Category Archives: Places to eat

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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Dō Hwa

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A while-while back, I complained that it’d been far too long since I’d “gorged myself on Korean barbecue” before launching into a write-up of Gunbae, a nut-free (but rather disappointing) KBBQ spot that’s kinda-sorta in my neighborhood. I gave Gunbae two shots before giving up on it entirely—and then I sort of forgot about KBBQ for a while. That is, until Dō Hwa reappeared on my radar.

I’ve mentioned before that I used to be a lot less careful. I’d eat whatever from wherever, and when I had the occasional reaction, I’d usually just shut my mouth and deal with it. But allergic reactions are horrifying, and the anxiety that comes with the threat of one (to me, an Anxious) is even worse. I mean, how can you enjoy a meal if you’re spending the whole time hyper-aware of each and every sensation that might almost feel something like a swelling lip or an itchy mouth? It’s an appetite-killer.

So—long, long, long story short—I’m more careful now. And while that’s undoubtedly a good thing, it’s left me in the rather strange situation of having all these ex-lover restaurants that I used to adore but that I wouldn’t necessarily be comfortable eating at today. In fact, the vast majority of the restaurants I liked as a (younger) kid don’t make today’s comfort-cut.

But! Dō Hwa does. There are indeed (pine) nuts on the menu, but they’re only used as a garnish on one of the salads, and I’ve been told (by more than one super-helpful, super-friendly, super-competent Dō Hwa employee) that those pine nuts shouldn’t really have any chance to come into accidental contact with anything else in the kitchen. So that’s a “100% comfortable” from me, then. [As for peanuts, though—which, again, I’m not allergic to—Dō Hwa does sometimes use them in one of their side dishes (the anchovies), so do beware.]

A plate of

The first time I went (back), I ended up at a grill-less table, which sucked approximately 93% of the fun out of the Dō Hwa experience. I mean, picture it: You’re stuck at your sorry, fire-unequipped table for two. You’ve no flames to play with, no raw meat to undercook. Without so little to do, you can’t help but glance at the grill-manning parties around you. Parties, indeed—everyone’s got heaps of raw meat; everyone’s poking and prodding at a grill; everyone’s plopping piece after piece of searing-hot BBQ onto leaf after leaf of lettuce. They are having fun. You are looking on. Grillers point their tongs and laugh, their mouths full of half-chewed bulgogi. It’s just like grade school.

Fortunately, you can ensure a grill-equipped table. Just let whoever’s taking your reservation know you’re absolutely, positively about that DIY life—not in those words, please—and you’ll be good to go. (But do be sure to speak up if it’s a grill-equipped table you’re after. The guy who took my first reservation didn’t ask, and I’d just assumed that Dō Hwa didn’t have any grill-less tables. Wrong I was, though.)

Anyway. Before I get to the real fun, I should probably spend some time on Dō Hwa’s other offerings. Pretty much every Korean restaurant presents each and every diner with a whole bunch of complimentary sides—banchan, they’re called—and while I’m usually not the biggest fan of such things, I don’t mind Dō Hwa’s in the slightest. (I don’t know why I’m so small on banchan; probably, it has to do with my food allergies and my subsequent aversion to being ambushed with a whole bunch of sometimes-tough-to-identify foods. But I’m not so big on the usual dishes themselves, either.) There’s one that I’ll often avoid—those aforementioned anchovies that sometimes come with a handful of likely-cross-contaminated peanuts—but I’m comfortable with everything else, and it all tastes pretty good, too. Even the kimchi…which is one of those foods I usually can’t stand.

As for appetizers, Dō Hwa’s are pretty standard—and I mean that as a good thing. The pan-fried beef dumplings (pictured immediately above) are tasty, though a bit boring, and I’m told the d’ukboki (rice cakes in chili sauce) are particularly good, too. But me, I’m really into the kimchi pajun (that’s a kimchi-scallion pancake)—which tastes a whole lot more of scallion than it does of kimchi, thank God. It’s ridiculously thin, with appropriately crispy edges and a soft-ish center, and (as if I haven’t already said this exact phrase way too many times) it’s just greasy enough to have me hooked.

A pile of (raw) bulgogi from Do Hwa

Now. Meat.

