Thursday, April 29, 2010

Rockin' with DBGB & V.V. Brown

V.V. Brown performs the title track to her album, Travelling Like the Light, at the Bowery Ballroom

DBGB Kitchen & Bar (299 Bowery)

If you are going to party like a rock star, it seems only fitting to eat like one, too.  When I was invited to attend the concert of British pop star, V.V. Brown, at the Bowery Ballroom, I immediately knew where we had to nosh before the show.  Though I have frequent withdrawal cravings for the baskets of warm mini-madeleines at Daniel Boulud's uptown bistros, I have been waiting for the perfect occasion to explore the newest of his ten NYC restaurants, and his first venture below midtown.  The fact that his flagship restaurant, Daniel, was recently named on the S. Pellegrino list as one of the top 50 restaurants in the world (at #8, it's the highest ranking NYC restaurant, even above Zagat's valedictorian, Per Se) also added to the urgency for me to indulge in his downtown kitchen and bar, DBGB.

Named in playful homage to the late famous rock hall up the street, if CBGB stood for Country, Blue Grass, and Blues, then DBGB could quite easily be an acronym for Daniel's Bistro, Gastropub, & Burgers.  If the dining room decor of shelves of kitchen-worn copperware donated from famous chefs of the world seems a sort of culinary museum and tribute to the restaurant supply warehouses of the neighborhood, then perhaps the menu could be considered a museum of the history of Boulud's evolution as one of New York's most acclaimed chefs.  With a significant nod to his classic French roots, the menu also boasts more American favorites the lower east side has come to love.  The best part?  Though you can enjoy a full meal at DBGB for nearly the price of an appetizer at Daniel, the dishes are still extraordinarily unique and simply delicious.

The service was impeccable and even above and beyond what I've come to expect from the Daniel Boulud brand.  Our head server, Frank, was sensitive to our requests, and helped both compose and pace a dinner that celebrated both exquisite French fare alongside the unique gourmet pub offerings for which DBGB has received much buzz.  Suffice it to say that I have been blessed to have enjoyed more than my fair share of some of the best meals available in the culinary showcase known as New York City.  At DBGB, however, we actually giggled in such epicurean ecstasy that other guests literally approached our table to inquire about our selections, so that they could know better what to order during their next visit.

The petit plateau de fruits de mer was anything but petite.  Though I cannot claim to be an aficionado of the raw bar, my favorites were the jonah crab claws, tuna crudo, and the periwinkles (tiny marine snails that tasted somewhat like little sea sausages).  The conch was a little too firm for my enjoyment, and though the pesto aioli dressed the oysters nicely, the strong essence of ocean water is a taste I have admittedly yet to acquire.

To pair with the upcoming courses, our server recommended this double abbey ale.  Unfiltered, it's literally a living beer... continually fermenting in the cask until it's poured.  It was deliciously hoppy, yet smooth and caramelly.

The beaujolaise is one of the most popular of the sausages made in house.  Resting on a bed of French green lentils, this link is stuffed with pork, mushrooms, onion, and bacon that has been sweetly marinated in red wine.

My personal favorite was the Vermont, a pork sausage paired with hash browns and red onion creme fraiche.  When you cut into this wham-banger, a river of creamy Vermont cheddar comes melting out (my stomach just boisterously growled while recalling how savory and wonderful I found this brilliant bite).

The white and green asparagus paired with a cracklin' breaded fried egg and smoked duck redefined the notion of breakfast at dinner.

The soft-centered yolk blending with the mustard dressing created an explosion of simple flavors that I would recommend for any newcomer to DBGB.  Perfection.

Though we were tempted to try one of the unique burgers (the Piggie, for example, is topped with pulled pork and jalapeno mayonnaise), we simply couldn't resist the server's recommendation of the roasted leg of lamb over eggplant caponata, served with panisse fritters (chickpea fries).

For dessert, we sampled a specialty rice beer, an intoxicating barley wine, and a strawberry-infused blonde beer of which I would have taken home a keg had it been offered to go.

The Omelette Norvegienne was an incomparable baked Alaska of pistachio and vanilla ice creams, raspberry sorbet, and fresh meringue in a chartreuse flambée.

