Category Archives: Restaurants

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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Sao Mai

A bowl of pho from Sao Mai

Up in Yorkville, right around 2nd Avenue, there once existed this cancerous cluster of terrible restaurants that really ought to have been dug right up and replanted in some godforsaken upstate strip mall. I spent a lot of time in those sorts of restaurants, because my middle-school friends evidently couldn’t get enough of…well, whatever it is those sorts of places hawked, I guess: usually terrible “sushi,” and depressing Thai on occasion, too. I remain bitter. (Maybe that’s why my blog posts are so insistently obnoxious?) Today—nearly a decade later—a satisfying percentage of those restaurants are gone. But I think one may have been reincarnated about 70 blocks south of its original spot.

This is, of course, my roundabout way of saying that the Lower East Side’s Sao Mai reminds me of the shame-inducing restaurants of my middle-school career. It’s the terrible decor that gives me the flashbacks. Shitty lighting casts an orange hue on exposed brick walls; ceiling fans spin on, even in the middle of February; picture-plastered menus come in flimsy little booklets; the cashier lives behind a shiny-tiled podium that really belongs at the front of a medical spa; a strip of pink flowers do nothing to spruce the place up. I’ve come to associate this sort of aesthetic with terrible attempts at Asian cuisine—so by the time I’d taken my seat at my first Sao Mai table, I was already expecting to be let down.

Sometimes—sometimes, I said—I love being wrong.

A grilled pork bánh mì from Sao Mai

105 posts, and not a single mention of Vietnamese cuisine. How that happened, I’m not sure—but I’m thinking Sao Mai will be a good entry point, given its unusual degree of nut allergy–friendliness. There are no tree nuts in Sao Mai’s kitchen, but that’s not really out of the ordinary for a Vietnamese restaurant. Nearly all the Vietnamese restaurants I call tell me that they don’t use tree nuts in any of their food, but almost none of those restaurants’ bánh mì are made with allergy-friendly bread. (The restaurant I called immediately before Sao Mai responded to my bread-origin question with laughter—then, when the woman realized I was serious, she told me that they got their bread “from some bakery in Chinatown,” and that I’d probably be wise to stay away from it.)

Sao Mai’s bread supplier is Neri’s Bakery, a peanut-free bakery that’s grounded up in Port Chester, of all places. With regard to tree nuts, though, the situation at Neri’s is a little more complicated. Here’s what I was told via email:

We are a Peanut Free facility, which means we do not use any Peanuts in any portion of the bakery. We also have a written Peanut Free policy and all employees are trained accordingly. That being said we do use some Tree Nuts in our pastry division for items in our retail store for Biscotti cookies. That room is completely separate from the rest of the bakery.

Now, as you’ve probably inferred from the above photo of a half-eaten bánh mì, the response I got from Neri’s was enough to make me feel comfortable with their breads. That makes Sao Mai the only Vietnamese restaurant I’ve found that meets my standards, bread-wise. (I’m sure there are others, but I can only make so many phone calls.)

Calamari from Sao Mai

It took approximately one dish to make me start questioning my initial read of Sao Mai. The crispy calamari (pictured immediately above) didn’t singlehandedly bring me around, but it sure did help the process along. Like a lot of Sao Mai’s dishes, it’s very sweet—too sweet for some, perhaps—but I love it. I really, really do. The squid’s always perfectly fried, and it’s good plain, with the dipping sauce it comes with, or with a little cilantro on top. The lettuce underneath is a little iffy, and the tomato slices on the side are weak, too—but what can you do? Overall, a lovely appetizer.

It was the pork bánh mì, though, that sealed the deal. Pictured second above and immediately below, this is one good sandwich. Given the whole can’t-eat-most-breads thing, I can’t say much of anything about how this sandwich fares against other bánh mì, but I can evaluate on its own merit, and let me tell you: This thing is good. The grilled pork is sweet and soft, and all the cilantro in this thing complements it ridiculously well. There’s just enough mayo, and I’m even a fan of the cucumber that comes wedged in the crook of the roll. (I have a thing with cucumbers. I think they’re disgusting. I’d had big plans to leave this cucumber wedge uneaten, but Sao Mai foiled them.)

My favorite thing about this sandwich, I think (aside from the flavor of the pork—and aside from the fact that I can eat it, which is a huge plus), is the way the arrangement of its ingredients lends itself so well to strategic eating. When I get tired of the pork, I can scoot over to the right for some cilantro or some cucumber, or over to the left for some carrot and daikon—and when I get tired of those, it’s right back to the center for pork. It seems like a silly thing to praise, but it’s a big part of why I like this sandwich so much. Here it is:

A grilled pork bánh mì from Sao Mai

Rather than giving a play-by-play of everything else I’ve enjoyed (or, in some cases, disliked—I’m looking at you, pan-fried egg noodles), I’m going to cut right to the chase and get to talking about the phở. (I actually think it’s illegal to use the phrase “cut to the chase” when you’re already a literal thousand words into a blog post, but you’ll forgive me.) Sao Mai offers seven types, and both of the ones I’ve tried have been pretty damn good.

The first time I went, I ordered the beef brisket phở, which (like most of Sao Mai’s other phở dishes) is served alongside a plate of bean sprouts, lime, basil, and jalapeño. The brisket was good enough, but the beef eye-of-round phở—or “beef eye round noodle,” as it’s called on Sao Mai’s menu—has since become my regular order, literally only because I’m a sucker for bright-pink beef. (Okay: I like the eye-of-round’s taste and texture just a little more than I like the brisket’s. But it’s 97% a matter of color.) I mean, come on:

A bowl of pho from Sao Mai

Irresistible.

(Actually, the eye-of-round’s not all that pink in the photos I’ve included with this post. It darkens pretty quickly, and photos take a few minutes. Sorry.)

Anyway, this phở’s pretty great. (NYC definitely isn’t known for its Vietnamese food, but Sao Mai does consistently place on best-phở lists, so that’s something, at least.) The broth is subtle (but not bland!), and I’m particularly grateful for all the onions and scallions throughout. I like the noodles themselves, too—and I typically hate super-thin noodles like these—and the meat’s good till it toughens up five minutes into your meal. (Really, though, it takes effort not to eat all the meat within 30 seconds of your bowl’s arrival, so if you’re aware that its texture is time-sensitive, you’ll be fine.)

Here’s a bonus phởto (har har), just ’cause:

A bowl of phở

Obviously, I like Sao Mai. I’m most grateful for their bánh mì, and I have a lot of fun with their phở, but there’s no reason to stop at those; the menu’s definitely worth a poke-around, and I’m genuinely glad to have gotten my hands on it. There are a bunch of dishes I still want to try, but for now, I’m pretty confident: Sao Mai is a restaurant that will be in my rotation for a long, long time.

