Better Bites Bakery

A Sun Better Cookie Dō Bite from Better Bites BakeryI don’t think I’m capable of walking into Whole Foods without discovering a new nut-free product. This time, it’s Better Bites Bakery’s Cookie Dō Bites, which are, according to their packaging, vegan, kosher, and they’re made in a dedicated facility that’s free of the top 8 allergens (milk, eggs, fish, shellfish, tree nuts, peanuts, wheat, and soybeans, for those of you keeping score at home).

Their other products—cakes, cake balls, standard cupcakes, and imitation Hostess CupCakes—are top 8–free, too (with the exception of coconut, which is used in a few of their products and which is classified by the FDA as a tree nut), even though they don’t quite look nut-free online. (Better Bites’s website is currently under construction, but if you poke around, you’ll see some photos of baked goods that clearly contain nuts—don’t worry, though. A representative assured me that those photos are, in fact, out of date, hence the site’s being under construction.)

I’ve only ever tried the Cookie Dō Bites—and only the Sunbetter (i.e. sunflower seed butter) ones, at that—but I sort of liked them…for what they are, at least. They come in plain (chocolate chip) and Snickerdoodle varieties, too, but given how much I like sunflower seeds, I had to go with the Sunbetter (and at $10 per small box, getting two was out of the question).

I ate one straight out of the fridge and was pretty disappointed. It was cold (duh), hard, and gritty, with a waxy chocolate coating and a very bland filling. I let the rest sit on the counter for a little while, though, and once they’d warmed up a bit, they were worlds better. The chocolate coating (that’s Enjoy Life chocolate, by the way) lost most of its waxiness, and the filling softened up and actually took on the texture of cookie dough, which was a relief. The SunButter flavor’s strong as hell, for sure—but I like SunButter, so it’s not as if that put me off.

Once they’d spent some time out of the fridge, I actually sort of began to enjoy those Cookie Dō Bites. It’s very rare that I like a product that’s free from so many allergens, so I suppose I have to give Better Bites some props for these. Now, that’s not to say that I’m ready to start eating Cookie Dō Bites on a regular basis—I’m not. They are top 8–free, and their taste (and especially their texture) do reflect that. But for what they are, they’re pretty good. (Except for the macron over the o in ; I want to know who decided the product’s name needed to be stylized that way.)

Anyway, if you’re interested, you can find Better Bites at Whole Foods. I picked my Cookie Dō Bites up at the new one in Williamsburg, but they should be available at the chain’s other locations, too. Beware, though: Better Bites’s pricing is downright absurd—like, $10-for-a-handful-of-cookie-dough absurd.

[Edit: Better Bites’s website is no longer under construction. Go forth. Frolic.]

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Carla Hall’s Southern Kitchen

A plate of fried chicken and cole slaw from Carla Hall's Southern Kitchen

In theory, I love fried chicken, but in practice, it almost always bores the hell out of me. It’s so one-note, so uneventful. And because it leaves so little room for innovation or fun of any sort, I inevitably get tired of the salty grease/greasy salt combo after, like, three bites of drumstick. Don’t get me wrong—I don’t dislike fried chicken. I just have a hard time buying into the hype. Consider me a fried chicken skeptic.

That said, I do eat a lot of the stuff, so I think I’m speaking from an informed-ish place when I say that the fried chicken at Carla Hall’s is damn good. But before I start going on about food, I should probably give a little background on this place.

Carla Hall’s Southern Kitchen, which opened this past summer, is a Nashville-style fast-casual fried chicken spot (exhale), owned by TV chef Carla Hall and her (business) partner Evan Darnell. Darnell’s daughter has a peanut allergy—which sucks, yeah, but which is also the reason that the kitchen at Carla Hall’s is 100% free of both peanuts and tree nuts. (You know, every cloud… and such.)

To be clear: they don’t actually call themselves nut-free, as a few of their pre-packaged desserts (made off-site) may contain nuts. But as I said, their kitchen is entirely nut-less, so all of their hot food is (theoretically) safe for those with nut allergies. Aside from those pre-packaged desserts, the only menu items not made in-house are the sweet potato rolls and the pullman loaves—which are easily avoided and relatively unimportant, anyway. So by any reasonable standard, Carla Hall’s truly is nut-free. (And if I haven’t already delivered enough good news: their house-made Buttermilk Soft Serve is safe, and they carry Skippers, Mini Twists, and Pretzel Caramel Bark from Vermont Nut Free, too.

Mason jars lining the walls of

By the way: the restaurant itself is adorable. It’s teeny-tiny and forever-crowded, but it’s charming, too, in a kitschy sort of way. The walls are covered with photos, recipes, and Nashville-themed bells and whistles…and, um, an orange Croc that appears to be autographed by Mario Batali. (I can never read the signature, but Batali lives in NYC, and he’s one of Hall’s co-hosts on The Chew. Plus, there’s no one else in the entire universe with such an allegiance to orange Crocs, so. Likely.)

What’s more, the staff is, for the most part, incredibly friendly—usually, they’ll go out of their way to make sure you’re really being taken care of—and most nights, Carla Hall herself graces the dining room, speaking with customers and posing for pictures with the patience and good spirit of an actual saint. (Also, I can’t be sure, but I’m relatively sure she has supernatural powers. I’ve never seen her leave or enter the room; she sort of just materializes, disappears, and repeats. It’s impressive.)

