Eats & Drinks

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★ BEST TRANSFORMATION OF A FIGHT-PRONE DIVE BAR INTO A MEATPACKING DISTRICT SUCKPIT 

Village Idiot Becomes Gin Lane

355 W. 14th St.
(betw. 8th & 9th Aves.)

212-691-0555

The stench hit you like a baseball bat. It was a retch-inducing cocktail of stale urine, puke, sweat, liquor, old smoke and testosterone. That was the perfume of the Meatpacking District’s infamous Village Idiot, where men drank $5 domestic pitchers, puked in the bathroom, then brawled for the honor of slutty women dancing on the bar.

In summer 2004, the fun and fights ended, and the Village Idiot underwent a miraculous transformation. The bar was gutted like a fish, the scent somehow eradicated. The honky-tonk ghosts were buried; in their stead arrived a jazzy cocktail joint outfitted with a 100-year-old oak bar, leather banquettes, servers in silk ties and $14 cocktails created by drink master Dale DeGroff. Fisticuff-prone frat boys are gone, replaced by blandly beautiful high-rollers with pockets as deep as the Atlantic Ocean.

The Idiot’s scent once brought us to tears. Now we still cry when we pass the Idiot, not for the smell, but for what the bar has become.

★ BEST FORGIVABLE SCHTICKY “CONCEPT” 

Peanut Butter & Co. 

240 Sullivan St. (betw. W. 3rd St. & Bleecker)

212-677-3995

Since we live in New York—land of $1 million studio apartments—we’re suckers by nature and we pay absurd premiums for just about everything: clothing, shelter and food. Like all Americans, we’re shill-paying suckers for nostalgia; perhaps like the Japanese, we crave cuteness, too. Both are in ample supply at evergreen storefront Peanut Butter & Co., where the neat, lo-fi ’50s-style white Formica design (replete with, yes, vintage period ads) replicates June Cleaver’s kitchen. Completing the fantasy is the menu: All sandwiches (served with potato chips and carrot sticks) and desserts are peanut butter based, fluff optional. Please. Can’t we make this stuff at home? But wait—this Elvis (PB, banana, honey and bacon) is really good. So is the spicy Thai peanut concoction. And everyone who works there is really nice. We feel good. We’re suckers and proud of it. Pass the milk.

★ BEST SIGN THAT THE PABST APOCALYPSE IS COMING 

$5 PBR at the Meatpacking District’s 5 Ninth

5 9th Ave. (at Gansevoort St.)

212-929-9460

In this misguided millennium, Pabst Blue Ribbon has gone from blue-collar intoxicant to unduly hyped beverage. Cans fly from coolers at dive bars and neighborhood taverns because, while PBR is no great taste, it possesses one delicious quality: Drank cold and quick, it buzzes drinkers for a few bucks. Then bar owners latched onto the trend, and prices shot up like a thermometer in August. Two dollars gave way to three dollars, which led to four dollars. For a can of beer. Shit, a six-pack of Pabst only costs $2.99 at most bodegas.

But the surest sign of the PBR apocalypse, much like the apocalypse in general, is found in the Meatpacking District’s 5 Ninth. At the bar, drinkers can sip $6 pints of Brooklyn Lager, double-digit cocktails and, most distressingly, five-buck pints of Pabst Blue Ribbon. Is it too late to start drinking Genny Cream Ale?

★ BEST FOOD TREND TO TURN YOU INTO A HYPOCRITE

Overpriced Cheap Eats

For all our foodie contempt—with their use of the word “celebrate” in place of “eat,” their willingness to shell out $20 bucks for what their mothers called chopped liver and their general wine-sniff-before-you-quaff policy—no one will deny that everyone loves a good bite to eat. Those of us who covet the diamond in the rough, hole in the wall restaurant as if it were a secret akin to Osama’s secret location, might have a problem with top New York City pseudo-celebrity chefs bringing (relatively) cheap eats to the masses. That is, until you sample what they’re dishing up. 

Thomas Keller set up shop in a mall of all places. For less than 20 bucks at his Bouchon Bakery, you can dine on the world’s best tuna fish sandwich and an improved version of the classic Cinnabon. At Shake Shack, courtesy of Danny Meyer (whose name is attached to too many restaurants to name), you can stand in line for an hour to get the best just-under-$4 shake you’ve ever had. Tom Colicchio added ’wichcraft to his long list of Crafts, where chefs at multiple locations have mastered the art of sandwich-making—so much so that you might be tempted to memorialize your lunch in a museum, though the marinated white anchovies, soft cooked egg, roasted onion and frisée piled on country bread may get a little stinky. And then of course there’s Dave Chang’s Ssäm Bar, a cross between Chipotle and his first Pan Asian baby, Momofuku (you know, where you get those Oreo-cookie-sized, unbelievably yummy buns with Berkshire pork for a tenner). Yes, our favorite greasy spoon will always hold a certain charm that comes from the feeling that we personally pioneered it and the lack of a mosh pit-type crowd. But these new restaurants, which get more lovin’ than a high-priced hooker during happy hour at the W Hotel, make us eat our words and sate our appetite for street food with style.

★ BEST TIME-SUCKING WAY TO BUY A STICK OF BUTTER

Magnolia Bakery

401 Bleecker St. (at 11th St.)

212-462-2572

Ever since Carrie and Miranda drowned their man-troubles in cupcakes at Magnolia Bakery on “Sex and the City,” this little place has become more popular than a cheerleader on prom night. It might as well be in Times Square. And while the folks who wait in line for half a day around the corner form Magnolia’s may be dressed in vintage Patricia Fields instead of the typical tourist garb (stirrup stretch pants and Keds, natch), they’re still getting swindled. We are talking about the treaties that used to be served up at school bake sales, right? Wasn’t that a quarter back then? Spending 20 gazillion bucks for a sickeningly sweet little cake that takes longer than a Chipotle burrito to digest is just plain ignorant. For a $1.50 a pop at Sugar Sweet Sunshine on the Lower East Side, you can get a great cupcake without all the hype. There may be a little bakery intrigue going on here—the owners of Sugar Sweet are both ex-Magnolia pimps—but they’ll give you everything you’d ever want out of a baked good, and you won’t have to wait in the street for your taste of nostalgia.

★ BEST MEAL FOR LESS THAN $10 

Fried-chicken dinner at Pies ’n Thighs

351 Kent Ave. (at South 5th St.)

347-282-6005

Our cholesterol level spontaneously skyrocketed while pondering Pies ’n Thighs’ artery-clogging grandeur. At this southern-fried gem—located beneath the Williamsburg Bridge—$8 buys the finest finger-lickin’ meal this side of Colonel Sanders. Three fist-sized, fryer-fresh chicken drumsticks and breasts are served, suntan golden, alongside a flaky biscuit and a luscious seasonal side like cornmeal-battered fried green tomatoes. The chicken is crunchy, juicy and less greasy than a glistening weightlifter. We’re often compelled to rip into drumstick flesh with our canines and incisors, like feral, famished animals. One bite turns into three, and soon we’re gnawing on bones and washing down chicken bits with a cool Arny Palmer: half iced tea, half fresh-squeezed lemonade. It’s a disgrace to leave Pies ’n Thighs as anything less than a clean-plate-club member, your belly protruding, globe-like, while you moan with sated bliss.

★ BEST PSEUDO-MAFIOSO BAR TO BUY $1 BUD DRAFTS

Jr. And Son

575 Metropolitan Ave. (at Lorimer St.), Williamsburg, Brooklyn

Jr. and Son embodies Williamsburg’s Eastern Bloc pallor. Drab brown brick. Terminally gated windows. And, outside the door, shifty-eyed men with fleshy stomachs suck on cigarettes, keeping tabs on their impossible shiny automobiles.

This bar may be the equivalent of a porcupine, but hidden beneath the quills is a kick-ass drink special. Inside the narrow bar—which is classy enough to put ice in the urinals—broken men jaw in Brooklynese about gambling while staring at black-and-white photos of dead boxers and Frank Sinatra. We like visiting Jr. and Son not for the ambiance, but for the beer. Every night (well, when the bar adheres to its schizophrenic hours), seven-ounce goblets of Bud and Michelob Light cost a single crumpled dollar. Every third brew is blissfully on the house, no matter if you’re a regular or some interloper into a world you shouldn’t understand.

