Category Archives: American

Hank’s Juicy Beef

A quarter-pound Italian beef sandwich from Hank's Juicy Beef

If I’m anything at all, then I’m certainly a creature of habit. And while in Chicago, I formed one hell of an Italian beef habit. (It was an Al’s habit, really—and I formed it not because of the Italian beef itself, but because of those chili-cheese fries, to which I haven’t yet found a local alternative.) I just kept eating Italian beef after goddamn Italian beef—and so I guess it’s not all that surprising that I ended up spending most of my ride home from the airport plumbing Googling for a local alternative.

It’s not that I think Italian beef is worth missing. It’s not even that missed it. I just don’t like having foods taken from me—especially the foods I’ve gone through the trouble of verifying as safe, and double-especially the foods I haven’t yet had my fill of. If I’d lost McDonald’s right after my third McDonald’s meal, I would’ve been one grief-laden four-year-old. But am I saddened by any of those recent articles whining about how McDonald’s might soon start rolling out a few menu items that call for nuts that aren’t pre-packaged, thus (likely) rendering the whole stupid-ass chain unsafe for me? Uh, not really. I’m saturated.

And fortunately, it looks like I’m going to be able to get saturated on Italian beef, too—thanks to Hank’s Juicy Beef, a mini-menued restaurant that’s evidently been doing business in my neighborhood for a whole year now. There are no tree nut (or peanut) products in the kitchen, and the bread, which comes from Turano Baking Company, should be totally safe, too. (According to the representative I spoke with, Turano’s bread doesn’t share equipment with anything nutty, and if there are nuts in the same facility, they’re nowhere near the bread. I think Hank’s uses these particular rolls, but I’m not 100% sure. All that’s good enough for me—and though I understand everyone’s standards, etc., are different, I’d venture to say it’s probably good enough for most.)

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Now. Contrary to what anyone trailing me would’ve had to conclude, I was rather unimpressed with the various Italian beef sandwiches I ate in Chicago. I didn’t dislike them—how could I have, given my unchecked love for the combination of bread and meat?—but if I didn’t always insist on writing home about each and every food I ate, they wouldn’t have been anything to write home about. Each time, I came away with the same complaints: The watery, flavorless gravy didn’t do enough to make up for the ultra-mushy bread—and despite all that wetness, the beef somehow still managed to tend dry. Plus, all that overbearing, soggy giardiniera? No, thanks.

Of course, I didn’t stop eating Italian beef. I didn’t even consider it—partially because I saw potential in it, partially because I half-liked it as it was, and partially because, uh, When In Chicago. I just kept eating (and eating, and eating) it. And then there I found myself, in the backseat, Googling. On a mission.

Once I got to Hank’s, it took me all of two bites to decide that my search needn’t continue. Hank’s isn’t as good as any Midwestern Italian beefery, nor does it wish it were; it’s at least three times as better (just click it), which doesn’t surprise me in the slightest. Owner Hank Tibensky—born and raised in Chicago, of course—insists on using only the highest-quality (grass-fed, pasture-raised, hormone- and antibiotic-free) beef, and honestly, it shows. That beef’s good, man. And the jus is plenty flavorful, too, which really helps the sandwich as a whole.

What’s more, the bread’s not half bad, either. I’m always skeptical of that sort of crustless “French” roll, but Turano’s actually have some structural integrity to them. Sure, they aren’t crusty; but they’re dense enough and rather chewy, and they do manage to hold their own against the wetness of the ingredients they sandwich. (Some of the best bites of a Hank’s sandwich are what I’ve come to call the “sweaty armpits”: the soggy crooks of bread on one side of the sandwich or the other where the jus has pooled and turned everything to pudding. Sounds gross. Isn’t. The bread’s just tough enough to withstand the assault, and those wet, sloppy bites are mighty satisfying. The name stays.)

The giardiniera’s fine—it’s firm and snappy, and it even adds to the sandwich, flavor-wise (!)—but it’s just too salty, so I usually end up going without. Instead, I add provolone, which gives the whole sandwich a cheesesteaky vibe. It’s good. Surprisingly good. And formidably filling, too. (Plus, for an extra $4—hardly a deal, I know—you can make it a meal with fries and a drink. Not any old fries, but curly fries. Fresh, crisp curly fries: residents of my dreams, fixtures of my heart. Or, uh, steak fries, if that’s what you’re into. But if that’s what you’re into, we probably wouldn’t get along.)

A hot dog from Hank's Juicy Beef

I’m also somewhat of a fan of the hot dog, which actually managed to startle me with how undeniably decent it was. I absolutely loathed Chicago’s Chicago dogs—the dogs themselves had such a dreary texture, and their flavor was nowhere near strong enough to handle the absurd, insecure, attention-needy checklist of (very fucking overbearing) toppings they went ahead and attempted to handle nonetheless—but I must say: the Hank’s version is all right. Yes, the dog itself is boiled/steamed (don’t know which, but it doesn’t matter either way), and yes, it tastes like it’s been boiled/steamed. But it doesn’t taste like dog-boil (so there’s that), and its texture is passable, at least. Plus, the bun’s fluffy enough (though I so wish Chicagoans would take to toasting), and no one topping threatens to overpower the others. All told, not bad. It’s actually sort of fun.

