My McRib Review

It started with an iPhone check on my way from the Moneybrother show last night:

My obvious response was “I’m heading to Penn with 5-6 drinks in me. I’ll tell you how it is.” Well, this is how it is. [ed note: This is my unedited response at 12:40AM while waiting for the 12:41 train to depart. I was impressed with how thorough it is.] Read more of this post

Oh haiiii scotch!

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My father called me breathlessly from Heathrow yesterday. “Chris, I’m running to my flight and I noticed how cheap the scotch is in duty free. What should I get?” Well. Having just come from a kickass Macallan tasting, I instantly replied “Macallan 15!” Well, they didn’t have that. I did some Googlin’ and found that the Macallan group is promoting a new family of “expressions” (ugh) for the international traveller. Translation: you can’t buy an awesome/sort of tax free whisky from Macallan at duty free anymore. But you can get one of the three 1824 Edition “expressions”:

Macallan, Select Oak (Scotland)
The producer notes “Testament to The Macallan’s knowledge and mastery of wood, Select Oak uses three cask types – American Oak seasoned with either Sherry or Bourbon and first-fill European oak casks seasoned with Sherry. Investing more per cask than any other single malt, each Macallan cask has been handcrafted and selected under the supervision of The Macallan’s Master of Wood, George Espie. This very special whisky has a high proportion of first fill Sherry Oak casks.” The nose is fragrant and sweet, with marshmallows and new leather. Developing fresh fruits. The palate offers fruit and nuts, with increasing sherry, leather and spice. Medium length and drying in the nutty, slightly peppery, finish. 40.0% ABV, 100cl, Euro 46.00, Duty Free & Travel Retail.

Good ol’ Pops picked up the Select Oak, and like the characteristically overwrought description declares above, it’s pretty kickass.

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What is this strange elixir?

Oh, Hello There.

Last week I grabbed a beer for the train — a Train Beer, in standard LIRR parlance. I’ve seen Hoptical Illusion all summer and I’d yet to try it. So I did…

“Wow, there’s definitely an alcohol-y kick to this.”

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“Enhance…”

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“Enhance…”

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“Oh. I see.” That was a mighty fine apre-work beer, I must say.

I Want My Childlike Sense of Wonder Back

Few things on this earth make me happier than clams on the half-shell and a beer. Sitting in the sun, saltwater running down my arms as I shuck those marvelous mollusks for the people around me, squirting lemon and slugging IPAs. That’s when it finally feels like summer. Invariably I’ll look around and say, “This is summer. There is nothing that makes me happier.” Then I’m instantly saddened. I’m a spry and virile 24 years old but the things that make me the happiest are the things that will give me gout before I see 30. Read more of this post

And We Went There

Yup, the post below this takes Totino’s Pizza Rolls® and wraps it in a mother dough and makes a massive meta-calzone. Brilliant. The post after this one will recount possibly the awesomest week of eating I’ve had in America. This post is about the, well, the in-between times. An amuse bouche of the highest order as it were, it’s about an amuse bouche for the summer, a snack whose half-jewish cousin can be enjoyed anytime, made summer-time appropriate. We grilled pizza rolls. Observe:

What started as a day of sitting around Jim’s back yard turned into an impromptu barbecue. Some burgers/brats on the grill, more beer than we necessarily needed and a good dose of sun stroke. We took a trek to King Kullen and got down to gettin’ down.

Yes, Totino’s Pizza Rolls®, because we wanted them. After some experimenting we found that the best way to go about this is in a two-step process.

  1. Dump the frozen contents of a 40 ct bag into 2 foil packets. Attempting to shoehorn these little delectable dumplings into a single packet will probably just make a mess of the whole deal; too much mass to cook in the middle while the outside layer burns.
  2. After a while of almost constant drunken flipping, shaking and finagling, unwrap the packets, arrange the pizza rolls in a single layer on their respective pieces of aluminium, and close the lid. Every now and then give a little stir with your spatula. Eventually they’ll be charred and delicious. Like this!:

It's a Grilled Pizza Roll

Is that way too much work for something you could make in a toaster oven? Probably. But we were outside already, the grill was going, and we were drunk and inventive. That’s the American Way, Dammit.

