing, he trimmed off various specialty cuts within, like the oyster steak and merlot steak.

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Here’s a shot of the oyster steak:

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And some various other items like portions of the top round and eye of round.

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He parted out the femur bone, too.

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The coolest thing about this was that they were just slicing up parts of the lean beef sections and passing it around to eat raw, with just a little bit of salt on top. Awesome!

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One of the thicker cuts benefited from just a quick, hot sear:

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So this day was basically a dream come true. Good beer, Good food and a dead cow. And Ben basically has my dream job.

On my way out, I picked up a jar of this really crazy banana jam too, from Stagg Jam & Marmalade.

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They had a table set up where you could try all four of their jams on crackers. This bacon jam has a hint of citrus and vanilla that really explodes with flavor.

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ROCKAWAY BREWERY
46-01 5th St.
Long Island City, NY 11101

THE MEAT HOOK
100 Frost St.
Brooklyn, NY 11211

Ornella Trattoria

Meet Giuseppe Viterale, a meat man after my own heart.

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After putting his architecture career to the side, Giuseppe came to the US from Italy, sight unseen. He diligently worked his way up through the restaurant industry, all the way from bus boy, to waiter, to manager, and, eventually, to owner of his own restaurant, Ornella, which is romantically named after his wife of 25 years and staffed with his sons.

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But that’s not where it ends. Giuseppe owns a pig farm in the Catskills where he spends lots of time working on and perfecting new recipes, and curing his own meats. SAY WHAT!?!??

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For the last few years, he’s been making his own prosciutto, fresh sausages, cured sausages, nduja sausages and other delicious meat items that end up on the seasonal and special menus at Ornella. As you can imagine, the result is a restaurant that is very meat-centric, fresh, dynamic and locally sourced. Shit, he even has a pretty impressive steak menu and hosts a steak night on Mondays for $15… FIFTEEN DOLLARS!!!

But this isn’t just a place for meat eaters either. There’s a sizable vegetarian selection, and the menu boasts an array of authentic Italian dishes. There’s even some unique items like duck meatballs and sanguinaccio (a chocolate blood pudding dessert), inventive sauces like pistachio pesto sauce and orange brandy sauce, and interesting pasta dishes made from hemp, buckwheat and chestnut flour – all made fresh in house.

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They’ve even recently added a pizza selection for the delivery menu:

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The joint has even been featured on ABC’s Eyewitness News:

My wife and I stopped in for a complimentary press dinner after Giuseppe reached out to me and let me know about his gem of a restaurant in Astoria.

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Giuseppe has an incredibly magnetic personality. He is overflowing with information and a desire to impart his knowledge of food history, his food philosophy and his ideas about food culture onto everyone around him. He has actually even considered hosting classes for this very reason. But what exactly is his philosophy? That food, what we eat, how we eat it, and the quality and history of our dishes, is central to everything; our humanity, our health and well being, our economy, our interpersonal relations, and our understanding of one another. And he’s right. The kitchen is the center of any home. The table is where we congregate as a family and actually interact with one another. In a living room, we simply stare at the television. All peoples with rich cultures have rich food cultures, he explained. One thing that crosses cultural, visual, and audio-linguistic barriers is our common need and desire for food. Food brings people together.

Another interesting aspect of Giuseppe’s philosophy was what he referred to as “slow food.” With everything becoming expensive and factory-commercialized, with the proliferation of fast food joints and instant gratification meals, he was drawn to start making his own products and spend real time making dishes as opposed to just buying products and preparing them for diners. This is how the pig farm started. Giuseppe found that he could either buy nduja sausage for $80, which wasn’t that good to begin with and was very difficult to find in the form he wanted due to embargoes and other impediments, or he could make his own and control every aspect of the flavor, just how he wanted. He explained that he could actually verify where an animal came from and what it ate while living, unlike what is happening now with “prosciutto di Parma.” He could ensure the quality, the spice level, and the firmness or texture of whatever he was making. He could take different parts of the animal and cook them each in their correct way in order to utilize the entirety of the animal without wasting the undesirable parts. So many places only cook the items that are quick and easy to move off the line in a kitchen. “Slow food” is more respectful to the product and the environment, he explained.

His passion and respect for food shines through his dishes, as does his inviting, innovative and creative personality. He has applied his background in architecture to his food endeavors. “In order to have a strong building, you first need to build a good foundation,” he said. Quality ingredients, strong, basic cooking techniques… “Then you can build up, you can build flavors.” Well if cooking is architecture, then Giuseppe is Frank Lloyd Wright, and his food is the Guggenheim. Not only is he great with the foundations, but he is wildly creative as he builds up from there.

