Eating Salad the Fun Way

Sala0I’m not a salad guy. But having recently turned 50, I need to make some changes.

Fortunately, these days I can get fresh, organic salads that are pre-made. I pick-up a big blister-pack filled with a mix of local lettuces and then just add cucumbers and/or tomatoes along with a sprinkling of some type of protein – either chicken with garlic or black beans.

I don’t do any sauces. OK, you salad people call them dressings, but they’re really sauces. The waitress at the wings place never asks what kind of dressing you want on your chicken wings. No, that shit is a sauce. And some of the ones that people put on their salads are far worse for you than the shit we put on our wings.

I have come to actually enjoy these salads I make. It’s not quite the same as eating something like buffalo chicken wings, especially if you are watching a soccer game or something on TV.

But I’ve discovered a little trick that makes me almost look forward to eating a salad: don’t use your hands. That’s right, not only aren’t you allowed to use utensils, but you can’t even use your hands to eat the salad.

This stems from one of the favorite things my brother and I used to do when we were living together right out of college. We started a tradition called No-Hands Night. We’d typically serve a bowl of ravioli and a bowl of beer, with a tarp underneath the table. No hands allowed. You just had to bury your face in the bowls and eat and drink like an animal. Great fun.

Well, obviously we’re not doing much of that anymore. But I find taking the same tact with a salad can be a lot more fun than simply eating it like a civilized person. Plus, I don’t even need to lay down a tarp.

So give it a try the next time you have a salad. And should you ever want to resurrect the full-on traditional no-hands night, let me offer you two tips for that. First, don’t make the pasta too hot, as you’ll burn your face. Second, pour the beer into a glass first, to release some of the carbonation before pouring it into a bowl. That way the bubbles won’t burn your nostrils. And, yeah, don’t try any of this if you have a runny knows.

Bon appétit!

Eating Options in Midtown Manhattan

A large pie at Roberta's in Urbanspace Vanderbilt.

A large pepperoni pie sans basil at Roberta’s in Urbanspace Vanderbilt.

There are many reasons to hate midtown Manhattan. And I can only think of a handful of reasons to actually love it: MoMA, Carnegie Hall, and the Radio City Music Hall. Plus, it’s a tourist magnet, which keeps all those people away from our beloved neighborhoods.

Fortunately my concert sojourns, as rare as they may be these days, are conducted at off-peak hours. But MoMA has always been a bit of a struggle, because I usually hit that in the morning – during the less-trafficked Member Previews – and then I’m left looking for convenient feeding options in the area.

I used to go to the Burger Joint at the Parker Meridian, but that’s become a tourist attraction itself. They did have a food truck thing happening on East 48th Street for awhile. But there’s really nothing to eat – or at least nowhere you want to eat (the midtown outposts of places like John’s and Shake Shack are simply too heavily touristed) – in all of Midtown.

Fortunately, the success of the wonderful Smorgasburg and Urbanspace food markets has made it’s way into even the banal blocks of Midtown. On the East Side, there’s Urbanspace Vanderbilt, at the corner of Vanderbilt Avenue and East 45th Street. On the West Side, there’s City Kitchen, at the corner of Eighth Avenue and West 44th Street.

Urbanspace Vanderbilt
This little gem makes up for the demise of the food truck experiment. It’s bound to be packed at peak hours, but at least the feeders are more likely to be Midtown office workers than the tourist scum that surely fill the West Side alternative.

I’ve managed to make it in before the lunchtime rush. I had me a big old Roberta’s pizza pie, followed by a Dough doughnut for dessert. Incredible food, and at prices that are quite reasonable by Midtown standards.

City Kitchen
This is a much smaller option, though the fact that it’s located on the second floor and not street level might make it slightly less crowded. The downside, of course, is that its proximity to the fecal magnet that is Times Square will surely make it more of a tourist cesspool than it’s East Side counterpart.

I also stopped in prior to the lunch-hour madness. I had a great burger from a place called Whitman’s, and followed that up with a Dough doughnut as well. Again, great food at reasonable prices for the neighborhood.

The Man Cookie

ManCookie

Have you ever wanted to eat a cookie in public but didn’t feel like it was a manly thing to do? No, me either. But should you, for some odd reason, feel such unwarranted anxiety, fear no more…there’s a cookie made for manly men. Yes, I’m talking about the Man Cookie.

I came across this cookie at Perk, a coffee shop located on Second Avenue between 96th & 97th Streets. I like the place. The music varies depending on who is at the counter, but it’s clean and bright. And I usually can find a seat. I’m not particularly crazy about the coffee (Stumptown) but it’s a nice option to have in the neighborhood. And they offer Dough doughnuts along with random treats like the Man Cookie from This Chick Bakes.

