A Guide to Tree Nuts Made in Dedicated Facilities

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Like just about everyone else, I hate talking on the phone, especially when it involves trying to get straight, reliable answers out of people who are obviously trying to hide the fact that they have no idea what they’re talking about and who are, for whatever reason, weirdly resistant to the idea of going and finding out the answer to my questions—or, better yet, transferring my call to someone half-competent. Fortunately, though, running this blog has turned me into a call-making pro: I phrase my questions strategically. I push for the double-check. Sometimes I even—gasp—leave voicemails.

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Los Mariscos

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Blogging, like everything else, is a Sisyphean task: for some reason—hint: it’s self-hatred, or maybe ongoing personal growth—I can tolerate only my last six months’ worth of posts. I scroll any further back and I’m cringing at my writing, which means, of course, that in six months’ time, I’ll have found some reason to hate this whole cohort of posts, too. Whatever. I’m just trying to issue a disclaimer before I even think about asking you to read a retro post of mine—from 11 months ago.

The oh-so-retro post in question is this one on Los Tacos No. 1, one of my all-time favorite taquerias. (Actually, it might just be my favorite. It and Taco Mix trade places regularly.) But as much as I’d like to go on and on about Los Tacos, that’s not what I’m here to do. I’m here to talk about its seafood-counter cousin, Los Mariscos—fellow Chelsea Market resident, and home of some of the best fish tacos I’ve ever had.

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Given how much I (and most other reasonable people) hate venturing inside Chelsea Market, I’m always a little hesitant to send people to Los Tacos/Mariscos. But these two places are so goddamn good that I’m going to have to insist you bracket, for a day, your aversion to tourists and get yourself over to that cesspool of congestion, because neither of these places’ tacos are to be missed. And anyway, Los Mariscos isn’t really in Chelsea Market. I mean, it is—but it has its own entrance, its own (totally separate) space, and even its own set of (way-more-reasonable!) hours. If you try hard enough, you can almost convince yourself you’re somewhere else.

The food helps. Los Mariscos offers tacos, ceviches, aguachiles, and a whole lot of drinks. (There’s a bar. It gets loud.) There’s not much else on the menu, so I originally figured Los Mariscos would be more-or-less nut-free—and it is, according to each of the employees I’ve asked. And the folks behind Los Mariscos are actually pretty allergy-aware, too. There are, for example, signs posted on the registers that bear warnings for other allergens—fish and shrimp are stored together, one help-yourself salsa contains peanuts, there’s gluten all over the place, etc.—and the fact that someone even thought to post those signs in the first place goes a long way toward making me feel like I’m at least in semi-competent hands.

Two shrimp tacos from Los Mariscos

Food-wise, this place is undoubtedly as good as Los Tacos, which is just about the highest compliment I can offer. Pictured at the top of this post, the fish tacos—house-made tortillas, pico de gallo, shredded cabbage, salsa, mayo, and, uh, some of the best fried fish I’ve ever had—are actually perfect, and the shrimp tacos (immediately above) are almost as tasty. For real, though, that fried fish is good: reasonably crispy, decidedly fried (but not overly greasy), and…creamy. So creamy. God, how I love creamy fish. (The other toppings are good, too, by the way. I’m usually pretty cabbage-averse, but this cabbage is crucial, texturally—and the whole taco’s plenty citrusy, which keeps it from being sickening.)

The shrimp tacos are essentially the same, and so are essentially just as good, but I can’t say I like the shrimp itself quite as much as I like the fish. (The fish is somehow both subtler and fishier. I don’t know. Also: It’s one chunk, as opposed to a bunch of little pieces of shrimp, which means less breading, which means happier me.) Still, the Los Mariscos shrimp taco is one formidable taco, and I’m sure to order one each time I stop by.

A shrimp ceviche

The ceviches, too, are worthwhile. Again, I prefer the fish (below) to the shrimp (immediately above, in Sam’s hands), but both are rather good. (I haven’t tried the especial, which is made with shrimp, oysters, clams, scallops, and octopus.) I like these, I think, because they offer a clean ending to an otherwise batter-heavy meal. The tacos aren’t offensively heavy, but they’re significantly heavier than your average (batter-free) taco—so ending the meal (or perhaps breaking it up) with a $4 ceviche feels like the right thing to do. Served atop a tostada, and topped with a just a little mayo (it works) and a few slices of avocado, too, this sort of ceviche functions almost as the Los Mariscos version of a palate-cleanser. A fishy, citrusy palate-cleanser, but…you get my point.

Should you, after all that, have any room left in your stomach, consider tacking on some chips and guacamole. (40% of the time, the guac is good. The rest of the time, it’s ridiculously good.) Or maybe not—maybe a drink or two, seeing as I’ve just turned 21 and am now, uh, allowed to acknowledge the existence of booze. Whatever you do, though, don’t miss the built-in freebies: shrimp broth (ask the cashier and you shall receive), and the extra tostadas and individually wrapped saltine crackers that hang out at the center of every table. (Hey. Don’t knock the saltine. Or the hustle, for that matter.)

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Anyway. I wholeheartedly and unreservedly recommend that you—nut-allergic or not—get yourself over to Los Mariscos. And Los Tacos. Though maybe not back-to-back. Unless you’re into that sort of thing. (I am. Here’s some literature. And here’s an article I really wish were tongue-in-cheek, but that I’m secretly delighted to have found. American maximalism is fucking disgusting. I’m so excited.)

Find Los Mariscos at 409 West 15th Street, between 9th and 10th. Or—if you hate yourself—take a minimum of three deep breaths, enter Chelsea Market, and make your way to Los Tacos No. 1, then turn left (into the blue-and-yellow tunnel) and follow the arrows till you start seeing buoys.

