Notes to a Young Taco Apprentice (aka the “Amazing Korean Tacos!” Post)

[Overheard at the bar at Duck’s Eatery @SPiN — while contemplating my own Korean tacos, which are built of tender, braised short ribs, housemade oyster kimchi and piled high with crunchy bean sprouts and fresh cilantro.]

Q: Damn, these tacos are good.

A: Yes.

Q:  So at what point should one be concerned when one encounters a taco that results in meaty, taco-y, drips-running-down-chin flavor?

A. My  young taco apprentice, you have much yet to learn. It is best to accept your fate.

Q: And then?

A: Well, if you are experiencing this condition and suede boots are involved — it’s time to reposition your bar stance.

Q: And then?

A: Take a moment to collect ones thoughts with a sip of Sam Adams’ seasonal Nobel Pils. (Ed. note: which pairs beautifully with these tacos.) Take in the soundtrack: the pleasant “ping-pong, ping-pong” sound of the many balls volleying across tables, overlaid by the Pogues, the Velvet Underground, Nirvana, Radiohead. Your next bite will come to you when you are ready.

Q: I am beginning to understand. And how do I convey my appreciation?

A: My young taco apprentice, you may have heard of the expression, “licking the fingers.” This will appropriately convey your feelings.

Duck’s Eatery at SPiN, 48 E. 23rd St., at Park Avenue South, 212-980-1404. If you exit the Downtown-bound 6 Train at 23rd Street you can get a preview via a large, underground picture window.

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Saturday: Ugghhh … (aka the “Tour de Bar Food” Post)

Potato skins, followed by an appetizer sampler, followed by late night pizza, all washed down with copious amounts of beer. This just might be the blog post I submit to ThisIsWhyYou’reFat.

Let’s chalk it up to the fact that Saturday was a double special occasion, an out-of-town visitor and a local friend’s birthday. Here’s what went down:

photo-1photoFully aware of the endurance it would take to get through the evening — we were starting early, about 6 o’clock — we needed to eat something early to hold down the fort. Enter, potato skins at Murphy’s Pub in Midtown East. They were chosen purely for the fact that they were the cheapest, least fried and easiest shareable appetizers on the menu.

photo-2When we showed up at the birthday party at Rattle n’ Hum, the excellent craft beer bar in Murray Hill (just a little further south), my friends had apparently had the same idea and voila, chicken quesadilla and sampler platter arrived. We were now satisfactorily fortified for the copious amounts of beer that came next.

photo-5And as for the slices from La Mia Pizza … well, anyone who’s ever been out for a big night in New York City knows that there’s just something magical about the glow emanating from a pizza shop open late night. And, if you actually have to cross in front of it while walking home, it’s a lost cause — even if you don’t finish it until the AM.

Saturday: A Quietly Raucous Night at Fanelli Cafe (aka the “Balloons, Beers and Bison Burger” Post)

photo-2Anytime balloons are affixed to a street sign outside a restaurant (or bar, as it may be) when I’m sitting nearly in the picture window of said restaurant — I take that as a good sign. Who doesn’t love balloons, bobbing and bouncing softly off each other, as the background to their evening?

It makes a festive place like Fanelli Cafe in Soho — with its tin ceilings, worn, wooden bar and bear of a bald-headed bartender, who single-handedly (and quite adeptly) nurtures to his bar into the steady, cacophonous riot that is part of Fanelli’s charm.

Quiet, everyone, quiet,” he bellows, and then, when the din has settled a murmur, he turns to my friend and I and asks, “are you here for dinner or for drinks?

photo-3Both,” I said, “But we want to sit at the bar.”

His whole face lights up — that’s his turf. (For the couple behind us that wants to sit down for dinner, he sends them to the hostess stand deep inside the restaurant with an dismissive wave.) He scans the bar, and gestures for us to come to where there’s a single open seat.

Just wait a few minutes and you’ll have two,” he says. No doubt if only one other single seat opened up on the opposite side of the bar, he’d readily convince everyone scoot down so we could fit the two chairs in together. Fortunately, two adjacent seats opened up at the same time, and, at his signal, we made the move.

It’s called a cafe, and certainly, there are more tables than seats at the bar, but I know Fanelli’s for its drinking culture, so when I think of how to categorize the food, immediately in my mind it falls under pub fare, better than average.

photo-1It’s a little classier — the burgers, for example, come on a nice onion roll, with your option of fries or salad, and you can choose between a beef, turkey, veggie or bison burger ($10.95). Really, rather than being upscale pub food, this is the effect of a great bar operating within a full-service restaurant kitchen.

We split a bison burger, plus pepper jack cheese, plus bacon, cooked to a medium doneness — and it was a beautiful thing. During my first encounter with Fanelli’s, on a trip to visit the city before I moved here, my knowledgeable guide told me to “get the burger. They have great burgers,” and I’ve hardly strayed since because they are good.

photoWe shared an order of jalapeno poppers ($5.50), the cheddar inside kind, which were good, but not great, and a little skimpy — the order only came with four. Sure, it saved us the decision of who got the last one, or the awkwardness of splitting a popper with a knife, but really, an order of poppers should come with no less than five, ideally six, or seven, little gems. All the better to order another pint, you might say.

Sunday: Barbecue, Squared (and a Birthday, to Boot!)

Almost didn’t make it to the second barbecue of the day because we were busy working our way through a basket of rib tips at Brother Jimmy’s BBQ, which happen to be one of my favorite food discoveries so far in New York City — rib tips are like these gnarled, meaty, fatty end-of-rib knuckles and they’re so, so good.

