Wogies

wogies

I like bright, open spaces. Lots of windows. Modern, minimalist decor—clean lines and simple, geometric shapes. I don’t like clutter. I don’t like congestion. (Basically, I don’t like restaurants From The People That Brought You Hollister.) I don’t like to eat in the dark. I don’t like to eat in the loud. I don’t like yelling over music, and I certainly don’t like yelling over drunk people. And I hate kitsch, too: sports memorabilia, autographs, dream-catchers—whatever the breed, it probably offends me. Call me picky, or something worse. Fact is, I hate the vast majority of bars.

So it’s a little strange, I guess, that I can tolerate Wogies, a bar’d-out sports bar with two locations in lower Manhattan. It’s tight, and it’s dark, and it’s packed with flatscreens and Eagles fans—but the food’s all right, and some of it’s actually sort of good, and only one dish (a dessert) has nuts in it. Everything else is safe, including (and dare I say especially) the bread, which is made in house, and which has virtually no chance of having come into contact with nuts of any sort. As you all probably already know, I’ll go just about anywhere for a safe sandwich. What’s a night at a nearby sports bar, then? And a sports bar with outdoor seating, at that—which means that with a little creative positioning, I hardly have to acknowledge I’m at Wogies at all.

Now, I have absolutely no problem with blocking out my surroundings in the name of good food. I’ll happily shut down my senses of sight and hearing (and annoyance, my ever-important sixth) and just double down on smell and taste for the evening, provided, of course, that the smells and tastes I’m signing up for can stand up to that sort of focus. But the situation at Wogies isn’t quite so simple. Their dishes—or those I’ve selected to try, at least—fall into three categories: the kinda-bad, the just-okay, and the actually-kinda-good. That last category’s definitely real enough to keep me coming back. But…I don’t know.

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Most of the menu is made up of sandwiches: a few Philly cheesesteaks, and bunch more “Wogies originals.” There are wings and sides, too, but since the cheesesteaks are clearly, you know, the point, I figured I’d start with those. So my first time at Wogies, I ordered their standard cheesesteak: “seasoned steak,” grilled onions, and provolone (which I chose over American and the unpardonable monster that is Cheez Whiz), all wedged into a homemade Wogies roll. But despite how ready I was to like that thing, I just couldn’t. The steak, though plenty soft in texture, tasted tough. No, I’m not sure how that’s possible. I’m not even sure what it means. I guess it was the seasoning—too strong, kind of funky. Beyond these, I don’t have the words. But I didn’t like it, and I couldn’t ignore it.

No big deal. I figured I’d just stay away from the more steak-forward sandwiches. But that didn’t quite solve the problem. The chicken cheesesteak—same as the standard, but with marinated chicken breast in place of seasoned steak—was effectively the same as the one made with beef. And the “pizza steak,” also the same as the standard, but smothered in marinara, and with mozzarella and parmesan instead of provolone, is disappointing as well. I prefer it to the cheesesteaks, but only because the marinara covers the flavor of the meat. Far from good, it’s intensely wet and soggy—and though that marinara’s doing the Lord’s work, it’s not like it’s particularly engaging, taste-wise. It’s flat and boring, and the sheer amount of it guarantees a one-note sandwich.

All that suffering, and then a realization: Wogies offers two kinds of beef—not for you to choose from, cheese-style, within a given sandwich, but across their selection of sandwiches, at least. There’s “seasoned steak,” which term the menu uses to refer to the grublike chunks of steak with the funky flavor I half-described above, and then there’s “house-seasoned chopped steak,” which evidently signifies something else entirely: not chunks, but strips—ribbons, even, layered side by side (by side, by side) to form one tender, textured whole, entirely without the funk of the chunks. To my delight, the sandwiches made with the chopped steak…are actually pretty good.

One of those sandwiches, the cheeseburger hoagie (just what the name implies: a roll stuffed with steak, bacon, cheddar, grilled onions, lettuce, and tomato), bears an absolutely remarkable resemblance to a cheeseburger in both taste and texture, and it’s all right, if it’s a take on a cheeseburger you’re after. There’s also the Fat Jimmy (chopped steak, American cheese, hot peppers, french fries, and chili—pictured at the top), which, though ridiculous, is a lot of fun to eat. The meat itself—remember: ribbons, not grubs—is good ‘n’ greasy, with a nice, simple beefy flavor. And the American, though not exactly my cheese of choice, is totally inoffensive. Plus, I recently renewed my (burning!) passion for chili-cheese fries, so of course I’m on board with throwing some on a sandwich.

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But while the Fat Jimmy is my current favorite, I’d love to see it usurped. Perhaps by the Oscar (chopped steak, bacon, peppers, grilled onions, a cheese of your choosing, and two eggs, either scrambled or over easy), or by Adrian’s Atomic Avalanche (chopped steak, American, pepperoni, hot peppers, fried mozzarella balls, and marinara), or even by the Chicken Tender Club (chicken tenders, bacon, American, chipotle mayo, lettuce, tomatoes, banana peppers, and ranch). Chopped steak, man. It’s gotten my hopes way back up.

Of course, Wogies sells more than just sandwiches. There’s garbage bread (above and above-above)—in the menu’s words, “homemade Italian bread stuffed with 3 different kinds of Italian meats and cheese”—which is great in theory, but so-so (and so goddamn salty!) in practice. And there are wings, too, which are solid, provided you stick to the ones that are sauced. (The garlic-parmesan wings are the ones in the photo below. They need sauce. Badly.)  I’m decidedly not a Buffalo person, so I haven’t tried those, but I do like the honey-mustard wings, despite the fact that the “mustard” itself is, uh, candy-sweet. “Touch of natural honey,” my ass—but Wogies’ mild, creamy ranch tempers the sweetness nicely.

But if you ask me, the sides—sorry, “extras”—are where the real fun happens. (I feel this way about almost every low- to mid-tier restaurant, though, so take that statement with a grain of salt.) Ooey-gooey deep-fried mozzarella balls; solid, friendly chicken fingers; fried pickles, usually not soggy; and fries, good fries, standard or waffle, with chili, cheese, or gravy. The promise of chili-cheese fries was actually what compelled me to contact Wogies in the first place. And though these didn’t end my search—they’re no Al’s chili-cheddar fries, that’s for sure—they’re not half bad. The gravy’d waffle fries are good, too, as is everything else I listed above. Sides, man. Way, way, way overpriced, but sort of irresistible, once you’ve got that menu in your hands. Oh well.

