Monday, April 28, 2008

My Ten Favorite Deals in Manhattan (Part 1 of 5)

To the naked eye, Manhattan is an expensive place.

To the Gucci sunglass shaded eye, not so much, perhaps.

Finding a great deal in Manhattan is a wonderful but strange phenomena. You immediately want to tell everyone who will listen, but with the way word of mouth spreads in this town, one is justifiably worried that it will become too popular (i.e. Shake Shack, Sake Bar Hagi) and you’ll only be able to go at odd times.

The following are ten of my favorite deals in the city that I don’t believe are in danger of disappearing due to disclosure (not that anyone reads this anyway). I’d love to hear in the comments about any of the readers’ (yes, I know it’s just you reading Mom and Dad) favorite deals. As always, these aren’t ranked, or in any particular order.

1) Dumpling House – 4 for a $1 Dumplings, 50 cent Sesame Pancake

Deals don’t get much cheaper than 4 piping hot crispy, juicy, delicious pork and chive pan fried dumplings for $1, tax included. There are plenty of dollar dumpling depots in the Chinatown area, but this is the best one I’ve found. It isn’t clean, isn’t efficient and isn’t comfortable, but that hasn’t stopped me from coming back again and again to this hole in the wall. The 50 cent sesame pancake is good enough to rival the dumplings, crispy on the edges, with a fluffy interior; full of wonderful sesame flavor and a joy to shred apart with your teeth. For a buck more you can make it into a phenomenal sandwich with sliced roast beef, cilantro, carrot and watercress. No matter what you order from the brief menu, you’re going to walk away having had a great meal for couch change.

Insider’s Tip: Dumpling House now has a deli counter style ticket system. Grab a ticket when you get there and be ready to order as soon as you’re called.

2) Pompano Taqueria – $2.75 Tacos

In the bowels of the Crystal Pavilion office building on 50th and 3rd Avenue, lies my favorite lunch spot in Midtown. 

For $2.75 you can get a scrumptious soft taco filled with luscious combinations like sautéed kingfish and napa cabbage, grilled steak with peppers onions and manchego cheese and grilled shrimp with black bean puree. Buy two and they toss in a free bag of homemade tortilla chips, so good that they would make a Tostidos fan renounce their past chip transgressions.

Several sumptuous salsas of varying degrees of heat complement both the tacos and chips very nicely, as do the fresh diced onion, jalapeño and pico de gallo.

 It ain’t easy finding cheap, quality food in Midtown. This place fits the bill.

Insider’s Tip: Call ahead with your order and walk to the front of the line when you show up. Otherwise you could be in for a wait.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Big Apple BBQ Block Party

The past two years I have had the privilege of attending one of the most enjoyable (and delectable) festivals in existence. The Big Apple BBQ Block Party is an event organized by uber-successful restaurateur Danny Meyer that invites the best barbecue restaurants in the country to bring their smoking rigs up to Madison Square Park in New York City to cater an informal gorge-fest. The event has drawn crowds of over 100,000 patrons per year in its seven year existence and seems likely to break that mark this year as word of its delicious fun spreads.

So why am I posting about this now, eight weeks before the event?

Currently, you can purchase "Fast Passes" that enable the bearer to queue up for the 'cue in a special, significantly shorter line than the general public. Purchasing a Fast Pass will commit you to buying at least $100 worth of food and drink over the festival weekend, but this pass can be split amongst as many friends and/or strangers as you wish, so you don't have to stuff only your own face to use up the credit (though I likely will...).

If you don't purchase a Fast Pass, you can either
wait in line (often very long lines for the best places) with the uninformed, or find someone like me who is willing to share their access with you. Either way, I can't recommend highly enough that you get yourself to New York City June 7th and 8th and experience one of the best events of the year.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Bacon fat, on toast

A few years ago there was a public service announcement that was played on my college radio station several times a day. This PSA was meant to drum up support for programs that feed the homeless. The premise of the ad was that there are thousands of families who can only afford bacon fat on toast for dinner. How awful, I remember thinking. Images of dirty jars of rendered bacon fat spread on heater warmed toast flashed through my head. Where were the fruits and veggies? Where were the nutrients?

Flash forward to the present day.

