Brief Bites: Taqueria Diana

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We Americans have an impressive habit of taking other countries’ holidays, removing all cultural significance, and replacing it with drinking. St. Patty’s is the obvious example, where the patron Saint of Ireland’s religious contributions are largely overshadowed (at least in NYC) by overflowing rivers of Guinness and Jameson flowing into the mouths of drunken revelers who wouldn’t know Erin if she was going bragh right in front of them.

Cinco de Mayo is another one of these appropriated holidays — take a moment, do you know what it celebrates? I’ll admit I didn’t know it myself until a few years ago, and only because the news was running stories about people’s ignorance. Mexican Independence? Nope, that’s on September 16th (and has an awesome subtitle of “Grito de Dolores” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Grito_de_Dolores). End of the Mexican-American War? No to that as well. In fact, Cinco de Mayo is a commemoration of the Battle of Puebla in 1862, where the Mexican army unexpectedly defeated the much stronger and larger French forces (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cinco_de_Mayo).

So much like St. Patty’s, for most the holiday has become a celebration of inebriation — Cinco de Drinko, as it is actually advertised. I wish I could say that I celebrated in a more authentic spirit, but although I didn’t have any tequila, I did indulge in another American appropriation of Mexican heritage — gooey, cheesy, meaty nachos. That’s right, in this edition of Brief Bites we’re taking a trip to Nachotown, care of one of the most highly lauded NY spots, Taqueria Diana.

The Set Up:

Looking back from the cashier into the long, narrow space of Taqueria Diana.

Looking back from the cashier into the long, narrow space of Taqueria Diana.

Taqueria Diana is located right off of St. Mark’s Place on Second Ave, prime feeding grounds for pre-and-post bar-hopping NYU students. My NY dining list contains a disproportionate number of restaurants on St. Mark’s, since the street and surrounding blocks are packed to the brim with eclectic spots, from classics like Mamoun’s Falafel to Khyber Pass (serving Afghani food). In fact, Taqueria Diana is only a few blocks away from another California-Mexican taco spot, Otto’s Tacos, which I hope to cover in another post.

 

The view from the back of the restaurant, where there are just a few counters with stools.

The view from the back of the restaurant, where there are just a few counters with stools. You can see that cooking and prep make up most of the establishment.

I’d imagine real estate is at a premium in this area, so it should come as no shock that Taqueria Diana is only a step up from hole-in-the-wall-sized. Although there are a few bar-height counters and stools at the back of the restaurant, the space is dominated by the cooking/assembly/cashier counter. A small prep kitchen sits in the back. Unfortunately, I had brought 5 friends with me to Taqueria Diana, and we soon discovered that we’d have to take all of our food to go. For cheese-and-sauce heavy dishes like nachos, tacos, and quesadillas, that means cooling and congealing time. I say this having fully enjoyed the dishes I ate, but cautioning that an ideal Taqueria Diana experience should probably be capped at a group of 3.

 

The Bites:

Between the six of us we basically sampled all the categories on the menu — Jacob and I split the Pollo Nachos, Al Pastor Taco and Rajas Taco, Diana got the Al Pastor Nachos, Michael got a Pollo Burrito, and Dan and Laura split the Asada Nachos and a Pollo Quesadilla Suiza. We missed out on the straight-up Roast Chicken and assorted Sides, but covered all the proteins except for the Carnitas.

 

 

The impressive Pollo Nachos, visually underserved by the takeout container.

The impressive Pollo Nachos, visually underserved by the takeout container.

You should really look at Yelp for accurate pictures of the nachos, because the depth of the mountain of chips is hidden by their being crammed into a take-out box. Jacob’s and my Pollo Nachos (chicken, chips, black beans, cheese, salsa, with added guacamole) seemed to be an endless, delicious vortex of cheese, guacamole and beans. I was pleasantly surprised by the quantity and quality of the chicken, which I assume is the same meat as offered in the Roast Chicken section. It was mostly sizable hunks of dark meat, juicy and well-seasoned, discernibly more flavorful than your average slices of grilled chicken breast. These nachos were expertly put together, as evinced by the existence of still crispy chips within the pile of semi-liquid condiments. Speaking of which, Taqueria Diana offers a number of salsa and sauces with which to top your dishes, available in unlimited quantities if you can dine in. This adds another layer of customization to the nachos, allowing to select a protein, type of beans, add on crema or guac, and then top with the sauces of your choosing. Unfortunately, our grand plan of dining al fresco in the courtyard by St. Mark’s in the Bowery turned out to be flawed, as a brutal wind kicked up out of nowhere and left us shivering and shoveling Tex-Mex into our mouths. Jacob and I were so desperate to eat our food and get out of the cold that we failed to crack open even one of the sauces we’d thrown into our bag. Yet another reason to come back and dine in at Taqueria Diana. Honestly, though, I was very satisfied by their nachos. The chips were fresh and just slightly salty, the salsa was made of sweet tomatoes, the guacamole was smooth and rich with a strong avocado-forward flavor, and I even made an effort to up my spice tolerance the smallest bit by taking on the jalapenos. The only strange ingredient were rounds of raw carrot, which I can’t say I’ve ever seen on nachos before, and barely made an impact taste or texture-wise.

