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Posts from the ‘cheap eats’ Category

Txikito: Basque-ing in Goodness

With Tia Pol, Salinas, El Quinto Pino and Txikito all within a 10 block radius of each other, it seems as though the western reaches of Chelsea are turning into a verifiable Spanish Tapas home-base. A self-described “love letter” to the simple and “unencumbered” cuisine of the Basque region in Spain, Txikito prides itself in its simplicity. And simple it is, a simply wonderful ode to the salty, savory and generally excellent traditional Basque fare.

The restaurant is easily missed, located in a low-rise and nondescript strip mall (also housing Co and the soon to arrive Chelsea outpost of the Sullivan Street Bakery) and totally devoid of any identifying signage. I first noticed it in the summer, when the floor-to-ceiling glass windows were pulled up, exposing the scarlet-topped metal bar stools stored under the white tile and slate-grey marble bar. A hip and young crowd chatted excitedly in the window, spilling out onto the street. Inside, the long and narrow main dining room is covered in faded clapboard, from floor to ceiling, wall to wall. The furniture is sparse and minimalist, consisting entirely of recycled plastic chairs and chintzy metal tables. Only simple lights adorn the rough walls, shedding a soft simple light over the generally disheveled and youthful crowd. The vibe is relaxed, with waiters sauntering around in hipster plaid, and nonchalant – there is no rush here, no stress.

The food is, as touted, classic Basque. The style, tapas. For two people, the recommendation is 4-6 dishes, and with five, my friend Sarah and I felt happily satiated. The cuisine proffered by the kitchen is uniformly delicious and craveable. The kroketas are a wonderful way to start – the size of golf balls, these creamy pork filled croquettes are gooey on the inside, crispy on the outside, and completely addictive. I could go through a basket of these daily if given the opportunity and promised no possibility of egregious weight gain. Also addictive are the salty, oily but not too oily, and spicy blistered peppers – served in a little dish, I think I went through my half of them (and more) a bit more rapidly than I care to admit. On the heartier side are the lamb meatballs, small, savory and served in a wonderful slightly minty broth – as someone with an English passport, the nostalgic reference to lamb and mint was appreciated. For those who love grilled cheese (how can you not, really?), the bocata sandwich is a great option. It’s on the larger side for tapas and undeniably well-made. Thick slices of uncured bacon, a cross between pork belly and Canadian bacon, and Spanish cheese are layered between two slices of grilled sandwich bread – the result? An oozing, meaty and satisfying Spanish twist on an American favorite.

Lastly, even though the standard menu offered is jam-packed with scrumptious options, in the words of our sage waiter, “the specials are where it’s at,” and on any given night, the kitchen at Txikito presents a vast array of specials. The real winner when I visited was a cross between an enchilada and cannelloni – tender pasta sheets were wrapped around a filling of ground pork, beef and veal and the entire package was topped with melted cheese and a Bechamel sauce. It was decadent and soul-satisfying, the type of hot meaty food filled with flavor that you want on cold rainy nights.

Txikito seems content to fly under the radar, attracting passers-by, neighborhood locals, or those actively seeking out tapas/Basque cuisine. And that’s A-OK with me also because it makes Txikito the ideal neighborhood spot – a place you can pretty much always walk into, a place not packed with those who don’t know the difference between Chelsea and Hell’s Kitchen, a place not crowded with travelers from the surprisingly nearby Penn Station, a place not impacted by trends and thus not interested in catering to trend-setters and trend-followers. In short, it’s a wonderful place where you can settle in with a friend, a bottle of Spanish wine, and some delicious, unusual, and elegant tapas.

