Category Archives: Technically not nut-free

Osteria Morini

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I didn’t used to be such a stranger to Italian food. I grew up with Italian home cooking, and when I was a kid, my parents and I went out for ridiculously good Italian more than we did anything else. But these days, things are different: I don’t have a single Italian restaurant I’m comfortable eating at, and I’m not eating my mom’s cooking any more than once or twice a month. I cook the occasional pasta dish, sure—but I don’t do it well. All told, then, I hardly eat the stuff. Shit sucks. Or it did, at least.

Until a few weeks ago, when a reader sent me an email about Altamarea Group, the insanely allergy-aware hospitality company owned by Wisconsin-born pasta legend Michael White. Altamarea has a bunch of restaurants, and each and every one is as allergy-friendly as, say, Blue Smokebut most are far more nut-filled than I’m used to, and they’re pretty far out of my price range, too. Still, I wanted to give one a try. And after some stressing, I ended up with Morini, purely because its menu is a little less nutty than the others, and, well, because it’s among the cheapest of the bunch.

Now. Trying new restaurants is always nerve-racking, even when they’re virtually nut-free. Add some nuts to the menu and I’m guaranteed to be an actual basket case for at least the duration of my first three meals. But not at Morini. The first time I went, I was nervous, sure. But their shit is so together that not even I, Queen Anxiety, was able to find much to stress about. The servers seem to know every ingredient in every dish, and they’re unusually forthcoming about what might have had a chance to get cross-contaminated, too. They’re happy to relay allergy-related messages to the kitchen, and whoever’s back there cooking is great about sending servers out to double-check on whether you’re good with this, that, or the other ingredient, too.

The garganelli from Osteria Morini

Eating at Morini, then, is totally painless. But it does require a lot more care and consideration than a meal at the average Nut-Free New York restaurant. That’s not to say a Morini meal isn’t worth that extra effort—it is, but you ought to know what you’re getting into, and you shouldn’t get into it if you aren’t comfortable with thinking and trying. I can’t recap all of Morini’s allergen information; it’s too complex, and it changes too often. Rather, determining what’s safe for you is a job for you, your server, and the chef. It’s not a hard job, but it’s a job nonetheless, and if you have food allergies, you ought to go in with that in mind. (Of course, it’s your server who’ll be doing most of the work. And that’s a good thing, because Morini’s are fucking all-stars. Some are more openly and obviously proactive than others, but it seems that absolutely all of them at least do what’s necessary behind the scenes.)

Asking questions helps (“Is this bread made in-house?” “Are the prosciutto and the mortadella cut on the same slicer?”), but one of the best things about Morini is the fact that you can expect to be taken care of and looked out for even if you don’t take on the role of hyper-cautious investigator. There’s no way you could ever expect to know all the right questions to ask, anyway—but that’s all right, because Morini’s staff is so allergy-aware that you won’t have to do any legwork. You can—and if you do, they won’t make you feel bad about your million-and-a-half questions, nor will they give you any trouble whatsoever about double-checking on the specifics of a piece of bread (or whatever)—but you won’t end up dead on the floor if all you offer is a quick “I’m allergic to tree nuts and need my meal to be free from even trace amounts, please.”

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But onto the food itself, which is no doubt the real best thing about the place. My first time, I started with the burrata, and it was everything I was hoping for. I ditched the elsewhere-made bread it’s usually served with, and the crispy prosciutto, too (as it’s sliced on a cutting board that’s shared with something or other that contains walnuts), but I was able to eat the cheese itself and the strawberries it comes with, and…well, it was burrata. What’s there to say? It was creamy. Really creamy. Entirely perfect.

Next, I moved onto the garganelli—”pasta quills, cream, peas, truffle butter, prosciutto,” but without the prosciutto—which is pictured second above, though under some really abysmal lighting. For real, though: That shit was good. The quills were perfectly al dente; the truffle butter was plenty truffle-y, but not the slightest bit overbearing; and the peas were flavorful enough to keep me from even remembering the fact that the dish was meant to be topped with prosciutto. Really, the sauce was so good that I had a hard time keeping myself from licking the plate clean—so while I’d initially been a little worried that the dish would be just a little too simple, I’m happy to report that it’s, uh…not. 

