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Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Nio's Trinidad Roti Shop & Bakery

Nio's is Brooklyn's most decorated Trinidadian restaurant. Tales abound of their glorious doubles and roti, the scent of their curries, the sight of mashed yellow dahl, chilies and chutney. Sounds good, but do they merit the praise? Do they really serve the best roti in town? Aren’t roti east Indian? Or is it just a fancy word for “burrito”? Looking for answers, The Porkchop Express headed down to Church Avenue to see for ourselves.
Cindy and Zorina Badall bid you welcome!

First things first: do the opposite of me, and say it right: Nigh-yo! (not Neo.) The name in question refers to one Mr. Nio Badall who, about a quarter century back, left Trinidad to set up shop in East Flatbush. He and his fam began in a very small space – what is but a sliver of their present-day restaurant. Yet over time, word spread: real island flavor at reasonable prices. Folks flocked, and the Badalls expanded. More specifically, they tore down a wall and moved into the adjacent space (a former real estate office). Now they boast one of the area’s biggest dining rooms, a wide airy corner locale with green tables, airbrushed Caribbean frescoes, Carnival signs, and a giant ganja photo.Truth be told, the decor seems to induce subliminal urges: enter, relax, kick back... and feel yourself getting hungrier. Indeed. One step inside and we had the contact pangs, so we rolled straight to the counter to get some Trinidadian goodness.Alas, on that first visit there wasn't much to be had. This is because we arrived entirely too late after nearly everything had sold out: curries, stews, jerks, rotis... So we went with the flow and tried the only remaining option: a pair of meat pies ($1.25 each). They were buttery and flaky, far closer to a British Savory than a Hot Pocket. Chicken was tasty enough, but Beef – slightly sweet and spicy fresh-chopped meat – proved to be the money flavor.
Coconut Bake

There wasn't much else to sample, so we grabbed a large coco bake ($5) for consolation and headed home. Are you familiar? It's a low round loaf made with ground, dried coconut and baked to a rich, moist golden brown. Pair a toothsome, aromatic slice with some cheese or (our favorite) sweet butter and sausage. Or use it to cool down if you've eaten too much spicy food. And if you haven't tried it before, get with the program!
Indoor Street Food: try a Sahina...
... or the mighty (tasty) Doubles

It took us a few jaunts, but eventually we learned: the early bird catches the roti. So we headed back during prime dining hours to sample Nio's more illustrious offerings. First up, traditional Trinidadian snack faves sahina and doubles. Sahina, a small spongy fritter made of ground yellow peas and leafy greens, went well with a splash of piquant hot sauce. But it was those wonderful doubles that flat-out wooed me. One bite and I was hooked on this veggie mini-hoagie, two pieces of bara (think: nice, chewy quick-fried West Indian rolls) stuffed with fragrant chickpea curry (channa). This sandwich (?) is sloppy, rich, fiery, filling and delicious. And something of an architectural feat: against all odds, the soft bara soaked up the spicy chana and attendant sauces, yet retained its shape. It also costs under two bucks, which makes me wish I had ordered a grip... but we had to save room. After all, Nio's is the house that Roti built, and a Shrimp Roti was waiting on our plate.
a taste of Shrimp Roti

Just to remind you, good reader, Roti refers to a big round flatbread with a very thin layer of chopped yellow peas, stuffed with your choice of filling. They look like burritos, but come closer in spirit to those San Francisco “chowders-in-a-breadbowl”: the wrap is functional and edible! And yet, it's not the easiest dish to eat (or photograph, for that matter). For one thing, the filling is unwieldy. “Chicken” will get you giant chunks of curry, bones and all; ditto with the goat. But don't let this deter you; go with a flavor you like, exercise a modicum of patience, and your perseverance will be rewarded. I love the bread's texture and the subtle taste of dahl. It treads that fine line between light and sturdy, and greatly enhanced our enjoyment of a mild, sweet and savory shrimp curry.But if that doesn't appeal, you can also order anything as a dinner plate. We went with two favorites, the curry goat and curry crab. The crab's flavor was rich and clean, but I was hoping for a bit more heat on those plump legs. On the other hand, restraint served the goat well. This is one of the most memorable we've come across in our travels: tender, meaty, and exceptionally well-cooked. Nio's also serves their curry goat much drier than the norm, (thankfully) steering clear of the standard “coconut milk soup” sauce. The result? Sumptuous chevon with just enough seasoning to enhance its natural flavor. (Just make sure to check all the bones. If you're lucky, you'll come across a pocket of drool-worthy herb-crusted marrow.)
It's not hard to tell why Nio's has prospered over the years. They're good people offering well-prepared food, great flavors, and diverse dishes at terrific prices. Which is why one recent Friday evening, they were still going strong after their purported 10pm closing time. Long after the mixtape man had packed up, folks came strolling by for whatever was left: red pepper prunes and pickled stew plums, cakes, bakes, breads, rolls and hops, a simple bag of peanuts or the final scoop of rice and peas. And house-made beverages like Mauby.

