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Lest anyone think I only go to fancy Mexican restaurants, another really huge thing I miss from New York is the kind of taquería one finds in the back of some bodegas. Cheap, hearty and unfailingly delicious, the everyday Mexican lunch is a real madeleine for this former New Yorker. Yes, I know, LA friends will scoff and insist their taquerías are better. Sure, ok, you’re probably right. And it’s definitely the case that when I first moved to New York in the 1990s, you couldn’t find proper Mexican food in as many places as you can today. Puerto Rican food, surely, Cuban food yes, but not so much Mexican. All the same, the porky, fatty, spicy pleasures of really good tacos, tortas and other street foods were a distinctive part of my life in NYC and, it must be said, my life in Iowa City. Anywhere with a Mexican immigrant population is going to make this stuff very well indeed and you can’t really understand the craving for Mexican food until you’ve eaten this way. It’s something L and I discussed as we sat in the slightly chilly back garden of Fast and Fresh Burrito Deli in Boerum Hill: savvy entrepreneurs may have opened up a few chic Mexican restaurants in London, but because most Brits don’t have the everyday experience of cheap and good Mexican fast food to compare to, it’s not quite the same market. They’re selling a new ethnic cuisine, not an upmarket version of something that people already eat frequently.  Read the rest of this entry »

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Every time I’m in New York I have a bit of an Asian food tour. There are old favourites – dim sum, banh hoi, and roti canai  joints that I go back to nostalgically – but I’m also always on the lookout for new trends in the world’s most exciting food town. This time, I went to one restaurant that was well planned and another that I heard about randomly from the most unlikely source. My friend N is not a foodie – I’m sure she likes good food just fine but it’s not really her thing and she’s picky about a lot of ingredients. Specifically, she won’t eat fish in any form so Southeast Asian cuisine is less than ideal for her. Nonetheless, it was N who tipped me off to Zabb Elee, an Isaan place in the East Village. She said it was ‘too Thai’ for her but that her friends were really into it. Thriled by the prospect of returning to the wonderful food of Northern Thailand, I popped in for lunch. Since I was on my own, I only got to try one dish and unsurprisingly I chose a somtam. What was surprising was that there is a whole somtam section on the menu, offering not just the usual westernized version but a whole slew of options, including hardcore options like whole pickled crab. I had somtam korat, with papaya, Thai eggplant, roasted peanuts and pla ra, or fermented fish. It was amazing – combining roasty nuts with just the right balance of sourness, a little sugar and lots of heat. The waitress did ask how spicy I wanted it and when I said Thai spicy, she actually seemed to believe me. The place has already generated quite a lot of discussion on Chowhound and other food-oriented blogs and, as far as I can tell, the adulation is well deserved. I only ate one dish but somtam is a good standard by which to judge a Thai restaurant and Zabb Elee was as good as the Chiang Mai back alley…

For dinner, we went in a more upscale direction. My host L arranged a meet up with C, a good friend of hers and old colleague of mine, and after a long day of touristing I was ready for some girl talk in a nice restaurant setting. They’d schemed up a booking at Talde, “Angry Dale” from Top Chef’s restaurant in Park Slope. I was always a fan of Dale – he never really seemed especially angry to me and certainly not the unpleasant bullying personality of certain Top Chef contestants, naming no names…His Filipino-inspired Asian-American food always looked really delicious on television; playful in the right way, creative without being contrived. I was excited to go there and C kept us entertained on the trip with stories about her dating adventures and a photo of her hot new boyfriend (not that kind of photo, people, get your minds out of the gutter!).

Talde is in a really pretty corner space, decorated simply with dark wood carvings and beams against white walls. We settled into a spacious and private wooden booth and got the evening going with Brooklyn Slings (gin, cherry liqueur, citrus bitters and pineapple juice). The appetisers were a mixed bag: pretzel dough pork dumplings were fine but not as pretzel-y as one might have hoped. They also came with a mustard dressing that made several appearances on other dishes and which I could have kind of done without. I get the concept of pretzels and mustard but it didn’t quite fly. Much more successful was the perilla leaf with toasted shrimp, coconut, peanuts and bacon tamarind caramel. I think this type of dish is where Talde soars: it seems like too many ingredients but the effect is perfectly orchestrated, utterly delicious and a sure sign that a flavour mixing genius is at work.

For mains, we also shared a bunch of dishes: barbecue pork ribs with watermelon and Thai basil, spicy roasted corn, and Korean fried chicken with kimchee flavoured yoghurt, grapes and mint. This latter was my favourite, the kimchee yoghurt more refined than standard kimchee but with much of the same piquancy, and the grapes an unexpected freshness in an otherwise quite substantial plate. All of the mains were good but they went right up to the edge of my salt tolerance. They weren’t over salted, but any more seasoning and they would have been.

When the waitress came to ask if we wanted dessert, we almost said no. She told us there was only one dessert available: halo halo. Now I’m not a huge fan of this classic Filipino dessert of shaved ice. I find the mix-ins of beans and corn to be not so dessert-y for my western palate and the sugary syrup conversely too sweet. I should have known better. Angry Dale was not about to make regular halo halo. No, this halo halo featured a lemongrass-kaffir lime-condensed milk syrup, wok-fried banana and pineapple, braised mango, tapioca pearls and, the kicker, Captain Crunch cereal. Now, I appreciate that this photograph makes it look a bit like canned sweetcorn and/or sick, but please trust me when I say that this was one of the best desserts EVER. As L pointed out, it’s kind of like we got high on LSD and decided to eat a bowl of breakfast cereal. It was funny, refined, indulgent and just really well-balanced all at once. It came in a giant mixing bowl with separate little rice bowls for serving and we cheerfully monstered our way through the whole thing. As we got up to leave, we saw Formerly Angry Dale chatting companionably with customers at other tables. Overall, Talde was perhaps not my favourite Asian food in New York but Dale is a brilliant food mixologist and I would come back for that halo halo in a heartbeat.

Zabb Elee, 75 Second Ave (between 4th and 5th) New York NY 10003

Talde, 369 Seventh Ave, Brooklyn, NY 11215

I’m in New York now, and staying with Lemur friend L in her lovely Brooklyn apartment with cat and laptop, so I’m hoping to catch up on some blogging. However, I still only have my shonky camera phone and emailing the pics to myself is kind of laborious, so I’m afraid my next few posts will not be awfully pretty. On top of this, I have an insane backlog of meals to write about, plus am gorging on the New York restaurant scene in an unseemly fashion, so there’s going to be more to write about than spare moments in my days. Sorry, but there are DVF dresses to buy, movies to see, and friends to catch up with out there in the city – that said, I simply must take a moment to evoke my extreme happiness at being back in a city with a proper Latin American food culture. New York, I am so very glad to be back… Read the rest of this entry »

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