Monthly Archives: December 2005

The best spicy fries in the world?

Today’s skiing excursion to Alta (officially and locally pronounced AL-tuh, not ALL-tuh, Spanish language be damned) required a serious meal afterwards.  No baloney and cream cheese sandwich for this guy; I needed protein in the form of a burger.  I had hoped to hit up B&D Burger – their pastrami burger is one of the premiere grease bombs in the known universe, and their peanut butter shake is possibly the least healthy thing imaginable (served together, it’s very nearly a heart attack in a cardboard box).  Unfortunately for me but great for their employees, they were closed for Christmas Eve.  So too was the frozen custard palace of Highland Drive, Nielsen’s, which puts the Shake Shack to shame.

Fortunately, a little further south on Highland (2000 East) was the very open and very perky art-deco burger hut known as Eat-A-Burger (just north of Murray-Holladay Road, about 4800 South).  To enter Eat-A-Burger is to be visually assaulted by kitsch – the 20’s, 30’s, 40’s and 50’s are well-represented on the walls and in the finishing of the building itself.  Heck, when I was a kid, they even served the kids meals in cardboard containers in the shape of a fin-era Cadillac.

If all of this bothers you, use the drive-through (are you surprised?), but it’s worth braving a trip inside and dodging a few mewling children to order at the counter and bask in the glow of the unlimited free refills.  Along with your gallon of soda, consider purchasing a cheeseburger or Utah’s specialty in the burger department, a pastrami burger.  FYI – this isn’t going to be Katz’s quality, but you’ll be pleasantly surprised at how well the greasy meat goes with the other greasy meat.  If you value your arteries, the cheese attaches itself to the thin-but-tasty burger equally well.  Lettuce, tomato, pickles, onions, and special sauce will come along for the ride on your sesame seed bun.

Whatever you do, however, don’t miss the fries.  Advertised on the menu as “Utah’s Best,” these fresh cut spud slices are best when tossed with Eat-A-Burger’s proprietary spice rub, for an extra 30 cents.  These aren’t just any nasty dining-hall-style “spicy” fries – there’s actual pepper in them thar bucket, amongst other things.  Grab plenty of napkins and proceed with reckless abandon.  Don’t forget Utah’s contribution to the condiment world, either: for an extra quarter per container, the “fry sauce” is a thick ketchup-mayo synthesis, basically, and Eat-A-Burger’s is among the better versions.

My cheeseburger, spicy fries with sauce and Diet Coke(s) totaled $6.26, including tax.  I’m so happy I can’t even feel my burning quads.  

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Fast and bulbous: drive-through burrito heaven.

Contrary to popular belief, not everything great under the sun exists in NYC – the burritos, in particular, are far behind their counterparts in other territories.  In the east, Boston may not have the unfrozen caveman outfielder any longer, but they still have Anna’s Taqueria (multiple locations, even) and El Pilon.  In the west, my sister claims that there are thousands of amazing burrito places dotting the greater Los Angeles landscape.

Not quite in the middle lies Lone Star Taqueria, on the north side of Fort Union Boulevard (7200 South) at 2300 East, in unincorporated Salt Lake County, Utah.  It is one of my favorite places to eat when I visit my mother.  Occupying what looks like a former burger stand, wedged between a bank and a public library, the parking lot was absolutely full when I arrived on the last day they were to be open before Christmas.  No matter – this was an occasion for drive-through.

“Drive-through burritos?” you ask, incredulously.  Why, yes – drive-through burritos.  Along with drive-through burger stands, coffee huts, drugstores, dry cleaners, and liquor stores (in Wyoming these really do exist, I’m not kidding).  It’s a car culture out here, folks, and if you can’t drive through – hell, who really feels like dealing with a strip mall parking lot, anyway?

