The Mixed Bag That is No. 7 Sub

Inspired food combinations are rarely found under the dim fluorescent lighting of a college food court. But, one night after a few Pepsi’s and Jack, I asked the person behind the sandwich counter to take some chips, crunch them up, and put them in my tuna sub. Two years later, as I was preparing to walk at graduation and walk through Seton Hall’s gates one last time as a student, the sandwich counter knew my order in their sleep.

So, imagine my excitement when number 75 on NY Mag’s Cheap Eat list, No. 7 Sub, was described as the place where “no one has made a more compelling case for the profligate use of Fritos and Zapp’s BBQ potato chips in the sandwich-making arena.”

Frito’s can be a dicey proposition. They’re like the Dr. Pepper of chip-based snacks. Regardless of how many flavors one has or whatever marketing claim the Frito-Lay folks toss out there, they are not as popular as your Lays and Cokes of the world.

no-7-sub-broccoliDespite my neutral stance on Fritos, I’m all in  on adding crunch to the right sandwich by way of chips. With that belief, I convinced my co-worker Maura to order the Cauliflower Cheesesteak. I would order the Frito Kid and we would get half of each.

Both were disappointments. In general, the bread was soft on the inside and the crunchy on the top. It reminded me of a larger version of the baguettes – or as it was called at Price Chopper growing up…french bread – that we had with pasta. And it led me to believe the ingredients stuffed inside the would be just as good.

The Frito Kid rocks cold balsamic chicken, black bean hummus, lettuce, tomatoes, and not surprisingly Fritos. After I finished my half, the chicken was so nondescript that it felt like an afterthought. The lettuce and tomatoes played the role you expect them to play in a sandwich. The crunch effect of the Fritos – both from my own personal expectations and the New York Magazine write-up – was overrated. There is a saltiness to Fritos and the greater thickness than a regular potato chip brought it to the fore and it didn’t have enough to carry the sandwich. The redeeming quality was the black bean hummus. I’m not sure what the individual parts of it were, but it almost makes the sandwich worth it.

The Cauliflower Cheesesteak has no steak. That isn’t a deal breaker. What is a deal breaker is that the combination of cauliflower, roasted green peppers, provolone, vidalia onions, and fried shallots has just one note – the peppers/onion interplay. I never have been much of a cauliflower guy in my life so I have no opinion any which way, but what I do know is that it should not be the focal point of a sandwich.

Even with this double stocked disappointments, I returned on Saturday for the Classic. The Broccoli Classic. Since it was one of the sandwiches explicitly recommended in the listing and it has received the “classic” label, I figured I would save it to last.

The No. 7 I had been going to is located on a transitional stretch of Broadway between Herald and Madison Squares. Nestled next to the Ace Hotel, the storefront has two standing countertops facing what are essentially floor to ceiling windows looking out to the sidewalk. As it continued to pour, I looked out the window at tourists who kept looking back at me. It almost felt like that Twilight Zone episode where the astronaut lands on the Moon or some planet to find human-like life form who end up putting him in a museum so they can view what life on Earth. Instead of Earth, it was as if these tourists, clutching their laminated street maps of Manhattan, peering out from under ponchos, saw me and thought, “So this is what it looks like when New Yorkers eat lunch by themselves on a rainy Saturday.”

When the sandwich arrived, I was nervous. I want to like these places. It is more fun writing about what you like. You want that excitement to be palpable in the words you put down on paper. From the freshness of the broccoli to the consistency of the ricotta salata, the warmness of the bread, to the zip that I imagine came from the lychee munchim, the Broccoli sandwich earned its moniker as “classic.”

I haven’t put chips in a tuna sandwich in years. I won’t be ordering the Frito Kid anytime soon. No. 7 Sub may not be the sandwich shop to end all sandwich chops. The catch is though, if every kid who said they hated broccoli was given this sandwich, broccoli futures would shoot through the roof overnight.

A Banh Mi Worth Fighting With…

John Mulaney has this funny bit about the power McDonalds had over him and his siblings growing up on summer vacations. How, after hours of being stuck in the car, the appearance of the golden arches changed the entire mood of the family car.

