Last week I finally comprehended the extent of my love for taste tests. I was bragging to everyone on my volunteer shift at the Park Slope Food Coop that in the 80′s I always won the Pepsi Challenge- every time! My friend laughed, “it’s hilarious that you think you won that challenge.” Ooooh. Certain marketing strategies cut to the core. Pepsi won the challenge, or more accurately, Coke. I can always tell the difference between Pepsi and Coke, because Pepsi tastes like chemically altered dirt, and Coke tastes like heaven.
My gig at the Food Co-op is the best gig there is at that goddess-forsaken social experiment/fancy locavore market: Food Processing. I carry large boxes of bulk foods like dried fruits, nuts, trail mix, hippie chocolate (carob), and other Stoner snacks over to a clean counter, where I bag them into smaller packages, stick price tags on them, and shelve them. Sometimes, I cut the cheese. Most often, literally.
While engaged in our menial tasks, matters of taste inevitably arise. “Is sulfured pineapple better than unsulfured?” “Has anyone tried these chocolate-covered corn nuts? Are they better than the carob-corn?” (see, I told you. Stoner Food). All afternoon, I peppered my co-workers with helpful comparisons of which local pickles pack the most punch (Brooklyn Brine), or which brand of coconut water tastes the freshest (Harmless Harvest). One person finally asked, do you just sit around and do taste tests all day? The short answer is yes, and no. Not all day, but nearly every day. I have tasted all the matzoh ball soups at all the delis in NYC, and I can tell you which offers superior balls. I have sampled hummus from local purveyors to find the brightest flavor. The real question is, why have I not reported my findings here? Perhaps it’s because I cannot recall all the steps of the Scientific Method. Perhaps the reason is my aversion to food photography. Maybe it’s the sudden upheaval of full-time graduate school juggled alongside full-time work. Whatever the reason, I vow to start documenting now.
If you are still out there, Dear Reader, leave a comment with what taste test you would like to see on here? Olives, cheeses, bao, Ramen, fried chicken. . . you name it and I’ll test it.
What I am about to say is Southern sacrilege. I hail from the Mountains of East Tennessee and the Southern Appalachian region of Western North Carolina, where biscuits, grits and some form of cooked pork have been life-giving staples through centuries of hard winters, The War of Northern Aggression, lean economies, droughts and more hardships than a lot of other regions. Southerners have made breakfast into a balm to heal all spiritual and bodily wounds, starting the day with hearty offerings meant to carry a young farmer through through till dinner. But here’s the truth:
I never did like breakfast.
American breakfast, to be more specific. I’ll suffer through scrambled eggs, hash browns are improved by ketchup, oatmeal nor cream of wheat can I tolerate, cold cereal’s okay as dessert, but may no pancake ever cross the threshold of my lips. I’ve felt similarly unimpressed by french toast, waffles, toast, or biscuits. They’re all right I guess, but no match for the glories and wonders of lunch and dinner, when fruit can be made newly savory on the grill, or smokey meat melds into a sesame laden bun, or the crunch of crisp vegetables satisfy a craving so clean and pure. So I’ve been excited to live in New York City, where perhaps I can seek out breakfast alternatives like fried rice omelettes, dim sum delights, or who knows what other worldly meals I could discover to replace my eternal boredom for the Southern American standard?
One dish in particular has been on my list, and I finally crossed it off last week.
The Chinese rice porridge known as Congee.
I ended up at Congee Village last week, at 100 Allen St., after a desperate attempt to eat at Mission Chinese, a new hot spot for Lower East Side hipsters who love young, macho, renegade chefs. After 45 minutes, I could wait no more, but eventually did try the Kung Pao Pastrami, which I’ll save for a later post.
The early summer evening was growing alarmingly cooler, as dark clouds gathered overhead my mood took a turn, and I was dangerously close to entering the Bell Jar by the time we were finally seated at Congee Village. Turns out a cheery, bamboo furnished/tropical style/Midcentury quirk decor was the perfect fix to lift me out of my spiraling mood. The congee options are plentiful, and range from the conservative (chicken and black mushroom) to the more authentic (pig’s blood and sliced fish). After tucking into a $5 bowl of roast duck and meatball congee, I quickly realized why an entire continent begins their day with this hearty rice and water porridge. Adorned by a splash of vinegar and a dollop of soy sauce, sprinkled with ginger and scallions, this is life-giving mana, almost supernatural in its rejuvenatory properties. The warmth of this comforting dish soothed my chilled bones, and made me feel like Popeye after he eats a can of spinach. Its silky texture was extremely pleasing, and the flavors unfolded with fortifying, savory, peppery richness. Chicken Congee for the Soul is more like it.
