Category Archives: Build-your-own

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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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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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.)

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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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Chipotle Mexican Grill

chipotle

For around three years of my life, I ate at Chipotle with absurd frequency. Part of the reason why was that it was one of the only safe restaurants I was aware of, and I felt (and still feel) entirely comfortable eating there—but I also just liked the food. A lot. It was my go-to lunch, my go-to after-school “snack,” and my go-to travel food. Once, I spent two weeks in Michigan and ate at Chipotle for almost every single meal, breakfasts included. I’m past that stage now—I’m way less phobic about eating out with my allergy, at least—but I just realized that I’d never written about Chipotle, so I figured I should.

For those with nut allergies, Chipotle’s a pretty safe option. According to this page on their website, there are no (intentional) eggs, mustard, peanuts, tree nuts, sesame, shellfish, or fish in any of their food. (Of course, they don’t guarantee that their food is 100% free from trace amounts of any of the above, but a lack of nuts on-site is generally good enough for me.) Plus, if you’re into Food with Integrity, Chipotle has you covered; their meat comes from pasture-raised animals, and they’re very into their commitment to “real” (i.e. farm-sourced, organic, and/or non-GMO) ingredients.

But enough about all that. (Please, enough.) For me—and for most, I assume—Chipotle’s real appeal lies in its unusual mix of adequacy and ubiquity. These days, Chipotle is about as common as McDonald’s (not really, though it does often feel that way; McDonald’s has, like, 36,000 locations to Chipotle’s 2,000 or so). But Chipotle’s food is actually pretty good, which is practically unheard of for a chain of its size. It’s omnipresent enough to be dependable, but it won’t leave you feeling sick. And that is why I spent so long eating so much Chipotle.

I should probably explain, then, why I’ve slowed my Chipotle consumption to a measly once a month, if that.

chipotle1

It all started with Chipotle’s 2015 E. coli outbreak—but it’s not what you think. I never got sick from their food, nor did I stop eating there out of fear. It’s just that after the outbreak (which followed outbreaks of norovirus and Salmonella, and which did a lot to sully Chipotle’s wholesome image), the chain made a bunch of changes in the name of safety.

Among those changes was a shift to the use of central kitchens to allow for frequent ingredient-testing. Cheese now arrives pre-shredded, a bunch of ingredients (tomatoes, lettuce, cilantro, peppers, etc.) now arrive pre-chopped. Steak now arrives pre-cooked. Onions don’t arrive pre-chopped, but they’re now blanched before use, along with lemons, limes, jalapeños, and avocados—and all of the above (aside from lemons and limes) are now marinated in citrus before they’re used in anything else.

Now, none of those changes have made much of a difference—except for the switch to pre-cooked steak, which is pretty much the sole reason I’ve become so disillusioned. Chipotle offers six protein bases: steak, carnitas, chicken, barbacoa, chorizo, and sofritas. I’ve only ever been able to get into the steak, and I’ve always been quietly skeptical of anyone who swears by any of the other options. The carnitas are bland, and both they and the barbacoa are mushy as hell. The chicken’s dry, and the chorizo might as well be ground chicken, flavor-wise. Sofritas are vegetarian, and I’m heavy into meat. So… steak.

I never minded, though. I loved the steak, in all its medium-rare glory. On a good day, it was juicy, soft, and bursting with flavor—never dry, never crusty, and hardly ever overcooked. Now, the steak is cooked sous-vide, cooled, and then shipped to Chipotles everywhere for marinating and further cooking on the grill, and for whatever reason, this process never seems to end well. These days, Chipotle’s steak is almost always tough and bland. On its best days, it’s just a little overcooked—but usually, it’s inedible.

A steak burrito bowl from Chipotle

Before the outbreak, I had my order down pat: a steak burrito with white rice, fajita vegetables, chili-corn salsa, sour cream, cheese, and lettuce—or a bowl with the same ingredients, with their (free!) honey vinaigrette drizzled on top and a (free!) (warm!) tortilla on the side. But without good steak, my order falls apart.