Mymi's Rhubarb Tart with rhubarb ice cream tasted like a blend between a perfect rendition of the classic pie and creme brulée.

The dessert special was like the picasso of tiramisu... a shortbread chipwich filled with mocha & mascarpone ice creams, and espresso-soaked ladyfingers, served with a pitcher of mocha creme anglaise for pouring.

After what certainly climbed near the top of favorite dining experiences, we left absolutely pleased and already thoroughly entertained as we walked the few blocks to the Bowery Ballroom.  V.V. Brown was equally delicious and effervescent, and the ideal icing on the cake to an exquisite evening.  Even if you don't hold tickets to one of the famous downtown music halls, it's great to know you can at least dine like a rock star on a non-celebrity budget.  DBGB Kitchen & Bar has undeniably secured its place in my hall of fame.

DBGB Kitchen and Bar on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Italian Cooking Classes with Ornella

The Viterale Estate in the Catskill Mountains, home of Giuseppe & Ornella Viterale of Ornella Trattoria

I awaken in a panic at 8:27 a.m.  I've apparently slept through all three alarms, and I'm supposed to be at Ornella Trattoria in just three minutes.  I haven't had to be anywhere this early since my last day of teaching in the South Bronx two years ago, but I now have a mere hundred eighty seconds to Febreze myself, throw on some clothes, and travel seven avenues and ten blocks.  I showered sort of late in the afternoon yesterday, I justify, so that saves some time.

Despite simply taking what I call a whore bath (wiping away surface funk with some soap and a damp hand towel), it's now 8:35, and as I franticly swish some citrus Listerine while Speed Sticking my underarms, I hear the cast of Glee singing the intro to "Don't Stop Believin'" from my bedroom.  Nope, Lea Michele and Matthew Morrison didn't have a slumber party at my apartment last night (though if you two are reading this, we have LOADS of board games--oh yeah, bring Jane Lynch, too, because I bet she'd be a hoot at Balderdash--plus, I make a killer country biscuits and gravy in the morning), it's just the default ring tone on my Motorola Droid.

"Good morning, Giuseppe!"  I try to muster up as much sunshine as possible so it will sound like I've already had three cups of coffee following my morning jog and a thorough skimming of the NY Times.  "I've hit a bit of traffic, but I'm almost there."  So I fib a little.

"Alright, Bradley, see you in a moment then," he replies in good faith and his thick Italian accent.  And I nearly zip my neck up into my hoodie, toss on a ball cap, and sling my camera over my shoulder as I run out the door.  Luckily, there's a gypsy cab coming down the street, and somehow I am miraculously in front of Ornella Trattoria by 8:45 a.m.

I leap from the town car accidentally tossing entirely too much money at the driver in my frazzled haste, and run across the street while waving at Giuseppe, nearly getting flattened by a honking bread truck in the process.  He graciously smiles as if to say "no worries," and we climb into his enormous black Ford Expedition (he has four children) to head off to the Catskill Mountains.

Giuseppe, who is immaculately groomed and probably actually has been awake all morning and enjoyed a demitasse or two of espresso, accepts my citrus Listerine-scented gasping-out-of-breath apology with a gentle, "fuhgeddaboudit..." followed by, "where's Travis?"

* * * * *

Rewind to a few weeks ago when I first met Giuseppe Viterale, owner of Ornella Trattoria, which is named after his wife and partner.  I had received an e-mail from Ran Craycraft, the founder of the website, Why Leave Astoria? in which he raved that he had just dined at Ornella and had been blown away, and wondered if I'd be willing to check it out myself to write a review for the Astoria website.

Partially because I have learned that two people can taste a broader sample of the menu than just one, and partially because Travis and I had been trying to set up a dinner date for quite some time, I figured this would be the perfect opportunity to get to know him better in a unique setting unfamiliar to both of us; not to mention that now I wouldn't have to be quite as embarrassed if I wanted to order two desserts instead of just one...

It turned out to be a simply magical evening for both Travis and I, as Giuseppe greeted us at the door (a constant presence, he welcomes each and every customer), and then guided us through one of the most unique and delicious dining experiences either of us have enjoyed, while regaling us of the tales behind each of his recipes (click here to read the original post about that meal).

