Category Archives: Technically not nut-free

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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Casa Adela

Mofongo with pernil asado and chicharrón from Casa Adela

I’ve been doing a lot of food-exploring. Last month, I ate at my first Nigerian restaurant, and I’ve recently (read: finally) gotten in on halal carts, too. Bone broth, Mediterranean, arepasVietnamese—truly, I’m on a roll. What tends to happen, actually, is I get interested in introducing (or reintroducing) myself to a whole category of food by way of a single restaurant I’ve found and enjoyed—tacos via Otto’s, Jewish deli food via Essen, Chinese via Nom Wah—and from there, it’s a whole lot of Googling, menu-reading, and restaurant-calling. Right now, the category I’m into is the relatively general one of new (to me) cuisines, hence all my recent personal discoveries, and hence this very post on Casa Adela, a homey, unassuming Puerto Rican restaurant that I’ve really, really grown to love.

Now, I’ve no Puerto Rican grandmother, which works out to mean that I have no standard I can use to assess Adela’s food. (I say this not because I think grandmothers are the only chefs out there—though Adela Ferguson is indeed a grandmother—but because almost all the Casa Adela reviews I’ve read rely specifically on someone’s grandmother’s cooking the standard for comparison.) Beyond being grandmother-less, I’d never even had Puerto Rican food before digging into Adela’s. I know virtually nothing about it, so I can’t really claim any authority in evaluating this stuff. Still, I do know what tastes good—to me, yes—so it’s on that basis that I’ll be trying to get through this post. You’ve been disclaimered.

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Let’s take a half-step backwards, though, to discuss allergen information. The situation at Adela is relatively simple: There are no nuts in any of the food, and with the exception of one thing (the bread, which one particularly helpful employee advised me, out of an abundance of caution, to avoid), there’s nothing on the menu that sets off my high-risk-ingredient alarm, either. So while I don’t eat Adela’s sandwiches, I’m certainly comfortable with the rest of their menu. (I’ve stated this all pretty simply, but the process of getting all this information straight was not a simple one. The folks at Casa Adela clearly aren’t used to questions about allergens—that, and I ought to learn some more Spanish.)

As for the rest of that menu, I (of course) have a few favorites. First, the mofongo (pictured at the top of this post), a classic Puerto Rican dish that’s essentially a warm, dense pile of mashed plantains, oil, garlic, and often chicharrón (pork cracklings), too. It shares a common ancestor with African fufu, and typically, it’s served with a chicken-broth soup or a side of braised meat.

Again, I don’t (yet?) have any idea how Adela’s mofongo stands up to the competition’s, but I do know that I happen to like it a whole lot. It varies by the day—sometimes, there’s roast pork worked in; sometimes, it’s missing the chicharrón—but those variations are likely just a result of the place’s homey-ness. At Adela, a meal is a rather personal experience, and one cook is going to prepare your mofongo differently from another, and I’ve found it best to just accept what comes. (One server once asked me whether I wanted the mofongo as she makes it, “with skin,”—to which I answered “yes,” of course. She came back at the end of my meal to ask whether I’d liked what she’d done. Another resounding “yes.” Pictured immediately below is her [enormous!] version.)

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What doesn’t vary much, though, is the overall quality. (Unless you’ve waited too long to eat,) the plantains are never dry, and there’s a good amount of garlic involved, too. When there’s pork worked in, it’s always welcome, and the embedded chicharrón is a real treat, too. I like to order the mofongo with a side of pernil asado (that’s moist, tender, fatty roast pork—pictured second above), but it’s not as if the mofongo needs a partner. It stands up on its own, and (obviously) I love it dearly. (That said, I always order the version that comes with the pernil asado. I just like food, I think.)

The dish Casa Adela is best known for, though, is probably the rotisserie chicken (pictured immediately below)—and for good reason, too, because it’s pretty damn good. For whatever it’s worth, rotisserie chicken is something I’ve had before, and while Adela’s isn’t the best I’ve ever had, I’m confident in my belief that it’s (at the very least) good, as far as rotisserie chicken goes. Really, it has it all it’s meant to have: flavorful skin, juicy meat—you get the point.

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The only downside, really, is that Casa Adela is almost always out of the rotisserie by the time I’ve gotten myself over to Avenue C for dinner. I’ve been to Adela quite a few times, but I’ve only been able to try the chicken twice. Still, it’s tasty—and there’s other stuff on the menu, too. (Usually, when they’re out of the rotisserie, I’ll get the chicken cracklings or the entrée-size pernil asado. The chicken cracklings are boring, though, and the pernil asado is a little redundant, seeing as there’s pernil asado in the mofongo I always insist on ordering. It’d perhaps help if I could eat the sandwiches.

And of course, the rice and beans are good, too. I’m always a fan of white rice, so that stuff’s a shoo-in—and per my first-ever server’s recommendation, I like to order the red beans, which have never once let me down. It’s a small portion (especially if you, like I, are attempting to share), but these beans are nonetheless rather satisfying, and they break up the meal’s other flavors nicely, too. (Generally, I don’t really like beans. But I do like these, which leads me to believe that they’re either so terrible as to be entirely un-bean-like, or they’re just normal beans that are tasty enough to have gotten through to me. It’s almost definitely the latter.)

Anyway. Clearly, I’m a Casa Adela fan, and clearly, I’m very glad to have found it. There’s just something about the place that feels like home…and since Casa Adela resembles my home in a grand total of approximately zero ways, I’ve no choice but to attribute that sensation to some sort of magic.

…Well, that and the quality of the food. I do like to chew on tasty things, after all.

Find Casa Adela at 66 Avenue C, between 4th and 5th Streets. Be prepared to walk a ways from the train, though—and consider showing up on the early side (as in: not an hour or two before closing) if it’s the rotisserie chicken you’re after. Also, bring cash.

