I'm afraid Jan. is finishing off with a whimper rather than a bang. I've been neglectful because I've been researching/writing a Valentine's article for the NY Post that I think is due today, but isn't quite done because whenever I get tiny bits of free time I squander it on things like watching 24, eating banh mi from the new kind of lame in the scheme of things, but good for what it is Vietnamese sandwich/bubble tea shop that just set up in Cobble Hill (but what would you expect of "ethnic" food in a area like this), accompanying James to the nether reaches of NJ, near Delaware and Pennsylvania to track down one of the only (relatively) nearby in-stock Panasonic TH-42PX50Us at a random Circuit City in Deptford, a weirdo town with lots of pickup trucks (you never see them in NYC), liquor stores, abandoned movie theaters and malls that still have '70s fonts like how the Gap logo used to be. I would be perfectly happy with my old 13" I had shipped from Portland over seven years ago and basic channels, but I don't mind reaping the benefits of another's giant plasma high definition television mania either. I'm thinking there will be an impromptu Super Bowl party this Sunday, not that I follow football, but TV needs to make itself useful. I hope to be a posting powerhouse in Feb. but until then, read about the horrible lunch scene in my new job neighborhood and an Indonesian restaurant in Elmhurst.
I'm still trying to figure out what kind of name Hanco is, or if it's anyone's name at all. It doesn't sound terribly Vietnamese, I'll say that much. Maybe I watch too much TV because the first thing that came to mind was Hanso, like the mysterious foundation on Lost.
At first I found it hard to believe a banh mi store would set up shop in Cobble Hill (or is this technically Boerum Hill–I find the border of those two neighborhoods even more nebulous than Cobble Hill and Carroll Gardens). And with bubble tea? Is that right? Maybe they're trying to cash in on two perceived cross-cultural trends that New Yorkers have embraced. Part of me was just excited to have banh mi in the area (I hesitate to say neighborhood, Hanco's is one subway stop away or a twenty minute walk and not on my way to anything) but I also was wary because it didn't seem like a natural fit. Kind of like Nicky's in the East Village as opposed to the original An Dong in Sunset Park.
The sandwich was pretty close to what I'd expected, satisfying enough under the circumstances, but not kick ass in any way. The rolls weren't quite right and seemed a bit small (normally, one banh mi is plenty, but I ended up eating both that I'd bought to take home. Maybe I was just ravenous from banh mi withdrawals). The construction was heavy on the marinated shredded carrots, and contained more ground pork than I'm used to. I did like that the sandwiches weren't super mayonnaisey, but that's my own personal food aversion issue (I've grown to accept and even enjoy mayo, but I don't like seeing large pockets of the thick white sauce).
I was hoping they'd have a selection of snacks, more like Ba Xuyen, but even the salad and spring rolls listed on the print menu had been scratched out with Sharpie. It seems that they're still getting their bearings.
The space was a little austere and dead silent. A bit of music or background chatter couldn't have hurt. I was afraid to breathe or shuffle while waiting patiently for my sandwiches to be prepared. Even the three workers kept quiet the 15 minutes or so that I was in there. A mom with two small children was sitting at a table when I first arrived, so apparently Cobble Hill tots aren't averse to Vietnamese sandwiches. However, they tossed out barely touched bubble teas declaring them "too sweet." Also, very Cobble Hill that kids would take issue with sugar content. Jeez.
Hanco's * 85 Bergen St., Brooklyn, NY
S.O.S. I've been stuck in a culinary wasteland since starting a new job around E. 55th and Third Ave. a few weeks ago. I miss Yagura and Café Zaiya, where you could eat like an emperor for $4.50. (I'll also admit to missing a lighter workload, which meant more web posting).
Now I'm in the land of the mediocre $10 salad. If I weren't so thrifty I'd go for the tasty looking offerings from Starwich (despite a minute pay increase I'm still firmly in librarian compensation zone. I don't know what it'll take to get me to raise my $5 lunch budget. Well, I a few years ago I was a strict brown-bagger, so I have loosened up a bit). If I wasn't half-heartedly watching my weight I'd try these "cheeseburkers" at the newish Burke in the Box at Bloomingdale's.
