Category Archives: NYC

Chicha: nature’s pepto-bismol?

Need a schwack of food to kill a hangover? In the East Village? Caracas, the Venezuelan “arepa bar” at 91 E. 7th Street, might well be a candidate. Their breakfast specials, served on plates deceptively small in circumference, might be two of the bigger gut bombs in the region. Besides the plain arepa, both combos feature perico, an egg pie sans crust. I’d pick the vegetarian combination with beans, plantains, tomatoes and avocadoes over the combo including the slightly generic and sweet shredded beef, hearts of palm, and a salad (though the fried cheese with the meat platter was darn good).

You’d be equally well off, though, just grabbing whichever arepa sounds most appealing and indulging in the molasses-thick Chicha, the rice milk and cinammon conoction that practically annulled any trace of the previous night’s activities even before the food was served. It’s just cool and gooey enough to be soothing and coat the stomach, though I’d probably opt for the smaller of the two sizes next time.

The coffee was brewed with sugar, though not an obnoxious amount.

I think the best thing I ate was the Yoyo, though. It’s hard to argue with plantains engulfed in a bready dough, deep fried and slightly salted. It’s like a dumpling with a treat in the middle.

I had been curious to try Caracas for several years, and while I wouldn’t call it a destination attraction, it’s not a bad place to end up after a night of drinking. Waking up in Tijuana, on the other hand…

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Mission of Burmese.

Yes, it’s true, I popped back in to New York for a few days earlier this week. In between reunions with friends and the trip to Flushing with Dave chronicled below, I found time to stop in at the Burmese Cafe written up in the Voice just after I left last year.

I was really there because I wanted a pork knuckle, though. It’s replaced the old Uncle Bino’s Filipino restaurant, the cuisine of which I had developed a craving for over the last few weeks. But having specifically made a stop at 74th and Roosevelt for it, I was unwilling to admit defeat, and having recognized the Burmese joint from its review, was at least going to give it a shot.

Good thing I did, too, because the meal I had was a contender for the best one I had in my five days in the city. When I arrived for a late lunch, most folks were slurping at noodle soups, and I felt compelled to do the same, ordering the “Hot & Spicy Rice Noodle Soup” ($6). It was slightly fishy, slightly spicy, and largely delicious (not to mention quite hydrating after a long plane flight).

The star of the show was, however, the “Pork & Mango Pickle” ($5), which is a somewhat sour and dry curry (kind of like a rendang that makes you pucker a bit). It was absolutely phenomenal. I think the pork used was belly, with its layers of fat being perfectly stewed (or otherwise cooked) to melt in your mouth, and the meat being totally infused with the flavors of the sauce. That lovely, lovely sauce.

I would encourage you all to visit Burmese Cafe. With only a limited number of meals in New York City this week, I spent one of them on it and was not disappointed.

(PS, in case you’re interested, Spicy Mina, Cheburechnaya, Miss Ruthie’s, and DeFonte’s have lost nothing off their fastball, and most of the other places I went have nothing to be ashamed of, either.)

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Stupid PR tricks, volume 5W.

This must be your lucky day, readers o’ Dave.
According to a press release that I just received two of:

[...]A few steps across the 45th Street plaza is ___________, home of the most authentic Neapolitan pizza in New York (as certified by the Association della Vera Pizza Napoletana, the Italian organization that verifies that pizza is made according to the centuries-old traditions of “la vera pizza napoletana.”) Try the Prosciutto Pizza with a glass of cold prosecco – a night in the city doesn’t get much better.[...]

This brings to mind a series of questions:

1. White, bubbly wine with ham pizza?

2. Alliteration: the new pink?

3. What would Mario Batali do?

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Zum wohl!

Dear readers,
The astute among you have noticed my lack of posts, and some of you have surely wondered if I perished during a food excursion somewhere. I haven’t, but I -have- moved to Switzerland. This being a rather expensive nation in which to dine out, the blog (which has always concentrated on NYC things, with the occasional travel piece, anyway) no longer is really maintainable.

I will give you, in parting, a few tips from my last few weeks in NYC and one from my first few in the vicinity of Zürich:

1. Get to Momofuku Sääm bar for their late night menu. I know it’s a splurge; just do it. I’ve probably never had an evening with so many new and unique flavors, textures, and categories of food, and it was all exceedingly delicious. Order one of everything with a few friends.