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Tomoe Sushi

The Sashimi Deluxe from

Hi. Here’s a list of things I need to chill about:

Thinx ads. “Brinner.” People who brag about the fact that they “don’t read.” The Odyssey Online. Bob’s Discount Furniture. Feral food-allergy mothers. Fuller House. Students who interrupt class to ask questions for the sole purpose of getting attention. Sugarfish. Shitty writing, and especially poor grammar/usage. Black Mirror. Average-size people who take up multiple seats on the subway. KetchupRestaurants with stupid dish names. Steaks and burgers cooked past medium-rare. Calibri (the typeface). Nestlé’s discontinuation of Butterfinger BB’s. People who don’t like things I like. People who like things I don’t like. And high opinions of sub-par sushi.

I haven’t yet chilled, though. (I’m told it comes with age.) So right now, I’m still all lathered up and sudsy over my experience at Tomoe, not because the food was terrible—it wasn’t quite—but because of all the hype that surrounds this place. Few things (and zero in the world of food) piss me off as much as excessive praise and/or hype in response to undeserving fish, and…well, I’ll bet we can all guess where this is going.

Tomoe has lots of good reviews and a perpetual line out the door. Most often praised by Yelpers: the freshness of the fish, the size of the pieces, the low prices, and the restaurant’s “authenticity.” Normally, I’d wait to the end of the write-up to get into all this, but Tomoe has me feeling all sorts of scrambled, so…

Is the fish freshUh, yeah, I guess so. It doesn’t taste particularly fresh—what would that even mean?—but it doesn’t come off as old or spoiled or recently defrosted or whatever. (Congrats, Tomoe.) Are the pieces largeYes. Outrageously so. But whether that’s a good or a bad thing is another question entirely. Are the prices low? Low-ish for sushi, especially given the portion sizes. But really, Tomoe’s prices are on par with those of your average low- to mid-tier sushi joints. Nothing to stand in line for. Is the restaurant authentic? Authentic via resemblance to what…? Sushi as it’s served in Japan? Um, no. Sushi as it’s served in select American(ized) restaurants, to hordes of open-mouthed “sushi”-lovers? Yes! Yes, indeed!

Salmon ceviche from Tomoe Sushi

It wasn’t as if any of these revelations were all that surprising. Despite the crowds, and even from a distance, Tomoe’s mediocrity is glaringly obvious. So why’d I go? Well, aside from the fact that there are no tree nuts used in any of Tomoe’s food—and that’s a big fact, no doubt—I guess I’m just a glutton for bad-sushi punishment. And that’s not even just so I can hate on the food later. (Wish I could say it were that simple, but it isn’t. I actually have no idea why I so like to subject myself to bad sushi. But I do.)

Anyway. Time to do my thing.

I’ve only been to Tomoe once. That night, I (and Sam) ordered three appetizers—the salmon ceviche, the sake kama (“grilled salmon neck”), and the assorted tempura—as well as the pre-set Sashimi Deluxe and some à-la-carte sushi, too. I’ll just go in order, I guess.

The salmon “ceviche” (pictured immediately above) wasn’t quite ceviche, but I loved it regardless. The fish itself was good—buttery, almost—and the lemony, herby marinade did wonders for it, too. Granted, the plating was a little off-putting, but who cares? This stuff tasted good, and it actually managed to get my hopes up for what was to come. The other two appetizers, though, were about as bad as they could’ve been. The salmon collar (below, left) was hardly a salmon collar—more an un-sauced piece of salmon teriyaki—and it had no flavor whatsoever, either. And the tempura assortment (below, right) was a disaster. The shrimp itself was fine, but the batter wasn’t even a little crispy; and the sweet potato was dry and bland, while the broccoli just tasted off.

The sake kama and the assorted tempura from Tomoe Sushi

Still, the “ceviche”—the only raw fish I’d eaten—had me half-expecting some decent sushi. (It wasn’t as if I’d started to expect anything crazy, but I wasn’t expecting grocery store–level slop, either.) So: Hopes half-high, Sam and I ordered a negi-toro roll, a few pieces of sushi, and the 16-piece Sashimi Deluxe, too. And while not a single piece was particularly good, not one was straight-up awful, either.

The sushi came out first—two squid, two salmon, two ikura—and it was boring as could be. The salmon was all right, and the squid had nice texture to it, but the toro in the roll had no flavor of its own, and the scallions were the only thing that kept me taking bites. (Also, look at the photo right below this paragraph, and then tell me: Have you ever seen such an unkempt roll? I wouldn’t have cared if it’d tasted good, but, well…you know.) In general, the rice was about as good as the fish, and the (fake!) wasabi did nothing for me.

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And then came the Sashimi Deluxe, that hulking presence at the very top of this post. I couldn’t identify everything on the plate, and Tomoe’s servers aren’t the sort to give you the run-down, but I do know that we got some lean tuna, some chutoro, some negi-toro, some squid topped with spicy cod roe, some salmon, some scallop, some shrimp, some octopus, and some yellowtail. (There were maybe four other pieces that I couldn’t identify, too. It was a big dish.)

Again, the salmon was passable, as were the squid and the yellowtail, and the whitefish I couldn’t identify, too. The lean tuna was all right; the chutoro was pretty good; the negi-toro, jam-packed as it was with what really was insane amount of scallions, was probably my favorite thing on the plate. The scallop was bad. The shrimp was bad. The octopus was bad, as was whatever was next to it. That fin-like thing in near the center of the plate was…bad. And nearly every single piece of fish on the plate was way too big.

Seriously. What am I supposed to with a quarter-pound hunk of salmon? As I see it, I had four options: (1) attempt to force each GiantFish into my mouth and then suffer—truly, suffer—until I’ve tongue-wrestled it down my throat; (2) attempt to bite each over-sized piece in two, then act surprised when not one will split as I’d wanted it to; (3) take a chopstick in each hand and attempt, like a yahoo, to slice each piece into some more reasonably sized chunks; or (4) ask, like a yahoo, for a fork and knife before getting into an even worse sort of slicing.

None of those options are viable. #1 was disastrous—too much fish in the mouth at once turns sickening rather quickly, and I’m sure my behavior was pretty nauseating to those around me, too—but #2 was no better, because those pieces just weren’t bite-able. If I’d taken up #3 (the Poise-‘n’-Slice, as it’s called in the biz), I would’ve had to then apply the same method to my throat, and if it doesn’t go without saying, #4 just wasn’t on the table.