With a spring in my step and the light once again returned to my eyes, I paid what felt like the most reasonable amount of money for any meal I’d had in Manhattan, and walked out into the Lower East Side to rejoin the land of the living.
This latest excursion only made me more curious about what culinary wonders lie beyond the typical diner breakfast. What other suggestions do you have for breakfast options that stray far from average American fare?
Lately, Partner-In-Dine and I have been experimenting with a specifically New York City phenomenon I’ll call, “Worth the Wait?” I don’t know how or why, but we keep attempting to eat at the same places everyone else wants to eat, at the same time they want to eat there. We know the tricks-arrive at 5pm, party of 2 or 4 only, stand in perpetual eyesight of the host/hostess, but we often avoid following them, for the sake of some other convenience, which quickly devolves into a high stakes game of “This Better Be Good.” In many cases, it is.
The Purple Yam- Though our wait was minimal on a Friday night because of their helpful reservation policy (imagine!), I’m including it here because of the effort to get out to their cozy Ditmas Park location. Honestly, after one visit I was ready to declare this among the “Top 3 Best Meals” for the addictive chicken adobo, that tangy, effusive flavor I cannot get out of my mind, not to mention the thrillingly unique kim-chee of the day, and strangely delectable lumpia, but on our second visit, the New Year’s a la carte menu left a lot to be desired. I will return to this Brooklyn enclave for the food but also for the jolly, ever-present head chef and his wife, both of whom will bus your table, distill your vinegar, infuse your shoju with seasonal ingredients, and then sit down and drink it with you, grinning bemusedly all the while. Absolutely worth a trip out to Ditmas Park.
Prune- ‘When in doubt, say 45 minutes,” is probably the first sentence of every training manual for restaurant hostesses in these high-falutin’ Manhattan restaurants. Luckily, we arrived unhungry on a beautiful, crisp winter’s morn, and were ready for the marathon. The problem with the equation, however, is that Prune’s food just isn’t that terrific. It’s good, and certainly even very good, but not worth giving your day away. By the time we ate our food, 2 hours had passed since we arrived and gave our names. I’m not sure what can be done about this, but by the time you’ve given that much time, no one wants to point out the Emperor’s clothes. The menu items are suspiciously similar to all NYC and Brooklyn brunch menus this year: dutch pancake, potatoes rosti, some fancy rendition of eggs benedict, etc. Remember that I’m weighing the energetic, highly trendy NYC brunch concept against Southern Appalachia’s brunch, which tends to be just as special and delicious, chiefly because it is above all, cheap. Grits, biscuits, oatmeal, potatoes, pancakes, eggs, these are all cheap and hearty foods, yet Prune has found a way to remove the fun and insert pretentiousness at every turn, starting with the waitstaff who really can’t be bothered, all the way to the overpriced breakfast items. Prune is just not worth it.
Earl’s Beer and Cheese- However cheap and diverse the beer menu may be, and however authentic the Kentucky beer cheese, and however exquisite the various grilled cheese offerings, the laws of physics generally negate entrance into this bite-sized, heavily hyped establishment. If you do happen to make it in, get ready for a bonus: there’s a mathematical formula in effect here of bodily proximity+beer affordability+time spent waiting for a seat, ensuring that the random guy next to you at your table will go from stranger to new best friend in record time, so however you feel about that could determine your experience.
Roberta’s- Our first visit to this hipster dream/gentrification nightmare left us happily imbibed, satiated, and relaxed. Finding our way through a maze of random picnic tables, oversized spectacles, skinny jeans and tented firepits, we couldn’t help feeling like we’d arrived at hipster summer camp. Amidst the many dichotomies of this restaurant relative to its location in the heart of recently-desolate Bushwick, is the kitchen staff, a group of young Latino men slinging some Italian Grandma’s version of pizza-pies in a giant, crackling brick oven, on which haute pork toppings abound. The end product is very good, if not great, and some of the smaller plates look even more interesting, if you’re up for some seasonal, meaty midwinter richness. I look forward to giving another hour of life away to wait for a seat once again at Roberta’s.
