Ten Dishes that Push the Culinary Envelope
Fifty years ago, the out-of-the-ordinary was a bit, well, ordinary when it came to food in Brooklyn. It might have consisted of the odd, experimentally topped cheesecake at Junior’s (perhaps a combination of strawberry and blueberry?). Or, for some, it might be boiled lobster down in Sheepshead Bay. How things have changed. Brooklyn in the 00’s is a markedly different place, thanks to the immigrants who have flocked to the borough from all over the world, bringing with them their diverse culinary traditions that have influenced native-born American chefs as well. A few of these dishes might seem more gruesome than gourmet to some. But once you get over your initial squeamishness, you’ll be treated to an exciting and true taste of today’s Brooklyn. Here are my picks for what’s far-out:
Cow’s Foot Soup
Cock’s Bajan Bakery, 806 Nostrand Avenue, 718-771-8933, $3
I wasn’t the only person in the long line waiting for the chance to savor a take out carton of this soup. It was worth the delay. The brew comes with large gelatinous chunks of trotter (also called heel) bobbing around in a heady, herb-flecked, tumeric-yellow broth. Cool your palate down afterwards with a sugary red sorrel (hibiscus flower punch), or a creamy, vaguely hair conditioner-tasting sea moss (made from milk, sugar and a type of sea weed). If you’re really hungry, the goat roti is not to be missed.
Vietnames Noodle Soup with Beef Tendon
Ti An Vietnamese Restaurant, 5604 Eighth Avenue (56th street), 718-492-1592, $4.00
The first time I ordered a traditional pho, the compelling, anise-and-basil scented beef noodle soup of Vietnam, I was captivated by the strange, translucent, irregularly-shaped disks that melted on the tongue like velvety marrow. I asked the waiter what they were. “Beef tendon,” he said, matter-of-factly. And why not? Now, it’s my favorite part of the pho, leagues above the chewy tripe and raw sliced steak that also get added. Sip a salty lemonade alongside (made with lemons, sugar, and salted, pickled plums), or finish your meal with a syrupy iced coffee lightened with sweetened condensed milk. By the way, you can also request the soup with bits of cooked brisket instead of the innards. Some even find that version better. But not me.
Braised Duck Feet
Ocean Palace, 1414-1418 Avenue U (15th Street), 718-376-3838, $3.25
The thing that elevates duck or chicken or goose feet above say, pork or cow feet on the “ick” scale is definitely their appearance. While cow and pig feet are usually disassembled in a dish and float around like so many chunks of pearly meat, duck feet are indisputably fowl. But don’t let that stop you from enjoying this dim sum favorite. For the maximum experience, chew on the webbing and suck the meat off the toes. If you can get past the strangeness of the presentation, you’ll be well rewarded by the soy sauce-garlic-and-ginger richness of the flavor.
Chicken in Corn Fungus Sauce
Bonita, 338 Bedford Avenue (South 2nd Street), 718-384-9500, $12.00
You won’t see it listed on the menu this way; most Mexican restaurants prefer to use the Spanish name, huitlachoche, but it boils down to the same thing: a gnarled fungus (or let’s say mushroom) that grows on the ears of fresh corn. But don’t be put off; in Mexico, huitlacoche is a prized delicacy akin to truffles, albeit with an earthier taste, chewier texture, and lower price tag. At Bonita in Williamsburg, the chicken in a savory brown huitlacoche sauce runs on the menu as an occasional special that is worth calling ahead for.
Ferdinandos Focacceria, 151 Union Street (Hicks Street), 718-855-1545, $3.75
Joe’s of Avenue U, 287 Avenue U (McDonald Avenue), 718-449-9285, $2.70
Vastedda, or a stewed-spleen sandwich, was once common street food in Southern Italy, where vendors in carts lined the streets selling pieces of the meat layered onto bread. Brooklyn’s version, available at not one but two restaurants, consists of a hard roll packed with tender slices of the mahogany-colored offal. If you’ve never had it, cow spleen has a relatively inoffensive, meaty flavor. The real draw in this sandwich is the topping of milky, fresh ricotta and grated parmesan cheese. For the squeamish, a panelle, or chickpea fritter sandwich deliciously dressed with the same cheeses, approximates the experience but stays clear of the guts.
