Off the beaten path

Little Pepper’s Hot Pot Makes Summer Sizzle!

Posted on August 11, 2010. Filed under: Chinese, Flushing/Corona, Off the beaten path |

Not too long ago a friend introduced me to the “hot pot“. Shortly after the introduction I discovered that the traditional Chinese stew prepared with a hot pot is an extraordinary thing. I simply had to try one myself. Salivating heavily, my dining partner and I hopped onto the 7 train en route to Flushing Queens. Our destination: Little Pepper (aka Xiao La Jiao Sichuan Restaurant) Climbing down a dark and dingy stairwell to the restaurant made us briefly hesitate, wondering if we had the right place. Then, we looked up at the smiling happy pepper painted on the sign. The jolly image reassured us that our location was correct.

We moseyed in and sat down, taking a look at our options. The hot pot was not listed on the menu.  Our waitress approached us, although barely speaking a word of English, she understood exactly what we wanted. She returned to our table with a list of ingredients to cook in our stew- one side written in Chinese and the other in English. We checked off a long list of raw food items: beef, bean sprouts, shrimp, lotus root, spinach, and the list went on. After placing our order, she emerged from the kitchen holding a large concoction over flames. It was the first step, the hot pot broth. One side of the hot pot was spicy and the other milky. Next came the raw savory morsels we added into the boiling broth. We marveled at the mysterious brew. Picking up our selected items, we dropped each of the foods one-by-one into the mixtures. I chose to stick to the milky broth, while my dining partner, with no shortage of steam rising from his beet-red forehead, ate from the spicy side.

A beautiful amalgam of tastes and colors were presented as we ferociously bit into every forkful. The foods’ appearances changed drastically as we tossed it into the hot pot. Bright red peppers floated atop the hot side, tempting us with every gleam, turning our mouths into infernos. The gray shrimp went into the pot and surfaced as soft pink and white swirls. The brilliant green of the crispy spinach became a dark wilting forest, woven with shades of red. The tender slices of red beef turned into savory brown curls. And the once full-to-the-brim pot became empty within a matter of minutes. Although it didn’t take us long to devour this meal, eating it was an experience of its own, a “work-out” if you will. The ingredients fuse together to create a kaleidoscope of tastes. In other words, it was really good.

Little Pepper– 133-43 Roosevelt Avenue Flushing, NY 11354 (718) 939-7788

One- We order our raw food items from the bilingual menu list

Two- The hot pot appears over flames- left side is hot, right side is not

Three- Raw food items we checked off the list (top) to add into our pot

Four- Voila! My own personal stew is created!

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One Sharp Cookie: A Few Words With Astoria’s “Saw Lady”

Posted on August 2, 2010. Filed under: Astoria, Music & Dance, Off the beaten path |

As a child I thought that the saw had only one purpose, to cut through mom’s famous holiday fruitcake. Little did I know that the tool is also used as a musical instrument. Natalia Paruz presents New York City’s Musical Saw Festival Saturday August 7, 2010 (supported by the Queens Council on the Arts). How does one play the saw, you ask? I have no idea, so I asked Natalia. Here is what she said:

Where are you from?

I was born in Israel, but I have been in NYC  for almost 20 years.

How long have you lived in Astoria?

About 18 years.

Exactly how do you play the saw?  Describe the sound.

The most popular way for playing a saw is in a sitting position. You place the handle between your knees, hold the tip of the blade with your hand and bend it towards the floor. With your other hand you strike the non-serrated edge of the blade with a bow (such as a cello or violin bow). The sound that comes out is best described as similar to a soprano opera singer’s voice. It’s angelic and haunting.

How long have you been playing the saw and what captivated your interest in it?

I’ve been playing the saw for 17 years. I was attracted to both the sound it makes, which is so unique and different from any other sound I’ve heard before, and to the visual of a saw being played. Not only is it a striking visual to see what we think of as a carpentry tool being played as a musical instrument, but it also has a very beautiful visual effect: the saw is one of the only musical instruments where when played, the entire instrument moves.

Tell me the process of putting together the ensemble and festival?

I first organized a gathering of saw players 8 years ago. At the time there were only 5 of us saw players around. Last year our numbers grew to 55 and we even got into the Guinness Book of Records for being the ‘Largest Musical saw ensemble’ … we’ve had saw players come all the way to Queens from India, China, Japan, Canada and Europe just in order to participate in the festival!

