Category Archives: Queens

Flower Petal Blooming

Happy New Year friends!

And so it begins again.  A new year.  A new promise.  A new resolution.

Last year, I resolved to write a blog post once a week.  I was doing well for  a few months but eventually that goal became surprisingly unmanageable.  So much of my life changed last year as result of both choice and serendipity.  My husband lost his job about a year ago at this time.  I voluntarily left my comfortable job in September to pursue my dream of becoming self‑employed.  If you described to me my current life at this time last year, I would have labeled you certifiably mad.  Yet life has a beautiful way of unfolding itself at precisely the right time.  What was once a seemingly unimaginable road became the only viable option in the end.

As I started blogging more seriously in early 2011 about my travels, about culture, and about my home – New York City, and more specifically, the borough of Queens – I discovered joy in the act of writing and in the act of sharing what I knew with others.  After a few weeks, I was getting recognition for my work.  In July, I attended my very first conference for travelers and bloggers in Vancouver.  People at the conference encouraged me to do more.  The seed that I once planted years ago about self-employment began to flourish and grow.

When I hopped on that plane to Los Angeles in September, I had no idea what 9 weeks of full-time Bikram yoga teacher certification would be like.  All I knew was the conviction I felt in my heart that I was doing the right thing even if it was unconventional.  Those 9 weeks challenged me physically, mentally, and emotionally.  All of my strengths and weaknesses were made bare for me to face with no place to hide.  As trainees, we were encouraged to “trust the process” even though our hearts screamed out, “F*$K the process!!!”  Breakdowns happened gradually as did the breakthroughs.  By November, I came out a changed person, shedding layers of myself that no longer served me.

In Bikram yoga, the first of the 26 postures is half moon pose where students bend to the right or left creating a crescent shape with their bodies. As a teacher, my job is to remind my students of proper alignment as they hold the posture. In half moon pose, I instruct them to adjust their shoulders so they can “open up their chest like a flower petal blooming.” This tiny adjustment leads to a gradual opening of the upper body where the chest lifts up exposing the heart, the piece of ourselves we shield and protect the most.

Half Moon Pose at LAX: My Love for Yoga & Travel Intersect

Life is like that flower petal blooming. Change happens so incrementally that often we don’t notice it has happened.  Only when we look back and see the distance traversed do we marvel at its occurrence.  So here’s to the accomplishments, the failures, the struggles, and the discoveries of 2011. Together, they form the stepping stones to the unwritten events of 2012. Wherever life leads me this year, I am going to trust the process.

Without judgment and without attachment, I accept that I did not achieve my blogging goal for 2011. Yet once again, I have set a goal that I will write more and blog regularly.

“Never too late, never too old, never too bad, and never too sick, to start from the scratch once again.” ~ Bikram Choudhury

A Weekend in Queens in Pursuit of the American Dream

This post is my entry into the TBEX Blog Carnival Contest sponsored by Choice Hotels International Services Corporation.  UPDATE:  On July 18, TBEX tweeted this announcement that I was one of the three winners!  Thank you to TBEX and Choice Hotels! 

In honor of Independence Day (July 4th) in the United States, I want to celebrate one of the many things that makes this nation great:  its people.  All of us who have ever lived in this country can trace our histories back–even the Native Americans, who crossed on land over what is now the Bering Strait between Alaska and Russia–to that first arrival in America from a different shore.  Some came of their own volition while others by force.

For centuries, New York City has been the destination of choice for explorers, traders, immigrants, and tourists.  But a visit to New York City today is too often limited to the borough of Manhattan.  Even people who live here are hard pressed to explore the vast city they live in!  So hop on the subway, bus, or ferry and cross the East River to visit Queens, the most ethnically diverse county in the United States!  Below I have tailored a special weekend itinerary in Queens that celebrates New York City’s past and present, and honors the people who have settled here in search of the American dream.

Strap on your walking shoes, prepare your senses, and come on an empty stomach!  Queens will enthrall you.

SATURDAY:  WESTERN QUEENS
Ride the N or Q train to the first stop and walk to the remaining destinations.  Travel time is built into the itinerary.

8:00 am – Breakfast at Artopolis Bakery (Greek)
[23-18 31st Street, Astoria]

As a teenager, all my high school Greek friends hailed from Astoria.  Before the Greeks arrived in the mid-20th century, the area had previously been settled by the Dutch, Germans, Irish, and Italians.  Since those high school days nearly 20 years ago, people from the Middle East (particularly Egypt), Brazil, Japan, the newly formed Eastern European countries, plus whites escaping escalating rents in Manhattan and Brooklyn all flocked to Astoria, due to its close proximity & easy access to Manhattan.  Despite this diversification, Astoria is still synonymous with Greek immigrants.  For the 2004 Olympic Summer Games, the Olympic Flame first traveled all over the world before arriving in Athens.  As one of four US cities to host the Olympic Torch, it only made sense to commence the NYC relay in Astoria, in Athens Square Park.

Start your day off at what is arguably the best Greek pastry shop in the neighborhood!  Your eyes will be bigger than your stomach when you see the seemingly endless displays of cookies, pastries, bread, and delicacies.  Remember to order a coffee!  The bakery is located in a mall, just follow your nose.