Not to be confused with that bald white vegan guy, mauby is a drink I initially mistook for tamarindo. One taste and you'll see it's anything but. Made from the boiled bark of the Colubrina elliptica (Soldierwood tree), this sweet viscous liquid is renowned for its digestif powers. The flavor is deep and bitter with a refreshing anise finish. And while the first few tastes were kinda rough, it quickly grew on us. So we ordered a second glass, let the bark work its magic, and pondered what to sample the next time around. Because, good reader, some questions are worth pursuing on your own, and at Nio's learning is delicious.

Nio's Trinidad Roti & Bakery
2702 Church Avenue, East Flatbush, Brooklyn
(718) 287-9848

I'm still unclear on the hours, but if you want to try their best dishes, show up before 9pm. They usually wrap up around 10.

If you work with the Bulls & Bears, consider their Lower Manhattan lunch truck on Front St. between Wall St. & Maiden Lane. They also have a flavormobile serving breakfast at Nostrand & Newkirk in Brooklyn. And for reasons still unclear, they also have a restaurant in Bay Town, Texas. So there's really no excuse not to check Nio's out!


Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Golden Loaf Bakery & Restaurant

As “loaf” is both noun and verb, I assumed – perhaps brashly – that it was possible to “get one on.” As in, “today, I might get my loaf on.” Yet even if the modal qualifier (might) suggests distinct probability, the sentence still raises something of a logical pickle. What, exactly, does it mean to get a loaf on? Should I: a) eat baked goods; b) wear baked goods; or c) spend some time idly?

Decisions, decisions. And a conundrum that hints at what Willard Van Orman Quine dubbed the indeterminacy of translation. Simply put, good reader, loafing lies open to interpretation.

This is, alas, triply true around East Flatbush. Many storefronts advertise loaves – often golden, occasionally sunny, at times paradisaic – yet shape, form and quality vary wildly. So whenever we find a good one we hope to share the news with you; our time wasted might be yours well-spent. One fine place to loaf around, no matter your definition? A small Guyanese spot on Nostrand named the GT Golden Loaf Bakery & Restaurant.
Strictly Business: The Hobart Mixmaster 2000

We were en route elsewhere when something about GTLB&R piqued our interest. It seemed like a place with its priorities in order: small space packed with food; giant mixer; lots of traffic; great smells; Caribbean goodness aplenty.
Chicken Patty #1, shown open & closed

Or so we hoped. To test the waters, we went with a few patties. The beef was nice and fresh, golden (as advertised) and crescent-shaped, with a tasty, mild filling. But the real gem? A flat-out terrific Guyanese Chicken Patty ($1.50). We knew we were in for something different right from go. For one, the shape was unusual: more savory pie than slender moon (a nod, perhaps, to the English). The crust itself was hot and buttery, the filling exceptionally aromatic. Why so good? “It's more natural,” one patron confided. Maybe, but it's also more tasty. The ingredients were fresh, the spicing fragrant, the crust complimentary, and the texture was, well, anything but the usual glop you'll get from the Giant Patty Chains. In fact, this was as fine a patty as we've had in the area, and perhaps the most distinctive.
Whiting on Coco Bread

All of which boded well. So we threw down for a fried fish sandwich: small, whole whiting, served betwixt a pillowy-soft coco bread roll. Whiting isn't my favorite fish, but the loaf was quite complimentary and, paired with the price ($2.00) and scotch bonnet hot sauce, it was hard to complain.
Buns, son!