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But what’s really important—especially once you’ve made your way to Red Hook and waited 15 to 20 minutes for your order—is the food, and the food at Carla Hall’s is straight-up delicious. The chicken comes in six heat levels, from Southern (no sauce) to Boomshakalaka (hot enough that the staff feel it necessary to ring a bell and yell “boomshakalaka!” in unison every time someone orders the hottest chicken—and hot enough that I see most Boomshakalaka-eaters go from bravado and machismo to tears and sniffles in, like, two bites), and though I’ve only ever asked for my chicken sauceless, I’m pretty confident in saying that it’s really (really) good.

The skin, always just crispy enough, is satisfying and salty (though not too salty, as the vast majority of fried chicken is), and the meat’s nice and moist, too. There are no funky tastes, chewy bits, or dry patches; it’s just simple, tasty fried chicken, with a few high-quality pickle slices on top. Like all fried chicken, though, it’s very greasy—but that’s not much of a problem, because a side of their Tangy Cole Slaw does a lovely job of cutting through that grease.

The Sweet & Yukon Gold Potato Salad isn’t my favorite—I hate sweet potatoes—but it’s a formidable grease-cutter, too. The rest of the sides (Baked Mac n’ Cheese, Collards n’ Pot Likker, and Candied Yams) probably won’t perform the same duty, but they’re viable (and classic) options nonetheless. Oh, and before I forget to mention this: the cornbread is fantastic, especially when it’s still hot enough to melt the little pat of butter that comes with it. So good—and definitely better than the biscuits, which are usually room-temperature and a bit rubbery.

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Of course, there’s dessert, too: Vermont Nut Free chocolates and Buttermilk Soft Serve, as I mentioned above. (The rest, as far as I know, aren’t necessarily nut allergy–safe, but that’s all right. At least there are options for us, right?) The soft serve calls to me me, but I haven’t yet gotten a chance to try it—either they’ve been out of the necessary ingredients, or I’ve ended up finishing my meal past closing time, when the register’s already been cashed out—but I have a feeling I’ll love it. One day.

[Edit: I’ve since tried the soft serve, and it’s absurdly good. It’s a small portion for $5, but I don’t even care, because honestly, it’s incredible. It’s really thick and creamy—much thicker and creamier than most soft serve, fortunately—but its tanginess is what really makes it stand out. It’s like what frozen yogurt would be like if frozen yogurt didn’t always taste so low-fat—in other words: perfect.]

I do have plenty of experience with Vermont Nut Free, though. Their chocolate’s great—way, way better than, say, Hershey’s or Nestlé’s—and there’s a certain sense of pleasure that comes with supporting a nut-free company, too. The Mini Twists (i.e. chocolate-covered pretzels) are usually great, as is the Pretzel Caramel Bark—though I should say that both are noticeably less fresh when purchased at Carla Hall’s than when ordered directly from Vermont Nut Free. Makes sense, but still. The convenience is nice, but the mark-up’s absurd, especially for stale-ish pretzels.

A jar of nut-free Vermont Nut Free Skippers at Carla Hall's Southern Kitchen

In any case, I really, really like Carla Hall’s. This city has so few truly nut-free restaurants, and even fewer that I can recommend without a whole bunch of disclaimers—but Carla Hall’s is totally endorsable, sans caveats, and I’d recommend a visit to anyone in the mood for a good plate of fried chicken, nut-allergic or not.

Find it at 115 Columbia Street, between Kane and Baltic. (Do yourself a favor and drive there. Alternatively, walk from the F or G station on Bergen Street, or figure out how the hell to get on the B61, and take it to the Columbia and Baltic stop, which is, like, 50 paces from Carla Hall’s.)

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Chipotle Mexican Grill

chipotle

For around three years of my life, I ate at Chipotle with absurd frequency. Part of the reason why was that it was one of the only safe restaurants I was aware of, and I felt (and still feel) entirely comfortable eating there—but I also just liked the food. A lot. It was my go-to lunch, my go-to after-school “snack,” and my go-to travel food. Once, I spent two weeks in Michigan and ate at Chipotle for almost every single meal, breakfasts included. I’m past that stage now—I’m way less phobic about eating out with my allergy, at least—but I just realized that I’d never written about Chipotle, so I figured I should.

For those with nut allergies, Chipotle’s a pretty safe option. According to this page on their website, there are no (intentional) eggs, mustard, peanuts, tree nuts, sesame, shellfish, or fish in any of Chipotle’s food. (Of course, they don’t guarantee that their food is 100% free from trace amounts of any of the above, but a lack of nuts on-site is generally good enough for me.) Plus, if you’re into Food with Integrity, Chipotle has you covered; their meat comes from pasture-raised animals, and they’re very into their commitment to “real” (i.e. farm-sourced, organic, and/or non-GMO) ingredients.

But enough about all that. (Seriously. Enough.) For me—and for most, I assume—Chipotle’s real appeal lies in its unusual mix of ubiquity and food quality. These days, Chipotle is about as common as McDonald’s (not really, though it does often feel that way; McDonald’s has, like, 36,000 locations to Chipotle’s 2,000-ish). But Chipotle’s food is actually pretty good, which is practically unheard of for a chain of its size. It’s omnipresent enough to be dependable, but it won’t leave you feeling sick. And that is why I spent so long eating so much Chipotle.

I should probably explain, then, why I’ve slowed my Chipotle consumption to a measly once a month, if that.

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It all started with Chipotle’s 2015 E. coli outbreak—but it’s not what you think. I never got sick from their food, nor did I stop eating there out of fear of falling ill. But after the outbreak (which followed outbreaks of norovirus and Salmonella, and which did a lot to sully Chipotle’s wholesome image), the chain made a bunch of changes in the name of safety.

