Month: August, 2007
I’ve had Korean fried chicken on my mind ever since missing my opportunity the night of JL’s birthday dinner last month and then driving past the Northern Boulevard outlets last weekend. So for tonight, as S, J and I were considering our usual K-town haunts, the choice seemed obvious: BonChon Chicken! (Not to be confused with Bon Bon Chicken downtown on Chambers.)
Shortly before 8PM, despite being armed with the restaurant’s address (314 Fifth Avenue), I very nearly walked right past it. BonChon rather unusually occupies the second floor of what appeared from the sidewalk to be an office building. (Throughout Asia, in cities where space is at a premium, such set-ups are not unusual at all; in Hong Kong’s Times Square, fully the top four floors of the high-rise complex are restaurants.) Once I established that I was indeed in the right building, I entered through a nondescript lobby, up a flight of narrow, rather dingy stairs, and opened the heavy door to thumping beats and a neon lit bar.
S and J arrived soon after I did, and the three of us co-opted a small seating area with a low table in front of the dining room window overlooking Fifth — more lounge than restaurant, really — as we waited for the rest of the party to show. Through the glass we could see directly across the street into the swankily-lit Third Floor Cafe, another similar hidden spot catering to a predominantly Korean clientele. ($12 AYCE/AYCD happy hours? Can that be true?) As we perused our menus, we were struck by how different it was from every other Korean place we’d been. Here, the offerings seemed better suited for grazing than for a full meal. The rather pricy drink menu (beer, wine, soju, cocktails) was extensive, and seemed to encourage heavy imbibing; the menu reflected that as well: to supplement our platters of fried chicken: dried fish and squid, rosemary fries(?), nachos(??) and spicy rice cake (dduk boki) with… cheese(???) That last, J surmised, is something like the Korean version of Chef Boyardee. We ordered it anyway, of course, and the plate that arrived did look to me suspiciously like baked ziti.
True to the bar food experience, the chicken is available as wings, drumsticks, or a combination of both, in a choice of either soy/garlic or spicy sauces. The accompanying cubes of pickled radish went a long way toward cooling our tingling mouths after hearty samples of the latter, which was probably our slight favorite of the night. Likewise, the steel bucket with which we were provided made a considerate vessel for the copious bones, picked clean of their deliciousness.
Despite not being nearly drunk enough to best appreciate this cuisine, we all found BonChon’s chicken quite good: crunchy, flavorful, and about as ungreasy as fried chicken can be. The effect is achieved by frying the lightly dredged pieces in two separate stages, at relatively low temperature, which renders the skin fat into a crisp, paper-thin coating.
The low lights made photographing our food nearly impossible without employing the ambience-destroying flash, so if you simply must get a visual, check out some other people’s shots on flickr.
Jing Fong on Elizabeth Street is easily one of the largest restaurants in Chinatown. At the height of the yum cha crush on Sunday morning, we and our out-of-town friends rode the long escalator to the oversized, overloud banquet hall. The five of us were immediately ushered in by a headsetted hostess, who darted quickly through the maze of tables to lead us to a large round eight-top in the center of the room, where we joined a couple of elderly Chinese men just beginning their meal. After placing our tea order (chrysanthemum), we were ready to start selecting from the bounty being wheeled before our eyes.
Other than one stray case of vegetarianism – good thing for Buddhist dishes! — our friends were very good sports about the often inscrutable offerings.
Last year, six waiters sued Jing Fong for allegedly using their tip money to pay the wages of the dimsum cart ladies. The restaurant has a history of labor disputes: a decade earlier, Jing Fong was involved in a protracted, highly public battle with their staff, sparked by one waiter’s unceremonious dismissal after confronting his bosses about missing tips. Through the summer of 1995 heatwave, hundreds of protesters demonstrated on the sidewalk in front of the restaurant. In response, Jing Fong infamously hung a pair of 25-foot banners on the building’s facade bearing the face of “the devil” Wing Lam, the leader of the Chinese Staff and Workers’ Association. (“Oppose the labor tyrant stirring up trouble!”) The cause was eventually taken up by the Attorney General’s Office (under Dennis Vacco), and the restaurant settled the disputes for $1.1M(!) in back tip wages.
Isan (or Esan, E-sarn, Isaan or Issan), the Northeast region of Thailand, is edged by Laos and historically, inhabitants of this area identify closely with Laotians in culture and cuisine. The food of Isan, while similar to that served around Bangkok in the south, has its own distinct, rustic flavor and generally tends be spicier. Much is dictated by the region’s harsh environment: while Central and Southern Thailand are lush and fertile, Isan, by contrast, is a poor region, situated on a high, semi-arid plateau, and given to frequent droughts. Whereas the mid-region and south’s staple is jasmine rice, Isan grows crops such as maize and the hardier glutinous (sticky) rice, neither of which require flooded paddies to flourish.
One of the best places to sample the cuisine of this region is Zabb Queens located along the same stretch of Jackson Heights’s Roosevelt Avenue as the Burmese Café (and just a couple doors from Korean fried chicken purveyor, UFC, where we loitered a bit for some much-needed air-conditioned relief.) Despite its off-the-beaten path locale and small, unremarkable frontage, several of the NYC media outlets have keyed into this little restaurant over the past couple of years… and I suppose once The Times enters the picture, one probably can’t really describe the place as “under-the-radar.”
We were Zabb’s first — and for the duration of our meal: only — customers this sweltering Saturday afternoon. On the extensive menu: pages of salads (such as som tam (papaya salad) and laab (ground meat salad) — both staples in fuel-scarce Isan), hearty soups, noodles, curries, and meal-size soups.
Most of the restaurant’s reviews praise the Isan specialty sausage, so we made sure to sample an order: they arrived bias-cut and warm, accompanied by whole fiery chilies and roasted peanuts. Tangy and smoky, and flecked with pepper and fat – like a cross between kielbasa (or “kielbara” as they were described on the menu) and Chinese lop cheong.
Instead of the curries (which I’d read are not the region’s or the restaurant’s strength), curry puffs:
Pad Kra Prow Lard Kaw: sauteed ground beef with basil sauce —
Pad Kee Mao: sauteed drunken noodles with tofu, chili, and basil leaves —
The terrific flavors packed quite a kick, which were soothed by our meal-ending green tea ice cream. (Zabb offers durian ice cream, too.)
Last year, Zabb Queens opened its own East Village outpost, Zabb City, much to the delight of outer borough-averse chowhounds. Naturally, the inevitable comparisons with what most consider the gold standard of NYC Thai food abound; for their part, New York magazine declares, “Zabb could give Sripraphai… a run for its money.”
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