Coffee & Beignets in Greenwich Village

An order of beignets at CafeMarie; epic pleasure for a mere $5.

An order of beignets at CafeMarie; epic pleasure for a mere $5.

When I moved to New York City nearly 30 years ago, the West Village was my neighborhood of choice. Not only is it where my parents lived back when they briefly were New Yorkers, but Greenwich Village – as it is formally called – is arguably the city’s most storied neighborhood in terms of counterculture. And it still retains some of that flavor, even after all these years.

I’ve been enjoying a bit of a Greenwich Village renaissance as of late. I don’t necessarily go out that much, but I do occasionally take in films at the art house theaters around there. If I’m heading to the Angelika, I’ll likely gravitate towards Parm on Mulberry Street. But if I’m over at the IFC, I didn’t really have a go-to spot because Joe’s Pizza hasn’t quite been the same since they moved from their original corner location.

I had been hitting Turkiss on MacDougal Street until the Burger Joint opened up an outpost on West 8th & MacDougal, which is now my default dining destination in the area. But now I’ve discovered a place for, well, dessert.

CafeMarie at 120 MacDougal Street.

CafeMarie opened earlier this summer at 120 MacDougal Street, just south of Minetta Lane. It’s a clean little hole in the wall serving coffee and beignets, the French doughnuts from New Orleans. And in keeping with that tradition, they offer coffee with chicory as well, including cafe au lait.

I stopped in the other afternoon to give the place a taste. Fortunately for me it was after 3:30 PM, because that’s when they start serving the beignets. The reason they are not available throughout the day is because they are all freshly made when you order them. These are not the kind of things that sit around on the counter or in a display case.

I grabbed a cup of coffee along with an order of beignets. I received three large beignets, carefully covered with the customary powdered sugar. Only these beignets had a twist, in that they actually did have holes in the middle – well, more like small slits – which I found helped cradle the powdered sugar better than a traditional, hole-less beignet. And, frankly, I’d have paid a lot more than five dollars for the order of three I received.

They were delicious. I couldn’t have been happier unless I was sitting down at Cafe du Monde in New Orleans, stuffing beignets in my face before a night out on Frenchmen Street. And while I was carefully stuffing my face at CafeMarie, trying hard not to drop any powdered sugar on my shirt and pants, I witnessed two New Orleans natives stop by and testify to the authenticity of the beignets. Sure, there were grumbles about having holes in them, but I’m sure they too would eventually see the wisdom of it.

Now I have yet another culinary reason to head to MacDougal Street in the West Village. CafeMarie is a huge find. And all my friends, particularly those who have ventured to New Orleans with me on many an occasion, will surely be delighted to welcome it into the feeding fold.

There is a Swine in Spanish Harlem

Vendy Plaza at La Marqueta is a weekly food festival in Spanish Harlem.

Vendy Plaza at La Marqueta is a weekly food festival in Spanish Harlem.

Well, I’m sure you can find a rose as well, but I’m talking about La Marqueta here. And specifically Vendy Plaza, a delightfully swine-centric event.

Vendy Plaza is located beneath the elevated tracks along Park Avenue between 115th and 116th Streets.

Vendy Plaza is located beneath the elevated tracks along the Park Avenue median between 115th and 116th Streets.

La Marqueta is a market under the Metro-North elevated rail line along the median of Park Avenue between 111th and 116th Streets in Spanish Harlem. It originated in the 1930s, as an informal gathering place for pushcart vendors – sort of an early Smorgasburg. By the 50s and 60s, it had become a thriving market with five enclosed buildings housing a variety of vendors. But things have been tough in Spanish Harlem, and today only one of those buildings remains functional.

Hope is on the horizon, though. The New York City Economic Development Council is trying to resurrect the market and create a centerpiece for the community. And, in doing so, they may have even found a way to bring tourists to the area as well.

Pork tenderloin wrapped in bacon from Walking Dog BBQ along with a local microbrew.

Pork tenderloin wrapped in bacon from Walking Dog BBQ along with a local microbrew.

Building on the success of El Boarrio at the Urban Garden Center this past fall, this summer they’ve created Vendy Plaza, a Sunday food fest complete with live music. It’s run by the folks behind the Vendy Awards, which recognize the best in the city’s food truck scene.

