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Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Pyza


Milk Bars sound real nice, but what are they? According to The New York Times,
“They were a staple of Communist Poland, punishingly drab restaurants in which the menu was scrawled on a handwritten board above the cash register, room-temperature yogurt drinks sat lined up on the counter, and waitresses in smocks served food on trays through a small window.”
Alrighty! I like handwritten menus. And yogurt is good for digestion. Anything else we should know, fair reporter?
“...despite their utter lack of charm, they are beloved by people who grew up in Communist Poland and remain popular there today. They are so beloved, in fact, that they also endure in the traditionally Polish neighborhood of Greenpoint, Brooklyn.”
Well golly... utter lack of charm?

Now as much as we like to believe everything we read, there's still something to be said for doing one's own research. And since we happen to be hanging in Greenpoint these days, why not see for ourselves...

Milk Bar: Communist gulag cafeteria, or hearty food at honest prices? Only time will tell! Time, and a trip to Greenpoint's most popular MB: Pyza.
Pyza's menu (click to enlarge)

The first thing I noticed inside Pyza was the TV. It reminded me of a time I was holed up in a Warsaw hotel, watching dubbed Smurfs reruns and drinking Tyskies to pass the time. Here, diners were eating, watching and laughing softly. I think it was a nightly newscast, one of those humorous feelgood stories (“your pig ate my mustache!”). But I don't speak Polish, so it might have been ironic, dark laughter over one of those tragic feelbad stories (“your pig ate my mustache.”)

The second thing I noticed was the menu. It was big, and the prices were low. No matter the dish, most things fell in the $5 to $6 range. I was having trouble deciding, so I asked the guy at the counter if he had any suggestions. He did, but not before breaking down a little Pyza history. The owners, Wanda and Krzystof Zawistowski, hail from a town 100 km outside of Warsaw. They opened shop about 7 years back in a space on Bedford Street with only 6 or 7 tables. Word spread, Pyza caught on, and after 5 years the small space was no longer cutting it. In the competitive culinary environment that is Greenpoint, Brooklyn, the people had spoken. The Zawistowskis' food was in ever-greater demand, so they moved to a bigger location on Nassau, with two large rooms and that perched TV.
Service with a smile: Angelika and Mark dish up the Polish Cheer(s)

It's easy to see why this place is so popular, especially amongst local Poles: it's extremely laid-back and friendly. Elderly patrons are escorted to their seats, and every patron is served a small glass of gratis Kompote (sweet, watery fruit punch). Most importantly, Pyza offers classic Polish food at modest prices, served quickly. “This is food for hard-working people,” the manager Mark confided: hearty, filling, tasty. And with that said, it was time for a little taste test of our own.
First up was a spot of Zurek, a/k/a white borscht, a slightly sour, milky soup made from a rye flour base and studded with smoky kielbasa. The sausage flavor was prominent, but the broth itself was too sweet for my tastes. I've had better, but maybe not cheaper. Especially when you consider that it came with a plate of potatoes topped with tasty fried onions. At $2 for all that food, it's pretty hard to gripe.
Still, we were more stoked on the ribs. I know it's officially spring, and this might be more of a cool weather dish, but Pyza's pork Spare Ribs ($5.50) are worth a shot any time of year. They are almost comically meaty. At first I thought, 'maybe I've been Pork'd!!!,' and waited for a hidden camera to pop out. But then I realized this was a standard serving size, and my thoughts wandered to the pig who donated said ribs. He must've been big. Big and mean, with ribs for days. Maybe he even had a Harley (can pigs ride hogs?). No matter, and girth notwithstanding, these had a clean pork flavor that stood strong under the savory brown gravy. If you consider yourself a Pork enthusiast (a porkficianado), then you owe it to yourself to give these a go. If nothing else, consider it a challenge.
coleslaw and red cabbage

Like most menu items, the ribs were served with two sides. Our fave was the crisp mustardy red cabbage, great either on its own or with the meat. We also appreciated how the vinegary, shredded beets helped to cut the rib fat. The coleslaw was good and fresh, but we were less enthusiastic about the sharp kraut (a tad musky) and the cucumber salad (a tad watery, and disappointingly light on the sour cream).
Pirogies...
...and pyza!

We did learn one thing, tho. Pyza isn't just the name of the restaurant; it's also the name of a giant fluffy potato dumpling. Stuffed with chopped pork and topped with fried bacon and onions, these pierogi alternatives look like shiny ostrich eggs. The potato dough is chewy, kinda like glutinous flour but lighter and less gummy. Aside from that, they taste pretty much like they sound.

