Armenian Meats and Treats

December 13, 2008

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Armenia marked the first time all members of our core trio were not fully involved in the mission.  Noquar was preoccupied with his future outside of this project, so the Nomad and I grudgingly left him to his final exams and trekked to Bayside, in the outer reaches of Queens, where we found Sevan Restaurant, 216-09 Horace Harding Expy, Queens, NY 11364.  Bayside is a strange land pairing the most nondescript houses you might ever see (the Nomad compared them to a child’s drawing of a house) with the most absurdly ornate Christmas decorations this suburban product has ever seen.  We parked the car amid all this nonsense and braved the biting cold wind to find Armenia.

The attempts at a warm homey decor in the restaurant itself rivaled that of your favorite neighborhood funeral parlor or dentist’s waiting room.  It was almost offensively inoffensive, with no trace of anything Armenian save the flat screen TV with a feed of the awkwardly staid music variety shows that seem to be an entertainment staple in Eastern Europe/Central Asia (this piercing insight is based solely on our having seen similar programming on our Albanian trip to the Bronx).  At any rate, we certainly weren’t transported by simply walking into the place.

Still, the decor was not the point, we came for the food and to chat with our Armenian server.  She was tall, thin and fair skinned, with curly blond hair.  It wasn’t exactly my (admittedly ill-informed) image of what Armenians might look like.  She opened her mouth to ask for our drink orders and out spilled the friendliest, most generic American accent.  She could have been from California, Nebraska, or Florida, but she sure as hell wasn’t Armenian.  We did, however, have some passing interaction with the super friendly Armenian owner and his family as they were passing in and out of the kitchen.  He kindly moved the creepy, garish Santa  Claus that was preventing me from pulling my seat out.

Batsurma

Batsurma

No matter, while we waited for our food and sipped our Armenian red and pomegranate wines, our experience was buoyed by the large, boisterous, obviously Armenian party feasting next to us.  They provided at least a small window into what a communal, joyous experience dining in Armenia might be.

As there were only two of us this time, we ordered as wide an array of dishes as we felt we could handle.  The food came out in a perfectly paced crescendo until we had quite a spread in front of us.  We started with batsurma, cured sirloin strips with Middle Eastern spices, which reminded me, in texture at least, of proscuitto if it were made from beef.  It was particularly delicious when wrapped in the oven-warmed flatbread that accompanied everything.  Next came lahmanjun, a super thin pie filled with ground beef, mixed vegetables, and spices.  We brought some frozen ones home for Noquar, and he is apparently already plotting where he can find more.

Pelmeny

Pelmeny

Yogurt and sour cream appeared to be particularly important components to Armenian cuisine.  Our yogurt salad (simply fresh yogurt, walnuts, garlic, and mint) was fantastic in both texture and flavor and went beautifully with our main dish.  The carrot salad came with a healthy dollop of sour cream and included garlic, nuts, cilantro, and olive oil.  A sour cream sauce also accompanied our palmeny, which were bite-sized beef dumplings that reminded me of tiny momos, for any of you who are familiar with Tibetan food.

Kebab

Kebab

A fair amount of Armenian fare resembles that of its far larger and more culturally influential neighbor, Turkey, in that there is a whole lot of grilled meat.  The most obvious exception is Armenia’s Christian acceptance of pork, which, I have to say, adds a new dimension to the whole kebab genre.  Our mix shish kebab combo presented us with our second pile o’ meat in as many countries following our monstrous pile o’ Argentinian meat.   This Armenian kebab, however, was on an entirely different plane from both the Argentinian organ fest and any other kebab I’ve ever had.  My general problem with kebab meat is that it tends to be either dry, tough, bland, or all of those things.  This platter, on the other hand, comprised of chicken, pork, and three cuts of lamb, seemed like someone had injected each piece to the core with whatever spices or marinade they were using, then magically sealed it off so that nothing escaped over the course of the grilling.  After tasting each meat in its own right, the Nomad discovered that combining the meats with the yogurt salad and wrapping them in the flat bread created a near perfect sandwich, which led her to compulsively continue eating to the point of physical discomfort.  This was very possibly the best meal, foodwise, of our mission so far.

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La Parrilla de Argentina

December 7, 2008

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It was a blistering cold evening when we headed out to Queens for our Argentina experience, one of those where you are chilled entirely to the bone after just walking one block.  Even when you are wearing your heaviest winter coat, hat, and scarf.  And this was November!

decorLuckily we warmed up right away upon entering La Porteña (74-25 37th Ave, Jackson Heights, 11372).  The hosts’ smiles, tasteful wood paneling, and soft light quickly relaxed our shivers.  Knick knacks, Argentine collectibles, memorabilia and photographs of Carlos Gardel adorned the walls.  We settled in to our table, and prepared to devour some meat.

La Porteña is a traditional Argentine style parrilla, or grill.  The menu features familiar comfort favorites like pasta (Argentina was heavily settled by Italians) but the crowds flock here for the grilled meats.  And there was definitely a crowd that Saturday night.

We were a group of five that week, and one of our guests was half Argentinian.  So we relied on her to order us the true parrilla experience.   She started us out with some grilled cheese, or provoleta, which is nothing like the stuff that goes in those sandwiches your mama used to make you, and is a common starter before a meal of grilled meat.  We also tried some slighted spicy and very tasty chorizo, (grilled pork sausage) and fried calamari (no different from any other decent calamari you’ve had elsewhere). These items were all devoured instantly, along with the basket of french bread that was set on the table.  We still had half a bottle of malbec to work on, so we sipped and chatted and waited for the main event.  So far so good.

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