Coffee at Artopolis - Photo Courtesy of Petit Hiboux (Flickr)

9:00 am – Steinway Piano Factory Tour (German)
[1 Steinway Place, Astoria]

Walk through a residential part of Astoria to get to the industrialized northern tip of the neighborhood.  The famous piano maker still creates and refurbishes Steinways in its original Queens factory.  Heinrich Engelhard Steinweg (later anglicized to “Steinway”), emigrated from Germany with his family in the mid 19th century.  Shortly thereafter, Steinway started manufacturing pianos and by the 1880s, the Steinway family built its new factory and village in Astoria.  The Steinways were influential in the development of the neighborhood, hence a major thoroughfare is named after them.  The three-hour tour highlights the history of the family and the neighborhood, the one-of-a-kind quality of each instrument, and the craftsmanship of the workers past and present reminding you that historically, Western Queens was a major manufacturing area as a result of its close proximity to the East River.

1:00 pm – Lunch at the Bohemian Beer Garden (Czech & Slovak)
[29-19 24th Avenue, Astoria]

Established in 1910, the Bohemian Hall and Beer Garden is the oldest beer garden in the City.  Munch on grilled kielbasa or bratwurst and wash it down with one of the Czech or Slovak beers on tap.  My personal favorite?  The Krušovice tmavé (dark) for its roasted, malty flavor.  The scene is always packed on weekends and it is not uncommon to see families enjoying themselves while they let their young children run round.  Many of the outdoor picnic tables are shaded by old trees, allowing for a relaxing and refreshing afternoon break from the summer heat.

Photo Courtesy of WallyG (Flickr)

3:30 pm – The Noguchi Museum (Japanese/American)
[9-01 33rd Road, Long Island City]

If you are not a lover of sculpture, a visit to the Noguchi Museum may just change your mind.  Born to a Japanese father and a white American mother in 1904, Isamu Noguchi lived in Japan as a child and moved to America as a teenager.  By the time the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor in 1941, he was in his late 30s living in NYC as a sculptor.  He created the Nisei Writers and Artists Mobilization for Democracy in 1942, a group dedicated to raising awareness of Japanese-American patriotism.  He also asked to be interned as an act of solidarity with his brethren Japanese-Americans.  He spent 7 months in an internment camp and his work during this period clearly reflected his personal turmoil and sadness.  The gallery, which includes an outdoor garden, was created by Noguchi.  His primary studio was across the street, which he often biked to from his Manhattan residence; he also maintained a studio in Japan.  His pieces are strategically placed so that you sometimes feel like they belong in the “natural” landscape.  Somehow, serenity manages to envelop you during your visit.

Photo Courtesy of RocketLass (Flickr)

7:00 pm – Gantry State Park at Dusk
[Center Boulevard between 47th Road & 49th Avenue, Long Island City]

View the Manhattan skyline while strolling along the now refurbished waterfront piers of Long Island City, where the landscaped park offers you welcoming chairs to take in the scenery.  Watch as the sun sets behind the skyscrapers, feel the last rays of the day hit your face, and listen to the river lapping on the shore.  If you’re lucky, sometimes hammocks are there.  Snag one, close your eyes, and take in the silence.  Burn this memory into your brain:  you are swinging in a hammock, by the water, in NEW YORK CITY!

Manhattan Skyline from Gantry State Park

8:30 pm Dinner at Manducatis Rustica (Italian)
[13-27 Jackson Avenue, Long Island City]

On the outside, this squat Flatiron-shaped building looks like a residential house with a non-descript white door.  The only possible clue offered is its big bay window with curtains pulled shut and a sign.  Blink and you could miss it.  Once inside, you still feel like you are entering a residence, since in many ways, you are.  Couple Vincenzo and Ida Cerbone, have been feeding artists and working-class folks from the neighborhood for approximately 20 years, well before the arrival of the sleek luxury condos and chic, hip restaurants that now inhabit the area.  Let them and their staff welcome you and help you pair the right kind of wine with your Neapolitan meal.  Try to resist the urge to plant a kiss on each check when you say good-bye, but if you can’t, I’m sure they wouldn’t mind.

If you still have some energy left and want an after-dinner drink, there are a bevy of bars within several blocks of each other, including Domaine Wine Bar, Dominie’s Hoek, Dutch Kills, and LIC Bar.  You could even stroll back to Gantry State Park to view the lights of the Manhattan skyline at night.

SUNDAY:  CENTRAL QUEENS
The second day, you’ll ride the 7 train and hop on and off in both directions.  Again, travel time is built into the itinerary.

8 am – Breakfast at Ihawan (Filipino)
[40-06 70th Street, Woodside]

Filipino food reflects the countries that have heavily influenced the culture,  usually China, Malaysia, Spain, and the United States.  It comes together clearly in a typical Filipino breakfast, consisting of a cured meat or fish (tapa), garlic-fried rice (sinangag), and eggs over easy (itlog).  Combine each underlined portion of the Tagalog words and you come up with its name: tapsilog.  Ihawan is run by the Bacani Family, who hail from the province of Pampanga in the Philippines, widely accepted amongst most Filipinos as the home of the best cooks in the country.  Fuel up now, because you’ll need it for your next stop.

Photo Courtesy of Kitakitts (Flickr)

9:30 am – Flushing Meadows Corona Park

Once the site of the “valley of ashes” as described by F. Scott Fitzgerald in his novel The Great Gatsby, a rush of urban beautification measures in the early 20th century created this 1,255-acre park, and site of the 1939 and 1964 World’s Fairs.  Today, the park offers many outdoor activities.  Walk, or even better, rent a bike to cover more ground.  You’ll definitely want to see remnants from the World’s Fair such as the Unisphere and the New York State Pavilion observation towers, more recently made famous in the movie Men in Black as the place the aliens apparently hid their spaceships.  Be sure to stop by the Queens Museum of Art where you’ll see the Panorama of the City of New York, a 3D model of the city’s buildings and structures since 1992.  See also the memorabilia from both World’s Fairs and the exhibit on Tiffany glass, produced in neighboring Corona.  The park is also home to the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center, host of the US Open and Citi Field, home of Major League Baseball’s New York Mets.

