Lean times and street meat

I was 24 and outrageously broke when I moved to New York almost nine years ago. I’d blown all my money on travel and carbs living in Italy my first two years out of college and even when I landed a job in the city within my first two weeks here, it paid me peanuts. Scratch that. Peanut shells. 

Groceries were expensive and the cheap stuff was mostly a mix of terrible-for-you and terrible tasting, so I avoided it. My roommate dominated our tiny, shitty kitchen and I hated cooking anyway so it wasn’t much of an option to begin with.

Also, because I’d only been to New York once before moving, I knew nothing about the place, nothing about its tricks and secrets, or the hacks to surviving here. When I was introduced to street meat, sometimes also known as halal food, or the chicken (or beef or falafel) and rice dishes sold at food carts around the city, I felt like I finally had something to work with.

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Not winning any photo contests, but it hit the spot

For $5 I could get a pretty big serving of what seemed like a perfectly balanced meal: yellow rice (carbs), tender, spiced chicken (protein), lettuce and tomatoes (veggies) and a couple delicious sauces for a mix of creamy and spicy flavors. I was hooked.

It even taught me a small lesson in the surprising kindness of strangers.

One night after leaving the office, I stopped at a nearby cart on the way home and ordered what would be dinner that night. When I looked in my wallet, I panicked: no cash. I offered to run to an ATM but the older gentleman holding my round aluminum foil container full of food shook his head and said not to worry about it.

“You come back tomorrow,” he said, extending the food toward me. “I trust you. You bring me money tomorrow.”

Obviously I went back immediately the next day and paid the guy and thanked him for a delicious dinner. He could have just as easily said no money, no food that night, or made me run to an ATM, even though I was tired and hungry and probably wondering if an ATM fee would make me overdraft. But he didn’t, and I never forgot that.

A couple of nights ago, walking home sweaty and exhausted from work and the gym, I passed The Halal Guys, one of the actual brick-and-mortar versions of one of the city’s most famous carts. For ol’ times sake I went in and got my old standby, the chicken and rice platter.

I’m happy to report that while it didn’t make for the most aesthetically pleasing photo, it was every bit as delicious, filling and comforting as it was back when I didn’t have many other options. As long as I live in this city, street meat will have it a spot in my heart.

I could be a vegetarian

Twice this week—TWICE!— I’ve thought to myself, “I could totally be a vegetarian.”

Not a vegan. No, not ever a vegan. I couldn’t give up ice cream and cheese. But vegetarian? I could definitely be a vegetarian.

Honestly, it’s a thought that creeps in all the time, luring me with its promises of health and skinniness, but then I smell bacon fresh out of the pan or  a take a juicy bite of a fat burger and I think no, nevermind, what was I thinking.

But then again, twice this week, I thought I could do it, based off delicious vegetarian meals (one vegan actually!) that didn’t make me feel like I was missing anything.

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American butternut squash bowl… cause not everything American is broken

Earlier in the week was a freakin’ great American butternut squash bowl from PureKtchn. Pretty much the kind of dish that begs to be Instagrammed, it was a big colorful bowl of soft butternut squash, roasted cauliflower, kale, chickpeas, lentils, walnuts and a surprise pinch of tangy, fruity sweetness from goji berries. People who force feed themselves salads in an attempt at being healthy, EAT THIS. It was good! It was healthy! There was no forcing of anything!

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Superiority Burger, sometimes vegan, always delicious

Then later in the week, a friend and I had dinner at Superiority Burger, a cramped little East Village spot whose menu tells people to ask because “everything is vegetarian, a lot is accidentally vegan.” Clockwise from the left hand corner of the picture, we shared the smashed spicy cucumber and brown rice  topped with some of the best damn croutons I’ve ever had, the Sloppy Dave, a delicious, saucey take on a sloppy Joe, the zesty and creamy tahini ranch romaine salad that made me forget how lame I think lettuce is and a rich, spicy burnt broccoli salad.

I might cut back on meat and dairy but realistically, I won’t likely ever become a vegetarian. (I’m a Libra, I’m all about balance.) But with meals like these, where I ended full and happy with not a single crumb of guilt or shame, (which isn’t the case when I polish off a pint of ice cream or a whole pizza) I can certainly keep daydreaming about it.