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KFC: For when you don’t hate yourself quite enough for Taco Bell

A bucket of chicken from KFC

I’m always ambivalent about these sorts of posts. On the one hand, allergy-friendly fast-food chains are infinitely helpful, and I do believe that they, too, are worth collecting. Places like KFC have saved my stranded, hungry, nut-allergic ass more times than I can count, so I don’t see any reason to keep them off my blog. But on the other hand, I have absolutely nothing new or fresh to say about all these international fast-food chains we’re all already familiar with. Even the allergen information is covered on their websites, so it’s all I can do, really, to point out the ones that are nut allergy–friendly. (And throw in some stupid commentary along the way. Obviously.)

So. As you’ve probably guessed, KFC is indeed pretty nut allergy–friendly. When you search for tree nuts on their Special Diets Wizard (yes, that’s what they call it), only four Café Valley (i.e. made-elsewhere) desserts come up—and when you actually read through the ingredients for those four desserts, you’ll notice that none actually contain any tree nuts. (Two have “may contain” warnings and two don’t, but I’m sure all four products may contain trace amounts of nuts, hence their coming up in the search.)

Beyond that, the following appears below the aforementioned Wizard: “Peanuts and tree nuts are not used at KFC. However, peanuts are present in the Reese’s® Peanut Butter Pie Slice and the Café Valley Bakery® Chocolate Chip Cake and Lemon Cake may contain traces of tree nuts.” And though that sounds sort of contradictory, it does makes a sort of clunky, corporate sense—you just have to replace “used” with “cooked with,” and you’ll have the simpler truth: that no one’s cooking with any nuts at KFC, and that any desserts that contain (or may contain) them are made elsewhere. Cross-contamination is virtually a non-issue, then. Good enough for me.

Four biscuits from KFC

Anywho. When I was younger—and certainly not anymore, how dare you?—I had a bona fide obsession with food. I had a stuffed dog named Butterscotch; a taboret jam-packed with various food-related stickers and stationery; a bedroom full of food-related sculptures, sculpted and painted by yours truly (who else?); and an actual plan to change my name to Caramel. When adults asked my favorite class, I’d answer “lunch.” Second favorite? “Snack.” And for a while, my favorite novel was Hatchet, by Gary Paulsen. Why? Because the protagonist spends good portion of the book trying to figure out how to feed himself in the wilderness, and the descriptions of the meat he cooks are straight-up mouthwatering.

Hatchet is the reason I’ll never quite get clean from KFC. When the kid manages to kill, clean, and cook his first “foolbird,” as he calls them, the description that follows is pretty tantalizing. And while Paulsen, with that passage, was probably just trying to instill the value of patience and perseverance, all I came away with was a grumbling stomach. After finishing the book, I talked my mom into buying (and listening to) the audiobook—and that was how I ended up sitting in a car, a block away from our neighborhood KFC, tearing through some juicy, juicy bird breast, listening to the bit of Hatchet in which Brian Robeson does the same. I was hungry, and it was tasty, and I wish I were kidding when I say I’ve been chasing that chicken-high ever since.

Mashed potatoes from KFC

I hope that at least does something to explain why I keep going back to KFC, if remarkably infrequently, despite the unambiguous shittiness of the food. I had one good experience—one time, and it wasn’t even that good of an experience—and now it’s looking like I’ll never be free, regardless of how consistently KFC’s chicken manages to disappoint me.

I guess I should probably spend some time on the specifics of the food itself, if only for the sake of it…or (I suppose) for those of you who have been living under an actual rock. I’ll start with this: As is the case at pretty much every single fast-food chain, your KFC experience is all about your expectations. If you go in expecting anything close to legitimately decent fried chicken—like, fried chicken that could register as good sans handicap, or fried chicken that’d be passable in an actual restaurant setting—you’re going to come away disgruntled. But if you can manage to face the Colonel with your expectations in check, you might actually be able to have a semi-pleasant meal.

After all, there’s a certain sense of joy comes with rooting around one of those red-and-white buckets in search of the perfect piece of chicken. It’s a weak and watery sense of joy, sure; and that perfect piece of chicken isn’t, uh, available at KFC, but still. Despite the chicken’s flimsy skin, bland meat, and overabundance of salt, I have fun with my buckets…and I have fun, too, with my popcorn chicken, and my biscuits, and my mashed potatoes, and my mac and cheese, and my whatever-shitty-sandwich-it-is-they’re-pushing-this-year, too. It’s mostly about the ritual, I think: the bag-unpacking and lid-lifting, the skin-tearing and and meat-gnawing, the scooping and dipping and Mountain Dew–slurping, the biscuit-prodding and finger-licking, and—yes, of course—that meal’s-end feeling of having made a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad mistake.

Also, the sporks. Seriously. Where else are you going to get to use one?

Find KFC all over. (Sort of. Over the course of the last decade or so, a whole bunch of this city’s KFCs seem to have disappeared.) I go to the one on 14th and 2nd, but they’re all the same, really.

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SkinnyPop

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I can’t say I have a hard time finding nut allergy–friendly popcorn. As I’ve recently explained, I’m decidedly not of the call-every-company-about-every-product school, and most bagged popcorns I’ve found are indeed advisory label–free. Given all that, I’ve never had much trouble finding popcorn I’m comfortable with. Which means there’s no apparent reason, then, for me to be posting about SkinnyPop. I haven’t found anything unusual, nor anything game-changing—but this stuff is made in a nut-free facility, and I happen to be addicted to it, so. Here we go.

