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.

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.

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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.