The Unisphere with Observation Towers in the Background

1:30 pm – Flushing (Chinese, Korean, Dutch, English)
[137-16 Northern Boulevard, Flushing]

Wander around the neighborhood that is home to Queens’ Chinatown and Koreatown.  If you are feeling peckish from your time at the park, you could get some cheap street food to tide you over to dinner.  You’ll find the majority of storefront signs here not in English, and perhaps you’ll start to wonder if you’re in another country.  Before your mind starts playing tricks on you, stop by the Flushing Quaker Meeting House, built near the end of the 17th century, and considered to be the oldest house of worship in New York State.  Even back when Flushing (then known by its original name, Vlissengen) was a Dutch colony, residents clamored for religious freedom in response to rampant discrimination by the colonial Dutch government.  This vocal protest resulted in the signing of the Flushing Remonstrance by local residents in the mid-17th century, a document that inspired the right to freedom of worship as enshrined in the Bill of Rights of the US Constitution.

Signs along Union Street between Northern Boulevard & 37th Avenue

4pm – Louis Armstrong House Museum (African-American)
[34-56 107th Street, Corona]

Catch the last tour of the day at the home of jazz legend Louis Armstrong.  He and his wife, Daisy, lived in their modest Corona home for nearly 30 years, from 1943 to his death in 1971.  No one has resided in the house since then and the interior decorations have been preserved to show how the Armstrongs lived.  Listen to audio clips as you walk through the home and wander through their Japanese inspired garden.  See photographs and learn about the man whose career spanned a time in American history when racial discrimination blatantly segregated blacks and whites in society.

5:30 pm – Dinner at Rincon Criollo (Cuban)
[40-09 Junction Boulevard, Corona]

In recent decades, Corona became the home to people from all over Latin America.  And while you may have your pick of cuisines from Guatemalan fast food to Mexican chain restaurants, I recommend Rincon Criollo because it has been around for 30 years and the story of the family who owns and runs it exemplifies the American Dream realized.  The Acosta Brothers opened the original Rincon Criollo in Cuba in the 1950s as a modest room consisting of four wooden planks for its floor and palm branches as its roof.  Years of hard work led to the restaurant’s successful growth and expansion, while becoming a favorite of Cuban celebrities.  However, life changed dramatically in Cuba as the brothers had their restaurants seized following the Cuban revolution of 1962.  Fourteen years later, the brothers re-opened Rincon Criollo in Corona, Queens.  The restaurant walls are lined with photos from the old country, a reminder of their past and their roots.  Regular patrons of Rincon Criollo have been coming with their families for years, savoring the tastes of a home that exists today only in their memories or in the stories of their [grand]parents.

The Acosta Brothers and all the people and families who have been highlighted on this tour of Queens are living testaments to what we celebrate most visibly on July 4th:  the American spirit of innovation, creativity, hard-work, determination and hope.  Regardless of their backgrounds, immigrants have come to America with a dream for a better life for themselves and their families, and millions have started that dream right here in Queens.

Artopolis Bakery
23-18 31st Street
Astoria, NY 11105
(718) 728-8484
www.artopolis.net
N, Q train to Ditmars Boulevard

Steinway & Sons Factory
1 Steinway Place
Astoria, NY  11105
(718) 721-2600
http://steinway.com/
N, Q train to Ditmars Boulevard
Call in advance to schedule a tour.

Bohemian Hall & Beer Garden
29-19 24th Avenue
Astoria, NY  11102
(718) 274-4925
www.bohemianhall.com
N, Q train to Astoria Boulevard

The Noguchi Museum
9-01 33rd Road
Long Island City, NY  11106
(718) 204-7088
www.noguchi.org

Gantry Plaza State Park
Center Boulevard between 47th Road & 49th Avenue
Long Island City, NY  11109
7 Train to Vernon Boulevard-Jackson Avenue or
G Train to 21st Street/Jackson Avenue
http://nysparks.state.ny.us/parks/149/details.aspx

Manducatis Rustica
13-27 Jackson Avenue
Long Island City, NY  11101
(718) 729-4602
7 train to Hunters Point Avenue or
G train to 21st Street

Domaine Wine Bar
50-04 Vernon Boulevard
Long Island City, NY  11101
(718) 784-2350
www.domainewinebar.com

Dominie’s Hoek
48-17 Vernon Boulevard
Long Island City, NY  11101
(718) 706-6531
www.dominieshoek.com

Dutch Kills
27-24 Jackson Ave
Long Island City, NY  11101
(718) 383-2724
www.dutchkillsbar.com

LIC Bar
45-58 Vernon Boulevard
Long Island City, NY  11101
(718) 786-5400
www.longislandcitybar.com

Ihawan
40-06 70th Street
Woodside, NY  11377
(718) 205-1480
7 train to 69th Street
www.ihawan2.com

Flushing Meadows Corona Park
7 train to Mets-Willets Point

Flushing Quaker Meeting House
137-16 Northern Boulevard
Flushing, NY  11354
718-358-9636
7 train to Main Street
http://www.nyym.org/flushing/hmh.html

Louis Armstrong House Museum
34-56 107th Street
Corona, NY  11368
718-478-8274
7 train to 103rd Street-Corona Plaza
www.louisarmstronghouse.org

Rincon Criollo
40-09 Junction Boulevard
Corona, NY  11368
(718) 639-8158
7 train to 103rd Street-Corona Plaza

“Say Cheese” at The Queens Kickshaw

This Memorial Day weekend, I am getting my fix of restaurants in western Queens!

