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Flecks of Gold

December 30, 2010

Despite what some people may have you believe, Albany is no culinary Mecca.  Frankly, there is no reason why it couldn’t be, and that is at the heart of my frustrations with this town and its restaurants.

Still, there are some bright spots.  And there are certainly signs of an ongoing upward trajectory.  This year I encountered things that were both delicious and unexpected.  Some of them have been from regional institutions that have been around for ages, and others were from brand new ventures.

This isn’t an exhaustive list.  It’s a personal one.  And I’m trying my best to keep it to the things I have tried for the first time this year (so the Ale House wings, Capital Q brisket, Bella Napoli donuts, Bob & Ron clam strips, et al. don’t make the list).

Oh, and it’s in no particular order

Dahi Puri at Parivar Spices and Food
Never did I expect to find this in Albany.  It never even occurred for me to pine for it.  This was one of the most popular dishes at Vik’s Chaat Corner in Berkeley, where I first ate it and fell in love.  On the large side of bite-sized these crispy puffs poked open and filled with chickpeas and potatoes.  They are filled with yogurt and tamarind chutney, and topped with onions, teeny tiny crackers that are almost like a savory dust, spices and more chutney.  Each orb is placed in the mouth and explodes into an impossible array of flavors and textures.  What a treat.

New and Improved Croissants at Crisan
This isn’t exactly breaking news, but I’m really excited about it.  When Crisan opened its croissants were decidedly not French croissants.  They were Eastern European croissants.  If you are Hungarian or Romanian that’s great.  But I wanted the ethereally light crumb that is dominated by the taste of fresh butter, with a crisp exterior.  I wanted a croissant that is tender yet resilient, so that it springs back up into shape after its been bitten.  And it was terribly disappointing that Crisan didn’t have these.  But now, that is exactly what they have.  Brava.

Xiao Long Bao at Ala Shanghai
Soup dumplings have come to Latham.  Yes, they also have them at Ruby Bistro in Albany proper.  But this Shanghai treat is better at the restaurant that is dedicated to bringing Albanians a taste of Shanghai.  I never would have believed we would have a true regional Chinese restaurant that didn’t try and be all things to all people (AKA there is no sushi bar).  Not everything is a knockout.  And that’s fine.  I could make a meal out of a couple of steamer baskets of the XLB and leave a happy man.

Carnitas Tacos at the Mexican Market
Did you even know there is a Mexican market on Central Avenue at North Allen Street?  Well, there is.  It’s teeny, and if you blink, you will miss it.  But it’s on the south side of the street, right behind the bus shelter.  The menu is taped up to the wall next to the door, when you walk in (it’s on the right).  Just tell the man what you want, and he’ll run the order back to the kitchen.  You can eat it standing there, or you can take it to go.  There is not one chair or table in the joint.  But they make carnitas tacos.  Just a soft corn tortilla, the meat, onions, cilantro and some spicy tomatillo salsa.  Naturally there’s a lime and some radish on the side.  It’s not going to blow you away, but it’s the real deal, and it’s here.  That alone is significant.

Slices at The Pizza King
The Pizza King was robbed.  Damn, they make good pizza.  But I was the only judge that placed them over Marino’s in the sausage round.  That crust is just dynamite.  I’m thrilled when Little Miss Fussy hands over the end crust of her slice when she’s had enough.  How many pizzas can you say that about?  And getting them hot out of the oven just makes it even better.  If I’m in Schenectady, there is a darn good chance I’ll look for an opportunity to make it there.  Maybe if I start begging them, they will open on Sunday.

Hot Dog Chili Sauce at Anton’s
Wow, this is good stuff.  Some people on the Tour de Hot Dog thought it was too rich and heavy.  What is interesting is that the old school joints are locked into the meat sauce recipe they have been using for decades.  A new upstart can go around and taste the competition, learn what they are about, and then improve upon they.  And that’s entirely what has been done here.  Don’t think it’s possible?  Then you need to get down there and try it for yourself.