That night, I also tried Sam’s torcia—”squid ink pasta, seppia & shrimp ragù,” pictured (in daylight!) at the top of this post—and to my delight, it was just as good. Because our server went out of his way to tell us that he couldn’t guarantee the usual breadcrumb topping would be entirely free from cross-contamination, we decided to forego it altogether, but it didn’t matter, because the dish was absurdly satisfying, texture-wise. And the sauce has a depth to it that I really wasn’t expecting. It looks one-note tomatoey, and it smells sort of one-note tomatoey, but it tastes like so much more than just tomato. I can’t say just what it’s like—I’m hopeless at these sorts of things, unfortunately—but I can say that it’s lovely, and that it’s secured the torcia’s status as one of my top recommendations.

Osteria Morini's raviolo

The tagliatelle, served with bolognese and parmesan (and pictured third), is great, too. The texture of the pasta is spot-on, and the flavor of the bolognese is, too. Is this dish as exciting as some of the others? No, definitely not. It’s just tagliatelle and bolognese, sans any luxed-up add-ins. But! It’s a perfect execution of tagliatelle and bolognese, and sometimes, that’s just what I want. Will it ever become my go-to Morini order? Probably not. But will I insist on keeping it in my rotation? Take a wild guess.

I’m also in love with the raviolo (immediately above), a brunch special served with black trumpet mushrooms and filled with a pea-tasting ricotta stuffing and—!!!—a beautiful, undisturbed egg yolk. I’ve been lusting after something like this ever since I watched Anne Burrell attempt to teach her team to make raviolo al uovo on Worst Cooks in America—it was quite the episode, let me tell you—but I was finally starting to come to terms with the fact that there didn’t seem to be any way I’d ever manage to find an allergy-friendly version. By the time I discovered this dish, though, Morini had already changed my game in about half a million ways. So I guess I should’ve expected this. But I didn’t.

Anyway, it’s fantastic. The black trumpet mushrooms taste more like chicken skins than mushrooms—a good thing, don’t worry—and the raviolo itself is out-of-this-world delicious. The skin (does anyone call it that?) is paper-thin; the pea-ricotta filling is subtle, but decidedly present; the egg yolk, should you find it in yourself to not slurp it up in a single bite, pairs beautifully with the rest of the dish; and the whole thing is doused with some good-ass olive oil that does plenty to liven it all up. It’s a small dish, and certainly not the one you’d want to choose if you’re feeling particularly ravenous—but it’s so delicate, so refined, so goddamn good that I can’t help but deem it worthwhile in its own right.

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Every single one of Michael White’s pasta dishes is excellent, though. You won’t need my opinions (or anyone else’s, for that matter) to steer you in the right direction, because there is no right direction. Choose any of the 12 pastas on Morini’s menu—or any of their daily specials, which are just as good—and you’re sure to be fine. More than fine. But do be sure to pick pasta (or set of pastas, sharing encouraged), because they’re obviously Morini’s strong suit. All the rest you’d expect is available, too—cured meats, cheese platters, salads, seafood, all sorts of meat dishes, and a bunch of other stuff, too—but it’s the pastas (and perhaps only the pastas) that are really, truly worth a special trip.

They so are, though. Worth the special trip, I mean. And on Sunday and Monday evenings, after 9pm, Morini offers them for $12 each, which is absolutely not a deal you want to pass up. (Otherwise, they’ll run you $25-ish each, which is quite a bit, I suppose, given the sizes of the portions.) That said, it’s a little tough to get a reservation during those golden hours—I like to book my Pasta Nights a few weeks in advance, so I don’t end up getting stuck with, like, the 10:45 slot—but those $12 plates are well worth the effort, especially if you can bring a friend or six to swap bites with.

Morini, in general, is well worth the effort. I mentioned that it’s a little extra work, and it is—but the food’s so much fun, and the staff really does make the whole discussing-and-communicating thing as painless as possible. So they serve a bunch of food I can’t eat, sure. It gets crowded-ish in there, and loud-ish, and reservations sometimes require some foresight, especially when there’s discounted pasta at play. The meals aren’t cheap—but they are for an Altamarea restaurant, and prices aren’t unreasonable, given the quality of the food. And as for those other quasi-complaints…

I’m telling you. Worth it.

