Sunday, July 31, 2016

Wondee's in Hackensack is struggling with one cook and one server

SOME LIKE IT HOT: A half-dozen colorful and flavorful takeout dishes from Wondee's Fine Thai Food and Noodles in Hackensack, including a whole sea bass I'm guessing weighed nearly 2 pounds, below. Four of us ate really well with leftovers.


The chef at Wondee's in Hackensack pushed open the kitchen door and walked briskly, balancing a freshly prepared dish that was still steaming when she set it down in front of a customer.

It turns out Chef Air-Arisa Katengamkam, who is in her late 20s, was working alone in the kitchen of the popular Thai restaurant on Saturday afternoon with only one server in the dining room.

Wondee's has changed in the many months since the original owner, Chef Wandee Suwangbutra, and husband Tom retired to North Carolina.

But judging from the six takeout dishes I picked up on Saturday, Chef Air-Arisa still is doing a great job with preparation and spicing, and continues to deliver delicious Thai food at moderate prices.

Other areas suffer

I drove over to Wondees around 4 on Saturday afternoon to place my takeout order, because I didn't have a menu.

I last visited the restaurant in January and before that in October and August 2015.

Wynn, the lone server who has worked at Wondee's for many years, greeted me and remarked that he hadn't seen me in ages.

Only a couple of tables were occupied, but he had his hands full. 

After I placed my order, I sat down at a table for two that didn't seem clean, so I moved -- and moved again.

A mat inside the front door looked as if it hadn't been swept recently.

When I went to the men's room, it was clean and had soap and paper napkins, but there was water covering the floor from a leaking toilet tank.

Wondee's was never know for its decor, including a dark-blue carpet that became torn and worn years before it was removed in favor of a refinished wooden floor. 

Now, the improvements Chef Air-Arisa made look dated, the place is almost as shabby as before and the dining room doesn't even look clean.

What does future hold?

I spent about an hour at Wondee's on Saturday afternoon, and when I left around 5, only four tables were occupied.

Still, Chef Air-Arisa and Wynn were having trouble keeping up with orders, and some menu items were not available.

Wynn said a new menu should be delivered in about a week with fewer items than before.

I've enjoyed Wondee's low prices for years, but don't think the restaurant can survive if it continues to charge only $20 for a whole fish weighing nearly 2 pounds or $10 for Pad Thai.

Maybe, Chef Air-Arisa can find a smaller space in Hackensack at less rent than she is paying now or just do takeout until she can hire more staff.

Wondee's opened in 1997 and would celebrate its 20th anniversary next year.

THAI FLAVORS: My plate included, clockwise from top, a spicy and crunchy Som Thum or Green Papaya Salad ($8); Pla Ma Now, a steamed whole fish with chili pepper, garlic and lemon juice ($20); Large Shrimp in sweet-and-sour chili sauce ($17); and Pad Thai, rice noodles with shrimp, egg, bean curd and ground peanuts ($10).

DON'T DUCK: We also enjoyed a Crispy Duck Salad, lower right ($11), and a large Wonton Soup with roast pork and vegetables, not shown ($9), which was enough for three. 


Wondee's Fine Thai Food and Noodles, 296 Main St., Hackensack; 201-883-1700. BYO, parking lot in rear off of Camden Street. Takeout, but no delivery. Open today until 8 p.m. See:

Meet the new chef at Wondee's

Saturday, July 30, 2016

Enjoy extras at Esca from a chef who has 'a gold mine in the basement'

Edible 21-karat gold leaf crowning Goat Milk Gelato with Lime Spuma and Watermelon Granita, a dessert that was on the Restaurant Week menu at Esca, one of Manhattan's top seafood restaurants.


Esca is always my first pick when Manhattan's Restaurant Week promotion comes around.

The Southern Italian seafood restaurant doesn't stint on the complimentary extras, even when offering a three-course lunch for $29, plus tax and tip -- about half of what you'd pay if you ordered a la carte.

After we placed our order from the limited Summer Restaurant Week menu on Thursday, we received a pair of delicious Bruschetta with white beans and preserved mackerel.

Then, we were brought a small bowl of olives, and offered three kinds of bread. When I asked for extra-virgin olive oil for the bread, the server poured a generous amount in a small plate. 

I splurged on a 2-ounce tasting of three wines -- one with each course -- for an extra $17.

My wife's first course on Thursday was this wonderful Zuppa di Pesce Amalfitana, a fish-filled soup surrounding a tomato-and-chili bruschetta; I had Calamari, below. 

For my starter, char-grilled local squid was served with radishes, hot red pepper, lemon and parsley.

 Go fish

Our entrees were Lanzardo,  a whole grilled Boston Mackerel with Salsa Verde; and Lampuga alla Siciliana, grilled Sicilian Style Mahi-Mahi with Marinated Summer Beans and Toasted Sunflower Seeds.

