The first sizzling platter flowed through the dining room of Sagar Chinese restaurant soon after our gang of five arrived. The fumes from the platter clouding the dining room and strong enough, if not to set off smoke alarms, to induce a coughing fit from Mike from Yonkers.
We were in Jamaica, on an incline of Homelawn Street just off bustling Hillside Avenue, a Halal heavy destination we had yet to explore and one of the reasons why I chose Sagar Chinese. The other was the restaurant’s designation as “Desi” Chinese. I had never heard of “Desi” Chinese and my research revealed the designation to mean a combination of Bangladeshi, Indian and Pakistani style Chinese. I, nor anyone in our group, had ever experienced what Bangladeshi, Indian, and Pakistani style Chinese might taste. It was time to find out.
Even the fried chicken…
…and the heroes on Hillside were Halal.
With a month-old baby boy now taking up some of the unused space in his gargantuan New Jersey money pit, sleep-deprived Rick was able to escape his parental chores for a couple of hours and dine with us in Jamaica. The only missing member of our group was Zio, who was reflecting on his life experiences exploring crawl spaces, boiler rooms and other dark, damp places in search of cockroaches and carpenter ants to an audience of undoubtedly rapt listeners.
We all glanced at the menu which featured traditional Chinese dishes; fried rice, General Tso’s (shrimp and chicken), sweet and sour, and that worldwide (minus China) Chinese favorite, chow mein. Along with the traditional, were a few Indo-Pak favorites like pakoras, gobi and “lolly pop chicken;” chicken manipulated into what looked like a lolly pop and presented with the “sucker” covered in aluminum foil. What made Sagar’s menu nontraditional was the melding of East Indian spices with Chinese. And one of those, the masala chow mein, immediately drew my attention.
“It’s Chinese food” Eugene declared. “We’ll order five dishes and share everything.”
No one disputed.
We started with appetizers of paneer pakora and something irresistible sounding on the menu called “chicken cake.” Making sure we choose one main course from each column; seafood, beef, chicken, noodles, and vegetable, we started with Manchurian fish, and given the choice of “dry or gravy,” choose the latter. The masala chow mein that I desired drew a weak, food snob sigh from Gerry, but was agreed to by all the others. From the vegetable column we went with the gobi masala while from the beef, decided to try the Desi Chinese version of sweet and sour. Finally, as other sizzling platters were parading through the dining room, held high by the restaurant’s waiters, the vapors clouding the room and again going right to our throats, we figured we had to try one and ordered the “Sagar sizzling chicken.”
The appetizers arrived first, identical in hue and fried golden. The pakoras were shaped like billiard balls, and after trying one, almost as impenetrable. The chicken cakes were flat round discs of spiced ground chicken and compared to the pakoras, tender as pillows. Each had their own dipping sauce and for the dense pakoras, a necessity.
The resilient paneer pakoras.
After devouring the appetizers, the entrees began to make their way to our table with the sweet and sour beef leading the way. Since pork was not an option here, the beef equivalent of sweet and sour was, thankfully, not fried and battered, but sliced and the sauce, not as sticky sweet as the familiar version. The masala chow mein, a bowl of overcooked noodles with a combination of Indian and Chinese spices had a fiery kick and was a pleasant surprise, while the gobi masala in a spicy gravy that was identical to the gravy in the Manchurian fish, astounded Eugene.
Masala Chow Mein.
“I don’t usually like cauliflower,” Eugene admitted. “But this is the best cauliflower I’ve ever had.”
Knowing Eugene’s limited background in cauliflower, we weren’t sure how much stock to put in his praise of the dish, but none of us had any complaints about it either.
We could hear the sizzling from behind the restaurant’s counter and soon the platter of smoking chicken arrived at our table. Mike from Yonkers began to cough uncontrollably. I covered my mouth and tried to push my seat a few inches away from Mike’s. I stubbornly refused getting vaccinated for the flu despite the slightly better than even 62 percent prevention rate of the vaccine. I thought my own odds in not getting sick might be just as good if I kept my distance from the hacking Mike from Yonkers, even if his cough was brought on by the Sagar Sizzzling Chicken and not the flu.
Once the smoke cleared, we dug in and made quick work of the dish, a platter of sliced white meat chicken and assorted vegetables in the familiar brown sauce accented by the presence of a few Indian spices.
While the dishes were cleared an extended East Indian family arrived, and took a large table at the other end of the restaurant. I noticed they ordered the loly pop chicken and, after we paid our tab; hitting the $20 mark exactly, numerous sizzling platters, the vapors flowing from them, made their way to their large table.
Mike from Yonkers began to cough again. Rick cleared his throat. Gerry rubbed his eyes. I could feel the burn of the fumes in my throat. “We’re about to be asphyxiated,” Mike from Yonkers hoarsely muttered.
“Time to go.”
“Yeah, it’s time to go,” I said, standing up. And though the Desi Chinese experience was, overall a very good one, respirator masks would have been appreciated.
Brian Silverman chronicles cheap eats, congee, cachapas, cow foot, cow brains, bizarre foods, baccala, bad verse, fazool, fish stomach, happy hours, hot peppers, hot pots, pupusas and pastas, and rum punch and rotis, among many other things on his site Fried Neck Bones…and Some Home Fries. Follow Brian on Twitter.