Momofuku Noodle Bar- How much is your time worth? If your answer is, about a delicious noodle bowl’s worth, then you are in luck. One hour and fifteen minutes is the median wait at lunch on a holiday for a steaming hot bowl of David Chang’s famous ramen revolution. We toughed it out amongst the freezing hordes of pushy Manhattanites and tourists alike for our fair share of savory, inventive goodness. The pork buns were worth the wait alone. These buns were much lighter and fluffier than the average, with high quality hoisin-roasted pork belly accented perfectly by pickled cumbers and sriracha mayo. So many of his choices seem obvious yet rare around these parts: he combines high quality pork cuts with a decent variety of vegetables in his ramen. It’s not rocket science, or is it? Holy Chang, I’d do it again in a second.0
The five eating phases of moving to New York City:
Phase 1. Food Thrill-Seeking. Eat everything, everywhere. Make rookie mistakes, like grabbing a giant hoagie and attempting to eat it on the train. Three meals in a day translates into three new restaurants per day. The only rule is never eat at the same place twice. Enter a state of perpetual shock and awe with each exotic flavor. Discover a sixth taste, and name it “unctuami.” Gain 5-10 pounds, cancelling out increased level of daily activity. Render futile the term “walking it off.”
Phase 2. De-tox/Fruit and Vegetable Foraging. Spend the day planning a home-cooked meal and eating baby carrots. Switch to green tea. Discover the “salad bar” of pre-canned vegetables at sketchy and rudely staffed local chains such as Hale and Hearty or Chop’td. Become overwhelmed by starvation and restlessness on the subway ride home. Ditch all cooking plans. Discover vegan meatballs at ridiculously named vegetarian restaurant in your Brooklyn neighborhood. Buy a BPA-free water bottle in an attempt to lose “water weight.”
Phase 3. Setting Limits. Make declaration of Two Nights Out Per Week. Using simple math skills, add on days equal to Cook At Home Three Nights Per Week. x + Takeout = Cook on Sundays. Develop tricks of the locals such as buying a $2 bag of day-old bagels, to freeze and toast at one’s leisure. Rejoice at your adaptive abilities. Discover local parks and urban biking.
Phase 4. Becoming a Regular. Eat at the same establishment over 3 times in one month. Introduce yourself to the host and bartender. Purchase Rosetta Stone for Japanese, and introduce yourself again so you may be understood. Sit at a table, and then ask to be seated only at that table forever, sometimes waiting 1-3 hours for “your” table. Only eat after the dinner rush, or before the dinner rush. Order everything on the menu, decide on your favorite item, and continue to order that same item until it becomes known as your ‘usual’ meal. Smile hugely, and tip lavishly. Forget your cell phone and ask to use the restaurant’s landline. Get seated as an incomplete party, and while everyone stares anxiously at the empty seat, steadily order appetizers until the party is completed, and when you don’t get kicked out, declare victory.
Phase 5. Joining the Park Slope Food Co-op. Discover fresh salads, soups, and sandwiches at the small, friendly caterers down the street from work. Discover wonderful, friendly local coffee shop near work. Learn about grocery store delivery. Begin to eat like a normal person. Visit the Union Square farmer’s market and discover a new heirloom variety of jerusalem artichoke (similar to the other, but in red!). While there, drink hot grape juice. After five straight months of forgetting to visit the website for the Park Slope Food Co-Op precisely at 4:00pm on Sunday exactly two weeks before you are able to attend an orientation, suddenly and without warning, remember. Anticipate this final phase, and wait for the moment (two weeks from 4pm Sunday) when you will be henceforth, a New Yorker.
