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Midtown

Szechuan Gourmet Burns the Right Way

Pork BellyMy search for a great Midtown meal continued a few weeks ago when Empanada Boy and I were looking for a place to eat before the ballet. Many of the places near Lincoln Center are overpriced or just plain too expensive. But I remembered reading about Szechuan Gourmet in a 2008 two-star review by Frank Bruni in The New York Times. Bruni singled it out as a true example of ultra-spicy, pepper-infused Szechuan cooking outside the expected confines of Chinatown and Flushing. The restaurant has two, Midtown locations, but I wanted to try the original on 39th Street. EB and I met there after work.

Before I get into what we ordered, it’s worth emphasizing that this food is spicy. And when I say spicy, I mean burning your esophagus, numbing your lips, spicy. But the food can also be sweet or distinctively seasoned in a way that lets you taste and enjoy the complexities before the burn begins. The key ingredient in this heat is the Szechuan peppercorn, the outer pod of which is toasted and scattered throughout this restaurant’s menu.

LambEB and I started with mild, but delicious, appetizer of tender sliced pork belly with a fantastic chili-garlic soy sauce. The succulent flavors of this dish were just layered on: fat, sweetness, saltiness and a bite of scallion here and there.

As is turned out, we were glad we tasted this dish first because the dishes we ordered got progressively dominant in flavor. The next plate our server set down in front of us bore a mound of crispy lamb pieces, coated in a cumin-heavy spice powder. The dusty shell broke away upon biting to reveal tasty morsels of gamy lamb. The heat in this dish came from dried peppers that were scattered throughout. Everything was manageable until I bit into one of those babies. The burn lasted for a while so I didn’t end up eating many of them, and the bold spicing of the meat stood up well to the heat. My one complaint with this dish was that it was very dry. It’s not that the meat was overdone, but rather that there was no sauce or juices to it. I am assuming this is typical of the dish, but I found myself wanting liquids to sop up.

TofuOur final dish was the ma po tofu, which is labeled with four stars (extra spicy) on the menu. Large, ethereally light, cubes of tofu are presented swimming in a pool of fragrant, slightly sweet, sauce. And then it hits you. The heat creeps across your lips and across your tongue, down your throat and into your stomach. The burn is both painful and pleasant. The sweetness of the sauce and the infusion of scallions comes through the heat, creating a symphony of components. We left feeling like we had eaten twice as much as our stomach muscles contracted with the heat of those chilies. Needless to say, it was a battle my stomach would be willing to fight again.

Szechuan Gourmet
21 W. 39th St.
New York, NY 10018
212.921.0233

Szechuan Gourmet 56
242 West 56th Street
New York, NY 10019
212.265.2226

Szechuan Gourmet on Urbanspoon

Szechuan Gourmet on Urbanspoon

NYC Cravings for the Office Worker’s Soul

TruckI mostly bring my lunch to work. It’s cheaper and often better-tasting than the lame chains that populate Midtown Manhattan. But there are a few Midtown options that get me out and willing to pay the price. One of these is NYC Cravings, a Taiwanese food cart that parks right next door to my office (48th and 6th Ave.) every Monday. I read about the cart when it first opened, but only learned recently from my food-loving, part Taiwanese editor, Noodles, that it was parked mere steps away.

PatronNearly every Monday at around 11 am, a line of office workers cues up to wait for steaming, hefty portions of Taiwanese-style fried chicken, pork chops and fish cake, served over rice with pickled vegetables and pork sauce (all $7). The cart also serves pork dumplings ($3), chicken wings ($6) and zongzi ($4), which the menu describes as Chinese tamales. The line can be long, which is difficult to endure in the cold of winter. Luckily, my colleagues and I tend to eat later. When Saltman and I went out to try our luck at about 2 pm a few weeks ago, there was one lone patron (who had regretfully come out without his coat) standing ahead of us.