I think I might like them better than ribs. The ultimate test will be when I rise to the challenge of Brother Jimmy’s Monday night special: $15.95 for all-you-can-eat rib tips and all-you-can-drink domestic draft (maximum two hours). Hot damn. We’ll find out how many rib tips this girl can truly put away when that day comes.

photo-3photo-4Thankfully, I did get to the second barbecue just in time: It was after the dishes were washed and the home-smoked pulled pork, smothered in a delicious hickory-style spicy barbecue sauce, had been packaged into leftover bags … but (and this is key) before the pork, dishes, et. al. walked out the door. Meaning, I swooped in and got one!

They layering of the sandwich is key, my friend, the pitmaster (if you’ll recall, the one responsible for the delicious tea-smoked chickens), advised: Coleslaw, then sliced white onion, then pork, pickles on top. One of these little pulled pork sandwich gems, paired with the cutest miniature cupcakes from Crumbs Bakeshop … this Sunday birthday party was kickin’ yet.

The Portland, ME Edition: So Cheap, So Good (aka the “First Impressions” Post)

This is Portland: Home to just more than 60,000 residents, Maine’s photo-10largest city is the same size as the coastal San Diego County town where I grew up when I left it 10 years ago. And we called that a suburb.

Salty and seafaring, and at the same time off-hand-ish bohemian, Portland is an amiable mix of “Mainers” who are in agreement about a few things: Tattoos (everyone’s got one). Excellent beer, at ridiculously low PPP (price per pint). Food that is impressively sustainable and local, without really trying (Earth happy and recession-friendly).

What a great food culture. When I left Portland I cried, just a little bit. Here’s just a few reasons why:

photo-2Gnocchi for breakfast? Yes, please! The lightly-browned, pillow-y potato packets are a brilliant alternative to the usual, often oily, previously-frozen-then-fried breakfast potatoes (e.g. hash browns or home fries).

At the Front Room, Chef Harding Smith’s neighborhood spot in the East End, my order of breakfast gnocchi shared the plate with sautéed spinach, thick-cut strips of the house’s “amazing bacon”* and two poached eggs — all of which was a little too generously doused in a citrus-y hollandaise sauce. Next time I’d probably order the sauce on the side, so as to moderate the application. Still, total decadence for a mere $8.

photo-7photo-15Working fish market! Uneven, wet and slippery floors! I know I’m giving myself away here, but I thoroughly enjoyed the sights and smells inside the Harbor Fish Market in the Old Port, just one example of a seafood vendor that does brisk wholesale business and is also open to the public.

Maine oysters ($1.19 ea.), steamer clams ($2.69/lb), live lobsters starting at $3.99/lb., and on, and on: I was heartened to discover that seafood isn’t just a New England export, it’s a way of life. On a whim I picked up an 8 oz. container of fresh crabmeat ($10), packaged by Wood’s Seafood of Bucksport, ME. So sweet and succulent, the crabmeat ended up the centerpiece of dinner for three a little later…

photo-13photo-12Really good, cheap beer: The cost of a pint of pretty much tops out at $4 at (the somewhat misleadingly-named) $3 Dewey’s, which has 36 beers on draft, mostly regional microbrews, including 7-10 seasonally-rotating taps. I was more than pleased with my choice of: Geary’s Summer Ale, Shipyard Export and an Allagash White (a classic). The free popcorn’s not a bad gig, either — buttery, salty and fresh-popped (I saw it), I polished off a couple of baskets’ worth all by myself. (Just don’t look too closely at the flavor-crusted exterior of the popping pan.)

*Being editor-types, my friend and I picked up on the fact that the B.L.T. sandwich description lists “amazing bacon” an ingredient. We were dubious of this so-called “amazing” bacon, that is, until a side of bacon arrived. Four beautifully-cured, thick-cut, not-too-fatty strips of bacon … price? $2. It’s amazing, I’ll vouch for it.


The Minnesota Edition: On the Road Again (aka the “Strange Synergy of this Trip” Post)

In several not entirely expected ways, my return home mirrored my journey here.

First, there was the Dairy Queen stop, at the beginning of the nearly 10-hour trip home.

photophoto-1This time, I went for a medium-sized, butterscotch-dipped cone, which I happily devoured while staring out at a local highway. Specifically, I was staring at the sign at the start of the bridge, the far side (which the iPhone camera is too low-res to capture). It reads (“announces” might be a better word): The Mississippi River.

“This is so Minnesota,” I thought, “To sit at a Dairy Queen, just off a local highway, and stare at a turn in the Mississippi River.” A moment later. “And damn, this is good soft serve.”

Transferring through the Minneapolis airport (MSP), I had the greater part of an hour to kill, which meant dinner. I ended up at Rock Bottom Brewery (which I photo-3actually don’t like that much) solely because I saw open electrical outlets, and even one guy plugged in and using his laptop, and I wanted to do the exact same thing.

I ended up with the sampler selection (of the beers that I don’t particularly like or dislike) because 24 total oz. of sampler beers was the same price as a large, single, 20 oz. beer — so, I got 4 oz. free. (Plus, I couldn’t remember which Rock Bottom Brewery beer I liked best. Oh yes, I’ve been to one before, in California.)

photo-4And I ended up with the half-order of nachos, plus guacamole extra, because I saw what they looked like on a neighboring table, and that’s exactly what I want.

Multi-colored corn chips (apparently, they exude some sign of authenticity), pickled jalapeno rounds from the can or jar, guacamole scooped out with a melon baller scoop — these nachos are nothing at all like the fare from my beloved taco truck outside the Jackson Height’s subway stop, but when you’re still three hours and change away from even landing at La Gauardia — just do it.