Tag Archives: NYC

The Kopitiam Experience in NYC

malaysiaKopitiam (151 East Broadway, New York, NY 10002) has been on our radar for a while. When we visited Singapore and Malaysia we were first introduced to Nyonya (also known as Peranakan) cuisine, which is a mix of the Chinese and Malaysian cultures that settled in the region. Since then, we have been on the lookout for this delicious cuisine stateside. Kopitiams are traditional coffeehouses/eateries found throughout Malaysia (the name comes from the Malay word for “coffee” and the Hokkien word for “shop”), and the NYC restaurant is a modern take on this restaurant genre. Kopitiam is inspired by the Nyonya heritage of chef/co-owner and James Beard Semifinalist Kyo Pang. The restaurant is co-owned by chef Moonlynn Tsai.

We were lucky enough to visit Kopitiam last year with a friend, so we were able to sample a wide variety of dishes in simpler times. Fortunately, Kopitiam is still open for carryout during Covid. As a result, the menu is more limited, but many of the favorites we tried last year are still there. Under normal circumstances, Kopitiam is a quick-service restaurant, no reservations accepted.

Kopitiam serves breakfast all day, featuring some iconic favorites including iconic kaya butter toast ($5) slathered with kaya (pandan coconut jam) and butter. This is one dish we are sorry we missed, and we hear it is amazing. Also available for breakfast is nasi lemak, which is perfect for any time of day ($9). The components of nasi lemak are coconut rice, egg, cucumber, and crispy anchovies, all topped with homemade sambal sauce, and it is definitely more than the sum of its parts.

True to its coffeehouse moniker, Kopitiam serves several varieties of coffee and black tea, hot and iced, and served with and without condensed milk. One of the most famous drinks is the teh tarik (seen above), tea foamed with condensed milk. There were other non-caffeinated options like Bandung ($4.5, the pink drink above) made with condensed milk and rose cordial syrup, or if you want a throwback taste of childhood, you can order Horlicks or Milo ($3.75) malted milk drinks.


We ordered two chicken dishes, which served as appetizers. First up was the pandan chicken ($6.5) steamed chicken dumplings steamed in aromatic pandan leaves. Those who like chicken wings, will love the Belacan wings ($7) bone-in chicken wings coated in a salty-sweet caramelized shrimp paste chicken. Our favorite light bite was probably the cold spicy sesame noodles ($8), the house-made spicy sauce was both rich and savory – a total umami bomb – and perfectly served cold. We can’t turn down handmade noodles, so we had to order the Pan Mee ($12) flat homemade flour noodles in anchovy broth, fried anchovies, wood ear mushroom, spinach and minced pork. This was probably my favorite dish, and the mix of flavors with the salty anchovy kick was amazing.

Don’t sleep on the desserts either. We were really excited to see a variety of Kue Lapis, a many-layered flavored cake, here served in a cinnamon version ($3). You can also order rose and lychee flavored mochi, or honeycomb cake. Kopitiam is a real taste of Malaysia in New York, and we can really appreciate the dedication and care the team brings to every dish. We are looking forward to getting back to NYC some day soon and sampling more of what Kopitiam has to offer.

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First Trip to Russ and Daughters in NYC

Russ and Daughters (179 E Houston, New York City) has been a lower east side fixture since 1914, and is one of New York City’s (and the country’s) best traditional Jewish delis. It is also one of the few business that has “And Daughters” as opposed to “Sons” in the name. We had been meaning to go to Russ and Daughters for probably a decade, but due to a series of circumstances, never made it there on all of trips to NYC. But finally, in October 2019, we did make it! You can recognize the store from down the block due to its original, vintage neon “appetizers” sign emblazoned with fish. What Russ and Daughters sells used to be called “appetizings,” and were considered places to get accompaniments to bagels. Inside and out, we appreciated that the store was reflective of the company’s long heritage: from the painted signs to the glass cases and the vintage-modern packaging.

The inside of the shop is TINY, as you can see below. You take a number and are served in order. You may have to wait a while, as we did, even at the off time of 3pm on Monday. There are two sides to the store, the sweet/bakery and the savory. On the sweet side you can get bagels, rye bread, challah, black and white cookies, babkas (chocolate or cinnamon), halvah, dried fruit, nuts and chocolate-covered sweets by the pound. In the cooler, there are sodas, pickles, and packages of blini ready to go, among other things.

While waiting, we decided to partake in some of the items from the sweet side, since you don’t need a number to buy items. If you are a previous reader of the blog, you may know that we are big fans of babka, an enriched sweet bread with a swirl of flavor, and are always looking out for a new variety. We opted for a slice of chocolate babka ($3 for a slice/ $14 for a whole) and our dining mates got some chocolate orange peel by the pound. The babka, while good, was no match for our favorite babka in the city. It was still very good, and a much needed snack while we waited our turn.

