Chela & Garnacha

“Chela’s [sic] are usually short, but mighty,” says Urban Dictionary, which may or may not be the right place to find out more about Mexican beer. Although, I suppose UD’s definition applies to Chela & Garnacha, a small, but mighty Mexican eatery on 36th Avenue in Astoria. Food truck enthusiasts likely know or know of the Mexican Blvd. Food Truck — well, Chela & Garnacha is the brick-and-mortar manifestation of Mexican Blvd. It may not have wheels, but it packs plenty of punch.

When we sat down, we each ordered beers: XX (Dos Equis) for me and a Negra Modelo for MDP. We noticed rice and beans were not on the menu (“isn’t that odd” we each shared aloud), and proceeded to order two appetizers and one torta apiece.

All in all, the food and service are very good at Chela & Garnacha. Here’s a closer look at what we got.

Guacamole and Chips

guacamole and chips chela garnacha

At $8, you get a lot of guacamole and it doesn’t disappoint. The guacamole was thick and flavorful, while the chips were crisp and fresh. I recommend getting this dish or at least the salsa and chips, so that you have the opportunity to experience Chela & Garnacha’s delicious, housemade chips.

Intrincadas de Flor de Calabaza

intrincadas chela garnacha

I had never formally ordered intrincadas at a restaurant, but I’ve had delightful masa patties, fried to perfection, many moons ago. The word — intrincadas — alone may bring to mind trickery or deceitful machinations. But the delicious food it represents suggests otherwise.

Lightly fried zucchini blossoms sit upon a stack of guacamole, sour cream, and chipotle adobo (we’ll come back to this gem of a flavor later), with the crispy masa patties forming the foundation. The combination of elements was exquisite – the smooth guacamole contrasted with the sharp spiciness of the chipotle adobo, and the sour cream neutralized the overall flavor, in a good way. I loved the masa patties for their simplicity and well-executed purpose of supporting the toppings.

You must try these if you visit Chela & Garnacha. They also offer chicken-topped intrincadas.

Tortas

torta chela garnacha

I’ve written about tortas before — I am a fan of the sandwich. Often delivered on a Portuguese roll, I ask, “What can go wrong?” At Chela & Garnacha, the answer is “nothing,” because their chock-full-of-deliciousness sandwiches hit the mark.

MDP opted for the adobo torta, which is stuffed with the standard flavors of a torta (guacamole, cheese, lettuce, tomato, sour cream, and more) plus slow-roasted pork loin. It looked amazing, as MDP gobbled it up in no time (I couldn’t get a bite in). I chose the bistec en pasilla torta, with top round marinated steak in a “drunken beer” and Pasilla sauce. For both, our waitress asked us whether we’d like chipotle adobo or jalapenos on the sandwiches. We hadn’t tried the amazing intrincadas doused in chipotle adobo yet but my intuition told me the chipotle was the way to go.

We were so correct. The chipotle adobo sauce at Chela & Garnacha is outrageously good. It’s silky and strong, and spicy without setting your tongue on fire — that is, you can taste the nuances of the sauce very well despite the heat. It was an incredible addition to my torta.

I loved the Portuguese roll our tortas sat upon, and the steak was very good in my version. I highly recommend, although I get the sense many folks like the tacos.

You do you.

Chela & Garnacha is a great place to go on a Friday night, to tip back Mexican beer ($4 during Happy Hour) and sample fine renditions of tried-and-true favorites.

Chela & Garnacha
33-09 36th Avenue
Astoria, New York
Take the N/Q to 36th Avenue and walk a few blocks.

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Cemitas El Tigre

Every time I read an article about a new Mexican restaurant, commenters – who by nature are more opinionated than they should be – always say New York City is void of any decent tacos, burritos, and guacamole. Honestly, I don’t know who these people are or how they know that not one good Mexican restaurant exists in this great city of ours, but, nonetheless, the sentiment holds.

Case in point is Cemitas El Tigre, Woodside’s latest addition. A popular New York City blog wrote about the new Mexican establishment, and, as if on cue, commenters began blasting the city’s food scene – and the restaurant, although I’m fairly certain said commenters haven’t even be to Woodside, never mind Cemitas El Tigre.

