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Insights, tips, and restaurant reports from CHOW editors and Chowhound.

Xiao La Jiao: Hot New Sichuan Contender in Flushing

Xiao La Jiao shows its Sichuan chops in its aromatic, powerfully seasoned lamb with hot and spicy sauce. “Absolutely excellent,” promises JMF–juicy, tasty meat covered in a paste of cumin, chiles, and Sichuan peppercorns, delivering “just the right heat, spice, and tingle.” Braised sliced fish in spicy soup base is another knockout: firm, very fresh fish with vegetables in a complex broth, topped with a sheen of chile-Sichuan pepper oil.

Also recommended at this newish Flushing restaurant: crust of cooked rice with pork. Tender sauteed meat in a deep, nuanced sauce is poured over freshly fried rice cakes, which sets off a racket of sizzling and popping. Don’t miss brightly flavored small dishes, like kelp in garlic sauce, spiced Sichuan peanuts, and spicy, sesame-scented bamboo shoots.

It’s hard to discuss New York Sichuan without considering board favorite Spicy and Tasty, just a block away. Xiao La Jiao appears to measure up. JMF declares that the newcomer is flat-out better. For joekarten, it’s just as good but different, “a bit less elegant and a bit bolder, maybe more rough-hewn in presentation and palate.” And at least for now, he adds, it charges much less for much larger portions.

Meanwhile, Spicy and Tasty hasn’t lost a step. Current chowhound favorites include eggplant with garlic sauce, cold beef stomach in spicy oil, shredded dry bean curd with celery, and squid with pickled turnip in spicy sauce. Also, fiery yet multidimensional shredded pork in fresh hot pepper, “one of the best Sichuan dishes I’ve ever had,” writes Brian S. “The waiter grimaced as if it were so spicy it was hurting him through the plate.”

Xiao La Jiao, a.k.a. Little Pepper [Flushing]
133-43 Roosevelt Ave., between Prince St. and College Point Blvd., Flushing, Queens

Spicy and Tasty [Flushing]
39-07 Prince St., between Roosevelt and 39th Aves., Flushing, Queens

Board Links: Spicy & Tasty in Flushing To Takeout
xiao la jiao–Anyone been?

Talking Pizza on the Lower East Side: Pala AND Ronald’s

Maybe it was the by-the-foot pricing, or maybe the exotic toppings that include pumpkin-and-pancetta but not classic New York sauce-and-cheese. For whatever reason, it took a while for hounds to grok the slightly upscale Roman-style pizza at Pala on the Lower East Side. Now, six months after it opened, the place seems to be gaining a following.

Fans love its light, crispy yet chewy crust, which it approaches with high seriousness. “Our waiter went into a spiel about the multiple flours used, the high water content of the dough, and the owner’s Ph.D. in chemistry,” says Sanjay. “I don’t know if that’s what does it, but it sure is a great crust!” Among the toppings, winners include the Arrabbiata (cherry tomatoes, garlic, hot pepper), Medillanum (asparagus, Gorgonzola, fior di latte mozzarella), Forza Roma (roasted peppers and mozzarella), and Ubraico (pancetta, mozzarella, wine-cured goat cheese), which delivers “a whirlwind of flavors and an absolute euphoric experience,” raves suzie bauer.

“If you are looking for the typical New York slice, this is not the place,” she adds. “The pies are oblong, and most slices are squares except for the corners of the pie. A slice is about the size of a Sicilian, except it is not as thick and doughy–a major plus, in my opinion.” Dissenters find prices high and the crust low on flavor.

A few blocks south, Ronald’s sounds like a nice neighborhood joint for thin-crust pies. “Darn good!” exclaims Wingman. “Very fresh ingredients and a fairly crispy crust. Thankfully there is an option for delivery on the Lower East Side!” The crust carries the smoky scent of the wood-burning oven, says adam, who likes his topped with sausage and fresh ricotta.

Beyond pizza, this successor to the now-defunct New Sicca’s at Allen and Rivington offers a traditional menu of salads, appetizers (fried calamari, soup, stuffed baked clams), chicken and veal entrees (francese, Marsala, piccata), and more. adam reports nicely done pastas and a standout caesar salad with just enough anchovy kick.

Pala Pizza Romano [Lower East Side]
198 Allen St., between Houston and Stanton, Manhattan

Ronald’s Pizza Cafe [Lower East Side]
74 Orchard St., between Broome and Grand, Manhattan

Board Links: Ronald’s Pizza Cafe?
Krunch Pizza
best pizza in manhattan?
Pala pizza- 198 Allen Street
Palà LES?
BEST Pizza on the Lower Eats Side

Madame, You’re Beautiful!

The croque madame at Bluebird Cafe is a thing of beauty, says Bob Brooks–good bread, good prosciutto, good creamy mornay sauce. And not too big (you know, French women don’t get fat); just the right size for a super-rich sandwich. The egg may be cooked on the firm side, though. Beautifully ripe tomatoes and fruit come on the side.