Mini version, massive deliciousness

My mom does this thing that probably only I find irritating: the woman loves to speak in diminutives, which in Spanish, exist for every freaking word. In English, a small table is just that, a small table. In Spanish, it’s una mesita. A small dog? Un perrito. A small house? Una casita. I don’t know why, but it just gets under my skin.

img_7896So when my roommate told me about these things called mofonguitos, the diminutive of the Carribean dish mofongo, I grit my teeth for a second and maybe got a twitch in my eye. When I saw the pictures, however, my only question was when are we having these?

And so we found ourselves at the very tippy top of Manhattan, squeezed into a small table at a no-frills place called Bombonada, while Spanish music blared from the kitchen and we stuffed our faces with one of the most delicious things I’ve ever eaten, handheld versions of the normally plated mofongo.

img_7893Traditionally served as a heap of mashed fried plantain, topped with a stew-like sauce, cheese, rice and a protein of your choice, here the plantain mash was used to make palm-sized cups that were then filled with all manner of tastiness: shrimp, ground beef, pork, chicken, all saucy and juicy, topped with a thick layer of gooey, melted cheese.

At first glance, they kind of look like the potato skins from Friday’s that I so dearly loved as a kid, but these, totally different, were worlds better. We had a few different kinds, (not all photographed because honestly, they just weren’t on the table long enough to get their photos snapped before being devoured) but I think my favorite might have been the ground beef, because it was so rich and hearty, completely over the top and gluttonous.

Yes, the name still kind of grates on my nerves but when something is as ridiculously good as that, I could forgive an annoying name any day.

A burger for these impossible times

Now that the seemingly impossible’s actually happened, I need to take a break from all the doom and gloom and talk about something else for just a minute. Food’s always been a respite for me, and writing a form of therapy and distraction, so indulge me, will you?

Last week, when the world—while troubled and strange— didn’t seem quite as broken as it does now, I got around to eating something I’d been wanting since earlier this summer when it made its New York debut: an Impossible Burger.

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Oh, that flag.

Made by the creative wizards and scientists at Silicon Valley startup Impossible Foods, their burger’s only available at three restaurants in California (two in San Fran and one in LA) and now at  Momofuku Nishi in Chelsea, where I had it.

The crazy thing about this burger, the impossible thing, is that even though it’s made entirely of all natural ingredients and not a single animal, it also looks and tastes like a regular ol’ hamburger made of ground beef. It has the same consistency, the same juiciness when you bite into it, the same reddish-pink inside and the same charring on the outside.

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Would you believe it? Not real meat!

Now, everyone who knows me knows I eat meat and burgers are some of my favorite, but I also love veggie burgers. To me though, they’re two different things. Until now.

Nishi’s burger is served on a soft potato roll and dressed like a pretty standard burger: lettuce, tomato, pickles, a smear of special sauce, and in my case, a slice of American cheese. A heap of crispy shoestring fries comes along next to it.

While I don’t think it’s the best burger out there, I do think it’s the closest thing to a beef burger that I’ve ever tasted in the world of veggie burgers. If I was trying to be vegetarian I would eat these all the time. Even as a meat eater, I’d definitely eat this again.

The fact that it uses way less natural resources like gas, water and land to create it, and also has  none of the crap like antibiotics and hormones that so much of our beef unfortunately has, makes it all the better.

In these impossible times, something enjoyable and less harmful to the world around it sounds pretty freakin’ good to me.

Out with the old and in with the calories

Ok, hear me out. This time I have a good excuse for my latest disappearing act. My dear, sweet computer, my ol’ Italian girl with the keyboard that used to trip everybody up except me, finally gave up the fight and went peacefully in her sleep one night.

We had a good long run together, about 8 years, so I think I need some time alone, no? Blogging on my phone, however, is a nightmare and doing it at work isn’t really an option either at the moment, so there you have it: radio silence.

But don’t you worry, it’s been gluttonous business as usual here. Below, a look at the things I’ve been eating and drinking and just not writing about:

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The phenomenal leek bread pudding from Cassette‘s brunch menu wasn’t what I was expecting (since I didn’t really know what to expect) but it was damn good. Oh and the restaurant, in Greenpoint, is adorable. You should go.

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I hated it the first time I tried it but over the years, the Negroni has become one of my favorites. At Extra Fancy in Williamsburg, they have a frozen one. Clearly, I was in love.

