Sugarfish (or, Alternatively: “The Serenity Now”)

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If you’re like me—and you probably aren’t, because I’m a little weird in this regard—you start to foam at the mouth each and every time some rando who once spent a weekend in L.A. starts to blather on about how much better and cheaper sushi is on the West Coast. For starters, it’s just not true—but what really drives me nuts is the self-righteousness that tends to back those sorts of statements. (I realize, of course, that my entire blog is a little self-righteous. But this is my blog on my little corner of the Internet; it’s not as if I’m yapping away in an ever-so-slightly-raised voice in the middle of an otherwise quiet Japanese restaurant, so I’ve pardoned myself.)

Obviously, I love NYC’s sushi.  I wouldn’t trade it for any other (American) city’s. Also obvious, though: I’m partial—and given that I’m aware of that partiality, I’m obligated to challenge it. But, um…continually challenging your long-held beliefs is Hard Work, and I’m usually not that good or motivated a person, so I’ll often opt instead for a little Self-Challenge Lite. Hence my meal at Sugarfish.

For the (lucky) uninitiated, Sugarfish is a sushi-hawking mini-chain that’s based in California but that’s recently reached out and wrapped a (12th) tendril around NYC. Over in L.A., Sugarfish is exceedingly well-liked; from here, though—and by “from here,” I just mean “from within my own head”—the place just looks obnoxious. Its cutesy name, its insufferable Hipness, its ENORMOUS EGO, its menu‘s outright refusal to use a single Japanese word…I mean, come on. Is “omakase” really too much of a mouthful for Sugarfish’s intended patrons? Must we call it a “Trust Me”?

Whether meant to be cute or unique or just plain easy, the whole “Trust Me” thing just strikes me as an absurd instance of some sort of cutesy-sickly dumbing-down. It was the first thing I noticed about Sugarfish’s menu, and it really got me lathered. (I’m aware that it’s a little ridiculous for me to be so bothered by something so unimportant, and I’m also aware that my annoyance probably says a whole lot about me and my approach to food, too—but I stand behind that annoyance nonetheless. And while we’re between parentheses, I’ll say that this whole “Trust Me” really thing reminds me of that old Dunkin Donuts commercial that was bent on, like, endorsing and empowering American ignorance. Because all those people refusing to learn the names of the drinks they like is cute and endearing and relatable, right?)

See, here we go. I knew this would happen: I’m already getting carried away. Honestly, though, I really believed that Sugarfish’s food would save the place. I knew I’d hate the restaurant itself. With all the bones I had to pick, revulsion was a given. But I figured the fish itself would be good enough to win me over—or to shut me up long-term, at least. I’d read absolutely nothing but rave reviews. And plus, I’ve found that sushi spots this confident in their methods, this openly rigid, tend to be pretty good. (Sugarfish is very adamant about their adherence to The Nozawa Way. No, they don’t call it that. But they do talk about it incessantly.)

Of course, I was also drawn to Sugarfish by its prices. The most expensive Trust Me is only $51, and I’m always on the lookout for (relatively!) affordable sushi, especially when it’s supposed to taste just as good as the more-expensive stuff. So I grabbed Sam, shouted a “serenity now” or six at Sugarfish’s website, and made my way over to 20th Street…after confirming that their kitchen was nut-free, that is.

Two pieces of yellowtail sushi from Sugarfish

And that brings me to one of a few actually-significant things I hate about this place: the way they handle their popularity. They don’t take reservations. I don’t think they even have a phone that rings. So not only can you not book a table—you can’t even call to ask whether that day’s waitlist has any space left on it. You can’t do shit but show up, hope they’ll let you on the list, and then hope they’ll text you to come on back before you lose interest and/or starve to death. (Once you get the”it’s time” text, you’ll have 15 minutes to make it back to Sugarfish—which means that you’ll probably end up having to spend between 2 and 4 hours tethered to 20th Street by way of an irritatingly short chain. Nice.)

Now, I’m no stranger to annoying reservation processes. It took me weeks of nightly website-checking to book a table for three at Sushi Zo (I gave up on finding three spots at the bar), and I’m by now used to the text-us-and-we’ll-consider-giving-you-a-spot-but-we’ll-pretend-we’re-booked-if-you-happen-to-want-to-reserve-anything-after-7pm system at Sushi on Jones. But Sugarfish’s system (or lack thereof, really) is absurd to the extent that it comes off as disrespectful. I do almost nothing with my free time, and even I don’t have the time (or the patience) to bow to this stupid process. But of course, I did. Bow. To Sugarfish. For four hours a day, on two consecutive days. And on the second of those days, I was rewarded with a table.

Ambiance-wise, Sugarfish is a little weird. It’s incredibly dark in there (hence all these heinous photos), and it’s pretty cramped, too. The servers are unprecedentedly peppy, and the music’s not what I’ve come to expect of a sushi joint, either. (I mean, I like The Strokes, but I’m not sure I like them alongside my toro.) None of that’s all that bad, though. I can get used to abnormality. I can get into abnormality. But the clientele? Oh, the clientele…

Let’s leave it at this: The woman sitting to my right dissected every single piece of food that came her way, and within 10 minutes, she had her husband following suit. For each piece of nigiri, she’d poise her chopsticks like fork and knife and proceed to slice the fish/rice combo in half, right into two bite-size pieces. Off each half, she’d eat first the fish, then the rice—and unfortunately, she was not the only person I watched implement some horrible tried-and-true method of Tackling Nigiri that night. This place is filled to the brim with slicers and/or separators. (And I really don’t think such behavior is in accordance with The Nozawa Way.)

Two pieces of salmon

Anyway—and that just might be the biggest “anyway” I’ve ever written—I should probably get to the food. So I’ll just go right ahead, then: It sucked. There were decent bites, but most of what I ate was surprisingly bad. The food wasn’t worth the money, and it really wasn’t worth the trouble—but it took me some time to come to and realize just how not-worth-it my meal had been. I held on to some degree of hope until the very, very end of the tasting; but as course after course disappointed me, that hope began to morph into something much more like indignation. And by the time I was out the door, it’d dawned on me: Sugarfish is bullshit.

Sam and I both ended up with the regular Trust Me. We’d both ordered The Nozawa, which comes with a few more pieces of (the same) nigiri in addition to two extra pieces (of a “daily special”), but I guess there must’ve been some sort of mix-up. Like the other two tastings, the regular Trust Me begins with edamame, which was fine, though definitely too cold. (And too firm. That stuff hurt my fingers.) Then came some tuna sashimi—pictured at the top of this post—which was covered with scallions and dressed in a sauce that I’d heard the girl sitting to my left describe as “this really weird sauce that’s the best thing you’ll ever taste.” I was curious.

…It was ponzu. Plain ponzu. (And it was also the only reason that dish was even half-decent. The tuna was bland—but I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: I’ll enjoy most things that’re covered in scallions and ponzu.)

As for the sushi, not one piece was good. The salmon (pictured immediately above) was all right, but what little flavor it had was totally overwhelmed by the sesame seeds that topped it. Soy helped a lot, though we’d been instructed to stay away from it—but still, this stuff was so, so boring. Albacore (pictured above the salmon) was next, and it was passable, though certainly not noteworthy…and then came the yellowtail, which bore easily the worst flavor of the night. Truly, it was awful: watery, bland, and somehow still a little funky—and it wasn’t even close to restaurant-quality. (In fact, it really reminded me of all the unpleasant fish you’ll find in the freezer section at Whole Foods. That, and all the fish I’ve all-I-can-eaten at godforsaken Mika.)

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The snapper (pictured immediately above) might’ve been fine, but I wouldn’t have known, because it was coated—not brushed, but coated—with a peppery glaze that was literally all I could taste, and then came some sea bass, which I can’t for the life of me remember. But it’s safe to say that it, too, was bland and boring. I’d remember if I’d come across something tasty. Promise.

And that was it for the sushi. But before I’d had any time to process my disappointment (and shock!), we’d moved on to the hand rolls, which were better than the sushi, but not by enough to have saved the meal. We were given two—one with toro, and one with blue crab—and both were pretty good, but only because of the rice, which is some of the best I’ve ever had. (In fact, Sugarfish’s rice is the only thing that really sets the place apart from all those low- to mid-tier sushi joints that suck so much.) The toro had no flavor whatsoever—if the lights had been any lower, I wouldn’t have been able to tell it from grated daikon—but the blue crab was one of the tastiest things that showed up at my table. (Do remember: That’s saying very little.)

