Monthly Archives: November 2005

Spicy and Tasty: not an oxymoron.

My girlfriend reminded me recently that we came up with the idea for this blog while dining in Blue Star, on Court St. in Cobble Hill, but the moment of old-timey flash-of-light conversion came on my first of two (so far) visits to Flushing’s Spicy and Tasty – and, no, I’m not sure it wasn’t just an errant Sichuan peppercorn numbing some crucial part of my brain.  Coming in at number 10 on Sietsema’s 2005 list, it would certainly score in the top five (if not top, period) on mine.

On the most recent visit, my girlfriend’s radiologist father (an adventurer at heart) accompanied us to Flushing.  The excellent steamed bun appetizer with the mysterious, homemade-frosting-like dipping sauce was his first foray into this strange new world.  While I generally like my buns with meat in them, the yellowish frosting-dip makes these buns palatable even without savory filling (snicker, snicker).  Our first time at S&T, we had also ordered the red-bean filled sesame balls, far better than the average Chinatown pastry store variety because of the use of sweet potatoes.  We’ve not tried any of the excellent-looking offerings from the front appetizer case on either of our visits (check it out when you walk in!), but I have a feeling that one could make a meal solely from those.

Of the main menu, we’ve tried the tea-smoked duck, a version of chicken with cashews, and a spicy eggplant dish.  I like the smoked duck a lot less than Sietsema, I guess – when I had it at Grand Sichuan, it was so dry that it made me thirsty, and the S&T version was only a bit moister.  I suppose I should note, though, that the fat was perfectly rendered and benefited greatly from the smoky flavoring; the meat is okay but less satisfying to me.  Be prepared to eat this like you’re eating ribs, though – much of the serving is most easily eaten as finger food.  At any rate, it’s unlike any duck preparation I’ve had anywhere else, so if you’re a barbecue nut or a duck enthusiast, feel free and give it a whirl.

Quite satisfying, but a little “boring” compared to the other dishes, according to the good Doctor, was the chicken and cashews.  Pretty much a standard stir fry, the dish was given a bigger dose of flavor than usual by dint of roasted nuts.  A good “safe” dish to order, and one that will help cool the palate in conjunction with a cold Tsingdao.

On our first visit, we ordered without a net – the bright-purple eggplant that my girlfriend ordered came to us cubed in a fiery red sauce that was certainly not to be trifled with.  It was pretty early on in our relationship to foist a Sichuan menu on her, but she handled this dish with aplomb (me = lucky), despite claiming beforehand not to be terribly enthused by spicy foods in general.  The eggplant, for what it’s worth, was tender without being too mushy, and I think the sauce erred more towards chili spiciness than Sichuan peppercorn numbing.

The king of all the Sichuanese I’ve ever eaten, though, has more than its fair share of both “la” chili sauces and spices, as well as the “ma” peppercorns.  On the last page of Spicy and Tasty’s menu, the bottom section on the page, boasts, if I recall correctly, of Sichuanese specialties.  While I’m sure all the dishes in this section are prepared similarly, it is the shredded pork which I have ordered on each of my visits.  It is, without question, the most heavily spiced dish I’ve ever eaten, as well as the most flavorful.

Like I described in my review of Grand Sichuan, the pork is in a huge puddle of red sauce, sitting on a pile of cabbage, and topped with a layer of spices and peppercorns so thick that they remind me of when I made cinnamon toast as a 7 year old (the top to the shaker was a bit loose, and the rest was history).  The portion is huge, particularly if you include the cabbage in your estimations its size (you should – coated in the oily sauce, it’s quite nice).  My advice is to wait for it to cool slightly, as the heat (temperature) of the dish only makes the heat (spice) of the dish stronger.

As you taste a truly complex, well-balanced spiciness for the first time, as I did, contemplate the various other experiences you’ve had with extreme spiciness.  Marvel as the peppercorns numb your mouth at the same time the spices set it on fire.  Understand for the first time how bland the average American meal truly is, and how singular chili flavors (jalapeños or today’s ubiquitous “chipotle”) rule the spice world here.  Is it any wonder non-masochists avoid spicy food?

Of course, while you’re doing this contemplating, you’ll be gulping down beer (water ain’t gonna help, sorry) and discovering new places from which you can sweat (personal favorite: underneath the eyes).  Who says enlightenment is easy?

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Old school sandwiches at Eisenberg’s.