Find Sao Mai at 203 1st Avenue, between 12th and 13th Streets. And if you’re planning on having a sit-down meal, be sure you have either (a) a free afternoon ahead of you, or (b) the cojones to use your hand/voice/a kazoo to signal for the cashier’s attention if you ever, ever, ever want to be given a check. Ever. (Oh, also: Bánh mì aren’t served after 5pm.)

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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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Nom Wah, Part I: Nom Wah Tea Parlor

Nom Wah Tea Parlor's storefront

If working on this blog has shown me anything, it’s that I’m basically an infant: always adjusting my desires upward, always indiscriminately wanting. (Well, that and the fact that NYC has way more nut-free food than I’d ever, ever thought.) Seriously, though: How often do I fall in love with a new restaurant only to realize in a month or two that it was never truly all that great—that it didn’t really satisfactorily fill the food-void I’d wanted it to fill—and that I’m already hoping for something better?

Often. Often enough. I’m always developing incredibly high opinions of restaurants I’ve just found, and I’m always half-retracting those opinions in a few months’ time. I get used to the novelty of the new food I’ve finally found safe access to—lo mein, bagels, whatever—and then, just like that, I get my characteristic pickiness back. It’s all downhill from there, and within a few weeks, I’m searching for my next big thing. And that’s why my list of allergy-friendly restaurants is so long. (You’re welcome.)

Any-fucking-way, after finding Han Dynasty, I got a little complacent. It isn’t the world’s greatest Chinese restaurant—especially not for my purposes—but my immense excitement at the prospect of any reasonably safe Chinese food certainly quieted my inner infant for a while there. I ate Han Dynasty’s food weekly…and then I got used to it. Before I knew it, I was back to begging Google to show me some nut-free Chinese restaurants in the Tri-State Area.

Of course, I found none—because (as far as I know) there are no decidedlyadvertisedly nut-free Chinese restaurants anywhere near NYC. But I’m sure there are at least a handful of local Chinese restaurants that happen not to have any nuts in the kitchen; there’s just no one collecting them and slapping a “nut-free” label on them and posting them online. (Hello!)

In any case, I’ve rambled long enough. Nom Wah Tea Parlor is (a) my next-step Chinese restaurant and (b) one of those incidentally nut-free places I so love to collect. Let’s move on.

nomwahteaparlor

This place has been around for a while, serving dim sum at the vertex of Chinatown’s Bloody Angle for nearly a hundred years now—but it hasn’t always been as trendy as it is today. A few years ago, a guy named Wilson Tang left his job in finance to take over Nom Wah, then owned by his uncle. And as soon as the place was his, he renovated its kitchen, expanded its menu, and generally just turned it into the American-magnet it is today. Now, I’d never been to the old Nom Wah, so I have nothing to compare this new-ish place to—but the consensus seems to be that the transition has not been a disaster.

And thank God for that, because I would’ve shown up anyway. Nom Wah is pretty much nut-free, so I would’ve had no choice but to suffer through whatever weird sort of Franken-restaurant it’d become. I’ve been assured—multiple times, via phone and in person—that there are no tree nuts (or peanuts) in Nom Wah’s kitchen, with the exception of their almond-containing (duh) almond cookies, which are fortunately not made in house (and which should thus not pose much of a cross-contamination risk). And within hours of finding out about all that, I headed straight to Doyers Street.

The menu at Nom Wah Tea Parlor

The first time (Sam and) I went, I was sure to confirm the whole nut-free thing with the hostess, who double-checked with someone behind the bar before confirming for me that there really aren’t any nuts in Nom Wah’s kitchen. (I, like, quadruple-checked on this place. Nut-free Chinese restaurants are so hard to come by that whenever I find one, I automatically assume the news is too good to be true.) After this final reassurance, Sam and I took our seats—and so our Nom Wah craze began.

For a dim sum restaurant, Nom Wah is unusually calm. It’s relatively quiet, and there are no carts of food; instead, you order with pen and paper—which is a lot better for the food-allergic than the point-and-hope method you’ll have to adopt at other dim sum spots. That first night, though, Sam and I went a little pen-crazy. We left Nom Wah so absurdly full—and with so much leftover rice in-hand—that we decided we’d better walk for a while before even thinking about going home. But we’ve since eaten at Nom Wah enough times to have calmed down a bit, and I’m ready to somewhat-level-headedly talk about what I’ve most enjoyed.

Two nut-free egg rolls from Nom Wah Tea Parlor

The first thing I tried at Nom Wah was an egg roll (one of their specialties, apparently), pictured immediately above. If you can’t tell from the photo, these things are absolutely enormous—which I should’ve expected, really, given the dish’s $7 price tag. I’m pathetically used to overpaying for food, though, so I figured they were just a little overpriced. Nope. Huge. And fortunately, these aren’t your average Chinese-American egg rolls. (I don’t mean to hate on takeout egg rolls; they’re just…a little boring.) I don’t know what’s in these—egg and celery, maybe some mushroom, and apparently a little chicken, too—but damn, they’re good. Especially with the addition of a little soy.

A nut-free pork bun from Nom Wah Tea Parlor

Also enormous are their roast-pork buns, which happen to be incredible. The pork inside is so sweet and tender (and plentiful!) that I just might’ve had to stop for a second to catch my breath. Lesser pork buns tend to taste like a hunk of acoustic foam that’s been stuffed with unidentifiable sugar-meat, but Nom Wah’s don’t. The bun itself is pleasant—mildly sweet, and not too dry or doughy—and there’s certainly enough filling to balance it out. And the filling actually tastes like pork! Sweet pork, but soft, fatty, delicious pork nonetheless.

Really, I used to think I’d always prefer baked pork buns to their steamed counterparts, but these…well, they have me rethinking my stance. (And if you know me, you’ll know that I’m not much of a stance-rethinker. Forgive me.)

Nut-free soup dumplings from Nom Wah Tea Parlor

Another dish for which I’m ready to dole out some high praise: the above-pictured Shanghainese soup dumplings, which I assure you are absolutely adorable, despite their not-so-photogenic nature (or, alternatively, despite my own shortcomings as a photographer). They’re filled with pork—have you noticed I’m into pork?—and (of course) broth, and they’re truly a pleasure to eat.

I could go on about how ridiculously flavorful the broth is, etc., etc., but honestly, I think you’ll just have to try these for yourself. Soup dumplings are a strange creation, and eating them is an even stranger experience—but they sure do taste good. For real: see for yourself. Just be sure not to burn your mouth. (Oops.)