Pictured immediately above is a serving of Dō Hwa’s bulgogi, which happens to be my favorite of their meats. At $29, it isn’t cheap, but it isn’t a small portion, either—and it’s just about perfect, if you ask me. The marinade is sweet, but it’s (fortunately!) not too sweet, and there’s just enough of it, too. Do a half-decent job cooking the meat (really, it isn’t hard) and it’ll be ridiculously juicy and oh-so-tender—and, it’s particularly good in the lettuce wraps. Not only is there nothing wrong with this stuff, but it’s precisely what I’m looking for when I’m craving KBBQ.

I also like the seng kalbi, which are boneless beef short ribs, sans marinade. What they lack in flavor, they make up for in texture, and between bites of whatever else, they’re particularly good. Calming, even. One meat I don’t love, though, is the sam ghup sal: thick-cut pork belly that just might be a little too thick-cut for me. It takes forever on the grill, it has little flavor of its own, and I’m not entirely sure it’s possible to cook this stuff through without drying it out. So…no more sam ghup sal for me, I guess.

And just as a side note: The best part, I think, of grilling your own meat (aside from all the fucking-around you get to do) is the fact that no matter how slowly you go, everything you get around to eating will be piping hot. With how quickly I eat, I wouldn’t expect that to make much of a difference—it’s not as if much time ever passes between a dish’s leaving the kitchen and its ending up wholly in my stomach—but (at Dō Hwa, at least) the immediacy does make a difference, and that difference does go a long way.

…You deserve another grill photo, don’t you? Here’s some bulgogi and some sam ghup sal,  alongside some mushrooms, onions, and rice cakes:

Bulgogi, sam gup sal, onions, mushrooms, and rice cakes on the grill at Dō Hwa

Overall, I really do love this place. Beyond scratching my KBBQ itch, Dō Hwa is incredibly allergy friendly—and if you don’t mind the dark and the loud, it’s a pretty pleasant place to be, too. My only gripe, really, is that even when I’ve made a reservation, they can’t seem to seat me within 10 minutes of my walking through the door. Usually, I’ll end up having to spend around 15 pre-table minutes at the bar—but it’s not so bad, really. There is food at the bar, after all.

Find Dō Hwa at 55 Carmine Street, between Bedford Street and 7th Avenue South.

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Barneys Bone Broth

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Here’s a weird one.

Up until last week, I had no idea that bone broth was so trendy. Whenever I’d walk by Barneys, it’d strike me as perhaps a little weird that there existed a whole sidewalk store devoted solely to the sale of one specific type of broth, but I never really thought much of it. I mean, there are tons of weird single-concept restaurants in this city—and anyway, people like soup, right?

Apparently, though, it’s a health thing. A lot of people—including (and especially) the folks behind Barneys—believe that bone broth has all sorts of wonderful health benefits. And while that’s most likely a bunch of hippy-dippy hogwash, this bone broth stuff is probably at least a little bit better for me than the Chik-fil-A or the Crif Dogs that I’d otherwise be having for lunch.

In any case. Five days a week, I eat lunch within a mile or so of Washington Square Park, and I’m always, always, always looking for new lunch stops to add to my rotation. Most days, I’ll walk by Barneys at least twice, and each time, I make note of the teeny-tiny menu and idly figure that I could probably eat (well, drink) whatever’s on it.

Sure enough, I can—but the situation isn’t as simple as I’d imagined. While there are no tree nuts (or peanuts) used in anything sold at Barneys, the stand does share a kitchen with White Oak Tavern, which is not a nut-free restaurant. Still, I’m told that all the Barneys stuff is prepped in a separate area from the White Oak stuff and that there really isn’t much of a chance for cross-contamination to occur—so I don’t worry much about inadvertently ingesting trace amounts of nuts when I’m slurping away at my bone broth. (As always, though, your mileage may vary.)

Barneys Bone Broth's sidewalk store (and their menu, too)

Like I said, the menu‘s pretty simple: there are four types of broth, four add-ins, and a daily soup (whose allergen status I’m actually not sure of). I’ve only tried two of the broths (the signature, the beef) and two add-ins (the meatball, the soft-boiled duck egg)—but that was all it took, really, to turn me into a big ol’ Barneys fan. At this point, I’m an addict…though I wish I weren’t, because Barneys isn’t cheap.

