Wednesday: A Fulton Street Mall Original (aka the “Souvlaki House Discovery” Post)

When a restaurant has been in business 37 years, I’m probably going phototo order the house specialty. So when a restaurant’s named after a certain specialty and it’s been around that long … done and done. It’s the quickest decision of what to order that I’ll ever make. (I can be notoriously slow in deciding.)

Such is the case with the Souvlaki House, an authentically vintage counter diner-style restaurant, complete with swivel-top stools, a couple of older cooks in white smocks and white caps and an exterior sign bordered with blinking, old-fashioned light bulbs. The Souvlaki House has an undeniable charm — such a contrast to the neon and the bling and the fast food restaurants that otherwise characterize the Fulton Street Mall area in downtown Brooklyn.

photo-1So of course I had the souvlaki (gyro). To make the sandwich ($6), thin slices of meat were shaved off a vertical rotating spit and tucked into a pita along with iceberg lettuce, onion, tomato and white sauce and/or hot sauce. Damn, this thing was stuffed full of meat— I’ve never had a pita sandwich so heavily stacked for the carnivores. In fact, I couldn’t even come close to finishing it.

… Although that could have had something to do with the fries, which are the epitome of perfect deli fries. They’re cooked to order, meaning the frozen fries go straight into the frier only when you order them, bubble away for a few minutes and are served on a small paper plate ultra piping hot and still just greasy enough that if you salt them, the salt will stick a bit. (Sometimes salting fries can seem so futile.) And for $2!

photo-2Fair prices, good food, some old-fashioned charm: All in all, you can see why these guys have been around forever and a day. Here’s hoping it stays that way.

TIP: Souvlaki House does a number of American basics, too. I’d totally do a BLT ($4.25) and side of fries and call that lunch.

Souvlaki House, 158 Lawrence St., between Fulton and Willoughby streets, 718-852-0443

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Saturday: The $5 Meal at Vanessa’s Dumpling House (aka the “I’ll Be Back for You, Sesame Pancake” Post)

Journalism 101: All lists are subject to the opinions, experiences and, ultimately, taste of the author. There’s no such thing as an authoritative list.

photo-1Nevertheless, when a food blog with New York cred, like the Village Voice’s Fork in the Road, posts a list called “Our 10 Best Chinese Restaurants” and only two of the entries are in Manhattan, and I haven’t been to one of them — you bet that place just moved onto my radar.

And so the Eldridge Street location of Vanessa’s Dumpling House was filed away under: Chinatown, sub-category, “cheap, fast, no-frills.”

photo-3Which means it’s going to be busy, if not crowded, all the time. Don’t expect to get a seat — if you get one, you are very patient and/or fortuitous. Be prepared to take out your food and find a bench or curb nearby — the benches in the newly-renovated median of Allen Street are the closest — or stand along a wall while you shovel 4, 8, 10 or more dumplings — varieties include pork and chive, pork and cabbage, Chinese vegetable, chicken, shrimp and more — into your mouth.

On a solo first visit, I opted to try just one of the dumplings so I could sample more of the menu and still get in and out for $5 (so cheap!):

— Order of pork and cabbage fried dumplings (4 ct., $1.50)
— Pork wonton soup (large, $2)
— Sesame and scallion pancake with vegetables ($1.50)


$5

photo-2I was so prepared to fall in love with the dumplings, which turned out to be just okay. The casing was too thick for my taste, and a little gummy; inside, the meat-and-cabbage ball slid around in a pocket much too big. Frankly, I prefer the dumplings I’ve bought frozen at Deluxe Food Market to Vanessa’s.

On the other hand, the sesame pancake, now that’s something I’ll be back for. First of all, it’s more sandwich than pancake: A triangular slice of a giant, circular seeded bread is cut in half and stuffed with julienned vegetables and fresh herbs, all drizzled with a light, and lightly spicy, oil.

The pancake has a lot of the same fresh flavors and attributes that have turned the whole city onto that Vietnamese staple, the banh mi. Priced at $1.50 ea., I’m certain I’ll be back here around this time of month — the making-it-stretch-’til-payday-days — in the near future.

Vanessa’s Dumpling House, 118 Eldridge Street, between Broome and Grand streets.

Wednesday: And This Is When I Fell In Love with Tïam (Wait for It … Right … Now!)

photo-4It began so innocently at Taïm. Somehow, given a brand-new menu of options, I quickly honed in on the hummus or babaganoush pita sandwich, which came with my choice of two salads inside.

