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Village Voice food critic tours Queens with taste

Dressed in a knit cap and green canvas jacket, food critic Robert Sietsema dined recently at a new Turkish kebab and pizza joint in Sunnyside, savoring foods while being careful not to reveal his identity by taking out a notebook or ordering a preposterous number of dishes.

“I try as hard as possible not to let them know who I am,” said Sietsema, 52, who writes reviews on four New York City restaurants every week for the Village Voice, selected out of the 10 to 15 restaurants that he tries out during the week.

While tasting forkfuls of adana kebab, a chopped meat Turkish specialty at Mangal Kebab & Pizza at 46-20 Queens Blvd. in Sunnyside, Sietsema revealed some of his trade secrets: He never consults restaurant staff about their food, even after his meal, and he never accepts free food.

“My kind of review is on the side of the consumer,” Sietsema said. “My whole purpose is to let readers know what they should eat. My job is to confront the food.”

Sietsema noted that he would never have been able to taste illegal delicacies such as dog penis had he not been incognito. He tried the rubbery, cartilaginous food, listed on the menu as “goat special part” at a Korean restaurant in Murray Hill in Manhattan.

Dog meat, often billed as “goat,” is not uncommon in Korean restaurants, said Sietsema, who reads up on cuisines in relevant travel and cookbooks before going in to review a restaurant.

“The Koreans love to eat dog. It’s the most healthy thing, like a farm-raised collie,” he said. “I’m guessing they raise them somewhere, maybe somewhere in Westchester.”

Two weeks ago, Sietsema led a group of people in the Organ Meats Society to try ram testicles and other delicacies at Cheburechnaya, an Uzbek restaurant at 92-09 63rd Dr. in Rego Park.

By Sietsema’s standards, one of the best dishes at the Uzbek restaurant was a kebab entitled “lamb fat” consisting of four crisp morsels of much-prized fat from a lamb’s buttocks skewered on a stick.

“It’s really good, cured lard. It’s like butter,” Sietsema described.

For the past five years, Sietsema has led a group of about eight die-hard Organ Meats Society members every month to eat organ meats and other variety meats such as pigs’ feet and lamb tongue in restaurants, mostly in Queens and the Bronx.

“You have to be ready in this business to eat anything,” Sietsema said. “It’s just as fun to eat things that I don’t like. It may make me squeamish, but I don’t mind being squeamish.”

In Queens, Sietsema discovered capuchin, one- to two-inch grasshoppers usually served on top of tacos, at a Pueblan grocery on Roosevelt Avenue. In Brooklyn, he found a Ghanaian grocery that sold sun-dried bats.

“There’s nothing more exciting than finding some place that just opened up and finding food that is so close to another part of the world,” Sietsema said.

Sietsema grew up in Minneapolis, Dallas and Chicago, where his mother served him meatloaf, chicken and other food that was very bland.

In 1977, Sietsema moved to downtown Manhattan, where he was overwhelmed by the different cuisines. During a stint at a “crappy job” 11 years ago, he started a fanzine called “Down the Hatch” to let his friends know where to get good, cheap food.

“I would Xerox it at night in the office and mail it out,” Sietsema recalled.

Sietsema said his food-review fanzine was a way for him to pass time in downtown Manhattan, where he did not have a house with a yard that needed mowing or a garden with plants that needed fertilizing.

“There’s a whole history of people who lived in downtown Manhattan who did things without caring about what resulted from it,” Sietsema said.

After three years of sending his fanzine to friends and also to food columnists to “let them know about cheap restaurants they were missing,” Sietsema was asked by the Voice to become the paper’s food reviewer.

“It’s like heaven. I’m doing exactly what I want to do,” Sietsema said.

Sietsema lives in Greenwich Village in Manhattan. He usually rides the subway to restaurants because he does not own a car. On the way home from reviewing a restaurant, he makes notes about dishes that were memorable to him, drawing upon his extensive cooking experience to single out spices and ingredients.

He said it is not hard for him to stay slim because he never snacks or drinks caloric beverages and exercises often by swimming in one of the city’s public pools.

Reach reporter Tien-Shun Lee by e-mail at news@timesledger.com, or call 718-229-0300, Ext. 155.

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