Skip to content

Archive for

Two Best Unnecessary Pop Culture References in a Food Article In the Past Two Days

Perfect_Strangers2The New York Times:

"And there would be the Bronson Pinchot.

James Jermyn, Maloney’s chef for the last five years, wheeled a cart up to the table. There, armed with a beaker of Cognac and tender slabs of beef, he cooked up a distant cousin of steak au poivre that happens to be named (in that spontaneous fashion that seems to be a signature flourish for the Stillman family) after Mr. Pinchot, the star of the 1980s sitcom 'Perfect Strangers.'"

New York:

"Lately, Casey has been championing the theory that mediocre food is better than good, the equivalent of a jaded indie kid extolling the virtues of Barry Manilow."

The mediocre food theory, though, is what made me guffaw aloud alone (embarrassing) because counterintuitive posturing is funny. I do hope that despite the enjoyment I receive visiting Bahama Breeze or Red Lobster, no one thinks I'm trying to argue that standardized chain restaurant jerk chicken is better than its idiosyncratic counterpart on Flatbush Avenue or that Le Bernadin's tasting menu is a joke next to The Admiral's Feast. There is a case to made for mediocrity, perhaps, (I am the living embodiment) just not right now.


I want to say that I miss the old Acme because I ate there countless times over the years and am upset by the changing character of the East Village. Sure, I'll agree it's pretty sad state of affairs when punks are eating heritage pork and a junk food vegetarian joint can no longer stay in business, but I have no nostalgia for the Cajun Acme, where I ate maybe once in the late '90s. Great Jones Cafe, which is also old Acme in spirit, is still right over there, so there's that. In fact, I stopped in for a beer before going to dinner.

The story of a unmemorable restaurant stealthily reborn as a scene banking on Nordic cachet for a crowd who largely doesn't care about hay-smoking is somehow more interesting than the food, itself. Despite chef Mads Reflund's Noma history, the cuisine at Acme isn't particularly Danish or unconventional. The plating isn't the prettiest either– I had expected something a little more controlled and refined rustic. On the other hand, the ease of getting a table and pleasant enough service was better than I had anticipated.

Acme green graffiti
Sometimes I’ll order something with an ingredient that I hate just to keep from getting soft and coddled. The gin-based Graffiti Green had to be tried because green is my favorite color yet green peppers are kind of foul (I’m surprised they resisted the urge to add It vegetable, kale, or more Nordically appropriate sorrel). The cocktail definitely had that raw, earthy bite but was also sweetened-up with agave and made more familiar with basil and lime. The beauty of the little coupe glass drinks is that if one isn’t to your liking, it won’t last for long.

Acme sweet shrimp & bison

The raw chopped filling inside the endive leaves didn’t taste specifically Chinese or Thai or Malay, just vaguely Asian. I'm not sure if it was simply the shrimp itself or if there was shrimp paste at work because there was a mild dirty, funky undertone like you get from belacan.  Something fermented (not rotten) was at work, though now I'm wondering because no other review I've seen has noted this dimension.

Acme black heirloom carrots

The black heirloom carrots glossed with a barely discernible slice of lardo and flavored so lightly by pine that you wouldn’t notice unless you’d studied the menu description (the boisterous atmosphere is more suited for parties than parsing—it’s hard to gauge how seriously you should be taking the food) were more in line with the style of produce-prominent food I’d expected. Super simple with caramelized vegetable sweetness enhanced by fat, the result was pristine and rich. Four stubs (more like three-and-a-half really—compare these to Time Out’s glamour shot) were not enough. Maybe Nomad’s $22 carrot with duck skin should make me pause and think instead of scoff.

Acme duck in a jar

The duck in a jar with pickled vegetables was just that, and felt like something you could get at any New Brooklyn restaurant.

Acme mackerel

To further exaggerate my few eating issues with green items, I’m also grossed out by lettuce that’s in soups or cooked. Bon Appetit recently recommended roasting heads of romaine along with chicken, and I just wasn’t sold. When it comes down to it, the lettuce is rugged enough to stand up to the heat and char, and even an oily fish like mackerel. The tiny pink flower buds, nearly tossed, not strategically placed with tweezers, was the one homage to fine dining. The mostly starchless mains, if you can call them that, are geared toward sharing and are well-proportioned for two.