Among those changes was a shift to the use of central kitchens to allow for frequent ingredient-testing. Cheese now arrives pre-shredded, a bunch of ingredients (tomatoes, lettuce, cilantro, peppers, etc.) now arrive pre-chopped, and steak now arrives pre-cooked. Onions don’t arrive pre-chopped, but they’re now blanched before use, along with lemons, limes, jalapeños, and avocados—and all of the above (aside from lemons and limes) are now marinated in citrus juice before they’re used in anything else.

Now, none of those changes have made much of a difference—except for the switch to pre-cooked steak, which is the sole reason I’ve become so disillusioned. Chipotle offers six protein bases: steak, carnitas, chicken, barbacoa, chorizo, and sofritas. I’ve only ever been able to get into the steak, and I’ve always been silently skeptical of anyone who swears by any of the other options. The carnitas are bland, and both they and the barbacoa are mushy as hell. The chicken’s dry, and the chorizo might as well be ground chicken, flavor-wise. Sofritas are vegetarian, and I’m heavy into meat. That’s left me with steak.

I never minded, though. I loved the steak, in all its medium-rare glory. On a good day, it was juicy, soft, and bursting with flavor—never dry, never crusty, and hardly ever overcooked. Now, the steak is cooked sous-vide, cooled, and then shipped to Chipotles everywhere for marinating and further cooking on the grill, and for whatever reason, this process never seems to end well. These days, Chipotle’s steak is almost always dry, tough, and bland. On its best days, it’s just a little overcooked—but usually, it’s inedible.

A steak burrito bowl from Chipotle

Before the outbreak, I had my order down pat: a steak burrito with white rice, fajita vegetables, chili-corn salsa, sour cream, cheese, and lettuce—or a bowl with the same ingredients, with their (free!) honey vinaigrette drizzled on top and a (free!) warm tortilla on the side. But without good steak, my order falls apart. I tried switching to carnitas. I tried switching to chicken. When they introduced chorizo, I tried switching to chorizo—but it just wasn’t happening, so I gave up. Perhaps the steak will improve. Perhaps the grillers will get used to grilling pre-cooked steak, and perhaps it’ll start tasting better.

In the meantime, Chipotle has done a lot to un-tarnish its reputation. They’ve given out free burritos, introduced a summer rewards program (Chiptopia), and released an animated short—but if you ask me (and why would you?), their customer base, fickle as any other, will have no reason to return until the food’s good again. For me, at least, it isn’t about E. coli; it’s about the food, and the food’s demonstrably worse.

But even if the steak never gets better, I’ll probably never get fully clean. Chipotle’s too big, too easy, too dependable for me to remove it from my repertoire. So I guess I’ll just continue to eat their food on occasion, taking every chance I get to talk about my dissatisfaction with their new steak, promising myself, with fresh conviction each time, that this will be my last Chipotle meal, that I won’t be back.

But let’s not kid ourselves.

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Fancypants Baking Co.

Fancypants chocolate chip cookies

I’m forever bitter that I can’t (well, shouldn’t) eat Tate’s, so I’m forever searching for an allergy-friendly alternative. Store-bought cookies suck, though, and the ones that don’t are almost always made in facilities that handle nuts. (For some reason, nearly every bakery worth its sugar is filled to the brim with nuts. Life’s bad, I tell you. Bad.)

But Fancypants, stupid name aside, is one of those rare bakeries that’s both (a) decent and (b) totally, 100% nut-free. Their cookies taste way too good to be free from cross-contamination, but they most definitely are—and deliberately so, at that. According to their packaging (and website), both their crunch cookies and their hand-decorated cookies are made in a dedicated peanut-and tree nut–free facility. Nice.

I can’t speak to their hand-decorated cookies (I’ve never tried them, and I probably never will, as $4+ is not a price I’m willing to pay for a single frosted sugar cookie), but I can say that their crunch cookies (sorry, their Non-GMO Project Verified Crunch Cookies) are straight-up delicious. They come in a bunch of varieties—chocolate chip, double chocolate, brown sugar oatmeal, vanilla bean, and gingersnap—and so far, every one I’ve tried has been great.

I’m particularly into the brown sugar oatmeal—I’m a sucker for most oatmeal cookies, really—but the chocolate chip (pictured above) is good, too. Both are crisp and buttery, and neither is too sweet, which is a welcome relief in the world of allergy-friendly cookies. (Imagine the polar opposite of Lofthouse‘s gummy-ass sugar cookies; that’s sort of what Fancypants’s crunch cookies are like.)

There isn’t much more to say (a tasty cookie’s a tasty cookie), other than this: It’s not often I find a brand that’s only nut-free, so when I do, I tend to get pretty excited. I’m allergic to nuts, not gluten, dairy, or eggs—so it’s not as if my cookies have to suffer. They just…tend to. But with Fancypants, there’s no suffering involved. That’s why I’m a fan.

Find Fancypants products at Whole Foods, Stop & Shop, Fairway, Union Market, Gourmet Garage, and probably a whole bunch of other stores, too.

[By the way: My semester’s officially started, so I’m finding myself with far less time on my hands to find foods and, you know, photograph/write about them. My posts are going to slow accordingly—only by a bit, though. Bear with me.]

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Sticky’s Finger Joint

Chicken poppers

Something about the name of this place gives me the willies. I think it’s how similar it sounds to “sticky finger joint,” which makes me think of a 5-year-old’s slobbery, paste-covered knuckle. But I digress. Name aside, Sticky’s is a solid restaurant with some solid chicken, and even I wouldn’t be so absurd as to stay away based on the name alone.

Truthfully, the reason I stayed away for so long was because I found it hard to justify going out of my way for a serving of plain old chicken fingers. But once I finally got around to giving their food a try, it was clear that there would be no turning back. Sticky’s is good.

