The $6 Wundersandwich (aka the “It Could Be Possible To Live Off Nha Toi’s Menu Alone” Post)

Finally. A $6 sandwich in New York City that is everything I’ve ever wanted: Badass baguette that’s so fresh it talks smack: “Oh yah, what. Bring it.” A serious veggie crunch and bold, fresh flavas that stand up to the succulent, meaty, (in this case porky) protein at its core.

There’s more, nine more banh mi on the menu — lemongrass pork cutlet or shitakke mushroom, anyone? — all priced at either $6 or $7 dollars, NSA.

Ladies and gentlemen, meet Nhà Tôi.

Don’t blink as you walk past this tiny storefront on Havemeyer Street, lest you miss it (inside, it’s almost all kitchen and about a mish-mashed seats). The bi heo sandwich that I had — stuffed with shredded pork and skin with roasted rice powder — trumps any banh mi I’ve had in the city, including Baoguette’s.

This is the kind of food memory that will make the injustices of that crappy, prepackaged salad lunch in Midtown and overpriced UES bodega sandwich — with all due respect, it’s just meat, cheese, shredded iceberg lettuce, watery tomato, raw onion on a passably fresh roll — all the greater.

But Nhà Tôi’s menu doesn’t stop there. Once you get past the sandwiches, there’s a full menu of pho to explore, as well as snacks. On my visit, I was blatantly oggling the crispy spring rolls at the next table (can’t help it, close quarters warrant awkward seating and wafting smells).

… and the drinks? Well, no booze. However, the lineup of canned Southeast Asian beverages strung up on a chord will keep you perennially interested, e.g. basil seed beverage with “creme soda flavour” ($2). What’s it taste like? Says Nhà Tôi chef/owner Fred, “Well, I grew up with it. So I love it. But there’s definitely a certain texture to it.

So how does Nhà Tôi keep their prices down? I’d guess from low overhead costs. In addition to being tiny, there’s only one menu, on a sheet of 8 1/2″ x 11″ paper, full of Sharpie cross-outs and tacked-on additions.

Why not print more? Not sure … that’s between a man and his laser jet. I’ll be back to Nhà Tôi in a split second, but I’m not going there.

Nhà Tôi, 160 Havemeyer St., nr. S. 2nd St., 718-599-1820. Cash only.

Advertisements

Thursday: Zen Palate Fail (aka the “Vanessa’s Dumpling House Comes Through … Again” Post)

photoI am easily excited about the prospect of a great food deal, like the e-mail I received from SeamlessWeb advertising “Delivery Week” (which actually runs through October 31st). Um, 3-course lunch specials of $12.09, in my shit Midtown West neighborhood? Yeah, what’cha got?

Well, the best offer (at least the day after the Bill’s burger gorging) was: Mmm… Zen Palate. So veggie, and so good-ish for you.

Well, it was the best offer …

until I discovered that my sweet photo-1potato fries didn’t even have a hint of warmth (they were hard), and that was after I found a bug in my already disappointing, stalk-filled watercress salad, which was all before I bit into one of the worst veggie patties I’ve ever had — a sad, flavorless, tan-colored thing smashed between a stale bun and a slice of tomato that had been pushed on so long that it’d made a damp imprint on patty.

photo-2I don’t waste food. I did on Thursday. … Good thing I had to run to LES and I had the chance to pop into one of my Eldridge Street favorites, Vanessa’s Dumpling House, for a sesame pancake sandwich and a side of soup. Fixes everything.

Friday: On the Importance of Adding Fresh Ingredients to Premade Foods (aka the “Better Soup from a Can” Post)

Fast forward a number of years.

Of all the posts that will comprise thephoto-5 BLD Project at that time, no doubt this one will be regarded as fairly insignificant. But I beg to differ.

The point to note here is not that this is about the organic chicken with white and wild rice soup from Wolfgang Puck’s line of canned organic soups. It’s what else I did: I spent five extra minutes chopping up two-thirds of a stalk of celery and the end of a small red onion and satueed these small bits in the bottom of a saucepan, with olive oil. I added in some chopped fresh parsley, and once that began to cook just slightly, then I added in soup.

This miniscule bit of additional prep not only made the soup more appealing to photo-6look at, taste better and improve its overall character — I also just fit in an extra half-serving of vegetables. Fresh vegetables. And nothing, nothing in package foods can compensate for the taste, texture or overall vibrancy of fresh vegetables. And most of us don’t get enough.

I’ve been thinking about Mark Bittman’s blog post about convincing fast food chains to offer more healthful options all week. “The fact is that fast food isn’t “bad” because it’s fast — it’s bad because of crummy ingredients,” he writes. We can’t all eat splendidly all the time — let alone make chicken with white and wild rice soup from scratch.

