Category Archives: Chains

M2M: An affordable Asian market

Salmon

I’ve said before that I’d eat sushi every day if I could afford to do so—but I can’t, nor will I ever be that rich. A more reasonable person might accept this financial limitation and, you know, chill the fuck out, but not me. I spend way too much of my time trying to make sushi affordable—and mostly in vain, at that. Decent restaurants are expensive (and the cheaper ones tend to be less allergy-friendly, anyway), and grocery store sushi is generally inedible…that is, with the exception of M2M’s.

Now: M2M’s sushi is nothing crazy. Everything’s packaged and allowed to sit for hours in a cooler at the back of their stores, after all. But as grocery store sushi goes, it just might be the best I’ve tried—and among the cheapest, too, at between $4 and $10 per box. The fish is usually decent, though everything’s usually way too cold, and the rice (in particular) doesn’t always taste so fresh—but hey, it’s the best of the bad, as far as I’m concerned.

I like to get the salmon combo, which comes with both rolls and nigiri, and which is pretty decent if you manage to catch it at the right time of day (though just when that golden hour starts is anyone’s guess. I certainly have no idea, and I’m starting to think there’s no rhyme or reason to freshness at M2M). I also used to love the shrimp tempura rolls, but for the past year or so, they’ve been—for lack of a better term—really, really, really bad. They’re horrifyingly cold and stale, and the folks at M2M seem to have forgotten how to make the version that didn’t come topped with spicy mayo. Oh well.

Ingredients are, of course, listed on the packaging, though I’m not sure whether M2M would label potential cross-contaminants. Truthfully, I took a risk the first time I ate their sushi—but I eat M2M multiple times per week (as one of their locations is basically on NYU’s campus), and I’ve never had any issues whatsoever. (I should say, though, that I only eat their sushi. They have hot food, too, but in the interest of safety, I tend to steer clear of anything cooked.)

I know—this isn’t the world’s most informative post. But I eat there so often I figured I’d throw the recommendation out there. As always, you should use your own discretion—and if the lack of readily-available information on M2M’s treatment of allergens makes you uncomfortable, you can (and should) speak to an employee—or, of course, take your business elsewhere.

M2M has three locations, though I can only vouch for the sushi at the one in Greenwich Village (19 Waverly Place). Still, the one on 11th and 3rd (55 3rd Avenue) is much larger—and much more pleasant, if you ask me. The third is in Morningside Heights (2935 Broadway), but I’ve never been.

Advertisements
Tagged , , , , ,

Otto’s Tacos

Two carnitas tacos from Ottos' Tacos

Last week, my boyfriend Sam and I made another one of our regular trips to Clinton Hill for tacos from Cochinita, one of NYC’s very, very few truly nut-free restaurants. Or it was, at least. When we got off the train, Cochinita’s sign was gone, its windows covered. We were beside ourselves. With Cochinita off the table, we were left with…well, Big Daddy’s and Duke’s (and only Big Daddy’s and Duke’s!) on the list of restaurants that will actually call themselves nut-free. Which is a shame, given that those two are hardly restaurants to begin with.

Perhaps, then, it’s time for me to start looking (harder) into restaurants—not major chains, but small-scale restaurants—that don’t advertise themselves as nut-free, but that happen not to use any nuts in their facilities. Strictly speaking, these sorts of places aren’t ideal (and they’re a bit risky for those whose allergies are very severe, as they can’t guarantee the absence of cross-contaminants), but they’re definitely the next best thing. So I’ve begun my search.

One of the first places I came across was Otto’s Tacos, a SoCal-style taqueria with a few locations around Manhattan. Their menu didn’t mention any nuts, but as those with food allergies know all too well, that doesn’t mean much, so I sent an email to be sure, and unlike the vast majority of the (many, many) restaurants I’ve emailed, Otto’s actually responded—with an email from none other than Otto Cedeno himself: “We have no nuts in our facilities so all your worries should be negated.”

Always great to hear. But since his email was so brief, I figured I ought to press a little further, asking whether he had any information about his vendors’ facilities or the potential for inadvertent cross-contamination. He replied: “There are certain items we buy that come from other facilities. To those, we cannot speak of.” Fair enough—and not too bad, really. Most days, a nut-free kitchen at the restaurant itself is good enough for me.

