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Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Red Hook Ball Fields Postponed

Official statement, straight from the Food Vendors Commitee of Red Hook Park:
Dear Friends,

We are so pleased to learn of your enthusiasm and anticipation to join us for our opening season 2007. We have maintained communication with The Porkchop Express & informed J. Slab first of our anticipated opening tentatively set for April 28th (Saturday). However – and despite our readiness to meet this commitment – administrative issues beyond our control have forced us to push this date to May 5th.

We are very excited to set-up shop (or rather... shacks!) and begin our season as soon as possible. We would also like to thank J. Slab for keeping everyone informed about us & presenting such a positive and accurate description of what the food vendors are about.

If you need further information or would like to send us a comment, you can write us at: redhookfoodvendors@hotmail.com

P.S. our official website: www.redhooklatino.org should be completed soon. Thank you all for your support!

Gracias,

The vendors. :)
So there you have it: the Official opening is pushed back a week to May 5.

Til Tuesday,

–J. Slab

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Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Celebrity Porkchop Confidential

People often write and ask,
Hey Slab, I'm down with Pork, but it seems like famous people stick to a water-and-lemon lifestyle. What should I do?
Fear not, good reader. We're dedicating this new section at the 'Chop to you. We call it Celebrity Pork Chop Confidential, and the idea is pretty simple. We sent our crack team of investigative journalists, celeb agents, literati, and high-ranking government officials to catch folks in the act... of porking.

Pork chops. Ham sandwiches. Canned spiced pig knuckles. No matter what, we're there to capture the moment on film, and bring it to the people.

Because – believe it or not – many of your favorite actors, models, musicians, and world leaders hit the swine like Carney Wilson on jelly donuts. And while “outing” people might not be “cool,” hopefully it will give normal folks the courage to live a more flavorful life.

And so without further ado, we present CPC #1: Boris “Porkchop” Yeltsin, (1931-yesterday), layin' it down from dusk til Red Dawn.

R.I.Pork, y'heard!

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Chinatown Tastes Like _____???

In recent years I've thought more about Chinatown's smell than taste because, from an olfactory perspective, it's one of New York's most vibrant regions. Fluids abound. Vegetables stands and butchers mingle with open-air fishmongers and giant bags of trash. Rainy days bring piquant new zests to the fore. Add body odors and “angry summer heat,” and you're left with a nose-twisting potpourri of whims, moods, and stank.

And yet, Ms. Slab always tells me to keep an open mind. Sure, we usually head to Flushing for Chinese food... but maybe it was time to give Manhattan's C-town another go round. And what better day to do so than the annual Taste of Chinatown celebration?In case you haven't heard, the ToC began in 2004 as a way to bring eaters back to the area post-9/11. And every spring and fall since, they've hosted a shindig where ~50 restaurants set up outdoor stalls and offer small dishes in the $1-$2 range.

