Category Archives: Snacks

CLIF Bar

Two CLIF Bars: one Coconut Chocolate Chip, and one Chocolate Brownie

When you live with food allergies for long enough, you inevitably come to associate certain visuals with danger—logos and packages that provoke in you not hunger or craving but fear, resentment, maybe even a sneer or two as you push your sorry cart down the aisle. Me, I have tons of such visual queues: the quadricolor KIND logo; the death nugget that is the Ferrero Rocher; those chicken stock–looking cartons of Almond Breeze; anything wrapped in that paleyellow color that (for whatever reason) evidently means “I contain almonds”; the plump, happy shape of a jar of Nutella

You have yours, too, I’m sure. Maybe the insistently “rugged” beige sack that holds the CLIF Bar is among them. It was for me, at least. But not anymore—because I’ve just found out that CLIF Bar & Company is actually a rather allergy-friendly brand with a very reliable labeling policy. Their website’s Dietary Considerations page has a column for “allergens: contains” and one for “allergens: may contain traces of,” and as I’ve been assured by a few different CLIF employees, you can assume that bars without nuts listed in either of those columns weren’t made on shared equipment with anything nutty, and that they should be safe from trace amounts of nuts, too. (Of course, you’ll always find the most up-to-date information on the label itself. If the label and the website disagree, the label absolutely takes precedence.)

IMG_1157.jpg

That—the fact that there are nut allergy–friendly CLIF Bars on this planet—is the good news. The bad news? There are only four nut-free flavors, and one’s seasonal. (There are some nut allergy–friendly Luna Bars, Zbars, and BUILDER’S Bars, too, but those aren’t the subject of this post, are they?) There’s Apricot, Chocolate Brownie, Coconut Chocolate Chip, and Hot Chocolate—the seasonal flavor that supposedly exists but that I’ve never actually seen (and believe me, I’ve looked). All four contain soy, and all may contain traces of wheat and dairy (with the exception of Apricot, which is dairy-free)—and all (like most CLIF products) are kosher, too. Not perfect for everyone, I guess, but pretty accommodating nonetheless.

As for taste, CLIF Bars are…well, they taste a lot like you’d expect. They’re marketed as that impossible triad: easy, healthy, and tasty (“CLIF BAR is a great-tasting energy bar made with a nutritious blend of organic rolled oats and wholesome ingredients for sustained energy”), but what are they, really? There’s no denying that they’re easy—to find, to cart around, to eat, whatever. Good for you, though? Well, not particularly. They’re packed with sugar—like, candy-bar levels of sugar, which means that if you’re looking for nutrition, you’re probably better off staying away. Actual nutritional-value aside, though, CLIF Bars do have a little of that health-food grit to them—but for what they are (or what they’re meant to be, I guess), CLIF Bars do taste pretty good.

I haven’t tried the Apricot bar (apricots tend to make my mouth itchy), but I’ve certainly eaten my fair share of the Chocolate Brownie and the Coconut Chocolate Chip, and I have to say, I definitely see the appeal. They’re sweet, but not too-too sweet, and both have a nice, chewy texture to them, too. Which I like better changes by the week, but right now I’m going to have to go with Chocolate Brownie (because, uh, I like cocoa). Preferences aside, though, both are pretty good. They’re ridiculously filling, at least. And I’m a sucker for the novelty of eating normal-people foods—especially those particular normal-people foods I’ve spent my life afraid of. So there’s that.

Find CLIF Bars wherever. (I buy them exclusively at NYU, with whatever Dining Dollars [i.e. campus currency that disappears at the end of the semester] I don’t spend on shampoo and Chick-fil-A, but they’re available at just about every store on the planet.)

Tagged , , , , ,

A Guide to Tree Nuts Made in Dedicated Facilities

caju_bowl_of_cashews.jpg

Like just about everyone else, I hate talking on the phone, especially when it involves trying to get straight, reliable answers out of people who are obviously trying to hide the fact that they have no idea what they’re talking about and who are, for whatever reason, weirdly resistant to the idea of going and finding out the answer to my questions—or, better yet, transferring my call to someone half-competent. Fortunately, though, running this blog has turned me into a call-making pro: I phrase my questions strategically. I push for the double-check. Sometimes I even—gasp—leave voicemails.

Continue reading

Tagged , , , ,

SkinnyPop

IMG_124623

I can’t say I have a hard time finding nut allergy–friendly popcorn. As I’ve recently explained, I’m decidedly not of the call-every-company-about-every-product school, and most bagged popcorns I’ve found are indeed advisory label–free. Given all that, I’ve never had much trouble finding popcorn I’m comfortable with. Which means there’s no apparent reason, then, for me to be posting about SkinnyPop. I haven’t found anything unusual, nor anything game-changing—but this stuff is made in a nut-free facility, and I happen to be addicted to it, so. Here we go.

Before I get into anything else—and believe me, I have a lot of stupid shit to get into—I should probably go through allergens, etc. So: All of SkinnyPop’s products (popped popcorn, microwave popcorn, and popcorn cakes) are free from nuts, peanuts, dairy, soy, egg, and gluten. It’s all vegan, non-GMO (big whoop…), and kosher, and it’s free from preservatives, etc., too. SkinnyPop’s marketing really tries to play it off as healthy—it’s called SkinnyPop, after all—but as you probably already know if you’ve spent any time on this blog, that has approximately nothing to do with why I’m writing about this stuff.