The imbustata, an exquisitely delicious pasta "envelope" stuffed with roasted veal, chicken, wild mushrooms, fresh spinach, mozzarella, and mascarpone cheese

Born to a father who ran a mill in Italy, Giuseppe experiments with many unique flours in his homemade pastas, like this hearty dish of pizzoccheri, buckwheat tagliatelle ribbons with sauteed cabbage, potatoes, and fontina cheese tossed in garlic oil.

Lighter-than-air pillows of homemade potato and ricotta gnocchi with a gorgonzola cheese sauce

* * * * *

A few weeks after that initial visit, I received an e-mail from Giuseppe, asking me to call at my earliest convenience.  Hoping that perhaps he was just still pleased with my review and perhaps wanted me to return and try something new (last week, he'd invited me to savor the braised short ribs and gnocchi special), I promptly returned the call.

Our conversation revealed an offer exponentially more exciting than an invitation to fulfill my apparently insatiable craving for his addictive pasta concoctions.  It turns out that he and his wife have a family home in the Catskill Mountains, where Ornella has been contemplating offering classic Italian cooking lessons.  Because of the newness of the Trattoria (only open a few months now), they'd been unable to enjoy the home since before Christmas.  He wondered if I wanted to come along to check out the estate during his first day off this year, enjoy some lunch, and catch a glimpse into where he and his family enjoy many of their rich traditions, as well as their retreat from the hustle and bustle of New York City.

Ornella Trattoria sources its ingredients from local purveyors, and even bakes its own bread loaves on the premises.  But every almost every restaurant prescribes to the farm-to-table trend of organic, sustainable protein and produce.  "You cannot cook delicious food if you are not truly in touch with nature," Giuseppe tells me.  He is offering to actually show me the land and the farms that inspire his home cooking, as well as some of the recipes at the trattoria.

Homemade ricotta salata with fresh arugula from the local market

How many restaurants legitimately live up to their catchy slogans or philosophies?  I've come hungry to IHOP, but have I ever really left happy?  Don't tell anyone, but I occasionally enjoy the Olive Garden, even though when I'm there I certainly don't feel like family (the last time we visited, it was a near wrestling match with the hostess just to get an extra chair at the table for a straggling latecomer).  I think the Chili's slogan is the best: "Chili's Grill & Bar... like no place else..." except for the hundreds of other Chili's and Applebee's around the country.  What about "Run for the border?"  The border of Indiana and Illinois?  There's absolutely nothing authentically Mexican about Taco Bell, whatsoever.  And at least in Manhattan, I have yet to meet a single McDonald's cashier who sincerely loves to see me smile.

As far as my dining experiences go, Ornella's is a dramatically rare exception.  To back up his farm-to-table philosophy, Giuseppe is offering to flip it around and take me from the table to the farm.  

So of course I say, Yes. Absolutely, 100%, I'm in...

* * * * *

Fast forward to my tardy, sleep-puffed face now grinning in Giuseppe's family bus.  Just the night before, Travis was heckling me that surely I would not be able to wake up in time for my Italian field trip. When Giuseppe inquires of Travis's whereabouts, I eagerly give directions to his apartment, as I anxiously dial his wake-up call.  He already sent me a text message earlier to enjoy the day, so he can't pretend to be sound asleep.

"Hey, it's me... do you have any plans you absolutely cannot get out of today?  No?  Cool... Giuseppe wants you to come along, so get your sleepy rump downstairs...  No, you can't have a half an hour... we're already parked out front... HURRY!!!"

Though I'm excited to share this adventure with someone else, I'm secretly overcome with a wave of schadenfreude that Travis will have to crawl out of bed in a rush to join us.  That'll teach him to make fun of my inability to rise at the crack of dawn.

Thanks to minimal traffic, the drive is only about an hour and a half from Astoria, and Giuseppe even takes us down a series of side roads, because, he explains, the wider highways ruin the panorama of the hills spreading out before us.  We roll the windows down and over the rush of fresh air catch up since our last conversation, while a French tenor croons Italian arias through the speakers.  I already feel years away from my last shift at work.

After a winding road to the top of one of the mountains, I instantly grin as we finally pull into the Viterale's driveway.  In his restaurant in Astoria, there are signs painted on the walls naming piazzas after each of his children.  This is no gimmick to tug at the heartstrings of patrons, but merely an extension of the setting in his family home.

