Category Archives: Sandwiches

LoLo’s Seafood Shack

Snow crab legs from LoLo's Seafood Shack

I’ve never appreciated the fact that summer ends. I don’t really care for the warm weather, or the beach, or brunch, or rompers, or, like, burning ants with magnifying glasses, or whatever it is you summer folks are into, but I am all about the minimal responsibilities and the total lack of homework, so. I’m grieving. And what better way to grieve than to put together a post on one of the summeriest restaurants I’ve ever stepped foot in?

From the ocean-kitsch decor to the Cape Cod–Caribbean menu, everything about LoLo’s screams summer. The walls are neon; the staff is smiley; half the seating is outdoors (in the heated backyard, no less); and pretty much every customer is in a good mood, always. Even in the winter, it’s summertime at LoLo’s. Or that’s what I’ll be telling myself, at least, when the cold comes in. When the semester’s settled into the pit of its plod, and the city’s gone all monotone, and it’s started to get dark at fucking, like, 2pm, and they’ve turned off the fountain at the center of Washington Square Park (which is no longer a park but an iced-over wasteland), and everyone’s de-closeted their coats and taken to scuttling around, hands-in-pockets, without ever risking any eye contact. It’s summertime at LoLo’s, I’ll say. Better go.

And I will.

The interior of LoLo's Seafood Shack

Anyway. According to an email I received from LoLo’s, there are no nuts on the menu. And the johnnycakes—which are made in house, from scratch—should be wholly without risk, too. Point is, it’s a good situation up at LoLo’s, and you, ant-burner or not, should probably get yourself over there for a meal.

My favorite dish I’ve tried is the avocado-toast sandwich (pictured immediately below), which is neither avocado toast nor sandwich, but which is fantastic nonetheless. It’s simple—just a johnnycake filled, taco-style, with guac-like avocado, sweet plantains, pico de gallo, and cotija—but goddamn, I love it, mostly because of how well-balanced it is. That thing is both sweet and spicy, both soft and textured. It’s fun, but not silly; a lot, but not too much. And most importantly, it’s unlike any other dish I have nut-free access to. (A huge selling point, given how variety-obsessed I am.)

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Unfortunately, the crab-cake sandwich—which I’ve twice eaten alongside the avocado-toast one—isn’t anything anywhere near as special. It’s not bad, but the crab cake itself is rather uneventful, and the sandwich as a whole suffers as a result. Still, I’m interested in a number of the other sandwiches: in particular, the broiled salmon (the most expensive one on the menu, for some reason) and the one they call “crispy ‘shark’ + bake,” which isn’t made with just any old shark, but with sustainably sourced spiny dogfish. So there’s that.

But although this place is a seafood shack, and although the straight seafood dishes—say, the crab legs pictured at the top of this post—are virtually flawless, it’s with the sides that I have the vast majority of my LoLo’s fun. (Weird? Maybe. But understandable, at least, given the way I’m known to do food.) The seasoned corn on the cob (below, left) is some of the best I’ve ever had, and the sweet plantains, though obliteratingly sweet, are a delightful way to break up a meal. The honey-buttered johnnycakes aren’t particularly exciting, but they’re fun to eat regardless; and although the crabby dip, served with homemade plantain chips (below, right) is just okay, I do end up enjoying it when it’s shown up in front of me.

Corn on the cob and crabby dip with plantain chips from LoLo's Seafood Shack

And then there are fries—which are good, sure, but which I can’t in good faith recommend ordering at a place with so many other way-more-interesting options for sides. Of course, I ordered them anyway (and of course, I did like them). The LoLo’s fries, topped with cotija, pickled jalapeños, and “herbs,” are a little much for me—honestly, I don’t understand how anyone could ever like anything as simultaneously boring and overbearing as the jalapeño pepper—but the garlic fries, drizzled with (guess what?) garlic butter, are right up my alley.

So I guess, all told, the food at LoLo’s is a wee bit hit-or-miss. But it comes off that way only in retrospect—by which I mean that when I’m sitting there, in that unreal backyard of perpetual summer, stuffing my face with bold, vibrant side after bold, vibrant side, there’s really no room in my mind for complaints of any sort. Maybe it’s the sun. More likely, it’s the onslaught of food: dish after dish, each bussed, as it’s ready, down the stairs and into that sun and out to you—glowing, ready—at your picnic table, waiting, seafood-cracker in rubber-gloved hand…

It’s summertime at LoLo’s. Better go.

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Find LoLo’s at 303 West 116th Street, between Frederick Douglass Boulevard and Manhattan Avenue.

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Hank’s Juicy Beef

A quarter-pound Italian beef sandwich from Hank's Juicy Beef

If I’m anything at all, then I’m certainly a creature of habit. And while in Chicago, I formed one hell of an Italian beef habit. (It was an Al’s habit, really—and I formed it not because of the Italian beef itself, but because of those chili-cheese fries, to which I haven’t yet found a local alternative.) I just kept eating Italian beef after goddamn Italian beef—and so I guess it’s not all that surprising that I ended up spending most of my ride home from the airport plumbing Googling for a local alternative.