Perhaps things will improve. Perhaps the grillers will get used to grilling pre-cooked steak, and perhaps it’ll go back to tasting good (or, you know, tasting at all) again. But for now, I can’t say I’m feeling it.

Still, even if the steak never gets any better, I’ll probably never get fully clean. Chipotle’s too big, too easy, too dependable for me to remove it from my repertoire entirely. So I guess I’ll just continue to eat that shit on occasion, taking every chance I get to wine about my dissatisfaction with the New Steak, promising myself, with fresh conviction each time, that this will be my last Chipotle meal. That I won’t be back.

But let’s not kid ourselves.

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Crif Dogs

Two John-John Deragons from Crif Dog

All right, I’ll be honest. I heard about Crif Dogs from the second episode of Anthony Bourdain‘s The Layover, during which Bourdain spends a day or two eating and drinking in his native New York. I wasn’t all that impressed with the episode—I mean, he wouldn’t stop raving about Shake Shack and Papaya King, which I just can’t get behind as the city’s best cheap eats—but that’s beside the point.

The point is that he and David Chang (of Momofuku) went to Crif Dogs, and I drooled profusely as I watched the pair down a few scallion-topped hot dogs. I have a lot of weaknesses, I know—but scallions are way up there. Seriously: I’m embarrassed by how much I love them. And as if the scallions alone weren’t enough to reel me in, the dogs’ buns were spread with cream cheese, and the whole shebang was topped with everything bagel seasoning.

Figuring my odds were pretty good, I decided to call Crif Dogs the next day. It’s a relatively simple hot dog joint; what need could they have for nuts? None. They have no need for nuts, and they don’t use any nuts or nut products in anything they sell. And their buns are made in a nut- and peanut-free facility. What better news was there to receive? (I guess they could’ve told me they were nut-free in the vendor-vetting sense, but it’s all right that they didn’t. I was very pleased with their level of allergy-friendliness, even though I can’t quite categorize them as “truly nut-free.”)

I should mention, though, that Crif Dogs does use peanut butter (Skippy, which is made in a peanut-only facility) for one of their signature dogs. And although guy I spoke with told me that the peanut butter’s kept separate and that those with peanut allergies shouldn’t have any trouble eating at Crif Dogs, I figured its presence was something worth noting.

It was good news all around, and I was very, very excited. But I was a little apprehensive, too. I didn’t want to get my hopes up—what if Crif Dogs turned out to be on par with your average Papaya King (or worse yet, your average Papaya King imitator)?

Well, it didn’t. Crif Dogs is way, way better than Papaya King—which doesn’t mean all that much, I guess, given how mediocre Papaya King tends to be these days. Let me try again, then: The hot dogs at Crif Dogs are really, really good—the best I’ve eaten in a long time, for sure—and…well, go eat one (or three or six) and see for yourself.

IMG_4450

Naturally, I started with the John-John Deragon (pictured at the top of this post—and spelled “John-John” on some menus and “Jon-Jon” on others, which drives me a little insane), the everything bagel–inspired hot dog that Bourdain and Chang put me onto. I didn’t know what to expect, really, because the thing sounds simultaneously sacrilegious and delectable. (In fact, the sacrilege is literal. As Bourdain remarked, “there’s a whole Jewish–pork violation there, which actually is kind of a turn on.”)

Taste-wise, though, there’s no sacrilege here. This hot dog is delicious. The scallions are plentiful, the everything seasoning is spot-on (though a bit too salty), and the cream cheese isn’t off-putting in the slightest; in fact, it’s a rather nice touch. All the ingredients come together perfectly, and the first time I tried this dog, I was one happy camper. The best part is definitely the hot dog itself—the perfect thickness, with a satisfyingly firm casing—but each and every component is solid in its own right.