To my amusement, I am one block from a peculiarly tucked away Outback Steakhouse. It just seems really out of place, I can't even imagine who goes there. "No rules, just right," right? What if I started eating Bloomin' Onions for lunch? That fits neither my healthy nor under five bucks requirements (ouch, the onion blob is $8.49 at this location–it's $6.29 in most of NJ, which I only know because they actually post menus by location on their site)
To get back on task, I was meaning to write about how on day one, I scoured menupages looking for a nearby noodle shop. So far, I've settled on Master Yap, which is Chinese rather than Japanese, which is fine, I love roast meats, but it's just not the same. I crave dashi broth and chewy udon, and while Yagura's chicken did include skin, it just somehow felt better for you than a heap of sliced pork.
Master Yap's meat is so red with dye that it stains the broth and noodles pinkish orange (if you get rice vermicelli or chow fun) which seems wrong. There is a little bok choy and bean sprouts tossed in so you can pretend it's counter balancing the pork fat. But the broth is ho hum, and at $4.99 it goes over my limit with tax, though only minutely. I spruce it up with a little chile oil. I'm still not in love with Master Yap, but it has saved me from Pax, Au Bon Pain and Houston's, the biggies around my block.
1/2 A crunched front fender is what happens when you eat at Chili's in Deptford. I don't know what the deal is with Pennsylvania drivers, but there's something seriously amiss and I've been observing this some time. Years ago while in Reading, PA for the weekend (fun times) we were hit by a car backing up in am empty parking lot, and ever since then we've been hyper alert to PA drivers who tend to swerve out of lanes and back up without looking. I've heard rumors that they didn't use to require driving tests, just a written exam. All I know is that there are disproportionate amount of Pennsylvania plates in Brooklyn owned by really bad drivers, which points to either a licensing or insurance scam.
So, while picking up a big shiny Panasonic plasma in Deptford, New Jersey near the Pennsylvania border (it was the nearest Circuit City location with the TV in stock) we stopped for lunch at Chili's. After eating our burgers, we were greeted by a nice big dent in the front of the car. Big surprise.
Though as a testament to the major difference between NYC driving and Deptford driving, we were about a block from the Chili's at a busy intersection when I felt motion in my peripheral vision. Someone seemed to be waving at us from a car to our right, which from experience is an action best left ignored. But the guy was flailing so hard we had to give in and acknowledge his presence. James reluctantly rolled down his window to hear what the mustachioed curly topped gent had to say. Something rude, I suspected, my guard was up. He replied, "I got in the wrong lane, is it ok if I get in front of you to make the turn?" I couldn't believe my ears and eyes. Someone would actually ask if they could go ahead of you in the left turn lane because they'd made a mistake? Brooklyn style would be to pull right next to you regardless, and when the light turned green to swerve right in front, causing you to slam on the breaks and come inches from hitting them, and then they'd give you a rotten look or flip you off like you were the asshole. By then the light would have turned yellow and you'd be stuck waiting for the next cycle like a chump. James and I both started laughing from the absurdity of asking permission to get in front of somebody and assuming they'd be good with it. Sure, fine, we waved him ahead when the light turned green and we both made it through the four-way, just like it works in the suburbs. Wow.
So, we ended up at Chili's after puttering around a section of town with abandoned movie theaters and half-empty malls with signage mimicking the old loopy '70s Gap logo. Time forgot Deptford. Thankfully, tanning centers and liquor stores had thrived.
Saturday, solidly late lunch time, Chili's was packed. We had to wait with lots of skinny crunchy-curled teenage girls and portly couples in matching stonewashed jeans and bomber jackets who gave me dirty looks for absolutely no good reason and make a point of forcing a cough when James lit a cigarette outside while we waited for a table. It's not like anyone there was exactly following a path to health–second hand smoke should be the least of their troubles.
I had a chipotle bleu cheese burger where medium is as low as they'll cook the meat and you're thankful because rare might cause gastrointestinal distress. The cheese was detectable, though the chiles, ironically, were not. What is Chili's shtick anyway? It's like Applebee's in that they're multipurpose, not like Olive Garden: we're Italian or Outback Steakhouse: we do steaks. It's not like everything is chile-laden. It's the baby back ribs, right?
My burger was large, juicy and greasy, as might be expected. It strangely satisfied its purpose. The fries were pretty so-so, not terribly crisp and a touch on the soggy side. I was way more taken by my surroundings than the food, as is often the case with me and suburban chain restaurants. Some nebulous emotional void was fulfilled that afternoon. Unfortunately, the car didn't come away quite as unscathed.
