The New York Sandwich Project: Week 6

Living overseas, you get thinking about being an American – the implications of being someone born under the red, white, and blue. Introducing yourself to others as “American” carries with it a certain perceived identity, one of political brashness and backyard barbecues, freedom and a complete lack of respect for the game of soccer (or “football”). But all of this comes with an assumption that I, as an individual,  understood what life was like for all Americans. If someone talked about downing anju alongside soju at a norebang karaoke bar, or munching on some lengua and sipping horchata at their daughter’s quinceañera, I would have never associated such things with America.But this is the American reality for a vast number of people, especially in New York City, where nearly 40% of the population was born outside of the United States. And nowhere is this more apparent than in the city’s eclectic ethnic grocery stores.

Currently, I reside in a Russian neighborhood (that has thankfully remained untouched by the “gentrification” of the nefarious hipster epidemic). While walking around the other day, I entered a shop called “Gorbachev’s Meats.” My assumption was that I’d be able to buy some chicken thighs to fry up into my famous quesadillas. My assumption was wrong. For meat I had three choices: veal neck, a mystery carcass whose description was written in rubbed out sharpie, or one of their seventeen different types of sausage. Canned goods in the store were unidentifiable, containing what could have as easily been stirred peaches as dried snails, and the cheese existed only in goat variety.

This is true city-wide. Head down to Chinatown (or Queens, the true Chinatown) and be bombarded with baby bok choy and tentacled sea creatures sitting in kiddie pools on the side of the road. Swing by one of midtown’s Indian market and marvel at their selection of four thousand types of lentils. Sure, for the white-bred, suburban dwelling denizen it seems a little bizarre, but when you learn that 40% of America’s most iconic city began their life somewhere foreign, you have to start to grapple with the fact that pho and tabouli are as American as apple pie. After all, everybody’s gotta eat.

Which leads us to the task at hand.

Week 6: Absolute Bagels

Perhaps more than any other food, bagels are the quintessential New York food. Although they were invented by the Polish for something to eat during Lent (no joke), they are now most famously an American institution (we spend about a billion dollars on bagels annually). A staple of my breakfast for quite some time, I originally considered making the “New York Sandwich Project” the “New York Bagel Project,” but figured there just wasn’t enough versatility to go around.

The beauty of bagels is that bagels transcend race, ethnicity, and creed. When I’m trying to get down on some righteous jerk chicken, I want a Jamaican at the chef’s helm. If I want some bomb Sichuanese cuisine, I pray there’s someone Chinese in the kitchen. But, bagels are the great equalizer. It doesn’t matter where you’re from; everybody has the potential to make this yeasted wheat dough well. Such things are easier said than done though, and New York is rotten with shoddy, dried-out, overly-salted, tiny, pathetic excuses for bagels. So I did a little research, seeking out the “BEST BAGEL IN NEW YORK CITY.” On my quest for this holy grail of bread product, I was led to an Upper West Side locale named Absolute Bagels, the city’s premiere bagel joint as voted by Yelp.

Some of you may be saying to yourselves, “even if such a bagel exists, who is this man to judge it?” I understand, your doubts have credence; I am neither a native New Yorker nor an accomplished epicurean. But someone has to be brave and venture into the unknown, and it might as well be me.

I entered the eatery with my own, humble palate, and proceeded to explore. Run by a Thai family, it’s the only bagel establishment I’ve seen that also features Thai Iced Tea (which, if you’ve never experienced, is worth the trip alone).The ambiance is underwhelming, dull overhead lights and ice-cold employees, but these things are not hard to look past once you arrive at the cream cheese display. The sheer number of choices puts Absolute Bagels on another level. Among some of the jaw-droppers were: apple cinnamon cream cheese made with fresh apples daily, spicy jalapeno-infused cream cheese, and, for the non-Kosher patron, bacon and cheddar cream cheese (with massive chunks of both).

Using the tools at my disposal, I created a bagel sandwich combination special for this visit: an everything bagel, smothered in jalapeno cream cheese, fresh tomatoes, and piled with smoked salmon. I call it the “Follox.” It might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but it helped me to objectively benchmark this bagel joint against all others.

The verdict:

The Follox maintained a fantastic balance, spicy and rich and savory and refreshing all at the right times, and never too much of any of the above. Truly, a quality bagel experience and worthy of a trip. But best bagel in New York?

No. It was among the best bagels I have had, which was good enough for me. That, and Absolute features the best cream cheese game in town.

But it got me thinking that, perhaps, there is no objectively best bagel in New York City. Perhaps it is an existential preference, like the way we all view our American identity. Perhaps it’s something about the circular shape of these doughy delights, how our lives move in cycles, as we circle around that massive fiery circle in the sky, trying to understand our lives on our great big blue circle. Or perhaps I just took way too many English courses in college and have way too much time to think about baked goods.