★ BEST PRE-THEATER MEAL THAT’S NOT A “RESTAURANT ROW” TOURIST TRAP 

Del Valle 

665 10th Ave. (betw. 46th & 47th Sts.)

212-262-5510

We don’t judge those who’ve paid three figures to see Tarzan. God loves us all. We do judge those who kick off their evening of high-flying theater at Olive Garden, TGIFriday’s or any of the un-franchised, uninspired and overpriced boites dotting so-called “Restaurant Row.” We prefer to go wild like the King of the Apes himself and burn some calories walking west until we hit the quiet, no-frills (but spotlessly clean) Del Valle. With a deli/takeout counter and dozens of tables (with waitress service), Del Valle turns out vibrantly fresh, authentic Mexican feasts that go eons beyond Tex-Mex: piquant Pipian de Pollo (chicken in green pumpkin sauce), crackling fried pork, smoky Platos de Barbacoa (barbecue platter). Whatever we get, there are always startlingly complex sauces, salsas and guacamoles (the kind they charge $12 for at Dos Caminoes) to liven things up. With most lovingly prepared items under $10, the final bill might be shy of the per-plate charge at the rubbery-chicken Row-talians down the block. Olé, indeed. 

★ BEST RESTAURANT TO BLOW YOUR WAD IN A SEC 

Per Se

10 Columbus Circle (betw. 58th & 59th Sts.)

212-823-9335

“Per se” is Latin for “by itself,” an apt name for Time Warner’s gourmand paradise. But bring your gold card or bags of cash. The damage: $210 for a nine- or seven-course meal (lunch or dinner, as well as a special vegan menu) including service. Wines range from $14 a glass to a magnum of Château Pétrus at $9,075. The digs are roomy and chi-chi, a mere 16 tables overlooking Central Park and a working fireplace. The staff is young and friendly, but a bit unpolished—no surprise since chef-owner Thomas Keller has been called the nastiest boss in NYC. 

Per Se is a food orgy, a Disneyland of a Roman Saturnalias. Sample the Jurassic salt from Montana—it’s at least a million years old. The grub is served in scrumptious mini-courses all featuring pure and exquisite ingredients. Try the caviar, foie gras and Kobe beef. There’s an occasional nod to Americana with desserts made of Snickers bars, coffee and donuts. Or forego food and booze it up at the bar—no Red Stripe, but cocktails go for $10-$20. The bartender even concocts his own tonic water for the G&Ts. Dudes, fugghedabout: No sneakers or jeans allowed. And guys, this place is old school—wear a jacket.

★ BEST OVERPRICED COCKTAIL EMPORIUM TO IMPRESS THE PANTS OFF SOMEONE 

Pegu Club

77 W. Houston St., 2nd Fl.
(betw. Laguardia Pl. & Wooster St.)

212-473-7348

Once ladies and gents reach the legal tippling age, it’s difficult to impress ’em with alcohol. That’s like taking a porn star to a strip club for a birthday present.

Not so at Pegu Club. At first blush, it’s yet another overpriced pox on New York City nightlife. Fancy drinks and fancy décor means exclusionary atmosphere, right? Not at Pegu. The cocktail lounge employs a refreshingly laissez-faire door policy: first come, first served and no reservations. Whether you’re Daddy Warbucks or a Starbucks barista, Pegu is everyone’s hangout.

Little expense has been spared (like a grocery store of fruit and herbs, as well as custom ice-cube makers) on these Gatsby-era concoctions. The buttery Fitty-Fitty martini and ginger-beer-based Jamaican Firefly are ambrosial indulgences, made classier by table-ready tinctures of bitters and other aromatics available for drink-doctoring. They’re like Spanish Fly for jaded drunks.

★ BEST REASON TO GET DRUNK ON 300 BEERS

Brewtopia

Consider Brewtopia the all-star game for beer drunks. Each fall, more than 100 globe-spanning breweries converge upon the Chelsea Piers or the Javits Center and dispense enough carbonation to kill Charles Bukowski in his prime. Every mega-microbrewery and boutique beer is on tap: Belgian beauties from Portland and Maine’s Allagash are offered beside knockout-strength India Pale Ale from San Diego’s Stone Coast and Turbo Dog brown ale straight out of New Orleans. Pay a nominal entrance fee, and you’re gifted a five-ounce taster glass. It’s a bottomless chalice that’s best governed by buffet rules. Resist the urge to gorge on the first brew you spot, instead of perusing and pondering the bounty. Skip watery lagers and instead indulge in ambrosial Belgian ales. And inky stouts. And hoppy IPAs. Public drunkenness has never tasted so right.

★ BEST “SHUT UP ALREADY ABOUT SHAKE SHACK” BURGER 

JG Melon 

1291 3rd Ave. (at 75th St.)

212-744-0585

If we wait in a Shake Shack line for two hours, we are serious about burger-love. But we’re also seriously tired of the over-hyped burger debate—it ain’t all about Shake Shack or Corner Bistro! For a fix of beef-on-buns that might be even more sublime than those Magnolia Burger Factories, we hop the 6 Train and go uptown to 77th street. (Did you expect Brooklyn?) There, past the jappy girls thumbing through the racks at Scoop, we squeeze into the red-checkered, beer-happy clamor of JG Melon. At this pub, the perfectly-compact, juicy-but-not-sloppy burgers could almost be picked up with one hand; except we like to grope these babies with both paws, pausing to schnarf a lightly crisped cottage fry and check out our reflection in the shiny bun. And that first taste is never ketchup, cheese, onion or tomato—it’s beef, with seasoning and pungency so perfectly calibrated you’ll weep. Take that, Shack.

★ BEST BROOKLYN BAR 

Moonshine

317 Columbia St. (betw. Woodhull St. & Hamilton Ave.), B’klyn

718-422-0563

Brooklyn’s best bar returned from the dead. Last century, Carroll Gardens and Red Hook day laborers drank away their aches at Rocco’s, a beer-and-sandwich saloon a few feet from the future Brooklyn Battery Tunnel. When the ’hood turned to crud in the ’70s, the bar sat shuttered until Nick Forlano unearthed a lush’s Pompeii. He spit-shined the joint into Moonshine, a pitch-perfect drinkery we love more than our girlfriend. Why do we adore Moonshine? Could it be the bucket of four canned crappy beers (including 14 offerings like Schlitz, Old Milwaukee fave, Genny Cream Ale) for $5? Or the all-we-can-eat peanuts, with shells we toss on the wood-planked floor? Or the always-open pool table? The Johnny Cash jukebox? Did we mention the hand-lickin’ bulldogs that roam the bar? And the backyard garden featuring a grill-your-own-meat policy? Grill. Your. Own. Meat. Consider it Moonshine’s way of saying “I love you.”

★ BEST QUEENS BAR 

Water Taxi Beach

New York Water Taxi parking lot (betw. Borden & 2nd Sts.), Long Island City

watertaxibeach.com

Water Taxi Beach is a sandy refuge like Amanda Lepore is a woman: That is, not really. The spring-to-Columbus Day bar sits on an industrial slip of Long Island City waterfront, miraculously transformed into a beach thanks to 400 tons of Clorox-white Jersey-shore sand. The scene does the sand proud. Sangria sippers and Pabst chuggers gather beneath a corrugated-tin roof, while volleyballs fly through the air and bikini-wearing women absorb ultraviolet rays. East River-fronting picnic tables offer perfect perches for gazing at the Midtown skyline—through a gated fence, unfortunately—and scarfing down freshly grilled burgers. Though the Water Taxi is a pain in the rumpus to reach by anything but Water Taxi (the dock is next door), that just augments its awesome factor. It’s like a vacation in NYC (or staycation, a typically insipid Time Out–coined phrase), minus the black-sock-wearing tourists. Sadly, there’s one snafu: no swimming allowed.