It’s not that I think Italian beef is worth missing. It’s not even that missed it. I just don’t like having foods taken from me—especially the foods I’ve gone through the trouble of verifying as safe, and double-especially the foods I haven’t yet had my fill of. If I’d lost McDonald’s right after my third McDonald’s meal, I would’ve been one grief-laden four-year-old. But am I saddened by any of those recent articles whining about how McDonald’s might soon start rolling out a few menu items that call for nuts that aren’t pre-packaged, thus (likely) rendering the whole stupid-ass chain unsafe for me? Uh, not really. I’m saturated.

And fortunately, it looks like I’m going to be able to get saturated on Italian beef, too—thanks to Hank’s Juicy Beef, a mini-menued restaurant that’s evidently been doing business in my neighborhood for a whole year now. There are no tree nut (or peanut) products in the kitchen, and the bread, which comes from Turano Baking Company, should be totally safe, too. (According to the representative I spoke with, Turano’s bread doesn’t share equipment with anything nutty, and if there are nuts in the same facility, they’re nowhere near the bread. I think Hank’s uses these particular rolls, but I’m not 100% sure. All that’s good enough for me—and though I understand everyone’s standards, etc., are different, I’d venture to say it’s probably good enough for most.)

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Now. Contrary to what anyone trailing me would’ve had to conclude, I was rather unimpressed with the various Italian beef sandwiches I ate in Chicago. I didn’t dislike them—how could I have, given my unchecked love for the combination of bread and meat?—but if I didn’t always insist on writing home about each and every food I ate, they wouldn’t have been anything to write home about. Each time, I came away with the same complaints: The watery, flavorless gravy didn’t do enough to make up for the ultra-mushy bread—and despite all that wetness, the beef somehow still managed to tend dry. Plus, all that overbearing, soggy giardiniera? No, thanks.

Of course, I didn’t stop eating Italian beef. I didn’t even consider it—partially because I saw potential in it, partially because I half-liked it as it was, and partially because, uh, When In Chicago. I just kept eating (and eating, and eating) it. And then there I found myself, in the backseat, Googling. On a mission.

Once I got to Hank’s, it took me all of two bites to decide that my search needn’t continue. Hank’s isn’t as good as any Midwestern Italian beefery, nor does it wish it were; it’s at least three times as better (just click it), which doesn’t surprise me in the slightest. Owner Hank Tibensky—born and raised in Chicago, of course—insists on using only the highest-quality (grass-fed, pasture-raised, hormone- and antibiotic-free) beef, and honestly, it shows. That beef’s good, man. And the jus is plenty flavorful, too, which really helps the sandwich as a whole.

What’s more, the bread’s not half bad, either. I’m always skeptical of that sort of crustless “French” roll, but Turano’s actually have some structural integrity to them. Sure, they aren’t crusty; but they’re dense enough and rather chewy, and they do manage to hold their own against the wetness of the ingredients they sandwich. (Some of the best bites of a Hank’s sandwich are what I’ve come to call the “sweaty armpits”: the soggy crooks of bread on one side of the sandwich or the other where the jus has pooled and turned everything to pudding. Sounds gross. Isn’t. The bread’s just tough enough to withstand the assault, and those wet, sloppy bites are mighty satisfying. The name stays.)

The giardiniera’s fine—it’s firm and snappy, and it even adds to the sandwich, flavor-wise (!)—but it’s just too salty, so I usually end up going without. Instead, I add provolone, which gives the whole sandwich a cheesesteaky vibe. It’s good. Surprisingly good. And formidably filling, too. (Plus, for an extra $4—hardly a deal, I know—you can make it a meal with fries and a drink. Not any old fries, but curly fries. Fresh, crisp curly fries: residents of my dreams, fixtures of my heart. Or, uh, steak fries, if that’s what you’re into. But if that’s what you’re into, we probably wouldn’t get along.)

A hot dog from Hank's Juicy Beef

I’m also somewhat of a fan of the hot dog, which actually managed to startle me with how undeniably decent it was. I absolutely loathed Chicago’s Chicago dogs—the dogs themselves had such a dreary texture, and their flavor was nowhere near strong enough to handle the absurd, insecure, attention-needy checklist of (very fucking overbearing) toppings they went ahead and attempted to handle nonetheless—but I must say: the Hank’s version is all right. Yes, the dog itself is boiled/steamed (don’t know which, but it doesn’t matter either way), and yes, it tastes like it’s been boiled/steamed. But it doesn’t taste like dog-boil (so there’s that), and its texture is passable, at least. Plus, the bun’s fluffy enough (though I so wish Chicagoans would take to toasting), and no one topping threatens to overpower the others. All told, not bad. It’s actually sort of fun.

If only I had such nice things to say about the beef bowl. Like the sandwich, it costs $10—but unlike the sandwich, it’s not even close to worth it. It’s served not in a bowl, but in one of those paper trays usually reserved for, like, fries or onion rings or whatever, and that, combined with the small portion, makes it come off more as a side—an afterthought, a “well, I guess we can sell this, too, can’t we?”—than a main dish. The beef itself is still fine, but with a little (still-too-salty) giardiniera as its only partner, it does end up falling flat. And the same goes for the rice bowl (beef, giardiniera, and sautéed green peppers over very, very mushy white rice): a nice idea, but not worth the order.