Find it at 218 Lafayette Street, between Spring and Kenmare. (Or in Washington, D.C., or in Bernardsville, New Jersey.)

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KazuNori

A crab hand roll from KazuNori

Here we go again. But not really. I’ll behave this time. Promise.

If you’ve been keeping up, you’ll know that I have high standards for sushi. You’ll also know that Sugarfish—which Pete Wells quietly lambasted in March, and which I very noisily lambasted a few weeks prior—doesn’t come close to making my cut. Why, then, have I so willingly chosen to dine at its hand roll–hawking cousin? There are, I suppose, many reasons: I’m forgiving. I’m hopeful. I believe in the power of low expectations. I can’t afford better Japanese. I like to trash bad restaurants on my blog. Oh, and Sugarfish’s hand rolls, made up mainly of their top-tier sushi rice, were by far the best thing about the place.

Like Sugarfish’s, KazuNori’s kitchen is entirely nut-free—as it ought to be, because it churns out nothing but hand rolls. Also like Sugarfish, KazuNori doesn’t take reservations. To get a spot at the counter at an unridiculous mealtime hour, you’ll have to play it smart: stop by early to case the joint, and be prepared to wait in line, though probably not for anywhere near as long as you’d have to wait for Sugarfish. (The first time I went to Sugarfish, their waitlist was full, so I rerouted to Sushi on Jones. The second time—the time I actually made it to a table—I waited 3 hours. Last Saturday night, though, I was seated at KazuNori within minutes of walking in. So that’s something, I guess.)

KazuNori's interior

For all intents and purposes, KazuNori is Sugarfish Lite. The two restaurants fall into the same price range, and their hand rolls are virtually identical. Nearly everything else about the two places lines up, too. KazuNori’s ambiance is basically a more casual version of Sugarfish’s: loud-ish, dark-ish, and desperate to be cool-ish. Of course, neither restaurant is actually all that cool, and both are perpetually filled with goofs in the habit of doing terrible things to their servings of fish—but I’ll leave that one alone for today. Still, both restaurants are wasabi-averse; both restaurants seem to have some sort of ideological problem with flavorful fish; and both restaurants are insurmountably disappointing.

Still, KazuNori is by far the better establishment—and by the end of this point, I might actually end up recommending it, if only through gritted teeth and after issuing a boatload of disclaimers.

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Anyway. For my KazuNori meal, I went with the largest of the set tastings. (To my enormous relief, the words “Trust Me” don’t appear anywhere on KazuNori’s menu.) That got me six hand rolls—toro, yellowtail-scallion, salmon, bay scallop, crab, and lobster—for $28, or around $4.50 per roll. Reasonable, I thought. Especially given the fact that it would’ve cost me a total of $38 to order those same six rolls à la carte. An easy decision. So I pencilled in my order—no, there are no waitstaff—and got to looking around.

Pictured immediately above is KazuNori’s roll-prep area. (They might have more than one. I’m not sure. That was the one I sat by.) You’ll note that it doesn’t look like something a restaurant-restaurant would want to put on display, but rather like those funky vats of fast-casual glop you’ve probably seen at places like Chipotle or Uma Temakeria. And while I really don’t have any problem with seeing (or eating) fast-casual glop at, you know, a fast-casual restaurant, you’d better believe I have a hell of a problem with it at what’s supposed to be a nice-ish place.

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Still, the rolls themselves are perfectly executed, and only some of the fish within actually tastes like fast-casual glop. The toro, literally flavorless, just isn’t passable as toro, and the yellowtail, marginally tastier, only makes for a decent roll because of the scallions that accompany it. Salmon (above, top left) is all right—it’s moderately flavorful, and unlike the toro and the yellowtail, it isn’t fucking minced—and blue crab (above, bottom left), though too sweet and too heavy on the mayo, is fine, too. Lobster (above, bottom left) is good, but would be much better in chunks than in shreds. But it’s bay scallop, of all things, that’s best, by far.

