Monthly Archives: March 2006

Quick bites: 3rd Avenue’s grease emporiums.

Not being a cheesesteak expert (read as: never having been to Philadelphia), I feel a little bad making grandiose proclamations, but this much is certain: I liked Carl’s steak better than the one from the East Village’s 99 Miles to Philly.  The concept is similar – both places’ prices are comparable ($6.50 per cheesesteak with no toppings), both have TV’s to entertain while waiting and eating, and I even heard that a former Carl’s employee started 99MtP.  Something got lost in translation, though – the bread and steak at 99MtP isn’t nearly as good, for some reason.  I’m not even sure it’s better than the best cart cheesesteak (other than, of course, the availability of whiz).  That said, it sure is more conveniently located to various drinking establishments.  A trade-off, certainly.

On the same block as 99MtP is the illustrious Blue 9 Burger.  Once upon a time the class of NYC fast food burgers, and a worthy east-coast imitation of California’s In-and-Out Burger, the quality has lately gone a bit south.  Particularly late in the evening, you’re likely to receive a burger with a higher percentage of grease than is probably necessary or wanted.  No matter: my roommate still craves them.  Fries are pretty good, too – the fry-sauce-colored mango chili dipping sauce is a total mystery to me, though.

Walking down to the corner of 11th Street brings us to my longtime favorite place in the neighborhood – Roll N’ Roaster.  An unrepentantly old-school establishment whose original branch is in Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn, Roll N’ Roaster’s as dirt-cheap as they come.  While the specialty of the place is roast beef, which is available mounted on a roll for $4.45, the burgers ($3.25) are also good enough for the value-conscious.  Paper-thin and a little flavorless, they seem like a cartoon version of a national chain fast food restaurant, particularly when the only cheese available (45 cents extra) comes in pourable form.  Said cheese goes better with the fries ($1.75), which are round cross-sections of potato instead of the usual shape, though it costs 90 cents extra in this context (I don’t think they use twice as much).  Lately they’ve added strange things like pizza to the menu – never fear, this is merely to entice drunken students, who have discovered that, with a small food order, pitchers of beer are under five bucks apiece (I forget the actual number and their website makes no mention of it, but it’s absurdly low).  Pregaming, ahoy!

I don’t know if I’ll have a review to post tomorrow.  I might have a post or two from Belgium, but, in any case, regular posting will resume on or after 4/11/06.  See ya!

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Need Belgian recommendations.

Hi gang,
My girlfriend and I are embarking on a trip to Brugge, Antwerp and Brussels, Belgium Friday evening.  Depending on how ambitious we are, this may include side trips to Amsterdam and London.

Anyone got any hot tips for cheap eats (particularly in Belgium)?  E-mail them or, better still, post them in comments.  Dank u!

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Take the B-train to Xinjang: Cafe Kashkar’s excellent Uighur.

I have to hand it to Mr. Sietsema – the farther out in NYC (or NJ) he’s sent me, the better the meals get.  Compare Sukhadia’s centrally-located disappointment with the far-off charms and culinary excellence of Café Kashkar, the 33rd entry on the 2005 list.  Kashkar is located near the far end of the B express line in Brighton Beach (you can also take the Q), in a neighborhood lately inhabited by Russian émigrés.  It’s quite jarring to stumble out of the train and soak in the neighborhood: underneath the station, on Brighton Beach Ave., a brand-new Starbucks faces off with 99 cent stores and pharmacies.  A little further, after the train has taken off to the north, the stretch featuring grocery stores, variety stores, and delis faces a recently-constructed complex of enormous Florida-esque condo towers.  It’s what Rockaway would look like, if Russians moved there and wanted to build a beach resort.  Seems like there’s lots of money rolling around the area, which is atypical for many of the far-off neighborhoods in NYC, and in absolute contrast to the extreme poverty in the neighboring Coney Island area.