Garlic-parmesan wings from Wogies

That’s Wogies. Way too expensive to be as hit-or-miss as it is, but perversely enticing nonetheless. The Call of the Bread plays a part in this restaurant’s appeal, to be sure—but you and I both know that’s not all that keeps me orderin’. Maybe I’m a glutton for food-punishment. Maybe I’m just particularly prone to wiping underwhelming dishes from my memory. After a while, they sort of just fade away. “It wasn’t so bad,” I’ll start to tell myself And before I know it, I’m back.

That, or…I just really, really, really love going out to eat. The whole process: picking a restaurant, riding the train there, getting annoyed at all sorts of inconsequential things about the restaurant and/or the people in it, deciding what to order, waiting, grumbling about hunger, waiting, waiting, and then, best of all—yes, even better than all the chewing—that moment of inarticulable bliss that accompanies the realization that it’s not a false alarm, not this time; that the server, my server, who has nine times now walked straight past my table with an order I’ve mistaken for mine, is actually-finally-certainly approaching me, my table, not with napkins, or a pitcher, or a fun fact to share, but with whatever it is I’ve asked the kitchen to make…

Nah. It’s definitely the nut-free bread. (Which, by the way, might as well be store-bought. Totally mediocre.)

Find Wogies at 39 Greenwich Avenue, between Perry and Charles, and at 44 Trinity Place, between Rector and Edgar. I’ve only been to the former, but I can’t imagine there’d be much variation between the two.

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OTTO Enoteca e Pizzeria

Spaghetti alla carbonara from OTTO Pizzeria e Enoteca

I grew up haunted by the image of Mario Batali. My mom had a bunch of his cookbooks, all plastered with his image, so he—shorts, vest, orange Crocs, and all—had quite the presence in our kitchen. My babysitter, who watched only local news and the Food Network, loved to watch him (and just about every other celebrity chef) on TV. And I, for my part, had my family touring the same high school as one of Batali’s sons, which was how my dad ended up badmouthing Batali’s “look” a mere two feet from a woman who turned out, yes, to be Batali’s wife.

Still, I never thought to look into any of his restaurants—until I stumbled upon this post from 2015, which suggests (nay, states outright) that OTTO is rather allergy-aware. Naturally, I sent them an email. Here’s the meat of the response I received:

There are pinenuts in our Eggplant Caponatina and in our Olive Oil Coppetta (which has a pignoli brittle but can easily be made without that topping). They are also sprinkled on top of our Caprese salad but that can also easily be made without the nuts. We serve walnuts in our Fregola & Stinging Nettle Pesto. We serve almonds in our Escarole & Sunchoke salad but the nuts can be removed from that dish as well. We are very practiced at dealing with allergies and take every precaution to avoid any cross-contamination so the foods that are prepared without nuts (which is the majority of the menu) are completely safe for those with nut allergies.

What an answer. Usually, positive responses take the form of a “yes, you’ll be fine here,” without any information about of whether or how the kitchen handles nuts. But this woman listed every dish I ought to watch out for, and she took a stab at explaining why the rest of the menu ought to be fine for me, too. Sure, “every precaution” is typical vaguebabble; but as a whole, her response was incredibly promising, both for its level of detail and its use of the sort of absolute language (e.g. “completely safe”) most restaurant personnel tend to shy away from. Usually, restaurants refuse to make guarantees, however informal. So when one does—especially in writing—it usually means that the folks in the kitchen really are doing all they can, whatever that may mean, to prevent cross-contamination. So I went ahead and booked a table.

OTTO's Cacio e Pepe pie

As for the restaurant itself, it’s a dark one, decorated only in the tones of sauce: reds, browns, and red-browns. (In other words, there was nothing I could do about the way these photos were doomed to come out.) It’s also enormous, and nearly always packed to the brim, and so nearly always astonishingly loud. On a bad night, it’s club-loud, with shrill voices yowling, screeching, shrieking to be heard over plodding bass lines, booming laughter, clinking glasses, and tables of wine-drunk yuppies who can’t seem to stop hooting, clapping, or—I swear this happened, and under 24 hours ago, too—chanting “drink, drink, drink!” (I’m not being a curmudgeon. I’m 21 years old. I like the loud and the lively. I’m one of the loud and the lively. But the back half of OTTO is, on occasion, unpardonably raucous, and the staff don’t do anything about it, though I’m not sure how much they’d be able to do.)

On a good night, you’ll luck into a table toward the front of the house, where OTTO seems to seat the majority of its don’t-need-to-be-banned-from-public-dining customers. Those nights, you’ll be able to get away with a half-yell—but it’s still too goddamn loud in there, no way around it. Fortunately, though, the food’s good, and the prices are relatively low, and—oh, yeah—the servers know their allergens, and they don’t give me any flak when I ask them to double-check on the safety of my order. So half-yell I do. And on a good night, it’s a small price to pay.

Of the pasta dishes, I can’t really say I have a favorite. They’re different from one another, sure, but no one in particular has been better than any of the others I’ve tried, and they’ve all sort of blurred together in my mind. But I suppose the ones I’ve liked best have been the (seasonal) summer-truffle pasta, the bucatini alla gricia, and the spaghetti alla carbonara (pictured at the top). Truffles are truffles; it’s not as if they call for much evaluation. But I can say that the bucatini alla gricia, made with the most perfect guanciale, is particularly well-balanced, and that the carbonara—my go-to—is resoundingly creamy. Plus, it involves scallions, the greatest of the onions. There’s nothing else I need to say.

But really, all the pastas I’ve tried have been great. The flavors are spot-on, and the portions are big enough—and most are only $13, though they wouldn’t quite feel out of place at $20-plus. There’s just one catch: 30% (or so) of the time, the pasta itself comes a little overcooked. But honestly—and I can’t believe I’m saying this—with these dishes, I often can’t find it in myself to care. Either all the clamor gets to me, or the flavors are just that good. Who’s to say?