Anyway, I like Hank’s. It may not be the world’s most authentic Italian beefery, if we’re (still?) defining “authenticity” as total adherence to the way things are done in a dish’s region of origin—but that’s fine, because if it were, it’d be worse off. Hank’s makes Chicago-style food, no doubt; but it’s ever-so-slightly New York–ified Chicago-style food, and that’s for the best. It’s not New York–ified enough, I don’t think—I could use some better bread, or a hot dog with some snap to it, or, you know, some flavors with a little more nuance than super-sweet or super-salty—but it’s not straight-up Midwest, either, and I’m going to have to call that a blessing.

Find Hank’s at 84 Chamber Street, between Church Street and Broadway.

[P.S. I’m liking this slowed-down posting schedule a whole lot—so much, in fact, that I’m going to be slowing it down even more. At this point, my plan is just to play it by ear and, uh, see how much longer I can fend off this burnout, because while I do like blogging, there are few things I dislike more than (a) feeling pressured to churn out blog posts when I’m busy with school, life, etc., and (b) feeling pressured to churn out blog posts when there’s nothing I want to say. So. I’m going to be aiming to publish a post every 14 days or so, but…we’ll see. They’ll come when they come.]

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Nut-Free Chicago: A Travel “Guide”

Last month, I spent a week and a half in Chicago, where I did just about everything I do in NYC. I wandered aimlessly. I people watched. I browsed clothes I couldn’t afford. I watched way too many late-night Cops reruns. And to my surprise, I dined out a whole hell of a lot. Last time I ventured to Chicago, I subsisted on literally nothing but McDonald’s, Subway, pretzels, Cup Noodles, and water. But that was pre-blog. Now, I’m a practiced diner-outer, and I have a much harder time settling for such a repetitive and high-trash diet. It’s probably a good thing.

But before I got there, I didn’t expect to find all that much in the way of safe restaurants. It took me months to compile even the very beginnings of the NYC-specific list that’s now my pride and joy (half-serious about the whole pride-and-joy thing), so I didn’t expect to get all that much done Chicago-wise in the 10 days I’d have there. I figured I’d bark up a bunch of wrong trees, find maybe a restaurant or two, then resign myself to a week of fast food and Airbnb-home-cooking—but I was wrong, wrong, wrong. Chicago’s not at all a difficult city to eat in, and with the help of a list compiled by the No Nuts Moms Group of Chicago, I ended up with plenty of options.

So here they are—all the non-chain restaurants I ate at, and some I called, but couldn’t make it to—in brief-ish (yeah, right), because we’ve all got things to do. And please, pardon the iPhone photos. I didn’t bring my camera.

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Saiguette

Saiguette's skirt steak bánh mì

Bánh mì are tough. I don’t have any trouble finding tree nut–free Vietnamese restaurants, but Vietnamese restaurants that happen to use allergy-friendly bread? For a while there, I’d given up on finding any more. Sao Mai is a singular godsend—I don’t know how they ended up using the bread they use, but I’m so very glad they did, as every other Vietnamese restaurant I’ve called has either told me that they don’t know where they get their bread (oh), or that yeah, no, it’s just not going to work. I made the decision, then, to be content with Sao Mai, and my eye hasn’t wandered since.

And then I stumbled upon Saiguette, a surprisingly allergy-aware grab-and-go Vietnamese restaurant, way up on the corner of West 106th Street, whose menu proudly bares those rare, magic words: “…on our homemade bread.” Though peanut-heavy, that menu is entirely nut-free—and yes, the bread is made in-house, and it is, in fact, safe. Naturally, I found myself at Saiguette’s teeny-tiny, hardly-a-restaurant storefront within an hour of finding out the above. I’ve since tried 7 of the 11 sandwiches on the menu. Go figure.

Saiguette's pork belly bánh mì

Now. Because I often lament how infrequently I get to rank things, I’m going to take this opportunity to do some sandwich-ranking. (I swear this isn’t just a clunky setup; I really do wish I had more opportunities to order items from best to worst.) The last things I ranked were the characters of Malcolm in the Middle (Lois > Dewey > Francis & Piama > Hal > Malcolm > Jamie > Reese—yes, I’m certain, and no, I won’t reconsider), but that was months ago, and no one cared, so. Saiguette’s pork belly bánh mì is the best one I’ve tried, followed by the grilled pork shoulder with lemongrass, followed by the classic (pâté and pork terrine), then the flank steak, then the grilled pork shoulder without lemongrass, then the skirt steak, then the chicken thigh. That’s my story, and I’m sticking to it.