Every Sunday from now through Sept. 6, visitors can enjoy a variety of artisanal edibles and a rotating selection of New York’s best microbrews (they even set up a wine kiosk last time I was there) to the sound of a local band. It runs from 12-6 PM, though it’s best to arrive early as the best food – and the band – don’t necessarily last until the end.

Unless you already live in Spanish Harlem, your best is to take the 6 train to 116th and Lex and walk over to Park. While El Boarrio was located under the tracks just north of 116th Street, in the Urban Garden Center (which, incidentally, might be a good place to find a rose in Spanish Harlem), Vendy Plaza is an open space under the tracks south of 116th, running down to 115th Street. You can’t miss it. Just follow the music.

Pretty amazing cookies from The Girl in the Little Red Kitchen.

Pretty amazing cookies from The Girl in the Little Red Kitchen.

I’ve been twice already and enjoyed pork tenderloin wrapped in bacon from Walking Dog BBQ as well as some incredible roast pig. I also sampled some jerk goat but the purveyor was very apologetic because he had run out of food, as it was late in the day and this was his first time participating. I’ve also had some incredible cookies from The Girl in the Little Red Kitchen and good beer, too.

There’s certainly nowhere near as many vendors as you’ll find at Smorgasburg or even Madison Square Eats, but Vendy Plaza has been growing each week. And while I’m delighted by the amount of pork options available, as one would expect in Spanish Harlem, there are also vendors serving up fare from Central America and Southeast Asia as well.

As for the band, they are exactly what you’d expect from Spanish Harlem: horns, percussion, questionable outfits, and plenty of chatter amid the chaos between songs. But it really adds to the experience, and is something the other food festivals around the city could learn from.

Pig is the local flavor in Spanish Harlem, and the offerings at Vendy Plaza are delicious.

Pig is prevalent in Spanish Harlem, and the vendors at Vendy Plaza offer up some fine swine.

A Boy Named Sault Saint Marie

Blue Bottle drip coffee and a Bien Cuit demi baguette at Sault Ste. Marie.

Blue Bottle drip coffee and a Bien Cuit demi baguette at Sault Ste. Marie.

Dough Loco may have drifted away, relocating two very long blocks to the west, but in its wake has come Sault Ste. Marie, a lovely little cafe from the same owners.

SSMlogoIt’s located in the old Dough Loco spot, on the east side of Park Avenue, between 97th and 98th Streets. In fact, they haven’t even bothered to take the sign down, which has proven to be a shrewd business move as it still draws plenty of locals in the door.

Like its beloved predecessor, Sault Ste. Marie serves Blue Bottle Coffee. But instead of fist-sized doughnuts, there’s a selection of breads and pastries from Bien Cuit. And more seating. The walls showcase some lovely Great Lakes ships, as the cafe is named after a port city on Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. And the friendly staff, groovy tunes, and eclectic collection of customers all add to the ambiance, setting Sault Ste. Marie a cup ahead of the competition in all categories.

PBR FC

PBRstreefighterThere’s a Key Food supermarket across the street from my building here in New York City. But I avoid buying perishables there because they tend to get things, well, let’s just say a little bit later than other supermarkets.

That goes for beer, too. For example, in the spring they’ll have an assortment of holiday ales on sale. And in the summer, you can find some nice Maibocks. Summer ales in the fall. Oktoberfests in the dead of winter. That sort of thing, always pushing the “sell by” date.

So I wasn’t too surprised to spot this Pabst Blue Ribbon World Cup promotion appearing nearly a full month after the tournament ended. In fact, I was more surprised to see PBR rocking a soccer promotion. It is, after all, a classic working man’s beer, the malted equivalent of slapping a teammate on the ass, a gesture that is disturbingly common in sports like baseball and American football but not in the more masculine world of soccer.

Which left me wondering, if this quintessential blue-collar brew is celebrating soccer, has the sport finally “arrived” here in America? Or has the brand simply caved to the hipster craze, which seems to celebrate everything from retro “crafts” to “foreign” sports?

Either way, it brought a smile to my face. And a 12-pack to my fridge for only $9.99. I chilled it estupidamente gelada, ridiculously cold, like they do down in Brazil – so cold that I could barely taste the stuff.