The beef broth—made with beef bones, beef shoulder, apple cider vinegar, a lot of ginger, and a bunch of herbs and spices—is tolerable, but all the ginger is its hamartia. I love ginger, but this broth just has too much of it. It’s overpowering, and it gets old. The signature broth is another story, though: made with veal bones, beef bones, chicken carcasses, and chicken feet, it has a lot more to it, and since it’s less gingery, you can really taste all its components. It’s less boring than the beef broth, too—and that’s most of why it has my vote. (Sorry. I don’t really know how to describe this stuff. It tastes like a soup. A particularly good soup, with layers and nuance and, um, salt. It’s good.)

Two cups of Barneys signature broth

But the add-ins are where I really have my fun. Admittedly, they’re a little awkward to eat—pulling a meatball out of a to-go cup isn’t the easiest thing in the world, and I definitely get some weird looks whenever I try—but I deal, because these add-ins are pretty much mandatory. (It’s not that the broths are lacking or anything; it’s that the add-ins are that good. Although I guess plain broth is a little on the lame end, as lunches go.)

In my eyes, the soft-boiled duck egg is a must. It is, after all, a soft-boiled egg—so when you puncture the white, the yolk leaks into the broth and turns it all…well, yolky. This—yolky broth—is favorite of the soup-related phenomena (and it’s approximately 40% of the reason I so love Ganso’s miso ramen), and my Barneys experience wouldn’t be complete without it.

Even better than the duck eggs, though, are the meatballs. I know we just went through this whole rigamarole, but for real, these are the best meatballs I’ve ever had. Seriously. They’re bouncy-soft, herby, and never, ever even the slightest bit overcooked—and they’re particularly excellent at breaking up slurps of soup. These, too, are a must (in my eyes, at least); and if they weren’t $3 each, I’d probably ask for a half dozen. Here’s one, half-eaten:

A Barneys meatball

So. Takeaways? Barneys is a little expensive, sure—$12 for a 12-ounce broth with a meatball and an egg thrown in—but their broths make for a surprisingly satisfying meal. Of course, I wouldn’t want to drink my lunch every day. But once in a while? Hell yeah.

Find Barneys Bone Broth on Greene Street, between 8th Street and Waverly Place.

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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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Dona Bella Pizza

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When I wrote a few weeks back about the pizza dead zone I inhabit, I was admittedly overlooking Dona Bella. This place is ridiculously close to my apartment, and I walk by it at least a few times a week, but I’d always had this particularly strong intuition that their pizza would be dreadful. I don’t know why—Dona Bella just has the air of a terrible pizzeria, and I guess I figured I was better off without the place.

But I really do live in an unfortunate area for delivery pizza. Everything in FiDi (inexplicably) considers me too far away, as do all the places more than three or four blocks to the north of me (?!?)—and most Tribeca pizzerias are basically full-fledged restaurants, super-nutty menus and all. The night I caved and placed my first order with Dona Bella, I’d gone through the menus of literally all the pizzerias on Slice before throwing up my hands and saying “fuck it.” How bad could it be, really?

Not bad. Not bad at all! In fact, I actually like Dona Bella’s pizza, and not only because it has a flawless record of arriving in under 30 minutes. (The record so far is 9. 9 minutes. From the time I sent in my Seamless order to the time the delivery guy rang my doorbell. Offensively quick.)

And before I go on: Dona Bella is indeed nut-free. That’s what I was told via phone, at least. The guy I spoke with seemed a little thrown my by questioning, likely because nobody had ever called in to ask about nuts before. (I figured such a simple pizzeria was a shoo-in, but it would’ve been silly not to try to double-check.) I can’t be sure that the answer I got actually meant anything—it probably didn’t—but there’s nothing suspicious on Dona Bella’s menu, and I’ve eaten their pizza plenty of times now without a hint of an issue.