OTTO's Fennel & Bottarga pizza from OTTO

As for pizzas, there are almost 20 on the menu—and though I, boring, have only tried a few, I can say with confidence that that most (if not all) are worth an order. The Bianca—not really a pizza, but a flatbread dressed with olive oil and sea salt—is as tasty as it is boring (that is to say, very), and the Otto Lardo—the same thing, but with a few slices of lardo on top—is even better. Salty, oily dough is lovely, especially when it’s got a chew like OTTO’s. Throw some funky lardo on top and it turns into something that feels like a real food.

Of course, OTTO does do actual pizzas, too. Of those, I’m most drawn to the Fennel & Bottarga (pictured immediately above), which is made with fennel, bottarga, tomato, pecorino, and mozzarella. Normally, I hate fennel, but I can actually tolerate this variety. Though I will say: There sure is a lot of it, and very, very little bottarga. Still, it’s a good pie. The crust—always crisp, never burnt—is tastier than your average, and the sauce is just as it should be: present, and savory, and acidic, but not the slightest bit overbearing. None of that sickly-sweet shit. As if I even have to say so.

But those few pies are just the very basics, and there are plenty of other options to play around with. In the mood for clams? Try the Vongole. Can’t get enough cheese? Go with the Quattro Formaggi. Lifelong fan of cacio e pepe? OTTO does a pizza-fied version (pictured second) that’s pretty fun to chew on. The options aren’t endless, but they’re certainly wide. My official advice is to go wild.

Anyway. I really like OTTO—and I’d probably like it even more if I hadn’t discovered it within mere days of finding Osteria Morini, where the pastas are so ridiculously good that they actually manage to hurt my feelings (and, yes, bias me against virtually every other Italian restaurant). OTTO certainly could’ve benefited from that first-safe-Italian-restaurant novelty. But it really is good enough to hold its own, and I have enough sense in me to (try to) override my bias and acknowledge that. The food isn’t life-changing, but it does make me happy. And the noise is tolerable, I guess. If you’re ready for it. Sometimes. Maybe.

Find OTTO at 1 5th Avenue, between 8th and Washington Mews. (Really, though, it’s on 8th, between 5th and University.) But bring earplugs, or noise-cancelling headphones, or a gaggle of your finest LoudBros. Just don’t bring a date—or at least not a date you’d actually want to, you know, hear or be heard by. I bring my parents. They seem to like it.

Best of luck.

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Pizootz Peanuts

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As we all know damn well, shelled peanuts that aren’t cross-contaminated with tree nuts are hard as hell to find. America’s Best Nut Co. makes some—the best, actually, end of story—but theirs are rather expensive, and I can’t justify shelling out $40 or so for a shipment each time I crave a peanut. For a once-in-a-while treat, America’s Best are absolutely perfect. But what about when I don’t want my peanuts to feel acutely like a finite resource? When I want to eat them by the handful, Planters-style, without being hounded by any sort of compulsion to calculate the cost per bite? When I want to bake them into some brownies, or sprinkle them atop some noodles? When I want, in general, to be reckless?

For that, I need access to plain old inexpensive, non-gourmet peanuts—ones I can pick up at an actual store in my actual area for, like, $3 a bag. And…with regard to that want, I’m still shit out of luck. But Pizootz are certainly a little cheaper, a little more accessible, a little more casual than America’s Best. It’s all in the names, really. America’s Best, refined and proper, might just sell America’s best peanuts; but Pizootz, with their playful  marketing and up-front flavors, is out there selling what I can only describe as a pizoot of a nut.

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A while back, I found a bag of Pizootz on a shelf in Chicago. (I’m a grocery-store tourist—whenever I go anywhere, I tour the regional grocery stores.) Right then and there, I sent Pizootz the same email I send to every company that looks like it might make safe peanuts, and within an hour (!!!), I’d heard back: “We do everything in house. No tree nuts. Only peanuts.” That was it. But that was, of course, all I needed to hear. So I went back and bought two bags, one of sea-salt-and-cracked-pepper peanuts, and one of dill-pickle peanuts.

Despite that word salad of a product description—seriously, click that last link, and let me know if you have any idea what those words are supposed to mean together, because they’ve bewildered me—the dill-pickle peanuts are excellent. Dill-pickle seasoning is usually too strong for me (see, for example, Halfpops), but the folks at Pizootz (or, uh, Dr. Alfred P. Pizootz himself, if we’re sticking to the lore) have somehow managed to get the proportions just right. These peanuts aren’t too briny, nor too dill’d up; they’re tangy, and they’re pickle-y, but they’re balanced, too. Plus, the flavoring is built-in, which means no dusty fingertips. Nice.

Those were the first Pizootz I tried, so it surprised me when the other flavors came bearing traces of the same tanginess. The cracked-pepper peanuts aren’t quite briny, nor are their plainer sea-salt cousins, but both are markedly tangier than your average peanut. The flavor isn’t unpleasant—there’s nothing wrong with it, really—but it’s something to be aware of, I guess. Personally, I happen to like it. For the most part. Most days.

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Anyway. When it comes to peanuts, dill-pickle flavoring is about as zany as I’ll go. (Originally, I’d bought those for Sam and only for Sam. I was shocked at how much I ended up liking them.) Otherwise, I’m a peanut purist—so for me the sea-salted peanuts, despite their untempered tang, are the way to go. Even the cracked pepper is too much for me, given the way it half-silences the peanuts’ actual, you know, peanut flavor. So sea salt it is. But that’s just me. Maybe you‘ve spent your whole life searching for safe Baja taco–inspired peanuts. And in that case, well…you’re in luck. (Look at that! Me, acknowledging any degree of subjectivity to food. Wild.)

Of course, these peanuts do come at a price—$19.99 per one-pound bag, to be exact. And while that price is, yes, pretty high, it isn’t actually all that crazy, given how long a pound of peanuts lasts (a long time, for me) and the fact that shipping’s free, always. So while Pizootz are certainly no Planters, I wouldn’t call them prohibitively expensive, either. I’d obviously prefer they were cheaper, or at least available in a store or two ’round these here parts, but…what can you do?

You can be grateful for what you’ve got, that’s what. Perhaps Pizootz is a little bit of a strange company. Perhaps their peanuts are a little small, a little feeble, a little lackluster. Perhaps they cost a little too much, or perhaps ordering them online is a little too much of a hassle. Perhaps their copy’s a little over-the-top, their handwritten notes (!!?!) a little too alliterative. Perhaps the flavor-infusion’s a little weird. Perhaps dusty fingertips aren’t so bad. But whatever your gripe—and I suppose I have plenty—you oughtn’t overlook Pizootz as an option. And a decent one, at that.

