Monthly Archives: November 2006

‘Read and Feed’ would have been a better name, I think.

The Traveler Restaurant
(Exit 74 off Interstate 84)
1257 Buckley Highway
Union, CT 06076

Dear “The Traveler Restaurant,”

Your food sucks. It’s flat-out awful, in fact – your chef or team of trained monkeys can’t even cook an omelet without screwing it up. There should be some kind of law against bad diner-style restaurants just off expressway exits, particularly ones that this critic visits with high hopes and an empty stomach after sitting in stop and go traffic on the Mass Pike for far longer than it should ever take to drive thirty-odd miles.

Nonetheless, I grudgingly admit, you are charming and original. I haven’t been to another restaurant that gives away books free with every meal, nor have I been to any that feature a fully stocked used book store in the basement. You have both, and that’s truly bizarre.

Another pleasant surprise was a box of 7” records that yielded titles like Stevie Wonder’s “For Once In My Life” and the Holland-Dozier-Holland nugget “Band Of Gold” (both revelations in monophonic). While fifty cents is expensive for a 7” of questionable condition, both of the above and most of the other eight discs I selected had some information left in the grooves, though I think you’re going to have a hard time blowing out your remaining stock of Conway Twitty and Dean Martin vinyl.

The 12” LP box was abysmally void of anything interesting, though, much like the meatloaf sandwich that somehow included nothing recognizable as meatloaf. Good thing I ordered it with cheese, or I might have had to more closely ponder the loaf’s ingredients. My ex-roommate’s mother found your onion rings palatable merely because they included whole rings of onion; this is scarcely a big endorsement.

I suspect, though, that you have already established your business model, and it includes more gimmicks than quality. That’s your prerogative, of course, and you will no doubt continue to haul in customers that like the idea of free stuff, as well as the oddball literary types that seemed to be prevalent the other night. You just might not have me as a customer again (that is, unless you get in a new shipment of records – I loves me a good gimmick).

Sincerely,
Mike King of “Twenty bucks a day.”

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Chateau Blanc? Oui, oui.

Finally ate my first full meal ever at a White Castle – it was only my second lifetime trip to one of the revered/reviled outposts, in fact. (Westerners are savvy burger consumers, but I can’t imagine the idea of White Castle would make very much sense to them.) Last time was as an a la carte dessert to a Jersey City dosa, and while I can’t say I was really JUMPING at the chance to go back (though I liked it fine), walking down 8th Avenue past its Chateau Blanc (ten times funnier in bad French, considering especially what their reaction might be to the product) the other day on the way back from Manganaro’s set the wheels in motion.

This branch is open 24 hours, apparently, and it smells like it when you walk in – it possesses none of the appealing old grease/French fry smell inherent to a McDonald’s, nor some kind of Subway-esque fake bread spray smell. So there’s that to contend with (Jersey City’s branch didn’t smell bad).

The wonderful crap they serve for food, though (this must be the least nutritious filling meal in the universe), is the same irrespective of environment. Micromashed beef and onions fused with cheese on a Wonder-bread-ish bun no larger than two or three inches across may seem like a good or bad idea to you based on superstition or long-held family tradition. Having no family history with the Castle myself, I am willing to bet that if you like burgers and have a bit of tolerance for the failings of our fast food establishments in terms of environment and quality of ingredients, you’ll like White Castle.

Me, I’ll probably never go more than once or twice a year. Too much other good stuff to eat in the city, and even though the price is right ($5.74, tax included, for four cheeseburgers, small fries and fountain soda), I’d rather pay slightly more and get slightly more. Nice to know it’s there if you need it, though.

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Why can’t they be friends?

I have recently eaten at BOTH of the feuding Manganaro’s outposts, located on the same block of 9th Avenue between 37th and 38th Streets, as recommended to me by a friend.  He, having grown up in Hell’s Kitchen, said that everyone in the nabe used to swear allegiance to one or the other.  It seems entirely plausible to me that you could prefer one or the other from just the difference in decorative approach.

