Monthly Archives: August 2017

Nut-Free Chicago: A Travel “Guide”

Last month, I spent a week and a half in Chicago, where I did just about everything I do in NYC. I wandered aimlessly. I people watched. I browsed clothes I couldn’t afford. I watched way too many late-night Cops reruns. And to my surprise, I dined out a whole hell of a lot. Last time I ventured to Chicago, I subsisted on literally nothing but McDonald’s, Subway, pretzels, Cup Noodles, and water. But that was pre-blog. Now, I’m a practiced diner-outer, and I have a much harder time settling for such a repetitive and high-trash diet. It’s probably a good thing.

But before I got there, I didn’t expect to find all that much in the way of safe restaurants. It took me months to compile even the very beginnings of the NYC-specific list that’s now my pride and joy (half-serious about the whole pride-and-joy thing), so I didn’t expect to get all that much done Chicago-wise in the 10 days I’d have there. I figured I’d bark up a bunch of wrong trees, find maybe a restaurant or two, then resign myself to a week of fast food and Airbnb-home-cooking—but I was wrong, wrong, wrong. Chicago’s not at all a difficult city to eat in, and with the help of a list compiled by the No Nuts Moms Group of Chicago, I ended up with plenty of options.

So here they are—all the non-chain restaurants I ate at, and some I called, but couldn’t make it to—in brief-ish (yeah, right), because we’ve all got things to do. And please, pardon the iPhone photos. I didn’t bring my camera.

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Saiguette

Saiguette's skirt steak bánh mì

Bánh mì are tough. I don’t have any trouble finding tree nut–free Vietnamese restaurants, but Vietnamese restaurants that happen to use allergy-friendly bread? For a while there, I’d given up on finding any more. Sao Mai is a singular godsend—I don’t know how they ended up using the bread they use, but I’m so very glad they did, as every other Vietnamese restaurant I’ve called has either told me that they don’t know where they get their bread (oh), or that yeah, no, it’s just not going to work. I made the decision, then, to be content with Sao Mai, and my eye hasn’t wandered since.

And then I stumbled upon Saiguette, a surprisingly allergy-aware grab-and-go Vietnamese restaurant, way up on the corner of West 106th Street, whose menu proudly bares those rare, magic words: “…on our homemade bread.” Though peanut-heavy, that menu is entirely nut-free—and yes, the bread is made in-house, and it is, in fact, safe. Naturally, I found myself at Saiguette’s teeny-tiny, hardly-a-restaurant storefront within an hour of finding out the above. I’ve since tried 7 of the 11 sandwiches on the menu. Go figure.

Saiguette's pork belly bánh mì

Now. Because I often lament how infrequently I get to rank things, I’m going to take this opportunity to do some sandwich-ranking. (I swear this isn’t just a clunky setup; I really do wish I had more opportunities to order items from best to worst.) The last things I ranked were the characters of Malcolm in the Middle (Lois > Dewey > Francis & Piama > Hal > Malcolm > Jamie > Reese—yes, I’m certain, and no, I won’t reconsider), but that was months ago, and no one cared, so. Saiguette’s pork belly bánh mì is the best one I’ve tried, followed by the grilled pork shoulder with lemongrass, followed by the classic (pâté and pork terrine), then the flank steak, then the grilled pork shoulder without lemongrass, then the skirt steak, then the chicken thigh. That’s my story, and I’m sticking to it.

But these sandwiches are hard to rank. Most differ only in their proteins—so because they share so many components, they’re probably best evaluated in the aggregate. Overall, then, they’re rather good. (Likely not the city’s best, but perhaps the city’s safest, and that counts for a lot.) The bread, though nothing special, is passable—better when not slathered in spicy mayo, a.k.a. the world’s most boring condiment—and the vegetables (and technical fruits) are surely good enough, despite the fact that they’re not exactly the sorts I’d want to eat outside the rather forgiving confines of a sandwich. Plenty of cilantro; a giant, satisfying wedge (or two!) of snappy, snappy cucumber; flavorful jalapeños; and just the right amount of pickled carrot…