After months of hearing rave reviews, I finally got myself to the Queens Kickshaw, a new establishment in Astoria that serves “fancy” grilled cheese sandwiches, craft beer, and specialty coffee.  Thanks to the power of Twitter, I organized a a casual “tweetup” with fellow Queens resident foodies @Stellaaa, @RoxWriting, and @mojoshowbiz, some of whom I met in person for the very first time.

All of the sandwiches on the menu, as seen on the website (screenshot below), sounded tasty and we arrived with a strategy.

Egg and cheese (Brioche and maple hot sauce); Cheddar and mozzarella (Brioche with tomato soup); Gruyere (Pickled and caramelized onions on rye with Napa Cabbage-caraway slaw); Manchego and Ricotta (Minted eggplant and capers on multigrain with green salad and pickled golden raisins); Gouda (Black bean hummus, guava jam, pickled jalapenos on brioche with green salad and jalapeno vinaigrette); Arahovas Feta (Ajvar roasted red pepper spread and dill open-face on focaccia with green salad and olive vinaigrette); Fontina Val d'Aosta (Marinated mushrooms and basil pesto open-face on focaccia with green salad and toasted pine nuts); Great Hill Blue (Prune jam and fresh pear on cranberry-walnut bread with green salad and pickled blueberries; Tomato soup; Napa cabbage slaw; Kitchen sink salad; Miso-mustard pickles; Curried pumpkin seeds; Lemon coriander olives

We agreed in advance to order four different sandwiches, and split them all in quarters so we could have a sample taste of each.  It was a brilliant idea and one I suggest you employ if you want to avoid the awful dilemma of have to choose just one sandwich.

After some deliberation, we decided on the Manchego & Ricotta, Gouda, Gruyere, and Fontina (clockwise, at 12 o’clock) .  All the sandwiches were delicious in their own right but it would be unlike me not to compare and contrast them.  So in order of least to most favorite based solely on personal preference, they are….drum roll please…

While I was prepared for the open-faced Fontina Val d’Aosta, my palette craved the crispiness of a two-sided, grilled cheese.  The familiar pairing of basil pesto with the soft focaccia was lovely but by sheer virtue of sandwich construction, I placed it last.

The Gruyere reminded me so much of a pastrami sandwich without the meat.  The pickled and caramelized onion, the mustard, the rye bread are the building blocks of a pastrami sandwich.  This one was a wonderful vegetarian alternative if you are craving those flavors.

In the rare instances that I see guava on a menu, I almost always order it.  The fruit, and its tarty taste, remind me so much of the Philippines.  The sweetness of the jam juxtaposed with the creaminess of the black been hummus and Gouda cheese plus the pickled jalapanos created a complexity of flavors that I really enjoyed.  The grilled brioche melted in my mouth which added a different dimension of texture to your traditional grilled cheese sandwich.

I really loved the Gouda sandwich and the Manchego & Ricotta barely eeked past it as my favorite of the four.  I think what it boiled down to was my preference today for something not sweet.  Essentially, this sandwich reminded me of an eggplant tapenade.  The smooth texture of the cheeses and the pureed eggplant with whole briny capers was a winning combination.

After taking a quarter of each sandwich, we coined our newly formed concoction the “Franken-sandwich” (with a Guatemalan pour over coffee in the background).

The place was packed at 1pm on Sunday.  Long tables in the back and a large table in the front allowed several parties to sit together, promoting a casual intimacy and sense of connection.  The place definitely gave off a Williamsburg vibe where attention to detail, decor, craftmanship, and service were top priorities.  It is quite a change from most of the establishments in the neighborhood.  At our table, we (three of Filipino & one of Italian descent) sat beside four Tibetan women speaking in their native tongue and a solitary man wearing a plaid shirt and headphones, typing away on his Macbook.  I smiled at a sudden realization.

When I think of Queens’ great asset, its ethnic diversity, I must admit that I often think of its new immigrants.  I forget that there are people who have lived in this borough all their lives, whose families have lived here for several generations.  Heck, I forget that even hipsters are a part of this great borough.  In Astoria, once a neighborhood where all my childhood Greek friends lived, all are welcome.  Our table at the Queens Kickshaw reflected just that.

Owners, Ben Sandler and Jennifer Lim, took the time to chat with us despite the restaurant’s constant incoming flow of people.  When it was time to take the obligatory group photo, the only appropriate response at the end of the countdown was of course, “Grilled Cheese!”


The Queens Kickshaw
40-17 Broadway
Astoria, NY 11103
(718) 777-0913
www.thequeenskickshaw.com

Diner & Coffee Fix in Long Island City

Before my husband and I bought our house last year, I was an Astoria resident for eight years.  Living in the western part of Queens, closest to Manhattan — Astoria and in neighboring Long Island City — was delightful.  New restaurants, stores, residential buildings popped up all the time.  For a curious explorer like me, this aspect of change was exciting.

Magasin Wells Diner, more colloquially known as “M. Wells”,  opened a few months after I left the area.  Hearing all the great reviews about this place, I knew it would be a matter of time before I visited.  But weeks became months and months became a year.  I was embarrassed that even visitors to NYC (like this awesome foodie couple from California) even got here before I did!  They live 3,000 miles away from the restaurant.  Me?  10 miles away. What was wrong with this picture?  So I corrected the problem TODAY.

