Monthly Archives: November 2005

Indoor picnic assembly on the Lower and Upper East Sides.

After a foodwise-mediocre but atmosphere-perfect (dig the park-view outdoor seating) and cost-effective brunch ($10 with juice or well-spiced Bloody Mary, coffee included) at Esperanto on Sunday, my girlfriend and I decided to wander down to SoHo, slowly.  Some of the nice things about a rambling Sunday excursion are the surprises en route, and one of this Sunday’s surprises was the farmer’s market at the southwest corner of Tompkins Square Park.

A great deal smaller than the more well-known Saturday Union Square farmer’s market, the Tompkins market had an impressive array of foods available, especially apples.  Being that it is prime local apple season, I wandered from stand to stand admiring the array of possibilities, daydreaming of pies.  I settled on Macintosh apples – ¾ dozen for under four dollars, a much better price than I’d been paying at Blue Ribbon Bakery Market for virtually the same thing.

As we wandered back towards 7th St., we noticed a stand selling various kinds of breads, and I had a thought: as we had no dinner plans, and, given our brunch hour, probably wouldn’t want to eat until late anyway, why not make a meal of peasant bread, cured meats, and cheeses?  We bought half a loaf of a crumbly, dense white bread from the vendor to this end, and our final purchases of the farmer’s market were a dollar cup of hot apple cider (delicious – fresh makes all the difference here), and a four-inch pecan pie ($2.50).

After a brief trip to the Apple store (I got a kick from toting a bag full of fresh Macintosh apples in), we headed to Ciao Bella’s scoop shop on Mott between Prince and Houston.  Momentarily saddened to see that they didn’t have any chocolate sorbet available for fresh pack, we tasted the pumpkin gelato – almost immediately, the chocolate sorbet longing was a distant memory.  Absolutely amazing stuff – between it and the pumpkin pie custard that Shake Shack was featuring a week or two ago, I’m not sure I have a need to eat pumpkin pie in its standard form any longer.

We chose to get a fresh pack pint of the pumpkin gelato ($5.75), so we had make a beeline to the freezer uptown, via the 6 and, strangely, 2 trains.  On the way from the station to home, we stopped at Melange (1st Ave. between 64th and 65th Sts.), a purveyor of cured meats, cheeses, and Middle Eastern desserts, among other things.  Melange claims in their window to have the lowest prices in town, and it’s certainly hard to argue with that assessment: we purchased ¼ lb each of sopressata (sweet and salami-like) and capicola (hot and ham-like), ½ lb of fresh mozzarella, a small container of olives, and a wedge of brie for about fifteen dollars.  I can’t imagine doing the same at Whole Foods for so little money – we figured it would cost at least 50% more there.  I plan on trying the myriad array of pastries (ruglach, baklava, etc.) next time – there was also a Close Encounters-esque mountain of an unidentified beige sweet that I’m jonesing to try sooner than later.

Once home, the olive oil flowed like water, and the meats and cheeses made a perfect combination.  A better Sunday night light dinner one couldn’t ask for…though I guess it was only light until we broke out the gelato.  And, as far as its impact on the wallet was concerned – we already had the oil and balsamic vinegar, as I’m sure most of you do.  Meats, cheeses, and olives were $15, and we had leftovers of the sopressata and the brie.  The bread was $3, and we polished off only half of our half loaf.  The pecan pie was pretty forgettable (maybe it would have been better re-baked), but an apple or two went well with the cheeses (let’s say you’re not as much of a nut as I am, and buy three apples for around $1).  Sans gelato, we spent less than $10 a person, had a satisfying feast AND a nice walk around Lower Manhattan.  On a beautiful fall Sunday afternoon, it’s an itinerary that can’t be beat.

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Anyone know a good artery doc?

Regular readers will know that I’m mildly obsessed with the fry-up: I’m continually excited to discover new places to have an Irish breakfast.  This weekend, a lazy day spent loading my girlfriend’s new iPod led us to a very late first meal of the day – at 4pm, we stumbled out of my apartment into the rapidly fading afternoon with increasing hunger.

Fortunately, Ceol (Smith St. at Warren St.) serves their Irish breakfast all day, which we were glad to discover upon sitting at a table in the back room and studying the bill of fare.  That rear area, at least, doesn’t feel like a bar – more like an ADHD-addled interior decorator’s idea of a kitschy bed and breakfast’s meal room.  There is, however, a gas fireplace that projects a fair bit of warmth, as well as an extremely friendly and informal staff, who treated us like old friends (almost weirdly so – I was really surprised).

