Monday, August 11, 2014

Vacation (New York, 2011)

End of summer blues: a reposting of an old something I wrote about New York, back in 2011

So I took a week off and drove to New York. 

Wasn't my first time this year; I'd already gone for a weekend to help introduce a pair off films in a small Filipino film festival--

And on my way to said festival stepped out of the Times Square subway station smack dab in the middle of the above rally. Syrian Americans demonstrating--peacefully but loudly--for support of pro-democracy forces. One of the ladies were kind enough to let me pose holding a posterboard (of Bashir Al-Assad, and one of the civilians killed by bombings).

"New York? How expensive!" Sure, unless you do things a little different--like booking a hotel out in Flushing, Queens which, aside from being safe at two in the morning (step out of the subway and you'll swear you're in Hong Kong, Kowloon side) has some of the best Chinese food this side of, well, Hong Kong. 

Like the hand-pulled noodles in Golden Mall (41-28 Main Street, look carefully, it's easy to miss)--basically a building basement where the landlords have subdivided the floor space into tiny cubbyholes, and proprietors have set up folding tables and stools for people to sit. 

You walk up (not even sure which stall I ended up in; there was a lot of spillover business it was that crowded); you point out what you want (I could speak some Mandarin, but this was beyond my meager vocabulary); you crouch balancing precariously on a folding stool meant for a six-year-old. I should know; I kept casting a wary eye on one seven-year-old having trouble with his seat.

Then your order comes and it's worth the time and bother and cramped sauna conditions. The soup comes in what can basically be described as a wash basin; the noodles had been pulled just minutes ago (you have to twist and stretch your neck above the counter to catch a glimpse, but it's quite a show--a blob of dough flattened, stretched, magically divided by a few swift hand movements into guitar strings); the chunks of lamb meat are fat and tender and tendon-y. 

And the broth--thick, dark, deeply flavored by meat and green onion and god only knows what mysterious spices and herbs and essences go into this elixir (Is that anise I detect? Marrow distilled from shank bones, the richest, meatiest butter in the world?). Basically a little over five dollars for a bowl; worth it, if you don't count the bother of sharing your table with a half dozen other total strangers, and having to move out of the way every five minutes so delivery men shoving hand carts can whiz past you.

That's not the only cheap eats around. Not far from the corner of  Kissena Avenue and Main Street is a Vietnamese restaurant that serves excellent pho (broth, noodles, beef shank and tendons, some innards, and--love this part--the freshest cilantro, basil leaves, lime wedges and bean sprout toppings available). Outside this place--wouldn't know if they are affiliated or not--is a sidewalk grill that serves grilled tripe, stomach, cheeks, what have you on skewers.

In the city I always go to a sidewalk stand across the Toys 'R Us store in Times Square. Order the beef kebab, and specify medium rare; they will ask if you want the kebab salted (say 'yes,' otherwise it's too bland). They will ask if you want it on a hotdog bun--that's okay by me, who cares? It's in my opinion the best piece of grilled meat in the city, tender, smoky, hot; when you bite, the blood gushes out and soaks the hotdog bun, the kind of leftover treat a carnivore dreams of in his wettest fantasies.

We'd gone into Kebab Cafe (2512 Steinway Ave in Queens) years ago, sometime in 2007, if I remember right, a tiny nook that could sit twenty if everyone dieted a month and used plenty of Vaseline, decorated all over with mosaics and tiny lamps and drawings and photos and posters and other bric-a-brac. Ali the owner had been particularly taken with A., and called him "my man!" We'd always meant to come back, but never had the chance.

We returned this month; Ali took one look at us, one look at A. and said "A., my man!" C. asked: "you remember, after all those years?" Ali said: "how could I forget?" I whispered to Lu. "He's got quite a memory."

Had us seated; asked us what we wanted to drink (we asked for the pomegranate soda--basically soda water with pomegranate syrup, not too sweet--while A. asked for a Coke); told us he'll take care of the food. Started  the falafel mix, the baba ganoush, the hummus; formed the falafel balls with a pair of spoons, dropped them in hot oil. "I remember coming here years ago, because of that show by Bourdain," I said. Ali replied "Jamie Oliver visited too." "Oliver? Really? You're doing well, then." "Yes, but of course you people are much more important to me." Lu. leaned over to me and whispered "And he's still the flatterer."

I got up. "Where are you going?" "There's an ATM machine next door, right?" "Sit down, don't worry about that." Ali ordered. I sat down. He asked if C. wanted to learn how to cook; had him fan out slices of pear on a plate, then serve it to us: basically a mixed dish of baba ganoush, hummus and fava beans in lemon juice, with the sliced pear for picking up the thick dip and cleansing the palate.

Ali may have remembered A. but it was C. who asked all the (occasionally tactless) questions. At one point C. made an off-the-cuff remark about Egyptian culture, how primitive it must have been. I pointed out that Alexander the Great was inspired by Egyptian knowledge, that Imhotep possibly performed the first instance of brain surgery, that he was one of the first to use honey as a disinfectant because it was hygroscopic. Ali declared that "honey is an excellent preservative, and Imhotep is a genius for using it--but he is nothing compared to my man, Lapu-lapu!" He laid a plate of the fresh fried falafel before us, decorated with deep-fried bok choy.

When C. asked who Lapu-lapu was, Ali explained: "He was a Filipino who killed Ferdinand Magellan, the man who organized the first expedition to circle the world. The Europeans call him Magellan's killer but to Asians he's a freedom fighter, a hero." He put a plate of lamb cheeks before us, cracked an egg over it, and mixed it up with a spoon. It was terrific--rich and chewy and meaty all at the same time. 

He even had a moment for La. "Oh, she's texting. Most guys don't care; they text out in the open. But girls like to text under the table, as if it were a secret. She likes to keep secrets." 

Ali served us our final plate: fried cauliflower with pomegranate, the cauliflower coated with thick carmelized fruit sauce. We got up. "Next time I need to teach A. how to cook, it's his turn when you come back. And he should eat more--he's too skinny." Ali had lined up A., C., and even La. against the doorway leading to the bathroom, and marked their height. He said: "A., you better eat--I don't want to have you come back here shorter than when you came last."

It was--I don't know, extraordinarily leisurely and relaxed and, well, affectionate--old friends meeting again, almost. No; better--like spending an afternoon with an eccentric but dear, rarely seen uncle, who served us in his living room, stretching his arm out of his little kitchen to lay the dishes on the table. One of the best meals we ever had.


jayclops said...

i'll remember these things when I get to the big apple while singing "IN new york, concrete jungle where dreams are made of.." haha

Noel Vera said...

The dream doesn't have to come with a big bill. Stick to the sidewalks and you'll still have a memorable meal.

Anonymous said...

This a great post--I came in search of tips on Filipino films to watch and ended up with a bite-sized equivalent in prose form, a hefty chunk of humanity. Love it, all the details and that great Ali character.

Noel Vera said...

Thanks. And if you visit the place, he'll probably be there, puttering away, too.