Herr’s “Chocolate”-Covered Sourdough Pretzels

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

They’re out there. I swear.

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Hanamizuki Café

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

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

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

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

Three omusubi from

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

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

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

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

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Yonah Schimmel Knish Bakery

Yohan Schimmel Knish Bakery's storefront

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Casa Adela

Mofongo with pernil asado and chicharrón from Casa Adela

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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SunButter

A Jar of Natural Crunch SunButter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A SunButter-and-jelly sandwich

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

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

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

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Tomoe Sushi

The Sashimi Deluxe from

Hi. Here’s a list of things I need to chill about:

Thinx ads. “Brinner.” People who brag about the fact that they “don’t read.” The Odyssey Online. Bob’s Discount Furniture. Feral food-allergy mothers. Fuller House. Students who interrupt class to ask questions for the sole purpose of getting attention. Sugarfish. Shitty writing, and especially poor grammar/usage. Black Mirror. Average-size people who take up multiple seats on the subway. KetchupRestaurants with stupid dish names. Steaks and burgers cooked past medium-rare. Calibri (the typeface). Nestlé’s discontinuation of Butterfinger BB’s. People who don’t like things I like. People who like things I don’t like. And high opinions of sub-par sushi.

I haven’t yet chilled, though. (I’m told it comes with age.) So right now, I’m still all lathered up and sudsy over my experience at Tomoe, not because the food was terrible—it wasn’t quite—but because of all the hype that surrounds this place. Few things (and zero in the world of food) piss me off as much as excessive praise and/or hype in response to undeserving fish, and…well, I’ll bet we can all guess where this is going.

Tomoe has lots of good reviews and a perpetual line out the door. Most often praised by Yelpers: the freshness of the fish, the size of the pieces, the low prices, and the restaurant’s “authenticity.” Normally, I’d wait to the end of the write-up to get into all this, but Tomoe has me feeling all sorts of scrambled, so…

Is the fish freshUh, yeah, I guess so. It doesn’t taste particularly fresh—what would that even mean?—but it doesn’t come off as old or spoiled or recently defrosted or whatever. (Congrats, Tomoe.) Are the pieces largeYes. Outrageously so. But whether that’s a good or a bad thing is another question entirely. Are the prices low? Low-ish for sushi, especially given the portion sizes. But really, Tomoe’s prices are on par with those of your average low- to mid-tier sushi joints. Nothing to stand in line for. Is the restaurant authentic? Authentic via resemblance to what…? Sushi as it’s served in Japan? Um, no. Sushi as it’s served in select American(ized) restaurants, to hordes of open-mouthed “sushi”-lovers? Yes! Yes, indeed!

Salmon ceviche from Tomoe Sushi

It wasn’t as if any of these revelations were all that surprising. Despite the crowds, and even from a distance, Tomoe’s mediocrity is glaringly obvious. So why’d I go? Well, aside from the fact that there are no tree nuts used in any of Tomoe’s food—and that’s a big fact, no doubt—I guess I’m just a glutton for bad-sushi punishment. And that’s not even just so I can hate on the food later. (Wish I could say it were that simple, but it isn’t. I actually have no idea why I so like to subject myself to bad sushi. But I do.)

Anyway. Time to do my thing.

I’ve only been to Tomoe once. That night, I (and Sam) ordered three appetizers—the salmon ceviche, the sake kama (“grilled salmon neck”), and the assorted tempura—as well as the pre-set Sashimi Deluxe and some à-la-carte sushi, too. I’ll just go in order, I guess.

The salmon “ceviche” (pictured immediately above) wasn’t quite ceviche, but I loved it regardless. The fish itself was good—buttery, almost—and the lemony, herby marinade did wonders for it, too. Granted, the plating was a little off-putting, but who cares? This stuff tasted good, and it actually managed to get my hopes up for what was to come. The other two appetizers, though, were about as bad as they could’ve been. The salmon collar (below, left) was hardly a salmon collar—more an un-sauced piece of salmon teriyaki—and it had no flavor whatsoever, either. And the tempura assortment (below, right) was a disaster. The shrimp itself was fine, but the batter wasn’t even a little crispy; and the sweet potato was dry and bland, while the broccoli just tasted off.

