Monthly Archives: January 2006

CompUSA sucks, Kwik Meal rules.

A little background – as a kid living in Dallas when Dad brought home the family’s first IBM-compatible PC, a Hyundai (!) 286, I was enthralled by visits to the enormous Soft Warehouse for what seemed at the time like the neatest gadgets ever (pretty sure that’s where we bought our first mouse, and our first Sony Trinitron VGA monitor…the list goes on).  Soft Warehouse, which later became CompUSA, is probably my earliest retail memory, in fact – considering that the first retail store in the chain was founded in 1985 in Dallas, around the same time as our first PC arrived, I’d say that I’ve grown up alongside the chain, missing it dearly when (from 1989-1997-ish), it didn’t exist in the Salt Lake City area.

Now flash forward to 8th Avenue and 57th St – this wretched CompUSA “superstore” may well be my roommate’s least favorite place in the universe, and it’s rapidly becoming mine.  Over several visits, we have been struck by the general incompetence of the staff – from walking around with their heads down to discourage customer interruptions, to not knowing where things are stocked (okay, I don’t blame them for this – there are at least three separate aisles where USB cables are stocked in great variety, for instance), but the incompetence of management is probably the most important factor.

I was going in to buy a Serial ATA power adapter – they haven’t changed the good old Molex power connector in 25 years, until roughly 10 minutes before I bought a new hard drive last week.  Lovely.  Newegg.com, who are usually swell, didn’t seem to even mention this, so it’s probably my fault for not paying closer attention.  Regardless, I now needed an adapter, and my first stop (J&R at Park Row) brought me no closer.

After gritting my teeth, I grabbed the C train uptown (the wait at Broadway-Nassau redeemed slightly by a bassist and saxophonist playing “Lickin’ Stick” by James Brown and “Stoned Out Of My Mind” by the Chi-Lites – pretty sure I was the only person on the platform who knew the second one).  Once inside CompUSA, I looked around for a few minutes before flagging a red-shirted customer service guy, who seemed to me mostly disposed to cower in the corner.  He didn’t shirk me, thankfully, though he wasn’t knowledgeable in the subject field, and led me to a manager, who pointed me to the places I had already looked.  Strike one.

He then paged the section’s manager, who didn’t appear, and wandered off promising to send him my way.  He did, about fifteen minutes later, but probably for an unrelated reason – head down, checking out his “list,” he charged into the back, and would have charged back into the store’s depths if not for me nearly clotheslining him and asking him.

It brought me no satisfaction – the answer?  “We’re out.”  Strike two.

At that point, I had identified two alternate options, both of which were expensive but offered the prospect that I could begin to use my new hard drive immediately – a new power supply with the proper connectors (cost: $60), or an adapter card (cost: $50) which included the proper cable.  Did I mention that the prices I just quoted are close to 50% higher than the online retail price?

I have to admit, I almost talked myself into the power supply – and some DVD+R-DL media as well – but when I got to the front end, though, the line was six people deep, and the sole cashier was wandering around attempting to find someone to answer a question for her.  From previous retail experience, I know this means that the manager has failed to respond to a page, because cashiers in any setting are taught not to leave the customer at the register alone (for security reasons as well as customer service ones).

Strike three.  I ditched the nearly $100 in merch and walked out, swearing that this would be the end of my long relationship with CompUSA.  Long live internet retail.

What does this have to do with food, you ask?  Well, I met my roommate and some of his co-workers at a nearby bar, drowned my sorrows in a beer, and set off in the direction of the mid-Manhattan Library (he had to return a book).  When I mentioned that a street vendor using Kingsford charcoal nearly made me buy a spontaneous kebab dinner, he suggested that we find the Kwik Meal cart, on the corner of 45th St. and 6th Ave. – the guy made famous by his half-zillion media appearances, because network morning shows get most of their story ideas by staring out the window.
Culinarily, I have to say that his fame is well-justified, though – his absurdly clean cart produces one of the finest lamb sandwiches this side of Kings Highway.  When you order (“The lamb’s the big seller,” says my roommate, who works nearby enough to know), the strangest smell starts to waft from inside the cart – butter!  That’s right – a cart actually using butter instead of oil to cook something.  Strange, no?