I get it. Cemitas El Tigre’s provenance is not a story of authenticity, of an immigrant family clawing their way to the top of a city unkind to restaurant purveyors. The owner is called Danny Lyu, and he once peddled his special Mexican sandwiches in a Whole Foods and at Smorgasburg, both in Brooklyn. So, the restaurant is neither authentically Queens nor authentically Mexican.

cemitas el tigre fried chicken cemitas

fried chicken cemitas

That aside, I thought the place was okay. MDP and I went at 6 pm, thinking it would be packed with early adopters. Inside the narrow space, the brief menu, scrawled in white on a black chalkboard, sat upon a wall. Staff were all smiles, brimming with friendliness and proffering paper menus in case the board proved unsatisfactory. The too-loud music blaring over the restaurant’s speakers made communicating our order a challenge. The cashier plucked a number at random, handed it to us, and we took our seats near the door, which was ajar with cold air seeping through the crack all night.

Ten minutes passed, and our food arrived. MDP and I both ordered cemitas, which, for the uninitiated, are sandwiches stuffed with fresh ingredients in the tradition of street food from Puebla, Mexico. I opted for the fried chicken cemitas, while MDP got the carnitas variety.

He wasn’t impressed, but I was. The crisp roll held the contents perfectly, all 10 layers of them. In addition to the fried chicken in mine, I tasted smashed avocado, black beans, Oaxaca cheese, chipotle puree, and other delectable items. I found the hint of hotness from the chipotle puree to be the best takeaway from the sandwich’s flavors combination.

cemitas el tigre onion rings

onion rings

In addition to the sandwiches, we ordered onion rings, which came with a vat of ketchup, as well as cilantro-lime rice and black beans.

The onion rings are crispy, crunchy, and fried deliciousness. We asked for the dill ranch dip that accompanies them (for an added fee), but our cashier didn’t comply with this request. Ketchup was a fine stand-in, however.

The rice and beans are sold separately, and I would encourage you to embrace the option of not ordering the rice. MDP expressed an interesting sentiment regarding the rice: it tasted like Rice-a-Roni, or a similarly manufactured, too-salty, and fake-flavored rice dish.

The beans made up for the rice, but not by much. They were cooked and creamy, with bits of cilantro sprinkled on top, but not entirely impressive.

cemitas el tigre cilantro-lime rice and black beans

cilantro-lime rice and black beans

Cemitas El Tigre offers burritos, tacos, and milk shakes, none of which we tried. And I’m not certain we’ll be back to sample them.

If you’re in Woodside, you might visit Cemitas El Tigre, but I’d recommend de Mole instead. It’s just a few doors down, on 45th Street and 48th Avenue, and they serve up some of the best Mexican food I’ve ever had – despite what commenters might think. Haters gonna hate!

Cemitas El Tigre
45-14 48th Avenue (between 45th and 46th streets)
Woodside, NY
Take the 7 train to 46th Street, walk south several blocks to 48th Avenue.

The Queens Kickshaw

The lighting was dim as we entered The Queens Kickshaw located on Broadway, just off Steinway, in Astoria this morning. I didn’t see a hostess, but the barista was quick to welcome us: “What can I get started for you?” I declined a coffee and asked if we could sit down for brunch. She encouraged us to grab a table of our choosing, so we walked past the coffee bar and sat at one in the back. We arrived just after they opened and the restaurant was largely empty. Thirty minutes later, that would all change.

the queens kickshaw egg and cheese sandwich

egg and cheese sandwich

An industrial vibe emanates from the walls–adorned by lamps as light fixtures–and the steely furniture of The Queens Kickshaw. Yet, the place feels pleasant. A waitress with a sangfroid air dropped off a few menus and a compendium of drinks and placed two wide-mouth glasses of water on our table. Colin Meloy’s unmistakable tin-can voice, with his crisp elocution of lyrics on Picaresque, blared from the speakers as we pored over the brunch menu. After just five minutes of sitting there, I exclaimed to MDP, “I really like it here.”

Ambiance aside, the food is top notch, too. They offer a selection of egg dishes and french toast, but what you really want to focus on are the dishes under “The Classics” section. There you’ll find The Queens Kickshaw’s bread and butter. Two varieties of their famous grilled cheese and a decadent macaroni and cheese option, made with three types of fromage, caramelized onions, and the unique addition of green beans, make the cut for brunch.

MDP selected the egg and cheese sandwich and I ordered the gouda grilled cheese. Topped with a cheese crisp, the egg and cheese sandwich features ricotta, rather than your run-of-the-mill American or cheddar cheese, as the eponymous “cheese” stuffed between two luxurious slices of brioche. It comes with thyme and maple hot sauce on it. I found it to be quite delectable.

the queens kickshaw gouda grilled cheese

gouda grilled cheese

The obvious star of the show was the gouda grilled cheese, though. Featuring black bean hummus, guava jam, and pickled jalapenos, this singular rendition of the tried-and-true grilled cheese sandwich was like nothing I’d ever tried. The combination of the creamy hummus, sweet and tart jam and spiciness of the jalapenos–all piled on the same soft brioche used for the egg and cheese sandwich–culminated in a truly awesome savory experience. A mixed greens salad with a jalapeno dressing accompanies the dish, carrying the hot flavor of the sandwich forward.