Street dim sum with a twist: it's also a contest. You're supposed to vote for your favorite, and drop it in the ballot box. But to be honest, this event really wasn't conducive to ruminating on “which is best.” It took most of our energies just to weave thru the massive crowds, and out-elbow folks for food. While Ms. Slab doesn't bring much in the way of bulk, she has unusually sharp elbows and a 'take-no-prisoners' attitude. So I brought her along on Saturday, and we got to tasting...We started at the least likely place: the Vegetarian Dim Sum House. Dim Sum is great, veggies not so much; and the combo? A big “eh.” We bought what I thought (hoped) were donuts, but they turned out to be some sort of fried chewy rice-flour ball stuffed with a gluten stir-fry.The only antidote to a non-pork pork bun is a 100% pork pork bun. So we walked down to the Nom Wah Tea Parlor for said pork bun, a spring roll, and (what we hoped was) a donut. Sadly, the pork bun was pretty mediocre: tough “mystery meat” style with gloopy red dye #4 filling. But the surprise winner? That delicious donut. I don't even know if it qualifies as a donut, but it was sugar-coated fried dough. It almost tasted like custard. This was the creamiest non-cream-filled donut I've ever eaten, and that's a good thing.Donut quotient satisfied, we moved on to the hard-working crew from Doyers Vietnamese. They offered an impressive spread of grilled meats and fresh summer rolls, shrimp salads and fluffy aromatic rice... all at $1 a taste. Nice. And tasty. Especially that “grilled pork chop on rice.”The crowds picked up but fast, so we took this guy as our model of how to stay cool calm and collected under hectic circumstances. Note the simultaneous leg-perch and toothpick action; he's a pro.Ms. Slab posted up in the Peking Duck line, while I went down to Mosco Street's Bangkok Grocery. They were serving one of the day's tastiest treats: fresh green curry with chicken and thai eggplant. They were also handing out recipes and selling packets of their curry paste, but in all the excitement I forgot to grab either.Also, Ms. Slab was still waiting patiently outside the Peking Duck House. They had the day's most expensive dish ($2/piece, minimum 2 pieces), but also the most popular. Nobody seemed to mind the double-XL lines... probably because Peking Duck is usually expensive, and nigh impossible to recreate at home. You need a duck (head-on), something to “puff” the skin from the flesh, an oven big enough to hang it vertically, and a real sharp knife. The PDH served succulent, moist meat with some of that prized crispy skin, folded in a pancake with green onions and hoisin.Not to be outdone, friendly neighbor Ping's Seafood served some real stunners. We were lucky to get these golden shrimp straight from the fryer.Yet Ping's coup de flavor wasn't seafood related at all. Maybe it's the pork enthusiast talking, but we loved their crazy take on the pork bun, a saucy meatball-type thing served in a soft, sweet roll. Taste + creativity + pork = winner.Do you remember the whole bubble tea craze that swept Manhattan a few years back? They played themselves like Benneton, but a few stalwarts remain. Case in point: the Teariffic Café, where we headed for a palate-cleansing milk tea. Alas, no liquids in sight. They only had fried finger foods, and lots of 'em: curry veggie squares, and something that bore a striking resemblance to the Chicken McNugget. (Minus the barbecue sauce. Don't lie, I know you like that stuff!)The one thing notably absent in all the fun: beer. I was gonna try bartering with this guy for a Tsing Tao, but he looked pretty comfortable. So we took that as our signal to call it a day.A day well spent, at that. We're not about to abandon Flushing anytime soon, but this did leave a good taste. It also reminded me of the days when Restaurant Week was actually a fun, reasonably-priced introduction to food you might not otherwise sample. Same idea here, for a fraction of the price with way more people. And that combo, my friend, leaves the sweet smell of success!

Til Tuesday,

–J. Slab



For more info, check out the official Taste of Chinatown website. And if you're the planning ahead type, make a mental note for round 2, sometime this Fall.

And show our buddy Kara Zuaro some love. She's good peoples, and her book “I Like Food, Food Tastes Good: In the Kitchen with Your Favorite Bands” was just released today... Click here to check it out.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Red Hook's Most Wanted


You heard it here first...

The Red Hook Ball Field Food Tents are set to start Saturday, April 28...

... and I, for one, am stoked.

Til Tuesday,

–J. Slab

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Old Poland Bakery & Restaurant

We are #1 Always...

