>> Monday, October 13, 2014

70-09 Austin Street
Forest Hills, NY 11375
(718) 268-0777

El Coyote. The name alone conjures up news articles of human trafficking and images of starving day laborers suffocating to death in the back of a box truck somewhere in the Texas desert. So already, the remake of Sgt. Garcia's was not off to a good start.

Seth was in town for the day and was craving Mexican food. "Well," I told him, "here are the options. Either we can go to Five Burros, which ain't bad, but we'll be waiting for half an hour to it down if we're lucky, or we can try this spot that I've yet to go to. It's a new-ish Mexican joint in what used to be an older Mexican joint." He pondered the wait against the uncertainty. "How was the older Mexican joint?" he asked. "It wasn't too bad. Reasonably priced, huge portions, pretty good food." And that was it. Within minutes, we were out the door and walking along Austin Street, soon to climb the stairs to the second floor of that building with the clock tower that no one has ever used to tell time.

It used to be that you could make Open Table reservations at Garcia's. El Coyote nixed that luxury, but it was far from crowded. About a half dozen tables were occupied on this midweek early evening and about half the seats at the bar were taken. It was the perfect temperature to eat outside, so we chose to go that route. There was a bit of wind, but that's Mother Nature's fault, not El Coyote's. Everything else was El Coyote's fault.

Our waitress, who was probably ten years old (Seth, ever the optimist, guessed twelve), spoke virtually no English. The busboy, on the other hand, spoke perfect English. "This seems like a severe HR error," Seth said after our waitress took our order with what might have been the most lost, confused look ever to cross the face of a Oaxacan smuglee. After a failed but valiant attempt at asking what beers, if any, the restaurant had on tap, Seth ordered a bottle of Dos Equis (I stuck with water). He was presented with a room temperature bottle. One could make the argument that El Coyote wanted to be authentic and that many restaurants in the poorer sections of Mexico can't afford refrigerators for their beer. Whatever the reason, Seth waved over our waitress to ask for a chilled glass. "Ice cubes?" she offered.

Chips and salsa, the standard thing to nosh on while waiting for one's food at any Mexican restaurant, was the first food we tried from the kitchen and, while the chips were fine, the salsa was virtually tasteless and was mostly just salsa water. Eventually, I ordered the Pollo Relleno, a piece of grilled chicken wrapped around a Mexican sausage under a black bean sauce, and the Sopa de Tortilla, a chicken and avocado soup in a chili pepper broth with lime, cheese, and cilantro. The chicken entree I ordered could have, potentially, been very good, except that the chicken breast I was given either spent six hours tanning itself into a cancer ward under a heat lamp or was beaten to mercilessly with a mallet wielded by an obese psychopath. There was no moisture to the meat whatsoever. Wrapping one piece of meat around another is an idea that is quite dear to me and, to this day, I will defend KFC's fried chicken of doom sandwich, the Double Down. This, however, was no Double Down. The black bean sauce was fine, but it was just the same sauce from the rice and beans that each dish gets served with, so I had this lazy feeling about the whole thing. Plus, seventeen bucks? Really?

Seth meanwhile went for the Combo Mexicano. One hard taco, one enchilada, and one burrito. Good move, buddy. Hit three entrees at once. The taco won for best in show. He liked the flavor of the shredded chicken and the tomatoey sauce it came in. He wished that there was a little more filling, something beyond chicken and onion, but at the same time he admitted that the bar, by this point, was extraordinarily low. His burrito was pitifully small, and while he was none too thrilled at its Micro-Machine stature, I was willing to chalk that up to the fact that it was just part two of a combo meal. What couldn't be forgiven was the enchilada, which, upon biting into it revealed not one, but two full chicken bones hidden within.

Oh wait! I forgot about the soup. But then again, so did they. The soup arrived halfway through the entrees and I can understand why they forgot about it. It was totally forgettable. For starters, although there was admittedly some chicken and avocado floating around in there, it was mostly broth, and the broth (a chili-pepper one) was about as bland and tasteless as having no broth at all. The menu said that there was lime and cheese, but I was hard pressed to notice. This was a truly bad soup.

Is there anything except the availability of seating that I can reference to potential diners as a reason to go spend any money at El Coyote? ...
...the rice and beans were good.