I had noticed that chocolate pudding was on the menu, so I ordered that once we were finished with our entrees. Made with Mast Brothers Madagascar chocolate, the pudding was extraordinary. Handmade whipped cream topped the delightful dessert, with flaky pastry (called by the fancy name “feuilletine”) covering the cream. It was simple, yet divine.

the queens kickshaw chocolate pudding

chocolate pudding

While we waited for our food, I watched people come and go, picking up coffees from the front, as light poured through the expansive storefront window. People leaned against the wall near the door, and the illumination, in contrast to the dark of the interior, made their silhouettes appear other-worldly. I snapped a few photos to remember the early-morning experience.

There’s something special about The Queens Kickshaw. I encourage you to try their brunch, and, really, to go any time, for any meal. Their cider list is particularly impressive, with bottles from all over the world filling the menu. The Queens Kickshaw proprietors like cider so much that they recently opened a bar dedicated to the drink on the Lower East Side, called Wassail. I bet that’s good, too!

The Queens Kickshaw
40-17 Broadway (near Steinway)
Astoria, New York
Take the M/R to Steinway and walk a few blocks.

Butcher Bar

It’s the end of March and, here in New York, it’s actually snowing. Whatever happened to “in like a lion, out like a lamb”? While the weather may be distressing, the meal I ate this morning certainly was not. If you’re looking for a unique answer to “where can we go to brunch?” in Queens, Butcher Bar is it.

butcher bar burnt ends and scrambled eggs

burnt ends and scrambled eggs

This borough has been experiencing a sharp influx of hipsters. Brooklyn transplants have been making their way across the county line to settle in Astoria, Long Island City, and, now, my dear Sunnyside. Butcher Bar is precisely designed for the newcomers. It’s an organic, sustainable barbecue joint with a quaint, yet plain interior. I’ve never been to the proper South, but I imagine this is the type of place you’d find in Austin, TX. These new Queens-bound millennial types enjoy this kind of thing, and I can guess that Butcher Bar has capitalized on their sensibilities.

That’s not a bad thing, of course–especially when the quality of meat and dining experience feels unparalleled to anywhere else in the neighborhood.

This morning, MDP and I wanted something different for brunch and decided to take the subway to Astoria. Butcher Bar is just a few blocks away from the N/Q 30th Avenue stop, so we hiked through the falling snow to find the lauded restaurant (it has a four-star rating on Yelp, which is pretty good considering that people love to complain on this site).

butcher bar brisket hash

brisket hash

Butcher Bar only recently began to serve brunch. Their menu is chocked full of egg dishes, with the occasional pancake item making an appearance. But the real star of the menu is the meat. Butcher Bar only sells the finest grass-fed meat, and the sheer quality of their cut selections is readily apparent in their offerings.

MDP opted for the brisket hash, while I ordered the burnt ends with scrambled eggs. Both dishes were incredible and accompanied by a complimentary alcoholic beverage of our choice (sangria, cocktail, beer). Let’s start with the brisket hash, which features diced potatoes and peppers with–you guessed it–brisket mixed in. It’s covered with a white gravy and an egg on top. MDP seemed to enjoy it, and I had a taste and agree that it was top notch. My burnt ends were phenomenal. They were silky, smooth, and very flavorful. The burnt ends were situated atop scrambled eggs with a layer of cheese, to my delight. Expertly cooked potatoes and mixed greens also came with our selections.

In addition to the mains, we got the creamy macaroni and cheese as a side dish. I found the simplicity of the dish to be satisfactory, but MDP wasn’t as impressed by it. The pasta was drenched in a delicious cheese sauce, and paprika was sprinkled on top.

butcher bar creamy macaroni and cheese

creamy macaroni and cheese

At the end of our meal, the lovely waitress asked if we’d like a piece of apple cake on the house. I enthusiastically said yes, and she brought us a sliver of the cake. It featured a drizzle of caramel on top, and the rare apple piece inside the cake. Despite the lackluster showing of fruit, I found the crust to be thick and authentic tasting. I was pleased with this addition to our meal.