A shout out to my girlfriend, whose close reading of the menu produced the unlikely culinary gem of the day in the fried pickle appetizer ($6).  Not fried pickle chips, as apparently exist at Brother Jimmy’s, but rather full-length pickle wedges, coated in crispy, thin, not-soggy batter.  Of course, you’ll need to like pickles, as this dish won’t change anyone from a long held anti-pickle bias, but I would swear that the heating of the pickle in the fryer (it got quite hot!) actually enhanced its flavor.  I thought it was rather cheeky that the dipping sauce, seemingly the same as would be served with potato skins, contained chopped dill.  Six to a plate, you’ll need more than just two people to finish the platter and still have room for the main course.

Preceding the pickles’ arrival on our table was a basket of fresh Irish soda bread with raisins, and a dollop of butter.  I’m a big fan of this quick-bake treat (my suitemates and I made it a lot our senior year in college), and I was disappointed when my second trip to D.J. Reynolds didn’t yield any.  Ceol’s iteration is crumbly and soft in all the right places, and between it and the pickles (and a pint or two), probably would have made a perfect light meal.

Of course, with us not having eaten anything more substantial all day than some chocolates, there would be no such waistline-watching.  My fry-up arrived containing two eggs over medium-ish, two pieces of English-style bacon, two sausages, two pieces each of black and white pudding, and two wedges of stewed tomato (two heart attacks were also included, though not listed on the menu).  The expected potatoes provided a surprising twist – home-fry sized chunks of potatoes were deep-fried and served on a side plate.  Beans arrived shortly afterwards in a gravy boat (whooo-ooooo).

Needless to say, I was pleased, and ate until I was full and then some.  My girlfriend was similarly pleased, both to taste white pudding – bloodless, I assured her – and by her burger ($10, I think) which was better than one should expect from a pub.  While describing it as medium rare would perhaps be a stretch, it was certainly juicy and tasty, and absolutely huge.  It was sided with a generous helping of steak fries, as though enough fried food hadn’t already been consumed by us.

The Irish breakfast isn’t the cheapest I’ve ever had ($11) – Nick’s Lunch Inn and D.J. Reynolds both come in cheaper.  But the portions are enormous, the atmosphere is infinitely better than either Nick’s diner-y environs or D.J. Reynolds’ ancient wood-paneled splendor-squalor, the staff can’t be beat, and the location is much closer to my usual weekend-morning stomping grounds.  Fried pickles and decent burgers are also a plus.


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Chinese tex-mex ‘strategery.’

So I know you’re curious – have I ever eaten at one of those Chinese-run tex-mex places anywhere in the city? Well, yes, I have, the one on Varick at Houston, mostly. I’m not afraid to admit it. What might shock you, though, is that I think they’re worthwhile – to a very small point.

First of all, avoid the beans. Like the effing plague, folks. They’re undercooked-yet-mushy and I can only describe them as “slithery.” Ick, ick, ick. Not that most of the other ingredients are high quality (particularly the chorizo, which claims to be “ground sausage” but looks more like mystery meat). Even if you’re brave/starving and want to try something I don’t recommend, please avoid the beans.

Also, I think their lunch combos are a scam. After you remove the icky beans, the combos consist of varying combinations of meat, lettuce/tomato or peppers/onions, some guacamole that could best be described as “preserved,” and a bunch of cheese thrown on top of rice and melted in a steam-cooker. Oh yeah, you get a free soda, too, and I’m sure that’s the most expensive wholesale ingredient in the $5 package.

Burritos aren’t much better – they generally use 12” tortillas from a package, wrapping from one to all of the above ingredients in the burrito, and you don’t even get a free soda.

What’s to like? Well…basically just the fresh 8” tortillas. They’re really, really good – watch the cooks take a ball of dough, squish it in some kind of press contraption, then throw it on the griddle to brown.

I know the thought of just tortillas isn’t enough to inspire a visit, so I’d recommend the quesadillas. With the included huge glop of melted jack cheese (and, if you want chicken, which is better than the steak by a long shot, or jalepenos), it might remind you of something you attempted to cook in the microwave as a kid, or maybe as an inebriated college student, except with non-stale tortillas. In fact, it’s probably too much cheese, as the grease in the bottom of the container will demonstrate. For under three bucks, though, you could wipe some off. Tacos, too, use the fresh tortillas.

