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Restaurant recommendations, new openings, and highlights from the NY Chowhound community.

On Roosevelt Avenue, a Mexican Metamorphosis

There’s something in the air on the streets of Jackson Heights. One of the best of the latest wave of food vendors hawks superb gorditas and quesadillas in the afternoons on Roosevelt Avenue. “This woman is excellent,” declares Jim Leff. “The success of this vendor and Tacos Guicho a few blocks west has changed the tenor of local street food.” For one thing, more of the new vendors are female; for another, they’re moving beyond tacos and offering a more diverse menu of Mexican street bites.

Guicho’s tacos, made with store-bought tortillas, are not the don’t-miss order–though justinjh reports scoring some fine ones, filled with carnitas and served with arrestingly fresh garnishes and salsas. Instead, check out sopes and gorditas, handmade to order by the two women who run the cart and feed ever-growing queues of hungry neighbors. The other surprise here is that chicken–often forgettable at local Mexican street stands–is actually one of the best fillings. “That’s increasingly true,” Jim observes, “at least among cart people. Chicken’s the new pork.”

Farther west, another cart works a spot at Roosevelt and 75th from early morning through evening. scarey reports a good gordita (with bits of crunchy pork, cotija cheese, and medium-spicy green salsa) and a decent chicken and green chile tamale.

The renaissance in street eats is the best news in years for local chowhounds. “The state of food on Roos Ave has never been worse,” Jim laments. “The old bastions are coasting, and new places are fast-buck imitative crap. But the street food people have been keeping deliciousness alive for some time in this nabe (that’s why the restaurant owners are pushing so strongly to get rid of them). And they’re now in a quantum leap.”

Mexican street vendor [Jackson Heights]
Roosevelt Ave. (north side), between 85th and 86th Sts., Jackson Heights, Queens

Tacos Guicho cart [Jackson Heights]
Roosevelt Ave. (south side), at Baxter Ave., Jackson Heights, Queens

Mexican street vendor [Jackson Heights]
Roosevelt Ave. near 75th St., Jackson Heights, Queens

Board Links

gorditas on roosevelt
NYT Real Estate Section Article: Author Moves to Jackson Heights for the Food

Onera Dresses Down; and Other New York News

The upscale Greek restaurant Onera earned critical acclaim and hound love, but that by itself doesn’t pay the rent. So chef Michael Psilakis has dropped prices, traded his ambitious modern fare for more casual, family-style dishes, and rechristened the place Kefi. Our first report suggests that the newly downscaled menu is accessible and delicious.

americanafan reports a satisfying meal highlighted by terrific moussaka, unusually light yet also hearty and filling. Traditional spreads–tzatziki, taramasalata, melitzanosalata, fava bean–get a slightly nontraditional tweaking, but they’re still comforting and familiar, served with tasty, warm pita slices. Main courses (which now top out at just $16) include a couple of holdovers from Onera, including the hound-endorsed helopites (a wide egg noodle with braised rabbit and grated cheese). The wine list is modest and nicely priced, with bottles for as little as $18. “It looks as if chef Psilakis has accomplished exactly what he set out to do,” americanafan adds. “I was a big fan of Onera and was disappointed to see it close. But Kefi should be a very popular neighborhood restaurant.”

Across town, Upper East Side hounds have one fewer dessert option. Martha Frances Mississippi Cheesecake, beloved for pecan, sweet potato, and Key lime pies, as well as its signature cheesecake, closed abruptly late last year.

Kefi [Upper West Side]
formerly Onera
222 W. 79th St., between Broadway and Amsterdam Ave., Manhattan

Martha Frances Mississippi Cheesecake [Upper East Side]
1707 2nd Ave., between E. 88th and 89th Sts., Manhattan

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Kefi–first look
martha frances cheesecake…what happened?

Frozen Mochi Goodness at Momofuku Ssam Bar

There’s marvelous fresh-made mochi ice cream on the dinner menu at Momofuku Ssam Bar, says kathryn. A recent sampler comprised four flavors–mango, butter pecan, pistachio, and chocolate with egg nog. So try not to fill up on the boutique hams, three-terrine banh mi, fried cauliflower with chiles and mint, and other bites that make up the dinner menu (once served only after 10:30 p.m., now available from 6 on).

