Thursday, August 28, 2014

Sunny & Annie's: The Best Bodega in NYC & The Creative Little Garden

We already know that in the depths of Alphabet City lies some of the best fried chicken you will ever eat, but what you should also know is that it has so many other things to offer like

The Best Community Garden in NYC - The Creative Little Garden, a hidden little oasis with bubbling waterfalls, benches and a handful of tables tucked throughout the beautifully kept space.

It is also the very best place to enjoy any of the sandwiches you get from Sunny & Annie's, what I will decree as the very best bodega in NYC.  Not only is the carrot juice, always kept on ice outside, sweet and refreshing, the inside stocked with all sorts of sweets and treats to favor Asians and people's peculiar dietary needs (vegan, gluten-free, health-nut, you got it!), but the sandwiches.  Oh my gosh, the sandwiches.

You can see them listed in front of the deli-stand in multi-colored sheets of 8.5 x 11 paper, each sandwich an amalgamation of a million different ingredients, and you'd never think they belong together, but then when you actually see them together like this, you'll think, "I'd eat that."

And then when you taste it, you'll wonder what has taken so long for those ingredients to get together!

I haven't been able to deviate from the Pho #2 sandwich since I first took a bite of it.  Fresh slices of crisp sweet apple, tender chunks of tofu, thick slices of grilled chicken, sweet and tangy hoisin, oh so creamy avocado, spicy fresh green pepper sauce, cilantro and lettuce all jampacked into a hero.

How they do it in the tiniest ol' space, I will never know, but the sandwich is infinitely fresh, astoundingly flavorful and just mesmerizing.  I savor each final bite like it's an old friend, one that always gives me such warm memories and one whom I can never wait to see again.

Han's Nonsensical Rating: Best sandwiches in the city.

Sunny & Annie's
 94 Avenue B, New York, NY 10009
Sunny & Annie Deli on Urbanspoon

The Creative Little Garden
530 E 6th St, New York, NY 10009

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Lee-Lee's Rugelach "from a Brother"

Exactly one block from my apartment has been the best hidden treasure I've ever found: Lee Lee's Baked Goods.

What is rugelach?  I have no idea.

I just know it's exactly $1, and it looks like this.

Inside the flaky, cinnamon-sugar dusted pastry is a buttery, delicate interior studded with giant raisins, nuts and a creamy apricot filling.  It's absolutely brilliant, disappears within seconds and has you wanting more.

On the day we went, there was only apricot, and the lady speculated that Mr. Lee might make chocolate the following day.  If the apricot was this good, I just wonder how good the chocolate would be.  Ugh.  They just know how to keep us coming back, one amazing, buttery bite at a time.

283 W 118th St
New York, NY

Friday, August 22, 2014

Spanish Tapas & Paella at Barca

The boy and I had visited Plan B on Mulberry St a couple years ago, excited to try their snake sausage, however, they did not have any the time, had no clue when they would, and we stayed, and somehow ended up spending so much money on so little food that wasn't any good.  (The worst possible outcome to that short story, I know.)

And so Plan B's plan b came through, and Barca has since replaced the restaurant, maintaining the same space, but with a new chef behind the helm and an updated menu more focused on Spanish cuisine.

The rebranding seemed effective - the restaurant was jammed with lots of people nibbling at small plates, sipping sangrias and having a gay ol' time.

Compliments of the kitchen appealed to us immediately - fresh, young stalks of asparagus wrapped tightly with salty, serrano ham and a drop of herby, marscapone cheese.  A very good start to the meal.

We continued with the restaurant's namesake ahi tuna appetizer, with plenty of chunks of fresh tuna, but little seasoning and never enough bread for the likes of my fat face.

The braised brussel sprouts were barely bitter, just tender and deeply fragrant with thyme.

We deviated from the tapas menu to sample one of the four paellas on the menu: the arroz negro.  Arriving in the signature paella pan, the squid ink rice is speckled with bits of tomato and seafood.

And after the first, second and third bites of hard rice in my mouth, I wondered if maybe I don't know what paella is supposed to taste like.  Is the paella rice supposed to be as al dente as true Italian pasta?

The flavor of the paella was actually quite nice, but the rice was overwhelmingly undercooked, though the waitress expressed that you could have the chefs cook the rice longer, if needed, but yes, this is how it is supposed to be.  One day, I will go to Spain and confirm that, but  in the meantime, I do know that the shrimp was painfully overcooked, rubbery to the core, and the mussels a little too goopy (yes, a technical term!) so really, it's just a mishmash of unfortunate circumstances.

