Same same but different

You ever run into an old flame and things are just so different from how they once were that it kind of makes you feel a whole bunch of things? Maybe a little sad, relieved perhaps, mostly nostalgic?

You think about the good times, and remember how sweet they really were at their height, but then you snap back to the present and maybe you notice the former flame’s lost some hair, put on some weight, looks tired or just different. Maybe it’s you, maybe you’ve changed. Either way, it’s not the same and even if the experience of seeing that person is pleasant enough, and you’re ok where you both are in life now, you can’t help but miss how things once were.

IMG_6839Yea, well, that was the experience I had with one of the great loves of my life this week: a sandwich from Antico Noè. When I lived in Florence, Italy, what really does feel like a whole different lifetime ago, I went to Noè more than anywhere else. I tried different things a couple of times but for the most part I got the same panino every time: the # 4, stuffed chicken with prosciutto, mozzarella, sautéed mushrooms and rosé sauce. It was warmed up briefly in a press, wrapped in a couple of napkins and handed over to me by the same hunky Florentine who seemed to never have a day away from the shop.

A few years ago, Antico Noè opened a shop in midtown Manhattan of all places. (Apparently, some enterprising, panini loving Americans bought the rights to  use their name here and promised to keep it as close to the original as possible.) I’ve been a couple of times since they originally opened and always had a decent enough sandwich. This past week, I found myself in midtown and actually on the same street as Noè, so I thought I’d drop in for lunch.

Feeling ever nostalgic and wanting to recapture the magic, I ordered my usual, the # 4. Staring at a mural of Florence and the same painted logo from the original shop while an Italian pop ballad played in the empty shop (I was there later in the afternoon, after the lunch rush), I ate my sandwich alone.

IMG_6840It wasn’t bad, by any means. The bread was warm and had been pressed down just right to squeeze everything together and make it easy to eat. The mozzarella, warm and melted, oozed out in long strands. The mushrooms gave their earthy, subtle flavor and weren’t slimy or wet as the sautéed kind sometimes are. The meat was alright, flavorful enough and a nice contrast to the other ingredients, though anywhere else I probably wouldn’t have ordered stuffed chicken. The rosé sauce, my favorite, was tangy and creamy.

IMG_6841And yet… it wasn’t the same. As far as lunches go, I was satisfied yes, but I wasn’t raving. If I had friends visiting from out of town, I wouldn’t insist that they eat there, they way I do with every single person who’s ever asked me where they should eat in Florence over the last ten years. The ingredients were the same they use in Florence, but not the exact kind I’m sure. I doubt it was the exact type of mozzarella, or the same sauce, and the bread was baked here, not there, which has to make a difference. In fact, I had my sandwich on whole grain, which way back when in Florence, wasn’t even an option.

Then again, maybe it wasn’t even the sandwich. Maybe it was the fact that I was in midtown Manhattan, surrounded by skyscrapers and stressed office employees, I myself being one. Maybe the sandwich just tastes better in a city that’s looked the same since before the Renaissance, when you’re in your early 20s and worried mostly about where you’ll go out that night or where to travel next weekend. It’s likely that it was both.

I’m sure New York’s Noè outpost does just fine. I’ve been there during the lunch rush and business seemed to be thriving. Lots of framed articles and media mentions line the wall when you walk in, and I’m sure Instagram has no shortage of dedications from people who studied abroad and then came back to try and relive their Florentine lunches.

But for me it felt too different. Not bad, not good, just different. And since I’d like to keep the memory of that sandwich I loved so very much all those years ago exactly as it was, I think I’ll just hold out on Noè and the # 4 till the next time I’m back in Florence, whenever that might be.

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Grubbing in Guatemala

I must’ve been a true wanderer in a past life or rolled with some sort of nomadic tribe, because if it were up to me, I’d roam the earth and live out of a suitcase.

If I had the right kind of job, or the right kind of bank account, I would probably do just that but since I don’t, whenever I do get the chance to travel and go somewhere different, somewhere new, somewhere far, every particle of my being revels in it.

And in what will be surprising to pretty much no one, one of my favorite aspects of traveling is eating. Even in a city like New York, where the cuisines of the world are available to me, still nothing beats eating local.

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I’m always happy to go.

When a good friend decided to get married in Antigua, Guatemala, a Central American country I’d never been to, I was just as excited about being a part of his big day as I was about exploring and eating my way around town.

