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Ladies’ Night: Karen Hudes

Back CameraWelcome to Ladies’ Night, the first in a series of interviews I’m doing with women about aging, drinking in public, and generally being awesome in spite of having crossed over into so-called middle age.

First up is Karen Hudes, the 42-year-old editor of Rockefeller Center’s blog Front & Center and freelance editor at Zagat and Refinery 29, creator of cooking game Menu Mash-Up, and jewelry designer (see her handiwork on my wrist).

We met near Williamsburg’s phantom White Castle at Harefield Road where both The Vaselines and Suicidal Tendencies, bands that would’ve put you into slightly different high school cliques three decades ago, were being played.

What made you choose this bar?

This bar’s been around for what feels like a long time now–at least ten years. The atmosphere is more like a regular neighborhood place. I don’t really go enough to be a regular, but friends of mine are and it’s a meet-up place. A couple of my friends got married at City Hall and we got a table here afterwards. It just feels comfortable.

How long have you lived in the neighborhood?

Since ’96. I feel like I’m lucky I got here when I did. I had just been out of college for a year and I grew up in Queens. Back then, there were only three places to go out in the neighborhood. Where I live between the Graham and Lorimer stops, just a few blocks from here, felt a little farther away at the time. Now I’m glad I have some distance from Bedford because this still feels like a real neighborhood. It still has its Italian roots, some of the Italian shops, and old neighborhood and the newer people have integrated pretty well. I just really feel connected to it and if I tried to move here now I could never afford it.

Not to make this about me, but when I first moved to NYC at 25 I briefly lived in Williamsburg above what’s now The Richardson, then didn’t move back to until I was 40 and everything was different. I was like wow, I still like going out and doing things but everyone in this neighborhood is under 30. Do you feel like an old-timer?

Well, through my 30s I felt pretty young and I just didn’t notice it so much. It wasn’t like I was running in circles with the new people or I’d go to a bar and feel like oh, I’m so old. I could pass a little bit, though I definitely had friends who felt very conscious of it. I was on a kickball team which felt unique to the neighborhood at the time and seemed like a good way to meet people. Even then, I was a bit on the older side, in my early-to-mid 30s. That whole culture was strange because it’s almost like you’re revisiting junior high and it kind of lends itself to not growing up, which is the reputation the neighborhood has in general. But this area feels a little more mature–like the clientele at this bar is more 30s, 40s.

When I first moved here Teddy’s was one of the only bars. It’s really old and it has a really good burger and one time I was hanging out with Jessica [a mutual friend who’s lived on the same block as Teddy’s for 15 years] and I said maybe we could stop in and she said, “Oh, I’m afraid of that. I think that’s where you go when you’re really old.”

I think it’s been sold. Same with the dog bar. What’s left? Turkey’s Nest? Greenpoint Tavern?

There’s an old school bar on Metropolitan but it feels very much closed off.

Joe Jr or whatever it’s called? [Editor’s note: Jr & Son]

Yes! I’ve lived here so long I should go. It would’ve been funny if I’d met you there. There are always guys out front that don’t make it feel like they want you there. Then again, it might like Moe’s and they’d be happy to see us.

Going back to what you said about “passing.” That’s kind of true for a lot of women I know, especially in Williamsburg and maybe it’s a self-selecting group. A lot of my friends seem young for their age, but it might be because they don’t have kids and they’re not married. Is there something to this?

Because I’m petite I’ve always looked younger even when I didn’t want to, so I feel like that stayed with me. I think not having kids is the key. You take on a huge responsibility and you take on a different kind of stress. It’s joyful too, obviously, but there’s something about not having kids where you feel less like you’re transitioning to this other state.

When people think of food and media, board games probably aren’t the first thing they think of. How did you come to the idea for Menu Mash-Up? But first, explain a little how the game works.

All the players have a hand of ingredient cards and prep cards (like “fried” or “roasted” or “sandwich”). The judge for each round is called the “diner” and picks a dish card like “midnight snack” or “romantic dinner,” and the other players use their cards to create menus to fill the order. Whichever menu the diner picks as the best one wins that round. So the dishes people come up with can go from totally delicious-sounding to really silly and funny.

Personally, I don’t feel like a natural with social media, and you know that since we’re friends on Facebook and I barely post. I want to be a part of the world, but it’s not a natural extension of my personality. I felt very aware of it being a growing force and in my profession as an editor. I’ve always written very precise things and headlines and I’m writing social media posts and and enjoy the craft of it, but it’s not what I gravitate towards, so I was seeking out another avenue.