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LoLo’s Seafood Shack

Snow crab legs from LoLo's Seafood Shack

I’ve never appreciated the fact that summer ends. I don’t really care for the warm weather, or the beach, or brunch, or rompers, or, like, burning ants with magnifying glasses, or whatever it is you summer folks are into, but I am all about the minimal responsibilities and the total lack of homework, so. I’m grieving. And what better way to grieve than to put together a post on one of the summeriest restaurants I’ve ever stepped foot in?

From the ocean-kitsch decor to the Cape Cod–Caribbean menu, everything about LoLo’s screams summer. The walls are neon; the staff is smiley; half the seating is outdoors (in the heated backyard, no less); and pretty much every customer is in a good mood, always. Even in the winter, it’s summertime at LoLo’s. Or that’s what I’ll be telling myself, at least, when the cold comes in. When the semester’s settled into the pit of its plod, and the city’s gone all monotone, and it’s started to get dark at fucking, like, 2pm, and they’ve turned off the fountain at the center of Washington Square Park (which is no longer a park but an iced-over wasteland), and everyone’s de-closeted their coats and taken to scuttling around, hands-in-pockets, without ever risking any eye contact. It’s summertime at LoLo’s, I’ll say. Better go.

And I will.

The interior of LoLo's Seafood Shack

Anyway. According to an email I received from LoLo’s, there are no nuts on the menu. And the johnnycakes—which are made in house, from scratch—should be wholly without risk, too. Point is, it’s a good situation up at LoLo’s, and you, ant-burner or not, should probably get yourself over there for a meal.

My favorite dish I’ve tried is the avocado-toast sandwich (pictured immediately below), which is neither avocado toast nor sandwich, but which is fantastic nonetheless. It’s simple—just a johnnycake filled, taco-style, with guac-like avocado, sweet plantains, pico de gallo, and cotija—but goddamn, I love it, mostly because of how well-balanced it is. That thing is both sweet and spicy, both soft and textured. It’s fun, but not silly; a lot, but not too much. And most importantly, it’s unlike any other dish I have nut-free access to. (A huge selling point, given how variety-obsessed I am.)

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Unfortunately, the crab-cake sandwich—which I’ve twice eaten alongside the avocado-toast one—isn’t anything anywhere near as special. It’s not bad, but the crab cake itself is rather uneventful, and the sandwich as a whole suffers as a result. Still, I’m interested in a number of the other sandwiches: in particular, the broiled salmon (the most expensive one on the menu, for some reason) and the one they call “crispy ‘shark’ + bake,” which isn’t made with just any old shark, but with sustainably sourced spiny dogfish. So there’s that.

But although this place is a seafood shack, and although the straight seafood dishes—say, the crab legs pictured at the top of this post—are virtually flawless, it’s with the sides that I have the vast majority of my LoLo’s fun. (Weird? Maybe. But understandable, at least, given the way I’m known to do food.) The seasoned corn on the cob (below, left) is some of the best I’ve ever had, and the sweet plantains, though obliteratingly sweet, are a delightful way to break up a meal. The honey-buttered johnnycakes aren’t particularly exciting, but they’re fun to eat regardless; and although the crabby dip, served with homemade plantain chips (below, right) is just okay, I do end up enjoying it when it’s shown up in front of me.

Corn on the cob and crabby dip with plantain chips from LoLo's Seafood Shack

And then there are fries—which are good, sure, but which I can’t in good faith recommend ordering at a place with so many other way-more-interesting options for sides. Of course, I ordered them anyway (and of course, I did like them). The LoLo’s fries, topped with cotija, pickled jalapeños, and “herbs,” are a little much for me—honestly, I don’t understand how anyone could ever like anything as simultaneously boring and overbearing as the jalapeño pepper—but the garlic fries, drizzled with (guess what?) garlic butter, are right up my alley.

So I guess, all told, the food at LoLo’s is a wee bit hit-or-miss. But it comes off that way only in retrospect—by which I mean that when I’m sitting there, in that unreal backyard of perpetual summer, stuffing my face with bold, vibrant side after bold, vibrant side, there’s really no room in my mind for complaints of any sort. Maybe it’s the sun. More likely, it’s the onslaught of food: dish after dish, each bussed, as it’s ready, down the stairs and into that sun and out to you—glowing, ready—at your picnic table, waiting, seafood-cracker in rubber-gloved hand…

It’s summertime at LoLo’s. Better go.

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Find LoLo’s at 303 West 116th Street, between Frederick Douglass Boulevard and Manhattan Avenue.

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Hank’s Juicy Beef

A quarter-pound Italian beef sandwich from Hank's Juicy Beef

If I’m anything at all, then I’m certainly a creature of habit. And while in Chicago, I formed one hell of an Italian beef habit. (It was an Al’s habit, really—and I formed it not because of the Italian beef itself, but because of those chili-cheese fries, to which I haven’t yet found a local alternative.) I just kept eating Italian beef after goddamn Italian beef—and so I guess it’s not all that surprising that I ended up spending most of my ride home from the airport plumbing Googling for a local alternative.

It’s not that I think Italian beef is worth missing. It’s not even that missed it. I just don’t like having foods taken from me—especially the foods I’ve gone through the trouble of verifying as safe, and double-especially the foods I haven’t yet had my fill of. If I’d lost McDonald’s right after my third McDonald’s meal, I would’ve been one grief-laden four-year-old. But am I saddened by any of those recent articles whining about how McDonald’s might soon start rolling out a few menu items that call for nuts that aren’t pre-packaged, thus (likely) rendering the whole stupid-ass chain unsafe for me? Uh, not really. I’m saturated.

And fortunately, it looks like I’m going to be able to get saturated on Italian beef, too—thanks to Hank’s Juicy Beef, a mini-menued restaurant that’s evidently been doing business in my neighborhood for a whole year now. There are no tree nut (or peanut) products in the kitchen, and the bread, which comes from Turano Baking Company, should be totally safe, too. (According to the representative I spoke with, Turano’s bread doesn’t share equipment with anything nutty, and if there are nuts in the same facility, they’re nowhere near the bread. I think Hank’s uses these particular rolls, but I’m not 100% sure. All that’s good enough for me—and though I understand everyone’s standards, etc., are different, I’d venture to say it’s probably good enough for most.)