Last night, as I bit happily into my tuna sandwich, I pondered the age old question: is the sandwich the perfect food?  I seem to recall my father and his father making that claim, and turning out some pretty fine (to a young man) sandwiches to prove that point.  Not having had a family-made sandwich in a while, and harboring a comfort food craving, Eisenberg’s (5th Av. just north of 22nd St.) was my and my girlfriend’s destination last evening.  This egoless locale may not declare its sandwiches to be perfect on the awning, but the case is pretty compelling.  

For those of you who, like me, may have spent idyllic childhood/teenage afternoons hanging out with the grandparents, the concept of a lunchtime sandwich is as comfortable as an old shirt.  While I don’t ever recall being served tuna by the fam, Eisenberg’s egg salad on rye with lettuce and tomato ($4.25) is as close an imitation of my grandparents’ preparation methods as I’d dared to hope existed in this day and age.  A hunk of lettuce and a none-too-ripe tomato from my dad’s side, and rye and fresh egg salad from my mom’s side – simple!  The generous helping of pickles (more available on request) do Vlasic’s jarred variety several notches better, thankfully.

Their grilled sandwiches also exude perfection in a home-made, old-fashioned sort of way.  Looking for a panini-style grilled cheese?  Keep moving.  This griddle is absolutely flat, greased to perfection, and, most importantly, not used to crush whatever sandwich you were looking forward to into something unrecognizable.  It does, however, grill the cheese sandwich to crispy perfection ($4.00).  Just like dad used to make, except for the choice between American, Cheddar, Swiss, or Muenster (dad was a strict Cheddar advocate in those days).

The grill also makes a pretty damn good version of a tuna melt ($5.75) possible, but the real star there is the tuna salad itself.  I’m not sure anyone in my family ever made tuna salad this good, probably because they were using Miracle Whip or Hellmann’s to sweeten everything up.  Non-sweet mayo, as Sietsema suggests (Eisenberg’s is number 56 on the 2005 list), makes this salad better – mixing it fresh and to a strict recipe help, too.

Eisenberg’s has even thought of a few Dagwood possibilities never divined by any of my relatives – perhaps a few of my stoner friends, though.  Can’t decide between egg salad and tuna salad?  Get both on the same sandwich for $5.95, in a combination that tops Shopsin’s “Mother and Child Reunion” in the category of weird sandwich mash-ups.  Don’t worry, though – the tuna and egg salads aren’t mixed together.

I’ve not tried Eisenberg’s pastrami, brisket, or corned beef, nor sampled their cream cheese and jelly sandwich ($2.25) – has this ever been on the menu anywhere else?  The Tuesday and Thursday meatloaf special (supposedly an original recipe since 1929) sounds intriguing, though – bet they make a mean meatloaf sandwich.  Mmm.

Wash it all down with a lime rickey ($1.50) – not as consistent as the sandwiches (carbonation, lime flavor, and cherry flavor have varied from visit to visit), but guaranteed not to taste septic like that Goodburger one did.  They can make a real egg cream, too, and they carry the NYC deli staple Dr. Brown’s Cel-Ray ($1.10), what must surely be the world’s only celery soda (and an acquired taste, according to my girlfriend).

If you’re looking for a retro soda-fountain date locale, Eisenberg’s is the place – along with the right drinks, the ambiance is pure early-20th-century lunch counter, right down to the built-in stools and soda-water.  I’d probably avoid the tuna and egg combination if you want to be kissing afterwards, but in any other case, the sandwiches are dynamite, and highly recommended.


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Fort Hamilton Parkway pizza perfection.

Hi, gang!  Hope Thanksgiving passed with a minimum of stress and a maximum of gluttony – no better day to sit on the couch and avoid all activity.

One of my activities over the long weekend involved a trip of sorts down memory lane – my first return visit to Windsor Terrace/Kensington since moving out in June.  Make no mistake – there’s very little I miss about the place.  It’s altogether too much like a dense suburb – two family houses with plastic siding abound, and, rather than integrating, pockets of conservative Irish-Italian families alternate blocks with immigrant communities and the recent influx of new hipsters and families.

One of the things I DO miss was this weekend’s destination, though: Little Tonino’s Pizza, located at the corner of Greenwood Av. and E. 5th St, near the Fort Hamilton Parkway F-stop, and across the street and dividing park from the rumbling Prospect Expressway.  (Word to the wise – take the exit at the front of the train going outbound, or you’ll exit on the wrong side of the expressway.)  According to my former landlord, it’s been a neighborhood staple since her childhood, which I conservatively estimate means 40 years ago.  It was a staple for this neighborhood newcomer, too: Tonino’s was one of two decent places that would deliver to our E. 3rd St. home during my 6-month tenure there – the new Windsor Café was under construction – and I ate enough pizza during that time that I haven’t had but a slice or two since.

