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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Dorado Tacos

A grilled-steak taco from Dorado Tacos

Here’s a hot take: Because they’re such a flexible, malleable, all-purpose food, tacos are the ideal lunch option. Lunchtime is unpredictable, and when I’m sitting in my morning class, paying full attention and definitely not idly wondering what’s for lunch, there’s not all that much I can know in advance. I don’t know how hungry I’ll be come lunchtime, nor do I know what sorts of flavors I’ll be in the mood for. All I know is that my class will end, and I will leave, and then I’ll be on the sidewalk, seconds tick-tick-ticking away as I scramble to figure out where the fuck to go before I run out of time and have to resign myself to, like, on-campus Chick-fil-A.

With tacos on the agenda, though, the Problem of Lunchtime Unpredictability sort of just evaporates, because like the Room of Requirement, the taco has this magical ability to become whatever it is I need most. A light lunch? One taco, maybe two, and probably a Coke, since I so little self-control. If I’m starving, though, it’s easy enough to scale up: add another taco or two, some chips, some guac—still an appropriate portion, still a reasonable price, still a meal I’m not ashamed to order.

Plus, even your lamest taquerias offer a handful of options for proteins, garnishes, and salsas, so it doesn’t exactly matter what sort of thing I end up wanting. Chunks of steak? Slow-cooked pork? Grilled shrimp? Beer batter? By the time I’m ordering, I’m generally hungry enough to make some choices—and then I get to weigh in on salsa, on crema, on guacamole. It’s all there, and it’s all being offered to me, and if I’d rather not decide, I don’t even have to. Tacos are small, after all. Why not get one of each? (And yes, I do realize that this theory I’ve just spent 300 words explaining is nothing more than a system I’ve crafted to enable my own indecisiveness. Leave me alone.)

A grilled-chicken taco from Dorado Tacos

That said, the taquerias I’ve found within a mile or so of NYU just aren’t doing it for me. There’s Taqueria Diana, home of some tacos that are so lame, so boring that they actually threaten to put me to sleep. And then there’s Otto’s, whose wet and drippy one-note tacos I think I might’ve outgrown. Los Tacos and Los Mariscos continue to spoil me, but Chelsea Market’s just too far away to make my lunchtime list. And Chipotle‘s an option, I suppose, but even pre-shark-jump, their tacos were hardly passable as such.

For the most part, then, I’ve gone without. Which means I’ve had to make a hell of a lot of decisions.

All this to say that I was excited to find Dorado, a Baja-style taqueria—with no nuts in the kitchen!—that’s only a few blocks from NYU. To tell you the truth, though, my initial hopes weren’t all that high. Those Chelsea Market tacos really have cursed me, and because of them, I’m stuck with this ridiculously high standard that keeps me from enjoying myself at most other taquerias. I like Los Tacos, and I like Los Mariscos, and I like Taco Mix, up on 116th Street. That’s about it—and most days, that’s plenty. But I desperately wanted more lunch tacos. Travel-free tacos. So even with my hopes low, I was eager to give Dorado a try.

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I don’t regret it. Dorado’s nowhere near as good as any of those taquerias I just mentioned, but it’s not terrible, either, and it’ll certainly do the trick when school resumes and I resume salivating at my midday taco bell. They offer eight sorts of tacos, seven sorts of quesadillas, and a number of salads, soups, and sides, too. And if that’s not enough variation for you—because it isn’t always enough for me—there are usually a few daily specials, too.

Anyway. I don’t love the grilled-steak taco (pictured at the top of this post), nor am I the biggest fan of the grilled-chicken taco (second above), but I’ll eat the latter, at least. Both are topped with queso fresco (which I like) and guacamole (which I love), but both are made with an underwhelming, heatless habanero salsa that doesn’t appear to serve any purpose beyond making me acutely aware of just how important a decent salsa really is. The steak’s too dry, too flavorless, too boring. But the chicken’s moist, juicy, and tender, and it has a nice, smoky flavor to it, too.

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On the other hand, I do actively dislike the Baja original. Made with beer-battered whitefish, cabbage, crema, pickled onions, and Dorado’s own salsa fresca, it’s incredibly similar to the fish tacos at Los Mariscos. I have no gripes with that similarity—that’s what a Baja-style fish taco is, after all—but given what I know a Los Mariscos fish taco tastes like, I just can’t get on board with Dorado’s version. In every way, it’s just slightly worse: the batter’s soggier, heavier; the fish itself is less flavorful; the cabbage doesn’t make as much of a textural contribution; the salsa keeps to itself, hangs in the corner. As a whole, the taco is disjointed—and it’s heavy, and it’s unsatisfying, and I refuse to eat it. Same goes for the shrimp taco. But perhaps I’d feel differently if I’d never eaten at Los Mariscos.

What do I like, then? Of the tacos, only two: the grilled fish (third above), and the salmon (immediately above). Both the mahi-mahi and the salmon have just the right amount of fishy flavor to them, and both are rather creamy, too (which is a must-have quality of grilled fish, if you ask me). But on the whole, these tacos are average, at best. They, too, come off as disjointed pile-highs (piles-high?) of components, rather than as cohesive, unified, respectable wholes—but their fish bases makes them rewarding enough, I think. Some days.

