Sunday, June 19, 2016

My Life is Valued in Pastrami, Pork Chops and Old Mandolins.

A 1922 Gibson F4
Not the Mandolin under discussion, but very nearly so. 
I am in New York for only a few more days, and it feels like I hardly scratched the surface. The city changes so fast that as soon as I realize that one funky old neighborhood has become yet another Fair Trade Hipstertown, yet another wave of Huddled Masses yearns to breathe free and moves in to replace the Refuse that is no longer so Wretched that they can't buy a nice two family place in Miss Liberty's Promised Land of New Jersey. (Apologies, Emma Lazarus...) Chinatown is always on my walking map - its the last place in Manhattan that I can afford to splurge on lunch. I cook Chinese food at home a lot, but recipes never tell me much about how a dish is supposed to taste. I have read a lot about Taiwanese Fried Pork Chops, but I had never had one, even though the raw ingredients are easy to get in my home base of Budapest. Luckily, on tiny Doyers Street (next to the Nom Wah Dim Sum House, the oldest Chinese restaurant still standing in Chinatown) is the Taiwan Pork Chop House - formerly known as Excellent Pork Chop House.

Order the pork chop on rice. Then consider your options.
You have got to love a restaurant that tells you what to order by putting it right in their name. Pizza Town. Burger King. Taiwan Pork Chop House. In we strolled and that's what I ordered. The menu also offers side dishes such as pork chop, diced pork chop, fried chicken leg, and seaweed, in case you need more pork or species diversity. (In fairness, the menu is classic working class Taipei.) And it was well worth the $5.95 that I invested in - a huge plate of rice topped with chopped Chinese pickled mustard greens, a ground pork and sesame sauce flavored with Five Spice powder, and a huge soy and five-spice marinated pork chop sliced into four piece for easy chopstick manipulation. If you know anybody who "doesn't like" Chinese food, take them here.

Jews, such as myself, may not enjoy this. But I did.
The pork chop was huge, and slightly marinated with five spice and dusted in corn starch giving it a crispy finish and a slight Asian fragrance. the pickled greens and pork sauce were perfect when mixed into a swill that alternated with cave man bites of pig meat on the bone. It was transcendent in a way that only swine flesh can appeal to a one who was once a pork avoiding Semite such as myself. This is how non-kosher meat is supposed to taste, at least if you are not at the A-Wah risking your eternal soul on their clay pot House Special. Did I mention the price? $5.95! As if this was not enough, we began our meal next door, in fact, at the Indonesian and Malaysian Chinese restaurant Sanur.

Like Louis Szekely's (yes, C.K. stands for that most unpronounceable of Hungarian names) pre-diet preparation, this trip was a "bang-bang" ( a lunch consisting of going out for burgers and then going out again for pizza, except in this case it was serial Chinese cheap lunch joints.) Another dish I had read about but never tried was Asam Laksa, a sweet and sour fish and noodle soup that every expat Malaysian Chinese raves about, but I had never actually seen. Every time Bourdain or Andrew Zimmern goes to Penang or Singapore they always start out by swooning over a bowl of Asam Laksa. I wanted in on the action.

Asam Laksa: Soup? Noodles? Fruit salad?
Big thick rice noodles swimming in a sour tamarind fish broth, raw onion, a chunk of boneless fried mackerel in the middle, and oddly enough, chunks of pineapple swimming around in there. Again, cheap and good, but it didn't match the splendor of Fumie's Curry Laksa soup, which had the required chili burn that I need at least once a meal. New York has lots of Chinese communities: Cantonese, Fujianese, Northerns, Szechuanese, but it never got the influx of southeast Asian Chinese from Singapore, Indonesia and Malaysia that you find in Canada or Britain. Our loss.

I'll have what she's having...
And then, stuffed to the gills, I went up to the village and did my gig with the Brothers Nazaroff at Joe's Pub. the day before, however, we had to do the ritual trip to Katz's Delicatessen. This blog has chronicled my obsession with Katz's and with pastrami in general over the last decade, ever since man first set cuneiform into the wet clay interface offered by Blogger, freeing us from the HTML of the paleolithic era. Corned beef and pastrami are flavors that one can only find in New York (and Newark and Montreal, and maybe two other places) and it is what I miss most when I am not on that stinky island off the coast of Trumpland.  Katz's had had to raise its prices and pander to the tourist trade in order to survive the astonishing rent costs that have made the once gritty Lower East Side into one of NY's most sought after bits of real estate, but it is still worth a visit. I heard that they had switched meat suppliers, perhaps just a rumor, but my pastrami was a bit saltier than I remember and lacked the funky background smoke that I used to expect from the King of Delis.