Hummus or babaganoush? Also an easy choice: babaganoush, the eggplant-based spread, tends to be more of a free radical across restaurants and genres, and I was feeling adventurous. … As it turns out, this babaganoush is, by  my standards, practically perfect: smokey, pulpy, tangy, sweet and creamy, all sharing harmoniously. No one element pushing out of turn.

photo-10Add Moroccan carrots — long, thick cuts sauteed in garlic, cumin, paparika and E.V.O.O. just long enough to take the crunch away (not unlike the style of some of my favorite Mexican carrots, minus the heat) — and, finally, a light cabbage salad that’s been soaking away in a sweet & sour marinade; stuff everything into a supple, pliable regular or whole wheat pita, for $5.50. Uh-oh. Now I was in trouble.

Never mind the crappy iPhone picture on the left, this is, hands down, one of the best under $6 sandwiches I have had anywhere in the city.

Vibrant flavors, really good for you, and so reasonably priced, no wonder this place has a line stretching out the door most photo-5nights. (Well, that and it seems the good people of the West Village like to queue up, if you consider that Magnolia Bakery and the Mark Jacobs cheep-o store are just around the corner.)

But that wasn’t all. I also had my fair share of a giant side order of fries ($4), cut skinny and served piping hot, which come with saffron aïoli, and my fair share of a falafel sampling ($3.50), two of each kind of falafels that are giving nearby Mamoun’s a run for its money.

photo-6You know why? Because there are falafel options: green (parsley, cilantro, mint), red (roasted red peppers) and Harissa falafel (Tunisian spices.) Because they are perfectly poppable bits. Because, for once, they are not dry or over-fried or prepared too early and don’t buldge as you try to take a bite and disintegrate into bland, falafel dust.

They are so good that I didn’t even need the sauce. The whole place was that good — forget the “Cash Only” (although that’s an important sign),Taïm would do well to post, “We’re practically perfect, no extra sauce or extra seasoning required. Go ahead, try us.”

Yes, please!

Dinner: Thursday, April 23, 2009

Every culture has some sort of hand-held food that comes bundled up in some kind of pastry or bread or rice-based wrap. And you can probably find just about every variation in one New York neighborhood or another. 

photo-39photo-211Which is how I came to eat a dinner of an Indian samosa filled with vegetables (left) and a Polish egg roll stuffed with pork (right).

photo60Now that the weather’s picking up and the light stays long, I’ve been walking home from work a couple of nights a week, scouting out restaurants, markets, wine shops, coffee shops and bars along the way (follow me on Twitter for updates en route, like this one).

photo-55Both Curry in a Hurry in the Flatiron (ish) and the G.I. Polish Delicatessen in the East Village — where I sourced my two-part dinner, respectively — ended up on my way home tonight. It was a nice coupling, indeed. 

COST: $1.25 (samosa), $2 (Polish egg roll)
PREP TIME: breezy 90 minute walk

Breakfast: Thursday, April 9, 2009

photo15Whole lot of flavor going on in my “scallion beacon bun” from Fuji Bakery Store #4. The bun itself is light and a touch sweet, with bits of fatty, salty bacon and pungent scallions.

Next time I might go for the one with the red bean paste threaded throughout like a pinwheel (top right). I’m a sucker for some good red bean paste.

Did I mention they’re each only $0.80?

COST: $0.80
PREP TIME: 5 min walk

Dinner: Monday, April 6, 2009

“Making something … out of nothing at all (nothing at all).”

photo11What’s that, terrible Air Supply cover band in my mind? It’s fridge-cleaning night? And a successful one at that*. 

I think the key was to use the toaster oven set to “Broiled” in three stages**. 

pre step 3
between steps 2 and 3

After sufficient cooking, two Dr. Praeger’s broccoli pancakes — the Dr. makes some decent frozen goods — were placed on top of two slices of bread that had been smeared with scallion creme cheese to mask the dryness, add flavor and account for the missing fat in step three, which was to melt*** the last two slices of Jarlsberg reduced fat, deli thin, pre-sliced Swiss cheese****.

The last of my favorite lettuce mix, Earthbound Farm‘s heirloom lettuce leaves, as the ever-diligent side salad, the exceptional Novello olive oil just about to kick the bucket, as well. 

I guess it’s time I go grocery shopping … 

COST: Who the hell knows. In the $5 range.
PREP TIME: Surprisingly long, probably almost 30 minutes between figuring out a strategy and broiling in three phases.  

R.I.P. lettuce mix and key to mysterious asterisks after the jump: Continue reading “Dinner: Monday, April 6, 2009”