Anyway. It’s taken me right around 20 years of life on this planet to realize that I hate most bagged popcorns: if it isn’t too “buttery,” it’s usually way too salty, and if it’s neither, it’s almost always way too bland. I know, I know: Get off your doughy ass and pop your own goddamn popcorn, you opinionated sluggard. I know! But popcorn is, to me, exclusively a no-effort snack. If I wanted to spend 10 minutes over the stove, I’d fry an egg or make some pasta. But I don’t. When I’m in a popcorn mood, I want to go straight from the cabinet to the most-sunken corner of my couch, and then I want to immediately start shoveling that popcorn, handful by handful, into the frightening chasm that is my open mouth.

SkinnyPop's ingredients

And you know what? SkinnyPop’s original just happens to be the perfect popcorn for such shoveling. There’s no squicky “butter” flavor, nor is there an overabundance of salt. In fact, SkinnyPop’s net moderate saltiness is probably my favorite thing about it. Most pieces are (just a little) under-salted, but every few handfuls, you’ll find a perfect piece or two. Now, if every piece were so “perfect” (read: salty as fuck), a handful or two of SkinnyPop would be overwhelming. But the “rarity” of the salty bits makes those salty bits cherish-worthy, and that‘s what keeps me shoveling this stuff into my mouth: I can’t help but chase the salt.

Here, because I’m an intellectual who’s read approximately 40% of the Nicomachean Ethics (and who’s just declared a minor in philosophy—please clap), I’m compelled to go into a whole hokey-jokey thing about how SkinnyPop, with its modest saltiness that rests precisely at the mean between the relevant extremes of under- and over-salt, teaches a popcorn-related sort of temperance. (After all, you really don’t need to be excessive when you’ve got SkinnyPop showing off the perks of moderation. I’d know—I’ve tried adding salt…)

When I eat this stuff, I feel like I’m honing in on virtue. And I enjoy it—it being both the lack of over-salt and the performing of the virtuous act—so thoroughly that I’ve no choice but to conclude that I must really be virtuous. Right? (Yada yada yada. This whole Aristotle thing was actually how I was planning on opening this post, so consider yourself lucky that I’ve downgraded it to a self-conscious interlude.)

Thing is, the whole virtuous-act thing is totally negated by the fact that this popcorn is particularly suited for binge-eating, precisely because of its fixture at the mean between the relevant extremes. I can’t plow through a bag of salt-corn or keep myself chewing on the bland stuff; I need SkinnyPop’s consistent inconsistency to rope me in and keep me shoveling. And while I don’t want to want to binge-eat, I certainly do want a popcorn that compels me to. And as I sit here—on that most-sunken couch cushion, where else?—trying not to pick too much at popcorn I’m supposed to be photographing, I can say with confidence that SkinnyPop does just that.

Find it just about everywhere: Duane Reade, Walgreens, CVS, 7-Eleven, Whole Foods, Food Emporium, Gristedes, D’Agostino, Key Food, Fairway, Target…I’ll stop.

[I realize, of course, that I’ve spent this whole post on just one of a total of fourteen SkinnyPop products. That’s because I’m somewhat of a popcorn purist, so I’ve never actually tried any of SkinnyPop’s more-colorful offerings. As for the popcorn cakes…they’re fine, I guess, if you’re into that sort of thing. They’re too similar to rice cakes for my liking, but there’s nothing wrong with them, really.]

Tagged , , , , ,

Tasty Dumpling

A plate of dill-and-pork dumplings from Tasty Dumpling

Has a restaurant ever had so many things going for it…?

For two years, I’ve lived within minutes of Tasty Dumpling. But somehow, I’m only just now finding out that it’s this unprecedented combination of everything I love and look for. First and foremost, it’s nut-free Chinese food, which is alone enough to win me over. But it also happens to be particularly good nut-free Chinese food, walking distance from the elevated cube I call home, served up very quickly, in a wholly painless setting, for next to no money. This, I think, is worth celebrating.

I came across this place in somewhat of a weird way. I was wandering aimlessly around my neighborhood, as one does, when I walked by Tasty Dumpling’s storefront and noticed how small their menu was. (I end up spending a lot of time walking around Chinatown, which is, of course, filled with Chinese restaurants. Most of those restaurants’ display menus are long as hell, so I tend not to bother with pausing to conduct my preliminary once-over for nutty dishes. Tasty Dumpling’s, though, looked promising.) So what’d I do? I stepped aside, dialed the number on the awning, and watched, through the window, as the cashier picked up the phone, asked me to repeat myself, then told me all I’d hoped to hear: No nuts. Nor peanuts. Not one.

[Why didn’t I just step inside and ask in person? I don’t know. I think calling feels more formal and less spontaneous (and thus more trustworthy), though I’m well aware that’s probably just an illusion. In general, I always feel a little better about restaurants I’ve contacted via phone or email than I do about those I’m not able to reach in advance—and while I do really believe that written communication is, for these things, a lot more reliable, I acknowledge that a phone call probably has next to no real advantage over a face-to-face conversation with an employee. That’s especially hard to deny when you’ve just watched a cashier pick up the phone and answer your question just as he or she would’ve answered it had you been physically present, but…well, I’m insane, and I do what makes me worry least. Haven’t you noticed?]

