Tag Archives: noodles

A Guide to Nut-Free Chinese Restaurants in NYC

At this point, I’m basically a broken record: “Nut-free Chinese food is hard to find.” “Nut-free Chinese food is hard to find.” “Nut-free Chinese food is hard to find.” Yeah, we get it—and anyway, if you’ve found yet another occasion to start off yet another post with yet another iteration of that fresh and shocking information, doesn’t that just mean you’ve found yet another nut-free Chinese restaurant to write about, thereby throwing yet another point of evidence out there that sort of, you know, contradicts whatever it is you’re trying to say…? Um, yes, Italics Voice. Yes. I’m repetitive, and the repetition is in itself actually sort of paradoxical, which is why I’ve decided to drop the shtick altogether and put together a guide whose very existence implies that nut-free Chinese food is both hard and easy to find. Because really, it’s both.

So. Here’s my one and only truly original contribution to this world: a list of all of the tree nut–free Chinese restaurants I’ve found—so far, because if putting this guide together has taught me anything, it’s taught me that there are undoubtedly many, many more where these restaurants came from. You’re welcome.

Continue reading

Advertisements
Tagged , , , , , , ,

Sao Mai

A bowl of pho from Sao Mai

Up in Yorkville, right around 2nd Avenue, there once existed this cancerous cluster of terrible restaurants that really ought to have been dug right up and replanted in some godforsaken upstate strip mall. I spent a lot of time in those sorts of restaurants, because my middle-school friends evidently couldn’t get enough of…well, whatever it is those sorts of places hawked, I guess: usually terrible “sushi,” and depressing Thai on occasion, too. I remain bitter. (Maybe that’s why my blog posts are so insistently obnoxious?) Today—nearly a decade later—a satisfying percentage of those restaurants are gone. But I think one may have been reincarnated about 70 blocks south of its original spot.

This is, of course, my roundabout way of saying that the Lower East Side’s Sao Mai reminds me of the shame-inducing restaurants of my middle-school career. It’s the terrible decor that gives me the flashbacks. Shitty lighting casts an orange hue on exposed brick walls; ceiling fans spin on, even in the middle of February; picture-plastered menus come in flimsy little booklets; the cashier lives behind a shiny-tiled podium that really belongs at the front of a medical spa; a strip of pink flowers do nothing to spruce the place up. I’ve come to associate this sort of aesthetic with terrible attempts at Asian cuisine—so by the time I’d taken my seat at my first Sao Mai table, I was already expecting to be let down.

Sometimes—sometimes, I said—I love being wrong.

A grilled pork bánh mì from Sao Mai

105 posts, and not a single mention of Vietnamese cuisine. How that happened, I’m not sure—but I’m thinking Sao Mai will be a good entry point, given its unusual degree of nut allergy–friendliness. There are no tree nuts in Sao Mai’s kitchen, but that’s not really out of the ordinary for a Vietnamese restaurant. Nearly all the Vietnamese restaurants I call tell me that they don’t use tree nuts in any of their food, but almost none of those restaurants’ bánh mì are made with allergy-friendly bread. (The restaurant I called immediately before Sao Mai responded to my bread-origin question with laughter—then, when the woman realized I was serious, she told me that they got their bread “from some bakery in Chinatown,” and that I’d probably be wise to stay away from it.)

Sao Mai’s bread supplier is Neri’s Bakery, a peanut-free bakery that’s grounded up in Port Chester, of all places. With regard to tree nuts, though, the situation at Neri’s is a little more complicated. Here’s what I was told via email:

We are a Peanut Free facility, which means we do not use any Peanuts in any portion of the bakery. We also have a written Peanut Free policy and all employees are trained accordingly. That being said we do use some Tree Nuts in our pastry division for items in our retail store for Biscotti cookies. That room is completely separate from the rest of the bakery.

Now, as you’ve probably inferred from the above photo of a half-eaten bánh mì, the response I got from Neri’s was enough to make me feel comfortable with their breads. That makes Sao Mai the only Vietnamese restaurant I’ve found that meets my standards, bread-wise. (I’m sure there are others, but I can only make so many phone calls.)

Calamari from Sao Mai

It took approximately one dish to make me start questioning my initial read of Sao Mai. The crispy calamari (pictured immediately above) didn’t singlehandedly bring me around, but it sure did help the process along. Like a lot of Sao Mai’s dishes, it’s very sweet—too sweet for some, perhaps—but I love it. I really, really do. The squid’s always perfectly fried, and it’s good plain, with the dipping sauce it comes with, or with a little cilantro on top. The lettuce underneath is a little iffy, and the tomato slices on the side are weak, too—but what can you do? Overall, a lovely appetizer.