If only I had such nice things to say about the beef bowl. Like the sandwich, it costs $10—but unlike the sandwich, it’s not even close to worth it. It’s served not in a bowl, but in one of those paper trays usually reserved for, like, fries or onion rings or whatever, and that, combined with the small portion, makes it come off more as a side—an afterthought, a “well, I guess we can sell this, too, can’t we?”—than a main dish. The beef itself is still fine, but with a little (still-too-salty) giardiniera as its only partner, it does end up falling flat. And the same goes for the rice bowl (beef, giardiniera, and sautéed green peppers over very, very mushy white rice): a nice idea, but not worth the order.

Anyway, I like Hank’s. It may not be the world’s most authentic Italian beefery, if we’re (still?) defining “authenticity” as total adherence to the way things are done in a dish’s region of origin—but that’s fine, because if it were, it’d be worse off. Hank’s makes Chicago-style food, no doubt; but it’s ever-so-slightly New York–ified Chicago-style food, and that’s for the best. It’s not New York–ified enough, I don’t think—I could use some better bread, or a hot dog with some snap to it, or, you know, some flavors with a little more nuance than super-sweet or super-salty—but it’s not straight-up Midwest, either, and I’m going to have to call that a blessing.

Find Hank’s at 84 Chamber Street, between Church Street and Broadway.

[P.S. I’m liking this slowed-down posting schedule a whole lot—so much, in fact, that I’m going to be slowing it down even more. At this point, my plan is just to play it by ear and, uh, see how much longer I can fend off this burnout, because while I do like blogging, there are few things I dislike more than (a) feeling pressured to churn out blog posts when I’m busy with school, life, etc., and (b) feeling pressured to churn out blog posts when there’s nothing I want to say. So. I’m going to be aiming to publish a post every 14 days or so, but…we’ll see. They’ll come when they come.]

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Chirping Chicken

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Last winter, I wrote somewhat of a strange review of Roll-N-Roaster, a fast-food-ish restaurant way, way out in Sheepshead Bay. In that post, I explained that I don’t really know what it is about Roll-N-Roaster that so attracts me, but as time’s gone on—and as I’ve spent more and more time at Roll-N-Roaster—I’ve realized something: that one of the reasons I so love the place is that it’s an indecisive glutton’s heaven. Everything goes with everything else, and nothing’s too expensive, so it feels as if I’m meant to show up starving, fail to make a single decision, and then end up with a little of everything. At Roll-N-Roaster, there’s no shame in that. Or minimal shame, at least.

Roll-N-Roaster, then, meets this recurrent desire I have to eat as if I’m at a buffet—or as if I’m a particularly territorial and competitive buffet diner, rather. I don’t know what’s wrong with me, but I crave that sort of decision-free, pseudo-tasting, shove-an-entire-mixed-and-matched-medley-into-my-mouth-in-one-single-sitting dining experience on a regular basis. Roll-N-Roaster, though, is far too much of a schlep to work as my go-to fix. Here, friends (and acquaintances who like to keep tabs on what I’m up to, and food-allergy moms who evidently get a kick out of these write-ups), is where Chirping Chicken comes into play. It’s absolutely nothing like Roll-N-Roaster, but it’s just as viable a DIY buffet, and that is what really matters.

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Beyond that, I’m not quite sure what Chirping Chicken is. Google Maps describes one location as an “American restaurant,” one as a “Greek restaurant,” two as “Chicken restaurant[s]” and one as just a “restaurant,” and honestly, I have no clue which classification, if any, is correct. I do know what they serve, though: burgers, BBQ, steak, burritos, seafood, soups, salads, sandwiches, various “Greek specialties,” and, oh yeah, chicken—rotisserie chicken, fried chicken, grilled chicken, chicken nuggets, chicken fingers, chicken wings, and chicken just-about-everything-else, too. There’s a lot. It’s a trip, and it doesn’t make any sense. But almost all of it is safe, at least.

The folks at Chirping Chicken don’t cook with any nuts, but they do sell a number of desserts, made elsewhere, that aren’t safe. One is pecan pie, and while I’m definitely allergic to pecans, I don’t mind the pie’s presence, given how low the odds of cross-contamination are between the dessert and non-dessert portions of the menu. As for that non-dessert portion of the menu, I’m pretty confident that it’s all fine. (And if you call and ask, whoever answers the phone will assure you that there are no nuts in anything. Press on the pecan pie and they’ll always explain that it’s made elsewhere—which is just the sort of consistency I look for.)

As for the breads: I don’t remember the name of the company that makes the pita, but I’ve examined its packaging, and there’s no “may contain” warning for nuts (which is enough for me when it comes to something as simple as plain, mass-produced pita bread). And their ciabatta—the only other thing I’ve felt the need to look any further into—is made by Aladdin Bakers, and is safe, too.

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Now. Strictly speaking, Chirping Chicken is not a Good restaurant. Admittedly, the menu’s a minefield. There are the uncharmingly funky sides—the Kraft-tasting macaroni and cheese, the textureless potato salad (see for yourself immediately above), the overly acidic cole slaw, the insanely mushy rice, and the world’s most boring fries—and there are the lackluster salads, built on the backs of some of the most flavorless leaves of lettuce I’ve ever had. There are the shitty dipping sauces (the honey mustard’s half water, but the alternative is ketchup—and half of the other sauces, the ones you have to pay for, are just packets of salad dressing). And then there are all those random menu-rounder-outers—all those dishes they seem to make just because they can—that I’ve never tried, but that I’ll probably go on avoiding regardless.