The Hot Dog course is served alongside the main pastrami course.
This is where we end up arguing between Katz's Deli and Schwartz's Smoked Meat in Montreal. It is an argument kind of like arguing which religion is the True Religion, but it must be done. As a New Yorker, I am like a lapsed Catholic regarding pastrami. Full of guilt. Hate the sin, love the sinner. I love Katz's, I mourn the loss of the Second Avenue Deli and will not try its new and even pricier uptown reincarnation. I acknowledge Loesser's as the best regular Pastrami sandwich in the city, and I would say Liebman's in the Bronx is the best Jewish Deli for general dining, including pastrami, but it generally comes down to Katz's versus Montreal's Schwartz's. At the moment, I am going to have to award a point in favor of Chez Schwartz, and say Schwartz's is actually better in the hand-sliced spiced salted beef department, even if they are using a different belly cut of beef which is not acceptable as New York orthodox "pastrami."

But there is a new kid on thre block... I got a chance to try the Mile End Deli on Hoyt Street in Brooklyn. This is a new place, relatively speaking, opened by a young Jewish Montreal expat who smoked his own sides of beef in Montreal style, and actually makes the pickles in house and used to import Montreal style bagels daily. It was new enough to send my local Guru for All Things new York, Bob Godfried, into an angry spiral of despair, muttering dark things about "hipster delis" destroying our New York traditions with their upstart Canadian imports.

Of course I had to try it, and since I was on my way to pick up a mandolin at nearby Retrofret/Musurgia music on Butler Street, Mile End was a given. It is a small place, not overly crowded on a weekday for lunch. And the french fries were voted "best in New York" by NY Magazine, and I had not eaten a french fry since last summer so it was going to be a chance to break my french fry fast as well. And it was great. Not overstuffed, and subsequently, not overpriced, the fries were crispy and delicious, and the pickle was the size of a small car. Having watched the decline of delis in the New York area over the last few centuries (I'm talking about you, Tabatchnik's!) I'm overjoyed to see a new deli that manages to be both new and traditional and - hopefully - successful. I would like a Mile End Deli on every street corner, and if I get my way, there will be one, as soon as Bernie Saunders wins the election and monkeys fly out my ass.
What the no-harp zone of Heaven looks like.
Oh, yes, that trip to Retrofret. Retrofret does excellent fine instrument repair, and is twinned with Musurgia, a fine vintage instrument shop that sells quality old guitars, mandolins, banjos, and the occasional theremin and lute. My old friend Steve Urich is one of the founders, and I had not seen him since he visited me in Budapest back in 1990. Another buddy - Claude, King of the Yekkes - had asked me to pick him up a nice old Gibson mandolin while I was in the USA. His modest needs grew in scale until he asked me to arrange the purchase of the mandolin of my dreams - for him, not me, mind you. A 1917  Gibson F4, the top of the line at its time, which sings like and angel and plays like a Stradivarius with double strings. When I started playing mandolin in a bluegrass band in High School, a buddy of mine - Jeff Grisman - got a loan of one of these F4 models from a shop in New York to try out. We played it nonstop for two months before he had to return it because Steven Stills - of Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young -bought it for $600. Today it would be worth at least ten time that much. It has haunted my dreams ever since.

The Mandolin that has haunted my dreams... now your baby, Claude! 
Gibson started as a mandolin manufacturing company during the heyday of the instrument in the early 20th century, when mandolin orchestras were all the rage and Gibson's carved top, flat back mandolins replaced the Italian bowl back mandolin as the main form for the instrument in the United States. Subsequently they played a big role in the development of blues and bluegrass in the United States, and remain widespread and popular throughout the US. Gibsons are a bit more rare in Europe, but still widely available in the USA - they still show up in attics and estate sales regularly. They were so well built and age so well that an old Gibson in good condition is a far better investment than most new mandolins, in my deeply prejudiced opinion. At least I know this F4 will be living nearby. Until then, I am happy with my trusty 1934 Gibson A50, although if anybody wants to donate $1500 to me I would jump at the chance to pick up an oval hole 1917 Gibson A1. Or perhaps a 1922 Lloyd Loar Snakehead A4 model? Because money can't buy love. But it can buy mandolins.

A Gibson mandola, the A1 model that I want, and two amazing "snakehead" mandolins that I will never own unless you help by sending me tons of money. 

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Feed My Soul: New York in Spring

It is the annual pilgrimage to the Big Apple. "New York, just like I pictured it, skyscrapers and everything!" I have been eating a restricted diet in Budapest this year, justifying it by telling myself that if I refuse the bowl of rice or the roll of bread today I can make it up later by eating something fantastic when I am in New York... It has worked so far - I lost quite a bit of  weight - so I am allowing myself a measured bit of leeway while I am in New York. Leeway as in Chinese food, Indian food, and yes, an occasional Shake Shack burger. I have been traipsing about the city for weeks, but the sad story is that the New York I knew growing up is shrinking into oblivion. Manhattan is almost lost amid a flood of new construction and condo-madness. Harlem is no longer a majority Black city - it is yupping out, filling with hipsters and losing the century old sense of soul that is baked into its stoops and sidewalks. Times Square is Disneyland, The East Village junkies and punks have all become acai berry juice moguls, and Yorkville hasn't seen a Hungarian sausage in over a decade.
Dim Sum beneath the Manhattan Bridge on East Broadway
The old ethnic neighborhoods have disappeared as rents rise and families flee to the suburbs. Brooklyn is gentrifying as people who seem cloned from the cast of "Girls" move in establish artisan fair trade coffee shops and yoga centers. But it isn't all lost - there is still the Bronx. The Bronx will never gentrify. Its the place I was born and raised, and it still defies the trend towards hipster homesteading that has raised the rent in traditionally immigrant and black communities. The Bronx, No Thonks! remains the borough's best defense.