Why Queens?

Many people tell me that I should move the Musical Saw Festival to Manhattan, but I don’t want to do that. Queens is my home, therefore I care to give back to my own community. It is so nice to see the community’s involvement and excitement over the festival. I like the fact that the festival helps draw attention to Queens and that it brings people from other boroughs as well as all over the world to Queens. It helps our local economy because all these people usually go to local restaurants after the festival, and the saw players from out of NYC stay at local hotels. The festival draws attention to Queens – it seems that many people outside of NYC don’t know about Queens. Through talking about the festival I explain to them that Queens is part of NYC and that it is worth while to visit. Also, I think it’s important for Queens locals to have cultural events right in their own “back yards”. Last week, while I was hanging a flyer advertising the festival, a lady approached to ask me about the festival. She told me that her son plays guitar and that he would be so happy to attend the festival, because it’s not far from their house and he doesn’t get to go to concerts usually because they are too far away. This is a perfect example why it is important to have the festival in Queens.

Anything to add?

One can download the festival’s flyer from and also watch videos from previous years festivals there.

The 8th annual NYC Musical Saw Festival is on Sat. Aug 7th, 2pm at the Hellenic Cultural Center, 27-09 Crescent Street (corner of Newtown Avenue), Astoria.

Admission: $10

Natalia "Saw Lady" Paruz in the musical saw ensemble photo credit- Harris Graber

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The Never-Ending Italian Feast, Made by Grandma

Posted on July 16, 2010. Filed under: Bike Journeys in Queens, Italian, Off the beaten path, Wine Tasting |

This week I cycled into the other 718- Staten Island. My dining companion and I hopped on our bikes and pedaled down to Battery Park to catch the free ferry. Our destination- Enoteca Maria, a small Italian restaurant a few blocks from the ferry terminal. It’s difficult to pin-down the menu at this place because there is a different chef every night. While other restaurants tout celebrity cooks, Enoteca Maria introduces a different guest chef every night- an Italian Grandma, who will cook for you from Wednesday through Sunday. Each Granny creates a unique menu for that particular evening, preparing dishes from her home town in Italy (step aside marshmallow yams, and get ready for some serious meatballs!)  For an unparalleled Italian feast, sit back, relax and let Grandma do the cooking.  The guest chef this evening was Maria from Palermo, Sicily cooking her special spuntino menu. We decided to try several of the small plates, each one was as unbelievably delicious as the next. Here is what we ate from Grandma’s special menu:

Fiore de Zucchina: zucchini flowers stuffed with rice, blueberries and ricotta; Caponatina Siciliana: eggplant salad with capers, olives and celery. Other items on our plates included meatballs in marinara, lemon lamb chops, and celery seafood salad. We washed it all down with a home made fruit infused red wine and ended the evening with a torta di nutella, a nutella version of tiramisu. This was by far one of the best meals I have ever eaten in my life (sorry Grandma). Although the ever changing cast of Grannies will make each experience special, there is a standard menu to choose from as well. Upon finishing our meal, we felt compelled to give thanks to Grandma Maria for all her hard work. We introduced ourselves and shook her hand as she quickly rattled off some things in Italian (most of which we did not understand) and handed each of us a slice of her special Palermo pizza. We stuffed the pizza into our already full bellies. It wouldn’t be a true Italian feast if we didn’t eat more than humanly possible. And we did.

Check out their website for the daily grandma, regional menu and wine specials.

Enoteca Maria 27 Hyatt Street, Staten Island, New York 10301 (718) 447-2777 Open Wed-Sun 3pm onward…

seafood salad

zuchinni flower stuffed with ricotta and blueberries with a side a fruit infused red wine

rosemary lemon lamb chops

nutella tart

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Sunnyside Artist in the House

Posted on July 7, 2010. Filed under: Art, Off the beaten path, Woodside/Sunnyside |

I met Juan Hinojosa last September, but it was only a week ago I saw his artwork. In his studio he creates life size collages made from found objects, think: metro cards, food wrappers and clothing tags. His works were highlighted in a New York Times article not too long ago. I decided to catch up with him and ask a few questions about being an artist in Queens. Here is what he had to say…

How has living in Queens influenced your art?