I’d say that the value of brunch at Butcher Bar is amazing. Although the burnt ends with eggs plate cost $18 or so, it came with 10 – 15 pieces of meat and the plate was filled to the brim with food. The cocktail I ordered would have been $10 a la carte, and I quite enjoyed it. Plus, let’s not forget the apple cake that was a surprising finish.

Even if you’re not a Queens dweller, I’d suggest making the trip to Butcher Bar for brunch or even dinner. If they can serve up masterfully crafted dishes for the Saturday-Sunday morning set, I’m confident in their ability to do this during the evening, as well.

Butcher Bar
37-10 30th Avenue (between 37th and 38th streets)
Astoria, NY
Take the N/Q to 30th Avenue and walk north several blocks. It’s on the east side of the street.

Dumplings & Things

Xi’an Famous Foods is probably my favorite Chinese restaurant ever. This seems to be the widely held sentiment among New Yorkers (and please God let Xi’an be a secret kept from tourists — for now anyway). At the Xi’an near my workplace, the line is typically out the door and down the block. Sure, it’s a hole-in-the-wall space, but the demand for high-quality Chinese foods has reached a fever pitch since Xi’an came on the scene in full force a few years ago.

There’s a Xi’an in Flushing, and I’ve even gone there with MDP for take-out to bring back to our home 30 minutes away — that’s how good Xi’an is.

dumplings & things pork and chive dumplings

pork and chive dumplings

But, now I don’t have to travel to Flushing for authentic noodles and dumplings because Dumplings & Things (see menu here) has opened up shop in Sunnyside. Yesterday was the opening day, and I’m fairly certain it will be the first and last time I ever actually eat there. The hungry crowds are coming, and I suspect they’re looking for Xi’an-level deliciousness. They’ll certainly find it at Dumplings & Things.

I wouldn’t call Dumplings & Things a chain, but there’s definitely another outpost in the Park Slope area of Brooklyn, which has garnered rave reviews. It’s no wonder. Dumplings & Things serves up delectable Chinese (and sometimes Korean) fare for affordable prices — think $3.50 for a plate of five dumplings. Yeah, that cheap.

MDP and I were dead-set on sampling a wide variety of Dumpling & Things’ offerings, so we went about scanning the menu and choosing a food from just about every category: dumplings, noodles, baos, rice platters (we’ll try next time), and appetizers.

dumplings & things melt in your mouth pork belly noodles

melt in your mouth pork belly noodles

So, let’s start with the dumplings. We opted for the pork and chive (steamed) type. The filling was nearly bursting from the tightly wrapped skins, which goes to show the value you get when you order dumplings from this amazing place. And they weren’t just plump — they were delicious, too. Unlike some pork and chive dumplings that are typically “chive” in name only, these had a distinctly chive flavor that made the entire experience of biting into each dumpling feel fresh and clean.

We had to get noodles, and Dumplings & Things has a nice selection on their menu. You can either get your dish with rice or “regular” noodles (which, I think, are either ramen or la mien), and with broth if you choose. We got the braised beef noodles and melt in your mouth pork belly ones. Wow, both were just out of this world. While Xi’an’s wide hand-pulled noodles are pretty impressive, Dumplings & Things’ noodles are also up there on my list. They, like the dumplings, were bursting with flavor. Our respective meats were beautifully flavored and heaped aplenty on the top of our noodles, which cost a mere $6.50 and came out in a giant traditional bowl.

dumplings & things braised beef bao

braised beef bao

MDP wanted to try a bao, so he ordered the braised beef one. It’s two baos per order, so I was in luck. I bit into the bao, with sliced cucumber and carrot, as well as crushed peanuts on top, and was blown away. One of the best restaurants in Sunnyside, Salt & Fat, used to serve unique pork belly baos. I think Dumplings & Things is giving them a run for their money in the bao department.

I wanted to try the garlicky cucumber salad, to compare it to Xi’an’s version, so we got that, too. It was good — not great, like Xi’an’s — but MDP figured out that, if we doused the cucumber pieces in soy sauce, the dish would taste better. It did. Somehow the soy sauce brought out the garlic flavor more intensely, and I was a happy clam.

dumplings & things garlicky cucumber salad

garlicky cucumber salad

All this food cost about $29. Twenty-nine dollars! The seating arrangement inside is fairly utilitarian, with simple stools and small tables for patrons to dine at. It’s no sit-down and order through a waitress place, either, so snag a table before you put in your order at the counter. Getting your food could take upwards of 20 minutes because I think Dumplings & Things has a few kinks to iron out in the kitchen process yet, so grab a gourmet ginger ale and sit tight.