For me growing up, the draw of McDonalds was not the euphoria brought on by the arches, but the happy meal toy and the ball pits paired with the seemingly skyscraper heightened enclosed slides play areas. I was a chicken nugget happy meal kid. There’s no one out there who will defend the taste, quality, or the consistency of what the rightfully maligned McNugget. Fast food byproduct doesn’t usually have many culinary advocates.

The deep fried bread on the other hand felt like some sort of mad scientist creation. The crunch, crispness, and taste of the nugget’s cover seems designed to trick the eater into thinking they are about to have something real. Really good no less.

Like most well adjusted people, I don’t spent much time thinking about the appeal of McDonalds’ chicken nugget. Recently though, I found myself sitting at a back table at High Dive in Park Slope with a bounty of food from Wangs – a joint that specializes in fried chicken and combines “Southern foul food and east Asian flavor profiles.” Of all the complimentary things that one thinks about when you adeptly cross Dixie with east Asia in the way that Wangs does, I went with the McNugget.

Before you think of me as some Guy Fieri-esque hack, the reaction was limited solely to my first take on the breading. Unlike the lab created, mass produced, assembly line dispersed McNugget, Wangs’ southern styled breading isn’t there to trick the eater into ignoring what the rest of the item is. Instead, it serves as a proper opening act to the Asian-spiced brine chicken.

Let’s talk about that chicken. My friend went with the half Organic Fried Chicken. Four pieces. Pieces doesnt do the size of these entities justice. People hold bar wings with two hands to get as much of the meat as possible and avoid a mess. These pieces have to be held with two hands. And the meat itself, having been brined for 24 hours is tender and should be used as Evidence A that the place is doing right by its claim of “creat[ing] a truly unique food experience” through the use of “east Asian flavor profiles.”

banhmiAll of that food was just for my half-marathon runner of a friend. I went with their signature sandwich – the Fried Chicken Banh Mi. Open up a sandwich of any type – hero, baguette, panini, bang mi – and you are typically disappointed when your eyes are drawn to just how much bread there is in comparison to the fillings. Not because bread is bad. But in a good sandwich, it should play a supporting role. Not the lead.

This Banh Mi comes on a huge piece of bread. It wasn’t until the end of my second bite that I got any meat. But this is a sandwich that is a grower. Like the half chicken, the portions on this sandwich are huge. The breading was more crumb focused in texture than the pieces. Pairing with a variety of seasoned vegetables, a five space pate, and coriander and lime aioli, the crunchier texture on the fried chicken works. I got a side with the sandwich. It is not needed. This sandwich will fill you up. What you will need is napkins. It can get messy. But it is worth the mess and the fight that is powering through this delicious monstrosity.

I saved my side to the end in what quickly became a terribly misguided assumption that I wouldn’t be completely full by that point. I didn’t make much of a dent in the collared greens but they underwhelmed in comparison. The Chinese sausage were few and far between and those that were there were very small. It was one-note type of side in the flavor department and after a few bites, I put it aside.

The Wednesday before Thanksgiving week was a chilly night and we were the only people ordering in person. The phone was ringing frequently and the on-line orders kept coming in. Even with this high volume, there was just one tireless woman holding down the in-person order, the phone, and online demands….all while running the kitchen space as well. Maybe it was unexpectedly busy that night, but it seems like a second hand would be a plus during dinners.

It’s no summer vacation drive and there are no golden arches, but the next time you find yourself hungry and walking up the stairs from the R Train at Union Street, find the white painted cover of Wangs and get yourself some food that isn’t just designed to make you think it tastes good. It is good.

I Can’t Get No (Salad) Satisfaction at Sweetgreen

 

It was one of those summer afternoons where everything smells awful. The people standing next to you at the intersection. The piles of garbage waiting to be picked up. Even the sides of buildings reeked.

Maybe on a normal day in the olfactory department, Sweetgreen’s Earth Bowl salad wouldn’t have stood out. But this day, it smelled like the tortellini pesto my mom made when I was growing up. It smelled amazing. With quinoa, arugula, chickpeas, corn, broccoli, chicken, and a pesto vinaigrette in it, the first bite matched the expectations that came with the smell.

