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Taking Stock at Foodstock

As an alumna of Wesleyan University, I knew I was back on campus when I passed a stop sign bearing stickers with the words “don’t” and “believing” framing the word “stop.” Some things never change. Some things, however, change a lot. One of these is the sheer number of self-professed “foodies” that walk those hallowed halls and tree-lined pathways. The school paper, which I edited back in the day, now boasts a food section. A student-organized farmers’ market sets up shop a couple on campus times a month. There’s a program house dedicated to cooking, known as “Full House.” Even the campus catering is done by Bon Appétit Management, known for its local, sustainable sourcing of ingredients. It’s not that I’m shocked by this transition—there was a student protest while I was at Wesleyan to get the on-campus grocery store to stop selling eggs laid by caged chickens—but it is a reminder of how quickly food awareness has sprung up in the American consciousness. Some of these Wesleyan foodies (members of the class of ’12, ’13 and ’14, if you can believe we’re that old) organized a conference on food writing called Foodstock, at which I—along with others more accomplished and more luminary—was asked to speak.

The morning was occupied by two conversations led by the Connecticut Public Radio cooking-show host, Faith Middleton. The first was with former New York Times restaurant critic and Gourmet magazine editor, Ruth Reichl, and the second was with New York Times wine critic (and Wesleyan grad) Eric Asimov. The afternoon schedule would be packed with more notable names, including Raymond Sokolov, Dorie Greenspan, Jane Stern and Molly O’Neill. But first, it was time for lunch. Talking about food is all well and good, but what kind of food conference would be complete without a feast to gorge on? Lucky, the smarty-pants Wesleyan students who planned Foodstock were on top of their game in this department as well. They recruited a small fleet of food trucks to come to Middletown and park in a lot near the science center. Naturally, I had to scout out the full range of options before deciding what to eat. I passed on Ethiopian, grilled cheese and a pizza truck with an internal oven and opted for three tacos from Hartford-based Lucky Taco.

I tried one filled with carnitas, one with chicken and one with beef. It didn’t take me long to realize that the carnitas is where it’s at. The meat was tender and porky, and the cabbage slaw in the taco added crunch and moisture. I dumped the entirety of my salsa verde cup on top and chowed down. The other two tacos were far less remarkable. The chicken was bland and uninteresting, and the ground beef cried out for seasoning and textural character. Both of these tacos also came with fresh tomatoes on top, which are simply a watery disappointment until tomato season starts in earnest. The remaining two cups of salsa were also tomato based, and they lacked the kick of smokiness or spice I was craving. I sat down on a curb in the parking lot—between Eric Asimov and some undergraduates—to eat them. Ah, the democracy of food carts!

As I sat there eating my less-than-stellar tacos, I overheard numerous passersby raving about the Lebanese fish wrap from the Munchies Food Truck. I felt a pang of orderer’s regret. Then I stopped myself. Why worry about having missed out on the sandwich when I could buy it and eat it for second lunch? I did just that, although I didn’t end up eating it until later. The battered, fried flounder was tender and moist and evocative of the Northeast region, while also bringing in a kick of the Middle East with tahini sauce and a crunchy salad. The pita was that thin pliant variety that really holds a sandwich together well. This may well have been the best item available at the food trucks assembled in that parking lot, but what struck me the most about these food offerings was the sheer variety at that level of quality. These carts were reflective of what college students wanted and found delicious. Even the little gourmet on-campus market and the vegan cafe of my undergraduate days did not rise to this level of sophistication. Would my classmates and I have thought to plan a conference based purely on the enjoyment of food? Probably not. But, in the age of the foodie, it seems, we are all more conscious of what we eat and how we document its every detail.

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