A little (really, really little actually) restaurant in Manhattan's East Village is making waves with their culinary creations that are delighting diners and have people desperate to dine within its doors.

I am an enormous fan of the chef/owner David Chang's other restaurants, (Momofuku, Momofuku Ssam Bar) and have been very interested in seeing what he was planning to offer on his $85 prix fixe menu. Lots of bloggers have chronicled their meals here and I read one particularly thorough one that described each dish in detail.

Among the diverse and complex offerings was an amuse-bouche that sounded somewhat familiar. I'll leave it The Wandering Eater to to describe this creation.

"Soon after that, came in our second amuse of the evening, housemade English muffins with rendered pork fat and green onions. I’m not really an English muffin person. It’s awfully dry and unpalatable when it comes to the stuff my mom buys from the grocery store. But this sets the standard of how an English muffin should be. Crisp with little nooks and crannies with salty rendered pork fat permeating its tangy, thin core. I wish I have this for breakfast everyday - without getting atherosclerosis."

To sum it up: Bacon fat, on toast.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Iron Chef - Chili Peppers

A couple of weeks ago, my friend Tesha challenged me to make her a meal that was a) composed of dishes unlike any she had eaten and b) spicy enough to challenge her Thai palate.

Last night, I made my attempt to satisfy her cravings.

First up was a salad composed of grilled, then chilled watermelon spears, warm, crispy Niman Ranch bacon, diced sweet red bell
pepper and paper thin slices of serrano chili peppers. The salad didn’t need much in the way of a dressing, but I added a little Roasted Yellow Pepper and Serrano Chili Dressing from Cindy’s Kitchen (which wasn’t that great to be honest) for color and moisture.

The individual components of the salad were as pleasant as you’d expect, but when eaten together they were an army of flavor, verging on being overpowering. Let’s just say it isn’t your parent’s salad. I particularly liked the interaction of the chilies and the watermelon, conducting their own symphony of sweet and heat; my go to flavor combination when creating new dishes. The salad wasn’t as tasty as the grilled peach and nectarine salad that I often make, but as those fruits are not yet in season, this was a pretty good substitute.

The second course was pan seared sea scallops (cooked in a bit of the bacon fat) with a jalapeno-apple cream sauce served over pan-fried grit cakes and roasted green beans. These were incredibly sweet scallops which jived very well with the spice of the cream sauce.
The sauce was made from a skinless diced Fuji apple and two finely minced jalapenos blended with ½ cup of half and half. I then poured the mixture into the scallop pan (cast iron) to deglaze, reduce by half and pick up some of the flavors left behind. It worked really well and you could adjust the heat based on your personal preference by adding additional pepper to the mixture.

The dessert portion of the meal was both the spiciest and tastiest portion of our dinner.

I took Trader Joe’s canned mangoes, rinsed off the light syrup in which they were stored, and rubbed them with a pinch of kosher salt and enough ancho chili powder to coat lightly. After macerating for two hours, I then grilled the mangoes in a cast iron grill pan until they were golden brown on both sides. The grilled fruit then went back into the refrigerator for an hour long chill.

To create the dessert, I placed three large mango slices in a bowl, topped with whipped cream and sprinkled some very finely minced habanero pepper over the top.

Not to toot my own horn, but this thing was fantastic. The mango and whipped cream had a wonderful mouth-feel when eaten together and the habanero added a burst of heat that played very well with the rich, sweet flavors of the grilled mango.

I don’t make dessert very often as I prefer to get my calories from savory foods, but this is one that I will be going back for over and over again. Especially because the cost of making one ($1 for the mango can, $.50 for ¼ can of whipped cream, 4 cents for small habanero pepper) ends up being about $0.75 a portion for an elegant, complex and delicious way to end a meal.

A text from Tesha today: "Thanks for dinner. It was incredible!!!"

Mission accomplished.

Monday, April 7, 2008

Bubba, McRib and Me

When I was eight years old, I consumed thirty-two McRib sandwiches in the month of March.  To put that in perspective, I weighed 94 pounds at the time.  As a McRib weighs approximately a pound with all the fixin's, in one month I basically ate a third of my weight in McRibs.  You could say I was a big fan.