It was the pork bánh mì, though, that sealed the deal. Pictured second above and immediately below, this is one good sandwich. Given the whole can’t-eat-most-breads thing, I can’t say much of anything about how this sandwich fares against other bánh mì, but I can evaluate on its own merit, and let me tell you: This thing is good. The grilled pork is sweet and soft, and all the cilantro in this thing complements it ridiculously well. There’s just enough mayo, and I’m even a fan of the cucumber that comes wedged in the crook of the roll. (I have a thing with cucumbers. I think they’re disgusting. I’d had big plans to leave this cucumber wedge uneaten, but Sao Mai foiled them.)

My favorite thing about this sandwich, I think (aside from the flavor of the pork—and aside from the fact that I can eat it, which is a huge plus), is the way the arrangement of its ingredients lends itself so well to strategic eating. When I get tired of the pork, I can scoot over to the right for some cilantro or some cucumber, or over to the left for some carrot and daikon—and when I get tired of those, it’s right back to the center for pork. It seems like a silly thing to praise, but it’s a big part of why I like this sandwich so much. Here it is:

A grilled pork bánh mì from Sao Mai

Rather than giving a play-by-play of everything else I’ve enjoyed (or, in some cases, disliked—I’m looking at you, pan-fried egg noodles), I’m going to cut right to the chase and get to talking about the phở. (I actually think it’s illegal to use the phrase “cut to the chase” when you’re already a literal thousand words into a blog post, but you’ll forgive me.) Sao Mai offers seven types, and both of the ones I’ve tried have been pretty damn good.

The first time I went, I ordered the beef brisket phở, which (like most of Sao Mai’s other phở dishes) is served alongside a plate of bean sprouts, lime, basil, and jalapeño. The brisket was good enough, but the beef eye-of-round phở—or “beef eye round noodle,” as it’s called on Sao Mai’s menu—has since become my regular order, literally only because I’m a sucker for bright-pink beef. (Okay: I like the eye-of-round’s taste and texture just a little more than I like the brisket’s. But it’s 97% a matter of color.) I mean, come on:

A bowl of pho from Sao Mai

Irresistible.

(Actually, the eye-of-round’s not all that pink in the photos I’ve included with this post. It darkens pretty quickly, and photos take a few minutes. Sorry.)

Anyway, this phở’s pretty great. (NYC definitely isn’t known for its Vietnamese food, but Sao Mai does consistently place on best-phở lists, so that’s something, at least.) The broth is subtle (but not bland!), and I’m particularly grateful for all the onions and scallions throughout. I like the noodles themselves, too—and I typically hate super-thin noodles like these—and the meat’s good till it toughens up five minutes into your meal. (Really, though, it takes effort not to eat all the meat within 30 seconds of your bowl’s arrival, so if you’re aware that its texture is time-sensitive, you’ll be fine.)

Here’s a bonus phởto (har har), just ’cause:

A bowl of phở

Obviously, I like Sao Mai. I’m most grateful for their bánh mì, and I have a lot of fun with their phở, but there’s no reason to stop at those; the menu’s definitely worth a poke-around, and I’m genuinely glad to have gotten my hands on it. There are a bunch of dishes I still want to try, but for now, I’m pretty confident: Sao Mai is a restaurant that will be in my rotation for a long, long time.

Find Sao Mai at 203 1st Avenue, between 12th and 13th Streets. And if you’re planning on having a sit-down meal, be sure you have either (a) a free afternoon ahead of you, or (b) the cojones to use your hand/voice/a kazoo to signal for the cashier’s attention if you ever, ever, ever want to be given a check. Ever. (Oh, also: Bánh mì aren’t served after 5pm.)

Tagged , , , , , , ,

Kung Fu Little Steamed Buns Ramen

Shanghai pan-fried pork buns from Kung Fu Little Steamed Buns Ramen

You know, my instinct was to start this post with one of those obnoxious half-apologies I so love to offer up: “More Chinese food! How repetitive! Poor me! Poor you! Poor us, having to suffer through this post that I chose to write and you chose to read!” (Why, yes. I do find another one of my own blogging tics to roll my eyes at about every other day. How kind of you to notice.) But that’s an exceedingly stupid instinct, I think—because if you’re allergic to nuts, you’re probably grateful for each and every Chinese restaurant that can accommodate you. Unless you aren’t into Chinese food, in which case…well, my next post is going to be about taquitos, so I’ll see you then.

