Monthly Archives: April 2016

TBar Steak & Lounge

TBar's Crispy Long Island Duck

Ooooh, boy.

TBar is a steakhouse on 3rd Avenue and 74th Street, and if that doesn’t tell you all you need to know—well, I guess I’m about to. First, though, I want to emphasize the lovely fact that TBar truly is nut-free, according to this email I received from them:

TBar is a completely nut-free restaurant and we are dilligent and serious about only ordering products that are clear from any nut cross contamination. Please feel free to reach out to us with any more questions if need be.

This applies to everything—their breads (baked in house), their desserts, and, of course, their meats.

TBar, then, joins the ranks of such wonderful establishments as The Donut Pub and A La Mode Shoppe—places that do collect information on their vendors’ facilities and that do identify themselves as “nut-free” (or close to it). I double-checked when I made my reservation, and the woman on the phone reassured me that the entire restaurant is nut-free, so in all, I felt pretty safe going into TBar.

Safe, yes. Happy? No. TBar is a strange, strange place—especially if you’re under 60. There’s a bizarre green motif throughout the restaurant—green glasses, green cushions, green…plush toys—and the entire restaurant is really brightly lit, to the point that it gives off a real diner-in-the-middle-of-the-day vibe. Oh, and it’s filled with bona fide elders, one of whom spent his entire meal attempting to hack up his right lung.

TBar's tables

I spent 35 minutes at TBar. (Yes, I was counting.) Topics of conversation I overheard in those 35 minutes included, but were not limited to: insulin injections, heart disease, Matzo, bad knees, bad hips, and the merits of steak cooked medium-well—and don’t even get me started on the bar scene. It isn’t even as if I was making any sort of effort to eavesdrop; the restaurant was just dead-quiet, aside from the occasional snippet of a conversation.

Suffice it to say that I found the atmosphere wholly unpleasant. But I wasn’t there for the atmosphere—I was there for duck. You see, the whole reason I’d even made my way to TBar in the first place was that I’d seen the Crispy Long Island Duck on their menu. I have an enormous soft spot for duck—and this particular serving was guaranteed to be nut-free, so I had no choice but to try it.

In any case, the duck itself was delicious: perfectly cooked, with tender meat and crispy skin. But it was served atop an intrusive bed of sweet potatoes, which were way too strong and sweet a flavor to accompany such a sweet preparation of duck. Personally, I hate sweet potatoes; I would’ve rather eaten the duck on its own, but that’s just me. Still, it was a good dish overall. And fortunately, at $38, it was enough food to feed two.

I’m not really in a position to speak to the overall quality of TBar’s food, as I’ve only tried one dish, but from what I can tell, it doesn’t seem like it’ll ever be the food itself that will sour a TBar experience—especially for those with nut allergies. Perhaps the freedom to order whatever one wants can outweigh the discomfort of…you know, being in that godforsaken place.

Perhaps. I suppose you’ll have to see for yourself. Find TBar at 1278 3rd Avenue, between 73rd and 74th. And don’t forget to dress your best—because their bar scene is happenin’.

[Note: I returned to TBar two months after publishing this post. I had the ribeye, and it was pretty damn good. I also plowed through two baskets of bread (which I didn’t know I could eat the first time I went)…so that was fun. The restaurant was dimly lit and jam-packed—the exact opposite of what it’d been the last time, except it was still filled with elders—and I sat outside, which (even on 3rd Avenue) was worlds better than the alternative. Service was good, yada yada yada, I’ll probably be back. The end.]

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Uma Temakeria and the Sushi Burrito

A sushi burrito from Uma Temakeria

Imagine a Chipotle, Just Salad, or Subway (ick) type of place—and then forget all about those, because Uma Temakeria is so much cooler. It’s another fast-casual restaurant, sure. But instead of burritos, salads, or sandwiches, Uma Temakeria specializes in Japanese hand rolls, made however the hell you want.

Apparently, they brought NYC its very first sushi burrito. They also have chirashi (bowls) and temaki (hand rolls), but I, forever drawn to gimmick and novelty, had to go straight to the burrito. (Seriously. Gimmicky foods, and in particular, food mashups, are my weakness. Ramen burgersLuther burgers, cronuts, cragels—if it sounds like a terrible idea, odds are it makes me drool.)