And the John-John isn’t even the weirdest thing on the menu. There’s a bacon-wrapped dog topped with avocado and sour cream. There’s a bacon-wrapped dog topped with teriyaki sauce, pineapple, and green onions. There’s a bacon-wrapped dog topped with peanut butter, pickles, and crushed potato chips. (Yeah, they love their bacon at Crif Dogs. I don’t—at all—but I’ll live.) There’s a cream cheese schmear dog. There’s a B.L.T. dog. There’s even a dog-substitute for vegetarians. In short: Crif Dogs sells a lot of shit, and it all intrigues me.

Of course, they have their fair share of standard offerings, too: ketchup, mustard, sauerkraut, sautéed onions, relish, raw onions, chili cheese, baked beans…you get the gist. And though I haven’t yet had a chance to try each and every thing I’ve been eyeing, the things I have tried have been pretty damn tasty. Truthfully, it seems hard to go wrong at Crif Dogs—unless you don’t like hot dogs, in which case I’d recommend going somewhere else. (Or, you know, reevaluating.)

And honestly, I’d still frequent this place if their atmosphere sucked—but it doesn’t. It’s small and darkish with inoffensive music and laid-back employees, and there are plenty of retro arcade games to fiddle with while you wait for your food. (Oh, and Crif Dogs is also home to the phone booth that doubles as the “secret” entrance to speakeasy Please Don’t Tell, which serves hot dogs, too.)

Find the Crif Dogs I’ve written about at 113 St. Marks Place, between 1st Avenue and Avenue A. Or check out their other locations—there’s one in the West Village (120 Macdougal, between Bleecker and 3rd) and one in Williamsburg (555 Driggs, between North 6th and North 7th). Bonus: Thursday through Saturday, they’re open till 4am. Go wild.

(Oh, and for a complete list of the bars and restaurants Bourdain visited on the New York City episode of The Layover, see this Travel Channel summary.)

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Dos Toros Taqueria (or, That Time I Was Really, Really Wrong)

A carnitas bowl from Dos Toros

All right. Let’s say you’re like me, and you’ve eaten at Chipotle too many times in the past month to count, and you’re starting to feel a little ashamed. You still want Chipotle, but shouldn’t you…you know, eat something else? The answer is yes. Yes, you obviously should eat something else. And Dos Toros is your key to doing so—but, you know, without ever having to actually eat anything else.

Dos Toros is remarkably similar to Chipotle, though die-hard fans of either will probably try to convince you that they’re, like, totally different, dude. But the fact remains: they’re both Mexican-ish fast-casual chains that offer customizable burritos (and bowls and tacos, too). And like Chipotle, Dos Toros is pretty much nut-free. According to their online menu: “There are zero nuts in anything at DT. There is however sesame oil in our smokey hot sauce and our salad dressing.”

With regard to potential cross contaminants, a Dos Toros representative told me the following via email: “I just talked to one of the founders and it’s probably not fair to say we ensure that there are no contaminants, but we assume something like onions or peppers is not being grown next to peanuts.” Some may not be satisfied with that answer, but it was enough for me, so to Dos Toros I went.

The first time I went (to the Union Square location, in late February), I ordered a carne asada burrito with rice, corn, cheese, and sour cream—and to be honest, I absolutely hated it. It was soggy and bland, with mushy rice and funky-tasting steak, and I promised myself I’d never return. Come summer, though, I read that a brand new Dos Toros location was having a a Friends and Family event—basically a free food day—in celebration of their June 13th grand opening. If I was ever going to give the place another chance, it had to be then.

Fast forward to Sunday, June 12th. The Dos Toros in question was the chain’s 11th restaurant, located at 52 West 52nd Street, between 5th and 6th. The Puerto Rican Day Parade was in full swing (and only half a block away, at that), and Dos Toros #11 was crowded. Like, snaking-line, no-tables crowded. No surprise there, I guess. There’s a lot of hype surrounding Dos Toros—and who doesn’t love discounted food?