Why am I going into all this detail? So that it’ll be absolutely clear how little of a selling point these “generous” cuts of fish are. It’s a gimmick, and it’s a shitty one, too. The jumbo pieces just make the meal infinitely less pleasant, both because they’re too fucking jumbo to work with, and because that jumbo-ness makes each already-mediocre piece even less of a commodity, and thus even less enjoyable. Isn’t one of the best parts of good sushi the fact that there’s never really too much of it? Aside from the fact that the fish is ostensibly mind-numbingly, mouth-meltingly good, I mean. The portions are small; the fish is scarce. You savor what little you do have.

…Not so at Tomoe, though. Didn’t you get the memo? Less isn’t more—more is! After all, this is America, and something ought to be distracting me from the looming fact of my eventual death and decay. And what better than a plate piled high with mammoth hunks of fish?

Find Tomoe at 172 Thompson Street, between Houston and Bleecker. But be prepared to wait outside, to overhear some stupid shit, and to pay with either cash or American Express. Best of luck to you.

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Shake Shack

Two Shake Shack hamburgers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Find Shake Shack just about everywhere.

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Dō Hwa

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A while-while back, I complained that it’d been far too long since I’d “gorged myself on Korean barbecue” before launching into a write-up of Gunbae, a nut-free (but rather disappointing) KBBQ spot that’s kinda-sorta in my neighborhood. I gave Gunbae two shots before giving up on it entirely—and then I sort of forgot about KBBQ for a while. That is, until Dō Hwa reappeared on my radar.

I’ve mentioned before that I used to be a lot less careful. I’d eat whatever from wherever, and when I had the occasional reaction, I’d usually just shut my mouth and deal with it. But allergic reactions are horrifying, and the anxiety that comes with the threat of one (to me, an Anxious) is even worse. I mean, how can you enjoy a meal if you’re spending the whole time hyper-aware of each and every sensation that might almost feel something like a swelling lip or an itchy mouth? It’s an appetite-killer.

So—long, long, long story short—I’m more careful now. And while that’s undoubtedly a good thing, it’s left me in the rather strange situation of having all these ex-lover restaurants that I used to adore but that I wouldn’t necessarily be comfortable eating at today. In fact, the vast majority of the restaurants I liked as a (younger) kid don’t make today’s comfort-cut.

But! Dō Hwa does. There are indeed (pine) nuts on the menu, but they’re only used as a garnish on one of the salads, and I’ve been told (by more than one super-helpful, super-friendly, super-competent Dō Hwa employee) that those pine nuts shouldn’t really have any chance to come into accidental contact with anything else in the kitchen. So that’s a “100% comfortable” from me, then. [As for peanuts, though—which, again, I’m not allergic to—Dō Hwa does sometimes use them in one of their side dishes (the anchovies), so do beware.]

A plate of

The first time I went (back), I ended up at a grill-less table, which sucked approximately 93% of the fun out of the Dō Hwa experience. I mean, picture it: You’re stuck at your sorry, fire-unequipped table for two. You’ve no flames to play with, no raw meat to undercook. Without so little to do, you can’t help but glance at the grill-manning parties around you. Parties, indeed—everyone’s got heaps of raw meat; everyone’s poking and prodding at a grill; everyone’s plopping piece after piece of searing-hot BBQ onto leaf after leaf of lettuce. They are having fun. You are looking on. Grillers point their tongs and laugh, their mouths full of half-chewed bulgogi. It’s just like grade school.

Fortunately, you can ensure a grill-equipped table. Just let whoever’s taking your reservation know you’re absolutely, positively about that DIY life—not in those words, please—and you’ll be good to go. (But do be sure to speak up if it’s a grill-equipped table you’re after. The guy who took my first reservation didn’t ask, and I’d just assumed that Dō Hwa didn’t have any grill-less tables. Wrong I was, though.)

Anyway. Before I get to the real fun, I should probably spend some time on Dō Hwa’s other offerings. Pretty much every Korean restaurant presents each and every diner with a whole bunch of complimentary sides—banchan, they’re called—and while I’m usually not the biggest fan of such things, I don’t mind Dō Hwa’s in the slightest. (I don’t know why I’m so small on banchan; probably, it has to do with my food allergies and my subsequent aversion to being ambushed with a whole bunch of sometimes-tough-to-identify foods. But I’m not so big on the usual dishes themselves, either.) There’s one that I’ll often avoid—those aforementioned anchovies that sometimes come with a handful of likely-cross-contaminated peanuts—but I’m comfortable with everything else, and it all tastes pretty good, too. Even the kimchi…which is one of those foods I usually can’t stand.

As for appetizers, Dō Hwa’s are pretty standard—and I mean that as a good thing. The pan-fried beef dumplings (pictured immediately above) are tasty, though a bit boring, and I’m told the d’ukboki (rice cakes in chili sauce) are particularly good, too. But me, I’m really into the kimchi pajun (that’s a kimchi-scallion pancake)—which tastes a whole lot more of scallion than it does of kimchi, thank God. It’s ridiculously thin, with appropriately crispy edges and a soft-ish center, and (as if I haven’t already said this exact phrase way too many times) it’s just greasy enough to have me hooked.

A pile of (raw) bulgogi from Do Hwa

Now. Meat.

Pictured immediately above is a serving of Dō Hwa’s bulgogi, which happens to be my favorite of their meats. At $29, it isn’t cheap, but it isn’t a small portion, either—and it’s just about perfect, if you ask me. The marinade is sweet, but it’s (fortunately!) not too sweet, and there’s just enough of it, too. Do a half-decent job cooking the meat (really, it isn’t hard) and it’ll be ridiculously juicy and oh-so-tender—and, it’s particularly good in the lettuce wraps. Not only is there nothing wrong with this stuff, but it’s precisely what I’m looking for when I’m craving KBBQ.

I also like the seng kalbi, which are boneless beef short ribs, sans marinade. What they lack in flavor, they make up for in texture, and between bites of whatever else, they’re particularly good. Calming, even. One meat I don’t love, though, is the sam ghup sal: thick-cut pork belly that just might be a little too thick-cut for me. It takes forever on the grill, it has little flavor of its own, and I’m not entirely sure it’s possible to cook this stuff through without drying it out. So…no more sam ghup sal for me, I guess.

