My week in lunch – the rest of the story

Wednesday: noodles in Bensonhurst

 

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Hand-pulled noodles from the Hand Pull Noodle & Dumpling House

My plan for Wednesday was to take the D or the N to 18th Avenue, then walk the roughly mile-long stretch of avenue – southwest or northeast, depending which train I took – to the other line’s 18th Avenue stop.

The N came first, and so I emerged at 18th Avenue and 63rd Street and headed southwest.  Chinese and Italian were the two cuisines duking it out for my $7.50 lunch budget.  I passed several Chinese places almost immediately, but wasn’t ready to commit.  At the corner of 70th Street, a giant ice cream cone tried to lure me to a Sicilian pastry shop before I’d even eaten lunch, but my puritan streak* just wouldn’t allow it.  At 71st, Gino’s Focacceria promised extreme-eater bragging rights with vastedda (Sicilian for “you don’t want to know”), but it was closed. At 72nd Street, I made my call: the Hand Pull Noodle & Dumpling House.  I placed my order and took a seat.

For entertainment as I waited, I watched the owner’s two kids: a stocky, buzz-cut boy of maybe 7 or 8, and a preschool girl with two braids yoked together in a ruffled pink scrunchy.  The girl wore rubber sandals that squeaked – not an incidental, new-shoe kind of squeak, but an emphatic, baby-toy squeak.  Their grandmother painstakingly peeled, cored and cubed an apple for them, which they ignored.  Instead, the girl gleefully employed a pencil to inflict multiple puncture wounds on a piece of corrugated cardboard, while the boy offered up a lecture on pirates (“Do you like pirates? I would put every pirate in the Triangle of Death; that’s a real thing, the Triangle of Death.”).

They were starting to make me a little nervous – I was glad my food arrived quickly.

The fare: squiggly, chewy noodles in 5 spice-scented broth, inconsequential bits of pork (just enough to prove the dish wasn’t vegetarian), minced scallions and cilantro, mustardy greens, and funky, salty preserved cabbage.  The tab: $5.  The verdict: delicious.

Hand Pull Noodle & Dumpling House, 7201 18th Ave, Brooklyn 11204

A gallery of scenes from the neighborhood follows.

Giant ice cream cone, meet spiral shrub.

Giant ice cream cone, meet spiral shrub.

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Sadly, Gino’s appears to have served its last spleen sandwich – online reports have it closed for good.

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One of many social clubs linked to cities in Sicily. I also passed the Societa Figli di Ragusa, the Militello Val Catania Society and the Sciacca Social Club.

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Better luck next time, Azzurri.

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Dollar stores along the avenue had especially colorful displays.

Thursday: Uighur in Brighton Beach  

Kashkar Cafe's namesake salad

Kashkar Cafe’s namesake salad

Needless to say, I didn’t set out in search of Uighur food.  The general plan for the day was to take the B/Q to Sheepshead Bay, see what there was to see (and eat) around there, then continue on to Brighton Beach (where Russian food would be a safe bet if I came up empty in Sheepshead Bay) and take the train back from there.

There were a few small problems with this plan. Sheepshead Bay – or at least the part of Sheepshead Bay I was in – is not especially walkable.**  The Belt Parkway cuts through it just south of the B/Q station, and it was hard for a clueless pedestrian to figure out which streets went over it, which went under it, which dead-ended at it, and which were on-ramps to it.  I was more focused on (a) not getting lost and (b) not getting killed by a car than on lunchtime serendipity.  When I did spot an interesting-looking café, it turned out to be a fortune-telling parlor.***

At last I got to Emmons Avenue, which runs along Sheepshead’s namesake bay, and found myself in a nautical world of gargantuan restaurants.****  It was inspiring to see Greek, Turkish and Azerbaijani places coexisting in peace and harmony, even if all of them fell outside my $7.50 “lunch challenge” budget. 

And so I trudged on, past auto dealerships and car washes and streets that all seemed to be named Brighton with a number appended and, if a number alone wasn’t enough to distinguish them from the other Brightons, some additional appellation (e.g., Brighton 10 Lane, Brighton 10 Court, Brighton 10 Terrace, etc.). 

When I finally made it to Brighton Beach Avenue, I was ravenous.  And there, beckoning me, was the Kashkar Café.  Confession time: I had heard of Kashkar Café before, most likely on Chowhound.  But since I couldn’t remember what I had heard, or even what kind of a place it was (Russian? Georgian? Uzbek?), and since I hadn’t set out with it as my destination, I rationalized that it was not exactly a violation of my self-imposed “lunch challenge” rules.  Even if it was, screw the rules: I was hungry and here was a restaurant that fit (barely) within my budget.  I was going in.