That's what it says on the side of the awning at Old Poland Bakery & Restaurant. And yet, I couldn't help but wonder: #1 at what? Baking? Restauranting? Old Polishing? Inquiring minds and grumbling stomachs want to know, so we set inside to get some answers.First stop: the bakery counter, where OP sells assorted loaves (mostly rye), unlikely hybrids (challah baguette twists), and sweets. We bought half-a-loaf (ok, a bit salty), and spent another 80 cents on something that looked like a giant Boston Cream donut. It was more like a chocolate-dipped dinner roll stuffed with pudding. I love pudding, but not (it turns out) inside dinner rolls. I tried feeding it to a squirrel Ms. Slab to cut my losses, but she has grown wise to my shenanigans.Hopefully the #1 bit was referring to the food. So we headed to the back counter, where Pope John Paul gave us the green light: order here, G.
And order we did. Starting with a piping hot plate of Potato Pancakes ($4). They were big, fluffy, crispy, and chewy. Very chewy. As my buddy put it, “how do they get it so gummy?” Probably by over-mixing the potato starch... but I didn't really mind. I'll eat pretty much anything fried and served with sour cream. It's all part of my “two steps to svelte” diet.Up next: an old friend... Polish Platter ($7). I'm beginning to wonder if all these Polish Platters are making my jeans shrink. This one came with more potato pancakes, and a terrific slice of smoky, juicy grilled kielbasa. The bigos was a bit disappointing. It seemed to have all the right moves (big chunks of sausage, veal, pork, etc.), but the dominant flavor was, alas, tomato paste. Same deal with the stuffed cabbage... it looked great: plump and proud, calling out “eat me.” But the flavor just wasn't there. Maybe the meat needed more seasoning. Luckily, we saved the best for last: pirogies. The cheese and potato pirogies were creamy, savory and smooth. The skins had that toothsome quality of fresh pasta: not too chewy, soft and fresh. No two ways about it, this was a top-notch dumpling.
But was it #1?! We still had a few more items to taste. The salads were generally well-prepared, but didn't always drop the delicious. We really enjoyed the light, vinegary pepper salad, crisp mustardy cole slaw, and mild shredded purple cabbage. But the rich, creamy cucumbers were surprisingly sugary, and the cooked kraut lost all of it's cold cousin's zest and zing. It seemed to be a classic case of hit or miss, good reader.Speaking of which, take a look at the Fried Flounder ($6). The hit: perfectly cooked, nice light golden flour crust, moist and steaming flesh. The miss: the fish tasted faintly of ammonia, something that usually suggests less-than-fresh. This seemed to be one of the more popular dishes, so maybe we just caught them on a bad fishing day.Just when our spirits were starting to sink, we did the only sensible thing to do: ordered some pork. Specifically, the Spare Ribs with Cabbage Sauce ($6). They didn't let us down: fork-tender and meaty, hearty and homey, and baked in a slow-and-low cabbage-fortified sauce. All this with two scoops of mashed potatoes to boot... old friend pork wins again.And yet, our #1 still lay ahead. When all was said and done, tops on our list was... the Cutlet ($6). A reader recommended this a few weeks back, and we agree: it might well be Greenpoint's tastiest cutlet. Take a look at the pic, and you'll see what we're so worked up about: the golden-brown crunch of panko-thick breadcrumbs, tender juicy meat, fresh sauteed mushrooms... all served on a bed of addictive McDonald's-style fries. #1 with a bullet, indeed.
Kasia (l), owner Grazyna Pacek (r), and unidentified Chef-in-good-mood (back center)

So what to make of Old Poland? We liked it. Sure, the food is hit or miss, and I've had better rye in the area. But the environment is bright (unusual for these parts) and inviting, and they offer a few stand-out dishes. What's more, locals love it. Every day, chef-owner Grazyna Pacek starts prepping the food at 6am; and every day, folks pile in to eat whatever she cooks. For a decade and counting, the formula has worked. So while “#1 Always” may be pushing it, Old Poland still delivers enough hits to make it worth checking out.



Old Poland Bakery & Restaurant
(Restauracja Piekarnia Staropolska)
190 Nassau Avenue (at Humboldt St.)
Greenpoint, Brooklyn, NY
(718) 349-7775

Our favorites: cutlets, spare ribs in cabbage sauce, pepper salad, cheese and potato pirogies

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Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Restauracja RELAX

The other day I tried calling my buddy Wojcieazh Wojcihcheshch Woyczz246 in Poland, to see if he could tell me what “Restauracja RELAX” means in English. He didn't answer the phone, but I think I figured it out: “Restaurant Relax.” Which stands to reason. This small just-off-Nassau Ave. joint has an extremely soothing flavor-to-price ratio. More than that, it's also a sentimental favorite. This was our first Greenpoint discovery (back in the 90s), and they've been doing right by us ever since.
Artist's rendition: Janusz Szafranski, circa 1983??

Janusz Szafranski opened RELAX about 9 years ago. I don't know much about him, save that he hails from a small town near Krakow, sports a well-kept mustache, and doesn't like to have his picture taken. He also runs a tight, no-nonsense ship: efficient counter service, fresh ingredients, consistent quality. Part of the credit goes to head chef Miroslawa, who has been in the kitchen since day one. She has skills, and a loyal, predominantly Polish clientele who line up for sit-down lunches or take-out dinners. High turnover means fresh food, and her most popular dishes – stuffed cabbage, daily specials – tend to sell out well before closing time.
So if you're fussy, get their early. And if you like white borscht, go on a Wednesday or Saturday only. RELAX was the first place I ever tasted the soup called Zurek ($2.35). It's slightly sweet and sour, somewhat viscous, and chock full of kielbasa. Enjoy a bowl with a few slices of rye, and look for the hard boiled eggs resting inside. The price also buys you two plump lumps of creamy mashed potatoes that look a lot like dill boobies. If Zurek isn't your thing, they do a fine regular borscht, a “way more refreshing than it sounds” Pickle Soup, and a smoky Split Pea.Well-cooked cutlet, how I love thee. It's a thing of understated beauty: tender and juicy, porky, piping hot, crisp and salty. At least, that what I was thinking as I made fast work of this kotlet schabowy ($5.60). It's thicker-than-usual, oh-so-tender, and priced right. If you fancy a different take on the same theme, try the Ground Cutlet ($5.35). Think “stuffed cabbage minus the cabbage,” and you get the gist: large, lightly fried pork ovals, served in delightful pairs.