And then it all fell apart. The salad isn’t bad in that way that you don’t like the taste or that the vegetables are not fresh. It is a different level. Outside the occasional bite where the zip of the pesto vinaigrette appeared, it all rather blah. Even worse, the chicken seemed dry and in comparison to other high-volume salad places in the area like Chop’t, Hale & Hearty, and even Pret, it paled in comparison.

I initially chalked this up to the salad’s name. Maybe the Earth Bowl was going to lack taste, but a salad that tastes like nothing shouldn’t find itself on the list of best new cheap eats.

This weekend, I returned to Sweetgreen and tried the other salad that was recommended – the Kale Caesar. Taking advantage of what could very well be the last nice day before winter arrives, I had my lunch on a Madison Square Park bench across from the dog run. With an croc-wearing Oliver Stone-doppelganger playing an acoustic guitar, I gave SweetGreen another shot.

20130819-sweetgreen-kale-caesar-thumb-610x457-347166The Kale Caesar has more going for it than the Earth Salad….but not by much. The first is the combination of the caesar dressing and the fresh squeezed lemon juice. In the bites where these two flavors come together, regardless of whether it is with just kale, or some cheese and the parmesan crisp, the creaminess and the zest bring the salad to life. But those bites are too few and far between to make a difference.

The soft crunchiness of the crisp is a nice addition to a salad that is sparse on tomatoes, those dry pieces of chicken, and anything that isn’t kale.

The lunch time crowds keep lining up for these salads so maybe they are doing something I’m missing, but when NY Mag says, the place has figured out how “to make salad satisfying,” I think it is high time we keep the search for satisfying salads going. Satisfaction won’t be found at Sweetgreen.

A Tale of Two Slices

Forget six degrees of Kevin Bacon. Try six degrees of pizza. If you’re anything like me you can connect most people or events in one’s life to pizza.

What did I eat when I was at a party at the Watergate in High School? Pizza.

Where did my mom take me and my third grade bully in a bid to close the rift? A pizzeria.

Why did I rock the RIF competition in 4th grade? Because you got a free personal pan pizza from Pizza Hut if you read a certain number of books per month.

Even after we left the pizza mecca that is Brooklyn and our church that was Pino’s, Pizza Friday remained a staple during my teen years in Vermont. It is safe to say for a long time we wandered in the desert – from Pizza Hut to Little Caesar to Domino’s until two guys from New York opened a pizzeria in Rutland – Ramuntos.

sicilianGrowing up, I was a slice kid. I know there is a small contingent that embraces the Sicilian – otherwise known as the grandma. And while our homemade pizzas took the rectangular shape of a Sicilian, they lacked the height and crustiness of the grandma pie.

With gourmet pizzerias popping up on a regular basis, it is easy to lose track of the fact that a pizza is at its core a pedestrian food. Three ingredients, an oven, and you’re all set. That’s why Crocodile Lounge near Union Square is a personal favorite. Buy a drink, get a free personal pan pizza. There is no love put in the pies. But the cost is built into your alcohol. It is also why I would drunkenly shake my head when I’d leave and see a line of drunk people across the street waiting for a slice at Artichoke.

In the past month, I made two trips to Artichoke. The first was to try the namesake slice – one that was panned. The second was to tackle their Sicilian. It was a tale of two slices.

It is easy to slam something that has been razzed in a widely read publication like New York, but it must be done. In our world of culinary portmanteaus, one might thing that a pizza that tasted like macaroni and cheese would be an invention one would be thrilled to discovery. After the second bite eradicates your initial quizzicalness, said person would realize the folly of such a concoction.

There is bad pizza and then there is disappointing pizza. The artichoke slice manages to be both. While the combination of mozzarella and pecorino romana cheese is a nice touch, it is overwhelmed by a heavy cream sauce and a slice that is double the typical crust. On top of that, my generously-sized slice had just one smallish artichoke on it. The artichoke slice has the trappings of a special concocted by the culinary whizzes hired by Olive Garden and Papa John’s.

About two weeks later, I returned with my eye on the Sicilian slice. The first bite was promising. It was the following bites that answered the question as to why people would line up across the street from “free pizza.”