That’s not to say I was unhappy to OD on Tonino’s – their pizza is probably the best I’ve ever had.  The plain pie is, at $8, also the best pizza deal I’ve yet found.  Combining a dense but chewy crust with a mild, thick sauce and the finest-quality mozzarella available (seriously – the owner once told me that it costs nearly twice as much as the cheapest alternative, but that nothing else would do, quality-wise), the pizza is a delight to consume.  Depending on who makes it (and whether the standard ‘squirt of oil’ is omitted or retained), it can also be practically grease-free.

My favorite, though, is the Little Tonino’s special pie ($14), which resembles somewhat the Grandma’s pie you may have tried elsewhere.  With a ton of fresh mozzarella, garlic, basil, plum tomatoes, and the afore-mentioned crust to die for, the Tonino’s special is great pizza.  Again, I’m curious as to why the oil squirt is necessary, as I’m fairly certain that it’s only necessary to keep pies made for slice consumption moist; even drained, the pizza is delicious, particularly hot from the oven.  Both pizzas are available in ‘baby’ versions ($4 for the plain, $5 for the special), if you’re dining solo and want fresh-baked rather than slices.

I’ve had mixed success with Tonino’s other food options, which I hear is usually the case at a pizzeria of renown.  I can recall having a memorable first potato and egg (omelette) hero here, in the variety that includes onions and mozzarella – a bargain at $5.50 and a gut bomb big enough to be shared.  I think the meatballs were frozen – if so, feel free to avoid.  I’ve also tried the thickly vodka-sauced pasta that occasionally graces the steam table.  I say it’s mediocre, but it’s zipped up a bit by the inclusion of lots of garlic and strips of prosciutto.  Try the same sauce in the gnocchi alla nona instead, which are probably also right from the freezer, but at least would be boiled fresh (both $9, and also big enough to share).

Brooklynites may recognize the rice balls in the front case – these softball-sized borough specialties are deep fried, but usually are served reheated and topped (“deluxe”) with cheese and red sauce.  They make an ok meal in themselves – I’m curious as to how fresh (frozen, perhaps?) they are, though, and I’d love to someday try one right out of the fryer.  The garlic knots are usually oily and gross; the zeppoles (fried dough coated in powdered sugar) are much better, though still greasy.

Yes, Little Tonino’s is far out of the way of most pizza fans, but it’s worth a special trip, and I’ll even give you a suggestion for an itinerary: when it’s nice out, take a pie to go and head across the pedestrian bridge to Prospect Park – it’s about four blocks from the other side of the freeway.  Pizza in the park = pure bliss.

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Reader suggestion: Bedouin Tent.

Located on the northeast corner of Bond St. and Atlantic Av., Bedouin Tent is the least flashy of the three-restaurant cluster on that corner.  Its menu suggests that it is run by a Jordanian family, and that it has been a neighborhood staple for nearly fifteen years; that’s no small feat in a neighborhood that must have looked vastly different fifteen years ago.  Perhaps its location, sandwiched between the heavily Muslim area near 3rd and 4th Aves. and the Boerum Hill, Cobble Hill, and Brooklyn Heights neighborhoods, has helped.  I was turned on to it by reader Matt A., who submitted the first suggestion to the Twenty Bucks e-mail box.  Thanks, Matt!

Matt was right on the money – the food at Bedouin Tent is quite excellent.  The freshly baked pita bread is a revelation, taken from a pizza oven that dominates the restaurant’s décor.  It’s much more flaky and doughy than the usual pita product, particularly when just removed from the oven (the pita, sadly, doesn’t make the takeout trip nearly as well).  Speaking of oven products, I haven’t tried a “pitza,” but there were several that came from the oven while I waited for a recent takeout order that left me nearly drooling on the counter – the ground lamb version known as lambajin, and one that appeared to use artichoke hearts to great effect.

What have I tried?  Arriving with a fresh pita, the hummus is cool and perhaps smokier in flavor than Hummus Place’s version.  It’s also oil-infused and extremely fresh-seeming.  I liked it, but perhaps not enough to order again – Hummus Place has spoiled me rotten, and $4 seems a bit steep for a small portion.

