I’ve had 15 half-written food posts that I’ve been sitting on – some for more than six months. So I’m going to attempt to unclog the bottleneck here with a few of these posts. They won’t be fully fleshed out, take it as you will. First is below.
As I’ve noted before, I’ve been somehow successful in keeping IBM’s sports sponsorship as a small part of my communications beat at IBM. It’s great, doesn’t require a lot of time and allows me to dabble in sports PR and sports social media.
One of our premier sponsorships is the US Open Tennis Championship. Held in Queens, NY at the end of every summer and, it’s one of the quintessential New York cultural experiences. And while the tennis is spectacular, and the work generally successful, what I really get excited about is the excuse it gives me to hunt for tacos in Queens.
So, on my way to work at the Open on one particular day, I decided to get off the 7-Train at 74th St, and eat the rest of my way toward the Tennis Center, snacking on tacos, quesadillas, sopes and kebabs along Roosevelt Ave. Below are some of my notes.
Tacqueria Coatzingo. 7605 Roosevelt Ave, Queens, NY
Photo courtesy of Yelp
I have been to Tacqueria Coatzingo a few times before, but my last visit had been at least three years ago. I recently started a query on Chowhound for the latest in spit-roasted tacos al pastor. Coatzingo rose to the top of that discussion, so I decided to start my crawl there. As one of the few places that roasts their al pastor on a spit, Coatzingo automatically gets bonus points.
The tacos al pastor at Coatzingo are very good. Deeply flavorful pork, marinated in adobo, then roasted on a vertical spit giving it a nice char. Generous portions topped with onions, cilantro and avocado salsa (this is the thin, ubiquitious Mexican salsa de aguacate, not the common chunky American guacamole). A good, solid taco al pastor.
Taco cart @ 74th and Roosevelt, Queens
Unfortunately I didn’t take a picture and can’t remember the exact name, but this cart on the south side of Roosevelt, right at the 74th street intersection and below 7 Station puts out very good tacos al pastor. In fact, they are about as good as any non spit-roasted tacos al pastor can be. Huge portions of flavorful pork, served with chunks of pineapple, onions, cilantro and salsa de aguacate. I actually preferred the flavor of the adobo marinade to Coatzingo’s tacos al pastor, but Coatzingo’s cooking method (i.e. spit) gives it an edge. Regardless, this was a good, fat, tasty taco.
Kebab King 7301 37th St. (73rd & Broadway)
Kebab King is near legendary amongst Indian and Pakistani circles. It’s a 24-hour Pakistani restaurant that has a reputation for serving some of the best, authentic Pakistani food around. I caught Kebab King at the right time – during Ramadan – which ensured small lines during daylight hours. There are probably some better places with nicer settings, but Kebab King (the Queens location, not Manhattan) holds up to any of them.
Since I was on the move, I stuck to mobile food – kebabs: Lamb, beef and chicken to be exact. All three were of similar style, consisting of meat ground with spices, herbs, marinated (I think) in yogurt and chiles, then shaped around a skewer and cooked over a live fire. I didn’t see a lot of taste variance between the three kebabs, but all were good so I didn’t complain. (Note: subsequent conversations with Kebab King patrons and friends pointed me to other parts of the menu, like the tandoori fish, beef nihari, chicken biryani and szechuan goat. Some I’ve sampled since, some I haven’t. Stay tuned for another report just on Kebab King).
Tacos Guichos Cart – Roosevelt & 84th
Taking a break from the al pastor tacos I’d been sampling, I grabbed a carnitas taco from the Tacos Guichos cart at Roosevelt and 89th. While I do love tacos al pastor, carnitas (good ones, that is) probably rank at the very top of my taco food chain. Well, just under the angelic baja fish taco. This was a great carnitas taco: tender, mildly caramelized, super rich pork, overflowing the two tortillas on which its served. Garnished with onions, cilantro and salsa, it’s was a beautiful marriage making a glutton of anyone who eats it.
Random taco stand at 99th and Roosevelt
Along Roosevelt Avenue, you’ll find any number of taco stands that sell fresh quesadillas. This particular cart had no name anywhere to be found. It sits on a lonely corner at 99th and Roosevelt on the NE side of the intersection. If, for some forsaken reason, you haven’t had a real Mexican quesadilla, it’s well worth the $2-$3 treat. Almost always made with fresh masa, they consist of large corn tortillas, pressed to about a 10-inch diameter, then cooked on a hot, dry griddle and filled with any number of ingredients.