Last semester, when I was looking to collect some new places to grab lunch between classes, I sent an email to Sticky’s with a few questions about their handling of allergens. The response I received was as follows: “All Sticky‘s Finger Joint Locations are completely nut free. So, to answer all of your questions Sticky‘s is safe to eat for anyone with any type of nut allergy!” No details, no direct responses—but you know what? That’s a one-size answer I can get behind.

Now, I can’t categorize Sticky’s as “truly nut-free,” as I haven’t gotten any indication that they require their ingredients to all be free from potential cross-contamination, but I feel 100% comfortable eating there. You may not—and that’s fine—but I’d say the place is worth a look, at the very least.

For such a simple spot, their menu‘s pretty big. Chicken fingers, chicken poppers, and fries all come with a bunch of different combinations of seasonings—and Sticky’s offers 19 homemade sauces, too. My favorite, because I’m boring, is the Sassy BBQ, but there’s no sense in pretending there’s a best or a worst. You’ll just have to figure out your ranking on your own.

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As sides go, I’m partial to the Truffle Parm Fries (pictured in both photos above). They’re not all that truffle-y, but they’re certainly covered in parmesan, and the fries themselves are crispy on the outside and soft on the inside, just as fries should be. (Seriously, they’re perfect. These are some of the best fries you’ll find at this price point—and with about a trillion seasonings to choose from, too.) I also like the Pot Pie Fries, though I could definitely do without the shredded carrots. (Also: “Grandma’s Gravy” bears no resemblance whatsoever to any sort of gravy I’ve ever seen, but it sure is tasty.)

With their chicken, it’s hard to go wrong. Their fingers and poppers are some of the best of their kind—as they should be at any store that specializes in such a simple preparation of chicken. The poppers (also pictured twice above) are particularly good—they’re incredibly moist and tender, with a nice, crispy exterior—and though they’re a little bland, they never fail to please me. (A tip, though: The chicken doesn’t keep or travel well. A 10-minute walk to Washington Square Park—or, God forbid, a bicycle ride to my apartment—turns Sticky’s into a very mediocre meal indeed.)

In all, though, Sticky’s is great spot to grab a quick (and cheap!) lunch, and I highly recommend stopping by, whether or not you’ve been tasked with avoiding nuts. At the very, very least…well, it sure beats McDonald’s.

Sticky’s has three locations: one in Murray Hill (484 Third Ave), one in Greenwich Village (31 West 8th Street), and one in Hell’s Kitchen (598 9th Ave). All three deliver, and their food’s available on most third-party delivery sites, too. Just make sure to get your sauce on the side, because soggy fries—especially those that would otherwise be perfect—are even worse than sticky child-fingers.

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Koffee Kup Bakery

A lemon zest donut from Koffee Kup Bakery

A few weeks ago, I was wandering around Staten Island (don’t ask) when I happened upon a Top Tomato, a supermarket chain that…exists, apparently. I spent a few minutes exploring its aisles, underwhelmed as could be—until I spotted a familiar anthropomorphic cruller, one of which I’d often seen photos in a few of the six trillion godforsaken food allergy forums I frequent.

That thick-eyebrowed, boot-donning cruller is the logo for Koffee Kup, an allergy-friendly bakery based in Vermont. According to Koffee Kup’s allergen statement, none of their products contain any tree nuts or peanuts, which means they should be produced in a nut-free environment. To be sure, though, I sent them an email, to which I received the following response: “While we do not have tree nuts in the plant, we have not yet a full nut free policy for the entire building, so we may have some employee in the breakroom or the like with some.”

Standard, really—and good enough for me. Onwards, then.

Koffee Kup’s donuts come in a whole bunch of flavors: buttermilk, jelly, glazed, powdered, apple cider, devil’s food chocolate, bran and honey, lemon zest, orange, plain…and probably a bunch more, too, because a few of the ones I just mentioned aren’t even mentioned on Koffee Kup’s website. The day I came across them, I picked up a box of the lemon zest donuts (sue me—it was that or orange), and to my surprise, they were actually all right.

A box of Koffee Kup's lemon zest donuts

I have poor self-control, so I dug in right then and there—in the parking lot of Top Goddamn Tomato—and for the first third of my first donut, I was in love. They’re cakey, but not dry (in fact, the texture’s near-perfect), and the flavor’s nice and lemony (though a little too reminiscent of a bowl of Fruit Loops). Two bites later, though, all the sugar in that thing must’ve caught up to me, and I couldn’t go on. That’s one sweet donut…and I say that as someone who’s usually into absurd amounts of sugar. Maybe it was the sun, but yeesh. I wanted to throw up.

I’ve never once learned a lesson, though, so 10 minutes later, there I was, eating another stupid-ass lemon zest donut in the oppressive Staten Island heat. Honestly, though, I feel like these donuts would actually be pretty good in the hands of someone more responsible (read: someone who (a) actually maintains control of his or her portion size, (b) keeps a drink on hand, and (c) knows to avoid the ever-cloying lemon zest flavor).

In any case: a few days later, I found a box of Koffee Kup’s devil’s food chocolate donuts at Stop & Shop, and as I suspected, they’re a lot better than the lemon zest version. They’re incredibly sweet, too, but they’re not Fruit Loopy in the slightest, nor did they leave me wanting to vomit—in fact, I genuinely liked them. Score. (I did eat them indoors, though. In my air-conditioned apartment, with water nearby. Important variables, probably—and ones I’ll need to report to the scientific community, no doubt. Bullshit aside, though: these are some tasty store-bought donuts.)

Variables aside, I took the devil’s food donuts as a good sign, and I’m now in the process of tracking down a few of Koffee Kup’s other flavors. If you, too, are interested, consider heading over to Stop & Shop…or Top Tomato, of course. Other than those two, though, I have no idea where to find these donuts. Good luck.