And just as a side note: The best part, I think, of grilling your own meat (aside from all the fucking-around you get to do) is the fact that no matter how slowly you go, everything you get around to eating will be piping hot. With how quickly I eat, I wouldn’t expect that to make much of a difference—it’s not as if much time ever passes between a dish’s leaving the kitchen and its ending up wholly in my stomach—but (at Dō Hwa, at least) the immediacy does make a difference, and that difference does go a long way.

…You deserve another grill photo, don’t you? Here’s some bulgogi and some sam ghup sal,  alongside some mushrooms, onions, and rice cakes:

Bulgogi, sam gup sal, onions, mushrooms, and rice cakes on the grill at Dō Hwa

Overall, I really do love this place. Beyond scratching my KBBQ itch, Dō Hwa is incredibly allergy friendly—and if you don’t mind the dark and the loud, it’s a pretty pleasant place to be, too. My only gripe, really, is that even when I’ve made a reservation, they can’t seem to seat me within 10 minutes of my walking through the door. Usually, I’ll end up having to spend around 15 pre-table minutes at the bar—but it’s not so bad, really. There is food at the bar, after all.

Find Dō Hwa at 55 Carmine Street, between Bedford Street and 7th Avenue South.

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Barneys Bone Broth

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Here’s a weird one.

Up until last week, I had no idea that bone broth was so trendy. Whenever I’d walk by Barneys, it’d strike me as perhaps a little weird that there existed a whole sidewalk store devoted solely to the sale of one specific type of broth, but I never really thought much of it. I mean, there are tons of weird single-concept restaurants in this city—and anyway, people like soup, right?

Apparently, though, it’s a health thing. A lot of people—including (and especially) the folks behind Barneys—believe that bone broth has all sorts of wonderful health benefits. And while that’s most likely a bunch of hippy-dippy hogwash, this bone broth stuff is probably at least a little bit better for me than the Chik-fil-A or the Crif Dogs that I’d otherwise be having for lunch.

In any case. Five days a week, I eat lunch within a mile or so of Washington Square Park, and I’m always, always, always looking for new lunch stops to add to my rotation. Most days, I’ll walk by Barneys at least twice, and each time, I make note of the teeny-tiny menu and idly figure that I could probably eat (well, drink) whatever’s on it.

Sure enough, I can—but the situation isn’t as simple as I’d imagined. While there are no tree nuts (or peanuts) used in anything sold at Barneys, the stand does share a kitchen with White Oak Tavern, which is not a nut-free restaurant. Still, I’m told that all the Barneys stuff is prepped in a separate area from the White Oak stuff and that there really isn’t much of a chance for cross-contamination to occur—so I don’t worry much about inadvertently ingesting trace amounts of nuts when I’m slurping away at my bone broth. (As always, though, your mileage may vary.)

Barneys Bone Broth's sidewalk store (and their menu, too)

Like I said, the menu‘s pretty simple: there are four types of broth, four add-ins, and a daily soup (whose allergen status I’m actually not sure of). I’ve only tried two of the broths (the signature, the beef) and two add-ins (the meatball, the soft-boiled duck egg)—but that was all it took, really, to turn me into a big ol’ Barneys fan. At this point, I’m an addict…though I wish I weren’t, because Barneys isn’t cheap.

The beef broth—made with beef bones, beef shoulder, apple cider vinegar, a lot of ginger, and a bunch of herbs and spices—is tolerable, but all the ginger is its hamartia. I love ginger, but this broth just has too much of it. It’s overpowering, and it gets old. The signature broth is another story, though: made with veal bones, beef bones, chicken carcasses, and chicken feet, it has a lot more to it, and since it’s less gingery, you can really taste all its components. It’s less boring than the beef broth, too—and that’s most of why it has my vote. (Sorry. I don’t really know how to describe this stuff. It tastes like a soup. A particularly good soup, with layers and nuance and, um, salt. It’s good.)

Two cups of Barneys signature broth

But the add-ins are where I really have my fun. Admittedly, they’re a little awkward to eat—pulling a meatball out of a to-go cup isn’t the easiest thing in the world, and I definitely get some weird looks whenever I try—but I deal, because these add-ins are pretty much mandatory. (It’s not that the broths are lacking or anything; it’s that the add-ins are that good. Although I guess plain broth is a little on the lame end, as lunches go.)

In my eyes, the soft-boiled duck egg is a must. It is, after all, a soft-boiled egg—so when you puncture the white, the yolk leaks into the broth and turns it all…well, yolky. This—yolky broth—is favorite of the soup-related phenomena (and it’s approximately 40% of the reason I so love Ganso’s miso ramen), and my Barneys experience wouldn’t be complete without it.

Even better than the duck eggs, though, are the meatballs. I know we just went through this whole rigamarole, but for real, these are the best meatballs I’ve ever had. Seriously. They’re bouncy-soft, herby, and never, ever even the slightest bit overcooked—and they’re particularly excellent at breaking up slurps of soup. These, too, are a must (in my eyes, at least); and if they weren’t $3 each, I’d probably ask for a half dozen. Here’s one, half-eaten:

A Barneys meatball

So. Takeaways? Barneys is a little expensive, sure—$12 for a 12-ounce broth with a meatball and an egg thrown in—but their broths make for a surprisingly satisfying meal. Of course, I wouldn’t want to drink my lunch every day. But once in a while? Hell yeah.

Find Barneys Bone Broth on Greene Street, between 8th Street and Waverly Place.

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Cava Grill

A nut-freemeatball-and-falafel pita from Cava Grill

Cava is both like and unlike the sorts of places I’m usually most into. The nut-free kitchen, the proximity to NYU, and the assembly line–style ordering are all qualities we all know I stand no chance against, but Cava’s exclusive focus on Mediterranean cuisine and its potential to be so decidedly healthy are both pretty foreign to the Nut-Free New York world. (I just scrolled through my list of restaurants, and I guess I’m even more into junky, fatty food than I’d thought. Go figure.)