The savory side is the more impressive of the two, and the line belies this fact. Within the immaculate glass cases is a wonderland of cured and smoked fishes available by the pound. I must confess that my knowledge of smoked/cured fish is somewhat limited, though I do like the smoked offerings from Calumet Fisheries. There are no less than a dozen varieties of salmon alone, differing in origin (Norwegian, Irish and Scottish) and preparation (wet-smoked, cured, pastrami-cured, and dry-smoked, between $34 and 54 a pound). We are clueless about the qualities and characteristics of the different types of salmon, so we relied on the clerks for their expert advice. This Bon Appetit article with input by Josh Russ Tupper of Russ and Daughters, also helps break it down. One important distinction we did know, though, is that gravlax/lox is traditionally cured, NOT smoked, as many people think when they hear “lox.” There were other types of smoked fish on offer including: sable, sturgeon, whitefish and tuna ($15 to 56 a pound).

Though the fish are the stars of the show, you can also get other savories by the pound: pickled herring, egg salad, chopped liver, gefilte fish, latkes, caviar and roe of varying types, whitefish salad and knishes (many among other options, ranging between $9 and 25 a lb). We were already fantasizing about the amazing appetizer spread we could make with the endless options. However, if you are feeling like eating your fish right then instead of bringing it home (as we ultimately were), you can get a bagel sandwich, by selecting your individual fillings, or choosing a pre-picked combination. You first select a bagel (plain, sesame, everything, etc.), choose a cream cheese (goat cheese, plain, tofu, etc.), and finally a filling (many fish varieties or egg salad), plus capers and tomatoes for 50 cents extra each. The classic sandwich fillings are freshly sliced from the fish counter: Gaspe Nova, Norwegian smoked salmon, Salt-Cured belly lox, gravlax and more.

M got the Fancy Delancey ($12) which was a smoked tuna sandwich with horseradish dill cream cheese and wasabi flying fish roe, and I got a choose-your-own classic dill-brined gravlax with cream cheese ($13), both sandwiches on sesame bagels. Though the prices may seem a little steep, the bagel sandwiches are stuffed to the brim. The man at the counter sliced the fish with surgical expertise. We appreciated the attention to detail: everything was done in an exacting way, and was not rushed. The fish was superlative, of the highest quality, and melt-in-the-mouth tender. Having cured fish this good really makes you know what you are missing every other time. We could eat this stuff every day! We washed everything down with a classic Dr. Brown’s cream soda, the essential deli accompaniment (Dr. Brown’s Cel-Ray is good too). We are so glad that we finally got to Russ and Daughters after all these years. It lived up to the hype, AND it is worth the wait (not often that we say both of those things).

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Berber Street Food offers a tour of Africa and the diaspora

When we heard that there was a new African restaurant in NYC with a chef from Mauritania, our ears perked up. The restaurant is the brainchild of chef Diana Tandia, who is originally from Mauritania, but has worked in upscale restaurants around NYC for decades. She decided that it was time to strike out on her own, so she opened Berber Street Food (35 Carmine St, New York, NY 10014). The menu is a mosaic of different African and African Diaspora cuisines, along with some interesting fusions.

Berber Street food is a tiny – and we mean tiny – restaurants with 15 seats. This counter-service is not a place for groups, or to linger over a leisurely lunch (though when we were there, the couple occupying the table in the window was having a simultaneous birthday party and photo shoot, so who knows). When we entered around lunchtime, the place was packed, and we were happy to see that they were doing a brisk takeout trade.  Many of the lunch orders were buying Afro-Fusion express bowls ($10), which were various combinations of grains, greens and proteins, including tofu curry, Berber-spiced meat and Jamaican jerk chicken.

For starters, called “street food bites,” there are Senegalese empanadas (vegetable or beef curry $3 each), Kofta meatballs with Berber spices ($8), or a Suya Nigerian beef brochette ($8), along with Jamaican jerk chicken wings ($7.5o). All of Africa and the diaspora seemed to be covered.We were excited to see akara, a black-eyed pea fritter that is the Nigerian descendants of Brazilian acarajé with tomato and onion sauce ($7), so we knew we had to order it. Though smaller in size to acarajé, they tasted pretty similar and were delicious. M topped his with some spicy kani, west African hot sauce made of habanero peppers (which were also placed decoratively in basket at each table).

The mains were a little more pricey, and covered the greats hits of the region, including Djolof Fried Rice (which is claimed by many West African countries – $17) rice cooked in a spicy tomato sauce with either chicken or tempeh and Moroccan vegetable tajine, served served in an actual tajine ($18). We had the Berber Feast ($24) which consisted of roast lamb, squash and couscous, the most Mauritanian item on the menu. The lamb was fall of the bone tender and not gamey at all (sometimes a problem with lamb), and we enjoyed the accompaniments and sauces, though we felt the price was a little steep for the portions. We washed down our dinner with Berber iced mint tea ($3) and ginger lemongrass drink ($5) – we also discovered that these two mixed together made an amazing riff on the Arnold Palmer.

The attention to detail in Berber Street Food restaurant is amazing. It is basically a one-woman show, with Diana cooking, taking orders and delivering food (though it did appear she had a sous chef helping her back in the kitchen). We enjoyed talking with Diana, who connected with us over having spent some time in Brazil. If we lived in the area we could definitely see ourselves having lunch here pretty often. We wish Berber Street Food nothing but success!

