Our food scene has become incredibly diverse over the 20 years I’ve covered it. Where there used to be two Indian restaurants, there are now a dozen. Thai and Vietnamese are everywhere, and it doesn’t even come into the abundance of dining options.
My writing work on Cheap Eats leads me to seek out delicacies at reasonable prices. During my travels, I have come to know some exceptional dishes which, perhaps, are perhaps forgotten.
There are Italians and Indians on the list, vegans and Vietnamese. The common thread is that all are exceptional and deserve a special trip.
Charred Ricotta Bread at Rocco
165 Monroe Avenue, Rochester; (585) 454-3510
Seriously? Start this list with burnt bread and cheese? Simplicity and essential. Intention. Rocco chef and owner Mark Cupolo is a guy with individual tastes, and one of them is for the bitter side that controlled burning brings to many dishes. Cupolo’s bread is darkened to perfectly complement the crisp, bright flavor of the house ricotta. Olive oil, herbs, black pepper and pecorino add texture and aroma. It is, in a word, perfect.
Hot pots at Yummy Garden
2411 West Henrietta Road, Brighton; (585) 368-9888
A friend sent me here to try the cold squid and seaweed salad. The waiter was mystified when I asked about it, finally giving me a taste of something they include in their bento boxes. It was good, but my son and I went with the hot pots, and man, what a blast it was! Tables have holes with heating elements at the bottom, and you start with an order of broth (we tried the kim chi broth). It comes with a plate of vegetables, mushrooms, tofu, fish patties, and an egg. You wait for the broth to boil, then begin to cook your items. As you do this, the broth expands. And of course you can add extras for cooking: meats, fish, mushrooms, dumplings, noodles and more. It’s easy to get carried away, but just start. And a pot of broth is really enough for two people. Completely unique in the ROC, and super fun.
Farrouj plate at Sinbad
719, avenue du Parc, Rochester; (585) 473-5655
I chronicled favorites 15 years ago. This is the only item that remains on my list. Sinbad owner Ziad Naoum marinates a Cornish hen then practically encrusts it in garlic and cilantro before cooking. It serves it over a pita topped with a garlic sauce, and it’s as good as any menu item at any price in town. The hen is bursting with flavor, the meat tender enough to drink. The encrusted skin is the best part. And the garlic and juice soaked pita at the bottom isn’t an afterthought. You will want to take your time and leave only a small pile of clean bones.
Pozolo rojo in Itacate
1857, chemin Penfield, Penfield; (585) 586-8454
When Chris Lindstrom of the Food About Town podcast (www.foodabouttown.com/) says something is one of his best dishes in the area, you try it. I couldn’t find a partner, so I had a date with my pozole. The options were blanco (relatively simple), verde (with green taupe) and rojo. The waitress took me to the rojo. Many cultures prepare bone broth with meat, starch, and toppings – think Vietnamese pho or Japanese ramen; it’s a Mexican plug. The pork and chicken broth is red, rich and complex, almost like a pork version of Vietnamese bun bo hue. They add grated chicken and pork, hominy, queso fresco, radishes, and shredded lettuce for more variety and texture. You add toppings: oregano, onion, lime, chili flakes and itacate chipotle sauce. I might be in love.
Lemon Grass Shallot and Lamb Pancake with Cumin
510 Monroe Avenue, Rochester; (585) 287-6067
Lemon Grass was a new addition to ROC’s restaurant scene in 2017, and its contemporary, Vietnamese take on dim sum is welcome. You should go out there and try a lot of things, but especially these. There’s a soft spot for scallion pancakes: crispy on the outside, a little chewy but not hard to chew. Lemon Grass Shallot Pancakes hit the mark – a little oily, but I like it. They’re served with a variety of toppings, all of which have virtues, but the rich and tender Cumin Lamb with sautéed onions and a dash of hoisin is nothing short of exceptional.
Pizza Regina Margherita DOP at Fiamma
1308 Buffalo Road, Gates; (585) 270-4683
This “DOP” stands for Denominazione di Origine Protetta, telling you that Fiamma takes the origins of its ingredients seriously. Here is another element that focuses on simplicity: sauce, buffalo mozzarella, basil, olive oil, cherry tomato, oregano and grated raw gran (a hard matured Italian cheese). Fiamma’s technique is to cook his pizzas in flash: one minute at 1000 degrees. They stand out like delicious marvels. The restaurant offers more complex versions, but for the sheer purity of the essence, the thing in itself, you can’t beat an exceptional margherita.
