Las Vegas transplant in the core of the Big Apple. Food, politics, movies, culture and intellectual mayhem ensue.

Wednesday, October 31, 2007


Monday, November 20, 2006

Crossing the Mason-Dixon On My Stomach

I was born in Arkansas. Which means a couple things, 1) I'm contractually obligated to knifefight any Johnny Cash haters to the death, or I am electrocuted and 2) there is part of me that is somewhere, always, yearning for hash browns and fried chicken. It's just a fact.

But I haven't been there in years and now that I've been steeped in everything from Cali-Mex, to rustic Italian to Modern McGreasewad to Vegetarian Approche, we took the 80 m.p.h. route back to my roots when my apartmentmates and I hit the road (and a mechanical bull) on the way down to the good ol' state of Tennessee. Points of cuisine interest even for Yankees abound:

1) Pal's Fast Food. Declaring "Sudden Service!" on their public-toilet shaded buildings, Pal's dishes up its apparently famous sweet iced tea--bit too sweet for me-- and Sloppy Joes and seasoned fries, hitting some kind of weird amoeba memory of eating there before. Or at least eating a Sloppy Joe, which I believe came standard in my lunches at Doris French Elementary School. Definitely a design and kitch high point, but I don't want to be responsible for some distressed bowels later on, is all I'm saying. I escaped...but only just. Plus side though, it's cheaper than dirt.

2) The Mellow Mushroom, Asheville, North Carolina. We visited Asheville for but a few hours, and I instantly became enamored of its groovy crunchy hippie musicality, that somehow combined everyone into a well-rested and slightly muddy Eden. The Mellow Mushroom, which is set in a giant place reminiscent of yes, a cafeteria, has vegan and vegetarian options without the steel bars of separation normally seen in places. I ordered pepperoni on my Mega-veg mini pizza ($11, a New Yorky price for a little town) and the waiter didn't blink. He was kind of a douche though, but it general you could not really tell who was not stoned in that town.

3) Chocolate Fetish, Asheville. A little storefront that I bypassed along with an art supply store in order to run to the book shop (I told you Asheville is quaint) before it closed. But luckily my friends got me pieces which ended up in me sticking something in my mouth what I had no idea about. "Mmm..hmm? Mm!" It ended up being, I swear, Basil Creme. Which was good but for the surprise factor that comes from having sadistic company. There was also a Chai flavor that went over quite well but my favorite when I myself got to sidle into the shop was the more tame flavor of Champagne, which was dusted with sparkly gold and was like heaven in five, delicate, savory nibbles. About what you'd pay at Godiva, but so much less processed and packaged.

4) The Waffle House, various. I think we saw like one for every five miles in at least West Virginia, Virginia and Tennessee. We happened to stop at one that was rather dead and paid the price--we were ignored and the one line waiter moved haplessly slow on our "short orders". I got a chop steak (which I completely forgot the terminology of) which was basically a compressed meat patty of rubber texture and jalapeno hashbrowns and an eponymous waffle. The chop steak was horrible, as was the salad consisting of a prehistoric iceberg lettuce chunk liberally decorated with dry radishes, but the hash browns and the waffle were divine to the point of dying. Breakfast, it seems, always triumphs in the end. And cheaply too, had I not gotten the stupid meat. The vegetarians gloated.

So those were four highlights. Our other food outing was a solid, incredibly cliched chain: the Olive Garden where we were plied with stories by our overly chatty waiter as I gnawed on my knuckles from hunger. And one night we cooked a Vegan/Meatan Extravaganza which I may also document later with recipes (go stock up on your garlic Creme of Mushroom cans now!) And finally, a snack food discovery is Virginia Beef Jerky which is so fine and spicy it made my eyes tear as if eating wasabi peas. It came very highly recommended from a woman manning the mom and pop off I-81.

Is the South good for food? Oh yes. Is it good for your arteries?


Tuesday, September 19, 2006

A Fromage to Remember: A Review of Artisinal

Nothing would demoralize a foodie like me quite like the neighborhood in which I work: Murray Hill/Gramercy, a virtual culinary dead end both with hours and taste. Oh, of course there's Shake Shack but that's an hour wait, and on the receiving end is after everything, not all that haute. So I was surprised to hear that there was a world-cass fromagerie tucked into the cold concrete environs of Park Avenue South and 32nd. But indeed there is.

Artisinal is snooty. Given that my friends (and myself) trend to run on the pink hair/visible tattoos front, the nerves were somewhat expected, though nothing catastrophically Gallic happened. But glorious French food there was to behold: my companions dipped into a light delicious watermelo salad with feta straight from Mt. Olympus and I tidily nibble through six tender delicious escargot. And while the French onion soup does cost you ten bucks, it's also smothered stoutly in cheese-- if you want something light, that's not where to look. But it got cooed over a table of six and another was even ordered.