Acme chicken & eggs

The chicken and eggs sounded boring, but wasn't. Moist is a gross word and I don't like juicy to describe meat either…so the chicken was the opposite of everything boneless, skinless chicken breast should be. The last time I encountered chicken so slick was the dramatic salt-baked version during a mega-meal at Blue Hill at Stone Barns. Well, and plus an oozy yolk and small tender potatoes practically mashed in their red skins and fried, this was too hearty to be fashion crowd food. (Christian Siriano was the only face I recognized in the fray—and I have a hard time picturing a clay pot of chicken being described as “fierce.”)

Acme bread pudding

Or the oaty, soupy rye bread porridge that I could totally see a British person describing at a “pud,” which is kind of the opposite of fierce. The dessert is malty from Guinness , hot and cold, and topped with chocolate foam and salted caramel ice cream.

Acme * 9 Great Jones St., New York, NY

The Post-Millennium Chain Restaurants of Middlesex County New Jersey: Bahama Breeze

The shtick: The Caribbean comes to the suburbs, one pineapple coconut martini at a time.
The signatures: Indiscriminate usage of descriptors Island, Creole, Cuban, and Jamaican, and an unusually long list of appetizers and snacks, i.e. “Caribbean inspired tapas.”
The new Bloomin’ Onion: Truffled yuca fries with guava ketchup.

Bahama facade

The suburbs can soften you, or at least tame rough edges. Normally, I disapprove of children at bars or hour-long waits to be seated, yet concessions must be made for novel experiences. Bahama Breeze, the Darden brand that no one knows about—there are only 30 locations nationwide—is special in its scarceness.

So, I got to know the eight-year-old (he could’ve been a mature four or a shrunken 12–I can’t tell children’s ages) who wanted to compare iPhones and show me his Facebook friends while sitting at the bar with his parents. Even though the restaurant had only been open a few weeks, the family were old pros. The father who struck me as a contractor, a foreman, old enough to now delegate manual labor, was not one to waste words, but the mother was a talker and was quick to explain which drinks were stronger and which were pretty but weak (The Bahamarita).

I unwittingly picked the most expensive cocktail (chosen because it seemed the least fruity/sweet, likely to use premade mix) a Caipirinha , but don’t worry, it was only $8.69. 20-ounce house beer is only $4.29 by comparison (I am still reeling over the $6.25 Sam Adams at the Red Lobster across the highway).  It’s not all blenders and Captain Morgan’s either–Gosling Black Seal Rum and Pussers’s Dark Rum also make their way into a Dark and Stormy and Painkiller, though the latter may be controversial with New Yorkers since the Lower East Side bar, Painkiller, was strong-armed into changing its name. by Pusser’s

Bahama breeze interior

The decor was also more tasteful than I had expected, at least in comparison to the other nearby tropical-themed restaurant, Cheeseburger in Paradise, on the other side of Route 1, similar to how I imagine a Caribbean resort to look ( I have never been to the Caribbean, but I am thinking more Hyatt than Sandals—I still haven’t encountered a Four Seasons/Ritz-Carlton-type chain restaurant, though I would like to). Less Hawaiian shirts, neon pinks and turquoises, and rampant wicker, and more warm chocolate tones, restrained thatching, and dark wood. Though not mahogany, which I’d never given any thought to until the day an entertainment reporter called when I was working at the New York Post library to ask, “Is mahogany an upscale wood?”

One of the most unusual things, which isn’t odd on the surface, is their rampant use of pork. Outside of bacon, breakfast sausages and the limited-edition McRib, pork just isn’t commonly used by chain restaurants, though that’s changing. 2011 saw a 7% in pork mentioned on menus. Now, I’d like chains to tackle my other beef: reluctance to serve bone-in chicken.

Bahama breeze sliders

It’s in the chorizo sliders (loose Mexican-style sausage formed into square, springy patties, by the way, not the hard-cured Spanish type, which one might assume considering the inclusion of Spanish cheese) with Manchego.

Bahama breeze plantains

As well as the sweet plantains topped with scoops of pulled pork and a smoky, also-sweet (sweet and salty are the dominating flavors) guava barbecue sauce.

Bahama breeze conch

Anything could’ve been breaded into these fritters—who knows conch from any other shellfish when it’s heavily battered and fried and dipped in a creamy sauce? At least they were striving for regional authenticity.