But these sandwiches are hard to rank. Most differ only in their proteins—so because they share so many components, they’re probably best evaluated in the aggregate. Overall, then, they’re rather good. (Likely not the city’s best, but perhaps the city’s safest, and that counts for a lot.) The bread, though nothing special, is passable—better when not slathered in spicy mayo, a.k.a. the world’s most boring condiment—and the vegetables (and technical fruits) are surely good enough, despite the fact that they’re not exactly the sorts I’d want to eat outside the rather forgiving confines of a sandwich. Plenty of cilantro; a giant, satisfying wedge (or two!) of snappy, snappy cucumber; flavorful jalapeños; and just the right amount of pickled carrot…

Saiguette's classic bánh mì

They’re good. All of them—which I suppose means it’s time for me to get into the details. So. The pork belly (pictured second above) is absurdly juicy, to the extent that it sort of just continuously oozes itself. It’s sweet—too sweet—but somehow still balanced, and if you don’t make the mistake of turning to another of Saiguette’s bánh mì within minutes of putting (half of) this one down, the fact that it never fails to blow out your palate will be a total non-issue. And the two pork shoulders—one grilled, with lemongrass, and one roasted, without—are almost as good. Both are rather sweet, but I find the grilled version significantly less overbearing. And though the added lemongrass doesn’t do much, I get a kick out of knowing it’s there.

Then, the flank steak—which is better than the skirt steak (top of this post), and by a large margin, too. These two are all about their textures, and given that, it’s a no-brainer to place the tender, juicy flank steak ahead of the tougher, drier skirt. But I think the classic (immediately above) is a little better than the both of them. Piled high with pork terrine and a few chunks of what tastes like (but isn’t) a takeout-style Chinese spare rib, that sandwich is pretty goddamn great. And it’s the cheapest one on Saiguette’s menu, too. It’s not perfect—without a doubt, it could use a little more balance, a little more nuance—but I do like it, and I do recommend giving it a try.

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In fact, the only of Saiguette’s bánh mì I wouldn’t recommend is the grilled chicken thigh (immediately above), which is labeled “juicy,” but which actually sits at a rather unimpressive position on the juice scale, all told. It’s fine, I guess. But flavor-wise, it’s painfully boring—and a painfully boring central feature makes for a blunt, unbalanced, and all around underwhelming bánh mì. It’s no matter, though; there are obviously a bunch of other things to order.

But I do stick to the bánh mì. There’s nothing all that wrong with the phở, but I find it hard to justify going all the way the fuck up to 106th Street only to order a dish that just makes me go, “huh, that was all right—but I prefer Sao Mai’s.” By the time I’m stepping over Saiguette’s threshold, I feel as if I’ve earned something grand. (It’s all that time on the C train. I usually have earned something grand.) And as soon as I start feeling all earny-entitley, ho-hum phở becomes a total non-option. It just isn’t worth it—especially when there are nut-free sandwiches on the menu.

Besides, even if you’ve ordered it to-stay, Saiguette’s phở comes disassembled, which has some serious downsides. The flavors get less time to mingle, for one—and the noodles, which are just okay, get less time to loosen up and fall out of their noodle-glob. But the broth is excellent. It has depth and breadth and areas of interest and probably an interesting life story or two to tell, and there’s a ton of it, which definitely helps. The eye-of-round hardly has any flavor of its own, and the brisket, though rather tasty, comes with a few too many bits of gelatinous flab. But the broth is good enough to carry the phở—not to any sort of distinguished status, but to the status of a decent dish nonetheless.

But it’s all right. Those bánh mì deserve my focus anyway. They just about demand it.

Find Saiguette at 935 Columbus Avenue, on the corner of 106th Street. (By the way: If you call ahead and place your order for pickup, they’ll give you 10% off—and if you happen to be dining between 11am and 5pm, you’ll save 10% more.)

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KFC: For when you don’t hate yourself quite enough for Taco Bell

A bucket of chicken from KFC

I’m always ambivalent about these sorts of posts. On the one hand, allergy-friendly fast-food chains are infinitely helpful, and I do believe that they, too, are worth collecting. Places like KFC have saved my stranded, hungry, nut-allergic ass more times than I can count, so I don’t see any reason to keep them off my blog. But on the other hand, I have absolutely nothing new or fresh to say about all these international fast-food chains we’re all already familiar with. Even the allergen information is covered on their websites, so it’s all I can do, really, to point out the ones that are nut allergy–friendly. (And throw in some stupid commentary along the way. Obviously.)

So. As you’ve probably guessed, KFC is indeed pretty nut allergy–friendly. When you search for tree nuts on their Special Diets Wizard (yes, that’s what they call it), only four Café Valley (i.e. made-elsewhere) desserts come up—and when you actually read through the ingredients for those four desserts, you’ll notice that none actually contain any tree nuts. (Two have “may contain” warnings and two don’t, but I’m sure all four products may contain trace amounts of nuts, hence their coming up in the search.)