I’ve also had the merguez (spicy lamb sausage) sandwich ($6), and it’s a delight.  A huge hunk of the non-encased sausage is slapped on a fresh pita, snuggled up against lettuce, the freshest tomatoes this side of a farmer’s market, and a squirt of tahini.  Of course, the star of the show is the medium-spiced sausage, and the spice adds a significant advantage over any kind of doner-like meat I’ve previously encountered.  The spice masks the lamb’s natural skankiness – the ordinary smell and flavor don’t bother me, true, but this merguez might still be the perfect kebab meat.

On a recent weekend, I took advantage of a Chicken Ouzi (pronounced “uzi”) special – or, perhaps I should say, it took advantage of me.  Complaining initially about the $12 price, I was hard-pressed to finish what was presented to me, and certainly not for lack of quality.  Lying on a bed of fresh pita, the sides of the plate strewn with lettuce and tomatoes, a flaky pastry crust is placed, containing rice, cubed chicken, peas, toasted almonds, golden raisins, and some kind of light oily coating to hold everything together.  Unsweetened yogurt comes on the side.  Unbelievably delicious and easily enough to feed two – when I had eaten until nearly full, I decided to roll up the pita and eat the rest like a sandwich.  Lo and behold, the sandwich was bigger than the merguez version!  I practically rolled home that night.

Not to be missed, despite the filling mains, are Bedouin Tent’s desserts.  Now, I’ve eaten a lot of baklava in my life, generally infused with varying degrees of pistachio, finely or coarsely chopped, and many times so soaked in honey that it was hard to taste anything else.  Not true of this version ($2) – the primary flavor is, astonishingly, cinnamon, and there’s just enough honey to hold everything together without the usual “sticky sweet.”  Sublime and possibly the best version I’ve had anywhere, including my favorite Syrian restaurant in Berlin.

One dessert that good would be enough, but Bedouin Tent has another – a cake made with semolina flour, honey, and yogurt, and called basbousa ($2).  Looking like a yellow cake that maybe rose not quite enough, and topped with toasted almonds, the basbousa is also just sweet enough without being over-honeyed.  It’s quite dense, too, without being overly rich or overly crumbly – just perfect pastry all around.

Bedouin Tent is no secret, and I’m glad of that, kind of.  Funny story: I encountered my first photoblogger there, taking pictures of his chicken, hummus, and babaghanouj platter and inquiring as to the composition of the sauce on the side (for the record, it was tahini).  It felt very meta, particularly knowing that I would be writing about the place soon, and having read Lindsayism’s recent rant about the ruinous ubiquity of photobloggers.  I mean, the poor schmuck must have taken five minutes to set up the perfect picture of his food, which I thought was totally nuts.  So, in case you’re wondering why I don’t have photos: true, I’m not a good photographer and I don’t have a good camera, but more importantly, I don’t want to screw around when presented with a dish of food as good as the ones I’ve had at Bedouin Tent.  Not touching that pita for five minutes after oven removal is damn near criminal.    

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This "Slice" is far from perfect.

I realize that I’ve been avoiding writing about pizza – the reasons for that are twofold. One, I totally burnt out on pizza during spring of this year, while living in a rather obscure corner of Brooklyn with limited delivery options. Two, I think that Slice (the website) does a fantastic job covering it. I’m going to do a review of the place that caused my pizza burnout soon (it’s fantastic, seriously). In the meantime, I’ll fill you in on last night, when my girlfriend and I ordered in from a new place, named in an unwieldy and immodest fashion “Slice: The Perfect Food.”

Far be it from me to argue with the categorization of a pizza slice as the perfect food, at least in a certain category of local fast-food specialty – it’s hard to imagine NYC without its pizza parlors, which are to this city what doner kebap joints are to Berlin, or burrito stands are to L.A. Most pizza available in the city at least toes the line of some kind of long-established and well-thought-out tradition, though – whether it’s Neapolitan, Sicilian, or Italian-American, variations on a theme are the name of the game.

“Slice: The Perfect Food” (hereinafter STPF) has none of those pretensions; its affectations are altogether more precious. Like its spiritual (if not gastronomical) predecessor, the California Pizza Kitchen, STPF throws the whole lot of tradition out the window in favor of the idea of pizza – a baked crust with sauce and the occasional cheese sighting, where seemingly any topping is fair game. As an additional affront to pizza traditionalists, STPF (located at 1413 2nd Av.) claims to concentrate on the organic and restricted-diet-enabling side of the ingredient spectrum – the cheeses available, for example, start out at a relatively straightforward organic mozzarella, but move along to the lactose-intolerant-friendly goat cheese, soy mozzarella, and rice mozzarella. There is a gluten-free crust available, too, which makes the availability of whole-wheat crust seem downright normal.