My choice for today was huitlacoche. An ingredient not all that common in this part of the country. Inky black and earthy in flavor, huitlacoche is my favorite quesadilla filling. At this unnamed taco stand, they are done very well. Huitlacoche mixed with onions, chiles and cheese. When cooked, huitlacoche almost melts, giving the quesadilla a rich creaminess that makes it a near perfect treat.
Tortilleria Nixtamal, 104-05 47th Ave, Queens, NY
Ok, so it’s not really on the way, and I’ve been going to Tortilleria Nixtamal regularly now for about seven months, but I still had to stop by on my walk over to the tennis center. I’ll spare more details for a full post (which also has been partially written for 6+ months now) but I ordered the fish tacos. Made with fresh skate that’s lightly pan fried, they are somewhat non traditional, but still very good. These are single-tortilla tacos that come three to an order (as do all of their tacos). The pictures here are from a visit about 6 months ago.
As I mentioned, much more (belatedly) on Tortilleria Nixtamal in the very near future, but as a preview, I’ll leave you with this picture, taken outside of Nixtamal. Care to guess what it’s for? A hint… lard. Lots and lots of lard…
I’m not really sure if it’s a function of an ever growing immigrant population from Guatemala, an increased confidence in the commercial viability of their home cuisine or a combination of the two, but Stamford has become home to a significant number of Guatemalan restaurants over the past few years.
By my count, there are at least four full Guatemalan restaurants in Stamford now:
- Antojitos Chapines – 210 West Main
- Quetzal Cafe – 262 Hope St.
- Maya Restaurant – 166 Stillwater Ave.
- Delicias Guatemaltecas – 163 Cove Rd.
By my count, that means there are now more authentic Guatemalan restaurants than there are authentic Mexican restaurants in Stamford (“authentic” being the operative word). That’s as much of a statement about the poor Mexican options as it is about the significance of the Guatemalan scene in Stamford. Regardless, it’s worth taking a closer look at the burgeoning local scene.
Antojitos Chapines was the first of the bunch, opening in early 2005 in the space of the then recently closed Trinidadian restaurant International Roti. Though it has now been two years since I last ate there, I always found it to be good and consistent. Of the four, it still offers the widest range of local foods from small dishes – as the restaurant name suggests – to full entrees and meals despite its tiny size.
Quetzal Cafe opened soon after Antojitos Chapines in 2005. It is smaller than Antojitos Chapines and only offers a small sampling of food. I have to confess it’s been three years since I was last there. When I was last at Quetzal they still didn’t have a kitchen of their own, requiring them to cook off premise and reheat the food on site. That necessarily limited both their selection and the freshness of the food, but it was satisfying nonetheless. However, I am long overdue for a revisit to see how Quetzal Cafe is doing these days.
Maya Restaurant only opened last month. At first, I was giddy at the proposition of what I thought was going to be a southern Mexican restaurant, focusing on Yucatecan food. I even went there on its opening day but was turned back because they weren’t quite ready. When I asked about the menu it became clear at the time that it wasn’t Mexican, but a quasi pan-Latin restaurant without much of a focus on “Mayan” food. They were offering some Guatemalan, some Peruvian and some Mexican food. With no menu at the time, the restaurant seemed to be offering whatever the cooks in the back room knew to make. So I was a bit disappointed. But, after reading a comment on Dave Cook’s blog about his recent experience at Maya, I have decided to go back and give it another try. It’s clear they are Guatemalan at the core of the restaurant and take some pride in their local cuisine and dishes. That makes makes all the difference. So maybe we’ll have a real Mayan restaurant after all. I’ll report back shortly.
Delicias Guatemaltecas is new, though I’m not sure when it opened as I only just noticed it yesterday as I was driving down Cove Rd. I haven’t even had a chance to pop in to grab a menu, but by the looks of it, it’s a typical Guatemalan deli, open for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Here’s to hoping it’s a gem hidden in the chaos that is Cove Rd.
There are probably a few other Guatemalan places in the nearby environs hiding out, waiting to be discovered. I consider it my mission to uncover them all.
This is generally a very positive, hopefully uplifting blog. However, it’s with regret that I share this tragic news about the passing away of Marcelo Azar, the owner and proprieter of Med Empandas. I quote here from a comment left by his mother-in-law, Jan Fields to my Empanada Guide.
Marcelo and his wife, Stacey Fields, loved to create good food and good conversation together. Over the past 7 years, they worked together in many restaurant ventures, from French Confessions ( Pleasantville), and their own restaurants; Broadway Cafe (Valhalla), and Med Empanadas (Briarcliff).