All the sandwiches are excellent, adds Dommy–a lot like those at Surfas’ cafe (see also ChowNews #211), but more variety. The grilled vegetable sandwich is truly tasty. Plus, delicious cupcakes–chica recommends red velvet and carrot cake.

Blue Bird Bakery [Culver City-ish]
8572 National Blvd., at Hayden, Culver City 90232

Surfas [Culver City-ish]
8777 W. Washington Blvd., at National, Culver City 90232

Board Links: Bluebird Cafe–Culver City

Punch Knocks Out a Good Onion Ring

The former Royal Star is now a sleek, clubby joint by the name of Punch Grill. Flat screen TVs, a nice bar area, and new booths define the look. The menu is inoffensive, perfect for the bar crowd (or an upscale office lunch)–salads, soups, pastas, entrees, and sandwiches. Says southbay hound, onion soup is good and hearty, Maui onion salad with avocado and manchego good but skimpy. Caesar salad, solid. Seared ahi sandwich and grilled chicken sandwich are both nicely executed, but the real standout is the onion rings–light and crispy, with a peppery hint. Some of the best in LA.

Punch Grill [Beaches]
3001 Wilshire Blvd., at Stanford, Santa Monica 90403

Board Links: Punch Grill–Wilshire and Santa Monica (review)

J’s Pots of Soul, with Pumpkin Pancakes

J’s Pots of Soul is, unsurprisingly, a soul food restaurant…and a fine one at that. It’s small, tidy, and covered with posters of Muhammed Ali and Josephine Baker. They serve breakfast and lunch, Tuesday through Sunday. The breakfast menu includes about nine items, and lunch is three: fried chicken wings, meatloaf, and salmon croquettes. There are also specials, like pumpkin pancakes.

An order of chicken wings is four very large wings in good batter–tasty and satisfying, says jaweino. Sweet, cinnamony yams are a delicious side order. There’s also great cornbread, with bits of red bell peppers baked in.

Pumpkin pancakes are awesome…when they have them. An order involves two very large pancakes with two eggs and two slices of perfectly crispy bacon. The pancakes are distinctly pumpkiny, and served with a pitcher of warm syrup and a pitcher of warm clarified butter. Why don’t more places serve it this way? Because they don’t love you. That’s why.

J’s Pots Of Soul [Western Addition]
203 Octavia St., San Francisco

Board Links: J’s Pots of Soul

Delicate Shark-Fin Dumplings and the Secret $1.79 Menu

S&T Hong Kong Seafood is the new restaurant in the old Tai Wu space. It’s truly new (new owners and everything), not just another name shift. For lunch, there’s dim sum, ordered off a check-off list.

The star of the meal here is boon tong gao ($5), shark-fin dumpling soup. The wrapper of this large dumpling is perfectly thin and fragile, almost gossamer, says Melanie Wong. Inside, there’s chunks of fresh scallop blended with shrimp, grass mushrooms, shreds of dried scallop, black mushroom, and more. And it’s in broth–double-boiled broth, crystal clear, greaseless and light yet intensely flavorful, with briny, savory, and meaty components singing perfect harmony. There’s plenty of this soup, too–enough for a little bowl each for four people. This boon tong gao compares very well to the gold standard version served at the dearly departed Seafood Harbor in Millbrae. This version is a bit deeper and not as ethereal; the dumpling skin is better, and there’s real shark’s fin–a two-inch piece hidden beneath the dumpling.

Beef chow fun comes dry, with no bean sprouts. It’s an excellent dish, with a nice sear on the thin and tender slices of pounded beef. Rice noodles soak up the beefy flavors. Instead of bean sprouts, there are yellow leeks, green onions, and thick slices of charred yellow onion.

The menu includes a $1.79 section, printed impossibly small and in Chinese. It lists very nice salt and pepper calamari–a considerably larger portion than you might expect for the price. The texture of the squid is spot on: tender, with the slightest bit of resistance. It’s tasty, too, with fresh chilies, deep-fried garlic bits, scallions, and a good dose of salt and pepper, which brings out the sweetness of the squid. The batter’s thick, but airy and ungreasy. Sticky rices are good, though the dish of sticky rice inside Chinese bread is a bit bland.

theSauce provides us with a translation of the $1.79 menu:

- Steamed white buns or flower rolls
- Home style green onion pancake
- Red bean cake
- Tofu hua or super sweet silken tofu
- Beef balls with bamboo shoots
- Mala gao or mala steam cake
- Sticky rice roll
- Salt and pepper salmon cheeks
- Salt and pepper calamari
- Chinese chives with chunks of pig blood
- Blanched pigs knuckle or pork (not 100% sure of this one)
- Salt and pepper tofu
- Chow jew style stewed tofu
- Albalone flavored chicken feet

Also, translations of the other untranslated items from the dim sum menu. In the second column, below taro dumplings, in the $2.80 section:

- Pan fried taro cake
- Pan fried seafood eggplant
- Pan fried seafood mushroom
- Pan fried seafood bell pepper
- Shrimp rice rolls
- Shrimp with spinach dumpling
- Shrimp with cilantro dumpling
- Pine nuts with veggies dumpling
- BBQ pork and lapcheung turnip cake
- Shanghai soup dumplings
- Pork and veggies steam dumplings
- Pork tofu skin roll (not sure)
- Spareribs with rice noodle or rice powder steam spareribs
- Shrimp with corn sauce
- Egg yolk thousand layer cake
- Egg yolk mala roll
- Sesame or peanut rice balls

The $4.20 section is hard to translate because “it’s one of those poem translations.” Here’s the best effort:

- Side street flavor rice rolls or chitterlings
- Tofu skin roll with seafood.
- Soy sauce yellow chives chow mein

S & T Hong Kong Seafood [Sunset]
Formerly Tai Wu
2578 Noriega St., at 33rd Ave., San Francisco

Board Links: $1.79 Calamari and Excellent Boon Tong Gao

Jar Openers

Stubborn jar lids can be frustrating. Rapping them sharply on the edge the counter will sometimes loosen the seal enough to get them open, but they might crack. Here are some hints and gadgets recommended by chowhounds.


Run hot water around the edge of the lid. This causes the metal to expand a little…and hopefully loosens things up.

Wear a rubber glove, for traction. Mouse pads work, too. Another option is a wide rubber band around the lid.

Use a “church key” type opener to gently pry the edge of lid just enough to break the seal. Just don’t bend the lid!

Tap all around the lid with the handle of a dinner knife.


The The Un-Skru attaches to the underside of a cabinet. It’s worked for bottles and jars for JoanN for thirty years. You don’t have to riffle through your gadget drawer to find it, either.

The Zim Wall Mount opener is similar, but mounts on the wall. Alice Patis has hers in the pantry, where all the jars are stored!

An oldie, but goodie, this vintage gadget sometimes pops up at garage sales.

Swing-Away’s Comfort Grip is another good one, and adjusts to all sizes of containers.

Board Links: Best jar opener?

Rotgut…or the Good Stuff?

When making mixed drinks, should you use high-class booze, or save the good stuff for more serious quaffing?

The first consideration is the ratio of mixer to spirit. The more mixer you use, the less you’ll need a quality spirit. As olfashiond advises, don’t drown an ounce of Grey Goose in six ounces of orange juice.

Adding fruit juice masks the taste of an inferior spirit, and is acceptable for a drink or two. However, some say that more expensive liquor might leave you feeling far better the next morning, if multiple drinks are consumed.

When in doubt, use quality ingredients.

Board Links: Quality of Liquor to use in mixed drinks

Low-Effort Desserts

Chowhounds share their favorite no-muss, no-fuss desserts.

Peel and slice very good ripe peaches. Top with sour cream…and grate some dark chocolate over the top…and sprinkle with cinnamon (kittyfood).

Slice orange rounds and lay out prettily on plates. Heat about a cup of raspberries (fresh or frozen) with about 2 T lemon juice, about 1/4 cup sugar, and a couple dashes of cinnamon until sugar is dissolved, raspberries are warm, and the liquid is slightly reduced. Pour sauce over oranges (Snackish).

Peel and cut up one orange per person, removing all pith, membranes, and seeds. Put orange segments in a bowl and drizzle with sweet Marsala. Sprinkle with chopped walnuts (AnneInMpls).

Toss fresh blueberries and green seedless grapes gently together; top with a dollop of sour cream, sprinkle with brown sugar. Serve cold (checkman).

Cut figs in half. Sprinkle with a little sugar, broil or torch to caramelize, and serve with rich yogurt and a drizzle of honey (curiousbaker).

Dip strawberries in sour cream and brown sugar (MollyGee).

Microwave some frozen raspberries until very warm. Mix in a few chocolate chips and top with a bit of whipped cream (marcia2).

A couple for those who don’t mind serving uncooked eggs:

Put 2 or 3 egg whites in a bowl and whip until foamy with an electric mixer. Add sugar until pretty sweet. Beat until glossy and holds firm peaks. Fold in applesauce–homemade if possible. (danna).

Butter a springform pan and sprinkle bottom with gingersnap crumbs. Make a standard key lime pie filling, fold in whipped cream. Spoon into the springform pan and freeze. Thaw somewhat, then slice and serve (curiousbaker).

Board Links: Best Low-Effort Desserts? +Lemon Slice recipe

Two Winning Ways with Mussels

This mussel prep with South East Asian flavors is popular among chowhounds. Saute ginger, lemongrass, and garlic; add white wine, coconut milk, and mussels; cover, and steam until mussels have opened. Add cilantro after mussels are done. You can also use the broiler or a large saute pan on an outdoor grill to cook your mussels, says Kitchen Queen.

Marge serves mussels Portuguese style: steamed, then chilled, served on the half shell, topped with a salsa of chopped fresh tomato, sweet onion, garlic, and cilantro. Perfect with some Champagne or vinho verde.

Board Links: New Zealand Green Mussels