Category Archives: Sandwiches

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:

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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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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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Kossar’s Bagels & Bialys

Three everything bagels from Kossar's Bagels & Bialys

I have a huge thing for bagels, and I’ve spent a lot of time scouring this city for some that happen to be allergy-friendly. I’ve found a few, but none that are quite what I’m looking for when I’m craving a classic NYC bagel…that is, with the exception of those you’ll find at Kossar’s. These—these—are precisely the bagels of my dreams.

Before eating at Kossar’s, I spent a few days emailing back and forth with Evan Giniger, who has owned the store since 2013. Rather than trying to summarize, I’ll just paste the relevant bits below. (I’ve taken the liberty of splicing some emails together, but otherwise, what follows is exactly what I received.)

We do not use any nuts in the production of anything we make at the store. We do use seeds though, which you say below are fine.

Some of the packaged products like babka and cookies are made in an outside facility that does use nuts in other products.   While anything we sell does not have any nuts in them and all come in wrapped, we do sometimes sample them in the store, meaning technically would be possible for cross contamination to have occurred outside our store.

We do sell peanut butter and Nutella spreads in the store at the counter and it is possible that a knife might come in contact with one of those.

All of our spreads are prepared in house in a kitchen area that would also prepare things with sesame seeds, Nutella, and things like that.  I can not say for sure that there is no cross contamination and again if you are very sensitive or concerned at all I would avoid them.  We only have one set of knives we use for everything.

So my two answers are no, we do not use nuts in any of our products, but if you are highly allergic, I would advise that you do not take any risks and refrain from eating at our location.

So Kossar’s isn’t the most clear-cut of cases. But Giniger is refreshingly honest and allergy-aware—and the bagels themselves seem to be pretty low-risk, as they don’t (well, shouldn’t) come into contact with any nuts at any point in their production. So I am comfortable eating at Kossar’s…with some limitations. I’m not too bothered by the potential in-store samplings, but I am bothered by the nutty spreads. (The above emails mention only Nutella, but Kossar’s has almond butter, too.) So given the whole one-set-of-knives thing, I avoid not only the spreads, but the fish, etc., too.

Bialys at Kossar's Bagels & Bialys

That leaves only two options for the nut-allergic stubborn person/bagel-craver who wishes to eat at Kossar’s: unadulterated bagels and unadulterated bialys—which is sort of unfortunate, given how much other awesome shit they sell. But it’s fine, really, because their bagels, even plain, are seriously some of this city’s best. Finally, I’ve found them: nut-free bagels that don’t suck. (Take that, Thomas. Also, fuck you.)

A Kossar’s bagel is fluffy, dense, and chewy, just as a bagel should be. It doesn’t need toasting, nor does it need accoutrements (though they’re a welcome addition, no doubt). Inexplicably, it’ll be warm or warm-ish around 4 times out of 5, clock-hour be damned. The everything bagels are perfectly seasoned, with just enough salt to make them interesting—but I don’t mind an undressed plain bagel every now and then, either. (Not if it’s as good as those at Kossar’s, at least. If you think I’m going to eat an undressed plain bagel from Baz, you’ve got another think coming.)

A Kossar's everything bagel with scallion cream cheese from Baz Bagel

When I get bored of undressed Kossar’s bagels, I’ll usually pick up some cream cheese (scallion, from nearby Baz) and dip my bagel(s) into it, like the baboon I really am. (Process pictured immediately above—except it usually takes place while on the move.)  And when I’m in the mood to pretend I don’t have food allergies, I’ll usually pick up some cream cheese and some lox, then take everything home and assemble it to my liking. Sure, it’d be nice to be able to let the folks at Kossar’s do all that for me—but it’s not so bad to have to do it on my own. (Nothing can upset me, really, when there are good bagels coming my way.)

By the way (and this should be more than a “by the way,” but whatever), the bialys, pictured in baskets above, are great, too. The onion ones are my favorite, but the others are good, too—and whichever I end up with, I like to take them home and toast them, patience permitting. They’re just so doughy, almost like an extra-thick, extra-chewy pizza crust. Honestly, they’re right around as good as the bagels. (And that’s a high compliment. Trust me.)