IMG_1066.jpg

Now, when I talk about cheap meals, I usually mean those that’ll come to under $10 per person. And while I admit that definition of “cheap” might be a little too liberal, that isn’t something I have to worry about in labeling Tasty Dumpling. This place isn’t just NYC cheap. It’s cheap-cheap—like, stuff-you-and-a-friend-for-$8 cheap. And at that price, can you really go wrong? (Yes. You can definitely go wrong with a $4 meal. Not at Tasty Dumpling, though.)

Fried pork-and-chive dumplings—the tried-and-true, and my personal favorites—come 5 for $1.25. Dumplings with “off-menu” fillings (like dill and pork, advertised via handwritten sign) cost a lot more—$5-ish for 8—but “a lot more” than $1.25 is hardly something to whine about. Soups will run you $2 or $3 ($4 or $5 if it’s noodles you’re after), and stir-fries (yes, they have them) around $5. Pancakes, $2-ish. Sodas, $1. Essentially, what I’m trying to say is that Tasty Dumpling won’t strain your wallet. You can probably even pay for your whole meal with nothing but the quarters you’ll find lying around your apartment…not that I’ve ever done that or anything.

Anyway. That’s more than enough about pricing. 500 words in, I’m finally ready to talk about food. I’ll start with this, then: Tasty Dumpling makes some good-ass fried dumplings. The pork-and-chive are best, I think, followed by the dill-and-pork, then the beef, then the others—but it’s hard to go wrong, really, provided you manage to choose whatever it is that appeals most to you. The wrappers—on the doughy side, though never tough—are strong enough to hold the fillings, which are themselves ridiculously moist and flavorful. And the vinegar (sitting on every table, and safe, too, as far as I can tell) only helps.

IMG_1098.jpg

About the pork-and-chive dumplings (immediately above), I don’t have all that much to say. The filling’s your average pork-and-chive dumpling filling—juicy, greasy balls of pork and chive—with one key difference: this stuff is approximately as good on its own as it is inside a wrapper. (Tasty Dumpling is big on forks and small on chopsticks, and for whatever reason, I’m straight-up hopeless at forking dumplings. With these, though, it’s no big deal when my filling ends up on my plate.)

On the other hand, the dill-and-pork dumplings, pictured at the top of this post, are like no Chinese dumplings I’ve had before. The dill flavor is particularly prominent—overbearing, almost—which reminds me more of, say, bagels and lox than of Chinese takeout. Of course, it’s entirely possible that these are just as standard as the pork-and-chive dumplings, and that I’m just ignorant and inexperienced. But still: If you’re into dill, these are worth a try.

A scallion pancake from Tasty Dumpling

Of course, Tasty Dumpling also has a number of non-dumpling offerings, too. And though it does seem a little silly to write about (or, for that matter, to order…) anything but the namesakes, I feel compelled to sing the scallion pancakes’ praises. The pan-fried noodles, pictured second above, are at once busy and underwhelming, and soups offered aren’t really my thing—but the pancakes? The pancakes! Pictured immediately above, they aren’t at all what I imagine when I think of scallion pancakes, but you know what? I don’t care. These, thick and chewy—dense and bready, even—have stolen me away from the thin and flaky Platonic ideal I’ve come to expect, and I can’t even pretend to have any complaints about that. God, I love these. Especially fresh off the pan.

Food aside, though, I think it’s worth mentioning that Tasty Dumpling’s an easy place to be—and I really appreciate that, given the sorts of places I’ve been known to subject myself to. Granted, the atmosphere itself doesn’t do much: it isn’t all that clean, nor all that aesthetically pleasing. But I’m much more interested in what Tasty Dumpling doesn’t do. It doesn’t aspire to be anything it isn’t; rather, it admits to half-assing what it half-asses—decor, customer service, whatever. It doesn’t aim at cool or hip or trendy. It doesn’t claim to be “healthy,” and there are no superfoods involved. Fortunately, Tasty Dumpling is humble: greasy, quick, and cheap. (And yes, it’s tasty, too.)

Find Tasty Dumpling at 42 Mulberry Street, between Bayard and Mosco. But do note that they close each night at the ridiculously early hour of 8:30pm, and that in the 45 minutes or so before closing, service is a little spotty. Also, don’t be caught cashless—there’s an ATM on site, but its fee will cost you more than a whole order of dumplings.

Tagged , , , , , ,

Herr’s “Chocolate”-Covered Sourdough Pretzels

IMG_0984.jpg

A while back—when it was still cold out, of course—I decided it’d be a good idea to hop on an early-morning Chinatown bus to Philadelphia. I had no plan, nor anything to dabble in, so I ended up spending the whole day wandering. In the midst of those wanders, the wind got to me: my fingers and toes went numb, and so I decided to pop into some random supermarket to warm up (and gawk at food). It was there that I found these pretzels.

