Authentic Thai Spice in Hell’s Kitchen

Pure Thai Cookhouse
766 Ninth Avenue
New York, NY 10019

I love spicy food. It’s a fact of life, and I’m always on the hunt for a new dish to satisfy my heated cravings. For me though, even better than a dish that makes me sweat, is a plate of food that also brings flavor to the party.

Photo Mar 21, 6 57 43 PMPure Thai Cookhouse is a small, hole in the wall restaurant in NYC’s Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood styled after a historic Thai shophouse. Pure is the sister restaurant to Chef David Bank’s Land Thai Kitchen, located on the Upper West Side. While Land is also known for its spicy dishes and heat, it features more traditional Thai meals. Pure specializes in dishes found from Thai street vendors, as well as farm dishes or rural and market dishes throughout Thailand. The food at Pure is super authentic, and takes you on a culinary tour of the many regions of Thailand. While it only has about 20 seats, this place is packing people in for its bold flavors, great service and unique spin on Thai eats. This is a great place to take a date, some friends or even your parents for elevated Thai food.

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The Chicken Curry Puffs ($8) appetizer might have seemed to be pretty standard fare, but were anything but ordinary. The filling was made from moist caramelized chicken, earthy onions, and tender sweet potato. Although the sweet potato gave it a touch of sweetness, the filling was also flavored with warming spices that gave it a mild touch of heat. The chicken was aromatic, and had an almost creamy consistency from being braised and helped along from the potato starch. The puffs had a perfectly flaky crust, that was slightly chewy with crisp edges. The plate came with four good-sized pieces and garnished with a tangy cucumber relish. The relish not only cut through the heaviness of the dish, but also helped cool it down.

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The Ratchaburi Crab and Pork Dry Noodles ($11/$13 lunch/dinner) is a favorite of mine. The egg noodles are handmade from a secret, family recipe, and you can really taste the difference from those that come in a box. The noodles are dressed with a mild sauce flavored with fish sauce, palm sugar, rice wine vinegar and lime. It’s tangy, sweet, sour, salty and pungent.  The lump crab meat is flaky and delicate, and there’s a lot of it to soak up excess sauce. The pork was slight salty—in the best possible way—with a pleasant chewiness that makes it almost “chashu”-esque, similar to the delicate pork belly found in a bowl of ramen. The yu choy and scallions gave the bowl a wonderful crunch and textural contrast to the other soft components. The sauce is mild enough and the perfect vehicle to spice up with the chili and sauce garnish basket placed on the table. Be careful though, you don’t want to overwhelm the vibrant taste of the noodles with too much heat.

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If you’re in the mood for something more stir-fried or curry style, the Wok Chili Turmeric with Beef ($11/$13) is absolutely delicious. Flavored with kaffi­r lime leaves and thai chilis, the heat is very prevalent in this dish. I ordered it Thai spicy since I love it super-spicy and the beef can definitely handle the heat of the turmeric chili sauce. The asparagus and string beans provide a nice crunch, as well as a sense of freshness to the saucy plate. The chili marinade makes the beef very tender and keeps it from getting dry. The turmeric in the sauce gives it a lovely orange color, and a backbone of warmth. The side of rice is essential to this dish to not only sop up extra sauce, but also to take the edge of heat off of the dish. A generous portion of jasmine rice is included for no extra charge, but for an extra $1 you can get sticky rice. I like to use my fingers to grab pieces of rice and dip it into the excess sauce.

Photo Jun 19, 7 09 54 PMThere’s so many great dishes to choose from on the menu at Pure Thai Cookhouse to satisfy everyone–from a Thai spice novice to a expert noodle slurper. Make sure to check out Pure, and also its sister restaurant Land Thai Restaurant a couple of miles uptown for a meal that will make your face sweat and your taste buds tingle!

Feasting on Chakra in Jerusalem (Part V: What I Ate On My Israeli Vacation)

Chakra
41 King George Street
Jerusalem, IsraelPhoto Jun 06, 1 47 52 PMAlthough Tel Aviv is certainly a very popular destination for visitors to Israel, and considered the cultural center of the country, it is actually Jerusalem that is the nation’s capital. One of the oldest cities in the world—central to three major religions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam—Jerusalem sits in the middle of the country between the Dead Sea and the Mediterranean Sea in the Judean Mountains. A city entrenched in history, the oldest area is surrounded by walls, but modern Jerusalem has developed far beyond the ancient walls of the Old City. Downtown Jerusalem has become a hub of hipster coffee shops, posh hotels, high-end shopping, and gourmet restaurants intermingled with outdoor markets, religious centers and government buildings.

IMG_3145In the middle of downtown Jerusalem is Chakra. Chakra is a hip restaurant located on the busy King George Street with a large indoor-outdoor space that was busy when we arrived. There was a pleasant hum in the air, and the restaurant buzzed with energy on Saturday night. What’s nice is that Chakra is open on Shabbat, while there are quite a few restaurants in Jerusalem that are closed on the Jewish Sabbath, until at least an hour after sundown.

IMG_3148.JPG IMG_3147We were a large group, so we did not get the chance to choose individual dishes, and instead were served multiple plates of a variety of dishes. Though, many of us also ordered individual cocktails, and we were served lots of wine, as well as water and lemonana—a mint-lemonade drink served throughout Israel. The first brought out was the stone oven focaccia, tomato and olive oil—the delicious flatbread was still hot from the oven! It was the perfect accompaniment for the coming appetizers, and soon after some olive oil and harif were brought to dip. Harif is a traditional Israeli condiment made from spicy peppers and is very acidic, but also earthy taste and grainy texture.

IMG_3149IMG_3151Next up was the first of the appetizers—chopped liver with fig jam. Though this seemed very Yiddish, as opposed to Israeli, it fit in well with Chakra’s international fusion inspired menu. The spread was super creamy and had a luxurious mouthfeel to it. The fig jam was sweet and perfectly complemented the saltiness and musty, headiness of the liver. This was a wonderfully gourmet version of a traditional Jewish dish. At the same time that the chopped liver came out, we were served zucchini carpaccio with feta and tapenade. The zucchini was sliced very thinly and became almost see-through, and was garnished with salty feta cheese, briny olives, and juicy tomato. It was a light salad and the zucchini was thin enough that it absorbed the subtle dressing.

