Part 1 of 4: LA Native in NYC
I arrived the evening of 7/11 and departed 7/16. I figured after the eating I did, fellow Hounds would be interested in what my experiences were, both the natives and future visitors. I am breaking up the report into parts to make it easier to digest; essentially over the 4 days I was here. I will caveat it and say most of the eating I did could be considered "low-end" but that was largely the result of me enjoying that type of eating to cover more ground and timing since I wasn't able to reserve spots at places such as Eleven Madison Park or Per Se. Despite that, I hope my report is helpful. Here we go:
Halal Guys at 53rd and 6th: Technically my adventure started the evening of 7/11 after I arrived in NYC. I joined up with the friend I was staying with and after dropping off my bags, we headed to dinner. Upon arrival at about 830PM, we were faced with a line of maybe 15-20 people. Luckily the line moved quickly and we ordered up two combo chicken/gyro over rice plates. Service was quick and efficient. Sauces are available on the side of the cart or if you like, to go containers are available as well. I thought the whole thing was pretty amazing and for only $6, a fantastic value. The rice was light and fluffy with a good, not overly spiced flavor. The chicken and gyro, I assume lamb, were tender and juicy if not a bit oily. The sauces, dear lord the sauces. The creamy, white sauce and flaming red sauce helped tie this whole thing together. That red sauce has great heat, adds tons of flavor and helps cut the oiliness of the plate. The white sauce adds a cooling effect to balance the heat. What a combo. The ambiance? Eating a massive tin-foil take-out box underneath Manhattan skyscrapers along with families, college students, and executives in suits is a fun experience. Is it the best halal plate in Manhattan? I can't say but this is easily a go-to type place and I will 100% be back for future visits.
Russ & Daughters: My first breakfast was held in the Lower East Side at the famed Russ & Daughters. Upon entry, you can feel the history but the shop is perfectly clean and doesn't give off any sort of dilapidated feeling. The shop was not busy and so I was immediately asked if I could be helped by one of the women in the white coats. I ordered a mini classic sandwich with plain cream cheese on an everything bagel but since it was my first visit, asked if I could sample some of the salmon before choosing. The woman obliged and asked what I would like. I first asked for a sample of the belly lox and was immediately told it would likely be too salty for a sandwich but that I could try it anyway. She was right. Although the belly lox had a great firm, not mushy texture with a good richness, the salt was a bit too much. The woman suggested I try the Norwegian and offered me a slice. Once I tasted it, I immediately decided on this fish. The texture was again firm, not mushy. It had a good fat content that allowed to almost melt away on the tongue but was balanced with a light smoke. What a sandwich this was. I also indulged in an order of the new Holland herring that was in season. The herring was buttery rich with that great, distinct herring flavor. Although salty, it paired nicely with the chopped onions which offered a bit of sweetness. Wonderful. I have to say, if there's a weakness, it's definitely the bagel. It wasn't awful, but it was a bit too dense and bread-y, and a bit stale. Anyone visiting this place should skip the bagel and get the fish to go with bagels from elsewhere. If they fix the bagel issue, this place would be a no-brainer. That being said, I still love this place; I wish Los Angeles had something similar.
Prosperity Dumpling: After my first breakfast, I headed south towards Chinatown for a taste of fried dumplings. The shop was empty upon my arrival save for two ladies speaking Mandarin behind the counter getting ready to fry a new batch of dumplings. I ordered an order of 5 fried chive and pork dumplings for $1 and sat down on a stool with my Styrofoam plate. I bit into one and was hit in the mouth with some searing hot juice that practically burned my mouth. These were wonderfully juicy dumplings. I prefer a little more chives in my chive and pork dumplings, but these were still good. The skins had a nice thickness and beautiful crisp on the bottom but were a little dry. It could be attributed to them being almost the last of the current batch but if not, their skins are a bit lacking in the Q department (tender, chewy dough that Chinese love in their flour-based products) of a truly great dumpling. Although places with dumplings are a dime a dozen where I'm from (San Gabriel, CA), I can't think of any that offer this kind of value for their dumplings. It's hard to imagine how they maintain the prices but I won't complain, I'd eat these all the time if I lived close by.
Bread Talk: This was an unplanned stop for me. I had gone to see the Brooklyn Bridge and was on my way to my next destination when I passed this little bakery. The smells (I'm a sucker for Chinese baked goods) and a banner reading two egg tarts for $1 caught my attention. I figured for a $1, why not? In exchange for the dollar, I was given two slightly warm egg tarts wrapped in wax paper with no fuss. Upon my first bite, I was utterly blown away. A light, flaky crust that didn't fall apart or crumble apart when I bit into it was met with a custard filling that was rich, creamy and sweet. It wasn't dense at all and had a great “jiggle” that one would associate with truly excellent custards. My girlfriend is not a fan of egg tarts or dahn taat due to the filling being on the egg-y side but I think she might approve of these. However, I think I would've preferred them to be slightly egg-ier and with a crisper crust. That being said, I was definitely happy I ran into this store. I found out they are actually Serious Eats favorite egg tarts in Chinatown and I can see why despite not having had egg tarts elsewhere. Come try this place.
