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Acqua Santa

Christmas Eve was the perfect night for a Dyker Heights festive lights
excursion. Under the circumstances Italian food made sense, but I was kind
of hoping for Bensonhurst style L&B Spumoni Gardens, not
Williamsburg fare. But thats how things turned out. Fornino, the new brick
oven place, wouldve been my first choice, but pickings are slim the night
before big holidays and they were closing up shop right as we approached the
door. This scheduling issue was mildly compounded by my dining companions
dietary restrictions. I totally wanted to try Spike Hill across the street,
but I feared theyd make me go to Pita Power if my eyes even wandered that
direction. Aqua Santa, around the corner, was the compromise.

All I had was quesadilla type pizza stuffed with robiola, prosciutto and
red onions and what seemed like an abnormal amount of malbec for splitting a
bottle of wine, so I didnt sample a wide swath of the menu. No complaints,
honestly, though its doubtful I'd return unless in the company of
Williamsburg vegetarians.

Acqua Santa * 556 Driggs St., Brooklyn, NY

I Know the Neighborhood

I hear about how Fairway's walk-in meat locker is the shit, and it probably is. You won't get a lender jacket for warmth at Western Beef, you'll just have to shiver it out with the rest of the immigrants and all-American freaks who've piled their carts to obscene levels.

I had the great fortune of living in Ridgewood during my first three traumatizing years in NYC. Do't even ask, some things are just not worth understanding. But it wasn?t until the tail end of my stint when I got a boyfriend with a car that I even discovered the beauty of Western Beef. The car is sort of key because it's located in a weird industrial pocket that borders Maspeth, Ridgewood, and Williamsburg (yes, Williamsburg. The hipsters raving about their stupid Tops so don't know what they're talking about). It's not really walking distance from the nearest subway stop, Grand Ave. on the L.

You know when someone has suburban savvy, and it's tough to find that charming quality in the city. When James's college friend moved to Williamsburg from Baltimore, he didn't have much faith in him. Yet on like our first visit to his new digs, he had Western Beef products all over the kitchen. He'd managed to sniff it out in his first week, which was very impressive. (Now the guy is married to the coworker he knocked up on a casual date and lives in Westchester with his new instant family. Sometimes suburban savvy will also get you into trouble.)

I know the chain is scattered throughout the city, but this is the headquarters, and notably different. "We know the neighborhood" is their slogan, they have what may be the cutest logo ever, a cartoon cactus donning a cowboy hat, and you can't ignore their most awesomely low tech website. They rule on all counts. Really, it's no more than a vast, moderately dumpy grocery store, quantity over quality, at least on the surface. You're not likely to find broccoli rabe, rosemary, figs or Swiss cheese that isn't deli-sliced, but that's because Western Beef is about staples, massive selection of those basics, a surprisingly better produce section than most NYC stores contain, and lots and lots of meat, all at very reasonable prices.

Banana leaves, tropical fruit, those hideous little bottles of malta (I?m open minded food-wise, but this beverage is completely intolerable, the only thing other than melon that I can't stomach) and practically every Caribbean root vegetable in existence are easy to score, plus there's a large international section with lots of Eastern European cookies, jellies, pickled items and canned goods–they know the neighborhood, remember? This week they have Haagan-Dazs 1.88/pint, avocados 79-cents each, and turkey butts $1.19/lb, good deals (I don't know if that's a competitive price on turkey butts, but you know, it's not every day you see them). And we just got our Christmas tree out front for $19.99, way better than Carroll Gardens rates.

Plus it's all a great source of entertainment, invariably blaring salsa music will assault you, the manager will get on the intercom and yell violently about needing the keys back (seriously, this happens repeatedly on each visit), there will likely be a screw up in the long check out lines and someone's food stamp debit card will always run out of credit and cause a holdup due to either stupidity or language barrier. And yet I always return, Western Beef's siren song is just too strong.

Western Beef * 47-05 Metropolitan Ave., Ridgewood, NY

Homogenize Me, Please

Ok, they treat women and minorities unfairly, kill small business, ruin the character of neighborhoods, are taking over the world and promote fat disgusting American values. But c'mon, they're cheap, and fun. Who else still has a notions section with fabric, yarn, buttons and craft supplies, and also sells hunting equipment and fake Dr. Pepper (Dr. Thunder) for 35 cents a can in vending machines? No one, that's who.

The world's going to hell in a hand basket, so why not save some money and revel in aisle after nice wide aisle of freedom of choice while you can. And don't tell me New Yorkers truly love overpaying for crap bodega and dusty drug store shit that you have to ask for from behind the grimy counter. If that's keeping it real, you can keep it.