But Good is not the only sort of good, and there’s plenty I love about Chirping Chicken, even beyond the whole decisionless-buffet-of-maximalist-pleasure thing. The rotisserie chicken’s usually great, and I’ve been known to enjoy a number of the other dishes, too. There are some decent sides, and nearly everything benefits from a little tzatziki. Plus, the menu’s so ridiculously large that there are probably about ten million ways to throw together a glutton’s meal. (If you haven’t noticed, I’m really into exploring and experimenting and discovering fun combinations that, on their best days, amount to far more than the sums of their parts. Plus, I’m actually not categorically opposed to sub-par food. Like I always say, it’s all about your expectations.)

Anyway. The rotisserie chicken’s my favorite thing on the menu, and though it’s great on its own, I like it best paired with pita, red beans (immediately below), and tzatziki. (When I say “paired with,” I mean “eaten in the same bite as.” There’s something about a meal made of meat stuffed into tiny sandwiches, man. Wholesome fun.) The chicken is admirable—well-seasoned skin, plenty-juicy meat—and the pita, though store-bought, is served warm, which helps its texture immensely. The red beans aren’t anything special, but they’re red, and they’re beans, and the flavor’s solid. And for me, at least, a moderate (okay, grotesquely large) schmear of tzatziki ties all of the above together rather nicely.

Chirping Chicken's red beans

Of course, I don’t stop there. Though I’m not much of a wings person, I actually sort of like the plain wings (they’re crisp, and I like crisp), and I straight-up love the chicken tenders (second above), which are an absolutely flawless execution of a dish that surprisingly many restaurants somehow manage to mangle. I haven’t tried the nuggets, but I’m sure they’re good, too—and honestly, I have a niggling curiosity about the baby back ribs, a bunch of the “Greek specialties,” and the ribeye (I know). Plus, sides. I’ve found almost every one I’ve tried to be more-or-less intolerable, sure. But I’m nonetheless itching to try the mozzarella sticks, the onion rings, the macaroni salad, the sweet plantains, the baked potatoes…

You know, to see how they fit in with the rest of the makeshift buffet I’ve so lovingly slapped together.

Find Chirping Chicken at 350 3rd Avenue, between 25th and 26th; 587 9th Avenue, between 42nd and 43rd; 355 Amsterdam Avenue, between 76th and 77th; 1560 2nd Avenue, between 80th and 81st; or 940 Columbus Avenue, between 106th and 107th. (Though it’s by no means the closest to my apartment, I tend to go to the one on Amsterdam. It’s open until 2am, and the employees sometimes throw me freebies.)

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KFC: For when you don’t hate yourself quite enough for Taco Bell

A bucket of chicken from KFC

I’m always ambivalent about these sorts of posts. On the one hand, allergy-friendly fast-food chains are infinitely helpful, and I do believe that they, too, are worth collecting. Places like KFC have saved my stranded, hungry, nut-allergic ass more times than I can count, so I don’t see any reason to keep them off my blog. But on the other hand, I have absolutely nothing new or fresh to say about all these international fast-food chains we’re all already familiar with. Even the allergen information is covered on their websites, so it’s all I can do, really, to point out the ones that are nut allergy–friendly. (And throw in some stupid commentary along the way. Obviously.)

So. As you’ve probably guessed, KFC is indeed pretty nut allergy–friendly. When you search for tree nuts on their Special Diets Wizard (yes, that’s what they call it), only four Café Valley (i.e. made-elsewhere) desserts come up—and when you actually read through the ingredients for those four desserts, you’ll notice that none actually contain any tree nuts. (Two have “may contain” warnings and two don’t, but I’m sure all four products may contain trace amounts of nuts, hence their coming up in the search.)

Beyond that, the following appears below the aforementioned Wizard: “Peanuts and tree nuts are not used at KFC. However, peanuts are present in the Reese’s® Peanut Butter Pie Slice and the Café Valley Bakery® Chocolate Chip Cake and Lemon Cake may contain traces of tree nuts.” And though that sounds sort of contradictory, it does makes a sort of clunky, corporate sense—you just have to replace “used” with “cooked with,” and you’ll have the simpler truth: that no one’s cooking with any nuts at KFC, and that any desserts that contain (or may contain) them are made elsewhere. Cross-contamination is virtually a non-issue, then. Good enough for me.

Four biscuits from KFC

Anywho. When I was younger—and certainly not anymore, how dare you?—I had a bona fide obsession with food. I had a stuffed dog named Butterscotch; a taboret jam-packed with various food-related stickers and stationery; a bedroom full of food-related sculptures, sculpted and painted by yours truly (who else?); and an actual plan to change my name to Caramel. When adults asked my favorite class, I’d answer “lunch.” Second favorite? “Snack.” And for a while, my favorite novel was Hatchet, by Gary Paulsen. Why? Because the protagonist spends good portion of the book trying to figure out how to feed himself in the wilderness, and the descriptions of the meat he cooks are straight-up mouthwatering.

Hatchet is the reason I’ll never quite get clean from KFC. When the kid manages to kill, clean, and cook his first “foolbird,” as he calls them, the description that follows is pretty tantalizing. And while Paulsen, with that passage, was probably just trying to instill the value of patience and perseverance, all I came away with was a grumbling stomach. After finishing the book, I talked my mom into buying (and listening to) the audiobook—and that was how I ended up sitting in a car, a block away from our neighborhood KFC, tearing through some juicy, juicy bird breast, listening to the bit of Hatchet in which Brian Robeson does the same. I was hungry, and it was tasty, and I wish I were kidding when I say I’ve been chasing that chicken-high ever since.

