Monthly Archives: October 2006

Viva La (Beef) Revolución!

Have you ever had a really, really good steak?  If you’re like most people my age, the answer is probably no, and here’s why: they cost a boatload.  Unless you’ve got a rich uncle or gourmand grandparent (or, to be fair, are better at saving money than me), you may or may not ever get to sample the sumptuously spectacular Peter Luger porterhouse.  

So it’s that much more valuable that any schmuck can walk in to the afore-mentioned temple o’ beef and get a taste of heaven on a bun – that’s right, the Luger Burger.  I’m here to tell you that it tastes like fine steak, only in burger format.  That is, a hell of a lot like the aged porterhouse that will set you back three-quarters of a hundo or more, all for the bargain price of $8.50 (for the unadorned).

Reservations are probably a good idea at Luger’s, which is one of the only times you’ll hear me say that in an entry, but a friend and I waltzed in unannounced at 1:30 on a Saturday and were seated within half an hour.  From there, we planned our attack: burgers medium rare with cheese, fries, and two slices of bacon on the side.

When the beef arrived, it looks strangely unimpressive.  The seeded bun is a bit bigger than the burger, and almost looks too chewy for its own good.  Then you take a bite, and the juices go EVERYWHERE (hope you were leaning up – your mom wasn’t kidding), and you see why perhaps a bit more structure to the bun than is ordinarily necessary benefits you.

And the flavor.  Oh, lord, the flavor!  Aged beef might be a slightly acquired taste, as it has a stiff aroma and earthy palate, but this is the true sign of quality.  It’s surely indicative of the blandness of most of our beef products – do you expect pork or cured meats to be without flavor?  Maybe your average chicken, but that was made bland so that people who don’t like to eat would have something to sauté with frozen veggies (proof: real fried chicken is far from tasteless).

I think the cheese thing is a personal decision, but I don’t regret it in the least.  However, you will be richly rewarded if you load a few of the white onion bits onto your bun.  Most beef (see preceding paragraph) would be overwhelmed by the strong onion, but Luger’s has both good onions and strong-flavored beef, and the flavors are as complementary as peanut butter and jelly.

By the way, the fries are relatively forgettable – if you need additional starch, spring for a plate of au gratin potatoes or something like that.  And the bacon shouldn’t be loaded onto the burger, despite it being offered that way on the menu.  For the same price, get a slice or two on the side and enjoy that perfect pork product on its own.

Good beef on a budget?  It’s the greatest thing since the hamburger bun.  But, in the words of LeVar Burton, don’t take my word for it: you can afford to find this out for yourself.

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Dosa man: dope.

Here’s one you might have gotten to before me: Washington Square Park’s dosa man (near the southwest corner).  He’s a devious one, he is: advertising his cuisine as vegan ensures a steady stream of neo-hippie picky-eaters, and having a carton of samosas ready to go at any time will ensure on-the-go snack traffic.  I could give a flying cluck about a mock chicken drumstick, though – how are the man’s crepes?

I only have a half-remembered trip to Chennai Garden and several Jersey City excursions to compare to, so don’t call me the expert, but other than size (understandable given the size of his grill) and price (slightly more expensive), I’d say the dude has just as much to be proud of as his distant fellow travelers.  These dosas are excellent!

There is also a certain elegance in the way he works – cooking three at a time, never forgetting who ordered a high level of spice (which he works into the actual batter), and always retaining a friendly demeanor in the face of long lines and hungry patrons.  Even with a long line, $4 seemed a bargain for a crepe with spiced potatoes.  You’ll also get the standard coconut chutney (which might be better than Sri Ganesh’s analog) and sambar soup, both of which retain an authentic level of heat.

Looks like I never need excurse to Jersey City unless I absolutely want to, now.  Thanks, dosa man!

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Red Hook, former seaside wasteland/charmingly rundown blue-collar neighborhood, is getting a lot of press lately.  It seems like the august institutions (ie, NYT) have gotten the idea that, with the arrival of Fairway and the impending construction of an IKEA, the Hook is now a destination.  It’s hard for me to argue with that conclusion, though my logic is much different: Red Hook is the closest spot to lower Manhattan within the city borders in which you truly feel like you’re in a different place.

Obviously that feel has changed and will continue to change ever so slightly, but as long as I can still soak up the stiff breezes and sea air smell on the dock by the rusting hulk of a trolley, I’ll feel pretty good about the place.  Not to mention the various and sundry culinary delights that occupy the neighborhood – especially the ball fields (at Clinton and Bay Streets, a short walk from the Van Brunt St. corridor), to which I took my first eating trip this past weekend with a friend.

