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Presenting (and eating) the Great GoogaMooga

Written by Emmy on 21 July 2012

When work is a little slow or I’m feeling a little restless, my distractions of choice include an array of local food blogs. On one such day, I noticed a preview for the Great GoogaMooga — a food festival planned for a weekend in May with all the top restaurants of the city. Intrigued, I marked my calendar for the day free tickets were slated to be released and on a workday in March, I barely secured my “purchase” only five minutes after the tickets went up for sale. In the course of just a few weeks, GoogaMooga had blown up in foodie news and was now suggested to be the event of the year.

So two months later, on a very sunny day in May, I headed back out to Nethermead Meadow in Prospect Park with my roommate Dana and our friend Karen for a day of planned gluttony.

We set rules: any food item had to be endorsed by at least two of us; all items were to be shared; and when in doubt, skew ethnic. The 75 or so food stands included a whole area with the best pizzas of New York and another with the best burgers, but we collectively agreed to bypass both sections in favor of spicy noodles and unpronounceable dishes.

(We also bypassed the area dubbed “Hamageddon,” a piece of the dark devoted entirely to pork cooked in every possible way, including on a giant spit within a massive metal barbecue.)

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The Great GoogaMooga was actually a two-day festival, but we only had tickets to the Sunday proceedings. Saturday had been reported by friends and media outlets to be a sort-of disaster with absurdly long lines and stands that ran out of food. We came prepared on Sunday morning with sunblock, water bottles and a picnic blanket, but were pleasantly surprised to find that food was in reach.

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Each stand was hosted by a famous or up-and-coming NYC restaurant purveying the item they are best known for. We dug right in. The first set of stalls featured ethnic delight after delight and not knowing where to start, we just started everywhere.

From the new Cambodian lunch spot, Nam Pang Sandwich Shop, we sampled pulled pork sandwiches with pickled vegetables and cilantro and a side of spicy grilled corn…

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From Baohaus, a hugely popular though grungy-looking spot near my apartment, crispy chicken baos, topped with some more cilantro…

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Switching from Southeast Asia to a very different side of the globe, a spinach and cheese pupusa loaded with hot sauce, slaw and jalapeños from a new Venezuelan hotspot…

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Circling back to Southeast Asia (really, my palate never seems to stray for long), we sampled a spicy Thai sausage, which kind of reminded me of items I sampled at the highly authentic Ayada in Elmhurst

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We came up for air and realized we had plowed through all the ethnic delights near us that we wanted to try. We had set rules about not eating “common” food items, but there is one comfort food I am on occasion willing to break a whole host of rules for: grilled cheese. Grilled cheese is one of those foods that has suddenly become trendy in New York, with a slew of random restaurants popping up that serve nothing but the gooey goodness. One in particular has been on my to do list for a while, a Lower East Spot called Little Muenster. They had a booth, and so we decided rules were made to be broken and ordered the Oaxaca grilled cheese, filled with spicy peppers and drizzled in cotija cheese and salsa.

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While on the grilled cheese line, we spotted a man wearing a shirt with the state of Wisconsin on it with a tattoo of Wisconsin on his arm. For most people, this would be nothing more than a little oddity, but for Dana — proud Wisconsin native — this was worth exploring. Even more bizarre was when we discovered the Wisconsinite was peddling — yep, you guessed it — Southeast Asian sandwiches.

Though his restaurant serves next to nothing from his native state, it’s located in what the owner hopes will soon be considered Lil’ Wisco — a short block in the West Village that also features Kettle of Fish, an unassuming bar that becomes home exclusively to Packers fans during football season.

Sensical or not, we enjoyed another crispy chicken and spicy vegetable sandwich, topped off with a bit of sriacha.

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The sandwich was delicious, and my eating about a third of it put me over the edge. Not a bad way to end a day of dining.

Taking the subway to Singapore

Written by Chaz on 15 July 2012

In the middle of April, I went to New York to see a live broadcast of A Prairie Home Companion with my mother and a few friends, as we do nearly every April and December when the show is in New York. The show was great — in fact, one of the best I’ve seen — but for blogging purposes, the events before and after were more significant.