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IMG_3150The lemon garlic cauliflower was simple, but delicious. The cauliflower was roasted and dressed in lemon juice and zest, as well as garlic. The florets had a slightly crisp exterior and didn’t become mushy like many cauliflower dishes. It was spicy and slightly smoky with a lemony bite. The open fire eggplant, sheep milk yogurt and tomatoes was good, but nothing special. The eggplant was roasted in its skin—a very common Israeli appetizer—and served with a yogurt sauce. Although the flesh was very creamy and the yogurt was tart and tangy, the dish was sort of bland.

IMG_3153FullSizeRender-5The next couple of dishes were my personal favorites—beef carpaccio, parmesan and rocket and spicy tuna bruschetta & aioli. The beef was paper-thin and seared on one side. It was dressed with a strongly acidic vinaigrette, and the deliciously fatty meat was so-so tender. I wish I had another plate all to myself! The shaved parmesan and rocket, or arugula, helped cut through the heavy meat and the arugula provided a peppery bite. The tuna was chopped roughly, and mixed with Asian spices, and maybe some wasabi. It was piled onto toast points and then artfully arranged on the plate. These two cold dishes were very refreshing and helped prepare for more to come.

FullSizeRender-1The first entrée of the night was tomato and mozzarella risotto. The arborio rice was cooked al dente, and maintained a slight bite to it, and a deep tomato flavor. The mozzarella melted into the risotto, and there was a light garnish of parmesan atop the rice. This was a truly excellent dish and satisfied a craving for creaminess I didn’t even realize I was feeling. We were also served some caesar salad that was good, but unremarkable.

FullSizeRenderFullSizeRender-3FullSizeRender-4The main course consisted of three meat dishes—kebab with grilled vegetables and tahini, soy and honey chicken breast, and lamb shank gnocchi. The beef kebab was smoky and the ground meat was moist. The tangy tahini played well with the spice level of the kebab’s crust. The chicken was bone-in, and had a wonderful crust from the grill. The soy and honey caramelized on the chicken skin and kept the meat juicy. The lamb was absolutely delicious. It was cooked down with peas, and super tender—very stew-like. The gnocchi were pillowy soft and soaked up the, in essence, lamb ragout.

Photo Jun 06, 1 02 47 PMThe girl sitting next to me was a vegetarian, and the restaurant was very accommodating and brought her a bonus dish—beet tortellini with Roquefort butter. The tortellini dough was very delicate and you could see the beautiful pink, beet filling through the pasta. The tortellini were extra-large, very filling, and not too sweet. The sweetness may have been tempted by the Roquefort butter sauce that imitated a cream sauce and made the dish rich and luxurious.

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Photo Jun 06, 1 30 56 PMEven though we didn’t have that much room left, after our veritable feast, we were then served dessert! The panna cotta was flavored with wild berries, which gave a nice sour flavor to the sauce. The panna cotta itself was formed from a vanilla custard, and perfectly set. There was also a chocolate cake a la mode. The cake was deliciously moist, chewy, fudge with a slightly crisp edge. The ice cream was just icing on the cake—pun intended! The final dessert was sorbet with cookie surprise. The sorbet was tangy with a lemon-like flavor and almost edged into ice milk or sherbet territory since it was so creamy. The cookie surprised was crumbled on top and added a nice textural contrast to the otherwise one-note dessert. This was a nice way to end a decadent meal on our last night in Jerusalem.

IMG_3146.JPGI might have been part of a large group, but this might have been one of my best meals on the trip! Chakra has an amazing atmosphere, fabulous food, lovely location, and wonderful waitstaff. I definitely will be returning on my next trip to Jerusalem—and it should be on your list as well.

An Italian Feast in Tel Aviv (What I Ate On My Israeli Vacation, Part III)

Piazza
Italian Restaurant and Wine Bar
99 Dizengoff Street
Tel Aviv, Israel

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FullSizeRender-5I have to admit, while I love trying new cuisines and sampling unique, ethnic flavors—I love me some comfort food! High up on that list of food that makes me feel good is Italian. Whether it’s a big bowl of pasta, a gooey, cheesy pizza, or a delicious fresh cannoli, I have a weakness for the heavy carbfest that comes from most Italian meals. Therefore, it should come as no surprise that Piazza is one of my favorite restaurants in Tel Aviv, and a “must eat at” when I’m by Dizengoff Square.

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FullSizeRender-1Piazza is aptly named as it has a large outdoor dining area that is modeled after an Italian piazza—in fact there are trees and beautiful lights that only add to the magical trip to Italy that you’re taken on by the food. There is also an indoor seating area that is reminiscent of a trattoria or Italian bistro. The focal point of the indoor dining space is the large brick oven that has clearly been imported from Italy, as well as the Little Italy style white and red checkered table cloths—very “Lady and the Tramp.” There are English and Hebrew menus available, and the waiter brings a funky-looking bottle of cold tap water to the table as you sit down. Although I didn’t order one on my most recent trip, the Italian soda bar here is tasty and refreshing as well.

FullSizeRender-2I’ve eaten here a few times and have tried multiple dishes, but every time I come here I can’t resist ordering the Truffle Pizzetta (34 shekels, ~$9). The pizzetta is in actuality a mini pizza. The pizzetta is baked off in the brick oven so it maintains its crisp edges—even with toppings—as well as a wonderful chewiness only found from expert pizza makers. In fact, the crust reminds me of the one I’d get from a small, brick oven pizzeria in NYC. After it comes out of the oven, the crust is slathered with truffle cream, which is so important to this dish. The truffle spread is garlicky, pungent, earthy, creamy and oh so delicious. Then a soft-boiled egg—complete with slightly loose yolk—is cut into quarters and placed onto the pizzetta as well as a few thinly sliced radishes that are spicy and help cut through the richness of the dish. The cold egg and truffle cream atop the hot crust is makes for great temperature play, and the hot crust warms the cream and intensifies its unctuous truffle flavor. In addition, there is wonderful textural contrast between the crisp crust, the creamy egg yolk, velvety softness of the truffle spread, the crunch of the radish and the soft chewy egg white. Honestly, I could eat this everyday and be so happy. The dish is also playful and beautiful to look at. It comes with your own little pizza cutter so you can have it all to yourself—which I usually do—or divide among a few. The dish is garnished with some chives and micro basil before it hits the table, which is a classy touch and adds some freshness to an otherwise heavy starter.

