Category Archives: Chains

Little Italy Pizza

img_8409

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.)

img_8441

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.

Tagged , , , , , , ,

Burger King

A Whopper with regular fries and Chicken Fries

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

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

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

Moving on.

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

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

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

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

Chicken fries and regular fries

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tagged , , , , ,

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.

Tagged , , , , ,

Sticky’s Finger Joint

Chicken poppers

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

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

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

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

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

IMG_5743

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

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

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

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

Tagged , , , , , ,

Hai Street Kitchen & Co.

A Slammin' Salmon f

I’m a big fan of Uma Temakeria, so I was pretty excited when I found out about Hai Street Kitchen & Co. Like Uma Temakeria, Hai Street specializes in sushi burritos…but bigger ones, with a wider range of ingredients, it seemed—and so I stood no chance. Onto my list it went.

Their only New York City location is at Urbanspace Vanderbilt, which didn’t sound ideal to me—but I figured they’d be worth looking into, at the very least. So what if Urbanspace is full of restaurants that are trendier than they are tasty? That’s a generalization; surely, there are some exceptions, and maybe Hai Street was one.

Hai Street never responded to the message I submitted via their contact form, and their Urbanspace location doesn’t have its own phone number, so I called one of their Philadelphia storefronts. The woman I spoke with assured me that nothing on Hai Street’s menu contains any nuts whatsoever, and that the same should be true of their other locations, too. I would’ve preferred to have been able to speak to an employee who was actually on-site at their Urbanspace stand, but I wasn’t all that worried—Japanese (and Japanese-inspired) food is usually pretty low-risk, so I decided to go ahead and give it a try.

Anyway, from what I could tell, Hai Street looked good. Their Yelp page is filled with photos of big-ass sushi burritos packed with generous portions of fish, and their online menu lists a bunch of appetizing ingredient options, so I figured I was in for a treat. If I’d been paying any attention at all, though, I would’ve realized that the Hai Street’s Urbanspace location doesn’t allow for customization—that is, they don’t offer the same build-your-own deal that’s advertised on the chain’s website and available at some of their other locations.

I figured it out pretty quickly when I got there, though. The menu was simple: five speciality burritos, some sides, some drinks, and some rolls. I was a little disappointed—I’d already gotten my heart set on a combination of ingredients—but I got over it. After a few minutes’ deliberation, I ended up with the Slammin’ Salmon (a burrito made with salmon, gochujang, romaine, cucumber, pickled jicama, red cabbage, and tempura crunch) with avocado salsa and without the cucumber, jicama, or cabbage. (What can I say? I wasn’t ready to let go of my ideal. The Slammin’ Salmon wasn’t it, but at least there was no cabbage involved.)

Even without three of its seven advertised components, my burrito was intensely flavorful—though the only reason for that was the homemade gochujang (which tasted much more like sesame sauce than gochujang, actually). As a whole, the burrito wasn’t all I’d dreamed of, but it certainly wasn’t bad, either. The romaine was fresh and crisp, and the rice was tolerable, which helped. The tempura crunch sucked (but I’ve never once enjoyed tempura crunch), the salmon was bland, and the avocado salsa would have been more appropriate on a Mexican taco than a Japanese-inspired dish of any sort—but nothing in my burrito was particularly offensive, so…I did enjoy it. For the most part.

Was I underwhelmed? Yes. Slightly annoyed that I’d just spent $15 for something so mediocre? Um, yes. Still bitter about the fact that I wasn’t able to add the pickled onions and fried shallots I’d seen online? Yes. But you know what? I’d probably eat at Hai Street again, given the right set of cravings—though probably only if I happened to be passing by. My allegiance still lies with Uma Temakeria, but I suppose there’s room for both restaurants in my life.

Find Hai Street Kitchen & Co. at Urbanspace Vanderbilt, which is located at 230 Park Avenue, between 45th and 46th Streets.

Tagged , , , , , ,

Luke’s Lobster

IMG_4860

[Edit: As of 2018, Luke’s no longer has a nut-free kitchen. Almonds. In some grain bowl. Ick. Oh well.]

I’ll admit it: I’ve been actively avoiding Luke’s Lobster since I learned it was nut-free back in February. They have 13 locations, most in pretty convenient locations, but fuck—$17 for a single lobster roll? I know it’s lobster, but come on. That’s a lot! So I stayed away.

Still, the allergy information I got from Luke’s was pretty solid. There are no tree nuts (or peanuts) in any of their dishes, and their bread comes without any sort of “may contain” warnings. No one I’ve spoken to has wanted to make any guarantees about cross-contamination, but that’s standard for places that aren’t declaredly nut-free. So: Luke’s. Safe. Great. But I still didn’t want to pay $17 for an ever-so-small meal.

Last weekend, though, Sam and I really couldn’t figure out what to eat. It all started with a simple question: “What do you want for dinner?”—and two hours later, we still hadn’t gotten anywhere. I didn’t want Mexican; he didn’t want Japanese. Neither of us wanted to go to the one Chinese restaurant I can eat at, and I couldn’t talk him into cooking. In defeat, we went home—we’d been having this conversation on a bench on Houston Street—and agreed to just have a frozen dinner.