Should you choose to park and eat inside or on the sunny porch, you’ll be able to take in more fully Lone Star’s décor – a trashed, sticker-encrusted station wagon haphazardly parked in the front yard and cowboy boots topping the fence posts.  The dining room itself is sheet-metal-chic embodied – burritos and chips may be served to you in pie tins, and the bar of sauces (from mild green to pretty effing hot red with seeds, with a decent pico de gallo to boot) and tables seem to be made of gleaming aluminum.

None of this mattered to me, of course.  I waited for an enormous truck to wedge its way into a parking space (I can scarcely imagine parallel parking such an enormous vehicle) and pulled next to the menu with a giant horn speaker attached.  I’m still a little confused as to how the poor schmuck with the headphones inside can hear me – no microphone is evident, but my order of one chile verde burrito ($5.79), one half chile verde burrito ($4.49), and a side of guacamole ($2.69) was received and processed correctly.

Once home, my mother and sister (having baked all day and snacked perhaps a bit too much) tackled the half burrito, while I jumped into my full-sized version.  Chile verde, for those unfamiliar, is a kind of spicy pork stew – not really that green in the Lone Star incarnation, actually.  I’m unsure as to its place in the authentic Mexican culinary culture, but it seems to be as ubiquitous in Salt Lake’s Tex-Mex restaurants as chicken or steak.  Tasty, nonetheless, particularly when paired in a soft flour tortilla with red beans, rice, lettuce, tomato, cilantro, onions, sour cream and cheese – I also dumped a bit of hot sauce into the mixture.

The guacamole was fairly forgettable – it was turning brownish despite a strong lemon flavor, and while it certainly didn’t taste bad, anyone with a sharp knife, a clean fork, and a ripe avocado or two can make better stuff at home.  I hear they have good fish tacos here, too – never tried ‘em.  The beer, while cheap ($2.50/bottle) is 3.2 percent, as is all beer outside of a state liquor store and a “private club for members” – Utah must have the most arcane liquor laws in the western world.

By the way, those prices are accurate.  I have the receipt right next to me – $12.97 plus 99 cents tax for a burrito and a half, plus guac.  It boggles the mind, no?  Lone Star puts Burritoville and all the rest of the cheapish Tex-Mex crapola in NYC to shame.  For that, I’ll always visit it when I come home.

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I’ve entered a junk food coma – thanks, TWU!


Anyone else see SNL on Saturday? Or, like my girlfriend and I did, TIVO it and catch it later? Sweet jesus, what a good episode – and a good theme for today. I’m not drinking Mr. Pibb and eating red vines while telecommuting, but coffee, Pocky, and One Girl Cookies are close, right? I wanted to make t-shirts from my bad photoshop work, shown at left, but CafePress wouldn’t allow it, alas. Perhaps I’ll concentrate on “I survived the strike” shirts instead – or, if I’m smart, steal a livery van and start driving the B61 route.

Tomorrow’s a travel day (going to mom’s for x-mas). Updates will be sporadic until after Christmas (and possibly until after New Year’s), but I promise to review at least my favorite burrito place in SLC.

Have fun and be safe!

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Super Taste and super-cheap.

Coming back after a few reviews of places that are out of my grasp both financially and longitudinally, Sietsema graced us last week with a review of Super Taste Restaurant on Eldridge St. – his column suggests that the noodles might be the best you’ll have in your life.  Not sure I’ve been alive long enough to formulate an opinion of that nature, but I was certainly going to check the place out.  Having done so, I feel comfortable predicting Super Taste’s inclusion on Sietsema’s 2006 Cheap List, should he produce one in a format similar to this year’s.

Super Taste is certainly a lot more humble than my other favorite noodle places – just a few Formica tables in a ground-level tenement space, kitchen in the semi-separated rear.  I think there’s good reason for a redesign – beyond the abysmal (check out the truly bizarre musical clock) décor, the noodle-making process is fascinating.  Check out how the dough is stretched (or, if you prefer to stick to menu terminology, hand-pulled), slapped to the table in a puff of flour and folded or twisted – repeated until noodle shapes appear.  I don’t completely understand how the noodles are generated – I guess the flour eventually reduces how much the dough will stick together?  Regardless, the process is well worth watching, at least until the waitress shoos you back to your table – it’s like making a bizarro pie crust, kinda.

