Monthly Archives: January 2006

"Comfort food" cafeteria leaves veggies, this critic cold.

Let me be perfectly honest – I don’t understand Mama’s food shop.  Just flat out don’t understand it.  And I suppose that’s fine, because they’ve been around forever and probably will stay around as long as they keep slinging ten buck plates of veggies.  It will elude me just as long, though, as to why it’s popular.

Mama’s, in the number 52 spot on Sietsema’s list, leaves me wanting for reasons culinary and otherwise.  Let’s start with the convoluted ordering system – you walk into the door, trying not to trip over the tables and those standing at the cash register, and move to the counter or the rear of the line approaching said counter.  Don’t forget to grab a menu on the way in (wedged between the cash register and the front door), though, otherwise you’ll never figure out in advance that you get one meat dish and one side or three sides for ten bucks.  Also, if you don’t choose your veggies in advance, you may be reduced to pointing like you’re at a Chinese steam table, except with far less sympathetic counter help.

After the lunchlady-apparatchik is done slopping your food from the steam/refrigerator table (more on that in a second), you pay and attempt to find a place to sit.  Main dining area seems full, you say?  Well, you could try and navigate through the kitchen to the other room, but it’s not very big, either, and you’ll be making trips back to the pitcher of ice water.  It’s time to snuggle up to some strangers, just like in those cafeteria days of yore.  Maybe you’ll make a new friend, though that sort of connecting was easier to deal with before your table-mate was converted to misanthropy by years of eating at places like Mama’s.

So I sat down with my enormous plate of food and started to eat.  The macaroni and cheese is, indeed, quite tasty – I’ll give them that much.  But the veggies and starch really leave something to be desired.  They’re served cold!  I realize that the afore-mentioned menu explains that they’re served that way because “Mama” said to do so, but I have a feeling that this “Mama” isn’t the sort I’d want making my holiday dinners.  The egregious laziness of cold vegetables is made particularly obvious by the presence of a microwave (WTF?) near the cash register (and, for what it’s worth, I don’t care that they’re crispy as hell because they’re made in a convection oven if you’ve still got to nuke them like they’re week-old leftovers).  I tried the bok choy, the green beans, the turnips, the broccoli, and the sweet potatoes, and none made an impression large enough to overcome their lack of internal energy.

But, hey – “Mama” says to shut up and eat it (it’s right there on the menu!).  So I did, mostly, except for the bok choy, which I’m not as much of a fan of in its larger version (and particularly not cold).  Besides, the last time I finished something green just because mama said so, I was threatened with the confiscation of my Oreos.  This time I just skipped dessert of my own volition – I’m tired of paying four bucks for a single serving, I guess (particularly not after I scarfed Ben and Jerry’s factory seconds as fast as I could this past weekend, at $2.69 a pint).

The indignity of the end of the meal only serves to reinforce why Mama’s won’t attract my return business: scraping my leftovers into the trash bin and putting my dishes and silverware into the metal sink just reminded me a bit too much of a dining hall my friends and I fondly used to call the “dirty D.”  Don’t think that I’m just against busing my own place, either – at the Easy Street Café this weekend, near Waitsfield, Vermont, I did so twice with nary a complaint.  The difference: the food was much better, and at no time did I gaze into a sink full of dirty plates and have a flashback to my kitchen during senior year of college.

I surmise that “Mama” (or the actual proprietors, whoever they might be) would crow about Mama’s lack of affectation.  Much like the hipster who spent an hour making his or her hair look disheveled, however, Mama’s “lack of affectation” is a front for its extreme peculiarity, and not in the good sense of that word.  For nearly ten bucks a plate, with service bordering on zero and veggies that could charitably be described as half-prepared, Mama’s is a real motherfucker.

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Al’s French "Frys" redefine cheap.

One good reason to get out of NYC occasionally is the inevitable reminder of how one’s definition of “cheap” gets skewed here.  Witness, for example, Al’s French Frys [sic] in South Burlington, Vermont, for example, not far from the miniscule Burlington International Airport.  Al’s is so goddamn cheap that you’ll think you conked your head and woke up in 1984.