On my way down to New York from Boston on Saturday morning, I was trying to coordinate plans with Vernie, who was planning to come to the show with us. She revealed that she was planning to spend the day at Singapore Day, an event for overseas Singaporeans being held in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park. The event even included chefs flown in from the most popular hawker centers in Singapore, Vernie said. I called Emmy right away and told her to scrap whatever she had planned for the day. This sounded like an event we couldn’t miss.

IMG_8892Singapore loses tons of its citizens to other countries, not least because it’s such a small country, and as a result, the government goes to great lengths to keep the diaspora connected to the homeland. And it appears to work. Vernie was super excited to go to Singapore Day, and as soon as we got there, it was clear she wasn’t the only one. People had come from all over the country for this event. In addition to hawker center chefs, the Singaporean government had also brought in Singaporean celebrities, who were performing on an enormous stage surrounded by exhibits about how great life in Singapore is. And lest you miss the point, the entrance gates to the event were modeled after the fare gates on the MRT, with big signs reading, “Welcome home.” Though Emmy and I were probably not their target audience, we nevertheless felt a bit like we were making a triumphant homecoming to our favorite tiny island nation.

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By the time Emmy, her roommate Dana and I made it to Prospect Park, the event was in full swing, and the food lines were already long. We immediately jumped in the roti prata line, which was one of our favorite foods in Singapore. Perhaps it was because it’s not actually a complicated food item, but it was just as delicious as I remembered it in Singapore, with a small fraction of the journey.

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Our next stop was at the penang laksa booth. We had only had this Peranakan dish’s cousin, katong laksa, during our time in Singapore. Penang laksa is more sour and less spicy than katong laksa, and even though I didn’t enjoy the flavor as much, it did take me right back to the plethora of noodle dishes we had in Singapore.

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Our next dish was rojak, which we had in Singapore as a side to the katong laksa. The rojak suffered the most from being 10,000 miles from home. I remembered it as crunchy in Singapore, but this was soggy at best, and rather than being spicy and sweet, it just tasted overwhelmingly of soy sauce.

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Our final dish, of course, was the mystery, the wonder: chicken rice. By this point in the afternoon, we were quite full, but we nevertheless recalled our professional training on assessing the quality of chicken rice and dug in. Simple in its elegance, chicken rice did not disappoint.

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After sitting for a while and enjoying the sun and entertainment, we headed back to Manhattan for a breather before heading to the show, where we met my mother. Afterwards, we made our way to Ngam, a new Thai restaurant that Emmy had chosen for us. At this point, we had been joined by Ben, Diana, her boyfriend, my mother, and a friend of hers, and had become a somewhat unwieldy group of eight — the benefit, of course, being that we could order more dishes. After a bit of an ordeal as we attempted to claim our reservation, during which we observed the open kitchen, we were seated.

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Emmy was quickly deputized with ordering for the entire table, and before long, we were showered with appetizers. Ngam is a Thai restaurant, but they take a bunch of liberties from tradition, which was immediately noticeable. Our appetizers included a crab cake, sweet chili chicken wings, a papaya salad topped with strawberries and cashews, “Chiang Mai fries” made from pumpkin and sweet potatoes, and spring rolls with noodles and mushrooms. Nothing was familiar, but everything was fantastic.

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After some ordering confusion with our main courses, we ended up with quite a selection. One of our favorite dishes in northern Thailand was khao soi, a spicy coconut milk curry that includes both soft noodles and fried egg noodles with which we had recently become reacquainted when we came across it in suburban Boston. Ngam had a new variation on the dish: instead of the more traditional chicken, they had prepared it with lobster. It was delicious.

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Our other dishes included curried vegetables, a curried duckling with lychees and pineapple, crispy chicken laab, and a shrimp pad thai that featured papaya instead of noodles. Everything was just one step away from a dish we were familiar with, making each dish a new, innovative twist on an old standby. For me, the lobster khao soi and the papaya pad thai were the real standouts. The duckling and crispy laab were a bit fried for my preference.

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We headed back to Emmy’s apartment for the rest of the evening, having reenacted a couple of the cuisines of our trip to Asia using only the New York City subway system.

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What’s cookin’, good lookin’?

Written by Emmy on 12 June 2012

Much of my childhood was spent discussing, looking at, making or eating food. So it’s no surprise that I was fascinated with the idea of cooking long before I had any idea how to do it.