Needless to say, this kind of menu is likely to give fans of traditional pizza the heart attacks that the healthy ingredients were designed to prevent – that is, if the prices of the pies and slices ($4?!?) don’t cause a coronary first. Being the open-minded sort, though, I thought I’d give the place a try (full disclosure: it was also pouring rain out, and my girlfriend’s internet wasn’t working to check menupages).

We elected, from a book-like menu containing several more drawn half-naked women than pages of food choices, the rather irritatingly named (hint: the more money you shell out, the smarter you are) “expert” pie ($24), which promised grilled organic rosemary chicken and basil with marinara sauce on herb crust. We added the organic mozzarella at an indeterminate cost, braving the fact that the price of extra cheese wasn’t listed.

Thirty-five minutes or so later, the pie arrived, and the disappointment began. The crust was tough as nails, a fact not aided by the pizza having cooled substantially from its removal from the oven. While the cheese-and-sauced portions were fine, if bland, we frequently discarded bits of the outer rim of crust. Yes, the pie was good enough to finish, but if it had been any colder, we would have had to reheat it (it would have been tough in a standard-sized oven, too – the pies are rectangular).

You’d think the story would end there, but you’d be wrong. My girlfriend and I were picking at Ciao Bella Chocolate Sorbet and Pumpkin Gelato pints (the former, by the way, is still my favorite of the two, but the latter…it’s really, really good), when the doorbell rang. Having ignored his phone call earlier, she and I thought that it would be her best friend coming to collect something he’d forgotten. Instead, it was a second STPF delivery person bearing an “expert” pie with added cheese, an hour and ten minutes after our initial order.

Needless to say, she was as befuddled as we were, particularly when confronted with the evidence (read: box) that we had just consumed the pie we’d ordered. This pie even had the address written on the side – did we end up with someone else’s pie earlier, I thought? My girlfriend, always quick on her feet, offered the use of her telephone to the pie-bearer to call STPF and clear up the mystery. We’re not quite sure what the problem was, but after the call ended, the second pie was offered to us, gratis (other than my girlfriend tipping the delivery person – rarely has a tip been so well earned).

Anyway, “expert” #2 was leagues better than the first. Most importantly, it was hot out of the oven, making the crust significantly less tough, and the chicken/cheese/sauce combination more appealing – just a completely different experience. Frustratingly, we were too full of cold-ish pizza and gelato to really appreciate it. My girlfriend just reported, though, that even cold (refrigerated overnight and consumed for lunch), this pie was much better than our original from last night.

I can’t really complain about two pizzas for $30-ish, but I don’t think this experience was typical – if it is, STPF won’t be in business for much longer. I’m not sure if it will anyway – I suppose there are plenty of people in the UES who will happily pay $24 per 2-person pie, but are these people also finicky enough to order rice mozzarella and gluten-free crust, and forgiving enough to order again after a cold pie is delivered? Regardless of what I think of the place from a business standpoint, the inconsistent pies could also use some improvement, even within the constraints of the menu; hot delivery of every pie should also be a top priority. Perfection, to put it mildly, remains elusive.


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Hat’s tricks fail to impress.

An argument could be made, I think, that there’s no better example of the bizarre style of gentrification in the Lower East Side than the continued existence of the Puerto Rican-run Mexican restaurant called “El Sombrero.”  El Sombrero, at Ludlow and Stanton, is the kind of place you’d think would be replaced in one of the first waves of gringo invasion – prime corner real estate on Ludlow’s hip strip and a large dining area being  two of the biggest factors.  But the Sombrero has endured, somehow, and managed to attract a totally different kind of clientele in the process – the afore-mentioned hip gringos grabbing food before hitting Pianos or Arlene’s.

Their endurance is, unfortunately, not a testament to the quality of the food.  The chips that are planted in front of you upon your arrival seem far from fresh, even though the watery red salsa is appealingly warm in both temperature and spice (not as much fun when it cools, sadly).  The margaritas, while strong and tasty in both frozen and rocked incarnations, seem expensive – $7 buys you a pint of either – though you’re unlikely to need too many.