Mashed potatoes from KFC

I hope that at least does something to explain why I keep going back to KFC, if remarkably infrequently, despite the unambiguous shittiness of the food. I had one good experience—one time, and it wasn’t even that good of an experience—and now it’s looking like I’ll never be free, regardless of how consistently KFC’s chicken manages to disappoint me.

I guess I should probably spend some time on the specifics of the food itself, if only for the sake of it…or (I suppose) for those of you who have been living under an actual rock. I’ll start with this: As is the case at pretty much every single fast-food chain, your KFC experience is all about your expectations. If you go in expecting anything close to legitimately decent fried chicken—like, fried chicken that could register as good sans handicap, or fried chicken that’d be passable in an actual restaurant setting—you’re going to come away disgruntled. But if you can manage to face the Colonel with your expectations in check, you might actually be able to have a semi-pleasant meal.

After all, there’s a certain sense of joy comes with rooting around one of those red-and-white buckets in search of the perfect piece of chicken. It’s a weak and watery sense of joy, sure; and that perfect piece of chicken isn’t, uh, available at KFC, but still. Despite the chicken’s flimsy skin, bland meat, and overabundance of salt, I have fun with my buckets…and I have fun, too, with my popcorn chicken, and my biscuits, and my mashed potatoes, and my mac and cheese, and my whatever-shitty-sandwich-it-is-they’re-pushing-this-year, too. It’s mostly about the ritual, I think: the bag-unpacking and lid-lifting, the skin-tearing and and meat-gnawing, the scooping and dipping and Mountain Dew–slurping, the biscuit-prodding and finger-licking, and—yes, of course—that meal’s-end feeling of having made a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad mistake.

Also, the sporks. Seriously. Where else are you going to get to use one?

Find KFC all over. (Sort of. Over the course of the last decade or so, a whole bunch of this city’s KFCs seem to have disappeared.) I go to the one on 14th and 2nd, but they’re all the same, really.

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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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Roll-N-Roaster

A tray of nut-free food from Roll-n-Roaster in Sheepshead Bay

Roll-N-Roaster is probably one of the weirdest restaurants I’ve ever been to—but I say that only because I’m not used to the total foreign land that is Sheepshead Bay (and its surrounding neighborhoods), nor do I have much experience with pre-gentrification Brooklyn. Rest assured, though, that I’ve deemed Roll-N-Roaster weird in a good way. This place perplexes the hell out of me, and it takes me over an hour to get there, but God, I love it.

Located in one of a set of neighborhoods I’ve just decided to refer to as Unironic Brooklyn, Roll-N-Roaster is, first and foremost, a fast-food joint. (They call themselves “not so fast,” as for almost 50 years now, they’ve insisted on cooking everything to order, and they’re rather proud of the fact that their rolls will actually go stale, if ever given the chance.) Their main hawk is roast-beef sandwiches—and should you ever end up there, you’d be mistaken not to order one—but their menu‘s huge: sandwiches, burgers, pizza, wings, tenders, and all the sides you can imagine. Everything on the menu, save for a $60 bottle of Moët & Chandon, is under $8, and if you manage to spend over $35, they’ll give you a free pizza, sans prompting. (In fact, avoid trying to do any prompting. They’ll look at you funny.)

There are about six trillion things about this place that really should make me twitch. It’s about as far out of my way as I can fathom; the food’s not that much better than your average fast-food chain’s, but its devotees all tout it as the best stuff on this planet; it’s almost always filled with drunk and/or very strange people; the menu (and the restaurant itself) is peppered with ridiculous grammatical errors; everyone in the place—including those who aren’t drunk—seem to be of that mentally unsound sort who think artificial cheese (sorry, cheez) is an acceptable thing to even think about eating; and the place leaks insane amounts of unironic kitsch right out its wazoo.

But something about sitting at one of their (many, many) tables is so inexplicably comforting that I can’t quite bring myself to feel any sort of frustration with anything while doing so. For real. This isn’t just some attempt to slip in a few of Roll-N-Roaster’s downsides without being unnecessarily mean to the place over the course of my write-up; there really just is something about it that’s somehow managed to grant it immunity from its flaws. Maybe it’s the place’s sheer distance from the stress and demands of the real world (well, my real world). Or maybe it’s just the greasy-ass comfort food. I suppose we’ll never know.

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I suppose, too, that I should get to talking about allergens. This’ll be brief, because at Roll-N-Roaster, the deal’s pretty simple: There are no tree nuts (or peanuts) present in the kitchen, and I’ve been told that their bread shouldn’t contain any traces of nuts, either. They do serve a few desserts, and while I’m not sure whether those are free from cross-contamination, I do know that they don’t explicitly contain any nuts—so on that front, I feel comfortable with a simple policy of, uh, not ordering any. (I’m used to it; probably, you are, too.)

Before getting into the food, though, I want to spend a little time on the restaurant itself. It’s pretty big—by my Manhattan-born standards, at least—with, like, two or three rooms jam-packed with tables. (The above photo doesn’t do the restaurant’s size much justice.) Aesthetically, it reminds me of a rest-stop McDonald’s, and strictly speaking, that’s an insult, but I actually don’t intend it as one. Apparently, the folks at Roll-N-Roaster haven’t messed much with the restaurant’s decor since its opening in the early 1970s. And why should they? It’s roomy, clean, and functional—and it pairs well with the food.