Bahama breeze pasta

Unlike that old Jamaican favorite, pasta with cream sauce, a.k.a. Calypso shrimp linguine.  That’s the trouble with entrees. It’s easier to play with empanadas, flatbreads, sliders, dips, and wings. Main dishes rely on staid sides, in this case rice, garlic mashed potatoes or cinnamon mashed sweet potatoes, and pasta. I just ate an appetizer as a main instead.

Bahama breeze to go

Your server might spend an inordinate amount of time with your leftovers and you may see them fussing around with the aluminum containers at their station. But you will be more forgiving when you see that they’ve drawn a picture and thoughtfully dated the creation. Or not.

Bahama Breeze * 520 Woodbridge Center Dr., Woodbridge, NJ


Eaten, Barely Blogged: How Do You Like Them Apples (and Andouille)?

Donovan's duo

Donovan’s Woodside on St. Patrick’s Day is like marching into the belly of the beast, though far more family than the fratty scene I envision at the Irish pubs of Manhattan. We waited an hour at Donovan’s for a table where we were serenaded loudly by drums and bagpipes (that’s me pretending not to notice the ruckus) as one does. Corned beef, cabbage, and a single boiled potato should’ve been on my plate (I do love that meal and am surprised so many dislike it) but you know, Donovan’s is famous for its burger and I wasn’t changing my usual order just because it was a holiday.

Sripraphai quad

Sripraphai All the usual suspects: crispy pork with chile and basil, duck curry with eggplant, crispy watercress salad (which I love so much that I recreated it at home the following weekend but forgot to photograph because I was in a hurry to get it made before The Walking Dead season finale aired) plus a rarely ordered larb and never-before Thai mojito. Remind me again, to never go to Sripraphai on a Saturday night (and kick me for pretending to be Thai-knowledgeable with never having tried Centerpoint on the next block). Beyond the insane crowds and weirdo orderers who eat dishes like individual, non-sharable entrees, the spice just isn’t there. Thai-wise, I’m looking forward to the new Chao Thai branch, and I suppose Pok Pok, as well, but as a Portland transplant I have weird feelings about fellow Portland transplants.

Toby's pizzaToby’s Public House “Weird but good” was my honest response to “How was the special? The cook wants to know.” Both pizzas we picked were oddly sweet. I happen to be a freak for sweet-savory mash-ups so that’s not a knock. The special in question paired andouille with green apples, a not-unpleasant though untraditional combo. The surprise was more from the asparagus pizza that was nearly candied sweet from caramelized onions, and I don’t know, there had to be something else at work. I want to say that the stubs of asparagus were cooked in balsamic vinegar? If it were up to me, I might combine the apples with the onions, add a little bacon, and pretend the pizza was a tarte flambee. I’d also sprinkle some blue cheese, thought that would dilute the Alsatian theme.  At that rate, there was no way I was going to opt for the much-lauded nutella-ricotta calzone.  Who needed dessert?

Blue Ribbon In my 20s, I never understood it when friends a decade older would say “I can’t drink like I used to” or genuinely old folks might have to forgo spicy or rich food, i.e. “I like butter, but butter doesn’t like me.” What? Shut up. As I approach middle age, though, I’m afraid some of this is becoming a reality. Thankfully, painfully hot food is not a problem…yet. The night after a night of over-imbibing I was still feeling too rough to handle the roasted bone marrow at Blue Ribbon. The pure fat coupled with a rich oxtail marmalade was wreaking havoc. Weird as it may have been, I just had it wrapped up and ate it the next day no problem. Why  not eat bone marrow on toast for breakfast? As the regular Blue Ribbon and the sushi version next door morph into one, they’ve begun offering raw fish preparations at the original. The small plate of sashimi was a welcome relief from the intended appetizer (which would’ve been better for sharing, except that Lent is still a thing) though I still think everything at Blue Ribbon is overpriced and yes, the crowd leans heavily Bay Ridge/Staten Island even if that characterization (not by me) offended a Chowhound four years after the fact.


Red Lobster

3/4 It is hard to pass up Bonefish Grill, my favorite chain, for Red Lobster, especially since they share the same parking lot (across Route 1 from the Woodbridge Mall where an uncharacteristic shooting just occurred and the township's first Olive Garden opened late last year to little fanfare) in Iselin, New Jersey. But this was a Darden mission since I traded in Chase debit card points for a $100 gift card to be used at any restaurant in the company’s stable. And there was no way I was touching Olive Garden, not after Marilyn Hagerty had her way with it.

