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.

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.

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