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Taco Mix

A tripe taco from Taco Mix

Yeah, yeah, yeah. Another nut-free taco place. This time, it’s Taco Mix in East Harlem—and this time, the tacos are undoubtedly worth a special trip.

I’ve been enamored with tacos al pastor since Los Tacos No. 1 won me over a few months ago. But I hate going Chelsea Market, and as much as I love Los Tacos, I’m sure there’s even better al pastor out there. In an attempt to find some, I did some research (read: I Googled “best al pastor in NYC”), and that’s how I found Taco Mix. I’d never heard of it, but apparently, it’s a neighborhood favorite that serves up some of the city’s best al pastor—so of course, I had to look into it.

I didn’t see anything iffy, nut-wise, on Taco Mix’s menu, so I figured I had pretty good shot at being able to eat what Robert Sietsema had called “the best al pastor taco in town.” Sure enough, it was good news all around when I called: Taco Mix doesn’t use any nuts or nut products in any of their cooking, and they’re open until 5am. And with that, I was on my way.

Tacos al pastor from Taco Mix

Google describes Taco Mix as a “snug” and “no-frills,” which is apparently code for “there’s a counter to eat at, but standing room is minimal—oh, and there’s a single table, but it’s always taken, so don’t get your hopes up.” Around dinnertime, it’s always crowded, and I imagine the same is true of lunchtime, too. Everyone moves at full tilt, speaks Spanish, and knows exactly what they want—and you’ll be expected to be in and out pretty quickly, because there’s no room to loiter. (Do I sound like I’m complaining? I’m not. Spoiler: I love this place.)

The first time I went, I tried way too many tacos: al pastor, carnitas, pork ear, beef tripe, beef tongue, and carnitas. (Almost) all were good, but the al pastor (pictured immediately above) was my favorite, by far. The pork, soft and juicy, was on par with that at Los Tacos—a high compliment—and there was plenty of pineapple, which I really appreciated. Plus, the taco wasn’t spicy in the slightest; at Taco Mix, the salsas are do-it-yourself, and I was glad to have 100% control over the heat level of my food. I used plenty of their sorta-hot avocado verde, and with its addition, the al pastor was absolutely perfect.

The carnitas and the tripe were tied for second place, with the tongue coming in third and the pork stomach a distant, distant fourth. The carnitas had a stronger pork flavor than I’ve come to expect, and the crispy bits could’ve been crisper, but it was pretty good nonetheless. (I prefer the carnitas at Otto’s Tacos, but still.) The tripe (pictured at the top of this post) was very crispy—too crispy, even—and so salty that it had me reaching for my drink every few bites, but I didn’t dislike it. In fact, when I smothered it in the avocado verde, it was actually pretty great. (Heads up: There’s very little that doesn’t taste good once it’s been topped with that lovely, lovely salsa.)

The tongue taco was all right, but I couldn’t deny that the meat itself tasted like a mushier, less flavorful version of carne asada. By then, though, I knew the drill: salsa, and lots of it, would probably save the thing—and it did. So I wouldn’t order the tongue again, but it isn’t as if I minded eating it. (Mostly, it made me wish I’d just gotten another al pastor. I’ve since learned, though.)

Unfortunately, the pork ears (pictured below) were beyond saving. I’d never eaten a pork ear before, so I had no standard to which I might’ve compared this taco—it could’ve been incredible, as far as ears go—but I can say with confidence that I hated it. Slimy and gelatinous, the ears were just very unpleasant to have in my mouth, and Sam and I together couldn’t make it through the single taco we’d ordered. Honesty, though, we hardly cared; we had plenty of other (less slimy) tacos to distract us.

A pork ear taco from Taco Mix

Anyway, I should probably stop with the play-by-plays. I really like Taco Mix, though—enough that I don’t even mind making the way-too-many-stops-on-the-6-train trek to 116th street. I like their meats, their tortillas, their salsas (well, the one I can handle), and pretty much everything else I’ve eaten of theirs, too. Even the chimichangas are decent—and chimichangas are one gross creation, if you ask me. And they stock, like, 80% of the Jarritos flavors. What more can I ask for?

Nothing. Taco Mix just doesn’t leave me wanting for anything. My official recommendation is to get your ass up there, order some tacos al pastor (…and maybe a few more things—their menu isn’t small), squirt some salsa on there, and then devour everything on the go.

Seriously: Go. You won’t regret it.

Find Taco Mix at 234 East 116th Street, between 2nd and 3rd.

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Frankel’s Delicatessen & Appetizing

The #3 specialty combo from Frankel's Delicatessen

My dad is notoriously terrible at handling my allergies. He’s convinced he can determine with a glance whether a pastry contains nuts, and he has a habit of insisting that restaurants are nut-free based on nothing more than his own intuition. It’d be one thing if he had some sort of inexplicably high success rate with these things, but he doesn’t, so I’ve learned to ignore his suggestions—or at least to be sure to thoroughly vet them myself.

That said, he was onto something when he suggested Frankel’s, a Greenpoint delicatessen that opened this past spring. The folks at Frankel’s—the Frankel brothers, rather—don’t cook with nuts, meaning there are no nuts or nut products in their kitchen. Their pastries are supplied by Green’s and their bagels by Baz; plus, they sell Utz and Zapp’s chips, which are both made in a nut-free facility. Knowing all that, one might start to get the idea that Frankel’s is intentionally nut-free—but it isn’t, as far as I know. [Edit: Actually, it is. See the edit below.]