I figured I should switch it up, so when my turn came, I ordered a carnitas burrito with rice, peppers and onions, tomato salsa, corn, verde sauce, guacamole, and sour cream—and, of course, some chips and guac (why not?). As promised, everything was free. And the employees were absurdly friendly. With my last Dos Toros experience still fresh in my mind, I was ready as ever to hate everything about the place—but I couldn’t. Everything was perfect.

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I’ll just say it: My burrito was better than anything I’ve ever eaten at Chipotle—including those meals I’ve eaten when Chipotle was at its peak, which it certainly is not anymore. (Have you tasted their steak lately? It’s pretty terrible these days.)

My burrito wasn’t bland. It wasn’t soggy. Nothing tasted funky. All the ingredients were fresh-as-could-be, and the burrito as a whole was flavorful and cohesive, without any of the mushy homogeneity of my first Dos Toros meal. Above all, it was good. Great, even. So: I’m sorry, Dos Toros. I misjudged you.

I maintain, though, that their rice sucks. (I’m sorry. Maybe I suck. But I just don’t like it.) It is mushy and bland—but it definitely isn’t as offensive as I’d originally thought. And while I liked the carnitas better than the carne asada, I must admit that both were pretty boring. But I remain convinced: Overall, Dos Toros is pretty damn good.

Perhaps my first burrito was only so bad because of my own poor choices, made in the interest of saving money and emulating my favorite Chipotle meals. Or perhaps my second burrito was only so good because it was opening week, and all the ingredients were extra fresh (and the employees extra motivated).

Either way, I look forward to finding out just where your average Dos Toros burrito lies on the spectrum between my first and second experiences. And I’ve certainly learned my lesson—there’ll be no more cheaping out on additional ingredients for me.

[Note: Pictured in the two photos above is not a Dos Toros burrito; it’s a carnitas plato that I ate a few days after writing this post. I’d been wanting to try something other than a burrito—and a plato was way easier to photograph, anyway—so I figured I might as well. Forgive me.]

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Korilla BBQ

A bulgoli rice bowl from Korilla

Korilla, painted black and orange, is pretty hard to miss. I’ve been aware of its existence for years, and I’ve always wanted to try their food, but for some reason, I sort of just assumed I couldn’t. (I assume that of everywhere, really. Maybe I should knock it off.)

A few weeks ago, I finally got around to sending Korilla an email. The answer I received was as follows: “We don’t use any tree nuts in our food. The closest ingredient would be sesame seeds.” I sent back a few questions about potential cross-contaminants (as I always do), but I didn’t receive a reply (…I never do). Still, I’m usually down to try any place that can assure me there aren’t any nuts or nut products in anything on the menu—if with a little trepidation, in the case of places that can’t provide any further information—so to Korilla I went.

The first time I went, I ordered a bulgogi rice bowl with sticky rice, a fried egg, cheese, and Korilla sauce (pictured above)—and some Kimcheese Fries, which are basically waffle fries with cheese, pico de gallo, kimchi, scallions, and nori. I wanted to try the Tiger Balls, too (bacon kimchi fried rice balls in a Choux pastry, panko-breaded and deep-fried), but they were out—and they have been every time I’ve been by, actually. At this point, I’m convinced they don’t actually exist. Moving on, though…

The bowl was pretty good. The meat was tender and well-marinated, though it did taste as though it’d been sitting around for a little too long. The Korilla sauce—mildly spicy, but certainly not overwhelming—complemented the sweetness of the bulgogi nicely, and in all, everything went together pretty well. Truthfully, though: It was the fried egg that sealed the deal for me. I wished it could’ve been runnier, but you know what? It was good regardless, and certainly worth the extra $1. (Every time I’ve been since, I’ve asked for two eggs. So worth it.)

