Managing the Taquito Expectation Game

Even with cheap eats, it is tough to get a proper read on just how good the food actually is when it’s delivered. The jostling in the car or on the bike as it comes your way changes the composition. Fitting the food into a transportable container that removes any added value that comes from the presentation at a sit down place. This is particularly true in the winter when your food can go from steaming hot to room temperature in the time it takes the delivery guy to bike from the Lower East Side to Union Square. Doubly so this past winter.

I came to this realization working late one night after ordering from Taquitoria – the home of taquitos in the Lower East Side. Some of what I ordered was good, some was just ok. But I chalked it up to the bitterly cold evening conditions playing tricks with the once-warm food. So, my buddy and I decided to visit Taquitoria and try the rolled, fried tacos in person.

Taquito taquitoHaving read the reviews for Taquitoria, the Buffalo Chicken was highly recommended. Not one to quibble with a good thing, I asked the guy behind the counter on a recent Tuesday evening for an order of buffalo chicken taquitos. The guy said, “Sorry, man. Those are only available on Sundays.”

Undeterred, we each ordered the Cheesy Pork Taquitos. A quick lesson here – classic = guac sauce, shredded lettuce, cotija cheese; cheesy = nacho cheese, sour cream, and pickled jalapeno relish.

The pork taquito succeeds where the chicken taquito does not. The pork has a taste. It is spicy and when matched with pickled jalapeno and paired with nacho cheese and sour cream makes for a great taste balance. The chicken taquito falls short because it has so little taste to it. The most distinct thing about it is that it is shredded.

And it was that fact that kept me thinking about the buffalo chicken taquito. If it’s only served on Sundays, it must be really special. Maybe the chicken has buffalo sauce and ranch with it on the inside of the taquito. Maybe the taquito has that buffalo chicken you sometimes see behind the deli counter.

I started telling friends and co-workers about it. They got intrigued. We decided to go on a Sunday afternoon to try the buffalo chicken taquito. It had become something mythical. Off-the-menu and only available one day a week. Scarcity creates demand and we had become a demanding bunch.

So, maybe it was the buildup that led to the disappointment. The five us were the first customers of the day. I stepped up and ordered the cheesy buffalo chicken taquitos. The guy behind the counter tells me I don’t need to go cheesy since they come with ranch and buffalo sauces. He’s the buff chix taquito expert so I defer to him. A few minutes after all of us order the first sign of trouble arises. The guy goes to the back and comes out with small containers of buffalo and ranch sauce.

And then it hits when he brings the buffalo chicken taquitos out. They are the chicken taquitos. Only ranch and buffalo in condiment cups on the side. Without the cheesy or classic toppings, the taquitos look as uninspiring as the chicken tastes. My buddy who’d come on the first visit was there as well and he was equally disappointed by the realization that off-the-menu secret was actually very much on menu and very much underwhelming. The item only available on Sunday is dipping sauces.

My other friends had the pork taquito which was still great. The classic steak which I tried was good – much closer to the pork in terms of quality. A friend of mine who has gone to other cheap eats places with me said this was the best she’d been to. She had the steak taquitos. The chips and salsa have a nice flavor to them with the salsa going from mild at first taste to a zesty medium on second taste.

Taquitoria is the type of the place that doesn’t make any qualms about what it is. You can see the guys behind the counter taking pre-rolled, pre-fried taquitos out and heat them up after people order. It’s easy to let the buffalo chicken taquito debacle color one’s opinion of the place, but when it comes to taquitos, two out of four is pretty good.

When Good Just Isn’t Good Enough For Me & My Pizza

There I was standing in the middle of a Chicago hotel talking with a bunch of New Yorkers about the best place to have deep dish pizza in the city we were visiting. As we threw the names of different places out, an older gentleman, a man who calls Chicago home, came up to us. Having overheard the words “deep dish pizza,” he walked over and asked me the names of the places I was thinking of going. After rattling off the names, he paused and said to the group, “Those are good. But my personal favorite is Pizzeria Uno.”