There was lots of good food involved over the course of the long weekend I was there, everything from junk food like Doritos with funny names and peanuty snacks called Double Nuts to elegant and delicious wedding rehearsal and reception dinners to some pretty serious drinks, like the hilarious-to-say Cuchurucho, a cocktail of tequila, rum, vodka, triple sec, gin, red wine and hibiscus liqueur. (The Guatemalan Black Out, if you will.)

But my favorite meal of the trip, due to price, ambiance, and most importantly food, was a casual lunch at Rincon Tipico.

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Chicken, potatos, and guac with a cup of horchata? Si por favor.

While most places took credit cards and dollars, this place only took local currency, the Guatemalan quetzal. A little inconvenient since no one in our group had any, but I took it as a good sign anyway.  Instead of a menu, the waiter rattled of  in Spanish the only three or four options. (Another good sign if you ask me.) The place itself just looked like the real deal. It was homey and colorful, hot under the midday sun and only slightly breezy from ceiling-rigged fans. A no-nonsense looking woman pounded away at fresh corn flour, grilling it into tortillas on a large flat top that was so hot I don’t know how she didn’t melt standing over it.

And when our food arrived, with baskets of warm, fresh tortillas and plastic cups of cool creamy, cinnamony horchata (all you can drink, by the way), I was smitten.

I went with the chicken option, partly because I could see a giant wall of splayed out  chickens roasting in the open kitchen, the fiery heat contributing to the temperature at the tables, and the smell was wafting around me and making my stomach growl. And when it came out, served in a sturdy, no frills, terracotta like plate, the giant chunk of chicken was roasted to a perfect golden crisp, the meat underneath plump and delicious. With it, a generous plop of fresh ground guacamole and juicy, roasted potatoes.

It was simple food and it was great, nothing wildly inventive or groundbreaking, but deliciously satisfying, comforting and filling. And with the bottomless horchata included, it also came in at just about $4.

Even in New York, I don’t know where I would have found that. So maybe I did have to travel 2,000 miles to properly enjoy it and I’m more than happy to keep doing it as often as I can.

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.

Easy like fried chicken

How did it go again, when Lionel Richie sang it? “That’s why I’m easy, easy like Sunday evening?”

Wait, no, that’s wrong. It was morning, easy like Sunday morning.

But for me, well for me it was Sunday evening that was the easy one. Easy and delicious.

I was walking down First Ave. with a certain someone, making our way toward the L train, casually talking about maybe grabbing something quick and easy to eat before heading back to Brooklyn, when I made the suggestion.

“How ‘bout this place?” I asked, pointing to the barely noticeable, easily missable sign on Fuku’s door. “They do a good chicken sandwich. And it’s fast.”

IMG_8718I’d been there about a year before with a couple of friends, and remembered liking it. David Chang can do no wrong in my book. In his Momofuku kingdom, he’s got the Midas touch of deliciousness.

The menu’s small at Fuku and the main attraction is Chang’s chicken sandwich. A couple of sandwiches, some chicken fingers, fries, a couple sides, a few drinks , and that’s all folks! But when things are as good as this, you don’t need a lot of choices, and for someone like me, who struggles with decision-making, that’s a great thing.

Ordering— unlike so many other times at so many other places—was a breeze and I went with the Koreano, a slight twist on the regular chicken sandwich. No fries cause I wasn’t ravenously hungry as usual (and because my partner in crime for the night got some so I thought he wouldn’t mind a couple missing.)

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Deciding on Fuku was easy, ordering was easy and when my Koreano came out, it was easy too. Not a ton of toppings or competing flavors, just a few really great things coming together to make a phenomenal chicken sandwich. The bun, smooth and seedless, was soft and subtly sweet, with a smear of bright flavored chili sauce on the inside. A heap of tangy shredded daikon radish, a couple simple bread and butter pickles, and the star of the show: a huge hunk of absolutely perfect fried chicken.

Perfect, I said. Perfect.  Crunchy and golden on the outside and unbelievably juicy and tender on the inside. I don’t know what kind of black magic was used to pull off this chicken, but I support it.

Wouldn’t it be nice if everything in life was this easy and so so good? Not easy like Sunday morning, Lionel. Easy like perfect fried chicken.

I cooked and no one was harmed in the process

Anyone who doesn’t believe in the transformative power of the new year and the promise of better things to come, should’ve tasted my chicken on Tuesday night.

