I spent a day and a half back in New York after our big Block Island filming trip for Search Hawaii TV, but it was the start of peak tourism season, so things were booked or very expensive. Lucky me, New York residents Henry and Patricia Chu — whom I met through the power of social media — had me stay at their home in Queens. (The rest of the Search Hawaii crew went home.)
I had been to New York before, but more than 20 years ago, so while I didn’t have to do the touristy stuff, I still needed a refresher on the city’s overall flavor, and see what had changed.
The night I arrived, the Chus took me to one of their favorite go-to restaurants in Queens. It’s unusual to see a German beer hall like this in the middle of a residential neighborhood, but the owners do a good job, and it works.
When you step inside, it’s like stepping into a biergarten in Munich. There are communal tables surrounded by lush landscaping, which makes the outdoor experience more inviting. There’s something about drinking under the stars in a garden that makes you feel absolutely relaxed.
Do yourself a favor and order the giant Bavarian pretzel. You’ve never had it like this! It’s lightly crisp on the outside, and fluffy on the inside. There’s a bit of chewiness and flavor that we Americans are familiar with in pretzels, but let me tell you: this one will spoil you for all others. Can’t anyone make this in Hawaii?
The other items that we chose, below, are typical German fare that you’ll find in most Deutschland hotspots (except maybe the burger), and they are absolutely delicious. If you can’t afford to go to Germany, go here. Even if you don’t know what German food is like, the menu here is solid.
Jägerhaus Gastropub & Biergarten
15-16 149th St., Queens, NY 11357
The next day, we set out for the city, like Times Square — tourist central! Did you know that New York City sees more than 50 million foreign and American tourists each year, including day-trippers? If you’ve never been to New York, make a plan for all the must-do tourist spots in a day or two, then get out of the fray. That’s a lot of people!
Times Square has places for tourists to meet, which serve as vantage points for photo ops. Those aggressive costumed characters no longer accost visitors, but are confined to designated areas of the street. Naked cowboy, anyone?
Henry took me to see the Original Soup Man restaurant, home of the Soup Nazi from Seinfeld. While I was gawking, Kenny Kramer — whom Larry David based Seinfeld’s Kramer character on — unloaded his tour bus in front of the place! Henry knows him, so we got a photo together. Very cool! But since the whole tour bus subsequently stood in line for lunch, no soup for me.
I took a quick lunch break at the cafe in the Novotel Hotel to catch up with Aiea boy Scott Allan Katsura, who has lived in New York for almost 30 years. I visited him on my first trip to New York 20-something years ago. Time was limited, so I had to combine the time with my blogger-chef friend Mark Tafoya, whom I met when he visited Hawaii on a blogger tour several years ago. He brought his husband Eldar, whom I love! I hope to meet up with them again one day when my time isn’t so constrained. And let me tell you, I’m ready to go back.
It was really nice to catch up with friends that I had not seen in many years, to find that our lives had changed, but our friendship did not.
After lunch, we met up with the Chu’s daughter, Adrianne, an aspiring Broadway performer. It was fitting for us, then, to wander the West Village into Marie’s Crisis, a hidden gem of a bar. They have a piano, and they (meaning staff and patrons) sing show tunes all day. At peak hours, if you’re not singing along, you have to leave. Fortunately, this was about 2 p.m., so non-singers like me could still hang out. By the way, they don’t allow videos. But I got a little clip of Adrianne singing along. Heh.
59 Grove St, New York, NY 10014
This was the day before the big Pride Parade, so The Stonewall Inn — one of the most important landmarks for the LGBT movement — had more activity than usual. It sits on the site of the end of the New York Pride Parade, and this year’s event was dedicated to the victims of the Orlando nightclub shooting.
Here’s a landmark I’d never heard of, but was intrigued by: The Cooper Union was a school founded in 1859 that provided education to anyone who applied, for free, regardless of race, religion, sex, wealth or social status. The school served as a place that offered training to those who didn’t have the privilege of paid education, and possible development of talent that would otherwise have gone undiscovered. We have public schools now, but back in the day, this was a huge (and revolutionary) deal.
Washington Square Park is a great place to people-watch, especially on weekends. The crowd is an extremely eclectic mix, to be sure, with everything from artists to protestors to street performers and more. It’s like the American version of Tokyo’s Harajuku, but with a larger variety of people for us tourists to gawk at!
One of the features is a piano, which anyone can sit and play at. I’m not sure if you have to provide your own bucket for donations, though.