I don’t know what it is, but that scallop is damn good. Unlike the rest of the Nozawa Group’s various offerings, it’s actually interesting, flavor-wise. Present in actual fish-like chunks, KazuNori’s bay scallop is actually sort of perfect: subtly sweet, pleasantly thick, and covered with just enough mayo-coating to keep things moving. For the first time, I’m not mad at a Nozawa creation. In fact, I seriously considered ordering another. (I held my horses, though. There was no forgetting where—or who—I was.)

So. Is KazuNori a great restaurant? A good restaurant? A restaurant anyone who knows his fish might walk away from satisfied? No! But the prices are low. The nori is crisp, the rice warm. The fake wasabi is avoidable, and from here, the lines appear manageable. There’s less hype, less praise to rage against. The menu’s smaller, so there’s less to object to. No waitstaff, no mention of a “Trust Me”—just the palatable concept of a set tasting. And on the whole, patrons are about three iotas less clueless than their Sugarfish-eating counterparts. It helps.

KazuNori is an option. I’ll give it that.

Find it at 15 West 28th Street, between Broadway and 5th.

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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.)

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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.)

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TsuruTonTan Udon Noodle Brasserie

A bowl of US wagyu shabu udon from TsuruTonTan

Every summer, I have to impose a moratorium on broth, and every summer, I’m sad about it. Right now, it’s 87 degrees outside. There’s no wind. Humidity’s at about a million percent. This morning, I took a cold shower. Now, I’m sitting two feet from the air conditioner. I’m still sweating. So for the foreseeable future, at least: fuck soup. Barneys, Ganso, Kung Fu, Sao Mai—for the next three months, I don’t care. I can’t care. I’m hot. Get away.

TsuruTonTan, though, is exempt. Maybe because my obsession with the place is still in its infancy, or maybe because the space itself is relatively large and dim and cool, or maybe because Tsuru’s cold dishes are just as good (if not better) than the hot ones. I don’t know, man. All I can say is that this place is (a) nut-free, and (b) home of some of the absolute best udon in the city. It’s only natural, then, that I can’t seem to stay away—even in this heat.

Located in the space that once housed the old Union Square Café, TsuruTonTan is the first American location of a Japanese mini-chain. And normally, I wouldn’t care about that—in fact, I’m usually rather skeptical when elsewhere-only chains open outposts in NYC—but Tsuru is no L.A. transplant. This is a real-deal Japanese restaurant, with ingredients flown in from Japan and noodles made fresh, by hand, every single day. The only concession to us Americans is the back of the menu, where you’ll find a whole bunch of flashy, buzzy, udon-unrelated Japanese-restaurant fare. But as concessions go, that’s hardly one to complain about.

A negi-toro roll from TsuruTonTan

It’s a trendy restaurant, but it’s a nice one, too. Inside, it’s dark and loud. Everyone’s young and hip and chatty. The amusical music of consumption—pounding, plodding Club Music Lite, the kind you’ll hear at H&M and Barneys alike, and the kind you probably associate with all sorts of spending—poses a threat to conversation, but isn’t quite overwhelming. It’s loud, but it’s fine. And the decor, though a little too similar to Gap’s, is actually rather nice. If the food were worse, Tsuru’s ambiance might come off differently. But it isn’t, so it doesn’t. (Yes, it’s that simple.)

Still, some sections of Tsuru’s menu are much stronger than others. The udon’s the clear winner, of course—but I maintain that there’s some good stuff on the rest of the menu, too. In his review of the restaurant, love of my life Pete Wells writes:

Rather than describing each [of Tsuru’s non-udon dishes] individually, I’ll share a handy method I came up with for dealing with all of them at once. Unfold the menu and place it on the table so that you see the noodle dishes. The reverse side, with the appetizers and donburi, will be face down. Now, never turn the menu over. If you have accidentally learned the name of a dish printed there, don’t say it out loud.

And he’s not wrong. (He’s never wrong, that Pete Wells.) I’ve done my fair share of dabbling, but I’ve yet to come across anything special. The uni-and-wagyu sushi is good, but not $22-for-two-pieces good. And both the salmon-and-ikura roll and the salmon-and-ikura don are on the boring side, even given my ardent love of both salmon and ikura.