As soon as we’d finished our last hand rolls, our server showed up to tell us that our tasting had ended. Wholly unsatisfied, and in an attempt to find something worthwhile at Sugarfish, Sam and I each ordered a lobster hand roll, which we’d heard the servers recommend to just about everyone, and which we kept hearing all the regulars order, too. And while that hand roll was all right, it really wasn’t anything special. Lobster’s lobster, but…I don’t know. It just didn’t do it for me.

Obviously, Sugarfish’s food left me disappointed. But more than just disappointed, I was annoyed. And it took me a while to figure out just why. The reason, I think, is that Sugarfish just feels so…flimsy. So feeble. So lame. The atmosphere’s a very lackluster sort of trendy-bland; the menu’s Dunkin-Donuts dumb; by default, everything comes without wasabi; even the fish itself is weak and watery. I don’t want my hand held. I don’t want to be coddled. I just want good fish at a reasonable price. (And in a pleasant setting, too. If at all possible.)

But Sugarfish isn’t that. It’s straight out of the middlebrow. It’s Snapchat-Story fodder, good for very, very little beyond personal advertisement, beyond filling the frame of an Instagram post or two meant to broadcast a Personal Brand of Luxury—and it really isn’t even good for that, because, you know, the food in the picture doesn’t even taste good. So I guess I’ll be sticking to Zo for my L.A. sushi. (Just kidding. I can’t afford Zo. But you get my point.)

…Find Sugarfish at 33 East 20th Street, between Park and Broadway. But don’t show up unless you’ve hours to spare—and don’t forget to Snap the entirety of your meal.

(Sorry for the length of this post, by the way. I might’ve gone a little nuts. Lloyd Braun was right, I guess: serenity now, insanity later.)

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White Maize

Three nut-free arepas from White Maize

Within 5 minutes of hearing about White Maize, I knew I had to give it a try. It didn’t look like anything all that special—it’s just an arepa joint that opened this past fall on Brooklyn’s restaurant-dotted Smith Street—but that was precisely why I was so interested. I tend to get pretty excited about one-trick restuarants, as their teeny-tiny menus are (to me, at least) a lot less worry-inducing than those that are more well-rounded. And plus, the one-category food in question at these sorts of places tends to benefit from all the extra attention.

Within 10 minutes of hearing about White Maize, I was on the phone. And within 12, I’d heard everything I’d wanted to hear. There are no tree nuts (or peanuts) in White Maize’s kitchen—and while their ingredients aren’t guaranteed to all be free from cross-contamination, pretty much everything that goes into their food (stuff like meats, cheeses, beans, and herbs) is low-risk and simple. So in all, I’m entirely comfortable with White Maize’s food.

A Reina arepa from White Maize

And you know, the food’s pretty damn good. It’s not quite as good as I would’ve hoped, given the distance from my apartment (far-ish) and the prices (steep-ish), but it’s nonetheless good enough that I’m happy to make the occasional two-train trek out to Carroll Gardens to get my fix.

The restaurant itself, by the way, is bright and modern, with wood-panel walls, some CB2-looking hanging lights, a few tables (some communal, unfortunately), and floor-to-ceiling windows that look out onto Smith. The employees are friendly and helpful, and though the food takes a while to come out, it feels worth the wait. (Imagine eating a soggy-ass arepa that’s been sitting around under a warmer for the last 30 minutes. Ick. So I’ll do my best not to bitch about White Maize’s 10-minute delay.)

A nut-free Reina arepa from White Maize

So far, I’ve tried a grand total of four of White Maize’s nine arepas, and two of their four appetizers, too. My favorite of the arepas is easily the Parrilla, which is made with grilled steak, grilled tomato, grilled avocado, and grilled cheese, and which is pictured in the foreground of the photo at the top of this post. The steak is ridiculously soft and tender—the folks at White Maize will cook it perfectly to the doneness of your choosing—and the grilled cheese and avocado were nice touches, too.

My only complaint was that the arepa as a whole could used a little more pop—but that’s what salsa’s for, isn’t it? Fortunately, White Maize offers two squirt-bottle sauces: one red (a little spicy, and a little boring, but fine), and one green (spice-less, avocado-based, and the love of my life). The latter sauce is necessary—and in large quantities, too—for nearly everything at White Maize. Without it, most of these dishes end up being a little underwhelming, but as soon as I get my hands on one of those squirt bottles, I’m set.

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I also like the Pelua arepa, which is made with pulled beef and gouda. Admittedly, it’s a little (okay, a lot) boring, but with a few squirts of the aforementioned sauce, it turns into a whole other creation. The pulled beef is good, and the gouda is cheese, after all—so really, there’s nothing (slight boringness aside) not to like.

Also pretty good: the Reina arepa, made with “chicken breast and avocado salad.” The first time I ordered it, I figured it’d contain (a) chicken breast and (b) avocado salad—that’s what the menu’s (lack of) punctuation implies, at least—but it doesn’t. So I’d like to submit a somewhat pedantic (but actually pretty significant) correction to the folks at White Maize: This filling is one cohesive salad that’s comprised of both chicken breast and avocado, so it should be referred to as “chicken-breast-and-avocado salad,” and not as “chicken breast and avocado salad.” (I hope that made sense. “Chicken-breast-and-avocado” is here one long compound adjective that describes “salad,” and hyphenating it accordingly would get rid of the ambiguity that allows us to misunderstand the Reina as filled with avocado salad and some chicken breast, too.)

In any case, the Reina (pictured second and third above) is a sort of decent that qualifies as good once sauced up. The chicken itself is the right texture, and the salad it’s part of is all right, if a little bland. (It’s decidedly avocado in color, but not avocado enough in flavor, and if you ask me, it could definitely use some herbs or some citrus, and maybe even some solid chunks of avocado, too.) There’s also a whole lot of olive oil in this thing, to the point that it’s a little overbearing, but honestly, there’s so, so little White Maize’s squirt bottles can’t fix.

The Vuelve a la Vida arepa from White Maize

I have found one arepa that my beloved green sauce can’t fix, though: the Vuelve a la Vida (English: “return to life”), which is pictured immediately above. It’s filled with shrimp, octopus, and calamari “in cold cocktail salad” (read: smothered in straight cocktail sauce), and it’s just too damn sweet for me. The shrimp is fine, the squid is fine, and the octopus (though there are only maybe two or three pieces per arepa) is particularly good, but the cocktail sauce just ruins the whole thing for me. What otherwise could’ve been a fun, multidimensional seafood-salad-type thing becomes flat and one-note when coated in a sauce as blunt (and sugary!) as this one. And anyway, the sauce makes the arepa itself taste a little too much like an English muffin pizza.

A nut-free empanada from White Maize

All this talk about arepas and I almost forgot about the sides. It’s a good thing that I didn’t, though, because I actually sort of love White Maize’s. The tequeños—fresh cheese, wrapped in dough and deep fried—are great, and though they’d be even better with their own dipping sauce, the green sauce works well enough. And the empanadas, which come 3 for $7, are wonderful, too. (There’s one pictured in the terrible photograph immediately above.) I usually hate black beans, but they work so well in these that I just might have to change my stance. And the meat—to tell you the truth, I’ve only had these once, and I have no idea what type of meat was in them—is solid, too. The best part, though, is probably the dough: hot, crispy, and just sweet enough. So good.

Anyway. While I can’t deny that White Maize’s arepas are all at least a little lacking, I also can’t deny that I really do have a lot of affection for the place, despite its frequent underwhelmingness. (Apparently that’s not a word. Fuck it.) So I do recommend White Maize—but I also recommend going in with your expectations in check.

…And a full wallet, because this shit ain’t cheap.

Find White Maize at 277 Smith Street, between Degraw and Sackett.