Kashkar Café, as it turns out, is Uighur.  The menu offers a mini-tutorial on Uighur culture and history, and the dining room (by far the prettiest place I’ve visited this week) is full of Uighur art and artifacts. Almost everything on the menu, save for kebabs (of course), was new to me, and for the first time all week, I felt seriously constrained by my $7.50 limit.  But rules are rules (even if I’d already bent one by coming here in the first place), and so I limited myself to a single item, the Salad Kashkar ($7).  I couldn’t even get a lousy order of bread ($2) to go with it.  Needless to say, I drank water.

Fortunately, the salad was hearty: thin slices of red pepper and cucumber, shredded carrots and something white (turnip? radish?), loads of fresh dill, coriander seeds, and scraps of meat the kitchen couldn’t figure out what else to do with (I say that with admiration, not to disparage) – all soaked in a vinegary dressing.  It was satisfying, but to be completely honest,  I would still have liked some bread.

Kashkar Café, 1141 Brighton Beach Ave, Brooklyn 11235

Mark down today as the most challenging lunch challenge yet.  And now . . . picture time!

 

Big boat . . .

Big boats . . .

. . . breed big restaurants.

. . . breed big restaurants.

Fishermen plying the waters of Sheepshead Bay

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Brighton Beach fruit

Post-Soviet nostalgia, anyone?

Post-Soviet nostalgia, anyone?

Friday: Bangladeshi in Kensington

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It was with a certain amount of weariness that I set out today.  The past week has given me new respect for the authors of “obsessive quest” blogs – people like Julie Powell (of Julie/Julia fame) and my friend Gary Jarvis (who set out to run every street in Brooklyn and got more than halfway there).

Keeping this shit up is hard.

I toyed with the idea of heading to North Brooklyn, but that seemed like too much work. (I’ve also heard tell there are lots of annoying hipsters up there.)  Instead, I took the G train to the other end of the line – Church Avenue.

South Asian and Eastern European cultures collide at the intersection of Church and McDonald.  There’s the Golden Farm International Foods, promising Russian-Ukrainian-Polish-Turkish-Israeli-Kosher-Organic-Gourmet groceries; here’s a halal meat market and a grocery store selling live fish; across the street, an outlet for Bangladeshi fashions. A few Latino businesses, including a halal carniceria, have also found their way into the mix.

I had my choice of several Bangladeshi restaurants, all of them completely empty. I knew it was Ramadan, but wasn’t sure how observant the neighborhood’s South Asian community would be. The answer, it turns out, is “very.”  But places were still open for business, and so I chose one at random and awkwardly entered.

A lone worker, sitting at a table and tapping away at his smartphone, acted a bit surprised to have a customer.  I ordered an item from the steam table selection – long slices of eggplant and potato cooked with mild chilis – and he dished it up for me.  With rice, it came to $5. When I asked about the rows of Styrofoam drink cups in the cooler, he told me it was a cooling drink, very popular, and insisted that I have one, gratis.

He was much, much sweeter than I would be if I were fasting and had to serve food to people who weren’t.  I left a big tip.

The food was just OK.  It wasn’t very photogenic, the restaurant was dimly lit, and I was already feeling like a jerk, so no lunchtime snapshots today.  But about that drink . . . it was intensely pink and intensely sweet, with black specks floating in it – seeds, on closer inspection – and a mild, floral taste. I looked it up later, and learned that it’s called Rooh Afza.  It is, just as I’d been told, very popular.  It’s often part of a South Asian iftar meal (which is probably why all those cups had been prepared and were stashed in the cooler for later tonight).  The optional seeds – sabja, or sweet basil – are supposed to make the drink especially cooling. (That seems like a tall order for a tiny seed, but whatever.)

Ghoroa Restaurant, 478 McDonald Ave, Brooklyn 11218

 

 

*Yes, I do have one.

**Though knowing a bit about the community, rather than wandering blindly, would surely help.

***Or not.  A subsequent check online reveals that Café Rokhat – “do not confuse the café with the psychic next door” – is actually a Tajik restaurant with a sizable fan base on Yelp.  

****What is it about water that makes restaurants swell to ginormous proportions?

Westbury Court

IMG_1536 A bit more on yesterday’s lunchtime ramble:

The streets to the west of Flatbush are block-long “courts” dead-ending at the B/Q tracks and lined with apartments and row houses built, with many flourishes, at the turn of the last century.*  I walked down one of them, Westbury Court, to check it out and take pictures.  Back home, looking for more information on the history of the street and its rather grand apartment buildings, I mostly came up empty – but I did learn that the writer Edwidge Danticat lived there for a few years as a teenager and that she used the street’s name as the title of an essay about loss and memory.