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FullSizeRender-11For the main dish, I try to switch it up each time I come here. One of my favorite dishes, which is technically a special, but is served somewhat often, is the Seafood Linguine (64 shekels, ~$17.50), composed of shrimp, calamari and mussels in a crab and butter sauce. The shrimp was plump, perfectly cooked and moist, while the calamari was tender and not springy or chewy at all, and while most of the mussels had come out of the shells, they tasted good and looked very pretty and absorbed some of the spicy sauce. The linguine was cooked al dente so not mushy at all, and drank up the wonderful butter based sauce, and coated the noodles. The sauce was made with sweet green basil, rich butter, piquante raw garlic, and cherry tomatoes, which are a national specialty of Israel. In fact, Israel is known for their sweet cherry tomatoes since much of the water used to grow them is from the Dead Sea, which is so salty that it causes the tomatoes to become sweeter than usual—you could taste that sweetness in the dish, especially contrasted with the subtle heat in the sauce. There’s some sliced (almost) raw garlic, which perfumed the dish and enhanced the flavor of the pasta as well. The hot pasta tossed with the sweet tomatoes, some fruity olive oil, creamy butter, raw slivered garlic, earthy basil and plump, meaty seafood was a heavenly combination. This dish is so fresh tasting and the bounty of seafood is perfect for Tel Aviv, since it’s a beach city—makes you feel like you’re at the sea! I’d get a meal like this in a five-star Italian restaurant at home. Delizioso!

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Without chicken
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With chicken

Another great entrée choice is the Tripoline Carbonara (62 shekels, ~$16) or fettuccine carbonara, which I added grilled chicken to (7 shekels, ~$2). The chicken was grilled and had a nice crust develop on the outside of the flesh—probably from using flour in the coating of the chicken before it went into the pan. The result was some very moist meat that went well in the pasta.The fettuccine was cooked nicely and cooked softer than the linguine, but not chewy. The carbonara sauce clung to the noodles, and was creamy and thick. There was a nice kick of black pepper, and some saltines from the Parmesan and bacon, The bacon itself became soft and almost melted into the dish. This was a very decadent dish of pasta and very, very comforting.

FullSizeRender-10I’m usually so full by the time the waitress asks if I’d like to see the dessert menu, but I made it a point to have dessert on one of my visits here a couple of weeks ago. I’m a big fan of chocolate and was actually eying the appetizing Marscapone and Nutella Pizza, but ended up going with the Creme Brûlée (34 shekels, ~$9). The creme brûlée was cooked in a large, wide ramekin and had a perfectly bruleed top and a thin layer of custard underneath. The top itself was almost like stained glass and I performed the spoon tapping test and it passed with crunchy colors. As I ate this dessert, I sometimes got a little of a charred bitter flavor from the burnt sugar, which was wonderful in contrast to the sweetness of the custard. The custard was sweet, with a strong vanilla flavor, and velvety smooth. It had an almost pudding-like consistency but still very much set. The combination of the crunchy top and the creamy custard was also very playful. The ramekin was garnished with a sprig of mint—a lot of attention to detail was given to the dish’s presentation. Great way to end the meal.

FullSizeRender-5The dining experience at Piazza was and is always great. They have special discounted prices at lunchtime, and the service is always friendly and attentive. The food is delicious, and the portions super filling. Come eat here when you are in Tel Aviv, you won’t leave disappointed—or hungry!

Thai House of Deliciousness (or What I Ate On My Israeli Vacation, part II)

Thai House
8 Bograshov Street
Tel Aviv

Tel Aviv is, in my opinion, an amazing cit. In some respects, it reminds me of mini-Barcelona with the beach and then a large downtown, and in some respects it reminds me of San Francisco with a slightly bohemian attitude. Either way, it has a killer food scene.

image1Continuing on my Israeli food journey, this stop was actually towards the end of my trip. After eating lots of local Israeli delights like hummus, pita, falafel, salads, roasted eggplant etc., I was craving something a bit different, so I decided on Thai food. When I asked around, and then looked online, Thai House off of Ben Yehuda Street near the beach was recommended over and over. After having eaten here, I wholeheartedly agree—this was definitely some of the best Thai food I’ve ever had. This place gets super busy around dinner time, and all day on the weekends since it’s a block from the beach. There were a lot of locals eating here, as well as some American tourists in the mood for an authentic Thai meal. I was at one of two tables filled when I came in and the whole room was filled when I got the check.

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image3I sat in the dining room that had bamboo walls and roof, and it very much lived up to its name of “Thai house.” The menu was big with lots of choices, and all of the dishes can be made to your spice level. I wish I had 10 stomachs to eat with, especially with the incredible smells emanating from the table next to me—lime citrus, spicy chili, umami fish sauce, sweet Thai basil, garlic, and more—each one more tantalizing than the next. The table decorations were very simple—no frills—and it was clear that the food and authentic decor are the main events here. I do have to say that I regret not trying one of the cocktail specials that sounded refreshing.

image5The best part of my meal here was really the food though. It was hard to choose from all the selections, but I think I chose wisely. I started with the Yam Neua Beef (46 shekels, ~$12), or grilled rump beef served with a hot chili fish sauce. When the plate came to the table it was presented beautifully. The sticky rice came in its own sack, and I was encouraged to tear pieces of the rice off with my hands and eat it with the spicy beef. The beef was sliced thin and garnished with sliced onion on top, and sliced cucumber below that almost became pickled from the heavily acidic sauce coating the beef. The meat itself was so tender and had been marinated in lime juice, chilis and fish sauce, and some sugar to tenderize the beef. The choice to cook the beef at medium rare also kept it from being chewy. It made it not only super pungent and spicy, but also light and meaty, and the sticky rice was able to absorb excess sauce. The plate was also garnished with small pieces of chili—leftover from the marinade—as well as some mint leaves. The dish was just fun to eat, and the temperature contrast between the warm rice and the cool meat was a nice touch.