Fit for a Fat Cat: Reviewing the Food at Occupied Wall Street
By Greg Vargo (and Kim Phillips-Fein)
There are lots of things you can do these days in Zuccotti Park, the tiny, non-descript sliver of cement planted with a few trees in Lower Manhattan that has become the crowded center of Occupy Wall Street, the 24-hour-a-day protest against economic injustice and inequality in modern America. You can participate in General Assemblies. You can listen to speeches or dance in drum circles. You can meditate with hundreds of other people. You can read poetry or grade papers (as I have). You can read books stored at the People’s Library or you can work on writing the Occupied Wall Street Journal. You can, of course, try to sleep under a tarp. And, you can eat damn well.
I’ve gone down to Occupy Wall Street a good bit over the last couple of weeks, and I can testify that some of the finest meals in town these days aren’t being served at the quiet, fancy of tables Per Se and Masa but at the narrow, low-slung bench in Zuccotti Park that is somehow managing to feed a thousand people (give or take) three meals a day. Staffed by about 10 volunteers, serving food donated to sustain the movement or purchased with the cash gifts that are rolling in, it seems like a tangible, secular version of the Biblical story of the loaves and the fishes: it’s a miracle that so much food is somehow appearing to feed so many.
My first day at the occupation I was unprepared for the culinary treats, so I ate a falafel sandwich before arriving, but did partake of two strawberries and a crunchy apple. Last Wednesday when I went to have my grade-in (“hey Wall Street, pay your fair share of taxes and give back those bailouts too, so my kids can have an elevator that works, smaller classes, and no tuition hike”), I knew to save room, and enjoyed a breakfast of creamy baked oatmeal, studded with tangy cranberries. A sublime lunch followed consisting of quiche with peas, spinach and mushrooms (protein-rich, good for an occupation). On Sunday, over a teach-in by journalist Chris Hedges on the erosion of checks on corporate power, I sampled a granola-nut trail mix and a white chocolate chip cookie as well as an Israeli couscous salad rich with cumin, cinnamon and capers. On Saturday, showing up with the whole family, I had a spicy vegan mélange of chick peas and roasted carnival squash, mashed together with lots of garlic. (To paraphrase Emma Goldman, if I can’t eat garlic, I don’t want to be part of your revolution.) Two-year-old daughter loved swiping shortbread cookies off the table. Later, she remarked, “I want to go back to the protest. Now!” Was it the chanting, or was it the desserts?
Some of the food comes from restaurants, too—on Sunday Indian food was being brought in to supplement the scores of pizzas (one local pizza joint is selling an Occu-Pie special). But being there made me want to cook to support the movement, so I stirred up a big pot of rice and beans—black and red, of course—and brought them down. They disappeared in about twenty minutes. In addition to all this food, there’s also plenty of coffee, dripping from an antiquated dispenser that carries a warning sign not to touch the spout.
What does all this food mean? It embodies the communitarian ethos of the movement, the way that it’s something that thousands of people are creating together. The outpouring of support shows the way that occupying Wall Street taps into frustrations and anger that we don’t usually have any way to voice or to express, giving them a place in our daily lives. And most of all, it seems a small-scale a way of demonstrating that we can create a society that responds to people’s deepest, most basic needs, and do so in ways that are beautiful, nutritious and satisfying. After all, although those eating in the hushed preserves of white-tablecloth restaurants staffed by deferential waiters might not know it, everything tastes better when you’re free.
Cobble Hill/Boerum Hill/Carrol Gardens
Hanco’s- Superb, quick, friendly banh mi. Partner-in-Dine attempts to eat here daily.
Wild Ginger-Vegan pan-Asian, affordable and healthy.
Bino-Best spaghetti carbonara so far.
Verde-Not memorable Italian, but the patio was nice.
Ki Sushi-Excellent, Michelin-starred neighborhood sushi.
Pacifico-Only place ’round here that gets the michelada right, plus grilled corn con chile, queso fundido and yucca fries!
Bar Tabac- Former Heath Ledger hangout. Other actors and beautiful people spotted. Amazing hearts of palm salad, and pate to die for.
Sample-Dark wine bar, Spanish tapas, great drink specials. We go here almost every night.
Brooklyn Farmacy-There is no better coffee-chocolate egg cream. I defy you to find one.
Yemen Café-Copious meze, vibrant atmosphere, lamb falls off the bone, cheap eat.
Lobo- Bland attempt at Tex-mex food. Delicious tequila-based drinks.