I have to admit, we were sucked in by the sign, though.  Monday afternoon was (after two days of skiing) my and my girlfriend’s chance to explore certain personal historical sites in and around Burlington – to my father’s great amusement, I seem to have inherited his compulsion to drive by any old residence of mine, regardless of whether I can remember it, and the house I spent the first two years of my life was our first stop.
Me: Unborn generations of future Kings are already groaning in the back seat…
Dad: Yep, but they’ll do it too!  Sorry you got that handed down.  Pretty funny though.
Yeah, funny.  That’s the word I was looking for, or maybe “tragic.”

Afterwards, though, we were cruising down Williston Road towards downtown Burlington, and Al’s sign (along with the vintage “Parkway Diner” sign a little further east) stuck out like a sore thumb amongst the new-ish Starbucks, Ground Round, and McDonald’s signs that populate the strip.  (If anyone can find a picture of the sign, please send a link along – we didn’t have a camera along and I can’t find one online.) We immediately fixated on Al’s as our lunch destination.  After driving downtown, with a stop at UVM and a quick gaze at the Lake Champlain waterfront and downtown Burlington, we returned to Al’s with high hopes.

We were certainly not disappointed – the black-and-white-tile-clad interior with red booths was every bit the kitsch palace I had imagined from the road, and hearing the Crystals singing “He’s A Rebel” over the restaurant’s PA made me happier than it probably should have.  The menu was surprisingly extensive – chicken, corn dogs, fish, pepper steak, and the dreaded “wrap” all found a place on Al’s menu.  Of course, we weren’t about to be caught dead with any of those things – I ordered a double cheeseburger, a pint of fries, and a medium diet Coke, and my girlfriend contented herself with a medium chocolate milkshake and several of my fries.

First, the namesake fries ($1.86 per pint) – seemingly cut from fresh potatoes, and with the skin left on, Al’s “frys” were awfully good.  They reminded me of my recent Eat-A-Burger fries, sans spice rub – just a good potato fried in good oil.   While I’m reluctant to anoint them one of the top fries I’ve ever had, due to their not being mind-blowingly excellent, we wished we had ordered another pint to go (a good sign, right?).  

Al’s double cheeseburger ($2.56) was a bit in the style of a fast food chain, but much better.  Be sure to check out the fry cook flipping the extra-thin patty (the griddle is at the front of the restaurant, next to the line).  When he’s finished, the guy in charge of toppings will ask you what you want on your burger.  Should you ask for everything, you’ll get ketchup, mustard, green relish, and chopped white onions – this isn’t a Blue 9-style lettuce and tomato palace by any means, though you could order them for an extra $0.50.  (Bacon, somehow cheaper, is available for $0.25.)  I might have skipped the onions and mustard next time, but the sloppy burger was excellent – a well-seasoned griddle is essential, particularly when the burger is so thin, and Al’s seems to have a good one.  Pizza burgers are also available, for the discerning masochist.

I shared my diet Coke ($1.40, with a good ratio of syrup to carbonated water) in return for some milkshake tastes – good thing, as the shake ($2.05) might have been the best thing we had.  Made from real vanilla ice cream and displaying the wonderful thick/thin inconsistency (that McDonald’s has spent millions trying to eradicate) as a result, the shake was given its flavor with chocolate syrup.  This process generally results in an extremely sweet shake, and this one was no different – absolutely delicious, and a perfect accompaniment to the savory-salty potatoes and meat.

Our bill ran to an outrageous $8.58, including tax – eat your heart out, Burger Joint.

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The perfect pork chop.

Note to restaurant owners: if your place smells like a chemical toilet, you will drive away customers. Or, at least, that’s the theory I came up with while sitting in the nearly-empty Pink Teacup, an apparently-august West Village institution, and my lunch destination yesterday. Unlike my usual eating trips, this one was unpremeditated: I was walking on Grove St. between 7th and Hudson and needed to get lunch – my new (not New Year’s) resolution not to pay any ATM fees having led me a few blocks out of the way.

Despite the odor, the sudden stop was well worth it. Advertising a lunch special set at $7, I chose the fried pork chop option, with sides of collard greens and black eyed peas. The meal began with a perfunctory salad and soup – the salad greens were fresh but a choice between French (actually more like Russian) and creamy Italian dressings left me a bit cold. I’m kind of surprised to find salad in a soul food restaurant, in any case, and the soup may as well have been vegetable-flavored Progresso.

