Monthly Archives: February 2020

Tito Rad’s Grill- Filipino Power Chow

Tito Rad's Grill SisigI’m starting to get the hang of this.  Rediscovering the borough of Queens.  My friend Howard moving to Jackson Heights was just the excuse I didnt know I needed.  It really feels like a different world out there.  Or 160 different worlds to be exact.  From the price, warm hospitality, to dishes I’ve never heard of.  Its a foodie wonderland.  Highlights so far include a standout crab Ramen at the new Japan Corner, a grocery store in Woodside hosting rotating chefs from Japan.  And Thai Cook at iCook, or “iCook Thai Cook” according to Google, sort of a restaurant within a restaurant.  I’ve been plotting a return trip to that one ever since.

Last week I met a group of Chowhounds at Tito Rad’s, a Filipino grill I’ve wanted to try for a long time.  Filipino food seems to have grown exponentially over the last 20 years in NYC.  I must have had 20 different variations of Sisig during that time (with about half coming from the excellent Mama Fina in East Village).  But in the underground foodie community it seems pretty clear that as far as old school Filipino comfort food goes, Tito Rad’s Grill is the Mothership.  Or the Grandmaship if you will according to their site.

Since 2006 TRG has been serving the community from a seemingly strange looking location, at least when you approach it.  In that corner of Queens Blvd, you might expect to find a place that can renew your license before finding some of the best Filipino food in the city.  Its right next to a Calvary cemetery that has more graves (3 million) than the entire population of Queens.  I dare you to find a food blog that also gives you up to the minute cemetery stats.  Go ahead, I’m waiting.

IMG_2670Considering I eat mostly in Manhattan, I’m all inspired to include prices here, like other not nearly as lazy successful bloggers.  The Sizzling Sisig ($12) oddly listed as an appetizer here is outstanding.  Its chunkier, not as crispy, and milder than most Sisigs I’ve had, but still perfect in a way.  Another winner early on was the Tokwa’t Baboy ($9), deep fried bean curds (Tofu) with braised pork ears.  It worked better for me than the one-note fresh (not fried) Lumpia.  

I though I was back in Prague when we got the Crispy Pata ($14), pork knuckles deep fried to extreme but manageable crispiness.  I found myself reaching for this more than one of their signatures, Inihaw na Panga, grilled tuna jaw.  Good flavor, but slightly off-putting funky aroma prevented me from fully enjoying this.  It comes in s,m,l sizes, but for us, and for me especially, small was plenty.  We were pleasantly surprised however by the Pancit Bam-I ($9), sautéed egg and rice noodles with vegetables, pork, shrimp and Chinese sausage.  Delightfully salty and pungent. 

Its a relatively small sample compared to the rest of the meat heavy menu.  And while not totally hooked, I’m looking forward to returning and chowing through the rest of the menu.

Tito Rad’s Grill
49-10 Queens Blvd, Woodside (Queens)
Rating: 2 Zs (out of 4)
Stars range from Good to Exceptional. Simple as that
Recommended Dishes: Sisig, Tokwa’t Baboy, Crispy Pata, Pancit Bam-I

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Mercato – a Diamante in the Rough

Eating With Ziggy

Mercato Trenette

February 24th, 2020 Update:

Time to update this oldie but goodie.  Its only been 6 years, though I’ve been doing surprise inspections on and off during that time.  Why did it take me so long you may ask.  Its very simple.  Not much has changed.  Same owners, same menu, same lentil dip they give you at the beginning of each meal, same layout I know like the back of my hand, same everything.  In a city where chefs constantly feel the need to reinvent themselves every now and then, Mercato is pretty much the same its been since it opened a decade ago.  BTW, does anyone really know the back of their hand well?

The location of Mercato has a lot to do with why it stays the same.  In that corner of Hell’s Kitchen, they get their fare share of tourists, and theater goers, which also enables them to…

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Toro – The Once Remembered One

ToroNext month I’m turning 50, and this one feels different.  It almost feels like I need to make some lifestyle changes, or at least make a list of things I need to accomplish.  Do I need to take a pottery class or something?  Is there a manual for this?  Age is just a number, until its not.  At 50, you start remembering hockey player’s dads.  At 50, if you go to Toro on Valentine’s Day, everyone around you including the staff will be half your age.  At 50, you are the only one at Toro who doesnt get a bread basket.  Smart!  No bread for you!