While we waited, I translated what I think must be the most hilariously random review clip I’ve ever seen posted – a review from Kurier, which is, in a sense, the Daily News of Austria, was posted on the side of the cart.  I discovered that my slow German translation skills haven’t eroded much (though I was stumped by the word “Ingwer,” which is ginger), and my anticipation for the meal was only deepened with knowing that, according to Kurier, “for many New Yorkers, [45th and 6th] is the most important corner of the city.”  Huh?  They liked the lamb, though.

More inspiring was the chef’s quote in a New York Times review (I’m paraphrasing slightly from memory – the article is behind a Times Select wall): “I get to make the food I want the way I want, nobody yells at me, and I get to spend the evening at home with my family.  God bless America.”  It’s the culinary version of an inspiring end-of-Rocky-IV-style speech.  Needless to say, we were psyched.

The lamb with pita was excellent.  Buttery pita with tender, flavorful lamb, and just the right amount of veggies and a flavorful (some might say spicy – it wasn’t extremely so) sauce, it more than made up for the lost hours of my life in search of computer parts.  At $5.75, on the expensive end of cart food, but on the far-low end of the restaurant price range – and this food tasted like it was made at a good restaurant.

Such was the yin and yang of yesterday evening: I may never have that hour of my life back again, but I’ll always know to stop by the Kwik Meal cart.

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Memo: great doner kebap available in Brooklyn.

Those of you who read my first doner kebap article will recall how much I missed being able to walk to the nearest street corner and devour a lunch-sized portion of chicken or lamb mounted on bread with sauce.  What I didn’t mention in that article was that I can conservatively estimate about a third of those doners (that’s what we called them!) were eaten as hangover reducers: the greasy meat, bread, and hot sauce combination was my original Advil, back when drinking was a multiple-day-a-week enterprise.

Why do I mention this?  My roommate and I had a party last Friday night, and when my girlfriend and I rolled out of bed Saturday morning, we (and he) were definitely feeling bent. While sitting on the couch, lamenting, I had a brilliant plan: to visit Sietsema’s number one cheap eats destination, Memo, at 1821 Kings Highway.  After convincing my roommate that it wasn’t a terrible idea to get on the Q train, we set off for Atlantic Avenue station.

We found Memo to be one of several restaurants on a commercial strip that stretched from the Q tracks to Ocean Avenue (and to Coney Island Avenue on the other side).  As Sietsema mentions, Memo is certainly humble – a few tables, a small counter, and not nearly enough space, considering how many people filtered in and out while we were there.  I guess it’s not surprising – doner kebap is inevitably a portable food, and most of the places I ate doner in Europe had counters, at best.

Two vertical spits with enormous hunks of meat dominate the front area – both chicken and lamb are offered here, and roasted correctly – unlike McDougal St.’s Yatgan, which barely seems to cook theirs at all in order not to ever have to waste any, the heat is turned up.  If no customers arrive, they’ll still have to cut the meat off – this is one of the ways to tell a good doner place from a bad one, or at least a popular one from an unpopular one.  But the high-temperature cooking, particularly with very fatty ground lamb, makes all the difference.

What differentiates Memo from my European doner adventures is the sheer enormity of the sandwich.  No lie, the thing is at least twice as big as any others I’ve seen – you’ll need two hands and a stack of napkins.  I ordered the mixed lamb and chicken on home bread – for $6.50, it could definitely feed two, if you don’t mind passing a messy sandwich back and forth.  About the bread – Memo offers both regular pita and “home bread” – the latter is the only kind I saw ordered, and it’s half a loaf of flat, dense Uzbek-style bread that’s perfect for soaking up all of the sauce and grease, for better and for worse.  I can’t imagine not ordering it, but there’s always a charlatan somewhere who wants store-bought pita.