There is a main house, two guest homes, and a large, colorful shed painted by the Viterale kids (Travis and I get a false giddy rush when Giuseppe asks if we want to race the go-karts, only to find we can't get them started after the cold winter).  Each building has a number, as well as a hand-painted sign designating that each cottage is named after a different family member.  Even the trails leading into the woods are adorned with name plaques.

As we enter the main home, Giuseppe reminds us that it's been months since his last visit.  He passes me the phone while he searches for the correct key, and Ornella nervously asks me if there are any signs of tampering.  I attempt to calm her nerves.  These past few months at the trattoria have been consuming, and she's worried their summer home has been compromised (throughout the year they reside in Brooklyn, next door to Ornella's mother).

Much to everyone's relief, it seems that everything is just as it should be.  With the exception of a small Christmas tree, a few stockings and other remnants of the holidays, the house is in perfect condition.  While Giuseppe turns on the water and runs the faucets in each sink, Travis and I help ourselves to a tour of this beautiful retreat in the woods.  Many of the paintings are by Giuseppe himself (he was trained to be an architect), and he even handcrafted much of the wood furniture, including gorgeous Narnia-worthy wardrobes in each of the bedrooms, as well as the wooden fireplace mantles.

The view of the Catskills from the top floor window

Travis and I relax on the porch while Giuseppe continues to open the windows, and we both sigh.  This place is definitely special, and I can't imagine how many family memories the Viterale's must have shared here throughout the years.

While we wait for the cool mountain air to freshen the Christmasy pine scent throughout the house, Giuseppe offers to take us on a tour of some of more than 20 acres of woods surrounding the home.  In our haste, both Travis and I have ridiculously thrown on flip-flops, but what's a few twigs between the toes?  I don't know the next time I'll find myself in such a luscious green sanctuary, so we head with exposed piggies down Ornella Trail, and I simply couldn't be happier.

When Giuseppe checks back on us to make sure we haven't horribly stubbed our toes, he asks if we think this a place people would be willing to visit for cooking lessons with his wife?  I try to stifle a laugh at the absurdity of the question.  Willing to visit?  I'm practically ready to move here.

We've worked up quite an appetite, so after stomping through sticks in sandals, we walk back to the main house to get ready for lunch.  As we pass a tree house Giuseppe built for the kids, he jokes that it now serves as a hunting post.  When I beg him to pose in the lofted hut for a photo op, he just laughs at me, and suggests that I climb up instead.  Needless to say, I'm no woodland nymph (especially after blogging so much about rich foods lately), and we all share a good laugh at the frightening mental image.  Giuseppe gets my sense of humor, and knows how to make just about anyone feel right at home.

After chopping some wood, Giuseppe fires up the Brazilian grill he has installed himself, named in honor of Pino, one of his children.  It only took a couple of days, and if he finds some precious free time this summer, he intends to build his own outdoor brick oven to make pizzas.  I'm already drooling, and the lunch menu for today hasn't even been revealed yet.

After a quick trip to the market, Giuseppe cuts up a few fresh tomatoes, and lets them soak in garlic cloves, olive oil, and herbs.  I'm washing my hands in the other room, when I hear Travis holler a somewhat desperate, "buh-RAAAAAAAAD-LEEEEEEY!!!"  When I rush back into the kitchen, Travis's arms are raised in resignation and inquiry.  "I think Giuseppe needs a lighter..." This will be the third time Travis has made me randomly hand our Italian host a lighter when he was, in fact, asking something else.  Equally perplexed, Giuseppe looks to me and repeats the sentence he has now spoken four times to Travis.

I reply, "yes, I do... no problem" and motion for Travis to come with me, and Giuseppe tosses me his keys.  As we hop in the Expedition, I'm still baffled as to how "Do you have a driver's license?  I forgot to pick up paper towels..." could have been mistaken for, "can I borrow a lighter?"  Maybe it's because I listen with my stomach, but I understand each and every word Giuseppe speaks.