When Toro first opened it was the hottest table in the city.  Sometimes places in NYC simply expire in ones mind, and you forget that they exist.  But I needed to be relatively close to Budakkan on this day (debutante’s 18th bash) so Toro was the obvious choice.  After Nishi, Salinas, and others were solidly booked that is, and Cull and Pistol turns out is not romantic anymore.  Who knew?

Toro for the most part delivered.  The space is more smart repurposing of the old Nabisco complex.  In fact I’m pretty sure I was sitting in the exact same spot where the Oreo cookie was first conceived.  Sort of like the Chelsea version of the “I’ll have what she’s having” table.  Toro went from a hot table to the perfect first date spot.  It got that cool factor, and just enough going for it food wise to impress seasoned foodies.

Toro Corn

Courtesy of Open Table

Tapas, you order them and there’s no rhyme or reason to the order they come.  At least  not here.  When the waitress brought the Gambas Al Ajillo, she came back 5 seconds later to ask if we ordered them.  I said “yep, but I wasnt expecting it to arrive so soon (5 minutes after we ordered)”.  That followed by a look of “the answer is yes, Boomer”.  This was closer to a buttery NOLA style BBQ shrimp rather than shrimp swimming in garlic and olive oil.  Thats a good thing.

The Octopus was spanked just enough for a perfect texture, with some squid ink sauce and a Harrisa-like sauce to play with.  Another highlight, perhaps the biggest, was the Maiz Asado, like a Mexican corn on the cob without the cob.  Simple and brilliant.  More simple and almost always brilliant were the Pimientos de Padrón.  I wouldnt dare ask on VD why mrs Z Shishito’s dont come out like this.  The Patatas Bravas were standard but probably an unnecessary order in our case.  If there’s any fault to the random arrivals is that the Patatas should never come last.

Not everything worked though.  The Bocadillo de Erizos, a pressed sandwich of sea urchin, miso butter & mustard seed tasted like two married greasy diner toasts with a hint of sea urchin.  The Rabbit Empanada sounded good on paper, but required much of the accompanied salsa to make an impact.  Same with the fat churros that needed cups full of chocolate gold instead of a drizzle.  And the bread looked ravishing.

Toro is a solid two Z.  Good enough to recommend, not strong enough to return, and in my mind at least, will go back to the dining abyss in about two and a half months.  Too dark for quality pictures

Toro
85 10th Avenue (Entrance on 15th St and, 11th Ave)
Rating: 2 Zs (out of 4)
Stars range from Good to Exceptional. Simple as that
Recommended Dishes: Gambas Al Ajillo, Octopus, Maiz Asado, Pimientos de PadrónToro Octopus

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Lamalo – Here’s Why

LamaloBefore I visit a new place I like to spend some time perusing their website.  It paints a picture, and often tells the story.  I love a good story, but they are getting increasingly rare in corporate NYC.  Lamalo site looks like that of a typical modern restaurant in New York, with colorful images of their food, menu, and press galore.  Its always interesting to see what makes the press cut.  In Lamalo’s case, it’s seemingly every possible mention, with the majority about the anticipation and announcement of its much hyped opening. Which really means “our marketing dollars went to good use y’all”.  Not one review.  The only person benefiting from this press barrage is Jeff Bezos.

Also missing is the story.  There’s an ‘About’ section with no mention of Gadi Peleg and his accomplishments with Breads Bakery.  Instead you see a generic “modern Middle Eastern gem nestled in the heart of NoMad”.  Not sure what makes it modern other than higher prices and being inside a hotel.  Or maybe its because there’s no sign.  The concept of Mezzes served as such may be new to NYC but its been around for 1000’s of years.

Lamalo means “why not” in Hebrew, but its often used, almost like slang.  As in “What if we offer a ridiculous amount of all you can eat spreads, dips, and bread for a set price, say $25 per person?  Lamalo?!?”.  Its essentially a glorified all you can eat buffet of tiny plates like hummus, babaganoush, button mushrooms, pickles, and more.  The most memorable was Skordalia, a potato spread infused with garlic and almonds to the point that it tastes more like beans than potato.  The plates surround a “smaller than I thought” laffa that comes fresh out of the oven but dries quickly, and surprisingly not particularly great.  I’d take the Dizengoff/Zahav pita any day of the week.  Except shabbos.