Perfect For: after-work bites and wine, Spanish food lovers, girls night out, hipsters on dates, Chelsea locals, quick bites before hitting the town

Txikito on Urbanspoon

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A Day in Rockaway

A line item on my summer bucket list was to visit Rockaway Beach, sun myself in the sand, and sample some of the new culinary stands that have set up shop on the Rockaway Boardwalk. Between 86th Street and 108th Street on the very wide and very sunny Boardwalk, there are three new concessions hubs. As it turns out, wandering up and down the Boardwalk and stopping to sip on cool juices and to snack on Thai-inspired burgers, Venezuelan goodies, tacos, and frozen treats is really not such a bad way to spend an afternoon.

the rockaway beach boardwalk at 96th street

Here are some of my favorites:

1. Ode to the Elephant

Thai cuisine isn’t necessarily associated with beach-ready food, but Ode to the Elephant takes concession stand classics like burgers and familiar Thai dishes like summer rolls, satay skewers, and curries and transforms them into easy-to-eat and heat-friendly options. The Bangkok Burger is particularly delicious with bright yellow shards of pickled mango, a creamy Sriracha mayo, and rounds of red onion, all atop a very thick ‘home-made’ beef patty on a sesame bun.

Ode to the Elephant on Urbanspoon

2. Blue Bottle Coffee

What’s better than an iced coffee on a steamy sun-filled day at the beach? Iced coffee prepared “New Orleans Style.” Blue Bottle, one of the concessions near 108th Street, offers up a refreshing twist on the classic iced coffee by adding chicory and whole milk. The result? A richer, smoother and sweeter version of iced coffee that’s perfect to sip while staring out at the big blue Atlantic.

3. Caracas Arepas Bar

Adjacent to Blue Bottle near 108th Street, Caracas Arepas Bar is the perfect beachside stand for a late-in-the day snack. Not only do they serve classic Venezuelan treats like crispy arepas stuffed with tender meat, beans and queso, empanadas, and fried plantains, but they also offer cheap beer, Micheladas, and delicious cool Sangria for those looking to enjoy the perfect happy hour outside as the sun sets.

Caracas, Rockaway on Urbanspoon

4. Motorboat & the Big Banana

Two words: frozen. banana. Sure, Motorboat & the Big Banana is a fish-fry stand at it’s core, serving classic fish sandwiches and fish & chips, but the real reason to come here is for the decadent chocolate-dipped frozen bananas. Better than ice cream and coated in a thick layer of chocolate, these frozen bananas are the ideal frozen treat to nosh on when the sun is beating down just a little too much. My favorite? The peanut and sea salt version

5. Veggie Island

I would come here for the frozen lemonade alone. The stand offers coffee, miscellaneous breakfast items and thirst-quenching fruit smoothies, but the real star is the tart-yet-sweet frozen lemonade. Made with fresh lemons, ice, and a touch of sugar, it’s just about perfect.

Jane’s Sweet Buns: Buns All Liquored Up

Jane’s Sweet Buns is a new bakery on the Eastern reaches of St. Marks Place. In a city replete with ‘cupcakeries,’ cookie shops and, of course, cheesecake purveyors, it has a unique perspective on baked goods – infusing a Southerner’s love of bourbon and cocktails with classic sweets like sticky buns, cinnamon rolls, and tarts. Jane’s Sweet Buns’ unusual boozy spin on baking certainly has something to do with the influence of owner Ravi DeRossi and his partner Jane Danger, the mixologist at nearby cocktail den Cienfuegos. And the bakery’s distinct quirkiness extends not only to its alcoholic confections but also to its bubblegum pink-mixed-with-gothic-decor interior.

The bakery is reminiscent of an old school sweets shop. Cake stands displaying treats and tarts perch atop glass cases lined with trays of sticky buns; gingham curtains hang in the windows and the walls are painted in bright cotton candy colors of pink, lime green, turquoise and sherbert orange; outside, a hot pink painted metal bench, of the sort found in English country gardens, beckons patrons to sit in clement weather. However, despite all this girly sweet decor, a twisted edge punks up this Southern-inspired spot; moaning and screeching alternative rock blares in the background and the tattooed ‘gal’ that served me was a refreshing mix of sugar and spice; gothic renditions of retro posters, paintings, and portraits hang on the walls; and of course, hidden beneath the sugary glaze of the delicately-displayed bun is the boozy bite of bourbon.

