Category Archives: Chains

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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A Guide to Nut-Free Chinese Restaurants in NYC

At this point, I’m basically a broken record: “Nut-free Chinese food is hard to find.” “Nut-free Chinese food is hard to find.” “Nut-free Chinese food is hard to find.” Yeah, we get it—and anyway, if you’ve found yet another occasion to start off yet another post with yet another iteration of that fresh and shocking information, doesn’t that just mean you’ve found yet another nut-free Chinese restaurant to write about, thereby throwing yet another point of evidence out there that sort of, you know, contradicts whatever it is you’re trying to say…? Um, yes, Italics Voice. Yes. I’m repetitive, and the repetition is in itself actually sort of paradoxical, which is why I’ve decided to drop the shtick altogether and put together a guide whose very existence implies that nut-free Chinese food is both hard and easy to find. Because really, it’s both.

So. Here’s my one and only truly original contribution to this world: a list of all of the tree nut–free Chinese restaurants I’ve found—so far, because if putting this guide together has taught me anything, it’s taught me that there are undoubtedly many, many more where these restaurants came from. You’re welcome.

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KazuNori

A crab hand roll from KazuNori

Here we go again. But not really. I’ll behave this time. Promise.

If you’ve been keeping up, you’ll know that I have high standards for sushi. You’ll also know that Sugarfish—which Pete Wells quietly lambasted in March, and which I very noisily lambasted a few weeks prior—doesn’t come close to making my cut. Why, then, have I so willingly chosen to dine at its hand roll–hawking cousin? There are, I suppose, many reasons: I’m forgiving. I’m hopeful. I believe in the power of low expectations. I can’t afford better Japanese. I like to trash bad restaurants on my blog. Oh, and Sugarfish’s hand rolls, made up mainly of their top-tier sushi rice, were by far the best thing about the place.

Like Sugarfish’s, KazuNori’s kitchen is entirely nut-free—as it ought to be, because it churns out nothing but hand rolls. Also like Sugarfish, KazuNori doesn’t take reservations. To get a spot at the counter at an unridiculous mealtime hour, you’ll have to play it smart: stop by early to case the joint, and be prepared to wait in line, though probably not for anywhere near as long as you’d have to wait for Sugarfish. (The first time I went to Sugarfish, their waitlist was full, so I rerouted to Sushi on Jones. The second time—the time I actually made it to a table—I waited 3 hours. Last Saturday night, though, I was seated at KazuNori within minutes of walking in. So that’s something, I guess.)

KazuNori's interior

For all intents and purposes, KazuNori is Sugarfish Lite. The two restaurants fall into the same price range, and their hand rolls are virtually identical. Nearly everything else about the two places lines up, too. KazuNori’s ambiance is basically a more casual version of Sugarfish’s: loud-ish, dark-ish, and desperate to be cool-ish. Of course, neither restaurant is actually all that cool, and both are perpetually filled with goofs in the habit of doing terrible things to their servings of fish—but I’ll leave that one alone for today. Still, both restaurants are wasabi-averse; both restaurants seem to have some sort of ideological problem with flavorful fish; and both restaurants are insurmountably disappointing.

Still, KazuNori is by far the better establishment—and by the end of this point, I might actually end up recommending it, if only through gritted teeth and after issuing a boatload of disclaimers.

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Anyway. For my KazuNori meal, I went with the largest of the set tastings. (To my enormous relief, the words “Trust Me” don’t appear anywhere on KazuNori’s menu.) That got me six hand rolls—toro, yellowtail-scallion, salmon, bay scallop, crab, and lobster—for $28, or around $4.50 per roll. Reasonable, I thought. Especially given the fact that it would’ve cost me a total of $38 to order those same six rolls à la carte. An easy decision. So I pencilled in my order—no, there are no waitstaff—and got to looking around.

Pictured immediately above is KazuNori’s roll-prep area. (They might have more than one. I’m not sure. That was the one I sat by.) You’ll note that it doesn’t look like something a restaurant-restaurant would want to put on display, but rather like those funky vats of fast-casual glop you’ve probably seen at places like Chipotle or Uma Temakeria. And while I really don’t have any problem with seeing (or eating) fast-casual glop at, you know, a fast-casual restaurant, you’d better believe I have a hell of a problem with it at what’s supposed to be a nice-ish place.

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Still, the rolls themselves are perfectly executed, and only some of the fish within actually tastes like fast-casual glop. The toro, literally flavorless, just isn’t passable as toro, and the yellowtail, marginally tastier, only makes for a decent roll because of the scallions that accompany it. Salmon (above, top left) is all right—it’s moderately flavorful, and unlike the toro and the yellowtail, it isn’t fucking minced—and blue crab (above, bottom left), though too sweet and too heavy on the mayo, is fine, too. Lobster (above, bottom left) is good, but would be much better in chunks than in shreds. But it’s bay scallop, of all things, that’s best, by far.

