Thursday, October 22, 2009

The Ethnic Exception

Last night I went to Kuma Inn on Ludlow Street, the week before I finally made it out to Los Hermanos Taquerias in Bushwick. Both very reasonably priced places with cult followings that serve very tasty authentic food (at least from the small sampling I tasted).

Los Hermanos is in what looks like a converted car wash. The restaurant part being a glass walled partition that allows you to look out into the emptiness of what is now storage and prep area. It's a small place with a few tables and a few stools. You have to write your order down on a card and give it to the people behind the counters. Los Hermanos is ridiculously cheap.

Refrescos, Mexican Sodas are a buck fifty, water a buck and coffee seventy-five cents. The menu is split up into 6 sections, Taquitos, Tacos, Tostadoas, Tortas, Picadas, Quesadillas.

I'd never heard of a Picadas, the guy before me in line said they were his favorite, so I got the carne enchilada version (spicy pork) it was $3, my friend got the veggie version (beans and cheese and lettuce) also $3, with a side of guacamole for an additional whopping .25 cents for a small plastic container.

Pickled Jalapenos, red and green hot sauce are free for the taking.

A Picadas are 9" or so, round, like a tortilla only thicker and all the ingredients are piled on top.
With two bottles of soda water the meal for 2 was $9.

Even including the subway fare to get there this has to be the best bargain in town. The food was fresh, tasty and served up post haste. My friend Elizabeth who lived in LA for many years said she had never tasted authentic Mexican food in NYC until now.

Kuma Inn is on Ludlow just north of Delancey, outside is a doorway with a very unassuming, homemade sign just inside the dingy doorway is a menu pasted on the wall.

To get into Kuma Inn you have to walk up a long fight of the stairs as if you would if you were going to visit a friend in their railroad tenement flat or maybe in days of yore a speakeasy. I think part of the appeal of Kuma Inn is it's out of the way (though it's not really) secret hideaway feeling.

When I reached the top of the stairs a very serious waiter asked me if he could help me, I said I wanted to eat here, to which he asked if I had a reservation?

A reservation? This is exactly reservation territory nor did it stick me as that at a cheap and cheer pan Asian restaurant on the second floor of a walk up would I need one, this isn't Gramercy Tavern and I wasn't looking for a five course prix fix just a bite to eat.

I told him no I didn't have a reservation, that there was just one of me. I could see clearly there were several empty tables and no one else waiting. It was a bit off putting, as it seemed out of touch with the look of the place.

He told me to have a seat and he would see what he could do. OK.

Then he told me it was cash only, which was very helpful I said I would run down and get money, as I needed to go to an ATM. When I climbed the stairs my second time I was greeted with a more encouraging, I can seat you right now.

Once seated in a lovely little corner deuce I survived the room, windowless and noisy were my first two thoughts. The room is done is what I would call Thai beach hut decor was my first thought, very beige and lots of bamboo all sort of assembled around the room with some odd sort of sand line that connects everything.

The waitress comes over and tells me the long list of specials and asks me if I had been here before, when I admitted I was a virgin she gave me the run down. In the end she told me what to order and was right on. The Chinese sausage, fried with golden brown sweet onions, served with a dipping sauce of lime and fish sauce, a side of sticky rice garnished with black sesame and a side of Bok Choy which was poached in a broth (I didn't ask but a something about the broth made me think it might have had chicken or pork stock in it). Kuma Inn is a BYOB establishment with different corkage fees depending on what you bring, beer for example is a buck, wine is $5 and a 1.5 L bottle of Sake is 10. A bargain.

Even though they bill themselves as serving Asian Tapas my sautéed Chinese sausage with Thai chili-lime sauce was a main course size portion and was $11.50 the sautéed market greens (Bok Choy) where $8. $19.50 for two courses is a fair price fro dinner in Manhattan and because it was in a place where booze wasn't sold it was easy and quilt free for me to just sit there drinking New York tap water.

In writing about Low Hermanos the first time I mention my problem with eating out at places where the food is good but there is no emphasis on organic or farmers or local anything. For the most part these days, even though I live in an amazing neighborhood for restaurants I eat at home, because I know where the food I'm eating at home comes from. My food is traceable.

At a restaurant, any restaurant, it is only as traceable as the restaurant tells me.

I hate that I've become the person asking the waitress at Marlow and Sons if they are using corn syrup in their deserts. I particularly hate that at so many of the better places that my questions are greeted with an incredulity that I feel is unwarranted. All I'm really looking for is a place where there is consistency. Don't sell me grass fed local, humanely, raised cows made into hamburgers and then serve with it Heinz ketchup made with 2, yes count 'em, 2 different kind of Monsanto certified genetically alter obesity causing corn syrup.

Why would you do that?

Probably for the same reason that when I go to restaurants like Los Hermanos and Kuma Inn searching for an authentic experience and flavors I throw up my arms and order the first tortured living in it's own shit commercially raised in the darkness of a CAFO (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation) piece of pork I can get my hands on.

Not because I am such a big fan of pork mostly I've spent a life time avoiding it and most meat, but if I go to a restaurant now and someone says this is the dish (as the waitress at Kuma did) I want to try the dish and see. The people of Asia and Mexico are not going out to restaurants and asking the waiter if the pork was humanely killed and did it live under the sun under the lovely gaze of a farmer.

They just aren't.

My stark choice is to stay at home or go out, rarely, and make the decision to make an exception.

The reason this is so on my mind is because it is so rare that I eat at places like these, but enthnic food in particular in this city is never organic or local or anything (and if you know of a place please let me know and Suen doesn't count).

I’m confronted by my hypocrisy: in both cases the food was delicious and cheap, but that is exactly what people who eat burgers at fast food joints say and I'd easily tell you that you should never eat a fast food burger. We all make our exceptions and I suppose if there is an point to this post it is simply how hard it is to actually live an urban life and eat out and be consistent with ones beliefs especially if they involve eating food that is not only good for you but responsibly grown and raised.

Good Luck!

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