Monthly Archives: September 2005

Shoyu Ramen? Sure, I’d love to.

Ah, ramen.  That staple of every camping trip you ever went on, every broke college grocery-shopping trip you ever took, and every bad home-packed lunch your mother ever sent with you to elementary school, right?  Wrong.  Ramen is a thousand times more than just a packet of MSG and a brick of noodles.  It’s a full meal in the right hands: great ramen is more than the sum of its parts, and guaranteed not to leave you in want of more food.

Now, ramen joints have become quite popular in the last year or two on Manhattan Island; an early favorite of mine, Momofuku, even achieved the rare honor of being feature reviewed in the NY Times as well as being on Mr. Sietsema’s Village Voice 2005 list.  While I would hardly argue that it’s not tasty enough to deserve this, it IS on the more expensive side of the ramen equation, and it’s defiantly untraditional, if that matters to you.  If you must go, the pork ramen will be your best bet, but stay away, if possible, from the too-expensive bottled beer.

I would argue that your $9 is better spent at Minca, though, on East 5th between A and B.  Also resident on the Voice 2005 list, I’ve never seen Minca crowded, and their menu, I’m assured, is much more traditional.  Tsukemen Ramen, wherein the broth and noodles arrive separately, the latter to be dipped in the former, is one of the most novel variations I’ve seen; more standard Shoyu (soy) and garlic and oil broths exist, and for a few more bucks, you can put extra slices of their divine pork in any soup.  Be SURE to let it sit in the broth for a few minutes at least; the longer you wait, the better the pork gets.  I add hot sauce, my roommate does not.

The undisputed heavyweight champion of the division, though, is the new-ish Hong Kong Station (Hester between Chrystie and Bowery), as listed by the NY Metro’s 2005 edition.  Let me tell you, this place is both bizarre and wonderful at the same time.  Obviously not accustomed to the gringo customers yet (signs are only in Cantonese, though the paper menu is also in English), the staff are friendly, if sometimes thick-accented.  The décor is strictly fast food, of course, but in a twist I’ve only seen before in Europe, they have an attendant to bus your table.

As to the food, you have your choice of about seven or eight kinds of noodles made of egg or rice, mostly Chinese, though there are some similar ones to the Minca noodles and Momofuku noodles.  You can choose about 25 different toppings to go with them in your broth.  Now, why is this fusiony fast food shop, which also offers toast and several other items more English than Southeast Asian, the winner – particularly when some of the optional toppings (like the blood or gizzards) are unlikely to get any run in your bowl?

It all boils down (oy!) to price.  The basic noodle/broth combo costs $1.  Each topping additionally costs $1.  So, if you get Beef Shin, a fried egg, and mushrooms, as I did on one recent jaunt, you have a $4 delicious meal.  If you screw up and get Beef Stew, curried fish balls, or some other ingredient of that has polluted your bowl (the former), or that you aren’t fond of (the latter), you’re not out a whole lot of money.  Experiment and be merry!  Don’t miss the lemonade with Ribena (British blackberry syrup), either.

Full disclosure: Occasionally, I’ve had overcooked noodles, which is NEVER a problem at Minca (tip: avoid the egg-based thick noodles, which taste like grocery store egg noodles anyway).  But, for $1?  Can hardly complain.  Until I find a place that serves Pho, that Vietnamese noodle soup sure to be the subject of a forthcoming article, for $4, this is about as good as it gets.          

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Where’s the beef?

Ever wanted to stuff yourself silly on meat for an evening?  Of course you have; meat is the new pink.  Have you noticed, though, that most of the delicious meat hunks available in the city are either ground (mmm, Corner Bistro) or extremely expensive (there will be a Peter Luger’s article, but not until I can con someone else into paying for it)?  While beef is rarely REALLY cheap, is there a middling alternative, for that once-a-month foray into finer dining?

I’ve found a solution, thanks to Mr. Sietsema, but you’re not going to like it if you’re prone to PATH-phobia.  It requires a trip to Newark and a stroll through the main drag of the Ironbound district.  Ironbound is a neighborhood undergoing a change from a primarily Portuguese and Brazilian population to one encompassing more Spanish-speaking Latin American countries, according to one article I read, but I saw little evidence of this – many stores are still named and/or subtitled in what I assume to be Portuguese, and the greens, reds, and yellows of the Portuguese and Brazilian flags are still plentiful.