It’s was like being told by a Maine lobsterman to go to Red Lobster when looking for the best lobster place in Portland. Or a southerner steering you to KFC for the best fried chicken in their city. It just rang hollow.

That conversation happened in late January as I was planning my second visit to Emmett’s in the West Village. Chicago focused, the cozy verging on subway car packed tiny place offers a menu of deep dish pizzas and Chicago dogs. They also uphold the time-honored Chicago rule of no ketchup on your Chicago Dog.

To get a proper appreciation for the effort at Emmett’s, I stopped at Lou Malnati’s in River North a few hours before my flight. I ordered the Malnati Chicago Classic and as I polished off my personal sized pie, I was struck by how appealing the buttery flavor of the crust was and just how much of everything there is in a deep dish. It’s no surprise given that the place has trademarked the phrase “Buttercrust.” Unlike your Sicilian that is overwhelmingly crust, the deep dish is more balanced.

But for all the hoopla surrounding the Chicago Deep Dish and Lou Malnati, I found myself walking to the “L” and thinking it was good, but nothing out of this world transcendent that would be a must visit the next time I’m in town.

It was this place of mind that I found myself when I ate at Emmett’s last Friday. My dinner companion and I found ourselves squeezed in so closely to the people on each side of us that Spirit Airlines executives would have blanched at our lack of personal space.

We went with green peppers and onions and after the requisite twenty-or-so-minutes for the pie to be ready, we dug in. The thing is the pie is good. The cheese is hot and gooey. The sauce has just the right amount of tang and the vegetables were fresh. Sans the Lou Malnati butter touch, the crust is crisp enough to hold the pie together, but doesn’t come out burned.

On paper, I should love deep dish. It has more cheese, more sauce. It’s more of everything I want, yet I can’t shake the feeling that something is amiss. Even though I was raised on Friday Night Pizza at the dinner table, to me pizza means a slice. The slice embrace a mobility that the deep dish doesn’t provide. Stop by a pizzeria, order a slice to go and in a few minutes you are walking out with a white paper bag containing two paper plates below a slice.

People get pretty parochial about pizza. Certain pizzerias are the best. Some toppings are unacceptable. Specific sauces are the only ones that can be considered. Our earliest memories help shape these beliefs. And for me, the pizza for me is the one that I can fold and eat with my hands. Not with a fork and knife.

All of that being said, if you like deep dish, Emmett’s is a place to visit if you don’t want to fly out to Chicago just for dinner. And don’t worry about not being able to finish. Reheated deep dish from is almost better than when it lands on your table at the restaurant. Almost.

It’s All About the Bread

Forget the pretzels that are overshadowed in grocery store aisles by Lays, Doritos, and Tostitos. Grow up in New York City and you think real pretzels are available at two locations – hot dog stands and professional sporting events. Nowadays, “the every neighborhood gets a biergarten” craze means there is a third option.

Yet the truth about pretzels remains. More often than not they are underwhelming. Overpriced and over-salted, they can only be what I imagine are a bastardization of their German forbearers.

That is what makes Schnitz, located in the East Village after starting as a Smorgasburg stand, so refreshing. Free of sprinkled salt, this sandwich shop replaces the bread with traditional roll, and it quickly has became one of my favorite spots.

It took my last visit, earlier this month to stumble upon the title for this post and the first of several reasons I keep going back. And it came from my friend Luke who said as he tried the Bamberg for the first time, “It’s all about the bread.”

It is…and yet it isn’t. The pretzel bread is soft and chewy and has a warmth to it that gives the sandwich an extra oomph over other options in the area.

SchnitzSchnitz’s sandwich menu provides something for everyone – meat-eater, pescatarian, vegetarian, and vegan alike. Between me and two of my friends, we tried six different types of Schnitz sandwiches. And New York was on the point. The Bamberg is the best sandwich on the menu.