2. Also slightly more expensive than average (but totally reasonable for the category) is the first Mexican place in NYC that can compete with the Red Iguana et al in more than just the taco category. Ironically named Taqueria y Fonda, I had some kind of special (chicken enchiladas? note taking has never been a forte) involving the nogada sauce (cream and nuts with fruit). It was really damn good. They also have moles and pipian on the menu, which I would check out if I were you.

3. The last place I crossed off the list before I left was Upi Jaya. I didn’t think it was particularly great, but it could have been the excruciatingly bad teen television I was forced to sit through as the surly offspring of one of the staff members tried hard to forget their own teenage miseries for a moment. Should have gotten it to go.

Z. My favorite sector of Zürich so far is the Langstrasse south of the train tracks (sounds vague, but look at a map of the city if in doubt), where ethnic groceries and restaurants co-mingle with porn palaces, pseudo-casinos, and record shops. It’s like a little slice of the EV sans pretension (or, at least, sans NYC-pretension). On the Zwinglistrasse, which intersects Langstrasse a block or two south of the tracks, there is my favorite Thai grocery (Sala Thai – they make their own curry paste) and the restaurant that blew my head off, Keo Inn. Order the pork salad Thai hot and prepare to die.

Finally, if I can brag (and also explain why I haven’t gone through withdrawal), I’d like to share my dinner schedule for my last few weeks in NYC. This (with a few exceptions marked *) approximates something like a list of my top favorite restaurants in the whole city – those I wasn’t going to hightail it without sampling one last time. There are notable omissions, of course (off the top of my head, Corner Bistro, for instance) but the list is a pretty fair one.

11/27: dinner at Cheburechnaya
11/28: dinner at Spicy Mina
11/30: lunch at Snack Taverna*, dinner at Cafe Kashkar
12/1: dinner at Super Taste
12/2: lunch at Defonte’s heroes, dinner at Château Blanc*
12/3: lunch at Taqueria de Guerreros, dinner at White Mana (JC, NJ)
12/5: dinner at Upi Jaya*
12/6: lunch at Rare*, dinner at “A”*
12/9: dinner at Schnack
12/10: lunch at Nicky’s (Atlantic Ave.), dinner at Bedouin Tent
12/11: dinner at Spicy & Tasty
12/13: dinner at Taqueria y Fonda
12/14: lunch at Alidoro, dinner at Momofuku Sääm bar
12/15: lunch at Shopsins…the last meal before leaving.

Best to all, and take advantage of your cheap ethnic eats resources while you can – you never know when you’ll end up in a country where everything is calculatedly and perfectly bland.

-Mike King

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White Mana’s appeal spans generations.

A couple days ago I received this letter from the father of the friend with whom I went on the Man(n)a excursion last Sunday.  It put a smile on my face, and the sentiments expressed herein are the kind that make me want to go on the road a la George Motz and chronicle every single independent food shack in America.  Places like the White Man(n)as are one of America’s proudest culinary legacies, and I’ll never hesitate to stop in a place like Al’s French Frys or B&D Burger – if you’re interested in some American food history along with your good eats, neither should you.

Mike,
 
Justin (my son) passed on a link to your erudite opinion on classic hamburger joints in $20 bucks a day (White Manna review).
 
It’s a heartwarming (or is that congesting) feeling that at least some great things don’t change much over the years.
 
I grew up in Roselle NJ, back in the old days before the food chains started taking over the world and forcing us to eat fried cryogenic things they said we wanted. And, the truth be known, we did want White Castle - and the small chains. But alas it was the American way to succumb to the big players, Mickey D’s, Burger King and all the rest. We sold our souls for the sub-prime meat and of course superior marketing. To hell with the taste and ambiance. I’m pretty sure we all regret that choice these days.
 
So, your White Manna file made me think of a local small chain in neighboring Linden called “White Diamond”. I’ve been to JC’s White Manna and you could easily be transported back 40 years putting one foot into that metallic chrome and tiled palace of hamburger heaven.
 
