August to December, 2010.
TAMARINDOS: 11 CALLE 2-19A, GUATEMALA CITY, ZONA 10
Next time you are traversing Guatemala City and the over-served typicos of under-seasoned aguacate paste and pulverized frijoles negros together with some variety of hideous beef steak (lomito, puyazo, et al.) have you, shall we say, excited for some “international” cuisine; and if your wallet — though greasy from the wandering, clever fingers of the vaporous urchins at the Mercado Central — is not yet parted from you, it is conceivable that you might follow, sheepishly, your guidebook’s partisan recommendations into this gated community of a restaurant.
Ladies and gentlemen, if security guards with automatic weapons are not a staple of your entourage, Tamarindos will provide some for you. Though, to be fair, this is perfectly normal across the country whose leadership is so corrupt it cannot secure the funds to build primary schools for its public — ironically, the only fully literate pre-Columbian civilization of the Americas — much less to secure its civil society. But, we digress: for, with its meticulously groomed stone walkways, rainforest vines and shrubbery, and varied exotic decor, Tamarindos is truly an oasis for the relatively endowed to forget the Mesoamerican nightmare. Or, at the very least, to sweep it under the alfombra de aserrín.
Lauded, paradoxically, as a “Guatemalan twist” on a partially Italian, partially Thai menu, the cuisine cannot be earnestly called “fusion” as each international fare is presented as a discrete offering. Too soon, we were regretting the ethereal crime we must have committed unwittingly against the State to deserve such an inexplicable Kafka-esque juxtaposition. This is not to suggest that the outing was not worth the over-priced cab ride from the nearby Zona Viva, with my lovely dining partner (a herbivore, should that add credibility) commenting on an “interesting use of mushrooms” in the Asian-style fried rice. Additionally, our dessert, amanzana tarte, was topped with a fabulous rosemary-infused crème fraîche for which we were only happy to quietly slip quetzales into the silk-lined front pockets of the cocaine-trafficking elites.
Let not the popular-issue guidebook make a mockery of you with pedantic “must have” entree endorsements, however, for palatable Southeast Asian renditions are not always in Guatemala’s blood (in contrast with lactose intolerant Cambodia’s, whose Siem RiepViva! tacqueria is the envy of the Orient). Unlike our friends in the guidebook business, we shall not recommend the “Phad Thai”, hastily assembled of sad flour-based pasta within a loose garlic sauce, even to the barefooted underprivileged children of Chichicastenango.
ROTI ROLL: 994 AMSTERDAM AVENUE, NEW YORK, NY
Tucked away in an inconsequential section of Amsterdam Avenue, in that multifarious upper Upper West Side neighborhood* that is not — how you say? — for everyone, Roti Roll is the kind of tiny “hole-in-the-wall” fastfoodery that the typical self-obsessed pedestrian iPod junkie is apt to easily miss. Inside, the basic food unit is the Bombay frankie, which is simply Indian wrapped in a piece of roti (an unleavened and pleasantly chalky flatbread with a yellowish consistency and satisfying heartiness).
The interior of the roll can be customized to contain anything from vegetarian aloo masala (potatoes and sweat peas) or palak paneer to chicken or lamb, ranging from “very, very cheap” to “pretty cheap”. Eat and behold the distinctly Indian-styled sauces and flavor combinations. Yes: mint, cilantro, fenugreek, and garam masala, among others, will bring your mind back to the smooth-skinned and callous-handed Lakshmi or Manjula that you had to woefully leave behind on “the continent”. Just as well, the masala calamari (one of a small selection of side dishes) is prized highly by the radio trattoir and is nearly as affordable.
The clientelle is decidedly eclectic, attracting anyone from highly-qualified Columbia undergraduates, to wayward Central Park cyclists ready for a re-fuel, to those local corpulent women of variable quality who, while not fully solvent or able, simply had to get an apartment on the island and now nurture a frankie habit to cut costs. Business, it is said, is directly proportional to the time of day as the dives in the immediate vicinity palpitate increasingly larger swarms of hungry revelers. In light of this, and because seating and space is most mere, do get your roti earlier in the day or perhaps some inebriated starving nogoodnik might accidentally elbow you in the gizzard.
In the end, roti rolls are delicious, satisfying, and a superb low-cost method for gaining weight, if such an objective should arise. The all-male Mexican-Indian staff is mostly efficient and consistent, hard at work, and might even appraise your lady friend at no extra charge. For Columbia’s reinvented equivalent of the Rutgers Grease Trucks, and if glorious Manhattan semi-squalor does not put you off, make a pilgrimage to the temple of the Bombay frankie.
* The mysterious Manhattan Valley.
LOKAL: 905 LORIMER STREET, BROOKLYN, NY 11222
Whimsically advertised as a Mediterranean bistro, this huevos rancheros-serving, “rookie” neighborhood eatery features frosted colored glass, sea shells, and a “broken-in baseball glove” sort of feel, despite being a relatively new arrangement. Being a welcome, strategically-placed venue where hot black coffee can be used to soothe the Saturday morning Williamsburg hangover, however, is no excuse for robotically slow service and strange menu logistics that even those credulous Mediterraneans would find questionable.