I’ve been reading about (and downright lusting after) the sushi burrito for at least a year now, but it wasn’t until this week that I even thought to look into where it’s sold and whether I might be able to eat it. All my Google searches led me to Uma Temakeria, which looked promising—their menu was straightforward and their ingredients were simple, at least—so I decided to give them a call.

Sure enough, there are no nuts on their menu or in their kitchen. Still, I’ve categorized Uma Temakeria as “technically not nut-free,” as I don’t have any reason to believe they collect allergen statements from their vendors, nor do they make any guarantees about cross-contamination. I do think, though, that this place is about as low-risk as they come.

Now, I’ve literally been fantasizing about a Chipotle-style Japanese place since Chipotle first got me hooked on customizable fast-casual, so imagine my delight when Uma Temakeria turned out to be just that. For my first sushi burrito, I went simple: white rice, salmon, tuna, ponzu sauce, avocado, tobiko, sesame seeds, and scallions—and you know what? It was absolutely delicious.

Now, the fish wasn’t the world’s best—the tuna was bland, and the salmon wasn’t all that much better—but it certainly wasn’t bad, and everything else in my burrito was fresh and flavorful. Gimmicks aside, that thing was pretty tasty. Really tasty, actually—for a fast-casual place, at least. Tasty enough, at least, to offset all the “I’m a huge tool” feelings that came up in the eating process.

I do have two complaints, though. First: For $14 ($11 for the burrito, plus an additional $3 for avocado and tobiko), it wasn’t a lot of food; I ended up supplementing my meal with a bagel from The Donut Pub, which is right around the corner. Second: It was extremely unruly. I don’t think it’s even possible to get through a sushi burrito without a third of its contents spilling onto your tray. But I paid $14, so you better believe I ate every last scrap that fell—as did everyone around me.

Those minor complaints aside, I highly recommend Uma Temakeria. The employees are friendly and enthusiastic—though not off-puttingly so—and the sushi burritos are lovely. Plus, it’s pretty healthy, and the seafood’s all sustainably-sourced. I truly can’t wait to go back.

Find this blasphemous, delicious concoction—and its two far-less-strange companions—at 64 7th Avenue (right off 14th street) or at Gotham West Market (600 11th Avenue, between 44th and 45th).

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Don’t Go Nuts

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I first heard about Don’t Go Nuts online, in the midst of one of many searches for nut-free granola bars. And while their bars aren’t quite granola, they’re nut-free—so I figured I’d give them a try.

Allergen information out of the way first, though. According to their FAQ, all of their products—both bars and spreads—are produced in a nut- and peanut-free facility, and they use their own signature Field to Fingers process to ensure their products really are safe for those with allergies. Plus, all their products are also certified gluten-free, and there’s no egg or sesame in their facility, either.

Anyway, I pulled up their store locator (which I’ve since learned has been out of order for a few months and which won’t be fixed for a few more) and was directed to Whole Foods and Lot-Less. Easy enough, I thought—I’m at Whole Foods often enough, and (for reasons I really don’t understand) there are three or four Lot-Less locations within walking distance of my apartment.

Long and incredibly boring story short, I went to two different Whole Foods locations and pretty much every Lot-Less I could find (over the course of a few weeks, mind you—I’m not that obsessive), but I didn’t see Don’t Go Nuts anywhere. The Lot-Less on Chambers Street has multiple walls and shelves devoted entirely to bars, but there wasn’t a Don’t Go Nuts logo in sight. Huh. I would’ve just caved and ordered them online, but Amazon only carries them in boxes of 12, which was a bit too much of a commitment for me, given that I’d never tried any of their flavors.

Really, really not wanting to blindly spend $20 on a box of 12 “snack bars,” I reached out to Don’t Go Nuts in the hopes that they’d be able to point me toward a store that actually carried their products. I ended up speaking with a very helpful woman who informed me that they’re currently in the process of switching to a new digital agency partner, hence the outdated store locator. In the meantime, though, their bars are sold at Fairway, Balducci’s, Westerly Natural Foods, Foodtown, Grace’s Marketplace, King’s, and Shop Rite. Plus, Lucky Vitamin and Vitacost sell individual bars online—which fact I apparently overlooked in my search.

What’s more, Don’t Go Nuts was generous enough to send me a few samples—two of each bar, actually, and a bunch of their soybean spreads, too. I certainly wouldn’t have had the money to try so many of their products within a timespan short enough to allow me to actually the compare the flavors effectively—so I was pretty grateful for the samples. And to get to the point, finally: I really enjoyed a lot of what I ate.

