Jim Leff

Jim Leff

A weeklong electronic journal.
March 29 2000 9:00 PM

Jim Leff

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Still haunted by the recent closure of one of my favorite restaurants (see Monday's installment), I went for a slice of white pizza, and the ricotta reminded me of the tofu at Bo; Mrs. Schneiderman at the bagel shop looked, to my grief-addled perceptions, exactly like Maria. The wind whispers "mung bean pancakes." I've really got to get out of here.

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I was thinking of pulling a Marlon Brando and running to Paris to rent a flat and have impersonal sex with a total stranger in order to shake all this off, but I decided that city isn't like the best possible place for a chowhound to decompress. So I fired up the chowmobile and set course for Chappaqua, a one-hour drive upstate. I've heard that Bill Clinton's favorite dish is Big Mac©, and, given such anti-chowhound propensities, I think he and Hill made a superb choice with their home purchase there. There's nothing to eat for miles around; this part of Westchester County is a near chow vacuum. Perfect.

I only got about three miles before the chowhound decompression plan fell apart. One cannot pass the Belmont section of the Bronx without stopping for a bourek at Tony and Tina's, and the road to Chappaqua runs right by that nabe. Well … one of the roads to Chappaqua does. Actually, it's a pretty out-of-the-way road.

OK, so I made a special trip. But man, was it worth it. Tony and Tina's, an erstwhile pizzeria, is a legendary bourek bastion. The pizza is standard, but insiders flock here for their three flavors of Albanian zillion-layered pastry pies: soft, coarsely chopped lamb, tangy cheese, or tender spinach. The insides are moist and noodly, the outsides crispy/chewy. God.

The bourek had restored some of my joie de manger, so I arrived in Chappaqua all stirred up and eager to find something great, against all hope, for dinner … decompression be damned. I'd hoped to hit a Chilean bakery in Sleepy Hollow I'd read about in a Chilean newspaper (I read all the ethnic press), but it closes early. Then I remembered a previous project, still uncompleted: Ossining, home of Sing Sing prison and, potentially, some terrific undiscovered eats.

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Many northern Westchester communities keep their minority populations underground, but Ossining has an almost mainstream Portuguese community. There are two Portuguese sit-downs and one lesser-known Portuguese barbecue joint, but I've long suspected there might be treasure hidden in the cracks.

So a friend and I zigzagged through Ossining's hilly streets in search of something undiscovered, something awesome. We passed the better known—more obvious and Zagatesque—of the two local Portuguese restaurants, and saw that they'd adopted a new, distinctly un-Portuguese name: La Puerta. A sign promises "Portuguese/Mexican Cuisine." The two couldn't be more dissimilar; think Japanese/Italian or Swiss/Jamaican. But I had a hunch it was worth trying, and I always follow my hunches (after years of this stuff, I find I'm seldom wrong; my friends never object when I make squealing U-turns when we pass places I deem to "look good").

The crowd at the bar was indeed a Porto-Mex hybrid, but no one was eating. A blackboard behind the bar promised, "Buy four drinks, get one free!" Not an auspicious sign. We were presented with terrible chips, weak salsa, and a schizo menu of middle-of-the-road Portuguese dishes and the most touristy Tex-Mex items (chimichangas, etc., etc.) imaginable. The temptation to bolt was strong. We ordered glasses of wine (clearly, I hadn't yet fully regained my chowhound instincts) and found ourselves drinking what tasted like Château Pine-Sol. But then the food arrived and all our angst melted away. It was amazing.

We'd ordered a hodgepodge. A couple of Portuguese soups were very nice, but then came chorizo quesadillas from heaven. It dawned on me that peppery chorizo sausage was the common denominator between Portuguese and Mexican cooking. In fact, the Mexican chef was using the Portuguese chef's fancy, custom-smoked rich meaty sausage, which was almost too good to melt cheese over and stuff in a tortilla. It was unbelievable. Alongside: great buttery school-cafeteria rice and refried beans that managed to be both light and lard-redolent. Pork tacos were just as deftly cooked, perked up with a mind-bendingly complex sauce full of lime juice and coriander (which, come to think of it, is the other common-denominator ingredient). We thought we had peaked, and then along came a side dish of mole poblano, a rich chocolaty-spicy sauce, that was pure ambrosia—by far the best I've ever tasted.

The chef—though forced to prepare a Tex-Mex menu straight out of Chi-Chi's—has a wonderfully fresh touch. Sure enough, he/she turned out to be from Jalisco—and quite possibly the only Jaliscan chef in this part of the country. I'd scored big-time, in a region with a chowhound difficulty rating of 9.5, no less! Tomorrow I'll attend to another unfinished project up here in the hinterlands: a Hudson Valley village that's turned Central American! 

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