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Monthly Archives: February 2009

A Cheap Date on Valentine’s Day

PhoI realize this post on Valentine’s Day is coming a couple weeks late. I’ve been busy with school, and the site was experiencing technical difficulties this week. Empanada Boy has successfully gotten us switched to a new server, and things seem to be running smoothly. It is in honor of the capable and dedicated EB, my Valentine, that I rewind a bit to recount the fantastic day we had on February 14.

Wine from AstorOriginally, we weren’t planning to do anything for Valentine’s Day because we’re poor and can’t afford the lavish dinner we would have wanted. But EB got the great idea of spending the day doing a list of some of the top cheap, but great, things we like to do together. After a morning class and lunch at home, EB and I took a long walk across the George Washington Bridge, which towers immediately north of our apartment building. the relatively mild, clear weather made for a good time and great views as we trekked across to Palisades Park in New Jersey. (We saw about 10 deer there.) We then walked back and took the train downtown to Astor Wines & Spirits. This East Village wine shop is a major destination for anyone looking for a great deal on a swath of interesting and well-selected wines. It reminds me very much of the Wine Discount Center, where I worked in Chicago. Thanks to the discounts we got with an in-store member card, we walked out with nine bottles for around $90.

Thai Son exteriorEB carried those in his backpack as we hopped on the train again to head down to Chinatown. In his even poorer student days, EB frequented the Vietnamese restaurants here. He always ordered pho, beef noodle soup, because it’s cheap, delicious and totally irresistible. We walked in to Thái Són, which was completely packed and which EB was sure he had visited at least once. It seems that many other diners— both in couples and in groups— liked the idea of a cheap Valentine’s day. We were seated quickly and immediately zeroed in on the meat combos we wanted in our pho. I require fatty brisket and tendon in my soup. EB agrees and usually adds tripe to the mix. Neither of us is a huge fan of meatballs, and lean brisket is hardly worth the time.

salad rolls2We also ordered salad rolls. These are an addictive combination of chewy noodles, tender shrimp and fresh herbs and are stellar when dipped in the accompanying peanut sauce. Typically, the soup came before the rolls, and we had to remind a random server that we were expecting them. But the soup was beautiful when it arrived. Unlike other places, which completely submerge the thinly sliced raw meat in the broth to cook it before it gets to the table, Thái Són left some pink pieces on top that we could plunge into the broth ourselves. This gave the meat a freshness and prevented it from becoming too cooked before we tasted it. I tossed in the basil, bean sprouts, lime juice and jalapeño slices, along with my typical douse of hot chili sauce and sweet hoisin. The soup hit the spot. The heat of the chilies, the variety of the herbs and the comforting warmth of the whole ensemble made it the perfect metaphor for a relationship filled with romance.

Astor Wine & Spirits
De Vinne Press Building
399 Lafayette (at East 4th St.)
New York, NY 10003

Thái Són
89 Baxter St.
New York, NY 10013

Astor Wines & Spirits on Urbanspoon

Thai So'n on Urbanspoon

The McDonald’s of India

Lamb BhonaAs we walked down East 6th Street to meet Vladimir Pudding for dinner, Empanada Boy and I passed restaurants named Taj, Raj and Taj Mahal. We were headed past them in search of our true destination: Raj Mahal. I’m sure the food here was just as good as at its nearby brethren, which is to say, not that amazing. These restaurants make up Indian Row, one of New York’s Little Indias. (Another area, known as Curry Hill, spans the stretch of Lexington between 27th and 30th.) As EB’s Indian friend from SugarTone Brass Band puts it, these restaurants are collectively the McDonald’s of India.

Saag PaneerYet, while these ubiquitous tikka masala-toting places have sprung up across the globe, I would prefer a ho-hum vindaloo to all the Big Macs in the world. The prices are also a bit higher than at the golden arches, more like $10 than 99 cents. The food at Raj Mahal wasn’t great, but it wasn’t terrible either. We started with beer— Kingfisher and Taj (not Raj) Mahal. We then had to switch tables after our eardrums were pierced by a shrill sound that it turned out was coming from the radiator. Seated at our new table, we decided to skip appetizers due to our current poverty (and much to the chagrin of our waiter) and went straight to the main course. I ordered the lamb bhona— chunks of lamb cooked in a spicy tomato-based sauce with onions and green peppers. The sauce wasn’t terribly nuanced, and the meat was a little dry. I wanted more of the interesting spices like cardamom, cumin and coriander that make India food so fantastic. Still, the rich creaminess of the whole dish made it somewhat appealing. Vladimir Pudding ordered the vegetable vindaloo. It looked remarkably like the lamb dish, with smaller chunks of cauliflower, potato and carrots and no lamb. The sauce was also considerably spicier than the lamb’s, making the dish earning it extra points in my book.

When visiting a nondescript Indian restaurant EB cannot help but order saag paneer, the traditional dish made with spinach and fresh cheese. This was a pretty run-of-the-mill version, but the cheese was soft and the spinach was flavorful. Sopped up with a bit of garlic naan, I would happily eat saag paneer almost every day of the week. All dishes came with rice and a tasty yellow lentil sauce.

Carrot coconut dessertWe weren’t going to order dessert, but small plate of a carrot pudding were delivered to our table free of charge. It seems our servers felt sorry for the shrill radiator noise that had driven us to abandon our first table. The pudding was subtly sweet with an edge of coconut. Again, it wasn’t the most phenomenal example of its kind, but it did the trick.

I probably wouldn’t come back to Raj Mahal again. Life is just too short. But I’ll undoubtedly find myself dining at a place that’s just like it in the not-so-distant future. EB tells a hilarious story of his first visit to Raj Mahal (or was it Taj Mahal?). He was walking down East 6th Street and paused in front of another restaurant. The guy in front of Raj Mahal saw him and said: “Please, use this door.” EB did as he was told, thinking he was going into an alternate door for Raj or Taj, and found himself inside Raj Mahal. He soon learned that it doesn’t matter where one eats on Indian Row because all the food tastes pretty much the same.

Raj Mahal
322 E. 6th Street (between 1st and 2nd Aves.)
New York, NY 10003

Raj Mahal on Urbanspoon