Yes, the food is mostly bad. But, barring a trip to the tortilla factory, where are you going to get tortillas fresher than this? Just don’t ever order the beans.


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Parallel coverage.

Elsewhere in the food reviewing universe, it’s nice to see the NY Times, Village Voice, and Gothamist take on restaurants that I’ve recently covered. All three of the restaurants covered (Goodburger, Himalayan Yak, and Rai Rai Ken, respectively) are more than worthy of further coverage, although (as one commenter on Gothamist noted) little Rai Rai Ken’s going to be totally overrun. That’s life in the reviewing biz, I guess – look what happened to underground sensation Momofuku after the NYT review.

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Max’s malevolent moll and pasta penance.

If you’re me, you need Italian pasta sometimes to stay sane and grounded.  The challenge is finding a place to eat that pasta that’s both cheap and good – if I wanted mediocre red sauce from a jar and cheese from a green can, I’d probably be cooking at home more often.  It was with these targets in mind that my girlfriend and I visited one of her favorite Italian places, Max.  Located at 51 Ave. B in the East Village, Max was also the number 4 choice on Sietsema’s 2004 Italian restaurants list, and, unlike one of its list brethren I ate at recently, Roberto’s of the Bronx (the number 2 choice), Max is cheap!

I should make a note about the hostess, though, before we go any further – she was a heinous wench of a human being, or at least acted like one.  I’m used to frosty service in NYC, and I don’t generally hold it against places, but when your customers are a couple who probably want to have a romantic dinner for two, and you lead them to the crammed-together row of tables that always exists in restaurants in the Village (and Brooklyn, lately), you’ve got to at least throw them a bone and NOT put them right next to the only other table in the row with people.

When we asked if we could take the next table, she actually said no, claiming in a rather snide manner that she reserved it for groups of three.  Now, if this were a full restaurant, or was to become one during the time immediately after we were there, I’d understand.  However, nobody sat in this table the whole time we were there, and it was questionable whether a third person could sit there anyway (there wasn’t even a chair for a third person when we got there – she brought one over about ten seconds after negging us).  I understand the point about it being hard to seat people between two full tables (table selection at restaurants, for me, being the opposite of NYC real estate conventional wisdom), but again, this problem wouldn’t arise if you sat people in a rational pattern, filling in the least desirable tables last.

I’d probably not have mentioned it here, but she did the very same thing to another group that came in a few minutes before we left – on the other side of the row.  Note to OCD-afflicted hostesses everywhere: you are not the table Nazi.  And when you start moving tables to accommodate an incoming group and slam another table into ours, politeness dictates an apology.

After resisting the urge to flip her off, we ordered the lasagna and the gnocchi, with a side of sautéed broccoli rabe (and the waiter, for what it’s worth, was fine).  A large portion of bread and some kind of olive tapenade came shortly after, and we were happy to nosh a bit and dry out from the late afternoon rainstorm that caught the two of us with but one umbrella, basking in the glow of the low lighting (except when the lighting dimmed every time the dishwasher was turned on – uh, guys, you might want to call an electrical contractor).

The service was quick, and we were served our dishes promptly.  The lasagna ($10) came in a round crock that reminded me of a European “al Forno” preparation.  It is advertised as in the style of “mama,” and, while Dad was the lasagna-maker in our family, it stacked up fairly well against the decidedly average lasagnas I’ve been exposed to in most restaurant settings.  The beef and cheese were plentiful and the sauce, while on the sweet and bland side, was by no means unwelcome.  I thought the noodles were a bit overcooked, though.  The portion is quite generous.

The broccoli rabe was quite acceptable, while bitter and lacking somewhat in garlic flavor, despite the presence of several whole cloves.  Oily and crunchy, it was the vegetable infusion that my body probably craves far more often than it gets.  At $6, it was a rather large portion, enough for a whole meal or two sides, and I would probably have been happier with a $3 portion that was half as big (unlikely, of course). seems to indicate that the rabe used to be $4, which seems more reasonable.  Guess they’ve raised the prices on sides to keep the main prices under $10?

