Friday, August 25, 2006

Summer Wrap Up - Five Meals in Five Sentences

So I’ve been out on the road for the last week and will be doing the same till the end of August. I thought I’d give a quick summer wrap up to some of the places I’ve eaten and enjoyed, but did not write about. So here we go, five meals in five sentences.

Ruby’s: An Aussie hole in the wall that serves organic greens, seasonal vegetables and mouth watering burgers. Recommended: The Pumpkin Pasta, with goat cheese and chili oil.

Brown Cafe: A biodynamically centered café that uses local vegetables, free range meats, and fish from conscientious purveyors. (Stolen right from the website, sorry!) Recommended: The octopus salad with shaved fennel, green beans, grape tomatoes and capers.

Lodge: An infamous institution for hipster Brunch, this Williamsburg eatery is the place to go for a couple of Bloody Mary’s and eggs any Sunday morning. Recommended: The Biscuits and Gravy with Eggs.

Union Picnic: A taste of the South in the heart of Brooklyn, this fine establishment serves up some of the best fried chicken, fried steak and friend vegetables this side of the Mason Dixon. Recommended: The Chicken Fried Chicken and Fries.

East 88: This Chinese restaurant is a savior from the run-of-the-mill Plexiglas institutions that populate this great city. Recommended: Lychee Duck with Plum Sauce.

Friday, August 18, 2006

Boston Market - One Free Meal

With the exception of a few infrequent indulgences, I rarely ever eat fast food. As a child, my mother forbid my brother and I from eating it, our only respite being when our father would stop at McDonald’s before a Flyer’s game. As a result I never developed a taste for the stuff and when eating it I usually find it revolting, repugnant and repulsive. The argument from many proponents of this garbage is that although it may not taste great, it is fast and cheap. This argument does not and should never be raised when dining in New York. One of the greatest advantages of living in NYC is the wide variety of cheap and delicious food. So why, you might ask yourself, did I lower my standards to almost gutter level, to dine on food that I knew would revolt the nose, repel the mouth and repulse the eyes? Simple: it was free.

About two weeks ago I ran into my friends Patrick and Claire and they told me that their friend, Keith, had also started his own food blog called 100 Meals. He had entered a contest for Boston Market to make a video that depicted what he would do with the hour he saved from buying dinner at Boston Market versus cooking his own. He had won third place and a free dinner for four, once a week for six months, which equals roughly $755 or about $30 a meal , just under $8 a person. I decided to write Keith and see if he would like to take me out to dinner. About an hour after I sent the e-mail I received a very excited response, saying that he would love to show me the wonderful world of the Market. It turns out that I was the first person to request a dinner, who wasn’t a friend, family member or business associate. So we picked a date, set a time and gave our stomachs fair warning about the malicious journey they were about to embark on.

We decided to meet for dinner after work at the glamorous, yet refined, West 23rd Street location. I arrived earlier than Keith and posted up outside for a classic case study of people watching. What surprised me the most with the abundant amount of young, hip and skinny people choosing Boston Market as their dining establishment. Hadn’t their mothers taught them the negative effects of rapid cuisine, hadn’t they learned that there are more flavors to life than salty and sweet? It dawned on me that many people probably didn’t see Boston Market as fast food, but as a quality meal with slow roasted chickens, fresh vegetables and decadent desserts. What most people don’t know is that McDonalds acquired Boston Market in December 1999 and one can only surmise that their chickens are coming from the same source. Finally Keith showed up and we headed in to feast on what I expected would be greasy faux-gourmet.

Keith told me that I could order whatever I wanted and he would pay for it, as long as he could photograph me and my food. I decided on the three-piece dark meat meal with three sides, cornbread, a slice of apple pie and lemonade. It was more food than I could really handle, but I felt it was an appropriate order for the type of fare we were eating. I quickly discovered there really are only two flavors at Boston Market, salty and sweet, with each flavor only enhanced by the dish with which it is associated. For example, the sweet potatoes with marshmallows were a mind-blowing experience of saccharine and sugar. Of course, in hindsight, I can understand why this dish would be so sugary, but it turned out to be sweeter than the chocolate cake Keith had for dessert. The spinach was a brackish mouthful of salt and cream, with a hint of spinach flavoring and an overwhelming taste of chopped onions. The chicken was moist and tender, but light on the meat, heavy on the skin and dripping in fat. In fact the only saving grace of the meal was the mac-and-cheese, which was firm in texture, velvety in taste and was only a bit too salty for my liking. I did order the apple pie for dessert, but after one bite of the slightly-defrosted, flavorless crust and canned fruit, I laid my fork down for good.