Travis laughs as I attempt to maneuver this massive vehicle down the gravel driveway.  Do you need to have a bus driver's license to operate one of these things?  If you happened to see Travis's comments on Facebook that day, he loves to stretch the truth at my expense.  His life did not flash before his eyes.  I am a superb driver, thank you very much, even if it did take me three attempts returning to turn into the driveway without taking out the mailbox and a maple tree.

When we return, Giuseppe is putting the final touches on lunch. Although Travis yet again asks for a lighter, I translate that we have been asked to get some wine glasses and set the table.  Onto the Santa Clause tablecloth, we place the glasses, the now fragrantly enticing tomato salad, along with a loaf of fresh bread.

While we ravenously devour some of the most delicious ribs I have tasted, the three of us laugh around the family the table, like three friends who've known each other much longer than we really have.  There's a magic here, and I don't want this lunch to end.  

Giuseppe pours us a glass of what seems like a deep burgundy molasses.  In actuality, it's a homemade vino cotto, or cooked wine syrup.  In the winter, he and the kids grab bowls of freshly fallen snow, and drizzle it with this sweet grape elixir.  We don't have any snow or ice cream, but it doesn't matter, because it makes a delicious sweet ending all by itself.

Giuseppe suddenly gets a concerned furrow in his brow.  Because he's been grilling, he hasn't turned on the gas yet in the house.  So how on earth are we going to have espresso?  From my experience of serving tables for many years, let me assure you that Italians get frustrated without this expected cap at the end of the meal.  No matter how you apologize, a broken espresso machine can reduce your tip dramatically.

Excitedly, Giuseppe rises from the table, and smiles as he asks to borrow a lighter--for real this time--and I can see Travis's head spinning.  Even though it's now raining outside, gosh darnit, we're gonna have some java, even if we have to grill it.

I'm embarrassed to answer honestly when Giuseppe asks how I like my coffee.  A venti iced caramel macchiato with extra caramel doesn't seem like an appropriate response.  When I tell him, he smiles, and says, "fuhgeddaboudit..." as he proceeds to wow me again with yet another culinary trick.

Using the very first drops of espresso that percolate, Giuseppe mixes the coffee with a pile of sugar, and vigorously stirs it while the rest of the pot brews.  When he's finished, he reveals a giant, mocha marshmallow that he cuts into three pieces and places in the demitasse mugs.  This he uses as both the cream and sweetener, and Travis and I stab each other with spoons fighting over who gets to lick the extra out of the cup.  Note: I have tried to recreate this marshmallow three times at home now, to tragic results.  Conclusion?  Giuseppe is literally a culinary Harry Potter.

Because Giuseppe has told me several stories of hog roasts and the fresh meats he has prepared upstate, I ask where he gets the live game for his legendary feasts.  The livestock auction and farm are an hour away in the wrong direction, and the day is already getting late.  But he wants to show me one of his friend's farms, and at least where he gets eggs.  After washing the dishes and locking up the house, we hop in the monster truck for one last adventure in the Catskills.

I'm a little sad to be leaving the Viterale Estate, but as we pull away, all I can do is smile.  This wonderful man has invited me into his home, with the hopes that his wife will soon be offering cooking lessons here, and maybe even overnight weekend cooking retreats where they lodge the students in the guest houses.  If I'm lucky, this will only be the first of many visits.

After a very short ride up the road, we pull into the farm of his friend, John.  Giuseppe points out that every true Italian home in the area will have a shrine to the Virgin Mary somewhere near the entryway.  The farmhand explains that Farmer John is away, but agrees to unlock the gate so that we can take a quick tour.  Like a roller coaster attendant at an amusement park, he hops on the side of the Expedition and holds on to the luggage rack, as we drive up the hill with him dangling from the side.

I feel somewhat guilty as we meet the entire cast of Charlotte's Web.  They all seem to stare at me with a panicked awareness that I just ate Wilbur for lunch.

Maybe I'm paranoid, but even the gobblers puff their feathers as if I'm here to make a turkey burger for a late afternoon snack.

Travis gasps as Giuseppe leans down next to the chicken coop and taps a hole in the top of an egg.  He explains that these are the best eggs he's had, and shoots one like it's tequila.  "It tastes better with a little salt," he laughs.