The Pierogi ($5) are also homemade, and also a fine choice. We really liked their soft, thick skins, far more delicate than appearances might suggest. And the potato and cheese filling was surprisingly good: an endearing (if unlikely) sweet-n-salty combo of creamy potatoes and soft farmer's cheese.

So what should you order at Pyza? Whatever you're in the mood for. While this may not be the tastiest food in Greenpoint, it's some of the most comforting and consistent. A few dishes standout, others disappoint, yet everything is cheap enough to take the lows in stride. If you're looking for a Capital P-olish experience, are intrigued by the Milk Bar concept, and have a few bucks to spend on a meal that will last you the day, head on down. So long as you know what to expect, it's hard not to go with the flow and appreciate the experience.


Pyza
118 Nassau Ave
Greenpoint, Brooklyn 11222
(718) 349-8829

We like: pork ribs, potato & cheese pirogies, red cabbage, Springtime in Brooklyn

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Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Don't Eat The Plastic Sushi

You know the old saying, good reader? Pobody's nerfect. “Good girls” like “bad boys,” and I eat way too much pork. What's more, I'm not getting any younger, and this all-meat/no-exercise diet might eventually cramp my style/arteries. Maybe it's time for The Porkchop Express to branch out, to hit the road in search of a few healthy dining alternatives...

Or such was the rationale that got me off the sofa and down to the Javits Center last week, to check out this year's International Restaurant & Food Service Show of New York. The IR&FSSoNY (for short) is an odd mix: part fancy food show, part infomercial, part culinary competition, part international bazaar. It was also the perfect place to check out some new products, meet some new people, and (dare I suggest) find a few foodstuffs that were tasty and healthy. So we set out armed with nothing but a camera and high hopes.
In a sense, we were seeking that crossroads “where great taste and good nutrition meet.” By sheer coincidence, this was exactly the slogan adopted by the Giant Oil People (oil giant people?) at Crisco, who came to town with a couple of 3-foot tall cocktail glasses brimming with a yellowish liquid that... uh... They paid an advertising firm for this? If you're going to pitch oil and lard, here's a free hint: whip up a smorgasboard of delicious fried foods. That will get the point across way better than a glass of what I sincerely hope was Crisco.Here is another super boring fact: most of the Geese raised in America come from South Dakota. Yet, if you're like me, you could care less have never met a real live South Dakotazoan before. Just so you know, Dakotianos seem alright. Like this Dakotaniard, from the Schiltz Goose Farm. He let me taste some goose, and – I kid you not – it tasted like bacon. Freakin' awesome: fried, sliced smoked goose tastes exactly like bacon. Plus it's healthier, but who cares if you care. Which we do.

Unless you have a heart of stone, a stick up your rear, and a negative sense of humor, I'm sure you'll agree: food-shaped carts rule. Case in point is this hot dog-shaped hot dog cart, that uses dual welded alloy construction, Italian rims, and 100% authentic USA hot dog styling. Plus, the scientist standing there in the white lab coat told me that hot dogs taste 34% better when sold from a hot dog-shaped cart. Slow down, Einstein; you had me with the weiner-shaped dog logo!
The IR&FSSoNY promised SGCCF(ITFoVCD&T) – Some Good Clean Culinary Fun (In The Form of Various Competitions, Displays & Talks). But to be honest, we weren't that interested in listening to Danny “I'm so successful!” Meyer, or watching people bake pastry, or cheer on 12 year olds at a pizza dough toss. So we headed to the Japanese Pavilion.