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Now, the pizza isn’t incredible, and I still prefer My Little Pizzeria‘s, but it definitely isn’t bad, either. At the very least, it’s worlds better than all the bad pizza I’m known to eat (Little Italy, Ben’sJoey Pepperoni’s, 2 Bros…I’m incredibly lazy, and my standards are way lower than I’d like you to believe). The crust—which is definitely a little underwhelming—is covered with those weird-ass texture-sapping breadcrumbs I so hate, but it’s still so, so much better than Little Italy’s. It’s a little on the thin side, but it’s chewy and buttery, and it does well when steeped in pizza grease, too. (Sorry…)

The cheese is good, and the sauce is all right, too. Overall, slices are about as sweet as I can handle before I start crying “sugar sauce!”—but that’s all I ask for, really. I don’t mind pizza that’s a little sweet, but I won’t eat more than a bite or two of any pizza that’s covered in syrupy-sweet tomato sauce, no matter how good the crust and cheese are. (Spoiler: If the sauce is that sweet, neither the crust nor the cheese are going to be worth your stomach space.) What I’m trying to say, I think, is that Dona Bella’s pizza is a bit sweeter than I’d like, but that it’s not nearly sweet enough to piss me off. I like it, and I’m prepared to stand behind that liking.

I should probably mention, though, that I can’t vouch for Dona Bella’s hours-old slices. I actually can’t vouch for much of anything but their freshly made plain pies. Those are all I order, because all I’d really wanted from Dona Bella was a quick, reliable delivery joint that’d be willing and able to bring me edible pies sans any trace amounts of nuts. They can’t seem to be nice to me on the phone, nor can they seem to cut their slices even remotely evenly, but you know what? They’re exactly what I was looking for.

(Too-sweet pizza really does make me unreasonably angry, by the way.)

Find Dona Bella Pizza at 154 Church Street, between Reade and Chambers.

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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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White Maize

Three nut-free arepas from White Maize

[Edit: I think White Maize now serves an arepa that contains pesto? Supposedly they’re rather allergy aware, so it might not be a deal-breaker. Just something to be aware of.]

Within 5 minutes of hearing about White Maize, I knew I’d be giving it a try. It didn’t look like anything all that special—it’s just an arepa place that opened this past fall on Brooklyn’s restaurant-dotted Smith Street—but that was precisely why I was so interested. I tend to get pretty excited about one-trick restuarants, as their teeny-tiny menus are (to me, at least) a lot less worry-inducing than those that are more well-rounded. And plus, the one-category food in question at these sorts of places tends to benefit from all the extra attention.

Within 10 minutes of hearing about White Maize, I was on the phone. And within 12, I’d heard everything I’d been hoping to hear. There are no tree nuts (or peanuts) in White Maize’s kitchen—and while their ingredients aren’t guaranteed to all be free from cross-contamination, pretty much everything that goes into their food (stuff like meats, cheeses, beans, and herbs) is low-risk and simple.

A Reina arepa from White Maize

And you know, the food’s pretty damn good. It’s not quite as good as I would’ve hoped, given the distance from my apartment (far-ish) and the prices (steep-ish), but it’s nonetheless good enough that I’m happy to make the occasional two-train trek out to Carroll Gardens to get my fix.

The restaurant itself is bright and modern, with wood-panel walls, some CB2-looking hanging lights, a few tables, and floor-to-ceiling windows that look out onto Smith. The employees are friendly and helpful, and though the food takes a while to come out, it feels worth the wait. (Imagine eating a soggy-ass arepa that’s been sitting around under a warmer for the last 30 minutes. Ick. So I’ll do my best not to whine about the slowness.)

A nut-free Reina arepa from White Maize

So far, I’ve tried a grand total of four of White Maize’s nine arepas, and two of their four appetizers, too. My favorite of the arepas is easily the Parrilla, which is made with grilled steak, grilled tomato, grilled avocado, and grilled cheese, and which is pictured in the foreground of the photo at the top of this post. The steak is ridiculously soft and tender—the folks at White Maize will cook it perfectly to the doneness of your choosing—and the grilled cheese and avocado were nice touches, too.

My only complaint was that the arepa as a whole could used a little more pop—but that’s what salsa’s for, isn’t it? Fortunately, White Maize offers two squirt-bottle sauces: one red (a little spicy, and a little boring, but fine), and one green (spice-less, avocado-based, and the love of my life). The latter sauce is necessary—and in large quantities, too—for nearly everything at White Maize. Without it, most of these dishes end up being a little underwhelming, but as soon as I get my hands on one of those squirt bottles, I’m set.