Considering the bland starters and the irritating odor, I wondered how the Teacup could possibly have stayed in business for so long. The décor sure isn’t the reason: the primary paint color is pink (though, oddly, the teacups aren’t), and signed headshots, primarily by black actors, decorate one wall. I realize that this photographic name-checking is kind of a NYC tradition, but I prefer Katz’s method, where the celebs are proven to have been there. Of course, there’s the unintentional comedy – no matter how bad they look standing under the florescent light, the portly owner next to them looks worse.

Fortunately, my entrée arrived to save the day: far and away the best fried pork chop I’ve ever had. Seriously flavorful, not too greasy, and tender and juicy in a way that La Taza De Oro’s, for example, wasn’t, this chop was a strong contender for best pork I’ve had in any format. I actually wanted another chop after I was finished – at La Taza’s, by contrast, I finished one of two and was more than satisfied.

The sides I selected were collard greens and black eyed peas – the greens were bland until I fired them up with the hot sauce the waiter provided (with the entrée and almost ceremonially, in a way that suggested that the use was mandatory – I can’t disagree). The peas had a smoky flavor that might have come from bacon, but they weren’t cooked perfectly. The hybrid cornbread/dinner roll was warm when it arrived, which always makes me happy – so does butter that’s not too cold to spread.

For just over $9 with tax and tip, this isn’t a bad lunch choice for the discerning carnivore lost in the wilds of the West Village. I’ll brave the faint stench of urinal cake for more chops, and probably to try other dishes, too. Actually the combo also included dessert – I took the tasty bread pudding to go, but the Italian tourists (guidebooks, maps and all) across the restaurant sampled what I imagine to be their first Jell-O salad. I never thought “dolce far niente” could apply to eating Jell-O, but I think the slogan might be a more effective marketing tool than Bill Cosby, at this point.

Note: Taking the day off Monday – Vermont skiing beckons. Back Tuesday with more shizzle-sizzle.

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Burgers approved by Paris Hilton?

Seemingly everyone and their mother has eaten at the Burger Joint, that quasi-secret enclave of fast food inside the Meridien hotel on 57th St.  You can now add my girlfriend and I; we checked off the 85th entry on Sietsema’s list last night.  I get the feeling that the place is some kind of sick joke, actually.  The hotel lobby at the Meridien looks like a Hungarian bathhouse, for god’s sake, not a place to stuff a griddle and deep fryer.

Nevertheless, following that neon burger sign will lead you into a place that looks as much as possible like a windowless frat house basement.  Out-of-date movie posters?  Check.  Beer tap?  Check, though it’s a frat-boy-grown-up beer (Sam Adams) that’s served here in lieu of “beast light” or “the golden bullet.”  “Borrowed” furniture?  It sure looks like some hotel chairs got drafted to augment the standard seating, much like we used to “borrow” tables from Buildings and Grounds to play Beirut.  Graffiti-covered walls and pictures of famous blondes?  Check – the caveat here is that the picture is of Paris Hilton signing her name to the celeb-signature space on the back wall.  We’re still in midtown Manhattan, folks.

Regardless of surroundings, the true test of the Burger Joint (strangely unrelated to the chain of mini-burger places with the same name) is the feed.  How would it stack up to my last burger and fries, which I chronicled here just before Christmas?

Well, I think Burger Joint is good, but I’m puzzled as to the cult that worships at its wood-paneled altar.  The best thing about it may well have been the speed with which the burgers, fries, and shake were delivered – not a minute or two after my girlfriend ordered (I had staked out the table), her name was called, and we were happily devouring our cheeseburgers ($6.50 each) moments after.

Mid-wolf, I stopped and noted the visually-appealing construction of the burger – red tomato, green lettuce, purple (red) onions sliced thin, and green pickles shared space with orange cheese and a burger which could have been pinker (medium rare seemed more medium-well).  I was surprised, not having seen the menu, to note the presence of mustard with the usual mayo and ketchup combo – always a pleasant flavor, but too rarely encountered in the burger world.  (Then again, I don’t exactly go adding it when it’s not there.  Clearly I have no point.)