The New York Sandwich Project: Week 9

Chinatown is not a region unique to Manhattan; most major cities have a Chinatown, because the Chinese utterly dominate the gene pool and love to travel. In fact, the city of New York contains eight separate Chinatowns spread throughout the five burrows (except for Staten Island, for obvious reasons). But there is something unique to Manhattan’s Chinatown. The name evokes an image, a departure from everything you know to be “Manhattan,” something quintessentially New York and authentically Chinese.

Walk down the street, you will find kittens slinking around the sidewalks, hunting their pigeon prey as their owners look on with stoic faces. Stop by one of the hole-in-the-wall restaurants: four bucks will get you and your girlfriend so many shrimp pork dumplings, you’ll be too bloated to move. Hop aboard the legendary Fung Wah bus, which despite its violations of numerous safety and ethical codes, will take you anywhere in the nation for six dollars and thirty cents.

More so than any other borough of the city, Chinatown feels as though you’re stepping into a foreign land (you know, like China). The origin of the Chinese presence in this region started with one man: Ah Ken. He arrived in the 1850’s, with the dream of slanging ‘awful’ discount cigars for three cents a pop. Through this hyper-cheap cigar hustle, he built up a considerable wealth, paving the way for other Chinese to follow in his footsteps. Now nearly one hundred thousand Chinese-blooded men and women live in this Manhattan neighborhood, standing as the largest collection of Chinese people in the Western world.  And they keep it authentic, baby. Often, you will feel illiterate walking the streets, wondering what lays shrouded in the mystery of the Chinese character. Is it a squid shop or an underground gambling casino? You’ll never know ‘til you go inside.

The reason Chinatown is so fresh in my head is because I recently ventured into this district for what is known as a reflexology treatment. Given some bizarre symptoms that shall remain nameless, I found Western medicine at a loss to assist me. Therefore, I was forced to abandon my roots and explore Eastern medicinal solutions. A colleague recommended reflexology treatment to me one night, my interest was peaked, and after work, as the sun began to set off in the distance, I entered a small shop on the edge of Chinatown.

A gruff man waiting behind the counter greeted me with a grunt and led me into a room adorned with traditional art and underscored by relaxation music. I told him my symptoms and he pointed to a chair, where I was instructed to sit, with little else. He yelled into the back room. A small, middle-aged woman appeared, carrying a massive bowl of piping hot water. She motioned for me to remove my shoes, so I did just that. Then she reclined the chair and began scrubbing my feet.

“Oh,” I said to myself. “It’s a foot massage.”

But I was wrong. So very, very wrong. What ensued for the following thirty minutes was a savage beating of my hairy Irish feet. She ripped on my toes, bent and twisted my bones, and dug her fingers into my ankle while she gouged my sole (soul?). The experience was a bizarre and painful ride, where I bit my lower lip to keep the screams from pouring out. It was not until the end that I began to comprehend what was happening.

Chinese medicine is done with a holistic healing procedure in mind, as opposed to Western, which targets the ailment of affliction. Chinese reflexologists believe the feet (along with the hands and ears), is a gateway to the body, a place where all organs and muscles are somehow connected through referential points. In short, if you hit the right part of the foot, it’s gonna do something to your spleen.

Does it sound profound or like a bunch of voodoo, hocus-pocus? I’m still not sure. That night, I left that shop with a profound feeling of peace, a calmness that my body had not felt in some time. What I am sure of is that bodily tightness and stress do not help anything, ever, and the treatment I received liberated me from both of these things. And if it did more, I am nothing but grateful. Twenty-five bucks if you’re ever interested. Lorenzo can give you directions. To both this place, and our sandwich of the week.

Sandwich 9: Defonte’s of Brooklyn

I originally planned to attend a Chinese sandwich shop for this week’s entry. Then I went to Defonte’s of Brooklyn and entered Nirvana and gave up all regard to coming up with a coherent blog theme. Defonte’s of Brooklyn is an Italian sandwich shop that epitomizes the essence of sandwich.

Last week I discussed in depth the virtue of “moistness” in a sandwich. If Defonte’s represented a virtue in the sandwich world, it would be “fatness.” Sometimes, you’re not looking for innovation; you don’t want plantains for bread or kimchi atop your bulgogi burger. Sometimes, you just want the fattest Italian hero money can buy. Whether you call it call it a grinder or a hoagie or a sub, anyway you slice it, Defonte’s is a certifiably fat sandwich.

