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.

Thursday: Móle, Móle, Móle! (aka the “Margarita/Guacamole/Carnitas Nirvana” Post)

This is how I remember Mexican food: The margaritas are strong but balanced, easy on the sweet and sour; the guacamole fresh and vibrant, with a heat that sneaks up on you; the carnitas tender, glistening and … [insert guttural noises] excellent.

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Carnitas is my barometer. More precisely, the crispy carnitas as I remember it from Old Town Mexican Cafe in San Diego is my barometer: Pulls-apart-with-your-fork hunks o’ pork, browned and crispy on the edges, accompanied by a basket of hot, just-made tortillas (a couple of women make fresh tortillas all day long in a kitchen with large, street-facing windows), and a plate of simple, fresh, DIY taco fillings: sliced onion and tomato, avocado, fresh cilantro, lime wedges. (For photo, see here.)

When in doubt, just order the carnitas. And that’s exactly what I did at Móle, the utterly charming, seats 25ish Mexican restaurant in the Lower East Side that I’d previously blown off because of the sort of obtuse neon sign they’ve hung out front.

After a lovely, bubbly happy hour at the Living Room bar at The W Hotel in Union Square, after an all-star appetizer lineup of not one, but two orders of guacamole prepared tableside; an order of queso fundido, that molten, cheesey, chorizo-y, goodness, and an order of flame-grilled asparagus topped with melty sheaths of manchego cheese…

…I was stuck in an infinite loop of indecision. Do I order:

a.) The diver scallop tacos special. Hands-down the most intriguing item on the special board, I just couldn’t commit. Too many sketchy scallops have made me skittish about eating any that aren’t seriously vetted. (I’m sure I’ll come around again.)

b.) The fish tacos. My friend was looking to share an order of her favorite tacos — Baja-style battered-and-fried tilapia fillets, topped off with a creamy sauce and some serious lettuce plumage (they were beautiful). Yes, we had all consumed our fair share of guac, fundido, and more guac, and cheesy asparagus (not to mention tequilla) — but would it be enough? I couldn’t commit.

and c.) The conchinita pibil? The pollo en mole poblano? Camarones al mojo de ajo? One of the other, “fancier” items from the especialidades de la casa list that I ordinarily wouldn’t order, except that it was a special occasion? But which one? What if I got this fish Veracruz … and then realized that all I really wanted was …

“Um, I’ll have the carnitas plate, please. With corn tortillas.”
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Thursday: $10 All-You-Can-Eat Craw Bar (aka the “Bondi Road Sauce Conspiracy” Post)

photo-214 oysters (raw, on the half shell)
20 shrimps
5 baked oysters, topped with diced bacon and some sort of Worcestershire sauce
2/3rds of a side of french fries
tap water

—–
$15 (including tax and tip)

If I had to guesstimate the volume of food I ate at Bondi Road‘s unbelievable Thursday “Craw Bar” night in the Lower East Side, that’s the list, more or less — and being an oyster newbie I was one of the lighter eaters.

With a little encouragement — along the lines of, “Could we get some more shrimp?” and, “Could we put in an order for those baked oysters?” — the kitchen certainly wasn’t stingy on the mains. Each time, the oyster tray came back stacked heavier, and so did the shrimp. (There were five of us making this our dinner, after all.)

photo-4photo-5Some of my friends were taking advantage of Bondi Road’s (in)famous drink special — $20 all-you-can-drink for 2 hours — and all in all, food and booze flowing, we were poised for success.

But then, there was a hiccup. Intentionally or otherwise, Bondi Road on this night was unbelievably stingy with their sauce. Cocktail sauce, fresh horseradish, ketchup (which never came)  … it became such a joke at the table that we started speculating conspiracy-theory style about the stinginess with the sauce.

photo-3Theory no. 1: This was the restaurant’s all-you-can-eat exit strategy: Serve them huge platters of seafood with the puniest portions of sauce imaginable, ignore their requests for more until they are infuriated and leave.

Theory #2: The sauce that’s served with the shrimp (of which we got two tiny, half-filled containers no matter whether there were a dozen shrimp or 20 shrimp in the bowl) is imported from Australia, which justifies the rationing.