Chili's * 1760 Clements Bridge Rd., Deptford, NJ
There are those nights when food hardly matters. Admittedly, they're rare
for me, but have been occurring with greater frequency since starting a new
job (where a weird coworker informed me that someone who used to do my job
"went down to a size 4 from stress" Uh, was that a threat or a promise?)
where by 6pm I feel more like a stiff drink than a satisfying meal.
My visit to Adrienne's occurred on one of those Thursday nights. I barely
remember how my food tasted. I didn't even touch the bread and olive oil set
out to start, and I'm never one to shun fat and carbs. This was evening so
it was all rounds, not the square pies they're better known for (to be
honest, I'm a little afraid of the square slice). We split a salad with
roasted red peppers and sun-dried tomatoes, and a prosciutto and arugula
The whole Financial district, boisterous men in suits atmosphere doesn't
lend itself to relaxation. I felt edgy and watched while squeezed into our
small two-seater with the precariously placed pizza stand and jumble of
small plates. I would hardly write Adrienne's off as a bust, but I would be
more likely to go again for lunch rather than dinner.
Adrienne's Pizza Bar * 54 Stone St., New York, NY
Since I can't talk about my job, which isn't much to speak of anyway, I will relay another's workplace anecdote. I guess a friend, sort of a friend of a friend of mine in Portland has a set up at work where anyone with iTunes can view everyone else's iTunes accounts over the company network (I'm so jealous, I'm trying to figure out how to plug in a stupid pair of headphones. There aren't any speakers, I guess I have to use the back of the computer but the distance is too great. I need to drown out all verbal inanity so I won't be tempted to repeat any of it here. Well, this was cyber, not oral, but I was recently put off by a company-wide email that had some line like "survey responses will be unanimous" We'll all agree upon them? I was almost tempted to anonymously send back a definition.) and some coworker they call RWFA (right-wing fat-ass) has his iTunes filled with a Christian parody band called ApologetiX. They're totally the Weird Al's of the holy set. I'm bummed that I haven't been able to listen to any mp3s yet, but the lyrics really say it all. They take creative license with even the most mundane tunes. It's not like they're cleaning up dirty songs or fixing expletives, they're simply mangling top 40 hits for the love of god. Totally true examples: Bethlehemian Rhapsody for "Bohemian Rhapsody," JC's Mom instead of "Stacy's Mom" and Enter Samson riffing off Metallica's "Enter Sandman." Hilarious. In a twisted way, I'm kind of sad that no one in my office would dare play AplogetiX. It's just not that kind of crowd. You just don't get a lot of pudgy jesus freaks working in NYC PR and advertising, and that's a shame. Sometimes I miss having oblivious weirdoes around just to shake things up a bit.
I have a pretty high tolerance for yuck. Mostly this means that I'm not bothered as I should be about urine, feces (I was recently joking how that would be the perfect marriage proposal gimmick. Enough with all the rings bathed in champagne or nestled at the bottom of a crème brulée. I would get the biggest kick if a guy was like "this catbox is a mess" and managed to get me to clean it. And as I sifted the poop logs out, a litter-crusted diamond ring would emerge from the nasty rubble. My eyes would well up, my heart would soar. Beautiful.) and the like, but I have a serious, serious problem with mold.
It's almost irrational, and the only substance that will induce immediate involuntary throat contractions. Even the smallest whiff of that distinct earthy odor induces the gag reflex. (I have a pet peeve with the movie/tv cliché where someone who is upset or traumatized throws up.) I've never puked from stress or horror, but mold, yeah. Even if I calmly tell myself green and white fuzz is harmless and try to stare it down, I start to retch. I almost went into cardiac arrest cleaning out a plastic container filled with rancid coconut milk.
So, I was excited and hesitant to tackle a country ham that had made its way into our home. I love the salty meaty taste, but feared the bacteria coating that's a part of the aging process.
Everyone seems to have their own prep and cooking preferences for country ham, a lot of the steps conflicting. Do you clean and scrub first? Boil or bake? Soak overnight or for a couple days? I ended up looking to anal-in-a-good-way Alton Brown, for this undertaking.
Since we had the idea to make the ham on a Saturday for a late Sunday morning meal, we had to cut the soak time down to 24-hours. Luckily, we had a cooler large enough to contain the porky behemoth. Oh, and yes, it was thoroughly sloughed and washed first (I'll admit that I sat this task out). We then roasted it for a couple hours in a Dr. Pepper and pickle juice bath. Many recipes call for brown sugar and/or cloves, but this demented soda and pickle byproduct combo won me over with its ungainly nature.