Sponsored by the good folks at JETRO, this little oasis in the Javits wasteland had it all: sake tastings, new product showcases, traditional food prep techniques, sake lectures (and tastings), a culinary demo from “Mr. Benihana” himself, Rocky Aoki, and free sake. We tried a few teas, sampled some oils, tasted fruit-flavored desert vinegars, ate premium kelp and fast food curry, and mingled. Some highlights:
The juicy, juicy fruit. As these bright red blazers suggest, aptly named company Goodfellows USA were pitching some serious ambrosia: Amaou Strawberries from Fukuoka. These are “9½ Weeks” good, plump and flavorful, perfect taste and texture, and a world removed from cardboard sweatshop Driscolls. If I had to make up one of those awkward English slogans you find on many Japanese products, this one would read: “It is splendid, the good berry; the most sensuous fruit of character corrects the center, calms down the nerve.”
Ditto for the healing goodness proffered by Mita Beverage Co., Ltd. Their products – Cocktail Magic, Magic Plus, and Fruits Juice [sic] – seemed to turn even the most hardened criminals into happy-go-lucky schoolgirls. To wit, check out the pic above: their real names are Buzz and Killah Bill, and... well, I've said too much already. But trust me, they looked WAY different before some of that delightful fizzy barley soda.
Speaking of transformations, for about $90 (retail) you can turn soy milk and coagulant into delightfully smooth and silky fresh bean curd. All it takes is the Banrai Tofu Making Trial Kit. “Savor the Harmony... Heavenly taste of natural bliss,” the brochure reads. And yet, my manservant photographer Kadbury was skeptical: “Coagulant. Who's gonna wanna eat coagulant?” Well, between you and me, I used to eat my own phlegm... and now I'm the nicest, smartest, handsomest guy on the block. Just ask my mom!Less controversial was this year's unanimous choice for “Most Generous Vendor.” The good folks from ADiRECT USA took said title, sharing premium Wagyu Beef with the people. What, you ask, is Wagyu Beef? It looks like slices of fat held together by a discreet amount of meat, and tastes like luxurious cow-flavored butter. And it makes Don Trump, Bill Gates and Russell Simmons look poor, broke, and not rich.Why is it so good? I'm not entirely sure, but the brochure made literally no sense (“You can feel its 'Umami' taste even by eyesight”; “Kuroge Qagyu cleared the strict judgments on traceability”; etc). All I know is that Wagyu Beef comes from the southernmost Kagoshima prefecture. The cows drink fresh mountain water; eat corn, wheat and select grains (NOT grass); and they'll have an occasional beer (with company). Most important, they lead utterly stress-free lives. Each feedlot holds no more than two animals, chosen (I kid you not) based on their compatibility. And only 100 heads are imported each month.

Net result? Ethereal flavor and high cost. About $1,200/lb. high. Needless to say, I greatly appreciated the samples: buttery grilled beef, charred sashimi-style, and (our favorite) raw sliced Wagyu on sushi rice. For lack of a better description, this is about the purest, richest beef I've every had. If Rib Eye and Filet Mignon got hammered on Montrachet and Dom Perignon, then made sweet sweet love on a foie gras mattress, this would be the love-child.
All jokes aside, I really liked Mr. Fish Guy of Hiramatsu Seafoods. Sure, with his command of the English language and my deft non-mastery of Japanese, we successfully exchanged no more than 5 words. But it didn't matter. We were able to communicate with the international language... of love... of smoked fish products. This was his company's first appearance in NYC, and he was making the most of it, dishing out some seriously tasty tsukudani: terriyaki fish, broiled sardines, ginger-laced clams, sweet-cooked herring. Note to anyone who can translate: hook me up.
If you came and told me, hey Slab, some crazy nuclear brain physicists made potato chips that don't taste like anything, I'd probably say: what is this, the year 3030? It seems medically impossible; by definition, potato chips = delicious. But then, you probably haven't tried the latest sensation sweeping Japan from Nagasaki to Wakkanai: Konnyaku Chips. These fun fat free, cholesterol free, msg free, preservative free snacks use the term “chip” in the loosest sense possible. Sure, they're made from 100% natural mashed konnyaku potatoes. But they are also “low calorie and good for health,” as the package says. It should also say: “rubbery, flavorless, and confusingly addictive.” Fire Pepper flavor is like beef jerky without the beef, and yet, for reasons I still cannot fully explain, it really grew on me. Note to the Sun Foods Co., Ltd.: kids love “Nicorette” flavor.
And Sake. Who doesn't like sake? It's versatile, refined, and great-tasting. But rather than share any actual knowledge, let me tell you about these two chipper chaps (above). They produce two different sakes, which makes them sake competitors. And while they look perfectly friendly here, after sunfall they transform into ferocious, bloodthirsty sake rivals, slugging it out for world sake supremacy. Still, if anyone is gonna win the grand prize and save the orphanage, it'll be me and my ragtag bunch of misfits with hearts of gold. After all, they killed our master, and we're going to avenge his memory against all odds. Note to self: remember to return 80s werewolf samurai DVD to Netflix.But enough about me; here's something for you, friend. A nugget of advice, a jewel of good sense. Remember: even if no one is looking, and no matter how good it looks, or how much sake you've had... never, ever eat the plastic sushi.

Til Tuesday,

–J. Slab

P.S. Hearty Porkslaps go out to the IR&FSSoNY organizers and JETRO. We had “this much” fun!

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Still #1

It's a competitive Banh Mi world out there, good reader. In about a decade, this sandwich has risen from relative NYC obscurity to the forefront of pork-related satisfaction. New spots are opening from Chinatown to Williamsburg and, if Mario “Big Red” Batali is any benchmark, it's only a matter of time before this humble street treat receives a high-brow fusion makeover (his Iron Chef version used chiar siu and spiny lobster).