It appeared to be a mostly Russian clientele in Kashkar when my girlfriend and I arrived, befitting the menu’s English and Russian explanations.  The décor, though, reminded me mostly of Chinatown’s humbler lunch counters – wall-mounted moving waterfall picture and all.  Without Mad Ludwig’s excellent translation skills, we were left to our own devices to interpret the English approximations of the dishes, but having taken a few notes from Sietsema’s column beforehand, I felt pretty confident.  (I should mention at this point the KIND of food we were preparing to order – Uighur.  Hailing from China’s northwestern Xinjang province, the Uighurs claim Turkish ancestry, and our waiter looked almost Icelandic.)  The food itself is like a cross between Uzbek and Chinese, though I’d say that there are similarities to Russian and Tibetan foods as well.

We started with the “geiro lagman” ($6), which is listed rather strangely under “soups.”  While the soup version of this dish is available under the title “lagman,” the geiro version (under-described as “noodles with meat & vegetables”) is more of a noodle dish with toppings.  It’s also one of the best things I’ve eaten on my nearly half-complete journey through the Cheap Eats list.  It features hand-thrown noodles that rival Super Taste’s and a sauce that includes tender, fatty chunks of lamb (watch out for the bones!), green and red pepper chunks, green beans, onions and scallions, and it’s tied together with a oily red sauce enhanced with ground black pepper.  We practically licked the plate clean – no joke!

Second-favorite, for me, were the kebabs.  We tried both lamb ($2.50) and lamb rib ($3) versions.  If you’ve not been to a Uzbek-style kebab restaurant before, your skewers arrive on a plate, with about four or five pieces of meat per kebab, covered in raw onions, with a mild red dipping sauce which I usually skip.  You could easily make a carnivorous, cheap and Atkins-friendly meal from just kebabs, as a neighboring table did.  The lamb was tender, smoky (thanks to the charcoal grill), and melt-in-your-mouth fatty.  Avec rib, the meat became even more flavorful – picking them up and sucking the meat off the bones gave me a flashback to youthful Tony Roma’s visits (thankfully, the barbecue sauce was nowhere to be found).

We also sampled a second impressive starch: the pilaf ($6).  No longer referred to as fried rice on the menu, it features the very same chunks of succulent lamb that the lagman did, except it presents them in an oily (according to Sietsema, unrefined sunflower oil), sticky rice with a few shaved carrots.  I realize that it doesn’t sound particularly great (can you imagine the TGI Fridays’ menu-copy-writers trying to tackle it?), but you’ll have to take my word for it – lovely and delicious.

Our attempt to conquer yet another lamb dish (I want to see the chef here challenge Chen Kenichi in a lamb battle, especially if I can be on the tasting panel) was stymied by what I think was waiter confusion – we had ordered the samsa, which were to be small, lamb-filled dumplings, but they never arrived, and we had entered a food-coma induced forgetfulness by the end of the meal.  Suffice to say we weren’t that disappointed.

I’ve never been very impressed with the salads at Uzbek places (achik-chik being somewhat of an exception, but it doesn’t appear to be offered at Kashkar), and I’m sorry to say that the pickle plate ($6) proves that uninteresting salads are also a problem further along the Silk Road.  Consisting of dry pickled red cabbage chunks, what might have been pickled tomatoes (they seemed a little overripe), and bland pickled cucumber shards.  Not worth $6, at all.

Similarly disappointing was the bread – the Uzbek-style bread, which I believe is referred to as “naan” on the menu, was a bit on the stale side, and was not oven-warmed or pre-oiled, as the better iteration at Cheburechnaya was.  Perhaps it would have done better as a soup sop.

I loved Kashkar.  Loved, loved, loved.  Even better, it’s actually not even that far from me, if the B train is running – about 15-20 minutes from Atlantic Avenue.  You can bet I will be back with as many people as I can muster.

(Address: 1141 Brighton Beach Avenue, between Brighton 14th and Brighton 15th Sts.)

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Sukhadia’s vegetarian fare mainly bettered elsewhere.

Clocking in at number 82 on Sietsema’s list, Sukhadia, at 17 W. 45th Street in Manhattan, is a mixed bag.  On one hand, one could assemble a quite reasonably priced meal from the menu.  On the other hand, it would require some inside knowledge of what to order to be completely successful, as not everything they offer is worthy.