The food at M. Wells has been described as “Quebecois-American”.  The owners are a married couple, and the husband was a former chef at Au Pied de Cochon in Montreal.  I hit the jackpot by arriving on this Friday morning before Memorial Day.  I was seated right away and as I looked around, I noticed there were still some empty seats to spare.  My waitress said this occurrence was unusual and we agreed it was probably a function of the long holiday weekend.

While reviews rave of the offal dishes, I was in the mood to trying something else since it was only 10:30 am and my stomach was not ready for foie gras, tongue, or veal brains.  All right, I’ll be honest. I don’t think my stomach will ever be ready for veal brains…  Gasp! Will you still respect me and view me as a “foodie”?

Instead, I opted for the egg and potato hash because the bacon and fiddleheads in the dish appealed to me.  I was disappointed to learn that the hash had been altered to include crab meat, asparagus, and peas. I still chose it anyway since I was in the mood for potato hash and a soft egg.  While the dish was tasty, it would’ve been SURELY out of this world had it been made with the salty, savory bacon paired with the earthy fiddleheads.

My husband opted for the Cubano sandwich, which was pressed flat allowing the meat edges poking outside of the bread to become crisp.

I’ll be sure to come back here again.  I know I was spoiled today since the place was relaxed and calm with no wait.  Perhaps I’ll check out the dinner scene and stop by one of three weeknights they are open in the evening.  I’m sure by that time, I’ll be in the mood for this.

I only drank water at M. Wells because I knew I would head to Sweetleaf next, just two blocks away.  A charming coffee shop with baked goods made on the premises, the place was warm and flooded with natural light thanks to several large windows in the storefront.  As my senses adjusted to the place, it took less than a few minutes to encounter this amusing sign.

Co-owner Rich Nieto was behind the counter.  Without knowing what to order, I asked him to suggest something for me.  Since it was a hot day, he suggested the “Iced Rocket Fuel”, an iced coffee, cold brewed with chicory and maple syrup.  But I also wanted a hot coffee so he suggested a “pour over” coffee made with Stumptown coffee beans of his choice.

We followed him to the back and settled by the pour-over “bar”.  It was hard to stay seated on the bar stools because I curiously wanted to watch each preparation step.   It was mesmerizing.  Rich reminded me of a scientist in the lab sans the white medical coat.  To brew this individual cup, he sought accuracy and precision with various tools: thermometer, measuring cup, and scale.  In this age of mass commercialization and high production, making one 12-ounce cup of coffee took time, patience, and dare I say, love?  It was a nice change of pace from the usual way I ordered coffee.  It gave me the chance to get to know the man behind the counter and find out how this fellow Queens native, who always loved coffee, went from being the owner of a telecommunications company to the owner of a coffee house.  He decided to follow his coffee bliss after his good friend started Sweetleaf.  “Even though I’ve been to Colombia, Honduras, Guatemala, Costa Rica, I’ve never been to a coffee farm in any of these countries.  But people always think I have.  I was more likely to connect you if you ever called these places,” he laughed as he recalled his former life.

I was thankful for his leap of faith. For in a few minutes I sipped on a Stumptown Finco El Injerto Bourbon from Guatemala, which was bold but smooth with absolutely zero acerbity. It was one of the best cups of coffee I had because I managed to taste the complexity and combination of flavors free of milk and sugar. I always believed that excellent coffee should be drunk black so as to truly taste it. I couldn’t discern my coffee’s “fragrance of jasmine” but I was able to pick up the super subtle hint of chocolate. The Iced Rocket Fuel, surprisingly didn’t have any acerbity either and it finished with the sweet smoothness of maple syrup.

While I didn’t get a chance to sample the baked goodies, I did manage to sneak behind the counter!  As a totally inexperienced barista, I may have freaked out this disturbingly obsessed coffee geek. I’ll spare him the heart attack so that we can all continue to benefit from his talent and passion.  I shall gladly return to my rightful place on the other side of the bar, sipping a delicious cup o’ joe…or two.

M. Wells Diner
21-17 49th Avenue
Long Island City, NY  11101
(718) 425-6917
7 Train to Hunters Point Avenue
www.mwellsdiner.com

Sweetleaf
10-93 Jackson Avenue
Long Island City, NY  11101
(917) 832-6726
7 Train to Vernon Boulevard/Jackson Avenue

The King of Queens?

Goodbye to Rosie, the Queen of Corona
Seein’ me and Julio down by the schoolyard.
– Paul Simon

When I think of Corona, Queens, four things come immediately to mind:  1) this Paul Simon song; 2) the home of Louis Armstrong, now a museum; 3) the Lemon Ice King as seen in the opening credits the TV show “King of Queens“; and 4) Flushing Meadows Corona Park.

I grew up in neighboring Elmhurst (formerly named “Newtown” during the British colonial period)  just as Paul Simon grew up in neighboring Forest Hills.  And like Simon, as evidenced by his song, I know Corona today as a neighborhood predominantly comprised of Latin American immigrants.  This week’s challenge instructed me to take a walking tour so I sought out the person I believed could best guide me:  Jack Eichenbaum,  urban geographer.  After hearing him featured in this great NPR story just after he was appointed the Queens Borough Historian, I knew he was the man for the job.