I read the essay yesterday afternoon, for the first time.  It tells of a fire, dead children, a shooting, run-of-the-mill burglaries.  While taking pictures and thinking about lunch, I had stumbled into a dense thicket of memory, lives, ghosts.

I wish I’d been less clueless and more reverential, that I’d treated the block as hallowed ground. But, you know, it’s all hallowed ground.  Westbury Court just happens to have an extraordinary storyteller to remind us of that fact.

End of Westbury Court

End of Westbury Court

Nautical tile, north side of Westbury Court

Nautical tile, north side of Westbury Court

Entry detail, south side of Westbury Court

Entry detail, south side of Westbury Court

*My go-to source in this case being Adrienne Onofri’s Walking Brooklyn.

Tuesday’s lunch challenge report

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With torrential rain, thunder and lightning, damaging winds, hail, frogs and locusts in the forecast, my so-called challenge became more, well, challenging.  But I was up for it.  Umbrella in hand and just-in-case MetroCard in my bag, I cut through Prospect Park to the Lincoln Road entrance.  Even if my go-to place for Trini food* was off limits (the challenge is to find places I’ve neither eaten in nor read about), I figured there would be plenty of other options in Prospect Lefferts.

From Lincoln Road, I walked south on Flatbush not quite to Parkside, then back up the other side of the street.  The commercial strip is heavy on laundries/laundromats, hair and nail salons (my favorite: “Butter Nails”), wire transfer services and small groceries.  I saw one fancy coffee shop – pretty much obligatory in a Brooklyn neighborhood that the New York Times  real estate section has called the borough’s “best-kept secret.”  (Amazing, the ability of black and brown people to keep the places they live secret!  Cue Spike Lee and “Christopher Columbus syndrome.”)   In addition to straight-up West Indian eateries, I passed West African (one) and Chinese and Indian (many) places . . . which, come to think of it, is in and of itself a pretty West Indian mix.  Oh, and there was also a clothing store (pictured above) that was essentially a shrine to Bob Marley.

I finally turned in to Errol’s Caribbean Bakery – Caribbean, in this case, meaning Jamaican.  They had hot food on offer – jerk, various curries – but the heat and humidity had done a number on my appetite and what I really wanted was a snack and a cold drink.

The fare and the tab: callaloo patty ($2) and store-made** peanut punch ($4).  Both of these, I should add, were at the top of the price range in their respective categories . . . I could probably have had change back from a $5 bill if I’d gone with a beef patty and ginger beer, but you pay more for health food.  And that’s what this callaloo patty was: plenty of long-cooked chopped greens stuffed inside a whole-wheat crust, then baked.  I am not generally a big whole wheat fan – there’s a certain hair-shirt aspect to it that I find (a) annoying and (b) not so tasty – but there was nothing self-righteous or penitential about this patty.

The peanut punch was cold, creamy, and sweet.  Jamaicans may sing its praises as a healthful, protein-packed energy drink, but I know a milkshake when I taste one.

The ambiance: bakery display cases full of buns, cakes and rolls, a refrigerator full of drinks and juices and a counter area full of friendly people.

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Behind the counter at Errol’s

Errol’s Caribbean Bakery, 661 Flatbush Ave, Prospect Lefferts Gardens, Brooklyn

Errol's Bakery & Catering on Urbanspoon


*De Hot Pot, 1127 Washington Avenue, Brooklyn.  Best doubles I’ve ever had.

**I refuse to say “house made,” because Errol’s is definitely not a “house.”

 

This week’s challenge: lunch

Not your ordinary agua fresca

Not your ordinary agua fresca

Here’s the challenge I’ve set for myself this week: head out to a different neighborhood each day and find someplace new for lunch for $7.50 or less.  No old favorites (sorry, De Hot Pot, Ba Xuyen and Yun Nan Flavour Garden), no falling back on Chowhound or Cheap Eats recommendations, no vetting places online.  The point is to explore.

And so I took the R to 45th Street and strolled up to 5th Ave (past a Dominican spot, duly noted), where every third or fourth storefront is a Mexican restaurant, bakery or grocery store with a lunch counter tucked away.  El Comal drew me in with its name (which has sentimental associations from a favorite Central American restaurant in Detroit, now sadly closed) but mainly with the bags of chicharrones and multi-hued jars of agua fresca out front.  The menu covered all your standard antojitos (tacos, sopes, tortas and cemitas, etc.).  It’s also a bakery, so you can check out the shell-shaped, sugar-dusted sweet breads and cream-filled horns while you wait.  If you find such things tempting, be forewarned.  (Bakeries are usually dangerous places for me, but I’ve never developed a taste for Mexican pastries, so I was safe here.)

The woman behind the lunch counter won my heart by giving my bad Spanish (“dos tacos de lengua”) the benefit of her doubt.  Si, con cebolla y cilantro.  Para llevar, gracias.