The spreads for the most part are cleverly executed, and diverse enough to keep things interesting.  There’s a certain pleasant flow here.  The problem is, in a way similar to my issue with Zahav, that the fun stops there.  Unlike Zahav, here you do have variety of large dishes to choose from, but the two we ordered left much to be desired.  A Cabbage “Shank” that was braised overnight with a sweet glaze was interesting at first, but quickly got too sweet and boring.  Its a play on Borscht that doesnt work.

Shabtai-Style Fish featured various kinds of unevenly cooked fried filets is essentially a good mother-in-law fried fish.  Its interesting that they call it Shabtai style considering there’s really no such thing, at least not globally that I’m aware.  As for the sides, the Mejadara worked a lot better than the odd tasting Ful (Fava beans) which I normally love.  But perhaps the best dish at Lamalo is the lone dessert.  A perfectly semi frozen Halva Parfait that really hit the spot.  Like a semifredo covered with shredded Halvah.

But there’s simply not enough here to make me want to come back.  Yes, its a playful concept that can be fun for groups, couples, and heck even accountants.  But tiny plates of mostly spreads and dips can only thrill so much.  You spend some time fishing for your favorites before declaring the winners, but still find yourself munching on the undesirable, because someone has to.  Like a polygamist, who got his favorites, but needs to take the others to the zoo sometimes.  But worse of all, he cant add anymore wives.

Lamalo
11 E 31st St (Madison/5th, Nomad)
Rating: 1 Z (out of 4)
Stars range from Good to Exceptional. Simple as that
Recommended Dishes: Mezzes (included), Halva ParfaitLamalo Halvah Parfait

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Jacala – Anguilla’s Crème de la Crème

Jacala ChickenMy last Anguilla post of the season.  Although I seem to discuss Jacala often on various social media sites including this blog, it occurred to me that I never actually wrote a post about it.  Its only arguably Anguilla’s best.  While Hibernia may be the best overall experience, Ember the most well rounded destination, Jacala has the best food.  I can see many island regulars nodding in approval while reading this, while some shaking profusely.  Dont worry latter group, I got you covered too, albeit with a thin layer of sugar.

Owners Jacques and Alain go way back.  Before opening Jacala 10 years ago, they worked at a famed restaurant at the nearby Malliouhana resort helmed by a Michelin crowned chef for 20 years.  For the past 10 years they created quite the following that can be felt pretty much on every visit (air kisses galore).  The name is a combination of their first names, though if you ask me it sounds like the act of a cat going haywire.  As in “Remember when Mittens went all Jacala on us for no reason?”

Jacala - tuna tartareOn paper, these are my favorite kind of owners.  The fully present ones.  They oversee every aspect of the operation the entire time they are there.  Shmoozing with a customer for 30 minutes is not fully present.  While Alain is busy in the kitchen, Jacques is running the front, taking every order, and even has time to prepare Martha Stewart’s favorite steak tartare, table side.  He will also tell you if you order items that dont exactly mesh.  Its a level of service you just dont see very often.

Some island regulars however, will argue that the title of the post should come at the very least with an asterisk.  Lets just say Jacques can be a bit gruff sometimes, and may not always handle stress well.  Its not quite Soup Nazi territory but its important to come a little prepared as cultural and language differences can lead to uncomfortable situations.  You may need to assess and possibly adjust.  Perhaps refrain from asking too many questions, request alterations, and interrupt when he tells you the specials.  If your idea of service is an overly friendly chap who will invite you to his daughter’s Bat Mizvah before your evening is over, you may want to skip this one.  But if you are after some top notch grub, you came to the right price.

Jacala Lobster RisottoSimply put, every single dish we’ve had at Jacala ever was outstanding.  That creates all sorts of challenges when you order, choosing between the proven and the new.  Its hard to pass on the magnificently fresh, and expertly crafted Tuna Tartare for example.  Or the stupendously moist and flavorful chicken breast rolled around lobster, chicken mousse, and served over lobster sauce.  The latter has been pretty much on the menu since day one.