This place is a lot like Chipotle, but for Greek food. (If I had a dollar for every time I heard someone liken a fast-casual restaurant to Chipotle, I’d have enough for more than one double-protein entree at Cava. It’s just a lazy way of saying that the restaurant is predicated on a build-your-own-dish concept. But Cava really is a lot like the “Mexican Grill” I’ve grown so disillusioned with.) Five or six employees stand shoulder-to-shoulder at a long counter, taking turns scooping measured heaps of whatever you want into your bowl. You’ll choose your base, your protein, your spread(s), your toppings, and your sauce, and then you’ll exchange your $10-ish for the right to dig in. It’s quick, easy, and painless, and pretty much all the food is great.

Allergen information first, though. Before I even got to Cava’s contact form, I came across their allergen charts, below which the following magical sentence is posted: “We use no peanuts, tree nuts, or any other kind of nuts in our food.” (By the way, those same allergen charts are printed on the back of every menu. A nice touch.) I wondered—though a bit idly—about individual ingredients and whether they might’ve been cross-contaminated, so I sent Cava an email, and the response I received was as follows:

We can confirm that all of our restaurants are a nut-free facility. However, our cookies are produced in a kitchen that has a possibility of cross-contamination…Our pita is made on equipment that also processes sesame seeds and soy, but not tree nuts.

Which brings me to my next point of celebration: Cava isn’t just a restaurant—it’s a manufacturer, too. So a bunch of the ingredients they use in their restaurants (their pita and their tahini, for example, as well as a whole bunch of their spreads) are actually products that are made in Cava’s own facilities. That information did a whole bunch to allay any cross-contamination concerns I had—and by now, I’m entirely comfortable eating at Cava. (I’ve still decided not to categorize the chain as “truly nut-free,” as I haven’t found any reason to believe that they require all their ingredients to be contamination-free. Still, though.)

A pita from Cava

Anyway. There’s a ton of variety at Cava, which leaves you with lots of room to play around. And really, that’s what makes this place so much fun: the fact that you can get whatever the hell you want. A big-ass bowl of black lentils topped with grilled chicken, red-pepper hummus, some cabbage slaw, a scoop of tomato-and-cucumber salad, a sprig of mint, and a squirt of green-harissa dressing? You got it. A warm pita spread with hummus and tzatziki, then filled with a mix of meatballs and falafel, a generous heap of pickled onions, some tomato-and-onion salad, a handful of shredded romaine, a few crumbles of feta, and a whole lot of both lemon-herb tahini and yogurt-dill dressing? Sure thing. (Can you guess which of the two is my order? Hint: It’s the one with all the gluten.)

That, yes, is my signature order. I’ve actually never seen anyone else order a pita at Cava, but I just can’t get enough of them. They’re just so warm and fluffy—and in my eyes, at least, forking my way through a bowl is guaranteed to be a lot less fun than chewing away at an overstuffed pita. As for Cava’s protein options, it’s tough to go wrong. I’m equally into the grilled chicken, the grilled beef meatballs, and the falafel—I haven’t yet tried any of the others, actually—and I’ll typically go half-and-half (which is the way to go at Cava, if you ask me).

The falafel are a little weird, but I really do like them. They shed whole chickpeas like nobody’s business, and they don’t have much of that signature falafel flavor, but what flavor they do have meshes well with pretty much all of Cava’s spreads and toppings. (Plus, if you stop by during high-traffic hours, there’s a good chance they’ll be crispy, which makes all the difference.)

The chicken’s a little more flavorful than the falafel—the salt helps, for sure—and the beef meatballs are some of my all-time favorite meatballs, for whatever that’s worth. (Not so much, probably. I really don’t like meatballs. But these, on a good day, are essentially just juicy little balls of medium-rare steak, and I love them. Bonus meatball photo below.)

A Cava pita bearing a meatball

As for the spreads, toppings, and dressings, there isn’t all that much to say. Each and every one of the spreads is good—I like to keep it simple, but they have plenty of interesting options, like Crazy (i.e. jalapeño-filled) Feta, or eggplant-and-red-pepper dip—and the same is true of the dressings, too. Plus, all the ingredients that go into the toppings taste high-quality and fresh, and there’s absolutely nothing I’d warn against getting.

And that, too, is a big part of the fun: The fact that there’s nothing avoid-worthy on the Cava menu. I may not be the biggest fan of lentils or beds of greens or cabbage or cucumber, but that’s the beauty of this place, isn’t it? I get to have whatever I want (and when what I want just happens to be a calorie bomb, the folks at Cava don’t care). So I’m in. So, so in—and so grateful to have found something that’s so dissimilar, flavor-wise, from my usual haunts.

Oh, and by the way, Cava is the only restaurant I’ve ever come across that has a Maine Root machine. Serious, serious selling point. Maine Root’s Mexicane Cola is my all-time favorite bottled soda, and the fountain version is even better. I’m pretty much incapable of stopping by Cava without grabbing some Mexicane Cola, and I’m not ashamed in the slightest.

Find Cava at 143 4th Avenue, between 13th and 14th. (That’s their only NYC location, but they have a bunch in other states, too.)

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Dona Bella Pizza

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When I wrote a few weeks back about the pizza dead zone I inhabit, I was admittedly overlooking Dona Bella. This place is ridiculously close to my apartment, and I walk by it at least a few times a week, but I’d always had this particularly strong intuition that their pizza would be dreadful. I don’t know why—Dona Bella just has the air of a terrible pizzeria, and I guess I figured I was better off without the place.

But I really do live in an unfortunate area for delivery pizza. Everything in FiDi (inexplicably) considers me too far away, as do all the places more than three or four blocks to the north of me (?!?)—and most Tribeca pizzerias are basically full-fledged restaurants, super-nutty menus and all. The night I caved and placed my first order with Dona Bella, I’d gone through the menus of literally all the pizzerias on Slice before throwing up my hands and saying “fuck it.” How bad could it be, really?

Not bad. Not bad at all! In fact, I actually like Dona Bella’s pizza, and not only because it has a flawless record of arriving in under 30 minutes. (The record so far is 9. 9 minutes. From the time I sent in my Seamless order to the time the delivery guy rang my doorbell. Offensively quick.)

