Wednesday: noodles in Bensonhurst
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.
Thursday: Uighur in Brighton Beach
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!
Friday: Bangladeshi in Kensington
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?