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Toga! Toga!

Toga Ah, so good to see the sick-making leggings trend getting so much ink. And from my favorite NY Times columnist/daughter of a former Peruvian finance minister, who apparently used to rebelliously dye her hair pink and blue and make mix tapes despite now being a pearl-donning (try finding a photo where she’s not wearing them) grown up who thinks nothing of throwing iPods in the trash.

I’m really bothered by that new Taco Bell commercial for the chicken caesar grilled stuft burrito (chicken caesar as a flavor? That’s a whole other thorny issue) that’s not really a burrito. To prove it’s not a burrito, the one toga-clad woman says coyly to the other, “You have to peek under its little toga.” Disgusting. Oh, I just noticed on the website they tell you to "Peek under the Toga at the Nutritional Facts." Who's responsible for that slogan? Is it worse than stirrup pants?


I usually just go along with what everyone suggests for business type coworker lunches (which are very, very rare in my world) because I'm very grin and bear it (I hate that phrase and have used it enough as a joke that it's starting to permeate my normal conversation) in the workplace. But this time I was saddled with choosing the restaurant, wasn't in the best of spirits, so wanted to make sure I got to eat something I actually wanted. (I really didn't care if no one else wanted Indian food, because I wasn't about to slough through an overpriced chicken caesar salad with dressing on the side.) I'd intended on trying Yuva for dinner for a few weeks, but because it's only three blocks from the office it never made sense for anyone to come up to midtown just to meet me for an evening meal.

Normally, I wouldn't dip into the teens for lunch, but since it wasn't coming out of my pocket the prices seemed reasonable. The quality and presentation was much higher than you'd expect from a run of the mill midtown Indian place. The decor is subtle and leaning towards neutral.

I wish I'd had my camera (though I would've been reluctant to whip it out in front of my new-ish boss and colleague) because the nine three-by-three chutneys and sauces that were brought out on a square platter, were amazingly hued. Brilliant greens, sunshiney oranges, raisin browns, and flavored with green peppers, mangos, mint, yogurt, and obviously more. I felt bad not being able to try them all. Work lunches are never really about enjoying the food, are they?

I chose the chicken tikka masala, which comes with a bowl of rice and dal, each in small round white bowls that are more like coffee cups without handles. They were set atop individual square plates, which rested on a larger square plate like the chutneys had been. The clean geometry and pale monochrome tones elevated the food. It's likely you'd detect a higher degree of care by taste alone, but the impression gained from a meal served on ceramic rather than in Styrofoam is obviously higher. Getting take out, which you can here, might feel different.

You're given a choice of soup or salad, but being ladies we all chose the salad. I was curious what the soup was. We were also given grilled yogurt chicken wings and onion kulcha on the house. What I think was kheer, a cardamom laced rice pudding, came unexpectedly at the end. It was a bit much for an afternoon workday meal. The funny thing is that one of the coworkers in attendance, happens to live up the street, and ended up bringing her girlfriend to Yuva later that day for dinner Eating two meals at the same restaurant, hours apart, by choice is pretty indicative of its allure.

Yuva * 230 E. 58th St., New York, NY

Up With Gramps

Contid Last night I noticed the hideous "Up With Grups" cover of the current New York with the aging hipsters who won't grow up feature story. All those guys in hoodies with messenger bags made me feel a little queasy for reasons unknown (it's not like I'm attracted to that genre of men–it's doubtful anyone I've ever gone out with even knows who Death Cab for Cutie is, and they're pretty mainstream now, right? Ok, hold on, I'll check. Me to James: "Have you ever heard of a band called Death Cab for Cutie?" James: "I have no idea what the fuck that means." No lie). I'm not getting any younger, I stay vaguely in touch with what's cool…could they be writing about me?

The funny thing was that the label was addressed to the most unlikely tenant in the building, the cranky middle aged, non-hip, black woman who lives on the top floor and is always ordering things from Newport News (um, which I've been known to order from a few times despite 97% of their merchandise being frightening. Can wearing a Newport News bathing suit–yes, I said bathing suit–grant me immunity from present or future alterna-yuppie status?). But then, isn't NY Mag made for people not in the know to become up on trends that aren't really trends?