When I was younger my family played a lot of board games. I really enjoyed having this structure where you have a challenge and you are participating with other people and relating in a different way. I had read something about this idea that in the past decade was the rise of social media and in the coming decade games would be on the rise. I thought oh, that feels natural to me. I was working at Zagat and ready to make a change, and if I left I wanted to have a project that I was working on.

Here’s the big question that I have a hard time even saying without feeling creepy–do you consider yourself to be middle-aged?

I never think in those terms. Well, my image of it definitely doesn’t match up with me. But it’s funny, I guess technically it makes sense. Everyone just seems younger now. If you look at old movies everyone seemed really old when they were in their 20s. They already seemed sort of middle-aged. Culturally, I think things have shifted so people are more youthful at our age.

Right. When my mom was 40, I was already in college. 

My mom got married at 25 and that was considered on the later side. The expectations were so different. Maybe it feels like an old-fashioned term because I have an image of it from when I’m younger that seemed so far away. There’s also something about the term that seems dowdy, not lively–ugh, lively even sounds like an old lady term. Middle-aged just feels like an inert phrase.

I’ve been starting with food and drink women because that’s sort of relevant to my blog’s original mission (whatever that was) but not everyone wants to talk about aging–or even say their age–in a public forum. They’ll talk about it, just not here. 

Food is an area where people can age really well. It’s been one of the great things for Williamsburg, since so much of the music scene moved here, but that can be tougher as you get older. Food goes across all ages–cooks and writers are respected. It’s an area that allows a big range. And your palate matures as you try different things.

Kitchen 79: Kua Kling Nuea Sub

kitchen 79 kua kling

It may not look like much (the photo certainly isn’t helping matters) or it may look like larb depending on your perspective, but that pile of ground meat in a plastic container is very much a something. It’s kua kling, a so- called dry curry from southern Thailand that I’d never noticed previously on the menu at Kitchen 79 and is relatively scarce in NYC. (Center Point has been known to serve it.) That’s reason enough to care.

This version, kua kling nuea sub, features irregular nubs of chopped beef, but chicken and pork are also available and all three are traditional. Lacking coconut milk, these curries aren’t sweet in the least so the aromatics like turmeric, lemongrass, and kaffir lime are all super pronounced (and though I’m certain Sichuan peppercorns are not an ingredient, there was a tingly undercurrent from something) with a rumble of heat from visibly pulverized red chiles and scattered inner seeds. It was spicy for a Thai dish ordered online with no particular heat specificity requested, though I’m pretty sure southern Thai curries on their home turf are punishing, which is what I wanted after a long weekend overdosing on Hudson Valley quaintness, but Kitchen 79 isn’t specifically a southern Thai restaurant and the clientele certainly isn’t either.

That said, be on the lookout for the yellow-tinged pile of meat masquerading as a curry. It’s a good dish to try when you’ve exhausted all the standards.

Kitchen 79 * 37-70 79th St., Jackson Heights, NY

Would You Rather? Ridgewood These Days or Those Days Drinking Edition

Because I just can’t stop keeping tabs on neighborhoods I haven’t lived in for 15 years.

Natalie Keyssar/New York Times

Natalie Keyssar/The New York Times

Nowadays?

 

Or The Bad Old Days?

Eaten, Barely Blogged: Oleanders & Four Horsemen

Recently, I was having a discussion about how trends recycle so quickly that style has collapsed on itself to such a degree that now you can wear whatever you want and it doesn’t matter anymore. When the friend I was dining with last night asked where I got my butt-ugly white lug-soled sandals without calling them butt-ugly, it was totally conceivable they could be Alexander Wang, for example. Of course I bought them online for $15 at Target last summer. I’m not at a point where I could saunter into work in a crop top and harem pants, but that says more about my office than me.

The same lack of rules goes with neighborhoods, architecture and food. It’s a great time to be alive. Earlier, this same friend, a graphic designer, wanted me to see the jaunty font and signage being used at The Bean outpost that opened on Bedford in the ground floor of one of those new brick buildings that look like they belong in an upscale development in Denver. (Actually, I assume it’s the same font used at all four locations, but it’s really allowed to come into its own in this particular setting.) It’s so middlebrow, occupying the space between the character by virtue of age bodega awnings (not to be confused with deli grossery) and overly precious peak Brooklyn handwritten everything aesthetic.