The goods at Jane’s are pretty tasty. They’re not orgasmic or the type of baked good I’d dream of for weeks on end, but they’re perfect for a late-night treat or to tote along to a house-party. My personal favorite is the Strawberry Fix, a sweet bun stuffed with strawberries, lemon and sugar, soaked with Aperol liqueur, and glazed with berry cream cheese frosting – it has got some serious zing and tastes genuinely fruity. Also great is the Rum Runner, a sticky bun with cinnamon, brown sugar, nutmeg and raisins that is positively doused in aged rum – it tastes like Rum Raisin ice cream transformed into a baked good. Unfortunately, the Old-Fashioned, the bourbon-based bun for which I had the highest expectations, was not so successful. Despite the generous topping of candied pecans and hints of vanilla, neither the advertised bourbon nor the angostura bitters came through enough to save this bun from blandness. On the non-alcoholic side of things (and yes, non-alcoholic goodies do exist at Jane’s Sweet Buns for those wishing to abstain), the savory tartlettes are delicious. It’s hard not to love thick slices of bacon and melted cheddar cheese stuffed inside a flaky buttery pastry crust – its the holy trinity of decadence (pork, cheese, bread) altogether. It get’s even better when you add apple butter,  blue cheese and pecans to the bacon.

Jane’s has 3 barstools in the window and a hot pink bench outside – it’s more for take-out or quick bursts of enjoyment than for sitting and leisurely noshing. But that arrangement seems just fine for the neighborhood, where inebriated youths regularly like to congregate after dinner hours. Though empty on a Friday afternoon, I can easily imagine a scenario where Jane’s becomes a late-night mecca for the quirky NYU students sure to stroll St. Marks after too many beers in the East Village.

Perfect For: NYU students, the drunk munchies, a different breakfast treat for the office, being indulgent

Jane's Sweet Buns on Urbanspoon

Fried Dumpling: Home of the Ideal Grimy $1 Lunch

Sometimes, when mornings are tough or life seems low, the only satisfying cure is a steaming bowl of dumplings. Or, scenario #2, sometimes when living in New York seems to be close to bankrupting you, dollar lunches transform from cheap and perhaps a little grimy to heroic and verifiably wallet-saving. The $1 dumplings at Chinatown’s Fried Dumpling are the ideal antidote to an aching head or an aching wallet.

Fried Dumpling, a tiny storefront on a tiny street in the Southern reaches of Chinatown, doesn’t look like much. The paint outside is chipping; instead of an actual door, there are merely heavy plastic panels hanging in the doorway; seating inside is limited to four or five bar stools facing a crinkled stick-on mirror. Drinks are grabbed from a small refrigerator, and the food is prepared by two women, working in tandem, at a counter and a stove just feet from the door. It’s safe to say that Fried Dumpling is the sort of place you don’t want to examine too closely – I’m sure if I really inspected the interior, dirt would be piled in corners. However, that being said, the food’s good and there’s no reason to stick around.

The menu is short, consisting entirely of quick snacky bites such as dumplings and pork buns. The dumplings, served 5 for $1, are fried or steamed and stuffed with what looks like mystery meat but is most certainly pork and chives (unless you order the vegetable version). Slick and moist on the outside and stuffed with salty savory goodness on the inside, the dumplings are just plain delicious. They’re not over-stuffed, too greasy, or too doughy. If you’re into dough though, the pork buns are a great option at 4 for $1. Not your classic pork bun, they’re more like thicker and doughier fried dumplings stuffed with tender pork. Spherical and as big as golf balls, they’re a satisfying savory snack. If you’re feeling adventurous to venture beyond dumplings, Fried Dumpling also offers vegetable egg rolls, various pancakes, hot & sour soup, and wanton soup.

There is a time and place for the $1 dumplings served at Fried Dumpling in Chinatown; these times and places do not include when you’re dieting, looking for a sit-down lunch, or seeking to impress friends and family; they do however include curing brutal hangovers with grease and pork, vetoing the $12 chopped salad from the deli in favor of a perfectly satisfactory $1 lunch, and justifying taking 15 minutes to sit on a sunny park bench to enjoy your thriftiness. Fried Dumpling is a long shot from gourmet; it’s even far off from your neighborhood deli; however, when it comes to ridiculously cheap dumplings, you can do no better.

