Bites, April 2006 – Part I
Just as April was coming to a close, I came up with a compromise solution. I’ve decided to post a monthly roundup of dining highlights (and low points) of the prior month. This way I can share some scattered thoughts about various restaurants without trying to force full-blown reviews. I’m calling this monthly collection of odds and ends “Bites,” and will be posting one toward the beginning of every month, in one or two parts, depending on how much I have to say. This time it's two parts. Welcome to the first Bite, part one.
On April 8, I went to a gospel concert at City College with a couple of old friends. We decided to go out for soul food before the show, so I picked Copeland’s, on West 145th Street, as it was convenient and something of a Harlem legend. I had heard over the years that it was good, and not a tourist trap like Sylvia’s. Well, it wasn’t a tourist trap, but it also wasn’t good. Luckily we had given ourselves plenty of time for dinner, because we waited a full hour before our appetizer arrived. The pathologically tardy appetizer was an order of not bad crab cakes, accompanied by some pretty tasty snow crab claws. My main course was the barbecue combo platter, and it was dreadful–pedestrian ribs, dry, overcooked chicken and rubbery shrimp swimming in gallons of overly sweet barbecue sauce. Happily, the concert was much better than the meal. The Birmingham Sunlights, a classic a capella “quartet” (even with six members they’re called a quartet, based on the traditional harmonies), opened the show. Three or four of the singers shared lead duties, which gave the set some nice variety. They were great showmen, and the ensemble singing was so beautiful that they can be forgiven for having the poor taste to appear on “A Prairie Home Companion” from time to time. The other act was Harlem’s own McCollough Sons of Thunder, a trombone shout band out of the United House of Prayer church. They play high-energy, raucous brass-band gospel, and the “joyful noise” really rattles one’s bones. This type of instrumental music does, however, tend to be monotonous. It’s great for twenty minutes, less great for forty.
I had much better restaurant luck the following day. This time the dinner was post-concert. It had inadvertently turned into a gospel weekend, as I had tickets for the Soweto Gospel Choir in Newark. The group was very young, and totally delightful. A fringe benefit was the excellent acoustics at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center, which puts most Manhattan concert venues to shame. Afterwards, my companion and I walked up to the Ironbound district for some Spanish food. Though the area is primarily Portuguese, the restaurant with the best overall reputation is the Spanish Casa Vasca. It’s off the main drag of Ferry Street, which is full of enormous, touristy “Iberian” restaurants. Casa Vasca is smaller and more sedate. The food was damn good, and I have every intention of going back. The clams in green sauce we shared as an appetizer were excellent. Each main course came with a complimentary soup of the day, which happily was caldo Gallego, and one of the best I’ve tasted. For one of the main courses we shared the pulpo a la Gallega–Galician-style octopus which is boiled, sprinkled with smoked paprika, and served in olive oil. It was incredibly tasty and tender, and I’d say it eclipsed any version of the dish I’ve ever had before, here or in Spain. We also had the grilled pork chops, a compromise selection after we learned that the three daily specials we coveted–roast veal, suckling pig, and goat–were all gone. The chops were quite good, as were the fried potatoes that accompanied them. One quality that everything shared was a lack of the over-saltiness that characterizes too much Iberian food. The only negatives were a persnickety waiter and bus boys who kept trying to remove plates that still had plenty of food on them.
How about a Sicilian/Mexican restaurant? Here’s the story. One of my old favorite East Village cheap eats places, La Focacceria, closed last year due to an untenable rent increase, and Vinnie, its proprietor, retired (he deserves it). Thanks to Janet, a poster on the Chowhound message board, I recently learned that the food that Vinnie had served for ages is now available in a space that was previously, and remains, Rancho El Girasol, an East Village Mexican restaurant. So one could conceivably mix and match enchiladas and rice balls. The proprietress of the reincarnated focacceria is Michelle, a Latina who had long worked as a waitress at Vinnie’s restaurant. With Vinnie’s approval she set out to make his authentic Sicilian recipes once again available. When I arrived at the restaurant with the East Village friends I’d visited La Focacceria with many times, Michelle gave us a warm welcome. The food has not changed, and most of the classic focacceria items are still available, including vasteddis (I believe the word in Sicilian is guasteddi), sandwiches made of thinly sliced beef spleen, bathed in lard, and served with a Sicilian cream cheese and a sharp, hard cheese. It is infinitely better, though not better for you, than it sounds. Head over to 221 First Avenue and try one.