As Sietsema suggests, this description only applies to the left side of the menu, advertising hand-pull noodles.  I’ve tried the spicy and non-spicy beef varieties, as well as the dumpling soup (all $4).  The spicy version differs only in the application of chili oil to the bottom of the bowl before the soup is ladled in.  For both, the beef that’s included is riddled with fat, but is extremely tasty and non-gristly.  The soup itself is extremely flavorful, putting the average beef broth to shame – you’re not signing up for a bland meal by skipping the chili oil.

The noodles are irregular in diameter, but have a consistently fresh, well-cooked-but-not-soggy texture.  As to the flavor – they don’t, to me, taste specifically of anything besides their broth.  I can easily see these noodles in any context, though – they’d make a great accompaniment to homemade meatballs and ragu, for example, or as a dessert noodle with some sugar/butter combination.

On my most recent visit, the dumplings were not as good an accompaniment as the meat – they suffered a bit for sitting in the soup, I think.  Given their fresh and slippery noodle layer, they were tough to grab with the chopsticks without damaging.  For those on a budget who can’t decide between noodles and a plate of dumplings ($3), or for those who aren’t wild about fatty beef, the dumpling soup works nicely.

Far better than the nearby Hong Kong Station and at a relatively similar price, Super Taste is open daily from 11am to 10pm (unfortunately unlike the bakery on Canal just east of Eldridge, which has amazing yellow pound cake, but seems to close at 7).  Does it compare to spendier Rai Rai Ken or Minca?  Minca’s kim chi ramen, my new favorite there, is a swirling red-orange stew of noodles-in-broth, with Minca’s typical accoutrements – it’s damn good, but it’s twelve bucks!  Super Taste’s entry into the spicy category is far more humble, but at a far more pleasing price.  And I actually like the non-spicy beef soup at Super Taste better than the rest of Minca’s menu.  Score one for the cheapwads!

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You’ll definitely have what she’s having.

I recently took my girlfriend to Katz’s for her first taste of pastrami.  Personally, having grown up with mediocre deli pastrami, corned beef, etc, I can’t even imagine having the luxury of beginning one’s pastrami experience with Katz’s.  The stuff is SO DAMN GOOD.  I don’t claim that Katz’s is the best – I’ve only eaten at one other NYC “institutional” deli (Carnegie, and I had the tongue), and worthy contenders like the 2nd Ave. deli and Sarge’s must also be investigated.  Again, though – Katz’s is SO DAMN GOOD that it’s hard to imagine the formula improved upon.

First of all, the place – on the corner of Houston and Ludlow since the dawn of time and somewhat dilapidated both outside and in, the Katz’s facility is integral to the Katz’s experience.  You can see the sign from the moment you ascend from 2nd Ave. subway hell, and it guides you seductively past a doner kebap pretender and the most overpriced Tasti-D in the city (which used to be a frites place, sadly).  I can only imagine what it must have been like to make a pilgrimage (by car?) back when the surrounding nabe was scary.

Katz’s has a few infamous idiosyncrasies that, in the genuine NYC fashion, seem to be continued mostly for the benefit of the tourists.  For instance, they hand you a ticket when you walk in – don’t lose it.  According to the posted rules, you’ll be charged an exorbitant sum on ticket-less exit.  The reasons for this are several-fold, I’m guessing, and the more draconian reasons probably date back to the afore-mentioned scary times, but, I mean…sheesh.  A ticket?  For a restaurant?  I don’t even care that it doubles as your check – seems dumb.