★ BEST BRONX BAR 

McGinn’s Tavern

4352 Katonah Ave., Bronx

718-655-8992

Throw a rock on Katonah Avenue in the Bronx and you’ll either hit a bar or someone coming out of one. This eight-block strip is home to some of the last legendary Irish pubs in the borough. You could say you’ve seen one Irish pub, you’ve seen them all, but we’ll give McGinn’s the nod because it’s been around the longest and the atmosphere is fairly inviting. You don’t get the hard glare upon walking in, and the prices are Bronx cheap: $3 a pint and $3 for a shot.

To add to the décor, they have a pool table and a dartboard that can be used by all. But when we ponder the kick ass jukebox—with everyone from the Pogues to Bob Marley on it—we can almost forget we’re in the Bronx. But if that doesn’t work, keep the drinks coming and eventually you will.

★ BEST BUG JUICE COCKTAIL

Cool Juice

541 Lexington Ave.

212-755-1200

Who has time to eat, and why should we when we can gulp our sustenance down in small green batches of wheat grass, or an XL Vente medley of orange, carrot, cantaloupe, sweet potato in either a juice or yogurt base. In case you haven’t noticed, with juice bar prices as they are, it doesn’t leave much left for pretzels, so take your pick: a thick shake with an extra blast of protein, or a Salisbury steak. If you chose the former, head to Cool Juice where the crowd is like-minded and the straws are plentiful, not the thin kind that fray, leaving tiny cuts on your tongue. 

★ BEST-TASTING DRINK THAT SOUNDS LIKE IT WILL BLIND YOU

Ass Juice at Double-Down Saloon

14 Ave. A (at Houston St.)

212-982-0543

It’s the color of a nuclear-power-plant accident and features the consistency of mostly melted Jell-O, but you’ll be intrigued by the Double Down Saloon’s Ass Juice. The East Village dive’s namesake cocktail is a viscous, brown-green mixture of about a dozen liquors, none of which the bartenders will reveal. It’s stored in a clear glass bottle. No label. No identification. “It’s Ass Juice,” a blonde bartender told us one night. “That’s all you need to know.”

Because our curiosity will eventually kill us, we anted up for Ass Juice. The bartender smiled and poured an overflowing shot. Green dribbles spilled on the wooden bar. When the wood didn’t burn, we knew we were safe.

“Come on, don’t be a pussy—drink it up,” the bartender said in Double Down’s charming fashion. We did … and we were amazed. The drink kicked like a mule, sure, but it tasted like Jagermeister’s educated cousin. “What’d you think?” the bartender asked. We responded the only way we could
to Ass Juice: “Bottom’s up.”

★ BEST FREE WEINERS 

Rudy’s Bar and Grill 

627 9th Ave. (betw. 44th & 45th Sts.)

212-974-9169 

We’ve heard about hot dog vendors gouging tourists with $6 weiners, and that dawgs are the next street food to go gourmet (foie gras replaces sauerkraut?). But when short on cash, when Coney Island feels too far away (when doesn’t it?), we head to Rudy’s. At this jam-packed dive (with pleather banquettes and a garden out back), the beer is always cheap, the rock is always raucous, and the hot dogs are always free. Sort of: we do have to beckon the fake-grumpy bartender and ask for it. (Some New Yorkers are too proud to ask for free stuff, only pilfering free samples left anonymously on countertops.) He’ll oblige, retrieving a wiener from the heat-lamped Ferris Wheel you’ve seen in movie theaters, even dressing it with the red or yellow condiment of your choice. Smooth and sweet-salty with not much of a poppy skin, it’s as good as any dirty-water dog—brilliant with beer and the $0 sticker.

★ BEST FOOD ON A STICK

La Esquina

106 Kenmare St. (betw. Lafayette St. & Cleveland Pl.)

646-613-7100

This former diner turned trendy taqueria has covered all of its bases with three restaurants in one. The fashionable still tackle one another to gain entry to the door marked “Employees Only” and descend to the swank speakeasy. On the other corner is a café with margaritas, an impossibly unattainable bookshelf and art for sale. But we still prefer the bare-bones counter serving up the best tacos, tortas and Mexican street food in the city—especially the roasted corn. Yes, the city’s ubiquitous street fairs offer up their corn equivalents, but La Esquina’s skewered and blackened version rises above the pabulum. It arrives in a modest paper carton, covered in cheese with a side of lime and still only costs a couple bucks. Once you’ve started, other stick food will never seem quite as sweet. 

★ BEST BAR TO GET DRUNK WITH HOMELESS WOMEN AND THE GHOSTS OF OLD SOLDIERS

Seventh Regiment Mess Restaurant & Bar

643 Park Ave., 4th Fl. (betw. 66th & 67th Sts.)

212-744-4107

The Seventh Regiment is a peculiar blip of common sense. This Upper East Side armory once housed moneyed-Manhattanite soldiers who quelled the bloody Astor Place riots and guarded the remains of Abraham Lincoln. These days, the armory serves as a women’s homeless shelter, while another floor contains one of the city’s most mysterious, clandestine bars. After signing in with a security guard, we’re ushered to the regiment’s fourth floor—aka the Seventh Regiment Mess Restaurant & Bar. It’s a ghostly Bavarian beer hall two bowling lanes long, outfitted with antlered moose heads and super-sharp sabers.

We like to order a stiff Jack and Coke at the typically empty bar, then smoke in the Rainbow Room. It’s a cigarette oasis grandfathered in under Bloomberg’s smoking ban. We puff smoke circles at the pictures of bygone soldiers, silently thanking them for the sacrifices that made our addictions possible.

Eats & Drinks

Written by None - Do not Delete on . Posted in Best of Manhattan, Posts.






Eats & Drinks | NYPress.com - New York's essential guide to culture, arts, politics, news and more



Best
Person to Visit when You’re Feeling Down


Your Favorite Cute Bartender



One bourbon,
one scotch, one cheer. We’ve dated bartenders, we’ve dated waitresses.
We know how it works. The smiles come with the job. No matter her enthusiastic
laughing and giggling and leaning over to your side of the bar, she’s ultimately
hoping for tips.

We swear,
we’re not being cynical. More than doctor/patient, priest/confessor, attorney/serial
killer, the bartender/patron relationship is a sacred institution and a dear
part of our lives. When we’ve had a rough day on the job, when our roommate
is too much to handle (and when we can’t accept that, at our age, we even
have a roommate, not to mention an ex-wife and monstrous tax debt and no assets),
we swing by our local for a quick one-two.

And there
she is, smiling when we walk in the door. She remembers our name, offers whatever
drink we had last and asks about our day. Just like the wife never did.

Nah, we
know, it’s not genuine. She’s got her own life and a million guys
chasing her tail, but if we don’t think about it too much, the simulacrum
of affection is enough to coax us off the ledge. It’s cheaper than the
comforts of a whore, and we don’t need to run for bloodwork 30 days later.


Best
French Fries


Live Bait


14 E. 23rd St. (betw. B’way & Park Ave. S.), 212-353-2400


Happy now?
Happy?! It didn’t take long for the “Readers Poll” choice for “Best
French Fries” to become a New York Press office joke. Every year, the
same answer: McDonald’s. Last year, finally, we scrapped the category altogether.

Just to
prove that we’re not complete meanies, though, we’ve found a restaurant
for you that may not be McDonald’s, but serves French fries that taste
exactly the same! Better, even, because they’re made up fresh and
don’t get soggy sitting in that wire basket.

Yeah, we
were surprised to find them at Live Bait. We’d been going there on a fairly
regular basis for years, but it wasn’t until a few months ago that we ordered
something that came with fries. (We usually go for the gumbo.) There they were
alongside our first crab cake sandwich, that same cut, that same sugar-brushed,
over-salted, glowing yellow potato product that McDonald’s offers several
million times a day. But like we said, they’re better. They’re hotter,
they’re crispier and they don’t soak through the bag.

Screw those
dry, grainy, half-frozen steak fries you get at most diners in town. Screw those
brown, soggy piles of shoestrings the mid-scale places offer. If you want McDonald’s
fries without admitting that you actually went to McDonald’s, go to Live
Bait, where you can act like a concerned counter-culturist while eating what
you really want.