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In all the years I’ve lived in New York so far, I had never been to Carnegie Deli so when I heard that the local institution was closing at the end of the year, I had to go. Not wanting to wait an hour and a half on the sidewalk for a table inside, Stas and I got our order to-go and ate it in the park. The Woody Allen (“lots corned beef and lotsa pastrami”), the most delicious knish I’ve had yet, a fat slice of banana cream pie and a thick wedge of the richest, most dense cheesecake I’ve ever eaten, and the two of us were done for.

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And lastly, a special shout out to the pretzel dog at my favorite bar in my old hood, the Rusty Knot. It’s nothing fancy, just a hot dog in the loving embrace of warm, salty dough, but dammit it fills my heart with all the feels every time. Or maybe that was the drinks. Who knows. It’s all delicious.

It’ll be ok, there’s matzo ball soup

Ever have one of those days that feel like you’re riding the struggle bus and no matter how many times you try to get off, it just seems to be going express, making no local stops as it barrel asses down the road, hitting all the pot holes along the way and giving you the worst car sickness ever, and you just can’t get off? Well I’m having one of those months.

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Even in hot weather, this soup is a bowl full of comfort.

I must’ve looked especially green-in-the-face and in need of a hug the other day because the struggle bus managed to give me a break and dump me outside of Frankel’s Delicatessen and Appetizing, Greenpoint’s newest Jewish deli, where I found exactly what I needed, the edible equivalent of a back rub and a “don’t worry, honey, everything’s gonna be fine.” Matzo ball soup.

The weather that day was muggy and hot (insert shocked face here), it was soup and not ice cream or a cold beer, that did the trick for me. Frankel’s matzo ball soup is the kind of deeply comforting, belly nourishing, spirit warming affair of broth, chicken, carrots, dill and a big, soft carby goodness matzo ball that can make you forget your troubles, even if only momentarily.

As I slurped the hot broth and carved out soft spoonfuls of the tennis ball-sized matzo ball, I swore I felt the struggle bus roll by and man, was I happy to  not be on board.

Rainy day beach feast

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You know, just a colorful day at the beach.

If I’m at the beach and the sun is out in all its glory and so am I, letting it all (or most of it) hang out in a bikini and sunglasses,  I try to watch what I eat. (Puppy belly’s not a sexy look for me.)

But if I’m at the beach and the sky fills with dark clouds and then bursts open with buckets of rain, the way it did last time I was at the beach with friends, the only thing to do is head for cover… and food.  Since we were near the cluster of food stalls on Rockaway Beach’s boardwalk at 97th St., that’s where we ran, huddled under umbrellas while the rain blew in sideways.

There were lobster rolls, arepas, grilled cheese sandwiches and tacos, each stall sounding more appealing than the last, but it was the farthest one, the one tucked away at the very end, that we beelined to: the Bolivian Llama Party. (I told you I love llamas, no?)

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Nachos, Bolivian style.

First out were our Bolivian nachos, a gorgeous, colorful mountain of quinoa tortilla chips and plantain chips under and over pools of black beans, creme fraiche, cheese sauce, scallions, Llajua (a fiery Bolivian hot sauce) and magenta hued pickled onions. And to make a good thing great my friend added pulled pork. While I’m a fan of good ol’ fashioned lowbrow nachos, these were a fun twist, full of zest, flavor and spice.

To take our rain induced gorging up a notch (or three), we ordered the enormous triple pork sandwich, a delicious behemoth of tender roasted pig, thick-cut home cured bacon, and my favorite indulgence, pork belly, this one with just the perfect crackling edges to complement the fatty meat. Topping it all was a spicy mayo like sauce, shredded pickled carrots and cilantro, making this one of the messiest yet most-worth-the-juices-running-down-your-arm sandwiches I’ve encountered.

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A hot mess… in the sloppiest, best ways

For good measure, we also had a few orders of BLP’s papitas, or fries, some of the cilantro kind, crunchy and piping hot, tossed in garlic, white wine and pecorino and drizzled with a bright green sauce made from quiquina, a Bolivian cilantro, and then the queso papitas, also crispy and crusty, coated in a thyme, salt and aji mix.

We needed something to wash down all those delicious carbs and calories, so we also tried both of BLP’s homemade sodas, the golden maracuya, a bright, bubbly passion fruit lemonade and the I-want-a-lip-color-like-this mora-hibiscus soda made from blackberries and hibiscus flowers.

Sure, no one’s tan was any better than at the start of the day, and our hair was more rained-on frizzy than wind-swept beach wavy, but our bellies were happy and full, and mercifully hidden under our rain-spattered shirts.