This is a long-winded way of saying that a nouveau fern bar with an explanation of what a fern bar is (don’t make me link to wikipedia) on the menu and a wine bar opened by LCD Soundsystem’s James Murphy in the former Foodswings space make perfect sense for right now even if neither objectively make sense.

oleanders quad

Oleanders. I, for one, am welcoming this weird shift. Bring on the rattan and potted plants. Dust off the Galliano. I knew fern bars were eventually coming and Williamsburg might be the epicenter. Reynard has been serving a Harvey Wallbanger. Donna has that awesome brancolada. Dark carved wood and damask has been giving way to Scandinavian lightness, warm metals and copious foliage on design blogs for some time. Restaurants are getting there. (Meanwhile, Bushwick gets the chimichangas. Who’s making the English muffin pizzas?)

Technically, Oleanders should be getting The Middle Ages treatment since I sat at the bar and didn’t eat a full-on meal but 5:30pm on a Monday isn’t exactly a meet/meat market in any era (though for the record, the one other female patron, solo, could’ve been a mature 38 or youthful 42, or maybe it was that she looked more tan and tailored generally than you see in Williamsburg and it made her look aged i.e. more grownup).

The thing about The Elm’s demise and total overhaul is that it’s not clear how people who were turned off by that too much for Williamsburg menu are going to be into beef wellington and lobster thermidor–poolside? In a girls with boyish figures neighborhood? Too highbrow even ironically for dadbods? I dunno. As the consensus arose on a Facebook discussion: “Too regal, not enough beagle.”

The fantasy fern bar of my childhood totally would’ve served potato skins (crème fraîche and roe just an added bonus) and grasshoppers. The clams casino never would’ve crossed my mind but they are the perfect bridge between T.G.I. Friday’s (which is not only a native New Yorker but as some claim the O.G. fern bar) and 1970s continental cuisine. Honestly, I can’t think of any better place to drink an elevated shot (I tried both, including the Alabama Slammer, which crams Medley Brothers bourbon, Southern Comfort Reserve, Plymouth sloe gin, Caffo amaretto, cranberry, orange juice and Morris Kitchen grenadine into one tiny glass and results in fruit punch) while listening to Bob Seeger and ELO.

Also, that name. I do appreciate the extra S in Oleanders, though it doesn’t read preppy (I’m more of the west coast school anyway where you can have wicker and wine spritzers and not be all Ivy about it). It’s a flourish I affectionately call “the white trash S,” since it’s a written and verbal tic I’ve fought to repress on many an occasion. At least it’s not an apostrophe S.

But back to business, there’s a real opportunity here as Wegmans (no apostrophe) the beloved upstate grocery store coming to the Navy Yards in 2017, adds in-store pubs with Tiffany-style lamps and high-backed tapestry booths, to tap into this zeitgeist. In two years all of the cool kids will be eating prime rib and Tuscan fries in a Fort Greene grocery store and no one will remember what Tinder was.

four horsemen quad

Four Horsemen. Would you like some orange wine to go with your kale crostini? Sure, why not. I’ll take it over a vegan milkshake and chick’n cordon bleu made from mock poultry, soy ham and Daiya mozzarella. Say goodbye to the second-wave of Williamsburg gentrification (as much as I loved my local lazy brunches, Taco Chulo, your days are numbered too, I’m afraid).

I had a few wines by the glass like the aforementioned ‘Coenobium’ Field Blend Monastero Suore Cistercensi, a slightly nutty unfiltered blend that I have to admit went pretty well with that kale toast spread with fresh sheep’s milk cheese and garnished with pickled golden raisins. Nothing is crazily priced and all of the wines are natural, which is the angle, far simpler in concept than a retro revival. There’s room for that, as easy as it is to poke fun of anything new and veering toward earnestness.

The food was better than I expected for a newly opened Williamsburg wine bar, emphasis sort of on the bar. A terrine with tiny florets of fermented cauliflower, beef tartare speckled with seeds, and carrots roasted to nearly maduros-like texture and sweetness with Thai peppercorns and bound together by gooey ribbons of stracciatella all packed strong flavors but nothing that would compete with a light, biodynamic Gamay.

And for the record, the pink and green (mine was just brown and I didn’t feel right swapping) Opinel knives were pretty sweet–and I managed to not even Instagram the cutlery.

The Middle Ages: Bierleichen and Onderdonk & Sons

When: Sunday, 6:51pm and 9:04pm

My notes from the new (at the time I actually went–I’ve been busy the past few months) Ridgewood heavy metal beerhall, Bierleichen, read “Awesomely mixed. Is metal the great equalizer?” by which I meant tribally diverse, not age-wise. On an early Sunday there were Latino dudes, a mixed gender rockabilly crew, man bun hipsters, generic young white people like you see in Astoria and could either be Midwest transplants or children of immigrants who haven’t moved to the suburbs yet, and an errant older gentleman I assumed to be Eastern European because all Ridgewood bars, even the upstarts, are required by law to accommodate at least one hold out.

