Monthly Archives: February 2017

Dona Bella Pizza

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When I wrote a few weeks back about the pizza dead zone I inhabit, I was admittedly overlooking Dona Bella. This place is ridiculously close to my apartment, and I walk by it at least a few times a week, but I’d always had this particularly strong intuition that their pizza would be dreadful. I don’t know why—Dona Bella just has the air of a terrible pizzeria, and I guess I figured I was better off without the place.

But I really do live in an unfortunate area for delivery pizza. Everything in FiDi (inexplicably) considers me too far away, as do all the places more than three or four blocks to the north of me (?!?)—and most Tribeca pizzerias are basically full-fledged restaurants, super-nutty menus and all. The night I caved and placed my first order with Dona Bella, I’d gone through the menus of literally all the pizzerias on Slice before throwing up my hands and saying “fuck it.” How bad could it be, really?

Not bad. Not bad at all! In fact, I actually like Dona Bella’s pizza, and not only because it has a flawless record of arriving in under 30 minutes. (The record so far is 9. 9 minutes. From the time I sent in my Seamless order to the time the delivery guy rang my doorbell. Offensively quick.)

And before I go on: Dona Bella is indeed nut-free. That’s what I was told via phone, at least. The guy I spoke with seemed a little thrown my by questioning, likely because nobody had ever called in to ask about nuts before. (I figured such a simple pizzeria was a shoo-in, but it would’ve been silly not to try to double-check.) I can’t be sure that the answer I got actually meant anything—it probably didn’t—but there’s nothing suspicious on Dona Bella’s menu, and I’ve eaten their pizza plenty of times now without a hint of an issue.

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Now, the pizza isn’t incredible, and I still prefer My Little Pizzeria‘s, but it definitely isn’t bad, either. At the very least, it’s worlds better than all the bad pizza I’m known to eat (Little Italy, Ben’sJoey Pepperoni’s, 2 Bros…I’m incredibly lazy, and my standards are way lower than I’d like you to believe). The crust—which is definitely a little underwhelming—is covered with those weird-ass texture-sapping breadcrumbs I so hate, but it’s still so, so much better than Little Italy’s. It’s a little on the thin side, but it’s chewy and buttery, and it does well when steeped in pizza grease, too. (Sorry…)

The cheese is good, and the sauce is all right, too. Overall, slices are about as sweet as I can handle before I start crying “sugar sauce!”—but that’s all I ask for, really. I don’t mind pizza that’s a little sweet, but I won’t eat more than a bite or two of any pizza that’s covered in syrupy-sweet tomato sauce, no matter how good the crust and cheese are. (Spoiler: If the sauce is that sweet, neither the crust nor the cheese are going to be worth your stomach space.) What I’m trying to say, I think, is that Dona Bella’s pizza is a bit sweeter than I’d like, but that it’s not nearly sweet enough to piss me off. I like it, and I’m prepared to stand behind that liking.

I should probably mention, though, that I can’t vouch for Dona Bella’s hours-old slices. I actually can’t vouch for much of anything but their freshly made plain pies. Those are all I order, because all I’d really wanted from Dona Bella was a quick, reliable delivery joint that’d be willing and able to bring me edible pies sans any trace amounts of nuts. They can’t seem to be nice to me on the phone, nor can they seem to cut their slices even remotely evenly, but you know what? They’re exactly what I was looking for.

(Too-sweet pizza really does make me unreasonably angry, by the way.)

Find Dona Bella Pizza at 154 Church Street, between Reade and Chambers.

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Sugarfish (or, Alternatively: “The Serenity Now”)

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If you’re like me—and you probably aren’t, because I’m a little weird in this regard—you start to foam at the mouth each and every time some rando who once spent a weekend in L.A. starts to blather on about how much better and cheaper sushi is on the West Coast. For starters, it’s just not true—but what really drives me nuts is the self-righteousness that tends to back those sorts of statements. (I realize, of course, that my entire blog is a little self-righteous. But this is my blog on my little corner of the Internet, so it’s not as if I’m yapping away in an ever-so-slightly-raised voice in the middle of an otherwise quiet Japanese restaurant.)

Obviously, I love NYC’s sushi. I wouldn’t trade it for any other (American) city’s. Also obvious, though: I’m partial—and given that I’m aware of that partiality, I’m obligated to challenge it. But, um…continually challenging your long-held beliefs is Hard Work, and I’m usually not that good or motivated a person, so I’ll often opt instead for a little Self-Challenge Lite. Hence my meal at Sugarfish.