While I noticed some variation in the cheese coverage in the Sicilian slices on the tray, my slice was partially covered which gave greater attention to the sauce which had a trace of tang to it. This zip, paired with the just crunchy crust and the cheese that was on there was enough for a Sunday night dinner.

Artichoke has a great slice and they have an awful slice. Don’t let the name fool you.

I Left My Baseball Season in San Francisco

Rally GnomeJust another rainy October evening.

Three thousand miles away in San Francisco, the Nationals are looking to keep their season alive for two more days and a Game 5 at home. I’m racing against time, hoping the Nats can squeak out a victory before the bartenders at the neighborhood bar decide to close down on a quiet Tuesday night.

As if welcoming me into the bar from the rain and the end of a middling first date, Bryce Harper deposits a 97-mph fastball from Hunter Strickland into McCovey Cove. And we’re all tied up in the top of the 7th inning.

From the corner of my eye, I see more than a Giants fan sitting a few stools down. I see me from two years earlier. October 2012 was supposed to be the magic carpet ride for Washington baseball. Facing elimination in Game 4 of that year’s NL Division Series, Jayson Werth delivered an emphatic walk-off home run to force a Game 5. A Game 5 that until the 9th inning looked like it would send the Nationals onto the next round. And then the bullpen imploded.

Clad in a plaid button down and alternative Giants hat, after the Harper bomb, his body language, and the alternating curses directed to the Nats and plaintive “Let’s Go” towards the Giants were instantly recognizable. When the moment we have no control of starts to slip away, the fact we can see it drift away and are powerless to do anything makes the sting that much greater.

Baseball engenders the superstitious. Some of its best players can’t shake the habit. Fans are no better. With so little control over what happens between the foul line, it is only natural to look for our own Jobu. I watched opening day at the very bar I found myself at – sharing the last excruciating innings of Game 4 with that Giants fan. The hope was that by returning to where the season started, I would help keep it going for my team. I wanted this stranger to feel the same pain that landed at my feet in, coincidentally a Bay Area-themed Brooklyn bar two years ago when what seemed like an invincible Game 5 lead against St. Louis evaporated into the DC night.

The box score at the end of Game 4’s nine innings is moot. I’m not one of the 25. I didn’t toe the rubber. I didn’t dig into the batter’s box with an inning on the line. I wasn’t the guy behind the plate for all 18 innings of the longest post-season game in baseball history. So the sting pales in comparison to the guys who spent all year working to the NLDS only to see a few pitches spread out over five days end it all.

The thing is, it still hurts. Born in March’s potential. Strengthened through the up-and-downs of the middle of the season, and affirmed by September’s standings. The belief that this is the year seems all but certain when the playoffs begin.

All eleven other months of the year, if forced to choose I’d want baseball to break my heart in October. But during these 31 days, when that is what happens, I see the silver lining of playing out the string as a team postmarked for last place by the All-Star Break.

Before the calendar flips to October, as baseball fans, we’re secretly rooting for the opportunity to watch our teams lose on the big, bigger, biggest stages. Our fandom and devotion means we are rooting for a chance to have our hearts broken on one hit, one immaculate catch, or one miscalled checked swing. As baseball fans, it is in our DNA. We stand, we clap, we talk to ourselves, we talk to the players who can’t hear us over the din of the crowd or from thousands of miles away as we stare at a bank of wide screen TVs in a desolate sports bar. Those fans who see their team walk off the field in front of a half-empty stadium on a balmy late August afternoon having been eliminated from playoff contention will tell you otherwise, but there is a tranquility to that fate. You see it coming. The playoff percentage shrinks. The first place team fades further into the distance. And despite that finality, there are still games to be played. The winners pack up and head to the airport. The losers head home for the night only to come back to the park the next day.

In October, the champagne, beer, and protective tarps over the lockers fade away like a cutter diving away from the batter for the eliminated team. One pitch ends more than a game. It ends a series. It ends a year. It ends that team. The book closes as the losing team trudges down the steps to their locker room and the home team crowd parties on, beckoned by the winners to keep the night going, knowing full well that another series, another battle with the unexpected awaits. Their eyes fall on the next team they face. Our eyes flip to the calendar and wait for the hope that springs with the words, “pitchers and catchers report.”

And the hope that the next meaningful rainy October night comes as fast as the baseball schedule allows.

