Wednesday, May 7, 2008

New York Food Fest 2008

So once again I'm in the Big Apple soaking in the culture of the American City. Since this is my second trip in less than seven months, I was not as concerned with hitting a whirlwind of places. Instead, I took my time, tried to drop the tourist act and soaked up the city at my own pace.

Crif Dogs was one of the places I missed last time I was in town. I had meant to check it out upon recommendation by my New Yorker girlfriend, but I was so enthralled with Gray's that I just never made it out to St. Mark's.

Looking at the menu, I could easily tell what kind of crowd this place caters to. They feature four "Stoner Pack" meals "for those of you who practice the wake and bake theory of life." Well seeing as how I don't subscribe to that philosophy, I went for two original Crif Dogs, handmade and naturally smoked.

Since I wanted to get the full flavor of the frank, I had mine topped simply with sauerkraut and relish. The hot dog had a nice crispness to it, quite a bit different in texture from the wieners I'm used to. I also tried the tsunami dog, which was bacon wrapped and topped with pineapple, teriyaki sauce and green onions. The pineapples and green onions went great together, but the bacon might have been overkill. I'll have to say though, I still prefer Pink's in LA as the best hot dogs I've had.

Even though I spent a healthy afternoon playing Gears of War on Xbox (yes, I flew to NY to play video games), I coincidentally ended up in St. Mark's again that night for dinner. Originally, I planned to go to a Moroccan restaurant across the street; for the record, their menu did look quite appetizing. However, since they didn't seat my friends and I after waiting close to an hour, I'll give them enough of a demerit to not go back.

We crossed the street to Dumpling Man. Apparently Dumpling Man is also Zagat rated, and rated well too. It's a narrow counter restaurant with few frills. Customers can watch their dumplings being made fresh and either steamed or fried to order. Their seasonal specialty kim chee dumpling was a creative and delicious take on Chinese style dumplings. After ordering, I noticed that several reviews placed conveniently in the restaurant suggested the shrimp, so I ordered one of those also. Trying both dumplings with the green cilantro sauce, I'll have to give both originality and taste points to the Korean dumpling. Yes, that is my friend very excited for his dumpling.

The next morning, well more like afternoon considering I was still on Pacific time and I went back to the Xbox for several hours after dinner, I went out for some mac and cheese. Although I heard about S'mac through a friend's recommendation, I also found out that Oprah had endorsed this place. With an endorsement from her, how can you not win over everyone...oh wait.

Make sure you click on this image to get a close-up of that cheesy, melty goodness. Served in an individual skillet too? I felt like a king of macaroni, except I was sharing with someone else. This is the All-American Mac, a blend of American and cheddar cheese, browned to form a crunchy crust. As you might imagine, everything in this restaurant is intensely rich and salty. Luckily I shared this mac; I doubt I could've finished one on my own. Also, I believe they intentionally keep this place too hot to make you buy their overpriced drinks (mostly Jones sodas).

Alright, although I was eager to come back to NY to go to Crif Dogs, I mostly wanted to come to Sylvia's for their soul food. Located in Harlem, not far from the Apollo Theater, Sylvia's is a hot tourist spot. They try hard to shed their street reputation and strive for friendly service paired with mouthwatering, hearty dishes.

I came for an early lunch, early enough that they were still serving the biscuits from breakfast. Although they do serve some famous cornbread, as referenced on an episode of 30 Rock, their biscuits stole the show. I watched my friend's face melt as he bit into that fluffy, buttery pastry. Eagerly, I tried my own; instantly, neither one of us could get enough. The only thing that held us back was the promise of more food...much, much more food to come.

Where can you order BOTH fried chicken and ribs for lunch? Same place where you pay four dollars for Grandma Julia fruit punch, which tasted like Kool-Aid made with seltzer water. The drink was the only mediocre thing however, the rest of my lunch with sides of buttered corn and potato salad was heavenly. Tender chicken and ribs that fell off the bone made my knees buckle. Combined with Sylvia's house hot sauce, this lunch brought my understanding of soul food to a new level. My friend's collard greens cooked with turkey were also the best collard greens I've ever had. They managed maintain their structure and not become a soggy mess. I'm sure someone will argue with me that Sylvia's is too much of a tourist trap nowadays and not very authentic. I'd challenge anyone to try their food and not tell me it's worth a trip in itself.

Now I'll admit this picture does not look very appetizing at all. But sometimes good food is best tasted with eyes closed. I bought this gyros sandwich off a cart at 2 am on 52nd and 8th. It's so nice to be in the big city where I can just walk downstairs and get food in the middle of the night. But not just food, good food. There's a reason why there was a line for a push cart.

Now this gyros was far from traditional. I actually have no idea what he put inside it, but whatever sauce it was brought the whole thing together. It wasn't the usual tzatziki, it was spicy and red. The texture was slight mushy, but the flavor was all there.

Now I contrast the good street food with the bad fast food. Whereas I previously mentioned that not all good food looks appetizing, this is a case where you can judge the book by its cover. Does this look familiar? If you guessed McDonald's cheeseburger, you wouldn't be far from the truth as far as taste and appearance. This is a White Castle slider made famous by Harold & Kumar. It does taste remarkably like miniature McDonald's. I've even heard that theses aren't much better fresh than they are frozen and reheated. For my money, I'd rather opt for McDonald's double cheeseburger, which strangely enough, costs the same as a single.

One of my last nights in NY I had dinner at the first Jamaican restaurant I've ever seen. Negril, not Ne Grill as I initially thought, is a beach in Jamaica. This appetizer shown on the right is ackee bruscetta served on cassava toast. Ackee is a tropical fruit related to lychee supposedly of culinary importance to the island nation. Personally, I found it to be bland, but I probably didn't have the best representation of ackee. Also, this fruit is poisonous.

Although this is not actually my entree, I thought this oxtail stew looked better than my goat stew wrapped in burritoesque tortilla. Stew are a big part of Caribbean food, which doesn't surprise me. It is a hearty and makes the most use of scraps and bits of leftover meat as would be appropriate for slave food of the time. This is why there are few Jamaican restaurants; it just isn't very sophisticated in ingredients. That doesn't mean it can't be good, just suited for a different crowd.

Now for the last restaurant I am going to review, I only have a picture of the cotton candy machine outside of the restaurant. I didn't anticipate eating here, so I wasn't prepared with my camera. If you've walked down St. Mark's place, the saccharine smell of cotton candy would have pointed you to Kenka. This restaurant was lively, a popular hangout for NYU students. Apparently they banned sake bombing precisely because it was too popular. Oh plus the disruptive yelling and fist pounding didn't contribute to a dining environment. Kenka serves small Japanese plates in an izakaya style with a wide selection of sake and a few Japanese beers. I enjoyed the place and would love to come back again either for a late night meal or a happy hour.

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