Anyway, I’m absolutely in love with Kossar’s, even though I can’t eat, like, 98% of the things they sell. The bagels are easily good enough to keep me coming back, despite the fact that there literally isn’t a train that’ll take me from my neighborhood to anywhere near Kossar’s. It’s a 30-minute walk—but there’s nothing that can keep me away.

Find Kossar’s at 367 Grand Street, between Essex and Clinton.

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Burger King

A Whopper with regular fries and Chicken Fries

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

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

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

Moving on.

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

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

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

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

Chicken fries and regular fries

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Frankel’s Delicatessen & Appetizing

The #3 specialty combo from Frankel's Delicatessen

My dad is notoriously terrible at handling my allergies. He’s convinced he can determine with a glance whether a pastry contains nuts, and he has a habit of insisting that restaurants are nut-free based on nothing more than his own intuition. It’d be one thing if he had some sort of inexplicably high success rate with these things, but he doesn’t, so I’ve learned to ignore his suggestions—or at least to be sure to thoroughly vet them myself.

That said, he was onto something when he suggested Frankel’s, a Greenpoint delicatessen that opened this past spring. The folks at Frankel’s—the Frankel brothers, rather—don’t cook with nuts, meaning there are no nuts or nut products in their kitchen. Their pastries are supplied by Green’s and their bagels by Baz; plus, they sell Utz and Zapp’s chips, which are both made in a nut-free facility. Knowing all that, one might start to get the idea that Frankel’s is intentionally nut-free—but it isn’t, as far as I know. [Edit: Actually, it is. See the edit below.]

Their rye bread (supplied by Rockland Bakerydoes come with a “may contain” warning, but the matter isn’t so simple. I’ve actually been told by Rockland’s Food Safety Manager that the rye is made in a nut-free facility—but I can’t be sure, as the information I’ve gotten from Rockland has been inconsistent, to say the least. Katz’s Delicatessen uses Rockland’s rye, too—so rather than re-spieling, I’ll just direct you to the first few paragraphs of my post on Katz’s.

I’ve eaten Rockland’s rye at Katz’s and at Frankel’s countless times without issue, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you should follow my lead. Use your own discretion, obviously—and if you aren’t comfortable with Frankel’s rye, the good news is that it’s easy enough to avoid, as you can order pretty much anything you want on a bagel. (As bread goes, Frankel’s also offers rolls and challah, but both are supplied by Amy’s Bread, which is not an allergy-friendly company, so I’ll just stick to recommending the bagels—and maybe the rye, depending on whom at Rockland you trust).

And while I’m ironing out allergen information, I should probably mention that Frankel’s gets their fish from Acme Smoked Fish (who don’t use have any nuts in their New York facility), and that they get some of their meats from a nearby warehouse that they don’t seem to want to name. It doesn’t seem as though they do all that much in-house, which costs them a few points on the allergy-friendliness scale—but really, whaddya gonna do? I’ve eaten at Frankel’s without issue quite a few times now, and I feel it’s worth a post, at the very least. Your standards may differ, and that’s fine. This is my blog, after all.

[Edit: A week or two after publishing this post, I received an email from someone who identified herself as a part of the Frankel’s team, saying that Frankel’s is, indeed, intentionally nut-free. Evidently, their executive chef, Ashley Berman, is allergic to peanuts—and while she isn’t allergic to tree nuts, the folks at Frankel’s evidently do their best to maintain an environment that’s 100% nut-free. (Apparently, Berman has worked with Amy’s Bread for years, and she’s comfortable with their handling of allergens. When it comes to breads, though, peanuts are certainly much easier to avoid than tree nuts—so do with that information what you will.) Good news nonetheless, though. I had a feeling something was up!]

Pastrami, egg, and cheese on a plain bagel from Frankel's Delicatessen

You know, for a Food Allergy Blogger™, I have an unusual amount of hatred for blogging about food allergies. Spelling out allergen information isn’t any fun; I much prefer eating and/or talking—writing—about eating. Onto the fun part, then.