Before I get into anything else—and believe me, I have a lot of stupid shit to get into—I should probably go through allergens, etc. So: All of SkinnyPop’s products (popped popcorn, microwave popcorn, and popcorn cakes) are free from nuts, peanuts, dairy, soy, egg, and gluten. It’s all vegan, non-GMO (big whoop…), and kosher, and it’s free from preservatives, etc., too. SkinnyPop’s marketing really tries to play it off as healthy—it’s called SkinnyPop, after all—but as you probably already know if you’ve spent any time on this blog, that has approximately nothing to do with why I’m writing about this stuff.

Anyway. It’s taken me right around 20 years of life on this planet to realize that I hate most bagged popcorns: if it isn’t too “buttery,” it’s usually way too salty, and if it’s neither, it’s almost always way too bland. I know, I know: Get off your doughy ass and pop your own goddamn popcorn, you opinionated sluggard. I know! But popcorn is, to me, exclusively a no-effort snack. If I wanted to spend 10 minutes over the stove, I’d fry an egg or make some pasta. But I don’t. When I’m in a popcorn mood, I want to go straight from the cabinet to the most-sunken corner of my couch, and then I want to immediately start shoveling that popcorn, handful by handful, into the frightening chasm that is my open mouth.

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And you know what? SkinnyPop’s original just happens to be the perfect popcorn for such shoveling. There’s no squicky “butter” flavor, nor is there an overabundance of salt. In fact, SkinnyPop’s net moderate saltiness is probably my favorite thing about it. Most pieces are (just a little) under-salted, but every few handfuls, you’ll find a perfect piece or two. Now, if every piece were so “perfect” (read: salty as fuck), a handful or two of SkinnyPop would be overwhelming. But the “rarity” of the salty bits makes those salty bits cherish-worthy, and that‘s what keeps me shoveling this stuff into my mouth: I can’t help but chase the salt.

Here, because I’m an intellectual who’s read approximately 40% of the Nicomachean Ethics (and who’s just declared a minor in philosophy—please clap), I’m compelled to go into a whole hokey-jokey thing about how SkinnyPop, with its modest saltiness that rests precisely at the mean between the relevant extremes of under- and over-salt, teaches a popcorn-related sort of temperance. (After all, you really don’t need to be excessive when you’ve got SkinnyPop showing off the perks of moderation. I’d know—I’ve tried adding salt…)

When I eat this stuff, I feel like I’m honing in on virtue. And I enjoy it—it being both the lack of over-salt and the performing of the virtuous act—so thoroughly that I’ve no choice but to conclude that I must really be virtuous. Right? (Yada yada yada. This whole Aristotle thing was actually how I was planning on opening this post, so consider yourself lucky that I’ve downgraded it to a self-conscious interlude.)

Thing is, the whole virtuous-act thing is totally negated by the fact that this popcorn is particularly suited for binge-eating, precisely because of its fixture at the mean between the relevant extremes. I can’t plow through a bag of salt-corn or keep myself chewing on the bland stuff; I need SkinnyPop’s consistent inconsistency to rope me in and keep me shoveling. And while I don’t want to want to binge-eat, I certainly do want a popcorn that compels me to. And as I sit here—on that most-sunken couch cushion, where else?—trying not to pick too much at popcorn I’m supposed to be photographing, I can say with confidence that SkinnyPop does just that.

Find it just about everywhere: Duane Reade, Walgreens, CVS, 7-Eleven, Whole Foods, Food Emporium, Gristedes, D’Agostino, Key Food, Fairway, Target…I’ll stop.

[I realize, of course, that I’ve spent this whole post on just one of a total of fourteen SkinnyPop products. That’s because I’m somewhat of a popcorn purist, so I’ve never actually tried any of SkinnyPop’s more-colorful offerings. As for the popcorn cakes…they’re fine, I guess, if you’re into that sort of thing. They’re too similar to rice cakes for my liking, but there’s nothing wrong with them, really.]

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Tasty Dumpling

A plate of dill-and-pork dumplings from Tasty Dumpling

Has a restaurant ever had so many things going for it…?

For two years, I’ve lived within minutes of Tasty Dumpling. But somehow, I’m only just now finding out that it’s this unprecedented combination of everything I love and look for. First and foremost, it’s nut-free Chinese food, which is alone enough to win me over. But it also happens to be particularly good nut-free Chinese food, walking distance from the elevated cube I call home, served up very quickly, in a wholly painless setting, for next to no money. This, I think, is worth celebrating.

I came across this place in somewhat of a weird way. I was wandering aimlessly around my neighborhood, as one does, when I walked by Tasty Dumpling’s storefront and noticed how small their menu was. (I end up spending a lot of time walking around Chinatown, which is, of course, filled with Chinese restaurants. Most of those restaurants’ display menus are long as hell, so I tend not to bother with pausing to conduct my preliminary once-over for nutty dishes. Tasty Dumpling’s, though, looked promising.) So what’d I do? I stepped aside, dialed the number on the awning, and watched, through the window, as the cashier picked up the phone, asked me to repeat myself, then told me all I’d hoped to hear: No nuts. Nor peanuts. Not one.

[Why didn’t I just step inside and ask in person? I don’t know. I think calling feels more formal and less spontaneous (and thus more trustworthy), though I’m well aware that’s probably just an illusion. In general, I always feel a little better about restaurants I’ve contacted via phone or email than I do about those I’m not able to reach in advance—and while I do really believe that written communication is, for these things, a lot more reliable, I acknowledge that a phone call probably has next to no real advantage over a face-to-face conversation with an employee. That’s especially hard to deny when you’ve just watched a cashier pick up the phone and answer your question just as he or she would’ve answered it had you been physically present, but…well, I’m insane, and I do what makes me worry least. Haven’t you noticed?]

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Now, when I talk about cheap meals, I usually mean those that’ll come to under $10 per person. And while I admit that definition of “cheap” might be a little too liberal, that isn’t something I have to worry about in labeling Tasty Dumpling. This place isn’t just NYC cheap. It’s cheap-cheap—like, stuff-you-and-a-friend-for-$8 cheap. And at that price, can you really go wrong? (Yes. You can definitely go wrong with a $4 meal. Not at Tasty Dumpling, though.)