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Sao Mai

A bowl of pho from Sao Mai

Up in Yorkville, right around 2nd Avenue, there once existed this cancerous cluster of terrible restaurants that really ought to have been dug right up and replanted in some godforsaken upstate strip mall. I spent a lot of time in those sorts of restaurants, because my middle-school friends evidently couldn’t get enough of…well, whatever it is those sorts of places hawked, I guess: usually terrible “sushi,” and depressing Thai on occasion, too. I remain bitter. (Maybe that’s why my blog posts are so insistently obnoxious?) Today—nearly a decade later—a satisfying percentage of those restaurants are gone. But I think one may have been reincarnated about 70 blocks south of its original spot.

This is, of course, my roundabout way of saying that the Lower East Side’s Sao Mai reminds me of the shame-inducing restaurants of my middle-school career. It’s the terrible decor that gives me the flashbacks. Shitty lighting casts an orange hue on exposed brick walls; ceiling fans spin on, even in the middle of February; picture-plastered menus come in flimsy little booklets; the cashier lives behind a shiny-tiled podium that really belongs at the front of a medical spa; a strip of pink flowers do nothing to spruce the place up. I’ve come to associate this sort of aesthetic with terrible attempts at Asian cuisine—so by the time I’d taken my seat at my first Sao Mai table, I was already expecting to be let down.

Sometimes—sometimes, I said—I love being wrong.

A grilled pork bánh mì from Sao Mai

105 posts, and not a single mention of Vietnamese cuisine. How that happened, I’m not sure—but I’m thinking Sao Mai will be a good entry point, given its unusual degree of nut allergy–friendliness. There are no tree nuts in Sao Mai’s kitchen, but that’s not really out of the ordinary for a Vietnamese restaurant. Nearly all the Vietnamese restaurants I call tell me that they don’t use tree nuts in any of their food, but almost none of those restaurants’ bánh mì are made with allergy-friendly bread. (The restaurant I called immediately before Sao Mai responded to my bread-origin question with laughter—then, when the woman realized I was serious, she told me that they got their bread “from some bakery in Chinatown,” and that I’d probably be wise to stay away from it.)

Sao Mai’s bread supplier is Neri’s Bakery, a peanut-free bakery that’s grounded up in Port Chester, of all places. With regard to tree nuts, though, the situation at Neri’s is a little more complicated. Here’s what I was told via email:

We are a Peanut Free facility, which means we do not use any Peanuts in any portion of the bakery. We also have a written Peanut Free policy and all employees are trained accordingly. That being said we do use some Tree Nuts in our pastry division for items in our retail store for Biscotti cookies. That room is completely separate from the rest of the bakery.

Now, as you’ve probably inferred from the above photo of a half-eaten bánh mì, the response I got from Neri’s was enough to make me feel comfortable with their breads. That makes Sao Mai the only Vietnamese restaurant I’ve found that meets my standards, bread-wise. (I’m sure there are others, but I can only make so many phone calls.)

Calamari from Sao Mai

It took approximately one dish to make me start questioning my initial read of Sao Mai. The crispy calamari (pictured immediately above) didn’t singlehandedly bring me around, but it sure did help the process along. Like a lot of Sao Mai’s dishes, it’s very sweet—too sweet for some, perhaps—but I love it. I really, really do. The squid’s always perfectly fried, and it’s good plain, with the dipping sauce it comes with, or with a little cilantro on top. The lettuce underneath is a little iffy, and the tomato slices on the side are weak, too—but what can you do? Overall, a lovely appetizer.

It was the pork bánh mì, though, that sealed the deal. Pictured second above and immediately below, this is one good sandwich. Given the whole can’t-eat-most-breads thing, I can’t say much of anything about how this sandwich fares against other bánh mì, but I can evaluate on its own merit, and let me tell you: This thing is good. The grilled pork is sweet and soft, and all the cilantro in this thing complements it ridiculously well. There’s just enough mayo, and I’m even a fan of the cucumber that comes wedged in the crook of the roll. (I have a thing with cucumbers. I think they’re disgusting. I’d had big plans to leave this cucumber wedge uneaten, but Sao Mai foiled them.)

My favorite thing about this sandwich, I think (aside from the flavor of the pork—and aside from the fact that I can eat it, which is a huge plus), is the way the arrangement of its ingredients lends itself so well to strategic eating. When I get tired of the pork, I can scoot over to the right for some cilantro or some cucumber, or over to the left for some carrot and daikon—and when I get tired of those, it’s right back to the center for pork. It seems like a silly thing to praise, but it’s a big part of why I like this sandwich so much. Here it is:

A grilled pork bánh mì from Sao Mai

Rather than giving a play-by-play of everything else I’ve enjoyed (or, in some cases, disliked—I’m looking at you, pan-fried egg noodles), I’m going to cut right to the chase and get to talking about the phở. (I actually think it’s illegal to use the phrase “cut to the chase” when you’re already a literal thousand words into a blog post, but you’ll forgive me.) Sao Mai offers seven types, and both of the ones I’ve tried have been pretty damn good.

The first time I went, I ordered the beef brisket phở, which (like most of Sao Mai’s other phở dishes) is served alongside a plate of bean sprouts, lime, basil, and jalapeño. The brisket was good enough, but the beef eye-of-round phở—or “beef eye round noodle,” as it’s called on Sao Mai’s menu—has since become my regular order, literally only because I’m a sucker for bright-pink beef. (Okay: I like the eye-of-round’s taste and texture just a little more than I like the brisket’s. But it’s 97% a matter of color.) I mean, come on:

A bowl of pho from Sao Mai

Irresistible.

(Actually, the eye-of-round’s not all that pink in the photos I’ve included with this post. It darkens pretty quickly, and photos take a few minutes. Sorry.)

Anyway, this phở’s pretty great. (NYC definitely isn’t known for its Vietnamese food, but Sao Mai does consistently place on best-phở lists, so that’s something, at least.) The broth is subtle (but not bland!), and I’m particularly grateful for all the onions and scallions throughout. I like the noodles themselves, too—and I typically hate super-thin noodles like these—and the meat’s good till it toughens up five minutes into your meal. (Really, though, it takes effort not to eat all the meat within 30 seconds of your bowl’s arrival, so if you’re aware that its texture is time-sensitive, you’ll be fine.)

Here’s a bonus phởto (har har), just ’cause:

A bowl of phở

Obviously, I like Sao Mai. I’m most grateful for their bánh mì, and I have a lot of fun with their phở, but there’s no reason to stop at those; the menu’s definitely worth a poke-around, and I’m genuinely glad to have gotten my hands on it. There are a bunch of dishes I still want to try, but for now, I’m pretty confident: Sao Mai is a restaurant that will be in my rotation for a long, long time.

Find Sao Mai at 203 1st Avenue, between 12th and 13th Streets. And if you’re planning on having a sit-down meal, be sure you have either (a) a free afternoon ahead of you, or (b) the cojones to use your hand/voice/a kazoo to signal for the cashier’s attention if you ever, ever, ever want to be given a check. Ever. (Oh, also: Bánh mì aren’t served after 5pm.)

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Sammy’s Halal Food

Chicken and lamb over rice with white and green sauce from Sammy's Halal Food

I went over 7,500 days without eating anything that came from a halal cart. (I guess some of those were my no-solid-food days, but I liked the number, so let me live, all right?) I don’t know whether I’ve ever gone more than 7.5 days without smelling something from a halal cart, but until this past January, I’d never, ever gotten up close and personal with any chicken and lamb over rice. As a kid, I guess I never had much interest—and as an adult-ish thing who at least attempts to handle her allergies responsibly, I figured that there’d be no feasible way to get in touch with a “halal guy” for Q&A.

I could’ve just walked up to a random cart and asked about nuts, sure, but I’m typically a little uncomfortable with such a casual approach. I don’t like to go into first-time meals without having spoken to an employee—preferably, a higher-up—via phone (or preferably email) well in advance. I don’t think it’s all that rational, but the feeling I have is that waltzing on in, asking a few questions about nuts, and then sitting right down to eat is too lax a restaurant-vetting method. Showing up and asking doesn’t does it do much to make me feel safe—and a meal spent worrying is bound to be an unpleasant one, no matter the quality of the food. Plus, I’ve found that the answers I get in person are, for whatever reason, way less likely to be true. So when I’m in the mood to try something new, I make sure I’m sticking to premeditated meals at restaurants with phone numbers.