My favorite bar was definitely the Whitewater Chomp (granola with white chocolate chips and white chocolate drizzle). It’s very sweet—everything I tried was—but I’m not really complaining. It tasted a lot like coconut-flavored cookie dough (though Don’t Go Nuts is coconut-free), and it had a nice texture, similar to that of a Quaker Chewy Bar. I liked the Celestial Campout bar (honey graham with white and dark chocolate) as well, though the chocolate they use isn’t the tastiest—so perhaps the Boogie Board Bash (same deal, but without the dark chocolate) would be a better choice.

I will admit, though, that I wasn’t a huge fan of the fig flavor that was so strong in some of the bars (Blueberry Blast, Lift Service). But maybe that’s just me. I’ve never been a huge fan of fig-based desserts. Overall, though, the bars were pretty decent. Be warned, though: If super-sweet bars aren’t your thing, stay away from Don’t Go Nuts. If they’re for a child, though—or if you have huge a sweet tooth—they’ll probably be perfect.

The spreads are good, too—but only as a last-ditch substitute for peanut butter. I liked the Slightly Sweet and Chocolate flavors best, but both were a bit watery. They definitely had that strange imitation-nut-butter flavor, and the texture was off, too. (But perhaps I’m just being picky because I can actually eat the real deal; if I were allergic to peanuts, I’m sure I’d be really grateful for these.)

In all, Don’t Go Nuts is a pretty solid company, and their products are worth the effort it takes to seek them out and give them a try, if you’re in the mood for something super sweet. Just…try not to go nuts looking for them. (I’ll see myself out.)

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Marumi

An ika uni roll from Marumi

As I explained in a recent post on Otto’s Tacos, I’ve been spending a lot of time sifting through menus, emailing restaurants, and speaking with managers in the interest of adding new places to my “safe” list. I’ve grown tired of limiting myself to NYC’s few declaredly nut-free eateries, so I’ve committed to looking for more of the next best thing—restaurants that happen not to use any nuts—to the benefit of both this blog and, well, my stomach.

Marumi, a Japanese restaurant in Greenwich Village, is certainly of that next-best ilk. So few restaurants respond to my inquiries—and Marumi not only replied, but they did so promptly and (most notably) with information that was actually relevant: “No, we don’t use any tree nuts in our menu. Our restaurant is safe for people with nut allergies- including my children. We only use sesame seeds in some of our dishes.”

This woman—who’s evidently familiar enough with Marumi’s menu to be in a position to field allergy-related questions—finds the restaurant safe enough for her nut-allergic children. So though her email wasn’t the most detailed, it gave me all the reassurance I needed. (I’ve never been able to decide whether my allergy-related food safety standards are far too high or far too low. I’m convinced they’re one of the two, though.)

As far as I know, Marumi doesn’t seem to collect much information on their vendors’ facilities, nor do they market themselves as nut-free—so I can’t rightfully categorize them as “truly nut-free” by the criteria I’ve been using. But again: they really are the next best thing. So to Marumi I went.

As I’ve mentioned before, I tend to avoid ordering cooked food at Japanese restaurants, as sushi is, in my experience, a bit safer—but since I’d been assured that Marumi doesn’t use any nuts whatsoever, I figured this was my chance to order from the kitchen. Naturally, I was pretty excited.

Still, I wanted to start slowly, so I began with two rolls: one ika uni (squid and sea urchin—pictured above) and one toro uni (fatty tuna and sea urchin). Now, Marumi is not exactly a high-end sushi bar, so I wasn’t expecting all that much, but both rolls were delicious. I also ordered a few pieces of sushi (some salmon and some ikura), which were all right, I suppose, but which I probably wouldn’t order again. The ikura was all right, but the salmon was too cold—though it did have a nice flavor (as most salmon does).

But I wasn’t there for sushi; I was there to experiment with cooked food. So I ordered something I’ve been craving for a while: a bowl of udon with duck and some shrimp tempura on the side—why not? Now, it’s been a long, long time since I’ve had any sort of udon, so I can’t say I have much of a frame of reference anymore, but what I can say is that I thoroughly enjoyed this dish. The duck was sweet; the mushrooms were tender; the scallions were plentiful. My only complaint was that the breading on the shrimp tempura was too thick and essentially flavorless—but hey, cooked food. In an actual restaurant.