The Bamberg is a chicken schnitzel sandwich that has pickled cucumbers, daikon, ginger and shallots, and caramelized Dijon mustard. Lets work our way up. I’m a man who loves me some Dijon mustard on what others would consider random things. I’ll put it on steak. If I think it won’t make something worse, I’ll go Portlandia on it: put mustard on it. This Dijon is sharp, zippy, and well apportioned given how much chicken is provided. And it is a lot. The hot, breaded chicken and the Dijon mustard alone would be good. It is the vegetables – the vegetables that push the sandwich over the line. pickled cucumbers plus spicy mustard plus breaded chicken equal one of the best sandwiches I’ve had so far.

A recent try was the Sweet Onion. Same chicken but with pickled cabbage, jicama, raddish and cilantro with a roasted beet tzatziki. Having already tried the jicama slaw which is one of their best sides and having enjoyed their previously pickled veggies, the Sweet Onion did not disappoint. It is slightly less memorable than the Bamberg because it is not zippy, but it is still a worthy alternate.

One of my friends is also a strong proponent of the Grumpy Russian. With pork loin schnitzel, greens, pickled cherries, and gorgonzola spread, whenever Schnitz makes an appearance on Seamless which is surprisingly hit or miss for what should be a streamlined site, she will usually go Grumpy and wants me to let you know she recommends it to one and all.

The one pork schnitzel I tried was the Pork Belly and the difference in quantity between the chicken and pork is quickly apparently. Where the chicken schnitz options are pieces of meat longer than the pretzel bread, the pork belly shnitzel was thin and seemed less generous (though it is pork belly) than the Bamberg’s portions. Still tasty, but it could be one of those cases where judging a sandwich by eye against another one makes you irrationally think less of it.

Maybe I should have expected this. You know, most people don’t think pretzel and shrimp. But, when I ordered the Lt. Dan (well played), I expected I would get the same type of bread the other sandwiches had come in – a pretzel hero roll. The Lt. Dan comes in a bun that is well-buttered and the breaded shrimp cake and lemon-grass mayo are a smart combo, but I was disappointed. I was envisioning some sort of bread battered shrimp in a pretzel hero roll. Instead, it is a very good sandwich and I’m left wondering what the pretzel hero shrimp treatment at Schnitz could be like.

The only sandwich that does not work is the Buffalo Chicken. The bread is solid, the chicken is fine, and the buffalo sauce is sufficiently buffalo-y. The wheels come off with the toppings. Buffalo chicken wings or tenders traditionally come with carrots and celery on the side. Unlike any other buffalo chicken sandwich or wrap I’ve had, Schnitz goes and puts diced celery and carrots as sandwich toppings. In theory, it seems like a new way to hue towards tradition. In reality, it underwhelms and sinks the sandwich. It is funny that the Buffalo Chicken, while listed at their in-person menu and on Seamless, is nowhere to be found on their website.

Like the sandwiches, most of the sides exceed expectations. In particularly, the french fries with sage, parsley, and chili flakes and the black kale salad where chunks of pretzel fill in for the croutons are stand outs. One that I loved and recommend but recognize could be hit or miss for others is the jicama cole slaw. With no mayo in play, the vegetables are at the forefront and they make for a winning side.

Maybe it is because I am a fried pickle snob, but Schnitz’s fried pickles are hopefully a work in progress. As a new item, I want to give them the benefit of the doubt, but the batter is too puffy and the pickles taste pretty flat. As something new, my hope is that they are tweaking it and consider the fried pickles to be a work in progress. I support any place that puts it on their menu and keeps looking for ways to make it as strong as possible.

The only side I would direct you away from completely is the roasted cauliflower. It is one note and a disappointing note. Even with maldon sea salt, the drizzled cumin seed oil dominates the vegetable and falls short of the other options.

There is something charming about Schnitz. From the photocopied handwritten note in the last Seamless delivery from the two founders thanking us for ordering but suggesting we visit the brick and mortar location to the fact that on my first in-person visit last year, the person taking my order kept asking if I wanted to try something else and how I add different sauces.

But then, on my last visit, as my buddy Luke and I were finishing up our sandwiches, the dude who took our order brought out a chocolate banana desert with berries drizzled over. It was a hot dessert that was surprisingly good! Beyond the deliciousness of the desert was the much appreciated randomness of the restaurant equivalent of the bar buyback.