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I really ought to mention, though, that I absolutely adore Dorado’s chips. They’re unusually hearty (read: thick, but also hearty), and they come dusted with the perfect amount of salt, which is surprisingly rare in the world of homemade chips. Truthfully, they’re the highlight of each and every one of my Dorado meals. The elote’s missing something—I think that something is halfway decent corn—and the rice and beans are rather ho-hum, as far as I’m concerned, but those chips, man. Good on their own, and good dipped in both the guacamole and the particularly onion-heavy salsa fresca they’re served with, those chips are one worthwhile side.

So. It’s not as if Dorado will ever become one of my favorite restaurants. The tacos are just too mediocre—and in the time I’ve spent on this post, I’ve decided that their mediocrity has nothing to do with that high standard for tacos that I mentioned above. Dorado’s food is mediocre because it’s mediocre, plain and simple. My standards and I have only one role in that mediocrity: we took notice. And so the search continues. Though I’ll probably continue to frequent Dorado in the meantime.

Find it at 28 East 12th Street, between University and 5th.

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Cakes ‘N Shapes

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For my entire childhood, I had a single favorite birthday cake: chocolate, with buttercream icing, screen-printed with whatever strange photo I’d chosen that year. My mom, along with the majority of the adults who attended my birthday parties, preferred the Ciao Bella malted-milk-ball gelato cake we sometimes served, and though I loved that one, too, I thought it no match for my beloved photo cake. I was all about that buttercream icing (and all about getting to choose a photo, too), so for each of my birthdays, my mom would order that same cake from its same bakery—a bakery I don’t think I ever knew the name of, seeing as I was, like, 10—and each year, I’d happily devour it, sans even the slightest bit of an allergy-related trouble.

These days, I don’t do birthday cakes. Or birthday parties, or birthday gatherings, or much of anything birthday-related beyond, say, a nice meal out. (Go figure.) But when I found out about Cakes ‘N Shapes—one of NYC’s few, few, few nut-free bakeries, and home of some of this city’s best custom photo cakes, I’m told—I saw no other option. I absolutely had to get myself a photo-printed birthday cake, if only to see whether it’d be anywhere near as good as those of my childhood. (Plus, I do have this blog to run, after all. That’s how I justify the majority of my ceaseless eating…)

A sticker on a Cakes 'N Shapes cake box

Anyway, I got the cake. This time, I ordered it myself, but my mom paid—birthday perk—and when I called to tell her about the bakery I’d chosen, we discovered that Cakes ‘N Shapes is the very same place we used to get my cakes from. My mom recognized Edie’s (the baker’s) name as soon as I said it, and from there, the rest was instant: of course I’d never had a reaction, of course the cakes’ designs looked sort of familiar, of course it was the same woman doing the baking. I’m not sure how that realization managed to elude me for the entire year Cakes ‘N Shapes spent on my to-try list, but it did.

Back when I was younger, though, my parents had no idea that Cakes ‘N Shapes was a nut-free bakery, nor did I (as I’d had no idea nut-free bakeries even existed). All we knew was that I liked the cakes, and that they didn’t seem to be killing me, and that I wanted to continue to eating them. So we kept ordering them, and then we stopped, and now we’ve bought another. Small world, I guess.

The Cakes 'N Shapes cake I ate at my 12th birthday party

I had an incredibly hard time choosing what to have printed on my cake. When I was a kid, some horrible force compelled me to keep choosing my own goddamn face (see immediately above), but at 21, I have better things to stare at…like these pan-fried noodles from Tasty Hand-Pulled Noodles, which just might be the dish that’s excited me most in my time running this blog. Yes, yes—clearly, I choked. At the very last minute, I somehow ended up deciding that it’d be a good idea to have a photograph of a styrofoam container of lo mein printed on my 21st-birthday cake. Yes. I don’t want to talk about it.

My idiocy aside, Edie did a wonderful job. The printed photo was high-res and clear enough, and it was reasonably true to its original coloring, too (though you should probably refrain from parading your cake around in direct sunlight for any longer than a few minutes if you’d rather it not turn green, like mine did). It was a pretty cake—as pretty as any lo mein–adorned cake can be, at least—but even discounting its appearance, it was a good cake. Unbelievably moist and springy, the cake itself was flawless. And the buttercream icing was just as it should’ve been. The bonus chocolate icing around the edges verged on too-sweet, but it was great in small doses. And after a few days in the fridge, the whole thing only got better.

A partial cross-section of a Cakes 'N Shapes cake

(I happen to be really into fridge cake. There’s something about the way the cake firms up, the way the icing thickens…honestly, the only thing better than a generous slice of fridge cake is a whole entire fridge cake, eaten directly out of the box with a day-old fork. My point, I guess, is that I might not be the best person to trust on the whole got-better-with-a-few-days’-refrigeration thing. It’s a good cake. A remarkably moist one. And it should probably be eaten fresh.)

That’s about all I have to say, really. Edie makes some damn good nut-free cakes—and though I’ve never tried her photo cookies, her cupcakes, or her free-form cakes, I have a sneaking suspicion that they’re probably pretty good, too.

Find Cakes ‘N Shapes at 466 West 51st Street, between 9th and 10th Avenues. Be sure, though, to place your order in advance, as Cakes ‘N Shapes doesn’t sell any sort of ready-made baked good.