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For my entrée, I wanted some sort of noodle dish and went with the recommendation of the waiter—Yum! The Pahd Sen Lian with goose (72 shekels, ~$19) had egg noodles that tasted homemade, and not mushy at all, as well as three kinds of mushroom—button, shiitake and oyster—morning glory—sometimes known as Chinese broccoli—and scallions. I requested the dish spicy, which it was, but I also added some pickled chilis to the noodles from the tray of spice condiments that was brought to the table. The result was a building heat that complemented the slightly sweet sauce on the noodles.Although the ingredients were very refined, the presentation and composition was almost rustic, but in the best way possible. I could imagine myself eating this dish in some small village in Thailand. The goose was also amazing. Not only is it rare that I get to eat goose meat, but it was cooked very well and included a good amount of chunk, breast meat. The fat was cooked off, which just left the tender, moist meat. It was slightly gamier than duck, and very meaty—satisfied the carnivore in me.

image8My experience at Thai House was in one word: delectable. The food was delicious and thoughtfully composed, the decor was authentic and at the same time the perfect level of campiness, and the location was wonderful. It was a great break from the hustle and bustle of my time in Tel Aviv and a satisfied my need for a spicy Thai meal. #Nomnom!

What I Ate On My Israel Vacation

I recently returned from a visit to Israel. The trip was amazing and we did so many great activities – rafting in the Galilee River, riding ATV’s in Golan Heights near the Syrian border, partying and relaxing on the beach in Tel Aviv and much more. However, my favorite part of the trip was the delicious food that we had. Everyday there was a big spread at breakfast of salads, breads, fish, cheeses, yogurts, bourekas, and juice. The large Israeli breakfast is well-known and filled me up for lots of activities throughout the day. Yet it wasn’t just the breakfast that filled me up. Israel has become hotspot for a growing food scene.

IMG_2689FullSizeRender-1Nowhere is the growing culinary movement more prevalent than in Tel Aviv—the cultural capital of Israel. Tel Aviv is part beach town, but also had a big downtown area that is reminiscent of San Francisco. Plenty of young chefs come there to cut their teeth and open some amazing restaurants.

FullSizeRender-12One such restaurant that I had the pleasure of dining in was Branja, in Tel Aviv’s super trendy Sarona complex—a blend of historic Tel Aviv architecture, modern urban green space, and a mix of stores, cute cafes, and hip restaurants right in the middle of the city. Even better, many of the restaurants, bars and cafes are open on Shabbat (Friday night/Saturday day). Branja is a Spanish-Mediterranean inspired restaurant, housed in a two-story Templar building that allows for a vibrant first floor restaurant, and a night bar and private dining space on the second floor. Since I was part of a big group, we had rented out the upstairs area, which was a treat—especially the wonderful terrace.

IMG_2692 IMG_2693 We started the night off with a wonderful happy hour—waiters offered flutes of effervescent champagne, glasses of spicy red wine, and mugs of crisp, cold beer. There was a cute lounge bar in the salon with drink refills and they were very accommodating for our large group size. The dining room had a very rustic chic feel to it, with large, rectangular wooden tables set simply with ceramic plates and glass cups. IMG_2700IMG_2701Our meal began with a simple salad of peppers, tomatoes, feta cheese, and cucumber in a light dressing made with fruity olive oil. Not only was the salad fresh and light, but also so pretty to look at with bold colors. There were also big baskets of freshly baked bread—white or wheat—served with creamy butter and house made schug, a traditional, spicy Israeli condiment made from hot peppers. The mix of the slightly sweet yet salty butter and the spicy schug spread on the bread made for a wonderful pop of flavors in my mouth. It was complemented nicely by some briny olives.

IMG_2702Next up was a plate of thinly sliced Sirloin Carpaccio. The beef was flavored with aged balsamic vinegar and pistachio to give it a nice punch of acidity, as well as an earthy flavor, and garnished with some peppery arugula that helped balance the richness of the meat.

IMG_2703IMG_2704To follow, we had some fried red mullet with a crispy coating, served with a Tzatziki and a tomato salsa reminiscent of a cocktail sauce. The fish was moist, and the bones were so small that you were able to bite right through them and eat the fish whole if you like. A plate with a large potato and cheese pancake arrived as well, which was tasty but didn’t strike me as super Mediterranean in nature.

FullSizeRender-4My favorite appetizer of the night were the lamb pierogies. The pierogi were pan-fried with a nice crust and a savory, slightly smoky lamb filling. They were garnished with a pan sauce and plated on a black plate which made them look even more enticing.

FullSizeRender-9We had finally arrived at the main course, and had a choice of gnocchi, chicken or ram–which many of us assumed was lamb at first. The gnocchi was served in a white butter sauce that was mild in flavor, but was nicely garnished with long pieces of Parmesan. The mini-dumplings were cooked al dente as to maintain a good bite without being mushy. They were also tossed with some asparagus that really woke the flavors up and helped cut through the richness of the sauce. My only complaint would be that I wish the potato in the gnocchi was incorporated a bit more.

FullSizeRender-6 FullSizeRender-8The second option available was for a chicken kabob, which was marinated in Middle Eastern spices, including cumin, garlic, za’atar, and harissa. The chicken was skewered and cooked perfectly. It was moist, and the chicken had a spice crust that helped seal the juices in the meat. It was plated with roasted eggplant and tahini. A popular cooking method for eggplants in Israel is to cut the vegetable in half lengthwise, then roast it until the flesh becomes super creamy and delicious. This eggplant was dressed with tahini sauce–made from sesame–and was a nice contrast in flavor to the bold poultry meat.

IMG_2714The final choice of entrees was ram steak on a stick. This was actually my first time eating ram, and, although we had to wait a little extra time for it to be prepared, it was very tasty! The meat wasn’t too chewy and had wonderful grill marks and was cooked somewhere between medium-rare and medium. It was plated with spicy, peppers, a generous amount of roasted potatoes, and demiglace.

FullSizeRender-13After our large meal we, of course, needed a delectable dessert, and Branja did not disappoint. We were presented with a trio of desserts. The creamy, mini cheesecake almost had a key lime pie flavor. It was not too tangy or sweet, and absolutely refreshing–especially following such a heavy meal. The lime crumbs on top were a nice touch. The plate also included some wonderful churros that were crisp on the outside and fluffy in the middle. They emitted an amazing cinnamon aroma and were served with a bittersweet, dark chocolate dipping sauce. The final pastry of the trip was a dense chocolate cake square with nougat. The cake was intensely chocolatey, but not super sweet. It was delicious, but my favorite part was actually the house made whip cream.FullSizeRender

Overall, dinner at Branja was absolutely delicious and such a great taste of the local, Tel Aviv food scene. We followed up our meal with a wonderful wine tasting at Tasting Room, also in the Sarona complex, and went back to our hotel that night with our bellies full and having had a wonderful night. Check back for posts on “What I Ate On My Israeli Vacation.”