The fries ($3), which arrived in a paper bag big enough for a tall boy at a bodega, were good, but not on the level of the Goodburger fries of several months ago, despite possibly being from the same potato cut (I read that on chowhound, I think).  They just lacked that extra flavor ‘oomph’ that used to put McDonalds’ fries over the top – was it the cooking in beef fat?  I’d have to ask the Goodburger folks how they replicated it, but one more obvious problem was that the Burger Joint fries weren’t as salty as they might have been.

The $3 milkshake (yes, I went for the coronary trifecta) was on the thin side, which I think is perfect for this context.  Thick milkshakes are great, but they start to feel like more of a dessert and less burger-complementary when you can’t suck them with a straw.  Burger Joint’s version is relatively small, though – same size cup as the soda ($1.50).

I enjoyed my meal at Burger Joint but I don’t think it’s a destination – it’s slightly too expensive and slightly less delicious than several more-convenient (to me) alternatives.  I did enjoy the food, though, and I also appreciated the effort the proprietors have put forth in re-creating my college memories – if only our dirty basement had somehow been attached to the home of the President of the College.


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We’d go back to Rego Park.

Getting back into the swing of things, and trying to get back to the Sietsema list (I’ve been pretty distracted from it for a couple of months), my girlfriend and I visited Rego Park, Queens for the first time last night – our destination was Cheburechnaya, the 26th entry on that list.  Frankly, I though it should have been ranked much, much higher – despite the relatively far-out location, Cheburechnaya is one of the best deals and best meals I’ve yet encountered in my quest.

Taking the V to 63rd Drive is SLOW.  Once there, though, you’ll be astonished by the level of development – a mall with a Marshall’s and Sears is in the middle of a brightly lit commercial corridor that goes up 63rd Drive and 63rd Road.  Queens Boulevard is massive, too, providing a totally different ambiance from Jackson Heights or Elmhurst.

Since I was warned in advance that Cheburechnaya was BYOB, we stopped in at a grocery store to get a couple of beers.  Of course, we also ended up with candy from Belarus, a locally-produced honey-wheat-walnut snack, cookies from Poland, and raspberry jam of interminate origin (no English on the packaging).  The lesson, as always: never go into a grocery store on an empty stomach.

We hurried on to Cheburechnaya, which we were surprised to find occupying a large space with huge windows.  I guess I’ve been to so many hole-in-the-wall places that it’s surprising to find a place that looks different.  It sounded different, too – flat-screen TVs on the wall piped in what I imagine to be Russian (or are they Uzbek?) pop music videos, and the accompanying audio was occasionally interrupted by skits with what must be the Gong Show’s leftover sound effects.  Nothing better than a good “boingggg” noise, right?

As to the food – amazing.  Despite never having eaten Uzbek before, I feel that it’s similar enough to Russian and Middle Eastern food to make that claim.  To start, we ordered the amazing cracker-bread noni toki.  It looks like a giant Carr’s cracker in the shape of a dish, approximately the size of a truck hubcap.  Paired with a great hummus (second only to Hummus Place’s iteration in my recent memory), it would be the Geary clan’s favorite hors d’oeuvre, if they could only get it at Stop and Shop in Harwich.

Soon afterwards, our chebureki arrived.  I had ordered two beef and two of the “special,” with the expectation that they’d be roughly the size of a large pierogi, but I was dead wrong.  These fried envelopes are the size of half your plate – they’re surprisingly light, though, particularly when eaten immediately.  I’d choose the special, which seemed to feature herbed buckwheat and some kind of meat, over the beef.  Oddly, the shape of the pie is shown on the menu – it varies from flavor to flavor.

I just remembered that I ordered bread that never arrived.  Hope I didn’t get charged for it.

The skewers arrived last.  I ordered four, of which the vaunted lamb fat was my favorite.  Possessing of an amazing charcoal-lamb flavor and a melt-in-your-mouth consistency, I immediately considered the possibilities of using it to cook.  Eggs?  Meatloaf?  Apple pie?  It’s hard to imagine a context for grease where this flavor wouldn’t be welcome (okay, questionable on the pie – I can hear my grandmother’s objections already).