Pork katsu over rice from TsuruTonTan

I will say, though, that I love the negi-toro roll (second above). Strictly speaking, it’s a special, not a back-of-the-menu offering—and while the toro itself isn’t the most flavorful, there’s something about the roll as a whole that I really, really like. I’m also pretty into the katsu don (immediately above). The rice is perfect; there are plenty of scallions; the pork’s nice and tender; and the egg, though sweet, isn’t at all overwhelming. If it’s between the katsu don and an order of udon, going with the katsu would be a mistake. But if you’re at Tsuru with a share-happy group, or you’re into competitive eating, or you’re on a date with your particularly voracious boyfriend? Go for it.

Enough odds and ends, though. Let’s talk noodles. Tsuru offers two types: thin (below), recommended for the cold preparations, and thick (top of this post), recommended for the hot ones. The thick noodles are exactly as they should be—soft and sort of fluffy, yet strong enough to hold their form—but it’s the thin ones that are worth a special trip. They’re so dense, so springy, so resilient; truly, I’ve never eaten a thin noodle quite like these. (I’ve never eaten any noodle quite like these, but their thinness makes their textural feats all the more impressive.) Just the other day, my dad described them as “fascinating,” and he’s right—they are. I’ve reached the end of my descriptive rope, though. You’ll have to see for yourself.

A bowl of uni udon from TsuruTonTan

As for the question of what you should order, I can’t claim to know the answer. All I know is this: of all Tsuru’s noodled offerings—the soups, the curries, the crèmes, everything—I have two decided favorites: the uni udon, pictured immediately above, and the wagyu shabu udon, pictured at the top of this post. The former, though the uni itself is a wee bit hit-or-miss, is an incredible dish. It’s perfect for summer—sweet, wet (almost juicy, even), and cold—and the sliminess of the uni is the perfect complement for the firmness of the noodles. When it’s a little colder out, though, I sometimes have to ditch this ditch in favor of the wagyu shabu udon, whose wagyu tastes like butter and whose broth has a depth of flavor unlike any other I’ve tasted. Seriously: As broths go, this one’s particularly compelling.

There are, of course, other good dishes. The unprecedentedly rich uni crème udon is lovely. The duck udon is about 80% as good as the wagyu shabu—which is to say that it’s pretty damn good indeed. The ikura oroshi udon, though a bit too sweet (and a bit too reliant on some underwhelming ikura), is fine overall. But you know what? Order what sounds best to you. I’m sure it’ll be great.

Find TsuruTonTan at 21 East 16th Street, between 5th Avenue and Union Square West.

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A Guide to Tree Nuts Made in Dedicated Facilities

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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.

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Los Mariscos

fishtacos

Blogging, like everything else, is a Sisyphean task: for some reason—hint: it’s self-hatred, or maybe ongoing personal growth—I can tolerate only my last six months’ worth of posts. I scroll any further back and I’m cringing at my writing, which means, of course, that in six months’ time, I’ll have found some reason to hate this whole cohort of posts, too. Whatever. I’m just trying to issue a disclaimer before I even think about asking you to read a retro post of mine—from 11 months ago.

The oh-so-retro post in question is this one on Los Tacos No. 1, one of my all-time favorite taquerias. (Actually, it might just be my favorite. It and Taco Mix trade places regularly.) But as much as I’d like to go on and on about Los Tacos, that’s not what I’m here to do. I’m here to talk about its seafood-counter cousin, Los Mariscos—fellow Chelsea Market resident, and home of some of the best fish tacos I’ve ever had.

A sign po

Given how much I (and most other reasonable people) hate venturing inside Chelsea Market, I’m always a little hesitant to send people to Los Tacos/Mariscos. But these two places are so goddamn good that I’m going to have to insist you bracket, for a day, your aversion to tourists and get yourself over to that cesspool of congestion, because neither of these places’ tacos are to be missed. And anyway, Los Mariscos isn’t really in Chelsea Market. I mean, it is—but it has its own entrance, its own (totally separate) space, and even its own set of (way-more-reasonable!) hours. If you try hard enough, you can almost convince yourself you’re somewhere else.