The sake kama and the assorted tempura from Tomoe Sushi

Still, the “ceviche”—the only raw fish I’d eaten—had me half-expecting some decent sushi. (It wasn’t as if I’d started to expect anything crazy, but I wasn’t expecting grocery store–level slop, either.) So: Hopes half-high, Sam and I ordered a negi-toro roll, a few pieces of sushi, and the 16-piece Sashimi Deluxe, too. And while not a single piece was particularly good, not one was straight-up awful, either.

The sushi came out first—two squid, two salmon, two ikura—and it was boring as could be. The salmon was all right, and the squid had nice texture to it, but the toro in the roll had no flavor of its own, and the scallions were the only thing that kept me taking bites. (Also, look at the photo right below this paragraph, and then tell me: Have you ever seen such an unkempt roll? I wouldn’t have cared if it’d tasted good, but, well…you know.) In general, the rice was about as good as the fish, and the (fake!) wasabi did nothing for me.

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And then came the Sashimi Deluxe, that hulking presence at the very top of this post. I couldn’t identify everything on the plate, and Tomoe’s servers aren’t the sort to give you the run-down, but I do know that we got some lean tuna, some chutoro, some negi-toro, some squid topped with spicy cod roe, some salmon, some scallop, some shrimp, some octopus, and some yellowtail. (There were maybe four other pieces that I couldn’t identify, too. It was a big dish.)

Again, the salmon was passable, as were the squid and the yellowtail, and the whitefish I couldn’t identify, too. The lean tuna was all right; the chutoro was pretty good; the negi-toro, jam-packed as it was with what really was insane amount of scallions, was probably my favorite thing on the plate. The scallop was bad. The shrimp was bad. The octopus was bad, as was whatever was next to it. That fin-like thing in near the center of the plate was…bad. And nearly every single piece of fish on the plate was way too big.

Seriously. What am I supposed to with a quarter-pound hunk of salmon? As I see it, I had four options: (1) attempt to force each GiantFish into my mouth and then suffer—truly, suffer—until I’ve tongue-wrestled it down my throat; (2) attempt to bite each over-sized piece in two, then act surprised when not one will split as I’d wanted it to; (3) take a chopstick in each hand and attempt, like a yahoo, to slice each piece into some more reasonably sized chunks; or (4) ask, like a yahoo, for a fork and knife before getting into an even worse sort of slicing.

None of those options are viable. #1 was disastrous—too much fish in the mouth at once turns sickening rather quickly, and I’m sure my behavior was pretty nauseating to those around me, too—but #2 was no better, because those pieces just weren’t bite-able. If I’d taken up #3 (the Poise-‘n’-Slice, as it’s called in the biz), I would’ve had to then apply the same method to my throat, and if it doesn’t go without saying, #4 just wasn’t on the table.

Why am I going into all this detail? So that it’ll be absolutely clear how little of a selling point these “generous” cuts of fish are. It’s a gimmick, and it’s a shitty one, too. The jumbo pieces just make the meal infinitely less pleasant, both because they’re too fucking jumbo to work with, and because that jumbo-ness makes each already-mediocre piece even less of a commodity, and thus even less enjoyable. Isn’t one of the best parts of good sushi the fact that there’s never really too much of it? Aside from the fact that the fish is ostensibly mind-numbingly, mouth-meltingly good, I mean. The portions are small; the fish is scarce. You savor what little you do have.

…Not so at Tomoe, though. Didn’t you get the memo? Less isn’t more—more is! After all, this is America, and something ought to be distracting me from the looming fact of my eventual death and decay. And what better than a plate piled high with mammoth hunks of fish?

Find Tomoe at 172 Thompson Street, between Houston and Bleecker. But be prepared to wait outside, to overhear some stupid shit, and to pay with either cash or American Express. Best of luck to you.