[By the way: My birthday was at the beginning of May, if that gives you any idea as to how backlogged I am. The fact that I’m over a month into my summer vacation and still struggling to keep up with these posts has finally led me to the realization that I really do need to slow down, so that’s what I’m going to do. I hate rushing through posts almost as much as I hate the posts I produce when rushing, so from here on, I’m going to start experimenting with an every-10-days posting schedule. Maybe I’ll speed back up, or maybe I’ll slow down further. I don’t know. The next few posts are already in my queue, though. So don’t expect instant improvement. Wish me luck. Or motivation. Or something.]

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Osteria Morini

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I didn’t used to be such a stranger to Italian food. I grew up with Italian home cooking, and when I was a kid, my parents and I went out for ridiculously good Italian more than we did anything else. But these days, things are different: I don’t have a single Italian restaurant I’m comfortable eating at, and I’m not eating my mom’s cooking any more than once or twice a month. I cook the occasional pasta dish, sure—but I don’t do it well. All told, then, I hardly eat the stuff. Shit sucks. Or it did, at least.

Until a few weeks ago, when a reader sent me an email about Altamarea Group, the insanely allergy-aware hospitality company owned by Wisconsin-born pasta legend Michael White. Altamarea has a bunch of restaurants, and each and every one is as allergy-friendly as, say, Blue Smoke—but most are far more nut-filled than I’m used to, and they’re pretty far out of my price range, too. Still, I wanted to give one a try. And after some stressing, I ended up with Morini, purely because its menu is a little less nutty than the others, and, well, because it’s among the cheapest of the bunch.

Now. Trying new restaurants is always nerve-racking, even when they’re virtually nut-free. Add some nuts to the menu and I’m guaranteed to be an actual basket case for at least the duration of my first three meals. But not at Morini. The first time I went, I was nervous, sure. But their shit is so together that not even I, Queen Anxiety, was able to find much to stress about. The servers seem to know every ingredient in every dish, and they’re unusually forthcoming about what might have had a chance to get cross-contaminated, too. They’re happy to relay allergy-related messages to the kitchen, and whoever’s back there cooking is great about sending servers out to double-check on whether you’re good with this, that, or the other ingredient, too.

The garganelli from Osteria Morini

Eating at Morini, then, is totally painless. But it does require a lot more care and consideration than a meal at the average Nut-Free New York restaurant. That’s not to say a Morini meal isn’t worth that extra effort—it is, but you ought to know what you’re getting into, and you shouldn’t get into it if you aren’t comfortable with thinking and trying. I can’t recap all of Morini’s allergen information; it’s too complex, and it changes too often. Rather, determining what’s safe for you is a job for you, your server, and the chef. It’s not a hard job, but it’s a job nonetheless, and if you have food allergies, you ought to go in with that in mind. (Of course, it’s your server who’ll be doing most of the work. And that’s a good thing, because Morini’s are fucking all-stars. Some are more openly and obviously proactive than others, but it seems that absolutely all of them at least do what’s necessary behind the scenes.)

Asking questions helps (“Is this bread made in house?” “Are the prosciutto and the mortadella cut on the same slicer?”), but one of the best things about Morini is the fact that you can expect to be taken care of and looked out for even if you don’t take on the role of hyper-cautious investigator. There’s no way you could ever expect to know all the right questions to ask, anyway—but that’s all right, because Morini’s staff is so allergy-aware that you won’t have to do any legwork. You can—and if you do, they won’t make you feel bad about your million-and-a-half questions, nor will they give you any trouble whatsoever about double-checking on the specifics of a piece of bread (or whatever)—but you won’t end up dead on the floor if all you offer is a quick “I’m allergic to tree nuts and need my meal to be free from even trace amounts, please.”

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But onto the food itself, which is no doubt the real best thing about the place. My first time, I started with the burrata, and it was everything I was hoping for. I ditched the elsewhere-made bread it’s usually served with, and the crispy prosciutto, too (as it’s sliced on a cutting board that’s shared with something or other that contains walnuts), but I was able to eat the cheese itself and the strawberries it comes with, and…well, it was burrata. What’s there to say? It was creamy. Really creamy. Entirely perfect.

Next, I moved onto the garganelli—”pasta quills, cream, peas, truffle butter, prosciutto,” but without the prosciutto—which is pictured second above, though under some really abysmal lighting. For real, though: That shit was good. The quills were perfectly al dente; the truffle butter was plenty truffle-y, but not the slightest bit overbearing; and the peas were flavorful enough to keep me from even remembering the fact that the dish was meant to be topped with prosciutto. Really, the sauce was so good that I had a hard time keeping myself from licking the plate clean—so while I’d initially been a little worried that the dish would be just a little too simple, I’m happy to report that it’s, uh…not.

That night, I also tried Sam’s torcia—”squid ink pasta, seppia & shrimp ragù,” pictured (in daylight!) at the top of this post—and to my delight, it was just as good. Because our server went out of his way to tell us that he couldn’t guarantee the usual breadcrumb topping would be entirely free from cross-contamination, we decided to forego it altogether, but it didn’t matter, because the dish was absurdly satisfying, texture-wise. And the sauce has a depth to it that I really wasn’t expecting. It looks one-note tomatoey, and it smells sort of one-note tomatoey, but it tastes like so much more than just tomato. I can’t say just what it’s like—I’m hopeless at these sorts of things, unfortunately—but I can say that it’s lovely, and that it’s secured the torcia’s status as one of my top recommendations.