Best
Borscht


Neptune


194 1st Ave. (betw. 11th & 12th Sts.), 212-777-4163


Soup du
jour, every jour. The first time we ate here, we thought the leafy garden out
back was going to be the surprise of the day. Then we tried the borscht. Is
there a tastier soup in the world than a fresh bowl of creamy cold beet borscht?
And is it prepared better anywhere else in the city than at this friendly little
East Village Polish diner? Nie and nie.

We like
hot Ukrainian borscht just fine, steaming and brimming with cooked beans, carrots,
cabbage and onions, but nothing comes close to the crisp goodness and pure refreshment
of rose-red chilled beet juice, thickened with a splash of buttermilk cream
and weighted with dices of fresh cucumber and a hard-boiled egg. This is the
real borscht, the big Lebowski, the year-round summer soup we’d chug with
glee were it not so satisfying to slurp slow and savor. Served with a side basket
of bread, Neptune’s $2.60 bowl of the cold stuff is the most delicious
deal 10 blocks in any direction. Make that 15.


Best
New Restaurant

Otto


1 5th Ave. (8th St.), 212-995-9559


Second time’s
the charm. Immediately after Otto, Mario Batali’s new pizza place, opened,
we stopped in and encountered a mediocre meat plate and unacceptable griddle-cooked
pizza. We called it a bust.

Eight weeks
later, we tried again and Otto was amazing. We’ve heard of restaurants
adjusting, but this was crazy. It went directly from Emperor’s New Clothes-status
to the Manhattan restaurant most worthy of its long waits for tables.

The whole
front room is essentially one huge bar, a long, gorgeous strip of marble complemented
by a cluster of free-standing slabs that are perfect for snacking or feasting.
The place gets packed, but the crowd is jovial and the bartenders handle the
crush with class.

Somehow,
Otto figured out how to achieve crispy and chewy pizza crusts without having
a proper brick oven (at least at this time). We never tried the meat plate again,
but the fish plate is extraordinary: swordfish meltingly tender, absolutely
non-chewy octopus, calamari and scungili, cold mussels with mint and much more.
The cheese plate comes with outrageous preserves and even more outrageous black-truffle
honey; the cheeses themselves are all Italian, all beautiful.

Then there’s
the head cheese, which is identified as “testa”—wise move, no matter how
delicious the offering. Here, it’s sliced thin and dappled pink, red and
white; it’s naturally gelatinous and glistening when we bring the first
scoop to our mouth. We savor the succulent, meaty flavor, wait one second, two,
and wham—the bracing zip of orange peel rips through the richness,
balancing it perfectly.

Otto even
has enough awe-inspiring vegetarian dishes to go full-glutton on them alone.
The artichokes are exquisite; roasted corn in olive oil packs a wallop of flavor;
the cauliflower is simply the best we’ve ever had anywhere; and the heirloom
tomato salad with buffalo mozzarella is off the charts.

Despite
being new and trendy, Otto is inexpensive—unless you show up thirsty, which
we actually recommend doing. Try a fragolini cocktail: prosecco with
strawberry liqueur, complete with tiny wild strawberries in it. End with a sparkling
moscato that’s like an exclamation mark on your meal, or amaro that’s
10 times better than what everybody drinks on the Amalfi coast.

Looking
back, even on that first unfortunate visit, their desserts were incredible.
That is, after all, what brought us back. The gelato may be the best in New
York, and be sure to try the creamy and unctuous olive oil variety, which continues
to humble and amaze us.


Best
100-Year-Old Microorganism


Lactobacillus delbrueckii subsp. Bulgaricus


Yonah Schimmel Knishes Bakery, 137 E. Houston St. (betw. Forsyth & Eldridge
Sts.), 212-477-2858


Glass slides
not included. Several years ago, we were privileged to overhear a conversation
at Yonah Schimmel that gave us yet another reason to love the place. A very
elderly customer was telling an only-somewhat-younger gentleman that he remembered
seeing him at the knishery when the latter was a boy in short pants.

“And,” he
went on, pointing a gnarled finger at the second table from the back, “when
I was little boy, Leon Trotsky used to come in and sit right there!”

A quick
calculation led to the year 1917, when Trotsky was in exile in New York, editing
Novy Mir with Bukharin and about to return to Russia to join the Bolsheviks
and take part in the October Revolution. The old fellow looked to be in pretty
good shape; we’d bet he ordered the yogurt.

The knishery’s
yogurt is still made from the same culture that was imported from Romania in
the late 19th century. Rabbi Yonah Schimmel started his knish business selling
from a pushcart, and the bakery restaurant has been operating at its current
location since 1910. We looked down at our own serving, and contemplated the
idea that we were ingesting the same microbes that fueled the great revolutionary.
It gave us a warm feeling.

L. bulgaricus’
healthful properties were postulated more than 100 years ago by Nobel laureate
Eli Metchnikoff, who discovered the strain while trying to find out why so many
Bulgarians were so long-lived. Schimmel’s manager Alex Volfman may not
be all that familiar with Metchnikoff’s work, but he does know his yogurt.

“It’s
very good for the stomach,” he says. “People with stomach trouble, they get
out of Beth Israel and come straight down here. You drink a little yogurt, you’ll
feel better. It’s better than medicine.”

Doses from
Schimmel’s dairy of youth run $1.75 for an at-table glass, $2.25 for a
10-ounce takeout container, $5 a quart.


Best
Huevos Rancheros


Esperanto Restaurant


145 Ave. C (betw. 9th & 10th Sts.), 212-505-6559


Not to be
confused with locos cojones. Many places in the city serve brunch; many places
serve huevos rancheros. Our favorite for the past year has been this small South
American restaurant a few blocks off Tompkins Square Park, where they put a
little twist on the dependable and ubiquitous breakfast dish. Bucking the traditional,
they forgo the beans, leaving a crunchy tortilla shell topped with two eggs
and excellent salsa. We’re not trying to lay it on too thick, but the home
fries might just be the best in the city as well, leaving you with a somehow
light but filling semi-traditional dish.

Consider
too the pitch-perfect mimosa and live music, and you’ve a splendid late-
morning meal lined up.


Best
Park Slope Pasta


Trattoria Mulino


133 5th Ave., (betw. Sterling & St. John Pl.), Park Slope, 718-398-9001


Who dares
call it Park Slop? You can have your overpriced, overrated Al Di La, a place
so retarded that they won’t take reservations but will write down your
number so they can call you back whenever there’s a table ready.
And you can have your Prego-quality marinara sauce at Aunt Suzie’s. We’ll
be down the street at Trattoria Mulino, gorging ourselves. Every sauce at Mulino
is delicious, but the pasta itself is so good that we would eat it without sauce,
with just salt and butter if we had to, because it’s always perfectly firm
and full of its own flavor.

Try the
green tagliateli with chicken, artichokes and cream sauce or the spaghetti bolognese
or the calamari siciliana or the linguini with seafood that’s always overflowing
with clams and mussels. A caveat: We were once there when an annoying Salon
columnist was telling her unlucky date, at a volume loud enough for the entire
restaurant to hear, about how David Talbot said he was going to make so much
money on something and then later ranted about how nobody reads fiction
anymore. If this happens during your meal, walk next door to Southpaw and ask
for a pair of earplugs.


Best
Indian Lunch Buffet


Salaam Bombay


319 Greenwich St. (betw. Duane & Reade Sts.), 212-226-9400


Quite a
raita. We’ve seen Chris Rock clean his plate at this spacious, comfortable
Tribeca spot a few times during the 11:30 to 3:00 buffet hours, but we didn’t
point or stare. We come here to chow down in quiet ourselves, and wouldn’t
think of bothering him while feasting on the most varied and delicious all-you-can-eat
Indian buffet going. At $12.95, it can also be more than an occasional indulgence.
The spread changes daily, but is always a fresh and lavish multi-table offering
of subcontinental staples and house specialties.

We recommend
loading up on the aloo gobi matar and murg xacuti, but there are no wrong turns
here, where the bread is always more than a footnote and even has its own chef,
who bakes a wide array of specialty breads in an authentic clay tandoori oven
tuned to 600 degrees. All tandoori meats are marinated for 24 hours in yogurts
and spices, and they go down extra nice with a glass of mango lassi. Don’t
forget the homemade pistachio ice cream.