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Shake Shack

Two Shake Shack hamburgers

A month ago, I had absolutely no interest in Shake Shack. I’d eaten (without issue) at the Madison Square Park location a few times in my less-careful, have-a-reaction-every-once-in-a-while days, but the burgers never really did much for me. Accordingly, the older, more-careful me never really cared enough to look into the question of whether Shake Shack might be an allergy-friendly chain.

That said, comprehensiveness is my fetish, and Shake Shack’s been getting harder and harder to avoid. Shacks are popping up everywhere, and I see the chain mentioned a whole lot in the NYC-specific food-allergy Facebook group I frequent, too. So after a fair amount of foot-dragging and dilly-dallying, I figured it was probably time I at least devote some effort to finding out whether Shake Shack might be a viable option, regardless of whether I had any personal interest in stopping by.

So. Is Shake Shack nut allergy–friendly? Short answer: Yes. Long answer: Yes, but…well, it’s complicated. Shake Shack was created by Danny Meyer, who happens to be the guy behind Blue Smoke, and who happens to seem to really know his shit, food allergy–wise. Pretty much every restaurant Meyer touches turns to food-allergy gold, and Shake Shack is no exception. There are two types of gold, though: we-don’t-have-any-of-your-allergens-on-site gold, and damn-right-we-have-your-allergens-here-but-we-know-how-not-to-let-them-near-your-food gold. And like Blue Smoke, Shake Shack falls into the latter category.

What I’m trying to say, I guess, is that the folks at Shake Shack are allergy-aware enough to make me feel comfortable with all the nuts they have lying around their kitchens. (Some Shake Shacks have very few nuts; others have plenty. It varies by location—but what doesn’t vary is the fact that all of the chain’s locations are, on the whole, pretty allergy-friendly.) They’ll encourage you to let them know if you have any food allergies—which they’ll always make note of on your ticket—and they’ll be happy to change their gloves and keep a special eye on your order, too. Very Danny Meyer indeed.

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Even more of a help is this chart of theirs, which accounts not only for dishes that explicitly contain nuts, but for those that contain ingredients processed in shared facilities, too. So if an item isn’t marked as a risk on that chart, it really is safe to eat—provided that the folks who prepare your food are competent and responsible, at least. (As the above-linked page notes, though: “Only standard Shack menu items are listed above, and menu options can vary by Shack.” So the chart doesn’t list the billion-and-a-half concrete mix-ins that might be offered, which are where a lot of the Shake Shack tree nuts come from. The same page actually advises those with food allergies to stay away from all Shake Shack concretes. Fair enough.)

Here is, for good measure, what I was told when I wrote to Shake Shack for some further information:

If an item is not flagged with any sort of symbol at https://www.shakeshack.com/allergy, then it means that the ingredients do not contain the allergen and the ingredients are not processed in a facility that contains the allergen. There can be tree nuts present at some of our Shacks as mix-ins with our concretes, so please check the menu at your preferred Shake Shack to see if cross contamination may be a concern at the Shack, and always let a team member know about any allergies when you are ordering.

I asked, too, for some further information about in-restaurant cross-contamination, and this was the response I received:

The issue of cross-contamination with our frozen custard items would be most prevalent when ordering concretes at Shacks which offer walnuts or other tree nuts as mix-ins. I would not recommend ordering concretes in these cases. Tree nuts are not offered as mix-ins with shakes, and every Shack has one shake mixer that is utilized solely for shakes that contain peanut butter, using other machines for all other shakes.

These two answers are about as good as I could’ve hoped for, really.

Two Shake Shack hamburgers with lettuce, tomato, pickle, and onion

Anyway. There’s a surprising amount of food I can’t eat at Shake Shack, but I guess that’s what happens when a restaurant’s diligent about flagging each and every menu item that contains something that was made in a shared facility. I can have a few of their burgers. I can have a few of their hot dogs. I can have their fries—but only plain, as the cheese sauce may contain nuts. I can’t have any of their chicken or sausage, and a lot of the desserts are a no-go, too. But surprisingly enough, I can have a few of their shakes, floats, and ice-cream cones, so long as the Shack in question doesn’t handle things in such a way as to make cross-contamination with the other ice-cream items likely.