And then it hit me. Sam had been wanting to go to Luke’s since we’d first heard about it, and I…well, at that point, I was feeling pretty good about anything that didn’t need to be microwaved. “Put some pants on,” I told him. “I have an idea that I think you’re gonna like.” And that was how I ended up spending almost $40 on lobster rolls (two—only two!) on a Sunday night.

IMG_4866

We went to the Luke’s on 7th Street (not pictured above—that’s the one on South William Street), which happens to be the smallest of the chain’s locations, Tail Cart not included. It’s a special kind of rustic-kitsch hell in there. There are about eight seats, and the walls are covered with sea-themed detritus. Sea, seafood…yes, I get it. But I did not appreciate having to wait 15 minutes in a shoebox that could pass for a Maine airport gift shop, six inches from the next person over, all for an expensive-ass snack-sized meal. (Oh, and the whole place smelled funny, too. Like a cheese shop, in a bad way.)

But I let go of all my ambiance-related gripes the second I bit into my lobster roll. The meat was fresh, and it came in large, satisfying chunks—and there was plenty of it, which was key. Plus, the bun was buttery and well-toasted (well-griddled, actually, which explains why it tasted so much like the bread on a good grilled cheese), and I wasn’t even upset when I ran out of lobster and had to finish the bun off by itself—it’s that good.

The seasoning (which I’m pretty sure is, like, 80% oregano) tasted a bit out of place, and I wouldn’t have minded if there had been a bit more mayonnaise involved, but there’s no denying that overall, the roll was good. That said, it wasn’t quite good enough to make me forget how much I’d spent—and it wasn’t as if I left Luke’s feeling particularly full, either. I’m not made of money, though, so I gathered all my self-control and got the hell out of there before I had the chance to find myself down another $20 with a clam chowder in one hand and a lobster tail in the other.

The Noah’s Ark (two half lobster rolls, two half crab rolls, two half shrimp rolls, four crab claws, two drinks, two chips or slaws, and two pickles—pictured above and below) is certainly a better deal. At $46, it feeds two—and doesn’t cost all that much more than two plain old lobster rolls. Our second time at Luke’s, we went with the Noah’s Ark, and we both left feeling far more satisfied than we’d felt the first time. All around, it was a win.

IMG_4873

Again, the buns stood out—enough to carry me through an overwhelmingly boring crab roll. The shrimp roll was better, but not by much. Unsurprisingly, the lobster was the best of the three, but I did like being able to try all of Luke’s offerings. The pickle was a pickle (a good one, I guess), and the chips (Cape Cod) were chips, but the soda was not just a soda. Luke’s sells Maine Root, which is really, really good. I had the Mexicane Cola, and I was in heaven.

I do have a complaint, though, and it’s an angry one. The crab claws (listed on the menu at an absurd $8 for 4) were a joke. Too cold, too small, too bland, too expensive—all I could think was “how much less would this meal have costed if these stupid crab claws weren’t included?” Still, if you were to buy everything included in the Noah’s Ark on its own, it’d cost you around $20 more than you’d pay for the bundle—so I couldn’t be that upset.

Overall, I like Luke’s. For my bank account’s sake, I wish I didn’t, but I can’t help it. Their lobster rolls just taste right, and I can’t convince myself otherwise—so I suppose I’ll have to learn how to exercise some restraint. (Or not, because they have a loyalty program. For every 10 lobster dishes you buy, you get a free lobster roll—and the Noah’s Ark counts for two. I’m on my way.)

There are a bunch of locations in the city, but the two I’ve been to are located at 93 East 7th Street and 26 South William Street, respectively. I preferred the William Street location, literally only because all the sea-flotsam and Maine-jetsam took up a more reasonable percentage of space than it did on 7th Street—and I’m willing to fight anyone who thinks that criterion is illegitimate.

Tagged , , , , ,

Joe’s Pizza

joespizza

If you Google “best pizza in NYC,” you will come across Joe’s. That’s just the way it is, especially if you’re looking to purchase by the slice. And while the articles that’ll come up are all just products of a huge best-pizzeria circlejerk, there’s just no denying that Joe’s is good.

It’s places like Joe’s that give New Yorkers grounds to brag about pizza. Theirs is simple, cheap, and quick—exactly as pizza should be—and it’s good, too. As their website says (errors intact): “At Joe’s, you won’t find any pretentious concoctions nor do we serve bargain pizza made with who-knows-what.  It’s just the old-school, real deal New York Pizza.  No string-bean, asparagus covered, wild turkey surprise pizza here.” And it’s true: Joe’s is the real deal.

As far as I can tell, they’re pretty much nut-free, too. (Really, most plain old pizza places are.) At Joe’s, there’s pizza, there are toppings, and there are drinks. Sometimes, there are salads…though I’ve never actually seen one. That’s it. No nuts—that I know of.