For the (lucky) uninitiated, Sugarfish is a sushi-hawking mini-chain that’s based in California but that’s recently reached out and wrapped a (12th) tendril around NYC. Over in L.A., Sugarfish is exceedingly well-liked; from here, though—and by “from here,” I just mean “from within my own head”—the place just comes off as obnoxious. Its cutesy name, its insufferable Hipness, its ENORMOUS EGO, its menu‘s outright refusal to use a single Japanese word…I mean, come on. Is “omakase” really too much of a mouthful for Sugarfish’s intended patrons? Must we call it a “Trust Me”?

Whether it’s meant to be cute or unique or just plain easy, the whole “Trust Me” thing just strikes me as an absurd instance of some sort of cutesy-sickly imperative to dumb-down. (I’m aware that it’s a little ridiculous for me to be so bothered by something so unimportant, and I’m also aware that my annoyance probably says a whole lot about me and my approach to food, too, but I stand behind that annoyance nonetheless. And while we’re between parentheses, I’ll add that this whole “Trust Me” really thing reminds me of that old Dunkin Donuts commercial that was bent on, like, endorsing and empowering American ignorance. Because all those people refusing to learn the names of the drinks they like is cute and endearing and relatable, right?)

See, here we go. I knew this would happen: I’m already getting carried away. Honestly, though, I really believed that Sugarfish’s food would save the place. There was no chance I’d like the restaurant itself; with all the bones I had to pick, revulsion was a given. But I figured the fish itself would be good enough to win me over—or to shut me up long-term, at least. I’d read absolutely nothing but rave reviews. And plus, I’ve found that sushi spots this confident in their methods, this openly rigid, tend to be pretty good. (Sugarfish is very adamant about their adherence to The Nozawa Way. No, they don’t call it that. But they do drone on about it.)

Of course, I was also drawn to Sugarfish by its prices. The most expensive Trust Me is only $51, and I’m always on the lookout for (relatively) affordable sushi, especially when it’s allegedly just as good as the more-expensive stuff. So I grabbed Sam, shouted a “serenity now” or six at Sugarfish’s pristine website, and made my way over to 20th Street. (After confirming that their kitchen was nut-free. It is.)

Two pieces of yellowtail sushi from Sugarfish

And that brings me to one of a few actually-significant things I hate about this place: the way they handle their popularity. They don’t take reservations. I don’t think they even have a phone that rings. So not only can you not book a table—you can’t even call to ask whether that day’s waitlist has any space left on it. You can’t do shit but show up, hope they’ll let you on the list, and then hope they’ll text you to come on back before you lose interest and/or starve to death. (Once you get the”it’s time” text, you’ll have 15 minutes to make it back to Sugarfish—which means that you’ll probably end up having to spend between 2 and 4 hours tethered to 20th Street. Nice.)

Now, I’m no stranger to annoying reservation processes. It took me weeks of nightly website-checking to book a table for three at Sushi Zo (I gave up on finding three spots at the bar), and I’m by now used to the text-us-and-we’ll-consider-giving-you-a-spot-but-we’ll-pretend-we’re-booked-if-you-happen-to-want-to-reserve-anything-after-7pm system at Sushi on Jones. But Sugarfish’s system (or lack thereof, really) is absurd to the extent that it comes off as disrespectful. I do almost nothing with my free time, and even I don’t have the time (or the patience) to bow to this stupid process. But of course, I did. Bow. To Sugarfish. For four hours a day, on two consecutive days. And on the second of those days, I was rewarded with a table.

Ambiance-wise, Sugarfish is a little weird. It’s incredibly dark in there (hence all these heinous photos), and it’s pretty cramped, too. The servers are unprecedentedly peppy, and the music’s not what I’ve come to expect of a sushi place, either. (I mean, I like The Strokes, but I’m not sure I like them alongside my toro.) None of that’s all that bad, though. I can get used to abnormality. I can get into abnormality. But the clientele? Oh, the clientele…

Let’s leave it at this: The woman sitting to my right dissected every single piece of food that came her way, and within 10 minutes, she had her husband following suit. For each piece of nigiri, she’d poise her chopsticks like fork and knife and proceed to slice the fish/rice combo in half, right into two bite-size pieces. Off each half, she’d eat first the fish, then the rice—and unfortunately, she was not the only person I watched implement some horrible tried-and-true method of Tackling Nigiri that night. This place is filled to the brim with slicers and/or separators. It attracts them. It caters to them—regardless of the fact that such behavior definitely isn’t accordance with The Nozawa Way.