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Lilia’s new-school Italian in NYC

Italy

We have been traveling a lot this year: LA, Kansas City, New Orleans, Madison, Chicago, Columbus… and as a result, we have an ever-growing backlog of posts we have been meaning to write. So, we thought it was about time that we post about a restaurant we’ve been thinking of for a while: Lilia (567 Union Ave, Brooklyn, NY). We are famously finicky about Italian food, we always figure that we can make it better (and cheaper) at home, so, other than pizza, we rarely order Italian out. But sometimes a restaurant seems interesting and special enough to lure us out of our old habits, and that was the case with Lilia. Lilia is the brainchild of chef Missy Robbins, and was named as one of the best new restaurants in 2016 by the New York Times and Time Out New York.

Photo From Eater NYC

The restaurant is definitely scene-y, and we were certainly not cool enough to be there among New York’s buzziest. And I can’t say we were made to feel particularly welcome: even though we had a reservation early on a Thursday, we still had to wait about a half hour to sit, all the while waiting awkwardly in the vicinity of the bar, because the bar itself was completely full. Though in the meantime we did have time to explore the interesting space – which used to be an auto repair shop – and the menu. The menu was divided into small plates and entrees, but we opted for small plates to share. The pasta is all made by hand, and we heard only great things about the sorcery of Missy Robbins, who cut her teeth as Executive Chef at Chicago’s Italian icon Spiaggia from 2003-2008.

More precisely, the menu is divided into cocktail snacks, antipasti, “Little Fish,” Pasta, “Big Fish,” and Meat. The cocktail snacks are sort of like appetizers for your appetizers: Sicilian olives, prosciutto, house-made mozzarella or radishes with sea salt. Up one level in size are the antipasti, including many interesting veggie-forward combos: Red celery and fingerling potatoes; whole artichoke with mint; and cauliflower with spicy sopressata and pesto. I notice that now they have Bagna Cauda on the menu – which we certainly would have gotten! Our first chosen dish was roasted trumpet mushrooms with balsamic, arugula, and Sicilian almonds (above) – the mushrooms were woodsy, and almost meaty, and went well with the deep, aged balsamic. For a second “lighter” bite, we went with the fennel salad with oranges – one of our favorite dishes that we first tried in Siracusa, Sicily. There is something about the combination of fennel and oranges that is just perfect.

Next was the “Little Fish” menu which featured grilled scallops with walnut, yogurt and marjoram alongside mussels and sea salt. From this section of the menu, we started out with cured sardines with capers, butter and dill on top of fettunta (bread rubbed with garlic – above). This was our favorite bite of the night – salty, savory and a perfect flavor combination. Sardines have really been growing on us recently, and these were the salty, savory bite showcased on some excellent bread. The “Big Fish” and Meat sections of the menu had much larger entrees and included grilled swordfish with sweet/hot peppers and mint and grilled veal flank steak with hot peppers.

The pasta dishes are intended to be a starter course, as in Italy, but we basically ignored that advice. There were almost 10 pasta choices, and each sounded more delicious than the next: ricotta gnocchi with broccoli pesto, basil and pistachios; fettuccine with spicy lamb sausage; or potato-filled ravioli with crème fraîche, garlic and rosemary. From the pasta menu we chose the sheep-milk cheese agnolotti (mini, rectangular filled pasta pockets), topped with saffron, dried tomato and honey and Malfadine – flat pasta with wavy edges – with pink peppercorns and Parmesan. The malfadine dish was a great riff on cacio e pape. The simple Roman classic was elevated by the slightly thick, handmade pasta and high-quality Parmesan. The agnolotti was light and fresh, with a slight sheep’s-milk tang which shone through the light sauce. The handmade pasta was uniformly excellent. We finished off our meal with a seasonal apple galette with winter fruits- which was perfectly proportioned with flaky, crispy crust.

Flipping the script – Lilia is also known for their soft serve (we didn’t sample it this time, but maybe we will be back)! The Italian-only wine menu is quite extensive, and they have the widest selection of amari (after-dinner bitters) we have ever seen! In the morning, and for lunch, you can visit a more subdued Lilia for coffee, pastries and panini. Though you may have to cut through the hype a little bit to eat there, we really enjoyed our meal at Lilia. The small plates were all perfect and simple in an ingredient-forward way, spicing up traditional flavor combinations and dishes. Lilia lived up to our standards for Italian food, and that is saying something!

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Amazing arepas in NYC at Arepas Cafe

VenezuelaWe think Venezuelan arepas are one of the most perfect foods: a carb-y masa shell, perfectly handheld, filled to the brim with tasty fillings (often including cheese!). Due to this perfect formula, it is no surprise then that arepas are increasingly popular worldwide. We even had arepas in Porto, Portugal (not to mention a few times in Chicago and Cleveland). One of my favorite arepa joints is located off the beaten path in Astoria, Queens, Arepas Cafe (33-07 36th Ave, Astoria, NY 11106). Lucky for me, Arepas Cafe is located conveniently near my cousin’s place, so I get to go there whenever I visit NYC.ArepasCafe.jpg

Arepas Cafe is a humble storefront that does a brisk takeout business. We started out our lunch with my favorite Venezuelan drink, the limeade-like, Papelón con limón ($3.50), which is like the best, sweetest version of lemonade you have ever had (or the Brazilian “Swiss lemonade”). For appetizers you can get mini versions of arepas, empanadas, and cachapas (fresh corn pancakes) or the classic fried yucca ($5 for any). Though the arepas are the main draw, you can also get heartier meat entrees including the Venezuelan national dish Pabellón Criollo ($13) – shredded beef, white rice, black beans, cheese and fried sweet plantains.