And well, it turned out good. The only dilemma being what two humans are supposed to do with so much ham. I whipped up a batch of biscuits (not my strong suit, mine always turn out flat and crispy rather than fat and fluffy. And the recipe that was supposed to yield 16 only produced eight. You'd think that if my results were half the intended amount that that they'd be larger not smaller) and we proceeded to stuff them with thin ham slices drizzled with "brown eye gravy," the Dr. Pepper and pork fat combo that filled the pan. I think my blood pressure went crazy from all the sodium, but other than shortening my life by a few months the country ham experiment was a success.
Oh, this is one of those places that makes me wish I didn't live where I live. I'm pretty fond of my apartment, it's just the surroundings that I find less than satisfactory (weird, I know, since there are plenty of perfectly nice blogs devoted these environs). Minangasli should be my neighborhood restaurant, not Frankies 457 (which isn't even heinous) 0r I don't know, Marco Polo. But then, I could be biased since I'm no fan of Italian-American cuisine. Maybe I'm just partial to S.E. Asian food under $7 with nearby storefronts with names like Bappy Sweets (a bastardization of happy or does bappy mean something?). I would eat out every night and be even unhealthier and mushier than I am now, so it's for the best.
Minangasli was a must since I'm always on rendang alert. James was disappointed that the stewy meat wasn't as ubiquitous as he'd anticipated in Malaysia. The streets, pardon me, jalans, weren't paved with rendang, a beautiful image to imagine, nonetheless. I could be off, but I kind of saw it like a tourist going to Miami and distressing over the lack of cheesesteaks. I don' t know if Penang or Kuala Lumpur are exactly rendang hot beds. We certainly found the dish here and there, at a few street stalls, but it tended to show up more on the menus of Indonesian restaurants.
The ayam goreng sambal ijo, fried chicken smothered with a green chile paste was tastier than its simplicity would have you believe. The rendang was rich, slightly sweet, with deeper spices and less citrus than others I've tasted (including my own). It was a blessing that we were presented with only three large chunks or I would've been in serious caloric straits. (The portions are almost deceptively small, at first glance they seem slightly inadequate, but once you start eating you realize they're more than enough, it's an optical illusion.)
I'd heard about the kale and thought it was a good idea since we tend to get meat-heavy in Asian restaurants. But the greens were absent that evening, so we opted for jackfruit, a favorite of mine that didn't sway too far from Upi Jaya's rendition. I do think Minangasli's prices are a few dollars less, for whatever that's worth. But both are worth a visit. I'm all for Indonesian food in all permutations, as it's few and far between in NYC.
Minangasli * 86-10 Whitney Ave., Elmhurst, NY
I've never had any particular urge to visit Chicago. Not counting airport layovers, I've never even been in the middle of the country, just the edges (though I did spur-of-the-moment visit a few southern cities in summer '04 just to begin rectifying this extreme east-west exclusivity). But out of nowhere I was struck with the urge to check out the windy city (oh, that's big apple lame). And when I say urge to check out, what I really mean is eat.
I think I've had an aversion to Chicago because I'm less than enthralled by its trademark foodstuffs: deep dish pizza, weirdo hot dogs (no regional pride, I don't care for any city's buns and wieners), Italian beef sandwiches. I don't know, I'm all about hearty everyman food, but none of these tempt me in the least.
But after this recent MLK Monday, I had wished that I'd planned something more substantial for my three-day weekend. Maybe it's because I just started a new job, but I'm feeling nervous and restless and in need of mini-vacation (I still can't believe that my big S.E. Asia excursion was almost half a year ago) despite having no vacation days yet.
My next opportunity for escape will be President's Day and I totally want to try Moto and the nearest Trader Vic's to NYC. I'm thinking I can somehow turn this into a belated Valentine's celebration. How better to say I love you than with crab rangoon and "sweetbreads with real snow that tastes like goat cheese." I shit you not.
I think I would've been more thrilled about this first NYC appearance a few years ago when James still lived next to the Palladium dorms (it's frightening to think that these freshman were likely born the same year that Club MTV debuted–1987, if you need me to do the math). But I've become so acclimated to the New Jersey Trader Joe's experience that I know I won't have the patience for the initial novelty-seeking mobs and undergrads going nutso over cheap soy cheese and frozen chimichangas.
I don't recall Trader Joe's piping in music at all, but maybe if we're lucky they'll play a little Taylor Dane or Jodi Watley just for old times' sake.