Travis takes a liking to the donkey, and I can't help but snicker a little that he's drawn to the ass of the farm.  Even though I'm generally terrified by any animal with teeth fantastically larger than mine, I have to admit that this little guy is adorable.  Giuseppe confirms that he loves his donkey back home in Italy, which he uses "not for fun, Bradley... for transportation."

It's been quite a field trip, and as we head back the car, I sort of have to pinch myself.  Who gets to do what I do?  I absolutely love my life.  Enjoy a phenomenal dinner at a new restaurant in my neighborhood, put a few sentences about it on my website, and here I am having a spectacular day in the Catskill mountains with a new friendship I hope to nurture for a long time.

As we cross the George Washington Bridge heading back to the city, I'm already sending text messages asking my friends if they want to meet for lunch at Ornella's the next day.  After seeing where Giuseppe cooks with his family, where he grows his own grapes, and buys eggs for his family, I can see that he's right.  Actually being in nature does make the food taste even better.  Still full on grilled ribs and wine, my mouth is already watering at the thought of the specialty chestnut pasta with spinach, shrimp, and garlic oil I'm going to try tomorrow.

* * * * *
Ornella Trattoria is located near the N/W train at the corner of 23rd Ave and 31st St in Astoria.  If you haven't been yet, you're definitely missing out on an incredible meal and experience.  Be sure to ask about the cooking classes which are likely to start in June.

Ornella Trattoria Italiana on Urbanspoon

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Taco Truck Alternatives

In light of the recent disappearance of the El Rel del Taco Truck from the corner of 33rd St. and 30th Ave., discussion boards across Astoria have been exploding with messages of grief, concern, confusion, and the ultimate question, "where has it gone, and will it ever return?"

Though I have attempted to call, and even left voicemail inquiring about the Astoria late night favorite on multiple occasions this week, I have been unable to contact anyone able to offer any answers.  Although I know that this mobile concession stand of Mexican street meat could never be replaced in the hearts of the many who love it, I set out on a quest to find some of the best options to satiate your cravings while we wait for the mystery of El Rey del Taco's disappearance to be solved.

El Rey Del Taco on Urbanspoon

La Cocina (32-41 Steinway Street)
(718) 204 - 0241

It seems that La Cocina would be the closest approximation for those who miss their tacos on wheels.  The menu and restaurant were developed by the owners of El Rey del Taco, though according to my waitress, ownership has since changed.  I tried some of my favorite menu items that I once ordered from the truck, and the verdict?  It definitely tastes like the same recipes... only perhaps even better.

The dining room is nothing spectacular, though clean (there's an empty food display just inside the main doorway).  Though they won't satisfy your twilight cravings,  they do deliver until 10pm nightly, and until midnight on Fridays and Saturdays.

The empanada special that day were only $1 a piece, and absolutely delicious, crisp, and prepared to order.  I have tried them with shrimp, chorizo, or simply cheese.  They will make you an empanada with any of the fillings they offer for the tacos.

The chicken quesadilla tasted just like it did from the truck, only not quite as greasy or charred, and was even accompanied by a small salad.  It was enormous and filling for $5.95.

You have to try the huaraches, a homemade grilled masa (cornmeal dough) base named for its shape similar to a sandal.  It's loaded with black beans, cheese, vegetables, avocado, and your choice of meat for $6.95.

I certainly don't recall the taco truck serving up such decadent slices of flan to satisfy my sweet tooth cravings.

Although my server was not particularly forthcoming about the change in ownership, she has been extremely friendly, quick, and offered great suggestions for my friends and I on every occasion I have been.

la Cocina on Urbanspoon

Blue Restaurant (40-09 30th Ave.)
(718) 832 - 0996

You know that little hole in the wall diner you walk by almost every day on the way to the subway, yet have never even once contemplated stopping in?  The one with the storefront that indicates nothing special inside, and would probably just be a waste of time?  Well, that's what I thought about Blue Restaurant, until I discovered their secret menu in my quest for an interim Taco Truck.

That's right... though you will be presented with a full-blown diner menu with everything from omelettes to panini to pasta, make sure you ask your server to see the Taco Menu.  She'll probably just smile that you even knew to ask, and quickly show you the list of the real deals offered within.