My biggest complaint, really, was that I didn’t have the option to add some scallions (and maybe some nori, too) to the bowl. They do have scallions on-site for the Kimcheese Fries, though—so I’ll usually ask them if they wouldn’t mind throwing some on, and more often than not, they’re happy to do so. In fact, I’ve only run into any sort of friction once. (I had asked whether “it would be possible to get some scallions on that,” and the guy behind the counter stared at me for a few beats before asking whether I had “any other special requests” in a tone that was…less than polite. Whatever—I still got my scallions. Worth it.)

Overall, I tend to like the bulgogi rice bowls. I’m not a huge fan of the Kimcheese Fries, though. They’re too cheese-soaked for my tastes—and truthfully, I’m not a huge fan of kimchi. Maybe they just aren’t for me. The waffle fries themselves were good though, and I really liked the scallions and nori on top. So in all, they were all right, I suppose.

I’m still in the process of perfecting my rice bowl order—so far I’ve dropped the cheese and swapped the Korilla sauce out for the Ko’grette—but I look forward to trying their noodle bowls and burritos, too. And the Tiger Balls. One day. Maybe.

In general, Korilla’s a pretty cool place—especially when you’re in the mood to customize a big bowl of something other than Chipotle. They have a ton of options, the ambiance is low-key and pleasant, and the employees are (usually) friendly and helpful. Not much more I can ask for, really, in the way of fast-casual.

Find Korilla at 23 3rd Avenue, between St. Marks Place and 9th Street. (They have trucks, too!)

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Uma Temakeria and the Sushi Burrito

A sushi burrito from Uma Temakeria

Edit: Closed. Sorry.

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

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

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

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

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

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

I do have two complaints, though. First: For $14 ($11 for the burrito, plus an additional $3 for avocado and tobiko), it wasn’t a lot of food; I ended up feeling the need to supplement my meal with a bagel from The Donut Pub, which is right around the corner. Second: The burrito itself was extremely unruly. I don’t think it’s even possible to get through one of those things without a third of its contents spilling onto your tray. Not ideal.

But those minor complaints aside, I do recommend Uma Temakeria. The employees are friendly, there’s a huge variety of fillings to mix and match, and it’s all decently healthy, too. Plus, the seafood’s all sustainably-sourced. I truly can’t wait to go back.

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

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Let’s Talk Five Guys

Two nut-free Five Guys burgers

First things first: If you have a peanut allergy, Five Guys is not the place for you. There are free peanuts everywhere, and they fry everything in peanut oil. But if tree nuts are your only issue, Five Guys just might be the burger joint for you.

Their burgers aren’t anything to die for, but they’re certainly a few (large) steps above those of the McDonald’s/Burger King/Wendy’s ilk. I actually really like Five Guys—and I’ve never had any sort of allergen-related issues with their food.

For some reason, their allergen chart doesn’t have a column for tree nuts, so I sent an email and received the following reply:

The only nut allergen at our stores would be due to the presence of peanuts. There are no products containing tree nuts in our restaurants, nor are they used in our cooking process in any way. Though please remember that there is always a risk of cross contamination, so definitely use caution. For your convenience the kitchens in all of our restaurants are always kept open so our customers may watch their food be prepared.

I asked for a bit more clarification about the risk of cross-contamination, and this was the reply I received:

It remains correct that we don’t use any tree nut products however we must always assume there is a possibility of cross contamination and advise our customers of this as a precaution. Some of our products may be processed in the same facilities as tree nuts are or as another example, an employee may come into contact with tree nut products during a break, etc. We certainly do our best to stress the importance of food safety with our employees however know there is always a risk.

Not bad, as places that aren’t nut-free go. A lack of intentional nuts and nut products in a restaurant goes a long way toward making me comfortable—and the fact that Five Guys is sensitive enough to acknowledge those risks they can’t quite control is encouraging. For some, though, that isn’t enough—and you should, of course, always decide where to eat based on your own level of comfort. Still, for me, Five Guys works.