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I also like the Pelua arepa, which is made with pulled beef and gouda. Admittedly, it’s a little (okay, a lot) boring, but with a few squirts of the aforementioned sauce, it turns into a whole other creation. The pulled beef is good, and the gouda is cheese, after all—so really, there’s nothing not to like.

Also pretty good: the Reina arepa, made with “chicken breast and avocado salad.” The first time I ordered it, I figured it’d contain (a) chicken breast and (b) avocado salad—that’s what the menu’s (lack of) punctuation implies, at least—but it doesn’t, so I’d like to submit a somewhat pedantic (but actually sort of significant) correction to the folks at White Maize: This filling is one cohesive salad that’s comprised of both chicken breast and avocado, so it should be referred to as “chicken-breast-and-avocado salad,” and not as “chicken breast and avocado salad.” (Because “Chicken-breast-and-avocado” is here one long compound adjective that describes “salad.” Hyphenating it accordingly would get rid of the ambiguity that allows us to misunderstand the Reina as filled with avocado salad and some chicken breast, too.)

…In any case, the Reina (pictured second and third above) is a sort of decent that qualifies as good once sauced up. The chicken itself is the right texture, and the salad it’s part of is all right, if a little bland. (It’s decidedly avocado in color, but not avocado enough in flavor, and if you ask me, it could definitely use some herbs or some citrus, and maybe even some solid chunks of avocado, too.) There’s also a whole lot of olive oil in this thing, to the point that it’s a little overbearing, but honestly, there’s so, so little White Maize’s squirt bottles can’t fix.

The Vuelve a la Vida arepa from White Maize

I have found one arepa that my beloved green sauce can’t fix, though: the Vuelve a la Vida (English: “return to life”), which is pictured immediately above. It’s filled with shrimp, octopus, and calamari “in cold cocktail salad” (read: smothered in straight cocktail sauce), and it’s just too sweet for me. The shrimp is fine, the squid is fine, and the octopus (though there are only maybe two or three pieces per arepa) is particularly good, but the cocktail sauce just ruins the whole thing for me. What otherwise could’ve been a fun, multidimensional seafood-salad-type thing goes flat and one-note when coated in a sauce as blunt (and sugary!) as this one. Plus, the sauce makes the arepa itself taste a little too much like an English muffin pizza.

A nut-free empanada from White Maize

As for sides: The tequeños—fresh cheese, wrapped in dough and deep fried—are great, and though they’d be even better with their own dipping sauce, the green sauce works well enough. And the empanadas, which come 3 for $7, are wonderful, too. (There’s one pictured in the terrible photograph immediately above.) I usually hate black beans, but they work so well in these that I just might have to change my stance. And the meat—to tell you the truth, I’m not exactly sure whether it’s pork or beef?—is solid, too. The best part, though, is probably the dough: hot, crispy, and just sweet enough. Real good.

Anyway. While I can’t deny that White Maize’s arepas are all at least a little lacking, I also can’t deny that I really do like the place, despite its tendency to underwhelm me. So I do recommend White Maize—but I also recommend going in with your expectations in check.

…And a full wallet, because this shit ain’t cheap.

Find White Maize at 277 Smith Street, between Degraw and Sackett.

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Taquitoria

Three classic pork taquitos from Taquitoria

[Edit: Taquitoria is no longer in business. Blame the rent.]

One of the first places I ever went on my own as a kid—well, other than school—was the 7-Eleven a few blocks from my childhood apartment. Not one for variation, I’d buy the same thing every time: one (1) pre-paid RuneScape membership card, one (1) bag of Rips, and three (3) gross little taquitos. Admittedly, those taquitos always tasted exactly like they’d just come off a hot-dog warmer at some godforsaken gas-station convenience store—and they had, of course—but I didn’t care. That was just…what I did.

Maybe that’s why I hate taquitos so much. I mean, if I’d grown up on 7-Eleven hot dogs, I’d probably hate hot dogs, too. There are good hot dogs out there, though—I’m already well-aware of that. But good taquitos? I’m not so sure. I wasn’t sure pre-Taquitoria, and I’m certainly not sure post-Taquitoria. At the very least, though, these taquitos are worlds better than 7-Eleven’s—though this place doesn’t sell RuneScape membership. Definitely a downside. (Listen: I’ve quit, okay?)