But how to fit a halal cart into that perhaps-ridiculous requirement? By the end of a few months of idle brainstorming, I’d come up with nothing. If I spent long enough combing Google, could I maybe find a cart with a phone number or email address? (Well, couldn’t.) Could I, with enough effort, get any search engine to point me toward a single page that might mention both halal carts and food allergies? (God, no.) What about The Halal Guys? They’re huge—could I get in touch with them? (Yes, but I didn’t end up being comfortable with their baklava.) Could I develop a half-decent rapport with one of the halal guys I walk by every day, to the extent that I’d be able to have a nice, thorough conversation with him about his ingredients? (Sounds like a lot of work.)

Out of the bunch, the Halal Guys idea was the only one that’d even come close to leading me anywhere, so I decided to search (and search) for some other halal-cart chains. (I had no idea these things came in chains. I thought they were one-off things. Guess not.) Rafiqi’s looked promising, but their Twitter is inactive, and they read and ignored the Facebook message I sent. And then I found Sammy’s, Queens-born winner of the 2006 Vendy Awards…and solution to the Halal-Cart Problem™.

Sammy's Halal Food cart

Sammy’s has no website, no Twitter. (They seem to have had a website at one point, but these days, the URL just leads to spam.) What they do have is a Facebook page, which proudly bears just what I’d been looking for: a phone number (which ended up being one of two I’d later realize were printed right there on the front of the cart itself).

Half-afraid that the number would somehow up and disappear right before my eyes, I called it immediately—and the guy I spoke with told me just what I’d been wanting to hear: that none of Sammy’s carts use any nutty ingredients, and that I’d be just fine, allergy-wise, with all the food they serve. I forgot to ask about their pita (which is of particular concern to me, as all bread products are), but some cart window–peeking has since tipped me off that Sammy’s uses Kontos pita, which contains wheat, sesame, and soy, but which fortunately doesn’t come with any sort of “may contain” warning for tree nuts. Good enough for me.

The contact information for Sammy's Halal Food

In my 7,500 halal-free days—or rather, in my 500-ish Halal-coveting days—I’d cultivated quite the mental swath of hype for this stuff, to the point that it seemed unlikely that any of it would ever be able to meet my ridiculous expectations. I mean, those carts smell good. Plus, everyone’s always cracking open those styrofoam containers in NYU’s lounges, and while I’ll always cast a reflexive sneer at anyone who thinks it’s okay to eat fragrant food in an otherwise food-less public area, I can’t deny that their lunches always make my stomach growl. Plus, white sauce? Come on. I had to get in on that.

And you know what? Sammy’s didn’t disappoint me anywhere near as much as I’d figured it would. In fact, it hardly disappointed me at all—and I’m perfectly willing to write off the entirety of that (negligible) disappointment, given the sheer size of the overgrown hype-swath I’d been living with.

For my nerves’ sake, I kept my first Sammy’s order exceedingly simple: chicken over rice, topped with white sauce and nothing else. (The unnamed green sauce is evidently what sets Sammy’s apart from other halal carts, but—for whatever reason—I was particularly nervous about my first Sammy’s meal, so I didn’t exactly feel like courting a mystery sauce.) And simple as it was, I definitely did enjoy it. The chicken was nice and tender, with a very mild spice to it, and the rice itself was surprisingly good. (I’ve been eating a lot of poorly cooked rice lately, I guess—but this rice was particularly good: not over- nor under-cooked, and nicely seasoned, too.)

The white sauce—which I did like, by the way—was the only thing that left me wanting. If I hadn’t been looking, I wouldn’t have been able to tell it from straight mayonnaise…and that’s fine, I guess, but it wasn’t exactly what I’d been dreaming of. I would’ve liked it to be a little tangier—or a little more anything-but-mayo-y, really—to cut through the flavors in the meat and the rice, but I suppose you can’t always get what you want. White sauce is mayo-intensive. Never knew. But once I’d come to terms with that, I started to enjoy it quite a bit.

A nut-free platter of chicken and lamb over rice with white and green sauces from Sammy's Halal Food

The only issue I took with my chicken over rice was that it ended up being a little flat—especially as the meal goes on and the platter gets more and more mixed up—which was why, my second time at Sammy’s, I decided to go with chicken and lamb over rice with both white and green sauces on top (pictured at the top of this post and immediately above). And sure enough, that did it.

The lamb, though not all that great on its own, brought new life (well, new flavors) to the platter—but it was actually the green sauce that really changed the game. I don’t know what’s in it, nor do I even really know what it tastes like (cilantro, for one), but I do know that it combines with the white sauce to produce a topping that’s actually effective at brightening up the meat it tops. Predictably, it adds some much-needed dimension to these relatively plain meat-over-rice platters, and so I’ll admit it: The Yelpers are right. Green sauce, at Sammy’s, is indispensable.

(Sorry for being so vague about the flavor of this stuff. It’s herby. It’s sort of garlicky, but I have no idea whether there’s even any garlic in it. I should probably at least mention that it isn’t hot. The red sauce is the hot one. That’s the only sauce they’ll explicitly offer you, by the way. You’ll have to request the green sauce by name—and I’d advise that you not forget to do so.)

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Onto the falafel, though. Pictured above is, of course, a falafel sandwich, which just might be my favorite Sammy’s offering, if only because I’m a sucker for warm, chewy pita. The falafel itself is good—both in this sandwich and over rice, too—and the lettuce and cabbage are surprisingly inoffensive. (I think there’s other stuff in there, but I can’t quite say what. Onions? Probably. And a few bits of carrot, too. Basic stuff, really. But pleasant stuff nonetheless.) Again, though, it’s the combination of the white and green sauces that sold me on this thing. They work just as well with the falafel as they do with the chicken and the lamb, and they coat the pita nicely, too.

Anyway, I really like Sammy’s—as if that weren’t abundantly clear. And I’m sure a lot of that’s just my excitement at having finally become a halal-cart regular, but it has a lot to do with Sammy’s itself, too. The food is cheap as hell; it never tastes like it’s been sitting around, even though it probably has, I guess; and the guys who run the cart are always pleasant and friendly. Being able to make a casual stop for street food is new to me, sure—and the novelty of the whole thing has certainly done a bunch to shape this review. But Sammy’s is good. I really do think so.

Find this particular Sammy’s cart on the corner of West 4th Street and 6th Avenue. (There’s another in Queens, on the corner of 73rd Street and Broadway, and there’s one in Brooklyn, too, on the corner of Brighton Beach and Coney Island Avenue.)

 

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Taquitoria

Three classic pork taquitos from Taquitoria

One of the first places I ever went on my own as a kid—well, other than school—was the 7-Eleven a few blocks from my childhood apartment. Not one for variation, I’d buy the same thing every time: one (1) pre-paid RuneScape membership card, one (1) bag of Rips, and three (3) gross little taquitos. Admittedly, those taquitos always tasted exactly like they’d just come off a hot-dog warmer at some godforsaken gas-station convenience store—and they had, of course—but I didn’t care. That was just…what I did.

Maybe that’s why I hate taquitos so much. I mean, if I’d grown up on 7-Eleven hot dogs, I’d probably hate hot dogs, too. There are good hot dogs out there, though—I’m already well-aware of that. But good taquitos? I’m not so sure. I wasn’t sure pre-Taquitoria, and I’m certainly not sure post-Taquitoria. At the very least, though, these taquitos are worlds better than 7-Eleven’s—though this place doesn’t sell RuneScape membership. Definitely a downside. (Listen: I’ve quit, okay?)

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I found out about this place a long time ago—almost a year ago, actually, right around when I first started this blog—and back then, I was pretty excited about it. Why? Because—as if single-item-menu restaurants weren’t themselves enough of a boon for those with food allergies—Taquitoria’s menu proudly declares the restaurant nut-free (and gluten-free, and soy-free, and shellfish-free, too).

Now, for me to categorize a restaurant as “truly nut-free,” that restaurant must either (a) openly identify itself as nut-free, or (b) attempt to use only ingredients that are free from cross-contamination—and as I said, Taquitoria meets the first criterion, so I’ve gone ahead and categorized them as “truly nut-free.” Still, they do not require allergen statements from their vendors, so there is, I suppose, a chance that some of their ingredients may have come from facilities that do handle nuts.