As a reflex, I pick up every bag (or tub, in this case) of chocolate-covered pretzels I see—and with the exception of Vermont Nut-Free’s, I’ve never come across one without a “may contain” warning for tree nuts. But as you’ve probably predicted, this tub of pretzels was unlike those others. It had no such warning, so I had no choice but to take it home.

In general, I’m one to go by labels. Unless I’ve found some specific cause for concern—the product in question is particularly high-risk, or it’s coming from a teeny-tiny company that makes a bunch of nut-containing products, too—I’ll dig right in to any packaged good whose label has no mention of tree nuts. I do that knowing full well that companies aren’t required to label for shared facilities, shared lines, etc., because…well, I’m just not a company-caller. (Many are—and if you got all your impressions from food allergy–themed online communities, you’d think that most were. But I really doubt the practice is all that widespread, especially among those who haven’t self-selected into allergy-related Facebook groups.)

The way I see it, if I adopted a set of food-safety standards so high that they required me to always confirm that a product comes from a nut-free facility before allowing myself to eat it—and if I were to really abide by that rule, and carry it out to its logical conclusion, which is some sort of obligation to make sure everything I put in my mouth is, as far as I can tell, free from all possible cross-contamination—I’d soon find that my standards were not only impossible to meet, but that they’d necessarily lead to something like a near-infinite regress of uncertainty, too. [Here, I will—for the first (and hopefully last) time—share a meme on this blog.]

Think about it. There’s just no way to confirm that a product is safe. What if the employee I spoke with was wrong? What if Nabisco has told me that my graham crackers come from a nut-free facility, but they don’t mention (or even know) that the flour that’s gone into those same graham crackers was itself processed on shared lines? What if a factory worker ate some almonds with his lunch? And what if I want to eat out? Am I going to ask a restaurant to provide me with a list of every single product that’s gone into my dish, and then proceed to call each and every one of those manufacturers before deciding whether to order? And what about that manufacturer’s suppliers?

Fuck no. All food comes with risk. I’ll survive. (Plus, my allergist’s on my side. So take that.) [Edit: For more on all this, read the comments on this post.]

Ingredient information on the back of a Herr's chocolate-covered pretzels tub

That all said—and yes, this whole post is just an excuse for the above demi-treatise—I did contact Herr’s about these pretzels—not as a precaution before eating, but as a precaution before sitting down to write this blog post. (Seems weird to throw a product post together without having spoken to the manufacturer. No matter how comfortable I feel at a restaurant, I wouldn’t publish a post on it without having gotten some summarizable allergen information out of one or two of its employees…or its website, I guess.) And eventually, I was able to find out that these chocolate-covered pretzels are, in fact, nut-free.

Originally, I was told (via email) that these particular chocolate-covered pretzels are made in a nut- and peanut-free facility, but that obviously wasn’t true, given that the label has a “may contain” statement for peanuts. I replied and said as much—and then, a day or two later, I got an unexpected phone call from a very apologetic (and very, very informed) Herr’s employee who’d evidently been tasked with setting the record straight. So: These pretzels—the ones that come in the red tub pictured at the top of this post—are made in a tree nut–free facility that does indeed handle peanuts, and they should be 100% safe for those with tree nut allergies.

By now, it’s beside the point, but the pretzels themselves are fine. They’re just about what you’d expect, really: thin, sour-ish pretzels, covered in a fair amount of sub-par “chocolate.” (It isn’t actually chocolate, but rather a chocolate-flavored coating.) They’re nothing to go out of your way for, but they’re nonetheless palatable. And even though they’re a little on the expensive side, they’re certainly less bank-breaking than Vermont Nut-Free’s. I don’t love them, and I’m not sure I’d buy them again, but…they’re chocolate-covered pretzels, and they’ve temporarily relieved me of my craving. I don’t ask for much more.

Anyway. I’m not actually sure where you can find these pretzels. (Remember: excuse, demi-treatise.) They aren’t listed on the Herr’s website, nor can I find much of anything about them online. With regard to potential allergens, the pretzels that come in the above-pictured red bucket aren’t necessarily the same as any of the other chocolate-covered pretzels sold by Herr’s. Rest assured, though, that these do exist, and that they (in particular) are safe.

They’re out there. I swear.

Tagged , , , , , ,

Hanamizuki Café

IMG_1028

I love omusubi, but I hardly ever find myself going out of my way for any. Usually, I’ll just wait to scoop some up until I happen to be near one of my handful of favorite Japanese markets—so imagine my delight upon finding out about Hanamizuki, an omusubi-centric Japanese café that originally seemed like it might finally give me enough excuse to make an outing (and a meal) out of a few balls of rice.

Hanamizuki’s menu is small (and entirely nut-free, per a conversation with a cashier and a phone call I made before showing up). Aside from the expected café fare (coffee and tea; sake, wine, and beer), they offer 10 sorts of omusubi—some with vegetables, some with meat or fish, one with Spam—and a few miso soups and side dishes, too. After 6pm, the menu widens (just a bit), but there’s still hardly anything on it; of course, that’s all right, because this place isn’t about breadth. Hanamizuki’s focus is on omusubi. They’re one of those places that pays careful attention to one thing and one thing only—something I love to report, given how allergy-friendly these sorts of single(-ish)-concept menus tend to be.