Tons.  Queens, like the rest of Manhattan is mixed with all kinds of people, both ethnically and economically.  Witnessing these opposites blend, or at times not blend, is like watching a scientific social experiment.   I reference this blend in my works on paper and installations when I place items (designer logos & candy wrappers) next to each other.  There is there blend of high fashion and low consumer goods which I like to play with.  It’s interesting that these worlds are blending and now (because of a city like New York) it’s becoming harder and harder to see who is influencing who.

You collect found materials and make collages, explain the influences and the processes you go through to create these pieces.

It’s a lot of work in itself.  I collect things off the street, flip through tons of magazines, eat lots of candy bars, and I even have friends give me stuff.  Once I have everything collected I organize everything by category, color, and other subdivisions.  It can take forever to actually get to the fun part.

Although you have a day job that pays the bills- do you ever find that trying to make money from your work limits your creativity?

I would not say it limits my creativity. Sometime getting out into the real world can be a good thing.  The only bad side about working a day job are the long hours or being too worn out to clock in studio time.  At the same time when I have my day(s) off I go crazy in my studio and I appreciate it more.

Tell me about your most recent piece and what it says.

I’m working on a new drawing (mixed media on paper) that uses the image of Marvel superhero Shadowcat, what appears to be an image of a Dior snowboard, and a bunch of other things I have collected.  It also has a large faux jem that I “got” from the display at Michael Kors.  It’s one of my new favorite pieces.

Any gallery shows or events etc coming up?

I am a group show  at the Loads of Fun Gallery in Baltimore Maryland called “WHAT’S YOUR WAR” curated by Sarah McCann and Oasa DuVerney.  In the fall I am in a group show at CASEWORKS in Memphis curated by an amazing painter Paul Behnke.  I am excited about both shows and being able to reach an entirely different audience.

Any advice for fellow artists?

As cheesy as it sound, “Don’t stop believing”.

Photo take in 2009 by Howard Romero at The Vermont Studio Center

Title: 038 Coco Summers, 2010 SIZE: 23 x 30 in MATERIALS: Ink, tape, student Metro Card, vinyl, silk screen, and stolen objects on paper

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Play Me, I’m Yours Public Art Project Places Pianos in Queens Parks

Posted on June 22, 2010. Filed under: Art, Astoria, Elmhurst, Forest Hills, Free, Jackson Heights, LIC, Music & Dance, Off the beaten path, Outdoor Recreation, Woodside/Sunnyside | Tags: , , |

This summer, Play Me, I’m Yours is touring the New York City streets. The public art project is an artwork installation by British artist Luke Jerram and presented by Sing for HopeFrom 9am-10pm 60 pianos will be dispersed around the city parks from June 21-July 5. Take a walk through your neighborhood and show off your talent in these Queens parks:

  1. Athens Square Park (map)
  2. Gantry Plaza State Park (map)
  3. Hoffman Park (map)
  4. Jackson Heights Post Office (map)
  5. Rufus King Park (map)

Play Me I'm Yours Piano in Astoria

Play Me I'm Yours Piano in Astoria Athens Square Park

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Dutch Kills the Bar Scene in LIC

Posted on June 12, 2010. Filed under: Bar-Hopping in Queens, Date Spot/ Romantic, LIC, Off the beaten path, Pubs |

Dutch Kills Bar in LIC has been infamously described by using phrases like off-the-beaten-path, speakeasy, and for the love of god, mixologist. It has a reputation for making patrons feel like they are a part of some elite members-only club, a marketing ploy that reels in customers by creating delusions of grandeur. This place makes ordinary consumers feel cool and sophisticated simply by selling them fine vodka served by a guy wearing suspenders. I too fell victim of its coolness for several reasons. Despite the pretentious air that  flows through the bar, my experience was neither unpleasant nor disingenuous. Settled into a barren strip of Jackson Avenue, Dutch Kills doesn’t draw an overwhelming crowd, thus it serves as a place of quiet conversation during happy hours. The impeccable service is surprisingly down-to-earth and courteous. The old fashioned oak booths aligned on both sides, each with its own menu nailed to the wall, are reminiscent of a typical watering hole from years gone by. There is an antique phone, cash register and other knickknacks that hang there as if they were never touched by the present time. Conjuring up images from another era is easy as you watch the bartender romancing your drink rather than mixing it. Clad in suspenders, a button-up shirt and trousers, he cleverly maneuvers his way around the bar, skillfully preparing your cocktail as he squeezes juice directly from the orange rind and breaks ice with a metal spoon right into his own hands. I tried a Sunset Park with peach infused liquor, though slightly bitter it was a refreshing break from the hot summer evening. The cocktails here are as interesting to drink as they are to watch being made. The polite service and constantly amusing scene will make me come back. Live music weekly.