I can hear the griping already: “but Slab, I'm trying to shape up for that summertime Speedo.” Relax! RELAX offers plenty of non-fried foods as well... like delicious stuffed cabbage a/k/a Golabki ($5.50/large order). And if you crave the meat of a pig's hock, your only choice is a giant Golonka ($5.50). And if you've finally come to your senses about eating fried foods, get a side of homemade Placki Ziemniaczane, fluffy, crisp, and golden potato pancakes ($4.35 solo, $6.60 smothered in beefy goulash). Whatever you choose, you'll need some salads for balance, digestion, and aesthetic appeal. Our favorite is the crisp, slightly sweet and vinegary Pepper Salad. RELAX also offers two tasty versions of sauerkraut: hot (rich and savory) and cold (sharp and tangy). They do great creamy cucumbers with dill, and clean shredded beets. The only sides to avoid are corn, peas, or green beans... unless you don't mind canned vegetables.Have I mentioned what a great deal this place is? Well... it gets even better. RELAX also serves “small portions” of most dishes at even smaller prices. To wit, the pic above is a “small” plate of Bigos. That, my friend, is $4.10 well-spent. Served with your choice of starch (creamy mashed potatoes, fries, or kasha) and two sides, this rich hunter's stew is a slow-stewed kraut with terrific kielbasa flavor, big chunks of pork, and fresh mushrooms. Must've been a good day in the woods, because this is one generous hunter.
Since you still have a few bucks in your wallet, why not celebrate? Cheese blintzes are a relative splurge at $4.90, and worth every penny. Each Greenpoint restaurant has their own take on the blintze. RELAX offers a light, crepe-like batter folded 'triangle' style (as the French say) and stuffed with a sweet/tart farmer's cheese mixture. Just don't bother getting a fruit version; the addition of sugary jam will only needlessly complicate matters. Cheese is all you need for your fin-de-meal relaxation wind-down.

So are you feeling more relaxed now? Or maybe you're just getting hungry and agitated. Or maybe that's my stomach talking. Either way, I'll wrap things up with a couple of parting tips.

1) All dishes are served up front, which means you have to look out for your meal. It helps to remember the Polish names of whatever you order. Otherwise, you'll do like me: look dopey, spazzing out and jumping up every time you hear random Polish words.

2) Turnover is fast, but tables fill up at peak hours. Have your buddies hold a few chairs if things seem crowded. Then get them a big Polish beer for their efforts; I like Piast, but Zywiec and Tyskie are probably the most popular. Tho having done the research, I can safely say they all go well with cutlets and get you buzzed.

Is there anything else to add? Sure the environment is a bit drab, and the service is more or less “self.” But it's really quite the delicious mystery how, year after year, they continue to offer the same tasty food at these prices. I guess some things aren't meant to be discovered. So instead of fretting about life's great mysteries, chill out and head on down. Relaxation awaits!



Restauracja RELAX
68A Newel Street (at Nassau Avenue)
Greenpoint, Brooklyn 11222
(718) 389-1665

Open daily from 11:30 – 9:30 (11-9 on Sundays)

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Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Lomzynianka

By most accounts, Lomzynianka is #1 in the hood, Greenpoint's finest, a tiny neighborhood joint praised from here to Asia. At least that's what it seems after reading a few reviews posted on their walls. In weathered local dailies and glossy Japanese features, the verdict is unanimous: the L-word serves delicious Polish food at more-than-reasonable prices.

Lomzynianka (pronounced toh-MAH-toh) means Lomza Girl. Lomza is a town about 80 miles NW of Warsaw, and the “Girl” in question is chef Janina Grzelczak. She opened the place about a decade back with her partner Darek Rudnik.