Deep Fried Bacon

From left to right, local craft beer, roast pork drizzled with garlic, and deep-fried bacon at La Marqueta’s Vendy Plaza in Spanish Harlem on Sundays.

Yup, deep-fried bacon…just like Jesus intended. Lightly breaded bacon, slithered onto a stick, and gently nestled into a golden pool of boiling fat.

That’s just one of the many treats available at La Marqueta, the open-air market in Spanish Harlem. Every Sunday, starting at noon, an eclectic collection of food vendors gathers at Vendy Plaza, at Park Avenue and 116th Street, to offer up all sorts of tasty treats at affordable prices. It’s like Smorgasburg, or any of the New York City’s other weekly food events, but with three distinct differences: no lines, no ridiculous prices, and a live freakin band!

When Pigz Fly calls it chicken-fried bacon, and serves it with a side of gravy, but it’s basically deep-fried bacon on a stick.

I’ve written about this event already, but I’m writing again because I’ve discovered something truly delightful. One of the vendors, When Pigz Fly, has chicken-fried bacon. Those of you familiar with the Southern staple called chicken-fried steak will recognize this dish for what it really is: deep-fried bacon. And for $3, it’s a steal.

Lately I’ve been getting this as an appetizer and again as dessert, while my primary focus has been on the delicious roast pork…drizzled with garlic oil. That’s cheap, too. Something like $5, I think. The same price you’ll pay for a local craft beer, if you can believe it.

The roast pork is prepared Puerto Rican style by Angel Jimenez of La Pirana Lechonera, a South Bronx food truck (checkout the video on him below, from Liza Mosquito de Guia of Food. Curated.). Whatever tender loving care he gives this pig during the slow roasting in the wee hours ends with skilled but sudden slices of the machete, as he serves up perfect portions to salivating swine fiends like me.

And this isn’t some stale knockoff of the now ubiquitous Smorg machine, with the same vendors, long lines, and bleeding hipsters. These are real people, serving up stuff with appliances often on loan from their own personal kitchens. All to the accompaniment of a live band. It’s real. It’s local. And it’s delicious.

The Burger Joint

The burger and fries at the Burger Joint.

The burger and fries at the Burger Joint.

When someone says “BJ,” I used to think of blow jobs. Now I think of hamburgers. Because of the Burger Joint. That’s how good their hamburgers are.

I can’t remember the first time I went to the Burger Joint in Le Parker Meridian, the hotel on 56 Street between Sixth and Seventh Avenues. The original Burger Joint is literally a secret hideaway tucked in the far corner of the upscale hotel’s lobby. There’s no signage, and you’d never even know it’s there unless you were curious about the line down the dark corridor, on the far side of the reception desk.

The once-secret burger lair is no more than a little hole in the wall, far from what you’d expect in such a swank place. The walls are covered with graffiti and the operation screams “no frills,” though they now offer table service instead of having to line up at the counter.

The Burger Joint’s burgers are literally the best I’ve ever had, anywhere. The best. And the fries, well, they may very well be the best I’ve ever had as well – or at least in the Top 3. Amazing.

It’s not cheap, though. A basic burger is $8.50, and an additional $3.22 for the fries. OK, that’s quite reasonable for what you’d pay at most places here in New York City, but it’s still a bit pricey compared to Shake Shack’s $4.19 burger, which is mighty tasty as well. But the Shack’s fries suck, especially since they abandoned their new hand-cut shoestring fries to return to the old crinkle cuts.

The bigger Burger Joint on West 8th Street and MacDougal.

The bigger Burger Joint on West 8th Street and MacDougal.

The Burger Joint has been my go-to spot whenever I visit the Museum of Modern Art on 53rd Street. In fact, it’s one of the few places I like to eat in Midtown. Though it’s become so popular, particularly with tourists, that it’s intolerable during the lunch rush. So I prefer to hit it early or late, and actually structure my museum visits around that.

Fortunately the Burger Joint opened up a second spot, the Burger Joint on West 8th Street and MacDougal. It’s huge compared to the original, about four times the size, and I’ve never seen it get crowded. Same food, same prices, just less tourists and less tension. So now I’m finding all sorts of reasons to head down to the West Village, just so I have an excuse to grab a burger and fries at the Burger Joint. It’s that good.

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.

Why Did The Chicken Cross The Bridge?

A Walk Across the High Bridge and a Pilgrimage to Charles Country Pan Fried Chicken in Harlem

If you Google the best fried chicken in New York City, you are bound to come across Charles Country Pan Fried Chicken in Harlem. It’s on every list. And it’s been on my “to feed at” list for some time.