So if you are making a quick lunch at home by heating up some soup from a can — or any prepackaged food, for that matter — improve it. Add some fresh vegetables. A drizzle of olive oil. Some fresh herbs. A little seasoning. A little goes a long way in making a meal taste better, and be better for you.

Thursday: Finally, Free Meal at Brasserie Comes True (aka the “$19.59 Three-Course Good Value” Post)

It’s true. I wound up at Brasserie in Midtown East on Thursday night, photo-6enjoying a free, three-course meal, plus a couple of not-free cocktails from their $9 Vintage Cocktail menu, because of Twitter.

More precisely, because of a tweet from my friends at Wined & Dined (who I’ve leveraged previously for some food deal hookups) announcing that Brasserie, in celebration of its 50th Anniversary, was offering a free lunch on Sept. 17 until reservations were full.

Lunch was booked up by the time I called, but the restaurant gave me an even sweeter deal: A complimentary three-course dinner, on the night of my choosing (before November 1), so long as the reservation was booked for 9 p.m. or later.

And, surprisingly, there was no other catch. We were comped the restaurant’s “$19.59 after 9” menu, which is on through the end of October. Since there was two of us, we decided to just order the whole thing and do a mini tasting.

photo-7Here’s the breakdown:

Appetizers

French onion soup: This molten, cheese-crusted bowl of soup didn’t skimp on portions, and we ended up using pieces of the fresh baguette (one comes with every table) to sop up the broth and polish off all that cheese. Great for two people to split; a really large portion for one.

Pâté de Campagne: My favorite of the two. Better portion size, a savory pâté, plus, I always love the “some assembly required” appetizer: layering spicy French mustard, pâté, a slice of cornichon, a touch of frisée.

photo-9Entrees

The Brasserie burger: A towering burger, stuffed with cheese, more cheese melted on top and garnished with frizzled onions. Served between sliced, toasted halves of a French bread loaf and served with a heaping side of hot, fresh French fries. I tried my best to finish my half — but no go. This burger is a serious meat rock.

photo-8Poulet, frites and salad verte: Again, the portion of this plate is so, so generous. It comes with an entire half of a roasted chicken, bones trimmed up in the French style, plus a heaping portion of fries and a dab of salad.

The chicken was well-executed and moist enough,  if a bit bland — I was wishing for more evidence of herbs and seasoning. But that was sort of the modus operandi for everything that came out of the kitchen — well-executed, if a little ordinary. Maybe “playing it safe” is a better phrase?

But generous meal for free? In no way am I complaining.

photo-10Dessert

The desserts, on the other hand, I could have skipped. (Trade out for a cocktail?) The beignets unsure of their beignet-ness — a little bit doughnut, a little bit churro and a little bit beignet, and not so fresh.

And the creme carmel, too, didn’t impress. Then again, this might have been my stomach having reaching its capacity, vetoing any more intake.

Verdict

The $19.59 special is a great value if you’re hungry, and a little overwhelming if you’re not.

…On the other hand, the $9 Vintage Cocktail menu, which includes a specialty cocktail from each decade of Brasserie’s history (you can find a copy of the menu here) beats out just about any others you could possibly scour up in this part of Midtown, at least in terms of price and strength. Imbibe and enjoy, carefully.

Brasserie, 100 E. 53rd St., near Park Avenue, 212-751-4840

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.

Tuesday: Seeking Chicken Soup for the … (aka the “Table for One at Ben’s Kosher Deli” Post)

photo-8We pick our battles. Sometimes factors like convenience, cost or health-conscious mindfulness are cause enough to restrain from indulging in that desire of the moment: fancy sushi, duck fat fries, chocolate.

Other times, we just give in. And on Tuesday I was all but ready to dive in, face first, into a pot of noodles, matzo balls, kreplach, roasted chicken, diced vegetables all swimming in broth — that Jewish delicatessen staple, aptly called “chicken in a pot.” It’s like chicken soup on steroids, for when you need a prescrption-strength dose of chicken soup’s soul-and-stomach-soothing goodness.

photo-6Then I discovered that going price for chicken in a pot at Ben’s Kosher Delicatessen, the closest source for this comfort nectar, is $16.99 — also known as an instant $20 lunch.

My fail safes kicked in: I just can’t justify spending $20 on an ordinary Tuesday lunch. Not this Tuesday. Things aren’t “that bad.”

photo-7Instead, I treated myself to in-restaurant dining, which, being a party of one at Ben’s, meant a pot of pickles and a tray of cole slaw all to myself! And I treated myself to the “Double Dip” combo: Half a deli sandwich and a bowl of the soup of your choice, $11.49.

So in the end, I got my noodles and my chicken broth, my pickles and my cole slaw, and a hefty stack of corned beef on rye. And along the way, I found a little peace.