El Centro is our go-to Mexican place in our hood, in nice weather. When the sun is out and the temperature is up, they open all the windows that line the fun, quirky joint, and they place small metal tables out on the sidewalk. Ah, outdoor dining is one of my favorite things to do in NYC. It’s just awesome.
Also, they serve ginormous frozen drinks: here’s the frozen margarita mixed with frozen sangria. Not saccharine sweet, just cold, refreshing and relaxing. Like being on vacation.
Mandatory all-you-can eat chips and salsa. Very addictive.
And the food is good too! My favorite dish: the shrimp fajitas. I crave them constantly. You get 3 warm tortillas, rice and black beans and your own little station of sour cream, guacamole and jalapeno peppers. And of course a searing hot and irresistibly fragrant plate of shrimp, corn, onions and an assortment of peppers.
A close-up of the gorgeous fat, succulent shrimp. Perfectly browned. This dish always hits the spot. I love how the ingredients start melding into the plate as they continue to sizzle and caramelize throughout your meal. You literally have to pluck and pull off the last crisp remains at the end.
Other dishes here do not disappoint! We especially love their brunch menu. Try the machacados tacos with scrambled eggs and beef short ribs! Drool.
Legend Bar and Restaurant
Despite the cheesy decor, the unfriendly and hurried service, the long and repetitive menu where the same dishes appear over and over in various forms of English translations, the A.D.D. nature of the menu (offerings jumped from Shanghai to Hong Kong to Chengdu to Vietnam to… you get the point), the odd presence of a karaoke stage and the rather weak drink selection (Tsingtao!), Legend is freakin’ LEGIT and definitely worth the visit. This is unadulterated, fiery, authentic Sichuan food. It’ll light a fire in your mouth that trails down deep into your belly, but boy does it feel good. Equip yourself with water and beer and go all out!
Shrimp wontons in a hot red sesame oil. The wonton skins were dense, almost rubbery, which threw us off at first. The shrimp were ground up and scarce. But somehow this grew on us. The sweet heat of the sesame oil on these chewy little wontons was strangely addictive.
Little juicy pork buns, aka xiǎo lóng bāo, aka my favorite type of dumpling by far. These were not good. But I take full responsibility for that. I had a craving and tested fate and ordered Shanghai cuisine at a Sichuan restaurant, and this is what I got. Thick, unpleasant skin, little to no soup. Bleh.
ATO loves a good plain and simple chicken with broccoli. We ordered “Chef Wang’s signature” version. And I have to say, it was pretty dang good for chicken with broccoli. No trace of MSG, not drowned in unidentifiable brownish gravy sauce and clumps - it actually reminded me of my mom’s home cooking - and there really is nothing better than that.
Cheng Du style stir-fried eggplant. Best dish of the night. So much better than your typical Chinese-style eggplant, either sauteed or braised in a hot casserole dish. Ridiculously hot and crisp, bursting with flavor, but soft and stewed inside….. this eggplant is out of this world. The peanuts bring a nice crunch and nuttiness against the overall burn and mouth-numbing qualities of the other ingredients. It’s like Pringles: once you pop, you just can’t stop.
Finally, another winner. The “house stir-fried hand rolling noodle”. The name was not a good description of the dish. Cellophane noodles are covered by a light but flavorful ground pork, fresh chive and plump chopped shrimp mixture. Sriracha sauce decorates the edges of the plate, and a bowl of sweet ginger sauce is offered on the side and poured over the noodles to taste. Served room temperature/on the cold side. The mixture of ingredients and flavors is totally bizzare, and I know it looks off-putting. But it was marvelous. You’ll just have to try it for yourselves.
Mmmmm, probably the best Sichuan cuisine I’ve had in this city (although I know we didn’t entirely order Sichuan food). Definitely added to my list of go-to Chinese places from now on!
Burger Joint (new Greenwich Village location!)
The perennially packed and always delicious Burger Joint, tucked away in the dark recesses of Le Parker Meridien, has finally taken a cue from its more popular rival, Shake Shack, and opened a second downtown location. Thank the lord, this one has not caught on like wildfire (yet) and eating here did not require, as is so often the case in the midtown location, a dreadfully long wait (or any wait for that matter). Win.
Same short and sweet menu. Step 1: hamburger or cheeseburger (easy: when is cheese not a good idea?). Step 2: choose your meat preparation (medium rare is the way to go… YUM). Step 3: toppings to your liking (no need to choose, just say “the works” and get them all! Lettuce, tomato, onion, sliced pickles, mustard, ketchup, mayo galore).