Fried Dumpling on Urbanspoon

Ardesia: Westside Winebar Gone Industrial Chic

Ardesia is a ‘modern’ winebar suited to the ‘modern’ up-and-coming area in which it’s situated, the far western reaches of Hell’s Kitchen, now called Clinton. It’s industrial chic vibe harkens back to the rough industrialized past of the now gentrified neighborhood, and large sidewalk patio allows diners and imbibers to enjoy the cool river breezes blowing off the Hudson.

Ardesia lacks the cozy charm of many of Manhattan’s wine bars, yet makes up for it in space, a highly valued luxury. The airy room has high ceilings and bright floor-to-ceiling windows looking out onto the patio and street; walls without windows are painted in blackboard paint on which the day’s specials are scrawled. Off to one side is a separate ‘lounge’ room with low plum-colored couches clustered around coffee tables. In warmer months, a 30-seat sidewalk patio is a lovely and quiet place to enjoy one of the bar’s many beverages. Everything from the furniture to the bar layout to the decor is simple, streamlined, and contemporary without cutesy flourishes or kitsch.

Ardesia’s wine list is, as expected, extensive. On any given day, there are about 30 wines by the glass offered from all over the world: France, Italy, Austria and Germany, Spain, the United States, Argentina, and so forth. They range from $8 a glass to as high as $15 a glass – at those rates, if you’re not careful, drinks can get pretty steep. The food on the other hand is not only reasonably priced but also pretty good for a wine-focused spot. The kitchen seems to take its inspiration from pretty much everywhere. There’s a Cuban sandwich, a duck banh mi, weisswurst (sauerkraut, bread and mustard), a South American-inspired flank steak with salsa verde, and New York Style pretzels with a gooey cheese sauce. While the options are diverse and yummy-sounding, the actual quality of the food is inconsistent. For example, whereas the Southeast Asian lemongrass shrimp skewers are excellent – succulent and aggressively-seasoned mini shrimps bursting with flavor, the burrata is less of a success. Tough and stringy, it lacks the creamy texture that makes burrata so alluring and enticing.

Ardesia has its flaws – it’s not exactly an immediately warm and welcoming environment, despite the friendly best efforts of the bartender, the food can be both wonderful and disappointing, and our server was acting so bizarrely he had to be on drugs. However, in a neighborhood lacking in many viable low-key and classy watering holes catering to the increasingly gentrified crowd, Ardesia nicely fills a void – and offers a wonderful patio in the summer months at the same time.

Perfect For: midtown west after-work drinks, Clinton locals, alfresco boozing, oenophiles

Ardesia on Urbanspoon

Don Giovanni: Classic Red Sauce Italian, With a Small Dose of Charm

Don Giovanni is a neighborhood joint, nothing more and nothing less. It’s not fancy and it’s not grimy. It’s the type of comfortable and acceptably tasty restaurant that’s good for couples and families, roommates, tourists, students, gallery employees and building staff. There is not a lot of pretension here, or a lot of service for that matter. It’s just simple, quick, and cheap.