Two pieces of salmon

Anyway—and that just might be the biggest “anyway” I’ve ever written—I should probably get to the food. So I’ll just go right ahead, then: It sucked. There were decent bites, but most of what I ate was surprisingly bad. It wasn’t worth the money, and it really wasn’t worth the trouble—but it took me some time to come to and realize just how not-worth-it my meal had been. I held on to some degree of hope until the very, very end of the tasting; but as course after course disappointed me, that hope began to morph into something much more like indignation. And by the time I was out the door, it’d dawned on me: Sugarfish is bullshit.

Sam and I both ended up with the regular Trust Me. We’d both ordered The Nozawa, which comes with a few more pieces of (the same) nigiri in addition to two extra pieces (of a “daily special”), but I guess there must’ve been some sort of mix-up. Like the other two tastings, the regular Trust Me begins with edamame, which was fine, though definitely too cold. (And too firm. It hurt my fingers. Not exaggerating.) Then came some tuna sashimi—pictured at the top of this post—which was covered with scallions and dressed in a sauce that I’d heard the girl sitting to my left describe as “this really weird sauce that’s the best thing you’ll ever taste.” I was curious.

…It turned out to be ponzu. Ponzu. (And it was also the only reason that dish was even half-decent. The tuna was flavorless. But I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: I’ll enjoy almost anything that’s covered in scallions and ponzu.)

As for the sushi, not one piece was good. The salmon (pictured immediately above) was all right, but what little flavor it had was totally overwhelmed by the sesame seeds that topped it. Soy helped a lot, though we’d been instructed to stay away from it—but still, this stuff was so, so boring. Albacore (pictured above the salmon) was next, and it was passable, though certainly not noteworthy…and then came the yellowtail, easily the worst bites of the night. Truly, it was awful: watery, bland, and somehow still a little funky—and it wasn’t even close to restaurant-quality. (In fact, it really reminded me of all the unpleasant fish you’ll find in the freezer section at Whole Foods. That, and all the fish I’ve all-I-can-eaten at godforsaken Mika.)

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The snapper (pictured immediately above) might’ve been fine, but I wouldn’t have known, because it was coated—not brushed, but coated—with a peppery glaze that was literally all I could taste, and then came some sea bass, which I can’t for the life of me remember. It’s safe to say that it, too, was bland and boring. I’d remember if I’d come across something tasty. Promise.

And that was it for the sushi. But before I’d had any time to process my disappointment (and shock!), we’d moved on to the hand rolls, which were better than the sushi, but not by enough to have saved the meal. We were given two—one with toro, and one with blue crab—and both were pretty good, but only because of the rice, which is actually some of the best I’ve ever had. (In fact, Sugarfish’s rice is the only thing that really sets the place apart from all those low- to mid-tier sushi joints that suck so much.) The toro was bland and watery—if the lights had been any lower, I wouldn’t have been able to tell it from grated daikon—but the blue crab was one of the tastiest things that showed up at my table. (Do remember: That’s saying very little.)

As soon as we’d finished our last hand rolls, our server showed up to tell us that our tasting had ended. Wholly unsatisfied, and in an attempt to find something worthwhile at Sugarfish, Sam and I each ordered a lobster hand roll, which we’d heard the servers recommend to just about everyone, and which we kept hearing all the regulars order, too. And while that hand roll was all right, it really wasn’t anything special. Lobster’s lobster, but…I don’t know. It just didn’t do it for me. Boring, again.

Obviously, Sugarfish’s food left me disappointed. But more than just disappointed, I was annoyed. And it took me a while to figure out just why. The reason, I think, is that Sugarfish just feels so…flimsy. So feeble. So lame. The atmosphere’s a very lackluster sort of trendy-bland; the menu’s Dunkin-Donuts dumb; everything comes without wasabi; even the fish itself is weak and watery. I don’t want my hand held. I don’t want to be coddled. I just want good fish at a reasonable price.