Otto’s sounded promising, so I hyped myself up and took Sam with me to their East Village location for lunch between classes. To be extra safe, I did call ahead, too, and the woman who picked up reassured (once again…) that there are no nuts in the Otto’s kitchen. When we showed up and approached the counter to order, I realized that it was the cashier with whom I’d spoken—and she seemed to have realized, too, because she was sure to double-check on whether I had any other food allergies.

Sam and I each ordered a carnitas taco (two pictured above above) and a carne asada taco. The pork in the carnitas taco was absolutely delicious—moist, tender, and well-seasoned, if a bit salty—and the taco as a whole was lovely, too. The onions and cilantro tasted fresh, and the tortilla wasn’t dry in the slightest. Plus, the salsa complemented the pork wonderfully. In all, that thing was near-perfect.

IMG_2977

The carne asada taco was less perfect, though it wasn’t bad by any stretch of the imagination. There was nothing wrong with it; the salsa was just a bit hotter (but less flavorful), and the steak itself was unimpressive. But it’s not as if it turned us off. It must’ve been all right, at least, because Sam and I ended up deciding that we couldn’t possibly be done yet. So we ordered more: a chicken taco, and a carnitas Gorgon (pictured immediately above—it’s basically an extra-stuffed taco in a deep-fried tortilla, almost like what a Taco Bell Chalupa would be like if it weren’t, you know, abominable).

Anyway. The chicken taco was decent. I preferred it to the carne asada, but I don’t think anything they could have served me would have touched the carnitas. The Gorgon, though…the Gorgon was wild. The deep-fried tortilla was probably my favorite part; it was crispy on the outside, soft on the inside, and warm throughout—and it was weirdly creamy, too, which I don’t understand, but which I won’t question. And it was piled high with stuff: lots of pork, salsa, onion, cilantro, guacamole, and serrano cream. I don’t think it’s even possible to take the thing down without a fork. But unruliness notwithstanding, it was straight-up heavenly.

But I ought to stop. Writing this is making me way too hungry, and I can’t quite afford to go back to Otto’s for tonight’s dinner. As if I need to say so, I wholeheartedly recommend this place to anyone who’s (a) in the mood for tacos, or (b) whose heart’s now marred by a hole that only a Cochinita-shaped peg could fill.

Seriously, though. Stop by. Otto’s has three locations: 141 2nd Avenue, between 8th and 9th; 131 7th Avenue South, on the corner 10th street; and 705 9th Avenue, between 48th and 49th. I hear the one on 9th is the biggest, but I can’t confirm. I can say, however, that indoor seating is very limited at the one on 2nd—so go during off-hours, or prepare to sit outside.

Tagged , , , ,

Chick-fil-A

A chicken sandwich from Chick-fil-A

Another fast food joint that isn’t nut-free—and one that barely exists in NYC, to boot. And it’s owned by bigots. Lovely.

What does Chick-fil-A have going for it, then? The answer is simple: decent-to-good chicken sandwiches that seem to be somewhat safe for the nut-allergic.

According to their allergen reference guide, Chick-fil-A does sell a few products that contain nuts: the oatmeal toppings, the granola, and the roasted nut blend (all three of which come in their own plastic packaging). I reached out to Chick-fil-A with a few questions about how they handle those nut products, and I received the following reply:

We have two pre-packeged products that contain nuts, the nut blend packet that is served with oatmeal, and the superfood side, and the granola that is served with the yogurt. These come in pre-packaged and are served in their package to the customer. We do not open the packages in the kitchen.

It would seem, then, that two of those three nut items are the same thing—and that none of their nuts have much of a chance of coming into contact with anything else in the kitchen. (It’s worth noting, though, that Chick-fil-A fries in peanut oil, though they don’t list peanuts as an allergen because highly-refined oils generally aren’t considered allergenic. Still, something to knowif you have a peanut allergy.)

Anyway, the food. Chick-fil-A has two locations in NYC: one in Herald Square, and one in an NYU food court in Greenwich Village. I’ve only been to NYU’s location, which is actually a Chick-fil-A Express (meaning they don’t offer the full menu), so I haven’t been able to try much beyond the chicken sandwiches, nuggets, and fries. What I have had, though, has been pretty good—especially for fast food.