Bob Godfried, a born Bronxonian and one of the stalwart holdouts of the old Jewish Bronx, took me up to the Norwood section off of Mosholu Parkway for the Bangladeshi Festival along Bainbridge Avenue. Never have I seen so many Bangladeshis doing what Bangladeshis do best - teem in overpopulated masses. From one end of Bainbridge ave to the other sari clad women sold spicy chickpea concoctions and samosa while others listened to the painfully loud live singers.

Not bad for a neighborhood once known for its Irish bars and the last secular Yiddish school in New York. I've been in New York for several weeks - much of it spent in New Jersey, and several of those weeks were without access to a laptop so I was not updating the blog. Jersey is the Bronx of the future. Since Bob G had taken me to the depths of sub-continental Bronx life, I responded by taking him to the deep South Indian enclave of Newark Avenue in Jersey city.

For about four blocks, Newark Avenue is wall to wall Dosa joints, Indian sweet shops, bakers, and Mandirs - small storefront temples dedicated to Hindu worship, whatever that may be, we non-Hindus will probably never know, but it is comforting to know that if there are Hindu temples around, a good rice pancake is probably not far. Since a lot of the recent immigrants from India are from stricter vegetarian Hindu and Jain communities, you can get excellent veggie food unlike what most of us know from meat heavy North Indian restaurants. Straight to Sapthagiri, the all vegetarian Restaurant I lucked upon last year.

Twelve dollars gets you a huge south Indian thali selection of vegetarian curries, tamarind broths, pickles, chapatis, lentil, and rice. I wrote about Sapthagiri last year, and if you really love Indian food it is worth the trip out of Manhattan on the Path train to Jersey City - it is only about five minutes from the PATH station. But man cannot live on vegetarian offerings along, especially if you like to eat meat as much as I do.

A-Wah's House Special Clay Pot Rice: roast Pork, Chinese bacon, sausage, and minced pork patty.
For that we have Chinese food. Living in Europe - specifically Hungary - I can get a lot of Chinese ingredients at the shops serving the Chinese community and cook myself, and there are always a few decent Chinese restaurants, but I was raised in New York and I am spoiled by the range of small, affordable eating places serving local Chinese cuisines for their own communities.Lacking Chinatowns of our own in Budapest, I have to make up for it with reading food blogs and watching YouTube, which is how I came across this: Chinese American food maven and host of the Double Chen Show Mikey Chen getting characteristically excited about the Clay Pot Rice dishes served at a tiny place in east Chinatown that I have been passing by for years - The A Wah.

I have seen recipes for Clay Pot Rice, I have seen the little clay pots for sale in Chinese shops, and I have lived around Cantonese people for much of my life, but I had never tried the stuff. Boy was I dumb! Its far more than its individual meaty-ricey parts. It was the best Chinese food experience that I have had since discovering the Golden Mall in Flushing a few years ago. The window betrays nothing: ducks hanging, strips of pork dripping, the same as dozens of Chinese BBQ meat joints around lower Manhattan that serve cheap take out lunch to the local Chinese workforce.
The A Wah, one of NYC best restaurants, for clay pot rice dishes, at least.
But in the back there are tables and the tables are filled by that indicator of good Chinese regional food - namely, Chinese people eating. All New York Jews know that Chinese food should only be eaten in a place filled with exclusively Chinese people. (Look, I would love to give you all some valuable financial advice and Jewish trade secrets, but I can't, so you will have to be satisfied if I tell you the secrets of how we know where the best Chinese food is.) Chinese people: why have you been keeping these pork filled clay pots hidden from us New York Jews for years? Did you want to retain one deep, pork filled secret from us after years of Jews slurping your noodles and scarfing up your dim sum and disdaining out-of-towners who don't know the difference between a PJ Changs and Palace 88? Is there something about Tianshen cuisine you don't want us Jews to know? In any case - this stuff was amazing: meat cooked inside a rice filled bowl with crispy burned rice sticking to the bowl which becomes the star of the meal when dizzled with sweet soy sauce. And if pork, pork, pork, and pork cooked inside rice isn't non-Kosher enough for you, there is also roasted eel, which is about the most unkosher thing you can eat that is not a rabbit, a lobster, or the House Special Clay Pot Rice from A-Wah's.

Eel! Eel!

No more eel, but crunchy, crispy burned rice!