But Sugarfish isn’t that. It’s straight out of the middlebrow. It’s Snapchat Story fodder, good for very, very little beyond personal advertisement, beyond filling the frame of an Instagram post or two meant to broadcast a Personal Brand of Luxury—and it really isn’t even good for that, because, you know, the food in the picture doesn’t even taste good. So I guess I’ll be sticking to Zo for my L.A. sushi. (Just kidding. I can’t afford Zo. But you get my point.)

…Find Sugarfish at 33 East 20th Street, between Park and Broadway. But don’t show up unless you’ve hours to spare—and don’t forget to Snap the entirety of your meal.

(Sorry for the length of this post, by the way. I might’ve gone a little nuts. Lloyd Braun was right, I guess: serenity now, insanity later.)

[Edit: Told you so!! This just came out: a better-written (and less-angry) version of what I’ve written. What I’d give to write about food as deftly as Pete Wells…]

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White Maize

Three nut-free arepas from White Maize

[Edit: I think White Maize now serves an arepa that contains pesto? Supposedly they’re rather allergy aware, so it might not be a deal-breaker. Just something to be aware of.]

Within 5 minutes of hearing about White Maize, I knew I’d be giving it a try. It didn’t look like anything all that special—it’s just an arepa place that opened this past fall on Brooklyn’s restaurant-dotted Smith Street—but that was precisely why I was so interested. I tend to get pretty excited about one-trick restuarants, as their teeny-tiny menus are (to me, at least) a lot less worry-inducing than those that are more well-rounded. And plus, the one-category food in question at these sorts of places tends to benefit from all the extra attention.

Within 10 minutes of hearing about White Maize, I was on the phone. And within 12, I’d heard everything I’d been hoping to hear. There are no tree nuts (or peanuts) in White Maize’s kitchen—and while their ingredients aren’t guaranteed to all be free from cross-contamination, pretty much everything that goes into their food (stuff like meats, cheeses, beans, and herbs) is low-risk and simple.

A Reina arepa from White Maize

And you know, the food’s pretty damn good. It’s not quite as good as I would’ve hoped, given the distance from my apartment (far-ish) and the prices (steep-ish), but it’s nonetheless good enough that I’m happy to make the occasional two-train trek out to Carroll Gardens to get my fix.

The restaurant itself is bright and modern, with wood-panel walls, some CB2-looking hanging lights, a few tables, and floor-to-ceiling windows that look out onto Smith. The employees are friendly and helpful, and though the food takes a while to come out, it feels worth the wait. (Imagine eating a soggy-ass arepa that’s been sitting around under a warmer for the last 30 minutes. Ick. So I’ll do my best not to whine about the slowness.)

A nut-free Reina arepa from White Maize

So far, I’ve tried a grand total of four of White Maize’s nine arepas, and two of their four appetizers, too. My favorite of the arepas is easily the Parrilla, which is made with grilled steak, grilled tomato, grilled avocado, and grilled cheese, and which is pictured in the foreground of the photo at the top of this post. The steak is ridiculously soft and tender—the folks at White Maize will cook it perfectly to the doneness of your choosing—and the grilled cheese and avocado were nice touches, too.

My only complaint was that the arepa as a whole could used a little more pop—but that’s what salsa’s for, isn’t it? Fortunately, White Maize offers two squirt-bottle sauces: one red (a little spicy, and a little boring, but fine), and one green (spice-less, avocado-based, and the love of my life). The latter sauce is necessary—and in large quantities, too—for nearly everything at White Maize. Without it, most of these dishes end up being a little underwhelming, but as soon as I get my hands on one of those squirt bottles, I’m set.

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I also like the Pelua arepa, which is made with pulled beef and gouda. Admittedly, it’s a little (okay, a lot) boring, but with a few squirts of the aforementioned sauce, it turns into a whole other creation. The pulled beef is good, and the gouda is cheese, after all—so really, there’s nothing not to like.

Also pretty good: the Reina arepa, made with “chicken breast and avocado salad.” The first time I ordered it, I figured it’d contain (a) chicken breast and (b) avocado salad—that’s what the menu’s (lack of) punctuation implies, at least—but it doesn’t, so I’d like to submit a somewhat pedantic (but actually sort of significant) correction to the folks at White Maize: This filling is one cohesive salad that’s comprised of both chicken breast and avocado, so it should be referred to as “chicken-breast-and-avocado salad,” and not as “chicken breast and avocado salad.” (Because “Chicken-breast-and-avocado” is here one long compound adjective that describes “salad.” Hyphenating it accordingly would get rid of the ambiguity that allows us to misunderstand the Reina as filled with avocado salad and some chicken breast, too.)