It’s also one of those places where it behooves you to have made up your mind before stepping to the counter, and don’t cheat: if you retire immediately to one of the tables with wait service against the wall, you are officially chickenshit.  The meat cutters like to stay busy, but they’re friendly, and precious few places like this in NY suffer menu-challenged fools gladly.  Hell, aren’t you there for the pastrami?  If you’re not, you’ve probably been back enough times to know better than to step to the counter empty-headed.  Order up your pastrami on rye ($12.50), with a little mustard perhaps, nosh on the piece of meat that they give you directly after ordering, and marvel at the efficiency of a professional sandwich artist (Subway’s “artists,”  by comparison, are coloring in a by-numbers Mona Lisa with Elmo’s face).  

There are two kinds of pickles available – what I deem “regular” and half-sours.  Half-sours are, as the name suggests, significantly less pickled and less sour than the regular – halfway between cucumber and full pickle-hood.  I like ‘em, but I like the full sours better.  They’ll give you almost as many as you can carry, just for asking, so if you’re a pickle nut, try both.

The walls of the dining room at Katz’s are blanketed with pictures of the owner with celebrities from A to D-lists and beyond.  If you sit in the back of the restaurant, where are hung most of the newer photos, you probably won’t recognize more than a handful of them.  This leads me to believe that either the publicists call ahead to arrange a photo-op, or the owner of Katz’s watches too much TV.  Either way, it’s fun to ponder what one would have to do to get a photo on the wall.  I think that the line of demarcation is somewhere around Pauly Shore, but it might actually be lower(!).

And, of course, as you, sit, contemplate the pastrami.  The sandwich is nearly big enough for two, particularly with a bunch of pickles riding shotgun.  I’ve been known to say that Katz’s cheats, because their pastrami (like Peter Luger’s steak) comes to you soaking in fatty, buttery goodness, but that isn’t going to matter to anyone but your cardiologist when you’re devouring one of the best sandwiches in the world.  I want one, like, right now.

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Half a loaf of meat-fu at the Soul Spot.

The Boerum Hill/Cobble Hill/Carroll Gardens area (I refuse to utter that silly, TriBeCa-inspired concatenation) is not exactly a cheap eaters’ paradise.  Beyond Bedouin Tent, several Dominican cafes, Schnack, and the hopefully-soon-to-open Hanco, there aren’t a huge number of options.  It’s no surprise, then, that the Soul Spot (Atlantic Av. just east of Smith St.) is one of my most frequently visited cheap eats in the nabe.  Occupying half of the ground floor of a brownstone, just across the Avenue from a hole in the ground that promises condos, while sharing a block with bail bond purveyors, the Soul Spot is at the junction of the smuttiness of Downtown Brooklyn and the ascendant South Brooklyn area.

The restaurant’s interior and menu reflects this juxtaposition.  The walls are exposed brick on one side and half tile-half wallpaper on another, and the tables are jammed together in an arrangement that could be called semi-communal, though I’ve never personally seen more than one or two people dining.  The food itself is parceled out from a steam table, so freshness can be variable.  For last night’s meatloaf ($9.50), fortunately, this was not an issue.  Moist but still chewy and a bit on the dense side (perhaps frozen), the loaf was served in a couple of thick chunks with a sweet red sauce that would make my grandmother happy (no brown sauce for this family!).  I’ve also had the meatloaf, in a less fresher iteration, be a little more dry, but it’s still a hunk of protein I’d be proud to make a sandwich of.

The side dishes (two are included with each dinner platter) are a mixed bag.  The collard greens are generally pretty bland – last night they left me reaching for a packet of hot sauce, which spiced things up a bit.  Finding them either out of grits or no longer offering them, I also opted for my usual favorite starch: noodles!  The mac and cheese differs from the usual cheese-and-noodle square – the menu claims it to be baked, and while there were no telltale crunchies from the top of the pan, the noodles were scooped on to the plate rather than cut like a brownie.  Yummy, but somewhat hard to eat with the plastic forks that the restaurant uses.

The restaurant advertises that their pastries are made on-site, and judging by the charmingly amateurish assembly of the coconut-frosted lemon cake, this is probably true.  Unfortunately, the cake itself was indistinguishable from Duncan-Hines – at $2.50 a slice, I expect more than a reminder of childhood birthdays past.  Skip it (and the lemonade, $1.50, which was probably made from powder) and go investigate the bizarreness of the new “one girl cookies” bakery-temple on Dean St. just west of Smith.