And looking at their in-store display, I’m not sure what I like better: the bicycle kick with beer in hand illustration or the texting GOOOOAL offer. And I wonder how long they spent deciding how many O’s to include in GOOOOAL? And how much the promo agency billed Pabst for the hours they spent debating that decision?

Delaney BBQ on the High Line at Chelsea Market

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The Sir Oink sandwich from Smokeline, Delaney’s Barbecue on the High Line.

I enjoyed their pulled pork and fried chicken tacos at Madison Square Eats last summer, so I decided to try Delaney Barbecue’s operation on the High Line. Dubbed Smokeline, it’s basically a stall nestled among a few others that recently opened for the summer season on the section of the elevated park near Chelsea Market.

While they have a few options, including a variety of toppings, I ordered the Sir Oink, bare freakin naked. Someone might think that pulled pork sandwiched in between two slices of heated, buttered white bread would somehow be lacking. That someone would be dead wrong. It was amazingly delicious. The pork was moist enough, and the buttered bread offered the perfect compliment to the savory scraps of swine. Sir Oink, I salute you!

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The view from the High Line while enjoying a Sir Oink sandwich from Delaney’s Barbecue.

But why stop there? I grabbed a cup of freshly dripped coffee from one of the adjacent stalls, Blue Bottle Coffee. After years as a tea drinker, I’ve been enjoying a bit of a coffee renaissance. And I first encountered the glory of the drip at Blue Bottle’s Smorgasburg booth.

Of course, one mustn’t overlook dessert. That’s why I bellied-up for a scoop of valrhona chocolate gelato from L’Arte del Gelato, another of the of the stalls located on this culinary corner of the High Line.

DB1UPDATE
Sir Oink has been retired from the menu. They wouldn’t give me details, other than to say it was an unfortunate incident involving a number of young piglets and that Sir Oink is now getting the help he clearly needs.

That said, they do still serve a delicious pulled pork sandwich. Here’s the one I got, bare freakin naked, the same way Sir Oink apparently liked his piglets.

Sigmund’s: Beer & Pretzels With A Twist

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Beer and pretzels. Few things work as well together. And by pretzels, I don’t mean those cardboard concoctions you purchase in the supermarket snack aisle. I’m talking about the soft, bread-like creations you typically get at a proper beer garden.

And, in a way, Sigmund’s is a beer garden without the garden. They have beer, of course, though a relatively modest selection. And they have pretzels – amazing pretzels. These come in all sorts of varieties, always cooked to perfection, and served fresh and warm. Naturally I opt for the classic, but you can get cheddar, cinnamon raisin, truffle, feta, olive, and more. They also serve burgers and brats, along with what amounts to a modest cafe menu.

Digital CameraSigmund’s Pretzels popped up in all sorts of locations, including the High Line, while they renovated their East Village restaurant on Avenue B, between 2nd and 3rd Streets. But that has since reopened and looks lovely. My only gripe is that now they don’t open until 5:00 PM on weekdays. And while they are open for brunch on Saturday and Sunday from 11:00 AM to 3:30 PM, they shutdown again until 5:00 PM. I can only assume that this is part of a strategic move to become more of a bar/restaurant than a pretzel shop where parents used to be able to take their kids on the way home from school. And that kind of sucks.

That aside, it is a great place to stop for a pint and pretzel after 5:00 PM. And they often run a special where you get a free pretzel with every pint, which is pretty sweet.

The Shitty City Bakery

I stopped by the City Bakery on West 18th Street the other day to try their hot chocolate, which is supposed to be amazing. And it was indeed very good. But…

CitBak2The place is a bit of a clusterfuck. It looks nice and clean, but it’s total chaos from an operational standpoint. As a first-time visitor, I couldn’t figure out where to order, and there wasn’t any visible menu or signage to guide me. And the people…well, more on them later.

There were two lines, but both were for people who already had their orders – basically cashier checkout lines. So I caught the attention of a lady milling about behind the counter and asked her where I should go to place my order. She told me I could place it with anyone and then immediately broke off eye contact, which seemed rather strange. She didn’t offer to take my order. In fact, I got the distinct impression that she hoped I’d go away.

I eventually reacquired eye contact with her and asked, “By anyone, does that include you?” And I did so in the politest way imaginable, because – believe it or not – that’s the kind of person I am. Fortunately she took my query as intended, and then took my order for a hot chocolate.

