Review: Long Island City (LIC) Food Tour with Queens Food Tours

Note: In exchange for a review, Queens Food Tours offered me a spot on their inaugural fall 2016 Long Island City food tour.

When a New Yorker refers to Long Island, we’re referencing Nassau and Suffolk counties…even though New York City‘s boroughs of Queens and Brooklyn are geographically a part of the island.  Just call someone from Bayside or Bensonhurst a Long Islander, and see what happens.  OK, so it’s not as cathartic as calling a Taiwanese person Chinese – as true as it might be – but that political border between New York City and “Long Island” can still be a source of contention.

So then, why Queens, have you a neighborhood called Long Island City?  Simply because it’s at one of the westernmost points of the island, as if to remind visitors about their current location?  On second thought, that’s a fair reason.  Trite, but fair.

In any event – as a local – I was never that keen on specifically visiting a place called Long Island City (better known as LIC), but I did want to see exactly what kind of foods Queens Food Tours would showcase in that rapidly re-developing section of Queens.

For the nearly three hours we were on the tour, Richard was our affable guide.  He’s a native of Queens, and fervently proud of his home borough.  If you accidentally catch a glimpse of Manhattan while walking throughout LIC, forgot about that other long island for a bit, and appreciate what New York City’s 2nd-most populous county offers…

queens-food-tours-local-finds-long-island-city-fall-preview-tour-24sep2016-2…such as The Burger Garage, close to the Citigroup building at Court Square.  We started the tour at this casual eatery, which was dotted with license plates and tires to reflect its and its neighbors’ past as a garage.  Good burger, too…though I’m perpetually hungry for more.

queens-food-tours-local-finds-long-island-city-fall-preview-tour-24sep2016-6Nearby is the old Supreme Court of New York City, Queens edition.  Originally built in 1874, it is now most popular as a tv set.  Also, it was Willie Sutton’s adulthood “home.”

queens-food-tours-local-finds-long-island-city-fall-preview-tour-24sep2016-3A chocolate and sea salt cookie at the LIC Corner Cafe.

While ambling through LIC’s varied streets, we learned about Long Island City’s heavily industrial past, and how it supplied the US during both World War I and World War II with significant numbers of aircraft and munitions.

queens-food-tours-local-finds-long-island-city-fall-preview-tour-24sep2016-5A Scotch egg at Woodbines, close to the 21 Street-Van Alst G subway station.  Just before this nosh, Richard told us about the history of PS1, the first public school in New York City, which has been converted into an offshoot of Manhattan’s Museum of Modern Art.

queens-food-tours-local-finds-long-island-city-fall-preview-tour-24sep2016-4The owner of Manducati’s Rustica might as well be mayor of Long Island City.  She’s as local as you can get, knows all about what’s happening around town, and happened to serve up some quality pizza to boot. Pizza, in New York City, you say?  Good call.

queens-food-tours-local-finds-long-island-city-fall-preview-tour-24sep2016-1The last stop on the tour– an almond croissant at Cannelle, featuring a pastry chef formerly of the Waldorf=Astoria.  Not knowing how pastries were at that hotel, I can’t exactly – and won’t – compare, but if this particular almond croissant was around the corner from my home, I’d need to get a wider door.


Thanks again Richard and Queens Food Tours for the invitation, the history lesson, and the good grub! Now let’s see what you folks can do in Richmond Hill.

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Raspados (Shaved Ice): There’s a Drought in my Dessert

Flying in from the endless sprawl of Los Angeles, it’s difficult to think of a more dissimilar landscape than El Centro, in Imperial County, California. Well, that’s not true.  You’ve got glaciers.  And Pyongyang.

The point is, Imperial County is by and large desert.  Just like the north and south pole, but with sand (duh). Though the All-American Canal has made Imperial County an extremely productive agricultural center, without the Colorado River, it would just be another county sharing a border with Mexico.

So, does that mean there’s a spelling error in the title?  Not exactly…and here’s a consequent trivia question.  What is, somewhat ironically, the most popular dessert in Imperial County?

el-centro-california-usa-raspados-shaved-iceRaspados!  Also known as shaved ice.  Plum, tamarind (pictured) or…whichever! Just make sure the tap water isn’t being fed from south of the border, and you’ll be refreshed in that dry, desert heat in no time.  Until you finish it.  While the sun is still out.  Rinse and repeat.