…Then again, that’s true of almost every single restaurant ever, and there’s a chance of a nut trace in pretty much every dish on the planet, regardless of whether there are any nuts present in the kitchen it was made in. (If you’re eating in a restaurant, it’s just not feasible to insist on its being confirmed for you that every single ingredient in every dish you order is free from all possible nut traces. Think about it: flours, sauces, seasonings…it’s unlikely that everything will have come from a nut-free facility.)

Eating out is always going to involve some degree of uncertainty. It’s a risk–reward thing. And I happen to believe that Taquitoria’s about as safe as these sorts of places come. Let’s move on.

Some artwork on display at the back of Taquitoria

Despite all the good things I’d read about Taquitoria, and despite my initial excitement at its being nut-free, it took me a while to get myself over to Ludlow Street. My excitement, I think, was purely theoretical. And it wasn’t exactly easy for me to work up a motivated craving for taquitos and taquitos alone. A year later, I’ve still only been by twice—but I’ve ordered from them a handful of times, and I’ve tried pretty much everything on the teeny-tiny menu, too. Finally, I’m ready to blog.

And you know, I’m ready to be honest, too. So here goes: I don’t like much of anything about this place. Everything about it—its “graffitied” walls, its oldish-but-not-old-school hip-hop music, its been-done dueling Biggie and Tupac tip jars, its gimmicky single-concept menu, and even its ever-so-Chill™ business hours—screams “I’m not like a regular restaurant. I’m a cool restaurant.” And it drives me fucking bonkers. Admittedly, that’s a little weird; classic Kanye, gimmicky food, and late-night hours are all usually right up my alley. But when Taquitoria does cool, it just…doesn’t strike me as cool. Think of a fedora (or is it a trilby? I can never tell): it’s cool when Justin Timberlake rocks one, but some random (less-cool) dude? Not so much.

Between Timberlake and the random trilby-sporting guy guy, the difference is…well, a whole lot of things. But between Taquitoria and any of its less-eye-roll-inducing kin? The difference is just the quality of the food. I don’t think Taquitoria would have any trouble pulling off its attempt at cool if the taquitos were good. And don’t get me wrong—they’re all right. (They’re certainly the best taquitos I’ve ever had. But they’re also the only taquitos I’ve ever had that didn’t come out of either a 7-Eleven or a José Olé box.) They’re nice and crispy, with some formidable fillings—all three meats (chicken, pork, beef) are wonderfully juicy—but the toppings they come with are just so ridiculously underwhelming that they’ve soured me on the whole restaurant.

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As for those toppings, there are three pre-set options—Classic (“guac sauce,” shredded lettuce, cotija—which is the style option pictured throughout this post), Cheesy (nacho cheese, sour cream, pickled jalapeño relish), and Chronic (a combination of Classic and Cheesy)—and not one of them is good. Where do I start? The guac sauce is watery and lame, and the shredded lettuce is McDonald’s-tier. The nacho cheese is inexcusable (I firmly believe that nacho cheese has no place in this world), and the jalapeño relish might as well not be there. Oh, and there’s never enough sour cream on them—and the red sauce  is totally useless.

In short, these taquitos leave a whole lot to be desired. They’re okay, but they’re definitely not good.

And anyway, how hard could it really be to improve these toppings? As long as they’re covered with some respectable sauce, cheese, and veggies—and as long as they’re properly fried, which these are—bland-ish taquitos would be a non-issue. But covered with this nonsense, any taquito would fall flat. And there’s no excuse for these toppings, either. There are so many appropriate options out there: a better avocado salsa, a reasonable amount of crema, some pico de gallo, a little onion and cilantro, even just a little lime…but no. The folks at Taquitoria have chosen to limit themselves to the likes of nacho cheese and shredded iceberg. Great. Thanks, guys.

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As if it even matters, the sides are lame, too. The rice & beans—which are topped with tortilla chips (???)—are boring, even for rice and beans. And the chips & salsa are mediocre, too. The Chronic Fries—waffle, crinkle, and shoestring fries, mixed together and topped with all the nonsense I shit-talked above—somehow manage to be at once both boring and overzealous, and the same applies to the “nachos,” too.

Are you getting my point yet…? Anything topped with Taquitoria’s signature slew of accoutrements is going to suck, whether or not you decide to drown the creation in hot sauce. And for what it’s worth—probably nothing—this isn’t a matter of my having highfalutin tastes. I eat at McDonald’s at least twice a week, and if there were a Burger King nearby, I’d be there even more. I have a perverse love for KFC’s mashed potatoes. I sprinkle a little MSG on all my frozen meals, and I dump at least four pounds of French’s atop all my Hamburger Helper.

It may come as a bit of a surprise, then, given how critical I am of a lot of the restaurants I write about—but at my core, I have no standards. And Taquitoria still manages to let me down, not because their food is intolerable, but because it’s marketed as something it isn’t: notably better than the likes of mass-produced fast food. And maybe it is, but not by much. So I’m sorry, I guess, but I’m not a fan. The guys behind the counter are nice, though. I’ll give them that.

Find Taquitoria at 168 Ludlow Street, between Stanton and Houston.

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Kung Fu Little Steamed Buns Ramen

Shanghai pan-fried pork buns from Kung Fu Little Steamed Buns Ramen

You know, my instinct was to start this post with one of those obnoxious half-apologies I so love to offer up: “More Chinese food! How repetitive! Poor me! Poor you! Poor us, having to suffer through this post that I chose to write and you chose to read!” (Why, yes. I do find another one of my own blogging tics to roll my eyes at about every other day. How kind of you to notice.) But that’s an exceedingly stupid instinct, I think—because if you’re allergic to nuts, you’re probably grateful for each and every Chinese restaurant that can accommodate you. Unless you aren’t into Chinese food, in which case…well, my next post is going to be about taquitos, so I’ll see you then.

In any case, I first contacted KFLSBR (no chance I’m going to be typing that name out) a few months ago. I called their Hell’s Kitchen location—that’s the location this entire post will be about—a few weeks before going and then again about an hour before showing up, and both times, I was told (by separate people) that there weren’t any tree nuts or peanuts used in any of their food. Evidently, though, that isn’t true. There aren’t any tree nuts in the kitchen, but there are peanuts present in at least one dish, which is what I was finally told the second or third time I went.

Of course, I’m not allergic to peanuts, and I’d only even asked about them for the sake of this blog post (and because it’s usually a lot easier to ask about peanuts alongside tree nuts than it is to go through the effort of separating the two in your server’s mind)—but I really don’t like being given misinformation when it comes to allergenic ingredients. Finding out that they’d been wrong about the peanuts naturally made me question what I was told about tree nuts…but no matter how many times (and how many different ways) I’ve since asked about tree nuts, the folks at KFLSBR have stuck to a consistent answer: there are none. (Plus, by now, I’ve eaten there plenty of times without issue—so I’ve come to feel comfortable enough with the place.)

Stir-fried ramen with pork from Kung Fu Little Steamed Buns Ramen

Anyway. KFLSBR is a little strange, but it definitely isn’t bad. The name—Kung Fu Little Steamed Buns Ramen—is a little misleading, but only if, like I did, you approach this restaurant from a place of ignorance. Up until very recently, I’d had no idea that Japanese ramen started off as a Chinese dish. (“Ramen” is actually the Japanese pronunciation of the Chinese “lamian,” which refers to a type of Chinese noodle.) So while the ramen served at KFLSBR isn’t at all what most of us have come to think of as ramen’s only legitimate form, there’s no need to bring out the pitchforks. This is ramen as it was when it first showed up in Japan. Rest easy, Yelpers.

But before you start to think I’m praising KFLSBR’s noodle soups, I should probably come out and say that they sort of suck. The noodles themselves aren’t bad, but the broths are so simple that they just end up coming off as boring. Really, I see no reason to mess with these dishes. There are plenty of other things on the menu, so I tend not to bother.