The original (aka the Grosseria) is very evidently family-run, with an older man sitting at the front greeting customers and his legendarily quick-tempered daughter (also writer of the Manganaro Family Cookbook) making heroes in the back.  It is decorated, as you might expect, in the style of an Italian grocery, with supplies strategically placed (but not packed) on various shelves, and a deli counter in the back.

Located next door, Manganaro’s Hero Boy, by contrast, looks more like a modern chain pizzeria.  The huge space is well-lit and looks designed to harbor a waiting lunch crowd of tens.  The help also, for the most part, look like they’ve been there for decades, but the atmosphere is certainly less traditional.

Which did I prefer?

Well, I didn’t really do a fair comparison, because I ordered different things at both.  At Hero Boy, I ordered the meatball parm sub ($9), which included six really flavorful meatballs with the circumference of a half dollar, a slightly stingy dollop of sauce, and two pieces of fresh-looking mozzarella warmed up on the steam table (an ingenious trick).  The bread was forgettable, but if you got a bit more sauce and had two people to share the sandwich, it would serve admirably as a sop (I don’t recommend trying to polish off the sandwich, bread included, by yourself).  

At the Grosseria, I had the Maganaro’s Special sandwich ($8), which layered Swiss and provolone along with several types of cold cuts, roasted red peppers, lettuce, and oil/vinegar dressing.  While the bread was better than at Hero Boy (though, frankly, my jaw was sore from chewing it by the end), the cold cuts suffer slightly from having been pre-sliced (can you imagine what Walter would say?), and the overall ensemble (for instance, putting the oil on the sandwich after the meat and cheese rather than before) could use a little work, in my opinion.  Nonetheless, not a bad sandwich in the least – just not a great one.

Based on the fact that the meatballs were excellent, I’d have to prefer Hero Boy over its competitor, but with so few visits under my belt, I can’t call my opinion definitive.  Plus, I don’t want to be blacklisted from either of them – this feud has been going on for far longer than I’ve been alive, and I’d bet for long after I’m dead.

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More cowbell.

Having neglected uptown for too long, I was immediately receptive when my friend Jas suggested an excursion to one of the many fine and cheap establishments north of 96th Street.  We settled, after a piece, on El Fonda Boricua, a U-shaped Puerto Rican joint on 106th between 3rd and Lex, at least partially because my usual group dining night (Thursday) offered the additional enticement of a live Latin jazz ensemble to go along with the food.  Being a sucker for music in addition to cheap eats, it seemed a perfect fit.

My expectations were not unmet, as it turns out.  Despite the place being packed to the gills, we were able to secure a table within a few minutes, and the volume of the group did not suffer for being across the room for them (note to the owner: I doubt that amplification is necessary for the horns).  The group was really, really good, by the way.  It seems to be a rotating cast of musicians, both during the evening and (according to Jas) from one Thursday to another.  I’m sure those more familiar with the music of the Caribbean would know more of the set list – the only song I recognized, albeit happily, was “A Night in Tunisia.”  Diz would have been impressed.

There was no sign of a menu.  Instead, the waitress explained the array of offerings for the evening in between songs.  A solid starter indeed were the tostones ($3), which came with a saucer of some kind of white mixture featuring pureed raw garlic.  The most expensive of the mains, the plaintain mash known as mofongo ($14), also featured a powerful garlic tinge – always a pleasure, especially unexpectedly.

My own choices were the steak and onion fry-up ($7) and rice and beans ($3) – both large servings, enough so that the both could nearly feed two.  The onions had been lightly sautéed, which went perfectly with the thin (but not tough) beef.  My usual pet peeve with beans (that they’re rarely cooked well) was not applicable – these beans were both well-cooked and flavorful, and the cake of rice that came with it was a good match in texture and flavor.

I also tried the fried chicken tidbits (which I think were called chicharron de pollo, but I’m not sure), which were a little dry, but beat the hell out of the average chicken nugget.  The desserts looked tasty, too, but by the time I was finished with everything else, I had no room for flan.  A shocking failure in capacity, I’m aware, but I’m sure that I’ll be back to El Fonda Boricua – I’ve got a fever, and the only prescription is…lots of garlic.