The entrees are a similarly mixed blessing.  I had noted a chicken mole listed on the entrée, and wondered to our rather surly waitress if I could get the mole sauce poured over some chicken enchiladas (a la the previously reviewed El Huipil).  I was surprised to receive an affirmative answer, but I needn’t have bothered – the mole was nothing special or even really recognizable (save for a brief burst of cocoa).  It, like the salsa, was thin and watery.  The enchiladas themselves would have been better had they utilized better tortillas, and not been drowned in a sea of jack cheese.

The tortillas were similarly disappointing on my girlfriend’s tacos, but the chicken in both places was at least palatable and flavorful.  That’s more than I could say for the rice and canned-seeming refried beans, which certainly weren’t up to any kind of standard.

I’ve also had the chimichangas at El Sombrero, and if you’re a fan of grease, you’ll probably enjoy this Tex-Mex gut bomb.  I wouldn’t say it’s the best I’ve had, by any stretch, though, and the limited range of fillings don’t help any.

I’m willing to declare that El Sombrero is a good place to meet friends for an undiscerning meal of Mexi-sludge and margaritas (carryout available – shh!), and it would seem that LES diners agree – the dining room gets packed on weekend evenings.  I’m not exactly eager to go back again, though.

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Experiments in instant gratification.

Ever feel lazy?  Sure you have – why else would NYC offer delivery of just about everything at just about any time of day?  Services like FreshDirect and Amazon’s same-day-to-Manhattan delivery are more recent additions to the near-instant delivery sphere, augmenting the more traditional restaurant deliveries.  Many restaurants even do a majority of their business this way – for plenty of families (not just in New York, admittedly), I know that “Chinese” and “delivery” are virtually synonymous, much like pizza before it, and Indian and Thai seem to be not far behind.

The internet offers new paradigms of delivery, though – faster, with more diverse offerings.  One delivery site that straddles the line between FreshDirect’s grocery and pre-prepared foods field and a restaurant’s delivery service is, which offers as close to instant gratification as is possible without actually leaving your chair.  MaxDelivery’s gimmick is that they deliver in an hour or less, and I was astonished to note after ordering at 12:38 that their website updated, nearly-instantly, that my order was assembled within five minutes and out the door in another two, and slated to arrive by 12:53.

Such punctuality is almost unheard of in areas other than German train service, so I awaited the arrival of the delivery dude with some interest.  Of course, given the security of the building I work at, a four minute delay (I received the call indicating the drop at 12:57) is more than acceptable.  The food was delivered in a series of white bags, making me look like an idiot on the way back to the desk, but enabling the easy hiding of my two pints of Ciao Bella gelato and sorbet in the freezer on the way back to my desk ($4.50 – actually cheaper than buying pre-packed pints at the C.B. scoop shop).

I had ordered a sandwich for my lunch, believing the promise that it would be freshly assembled, and believing that it couldn’t possibly be worse than the shite I’d eaten once at Togo’s/Dunkin’ Donuts (easily the worst sandwich I’ve ever eaten).  I’m happy to report that the incongruously-named “Harlem” sandwich is the closest thing to banh mi delivery we’re likely to get in the West Village any time soon.  It’s got chicken breast, cilantro, pickled carrots, cucumbers, and seedy jalapeños(!), with a swab of mayo on the very fresh, dense hero bread – all that’s missing is the hot sauce, really, and I probably could have ordered a bottle if I’d been thinking ahead.  For $6.50, it’s obviously the most expensive banh mi ever created, and its authenticity is Nicky’s-lite, but, all things considered, it was a lot better than I was expecting.

Sugar Sweet Sunshine is my favorite NYC bakery; their baker’s dozen cookies-in-a-box is a good alternative to the rest of MaxDelivery’s cookie category – all Chips Ahoy and Pepperidge Farm stuff, basically.  This is not to say that the cookies were hot off the press – though the date on the bottom of the box indicated that the window for consumption wouldn’t be over for another three days – but they were far from stale.  At $5.40 (on sale, for some reason), they were, again, a little expensive, but they sure made the office a lot happier when I shared.  Brownies are also available.

In a few years, the stoner “classic” Half Baked might seem more dated than even Reefer Madness, and not because of Dave Chappelle’s then-sanity.  After all, with, Harland Williams would never have had to go on a munchie run.  For just over ten bucks (the sandwich and cookies came to $11.90, plus tax), with free delivery this week and next (and two free deliveries with any new account at any time), even the guy on the couch would have had to turn over and give his approval.

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MacDougal Street’s griddle treats.