Plus, Wal-Mart is the only store in the U.S. to sell Rimmel and Mary Kate and Ashley cosmetics. Talk about exclusive. And Wal-Mart in China is insane because they have food (I think they do in parts of the U.S. too), deli cases filled with tendons, organ meat and spicy marinated odds and ends. I would kill for that here, though we'd probably just get Boboli and Smucker's Uncrustables.

Not in my backyard, they say. That's just because New Yorkers don?t know what they're missing and like to think they're unique. I?ll be the first to admit I?m not special. Wal-Mart come homogenize my city, please.

Wal-Mart * everywhere except NYC

Suburbanization is OK if it Means Cheap Soy Cheese

This will have to be looked into, I've heard rumors of a proposed Trader Joe's in either the Upper West Side or Union Square (or heaven forbid, both spots). A year ago I might've been rejoicing, but as an increasingly jaded crab of a person this news doesn't fill me with elation. The New Jersey locations have become nearly unbearable; I can't even imagine how this will translate in Manhattan. Maybe I secretly revel in reverse exclusivity, the ability to frequent out-of-the-city locales, and now any ol' NYC riff raff will have equal access to peeled chestnuts, lump crabmeat or Plugra butter for a fraction of Dean & DeLuca's (or shitty Met and Key Foods, for that matter) prices. It's so indecent.


1/2 Dinner at WD-50 was better than expected, really top-notch and fun. I'm always afraid I'm going to be disappointed by popular restaurants (like a couple weeks ago we went to Mermaid Inn, which isn't quite in the same league, but was a hot spot last year, and I was under whelmed. Plus, the waiter called me ma'am, where at WD-50 they had the good sense to use miss. It's the little things, you know.). Maybe that's why I tend to give them a good six to twelve months to mellow out.

The disturbing yet entertaining portion of the evening came from the couple one table away (luckily it wasn't so packed that you have to do the classic NYC crammed thing where you can barely squeeze into your seat because it's set up with about 3" of space between tables. The waiters always pull the table out for diners, but still you have to either scoot your crotch or butt right up against your neighbor's table. It doesn't really matter how svelte you are, settling in is going to take a few awkward seconds.) At first I thought we were witnessing a flaccid date, but it felt a little too strained for that.

The duo was made up of an Asian guy who exuded finance industry with his blahness and a so-so blonde woman who probably thought she was prettier than she was. They could've been anywhere from 28 to 34–it's not always easy to peg that demographic. I was obvious that the gentleman was trying to impress her, it was transparent enough that she was subtly egging him on in a manipulative way. She wasn't going to hump him (though James thought there was a slight chance she might) she just relished the attention…and probably the free meal, he did order a $145 pinot noir (we opted for a sauvignon blanc that was exactly $100 less). She only ordered one thing, a cod entre and didn't even finish her tiny portion, while he ordered two appetizers and an entre for himself.

He proceeded to bring up his fiance, and it was clear that he was fishing to see if there was any chance things might work between him and his dining companion. We guessed they were college friends, or old acquaintances, not likely coworkers. He was saying stuff like, "if circumstances were different…" and he brought up babies like three times, it was totally gross, and how this woman would make a good mother. Nothing gets a girl wet faster than pregnancy banter. I almost barfed up my pickled beef tongue and fried mayonnaise (and not because I was eating pickled beef tongue and fried mayonnaise).

He then began schooling her in the history of avant-garde cooking and saying how the chef Wylie Dufresne, was a protege of Ferran Adria who is like the progenitor of all the current culinary trends (he invented using foam, you know like carrot foam, but has now moved on to essences, seriously, you don't even eat them, you just breathe them in and experience them) and is chef at the impossible to get into (though not so impossible that this guy wasn't able to eat there and brag about it) restaurant in Spain, El Bulli. Anyway, Wylie Dufresne isn't a protg of Ferran Adria (doesn't protg mean you studied under the person?), I wanted to tell him so, but that was hardly even the point.

They exchanged gifts, he gave her a L'Occitane gift set (the same one James is giving his mother–does that make it any less romantic a present?) and she offered a wine bag and what must've been a fancy bottle of wine because he couldn't stop thanking her for it (though he probably would've jizzed himself over a jug of Gallo of as long as it came from this woman). We were appeased when this guy seemed to become unnecessarily humiliated when the sommelier wouldn't allow him to open this bottle of wine and share it with his lady friend, the mood was totally ruined, and he got all snippy and asked for the check when the waiter subsequently inquired about dessert. "We're not dessert people," he snapped, and they left in a huff. He probably figured that extra wine might've been adequate to lower his companion's defenses enough to impregnate her. Such an uplifting holiday tale.

