Many of my best dining experiences never make it to the page: If an eating establishment doesn’t merit a first look, dish of the week, point on a map, or paragraph in a feature story, it often disappears. Those fleeting encounters with restaurants are often the most enjoyable. Accordingly, I resolved to keep an informal diary reflecting my unvarnished daily experiences. Here’s the eighth installment and here’s last week’s edition.
While fried chicken sandwiches freighted with mayo have commanded the spotlight over the last five years or so, a stealthier form of chicken has been sneaking up and gaining ground. I’m talking about Hainanese steamed chicken. This wonderful, subtly flavored dish of poached poultry with rice that’s been cooked in the resultant broth originated on Hainan Island in the South China Sea. The island is the smallest and southernmost province in China, at nearly the same latitude as Thailand.
Its denizens have dispersed all over Southeast Asia, carrying the dish with them and winning converts along the way. Today, Hainanese chicken is sometimes considered the national dish of Singapore, and can be found at Hainan Jones, the best stall in the Urban Hawker food court. But most places in town give it a Thai spin, as seen in the chile sauce that often accompanies it. There have been several purveyors in Elmhurst, one counter in the Essex Market, and there’s a new place in Sunset Park.
I was recently delighted to find a new provider in Greenwich Village, tucked into a small walk-up space that was once a café specializing in oatmeal, believe it or not. The name — Me Chicken Rice — makes it hard to Google, but the food from a refreshingly limited menu is top notch. The khao mun gai ($12) as it’s called in Thailand, conveniently sliced for easy eating, is gingery, and the rice comes with chicken livers and gizzards, which I love. A chile sauce on the side provides compulsory dipping for every morsel of chicken, and there’s a cup of broth, too, which you can regard as a warm beverage, or dump over the rice flavor. 120 W. 3rd Street, near MacDougal Street, Greenwich Village
The peripatetic tamale
I’m a big fan of tamales, by which I mean the Mexican ones sold from shopping carts near subway stations and even in the fanciest of restaurants. Heck, NYC has several places that specialize in these largish tamales stuffed with things like green chiles, cheese, chicken, and various forms of pork. But the tamale has legs, and has been transformed by several culinary cultures into something quite different.
When I was recently in New Orleans I refamiliarized myself with that city’s unique take on tamales. I had them at a Sunday afternoon second-line picnic sponsored by the Zulu Social Aid and Pleasure Club, where they were one among many savory dishes, but one that stood out among the Creole chicken, red beans and rice, and barbecued ribs. These tamales were short and small, wrapped in thin translucent paper, and filled with ground pork that delivered a mellow burn. I’d eaten similar tamales years earlier in northern Mississippi at Doe’s Eat Place, among other venues.
As the story goes, tamales were brought to the South by migrant Mexican laborers harvesting cotton early in the 20th century, and Black field hands eagerly learned the recipe. Jammed into a bucket early in the morning, the tamales could stay warm until lunchtime. Once you try them, you cannot forget these delectable tamales, more bite-sized than the ones available near our subway stations.
Well, tamales traveled even further — as far as Chicago, presumably with Mississippians and other Southerners who went north during the Great Migration. Still, when I arrived recently at Bobbi’s Italian Beef in Cobble Hill, I was surprised to see Chicago tamales on the menu. I’d never eaten tamales in Chicago besides the original Mexican ones, which began to appear in my recollection in the 1980s on the South Side.
Well, the tamales at Bobbi’s were nothing like those. When they arrived, two to an order for $7, they were wrapped in paper like the ones in New Orleans, but one bite and I realized they were very different. These were slightly larger, and the corn-based covering was made with plain cornmeal rather than masa, giving them a more crumbly texture. They were delicious, and I wolfed them down even before I touched the Chicago dog I’d gone there to get. Now I’m wondering, where can I get Louisiana tamales here? 228 Smith Street, near Butler Street, Cobble Hill
You can go home again
When I lived in the East Village in the ’80s, the Sapporo East restaurant was a beacon of Japanese eats, one of the first to offer that cuisine in the neighborhood. But it was more: It quickly became a sort of clubhouse for neighborhood residents, and it was the first place I go to try my favorite Japanese dish, katsudon.
The fatty pork cutlet wrapped in breadcrumbs is fried and plopped on a bowl of rice, then mired in a coagulating sauce of beaten egg and scallions, with a little sweet soy trickled in there somewhere. Sapporo East’s version of this luncheon dish became my paradigm, with every subsequent version I tried automatically compared to it — and nothing ever quite measured up.
Well, Sapporo East closed in 2013, to be followed a year later in the same space by Beron Beron. It was only slightly fancier, with nearly the same layout and menu, and that place continues to survive today. I went in last week after an art opening to retry my favorite katsudon. Luckily, it was the same as always, with a generous cutlet that I had to fold slightly to fit the bowl, and rice that achieves an oiliness and dark sweetness way above average for the dish. 164 1st Avenue, at 10th Street, East Village