(…Undoubtedly, Shake Shack’s menu is more of a minefield than I’m used to. Still, though: I’m plenty comfortable. But onto the food.)

Regardless of what Anthony Papaya King–Loving Bourdain says, I maintain that food-wise, Shake Shack is nothing extraordinary. But! The vast majority of burgers (and burger chains) are nothing extraordinary, and I’d be lying by omission if I failed to mention that Shake Shack beats pretty much all of my favorite burger spots—and by a landslide, too. It’s way better than your average diner. It’s way better than Five Guys. It’s way better than Big Daddy’s. It’s way better than The Burger Bistro. And it’s cheaper than all of the above, too. And now that I’ve said all that, I might as well just admit that…well, I actually really, really like Shake Shack. For what it is, at least: a fast-food burger joint that’s just plain better than its fast-food competitors (and a lot of its regular-restaurant competitors, too).

The burgers are what I have the most experience with, so I’ll start with those. Despite their wishy-washy (Martin’s) potato buns, they’re really very good—better without the elective pickles pictured above, actually—but for once, I’m finding myself on Team Cheeseburger. Shake Shack’s cheese isn’t as gross as the American you’ll find at most burger joints; in fact, it’s actually pretty good, and it adds some welcome flare (read: salt, grease) to an otherwise-uneventful-ish burger. ShackSauce—basically mustardy mayo—helps, too. And they’re generous with the onions, which is always a plus. The patties themselves are great, though; it’s not as if their flavor needs to be masked.

Though less fun, the hot dogs are also good. Again, I wish the buns weren’t so potato-y, but the dogs themselves are great, if not quite as tasty as the ones you’ll get at Crif Dogs. They’re split down the center, but they still manage to maintain their snap, and with a topping or two—I happen to like Shack Sauce and a pickle spear—they’re just about perfect. (For those with nut allergies, the Shack-cago Dog’s out—but only because its relish may contain trace amounts of nuts. It’s easy enough to ask them to hold the relish, though. And anyway, the onion, cucumber, pickle, tomato, sport pepper, celery salt, and mustard are all safe.)

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And the fries, too, are great, especially if you’re into crinkle-cut—though I do wish I could get in on the cheese sauce (which is made of actual cheese, and which is therefore a permissible topping, thank you very much). They’re crispy on the outside and soft on the inside, just as fries should be—and though they’re a little thicker than the sort of fries I’m usually into, I do have to say that these are some of my all-time favorites. (Hint: ShackSauce. Try it.)

As for desserts, I’ve only tried a few. I do stay away from the concretes, but the shakes seem safe enough (as per the email I shared above), and they’re plenty tasty, too. There isn’t much to say—they’re thick and creamy custard-based milkshakes, and I love them very much—other than this: As those with nut allergies know, it’s just really, really nice to be able to partake in dessert, especially when that dessert didn’t require any special planning or consideration on your part. Another point for Shake Shack.

So maybe 12-year-old me was a little too hard on Shake Shack. Maybe—just maybe—she didn’t quite know everything. But right now, a burger chain’s noteworthiness is about all she’s willing to concede. Try her again in another decade, will you?

Find Shake Shack just about everywhere.

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Dō Hwa

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A while-while back, I complained that it’d been far too long since I’d “gorged myself on Korean barbecue” before launching into a write-up of Gunbae, a nut-free (but rather disappointing) KBBQ spot that’s kinda-sorta in my neighborhood. I gave Gunbae two shots before giving up on it entirely—and then I sort of forgot about KBBQ for a while. That is, until Dō Hwa reappeared on my radar.