Original Chinatown Ice Cream Factory: I explored Chinatown for a bit before stopping by since they don't open until 11AM. At this point in the day it was already starting to warm so ice cream would hit the spot. I was one of the first people in and only one girl was working behind the counter. As she helped the first couple, I took a look at some of the flavors to decide which I would sample before settling. I ended up trying taro (I love anything taro and this was solid), black sesame (rich and nutty), lychee (sweet and refreshing, almost like fresh ones), egg custard (definitely reminded me of egg tarts), green tea (good matcha flavor) and almond cookie (tasted just like the almond cookies of my childhood) which was the favorite of the girl helping me when I inquired what was good. I ended up with black sesame and almond cookie on a sugar cone. Their ice cream is rich but not overly so with a solid mouthfeel. There was fairly low over-run but it wasn't a dense gut bomb. Flavors were strongly present but less intense on the tongue than say, gelato would be. The heat of the day caused it to start melting but I quickly gobbled it up on the way to the Metro station.
Shake Shack at Madison Park: I knew about the length of the lines and was prepared to wait, but luckily when I exited the Metro around 1145AM, I spied less than a dozen people. After about 5 minutes of waiting, the line had easily tripled. 15-20 minutes later I placed an order for a single Shack burger cooked medium, fries and a regular Diet Coke. I found a shady spot with a table and another 15 minutes later I had food in hand. Verdict? Terrific burger and solid fries. The burger was super beef-y, juicy, had a solid sear with fresh, crisp lettuce and onions. The tomatoes were sweet and juicy and not mealy or mushy. The fries were creamy and definitely potato-y. Being from California, there is the inevitable comparison against the West Coast favorite In-N-Out. My decision? I prefer In-N-Out at this point. Why? I think the reason is that the burger at In-N-Out as a whole, is greater than the sum of its parts. While the beef is clearly superior at Shake Shack, the beef at In-N-Out is no slouch either. The “secret sauce” at Shake Shack was a bit weak and didn't stand up as well to the beefiness of the patty. Shake Shack lacks the topping customization that In-N-Out does. While the bun is lauded as being soft, moist and sweet, I actually don't think these make the best buns; it depends on the burger. The pillow-y softness of the bun didn't seem resilient enough and the sweetness detracts a bit from the beef since the patty didn't carry a strong salt note. Although to be fair, I usually order my burger at In-N-Out sans bun (protein-style). The fries also could've used a crisper outer texture. Next time I visit, I'll be sure to try the other burger offerings along with the shakes and/or concretes. All in all, I enjoyed it but I will go with my hometown favorite for now and my standard order of a double-double, animal-style, no pickles, extra grilled onions, chopped chilis; well-done fries, no salt. And a Diet Coke :)
Levain Bakery: I had heard about the cookies from this place and swung by after a visit to the NYC public library and Natural History Museum. The space is small but full of activity behind the counter producing wonderful aromas. For $4 I purchased a single chocolate chip cookie with walnuts. Although it may seem steep at first, once I was handed the cookie I understood. The cookie was easily 4 inches across, over an inch thick and had substantial weight. Biting into the cookie revealed a slightly crisp exterior, with a rich, soft interior chock full of melty, chocolate chips and studded with walnuts. What a first bite! However, after about two-thirds of the way through, I had had enough of the cookie. Due to the size, the cookie started to become too heavy and cloyingly sweet in my mouth and I barely finished the cookie. Additionally, since it was so thick in the middle, some parts were still slightly raw. I am admittedly not a big fan of raw cookie dough so this wasn't that pleasant. I also prefer cookies with more of a chew. While good, due to personal preferences, these cookies were just ok in my book. I'd give the other flavors a shot, but this was a bit of a letdown. Still worth a taste though.
Totto Ramen: Upon arrival at around 4PM I was pleased to find that there were several seats open at the bar and was immediately seated. I instantly enjoyed the ambiance with the cooks behind the counter assembling the bowls of ramen for patrons sitting at the long counter and several full tables further back and the only real sounds were ramen assembly and patrons slurping. I sat right near the door and since it was a relatively cool day, the breeze helped offset the heat from the stoves. My order was the Totto Spicy Ramen with the additions of a boiled egg and kikurage mushrooms. After ten minutes of waiting, I was presented with my ramen. I first tasted the broth without mixing in the chili oil to get a sense of its flavor. Rich, chicken-y essence filled my mouth that provided a mouthfeel akin to a tonkotsu broth but its finish was much cleaner and didn't linger as much on the tongue. Those afraid of a chicken broth being weaker than a pork one should not be worried. The spicy oil helped bring different flavor elements to the bowl. The noodles were firm, cooked perfectly, and withstood turning to mush before I finished my bowl. Vegetable toppings were substantial, the portion of the kikurage mushrooms was generous and wonderfully crunchy. The chasu was tender and due to the blowtorch, added a very pleasant smokiness to both the meat and the broth. The white of the egg was lightly seasoned and creamy; the yolk was a touch overcooked for a true “flash-boiled” egg. Service was efficient. After trying Ippudo the following day, my vote actually goes to Totto between the two due to a more interesting broth and superior ambiance.
East Japanese Restaurant: With all the wonderful food thus far in the first day, the last place I tried is a bit of a surprise but was unplanned. My friend wanted to eat but didn't want to pay too much (I know there are better “cheap” options but this is where we ended up). Upon arrival we were promptly seated at the counter and began eating. On a relative scale, the sushi here is not that bad. I tried a variety of nigiri rolls (salmon, yellowtail, mackerel) and rolls (tempura shrimp, California, dragon, avocado). Is it good sushi? Not necessarily high quality, but for utility sushi, it does its job. Service was fine. The major gripe I have is that with the lighting in this place, it's really hard to see what it is I'm grabbing both item and plate color-wise. Also, despite all the options that appear on the menu, the variety going around the belt is limited but if need be, just order it from a waiter(ess). All in all, not bad but not noteworthy. Thus concludes the first day.