Turnip cake and pan-fried dumplings from Nom Wah Tea Parlor

I’m also weirdly into the turnip cakes (above, left) and the pan-fried dumplings (above, right). My appreciation of the dumplings is less weird, I guess; really, who doesn’t love a good dumpling? But my first time at Nom Wah, I was surprised to have so enjoyed the turnip cakes. “Turnip cake” isn’t a very appetizing name—but fortunately, these have pretty much nothing to do with Western-style turnips. In fact, they’re made from shredded daikon (a Chinese radish)…which I would’ve loved to have known when I was sitting in Nom Wah driving myself crazy with the question of just what these cakes’ flavor reminded me of. (It was those little piles of grated daikon that so often show up on platters of Japanese food. Mystery solved.)

In terms of their flavor, these things are pretty mild. They’re a little fishy, a little radish-y; otherwise, they don’t have all that much of a taste. The inside’s soft and flaky, almost like the texture of cooked fish, and the outside’s just crispy enough to have gotten me hooked. Overall, they’re pretty fun to eat—especially with the XO sauce they’re served with—but I should probably mention (as if it isn’t already clear) that I’ve never eaten turnip cakes anywhere else, so it’s not as if I have much to compare these to. All I can say, really, is that they taste pretty good to me.

Pan-fried dumplings, though, I’ve certainly had (way too) many times before—so I’m pretty comfortable in saying that these are pretty good. They’re greasy, but not too greasy, and the filling (minced pork) is really tasty…but what I like most about these dumplings is how thick their wrappers are. They’re really chewy, but not in a mouth-clogging way, and I’m a huge fan.

Fried rice and pan-fried noodles from Nom Wah Tea Parlor

I should probably mention some of the entree-sized dishes, too. The fried rice (above, left) is an absurdly big portion, and could easily feed a party of perhaps three trillion. It isn’t incredible—some of the egg bits taste weird, and the peas aren’t so hot—but hey, it’s fried rice. I like it enough to keep ordering it, and it’s a great dish for some heavy-duty sharing. (Or leftovers. I’ve learned that the folks at Nom Wah will be happy to provide you with as many styrofoam containers as you’d like—so as long as you’re willing to pack up your own food, you can take whatever you’d like to go.)

Also pretty good, and also great for sharing: the pan-fried noodles (above, right), which are way too thin to be the noodles of my dreams, but which do the trick nonetheless. They’re stir-fried with scallions, onions, and bean sprouts, but if you closed your eyes, you’d never know it; the dish is actually pretty bland. I do love me some grease, though. I guess I’m pretty easy to please. Also: the leftover version of Nom Wah’s fried rice is no match for the leftover version of these noodles. Like most stir-fries, this dish holds up well in the fridge.

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I’m just about done—I think I’ve done enough praising—but before I stop, I want to mention a few Nom Wah dishes that didn’t capture my heart: the steamed spare ribs (above, left), the chicken feet (above, right), and the cilantro-and-scallion rice roll (not pictured, but here). The spare ribs were gooey in texture and hot-doggy in flavor, and the chicken feet were way too heavy on the garlic. The rice roll was weird—very slimy, very bland, and somehow still too way sweet—but I didn’t mind all that much, because at Nom Wah, there’s always plenty of other food on the table.

Does Nom Wah serve the best dim sum ever? No—nor the cheapest. But the food’s pretty good (great, at times) and it’s one of the safest Chinese restaurants I’ve been able to find. It’s a little touristy, but it’s definitely not a tourist trap…and in my opinion, at least, it’s worth a visit. Or two.

Find it at 13 Doyers Street, between Pell and Bowery. And stay tuned for another post on Nom Wah—this time, with a focus on the fast-casual spot they’ve recently opened in Nolita.

[By the way: Please, please excuse the terribly inconsistent white balance in the photos I’ve included in this post. Nom Wah’s lighting is weird, and I’m always forgetting to carry a white-balance card, so…I’ve ended up with some shitty photos. My bad. This’ll teach me, though. (I actually just put my white-balance card in my wallet, so there.) For more photos, check out Nom Wah’s Caviar page.]

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Roll-N-Roaster

A tray of nut-free food from Roll-n-Roaster in Sheepshead Bay

Roll-N-Roaster is probably one of the weirdest restaurants I’ve ever been to—but I say that only because I’m not used to the total foreign land that is Sheepshead Bay (and its surrounding neighborhoods), nor do I have much experience with pre-gentrification Brooklyn. Rest assured, though, that I’ve deemed Roll-N-Roaster weird in a good way. This place perplexes the hell out of me, and it takes me over an hour to get there, but God, I love it.

Located in one of a set of neighborhoods I’ve just decided to refer to as Unironic Brooklyn, Roll-N-Roaster is, first and foremost, a fast-food joint. (They call themselves “not so fast,” as for almost 50 years now, they’ve insisted on cooking everything to order, and they’re rather proud of the fact that their rolls will actually go stale, if ever given the chance.) Their main hawk is roast-beef sandwiches—and should you ever end up there, you’d be mistaken not to order one—but their menu‘s huge: sandwiches, burgers, pizza, wings, tenders, and all the sides you can imagine. Everything on the menu, save for a $60 bottle of Moët & Chandon, is under $8, and if you manage to spend over $35, they’ll give you a free pizza, sans prompting. (In fact, avoid trying to do any prompting. They’ll look at you funny.)

There are about six trillion things about this place that really should make me twitch. It’s about as far out of my way as I can fathom; the food’s not that much better than your average fast-food chain’s, but its devotees all tout it as the best stuff on this planet; it’s almost always filled with drunk and/or very strange people; the menu (and the restaurant itself) is peppered with ridiculous grammatical errors; everyone in the place—including those who aren’t drunk—seem to be of that mentally unsound sort who think artificial cheese (sorry, cheez) is an acceptable thing to even think about eating; and the place leaks insane amounts of unironic kitsch right out its wazoo.

But something about sitting at one of their (many, many) tables is so inexplicably comforting that I can’t quite bring myself to feel any sort of frustration with anything while doing so. For real. This isn’t just some attempt to slip in a few of Roll-N-Roaster’s downsides without being unnecessarily mean to the place over the course of my write-up; there really just is something about it that’s somehow managed to grant it immunity from its flaws. Maybe it’s the place’s sheer distance from the stress and demands of the real world (well, my real world). Or maybe it’s just the greasy-ass comfort food. I suppose we’ll never know.