This deli has been lurking around since 1922, which means it came out around in an age where alcohol was outlawed for its danger to society. How far we’ve come. Since then, Defonte’s street cred has grown immensely, with credits including mention in the New York Times and a cameo on Food Network’s “Diners, Drive-ins, and Dives.” They are not innovators at Defonte’s, their secret to success boils down to properly executing the three F’s:

1.)    Freshness

2.)    Flavor

3.)    Fatness.

My sandwich of choice is served cold, the infamous Nicky Special. Its description off the menu reads:

“ham, capocollo, salami, fried eggplant, provolone, hot salad, marinated mushrooms, lettuce, tomato, oil and vinegar.”

Tell me that doesn’t scream “fatness?” The holy trinity of Italian grinder meats, layered with provolone, vegetables, and oils is nothing mind-blowing, but it is a tried-and-true classic, so why mess with a good thing? The freshness of each of these ingredients is paramount to this hoagie’s flavor. What takes it to the next level is the addition of flawlessly fried eggplant, which offers a plethora of thick and savory flavor, balanced by the “hot salad,” a collection of spicy, pickled peppers, and the juicy marinated mushrooms.

One of these subs is not too fat to eat. One is just fat enough to eat. No one walks away from a Nicky’s Special hungry, not unless that individual is a problem eater or is afflicted with the world’s mightiest tapeworm. With its original location in Brooklyn, new location in Gramercy, and over eighty years of history, there’s no reason why you shouldn’t already have eaten here twice this week.

Behind the scenes with SCRATCHbread's TOASTbar at Smorgasburg

Smorgasburg is an all food market in Williamsburg from the people behind the Brooklyn Flea. It hosts 100 food vendors–a mix between prepared food stands and greenmarket farmers. It is paradise.

For this venue, SCRATCHbread wanted to do something different–“play with food,” as owner Matthew Tilden put it. And so, TOASTbar. The menu is always changing, but we’ve had inventive open face sandwiches, griddled chai sticky buns, and an assortment of the classic baked goods. We partner with other vendors to seasonally enhance our offerings. 

Smorgasburg has been open for just one month, so things are constantly evolving. I highly recommend you come by for lunch–take the new East River Ferry, which just started running yesterday and will drop off right at the market entrance.

Cooking garlic in olive oil for tomato dunking sauce

Fresh ingredients

Chai sticky buns soaking in vanilla bean creme anglaise, waiting to be griddled

MOZZtoast: Rosemary and sea salt focaccia, stuffed with homemade-that-morning mozzarella, basil pesto, a squeeze of lemon

The Double Bourbon: bourbon wheat bread, a slab of butter, and orange bourbon marmalade from our neighbors at Maiden Preserves

The Garlic-ness: whole roasted garlic bulb with olive oil on sourdough


I found two new things to chow at the Flea this weekend. 

  1. Lonestar Empire’s mesquite, 15 hour-smoked angus brisket sandwich, complete with homemade barbecue sauce, bread and butter pickles, and Texas-style potato salad. I really know nothing about meat–heck, I haven’t been eating it most of my life–but this year I’ve become quite the carnivore. I can tell you this: sinking my fork into that brisket felt the same as digging into that cream pie. The brisket fell apart at the slightest fork nuzzle. I think that means something very good.
  2. Rachel’s Pies chocolate cream pie with homemade whipped cream and pretzel crust. Sweet and salty perfection. This was my reward to myself for having to stay inside Saturday afternoon to do work. Best reward ever. I will be spending a lot more time inside doing work this fall if Rachel’s Pies is always my payoff.

House-smoked turkey and avocado sandwich from the Dutch, in Soho

On Sunday I had brunch at the Dutch, a new hotspot from the chef behind Locanda Verde (love, love, love). The sandwich was delicious–the turkey super juicy–but let’s be honest. That’s a $15 deli sandwich. The tiny brunch menu seemed a wee bit heavy for sweltering summer (hot fried chicken and cornmeal pancakes?!) but I loved the bright, whimsical design and the buzzy atmosphere. I’ll return to try dinner or a cocktail, if I can get a table post Times review.

My favorite veggie sandwich, from Lenny’s

Healthy Eating 2011

Like most of you out there, I’m feeling a little gross after holiday over-indulgence. Here’s the detox I followed for two weeks last year, complete with some great meal ideas. This year I’m not feeling as terrible, so I’m not going to treat this as a “detox,” but more so just a healthy eating boost.

I’m on day three and I haven’t had any meat, dairy, or processed sugary snacks or baked goods (my Achilles’ heel).

Luckily red wine and dark chocolate (two of my most beloved vices) are good for you in moderation. (Yesterday, the Early Show did a segment about the health benefits of chocolate; read more here). If I have one of these treats in addition to my complex carbs and veggies, I won’t beat myself up.