Venezuelan Arepas

The bulk of the menu is made up of arepa varieties (All of the arepas are $8 or less). There are combos for vegetarians and meat eaters alike – and we really enjoyed the Arepa Pabellón Pernil – roast pork with black beans, white cheddar and fried sweet plantains and the Guayanesa Tropical – Guyanese cheese (white fresh cheese), fried sweet plantains and avocado (pictured above). The pernil was tender and juicy and the sweet platanos maduros complemented the fresh cheese particularly well. Beyond our favorites, you can also get arepas filled with cheese, mushrooms, black beans, tuna, shrimp, chicken and more (I included my favorite arepa infographic above to give you some potential combination ideas). Arepas Cafe’s arepas are generously sized and delicious, and we have never been disappointed by our selections. Arepas Cafe is an absolute steal for NYC, and is the perfect place for a quick, hearty lunch.

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The perfect pre-theater dinner in NYC – Ramen

We were lucky  enough to get Hamilton tickets in NYC this year, which brought us to the age old question – where in the worlds are we going to eat? The key to pre-theater food is that it has be quick and close to the theater – it’s a bonus if it is any good (this is harder than it may seem). Fortunately, we think we have cracked the code for pre-theater dining in NYC – ramen! Turns out there is a pocket of great ramen joints pretty near NYC’s theater district. One of the best places to go is Totto Ramen (366 W 52nd St, New York, NY 10019), or Totto Ramen Next Door (366 W 52nd St. – same address…but next door) if that is a bit too busy! The best rumored ramen in the area is Ippudo (321 W 51st St, New York, NY 10019), and you might also try your hand at getting a spot there, but we heard that the line could be epic.

The name of the game at each of these places is ramen, and each is basically a walk-in. Regardless, there may be a line, even at Totto Ramen, and we had better luck going “Next Door” on a Thursday night. The menu at Totto Ramen Next Door is an abbreviated version of Totto Ramen – but all of the ramen greatest hits are there. You can order a piping-hot bowl of vegetable ramen (regular $9 or spicy $10), richer pork tonkatsu ramen, available with both shoyu or shio broths in both regular or spicy varieties ($12-14). The tonkatsu is the specialty of the house, so we knew we had to try it for ourselves. If you are really feeling peckish you can get a “Mega char siu tonkatsu” with a larger bowl and an extra helping of char siu pork ($16-17). It may have not been the most amazing ramen we have ever tried, but it was rich and flavorful, and the veggie ramen was some of the freshest and most colorful we have ever had. Plus, it may have just been the quickest and cheapest thing in the theater district aside from fast food. We walked right to our show after grabbing a bite, which took less than 45 minutes, all told. So do away with all of the fuss and expensive pre-dinner packages and just get yourself some ramen!

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Brazilian food and culture in Astoria, Queens

Today is Brazilian Independence Day, so I think some Brazilian food adventures are called for. Whenever we visit a a city in the US we always check to see if there is a Brazilian food or cultural outpost. You’d be surprised at how many places have a hidden Brazilian gem. However, one of the best places for Brazilian food in the US – that is no secret – is the Astoria neighborhood in the NYC borough of Queens. Astoria is perhaps most famously known for its sizable Greek population, though in recent years it has become an amazingly diverse place. Along with an influx of other Latin American and Middle Eastern cuisines, Astoria has become more Brazilian in the past decades and there are the food establishments to prove it.

Our first stop in Brazilian Astoria is always Rio Market (32-15 36th Ave, Astoria, NY 11106), which is definitely the biggest Brazilian grocery store we have seen in the US. They have pretty much every Brazilian dry good you could hope for: coffee, cookies, Guarana soda, sauces, tea, rice, beans, soap, shampoo, and even Brazilian soccer paraphernalia and Havaianas. What sets them apart is their wide selection, and the fact that they also have rarer fresh foods like queijo coalho – the cheese on a stick you can buy on Brazilian beaches – and picanha steaks. There is also a small cafe in the front of the store that serves simple dishes, feijoada, pão de queijo and coffee. A new feature is that you can order products from Rio Market online!

However, for Pão de Queijo, you must stop at New York Pão de Queijo (31-90 30th St.) aka Astoria Pão de Queijo or just Pão de Queijo. This hole in the wall restaurant reminded us pleasantly of a typical urban corner restaurant in Brazil. You of course have to get the Pão de Queijo, but there are also salads, acaí bowls and X-Burgers (Brazilian Portuguese for Cheeseburger – the X is pronounced “Sheese” – get it?).  Within Astoria there are also a plethora of restaurants tapping into a variety of Brazilian food traditions beyond just the churrascuria that is the most known in the US. Point Brazil, Copacabana, Minas Grill, Villa Brazil and Kilo Astoria are kilo restaurants in the Brazilian style (a buffet where you pay by weight). Kilo restaurants are on every corner in Brazil, so it is  only appropriate they have made their way to Astoria, too. Favela Grill and Beija Flor are more, modern, slightly upscale restaurants with live music. And at Casa Theodoro you can get Brazilian-style pizza, which is a genre unto itself. If you want to get a taste of Brazil while in NYC, definitely wander around Astoria!