And really, Red Lobster’s reported Bar Harbor transformation needed assessing, though frankly, I don’t remember what the old Red Lobster looked like since I haven’t paid a visit since the early ‘00s. It looks like there are now gray wooden slats, wainscoting, and framed semaphore flags under glass. I would not say that I felt like I was in Maine, though Maine could very well feel like this; I’ve never been there.

A Friday at primetime, 7:30pm, is asking for trouble. James estimated 30 minutes, I gauged one hour based on the distance we had to park from the entrance. I won. We were quoted exactly 60 minutes, which can be tough to stick out in a smooshed, standing-room-only NYC bar, but no problem on a backed bar stool sipping suburban-priced drinks.

Red lobster beerExcept that latter part didn’t prove true. I assumed a ten-dollar-bill would buy two beers yet when our bartender asked the other the price of Sam Adams, the most exotic brew on tap (this is where the elegance of Bonefish becomes more apparent—they serve a few cursory craft beers and even though the cocktail list is vodka-heavy and they abuse the term martini, at one point they did attempt promoting brown spirits and even participated in Tales of Cocktail the one year I went. Their newest creation—yes, I’m an email subscriber—contains fresh pineapple and rosemary and uses the word muddle in the description, so they’re try) he was told, “6.25!” Um, I’m still not convinced that was correct or if it was $6.25 total, not each, considering my stiff Manhattan that followed (I gave up on beer if that was what they were charging) was only $5.95.

Red lobster malibu hurricaneThe signature Malibu Hurricane is also inexpensive. Unlike the regular menu and online menu with prices localized per zip code (yes, Times Square charges like 20% more than any branch in the system), the drinks menu lists no prices so you can’t question them authoritatively. I also began doubting the bartender’s judgment when he told the older couple next to us who gave up and decided to eat at the bar that no one liked the mac ‘n’ cheese because it had bacon in it. What the…what kind of American, a chain-patronizing American, doesn’t like bacon?! Maybe he meant because it was Lent?

Red lobster oysters

Red lobster menuEating raw seafood isn’t just not done at Red Lobster, it might be taking unnecessary risks. But c’mon, they were being all fancy, with a fresh fish menu that name-checks the “grill master," and well, if they’re going to offer raw seafood, I’m going to try it. Who knows the origin of the $12.99 for a dozen oysters (actually, we kind of do; AmeriPure is the name of the comany and Process® that treats Gulf Coast oysters in some manner to give them a "superior shelf-life and yield factor") but it’s not like you can fake an oyster like calling langostino lobster or mash and extrude pollock into surimi and call it crab/krab. No, the provenance-free oysters didn’t have a particularly briny or distinctive flavor, but at least they weren’t drowning in cheese (though, charbroiled oysters, smothered in parmesan, butter, and garlic, a New Orleans delicacy, is not something to mock).

Red lobster lobster artichoke dip

The melted cheese (three mysterious types) with the artichoke dip, ostensibly containing lobster, was more like it. Tricolor chips mandatory. A gooey, warm dip must be on the menu (as well as clam chowder in a sourdough bread bowl) though I’m curious if their clientele is as resistant to change as they might think. I mean, a lobster roll would be very on-trend and very Maine, but I don’t see that being done at any chain seafood restaurants including the slightly more progressive competitor across the parking lot. I’m guessing consumers would view it as cost-prohibitive for a sandwich when everything else in that category is under $10.

You get a salad (house or Caesar) and Cheddar Bay biscuits, the latter kind of being the whole point of going to Red Lobster. I should’ve taken them up on their supposed unlimited nature. Frankly, I would be fine with a basket of transfatty biscuits (I wouldn’t be surprised if they were made with that popcorn butter that’s not really a dairy product and is served alongside just about everything) and a couple of non-Sam Adams-priced beers at the bar.