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Now. Contrary to what anyone trailing me would’ve had to conclude, I was rather unimpressed with the various Italian beef sandwiches I ate in Chicago. I didn’t dislike them—how could I have, given my unchecked love for the combination of bread and meat?—but if I didn’t always insist on writing home about each and every food I ate, they wouldn’t have been anything to write home about. Each time, I came away with the same complaints: The watery, flavorless gravy didn’t do enough to make up for the ultra-mushy bread—and despite all that wetness, the beef somehow still managed to tend dry. Plus, all that overbearing, soggy giardiniera? No, thanks.

Of course, I didn’t stop eating Italian beef. I didn’t even consider it—partially because I saw potential in it, partially because I half-liked it as it was, and partially because, uh, When In Chicago. I just kept eating (and eating, and eating) it. And then there I found myself, in the backseat, Googling. On a mission.

Once I got to Hank’s, it took me all of two bites to decide that my search needn’t continue. Hank’s isn’t as good as any Midwestern Italian beefery, nor does it wish it were; it’s at least three times as better (just click it), which doesn’t surprise me in the slightest. Owner Hank Tibensky—born and raised in Chicago, of course—insists on using only the highest-quality (grass-fed, pasture-raised, hormone- and antibiotic-free) beef, and honestly, it shows. That beef’s good, man. And the jus is plenty flavorful, too, which really helps the sandwich as a whole.

What’s more, the bread’s not half bad, either. I’m always skeptical of that sort of crustless “French” roll, but Turano’s actually have some structural integrity to them. Sure, they aren’t crusty; but they’re dense enough and rather chewy, and they do manage to hold their own against the wetness of the ingredients they sandwich. (Some of the best bites of a Hank’s sandwich are what I’ve come to call the “sweaty armpits”: the soggy crooks of bread on one side of the sandwich or the other where the jus has pooled and turned everything to pudding. Sounds gross. Isn’t. The bread’s just tough enough to withstand the assault, and those wet, sloppy bites are mighty satisfying. The name stays.)

The giardiniera’s fine—it’s firm and snappy, and it even adds to the sandwich, flavor-wise (!)—but it’s just too salty, so I usually end up going without. Instead, I add provolone, which gives the whole sandwich a cheesesteaky vibe. It’s good. Surprisingly good. And formidably filling, too. (Plus, for an extra $4—hardly a deal, I know—you can make it a meal with fries and a drink. Not any old fries, but curly fries. Fresh, crisp curly fries: residents of my dreams, fixtures of my heart. Or, uh, steak fries, if that’s what you’re into. But if that’s what you’re into, we probably wouldn’t get along.)

A hot dog from Hank's Juicy Beef

I’m also somewhat of a fan of the hot dog, which actually managed to startle me with how undeniably decent it was. I absolutely loathed Chicago’s Chicago dogs—the dogs themselves had such a dreary texture, and their flavor was nowhere near strong enough to handle the absurd, insecure, attention-needy checklist of (very fucking overbearing) toppings they went ahead and attempted to handle nonetheless—but I must say: the Hank’s version is all right. Yes, the dog itself is boiled/steamed (don’t know which, but it doesn’t matter either way), and yes, it tastes like it’s been boiled/steamed. But it doesn’t taste like dog-boil (so there’s that), and its texture is passable, at least. Plus, the bun’s fluffy enough (though I so wish Chicagoans would take to toasting), and no one topping threatens to overpower the others. All told, not bad. It’s actually sort of fun.

If only I had such nice things to say about the beef bowl. Like the sandwich, it costs $10—but unlike the sandwich, it’s not even close to worth it. It’s served not in a bowl, but in one of those paper trays usually reserved for, like, fries or onion rings or whatever, and that, combined with the small portion, makes it come off more as a side—an afterthought, a “well, I guess we can sell this, too, can’t we?”—than a main dish. The beef itself is still fine, but with a little (still-too-salty) giardiniera as its only partner, it does end up falling flat. And the same goes for the rice bowl (beef, giardiniera, and sautéed green peppers over very, very mushy white rice): a nice idea, but not worth the order.

Anyway, I like Hank’s. It may not be the world’s most authentic Italian beefery, if we’re (still?) defining “authenticity” as total adherence to the way things are done in a dish’s region of origin—but that’s fine, because if it were, it’d be worse off. Hank’s makes Chicago-style food, no doubt; but it’s ever-so-slightly New York–ified Chicago-style food, and that’s for the best. It’s not New York–ified enough, I don’t think—I could use some better bread, or a hot dog with some snap to it, or, you know, some flavors with a little more nuance than super-sweet or super-salty—but it’s not straight-up Midwest, either, and I’m going to have to call that a blessing.

Find Hank’s at 84 Chamber Street, between Church Street and Broadway.

[P.S. I’m liking this slowed-down posting schedule a whole lot—so much, in fact, that I’m going to be slowing it down even more. At this point, my plan is just to play it by ear and, uh, see how much longer I can fend off this burnout, because while I do like blogging, there are few things I dislike more than (a) feeling pressured to churn out blog posts when I’m busy with school, life, etc., and (b) feeling pressured to churn out blog posts when there’s nothing I want to say. So. I’m going to be aiming to publish a post every 14 days or so, but…we’ll see. They’ll come when they come.]

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Nut-Free Chicago: A Travel “Guide”

Last month, I spent a week and a half in Chicago, where I did just about everything I do in NYC. I wandered aimlessly. I people watched. I browsed clothes I couldn’t afford. I watched way too many late-night Cops reruns. And to my surprise, I dined out a whole hell of a lot. Last time I ventured to Chicago, I subsisted on literally nothing but McDonald’s, Subway, pretzels, Cup Noodles, and water. But that was pre-blog. Now, I’m a practiced diner-outer, and I have a much harder time settling for such a repetitive and high-trash diet. It’s probably a good thing.