It's also hard to exit when you're on a roll. Or bun. So we went with what looked like a crowd favorite: the coco bun. Caribbean bakeries tend to serve multiple baked goods with “coco” in the title (rolls, bake, bread, etc.), but they can be leaded, dry, or overly sweet. No worries here, as Golden Loaf delivered moist, aromatic coconut muffins. These buns were tight. And, at 50 cents per, a Real Deal. We got a bunch for the road, to spread the love amongst friends and family. At that point, we had been there a good 45 minutes – no mean feat in a store not much bigger than an abbreviated Brooklyn hallway. Yet by then we had got to talking with the owners. John and Denise Barnes hail from Guyana, and have paid some serious culinary dues. John started baking in his native country at the tender age of 13, when he used to help out at a local spot after school. His part-time gig proved to be an invaluable apprenticeship. Eventually he opened his own bakery, but always pined for Brooklyn. Why so? “It's Brooklyn, man. So many people, so much going on.” Amen, but it took him a dozen years to make the move. “I kept my eyes on the prize,” John confides, as he and his wife saved up enough to make the transition. Lo and behold, they moved here about 7 or 8 years ago and opened Golden Loaf.
For which I'm thankful. Thankful is also the appropriate reaction to Denise's cooking. We don't always go for the veggies, but one (Guyanese) customer insisted we try the day's offerings. He was on his way home from work, and wouldn't shut up about the okra. The good news is, he was right. I'm not generally big on okra, but this stuff was terrific: cooked in a dry, almost stir-fry style, flavorful and slightly spicy, with terrific texture and seasoning (and not at all oily). We dug the other dishes as well: a salty, savory squash and an elegant, lightly spiced pumpkin, which was neither gooey nor sugary. The flavors were clean and distinct, the ingredients fresh, the overall effect blissful.

To be honest, I was surprised. This place is tiny, even by East Flatbush standards. It's also easy to overlook, squashed between other eateries with brighter lights and bigger menus. But (in case you haven't guessed), John and Denise make quite a culinary pair. And this is only tip of the iceberg. I have yet to arrive early enough to sample their highly touted chicken roti. Nor have I made it on a Saturday, the day reserved for their special Madame G, a secret mix of cassava, plantains, coconut, and a few other ingredients I didn't quite catch. Which is to say: roll on through, get there early, and get your loaf on. Thus spoke the Porkchop!

GT Golden Loaf Bakery & Restaurant
715 Nostrand Avenue, Crown Heights, Brooklyn
(718) 363-2954

Open daily except Sundays, from around 7:30 to 9:00 pm.

Try a Chicken Patty ($1.50) and coco bun (50¢). Plates-of-the-day are $7.00, and filled to order. Whiting on coco bake is $2.00.


Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Phung Hung Market

“... and let not distance, nor train delays, nor outer boroughs, nor water vapor mass per cubic meter of air, [etc.]... dissuade you in your travels.”
The Ancient Banh Mi Reporter's Oath (selection)
These are the Dog Days of Brooklyn, good reader: hot, humid, extra lazy. The last thing on our mind was spending an hour on the subway, but destiny intervened. You see, we had received a hot new tip about a Bronx Banh Mi and felt honor-bound to check it out. So we hopped on the 4 Express and headed uptown to investigate Phung Hung Market, a low-key oasis of Vietnamese Sandwich goodness with a few surprises to boot.From the street, PH looks pretty standard: bright yellow sign, big red letters, red neon sandwich, weathered “lunch special” notice. Step inside, however, and it feels a world removed. The space is calm, airy and immaculate, with eat-off-clean counters, shining pots and brushed metal. Add a few fans blowing softly, some small folding tables, stacked liquids, sauces and sundries, and a big TV playing Squarebob Spongepants, and you're left with a space that treads the line between “relax(ed), homey” and “no-nonsense.”
“No Chinatown tourists, just real Vietnamese,” David Nguyen offered by way of explanation. And in this instance, “keep it real” isn't just posturing; it's Phung Hung's raison d'etre, and the reason they eschew Standard Southeast Asian Restaurant faux hut Style (fake bamboo, mechanical stream) for something more, well, Vietnamese. Hence the open kitchen, the low-slung folding tables and chopstick/soup spoon centerpieces, the smell of lemongrass.

