Four years ago Chinatown's first dumpling stall appeared on Allen Street. At Fried Dumpling, a dollar got you five pork-and-chive pot stickers, four fluffy pork buns, or a bowl of hot-and-sour soupyou could dine splendidly for two bucks. Others soon followed, and the current census stands at four. While most Chinese eateries serve food from Shanghai and points south, these establishmentswhich take fine advantage of some exceedingly cramped, low-end real estatehail from Beijing, offering snacks based on wheat rather than rice, with a few southern Chinese flourishes thrown in.
After a whirlwind visit on my bike to all four, my current favorite is Dumpling House. The other day, I paused to watch the dumpling wrangler work his magic. Instead of a wok, he wields a circular cast-iron vessel with perpendicular sides and a flat bottom, which he tightly formats with six dozen hedgehog-shaped dumplings. Ladling on a rich broth, he claps down the lid and turns up the flame. A sizzling rends the air, and as the top of the dumplings steam, the bottoms fry to a deep brown.
Tender and crisp at the same time, these dumplings are good enough to draw customers back, but even better is the meek-sounding "chives and egg pancake" ($1), which a friend tells me is affectionately dubbed "chive box" in L.A. The three-person crew pause in their labors to generate these half-moon pies to order. Inside a thin curtain of dough is a mix of chopped chives, scrambled eggs, and bean-thread vermicelli. Another northern oddity is a sandwich ($1.50) made on a wedge of sesame bread layered with thin slices of aromatic boiled beef, pickled vegetables, cilantro, and hot sauce. One's a meal.
On the way out, I noticed a big jar of kimchee, and wondered how it got there. Through a translator I asked the countergal, Was it a present from a Korean patron? Her reply: "We have Korean food in North China, too."
The square Sicilian slice is absolutely scrumptiousartfully smeared with a semi-chunky red sauce that's on the sweet side, clumped with good mozzarella, scattered with oregano. But good as the toppings are, the dough's the thing at ROSE & JOE'S ITALIAN BAKERY (22-40 31st Street, Astoria, 718-721-9422), cooking up light and airy, crisp on bottom and sides, with virtually no wasted "bone" (the humpy part). The slice brought back fond memories of Boston's North End, where pizza is sold out of bakeries, and folks line up to wait for the next pie. Grab a warm slice to eat on the train.
Ensconced inside the diverting Neue Gallerie, CAFÉ SABARSKY (1048 Fifth Avenue, 288-0665) is a real Viennese café and konditerei, an offspring of the West Village's Wallsé that outshines its parent. The short dishes make for perfect museum-hopping snacks, including a charcuterie platter, a generous salad of jumbo asparagus in a slightly sweet lemon-dill sauce, and savory smoked trout crepes with horseradish crème fraîche. The hungrier can move on to sandwiches, to entrées like boiled-beef tafelspitz, or to pastries, of which plum crumble sided with a cloud of whipped cream was a favorite on a recent visit.
Serving the dining needs of Pratt students for the last decade, CASTRO'S (511 Myrtle Avenue, Brooklyn, 718-398-1459) conveys cheap Mexican meals of a rib-sticking sort. The tacos are oversize and subdividable, made with two soft corn tortillas, and the vegetarian cheese enchiladas are not only stuffed with cured cheese, but have planks of fresh cheese on top as an added bonus. Skip the appetizers, because all platos come with guacamole, salad (bring your own dressing), and a pile of warm tortillas. For some real heat, select puntas de res en chile chipotlestrips of beef in a brown sauce spiked with incendiary smoked chiles.
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