Of the two meats, I actually preferred the chicken, but I think that’s because the lamb and chicken flavors don’t mix exceedingly well.  I don’t think I ever saw a place in Europe with both kinds of meat, and I certainly never had a doner with both kinds, so I wonder if this is a Brooklyn invention.  Sauces are of the standard white yogurt and red spicy varieties – I had both, in addition to lettuce, tomato, and onion.

Memo might not be the absolute best doner kebap I’ve ever had, but it’s hard to be certain, since it’s competing mostly against distant memories (almost four years since I was in Graz – astonishing).  At any rate, I’m glad delicious doner is once again just a train ride away – a longer distance than when I lived in Europe, but certainly shorter and cheaper than a plane there.  And for those hangover days, there’s nothing better.

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Rocco’s modern squid.

My girlfriend and I went to Rocco’s Calamari last night, which occupies the 44th spot on Sietsema’s list and a rather bizarre corner of Brooklyn.  In no real neighborhood, at the corner of what my roommate and I used to call “the FHP” and 65th Street, Rocco’s is most unimpressive from the outside.  The first time we tried to visit, we were stymied by a combination of Columbus Day and Mondays – as it turns out, Rocco’s is never open on Sundays or Mondays anyway – and we were greeted by drab red letters and a pulled-down metal curtain.  Yesterday, the red letters were lit, and the curtain was up, but we were confronted instead by a drab, large, empty room with a counter full of food and all the makings of a take-out emporium.

We ambled over to the counter once inside, spotting Sietsema’s preferred roast pepper appetizer (with capers), as well as several other things that looked appetizing: seasoned baby mozzarella, eggplant rollatini, and a meat sauce manicotti dish unlisted on the menu.  Once back at the table (our desire for table service seemingly at odds with the waitress’ desire for tips), we augmented that grouping with an order of fried calamari.  A few hunks of peasant loaf were presented to us as well.

The calamari ($9), which arrived last, was by far the best dish, and the least generic.  Fresh, perfectly fried, and flavorful, this was among the best presentations of that oft-abused shellfish I’ve ever tasted.  We had forgotten to order the spicy dipping sauce, but I daresay that it would have been unnecessary.  These squid are good enough to eat sans sauce.

My second favorite dish was probably the pepper/caper appetizer ($4.50), which arrived tossed with the mozzarella and a bit of olive oil.  As suggested by Sietsema, mounting the peppers and olive oil on the bread was extremely effective.  I found the mozzarella ($4.50) less wonderful, not immediately distinguishable from the supermarket variety.

My girlfriend loved the eggplant, rolled up with several kinds of cheese after being thinly sliced, breaded, and fried – an order of three cost $6.50, but the waitress said an order of one was also available.  I also found it good, but too similar to the manicotti (which I think cost $3.50 for one piece), and the manicotti was drenched in the far superior meat sauce.

The lasagna, which Sietsema had also praised, was unavailable on the night we were there, sadly, and we didn’t try any of the pastas (despite the garlic and oil fettuccini looking amazing).

As Italian non-pizza restaurants go, Rocco’s is certainly one of the cheapest I’ve been to.  However, other than the fried calamari, none of the dishes were truly exceptional.  That said, my girlfriend and I left with full stomachs and a slightly giddy sensation (I think an FDA sticker warning of this effect should be affixed to each and every kind of cheese), so it’s definitely a worthwhile excursion.

My Rocco’s suggestion?  Wait for a baking hot summer’s day (Mermaid Parade or Siren Festival time, perhaps?) and check out Coney Island.  On the way back, take the N to Fort Hamilton Parkway and walk the four blocks to Rocco’s.  Celebrate your independence from the dirty, sweaty hipsters by reveling in Rocco’s air-conditioning (the menu advertises it, so it must work well!), calamari, and beer.  Jug wine also available.