For $6, you get four of these titan toothpicks, crispy fried tortillas stuffed with either chicken or cheese (we enjoyed a mix of two of each)

The tacos are the very best deal I have found so far in Astoria... only $1.50 each.

Since each tiny wrap comes with a double tortilla, we ordered a sampler, and then simply split the topping into extra tortillas (yup, that's six tacos for 75 cents each!)

The cemitas were delicious, especially the milanesa de bistec... a traditional sandwich from the city of Puebla, distinct from a torta in that it is served on a sesame seed roll.  The milanesa features a thinly-pounded, deep-fried piece of beef, with avocado, cheese, chipotle, and papalo (also known as summer cilantro).

Blue Restaurant on Urbanspoon

San Antonio Bakery #2 (36-20 Astoria Blvd.)

 When you need something besides a taco, you can never go wrong with Astoria's favorite Chilean hot dog from San Antonio Bakery.

Served on its own little stand, the Completo is a juicy, all beef frank, loaded with every fixin' imaginable (sauerkraut, diced tomato, avocado puree, and mayonnaise), served on a sweet, fresh, homemade bun.  This hot dog definitely makes a delicious little meal.

If a frank isn't your thing, their most popular sandwich is the churrasco.  Nestled in their delicious fresh bun are the same toppings as the completo hot dog, only served on grilled skirt steak instead.

Since it is a bakery, after all, we had to sample a few of the desserts.  This dulce de leche treat is a gooey layer of several thin pancakes with a caramel sauce between each.

Wash it all down with a can of Chilean soda, Pap.  It almost tasted like a fizzy, blood-orange Fanta... delicious!

San Antonio Bakery 2 on Urbanspoon

Tamales Deli & Bakery (25-22 30th Ave.)
(718) 726 - 4180

If you want to smile the rest of the afternoon, stop by this bakery just as school is letting out in the afternoon.  Children grab aluminum trays and tongs and jump over each other selecting their favorite after school baked treats.

Pan Dulce is a traditional Mexican sweet bread, and for 66-cents, not much else could taste better than this sweet, fluffy loaf of deliciousness about the size of a large grapefruit.  The inside reminded me of a sweet, flaky croissant.

The best secret here, though, is when you step past the bakery into the hidden dining room, always packed with Hispanic patrons devouring the delicious fare and watching soccer on the small t.v. perched on the soda fridge.

Ask which tamales were most recently steamed.  For $1.25, I enjoyed a delicious cheese tamale, one of the most moist and savory I have ever ordered.  The tables around me had platters with as many as ten piled up.

The alambres taco (steak & pork) was delicious, but at $3.00 cost twice as much as the ones at Blue.

My favorite dish was the fried quesadillas... you get three for $7, and can order any combination.  I recommend all three I tried: huitlacoche (a type of mushroom that grows on corn), pumpkin flower, and cheese.

If you want a full meal, and a sample of some of the house favorites, go for the plato hildalgo (goat barbecue, deep fried pork, a chicken enchilada rojas, rice, beans, and a basket of warm tortillas) for $14.

The special comes with a house salad, which I substituted for a particularly delicious and tangy cactus salad instead.  The cactus meat had been grilled to a tender consistency that almost reminded me of sauteed cucumber, but with a nice piquant kick unlike anything I've ever tried... definitely something I will order again.

Tamales Deli & Bakery on Urbanspoon

El Athens Grill (30-11 30th Ave.)
(718) 777 - 5366

Just a few steps away from the 30th Avenue station on the N/W line sits an unassuming, tiny storefront with just a single ordering window.  Inside, you will find what many fanatics claim to be some of the most authentic Mexican cuisine around.

There was a definite language barrier, but with my limited Spanish and the extremely friendly waitress, we pointed around the menu until I found what she confirmed would be delicious.

While they offer several traditional sodas, I couldn't pass the chance to try an imported Coca-Cola, made with all-cane sugar.

The tacos, loaded with pickled cactus, onions, radishes, and meat grilled to order, were delicious for only $1.75 each.

The thing that will bring me back to this little Greek-owned-and-named Mexican gem, however, is the carne enchilada torta (spicy pork sandwich).  From the fluffy bread, to the thin layer of beans, to the jalapenos and guacamole, this wins the prize for my favorite pork sandwich... ever... ($6)

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