Located on a stretch of 10th Avenue made newly popular by the High Line, Don Giovanni is pretty much always packed these days. The inside is casual and cramped, with little attention paid to design. A tiny bar with seats mostly filled with people waiting for tables is situated just next to the kitchen window where pizza orders are constantly being filled by the bustling kitchen staff. The best part about Don Giovanni is the sidewalk seating, seemingly open as soon as the snow melts. With an awning lined with Christmas lights and a few phalanxes of slightly rickety metal dining furniture, the sidewalk at Don Giovanni is charming, especially when the weather is warm and the stylish folk of Chelsea are out in full force. With the High Line entrance just a few short blocks away, the people-watching is some of the best in the area.
The food at Don Giovanni is straight-up traditional red-sauce Italian: thin-crust pizzas, spaghetti & meatballs, chicken parmesan, caprese salad and bruschetta, fettucine alfredo, ravioli, lasagna, veal piccata, and so forth. If you’re in the mood for basic Italian goodies, Don Giovanni is a fine option – nothing is surprising, you know what you’re going to get. The pizza is good ole New York-style pizza with a thin, crispy, slightly chewy and immensely flavorful crust, oozing fresh cheese, and savory tomato sauce. The pasta is nothing to write home about, especially if you’ve sampled anything cooked by Michael White, but it’s hearty and satisfying, served in massive belly-filling portions. The meatballs are nostalgic: moist, salty, massive, and doused in puddles of Italian tomato ‘gravy’. I could keep going, but I think you know the type of food I’m talking about. It’s good and easy, accessible to pretty much anyone. Well, anyone except perhaps snobs.
Don Giovanni is reminiscent of the old Italian New York, Mott Street and the Italian sections of the Bronx – none of the new-fangled gourmet Italian stuff here. And while there are no truffles in your pasta sauce or ramps on your pizza, the food is tasty and cheap. In fact, very cheap. So cheap as to have prices finishing in .95, which for students like myself, is excellent. Easy and relaxed, this Chelsea neighborhood hangout is just about perfect for sharing a pie on balmy spring night with Peronis and a jumbo piece of tiramisu.

Perfect For: pizza and beers, people-watching over a bottle of wine, High Line visitors, cheap eats, a quick dinner out, families and pet-owners (for sidewalk seating)

Don Giovanni Ristorante on Urbanspoon

Rickshaw Dumpling Bar: Excellent Concept, Not So Excellent Execution

Rickshaw Dumpling Bar is probably one of the best concepts ever – a “fast casual” restaurant devoted to DUMPLINGS. I mean, really, who doesn’t love dumplings? From the get-go, Rickshaw was pretty much guaranteed to be a hit. And, in fact, a hit it has been with food truck off-shoots and a line of kitschy-charming t-shirts. However, regardless of how popular this Flatiron dumpling mecca is, there are some problems with execution and the actual quality of the dumplings.

The restaurant is a tall and narrow sort of thing, with soaring ceilings and a stark & modern Japanese look constructed out of what seems to be concrete. The first things you see are the cashiers, smiling all sorts of big goofy smiles. Above them towers a gargantuan menu board, listing every sort of tasty Asian drunk food you could imagine: pork dumplings, szechuan chicken dumplings, shrimp and wasabi dumplings, noodle soups, sesame noodles, pork buns, bubble tea, and so forth. The selection is dizzying, tantalizing, overwhelming for Rickshaw first-timers. So, in classic fashion, my boyfriend and I order enough food to feed the entire military, take our number and wait.
In less than 5 minutes, our order is sitting at the pick-up station – impressive! All in all, the dumplings are mediocre, and some are better than others. The fillings are better than the wrappers, and the addictive dipping sauces are better than the fillings. To maximize dumpling enjoyment, skip the szechuan chicken variety and head straight for the kimchi beef with a sekom sauce (reminiscent of the best sort of creamy spicy mayo) and the shrimp with a sweet jicama, scallion and creamy wasabi dip. These two options beat out the other middling dumpling choices with their smooth flavorful filling and utterly fantastic dipping sauces. Interested in pork dumplings? Rickshaw Dumpling’s rendition are just…OK. Other than the dumplings, Rickshaw’s food is just fine – noodle soups are brothy, salty, and toothsome, and the pork buns are satisfying without being anything amazing.
In sum, Rickshaw’s food is nothing to write home about; however, the ‘restaurant’ is exceedingly accessible for all the yuppies milling around Gramercy, Flatiron, and Chelsea. If you’re on your way home from work, Rickshaw Dumpling is a safe and quick option to consider (though by no means the best) without much thought. Not great, not horrible, just easy.
Perfect For: dumplings on the go, trendy Chinese takeout, being the fat kid

Rickshaw Dumpling Bar on Urbanspoon