I highly recommend Dumplings & Things. If you’ve been looking for your local Xi’an, this is it.

Dumplings & Things
45-26 46th Street (between Queens Blvd. and Greenpoint Ave.)
Sunnyside, NY
Take the 7 train to 46th Street. Walk south for one block. It will be on your right.

La Flor

Legend has it that La Flor, a beautiful restaurant on a less-than-beautiful corner in Woodside, was meant to only offer coffee and pastries from the start. Chef Viko Ortega, master of the art of pastry, opened La Flor with this intention in mind. Fate took the reins and soon Ortega began serving Mexican-inspired culinary creations to eager patrons, many of whom had traveled from as far away as Manhattan (can you believe it?). The rest is history. La Flor has been reviewed and highly rated by all the important critics in the land, and yours truly joins the chorus of positivity in celebrating this unique establishment.

When you approach La Flor, the first thing you’ll notice are the gorgeous mosaics decorating the restaurant’s exterior. The echo of the charging 7 train urges you inside where you’ll find a minimally lit space and minimal decor, with the mosaics forming accents near the kitchen.

la flor pastry basket housemade

pastry basket

Unlike some places, La Flor is a very comfortable, casual environment. The staff are even willing to allow your party of two to sit at a table for four. Some may argue this is inefficient, but I say it reflects the level of hospitality deep-seated in La Flor’s approach to business.

The menu itself is a thing of beauty. It’s handmade and features the list of dishes in delicate handwriting. I’ve been to La Flor many times, and I have to say, anything you order will be some of the best food you’ve tried.

Most recently (i.e. this morning), I stopped in for brunch. The helpful waitress handed us our menus and a list of specials. La Flor uses the same menu for every meal, so we turned to the very first page to find the breakfast and brunch options. My eyes were immediately drawn to the basket of housemade pastries listed at the top of the page. A true bang for your buck, this basket contains some of the most delicious pastries I’ve tried to date: chocolate chip brioche, tiny rolls, a selection of muffins, scones and more. I nibbled on just about every pastry and found them to be categorically superb. In particular, I enjoyed the lone berry scone. Reluctantly, I broke off a piece to share with MDP.

For my entree, I ordered the huevos Mexicana, while MDP opted for the roasted butternut squash frittata from the specials list.

la flor huevos mexicana

huevos mexicana

Rife with jalapenos, tomatoes, onions and red peppers, the scrambled eggs sat upon a bed of beans and warmed tortillas. The eggs were perfectly cooked, with no dense or crisp parts to speak of. My only complaint is that I wish the tortillas were not underneath the rest of the food; you know how I love to make sandwiches. However, this is a small qualm in the grand scheme of this delightful breakfast.

MDP’s perfectly round frittata contained sweet potato and manchego cheese (my favorite), in addition to the butternut squash. It was a well-crafted dish, although MDP argued that the flavor of the butternut squash was not as pronounced as he may have liked.

la flor butternut squash frittata

butternut squash frittata

The waitress offered us hot sauce. I expected her to bring over a bottle of Tabasco or another brand, but she surprised me. Instead, she put on the table two adorable dishes of sauces: one green (mild) and one red (hot). This detail demonstrates the thorough authenticity of La Flor.

I recommend you try this restaurant for brunch or dinner (the pasta dish on the menu is surprisingly good), but remember to stop at the ATM before you go. La Flor is cash only, which is probably its only drawback.

Oh, and if you’re looking for a landmark to help you remember where La Flor is found, see below.

lucky hair

La Flor

53-02 Roosevelt Avenue (on the corner)

Woodside, NY

Take the 7 to 52nd Street. Walk to the very end of the platform (toward 53rd Street) and take the stairs. La Flor will be at the bottom of the steps.

Murphy’s Lobster & Grill

I must preface this post with an admission: I resisted going to Murphy’s Lobster & Grill for many months. In fact, when visiting with some friends, MDP declared he’d like to try it, for their oysters and other seafood fare, and my friend said he would go with him. Well, the friends moved away and MDP was left with no one to accompany him to Murphy’s. I finally gave in.

murphy's lobster and grill snow crab platter

snow crab platter

And I’m glad I did! Situated on a quiet corner on Skillman Avenue (about 10 steps away from where I once lived) in Sunnyside, Murphy’s used to just be a bar, but, in recent years, they renovated the space adjacent to the beloved bar and turned it into a lobster house. And what a lobster house it is: the walls are covered with nautical-inspired decorations, such as giant fish and torn and tattered photos from yore. The ambiance is warm and quiet, and the lighting is just right.