I tasted both, and each fish was perfectly grilled with a nice char. My only complaint is that my meaty mahi-mahi could have used a little salt.

I envied a woman at the next table who ordered the third entree on the menu, Conchiglie, a generous serving of House-Made Shells with Mussels, Clams, Conch, Cherry Tomatoes and Smoked Chilis.

Complimentary Bruschetta with preserved mackerel, above, and olives, below.

I was lucky to get the heel of a large loaf of bread with a crust that was so crispy it shattered, plus delicious extra-virgin olive oil for dipping. The great service included cleaning bread crumbs and crust off of the table between courses.

Sicilian Style Mahi-Mahi.

Boston Mackerel with Salsa Verde.

Golden finish

We usually never order dessert, but on Thursday, we decided to try two Watermelon Granita with Goat Milk Gelato and Lime Spuma, and were rewarded with a piece of edible 21-karat gold leaf crowning the ice cream.

I asked one of the maitre d's circulating in the dining room whether we were, in fact, eating real gold.

He said yes, and to be considered edible, the gold has to be a minimum of 21 karats (24 karats is pure gold).

Then, he got a good laugh out of us when he said: 

"The chef has a gold mine in the basement."

The way I see it, Chef Dave Pasternack's gold mine at Esca is in the dining rooms and bar, though probably not if you order the price-fixed Restaurant Week menu.

The entrance to the main dining room at Esca, 402 W. 43rd St., near Ninth Avenue, New York, N.Y.; 1-212-564-7272.


NYC Restaurant Week runs through Aug. 19, offering a three-course lunch for $29 and a three-course dinner for $42, plus tax and tip, at hundreds of restaurants in Manhattan ($4 more than during the promotion in January). Reservations are recommended.

During the Restaurant Week promotion, you can get $5 back, if you use an enrolled American Express credit card and spend more than $35 in a single transaction, up to four times.


Seafood trattoria

Summer Restaurant Weeks

Spend $35, get $5 back

Thursday, July 28, 2016

At Walmart, high food prices and low wages pave the road to fat profits

From bananas to wild-caught sockeye salmon, food prices at Walmart in Teterboro are higher than at the Costco Wholesale across the parking lot and on par with ShopRite in Paramus. 


I've been boycotting Walmart stores for years after reading workers are paid so little that many have to apply for food stamps or other government assistance to make ends meet.

On Tuesday, I finally spent a little time in the huge Walmart in the Teterboro Landing Shopping Center, looking at food prices and comparing them to Costco Wholesale, ShopRite and H Mart, the three stores I rely on most.

The food section of the Walmart off of Route 46 in Teterboro resembles a traditional supermarket. 

I didn't walk down every aisle and look at every item.

But after hearing for years about Walmart's "low prices," I was surprised to see that most of the food I looked at was priced higher than at the Costco across the parking lot.

For example, Walmart charges 58 cents for a pound of conventionally grown bananas, so 3 pounds would cost $1.74, compared to $1.39 for the same 3 pounds at Costco.

Costco also offers 3 pounds of organic bananas for $1.99. 

Workers at Costco and ShopRite belong to unions, which are unheard of at Walmart.

Of course, to shop at Costco you are required to pay an annual membership fee of $55 or more, but you can recoup that two or three times over from cash rebates at gas stations, restaurants, and purchases at Costco and other stores.

Walmart in Teterboro resembles a traditional supermarket, and many signs are in English and Spanish.

A pint of blueberries at Walmart was a high $2.64 on Tuesday, compared to $1.99 at H Mart in Little Ferry (a pint weighs about 12 ounces). The Teterboro Costco had 32-ounce containers of New Jersey Blueberries for $4.99.

At Walmart, 1 pound of Organic Spring Mix was $5.98 on Tuesday, above and below, compared to 1 pound of Earthbound Farm Organic Spring Mix for $4.49 at the Costco across the parking lot.

Both Costco and ShopRite offer organic ground beef for less than what Walmart charges.

A half-gallon of Walmart's brand of lactose-free milk is 1 penny less than the regular price for ShopRite's brand of lactose-free milk.

Fresh wild sockeye salmon was $14.84 a pound at Walmart on Tuesday, compared to $9.99 a pound at the Costco in the same shopping center.

Walmart's fresh halibut was $23.94 a pound, significantly higher than at Costco.

Walmart has a far more limited selection of fresh fish than Costco.

At Walmart, a 1-pound box of Barilla Whole Grain Spaghetti, made from 100% whole wheat, was $1.18, but at ShopRite, you can buy 1 pound of Luigi Vitelli-brand Organic Whole Wheat Spaghetti from Italy for only 11 cents more. And the 1-pound box of Whole Grain Penne on the shelf above costs more than a 1-pound package of imported Organic Whole Wheat Penne at ShopRite.

A 59-ounce container of Tropicana Orange Juice, right, costs more at Walmart than at Costco.