Red lobster lobsterfest duo

I picked the Lobsterfest option featured on the front of the special menu, Harborside Lobster & Shrimp, mostly because I didn’t want pasta or mac ‘n’ cheese (sorry, bacon) but couldn’t forego the starch altogether (there is a bed of mashed potatoes beneath the shrimp skewers—the default was rice). Despite being seafood-focused, the overarching flavors were salty and buttery with the primary texture being creamy. There is nothing surprising about any of this, and you don’t have to think hard about it because it’s inoffensive and you're not supposed to dwell–just dip your langostino tail in the butter (then dunk your Cheddar Bay Biscuit for good measure).  I can’t criticize freshness since this is not sashimi nor Le Bernadin, and just about any shrimp served in the region (except when nicer restaurants tout those tiny, sweet Maine shrimp during their short season) has been frozen.

Red lobster trio

And a trio with a real Maine lobster tail.

Unable to leave well enough alone, I was wooed by a Chevy’s billboard on the drive back to the Goethels Bridge that was advertising a 10pm-to-close happy hour. $3 drinks and half-priced appetizers! I have often wondered where people drink in the suburbs, and now I know that at least some people, young, tanned, gelled, velour track-suited people, fill the bar at Chevy’s drinking Mexican Bulldogs, i.e. giant frozen drinks, often neon blue, with a Corona held upside down in the beverage by a plastic contraption. I had a headache the next morning (though my stomach was just fine, raw oysters be damned–must be that AmeriPure Process®) and live in fear of becoming a chain restaurant drunk.

Red Lobster * 635 Rt. 1, Iselin, NJ

The Big Easy, Briefly

I imagine saying The Big Easy is akin to The Big Apple or Frisco or whatever horrible nickname locals would never use. I didn’t go wild with New Orleans photos considering I’ve probably taken shots of most of the classic foods (how many beignets, Sazeracs, and bowls of gumbo does one need to see?) during my four trips over the past decade (still thinking it’s weird that I ended up going the exact same week of February this year, as my first visit in 2002) and I rarely take photos of people or objects or myself anyway. But this is what I ended up with.

Time is short in my world due to a combination of day-job-demands and general inertia, so I’m not likely to blog about any of my meals. I would probably talk about Dooky Chase and how it’s not fair to compare the fried chicken to Wille Mae’s on the next block, as I had intended because Willie Mae’s makes some of the best fried chicken in the country while Dooky Chase is more about the breadth of Creole cooking, as exemplified by the lunch buffet that I intended to bypass for a chicken-only-snack but got sucked into.

And how I wasn’t feeling Herbsaint, but my urge for modern Southern/NOLA cuisine was more than satisfied by newish Sweet Olive in the lobby of The Saint hotel where the minimalist, lucited style bucks typical New Orleans frippery. Drum (the fish), pimento cheese, sweet potato, fried oysters, collard greens, grits, crawfish, chow chow, banana pudding, and red velvet all get elevated.

Better Than Shamrock Shakes?


The early 2000s were a crazy time. We had neon blue and pink Parkay, monster-hued purple and green Heinz ketchup, and sky blue Ore-Ida frozen fries. Now we are resigned to getting our unnaturally colored condiments once a year when Burger King gives away free fries with green ketchup for St. Patrick’s Day.

It’s a shame the holiday falls on a Saturday this year, since I work a block from a Burger King, but they’re scarce in gentrified Brooklyn. At least BK spells St. Paddy's correctly–I've seen a lot of two T's nonsense this week.

Photo via GrubGrade

New Yorkers Surprised by Olive Garden’s Warm Reception Outside of New York

GrandPeople seem to think this earnest Olive Garden review in the Grand Forks Herald is a joke (no, the accompanying photo doesn't help) but little about it surprises me and I know nothing about the North Dakota dining scene. This is how things are, and would hardly be the first Olive Garden critique in a regional newspaper (here's a recent one from Baton Rouge's The Advocate, which I mistook for the gay Advocate for a nanosecond)

Admittedly, I do worry a bit about the town if this is true: "All in all, it is the largest and most beautiful restaurant now operating in Grand Forks. It attracts visitors from out of town as well as people who live here." I'm starting to feel a little attracted…

With very little research, it was easy to determine that independent restaurants do, indeed, exist in Grand Forks, and Marilyn Hagerty has, in fact, reviewed them, many of them. On one hand: good, she tries everything, not just chains. On the other hand, she's dined extensively in the region and truly finds Olive Garden to be the "most beautiful." Pehaps local message boards could heatedly debate this a la Pete Wells's starring of Shake Shack.

A tiny sampling of non-chains in Grand Forks:

Sanders 1907 Dakota Cuisine. The menu is fairly meat-and-potatoes, but they do serve hamachi carpaccio, escargot, duck burritos, and list 58 scotches.

