Saturday, November 26, 2022

Eating in New York: Chopped Cheese at Blue Sky Deli/Hajji's in Harlem

A lot of food trends start in New York City and spread out across the continent. Many spring out of the many ethnic communities that call the city home. But one that hasn’t made it out of the city yet and seems more firmly rooted in American culture is a sandwich called the chopped cheese, and during my trip to the city I went to East Harlem to get it at the bodega where it’s said to have originated.

I heard about the sandwich from a food doc on YouTube from First we Feast, and it’s said to have become part of hip hop culture. According to Wikipedia the origins of the sammy are up for debate, but it may originate from an Arabic speciality called dagha yamneeya.

Whatever its inspiration, the ingredients are pure Americana – a cross between a cheeseburger and a cheesesteak.

While delis and bodegas (corner stores) across the city serve them now, the Blue Sky Deli, aka Hajji’s, is said to be the originator., on 1St Avenue at East 110th. So that’s where I went to have my first.

I ordered at the cash and they write my order on a slip and hand it to the two cooks working the grill during the slow lunch rush on a holiday Friday. In about ten minutes, my sandwich is ready.

Basically, it’s a burger patty chopped up on the grill with cheese and onions, topped with lettuce, tomato and mayo and served on a crusty roll.

There’s no dine-in, this is a bodega, so I take my sammy and head back outside, venturing down the street to a bench where I sit in the rain (it rained all day and I was already perma-damp anyway) and begin to eat my sandwich, which was cut in half.

The bread was fresh, the cheese processed and melted, the beef somewhat unevenly distributed. It was tasty though, the cheapest meal I had in the city, and filled me up. And it was very American.

I have heard it tastes better after the temp has come down a bit, so I packed up the last half and set off for the subway, opening it up again as I rode a downtown train back in to Manhattan.

This half was beefier, and having gone form hot to warm the flavours indeed had coalesced more in a pleasing way.

Between the potato pancakes in the morning and the chopped cheese for late lunch, I don’t think I ate again that day.

So, my verdict? It was tasty but not necessarily something special. It’s a good, affordable working person’s lunch. I’m glad I tried the OG, but I don’t think I’d trek that far out of my way again – I suspect there are plenty of suitable alternatives closer at hand.

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Monday, November 21, 2022

Eating in New York: Potato pancakes at a Ukrainian diner in the East Village

 When doing my New York City dining option research, I did identify a few breakfast options. But with the long trek into Manhattan from Newark and my enjoyment of sleep, I only made it for the first meal of the day once: a Veterans Day trek in the rain to the Ukrainian section of the East Village for breakfast at Veselka, a Ukrainian diner.

After a few subway transfers and several blocks walked on rainy Manhattan streets (I was damp all day) I ended up at Veselka, which I could tell would be a popular and trendy brunch spot but luckily I got there before peak hours. I was quickly shown to a table and looked over the menu while doffing my wet outer layers.

The menu scan was perfunctory though as I had previously scouted it online, as is my habit. I was here for the latkes or, as they were identified on the menu, potato pancakes. My only question was a single pancake with something else, or a plate (multiples). While I debated some side protein, in the end I decided for carbs to fuel all the walking I would so this day and got the plate.

I received three potato pancakes, and two cups each of apple sauce and sour cream. The sides complemented the latkes well but I grew up on my Mom's cinnamon-heavy homemade apple sauce, so this (likely canned) version with no cinnamon wasn't my jam.

While the pancakes were OK, they weren't quite my jam either. I started experimenting with latkes for weekend pandemic breakfasts and have settled on a recipe with egg, flour and onion cooked in butter than I really like. So my first reaction was these weren't buttery at all. Now, I know my version is definitely not authentic, but it's what I've come to like. 

They were, however, well crisped, though lacking in much flavour without the sauces. After experimenting, I settled on combing both sour cream and apple sauce with each bite and quite enjoyed it. 

And they were definitely filling. Two and a bit and I tapped out, paying my bill and venturing back out into the rain to catch a subway uptown. I'd go back, but it will be during lunch hours for pierogies. 

All the pierogies.

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Tuesday, November 15, 2022

Eating in New York: Shake Shack

 I know for most New York City food adventurers, regional burger chains aren't near the top of their lists. But Shake Shack is to the Eastern US and In-and-Out is to California, so with a short window for a bite between a Late Night taping and a stand-up show, I popped into a location just off Broadway for a burger and a shake.

It was a small storefront with no in-store seating but plenty of patio space, and thankfully it was a fairly warm November day so dining outdoors wasn't a problem. Ordering was by kiosk/tablet, with one out of service and four available. After a wait I placed my order and was asked to provide my mobile number, with the promise of a text when it was done.

I got an order-received text and went to sit outside for a bit, as there were no spots available on the waiting bench inside. After a few minutes I headed inside when a spot opened up, and watched the disinterested worker call out names as the bags came off the line.

Eventually they called out Jeff, and I took my bag and shake and repaired to the least dirty of the patio tables on the street corner, about a block from the Ed Sullivan theatre. 