I followed that up with a question about next steps, inquiring as to whether I should wait for her to bring it to me or proceed to the checkout line. She suggested the latter, so off I went.

And the line was moving rather slowly. As I waited patiently, wondering if I’d have my cocoa in time for the cashier to ring it up, I overheard someone say that they had run out of marshmallows for the hot chocolate. Given that City Bakery’s signature is a solitary giant marshmallow in the hot chocolate, I wondered why the lady hadn’t mentioned this to me when taking my order.

Eventually I got to the cashier and explained that I ordered a still absent hot chocolate. He seemed completely unphased, as if this was the way things work there. Clearly his only role was to take money, not answer questions or otherwise engage the customers. I gave him $5 and he told me to step aside, muttering that they would bring my hot chocolate to the counter.

Now keep in mind that, given the time I had already spent in line, I could have picked and split the cocoa pods; fermented, dried, winnowed, and roasted the beans; then ground, pressed, and processed them into hot chocolate. With enough time to spare to write a book on customer service.

Still, I had to wait for nine more minutes after that before I spotted, by pure chance, a tray full of hot chocolates placed on the counter by the other register. People started grabbing them, so I walked over and snagged one for myself. Absolute chaos. I don’t know if one of these cocoas was mine, but I couldn’t imagine waiting any longer for a cup of hot chocolate.

We’re talking a good 15 minutes, at 2:30 on a Friday afternoon, to get a $5 cup of cocoa. And it was lukewarm when I finally got it. And no fricken marshmallow.

CitBak4OK, maybe I caught the City Bakery on a bad day. So the following Monday, around the same time (2:30 is prime cocoa time), I wander in to give them another chance. This time I walked up to the people making the hot chocolate and asked them how one proceeds to acquire such a beverage. They were less than thrilled at the intrusion, but politely told me to go wait in line.

Again, I waited, even longer this time. And now it was $7 for a cup of cocoa because they had marshmallows this time around.

Again, I was told to step aside and wait for them to bring me my order. But I kept an eye on the other counter, and sure enough a lady eventually dropped off a tray of cocoas there and simply walked away. They don’t bring you your order. They simply take your money and dump a tray of product on some random counter, letting customers fend for themselves. It’s cattle service, not customer service.

I remain perplexed as to why they simply didn’t tell me to go wait over by that counter. Or why the staffer who drops off trays of cocoa doesn’t even make an effort to make sure they get in the hands of whoever ordered them, let alone serve them up in order of those orders.

The bottom line is that the people who work at City Bakery are imbeciles. And that surely goes from the top down. They don’t think. They don’t care. They just go through the motions – whatever requires the least effort for them.

The funny thing is, if the City Bakery were located in Williamsburg, it would probably be the most awesome place on earth. Because, in a place like Williamsburg, the people working there would have a soul. They wouldn’t act like mindless robots who refuse do do anything beyond the bare minimum required. They’d welcome your business, eagerly take your order, share relevant information, and promptly bring you what you paid for – or at least apologize for any delay.

As silly as I find a lot of those Brooklyn shops, at least the people who staff them actually give a fuck. Artisanal crayons may be the most ridiculous things you can sell, but the people selling them want to give you the best artisanal crayon shopping experience imaginable.

But the City Bakery is located in Manhattan, off Union Square. I imagine the staff aren’t aspiring to anything, or at least anything that involves the business of serving things like hot cocoa. They look like a mix of minimum wagers going through the motions, the kind who couldn’t even cut it at a place like Dallas BBQ, and transients who are biding their time until they can find something they really care about. And that totally sucks. Which makes the City Bakery suck. And that sucks even more, because it doesn’t have to be that way.

Was it a delicious cup of hot chocolate? Yes, it was. Will I ever go back, or recommend the place to a friend? Hell no.

In a city like New York, there are far too many wonderful choices to waste your time and money on places like the City Bakery. I don’t care how good the cocoa is, it’s certainly not worth $7 and your dignity. Leave it to the tourists, who don’t know any better.

By the way, if you have plenty of money and dignity to spare, I recommend you skip the giant marshmallow. It’s $2 gimmick. The thing doesn’t even melt, so you’re just paying more money for a lot less hot chocolate.