Fried pork-and-chive dumplings—the tried-and-true, and my personal favorites—come 5 for $1.25. Dumplings with “off-menu” fillings (like dill and pork, advertised via handwritten sign) cost a lot more—$5-ish for 8—but “a lot more” than $1.25 is hardly something to whine about. Soups will run you $2 or $3 ($4 or $5 if it’s noodles you’re after), and stir-fries (yes, they have them) around $5. Pancakes, $2-ish. Sodas, $1. Essentially, what I’m trying to say is that Tasty Dumpling won’t strain your wallet. You can probably even pay for your whole meal with nothing but the quarters you’ll find lying around your apartment…not that I’ve ever done that or anything.

Anyway. That’s more than enough about pricing. 500 words in, I’m finally ready to talk about food. I’ll start with this, then: Tasty Dumpling makes some good-ass fried dumplings. The pork-and-chive are best, I think, followed by the dill-and-pork, then the beef, then the others—but it’s hard to go wrong, really, provided you manage to choose whatever it is that appeals most to you. The wrappers—on the doughy side, though never tough—are strong enough to hold the fillings, which are themselves ridiculously moist and flavorful. And the vinegar (sitting on every table, and safe, too, as far as I can tell) only helps.

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About the pork-and-chive dumplings (immediately above), I don’t have all that much to say. The filling’s your average pork-and-chive dumpling filling—juicy, greasy balls of pork and chive—with one key difference: this stuff is approximately as good on its own as it is inside a wrapper. (Tasty Dumpling is big on forks and small on chopsticks, and for whatever reason, I’m straight-up hopeless at forking dumplings. With these, though, it’s no big deal when my filling ends up on my plate.)

On the other hand, the dill-and-pork dumplings, pictured at the top of this post, are like no Chinese dumplings I’ve had before. The dill flavor is particularly prominent—overbearing, almost—which reminds me more of, say, bagels and lox than of Chinese takeout. Of course, it’s entirely possible that these are just as standard as the pork-and-chive dumplings, and that I’m just ignorant and inexperienced. But still: If you’re into dill, these are worth a try.

A scallion pancake from Tasty Dumpling

Of course, Tasty Dumpling also has a number of non-dumpling offerings, too. And though it does seem a little silly to write about (or, for that matter, to order…) anything but the namesakes, I feel compelled to sing the scallion pancakes’ praises. The pan-fried noodles, pictured second above, are at once busy and underwhelming, and soups offered aren’t really my thing—but the pancakes? The pancakes! Pictured immediately above, they aren’t at all what I imagine when I think of scallion pancakes, but you know what? I don’t care. These, thick and chewy—dense and bready, even—have stolen me away from the thin and flaky Platonic ideal I’ve come to expect, and I can’t even pretend to have any complaints about that. God, I love these. Especially fresh off the pan.

Food aside, though, I think it’s worth mentioning that Tasty Dumpling’s an easy place to be—and I really appreciate that, given the sorts of places I’ve been known to subject myself to. Granted, the atmosphere itself doesn’t do much: it isn’t all that clean, nor all that aesthetically pleasing. But I’m much more interested in what Tasty Dumpling doesn’t do. It doesn’t aspire to be anything it isn’t; rather, it admits to half-assing what it half-asses—decor, customer service, whatever. It doesn’t aim at cool or hip or trendy. It doesn’t claim to be “healthy,” and there are no superfoods involved. Fortunately, Tasty Dumpling is humble: greasy, quick, and cheap. (And yes, it’s tasty, too.)

Find Tasty Dumpling at 42 Mulberry Street, between Bayard and Mosco. But do note that they close each night at the ridiculously early hour of 8:30pm, and that in the 45 minutes or so before closing, service is a little spotty. Also, don’t be caught cashless—there’s an ATM on site, but its fee will cost you more than a whole order of dumplings.

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Herr’s “Chocolate”-Covered Sourdough Pretzels

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A while back—when it was still cold out, of course—I decided it’d be a good idea to hop on an early-morning Chinatown bus to Philadelphia. I had no plan, nor anything to dabble in, so I ended up spending the whole day wandering. In the midst of those wanders, the wind got to me: my fingers and toes went numb, and so I decided to pop into some random supermarket to warm up (and gawk at food). It was there that I found these pretzels.

As a reflex, I pick up every bag (or tub, in this case) of chocolate-covered pretzels I see—and with the exception of Vermont Nut-Free’s, I’ve never come across one without a “may contain” warning for tree nuts. But as you’ve probably predicted, this tub of pretzels was unlike those others. It had no such warning, so I had no choice but to take it home.

In general, I’m one to go by labels. Unless I’ve found some specific cause for concern—the product in question is particularly high-risk, or it’s coming from a teeny-tiny company that makes a bunch of nut-containing products, too—I’ll dig right in to any packaged good whose label has no mention of tree nuts. I do that knowing full well that companies aren’t required to label for shared facilities, shared lines, etc., because…well, I’m just not a company-caller. (Many are—and if you got all your impressions from food allergy–themed online communities, you’d think that most were. But I really doubt the practice is all that widespread, especially among those who haven’t self-selected into allergy-related Facebook groups.)

The way I see it, if I adopted a set of food-safety standards so high that they required me to always confirm that a product comes from a nut-free facility before allowing myself to eat it—and if I were to really abide by that rule, and carry it out to its logical conclusion, which is some sort of obligation to make sure everything I put in my mouth is, as far as I can tell, free from all possible cross-contamination—I’d soon find that my standards were not only impossible to meet, but that they’d necessarily lead to something like a near-infinite regress of uncertainty, too. [Here, I will—for the first (and hopefully last) time—share a meme on this blog.]