Fries and chicken nuggets from Chick-fil-A

The classic chicken sandwich (just bun, chicken, and pickles) doesn’t live up to the absurd hype you’ll find online, but it doesn’t quite disappoint, either. It’s sweet and buttery, but (usually) not to the point of being sickening—which is all too rare in the world of fast food. I like to get the pickle-free version and add a little honey or mayonnaise, but it’s good as-is, too. All things considered, it’s a pretty solid sandwich.

The nuggets are about the same: sweet, buttery, and generally solid, if a bit boring. The real stand-outs, though, are the waffle fries: crispy, but never burnt—and nice and soft on the inside, but never, ever soggy (I’m looking at you, Five Guys). These are what I hope for when I buy fries, really. And they’re on my meal plan. Score.

All in all: Bigotry aside, Chick-fil-A is a decent place—and I’m not just saying that because it’s one of the only places I can actually spend the on-campus currency I always seem to end up drowning in, come the end of the semester. It’s fast food–quality, sure—but I’d take a Chick-fil-A sandwich over a Buttermilk Crispy Chicken (McDonald’s) or a Tendercrisp (Burger King) any day.

…Well, most days.

Find Chick-fil-A’s largest location in Herald Square (1000 Avenue of the Americas, between 37th and 38th), or stop by NYU’s Chick-fil-A Express in the Weinstein Food Court (5 University Place, between Waverly and 8th—and yes, it’s open to the public).

Tagged , , , , ,

Trader Joe’s Blondie Bar Baking Mix

Blondies, from Trader Joe's Blondie Bar Baking Mix

Safe baked goods are really, really tough to come by. Tough enough, in fact, that I’ve been trying to get my hands on a good blondie for years now. I have this memory of eating the world’s best blondie at an all-school picnic in the first grade—and while I can’t be sure of whether that actually happened, I can be sure of this: I’ve needed a blondie for a while now.

Two problems, though. I can’t find a good blondie I’m not allergic to, and…I can’t bake a batch of my own. It’s not even that I can’t bake; there are plenty of treats I can make from scratch, but for some reason, blondies aren’t one of them. No matter how closely I follow the recipe, they always come out terribly, and I’ve had no luck in figuring out what I’m doing wrong. I’d started to wonder whether blondies just aren’t as good as I’d hoped (and whether my 6-year-old self was just easily impressed by anything that contained sugar)—that is, until I tried these.

A while ago, in a more general post about Trader Joe’s, I mentioned their boxed blondie mix. Honestly, though, this stuff deserves a post of its own. It’s incredibly easy to work with (it is a mix, after all), and the blondies it makes are delicious. They don’t taste like they’re straight out of a box, and if you look at the mix’s ingredients, you’ll see why (spoiler: there’s no weird shit in it). Honestly, if you told me these blondies were home-made from scratch, I’d believe you.

I like to strain out about half the chocolate chips, but you can, of course, leave them as they are (and add more mix-ins, if that’s your thing). As with most baking mixes, the instructions are absurdly easy to carry out: preheat the oven, grease a pan, combine egg and butter, add mix, bake…and that’s it. I just might be one of the laziest people on this planet—I’ll sleep with the light on rather than getting up and turning it off—but this blondie-making process doesn’t deter me in the slightest.

Best of all, there’s no allergen warning on the box, and at Trader Joe’s, that tends to mean the product is safe. (It isn’t a guarantee—some Trader Joe’s manufacturers don’t label for cross-contamination—but it’s a good sign nonetheless, and I’ve never had any trouble with this mix, nor with any of their others that don’t come with “may contain” warnings.)

Anyway, I highly recommend giving this mix a try, especially if you are a) lazy, b) unable to bake, or c) of the opinion that brownies should be less chocolatey, dammit. Find it at Trader Joe’s.

Tagged , , , , , ,

Let’s Talk Five Guys

Two nut-free Five Guys burgers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tagged , , , ,

Domino’s Pizza

IMG_2707

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tagged , , ,

It’s Sugar (sorry, IT’SUGAR)

Candy bins at IT'SUGAR

Okay, this is probably (read: definitely) a bad idea—but where else am I going to find such a wide selection of fresh gummy candy? Still, you probably shouldn’t go to IT’SUGAR if your allergies are very severe or sensitive—but if you can generally handle a bit of uncertainty, or if you’re sometimes a bit irresponsible…well, read on.