Bypassing Ferry St.’s plentiful restaurants advertising Churrasqueria, we headed for the Tapajos River Steakhouse (28 Wilson Av).  Its décor and ambiance could not be more humble – frankly, it reminded me of a Dominican place in Park Slope (do they still exist?).  Parquet-ed linoleum floors, a wood bar that looks like it has seen better days, and a few flags on the wall.  Not quite a pit, but not luxurious; it’s the kind of place that suggests that the proprietors may spend more time on the food than they care to on the décor.

As we sat down, we were greeted by an enthusiastic man who let us know that the $20 mixed grill (churrasqueria) is exactly what my girlfriend and I needed.  Given Sietsema’s recommendation of same, we decided to take the plunge.  A salad of vinegar, onions, peppers, and a few straggly tomatoes was set on the table, as well as something I later found out was grated yucca, fried with chunks of beef.  Apparently the Brazilians will eat plates full of this.  I tried to mount some on the garlic bread that came next, to little effect (through no fault of the bread – it was tasty).

We hadn’t waited but a minute when the sausage came out.  Fresh off the skewer, hot and tasty, if perhaps a bit dry (this was to be a theme through the evening).  Then came a huge plate of rice and a side bowl of beans (I think he said the beans were $3 extra, but they were quite tasty).  Also came some middling fries and a couple of wonderful fried bananas, as well as something else fried that I couldn’t identify…definitely starchy, though, and dense.

Then the main meat platter arrived, and it was truly a sight to behold: two chicken thighs, several pieces of skewered meat, one rib, a couple hunks of one kind of pork and some slices of another, and several slices of medium rare steak.  Everyone says this is enough to feed three, and they’re not kidding – we were voracious and there were still two or three untouched pieces of meat left, along with half the rice and beans, fries, and we had barely touched the included salad bar (which is pretty much okay, given that it’s slim pickings).   While the grilled meats could be a little drier than I’d like at times, we were there on the early side, and on a busier night, I’m sure the meat wouldn’t have been left on the grill as long.

The flan that I ordered to wrap the meal up was dense and delicious, and while I’m no expert, having not had flan in roughly ten years, I was satisfied.

Of course, the trick with $20 mixed grills is that the check inevitably ends up much larger than ten bucks a person, and for this I’m rating the Tapajos River Steakhouse a “splurge” option for the cheap eater.  For maximum effectiveness, I’d recommend sharing a mixed grill among three or four, getting beans, and skipping or sharing a dessert, depending on how you feel about flan (remember: fried bananas are included in the meal).  Or, for just two, skipping the beans and salad bar and just going right for the beef.  It’s what you’re there for, right?

Hey, at least the PATH is only $1.50 – now THAT’s savings, my friends.    

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Banh Mi So What?

Yesterday I mentioned that my girlfriend and I had taken in some Banh Mi before moving along to sorbet-ville.  I realize that many of you may not be familiar with this Vietnamese sandwich staple, so let me explain:

Take one baguette of around six inches.  Toast it.  Add warm mystery meat pate and Vietnamese salami.  Also add pickled carrots, lotus root, and unpickled cucumbers and cilantro.  Hot sauce and jalepenos as requested.  Eat.  Revel in mix of textures, temperatures, and flavors.

I know I didn’t win many friends with the mystery meat thing, but trust me, it’s delicious – less like foie gras or liverwurst and more like a thin, dry meat sauce.  And, while this is fundamental to what I understand to be the most traditional form of the sandwich, it’s certainly not the only kind available.

I’ve been to three different Banh Mi purveyors thus far: Nicky’s, on 2nd St. between Aves A and B; Viet Nam Banh Mi So 1, on Broome St. between Elizabeth and Mott, and the less-easy-to-get-to Ba Xuyen on 8th Ave. and 43rd St. in Sunset Park, Brooklyn (D to 9th Ave. is probably quickest, but it’s more fun to walk up from the 8th Ave. N stop and check out Sunset Park’s Chinatown).  I would say that Nicky’s is a fair introduction to the format and a good place to take someone of questionable adventurousness.  After all, they have (in addition to the traditional) a thin pork chop variety and even a vegetarian option built from a Portobello mushroom.  Try the Lychee juice box, too – not bitter, like many lychee-based drinks are, and I doubt you’ve had a juice box in over ten years, right?  Caveat: the sandwiches are smaller and a dollar ($4) more expensive than the Chinatown standard price.  Real estate’s a bitch, ain’t it?