Ribs at Dinosaur Bar-B-Que
I can’t even begin to tell you how happy I am to have a place to eat good food on the river.  And by good food I mean ribs.  The pork and brisket were not impressive, but the chicken and links were definitely respectable.  But the ribs stole the show, especially since they were cooked properly.  The meat does not fall of the bone, but it does pull off cleanly.  It’s difficult to execute and most places overcook their ribs to mush because people think falling-off-the-bone is the gold standard for ribs.  Those people are wrong.

Double Ristrettos at Café Vero on Lark
Right now, I will admit, this is more about style than substance.  My first double ristretto at Café Vero was not exceptional.  But I believe it could be.  Most cafés don’t even know what a double ristretto is, much less print on their menu that all espresso drinks are made with this potent and flavorful base.  Plus all of the artwork on the walls sets a very high bar for all drinks coming from the barista.  I am very excited about this addition to the coffee culture in Albany.

Steak and Moules Frites at Garden Bistro 24
The flat iron steak with herbed butter wins the day.  But who could say no to a big bowl full of steaming mussels in a flavorful broth, served with warm crusty bread and a giant cone of fries?  What if I told you it was only about $11 and you could buy a bottle of decent wine for $20?  Good food doesn’t have to cost a lot, and GB24 proves it.  Hopefully others will notice and take the mantra of a focused, well-executed menu to many local restaurants that could benefit from this approach.

Pupusas at Flores Family Restaurant
I was driving down this distant stretch of State Street and saw a sign hanging from an eve of what looked like a house that read “Pupusas.”  While I didn’t stop right then and there, I knew I had to get back to Flores for this Salvadorian treat.  It had been a long time since I’ve had the stuffed cornmeal cake, and I never expected to be eating them in Albany.  The hours are weird, and they are closed for lunch during the week.  But it’s worth the effort to make it there and get transported to Latin America.

Closed – Moroccan Mint Tea and Cookies at Casablanca Resaturant
Within a year this small place opened and closed.  I think its relaxed pace may have doomed it.  But if you ever got the chance to enjoy their sweet mint tea and their delicious rose water scented cookies, surely you too mourn this restaurant’s closure.  And if you didn’t make it there at all, let me assure you, you missed something special

5 Comments leave one →
  1. December 30, 2010 1:04 pm

    Great list… though I really wish Ala made their XLB skins thinner! I’m happy to have them in the area, though. And, darn it, I’m *still* trying to get to Parivar. Roped my friend P into going with me when I do finally find the time (p.s. – it *is* the same Torben).

    Note for pupusa lovers: I’ve only had pupusas at Flores’s, but allegedly the El Salvadorean fellows who bought Jack’s Diner on Central this past year serve them, too…

  2. December 30, 2010 1:05 pm

    Agree about the Dinosaur–I went for the first time recently, and have to return with my better half for an expanded sampling of the menu and his humble opinion. Brisket was ho hum, but the chicken was surprising good. Ribs stole the show. Better Half thinks I’m too in love with Jewish brisket to like BBQ, but I think it’s because it was meh.

  3. Third Auntie permalink
    December 30, 2010 1:34 pm

    For all you tamale lovers, they also have tamales at the Mexican Market on Central Avenue. These tamales are wrapped in banana leaves, not corn husks. This place is a great little mom and pop store. They also have more than a dozen kinds of dried chiles.

    For the meat lovers, if you have not tried the homemade cured dry sausages and sopressata at Andy’s deli on Delaware Avenue, you are missing out on some really good salumi.

  4. Phairhead permalink
    December 30, 2010 2:52 pm

    Wait! Casablanca closed? :-( Awww balls! Loved the mint tea

  5. Ellen Whitby permalink
    December 31, 2010 2:20 am

    Are there really people out there who believe Albany is a culinary Mecca?!!?

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