Also, taking a page from Ms. Nadia, I’m now drinking a cup of hot water and lemon juice every morning before I do anything else, as a pre-day clense. Read her article about this here.

Does anyone know the truth about eating fruit first thing in the morning on an empty stomach? I’ve heard it’s good for you–that you absorb more nutrients and it cleanses your body–but I see a lot of contradicting information about it online. Leave a comment if you know the answer, or have any other good healthy eating/detox advice.

The Commodore, Williamsburg


Hot damn. Sorry, but that best sums up my reaction to this place. Actually, I think my exact words were, “This is the best day of my life.”

After reading this article in NY Mag, I knew I had found my mecca (especially since the chef described it as “Applebees, but better.” Bottom line: best fried chicken I ever had, biscuits with honey butter, perfect fries, potato salad that had a smokey paprika after bite, and the adult grilled cheese (pimento-and-poblano ooey gooey goodness). All that grub (much too much) and two-for-one beers (times two) til seven, and we were out of there just $36 short. Are you kidding me!?!

The Porch, Chelsea

Before summer could slip through my fingers, I took a day off work and headed to the High Line to explore. The park, stretching 20 city blocks on an abandoned elevated train track, is one of my favorite places in New York, but I don’t get over there nearly enough. I was pleasantly surprised to find tons of new food vendors, including The Porch, operated by Chelsea Market’s Green Table.

The menu is super basic, and is all about creating the most delicious food with the fewest, locally-sourced ingredients. Take for example my three-ingredient sandwich: raw cheddar, pickles, and mustard. This sandwich actually had the most ingredients of all the offerings. Washed down with a lemonade (or a New York state wine or brew), it was perfect summer fare on a hot afternoon.

Everything The Porch serves and uses is compostable, a nice touch for a High Line eatery. It really is the perfect place to spend these last few summer days. 

Angelica Kitchen, East Village

I have several go-to healthy restaurants in New York that I eat at frequently (Candle Cafe, Spring Street Natural, and Josie’s), but last week I wanted to try some place new. Enter Angelica Kitchen. The space is cozy and relaxed, the food vegan and delicious, although it’s no Candle Cafe. I had the Marinated Tofu Sandwich: lemon herbed baked tofu layered with roasted vegetables, a smear of parsley-almond pesto, and lettuce. It was pretty delicious.

I will definitely return next time I’m jonesing for some vegan food and don’t feel like traveling uptown. Candle needs a downtown outpost, stat.

Do you have a favorite healthy restaurant in New York? Do tell!

AQ Kafe, Midtown

Speaking of good sandwiches, this Scandinavian restaurant is one of my favorite places to eat near my office. It’s a great place when you want something a step up from the corner deli/Pax, yet still casual enough. (There’s sit down service and sandwiches run about $10.) 

This is my favorite sandwich on the menu: turkey, Jarlsberg cheese, lingonberry jam, herb mustard, and mayo. For a complete meal, the potato salad is the best I’ve ever had and the desserts are out of this world.

I’m always looking for a good lunch date, hint hint.

Swich, Chelsea--CLOSED

Swich is one of my favorite sandwich shops in all of New York. It features delicious pressed sandwiches, with several vegetarian options (yay!). This is the Casablanca (smashed chickpeas, roasted red pepper, watercress, and eggplant-mint spread on wheat). Not my absolute favorite, but still fantastic. My fave’s the Earthy McGee (baby portobello mushrooms, herbed goat cheese, and arugula).

And yes, those are equally delicious sweet potato chips in the background. What’s more, each order comes with a little dish of citrus soybeans and a Dum Dum sucker. Loves it!

Another Great Sandwich

This is one of my other “go-to’s” in the Midtown: Hale and Hearty’s Egg Salad Sandwich.

Not liking meat all that much (and mostly despising lunch meat), egg salad is an important part of my diet. H&H is the best I’ve found: not swimming in mayo, perfectly seasoned, and mixed with just the right veggies (thin slices of cucumber, diced tomatoes, and even a few onions). Just look at that color!

A Great Sandwich

One topping I looooove on a sandwich is apple slices. But it’s so hard to pull off! They need to be crisp (obviously) and they need to be thin, so you don’t feel like you’re eating an apple wedge with some turkey on it. No no. And it can’t be accompanied by Brie (too over-powering), which 99.9% of sandwiches with apple slices are.

But relax, I found the perfect apple-enhanced sandwich at Whole Foods: Roast turkey, Gouda, spicy honey mustard (the kind that burns your brain), lettuce, and thin strips of crispy apple. All on a whole wheat baguette. At $7 the price is pretty standard for New York sandwiches, but it’s so big that I actually got two lunches out of it. Score!