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I suppose, too, that I should get to talking about allergens. This’ll be brief, because at Roll-N-Roaster, the deal’s pretty simple: There are no tree nuts (or peanuts) present in the kitchen, and I’ve been told that their bread shouldn’t contain any traces of nuts, either. They do serve a few desserts, and while I’m not sure whether those are free from cross-contamination, I do know that they don’t explicitly contain any nuts—so on that front, I feel comfortable with a simple policy of, uh, not ordering any. (I’m used to it; probably, you are, too.)

Before getting into the food, though, I want to spend a little time on the restaurant itself. It’s pretty big—by my Manhattan-born standards, at least—with, like, two or three rooms jam-packed with tables. (The above photo doesn’t do the restaurant’s size much justice.) Aesthetically, it reminds me of a rest-stop McDonald’s, and strictly speaking, that’s an insult, but I actually don’t intend it as one. Apparently, the folks at Roll-N-Roaster haven’t messed much with the restaurant’s decor since its opening in the early 1970s. And why should they? It’s roomy, clean, and functional—and it pairs well with the food.

The counter at Roll-n-Roaster

Anyway. Like I said, Roll-N-Roaster’s menu is big. But I tend to stick to the roast-beef and ribeye sandwiches and some combination of fries, onion rings, mozzarella sticks, chicken tenders, and corn fritters. I avoid their cheez (which you can get on anything you “pleez,” according to at least four separate signs) like it’s the fucking plague—but I did try it once (Sam’s doing), just to be absolutely sure it’d be fair of me to go on hating the stuff. Unsurprisingly, it tastes like all the rest of the processed cheese in the universe: gross, plasticky, not-cheesy, and just generally reprehensible.

Onto the sides.

Sans cheez, the fries are good. They’re shaped like little pickle chips, and they’re thin and usually pretty crispy, which is nice. They benefit a lot from the salt that’s available on every table, and they could use some dipping sauce, too, but it’s not as if they desperately need any. They’re all right on their own—and Roll-N-Roaster’s honey mustard (my sauce of choice) is about as good as their cheez. (I didn’t manage to get any pictures of the fries, but they look like this.)

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The mozzarella sticks and onion rings, however, are better than all right. In fact, both are legitimately good. The mozzarella sticks are nice and creamy on the inside with a thick-enough, crunchy-enough outside, and the marinara sauce they come with isn’t as cloying as most shitty marinaras are. (Actually, as these things go, it’s pretty good.)

And the onion rings are even better. These are of the onion-ring archetype that sits at the back of my mind forever whispering at me to order the onion rings! each and every time I see them on some godforsaken menu. 85% of the time, I end up disappointed; usually, what arrives is greasy and bland, and the fucking onions always fall right out at first bite. Trash. But these are actually pretty great. They’re thin-ish and crispy, and they have enough structural integrity to not, you know, fall the fuck apart just because you’ve shot them a funny glance. Such a relief.

The corn fritters—on a good night—are a lot of fun, too. (I mean, they’re deep-fried balls of battered corn. What’s not to like?) The corn itself is a little watery, but whatever it’s surrounded with is good enough to keep me from caring much about the corn itself. The fritters are almost like deep-fried corn pudding, really…if corn pudding were a lot more underwhelming than it already is. Regardless, I enjoy these, and I order them pretty regularly.

A roast-beef sandwich with onions and extra gravy from Roll-n-Roaster

But the main event of my Roll-N-Roaster meals (and of any reasonable person’s, I’d say) is definitely the roast-beef sandwich—which I like to order with roasted onions and plenty of extra gravy. The bun is decent, though nothing life-changing; the roast beef itself (which they unfortunately no longer offer rare or medium-rare) is above average, but certainly not incredible; the onions are solid, but a little too thick-cut; and the gravy doesn’t have all that much flavor. Together, though, these components amount to way more than the sum of their parts—especially once you’ve lifted the bun and sprinkled some much-needed salt atop the meat.

I should probably mention, too, that I’m a pretty big fan of the ribeye sandwich as well. It’s so greasy—it’s basically a hunk of pan-fried steak on bread, after all—and massively flavorful, too, even without onions or gravy. (In fact, onions and gravy don’t do much for this sandwich; more than anything else, they just tend to sog it up and detract from the meat itself.) I don’t understand it. This sandwich shouldn’t be so delicious. But it is.

I don’t know, man. Weird shit goes on at Roll-N-Roaster. I can’t explain any of it, nor can I explain any of my feelings about it. All I can say is that these sandwiches are strangely enjoyable, and that the restaurant is strangely pleasant. I can’t shed any light on the phenomenon; I can only confirm that it’s real.

A tray of food from Roll-n-Roaster

Oh, and by the way—if it doesn’t go without saying—stay far away from the pizza. Really.

Find Roll-N-Roaster at 2901 Emmons Avenue, between 29th Street and Nostrand Avenue. (Take the B or the Q to Sheepshead Bay and walk the mile to Roll-N-Roaster. It’s not too bad a walk—you’ll pass lots of weird-ass restaurants, at least. Alternatively, drive. There’s even a parking lot.)

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Sushi Zo (!)

Salmon roe from Sushi Zo

Sushi Zo is so ridiculously far out of my price range, it’s not even funny. But there are no nuts in their kitchen, and I did eat there safely, so…I’m afraid I have no choice. It’s time for another half-apologetic post on a jarringly expensive meal!

But first, the details. Sushi Zo started in Los Angeles, and you sure can tell. Theirs isn’t the classic, super-traditional sushi of many of NYC’s other top-tier restaurants; rather, it’s prepared “Zo-style,” according to chef Masashi Ito (click at your own risk; Kat Odell is…annoying, to say the least).

At Zo, there is only one option: a $200-per-person omakase, available only by reservation (which you’ll have to make well in advance). Don’t ask for a California roll; don’t ask for spicy tuna; don’t even ask for soy. Your chef knows best—that’s the idea, at least—and you’d be wise to do as he says (and only as he says).

If it weren’t for my dad and his undying love of sushi, I never would’ve dreamed of going to Zo. (Actually, had it not been for his undying love of sushi, I’d probably be sushi-ignorant enough to be content with, like, Kikoo, and thus never would’ve dreamed of dreaming of going to Zo.) But the man loves sushi, and he’s in frequent need of a dining partner or two—and that‘s how I managed to afford (well, to escape having to afford) such an expensive meal.

