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.

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.

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.

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?

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