But Artinsal's main glory is its fondue, which comes in six flavors, or rather strengths. The house blend of six cheeses (I caught the waiter saying Guyere, Swiss and Brie at least) is thick and induces a stupor so fantastic and complete that only half sentences could be utterly after dipping in hunks of torn bread. Oh, on the subject of bread, special mention must be made of their butter. Slick and smooth past all reckoning, it's probably the best I've ever had, too silken to be called creamy, and I'd be remiss if I didnt mention the excellent wine list-- But the melting luscious cheese keeps the whole thing aloft cradling you gently in a--well, ahem Artinsal does provoke a lot of purple prose, which it ought given its cavernous cafeteria like surroundings and slightly uptight service. Approach the cheese counter at your own risk, but by that time you'll scarcely be able to feel your feet, your head or your pocketbook.

Now excuse me, I need to go into a reverie.

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Eat Me NYC's Fast in the City 2006

Summer is upon us, and a young woman's fancy turns to that of quarter pound burgers, foot log hot dogs and ice cold lemonade. So, for little other reason than all the cool kids are doing it -- mostly lists of great hamburgers, at last count I've seen four best-of lists clogging the arteries of the internet -- and because I almost want to keep track myself, my top five favorite fast eats in the city. These are roughly circumscribed by under fifteen minute preparation time (not wait time, that's very important), possible portability (not needing much more than a fork or straw) and of course old fashioned gut-stuffing greasy goodness, though I have to admit with only slight chagrin, there are places on here that serve healthier than average fare--hey, it's New York for a reason.

1. Gray's Papaya. It's practically a cliche now, the hot dog and fruit juice stand but somehow the formula survives, and quite cheaply too. Pull out a five, and get yourself two hot dogs doused in cooked onions or saurkraut and a serving of mango, pineapple, pina colada and yes, papaya juice on the side. Eat it standing up around the bustle of West Midtown (their 38th Street location is on 8th Ave) or go to its imitators all around the city-- Papaya Dog is one and I know I've seen another around 86th and Lex.

2. Dumpling Man. Tucked into a hole on St. Mark's bet. 1st and Avenue A, Dumpling man is everything you want but never can get from Asian fast food-- delicious food, clean surroundings (except for the bathroom--DO NOT ATTEMPT) and a possibility of friendly service. Anyways who cares about all that when you get a batch of a half dozen seared chicken dumplings, covered in the spicy "monster" sauce and are out in the street looking at bongs in less than a half an hour?

3. Godiva. Okay, I won't say this place is cheap and the neighborhoods are tony and far away for many a New York denizen but regardless this mid and uptown staple of high end chocolate still cannot be beat. Yes, the scenesters can have their Dylan's Candy bar, but just park me in that almost sterile cocoa labratory and watch my eyes roll back in my head. They've introduced a line of drinks, called Elixirs which do somehow magically seem to restore the spirit. Coming in white, milk and dark they are heavy enough to only want once a week and light enough to keep you out of a coma. Make eyes at their new logo, incidentally; they have traded their much stodgier prior logo to a squiggly rendition of our nude lady on a horse. Scandale!

4. Shake Shack. For all the reasons I have said earlier and more. The only pity here is that Madison Square Park, once a peaceful little oasis in the Flatiron District the unheralded gem of Manhattan Parks, has become basically standing room only. I like the burgers, I really do, but this is not worth it for discriminating chowhounds. I mean, the point is to eat quickly, isn't it? Regardless it still has among the most charming places to eat in the city, outdoors, under the strung fairy lights. With your burger.

5. White Castle. White Castle, I realize is multi-state (heck, Godiva is practically worldwide) and its appeal may actually lie more with those in the suburbs, as Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle, attested. But regardless, nothing is quite like those little sliders, and the history behind them--scattered in black and white photos all over the joints' walls. They may be fake, I admit I never took a close look, but they still imbue the experience with a chipper retro sensibility as you try out their decidedly not retro jalapeno cheeseburgers. The fries always leave me cold (and I leave them, cold) but regardless, if you like feeling dainty while unbuckling your belt, eat a White Castle burger. Pinky up!

Burp. New York, it's been fun eating you and I have more plans for you soon...


Friday, May 12, 2006

Gastro-nostalgia: England

There are three main components to humor about the English: the sex, the teeth and the food. Now the sex has been somewhat refuted by any number of parties, from the Beatles, to Eddie Izzard to the mass proliferation of mainstream sex shops Babes in Toyland can only dream of. And the food too, in all its varied forms, is not damn bad either. In fact I think on any given day when I lived on Mile End Road, studying at Queen Mary College, on the rough (and it really was, too) East end, I ate better than when I actually try and eat well here. On that road, in roughly three city blocks you had Japanese, Indian, Chinese, Thai, a roast chicken place, three or four traditional pubgrub places, and a fish and chip shop, the prescence of which still brings a tear to my eye and a drool to the corner of my mouth.