Ms. Grzelczak is a tad shy. She pretty much sticks to the kitchen, where you can catch her peeking through the small, curtained window, passing dishes to a waiter. The whole setup (fake brick facade, trophy Deer, woodsy motif) is a nod to Lomza, a hunting town and former vacationland for Poland's royalty. But here in Greenpoint, it just feels mellow and homey, as if a Polish “Aunt Bea” decided to open her porch to the neighbors: hot blintzes cooling on a perch, kompote for all the kiddies.
Polish hospitality: Darek Rudnik and Janina Grzelczak bid you welcome

Clearly, Janina let's her cooking do the talking. So we decided to dig in and see what all the fuss was about. We started with a Veal Cutlet ($5.25), because it looked terrific and smelled like bacon. I think the bacon part was just wishful thinking (they fry their cutlets in veggie oil). But it was still satisfying, a giant slice of veal pounded very thin and served with mashed potatoes and brown gravy.
Borscht is one of the most popular dishes here, so we tried a bowl of white Zurek ($2.25). The broth was mild and refined, albeit low on kielbasa. Someone must have been playing 'hide the kielbasa' in the kitchen.No matter how many Polish restaurants we visit, I still get excited over choosing my sides. Even though the selections are standardized (beets, cabbage, kraut, slaw, carrots, pickles, et al), no two ever taste the same. And they say a lot about the kitchen. Soggy salads are a sign to cut your meal short, but crisp veggies, tart sauerkraut, and creamy dill cucumbers hint at a chef who (thankfully) frets over details.

Lomzynianka's shredded, chopped beets were salty, earthy, and ever-so-slightly vinegary. Their sauerkraut was relatively dry, almost chewey, with a nice clean flavor (no musk whatsoever). Try some with a spot of crisp, sweet carrots or red cabbage; they'll help you tackle the carrion that lies in your future.
Speaking of which, try the balls. Veal Balls in Dill Sauce ($5.25), that is. Melt-in-your-mouth 100% Veal (no filler) meatballs, served in a creamy, surprisingly delicate sauce. If you're feeling more stewish, go for the Goulash ($5.50): totally tender and seasoned with restraint, its great beef flavor shines through. Regulars also raved about the boiled beef with horseradish sauce, but, to be honest, we didn't have to girth to see for ourselves.
After all, we had to try the Polish Platter ($6.25). The Platter is an amiable Greenpoint standard, a chance for diners to sample a quartet of Polish faves on one crowded plate. Lomzynianka offers kielbasa, bigos, pierogi, and stuffed cabbage. The sausage (imported from Chicago) was a touch dry, so we occupied ourselves with the hunter's stew. It has that great meaty flavor and deep caramel color that only comes from slow cooking. Their house-made pirogies were also distinguished. Puffy, crisp golden skins cradle sweet farmer's cheese or sauerkraut. If you like double dipping starch, request a few potato dumplings too. They reminded me of an eggroll type thing I had at Chanterelle once (for 1/10th the price). Still, the plate's standout was stuffed cabbage: tender, carmelized leaves wrapped around a delicate meat-and-potato mix. Hooray, cabbage!
We decided to go for broke (pants), and ordered the “Chef's Blintzes” ($4.25) with farmer's cheese and Janina's choice of fruit. Ours arrived stuffed with strawberries and smelling like caramel. The crepe itself was very light and crisp, the filling piping hot and not overly sweet, the dollop of sour cream wonderfully thick. All and all, this was a great way to end our satisfying journey to Lomza. It also clarified this tiny restaurant's appeal: careful cooking and an extremely light hand, served with warmth in a completely unpretentious environment.
After one meal, I got to talking with Darek. The single-parent father of two teenagers, he's an affable, straight-up, hardworking guy. He talked about getting political asylum back in the 80s, learning English and finding home and work, starting a family, moving up to Brooklyn, and opening the restaurant.

As he describes, Greenpoint is changing fast. Folks with disposable income are buying up condos, while longtime residents have begun spreading out to places like Maspeth, Middle Village and Ridgewood. Not to say that Greenpoint is in danger of losing it's Polish flavor; it's just that times are clearly changing.

As for Lomzynianka? They have 3 more years on their lease, so until then... they'll be serving the same solid food at the same amazing prices, to a nice, strangers-in-the-night mix of workers, businessmen, seniors, hipsters, and tourists. After that, it's anyone's guess. But for what it's worth, the Lomza Girl seems like one of those places that will, landlord permitting, age with grace, calmly, peacefully, elegantly insisting upon doing things the good old way.



Lomzynianka
646 Manhattan Avenue
Greenpoint, Brooklyn, NY
(718) 389-9439

Noon - 9pm, 7 days/week
BYOB

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