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Not a great pic, no, but only cause I was in a hurry to eat this beauty

You guys, it was good. Even I— ever the self-deprecating kitchen pessimist— am taking a moment here to toot my own horn, cause let me tell you, I not only made dinner from scratch but I made a damn tasty dinner at that.

The stakes were high. I was cooking for my roommate/best friend and the guy I’m steady wooing these days, neither of whom I wanted to send to the bathroom in the middle of the night with food poisoning or even a mild upset stomach. (Especially since we only have one small bathroom and an ancient, temperamental toilet.)

When I saw a simple enough yet delicious sounding recipe for a spicy roasted chicken and cauliflower mash on one of my go-to blogs last week, I knew what would be kicking off my commitment to cook a proper meal at least once a week in 2017.

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There is hope for me yet!

I sourced all my ingredients, updated our spice cabinet and put my thinking cap on. A couple of hours later, with only some barely noticeable hiccups along the way, I had made one damn good looking, Portuguese inspired, charred (on purpose!) roasted chicken surrounded by shiny, oven-roasted baby bell peppers, served alongside a bowl of steaming, creamy, garlic-and-butter-laden cauli mash.

The chicken was juicy and tender, the flavors of lime, garlic, cilantro and crushed red pepper making it spicy and colorful, and the cauliflower had the consistency and very similar and oh-so-comforting appearance and taste of mashed potatoes. Everything looked good, tasted great, and went down easy with nary a tablet of Pepto or Immodium in sight! (Though I had them on hand, cause you never know…)

 I told you 2017 was gonna be great!

Hot fix for a summer cold

Ladies and gents, I am comin’ to you live from SNOT CITY. That’s disgusting, yes, I know. And I’m sorry— kind of—because you clearly didn’t come here to read about the drama that is my sinus cavity right now, but it’s true. I’m in the midst of an obnoxious summer cold, and it sucks.

Sorry folks, it's not all food porn here.

Sorry folks, it’s not all food porn here.

I’m all red nosed and stuffy, bursting into sneezing fits every quarter hour or so, and I have a cough that feels like there’s a lone Pop Rock lodged in my throat. And so help me God, if I have to eat one more cherry flavored zinc lozenge, I’m gonna vomit.

Yesterday after leaving work, where the indoor temperature is precisely 30 below zero, the only thing I wanted was a hot cup of bone broth. Not only is it pretty much soup I can walk with, but it also has damn near magical healing powers. Bone broth is allegedly full of minerals and other good stuff that help aid the immune system and reduce intestinal inflammation (Woof. How terrible does that sound?) as well as help you sleep better, boost energy and keep you looking young (HOLLA!) thanks to collagen.

A few places in the city have it, but the closest to me at the time was Barney’s Bone Broth, a small walk up window near NYU. I went with Barney’s Signature broth, made from grass fed veal and beef bones, chicken, carrots, celery, onions, thyme, rosemary, garlic and parsley, all served piping hot in a to-go cup.

Even on a warm summer day, the hot bone broth was comforting and delicious, a portable soup-as-cold remedy for a sick girl on the go.

Cambodia’s national culinary dish

Cambodia’s Khmer cuisine has some delicious food to offer (sorry, fried tarantulas, you guys are NOT included on that list) and my favorite was unsurprisingly their most popular, the one you can find on pretty much every menu at every restaurant in every city in the country: amok.

My favorite fish amok

My favorite fish amok at Rumduol Angkor Restaurant, after a day of temple touring.

Pretty much the national dish of Cambodia, amok is a curry made with coconut milk, peppers, carrots, ginger, basil (probably a bunch of other magical spices, too) and most commonly, either fish or chicken. It’s served with white rice and usually either comes in a banana leaf container or as I had it one time in Siem Reap, inside a coconut.

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Admittedly, not the most aesthetically pleasing, but let me tell you it was goooooood! Especially scraping out the coconut meat

Amok is thick and chunky, with a great balance of sweetness from the coconut milk and hot, spicy exotic flavors from the peppers and spices. This, to me, is absolute comfort food. Even times when it was hot and muggy and I had sweat rolling down my face (so basically, every single day of my month-long stay in Cambodia), I loved ordering fish amok (which I preferred over chicken) and now that I’m back in the frozen tundra that is New York, I reeeeally wish I had a piping hot plate of it. I kind of, sort of, learned how to make it (stay tuned for that story…) and this frigid weather might just be all the motivation I need to relive this delicious bit of Cambodian comfort at home.