ChickenHaving already tried the pork chops and finding himself with too much food on another visit, Saltman wisely offered to share with me. We ordered the crispy Taiwanese-style fried chicken and brought it back up to the warmth of our office to eat. The chicken was moist and tender with a pleasantly crispy, but not heavily bready, skin. The sauce was salty and rich, playing nicely off the tangy pickled cabbage. Fluffy steamed white rice let us soak up all the juices. This is one flavorful lunch, especially by Midtown standards.

Half a portion was just the right amount for me that day, but Salt Man admitted to still feeling hungry. I guess three-quarters of a portion would be enough to fill most people up. My only regret is that I wasn’t able to sample the pork chops or fish balls. I’m also fascinated by that Chinese tamale concept. Luckily, NYC Cravings seems set to keep showing up near my building every Monday, undoubtedly drawing long lines of lunch-goers every week. You can be sure that the next time I forget my lunch, that’s where I’ll be.

NYC Cravings
48th St. Between 6th and 7th Avenues
Other locations include: 24th between Park and Madison on Tuesdays and 53rd between Park and Lexington on Thursdays.

For all other days, check http://twitter.com/nyccravings.

Burger Joint Behind the Curtain

Burger SignMuch has been said about the lack of good-tasting, inexpensive, food in Midtown Mahanttan, and for the most part, I agree. But I had been eager to try Burger Joint at Le Parker Meridien since reading about its top-quality burgers last summer. Empanada Boy and I got the perfect opportunity to try it before a Carnegie Hall concert a few weeks ago.

To get to Burger Joint, you walk inside the lobby of Le Parker Meridien, one of Manhattan’s chic hotels. You look around, unsure of where you’re going, until a hotel porter clad in a dark suit wordlessly points you down a black-curtained corridor. You know you’re on the right track when you see the steaming burger neon sign hanging on the wall ahead of you. Then, suddenly, you’re in a small, funkily decorated, wood-paneled room, crowded with booths, tables and a counter, behind which a cook stood flipping burgers and frying French fries.

Ordering at the CounterThe line at the counter was fairly long when we walked in, but it moved pretty quickly. We ordered two medium-rare burgers, two orders of fries and a pitcher of Sam Adams (not a bad deal compared with the by-the-glass price). Besides one or two other drinks, there is virtually nothing else on the menu. It is not called Burger Joint for nothing. The guy behind the counter handed EB the pitcher. Unfortunately, every table was full. We stood menacingly near one of the booths making it clear we wanted them to hurry up and eat so we could have their seats. That happened just in time for the arrival of our food.

Burger and friesThe burger didn’t look that impressive on arrival. The bun was a bit smashed, and the iceberg lettuce seemed sad. The fries looked tasty, so I started with one of those. Indeed, they were perfectly crispy and salted on the outside with a pleasantly soft interior. I dipped them in mustard and noted that the restaurant only serves Dijon. A wise choice, if you ask me. Then it was time to try the burger, which came topped with tomato, pickles and a specially seasoned mayonnaise.

Medium RareWhen I bit into the burger, I was pleased to find it juicy and flavorful and cooked, as requested, to medium rare. (There are much fancier restaurants that can’t seem to get this final detail right.) The lettuce was flavorless, but provided crunch and, despite being smashed, the bun still tasted better than many I’ve tried. The pitcher of beer may have been a bit overkill, especially before a concert, but we almost managed to finish it off. Next time, I hope to try the milkshake on Burger Joint’s menu. I imagine it will be as pure an expression of the classic ideal as the burger and fries manage to be.

Burger Joint at Le Parker Meridien
119 W. 56th St.
New York, NY 10019
212.708.7414

Burger Joint at Le Parker Meridien on Urbanspoon

A Shady Chinese Food Ring Uncovered

Faux Kung Pao“I am not feeling good about this,” said my colleague, Chopped Salad, as a group of us stood on the northwest corner of Bryant Park, watching the cars and bicyclists go by. The minutes passed, but none of them brought our hook-up.

We were waiting for a stealthily arranged drop-off, a weekly rendezvous with an apparently addictive substance. My colleague Sweet Tea had put in the orders and organized the outing to the appointed spot.