Osteria Morini's raviolo

The tagliatelle, served with bolognese and parmesan (and pictured third), is great, too. The texture of the pasta is spot-on, and the flavor of the bolognese is, too. Is this dish as exciting as some of the others? No, definitely not. It’s just tagliatelle and bolognese, sans any luxed-up add-ins. But! It’s a perfect execution of tagliatelle and bolognese, and sometimes, that’s just what I want. Will it ever become my go-to Morini order? Probably not. But will I insist on keeping it in my rotation? Take a wild guess.

I’m also in love with the raviolo (immediately above), a brunch special served with black trumpet mushrooms and filled with a pea-tasting ricotta stuffing and—!!!—a beautiful, undisturbed egg yolk. I’ve been lusting after something like this ever since I watched Anne Burrell attempt to teach her team to make raviolo al uovo on Worst Cooks in America—it was quite the episode, let me tell you—but I was finally starting to come to terms with the fact that there didn’t seem to be any way I’d ever manage to find an allergy-friendly version. By the time I discovered this dish, though, Morini had already changed my game in about half a million ways. So I guess I should’ve expected this. But I didn’t.

Anyway, it’s fantastic. The black trumpet mushrooms taste more like chicken skins than mushrooms—a good thing, don’t worry—and the raviolo itself is out-of-this-world delicious. The skin (does anyone call it that?) is paper-thin; the pea-ricotta filling is subtle, but decidedly present; the egg yolk, should you find it in yourself to not slurp it up in a single bite, pairs beautifully with the rest of the dish; and the whole thing is doused with some good-ass olive oil that does plenty to liven it all up. It’s a small dish, and certainly not the one you’d want to choose if you’re feeling particularly ravenous—but it’s so delicate, so refined, so goddamn good that I can’t help but deem it worthwhile in its own right.

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Every single one of Michael White’s pasta dishes is excellent, though. You won’t need my opinions (or anyone else’s, for that matter) to steer you in the right direction, because there is no right direction. Choose any of the 12 pastas on Morini’s menu—or any of their daily specials, which are just as good—and you’re sure to be fine. More than fine. But do be sure to pick pasta (or set of pastas, sharing encouraged), because they’re obviously Morini’s strong suit. All the rest you’d expect is available, too—cured meats, cheese platters, salads, seafood, all sorts of meat dishes, and a bunch of other stuff, too—but it’s the pastas (and perhaps only the pastas) that are really, truly worth a special trip.

They so are, though. Worth the special trip, I mean. And on Sunday and Monday evenings, after 9pm, Morini offers them for $12 each, which is absolutely not a deal you want to pass up. (Otherwise, they’ll run you $25-ish each, which is quite a bit, I suppose, given the sizes of the portions.) That said, it’s a little tough to get a reservation during those golden hours—I like to book my Pasta Nights a few weeks in advance, so I don’t end up getting stuck with, like, the 10:45 slot—but those $12 plates are well worth the effort, especially if you can bring a friend or six to swap bites with.

Morini, in general, is well worth the effort. I mentioned that it’s a little extra work, and it is—but the food’s so much fun, and the staff really does make the whole discussing-and-communicating thing as painless as possible. So they serve a bunch of food I can’t eat, sure. It gets crowded-ish in there, and loud-ish, and reservations sometimes require some foresight, especially when there’s discounted pasta at play. The meals aren’t cheap—but they are for an Altamarea restaurant, and prices aren’t unreasonable, given the quality of the food. And as for those other quasi-complaints…

I’m telling you. Worth it.

Find it at 218 Lafayette Street, between Spring and Kenmare. (Or in Washington, D.C., or in Bernardsville, New Jersey.)

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KazuNori

A crab hand roll from KazuNori

Here we go again. But not really. I’ll behave this time. Promise.

If you’ve been keeping up, you’ll know that I have high standards for sushi. You’ll also know that Sugarfish—which Pete Wells quietly lambasted in March, and which I very noisily lambasted a few weeks prior—doesn’t come close to making my cut. Why, then, have I so willingly chosen to dine at its hand roll–hawking cousin? There are, I suppose, many reasons: I’m forgiving. I’m hopeful. I believe in the power of low expectations. I can’t afford better Japanese. I like to trash bad restaurants on my blog. Oh, and Sugarfish’s hand rolls, made up mainly of their top-tier sushi rice, were by far the best thing about the place.

Like Sugarfish’s, KazuNori’s kitchen is entirely nut-free—as it ought to be, because it churns out nothing but hand rolls. Also like Sugarfish, KazuNori doesn’t take reservations. To get a spot at the counter at an unridiculous mealtime hour, you’ll have to play it smart: stop by early to case the joint, and be prepared to wait in line, though probably not for anywhere near as long as you’d have to wait for Sugarfish. (The first time I went to Sugarfish, their waitlist was full, so I rerouted to Sushi on Jones. The second time—the time I actually made it to a table—I waited 3 hours. Last Saturday night, though, I was seated at KazuNori within minutes of walking in. So that’s something, I guess.)