The food helps. Los Mariscos offers tacos, ceviches, aguachiles, and a whole lot of drinks. (There’s a bar. It gets loud.) There’s not much else on the menu, so I originally figured Los Mariscos would be more-or-less nut-free—and it is, according to each of the employees I’ve asked. And the folks behind Los Mariscos are actually pretty allergy-aware, too. There are, for example, signs posted on the registers that bear warnings for other allergens—fish and shrimp are stored together, one help-yourself salsa contains peanuts, there’s gluten all over the place, etc.—and the fact that someone even thought to post those signs in the first place goes a long way toward making me feel like I’m at least in semi-competent hands.

Two shrimp tacos from Los Mariscos

Food-wise, this place is undoubtedly as good as Los Tacos, which is just about the highest compliment I can offer. Pictured at the top of this post, the fish tacos—house-made tortillas, pico de gallo, shredded cabbage, salsa, mayo, and, uh, some of the best fried fish I’ve ever had—are actually perfect, and the shrimp tacos (immediately above) are almost as tasty. For real, though, that fried fish is good: reasonably crispy, decidedly fried (but not overly greasy), and…creamy. So creamy. God, how I love creamy fish. (The other toppings are good, too, by the way. I’m usually pretty cabbage-averse, but this cabbage is crucial, texturally—and the whole taco’s plenty citrusy, which keeps it from being sickening.)

The shrimp tacos are essentially the same, and so are essentially just as good, but I can’t say I like the shrimp itself quite as much as I like the fish. (The fish is somehow both subtler and fishier. I don’t know. Also: It’s one chunk, as opposed to a bunch of little pieces of shrimp, which means less breading, which means happier me.) Still, the Los Mariscos shrimp taco is one formidable taco, and I’m sure to order one each time I stop by.

A shrimp ceviche

The ceviches, too, are worthwhile. Again, I prefer the fish (below) to the shrimp (immediately above, in Sam’s hands), but both are rather good. (I haven’t tried the especial, which is made with shrimp, oysters, clams, scallops, and octopus.) I like these, I think, because they offer a clean ending to an otherwise batter-heavy meal. The tacos aren’t offensively heavy, but they’re significantly heavier than your average (batter-free) taco—so ending the meal (or perhaps breaking it up) with a $4 ceviche feels like the right thing to do. Served atop a tostada, and topped with a just a little mayo (it works) and a few slices of avocado, too, this sort of ceviche functions almost as the Los Mariscos version of a palate-cleanser. A fishy, citrusy palate-cleanser, but…you get my point.

Should you, after all that, have any room left in your stomach, consider tacking on some chips and guacamole. (40% of the time, the guac is good. The rest of the time, it’s ridiculously good.) Or maybe not—maybe a drink or two, seeing as I’ve just turned 21 and am now, uh, allowed to acknowledge the existence of booze. Whatever you do, though, don’t miss the built-in freebies: shrimp broth (ask the cashier and you shall receive), and the extra tostadas and individually wrapped saltine crackers that hang out at the center of every table. (Hey. Don’t knock the saltine. Or the hustle, for that matter.)

ceviche

Anyway. I wholeheartedly and unreservedly recommend that you—nut-allergic or not—get yourself over to Los Mariscos. And Los Tacos. Though maybe not back-to-back. Unless you’re into that sort of thing. (I am. Here’s some literature. And here’s an article I really wish were tongue-in-cheek, but that I’m secretly delighted to have found. American maximalism is fucking disgusting. I’m so excited.)

Find Los Mariscos at 409 West 15th Street, between 9th and 10th. Or—if you hate yourself—take a minimum of three deep breaths, enter Chelsea Market, and make your way to Los Tacos No. 1, then turn left (into the blue-and-yellow tunnel) and follow the arrows till you start seeing buoys.

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

A bucket of chicken from KFC

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

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

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

Four biscuits from KFC

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

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

Mashed potatoes from KFC

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

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

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

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

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

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Herr’s “Chocolate”-Covered Sourdough Pretzels

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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.

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Hanamizuki Café

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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.

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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.

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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.)

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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.)

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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.)

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