I think it’s great that, in spite of the perpetual drought in the region, this is the go-to sweet snack.  Still, I partook in this local custom, too, so…everybody’s got to learn sometime.

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So…This Exists, the Japan Edition: Uni Cream Cheese

If you don’t know what uni (うに/海胆 sea guts/海栗 sea chestnut) is, I’ll fill you in on a dirty secret- it’s not the roe of sea urchin, per se. Rather, it’s what secretes the roe.

Not hungry anymore?

Yes, it often seems difficult to understand how vast the imagination of a restaurant owner in Japan/food vendor/weird New York-based blogger can be.  Let’s look at today’s case-in-point–

Back story- one of many cool aspects of Japan for someone nearly always thinking about food is the frequent presence of food fairs at the upper floor of department stores.  Those top floors are usually reserved for limited time events, say, jewelry or art festivals, a display of local shamisen, or a collection of typical foods from a certain region/city of Japan.

During a recent visit to Fukuoka – where last time, I met a rather jovial and libertine local – I decided to take a chance by popping in various department stores, hoping that a food fest would be occurring.  Sure enough, there was a showcase for specialties from relatively nearby Kumamoto prefecture.

Whereas there’s always a quality selection at these events – in this case, watermelon sugar and horse stood out – one item was a bit more nuanced than the rest:

fukuoka-kumamoto-food-fair-uni-sea-urchin-cream-cheeseUni cream cheese, produced in Amakusa city, well-known for its sea urchin harvest.  Quite honest to the description – in Japanese, it says “Amakusa uni kaiseki (a quick bite before a tea ceremony)” on the right, and “cream cheese” on the left.

In spite of my willingness to try nearly anything once, uni was not a like-at-first-bite for me, way back when.  I’ve since jumped on the bandwagon, and in all fairness, I’d cover a NY bagel with this stuff any day.  Even today.


I used to think uni tasted like how a durian smells, but I’ve grown out of that association, too.  What do you reckon?

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Airline Safety Cards

Note: With two notable exceptions below, I almost always ask one of the flight crew if I can take an airline safety card.

Do I really want to take an airline safety card as a souvenir?  They’re typically cooped up in one of those seat-back pockets, probably the nastiest place on a plane – save for the loo/next to anyone eating Macca’s – to place your electronics/reading material/children/etc.  Not to mention, they have those please do not remove from the aircraft labels…well, that’s why you ask first.

I’m not going to display my whole collection, but here are a few that stand out from the horde:

airline-safety-card-continental-dc-10As stated above, this is one of those that I didn’t ask to take…likely because I was a little snot way back then.

But, why does this one deserve recognition?  One, it’s the oldest airline safety card in my pile (that’s where “5/94” comes in).  Two, Continental doesn’t exist anymore.  Three, DC-10s no longer offer scheduled passenger flightsFour, how nice of them to include Italian in the olden days.

airline-safety-card-adam-air-boeing-737-400-1I took one flight with the bygone Adam Air, between Bali DPS and Jakarta CGK.  The Merpati (another defunct Indonesian carrier) staff at DPS helped me buy this ticket, due to some overeager flooding causing capacity issues at Jakarta airport that weekend.

It’s also one of the few flights from 2008 and earlier that I vividly remember.  Inside the plane, there was duct tape liberally used to hold various parts/doors together.  Pieces of my seat were missing, and the plane rattled from take-off to touchdown.  Might as well thrown in a couple more photos of Adam Air, because it seemed that they were doomed from day one.

adam-air-dps-cgk-2adam-air-dps-cgk-1In fact, just a month after my trip, due to a variety of sordid affairs, they ceased operations.

airline-safety-card-american-airlines-dc-9-80-s80Taken from two American Airlines “Super 80s,” or DC-9-80s’.  The logo may have changed, but the stale and unwelcoming interior remains constant.

Would be even weirder if these two cards are from the same plane, just years apart.

airline-safety-card-air-asia-boeing-737-300-2Way to go, Air Asia.  Your retrofitting of this safety card really instills confidence in me…

airline-safety-card-air-asia-boeing-737-300-1Oh.  That’ll do.

airline-safety-card-garuda-indonesia-crj1000This CRJ1000 card from Garuda Indonesia is the newest (in terms of aircraft age) in my collection.