KazuNori's interior

For all intents and purposes, KazuNori is Sugarfish Lite. The two restaurants fall into the same price range, and their hand rolls are virtually identical. Nearly everything else about the two places lines up, too. KazuNori’s ambiance is basically a more casual version of Sugarfish’s: loud-ish, dark-ish, and desperate to be cool-ish. Of course, neither restaurant is actually all that cool, and both are perpetually filled with goofs in the habit of doing terrible things to their servings of fish—but I’ll leave that one alone for today. Still, both restaurants are wasabi-averse; both restaurants seem to have some sort of ideological problem with flavorful fish; and both restaurants are insurmountably disappointing.

Still, KazuNori is by far the better establishment—and by the end of this point, I might actually end up recommending it, if only through gritted teeth and after issuing a boatload of disclaimers.

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Anyway. For my KazuNori meal, I went with the largest of the set tastings. (To my enormous relief, the words “Trust Me” don’t appear anywhere on KazuNori’s menu.) That got me six hand rolls—toro, yellowtail-scallion, salmon, bay scallop, crab, and lobster—for $28, or around $4.50 per roll. Reasonable, I thought. Especially given the fact that it would’ve cost me a total of $38 to order those same six rolls à la carte. An easy decision. So I pencilled in my order—no, there are no waitstaff—and got to looking around.

Pictured immediately above is KazuNori’s roll-prep area. (They might have more than one. I’m not sure. That was the one I sat by.) You’ll note that it doesn’t look like something a restaurant-restaurant would want to put on display, but rather like those funky vats of fast-casual glop you’ve probably seen at places like Chipotle or Uma Temakeria. And while I really don’t have any problem with seeing (or eating) fast-casual glop at, you know, a fast-casual restaurant, you’d better believe I have a hell of a problem with it at what’s supposed to be a nice-ish place.

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Still, the rolls themselves are perfectly executed, and only some of the fish within actually tastes like fast-casual glop. The toro, literally flavorless, just isn’t passable as toro, and the yellowtail, marginally tastier, only makes for a decent roll because of the scallions that accompany it. Salmon (above, top left) is all right—it’s moderately flavorful, and unlike the toro and the yellowtail, it isn’t fucking minced—and blue crab (above, bottom left), though too sweet and too heavy on the mayo, is fine, too. Lobster (above, bottom left) is good, but would be much better in chunks than in shreds. But it’s bay scallop, of all things, that’s best, by far.

I don’t know what it is, but that scallop is damn good. Unlike the rest of the Nozawa Group’s various offerings, it’s actually interesting, flavor-wise. Present in actual fish-like chunks, KazuNori’s bay scallop is actually sort of perfect: subtly sweet, pleasantly thick, and covered with just enough mayo-coating to keep things moving. For the first time, I’m not mad at a Nozawa creation. In fact, I seriously considered ordering another. (I held my horses, though. There was no forgetting where—or who—I was.)

So. Is KazuNori a great restaurant? A good restaurant? A restaurant anyone who knows his fish might walk away from satisfied? No! But the prices are low. The nori is crisp, the rice warm. The fake wasabi is avoidable, and from here, the lines appear manageable. There’s less hype, less praise to rage against. The menu’s smaller, so there’s less to object to. No waitstaff, no mention of a “Trust Me”—just the palatable concept of a set tasting. And on the whole, patrons are about three iotas less clueless than their Sugarfish-eating counterparts. It helps.

KazuNori is an option. I’ll give it that.

Find it at 15 West 28th Street, between Broadway and 5th.

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CLIF Bar

Two CLIF Bars: one Coconut Chocolate Chip, and one Chocolate Brownie

When you live with food allergies for long enough, you inevitably come to associate certain visuals with danger—logos and packages that provoke in you not hunger or craving but fear, resentment, maybe even a sneer or two as you push your sorry cart down the aisle. Me, I have tons of such visual queues: the quadricolor KIND logo; the death nugget that is the Ferrero Rocher; those chicken stock–looking cartons of Almond Breeze; anything wrapped in that paleyellow color that (for whatever reason) evidently means “I contain almonds”; the plump, happy shape of a jar of Nutella

You have yours, too, I’m sure. Maybe the insistently “rugged” beige sack that holds the CLIF Bar is among them. It was for me, at least. But not anymore—because I’ve just found out that CLIF Bar & Company is actually a rather allergy-friendly brand with a very reliable labeling policy. Their website’s Dietary Considerations page has a column for “allergens: contains” and one for “allergens: may contain traces of,” and as I’ve been assured by a few different CLIF employees, you can assume that bars without nuts listed in either of those columns weren’t made on shared equipment with anything nutty, and that they should be safe from trace amounts of nuts, too. (Of course, you’ll always find the most up-to-date information on the label itself. If the label and the website disagree, the label absolutely takes precedence.)

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That—the fact that there are nut allergy–friendly CLIF Bars on this planet—is the good news. The bad news? There are only four nut-free flavors, and one’s seasonal. (There are some nut allergy–friendly Luna Bars, Zbars, and BUILDER’S Bars, too, but those aren’t the subject of this post, are they?) There’s Apricot, Chocolate Brownie, Coconut Chocolate Chip, and Hot Chocolate—the seasonal flavor that supposedly exists but that I’ve never actually seen (and believe me, I’ve looked). All four contain soy, and all may contain traces of wheat and dairy (with the exception of Apricot, which is dairy-free)—and all (like most CLIF products) are kosher, too. Not perfect for everyone, I guess, but pretty accommodating nonetheless.