I’m similarly unimpressed with all the stir-fried noodle dishes I’ve tried. (And that should probably mean something to you, because I like almost every single stir-fried noodle I come across.) Again, the noodles themselves are good—they have a satisfying chew to them, and they’re sort of fun to eat—but the stir-fries as a whole are exceedingly boring. Both the pork (visible in the dish pictured above) and the roast duck are themselves surprisingly tasty, but the noodles they come atop are just so…one-note. They’re way too sweet, and none of the veggies are worth the (minimal) effort it takes to bus them to your mouth. So I tend to pass on these dishes, too.

Peking duck buns from Kung Fu Little Steamed Buns Ramen

I guess I should get the rest of the dishes I don’t like out of the way before I go on to talk about what I do like. (This isn’t my favorite restaurant, obviously. But they do have a few dishes I love, no doubt.)

Anyway. Let’s talk soup dumplings. I love xiao long bao (or steamed buns, as they’re called at KFLSBR), but these just don’t do it for me. The wrappers are fine, but the broth inside is pretty bland. Maybe that’s why I saw a guy literally squeezing the soup out of each and every one of his poor, poor dumplings before forcing the dry wrappers down his throat with a grimace. (No, that’s probably not why. He was probably an idiot, and I probably need to learn to keep my eyes on my own food.) In any case, I’ve written these off as another skippable dish, though I can work up a little more excitement for these than I can for the other dishes I’ve mentioned so far.

One more dish. Just one more dish, and then I promise I’ll have some nice things to say. The pan-fried Peking duck buns—which are pictured immediately above, and which actually are buns, rather than dumplings—are so close, yet so far. The buns themselves are fine, but the duck inside has too funky of a flavor for me. And on top of the funkiness, it’s cloyingly sweet, too. I’d love to be on board—duck, when done right, is probably my favorite meat—but I just can’t. Sorry.

Scallion pancakes from Kung Fu Little Steamed Buns Ramen

And now, finally, onto the dishes I crave. First, the Shanghai pan-fried pork buns (sheng jian bao), which are totally worth the 20-minute wait the menu warns about. The wrappers are thick and doughy—too thick and too doughy, perhaps—but I, for one, love them. And the broth inside tastes (or maybe just seems to taste) a whole lot better than the broth you’ll find in the xiao long bao.

Honestly, the first 45 minutes or so of my inaugural KFLSBR meal had me pretty discouraged, and by the time these dumplings arrived, I’d pretty much decided that I’d never be coming back. But these were enough to sow the seed of craving in me—and as long as I can keep ordering them, I’ll keep going back to KFLSBR. (…On occasion.)

My other favorite dish—and I’m aware of how silly this sounds—is the scallion pancakes, pictured immediately above. I don’t exactly know why, but these things just haunt me. I like them better than any of the other scallion pancakes I’ve had lately, and that’s not only because I’ve been eating some moderately underwhelming scallion pancakes—it’s (for once) because these are solid in their own right. They aren’t just greasy and somewhat crisp (which is all I require of a scallion pancake, really); they have actual layers to them, too. They outer bits are crisp enough, but the inside’s soft and and fluffy, even. Perfect.

I can’t really deny that these place is, overall, a disappointment. On top of the problems I have with the food, there’s…well, it isn’t cheap, it’s small and cramped (and always packed with tourists, too), the service is (frankly) pretty bad, and they automatically apply a 15% gratuity to all bills. (That last one’s fine with me, actually, but I do think they could afford to be a little more upfront about the practice. The receipt shows what they’ve added on, but it encourages you to tip, too—and the servers never, ever mention that you’ve already tipped when they’re handing you the check.)

But despite all that, and despite the dishes with which I’ve had my differences, I don’t mind KFLSBR. And in fact, I actually sort of like it. In small doses, it’s fine—especially if you’re short on Chinese restaurants whose food won’t kill you.

Find KFLSBR at 811 8th Avenue, between 48th and 49th; 146 East 55th Street, between 3rd and Lexington; or 610 8th Avenue, between 39th and 40th.

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Little Italy Pizza

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I live in a pizza dead zone. There are a few places in my neighborhood, but they’re all pretty terrible, so for the most part, I abstain. I can get Joe’s through Caviar, but it takes an hour and a half, and by the time the pizza arrives, it’s always soggy and lukewarm. So when I really want pizza, I have to comb the Internet for alternatives. Can you see where this is going? Little Italy Pizza is just one of those random pizzerias I found through whatever third-party delivery website I happened to have been scouring for a nut-free pie. I claim no responsibility for this post’s existence.

Unfortunately, Little Italy is at the very bottom of my random-delivery-pizza hierarchy (which category is itself at the bottom of the pizza-in-general hierarchy). But we’ll get there. First, allergens. Before placing my first Seamless order, I gave Little Italy’s Fulton Street location a call, and the guy I spoke with assured me (through much confusion) that there are no tree nuts or peanuts used in any of their food. Whether he knew what he was talking about, I have no idea—but I’m inclined to believe what he said, given that Little Italy is just a standard-issue pizzeria, whose ilk I’ve never, ever had any (allergy-related) trouble with.

Look: I’m just going to skip over all the Fluff & Fun and cut to the chase here, because this place is so bad that I can’t even have a good time at its expense. The pizza’s so lame that I actually won’t eat it—and there isn’t much I won’t eat (or at least idly pick at) once it’s in front of me. The cheese is inoffensive, I guess, but the sauce is so sweet, and the crust is…something else entirely. It has a weird flavor, and it’s so crispy that it’s basically a cracker—plus, it’s covered with bread crumbs, which (a) give it an even less pleasant texture than it otherwise would’ve had, and (b) make for an unusually messy slice of pizza. (Seriously. I eat extra carefully and I’m still vacuuming up breadcrumbs 10 minutes after getting rid of the box.)

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For whatever reason (desperation—the reason is desperation), I’ve also tried Little Italy’s calzones, their stromboli, and their mozzarella sticks. But unfortunately, I have almost nothing nice to say about any of the above. My calzone (ham and cheese) was inedible—the cheese may as well have been made of plastic, and the ham, present only in two enormous chunks, was pretty gross, too. And the stromboli I ate (three bites of) wasn’t any better. Each and every meat inside was unequivocally bad, but it was the pepperoni that kept me from reaching bite #4. There had to have been at least 20 layers of pepperoni in that thing, and it was Hormel-quality, too. Please, no.

The mozzarella sticks were, I guess, the best of the bunch. That’s not saying much, I know. But I didn’t actually mind them in the slightest. (Maybe I just have too much of a soft spot for mozzarella sticks. But my many food-related soft spots couldn’t save the rest of Little Italy’s food.) No doubt, these were bad—the cheese was shitty, and the breading was all wrong—but I got through them, and I ordered them again (of my own free will!), too. That’s a lot more than I can say about any of the other Little Italy productions I’ve tried.

Over the last six months (which is as long as I’ve known about the place), I’ve ordered from Little Italy maybe four or five times—but that’s only because they’re open all night and they’ll actually deliver to me when no other restaurants seem to be able to. My verdict, then: There’s no excuse for giving up actual legal tender in exchange for such bad pizza in a city full of such great options…except for, you know, all those excuses I rattled off over the course of this post.

You’ve been warned.

Find Little Italy Pizza all over Manhattan.

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A Salt & Battery

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After a few too many meals at Terrace Fish & Chips, I decided it was about time I find a chippy that actually sells, you know, fish and chips. Real fish and chips—not just fried fish and french fries. Terrace has its place (although I did write above-linked post in a fried-fish-deprived frenzy, and if I were to revise it, I’d probably take the praise therein down a notch or two), but I wanted better. So I went searching, and A Salt & Battery was what I found.

The reviews were great, the menu was promisingly simple, and the location was convenient enough—so I gave them a call, and sure enough, there are no nuts used in any of their food. Plus, their various British cashiers are exceedingly friendly, and they’re always willing to double-check on the answers to my incessant ingredient-related questions.

There are two catches, though. First, A Salt & Battery sells deep-fried Mars and Lion Bars. (The former may contain both peanuts and tree nuts, and the latter contains peanuts and may contain tree nuts.) The bars shouldn’t pose much of a risk for those with tree nut allergies, though, given that the rest of A Salt & Battery’s food (say, whatever might end up going through the same fryer, if that’s even something that happens) would only potentially contain trace amounts of the bars, which would themselves only contain trace amounts of nuts, if any at all. Plenty of degrees of removal—so I’m fine with the bars’ presence.