I decided to take advantage of some cooler temperatures and clearer skies at the end of June to have a little Harlem adventure. I started with a walk across the newly renovated High Bridge.

The newly renovated High Bridge pedestrian walkway across the Harlem River.

The newly renovated High Bridge pedestrian walkway across the Harlem River.

High Bridge
The oldest in the city, the High Bridge was originally called the Aqueduct Bridge because it was completed in 1848 to serve as part of the aqueduct system that brought water into Manhattan. It crosses the Harlem River, connecting the Bronx with upper Manhattan. The bridge has long since been abandoned. But, after a complete restoration, it reopened last month as a pedestrian walkway.

It is an interesting site, though the banks of the Harlem River are laden with highways, train tracks, and industrial sprawl so it’s not nearly as picturesque as I’d hoped. And the sides of the bridge are lined with wire netting, presumably to keep people from jumping or throwing things off it, so there weren’t too may photo opportunities. But it does live up to its name; it’s definitely not a place for those who fear heights.

Looking north from the High Bridge.

Looking north from the High Bridge.

Heights of Harlem
I then walked south through Highbridge Park to try Charles Country Pan Fried Chicken. The journey gave me a chance to see a part of the city I rarely do, from Washington Heights down to Sugar Hill. It was quite pleasant, actually, and even beautiful in some spots. And you know you are in Harlem when you are standing at the corner of Paul Robeson Boulevard and Count Basie Place.

But terms like “Heights” and “Hill” are used for a reason. This is not the relatively flat city we’re used to. And that proved a bit of a challenge as I tried to hone in on Charles Chicken. I was up on the bluff, and the restaurant was down below on Frederick Douglas Boulevard, between 151st and 152nd Streets. According to Google Maps, I should have been able to walk through Jackie Robinson Park, but that’s actually a massive cliff that runs for about half a mile. Fortunately I finally found some stairs that took me down through the park – around 149th Street, I think.

Charles Country Pan Fried Chicken on Frederick Douglas Boulevard in Harlem.

Charles Chicken
The place is small and somewhat cluttered. The counter is stacked so high I wasn’t even sure anyone was back there. But then I heard a reluctant voice from behind it, asking me what I wanted, as if I was there for some other reason than the food.

I asked for four pieces of chicken, letting her select the cuts. They are served in a Styrofoam to-go container – even if you are, like me, eating it there – and passed to you, in exchange for cash, through the narrow opening at the end of the counter. No fancy register or anything. And certainly no eye contact. But at $8 and change for four pieces of chicken and a small lemonade, I couldn’t really complain.

It was really good fried chicken. Not quite great. And certainly not better than places like the Bobwhite Counter in the East Village. But it was really good. And better than the likes of Hill Country and even Blue Ribbon. I was happy I made the journey.

And that lemonade? Normally I’m not a big lemonade drinker, but their choices are either that or iced tea. This was incredible lemonade, though, sweetened to perfection. So sweet, in fact, that I could feel the diabetes taking hold as I sucked it in.

The chicken at Charles Country Pan Fried Chicken in Harlem.

Stairway to Hell
After I cleaned my chicken nearly to the bone, I decided to see if I could find a more northerly route back through Jackie Robinson Park, as my subway stop was up on 155th Street, above the bluff. Frederick Douglas Boulevard actually runs beneath 155th Street, which is elevated as it leaves the bluff, becoming the Macombs Dam Bridge across the Harlem River to the Bronx.

As I passed under the bridge, by a little makeshift auto detailing enterprise a few local entrepreneurs had set up on the sidewalk, I spotted a staircase leading up the northern side of the bridge. It was a long, steep staircase. You’ve heard of Stairway to Heaven? This was more like Stairway to Hell. And the fact that I didn’t drop dead of a heart attack while climbing the thing, especially after eating pan-fried chicken washed down with some liquid diabetes, leaves me wondering if I am indeed immortal.

Parting Thoughts
As I mentioned earlier, this is a lovely little area. But the cliffs and steepness of the surrounding hills make it difficult for an old walker like me. It’s nice to visit, but I’m not sure I could live there.

Which I guess sums up how I feel about Charles Country Pan Fried Chicken. It’s nice, but not nice enough to make it a regular thing. Maybe if I lived nearby as opposed to having to schlep up there. As it is, the fried chicken is so much easier – and tastier – at places like the Bobwhite Counter.

I may give it another visit in the fall, when the leaves have changed. I imagine the views from the High Bridge will be more picturesque. And maybe the chicken at Charles will live up to my lofty expectations. Or at least be served with a little more warmth.