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Happy New Year: spectacular spicy lamb at Grand Sichuan.

Okay, I keep going on and on about Grand Sichuan, and I realize that I’m to some extent belaboring the point. I wouldn’t be tempted to keep writing about it, though, if I didn’t keep having incredible meals there – last night’s being, without question, the best yet.

My roommate and I slid in to a table at the Chelsea location last night – not wanting to trek to the outer boroughs, but craving soup dumplings, he had suggested it. And why not? It’s a great place, and I wasn’t in absolute need of a new restaurant to write about (guess I’ll do that article tomorrow, heh). Upon inspecting the menu, I had an urge to try new things, particularly after the successful experiment documented in last week’s article. While my roommate ordered his beloved soup dumplings, I ordered a spicy dan dan noodle.

The soup dumplings (crab and pork) were up to their usual standards. The dan dan noodles were quite interesting – very soft spaghetti served with spinach and spicy oil. The oil arrives only in the bottom of the bowl – the noodles aren’t pre-dressed. After mixing, I quite enjoyed the noodles, and I’m sure they could have been enough for a whole dinner. The spice level wasn’t overwhelming, and didn’t seem to grow out of proportion with the quantity of noodles consumed, which was nice.

The real kickers came with the entrees, though. Remember how I complained that Sichuan peppercorns were rare as hen’s teeth in Grand Sichuan? Turns out I was ordering the wrong stuff. Yes, my roommate’s twice-cooked pork (which is apparently available in both fatty and lean iterations – I’d probably order fatty, but the lean was decent), we found few peppercorns in and amongst the scallions, water chestnuts, ginger, and green peppers (ironically, most peppercorns seemed to be hiding inside the peppers). In fact, we wouldn’t have noticed them there at all, if not for his biting into one and noticing that half of his tongue went numb.

Of course, we were excited, and picked over the remaining pork and peppers with a fine-toothed fork, chewing on errant peppercorns until our tongues were good and numb. I say “we” because my dish didn’t arrive until his was practically finished – I had ordered something called a “spicy lamb casserole” from the special Chinese New Year menu. Understand, of course, that I had NO IDEA what was going to emerge from the kitchen. “Spicy lamb” runs the gamut from merguez to noodle soups, right?

More like a stew than anything else, my lamb casserole emerged from the kitchen both spectacularly late and spectacular looking: a black crock containing brown broth with extraordinarily tender hacked lamb pieces (including fall-off-the-bone rib parts, joints, and god knows what else), dried red chiles, ginger and some kind of melon. The dish also crawled with cracked Sichuan peppercorns, sometimes in clusters of three or four. The peppercorns had lent their flavor and some of their analgesic properties to the stew, but the flavor of the broth would have been just as good without it. Not overly spicy but far from bland, it tasted somewhat like the broth at Super Taste. It made me wish I hadn’t had all those damn noodles already.

I realize that the lamb casserole is a splurge at $15, but this could easily feed two adventurous people, provided they didn’t mind sucking the meat off of various bones (the meat is tender and flavorful enough to make this rewarding). Again, this is seemingly a limited-time-only menu addition – given that the Chinese New Year celebrations run through mid-February, you have absolutely no excuse not to go to Grand Sichuan and check out the casserole and whatever else looks good from the special menu.

Some business: I give belated but appreciative credit to reader TJ Jackson for suggesting a link to Sietsema’s lists – an obvious idea that had totally eluded me, given that I work from printed copies of the lists. Anyway, it’s now the first link in the right column, so check ‘em out. Thanks, TJ!

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Banh mi on Bergen.

Imagine my elation, on a recent fall day, at seeing a post on chowhound.com trumpeting a new banh mi purveyor.  Imagine also that this restaurant was situated not three blocks away from my apartment, on Bergen St. just off Smith.  Given my previous adulation for banh mi, you can easily imagine me pestering friends and acquaintances with progress reports over the next three months, as the shop took shape.  No more pestering, though – Hanco is open and serving sandwiches.