For me, White Diamond was the place to escape on an early Sunday afternoon after we told our parents that we were going to church for 12:00 mass. It was a place to recap the previous night’s wild happenings while we savored the aroma, sizzle, and finally taste that was to help us recover from our hangover, bad or good date, or other musings of being a teenager. The burger to order for those in the know was the “double-cheese.”
 
As you sat down on the round plastic covered stool that only God could move, I can still remember the cook (maybe truck driver too?), pick up the round meatballs of raw beef in his bare hands and emphatically throw them on the sizzling grill. Add onions to be fried, of course. All easily sliding on the grill due to an indeterminate yellow fatty lubricant substance. The high point in all this was of course was the “spatual slap” as he smooched the two patties together (thus the double-cheese). 
 
As the burger-to-be cooked, the precise amount of salt and pepper was applied to everything by a seeming random shake of big salt and pepper shakers, then the thick piece of yellow american cheese was applied. The end result was not a perfectly round burger, far from it. Its edges spread in all directions. And, for the final ingredient an old fashioned “hard roll” was placed on the burger while it was still in its final stages of transformation so that it could absorb some of the hot juices below.
 
Expertly placed on the diner’s porcelain plate, the only thing else needed was optional fries and a coke.
 
I’m guessing this all may still sound familiar and that you might be remembering the same thing years from now yourself. Keep up the good work. $20 a day is an admirable challenge that will bring you to the people and places that become the true memories in our lives.
 
Paul K.

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Superheroes.

You know, I’ve eaten a fair number of sandwiches in my life, in every shape and size imaginable. I’ve never, not even in my late hero-eating binge, seen a sandwich the size of Defonte’s “Nicky’s Special.” It is the undisputed heavyweight champion of the sandwich world. I should have had the affable owner weigh the damn thing, in retrospect.

I’ve long lusted after a trip to DeFonte’s, but never knew what the hours were, and had developed a tendency to stroll by when the place was shuttered (like, for example, all day Sunday). Finally, with my trip to the ballfields a couple months back, I blew by during opening hours, but had already consumed enough pupusas to make my stomach explode. I took a menu, wrote down the hours (6AM-4PM, Mon.-Sat.), and promised to get back as soon as I could raise a posse to accompany me.

That time was lunch on this past Saturday, and, while making the trek over from Boerum Hill, our appetites (I even skipped my morning pastry) peaked. One friend, who’d made the effort to come down from the Upper West Side, wondered if he’d have to order two sandwiches to be fulfilled. I told him I doubted it, but I had no idea the extent to which we’d later laugh about it until I saw one of the Nicky’s Specials presented with a thump on the back counter (the owner generously allowed us to chow down on the premises).

Again, I’ve seen healthy newborns smaller than this sandwich. It’s not filled with crap, either – the stars of the show were the thinly sliced fried eggplant (done, it would seem, that morning) and the “hot” (spicy vegetable) salad, which looks like something you’d find on a salad bar until you get the first “whoosh!” of heat. Compared to those, the other ingredients demure, but examine this list: provolone, ham, salami, capicolla, prosciuttini (made from the belly rather than the leg, as prosciutto is), mushrooms, lettuce and tomato. And the bread, while not reaching the semolina heights of Alidoro’s finest loaf, splits the difference between being a structurally sound foundation (critical for a hero of this size) and edibility. It’s good, in other words.

Also good is the owner’s temprament and friendliness. He obviously had us pegged as first-timers from the moment we walked in, and took the time to engage us. He even asked what my other favorite sandwiches were – apparently he wasn’t just sizing up the competition, as he’s friends with Faicco’s owner. You can tell he loves his craft.

Get to Defonte’s – I give the heroes my unqualified recommendation, and, if you get the largest size, you could easily make two meals from it for $10 (the 1/3 size isn’t really that much smaller, for what it’s worth). Make sure you go on a nice day, though. You’ll want to take a stroll down Van Brunt to the waterfront afterwards just to shake off the effects.

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Mana from heaven.

For months, a friend of mine and I have been planning a trip to both of the legendary White Man(n)as of northern New Jersey.  Last night, a jointly acceptable time finally arose, but after barreling down River Street, crazed with hunger, in what seemed to me like the middle of nowhere in Hackensack, we arrived just a few minutes after the White Manna had closed.  A hush went over the car, punctuated only by occasional wails and the astute observation that the microscopic joint was “so cute!”