The season may be winding down, but there was a full or nearly-full complement of vendors there, a map for which can be found at the Porkchop Express (a relatively new and really excellent blog).  I can’t rightly remember where we bought everything, but I know we started at Sosa Juices, where I tried the melon and she tried the pineapple.  The melon in question was apparently cantaloupe, and I’ve scarcely ever been happier with a juice in my lifetime.  Her pineapple was also quite delish.

Toting our enormous cups of juice (which I think were like $2 each – in fact, most of the food items we had were between $1 and $3, with noted exceptions), we proceeded to look over the offerings.  The first thing that caught our collective eyes was a lady grilling up pupusas, which are basically grilled ground corn cakes filled with stuff.  In this case, it was meat and cheese, though other varieties were available at another nearby stand.  Pretty damn good, and the garnish of cabbage was better than the average sauerkraut or cole slaw.

Next up, my friend had a hankering for some ceviche.  So she went and grabbed it while I stopped at Ceron Colombian and made eyes at an enormous yellow doughy-looking ball, which I found out was made of potatoes stuffed with beef and deep fried.  I also noticed a sausage in a rather lovely shade of red-black – being a longtime blood sausage enthusiast, I took the plunge.

Of course, given that my friend is the smarter of the two of us, she ended up with the best-tasting dish of the three that arrived at our seat.  The ceviche ($6), while perhaps a bit mild for my taste, was filled to the brim with excellent shrimp, squid, octopus, and swordfish.  Something about this preparation method makes even sometimes-tough octopus tender, and the squid practically melted in my mouth.

Not that the sausage and stuffed potato (called a papa reyena, according to Mr. Slab of the Porkchop Express) were bad – just not as spectacular as I’d hoped.  The latter’s most attractive feature was indeed its goldenrod hue – the beef inside was rather mild and the potatoes, while tender, didn’t offer much in the way of flavor.  The blood sausage was better, if slightly dry, sided with something resembling stewed yucca and topped with some kind of mystery orange relish.

The last stop on the gutbusters tour was for tamales at Soler Dominican.  Two varieties were offered, and we tried both: unadorned corn and chicken.  Of the two, the chicken was my favorite, but not by much.  The moist stewed chicken and the corn meal combined to great effect, I thought – my friend made a compelling case for the corn meal alone being superior, though.  Something about the difference in preparation made it seem sweet, and almost like a dessert.  Not a bad way to cap lunchtime at the fields.

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The tiniest chicken egg in the world?

I was feeling pretty lazy on Friday, but resolved that I would make a food excursion – I was craving spice, in a bad way.  I’m not sure, then, why I ended up googling Mangal, the Turkish eatery that’s the only Sunnyside entry on the VV list, because even the spiciest doner kebap I’ve ever had pales in comparison to what I usually require when craving spice.

Fortunately, serendipity struck again, and I found a message board thread that dealt with Mangal and its neighbors in Sunnyside.  When I saw the posting that mentioned Natural Tofu Restaurant and its four-tiered spice scale (from “very mild” to “very spicy”), I knew that it would be my evening’s destination.

Literally across the eastbound half of Queens Boulevard from the 40th Street stop on the 7 train, Natural Tofu, like its neighborhood, attracts a virtual United Nations of eaters.  Unlike the Flushing Korean restaurants which seem to attract far a far more homogenous crowd, you’re just as likely to see a table of boisterous young Koreans as older Irish gentlemen.  And, for once, it’s bigger than a breadbox – you could bring a group of people here with no trouble finding a seat.  (Hmm…that sounds like a good idea, in fact.)

It’s easy for me to see why it’s popular across ethnic boundaries – the food is both cheap and delicious.  A bowl of the soft tofu stew known as soondooboo is $8.  The price includes rice (served from a larger version of the stone crock that will hold your stew, brought by a guy with a cart) and a full array of the appetizer dishes known as “panchan.”  Besides the standard kimchee, the little dishes contained sesame-oiled bean sprouts, some kind of crispy minnow, what I think were sliced mushrooms, several slices of a sweet egg concoction, and one other thing I’m forgetting.

The other small dish that arrived had a tiny egg in it – I don’t think it was a quail egg, just a smaller-than-usual chicken egg (I guess all the eggs we buy in the grocery ARE marked “jumbo,” right?).  This isn’t some kind of milkshake additive or raw treat for salmonella-risking daredevils, but something to crack open into your stew when it arrives at your table bubbling with angry orange and red colors (courtesy of the spices, I’m sure).  It cooks!