Branja
15 Rav Aluf David Elazar Street,
Tel Aviv-Yafo, Israel

Restaurant Review: Le Bistro d’à Côté

Le Bistro d’à Côté
1590 1st Avenue
New York, NY 10028

FullSizeRender 11Last Sunday was Mother’s Day, so it is almost required that you have some sort of meal with mom. Some years we get together with cousins for a big BBQ, sometimes we have family over, etc. This year we wanted to something a little more low key, so settled on a nice brunch with just the four of us — me, mom, dad and my brother, Dan.

FullSizeRender 5Dad ordered the Soupe a l’Oignon ($11), or French Onion soup. The broth was very rich and aromatic with a great onion flavor. It wasn’t too sweet, and still had a solid alcohol flavor, which probably came from red wine. It might’ve been cognac though. The swiss cheese gratin crust was thick and delicious, with the classic, nutty flavor that comes from using Gruyere cheese. Plus, the cheese passed the all-important stretch test. The croutons in the soup were soft and soaked up a good amount of the flavorful broth.

FullSizeRender 8FullSizeRender 2While dad opted for the soup, mom, Dan and I split the Le Croustillant De Chèvre Chaud ($15) appetizer, which featured warm goat cheese and spinach wrapped in phyllo over mixed greens. The greens were dressed lightly, and the dried cranberries popped with flavor. They were a little sour, having absorbed some of the vinaigrette, which was a nice burst of acidity to cut through the richness of the dish. The goat cheese itself was so creamy and the phyllo paper delicately thin. The sliced baguette bread that came to the table was hot and crisp on the outside, but perfectly fluffy in the middle. I loved the crunch as I bit into the baguette—it was great for scooping up some of the goat cheese.

FullSizeRender 6Mom ordered the Oeufs Nordique ($15), a delicious, bistro version of smoked salmon Benedict, served with roasted potatoes and mixed greens. The smoked salmon was chewy, slightly salty, meaty and surprisingly creamy. The eggs were perfectly cooked, and the english muffin was soft and absorbed the yolk well. The hollandaise over the top of the Benedict was textbook in its richness, but was also wonderfully light.

FullSizeRender 10The Oeufs Florentine ($13), or eggs florentine, was also tasty. The spinach was still nice and crisp underneath the eggs, and the diner staple of feta cheese wasn’t missed. Again, the eggs were beautifully cooked, and tasted great with a sprinkle of salt. The salmon Benedict didn’t need any salt because of the inherent saltiness of the smoked salmon. My only critique was that the potatoes were not very hot when the dish came to the table.

FullSizeRender 9I opted for a Croque Madame ($13.50), which is simply a French spin on a ham and cheese sandwich, covered with a Béchamel white sauce and broiled. The difference between a Croque Madame and a Croque Monsieur is that the Madame has a fried egg on top as well. I ordered mine with no ham, and was slightly worried that it would be dry, but my worries were unfounded. The dish wasn’t wet and also not dry, but rather got softer and somewhat creamy as I went inward. The egg on top was (again) cooked well with perfectly runny yolk. The fries were crisp and hot, and tasted great with some Dijon mustard—very French. The greens were dressed with some simple oil and were a great vehicle for a sprinkle of the sea salt on the table.

FullSizeRenderThe final dish of the meal was the Risotto aux Champignons des Bois ($19), or wild mushroom risotto. The risotto was in a word: delectable. The rice was cooked al dente and wasn’t too creamy, but very hearty. The dish was very earthy, and had a wonderful deep flavor from the mushrooms, as well as the black truffle oil. It was garnished with small strips of shaved parmesan over the top. The risotto was actually perfect for brunch since it had at the appearance of a bowl of oatmeal.

FullSizeRender 4The restaurant presents itself in a simple, French bistro style with exposed brick, redone hardwood floors, and a narrow but still spacious dining room on one side and a bar on the other. There was relaxing jazz music playing—they actually have live jazz on Sunday nights. Large wine cabinets in the bar and restaurant areas were prevalent, with a simple table setup in the dining room.

FullSizeRender 3I usually avoid talking about any major negatives, but I have to point out that the restaurant’s website indicated that Sunday brunch came with a mimosa, Bloody Mary, juice or coffee if a brunch item was ordered. When we asked about this, the waitress said at first that it was only for their “hangover brunch,” which was a choice between two specific items only (2 eggs any style or a ham and cheese croissant). When she finally came back when plates were cleared away, we asked again and were told that it was for their brunch, but not on holidays. In actuality there was no special Mother’s Day menu. To me, that was false representation and slightly marred the experience.

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Overall, the service wasn’t very enthusiastic, mostly from the waitress, however the food and prices were very good. It reminded me very much of a cafe or bistro in Paris. Solid place to get some traditional bistro fare, and hopefully a glass of wine next time. Ah oui!

An Israeli Feast in Philadelphia’s Historic Old City 

Zahav

I finally went to dinner last week at Zahav restaurant in Philadelphia, a raincheck due to a reservation mixup from the week before. The wait was worth it though, since the anticipation built. The menu at Zahav is broken up into many smaller dishes and sharing is encouraged.

 We debated ordering cocktails, but instead opted for a pitcher of the Limonana ($16)–a freshly squeezed lemonade steeped with mint leaves. They also make an alcoholic version that has whiskey, and is available by the glass or pitcher. The Limonana was refreshingly tart, slightly sweet and delicious. It made me think of going to the beach in Tel Aviv, especially since all the coffee chains in Israel make their own version of this drink.

  

Since we were at an Israeli restaurant, we knew that ordering hummus was essential. We went with the large Tehina Hummus ($12). The hummus was made with lemon, parsley, cumin, garlic and sesame. It had a great salty bite and was super smooth, with an amazing moth feel. The next thing to hit my palate was the garlic and parsley flavors with a backbone of sesame from the tahini, a classic ingredient in hummus. The lemon made it pungent, but there was no aftertaste–just hummus flavor. The hummus was paired with a couple of big laffa, a traditional Middle Eastern flatbread that they bake in their wood-burning oven. The laffa was hot, chewy, crisp, and huge. It had a great char from the wood-burning oven, with a light sprinkling of za’atar seasoning on top. It was clear that the za’atar went on after baking, which showed a definite refinement of technique and knowledge of spices–I think that cooking za’atar often makes it lose its bold flavor. The hummus appetizer was a great start to our Middle Eastern meal.   