The menu is filled with seafood delectables, including baked clams, calamari and items from the raw bar for appetizers. We opted for the steamed mussels, which are cooked in a delicious white wine sauce. They were served with two pieces of garlic bread drenched in butter. I saved my bread for when we got to the bottom of the bucket–it was perfect for soaking up the fantastic broth. The mussels were on the large side, with giant meaty bits within. They were quite good.

murphy's lobster and grill lobster macaroni and cheese

lobster macaroni and cheese

For entrees, Murphy’s offers a range of seafood dishes, with a lobster platter prominently placed at the top of the menu. They also serve surf and turf, and a steak frites dish that I nearly ordered. Instead, I got the lobster macaroni and cheese that was wonderful. Succulent bits of lobster that were sauteed in garlic dotted the creamy macaroni and cheese. Finely shredded cheddar coated the top of the macaroni, adding a layer of deliciousness to the very rich dish.

Prior to traveling to Murphy’s, we watched a few videos on how to eat crab legs, something neither of us had ever done. So, MDP accordingly ordered the snow crab platter, which came with two crabs’ worth of legs (eight in total), boiled potatoes and corn. Over the course of about 30 minutes, I watched him patiently crack each leg, at every joint, pulling out bite-size pieces of meat and drowning them in the melted butter that came in a tiny cup. I tried a bit of crab meat, and it was quite good, but I honestly prefer lobster. (Shoot me for having a refined palate.) Everything on his plate was fabulous, with the exception of the corn that seemed to be somewhat firm–I owe this to corn no longer being in season.

murphy's lobster and grill chocolate mousse cake

chocolate mousse cake

Per the recommendation of the jolly waiter, we ordered the chocolate mousse cake for dessert. It was delightful. The mousse was smooth and creamy, and the chocolate cookie crust was firm and flavorful.

Murphy’s is one of the few seafood restaurants in the neighborhood, and it deserves the kind of acclaim some of the Queens Boulevard places have received. I hope it continues to attract a good crowd.

Murphy’s Lobster & Grill (and Bar)

48-20 Skillman Avenue (at 48th Street)

Sunnyside, NY

Take the 7 train to 46th-Bliss Street. Walk north two avenues to Skillman and turn right; walk two blocks.

P.J. Horgan’s

Any plans for St. Patrick’s Day? You may want to make them right about now. Sunnyside’s very own P.J. Horgan’s serves up delectable and authentic Irish cuisine that pairs nicely with a big ol’ pint of Guinness (or a finger or two of Jameson, depending on your taste).

p.j. horgan's shepherd's pie

shepherd’s pie

I walked into P.J. Horgan’s last night and a nice gentleman sitting at the bar suggested I find my own seat. “I’ll go right ahead,” I said, and he smiled with a twinkle in his eye–the beginnings of a magical experience at the small Irish pub on Queens Boulevard.

The booths are wooden and aren’t very deep, prompting you to sit upright and forward more than a booth at, say, Sarabeth’s might. I liked the alertness I was forced to adopt as a result of the booth’s design. It made me ready to consume hearty Irish cooking.

MDP arrived shortly after I sat down, and we both ordered pints of McKenzie’s hard cider, which is on tap at the pub. An accommodating waitress (who, authentically, had an Irish accent) brought us a basket of soda bread, which bears an unusual hint of rye but has the same crumbly consistency of every other soda bread I’ve ever tried. I liked it.

Soon after the soda bread came, our appetizer followed. We ordered potato skins stuffed with bacon and cheddar off the spare, simple menu. To be honest, P.J. Horgan’s hardly innovates when it comes to appetizer selections; fried foods figure prominently on this list. But the pub delivered on the potato skins–the potato itself was baked perfectly and the bacon/cheddar combo saturated my taste buds with fatty goodness. We scarfed ’em down in no time.

p.j. horgan's curry chicken

curry chicken

For our entrees, we ordered off the Irish portion of the menu: I got the shepherd’s pie, while MDP tried the curry chicken, which is touted as P.J. Horgan’s very best dish. A word on non-Indian curries: I like to call them the “Queen’s curry” because they are unlike Indian curries, which tend to be simply spiced stews. British/Irish curries have a more robust curry powder flavor at the fore, and feature more vegetables (such as mushrooms, peppers and onion, as was present in the P.J. Horgan rendition). That’s not to say Indian curries do not contain curry powder or the aforementioned vegetables. But Indian curries do tend to have a more nuanced spice flavor–coriander, curry, cardamom, turmeric and cumin tend to make the cut of ingredients–and often contain coconut milk and/or yogurt. Personally, I like both the Queen’s curry and traditional Indian curry for their distinctive, very different flavors. P.J. Horgan’s serves up yellow rice and steak fries with their curry, further setting it apart from its distant Indian cousin. It was very good.