A warm beer, a soup, an entree, a chicken taco combo, plus tax and tip clocked in at $53.
There's more where that came from.



>> Sunday, September 28, 2014

78-01 77th Avenue
Glendale, NY 11385
(718) 628-8600

Just 'round the corner from the Shops at Atlas Park, down a stairwell near an overpass, and along a suburban Glendale street lies the Finback Brewery. In what has become nothing short of a phenomenon, it's one of the city's newest breweries, and it's practically right here in Forest Hills. It's not. It's in Glendale, but I managed to walk there from my apartment, so it's close enough.

Craft beer, a label given to brands that only put out less than 6 million barrels per year and are not a subsidiary of one of the big guys, has exploded in recent years. It's no wonder that InBev has been buying up small breweries like Long Island's Blue Point, among others, like their market-share depends on it. It does. The fact is, craft beers and micro brews are the new currency for a halfway decent bar. Forget a blog here and a blog there, there are literally entire newspapers and glossy magazines devoted to small-batch brewing. People are willing to spend more to get the intimacy of the small batch brew.

It's not just beer. It's across the spectrum. Think of it as the Farmer's Market Ideal. We want the small batch, local stuff. The newest iPhone aside, we don't want things made by robots helmed by child slaves. We don't want the cookie cutter widget that Wal-Mart paid bottom dollar to pawn off on us. Well, we do. But not the cookie cutter one. We want the Biltsharp knife. We want to item made by a person. With a history. Someone real who, if he or she screwed us, would have to answer personally for their product. Kickstarter couldn't exist without this ideal, Etsy couldn't exist without this ideal, and craft beer couldn't exist without this ideal. Personally, I don't follow football, so I don't get inundated with ads for Budweiser, and I don't follow NASCAR, so I couldn't give two number 2s whose ad is on car number 2 (it's Miller Lite), but when I walk into a bar and the smallest brewer they can offer up is Sam Adams, I know it's time to choose another bar.

Ipso facto, a journey over a short hill and a shorter dale was a no-brainer. Finback's tasting room is just that. A room. There's a bar with a rotation of taps cranking out whatever they happen to be making at the time and a bunch of folding tables with chairs. If you want food, there's free popcorn or you can pony up a buck for some trail mix. It's open only Friday, Saturday, and Sunday afternoons and evenings. When I arrived, it was pretty dead, which meant that I had my pick of the seats. But inside half an hour, it started filling up.

It was like being in a Williamsburg with more trees and fewer noserings; a Williamsburg where the residents grew up a bit. The people coming in were young and cool and tattooed and wearing those small fedoras that only cool people and the elderly wear, but they were more reserved. They had little kids and strollers.

Although they do have their selection of "normal" beers, the best adjective to describe the beer from Finback would be "experimental". Here is a reading, direct from their menu, of some of the infusions that they use: cinnamon, nutmeg, Schezuan peppercorn, ginger, chamomile, jalapeno, citrus, and ahtanum... whatever that is (Wikipedia says that Ahtanum is a village in Washington State with a population of 3,601 people, so I guess that ahtanum is soylent green).

There are four sizes to choose from when you arrive. There are two growler sizes to choose from, and feel free to bring the one that your buddy brought over one poker night that he never took home. Finback does not require that you purchase their growlers. Then there's a 10oz glass which is $5 or $6 depending on the variety. Finally, there is the small tasting glass for $2. Basically, you can create a custom flight for yourself, should you so choose.

I'd love for Finback to take a cue from Astoria's Single Cut and install a kitchen. I'd love for them to strike up a deal with a food truck. I'd love for them to become a destination (though I wonder if their immediate neighbors would) because although the location is on the remote side, I can absolutely see them being one of New York's hidden gems. I can see them being a spot to go to when you want to escape the city without leaving it. Oooh! Brunch! A Wafels and Dinges truck outside, an IPA inside. Hmmmm...?



>> Saturday, September 13, 2014

110-60 Queens Boulevard
Forest Hills, NY 11375
(718) 487-3524

Nestled in what used to be Just Like Mothers, the entirely forgettable Polish diner that went the way of an overcooked kielbasa last year, is OvoSodo, an Italian bistro of sorts brought to you by the team at Tuscan Hills (a restaurant I should really return to sometime in the near future). When OvoSodo was first being discussed, at least around me, it was because they were going to offer pizza "by the inch", an allegedly authentic method by which Italians serve their pies up in the old country. "Yeah, I lived in Italy for a while," Myna casually stated. "That's totally not what they do there." Skepticism about this newcomer to the nabe was thusly born.