  

Next up were the mezze dishes, or small plates. The Crispy Grape Leaves ($10) were a little greasy with crispy, thin as paper leaves stuffed with beef. The meat was spicy, with a smoky flavor. My first one was very meaty, and the second one had some more rice, and was almost creamy in texture. The grape leaves were garnished with a harissa tahini. Harissa is a North African–often from Tunisia–chili pepper paste. Our waitress indicated that they make their own Harissa with Aleppo peppers. The sauce was creamy and aromatic, with a smokiness that echoed the cumin in the grape leaves, and a pleasant aftertaste of building heat.

We also ordered the Fried Cauliflower ($10). The dish had a great aroma, and the cauliflower maintained a nice bite and were charred. They were rubbed with a spice rub, including cumin, and cooked tossed with some raisins. The accompanying yogurt labaneh sauce was delicious. My friend used the word “exquisite.” The labaneh was seasoned with chive, dill, mint and garlic. The tanginess of the yogurt cut through the almost heavy cauliflower, and there was a touch of acidity in the labaneh that added a nice twist.

After the mezze plates, came the Al Ha’Esh, which literally translates to “on the fire” in Hebrew, but referee colloquially to barbecue. The two proteins were served over a Mediterranean rice pilaf on the same plate, and featured  number of sides. This was to encourage sharing in a communal meal, which is the way Zahav prefers their diners approach the eating experience here. The Sirloin Sishlik ($14) had bIg chunks of meat, which were perfectly grilled, and served on skewers that were removed table side. The beef had an aromatic, grill flavor and was slightly chewy. It was seasoned to perfection with definite undertones of garlic.
 
The Salmon ($14) was also cooked excellently. The inside of the fish glistened, was juicy and white in the middle. The menu indicated that the salmon came with pomegranate molasses, and I worried that it might be too sweet, but the fish turned out very savory while still absorbing the deep flavor of the molasses. The skin was nice and crisp, which was probably helped by the molasses coating.

Along with the al ha’esh plates, came a bunch of condiment garnishes. There was a Mediterranean spiced bowl of stewed tomatoes, carrots and white beans. It had a creamy consistency and its heaviness stood up to the grilled proteins. It wasn’t exactly as light as a chutney, but not as heavy as a braise. It was especially tasty with the Schug, a spicy Israeli condiment that the chef prepared with pistachios and habanero peppers. The pistachios in the schug gave it great body and deep flavor, while the habaneros lent a serious, lasting heat. The dishes also came with some rice mixed with lentils and onions that was different from the rice on the main plate. It was almost like an Israeli version of dirty Cajun rice. Finally, there were some picked veggies that had a great tanginess that haloes cut through the richness of the meats, and some black garlic tahini. The tahini was very strong, but the garlic flavor was not super prevalent. It was actually fabulous with the pickles.
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If you knew us, then you’d know that we can’t resist dessert, especially to compete our Middle Eastern feast. The Kataifi ($9) was listed as chocolate ganache with a passionfruit soufflé. My first bite had a passion fruit punch–it was sweet, sour, acidic, and creamy. The passionfruit custard was lightly dusted with nuts, and sat in a phyllo dough birds nest. The chocolate ganache was nestled on the inside bottom of the nest. The entire dish was texturally almost a play on baklava, but visually the passionfruit looked like the egg white of an egg in a bird’s nest–very creative! The dish was very playful with textures–creamy, crispy, and chewy–and cerebral.
IMG_1926The Ice Cream Sandwich ($9) dessert came with thinly sliced, sweetened beets the outer layers of the sandwich consisted of a crumbly and chewy chocolate cake, which had an almost streusel-like texture, but fudgier. The cake was slightly weird, but a good foil for the sandwich. There were also chewy candied cumquat slices on the plate, which was sweet but still kept its bitterness. The “ice cream” was a labaneh semifredo, which differs from ice cream in that it has more of a frozen mousse consistency. The cream had a unique flavor from the labaneh and wasn’t cloyingly sweet. The melon in the middle of the plate was a nice fresh way to finish the dessert. If I had to guess, it might have been casaba melon.
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Overall, all of our food was super delicious, and we were so full after our Israeli feast. The highlight of the meal for me though, was that the chef and owner, Mike Solomonov, stopped by our table before dessert. He was really nice, and talked to us about our meal, the restaurant, and how our night was going. I loved how he made time to see how we were enjoying his restaurant. Thanks so much!IMG_1925

Philly Burger Round Up: Week 3 – Marathon Grill

I’m back with the third installment of the amazingly delicious Philly Burger Round Up. I took a break for a couple of weeks for Passover, and burgers just don’t taste the same on matzah. 😁  

Last week, I had just finished volunteering and decided to go out  to dinner with a friend, but we didn’t want anyplace too fancy or fussy, and settled on Marathon Grill. Marathon is a local favorite with a few locations around Philadelphia, with good food, a nice amour of space and decent prices–it often reminds me of a modern, upscale diner. In fact, Marathon is often a brunch spot for me since their brunch quesadilla with chorizo is big and delicious!
  
For dinner, I opted for the Marathon Burger ($11.50). They also have the option of customizing your burger, but I went with the pre-customized menu version. The temperature of the burger was good, just a hair over medium rare, and it was amazingly juicy, greasy and messy in the best way possible–all burgers should be a little messy! For their beef, Marathon uses a blend of short rib, sirloin and chuck. The party tasted very gourmet, and because there was a blend of cuts, it had a nice amount of fat that kept the burger incredibly moist.
The tomato wasn’t sliced too thick, and the lettuce was easy to take off as I don’t usually like lettuce on my burgers. The applewood smoked bacon was cooked through, but still a kept some chewiness, which I love. I hate when bacon is super crisp and it’s lost all of its porkiness and meatiness. On the other hand, the bacon wasn’t flabby, and had a subtle smoky taste.
 