Cute really isn’t on the menu at the Jersey City White Mana, though the art-deco ambiance is not totally absent.  It’s on a rather seedy stretch of the 1/9 semi-highway (as though there are un-seedy stretches, heh) and, as befits its location across the street from a real dive of a boxing bar, the walls are lined with pictures of pugilists real (Mike Tyson) and imagined (Sly Stallone, in a beautiful double breasted suit and skinny tie combo).

I can’t say we much cared about the ambiance when we walked in, though.  At that point, we were just awfully glad that it was open (24 hours!) when we arrived.  Personally, I still think it’s goofy to order twenty cheeseburgers to split between six people (not growing up in the land of Chateau Blanc will do that to you), but we did it one better and ordered twenty-one, along with a double cheeseburger and a bunch of fries and onion rings.

Given that I was there with a bunch of Mana semi-regulars, I was a bit surprised to note that none of them had ever seen a menu before.  It was from that menu and from instincts divined from many meals and Schnack that I ordered the double cheeseburger – none of my friends had ever thought to do so before, and it was an immediate object of jealousy on their part.  Apparently they’ve been fixing the out-of-whack burger-to-bun ratio for years now by combining two singles into their own double. The bottom line is that double meat is a much more optimal experience, however you go about it.  There just isn’t enough meat on the rather generic bun otherwise.

A bit about that special meat: it is basically a hash, as it is dumped in a large crumble onto the griddle and parceled out into burger shapes (and squashed flat by the spatula work of the fry cook) only after some cooking has already taken place.  The onions, happily, are cooked alongside the meat, giving it good flavor (another advantage of the double cheeseburger was the cache of onions that were nestled in between patties).

(Note about the sides: Onion rings were kind of awful, but the fries were okay, and, if you like them particularly crispy, ask – our plates varied in terms of done-ness, and opinions differed as to which were preferable.)

I can say, without a doubt, that White Mana beats its chain imitator (the afore-mentioned Chateau Blanc).  AHT’s coverage of the other Manna leads me to believe that we missed out by not getting to the Hackensack branch – especially in the bun department.  I rather liked the rough charms of the Jersey City branch, though: another unheralded American original.

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Chateau Blanc? Oui, oui.

Finally ate my first full meal ever at a White Castle – it was only my second lifetime trip to one of the revered/reviled outposts, in fact. (Westerners are savvy burger consumers, but I can’t imagine the idea of White Castle would make very much sense to them.) Last time was as an a la carte dessert to a Jersey City dosa, and while I can’t say I was really JUMPING at the chance to go back (though I liked it fine), walking down 8th Avenue past its Chateau Blanc (ten times funnier in bad French, considering especially what their reaction might be to the product) the other day on the way back from Manganaro’s set the wheels in motion.

This branch is open 24 hours, apparently, and it smells like it when you walk in – it possesses none of the appealing old grease/French fry smell inherent to a McDonald’s, nor some kind of Subway-esque fake bread spray smell. So there’s that to contend with (Jersey City’s branch didn’t smell bad).

The wonderful crap they serve for food, though (this must be the least nutritious filling meal in the universe), is the same irrespective of environment. Micromashed beef and onions fused with cheese on a Wonder-bread-ish bun no larger than two or three inches across may seem like a good or bad idea to you based on superstition or long-held family tradition. Having no family history with the Castle myself, I am willing to bet that if you like burgers and have a bit of tolerance for the failings of our fast food establishments in terms of environment and quality of ingredients, you’ll like White Castle.

Me, I’ll probably never go more than once or twice a year. Too much other good stuff to eat in the city, and even though the price is right ($5.74, tax included, for four cheeseburgers, small fries and fountain soda), I’d rather pay slightly more and get slightly more. Nice to know it’s there if you need it, though.

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Why can’t they be friends?

I have recently eaten at BOTH of the feuding Manganaro’s outposts, located on the same block of 9th Avenue between 37th and 38th Streets, as recommended to me by a friend.  He, having grown up in Hell’s Kitchen, said that everyone in the nabe used to swear allegiance to one or the other.  It seems entirely plausible to me that you could prefer one or the other from just the difference in decorative approach.