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I found out about this place a long time ago—almost a year ago, actually, right around when I first started this blog—and back then, I was pretty excited about it. Why? Because—as if single-item-menu restaurants weren’t themselves enough of a boon for those with food allergies—Taquitoria’s menu proudly declares the restaurant nut-free (and gluten-free, and soy-free, and shellfish-free, too).

Now, for me to categorize a restaurant as “truly nut-free,” that restaurant must either (a) openly identify itself as nut-free, or (b) attempt to use only ingredients that are free from cross-contamination—and as I said, Taquitoria meets the first criterion, so I’ve gone ahead and categorized them as “truly nut-free.” Still, they do not require allergen statements from their vendors, so there is, I suppose, a chance that some of their ingredients may have come from facilities that do handle nuts.

…Then again, that’s true of almost every single restaurant ever, and there’s a chance of a nut trace in pretty much every dish on the planet, regardless of whether there are any nuts present in the kitchen it was made in. (If you’re eating in a restaurant, it’s just not feasible to insist on its being confirmed for you that every single ingredient in every dish you order is free from all possible nut traces. Think about it: flours, sauces, seasonings…it’s unlikely that everything will have come from a nut-free facility.)

Eating out is always going to involve some degree of uncertainty. It’s a risk–reward thing. And I happen to believe that Taquitoria’s about as safe as these sorts of places come. Let’s move on.

Some artwork on display at the back of Taquitoria

Despite all the good things I’d read about Taquitoria, and despite my initial excitement at its being nut-free, it took me a while to get myself over to Ludlow Street. My excitement, I think, was purely theoretical. And it wasn’t exactly easy for me to work up a motivated craving for taquitos and taquitos alone. A year later, I’ve still only been by twice—but I’ve ordered from them a handful of times, and I’ve tried pretty much everything on the teeny-tiny menu, too. Finally, I’m ready to blog.

And you know, I’m ready to be honest, too. So here goes: I don’t like much of anything about this place. Everything about it—its “graffitied” walls, its oldish-but-not-old-school hip-hop music, its been-done dueling Biggie and Tupac tip jars, its gimmicky single-concept menu, and even its ever-so-Chill™ business hours—screams “I’m not like a regular restaurant. I’m a cool restaurant.” And it drives me fucking bonkers. Admittedly, that’s a little weird; classic Kanye, gimmicky food, and late-night hours are all usually right up my alley. But when Taquitoria does cool, it just…doesn’t strike me as cool. Think of a fedora (or is it a trilby? I can never tell): it’s cool when Justin Timberlake rocks one, but some random (less-cool) dude? Not so much.

Between Timberlake and the random trilby-sporting guy guy, the difference is…well, a whole lot of things. But between Taquitoria and any of its less-eye-roll-inducing kin? The difference is just the quality of the food. I don’t think Taquitoria would have any trouble pulling off its attempt at cool if the taquitos were good. And don’t get me wrong—they’re all right. (They’re certainly the best taquitos I’ve ever had. But they’re also the only taquitos I’ve ever had that didn’t come out of either a 7-Eleven or a José Olé box.) They’re nice and crispy, with some formidable fillings—all three meats (chicken, pork, beef) are wonderfully juicy—but the toppings they come with are just so ridiculously underwhelming that they’ve soured me on the whole restaurant.

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As for those toppings, there are three pre-set options—Classic (“guac sauce,” shredded lettuce, cotija—which is the style option pictured throughout this post), Cheesy (nacho cheese, sour cream, pickled jalapeño relish), and Chronic (a combination of Classic and Cheesy)—and not one of them is good. Where do I start? The guac sauce is watery and lame, and the shredded lettuce is McDonald’s-tier. The nacho cheese is inexcusable (I firmly believe that nacho cheese has no place in this world), and the jalapeño relish might as well not be there. Oh, and there’s never enough sour cream on them—and the red sauce  is totally useless.

In short, these taquitos leave a whole lot to be desired. They’re okay, but they’re definitely not good.

And anyway, how hard could it really be to improve these toppings? As long as they’re covered with some respectable sauce, cheese, and veggies—and as long as they’re properly fried, which these are—bland-ish taquitos would be a non-issue. But covered with this nonsense, any taquito would fall flat. And there’s no excuse for these toppings, either. There are so many appropriate options out there: a better avocado salsa, a reasonable amount of crema, some pico de gallo, a little onion and cilantro, even just a little lime…but no. The folks at Taquitoria have chosen to limit themselves to the likes of nacho cheese and shredded iceberg. Great. Thanks, guys.