 

The BBQ sauce was slathered on the bottom half of the bread and also helped keep the sandwich moist–and wet. The sauce itself was spicy and had a nice bite to it–interesting, but in a good way. The cheese didn’t have a very bold flavor, but helped the sandwich keep a creamy consistency. The sweet, caramelized onions were on point and played well with the spicy BBQ sauce, especially since there was a generous portion of them on the burger. The burger was served on a country, brioche bun that was strong enough to stand up to the heavy burger. It had a slight, pleasant sweetness to it.
I wasn’t in the mood for fries, or for the other side choice of Caesar salad on the menu, so I substituted some spinach for the fries. The spinach was served in a small bowl on the burger plate and was cooked with a nice amount of garlic, though perked up a lot with some salt.
  
My friend ordered the Grilled Salmon ($15.50), which was glazed with a whole grain honey mustard sauce. The fish was cooked well, and stayed moist. The mustard wasn’t too strong as to overpower the salmon. The mashed potatoes were super creamy and absorbed some of the juice and sauce from the salmon. The accompanying asparagus was a smaller portion, but tasted delicious. The stalks weren’t mushy, and still had great texture. 
The restaurant staff was very friendly, and the servers were enthusiastic and knowledgeable about the menu. Marathon Grill was a solid weekday dinner option with a tasty, comforting old school burger.
Grade: A-
They only lost a few points because the cheese for a little lost in the shuffle. I wish it was a bit more forthright. The meat blend and onions were fantastic though.

A Farm To Table Meal from FARMiCiA Restaurant

FARMiCiA Food and Tonics

15 South 3rd Street

Philadelphia, PA 19106

 


have this fellow foodie friend, and we try to go out to eat somewhere unique every few weeks. We were supposed to go out to Zahav restaurant, but she had accidentally made the reservation for the following week instead of that night (look for a review of Zahav in a few days!). So we were walking around the Penns Landing area, when I suggested we go to FARMiCiA on North 3rd Street, a farm-to-table restaurant in Old City. I had actually been there a couple of times for brunch, and both meals had been great. So, we walked over and were able to get a great table next to one of the restaurant’s large front windows. The Farm, as it is called on their website, is all about great tasting food and drinks that are locally sourced, artisanal and organic. The inside of the restaurant is almost a blend of warehouse modernity and farmhouse comfort. There are big windows to let in lots of natural light, and the tables are decorated simply, but elegantly. The real stars here are the food and service.

  


After all that walking around Old City—searching for a replacement restaurant—we were pretty hungry and decided to split an appetizer. I had remembered having some great cheese here once, so we ordered the Trio of Cheeses ($13) starter.  The cheeses were served on a large square white plate with some pickled cauliflower as a garnish. The cauliflower provided a wonderful lightness contrast to the heaviness of the plate, as well as a great crunch. The first cheese that I tried was the cheddar, which was delicious. Not too strong, but worked very well with the fruit chutney. The chutney had, I believe, tangy sour cherries that helped cut through the rich cheddar. The next cheese was a bold feta that gave a punch of briny flavor, somewhat echoed by the pickled component of the dish. It paired nicely with the simple red peppers. The final cheese was a creamy, salty goat cheese that I ate along with some sweet and juicy red seedless grapes. Of course, there were some nice breads (and even housemade matzah since it was still Passover at the time) to go with the cheeses. Two of the developers behind FARMiCiA are the owners of the Metropolitan Bakery chain in Philadelphia. The plate came with a toasted crostini and some soft, chewy sourdough—both stood up well to the cheeses.

 

 The entrees were up next. I ordered the Yellow Fin Tuna ($21.75), which was absolutely delicious. The fish was perfectly cooked at rare/medium-rare, and served atop a chickpea purée that definitely evoked hummus-y flavors. It actually reminded me of travels in the Middle East. The spinach was lemony and slightly floral, with a subtle saltiness in the background. It wasn’t overcooked or mushy, so it gave some crunch as a textural contrast to the plate as well. The tuna medallion had a nice sesame crust, with a hint of acid and smoky flavors, but wasn’t overpowering. It lent a subtle aromatic flavor to the dish and tied in well to the chickpeas. The chickpea purée was meaty and heavy, and still semi-chunky—I love when purees aren’t super smooth so you know what’s in it! In fact, our waiter was really nice and asked the chef for me what was used to flavor the puree: saffron, coriander, cumin and garlic. There was a simple garnish of picked peppers served on top of the fish that not only cut through the heavy puree, but also highlighted the individual flavor profiles within it.  


My friend opted for a more carnivorous option of Grilled Skirt Steak ($24). The plate presentation was very elegant, with the melting herb butter on top of the steak as the centerpiece. The mashed potatoes were rustic with a subtle cheddar flavor, and not too overpowering. My friend didn’t eat much of the potatoes, but I thought they were delicious, especially with the sauce! The broccoli still had a good crunch and maintained its bright green color, but the charred aspect was sort of lost in comparison to the rest of the plate. The steak itself was super tender. Major kudos to the chef, since skirt steak is usually a tough cut—we used to use it for fajitas in my house growing up.The meat was filleted very well, with a nice sized portion,  andwas had a perfect medium temperature on it. The accompanying demiglace was delicious, and really soaked into the meat. They chose to serve the dish in a large oblong bowl, which was a goodchoice since it kept the sauce in the middle of the plate. The dish was essentially a Modern artisanal take on more traditional meat and potatoes. For some reason, it jumped out at me as an amazing version of meatloaf, mashed potatoes and broccoli that I ate growing up.

  


Since the meal was so good, and didn’t feel super heavy in our stomachs, we decided to order dessert as well. The Rich Bittersweet Flourless Chocolate Torte ($7) did not disappoint. The cake was super dense with an almost truffle-likeconsistency. It was very rich, and since it was made with bittersweet chocolate, it wasn’t cloyingly sweet. The torte came with house made mint chocolate chip ice cream. The ice creamtasted a little more like a palate cleanser than an ice cream, but was still delicious. The chocolate chips in the cream were great full sized chips, as opposed to pieces, and the cream was very smooth with a great mouth feel. The light ice cream and very heavy torte made for a nice balance of textures, and also made up for the (maybe) light meal. My only complaint would be that I didn’t sense much of the mint flavor in the ice cream, though my friend tasted it. The torte also would’ve been fabulous served hot, especially paired with the cold cream. Yum!