And then there’s the bread. A Salt & Battery offers a chip butty, a side of bread & butter, and a fish sandwich that are all made with—you guessed it—bread. And while I’ve never even really considered ordering any of the above, I figured I’d better at least ask about the bread. Turns out, the folks at A Salt & Battery don’t know much about it, other than the fact that it doesn’t explicitly contain any nuts. Evidently, they get it from “next door”—their cashiers are always going Next Door to double-check on the answers to my questions—but all they’ve been able to tell me is that the bread may come with a “may contain” warning. So I stick to the rest of the menu.

Onion rings from A Salt & Battery

Onto the place itself, though. A Salt & Battery is, in a word, authentic. Unmistakably so, with its traditional-style food, its wide array of British drinks, its accented cashiers (and customers), and its complete lack of hype-inducing frills. There are two counters and one small table: in all, about 8 seats. Wall decorations include a sign listing the rules of their food-eating challenge, a leaderboard for said food-eating challenge, two menu boards, and some framed (fish-and-chip-related) pictures. This place is simple, and its simplicity lends to its authenticity. My only gripe, really, is that the stools are way too short for the tables. (This isn’t even an issue of my being short—normal-heighted people are going to notice this one, too.)

But I should probably get to talking about food. I’ll start, I guess, by saying that it’s really, really good. In terms of fish (and shellfish), they offer six types: cod, haddock (pictured at the top of this post), sole, whiting, shrimp, and scallops. I love the haddock—it’s my favorite by far, for reasons I can’t quite articulate—but I eat a lot of the sole and the whiting, too. The cod’s fine, but I’m not much of a fan of cod, and I’m not really one for deep-fried shrimp or scallops, so I can’t say much about those. But in general, the fried fish is undeniably solid. The batter’s light and crispy, and the fish itself is flavorful and pleasantly flaky. It’s all fried to order, and the portions are pretty big, too.

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By the way, their homemade tartar sauce (immediately above) is so, so good. It’s nice and tangy, and it complements the fish (and the chips!) perfectly. Usually, I’m into malt vinegar (which they have, no doubt)—but at A Salt and Battery, a shake of salt and a dab of tartar sauce are all I need to thoroughly enjoy me some fried fish. Well, that and some sides, of which they have plenty: chips, onion rings, gravy, pickled onions, deep-fried beets, potato dabs, mushy peas, baked beans, curry sauce, and bread with butter.

Since this is, after all, a post about a fish-and-chip shop, I suppose I’ll have to spend some time talking about chips. But I have a confession: I’m not a chip person. I like my deep-fried potatoes thin-cut—as thin-cut as possible, really—so chips just don’t do it for me. Having said that…I actually sort of like A Salt & Battery’s. They don’t bother me, at least, and that’s saying something. (Also, even for $5, the portion is huge. Way more than enough for one person, and definitely enough for two to share.)

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I like to drench my chips with A Salt & Battery’s gravy (see immediately above), which is good, if not incredibly flavorful—and I like to break up bites of grease with surprisingly refreshing nibbles of their super-vinegary pickled onions. I stay away from the onion rings (pictured second above)—they’re way too bland—and I’m not much of a mushy-peas fan, but whaddaya gonna do? These fish and chips alone make for a pretty hefty meal, so while I, forever indecisive, always tell myself I can order more sides at the end of my meal if I end up unsatisfied, I’ve never ended a meal at A Salt & Battery with even the slightest bit of room left in my stomach.

Obviously, I’m a fan of this place—and obviously, I recommend it. Find it at 112 Greenwich Avenue, between 12th and 13th Streets.

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Tasty Hand-Pulled Noodles

A dish of roast pork pan-fried noodles and a dish of chicken with broccoli from Tasty Hand-Pulled Noodles

I’ve been on a Chinese-food kick lately. And the fact that I, a Nut-Allergic, can even say that is pretty wild, given how nut allergy–unfriendly a lot of Chinese restaurants tends to be. But I, ever-obsessive, have found another (incidentally) nut-free Chinese restaurant. Don’t bother holding your applause. I’ll just wait.

[While they’re clapping: On the off chance you’re a Nut-Unallergic following along because you just can’t resist the downright-magnetic appeal of my incredible writing—that’s 100% joke, everyone—please just know that finding a Chinese restaurant that doesn’t have a bunch of cashews bumping around the back is near-impossible. And with the way wok cooking works (soaping a wok is a big no-no, for example), those who aren’t cool with potentially ingesting trace amounts of nuts kinda-sorta need Chinese restaurants to be nut-free. Now you know.]

Okay. That’s enough. (Enough clapping, or enough rambling? I’ll never tell!) Point is, I’ve found a new Chinese restaurant that specializes in—guess what?—noodles. Hand-pulled noodles…and tasty ones, at that. (Ugh.)

Roast-pork pan-fried noodles

As far as I know, Tasty Hand-Pulled Noodles (henceforth THPN) doesn’t have an online contact form or an email address, so I settled for giving them a call. Three calls, actually, over the course of a few weeks, because restaurants—especially Chinese restaurants—that seem too good to be nut-free give me trust issues and agita. Fortunately, all three calls yielded the same basic answer, and fortunately, the gist of that answer was that there are no tree nuts or peanuts in this restaurant’s kitchen. I should say, though, they they have some dishes—Kung Pao broccoli, for example—that I’d expect to contain peanuts. Maybe those dishes are peanut-free; I’m not sure. I’m only allergic to tree nuts, so I didn’t do much digging on the whole peanut issue.

Before actually showing up, I had no idea THPN’s menu would be so big. I’d expected noodles, noodles, and maybe a dumpling or two, but they have plenty of other classic takeout fare, too (fried rice, General Tso’s, beef with broccoli, Hunan shrimp—the works). But when I received my three yeses, I wasn’t all that excited, as I had no idea I was coming into a full-fledged Chinese restaurant. (Well, maybe not quite full-fledged. But it’s the fullest-fledged nut-free Chinese restaurant I’ve found to date. For better or worse, I’ve been looking for a place just like this—not Sichuan cuisine or dim sum, but the Chinese-American food we misguided Americans can’t seem to get enough of—mostly to replace the exceedingly average takeout of my childhood.)

Roast-pork pan-fried noodles

Anyway, what originally drew me to this place was its promise of tasty noodles, so I’ll start with those. At THPN, you’ll have the absurd privilege of choosing between eight (!) types of noodle: hand-pulled (which come regular, fat, small-wide, and big-wide), knife-cut, and rice (which come regular, skinny, and sticky). You’ll have to choose between pan-fried and soup-drenched (my phrasing)—and then you’ll have to pick from their seven-trillion meat and vegetable offerings, too.

Personally, I tend to vacillate between the fat hand-pulled noodles (they’re the least likely  of the hand-pulled noodles to come off as overcooked, I’ve found) and the knife-cut noodles (which are extra thick and so pleasantly chewy). I always, always go pan-fried, and as for meat, I’ll usually choose roast pork. (My instinct is always to spring for duck, but THPN’s, though tasty, is very bony, so it’s more trouble than it’s worth, if you ask me—and their beef has a funny flavor to it, so roast pork it is.)

And that’s basically my favorite THPN dish: pan-fried (fat) hand-pulled noodles with roast pork, pictured all over this post. There’s plenty of pork, and almost all of it’s delicious. (The occasional piece will be over-cooked or over-seasoned, but that’s life.) The vegetables are hit or miss, but I’ve never heard of anyone ordering a fried noodle dish for the vegetables, so I’m happy to let these slide. (And actually, I usually specify through Seamless that I’d like my noodles sans most greenery, and fortunately, the folks at THPN listen. Wish me luck with the whole scurvy thing, though.) Plus, this dish is greasy as hell, too. In all, it’s precisely what I’ve been dreaming of.

Like I said, I’m also a pretty big fan of the knife-cut noodles. They don’t look all that thick, but they have the chewiness of a spaetzle- or a gnocchi-type pasta, which sort of chewiness happens to be precisely my fetish, noodle-wise. But these, relative to the hand-cut noodles, seem to come in a slightly smaller portion, and with a whole bunch of extra (i.e compensatory) vegetables, too—so I don’t order them all that often. Here is what’s for some reason the only picture I have of them:

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Swoon. (That’s the aforementioned bony-ass duck, by the way. I have no idea how to eat this stuff without getting my fingers involved.)