I tried the very spicy stew, because I’m basically that guy, and I have to say that the heat was tolerable but, as with most things that are both temperature and spice hot, the temperature made the spice level a little harder to take.  I might try it in the “spicy” variety next time to see if it’s easier to eat without waiting fifteen minutes.  Oh, yeah, and it had oysters in it, which imparted a nice seafoody flavor to the broth, but the actual oysters themselves were kind of funky.  It’s also available in standard meat and veggie flavors, though, so never fear.

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Swell up in Harlem.

Despite eating a lot of peanut butter and jelly lately, I still have secret designs on finishing the 2005 list on which this blog has been based.  So when I found myself in the Bronx for a Yankees game yesterday afternoon, there was no question that I would hop off the D train on the way back home to check out the culinary environs of western Harlem and, hopefully, at least one of the two restaurants on the list that are on Fredrick Douglass Boulevard.

Harlem is, as ever, an interesting place.  I thought I had seen a lot of weird juxtaposition of burned out hulk-buildings and new condos in Brooklyn; as it turns out, my borough has nothing on the area between 125th Street and Cathedral Parkway, where tired brownstones and new development stare uneasily across the street at one another.

List entry Roti Plus has crossed from one side of the gentrification divide to the other, it would seem.  The cell phone business that, according to Sietsema, was once located in the front of the place is now gone – replaced with an island-ish décor and a lot of tables.  Pretty sure the staff and most of the customers are the same, though – the lady taking orders demonstrated a considerably developed sense of resignation combined with sass when the folks placing the orders got out of line.  You should have heard her say she was going to knock a customer (not me!) out; it was magical in a way that could only be re-created in Hollywood by Vanessa Williams on valium.

The classed-up environs could, I’m sure, explain why the cost of a roti is higher than I’d paid in the past in Bed-Stuy or Flatbush.  $5 will buy you a potato and chickpea-filled roti skin there, and each additional ingredient drives the price up further (some rotis on the menu cost up to $10).  I’m sure that most of the rotis could feed two, if you’re really concerned.

Even for $5, though, and despite coming not long after the usual ballpark array of hot dogs and peanuts, I quite enjoyed the roti.  Many of the locals ordered their rotis ‘separated,’ which may or may not be the equivalent of a ‘buss-up shot,’ or broken roti skin with the contents piled on top (seriously, I don’t know).  I ended up with the standard filled variety, though.  The skin was freshly prepared (had to wait five minutes, even) and relatively stronger than the usual dough without sacrificing that lovely grit-n-stretch texture, and the interior had been adulterated at my request with some kind of addictively vinegary hot sauce.  It was a standout flavor, for sure – maybe scotch bonnet?

I would have asked after the hot sauce if I still had been in the restaurant by the time I consumed it, instead of on the corner of 125th and Fredrick Douglass.  By the time I finished it, I was so full that I decided to take a walk to shake it off; I ended up hoofing it all the way down to the Fredrick Douglass circle (also under renovation).  I was too full, unfortunately, to check out Florence’s, an African restaurant located on that strip, but I promised myself a return visit as soon as possible, with a possible detour to check out that enormous European-style cathedral located a block over.  Not what I was expecting from Harlem, for sure, but then, precious little of what I saw (including Roti Plus) was.

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Nicky’s branches out.

I was surprised to note the opening of a second Banh Mi parlor in the Boerum Hill area – when I moved in, we barely dared dream about such luxury, after all.  Now we have a branch of Nicky’s, the original of which still exists on 2nd Street and Avenue A in the East Village (and the antecedent of which was on this side of the river in Sunset Park).

How does it compare to Hanco’s?  Well, Hanco’s is pretty good, but I’ll give Nicky’s the slight edge.  Something about the ground pork (perhaps the sweetness?) in their classic sandwich ($4) appealed to my roommate and I more last night, and Nicky’s is a bit bigger and more pleasant a place to wait or eat in, despite its semi-underground location (between Hoyt and Smith on Atlantic Avenue, in a downstairs storefront).  The sandwich was done quicker than Hanco’s, too.

For those who don’t want a mini-hero, Nicky’s also offers a couple basic noodle dishes and salads – the noodles are your basic rice vermicelli with either pork slices or chicken on top ($6.50).  These are presumably the same iterations that would top your sandwich, though the pork I had last night would have been a bit bony to put in the loaf (otherwise, though, the pork was quite excellent).  A bit odd that a de-constructed sandwich (pickled carrots and peppers appear on the side) would cost more than its assembled cousin, but I’ll chalk that up to the increased preparation effort, or something.

I can only think that Nicky’s hopes to capture some of the dining business from the hotel that’s going in on the corner of Smith and Atlantic, as well as avoid Smith Street’s high rents (there certainly are enough empty storefronts to attest to the difficulty of turning a profit on that strip).  I just hope there’s enough market for two Banh Mi parlors in my hood.

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