Xie Xie and Bikinis (sorta)

Chicken Bun at Xie Xie

I love Asian flavors. No Reservations piqued my interest with row after row of turning, crisping pig, then Korean friends in college sort of brought my whole ship around. Kimchi, Ramen, big soups and stews full of tofu and pork belly that burn going in and out. These are things that dreams are made of. I mean, c’mon—PORK BELLY. When I tried Momofuku Noodle Bar for the first time, I wanted to chain myself to a table so they couldn’t make me leave.

Slight Digression: I love Sandwiches. I’ve always wanted to open my own fancy sandwich shop (and one day I will!). I get really excited about constructing perfect stacks of protein, veggies, mushy stuff and crunchy stuff and just going to freakin’ town with condiments and crusty, pillowy bread. [/digression]

Xie Xie, at 45th St and 9th Avenue, appeared to be tailor-made to my palate. I mean, it’s an Asian sandwich “project” where almost every component has some touch of yellow fever: Kimchee brounoised carrots, cabbage, kewpie mayo, Thai and Japanese beers, buns. BUNS I SAY! In fact, there’s a Bun ’n’ a beer special for $5. I don’t care who you are, that’s savings (nom nom savings).

But, truth be told, I wasn’t knocked out the first time I ate there. Maybe I was asking a lot, but I think we can all agree I’m pretty easy to please. I missed pretty much every review of Xie Xie, Jim brought it to my attention after Angelo Sosa showed up on Top Chef (but before I could spend a Saturday morning catching up… thanks for the constant reruns, Bravo!). A few weeks ago we did post-work drinks/dinner and who do you think was sitting next to us, working out that week’s schedule? Well it was Mr. Sosa himself! Having not seen the show yet I didn’t know and didn’t really care; I get cranky when I’m hungry. Jim launched into a thorough ass-kissing, asking him about the show and shit like that. I was drinking my “33” Lager and getting bored with the conversation. So I turned it around a little bit by asking, “What’s Tom Colicchio like?” with a full on reverent hum in my tone. To his credit, Sosa kept the party line with an awkward stutter and “What you see is what you get,” he’s Buddha in the kitchen, et cetera.

And then the food came.

I had ordered a sweet glazed pork bun and a Vietnamese BBQ beef sandwich. The actual bun of the bun was just… mneh. Compared to the fluffy, perfectly formed buns from Momofuku (and those that I constructed at home… not to toot my horn or nothin’), these seemed store bought and like they had stuck to the steamer. Also: a little gummy. I guess I can’t fault the bun thing in a tiny shop when D. Chang was outsourcing his. The pork itself was, as Zack Mamacita pointed out in her review, a little sweet for me, but I was pretty happy with it. Adorn something with Cilantro and Sriracha and I’m there. It was the beef that I had a problem with.

The sandwich consisted of braised, shredded beef with carrot kimchee and a mayo-y sauce. The issue was that it looked/tasted like the cook took a handful of the beef and threw it on the flat top until there was a char on both sides, essentially making it a dry patty-type thing. Besides the mayo there was no moisture to be found throughout the sandwich. I was sad. But I had beer, so that was nice.

I felt like Xie Xie was owed a second chance so I went back last night with Jim and Wes. This time I stuck to the buns and beer (there were tales of Maialino leftovers waiting for me at home) and ordered a chicken bun and then a beef bun (for fairness, you see). The chicken was good. That was pretty much it. It wasn’t too sweet, sort of looked like shredded pork, and came with an egg salad on top of it. I enjoyed it, but Wes, for whatever reason still getting over the fact that he was eating something foreign, was less thrilled about it.

The beef again. This time, it was amazing. It was presented in it’s little (get ready for it) unctuous bun, sauce glistening in the fading 9th Avenue light while an old dude expertly parked a far-too-large Mercedes in a far-too-small spot. It was moist. That’s all I wanted from it the first time. It was awesomely moist and perfect. It was gone in two bites. I was happy. It totally made up for that first depressing experience, and as I stumbled down the block to Rudy’s, I was happy I came back. Plans are obviously in the works for a pub-crawl that only involves establishments that offer beer and a ____ happy hours. Suggestions in the comments per favor!

The night ended, just by-the-by, at Rudy’s (we didn’t stay long enough to want hot dogs) and Port 41. If you’ve ever been to either of these you know how the night ended. Being awkwardly carded by a most-certainly underage Russian woman in a bikini and making friends with a man in a furry red Kangol hat.

Sigh, Manhattan in the summer!