The Toasted Frog does bar food that wouldn't be wildly out of place in bigger cities: fried cheese-wrapped pickles served with sriracha, and panko-crusted fried oysters with remoulade. Wood-fired pizzas are also their thing and the Roma-Dakota mixes late '80s faves: sun-dried tomatoes and artichoke hearts with the unexpected: pheasant confit.

Dakota Harvest Bakers is an artisan bakery using local ingredients. Sandwiches include banh mi and a muffaletta.

Frankly, I was most excited to learn about new-to-me regional chains (always a pleasure): Paradiso Mexican Restaurant with all-you-can-eat Fajita Wednesdays, Rhombus Guys, a gluten-free pizzeria, JL Beers, a craft beer and burger joint touting freshly ground beef and baked buns, and Grizzly's where "fresh flavors of the northwoods" translates to Wisconsin cheese curds with ranch dressing, steak, ribs, and general bbq-ness, and Green Mill with award-winning buffalo wings.

UPDATE: The Village Voice went straight to the source (smart!) and Marilyn Hagerty sounds pretty awesome.

Photo: Greater Grand Forks Convention and Visitors Bureau Visitors Guide 2012

Eaten, Barely Blogged: Cuttlefish, Tripe & Chinese Crawfish

Celestino quad

Celestino. It's that time of year again when I play along with the boyfriend's Lent thing even though I don't get why it's a big deal to not eat meat one day a week (pizza’s not punishment, right?). You're not even restricted to vegetables. Sea creatures are totally fair game. So, Celestino, where the only meat is in the meatballs on the kids' selection of two items, was fitting. Super cute, whitewashed and hiply nautical (I still need to see Littleneck for comparison) with very good prices, it's the kind of restaurant that would be packed in Carroll Gardens, but was only a quarter full on a Friday night. A juice glass of a tart Italian white wine that wasn’t the Chardonnay or the Pinot Grigio was only $5 and bracing with oysters from Massachusetts and a kale salad, crunchy and oil-slicked with anchovies draped on top of the pile of greens. I wasn't expecting something so dense and stewy from the grilled cuttlefish with peas and polenta description–the peas played more of a prominent role than anticipated–though the damp, drizzly evening called for something savory and rib-sticking.

Rocky Sullivan's. After being traumatized by the sheer volume of under-26s at both places–Fulton Grand and Hot Bird–where we attempted to have a drink after Celestino (Hot Bird is a large space, and you literally couldn't get one foot in the door it was so packed) I sought solace in a no nonsense bar bar the next evening (this is not me being a grandma–in my 20s I didn't enjoy claustrophobic situations with 20-minute-waits for drinks either) and a Sixpoint Brownstone Ale and jalapeno poppers did the trick.

El bohemio duo

El Bohemio Jarocho. I have all but given up on house-hunting. After seeing a nicely designed, overpriced co op in Clinton Hill next to the projects that already had four all-cash bids (seriously who the fuck are all these Brooklynites will millions to spare? The crank in me says all of the 20-somethings now filling the neighborhood bars in ten more years) then a so-so whole house in Sunset Park, in hopes of less-trodden neighborhoods being less competitive, I just needed a taco…or two. I’ve never head a peep about El Bohemio Jarocho, but it happened to be on the block we parked on and had more customers than the empty alternative across the street. Sometimes you need some crispy tripe and pineapple-sweetened al pastor with Monkey Trouble playing on two TVs and no English interactions. The steak el huevo advertised on the chalkboard turned out to be a massive plate of everything (maybe a Mexican garbage plate?): steak and eggs, obviously, but also a slab of white cheese, grilled bulbous green onion, nopales, jalapeño, avocados, tomatoes, refried beans, chips, rice, and potatoes. Phew.

New world food court

New World Mall. This is the fanciest of the subterranean Flushing food courts. I didn’t encounter crawfish in New Orleans (we were about a month pre-season) but they were selling the ma la-style for $9.99 at Sliced Noodles. I was tempted, but tried the beef soup with hand-pulled noodles since it was the original craving that drew me there (though I was thinking of Hong Kong-style, which this super-greens-filled Henanese version is not).