The counter at Roll-n-Roaster

Anyway. Like I said, Roll-N-Roaster’s menu is big. But I tend to stick to the roast-beef and ribeye sandwiches and some combination of fries, onion rings, mozzarella sticks, chicken tenders, and corn fritters. I avoid their cheez (which you can get on anything you “pleez,” according to at least four separate signs) like it’s the fucking plague—but I did try it once (Sam’s doing), just to be absolutely sure it’d be fair of me to go on hating the stuff. Unsurprisingly, it tastes like all the rest of the processed cheese in the universe: gross, plasticky, not-cheesy, and just generally reprehensible.

Onto the sides.

Sans cheez, the fries are good. They’re shaped like little pickle chips, and they’re thin and usually pretty crispy, which is nice. They benefit a lot from the salt that’s available on every table, and they could use some dipping sauce, too, but it’s not as if they desperately need any. They’re all right on their own—and Roll-N-Roaster’s honey mustard (my sauce of choice) is about as good as their cheez. (I didn’t manage to get any pictures of the fries, but they look like this.)

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The mozzarella sticks and onion rings, however, are better than all right. In fact, both are legitimately good. The mozzarella sticks are nice and creamy on the inside with a thick-enough, crunchy-enough outside, and the marinara sauce they come with isn’t as cloying as most shitty marinaras are. (Actually, as these things go, it’s pretty good.)

And the onion rings are even better. These are of the onion-ring archetype that sits at the back of my mind forever whispering at me to order the onion rings! each and every time I see them on some godforsaken menu. 85% of the time, I end up disappointed; usually, what arrives is greasy and bland, and the fucking onions always fall right out at first bite. Trash. But these are actually pretty great. They’re thin-ish and crispy, and they have enough structural integrity to not, you know, fall the fuck apart just because you’ve shot them a funny glance. Such a relief.

The corn fritters—on a good night—are a lot of fun, too. (I mean, they’re deep-fried balls of battered corn. What’s not to like?) The corn itself is a little watery, but whatever it’s surrounded with is good enough to keep me from caring much about the corn itself. The fritters are almost like deep-fried corn pudding, really…if corn pudding were a lot more underwhelming than it already is. Regardless, I enjoy these, and I order them pretty regularly.

A roast-beef sandwich with onions and extra gravy from Roll-n-Roaster

But the main event of my Roll-N-Roaster meals (and of any reasonable person’s, I’d say) is definitely the roast-beef sandwich—which I like to order with roasted onions and plenty of extra gravy. The bun is decent, though nothing life-changing; the roast beef itself (which they unfortunately no longer offer rare or medium-rare) is above average, but certainly not incredible; the onions are solid, but a little too thick-cut; and the gravy doesn’t have all that much flavor. Together, though, these components amount to way more than the sum of their parts—especially once you’ve lifted the bun and sprinkled some much-needed salt atop the meat.

I should probably mention, too, that I’m a pretty big fan of the ribeye sandwich as well. It’s so greasy—it’s basically a hunk of pan-fried steak on bread, after all—and massively flavorful, too, even without onions or gravy. (In fact, onions and gravy don’t do much for this sandwich; more than anything else, they just tend to sog it up and detract from the meat itself.) I don’t understand it. This sandwich shouldn’t be so delicious. But it is.

I don’t know, man. Weird shit goes on at Roll-N-Roaster. I can’t explain any of it, nor can I explain any of my feelings about it. All I can say is that these sandwiches are strangely enjoyable, and that the restaurant is strangely pleasant. I can’t shed any light on the phenomenon; I can only confirm that it’s real.

A tray of food from Roll-n-Roaster

Oh, and by the way—if it doesn’t go without saying—stay far away from the pizza. Really.

Find Roll-N-Roaster at 2901 Emmons Avenue, between 29th Street and Nostrand Avenue. (Take the B or the Q to Sheepshead Bay and walk the mile to Roll-N-Roaster. It’s not too bad a walk—you’ll pass lots of weird-ass restaurants, at least. Alternatively, drive. There’s even a parking lot.)

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The Burger Bistro

The menu at The Burger Bistro

I’m such a sucker for customizable meals. Let me build my own anything and I’ll probably end up your most loyal customer. So for me, The Burger Bistro was a no-brainer. Pretty much all they do is customizable burgers—with two million possible outcomes, according to their slogan—so obviously, obviously, I had to try it out.

First, though, allergen information. To my pleasant surprise, The Burger Bistro is one of the most allergen-aware restaurants I’ve dealt with—which isn’t really saying all that much, but which is nice nonetheless. There are no nuts or nut products of any kind in their kitchen, and as for buns, the spiel is as follows:

I cannot attest that the bakery we get fresh rolls from is nut free. But I offer a potato roll, sliders, gluten free roll and a lettuce wrap that I can guarantee are nut free. All breads are kept separate. If you decide to dine with us I will personally make sure we open a brand new package of bread and not cross contaminate anything. I understand your concerns and that’s the exact reason why we do not have nuts in our locations.

Pretty, pretty, pretty good. (Seriously.) I’ll gladly limit myself to—ugh—potato buns if it means continued existence on my part. That’s a fair trade-off, I think. (I should probably mention, though, that The Burger Bistro does offer ice-cream sandwiches, which aren’t, as far as I know, guaranteed to be totally free from cross-contamination. No big deal, though; the rest of the food really does seem safe, and I’m 100% comfortable with all of it, with the exception of the rolls mentioned above.)