Beyond that, the following appears below the aforementioned Wizard: “Peanuts and tree nuts are not used at KFC. However, peanuts are present in the Reese’s® Peanut Butter Pie Slice and the Café Valley Bakery® Chocolate Chip Cake and Lemon Cake may contain traces of tree nuts.” And though that sounds sort of contradictory, it does makes a sort of clunky, corporate sense—you just have to replace “used” with “cooked with,” and you’ll have the simpler truth: that no one’s cooking with any nuts at KFC, and that any desserts that contain (or may contain) them are made elsewhere. Cross-contamination is virtually a non-issue, then. Good enough for me.

Four biscuits from KFC

Anywho. When I was younger—and certainly not anymore, how dare you?—I had a bona fide obsession with food. I had a stuffed dog named Butterscotch; a taboret jam-packed with various food-related stickers and stationery; a bedroom full of food-related sculptures, sculpted and painted by yours truly (who else?); and an actual plan to change my name to Caramel. When adults asked my favorite class, I’d answer “lunch.” Second favorite? “Snack.” And for a while, my favorite novel was Hatchet, by Gary Paulsen. Why? Because the protagonist spends good portion of the book trying to figure out how to feed himself in the wilderness, and the descriptions of the meat he cooks are straight-up mouthwatering.

Hatchet is the reason I’ll never quite get clean from KFC. When the kid manages to kill, clean, and cook his first “foolbird,” as he calls them, the description that follows is pretty tantalizing. And while Paulsen, with that passage, was probably just trying to instill the value of patience and perseverance, all I came away with was a grumbling stomach. After finishing the book, I talked my mom into buying (and listening to) the audiobook—and that was how I ended up sitting in a car, a block away from our neighborhood KFC, tearing through some juicy, juicy bird breast, listening to the bit of Hatchet in which Brian Robeson does the same. I was hungry, and it was tasty, and I wish I were kidding when I say I’ve been chasing that chicken-high ever since.

Mashed potatoes from KFC

I hope that at least does something to explain why I keep going back to KFC, if remarkably infrequently, despite the unambiguous shittiness of the food. I had one good experience—one time, and it wasn’t even that good of an experience—and now it’s looking like I’ll never be free, regardless of how consistently KFC’s chicken manages to disappoint me.

I guess I should probably spend some time on the specifics of the food itself, if only for the sake of it…or (I suppose) for those of you who have been living under an actual rock. I’ll start with this: As is the case at pretty much every single fast-food chain, your KFC experience is all about your expectations. If you go in expecting anything close to legitimately decent fried chicken—like, fried chicken that could register as good sans handicap, or fried chicken that’d be passable in an actual restaurant setting—you’re going to come away disgruntled. But if you can manage to face the Colonel with your expectations in check, you might actually be able to have a semi-pleasant meal.

After all, there’s a certain sense of joy comes with rooting around one of those red-and-white buckets in search of the perfect piece of chicken. It’s a weak and watery sense of joy, sure; and that perfect piece of chicken isn’t, uh, available at KFC, but still. Despite the chicken’s flimsy skin, bland meat, and overabundance of salt, I have fun with my buckets…and I have fun, too, with my popcorn chicken, and my biscuits, and my mashed potatoes, and my mac and cheese, and my whatever-shitty-sandwich-it-is-they’re-pushing-this-year, too. It’s mostly about the ritual, I think: the bag-unpacking and lid-lifting, the skin-tearing and and meat-gnawing, the scooping and dipping and Mountain Dew–slurping, the biscuit-prodding and finger-licking, and—yes, of course—that meal’s-end feeling of having made a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad mistake.

Also, the sporks. Seriously. Where else are you going to get to use one?

Find KFC all over. (Sort of. Over the course of the last decade or so, a whole bunch of this city’s KFCs seem to have disappeared.) I go to the one on 14th and 2nd, but they’re all the same, really.

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SunButter

A Jar of Natural Crunch SunButter

I know what you’re thinking: “What’re you doing blogging about SunButter? It’s a peanut butter substitute, and you’re only allergic to tree nuts!” But you, who were almost certainly not thinking the above, can rest assured that I’m well aware of my ability to eat peanut butter. I’ve chosen to post about SunButter because it’s both (a) decidedly tree nut–free, too—and thus well within the scope of this blog—and (b) damn good, to the extent that I often freely choose to use it instead of its more-allergenic cousin.

Before we move on, though, let’s go back—to the school cafeteria that served me the majority of my age-3 to age-14 lunches. Toward the beginning of my time at that school, nuts weren’t banned. There’d be the occasional offering of nut-containing macaroons or baklava, and there was always peanut butter around, too. Eventually, the administration instituted a few peanut tables (at which you were required to sit if you wanted to eat peanuts), but that rule didn’t last long. By the time I was 7 or 8, they’d outlawed all nuts—but I never really thought of that change in terms of myself or my own allergies, really, given that there were never all that many tree nuts in their cooking to begin with. The only real day-to-day difference was the glaring absence of peanut butter.

But I liked peanut butter, so I was as annoyed as any of the nut-unallergic kids. (My grade had one other nut-allergic kid, whom I’d always look to—across the room, as we didn’t really know each other—for reassurance before I’d be willing to bite into my own serving of the school-birthday food in question. I don’t think he ever did find out that he was my food-allergy guinea pig. Oh well.) And my school’s introduction of SunButter did approximately nothing to make me feel better. In fact, I hated it. We all hated it. It tasted funny—like it’d been left out in the sun, we 2nd-Grade experts at observational comedy declared. And our school had us all scooping the stuff out of a big ol’ communal tub, too, which really didn’t help.

