Soo Chow is an old romanization for Suzhou, a city in eastern China fabled for its canals and classical gardens, a tourist hotspot as well as a popular destination for weekend getaways from its much more populous neighbor, Shanghai. Cliffside Park, New Jersey, hasn't held a similar appeal for New Yorkers in decades, not since the demise of Palisades Amusement Park in 1971. Petite Soo Chow — heir to a Manhattan restaurant of the 1980s — today might be the tiny borough's most notable attraction. There's much less fanfare but much better food.
Shown, about two-thirds of an early afternoon feast: pork in aspic; jellyfish and celery; sheng jian bao, pan-fried juicy buns; eight-treasure duck; Shanghai lo mein; eel and pork belly; vegetables in tofu skin, complemented by chewy noodle knots; nian gao. This version of the glutinous-rice confection — also called Chinese New Year cake or simply year cake — was apparently sweetened with brown sugar before being steamed, cut into slabs, and pan-fried. Served hot.
Petite Soo Chow 607 Gorge Rd. (at Oakdene Ave.), Cliffside Park, New Jersey 201-313-1666
To package designers, pictures are a time-honored shortcut for signaling flavor, especially when space is at a premium or when language may be a barrier. Pictures can also be much more enticing than words alone, provided that they can be recognized with little conscious thought — hazelnuts to the left, pineapples to the right. You might need another moment for the third flavor, in the center, since the image is one of convenience; we don't eat the bright red flowers of the poppy, we eat the specklike black seeds.
Not quickly apparent, unless you read Russian or unwrap your candy in the store, is that all three varieties ($6.99 per pound) are enrobed in chocolate. This is a poor match for pineapple, a classic pairing for hazelnuts, and an even better one for poppy seeds; the texture is midway between Kit Kat and Cadbury Flake.
Normally I prefer to cut up my own food. From the evidence at other tables, however, I gathered that this is the bakery's standard presentation of kol boregi, sometimes called by the prosaic name spiral borek. As served, the kiymali kol boregi (with ground beef, $6.50) does make a dramatic appearance. The closeup reveals the layered dough, flaky outside and chewy inside, and the crumbly yet moist filling. One of multiple pine nuts is in clear sight; some raisins were tucked in there, too. Perhaps slicing the boregi before serving is all for the good — it's so much easier to share.
Early this year Istanbul Borek will move to a much larger location a few blocks to the west. According to a staffer, the new premises will offer more than 100 seats rather than the current 20 or so. Thanks to the fellows at nearby butcher shop Mezbah for the early word.
Istanbul Borek 655 Palisade Ave. (Crescent Ln.-Columbia Ave.), Cliffside Park, New Jersey 201-945-5055
"How much?" "One dollar" (each). My conversation with the proprietress lacked nuance, so despite her assurance that these three Korean rice cakes were "sweet," I wasn't too surprised to discover that they were more colorful than sugary. (This is typical of Korean confectionary, as I've found before.) From a display of a dozen or so varieties, I noted down their names — purple "gogooma," white "com," and green "nokcha" — which seem to indicate the base flavors and not the add-ins. Gogooma is sweet potato and nokcha, green tea. For the time being I'll consider com, which had a grainier texture than its smaller kin, as the "plain" rice cake. Further insight from EIT readers welcome.
Arirang Rice Cake 212 Broad Ave. (Homestead-Brinkerhoff Aves.), Palisades Park, New Jersey 201-461-8882
(This venue is closed.) Suvanique is a celebratory dish that has gone mainstream, at least in its native land. Especially when prepared for a big occasion, a traditional Guatemalan suvanique includes two or more meats that are set into a vessel lined with enormous, emerald green mashan leaves; the leaves are tied shut, then the vessel is filled with water and set into a fire pit, where the dish steams for many hours. Though I'm sure that my humble chicken suvanique ($7) was cooked on a stovetop, and in an unlined pot, given the ample accompaniments of salad, rice, and (not shown) black beans and soft, fat tortillas, for a midday meal I didn't want for more.
The dish is spelled at least four different ways at neighboring establishments. "Suban-ik" is closer to a baseline version; the ending "ik" means "chili pepper" in Q'eqchi', a Mayan language still widely spoken in Guatemala. Despite the etymology, such dishes tend to be piquant rather than fiery.
Also shown: ponche (small, $1.50). Though a Thanksgiving turkey decoration was hanging on the wall, this Christmastime treat was already on offer in mid-November. (The pace of the holidays seems to be faster all over.) Ponche is both a drink and a dessert: After drinking off the thin liquid, you eat the fruits with a spoon. This batch was thin on spices but thick with fruit, including apple, plantain, pineapple, and raisins.
Delicias de Guatemala 300 Anderson Ave. (Cliff-Walker Sts.), Fairview, New Jersey 201-945-0184
Many dialogues between immigrant populations, it bears repeating, cross language barriers without the mediation of English. On some recent occasion — recent enough that the relevant sign is the only one drawn by hand — this shop's Korean proprietors came to realize that what they sell to their core clientele as "ogsusu" (a transliteration of the three stacked characters) can also be advertised to the local Spanish-speaking community as "elote". The illustration clarifies that this corn comes on the cob. As for appropriate preparation and seasoning, however, that Korean-Spanish conversation is a tale for another day.
Arirang Dumpling House 318 Broad Ave. (Central-Palisades Blvds.), Palisades Park, New Jersey 201-585-1944
In Guatemala, as in Mexico, tortillas that are no longer fresh enough to be used for tacos are sometimes deep-fried and served as tostadas. The toppings, at least in theory, are just as diverse, though in a brief survey of nearby eateries that prepare comida Guatemalteca, I found only three varieties of tostada: with salsa, with avocado, and as shown here.
Like Chinese-American chop suey, this topping's history is long and its place in its adoptive culture, secure; without fear of judgment, many kitchens make it from purpose-made packaged noodles. (Very possibly this was true for the case at hand, but I can't say for sure.) If a mashup like tostadas de chaomin ($2 each) seems too abrupt an introduction to Chinese-Guatemalan cuisine, Ixmukane will prepare an entree-sized chicken chow mein, too, tortillas on the side.
Ixmukané Restaurant 139 Anderson Ave. (Kennedy Dr.-McKinley St.), Fairview, New Jersey 201-313-0322
Skewers taste better when grilled outdoors. Even if the meat is not top quality, the romance of roughing it seems to improve the flavor. And when the beef is juicy and well-seasoned, as on these shish kebabs, camaraderie becomes playful competition: Who gets an early sample, straight from the grill? Who, back in the comfort of the church hall, gets the last tender chunk of meat?
Also shown: muhammara and hummus, two of a half-dozen or so side dishes; moushabek, representing for a long, varied table of sweets.