If you don’t know Julia B, you should. She gave me the heads up on one of my favorite ramen spots, Bassanova, when it first opened, and is always in the know for underground concerts with an up and coming band or an art exhibit that nobody knows of yet. When I got the invite for her birthday party in the Rockaways, an area I haven’t explored yet, I was thrilled. Accompanying me on this adventure was a group that is always willing to travel for food: Julia Z, Polina, and Davis.
After a 55 minute train ride on the A train, we made our way to the Rockaway Beach Surf Club to say hi to the birthday girl.
The outside area was pretty packed with people snacking, drinking, and laughing. It’s pretty much like hanging out at a buddy’s backyard. If you’re looking for a relaxing spot to mellow out at, this is it.
Inside was the bar and a temporary MoMA PS1 exhibit with various portraits hung on the wall.
In the middle of the room was the signup sheet for Rockaway Beach Scavenger Hunt. If we had shown up 30 min earlier, we would have had no choice but to participate due to our collective competitive nature.
After downing a birthday shot with JB and sipping on Polina’s extra strong and spicy Bloody Mary, I desperately craved sustenance. On Julia Z’s suggestion, we walked a few blocks to Uma’s a neighborhood restaurant serving Uzbekistan cuisine. Since none of us had this type of cuisine, we looked up reviews of the place and saw that a NYT article mentioned the restaurant’s Korean influences from “the ethnic Koreans from the Soviet Far East who were forcibly resettled in Central Asia under Stalin.” Sounds delicious to me.
The Korean Carrot Salad was a great example of this fusion. A simple dish that consisted of crunchy shredded carrots, onions, cilantro, garlic, and korean spices.
The first thing we noticed about the carrots was how orange and vibrant they were, as if someone went crazy on the saturation level in Instagram. Next, I felt the crunch of the carrots and my lips pursed from the subtle acidity and sweetness of the pickling. Lastly, my tongue became a little numb from the korean spices. I found myself immediately reaching for another forkful of these amazing carrots. A refreshing start to our first meal.
The pitcher of fruit drink was also refreshing. It was a homemade compote of guava juice and another juice. Not as sweet and syrupy as one would think….slightly more watery and light in terms of flavor.
A plate of samsa greeted us next. A baked pastry stuffed with ground beef, onions and Uzbek spices. Flaky pastry and savory meat that didn’t lack juice. Hearty and filling.
Our last dish wasn’t as heavy. The Manti with Squash was a plate of butternut squash steamed dumplings topped with onion sauce and herbs, served with dill garlic yogurt sauce. You know, something your uzbek grandma would whip up in her kitchen. This was comfort food for me as it brought back memories of my parents making and boiling homemade dumplings. As a butternut squash enthusiast, I enjoyed this dish. The squash filling was creamy and paired nicely with the sweet onions. Dipping the dumplings into the creamy dill yogurt was one of my highlights of the trip, alas, it was over before it began. Mental note: order two portions next time! Additional items such as the borscht and lagman looked tempting but we had to save room for fish tacos and pizza coming up.
After following Google Maps for a few blocks and seeing nothing (nobody on the streets and maybe 3 cars drove by), we thought we were lost. Finally, the laugh of teenagers and the staccato sputtering of a Yamaha motorcycle broke through the eerie stillness.
We were definitely in the right place judging by the teeming line of hungry fans. Luckily, this was not the slick, modern yet soulless taco stand I envisioned. The dilapidated facade with chalkboards, murals, and chipped paint lent this taco stand an air of authenticity. People say to get the fish tacos so that’s what we did. We also got a chorizo one that turned out to be a bit dry and bland. Skip.
The fry on the fish was airy and not overly greasy. The generous fish-to-batter ratio meant that each crunchy bite was mostly moist and flaky tilapia and not batter. Did I mention the size? For $3.50, (my LA and TX peeps are rolling their eyes. Stop rolling your eyes!) the taco had substantial girth and weight. Great bang for buck. The crispy red radish discs and purple cabbage slaw with sauce were the perfect complement. My biggest regret was that I ordered only one taco in order to save room for pizza.
To take a break from eating, we met up with the birthday girl at Playland Motel. We hung out in the tavern area and played some ping-pong to make room in our stomachs. Davis’s weakness is his forehand.
The night ended at Whitney Aycock's Whit’s End, which is connected to the Playland Motel.
Known as the pizza nazi, Aycock is known for his rough edges and lack of warmth when dealing with customers. Nonetheless, his dedication to making the best pie using high quality imported ingredients from Italy has gained him a huge following.
The place was absolutely packed when we placed our order for a prosciutto arugula pie. I observed Aycock hard at work: from splitting logs of wood with his axe for the oven, tossing caramelized brussels sprouts in his cast iron skillet, sweeping the floors, and meticulously arranging generous chunks of lobster and crab for his special pie of the day.
I admired his flavor combinations from the specials posted on the pole: fiore di zucca (fried zucchini flowers) and a roasted lobster and crab pizza. This was not your average pizza joint you’d find in the city.
After about 45 minutes, our name was gruffly called and we tore into our bounty on the subway bench in about 1 minute. The crust was blistered and perfectly chewy, the prosciutto had a satin salty finish, and the peppery arugula made us feel slightly less guilty for being gluttons.
Rockaway...where have you been all my life?
Great getaway - Only an hour on the ACE from manhattan, this was my first but not my last visit. It was a nice mini vacation away from the city. It has everything the city doesn’t: sunshine, no crowds, and some peace and quiet. We went for food and didn’t have time to go to the beach. I hear it’s nice. So go grab a group of friends and visit before that rumored polar vortex hits in a few weeks.
Rockaway Beach Surf Club: Pop by here and get started with a cocktail. The Bloody Mary is quite potent. Sample a few small plates if you need some nourishment. But don’t fill up too much!
Uma’s: get the carrot salad, samsa and manti. Skip the fruit juice. I hope to try everything else on their menu next time, especially the borscht, fried lagman (handspun noodles with beef and vegetables) and dimlama (lamb stew).
Rockaway Taco: Fried fish taco, obv. Chorizo…..meh. Fresh coconut juice and the fried sweet plantains were great supplements.
Pizza: We heard Roberta’s was opening an outpost in the Rockaway area so we were pumped. When we got off the subway and asked around….nobody seemed to know what the hell we were talking about. I guess the internet isn’t always correct. Whit’s End has good pizza but be prepared for an extremely long wait during peak hours.