I’ve mentioned before that I used to be a lot less careful. I’d eat whatever from wherever, and when I had the occasional reaction, I’d usually just shut my mouth and deal with it. But allergic reactions are horrifying, and the anxiety that comes with the threat of one (to me, an Anxious) is even worse. I mean, how can you enjoy a meal if you’re spending the whole time hyper-aware of each and every sensation that might almost feel something like a swelling lip or an itchy mouth? It’s an appetite-killer.

So—long, long, long story short—I’m more careful now. And while that’s undoubtedly a good thing, it’s left me in the rather strange situation of having all these ex-lover restaurants that I used to adore but that I wouldn’t necessarily be comfortable eating at today. In fact, the vast majority of the restaurants I liked as a (younger) kid don’t make today’s comfort-cut.

But! Dō Hwa does. There are indeed (pine) nuts on the menu, but they’re only used as a garnish on one of the salads, and I’ve been told (by more than one super-helpful, super-friendly, super-competent Dō Hwa employee) that those pine nuts shouldn’t really have any chance to come into accidental contact with anything else in the kitchen. So that’s a “100% comfortable” from me, then. [As for peanuts, though—which, again, I’m not allergic to—Dō Hwa does sometimes use them in one of their side dishes (the anchovies), so do beware.]

A plate of

The first time I went (back), I ended up at a grill-less table, which sucked approximately 93% of the fun out of the Dō Hwa experience. I mean, picture it: You’re stuck at your sorry, fire-unequipped table for two. You’ve no flames to play with, no raw meat to undercook. Without so little to do, you can’t help but glance at the grill-manning parties around you. Parties, indeed—everyone’s got heaps of raw meat; everyone’s poking and prodding at a grill; everyone’s plopping piece after piece of searing-hot BBQ onto leaf after leaf of lettuce. They are having fun. You are looking on. Grillers point their tongs and laugh, their mouths full of half-chewed bulgogi. It’s just like grade school.

Fortunately, you can ensure a grill-equipped table. Just let whoever’s taking your reservation know you’re absolutely, positively about that DIY life—not in those words, please—and you’ll be good to go. (But do be sure to speak up if it’s a grill-equipped table you’re after. The guy who took my first reservation didn’t ask, and I’d just assumed that Dō Hwa didn’t have any grill-less tables. Wrong I was, though.)

Anyway. Before I get to the real fun, I should probably spend some time on Dō Hwa’s other offerings. Pretty much every Korean restaurant presents each and every diner with a whole bunch of complimentary sides—banchan, they’re called—and while I’m usually not the biggest fan of such things, I don’t mind Dō Hwa’s in the slightest. (I don’t know why I’m so small on banchan; probably, it has to do with my food allergies and my subsequent aversion to being ambushed with a whole bunch of sometimes-tough-to-identify foods. But I’m not so big on the usual dishes themselves, either.) There’s one that I’ll often avoid—those aforementioned anchovies that sometimes come with a handful of likely-cross-contaminated peanuts—but I’m comfortable with everything else, and it all tastes pretty good, too. Even the kimchi…which is one of those foods I usually can’t stand.

As for appetizers, Dō Hwa’s are pretty standard—and I mean that as a good thing. The pan-fried beef dumplings (pictured immediately above) are tasty, though a bit boring, and I’m told the d’ukboki (rice cakes in chili sauce) are particularly good, too. But me, I’m really into the kimchi pajun (that’s a kimchi-scallion pancake)—which tastes a whole lot more of scallion than it does of kimchi, thank God. It’s ridiculously thin, with appropriately crispy edges and a soft-ish center, and (as if I haven’t already said this exact phrase way too many times) it’s just greasy enough to have me hooked.

A pile of (raw) bulgogi from Do Hwa

Now. Meat.

Pictured immediately above is a serving of Dō Hwa’s bulgogi, which happens to be my favorite of their meats. At $29, it isn’t cheap, but it isn’t a small portion, either—and it’s just about perfect, if you ask me. The marinade is sweet, but it’s (fortunately!) not too sweet, and there’s just enough of it, too. Do a half-decent job cooking the meat (really, it isn’t hard) and it’ll be ridiculously juicy and oh-so-tender—and, it’s particularly good in the lettuce wraps. Not only is there nothing wrong with this stuff, but it’s precisely what I’m looking for when I’m craving KBBQ.