But before I got there, I didn’t expect to find all that much in the way of safe restaurants. It took me months to compile even the very beginnings of the NYC-specific list that’s now my pride and joy (half-serious about the whole pride-and-joy thing), so I didn’t expect to get all that much done Chicago-wise in the 10 days I’d have there. I figured I’d bark up a bunch of wrong trees, find maybe a restaurant or two, then resign myself to a week of fast food and Airbnb-home-cooking—but I was wrong, wrong, wrong. Chicago’s not at all a difficult city to eat in, and with the help of a list compiled by the No Nuts Moms Group of Chicago, I ended up with plenty of options.

So here they are—all the non-chain restaurants I ate at, and some I called, but couldn’t make it to—in brief-ish (yeah, right), because we’ve all got things to do. And please, pardon the iPhone photos. I didn’t bring my camera.

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Saiguette

Saiguette's skirt steak bánh mì

Bánh mì are tough. I don’t have any trouble finding tree nut–free Vietnamese restaurants, but Vietnamese restaurants that happen to use allergy-friendly bread? For a while there, I’d given up on finding any more. Sao Mai is a singular godsend—I don’t know how they ended up using the bread they use, but I’m so very glad they did, as every other Vietnamese restaurant I’ve called has either told me that they don’t know where they get their bread (oh), or that yeah, no, it’s just not going to work. I made the decision, then, to be content with Sao Mai, and my eye hasn’t wandered since.

And then I stumbled upon Saiguette, a surprisingly allergy-aware grab-and-go Vietnamese restaurant, way up on the corner of West 106th Street, whose menu proudly bares those rare, magic words: “…on our homemade bread.” Though peanut-heavy, that menu is entirely nut-free—and yes, the bread is made in-house, and it is, in fact, safe. Naturally, I found myself at Saiguette’s teeny-tiny, hardly-a-restaurant storefront within an hour of finding out the above. I’ve since tried 7 of the 11 sandwiches on the menu. Go figure.

Saiguette's pork belly bánh mì

Now. Because I often lament how infrequently I get to rank things, I’m going to take this opportunity to do some sandwich-ranking. (I swear this isn’t just a clunky setup; I really do wish I had more opportunities to order items from best to worst.) The last things I ranked were the characters of Malcolm in the Middle (Lois > Dewey > Francis & Piama > Hal > Malcolm > Jamie > Reese—yes, I’m certain, and no, I won’t reconsider), but that was months ago, and no one cared, so. Saiguette’s pork belly bánh mì is the best one I’ve tried, followed by the grilled pork shoulder with lemongrass, followed by the classic (pâté and pork terrine), then the flank steak, then the grilled pork shoulder without lemongrass, then the skirt steak, then the chicken thigh. That’s my story, and I’m sticking to it.

But these sandwiches are hard to rank. Most differ only in their proteins—so because they share so many components, they’re probably best evaluated in the aggregate. Overall, then, they’re rather good. (Likely not the city’s best, but perhaps the city’s safest, and that counts for a lot.) The bread, though nothing special, is passable—better when not slathered in spicy mayo, a.k.a. the world’s most boring condiment—and the vegetables (and technical fruits) are surely good enough, despite the fact that they’re not exactly the sorts I’d want to eat outside the rather forgiving confines of a sandwich. Plenty of cilantro; a giant, satisfying wedge (or two!) of snappy, snappy cucumber; flavorful jalapeños; and just the right amount of pickled carrot…

Saiguette's classic bánh mì

They’re good. All of them—which I suppose means it’s time for me to get into the details. So. The pork belly (pictured second above) is absurdly juicy, to the extent that it sort of just continuously oozes itself. It’s sweet—too sweet—but somehow still balanced, and if you don’t make the mistake of turning to another of Saiguette’s bánh mì within minutes of putting (half of) this one down, the fact that it never fails to blow out your palate will be a total non-issue. And the two pork shoulders—one grilled, with lemongrass, and one roasted, without—are almost as good. Both are rather sweet, but I find the grilled version significantly less overbearing. And though the added lemongrass doesn’t do much, I get a kick out of knowing it’s there.

Then, the flank steak—which is better than the skirt steak (top of this post), and by a large margin, too. These two are all about their textures, and given that, it’s a no-brainer to place the tender, juicy flank steak ahead of the tougher, drier skirt. But I think the classic (immediately above) is a little better than the both of them. Piled high with pork terrine and a few chunks of what tastes like (but isn’t) a takeout-style Chinese spare rib, that sandwich is pretty goddamn great. And it’s the cheapest one on Saiguette’s menu, too. It’s not perfect—without a doubt, it could use a little more balance, a little more nuance—but I do like it, and I do recommend giving it a try.

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In fact, the only of Saiguette’s bánh mì I wouldn’t recommend is the grilled chicken thigh (immediately above), which is labeled “juicy,” but which actually sits at a rather unimpressive position on the juice scale, all told. It’s fine, I guess. But flavor-wise, it’s painfully boring—and a painfully boring central feature makes for a blunt, unbalanced, and all around underwhelming bánh mì. It’s no matter, though; there are obviously a bunch of other things to order.

But I do stick to the bánh mì. There’s nothing all that wrong with the phở, but I find it hard to justify going all the way the fuck up to 106th Street only to order a dish that just makes me go, “huh, that was all right—but I prefer Sao Mai’s.” By the time I’m stepping over Saiguette’s threshold, I feel as if I’ve earned something grand. (It’s all that time on the C train. I usually have earned something grand.) And as soon as I start feeling all earny-entitley, ho-hum phở becomes a total non-option. It just isn’t worth it—especially when there are nut-free sandwiches on the menu.

Besides, even if you’ve ordered it to-stay, Saiguette’s phở comes disassembled, which has some serious downsides. The flavors get less time to mingle, for one—and the noodles, which are just okay, get less time to loosen up and fall out of their noodle-glob. But the broth is excellent. It has depth and breadth and areas of interest and probably an interesting life story or two to tell, and there’s a ton of it, which definitely helps. The eye-of-round hardly has any flavor of its own, and the brisket, though rather tasty, comes with a few too many bits of gelatinous flab. But the broth is good enough to carry the phở—not to any sort of distinguished status, but to the status of a decent dish nonetheless.

But it’s all right. Those bánh mì deserve my focus anyway. They just about demand it.