And of course, an order of french fries. Thin and crisp and all-around McDeezy style.
CHOMP! Just as satisfying as the midtown burger, none of the wait!
PS -these burgers are a bit bigger than the Shake Shack versions. Our boys had a more difficult time stuffing down two burgers than they normally do…. altho they still happily did so ;-).
Momofuku Milk Bar (the pork buns!)
I’m not a huge fan of Momofuku Milk Bar. There, I said it! While I do appreciate cereal milk soft serve (how my ice cream can taste so much like the leftover milk of a super sweet bowl of cereal gets me every time!), the appeal of other cult classics like crack pie, candybar pie or the compost cookie is just way over my head.
After frequent visits to Milk Bar, I’ve discovered that for me, its their savory treats that reign supreme. Like the banana curry bread, which is very tasty - it’s strange and numbs your tongue a bit - but it’ll grow on you. But that’s a story for another day. Our focus today: the pork bun. (It’s only available at the UWS, Williamsburg and Carroll Garden locations!).
At $8 a pork bun, it’s not the cheapest snack. But it is big in size and big in taste.
And very generous in pork! Salty sweet tender shreds of Asian-style barbecued pork (and lots of it), perfectly balanced with crisp thin slices of cucumber (very refreshing). None of that gloppy sweet sauce that often attacks pork buns. All served in a big fat steamed bun (unfortunately, it kind of had a dense re-heated consistency, but we got over that).
Definitely more satisfying than the saccharine globs of sugar on offer!
When I think of Queens, my one-tracked mind thinks of one thing: amazing ethnic food. To be broken into 4 categories: (1) Thai food, (2) Greek food, (3) M. Well’s Dinette (while not ethnic per se, M. Well’s gets its own category) and (4) Flushing. So after our friend’s very cool art show in Long Island City, ATO, RL and I headed to M. Well’s Dinette for dinner. Except it wasn’t open. Because it’s only open for lunch. Doh! We hopped back in a cab in search of replacement dinner. We literally didn’t know where we were going, just told our driver to keep driving, somewhere, anywhere (cabs aren’t as easy to come by out there so we weren’t about to let this one go!). Meanwhile, in the backseat, we were frantically Google searching, browsing Yelp, checking out Eater and basically screaming at each other, in our frenzied attempt to quickly determine our destination. Sometime during that ride I declared that it was Thai food or bust. We ended up at Ayada.
We had underestimated how big Queens was. Ayada was not close to where we were. It took over a $20 cab ride to get us there. I started questioning how smart this decision was: afterall, I live in Manhattan’s Thai food mecca (Hell’s Kitchen), where I can easily pick up a great pad thai or curry every other block. Was this really worth the trek? Yes, yes it was. Cos you can’t get Thai food like this in Manhattan! This was the real deal, Thai food for non-gringos, Thai food un-compromised for Western tastes, Thai food with real heat and authenticity.
We started with an order of crab rolls: chicken and crab wrapped in tofu skin, deep fried and served with plum sauce. Gluttonous for sure, but irresistibly crisp on the outside and plump and flavorful on the inside. A true crowd pleaser.
We moved on to one of several “salads” (I wouldn’t actually categorize most of the listed “salads” as actual “salads” as we’d commonly think): the raw shrimp topped with bitter melon, garlic, chili and lime juice. ATO went wild for this dish. The tangy hot mix of garlic, chili and lime juice was a wonderful contrast to the cool raw shrimp. The bitter melon added the perfect palate cleansing aftertaste. I couldn’t handle the texture of the shrimp tho… too, um, raw. Beware of the heat from this dish: seemingly mild at first, it clings to your tongue and makes your eyes water long after your last bite. RL and ATO were gulping down water by the cupful after this dish!
We moved on to a classic Thai “salad”: pork larb with mint, dry chili and lime juice. The flavors were more mild than I expected, and a bit disappointing. The crumbly ground pork was chalky and dry. Least successful dish of the night.
Next up, the salted crab with mango salad. I know I’m in the minority, but I’ve never been a big fan of Thai mango or papaya salads. This dish therefore never stood much of a chance with me. On top of that, add raw crab served straight in its shell. You had to gnaw and crack each joint to suck out the fresh meat. Way too much work; I didn’t even bother. ATO, however, thought it was better than a similar crab papaya salad at Pok Pok NY.