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Tofu au Naturel.

Last week, I took a few of my friends to Natural Tofu in Sunnyside.  As I suspected, they quite enjoyed the massive $8 tofu bowls, as well as the lovely array of panchan (though not everyone thought kimchi was a good idea – heathens).  But we tried a few other things, too.  The barbecued squid ($12) that I had noticed on my first visit was a must – unfortunately I found it a bit disappointing.  Some pieces were admittedly lovely, but some were a bit funny in the flavor department – similar to squid ink’s funky flavor, maybe.  I’d probably eschew ordering it again.

Much better, and also $12, was the enormous plate of what they called “spicy pork fried,” or pork bulgoki.  If you’re annoyed at how little meat you get in a typical serving at an average Korean restaurant, never fear – the heap of pork is big enough to feed two, and you’ll have none of that lettuce stuff to crowd the table with.  The sauce is a little mustardy and perhaps not spicy enough, but the pork is blessedly chewy (none of that melt-in-your-mouth stuff for me on this dish, thanks!).

My friend was also pleased with his dolsot bibimbap, the rice and additions dish that you mix together in the same kind of stone crock as the tofu, though I didn’t have enough of a taste to feel like it distinguished itself from any other iteration of the dish.

One other interesting wrinkle from the rice department: as we were a party of four, we apparently merited our own crock of white rice, which was initially ladled out to us in shiny individual bowls.  But, after that, instead of whisking away the crock, a clear liquid (which I later found out was tea) was poured in with the crust of rice that had accumulated on the crock.  Instant dessert!  The rice took on the faint sweetness of the barley tea and was a nice palate cleanser after stuffing ourselves silly.

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For that "adventurous" third date.

Mabat, located just off Kings Highway in…Midwood, I guess…falls into the category of restaurants that are “cheap for their category” or “could be cheap if you order carefully.” That didn’t hinder a friend and I, though, as we shared a table and perused the menu last night, noshing on freshly produced pita and a pickle plate. The assemblage bore eerie similarity to the same pitas and pickle plate at Hummus Place – the difference being the salsa-like concoction that accompanied the olives and pickles, as well as the separate plate of scallions, tomatoes, and radishes. “What the hell are you going to do with a scallion all by itself,” I thought.

In addition to the copious complimentary apps, we ordered small plates of hummus and masbacha ($4.50 or so each), the chunky eggplant/red pepper combination. The former bettered the latter, but the aubergine was no slouch, to be sure.

We opted for the $22 two-skewer-and-two-side combination – it’s only a couple bucks more than two skewers by their lonesome, I was told. Opting for the ground beef kofte was a smart choice, as it is among the most flavorful ground beef products I’ve tasted recently. The grape tomatoes that separated the portions of meat on the skewer were deemed “perfect” by my cohort, too. The lamb was equally satisfying – the tender morsels did not succumb to dryness.

I wouldn’t say the sides were as good – the rice with lentils and onions was fine, if not particularly noteworthy (the onions redeemed it from total mediocrity). The best part of the ostensibly home-cut fries was the crispy bits at the bottom of the bowl – that, and dipping them in the hummus, I guess. Flavor was only so-so.

I should also note that the premises are date-worthy – this is not a pit by any means. We decided that the walls were a deeper shade of green than we had Crayolas, and everything seems quite well-polished. The service was mostly quite nice – our primary waitress (they seem to team a bit) even brought me out a sample of a special fish soup when wasn’t sure whether I wanted to commit to a full bowl, and was quite nice when I decided that I liked it, but had ordered enough food already.

Save room for dessert, if you can – though I didn’t try it, they seem to have some kind of trick for packing sorbet into hollowed out pieces of fruit (for example, a quarter pineapple). The cake in the refridge looked excellent, too, even though I wasn’t quite sure what they were using as a substitute for dairy in the trimming. Mabat, being a kosher steakhouse, has no dairy on the premises.

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