Schnitz is a place that aims to please, and more often than not, does more than just that.

 

 

 

It’s All Happening….Again

AmtrakA few months ago, I came across the track listing for the first of The Composite CDs sent all the way back in 2012. Over the course of a day’s commuting, I listened to the soundtracks for the past three years. It was an eye-opening sonic experience.

Outside of last year’s admittedly relationship-centric mix, I’d figured the mixes were just my efforts at compiling music I wanted to share with people I know with a track order that makes the listening experience enjoyable. Revisiting these mixes one day, back-to-back-to-back, it dawned on me that within the choruses, bass lines, and handclaps that populate these songs are stories. Other people’s stories being tweaked and massaged to tell my own story to you.

It was with one eye on that and another eye on that approaching thirtieth birthday that I realized, it’s all happening. I had kicked around the idea of doing a CD of just songs about places. Or of names. Or women’s names. Or just about New York City. But that isn’t how life works. Nothing is in a vacuum. The people I know and care about, the places I live, work, and visit all combine to create something larger than silo’ed apart lists.

There’s no theme this year, just music that speaks to me and reminds me of a time and place. I hope it speaks to you as well. Maybe not immediately. Maybe not all at once. But at some point, at some place, maybe it will.

Want a CD? E-mail thecompositeblog@gmail.com by 11:59 pm on February 15 with your address and we’ll send you that CD.

Off the Mark at Marks

I’ve come to the conclusion that the greatness in sliders exists in theory, not execution. Typically, they fail on one of two counts and if you are in a particularly underwhelming establishment, both.

The first is the all grease variety. There’s nothing to these to the point where you think you can down 10 of them and when you do, you find yourself yearning for the fetal position. The other begs that iconic 80s question, “Where’s the beef?” It’s all bun with a thinnest of slider.

Maybe it’s the novelty of shrinking down things – see tea cup pigs and the fact that the Honey I Shrunk the Kids franchise turned out four movies. Or it could be that the place we associate most with sliders – White Castle – revels in quantity or quality and is ingrained in pop culture thanks to Harold, Kumar, and Neil patrick Harris.

All that notwithstanding, I still go for a slider because it is the quintessential cheap eat. The time in one’s life where you learn to truly appreciate cheap eats is college. So it is no surprise that Mark, Number 98 on the list, is smack dab between the New School, Cooper Union, and NYU.

Mark DinnerStashed along a St. Marks that combines NYU undergrads, tourists from all overs, the last guard of the old East Village, and the gentrifying class – this clash is evidenced in the technicolor storefronts.

It wasn’t intended at the time but Mark was dinner both nights on a recent weekend. Even though it is located on a busy stretch, Mark, a sliver of a restaurant that could easily keep you coming back with its flashes of potential, in the end, is more disappointing than rewarding.

The strongest argument in Marks’ favor is their regular slider. If this is all they offered, this review would be far more favorable. The right balance of patty and bun, the meat tastes freshly ground and has just a touch of pink to it. The bun is lightly toasted and it’s clear the melted cheese wasn’t just tossed on.

The wheels come off when you go astray on the menu – with the exception of the pulled pork slider.

I actually went back to Mark the day after my first visit because I was hoping that I had accidentally been given two regular sliders instead of my order of one regular and bacon slider. That is how non-existent the bacon on the bacon slider is. On my second visit, when my food arrived, I removed the bun and saw two small bits of bacon ground into the sldier. Far from enough to warrant the name.

On that first visit, I ordered the fries and Guinness Shake. The fries are a big part of the potential/disappointment issue at play with Marks. The vinegar flavoring gives these salted flies a distinctive taste. Too many of them were crispy and lacking potato on the inside that it was clear that something was amiss. Credit though for a variety of condiment sauces for the fries – ketchup (natch), barbeque (appreciated), chipolte (unexpected), and jalapeno (a nice touch).

For $7, one might expect the Guinness Shake to taste like a Guinness. There’s a hint of stout to the shake and even without the simalcrum of Guiness, it is not only tasty in its own right, but leagues better than the Black & White. If you had blindfolded me, I would have thought that Sunday’s Black & White shake was mostly whip cream with some chocolate syrup doused in for good measure.