I’m sure most of the people who actually were the beneficiaries of my status reports would probably rather have been talking about something else, but this is banh mi – the sandwich king of the eastern hemisphere, and one of the city’s premiere cheap eats.  Banh mi shops moving from Sunset Park northwards are still a big deal, as when Nicky’s established the banh mi’s northern perimeter the East Village.  (And, incidentally, just like it was a big deal when the Easy Street Café in Waitsfield/Warren, Vermont served a “Vietnamese sandwich” with most of the right ingredients – unlike the bizarre slab of cold liverwurst I found between the bun, the idea of banh mi seems to be spreading.)

Hanco opened Friday, according to one of their employees, and business has been quite brisk since that time (I saw what looked like a big line on Saturday, with plenty of people sipping on bubble tea – Hanco’s other specialty).  I stopped in Sunday after a run to pick up a classic sandwich ($4.25), which I toted home with all the glee of a third grader with a sackful of Halloween candy.  Tearing into the sandwich, which I had ordered spicy, I immediately noticed a few things.  First, somewhat unsurprisingly, it wasn’t spicy at all (no red sauce present, no jalapeños present).  I’m going to stare them down (hypnotism?) while saying spicy next time, a tactic which seems to work best in the non-Sunset Park banh mi shops.  Second, the usual banh mi cold toppings were augmented by slivers of a green pepper, which presented some additional crunch, and the only hint of spice in the whole sandwich.  Maybe they were outside slices of the jalapeños – they tasted somewhat similar.

Fortunately, the meat and bread were as warm as they should be, though the bread could have been a bit toastier.  I wouldn’t say that the sandwich is as big as Banh Mi So 1 or Ba Xyugen, either, but it’s larger than I remember Nicky’s being.  Also, the mixed bunch of carrot/lotus root seemed to be rather precariously placed on top of everything else, such that an un-careful bite might result in the entire blob coming off in your mouth.

Minor concerns, really – the banh mi has made it to Boerum Hill.  Hopefully this second step into the gringo-populated nabes is a harbinger of things to come.  For instance, I’d be extremely pleased to have banh mi walking distance from work, even if my friends weren’t – I’d certainly start pestering them with status reports anew.

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Chongqing and the Cheburekis (remastered, with bonus gherkins)

Hey, gang.  Sorry about the lack of update yesterday, but this week has been a “greatest hits” of sorts – took my roommate to Cheburechnaya, where we sampled some of the things I loved before, along with the potato and cabbage chebureki (I’d recommend only the latter) and the skirt steak kebab (which easily outpaces the beef).  They also have the better of the two versions of chak-chak I’ve had: fried bits of cracker dough sewn together with honey, which may or may not be named after a Zoroastrian pilgrimage town in Iran.  The other dessert was a mildly camphor-tasting pistachio pastry with the consistency of marzipan – my roommate liked that one a lot.

Of course, I spent nearly as much as we did on the meal at one of the Russian deli-groceries on the way back.  They had open pickle and olive vats in the back, from which I selected some full sours (haven’t had a chance to try them yet, though).  Some yummy frosted things packed in a Ziploc turned out to be (probably) tea biscuits, which made my roommate quite happy.  Also some black and mint tea, gingerbread cookies with strawberry filling, and a slab of sugar wafers called “Prince of Chocolate,” – the wafers were coated with chocolate and peanuts.

Last night I met my engineer buddy at his studio in Hell’s Kitchen; we grabbed some dinner at the Grand Sichuan on 9th between 50th and 51st.  This was my first time to this location, and I was surprised to find that they didn’t have my usual ma la pork dish.  I put myself in the hands of the waitress, explaining that I wanted something as hot and with as many Sichuan peppercorns as possible.