As was the tres leches cake that was somehow dry and also hard - as in hard texture and hard to eat.

And then we glanced down the stretch of tables and saw that most people stuck to tapas, and that maybe that's what we should have to and our experience would have been much different, because the asparagus was brilliant, the brussel sprouts enjoyable, and the drinks pretty healthy and strong.

Han's Nonsensical Rating:  Stick to the tapas if you must, or just skip altogether.

244 Mulberry St
New York, NY

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Philly ! Beck's Cajun Cafe

If you ever find yourself in Reading Terminal on a Sunday, and your excitement for the day is immediately quashed when you discover that half of the terminal is closed (because the Amish must rest!), do not fret.

Wipe away those tears and head straight to Beck's Cajun Cafe.

If you are there in the morning, please, please, please order the breakfast sandwich.  I beg you.  Eat andouille sausage for breakfast and love it!

If you are there after breakfast, order yourself a shrimp po boy.

Thrive in the beauty of fried splendor piled high in toasted baguette doused with spicy mayo and hints of lettuce.

Or order a platter of fried oysters.  Sure, they are a bit heavier on the batter, and sure, they do not quite resemble oysters, but they still taste like them, they're crunchy and great.  The homefries are addictively dusted with cajun seasoning, and the buttered cornbread is basically cake.  Freakishly delicious.

And then plot your way back to the market on a non-Sunday to really do your life right by eating a dozen apple dumplings and sticky buns.

Beck's Cajun Cafe
Reading Terminal
12th & Arch
Philadelphia, PA
Beck's Cajun Cafe on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Chicago! A Bunch of Meats: Hot Doug's & Publican

Chicago, why has it taken me so long to visit you?  Why do you continue to haunt my dreams?

Diana and I spent about an hour and a half in the hot, hot sun waiting in line with other schmucks at Hot Doug's.  We just had to.  Ol' Mr. Dougie said he's going to stop serving these dawgs in October, so gotta git it while the gittin' is good! (Is this a saying that anyone recognizes outside Texas?)

We thought Friday early afternoon is a good time to do this.  Everyone and their mother and their girlfriend and their brother had the same idea.

When you wait in line that long, you contemplate a lot of things, like, "Why are we doing this?" (To eat delicious hot dogs!) and "When is this ever going to be over?" (When we are eating delicious hot dogs!)

You also get time to look at all their cool stuff.

I need these sort of credentials.

And then finally, after two sweet hours of bonding and sharing what slivers of shade the tiny awning outside can provide, you can stare down at beauts like these!

We just ordered a bunch of specials, and you really can't go wrong with any of them.  The toppings are fresh, the cheese tangy,

the sauces completely decadent,

and the ones with fruit essence, like this one with pear wine reduction, make the dog so sweet, savory and wonderful.

I wish I could remember more,

but all you really need to know is that the encased meats are fantastic, with great snap and texture,

and they are often oozing and gooey with cheese, and that's just how life should be.  Cheesy, over the top and great.

And of course, don't forget the duck fat fries.  (No one forgets the duck fat fries.)

A couple hours later, we made enough space for a dinner at The Publican Restaurant.  The space is interesting, with corralled booths on the sides, and a U shaped community table setting around the perimeter of the restaurant.

In a tucked away corner, Diana and I shared smoked mackerel, which was by far the largest mackerel I've ever had, with lots of oily, tasty meat and slivers of fresh citrus,

a side of fried cauliflower - and as delicious as cauliflower naturally is, it is that much more delicious fried.  Completely crisp, ungreasy and awesome.  I may have eaten this whole thing myself when Diana wasn't looking.

The platter of porchetta is honestly enough for at least 3-4 people, but Diana and I tackled what we could, which was easy since

the porchetta was tender beyond belief, requiring no chew at all, disintegrating immediately like a phone from Mission Impossible.  The skin was so flavorful, so fatty, and so ridiculously good (as all pork fat should be).

And after you finish feasting on all the variety of quality meats the Publican has to offer, immediately order the vacherin.

It's a cake of sorts, layered with crispy, chewy meringue and bright citrusy ice cream.  It's nothing short of brilliant.

Han's Nonsensical Rating: The hype of Hot Doug's is deserved but figure out a better time to go (early lunch midweek?).  Publican is a positively great place to go with friends, order a bunch of platters and go to town. I just want that porchetta fat to coat my throat and the insides of my arteries again.