With my roommate and one of his co-workers, we arrived at Sukhadia last night to find the place rather empty.  The “international crowd” was half right – the ethnicity of the various people who filed in and out was varied, but “crowd” would have been an overstatement with twice as many people.  I guess it WAS Monday, but the place was practically abandoned.

To get to the back room where the tables are, you’ve got to walk through a typical lunch-buffet-looking area – it really looks like any other corporate lunch place.  It’s totally incongruous with the back room, though, which features chandeliers and marble-topped tables that, while not terribly expensive-looking, give the impression that Sukhadia is attempting to be something more upscale.

I wouldn’t call them upscale, though – the food, good and bad, was quite humble.  We started with the samosa chat ($4) and channa tikki ($5), which were the definite highlights of the evening.  The samosa, a vegetable dumpling, was pleasingly topped with chickpeas and an array of sweet and mildly spicy sauces.  As I had actually ordered the kachoori chat, I was a bit chagrined when it arrived (the service at Sukhadia, by the way, was inattentive bordering on incompetent), but it proved to be the best thing we ate.  The channa tikki, with a mildly spicy sauce and chickpeas over chunks of potato, was also good, though perhaps a little too same-y for our taste.

Both of those were heaven compared to one of the mains – the palak paneer ($9) was among the worst iterations of the dish I’ve ever had.  Containing nothing resembling fresh spinach, and a green paste-like substance that approximated canned creamed spinach, it’s hard to believe that this dish and Spicy Mina’s excellent broccoli-rabe-ish dish are purportedly the same thing.

Fortunately, the dosa (mysore masala version, $8) was better.  The lentil crepe and potatoes inside were quite good, even if the sauces left a little to be desired: the sambar didn’t reach the level of Pongal or Dosa Hutt Jersey City, and I’m not sure what the other sauce was supposed to be (it looked like a cross between sambar and coconut chutney).

Per my roommate’s desires, we indulged in a dessert of gulab jam.  At $3 for two balls of deep fried sweet cheese and flour in a heated honey sauce, I was rather nonplussed.  It wasn’t any better or worse than things I’ve been handed at the end of Indian meals for free, and the warm honey lent a rather sickly sweet flavor to the whole experience.

I can see why, in Midtown, Sukhadia would be a boon for vegetarians – the options for nearby cheap and interesting eats are few and far between, particularly if you’re not in walking distance of 9th Avenue.  For the rest of us, Sukhadia scarcely qualifies as a destination restaurant, and I think there’s better stuff to be found elsewhere.

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Cheap meatballs and runway views offer respite from IKEA chaos.

Where to begin?  IKEA, across the NJ Turnpike from Newark/Liberty International Airport in Elizabeth, NJ, is a fucking zoo.  Crowded with strollers and screaming kids, and smelling like my mother’s old third-grade classroom (hint: sweaty kids plus stale food plus crayons), any visit to IKEA is to be endured rather than enjoyed.  As my roommate so aptly put, it’s an amusement park of commerce – a truly staggering reminder of the inability of the American consumer to save money for quality goods (much less for saving’s own sake).

But you don’t read me for social critique, I realize, so let me get to the point: the high point of any trip to IKEA is, of course, the Café.  Not because it isn’t as crowded and loud as the rest of the place (it certainly is at many times of day, and I’m betting the 99-cent breakfast hour is the worst of all), but because it alone offers the things the rest of the store takes away: natural light, nourishment, and the ability to relax for a few minutes.

Thankfully, the IKEA café is CHEAP.  Damn cheap.  I don’t think there’s an item on the menu over $7, and it’s not all hot dogs and hamburgers – some genuinely interesting and relatively healthy-seeming meals can be assembled for not much cash, even if you avoid the dodgy salad bar.

As we were already relatively sated from our enormous egg sandwich breakfasts, my girlfriend and I didn’t truly take advantage of the plethora of options.  Indeed, we might not have even stopped, if I hadn’t earlier made it a personal mission to test out IKEA’s meatballs before leaving Elizabeth.  So I braved the line while she grabbed a table, and 10 minutes later (the process will remind you of your college dining hall, without question), we were happily seated by the window with our food.