I also like the seng kalbi, which are boneless beef short ribs, sans marinade. What they lack in flavor, they make up for in texture, and between bites of whatever else, they’re particularly good. Calming, even. One meat I don’t love, though, is the sam ghup sal: thick-cut pork belly that just might be a little too thick-cut for me. It takes forever on the grill, it has little flavor of its own, and I’m not entirely sure it’s possible to cook this stuff through without drying it out. So…no more sam ghup sal for me, I guess.

And just as a side note: The best part, I think, of grilling your own meat (aside from all the fucking-around you get to do) is the fact that no matter how slowly you go, everything you get around to eating will be piping hot. With how quickly I eat, I wouldn’t expect that to make much of a difference—it’s not as if much time ever passes between a dish’s leaving the kitchen and its ending up wholly in my stomach—but (at Dō Hwa, at least) the immediacy does make a difference, and that difference does go a long way.

…You deserve another grill photo, don’t you? Here’s some bulgogi and some sam ghup sal,  alongside some mushrooms, onions, and rice cakes:

Bulgogi, sam gup sal, onions, mushrooms, and rice cakes on the grill at Dō Hwa

Overall, I really do love this place. Beyond scratching my KBBQ itch, Dō Hwa is incredibly allergy friendly—and if you don’t mind the dark and the loud, it’s a pretty pleasant place to be, too. My only gripe, really, is that even when I’ve made a reservation, they can’t seem to seat me within 10 minutes of my walking through the door. Usually, I’ll end up having to spend around 15 pre-table minutes at the bar—but it’s not so bad, really. There is food at the bar, after all.

Find Dō Hwa at 55 Carmine Street, between Bedford Street and 7th Avenue South.

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Barneys Bone Broth

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Here’s a weird one.

Up until last week, I had no idea that bone broth was so trendy. Whenever I’d walk by Barneys, it’d strike me as perhaps a little weird that there existed a whole sidewalk store devoted solely to the sale of one specific type of broth, but I never really thought much of it. I mean, there are tons of weird single-concept restaurants in this city—and anyway, people like soup, right?

Apparently, though, it’s a health thing. A lot of people—including (and especially) the folks behind Barneys—believe that bone broth has all sorts of wonderful health benefits. And while that’s most likely a bunch of hippy-dippy hogwash, this bone broth stuff is probably at least a little bit better for me than the Chik-fil-A or the Crif Dogs that I’d otherwise be having for lunch.

In any case. Five days a week, I eat lunch within a mile or so of Washington Square Park, and I’m always, always, always looking for new lunch stops to add to my rotation. Most days, I’ll walk by Barneys at least twice, and each time, I make note of the teeny-tiny menu and idly figure that I could probably eat (well, drink) whatever’s on it.

Sure enough, I can—but the situation isn’t as simple as I’d imagined. While there are no tree nuts (or peanuts) used in anything sold at Barneys, the stand does share a kitchen with White Oak Tavern, which is not a nut-free restaurant. Still, I’m told that all the Barneys stuff is prepped in a separate area from the White Oak stuff and that there really isn’t much of a chance for cross-contamination to occur—so I don’t worry much about inadvertently ingesting trace amounts of nuts when I’m slurping away at my bone broth. (As always, though, your mileage may vary.)

Barneys Bone Broth's sidewalk store (and their menu, too)

Like I said, the menu‘s pretty simple: there are four types of broth, four add-ins, and a daily soup (whose allergen status I’m actually not sure of). I’ve only tried two of the broths (the signature, the beef) and two add-ins (the meatball, the soft-boiled duck egg)—but that was all it took, really, to turn me into a big ol’ Barneys fan. At this point, I’m an addict…though I wish I weren’t, because Barneys isn’t cheap.