Pork katsu from Marumi

To no one’s surprise, I’ve been back a few times since, and most things I’ve tried have been decent. The pork katsu (pictured immediately above) was pretty solid. It didn’t knock my socks off or anything, but it wasn’t as if I regretted ordering it, either. It came with some shredded cabbage, a bowl of rice, some dipping sauce, and a lemon wedge. The pork was juicy and tender, if a bit bland—nothing a little lemon couldn’t solve, though.

The soft-shell crab is good, too—or maybe I just really like ponzu sauce—and the stir-fried udon is surprisingly flavorful. The bento boxes are a good deal, price-wise, but Marumi’s tempura is sub-par, and their beef negimaki isn’t so great, either. On a good day, though—when the uni’s good, which certainly isn’t all the time—the broiled lobster with uni sauce is all right, and the ika uni appetizer is worth a try.

One thing I’d specifically recommend against ordering: the duck bun. I was pretty excited to try it, as duck’s one of my favorite meats, but it just wasn’t good. The duck itself reminds of Walmart-quality lunch meat, and it comes with a whole bunch of room-temperature cucumber, which…sucks. That’s all I can say about it, really. (And if I haven’t yet made this clear: I’d stay away from most of the sushi, too.)

Anyway, Marumi may not be high-end, and it may not be perfect, but I tend to enjoy it nonetheless. The servers are knowledgeable and friendly—and no matter the relative quality of the restaurant, it’s nice to be able to order freely once in a while. Plus, the atmosphere’s bearable, even during peak hours on a Friday night, which is saying something.

I suppose I’d recommend Marumi—just don’t expect to be floored, and order carefully, because their menu is a goddamn minefield. Be warned, though: they’re cash-only at lunchtime.

Find Marumi at 546 LaGuardia Place, between Bleecker and West 3rd.

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Girl Scout Cookies (!!!)

Two boxes of Girl Scout Cookies

The other day, I took an adventure on the Long Island Railroad and happened upon a Walmart, outside of which a table of Girl Scouts (well, Girl Scouts’ mothers) were selling box after box of cookies. Unable to help myself, I bought some Thin Mints and continued on my way—happily, until about 30 seconds later, when I began to regret not getting a box of Samoas, too. But this is prime Girl Scout Cookie season, and I was in the middle of a strip mall on Long Island,so it was only about 20 minutes until I came across another table of cookie-selling Scouts, this time at the entrance to Roosevelt Field Mall.

Girl Scout Cookies are manufactured by two different companies, so the allergen information I’m about to recap is two-fold. The cookies I bought were made by Little Brownie Bakers, so I’ll go over them first. According to their FAQ:

If the allergen in concern is not listed below the ingredient statement, we are confident that the product is safe for consumption. Please trust the labeling. We do use a may contain statement for peanuts and tree nuts when the product is produced on a line that shares equipment with another product that does contain peanuts or tree nuts.

Some of their cookies contain peanuts, but none contain (or may contain) any sort of tree nuts—with the except of the Savannah Smiles, which come with a “may contain” warning (and which should thus pose very little risk of cross-contamination). Ingredient information for individual cookies can be found here.

The situation at ABC Bakers is similar. According to their FAQ, they’re a very allergy-aware company, and they employ the following practices to reduce the risk of cross-contamination:

  • Segregation of known allergens from the general production environment
  • Color-coding of storage units and utensils
  • Curtained-off production areas
  • Designated lanes for transportation of known allergens
  • Swabbing and testing of allergen shared equipment

What’s more:

In addition, we call out all allergens on our packaging, order cards and web site and provide specific warning if a product is made on a line that also produces product with a common allergen such as peanuts.

The allergen information for individual cookies can be found here. Again, a few cookies contain (or may contain) peanuts—but the only cookie with any sort of tree nut warning is the Trios. (And again, that’s a product that comes with a “may contain” warning, rather than one that actually contains nuts—so the risk of cross-contamination should be low indeed.) In general, both Little Brownie and ABC seem to be pretty trustworthy, with regard to allergens and labeling. (And I’ve never had any allergen-related issues with Girl Scout cookies, if you’re into meaningless anecdotal evidence.)

Anyway. Girl Scout Cookies are delicious—but I don’t need to convince anyone of that, because it’s pretty much common knowledge at this point. Sure, part of their appeal is due to the fact that they’re only available seasonally and are thus kept relatively scarce—but we all know that’s not the only reason everyone loves them so much. They’re just plain good. (Well, some of them are. I can’t vouch for anyone who claims to like Trefoils. But give me a box of Thin Mints and it’ll take me some serious self-control to stop myself from finishing both sleeves in one sitting.)