Marcelo’s memorable, booming voice could be heard through the restaurants, “HELLO MY FRIEND!, I made something special for you!”, and it was always an oversize portion.
The young couple shared a deep love for each other and their 3 month old son, Marcelo, “Marcelito”. In the last 3 years, they never left each others side.
In April ‘09, one month after Marcelito was born, Marcelo was diagnosed with 4th Stage Melanoma. Together, Marcelo and Stacey fought this cancer positively and aggressively. Marcelo’s entire family came from Uruguay to join Stacey’s family in supporting them through the next 2 months.
As the treatment was having encouraging results, the couple’s plan was to re-locate to Uruguay by August for a less stressful life. Marcelo’s health depended on dramatic life changes.
In a sudden, unforeseen turn, Marcelo died on Sunday,07/05/09, due to complications from chemotherapy. He was 36 years old.
Jan Fields, mother-in-law
The eulogy above accurately reflects my limited experiences with Marcelo. Every time I visited MED during my Westchester Empanada excursions, he was always very outgoing and eager to talk to me about his business. He was outgoing, friendly and clearly took great pride in his product. On top of that, he was very talented at his craft. Those are three qualities one would hope more people would emulate.
Finally, when I visited MED the last time, with Liz Johnson of the Journal News to complete the Journal News write up of my guide, he spent considerable time with us and was genuinely thrilled at the attention his little empanada store had been garnering. I have no idea what the future of MED will be; it may already be closed at this point. I’ll try and find out more details.
My sincere condolences and prayers for his family, and particular his wife and three month old baby.
I’ve always wanted to generate a tag cloud of ALL my public Twitter posts. The problem is that most services, like TweetStats, will only take a small subset of the most recent posts to analyze. With the help of a great friend, Sacha Chua, who helped me scrape all 2000+ Twitter posts over the past few years (using Python and Perl scripts… stuff I don’t understand), I was able to create a word cloud via Wordle of all my public tweets:
Frankly, I was surprised tacos weren’t more prominent in that tag cloud. I see this mostly as a function that my priorities are misaligned. (Mental note: more tacos, less work). But Sacha also helped me do some other analyses too. Perhaps the most interesting is the break down of how many times I respond to certain people. Here’s list of the top 21 people I speak to most on Twitter:
Personally, I feel like I’ve gradually begun to use Twitter less and less as it’s gotten more popular. Call it the inverse Ashton Kutcher effect. But the tag cloud and @ list at least give a window of where I’ve spent a lot of my time over the past few years, what I’ve been talking about and who I’ve been spending it with.
Oh, and my first ever tweet? Appropriate:
As I first mentioned back on this thread I’ve been wanting to go to Rancho Grande since I first noticed it late last year. To say Rancho Grande is unassuming would be a huge understatement considering I’ve walked right by it at least 25 times over the past year without realizing it was a restaurant until a few months ago. No one goes in or out and the signage is virtually nonexistent. But my strange compulsion to try every Mexican place I see in hopes of uncovering hidden gems too over and I made a note to come back.
I finally stopped in for lunch a few weeks ago. As I expected, I was the only person in the restaurant. In fact, I wonder whether I am the only person who has ever gone to the restaurant. OK, that might be an exaggeration, I’m pretty confident I’m the only gringo to ever step foot in the place. The interior is clean but bare. To keep things simple, I ordered three tacos – chorizo, carnitas, and bistek – and followed it up with an horchata chaser.
After I made my order, the waitress quietly placed a phone call. I didn’t think much of it until two minutes later, a woman came through the door, made a comment to the waitress, and went straight to the kitchen to start making the food. Hmm… any place that needs to call their cook back to work when a customer comes in probably doesn’t do a lot of volume business. Now, in their defense, I’m guessing the cook was on her own lunch break. Nevertheless, it doesn’t dissuade my impression that customers don’t flow through their door with a lot of regularity.
The positive side of this, of course, is that the tacos (all $2.75) were freshly made and quite good. The bistek was the best with typically little chunks of thin beef steak, nicely charred from a hot griddle. The carnitas also had good flavor, and was appropriately fatty, but not as tender, rich or juicy as I would have liked. The chorizo was the weakest of the three. It wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t anything out of the ordinary either.
So, all in all, I liked that my food was cooked to order and the food itself wasn’t bad either. But given the choice for tacos in Port Chester, I’d head 50 yards around the corner to Tortilleria Los Gemelos, where tacos are far superior, and now only $2 each.
8 Poningo St.,
Port Chester, NY 10573
(I’ve also updated my ongoing Google map of Port Chester Latin food)