daheen wang mandoo

The Dumpling That Should Be King

One hundred and one of anything is most definitely an exploration. Dalmatians. Leagues under the sea. Restaurants. Raising those pups, descending those depths, visiting those joints all will open a person’s eyes. While there are just five boroughs and a finite number of neighborhoods in spite of your local realtor’s best efforts, it is easy to get in a repeating loop. The same neighborhoods. The same types of foods for lunch. The same bars and restaurants.

The great thing about the NY Mag list of new cheap eats is the neighborhoods these cheap eats call home are as diverse as the city itself – even if Staten Island didn’t make the list. Seriously, Richmond County! I don’t believe for a second a new restaurant hasn’t opened since 2006. I hope to see you on the list in eight years if only to give me yet another excuse to ride the Ferry.

Ask most New Yorkers about Flushing and they’ll tell you it is the stop after Citi Field, Main Street is always packed with people, and on any given day, it gives Chinatown a run for its money when it comes to food. All of those are true but it sells that neighborhood so short. A 15 minute walk east from the last stop on the 7 Train not only brings one to the front door of a place that will open your eyes to what good dumplings are, it transforms a part of the city from a  2-D afterthought on the subway map to life. Mom-and-pop shops, post-war apartment buildings, and driveways along the tree-lined Roosevelt Avenue make you feel like you’ve left Queens for a small city far away from the hustle and bustle of the Big Apple.

Until you make your way onto Northern Boulevard that is. A highway parading as a city avenue is where you will find Daheen Wang Mandoo. Don’t get distracted by the KFC across the “street” touting itself as the home of the best chicken in the city.

A wang mandoo is a king dumpling. Imagine what get at Vanessa’s Dumpling and then double it. While you’re doubling the size, take a little bit off the price. That is the immaculate pleasure of Daheen Wang Mandoo. Delicious food at a bonkers low price. One king dumpling will run you $2. For $5, I managed to scoop up two king dumplings – the pork kimchee and what I’m pretty sure was the red bean paste once since it was not pork – and a can of Coke. Yes, I should have asked which one exactly it was but since the kimchee dumpling wrapper had a sticker saying as much on it, I figured the second one would as well. Not so much and wanting not to expose myself as a nube, I stayed silent.

Of the two dumplings, the pork kimchee is the winner. That’s not to say the dessert one is not good.  As someone relatively new to the world of dumplings, the consistency takes a little time getting used to.

Unlike Vanessa’s that has a crisp covering, which I’d had a few days before, Daheen’s dumpling dough is warm, but soft. With the kimchee pork, it serves as a nice contrast to the meat and the spicy fermented vegetables in the dumpling. The other dumpling had a rice-like texture on the inside that, in comparison to the kimchee fell short if only because it had fewer notes to its taste. Still good, still an other worldly steal at $2.

Daheen also has a full menu and apparently an outpost in Manhattan, but as I sat there on a quiet mid afternoon hour, I couldn’t help but think how a place like this would make bank if they set up near college campuses. The power of cheap, good eats is impossible for college students – sober, drunk, or otherwise – to resist. My four years at Seton Hall saw me and my friends hit up runny Chinese food, poor imitations of pizza, desolate diners, and a fried chicken place that left you smelling like buffalo sauce for days. A king dumpling joint a stones throw away from a college would be as sure a bet as you can find.

But for those of us past the college days, just the the cost of getting to Daheen in Flushing is more expensive ($2.50) than one dumpling. Cheap eat, indeed.

Via Glenwoodnyc.com

Take the A Train…to Rockaway Taco (During Rush Hour Only – Otherwise, Please Kindly Switch to the Shuttle at Broad Channel)

That dream where you’re taking an exam in high school, and suddenly you realize, a beat before everyone else, you’re naked never happened to me. Still, I think I can suss out the meaning. It is about, especially in our teen years, feeling like you don’t fit in.

Even though I missed out on this somnolent rite of passage, I recently experienced a real life situation that’s the dream’s fully clothed cousin.