Saiguette's classic bánh mì

They’re good. All of them—which I suppose means it’s time for me to get into the details. So. The pork belly (pictured second above) is absurdly juicy, to the extent that it sort of just continuously oozes itself. It’s sweet—too sweet—but somehow still balanced, and if you don’t make the mistake of turning to another of Saiguette’s bánh mì within minutes of putting (half of) this one down, the fact that it never fails to blow out your palate will be a total non-issue. And the two pork shoulders—one grilled, with lemongrass, and one roasted, without—are almost as good. Both are rather sweet, but I find the grilled version significantly less overbearing. And though the added lemongrass doesn’t do much, I get a kick out of knowing it’s there.

Then, the flank steak—which is better than the skirt steak (top of this post), and by a large margin, too. These two are all about their textures, and given that, it’s a no-brainer to place the tender, juicy flank steak ahead of the tougher, drier skirt. But I think the classic (immediately above) is a little better than the both of them. Piled high with pork terrine and a few chunks of what tastes like (but isn’t) a takeout-style Chinese spare rib, that sandwich is pretty goddamn great. And it’s the cheapest one on Saiguette’s menu, too. It’s not perfect—without a doubt, it could use a little more balance, a little more nuance—but I do like it, and I do recommend giving it a try.

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In fact, the only of Saiguette’s bánh mì I wouldn’t recommend is the grilled chicken thigh (immediately above), which is labeled “juicy,” but which actually sits at a rather unimpressive position on the juice scale, all told. It’s fine, I guess. But flavor-wise, it’s painfully boring—and a painfully boring central feature makes for a blunt, unbalanced, and all around underwhelming bánh mì. It’s no matter, though; there are obviously a bunch of other things to order.

But I do stick to the bánh mì. There’s nothing all that wrong with the phở, but I find it hard to justify going all the way the fuck up to 106th Street only to order a dish that just makes me go, “huh, that was all right—but I prefer Sao Mai’s.” By the time I’m stepping over Saiguette’s threshold, I feel as if I’ve earned something grand. (It’s all that time on the C train. I usually have earned something grand.) And as soon as I start feeling all earny-entitley, ho-hum phở becomes a total non-option. It just isn’t worth it—especially when there are nut-free sandwiches on the menu.

Besides, even if you’ve ordered it to-stay, Saiguette’s phở comes disassembled, which has some serious downsides. The flavors get less time to mingle, for one—and the noodles, which are just okay, get less time to loosen up and fall out of their noodle-glob. But the broth is excellent. It has depth and breadth and areas of interest and probably an interesting life story or two to tell, and there’s a ton of it, which definitely helps. The eye-of-round hardly has any flavor of its own, and the brisket, though rather tasty, comes with a few too many bits of gelatinous flab. But the broth is good enough to carry the phở—not to any sort of distinguished status, but to the status of a decent dish nonetheless.

But it’s all right. Those bánh mì deserve my focus anyway. They just about demand it.

Find Saiguette at 935 Columbus Avenue, on the corner of 106th Street. (By the way: If you call ahead and place your order for pickup, they’ll give you 10% off—and if you happen to be dining between 11am and 5pm, you’ll save 10% more.)

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Charles’ Country Pan Fried Chicken

A tray of chicken from Charles' Pan-Fried Chicken

I was late to the subway party. I was a bus kid, familiar with only two lines, confined (for the most part) to the neighborhood I lived in—and it took me until the 10th grade to realize just how much more ground I could cover via train. Immediately, I was floored. I loved that I could descend a flight of stairs at 86th and Lex, sit for a while, climb a different flight of stairs, then find myself at a friend’s doorstep in the middle of Brooklyn. I loved that I could play Pin the Tail on the Subway Map and then actually go to whatever stop my finger landed closest to. And I loved that I could go to Times Square whenever I wanted—which I did, often.

I’m glad to report that I’ve since grown tired of Times Square—but I can’t say I’ve since grown tired of riding the train. Sure, it can be hot, and smelly, and noisy, and dirty, and crowded, and slow, and unpredictable, and—worst of all—routine, and routinely all of the above. But for me, that original novelty just hasn’t worn off. Add my late bloom to the fact that I now live 2 minutes from the train (as opposed to 20—fuck the upper-east corner of the Upper East Side), and you get me as I am today: outrageously lazy, yet entirely willing to get on the train for just about any reason whatsoever.