…In any case, the Reina (pictured second and third above) is a sort of decent that qualifies as good once sauced up. The chicken itself is the right texture, and the salad it’s part of is all right, if a little bland. (It’s decidedly avocado in color, but not avocado enough in flavor, and if you ask me, it could definitely use some herbs or some citrus, and maybe even some solid chunks of avocado, too.) There’s also a whole lot of olive oil in this thing, to the point that it’s a little overbearing, but honestly, there’s so, so little White Maize’s squirt bottles can’t fix.

The Vuelve a la Vida arepa from White Maize

I have found one arepa that my beloved green sauce can’t fix, though: the Vuelve a la Vida (English: “return to life”), which is pictured immediately above. It’s filled with shrimp, octopus, and calamari “in cold cocktail salad” (read: smothered in straight cocktail sauce), and it’s just too sweet for me. The shrimp is fine, the squid is fine, and the octopus (though there are only maybe two or three pieces per arepa) is particularly good, but the cocktail sauce just ruins the whole thing for me. What otherwise could’ve been a fun, multidimensional seafood-salad-type thing goes flat and one-note when coated in a sauce as blunt (and sugary!) as this one. Plus, the sauce makes the arepa itself taste a little too much like an English muffin pizza.

A nut-free empanada from White Maize

As for sides: The tequeños—fresh cheese, wrapped in dough and deep fried—are great, and though they’d be even better with their own dipping sauce, the green sauce works well enough. And the empanadas, which come 3 for $7, are wonderful, too. (There’s one pictured in the terrible photograph immediately above.) I usually hate black beans, but they work so well in these that I just might have to change my stance. And the meat—to tell you the truth, I’m not exactly sure whether it’s pork or beef?—is solid, too. The best part, though, is probably the dough: hot, crispy, and just sweet enough. Real good.

Anyway. While I can’t deny that White Maize’s arepas are all at least a little lacking, I also can’t deny that I really do like the place, despite its tendency to underwhelm me. So I do recommend White Maize—but I also recommend going in with your expectations in check.

…And a full wallet, because this shit ain’t cheap.

Find White Maize at 277 Smith Street, between Degraw and Sackett.

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Sao Mai

A bowl of pho from Sao Mai

Up in Yorkville, right around 2nd Avenue, there once existed this cancerous cluster of terrible restaurants that really ought to have been dug right up and replanted in some godforsaken upstate strip mall. I spent a lot of time in those sorts of restaurants, because my middle-school friends evidently couldn’t get enough of…well, whatever it is those sorts of places hawked, I guess: usually terrible “sushi,” and depressing Thai on occasion, too. I remain bitter. (Maybe that’s why my blog posts are so insistently obnoxious?) Today—nearly a decade later—a satisfying percentage of those restaurants are gone. But I think one may have been reincarnated about 70 blocks south of its original spot.

This is, of course, my roundabout way of saying that the Lower East Side’s Sao Mai reminds me of the shame-inducing restaurants of my middle-school career. It’s the terrible decor that gives me the flashbacks. Shitty lighting casts an orange hue on exposed brick walls; ceiling fans spin on, even in the middle of February; picture-plastered menus come in flimsy little booklets; the cashier lives behind a shiny-tiled podium that really belongs at the front of a medical spa; a strip of pink flowers do nothing to spruce the place up. I’ve come to associate this sort of aesthetic with terrible attempts at Asian cuisine—so by the time I’d taken my seat at my first Sao Mai table, I was already expecting to be let down.

Sometimes—sometimes, I said—I love being wrong.

A grilled pork bánh mì from Sao Mai

105 posts, and not a single mention of Vietnamese cuisine. How that happened, I’m not sure—but I’m thinking Sao Mai will be a good entry point, given its unusual degree of nut allergy–friendliness. There are no tree nuts in Sao Mai’s kitchen, but that’s not really out of the ordinary for a Vietnamese restaurant. Nearly all the Vietnamese restaurants I call tell me that they don’t use tree nuts in any of their food, but almost none of those restaurants’ bánh mì are made with allergy-friendly bread. (The restaurant I called immediately before Sao Mai responded to my bread-origin question with laughter—then, when the woman realized I was serious, she told me that they got their bread “from some bakery in Chinatown,” and that I’d probably be wise to stay away from it.)