Waterfalls-Under new ownership, unimpressive Mediterranean.
Karloff-Beet/dill ice cream totally works.
Chip Shop-Great beer selection, futbol on the telly, deep fried everything, loved it.
Café Luluc-Mediocre French, not returning for breakfast
Bien Cuit- Thrice baked almond croissants. Would eat here every day but for the Violet Beauregard syndrome.
BoCoCa’s- Excellent service, I became a regular after 2 visits. Morning hangout for the senior citizens of Cobble Hill. Ridiculously good bagels.
Board on Bond-Gorgeous atmosphere, but the food leaves something to be desired. Sat next to Joan Osborne. If God was one of us, he wouldn’t have eaten here.
The Golden Unicorn-Four Floors of golden dim sum heaven; best consumed with friends.
East Harbor Seafood Palace- Best dim sum of my life. Must learn Mandarin to get a good table. Working up to ordering the chicken feet.
Fatty Crab- Zak Pelaccio deserves every piece of press he gets. Pork belly and pickled watermelon rind salad? YES PLEASE
John Dory Oyster House-Intimidating and delicious, with a very basic, small menu and never did figure out who my server was. John Dory Oyster Stout is our current favorite NY beer.
Lower East Side
Kuma Inn-Best BYOB so far. Pan-Asian tapas for artsy types
Mehenata- Bulgarian bar with an ice room where one may consume unlimited amounts of vodka for 5 minutes. Also, incredible live music.
McDonald’s-2:00am pit stop before catching the train home. Regretted it later.
Anissa- Ate from Anita Lo’s kitchen, gaped at celebrities, dropped many Benjamins for stellar Asian-fusion. Hungry again the next day.
Veselka-Never gets old. Killer Eastern European fare for vegetarians, night owls, students, intellectuals, and me.
Sobakoh-Watched them pull my noodles with their hands! Better than it sounds.
Hasaki-2nd best sushi OF MY LIFE. Shhh, don’t tell anyone. There was only a 15 minute wait for dinner on Friday.
Mermaid Inn-During my oyster happy hour phase. That was a happy rut.
Hide-Chan-Ramen with strange, rich broth so crazy and amazing I had to make up a new word: Cramazing!
Darbar Grill-Haven’t found good Indian yet. This definitely wasn’t it.
Upper East Side
Candle Café-Vegan delicacies near my office.
Vermicelli- Interesting and cheap Vietnamese lunch specials. Watched a homeless guy pick food off of diners’ plates at the outdoor café.
Luke’s Lobster-Truly great lobster rolls, but ridiculous seating.
Café Mingala-Burmese food that was just okay.
Gobo-Vegan pan-Asian that’s fancier than Wild Ginger, and pricier.
PJ Melons- Where preppies go to drink decent draft choices and eat awesome burgers and fries.
Shake Shack- Braved the long lines for Danny Meyer’s greasefest. My cheeseburger verdict: Better than most, not as good as some. Greasy patty, but thin just how I like it. Onions, lettuce, tomato, and pickle were all shockingly fresh.
Pig Heaven- Rather pricey Chinese, but unique in some ways, and heavy on the pork as you might imagine.
Ayada-A revelation! Thai food I could eat every single day and never get bored. Goodbye pad thai, hello crispy duck panang and salted fish with greens.
Testaccio-overrated, overpriced Italian, although the roasted artichoke with olive tapenade was pretty great.
Al di La-Justin Timberlake and me ate here. Really, really amazing Italian in a beautiful atmosphere.
Campo di Fiore-We eata the pizza. Capiche?
Blue Ribbon- BEST OYSTERS OF MY LIFE, and super-sweet bartenders.
Mezcal’s-There were some spicy micheladas with bright green salt on the rim, and they kept coming, and coming. . .
Guiseppina’s- $20 for pizza? Can it really be that good? Yes. It. Can.
Pies n Thighs-Who knew hipsters could make the best fried chicken and pie on planet Earth? For serious. And I’m from NC.
Pete’s Candy Store-might have kind of gotten kicked out of this rude bar. Keep forgetting to write a letter.
Moto- Is it French-inspired? Not sure. I think it was pretty good, though.