The menu at Frankel’s is small and simple, but that doesn’t make it any easier to decide on what to order. I’m not the biggest fan of Baz’s bagels—I wrote some nice things about them back in June, but I’ve since come out of my bagel-deprived stupor and realized that theirs are rather underwhelming, to say the least—but the idea of a Frankel’s bagel sandwich had me drooling nonetheless. (Perhaps a Baz bagel would fare better out of Baz’s hands. That was my hope, at least.) Why stop at bagels, though? Frankel’s has all the classic sandwiches—pastrami, corned beef, Reubens, roast turkey, salami, chopped liver, and brisket—as well as breakfast sandwiches, hot dogs, and latkes. How was I ever supposed to make up my mind?

The first time I went, I ordered a #2 specialty combo (Nova lox, Nova spread, and salmon roe on a bagel), and to be honest, I wasn’t impressed. It wasn’t bad, but it was no different than anything I could’ve gotten at Baz, which isn’t exactly a compliment. The lox was fine, but the salmon roe wasn’t the best, nor was there very much of it—and the sandwich was made with regular cream cheese rather than Nova spread. Oops.

There was no way in hell I was giving up that quickly, though. Far sooner than I’d like to admit, I returned to Frankel’s with Sam in tow, and that time, I was able to sample a little more widely. We split two sandwiches: the #3 specialty combo (Irish organic salmon, whitefish salad, capers, onion, tomato), and the pastrami, egg, and cheese.

Now, the #3 (pictured at the top of this post) was good, but it didn’t exactly leave me wishing for another. Perhaps it would’ve, though, if the ever-important bagel itself had been good, because the whitefish salad was perfect, the onion was cut into super-thin slices that actually made sense in the context of the sandwich (for some reason, this is rare), and the tomato was fresh and flavorful. The bagel itself really left me wanting, though. Baz’s aren’t the slightest bit fluffy, and for some reason, they never taste all that fresh. It’s a shame, because the #3 was otherwise solid.

The pastrami, egg, and cheese (pictured second above, in Sam’s clutches) is another story, though. That thing never fails to make my day, no matter how many times I order it. The egg—which is actually good on its own, unlike that you’ll find in your average bodega sandwich—is absolutely smothered with melted cheese, and the pastrami is peppery, fatty, and tender as can be. The sandwich as a whole is the very definition of “melt in your mouth,” and its contents are so good that they actually manage to make up for that boring-ass Baz bagel. Seriously: Forget about bacon. Pastrami is definitely the superior meat.

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The pastrami, egg, and cheese may be my favorite Frankel’s offering—if we aren’t counting their specials, that is. If we are, though, I might have to go with the heirloom tomato ordeal I had a few weeks ago (immediately above, in an iPhone photo, as I was without my camera that day). It was simple—an open-face bagel topped with tomato, basil, chives, olive oil, and just enough cream cheese—but it was surprisingly tasty.

The tomato, thick cut and actually flavorful, was one of those magnificent treasure-tomatoes you’ll only find at the farmers’ market, and the olive oil, while nothing special in itself, brought the whole creation together wonderfully. God, it was good. I wish it weren’t just a special—but I also don’t, because out-of-season tomatoes suck. (Take note, Baz.)

But don’t get me wrong: I like their simpler sandwiches, too—they just don’t excite me as much as the ones I mentioned above. The brisket (pictured below—on rye, though it usually comes on Amy’s challah) is actually made in-house with Grandma Frankel’s recipe in mind, and it’s really goddamn tasty, if a bit too sweet. Plus, the bread comes griddled, which originally went a very long way in winning me over. And though the sandwich as a whole is a little one-note, it certainly makes for a satisfying meal.

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The pastrami and corned beef—while certainly nowhere near as good as anything you’ll find at Katz’s—are decent, too, though I’m not sure I’d order either again. On its own, the pastrami’s on the bland side. What flavor it does have is a bit too hot-doggy for me, but it’s thick-cut, fatty, and, um…present in large quantities, so there’s only so much complaining I can do. The corned beef’s a little worse, though; it just comes off as a fattier version of ham, without anywhere near enough of that signature corned beef tang. Oh well.

Anyway, Frankel’s is a neat little place…despite the fact that they don’t seem to do much of anything. I only wish it were more accessible by train. (The G’s your best bet, though it’s certainly possible to walk over from the L—until it stops running, that is.) Find it at 631 Manhattan Avenue, between Bedford and Nassau.

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