When we arrived—that’s Sam and me, as my dad was 15 painful minutes late—we were seated immediately at one of the restaurant’s two tables. (We all would’ve preferred the bar, but I wasn’t able to get three seats on a day that worked for us all.) Immediately, I fell in love with was the decor: bare brick, lots of wood, sparse greenery, Eames-ish chairs…it was perfect. Even the chopstick holders appealed to me. (I don’t have photos, because I felt like a real jackass pointing my camera every which way in such a nice restaurant. But I’ve linked the few I could find online, because Sushi Zo’s decor is probably my favorite out of all the restaurants I’ve ever been to.)

As soon as my dad arrived, a server approached our table to ask whether any of us had any food allergies. And as soon as I’d corrected my dad’s “nope, none” with an “actually, yes—I’m allergic to nuts,” the omakase had begun. (As I mentioned above, there are no nuts in Sushi Zo’s kitchen. It’s that simple. I haven’t included any further allergen information because there isn’t any. No nuts, no complications, no causes for concern.)

Onto the omakase itself. But first, a confession: I have absolutely no idea what I ate at Sushi Zo. I mean, I know what I ate—sushi, and lots of it—but I don’t really know what was what. Certain pieces (the uni, the shrimp, the tuna) were obvious, but others…well, the servers told us what they were, but I didn’t write anything down, and my memory’s failed me. So I’m sorry for the vagueness that’s to come—and I hereby promise to start taking notes on any subsequent many-course meals. (Really.)

Anyway. First came the sashimi, all at once, on a lovely little platter. There was lean tuna, two pieces of whitefish (that I can’t name), some octopus, and an oyster. I most enjoyed Whitefish #1 and the octopus, which was firm and chewy, though not tough—but the lean tuna was good, too. I wasn’t all that enamored with Whitefish #2 or the oyster, but overall, the sashimi platter was good, and by the time I’d finished mine, I was really looking forward to the rest of the tasting.

Four pieces of sushi from Sushi Zo

Within maybe two minutes, we’d already entered the next phase of the meal: sushi time. Piece after piece just kept showing up; as soon as we’d finished one, a server would clear our dishes and bring out the next—and like that, we got through more courses than I could count. (Literally. I lost track. 20-something? Not sure.)

The first piece—I know this one!—was halibut, topped with something yuzu-related. I think it’s the piece pictured in the top-left of the above photo, but who knows? In the top-right photo, there’s a mystery fish, and in the bottom-left, there’s sweet shrimp. That’s uni, of course, on the bottom-right—and fortunately, that’s all the identifying I’m obligated to do for the moment.

Of the sushi, my favorite pieces were the uni; the torched otoro; the torched something-or-other, topped with truffle salt (!!!); the halibut; and whatever’s in top-left photo below (Sam says trout, so trout, I guess). Also wonderful: the sweet shrimp, despite its bitter aftertaste; the chutoro, though it wasn’t all that impressive, as chutoro goes; and the torched wagyu, though it wasn’t as good as the torched wagyu at Sushi Azabu (or Sushi on Jones, actually).

I do have a complaint, though. The fish itself was all incredible, but I really, really wish the folks at Sushi Zo weren’t so goddamn heavy on the toppings. I know, I know—it’s a high-end omakase, and I’m meant to trust my chef, etc., etc.—but constant toppings (beyond soy and wasabi) eventually end up making it supremely difficult for me to actually, you know, taste the super-high-quality fish in front of me. So there. I said it. I wish Zo’s sushi chefs would chill with the yuzu and the peppers and the whatever-the-fuck else it is they insist on placing atop nearly every single piece of fish. Sorry.

Time for more identifying. Here is, clockwise from the top-left photo, trout (potentially), torched otoro, chutoro, and seared wagyu:

Four pieces of sushi from Sushi Zo

After the sushi came one of the loveliest things I’ve ever eaten: a perfect little bowl of ikura and rice, topped with shredded nori (pictured at the top of this post). The ikura was some of the best I’ve ever had, and there was plenty of it, which is unusual. The rice was perfect, too—seriously some of the best I’ve ever had—and as a whole, the dish was easily one of my favorites of the night.

Then, there was chawanmushi, a sweet and creamy egg custard dish I’d never had before, and tamago, too (which was the best I’ve had, actually, since Honmura An closed in 2006-ish). And finally, there was a hand roll (we were each given the choice between tuna and blue crab—both were great) and a small bowl of soup (clear-brothed, with a big chunk of red snapper at the bottom).

Oh, and dessert. How could I forget dessert? Usually, I stay away, but at Zo, I didn’t have to. Our server assured me that everything, dessert included, would be safe for me to eat—plus, this dessert was about as simple as it could’ve been—so I dug in without (much) hesitation. Here it is, a (poorly photographed) house-made yuzu sorbet that I ate—and thoroughly enjoyed—sans issue:

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In all, I spent a little over two hours at Zo, though it didn’t feel like much more than 30 minutes. It’s a very fast-paced meal—and then, just when you think it’s started to wind down, out comes a whole other set of courses to down. It’s an expensive tasting, sure. Worth $200 per head, pre-extras and pre-sake? I’m not sure. But the service is terrific, the ambiance is exceedingly pleasant, and the food—which ranges from good to offensively good—is a lot of fun, to say the least.

Plus, there are no nuts in the kitchen. And, if you sit at a table, the other diners are far enough away so as not to annoy with their probable…extravagance. (Not so far, though, that you won’t notice said extravagance. Seriously: So many of the people of high-end sushi bars just love to show off, as much to their servers and chef as to whomever might happen to be listening—hence the opportunistic glints to their eyes and their ever-so-slightly-slightly-raised voices. “‘It’s a thing,’ as you all say,” as my British Literature professor says.)

Anyway. The Zo experience is perfect.

…Near-perfect. Too many toppings. That aside, though, that omakase really was something special, and I hope one day—one day—to return. Maybe.

Find Sushi Zo at 88 West 3rd Street, between Sullivan and Thompson. (And if you manage to leave with any sort of room left in your stomach, there’s a nearby Morton Williams that stocks both A La Mode ice cream and a ton of Vermont Nut Free treats.)

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The Burger Bistro

The menu at The Burger Bistro

I’m such a sucker for customizable meals. Let me build my own anything and I’ll probably end up your most loyal customer. So for me, The Burger Bistro was a no-brainer. Pretty much all they do is customizable burgers—with two million possible outcomes, according to their slogan—so obviously, obviously, I had to try it out.

First, though, allergen information. To my pleasant surprise, The Burger Bistro is one of the most allergen-aware restaurants I’ve dealt with—which isn’t really saying all that much, but which is nice nonetheless. There are no nuts or nut products of any kind in their kitchen, and as for buns, the spiel is as follows:

I cannot attest that the bakery we get fresh rolls from is nut free. But I offer a potato roll, sliders, gluten free roll and a lettuce wrap that I can guarantee are nut free. All breads are kept separate. If you decide to dine with us I will personally make sure we open a brand new package of bread and not cross contaminate anything. I understand your concerns and that’s the exact reason why we do not have nuts in our locations.