The beef broth—made with beef bones, beef shoulder, apple cider vinegar, a lot of ginger, and a bunch of herbs and spices—is tolerable, but all the ginger is its hamartia. I love ginger, but this broth just has too much of it. It’s overpowering, and it gets old. The signature broth is another story, though: made with veal bones, beef bones, chicken carcasses, and chicken feet, it has a lot more to it, and since it’s less gingery, you can really taste all its components. It’s less boring than the beef broth, too—and that’s most of why it has my vote. (Sorry. I don’t really know how to describe this stuff. It tastes like a soup. A particularly good soup, with layers and nuance and, um, salt. It’s good.)

Two cups of Barneys signature broth

But the add-ins are where I really have my fun. Admittedly, they’re a little awkward to eat—pulling a meatball out of a to-go cup isn’t the easiest thing in the world, and I definitely get some weird looks whenever I try—but I deal, because these add-ins are pretty much mandatory. (It’s not that the broths are lacking or anything; it’s that the add-ins are that good. Although I guess plain broth is a little on the lame end, as lunches go.)

In my eyes, the soft-boiled duck egg is a must. It is, after all, a soft-boiled egg—so when you puncture the white, the yolk leaks into the broth and turns it all…well, yolky. This—yolky broth—is favorite of the soup-related phenomena (and it’s approximately 40% of the reason I so love Ganso’s miso ramen), and my Barneys experience wouldn’t be complete without it.

Even better than the duck eggs, though, are the meatballs. I know we just went through this whole rigamarole, but for real, these are the best meatballs I’ve ever had. Seriously. They’re bouncy-soft, herby, and never, ever even the slightest bit overcooked—and they’re particularly excellent at breaking up slurps of soup. These, too, are a must (in my eyes, at least); and if they weren’t $3 each, I’d probably ask for a half dozen. Here’s one, half-eaten:

A Barneys meatball

So. Takeaways? Barneys is a little expensive, sure—$12 for a 12-ounce broth with a meatball and an egg thrown in—but their broths make for a surprisingly satisfying meal. Of course, I wouldn’t want to drink my lunch every day. But once in a while? Hell yeah.

Find Barneys Bone Broth on Greene Street, between 8th Street and Waverly Place.

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Cava Grill

A nut-freemeatball-and-falafel pita from Cava Grill

Cava is both like and unlike the sorts of places I’m usually most into. The nut-free kitchen, the proximity to NYU, and the assembly line–style ordering are all qualities we all know I stand no chance against, but Cava’s exclusive focus on Mediterranean cuisine and its potential to be so decidedly healthy are both pretty foreign to the Nut-Free New York world. (I just scrolled through my list of restaurants, and I guess I’m even more into junky, fatty food than I’d thought. Go figure.)

This place is a lot like Chipotle, but for Greek food. (If I had a dollar for every time I heard someone liken a fast-casual restaurant to Chipotle, I’d have enough for more than one double-protein entree at Cava. It’s just a lazy way of saying that the restaurant is predicated on a build-your-own-dish concept. But Cava really is a lot like the “Mexican Grill” I’ve grown so disillusioned with.) Five or six employees stand shoulder-to-shoulder at a long counter, taking turns scooping measured heaps of whatever you want into your bowl. You’ll choose your base, your protein, your spread(s), your toppings, and your sauce, and then you’ll exchange your $10-ish for the right to dig in. It’s quick, easy, and painless, and pretty much all the food is great.

Allergen information first, though. Before I even got to Cava’s contact form, I came across their allergen charts, below which the following magical sentence is posted: “We use no peanuts, tree nuts, or any other kind of nuts in our food.” (By the way, those same allergen charts are printed on the back of every menu. A nice touch.) I wondered—though a bit idly—about individual ingredients and whether they might’ve been cross-contaminated, so I sent Cava an email, and the response I received was as follows:

We can confirm that all of our restaurants are a nut-free facility. However, our cookies are produced in a kitchen that has a possibility of cross-contamination…Our pita is made on equipment that also processes sesame seeds and soy, but not tree nuts.