As for taste, CLIF Bars are…well, they taste a lot like you’d expect. They’re marketed as that impossible triad: easy, healthy, and tasty (“CLIF BAR is a great-tasting energy bar made with a nutritious blend of organic rolled oats and wholesome ingredients for sustained energy”), but what are they, really? There’s no denying that they’re easy—to find, to cart around, to eat, whatever. Good for you, though? Well, not particularly. They’re packed with sugar—like, candy-bar levels of sugar, which means that if you’re looking for nutrition, you’re probably better off staying away. Actual nutritional-value aside, though, CLIF Bars do have a little of that health-food grit to them—but for what they are (or what they’re meant to be, I guess), CLIF Bars do taste pretty good.

I haven’t tried the Apricot bar (apricots tend to make my mouth itchy), but I’ve certainly eaten my fair share of the Chocolate Brownie and the Coconut Chocolate Chip, and I have to say, I definitely see the appeal. They’re sweet, but not too-too sweet, and both have a nice, chewy texture to them, too. Which I like better changes by the week, but right now I’m going to have to go with Chocolate Brownie (because, uh, I like cocoa). Preferences aside, though, both are pretty good. They’re ridiculously filling, at least. And I’m a sucker for the novelty of eating normal-people foods—especially those particular normal-people foods I’ve spent my life afraid of. So there’s that.

Find CLIF Bars wherever. (I buy them exclusively at NYU, with whatever Dining Dollars [i.e. campus currency that disappears at the end of the semester] I don’t spend on shampoo and Chick-fil-A, but they’re available at just about every store on the planet.)

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TsuruTonTan Udon Noodle Brasserie

A bowl of US wagyu shabu udon from TsuruTonTan

Every summer, I have to impose a moratorium on broth, and every summer, I’m sad about it. Right now, it’s 87 degrees outside. There’s no wind. Humidity’s at about a million percent. This morning, I took a cold shower. Now, I’m sitting two feet from the air conditioner. I’m still sweating. So for the foreseeable future, at least: fuck soup. Barneys, Ganso, Kung Fu, Sao Mai—for the next three months, I don’t care. I can’t care. I’m hot. Get away.

TsuruTonTan, though, is exempt. Maybe because my obsession with the place is still in its infancy, or maybe because the space itself is relatively large and dim and cool, or maybe because Tsuru’s cold dishes are just as good (if not better) than the hot ones. I don’t know, man. All I can say is that this place is (a) nut-free, and (b) home of some of the absolute best udon in the city. It’s only natural, then, that I can’t seem to stay away—even in this heat.

Located in the space that once housed the old Union Square Café, TsuruTonTan is the first American location of a Japanese mini-chain. And normally, I wouldn’t care about that—in fact, I’m usually rather skeptical when elsewhere-only chains open outposts in NYC—but Tsuru is no L.A. transplant. This is a real-deal Japanese restaurant, with ingredients flown in from Japan and noodles made fresh, by hand, every single day. The only concession to us Americans is the back of the menu, where you’ll find a whole bunch of flashy, buzzy, udon-unrelated Japanese-restaurant fare. But as concessions go, that’s hardly one to complain about.

A negi-toro roll from TsuruTonTan

It’s a trendy restaurant, but it’s a nice one, too. Inside, it’s dark and loud. Everyone’s young and hip and chatty. The amusical music of consumption—pounding, plodding Club Music Lite, the kind you’ll hear at H&M and Barneys alike, and the kind you probably associate with all sorts of spending—poses a threat to conversation, but isn’t quite overwhelming. It’s loud, but it’s fine. And the decor, though a little too similar to Gap’s, is actually rather nice. If the food were worse, Tsuru’s ambiance might come off differently. But it isn’t, so it doesn’t. (Yes, it’s that simple.)

Still, some sections of Tsuru’s menu are much stronger than others. The udon’s the clear winner, of course—but I maintain that there’s some good stuff on the rest of the menu, too. In his review of the restaurant, love of my life Pete Wells writes:

Rather than describing each [of Tsuru’s non-udon dishes] individually, I’ll share a handy method I came up with for dealing with all of them at once. Unfold the menu and place it on the table so that you see the noodle dishes. The reverse side, with the appetizers and donburi, will be face down. Now, never turn the menu over. If you have accidentally learned the name of a dish printed there, don’t say it out loud.

And he’s not wrong. (He’s never wrong, that Pete Wells.) I’ve done my fair share of dabbling, but I’ve yet to come across anything special. The uni-and-wagyu sushi is good, but not $22-for-two-pieces good. And both the salmon-and-ikura roll and the salmon-and-ikura don are on the boring side, even given my ardent love of both salmon and ikura.

Pork katsu over rice from TsuruTonTan

I will say, though, that I love the negi-toro roll (second above). Strictly speaking, it’s a special, not a back-of-the-menu offering—and while the toro itself isn’t the most flavorful, there’s something about the roll as a whole that I really, really like. I’m also pretty into the katsu don (immediately above). The rice is perfect; there are plenty of scallions; the pork’s nice and tender; and the egg, though sweet, isn’t at all overwhelming. If it’s between the katsu don and an order of udon, going with the katsu would be a mistake. But if you’re at Tsuru with a share-happy group, or you’re into competitive eating, or you’re on a date with your particularly voracious boyfriend? Go for it.