Their rye bread (supplied by Rockland Bakerydoes come with a “may contain” warning, but the matter isn’t so simple. I’ve actually been told by Rockland’s Food Safety Manager that the rye is made in a nut-free facility—but I can’t be sure, as the information I’ve gotten from Rockland has been inconsistent, to say the least. Katz’s Delicatessen uses Rockland’s rye, too—so rather than re-spieling, I’ll just direct you to the first few paragraphs of my post on Katz’s.

I’ve eaten Rockland’s rye at Katz’s and at Frankel’s countless times without issue, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you should follow my lead. Use your own discretion, obviously—and if you aren’t comfortable with Frankel’s rye, the good news is that it’s easy enough to avoid, as you can order pretty much anything you want on a bagel. (As bread goes, Frankel’s also offers rolls and challah, but both are supplied by Amy’s Bread, which is not an allergy-friendly company, so I’ll just stick to recommending the bagels—and maybe the rye, depending on whom at Rockland you trust).

And while I’m ironing out allergen information, I should probably mention that Frankel’s gets their fish from Acme Smoked Fish (who don’t use have any nuts in their New York facility), and that they get some of their meats from a nearby warehouse that they don’t seem to want to name. It doesn’t seem as though they do all that much in-house, which costs them a few points on the allergy-friendliness scale—but really, whaddya gonna do? I’ve eaten at Frankel’s without issue quite a few times now, and I feel it’s worth a post, at the very least. Your standards may differ, and that’s fine. This is my blog, after all.

[Edit: A week or two after publishing this post, I received an email from someone who identified herself as a part of the Frankel’s team, saying that Frankel’s is, indeed, intentionally nut-free. Evidently, their executive chef, Ashley Berman, is allergic to peanuts—and while she isn’t allergic to tree nuts, the folks at Frankel’s evidently do their best to maintain an environment that’s 100% nut-free. (Apparently, Berman has worked with Amy’s Bread for years, and she’s comfortable with their handling of allergens. When it comes to breads, though, peanuts are certainly much easier to avoid than tree nuts—so do with that information what you will.) Good news nonetheless, though. I had a feeling something was up!]

Pastrami, egg, and cheese on a plain bagel from Frankel's Delicatessen

You know, for a Food Allergy Blogger™, I have an unusual amount of hatred for blogging about food allergies. Spelling out allergen information isn’t any fun; I much prefer eating and/or talking—writing—about eating. Onto the fun part, then.

The menu at Frankel’s is small and simple, but that doesn’t make it any easier to decide on what to order. I’m not the biggest fan of Baz’s bagels—I wrote some nice things about them back in June, but I’ve since come out of my bagel-deprived stupor and realized that theirs are rather underwhelming, to say the least—but the idea of a Frankel’s bagel sandwich had me drooling nonetheless. (Perhaps a Baz bagel would fare better out of Baz’s hands. That was my hope, at least.) Why stop at bagels, though? Frankel’s has all the classic sandwiches—pastrami, corned beef, Reubens, roast turkey, salami, chopped liver, and brisket—as well as breakfast sandwiches, hot dogs, and latkes. How was I ever supposed to make up my mind?

The first time I went, I ordered a #2 specialty combo (Nova lox, Nova spread, and salmon roe on a bagel), and to be honest, I wasn’t impressed. It wasn’t bad, but it was no different than anything I could’ve gotten at Baz, which isn’t exactly a compliment. The lox was fine, but the salmon roe wasn’t the best, nor was there very much of it—and the sandwich was made with regular cream cheese rather than Nova spread. Oops.

There was no way in hell I was giving up that quickly, though. Far sooner than I’d like to admit, I returned to Frankel’s with Sam in tow, and that time, I was able to sample a little more widely. We split two sandwiches: the #3 specialty combo (Irish organic salmon, whitefish salad, capers, onion, tomato), and the pastrami, egg, and cheese.

Now, the #3 (pictured at the top of this post) was good, but it didn’t exactly leave me wishing for another. Perhaps it would’ve, though, if the ever-important bagel itself had been good, because the whitefish salad was perfect, the onion was cut into super-thin slices that actually made sense in the context of the sandwich (for some reason, this is rare), and the tomato was fresh and flavorful. The bagel itself really left me wanting, though. Baz’s aren’t the slightest bit fluffy, and for some reason, they never taste all that fresh. It’s a shame, because the #3 was otherwise solid.

The pastrami, egg, and cheese (pictured second above, in Sam’s clutches) is another story, though. That thing never fails to make my day, no matter how many times I order it. The egg—which is actually good on its own, unlike that you’ll find in your average bodega sandwich—is absolutely smothered with melted cheese, and the pastrami is peppery, fatty, and tender as can be. The sandwich as a whole is the very definition of “melt in your mouth,” and its contents are so good that they actually manage to make up for that boring-ass Baz bagel. Seriously: Forget about bacon. Pastrami is definitely the superior meat.

frankels

The pastrami, egg, and cheese may be my favorite Frankel’s offering—if we aren’t counting their specials, that is. If we are, though, I might have to go with the heirloom tomato ordeal I had a few weeks ago (immediately above, in an iPhone photo, as I was without my camera that day). It was simple—an open-face bagel topped with tomato, basil, chives, olive oil, and just enough cream cheese—but it was surprisingly tasty.

The tomato, thick cut and actually flavorful, was one of those magnificent treasure-tomatoes you’ll only find at the farmers’ market, and the olive oil, while nothing special in itself, brought the whole creation together wonderfully. God, it was good. I wish it weren’t just a special—but I also don’t, because out-of-season tomatoes suck. (Take note, Baz.)