Pizza was on my mind when Bro and I moseyed over a few weeks ago to give OvoSodo a look-see. I was half expecting that we would walk into another version of Gloria, down by the movie theater, but to my pleasant surprise, I was completely wrong the second that we walked through the door; a crisp, clean, white, and modern interior. Art from local artists, for sale, on the wall. An espresso bar sits by the front entrance; a regular restaurant occupies the rest. Fat guys in red and white striped shirts and white paper hats were nowhere to be seen. Indeed, although everything that I had read discussing OvoSodo was pizza this and pizza that, there was virtually no pizza on the menu. Still, I had to know. Was the pizza even any good? Spoiler: it was.

Bro and I started our meal with the Carciofi Bruschette, Parmesan, ham, and artichoke. Delicious. It was a bit heavy, but we were hungry, and the waitress probably wasn't even across the room by the time it was gone from the plate. Then came the pizzas. The whole "inch" thing should be discarded and instead think of the sizes as large (17 inch) and small (8 inch). Trust me when I say that unless you're looking to start buying two seats every time you fly the small is more than enough for one person. I decided to try the OvoSodo Pizza pie. It's basically a margherita pie (plain) with bacon and an egg. A-maz-ing. I never would have thought that putting an over-easy egg on a pie and popping a yolk to bleed it's golden goodness across the cheese would make me drool, but now I want one on every pizza I eat from now on. I even tried it at home the other day. Bro got the Capricciosa Pizza pie: tomato sauce, olives, artichoke, and ham. Also good. A little bit too complicated for my taste, but I still liked it and when Bro accidentally left his leftovers in my fridge, I was more than happy to finish them the next day.

Having been thoroughly and pleasantly surprised with my first meal, and seeing that OvoSodo's menu was far more encompassing than what I'd been able to sample, I convinced Pike to return with me for my second round. We sat down, ordered a couple of diet colas, and immediately split an appetizer of Polpettine, aka: meatballs. They arrived in a veritable soup of marinara sauce that was sweet and perfect. "And you almost asked the waiter not to give us bread," he stated with rolled eyes while soaking a crusty slice in the sauce. The meatballs were very good too, so don't think different.

As an entree, Pike ordered the Chicken Tuscan, which he very much enjoyed. Rigatoni pasta, chicken, mushroom, sun dried tomato, in a pink sauce. I stole a few bites and agreed. "The only thing I don't like," his critique began "is that the pasta is al dente. I know that its the right way to cook pasta, so it's not like it's a flaw. I know that it's good." He paused. "I'm basically complaining that they didn't fuck up my dinner." I ordered Pollo Al Marsala, a classic dish that every red sauce joint makes but none make properly. The last time I ordered this, it was at a BYOB family style spot in the burbs for a friend's birthday and the dish was laughably bad. Ordering chicken marsala is basically a test. It's a simple dish, but it isn't inundated in flavor-masking tomato sauce. Can the kitchen get it right? Will I finally be able to eat chicken marsala without disappointment? They got it right. I wasn't disappointed. In fact, it was fantastic...  and so huge that I took half of it home. But the important thing is that it was fantastic. A thick red wine sauce, mashed potatoes that were as creamy as butter, and chicken so tender that you could cut it with a spoon.

I have never either eaten at OvoSodo or walked past it when it was anywhere close to full. This is a shame because it deserves to be. There are precious few restaurants that serve really good Italian comfort food and OvoSodo is one of them. OvoSodo isn't creating anything new. No Brooklynites will make the trip on the F train to see what new experiments are being concocted in the kitchen. It's just chicken marsala and lasagna and pizza. It's entirely been-there-done-that in every conceivable way. Except that it's good. It's better than good. It's a shame that there aren't more people eating there.

As for prices, it's reasonable. Neither Bro nor I nor Pike ever drank (there is a wine list, though) so we didn't give our wallet the thrashing that it could have had. The bruschette was under $10, the pizzas were $10 or under for a small, the pastas were $15 and under, and the entrees were under $20.




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