Find Saiguette at 935 Columbus Avenue, on the corner of 106th Street. (By the way: If you call ahead and place your order for pickup, they’ll give you 10% off—and if you happen to be dining between 11am and 5pm, you’ll save 10% more.)

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Charles’ Country Pan Fried Chicken

A tray of chicken from Charles' Pan-Fried Chicken

I was late to the subway party. I was a bus kid, familiar with only two lines, confined (for the most part) to the neighborhood I lived in—and it took me until the 10th grade to realize just how much more ground I could cover via train. Immediately, I was floored. I loved that I could descend a flight of stairs at 86th and Lex, sit for a while, climb a different flight of stairs, then find myself at a friend’s doorstep in the middle of Brooklyn. I loved that I could play Pin the Tail on the Subway Map and then actually go to whatever stop my finger landed closest to. And I loved that I could go to Times Square whenever I wanted—which I did, often.

I’m glad to report that I’ve since grown tired of Times Square—but I can’t say I’ve since grown tired of riding the train. Sure, it can be hot, and smelly, and noisy, and dirty, and crowded, and slow, and unpredictable, and—worst of all—routine, and routinely all of the above. But for me, that original novelty just hasn’t worn off. Add my late bloom to the fact that I now live 2 minutes from the train (as opposed to 20—fuck the upper-east corner of the Upper East Side), and you get me as I am today: outrageously lazy, yet entirely willing to get on the train for just about any reason whatsoever.

So don’t think I don’t know how weird it is that I have no qualms about traveling long-ish distances for even the simplest of meals. And don’t think I just suck it up for the sake of this blog, either. I’m well aware that I’m unusually train-happy, and I know, too, that most others aren’t. (Believe me, I know.) That said, I’m going to have to straight-up beseech you to get your ass on the A train and up to 132nd Street for some of this Charles guy’s pan-fried chicken.

There are no nuts in Charles’ kitchen (save for whatever might be in the few cakes on the menu, which aren’t baked in-house, and which are easy enough to avoid). I haven’t been able to get a straight answer on whether they themselves bake their breads, so I avoid those, too—but I’m entirely comfortable with the rest of the menu. (In fact, as they go, Charles’ was actually a particularly un-scary restaurant for me to try. I don’t spend my train rides stressing about all the ways nuts might be hiding in fried chicken and mashed potatoes in the same way as I do with, like, curries and sauces and breads and pastries and chocolates and granola bars and vegan “dairy” and…yeah. Hello.)

A tray of chicken from Charles' Pan-Fried Chicken

Anywho. The menu’s pretty big, but I haven’t yet managed to make it past the fried chicken—not because I have any doubts that I’d like the rest of the food, but because that chicken is so goddamn good that I’ve been downright unable to pry myself away from it. When it comes to restaurant-born chicken, I’m actually fairly picky. Overbearing skin drains me: if it’s too salty, or too heavy, or too blunt, or too dry, I’ll still do my best to chew on—it is fried chicken, after all—but history’s shown that I won’t make it far. At Charles’, though, that’s not an issue. The skin’s crispy, but not brittle; juicy, but not wet; salty, but not overly so; and light, but not lifeless. It has integrity. It has spirit. And if you’re lucky enough to stroll in just as a batch is coming out of the pan…well, it just might be life-changing.

But don’t trust me. (Why should you? I did just publish a post on KFC.) Trust, uh, the whole entire Internet. Google the restaurant’s name, and everywhere you turn, you’ll find praise: some for the old location, some for the new. Sweet, sweet consensus—the chicken is excellent. It’s worth your time. It’s worth a trip. It’s some of the best. It is known.

But I don’t stop with a quick ride on the A up to Charles’. No—I triple-travel for this chicken. Sure, I like eating right there in the restaurant. But I love heading up to Charles’, picking up a whole goddamn tray, high-tailing it home, sticking that shit straight in the fridge, and then forgetting about it until the sun starts to set. Then, I’ll shove it into a tote—alongside whatever ludicrous assortment of sides I’ve looted from my cabinets—and head (with Sam) straight to Battery Park. Cold fried chicken, a bowl of pasta salad, some kettle chips, and an assortment of greenmarket spoils, all strewn buffet-style across one of those stone chess tables; a breeze off the Hudson; an unobstructed view of the sunset…

I concede that it’s a meme of an outing. But I maintain that it’s a meme for good reason. What better way is there to spend a July evening? (I’m really asking.)

A side of macaroni and cheese from Charles' Pan-Fried Chicken

Alas, the sides—from Charles’, not my cabinet—are a bit more hit-or-miss. At the wrong time of day, the macaroni and cheese grows gummy and flavorless, and the potato salad, a usual favorite of mine, isn’t worth a reorder. But there are so many sides I’d like to try—cole slaw, macaroni salad, a million types of vegetables, rice and beans, mashed potatoes, you name it—that I haven’t even come close to losing hope. And those entrees, too. Should I ever manage to distract myself from the fried chicken, there’s so much: baked chicken, smothered pork chops, barbecue ribs, turkey wings—if it’s on the menu, I probably want it. And I’m supremely excited to work my way through it all.

Find Charles’ Country Pan Fried Chicken at 2461 Frederick Douglass Boulevard, between 131st and 132nd Streets. Did I mention it’s worth the trip?

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Chirping Chicken

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Last winter, I wrote somewhat of a strange review of Roll-N-Roaster, a fast-food-ish restaurant way, way out in Sheepshead Bay. In that post, I explained that I don’t really know what it is about Roll-N-Roaster that so attracts me, but as time’s gone on—and as I’ve spent more and more time at Roll-N-Roaster—I’ve realized something: that one of the reasons I so love the place is that it’s an indecisive glutton’s heaven. Everything goes with everything else, and nothing’s too expensive, so it feels as if I’m meant to show up starving, fail to make a single decision, and then end up with a little of everything. At Roll-N-Roaster, there’s no shame in that. Or minimal shame, at least.

Roll-N-Roaster, then, meets this recurrent desire I have to eat as if I’m at a buffet—or as if I’m a particularly territorial and competitive buffet diner, rather. I don’t know what’s wrong with me, but I crave that sort of decision-free, pseudo-tasting, shove-an-entire-mixed-and-matched-medley-into-my-mouth-in-one-single-sitting dining experience on a regular basis. Roll-N-Roaster, though, is far too much of a schlep to work as my go-to fix. Here, friends (and acquaintances who like to keep tabs on what I’m up to, and food-allergy moms who evidently get a kick out of these write-ups), is where Chirping Chicken comes into play. It’s absolutely nothing like Roll-N-Roaster, but it’s just as viable a DIY buffet, and that is what really matters.