The reason it sucked, though, was because it was peanut butter we unallergic were after. SunButter isn’t made from peanuts; it’s made from sunflower seeds, and it tastes like it’s made from sunflower seeds. I don’t know what it’s like for people who’ve never eaten peanut butter (or for people who haven’t had peanut butter in years), but I do know this: If you have a decent sense of what peanut butter tastes like, and you’re expecting SunButter to taste the same, you’re going to be disappointed. It’s approximately the same—the texture’s essentially identical, and the flavor is rather similar—but the difference is noticeable enough to produce that dreaded effect of off-ness that you’ll get from nearly every single allergen(s)-replaced product out there.

So because of that—because I was a little repulsed by SunButter as it comes across when it’s meant to pass for peanut butter—I’ve spent the better part of the last decade staying far, far away from the stuff. Last year, though, when I gave Free2b’s sun cups a try, I was forced to reconsider. I absolutely loved the sunflower-seed butter they’d used—and it tastes just like the SunButter I used to hate. Something had to give.

The deal, I think, was that I’d recently grown to appreciate sunflower seeds, so when I bit into that sunflower-butter cup, it was a sunflower-y flavor I was hoping for. I wasn’t expecting peanut butter, nor was I expecting a seamless substitute; I was expecting ground-up sunflower seeds, and that expectation made all the difference. And sure enough, when I (for science) closed my eyes and forced myself to expect a Reese’s Cup, the Free2b cup turned unpleasant.

I guess what I’m trying to say, then, is that if you treat SunButter like a specialty item—if you go into it expecting something decidedly different from peanut butter, that is—then 10 times out of 10, it’ll taste great. You have to want all the differences, though. Compared to peanut butter, SunButter is earthier, sourer. Deeper, more nuanced. And ever-so-slightly funky, too. Truly, it tastes just like sunflower seeds—and once you’ve come to terms with that (ultimately delightful) fact, this stuff really starts to rival peanut butter.

A SunButter-and-jelly sandwich

I like it fine on its own, and it’s good on bananas, too, but in my always-humble opinion, SunButter performs best in an SB&J (that’s a SunButter-and-jelly sandwich—keep up). The sandwich, like (well, because of) the SunButter itself, won’t taste right if it’s specifically peanut butter you’re after, but again: If you expect somewhat of a riff on a PB&J—and if you’ve really, truly gotten yourself ready to accept the sunflower seed as your Lord and Savior—then you’ll be handsomely rewarded with what I’m going to have to insist is an objectively superior sandwich. (Sorry. Can’t explain why. It’s just better.)

Anyway. SunButter comes in all your standard peanut-butter varieties—natural, creamy, crunchy, organic, and no sugar added—and each and every one is entirely free from peanuts, tree nuts, gluten, dairy, egg, sesame, and soy. I like the crunchy best (though it only comes “natural,” and so it does separate), but all are fine, really—provided you, like me, have turned yourself over to the Almighty Sunflower.

Find SunButter at Whole Foods, Best Market, Target, Walmart, Fairway, or Foodtown. Grab a coupon, though, because this stuff is expensive.

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Shake Shack

Two Shake Shack hamburgers

A month ago, I had absolutely no interest in Shake Shack. I’d eaten (without issue) at the Madison Square Park location a few times in my less-careful, have-a-reaction-every-once-in-a-while days, but the burgers never really did much for me. Accordingly, the older, more-careful me never really cared enough to look into the question of whether Shake Shack might be an allergy-friendly chain.

That said, comprehensiveness is my fetish, and Shake Shack’s been getting harder and harder to avoid. Shacks are popping up everywhere, and I see the chain mentioned a whole lot in the NYC-specific food-allergy Facebook group I frequent, too. So after a fair amount of foot-dragging and dilly-dallying, I figured it was probably time I at least devote some effort to finding out whether Shake Shack might be a viable option, regardless of whether I had any personal interest in stopping by.

So. Is Shake Shack nut allergy–friendly? Short answer: Yes. Long answer: Yes, but…well, it’s complicated. Shake Shack was created by Danny Meyer, who happens to be the guy behind Blue Smoke, and who happens to seem to really know his shit, food allergy–wise. Pretty much every restaurant Meyer touches turns to food-allergy gold, and Shake Shack is no exception. There are two types of gold, though: we-don’t-have-any-of-your-allergens-on-site gold, and damn-right-we-have-your-allergens-here-but-we-know-how-not-to-let-them-near-your-food gold. And like Blue Smoke, Shake Shack falls into the latter category.