The other three kebabs were nearly at that level.  A very salty piece of meat, tinged pink, I was unimpressed with the first bite of veal sweetbreads (a little rubbery), but enjoyed it more from there.  It’s a unique flavor, to be sure, and (I thought) a great way to try sweetbreads for the first time.  The lamb kebab was probably the better of the beef kebab, but both were grilled to the same standard of taste as the lamb fat.  I just dig that lamb flavor, I guess.

Cheburechnaya is absolutely worth the trip to Rego Park at your earliest convenience.  It is both cheap and delicious – we over-ordered and still only spent $26 and change before the tip.  (Sorry not to have specific pricing, but I’m out of practice and forgot to grab a menu on the way out.)   I give it my highest recommendation.  Don’t forget to buy some booze to take – a bottle of Hennessy, perhaps, like two separate tables of locals we noticed on the way out.  (No kidding.)


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A damned bad case of the Mexicali blues.

Welcome back!  Seems an eon since my last New York City review – this holiday season really was ridiculous for me.  Due to circumstances beyond my control, I ate about three meals last week in restaurants that were overpriced and under-delicious – fortunately, I wasn’t paying, but it definitely made me yearn to be back in the restaurant-review saddle.

Unfortunately, my 2006 restauranting got off to a very bad start last night – Mexicali, on Court St. between Atlantic and Pacific, is easily the worst place I’ve eaten in recent memory, and a strong contender for worst ever.  What gives, you ask?  Well…

Let’s flash back to New Year’s Day.  In the evening hours, with the weather being pitiful and my extreme exhaustion making it hard to sit up straight, my roommate and I ransacked our cache of takeout menus.  We could only come up with $17 between us, so our options were somewhat limited.  After calling a few places that were closed, including Mexicali, we settled on Bombay Dream on Smith St.  I had, however, noticed the appearance of mole poblano and pipian on Mexicali’s menu, and resolved to sample both at my earliest convenience.

As it turns out, we were fortunate that Mexicali was closed on the 1st – we might have otherwise starved to death.  Arriving with high hopes, I took a table in the front and watched the rather boring streetscape.  Chips and salsa arrived, and I had what I thought to be a few too many nearly-stale chips (fueled by a salsa that only burned when you stopped eating it – this kind of thing is designed, I think, to sell more beer).  I ordered a dual helping of chile relleno (stuffed green chile peppers), a dish I’ve rarely seen on Mexican menus east of Utah.  Maybe the fact that the chiles were supposedly slathered in mole verde and mole poblano should have been my first clue to stay away, but I guess I was out of practice.  I also ordered a side of the pipian sauce to try.

I can say without hesitation that, if I was surprised to see chile rellenos on the menu, the chef must have been doubly or trebly surprised to see them ordered – they came out with the coating (which I assume was an attempt at pan or deep frying) roughly the texture of driftwood, and without the pleasant salty taste.  I mean, this stuff tasted like shit.  Picking it off, I managed to salvage some of the chiles, which didn’t seem very stuffed, but were at least somewhat edible.

I scraped the mole poblano into the beans (after picking off the melted cheese) – it was actually the best thing I was served, though it was more chocolate than spice, and the sesame seeds were raw and carelessly strewn on top, rather than toasted and stewed.  I might have done the same with the mole verde, except that it was basically ruined by a dollop of sour cream plopped on top, and from what I could tell, not very good to begin with.

The pipian was equally disappointing.  It arrived a pallid shade of yellow, displaying none of the telltale bright green hue of crushed pumpkin seed.  It tasted like the inside of a can – acid and iron-flavored.  I scooped it onto my rice and tried to make the best of it, which was probably a mistake.  I finished the last few chips off with as much salsa as I could manage, hoping that the painful spiciness would wash my taste buds and memory of the awful-tasting meal.

I was dispirited afterwards – I wandered into the Korean bodega that my roommate and I call ‘Munchie Heaven’ and bought two pints of Double Rainbow Soy Cream.  There is some truth to the rumor that I briefly considered pairing the dessert with a box of tissues and a weepy movie.  The Mexicali blues are not to be trifled with, much like the food itself.


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