I made a bigger dent than I thought I would, but there was still a lot of food on my plate. The sweet potatoes and creamed spinach remained almost untouched and the chicken still had large chunks of meat left, but the mac-and-cheese was ravaged. I will admit that before this outing, Boston Market had been on my “Ok-There’s-Nothing-Else-Open-Or-Around-So-Let’s-Just-Eat-There-It-Won’t-Be-That-Bad” list, but this meal sealed its fate. I will never, ever eat at Boston Market again, no matter how hungry or desperate or destitute I am. That is, unless, the meal is of course free.

Boston Market is located all over America. I do not recommend going there.

100 Meals is a fantastic website. I do recommend going there.

Friday, August 11, 2006

Tehuitzingo - My Favorite Bodega

With over 10,000 bodegas in the five boroughs, it’s hard to say why one stands out from others. Most of them have the same layout, products and service, making them a homogenous collection of old tiling, Boar’s Head deli meats and over-worked counter service. Despite their uniformity, every once in a while one of these joints is a beacon of light in a sea of mediocrity. It could be that its preparations range from the obscure to the internationally renowned, or that the sandwich maker is a culinary artist, or it is a specialty bodega that carries ethnic food, drinks and novelties or that the guy behind the counter has a funny way of ringing up a coffee and an egg sandwich. Whatever the reason, if you live in New York long enough, you come to love and depend on bodegas for food, drinks and efficiency of service.

About two weeks ago I had heard a rumor of a Mexican bodega in Hell’s Kitchen that made incredible tacos. Rumor had it that at the back of the store, one could find two women, a minuscule kitchen and some of the greatest and most genuine Mexican food in town. So with a little research and a few trusty compadres, we struck out in search of some bona fide tacos at a little bodega called Tehuitzingo.

I had been warned to keep my eyes peeled for Tehuitzingo and the warning was accurate. It was tucked between a row of nondescript stores and restaurants, itself being nothing more than a small store front, identified by a small sign. Upon entry, two physical aspects struck us: the narrow, compact nature of the store and the delectable, olfactory ambiance streaming from the kitchen. We immediately followed our noses to the back of the store, only stopping to pick up glass-bottled sodas (which were “hecho en Mexico”, that means they are made with cane sugar). The scene in the back was quaint and compressed. The kitchen was tucked away in a cubby-hole, set into the far wall. There was a large mirror, but the small, stool-packed counters quickly dissolved any illusion of space. After a quick glance at the menu, I delivered my order through broken Spanish, pointing and pantomime.

With the exception of the corn tortillas, everything is prepared fresh and on-site, which meant a bit of a wait. I was famished, so I ordered three tacos and hoped that they would do the trick. The wait was mostly worth it. Each taco is prepared with meat and a simple garnish of fresh cilantro and chopped onions, wrapped in two tortillas. For added flavor, there is a salsa, lime and pepper bar, which was needed on all of the tacos (my method was a small dollop of salsa, a squirt of lime juice and a few peppers).

I started with the Suadereo ($2, beef belly), which was small cubes of yellow, rubbery, flavorless pieces of fatty beef that pleased neither the palate nor the olfactory nerves. Next up was the Barbacoa ($2.50, goat), which contained long strips of grayish, slightly sinewy meat that packed a strong salty taste, with tender notes of smokiness. Finally I ate the Chicharron ($2.50, pork skin), which included small bits of salty, fried skin, with tasty morsels of pork, speckled with flavorful fat. The Chicharron was by far the best taco, with crispy texture and sweet, brackish flavors.

Despite my initial hunger, I struggled to finish all three, and eventually wound up removing the second tortilla from each taco. The three tacos and soda cost me a whopping $8.50 and I was so full, that I skipped dinner that night. As I paid for my meal, the man at the counter commented on how he liked my beard and how he was trying to grow one of his own. We chatted for a few minutes, exchanging tips and stories about facial hair, then he gave me my change and I left. Without a doubt, that exchange was the friendliest interaction I had ever had with a counter guy since I’d moved to the city. So even without the delicious food, the friendly service and the affordable prices, Tehuitzingo has become my favorite bodega in New York.