Because I spent the majority of college living in dorms with a tiny, tiny kitchen and feeding myself on meal plan, I did not do much cooking. Plus the life of a newspaper editor was not quite conducive to laborious homemade dinners. I had a brief vacation in the form of my semester abroad, where I learned that all cooking was meant to include olive oil and garlic. I picked my pots and pans back up senior spring of college, when the end of newspaper editing left a big hole in my schedule. In my own kitchen, I had the ultimate taste-tester in the form of my roommate, Jillian. She was willing to sample any of my creations — particularly those with eggplant — as long as the only thing she had to do was wash dishes. On other occasions, I co-piloted elaborate vegetarian creations in Chaz’s kitchen.

I was determined to keep progressing my culinary skills after graduation, beginning, of course, at the hands of Big Mama in Chiang Mai. Back in New York and in my brand-new kitchen, I decided it was time to take on challenges, new and familiar.

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IMG_8404In my Manhattan apartment, I enlist sous chef assistance from one of my roommates, Dana. One of the few times I cooked with Dana prior to our cohabitation, she attempted to put a metal bowl in the microwave. “Guys,” she nonchalantly called into the living room, “Fire.”

Her skills have since improved since then, and she is particularly good at cutting and aggressively pounding things, which comes in handy given our new-found career in pizza making.

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My cooking experiments were at an all-time high in the few weeks after my last travel adventure and before I had to, you know, actually start being an adult and doing work. But I’ve still made time to fit in a few cooking projects alongside friends.

Vernie and I forewent eating Asian noodles in a restaurant for making spicy Mexican chicken meatballs on a cold wintry day, a dish that conveys its deliciousness in just its appearance.

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IMG_0101The next day, I served the leftovers to my roommates and assorted other visitors during an impromptu Grammys party, along with avocado and black bean quesadillas. My trick to making quesadillas, grilled cheese or really anything that requires melting cheese between pieces of bread is to put the item into a frying pan with a plate on top of it. The pressure helps it cook more evenly and get crispier. I have a personal penchant for food that’s half a degree short of burnt, though I know that’s not always the most popular choice.

For an Oscars viewing, I constructed another kind of chicken meatball, this time with an Asian spin and served alongside steamed edamame and peanut noodles.

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Big Mama’s lessons aside, Asian food is still not something that ever tastes as good coming from my kitchen as it does out of a take-out box or in its native environs.

I continue to make and perfect interpretations of eggplant parmesan. It remains the perfect answer to balancing the equation of cooking time and delicious outcome; it’s fast, easy and really, what could be bad about eggplant, sauce and melted cheese?

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Truth be told, not all of my cooking adventures in my new grownup apartment have been such a raging success. The most illustrative example would be my attempt to create my annual springtime dessert — chocolate caramel matzah crunch, a Passover specialty. I had made some at my parents’ house on Long Island, but it was quickly devoured and Passover lasts a long time. So I decided to make another batch; the recipe is incredibly simple and involves four ingredients: butter, brown sugar, chocolate and matzah. Step one of the recipe is to make the caramel, which is easy enough — just requires melting the butter and brown sugar together.

But somehow, something went awry. I think I let the butter melt for too long before adding the sugar or maybe the ratios were accidentally off, but regardless of the cause, my caramel suddenly started turning black and smoke started rushing out of the pot, filling my entire kitchen. My apartment has fantastic cooking amenities, especially for a group of twenty-somethings, but the one thing we lack is a fan over the stove. I opened the windows, but smoke just kept streaming out of the pot. Concerned about the unending nature of this minor debacle, I came to the only logical solution: I sat on the window sill, held the pot outside the window, and released the sticky sweet smoke onto unsuspecting passersby in Union Square. It continued burning for an impressively long time and when I pulled the pot back inside, there was a smoky, sticky black gunk stuck to it.

After my roommates finally stopped laughing at me, I scrubbed the pot, melted another stuck of butter and successfully made a new batch of the matzah.