Any conversation about tacos in the five boroughs usually begins and ends with Rockaway Taco. For a long time, I had no horse in the New York City taco debate since I had not been and my favorite place – Taqueria – calls Jersey City home, even though it does have a Manhattan outpost that I have never been too. [A quick side note. Both Taqueria in JC and Rockaway Taco were hit hard by Sandy, a storm that hit us all, but hit certain neighborhoods particularly hard. Go to them. Go to both. They're good local businesses who have come back.]

It wasn’t one of those situations where you walk by a place, say to yourself “Next weekend,” and keep going. A slightly delayed Amtrak train will get you to Philadelphia quicker than it takes to get from Union Square to Rockaway Taco. So when I found myself at a meeting for work that was happening directly across the street from Rockaway Taco, I made sure to stop by after we were done.

You know those beach movies like Gidget and films staring Frankie Valli? If any character showed up in a suit, straight away it was clear, they were the square. I mean, who shows up to the beach in a suit that isn’t for bathing? A square.

Who’s got two thumbs and shows up to a taco shack a stone’s throw away from the beach in a suit on one of the hottest days of the summer? This guy. No one razzed me with 50’s surfer burns, but even if they had, the food would have made it worth it.

The thing about Rockaway Taco is that the ingredients are fresh.  Really fresh. And if you order the Watermelon Juice like I did, that is where you will first realize what you are in for. The initial sip is jarring in that a watermelon beverage is typically syrupy and sugary (kids division) or is a watermelon doppelgänger (beer division). The watermelon juice at Rockaway Taco is the real deal and exceptionally refreshing. It is both one of the best things I’ve drank all summer.

Naturally, since I was in a suit, by the beach, in the middle of the day, by the time my tacos were ready, I had already powered through the drink. I ordered the chorizo (my go to at all taco joints) and the fried fish tacos. When you are there, you have to get the guac as a topping. It runs laps around probably most guac you have had in the city and it is an infinitely cheaper add-on for $1.

Both tacos were very good, but the fish taco is the stand out. Who among us isn’t a sucker for fried foods? But fried food, and fried fish in particular, when done well are a delight. If the Gorton’s Fisherman ever realized this was what breaded-slash-fried fish should taste like, he’d move to a landlocked state and give up the game.

The only issue I had was the space. We crossed paths with a large contingent that was coming from the beach and adding themselves to a surprisingly formidable midweek mid-day line as we were leaving. But even with our good timing, the bench space was less than conducive for eating comfortably. I get most people probably walk it back to the beach or boardwalk, but even the space for waiting is cramped.

It is easy to get caught up in the hype of a place that defines a neighborhood’s cuisine options and has become as revered as Rockaway Taco. But as I took the Q53 from the Rockaways to the subway stop at Queens Center Mall, my one-hour ride to the M Train on a bus that got as packed as the waiting space at Rockaway Taco and crawled along Woodhaven Boulevard gave me a chance to assess whether I’d make this trip again for same the meal. The answer is yes. Even in a suit.

Fried Pickles

A Fried Pickle for All Seasons

You always remember your first. Life can be demarcated in the before and after. I remember it clearly still, years later. It had been a long day. And after a beer, it happened. I had my first fried pickle. The Raleigh Times set the bar high with a thin sliced fried pickle that, nearly six years later, is my must have list for when I return to Raleigh in two months.

In a city with neighborhoods so diverse the five boroughs could easily fill the seats of the UN General Assembly, New Yorkers are blessed with a conveyor belt of good food options. However, there are also those places that are neither good nor bad – the Brother Jimmy’s of the world. Their fried pickles are the Bud Light of appetizers. Nothing you are going to leave home for. But, in a pinch, they won’t set you back and they won’t make you cringe. Enough times around the appetizer dance floor middling offerings like these can leave an eater pigeonholing fried pickles as nothing more than a down market option.

Park Slope’s Pickle Shack proves that the Brother Jimmy’s of the world are doing fried pickle a disservice.