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As if it even matters, the sides are lame, too. The rice & beans—which are topped with tortilla chips (???)—are boring, even for rice and beans. And the chips & salsa are mediocre, too. The Chronic Fries—waffle, crinkle, and shoestring fries, mixed together and topped with all the nonsense I shit-talked above—somehow manage to be at once both boring and overzealous, and the same applies to the “nachos,” too.

Are you getting my point yet…? Anything topped with Taquitoria’s signature slew of accoutrements is going to suck, whether or not you decide to drown the creation in hot sauce. And for what it’s worth—probably nothing—this isn’t a matter of my having highfalutin tastes. I eat at McDonald’s at least twice a week, and if there were a Burger King nearby, I’d be there even more. I have a perverse love for KFC’s mashed potatoes. I sprinkle a little MSG on all my frozen meals, and I dump at least four pounds of French’s atop all my Hamburger Helper.

It may come as a bit of a surprise, then, given how critical I am of a lot of the restaurants I write about—but at my core, I have no standards. And Taquitoria still manages to let me down, not because their food is intolerable, but because it’s marketed as something it isn’t: notably better than the likes of mass-produced fast food. And maybe it is, but not by much. So I’m sorry, I guess, but I’m not a fan. The guys behind the counter are nice, though. I’ll give them that.

Find Taquitoria at 168 Ludlow Street, between Stanton and Houston.

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Kung Fu Little Steamed Buns Ramen

Shanghai pan-fried pork buns from Kung Fu Little Steamed Buns Ramen

You know, my instinct was to start this post with one of those obnoxious half-apologies I so love to offer up: “More Chinese food! How repetitive! Poor me! Poor you! Poor us, having to suffer through this post that I chose to write and you chose to read!” (Why, yes. I do find another one of my own blogging tics to roll my eyes at about every other day. How kind of you to notice.) But that’s an exceedingly stupid instinct, I think—because if you’re allergic to nuts, you’re probably grateful for each and every Chinese restaurant that can accommodate you. Unless you aren’t into Chinese food, in which case…well, my next post is going to be about taquitos, so I’ll see you then.

In any case, I first contacted KFLSBR (no chance I’m going to be typing that name out) a few months ago. I called their Hell’s Kitchen location—that’s the location this entire post will be about—a few weeks before going and then again about an hour before showing up, and both times, I was told (by separate people) that there weren’t any tree nuts or peanuts used in any of their food. Evidently, though, that isn’t true. There aren’t any tree nuts in the kitchen, but there are peanuts present in at least one dish, which is what I was finally told the second or third time I went.

Of course, I’m not allergic to peanuts, and I’d only even asked about them for the sake of this blog post (and because it’s usually a lot easier to ask about peanuts alongside tree nuts than it is to go through the effort of separating the two in your server’s mind)—but I really don’t like being given misinformation when it comes to allergenic ingredients. Finding out that they’d been wrong about the peanuts naturally made me question what I was told about tree nuts…but no matter how many times (and how many different ways) I’ve since asked about tree nuts, the folks at KFLSBR have stuck to a consistent answer: there are none. (Plus, by now, I’ve eaten there plenty of times without issue—so I’ve come to feel comfortable enough with the place.)

Stir-fried ramen with pork from Kung Fu Little Steamed Buns Ramen

Anyway. KFLSBR is a little strange, but it definitely isn’t bad. The name—Kung Fu Little Steamed Buns Ramen—is a little misleading, but only if, like I did, you approach this restaurant from a place of ignorance. Up until very recently, I’d had no idea that Japanese ramen started off as a Chinese dish. (“Ramen” is actually the Japanese pronunciation of the Chinese “lamian,” which refers to a type of Chinese noodle.) So while the ramen served at KFLSBR isn’t at all what most of us have come to think of as ramen’s only legitimate form, there’s no need to bring out the pitchforks. This is ramen as it was when it first showed up in Japan. Rest easy, Yelpers.