Anyway, in case you’ve never been: Five Guys has burgers, fries, hot dogs, a few sandwiches, and (as of a few months ago) shakes. That’s it. They don’t freeze their beef, and they fry only in peanut oil—so already, we’re out of theMcDonald’s territory. (Plus, as I mentioned above, they don’t have any salads or desserts that contain nuts, as most fast food joints tend to.)

Their burgers are definitely decent—I have no complaints there—but I do have a confession to make: I’ve never understood why so many people seem to love their fries. Seriously—Five Guys’ fries have an evangelical following, and I don’t get it. They’re mushy and flavorless—two deal-breakers, in my book—but to each his own, I suppose. (Though to Five Guys’ credit, they do give you a pretty hefty portion. Maybe that’s the appeal.)

My final verdict: If you’re a) comfortable with peanuts and b) a fan of burgers, you should give Five Guys a try. At the very least, it’s nice to have another reliable chain to fall back on when you’re in a bind.

My favorite locations are the one in Greenwich Village (296 Bleecker Street) and the one the one in Brooklyn Heights (138 Montague Street), though that’s probably just because I like the surrounding neighborhoods. There are Five Guys locations all over, and there’s probably no real advantage of one over the other, seeing as part of the appeal of any fast food chain is the fact that they’re all, you know, the same.

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Domino’s Pizza

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I know, I know—Domino’s is just plain bad. But it’s dependable, and it does the trick when I’m feeling extraordinarily lazy or hungry (or reclusive…or masochistic). And the ability to order from basically any device I’ll ever own is a plus, I guess. Nothing like being able to respond to a “hey, pizzas are half-off this week!” ad by whipping out my phone and ordering one of said terrible pizzas—and some wings and, regrettably, some Cinna Stix—all without ever, you know, budging.

But you know what? If eating Domino’s is the worst decision of my week, I’ve probably had a pretty good week.

My real point, though: In my experience, Domino’s is pretty allergy-friendly. According to their website, they only have one item on the menu that contains nuts (the Chicken Apple Pecan Salad) and one that’s made in a facility that also handles nuts (the Chocolate Lava Crunch Cake). Everything else, though—pizzas, sandwiches, pastas, wings, breadsticks, even the weird-ass “marbled cookie brownie”—seems to be safe.

To be sure, I reached out to Domino’s. I received the following reply:

There are no peanuts or peanut oils or tree nuts in our pizza crusts, pizza sauce, pizza cheese, core pizza toppings (beef, green pepper, ham, mushrooms, black olives, onions, pepperoni, pineapple and italian sausage), chicken kickers, chicken wings, bread side items or salads.  Soybean oil is used in all of our dough formulas. There may, however, be special promotional and/or test products present in the store. Therefore, we cannot ensure that all of the products present are completely free of peanuts/tree nuts.

Their response was about what I expected—though there is a salad on their menu that contains pecans, which informational inconsistency doesn’t exactly leave me inclined to trust them blindly. In my experience, though, their food has been safe. (Obviously, they aren’t a nut-free establishment, and you should, as always, look into what you’re eating and use your own discretion.)

Anyway, as if this post isn’t already embarrassing enough, I suppose I should probably reveal the details of my regular order, which is pictured above. I like to get a hand-tossed with white sauce, triple (yes, triple) pineapple, and light ham—because if I’m going to order bad pizza, I might as well get something shameful, right? (I’m kidding; unfortunately, I just like Hawaiian pizza. And white sauce.) I’ve also been known to gorge myself on their bread bowl pastas—though my strategy for those pretty much ends at clicking on whatever random ingredients sound tolerable at that particular inappropriate hour and hoping for the best. It never ends well—but hey, it shows up.

Seriously, though: Don’t get the Cinna Stix. They’re bad, even by Domino’s standards.

Find Domino’s…everywhere. Oh, and by the way, if can be bothered to forego delivery and carry out (or eat in, I guess), do it. Your meal will probably cost a whole lot less—and that’s not just because you won’t have a delivery guy to tip. For some reason, everything just ends up costing more when you order online. (I happen to think that’s by design, but whatever.)

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