I know, I know.  A review of a soul food restaurant, and I haven’t tried the chicken?  My bust – maybe next time.  Again, given the paucity of Boerum Hill cheap options, I’ll probably be back to the Soul Spot soon, and I’ll try not to be distracted by the lovely meatloaf this time.

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The taste that launched a million eating disorders.

Holiday workload and Xmas shopping have conspired to make me a busy boy, with the result that I have nothing to write about today. Happily, my sweet and gorgeous girlfriend has stepped to the plate with a review – she writes about the estimable Tasti D-Lite, scourge of food critics, ice-cream lovers, and organic-ingredient advocates everywhere. Save me some Cake Batter, hon!


They say a girl always remembers her first time, but I honestly can’t remember my virgin voyage on the S.S. Tasti D-Lite. Suffice it to say, it was a few years back, and I’ve been hooked on this frozen dessert/smack ever since. Like, sometimes I NEED to have it more than once a day.

While the company’s web site touts the product as “the first all natural, lower calorie, frozen dessert,” the irony is that it’s Tasti’s synthetic greatness that keeps me coming back. It might be sicko, but I get a kick out of the fact that flavors like Pumpkin Pie and Dulce de Leche not only exist but also manage to taste more like coconut than anything else. Remember those Dum Dum lollipops your doctor used to give out? Tasti-D can be kind of like the mystery flavor, and that’s part of the fun.

Also, you never know which of the tens of Tasti flavors will be in a given store at a given time, beyond the ever-present standard vanilla and chocolate – a treasure hunt of fantastic fake flavors. I find myself scanning through the windows even when I don’t plan to stop – it might come in handy later, and if a certain flavor is in stock (say, for instance, Cake Batter), it might necessitate an impromptu visit. At any rate, taste before you buy – not all of the more esoteric flavors are thrilling. Insider tip: Most locations will only give you one sample, so it’s a good idea to go in with someone who you don’t mind swapping spittle with and have them try a flavor too. [ed note: Yes, this means she’s tricked me into liking Tasti-D. For this, she is the envy of all of her friends.]

There’s also the fact that I nutritionally equate eating a mammoth-sized portion of Tasti-D to eating air. The flavors are sorted into 3 different categories that range from 11 to 17 calories per oz. (In general, anything with the word ‘nut’ in it rates a category 3, while more bland flavors like vanilla are category 1.) So it’s not quite eating air, but even category 3 Tasti is certainly a far cry from the caloric hurricane of most desserts. And if it’s a damn dirty lie (we all saw that Seinfeld, right?), I just don’t want to know.

A brief aside: I once had a friend on the Upper West Side who swore that the Tasti in her nabe was the best — it actually tasted creamy. So, one night she’s chatting with the guy behind the counter and asks him what the secret is. He holds up a huge container of what I imagine was some sort of heavy whipping cream and starts cackling. Allegedly one girl ran outside and puked on the spot. Awesome.

OK, so the flavors have funny names (one my personal faves, “Milky Weigh”…ironically, also sort of coconutty), and you can con yourself into thinking you’re eating an air sundae. Another contributing factor is price. As long as you stay away from toppings (Mike swears they’re always stale anyway) it’s a pretty cheap, if slightly anorexic, meal-substitute. At most locations (read: not the new Houston Street store), a jumbo-sized tub will run you less than 5 bucks, if you aren’t too embarrassed to order it. (But prep yourself, they’ll probably put two spoons in the bag…)

Despite potential embarrassment, you’re the real winner here. You get frozen goodness in the form of a filling but nutritionally void treat for next to nothing — in a city where you can’t be too thin or too rich, this is the jackpot, baby. No wonder the Olsens love the stuff. Maybe even more than they love THE STUFF.

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