Think about it. There’s just no way to confirm that a product is safe. What if the employee I spoke with was wrong? What if Nabisco has told me that my graham crackers come from a nut-free facility, but they don’t mention (or even know) that the flour that’s gone into those same graham crackers was itself processed on shared lines? What if a factory worker ate some almonds with his lunch? And what if I want to eat out? Am I going to ask a restaurant to provide me with a list of every single product that’s gone into my dish, and then proceed to call each and every one of those manufacturers before deciding whether to order? And what about that manufacturer’s suppliers?

Fuck no. All food comes with risk. I’ll survive. (Plus, my allergist’s on my side. So take that.) [Edit: For more on all this, read the comments on this post.]

Ingredient information on the back of a Herr's chocolate-covered pretzels tub

That all said—and yes, this whole post is just an excuse for the above demi-treatise—I did contact Herr’s about these pretzels—not as a precaution before eating, but as a precaution before sitting down to write this blog post. (Seems weird to throw a product post together without having spoken to the manufacturer. No matter how comfortable I feel at a restaurant, I wouldn’t publish a post on it without having gotten some summarizable allergen information out of one or two of its employees…or its website, I guess.) And eventually, I was able to find out that these chocolate-covered pretzels are, in fact, nut-free.

Originally, I was told (via email) that these particular chocolate-covered pretzels are made in a nut- and peanut-free facility, but that obviously wasn’t true, given that the label has a “may contain” statement for peanuts. I replied and said as much—and then, a day or two later, I got an unexpected phone call from a very apologetic (and very, very informed) Herr’s employee who’d evidently been tasked with setting the record straight. So: These pretzels—the ones that come in the red tub pictured at the top of this post—are made in a tree nut–free facility that does indeed handle peanuts, and they should be 100% safe for those with tree nut allergies.

By now, it’s beside the point, but the pretzels themselves are fine. They’re just about what you’d expect, really: thin, sour-ish pretzels, covered in a fair amount of sub-par “chocolate.” (It isn’t actually chocolate, but rather a chocolate-flavored coating.) They’re nothing to go out of your way for, but they’re nonetheless palatable. And even though they’re a little on the expensive side, they’re certainly less bank-breaking than Vermont Nut-Free’s. I don’t love them, and I’m not sure I’d buy them again, but…they’re chocolate-covered pretzels, and they’ve temporarily relieved me of my craving. I don’t ask for much more.

Anyway. I’m not actually sure where you can find these pretzels. (Remember: excuse, demi-treatise.) They aren’t listed on the Herr’s website, nor can I find much of anything about them online. With regard to potential allergens, the pretzels that come in the above-pictured red bucket aren’t necessarily the same as any of the other chocolate-covered pretzels sold by Herr’s. Rest assured, though, that these do exist, and that they (in particular) are safe.

They’re out there. I swear.

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Hanamizuki Café

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I love omusubi, but I hardly ever find myself going out of my way for any. Usually, I’ll just wait to scoop some up until I happen to be near one of my handful of favorite Japanese markets—so imagine my delight upon finding out about Hanamizuki, an omusubi-centric Japanese café that originally seemed like it might finally give me enough excuse to make an outing (and a meal) out of a few balls of rice.

Hanamizuki’s menu is small (and entirely nut-free, per a conversation with a cashier and a phone call I made before showing up). Aside from the expected café fare (coffee and tea; sake, wine, and beer), they offer 10 sorts of omusubi—some with vegetables, some with meat or fish, one with Spam—and a few miso soups and side dishes, too. After 6pm, the menu widens (just a bit), but there’s still hardly anything on it; of course, that’s all right, because this place isn’t about breadth. Hanamizuki’s focus is on omusubi. They’re one of those places that pays careful attention to one thing and one thing only—something I love to report, given how allergy-friendly these sorts of single(-ish)-concept menus tend to be.

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Unfortunately, though, Hanamizuki is not the game-changer it at first appears to be. It’s a nice space—very cute, very cozy—that feels totally cut off from the decidedly un-cute, un-cozy block it’s on, but that’s about all this place has going for it. The staff aren’t particularly friendly, nor are they very allergy-aware: the cashier I spoke with initially dismissed my question of whether there might be any nuts in anything, and when I pushed, it came out that she thought soy was a nut. (I asked, too, whether the nut-containing [wrapped] cookies at the register might’ve been made on-site—a rather standard double-check-type question that the vast majority of like employees are happy to answer—at which point she seemed to get annoyed. I didn’t need her cooperation; the cookies are made elsewhere, so there really are no nuts to avoid in Hanamizuki’s kitchen. But it wasn’t a pleasant exchange.)

Contrary to what the previous paragraph might’ve led you to believe, though, I don’t care all that much about staff friendliness. What I do care about is the quality of the food, and—it’s time to come out and say it, I guess—Hanamizuki’s just isn’t very good. The omusubi, meant to serve as the main attraction, are extremely underwhelming. The rice is fine, and most of the other ingredients are admissible, but these things just aren’t worth going more than a block or two out of your way for. They’re light on the fillings, and most taste like they’ve been sitting around all day. They’re cute, though. Ridiculously cute. I’ll give them that.

Three omusubi from

I’ve tried a handful of the rice balls (all that have been available when I’ve stopped by, actually), but I can’t quite say that I’ve enjoyed any. None were horrible, but absolutely all were dull—especially the sweet potato, which is made with chunks of Japanese sweet potato, hijiki seaweed, and (ostensibly) deep-fried tofu and white sesame, too. For all I knew, though, those last two might not have even been there. I tasted the sweet potato—it might as well have been raw—and I saw the seaweed, but really, that was it. And the sukiyaki (“Japanese premium beef, burdock root, konjac and scallions”) was even worse: comically little beef, and next to no flavor, other than that of…well, an antique store. (Dumb, I know. But for real, that’s the most accurate comparison I have…and that thing really did leave my mouth tasting as if I’d just licked a very expensive armoire. Just telling it like it is, y’all.)