But don’t get me wrong: I like their simpler sandwiches, too—they just don’t excite me as much as the ones I mentioned above. The brisket (pictured below—on rye, though it usually comes on Amy’s challah) is actually made in-house with Grandma Frankel’s recipe in mind, and it’s really goddamn tasty, if a bit too sweet. Plus, the bread comes griddled, which originally went a very long way in winning me over. And though the sandwich as a whole is a little one-note, it certainly makes for a satisfying meal.

IMG_5612

The pastrami and corned beef—while certainly nowhere near as good as anything you’ll find at Katz’s—are decent, too, though I’m not sure I’d order either again. On its own, the pastrami’s on the bland side. What flavor it does have is a bit too hot-doggy for me, but it’s thick-cut, fatty, and, um…present in large quantities, so there’s only so much complaining I can do. The corned beef’s a little worse, though; it just comes off as a fattier version of ham, without anywhere near enough of that signature corned beef tang. Oh well.

Anyway, Frankel’s is a neat little place…despite the fact that they don’t seem to do much of anything. I only wish it were more accessible by train. (The G’s your best bet, though it’s certainly possible to walk over from the L—until it stops running, that is.) Find it at 631 Manhattan Avenue, between Bedford and Nassau.

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Sushi Azabu

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It’s not often I get to eat like I ate at Sushi Azabu. For one, this restaurant is well out of my price range. To me, an expensive meal is any one that threatens to hit the $30 mark, and with omakase is priced at $100, $150, or $180 per person, Azabu is far past the point of threatening. Don’t get me wrong; I can definitely appreciate a high-quality meal. I’m not one to immediately cry “overpriced!” at anything that veers toward costliness. It’s just that I can’t afford to eat this way unless someone else is footing the bill (thanks, Dad).

A few months ago, in a fit of bitterness, I went through the menus of every single one of this city’s Michelin-starred restaurants, mostly in an attempt to prove to myself that fine dining can be nut-free. I had very little success—I ended up eliminating nearly every single restaurant before even reaching my call-and-double-check stage—but one of the few restaurants that made it through was Sushi Azabu, a one-star sushi bar on the edge of Tribeca.

Their menu looks nut-less, but there’s plenty of room for nuts to sneak in under listings like “2 kinds of starter” or “dessert,” so I called to double-check. The hostess, who was very friendly and very competent, explained that while there are no nuts currently used in Azabu’s food, there are nuts stored in their kitchen. She assured me that the nuts aren’t really handled, though, and that I didn’t really have much reason to worry, especially if I was planning on eating from the sushi bar. (Of course, I’d recommend double-checking on the whole nut situation before eating at Azabu, because I’m sure it’s subject to change.)

When Sam and I got there, the hostess confirmed that I was the one with the nut allergy—I hadn’t even had to remind her. She led us to the end of the sushi bar, took our orders, and then asked if we had any special requests beyond the whole no-nuts thing before relaying all the relevant information (in Japanese) to the sushi chef. Truly, I felt taken care of—she was just as helpful in the restaurant as she had been on the phone, and if I’d had any worries beforehand, they were gone by the time she and I were done speaking.

[By the way, Azabu is a very small and very quiet restaurant. Only an (a) jackass or (b) Actual Important Restaurant Critic™ would be comfortable subjecting the other diners to a shutter sound over and over and over and over, and (I hope) I’m neither, so I left my camera at home. The photo at the top of this post, though I wish it were mine, is from The Greenwich Hotel’s website. I’ve included a few of my own iPhone photos at the end of this post, but those are all I have. Find a few better ones here and here.]

Anyway, food. Sam and I ordered the less expensive of the two Chef’s Omakase options. For $150, we each got got two starters, an assortment of seasonal sashimi, an uni tasting, a grilled crab dish, an assortment of sushi, miso soup, and dessert. (At $180, the other Chef’s Omakase also includes a toro tasting.)

First came the starters: fluke topped with uni, and a piece of Japanese eggplant topped with seared fatty tuna. Both were great, but I particularly liked the tuna, because…well, it was seared fatty tuna. Do I really need to explain? The eggplant was a little too slimy for me, but I appreciated its flavor nonetheless, and it did go well with the tuna, so I couldn’t really complain. And the fluke and uni were both great—I’m a sucker for any (decent) uni, really, but that serving was particularly tasty, and I couldn’t wait for the rest that’d be coming my way.

Next was the sashimi: octopus, abalone, fluke, medium fatty tuna, sweet shrimp, and lean tuna. Both pieces of tuna were straight-up delicious; the fatty tuna melted in my mouth, as fatty tuna does, and the lean tuna, topped with a speck of scallion, was one of the best pieces of lean tuna I’ve ever eaten. Seriously: That thing blew me away, and if my eyes had been closed, I wouldn’t have known it was lean. I liked the sweet shrimp, too—it didn’t have any of that that sea flavor that I so hate—but the octopus was a little boring, and the abalone was way too tough and clammy (that’s clam-flavored, not damp) for me.

After the sashimi came the uni tasting, which I’d been looking forward to since the very first moment I laid eyes on Azabu’s menu. We were each given two types of uni, both from Hokkaido: one from the North, and one from the East. Sam and I both preferred the former—it was a little creamier—but both were great, and my only complaint was that there wasn’t more. For some reason, I’d imagined the uni tasting to consist of, like, three or four varieties, but you know what? These two were certainly good enough to satisfy me.

The grilled king crab came next, and honestly, it impressed the hell out of me. The meat was sweet and briny, and it came in a half-shell, so I didn’t have to fight to get at it. (What can I say? I’m lazy.) The best part, though, was the crab miso sauce, which was sweet, salty, and almost a little buttery. It complemented the meat wonderfully, but it was great on its own, too—and it was all I could do to keep myself from licking up the bits that’d spilled. (Sue me.)