IT’SUGAR (no idea why they insist on stylizing their name like that; I always read it as “it’s Ugar,” with Ugar being some sort of green, dripping swamp monster) is a rather expensive, tourist-packed bulk candy store—with nut products present in legions. They don’t have any allergen information posted, though they do have ingredients listed for all of their loose candy (and, of course, for their packaged candy—almost all of which comes with some sort of “may contain” statement). Not exactly a safe haven for the food-allergic, but hey. I’m going to write about it anyway—and maybe insist that you not take this post as any sort of suggestion to drop what you’re doing and make your way to the place.

Anyway, the store. It’s made up of a number of platforms I’m going to refer to as islands, each with around 25 bins filled with candy you’re meant to scoop into your little bag, which you’ll be charged (a lot) for by weight. There’s usually a chocolate island and two or three gummy islands—and a bunch of extra candy lining the walls, too. A lot of it is their own brand (which, like I said, is covered with “may contain” warnings), but they have plenty of other candy, too: retro candy, giant candy, novelty candy—and in general, stuff that can be pretty hard to find elsewhere. (For example: They have Charleston Chews, which are kind of awful, but which I decided I absolutely needed to try one night—long after It’s Ugar had closed. Long story short, I didn’t get my Charleston Chew.)

A price-fixed container of candy from IT'SUGAR

I avoid the chocolate island (actually, let’s go with Chocolate Island) like the plague—too many nuts, not enough allergen information, and too high a chance of cross-contamination—but I’ve never had any trouble with the gummies. The employees refill the bins straight out of these sealed plastic bags stored under the islands, and the content of the bins seems to stay pretty consistent (by which I meant that there aren’t almond clusters in a bin one day and gummy bears in it the next).

Still, I haven’t spoken to anyone at It’s Ugar about any of this, nor do I claim to know much at all about the safety of the place. So again: you shouldn’t take this post as any sort of call to action—for now, I’m just sharing my experience.

The reason I keep going back, though, despite It’s Ugar’s apparent allergy-unfriendliness, is simple: the candy is really good, and I’m a sucker for good candy. Staleness is make-or-break with gummies, and theirs are almost never stale. Major points. And the selection is really wide, which is always a plus.

If you do end up going, I have one tip (other than to avoid Chocolate Island): Get the price-fixed takeout container (pictured above, $14.99), and stuff it as full as you can manage. Seriously—really mush those gummy frogs in there. The employees won’t judge you for it; in fact, they’ll probably judge you if you aren’t actively trying to get more for your money, because the place is really, really overpriced. Plus, with the takeout container, you avoid the risk of losing track of the weight of your bag and inadvertently spending like $28 on pineapple gummy bears and red Finnish licorice. (No, I’m not speaking from experience. How dare you?)

Don’t go. Seriously, don’t. But if you do: there are a bunch of locations in the city, but my favorite is the one on Broadway between Bleecker and 3rd—although if you’re looking to avoid the crowds, you might be better off at the smaller location in Brooklyn (210 Joralemon St).

Tagged , , , , ,

Big Daddy’s: no nuts, plenty of kitsch

The Mr. French Dip from Big Daddy's

Big Daddy’s is a lovely place. Honestly, it’s a terrible place—but it’s lovely, too. Bright, loud, busy as hell, and absurdly kitschy…if that’s your scene, you’ll be in love.

Alternatively, if you’re like me, and you don’t feel at home under super-bright lighting or with jukebox classics constantly threatening to overwhelm your conversation, but you do have a nut allergy—well, you’ll be grateful to be able to eat at a diner, at the very least.

I’ve heard over and over that Big Daddy’s is nut-free, but they don’t categorize themselves as such on their website, so I wanted to make sure. I’ve spoken to servers and they’re always confident: no nuts on the menu, nor in the kitchen. Still, I wanted to know—are they truly nut-free, in the they-vet-their-vendors-and-I-can-eat-a-slice-of-pie sense, or do they just happen not to have any (intentional) nuts on the menu?

In an attempt to get some real answers, I called Big Daddy’s and spoke with a very understanding representative. She asked me to forward her a list of my questions so she could double-check on the answers, as she didn’t want to risk misleading me. Fair enough. Half an hour later, I had the following reply in my inbox:

Hey! So everything that is made in house in guaranteed to be completely nut free. However, with some of our cakes and breads that we order (of course there are no nuts in the food itself) there is no guarantee that there is no cross contamination. I don’t know exactly which [menu items] are and aren’t [guaranteed nut-free]. Our menu is really big and I would just be guessing on a lot of the things. That’s more of a question for the kitchen and unfortunately there is no way of contacting them. If you had a few specific questions I could find out but theyre too busy to go over the whole menu with me and tell me what is what.