I actually like her when she picks battles that I agree with like the eyesore strollers near the front door, our door (it's beyond nasty baby buggies, but included [I use the past tense because I just realized the mess currently just consists of the stroller-I wonder if that was a self-directed clean up effort or the result of complaints to the landlord. I hate conflict so internally seethed rather than making fuss, and this just upset the NY Mag lady because she doesn't want to look like the crazy whiner in the building and told me I should say something too. I'm not sure I'm ready to cross over to her side yet] piles of books, toys and records-total grup taste, too. I saw their iTunes and it was filled with hipster lullabies. We promptly put a security code on our wireless network, though not before downloading a few choice numbers. There's only one baby in the building so the multiple strollers is a bit much. Do you think people would object if I started going upstairs and storing crap like old air conditioners, clothes I'm too lazy to hang up, or bottles of duplicate spices [I've got like three cinnamons and nutmegs] in the hall?), but not so much when they affect me like her wanting to put a bench in front of our ground floor window. I didn't want to see her ass at eye level every time I opened up the curtains for a view and that rubbed her the wrong way.

I didn't want to read the article, then today I was like fuck it. And then I was almost relieved, because it wasn't about me at all. It just reaffirmed what I've always known. There are too many clueless people making too much money in NYC, and babies are adorable props for said people to make statements with. I don't wear $450 jeans or limited edition sneakers (I'm not even allowed to wear jeans or tennis shoes at my non-creative, non VP job-apparently, grups are highly successful but hate how corporate they've become). I missed the whole mid-20s flashy internet job, so consequently haven't moved up in any ladder in my 30s. It's hard to identify with throwing away a career to be free when there's not much I can toss in the garbage.

But that's all fine. The only thing that rankled me was the bit on the last page about passion. Passion is a pet peeve. Like only creative people have passions. Only they act on their passions because they have a cushion. A financial cushion they, or more likely their family, may have amassed, the cushion that comes with knowing that said family would assist or bail you out if necessary. Being raised to think anyone would give a shit about your personal passions, that acting on fancies would even be a viable option.

As if being passionate is a generational thing, Gen X in this case. Passion is about having the security to follow you whim, i.e. touring Japanese textile factories in search of rare ultimate denim or tasting obscure native pods in the Amazon. Passion realized stems from class and education. This background makes denying suit-wearing 9-5 role models, feel like an act of rebellion.

My dad didn't even own a suit or a tie, and I never saw him out of a pair of jeans. He did manual labor his whole life and then he died. So, I'll rebel against the grind and shitty hard work for the sake of working hard. But I don't have to prove anything by being in the know, liberal or perpetually youthful. Just going to college at all or being single and childless in my 30s is enough to stray from what my path of least resistance could be (my 19-year-old cousin just got engaged a few weeks ago. As the oldest grandchild in our family by a long shot, I've always wondered how long it would take before someone started reproducing. Even my 31-year-old sister who's going on marriage number two this summer hasn't gone there. The kid thing has been a tough sell for us. Thank god for no sex before marriage cousins who are old enough to tie the knot–the family line [well, my mom's side] will live on).

Noodles by Any Other Name

Supernoodles1 Every other month (is that semi-monthly or bi-monthly…or neither?) I get excited when my Kraft Food & Family arrives in the mail. Such awesome use of Kraft ingredients where they have no right being used, enthralls me every time. 

This issue’s winner is the scrumptious sounding Spaghetti with Zesty Bolognese. There’s nothing like a little Italian dressing and Philadelphia cream cheese to spruce up a classic. But I guess no harm done if Americans want to mess around with meat sauce.

If I’m correct, spaghetti bolognese is sort of a British bastardization, anyway. And even more disturbing than adding dressing and cream cheese to tomato sauce, is how English refer to the dish as spag bol. Nobody should diss the United States’ culinary sensibilities as long as Oriental Spag Bol is allowed to exist across the Atlantic.

Is Giardiniera Contagious?

I had to track down hot sauce from ten different Latin American countries in short order. That's not as easy as it might sound at first because Mexican is no problem. You could go to a Brazilian store (maybe in Astoria or 46th St. in Manhattan) or head out to Elmhurst or Corona and scout out Ecuadorian bodegas. It's all doable, but involves hunting and pecking. NYC is so not about one-stop shopping.

I had my trusty Western Beef to fall back on. If anyone would have a wide variety under one roof, it would be them. And I easily managed to find six out of my ten, from Mexico, Brazil, Columbia, Costa Rica, Dominican Republic and Ecuador. I didn't bother with photos of them, that's for a near future project that'll appear in print.

The advertised sale price expiring nearly two months ago is not quite so rad. But it still rung up at 99-cents.

So adorable, Fresquito almost makes you want to clean other people's bathrooms.