In any case, I first contacted KFLSBR (no chance I’m going to be typing that name out) a few months ago. I called their Hell’s Kitchen location—that’s the location this entire post will be about—a few weeks before going and then again about an hour before showing up, and both times, I was told (by separate people) that there weren’t any tree nuts or peanuts used in any of their food. Evidently, though, that isn’t true. There aren’t any tree nuts in the kitchen, but there are peanuts present in at least one dish, which is what I was finally told the second or third time I went.

Of course, I’m not allergic to peanuts, and I’d only even asked about them for the sake of this blog post (and because it’s usually a lot easier to ask about peanuts alongside tree nuts than it is to go through the effort of separating the two in your server’s mind)—but I really don’t like being given misinformation when it comes to allergenic ingredients. Finding out that they’d been wrong about the peanuts naturally made me question what I was told about tree nuts…but no matter how many times (and how many different ways) I’ve since asked about tree nuts, the folks at KFLSBR have stuck to a consistent answer: there are none. (Plus, by now, I’ve eaten there plenty of times without issue—so I’ve come to feel comfortable enough with the place.)

Stir-fried ramen with pork from Kung Fu Little Steamed Buns Ramen

Anyway. KFLSBR is a little strange, but it definitely isn’t bad. The name—Kung Fu Little Steamed Buns Ramen—is a little misleading, but only if, like I did, you approach this restaurant from a place of ignorance. Up until very recently, I’d had no idea that Japanese ramen started off as a Chinese dish. (“Ramen” is actually the Japanese pronunciation of the Chinese “lamian,” which refers to a type of Chinese noodle.) So while the ramen served at KFLSBR isn’t at all what most of us have come to think of as ramen’s only legitimate form, there’s no need to bring out the pitchforks. This is ramen as it was when it first showed up in Japan. Rest easy, Yelpers.

But before you start to think I’m praising KFLSBR’s noodle soups, I should probably come out and say that they sort of suck. The noodles themselves aren’t bad, but the broths are so simple that they just end up coming off as boring. Really, I see no reason to mess with these dishes. There are plenty of other things on the menu, so I tend not to bother.

I’m similarly unimpressed with all the stir-fried noodle dishes I’ve tried. (And that should probably mean something to you, because I like almost every single stir-fried noodle I come across.) Again, the noodles themselves are good—they have a satisfying chew to them, and they’re sort of fun to eat—but the stir-fries as a whole are exceedingly boring. Both the pork (visible in the dish pictured above) and the roast duck are themselves surprisingly tasty, but the noodles they come atop are just so…one-note. They’re way too sweet, and none of the veggies are worth the (minimal) effort it takes to bus them to your mouth. So I tend to pass on these dishes, too.

Peking duck buns from Kung Fu Little Steamed Buns Ramen

I guess I should get the rest of the dishes I don’t like out of the way before I go on to talk about what I do like. (This isn’t my favorite restaurant, obviously. But they do have a few dishes I love, no doubt.)

Anyway. Let’s talk soup dumplings. I love xiao long bao (or steamed buns, as they’re called at KFLSBR), but these just don’t do it for me. The wrappers are fine, but the broth inside is pretty bland. Maybe that’s why I saw a guy literally squeezing the soup out of each and every one of his poor, poor dumplings before forcing the dry wrappers down his throat with a grimace. (No, that’s probably not why. He was probably an idiot, and I probably need to learn to keep my eyes on my own food.) In any case, I’ve written these off as another skippable dish, though I can work up a little more excitement for these than I can for the other dishes I’ve mentioned so far.

One more dish. Just one more dish, and then I promise I’ll have some nice things to say. The pan-fried Peking duck buns—which are pictured immediately above, and which actually are buns, rather than dumplings—are so close, yet so far. The buns themselves are fine, but the duck inside has too funky of a flavor for me. And on top of the funkiness, it’s cloyingly sweet, too. I’d love to be on board—duck, when done right, is probably my favorite meat—but I just can’t. Sorry.