IMG_1024

Unfortunately, though, Hanamizuki is not the game-changer it at first appears to be. It’s a nice space—very cute, very cozy—that feels totally cut off from the decidedly un-cute, un-cozy block it’s on, but that’s about all this place has going for it. The staff aren’t particularly friendly, nor are they very allergy-aware: the cashier I spoke with initially dismissed my question of whether there might be any nuts in anything, and when I pushed, it came out that she thought soy was a nut. (I asked, too, whether the nut-containing [wrapped] cookies at the register might’ve been made on-site—a rather standard double-check-type question that the vast majority of like employees are happy to answer—at which point she seemed to get annoyed. I didn’t need her cooperation; the cookies are made elsewhere, so there really are no nuts to avoid in Hanamizuki’s kitchen. But it wasn’t a pleasant exchange.)

Contrary to what the previous paragraph might’ve led you to believe, though, I don’t care all that much about staff friendliness. What I do care about is the quality of the food, and—it’s time to come out and say it, I guess—Hanamizuki’s just isn’t very good. The omusubi, meant to serve as the main attraction, are extremely underwhelming. The rice is fine, and most of the other ingredients are admissible, but these things just aren’t worth going more than a block or two out of your way for. They’re light on the fillings, and most taste like they’ve been sitting around all day. They’re cute, though. Ridiculously cute. I’ll give them that.

Three omusubi from

I’ve tried a handful of the rice balls (all that have been available when I’ve stopped by, actually), but I can’t quite say that I’ve enjoyed any. None were horrible, but absolutely all were dull—especially the sweet potato, which is made with chunks of Japanese sweet potato, hijiki seaweed, and (ostensibly) deep-fried tofu and white sesame, too. For all I knew, though, those last two might not have even been there. I tasted the sweet potato—it might as well have been raw—and I saw the seaweed, but really, that was it. And the sukiyaki (“Japanese premium beef, burdock root, konjac and scallions”) was even worse: comically little beef, and next to no flavor, other than that of…well, an antique store. (Dumb, I know. But for real, that’s the most accurate comparison I have…and that thing really did leave my mouth tasting as if I’d just licked a very expensive armoire. Just telling it like it is, y’all.)

The unagi, though not particularly fresh-tasting, was all right—it tasted distinctly like eel, at least—and the wakame (“wakame-seaweed, yukari, shisonomi-pickles and shibazuke-pickles”) was tolerable, but again, these omusubi are boring as hell. And as I’m pressing myself for something to say in their defense, all I’ve got—absolutely all I’ve got—is that the rice itself is rather decent. It isn’t cold or hard or funky or strange; in fact, it’s sort of good, and it goes a long way in keeping these rice balls away from the category of the outright bad. So thanks, Rice, for allowing these balls to join the ranks of the mediocre. 

To be clear, though, I don’t hate Hanamizuki; surely, I’d pop in for a rice ball or two if I already happened to be nearby. (I pop into lots of places for lots of mediocre snacks, mind you. I eat 7-Eleven taquitos, for crying out loud. Put a [nut-free] snack-like creation on my radar and I will crave it, sooner or later.) I’d just never, ever get on a train with the explicit intention of ending up at Hanamizuki ever again. Their omusubi just aren’t worth any sort of special trip. Sorry.

Stumble upon Hanamizuki at 143 West 29th Street, between 6th and 7th Avenues.

Tagged , , , , ,

Yonah Schimmel Knish Bakery

Yohan Schimmel Knish Bakery's storefront

Before I begin, let me make one thing perfectly clear: The spelling of Yonah Schimmel’s last name varies. “Schimmel” is the more popular option—and it’s the one that the bakery’s own website uses—but the goddamn sign (well, the main one, at least) says “Shimmel,” so I don’t know what to tell you. I’m aware that none of this matters, and that at a certain point, discrepancies like this one just give way to a suite of dead-end philosophical questions (à la “what really determines a name?”)…but shit, man. Look closely at the above photo and you’ll find two votes for “Shimmel” and two for “Schimmel.” That alone makes me dizzy—but the trouble’s everywhere. Compare the Wikipedia page‘s title to its first few words, then join me in my discomfort. (As if.)

What I’m trying to say, I guess, is that I’ve settled on “Schimmel.” Now that I’ve stopped twitching, let’s begin:

I grew up knish-less. I ate my first ever at Katz’s, and that was a Coney Island (i.e. square) knish, which a purist would certainly dismiss as inferior. I like my square knishes, though, so I figured I might as well try some round knishes, too. And where better to try my first proper knish than Yonah Schimmel, America’s first (and most famous) knishery?

The menu’s small—there are knishes, bagels, and (on the weekends) latkes—so I figured I’d probably be safe. To be sure, though, I did call in, at which point I was told that there aren’t any nuts present in the kitchen. The bagels aren’t made in-house (apparently, they come from a place called Natural Produce, which I haven’t been able to find online), but the knishes and latkes are indeed safe. (Safe in theory, at least. There are a few dessert-like knishes that I prefer to avoid, but that’s only for my own peace of mind, really. It’s not that I think I’d react; it’s that I think I’d spend the meal stressing. No point.)