Duck and pork buns

The dollar peking duck buns from across the street are a bargain, but pale in comparison to the not-much-more-expensive gua bao ($4.95 for two) from the Taiwanese stall. My favorite item of the afternoon: big fat soy-braised slabs of pork belly placed on fluffy buns and garnished with a pile of cilantro and pickled mustard greens, and given a crushed peanut finish. I saved one for breakfast the next day and wish this part of my daily first meal regimen instead of almonds and clementines.


New Orleans Between Bread: Muffalettas & Po’ Boys

Despite the plethora of sandwiches in NYC–these types of round-ups and columns make me cry–I rarely eat them out of some misguided carb-shunning measure that just gets bested by overeating multigrain crispbreads or corn tortillas instead. Both old-timer and newcomer favorites, Defonte's and Court Street Grocers are mere blocks from my apartment, yet I've never been to either.

On vacations, though, sadness wanes and sandwiches are fair game. And in New Orleans you'd be crazy to pass up two classics: the muffaletta, a very specific sandwich, and po' boys, a genre that can include nearly any type of filling.

Whereas a first-timer could easily skip Mother's for po' boys (though I would never disparage the choice–a Facebook friend posted a Mother's pic just days after I returned from New Orleans and I kept comments to myself) the same isn't true of Central Grocery. The much lauded mufaletta is worth experiencing–it is the original, after all. It's just that after trying it on our past three visits, it felt like time to branch out.

Napoleon house muffaletta whole

Napoleon house muffaletta insides

Everyone else seems to do a warm version.  In addition to its Pimm's Cup, Napoleon House is also known for its mufaletta (and I wouldn't stray beyond those two items). A whole one is good-sized and plenty for two to share, but not as massive as the original. Less oily and dense with a lighter, fluffy bread and enough melted provolone to create strings when pulling apart the quarters, this style draws less attention to the cold cuts.  The chopped green olive condiment, cheese, and bread dominate.

Cochon butcher muffaletta

Cochon Butcher, who also presents its version heated, is all about the charcuterie–ham, salami, mortadella– as implied by the name of the establishment. Clearly, it's the more artisanal of the two. This style, too, uses a springier sesame-seed-studded bread than the original, which makes it easier to eat without totally blowing your appetite for the day.

Cochon butcher buckboard bacon melt

The Buckboard Bacon Melt, actually impressed me more with assertive and unexpected flavors. Essentially, it's a grilled cheese with Swiss, meaty bacon, a mess of tangy stewed collard greens for contrast, and  spiced aioli for extra richness. I want to swap lettuce for greens on all of my sandwiches, now.

Cochon butcher sweet potato habanero sauceWhether or not they were meant to be eaten with hot sauce, the house sweet potato, habanero blend added a sweet-hot kick that was irresistible. I ended up buying a bottle of the thick orange condiment to take home, as well as a bacon praline, which worked a little better as a spin on that candy than the Aunt Sally's version using Tabasco. I had no idea that the sweet potato was such as part of the region's identity. Over four days I saw the tuber's presence in a drink called the Casserole Cocktail (it tasted like Thanksgiving) at the Swizzle Stick, pickled in an amuse bouche at Sweet Olive, and mentioned in an ad for an upcoming beer dinner where one course was paired with Lazy Magnolia's Sweet Potato Cream Stout (I never found it in a bar, but their Southern Pecan Ale is very good).

(As an aside, I would recommend both  Cochon Butcher and Cochon, but didn't get the big deal with Herbsaint where we only went because I had heard gumbo recommendations. Normally, I find service complaints to verge on nitpicky and Yelpy and I wasn't even going to blog about this, but the recent Pete Wells/Roberta's post made me think more on the issue. We were scolded for calling to make a same-day-reservation on a Monday, not an unheard of practice in NYC, then were seated in a corner next to drafty window [which wouldn't have been an problem two days later when the weather radically shifted from blustery to tropical]. Minor issues, I guess. But being brought the check before asking seemed off for a place that presents itself as the caliber of restaurant where you shouldn't think you could make a morning reservation for that evening. When we left, the hostess podium was unmanned and neither a thanks or good-bye was offered by anyone on site. The food was average–small plates were better than mains–but the overall experience clouded that impression. Maybe it was better than average, but my opinion was tainted by the end of the meal?)