Breads Bakery – Where One Sandwich Won’t Be Un Ouef

It is by no means a smart joke. Most people probably won’t even find it funny. But a throw away line from a first season episode of West Wing has always made me chuckle. And as I eyed down a Breads Bakery sandwich, it came rushing back to me.

Margaret: You know why they only eat one egg for breakfast in France?

Leo: Why?

Margaret: ‘Cause in France, one egg is ‘un oeuf’

Margaret ge
Margaret gets it.

As a child, one egg was more than “un oeuf” for me. There is little rhyme or reason to why I put my foot down on eggs when I was younger. Maybe it was the texture, or the stark visual, or it was the smell that filled the house as my father ate hard-boiled eggs. Hell, blame that seminal 80s anti-drug commercial that showed eggs in a frying pan with the voice over that said, “this is your brain on drugs.” I didn’t want my brain on drugs. I didn’t eat eggs.

Even back then I knew my hard-line stance wasn’t foolproof. I knew eggs were part of some of favorite foods (French toast) and my go-to condiment (mayo – I was a unique kid, clearly). As I’ve gotten older, I’ve softened my stance on eggs. When comes to food, I think is admirable. It isn’t like someone is going to call you a Benedict Arnold if you expand your food horizons.

Looking at eggs with a sunnyside up perspective, however, did not prepare me for what I came across at Breads Bakery.

Breads BakeryBakery in the front, café seating in the middle, and sandwiches, salads, and coffee in the back, Breads Bakery’s charmingly unassuming storefront sits on a block I though I knew well. Between the since deceased Chat N’ Chew and its proximity to my office and Union Square, I’m no stranger to that stretch of East 16th. Even with all that, I had never noticed the spot until the New York list came out in July. Even fellow co-workers who have been working at the same spot for more than a decade asked me what was Breads Bakery.

What Breads Bakery is, is a sandwich gem hidden in plain sight. And if the bread is half as good as how the front of the space smells, then it is on the same plane as the sandwiches.

New York didn’t lead me astray when it highlighted the Tunisian as the sandwich to go with when ordering from Breads. It is pretty easy to not judge a book by its cover. Not judging a sandwich by what you see around the edges is a lot tougher. And that distinctive hard cooked egg white with yellow in center is what my eye was drawn to. Several sizable pieces of egg dotted the Tunisian on the display shelf during my first visit.

It was a quiet Saturday afternoon at Breads Bakery. Even though I knew I could easily turn around, walk out to Union Square and hit up a host of other lunch places, I stayed in line. Visiting all 101 restaurants is about more than just eating at a century plus one’s worth of meals at places in the city I would have never been to otherwise. It is about trying new foods. Challenging my preconceived notions of what I like – what I think I like.

So with that, I ordered the Tunisian. Certainly, it is not all egg. There is tuna, some sliced tomatoes, small pieces of potato, lemon, olives, and harissa – a Maghrebian hot Chili pepper paste.

To me, an unspoken universal truth about sandwiches is that if you order the same sandwich every day, the first bite will never taste the same. Every sandwich – even ones made by the artists at Subway – is made by people. The same ingredients will be there, but the placement will be different every time. Your sandwich is unique in its own way – like a snowflake.

Of course, my first bite of the Tunisian was full on egg. But the zip of the harissa and the bread made this first bite the right combination of spice, crunch, and softness. Kick in the tuna, lemon, tomato, and potato, and the whole sandwich hits the spot. Unlike a foot long from Subway that fills you up and leaves you feeling lethargic, the Tunisian hits the spot. So much so that after I was done, I noticed a piece of egg that had fallen off the sandwich and on to my plate. I ate it.

Having made several visits to Breads, the staff is consistently friendly and laid back – maybe too much so on the latter. This is real food. Places like this don’t pride themselves on shaving seconds off service time, but there seems to be a slower pace – even during high traffic times like a workday lunch.

Two-tops, four-tops, and if my memory serves me, high-top seating abounds in the space, creating a vibe that is particularly chill given the proximity to the hustle and bustle of Union Square. Maybe it is a byproduct of the staff’s chillness? This is the place to go to if you need to do work outside of the office and want coffee and food in the Union Square area.