Scallion pancakes from Kung Fu Little Steamed Buns Ramen

And now, finally, onto the dishes I crave. First, the Shanghai pan-fried pork buns (sheng jian bao), which are totally worth the 20-minute wait the menu warns about. The wrappers are thick and doughy—too thick and too doughy, perhaps—but I, for one, love them. And the broth inside tastes (or maybe just seems to taste) a whole lot better than the broth you’ll find in the xiao long bao.

Honestly, the first 45 minutes or so of my inaugural KFLSBR meal had me pretty discouraged, and by the time these dumplings arrived, I’d pretty much decided that I’d never be coming back. But these were enough to sow the seed of craving in me—and as long as I can keep ordering them, I’ll keep going back to KFLSBR. (…On occasion.)

My other favorite dish—and I’m aware of how silly this sounds—is the scallion pancakes, pictured immediately above. I don’t exactly know why, but these things just haunt me. I like them better than any of the other scallion pancakes I’ve had lately, and that’s not only because I’ve been eating some moderately underwhelming scallion pancakes—it’s (for once) because these are solid in their own right. They aren’t just greasy and somewhat crisp (which is all I require of a scallion pancake, really); they have actual layers to them, too. They outer bits are crisp enough, but the inside’s soft and and fluffy, even. Perfect.

I can’t really deny that these place is, overall, a disappointment. On top of the problems I have with the food, there’s…well, it isn’t cheap, it’s small and cramped (and always packed with tourists, too), the service is (frankly) pretty bad, and they automatically apply a 15% gratuity to all bills. (That last one’s fine with me, actually, but I do think they could afford to be a little more upfront about the practice. The receipt shows what they’ve added on, but it encourages you to tip, too—and the servers never, ever mention that you’ve already tipped when they’re handing you the check.)

But despite all that, and despite the dishes with which I’ve had my differences, I don’t mind KFLSBR. And in fact, I actually sort of like it. In small doses, it’s fine—especially if you’re short on Chinese restaurants whose food won’t kill you.

Find KFLSBR at 811 8th Avenue, between 48th and 49th; 146 East 55th Street, between 3rd and Lexington; or 610 8th Avenue, between 39th and 40th.

Tagged , , , , , , ,

Tasty Hand-Pulled Noodles

A dish of roast pork pan-fried noodles and a dish of chicken with broccoli from Tasty Hand-Pulled Noodles

I’ve been on a Chinese-food kick lately. And the fact that I, a Nut-Allergic, can even say that is pretty wild, given how nut allergy–unfriendly a lot of Chinese restaurants tends to be. But I, ever-obsessive, have found another (incidentally) nut-free Chinese restaurant. Don’t bother holding your applause. I’ll just wait.

[While they’re clapping: On the off chance you’re a Nut-Unallergic following along because you just can’t resist the downright-magnetic appeal of my incredible writing—that’s 100% joke, everyone—please just know that finding a Chinese restaurant that doesn’t have a bunch of cashews bumping around the back is near-impossible. And with the way wok cooking works (soaping a wok is a big no-no, for example), those who aren’t cool with potentially ingesting trace amounts of nuts kinda-sorta need Chinese restaurants to be nut-free. Now you know.]

Okay. That’s enough. (Enough clapping, or enough rambling? I’ll never tell!) Point is, I’ve found a new Chinese restaurant that specializes in—guess what?—noodles. Hand-pulled noodles…and tasty ones, at that. (Ugh.)

Roast-pork pan-fried noodles

As far as I know, Tasty Hand-Pulled Noodles (henceforth THPN) doesn’t have an online contact form or an email address, so I settled for giving them a call. Three calls, actually, over the course of a few weeks, because restaurants—especially Chinese restaurants—that seem too good to be nut-free give me trust issues and agita. Fortunately, all three calls yielded the same basic answer, and fortunately, the gist of that answer was that there are no tree nuts or peanuts in this restaurant’s kitchen. I should say, though, they they have some dishes—Kung Pao broccoli, for example—that I’d expect to contain peanuts. Maybe those dishes are peanut-free; I’m not sure. I’m only allergic to tree nuts, so I didn’t do much digging on the whole peanut issue.

Before actually showing up, I had no idea THPN’s menu would be so big. I’d expected noodles, noodles, and maybe a dumpling or two, but they have plenty of other classic takeout fare, too (fried rice, General Tso’s, beef with broccoli, Hunan shrimp—the works). But when I received my three yeses, I wasn’t all that excited, as I had no idea I was coming into a full-fledged Chinese restaurant. (Well, maybe not quite full-fledged. But it’s the fullest-fledged nut-free Chinese restaurant I’ve found to date. For better or worse, I’ve been looking for a place just like this—not Sichuan cuisine or dim sum, but the Chinese-American food we misguided Americans can’t seem to get enough of—mostly to replace the exceedingly average takeout of my childhood.)