Pickle Shack’s premise is one those ideas that when you hear it for the first time leaves you kick yourself for not having thought up a place that combines craft beer, and dishes and appetizers featuring artisanal pickles.

Everything about the fried pickles is spot on. But the thing that has stayed with me most is the first taste I got – the zest. It is a zest reminiscent of the first bite of a lobster that has just been squeezed with a fresh lemon. Just look at the photo at the top of the post. The presentation looks like it came out of a seaside restaurant’s shack-cum-kitchen near Old Orchard Beach…in the best way possible.

New York’s listing suggests the smoked tofu bahn mi that comes with a house fermented kimchee and avocado. It also calls Pickle Shack the go to spot for beer-geek vegetarians. While I’ve got the first half under control (despite my PBR proclivities), I’m not vegetarian meaning I can’t speak to the quality of the smoked tofu. But it doesn’t take a tofu expert to know when a bahn mi is good and tofu or not, it was good.

For the beer geeks out there, the Maine Beer Company (Freeport represent!) has a Lunch IPA that pairs well with the pickle plates and was available on draft the night I was there. The great thing about a Lunch IPA is that it has the same power as an IPA, but feels like a much lighter beer, making it more of a complementary part of the meal.

It would be easy for Pickle Shack to be a one trick pony slapping a pickle onto meals and sandwiches where they don’t really have a place and calling it quirky or envelope pushing. Instead, it is a welcome addition to an avenue that despite its recent growth lacks in interesting restaurant options. Plus, have I mentioned the fried pickles?


The Burger You Wish You Had Growing Up

In 2014 America, the phrases “red-blooded American” and “motherhood and Apple Pie” read like something a future archaeologist would unearth on a buried wall at a dig searching for 1950’s Madison Avenue artifacts. It also wouldn’t be a stretch to envision a scenario where the phrase “hamburgers” was in the running for the spot that eventually went to apple pie.

If anything, hamburgers  was robbed. They are far more prevalent than apple pie as a year-round food. My childhood, in terms of meals consumed, consisted of a pretty standard menu for a middle class American kid born in the 1980’s. From the scarfing down of far too many Big Macs to that half-year in fifth grade where my mom only served heated up veggie burgers that tasted like well done cardboard, the bar burgers consumed at ungodly hours to the homemade burgers I now make from scratch, the patty holds a special place in most meat eating Americans culinary repertoire – be it cooking or consuming.

New York‘s 101 list provides ‘here and there’ guidance. Some listings suggest certain dishes. Others basically tell you to get to the place as soon as possible. Burger Fi‘s listing acknowledges that you will probably get flummoxed by both the choice of fries and accompanying dipping sauces. To avoid such troubles, they provide the pre-visit wisdom of going for the double cheeseburger and onion rings. It is a wise suggestion.

The first thing you notice upon entering Burger Fi, other than the episode of Love and Hip Hop that was filming yesterday (I hope Love and Hip Hop make it work), is that you could have easily stepped into Shake Shack’s laid back cousin. From one of the three registers reserved for a la the Shack’s C-Line to the interior design and wood tables, the aesthetic similarities are hard to miss. That’s no slam on Burger Fi. Shake Shack has cornered the market on gourmet fast food burgers, and that probably includes a store layout that maximizes revenue and ensures customer happiness.

It would be great though, to see Burger Fi’s decor –  at least in New York since this is a Florida-based joint and I wonder how much Shack mimicry there is elsewhere – be as distinctive as the quality and flavor of the food served.

I went with the NY Mag recommendation of double cheeseburger (with mayo, lettuce, tomato, pickles, American cheese, and relish) and the onion rings. And it was exceptional. It amazes me that in spite of all those crappy home-made burgers we had growing up and the factory manufactured, angsty-teen served fast food burgers, we still want this dish as adults. But when you have a burger like the one at Burger Fi, it is all worth it.