The (rib flavored) apple of my eye.

Thankfully for my cardiovascular system, the McRib disappeared from the McDonald's menu for several years, only to reappear on a monumental day in my life.

I was in the sixth grade when President Bill Clinton came to Atlanta to speak at the CNN center.  My school took a field trip to see the speech, taking off in the late morning so that we could arrive for the 1 PM event.  We parked the bus right outside the food court and sat on the ground in the cool October air to enjoy our bagged lunches the school provided.  If you've ever been subjected to a school-made bagged lunch, I don't have to tell you that the granola bar was the only edible item in the bag.

Famished after the meager meal, I walked in our alphabetically organized single file line into the CNN Center to see the President.  As we passed by the McDonald's in the food court, I saw a poster with three words that made my heart stop.  It's Back! McRib.

After three years of waiting and wondering, my sandwich had returned.  Had I read Love in the Time of Cholera at age eleven, I would have compared my longing to that of Florentino Ariza.  Suffice to say, I would have waited a lifetime for one bite.

President Clinton spoke for about 45 minutes.  I paid attention for exactly none.  All I could think about was when I could get my hands on that boneless pork patty, barbecue sauce, onions and pickles served on a 6 inch (15.2 cm) roll.

When the speech concluded, the President made his way towards our group, going into the crowd to shake hands.  This indeed was enough to get my attention and I extended my arm when he was a few feet away.  He grabbed my hand and gave it a vigorous shake.  It was everything you'd expect out of a handshake from the most powerful man in the world.  I was incredibly excited.  My friends were all quite jealous as I was the only one in our group who had the honor.

I returned home from school that day beaming with the events of the day.  I bust through the door and ran up to my mother.  I could still feel the grip of the President on my young hand.

"Mom," I exclaimed. "Guess what!"  

"What sweetie?" She replied.

"McRib is back!"

Thursday, April 3, 2008

Philly Tacos – Sinfully Delicious, or just plain Sin?

The Philly Taco could be considered either a triumph of American ingenuity, or everything that is wrong with society, depending on your perspective.   

What exactly is a Philly Taco you ask?   

Invented by a group of college students from the University of Pennsylvania, whom I’m proud to call my friends, this monstrosity is a Philly cheesesteak wrapped inside of a slice of pizza.  Yes, the whole cheese steak. Roll and all.   

Now I’m sure you’re wondering, where can I find one?   

As far as I know, you can’t.   

This beast you must currently construct yourself.   

If you find yourself in Philadelphia, South Street is home to legendary cheesesteak purveyor Jim’s and grimey, but great pizza parlor Lorenzo’s.  The two establishments happen to be right across the street from one another.  I think you can figure out the rest on your own… 

On a dare, I sampled one of these behemoths late one Saturday night.  Let me first say, this is not for the weak of jaw.  The task of chewing this monster alone could be enough work to dissuade a daring diner.  For those willing to persevere however, there is a wonderful reward for all that chomping.   

The verdict? 

Like the best foods of any kind, this chimerical sandwich melds sweet, spicy, salty and savory flavors in addition to the multiple layers of texture.  The interplay of the caramelized onions and peppers was a natural fit with the rich cheese and tomato sauce of the pizza.  The crispy, thin, pizza crust threw in a little extra crunch to the equation that added another layer of complexity to each bite not found in the usual cheesesteak experience 

To sum it up; it was actually kind of great.

Would I want to eat one often?  Not unless I had a death wish.   

There is something to be said though for just going crazy once in a while and taking on the gluttony gauntlet.  

I received no physical prize for winning this dare.  

There was, however, a feeling of accomplishment that far outlasted the indigestion

That, and of course, a new story to tell.

Spring is, well, springing

A handy guide to the bounty of the season. Eat fresh.

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

What's the big idea?

I love to eat.  I think about food constantly.  During meals I watch television shows about food or read grocery store ads.  I spend hours a day researching restaurants, green markets, specialty food stores and recipes.  I genuinely love grocery shopping, cooking and discussing all things food.  I used to own and run my own catering company.  You might say I'm obsessed.  I plan to write this blog to share some of the joys (and occasionally sorrows) of my dining life.  Hope you enjoy...