Best
Thing Since Sliced Bread


Fried Mars Bar


A Salt & Battery, 80 2nd Ave. (betw. 4th & 5th Sts.), 212-254-6610


Heart attack,
man. It was Friday night. In England, many of you know, Friday night is synonymous
with fish ‘n’ chips, so three of us made our way down to A Salt &
Battery for the much-acclaimed entrees. Ignoring the near-$3 price tag on a
can of imported soda, we instead concentrated on the sushi-quality cod and chips
that brought back “a shed load of memories,” as one staffer put it.

After much
gurning at the idea of actually—finally—trying the most daunting of
desserts, we succumbed to the curiosity of a deep-fried Mars Bar, served with
ice cream. With heads bowed, we checked and re-checked the contents of our bowl,
trying desperately to figure out what exactly our taste buds were saying. Not
since A Salt & Battery’s deep-fried toffee crisp (which took home last
year’s “Best British Dessert to Go”) have we put anything quite so exquisite
in our mouth.

Thank god
we only succumb to these desserts once a year. Fish ‘n’ chips every
Friday night is one thing, but deep-frying candy bars would, to put it nicely,
put us off the diet.


Best
Iced Coffee with a Side of Right-Wing Pablum


Angelina’s Bakery


188 Orchard St. (betw. Houston & Stanton Sts.), 212-979-5564


Paleo con
leche. Angelina’s is a redoubtable Italian bakery and coffee shop beloved
of Orchard St.-area locals. Dino Hallas is one of that shop’s owner-managers.
Hallas is a skinny, opinionated fellow, with short salt-and-pepper hair and
a sneer to make the babies wail. Dressed always in faded Levis and mildly dorky,
monochromatic t-shirts, to peg his appearance as merely “bland” would be too
mild. In truth, he’s about one unshaved whisker shy of not giving a rat’s
ass. This is only part of what we like about him.

Hallas is
the embodiment of genuine insouciance. He’s got in spades what the fauxhemians
in these parts can only acquire by proxy and at an embarrassing mark-up from
neighboring boutiques like the ridiculous Stongarm (sellers of the $35 “vintage”
t-shirt). While most local merchants can be expected to stay mute when the conversation
turns political—or in certain cases go out of their way to parrot the sympathies
of the local populace—Hallas is openly, unapologetically contrary. Whether
we agree with him is not relevant here; that he doesn’t lick boots is.

We recall,
for instance, an afternoon this past July. Hallas had been rejoicing over the
Jayson Blair troubles at the New York Times, claiming those events as
evidence of the underlying bankruptcy of affirmative action. “Damn, this is
great!” he’d exclaimed, repeatedly. “Just what the Times deserves.”

He was sticking
out his chin, looking for takers, and when a group of young tongue-studs entered
the shop, one wearing a large anti-IMF button on her backpack, the game was
on. In the ad hoc debate that ensued, things got heated. In our habitual role
as centrist twinkie, we ended up moderating between righty merchant and lefty
customers. But—and here we credit Hallas for being more than just a blowhard—no
one was chased from the shop with a rolling pin. Nor did anyone scream “fascist!”

Goaded into
a cleaner defense of their respective positions, the tongue-studs departed cheerfully
and Hallas, in his cynical drone, called after them, “Come back any time. Really.”
They often do.

Hallas,
who is Greek, gives lie to the notion that the males of that culture are all
zesty, plate-smashing Zorbas. Indeed, his response to this award is likely to
be a curt, “What the fuck do I care?” Still, we’d like to think his background
is in part responsible for the truly hospitable feel of the place. (The consideration
he shows to dogs, proffering treats and water on hot days, being a special favorite
of ours.) Yes, there are those occasions when his stridency is too much even
for us to bare. Fortunately his partners—two juicy Italian women of supple
skin and iron fist—are available to summarily shut him up. This, too, makes
for good viewing and at $2 a cup, value entertainment.


Best
Appetizer


Blackened Calamari at Acme


9 Great Jones St. (betw. Lafayette & B’way), 212-420-1934


Comfort
food from the sea. In general, appetizers are a very bad idea. They’re
usually smothered in cheese or deeply fried to cover up that the kitchen is
recycling something appropriate for entrees. Start skipping appetizers and find
out how much better you feel after eating out.

Our favorite
exception is at Acme, where they’ve cleverly added the blackened calamari
appetizer to their specials. It’s really a great idea. After all, what’s
been the benefit of breading those little bits of squid? All you get is an ugly
crust that emphasizes the creepy nature of those little tendrils.

Acme’s
calamari leaves those cephalopods looking pretty healthy and happy, just like
when you see them nestled in pasta. They don’t overdo the blackened experience,
either. These calamari are just spicy enough to invoke new respect for how much
flavor those rubbery little squids can pack.

Sadly, other
restaurants have been slow to rip off Acme’s triumph, but that’s okay.
We’re also still fond of the place as a comfort-food set-up where you don’t
feel like you’re going back home to Mommy—who, of course, has never
blackened anything on purpose.


Best
Time Out Credibility Gap


Castle Seltzer Bottling Co.


245 Francis St., Derby, CT, 203-877-6429


A service
out of time. Since we can remember, the seltzer man has visited our house. The
distributors have come and gone, staff has turned over and delivery schedules
have changed, but we’ve always kept ourselves in the bubbly. On those bad
weeks when we forgot to order or misjudged our drinking requirements, we substituted
Canada Dry, Perrier, Pellegrino—all the usual brand-name suspects. None
compared to home delivery.

Imagine
our surprise when Time Out named seltzer a New York vanishing act and
claimed that only Gomberg Seltzer Works was left to supply the city. Nothing
against the Brooklyn-based Gomberg, but we’re loyal to the Connecticut
boys at Castle Seltzer.

Concerned
that we were the last to hear the bad news, we called up our pushers to make
sure they were on the case. Rest assured, we were told, it was a false alarm.
Castle still delivers to the tri-state area. At $12 a case—that’s
a buck a bottle—our weekly purchase of nostalgia is packaged in a wooden
crate held together with metal joints; the blue, green and clear glass bottles
are outfitted with plastic or metal spouts. There’s a $25 deposit, but
no minimum case order and no start-up fee. There are no strings attached at
all, just like the good old days. Just return the empties when the new ones
arrive.

We order
every Monday afternoon and greet the deliveryman at the ungodly hour of eight
the next morning. (East Side deliveries are Thursday.) Occasionally, when we
can’t drag ourselves from bed, he’s nice enough to leave two cases
just outside our front door, rather than abandon us to suffer with Brita.

For the
same price as a can of Coke at the bodega, you can shoot an entire bottle of
seltzer into someone’s mouth from a few feet away. Two can engage in water
fights; three, in all-out warfare. Or, when that thrill wears off—which
it will, but quick—fill a glass and greedily gulp—never sip—the
salt-free, super-carbonated liquid.

Seltzer
delivery, a thing of the past? Hardly.


Best
$3 Sandwich


Vestedda at La Focacceria


128 1st Ave. (betw. 7th St. & St. Marks Pl.), 212-254-4946


Extra spleen,
please. Actor and bred-to-the-bone New Yorker Michael Badalucco (best-known
these days as Jimmy Berluti on The Practice) changed our dietary habits
forever back around 1980 when he took us to lunch at Vinnie Bondi’s original
La Focacceria, then a few blocks further north between 11th and 12th streets.
Bondi’s father, Nate, started the business there in 1914; Vinnie took over
in 1956, and vastly expanded the premises and the food selection when the restaurant
moved down to its present location in the early 80s.

Then, as
now, one of the staples of its menu of simple regional-Sicilian cuisine was
the vestedda (plural vesteddi). Boiled beef spleen is sliced thin
and heated for several minutes in a pan of melted shortening with a dollop of
spiced ricotta and slivers of hard caciocavallo (“horse cheese”), all of which
is then ladled onto a seeded roll. Rich, filling, tasty and cheap.

Maybe we’ve
given away too much. We’ve observed that the description “spleen-on-a-bun”
can be enough to get prospective initiates shaking their heads hard enough to
cause whiplash. We seem to recall that Badalucco had ordered our vesteddi and
waited until we’d finished them and downed two bottles of Manhattan Special
coffee soda (still served) before letting us in on the sandwich ingredients.
By then we were basking in that warm, full, cheese-and-sweetbread, artery-hardening
glow coursing through our system. The rest is gastronomic history.

