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Small, Cheap & Unique

October 23, 2014

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.

15 Comments leave one →
  1. October 23, 2014 10:03 am

    Two more restaurants have been officially added to my to-eat list.

  2. jazzngas permalink
    October 23, 2014 10:15 am

    7) Mr. Poi Poi

    [Editor’s note: If you are looking for this place on Google, it’s Mr. Pio Pio.]

    • jazzngas permalink
      October 23, 2014 11:03 am

      Indeed it is Pio. Sorry.

  3. Brooke permalink
    October 23, 2014 10:55 am

    Sri Siam in East Greenbush!

  4. Elyse permalink
    October 23, 2014 11:44 am

    Have you ever tried the Dutch Pot (Jamaican food) in Albany ? The food there is excellent- and inexpensive!

    • ericscheirerstott permalink
      December 31, 2014 10:10 am

      It is excellent- just two caveats: 1. The delicious jerk chicken is a bit haphazardly butchered & I’ve found jagged bone fragments in a mouthful- eat with care. 2. The patties are probably a frozen convenience product- they’re OK, but I wouldn’t want a meal of them.

  5. October 23, 2014 1:38 pm

    I think that Shwe Mandalay closed because they were tragically underfunded and had no idea how to run a business. They did inherit an existing restaurant kitchen (an Asian one at that, with woks in the range) and probably thought they could open for the cost of the ingredients. I read a couple of reviews of their lunch and they had stopped serving before I could ever get there. So we may be clueless and tasteless in the Cap District, but this one’s not all on us.

  6. October 23, 2014 3:52 pm

    ugh, so sad to hear about Shwe Mandalay before I could get there. AND THERE’S A PERSIAN RESTAURANT IN SCHENECTADY?! done.

  7. October 23, 2014 5:22 pm

    Love Taiwan Noodle in particular. Thanks for your always spot-on recommendations, Daniel. Mr. Pio Pio is quite good. I think I’m most excited about trying out La Mexicana. I took Shannon to the Mission District last week when we were in town for the NLCS (she’s a NY native, and she’d been there once before, but I insist that she try every taqueria South of Market), and we loved the lengua burritos and nachos with queso fresco. I’m hoping for something similar up there.

    Great and useful post, and thanks again, Daniel.

  8. October 23, 2014 5:29 pm

    I should add that this time I took her to La Taqueria on Mission… maybe a staple in your SF days? ;) I figure giving her the opportunity to make up her own mind allows me the chance to tour every Mexican place South of Market once again. And that’s a circumstance I won’t reject. In La Taqueria’s favor, it just won some sort of title for “best burrito in America”… perhaps not of Albany-centric interest, but perhaps to you:

    • December 31, 2014 1:46 pm

      Ive been to la taqueria a number of times and my personal favorite thing is their chicken taco, with both crispy & soft tortillas (not either one, but both). Really good. Otherwise Im not crazy about their burritos (goto cancun!) or tacos (too much shit on them). But those chicken tacos…man, I dream about them.

  9. buffsoulja permalink
    October 23, 2014 7:05 pm

    I’ll the dumplings and soup at Northeast Dumpling House. Mighty fine.

  10. Jessica R W permalink
    December 16, 2014 3:19 pm

    Other suggestions: Muza (Polish) and Ali Baba (Turkish) in Troy.

  11. January 16, 2015 8:43 pm

    5/6. We haven’t been to Crisan in some time, but that’s because I’m not big on desserts unless it is a special occasion. I recommend it highly to people. La Mexicana is amazing, but in Schenectady so we don’t go often. Parivar is DELICIOUS, and we need to get back there. Taiwan Noodle is a regular in our takeout rotation. And you know how I feel about Ala Shanghai.

    Persian Bite was not on my radar. Now it is.

    (I’m way behind. I told you!)

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