The unagi, though not particularly fresh-tasting, was all right—it tasted distinctly like eel, at least—and the wakame (“wakame-seaweed, yukari, shisonomi-pickles and shibazuke-pickles”) was tolerable, but again, these omusubi are boring as hell. And as I’m pressing myself for something to say in their defense, all I’ve got—absolutely all I’ve got—is that the rice itself is rather decent. It isn’t cold or hard or funky or strange; in fact, it’s sort of good, and it goes a long way in keeping these rice balls away from the category of the outright bad. So thanks, Rice, for allowing these balls to join the ranks of the mediocre. 

To be clear, though, I don’t hate Hanamizuki; surely, I’d pop in for a rice ball or two if I already happened to be nearby. (I pop into lots of places for lots of mediocre snacks, mind you. I eat 7-Eleven taquitos, for crying out loud. Put a [nut-free] snack-like creation on my radar and I will crave it, sooner or later.) I’d just never, ever get on a train with the explicit intention of ending up at Hanamizuki ever again. Their omusubi just aren’t worth any sort of special trip. Sorry.

Stumble upon Hanamizuki at 143 West 29th Street, between 6th and 7th Avenues.

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Yonah Schimmel Knish Bakery

Yohan Schimmel Knish Bakery's storefront

Before I begin, let me make one thing perfectly clear: The spelling of Yonah Schimmel’s last name varies. “Schimmel” is the more popular option—and it’s the one that the bakery’s own website uses—but the goddamn sign (well, the main one, at least) says “Shimmel,” so I don’t know what to tell you. I’m aware that none of this matters, and that at a certain point, discrepancies like this one just give way to a suite of dead-end philosophical questions (à la “what really determines a name?”)…but shit, man. Look closely at the above photo and you’ll find two votes for “Shimmel” and two for “Schimmel.” That alone makes me dizzy—but the trouble’s everywhere. Compare the Wikipedia page‘s title to its first few words, then join me in my discomfort. (As if.)

What I’m trying to say, I guess, is that I’ve settled on “Schimmel.” Now that I’ve stopped twitching, let’s begin:

I grew up knish-less. I ate my first ever at Katz’s, and that was a Coney Island (i.e. square) knish, which a purist would certainly dismiss as inferior. I like my square knishes, though, so I figured I might as well try some round knishes, too. And where better to try my first proper knish than Yonah Schimmel, America’s first (and most famous) knishery?

The menu’s small—there are knishes, bagels, and (on the weekends) latkes—so I figured I’d probably be safe. To be sure, though, I did call in, at which point I was told that there aren’t any nuts present in the kitchen. The bagels aren’t made in-house (apparently, they come from a place called Natural Produce, which I haven’t been able to find online), but the knishes and latkes are indeed safe. (Safe in theory, at least. There are a few dessert-like knishes that I prefer to avoid, but that’s only for my own peace of mind, really. It’s not that I think I’d react; it’s that I think I’d spend the meal stressing. No point.)

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Anyway. My feelings about this place are so, so mixed. There’s a certain appeal to the fact that the Schimmel family—yes, they’re still in charge—have been serving up these same knishes since 1910. Plus, despite the knishery’s fame, it’s managed to avoid the sort of hype that’s been known to take away from places like Katz’s. (I love Katz’s. But long lines and hordes of tourists? Not so much.) Yonah Schimmel certainly isn’t unknown, but it isn’t exactly a high-traffic spot, either. And despite all the knish-brags that cover its walls, it’s actually a humble little place: teeny-tiny and unapologetically cluttered, with a few tables that don’t quite seem like they’re meant to be sat at. And it’s calm and quiet, too; there’s hardly ever anyone inside.

Here’s the thing, though: The knishes blow. I want to love them. I really do. But they just don’t do it for me, and that’s around 95% due to the fact that the folks at Yonah Schimmel think it’s okay to fucking microwave them. Heads up: IT ISN’T. Without fail, the microwaving absolutely ruins whatever texture these knishes might’ve had—but I can’t really speak to that texture, because I’ve never had an un-microwaved Yonah Schimmel knish. (I’ve shown up early-ish, late-ish, and at whatever hour’s in between the two, but I’ve yet to end up at Yonah Schimmel at fresh-knish time. But I shouldn’t have to show up at some nebulous time of day to ensure that my food will be un-terrible.)

The flavor’s good, though—in most of the knishes I’ve tried, at least. The potato’s very plain, but a little mustard solves that problem; and mushroom (pictured in the foreground of the photo immediately above) and broccoli are both all right, too. Mixed vegetable (pictured below) is a little weird—it comes off like someone emptied the “vegetable” contents of a Cup Noodles into a knish—and they’ve been out of cheese knishes every single time I’ve ever stopped by, but whaddaya gonna do? (It’s not as if I really want a microwaved cheese knish, anyway.)

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I will say, though, that I love the latkes. Microwaved, they’re just as soggy as you’d imagine, but the flavor’s spot-on, and they’re huge, too. I suppose you could take a few home and reheat them properly, but that seems like a whole lot of work for something that’s meant to be a grab-and-go sort of snackmeal. (The same goes for the knishes. I’m just not that motivated. But maybe you are.)

Maybe this stuff is great when it’s fresh. Maybe the knishes are moist; maybe the outer layers of dough stay crisp. Maybe the vegetables become, um…less canned. That’s what I have to tell myself, else I’d have to hate Yonah Schimmel—and that’s just not something I want to do. So that leaves me in a little bit of a weird position, I guess: I’d never recommend going out of your way for one of these knishes, nor would I necessarily recommend stopping in for one if you happen to be passing by. But I don’t know, man. There’s just something about this place.