Bahn Mi So 1 gets the majority of my business, because they are convenient (short walk from Grand St. D), tasty (most of the time, see below), and they have the most intriguing array of Pocky I’ve ever seen before in my life – if you like Samoas (the girl scout cookie) try the chocolate-coconut flavor.  They also have other desserts too, like a coconut sponge-like cake in a pistachio green, and your usual semi-sweet puddings.  Several colored shades of rice, too, that I haven’t tried.

As to their sandwiches?  Mostly very good.  I’ve had one where the meat was so cold that it made me wonder if it had been accidentally frozen, but generally (and this is probably about ten times now)  everything is fine.  I think I hit them just before closing the single bad time, so be forewarned if you’re trying to sneak in late one night.  It should be noted that the crumbled pork on this sandwich is barbecued, instead of in a pate.  They also have a bunch of other options; I’ve only tried the Lemongrass beef, but that was very tasty.  At $3, this is one of the best food deals I’ve found in Manhattan.

Ba Xuyen provided what I consider to be my definitive Banh Mi experience to date.  Arriving just before they closed (7pm, so hurry if you’re going from work in Manhattan), the staff were extremely friendly and cheerily made my friend and I two of their #1 sandwich.  This was absolutely the messiest sandwich sampled – as we sat on a stoop on 8th Ave. to try and eat the sandwiches, we found that some kind of sauce used was dripping everywhere on both spicy and mild sandwiches.  No matter – the juxtaposition of crisp, cold veggies, toasted bread, and warm meat is perfectly rendered, and with added spice, it very nearly is the total package.  (Unlike the two Banh Mi parlors above, Ba Xuyen actually believes you when you request spicy; don’t order it with full spice if you don’t do spicy.)   Nice tea, too, if you’re into that sort of thing.  Did I mention that this 6” sandwich/meal is $3?

I’ll be going back to Ba Xuyen, no doubt, and I hear there’s another Banh Mi parlor on 7th Ave in the same neighborhood, but don’t be ashamed if Sunset Park is a bridge too far – Banh Mi So 1 will do you nicely, in a pinch, and Nicky’s isn’t a terrible option either, just less cost-effective.

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Sublime Toast

A recent favorite of mine and one which justifiably occupies a place on the NY Metro’s “Cheap Eats” list is Blue Ribbon Bakery Market, on Bedford St. between W. Houston and Downing (it’s diagonally across the intersection from the restaurant of the similar name).  Ostensibly a location in which to purchase the ingredients that have made the Blue Ribbon restaurants such a resounding success, it also has one other sublime function: toast.

Yes, toast, but not just thin bread slopped with butter, like in your favorite breakfast restaurant.  This is toast done the English way (sort of: no baked beans in evidence), with solid toppings.  More like a hearty sandwich without a second piece of bread, that is.

It is that very line of thinking that one must pursue when enjoying the toast from Blue Ribbon – after all, if you consider it an evolutionary bacon, butter, and jelly sans one slice of bread, paying up to $11.50 for a slice seems outrageous (that’s for foie gras and honey, for what it’s worth – all the others are under $10 and hover mostly in the $4 or $7 range).  Indeed, I’m kind of pissed at myself for continually going back and paying that much.

It’s as much of a food axiom as any, though, that if you’re going to overpay for something, it better be delicious, and on that count, Blue Ribbon does not disappoint.  NY Metro correctly identifies the best bargain toast, which is the pepper/egg combination, with a variation on Jane’s Krazy Mixed Up Salt sprinkled on top.  However, I can confirm that the Hummus toast is similarly cost-effective (slightly more expensive, slightly heartier), and if you can stand to pay $3 for cinnamon toast, you’ll be treated the best version of this childhood treat you’ve ever had.