I had probably the opposite experience, as a child than most--most of my fish was raw, looking quite red and defeated on a plate or occasionally my mom would whip up something that looked at me as if accusing me with its cold dead eyes. Bless her, but seafood was not her fore; the fire alarm was more often than not our kitchen timer and our oven never really recovered from the Bass Charring of '99. And as far as Americana went in Vegas at the time, seafood meant something rather ominous and fried at Long John Silvers.

Now I'm not saying that the fish and chip shop on the East End was about to clear your arteries and save your blood pressure, but what it was, was utterly delicious. And reeking all over of tradition, too--all sorts of people, students like me, businessmen, geezers off the street would stop in and order up something that could in the best twist, be paid almost entirely with loose change from my pocket (ah the money has a bit of the Proustian in it too; pound coins are both convinient and just the right heft). And then you see your golden filet of whateveritwas get wrapped expertly end on end in butcher's paper and popped into a bag with french fries, all groaning with the mass weight of steam, grease and attitude. If you point quick enough the "chef" would douse the fish with liberal amounts of malt vinegar and salt and you would take the bag home and consume the thing til the paramedics intervened.

Here in New York there is no such ubiquity and though I like me a good slice (review of Ben's forthcoming except to really GET Ben's I realize you have to be pretty much drunk, which is why I don't know exactly where it's located in the Village) I still think fondly and very very hungrily in the middle of the night of London, and its vast array of food purposefully unhealthy, made for speed and drink, and horrible dentistry. What?

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Ukranians get things done right...a review of Veselka

Little Ukraine is a fair sized enclave in Manhattan (larger than say, Little Japan which I don't think exists) centered in the East Village notably 1st and 2nd Avenues between 7th and 11th. I was introduced to a little not-quite-dive bar called Kiev which served Ukranian food up until its near demise. Happily, Kiev still stands but is just basically your well and brew go-to ($4 drinks have been plentiful since its rental scare, and show no sign of going away) between Thursday through Saturday nights. But as for food, it's to Veselka, several blocks northward at 9th at Second (which I should really remember, because it seems without some drinks in me I can't find it at all).

Veselka has some notable things going for it before the food even arrives: It's 24 hours, well-lit and friendly. The space is airy and there's not much of a wait, but never outright abandoned (even at 3AM) Unlike Waverly's Soup and Burger, the drunkenness of the post-bar crowd never seems to be hostile-- just hungry. They came to the right place.

The central focus of the menu is on their platters which come vegetarian friendly (but watch out! The Alien Monkey once discovered meat lurking in hers) and carnivorous. Usually including a piregoie, a cabbage roll, kielbasa and numerous sides, the whole place is comfort food personified. The portions are just the right size too; nothing's too tiny or indeed, too much. You neither need a doggie bag or a snack for the trip home. As this has been a much debated topic of late, give the winter season just now passed (hopefully), their chicken soup is bar none the best I've tasted in the city. I like to add a dash of pepper to it, but it does just as well without.

As for drinks, I'd recommend going for the cheap 21 ounce Ukranian beer, the name of which eludes me right now. Oh, Slavtich! I never know quite how to pronounce it to the cute but surly waiters, but there you have it. Mild and gigantic, it's a nice downer to a hard night of pounding Jack Daniels. They have other bottle beers too, including the much sought after Stella. And if you have room for dessert, they have a very appealing selection. Their raspberry blintzes are more than enough to be a meal on their own, perfect little wrapped packages of cheesy love and I just had their baked chocolate custard which was neither as cloyingly sweet as you'd think or easy to finish. It was a slow, painstaking process that I'd like to replicate again on a slightly less full stomach.

The prices are reasonable for New York City and you really can't beat it for making you feel all cuddly and Eastern European inside. I'd say I'd go again, but I already know I am.

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Love me tender

I made some Irish lamb stew, more or less from scratch (the more: fresh veg all around, the less: canned beef stock) and more or less without consulting a cookbook, so the results were surprisingly nummy, everything managed to be cooked evenly from meat to potato and the soup was nicely thickened. It doesn't quite taste like stew, if that means anything, but it tastes nice.

The major failing in this endeavor has to be visual- the whole thing is very pale between the flour and milk. I figure this is what "browning sauce" is for, but I can't justify that kind of random purchase. Even if I have some extra lamb yet.

My love affair with chicken appears to be over. In just about every dining experience that would have me choose between the twain, it is the toothsome Biblical flesh I reach for. Go hard or go home, I think. Or the opposite, really.

I miss Sunday roast in England. It was reliably delicious (my kingdom for those little pastry things whose name eludes me right now) and a terrific way to feed a hangover. I was thinking last night I never dined better, more diversely or happily as I did in the East End. I went broke doing it, granted, but what a terrific way to go.