Here’s what we tried:

First there were the massively poured goblet of Montepulciano wine. Very smooth yet robust and flavorful. A perfect red for meat eating. I had read about the large glasses of wine served here online. This was a treat, and they certainly live up to their reputation of BIG wine pours.

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The bread was a nice rustic style, crisp and flakey on the crust and soft and savory on the inside.

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Giuseppe sat with us and explained the two different types of sausages we were about to try, both of which were homemade at the farm upstate.

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First was the nduja, which is a Calabrian-originated product that is somewhat similar to French andouille, only soft like a pate, as well as spicy. It was spread across a nice slice of farm house bread. The main ingredients are pork belly and red peppers. Simple and delicious.

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I’ve never had anything like this before, where it can be spread across bread like butter or pate. It was absolutely amazing. The spice level was mild to medium, so it didn’t ruin your taste buds for the rest of the meal.

Next was the hard, dried sausage. This was aged and cured perfectly. It would make for a really amazing thin-sliced charcuterie plate, but it is equally great to just gnaw on like jerky. It had a wonderful natural flavor. You knew you were eating something that was made with care.

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We had the pleasure of trying the famous duck meatballs for our appetizer. In the center was a blend of mild cheeses like mozzarella and ricotta, so as not to take away any attention from the duck.

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The orange brandy sauce was a classic pairing with the duck, yet presented in an innovative Italian way in the form of a meatball. Those are raisins you see garnishing the plate as well.

Next up was probably my favorite of the savory courses. Pork chop, pounded flat, lightly breaded and fried, and rolled up / stuffed with mushroom, spinach and cheese, dressed in a marsala wine sauce with mushrooms and served  with absolutely perfectly executed cavatelli.

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Cavatelli is my favorite kind of pasta, so for me to rave about it here means a little something extra. I loved it – every last bite.

Next was some “slow food” braised beef short rib, on the bone, and served with gnocchi. This was topped with a reduction of the braising liquids, which was essentially carrots, celery, onion and a little bit of tomato.

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Despite the fact that I am not a huge fan of gnocchi to begin with (too starchy and often gummy for me), I really did enjoy this dish. The beef was tender and fell off the bone, and the sauce was impressive. When I heard “reduction of the braising liquid” I was expecting something very salty. This was actually kind of light for a beef sauce. Impressive.

Last, but certainly not least, was the absolute star of the show for both my wife and I. You can’t get it anywhere else in the world, as a matter of fact. Only in Astoria at this small restaurant. This is the sanguinaccio. It is a raviolo made from a mixture of chestnut and regular flour, fried up like an empanada but stuffed with a 50/50 mixture of pigs blood and chocolate, to make a blood pudding that’s been spiced with cinnamon, clove, orange peel and sugar. If I had to guess, 90% of people would cringe at the description of this, but all you need to do is take one fucking bite and you will have your entire world turned on its head.

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This is definitely a bucket dish: a dish to put on your bucket list, something you must try before you die. And I’m not the only one who thinks this way. This dish (as well as another made by Giuseppe), was featured in the book “1000 Foods to Eat Before You Die,” written by famous New York Times food critic Mimi Sheraton.

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I really can’t say enough good things about that dessert. It was amazing, and I’m generally not a sweets guy, and certainly not a chocolate guy. I’ve never seen blood served in a dessert manner. I’d had my fair share of blood sausages, congealed blood cubes like gelatin in asian soups, etc. But never like this in dessert. Amazing. I’ll definitely be back here soon, and I hope you make your way there as well. Go and experience this rare dish, and fall in love with all the other great innovations that Giuseppe has to offer. He’s truly a talented man.

ORNELLA TRATTORIA
29-17 23rd Ave.
Astoria, NY 11105

Pho Bang

Pho Bang in Elmhurst has been touted as one of the best places to get a bowl of the increasingly popular Vietnamese beef noodle soup. I liked the broth flavor here: it was rich in beefy flavor, though not as light-feeling and aromatic as it should be. Since it was a little bit of a hike for me, I’d probably not go back since I can get a bowl that is on-par if not better downtown.

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The main problem for me with this bowl of soup was that I found a piece of thick, food-grade plastic bag in it. When I told the waiter, the manager came over and explained that it was just part of the bag that was snipped off to either unload the pre-packaged broth.

Anyway, I was hungry, so I plucked it out and ate it. But this would probably be a nail in the coffin of “not coming back here again” for most people. Here’s the piece of bag – it was about the size of a fingernail:

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PHO BANG
8290 Broadway
Elmhurst, NY 11373

S Prime Steakhouse

S Prime overall score: 88

My wife found a Groupon deal for this joint: $50 gets you $100. They had a nice menu, and now that we’re in the city again, the trip to Queens to check the place out was no worse than heading downtown after work. Nice easy subway ride on the R train.