Tehuitzingo is located at 695 10th Ave in New York City.

Thursday, August 03, 2006

In-N-Out Burger - The Culinary Blackjack of Las Vegas

Las Vegas- bright lights, broke city. It had been years since I had been to the Southwest and this would be my first trip to the city of sin. Initially I was excited to travel there for work, but I was quickly put off by the city’s less than stellar offerings (i.e. smoking indoors, bawdy tourists, Danny Gans, etc…). In fact, after spending just a few minutes in the airport, the only thing I was still looking forward to was the infamous Vegas buffet. From the moment I found out I would be heading to the legendary Strip, I had visions of me dining inexpensively, eating infinite racks of prime rib and pounds of lobsters, while drinking endless goblets of cheap champagne. This, however, was not the case. What I found was over-priced, ill-cooked food (Steaks at Nero’s) that left much to be desired and little to talk about. And since the majority of my work was to be done in or around the Strip, I more or less gave up on eating well, eating cheaply and eating in a smoke-free environment.

After about two days, my wallet had become quite depleted and my stomach was growing restless. As dinnertime approached and the thought of another ham sandwich grew less and less appealing, I was getting ready to cash in my chips and treat myself to another mediocre, costly piece of gristle. And then I saw it through the window of my hotel room: a gleaming, blinking beacon of hope, a monstrous yellow arrow guiding me to a glorious meal of delectable food and reasonable prices. Within minutes I was tipping my valet, jumping in the driver’s seat and peeling rubber towards my gastrointestinal tract salvation. I hopped onto I-15, my stomach rumbling as loudly as the engine of my rental car, and drove as fast as I could. How could I have forgotten about this mecca of manna in this godforsaken dessert? I screeched to a stop in the parking lot, threw the car into park and bolted from the car to stand appreciatively inside my culinary savior known as In-N-Our Burger.

No one should be fooled by In-N-Out’s red and yellow color scheme: this purveyor of bovine-derived delicacies has little in common with the commercial, all-pervasive golden arches. Privately owned and committed to freshness, In-N-Out has been serving up cooked-to-order French-fries and hamburgers for over 50 years. Relegated mainly to the US West, this fast-food haven is a rare treat for East Coasters in the know.

I first experienced In-N-Out Burger during my sophomore year of college, when upon landing in San Diego, my friend immediately drove me over to the Golden Arrow and introduced me to the renowned “Secret” menu. That’s right, there’s a secret menu. You want a double cheeseburger with special sauce? That’s a “Double, Double, Animal Style”. Still a slave to Atkins? That’s “Protein Style” (no bun). Looking out for your karma? That’s a “Wish Burger” (veggie patty). The accommodating employees will take your special order without question, but only if you use the right terminology.

So there I was: ravenous, near broke and possessing the secret code. I charged my way up to the counter and with a boisterous voice ordered a “Double, Double, Animal Style”, fries and a vanilla shake. With everything made to order there is a requisite wait time, so I grabbed my slip, slumped into a seat and waited expectantly. I saw my ticket print at both the fry and burger stations and joyfully watched my food thrown in the fryer and onto the grill, respectively. About ten minutes later, my number was called and I bounded up to the counter to claim my salvation.

Within seconds I was pulling back the wax paper and taking an enormous bite of my freshly-cooked burger. The two patties of meat were well-cooked, salted and fried with mustard, pickles, extra spread and grilled onions added on top. The two slices of cheese were completely melted, and their soft texture impeccably mixed with the crunchiness of the added veggies. The fries, which were sliced on the premises and then fried, were so fresh that you could still taste a hint of dirt from the ground in which they were grown. Finally, the vanilla shake’s cool and creamy consistency washed down every bite with refreshing ease. And with the meal costing me just over six bucks, it was the best meal I was to have in this soulless city.

Unfortunately that would be my only visit to In-N-Out burger during my trip. Despite my best efforts, I was stuck digging deep into the pockets for trite meals of tripe. I kept betting that I would return to my gastronomic haven, but I kept crapping out (in more ways than one). And in Vegas, the house always wins.

In-N-Out Burger is located in California, Nevada and Arizona. Check their website for local listings.