Jack and I met on a cold spring morning at Corona Plaza, near the #7 train entrance at 103rd Street.  Before we began, Jack started by explaining how the arrival of different forms of transportation affected not only the landscape of Corona but also how people came to interact with it.  “No wonder Corona Avenue winds through the neighborhood like a snake!” I exclaimed after Jack described how this street was once the colonial route from Brooklyn to Flushing, and followed the contours of the land.  Anglos arrived in the 1800s after the building of the railroad (now the present day Port Washington branch of the Long Island Rail Road) and by the 1890s, Jewish, German, and Italian immigrants arrived as trolleys traveled down the streets.

By 1917, the elevated #7 train was built above an available area — now known as Roosevelt Avenue, a highly commercial area — which at the time was the least desirable part of town.  The neighboring business district of Flushing resisted the intrusion of an elevated train but in 10 years the subway line was extended to terminate at Main Street, the current last stop.  Flushing’s resistance resulted in the underground building of the Main Street station, which required more money and engineering finesse.  (Jack claimed the reason for the subway line’s continuing signal problems today relates to the elevation change from about three stories above ground to going underground into Main Street.  Hmmm… I thought this whole time “delays due to signal problems” was a NYC MTA euphemism for “we’re taking a coffee break.”)

Immediately, Jack impressed me with his incredible knowledge.  More importantly, he seamlessly connected economic factors to the emergence of transportation advancements that brought about the neighborhood’s changes. He was also able to contextualize the historical events in Corona to what was happening in neighboring parts of Queens, the city of New York, and even the United States.

Park of the Americas (formerly Linden Park, which once contained a lake) was renamed as a tribute to the countless ethnic communities who lived and still live in Corona.

By the mid- to late 20th century, an influx of Latin Americans arrived in Corona. In the photo above, you can see a storefront sign in the upper left called “Tulcingo Deli”, one of a number of Mexican restaurants in NYC with this name.  In fact, my favorite Mexican restaurant in my former neighborhood of Astoria was Tulcingo on Broadway!  In Mexico, Tulcingo is a city in the state of Puebla from where many of the Mexicans living in NYC hail.

Pollo Campero, a Guatemalan fast food restaurant, has a location in Corona while Rincon Criollo, one of the oldest Cuban restaurants in the city still remains.  Jack tipped me off that any business signs with the words “Quisqueyano” or “Cibao” catered to the Dominican population because the island that is now home to Haiti and the Dominican Republic was once called Quisqueya by its native people, the Taino.  Cibao, also a Taino word, refers to the northern region of the DR.  A geography lesson from a geographer, I expected nothing less.

Reading the signs & utilizing our Spanish skills

English translation: "Want to try our Fanesca? Then come here. We have the best and most delicious." Fanesca is an Ecuadorian stew made only around Easter.

It was clear that Jack and I were kindred spirits thanks to our mutual interest in the inhabitants who create the culture of a place.  I also discovered that Jack likes to travel to the homelands of the immigrants who live in the NYC neighborhoods he explores.  Out of all the countries he visited, he claimed Vietnam to be his favorite because the country was nothing like the negative messages he heard about as a young adult.

The tour included a stop at the former Tiffany glass factory and furnaces, which now houses several business including a halal live poultry corporation.  How perfect to finally visit the building since I learning about its existence just a few weeks ago during a visit to the nearby Queens Museum of Art for the first week’s challenge!

The former glass factory of Louis Comfort Tiffany

Sign in English, Chinese, Spanish and Hindi (?)

Our final stop brought us to Silver Bell, a Lithuanian bakery from the 1920s that “is still family owned and dedicated to keeping alive the wholesome traditions of ‘Old World’ baking” according to its website.  I wonder what it means to bake “old word” style?  Nevertheless, I’m amazed that Silver Bell has managed to remain and succeed in a neighborhood whose demographics have changed so dramatically since it opened.

Standing in front of freshly baked bread. I could not resist a treat!

As an anthropologist, I learned that a place is where politics, economics, and ecology intersect.  Jack taught me that technology can also be included in this mix.  Akin to an anthropologist doing work in the field, Jack sees the street as a “lab” where observations of the residents’ social behaviors can be made and its effects on a place.

His passion of exploring cities on foot started as a child when his father and grandfather took him on long walks.  As a college professor, he took his students to the streets.  He organized his first walking tour in 1982 of Long Island City, which was  sponsored by the Queens Historical Society.  It was in response to the few walking tours offered at the time, which were typically focused on architecture in Manhattan.  He wanted to guide tours that focused on the vitality of a place – its people – in a borough that he loves:  Queens.

I learned so much from the mere hour I spent with Jack, and I am certain it won’t be the last tour I take with him.  Jack sees himself not as a tour guide but as an educator so if you are curious or interested in history, culture, demographics, transportation and New York City in general, go on a walk with Jack!  You won’t be disappointed.

Be sure to check out his upcoming signature tour highlighting “The World of the #7 Train”, held on one day only — April 30, 2011 — as detailed below.  For additional tour schedules, check his website.

Jack Eichenbaum
www.geognyc.com
jaconet@aol.com
718-961-8406

Saturday, April 30, 2011
10:00am to 5:30 pm (with lunch break)

THE WORLD OF THE #7 TRAIN
Long Island City – Sunnyside – Woodside – Elmhurst –
Jackson Heights – Corona – Flushing

Your tour leader, Jack Eichenbaum, maintains a storehouse of researched facts and biased memories of bygone eras.  Eichenbaum holds a Ph.D in urban geography, teaches Geography of NYC at CUNY  and has been riding the #7 for six decades.  His expertise lies in historical geography and ethnic and technological change.  His tour will focus on what the #7 train has done to and for the surrounding neighborhoods since it opened in 1914.  The #7 has been designated a “National Millennium Trail” for its pioneering role in transporting people in what is probably the most demographically diverse cityscape in the world.