Though, hah, I have some pretty bad luck flying from Bali, as this particular flight had to return to Bali airport to refuel. In other words, the routing was Bali-Bali.

airline-safety-card-air-koryo-tupolev-134The pièce de résistance- an airline safety card from a Tupolev 134 of North Korea’s Air Koryo. Definitely didn’t ask permission to take this one. Furthermore, it’s the only Soviet-made plane with a presence in my archives, and it’s one of two Soviet jets that I’ve flown (the other – also with Air Koryo – was an Ilyushin 62).


Sure, some of these airline safety cards have amusing graphics, too, but that wasn’t the focus of today’s post.  Though, if you have any photos of unforgettable cards that you’d like to submit, let me know!

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The Tianzi (Son of Heaven) Building in Yanjiao, Hebei, China

China is – or at least, until recently was- the world’s petri dish for what I like to call bizarrchitecture.  You have malls with Venetian gondolas (and Somali video games), (empty) towns designed to be spitting images of European villages and capitals, and in today’s case, a weird former hotel in Yanjiao, Hebei province constructed in the form of Chinese deities:

Tianzi (天子) Building, Yanjiao, Hebei, near Beijing, 1I say “former” hotel because I not only was unable to locate an entrance, but additionally a third of the windows seemed to show chairs piled up (and this visit happened two days ago).

Locals know it as the Tianzi (天子) building, a phrase that loosely translates as “son of heaven,” referring to an emperor’s divine right to rule.

Who are those three jolly folks, also known as Sanxing (三星), the “three star gods?”  From right to left – in other words, how Chinese is traditionally written – we have Fu (福), representing good fortune, Lu (/祿) for status/prosperity, and Shou (寿/壽), carrying the peach, symbolizing longevity.  Seems they were awake that day, as it must have been the bluest sky in decades.

Tianzi (天子) Building, Yanjiao, Hebei, near Beijing, 2Tianzi (天子) Building, Yanjiao, Hebei, near Beijing, 3Suppose the god of fortune didn’t get along with hotel management.  Or…it was the odd location, in a very residential area, yet also near a furniture mall.

Tianzi (天子) Building, Yanjiao, Hebei, near Beijing, 4Tianzi (天子) Building, Yanjiao, Hebei, near Beijing, 5No one ever gets a photo of the back of buildings.  Can’t say it’s too surprising that windows are lacking…not to mention, those are usually the cheapest rooms in China.  Have to let the cigarette smoke collect somewhere.

Directions: Going to the Tianzi Building, I took the train from Beijing station (北京站) to Sanhe (三河), which was roughly forty minutes, then walked northwest for roughly three kilometers to catch a 3 or 9 minibus to get there.  The bus stop closest to Tianzi is 运河源建材城, but if you say “Tianzi” or better yet, show a photo of the place to the driver, that will suffice.  That might’ve been the longer way, though with the way Beijing traffic moves, who knows.

Coming back to/going from Beijing, there are a few buses from which to choose.  Try the 816 or 817, which you can board near the Dawang Road (大望路) metro station on lines 1 and 14.

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The First Ito En New York Chackathon, July 2016

Although I only started drinking tea on a daily basis after living in China (short story: I’d go to a local noodle hole-in-the-wall, the waiter would drop – in addition to tea – twigs, leaves, and berries of vague provenance into a teapot; somehow, from that, came my enthusiasm for Camellia sinensis), I owe special gratitude to Japan and its predilection for unsweetened varieties.

Manhattan, New York - Ito En (Tea) Chackathon July 2016 (4)Enter, the July 30th Chackathon (第1回茶ッカソン) in New York, sponsored by the Japanese tea company Ito En, and with lunch provided by Cha An.  The phrase chackathon combines cha, Japanese for tea, and hackathon, Silicon Valleynese for carpal tunnel syndrome.  The free Manhattan event was the first not held on the Pacific coast.