“Don’t worry,” she said. “He’s never not come.”

“If a window opens and food comes out, I’m hitting the deck,” Chopped Salad said nervously.

Chicken with broccoliOur guy made us wait a bit, but after about 10 minutes, a bicycle pulled up at the curb. The rider was holding a white plastic bag from which a savory smell wafted. We quickly handed over the cash and went to sit down at the tables in the park. The moment of truth had arrived. Sweet Tea reached into the bag and pulled out a white takeout container. “This looks like Spicy Chicken with Basil,” she said, and handed me the box.

When Chopped Salad got his Chicken with Broccoli, he was finally at ease:

“There’s something about the light hitting the soy sauce,” he said philosophically when he opened his box.

This was not an illicit drug deal. It was a delivery of Chinese food from Home on 8th, a restaurant located on 8th Avenue, between 29th and 30th streets. Sweet Tea tried the place a while back and liked it so much that she decided she had to have it delivered once a week for lunch. The only problem was that our office is on 47th and 6th Avenue, well outside the delivery range of this establishment. Home on 8th does not deliver beyond Bryant Park in our direction— hence the meeting place. That’s right. Sweet Tea was able to sweet-talk this restaurant into delivering to her on a street corner at the furthest limit of its publicized range. The delivery has become a weekly tradition, but this was my (and Chopped Salad’s) first time trying it. There were six others along with us, most of whom were Chinese Tuesday veterans. I hoped it would live up to its reputation.

Chicken with basilIt was obvious from looking at the colorful, vegetable-laden food that the place uses better ingredients than your average greasy Chinese place. My dish, the chicken with basil (shown here), was no exception. The sauce was flavorful, but not as spicy as advertised. The sauce also didn’t achieve the earthy and slightly funky umami flavor I’ve gotten from the best authentic Chinese sauces I’ve tried.

To be fair, I likely didn’t order the best dish on the menu, which goes on for pages. In fact, the Kung Pao chicken (see top photo), which Sweet Tea and another colleague always order, had a much spicier, more lively sauce. They say it’s the best dish, and they are definitely the experts. The one thing I’m not so sure about, though, is my colleagues’ choice to order with fake chicken (ficken?) instead of real meat. They’re not vegetarians; they apparently just like the soy-based meat substitute. I tried a piece, and it definitely wasn’t bad, but real chicken has more flavor and a better texture to my mind.

The only really major critique came with the dish my colleague Salt Man ordered. He asked for chicken with Chinese broccoli, thinking it would be the same as Chopped Salad’s dish apart from the kind of broccoli. As it turned out, what Salt Man got had almost no sauce and was the whitest, plainest and blandest dish we ordered. He decanted some of our sauces onto his rice, but I could tell he was disappointed. Now we know what not to order.

Spring rollFinally, thrown into the bag were a number of very crunchy, very fresh spring rolls—a great showcase for the high quality ingredients Home on 8th uses. All-in-all, I could see why the place stood out to Sweet Tea, especially in the sea of bad restaurants that is Midtown Manhattan. I don’t know if I can afford (both monetarily and waistline-wise) to eat this every Tuesday, but I love the tradition and plan to participate as much as possible. After all, how many times in my life will I get the opportunity to become a member of a totally shady underground Chinese food ring?

Home on 8th
391 8th Ave
New York, NY 10001
212.947.1420

Home on 8th on Urbanspoon

New York City to the ‘GuyLand

Fried Green Tomato BLTAs I promised last week, I’m here to fill you in on some of the other meals I enjoyed on the cheap (relatively speaking) while I was in New York. For the sake of order, I’ll begin at the beginning.

I had a meeting at Columbia the day after I arrived in Manhattan. Mango Mama and I figured heading uptown would give us a good excuse to stop in at Dinosaur Bar B Que in Harlem, which was recommended to me by the same friend who suggested Otto. He had particularly extolled the glories of the fried green tomato BLT, calling it the greatest sandwich ever created.