I don’t know what it is, but that scallop is damn good. Unlike the rest of the Nozawa Group’s various offerings, it’s actually interesting, flavor-wise. Present in actual fish-like chunks, KazuNori’s bay scallop is actually sort of perfect: subtly sweet, pleasantly thick, and covered with just enough mayo-coating to keep things moving. For the first time, I’m not mad at a Nozawa creation. In fact, I seriously considered ordering another. (I held my horses, though. There was no forgetting where—or who—I was.)

So. Is KazuNori a great restaurant? A good restaurant? A restaurant anyone who knows his fish might walk away from satisfied? No! But the prices are low. The nori is crisp, the rice warm. The fake wasabi is avoidable, and from here, the lines appear manageable. There’s less hype, less praise to rage against. The menu’s smaller, so there’s less to object to. No waitstaff, no mention of a “Trust Me”—just the palatable concept of a set tasting. And on the whole, patrons are about three iotas less clueless than their Sugarfish-eating counterparts. It helps.

KazuNori is an option. I’ll give it that.

Find it at 15 West 28th Street, between Broadway and 5th.

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TsuruTonTan Udon Noodle Brasserie

A bowl of US wagyu shabu udon from TsuruTonTan

Every summer, I have to impose a moratorium on broth, and every summer, I’m sad about it. Right now, it’s 87 degrees outside. There’s no wind. Humidity’s at about a million percent. This morning, I took a cold shower. Now, I’m sitting two feet from the air conditioner. I’m still sweating. So for the foreseeable future, at least: fuck soup. Barneys, Ganso, Kung Fu, Sao Mai—for the next three months, I don’t care. I can’t care. I’m hot. Get away.

TsuruTonTan, though, is exempt. Maybe because my obsession with the place is still in its infancy, or maybe because the space itself is relatively large and dim and cool, or maybe because Tsuru’s cold dishes are just as good (if not better) than the hot ones. I don’t know, man. All I can say is that this place is (a) nut-free, and (b) home of some of the absolute best udon in the city. It’s only natural, then, that I can’t seem to stay away—even in this heat.

Located in the space that once housed the old Union Square Café, TsuruTonTan is the first American location of a Japanese mini-chain. And normally, I wouldn’t care about that—in fact, I’m usually rather skeptical when elsewhere-only chains open outposts in NYC—but Tsuru is no L.A. transplant. This is a real-deal Japanese restaurant, with ingredients flown in from Japan and noodles made fresh, by hand, every single day. The only concession to us Americans is the back of the menu, where you’ll find a whole bunch of flashy, buzzy, udon-unrelated Japanese-restaurant fare. But as concessions go, that’s hardly one to complain about.

A negi-toro roll from TsuruTonTan

It’s a trendy restaurant, but it’s a nice one, too. Inside, it’s dark and loud. Everyone’s young and hip and chatty. The amusical music of consumption—pounding, plodding Club Music Lite, the kind you’ll hear at H&M and Barneys alike, and the kind you probably associate with all sorts of spending—poses a threat to conversation, but isn’t quite overwhelming. It’s loud, but it’s fine. And the decor, though a little too similar to Gap’s, is actually rather nice. If the food were worse, Tsuru’s ambiance might come off differently. But it isn’t, so it doesn’t. (Yes, it’s that simple.)

Still, some sections of Tsuru’s menu are much stronger than others. The udon’s the clear winner, of course—but I maintain that there’s some good stuff on the rest of the menu, too. In his review of the restaurant, love of my life Pete Wells writes:

Rather than describing each [of Tsuru’s non-udon dishes] individually, I’ll share a handy method I came up with for dealing with all of them at once. Unfold the menu and place it on the table so that you see the noodle dishes. The reverse side, with the appetizers and donburi, will be face down. Now, never turn the menu over. If you have accidentally learned the name of a dish printed there, don’t say it out loud.

And he’s not wrong. (He’s never wrong, that Pete Wells.) I’ve done my fair share of dabbling, but I’ve yet to come across anything special. The uni-and-wagyu sushi is good, but not $22-for-two-pieces good. And both the salmon-and-ikura roll and the salmon-and-ikura don are on the boring side, even given my ardent love of both salmon and ikura.

Pork katsu over rice from TsuruTonTan

I will say, though, that I love the negi-toro roll (second above). Strictly speaking, it’s a special, not a back-of-the-menu offering—and while the toro itself isn’t the most flavorful, there’s something about the roll as a whole that I really, really like. I’m also pretty into the katsu don (immediately above). The rice is perfect; there are plenty of scallions; the pork’s nice and tender; and the egg, though sweet, isn’t at all overwhelming. If it’s between the katsu don and an order of udon, going with the katsu would be a mistake. But if you’re at Tsuru with a share-happy group, or you’re into competitive eating, or you’re on a date with your particularly voracious boyfriend? Go for it.

Enough odds and ends, though. Let’s talk noodles. Tsuru offers two types: thin (below), recommended for the cold preparations, and thick (top of this post), recommended for the hot ones. The thick noodles are exactly as they should be—soft and sort of fluffy, yet strong enough to hold their form—but it’s the thin ones that are worth a special trip. They’re so dense, so springy, so resilient; truly, I’ve never eaten a thin noodle quite like these. (I’ve never eaten any noodle quite like these, but their thinness makes their textural feats all the more impressive.) Just the other day, my dad described them as “fascinating,” and he’s right—they are. I’ve reached the end of my descriptive rope, though. You’ll have to see for yourself.