Professional I may not be, but I keep concocting – sometimes with a recipe and sometimes fully at whim – and I continue to subject whoever is dining with me to a quick iPhone photo before anyone can take a bite. If a member of the checkpoint eats something and does not document it, was it ever eaten at all?

photo (13)photo (8)photo (10)photo (16)photo (15)photo (12)photo (9)photo (17)photo (19)Row by row, starting on the top left: stovetop cheesy penne with broccoli and cauliflower; whole wheat spaghetti with chicken sausage and sundried tomato pesto; Cinco de Mayo barbecue chicken nachos; brussel sprouts, baby zucchini and white beans; reinterpreted Mexico as casserole; spicy peanut tofu with Chinese broccoli; spicy penne with chickpeas and broccoli rabe; butternut squash, brussel sprout and chicken apple sausage omelet; turkey meatballs, broccoli rabe and sundried tomatoes.

Wat can be found in hidden corners of NYC

Written by Emmy on 10 May 2012

Just as the checkpoint has spread its way up the east coast, so have its friends. Following our time with newfound friends Fred and Carrie, we were able to catch up with a mix of friends from all places over Sunday brunch, every New Yorker’s favorite activity.

IMG_8433We gathered roommates, high school, college and study abroad friends and met up for a classy mid-morning meal of excessive amounts of coffee, fresh banana walnut bread, several classic brunch favorites, eggs stewed with tomato, and an unusual offering of breakfast pizza.

The brunch itself was good, but it was really most notable because we were able to bring so many friends together at one time in one place.

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We spent the afternoon catching up and playing competitive card games, and preparing for an evening adventure. Since returning from our summer jaunt to Thailand, we’ve experimented with all varieties of Thai take-out cuisine in our respective cities. But nothing quite measures up, and honestly we suspected nothing outside the borders of old Siam could. Los Angeles has its own Thai Town and as an east coast elitist, I assumed New York had to have one too. We just had not yet looked in the right place.

Sure enough, 45 minutes away from lower Manhattan, a winding ride on the R train, is a little Thai enclave in Elmhurst, Queens. The neighborhood is so authentic as to include metro New York’s only operational wat. And as we learned on the streets of Bangkok, where there’s a wat, there’s a way, and usually an impromptu restaurant or two.

The title of most authentic Thai restaurant in Elmhurst is seemingly a competitive one. It’s a topic that has been debated by the best of New York’s food writers and at least for now, the honor rests with a small family-run restaurant on bustling Woodside Avenue. As one New York Times food critic wrote, “I knew Ayada was a serious Thai restaurant when I started weeping at my table.”

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We had company on our journey in the form of Chaz’s high school friend Kim and her boyfriend Bing because we had not seen them yet — and also we thought Kim’s Thai heritage might come in handy when deciphering the menu. A perk of bringing a bigger group meant more ordering. But on our walk to the restaurant, Kim and Bing commented that they were not that hungry. We decided that would not impact our decisions.

We started with a fairly aggressive number of appetizers based on food-critic guidance and recommendations from Kim. The long parade included a papaya salad, fish cakes, crab rolls, chicken larb salad and E-sarn sausage. Before you judge, there were four of us and we just sampled. (Sort of.)

But to be a little more discriminating: The papaya salad pictured above nearly blew our heads off in true Thai style (and was still just as good the next morning out of its plastic container). The crab rolls were a fascinating and unusual composed item. With an inside of crab and pork and an outside of crispy tofu, the rolls were definitely unusual, and also very delicious. We wrapped the E-sarn in pieces of lettuce with onion, chili peppers and peanuts, in a style somewhat reminiscent of betel leaves.

The fish cakes and chicken larb were my least favorites… the former was a little too bland compared to the other items on the table. The larb had a little bit of a gritty texture, and as far as composed salads go, just gets me less excited than shiny, spicy, brightly-colored papaya.

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We were nearly full when the main courses arrived, but that’s irrelevant when there’s a Thai feast on the table. We ordered two of my favorite dishes, both of which were completed to perfection at Ayada.

Pad see ew is one of the simplest Thai dishes to prepare — something we learned at the hands of Big Mama — but that doesn’t mean it’s always done well. The dish is simply composed of rice noodles, Chinese broccoli and in this case, chicken. But the secret lies in the sauce, a delicate balance of black soy, sweet chili and several other critical items that I sadly do not remember from my one day of pad see ew expertise. Thankfully, the chefs at Ayada did have that list handy.