Bierleichen, to its credit, is going for something different than a lot of new drinking establishments. Beer corpse, the name’s translation, is funny, for one. It’s not super polished. It looks like it set up in an old garage (and I think it may have been) with a lot of rough wood ceiling beams, raw cement floors and walls, glossy black subway tile for a little class, softened by skylights and hanging plants. There’s a random upright piano, picnic tables and those glass beer stein boots. And yes, Judas Priest, Scorpions and Danzig all got play on my visit. This might also be the only place in the  neighborhood–a pretty good sausage neighborhood–where vegans can participate in sausage-eating.

* * *

Onderdonk & Sons, on the other hand, is sticking with the established tin ceiling, exposed brick and rich, dark woods aesthetic. I mean, it looks good and the booths are comfy. There is also no hard liquor despite screaming cocktail den. The fries are way better than average, by the way.

This crowd was younger, more male, more foreign (Brazilian? Russian?) and more neck-tattooed. I arbitrarily decided it was for overpaying airbnb guests. And probably Okcupid (not Tinder) dates.

* * *

Third stop was the previously blogged Queens Tavern where we encountered a number of the same people who had been at the aforementioned two bars as if there were only three neighborhood bars to choose from and this was the logical order in which to visit them.

There are no shortage of Ridgewood bars for newcomers and they just keep coming. I recently met a young man who is somehow involved with a bar being Kickstarted called The Bad Old Days…which I can’t even. Like the ’70s when white folks were lobbying for Ridgewood to get its own zip code to split from Bushwick? The late ’90s when I thought I lived an hour from civilization and area bars were patronized by neo-nazis not neu-metalheads? The dark ages before cafes served single-origin coffee and Vietnamese food could be found at all, let alone using grass-fed beef?

Was I carded? At both places, no.

Age appropriate? At both places, no, not literally, but it’s still Queens so who cares really.

Dani’s House of Pizza

threeshovelDani’s is one of those institutions that also happens to be located in one of those Tudor buildings that still thrive in Forest Hills and Kew Gardens, lending it just that extra veneer of Queens charm. Brooklyn has classic pizza, too, obviously but not served in a corner Snow White cottage.

I’ve only come to know it recently after I’ve started getting my hair cut across the street at the suggestion of a young Montenegrin (or Macedonian? I always confuse the two) woman I met at a party last year when she learned I was moving to Jackson Heights. It’s great—the cut is only $25 (it’s double with a blowout, which is maybe more standard for ladies, but I don’t like them) and you can have a mimosa or cappuccino. It’s a salon not a barber shop.

 

dani's house of pizza slice

The plain slice is substantial. I originally thought I might wait it out for the pesto style I keep hearing about that wasn’t on display and never appeared in the 20 minutes or so I occupied a seat, but one slice was filling enough. The sauce is sweet, maybe too sweet for some tastes (counterbalance with an aggressive shake of chile flakes) and the mozzarella is laid on thick and melty, like kid pizza, you know, as if a grade school served pizza that actually tasted good.

dani's house of pizza beers

Pizza isn’t allowed in the dining room and the pizza operation itself isn’t more than a narrow takeout counter that happens to have six diner-style stools bolted down at the far end near the kitchen. The upside of snagging a seat is having more than soda with your slice. A pair of older women were nursing glasses of red wine, but beer is where it’s at. There’s a whole refrigerator filled with beers, most more exciting than what you’ll find at your local Queens bodega. A Gose brewed with coriander and sea salt from the Oregon coast? Sure, why not.

I wasn’t paying attention, but I’m pretty sure the slice and beer were $6. It’s hard to argue with that.

Now, I just need to go back and get that pesto slice. As soon as my hair needs a trim…

dani's house of pizza pete the dog

I referred to this handsome canine (that’s saying a lot coming from a cat lady) on Instagram as a pizza dog. It turns out his name is Pete. I don’t imagine his last name is Za, however.

Dani’s House of Pizza * 81-28 Lefferts Blvd., Kew Gardens, NY

And Then There Was One

sizzler for rent

I didn’t want to believe the rumors were true, but now I’ve seen the the proof with my own eyes. Sadly, the only remaining Sizzler on the east coast (ok, there is still one in Florida but does that really count?) served its last plate of Malibu Chicken last week.

sizzler map

Even though the past-its-prime chain likely wouldn’t top anyone’s list of favorites–or even crack the top 25–it has carved out a place of honor for me since childhood and took on a new level of prominence after re-experiencing my first Sizzler in decades last August. I talked about it a lot. I still did up until this weekend. I am right now.