Enough about the noodles, though. (For now, at least. But good luck getting me to shut up about these noodles for long.) Because another one of the most exciting things about this place is its offer of a lot of the other Chinese takeout I’ve been missing. Take, for example, chicken with broccoli. I have no idea why, but as a kid, I could never order Chinese without tacking on some chicken with broccoli. I was a little obsessed, I guess. (So obsessed, in fact, that my mom took to making me takeout-style chicken with broccoli for dinner. And it was all right—but as anyone who’s ever tried to home-cook takeout knows, it just wasn’t the same.)

Anyway, I’d pretty much forgotten about just how inexplicably much I liked this stupid-ass dish—that is, until I saw it on THPN’s menu. I had to get it. Just to see. And now, I’m once again entirely unable to order Chinese without throwing some chicken with broccoli into my cart, too.

Honestly, there’s not much to say about this stuff. It’s takeout chicken with broccoli, and it tastes like takeout chicken with broccoli. The broccoli’s average; the chicken’s average. Smothered in sauce, both are unfairly tasty. It’s a surprisingly flavorful dish, and it does well over rice (though THPN’s rice can be a little mushy). That’s probably way more than I needed to say. Here’s a picture:

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What else is there to say? The fried rice is pretty good—it’s on the bland side, but that’s sort of just how this kind of fried rice is, so I’m not really complaining—and the noodle soups are fine, too, though I don’t tend to have as much fun with them as much as I do with the pan-fried noodles. But (for me, at least) finding out stuff like that is, like, 75% of the fun at eating at a place like THPN. So go. See for yourself. Make your own discoveries.

Find Tasty Hand-Pulled Noodles at 1 Doyers Street, between Bowery and Pell. Or check out their uptown location (to which I’ve never been): Tasty Hand-Pulled Noodles 2, located at 648 9th Avenue, between 45th and 46th.

[By the way, this is my 100th post, y’all. Thanks—really, thank you—for following along.]

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Hershey’s Cookie Layer Crunch

Two bags of Hershey's Cookie Layer Crunch

I had no plans to post about these, but…well, I got kicked out of a Facebook group for responding to a question with (correct) information on them, and I’m still a little salty, so enjoy the fucking post. [This isn’t that type of soap box, so I’ll just leave it at this: Some people are just so terribly misguided that (a) there really is no reasoning with them and (b) it’ll be a huge relief when you end up getting removed from their heavily moderated echo chamber of a Facebook group.]

Bullshit aside, this is a brand-new line of Hershey’s products, and it’s way, way better than the vast majority of the Hershey’s lines I’ve tried. And it’s not just me. These bars fared better in the consumer-testing process than most of the other products Hershey’s has ever released. (By the way, in case you’ve made the mistake of leaving that link unclicked, I’d like to inform you that the ad-article it leads to includes such absurd word heaps as “world leader in snacking expertise,” “textured snacking experience,” and “the growing demand for multi-textural eating experiences.” That’s all from one paragraph, too. Go forth.)

But regardless of those consumers’ pre-release opinions, I have a lot against Hershey’s chocolate. (There isn’t much to explain; their chocolate just sucks.) But I’ll eat the occasional Hershey’s product—usually a Kit Kat, a PayDay, a Reese’s Cup, or (my favorite!) a Whatchamacallit—because (a) I’m human, and (b) Hershey’s is one of the few food allergy–friendly chocolate-bar companies on the American mass market. Sue me.

Now, Hershey’s isn’t the ideal company, or anything—not by food-allergy standards, nor by any others, really. They don’t always label for shared lines and facilities, but they’ll issue a warning whenever they feel there’s any chance of cross-contamination. That is, in fact, what most companies will say in response to the question of whether they label for shared equipment, etc.—”we use our discretion,” basically. The question then becomes one of whether you, the food-allergic, trust the company.

Personally, I trust Hershey’s—which is to say that if a Hershey’s label doesn’t warn me to stay away, then I’ll feel pretty confident in digging into the labeled product. They have plenty of products I can’t eat, but I take that as a good sign, actually. A lot of products with a “may contain” warning means a willingness to issue such warnings when they’re called for. So I’m on board.

Anyway. With regard to these particular products—all three Cookie Layer Crunch varieties, I mean—I’ve been told via phone (and on a few separate occasions, too) that the absence of any sort of advisory labeling does in fact mean dedicated lines. There are, then, no peanut or tree nut products made with the equipment that’s used to make any of the Cookie Layer Crunch bars. (Cookie bars? Bar cookies? Cookies-in-bars? I don’t know.) So do with that what you will.

A vanilla crème Hershey's Layer Crunch bar

Again—and I think this is worth emphasizing—I hate Hershey’s chocolate, especially when it’s prominently featured in whatever bullshit Hershey’s confection I’ve decided to shove into my mouth. I haven’t so much as touched a plain old Hershey’s bar since my last stay at The Hotel Hershey (circa 2007), where they give those things away like they don’t cost anything to make. (Oh, wait…) In any case, their chocolate’s just plain bad, and I’ll only bother with it when the other ingredients at play are hefty enough to make it worth my while. Fortunately, though, these Cookie Layer Crunch whatsits meet that criteria.

They come in three varieties—Vanilla Crème, Caramel, and Mint—so I suppose I should go one by one. I’ll start with my least favorite, then: Caramel, described on the label as “milk chocolate bars with shortbread cookie bits and caramel.” Unfortunately, the shortbread cookie bits don’t taste much like shortbread—or like much of anything, really—and the caramel is overbearingly sweet. I will say, though, that the chocolate involved (in this bar, and in the other two as well) is significantly better than the chocolate Hershey’s uses for their other product lines. It’s not as sour, nor (quite) as artificial-tasting, and it’s significantly creamier, too. But overall, these things taste just like ROLOs. And I’m sorry, but that isn’t a compliment.

I do have some nice things to say about the other two varieties, though. Vanilla Crème (pictured below—sorry about my fingers) is approximately as cloying as just about every other Hershey’s product out there, but it’s somehow not nearly as offensive. And in fact, it’s my second-favorite of the three Cookie Layer Crunch varieties.

The label calls them “milk chocolate bars with chocolate cookie bits and vanilla flavored crème with other natural flavor,” and (aside from the natural-flavor mumbo jumbo) and if you ask me, that’s a pretty reasonable description. The chocolate cookie bits are a lot more flavorful (and a lot more satisfying) than the shortbread cookie bits, and their texture’s key to the balance of the bar. And by some sort of miracle, the vanilla créme isn’t sickeningly sweet; in context, it works—and it’s pretty similar to what you’ll find in an Oreo.

The inside of a vanilla créme Hershey's Cookie Layer Crunch bar

My favorite, though, is definitely the Mint: “dark chocolate bars with chocolate cookie bits and mint créme.” Unfortunately, the packaging doesn’t lie—they really are green on the inside. But surprisingly enough, they’re delicious. They taste a whole lot like Thin Mints (which are pretty allergy-friendly, by the way), though with way more chocolate to them…and that‘s a compliment.

As with the Vanilla Créme, the cookie bits in the Mint bars are nice and chocolatey, with a satisfying crunch to them. They’re actually rather indispensable, and they go a long way toward making these bars so pleasantly Thin Mint–esque. The mint créme is good, too—it’s refreshingly minty, and there’s just enough of it—and it complements the (slightly) dark(er) chocolate nicely, too. I’m not even a huge mint fan—York Peppermint Patties are too much for me, I won’t chew mint gum, and I didn’t switch to mint-flavored toothpaste until well into high school—but these really do it for me.

All right. That’s enough, I think. I always feel sort of dirty when I confess to even half-liking a Hershey’s product. But these are new, and I kind of like them (well, two out of three of them), and they’re pretty allergy friendly, so…I’ll get over it. They’re pretty easy to find, too. Try CVS, Duane Reade, Walgreens, or the godforsaken Hershey’s Chocolate World in godforsaken Times Square—which is where I thought I had to go to get these. (Fucking oops. Long story. Stay away from the Hershey’s store. Please.)

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