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A Taste of Ukraine at Veselka in NYC

The iconic, long-running Veselka (144 Second Avenue, NYC) has been on our list of “to visit” places in NYC since we started going there regularly in 2006, but somehow we never made it there until our last trip over the Winter. It is kind of hard to pin Veselka (which means “rainbow” in Ukrainian) down. On the face of it, Veselka is a 24-hour Ukrainian diner – but with slightly higher prices and a huge line of club kids waiting to get in every night after hours (or at pretty much any time). Still, on the menu you can get Americanized brunches and the waiters rush you through with an efficiency that will make your head spin – bringing it back to a diner feel. In any case, Veselka has been serving up comfort food in the East Village since 1954, so we figured they must be doing something right to still attract crowds after all these years.

There are no reservations – so we had to wait about a half an hour for our table of five. Fortunately it was an unseasonably warm day so we didn’t mind just people watching outside (a prime area for that activity). The menu at Veselka is extensive, and there are two basic genres of food available: American diner food and Ukrainian specialties. At our table we went with a little of each. On the Ukrainian side, the favorites were clearly the pierogies – or varenyky in Ukrainian – you can get them boiled or fried, with a myriad of fillings like cheese, sweet potato, mushroom, meat, and even the more esoteric goat cheese and spinach – all served with applesauce, onions and sour cream on the side. They also make a hearty borscht beet soup (either vegetarian or meat-filled- Pint $4.95 and Quart $8.95), and a classic Ukrainian “Hunter’s Stew” dish called Bigos with Kielbasa, roast pork and onions ($17.25). For even more Ukrainian flavor, you can also get kasha (buckwheat groats) and potato pancakes as side ($4 each). On the American side of the menu, you can get breakfast all day including waffles, omelettes, and pancakes with all of the trimmings. Burgers and other sandwiches like the Reuben and egg salad round out the offerings.

M got a Veselka signature sandwich: the Baczynski ($15)which was piled high with Polish ham, Ukrainian salami, Polish podlaski cheese, pickled vegetable relish on pumpernickel. M really enjoyed the sandwich – but it was too big to eat in one sitting – even for him. I ordered a platter of 7 varenyky ($11), which was also a popular order at our table – and with good reason. The varenyky were the stars of the show, and the mushroom and goat cheese and arugula varieties were deemed to be the favorites. Opinion was split on if fried or boiled varenyky are superior, though I think my personal preference is for fried. To finish off the meal, Veselka has a range of diner favorites  – you can order one of their ‘individual’ pies – which are really quite big! We got a New York staple – the black and white cookie – and a miniature banana cream pie ($7.50). Veselka serves up good, hearty comfort food with an Eastern-European flair – and we can’t think of a better place to get dumplings at 2 AM.

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Sockerbit: Swedish Candy Paradise in NYC

sweden_flagIf you’re looking for that “kid in a candy store” feeling, there is nowhere better to visit than Sockerbit (89 Christopher St New York, NY 10014) in New York City. The best part about Sockerbit is that, unless you are Swedish, you have probably never seen any these candies before, which makes the adventure all the more fun. All of the bulk candy in Sockerbit is sold by the pound ($12.99) so you can grab a bag and pick out your own perfect selection from the dozens (hundreds?) of varieties. Here is a preview of a few of the candies you can get.sockerbit

  • There is a huge variety of gummy candies, in any shape you could ever want, including old favorites like bears, worms, cola bottles and fish. But the fun doesn’t stop there, the beauty of Sockerbit is that there are also dozens of particularly unique shapes like sour apple skulls, pink dolphins and raspberry Ferarris.
  • Hard candies like the wrapped mint Marianne variety and fizzy raspberry balls
  • Traditional Swedish licorice in both hard and soft varieties, some of which is super strong and almost spicy, like the hard Napoleon variety. Other varieties like Salmias are salty!
  • Flavored Sockerbitar marshmallows in flavors like strawberry (the Swedish word for marshmallow is the namesake of the store)
  • Wrapped toffees and caramels, both hard and soft, in some more unusual flavors like the Swedish Christmas cookie Pepparkakor
  • Chocolate with fillings like muesli, toffee or hazelnutsockerbitcandy

In addition to the overwhelming amount of candy, Sockerbit also has a small assortment of Swedish ingredients like coffee, jam and flour along with boxed candies and cookies. You can also buy modern Dala Horses and and housewares, if you are looking for something a little more durable. Plus, Sockerbit is also one of the few places you can find the famous Swedish Polkagris candies in the US. If you can manage to save some of your candy haul, these also make a great souvenir!