To find a table of cookie-clad Girl Scouts near you, refer to the Girl Scouts’ cookie locator—or spend a day wandering around shopping centers in Carle Place. Either way.

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Somersaults Sunflower Seed Bites

Somersault

It’s always a pleasure to stumble upon a box or bag of something that proudly declares itself nut-free. Usually, I’m just looking for packaging that doesn’t explicitly tell me to stay away—so I tend to be pretty surprised when a “made in a nut-free facility” works its way in there. Whatever it is, I’ll probably buy it then and there on principle alone—unless it’s grotesquely overpriced (which most things tend to be at the types of stores that carry allergen-free products).

I came across Somersaults Sunflower Seed Bites at Whole Foods, where almost everything is, in fact, grotesquely overpriced. But these were only around $3, so I went for it. And they really are nut-free! According to their website’s FAQ:

Somersaults are nut free and do not contain any nuts. Somersaults are baked in a nut free environment. With the rise of nut allergies, especially in children, we understand the importance of offering a nut free snack alternative that is nutritionally dense and absolutely delicious!

I bought the salt & pepper flavor, which was overbearingly peppery—but I wasn’t quite ready to give up on these things, so I went back for the sea salt version. Much, much, much better. They’re well-salted, and they taste predominantly like sunflower seeds, which is a relief after trying to get through the salt & pepper bag. Overall, I like them—though I can’t eat more than, say, 10 at a time.

There isn’t much more to say about these things—but if you like sunflower seeds, Somersaults are worth a try. Find them at Whole Foods, Target, and Stop & Shop.

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M2M: An affordable Asian market

Salmon

I’ve said before that I’d eat sushi every day if I could afford to do so—but I can’t, nor will I ever be that rich. A more reasonable person might accept this financial limitation and, you know, chill the fuck out, but not me. I spend way too much of my time trying to make sushi affordable—and mostly in vain, at that. Decent restaurants are expensive (and the cheaper ones tend to be less allergy-friendly, anyway), and grocery store sushi is generally inedible…that is, with the exception of M2M’s.

Now: M2M’s sushi is nothing crazy. Everything’s packaged and allowed to sit for hours in a cooler at the back of their stores, after all. But as grocery store sushi goes, it just might be the best I’ve tried—and among the cheapest, too, at between $4 and $10 per box. The fish is usually decent, though everything’s usually way too cold, and the rice (in particular) doesn’t always taste so fresh—but hey, it’s the best of the bad, as far as I’m concerned.

I like to get the salmon combo, which comes with both rolls and nigiri, and which is pretty decent if you manage to catch it at the right time of day (though just when that golden hour starts is anyone’s guess. I certainly have no idea, and I’m starting to think there’s no rhyme or reason to freshness at M2M). I also used to love the shrimp tempura rolls, but for the past year or so, they’ve been—for lack of a better term—really, really, really bad. They’re horrifyingly cold and stale, and the folks at M2M seem to have forgotten how to make the version that didn’t come topped with spicy mayo. Oh well.

Ingredients are, of course, listed on the packaging, though I’m not sure whether M2M would label potential cross-contaminants. Truthfully, I took a risk the first time I ate their sushi—but I eat M2M multiple times per week (as one of their locations is basically on NYU’s campus), and I’ve never had any issues whatsoever. (I should say, though, that I only eat their sushi. They have hot food, too, but in the interest of safety, I tend to steer clear of anything cooked.)

I know—this isn’t the world’s most informative post. But I eat there so often I figured I’d throw the recommendation out there. As always, you should use your own discretion—and if the lack of readily-available information on M2M’s treatment of allergens makes you uncomfortable, you can (and should) speak to an employee—or, of course, take your business elsewhere.

M2M has three locations, though I can only vouch for the sushi at the one in Greenwich Village (19 Waverly Place). Still, the one on 11th and 3rd (55 3rd Avenue) is much larger—and much more pleasant, if you ask me. The third is in Morningside Heights (2935 Broadway), but I’ve never been.

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Tate’s Bake Shop (or, alternatively: The World’s Least Scientific Experiment)

tates

Let me emphasize: Tate’s Bake Shop is not at all nut-free. In fact, they’re probably the least nut-free company I’ve discussed on this blog—but their cookies are (quite literally) irresistible, so I’ve decided to do some research.