And before I go on: Dona Bella is indeed nut-free. That’s what I was told via phone, at least. The guy I spoke with seemed a little thrown my by questioning, likely because nobody had ever called in to ask about nuts before. (I figured such a simple pizzeria was a shoo-in, but it would’ve been silly not to try to double-check.) I can’t be sure that the answer I got actually meant anything—it probably didn’t—but there’s nothing suspicious on Dona Bella’s menu, and I’ve eaten their pizza plenty of times now without a hint of an issue.

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Now, the pizza isn’t incredible, and I still prefer My Little Pizzeria‘s, but it definitely isn’t bad, either. At the very least, it’s worlds better than all the bad pizza I’m known to eat (Little Italy, Ben’sJoey Pepperoni’s, 2 Bros…I’m incredibly lazy, and my standards are way lower than I’d like you to believe). The crust—which is definitely a little underwhelming—is covered with those weird-ass texture-sapping breadcrumbs I so hate, but it’s still so, so much better than Little Italy’s. It’s a little on the thin side, but it’s chewy and buttery, and it does well when steeped in pizza grease, too. (Sorry…)

The cheese is good, and the sauce is all right, too. Overall, slices are about as sweet as I can handle before I start crying “sugar sauce!”—but that’s all I ask for, really. I don’t mind pizza that’s a little sweet, but I won’t eat more than a bite or two of any pizza that’s covered in syrupy-sweet tomato sauce, no matter how good the crust and cheese are. (Spoiler: If the sauce is that sweet, neither the crust nor the cheese are going to be worth your stomach space.) What I’m trying to say, I think, is that Dona Bella’s pizza is a bit sweeter than I’d like, but that it’s not nearly sweet enough to piss me off. I like it, and I’m prepared to stand behind that liking.

I should probably mention, though, that I can’t vouch for Dona Bella’s hours-old slices. I actually can’t vouch for much of anything but their freshly made plain pies. Those are all I order, because all I’d really wanted from Dona Bella was a quick, reliable delivery joint that’d be willing and able to bring me edible pies sans any trace amounts of nuts. They can’t seem to be nice to me on the phone, nor can they seem to cut their slices even remotely evenly, but you know what? They’re exactly what I was looking for.

(Too-sweet pizza really does make me unreasonably angry, by the way.)

Find Dona Bella Pizza at 154 Church Street, between Reade and Chambers.

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Sugarfish (or, Alternatively: “The Serenity Now”)

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If you’re like me—and you probably aren’t, because I’m a little weird in this regard—you start to foam at the mouth each and every time some rando who once spent a weekend in L.A. starts to blather on about how much better and cheaper sushi is on the West Coast. For starters, it’s just not true—but what really drives me nuts is the self-righteousness that tends to back those sorts of statements. (I realize, of course, that my entire blog is a little self-righteous. But this is my blog on my little corner of the Internet, so it’s not as if I’m yapping away in an ever-so-slightly-raised voice in the middle of an otherwise quiet Japanese restaurant.)

Obviously, I love NYC’s sushi. I wouldn’t trade it for any other (American) city’s. Also obvious, though: I’m partial—and given that I’m aware of that partiality, I’m obligated to challenge it. But, um…continually challenging your long-held beliefs is Hard Work, and I’m usually not that good or motivated a person, so I’ll often opt instead for a little Self-Challenge Lite. Hence my meal at Sugarfish.

For the (lucky) uninitiated, Sugarfish is a sushi-hawking mini-chain that’s based in California but that’s recently reached out and wrapped a (12th) tendril around NYC. Over in L.A., Sugarfish is exceedingly well-liked; from here, though—and by “from here,” I just mean “from within my own head”—the place just comes off as obnoxious. Its cutesy name, its insufferable Hipness, its ENORMOUS EGO, its menu‘s outright refusal to use a single Japanese word…I mean, come on. Is “omakase” really too much of a mouthful for Sugarfish’s intended patrons? Must we call it a “Trust Me”?

Whether it’s meant to be cute or unique or just plain easy, the whole “Trust Me” thing just strikes me as an absurd instance of some sort of cutesy-sickly imperative to dumb-down. (I’m aware that it’s a little ridiculous for me to be so bothered by something so unimportant, and I’m also aware that my annoyance probably says a whole lot about me and my approach to food, too, but I stand behind that annoyance nonetheless. And while we’re between parentheses, I’ll add that this whole “Trust Me” really thing reminds me of that old Dunkin Donuts commercial that was bent on, like, endorsing and empowering American ignorance. Because all those people refusing to learn the names of the drinks they like is cute and endearing and relatable, right?)

See, here we go. I knew this would happen: I’m already getting carried away. Honestly, though, I really believed that Sugarfish’s food would save the place. There was no chance I’d like the restaurant itself; with all the bones I had to pick, revulsion was a given. But I figured the fish itself would be good enough to win me over—or to shut me up long-term, at least. I’d read absolutely nothing but rave reviews. And plus, I’ve found that sushi spots this confident in their methods, this openly rigid, tend to be pretty good. (Sugarfish is very adamant about their adherence to The Nozawa Way. No, they don’t call it that. But they do drone on about it.)

Of course, I was also drawn to Sugarfish by its prices. The most expensive Trust Me is only $51, and I’m always on the lookout for (relatively) affordable sushi, especially when it’s allegedly just as good as the more-expensive stuff. So I grabbed Sam, shouted a “serenity now” or six at Sugarfish’s pristine website, and made my way over to 20th Street. (After confirming that their kitchen was nut-free. It is.)

Two pieces of yellowtail sushi from Sugarfish

And that brings me to one of a few actually-significant things I hate about this place: the way they handle their popularity. They don’t take reservations. I don’t think they even have a phone that rings. So not only can you not book a table—you can’t even call to ask whether that day’s waitlist has any space left on it. You can’t do shit but show up, hope they’ll let you on the list, and then hope they’ll text you to come on back before you lose interest and/or starve to death. (Once you get the”it’s time” text, you’ll have 15 minutes to make it back to Sugarfish—which means that you’ll probably end up having to spend between 2 and 4 hours tethered to 20th Street. Nice.)