Then you have the specials like the Lobster Risotto, far from your typical risotto.  Chunks of sweet lobster, green onion, and just the right amount of heat.  Previously we enjoyed the Calamari Risotto as well.  Lobster dishes in general shine, including the salad, and especially the Bisque.  I already mentioned the steak tartare that I vowed to get last time, but, see previous paragraph.  It will need to wait another year (at least).  And dont discount desserts here either, like the Papaya Panna Cotta.  Sometimes fruits in Panna Cottas overwhelm but Papaya isnt acidy enough and compliments beautifully.  The wine list obviously french leaning (as is the rest of the island).

Jacala fits my taste like a favorite pair of shoes that you can only wear once or twice a week.  Otherwise you risk losing its efficiency or they become stinky.Jacala - Panna Cotta

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The Usual – I’ll Have what Everyone Else is Having

The Usual - BurgerAs we get older, mental lists get less and less effective.  We start to forget things, and sometimes get in trouble as a result, especially with the spouse.  The saving grace is an equally forgetful spouse, but not when she has different habits and writes everything down.  Consider my agenda on my day off today:  Write a post, check the tire in my car, call cable, watch Almodovar’s Pain and Glory, take the dishes out (still not allowed to put them in but in the midst of a mandatory online course), and…  I know I had more, including something important that she asked me to do.  But at the moment I dont have the slightest idea what it is.  I suppose I can ask her, but that’s risky in itself.  

Successful people write shit down.  The great Jerry Seinfend said that as you get older you lose your creativity, and the way to combat that is to sit down and write.  He writes for two hours every day.  It’s sort of what I’m doing right now.  I should be writing something about The Usual but instead I’m writing about, well, nothing really.  Like Seinfend, its a blog about nothing.  I wasnt planning to write about nothing when I started writing a few minutes ago.  I definitely planned to write about something.

So as a result of accelerated fading mental lists, about a year ago, I started making a list of new restaurants I’d like to try.  And pretty much ever since then I’ve been staring at The Usual on top of that list.  It wasnt that I ever put it on top.  Its just the oldest name on the list that I kept bumping down in favor of others.  Burger joints still gets your attention, but with so many good ones out there, its hard to get overly enthusiastic.

I first heard of Alvin Cailan when he opened Eggslut, a popup at the Chef Club Counter, offering his famous (in LA at least) egg sandwich.  Eggslut now has locations in LA and the Cosmopolitan hotel in Vegas.  The Cosmo shaping up to be a foodie paradise, attracting the crème de la Crème seems like.  The Filipino-American Cailan is also famous for hosting The Burger Show on Youtube.  And burgers and fried chicken are the focus in NYC, instead of egg sandwiches and Filipino food.  Although rumors are that Cailan will open a Filipino restaurant here soon enough.The Usual - Sprouts

I think Cailan and team figured at some point that at a place called “The Usual”, an online menu is almost useless.  Its not there as of this writing.  People generally come for one or two items, the burger or fried chicken.  We ordered the former as the main, and the latter as the first course.  When we come back, that and only that would be my order.  Among the other dishes we tried were Kung Pao Brussel Sprouts that were cooked well but needed a bit more flair.  And a baked cookie and ice cream that was too sweet and uninspiring.

But the burger was inspiring alright.  Not a designer, fancy one that you’ll find in say NoMad Bar.  Just a solid, well crafted burger.  Two quality smashed patties with American Cheese, garlic aioli, and just enough onions.  Its beefy, well balanced, and just the right size.  And for $20 as you’d expect, served with excellent fries that came with ketchup and a curry aioli.  Combine the two for maximum oomphness.

I’ve heard much about Cailan’s fried chicken.  But oddly, a Korean fried chicken instead on the menu these days.  Not so odd once you try it.  It got all the elements of perfect fried chicken.  Its clean tasting, supremely moist, with just the right amount of crunch and flavor from the thinner than it looks skin.  Perhaps the best KFC (Korean) I’ve ever had.  Looking forward to trying the rest of the menu.  Not really.  I’ll just have the usual.

The Usual
30 Kenmare St (Mott/Elizabeth)
Rating: 2 Z’s (out of 4)
Stars range from Good to Exceptional. Simple as that
Recommended Dishes: Burger, Fried ChickenThe Usual - Koren Fried Chicken

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