Pretty, pretty, pretty good. (Seriously.) I’ll gladly limit myself to—ugh—potato buns if it means continued existence on my part. That’s a fair trade-off, I think. (I should probably mention, though, that The Burger Bistro does offer ice-cream sandwiches, which aren’t, as far as I know, guaranteed to be totally free from cross-contamination. No big deal, though; the rest of the food really does seem safe, and I’m 100% comfortable with all of it, with the exception of the rolls mentioned above.)

A nut-free burger from The Burger Bistro

The first time I went, I had no idea what to order. It was the Fourth of July, and all I knew was that I wanted a burger. But what kind of burger? At The Burger Bistro, there are so, so, so many options: 8 patties, 10 cheeses, 13 toppings, 6 sauces, and 7 buns (or bun substitutes). They’ll nickel and dime you for just about everything, but still—you’ll have a lot of freedom, and it’s hard not to take advantage.

We started with the deep-fried corn on the cob, which was sort of like a sweeter version of corn tempura…minus the tempura batter. I liked it, as did Sam—but $9 for a few halved corn cobs? I wasn’t quite disappointed with the dish, but I don’t think I’d order it again. But the appetizer stage passed quickly, and within a few minutes, it was burger time.

I ended up with a pretty standard burger: potato roll, beef patty, mozzarella cheese, lettuce, tomatoes, onions, and a fried egg. Boring? Maybe. But if The Burger Bistro were really all it claimed to be, such a simple burger would’ve been the restaurant’s chance to shine. That was my logic, at least—but the burger just wasn’t very good. I won’t hate on the bun, because I know it isn’t The Burger Bistro’s fault that potato rolls are inherently terrible at supporting much of anything (nor is it their fault, really, that their probably-way-better brioche rolls aren’t nut-free), but I will hate on their beef, because what the fuck?

Listen. If I’m going to a restaurant that specializes in burgers, I’m going to expect the beef—the main character!—to be good, especially at around $15 per burger. I don’t care that the offered Kobe beef, tuna steak, bison (get real), or lamb might be worlds better; it’s a burger joint, and the standard beef patties should be reliably good, at the very least. But they aren’t. They’re the right size (nice and big, without being too thick) but they’re undeniably boring. More mushy than tender, they don’t have much of a sear on the outside—and the medium-rare isn’t much of a medium-rare; it’s more of a medium, if you ask me. Lame.

The rest of the ingredients were all right, I guess. The egg was fine, but its yolk wasn’t runny enough. There were plenty of onions, whose presence I always appreciate—and the lettuce, though fast food–quality, was inoffensive. The tomato was your average not-particularly-flavorful tomato, the mozzarella was fine, and the potato bun was a potato bun. Call me underwhelmed.

Sam’s burger was similar, as were his impressions—but our mediocre experience didn’t keep us from going back. It may have taken us four whole months, but we did return to The Burger Bistro, determined to find some way to squeeze some fun out of their burgers.

A nut-free burger (with pineapple) from The Burger Bistro

Now, I’m still a (big) believer in sticking with the classics, especially at restaurants that have generally failed to impress me—but in the interest of fun-squeezing, I decided to switch it up a bit, namely by adding some grilled pineapple to my burger, which is pictured immediately above. (Otherwise, I did keep it simple: potato bun, medium-rare beef patty, and onions. I didn’t want to cheese-up my pineapple, nor did pineapple and tomato sound all that complementary. And their sauce selection leaves much to be desired…so I went sauceless.)

Still, the burger was good. Not good-good—it had the same problems as the last, and I think the patty was even a bit blander—but good enough to enjoy, at least. The pineapple was great (though I could’ve used more), and should I ever find myself back at The Burger Bistro, I’d definitely order it again. Even for $1.50—which is what each and every topping, cheese, and sauce costs to add on. (Ridiculous.)

Frizzled onions from The Burger Bistro

That night, I also tried the frizzled onions, which were surprisingly good—until they’d cooled down, that is. While hot, they weren’t the slightest bit soggy, nor did they taste mostly of bland grease (as do most frizzled onions and onion rings, in my experience). Instead, they were crispy, soggy, and satisfying—and the portion was huge, too, given that it’d only cost $5. Final verdict: reasonably pleased, would re-order.

So…I don’t have any grand plans to return to The Burger Bistro (not soon, at least)—but I appreciate its existence nonetheless. Allergy-aware restaurants are always, always, always an asset, so I’m (at the very least) glad to have found this one. Is the food to-die-for? No, it isn’t. And is it reasonably priced? Well…not particularly. But if you manage to find the right stuff to order—and good luck, among the literal millions of options—the food’s enjoyable enough.

Find The Burger Bistro in Park Slope, at 177 5th Avenue, between Berkeley and Lincoln, and in Bay Ridge, at 7217 3rd Avenue, between 72nd and 73rd. (Everything I’ve written in this post has been based exclusively on my experiences at the Park Slope location. I’ve never been to their Bay Ridge restaurant.)

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Sushi Katsuei

Usuzukuri from Sushi Katsuei

When I think sushi—good sushi—Park Slope definitely isn’t the first (or second or third or eighth) neighborhood that comes to mind. But when I read about Sushi Katsuei—Michelin-recommended, and identified by The Infatuation as the home of the best sushi in Brooklyn—I figured it just might be worth a try. So one Sunday night, when the few nut-free Japanese restaurants that were open didn’t have anything available for three, I made my way to 7th Avenue, with Sam and my dad in tow.

Of course, before showing up, I called to make sure Sushi Katsuei was suitably nut-free. Everything I’d read had sounded promising, and I couldn’t really imagine nuts showing up in an omakase, but I’m not about to bet my life on an assumption, so I asked. Twice. And both times, I was told that Sushi Katsuei doesn’t use any tree nuts (or peanuts) in any of their food. So, while they aren’t explicitly nut-free, they’re close enough for me

When Sam and I arrived, we decided to sit at the bar (which is omakase-only). My dad was maybe 5 minutes late, but by the time he got there, we’d already been sorta-hounded by multiple servers to, you know, order. The restaurant wasn’t particularly crowded, so I’m not really sure why the urgency, but when my dad arrived and we finally placed our order, everyone chilled the fuck out, thank God.

We went with the omakase that included both sushi and sashimi, because why not—and we (well, I) got some usuzukuri, too (pictured at the top of this post). The usuzukuri was good—I especially appreciated the scallions, though I could’ve used some more—but it was hard to pay attention to the dish with such a well-reviewed omakase looming.