A nut-free burger from The Burger Bistro

The first time I went, I had no idea what to order. It was the Fourth of July, and all I knew was that I wanted a burger. But what kind of burger? At The Burger Bistro, there are so, so, so many options: 8 patties, 10 cheeses, 13 toppings, 6 sauces, and 7 buns (or bun substitutes). They’ll nickel and dime you for just about everything, but still—you’ll have a lot of freedom, and it’s hard not to take advantage.

We started with the deep-fried corn on the cob, which was sort of like a sweeter version of corn tempura…minus the tempura batter. I liked it, as did Sam—but $9 for a few halved corn cobs? I wasn’t quite disappointed with the dish, but I don’t think I’d order it again. But the appetizer stage passed quickly, and within a few minutes, it was burger time.

I ended up with a pretty standard burger: potato roll, beef patty, mozzarella cheese, lettuce, tomatoes, onions, and a fried egg. Boring? Maybe. But if The Burger Bistro were really all it claimed to be, such a simple burger would’ve been the restaurant’s chance to shine. That was my logic, at least—but the burger just wasn’t very good. I won’t hate on the bun, because I know it isn’t The Burger Bistro’s fault that potato rolls are inherently terrible at supporting much of anything (nor is it their fault, really, that their probably-way-better brioche rolls aren’t nut-free), but I will hate on their beef, because what the fuck?

Listen. If I’m going to a restaurant that specializes in burgers, I’m going to expect the beef—the main character!—to be good, especially at around $15 per burger. I don’t care that the offered Kobe beef, tuna steak, bison (get real), or lamb might be worlds better; it’s a burger joint, and the standard beef patties should be reliably good, at the very least. But they aren’t. They’re the right size (nice and big, without being too thick) but they’re undeniably boring. More mushy than tender, they don’t have much of a sear on the outside—and the medium-rare isn’t much of a medium-rare; it’s more of a medium, if you ask me. Lame.

The rest of the ingredients were all right, I guess. The egg was fine, but its yolk wasn’t runny enough. There were plenty of onions, whose presence I always appreciate—and the lettuce, though fast food–quality, was inoffensive. The tomato was your average not-particularly-flavorful tomato, the mozzarella was fine, and the potato bun was a potato bun. Call me underwhelmed.

Sam’s burger was similar, as were his impressions—but our mediocre experience didn’t keep us from going back. It may have taken us four whole months, but we did return to The Burger Bistro, determined to find some way to squeeze some fun out of their burgers.

A nut-free burger (with pineapple) from The Burger Bistro

Now, I’m still a (big) believer in sticking with the classics, especially at restaurants that have generally failed to impress me—but in the interest of fun-squeezing, I decided to switch it up a bit, namely by adding some grilled pineapple to my burger, which is pictured immediately above. (Otherwise, I did keep it simple: potato bun, medium-rare beef patty, and onions. I didn’t want to cheese-up my pineapple, nor did pineapple and tomato sound all that complementary. And their sauce selection leaves much to be desired…so I went sauceless.)

Still, the burger was good. Not good-good—it had the same problems as the last, and I think the patty was even a bit blander—but good enough to enjoy, at least. The pineapple was great (though I could’ve used more), and should I ever find myself back at The Burger Bistro, I’d definitely order it again. Even for $1.50—which is what each and every topping, cheese, and sauce costs to add on. (Ridiculous.)

Frizzled onions from The Burger Bistro

That night, I also tried the frizzled onions, which were surprisingly good—until they’d cooled down, that is. While hot, they weren’t the slightest bit soggy, nor did they taste mostly of bland grease (as do most frizzled onions and onion rings, in my experience). Instead, they were crispy, soggy, and satisfying—and the portion was huge, too, given that it’d only cost $5. Final verdict: reasonably pleased, would re-order.

So…I don’t have any grand plans to return to The Burger Bistro (not soon, at least)—but I appreciate its existence nonetheless. Allergy-aware restaurants are always, always, always an asset, so I’m (at the very least) glad to have found this one. Is the food to-die-for? No, it isn’t. And is it reasonably priced? Well…not particularly. But if you manage to find the right stuff to order—and good luck, among the literal millions of options—the food’s enjoyable enough.

Find The Burger Bistro in Park Slope, at 177 5th Avenue, between Berkeley and Lincoln, and in Bay Ridge, at 7217 3rd Avenue, between 72nd and 73rd. (Everything I’ve written in this post has been based exclusively on my experiences at the Park Slope location. I’ve never been to their Bay Ridge restaurant.)

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Burger King

A Whopper with regular fries and Chicken Fries

Burger King. Yeah—that’s what I’m about to write about. We’ll get through all this corporate capitalization together, though. I promise.

Forget introductions, though. Let’s just dive right in. (This is Burger King, after all. Home of the Whopper. Home of the Whopperito. Home of All Those Weird-Ass “Long” Sandwiches. These are the folks who brought us Mac n’ Cheetos. These are the folks who brought us the Egg-normous Burrito. In the world of Burger King, there’s no attempt at nuance or subtlety. There are no appetizers; there’s no easing you in. There are just Tendercrisps and Tendergrills and Grilled Dogs and fucking Croissan’wiches. Shit’s vulgar. Why should I ease us into this with an intro?)