Now, I’m no stranger to annoying reservation processes. It took me weeks of nightly website-checking to book a table for three at Sushi Zo (I gave up on finding three spots at the bar), and I’m by now used to the text-us-and-we’ll-consider-giving-you-a-spot-but-we’ll-pretend-we’re-booked-if-you-happen-to-want-to-reserve-anything-after-7pm system at Sushi on Jones. But Sugarfish’s system (or lack thereof, really) is absurd to the extent that it comes off as disrespectful. I do almost nothing with my free time, and even I don’t have the time (or the patience) to bow to this stupid process. But of course, I did. Bow. To Sugarfish. For four hours a day, on two consecutive days. And on the second of those days, I was rewarded with a table.

Ambiance-wise, Sugarfish is a little weird. It’s incredibly dark in there (hence all these heinous photos), and it’s pretty cramped, too. The servers are unprecedentedly peppy, and the music’s not what I’ve come to expect of a sushi place, either. (I mean, I like The Strokes, but I’m not sure I like them alongside my toro.) None of that’s all that bad, though. I can get used to abnormality. I can get into abnormality. But the clientele? Oh, the clientele…

Let’s leave it at this: The woman sitting to my right dissected every single piece of food that came her way, and within 10 minutes, she had her husband following suit. For each piece of nigiri, she’d poise her chopsticks like fork and knife and proceed to slice the fish/rice combo in half, right into two bite-size pieces. Off each half, she’d eat first the fish, then the rice—and unfortunately, she was not the only person I watched implement some horrible tried-and-true method of Tackling Nigiri that night. This place is filled to the brim with slicers and/or separators. It attracts them. It caters to them—regardless of the fact that such behavior definitely isn’t accordance with The Nozawa Way.

Two pieces of salmon

Anyway—and that just might be the biggest “anyway” I’ve ever written—I should probably get to the food. So I’ll just go right ahead, then: It sucked. There were decent bites, but most of what I ate was surprisingly bad. It wasn’t worth the money, and it really wasn’t worth the trouble—but it took me some time to come to and realize just how not-worth-it my meal had been. I held on to some degree of hope until the very, very end of the tasting; but as course after course disappointed me, that hope began to morph into something much more like indignation. And by the time I was out the door, it’d dawned on me: Sugarfish is bullshit.

Sam and I both ended up with the regular Trust Me. We’d both ordered The Nozawa, which comes with a few more pieces of (the same) nigiri in addition to two extra pieces (of a “daily special”), but I guess there must’ve been some sort of mix-up. Like the other two tastings, the regular Trust Me begins with edamame, which was fine, though definitely too cold. (And too firm. It hurt my fingers. Not exaggerating.) Then came some tuna sashimi—pictured at the top of this post—which was covered with scallions and dressed in a sauce that I’d heard the girl sitting to my left describe as “this really weird sauce that’s the best thing you’ll ever taste.” I was curious.

…It turned out to be ponzu. Ponzu. (And it was also the only reason that dish was even half-decent. The tuna was flavorless. But I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: I’ll enjoy almost anything that’s covered in scallions and ponzu.)

As for the sushi, not one piece was good. The salmon (pictured immediately above) was all right, but what little flavor it had was totally overwhelmed by the sesame seeds that topped it. Soy helped a lot, though we’d been instructed to stay away from it—but still, this stuff was so, so boring. Albacore (pictured above the salmon) was next, and it was passable, though certainly not noteworthy…and then came the yellowtail, easily the worst bites of the night. Truly, it was awful: watery, bland, and somehow still a little funky—and it wasn’t even close to restaurant-quality. (In fact, it really reminded me of all the unpleasant fish you’ll find in the freezer section at Whole Foods. That, and all the fish I’ve all-I-can-eaten at godforsaken Mika.)

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The snapper (pictured immediately above) might’ve been fine, but I wouldn’t have known, because it was coated—not brushed, but coated—with a peppery glaze that was literally all I could taste, and then came some sea bass, which I can’t for the life of me remember. It’s safe to say that it, too, was bland and boring. I’d remember if I’d come across something tasty. Promise.

And that was it for the sushi. But before I’d had any time to process my disappointment (and shock!), we’d moved on to the hand rolls, which were better than the sushi, but not by enough to have saved the meal. We were given two—one with toro, and one with blue crab—and both were pretty good, but only because of the rice, which is actually some of the best I’ve ever had. (In fact, Sugarfish’s rice is the only thing that really sets the place apart from all those low- to mid-tier sushi joints that suck so much.) The toro was bland and watery—if the lights had been any lower, I wouldn’t have been able to tell it from grated daikon—but the blue crab was one of the tastiest things that showed up at my table. (Do remember: That’s saying very little.)

As soon as we’d finished our last hand rolls, our server showed up to tell us that our tasting had ended. Wholly unsatisfied, and in an attempt to find something worthwhile at Sugarfish, Sam and I each ordered a lobster hand roll, which we’d heard the servers recommend to just about everyone, and which we kept hearing all the regulars order, too. And while that hand roll was all right, it really wasn’t anything special. Lobster’s lobster, but…I don’t know. It just didn’t do it for me. Boring, again.

Obviously, Sugarfish’s food left me disappointed. But more than just disappointed, I was annoyed. And it took me a while to figure out just why. The reason, I think, is that Sugarfish just feels so…flimsy. So feeble. So lame. The atmosphere’s a very lackluster sort of trendy-bland; the menu’s Dunkin-Donuts dumb; everything comes without wasabi; even the fish itself is weak and watery. I don’t want my hand held. I don’t want to be coddled. I just want good fish at a reasonable price.

But Sugarfish isn’t that. It’s straight out of the middlebrow. It’s Snapchat Story fodder, good for very, very little beyond personal advertisement, beyond filling the frame of an Instagram post or two meant to broadcast a Personal Brand of Luxury—and it really isn’t even good for that, because, you know, the food in the picture doesn’t even taste good. So I guess I’ll be sticking to Zo for my L.A. sushi. (Just kidding. I can’t afford Zo. But you get my point.)

…Find Sugarfish at 33 East 20th Street, between Park and Broadway. But don’t show up unless you’ve hours to spare—and don’t forget to Snap the entirety of your meal.