IMG_9780

Anyway. My feelings about this place are so, so mixed. There’s a certain appeal to the fact that the Schimmel family—yes, they’re still in charge—have been serving up these same knishes since 1910. Plus, despite the knishery’s fame, it’s managed to avoid the sort of hype that’s been known to take away from places like Katz’s. (I love Katz’s. But long lines and hordes of tourists? Not so much.) Yonah Schimmel certainly isn’t unknown, but it isn’t exactly a high-traffic spot, either. And despite all the knish-brags that cover its walls, it’s actually a humble little place: teeny-tiny and unapologetically cluttered, with a few tables that don’t quite seem like they’re meant to be sat at. And it’s calm and quiet, too; there’s hardly ever anyone inside.

Here’s the thing, though: The knishes blow. I want to love them. I really do. But they just don’t do it for me, and that’s around 95% due to the fact that the folks at Yonah Schimmel think it’s okay to fucking microwave them. Heads up: IT ISN’T. Without fail, the microwaving absolutely ruins whatever texture these knishes might’ve had—but I can’t really speak to that texture, because I’ve never had an un-microwaved Yonah Schimmel knish. (I’ve shown up early-ish, late-ish, and at whatever hour’s in between the two, but I’ve yet to end up at Yonah Schimmel at fresh-knish time. But I shouldn’t have to show up at some nebulous time of day to ensure that my food will be un-terrible.)

The flavor’s good, though—in most of the knishes I’ve tried, at least. The potato’s very plain, but a little mustard solves that problem; and mushroom (pictured in the foreground of the photo immediately above) and broccoli are both all right, too. Mixed vegetable (pictured below) is a little weird—it comes off like someone emptied the “vegetable” contents of a Cup Noodles into a knish—and they’ve been out of cheese knishes every single time I’ve ever stopped by, but whaddaya gonna do? (It’s not as if I really want a microwaved cheese knish, anyway.)

IMG_9785

I will say, though, that I love the latkes. Microwaved, they’re just as soggy as you’d imagine, but the flavor’s spot-on, and they’re huge, too. I suppose you could take a few home and reheat them properly, but that seems like a whole lot of work for something that’s meant to be a grab-and-go sort of snackmeal. (The same goes for the knishes. I’m just not that motivated. But maybe you are.)

Maybe this stuff is great when it’s fresh. Maybe the knishes are moist; maybe the outer layers of dough stay crisp. Maybe the vegetables become, um…less canned. That’s what I have to tell myself, else I’d have to hate Yonah Schimmel—and that’s just not something I want to do. So that leaves me in a little bit of a weird position, I guess: I’d never recommend going out of your way for one of these knishes, nor would I necessarily recommend stopping in for one if you happen to be passing by. But I don’t know, man. There’s just something about this place.

…And I know it’s totally pointless for me to say that without offering any sort of elaboration, but it isn’t just a turn of speech; I really don’t know what it is about Yonah Schimmel that so softens me. Guess I’ll just have to keep going back, then—if not expressly in the hopes of getting my hands on a good knish, then in the hopes of figuring out why I’m so decidedly un-angry at these shitty ones.

Find Yonah Schimmel Knish Bakery at 137 Houston Street, between Forsyth and Eldridge. Bring cash—and if you want any latkes, be sure it’s a Friday, Saturday, or Sunday. (By the way, Yonah Schimmel is kosher-certified, but they’re open from 9:30am to 7pm every day.)

Tagged , , , , , ,

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.

Tagged , , , , , ,

The Pickle Guys

An employee scooping up some pickled vegetables at The Pickle Guys

A pickle’s just a pickle, right? Wrong. So wrong. These pickles are special, and I already know I’m not going to be able to do them justice. Here’s to trying, though.

When I started eating at Katz’s—and believe me, I started—I stopped eating pickles. Theirs are beautiful, but I just can’t deny how bad they taste. Their new pickles are basically just unadulterated cucumbers (ick! not for me), and their full-sours are just too sour for human consumption. I know, of course, that there are better pickles out there, but…I don’t know. The ones at Katz’s totally demoralized me, so I’ve been off pickles for a while now.

But whenever I walk over to Kossar’s—home of some of the best bagels ever—I can’t help but gaze longingly at The Pickle Guys, a real-deal Lower East Side institution that sells—can you guess?—pickles, and lots of them. But cucumbers are not the only thing The Pickle Guys brine; they also do olives, tomatoes, pineapples, mangoes, beets, peppers, okra, string beans, garlic, turnips, and a whole bunch of other shit, too. (Plus, come Passover, the employees grab their gas masks and head out to the sidewalk to grind up absurd amounts of horseradish. I don’t know about you, but happen to think that’s pretty badass.)

Part of the menu at The Pickle Guys

After walking by enough times (and after doing some Pickle Guys–related reading), I decided I couldn’t put it off any longer. I’d have to stop by, and soon. Before I could, though, I (of course) had to make sure their food wouldn’t kill me—so I sent them an email, asking whether they might have any nuts on-site. Within a day or two, I had my answer: “No we don’t use any tree nuts. We used to carry Almond Stuffed Olives but that was over 2 years ago.” Sweet. (Sour?…I’ll see myself out.)