What I’m trying to say, I guess, is that the folks at Shake Shack are allergy-aware enough to make me feel comfortable with all the nuts they have lying around their kitchens. (Some Shake Shacks have very few nuts; others have plenty. It varies by location—but what doesn’t vary is the fact that all of the chain’s locations are, on the whole, pretty allergy-friendly.) They’ll encourage you to let them know if you have any food allergies—which they’ll always make note of on your ticket—and they’ll be happy to change their gloves and keep a special eye on your order, too. Very Danny Meyer indeed.

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Even more of a help is this chart of theirs, which accounts not only for dishes that explicitly contain nuts, but for those that contain ingredients processed in shared facilities, too. So if an item isn’t marked as a risk on that chart, it really is safe to eat—provided that the folks who prepare your food are competent and responsible, at least. (As the above-linked page notes, though: “Only standard Shack menu items are listed above, and menu options can vary by Shack.” So the chart doesn’t list the billion-and-a-half concrete mix-ins that might be offered, which are where a lot of the Shake Shack tree nuts come from. The same page actually advises those with food allergies to stay away from all Shake Shack concretes. Fair enough.)

Here is, for good measure, what I was told when I wrote to Shake Shack for some further information:

If an item is not flagged with any sort of symbol at https://www.shakeshack.com/allergy, then it means that the ingredients do not contain the allergen and the ingredients are not processed in a facility that contains the allergen. There can be tree nuts present at some of our Shacks as mix-ins with our concretes, so please check the menu at your preferred Shake Shack to see if cross contamination may be a concern at the Shack, and always let a team member know about any allergies when you are ordering.

I asked, too, for some further information about in-restaurant cross-contamination, and this was the response I received:

The issue of cross-contamination with our frozen custard items would be most prevalent when ordering concretes at Shacks which offer walnuts or other tree nuts as mix-ins. I would not recommend ordering concretes in these cases. Tree nuts are not offered as mix-ins with shakes, and every Shack has one shake mixer that is utilized solely for shakes that contain peanut butter, using other machines for all other shakes.

These two answers are about as good as I could’ve hoped for, really.

Two Shake Shack hamburgers with lettuce, tomato, pickle, and onion

Anyway. There’s a surprising amount of food I can’t eat at Shake Shack, but I guess that’s what happens when a restaurant’s diligent about flagging each and every menu item that contains something that was made in a shared facility. I can have a few of their burgers. I can have a few of their hot dogs. I can have their fries—but only plain, as the cheese sauce may contain nuts. I can’t have any of their chicken or sausage, and a lot of the desserts are a no-go, too. But surprisingly enough, I can have a few of their shakes, floats, and ice-cream cones, so long as the Shack in question doesn’t handle things in such a way as to make cross-contamination with the other ice-cream items likely.

(…Undoubtedly, Shake Shack’s menu is more of a minefield than I’m used to. Still, though: I’m plenty comfortable. But onto the food.)

Regardless of what Anthony Papaya King–Loving Bourdain says, I maintain that food-wise, Shake Shack is nothing extraordinary. But! The vast majority of burgers (and burger chains) are nothing extraordinary, and I’d be lying by omission if I failed to mention that Shake Shack beats pretty much all of my favorite burger spots—and by a landslide, too. It’s way better than your average diner. It’s way better than Five Guys. It’s way better than Big Daddy’s. It’s way better than The Burger Bistro. And it’s cheaper than all of the above, too. And now that I’ve said all that, I might as well just admit that…well, I actually really, really like Shake Shack. For what it is, at least: a fast-food burger joint that’s just plain better than its fast-food competitors (and a lot of its regular-restaurant competitors, too).

The burgers are what I have the most experience with, so I’ll start with those. Despite their wishy-washy (Martin’s) potato buns, they’re really very good—better without the elective pickles pictured above, actually—but for once, I’m finding myself on Team Cheeseburger. Shake Shack’s cheese isn’t as gross as the American you’ll find at most burger joints; in fact, it’s actually pretty good, and it adds some welcome flare (read: salt, grease) to an otherwise-uneventful-ish burger. ShackSauce—basically mustardy mayo—helps, too. And they’re generous with the onions, which is always a plus. The patties themselves are great, though; it’s not as if their flavor needs to be masked.

Though less fun, the hot dogs are also good. Again, I wish the buns weren’t so potato-y, but the dogs themselves are great, if not quite as tasty as the ones you’ll get at Crif Dogs. They’re split down the center, but they still manage to maintain their snap, and with a topping or two—I happen to like Shack Sauce and a pickle spear—they’re just about perfect. (For those with nut allergies, the Shack-cago Dog’s out—but only because its relish may contain trace amounts of nuts. It’s easy enough to ask them to hold the relish, though. And anyway, the onion, cucumber, pickle, tomato, sport pepper, celery salt, and mustard are all safe.)

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And the fries, too, are great, especially if you’re into crinkle-cut—though I do wish I could get in on the cheese sauce (which is made of actual cheese, and which is therefore a permissible topping, thank you very much). They’re crispy on the outside and soft on the inside, just as fries should be—and though they’re a little thicker than the sort of fries I’m usually into, I do have to say that these are some of my all-time favorites. (Hint: ShackSauce. Try it.)