According to their allergen chart, nothing at Burger King contains tree nuts of any sort. (The Reese’s pie and the Snickers pie do contain peanuts, though—just something to be aware of.) For peace of mind, I avoid the pies, the cookies, and the rather lewd-looking Otis Spunkmeyer Cinnamon Rolls (sorry, but come on!)—but in my experience, everything else has been totally safe. So. There’s that.

Moving on.

Most of the time, I’ll order a Whopper, but if I’m not in the mood for a slab of nasty-ass beef(-ish product), I’ll often go for a Tendercrisp (which is, on a good day, about sixteen times better than a Buttermilk Crispy Chicken). I like the Tendercrisp—the fried chicken is indeed pretty tender (though not all that crisp), and the tomatoes are, for the most part, inoffensive. Plus, there’s mayo. I like mayo.

Third in my hierarchy is the Big Fish: an often-worse Filet-O-Fish, and a monstrosity that I reserve for my hungriest, most desperate days. It’s just Alaskan pollock, breaded and topped with tartar sauce, pickles, and lettuce—and it’ll do the trick in a pinch, I guess. (I do ask them to hold the lettuce, though. That shit tastes like E. coli.)

As sides go, I’m really into Burger King’s mozzarella sticks (which aren’t on their American menu, but which are definitely available at some American Burger Kings). They’re gross, sure…but they’re really creamy, and I can’t deny that I’m a fan. When warm, the Chicken Fries (plain, not Cheeto-dusted) are good, too—they remind me of the long, peppery Burger King chicken nuggets of my childhood—and though they’re a little expensive, I’ll usually spring for them over regular nuggets.

My favorite Burger King offering, though, is definitely the chocolate shake (sorry, the Chocolate Hand Spun Shake, Which Is Totally Hand-Spun, We Swear). Though the chocolate syrup is a little overbearing, the shake, as a whole, is pretty tasty—and its whipped cream topping makes for a good french fry dip, should you run out of ketchup.

Chicken fries and regular fries

Forget favorites, though. What fun is praise, anyway? The folks at Burger King have clearly lost their minds, and I’m now going to take a few minutes out of my day to warn you about the menu items you shouldn’t, under any circumstances, consider ordering. Here we go.

First off, the Whopperito (a “burger-burrito mashup” made from…everything that goes into a Whopper, with some minor adjustments) is fucking disgusting. That goes without saying, I know—but it’s fucking disgusting nonetheless. I like fast food. I like Burger King. I even like Whoppers. But the Whopperito is an obvious, obvious cry for attention, and it’s nasty as hell. (Seriously: that thing makes Taco Bell seem like fine dining. It’s horrifying.)

How do I know? Because I’ve tried it. I know it’s bad because I’ve paid to eat it—because Burger King owns me, my soul, and my wallet, and because I’m powerless in the face of advertising of any sort, it seems. Sure, I ate it ironically—all I’d wanted was to laugh at the thing. And I did. But in that situation, who’s the winner? It certainly wasn’t me, belly full of Whopperito, money lining The Burger King’s pockets. It’s Burger King. The winner’s always Burger King. So much for ironic transcendence.

Also terrible are the Mac n’ Cheetos: another cry for attention whose transparency has done approximately nothing to keep me away. They’re essentially just breaded bits of mac and cheese that have been coated with Cheetos dust, but they’re way, way more than the sum of their parts. They are so much worse than I ever could’ve imagined—it’s insane. (I haven’t yet tried the Cheetos Chicken Fries, and I’m not exactly planning on it. I’ve been burned, I guess.)

Anyway: I’ve been pretty mean, but I do like Burger King, for what it is. Plus, when I remember to use the coupons they offer through their app, I rarely spend more than $15 on a meal for two—a welcome relief, given how much I’m usually roped into spending on food.

Find Burger King all over. (If you’re in the mood for a particularly strange experience, though, consider stopping by the Burger King at 106 Liberty Street. They do table service—and they sell beer.)

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S’MAC: 2,594,124 types of mac and cheese

A Mongo-size plate of mac and cheese from S'MAC

I love mac and cheese. I love customizable food. I love restaurants that just happen not to have any nuts in the kitchen. It follows, then, that I should love S’MAC—and I sort of do.

According to S’MAC’s allergen chart, there are no tree nuts on site. (There are, however, peanuts in the peanut butter cookies, but I’m told those are made elsewhere.) I don’t believe the folks at S’MAC do much to ensure all their ingredients are 100% free from cross-contamination, so I’ve categorized them as “technically not nut-free,” but still: as ordinary restaurants go, S’MAC feels pretty low-risk. I trust them, and I’ve never regretted doing so…for allergy related reasons, at least.

See, S’MAC is sort of like the Domino’s of mac and cheese. They’re open late-ish, they deliver, and anything goes when it comes to toppings and mix-ins. There are pre-set options on the menu, but most of S’MAC’s appeal lies the freedom they offer—freedom to get whatever the hell you want cooked into a mass of cheese-covered starch. Like at Domino’s, the draw is not the quality of the final product (nor is it the restaurant’s atmosphere, or the friendliness of its employees). Instead, it’s, um…the fact that they sell mac and cheese. With lots of shit in it, if that’s your thing.

Don’t get me wrong; their food isn’t terrible. There’s nothing horribly wrong with it (aside from its total lack of crispiness and/or crustiness of any sort). It’s better than Kraft, and it’s a lot more fun than Annie’s—but it’s nowhere near as good as what you can (probably) whip up from scratch, given a solid recipe and some decent ingredients. But who can be moved to make mac and cheese from scratch when S’MAC is, like, a 10-minute walk from Union Square? (Lots of people, obviously. Not me, though!)