The Pulled Pork Slider gives you way more pulled pork than you’ve paid for but there is a part of me that quibbles with calling it a slider. Is there a rule that a slider needs to be a patty of ground beef of some sort. Am I being too originalist in this construct? Not that a place that bills itself as a slider joint shouldn’t be able to sell a mini-pulled pork sandwich. But, maybe just a little more truth in the advertising? Second best “slider” on the menu.

I get the appeal of Mark. It is most definitely cheap. It is probably better than most other joints along St. Marks. And there is something ingrained in some folks – myself included – that draws us back to the slider even if it fails to deliver more often than not. Will I make a point of going to the Mark the next time I walk by? No. Will I probably find myself there at the end of a night of drinking, looking for some food for the subway ride back to Brooklyn? I wouldn’t bet against it.

Keep It Simple at Sticky’s

Chicken fingers. Chicken tenders. Chicken nuggets. Call them whatever you want, but growing up, school cafeterias were home to some of the saddest things called white meat I have ever laid eyes on. Housed under grayish-yellow lighting that purportedly kept them warm. The breading was less a finishing touch and more a paint job. Ketchup was not a condiment for these pieces of “food.” They barely made it palatable.

Given the schlockiness of the food served in public schools across the nation, it is no surprise frozen, mass-produced chicken nuggets from conglomerates like Weaver and Perdue seemed like organic, artisanal, hydroponic manna from the skies.

20130208-stickys-finger-joint-chicken-06-thumb-625xauto-304478If NYU’s cafeterias are anything like my colleges were, the chicken nuggets are a few degrees better in condition and temperature than what we got in K through 12. That being said, just a few blocks north of Washington Square Park, where West 8th and MacDougal intersect sits an institution that could incite a public school lunchroom revolution based on how good some of their offerings are. I can’t imagine a ten-year old having a chicken tender at Sticky’s Finger Joint and then being ok with school “chicken nuggets.”

The ’92 Clinton campaign coined the phrase, “Keep It Simple, Stupid (KISS)” to describe how they should talk about the economy to voters. And it worked. It took me three visits to Sticky’s to realize this phrase also applied to their menu.

When Sticky’s goes minimal or adds an extra layer or two of detail to their offering, the chicken finger is better than good. The problems arise when Sticky’s tries to go big. The results are middling at best, problematic at worst.

The standard option on the menu – and the best one if you consider yourself something of a chicken tender traditionalist – is the Finger. You can get it Naked or Crunchy. Go Crunchy. I never even dabbled with the Naked. We’re talking about chicken tenders here.

All I’ll say is that each time I went, I got at least one of these. Fresh, tender white meat is paired up with deep fried batter. The space is so small, I could hear them drop my order into the deep fryer. On my first visit, I ordered three. I was full by the time I was finishing up the last finger. Consistently delicious, pair this order with the Sticky’s BBQ sauce and you won’t be disappointed.

thumb_600There are some specialty chicken fingers that are worth ordering. It is simply a matter of Sticky’s achieving more when trying to do less. This is what makes the Buffalo Balsamic Maple and Classic General Tso so appealing. Taking one, or at most two distinct flavors, they manage to complement the white meat and open your eyes to taste combination you might have never thought of before. After having the Buffalo Balsamic Maple one Sunday evening, I spent the next day telling friends that the combination of buffalo and maple with balsamic should be utilized more often. The General Tso provides the requisite hotness thanks to the “Slightly Spicy! Chili Peppers.”

The Fiesta is an odd duck. Unlike the other fingers I had, this piece of chicken looked more like a chicken breast. It also came out far crisper – almost like it was overcooked – than the other options. This is a result of the crunchy crushed tortilla chips coating that does nothing for the eater. The toppings were all the things you might associate with a Mexican plate – pineapple salsa, jalapeno mac sauce, and fiesta glitter. For all those ingredients, the Fiesta is surprisingly tepid and far from the party for your taste buds the menu promises.