What with all the pomp and flutter, your friendly neighborhood Porkchop Express wanted to revisit an old favorite. Call it a re-calibration if you will, a spiritual banh mi quest to get centered: somewhere between Siddhartha and Stella (of “groove” fame). So we headed down to our top-rated Banh Mi Saigon Bakery, to see if it still passed muster.
Faster than the BQE: the new menu at BMSB now boasts an unprecedented 6 sandwiches

If you read our first review, you know that for years Kevin and Nina Pho offered only one variety: the #1 (Pork) Saigon, prepared either spicy or not. We loved their focus and lack of pandering. They did one thing, and one thing great. And when they added a Chicken varietal we hardly blinked (maybe even pork-o-phobes deserve a seat at the banh mi party). Yet imagine our surprise when a new menu appeared over the counter last December boasting a whopping 6 sandwiches.

Yes, good reader, times seem to be a' changing, and at BMSB this means a little variety. It turns out they now offer everything from Sardine to Meatball to (gasp) Vegetarian. So rather than simply retread old territory we decided to roll with the new, and ordered two of Nina's most interesting entries for a tasting. How do they stack up?
Atsa mighty fine meatball!

First up, the #5 Banh Mi Xiu Mai ($3.50). The baguette comes with all the standard trappings (cucumber wedge, cilantro sprigs, shredded pickles, sliced jalepenos) and one twist: giant savory meatballs. I've eaten my share of meatball banh mi, and have three standard complaints: temperature (cold), taste (bad), and amount (meager). Now take a look at the picture above, and you'll see a sandwich that rises above the fray. First off, visually it gives fine Italian meatball heroes a run. Second, it's bursting with the healing goodness of meatball. Gi-mongous. Third, the flavor is flat-out yummy. Consider this a great winter option, something to warm you from tongue-to-toes. The meatballs themselves are 100% pork, moist, juicy and crumbly, mildly seasoned and braised in a slightly sweet sauce that includes onion and fresh sliced tomato.
Vegetarian: no longer just for quitters!

Much as we wanted more pork, we decided to resist. After all, we get the occasional email from readers asking for the best vegetarian banh mi in New York City. My stock response is “who cares,” but let me break ranks and suggest one possibility: the #6 Banh Mi Chay, a/k/a the “Buddhist” ($3.95). As with the #5, it arrives in standard banh mi form... save one thing: nary a whiff of pork in sight. Most veggie banh mi use some form of gluten, but BMSB has developed a sandwich filled to the gills with something different: a non-meat stir fry dominated by tofu and mushrooms.

The result is surprisingly good. The saltiness of the sauce pairs nicely with the neutral bean curd and sweet pickled daikon and carrots, while the veggie variety provides non-stop excitement: chewey tofu skin yields to fresh tofu chunks, which give way to glass noodles and shredded cabbage, multiple types of mushrooms, and (here was the kicker) whole thumb-sized quail eggs whose creamy yolks burst upon first bite. This is about as interesting a banh mi experience as I've had, and certainly the most unusual. But it works. And because Nina experiments and rotates the ingredients, don't look for the excitement to let up anytime soon. To be clear, if it came down to this or her roast pork, it's a no-brainer. But for our vegetarian friends, I have yet to find another meatless mix that so well captures that fighting Banh Mi Spirit we have grown to love.
Beef jerky time!

When all was said and done, the meatball and the veggie sandwiches actually made for great bedfellows. They hit entirely different flavor centers (salty/sweet, crisp/juicy, messy/really messy), and balanced each other nicely. And yet, we were still ready for some... desert. Enter an old favorite, their dry, sweet, hot-pepper flaked beef jerky. Nina orders it from Southern California, where they make it extra spicy for her (tho she had to call and complain once because, as she put it, if her 4 year-old son can eat it without blinking it's probably not spicy enough). Bottom-line, it's addictive; especially with a beer on a sunny afternoon.
Dropping knowledge: Nina Pho, flavor super-genius, discussing her new sandwiches

When BMSB moved in to a larger store, it allowed them to hire an additional employee which, in turn, freed Nina up to develop new sandwiches... to delicious results. In addition to Meatball and Buddhist, they also offer a #3 Sardine (the bestseller amongst the newbies) and #4 Paté Cha (favorite amongst her Vietnamese cutomers). As for us? Well...

One recent morning we arrived early, and ordered the day's first sandwich: a piping hot #1 Banh Mi Saigon. The fabulous pork was tender and chewy, the pickles crisp and slightly sweet, the bread crusty and hot enough to just melt the mayo. And it struck us: we'd be hard-pressed to give this bad boy up. So while we salute the recent outcrop of banh mi spots, part of us can't help but think: why go anywhere else?

Bánh Mì Saigon Bakery
138-01 Mott Street
Chinatown, New York, NY (212) 941-1541

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