Manhattan, New York - Ito En (Tea) Chackathon July 2016 (2)Manhattan, New York - Ito En (Tea) Chackathon July 2016 (3)In essence, for every chackathon, Ito En invites the public to brainstorm various ideas on how to best promote matcha, or finely ground green tea leaves, and its health benefits to US consumers.

Manhattan, New York - Ito En (Tea) Chackathon July 2016 (1)Although I was unable to stay the whole day, at the end of the event, attendees – after having been separated into small groups for a couple of hours – made short presentations detailing their strategies.  I’d go back again if I knew that I could stay the whole day.  Heck, I’ve already gone through a matcha shot and a half-bottle of genmaicha since waking up.

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Bom Apetite! A Bunch of Brazilian Bites

Judging by the title, you could be forgiven if you thought that this post was about mosquitos preying on tourists.  Maybe.

Instead, I’ll focus on some memorable food from my recent time in Brazil.  It was mostly to check out Iguazu Falls, but I also had long layovers in Manaus and Rio de Janeiro.

However, since my first visit to Brazil in 2007, it occurred to me that I still didn’t know much about the culinary landscape in that massive country.  Sure, there’s the crowd-pleasing açaí, and the churrascaria that makes you walk at a 90-degree angle after indulging a bit too much, but what else is there?  On the other hand, I could take the train to Newark, New Jersey (seriously) to find out…but that would be too easy…

Manaus, Brazil - Cupuaçu Juice

How nice of them to place it in a measuring cup; is that how nutrition labels are done in Brazil? Guess I should cut back.

As I mentioned above, my layover in Manaus – the largest city in the Amazon basin – was not only long, but also from 22:30 ’til about 05:00.  With those hours, and without having visited the city before, I decided to wander around the mostly deserted streets looking for snacks to check off the list.

Finally, I ended up at some casual late-night outdoor cafeteria with a welcome list of tropical fruit juices and shakes.  Though acerola was tempting, it’s rather easy to find added to drinks in Japanese convenience stores.  So, cupuaçusem/não açúcar (without/no sugar, as usual) was the easy choice.

It wasn’t a terribly memorable flavor though.  Somewhat creamy, slightly sweet and sour, but nothing too inspired.  What the heck, Amazon??  Even the Brazilian tap water had more going on.

Next.

Manaus Airport (MAO), Brazil - Pão de QueijoPão de queijo, aka cheese bread, usually made from cassava flour and Minas cheese.

This is by no means an ad for the above chain; it wasn’t good.  However, it’s my only surviving photo of pão de queijo, taken at a time where sleep had been missing from my schedule for nearly 36 hours.

In short, they’re savory.  They’re addictive.  They’re unhealthy.  Demorou! (Heck, yeah!)

No wonder they made it onto the list.

Rio de Janeiro, Brazil - BrigadeiroBrigadeirosSupposedly, they were created at a time when fresh milk and sugar were hard to come by, so someone decided to mix sweetened condensed milk, butter, and chocolate.  But then, what was in the chocolate?

In any event, these too, are difficult to stop eating.  If they were all mashed together into one giant pie, I wouldn’t have even tried them this time.  Damn their convenient take-away size.

Rio de Janeiro, Brazil - Tapioca Vegetarian Sandwich and Açai ShakeA couple of friends had mentioned that I should check out a casual Rio chain called polis sucos to have a glass of açaí.  It just so happened that I had only enough money left for the açaí, vegetarian tapioca (flour) sandwich and metro ride back to my hotel, so that worked out.

After trying it a few times during that trip, I really didn’t take to açaí. The taste was akin to a preppy berry, whatever that means.  The flavor transported me more to the Pacific Northwest of the US – which is usually a good thing for food – than to anywhere tropical, though it was by no means as dull as the cupuaçu.  Also, the tapioca sandwich was grainy and probably has a cousin in sandpaper.

Foz do Iguaçu, Brazil - ChurrascariaThankfully, the exchange rate between US dollars and Brazilian reais was still favorable.  Consequently, I had to try one of the all-you-can-eat barbecue places.  In addition to the numerous cuts/types of meat, they also had some Lebanese/Syrian and Japanese items, likely due A) to the influences on Brazil by immigrants from those countries, and B) to common places of origin of tourists.  The drink is cashew apple juice.


Do you think a comida foi na moral (the food was better than expected)? What would you try?

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