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Posts from the ‘student spot’ Category

Bento Burger: Where Anime, Americana, and Frat Bar Meet

There’s no way around it – Bento Burger, a new Japanese-American ‘pub’ in the Southern East Village, is a weird place. Part American fratty dive bar and part Japanese-inspired pub, this ‘restaurant’ suffers from multiple personality disorder, is punishingly loud, and appeals to the post-fraternity youth that troll the Lower East Side and East Village. That being said, Bento Burger has a quirky party-hard vibe ideal for setting the mood on a big night out and some seriously great food.

The narrow space on 2nd Street off First Avenue is not easily missed; its presence is announced by neon graffiti and tall brightly-colored banners covered in Japanese characters and anime cartoons. It’s a slice of technicolor Tokyo on an otherwise dark and moody block. Inside, Bento Burger is a futuristic and industrial space, a bit grimy, and unfortunately affected by the frat bar smell of spilled beer. At the front, along one wall, is a scarlet-hued bar with crimson sheets hanging over the bar stools. Along the opposite wall are red leather booths, each with it’s own tray of sauces, chopsticks, and menus (a la Friendly’s, for those who remember) and each surrounded by ‘artful’ graffiti murals. A jukebox is parked in the back, manipulated more often than not by perhaps too-inebriated chicks who just cannot live without Katy Perry for one more minute.

Despite the more bar than restaurant atmosphere, the ‘Japanese roadhouse’ fare is delicious. The menu features classic American bar-fare, dressed up with some fancy ingredients and inspired by Japanese flavors. Think: chicken wings, fried calamari, spring rolls, and an array of scrumptious burgers. The ‘Hambuguu’ burger, a sumptuous blend of beef and sirloin, is rich and flavorful, especially when topped with the spicy wasabi aioli. The Thai Chicken burger is remarkable; the patty is actually ground chicken, not a piece of grilled marinated chicken breast, and is incredibly juicy; the spicy papaya relish piled on top is sweet, spicy, and savory all at once. Perhaps the best food delivered by the kitchen though came in the form of side dishes. The wasabi mashed potatoes are creamy and fluffy with a strong but not overpowering hot wasabi flavor; the sweet potato fries are some of the best I’ve ever had – cut thick, the perfect blend of crispy and soft, and doused in salt, pepper and what had to have been truffle oil. Less successful yet still tasty were the tempura onion rings. While they lacked in that crisp crunch I long for in fried food, the thick onions were soft and sweet and the accompanying wasabi aioli made up for the lack of flavor in the tempura batter.

All in all, Bento Burger is ideal for a raging good time (for example: a big group celebrating the end of final exams) – the food is delicious, just greasy enough, and packed with intense flavors, there is a pretty impressive cocktail selection, and after knocking a few back, I could imagine how difficult it would be to ignore the jukebox’s siren song. If you know what you’re getting yourself into, the low prices and good food ensure that you’ll get a great bang for your buck. Keep in mind though, no matter how you spin it, the slightly grimy/party-hard atmosphere and friendly yet frankly incompetent table service is terrible for intimate gatherings or, god forbid, dates.

Bento Burger on Urbanspoon

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Earl’s Beer & Cheese: A Refreshingly Unrefined UES Hole-in-the-Wall

The Upper East Side has a reputation. Depending on which side of Lexington Avenue you venture to, it’s either the hoity-toity home of New York’s blue bloods or the home away from home for the recently-graduated frat scene. Naturally, the sorts of restaurants and bars you find on the Upper East Side typically fit snugly into one of these two categories. Only rarely does an eating and drinking establishment come around that defies expectations, that is neither pretentious nor beer-soaked (in a dirty sort of way). Earl’s Beer & Cheese is one of these such establishments.

On the border (or perhaps just over) between the Upper East Side and Spanish Harlem, Earl’s Beer & Cheese is hardly more than a sliver of space – devoted to marrying two beloved pleasures, beer and cheese. The seating is communal, limited to a few bar stools along one wall and a central table that appears to be a cousin of the standard picnic table. At Earl’s, you better get used to rubbing elbows with strangers, for the combination of rabid popularity and very little room creates a major jam from ‘after-work’ hours far into the night. But try not to worry, after a few of the weekly rotated brews and big bowl of beer cheese (see below), a few elbow jabs will seem just jovial.