(Sorry for the length of this post, by the way. I might’ve gone a little nuts. Lloyd Braun was right, I guess: serenity now, insanity later.)

[Edit: Told you so!! This just came out: a better-written (and less-angry) version of what I’ve written. What I’d give to write about food as deftly as Pete Wells…]

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White Maize

Three nut-free arepas from White Maize

[Edit: I think White Maize now serves an arepa that contains pesto? Supposedly they’re rather allergy aware, so it might not be a deal-breaker. Just something to be aware of.]

Within 5 minutes of hearing about White Maize, I knew I’d be giving it a try. It didn’t look like anything all that special—it’s just an arepa place that opened this past fall on Brooklyn’s restaurant-dotted Smith Street—but that was precisely why I was so interested. I tend to get pretty excited about one-trick restuarants, as their teeny-tiny menus are (to me, at least) a lot less worry-inducing than those that are more well-rounded. And plus, the one-category food in question at these sorts of places tends to benefit from all the extra attention.

Within 10 minutes of hearing about White Maize, I was on the phone. And within 12, I’d heard everything I’d been hoping to hear. There are no tree nuts (or peanuts) in White Maize’s kitchen—and while their ingredients aren’t guaranteed to all be free from cross-contamination, pretty much everything that goes into their food (stuff like meats, cheeses, beans, and herbs) is low-risk and simple.

A Reina arepa from White Maize

And you know, the food’s pretty damn good. It’s not quite as good as I would’ve hoped, given the distance from my apartment (far-ish) and the prices (steep-ish), but it’s nonetheless good enough that I’m happy to make the occasional two-train trek out to Carroll Gardens to get my fix.

The restaurant itself is bright and modern, with wood-panel walls, some CB2-looking hanging lights, a few tables, and floor-to-ceiling windows that look out onto Smith. The employees are friendly and helpful, and though the food takes a while to come out, it feels worth the wait. (Imagine eating a soggy-ass arepa that’s been sitting around under a warmer for the last 30 minutes. Ick. So I’ll do my best not to whine about the slowness.)

A nut-free Reina arepa from White Maize

So far, I’ve tried a grand total of four of White Maize’s nine arepas, and two of their four appetizers, too. My favorite of the arepas is easily the Parrilla, which is made with grilled steak, grilled tomato, grilled avocado, and grilled cheese, and which is pictured in the foreground of the photo at the top of this post. The steak is ridiculously soft and tender—the folks at White Maize will cook it perfectly to the doneness of your choosing—and the grilled cheese and avocado were nice touches, too.

My only complaint was that the arepa as a whole could used a little more pop—but that’s what salsa’s for, isn’t it? Fortunately, White Maize offers two squirt-bottle sauces: one red (a little spicy, and a little boring, but fine), and one green (spice-less, avocado-based, and the love of my life). The latter sauce is necessary—and in large quantities, too—for nearly everything at White Maize. Without it, most of these dishes end up being a little underwhelming, but as soon as I get my hands on one of those squirt bottles, I’m set.

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I also like the Pelua arepa, which is made with pulled beef and gouda. Admittedly, it’s a little (okay, a lot) boring, but with a few squirts of the aforementioned sauce, it turns into a whole other creation. The pulled beef is good, and the gouda is cheese, after all—so really, there’s nothing not to like.

Also pretty good: the Reina arepa, made with “chicken breast and avocado salad.” The first time I ordered it, I figured it’d contain (a) chicken breast and (b) avocado salad—that’s what the menu’s (lack of) punctuation implies, at least—but it doesn’t, so I’d like to submit a somewhat pedantic (but actually sort of significant) correction to the folks at White Maize: This filling is one cohesive salad that’s comprised of both chicken breast and avocado, so it should be referred to as “chicken-breast-and-avocado salad,” and not as “chicken breast and avocado salad.” (Because “Chicken-breast-and-avocado” is here one long compound adjective that describes “salad.” Hyphenating it accordingly would get rid of the ambiguity that allows us to misunderstand the Reina as filled with avocado salad and some chicken breast, too.)

…In any case, the Reina (pictured second and third above) is a sort of decent that qualifies as good once sauced up. The chicken itself is the right texture, and the salad it’s part of is all right, if a little bland. (It’s decidedly avocado in color, but not avocado enough in flavor, and if you ask me, it could definitely use some herbs or some citrus, and maybe even some solid chunks of avocado, too.) There’s also a whole lot of olive oil in this thing, to the point that it’s a little overbearing, but honestly, there’s so, so little White Maize’s squirt bottles can’t fix.

The Vuelve a la Vida arepa from White Maize

I have found one arepa that my beloved green sauce can’t fix, though: the Vuelve a la Vida (English: “return to life”), which is pictured immediately above. It’s filled with shrimp, octopus, and calamari “in cold cocktail salad” (read: smothered in straight cocktail sauce), and it’s just too sweet for me. The shrimp is fine, the squid is fine, and the octopus (though there are only maybe two or three pieces per arepa) is particularly good, but the cocktail sauce just ruins the whole thing for me. What otherwise could’ve been a fun, multidimensional seafood-salad-type thing goes flat and one-note when coated in a sauce as blunt (and sugary!) as this one. Plus, the sauce makes the arepa itself taste a little too much like an English muffin pizza.

A nut-free empanada from White Maize

As for sides: The tequeños—fresh cheese, wrapped in dough and deep fried—are great, and though they’d be even better with their own dipping sauce, the green sauce works well enough. And the empanadas, which come 3 for $7, are wonderful, too. (There’s one pictured in the terrible photograph immediately above.) I usually hate black beans, but they work so well in these that I just might have to change my stance. And the meat—to tell you the truth, I’m not exactly sure whether it’s pork or beef?—is solid, too. The best part, though, is probably the dough: hot, crispy, and just sweet enough. Real good.

Anyway. While I can’t deny that White Maize’s arepas are all at least a little lacking, I also can’t deny that I really do like the place, despite its tendency to underwhelm me. So I do recommend White Maize—but I also recommend going in with your expectations in check.

…And a full wallet, because this shit ain’t cheap.

Find White Maize at 277 Smith Street, between Degraw and Sackett.

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