Tour fee is $39 and you need to preregister by check to:
Jack Eichenbaum, 36-20 Bowne St. #6C, Flushing, NY 11354
(include name, phone and email address).
The tour is limited to 25 people.
For further information, email jaconet@aol.com.

Fortified New York

Four out of the five New York City boroughs are either an island (Manhattan and Staten Island) or part of an island (Brooklyn and Queens are two of the four counties that make up Long Island).  The Bronx is the only borough that is part of the US mainland.  As a result, the waterways surrounding the city are an intrinsic part of its identity and served an important economic function in its history.  Yet the waterway system made the city vulnerable to attack so fortifications were built at strategic points along its harbors.  This week’s challenge instructed me to spend time in a city park and while Flushing Meadows Corona Park may have been an obvious choice, instead I chose Fort Totten Park to learn more about the city’s military history.

Located on 60 acres in Bayside, a neighborhood in the northeastern-most section of Queens, Fort Totten was built in the mid-19th century and along with Fort Schuyler in the Bronx, served to protect the eastern entrance into New York harbor via the East River through Long Island Sound.  It complemented the fortification of the harbor from the south at the mouth of the Narrows, with Fort Hamilton in Brooklyn and Fort Wadsworth in Staten Island.  Today, a small section of it still houses the US Army Reserves and the US Coast Guard.

One of the highlights of my visit was a self guided tour of the water battery, which was built in 1862 as one of the US government’s responses to the attack on Fort Sumter and the subsequent outbreak of Civil War in 1861.  After checking in at the refurbished Visitor’s Center, I accessed the battery at a nearby entrance that led me into a long transport tunnel lit by a single file of light bulbs along its ceiling.  Walking through the tunnel felt like going through an old-fashioned wormhole in slow motion because when I emerged on the other side, I came upon an eerily abandoned unfinished fort from the past.

Walking amidst the large granite blocks and bluestone floors was reminiscent of my exploration of the buildings at Machu Picchu in Peru.  Arched cannon rooms and walkways, numerous doors that led to hidden rooms and little crannies, stairwells that raised or lowered you to another level, and windows that peered out onto the water made it feel like a maze.  The blocks, although universally sized here, reminded me of the large boulders smoothed out and tightly fitted together by the Incas to create the buildings of Machu Picchu.  This place would be a photographer’s dream as light and shadow interplay well with the structure’s architecture. In all of my exploration, I did not encounter another visitor even though I saw a couple enter the tunnel just five minutes ahead of me.

Since the battery is adjacent to the water, it affords excellent views of Long Island Sound, Nassau County, and the Throgs Neck and Whitestone bridges that connect Queens and the Bronx.

Throgs Neck Bridge in Foreground & Whitestone Bridge in Background

View of Long Island Sound & Nassau County

Decades of neglect have left the battery and many of the buildings at Fort Totten in a state of decay.  In some parts, nature has taken over.

Batteries Built in 1885-1903 that Housed Disappearing Guns

To see incredible pictures on the state of a decaying building, check out this photo essay on Fort Totten’s Army Hospital.  There is hope for some of these buildings to return to their resplendent beauty.  Below is the former Commanding Officer’s house and today it is the Parks and Recreation Department’s northeast Queens headquarters.

The Gothic revival building below is known as “The Castle”.  It was once the Officer’s Club is now home to the Bayside Historical Society.

Replica of the Archaeological Site

Bayside Real Estate Brochure in the 1930s. A 2-story, 3 bed house on a 40x100 plot cost $5,890-$6,290.

I highly recommend a stop at “The Castle”. On the day of my visit, Margaret, a friendly employee offered me a quick and dirty “ten cent” tour. After showing me the lay of the land, I lingered to view the exhibits on display. Committed to remembering and explaining the history of the building and the neighboring area, permanent exhibitions inform visitors of the archeological digs of the area, the Native Americans who lived here, as well as the development of Bayside.  Special exhibitions such as “The Women of Bayside” currently on display, highlight the contemporary events and people of the neighborhood.  The society hosts lectures and events and the building is even available for rent by the public.

Union Soldier Uniform

Fort Totten was designated a NYC Historic District in 1999 by the Landmarks Preservation Commission. In 2003, it was transferred to the City of New York with the exception of the 77th Army Reserve. In addition to the army reserve, the park is also home to the NYC Parks and Recreation, Fire, and Police Departments as well as the US Coast Guard. The park accommodates all ages and interests. Park Rangers offer historical tours of the battery, architectural tours of the buildings, and even take children on birdwatching tours! You can walk, run, and bike throughout the grounds and in the summer, a public pool is available for use.

To learn more about events at Fort Totten Park or any of NYC’s public parks, pick up the free quarterly magazine by the Urban Park Rangers, “Outdoors in NYC”.  It is a useful guide that sorts information by borough, date/time, then activity.  You can also access a copy online.  I am struck by the incredible breadth of activities available to the public, the majority of which are free!