courtesy of Danny Kim & New York Magazine

Earl’s menu is short, sweet and focused on cheese. Expect grilled cheese varieties, mac n’ cheese, tomato soup (best with the grilled cheese), a cheese plate (duh), a house-made concoction called beer cheese, and a decadent dish of waffles, foie gras, cheddar cheese, and bacon. In short, even if you only sort of like cheese (the horror!), it’s all deliciously over-the-top and marvelous, especially with a cold beer. The grilled cheese, of which there are three rather complicated types, is served on fluffy sourdough or a buttery brioche; regardless of whether you try the cheddar, brie, or mozzarella, cheese oozes out of the side. With oil andfatty meats and oozing melted cheese, it’s virtually impossible not to enjoy Earl’s grilled cheese sandwiches – and virtually impossible to enjoy them neatly. The mac n’ cheese is luxurious: rich, creamy, tangy from the goat cheese, and flecked with fragrant rosemary. After a long-day, it is the perfect comfort food dish to push worries out of sight and out of mind. Best of all though is the beer cheese. Does it even need explanation? or validation? Beer. Cheese. Together, in a savory, salty, creamy dip to be spread lavishly on crusty white bread. In one word: heaven.
Earl’s is a charming novelty spot that eschews that bipolar attitude that tends to define ‘the Upper East Side.’ Popular with local Mt. Sinai medical students just happy to be out of class, it’s a cheerful place with an immensely friendly staff and generally jovial crowd. When being plied with craft beers that rotate weekly and pots of bubbling cheese, it’s hard not to love every minute of your time stuffed into this hole in the wall.
Perfect For: after-work drinks, cheeseheads, beer aficionados, Mt. Sinai students and staff, unbuttoned Upper East Siders

Earl's Beer & Cheese on Urbanspoon

Xi’an Famous Foods: A Noodle Anyone Can Love

Xi’an Famous Foods is one of many noodle shops in Manhattan, yet because of it’s extraordinary brand of hand-pulled noodles, it has developed a rabid fan-base with notable followers like the New York Times’ restaurant critic Sam Sifton. Now with a storefront on St. Mark’s in the East Village, this Flushing-based mini-chain focuses on serving the unique and self-professed ‘atypical Chinese food’ of Xi’an.

The East Village outpost is tiny with just 2 tables and bar seats for no more than 10. Barely more than a take-out counter, the look is sparse and minimal with uneven metal tables, a smooth wooden eating bar, and mini-flat screen TVs that feature videos of noodle-making in noodle shops in China. One woman handles the cash register, the packing of to-go bags, and the part of the kitchen that churns out phenomenally tasty lamb and pork burgers. In the back is another hand-making noodles, nursing savory sauces, and serving up the famous noodle soups and noodle plates. It’s a small enterprise, yet guaranteed to be packed at all hours of the day, from open to close. Want to beat the line? Call in your order ahead and shoot in front of the masses waiting patiently in a queue.

Ordered from a picture menu tacked to one wall and served on floppy Styrofoam plates, the food is simple and savory. The most popular items offered are what Xi’an Famous Foods has become known for – the hand-pulled noodles. Not the loveliest noodles you’ll ever see, they are served raggedy, torn and clumpy, hot in a slop of salty, oily and spicy sauce with torn bits of tender meat or in a brothy umami-packed soup. In short, though unlike any noodles I’ve had before, Xi’an’s hand-pulled variety are phenomenal. Chewy, hearty, rich, satisfying, and amusingly unwieldy (plan to transform your napkin into a bib), these noodles don’t even need the cumin and chili oil-packed sauces provided – those are just the icing on the cake.

Aside from the hand-pulled noodles, Xi’an Famous Foods also serves up astoundingly good renditions on burgers, served on flattened oily bread and stuffed with sweet marinated pork or spicy cumin lamb, cold ‘skin’ noodles, and unusual soups and salads (lamb offal soup? spicy pig pudding salad with garlic?). Recommended dishes include the top-notch Savory Cumin Lamb Hand-Pulled Noodles, the Stewed Pork Burger, the Pork Zha Jiang Hand-Pulled Noodles, and the Spicy and Tingly Beef Hand-Pulled Soup Noodles.

Xi’an Famous Foods is some of the tastiest cheap food in Manhattan. Just $9 can get you a pork burger, hand-pulled noodles, and a drink – where else can you get so much grub that tastes so delicious for so little money? Skeptics of Xi’an Famous Food’s need only to look to the line that can curl around the block at peak hours – everyone from yuppies to hipsters to greying NYU professors to Wall Street suits dashing just uptown for a taste waits patiently for a little bit of noodle magic.