…And I know it’s totally pointless for me to say that without offering any sort of elaboration, but it isn’t just a turn of speech; I really don’t know what it is about Yonah Schimmel that so softens me. Guess I’ll just have to keep going back, then—if not expressly in the hopes of getting my hands on a good knish, then in the hopes of figuring out why I’m so decidedly un-angry at these shitty ones.

Find Yonah Schimmel Knish Bakery at 137 Houston Street, between Forsyth and Eldridge. Bring cash—and if you want any latkes, be sure it’s a Friday, Saturday, or Sunday. (By the way, Yonah Schimmel is kosher-certified, but they’re open from 9:30am to 7pm every day.)

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Casa Adela

Mofongo with pernil asado and chicharrón from Casa Adela

I’ve been doing a lot of food-exploring. Last month, I ate at my first Nigerian restaurant, and I’ve recently (read: finally) gotten in on halal carts, too. Bone broth, Mediterranean, arepasVietnamese—truly, I’m on a roll. What tends to happen, actually, is I get interested in introducing (or reintroducing) myself to a whole category of food by way of a single restaurant I’ve found and enjoyed—tacos via Otto’s, Jewish deli food via Essen, Chinese via Nom Wah—and from there, it’s a whole lot of Googling, menu-reading, and restaurant-calling. Right now, the category I’m into is the relatively general one of new (to me) cuisines, hence all my recent personal discoveries, and hence this very post on Casa Adela, a homey, unassuming Puerto Rican restaurant that I’ve really, really grown to love.

Now, I’ve no Puerto Rican grandmother, which works out to mean that I have no standard I can use to assess Adela’s food. (I say this not because I think grandmothers are the only chefs out there—though Adela Ferguson is indeed a grandmother—but because almost all the Casa Adela reviews I’ve read rely specifically on someone’s grandmother’s cooking the standard for comparison.) Beyond being grandmother-less, I’d never even had Puerto Rican food before digging into Adela’s. I know virtually nothing about it, so I can’t really claim any authority in evaluating this stuff. Still, I do know what tastes good—to me, yes—so it’s on that basis that I’ll be trying to get through this post. You’ve been disclaimered.

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Let’s take a half-step backwards, though, to discuss allergen information. The situation at Adela is relatively simple: There are no nuts in any of the food, and with the exception of one thing (the bread, which one particularly helpful employee advised me, out of an abundance of caution, to avoid), there’s nothing on the menu that sets off my high-risk-ingredient alarm, either. So while I don’t eat Adela’s sandwiches, I’m certainly comfortable with the rest of their menu. (I’ve stated this all pretty simply, but the process of getting all this information straight was not a simple one. The folks at Casa Adela clearly aren’t used to questions about allergens—that, and I ought to learn some more Spanish.)

As for the rest of that menu, I (of course) have a few favorites. First, the mofongo (pictured at the top of this post), a classic Puerto Rican dish that’s essentially a warm, dense pile of mashed plantains, oil, garlic, and often chicharrón (pork cracklings), too. It shares a common ancestor with African fufu, and typically, it’s served with a chicken-broth soup or a side of braised meat.

Again, I don’t (yet?) have any idea how Adela’s mofongo stands up to the competition’s, but I do know that I happen to like it a whole lot. It varies by the day—sometimes, there’s roast pork worked in; sometimes, it’s missing the chicharrón—but those variations are likely just a result of the place’s homey-ness. At Adela, a meal is a rather personal experience, and one cook is going to prepare your mofongo differently from another, and I’ve found it best to just accept what comes. (One server once asked me whether I wanted the mofongo as she makes it, “with skin,”—to which I answered “yes,” of course. She came back at the end of my meal to ask whether I’d liked what she’d done. Another resounding “yes.” Pictured immediately below is her [enormous!] version.)

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What doesn’t vary much, though, is the overall quality. (Unless you’ve waited too long to eat,) the plantains are never dry, and there’s a good amount of garlic involved, too. When there’s pork worked in, it’s always welcome, and the embedded chicharrón is a real treat, too. I like to order the mofongo with a side of pernil asado (that’s moist, tender, fatty roast pork—pictured second above), but it’s not as if the mofongo needs a partner. It stands up on its own, and (obviously) I love it dearly. (That said, I always order the version that comes with the pernil asado. I just like food, I think.)

The dish Casa Adela is best known for, though, is probably the rotisserie chicken (pictured immediately below)—and for good reason, too, because it’s pretty damn good. For whatever it’s worth, rotisserie chicken is something I’ve had before, and while Adela’s isn’t the best I’ve ever had, I’m confident in my belief that it’s (at the very least) good, as far as rotisserie chicken goes. Really, it has it all it’s meant to have: flavorful skin, juicy meat—you get the point.

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The only downside, really, is that Casa Adela is almost always out of the rotisserie by the time I’ve gotten myself over to Avenue C for dinner. I’ve been to Adela quite a few times, but I’ve only been able to try the chicken twice. Still, it’s tasty—and there’s other stuff on the menu, too. (Usually, when they’re out of the rotisserie, I’ll get the chicken cracklings or the entrée-size pernil asado. The chicken cracklings are boring, though, and the pernil asado is a little redundant, seeing as there’s pernil asado in the mofongo I always insist on ordering. It’d perhaps help if I could eat the sandwiches.