Lambs’ Head Three Ways
Chicken Bone Caf, 177 South 4th Street (Driggs Avenue) 718-302-2663, $24; please order 48 hours in advance or wait for it to appear as a special.
When a restaurant names itself the Chicken Bone Caf, you have to realize it’s probably not going to serve the same namby-pamby food as everyone else. Indeed, the chef, Zack Palaccio likes nothing more than the occasional challenging ingredient, such as a whole lamb’s head. But Pelaccio’s version is refined. The head is stripped of the meat, which is recombined in three ways. The brains are fried into crunchy nuggets topped with a fried quail egg, shiitake mushrooms, and truffle butter. The tongue is cubed and mixed with lemon confit, shallots, summer savory and fava beans. And the cheeks are braised with mustard seed. There are plenty of other excellent, inventive, and less in-your-face (so to speak) dishes on the menu, too, and a worth-the-detour cocktail list courtesy of bar-guru David Wondrich.
Grilled Beef Heart
Coco Roco 392 Fifth Avenue (6th Street) 718-965-3376, $7.00
If you misread the menu, and I’m sure this happens more often than not, you might miss the fact that anticuchos are skewered beef heart instead of the regular meat-on-a-stick. And you might not notice a difference when you ate it, either, especially if you weren’t paying attention. But given some thought, there’s no doubt that the shards of browned meat come from somewhere other than your average cuts of cow. Marinated and grilled within an inch of its life, the heart still maintains a somewhat supple texture, and has a fuller, more intense flavor than plain old steak.
Two Extraordinary Sweet and Icy Drinks
Nyonya Malaysian Cuisine 5323 54th Street (8th Avenue) 718-633-0808, $2.50 each
On a hot afternoon, there’s nothing better than an icy beverage substantial enough to replace a meal. And even better, says I, if that drink also contains bits of things you don’t normally find in a beverage. At Nyonya, the luscious Chendol is comprised of coconut milk, shaved ice, green pea flour “stripes’ (noodles) and sweet red beans. The ABC, which is gorgeously pink and frothy, has ice, red bean, corn, palm seeds, red rose jelly and milk. How could one ever choose? Bring a friend and try them both.
Brain, Tripe, and Tongue Tacos
Tacos Nuevo Mexico, 44-10 Fifth Avenue (44th Street), 718-686-8151, $2.00 each
When I was growing up, most (hard-shell) tacos I came across were crammed with ground beef and grated cheese. In adulthood, I was introduced to the more authentic pleasures of soft corn tortillas filled with crispy pork carnitas, salted beef cecina, and spicy chorizo. Brain, tripe, and tongue tacos are a relatively new addition to my “alternative cuts” repertoire. Of the three, the tripe is the strangest and I think best — long, tubular, soft within, and very crisp on the outside, resembling chewy pieces of fried penne more than meat (it’s from a different part of the cow than the more familiar honeycomb tripe). The tongue and the brain have their merits, too; both are very tender and doused with a fresh, chile-and-cilantro salsa. Best of all, there’s not one shred of iceberg lettuce or grated velveeta to be found.
Fried Cherry Pie
The Chip Shop, 383 Fifth Avenue (7th Street), 718-832-7701, $3.00
I’ve rarely met a food that didn’t taste better when deep-fried. Such is the philosophy behind much of Scottish cuisine, and indeed, behind the Chip Shop in Park Slope. Like any proper British bloke, the owner, Chris Sell, deep-fries everything he can get his hands on, but has a special fondness for sweets. Into the fryer (yes in the same oil as the fish, it’s traditional) goes the classic fish-and-chips dessert, a deep-fried Mars Bar. But Sell doesn’t stop there. Reeses peanut butter cups, Mounds bars, Twinkies, and Hostess cherry pies have all met their maker in Sell’s hot oil. They emerge as golden brown perfections of their form, though the cherry pie does have one particular advantage. Unlike the others, it’s actually fried twice, once courtesy of Hostess, and once by Sell. And as a bonus, the hot cherry goo insides liquefies to a silky, runny texture. It’s just lovely, as Sell would say.