The patties were cooked to perfection. Burger Fi has found a way to get the cheese/burger relationship to the point where you would think the burgers and cheese were grilled together (maybe they are?) without the cheese getting charred, and the toppings are fresh. So much so, that my buddy Deaux who was with me on this excursion, mentioned the lettuce before anything else. He was taken back by the size and freshness. These weren’t your typical styrofoam lettuce chunks that haunt college cafeterias or the fast food shredded lettuce that wouldn’t pass muster at a rabbit farm. There was a crispness to them that was also the case with the other toppings.

Onion rings are usually nothing more than a tease. They look great when they are put on the table. But either the onion has the consistency of rubber or the deep fried bread crumbs fall apart upon the first bite. Burger Fi’s hold up, are tasty, and the onion is as fresh as the toppings placed on the burger.

If there are any critiques of Burger Fi, it revolves around the much vaunted sauces and an issue of geometry. My buddy ordered the fries and missed out on the sauce. It didn’t sound like he was ever asked if he wanted to upgrade. At the same time, the menu makes it look the sauces are not available for orders of onion ring. Maybe they are, but a clearer menu would help.

In the case of large onion rings versus small paper cup for ketchup, no one wins. It is great that Burger Fi’s onion rings are huge. I love it. And I appreciate that the paper cups Burger Fi has are wider to accommodate the rings, but they are not wide enough. A small critique yes, but in a burger-saturated market and at a place that does so much so well (including the bargain basement prices for beer – where you getting them guys, off the back of a truck in Paramus?), it is this type of stuff that stands up.

Eight years ago, I had my first Shake Shack burger. Four years after that, I make my first trek to The Meatball Shop. It was just two years ago that I learned of the deliciousness that is Num Pang. Since then, all three establishments have become institutions and expanded beyond their humble beginnings. Burger Fi comes to the five boroughs with a history in other parts of the country. It is easy to see Burger Fi giving Five Guys, and the Shack a run for their money sometime soon.


Let’s Do More Than Watch His Movies

In life, Robin Williams was one of a kind. In death, he was one of 105 – the number of Americans who killed themselves Monday.

It is no surprise that the suicide of a returning vet who’s PTSD has gone untreated doesn’t trend on Twitter. The suicide of the high school student everyone thought had it together is not going to get cable news to break away from coverage of ongoing crises in Ukraine and Ferguson.

In the wake of a celebrity’s passing, it is de rigeur to tweet condolences, hashtags that start with RIP, and favorite performance of the deceased. Typically, these are for actors who have lived into their 80s or 90s or died in a freak accident.

Robin Williams’ suicide represents more than the loss of an incomparable comedic and acting voice for fans across the world. It is a tragedy for his family, friends, loved ones, and the man himself. Monday evening, Williams’ publicist told reporters the actor had been “battling severe depression.”

Twitter and Facebook Monday night were filled with posts from people who were, understandably, sitting down to watch their favorite Robin Williams movie to honor the actor. Rightfully so, but we can do more. We need to do more.

Suicide’s prefix, sui-, is both sadly apropos and terribly deceptive when it comes to the act the word defines. Sui means oneself. In the days, weeks, months, and even years leading up to the act, a depressed person believes they are all alone. That there is nothing to live for. There is no peace.

The moment they get that desired peace, by ending their life, the peace of those around is shattered. The act touches more than the one; the direct impact is felt by many. It can take years to recover and not blame the deceased for what they did.

Take a look around you. The CDC estimates that 1 in 10 Americans report being depressed. Odds are high you have friends who are suffering from this illness. It is also likely you know someone who is fighting severe depression. Maybe it is even you.

Honoring Williams by watching his movies is a good first step. But let it remind us that more than an amazing talent was lost. Like the 104 others lost Monday, he was a parent, a husband, friend, confidante, and so much more to those whose lives he intersected.

As someone who suffers from depression and who had a parent come close to successfully committing suicide, the truth is that there is no simple magic fix. No medication will let those suffering and fighting this wake up one morning cured for all time. But we can help them in their efforts by listening, working with them to realize they need to get help, and being a reliable presence in their life.

We need a national dialogue. If nearly 9 million people (the number of Americans who suffer from major depression) were taken ill by an over-the-counter medication, cable news, Capitol Hill, and the internet would be abuzz with ways to address the crisis. Where is the push to address this silent killer? Where is our War on Depression?