I loved my shepherd’s pie, which was filled with ground beef, peas and a delicious brown gravy. The ground beef was hidden by mashed potatoes that were elegantly piped and lightly baked on top. I highly recommend the shepherd’s pie. I’ve heard good things about the bangers and mash (and, admittedly, choosing between the shepherd’s pie and bangers and mash was a difficult decision), so, really, you can’t go wrong with your entree choice at P.J. Horgan’s.

This St. Patrick’s Day, take the 7 over to Sunnyside for some traditional Irish fare. If you don’t make it to P.J. Horgan’s, or it’s overflowing with people, you have a bevy of Irish pubs to choose from: Molly Blooms (has food), the Kettle (has food), The Courtyard, Maggie Mae’s, The Gaslight, Donovan’s (in Woodside, has food) and many others.

P.J. Horgan’s

4217 Queens Blvd. (between 42nd and 43rd streets)

Sunnyside, NY

Take the 7 to 40th Street. Walk east a few blocks. It’s on the north side of Queens Blvd.

Venturo Osteria and Wine Bar

Sunnyside’s Queens Boulevard is definitely for the up-and-coming. Pink Icing bakery is going strong. Salt and Fat has made a huge splash on the New York food scene. And now we have Venturo Osteria and Wine Bar, whose pedigree promises great things. The question is, does it live up to its promise?

venturo three-cheese plate

three-cheese plate

Located in a newly renovated space, Venturo takes the place of an old French restaurant called Tapenade, which was never right for the neighborhood. The service wasn’t with it and the food was just so-so, at a higher price point than anyone likely wanted to pay. So, when I read about an Italian restaurant owned by a seasoned restaurateur replacing Tapenade, I was excited—thrilled, even.

We went to Venturo with high hopes, and the place mostly lived up to them, but I have a few issues with the food (and service).

To start, we opted for the three-cheese plate with mozzarella, primo sale and ricotta. Legend is that Venturo makes its own cheese, bread and pasta—all of which are very good, I assure you, though the bread that was served to us was over salted. You can order these cheeses separately, of course, but we wanted the full Venturo experience so we ordered the flight. The mozzarella came with a sun gold tomato salad; the primo sale was covered in a salty, delicious olive tapenade; and the ricotta featured drizzled pistachio oil on top. Of the three, the clear winner was the primo sale, which was soft, dense and creamy and unlike any cheese I’ve ever had before. The mozzarella was very good, too, but not as flavorful as Palma’s, and the ricotta was looser than what I’m accustomed to. If you’re going to try one, get the primo sale.

venturo fettuccine

fettuccine

The menu is limited at Venturo, and there was some speculation by MDP that they possibly rotate their dishes depending upon the season or ingredient availability. I hope this is the case. They have three pastas on the menu, three entrees and two group dinners listed for people to sample.

I opted for the fettuccine, which was supposedly with pistachios, orange zest, parsley, black pepper and ricotta béchamel. The béchamel was definitely delicious, but the dish was overpowered by the inclusion of the black pepper. I ate it all—naturally—but was disappointed that the slightest hint of orange zest didn’t come through.

MDP ordered the pork shoulder milanese. Venturo takes an interesting approach to milanese. Like most places, they include a salad on top of the featured meat, but Venturo decided to put citrus fruits in the salad. MDP was delighted by this, though, if it was me, I would have been upset, as I am not fond of citrus. I tried MDP’s finely breaded pork shoulder cutlet and, while it was fairly delicious, it was clearly tough, possibly as a result of being overcooked.

venturo baby jesus cake

baby jesus cake

We knew we had to order dessert, so we got the baby Jesus cake, which is something I’m struggling to describe. It was unlike the king cake I’ve had in the past, which is presumably what they were angling for when they called the dish baby Jesus cake. It was dense and brown, and unappetizing to look at, but doused in a warm toffee sauce with a dollop of whipped cream. It ended up being somewhat delectable, but I’d probably order something else next time. (Venturo has about four dishes on their dessert menu.) I ordered a cappuccino and that was fantastic.

All in all, the food was pretty decent, but there’s definitely room for improvement. The service was slow and a little bit disorganized. One time, one guy would come over to our table; then, a woman would serve us. It was like, who’s my waiter?

I wouldn’t call Venturo a destination restaurant, unlike Palma. But it is definitely a good thing for the neighborhood and I wish it the very best.

