Small, Cheap & Unique
Perhaps a few people today will help these words break out of the echo chamber.
The growing readership of the FLB is humbling. I’m amazed that the site has hundreds of subscribers and that thousands come to these pages regularly to read my thoughts on food. But even regular readers don’t read every post every day. So it’s very possible that one of you reading this right now has no knowledge of the Capital Region’s culinary treasures.
I’m amazed at how many people I meet from Albany, whose families have lived in the region for generations, know nothing about its culinary heritage. Some have never tried a Capital Region Fish Fry, our signature mini dogs, or the idiosyncratic mozzarella sticks with melba sauce.
Perhaps it’s foolish, but given how much I and others have written about some of the region’s more exciting ethnic restaurants, I assume that most people are at least aware of their existence. But like the region’s edible oddities, far too many of our residents have never heard of them.
Take, for example, a recent question posted by a reader of the Table Hopping food blog.
Joe wrote, “I would have loved to visit this place, had no idea it existed. Steve could you or your readers provide us with some other small, locally owned ethnic restaurants that may fly under the radar?”
This came in response to the sad news that Shwe Mandalay appears to be closed. I’m really bummed about this, but glad I was at least able to have a chance to try a bunch of their dishes. Still, I was hoping to go back and make it a regular stop.
But Steve, who writes the blog, did indeed write about the restaurant. His post pointed his readers to a positive review of the place that ran in the Times Union. So, not only was this restaurant presented to the thousands of Table Hopping readers, but it was also put into the hands of tens of thousands of newspaper readers.
Now I’m not blaming Joe. People can’t be expected to read every story every day. Sometimes things falls through the cracks. It does make me wonder if the review would have gotten more attention if there were stars associated with it instead of just a positive write up as a casual dining joint.
That aside, I do want to take a moment and answer Joe’s question. I suspect some of this will be very familiar to many of you. However, given the question coming from a reader of the largest local food blog, I have to assume that this will be news to at least a few people here too.
The below are great ethnic restaurants that are small, cheap and unique.
Ala Shanghai – Latham
This place keeps getting better and better. Well, it’s partly that, and partly that I keep on trying Shanghaiese restaurants elsewhere and realizing just how good the food is at this regional gem. Yes, they have Americanized dishes, and they are fine. But it’s their traditional Shanghaiese dishes that steal the show. Be brave and be rewarded. And don’t even think about skipping the pork soup dumplings and the scallion pancake.
Crisan – Albany
We’ve got lots of bakeries in the region, but they are mostly all Italian. Of course there are the cupcake shops too. But what Crisan does is unique. They are an Eastern European bakery, and their cakes are like works of art. You can slide in to their narrow shop and gaze at individual slices of several cakes, a variety of pastries, and a smattering of cookies. Their preserves are made in house from local fruit picked at the height of the season, they use great chocolate, and their prices are a fraction of what you would pay for this kind of quality in the big city. It’s a gem.
La Mexicana – Schenectady
It’s a taqueria. A real goddam taqueria. In Schenectady? I don’t get it either. But I don’t care. Solid $2 street tacos, on double rounds of soft corn tortillas, served with cilantro, onion, and lime. I like their lengua, carnitas, and chorizo (even if it’s a bit oily). The kids always get a simple bean and cheese burrito, and even that is good. My personal favorite is the carnitas torta, which is a Mexican sandwich, with extra jalapeno peppers on the side to help cut through some of that glorious fat. If I’m feeling decadent, I’ll wash it all down with a horchata. Once you start eating, you’ll forget that you’re in upstate New York.
Parivar – Albany
How is Indian food unique? Because this place is all about the street food, and it’s really just a kitchen in the back of a grocery store. There are tables, but you pay your bill at the grocery store register when you’re all done. Not everything is amazing. Their bhatura is a bit too thick for my taste, but their dosas have gotten better over time. If you’ve never had one of these improbably large crispy rice and lentil pancakes, get one stat. By the end of your meal, you’ll be full, happy, and probably oblivious to the fact that you just had a completely vegetarian meal. Yeah. Go fig. There’s no meat here, but that make it no less awesome.
Persian Bite – Schenectady
Iran rocks. I might try and say something about their religious and political leaders, but when I take a long hard look at some of our religious and political leaders, I have a hard time throwing stones. From a culinary standpoint, this country is important and its influence is seen throughout the Mediterranean and Asia. Anyhow, I never expected to see an Iranian cafe across the street from City Hall. I’ve only been once, but it was thrilling. Don’t be afraid, the lovely owners don’t bite, and they are treating us to a taste of their homeland.
Taiwan Noodle – Albany
Some restaurants you go to because they are just so damn inexpensive. Taiwan Noodle is the place where you go despite its ridiculously low prices. Judging by the cars in the parking lot, most of its patrons could afford to eat elsewhere, but they come here for warming and flavorful bowls of broth loaded with slippery but firm noodles. The beef chuck is a good place to start, but the vegetarian mushroom is a deeply earthy alternative. We’re lucky to have such a place in our midst.
There’s your to do list for the week. Six places. You get one day off to recover.
Now, I’m hoping you could do me one small favor in return. Please share this list with someone. Preferably, someone who may not be into food all that much. All of these places deserve to be known outside the echo chamber of those who read the regional food blogs.
You could simply use one of the buttons below to share on different social media platforms. That’s pretty easy. But I really don’t care about boosting this post’s page views. Copy and paste the list into an email, and send it to your dentist, your bowling buddies, or your kid’s teacher. Print it out and show it to your bartender, hand it to a cabbie, or leave it in the bottom of your grocery basket. Maybe you can call into WAMC for Vox Pop’s Friday and find some way of mentioning one of these places on the air.
I think you get the picture. Thanks for helping to improve food in the region. And please feel free to add more places that I left off in order to keep the list from getting longer than it already has become.
FWIW, there is a longer related list on the FLB that can be found here.