Enough odds and ends, though. Let’s talk noodles. Tsuru offers two types: thin (below), recommended for the cold preparations, and thick (top of this post), recommended for the hot ones. The thick noodles are exactly as they should be—soft and sort of fluffy, yet strong enough to hold their form—but it’s the thin ones that are worth a special trip. They’re so dense, so springy, so resilient; truly, I’ve never eaten a thin noodle quite like these. (I’ve never eaten any noodle quite like these, but their thinness makes their textural feats all the more impressive.) Just the other day, my dad described them as “fascinating,” and he’s right—they are. I’ve reached the end of my descriptive rope, though. You’ll have to see for yourself.

A bowl of uni udon from TsuruTonTan

As for the question of what you should order, I can’t claim to know the answer. All I know is this: of all Tsuru’s noodled offerings—the soups, the curries, the crèmes, everything—I have two decided favorites: the uni udon, pictured immediately above, and the wagyu shabu udon, pictured at the top of this post. The former, though the uni itself is a wee bit hit-or-miss, is an incredible dish. It’s perfect for summer—sweet, wet (almost juicy, even), and cold—and the sliminess of the uni is the perfect complement for the firmness of the noodles. When it’s a little colder out, though, I sometimes have to ditch this ditch in favor of the wagyu shabu udon, whose wagyu tastes like butter and whose broth has a depth of flavor unlike any other I’ve tasted. Seriously: As broths go, this one’s particularly compelling.

There are, of course, other good dishes. The unprecedentedly rich uni crème udon is lovely. The duck udon is about 80% as good as the wagyu shabu—which is to say that it’s pretty damn good indeed. The ikura oroshi udon, though a bit too sweet (and a bit too reliant on some underwhelming ikura), is fine overall. But you know what? Order what sounds best to you. I’m sure it’ll be great.

Find TsuruTonTan at 21 East 16th Street, between 5th Avenue and Union Square West.

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Baked Cravings

An assortment of cupcakes from Baked Cravings

I don’t like cupcakes, and I don’t know a single post-pubescent with a palate who does. As baked goods, they’re fatally flawed: there’s the dry, crumbly cake that’s no good on its own, but that ceases to even register when eaten with frosting—and then there’s the frosting itself, always present in an obnoxious dollop, always blunt and harsh and critically oversweet, never even a third as good as it looks.

Only bad cupcakes are like that, you might say. And you’d be right. But the vast majority of cupcakes are bad. Yes, I’m sure there are a number of NYC bakeries that have subtle, balanced, pleasant cupcakes to offer, but not to me, nor anyone else who avoids cross-contamination with nuts. At most bakeries—and at virtually all of the good ones—the chance of cross-contamination is just too high. And the few, few, few nut-free bakeries that do exist seem to have devoted all their attention to the whole nut-free thing, and not nearly enough to the whole, uh, what-are-we-actually-baking-and-what-does-it-taste-like-and-will-anyone-but-a-six-year-old-actually-enjoy-it thing.

So I don’t eat cupcakes. Or crave them, really. On occasion, I’ll think back to the cupcakes of my childhood—my pre-careful days, when I’d eat anything handed to me—with nostalgia. But I can count on that nostalgia’s tendency to evaporate the second I bite into one of those jarringly sweet cupcakes of my current life. Wherever they’re from, they all produce in me the same Series of Unfortunate Effects: tooth pain, then moderate annoyance, followed by reluctant admission that cupcakes are probably just one of those things that’s incredible in childhood, but perpetually underwhelming thereafter—like Six Flags, or Christmas.

A tray of cranberry-orange

Now that I’ve effectively stuck my tongue out at Big Cupcake—dedicated readers will probably know where I’m going with this, as I only have about six or seven blog-post formulas, and Hate-Treatise-as-Introduction tends to lead into a post filled with effusive praise—I’ll allow myself to get into what I’m really here to get into, which is, of course, Baked Cravings, a cupcake spot that opened its doors last month, up on the corner of 105th and Lex. (Like 106 and Park, but different.)

Really, this place is exceptional. It has so many qualities of note, and I’m itching to list them all. First and foremost, though, is its nut-free status. Each and every product sold at Baked Cravings—mostly cupcakes, for now—is truly, truly, truly nut-free. Here’s the bakery’s nut-free statement, reproduced in its entirety:

As fathers, Craig and Rui understand the severity of nut allergies. To create desserts accessible for children to enjoy in schools, Baked Cravings have dedicated themselves to build and maintain a nut-free facility. Using only the highest quality ingredients sourced from nut-free vendors, following strict packing processes and conducting regular tests to provide pastries for children to enjoy and parents to trust.

Bang.

(Nut-free facility, nut-free vendors, regular testing for the presence of allergens—there literally isn’t anything else I’d dream of asking for, so I felt a standalone “Bang.” was the most appropriate response. Seriously, though: This is model-worthy protocol, and I’m impressed.)

A close-up of a tray of cupcakes from Baked Cravings

But ignore, for a moment, everything but flavor. (And I do say this with the understanding that ignoring is not something we nut-allergic often get to do. Allergy-friendliness is the most important variable; anything else comes second, if it comes up at all—and I say this as self-appointed Queen of Making Excuses for Shitty Restaurants That Happen to be Able to Feed Me Safely.)