After all, it’s the bread that’s the real star here, and the Pullman loaf that makes the foundation of most of the sandwiches is the closest thing to my grandmother’s toasting bread I’ve ever encountered in the wild, and with a golden color that renders it also aesthetically pleasing.  Sadly, no fresh raspberry jam toast is offered, but perhaps I can put them in touch with my grandmother.  Speaking of fruit, as of this writing, fresh NY state Macintosh apples were available as well, in toast-topping form or in whole form, for 75 cents (well-spent, I might add).

It should also be noted that the service is beyond excellent.  The same two guys have been in there during each of my visits, remembering both me and in some cases what I had last time I was there – an impressive feat, with variable time between visits.  While I wouldn’t say that good service would excuse bad food in any case, the combination of good service and food is a winning formula every time.

So, yeah, maybe it’s not the best bargain, but you won’t find me complaining.    

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Super Sorbet

I come to you today to speak of that greatly ignored piece of the cheap eating universe: dessert.  Rarely indeed do chroniclers of cheap eating pay attention to this category; my guess is it’s a budget-buster for many.  And that’s fair, I suppose, but there are too many delicious desserts in NYC to ignore, and they need not destroy one’s financial solvency.

So, about this Ciao Bella Sorbet.  My girlfriend and I had noshed on banh mi from Banh Mi So 1 (Broome St. btw. Mott/Elizabeth) while sitting across from the church on Mulberry St.  She had earlier brought home some of said sorbet but had consumed it in concert with a friend before I’d gotten to have a taste, and we’d agreed to do a dessert doubleheader with Rice to Riches coming second.  This was in large part because I didn’t think it was possible to have a fulfilling sorbet experience (I suppose I had forgotten how good the homemade raspberry sorbet Will made a few years back was).

I was most certainly and fantastically wrong, though: Ciao Bella’s chocolate sorbet was absolutely out-of-this-world amazing.  I couldn’t imagine how it didn’t involve cream somehow, but the proprietors (who were, by the way, stoned to the bejeezus belt, as I’m sure I would be with that job) assured me that the concoction was dairy-free.  I’ve been informed that the Ciao Bella website says that the Chocolate and Coconut flavors contain milk.  Oops.  The sorbet had amazing texture (can’t say creamy, I guess), and had a strong but not-too-sweet cocoa flavor.  I’d be interested to know what kind of cocoa they use to make the sorbet…I’d guess a very dark variety.

Now, the tough part.  You’ve got to have company to really make this work, budgetarily.  The “small” serving size is a whopping $4.75, but this was plenty enough for both of us, the dish was dwarfed by the serving, to be sure.  A hand-packed pint costs a buck more and is probably a better deal, but get it home quickly.    

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Don’t go to Pop Burger, like, ever.

I just had the worst burger(s) of my life at Pop Burger on 9th Ave. at 14th St.  Honestly, the proprietor should be shot.  Two tiny burgers for $5 in a double box (gimmick) that were obviously pre-cooked and reheated (awful), with very expensive fries ($3.25!) that seemed to have been possibly cooked twice, and not for your Belgian-frite-like pleasure (more awful).
Easily the most disappointing place on the Voice top 100 list thus far.
On the other hand, I enjoyed the burger and fries I had a week or two back at the Down South Cafe (Lewis Ave.) very much, but there are some qualifications to be made.  Namely, you must trek to the Utica A stop in the heart of Stuyvesant Heights, Brooklyn.  I know I’ve lost some readers already, but I have no qualms going to a neighborhood where I am obviously out of place, and dealing with the discomfort that entails, provided the food is unlike something I can get elsewhere.  And that’s the only problem, really: the burger is merely good, and while its extreme cheapness is attractive ($1.45 for a cheeseburger sided with steak fries), it is less than unique.
I can say that the owners, despite seeming a little perplexed at our presence, were very nice.   This is the kind of place where I’m thinking the regulars call out their orders as they sit down, no order pads or formality necessary.  Yet, as we sat down obviously ignorant of proper procedure, one denizen (employee?  patron?  unclear.) improvised an order pad and took our order, as well as got me the biggest styrofoam cup of lemonade (powdered) I’ve ever seen.  I’m convinced we sat at the owner’s table, too.
So I guess I probably won’t be trekking out there again.  I’d rather brave Nostrand Avenue (which seems, for lack of a better term, very sketchy to me) and get good roti than go to Stuy Heights.    

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