Momofuku Ssam Bar [East Village]
207 2nd Ave., at E. 13th St., Manhattan

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late night dining at momofuku ssam?

House of Dosas Revisited – Crepes with a Kick

The House of Dosas, curiously enough, has never been a hound favorite for dosas. Past reports suggested that thali lunches were the way to go. But recently, dosa lovers have stepped up and made their case.

Among the 20-plus varieties, sbp recommends onion chile masala–potato, raw onion, and kicking fresh green chile tucked into a huge, crisp, nutty, faintly caramelized crepe. Alongside comes coconut chutney and unusually soulful sambar. Even erstwhile dosa-disser TongoRad confesses to enjoying its interplay of onion and coconut flavors. jnet62 endorses the Gunpowder dosa, spiked with fiery/tart milakai podi.

Those thinking outside the dosa should try chaat (good picks: bhel puri and samosa chaat) or the popular thali, a daily-changing grab bag of bites, some on the menu and some not. Highlights include channa masala (chickpeas), eggplant any style, rasam (spicy vegetable broth), and fluffy idli (steamed rice-lentil patties). Save room for vermicelli pudding, flavored with saffron and white raisins.

House of Dosas [Nassau County]
416 S. Broadway, at Boehme St., Hicksville, NY

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House of Dosas, Hicksville

Catch of the Day – Gorgeous Grilled Octopus at Vespa

centrejack had a decent but unexceptional Italian dinner at Vespa with one memorable must-try appetizer: octopus, marinated and beautifully grilled. It’s tender, tasty, and nicely seasoned, and you get a generous plate of it for $11. Accompaniments change with the seasons; for winter they’re serving it with potato, fresh herbs, and roasted peppers.

Vespa [Upper East Side]
1625 2nd Ave., between E. 84th and 85th Sts., Manhattan

Board Links: NYE at Vespa–one dish you have to try

Korean Walnut Treats at Woodside’s Man Mi

At Man Mi bakery, a contraption that could have come from “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” bangs out fresh, hot Korean-style walnut cakes. Known as hodo kwaja, they’re like less greasy doughnut holes filled with red bean paste and walnuts, Dave G reports.

These are not hard to find around New York–Korean supermarkets and chain bakeries sell them at room temperature, swaddled in plastic wrap. But for the best specimens, advises surly, you need to find a specialty shop that makes only a few items–like Man Mi–and score a batch hot off the griddle. “There aren’t too many of these specialists around anymore,” he adds. “It’s unlikely that you’ll be able to get a hot, fresh version of these cakes at a larger, more comfortable Korean bakery like, say, Koryodang.”

Man Mi cranks up the hodo kwaja machine on an irregular schedule during the week, but it’s always up and running on Saturdays from around 8:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. A fresh bag of 10 costs $2.

Man Mi [Woodside]
54-08 Roosevelt Ave., between 54th and 55th Sts., Woodside, Queens

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Korean Walnut Cake in Woodside

Phoenix Garden – Winning Cantonese in Midtown

Phoenix Garden’s many fans declare its Cantonese food dependably first-rate–not just for Midtown Manhattan but for the entire city, including Chinatown. A recent runaway hit is a casserole of oysters, pork, and bean curd. “The clay pots were scraped bare in minutes,” reports eating me, who lovingly describes “huge, juicy fried oysters chillin’ out with fried tofu rectangles, fatty roasted pork and chopped cabbage in an addictive, not-too-sweet brown sauce.”

“This place rocks,” agrees AKR, whose dinner was highlighted by snow pea leaves with garlic, braised duck with mushrooms in brown sauce, peppery/oniony scallops in five-pepper sauce, and sweet, succulent honey ribs. Others recommend sauteed watercress, seafood fried noodles, steamed flounder in black bean sauce, and crab stir-fried with ginger and scallions.

Peter Cherches, who advances the controversial thesis that Midtown has eclipsed Chinatown for Chinese food, ranks Phoenix Garden with Wu Liang Ye, Szechuan Gourmet and Evergreen Shanghai as four of Manhattan’s top Chinese restaurants. This is also the only restaurant in Manhattan that serves young stir-fried ginger with chicken.