And now for our main dishes: the Kang Som sour curry with shrimp and broccoli omelet. When it came to our main dishes, we each had our favorite. This was ATO’s. The curry wasn’t quite a “curry” - it was more a super complex murky, salty, sour broth - much thinner than a typical curry. The fat little shrimp were fresh and flavorful, and the soft fluffy cubes of omelet happily soaked up the delicious broth. Definitely a must-order.
I can be a very boring person. My favorite dish of the night was the Pad Gai Kua: sautéed wide noodles with chicken, squid and egg. I recognize that this plate probably most resembles any dish I could order in the comforts of Hell’s Kitchen. However, I LOVE Thai noodles to death, and this one was fantastic. Sooo much better than my typical Chai Thai, Wondee Siam (I, II or III), Chili Thai, Pam Real Thai, Room Service, Yum Yum, Thai Basil (dang, there really is a lot of Thai in my area!), etc. And believe me, I’m an expert. The luscious folds of the big wide noodles were soft and yielding and held the perfect balance of sauce to salty to sweet to chicken. Love, sweet love.
RL’s favorite dish, and a close second for both me and ATO: the duck panang curry in coconut milk. This curry puts any other curry to shame. It burns, it makes your mouth water, it violently shakes up your taste buds and it leaves you breathless and craving more. The duck itself was also fabulous; cooked to perfection, the meat was so delicate and tender while the skin hugged it like a crackly case. Ahhhh…. if only Thai food could always be like this.
PS - this place is so much better than its more famous nearby competitor, SriPraPhai! Skip the hype and come here instead!
In a city saturated with ramen houses, I think I found my favorite: Chuko. The menu is short but satisfying: choose from three different appetizers, three different “bites”, and four different types of ramen. Add either roasted pork or steamed chicken to your hot bowl of noodles. Choose a poached egg or a hard-boiled one. Simple. Delicious.
This is the type of place that serves sake from a can. I found this very cool. And very representative of the general vibe of this ramen joint: super casual, laid back, a bit funky and new-fangled, but keeping to authentic roots. And very Brooklyn.
Our “bites” came first: a salad of crispy brussel sprouts tossed in fish sauce with peanuts. Super savory and addictive, but a bit too Ma Peche-style for me (ie - too heavy on that “Asian” flavor, aka fish sauce).
Though some might call it gimmicky, I happily took down a shrimp bun with garlic tartar sauce. The shrimp was amazeballs. The three proprietors of Chuko hailed from Morimoto, which serves up one of my favorite guilty pleasures: rock shrimp tempura. Unsurprisingly, the shrimp here were super similar, but had some nice shredded greens on top that brightened them up.
ATO ordered the miso ramen with scallions, a poached egg, corn and roasted pork. So much depth of flavor in that murky broth. The pork was meaty and nice and charred on the edges. Mmmmmmmm.
I asked our waitress for a recommendation. She said the veggie broth was the best. Veggie broth at a ramen joint? Blasphemy! But she was right. Above is the veggie miso based ramen with market vegetables and steamed chicken. Best ramen ever. Better than the chicken broth ramen at Totto, better than any I’ve had at Ippudo (only because it didn’t upset my stomach afterwards) and better than Dassara (even the mushroom ramen, which I love so much!). Filled with unexpected veggies - sweet potatoes in ramen? But by God, it worked! The whole bowl was rich without being a gut bomb, the ingredients were fresh, the steamed chicken was tender and fantastic and the noodles were curly, springy and cooked just right.
My only complaint: it was quite a trek to get here. Open one in Manhattan!!
Palenque Arepa Truck
As a Philly girl at heart, I have a soft spot for food trucks. Especially food trucks churning out super yummy grub (shout-out to the crepe truck circa 2001 at Penn!). So you can imagine how excited ATO and I were when, looking for a mid-day snack while apt hunting in Park Slope, we came across Palenque Arepa Truck, serving some home-style, freshly made Colombian food. Freakin awesome.
Here’s half an arepa: ATO and I split one and they neatly cut it for us. Grilled chicken, “mushed” red beans, some fresh herbs, a bit of special sauce and salsa, all served on a crisp corn arepa. A bit messy to eat but finger lickin’ good.
The truck hops from spot to spot in Brooklyn and their schedule is posted on their website. Another perk in moving to Brooklyn!
Mission Chinese Food
Mission Chinese Food took both coasts by storm and has left the food scenes in SF and NY reeling. Whether you love it or hate it, no one can discuss the hottest, most influential new restaurants anymore without the Mission name front and center. We love its super casual, divey laid-back vibe, it’s off-the-cuff feel, the bargain prices and the unconventional twist on conventional Asian cuisine. We also love that GW always hooks us up when we visit (check him out: http://sf.eater.com/archives/2012/11/08/mission_chinese_foods_greg_wong_on_four_hour_waits.php)! Woot woot!