Tuna sashimi and an oyster from Sushi Katsuei

But as soon as the usuzukuri was gone, the omakase ceased to loom; our sashimi platters had arrived, and it was time to eat. The selection included fluke, Spanish mackerel, squid, chutoro, and—get this—an oyster, and, for the most part, it was pretty good.

The fluke, which had a little salt on top, was nice and fresh, though a little bland—but the mackerel, scallion-topped, was surprisingly tasty. I also really liked the squid, which was cut into strips and coated with spicy cod roe. It was just chewy enough (which is, I guess, what I always say about squid I like), and the roe added a nice, subtle heat to the whole ordeal.

The chutoro (pictured above, on the left), was very underwhelming, though, and the oyster (above on the right)…well, it made me reach for my water. It tasted too much of the sea, even for an oyster, and it was filled with debris. Not so great, then. (Not for me, at least. Not for me.)

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So the sashimi was a little hit-or-miss. Fine. But I still had hope for the sushi—which turned out to be much better, on the whole. There were quite a few pieces I couldn’t identify, though, so bear with me as I try to write about my ever-important opinions.

Two of the first pieces were yellowtail and sea bream (both pictured above, the former on the left and the latter on the right). Both were good, but I preferred the sea bream, if only because it wasn’t topped with anything (but salt!). I almost always prefer my sushi unadulterated, but Katsuei’s chefs are really big on topping their fish with this, that, or the other thing. As offenders go, Katsuei isn’t as egregious as, say, Sushi of Gari—but as the tasting went on, I found myself wishing I could get some plain, soy-brushed (or perhaps salt-topped) fish.

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We also had some otoro (left) and some Hokkaido uni (right, duh)—and frankly, neither was all that great. The otoro, while fine, was exactly as underwhelming as the chutoro (and to tell you the truth, I didn’t quite believe it was otoro), and the uni, while tasty at first, had an overbearingly bitter aftertaste, which definitely didn’t help things.

But forget those two pieces. My two favorite bites of the night were the salmon (below, left) and the torched something-or-other (below, right). The salmon, sufficiently, fatty, was topped with some sort of sesame-tasting nori-ish business, and I loved it—not despite its topping, but because of it. And the torched whatever was supremely buttery—not to mention the fact that it was garnished with the only topping I might just love unconditionally: scallions (!!!). So good.

Salmon and an unidentified piece of sushi from Sushi Katsuei

Anyway. While the the meal was certainly a little inconsistent, quality-wise, I did enjoy myself at Sushi Katsuei. The good bites were good enough to carry me through the bad ones—and the bad ones weren’t bad so much as disappointing, really. Our servers were doting, our chef was jovial, and the atmosphere, while not all that nice, was nice enough. So I had a fine time—and perhaps I’ll even return.

Find Sushi Katsuei in Park Slope, at 210 7th Avenue (between 2nd and 3rd Streets).

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Ganso Ramen

Traditional-style Miso Ramen from Ganso Ramen

Back in June, I published two Ganso-related posts: one on Ganso Yaki, and one on Sushi Ganso. To my absolute horror, both of those restaurants closed (out of nowhere!) at the beginning of this month…but the news isn’t all bad. One of the Gansos is still open, and I’m finally ready to complete the post-trilogy with a much-awaited (I’m lying) post on Ganso Ramen, the original Ganso that serves—you guessed it—ramen, and plenty of it.

Located near Fulton Mall, somewhere between an IHOP, a Cookie’s, and a Goodwill, Ganso Ramen feels out of place. Inside, it’s dark and intimate; outside, there’s an Applebee’s and, like, eight Burger Kings. (Not really. I think there are two.) Ganso’s doorway is like a portal to another world.

The allergen information in my post on Ganso Yaki applies to Ganso Ramen, too, but I’ll recap, in case you, whoever, are link averse. There are(/were) no tree nuts in the kitchen at any of the Ganso restaurants, and though they aren’t(/weren’t) decidedly nut-free, they don’t(/didn’t) have any nuts on-site. That, combined with the fact that Japanese food is generally pretty low-risk, is enough to make me feel right around 100% comfortable eating at Ganso Ramen (and the other two Gansos, too, when they were still around).

Traditional-style Miso ramen from Ganso Ramen

The first time I went to Ganso (and the second time, and the third), I ordered the Tonkotsu ramen (“rich, creamy twelve-hour pork bone broth and thin, straight noodles, with roasted pork belly chashu, ajitama egg, greens”), Kagoshima-style (i.e. with garlic and soy sauce). I liked it, sure, but it didn’t quite do it for me. I couldn’t put my finger on just what was wrong with it—the noodles weren’t as thick as I would’ve liked, but that couldn’t have been it—but something was, so I abandoned it in favor of the Braised Short Rib (“deep beefy broth, thick Sapporo noodles, Hatcho miso-braised beef short rib, ajitama egg, greens”). Same deal: pleasant, but not The One. Too salty. Not very creamy. Blah.

And then, finally, I found it: the Miso ramen (“savory Shiro miso-chicken broth of Japan’s Far North, thick Sapporo noodles, roasted pork belly, ajitama egg, fresh corn, greens”—pictured twice above). For real, it’s perfect; the noodles are chewy, the miso flavor is strong, but not overwhelming, the scallions (scallions!) are nice and flavorful, and the corn, just short of crunchy, is always sweet. Plus, the dish is made with butter (!!!), which goes a long, long way in creaming up the broth. And, of course, there’s the egg (satisfyingly gooey) and the pork belly (absurdly tender, and a little sweet, too). I’m in love.

Sizzling Gyoza from Ganso Ramen

For a while there, I was doubting Ganso. But when I found this dish, my confidence in the place skyrocketed. I started craving ramen—rain or shine, hot or cold, breakfast or dinner, it was all I wanted. And if my wallet had allowed it, I probably would’ve spent multiple nights per week at Ganso.

So high was my opinion that I even found myself willing to drop $9 on a plate of their Sizzling Gyoza (pictured above). That’s actually the only side I’ve tried at Ganso—I haven’t been that many times, and I’m somewhat of a cheapskate—but honestly, it’s good enough to make me want to try the others. The gyoza, sizzling indeed, are made with pork, garlic, and chives, and though they’re a little boring, they’re served with a chili-soy sauce that helps to liven them up. They aren’t terribly exciting (and they’re definitely a little overpriced), but they’re good nonetheless.