Perfect For: thin wallets, noodle fanatics, a taste of Flushing without the subway ride, student lunch breaks, super savory takeout

Xi'an Famous Foods on Urbanspoon

Benny’s Burritos: More Like Bennie’s Booze

It’s official, I want to meet Benny. His California-style Mexican den on Greenwich Avenue is the perfect hangout spot for locals seeking comfortable Mexican cuisine at dirt-cheap prices. The restaurant is small and cramped, strangely shaped, like the first floor of a creeky and shadowed pre-war building. What used to be brightly colored paint has faded to duller versions of scarlet, yellow, and royal blue through wear, dirt and dust. Bizarre art hangs a bit askew on the walls, including a slightly disturbing picture of a sock-puppet, chintzy fishes, and what looks to be local Mexican peasant art, from a flea market.

Despite the inarguably run-down look, Benny’s is about as comfortable and pretention-free as you can get. The servers let you sit and eat and drink as long and as much as you want; if you keep coming back, they’ll get to know you and your order (this is a step-up from the coffee man at your local deli…); the crowd is young and diverse – at any given time, you’ll see the who’s who of the Village’s gay network, families of four, yuppies, huppies, puppies, aged hipsters, young hipsters, fashion’s finest, and curious passers-by. While it’s a scene worth checkin’ out, don’t worry about what you’re going to wear – no one’s going to care.

As you could probably guess from the name, Benny’s is best known for it’s burritos, which are, admittedly, quite delicious. Burrito fillings range from the Jamaican jerk chicken to classic shredded beef to tofu, shredded spinach, and bbq beef, all of which pack a flavorful punch. While the over-stuffed nicely-wrapped burritos may be the claim to fame, I personally am a sucker for the Nachos Grande (bring on the sour cream) and the Enchiladas plate, swimming with creamy black beans, slightly crispy rice, and melted Monterey Jack. Just looking to enjoy one of Benny’s to-die-for and ridiculously cheap margheritas? No one will complain or try to kick you out (I’m looking at you, Bone Lick Park) – they’ll even give you free chips with tangy green tomatillo salsa.

Benny’s is my Mexican go-to. It’s uncomplicated, no frills, no fuss, and a great value. The staff is fantastic – as laidback as the crowd and seemingly ready to party themselves (without crossing the professionalism line, clearly). Not quite kitschy and certainly not cheesy, Benny’s is the daytime drinking, cheap Mexican, desperately searching nachos real deal.

Perfect For: afternoon ‘happy hour’, cheap eats, drinks with buddies, satisfying a burrito craving, hipster people-watching, margherita mondays, just lookin’ for a good time…

Benny's Burritos (West) on Urbanspoon

Maracas: Disco Balls, Maracas, and Birthday Shots

I’ll admit it – I’m on a cheap Mexican kick. Wait, who am I kidding? I’m always on a cheap Mexican kick, and lucky for me, I’ve got Maracas, Caliente Cab Co, and Benny’s Burritos within 4 blocks of my apartment. Now, these places don’t serve good food; it’s certainly not authentic. Yet, as we all know, there’s nothing like a heaving toppling platter of cheese-smothered nachos and a craptastic dish of enchiladas to complement your happy hour margherita.

Maracas Mexican Bar & Grill on Greenwich Ave is about as much of a party as it’s name would suggest. The expansive restaurant features every single kitschy piece of decor you’d expect, and really, you’d want to see. We’re talking sombrero hats, disco balls, crepe paper, cactus pictures, cheap Mexican art, and a lot of primary color usage. Wooden painted tables stand helter-skelter, easily moveable to accommodate large groups. Outside, an impressive number of tables allow for al fresco ‘dining’ (read: drinking with snacks) when the weather’s nice.

Perhaps the most entertaining part of the ‘decor’ is the hilariously rowdy crowd. Midtown yuppies looking for happy hour downtown mingle with locals craving salted margheritas who mingle with a suspicious number of birthday girls and their posses. All are drunk or on their way, and friends are made easily.

Maracas does have food, and some of it is better than you would expect. For example, the freshly ground guacamole is surprisingly refreshing; the nachos are more than satisfying with an acceptable cheese-to-chip ratio; and the chorizo quesadillas bring together successfully the winning combo of sausage, melty cheese, and tortilla. However, despite  these high notes, most of the cuisine is exactly what you would expect from a cheesy margherita bar: over-cooked, Americanized to the point of being almost unrecognizeably Mexican, and made with low quality ingredients.