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Beyond that, I’m not quite sure what Chirping Chicken is. Google Maps describes one location as an “American restaurant,” one as a “Greek restaurant,” two as “Chicken restaurant[s]” and one as just a “restaurant,” and honestly, I have no clue which classification, if any, is correct. I do know what they serve, though: burgers, BBQ, steak, burritos, seafood, soups, salads, sandwiches, various “Greek specialties,” and, oh yeah, chicken—rotisserie chicken, fried chicken, grilled chicken, chicken nuggets, chicken fingers, chicken wings, and chicken just-about-everything-else, too. There’s a lot. It’s a trip, and it doesn’t make any sense. But almost all of it is safe, at least.

The folks at Chirping Chicken don’t cook with any nuts, but they do sell a number of desserts, made elsewhere, that aren’t safe. One is pecan pie, and while I’m definitely allergic to pecans, I don’t mind the pie’s presence, given how low the odds of cross-contamination are between the dessert and non-dessert portions of the menu. As for that non-dessert portion of the menu, I’m pretty confident that it’s all fine. (And if you call and ask, whoever answers the phone will assure you that there are no nuts in anything. Press on the pecan pie and they’ll always explain that it’s made elsewhere—which is just the sort of consistency I look for.)

As for the breads: I don’t remember the name of the company that makes the pita, but I’ve examined its packaging, and there’s no “may contain” warning for nuts (which is enough for me when it comes to something as simple as plain, mass-produced pita bread). And their ciabatta—the only other thing I’ve felt the need to look any further into—is made by Aladdin Bakers, and is safe, too.

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Now. Strictly speaking, Chirping Chicken is not a Good restaurant. Admittedly, the menu’s a minefield. There are the uncharmingly funky sides—the Kraft-tasting macaroni and cheese, the textureless potato salad (see for yourself immediately above), the overly acidic cole slaw, the insanely mushy rice, and the world’s most boring fries—and there are the lackluster salads, built on the backs of some of the most flavorless leaves of lettuce I’ve ever had. There are the shitty dipping sauces (the honey mustard’s half water, but the alternative is ketchup—and half of the other sauces, the ones you have to pay for, are just packets of salad dressing). And then there are all those random menu-rounder-outers—all those dishes they seem to make just because they can—that I’ve never tried, but that I’ll probably go on avoiding regardless.

But Good is not the only sort of good, and there’s plenty I love about Chirping Chicken, even beyond the whole decisionless-buffet-of-maximalist-pleasure thing. The rotisserie chicken’s usually great, and I’ve been known to enjoy a number of the other dishes, too. There are some decent sides, and nearly everything benefits from a little tzatziki. Plus, the menu’s so ridiculously large that there are probably about ten million ways to throw together a glutton’s meal. (If you haven’t noticed, I’m really into exploring and experimenting and discovering fun combinations that, on their best days, amount to far more than the sums of their parts. Plus, I’m actually not categorically opposed to sub-par food. Like I always say, it’s all about your expectations.)

Anyway. The rotisserie chicken’s my favorite thing on the menu, and though it’s great on its own, I like it best paired with pita, red beans (immediately below), and tzatziki. (When I say “paired with,” I mean “eaten in the same bite as.” There’s something about a meal made of meat stuffed into tiny sandwiches, man. Wholesome fun.) The chicken is admirable—well-seasoned skin, plenty-juicy meat—and the pita, though store-bought, is served warm, which helps its texture immensely. The red beans aren’t anything special, but they’re red, and they’re beans, and the flavor’s solid. And for me, at least, a moderate (okay, grotesquely large) schmear of tzatziki ties all of the above together rather nicely.

Chirping Chicken's red beans

Of course, I don’t stop there. Though I’m not much of a wings person, I actually sort of like the plain wings (they’re crisp, and I like crisp), and I straight-up love the chicken tenders (second above), which are an absolutely flawless execution of a dish that surprisingly many restaurants somehow manage to mangle. I haven’t tried the nuggets, but I’m sure they’re good, too—and honestly, I have a niggling curiosity about the baby back ribs, a bunch of the “Greek specialties,” and the ribeye (I know). Plus, sides. I’ve found almost every one I’ve tried to be more-or-less intolerable, sure. But I’m nonetheless itching to try the mozzarella sticks, the onion rings, the macaroni salad, the sweet plantains, the baked potatoes…

You know, to see how they fit in with the rest of the makeshift buffet I’ve so lovingly slapped together.

Find Chirping Chicken at 350 3rd Avenue, between 25th and 26th; 587 9th Avenue, between 42nd and 43rd; 355 Amsterdam Avenue, between 76th and 77th; 1560 2nd Avenue, between 80th and 81st; or 940 Columbus Avenue, between 106th and 107th. (Though it’s by no means the closest to my apartment, I tend to go to the one on Amsterdam. It’s open until 2am, and the employees sometimes throw me freebies.)

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A Guide to Nut-Free Chinese Restaurants in NYC

At this point, I’m basically a broken record: “Nut-free Chinese food is hard to find.” “Nut-free Chinese food is hard to find.” “Nut-free Chinese food is hard to find.” Yeah, we get it—and anyway, if you’ve found yet another occasion to start off yet another post with yet another iteration of that fresh and shocking information, doesn’t that just mean you’ve found yet another nut-free Chinese restaurant to write about, thereby throwing yet another point of evidence out there that sort of, you know, contradicts whatever it is you’re trying to say…? Um, yes, Italics Voice. Yes. I’m repetitive, and the repetition is in itself actually sort of paradoxical, which is why I’ve decided to drop the shtick altogether and put together a guide whose very existence implies that nut-free Chinese food is both hard and easy to find. Because really, it’s both.

So. Here’s my one and only truly original contribution to this world: a list of all of the tree nut–free Chinese restaurants I’ve found—so far, because if putting this guide together has taught me anything, it’s taught me that there are undoubtedly many, many more where these restaurants came from. You’re welcome.

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