This cloudy plastic tub of who-knows-what always makes me wary. The word giardiniera is too close to giardia for my taste.

Blue Velvet


I like to believe that I’m decent cook, maybe even a little above average. But I’ve come to a tough realization: I’m a really bad baker. Maybe it’s all the weights, measures, precision, kitchen science. I don’t know, but everything I attempt (which isn’t that often) ends up flat and hard rather than light and fluffy.

When we were teens, my sister would occasionally make chocolate chip cookies, and they’d always come out crispy and thin. (Then she got into vegan baking and I would’ve killed for one of those hard as  rock, but at least dairy laden cookies.) That was displeasing because I want a chocolate chip cookie to be fat and chewy. I never said anything at the time, so I don’t know why it’s popping into my head now.

My country ham accompanying biscuits from January fell victim to the hard and flat curse. The last birthday cake I made, which was at least three years ago, also turned out hard and flat. With that disaster, I recall whipping egg whites in a not completely clean bowl and the peaks never properly formed. It was my own mistake.

BluebatterThis year I decided to tackle the birthday cake again. I looked at a zillion recipes, and kept getting swayed by complicated, multi-step, exquisite ingredient confections. This seemed like an accident waiting to happen, so I switched to the good and simple camp. Red velvet cake is tasty, pretty, easy and economical, and everyone seems to like it. Me, I’m just drawn to the artificial scarlet hue. I found a recipe for Cakeman Raven’s version, which I’ve had before so I knew I’d like it. It had to have a cream cheese frosting, not buttercream.

But I didn’t want to do red. Of course, green immediately consumed my thoughts, but it’s too close to St. Patrick’s Day to not be corny (ha, like there'd ever be a time of year where it would be classy). It had to be a blue velvet cake (having nothing to do with the recent 20th anniversary of said film) and it’d have to be the most intense crazy blue ever or why bother.

Fullcake I wanted gel dye because it’s more intense than the watery grocery store pigments, and I just happened to be near Sur la Table (I don’t get the big deal with that place—it made me very anxious) while picking up lots of Spanish goodies at the new-ish Despaña Foods on Broome Street. I think you’re only supposed to use a few drops of the gel because it’s insanely intense (the dishwasher, sink and counter looked like a raspberry Slurpee had melted all over them by the time I was done). But the recipe called for one ounce, not specifying what kind of dye. The tiny gel bottle was ¾ ounce, so I figured using it all would be good. Would that have fucked up the ingredients somehow?

Anyway, the cake turned out acceptably. And I was beyond pleased with the shade of blue. Can you believe it? But when I put the batter into the three pans, it seemed that there wasn’t enough. Does cake rise? This one didn’t, and the layers ended up maybe one inch each. I guess times three that’s substantial, but I wanted big blue puffy strata. The crumb was a little coarse, it tasted perfectly good, but was the texture of cornbread. And the frosting wasn’t proportional. I swear, layer cakes always end up with not enough at the end, so I was sparing with the in between stripes only to be left with an excess. Plus, I couldn’t get into the bottom crevices because I was retarded and set the cake into a recessed carrier before not after icing the damn thing.

But it was really really blue and really sweet and rich, and that’s what's important.

Mug’s Ale House

Mug's is weird because it exists with such little fanfare, kind of like nearby Teddy's. I'd almost forgotten about Mug's, myself, until I was at relatively nearby Western Beef on a weeknight and dying for a cheeseburger. Yes, there's the respectable DuMont Burger, but I wasn't feeling up to the woody, zen smallness of the whole thing. I wanted noise, beer and space. The kind of place you should be able to smoke in, but can't.

I hadn't been to Mug's in nearly eight years, which is a frightening fact. Not because the establishment is any great shakes, but because Mug's is where the near strangers I stayed with when I first moved to NYC used to hang out (which seems odd now). I associate it with the scared but eager greenhorn me, which honestly doesn't feel like eight years ago. Now I'm more scared and anxious and jaded, and strangely, the only person who's remained in the city from that crew of people. I don't know if that's because I'm resilient or dumb.

But the food…yes, it was fine. No brioche or gruyere or parsley sprinkled frites. The burger and fries are standard burger and fries, just what I'd been craving. Maybe I'll go back again in another eight years, if I'm still in NYC when I'm 41. Jesus, just typing that number makes me feel nervous. See you in 2014, Mug's.

