Monthly Archives: March 2017

Tomoe Sushi

The Sashimi Deluxe from

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

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

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

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

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

Salmon ceviche from Tomoe Sushi

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

Anyway. Time to do my thing.

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

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

The sake kama and the assorted tempura from Tomoe Sushi

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Shake Shack

Two Shake Shack hamburgers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Find Shake Shack just about everywhere.

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Dō Hwa

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

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

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

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

A plate of

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

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

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

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

A pile of (raw) bulgogi from Do Hwa

Now. Meat.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Barneys Bone Broth

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Here’s a weird one.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Two cups of Barneys signature broth

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

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

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

A Barneys meatball

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

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

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Cava Grill

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

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

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

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

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

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

A pita from Cava

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

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

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

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

A Cava pita bearing a meatball

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

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

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

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

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Sweet Middles

Three crème brulée Sweet Middles

I find a lot of decidedly nut-free nonsense in the bowels of this city’s low-end supermarkets. Lofthouse cookies, Everyday Favorites (i.e. Maplehurstcupcakes, box after box of shitty (nut-free) donuts…there’s no shortage. I hardly ever buy any of it, because I’m well aware that all of it is sub-par and way, way, way too sugary—but every once in a while, I “forget” all about that and let myself be marketed to.That’s how I end up with something like a box of Sweet Middles on my kitchen counter. Waiting to be sampled. Waiting to be photographed. Waiting to be written about. Waiting. Waiting.

…Well, now I’m here.

Most of Our Specialty‘s products—cakes, flatbreads, pizzas—aren’t made in a nut- and peanut-free environment, but Sweet Middles are, lucky us. There’s no allergen information to get into, really: just a little nut- and peanut-free logo on each box. And for better or for worse, that’s all it takes to get me to pull out my wallet. So now, I’m the proud owner of my very own box of crème brulée Sweet Middles.

The back of a box of crème brulée Sweet Middles

And what is there to say, really? They’re exactly what they look like: ridiculously over-sweet (and overpriced) supermarket “cookies” that I would’ve been guaranteed to love at age 9 or 10, but that sort of just hurt my teeth and make me feel bad about myself at 20. They’re basically just semi-hardened globs of super-sugary icing wedged between sets of soft-baked cookie-ish things. I haven’t been able to detect any crème brulée flavor (nor any flavor beyond that of pure sugar, really), but it’s possible that it’s there, I guess. (And it’s possible, too, that the other flavors are better…but I’m inclined to doubt.)

Honestly, though—and I’m so, so ashamed of this—I don’t quite hate them. While they’re, yes, so sweet that I haven’t been able to bring myself to take even a single full-sized bite, there’s definitely something that’s keeping me coming back for additional nibbles. And after a few days of on-and-off wrestling with these stupid things, I’ve figured out what it is: their striking similarity to the Mrs. Fields cookies of my pre–careful eating childhood. (As a kid, I was obsessed with both the Mrs. Fields cookie-and-icing sandwiches and the Auntie Anne’s pretzel bites that you’ll find at, like, every single mall on the planet. But neither of those vendors is allergy-friendly in the slightest, so I’ve since decided to abstain.)

With a lot of water—and I mean a lot—I can even get through a whole serving (that’s one cookie, I think). Slowly, slowly, slowly, I will make my way through this $6 box of shame. And then I’ll be free. To never, ever, ever buy a box of Sweet Middles ever, ever again. But then, I’ve learned this before. A million times, at least. So really, between you and me, I’m not feeling all that hopeful about the whole well-at-least-I’ll-learn-from-this thing. Oh well.

Find these half-delicious, half-painful cookie monsters at Key Food, Gristedes, D’Agostino, or Fairway. (Actually: 2% delicious, 18% genuinely painful, and 80% just plain bad.)

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