By our estimate,
we’ve consumed several hundred in the 20-plus years since. At just $2.75
each, they’re still among the best bargains in the city. While you’re
there, try the rice balls.


Best
Vegetarian Hot Dogs for Meat Eaters


F&B


269 W. 23rd St. (betw. 7th & 8th Aves.), 646-486-4441


No ears,
no lips. It’s not often that carnivores can coexist with their vegan counterparts,
let alone sharing the same dish in the same spot. But at this Chelsea hole-in-the-wall
outlet of a European fast-food chain, the lamb can chow down on dawgs alongside
the lion; Moby can share a counter with Ted Nugent. Two and a half bucks will
buy a hot dog that looks—and just about tastes—good enough for most
Nathan’s or Hebrew National fans. And that includes a mountain of fixins,
from chopped onions to sauerkraut. If you want to get fancy, try the Healthy
Dog, a $3.50 jumbo smoked-tofu dog topped with hummus, grated carrot and black
olives. Be sure to try the french fries; do as the Dutch do, and skip the ketchup.


Best
Feature of Any Bar


Childlessness


And baby
makes one too many. It amazes us when people bring their children to the bar.
Do we take a six-pack to the daycare center and gather ’round for storytime?

Good for
them, we suppose. They’ve figured out that having a kid is the easiest
way to have an impact upon as many lives as they can while doing as little as
possible, and that’s just about where their wisdom ends. These idiots park
their strollers in the center aisle; they allow their spawn to toddle free amongst
drunkards. We get dirty looks for swearing in their presence or accidentally
stepping on them when they get underfoot. Now they’re thrilled that they
can drag their babies to a smoke-free environment (leave it to a clueless schoolmarm
of a mayor to ban cigarettes from a tavern while still allowing children).

We pray
that at least one of them will read this: Squeezing out a baby doesn’t
automatically make you a parent. You’re supposed to take care of it after
that. Having been one ourselves, we can tell you that a child needs a real place
to play, interaction with other children like itself and attention from a capable
parent—not a selfish, neglectful pet-owner like you. It’s obvious
that none of your friends have the nerve to break this to you, or maybe they’re
just as self-absorbed as you are. That’s why we love bars that won’t
let you in with your kids.


Best
Mexican Restaurant Staffed by Chinese


Chelsea Fresca Tortilla


253 8th Ave. (betw. 22nd & 23rd Sts.), 212-463-8877


Fortune
churros say. Perhaps now, after giving props to our local Fresca Tortilla, the
Chinese crew behind the counter will refrain from mocking our order. Granted,
we request “two black bean and cheese tortillas with a side of ‘Mexican’
rice and a Coke” every time we’re there, but still. Is that cause for derision?
Right to our faces? In a foreign language?

Daunted
by the myriad options that shine through the dyed-plastic, strip-mall menu hanging
over the counter, we quickly became a creature of habit. We always choose “to
go,” but take-out isn’t the only option either; customers are welcome to
get comfy in the Western-style swivel stools and munch on tortilla chips. The
decor resembles a prop assistant’s first day on the job, with gumball machines
on one counter (out of reach of children never seen inside) and a plastic clock
near the register, next to a small, black sombrero (not to be outdone by an
oversized yellow version). The massive rice cooker is just one of many clues
that the employees haven’t all gone entirely south of the border. Stalks
of lucky bamboo grow in a porcelain dish, tucked almost out of sight—but
surely in view of the employee who lumps dough into the tortilla maker.

We always
leave with a feeling of shame for being so predictable, but sometimes you don’t
want to take chances. Especially in a place that’s so mixed up about its
identity.


Best
Jamaican Beef Patty


Christie’s


334 Flatbush Ave. (betw. Sterling Pl. & Park Pl.), Ft. Greene, 718-636-9746


Here’s
the beef. It was one of those rare times where we had our shit together and
met a friend at the Brooklyn Botanic Gardens on a Tuesday. We did the rose garden,
the cherry trees and the ducks in the koi pond, but before we reached the greenhouses,
the sky opened and buckets fell. By the time we made it to the front gate, we
were soaked. Laughing at our sloshing sneakers and drenched clothes, our friend
promised a Jamaican beef patty to cheer us up.

Four blocks
later, we arrived at Christie’s/Juniors on Flatbush. Shaking ourselves
dry while standing on line, we ordered two beef and two jerk chicken patties.
While we waited for our patties to reach molten temperatures, we flattened out
a few soft, wet bills from our pockets, noting for the future that a healthy
handful of change would cover the entire bill.

At a friend’s
nearby apartment, we had a picnic on the floor, with pruned hands and hair still
dripping. The jerk chicken patty was intense, leaving us with tears for 30 minutes
after admitting defeat. We loved the beef, even taking tiny bites near the end
to make it last longer. At the end of the meal, we regretted not having another.

Deep down
inside, we still hold foggy but fond memories of artificially yellow patties
served in our high-school cafeteria, but another trip or two to Christie’s
should be the beginning of a new Jamaican patty legacy.


Best
German Chocolate Cake


Rolf’s


281 3rd Ave. (22nd St.), 212-473-8718


Welche Zahnpasta
gebrauchen Sie? Our mom made German chocolate cake a lot when we were kids.
Almost every birthday, in fact, that Duncan Hines box would come down from the
cupboard. We never told her this because we didn’t want to hurt her feelings,
but it just wasn’t very good. Two layers of bone-dry chocolate cake separated,
then slathered, with a slimy, curiously lumpy beige frosting concoction that
tasted vaguely of coconut.

Because
of that, we hadn’t touched German chocolate cake since we were 13. Until,
that is, the last time we had dinner at Rolf’s. Of course, you expect a
German restaurant to take their German chocolate cake seriously, but this was
insane. The cake itself is excellent, but what holds it together bears absolutely
no resemblance to the peculiar substance that covered those cakes of our childhood.
The frosting at Rolf’s is like a form of slightly more malleable macaroon—thick
and chewy and packed with real coconut. It was more like candy than frosting—and
it nearly brought tears of joy to our eyes.

Funny thing
is, we were kind of dreading dessert at the time. After a meal of sausages and
potatoes and ham and sauerkraut and beer, we were already painfully stuffed
when it arrived. After that first tentative bite, however, we decided that next
time we went to Rolf’s, that’s all we would order. Well, that and
the beer.


Best
Place to catch Bugs


Doc Holliday’s


141 Ave. A (9th St.), 212-979-0312


They don’t
eat much. Ah, Doc Holliday’s. How could we forget the time that 70-year-old
Artemis Pyle double threw a bottle and screamed at his Native American girlfriend…only
to make it up to her minutes later over a slow dance to Hank Williams? Or the
night Waylon’s “Honky Tonk Heroes” came on, and everybody—NYU freshmen,
the homeless, tourists in fanny packs—sang along? Or that Saturday night
we came home from Doc’s, totally shit-faced, crawling with little black
bugs?

That’s
right—we can handle the amputee sailor at the bar informing us we’re
“not good enough to be here,” or the dotcommers drinking with their shirts off,
or that drunk bitch Stacey pouring margarita mix all over the place and moving
people’s pool balls around when they’re not looking. So when we noticed
a small insect on our husband’s face while sitting at a table by the window,
we brushed it away lovingly, and reveled in the authentic old-man bar “atmo.”

The next
morning, when we noticed a dark, flying beetle emerge from the crotch of our
Levis, which we’d very authentically left in a sweaty wad on the bathroom
floor the night before, we knew with a sinking feeling we’d drank our last
$2 Pabst. Ah, what the fuck—it’s time to start having kids, anyway.


Best
Place to be an Expat While Still in Country


Cafe Moto


394 Broadway (Hooper St.), Williamsburg, 718-599-6895


Wishful
drinking. On our first visit, we thought Cafe Moto was a coffee shop. We toted
along our laptop, a small cachet of files and two books. Instead of finding
understuffed second-hand couches and a poorly graffiti’d bathroom, we stumbled
into what we’d swear is a cozy, 1920s juke joint. Nobody complained when
we ordered coffee and homemade donuts, and proceeded to sit around reading for
the next few hours. In fact, the live jazz band apologized when we had to scoot
over so they could set up.