I’ve ignored a couple of previous favorite MacDougal St. eateries lately, given that Hummus Place is so astonishingly and consistently good (their latest menu addition: ShakSuka, which is described as a Mediterranean vegetable stew, but looking and tasting more like your grandmother’s stewed tomatoes, if they were served in a skillet with pita bread on the side).  So, today, I went back to Kati Roll and PressToast, to see if they were still good enough to recommend.

My first stop was PressToast, on MacDougal between Minetta Lane and Bleecker, which I frequented for a time just after it opened in 2004.  I had always enjoyed their iteration of toast, which shares nothing with the Blue Ribbon version other than bread – Israeli toast is like a panino made on extra-soft bread, and it’s grilled on a flat griddle press rather than a ridged one.  I’m not exactly sure why I stopped going – I think it coincided roughly with my discovery of Abbondanza around the corner.  Anyway, I was tickled to find it this summer at the 68th position on Sietsema’s current list of cheap eats, and decided to go again at some point (some point being, of course, six months later).

PressToast, I’m happy to say, has improved – they’ve added a small seating area and have expanded their menu to include the Israeli wraps known as Mallawah, added sliced chicken to their list of potential toast/wrap ingredients, and upped their dressing possibilities by including Russian and honey mustard.  I tried the new chicken avocado toast ($4), which also included tomatoes, onions, and ranch dressing.  Quite good – I didn’t notice the ranch as much as I thought, but warmed avocadoes, tomatoes, and onions always do me right, and the chicken was a nice touch, too.  I also remember them having a mean mint lemonade, but I didn’t try it this time.

After picking that up (I actually recommend eating it there rather than taking away, if the weather’s not frigid), I headed across the street to Kati Roll.  Apparently part of a chain that includes at least a midtown branch and the less-than-satisfying Indian Bread Company around the corner, Kati Roll was a very frequent destination of mine last year.  Again, I’ve not been back in a while, but little has changed – the Bollywood movie posters still hang on the wall, and the prices ($3.50-$4.50 for most rolls, with a two-roll deal that knocks a buck or so off the price) haven’t changed.

Also not changing is the inconsistency of the food.  I’ve had paneer (cheese) rolls there, when warmed enough and with fresh bread, that truly were great.  I’ve also had the very same paneer rolls be heated not nearly enough and be drab.  Given that my two favorites there are the paneer and the aloo (potato) rolls (I think the meats are too dry – the reheating doesn’t work as well), I would advise that, if you get a paneer roll, watch it like a hawk to make sure it stays on the grill long enough, and eat it in-store.

I was carrying out, so I opted for the aloo roll, which is surprisingly spicy.  The aloo is heaped onto the grill from an unseen container and flipped once – it’s fairly resistant to the reheating process, which made it my most frequent carryout roll.  The bread was a bit greasy this time around, which is always frustrating to note when they’re making fresh bread on the griddle in the back of the store.  It could also have been the sauce squirted on the roll (and that later squirted on my keyboard…whoops!) that was making the bread translucent, I suppose, and the carryout, again, does nobody any favors.

I can absolutely recommend Kati Roll, but unfortunately with the caveat that their food is inconsistent as hell, due mostly to preparation methods.  PressToast is much more likely to yield a satisfying meal, in my mind, and now that they have a seating area for the cold winter months, may yet see more of my business.  Hey, I’ve got a frequent toaster card with eight punches – just one more and I’ll get free toast, which is about as cheap and satisfying a meal as is possible.


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"Yahoo!" I exclaimed, as I read the site traffic report.

Exciting news – yesterday, Twenty Bucks a Day was named one of the Yahoo search directory’s “New and Notable” sites for 11/16/2005.  Our traffic absolutely skyrocketed!  Thanks to Yahoo, and welcome to our new readers!

I’ve also added buttons at the bottom of the right column for My Yahoo and Newsgator readers to easily add Twenty Bucks a Day to their homepages.

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Hoppers take Manhattan: Sri Lankan sans ferry.

It was with great happiness that I recently noted a chowhound post claiming a Sri Lankan restaurant had opened on 1st Ave. at 6th St.  Many of you have no doubt wandered by the spillover from 6th St.’s “Curry Row” and been harassed by what possibly are the only Italian-tourist-restaurant-style “patron wranglers” in America – would this obnoxious spot yield cuisine good enough to brave the flashing lights and signs?  My girlfriend and I went on a mission to find out.

