Nooooo! Little Lad's has packed up its basket and is moving to Delancey St. I can't walk there for lunch. (8/16/11)
Last month James mentioned some half-secret subway passage he’d discovered that connects the M train at Broad Street to the 4/5. I’m still not convinced that that’s true (would it be the 4/5 at Wall Street or Fulton? Neither seem that plausible). I work a block from the M but that still doesn’t do me any good since I live on the F/G. I’m always trying to find ways of streamlining my commute and will stop at nothing. Even after a year-and-a-half at my present job I’m still in denial that four subway stops can take 40 minutes (an experiment of two F stops, then a one-block walk to the R, then another two stops took me 50 minutes this morning, I’m dead serious. I left home at 9:15 and didn’t get to my desk until 10:05).
I was more interested at his description of a dated subterranean greasy spoon that time had forgotten. Really? I envisioned 99-cent patty melts and woodgrain formica. Maybe you could even smoke at your table.
But I have a tendency to disbelieve people, James in particular because he’s not very observant. All he thinks about is work and his high maintenance mother. I might mess around in a subway passage during the middle of the day (actually, I wouldn’t either—I tend to use my lunchtime to write crap here but haven’t even had the time for that in the past week) but he wouldn’t. It must’ve been remarkable enough that he noticed at all, so a lunch meet up was in immediate order because this sounded good.
We entered the subway station on Nassau Street, below the Chase building. I can’t recall how many levels we descended or how many twists or turns we took, but we ended up in a narrow passageway that no more than two people could fit in at a time side-by-side. And then we were there.
Hmm…faded, kind of like a Denny’s that hadn’t been remodeled since 1981. And photo murals and stained glass too? Even more perfect, the restaurant was called Little Lad’s. There didn’t seem to be menus, no one greeted us when we came in and there didn’t appear to be a counter or cashier. We sat in a booth-for-two and waited. This didn’t seem right. It wasn’t even close to crowded at prime lunch time either. I made James peek around the corner.
As it turned out, we came in the back door; the main dining room was on the other side of the L-shaped room and the centerpiece was a small buffet. Signs indicated that whatever you could fit into (no, overfilling) a Styrofoam bowl and plate on a plastic tray would be yours for $3.99. Yes! People mock my $5-or-less weekday lunch rule but it’s really only so I can splurge on dinners–they just don’t see me during the evening.
The food was odd, though. One section appeared to contain cold salady items and the other cart had what I guess you could call main dishes. Two pots of soup sit off to the side with a bag of hearty multigrain bread between them. I then noticed that meat seemed suspiciously absent but this wasn’t even ordinary vegetarian fare. Frankly, everything looked kind of boiled like prison slop. After I heard the girl restocking the blobby dressing respond, “that’s tofu, we don’t serve cheese” to a flirtatious inquisitive customer, I realized everything was vegan.
Maybe the clientele would give me further clues. There seemed to be large number of black patrons, office ladies in groups and solo gentleman. Ok, so this um, soul food? Not like I’ve ever seen before. Or maybe like a rasta vegetarian thing? But everyone was too clean cut. Should I be here?
Well, there were some white people who looked like the types who work in the Financial District but insist on commuting by bike. And a youngish Indian dude in skintight flared slacks, shades and sporting muttonchop sideburns and a pompadour. The staff seemed bizarrely mellow and polite. Too polite. Something religious, kind of Amish, was definitely at play and I hoped I wasn’t going to be sucked into a modern day cult.
There also appeared to be a window where you could order food cooked on the spot. I wasn’t sure what to make of the first item on the list called a “handburger.” Or the “haystack” at the bottom of the sign. I’m guessing a handburger is a meatless sandwich, but they probably shouldn’t use such a fleshy word in the name. I’m still not sure what the hell a haystack is.
The food has grown on me during my two visits. It’s not really hippy but more bastardized Midwestern. I mean, three-bean salad and raisin-carrot slaw? I'm surprised they don't have animal product-free jello (I guess that would be agar agar, which is the base for crazy-pretty SE Asian desserts). The strange thing is that many of the items taste kind of pickled or fermented. The zucchini was tart and fizzy, so too the tomatoes. Mushy is the overriding texture. I like the beets, tofu dressing and how all the scoops of mysterious substances blend into a big wholesome blob. Their flyers and signage make all sorts of health claims. I don’t fall for hyperbole but my wild blood pressure and elevated sugars can use all the help they can get.
The foyer in what I think is the main entrance has a tv playing sermons and lots of baked goods and fresh fruit on display. On my second visit, I picked up a naturally sweetened apple-cherry pie and James grabbed a bag of lemon herb popcorn. We were rang up by a clean cut middle aged white man that seemed very bible belt and extremely un-NYC. We didn’t get proselytized, just asked, “How did you find us?” A good question.
I later found out that the restaurant is Seventh Day Adventist. I didn’t think that they had any particular dietary restrictions so that is peculiar. The only Seventh Day Adventists I’ve ever known were the family who lived kitty corner to me growing up. I’m certain that I’ve mentioned them before. They stood out, not simply because they were the only African-Americans in our neighborhood but also because the wife had multiple sclerosis and rode around on a motorized scooter, baked cakes from scratch (which my mom thought was outrageous) and the husband was a male nurse. I’m still not sure why male nurses are such a strange concept to people, but they most definitely are. Same for guy librarians.
Part of the appeal of Little Lad’s is that going there feels like I’m snarking out. My favorite book in middle school was Daniel Pinkwater’s “The Snarkout Boys and the Avocado of Death” because I was/is that kind of a dork. The misfit teens would sneak out at night to watch schlocky movies and find places like hidden beer gardens constructed of abandoned railroad cars where they also served baked potatoes.
I guess I can’t truly call Little Lad’s excursions snarking out because out of the blue during a recent company dinner an office mate started talking about the vegan restaurant she goes to every week. It’s definitely a secret, though. When I mentioned that I wanted to write about it she begged me not to and I completely understand why. Luckily, my audience is infinitesimal enough that a mad rush at Little Lad’s will never ever occur as a result of this missive.
Little Lad’s * 120 Broadway, New York, NY