Of course, if that isn’t enough for you (and why should it be?), I’m sure the folks at Joe’s would be happy to answer any questions you might have. I’d recommend asking in person, though. In my experience, calling pizzerias to ask about allergens typically doesn’t go all that well. (It’s near-impossible. “Nuts? No, sorry. We have pepperoni, sausage, peppers…”)

Does Joe’s offer the city’s best slice? I have no idea. My personal favorite is (and probably always will be) My Little Pizzeria‘s plain slice, which I’ve been eating regularly for half a decade now—but what do I know? (A few things, I guess. But only a few.)

In any case, I like Joe’s. A lot. For a good lunch, it’s so absurdly cheap and easy—how could I not be a fan? My preferred Joe’s is the one located at 7 Carmine Street, right off of Bleecker. It’s open till 4am (5am on the weekends), and it’s right across from Father Demo Square, whose benches make up for the lack of indoor seating at Joe’s.

There are two other locations—one by Union Square (150 14th Street, between 3rd and 4th) and one in Williamsburg (216 Bedford Avenue, between North 5th and North 6th). I’ve never been to either, but I assume they’re pretty similar to the Joe’s on Carmine—i.e. worth a try, at the very least.

Tagged , , , ,

Taqueria Diana

taqueriadiana

I know, I know. This blog is filled with posts about nut-free taquerias; how could I possibly have found another? Well, I actually have an answer: I found Taqueria Diana here, where I ended up after a Google search of “best nachos in NYC.” 30 minutes later—after I’d called and made sure the folks at Taqueria Diana don’t use any nuts in their kitchen—it was time to go.

I went pretty late in the day, and they were out of both carnitas and elote—which, to be honest, had me pretty disappointed—so I got a tray of nachos al pastor and Sam got a burrito (also al pastor). I tried his burrito, and…it was pretty bad. The filling was mostly rice and beans, and when Sam gave up on holding the burrito together and let its contents spill into onto his tray, I couldn’t deny how much what fell out reminded me of a cockroach infestation.

Unnecessarily mean comments aside, the burrito was undeniably mushy and bland, and I probably won’t ever eat another. The nachos, however, were a different animal entirely. (Not literally. Same meat.) For $12, it’s a huge portion—and it’s really good, too. Seriously: I can’t stop ordering them. It’s becoming a problem.

The chips (homemade!) are strong enough to hold the toppings: cheese, beans, guacamole, crema, salsa, jalapeños, carrots, salsa verde, and the meat of your choice. There’s plenty of cheese, always fully melted and well-distributed—and there’s a whole lot of guac, too, which I can’t help but appreciate. The salsa verde isn’t all that flavorful, but there are squirt-bottled salsas of various heat levels all over the restaurant, so the verde’s a non-issue, really. Even the beans are good (and I’m unashamedly anti-bean).

Best of all, these nachos are entirely free from that nasty-ass, movie-theater-tasting slop called “nacho cheese” that everyone and their mother seems to need to drizzle over tortilla chips. (Ugh. Ugh.) They’re missing pico de gallo, too—but I’m willing to accept that as long as nacho cheese stays out of the picture, too.

The pork itself—which is the one meat they never seem to run out of—is pretty dry and boring, but that’s my only real complaint. The earlier I go, the better the meat is—so perhaps it’d actually be good if I could manage to show up around lunchtime. (Or perhaps they won’t be out of carnitas. One can hope, right?) Meat aside, though, these nachos are pretty solid, and I’m grateful to have found them.

Two tacos— from Taqueria Diana

I’ve tried the tacos, too—al pastor and chicken, both pictured immediately above)—and while I prefer those at Los Tacos (and Otto’s, too, on a good day), these definitely aren’t bad. There’s plenty of crema to go around, and I’m a sucker for anything with a bunch of cilantro sprinkled on top, so it wasn’t all that hard for these to keep me chewing. Still, the tortillas were sort of shitty, and both meats fell totally flat. The al pastor was as described above, and the chicken was mushy-soft, in a tuna-fishy sort of way.

Via delivery—and only via delivery, because I can’t seem to ever get out the door before 3pm—I’ve actually been able to get my hands on both the carnitas and the elote. Though everything got a bit soggy in transport, I can still say that I liked the carnitas a whole lot better than the al pastor. On the other hand, the elote fell a bit flat. It had way too much mayo and not nearly enough cheese, and the corn itself was pretty bland—though perhaps it would’ve been better if it hadn’t just traveled a few miles in a tin foil cocoon.

Anyway. I’ve done a fair amount of complaining in this post, but I do like Taqueria Diana. The tacos are good, the nachos are great, and the elote’s all right, I suppose, though it’s not as if I’ll ever crave it. Maybe one day I’ll be able to get my hands on their carnitas in-store—or maybe not. Either way, I’ll probably continue to eat at Taqueria Diana. That’s kind of just what I do.

They have three locations: one on 2nd Avenue, between 7th and 8th (129 2nd Ave); one on 6th Avenue, between 17th and 18th (601 6th Ave); and one on the corner of 9th Avenue and 39th Street (524 9th Ave). It’s not McDonald’s, so they’re all a little different. I’ve only been to the 6th Avenue location, but I look forward to trying the others, too.

Tagged , , , , , , ,

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.)

Tagged , , , , , ,

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.

dostoros1

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.]

Tagged , , , , , , ,