Sigiri is one of the upstairs restaurants on this densely-filled block, and our window table afforded us a fine view of 1st Ave. and the projects across the street.  Unsurprisingly for a new ethnic restaurant, we were one of two tables filled at 6:45 on a Tuesday.  With so few customers (and the other group being the worst mother ever and her daughter, who my girlfriend and I couldn’t stop feeling sorry for), the newly-painted dining room felt a little empty – no music, even, save for the occasional blast from a passing bass-mobile.  The cheery colors and Pier 1 table settings won us over, though, even before the friendly waitress came to take our order (who doesn’t love a restaurant that feels like your mother could have decorated it?).

While we were pondering our order, the waitress had brought us a small dish of what must be the oddest appetizer I’ve yet been served in an ethnic restaurant – Chex Mix.  I can’t tell if it was right from the bag or not, but I’m encouraged to say that it wasn’t, given several of the satisfyingly crunchy ingredients would seem out of place in a Chex Mix bag, and that the spice level was relatively high.  Can’t say for sure, though – it’s been a few years since my last munchie run to the Cumberland Farms.

I find hoppers one of the most fascinating parts of Sri Lankan cuisine, and I wasn’t about to pass up an order of four ($8).  For those who aren’t aware, hoppers are sort of like a thin, somewhat crispy bowl-shaped pancake, into which the various dishes can be loaded.  There’s another kind of hopper called a “string” hopper, which is a sort of pressed rice vermicelli patty that looks like a refugee from Vietnamese cooking, but the similar name does not reflect any taste similarities.  The hoppers proper look kind of like a boule crossed with a crepe, if that makes sense.  One hopper in our order had an egg over easy deposited into the middle, which was aesthetically pleasing as well as tasty.

We ordered a fish curry ($8) as the primary dish to load into the hoppers.  The fish seemed like frozen swordfish, and wasn’t particularly thrilling (nor was it bad, like Mina’s fish), but the curry was excellent.  We had ordered it spicy, and it came to us with a slightly redder mustard color.  One thing that hoppers aren’t good for: sopping up the curry sauce.  I would probably order a dhal or chicken curry next time, and make sure to get some kind of bread to wipe the bowl clean.

Our other dish was Chicken Lamprais ($12), a kind of rice casserole served in folded banana leaves.  The rice is sweetened, seemingly, and added to it were a boiled egg that looked like it had been deep fried somehow, a kind of “ash” plantains (sweet and delicious), chicken pieces (on the bone, so watch out!) and something called a fish cutlet, which I wouldn’t be surprised to find was some part of the fish the western palate isn’t used to (it was fishy, but the texture was considerably different than your usual fish filet).  Also included were a kind of fishy flakes – I didn’t discover these until I was scraping the last remains of the dish from the leaves on to my plate (I think they were huddled in a corner), and I’m rather glad I didn’t – not a very good texture or flavor.

For dessert, we tried the Watalappan ($3), which is a flan-like egg and coconut custard made with the unrefined palm sugar known as “jaggery” – our iteration also contained cashews.  As with the Tapajos River Steakhouse flan, the custard had the consistency of a real egg dish – a way of falling apart into shards that custard-from-a-box just won’t do.  It was quite delicious.  I had also tried the Sri Lankan iced coffee with dinner, which we were told contained a bit of rum.  It was delicious, as well, presented in a champagne flute-like glass and looking good enough to elicit jealousy from the afore-mentioned worst mother ever, at least until she discovered it was coffee-based (I’m glad she didn’t find out there was rum involved).  The rum certainly didn’t overpower the coffee – it just lent it a nice flavor.  I enjoyed it more than the average over-sugared Thai iced tea, for sure.

It seems to be a trend for NYC’s south Asian restaurants, after years of flying the Indian flag, to declare their true nationalities – witness Spicy Mina’s emergence and the diversification of Curry Row from “Indian” to “Bangladeshi.”  Sigiri offers hope that Manhattanites and borough-phobes will share in this revolution – much as the introduction of different regional Chinese cuisines has enriched the city’s understanding of the depth and complexity of that country’s myriad culinary cultures.  Given that most of this city’s other Sri Lankan restaurants are located in Staten Island (where the proprietor of Sigiri and his family live), it’s particularly great that this cuisine has made it to a location where many more people will encounter it.

My girlfriend and I, despite some unorthodox menu choices, and prices that I would consider somewhat high, enjoyed our meal immensely.  I’m encouraged that the prices for take-out and delivery seem to be somewhat lower (though you can’t get hoppers) – hopefully Sigiri will stick around.


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