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The other winning item on the menu was the penang curry. My occasional objection to curries is that they are too liquidy. Penang is my personal favorite because it is spicier and thicker than the typical curry, meaning it sticks more to the protein but still provides a big oomph in flavor. We ordered ours with chicken and it was delightful.

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We chose a third entree at the suggestion of the New York Times — chinese broccoli with crispy pork. I was interested in the dish for the broccoli. The dish was spicy and flavorful, but just didn’t do as much for me as the others. I might have been more into it with a different protein — I could see it working well with tofu — but that’s a dish for another day.

I did not actually even try the other entree on the table, but that was largely because I was so full by the time it even reached my side of the table. Plus it was the most daunting looking: spicy frogs’ legs ordered by Bing. I’m not saying I would be unwilling to try them… there were just several other things I wanted to get to first.

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By the time the entrees had all been cleared, I felt like I could barely move. Conveniently, most Thai desserts feature the two foods I like least — milk and bananas. However, everyone else seemed to really enjoy the palette cleanser of fried bananas with ice cream, the sweet ending to a fantastic meal.

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Ayada provided the most Thai food I’ve had outside of Thailand. And compared to a 24-hour journey to Bangkok, a 45-minute train to Queens is definitely something I can do on a more regular basis.

Put a bird on New York

Written by Chaz on 6 May 2012

As has been discussed extensively before, Emmy and I think the show Portlandia is pretty great. It’s clever, funny and catchy. But one of the biggest reasons we love it is the relationship between the two actors who star in the show, Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein. It’s very clear that they’re best friends who are having a really good time making something together.

“We would email a link [of our sketch-comedy videos] to our friends, but they were mostly for us. It was very understated and silly, and we were just sort of reveling in the absurd.” — Carrie Brownstein to NPR

Reveling in the absurd mostly for our own selves is essentially what Emmy and I do on this blog, so we naturally feel some kinship to Fred and Carrie, who, even though we’ve never met them, feel like our really good friends. So when Fred and Carrie announced that they were taking Portlandia on tour, I immediately emailed Emmy and told her to get tickets for the New York show, promising that I would find a way to be there.

We actually attended two Portlandia events in one day. The first was a panel discussion with Fred and Carrie at the Paley Center for Media. I had never heard of the center, but it seemed like a pretty neat media organization.

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The moderator left a lot to be desired — she didn’t really get the pair talking about anything that mattered, and considering that we were at a center for media, it seemed like a missed opportunity to ask searching questions about their contribution to pop culture. But we were still in awe of being in their presence, and during the question and answer session at the end, Emmy asked them a question that we have frequently pondered ourselves: What makes your friendship different from other friendships you have? Carrie called it the hardest question they have ever gotten.

Seeing the two of them in person was just about everything we had imagined it would be. And the afternoon event was just an appetizer, to use a technical food-blog term.

After the panel, we walked over to Pure Thai Cookhouse, which Emmy and I had visited once before when it had a different name thanks to a recommendation from our most reliable source for everything under the sun. At first, we just ordered curry puffs and a papaya salad with salted blue crab, because we were just having a snack, really. But we were still a bit peckish afterwards, and we were intrigued by the sound of pad kee moa with calamari.

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Though the curry puffs were state of the art, both of the other two dishes were lackluster. This doesn’t speak very well of our food blogger credentials, but we were literally unable to figure out how to eat the crab in the papaya salad, and the texture of the calamari was just a bit off for our taste in the noodle dish.

We retreated to Emmy’s apartment to rest up for our evening, and took the subway down to the Bowery Ballroom for Fred and Carrie’s evening performance. It was, essentially, a live version of their sketch comedy television show — they joked, they sang, they told stories, and they were all around awesome.

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Fred and Carrie also welcomed Kyle MacLachlan, who played Dale Cooper on Twin Peaks and plays the mayor of Portland on Portlandia, and jammed out on the Portland theme song that the Portlandia version of themselves wrote at the mayor’s behest.

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And they dressed up as two of our favorites characters from the show — feminist bookstore owners Toni and Candace, who are more exclusive than inclusive in their attempts to create a safe space for women. At this point, we were just about losing ourselves with delight.

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But perhaps the moment most relevant to us came durin