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Chinatown/ Little Italy

Offal Business With the Innard Circle

It’s not every meal where a course of frog legs stands out as tame. But when a meal includes duck kidneys, duck tongue, goose-feet webbing and pig stomach, frog legs seem downright chicken-like. I ate all of these dishes and more a few weeks ago with the members of a small eating group that alternates among calling itself the Innard Circle, the Organ Meat Society and the Organ Grinders. They are a group of foodies—including journalists, designers and one notably food critic—devoted to sampling offal, animal organs, at restaurants throughout the city. My colleague, Goulash, was writing an article about the group, and I had the opportunity to tag along with him to one of their meetings, this time at the Fujianese restaurant Rong Hang in New York’s Chinatown.

The restaurant is as brightly lit as a Wal-Mart isle, and thirsty diners must reach into a glass-doored refrigerator for their own Heineken or Coors Light. The group’s resident food critic, Robert Sietsema of the Village Voice, and it’s only Mandarin speaker teamed up to do the ordering. Our first dish was duck kidney, which had a slight funk of liver-ishness but was otherwise satisfying and savory. It was soon followed by my favorite dish of the night: thin curls of goose intestine, served with beautifully julienned scallions. It would have seemed right at home on a four-star tasting menu. Other successful dishes included slightly crispy (though bony) duck tongues and pig stomach. I even liked the goose-foot webbing, which looked gelatinous, but actually yielded a sort of melt-in-your-mouth quality between the chewier cartilaginous pieces.

On the less successful side of the ledger was an unremarkable non-organ meat noodle dish, a water spinach dish with the most overcooked, mealy shrimp I have ever tasted and bright red, too-sweet lychee pork with rice. But, to my mind, the only dish that was truly inedible was the beef large intestine, cooked in Fujianese red wine paste and served with mushrooms. Let me just say that as you move closer to the end of the digestive system, the organs begin to taste more and more like the food that once passed through them. In other words, these large intestines tasted like shit—literally. After gagging down a few bites, Goulash and I left that dish up to a couple of the more hardcore members at the table. Some foods, it seems, are not even palatable to the average adventurous, open-minded eater. After all, it’s not called the Innard Circle for nothing.

Rong Hang
38 Eldridge St.
New York, NY 10002

Noodles So Tasty Hurricanes Can’t Keep Me Away

If you are a human being on this planet with access to broadcast media, you undoubtedly know that a hurricane swept up the East Coast last weekend. To be precise, Hurricane Irene had become Tropical Storm Irene by the time she reached New York City. While the storm took its toll on other parts of New York, New Jersey, Connecticut and Vermont, the city was showered with more media hype than actual damage. In hindsight (and perhaps foreseeably) New York City politicians overreacted, evacuating thousands of residents and shutting down the subway from noon on Saturday until early morning Monday. After all, a politician has never been voted out for being overly cautious ahead of a natural disaster, but the alternative is tantamount to political suicide. Being the skeptical journalists that we are, my good friend Oyster and I had made a bet that the hype would be for naught. We scheduled a dinner meet-up at Tasty Hand-Pulled Noodles in Manhattan’s Chinatown for Sunday evening—a time when, if you believed the talking heads, we might have been floating toward the sea along with all our worldly possessions. I jokingly wrote to Oyster: “I would brave a tropical storm for hand-pulled noodles, but a hurricane might be a bit much.”

As it turned out, the storm had almost entirely passed by Sunday afternoon. There was one problem, though: We were in Brooklyn; the restaurant was in Chinatown and the subway wasn’t running. That problem would have been insurmountable for the weak and unresourceful, but not for us. We hopped on our bikes and pedaled over the Manhattan Bridge—enduring a few minor gusts of wind—to this hole-in-the-wall spot on Doyers Street. The restaurant was packed when we got there, and based on the number of helmets hanging off chair backs, it seemed we weren’t the only ones with that idea. The restaurant has a ground floor dining room, which offers views of the noodle-making master as he kneads, stretches and, with one pull, miraculously separates the noodles into strands. But there were no empty tables upstairs. Our server led us down the stairs, past a table where a woman sat stuffing dumplings with seasoned raw meat (awesome but definitely not up to code), to the last table in the back of the basement level. We sat next to some industrial-sized boxes of napkins and paper towels that were stashed in the corner. Clearly, this was the perfect ambience for some seriously good noodles.

In the wake of the storm, the air had cooled off a bit, which made the idea of ordering soup feel more bearable. From a list that included options such as oxtail, short rib and mixed fish ball, we selected our proteins. Oyster ordered roast duck, and I went for beef and beef tendon. We then had to select our noodle thickness and composition. Every soup and pan-fried noodle dish can be made with regular hand-pulled noodles, fat-wide hand-pulled noodles, knife-peeled noodles or big or small rice noodles. I went with regular hand-pulled, while Oyster opted for fat-wide. We also ordered a plate of steamed pork and chive dumplings, a cucumber salad and two Tsingtaos. Our server was largely absent throughout the entire meal. It took us walking up the stairs to the front desk to successfully put in our order, and the food took more time to come than one would expect with a soup for which most of the ingredients are premade. Oyster said the pace wasn’t typical, and we later overheard our server telling other diners that it was his first day on the job.

It was certainly worth the wait. The noodles had the wonderful chew that allowed me to bite into them without having them disintegrate in my mouth. The broth was flavorful, filled with herbs and scallions, and the meat added depth. The beef was rich and comforting and the tendon melted on my tongue. Oyster’s duck, which had the bones still in, fell apart in tender sections. The dumplings had the same snap to their shells as the noodles from the soup, and the pork filling was nicely seasoned. Cucumber salad was refreshingly crunchy and tangy in its vinegar-based dressing. All-in-all it was a near-perfect meal.

We paid our meager bill and started walking our bikes back across the bridge, chatting and enjoying the relative quiet of the city and the calm of the water below. At about the mid-point, we climbed back on our seats and rode back toward home. After all, a brisk bike ride is the perfect cure for hand-pulled noodle overload.

Tasty Hand-Pulled Noodles
1 Doyers St. #1
New York, NY 10038

Tasty Hand-Pulled Noodles on Urbanspoon

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