Real trouble, unfortunately, is found with the Bada Bing. With all the trimmings of a chicken parm, this should have been right in my taste wheelhouse. Instead, I came away with the feeling this was something that could have been concocted and produced at a Pizza Hut R&D facility. Imagine combining the theoretical underpinnings of a calzone with a chicken parm and you would have the Bada Bing. The mozzarella and Parmesan seem almost lifeless inside the chicken and it was only until the last bite or two that I came across chicken that was as fresh as the Crispy.

Sticky’s is the type of the place that has no qualms playing unedited Kanye while a grandmother is bringing her young grandsons in for a Saturday snack. It’s a laid back place run by friendly, chill people. They take their chicken seriously though. That’s evidenced by the painted sentence on the wall of their Village outpost that reads “The Best Fried Chicken in NYC.” It’s also on their website.

The best is a lofty claim, but when Sticky’s keeps it simple, they turn out food that makes those revered Weaver tenders of childhood look like school cafeteria offerings.

Best Pizza is Almost Perfect & There is Nothing Wrong With That

20101101-best-pizza-reg-slice-thumb-500x375-120436A relative who no longer visits New York that often mentioned to me last month that when he does it has become harder to find a slice place in Manhattan. We didn’t get a chance to talk much more about that as a three-year old came running into the room wanting to show off his home-made race track that flung their toy cars down the basement staircase with their parents approval.

But as I took the train back to Grand Central, it got me thinking about how fellow Park Slope natives all had their go-to pizzerias. Central Sloper’s were Pino’s through and through. Closer to 9th Street and you were a Smiling Pizza person. Further north toward Flatbush and you might go with Antonio’s. Different neighborhoods have their long-standing pizzerias. And each one of those has a style that is acutely theirs. That style informs your perception of the perfect slice.

Having relied on pizzerias up and down the east coast for the last 20 years, I would argue that Best Pizza comes closest to the formula for perfection – and their Meatball Sub, usually, is even better.

On a regular slice – cheese can be too much of a good thing if it is mouth-scorchingly hot, overly greasy, and a ready made mess that won’t be avoided with two paper plates doing their best Venn-diagram impersonation. If New York wants to claim the best pizza in the country, we should be able to do better. Pizzerias should be able to turn out slices that are hot and have all the necessary ingredients in the proper ratio.

20110211-best-pizza-meatball-sandwich-thumb-500x332-139904Best Pizza comes the closest to enviable goal. With an old-timey sign overhanging the entrance and a huge 33 on the door that makes me think of Patrick Ewing every time I stop by, their slice formula comes the closest to perfection I’m aware of.

A slightly charred crust, gives a crunch to the pizza so it doesn’t feel like you’re eating dough, but is not so black to the point of burned. The mild tang of the pasta sauce and the conservative in comparison, but more-than-reasonable in a vacuum cheese coverage, drive home the fact that this is a pizza made with consideration for the person eating it. Topped off with a fresh piece of basil, the Best Pizza slice is a must have if you’re in Williamsburg.

Best Pizza though, is more than just a slice joint. In their write-up, New York Mag mentioned that the meatball sub has something of a cult following. After trying it on three different occasions – yes, I take my meatball subs seriously – I can say that description is less hyperbolic than it might seem. Only on my third visit did the sub fail to live it up to its previous highs.

When the sub is first brought to your table, your eyes and stomach may ask in unison, “I paid $9 for this?” Fear not, the sub is chockfull of ground meat that is fresh and include parsley and diced onion. Layered between that ball and cheese is a tangier pasta sauce. A thin slice of cheese sits on top.

The ingredient that brings it all together is the bread. On my first two visits, the bread was toasted just enough to give a slight crunch that accentuated the softness of the meatballs and the sauce. This past Sunday, the bread had been toasted just a bit too long. The harder bread left me wanting for the sub of my previous visits.

In a city where pizza places are more prevalent than subway stations, the best is quite the aspiration. Perfection is hard to ascertain. Best Pizza, situated on a sleepy residential stretch of Havemeyer in Williamsburg, may not hit the mark, but they give it a run for its money.

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