We’ve taste-tested the greater portion of the menu (either through our own gluttonous over-ordering or through GW’s generosity), so I’ll build for you my perfect dinner here, based on our favorites from our latest visit.
Start your meal as if you’re at a traditional Chinese banquet, with Beijing vinegar peanuts with smoked garlic, anise and rock sugar. Salty, nutty and sweet, with just the right amount of crunch. The delicious soft garlic was a particular weakness of mine (lucky ATO)!
Another small snack to start: the fresh and crisp “smashed” cucumbers with salted chili, sesame paste and garlic.
Next, move on to the braised pea greens with adzuki beans, Old Bay, boiled peanuts and pumpkin broth. We were all pleasantly surprised, and a bit taken aback, by the layers and depth of flavor of this dish. YUM.
My favorite of the night: the Taiwanese clams with soy caramel, basil, potatoes and fried garlic. Savory and absolutely scrumptious. Finding each huge chunk of broth-soaked potato was like discovering gold on a treasure hunt.
Finally, soak it all in with a big bowl of carbs: spicy peanut noodles with chopped lamb brisket, cucumbers and chili oil. The various flavors mixed and melded into a vigorous and wonderful bowl of noodles.
Bonus: If you’re a big fan of the super peppery Sichuan-style cuisine and love the way it numbs your mouth and stings your tongue (EW and ATO!), here’s a couple of additional dishes you’ll love.
The spicy buckwheat noodles with horseradish, cucumbers, bean sprouts and mala vinegar definitely delivers the kick that its description promises.
The tingy tea smoked chicken with chili sediment, Sichuan pepper, black vinegar and peanuts will definitely knock all your taste buds out!
Double bonus: best “leftovers for breakfast” dish goes to the clean and simple Westlake rice porridge with sweet shrimp, braised beef, egg and cilantro.
One more thing to love about Mission Chinese: the very cool red dragon crawling beneath the ceiling!
The Meatball Shop
ATO was in an animal-friendly mood: he went for the vegetarian meatballs, which were recommended with the pesto sauce, on a whole wheat baguette. Important note: don’t order the whole wheat baguette! It’s not worth the extra fiber and health benefits. The very distinct wheat taste almost masked the flavors of the tasty meatballs and the fresh, verdant pesto sauce.
Following the advice of our waitress, I ordered the spicy pork meatballs in the classic tomato sauce. A perfect blend of savory, sweet, tangy and spicy. While the whole wheat baguette worked better in this combo, I’d still opt for the white baguette. The greens accompanying this sub were so satisfying that I didn’t even mourn the lack of french fries from the menu!
Mmmmm…. I gotta say, the best part of this meal was the customizable ice cream sandwiches for dessert. I asked for my ice cream separately on the side. Choose your house-made ice cream and your freshly baked cookies! And remember… variety is the spice of life, so choose 2 different cookie flavors! We went for the snickerdoodle cookie and a chocolate malt cookie (amazing). The ice cream? Brings me back to my elementary school days….. classic pb&j. LOVE.
Charcoal Pit (Wilmington, DE)
A trip down memory lane… Charcoal Pit! Ohhh the good ol’ days of rolling into the Pit after rolling a house, the excitement of youth and dates and a brand new driver’s license, to the times of faster metabolisms and late night food binges without consequences, to that last pit stop after cruising 202 and before the curfew hit….
Ah, this place still does it for me every time. And to be transported back to those happy carefree days circa 1996? Priceless.
The old fashioned, hand-dipped milk shake served in a frosted container. In a very pink, artificial and faux strawberry flavor. Delicious.
My sundae! Vanilla ice cream submerged in creamy hot fudge, a gooey marshmallow fluff and an enormous pile of whipped cream with, of course, the essential maraschino cherry balanced on top. LOVE. That blob of whipped cream toppled off within seconds of this picture being taken. A big ol’ mess, just like it should be. Makes it all the more fun to dig in and gobble down!
And of course, for the ultimate zen balance, a ton of sweet must always be countered with a ton of salty (and fried salty is even better): onion rings! They’re like those fake, frozen onion rings served in school cafeteria lunches, but lo and behold, there’s actually a real onion inside! A pleasant surprise.
PS - Bring some quarters to play your favorite tunes on the jukebox!