Sao Mai’s bread supplier is Neri’s Bakery, a peanut-free bakery that’s grounded up in Port Chester, of all places. With regard to tree nuts, though, the situation at Neri’s is a little more complicated. Here’s what I was told via email:

We are a Peanut Free facility, which means we do not use any Peanuts in any portion of the bakery. We also have a written Peanut Free policy and all employees are trained accordingly. That being said we do use some Tree Nuts in our pastry division for items in our retail store for Biscotti cookies. That room is completely separate from the rest of the bakery.

Now, as you’ve probably inferred from the above photo of a half-eaten bánh mì, the response I got from Neri’s was enough to make me feel comfortable with their breads. That makes Sao Mai the only Vietnamese restaurant I’ve found that meets my standards, bread-wise. (I’m sure there are others, but I can only make so many phone calls.)

Calamari from Sao Mai

It took approximately one dish to make me start questioning my initial read of Sao Mai. The crispy calamari (pictured immediately above) didn’t singlehandedly bring me around, but it sure did help the process along. Like a lot of Sao Mai’s dishes, it’s very sweet—too sweet for some, perhaps—but I love it. I really, really do. The squid’s always perfectly fried, and it’s good plain, with the dipping sauce it comes with, or with a little cilantro on top. The lettuce underneath is a little iffy, and the tomato slices on the side are weak, too—but what can you do? Overall, a lovely appetizer.

It was the pork bánh mì, though, that sealed the deal. Pictured second above and immediately below, this is one good sandwich. Given the whole can’t-eat-most-breads thing, I can’t say much of anything about how this sandwich fares against other bánh mì, but I can evaluate on its own merit, and let me tell you: This thing is good. The grilled pork is sweet and soft, and all the cilantro in this thing complements it ridiculously well. There’s just enough mayo, and I’m even a fan of the cucumber that comes wedged in the crook of the roll. (I have a thing with cucumbers. I think they’re disgusting. I’d had big plans to leave this cucumber wedge uneaten, but Sao Mai foiled them.)

My favorite thing about this sandwich, I think (aside from the flavor of the pork—and aside from the fact that I can eat it, which is a huge plus), is the way the arrangement of its ingredients lends itself so well to strategic eating. When I get tired of the pork, I can scoot over to the right for some cilantro or some cucumber, or over to the left for some carrot and daikon—and when I get tired of those, it’s right back to the center for pork. It seems like a silly thing to praise, but it’s a big part of why I like this sandwich so much. Here it is:

A grilled pork bánh mì from Sao Mai

Rather than giving a play-by-play of everything else I’ve enjoyed (or, in some cases, disliked—I’m looking at you, pan-fried egg noodles), I’m going to cut right to the chase and get to talking about the phở. (I actually think it’s illegal to use the phrase “cut to the chase” when you’re already a literal thousand words into a blog post, but you’ll forgive me.) Sao Mai offers seven types, and both of the ones I’ve tried have been pretty damn good.

The first time I went, I ordered the beef brisket phở, which (like most of Sao Mai’s other phở dishes) is served alongside a plate of bean sprouts, lime, basil, and jalapeño. The brisket was good enough, but the beef eye-of-round phở—or “beef eye round noodle,” as it’s called on Sao Mai’s menu—has since become my regular order, literally only because I’m a sucker for bright-pink beef. (Okay: I like the eye-of-round’s taste and texture just a little more than I like the brisket’s. But it’s 97% a matter of color.) I mean, come on:

A bowl of pho from Sao Mai

Irresistible.

(Actually, the eye-of-round’s not all that pink in the photos I’ve included with this post. It darkens pretty quickly, and photos take a few minutes. Sorry.)

Anyway, this phở’s pretty great. (NYC definitely isn’t known for its Vietnamese food, but Sao Mai does consistently place on best-phở lists, so that’s something, at least.) The broth is subtle (but not bland!), and I’m particularly grateful for all the onions and scallions throughout. I like the noodles themselves, too—and I typically hate super-thin noodles like these—and the meat’s good till it toughens up five minutes into your meal. (Really, though, it takes effort not to eat all the meat within 30 seconds of your bowl’s arrival, so if you’re aware that its texture is time-sensitive, you’ll be fine.)