Laotian beef jerky at Thai Mii Up
1780 East Ridge Road, Irondequoit; (585) 491-6331
If you’ve only ever eaten beef jerky at a convenience store, you’re going to be shocked. This jerky is no kidding, made with hand-sliced beef that’s marinated with lemongrass, cilantro and scallions, then dehydrated to perfection. It’s served with what Thai Mii Up calls “homemade spicy tomato sauce” and sticky rice. This tomato sauce is more of a salsa made with all the grilled components. It has a smoky goodness that’s just perfect for jerky dips. Dip it, put it in your mouth, then take a bite of sticky rice. Paradise.
British Columbia Chicken Coop Chicken
159 W. Main St., Webster, (585) 265-1185
My mother was a farm girl from Georgia. She knew about fried chicken. And while I haven’t found one as good as his, BC’s is awesome. With a crispy exterior and a moist interior, it has flavor in both the crust and the chicken. The coating is salty, peppery and crunchy. The chicken is marinated, but don’t even ask owner Chris for the spices; no way she’ll tell you. The marinade gives a deeper flavor to the chicken, which is perfectly cooked while being chewy and appetizing.
Bahn cahn lives in Dac Hoa
230 Monroe Avenue, Rochester; (585) 232-6038
My boyfriend, Leon, left Rochester 20 years ago. He told me last week that he always tries duck noodle soup in almost every Asian restaurant he visits in the hopes of finding this stuff. Alas, he did not. The Dac Hoa House Roast Duck is to die for, cut into layered pieces of crispy skin, succulent fat and rich meat on the bone; it is not for the disgusted. The broth is divine, the tapioca bahn cahn noodles thick and chewy. Bean sprouts and green onions add texture. A stroke of Sriracha and voila. It will take you time, and you will make a mess (a bib wouldn’t be a bad idea). But this stuff is real.
Buffalo Cabbage Wings at Owl House
75 Marshall Street, Rochester; (585) 360-2920
That’s a problem: where to go with your vegan and gluten intolerant drinking buddies? Well, the Owl House is here for you. The restaurant breads its Buffalo cabbage wings with sorghum flour (gluten-free), then fry them hot and fast. The coating is thin and crisp, a good approximation of fried chicken skin, but really its own thing. The cauliflower inside is steamed just crunchy-tender. Then the ‘wings’ are mixed with Frank’s hot sauce for that real Buffalo flavor, served over a vegan cashew-based ‘blue cheese’ (think hummus) and finally topped with a celery salad, cabbage and pickled onions. Don’t try to eat a plate on your own, like I did; it’s a bit much. To share is to love.
Kachori chaat at Bombay Chaat House
1475 East Henrietta Road, Henrietta; (585) 292-0099
Bombay Chaat House stands out among the many excellent Indian restaurants in Rochester. You have the impression that the owner Romy Sial invites you for her home cooking. The dishes are distinctive. Chaat is Indian street food, a mix of crunchy things, sweet things, fresh and dried things, drizzled with yogurt and maybe tamarind sauce, all topped with, maybe, cilantro. At Bombay Chaat House there are plenty of blends to choose from, each with their own unique texture, a sweet and sour delight. Sial’s kachori chaat is our choice, based on the crispy lentil-filled dough called kachori. Try adding a bit of Sial’s 25-year-old sour pickles for an extra kick.
Som tum Thai at Sak’s Thai Cuisine
7374 Pittsford Palmyra Road, Perinton; (585) 421-9010
There are certain dishes that one can use to judge particular ethnic restaurants. At a Vietnamese location, you would measure the pho. Some would argue for pad thai as the measure of a Thai joint, but for me the dish that defines it is the spicy green papaya salad called som tom or, at Sak’s Thai, “som tum”. Green papaya is like a fruity, aromatic version of daikon or jicama, and really, this dish is coleslaw. But with sliced hot peppers, bell peppers, tomatoes, carrots, palm sugar, lime juice and just the right smell of fish sauce, it’s fabulous. My buddy brings the heat, Dirk, asked for it once at level 5, and we cried and couldn’t finish it. Be careful what you ask for.