Every Tate’s bag clearly states that their cookies are made in a facility that also processes pecans, walnuts, almonds, and macadamia nuts. Trader Joe’s sells a very similar product under their private label—though they only sell the gluten-free chocolate chip and ginger chunk varieties—and theirs are without any sort of nut-related allergen warning (which, at Trader Joe’s, generally means they really are safe). The Trader Joe’s cookies are absolutely delicious, even sans gluten—so I’ve been dying to try the real deal for a while now.

Anyway, I sent an email to Tate’s and received the following reply:

I wanted to reach out to let you know we do use the same equipment to pack nut containing cookies as our non-nut containing cookies. We have specific cleaning procedures in place to ensure that all nut protein is removed from the equipment. We then test the equipment to ensure that all proteins have been removed. This is all documented and signed off by the supervisors. Additionally, we do have statements from our ingredient purveyors indicating there is no nut cross contamination.

Honestly, the above reply was way better than I’d expected. So much better, in fact, that it seemed too good to be true. I decided to call to double-check, and the phone calls that followed were…interesting, to say the least. The first woman I spoke to told me that she couldn’t think of anyone who would be able to answer my questions, but she did give the phone number for the Tate’s warehouse.

I called the warehouse and reiterated my questions to a few different people until I was transferred to someone who essentially repeated verbatim what I’d been told via email. That, combined with the fact that very few people at Tate’s seem to be all that well versed in their allergen policies—and the fact that this particular woman sounded rather annoyed—led me to believe (without about 95% certainty) that I was speaking to the same woman I’d been in contact with via email.

It was a brief and unpleasant conversation, but the fact remained: The manufacturing practices at Tate’s sounded good to me. So given that I don’t really have a history of reacting to products that may contain trace amounts of nuts—and given that I was feeling especially irresponsible on that particular Tuesday—I figured I’d give Tate’s the good old taste test. So I did. And I didn’t react.

Of course, everyone’s allergies are different—so do with that what you will. In fact, please take all of this with an entire shaker of salt. Much like my post on IT’SUGAR, this post doesn’t come with any recommendations; it’s mostly just a recap of my poor decisions and the experiences that came of them.

…All right. Now that we’ve gotten all that out of the way, we can spend a minute talking about the cookies themselves. I only tried the chocolate chip, but they’re absolutely wonderful—by far the best store-bought cookie I’ve ever had (though if we’re counting the Trader Joe’s version as a separate product, those come in a very close second). They’re perfectly crispy, buttery, and salty, with chocolate chips good enough to win me over—and I hate chocolate chips. Seriously: Tate’s are in a league of their own, and if you can eat them…well, you need to.

I’m really looking forward to trying their other flavors, if a little slowly and stressfully. The Chipless, the gingersnap, the vanilla, the Ginger Zinger, the mint chocolate chip, and the oatmeal raisin are all calling me. I’ll let you know how it goes.

Find Tate’s at…most grocery stores, really. Try Whole Foods, Citarella, Stop & Shop, Fairway, Eli’s, Gourmet Garage, or Westside Market.

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Otto’s Tacos

Two carnitas tacos from Ottos' Tacos

Last week, my boyfriend Sam and I made another one of our regular trips to Clinton Hill for tacos from Cochinita, one of NYC’s very, very few truly nut-free restaurants. Or it was, at least. When we got off the train, Cochinita’s sign was gone, its windows covered. We were beside ourselves. With Cochinita off the table, we were left with…well, Big Daddy’s and Duke’s (and only Big Daddy’s and Duke’s!) on the list of restaurants that will actually call themselves nut-free. Which is a shame, given that those two are hardly restaurants to begin with.

Perhaps, then, it’s time for me to start looking (harder) into restaurants—not major chains, but small-scale restaurants—that don’t advertise themselves as nut-free, but that happen not to use any nuts in their facilities. Strictly speaking, these sorts of places aren’t ideal (and they’re a bit risky for those whose allergies are very severe, as they can’t guarantee the absence of cross-contaminants), but they’re definitely the next best thing. So I’ve begun my search.

One of the first places I came across was Otto’s Tacos, a SoCal-style taqueria with a few locations around Manhattan. Their menu didn’t mention any nuts, but as those with food allergies know all too well, that doesn’t mean much, so I sent an email to be sure, and unlike the vast majority of the (many, many) restaurants I’ve emailed, Otto’s actually responded—with an email from none other than Otto Cedeno himself: “We have no nuts in our facilities so all your worries should be negated.”