Sometimes a Pizza is Just a Pizza: A Plea For Sanity

Last weekend I went to Crocodile Lounge, a wonderfully unpretentious bar with awesome beer and those “Spot the Difference” titty games. The usual.

What makes Croc Lounge different, an adventure, a one-stop-shop-excess-atorium, is the free pizza with every beer. This is not news to most Manhattanites (except my former 22Leroy bandmate, Matt), yet many don’t take advantage of this gem. With each beer, priced at $5 to $6, you get a little ticket not unlike those that are expurgated from Skee-ball machines and the like (oh yeah, there’s skee-ball, by the by). You take this ticket through an archway to an adjacent counter with sweaty dudes and a pizza oven. You deposit said ticket in one receptacle and a tip in another. You are handed a hot, personal pizza.

Let’s be clear about one thing here: the pizza at Crocodile lounge is just okay. It’s not going to (nor has it) burned up the pizza world. In fact, the only thing it’s burning is your drunken mouth. Keith McNally isn’t shaking in his cardigan for Pulino and Mattieu Palombino probably doesn’t even know it exists. The crust doesn’t have the tangy bite of a long-growing yeast culture, the sauce is just sort of there and I’m positive that I heard someone say, “It tastes like Ellio’s!”

My first reaction was to scoff and think, “Plebian.”  Then I took a bite. The crust is crispy, thin, has a nice snap when you fold it. The sauce is industrial-sweet but not “I just came from a freezer to feed some 6 year-olds” sweet. The mozz is… shrug, mozz. I guess what I’m trying to say is: I see the connection. I don’t necessarily agree, because these pizzas are made by hand and I’m usually always drunk when I’m eating them, but yeah, Ellio’s. Whatever makes you happy, lady.

But really, I think that this is the crux of my point. Presented with life’s little limitations and such, isn’t this all anyone should ever be able to ask for in food (or sex)? To be happy with what you have in front of you at any given moment. You can wish for more, but a good dose of reality should always be in mind. If you check out my yelp reviews, I tend to hit a lot of places in Midtown, just by virtue of working there. Nothing, save for restaurants that I can’t afford, ever rates above a “Meh” or at best, “This place is awesome for Midtown. You should try it. With booze.” (Bonchon may be the exception to this, but I haven’t gotten around to that yet.) Maui Taco always comes to mind as a place that is a technical disaster when compared to Dos Toros Taqueria in Union Square or any number of taco trucks in and around the Boroughs, but it’s just so goddamn satisfying. There’s a happy hour drink special and… well my yelp review says it best:

I feel like a lot of the people here are asking a lot from this place. Let’s take a quick look at what it offers:

  • Generic but relatively high quality beer for reasonable to damn-near-cheap prices depending on when you go.
  • Tacos of the soft and hard variety.

From what I saw, it never really touted itself as an authentic Mexican joint (how could you take a man with dreadlocks and a Hawaiian shirt seriously anyway?) and I didn’t expect it. I got exactly what I wanted: meats of all variety covered with cheese, sour cream, and salsa–bland as it may have been–and nestled in a soft corn tortilla, accompanied with cheese. That is exactly what I wanted. 

Long story short, if I wanted really authentic Mexican I would head to Hempstead or Spanish Harlem. Last night I just wanted to get drunk after work and eat tacos. And that is the American dream, is it not?

I still stand by this review. It IS the American dream. It’s Hunter S. Thompson buying 5-cent hamburgers in a big white convertible. It’s a shoddy product that people allow themselves to enjoy simply because it’s in front of them to shove in into their grotesque maws. These pizzas are definitely not a shoddy product. They’re not as good as they can be, but they’re as good as they can be for free. When you want pizza, when you want tacos, when you’re drinking beer, what you’re really asking for is protein and dough with cheese. Glorious, melty, delicious cheese and meat. I’m fucking ecstatic that drunk food is being elevated everywhere, but I’m also perfectly happy with what’s in front of me as long as I’m not thinking about what it could be.

Are we going to freemium this conversation? Are we going to say that the $.13 it takes to make the pizza is worth it if people are spending more on beer? Are people buying more beer due to the pizza? No. Are they coming to Croc lounge, a bar that has things every other bar in the city has–except with pizza–just for the pizza? Fuckin’ A they are. I support this. I support good pizza more, but I support okay pizza for free just as much.