There are plenty of other Ganso dishes I’d like to try: the Ganso Wings, the Japanese-Style Fried Chicken, the Japanese Steamed buns, and maybe even some of the other ramens. But for now, the Miso ramen has me firmly in its clutches—and I’m all right with that, I think.

Find Ganso Ramen at 25 Bond Street, between Fulton and Livingston.

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Sushi on Jones

Sushi on Jones

Remember David Bouhadana, the sushi chef who got his restaurant shut down after a spat with the DOH over their rigid, rigid glove rules? Well, Bouhadana lost his job at Sushi Dojo—but he’s back, serving up fresh DOH-agita at his new open-air (read: outdoor as fuck) sushi spot. And yes, his chefs are wearing gloves.

Located in The Bowery Market, Sushi on Jones is not your average sushi spot. Sure, it’s home to a few recognizable motifs—a sushi bar, white-coated chefs, a mostly-classic omakase—but there are only six seats, and with a reservation (which you’ll have made via text), you’ll be in and out in under 40 minutes. Water comes in Poland Spring bottles, green tea comes in cans, and Kid Cudi just might form the soundtrack to your meal (if you can hear whatever their iPod’s playing over the sirens and motorcycle revs of NoHo). Strange dogs on those godforsaken extendo-leashes may sniff at your feet, and pigeons will probably feast upon your fallen ginger. Such is the Sushi on Jones experience.

Suffice it to say, then, that this place is a little offbeat. Unorthodox. Quirky, if you will. Fortunately, though, their sushi’s pretty traditional—which means nothing New-Agey, nothing cream-cheesy, and, of course, nothing nutty. I spent a week or two sporadically poking around online in an attempt to find an email address or (call-able) phone number at which I could direct my nut-related questions, but no such things existed, nor did their iPhone-manner ever respond to my message about allergens. So I resigned myself to just showing up, asking about nuts, and hoping for a promising answer.

Sam and I ended up stopping by one Saturday night around 8pm. Immediately, a woman—she was sort of a waitress, but there isn’t much waiting to do at Sushi on Jones—asked if she could help us. I asked my usual questions (“Any nuts? Shared kitchen? Reason to worry?”), to which she responded with the best answers I could’ve hoped for: no nuts, no shared kitchen, no reason to worry. She even sent the manager out to confirm, and that he did. Lovely.

Now, getting a seat isn’t hard, but it isn’t the easiest thing in the world, either. That night, we couldn’t get a reservation via text—I’d sent a text with a few times that worked for us, but all I received in response was a “sorry not tonight.” Fine. But when I asked in person 15 minutes later, they were happy to give me a reservation within a few minutes of one of times I’d originally asked for. Weird, but whatever. We were just happy to have gotten a spot.

When our time came, we made our way back to Sushi on Jones and were seated within 10 minutes of our arrival. Sam and I were the only two seated at the (two-stool) second counter, which is actually on Great Jones Street, rather than a few feet into the market, where the main counter is. Our little area was dark (really dark, hence the heinous backlit iPhone photos I’ve included with below, and the Google-supplied Grub Street photo at the top of this post—which was taken by Noah Fecks, by the way), but sitting off to the side was nice, if only because we were that much farther away from the loud-ass group of four sitting at the other counter. (They kept yelling—yelling—about “eel sauce.” Their chef looked tired.)

Anyway, as soon as we were seated—and as soon as the waitress had asked us if we had any other dietary restrictions—it was food time. At Sushi on Jones, there’s only one option: the 12-piece omakase ($50), though you can order additional pieces (as well as their signature WagUni—torched wagyu and uni—hand roll) à la carte once you’ve finished. In an attempt to be frugal (yeah, right) Sam and I stuck to the omakase—but by the time we left, we were both pretty damn satisfied.

That night, my favorite pieces were the yellowtail, the uni, the Arctic char, and the WagUni (sushi, not hand roll). The yellowtail was unbelievably flavorful, the uni was sweet and briny, and the Arctic char was pleasantly creamy. All were topped with a soy glaze, and some were topped with bits of pepper or crushed ginger—with the exception of the WagUni, which was topped with truffle salt, and which was probably my favorite bite of the night.

Maybe I’m biased—undercooked wagyu and uni are seriously two of my favorite things in the entire world—but goddamn, that thing was good. The photo I’ve included below does the WagUni absolutely no justice whatsoever, so here’s a better one from The Bowery Market’s official Instagram. (Drool away. I’ll be here.)

My least favorite bites were probably the scallop (not bad, but not for me), the eel (also not bad, also not for me), and the crab (fine, but boring). I was also a little underwhelmed by the medium fatty tuna, which seemed a lot leaner than it should’ve been. (Still, it wasn’t bad—chutoro’s chutoro, after all.) The weaker pieces didn’t bother me much, though. I thoroughly enjoyed pretty much everything about Sushi on Jones, and I’m already plotting my return. If only I could’ve talked myself into shelling out an additional $12 for a WagUni hand roll…

By the way, our sushi chef was wonderful. After we’d finished the omakase, he asked what our favorite piece had been so he could give us another set, on the house. (“I like you guys,” he said. “You’re quiet.” With a smile, he gestured to the sign above the counter: “Less talk, more eat. Mucho arigato.”) We went with the obvious choice—WagUni—and then he offered us another free piece each, at which point we asked him to give us whatever he recommended. A minute later, he presented us with another round of fatty tuna, which was noticeably better than our first serving. So good. Go figure.

By now, it should be clear that I’m a big fan of Sushi on Jones. I love the food, the location, the speed, the ambiance, the overall concept…I could go on. The sushi, while undeniably good, isn’t the city’s best, but it isn’t meant to be—it’s something else entirely, and it’s a whole lot of fun. The whole place is unique-as-can-be, but not in the nasty, off-putting way a lot of Unique™ sushi joints are so. Plus, it’s allergy-friendly. Let’s not forget about that.

…Actually, let’s. Sitting at Sushi on Jones, I don’t feel acutely like a Person With Food Allergies, which is how I feel at a lot of the places I frequent just because they’re safe for me. It’s a cool place, and I’d definitely still stop by if I could eat wherever I wanted. And that, to me, is incredibly exciting.

(Seriously, though: Do yourself a favor and read up on Bouhadana’s glove kerfuffle with the DOH. It’s genuinely interesting—and funny as hell, too—and everyone and their mother has weighed in. Plus, the debate prompted one of my my all-time favorite Anthony Bourdain quotes: “This is not Subway, for fuck’s sake. This is something people have dedicated their lives to. No. You know which team I’m on.”)

Find Sushi on Jones at the entrance to The Bowery Market, which is itself located at 348 Bowery, between Great Jones and 4th.

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