I quite liked the meatballs, considering their origin in a freezer, but it would be tough to complain about paying $4 for 10 of the mysterious orbs, with gravy and lingonberry jam, at any rate.  The meatballs are as fresh and moist as could be, and given how many of them they go through on a typical weekend day, they probably haven’t been sitting around long.  The gravy is nice, too, but I thought the jam was rather bland (the same thing went for the lingonberry drink from the soda fountain).

We also sampled the lingonberry mousse ($1) and the D’aim torte ($2.50).  Of the two, the D’aim is certainly superior.  Kind of like a cross between a Kit-Kat, a peanut butter cup, and a toffee bar, the super-sweet slice was the perfect pre-fabricated dessert.  I’m sure they do a great business in selling the whole thing in their food shop (strategically located near the exit and directly opposite the waiting area for large items, natch).

The mousse, befitting its low cost, was low in flavor, but certainly not without merit.  Mounted on a sugar-cracker-cookie crust, it was gone in the blink of an eye.

The nicest thing about IKEA, and the café specifically, might not appeal to everyone as much as it did me.  As a kid, I frequently flew in a small plane with my grandfather to various small airports across New England.  The smallest airports might not have had much more than a coffee machine, but the slightly bigger ones usually had a café or restaurant overlooking the airstrip.   Either way, I spent much quality time with my grandfather lingering over a Coke or a meal, watching the planes fly in and out.  As I got older and had less time to fly with him, I would occasionally find myself in that rare airport terminal with a runway view, and would sit glued to the window until my flight boarded.  This of course before the terminals all became indoor malls, and many airport cafés were replaced with frozen-yogurt stands (reserving the good views for members of pricey airline clubs, it would seem).

At this point, IKEA stores and airports aren’t that far apart in terms of atmosphere.  Thankfully, IKEA left one nook for those of us who need a break from looking at particle board, though, and you needn’t be a member of the Admiral’s Club to gain entrance.  As we sat in the café next to the windows overlooking the airport, the simple pleasure of watching plane after plane touch down put a stupid grin on my face and, in concert with the meatballs and desserts, erased the stress of one of the least-fun places to shop in the world.

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Quick Bites: lunch with Robyn, PIE, and Better Burger.

I had a nice lunch with Robyn of The Girl Who Ate Everything today – we went to Alidoro and traded halves of our Cortina and El Capitano sandwiches.  She’s made some pretty fun t-shirts, too, if you’re into that.  I’ve already rambled about Alidoro enough for one column, so I’ll leave the details to her (will insert link when she posts), but I had a good time.  Thanks, Robyn!

Now, a few quick bites:
I had a slice of the fresh mozzarella pie from PIE (Pie by the Pound) last night.  While it served well as a quick dinner, I think it rates somewhere below a good NYC fast food slice in quality, and significantly below a place like DeMarco’s.  Mainly, I thought that the crust was too hard and the was tomato sauce too sweet.  Also, it was expensive!  A portion of the pie (which comes in a long rectangle with rounded ends) that I’d say was equivalent to a big piece (or a regular piece and a third) was about $3.75!  If I was a tad more cynical, I’d say that they changed the size and shape so that people wouldn’t get bent about paying an absurd amount for a slice.  Oh well.

Recently, I had a burger delivered from Better Burger Chelsea via SeamlessWeb.  SeamlessWeb is an interesting invention – sort of a meta-delivery site of mostly crap food (at least with what can be delivered to my location at work).  I tried the “classic organic beef burger” ($5), cooked medium rare, with a $2.50 side of smashed potatoes (I avoided the fries on a tip from my girlfriend).  The burger, for what it’s worth, reminded me of a fast food restaurant, though it was of much higher quality and cooked as close to medium rare as the thin patty would accommodate.  The smashed potatoes seemed strange until I realized that they had no dairy and were “reduced-fat” – then I realized that they were just sabotaged from the start.  Still, I’m sure, better than the “air-cooked” fries.