Venturo Osteria and Wine Bar

44-07 Queens Boulevard (between 44th and 45th streets)

Sunnyside, NY

Take the 7 to 46th Street and walk east a few blocks on Queens Boulevard.

MP Taverna

So, you want some chicken souvlaki. What do you do? You go to Astoria, where Greeks have made a point to settle and share their delectable cuisine. But, with all the options available, which restaurant do you choose? I’ll make it easy for you. MP Taverna is where you want to go. Here’s why.

mp taverna meatballs

meatballs

Chef Michael Psilakis’ Astoria outpost is gorgeous. Situated on a corner steps away from a busy intersection (and two CVS pharmacies, for some reason), MP Taverna is a pleasure to walk into. When you enter, you pass by a long bar on your way to the back of the narrow interior. There’s an upstairs, and I’m not sure what happens up there, but the downstairs area is certain to be hopping. We were seated at the rear of the first floor at table for two with a distinctive light source overhead, shedding just the right amount of illumination on our table.

Laminated menus were presented to us with an extensive beer and wine list on the back. I selected a beer I had never tried before; one that was inflected with vanilla flavors and a certain punch at the end. MDP ordered a rye whiskey. The waiter was garrulous, sharing reflections on the current beers on tap and the appetizer selection. He recommended that we order an additional appetizer in addition to the three dips that we planned to try, so we opted for the calamari, which took some time to arrive. Good thing Chef Michael Psilakis was on hand–he sent out a complimentary order of the most delicious meatballs I’ve ever tried in my life to satisfy us while our calamari was prepared. The crisp-on-the-outside-tender-on-the-inside meatballs were made from lamb, I think, with generous bits of parsley integrated. They were served with a yogurt-dill sauce, which was a welcome change from my childhood experience with meatballs drenched in gravy.

mp taverna dumplings

dumplings

The calamari was worth waiting for. Octopus was mixed in with chickpeas and cauliflower, all doused in the same batter and flash fried to an ideal texture. The calamari was served with a yogurt-dill sauce and a tomato sauce. I favored the yogurt to the tomato, just because I felt it was a little bit more Greek. I enjoyed the chef’s interpretation of this dish.

And the not-to-be-overlooked dips were excellent, as well. We received chick pea, yogurt and eggplant dips neatly arranged in a cute tray. The yogurt one, which featured bits of cucumber and dill, was far and away my favorite, with the delicious chick pea/sun-dried tomato one as a close second. The eggplant dip was fine, but not nearly as flavorful as the other two. I’d still recommend ordering the three dip combo, as opposed to separate dips, since they’re all worth trying. And the pita that was served with the dips was divine–so tender, so thin, I’ve never had pita like this in my life.

For our entrees–which I was sure I would be too full to sample–I opted for the chicken souvlaki, while MDP ordered the dumplings. The chicken souvlaki was served with the most delicious “smashed” fries, which were steak-like fries condensed into tender, potato crisps. They were fantastic. I wish I could say the same for the chicken souvlaki itself. The flavor of kalamata olives overtook the entire wrap for some reason, even though only a few kalamatas were included. I favor a more mild souvlaki than this one, but I ate most of it anyway. The chicken was fine and the ingredients were clearly fresh.

mp taverna baklava

baklava

MDP’s dish was incredible. Bits of dumpling were covered with spicy lamb sausage, sun-dried tomatoes, feta and spinach, with some pine nuts mixed in. The dumplings themselves were extremely tender and delicious, and the accent of feta and lamb sausage delighted my palate. I greatly enjoyed his dish, and I suspect it’s one of MP Taverna’s signature offerings, so you might want to try it.

At any Greek restaurant, it’s just about law that you need to have their baklava for dessert, and so we did. But MP Taverna’s baklava is an interesting interpretation of the traditional dish. Instead of thin, light layers of phyllo dough, their baklava features three thick layers of dough that is far crispier and dense than phyllo. A seasoned apple mixture was part of the dessert, with some pistachios making a brief cameo. The real highlight of the dish (for me, anyway) was the fascinating ice cream that accompanied the baklava. It tasted of almond extract and cardamom, and was quite good.

Though the service was erratic and the place seemed a bit disorganized overall, MP Taverna is not to be missed. If you haven’t been to Astoria, you should really see it. And going to MP Taverna is the perfect excuse to visit the popular Queens neighborhood.

MP Taverna

31-29 Ditmars Boulevard

Astoria, New York

Take the N/Q to the very last stop in Queens. Walk around the corner.