Here’s a bonus phởto (har har), just ’cause:

A bowl of phở

Obviously, I like Sao Mai. I’m most grateful for their bánh mì, and I have a lot of fun with their phở, but there’s no reason to stop at those; the menu’s definitely worth a poke-around, and I’m genuinely glad to have gotten my hands on it. There are a bunch of dishes I still want to try, but for now, I’m pretty confident: Sao Mai is a restaurant that will be in my rotation for a long, long time.

Find Sao Mai at 203 1st Avenue, between 12th and 13th Streets. And if you’re planning on having a sit-down meal, be sure you have either (a) a free afternoon ahead of you, or (b) the cojones to use your hand/voice/a kazoo to signal for the cashier’s attention if you ever, ever, ever want to be given a check. Ever. (Oh, also: Bánh mì aren’t served after 5pm.)

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Sammy’s Halal Food

Chicken and lamb over rice with white and green sauce from Sammy's Halal Food

I went over 7,500 days without eating anything that came from a halal cart. (I guess some of those were my no-solid-food days, but I liked the number, so let me live, all right?) I don’t know whether I’ve ever gone more than 7.5 days without smelling something from a halal cart, but until this past January, I’d never, ever gotten up close and personal with any chicken and lamb over rice. As a kid, I guess I never had much interest—and as an adult-ish thing who at least attempts to handle her allergies responsibly, I figured that there’d be no feasible way to get in touch with a “halal guy” for Q&A.

I could’ve just walked up to a random cart and asked about nuts, sure, but I’m typically a little uncomfortable with such a casual approach. I don’t like to go into first-time meals without having spoken to an employee—preferably, a higher-up—via phone (or preferably email) well in advance. I don’t think it’s all that rational, but the feeling I have is that waltzing on in, asking a few questions about nuts, and then sitting right down to eat is too lax a restaurant-vetting method. Showing up and asking doesn’t does it do much to make me feel safe—and a meal spent worrying is bound to be an unpleasant one, no matter the quality of the food. Plus, I’ve found that the answers I get in person are, for whatever reason, way less likely to be true. So when I’m in the mood to try something new, I make sure I’m sticking to premeditated meals at restaurants with phone numbers.

But how to fit a halal cart into that perhaps-ridiculous requirement? By the end of a few months of idle brainstorming, I’d come up with nothing. If I spent long enough combing Google, could I maybe find a cart with a phone number or email address? (Well, couldn’t.) Could I, with enough effort, get any search engine to point me toward a single page that might mention both halal carts and food allergies? (God, no.) What about The Halal Guys? They’re huge—could I get in touch with them? (Yes, but I didn’t end up being comfortable with their baklava.) Could I develop a half-decent rapport with one of the halal guys I walk by every day, to the extent that I’d be able to have a nice, thorough conversation with him about his ingredients? (Sounds like a lot of work.)

Out of the bunch, the Halal Guys idea was the only one that’d even come close to leading me anywhere, so I decided to search (and search) for some other halal-cart chains. (I had no idea these things came in chains. I thought they were one-off things. Guess not.) Rafiqi’s looked promising, but their Twitter is inactive, and they read and ignored the Facebook message I sent. And then I found Sammy’s, Queens-born winner of the 2006 Vendy Awards…and solution to the Halal-Cart Problem™.

Sammy's Halal Food cart

Sammy’s has no website, no Twitter. (They seem to have had a website at one point, but these days, the URL just leads to spam.) What they do have is a Facebook page, which proudly bears just what I’d been looking for: a phone number (which ended up being one of two I’d later realize were printed right there on the front of the cart itself).

Half-afraid that the number would somehow up and disappear right before my eyes, I called it immediately—and the guy I spoke with told me just what I’d been wanting to hear: that none of Sammy’s carts use any nutty ingredients, and that I’d be just fine, allergy-wise, with all the food they serve. I forgot to ask about their pita (which is of particular concern to me, as all bread products are), but some cart window–peeking has since tipped me off that Sammy’s uses Kontos pita, which contains wheat, sesame, and soy, but which fortunately doesn’t come with any sort of “may contain” warning for tree nuts. Good enough for me.