But before you start to think I’m praising KFLSBR’s noodle soups, I should probably come out and say that they sort of suck. The noodles themselves aren’t bad, but the broths are so simple that they just end up coming off as boring. Really, I see no reason to mess with these dishes. There are plenty of other things on the menu, so I tend not to bother.

I’m similarly unimpressed with all the stir-fried noodle dishes I’ve tried. (And that should probably mean something to you, because I like almost every single stir-fried noodle I come across.) Again, the noodles themselves are good—they have a satisfying chew to them, and they’re sort of fun to eat—but the stir-fries as a whole are exceedingly boring. Both the pork (visible in the dish pictured above) and the roast duck are themselves surprisingly tasty, but the noodles they come atop are just so…one-note. They’re way too sweet, and none of the veggies are worth the (minimal) effort it takes to bus them to your mouth. So I tend to pass on these dishes, too.

Peking duck buns from Kung Fu Little Steamed Buns Ramen

I guess I should get the rest of the dishes I don’t like out of the way before I go on to talk about what I do like. (This isn’t my favorite restaurant, obviously. But they do have a few dishes I love, no doubt.)

Anyway. Let’s talk soup dumplings. I love xiao long bao (or steamed buns, as they’re called at KFLSBR), but these just don’t do it for me. The wrappers are fine, but the broth inside is pretty bland. Maybe that’s why I saw a guy literally squeezing the soup out of each and every one of his poor, poor dumplings before forcing the dry wrappers down his throat with a grimace. (No, that’s probably not why. He was probably an idiot, and I probably need to learn to keep my eyes on my own food.) In any case, I’ve written these off as another skippable dish, though I can work up a little more excitement for these than I can for the other dishes I’ve mentioned so far.

One more dish. Just one more dish, and then I promise I’ll have some nice things to say. The pan-fried Peking duck buns—which are pictured immediately above, and which actually are buns, rather than dumplings—are so close, yet so far. The buns themselves are fine, but the duck inside has too funky of a flavor for me. And on top of the funkiness, it’s cloyingly sweet, too. I’d love to be on board—duck, when done right, is probably my favorite meat—but I just can’t. Sorry.

Scallion pancakes from Kung Fu Little Steamed Buns Ramen

And now, finally, onto the dishes I crave. First, the Shanghai pan-fried pork buns (sheng jian bao), which are totally worth the 20-minute wait the menu warns about. The wrappers are thick and doughy—too thick and too doughy, perhaps—but I, for one, love them. And the broth inside tastes (or maybe just seems to taste) a whole lot better than the broth you’ll find in the xiao long bao.

Honestly, the first 45 minutes or so of my inaugural KFLSBR meal had me pretty discouraged, and by the time these dumplings arrived, I’d pretty much decided that I’d never be coming back. But these were enough to sow the seed of craving in me—and as long as I can keep ordering them, I’ll keep going back to KFLSBR. (…On occasion.)

My other favorite dish—and I’m aware of how silly this sounds—is the scallion pancakes, pictured immediately above. I don’t exactly know why, but these things just haunt me. I like them better than any of the other scallion pancakes I’ve had lately, and that’s not only because I’ve been eating some moderately underwhelming scallion pancakes—it’s (for once) because these are solid in their own right. They aren’t just greasy and somewhat crisp (which is all I require of a scallion pancake, really); they have actual layers to them, too. They outer bits are crisp enough, but the inside’s soft and and fluffy, even. Perfect.

I can’t really deny that these place is, overall, a disappointment. On top of the problems I have with the food, there’s…well, it isn’t cheap, it’s small and cramped (and always packed with tourists, too), the service is (frankly) pretty bad, and they automatically apply a 15% gratuity to all bills. (That last one’s fine with me, actually, but I do think they could afford to be a little more upfront about the practice. The receipt shows what they’ve added on, but it encourages you to tip, too—and the servers never, ever mention that you’ve already tipped when they’re handing you the check.)

But despite all that, and despite the dishes with which I’ve had my differences, I don’t mind KFLSBR. And in fact, I actually sort of like it. In small doses, it’s fine—especially if you’re short on Chinese restaurants whose food won’t kill you.

Find KFLSBR at 811 8th Avenue, between 48th and 49th; 146 East 55th Street, between 3rd and Lexington; or 610 8th Avenue, between 39th and 40th.

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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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