It’s been a day since this blog did…anything. But with “Best of” food lists becoming something of a cottage industry in New York City publications, I figured I could dust off this old boat and take it out for a spin every so often, and never run out of places to review.
The five boroughs are not lacking in fried chicken options. From the fried chicken plates at places like the Commodore to celebrity chef fast food options at Shake Shack and Fuku, it takes a lot to stand out. Which brings us to Cobble Hill’s Red Star.
Red Star’s fried chicken option gives the sandwich a Korean bent. And for what it’s worth, the trappings have the makings of a good sandwich. The bread roll is warm and soft. The lettuce and mayo are appropriately sparse. The pickled daikon and dill provide a nice balance to the gochujang sauce spread across the sandwich.
Let’s talk about that gochujang sauce. Derived from red chili, glutinous rice, fermented soybean, salt, Wikipedia tells me it is supposed to be savory, spicy, and pungent. Red Star’s pulls off the first two without too much pungency. The spiciness is combined with a nice tangy flavor. But, no one is turning out to a restaurant or sandwich shop for the toppings and condiments.
Things go awry with the chicken. Double fried and battered with gossamer rice flour batter, the meat leaves the eater wanting. The sandwich is filling. So over the course of the meal, some of the chicken is tender white meat. But far too often it’s dry, or on my first bite, downright rubbery. This was the case on both of my visits.
I’m leery to write off Red Star based on the shortcoming of just one sandwich. Maybe their banh mi meatball or shrimp po’boy offering are top-notch. But on a stretch of Smith that has Fawkner offering up a (slightly more expensive) fried chicken sandwich and Abilene up and over on Smith serving a buffalo chicken sandwich, Red Star’s Korean Fried Chicken isn’t enough to get me to jump off the subway a few stops before home.
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.
Despite 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.
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?
Margaret: ‘Cause in France, one egg is ‘un oeuf’
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.
Bakery 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.