Mac and cheese from S'MAC

At S’MAC, mac and cheese makes up the vast majority of the menu, and it comes in four sizes: Nosh (small), Major Munch (medium), Mongo (large), and Partay! (larger). A Major Munch is probably a fair size for one hungry person, but a Mongo can easily feed two, should your wallet be thin (and your dining partner agreeable). Pricing makes no sense, though—sometimes, they’ll charge you per mix-in; sometimes, they’ll charge you for bread crumbs; sometimes, you’ll have no idea what they charged you for—so rather than trying to figure out what I’ll be paying, I tend to just choose what I want and then do my best to accept the bill. Such is life.

Mac and cheese from S'MAC

Should you choose to customize your bowl, S’MAC has about a trillion options available. Cheeses include American, blue, brie, mozzarella, cheddar, goat, gruyere, manchego, lite cheddar, muenster, parmesan, pecorino, pepper jack, swiss, and provolone. The mix-ins are parsley, rosemary, basil, cilantro, scallions, olives, mushrooms, roasted garlic, figs, broccoli, salsa, roasted tomatoes, jalapeños, buffalo sauce, spinach with garlic, chicken, hot dogs, andouille sausage, ground beef, tuna, bacon, and something called “garden medley.”

Now, if you’ll let me, I’d like to torture you all with a brief-ish math interlude. I spent a while harassing my dad (unhelpful), my boyfriend (more unhelpful), and a bunch of people on r/mathematics (bingo!) with this one, and I’m ready to share—with permission!—what I’ve learned.

*        *        *

So. There are a lot of possible outcomes at S’MAC. Like, a lot a lot. How many, though? There are 15 cheeses, and you’re to choose up to 2. At minimum, you’ll need 1—assuming you aren’t going with the dairy-free option. There are 22 mix-ins, and you can choose up to 3, though you don’t have to order any. You can choose whether to get bread crumbs, and you can choose what type of macaroni you’d like (regular, multi-grain, or gluten-free). You can also choose to go reduced-lactose (which still allows for cheeses) or dairy-free (which doesn’t, obviously). That’s a lot of decisions.

If you don’t go dairy-free, there are 120 possible cheese outcomes, including those that involve only one cheese. With regard to mix-ins, there are 1,794 possible outcomes, including the choice of no mix-ins, and excluding anything that involves a double mix-in (i.e. scallions, three times). There are only 2 possible outcomes for bread crumbs—some, or none—and 3 for macaroni type. And there are 3 possible outcomes in the realm of dairy, with the dairy-free choice ruling out the option of adding any cheeses. Ergo…

To account for the dairy-inclusive options: 120 * 1,794 * 2 * 3 * 2 = 2,583,360 possible outcomes. And to account for the dairy-free option: 1 *  1,794 * 2 * 3 * 1 = 10,764 possible outcomes. Add those together, and you get 2,594,124 possible S’MAC outcomes. I hope. (For what it’s worth, I figured out approximately none of that on my own. My efforts led me to a figure that was, like, twice the actual answer. No idea why. There’s a reason I’m studying English.)

*        *        *

With all those options, it’s naturally pretty tough to decide what to order. The pre-sets don’t do it for me, so I almost always build my own bowl. Personally, I like to go with some combination of mozzarella, gruyere, and swiss, cheese-wise, and then some scallions and a combination of herbs for my mix-ins. I’ve been known to enjoy a mushroom or two on occasion, too, but most days, though, I just stick with my scallions and herbs. (What can I say? I have a thing for repeating meals.) And in a futile attempt to crisp up the top layer, I always go for “bread crumbs”—which I’m pretty sure are just cornmeal, à la Domino’s.

Mac and cheese from S'MAC

Most days, the final product is decent, but it’s never anything special. (There are exceptions to the whole mostly-decent thing, though. Their goat cheese is pretty bad, for example. And unwelcome figs have a habit of popping up in my otherwise fig-less bowls.) I wish the macaroni were the slightest bit al dente. I wish the “bread crumbs” were bread crumbs, and I wish the cheese on top and around the edges were a little crispier. But when you stick your fork in it, mac and cheese is mac and cheese—and S’MAC’s is quick, easy, and highly customizable. (And, you know, nut-free.)

Find S’MAC at 345 East 12th Street, between 1st and 2nd. (And if you can’t bring yourself to dine under their super-yellow lights, consider going Take & Bake.)

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Carla Hall’s Southern Kitchen

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

[Edit: Today, on August 10th, 2017, Carla Hall announced—to my absolute horror—that her Southern Kitchen would be closing for good. It's like a death in the family. I'll miss this place. A lot.]

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

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

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

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

Mason jars lining the walls of

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

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

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

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

The potato salad isn't my favorite—I hate sweet potatoes—but it's a formidable grease-cutter, too. The rest of the sides (macaroni and cheese, collard greens, candied yams) probably won't perform the same duty, but they're viable (and classic) options nonetheless. Oh, and before I forget to mention this: the cornbread is fantastic, especially when it's still hot enough to melt the little pat of butter that comes with it. So good—and definitely better than the biscuits, which are usually room-temperature and a bit rubbery.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Sticky’s Finger Joint

Chicken poppers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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