She also forwarded me an email from the director of operations:

Off premise bake goods are not guaranteed but no in house nuts. I wouldn’t eat 7 grain bread or off premise cakes.

Of course, I’m sure you’d be able to speak to a server (or even a member of the kitchen staff) about just what’s made in house and what isn’t, should you ever have a question about a specific dish. In my experience, the employees at Big Daddy’s tend to be pretty understanding—but you may have to push a little harder than usual to get your server to double-check on anything, since they’re so used to telling those with allergies that everything’s 100% nut-free.

Anyway, because their in-house food is guaranteed nut-free (and because servers will readily assure you the restaurant is totally nut-free), I’ve categorized Big Daddy’s as truly nut-free. Despite all of the above, it seems to be a pretty safe place to eat—especially if you avoid the muffins, cakes, and certain breads, which isn’t all that hard to do. (And if your allergies are particularly sensitive, to the point that you’re uncomfortable eating commercial ice cream that’s been run on shared lines, you’d be wise to avoid their shakes, too.)

[Note: Since writing this post, it’s come to my attention that Big Daddy’s is even less nut-free than I’d thought. Their Triple Chocolate Disco Shake (chocolate ice cream, Frangelico, crème de cacao) does explicitly contain a nut product (hazelnut liqueur), which doesn’t bode well for Big Daddy’s. In my eyes, it’s not the liqueur itself that’s the problem, but the ignorance the liqueur betrays. How has it managed to slip under the nut-free radar—as in, why does nobody ever think to mention it—and what else might have done the same?]

As a rule, the food is on par with your average diner’s. I wouldn’t go so far as to call it good, but it isn’t terrible, either. I usually order the Mr. French Dip (pictured above) or the Original Big Mac Daddy—both with tater tots. The Mr. French Dip is somehow both too bland and too salty, but what can I say? I have a soft spot for baguettes—including mediocre ones. The Big Mac Daddy is (you guessed it) a burger with Big Mac sauce. Not bad, on a good day. The mozzarella sticks (sorry, the Really Really Good Mozz Styx) are decent, and I’ve been known to order the Monty Hall, What a Deal! (turkey, ham, and swiss on white bread—fried) on occasion, even though I always end up regretting that decision.

And yes, the menu is filled with dish names like those above. Ordering is always embarrassing. But if you can get past the kitschy menu and the even kitschier atmosphere, Big Daddy’s is fair place to eat. On occasion. If you’re really craving diner food.

(One thing I can endorse without disclaimers or reservations, though: the malted milkshakes. I like the vanilla Plain Jane, but if you can get them to malt the Cookie Monster—vanilla with Oreos—well, that’s my official recommendation. I’m sure the ice cream’s made on shared lines, though, so…maybe one reservation.)

There are three locations in NYC: one in Gramercy Park, one on the Upper East Side, and one on the Upper West Side. I’ve been a bit harsh, but I do think they’re worth a try.

Tagged , , , , , ,

Trader Joe’s

IMG_2389

For some reason, I was super late to hop on the Trader Joe’s bandwagon, so I’ll have to make up for that with an absurdly long post. But for real: the place is a game-changer. It’s cheap, convenient, relatively high-quality, and—most importantly!—allergy-conscious.

In case you’ve never been: Trader Joe’s private labels name-brand goods, usually taking out a bunch of the artificial flavorings and preservatives (and lowering the price by a dollar or two) in the process. They do sell some name-brand products, but for the most part, the food they sell is under their private label.

One of the things I love most about them is their approach to allergens and labeling. From their product information page:

As with all health and safety related issues, we take food allergy concerns very seriously. We strive to ensure that all of our Trader Joe’s brand products are labeled with reliable, accurate, and easy to read ingredient statements.

Trader Joe’s strictly adheres to all Federal labeling guidelines. You can be assured that if any of the top eight allergens (milk, eggs, peanuts, tree nuts, fish, shellfish, wheat and soy) are present in our private label products, they will be clearly labeled in familiar terms in our ingredient statements [e.g. casein (milk)]. You can also be certain that if “natural flavors” or “spices” contain any components that are allergens or are derived from allergens, they will be listed separately within the ingredient statement.