Ok, po' boys.  They can really be crammed with anything like a hero/sub/hoagie. For me, the differentiator is that you can almost always get fried seafood, which I don't typically associate with sandwiches of this type in other regions. Of course, roast beef with gravy and "debris" a.k.a. bits of gravy-soaked-meat that have fallen off in the cooking process, is also very popular and has nothing to do with the sea.

Parkway tavern shrimp po boy

Mother's (my food diary, not blog, from the early '00s was far less verbose and photo-reliant–now I'm just being old and sentimental because my first and most recent visits to New Orleans were the exact same week ten years apart) and Domilise's have been done before, and now Parkway Tavern and Liuzza's By the Track can finally be added to my repertoire (these barely scratch the surface, but are probably the most popular four). Of the two excursions on this trip, my favorite po' boy was at Parkway (which they actually spell poor boy, which is the only sane way to pronounce it unless you genuinely don't enunciate R's at the ends of your words) but just by a hair. They do make their own bread, which is a soft baguette with a crackly top, soft enough to not cut up your mouth but with enough chew to give it character. I may have also been influenced by the double bloody mary.  Stuffed with little breaded, fried shrimp and dressed with the requisite mayonnaise, tomato, pickles and shredded lettuce, this was a near perfect rendition, a blend of hot and cold, both pillowy and firm. 

Parkway tavern roast beef po boyInstead of ordering the surf and turf, which is roast beef and fried shrimp, we ordered both components as separate po' boys. I'm biased against insanely messy sandwiches, so the roast beef oozing with gravy wasn't my friend, and I can't imagine what a beast the surf and turf would be to wrangle. Since we were swapping halves (these are larges, by the way, not regulars) and I started with my favorite, by the time I got to this sandwich the bread was a disintegrated mess and the top slice wouldn't stay in synch with the bottom, each bite sliding the two farther apart. James, however, preferred this over the shrimp, so it's just a matter of taste. He also insisted on taking the photo and it kept blurring and we got into a tiff–roast beef po' boys cause problems, that's all I'm saying.

Liuzza's by the track shrimp po' boy & gumbo

It's always about personal biases, though. The only reason why Liuzza's By the Track (not the same as Liuzza's that's not by the racetrack and is more of a sit-down restaurant that stays open past 7pm) was minutely less winsome to me was because the mayo was applied with a heavy hand and instead of melding into a soup with the vegetables, it remained thick and blobby, a psychological culinary barrier. With that said, this was a very good po' boy.

Liuzza's by the track interior
As was the rendition with fried, garlicky oysters (kind of like that other New Orleans specialty, charbroiled oysters, in sandwich form) that wasn't photographed. I didn't notice the soft-shell crab special on the wall until after I'd ordered–I would've loved to try that one.

Liuzza's by the track exteriorI'm also afraid we didn't give Liuzza's the same attention as Parkway because we'd already eaten a lunch buffet at Dooky Chase's (we really just wanted to sample the fried chicken but got sucked into trying more). Without a car, and limited number of meals, we had to cram in restaurants that were relatively near each other (actually Parkway is also walkable from Liuzza's, if you wanted to do a same-day taste test) to maximize foot journeys once off the streetcar. Luckily, I figured out that the bus that runs down Esplanade Ave., a block from Liuzza's, zigzagged and would drop us off right in front of our hotel on Poydras St. The only thing I forget is that once out of NYC, cars are the norm so public transportation tends to be a weirdo-magnet. It's hard to justify a cab, though, when fares are only $1.25. Cheapness will prevail over freaks-avoidance. (During the day, at least–we did get a bad vibe being the the only ones on foot in the desolate Central Business District one evening, and refused to engage with a woman on a bike who started following us.)

And I must also add that the thin-style gumbo filled with andouille, shrimp, and chicken was my favorite iteration of the iconic dish that's done in so many ways that I'm not even going to attempt rating or discussing it. This cup was light (or maybe didn't use it at all) on the file powder, the ground sassafras leaves that thicken and give everything that quintessential New Orleans smell  and flavor that's akin to spiced dirt, the very essence of earthiness. Cajun or Creole, I'm not sure, but a little goes a long way.

Napoleon House * 500 Chartres St., New Orleans, LA
Cochon Butcher * 930 Tchoupitoulas St., New Orleans, LA
Parkway Bakery and Tavern * 538 Hagan Ave., New Orleans, LA
Liuzza's By the Track * 1518 N. Lopez St., New Orleans, LA