Let Williams’ passing serve as a reminder that for the depressed and suicidal, they need more than our #RIPs after tragedy strikes, they need our help to Live in Peace.

Pickle Dog_New York

Gourmet Hot Dogs are Not a Culinary Unicorn

Seeing Bark make New York‘s list of 101 Best (new) Cheap Eats was something of a personal vindication. It is like the band you were telling everyone about back when they were passing out CD-Rs starts headlining arena tours. Or when you come across a little known minor leaguer, follow them as they make their way up to the Bigs, and become an established contributor.

Bark’s arrival in Park Slope came a month or two after my return to the neighborhood in 2009. In those first weeks back in Brooklyn, the papered windows promised something that seemed groundbreaking – gourmet hot dogs. It was all I could talk about.

Once it opened, I went there by myself, sometimes brought friends, told co-workers about the place, and when out at the bar, drunkenly swore up and down we should go to Bark for hot dogs and (more) beer.

Bark at Night - Via Flickr user YUMMY Brooklyn
Bark at Night – Via Flickr user YUMMY Brooklyn

As New York points out, Bark is at the meeting point of slow food and fast food. It is this sweet spot that keeps bringing me back for more.

In the five years since they first opened, Bark has pared down the menu. And in that time, my favorite, the Pickle Dog has gone the way of the W Train. Since my re-return to Brooklyn in 2011, I’ve dropped by Bark periodically for my new go-to, the Bacon-Cheddar Dog and a Narragansett.

On a recent Monday off, I stopped by for lunch and decided to expand my hot dog horizons with the Kraut dog that is topped with Hawthorne Valley sauerkraut and yellow mustard. I added an order of cheese fries and Sixpoint’s Rad.

Among some of my friends, Crif Dogs is the be-all-end-all of hot dogs. I grant them that the variety of hot dogs and the depth of toppings trumps Bark, the actual hot dog and the quality of the ingredients makes Bark the hands-down winner. The Kraut dog confirmed that with its fresh sauerkraut and perfectly cooked dog.

At some point this year, Bark will open a space in Manhattan. Until then, skip past the lines at the new Shake Shack by the Barclays Center, and walk a few blocks up for the hot dog that captures the slow food meets fast food ethos. And grab a ‘gansett while you’re at it.

Red on Greenville

Chew On This

Delicious, delicious101  cheap food. – Via redongreenville.com

“Concerts, who goes to those?”

“Books? Yea, I don’t really get why I should read them.”

“Sports? People who get invested in that are pretty much crazy.”

All of these are things I have heard on first dates. The last one came from a girl whose profile included a photo of her hugging Sir Stanley’s Cup. Crazy, indeed.

Sports, pop culture, politics. All of these are potential conversational trip wires. Food, though, is typically not. Restaurants and good meals can carry conversations between people regardless of how long or well they know each other.

When this blog started, my goal was to not only read as many of The New York Times Notable books of each year, but write reviews of the books. While my effort has been close to admirable on the former, it has been downright pathetic on the latter.

So in a situation like this, what is the equivalent of “declare victory and go home?”

Find another list to tackle.

Last month, New York magazine gave me such an escape hatch: The 101 Best (New) Cheap Eats, Ranked.

It has been eight years since New York did their last incarnation of this list. Eight years. One hundred and one spots to hit. Based on my work with the books, this seems like a pace I can navigate.

There is a goal and an expectation here. The expectation is simple – visit each joint and try the recommended dish regardless of my culinary preferences. The goal is more communal. Rare is the person who likes going to a restaurant by themselves. More than just writing a review of the place from my perspective, my hope is to provide more color to the experience by providing a second perspective. The perspective of a friend who I have shared a meal with.

My hope is to write these reviews once a week. Life has a funny way of getting in the way, so don’t hold me to it. One last thing, the list is ranked after all. So, this process will mow through eats 11-101. The Top 10 will be saved for last.


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