Normally,
we’re wary of anywhere quite this fancy, especially within the 11211. Everything
in the place is intentional, down to the sideways spigot on the bathroom sink.
If it weren’t for the owner’s attention to detail, however, the illusion
might not be so complete. The grub is cheap and plentiful, from the rich mussel
soup, to the portobello panini, to the herb-crusted ribs. The lighting stays
low; the band plays and plays; wine bottles keep coming. The walls shake every
time the JMZ roars by upstairs, shadows flickering over the glazed windows.
Sometimes, you can even stick around with the owners and musicians after they
close at three o’clock, doors locked and lights off, conversations still
going.

We will
get out of this country again, and soon. Until then, we’ll sneak some time
at Moto and imagine that the most recent stamp in our passport came from a foreign
hand.


Best
Place to Eat Seven Eel Rolls Because You Must


Kinoko Japanese Restaurant


165 W. 72nd St. (betw. B’way & Columbus Ave.), 212-580-5900


Just…one…more…
The fish is raw and delicious; the avocado-covered and eel-stuffed dragon and
Godzilla rolls redefine umami. The decor and setup are as kinky and hilarious
as a scene from a Hong Kong-era John Woo film; four silent chefs work behind
a food prep bar overlooking the mirrored walls and frictionless black furniture.
The service is disconcertingly quick; the staff half runs through the floor
in quick concentric circles, delivering food and taking orders with speed, enthusiasm
and an admirable disregard for order.

All that
shit’s cool. But what makes Kinoko the silliest sino-spot in the city is
the sushi special. First rule: all you can eat, $19.95. Second: unlimited custom
ordering. That means if you want 15 spicy tuna hand rolls, you get ‘em.
The third rule: you must eat everything you order—including the rice—or
pay for each uneaten item a la carte.

The third
rule is the real draw. Our gluttonous, cheapskate friends are suckers for all-you-can-eat
joints and never admit defeat when faced with food. They order plate after plate
of sushi, with each choice of fish more bizarre than the last. By plate five,
they’ve gorged on octopus, sea urchin and clam—and start to turn green.
Still, they soldier on, ordering again and making the table into a spectacle
by engaging in vigorous stomach stretching lunges learned from master glutton
Takeru Kobayashi. Once it’s time to pay the bill, they waddle to the counter,
humbled by the might of Kinoko.

Of course,
the a la carte trap and the question of tomorrow’s lunch could both be
solved by deep pockets, plastic baggies and quick hands. But that wouldn’t
be sporting.


Best
Cheap Lebanese


Maryum’s


411 E. 70th St. (betw. 1st & York Aves.), 212-744-3115


Hash(emite)
browns. A secret known only to the medical residents who live in the Lenox dorms
across the street, Maryum’s is homey and comfortable, and the guys who
run it are like instant family. Falling under the official category of “Hole
in the Wall,” Maryum’s is nonetheless craveworthy…and cheap. Although
distinctly Lebanese in flavor, Maryum’s Middle Eastern food is so fresh
and delicious that we even take our Israeli friends there, and they gobble up
the babaganoush with a minimum of references to how much better it is in the
homeland. Every dish is delicately prepared—light and never too garlicky—and
the portions are generous. The hummus platters are swirly with garnishes, the
falafel sandwiches are hot and not too crunchy, the meat dishes are full and
perfectly spiced. Bring a cute kid with you, and you’re bound to get a
free dessert—a piece of baklava, or maybe a bird’s nest, which is
a flaky round cookie jammed with pistachio nuts.


Best
Return to Form


Stingy Lulu’s


129 St. Marks Pl. (betw. 1st Ave. & Ave. A), 212-674-3545


C’mon
back now, y’hear? When new management took over Stingy Lulu’s at the
beginning of this year, we admit to moving on to other cheap dinner spots. Maybe
it was the heroin-reality as opposed the heroin-chic that once slumped across
the stools at the bar, or maybe it’s that the surrounding neighborhood
has become just another must-see stop on the NYU orientation tours.

Recently,
for whatever reason, we checked back in and found that the new guy is trying.
Notably, there’s the quite-ridiculous offer of unlimited drinks during
brunch. Read that again: unlimited drunks during brunch. Sure, the mimosas
are more orange juice than champagne (and then, more orange drink from the gun
than orange juice), but who actually serves strong drinks at brunch? Just drink
more. And no matter how sharply we turn tail at the first mention of it, Stingy
Lulu’s persists with the city’s oldest drag show on most nights.

The real
turn-on is the menu, though you might not have noticed unless someone told you
about it. The chefs here aren’t the most consistent collection in the business,
and the waitresses are clearly hired on their ability to smile politely, but
somehow the old boy has put together a solid line-up that’s brought us
back a few times.

In a patch
of the East Village that’s sometimes difficult to frequent, Stingy Lulu’s
has persevered and come through the other side. Keeping in mind that all-you-can-drink
thing, though, we wonder how long it’ll last.


Best
Williamsburg Bar


Blue Lady


769 Metropolitan Ave. (betw. Graham Ave. & Humboldt St.), Williamsburg,
718-218-6997.


The blues
ain’t bad. We don’t waste time bitching about Williamsburg. By and
large, those with such vehement opinions of the geographic demon du jour are
precisely the kind of people who should be living there: just shy of their twenty-fifth
birthdays, self-consciously anti-stylish, not as smart as they think they are,
not as creative as they think they are and, most of all, always worried about
what other people think. Stop estimating worth based on zip code, and life becomes
much simpler.

So, no,
we don’t have an all-consuming problem with Williamsburg. One of our favorite
bars happens to be there, out at the third stop on the L. Blue Lady Lounge opened
after we left the 3rd/4th stop corridor for another small town far, far away.
When we came back and set up shop on a friend’s Devoe St. couch for a month,
we were pleased to find an alternative to the Pourhouse.

elvetica, sans-serif” size=”3″>Blue Lady
is chill and unpretentious. With a long, comfortable bar, a couple of couches
in the back area and a back patio that’s open during the nice weather,
it’s worlds superior to the self-conscious pose of the Pourhouse. Owner
Lou is a local boy, and many of his regulars are friends and family stopping
in for a quick coupla and a howdy-do to the crew.

The jukebox
is up and down, but acceptably so; it matches the clientele in its variety and
friendliness. Bartender Dawn hosts movies on Sunday night and has been booking
DJs and bands during the week. Blue Lady even offers internet access on two
spankin’ new iMacs.


Best
Beer-Company Model


The Czech Rebel Slut


Bounced
Czech. We’ve seen a bunch of fancy new beer ads leveled at us over the
past year—on billboards, bodega signs and the sides of distributor trucks—but
when we first laid eyes on the model in the Czech Rebel poster, we were instantly
smitten.

She’s
absolutely filthy-looking. Her picture looks like it’s been run through
Photoshop’s skank-ho filter about three or four times. She does not smile.
And she has a gut. Posed in slothful recline against a motorbike, she’s
darkly resplendent in a leather vest and miniskirt, pink bargain-basement camisole
and a come-hither gaze that promises a crippling cross-sample of venereal diseases.
She makes Miss Rheingold 2003 look like June fucking Cleaver.

We can only
imagine the sort of ad- agency meetings that spawned her, and we’d prefer
not to. But we will try her beer, soon. We just need to drink a few others first.


Best
Takeout Salads


Olive’s


120 Prince St. (betw. Wooster & Greene Sts.), 212-941-0111


Selling
the farm. To the manager of every restaurant that’s ever sold us a crappy,
overpriced salad—and there are so many of you—take heed. Olive’s
serves up a shining example of what salad is supposed to be: Fresh. Clean. Carefully
prepared. Tastefully dressed. Reasonably priced. Visit the case to the far right
of this tiny Soho takeout kitchen, look at the salads and be schooled.

