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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Tuesday: Ohh I Get It … a “Pitza” is a “Pizza on Pita” (aka the “Bedouin Tent Discovery” Post)

photoMore Atlantic Avenue discoveries.

Bedouin Tent. I stopped in on Sunday to grab a take-out menu and the front of the house smelled so good — that sweet, dough-y, bread baking smell — that if I hadn’t just finished my Paddington Bear panini across the road, I would have ordered something, anything, right there and then.

Bedouin Tent makes their own pita in a huge, industrial pizza oven, right there by the entrance, all day every day. Little dough balls sit stacked in flour on one side, waiting to be rolled out and shaped.

(I don’t really know how to make this metaphor work, but they reminded me of nothing so much as a small surplus of snowballs, lying in wait.)

photo-4Just as the oven is located front and center in the restaurant, the pita here is showcased in every dish: It is the vessel for an assortment of Middle Eastern salads and spreads; split open, the pita becomes a pocket, or sandwich; laid flat and topped with diced and sliced meats, vegetables and (sometimes) fresh mozzarella cheese, the pita becomes a “pitza,” a pita/pizza hybrid; with meal-sized salads and entrees, pita is served on the side, like bread.

photo-3I tried the garden salad ($7.50) — lettuce, tomato, mushrooms, peppers, cucumber, artichoke hearts, olives, parsley and feta cheese — and the Lambajin “pitza” ($7), a crumbled mixture of lamb, onion, tomato, parsley and other spices, spread out on flat pita disc and baked like a pizza.

It was a ton of food — easily enough for two people. (Indeed, it was two meals for me.) This is how every $7.50 veggie salad should be loaded: thick cuts of fresh produce, plus beautiful homemade touches, like housemade stuffed grape leaves, artichoke hearts, a blend of feta and parsley.

The Lambajin … a meat-lover’s “alternative” pizza. Full of flavor and meatiness, I did miss the cheese. (Look closely, there are a couple pitzas that are cheeseless.) All in all, my first Bedouin Tent meal left me wanting to try more, namely the “Green Pitza,” — leeks, scallions and fenugreek (described as “lightly sweet”) and mozzarella cheese — and, well, everything else.

photo-1Bedouin Tent, 405 Atlantic Ave., Boreum Hill, Brooklyn, (718) 852-5555.

TIP: Bedouin Tent has a large back patio, shaded by large, cream-colored umbrellas. I had to take lunch to-go, but if the weather’s good, take advantage of it! Then, it seems like more places than not along Atlantic Avenue have just similar backyards. Merits more exploring …

The (Under) $7 Lunch: Kabab & Grill, Pleasant Surprise Inside

Editor’s Note: Some of my favorite lunch posts have been great lunch discoveries that slide in underneath the $7 mark. So, as a part of the ongoing evolution of the BLD Project, I’m introducing a weekly column that will feature an (Under) $7 Lunch discovery. As the saying goes, necessity is the mother of all invention.

photo-13It was the sign for $1.25 pizza slices that finally got me inside Kabab & Grill. In addition to its waving pizza flag, there is neon signage listing about a half-dozen other cuisines — from the street there’s a lot going to disuade entry.

As it turns out, rather than one restaurant trying to manage around-the-world cuisine on their own, Kabab & Grill is a mini-cafeteria of independent vendors: There’s a Spanish food station, the cheap pizza station, a Mexican station and, deep in the back, a Middle Eastern station.

The whole setup is more akin to a space where a handful of street vendors rolled their productions inside and set up shop than a typical Midtown deli or cafeteria.

photo-14Back in the way, way back, at the Middle Eastern hot food station, this offer caught my eye: Your choice of rice, two vegetable sides, choice of daal (lentils) over rice, a side of naan (flat bread) for $6.50, including tax — and for $1 more you can sub in a meat option. Damn, that’s a good deal.

The food looked a fresher and more vibrant than the Spanish food station up front (yet one more deterant to digging deeper inside), so I went for it. I ordered:

photo-15

— Seasoned basmati rice, topped with yellow daal, which are seasoned pretty generously with black pepper. There is a subtle heat from the lentils that sneaks up on you.

— For two vegetarian sides, I chose a sweet, marinated cauliflower and potatoes and … good okra! Not slimy at all. (Okra may actually be one of those rare vegetables that improves to the constant, low heat of buffet stations; it might dry out just a tiny bit.)

photo-12In fact, all the vegetables were well-suited to withstand the hours out on display — something more restaurants should consider when they put out zucchini or broccoli or other delicate vegetables that slowly overcook until they’re mush. I will be back — and next time, I’ll try one of the meats.

Kabob & Grill, 150 W. 36th Street, between 7th Avenue and Broadway.

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!

Lunch: So This Is Why I Don’t Like Hot & Crusty (The Cafeteria Food Quotient)

From the first moment we met, Hot & Crusty, I’ve never liked you. It’s not just that you try so hard to be liked (which you do).

photo(4)photo(2)It’s not just that you’re sort of useless, caught in limbo between mega-chains (Starbucks, Subway), better chains (Cafe Metro, Pret a Manger) and shut out from the allegiance people have to their local neighborhood delis (you’ll never be local). You’re just … bland. Which is boring. And I don’t want to be friends.

Every so often I think I’m being to harsh, and so I give you another chance, mainly because you do try, at least, to serve somewhat healthful food. Like today, I was craving some hearty vegetable dish — not salad, not soup and not a veggie and/or cheese sandwich or panini or wrap. I’d already stopped in Dean & Deluca and Teleon Cafe and struck out when I found this tray of spinach pies at Hot & Crusty. Bingo. A big, thick piece of spinach pie, plus a side salad, for under $6. I love it.

photo(3)photoBut then, when I took a bite of the salad, I had this electric and instantaneous sensory memory: This is the exact same Italian dressing I ate for years in my college cafeteria. And that’s when it hit me: Oh my god, Hot & Crusty IS college cafeteria food incarnate. Safe, middle-of-the-road pizzas, pastas, pastries, sandwiches, everything a little over-dry from sitting out for hours, everything slightly skewing towards “healthy” (i.e. no heavy oils, nothing too greasy or fried), bland, so as to not offend the pickiest of eaters.

And that’s exactly why we don’t play more often.

Dinner: The Fate of the Pita Chips … and More

photo(2)To resolve the second-lunch cliffhanger of: “Whatever happened to the pita chips,” they became a part of my triumvirate-scroungy dinner:

Part One: Said pita chips from Pita Pan Cafe. No way those freshly deep-fried bits of old pita would last even until morning. Paired with a newly-bought Sabra hummus and a fine Catalonian E.V.O.O.

photo(7)Part Two: Personal-sized repeat salad from simple steak salad night just last week. Minus the Parmesan, plus the radish slices. Not exactly even trade, but not crap, either. (I like radishes.)

Part Three: Vaguely more complicated. I start getting anxiety when I look in my fridge and there is no block of cheese — not even an end of block of cheese — in sight.

Separately, I also got mildly excited about The Food Emporium’s “Taste of Nature: Austria” circular that I discovered recently (clearly an Austria tourism-sponsored tourism plug; specials are on through July 2). So when I realized tonight that Austrian cheese happened to be on special, when I happened to stop in the Food Emporium nearest to my apartment tonight … well …

Let’s leave this with another to be continued. Surely, the cheeses will surface again soon.