I haven’t had tastier gnocchi ($10) in quite a while, if ever – the little morsels of potato noodle seemed fresh, not frozen, and while they were not al dente, they retained their spring and flavor well.  The tomato sauce may have been the same sweet-bland combination that adorned the lasagna, but I wasn’t complaining.  The cheese was, also like the lasagna, out of control – we were sharing dishes and had strings of mozzarella going back and forth like a spider web.  You could even have your own personal lady and the tramp moment, if you were so inclined!  Like the lasagna and rabe, a large portion – nothing like a pasta gut bomb to cap off a rainy Wednesday.

I liked Max, and I’ll be back, I’m sure, but I do have reservations about the sauce, the pasta cooking times, and (especially) the hostess.  I doubt that they’ll be improved on my next visit, though – Max seems to be resting on its reputation as the Italian answer to Mama’s around the corner: home-style comfort food at a reasonable price, with a low degree of personal space.

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Spicy Mina: a group excursion.

I went back to Spicy Mina last night for a more in-depth investigation (check further down the page for the original visit coverage), this time with my roommate and two other friends.  Taking one of the larger mid-room tables, we took some time to study the menu.  Finally, we came up with the following dishes: palak paneer (again – had to introduce my friends to this), mustard fish, chicken jhal fry, Mina’s special dal fry, aloo gobie, to follow a chicken lollipop starter.  3 orders of nan, one order of paratha, and one plate of rice were to accompany these dishes, along with the baskets of papadums already consumed (the good onion relish and mint sauce did not appear this time, strangely).

First, the good: even my normally-cauliflower-hating future doctor friend declared the aloo gobie to be good, with big hunks of potatoes and cauliflower in a burnt-orange-colored sauce.  At $7, this is one of the cheaper dishes on the stay-in menu (the take-out menu is totally different and seemingly a lot more straightforward, for what it’s worth).

I loved the dal fry/lentil mash, which was spicy, though not as spicy as I expected.  Others thought it was blah – I think it might have been a texture issue, as it’s a little like thick oatmeal crossed with lumpy mashed potatoes.  The chicken jhal fry was much more universally acclaimed – tender chicken in the spiciest sauce we consumed during the whole meal.  A winner, to be sure.

The palak paneer, contradicting in this case Mr. Leff’s assertion that Mina’s dishes are likely to vary wildly from visit to visit, was remarkably similar to the preparation of it I consumed on Sunday.  The ingredients are wilted spinach or spinach-like greens, dotted with crumbled cheese, and the dish’s primary flavor was garlic and a simmering undercurrent of spice.  I’m not sure we got enough cheese this time, though.

As to the non-entrée dishes: the nan was buttery, fresh, and delicious – I’m not sure if she makes it herself, but if she doesn’t, it’s quite tasty for pre-prepared.  The paratha was also good, and refreshingly free of the excess grease that sometimes consumes multi-layer pancake breads.  The chicken lollipops were acclaimed to be good by my friends, and I even thought them acceptable, despite my general aversion to chicken wings.  The batter is pretty light, which helps greatly.

On the other hand, the mustard fish was pretty poor, I thought, and it wasn’t just the bland sauce.  No, the underlying fish could have been MUCH fresher.  The fish is served whole, and upon picking apart the side of the fish facing up, we were struck by a way-too-fishy smell and taste.  I would have left the rest if not for my medical school friend, still hungry (more on that in a second) started picking at the other side.  Strangely, it was significantly less fishy – actually edible.  Again, though, the sauce was really bland, and I probably wouldn’t order it again even if the fish was fresh.

My favorite dish of the night was, far and away, the rice pudding dessert.  Described accurately by Mr. Leff as bordering on controlled-substance addicting, the pudding (served in a small portion) was creamy and delicious, not gloppy or ultra-sweetened like another rice pudding favorite, Rice to Riches.  It was served with a small sweet cheese globe, dusted with pistachio powder, and adorned with a mint leaf (do me a favor and try this: suck on the mint leaf and have a bite of half of the cheese ball with rice pudding – it’s unbelievably good together).

I’m now of two minds on the Mina experience.  Obviously, most of the food is good, occasionally great or sublime, and I’m all for a positive rating on that end.  What’s the prob?  Well, with four people, when you order four dishes, a whole fish, an appetizer, four large pieces of bread and a dish of rice, two of you have desserts, you practically lick the plates clean, and the check comes to $80, and you’re still sort of wondering if there’s anything else you could nosh on – I guess I could say that I thought the portions were a little small and the prices a little big.  I, too, am all for not letting your favorite chefs starve to feed you cheaply, but I’d be likely to go far more often if the prices were a bit kinder.    

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Taking the 6 train to Sheboygan.