Maracas is your quintessential crappy Mexican go-to; it’s a rollickin’ good time with cheap and strong drinks (could you even think of getting something other than a margherita?) and filling serviceable food. And just trust me on this one, you’ll want to tell them it’s your birthday…

Perfect For: celebrations, margherita mondays, pig-out sessions, guacamole cravings, ladies night out, large group dinners

Maracas Mexican Bar & Grill on Urbanspoon

Bus Stop Cafe: West Village’s Version of a Truck Stop

The Bus Stop Cafe transports you out of the ever-chic West Village and into a small town anywhere in America. It’s a relic, in a charming way, of a slower lifestyle (a cheaper one too) where breakfast was enjoyed every morning and food was simple and tasty, without fancy adornments. The polar opposite of ‘relaxed’ and ‘casual’ hot spots like Braeburn, Cafe Cluny, dell’anima, and Bistro de la Gare, the diner-like Bus Stop Cafe remains a go-to favorite of the neighborhood.

Wonder why it’s called the Bus Stop Cafe? I’ll give you one guess.

Bingo, it’s prime location is just outside a bus stop, at the busy and bustling intersection of Bleecker, 8th Ave, and Hudson. The restaurant is small and crowded with boothes and tables helter-skelter and squished into unusual spaces; in clement weather, limited outside seating is available for a few lucky diners. The theme? Diner mashed with truck stop mashed with coffee shop. The look is simple, unadorned, and cozy, slightly kitschy in a charming way, and just plain comfortable – familiar to those from small towns across America.

The food? Simple as simple can be and varied American. Expect classics like eggs benedict, pastrami sandwiches, burgers, spaghetti bolognese, and a BLT along with more Mediterranean-focused fare like chicken souvlaky, prosciutto & mozzarella wrap, and eggplant parmesan. My basic favorite when I’m too lazy to make my own is a tuna fish bacon sandwich with a side of crispy fries. The grub isn’t fancy or made from locally-sourced pricey ingredients, but it’s hearty, hot, and generally satisfying. The best bet is brunch, complete with fluffy pancakes, hulking french toast, fresh bagels with lox, steak & eggs, and a variety of omelettes.

The Bus Stop Cafe is oftentimes a welcome relief from the sky-high prices, overly-complicated cuisine, and snob factor so popular in New York restaurants. It’s basic, efficient, friendly, and utterly devoid of all pretentions. Expect a more laidback clientele than you’d typically find in the West Village, though by no means shabby – heck, you might even spy some good ole Reebok/New Balance sneakers.

Perfect for: hangover brunch, coffee infusion, cheap & fast delivery/takeout, and a simple dinner solo or with buds

Bus Stop Cafe on Urbanspoon

Patty & Bun: Average Patty, Awful Bun

Patty & Bun talks a big game with fancy burgers, a fancy modern look, and fancy beers, all at fancy prices. And yet, this Greenwich Village burger joint just falls short. A stone’s throw from NYU and Washington Square Park, Patty & Bun brings the wrong type of burger joint to this otherwise student-friendly neighborhood. You’d think when opening a restaurant on a block otherwise populated by Cosi, Au Bon Pain, Johnny Rocket’s, Eva’s Health Food, and a downmarket BBQ spot, you’d question the sanity of charging upwards of $17 for a burger and fries.
The dim interior is all dark wood, non-existent ambient lighting, and the neon glare of big flat-screen TVs. A short-order kitchen window blasts bright white light into the murky back set of booths. Near the front, a bar is your best bet for quick service, a beer, a quiet place to watch whichever New York team is playing that night. Patty & Bun has all the trappings of a sleek and contemporary sports bar, but none of the oomph to back it up.
The menu is short and comfort food-focused, with burgers taking up the most space. The ‘American tavern’ fare looks scrumptious, with options including mac & cheese with bacon, steak frites, cheese sliders, a lamb burger, a monkfish BLT, and the Caddy Patty burger with braised duck on top. All I can say is too bad all these delicious choices are rendered useless by the kitchen’s utter inability to execute.
The mac & cheese with bacon is difficult to screw up: cheese, pasta, bacon, all revered foods. And yet, it was bland and impossibly close to Kraft mac & cheese (it just HAD to be). The Caddy Patty burger with pickled vidalia onions, braised duck, and goat cheese was unapologetically over-cooked on the outside. It tasted of char and burnt cheese more than anything else. The 3 cheeseburger sliders were also over-cooked with the cheese blackened and crusty on top. The lamb burger was perhaps the only success of the night with a creative jalapeno sheep’s cheese spread that I could eat all day. For a burger place, it is just unacceptable to consistently overcook and overchar your burgers – what’s the point if you can’t even taste the meat?
All in all, Patty & Bun fares better as a bar with good beers on tap, a full liquor selection, and big TVs. The food tastes as though it was an afterthought to the design and concept and just can’t compete with the series of acclaimed burgers nearby (Bill’s Burgers, Minetta Tavern, BLT Burger, Rare Bar & Grill, Corner Bistro, even Five Guys).

Patty and Bun American Bistro on Urbanspoon