Flavor: 9
I had the 60-day dry aged signature rib eye, of course. It was fucking great. Some of the fat wasn’t as soft and jelly-ish as I like, so that’s why I took a point (I had some scraps left). Otherwise this place is spot on, perfectly cooked, perfect temperature, no bleed out, nicely rested, juicy as a pair of titties in an early 90’s rap video.

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Choice of Cuts & Quality Available: 10
All the beef is dry aged in house, and prime. I was impressed with the beef here, and there was a great selection to choose from.

Portion Size & Plating: 9
Portions here are pretty big. As you can see from the images, you get a good deal of shit for your buck here. Plating is elegant and refined but not over the top fancy. At 28oz, the rib eye is a nice manly size, though it did feel a bit smaller than 28oz when it came out. Typically that is the weight before cooking and sometimes even before aging, so there is expected weight loss during those processes.

Price: 8
The prices here are pretty high for Queens, but the quality offsets that damage. Also, with their long-running Groupon deal, there is really no excuse not to come try this place out. Don’t let the pricey steaks deter you. Our bill for two came to $228 (not including the oysters and 2 drinks at the bar), minus $100 for the Groupon. Not bad.

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Bar: 10
There’s an absolutely awesome happy hour deal here. Dollar oysters and half price drinks and bar bites. The bar is big too, and it was already pretty full at 6:00pm when I arrived. They even have extra seating at high tables nearby, and a narrow bar along the windows. By time we were finishing our meal, the place was packed. Seems like a good scene. Anyway, we ordered up a few drinks and a dozen oysters before sitting for dinner. Total steal! Also worth noting here: HUGE wine selection, and beautiful displays of wine, for those of you who are wine freaks.

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Specials and Other Meats: 9
The other meats offered here are chicken, veal, and lamb. A very solid showing. They even have a cajun rub that they offer on their steaks, which is interesting. Our waiter also told us about some specials that were not on the menu, like a stuffed broiled lobster (my wife almost got it), and a berry cobbler dessert.

Apps, Sides & Desserts: 8
We started with the agave braised pork belly, which was huge and delicious. The outer skin was perfectly crispy too.

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Then we dove into a trio of tartares: tuna, scallop, and beef. All were good, but we liked the tuna the best:

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On the side we had parmesan herb fries, which were tasty but could have benefitted from a bit more crispiness.

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The fries went really well with the steak sauce, which was finally a refreshing step away from heavy tomato based sauces that other steak joints push on you:

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We also tried the creamed spinach. Our waiter talked us away from sautéed spinach and toward this dish because it had a nice bread crumb crumble on top. I wasn’t crazy about it. The texture of the spinach was a little too watery for my taste. Kinda wish we had stuck with the sautéed spinach order instead, but it’s all good.

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For dessert we split a slice of key lime pie. This was the only item that I thought was over priced. It was a bit small for $10, and we’ve had better key lime pie elsewhere.

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Seafood Selection: 9
There’s a great selection of seafood items. Aside from minimum 2-pound lobbies, they also rock a whole roasted branzino, salmon, tuna, and scallop entrees. And you can’t really beat dollar oysters at happy hour. We also tried the tuna and scallop tartare apps too, which were really good. My wife’s entree was a broiled lobster, which she loved. I only took a point here because one or two of the oysters were sub-par, but at a dollar a pop, who cares?

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Service: 9
When we sat down, the restaurant was largely empty, but we were put at a small table right next to another couple. That kinda stinks. I guess we could have asked for a different spot, but I don’t like being an annoying customer. Other than that, service was excellent, our waiter was perfect, and the manager was really polite and even waited on us when we were sitting at the bar along the windows before dinner. Oh yeah – the bread. There was a nice selection to choose from: pumpernickel, pretzel, seven grain, and more. The only issue is they were not warm and toasty, but the soft, whipped butter was delicious.

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They also brought out some nice, warm manchego cheese with honey drizzled over the top as a little snack. Very nice.

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Ambiance: 7
The space is very “Queens,” if that makes any sense. It was clearly a garage or some sort of wide open space that was converted into a restaurant. That’s great! I liked the lighting, the seating, the layout, etc. It had a nice upstairs and a beautiful stairway leading up. I think there was just a slight clash between modern and traditional that didn’t fit the space, and it also felt like it could be a club, despite the awesome 80’s music they had playing (nice!). Otherwise it is beautiful inside, and the bathrooms and kitchen are super clean. I know this next thing is a little nit-picky, but our table was massively wobbly. We had to shove a wad of doily underneath to balance it out a little better. We’ve had a string of bad wobbles lately at recent restaurants, so I figured I’d mention it here just because.

S PRIME
35-15 36th St.
Long Island City, NY 11106