Over the past 15 years, xiao long bao (a/k/a Shanghai soup dumplings) have become such a thing that now restaurants are specializing in them. Witness Kung Fu Xiao Long Bao in Flushing, way down Main Street just north of the Long Island Expressway among a small campus of Taiwanese restaurants. (Take the Q20 or the Q44 bus south from the Main Street 7-train terminus.)
The soup dumplings are absolutely killer, and you've probably never had them with such a gossamer-thin wrapper before. Of the four varieties available, the pork version ramped up with a small amount of crabmeat ($6.95 for six) is highly recommended, but for something really unusual, check out the dessert dumplings filled with molten chocolate. Be careful not to squirt it on your shirt!
The menu rounds out with a selection of cold apps in the Shanghai style (a method of dining said to have been invented by the Russians), and a menu of vegetables, soups, noodles, and stir fries, all budget priced. Among the cold dishes is a Sichuan plate of beef tripe in hot pepper sauce, and the noodles include the wonderful rice cake with pork and minced greens. The menu also includes an extensive selection of dim sum, one of which is "fried bun with chives and egg" (a specialty known in Los Angeles as "chive box"), sweet red bean pancakes, and sesame rice ball with osmanthus sauce. The distance from the Main Street station to the café is walkable, in which case you may want to stop at the Queens Botanical Garden at the halfway point. 59-16 Main Street, Queens, 718-661-2882.
Somewhat stealthily, West Africa restaurants have been multiplying in the Bronx. While once they were mainly Ghanaian and Nigerian and located in Morris Heights or University Heights, now Mount Hope and Claremont are hotspots, directly south and north of the Cross Bronx Expressway along Webster Avenue. Long-running B & B Restaurant, the only one in town to serve the food of Sierra Leone, has been re-dubbed Adaya ML (1715 Webster Avenue, 718-731-7992) and now specializes in Guinean fare. North of that point are a flock of new Ivory Coast restaurants, which also tend to serve a handful of dishes from Guinea, not only because of the neighborhood population, but because the Ivory Coast has absorbed many Guinean refugees in the last couple of decades, and their food has become familiar to Ivory Coast residents.
One of the new places displaying this combined menu is Grin African American Restaurant, located on a side street in Mt. Hope. The interior has a pleasantly unkempt feel to it, and women with strollers and head scarves, men in robes and skullcaps or in jeans and t-shirts sit around. The natty proprietor wore a tie and three-piece suit, and came out of the kitchen at the rear to help us with the chalkboard menu. A friend and I ordered athieke with poisson frite, which constitutes the national dish of the Ivory Coast. From the Guinean side of the ledger we chose the gombo with lamb, a wonderfully slimy okra stew dotted with chunks of meat. Then, the weather being fine, we walked over to a nearby park to eat — the restaurant was too crowded to find a seat. 454 East 168th Street, Bronx, 718-292-8764.
The must be collectively dozens of patty bakeries in Flatbush, Crown Heights, and Bedford-Stuyvesant combined, purveying the half-moon-shaped empanadas (or are they descended from the Cornish pasty?) that are a glory of Jamaican cooking. One of the best places to get them, sometimes hot out of the oven, is Tropical House Baking Co. in Crown Heights. The patties are displayed in a hot box in the front window, and patrons line up to pay for and then receive their patties through a rotating turntable built into the Plexiglas barrier in the bakery's interior. Patties are $1.70 each, with a choice of beef, chicken, and vegetable. All are quite spicy.
The most conventional way to turn a patty into a meal is by placing it in a coco bread, which is something like a catcher's mitt, with the patty being the ball. A coco bread and a patty will set you back $2.40; if you want cheese added to that, the price is $3.20 — such a deal!
The bakery makes other hilarious Jamaican pastries, of which the sweet potato bread is pictured. Zapped with allspice — a berry native to Jamaica that tastes like a mixture of sweet spices — the pastry tastes like a very dense bread pudding, and there's a thick layer of coconut topping something like the frosting found on a German chocolate cake. Other desirable pastries include duck bread, twist bread, alligator bread, gizzarda, coconut drops, plaintain tart, totoes, and bulla — a dense and dark-colored cake flavored ginger, nutmeg, and molasses. Mmmmmm! 267 Schenectady Avenue, Brooklyn, 718-773-9523.