With seats to the front of it and the kitchen behind it, the space to purchase sandwiches and other food and drink can get pretty cramped. People waiting for their order bunch up in a corner with no way to exit other than crossing through folks waiting to order. There’s not much that can be done given the layout of the space, but it is one of those things that stands out when the place has so much else going for it.

Eggs are rather pun-friendly. But thanks to Breads Bakery, I’ve learned they can be rather tasty when the primary ingredient in a sandwich.

Postcards, Drinks & Good Southern Food: A Williamsburg Triumvirate

I’m a sucker for a good gimmick. And Williamsburg’s Commodore has one of the better ones around. Send a postcard from any state (or country for that matter) other than New Jersey and Connecticut to the bar. Claim it when you visit and the bar gives you a free beer.  A postcard will run you maybe $2 and a stamp is $0.34. That’s a pretty good deal for a beer.

If that were all the Commodore had to offer, I would make a point of visiting it after every out-of-state trip and that would be it. But that is far from the case. Inside its unassuming frontage – the first time I went a few years ago, I walked right by it – and the 70s Southern nautical decor beats the heart of a bar that turns out exceptional fried comfort foods.

commodoreGrilled cheese has had a renaissance in New York the past few years. Unlike the cupcake bubble or the bull market on macaroons, Melt Shop and Melt Kraft (along with Queens Kickshaw out in Astoria) have provided substance to this development. The unrelated Melt outlets dish out great sandwiches, but often they stretch, in particularly tasty ways, the definition of a grilled cheese. That’s why the menu item that first caught me and kept me coming back to Commodore was the Adult Grilled Cheese.

Appearances – like the front of the joint – can be deceiving. Coming out all by itself on a midsize plate, your first instinct is disappointment. Presentation aside, the unexpected combination of pimento and poblano changes everything. Eventually, I discovered the cheeseburger which became my second go-to.

That whole time though, I was making a circuitous route to the Commodore’s true calling card – the breast. Either mild or hot. A friend of mine is so enamored with the dish that when we talk about hanging out and grabbing dinner, she’ll e-mail me with a variation on “I’ve been craving a mild breast” as her way of suggesting we meet at Commodore.

Last month, my friends Maura and Quinn and I visited the Commodore on the first post-Labor Day Saturday of September. Managing to snag three seats at the bar made the “ordering from the bar” set-up that much easier to navigate during the busy evening.

With three of us there, we decided to order not two, not three, but four different dishes. Our first go to was the fried chicken plate. Maybe the more refined fried chicken consumers out there  will scoff at me for being a newcomer to an abiding appreciation for chicken off the bone, but I have to imagine this is what it is supposed to be – the sweet spot between the poles of dry and rubbery and something that should probably just be called boneless. What more could you ask for then the right mix of dipping sauce and biscuits with honey butter, paired with tender white meat that falls off the bone?

Order this plate, and it will get messy. The guys next to us tore through their plate to the point where there was a fallout zone of crumbs radiating a good six inches around their plate.

Quinn, who successfully came up with an Oscar Watching Party menu where the made from scratch dishes were themed to each Best Movie nominee – so he clearly knows his shit – said, “I’d come to Williamsburg just for this.”

Then it was on to our main dishes – the hot breast for Quinn, the hot fish for me, and the nachos for Maura, who was drawn to them by the presence of cilantro.

The fish and breast overwhelm the larger than normal hamburger bun they come in. The fish is literally the entire fish. With breadcrumbs and smoked mayo adding to the sandwiches’ force, even I, someone who finds it hard to eat fish could enjoy this sandwich on a regular basis. The hot breast, which comes with coleslaw and pickles found a fan in Quinn.

The nachos are not bad. In fact they are good. But in a place like the Commodore, ordering them seems like a disservice to one’s taste buds given the other options available.

It is great to see a place get the recognition it deserves and this summer, the Commodore started serving brunch. So there is another reason to get your hung over self on the G Train on a Saturday morning.

With that being said, this place gets packed. Like L train packed at night towards the end of the week and the weekend. So if you’re going just for the food, earlier in the evening might be your best bet. No matter the hour though, you don’t need a postcard to enjoy this place.

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