I ended up with Chongqing chicken from one of the additional menu pages tacked on to the back.  The presentation of the dish is impressive – served in a vegetable steamer placed in a bowl, the dish is probably more than half dried red chilis.  The chicken contained therein acquires such a powerfully potent spice that my friend, upon tasting it, was shocked at my ability to consume it (guess I’ve trained myself right).  I didn’t eat too many of the chilis, but the one I ate didn’t seem too much spicier than the chicken.  Not many peppercorns, alas, despite my request for them.

His dish was no slouch – the spicy diced chicken contained a normal-person level of spice, as well as diced cucumbers and chicken in a sauce I’d swear was vinegary.  Good, but hard to evaluate rationally while your mouth is on fire.  Making matters worse, I poured the run-off from the bowl under my steamer onto my rice and ate that last.  Let’s just say I drank a lot of tea and water.

We retired afterwards to a nearby diner, where my friend ordered an Oreo milkshake to wash down his cheesecake, much to the waitress’ bemusement.  Now THAT’S a dairy bomb.          

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Milestone Mexican misfortune.

Good news!  This entry is (more or less) my 75th food-review entry in this blog.  If it were a wedding anniversary, you’d be downright amazed that I was still alive – now I know how my doctor feels.  In other milestone news, I’ve now eaten at 33 of Sietsema’s top 100 cheap eats lists (not counting the one I didn’t eat at before it closed).  You think, well, at 365 days in a year, I should have this banged out in about five months, right?  Um, yeah.  Considering that I printed out five other lists, started reading chowhound, and (more recently) acquired Sietsema’s recent book, I doubt I’ll be done any time soon.

The 33rd restaurant was, specifically, Tulcingo del Valle Grocery, on 10th Avenue in Hell’s Kitchen, and (much like Mexicali) I was thoroughly disappointed.  Admittedly, I may not have approached this restaurant with the usual thoroughness – instead of reading Sietsema’s full review online before departing, I relied on the list-blurb (#12, if you’re keeping score at home) for recommendations.  This proved to be a problem, because the mole poblano I thought he was talking about was unavailable last night.  (As it turns out, he also recommends that sauce, but the blurb was talking the “mole al estilo Tulcingo.”)

Never fear, I thought.  We’ll try the sandwiches of poblano, called cemitas, and I’ll order beef tongue while steering my roommate towards the more conventional dried beef.  Surely a sandwich won’t be disappointing, right?

Wrong.  The sandwiches were nearly inedible, for reasons we couldn’t fully explain.  It wasn’t bad avocados – they seemed agreeably mushy.  The white cheese seemed to be okay, too, and my roommate got his without.  Could it have been bad chipotle sauce?  The bad flavor and worse smell seemed to be emanating more from that area than anywhere else…or perhaps I don’t know what real chipotle tastes like?  Either way, we could both taste it for hours afterwards, and it left us shaking our heads.

As to the meats contained therein: my roommate wasn’t wild about the dried beef, which was tough to chew through.  I’d agree, though we had a momentary visual confusion as to whether he was accidentally was served the tongue.  Assuming what I was served WAS actually tongue, it was quite tender – melt in your mouth, in fact – and I’d be curious to try it again without the ickyness nearby.

The sandwiches were expensive, unfortunately, at $7.  The guacamole and chips we were served to begin weren’t as awful, but the guac was thin and bland (like the German version entitled, forebodingly, “avocadocreme”) and the cilantro sprinkled on top was a poor substitute for actual flavor.  Honestly, if a McDonald’s subsidiary can make passable guac, in this day and age, there’s no reason to even bother with the bad stuff, particularly when it’s $4.

Just to satisfy my attempt to identify something positive about every place I go, I liked the Mexican seltzer water, and the modern-ish conquistador graphics on the wall were kind of fun (particularly the one where the dude on a horse is holding a cell phone pointed towards a satellite).  It’s just too bad the food made me want to call in a pizza.

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