“What could be a more perfect meal for our lethargy?” my girlfriend and I wondered last Saturday, as we rode the 6 downtown.  We had originally planned a brunch excursion to the East Village (I’ll get to the Sunburnt Cow’s offering eventually), but laziness and the inherent appeal of the Shack’s delicious burgers and frozen treats tempted us astray.

Of course, we had to make a detour before detouring – the 7-11 on 23rd St. near Park Av. South was our first stop, and a total time-warp of weirdness it was, indeed.  I can understand the initial excitement voiced by some about 7-11’s arrival in Manhattan – I spent a goodly portion of my childhood stopping at the Sev or its mini-mart equivalents (Phillips 66, especially, since my best friend had a gas card from there that charged his father) on the way home from school, to pick up junk food and a tankard of the teenage jesus juice, Mountain Dew.

Manhattan’s 7-11 is, of course, different from Salt Lake City’s: a hell of a lot more coffee was my first tip, and a hell of a lot less white redneck counter help was my second.  But the gigantor soda machines and soda cups are still there, even improved from what I remember from my childhood.  When did they invent a device to enhance/pollute your diet Coke with one of several additional flavors?   More importantly, since when has IBC root beer been available in fountain form?

So we got our buckets of diet Coke and root beer (44 ounces for under a buck fifty – thanks, 7-11!) and proceeded over to Madison Square Park.  Let me tell you, we were glad we got our drinks first – the line was out of the gravel dining area and twisted around the 23rd St. side of the park, nearly halfway to Broadway.  We were surprised but determined – we joined the line at 2:30 and decided to make an afternoon of it.

Now, obviously, you could pick more pleasant spots in Madison Square Park to laze around, and certainly more comfortable positions than standing up, but, overall, the atmosphere isn’t bad.  You’ve got really gorgeous buildings around, the wind might rustle the trees occasionally, and, if you’re lucky, Danny Meyer’s hospitality squad will bring you free fried goodies or frozen custard to knaw at (we, strangely, got bookended by handouts, but didn’t manage to snag anything).

At 3:20, we ordered our meal – yes, it took nearly an hour.  Were we too hopped up on caffeine and sugar from our 7-11 tankards to really care?  Not really; it took forever, but, hey, that was evident going in – the line doesn’t lie.  If you go with a friend or group, the wait can be at least pleasant, and at most (judging by the boisterous groups of twentysomethings around) a lot of fun.  I think going alone, like the girl in front of us did, is the true mark of insanity – I’ve only been by myself when there is no line, and I don’t see that changing any time soon.

At about 4:00, our name was finally called, and we happily sat down to nosh.  I opted for the double Shack burger ($6.23) and one of the special pumpkin pie custards, my girlfriend for the single burger ($3.23) and cheese fries (of which, of course, I ate half).  For those who haven’t been, the shack’s burgers are made from a combination of brisket and sirloin and are exceptionally flavorful, and the fries ($2.54 with cheese, $2.08 without) are of the Ore-ida style wave cut variety which, smothered in a cheese sauce that is neither polyester nor lumpy, are a class example of the old dining hall staple.

This trip’s surprise, though, was the special pumpkin pie concrete.  Watching the custard-creation portion of the kitchen (ain’t it fun to see the hyper-efficient kitchen crank out the food?), I saw that the main ingredient truly was a hunk of pumpkin pie, from an orange box that looks like it could have been bought at Stop & Shop #25, E. Harwich, MA.  Ergo, the pumpkin pie concrete had both filling and crust in irregular chunks throughout the vanilla custard, and the whole shebang was to die for – one of the best dairy desserts I’ve had in a long time.

It’s been said that the Shake Shack is Danny Meyer’s homage to the middle American fast food stand, and it does carry that mantle exceptionally well (except for the whole “hot-rod cars and greasers” thing – Happy Days was real, right?).  Matched with a trip to 7-11 to sate our thirst for the long line, I can truly proclaim this past Saturday afternoon to have been just like a day in the ‘burbs west of the Mississippi – if only you could take the 6 train there and back.


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Internet hype and Spicy Mina.

Based on experiences with various implementations of harnessed chaos in discussion website form, I’m generally skeptical of the opinions, collective especially, of internet users (oh, blissful irony). However, I find the same users an invaluable source of information – tips on things I want to check out myself and form my own opinions on. Other than Robert Sietsema, my best source of ‘tips’ has been, so far.