If you have the time, check out McSorley’s Tavern, the oldest Irish pub in New York. It was a men-only bar until 1970, and is such a famous place that U.S. presidents have stopped in. None of the interior has changed since 1910; even Harry Houdini’s handcuffs are still attached to the bar rail! When you stand at the bar, you’ll see a light hanging above with wishbones: these were hung by soldiers going off to World War I, to be removed when they returned. The wishbones that remain were hung by men who never returned.
McSorley’s Old Ale House
15 E 7th St.
New York, NY 10003
On a lighter note, the Chus took me to Ray’s Candy Store, a hole in the wall that seems to have stood the test of time in the middle of the Big Apple. This is one of two places in the Village that claim to make the best egg creams; Henry Chu says that Ray’s is truly the best, with the right balance of chocolate and carbonation. If you look further, you’ll see that Ray’s has quite a bit of history, too.
This is Ray himself, who still goes in to work every day and makes the best egg creams in town. Can you see the prices? It’s just $2.50 for a small. In this photo, he’s sort of flashing a shaka and yelling support for President Obama. This place is tiny and is cash only, so get in, get your egg cream, and get out! Well, maybe get some Belgian fries, too.
Ray’s Candy Store
113 Avenue A
New York, NY 10009
Our final stop was at Casa Adela, which seems to be pretty famous, but the crowd looked more like local foodie insiders than tourists. Known for authentic Puerto Rican cuisine, the owner, Adela Ferguson, has perfected the recipe for rotisserie chicken and welcomes customers as if they’re eating in her own home.
Ferguson, 80, still works her magic in the kitchen just about every day. She has been featured in many big-time newspapers and magazines, which adorn the walls, so when you ask for a photo, she gets instagram-ready with the pose of experience. And she’s taken a lot of photos, just check her Facebook page and you’ll see Puerto Rican musicians (too many to list) and actors like Jimmy Smits and Rosario Dawson have stopped in for a bite.
Ferguson has been cooking since she opened a luncheonette one block down on Avenue C in 1976. They moved to their current restaurant space to accommodate more customers, but on the night we ate there, they mentioned that they would be moving again to a larger location.
I rarely get to eat any Puerto Rican food other than pasteles, which is a shame because my mother and her cousins grew up on School Street, which was predominantly Puerto Rican back in their day. They recognized and loved all the dishes of their childhood — gandule rice, mofongo, etc. — and if you listened carefully, you could hear a slight Puerto Rican twang in the way my mom spoke. I got to experience a lot of ethnic cuisines while growing up, but not this. So Casa Adela was a real treat.
This appetizer sounds weird, but it works. Since cassava is pretty neutral, it’s like eating chips and salsa.
Gotta have some plantains with your meal!
The magical rotisserie chicken. Okay, it doesn’t look so photogenic here, but trust me, it’s moist and delicious. Ferguson has figured out the right blend of seasonings and the perfect timing to make her chicken an addicting must-have in New York.
I thought this would be a lot of fried chicken skin, but it was actually spiced, fried chicken nuggets.
Mofongo is a tight ball of fried plantains mashed with garlic and pork rinds, although here I think more of the rind was just on top. It’s got a starchy texture, so it’s best with the accompanying sauce. We got the last of the pernil, or slow roasted pork shoulder. My advice? Go early so you can guarantee yourself a serving of pernil. The rotisserie chicken is the thing here, but the pernil is divine. It’s a special occasion dish in Puerto Rico, and I can see why — it’s fatty but not oily, and has deep, savory flavor that’s very unfussy on the palate. Ferguson has spiced and timed the pernil’s cooking to perfection, too.
The entree sets come with beans and your choice of rice.
If you want a pop of freshness amidst the fried and roasted items, the octopus salad is a nice choice.
Okay, we did have to pack leftover boxes. But what could we do? We wanted to try everything. You’ll want to try it all, too.
66 Avenue C #45
New York, NY 10009
The Chus also got me hooked on bialys, which are sold at bagel stores. Bagels are boiled and then baked, but bialys are simply baked (often with some kind of filling in the hole) and the consistency is still chewy, but softer. I think I’d rather eat a bialy in New York from now on!
Mahalo again to Henry, Patricia and Adrianne Chu for taking me around and letting me stay with you! For more photos from this day, click here. To see my whole trip, click here for Search Hawaii’s portion and here for the rest.
I’m going to do a quick post about some other miscellaneous New York bites, then show you my visit to Maine!