And then…and then…it was time for the sushi. We had, in order: squid, salmon, lean tuna, medium fatty tuna, scallop, bonito, ikura, a mystery fish whose name I didn’t quite catch, sweet shrimp, uni, and eel—and a tuna, oshinko, and shiso roll, too. The scallop was dense and boring, and the shrimp was a little too bitter, but everything else was downright incredible. Both pieces of tuna all but dissolved on my tongue, and the salmon—usually a pretty boring fish—was some of the best I’ve had in a while. The squid stood out, too—it was perhaps the most tender piece of squid I’ve ever had—and the uni was just as good as the better of the two from the sampling.

The roll was the last of the sushi selection, and it was a lovely way to end that portion of the meal. I love tuna, I love oshinko, and I love shiso, so it was no surprise that I went a little crazy over that roll. Its flavors and textures just worked so well together…ugh. I was full enough, but I could’ve used, like, fifteen more pieces of that thing.

A few minutes later, after we’d downed some unusually good miso soup, our chef asked us whether there was anything else we’d like to order, or if we’d rather just proceed to dessert. Now, I’d been wanting to eat some near-raw wagyu for a while—I’m not kidding; it was an actual craving of mine—so we went for it: two pieces of torched wagyu sushi, please.

It. Was. So. Good. For real: It was all I’d dreamed of. It started out tender and greasy—almost like a good steak—but as I got past the torched exterior, it got chewier, sweeter and…er, bloodier-tasting. The rawest parts tasted just like the smell of the butcher section at my local Whole Foods: a smell that never fails to make me want to eat a pile of raw beef. (The way I’m describing this is probably making me come off as a total weirdo. Maybe I am, but trust me, the wagyu was damn good.)

After we finished fawning over the wagyu, and after the chef confirmed that we were satisfied with our meal, the hostess brought out our dessert. “Mango sorbet, no nuts,” she said—without having been asked (!!!)—as she placed our bowls in front of us. I’d been a bit worried about dessert, but the fact that she seemed to have taken it upon herself to double-check made me feel comfortable enough to dig in, and so I did. The sorbet was good (though it was nothing in comparison to the meal we’d just had), but I could’ve sworn it was Häagen-Dazs. Maybe not. I don’t know. But I would’ve bet on it.

…And then, just like that, it was over.

It ended too soon, but it really was a great experience. The service was impeccable, the food bordered on perfect, and the atmosphere was calm and pleasant (despite the couple next to me, who spent the entire meal trying to perform for an audience that didn’t give a third of a shit about them). I’d love to go back, but it’ll probably be a while. Until then, I’ll just have to keep reliving this meal in my head.

Find Sushi Azabu at 428 Greenwich Street, between Laight and Vestry. (By the way, the restaurant’s underground—underneath another restaurant, actually. There’s signage, but not much of it. Try not to trip down the world’s darkest stairs on the way down.)

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Biscoff Cookies & Cookie Butter

Two jars of

I spend a lot of time eyeing European sweets I know I can’t touch. Like, a lot of time. But for the most part, I’ve accepted that I can’t eat most of the stuff I see, and that my place in the food world—well, the European grocery world—is only that of an onlooker. Imagine my surprise, then, when I discovered that Biscoff products are safe for me to eat.

Products like these (as in: real-deal products, good products, products I actually decide I want before I know whether they’re nut-free) are almost never safe, so I was pretty shocked when I read that both Biscoff Cookies and Biscoff Cookie Butter are produced in a facility that doesn’t handle any nuts whatsoever. Don’t believe me? Check out their FAQ. (And please note that the whole nut-free thing does not apply to Annas Thins. They don’t have a “may contain” warning, but they aren’t made in a nut-free facility, and I think I’ve reacted to them before.)

Anyway, onto the products themselves. The cookies, which are pretty common on Delta flights, are tasty as hell. They’re Speculoos cookies, which are a crispy (but not particularly hard) sort of spice cookie—and Biscoff’s, rich and buttery with a nice, mild spice to them,  are unusually good. A lot of lesser Speculoos products (I’m looking at you, Ben & Jerry’s) are way too cinnamon-heavy; fortunately, though, Biscoff’s are not.

Forget cookies, though. And forget allergy information. (Obviously, please don’t.) What I really want to talk about is cookie butter, which is basically a spreadable, peanut butter–textured version of a Speculoos cookie. Right now, cookie butter is pretty trendy; Trader Joe’s sells a jarred version, as well as a whole bunch of cookie butter–centric products—but few are nut allergy–safe, and none are as good as Biscoff’s real-deal jar of heaven.

Biscoff makes two varieties—smooth and crunchy—and both are wonderful. Smooth is super rich and creamy, with a peanut butter–like texture. I definitely prefer it, but the crunchy version’s great, too. It’s a little less rich, but what it lacks in flavor, it makes up for in texture. It’s packed with cookie bits, and it’s a little more fun to spoon (or finger) into your mouth than its smoother counterpart. Flavor-wise, it has a pleasant element of burnt-cookie-edge that the smooth version is lacking—but I maintain my original stance: Smooth’s a little better.

Point is, you can’t really go wrong with Biscoff. Both cookie butters great, and both are worth tracking down. They’re available online, but if you (like me) are a cheap-ass who pretty much refuses to shell out any amount of money for shipping, then you might be able to find Biscoff products at CVS, Walgreens, Rite Aid, Stop & Shop, Target, D’Agostino, Westside Market, or Gristedes. (I’ve had some trouble finding their stuff, actually. But I do know that their spreads are available at the Westside Market on 7th Avenue and 14th Street and at the Fairway on 6th Avenue between 25th and 26th. Good luck.)

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