Always great to hear. But since his email was so brief, I figured I ought to press a little further, asking whether he had any information about his vendors’ facilities or the potential for inadvertent cross-contamination. He replied: “There are certain items we buy that come from other facilities. To those, we cannot speak of.” Fair enough—and not too bad, really. Most days, a nut-free kitchen at the restaurant itself is good enough for me.

Otto’s sounded promising, so I hyped myself up and took Sam with me to their East Village location for lunch between classes. To be extra safe, I did call ahead, too, and the woman who picked up reassured (once again…) that there are no nuts in the Otto’s kitchen. When we showed up and approached the counter to order, I realized that it was the cashier with whom I’d spoken—and she seemed to have realized, too, because she was sure to double-check on whether I had any other food allergies.

Sam and I each ordered a carnitas taco (two pictured above above) and a carne asada taco. The pork in the carnitas taco was absolutely delicious—moist, tender, and well-seasoned, if a bit salty—and the taco as a whole was lovely, too. The onions and cilantro tasted fresh, and the tortilla wasn’t dry in the slightest. Plus, the salsa complemented the pork wonderfully. In all, that thing was near-perfect.

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The carne asada taco was less perfect, though it wasn’t bad by any stretch of the imagination. There was nothing wrong with it; the salsa was just a bit hotter (but less flavorful), and the steak itself was unimpressive. But it’s not as if it turned us off. It must’ve been all right, at least, because Sam and I ended up deciding that we couldn’t possibly be done yet. So we ordered more: a chicken taco, and a carnitas Gorgon (pictured immediately above—it’s basically an extra-stuffed taco in a deep-fried tortilla, almost like what a Taco Bell Chalupa would be like if it weren’t, you know, abominable).

Anyway. The chicken taco was decent. I preferred it to the carne asada, but I don’t think anything they could have served me would have touched the carnitas. The Gorgon, though…the Gorgon was wild. The deep-fried tortilla was probably my favorite part; it was crispy on the outside, soft on the inside, and warm throughout—and it was weirdly creamy, too, which I don’t understand, but which I won’t question. And it was piled high with stuff: lots of pork, salsa, onion, cilantro, guacamole, and serrano cream. I don’t think it’s even possible to take the thing down without a fork. But unruliness notwithstanding, it was straight-up heavenly.

But I ought to stop. Writing this is making me way too hungry, and I can’t quite afford to go back to Otto’s for tonight’s dinner. As if I need to say so, I wholeheartedly recommend this place to anyone who’s (a) in the mood for tacos, or (b) whose heart’s now marred by a hole that only a Cochinita-shaped peg could fill.

Seriously, though. Stop by. Otto’s has three locations: 141 2nd Avenue, between 8th and 9th; 131 7th Avenue South, on the corner 10th street; and 705 9th Avenue, between 48th and 49th. I hear the one on 9th is the biggest, but I can’t confirm. I can say, however, that indoor seating is very limited at the one on 2nd—so go during off-hours, or prepare to sit outside.

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Karen’s Naturals

Dried corn from Karen's Naturals

I was at Westside Market the other day when I stumbled upon a bag of Karen’s Naturals freeze-dried corn. More out of habit than interest, I picked up the bag to read the ingredients, and, lo and behold, the company turned out to be nut-free. There’s nothing like coming across those words on a package of food—so naturally, I felt obligated to give this stuff a try.

According to their various product pages, all of the products sold by Karen’s Naturals are free from gluten, dairy, wheat, and nuts. They also don’t use any additives or preservatives—in fact, the only ingredient in their freeze-dried corn is…well, freeze-dried corn.

Karen’s sells freeze-dried fruits and vegetables, and various fruit powders, too. As of right now, I’ve only tried the corn and the strawberry-banana mix, but both are pretty good, as far as freeze-dried food goes. There’s definitely something weird about eating freeze-dried corn by the handful—but it isn’t necessarily weird in a bad way. The strawberries, though, are so flavorful (read: sour) that they overpowered the bananas in the mix. Still, not bad.

Both were plausible snacks, at the very least. In any case, I’m certainly looking forward to trying some of their other products. (Right now, I’m eyeing the freeze-dried peas. And the pomegranate. And the pineapple. I’m a sucker for pineapple.)

Find Karen’s Naturals at Westside Market, Fairway, and a bunch of other markets (or, of course, on their website).

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