  

Authentic Filipino Cuisine in the Outer Boroughs

FullSizeRenderLast weekend, I was planning to attend a Greek Easter party (my first) in Queens, NY, when my friend asked if I wanted to grab some dinner before the party. Who am I to say no to dinner? So we made plans to meet up with a couple of others on Saturday night Filipino food at Papa’s kitchen in the Woodside neighborhood of Queens. As I walked the few blocks from the 7 train to where Google was telling me the restaurant was located, I noticed it seemed a bit residential. Were we going to one of these underground restaurants starting to pop up around NYC the last few years? Or maybe a dinner party through something like Feastly? Alas, while eating in Papa’s Kitchen at times felt like you were in someone’s home, it is definitely a bonafide foodery, but with homely charms.
FullSizeRender-4Opened in October of 2012, Papa’s Kitchen is co-owned by a brother and sister team. Beth, is the hostess, as well as waitress and basically the entire front of the house staff. Her brother is the chef, and perhaps the Papa of the kitchen? The restaurant itself was super cozy; an intimate,
hole in the wall–in best way possible. Beth was super friendly, and even spoke to my friend in Tagalog. As a waitress she was very attentive, which admittedly was probably easy since the space was small–my estimate was 2-3 small as well as 2 larger tables. We were a party of four, so were lucky to have a great window booth in the front.
IMG_1802This place is all about no frills, simply authentic Filipino cuisine. The tables were simply decorated with the food served on styrofoam plates covered with banana leaves with plastic cutlery. The food is not out of the box or super modern, but that’s what makes it great. Personally, I feel that places like Papa’s are missing from the NYC food scene today. Here it’s all about the pure home dishes, and all of the food tasted fresh and home cooked. Food > frills any day!
Oh, not to be forgotten, this place is BYOB, with a decent liquor store down the block. Plus, they have karaoke (for free)! Although it was king of a hard sell–a tad aggressive lol–it made the atmosphere kind of awesome.
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Most important though is the food! Since I wasn’t as familiar with Filipino cuisine as my friend, I let him take the lead and just focus on eating, and singing of course. We started with the Shanghai ($7.95) or Lumpia Shanghai, which is perhaps one of the most well-known Filipino foods. In fact, there are restaurants like Lumpia Shack in Brooklyn and the West Village that specialize in these Filipino spring rolls. Naturally, these seemed like a good place to start our meal. The Lumpia were a little greasy, but made them more authentic. They were extra crispy with a nice crunch, and reminded me of a Middle Eastern cigar dish. They came with a pork filling that was deliciously moist, and a spicy dipping sauce on the side that reminded me of sriracha. Ten of them came in the order, so we were all able to have a couple.
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Next up was the Pancit Palabok/Luglug ($8.95), a dish of thick udon-esque noodles that were cooked in a shrimp sauce with cabbage. The noodles themselves were nice and aromatic with a great chew. The boiled egg and pork rid garnishes provides a nice textural contrast. The lemon, when squeezed over the noodles, provided some much-needed acid to balance out the heaviness of the noodles.
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The Kare Kare ($12.99) entrée came out about the same time as the noodles, along with a large communal bowl of rice. The dish consisted of beef stewed with eggplant, bochnoy (a version of boo choy?) and string beans in peanut sauce. The beef was super tender and the string beans retained a nice crunch. The rice was great to soak up the sauce. A salted shrimp liquid garnish elevates the curry like dish from almost bland compared to the other dishes. Using some of the chili sauce was great with the Kare Kare as well.
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The most anticipated dish, for me at least, the Crispy Pata ($14.99) was up next. To summarize in one word: Yum! Pata refers to the pork, in this case a pig’s trotter or foot, although it doesn’t look like a foot at all when it comes to the table. The Pata lived up to its crispy moniker with the super crispy skin–almost like cracklings. The meat underneath the skin was fatty and delicious, and so moist that we used our hands to tear it off the bone. There was a nice spicy sauce on the side to slather on the meat, and a separate dipping sauce for the skin of chili vinegar. The chili vinegar was tangy with a nice bolt heat, but not too strong. It was a nice break from the heavy meat and helped cut through the fat of the pork.
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While the Crispy Pata might have been the showstopper, the dark horse might have been the vegetable dish of the night, Sitaw n Kalabasa ($10.99). The menu makes a point to note that this dish was in the vegetable, but not vegetarian category. Maybe that’s why the veggies were so hearty. It sounds simple enough, pumpkin and Asian string beans in coconut milk, but the combo was magical. The chunks of pumpkin were plump and tender, but not overcooked. They had an almost potato like meatiness, without the heft that often makes potatoes turn mealy in curry dishes. The pumpkin skin was edible as well. The coconut milk sauce was super creamy and perfectly blanketed the vegetables.
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While we were waiting for our final dish, my friends decided to order a bonus dish, as if we needed anymore, but this allowed me to sample some more Filipino cuisine, so yay! Our order of Pork Adobo ($10.99) was interesting. The pork was braised, so it was slightly meow toothsome than the Pata, but not in a bad way. If that meat was pull apart tender, then this one was almost like a grilled texture. The pork was tossed with red onions that had a salty bite to them. The onions were cooked through, but with a crunch–an almost stir fry texture. The pork was dressed with a tangy, greasy sauce with hints of acid throughout, probably from the soy sauce and vinegar used in the braise. Overall, the dish was pretty addictive; it has a building flavor, and the combination of salty and sour made me keep eating it. I especially loved having some do the rice that soaked up the adobo sauce.
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Up last was the Chicken Tinola ($11.99), which was listed as chicken cooked in a ginger broth and is exactly what you get. I somehow felt that this dish should have come out at the beginning of the meal as a starter. Beth brought the clear chicken broth to the table (in a bowl that I actually have at home), and served it to us in bowls at the table. The broth was deeply aromatic and slightly funky from the ginger. The soup had sliced red onions floating throughout, as well as knobs of fresh ginger, bok choy, and pieces of chicken on the bone. The chicken had been cooked in the broth. The chicken meat ended up being nice and tender with a subtle ginger flavor. The real star of this dish was the broth though. Even though it was the end of our meal, I ended up drinking multiple small bowls of the broth. There was a lot leftover, so I wish that I had been heading home afterwards in order to take leftovers for the rest of the weekend.
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Since the place was BYOB, one of our group went to a store down the block and got a six-pack of Modelo beer, which is from Mexico. The beer was light and refreshing, and just a lIttle bit sweet. Plus, it came in a cool bottle.  Overall, the food was delicious and super tasty. This is definitely a place to come back to soon, and I definitely feel like I’ve gotten a taste of the Philippines.