sockerbitex

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Cypriot Cuisine at Zenon Taverna in Astoria, Queens

cyprusThe neighborhood of Astoria in Queens, NYC is known for its huge Greek population (which is still growing today), and accordingly, you can find some of the best Greek food in the city (and country) in this one neighborhood. It also means that a diversity of Greek and Mediterranean cuisine not seen elsewhere abounds. We were happy to find that one of the few Cypriot restaurants in the US was located in Astoria, Zenon Taverna (34-10 31 Avenue, Astoria, NY 11106 ).

zenon

Cypriot food is similar to what most Americans think of as typical Greek food, but with more Middle-Eastern influences, given its history and location. The menu at Zenon is staggering, with a huge option of cold and hot meze appetizers including favorites like hummus and tzatziki as well as more unusual options like quails and stuffed mushrooms. For entrees, there are dozens of pitas; chicken, lamb and fish platters; as well as meat and veggie samplers. Each day, there are also upwards of 6 specials including: Keftedes Kypriaki ($10.50 S / $17.99 L) pork and potato meatballs; Louvia me Lahana – blackeyed peas with Swiss chard ($6.50 S / $12.50 L)and pastitsio (a lasagna-like layered lamb dish). We didn’t really know what to pick, so we went with 2 samplers to share among our group, along with an appetizer of char-grilled octopus ($17.95) and Cypriot rabbit stew on special for the day- Kouneli Stifado ($19.95).

meze

The Cyprus Meze sampler ($24.95 a person) came with a total of 16 meze – 8 hot and 8 cold. Everything was bright, fresh and delicious, but there were a few standouts. Zenon did a great job with classics like tzatziki and hummus, but we really loved some of the more unusual choices like the tarama – carp roe with potatoes and the fresh, vinegar-y pantzarosalada – beet salad. In terms of the hot dishes, there was a heavy emphasis on fish and pork. We highly enjoyed the smoked pork loin – lunza, the loukaniko spitisio – Cypriot pork sausage cooked in wine – and the keftedes arnisia – garlickly lamb meatballs. Of course another winner was the baked sheep and goat milk cheese halloumi, doused with lemon juice. The octopus appetizer we ordered was another favorite, and the special-of-the-day rabbit stew cooked in red wine was tasty, if a little game-y.

octopusmeze

If you leave room for dessert, there is baklava and semolina desserts like siamali and halouvas, which you can wash down with a traditional frappe or Greek coffee. Alas, we did not leave room, since our Cypriot Meze order was so huge! We are a big fans of Greek food, and we really enjoyed trying something a little different at Zenon. One caveat – they are cash only! This is not a super-cheap place, so we went to the ATM in advance instead of testing our luck with the ATM around the corner. We recommend you come to Zenon with a crowd – there are so many dishes and mezes to share – the more, the merrier!

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The hidden spot for the best authentic Indian cuisine in NYC

India FlagWe think we have found the best Indian food in NYC – in the basement of a Hindu temple. The Ganesh Temple Canteen (45-57 Bowne St, Flushing, NY 11355)  is tucked into a quiet, residential neighborhood of Queens – you wouldn’t know the temple was there until you drive right up to it and see the ornate architecture up close. In order to reach the canteen, you descend the stairs to the basement, where you are greeted with a vast, simple cafeteria, complete with linoleum floor and buffet line. But don’t let the humble presentation fool you! At almost any part of the day, the cafeteria will be packed with worshipers and non-affiliated neighborhood folks alike. The canteen has been churning out food since 1998, and attracts crowds a all times, even at breakfast.

ganeshcanteenThe focus of the canteen is vegetarian South Indian dishes, in particular: dosas. The vast range of dosas, thin wheat crepes, come with a variety of fillings from spicy potatoes, to lentils and chilis, to paneer cheese. And you’ll be pretty pleased about the prices, too (nothing is over $7). You wait in line to place your order, and while in line you can check out at the menu on a suspended flat-screen TV and consult with the dosa experts in line. There are also a range of appetizers like iddli (steamed rice cake) and vada (savory fried dough) to go with your dosas, as well as a selection of sweets and mango lassis. There are also a few additional temptations while waiting: little boxes of sweet and savory snacks for sale to take away. Looking around the room, you will notice some hints that the restaurant is attached to a Hindu temple, including the prominent statue of Ganesha.

ganeshWe ordered a side of tamarind rice, two masala dosas and a Pondicherry dosa. After no more than 10 minutes, our food came out, fresh off the griddle. Dosas are usually pretty generous in size, and these were no exception. The dosas themselves were butter and flaky, and were completely packed with delicious vegetarian fillings. The potato filling of the masala dosas were perfectly spiced – just the right amount of heat. The Pondicherry dosa was also filled with green chilis and onions, which added an extra kick. We also appreciated the soupy veggie sambar and coconut-yogurt sauce that came alongside. We washed everything down with a mango lassi (which is a bargain at $2 – you may want a second one).masaladosaThe Ganesh Temple Canteen may be a little out of the way for most New York visitors, but it is definitely worth the trip for the great hospitality and the tasty dosas. This is some of the best Indian food we have ever had, and definitely the best we have had in NYC. Plus, you’ll get a huge amount of food for the price! If you stop by, don’t forget to indulge in a mango lassi (or two).