Some of you have noticed that not many places on the list have been crossed off recently.  With the nice weather around the corner, I aim to have a good chunk of the list polished off by the time this year’s list arrives in late spring/early summer – stay tuned!

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O’Pescatore, where art thou?

Can someone please tell me how to tell average old-school red sauce places apart from each other?  I really can’t figure it out.  They’ve all got the standards, and some of them have got specials, but when it boils right down to it, they’re all so same-y that it’s basically just an exercise in finding one that’s polite and reasonably inexpensive.

Of course, part of the fun of going to a place like Cono and Sons O’Pescatore (Graham Avenue and Ainslie Street, Brooklyn) is being totally out of place – a young, relatively hip looking couple strolls in, and the waiters and staff scratch their heads and wonder why.  Hey, I like Italian-American food as much as the next WASP, and my girlfriend is no slouch herself, but you’d figure they’d be used to it by now – the restaurant IS in Williamsburg, after all, and it’s not like it was crowded (I think there were two other tables in our dining room that were full, and they may have had a second dining room available).

Nonetheless, if the staff were slightly nonplussed and perhaps a little confused by our order of three dishes containing pasta, they certainly were efficient – the dishes arrived in a very timely fashion, indeed.  Per this blog, we had the pasta with fagioli as a starter, as well as the broccoli rabe.  Our choices were the gnocchi (advertised as homemade) with Bolognese, and a special linguini with three mushrooms and chunks of veal in red sauce.  In the little time we waited before and between courses, we noshed on fairly unspectacular bread and speculated about the windows – they’re nearly completely obscured with plants living in old champagne buckets.  It’s almost as though the clientele has a privacy fetish…hmm.

No Sopranos-style tables this time, though: just us and, at first, the fagioli and broccoli.  There was a moment of suspicion on my part when the waiter initially said that the broccoli rabe was out of season.  He then went to confer with his bosses in the back; I imagined the conversation going something like: “Hey, do we have any broccoli rabe frozen?  This young couple wants some, and I don’t think they can tell the difference.”

I suppose their estimations may have been correct – we both LOVED the rabe, and it was absolutely our favorite dish of the evening.  Oily (but not over-oiled), garlicky, slightly bitter, and with a subtle undercurrent of pepper, it was the only iteration of the dish my girlfriend had ever liked, and one of the better varieties I’ve had.  I think it was $9, but the menu didn’t say, and I forgot to take specific note when the check came.

I wish I could say the rest of the dishes titillated that much.  As the waiters were to us, I was to the bowl of fagioli pasta – okay, so there’s five different kinds of pasta in there.  So I guess they use the remnants of everything else, chuck some beans and a dash of soup in, and call it a meal?  To me, it seemed like something I would have thrown together in college on a low budget – fine, but probably not worth $7.

Our mains weren’t terribly unique, either.  While the homemade gnocchi ($12) were good (my girlfriend liked them best just as they came out of the kitchen), I thought the sauce did them little justice.  And while the three-mushroom sauce accompanying the veal and linguini was fine, I’d have been just fine without the rather tough veal and the accompanying $17 price tag.  “Just throw the mushroom sauce on the gnocchi, and you’ve got something much more interesting,” I said, glancing around to make sure our waiter wasn’t in earshot.

We skipped dessert, the check already a bit higher than we’d hoped.  Perhaps we should have taken Sietsema’s advice and gone to the cheaper, less formal pizzeria across the street.  Like the last remaining ancient Italian restaurants of Carroll Gardens (the former northern end of Italian Red Hook), Cono O’Pescatore seems to exist to cater primarily to those who remember the dishes from old days, rather than those from other backgrounds who want to learn about them.  It’s too bad, really – I don’t imagine most of these places will be around for many more years, and it’s a tradition that’s such an integral part of New York City history that it’s really a shame to lose it through attrition and indifference.

My girlfriend and I agreed: if one wants old-school Italian-American cuisine, it would be better to save money for a splurge at Roberto’s in the Bronx rather than half-ass it at Cono’s or something like it.  There, at least the atmosphere and food are worth the journey and expense.

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