Servers are friendly, knowledgeable and not above the occasional upsell. The place is BYOB; good matches include Rieslings, Alsatians, and other wines on the sweet side, AKR advises.

Phoenix Garden Restaurant [Turtle Bay]
242 E. 40th St., between 2nd and 3rd Aves., Manhattan

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Review–Phoenix Garden

Betty Bakery – Sweetness and Light in Brooklyn

Betty bakes some nice things: cupcakes, cookies, tea breads, fruit pastries, cinnamon challah twists, to name a few. iwantcake reports taking home a superior apple pie–very fresh, not too sweet–that made a lasting impression over the holidays. This bright little shop–opened in fall by the owners of wedding-cake specialists Cheryl Kleinman Cakes and Bijoux Doux–sticks to the sweet stuff. Its breads reportedly come from hound favorite Amy’s.

Betty Bakery [Boerum Hill]
448 Atlantic Ave., between Nevins and Bond Sts., Brooklyn

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Cute new bakery on Atlantic near Nevins
Newish bakery on Atlantic Avenue

Scrumptious Tamales at Broadway and 137th

At Broadway and 137th Street, $1 buys a terrific fresh tamale. “Big, flat, white corn tamales, moist and SPICY! Way better than any I’ve had in restaurants,” says Hling, who heard this vendor’s siren call (“Tamale! Tamale!”) after emerging from the subway. Fillings include cheese, chicken, and shredded pork, the latter boasting “good honest porky flavor that’s hard to come by these days,” she adds. Look for the woman who sells them on the traffic island outside the uptown entrance to the 137 Street-City College station.

Forty blocks (or five local stops) to the south, another hound-endorsed vendor hawks delicious, creamy-textured tamales Monday through Saturday mornings until 9 or 9:30. curranthound especially likes the ones filled with pork in green sauce; chicken and cheese are the other options. A man and a woman take turns working this location, which is on the west side of Broadway outside the southern entrance to the 96th Street station.

Tamale vendor [West Harlem]
Broadway at W. 137th St., Manhattan

Tamale vendor [Upper West Side]
Broadway, between W. 93rd and 94th Sts., Manhattan, in front of Payless Shoe Source

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Home made Tamales at 137th st.
Tamales, Tamales, Tamales…

Sasabune – Where the Sushi Chef Calls the Shots

Sushi at Sasabune comes with two conditions that hounds tend to either love or hate. At this L.A. transplant, open since November, meals are omakase only; “trust me,” implores a sign on the wall. And the sushi rice is warmed, in order to bring out maximum flavor and aroma in the fish.

Offerings are mostly traditional–no California rolls or spicy tuna here–though some are embellished with garnishes or house-made sauces. Well-conceived pairings invite comparison eating: e.g. bluefin with yellowfin, fluke with snapper, or two varieties of Japanese yellowtail side by side. Memorable bites include albacore in citrus soy, salmon with toasted sesame, and a sweet, dense hand roll filled with baked crab.

When diners buy in to the setup, it can be a wondrous experience. “I fell in love with sushi all over again,” marvels masterofceremonies after a beautifully harmonious dinner of supremely fresh fish. girlcritic says the warm rice adds depth and the seasonings are “just right, creative without being overwrought.”

But it doesn’t work for everyone. Echoing complaints from California hounds, some say the warm rice tends to fall apart (some opt for sashimi omakase instead of nigirizushi, to avoid the warm rice). Others say the sauces are applied with a heavy hand. And repeat visitors are sometimes disappointed at how little the omakase changes from day to day. “The sushi did not float my boat,” vinominer concludes. gutsofsteel says the pacing is much too fast and the seafood, while very good, is a notch below the best in town. But so are prices, he notes, starting at $60 a head–relatively gentle for omakase in Manhattan.

Sushi Sasabune [Upper East Side]
401 E. 73rd St., near 1st Ave., Manhattan

Sushi Sasabune [West LA]
12400 Wilshire Blvd. #150, Los Angeles

Board Links

Omakase under $75?
Sasabune NYC
Sushi Sasabune?? Has it opened in New York?
SASABUNE–a little intimidated!
Don’t Go to Sasabune!