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Eating NYC and Toronto

We are going to NYC and Toronto next week, and we are looking forward to eating everything under the sun. We haven’t been to NYC for  year – do you have any recommendations for any new food finds we may have missed in the past year? Plus, we are really excited to experience the multicultural foodie heaven of Toronto. We have never been to Toronto together, what should we try there?

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Babka from Breads Bakery in NYC

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The Best Pie in NYC: Petee’s Pie Company

Let us let you in on a little secret – we know where they have the best pie in New York City: Petee’s Pie Company (61 Delancey St, New York, NY). Petee’s is a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it small shop on the Lower East Side, and we make it a point to visit it each time we are in NYC. M has gone far enough to say that this is his favorite pie ever. Knowing how much M loves pie (and how many pie places we have tried), this is a pretty bold claim. Petee’s is run by Petra “Petee” Paredez – who has pie-making in her blood – her parents own the Mom’s Apple Pie Company in Leesburg, Virginia. We are loving the proliferation of pie shops around the US and are so happy that the quality keeps going up as more people- even city dwellers – are becoming more discerning about pie.
Petees2We have been to Petee’s several times, and every slice is better than the last ($5 for a slice, $30 for a whole pie). On our last few visits we have tried Rhubarb, Salty Chocolate Chess, Cherry Crumb, and Blueberry, each of these pies has been absolutely delicious. M has even become a rhubarb convert due to having one of the pies here. In particular we are fans of the flaky, tender crust that is neither soggy nor too crisp. We always look forward to visiting Petee’s because there is always something new, and the seasonal flavors are a must – the Cardamon Pear we had in October was scrumptious.peteespies

There are also savory, vegan and gluten-free pies (and even cheesecake) at Petee’s as well as an assortment of tea drinks. You can even get a frosty glass of cold milk along with your pie, which M considers to be a must with every pie experience. We are also particularly grateful to Petee’s for introducing us to the concept of the pie fork, a once-popular utensil that has one extra-large tine for cutting the pie and scraping the plate. We look forward to visiting Petee’s the next time we are in NYC, and you should go too – tell them we sent you!

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What is a Cholado?

colombiaOur over-the-top icy treat of choice in Chicago was the Mangonada, but on a trip to NYC (I think we were driving by this place) we recently learned of a Colombian answer to this fruit/ice/cream/sugar concoction – the Cholado. A cholado consists of shaved ice, topped with fruit syrup, fresh fruit, coconut flakes and sweetened condensed milk (and maybe even a cookie). Though the cholado recipe can vary by region (or country) the traditional syrup flavors include passion fruit and mora (Colombian blackberry). Cholados are also found all over Jackson Heights, Queens if you can’t make it to Colombia, and Serious Eats has a power ranking. Find a recipe for a DiY cholado at Sarepa (if you have access to tropical fruit) or Ezra Poundcake and My Colombian Recipes (if you don’t).

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Cholados by lorenalreyes

 

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Calabria Pork Store: Soppressata Paradise in NYC

CalabriaPork

ItalyOkay, vegetarian and vegan readers, now is the time to look away. So you probably already have, given the leading picture on this post. If you were wondering about that pictures, yes, the entire ceiling covered with meat, spicy Calabrian dried and cured salami, soppressata, to be exact. The Calabria Pork Store (2338 Arthur Ave., The Bronx) in the heart of the Bronx’ Little Italy, is a real throwback, and is one of the only places you can see meat hanging up at a butcher (a practice that used to be common). The soppressata, for which the shop is rightly famous, comes in mild and spicy varieties, and you can buy a whole or half link. However, the soppressata is only half the story, you can buy all manner of other fresh sausage and cuts of meat behind the counter, by unit or weight. To make a meal of it you can also buy provolone, olives and other cold deli items. M got a tub of sliced, cured Calabrian sausage to eat throughout the day in the manner of potato chips. It’s worth it to visit for the atmosphere alone, but the soppressata is the real deal, and is a must-try for any lover of cured meats.

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Bhutanese Food in Queens: Bhutanese Ema Datsi

BhutanOne thing we love about NYC is that there is food from literally corner of the globe. However, even for us, finding a Bhutanese restaurant is something of a coup. Bhutan is a notoriously difficult country to enter and doesn’t have a very large population, but there is a small Bhutanese community in NYC, as evidenced by Bhutanese Ema Datsi (67-21 Woodside Ave., Woodside (Queens), NY 11377).

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Dr. Brown’s Cel-Ray soda

Seeing Dr. Brown’s soda on the shelf is a blast from the past – I remember having Dr. Brown’s soda occasionally when I was a kid (Cream Soda was my main pick), and the packaging alone really stood out. Dr. Brown’s is a long-running NYC soda brand with flavors like Root Beer and Black Cherry associated with the classic NYC Jewish deli (where it was sold exclusively until the 1980s). Though it is now more widely distributed, Dr. Brown’s is still the kind of thing you won’t see in every shop, so I was really surprised when I came across their Cel-Ray flavor in a little shop in town. Cel-Ray soda is their most famous and most unique drink, made from celery seeds. Cel-Ray debuted in 1868 and was marketed at the time as a quasi-medicinal “celery tonic.” Serious Eats has a great history on the soda if you would like to learn more. So onto the soda itself – the drink was fizzy and pale champagne colored, and it tasted nothing like celery, and was more akin to a crisp, light ginger ale. I liked it – and can definitely see how it would pair well with fatty deli sandwiches. Alton Brown even has a recipe to make your own!