As for desserts, I’ve only tried a few. I do stay away from the concretes, but the shakes seem safe enough (as per the email I shared above), and they’re plenty tasty, too. There isn’t much to say—they’re thick and creamy custard-based milkshakes, and I love them very much—other than this: As those with nut allergies know, it’s just really, really nice to be able to partake in dessert, especially when that dessert didn’t require any special planning or consideration on your part. Another point for Shake Shack.

So maybe 12-year-old me was a little too hard on Shake Shack. Maybe—just maybe—she didn’t quite know everything. But right now, a burger chain’s noteworthiness is about all she’s willing to concede. Try her again in another decade, will you?

Find Shake Shack just about everywhere.

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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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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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Ben’s Pizzeria

The storefront of Ben's Pizzeria

I’ll admit it: I never would’ve given Ben’s Pizzeria a second glance had it not been for its presence in the opening to Louie. But I go to school in the neighborhood, so I pass Ben’s all the time—and the image of Louis C.K. shoving a slice of Ben’s pizza into his mouth is so burned into my mind that I couldn’t help but give the place some attention.

Since Ben’s is an exceedingly average pizzeria—all they serve is pizza, calzones, rolls, garlic knots, salads, and heroes—I figured the place was probably a shoo-in. Still, I was really dreading making the phone call, because pizza places are fucking impossible to communicate with. Think about it: their phones ring all day, but 99.9% of callers are just calling to order a pizza. Those are the calls they’re trained to handle. So when someone calls in asking whether there might be any nut products on-site, they get confused. The usual language barrier doesn’t help—but the fact that I’m calling to ask a sort-of-unprecedented question doesn’t help, either.

But I did call, and the gist of the answer I received was that there shouldn’t be any nuts or nut products anywhere within the walls of Ben’s. And that—combined with the incredible convenience of the location, and, you know, the whole Louie thing—convinced me to give this place a try.

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Unfortunately, the pizza isn’t all that great. It’s fine—it’s not weirdly sweet or offensively doughy or anything—and it’ll certainly do in a pinch, but it definitely isn’t good. At $2.75 per slice, I’d expect this stuff to be reliably better than the dollar slices you’ll find at 2 Bros. et al., but it isn’t. In fact, it’s actually a little worse. The cheese is bland, and there’s way too much of it—and overall, slices are so flavorless that I’ve actually taken to salting them. (Who salts pizza? Not me. But Ben’s pizza needs salt.) The crust’s decent, though. I’ll give them that. And the sauce is all right, too.

Maybe I’ve just been unlucky. Maybe Ben’s has better pizza to offer. I don’t know, but I guess I’ll find out, because it’s not as if I’m about to stop eating there. Within a certain range of quality, well…pizza is pizza—and Ben’s pizza certainly falls within that range. (I definitely don’t agree with that stupid-ass adage that there’s no such thing as bad pizza. There’s bad pizza, and if you tout the aforementioned adage as some sort of universal truth, I hate to break it to you, but you’re probably one of those folks who’s into bad pizza.)

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Their stromboli, though, are certainly worth avoiding. At all costs. For real. The crust is fine, but the filling—no matter what you settle on—sucks. The meat melds together; the vegetables meld together; everything gets all slimy, and the final product verges on inedible.

Pictured immediately above is a meat stromboli (made with ham, salami, pepperoni, meatballs, and mozzarella) that I just couldn’t bring myself to finish, despite my best efforts (and despite my hunger, too). It was just too goddamn unctuous—actually unctuous—to get through. Though I did eat 100% of the crust.

But Ben’s isn’t without its pros. They have a pretty wide array of toppings (though you’ll have to order a whole pie if you happen to want a combination of toppings that isn’t already on one of their pre-made pies), and, well…there’s seating. (Joe’s has none—so although Joe’s pizza is way, way better, Ben’s wins my patronage in the winter months.) Plus, their garlic knots (pictured immediately below) are actually worth eating. They’re huge—fist-sized, almost—and they have a prominent sourdough flavor to them, which I really like.

An order of garlic knots from Ben's Pizzeria

Surprisingly enough, I’m also a fan of their calzones. They’re made with plenty and plenty (and plenty) of cheese, and the folks at Ben’s will throw whatever fillings you want in there, too. I get broccoli, which is probably a mistake—their broccoli is watery and not really worth ordering—but maybe one day I’ll get over my aversion to most pizza toppings and give something else a try. I do tend to like plain old cheese calzones, though. Ricotta is one of my favorite things in the world, and mozzarella’s an easy sell, so it’s not as if I need anything additional in my calzones. But I wouldn’t mind some better broccoli…

Oh well. Here’s a calzone:

benscalzone

Anyway. Like I said, mediocre food won’t stop me from patronizing Ben’s. Maybe I’ll get around to trying the sandwiches, maybe I won’t—but I know for sure that I’ll keep eating their pizza, calzones, and garlic knots. I have to; I’m nearby every day, and that shit definitely does the trick. Again: The food isn’t bad. I just can’t, in good conscience, call it “good.”

Find Ben’s Pizzeria at at 123 MacDougal Street, between Minetta and West 3rd.

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