Roast-pork pan-fried noodles

Anyway, what originally drew me to this place was its promise of tasty noodles, so I’ll start with those. At THPN, you’ll have the absurd privilege of choosing between eight (!) types of noodle: hand-pulled (which come regular, fat, small-wide, and big-wide), knife-cut, and rice (which come regular, skinny, and sticky). You’ll have to choose between pan-fried and soup-drenched (my phrasing)—and then you’ll have to pick from their seven-trillion meat and vegetable offerings, too.

Personally, I tend to vacillate between the fat hand-pulled noodles (they’re the least likely  of the hand-pulled noodles to come off as overcooked, I’ve found) and the knife-cut noodles (which are extra thick and so pleasantly chewy). I always, always go pan-fried, and as for meat, I’ll usually choose roast pork. (My instinct is always to spring for duck, but THPN’s, though tasty, is very bony, so it’s more trouble than it’s worth, if you ask me—and their beef has a funny flavor to it, so roast pork it is.)

And that’s basically my favorite THPN dish: pan-fried (fat) hand-pulled noodles with roast pork, pictured all over this post. There’s plenty of pork, and almost all of it’s delicious. (The occasional piece will be over-cooked or over-seasoned, but that’s life.) The vegetables are hit or miss, but I’ve never heard of anyone ordering a fried noodle dish for the vegetables, so I’m happy to let these slide. (And actually, I usually specify through Seamless that I’d like my noodles sans most greenery, and fortunately, the folks at THPN listen. Wish me luck with the whole scurvy thing, though.) Plus, this dish is greasy as hell, too. In all, it’s precisely what I’ve been dreaming of.

Like I said, I’m also a pretty big fan of the knife-cut noodles. They don’t look all that thick, but they have the chewiness of a spaetzle- or a gnocchi-type pasta, which sort of chewiness happens to be precisely my fetish, noodle-wise. But these, relative to the hand-cut noodles, seem to come in a slightly smaller portion, and with a whole bunch of extra (i.e compensatory) vegetables, too—so I don’t order them all that often. Here is what’s for some reason the only picture I have of them:

img_8003

Swoon. (That’s the aforementioned bony-ass duck, by the way. I have no idea how to eat this stuff without getting my fingers involved.)

Enough about the noodles, though. (For now, at least. But good luck getting me to shut up about these noodles for long.) Because another one of the most exciting things about this place is its offer of a lot of the other Chinese takeout I’ve been missing. Take, for example, chicken with broccoli. I have no idea why, but as a kid, I could never order Chinese without tacking on some chicken with broccoli. I was a little obsessed, I guess. (So obsessed, in fact, that my mom took to making me takeout-style chicken with broccoli for dinner. And it was all right—but as anyone who’s ever tried to home-cook takeout knows, it just wasn’t the same.)

Anyway, I’d pretty much forgotten about just how inexplicably much I liked this stupid-ass dish—that is, until I saw it on THPN’s menu. I had to get it. Just to see. And now, I’m once again entirely unable to order Chinese without throwing some chicken with broccoli into my cart, too.

Honestly, there’s not much to say about this stuff. It’s takeout chicken with broccoli, and it tastes like takeout chicken with broccoli. The broccoli’s average; the chicken’s average. Smothered in sauce, both are unfairly tasty. It’s a surprisingly flavorful dish, and it does well over rice (though THPN’s rice can be a little mushy). That’s probably way more than I needed to say. Here’s a picture:

img_8244

What else is there to say? The fried rice is pretty good—it’s on the bland side, but that’s sort of just how this kind of fried rice is, so I’m not really complaining—and the noodle soups are fine, too, though I don’t tend to have as much fun with them as much as I do with the pan-fried noodles. But (for me, at least) finding out stuff like that is, like, 75% of the fun at eating at a place like THPN. So go. See for yourself. Make your own discoveries.

Find Tasty Hand-Pulled Noodles at 1 Doyers Street, between Bowery and Pell. Or check out their uptown location (to which I’ve never been): Tasty Hand-Pulled Noodles 2, located at 648 9th Avenue, between 45th and 46th.

[By the way, this is my 100th post, y’all. Thanks—really, thank you—for following along.]

Tagged , , , , , ,