M. Shanghai-A pleasant introduction to Shanghainese cuisine. Will return for pickled cucumbers and great prices.
Smorgasburg-Ate the best lobster roll of my life. Drank the most incredible soda I’ve ever tasted (grapefruit/rosemary), entered but didn’t win the cherry pit spitting contest. That was a fun day.
Peter Pan- Toasted coconut doughnut was the gateway drug. Been back several times.
Five Leaves- Heath Ledger’s best legacy. Giant black arugula salad, friendly hipsters, the best bathroom in NYC. And also oysters. And charcuterie. And the best cappuccinos since Italy.
Manhattan Inn-Most romantic piano bar I’ve ever been to. Incredible burgers. Felt like I was in a dream, or another decade.
Whew! I need a cigarette. Or a gym membership. More to come!
Truthfully, there were multiple last meals in Asheville. There was a week of final meals. But the winner for BEST last meal in Asheville goes to. . .
The Market Place!
I decided to get real local with it, and I’d heard they had a shift in menu and vision and decor, and when my friend wanted to have one last date night blowout before I left, we headed on over to Asheville’s quaintest thoroughfare, Wall Street.
I highly recommend the Market Place. They’ve recently lowered their prices more than a tad, and their new paint job exceeds the old “In Living Color” palate. The old Market Place design had me thinking Damon Wayans was going to walk around the corner holding a pickle in a jar. And if you don’t get that reference, you’re too young/old. But now the mood has shifted into a classier, more muted design, and their menu continues to find new expanses of creativity within the confines of a ’100 mile radius’ ingredient list.
I wouldn’t necessarily recommend the Thai beef lettuce wrap appetizer, however. There were some high points, like the local Bibb lettuce and refreshing snap of crunchy radish, but the beef, grass-fed and a life of joyfully bounding local meadows notwithstanding, was under-spiced and harkened back to the days of “hamburger surprise” with a bland, general hamburger flavor that overwhelmed any Asian accents.
When perusing the dinner menu, however, the choice was clear. There will be lamb.
Stifling nervous giggles of manic indulgence, we both ordered the same main course. This is mostly unheard of in my daily life, but every now and then, just on special occasions or when dining with people besides my Partner-in-Dine, we will go for it. On this night, we were so glad we did.
Plates were actually licked clean. Heavenly spiced lamb shank, falling off the bone like Mama never made, this meal was a serious effort by chef William Dissen. Smothered in a local parsley-cilantro rub, this was lamb that turned off all non-lamb based conversation like a faucet. Crisp, grilled asparagus paired perfectly and a flavorful root-vegetable mash soaked up all da juices with absolutely zero watery blandness that befalls so many root mashes before it.
Also try: house-made pickles never disappoint, always a couple of great vegetarian options on the regular menu, and white gazpacho is a revelation on that most refreshing of summertime soups.
20 Wall Street, Asheville, NC 28801 Dinner – Monday through Saturday from 5:30pm – Until. Lunch – Tuesday through Saturday from 11:30am – 2pm. Entrees: $7-$11 for lunch, $18-25 for dinner
Here’s a not so hypothetical question for you. If you had only one meal to eat in Asheville, where would it be? In seven days, I’m leaving this lovely mountain retreat for the bright lights and big flavors of New York City. The countdown has begun. But I’m stumped; where do I eat my final meal? For the past two weeks, living on my own, couch surfing, I’ve spent nights sharing meals at various dinner tables with dear friends, and days grabbing fruit and salads and Greenlife. For a final week, however, this does not suffice.
Should I keep it Southern, since I know there will be a drought of grits and endless sweet tea in my future? Do I go Asheville vegetarian, stay downtown or stick with old faithfuls like Papas and Beer? I’d love to know where you would take your final holy sacrament in this most epicurean of Appalachian towns.
Plus, check out the new digs. SheWhoEats is here to stay! After years of amateur night at the computer, I’ve finally cleaned things up and created a more intentional look. Thanks to the creativity and skill of one Bowman Kelley, a great friend and web developer genius, your eyes will now be pummeled with beauty and simplicity in addition to watching some words and photos about food. Contact him if your site needs some sprucing! This blog just got real. Dot com real.
Stay tuned for a thrilling, death-defying culinary pilgrimage to the Apple that is Big.17