The fare: soft corn tortillas, piled high with cubes of tongue steamed until the meat was practically melted down, and sprinkled with onion and cilantro.  And because I’m indecisive, one container of red sauce and one of green.

The tab: $2.50 per taco.  (Tongue is a premium ingredient: who knew?  More pedestrian options were $2.00 per taco.)

The ambiance: a row of small tables against the wall in back, religious statues on top of the bakery case, no dine-in customers to be seen.  (I had already planned to eat in the park.)

Because lunch was so cheap, I grabbed a melon agua fresca (another $2.50) from the counter out front on my way out.  But wait! What is she doing? Is that melon granita she’s scooping into a plastic glass?  And then ladling the juice over it?  Indeed it was.  It was like a combination agua fresca/granizado and it was icy cold, pulpy and delicious.

El Comal, 4711 5th Avenue, Sunset Park, Brooklyn

Tacos in the park

Tacos in the park

El Comal Jugeria & Taqueria on Urbanspoon

Class at SummerStage

Dear SummerStage security people:

Was it really necessary to evict concertgoers from the empty “Friends of SummerStage” tent during last night’s downpour? Even when the well-dressed white couple who’d briefly occupied two of the many seats had already left? (They were just not feeling Bodega Bamz.*) Even when the trespassers included toddlers and babies?

I was admiring the way others had seized the tent and wishing I’d thought to do the same – it seemed totally in keeping with the words Ana Tijoux was firing off so powerfully and joyfully from the stage – when you showed up. From what I could see, you were polite (thank you for that) but firm. Within a few minutes the hoi polloi who’d taken shelter had scattered (well, there was that problem with the toddler who ran away and hid, but the parents eventually coaxed him/her out) and the tent was empty again.

I appreciate the need to offer some sort of incentive to major donors, I really do, but come on. The tent was empty. EMPTY. And it was pouring. And did I mention the babies and toddlers?

Great concert, though.

*Neither was I, but that’s neither here nor there.

Pigeons

There are, contrary to what many would think, lots of birds in Brooklyn.  I’ve seen an osprey grab fish out of a small pond in Prospect Park.  A red-necked grebe, possibly befuddled by the polar vortex, spent much of last March on Prospect Lake.  Warblers – pine, palm, yellow-rumped and more – arrive in predictable succession each spring, and unusual sightings (prothonotory by the Upper Pool! mourning by the Quaker Cemetery!) are sure to draw a dozen or more binocular-draped paparazzi.

Most of these birds are migrants, just passing through, attracted to the little patch of green that is Prospect Park.  When it comes to breeding birds, there’s considerably less variety.  And when it comes to birds that don’t mind breeding in the dark, cramped gaps between buildings, or in the tiny patios and decks that pass for backyards on our block, you’re pretty much left with starlings, house sparrows, mockingbirds* and pigeons.

The last is my focus here.  Feral pigeons, also known as rock doves, love this city.  They especially love the narrow shaft between our building and the next, where window ledges, air conditioners and exhaust ducts jostle for space.  Many of those window ledges and air conditioners have pigeon-deterring spikes on them . . . but not all.  Those that don’t are, in effect, an invitation to pigeons to come and stay a while.  Settle down.  Raise a family.

Early this spring, I noticed two pigeons hanging out on the neighbors’ (unspiked) air conditioner.  Then I noticed two eggs in the crevice between the air conditioner and the window: no nest, just two eggs surrounded by small feathers and streaks of pigeon filth.  The parents (I assume they were the parents) were intermittently present but displayed very little interest in the eggs they’d produced.

I, on the other hand, was fascinated.  I made a point of checking on the eggs each time I passed the first landing – yep, still there. As weeks went by, it became pretty clear that we weren’t going to be welcoming any baby pigeons into the world. I felt slightly relieved (good riddance! filthy birds! and what terrible parents, too!), but also slightly sad.

I spent most of May in Detroit for work, and when I got back, the scene had been transformed.  On top of the same air conditioner, a pigeon now sat dutifully on a nest of carefully interlaced twigs. It was as though a pigeon social worker had been dispatched to provide our pigeon couple with counseling and parenting classes.  I couldn’t see the eggs – that’s how faithful the sitting pigeon was – but I was sure they were there.

So they were, and this time, they hatched.  I caught a glimpse of something larval squirming under the parent, and over the course of the next week, made out two chicks. In recent days, they’ve acquired downy yellow feathers and begun to look recognizably birdlike.

Soon, I’m sure, I’ll start to mutter things about “rats with wings.”  But for the time being, I’ll be rooting for them.

 

 

*Super-annoying and the bane of rooftop gardeners.  I just may kill one before the summer is over.