Mug's Ale House * 125 Bedford Ave., Brooklyn, NY

Bronx Cheer(less)

Bronx Apparently, the boomlet of chains popping up in the Bronx isn't making everyone happy. I can't honestly speak about the independent retailers that the newcomers might be displacing because Bronx knowledge isn't my strength. I go up to Queens, down to Staten Island and over to New Jersey, but never ever hit Westchester or the path from upper Manhattan through the Bronx. It's just not on my way to anything (well, Stew Leonard's, but only once).

I think it's odd when people worry about glut while they're still amenity starved. I've lived in neighborhoods where the only chains were uninspiring fast food hawkers like KFC, Subway and Burger King. No Laundromats, banks, drug stores or substantial grocery stores. Residents would've killed for a crappy C-Town or CVS. Or at least, I would've.

Now Brooklyn, they know how to embrace a chain store. Target number three is on Flatbush's horizon. And what's this about a Legal Seafood on site? Highbrow.

Saigon Banh Mi So 1

I went a little sandwich crazy this Saturday. In less than thirty minutes I purchased a bocadillo from Despaña and two banh mi from this place. It was a bready Broome St. kind of afternoon.

Living in Sunset Park for a decent spell, Ba Xuyen has always been my go to spot. I think I've only tried So 1 once or twice, and years ago. I'd forgotten how many choices they had and how vegetarian friendly (lots of fake meat, gluten stuff) their banh mis can be. I was intrigued by a handwritten sign advertising chicken curry banh mi, but went with the classic, which is almost always a #1.

It's hard not to compare the Brooklyn and Manhattan sandwiches. Both are from the upper echelon of Saigon subs, but I'm partial to the Sunset Park style. I could be totally wrong, but Ba Xuyen's bread seems crispier, while So 1 has a softer style, more like an Italian roll. So 1 also uses more sausage, which I think is liberally laced with five-spice powder. Not a bad flavor, but it gives the sandwich an overall Chinese-y flair.

Like when I was in Hong Kong, certain stores just smelled Chinese, which I finally deduced meant five-spice powder to my senses. Much of Malaysia smelled, well, Malaysian. You'd be in a mall, walk past a store and get a whiff of Malaysia that I ultimately narrowed down to being toasted shrimp paste. I'm not sure what Vietnamese smells like–maybe lemongrass? Fish sauce, too, I guess. Nuoc cham?

Maybe it was just luck of the draw, but this banh mi had cilantro that was all stem, no leaf. I hate to admit that I have a stem phobia because it's very childish. But I've gotten much better, now I'll eat romaine no problem when ten years ago I'd nibble around the ribs. I'm a low maintenance eater, I swear, but there's something unsettling about biting into a wad of stems, not severing them neatly with your incisors, and then pulling the thin green stalks out of the sandwich with your mouth as you start to put the sandwich down.

Despite all my nitpicking, So1 still makes one of the better banh mis in Manhattan. If only the much revered banh mi would start popping up in midtown, all my problems would be solved. But you know they'd cost $7 and somehow manage to be pressed like a panini. (3/18/06)

Saigon Banh Mi So 1 * 369 Broome St., New York, NY


I totally went nuts at Despaña. For years (ok, maybe one year), I've had intentions of heading out to the Jackson Heights wholesale location. I go to Jackson Heights pretty frequently, the problem was, if I'm correct, that their open to the public hours were only 9am-1pm on Saturdays. I can never get it together that early on weekends. It's not like I ever make it to Nolita, Soho, or wherever you call Broome and Lafayette streets, either, though I did have business in the neighborhood twice this week (haircut and blue food dye)

Elquiote My goal was to spend no more than $40 on a supplementary birthday present, but when all was said and done I'd blown close to $100. It happens. I bought, lomo, cabrales, Manchego, squid ink, saffron, membrillo, both hot and sweet paprika, Valencian rice, sherry vinegar, chorizo, morcilla and a bocadillo.

Most importantly (for Shovel Time's purposes), the bocadillo. It's strange because during my 9-6 Monday through Friday life I would never spend $7.50 for a sandwich because I'm cheap. But on the weekend that's more than fair for high quality ingredients. The bread comes from Sullivan Street Bakery, and the fillings are simple, no more than three ingredients per sandwich. I was mesmerized by all of the choices, but ended up choosing the el quijote: lomo embuchado i.e. dry cured pork loin, Manchego and membrillo spread. The counter guy commented "women always order that one." Well, I love pork and sweets together (don't get me started on Hawaiian pizza), I guess I'm a stereotype.

Despaña * 408 Broome St., New York, NY