That said, there’s a lot of Okay pizza all over the city. 2 Brother’s Pizza on St. Mark’s–the place with the $.99 slice– is actually pretty good (and they’ve opened another one uptown). It’s not Neapolitan or DOC or anything like that, it’s a classic New York slice. And it is a good example of such. That said, the only pizza I’ve ever really had in the city that I was unhappy with was the crap in Penn Station (Rosa’s is okay, but don’t go for the stuff from the newsstand. I don’t wanna talk about it).

I’d like to take this opportunity to comment on the DOC pizza in the US situation. If I understand correctly, the fad has passed (bacon’s holding on for a little while longer though); nonetheless, I’ve super-psyched about the whole upsurge in good pizza places. When New York Magazine ran that article on artisanal pizzerias in last year’s Cheap Eats Issue, I made a mental note to try all of them (I’ve been to like…2, I suck). And even though Anthony Mangieri sorta scares the shit out of me, I couldn’t have been more excited about what he was doing; I even learned how to use a brick oven while visiting family in Italy.

But tastes are a varied thing and I don’t think that it’s appropriate to judge this pizza on the same plane as the New York slice—the pizza that I, as a New Yorker (with accent) have grown up with. We don’t have the same food culture in America that they do in Italy. For instance, in Sicily I walked into a paneficio for a loaf of bread, and walked out with a little pizza with tomatoes, capers, anchovies and cheese that is traditionally folded in quarters and eaten sort of like a sandwich. In Florence I used to get a couple inches of pie by the meter from the coffee shop to eat standing on the bus. Americans don’t treat pizza the same way; it’s a destination dinner or a “Fuck it, I don’t want to cook” dinner (admittedly, it’s like that in Italy as well). It is a part of our cultural fabric in a way diametrically opposed from the Italian, “Hey, it’s 2pm, let’s grab a pizza and a beer and walk around for a while then stop on every corner to finish our conversation before continuing on down the street in tight jeans and weird haircuts.” It’s treated as a snack, big small, meal, whathaveyou.

It’s also not universally good. I’ve not only had some of the worst pizza of my life in Italy, I’ve been lambasted for saying so. There’s good and bad pizza all over the world, from LA to the Italian urban centers that cater to Americans that don’t know any better. You can argue that it’s taken for granted, like dry, disappointing hamburgers in America, and you can likewise argue that because the ingredients are seemingly fresher (Italy having always been a farm-to-table culture, even if they are moving away from it), that the food is just always better. There are a lot of people in this country that will argue that whoever says that is full of shit. And I agree.

What is amazing about the food (and by extension pizza) scene right now is that you can go total locavore (mmmmm, buzzword!) or “Fuck it, fly that bitch in and let’s have the greatest meal ever.” It’s like eating in Esca (dude goes fishing two miles from my backyard) or La Bernardin (Ripert being the king of ridiculous product). Pizzaioli are getting the best ingredients that they can find, be it local or flown into the states in the bags of the guys from DiPalo, and putting it in their ovens and your stomach.

In the case of the former, what is the difference between the pie I got from the “brick oven” place down the block from my apartment in Florence (Rossopomodoro… to be avoided, by the way) and the pies that I ate at Motorino in the East Village? The pie from Motorino rocked. The crust was perfect—crispy, only just singed, salty and tangy and the bedrock for the alici (white anchovies) that could have been filleted and marinated in my dad’s kitchen they were so Goddamned beautifully executed. I would argue that location and provenance are not mutually exclusive, that something in America can be better than it is in its own homeland (see also: European McDonalds).

Can we say the same about New York-style pizza elsewhere? Since it is an aberration of the Neapolitan pizza that I’ve just described, probably not, but it has grown up—matured into it’s own form. The crust is thicker, not bland, but certainly less assertive than its southern Italian cousin. In all its forms (including Buffalo Chicken) it is a reflection of a constantly assimilating immigrant culture, a comfort food of the highest order (especially if childhood memories are dusted with flour-coated kitchens and sauce-stained tile). It is appreciated for what it is, for what it speaks to.

For this reason, we cannot judge Crocodile Lounge’s pizza in the same way that we judge pies at Kestè (actually, that one is just okay despite the owner’s pizzaioli pedigree), just as you wouldn’t judge a slider from White Castle in the same way that you’d slobber at the burger from Minetta Tavern. Both are a deeply satisfying in their own way and in their own place and time. In this way, Croc Lounge’s pizza will always hit the spot.