According to the same page, all of their private label manufacturers follow Good Manufacturing Practices to minimize the risk of cross-contamination. Most of those manufacturers also issue voluntary warnings for the allergens that may be present in their products (usually in the form of “may contain” or “shared facility” statements). So while it isn’t the case that each and every Trader Joe’s product is guaranteed to be labeled for potential allergens, it is the case that most are—and if you’re worried, their customer service department (629-599-3700) will be happy to give you specifics, provided you have the product in question on-hand.

But what I really want to talk about is the food itself. There are so many things I like at Trader Joe’s that I can’t possibly list them all, but I’ll mention a few of my allergy-friendly favorites—especially those which are otherwise hard to find without allergen warnings. (Keep in mind that these aren’t products I’ve ever called in to ask about. I—like both allergists I’ve seen—am decidedly in the label-trusting camp. Though advisory labeling isn’t ever mandatory, I’m comfortable going by labels, and I don’t contact companies unless I have some specific cause for concern.)

The freezer section is what first got me hooked on Trader Joe’s. It’s huge, and they have a lot of foods I wouldn’t otherwise be able to eat unless I somehow managed to learn to make them myself (yikes). The frozen meals are actually a little better than you’d expect of a frozen food—nothing shocking, usually, but definitely a step up. Some of my favorites: the Japanese style fried rice; the Mandarin orange chicken; the spicy beef & broccoli; the tarte d’Alsace; and the burrata, proscuitto, & arugula flatbread. (Sorry about the inconsistent links; I’ve linked to Trader Joe’s website when possible, but they don’t have a page for every product.)

They have a lot of dried fruit, too—most of it without any advisory labeling. I don’t actually know of anywhere else to buy safe dried fruit, since it’s almost always processed on equipment that also processes nuts, but a lot of the dried fruit at Trader Joe’s doesn’t seem to be. My favorites are the Turkish apricots and the mandarins, but be warned: the latter are ridiculously sweet.

I love the gluten-free Crispy Crunchy Chocolate Chip Cookies, too. They don’t taste gluten-free—honestly, I really couldn’t tell. They’re crispy, buttery, and a little salty…kind of like what I imagine Tate’s to taste like. You know, if I could eat them. [Edit: A few weeks after I posted this, Trader Joe’s came out with a new cookie of the Crispy Crunchy variety: Ginger Chunk. They’re incredible—buttery and salty with perfectly-distributed chunks of dried ginger. My new favorite store-bought cookies, by a landslide.)

And while we’re on the topic of store-bought desserts, I should probably mention, too, that the Belgian Chocolate Pudding is great—it’s almost too rich, and it tastes like brownie batter—and the rice pudding is worthwhile, too.

Slightly less store-bought, but low-effort nonetheless: the Blondie Bar Baking Mix. I’m not a great baker, so mixes always tempt me, but the ones I’m not allergic to tend to taste way too artificial for me. This one’s different—the ingredients are simple, and the blondies it makes really do taste homemade. I keep one or two of these mixes on-hand at all times.

As for breads, there are two I’ll buy. First, the kettle-boiled bagels, which are better than I’d expected, but not quite as good as I’d hoped. I’m always on the lookout for allergy-friendly bagels, since good ones really do seem to be impossible to come by. But these, which are hand-rolled, kettle-boiled, and baked fresh daily in NYC, are actually all right. They’re worlds above other supermarket brands, at least.

And then there’s the organic French baguette. Unlike the conventional baguette, the organic version has no “may contain” warning—which is basically a miracle, as allergy-friendly baguettes are almost as hard to find as allergy-friendly bagels. The baguette itself is nothing special, but (like the bagels) it’s much, much better than the other store-bought breads I’ve tried.

…Anyway.

I could go on and on (and on) about Trader Joe’s products, but I’ll leave it at this: Go. Check it out for yourself. They have so many interesting products (and their stock changes so often) that no description of mine can possibly suffice. And if you’re uncomfortable with trusting labels, do consider going with a phone in hand—their customer service department really will be happy to clear things up, jargon-free.

Trader Joe’s has a bunch of locations in and around NYC, but my favorite is the one in Brooklyn Heights (at 130 Court St).

Tagged , , , ,
Advertisements