Dutch Kills Bar 27-24 Jackson Avenue Long Island City, NY 11101-2918 (718) 383-2724

Sunset Park makes its way to Dutch Kills

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Indonesian Food Bazaar in Astoria

Posted on May 19, 2010. Filed under: Astoria, Astoria Street Fairs, Cheap Dining, Off the beaten path, Outdoor Recreation, Outdoor Seating/Patio, Pan Asian |

Tipped off by the fabulous Eating in Translation blog post on food related events, my dining companion and I decided to try the once a month Indonesian Food Bazaar. We hopped on our bikes and pedaled as fast as we could, arriving just in time to catch the last half hour of this delicious event. Situated in the parking lot of the Masjid Al-Hikmah mosque, this party takes place every second Sunday during the spring and summer months. You don’t have to be religious to enjoy, all you need is a big empty stomach. For lack of choice in Indonesian restaurants, this is a place in which people can go to enjoy the food of their native land while socializing with others. Everyone was extremely friendly and willing to share their culture, friendship and food with us. Striking up conversations with the locals was easy. Here are some of our photos of the bazaar. I hope to return next month. Some things we ate- soy dumplings with peanut sauce, pork and chicken kebabs, a hot ginger/coffee type drink, colorful fruity concoctions with tapioca, rice and beef wrapped in banana leaves and indonesian empanadas.

Indonesian Food Bazaar Masjid Al-Hikmah, 48-01 31st Ave., Astoria, Queens

enjoying sweets

dumplings, banana leaf and green tapioca drink

kebabs and more

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World Class Dancers in LIC

Posted on April 25, 2010. Filed under: Entertainment, LIC, Local718 Video Shorts, Music & Dance, Off the beaten path |

Juan Zapata is just 19 years old, but he already has some big shoes to fill. In 2007 the Colombian native started the Queens based dance troupe, the World Class Dancers, a group that teaches kids about improving themselves through hip hop dance classes. Every weekend the group gathers at the Long Island City YMCA to practice their moves for hours at a time in preparation for their upcoming dance competitions. I was lucky to catch up with Juan and the group to ask them a few questions and watch them showcase their talents. I had a great time while making the video. I could see that the kids bonded and saw each other as a second family. They were not only interested in bettering themselves on the dance floor, but also by applying their dance strategies to the real world. Read my conversation with Juan below to find out what the World Class Dancers is all about. Watch the video to see them in action!

Q & A With Juan Zapata:

What was your motivation?

Basically we were just tired of settling and not really challenging ourselves when we knew we had it in us to make it happen.  We also watched other crews starting to rise to the top and we knew deep down we had the potential to make it as well.

How do you go about choosing dancers- ie what is the rehearsal

process, ages of dancers, what level of dance skills?

Every few months we hold auditions but we’re pretty selective with the audition process… we always provide weekly workshops for the beginners-level dancers or ones that just want to improve.  We also encourage our advanced dancers to take weekly workshops in various locations all over the city in order to challenge them and sharpen their skills as well as their experience. The beginners practice once a week in a two hour class, the advanced rehearse three days for a four-to-fice hour session, sometimes more depending on competitions and such. Our dancers range from 11 to 22 yrs old, and our youngest member is actually one of our stars in the advanced class.  Everyone’s experience varies, but it depends on how hard the dancers are willing to work to improve on their skills; as choreographers we can always tell who’s practicing and receiving training on the side.

What does your organization do for the community?

Well we began doing a lot of charity showcases for the church we started in, helping them raise funds for a huge renovation project they have committed to.  We have also performed for local hospital/police events at Hoffman Park in the summer.  Last year we were involved in a dinner to benefit AIDS awareness day, and this Christmas we are planning to visit the Children’s Hospital and make some of these kids’ holiday season memorable.

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