It's akin to eating in your grandmother's living room, if your grandmother had a really big kitchen in her living room. And dabbled in importing/exporting. And came from Vietnam. And was a guy named “Dave.”
Can you feel the love? David Nguyen, with his wife Cindy

Dave is, of course, Phung Hung's founder, chef, server and (for at least another month) owner. He moved from south Saigon to the Bronx back in the Third Grade, but cut his culinary chops at his mom's restaurant in Vietnam. Dave put himself through college taking odd restaurant jobs in New York, and spent this time observing and learning all angles of the trade before venturing out on his own. PH opened 4 years back but this was our first visit, and we were eager to see what they had to offer. We began with their take on the classic, a #1 Banh Mi Phung Hung ($3). The menu advertises ham, ground pork and pate, along with the standard veggie/cilantro combo... but we were in for a terrific surprise. “Ground pork” was actually super-mega-delicious lemongrass-and-shallot marinated grilled sliced pork. It was like renting a Ford Festiva, then rolling out with a Hemi. Kudos for also making the sandwich truly spicy on request, by way of sliced red chilies. Our only complaint? Too much of that mystery lunchmeat folded in, so we tossed a few slices and mulled things over. The verdict: this is one seriously refreshing Banh Mi. The loaf is light, the girth moderate yet satisfying, the pork flavor terrific.So good, in fact, that we moved on to a #3 Banh Mi Xi Mai ($3). Despite its alarming red dye #9 color, this Vietnamese Meatball hero delivered. The meat was moist and spreadable, with intense flavor, great heat, and unique spicing and texture. It may not be enough to dissuade me from future grilled pork specials, but if you're “pro-balls” or even “balls-curious” then give these a go.
Grilled Lemongrass Chicken on Rice
Crab Soup

It seemed a shame to haul ass to the Bronx and not try a few more things, so we ordered the dish that literally everyone else in the restaurant was eating: Bún Riên Cua, a/k/a crab soup. Dave grinds fresh crustaceans (nothing canned here) to make this fire-red broth, and piles the bowl high with noodles, sliced fishcake, fried tofu, tomato and green onions. Don't forget to add a hearty squeeze of lemon juice, and dollops of fresh mint, chilies and sprouts. This will balance the strong seafood flavor, and add refreshing new textures and accents.It's a satisfying, eclectic balance, not unlike the neighborhood itself. Phung Hung is, after all, flanked by a Mexican grocery store, a Caribbean restaurant and St. James Park. Lehman College, Fordham, the Botanical Garden, St. Nicholas Church and a Buddhist temple are also nearby. Yet truthfully, it doesn't matter where you're from, so long as you appreciate good food. To wit, David has converted even the most skeptical of patrons, teenagers who enter for quick-fix Chinese takeout (shrimp fried rice, et al) and leave with newfound banh mi appreciation.
A Family Affair

Phung Hung is just that type of place: warm and inviting, no matter your banh mi comfort level. But it's hard work, and the rigors of being chef/owner/server add up. David, Cindy, her mom and aunt (above) make everything fresh daily. They start prep work at 6 am, take their two kids (Phung Hung's namesakes) to school, return to the restaurant for morning rush, pick up their kids after school, bring them to the restaurant, cook them chicken nuggets, finish cooking for the evening crowd, then start the same cycle again the next day.

After 4 years of this bump and grind, change awaits. David has just sold Phung Hung and will relinquish the ownership reigns in about a month. He will stay on as chef to, as he describes, keep the Vietnamese culinary tradition alive uptown. But you might want to arrive before 3pm just to be safe. Once he steps down as owner, he will be leaving a lot earlier.All of which is to say, we hope the food doesn't change. After all, as David put, “In school you'll have one teacher, ten students, and ten totally different takes on the material. It's the same with restaurants.” And in a town with no shortage of banh mi, this unlikely outpost delivers some unique, real-deal options that are Vietnamese in more than just name.


Phung Hung Market

2614 Jerome Avenue
The Bronx, New York
(718) 584-5228
Banh Mi: $3.00
Heineken $2, Lemonade & Iced Cofee $1.50

Open daily from about 8:30am to 6ish. Banh Mi sell out early, so you might want to call ahead for availability.


The Porkchop Express is back.

We have a bunch of stuff on tap for the summer, including plenty more Caribbean food in Brooklyn; an island Rum Tasting; goodness from the annual Fancy Food Show; gin and tonics; and our life-changing “10 Ways to Woo Women with a Porkchop.”

(Not to mention a brand new Banh Mi review later today.)