Here’s
what you won’t find at Olive’s: Nasty, wilted leaves caked with gooey,
black gobs of decomposing vegetable matter; rinse water; anything that looks
like it’s been dredged out of someone’s rain gutter; aged stems so
tough and fibrous that a starving rabbit couldn’t gnaw its way through
them; grit; dressings composed entirely of soy oil with some sorry bits of unidentifiable
seasoning floating at the bottom.

Here’s
what you will find at Olive’s: Tender baby spinach with grape tomatoes;
crisp Romaine with toast and shaved Parmesan; maybe even a special salad-of-the-day
if you’re lucky, and if not, they’ll whip up one to order. Each of
them is excellent in its own way.

Far too
many local eateries serve garbage, whereas Olive’s serves salad. Learn
from them.


Best
Bar Dog


Reid at Louis


649 E. 9th St. (betw. Aves. B & C), 917-517-9253


Yappy hour.
We don’t mean to ignore the many other fine qualities of this cozy little
spot. It’s got live jazz (Sunday through Thursday nights), a very friendly
owner, a beautiful view (ancient weeping willows, courtesy of La Plaza Cultural
Garden across the way), draught beer, wine, sake and a cool, soothing, tile-topped
bar that may well prepare you for the feeling of your own bathroom floor tomorrow
morning. But best of all, it’s got Reid.

Reid is
a brown-and-white hound and terrier type of the love-sponging variety. He’s
greeted us at the door on more than one occasion. He escorts us to our table
in the back, presses his solid weight against our calves, and when we return
the affection, he rolls right over. Then, when the next guest comes in, the
cycle of love begins anew. We thought we were special. But, no—it’s
him.

Mind you,
this is not an open invitation to tug ears and rub belly. Reid needs to choose
you. Just don’t be surprised if he does.


Best
Flan


Mexican Radio


19 Cleveland Pl. (betw. Spring & Kenmare Sts.), 212-343-0140


No flash
in the pan. Sure, we probably could’ve stopped at the several Dos Equis
and the otter-sized burrito we’d just enveloped, but something that day
seemed to lure us onward: the siren song of the flan. We’d never tried
Mexican Radio’s desserts before, so we deliberated coquettishly, patting
our boa-constrictor belly.

“It’s
really good,” promised our waitress, in what would turn out, in our minds,
to be the greatest culinary understatement of the year.

Sweet Jesus,
that flan. It was placed before us, plain and unassuming in its light dusting
of cinnamon. Upon the very first taste, we learned that we’d sorely underestimated
it. Our pupils dilated, our heart fluttered and our cholesterol levels rose
instantaneously. The flavor and texture spoke of more than eggs, milk and vanilla—there
was careful, patient, skillful preparation in that little pudding, and perhaps
a secret ingredient. While easily rich enough for two, a slow but cutthroat
spoon-duel soon ensued between us and our dining companion.

We have
experienced both the regular and the white-chocolate flans, and have heard only
legends of a passion-fruit variety. Don’t be one of those stuck-up purists.
Try them all.


Best
Device for Giving Mexican Radio Another “Best Of” Award


Best Flan

Best
All-Around Sandwiches


Dom’s


202 Lafayette St. (betw. Spring & Broome Sts.), 212-226-1963


Duke of
Earls. Dom’s has, for far too long, been a best-kept secret of residents
and employees of the downtown/Soho area. While its flagship business is homemade
Italian sausages and cured meats, it’s the takeout counter in the back
that we don’t want you to know about. Not that it doesn’t deserve
an award—we just don’t want you blocking Dom’s beloved aisles
with your big ol’ butt. But fair’s fair.

Dom’s
offers an eyepopping 31 varieties of house sandwich, from the simple meatballs
on hero to the daunting bresaola, parmesan, arugula, tomatoes and balsamic vinaigrette
on focaccia. The eight or nine kinds we’ve sampled have been formidable
in size and invariably delicious. There are also some cheese-, fish- and veggie-centric
sandwiches for the lightweight luncher, and many unique, inventive salads as
well.

Most menu
items are under six bucks, and all come without the madding crowd or the frequently
nasty attitude of Katz’s. Browse the impressive shelves of imported gourmet
foods while you wait; maybe pick up something for dinner, later. The one downside
is, no seating, unless you want to park it on the bench outside.


Best
All-night Coffee When You’re Homeless


Esperanto Café


114 MacDougal St. (Bleecker St.), 212-475-2525

Bagel Buffet

406 6th Ave. (betw. 8th & 9th Sts.), 212-477-0448


We remember
when coffee was a nickel. We offer two winners: one for those who don’t
look homeless (and you know what we mean), another for those who do. Esperanto
Cafe is always open; they just shuffle you around, from couch to easy chair,
at 4:30 a.m. when the cleaning ritual begins. Coffee is $1.55, and if you’re
helping a homeless friend spend the night, they must perch in a vertical fashion.
Bagel Buffet, on the other hand, has a more flagrantly down-and-out crowd. They
once gave pocket money to a homeless dude who kept a sharp eye when their deliveries
were arriving. A toasted bagel with cream cheese is only $1.68, and coffee is
a record-breaking 70¢.


Best
Masala Dosai


Anand Bhavan


35-66 73rd St. (betw. 35 & 37 Sts.), Jackson Heights, 718-507-1600


You’ll
be back. For most of us, indulging in Indian culture means feasting on half-price
meals at 6th St.’s chili pepper-lit sitar joints. Others know these restaurants
omit the flavors of Southern India and thus only represent half the cuisine.
True cultural ambassadors trek to vibrant Jackson Heights. We make this trip
every few months—usually less often than we’d like. After collecting
our fill of obscure incense, Ganesha stickers and decorative bindis, we lug
the spoils past sari shops, threading salons and gold wholesalers to Anand Bhavan.

Lacking
flashing Christmas lights, entertainment, a flashy name or insane dinner deals,
they boast well-priced authentic South Indian vegetarian cooking. It’s
never crowded, and customers are seated immediately and presently with perfect
papadam. Our sensitive tongue usually saves us from filling up on the spicy
bread, leaving plenty of room for our favorite dish, masala dosai.


We keep
a yogurt lassi on hand to counter any surprise spice attacks, and tackle the
hearty meal head-on. The pea and potato mixture is wrapped in a thin, crispy
oversized crepe and fully infused with just the right amount of curry. Forgoing
the fork, we use our hands to shovel the mess into our mouth. After succumbing
to the dosai’s sheer mass, we waddle back to the train through colorful
huddles of bustling shoppers, proud of the wee bit of culture we’ve sought
out.


Best
Green Parrot


Grand Sichuan Int’l


229 9th Ave. (24th St.), 212-620-5200


Pretty Polly.
When it comes to restaurants, Chelsea has typically had at least one but no
more than two of everything. This is perhaps due to the residents’ parsimonious
loyalty—two of any particular fare might upset the balance in our lives.
When Grand Sichuan hung the “grand opening” signs a little over four years ago,
we doubted they’d last. Come on—we already had two perfectly
good Chinese delivery spots.

A week later,
lines were forming outside the corner restaurant that was once a Blimpee, with
veteran customers describing dishes as though no one had ever eaten Chinese
food. We were stubborn and skeptical of the hype, but eventually went on a fact-finding
mission and sampled a few Caucasian favorites: beef and broccoli, fried dumplings
and spare ribs. They were fabulous, offering complex and distinguishable flavors
underneath unusually grease-free ingredients.

Recently,
we discovered a dish called Green Parrot when a friend requested it (after some
hesitation). We were in luck when we found a pile of sweet and tart bok choy/spinachesque
vegetables that was as good as anything else we’d eaten there. Curiously,
Green Parrot is not always available. We’ll attempt to make it on our own,
one of these days, sure. Until then, we cross our fingers when placing an order.


Best
California Dreaming


Atlas Café


116 Havemeyer St. (Grand St.), Williamsburg, 718-782-7470


A cleaner
high. Are the streets of Brooklyn this swollen with California expats? Or does
Atlas sport some hidden broadcasting apparatus that transmits subsonic renditions
of “Miserlou” and “Good Vibrations”? Judging by the steady stream of West Coasters
that run through this Californian-run cafe, it could go either way. Spend more
than an hour or two here, and you’re sure to overhear at least one mention
of Valencia or Berkeley or BART.

Owners Walter
and

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