Before I started shopping at Costco Wholesale in Teterboro on Tuesday afternoon, I had a large cup of non-fat vanilla yogurt from the food court ($1.35), and sat near two workers from Walmart who had come over for lunch. When they left, they didn't bother cleaning up their table, above.

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

During lunch rush at Starbucks in Little Ferry, two customers act selfishly

SOLES, NOT SOULS: At the height of Tuesday afternoon's lunch rush at the Starbucks on Route 46 in Little Ferry, two selfish young women made clear they didn't want anyone sharing their table for four.

NOT MUCH ROOM AT THE INN: Empty seats were hard to come by as the line to place an order grew.

CARS AND DUMPSTER: The busy Starbucks Coffee at 300-02 Route 46 west has a drive-through window, as well as outdoor tables and chairs without umbrellas, but not much of a view, above and below.

STOOL PIGEON: I sat on an uncomfortable stool at a counter inside the front window to sip a cup of dark roast coffee ($1.95) and eat my Fruit & Nut Box, which also contained three pieces of full-fat cheese, thin crackers, sections of green apple and dried fruit ($4.95).

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Putting a delicious summer meal on the table for less than $7 a person

Fresh whole wild-caught whiting were $1.99 a pound on Sunday at H Mart, 260 Bergen Turnpike in Little Ferry. Six of them, enough to feed four, were only $7.72.


Why whiting?

If you love whole fish, pan-fried whiting are among the easiest to eat, because of a single center bone surrounded by flaky morsels of sweet flesh.

A Sunday dinner with whiting, sauteed greens, a salad and fruit for dessert costs under $7 a person.

That's a guesstimate for a meal that included lettuce and fruit I had on hand, and leftover organic brown rice as a side dish for other family members.

After washing, cutting up and spin drying, Chinese Broccoli is easy to saute with olive and sesame oils, a little red wine, and such seasonings as garlic powder, red-pepper flakes and sea salt.
AT H Mart in Little Ferry, I bought almost 2 pounds of Chinese Broccoli, which was on sale for 98 cents a pound.
I also had a salad of Romaine Lettuce with grape tomatoes from my garden, dressed with extra-virgin olive oil and balsamic vinegar.

Saturday, July 23, 2016

Day trip to the Jersey shore: Viking Fresh seafood, a stop in Red Bank

This seafood shack is part of Viking Village, the name given to a lobster-fishing co-op Norwegians founded in the 1920s in Barnegat Light, on Long Beach Island. When the lobsters got scarce, the co-op evolved into today's scallop, gill-net and long-line fishing operation.

From the lunch menu at Viking Fresh Off the Hook, I ordered these beautifully fried wild-caught sea scallops with house-made coleslaw and a side salad instead of french fries ($14.95), above, and my wife chose a Fried Soft-Shell Crab Sandwich with a side salad ($12.95), below.


BARNEGAT LIGHT -- I've been in love with the Jersey shore since I was a kid growing up in Brooklyn who luckily got to spend every summer in Bradley Beach.

Now, one of my favorite places to visit is this fishing port on the Atlantic Ocean, where you can sample seafood fresh off the boats that dock at historic Viking Village.

We drove down on Friday for lunch under an umbrella at Viking Fresh Off the Hook, which is strictly takeout, but which serves those incredibly delicious sea scallops the fishery is best known for.

The informal setting at Viking Fresh Off the Hook didn't stop three women at another table from washing down their lunch with a bottle of prosecco, a sparkling wine from Italy.

Inside Viking Fresh Off the Hook, you can find prepared seafood, including a lobster salad for $36.95 a pound, right rear. The takeout shack is at 1905 Bayview Ave., Barnegat Light; 1-609-361-8900. Open until Labor Day.

Barnegat Light is one of New Jersey's biggest fishing ports, above and below.

Viking Village includes a fresh-fish market.

Jumbo crab cakes -- "made with love" -- were $8.50 each.

The best sea scallops are "dry," such as these in the Viking Village market. If you see scallops in liquid, avoid them and the preservative they are swimming in.

A sign of the times in Viking Village.

Viking Village is at 1801 Bayview Ave., Barnegat Light. Nearby, old fishing shacks have been converted into gift shops.

Even the tolls can't diminish the beauty of the Garden State Parkway.

Fridays during the summer are not the best time to visit the shore, as you can see from traffic on Route 72 heading for the bridge to Long Beach Island. This backup was caused by an accident, but on the way home Friday afternoon, we saw four lanes of bumper-to-bumper traffic on the southbound Garden State Parkway.
On the way home, we stopped at the Oyster Point Hotel in Red Bank, with vistas of the Navesink River, above and below.

At the hotel, Tesla Motors threw a reception for owners of the all-electric Model S, Model X SUV and Roadster, and their guests, and served Jersey specialties, including sausage-and-pepper hero sandwiches, pizza and salt water taffy.