Given the rudimentary, even primitive interface, it can take a while to appreciate the substance-over-style ‘atmosphere’ of the chowhound site. To its credit, it doesn’t allow is the kind of easy personal-reputation inflation that most discussion sites allow. There are no hard-and-fast usernames, there are no post counts, and there are no avatar-pictures to assist in the creation of virtual alter-egos. The founder, Jim Leff, has no special highlighting on his name, nor pushes his opinion under the cloak of “expert” opinion – the limit of his egoism seems to be in having dubbed himself the “big dog,” which pales in comparison to the world wide web’s worst self-aggrandizers.

What’s the reason I write all this, you ask? Most recently, I’ve seen a chef and restaurant proprietress named Mina turned into a demigod of home-cooked south Asian food on Mr. Leff, who, to his credit, has remained the sort of person to share opinions and credit for discoveries rather than preach, has consistently gone on record praising Mina’s cooking. I was particularly intrigued by Mr. Leff’s insistence that Mina rarely cooks dishes the same way twice – shades of Kenny Shopsin, I thought.

Interestingly, the kind of frothy anticipation that usually isn’t a hallmark of chowhound erupted from the many threads – wondering where Mina’s newest restaurant was located, when it would open, and what kind of food it would be offering. Updates bordered on the daily – also unusual for chowhound.

Well, Spicy Mina is now open on Broadway, at the 65th St. GRV station, just next to the lovely and scenic BQE, and my girlfriend and I made a journey over there yesterday night to investigate the substance that, hopefully, lay beyond the hype. Upon entering the two-thirds-empty dining room, I thought it unusual that nearly every diner was Caucasian. Occasionally taxi drivers would pop in the back door for pickup, but the possibility of a restaurant with $12 entrées in a relatively blue-collar, hype-free neighborhood is proof of the power of chowhound.

Belying the old saw that good ethnic restaurants must have ethnic constituencies, the food did not disappoint (as Mr. Leff says, people of all races and creeds can be food snobs or Olive Garden devotees). I’ve misplaced the menu that is my usual point of reference when writing these articles, but we certainly had the palak paneer, which was less like the chunky cheese spinach casserole Indian restaurant staple and more like an Italian-style wilted spinach and garlic concoction. It had an underlying current of spice, but nothing on the level of Zabb or Spicy & Tasty (long, skinny brown pepper hulls were on the side, they might have been tien tsin?). Interestingly, the cheese was more crumbled and feta-like in consistency, but there seemed to be more of it than usual. I believe our other main was chicken dopaiza, which was a creamy, korma-like sauce that held treats like golden raisins in its grasp, accompanied by tender chunks of chicken breast. Not spicy at all, though the rice, interestingly, had dried pepper strips on top (gave me quite a start on my first bite). Both dishes, and the rice, were excellent bordering on amazing.

I was a bit disappointed by the puri, which was a smaller, less puffy and (happily) less greasy version of the staple bread, but the papadum more than made up for it. Included were the freshest iterations of onion relish, the green mint(?) sauce, and the only version of tamarind sauce I’ve ever liked. The wafers themselves were crispy, lacking the usual baked-in seeds, but still flavorful.

I was absolutely impressed with Spicy Mina, but I’m not ready to draw a conclusion yet – I’m going to try and take a group there in the next couple of days, so I can try a bunch more dishes and report back more accurately on ingredients and prices. I don’t think we scratched the surface of what Spicy Mina has to offer.

As to the hype – justified? I can give a preliminary thumbs up, but, interestingly, Mr. Leff has tempered his praise slightly, calling the restaurant “good-not-great” in an October 26th post. I guess the two criteria that I can cite as evidence of its quality are that I would recommend it without hesitation, and that I’m going back. Try it and see what YOU think.

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One week at Ray’s Super Deli.

Ray’s Super Deli, located on Hudson St. between Morton and Barrow Sts, is the kind of place that could easily get overlooked by the foodie crowd even without the anonymous blue awning that blends it into the rest of the block’s businesses (hint: it’s the northernmost of the two delis on the block).  Even walking in, the first things you see are those staples of delis everywhere: the meat counter, the cash register, the ATM, and the drink cooler, and these do not generally scream “Dominican specialties” to anyone.