They have crinkle fries, on which I passed because, as regular readers will now, I'm not a fry guy unless they're crispy with minimal potato, a la McD's. So I'll start with the shake. Like winter, Christmas is coming and they've launched their seasonal line of holiday shakes. There's a Chocolate Peppermint and a Christmas Cookie -- I went with the Chocolate Milk and Cookies.

It was thick, chocolatey and rich. A real challenge to suck through the straw. It was very tasty but I didn't finish it; I could tell the richness and the sugar was going to hit me too hard if I did.

On to the burger. I did a double ShackBurger, hold the lettuce and tomato, add bacon and onion. It's two patties of Angus Beed and comes with cheese and ShackSauce on a toasted potato bun.

It was cheesy beefy juicy tasty, and in line with Five Guys and all the smash burger chains that proliferate these days. If you have a burger craving it's a solid option. It's not an everyday burger, but it's a treat burger. Did I have a local option I'd get one a few times a year, but I don't think it lives up to the cultural hype. 

I do like it better than I recall liking In-and-Out, but that was a good 15 years ago so I made need to get to Cali and refresh my memory. 

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Saturday, November 12, 2022

Eating in New York: Los Tacos No. 1

In my advance research for good eats to try during my trip to New York City, I decided to favour authenticity and value over fancy and bougie. And when Los Tacos No. 1 came up in both my googling and a friend recommendation, who also reminded me of this Bon Appetit video I enjoyed before they were cancelled, I knew I had to give it a try.

They have five locations in NYC, and luckily one location was right near my boss' hotel near Times Square. So during a lunch hour break between meetings I dashed across the street and joined the line that stretched out the door -- nearly always a sign of good food.

Luckily, the line moved steadily and they had a guy managing it and ensuring the traffic flowed smoothly. 

They have a number of different Mexican specialties that all look delicious, but it's Los Tacos No. 1 so I had to have tacos for my first visit. I decided to get three, all on corn tortillas (you can also choose flour or corn); carne asada, pollo asado and adoba -- aka grilled steak, grilled chicken and marinated pork. They also have nopal, or grilled cactus, I guess as a vegetarian option. But three was enough for me.

They also have a wide variety of beverages on offer. I was tempted by the agua fresca, but they also have Mexican soft drinks (ie real sugar, not high fructose corn syrup) and I couldn't resist an orange Fanta -- ironically, I drank them a lot when in Germany so it was mixing memories of Germany for me with the food of Mexico. The grape was also tempting.

I placed my order and was given a ticket -- signs all over warn you no ticket, no tacos. You are then ushered to one of the taco prep stations where your tacos are made fresh to order right in front of you -- it's like a Mexican Subway but with taco artists. Behind them, meat turns on a spit and is also grilled on open flame. I asked for mine con todo, which means onions, cilantro, salsa and guacamole. There was also a self-serve bar to the side with salsas of various spice levels.

In no time at all I had my three tacos and, adding on some fresh salsa I found a spot to stand and eat at one of the stand-up bars and stocked up on napkins, as I knew this would be delicious but messy.

Common to all three tacos was the fresh and pliable corn tortilla which added a sweet corn note and the fresh onion, salsa, cilantro and guac. Everything tasted delicious and fresh, and recently so. 

I began on the right with the pork. I'm not always a pulled pork guy but this was tasty and juicy and very flavourful. Second favourite.

In the middle was the chicken, and this was my favourite. Juicy, fresh, nice char really adding depth to the flavour. I could eat three of the pollo.

On the right was the steak. It was good, but was my least favourite of the three. The steak was a little dry, and didn't have the flavour notes of the chicken and the pork. 

Probably as authentic a taco experience as you're going to get out of Mexico, it definitely earns a spot on my must-visits for future trips to New York City. Definitely check it out when you're there. The line was even longer on the street when I left but if they'd asked, I would say it's well worth the wait.

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Sunday, November 06, 2022

Eating on the road: Keg's prime rib a miss

I end up at The Keg maybe twice a year and I invariably order the same thing: garlic cheese toast appy, Keg classic NY strip with Caesar salad starter, mushrooms, veg. Reliable but satisfying. 

During a recent visit to a Keg to the north of Toronto (though it doesn't matter, all Kegs are the same) the server was pushing the prime rib and I thought, why not change it up? So I let him talk me into it. This was a mistake.

The garlic cheese toast was excellent as always, and probably better shared three ways as it was this time -- sometimes I dine solo and demolish it myself. The Caesar salad was fine. Garlicky, but missing bacon.

Then the entrée arrived and it looked fine, a thick slab of medium beef, some jus, a smattering of veg and mushrooms. The veg looked tired and not particularly fresh. Same for the mushrooms.

As for the beef? I would say it was lacking in flavour but there was one overwhelming note: salt. It did not taste particularly fresh or juicy. It tasted like empty protein calories. It was thoroughly disappointing. Not bad, not send it back because it's no good. Just, mediocre.

Obviously they had been pushing the prime rib for a reason, and it wasn't one that was in my best interests. My mistake. Next time, back to my old reliable NY strip.

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