3324 North California, Chicago, IL 60618
Hot Doug's on Urbanspoon

837 W Fulton Market, Chicago, IL 60607
The Publican on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Chicago! The Most Fun Restaurant Ever: Alinea

In our trip to Chicago, I surprised Diana with a dinner at world-renowned Alinea.  It was a place we had always talked about going to, never found ourselves in Chicago at the same time, and now in the height of her upcoming wedding, the stars were finally aligned for us!

The doors of the kitchen are wide open to the restaurant waiting area.
The restaurant interior is stark, with violet lighting and immaculate leaves of rhubarb hanging over each table.  The wait staff is friendly, often funny, setting a much different tone to the dinner than Per Se or Atera.

Each dish is remarkably playful.  The opening "plate" was a basket of woven twigs.  The task, the waiter explained, was to find the two pieces of salsify that were hidden inside.

We turned the basket here and there, studied each branch ad nauseum,

until Diana spotted the first one!  

A dehydrated piece of salsify with the subtle texture and flavor of beef jerky, seeped in soy and sodium.

The next whimsical plate featured lobster with colorful plops and delicate squares of gelees and creams.  Mush them all together, they encouraged - mix and match to your heart's delight - and we were delighted to find that everything was wonderfully synchronous, a marvelous medley of Indian flavors in our mouths.

The waiter then set down a mysterious pile of coals upon our table without explanation.

We didn't have too much time to think about it, when our Chinese takeout appeared.

Unbelievably playful, with charred cinnamon sticks (for necessary aromatics) as chopsticks

to eat General Tso-style sweetbreads.  Never having sweetbreads before, I fell in love with them, resembling the fattiest, meltiest chicken nuggets ever.

And then the coals were ignited.  

More distractions though: ebi, with broccoli stem and sea grapes, beautiful and earthy.

The coals were finally diffused to uncover a piece of charred sorrel and a wagyu filet.  The server slices off most of the charred edges of the sorrel, but leaves some of it on, for a little taste of smokiness.

The plate is a darkened tree stump with inky black sauces.  The beef is forever tender, no chew required, and the smokiness from the open flame is apparent with every bite.

A delicate glass bowl of lily bulb petals and tiny rambutan pearls cleanse our palates.

The waiter than grabs our hanging rhubarb to shave 'rhubarb truffles' onto our next dish.  Isn't he the cutest thing?

Fresh ricotta, freshly shaved rhubarb, celery root and licorice make up this ridiculously fun little salad.

The waiter excitedly presented the next dish, and said, "I bet you can't guess what the crispy thing is."

"Oh, you mean the pig's ear?"  He didn't bank on Diana and I knowing just about every pig part there is (you don't get this porky without knowing this stuff!).  This plate was by far the most beautiful pig ear plate we've ever had though.  Served with wood ear mushrooms, it was one "earie" dish.

A raviolo filled with black truffle, asparagus and the most pristine sliver of parmesan was entirely explosive with rich flavor.

Next, a vase filled with dragon's breath poured onto our table and 


over duck "dumplings" made of foie gras and 

in copper bowls, we were given bites of duck breast and a rare duck heart atop an addictively thick, sweetened sauce.

And then we entered into the forays of dessert with  bubble gum noodles, tart blueberries, and tangs of lemon.

Followed by the best treat ever, and worth the meal alone, candy balloons inflated with helium with a green apple candy rope string.  The balloons are handed with careful instructions: put your mouth on the balloon, inhale, chat for fun, and eat.  Also, please take off your glasses.

Our neighbor did not want to take off his glasses and dove right in.

His glasses were completely covered with candy, but so worth it!  The balloons taste just like fruit rollups but a thousand times more fun.

And then the act of resistance, chefs come to the table and perform a work of art atop the rubber-matted table.

The tools.

The best part - sprinkling glittered crumbs over everything.
The dessert is molecular wizardy, hot chocolate freezing before our eyes into a thin cylindrical disk.

My favorite part was of course the candied basil (have you ever dreamed of such a thing?), and of course, everything else.  The chocolate was so creamy, the hazelnut crumbles a crunchy delight, and though we did not feel full coming into this dessert, this is what ended up rounding our bellies so.

Han's Nonsensical Rating: We avoided any kind of description of Alinea entering this meal, and found ourselves fully surprised at every step.  And though some dishes were better than others, you can't help but walk out of this restaurant feeling like you've had the most magical and unique experience, and you can understand why Alinea is consistently ranked among the top restaurants in the world.

1723 N Halsted
Chicago, IL
Note: Reservations are a little hard to get, but join their Twitter or Facebook to keep in the know!
Alinea on Urbanspoon