And precise menu logic, dear readers, is no laughing matter. The prix fixe serves up an entre coupled with (merely) a small choice of non-alcoholic breakfast beverages rendering it as hardly worth it as an Associate’s degree. To make matters worse this choice is listed as “tea or coffee and orange juice,” and remains the bane of the waitresses (like ours) who, numbly immune to their days of high school algebra, register no recollection of the associative property. To her credit and with heart-wrenching honesty, our server did inform us no less than several times that she might be mentally challenged.
The beef burger was too dry, the mesclun salad, too wet. The tuna burger, advertised as “hand chopped”, was mockingly intact. The huevos rancheros were perfectly adequate and probably a staple of horse-mounted caballeros as they guide the herds down to the Mediterranean Sea. Additionally, one of my hungover cohorts stated that the bathroom facilities were downright respectable and a pleasure to be sick in.
All in all, Lokal was lackluster despite its vibrant fascade and we sat in a Bedouin wasteland of empty chairs chewing morosely as Five Leaves, the dingy grafitti-covered cafe across the street, pulsated with customers in the know.
PECULIER PUB: 145 BLEECKER STREET, NEW YORK, NY
Few New York City bars of the seedy genre can claim to out-dive this tempestuous masterpiece of “adhesive” aging wood, glazed stucco tile, jailhouse-like carvings, and gaudy bottle cap murals. Known as an “NYU haunt”, Peculier stands partially as a bastion for university underagers with the savvy to bypass modern verification technology in lieu of prepping their Gender Studies midterm, and partially for the older and frumpy Village locals that consider diving something to be fanatical about. This crowd is marked down by some reviewers, alas unsurprisingly, as “eclectic”.
Though steadfast in their refusal to reveal the ensorcelled mechanism by which this is achieved, Peculier offers a truly expansive, complex selection of fresh world beers. Ranging from Austria to Guatemala, Russia to Israel, Kenya to Laos, the list will surely impress the newcomer, though North Korea and the United Arab Emirates seem to have been quietly excluded. In another pleasant, even delightfully European, turn of events, all dealings are instantaneous cash transactions with tax factored.
The staff is generally attractive, despite lacking self-worth, except for the typical door operator who is often forgetful and has a Gestapo-inspired penchant for, we should know — needlessly, checking identity papers. Prices are rather fair, especially for the area.
Whether for a romantic date where you hilariously underestimate your partner’s aristocratic upbringing, or simply to show off your significant other to some friendly alcoholics in the wrapped-around claustrophobic bathroom line, do pay Peculier a visit.
ASSOCIATED SUPERMARKET: 3715 31ST AVENUE, ASTORIA, NY
Drawing its inspiration from the rustic, unkempt, “novel” street markets of some Third World country, this malodorous and unkillable staple of 31st Avenue can only purport to be ironic when it names its product “fresh produce” and proposes that the customer dispose of actual money to take it away. To what dreadful extent the various culinary neophytes of the neighborhood are willing to sacrifice convenience for quality by shopping here this author can only guess, but let it suffice to say that his efforts to bankrupt this establishment via personal boycott have thus far been unsuccessful.
Inside, dead-eyed workers unflaggingly unload “fresh produce” that is dead on arrival, perhaps impotently aware that this supermarket’s refrigeration systems, when used, would serve more adequately as weak space heaters.
As for the non-perishable items, scattered around clumsily in meager aisles over dilapidated, somber, mental hospital tiling, what can one say? When they are not inexplicably over-priced, they are merely adequate for those lonesome and rainy Sunday afternoons where grey sweatpants and TV re-runs anesthetize against the middle-of-the-road, “boutique” quality of dinner.
In an effort to come up with a single compliment, a single positive thought, or even but a neutral emotion with regards to this supermarket, this author, after some minutes of contemplation, comes up empty handed. In no way, however, should this reflect poorly on the hard-working staff, who remain blameless in the circumstance that their whole is less than the sum of its parts, and who, like the National Socialists, are only following orders.
For a tastier alternative, always stocked with fruits and vegetables of good quality, I recommend Bravo at 35th Street & 34th Avenue.
TINY THAI: 1558 3RD AVENUE, NEW YORK, NY
This brand new, authentically staffed, meticulously renovated vendor of Americanized Thai cuisine stands as a brilliantly veneered oasis in the veritable wasteland of quality lunchtime venues that is 3rd Avenue in the late 80s. An oasis, I say, of ceremoniously over-priced and undifferentiated Thai mediocrity that is, perhaps, ironically fitting of the gastronomic Dark Ages connotation of the neighborhood.
The take-out lunch special, uninspired, evoking virtually nothing of the entrepreneurial street vendors around Bangkok’s snaking Soi Rambuttri or the quaint private cafeterias of Ayutthaya’s gasoline-perfumed streets and markets, presents noodles, rice, or curry with a choice of rubbery chicken or rubbery beef at the lowest lunchtime price tag on the block. The miniscule portion, however, leaves you (as intended) pining for the more corpulent items of the menu proper. It must be remarked that a larger lunch special, accompanied by tip expenses and execution time costs, is available to eat-in customers.
The bony, pink-clad, mostly-female service staff is quick to dazzle you with the detached enthusiasm one comes to expect from daydreaming youths preoccupied with a forsaken lover somewhere far away on a separate continent, while unassumingly and often, unintentionally of course, overcharging the customer’s credit card by a dollar, or two, and sometimes even doubling the price of the meal full stop.
In a few words — will visit again, and again, and again, despite all, as long as I am chained to my employer on quiet 87th Street.