Ignore how cute the cupcakes are. Ignore that they’re reasonably priced, and ignore that they’re made with reasonable (i.e. “real”) ingredients. Ignore that the place is two blocks from the train. Ignore that the guys who run it are probably the nicest (and coolest) people I’ve met in my blog-related adventures—and ignore, too, that they’re obviously passionate about what they’re doing. Ignore the nut-free facility. Ignore the vendor-vetting. Ignore the allergen-testing. Ignore everything but taste of the goddamn cupcakes—the only thing that really matters (because we’re ignoring our allergies here, remember?)—and you’ll still be immensely pleased with Baked Cravings.

I am, at least. And I hate cupcakes. (See? Formulaic as Enfamil.)

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I first stopped by last week, after a (wonderful) lunch at Taco Mix. Stuffed with al pastor, and feeling as we do about cupcakes, neither Sam nor I was all that excited about all the sugar in store for us. But I have this silly blog to run, and Sam’s stomach might be an actual bottomless pit, so we soldiered on.

We didn’t regret it. We sampled seven cupcakes (red velvet, red velvet–strawberry, carrot, vanilla, chocolate, peach, and cranberry-orange), and we both loved nearly every single thing about every single one. The cakes are all absurdly moist—great on their own, even—and the frostings, though sweet, yes, are nowhere near as overbearing as, say, the ones you’ll find at Eleni’s. In fact, none of these frostings are unpleasant in the slightest: compared to most, they’re gentle and delicate, and instead of overpowering the cakes, they do a lovely job of enhancing them.

Red velvet was the first I went for, followed by red velvet–strawberry (standard red velvet, but with strawberry icing). The former, a classic, is just right: fairly chocolatey, with a sweet and tangy cream cheese frosting that’s surprisingly well-balanced. And the latter’s strawberry frosting tastes much more like strawberry + frosting than icky, artificial-tasting strawberry frosting. It’s light and subtle and so, so creamy—far creamier than it is sweet, which I assure you is a very, very good thing.

A peach cupcake from Baked Cravings

Peach, immediately above, is refreshingly real-fruity, too. Its cinnamon- and nutmeg-heavy cake is a little too pumpkin-spicy for me, but I absolutely love its frosting, which is made with bits of honest-to-goodness peach—and I feel the same about carrot, which has never been my favorite sort of cake, but which is topped with a sharp, tangy (cream cheese?) frosting that I can’t stop sticking my fingers in.

To my surprise, both the plain-olds—chocolate with chocolate frosting, and vanilla with vanilla frosting—are remarkably good, too. Faced with options like red velvet and peach, you’d think chocolate or vanilla would amount to throwaways. Not these, though. Chocolate’s deep, rich, and mousse-like, and vanilla…well, forgive me, but I’m going to go ahead and describe this one as the ideal type of the not-too-sweet vanilla cupcake I’ve been chasing since childhood. It’s just what I’ve been looking for in each and every nasty, cloying, piece-of-shit vanilla-flavored confection I’ve subjected myself to over the course of the last decade or so—the 21-year-old’s equivalent of the highlight of the 6-year-old’s day.

Finally, there’s cranberry-orange (pictured second above), the weirdest Baked Cravings offering, and probably my favorite, too. The cake, perhaps the least sweet of the bunch, makes me think “muffin” well before I think “cupcake,” but that’s not a complaint in the slightest. And though the cake isn’t identifiably orangey, it is dotted with chewy bits of cranberry—much more to my taste, anyway. On top, there’s marshmallow frosting, which sounds terrible, but which is actually delicious. It’s sweeter than the other frostings, but it’s not too sweet, and its added thickness makes its added sweetness worthwhile (and then some).

A tray of cupcakes from Baked Cravings

But I’ve gone on too long—half because I’m so excited about these cupcakes, and half because I decided I really couldn’t winnow out any more of these photos. I’ll wrap it up, though. For the greater good.

I’ll end, then, with this: We nut-allergic are usually confined to the bottom tier of the baked-goods world. Sometimes, we’ll find a company that lets us get in on something tolerable, and we’ll get excited. We’ll tell our friends and family, we’ll post the product to a Facebook group, we might even write a blog post about it—knowing full well it’s slop, but grateful for that slop nonetheless. (We’re expert bad-food apologists, after all.) Sometimes, though—very nearly never, actually—we’ll find a company that lets us try some of the good stuff. Not the good-for-a-nut-free-product stuff, but the real-deal good stuff.

That’s Baked Cravings. Baked Cravings, whose cupcakes actually manage to rival all that gourmet danger-food I so loved to eat as a child. That’s a huge compliment, and a two-fold one, too: I mean both that these cupcakes rival those high-end, nutty-bakery cupcakes I was comfortable eating as a less-careful child, and that these cupcakes actually manage to live up to the impossible cupcake-ideal I (and most children) formed in childhood. I can’t say the same about any other nut-free bakery’s, nor any store-bought brand’s. Truly, these are special.

Find Baked Cravings at 1673 Lexington Avenue, on the corner of 105th Street. For now, it’s mostly cupcakes—but I’m told there’s lots more in the works. So go forth. Please. These guys deserve the attention.

P.S. Eleni who?

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A Guide to Tree Nuts Made in Dedicated Facilities

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

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Los Mariscos

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

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

A sign po

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

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

Two shrimp tacos from Los Mariscos

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

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

A shrimp ceviche

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

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

ceviche

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

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

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