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The Best Babka in New York City

Hanukkah is coming up – which means we are in prime babka season. Babka (aka Krantz cake) is a sweet Eastern European braided bread that has become a staple of New York City Jewish cuisine. I have tried a few babkas and I think I can definitively say I have tried my favorite in NYC so far – Breads Bakery (18 E 16th St, New York, NY 10003). Breads is the run by Israel-born, Denmark-trained baker Uri Scheft. At Breads, Scheft updates a variety of bakery classics including challah, rye, cookies, baguettes, croissants and even sufganiyot for Hanukkah, but the babka is the standout.

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Breads’ version is different from the traditional babka since it is made with a hazelnut spread / chocolate filling instead of just chocolate. Despite not being the most traditional, there is a whole lot to love. Breads’ babka is soft, gooey and completely bursting with chocolate and hazelnut goodness. There is even a cinnamon version! We are not alone in our praise, and Breads also got a hat tip for best babka in NYC from Serious Eats and New York Magazine. Breads even makes a babka pie! We will definitely be back the next time we are NYC. Who makes your favorite babka?

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Fuchka / Puchka, street food of Bangladesh

When we were at the Long Island City Flea & Food Market this fall we were surprised and pleased to find a stall selling Bangladeshi food, Jhal NYC. Jhal NYC serves street food from Bangladesh including Fuchka and Jhal Muri (a puffed rice snack). Fuchka is popular around the Indian subcontinent and might be known in other areas as puchka, panipuri and golgappa.JhalNYC

Fuckha consists of a series of small crispy dough shells, topped with chickpeas and potato stew along with other garnishes, including green onions, chili peppers and cilantro. Another key aspect is that it is then topped with (or dipped in) a light tamarind water. The fuchka was a delicious mix of complex flavors, and the crispy shells perfectly complemented the soft chickpeas and potatoes. Here is a recipe from Archana’s kitchen for the dough shell and here is a recipe for the Bangladeshi-style filling; or a simplified version that has both parts of the recipe. Fuchka was such a delicious snack – we can see how it is so popular across so many different regions.

Fuchka

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Sri Lankan Street Food at Kottu House

SriLankaThere is nothing we like more than street food, so we were super pumped to try Sri Lankan street food for the first time. Kottu House (250 Broome St, New York, NY 10002), is a postage-stamp-sized Sri Lankan restaurant tucked into a corner of the Lower East Side, with only a few tables and a tiny bar (though you can do takeout as well). The resaturant is a study in contrasts, guarded over simultaneously by a strobe light image of a neon dragon and a calm wooden Buddha figure. Previously, most of NYC’s Sri Lankan food had been found on Staten Island, so this location is definitely striking out on its own. Kottu House primarily serves its eponymous dish, Kottu, which is a savory stir fry that falls somewhere within the triangulation of fried rice, flatbread, and a dry curry. The base of the kottu is chopped rotis (which almost takes on the texture of noodles) fried with veggies, egg, and a spicy sauce. To go along with your kottu there are a variety of fried sides and an interesting selection of drinks, including a decent array of unusual (think pomegranate) hard ciders, as well as ginger and Sri Lankan teas.

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There were a variety of proteins available with the kottu. Our server told us the chicken was the most traditional choice while the prawn was the most popular. There was also a “Little Italy” kottu that had tomato sauce and chicken sausages, as a nod to the proximity of Little Italy. For any protein, you can order your kottu with varying levels of spiciness from mild to “Sri Lankan spicy,” and the mild was described as closer to American “medium.” If so desired, the dishes can even be made vegan (or just without egg if that’s your mood). Sticking with the more traditional options, L selected chicken in “mild” and M went with the pepper beef in “medium”. The kottu comes in two sizes, small (for between $7 and 9) and large ($12 to 15). During happy hour (4 -7 pm) you can get a small for only $6. 

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For an extra kick you can order one of 3 sombols, chutney-like side condiments meant to mix into the kottu. We ordered the pol sambol which is fresh grated coconut, Sri Lankan chili powder and lime (which was described as medium) a milder sombol – minchi sambol – with green chiles garlic and mint, and a fiery hot one – lunu sambol – with raw red onions, chili powder and lime. The kottu came out in short order in paper takeout boxes, and our server instructed us to mix in the chutney right away to heighten the flavor of the dish, which really worked! The kottu was reminiscent of a spicy fried rice, but the bread as a starch gave it a very different texture. The overall flavor was salty, spicy and finished with a bit of lime, the mild was about a “medium” so keep that in mind. The kottu was delicious, satisfying and savory, real Sri Lankan comfort food. As such, kottu is the perfect food to grab and go, and would be an ideal way to soak up some late night drinks on the Lower East Side.

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