If you walk along the deli counter to the back of the store, though, you can catch a glimpse of a steam counter containing all manner of Dominican stews, rices, roast chickens, soups, and salads.  Of course, there’s no menu or guide permanently posted anywhere nearby – most people who eat here can recognize the dishes by sight, I guess, and the staff is generally helpful at answering questions about specific dishes.  The takeout menu located at the cash register also provides a cheat sheet and study guide for the rotating daily menu – though, in my experience, not all listed dishes are prepared every day, and not all available dishes are listed.

What was the price for every single one of these lunches, you ask?  $4, except the Cuban.  The “small” size was certainly enough for me, though I think the large size could probably feed 2 (at $5.50, this would be even cheaper per person).  I think it’s safe to declare that a bargain, though you’ll pay more typical deli prices for sandwiches, sodas, and other grocery items.

Monday’s (also listed as served Friday and Saturday, but I saw it every day this week) roasted pork shoulder (pernil) was tender and delicious, with the crispy and fatty portions being not so crispy or fatty as to be inedible (it’s a fine line!).  Despite being out of yellow rice, the white rice took on the sauce of the red beans for flavor, and I ended up eating a lot more of the otherwise bland and sticky grain than I thought I was going to.

I had a suspicion that the pernil would make a good sandwich, and Tuesday’s Cuban sandwich (not a special, but if they didn’t have pernil, it wouldn’t be right) proved it.  Your pork is thrown on the grill and topped, successively, with turkey (not sure why this is necessary) and ham, and flipped over and layered with Swiss.  Meanwhile, the bun was pressed – I think it was on the griddle rather than the panini-style pressing machine, which is a nice touch.  However, I have a huge complaint – no pickle!  The lack of garlic spread I can possibly live with, but to omit the pickles from a Cuban sandwich is near-criminal.  Provided that this was oversight and not dogma (I swear that the menu said it came with a pickle), I feel good about recommending this enormous sandwich ($5.50) for feeding 1 hungry person, and probably two with normal appetites.

On Wednesday, I had a hankering for the asopao de gallina that is described in English as “Hen Soup” – first on the daily menu, in fact.  Unfortunately, when I asked for it, the guys at the counter were more than a little confused; it didn’t seem as though they’d heard of it, or at least heard of a gringo wearing a suit (thanks to the Michelin event) ordering it.  Forced to improvise, I selected a good-looking stew filled with chicken parts (apparently called stew chicken, or pollo guisado), though I was a little nervous to note that said chicken parts were bone-in (my record of spilling on myself is a long one, but I’ve avoided the catastrophic fancy-clothes-spilling, for the most part).

Upon carefully eating the chicken, I was rewarded – this chicken was fall-off-the bone tender, infused with the stew’s spices and color.  The leg (you may need to request one) yielded the best meat, but the thighs were not far behind.  The bed of rice was yellow today, much more flavorful than the white, and the sauce of the stew helped further, but I (having requested beans on the side in a Styrofoam coffee cup, for no additional charge) adulterated it further by mixing in the beans and their delightful sauce.  Delish.

I went in Thursday thinking only one thing: meatballs.  Again, I was disappointed – this time because they had just run out.  I guess I need to start going in earlier than 2pm.  Sigh.  I ended up with yet another version of Ray’s pork, this time with some kind of marinade/sauce.  It was fab, just like the other three iterations of pork I’ve had from them this week, and a fair bit less dry on the end bits.

Friday I went in at 1:30, and it’s perhaps a good thing that I did, because I’m not sure how many servings of codfish salad (ensalada de bacalao) they had left – enough for my portion, though!  This salad consisted of reconstituted dried cod (possibly the most important food in history – no joke!), onions, tomatoes, green peppers and cubed potatoes held together with olive oil.  Depending on whether you’re a fan of bacalao (I am, but it can be an acquired taste), this was a treat.  Light and delicious, it might become my new Friday favorite meal.  I got rice and beans with it this time, but in the future, I might ask for salad-only: the warm rice and beans aren’t really a match for the cold salad.

Despite the perhaps-excessive carb-loading of a week of near-daily rice and beans, I was extremely pleased with my food at Ray’s and would happily go back again.  Additionally, I hope to make this the first in a series of in-depth investigations into restaurants where the menu is too extensive for a one-or-two visit investigation.  Have a great weekend, gang!

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Sorry for the last 12 hours’ technical difficulties (particularly Safari users).  I attempted to make a few stylesheet revisions which broke everything.  “Stick to the food reviewing, King,” I can hear you saying…point taken.  Back to normal now, I hope.

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