A bowl of uni udon from TsuruTonTan

As for the question of what you should order, I can’t claim to know the answer. All I know is this: of all Tsuru’s noodled offerings—the soups, the curries, the crèmes, everything—I have two decided favorites: the uni udon, pictured immediately above, and the wagyu shabu udon, pictured at the top of this post. The former, though the uni itself is a wee bit hit-or-miss, is an incredible dish. It’s perfect for summer—sweet, wet (almost juicy, even), and cold—and the sliminess of the uni is the perfect complement for the firmness of the noodles. When it’s a little colder out, though, I sometimes have to ditch this ditch in favor of the wagyu shabu udon, whose wagyu tastes like butter and whose broth has a depth of flavor unlike any other I’ve tasted. Seriously: As broths go, this one’s particularly compelling.

There are, of course, other good dishes. The unprecedentedly rich uni crème udon is lovely. The duck udon is about 80% as good as the wagyu shabu—which is to say that it’s pretty damn good indeed. The ikura oroshi udon, though a bit too sweet (and a bit too reliant on some underwhelming ikura), is fine overall. But you know what? Order what sounds best to you. I’m sure it’ll be great.

Find TsuruTonTan at 21 East 16th Street, between 5th Avenue and Union Square West.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Two pieces of yellowtail sushi from Sugarfish

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

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

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

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

Two pieces of salmon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Sammy’s Halal Food

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

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

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

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

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

Sammy's Halal Food cart

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

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

The contact information for Sammy's Halal Food

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Little Italy Pizza

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I live in a pizza dead zone. There are a few places in my neighborhood, but they’re all pretty terrible, so for the most part, I abstain. I can get Joe’s through Caviar, but it takes an hour and a half, and by the time the pizza arrives, it’s always soggy and lukewarm. So when I really want pizza, I have to comb the Internet for alternatives. Can you see where this is going? Little Italy Pizza is just one of those random pizzerias I found through whatever third-party delivery website I happened to have been scouring for a nut-free pie. I claim no responsibility for this post’s existence.

Unfortunately, Little Italy is at the very bottom of my random-delivery-pizza hierarchy (which category is itself at the bottom of the pizza-in-general hierarchy). But we’ll get there. First, allergens. Before placing my first Seamless order, I gave Little Italy’s Fulton Street location a call, and the guy I spoke with assured me (through much confusion) that there are no tree nuts or peanuts used in any of their food. Whether he knew what he was talking about, I have no idea—but I’m inclined to believe what he said, given that Little Italy is just a standard-issue pizzeria, whose ilk I’ve never, ever had any (allergy-related) trouble with.

Look: I’m just going to skip over all the Fluff & Fun and cut to the chase here, because this place is so bad that I can’t even have a good time at its expense. The pizza’s so lame that I actually won’t eat it—and there isn’t much I won’t eat (or at least idly pick at) once it’s in front of me. The cheese is inoffensive, I guess, but the sauce is so sweet, and the crust is…something else entirely. It has a weird flavor, and it’s so crispy that it’s basically a cracker—plus, it’s covered with bread crumbs, which (a) give it an even less pleasant texture than it otherwise would’ve had, and (b) make for an unusually messy slice of pizza. (Seriously. I eat extra carefully and I’m still vacuuming up breadcrumbs 10 minutes after getting rid of the box.)

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For whatever reason (desperation—the reason is desperation), I’ve also tried Little Italy’s calzones, their stromboli, and their mozzarella sticks. But unfortunately, I have almost nothing nice to say about any of the above. My calzone (ham and cheese) was inedible—the cheese may as well have been made of plastic, and the ham, present only in two enormous chunks, was pretty gross, too. And the stromboli I ate (three bites of) wasn’t any better. Each and every meat inside was unequivocally bad, but it was the pepperoni that kept me from reaching bite #4. There had to have been at least 20 layers of pepperoni in that thing, and it was Hormel-quality, too. Please, no.

The mozzarella sticks were, I guess, the best of the bunch. That’s not saying much, I know. But I didn’t actually mind them in the slightest. (Maybe I just have too much of a soft spot for mozzarella sticks. But my many food-related soft spots couldn’t save the rest of Little Italy’s food.) No doubt, these were bad—the cheese was shitty, and the breading was all wrong—but I got through them, and I ordered them again (of my own free will!), too. That’s a lot more than I can say about any of the other Little Italy productions I’ve tried.

Over the last six months (which is as long as I’ve known about the place), I’ve ordered from Little Italy maybe four or five times—but that’s only because they’re open all night and they’ll actually deliver to me when no other restaurants seem to be able to. My verdict, then: There’s no excuse for giving up actual legal tender in exchange for such bad pizza in a city full of such great options…except for, you know, all those excuses I rattled off over the course of this post.

You’ve been warned.

Find Little Italy Pizza all over Manhattan.

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