Yes, the food. We did eat more than eavesdrop and just because I've neglected to discuss our actual dinner doesn't mean the meal wasn't noteworthy. As mentioned, I had the pickled tongue with little fried mayonnaise cubes and sprinkles of crumbs that were supposed to be onion streusel, there were also dehydrated scattered grains of what formerly was lettuce. If you created a bite using all components it tasted like a sandwich. A small beef tongue sandwich. Being a pork belly fiend, that entre had to be done. Sure, it was rich and I was pleasantly surprised by the decent portion. Even though pork belly is best in small doses, I feared the artistic giant plate/tiny serving syndrome. The five meltingly unctuous slices were more than adequate and accompanied well by fatty antitheses: turnips and soybeans. We shared what was probably the most pedestrian dessert, "chocolate cream, coffee soil, tonka bean ice cream," which was a conglomeration of vanilla and chocolate shapes and textures, cakey and creamy. I was tipsy enough at this point (I'd already downed a few pre-dinner cocktails at the new Barramundi across the street) that the idea of eating chocolate dirt seemed like the ultimate nightcap.

WD-50 * 50 Clinton St., New York, NY

Singing Cows & Cheese Logs

It wouldn't seem that a dairy farm turned regional grocery store with animatronic singing livestock would have much in common with a Swedish cheap furniture conglomerate, but Stew Leonard's is more Ikea than you'd think. They both have a loyal following. Despite sitting just beyond city limits and difficult to reach on public transportation, they are both thick with aisle blocking shoppers on weekends. And most importantly, both are laid out in that follow the path style where you are swept along with the tide of crowds and carts (god forbid you forget something and have to disrupt the traffic flow'at least Ikea has those sporadically placed shortcuts). Granted, Ikea is better known, and there are far more of them (there are only three S.L.s), but if people were better acquainted with Stew they would agree with my assessment.

In essence, Stew's is no more than a campy cavernous grocery store with a petting zoo and outdoor seasonal selections. The prices seemed a little high, the stock was oddball–for instance they didn't have basics like pecans, but there was plenty of seven-layer dip and cheese logs. A good portion of the store is devoted to prepared food, which I tend to shy away from. In fact, there is hardly a core to the place, there's a deli section, bakery, meat and fish counters, then rows of refrigerated Stew Leonard's brand things like soup, dips, sauces, sushi. And lots of steam tables filled with hot salad bar things you'd find in midtown delis during lunchtime: corned beef, kung pao chicken, macaroni and cheese, the whole hodgepodge gamut. I totally don't go for this stuff, it seems excessive.

My theory is that in the suburbs take out and delivery isn't as ubiquitous (I'm not sure about Westchester, but in Portland where I'm from, pizza is really the only thing you can get delivered to your home. My mom freaked when I told her you can get McDonald's delivery Manhattan) so hitting a grocery store on the way home from work for ready-made food is their equivalent.

I do like the idea of roaming people in animal costumes, and their bags around the world photos are funny (and pre-gnome hype) but I wasn't totally bowled over by the bovine shrine. But if I were ever in Yonkers I wouldn't hesitate to stop in, pet a goat, grab a cone of soft serve and maybe pick up a box of frozen crab Rangoon.

Stew Leonard's * Stew Leonard Dr., Yonkers, NY

Color me Cheap

Ah, you always remember you first. Rainbow has been there for me since day one, literally. I hadn't even been living in NYC 24 hours when I tagged along with near strangers on an L journey from Williamsburg's then outer boundaries to Ridgewood, Queens.

I was totally freaked out, it was too everything, noisy, stinky (the girl we were visiting lived down the street from someone who kept chickens in their apt. and that part of the block smelled like a serious coop), chaotic, pushy. The crisscrossy intersection with relentless traffic that zooms underneath the Myrtle-Wyckoff station had me paralyzed with trepidation (or maybe it was the realization that I'd just moved across the country to a beast of city where I didn't really know anyone or have any permanent place to stay had started to sink in with full force). Salsa music, too many people in too little space, and hotter May weather than I was accustomed to, started unsettling me.

It must've shown on my face. A random guy sidled up next to me, "don't be afraid of the cars," he repeated over and over in a forceful manner that I tried not to interpret as aggressive because I'm sure he thought he was being helpful though he wasn't.

The only thing that soothed me that day (in addition to breaking down and having a cigarette, all hopes of starting out smoke-free in New York dashed) were the dingy little, almost all alike discount stores that line Myrtle Avenue. I'm still not clear how so many 99-cent stores survive in such close proximity. Dee & Dee perked me up a bit, then Rainbow totally boosted my spirits much in the way a real rainbow pops up after a storm and makes everything pretty. They had lots of cheap juniors-styled clothing, but in plus-sizes too, and a big shoe selection. Never mind the lack of air conditioning, I still felt comforted.

A month later I moved into a ratty but good sized apartment of my own in Ridgewood ($580 for a one-bedroom, no references, no job, no questions asked). Who knew I'd get stuck in that freaky isolated section of Queens for three years' At least Rainbow and Lerner turned New York & Company (where I promptly got a credit card for new work-friendly clothes and somehow still have a balance of over $600 six years later) made the neighborhood a little more bearable.