Let’s just say I wouldn’t go that far about the sandwich or about anything else I saw or tried at Dinosaur, which turned out to be a chain. The fried green tomato sandwich was good— made with thick slices of green tomatoes, heavily battered and deep-fried and a few large swaths of crispy bacon. I never imagined that the tomatoes would be so breaded, but hot out of the oven, they tasted great. The major drawback of this sandwich was the bread, a run-of-the-mill hamburger bun that got too soggy from the special sauce. Crusty sourdough toast would have been a vast improvement. We also ordered a fairly tasty Cuban sandwich that was packed with sweetly sauced meat. Still, I can safely say I’ve had better.

HummusThe next day, after feasting at Otto, Daddy Salmon’s cousin Maple Syrup offered to lead the way to Hummus Place, a small Israeli-run restaurant in the West Village that specializes in just one thing— you guessed it— hummus. Daddy Salmon was skeptical, asking: “Hummus is hummus, isn’t it?” Actually not, as it turns out. This stuff is phenomenal and bears almost no relation to the plaster-like substance found in most grocery stores and health food restaurants. We ordered a takeout version of the hummus fava, which comes with a stew of whole fava beans, tahini, a hard-boiled egg, olive oil and spices. Every takeout order also comes with pita bread and pickles, which we mixed in with the rest of it. We ate it later that evening as an appetizer on Auntie Pasti and Corn-y Uncle’s rooftop patio.

BagelsNext came Daddy Salmon’s party. It was a blast and excellent food was had by all. My grandma, Rice Pudding, was one of the guests of honor. She stayed in Long Island (or the ‘Guyland as my cousin Ketchup likes to call it) at my aunt and uncle’s house, so we took the train back out the next day to see them. They live in Plainview, which is undoubtedly a nice place to live but leaves something to be desired in terms of entertainment. It’s nice to see my cousins, but the thing I most anticipate about the area where they live is eating bagels from Bagel Boss.

SaladsLegend among Bagel Boss fanatics like my cousins Black Cherry Soda and Bagel with Lox (who used to eat very little else) is that the bagels here are so good because of the mineral content in the Long Island water Somehow I have a hard time buying that, but these are among the best— if not the best— of any bagels I’ve ever tasted. They have just the right density and the perfect tooth-feel. Other wonderful things about Bagel Boss include: top-notch bialys, great spreads and fish salads, a 100 percent kosher kitchen and excellent black and white cookies. Best of all— it’s open 24 hours a day! Relatives or no relatives, this is reason enough to come to Plainview (or neighboring Hicksville, to be exact).

AntipastoI love my Long Island relatives, and I love Bagel Boss, but two days in the ‘Guyland exhausts most of the great culinary and cultural opportunities. The next day it was back to New York for a trip to the MoMA before flying to Chicago. Before viewing the awesome Richard Serra sculpture show, Mango Mama, Flava Flav and I joined Uncle Second Breakfast and my cousin Momotaro for lunch at Cafe 2, the casual second floor restaurant with an Italian theme. Mango Mama and I shared this salumi platter with olives and flatbread along with a salad. Flav had a fig and Gorgonzola panini and Uncle SB had a delicious looking salad with a quartered cured tuna sandwich. Overall, I was highly impressed with the quality to price ratio, especially considering the price increase factors of dining at a New York museum.

New York is known for being one of the most expensive cities to live in and visit. I don’t doubt that it is. But I am more and more convinced that a New Yorker can at least eat well without paying an arm and a leg. After all, those limbs might come in handy when it comes to paying the rent.

Dinosaur Bar B Que

646 W. 131st St.
New York, NY 10027
212.694.1777

Hummus Place
109 St. Marks Place
New York, NY 10003
212.529.9198

Bagel Boss
432 S. Oyster Bay Rd.
Hicksville, NY 11801
516.681.1856

Café 2
MoMA
11 W. 53rd St.
(between Fifth and Sixth Aves.)
New York, NY 10019
212.708.9400

Dinosaur Bar-B-Que in New YorkHummus Place in New York