Anyway, I stopped by on the first day of Sukkot, which meant the store would be closing at 4pm, rather than the usual 6pm. Despite that—or maybe because of it—there was a line out the door and a moderately large crowd of pickle-suckers beside it. (They were loud. The suckers, I mean. I think they were on one of those godforsaken “food tours.” It was disconcerting, on multiple levels.) Really, though, I didn’t mind the crowding (and neither did Sam, who might just love pickles two or three times as much as he loves me). Nothing was going to come between us and our brined produce.

In we went, then.

img_6760

Inside, there is not a single frill in sight. The bulk of the teeny-tiny space is occupied by big, red barrels, each carrying a different sort of pickle. One wall’s exposed brick; the other, painted white, bears a menu, above which a single sentence is printed in all caps: “PLEASE KEEP HANDS OUT OF BARRELS.” Noted. There’s a slight breeze (fan-sourced) and a strong, strong smell of all things pickley. Employees move quickly and take orders via shout, scooping pickles into plastic containers, pausing only to offer samples and to poke fun at customers.

The employees are obviously proud of their product, and the customers all seem to know that something good’s about to come their way, so one seems much to mind all the chaos. (Plus, it’s not all that chaotic. The whole affair actually runs rather smoothly, despite its disorganized appearance. It’s quick, easy, and painless—plus, you walk out with pickles. Good deal.)

Though the line was long, it moved quickly—so quickly, in fact, that by the time our turn came, we hadn’t yet decided what to order. I decided to wing it, which resulted in my ending up with a whole bunch of shit: a new pickle, a full-sour, a half-sour, a quart of three-quarter-sours, some sweet gherkins, some Greek olives, a lot of grape tomatoes, and a particularly overstuffed quart of string beans.

Once we’d paid, Sam and I headed over to a nearby park bench for some sampling (and some photos that apparently couldn’t wait. Sorry. For the extra-lame photos and for how much of Sam’s fingers you’re about to see).

First, we ate our singular pickles, beginning with the mildest. Here, from left to right, is a new pickle, a half-sour, and a full-sour:

Three pickles from The Pickle Guys

Now, I’ve literally never enjoyed a new pickle. I have a rule: “fuck the flavor of cucumber.” But I’m happy to make an exception for these pickles. I think I like them so much because they aren’t just cucumber-y; they’re also just salty enough, just sour enough, just far enough from your average cucumber that they’ve actually been able to win me over. And like the rest of The Pickle Guys’s pickles, these have a snap (and spray!) that’s straight-up absurd. Like, holy shit. I’ve never bit into a pickle so satisfying.

The half-sours and three-quarter-sours are great, too. Naturally, they’re just what you’d expect: a sourer (and sourer yet) version of the new pickle I so loved. I don’t really have a preference between the two—which I’d rather eat probably depends on little more than my mood—so I’ll leave it at this: Both are good. So good.

With regard to the full-sour…well, it was my least favorite of the bunch, but I blame that on the facts that (a) I ate it last, when I was probably a little pickled out; (b) I ate it alone (that is, without the sort of grease-soaked entree such a sour pickle usually balances out; and (c) I spilled some of its (near-overabundant) juice on my pants, which, um, gave me a little bit of a bias, I guess. Still, a great pickle (if you’re into full-sours), and a worthy companion to a deliciously greasy meal.

But we didn’t stop there. (How could we have?!) Below (clockwise, beginning on the upper left) is a pint of string beans, a half-pint of Greek olives, a half-pint of sweet gherkins, and a half-pint of grape tomatoes:

Pickled string beans, Greek olives, grape tomatoes, and

The string beans are nice and snappy, but thinner and more manageable than a regular pickle, were delicious, and the grape tomatoes, which seriously taste like they were fresh from the farmers’ market, are even better. Sam and I liked them so much, in fact, that we ended up re-braving the line to get our hands on an additional pint (which was also when we picked up the pint—yes, pint—of three-quarter-sours).

That was where our fun ended, though. Neither of us much enjoyed the sweet gherkins (too sweet!), nor were we able to find much use for the Greek olives (too salty!), so we ended up giving them away. Honestly, neither product was bad; they just weren’t…to our tastes, though I’m sure they’d be fine in the right hands (or dish).

There are still approximately half a billion Pickle Guys products I want to try: pineapples, bread & butter pickles, tomatoes (both sliced and unsliced), and some other types of olives, to name a few. But it’ll be a while, because at the moment, my fridge is well over its pickle capacity. They keep for a while, though—and I can’t stop eating them—so I’m really not all that worried.

In any case, if I haven’t yet made it clear enough: The Pickle Guys is a lovely, lovely, store, and their pickles are practically unbeatable.

Find The Pickle Guys at 49 Essex Street, between Grand and Hester. They’re strictly kosher, though—so don’t even think of stopping by on the Sabbath.

P.S. Here‘s some awesome pickle-related fiction, which I highly recommend.

Tagged , , , , ,

Eleni’s: NYC’s Only Nut-Free Bakery

A wall of nut-free cookies at Eleni's

[Edit: As of the new year—that’s 2017—Eleni’s has closed its Chelsea Market storefront. Everything’s still available through their website, though.]