Now I live in a part of Brooklyn that thinks it's too good for a Rainbow (they're rarely in gentrified neighborhoods). Luckily, I now work walking distance to the best stocked location I think I've ever encountered. Fifth Avenue is supposed to be known for its shopping, right? Upstairs is a whole mini floor devoted to shoes, mostly under $25 and mostly crafted from man made materials. Downstairs is 80% plus size, 20% intimate apparel, which is frankly where I draw the line. The main floor is irrelevant to me.

Whenever I need a cheap pair of colorful shoes to match an outfit or a cute sleeveless going out top that might get worn a mere handful of times, Rainbow rarely disappoints. It's a reliable, trendy for two months, go to, the way some might view Marc by Marc Jacobs or chains like H&M and Zara. But this is really cheap, as in $7 shoes and shirts cheap. Sure, the clothes are shoddy, there's an abundance of unnatural fibers, and the style leans towards um, 'urban' (think basketball jersey mini dresses) but if you're selective, affordable accent pieces are there for the picking.

There's no way around it, Rainbow rules. The motto on their almost-as-low-tech-as-Western Beef's website says it all: 'We sell attractive fashion at moderate to popular prices.' Yes, moderate to popular is a great qualifier.

Rainbow * 380 Fifth Ave., New York, NY (and throughout the city's finest neighborhoods)

86 Noodles

I've been by here a million times. Well, at least every time I've gone to
the Bay Ridge Century 21 (yes, there's a Century 21 in Brooklyn). I've never
had any reason to stop. But on this particular Sunday it fit all
requirements. I needed a whole roast duck for a Thai red curry with pumpkin
I was making and James wanted noodle soup. We planned on hitting Sunset Park
after shopping beautiful 86th Street. On our way back to the car I was
excited by the sight of ducks hanging just inside the door. A quick glance
at the takeout menu promised all sorts of noodle soups (which you could
probably also glean from their name). Most of the customers seemed to be
going the greatest hits route, i.e. sweet and sour, kung pao, but the menu
isnt limited to those choices. A bowl of roast pork and dumpling soup
supplemented by a plate of salt and pepper spare ribs sprinkled with
jalepeno slices (I love that preparation, especially with soft shell crabs)
and a duck to go capped off a chilly pre-Christmas late afternoon better
than I'd anticipated.

86 Noodles * 8602 4th Ave., Brooklyn, NY

Hill Diner

I don't generally do brunch. Not out of any sort of principle. I like breakfast food and I never cook it myself, but I just cant get up and going early enough. Brunch usually means close to home and my close to home equals lots of strollers and needlessly affectionate couples that I already get enough of on the F train.

So, Hill Diner was random and spur of the moment. And it didn't kill me to wake up and get myself together on a late Saturday afternoon. I've discovered that there's no one worth impressing in the vicinity of my apartment anyway, and South Brooklyn chic consists of women with no makeup, ponytails, glasses and Patagonia fleece. I've never gotten the I'm so full of substance and intellect that I have no need to enhance my looks aesthetic. Getting dolled up for omelets in this climate is futile and a waste of good product.

My croque madame, roasted potatoes and coffee were enjoyable. The company around us, not so much. My jest "doesnt being in here make you want to start a family?" was met with a steely glare, and made me ponder what life would be like with a boyfriend possessing a better grip on jibing humor. Clearly, my problems with brunching has nothing to do with the actual food.

Hill Diner * 231 Court St., Brooklyn, NY


Savoia has reasonable prices, better than average pizza, and is a little more inventive than many of the Carroll Gardens (or is this Cobble Hill? I get the borders confused) red sauce restaurants I like to avoid, but its probably not a draw if you live outside the neighborhood. Smith St. is pretty blah despite everyone seeming to bestow it restaurant row status. We were going to try the new, probably mediocre Cuban place, but it was full as new restaurants often are. Savoia, with free tables and a warm glow, beckoned from across the street.

I had reservations about ordering the fattoressa pizza (spinach, gorgonzola, sausage, mozzarella), not because it didnt sound enticing, but because somehow saying the word fat might make me seem fatter myself (this is the sort of bizzarro self-consciousness that a skinny individual would never even consider). Though I've ordered lardo without giving a thought to being viewed as a lard ass. So, the fattoressa was fine, if not a touch over-charred around the edges (I know, wood-burning ovens and all that).

With the number of yet untried restaurants clogging Smith St., it'll probably be a while before I return. Thats the problem with these types of establishments. I've never had a horrible meal in the neighborhood, but I've also never been revved to revisit a place.

Savoia* 227 Smith St., Brooklyn, NY