Which brings me to my next point of celebration: Cava isn’t just a restaurant—it’s a manufacturer, too. So a bunch of the ingredients they use in their restaurants (their pita and their tahini, for example, as well as a whole bunch of their spreads) are actually products that are made in Cava’s own facilities. That information did a whole bunch to allay any cross-contamination concerns I had—and by now, I’m entirely comfortable eating at Cava. (I’ve still decided not to categorize the chain as “truly nut-free,” as I haven’t found any reason to believe that they require all their ingredients to be contamination-free. Still, though.)

A pita from Cava

Anyway. There’s a ton of variety at Cava, which leaves you with lots of room to play around. And really, that’s what makes this place so much fun: the fact that you can get whatever the hell you want. A big-ass bowl of black lentils topped with grilled chicken, red-pepper hummus, some cabbage slaw, a scoop of tomato-and-cucumber salad, a sprig of mint, and a squirt of green-harissa dressing? You got it. A warm pita spread with hummus and tzatziki, then filled with a mix of meatballs and falafel, a generous heap of pickled onions, some tomato-and-onion salad, a handful of shredded romaine, a few crumbles of feta, and a whole lot of both lemon-herb tahini and yogurt-dill dressing? Sure thing. (Can you guess which of the two is my order? Hint: It’s the one with all the gluten.)

That, yes, is my signature order. I’ve actually never seen anyone else order a pita at Cava, but I just can’t get enough of them. They’re just so warm and fluffy—and in my eyes, at least, forking my way through a bowl is guaranteed to be a lot less fun than chewing away at an overstuffed pita. As for Cava’s protein options, it’s tough to go wrong. I’m equally into the grilled chicken, the grilled beef meatballs, and the falafel—I haven’t yet tried any of the others, actually—and I’ll typically go half-and-half (which is the way to go at Cava, if you ask me).

The falafel are a little weird, but I really do like them. They shed whole chickpeas like nobody’s business, and they don’t have much of that signature falafel flavor, but what flavor they do have meshes well with pretty much all of Cava’s spreads and toppings. (Plus, if you stop by during high-traffic hours, there’s a good chance they’ll be crispy, which makes all the difference.)

The chicken’s a little more flavorful than the falafel—the salt helps, for sure—and the beef meatballs are some of my all-time favorite meatballs, for whatever that’s worth. (Not so much, probably. I really don’t like meatballs. But these, on a good day, are essentially just juicy little balls of medium-rare steak, and I love them. Bonus meatball photo below.)

A Cava pita bearing a meatball

As for the spreads, toppings, and dressings, there isn’t all that much to say. Each and every one of the spreads is good—I like to keep it simple, but they have plenty of interesting options, like Crazy (i.e. jalapeño-filled) Feta, or eggplant-and-red-pepper dip—and the same is true of the dressings, too. Plus, all the ingredients that go into the toppings taste high-quality and fresh, and there’s absolutely nothing I’d warn against getting.

And that, too, is a big part of the fun: The fact that there’s nothing avoid-worthy on the Cava menu. I may not be the biggest fan of lentils or beds of greens or cabbage or cucumber, but that’s the beauty of this place, isn’t it? I get to have whatever I want (and when what I want just happens to be a calorie bomb, the folks at Cava don’t care). So I’m in. So, so in—and so grateful to have found something that’s so dissimilar, flavor-wise, from my usual haunts.

Oh, and by the way, Cava is the only restaurant I’ve ever come across that has a Maine Root machine. Serious, serious selling point. Maine Root’s Mexicane Cola is my all-time favorite bottled soda, and the fountain version is even better. I’m pretty much incapable of stopping by Cava without grabbing some Mexicane Cola, and I’m not ashamed in the slightest.

Find Cava at 143 4th Avenue, between 13th and 14th. (That’s their only NYC location, but they have a bunch in other states, too.)

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