The original (aka the Grosseria) is very evidently family-run, with an older man sitting at the front greeting customers and his legendarily quick-tempered daughter (also writer of the Manganaro Family Cookbook) making heroes in the back.  It is decorated, as you might expect, in the style of an Italian grocery, with supplies strategically placed (but not packed) on various shelves, and a deli counter in the back.

Located next door, Manganaro’s Hero Boy, by contrast, looks more like a modern chain pizzeria.  The huge space is well-lit and looks designed to harbor a waiting lunch crowd of tens.  The help also, for the most part, look like they’ve been there for decades, but the atmosphere is certainly less traditional.

Which did I prefer?

Well, I didn’t really do a fair comparison, because I ordered different things at both.  At Hero Boy, I ordered the meatball parm sub ($9), which included six really flavorful meatballs with the circumference of a half dollar, a slightly stingy dollop of sauce, and two pieces of fresh-looking mozzarella warmed up on the steam table (an ingenious trick).  The bread was forgettable, but if you got a bit more sauce and had two people to share the sandwich, it would serve admirably as a sop (I don’t recommend trying to polish off the sandwich, bread included, by yourself).  

At the Grosseria, I had the Maganaro’s Special sandwich ($8), which layered Swiss and provolone along with several types of cold cuts, roasted red peppers, lettuce, and oil/vinegar dressing.  While the bread was better than at Hero Boy (though, frankly, my jaw was sore from chewing it by the end), the cold cuts suffer slightly from having been pre-sliced (can you imagine what Walter would say?), and the overall ensemble (for instance, putting the oil on the sandwich after the meat and cheese rather than before) could use a little work, in my opinion.  Nonetheless, not a bad sandwich in the least – just not a great one.

Based on the fact that the meatballs were excellent, I’d have to prefer Hero Boy over its competitor, but with so few visits under my belt, I can’t call my opinion definitive.  Plus, I don’t want to be blacklisted from either of them – this feud has been going on for far longer than I’ve been alive, and I’d bet for long after I’m dead.

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More cowbell.

Having neglected uptown for too long, I was immediately receptive when my friend Jas suggested an excursion to one of the many fine and cheap establishments north of 96th Street.  We settled, after a piece, on El Fonda Boricua, a U-shaped Puerto Rican joint on 106th between 3rd and Lex, at least partially because my usual group dining night (Thursday) offered the additional enticement of a live Latin jazz ensemble to go along with the food.  Being a sucker for music in addition to cheap eats, it seemed a perfect fit.

My expectations were not unmet, as it turns out.  Despite the place being packed to the gills, we were able to secure a table within a few minutes, and the volume of the group did not suffer for being across the room for them (note to the owner: I doubt that amplification is necessary for the horns).  The group was really, really good, by the way.  It seems to be a rotating cast of musicians, both during the evening and (according to Jas) from one Thursday to another.  I’m sure those more familiar with the music of the Caribbean would know more of the set list – the only song I recognized, albeit happily, was “A Night in Tunisia.”  Diz would have been impressed.

There was no sign of a menu.  Instead, the waitress explained the array of offerings for the evening in between songs.  A solid starter indeed were the tostones ($3), which came with a saucer of some kind of white mixture featuring pureed raw garlic.  The most expensive of the mains, the plaintain mash known as mofongo ($14), also featured a powerful garlic tinge – always a pleasure, especially unexpectedly.

My own choices were the steak and onion fry-up ($7) and rice and beans ($3) – both large servings, enough so that the both could nearly feed two.  The onions had been lightly sautéed, which went perfectly with the thin (but not tough) beef.  My usual pet peeve with beans (that they’re rarely cooked well) was not applicable – these beans were both well-cooked and flavorful, and the cake of rice that came with it was a good match in texture and flavor.

I also tried the fried chicken tidbits (which I think were called chicharron de pollo, but I’m not sure), which were a little dry, but beat the hell out of the average chicken nugget.  The desserts looked tasty, too, but by the time I was finished with everything else, I had no room for flan.  A shocking failure in capacity, I’m aware, but I’m sure that I’ll be back to El Fonda Boricua – I’ve got a fever, and the only prescription is…lots of garlic.

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