The contact information for Sammy's Halal Food

In my 7,500 halal-free days—or rather, in my 500-ish Halal-coveting days—I’d cultivated quite the mental swath of hype for this stuff, to the point that it seemed unlikely that any of it would ever be able to meet my ridiculous expectations. I mean, those carts smell good. Plus, everyone’s always cracking open those styrofoam containers in NYU’s lounges, and while I’ll always cast a reflexive sneer at anyone who thinks it’s okay to eat fragrant food in an otherwise food-less public area, I can’t deny that their lunches always make my stomach growl. Plus, white sauce? Come on. I had to get in on that.

And you know what? Sammy’s didn’t disappoint me anywhere near as much as I’d figured it would. In fact, it hardly disappointed me at all—and I’m perfectly willing to write off the entirety of that (negligible) disappointment, given the sheer size of the overgrown hype-swath I’d been living with.

For my nerves’ sake, I kept my first Sammy’s order exceedingly simple: chicken over rice, topped with white sauce and nothing else. (The unnamed green sauce is evidently what sets Sammy’s apart from other halal carts, but—for whatever reason—I was particularly nervous about my first Sammy’s meal, so I didn’t exactly feel like courting a mystery sauce.) And simple as it was, I definitely did enjoy it. The chicken was nice and tender, with a very mild spice to it, and the rice itself was surprisingly good. (I’ve been eating a lot of poorly cooked rice lately, I guess—but this rice was particularly good: not over- nor under-cooked, and nicely seasoned, too.)

The white sauce—which I did like, by the way—was the only thing that left me wanting. If I hadn’t been looking, I wouldn’t have been able to tell it from straight mayonnaise…and that’s fine, I guess, but it wasn’t exactly what I’d been dreaming of. I would’ve liked it to be a little tangier—or a little more anything-but-mayo-y, really—to cut through the flavors in the meat and the rice, but I suppose you can’t always get what you want. White sauce is mayo-intensive. Never knew. But once I’d come to terms with that, I started to enjoy it quite a bit.

A nut-free platter of chicken and lamb over rice with white and green sauces from Sammy's Halal Food

The only issue I took with my chicken over rice was that it ended up being a little flat—especially as the meal goes on and the platter gets more and more mixed up—which was why, my second time at Sammy’s, I decided to go with chicken and lamb over rice with both white and green sauces on top (pictured at the top of this post and immediately above). And sure enough, that did it.

The lamb, though not all that great on its own, brought new life (well, new flavors) to the platter—but it was actually the green sauce that really changed the game. I don’t know what’s in it, nor do I even really know what it tastes like (cilantro, for one), but I do know that it combines with the white sauce to produce a topping that’s actually effective at brightening up the meat it tops. Predictably, it adds some much-needed dimension to these relatively plain meat-over-rice platters, and so I’ll admit it: The Yelpers are right. Green sauce, at Sammy’s, is indispensable.

(Sorry for being so vague about the flavor of this stuff. It’s herby. It’s sort of garlicky, but I have no idea whether there’s even any garlic in it. I should probably at least mention that it isn’t hot. The red sauce is the hot one. That’s the only sauce they’ll explicitly offer you, by the way. You’ll have to request the green sauce by name—and I’d advise that you not forget to do so.)

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Onto the falafel, though. Pictured above is, of course, a falafel sandwich, which just might be my favorite Sammy’s offering, if only because I’m a sucker for warm, chewy pita. The falafel itself is good—both in this sandwich and over rice, too—and the lettuce and cabbage are surprisingly inoffensive. (I think there’s other stuff in there, but I can’t quite say what. Onions? Probably. And a few bits of carrot, too. Basic stuff, really. But pleasant stuff nonetheless.) Again, though, it’s the combination of the white and green sauces that sold me on this thing. They work just as well with the falafel as they do with the chicken and the lamb, and they coat the pita nicely, too.

Anyway, I really like Sammy’s—as if that weren’t abundantly clear. And I’m sure a lot of that’s just my excitement at having finally become a halal-cart regular, but it has a lot to do with Sammy’s itself, too. The food is cheap as hell; it never tastes like it’s been sitting around, even though it probably has, I guess; and the guys who run the cart are always pleasant and friendly. Being able to make a casual stop for street food is new to me, sure—and the novelty of the whole thing has certainly done a bunch to shape this review. But Sammy’s is good. I really do think so.

Find this particular Sammy’s cart on the corner of West 4th Street and 6th Avenue. (There’s another in Queens, on the corner of 73rd Street and Broadway, and there’s one in Brooklyn, too, on the corner of Brighton Beach and Coney Island Avenue.)

 

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