(In actuality, we’re pretty sure it was just cocktail sauce whipped with mayonnaise for a creamier texture, dolled out into these disposable condiment cups during prep hours earlier — which only deepens the mystery of why the server couldn’t just grab a couple of extras from the kitchen in less time than it took us to finish the shrimp, reluctantly, anyway …)

The conclusion: Still a killer deal, the quality’s decent (for the price, spectacular). Bring your own sauce — or be prepared to eat some seafood in the buff.

TIP: Go early. The five of us were seated immediately and served quickly at 6:45pm, and the restaurant had a line out the door by the time we left. Plus, the 2-hour drink special makes for an excellent kick-off to a Thursday night out.

Dinner: It Began with Chips, Guac and Margaritas…

photo-33… might have ended there, as well. Now that I think about it. I also shared part of a friend’s taco plate, but surely didn’t eat enough to even say that we split it. Oh well, sometimes festivities get the best of you! 

From what I did taste, Festival Mexicano Restaurant in the Lower East Side has passable Mexican food — there’s much better options elsewhere in the city; a personal favorite of mine is Florencia 13 in Greenwich Village, not street-cheap, but restaurant-quality. 

The margaritas at Festival Mexicano, on the other hand, were frothy, cheap ($5 well, $7 Sauza Hornitos, 100% agave tequila) and wicked strong.

Breakfast: It’s Hip To Be Square (aka the “Eat-These-Doughnuts” Post)

photo(2)If the display of Doughnut Plant doughnuts at Dean & Deluca in the New York Times building were personal ads, then I’ve been checking out the listings for a very long time.

Which to choose? Do I have to commit to just one? Today I took the plunge and committed to raspberry jam-filled, vanilla-bean glazed yeast doughnut ($3). It was the shape that ultimately got me; I love a good square joke.

photoDoughnut Plant comes with a pretty-hyped reputation for quality ingredients, unusual flavors and for generally making damn good doughnuts — hence the indecision — and I’m happy to report that I concur.

The doughnut is soft and fluffy, a little sticky (in a good way) thanks to the glaze, and, unlike the bright-reddish goo injected into doughnuts nationwide, the thread inside my charming, square friend was identifiably jam, raspberry at that, the sweet/tart factor of which elevated the whole experience. No superficial, sugar fix this; no, this was really getting to know your doughnut.

photo(3)TIP: Doughnut Plant’s home-base is at 379 Grand Street, in the Lower East Side, but there are a number of shops in Midtown that ship them in daily. Go!

PREVIOUSLY:

New Obsession Alert: Mushroom Barley Soup at D&D (Lunch, April 6, 2009)
The $6 Breakfast Sandwich (Breakfast, May 15, 2009)

Une Croissant Pour la Mademoiselle (Breakfast, May 20, 2009)

Lunch: Friday, May 1, 2009

Love, love, love Russ & Daughters.

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photo-3It’s so perfectly New York. The gorgeous smoked fish, the chocolate-dipped everything, the cheeses, the fresh-squeezed juice and premium dried fruits — makes me look at the rain outside and get impatient for summer and park picnics and all the good food and merriment that goes hand-in-hand. 

photo2I love the “Super Heeb” sandwich, which is horseradish creme cheese, whitefish salad and wasabi-flavored roe that are both so pretty and green and crunch so squeakily and give the whole thing a nice kick.

So how surprised was I to see that the Heeb and Super Heeb ($2 worth of the wasabi roe to make it “super”) have been renamed to the Heebster and the Super Heebster — what?!! LOL

There is some brilliance stirring here: Lower East Side (Jewish) institution enters 21st century, realizes is surrounded by cute young things with asymmetrical haircuts, decides to embrace the new LES culture, makes hipster pun yet remains true to heritage.

Not a bad model for neighborhoods everywhere which are evolving and changing: If you’ve got a good thing going, you don’t have to change. But there’s no reason you can’t some have fun with it. 

COST: $25 splurge
PREP TIME: 5 minute walk!  

Drool-worthy photos of fish and more after the jump: 

Continue reading “Lunch: Friday, May 1, 2009”