Maybe Sizzler just isn’t compatible with the east coast and has nothing to do with changing tastes. After all, it was kind of the original fast casual, the restaurant sector that’s been driving sales year after year. Maybe Sizzler should reposition itself as a heritage brand a la Pendleton or Madewell but you know, for food.

Not even the recent burst of unexpected viral fame was enough to save the brand (though Sizzler’s Instagram followers did jump to 378 from the 48 it had pre-1991 commercial fervor).

It felt like my little secret, not a secret at all, of course, but being located in that quiet, residential patch of Forest Hills not easily accessible by subway, you can almost imagine you’re not in New York City. As I walked down Metropolitan Avenue yesterday, fueled by a daiquiri and negroni (where no one knew it was its namesake week) chased by a tequila shot (all that was missing was whiskey), I decided that a true test of someone’s character would be if they would come to this part of Queens without complaint. It’s as good as a barometer as any, a love of taco, pasta and  Jello-laden salad bars no longer necessary.

 

The Middle Ages: Sophie’s

When: Saturday, 10:07pm

Even with Saturday night kicking into gear in the East Village, the crowd at Sophie’s, perpetually post-college, was shockingly civilized. As if by magic a four-seater opened up as soon as my party of three entered the once-familiar threshold.

Maybe it was the work of the older gent (one of two) with a cane, not a staff, but who came to be called Dust Bowl Gandalf nonetheless for his crumple-peaked Depression-era hat and white whiskers.

One thing I don’t understand is how the jukebox–The Smiths, Stone Roses–remains in the ’80s yet the bar’s average age always hovers around 26, now just with more beards and man buns. If it were up to me, the Violent Femmes song playing would be updated to “Gone Dadbod Gone.” As if on cue, a young, mildly schlubby dude in a flannel appeared as the tune came on, looked around for something or someone, and left. Bye. Gone.

Sophie’s is where in 1998, five months into being a New Yorker, I told Henry Thomas, Elliott from E.T., to meet me. And he did. Later, he would stop returning my calls and invited others to Sophie’s casually and familiarly as if it was his regular haunt and hadn’t just been introduced to it by me. Such is the way of grown child stars.

If I weren’t with my friend Jane on this particular night, the same friend who happened to be with me at Sophie’s that fated evening 16-and-a-half years ago (along with her boyfriend at the time who now co-owns Abraço three blocks away) I might not believe any of it transpired.

Was I carded? Yes, at the door. Before I arrived, the third member of my party was waiting outside and chatting with the doorman who told her people were always embarrassed about their age but were never older than he was. He didn’t look that old.

Age appropriate? Not for women on a weekend night, no. The last time I stopped into Sophie’s was nearly four years ago when I was feeling sorry for myself on my 39th birthday because a last-minute call for company at HiFi only turned up two friends. (Actually that still doesn’t sit right with me and is inducing the annual anxiety that makes me leave town if possible when the date arrives.) On the earlier side, sun still out, it was locals scene, including a few middle-aged couples.

Not Lovin’ It

Staged or not (I kind of think not), being driven to non-joyful tears by an engagement ring in a McDonald’s chicken sandwich is the only rational reaction I’ve ever seen to such an uncalled for food-based proposal.

Mom On Mom Crime

vulgar

As you may know, though I wouldn’t necessarily expect you to, I’m kind of obsessed with both 40-year-old New Jersey mom posing as Williamsburger of 26 fable Younger and chain restaurants generally, especially if they serve Cheddar Bay Biscuits (not to mention one of the nation’s most caloric meals) . So, the latest hate campaign by One Million Moms cuts very close to home.

This easily riled group made up of a few hundred at best wants Red Lobster to stop advertising during the show (and have claimed dubious victory over a recent lack of IHOP commercials) because of the “s-xual innuendos” and “almost impossible to describe the depth of depravity” and then go on to try and describe said depravity.

Highlights include:

  • Pixelated n-dity
  • Excessive alcohol consumption
  • Pervert meets woman to buy underwear but scams her by sniffing them and then running off

That’s really just one episode. There’s also homosexuality, drug use, Jewishness, removing a friend’s stuck menstrual cup–and to bring this back to food, a Meatball Shop reference. Ban it all.

Millard really puts it best. What’s next, indeed?