So don’t think I don’t know how weird it is that I have no qualms about traveling long-ish distances for even the simplest of meals. And don’t think I just suck it up for the sake of this blog, either. I’m well aware that I’m unusually train-happy, and I know, too, that most others aren’t. (Believe me, I know.) That said, I’m going to have to straight-up beseech you to get your ass on the A train and up to 132nd Street for some of this Charles guy’s pan-fried chicken.

There are no nuts in Charles’ kitchen (save for whatever might be in the few cakes on the menu, which aren’t baked in-house, and which are easy enough to avoid). I haven’t been able to get a straight answer on whether they themselves bake their breads, so I avoid those, too—but I’m entirely comfortable with the rest of the menu. (In fact, as they go, Charles’ was actually a particularly un-scary restaurant for me to try. I don’t spend my train rides stressing about all the ways nuts might be hiding in fried chicken and mashed potatoes in the same way as I do with, like, curries and sauces and breads and pastries and chocolates and granola bars and vegan “dairy” and…yeah. Hello.)

A tray of chicken from Charles' Pan-Fried Chicken

Anywho. The menu’s pretty big, but I haven’t yet managed to make it past the fried chicken—not because I have any doubts that I’d like the rest of the food, but because that chicken is so goddamn good that I’ve been downright unable to pry myself away from it. When it comes to restaurant-born chicken, I’m actually fairly picky. Overbearing skin drains me: if it’s too salty, or too heavy, or too blunt, or too dry, I’ll still do my best to chew on—it is fried chicken, after all—but history’s shown that I won’t make it far. At Charles’, though, that’s not an issue. The skin’s crispy, but not brittle; juicy, but not wet; salty, but not overly so; and light, but not lifeless. It has integrity. It has spirit. And if you’re lucky enough to stroll in just as a batch is coming out of the pan…well, it just might be life-changing.

But don’t trust me. (Why should you? I did just publish a post on KFC.) Trust, uh, the whole entire Internet. Google the restaurant’s name, and everywhere you turn, you’ll find praise: some for the old location, some for the new. Sweet, sweet consensus—the chicken is excellent. It’s worth your time. It’s worth a trip. It’s some of the best. It is known.

But I don’t stop with a quick ride on the A up to Charles’. No—I triple-travel for this chicken. Sure, I like eating right there in the restaurant. But I love heading up to Charles’, picking up a whole goddamn tray, high-tailing it home, sticking that shit straight in the fridge, and then forgetting about it until the sun starts to set. Then, I’ll shove it into a tote—alongside whatever ludicrous assortment of sides I’ve looted from my cabinets—and head (with Sam) straight to Battery Park. Cold fried chicken, a bowl of pasta salad, some kettle chips, and an assortment of greenmarket spoils, all strewn buffet-style across one of those stone chess tables; a breeze off the Hudson; an unobstructed view of the sunset…

I concede that it’s a meme of an outing. But I maintain that it’s a meme for good reason. What better way is there to spend a July evening? (I’m really asking.)

A side of macaroni and cheese from Charles' Pan-Fried Chicken

Alas, the sides—from Charles’, not my cabinet—are a bit more hit-or-miss. At the wrong time of day, the macaroni and cheese grows gummy and flavorless, and the potato salad, a usual favorite of mine, isn’t worth a reorder. But there are so many sides I’d like to try—cole slaw, macaroni salad, a million types of vegetables, rice and beans, mashed potatoes, you name it—that I haven’t even come close to losing hope. And those entrees, too. Should I ever manage to distract myself from the fried chicken, there’s so much: baked chicken, smothered pork chops, barbecue ribs, turkey wings—if it’s on the menu, I probably want it. And I’m supremely excited to work my way through it all.

Find Charles’ Country Pan Fried Chicken at 2461 Frederick Douglass Boulevard, between 131st and 132nd Streets. Did I mention it’s worth the trip?

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