Eleni’s just might be New York City’s most well-known nut-free establishment. At the very least, it’s the city’s only full-fledged nut-free bakery. And, it’s (to my dismay…) one of the first few Google results for “nut-free New York”—or it was a few months ago, before Google decided to start kissing my ass and showing me (and me alone) my own blog above all else. In any case, Eleni’s is important, so I figured it was about time I write about it.

Boring stuff out of the way first, though. Eleni’s is 100% nut-free, in the most legitimate sense of the term. There are no peanuts or tree nuts allowed in their bakery, and they require allergen statements from all of their vendors, too. They also test periodically for the presence of nuts in both their bakery and their Chelsea Market storefront. (And by the way, all their products are kosher, too.)

img_6613Nut-free chocolate cupcakes with vanilla frosting from Eleni's

Located within Chelsea Market, Eleni’s is sort of out of the way. On the bright side, though, it’s maybe a 30-second walk from Los Tacos No. 1, which consistently churns out some of the best tacos in this city. That place is seriously delightful, and actually motivates me to deal with the straight-up horrors of Chelsea Market. But I’m here to talk about Eleni’s, so I’d better, um…get to doing that.

Eleni’s sells a pretty wide array of products—cupcakes (traditional and mason-jarred), brownies, popcorn, whoopie pies, chocolate-covered pretzels, and, of course, cookies: hand-iced cookies, soft cookies, crisp cookies, photo-printed cookies, and even colorable cookies. Very obviously, the place is geared toward children—which would be fine by me if its products were good enough to pass the adult (or quasi-adult) taste test. Unfortunately, though, most aren’t.

img_6604

Cupcakes and cookies are clearly the bakery’s main focus, so you might expect those, at least, to be good. But they aren’t. The cupcakes, though cute-as-can-be, are ridiculously sweet, and the cookies…well, they’re hit-or-miss. The boxed cookies (i.e. the crisp cookies, which are, I think, the only Eleni’s product sold in grocery stores) are good, but the hand-iced cookies are, again, too sweet (and too expensive). For (what I hope to be) obvious reasons, I’ve never tried the Color Me! cookies, but they seem to be nearly the same as the hand-iced cookies, minus some color. And then there are the soft cookies—good when they’re soft, but rock-hard (and pretty bad) by the end of the day.

Still, the cupcakes (and the super-sweet cookies) are absolutely perfect for children. As a kid, I know I would’ve loved each and every one of Eleni’s cupcakes, should they ever have found their way into my greedy, sticky five-year-old paws. But they didn’t, and now I’m 20, with a palate that’s (only a little) less tolerant of absurd amounts of sugar, so I have a hard time getting through even a single Eleni’s cupcake. Oh well.

img_6594

The brownies, though, are another story. They’re rich and chocolatey, without being overly sweet—and all the varieties (chocolate chip, cheesecake, salted caramel, and s’mores) are pretty damn good. Beware, though: they, too, transform into something else by the end of the day, having lost all their moisture (and having become rather icky indeed). If you can manage to snag one early, though, I’d certainly recommend doing so, as it’s not easy to find nut-free brownies as good as these.

I also love, love, love the chocolate-covered pretzels. I don’t have much to say about them—they’re just your average, run-of-the-mill chocolate-covered pretzels, with (fortunately) no frills or added “bonuses”—but I have a special place in my heart for them, given how difficult it is to find nut-free chocolate-covered pretzels. (Seriously. Try looking for safe ones in stores. You won’t find any.) They’re grotesquely overpriced, sure. But they’re safe, and they’re tasty, so I buy them.

Aside from the brownies and the pretzels, though, there isn’t much at Eleni’s that I buy often. I always want a cupcake or two, but I (sort of) know better than to spend any more money on a product I know I don’t like, so usually, I find the self-control to abstain. The same goes for the whoopie pies—I know they’re too sweet, but I always, always want one. As long as I can quickly redirect myself toward the brownies, though, things tend to turn out all right.

img_6596

I’ve been pretty mean to Eleni’s, I know. It isn’t my fault their bakers are so heavy on the sugar, obviously—but I do feel bad for hating on the place, given its lovely mission. I mean, come on: it’s a decidedly nut-free bakery. How many of those exist in the entire world, even? New York City has The Donut Pub and Everybody Eats, sure—but the former’s a one-trick pony, and the latter’s gluten-free (and focused almost exclusively on bread, anyway). Eleni’s is, as far as I know, the only nearby business of its kind—so what kind of a person would I be if I weren’t grateful for its existence?

Anyway, I’m (sort of) sorry for trash-talking the place. For those of you who need to steer clear of nuts—which is only, like, 60% of my readership, for reasons that are totally beyond me—I’d say Eleni’s is definitely worth a try. Especially if you’re really into sugar (and especially-especially if you have children).

Find Eleni’s inside of Chelsea Market, which is itself located at 75 9th Avenue, between 15th and 16th Streets. (Or, if it’s just the boxed cookies you’re after, check out Whole Foods, Dean & Deluca, Gourmet Garage, Grace’s Marketplace, or Morton Williams.)

Tagged , , , , , ,