And of course, the rice and beans are good, too. I’m always a fan of white rice, so that stuff’s a shoo-in—and per my first-ever server’s recommendation, I like to order the red beans, which have never once let me down. It’s a small portion (especially if you, like I, are attempting to share), but these beans are nonetheless rather satisfying, and they break up the meal’s other flavors nicely, too. (Generally, I don’t really like beans. But I do like these, which leads me to believe that they’re either so terrible as to be entirely un-bean-like, or they’re just normal beans that are tasty enough to have gotten through to me. It’s almost definitely the latter.)

Anyway. Clearly, I’m a Casa Adela fan, and clearly, I’m very glad to have found it. There’s just something about the place that feels like home…and since Casa Adela resembles my home in a grand total of approximately zero ways, I’ve no choice but to attribute that sensation to some sort of magic.

…Well, that and the quality of the food. I do like to chew on tasty things, after all.

Find Casa Adela at 66 Avenue C, between 4th and 5th Streets. Be prepared to walk a ways from the train, though—and consider showing up on the early side (as in: not an hour or two before closing) if it’s the rotisserie chicken you’re after. Also, bring cash.

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SunButter

A Jar of Natural Crunch SunButter

I know what you’re thinking: “What’re you doing blogging about SunButter? It’s a peanut butter substitute, and you’re only allergic to tree nuts!” But you, who were almost certainly not thinking the above, can rest assured that I’m well aware of my ability to eat peanut butter. I’ve chosen to post about SunButter because it’s both (a) decidedly tree nut–free, too—and thus well within the scope of this blog—and (b) damn good, to the extent that I often freely choose to use it instead of its more-allergenic cousin.

Before we move on, though, let’s go back—to the school cafeteria that served me the majority of my age-3 to age-14 lunches. Toward the beginning of my time at that school, nuts weren’t banned. There’d be the occasional offering of nut-containing macaroons or baklava, and there was always peanut butter around, too. Eventually, the administration instituted a few peanut tables (at which you were required to sit if you wanted to eat peanuts), but that rule didn’t last long. By the time I was 7 or 8, they’d outlawed all nuts—but I never really thought of that change in terms of myself or my own allergies, really, given that there were never all that many tree nuts in their cooking to begin with. The only real day-to-day difference was the glaring absence of peanut butter.

But I liked peanut butter, so I was as annoyed as any of the nut-unallergic kids. (My grade had one other nut-allergic kid, whom I’d always look to—across the room, as we didn’t really know each other—for reassurance before I’d be willing to bite into my own serving of the school-birthday food in question. I don’t think he ever did find out that he was my food-allergy guinea pig. Oh well.) And my school’s introduction of SunButter did approximately nothing to make me feel better. In fact, I hated it. We all hated it. It tasted funny—like it’d been left out in the sun, we 2nd-Grade experts at observational comedy declared. And our school had us all scooping the stuff out of a big ol’ communal tub, too, which really didn’t help.

The reason it sucked, though, was because it was peanut butter we unallergic were after. SunButter isn’t made from peanuts; it’s made from sunflower seeds, and it tastes like it’s made from sunflower seeds. I don’t know what it’s like for people who’ve never eaten peanut butter (or for people who haven’t had peanut butter in years), but I do know this: If you have a decent sense of what peanut butter tastes like, and you’re expecting SunButter to taste the same, you’re going to be disappointed. It’s approximately the same—the texture’s essentially identical, and the flavor is rather similar—but the difference is noticeable enough to produce that dreaded effect of off-ness that you’ll get from nearly every single allergen(s)-replaced product out there.

So because of that—because I was a little repulsed by SunButter as it comes across when it’s meant to pass for peanut butter—I’ve spent the better part of the last decade staying far, far away from the stuff. Last year, though, when I gave Free2b’s sun cups a try, I was forced to reconsider. I absolutely loved the sunflower-seed butter they’d used—and it tastes just like the SunButter I used to hate. Something had to give.

The deal, I think, was that I’d recently grown to appreciate sunflower seeds, so when I bit into that sunflower-butter cup, it was a sunflower-y flavor I was hoping for. I wasn’t expecting peanut butter, nor was I expecting a seamless substitute; I was expecting ground-up sunflower seeds, and that expectation made all the difference. And sure enough, when I (for science) closed my eyes and forced myself to expect a Reese’s Cup, the Free2b cup turned unpleasant.

I guess what I’m trying to say, then, is that if you treat SunButter like a specialty item—if you go into it expecting something decidedly different from peanut butter, that is—then 10 times out of 10, it’ll taste great. You have to want all the differences, though. Compared to peanut butter, SunButter is earthier, sourer. Deeper, more nuanced. And ever-so-slightly funky, too. Truly, it tastes just like sunflower seeds—and once you’ve come to terms with that (ultimately delightful) fact, this stuff really starts to rival peanut butter.

A SunButter-and-jelly sandwich

I like it fine on its own, and it’s good on bananas, too, but in my always-humble opinion, SunButter performs best in an SB&J (that’s a SunButter-and-jelly sandwich—keep up). The sandwich, like (well, because of) the SunButter itself, won’t taste right if it’s specifically peanut butter you’re after, but again: If you expect somewhat of a riff on a PB&J—and if you’ve really, truly gotten yourself ready to accept the sunflower seed as your Lord and Savior—then you’ll be handsomely rewarded with what I’m going to have to insist is an objectively superior sandwich. (Sorry. Can’t explain why. It’s just better.)

Anyway. SunButter comes in all your standard peanut-butter varieties—natural, creamy, crunchy, organic, and no sugar added—and each and every one is entirely free from peanuts, tree nuts, gluten, dairy, egg, sesame, and soy. I like the crunchy best (though it only comes “natural,” and so it does separate), but all are fine, really—provided you, like me, have turned yourself over to the Almighty Sunflower.

Find SunButter at Whole Foods, Best Market, Target, Walmart, Fairway, or Foodtown. Grab a coupon, though, because this stuff is expensive.

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