Fort Totten Park
Cross Island Parkway & Totten Avenue
Bayside, Queens
Visitors Center:  718-352-1769
FREE / Hours: Dawn to Dusk
www.nycgovparks.org/parks/forttotten

The Bayside Historical Society
Thu – Fri:  10 am – 2 pm
Sat:  12 – 4 pm
Sun:  11 am – 2 pm
$3 Suggested Donation
www.baysidehistorical.org

7 train to Main Street, Flushing,
followed by the Q13 or Q16 bus to the last stop
— OR —
LIRR Port Washington Line to Bayside,
followed by the Q13 bus to Fort Totten

Doubles, Mauby, Aloo Pie, Oh My!

The best part about Queens?  Hands down, the food, because the incredible variety of options reflects the rich diversity of the borough’s people.

Out of curiosity, I recently listed all the cuisines I’ve ever had in Queens:  American, Mexican, Cuban, Puerto Rican, Dominican, Colombian, Peruvian, Ecuadorian, Brazilian, Argentinian, Egyptian, Israeli, Central Asian (Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, western China), Afghani, Pakistani, Indian, Bangladeshi, Veitnamese, Thai, Chinese (including the regional flavors of Dongbei, Shanghai, Sichuan, Hong Kong), Japanese, Korean, Filipino, Malaysian, Indonesian, Polish, Czech, Greek, Cypriot, Bosnian/Balkan, German, Italian, French, Spanish, Portuguese, English, and Irish.

That’s 37 cuisines from around the world, yo!  37!!!  And there’s still so much more to try!

The third week’s challenge charged me to eat in a neighborhood I rarely visit.  After contemplating my options, I decided to not only go to a less familiar neighborhood but to also try a cuisine I’ve never had before: Indo-Caribbean.  I headed to Richmond Hill with a well-established West Indian population particularly from Guyana and Trinidad & Tobago.

I selected Singh’s Roti Shop after doing research online and getting recommendations from friends.  Dishes and drinks I’ve never heard before–doubles, aloo pie, buss up shot, salt fish and bake, mauby, sorrel, sea moss, and peanut punch–I wanted to try.

Upon entering Singh’s, my senses were immediately overloaded.  The huge line extended from the counter to the door, at least 40 feet.  To while away the time, people in line and families seated at tables watched TV transfixed.  It played music videos of Katy Perry, Lady Gaga, and various West Indian artists while the sound blared from floor speakers.  The television jockey seemed to suffer from ADD because he changed the video every 2 minutes, never completing any one song.  During my 30 minute wait, I observed what seemed like satisfied customers leaving with bags…and trays, MULTIPLE TRAYS, of food.  If impatient New Yorkers are willing to wait long, then the food must be delicious.  I got excited!

When I reached the counter, I saw at least 10 Singh employees taking orders and dishing out food.  I asked my server a question but the high glass counter filled with numerous to-go containers prevented eye contact and the loud blaring music made it really hard to hear each other.  I asked for clarification on the menu and I got a “hold on”.  She suddenly disappeared to the kitchen, returned minutes later, and proceeded to take another customer!  I tried to get her attention. Heck, I tried to get anyone’s attention but all were busy.  After another 7 minute wait, my server yelled “next” and I went back to her and asked why she didn’t serve me.    She came up with this crazy line about how long the line was and that I had to wait.

And then, I LOST IT.

I got all New York on her, ActionJoJo-style!  Despite my yelling still sounding like a whisper thanks to the loud music, she begrudgingly took my order….which she eventually got wrong.

Clockwise from center left: aloo pie, doubles, sorrel and mauby (drinks), chicken roti.

I got doubles, an aloo pie, a roti chicken and to drink I decided to try sorrel and mauby. The roti chicken reminded me of its Malaysian cousin, chicken roti canai sans the coconut milk in the curry. The West-Indian roti is far thicker and bigger, which makes it heartier to absorb the delicious sauce.  Without coconut milk in the curry, it was less creamy but still full of flavor.  Shaped like a tapered submarine sandwich with a slit on its side, the aloo pie surprised me.  I did not expect the consistency of the fried dough to remind me of an Italian zeppola filled with a mixture of chickpeas and potatoes instead of ricotta cheese.  My favorite by far was the doubles, a chickpea curry filling between two pieces of baras bread.  The juxtaposition of the hearty and spicy creaminess of the chickpeas between the thin soft pieces of baras made the dish delicious partly because of taste and mostly because of texture.  I came to understand how it is a popular snack food in Trinidad:  light enough to not make you feel full but heavy enough to tide you over until your next real meal.  The sorrel was essentially a fruit punch but the mauby was more complex:  earthy and herby, akin to a non-carbonated homemade root beer that started semi-sweet and ended with a bitter aftertaste.

Flags of countries from the region

Now that I’ve sampled West Indian cuisine, I would definitely eat it again.  Much of the population of Guyana and Trinidad & Tobago descended from Africans and Indians who arrived as slaves or indentured workers.  Even the Chinese ended up in these countries, which is why you’ll see lo mein, chow mein, and fried rice on the menu.  I tried to sample the “Singh’s Special Fried Rice” for comparison but they were out.

I would not suggest going to Singh’s if you are a first timer like me unless you are accompanied by someone who knows how to order.  I would’ve been better suited going to a sit-down restaurant serviced by wait staff who could answer my questions and explain the menu.  If you have any suggestions of places like these, leave them in the comments!  I’ll wait to go back to Singh’s until I’m far more familiar with the menu.

Singh’s Roti Shop & Bar
131-14 Liberty Avenue
South Richmond Hill, NY  11419
(718) 323-599

A train to Lefferts Boulevard
M-Thu 6am-12am; Fri 6am-2am;
Sat 5:30am-2am; Sun 5:30am-12am
www.singhsrotishopnyc.com