Signs that take playful liberties with traditional letterforms are a common sight at New York's restaurants and markets. Since the shapes of food are so familiar and widely understood, it's not unusual for amateur signmakers as well as professional typographers to draw on this collective visual vocabulary. A chicken drumstick might be swapped in for the letter I, or a slice of pizza for an A. The practice is not limited to the Roman alphabet: A chile pepper, for example, can replace one stroke of a Chinese character. A favorite of mine embellishes the script of a Central Asian country to simultaneously spell and depict the name of the restaurant.
The letter O gets a lot of attention because of its bulky shape, which is easily mimicked by many other bulky shapes. An apple or an orange, a cocktail olive or a coffee bean, a ramen bowl or a dinner plate all can readily substitute as an O, especially when given context by untransformed letters. The substitution can be so smooth that we (meaning me) often read first and look closely later. The leafy globe on the awning of Global Supermarket (former site of one location of the mini-chain Trade Fair) seemed so prosaic that I almost didn't bother with a photo. Only afterward did I notice that the globe, from an American perspective, has done a one-eighty: It shows the Old World and not the New.
Global Supermarket 75-07 37th Ave. (75th-76th Sts.), Jackson Heights, Queens 718-779-2077
Not too sweet, not too sour, not at all mango: The pale orange of this dodhi, or yogurt (small, $1.50) is the consequence of traditional food coloring.
Also shown: the mark of the dodhi maker, Rosh. According to the food-court counterwoman, the lines and dots at the left are no more than a representation of "Rosh" in Bengali script. To my eye, the dots are teasingly teardrop-shaped and suggestive of another South Asian sweet.
Jackson Heights Bazaar & Food Court 73-07 37th Rd. (73rd-74th Sts.), Jackson Heights, Queens
I was too late for the breakfast special: To my chagrin, the combo of alu dum (spiced potatoes), bhalep (flatbread), an omelette (three eggs, fillings unknown), and a choice of beverage had been discontinued. On most days, serve-yourself butter tea is still available from morning on, but the kitchen doesn't get cooking till lunchtime, when the modest dining room fills with a largely Tibetan clientele.
One crowd favorite, suggested by City Spoonful, is a plateful of fried savory pies called sha bhakleb or shabhaley (five for $7). In the absence of readily available yak meat, here they're filled with beef. Like many dishes at the cafe, sha bhakleb are prepared to order; figure on about a 20-minute wait, plus another couple of minutes to allow the hot, slightly greasy wrappers to cool to a tolerable temperature. From that point everything goes down rather quickly.
Friends Corner Cafe 74-17 Roosevelt Ave. (74th-75th Sts.), Jackson Heights, Queens 718-779-6777
They're slim: Each of these three, variously filled with beans, potatoes, or pork (shown), could have been slipped into a letter-sized envelope. They're not made to order: Except for spoonfuls of green hot sauce, applied by me, all of the preparation was completed long before I arrived. They're also cheap ($1 each), unique in New York (to the best of my knowledge), and delicious.
Tacos de canasta, also known as tacos al vapor and tacos sudados, are steamed ("al vapor") and traditionally held in a basket ("canasta"), where their collective warmth gives them a sweaty ("sudado") texture. Ideally, keeping close company with several hundred of their fellows also helps them develop an enticing juices-soaked-into-the-tortillas texture, as evidenced here.
At Viva La Comida!, where these tacos were pointed out by festival organizer Jeff Orlick, the basket simply sat on a checked-cloth tabletop. If you visit the vendor on his regular street corner, Jeff noted, look for the basket on the back of a bicycle.
Tacos de canasta vendor Junction Blvd. at Roosevelt Ave., Corona, Queens Early evenings
Pudhag, more often spelled puta, describes a dish of buckwheat noodles enlivened with egg, scallion, and chili. These, and a companion rice dish whose name I didn't catch ($5 for a small split order), were served cool, which suited the small sweltering festival site very well. The quartet of gals who prepared them were exploring the prospects of a new food business, but not Nepalese — Bhutanese.
Nepalese-American Festival 37th Rd. plaza, between Broadway and 74th St., Jackson Heights, Queens (The 2013 festival was held on June 9)
For this one-off event my SLR stayed at home, so only this take-home gift made my photo album. Many cellphones were brought into play, however; with a little searching you should be able to take a look at tacos stuffed with BBQ bulgogi, jerk pork belly paired with Israeli salad, and mojo chicken buttressed by that favorite Syracuse starch, salt potatoes.
At evening's end, Richter — the original pitmaster at Hill Country and at Fatty 'Cue, who will soon be decamping for Los Angeles and a new "fusion barbecue" enterprise — presented me with a token of the most curious fusion of the event. This menu item employed a Tamarack Tunis ewe and a version of the Central Asian rice dish called plov, and may mark the first time that a Vermont-raised heritage sheep has ever taken on the flavors of a spice mix from Kyrgyzstan.
According to the spice packet's label, printed primarily in Russian, the first four ingredients are barberries, cumin, saffron, and Bulgarian pepper; numbers seven and eight are tomato and dill. Number five reads "Zhambyl," a place name from across the border in neighboring Kazakhstan. I don't know its culinary meaning, however. And about number six of these ingredients, from Robbie with plov, I haven't a clue.
A Night of Barbecue with Robbie Richter and Josh Ozersky Alchemy, Texas 71-04 35th Ave. (Leverich-72nd Sts.), Jackson Heights, Queens April 29, 2013