 

 

The sadly soggy Rajas and Al Pastor Tacos -- promising in notion but not made for transit.

The sadly soggy Rajas (on the bottom) and Al Pastor Tacos — promising in notion but not made for transit.

Alas, our tacos didn’t hold up nearly as well. They were composed of thin, possibly hand-formed tortillas that soaked through during the transit and nacho-consumption period, literally falling to pieces when first picked up. Of the two fillings, I preferred the Al Pastor Taco (spit-roasted pork, corn tortilla, salsa, onion, cilantro) to the Rajas Taco (Poblanos, Corn tortilla, salsa, onion, cilantro), because most of what I got out of the Rajas was the heat from the peppers (still not too good at that spice thing, I guess). Despite the descriptions on the menu, our tacos seemed to have different toppings, the Rajas getting cotija cheese and sliced radishes, while the Al Pastor had lime and what looks like a squash blossom of some sort. The fact that everything was mushed together and muddled by the take-out box — which proved beneficial to the nachos — here left me tasting only the most prominent elements of the tacos, which ended up mostly being the meat from the Al Pastor. Taqueria Diana does seem to have a gift for proteins, however, since the pork was just as juicy and flavorful as the chicken. Doing a comparison between the regularly cooked carnitas and the spit-roasted al pastor might be another reason to return.

I mean, look how badass that hunk of Al Pastor pork is -- worth another shot if eaten straight away.

I mean, look how badass that hunk of Al Pastor pork is — worth another shot if eaten straight away.

 

 

The Last Licks:

All in all, I’d fully endorse a visit to Taqueria Diana, and hope everyone takes this as a cautionary tale of how NOT to do so. Even with all of the mishaps and weather-related misfortunes, the food was fresh, abundant, and packed with flavor. Except for the more proportionate tacos, Taqueria Diana’s dishes can be easily shared, or serve as more than one meal — Diana couldn’t finish her nachos, and although I didn’t take a picture of it, the Quesadilla Suiza looked like an explosion of meat and cheese to put a Taco Bell Crunchwrap to shame (yes, I’m going to try one when I go back). I’m telling you now I plan on returning, possibly by myself to make sure I get a seat at the bar. I know it’s far from authentic fare, but there’s a good chance you’ll find me at Taqueria Diana on September 16th, celebrating Mexican Independence Day as any patriotic American should — by diving mouth-first into that big ol’ melting pot.

 

Taqueria Diana

129 Second Ave (between 7th and St. Mark’s)

http://www.taqueriadiana.com/

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Hundred Acres: A Brunch to Make Eeyore Smile

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Growing up as the youngest child, it wasn’t until my nieces and nephew were born that I got to see my parents interact with little kids. Now I already think my parents are incredible people, but experiencing them as grandparents has been an unexpected gift. We spend all our lives eager to grow up, to be treated as an adult, it’s a wonder to step back and see my parents engage with my little nieces and nephew, totally stripped of adult pretense, lying on the floor making funny faces and singing silly songs for the singular goal of evoking a smile. It also has brought to light my parents’ deeply held convictions on children’s media, like their disappointment with Frozen and their great love for classics like Mr. Rogers and Sesame Street (sorry Bubble Guppies, you just can’t measure up to King Friday).

I bring this up because prior to my niece Riley’s birth, I had no idea that my mother was such a huge fan of Winnie the Pooh. But once Riley was old enough to keep her attention on more than a bottle, she was listening to “The Wonderful Thing about Tiggers” and watching The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh. Despite the difficulty of locating that movie on DVD (damn Disney vault), the amazing thing is the staying power of the Pooh franchise — toys, shampoos, clothing, it’s basically everywhere. So you can imagine when I heard the name Hundred Acres, I assumed this would be an Alice’s Teacup-type endeavor with Piglet tablecloths and Kanga and Roo wallpaper.

As it happens, Hundred Acres is not connected to Winnie the Pooh in any substantial way. But the rustic vibe, the welcoming atmosphere, and the approachable but inventive brunch dishes evoke the low key joy of A. A. Milne’s stories. You may not be able to get a jar of “hunny” at Hundred Acres, but I have a feeling a certain bear would be more than happy with the options.

 

First Impressions:

The front dining room of Hundred Acres, full of homey accents.

The front dining room of Hundred Acres, full of homey accents.

I’d heard about Hundred Acres as part of a trio of highly regarded spots (sister restaurants Five Points and Cookshop) that are all known for their brunches. Eager to take a break from tax season, my mother asked to try a new brunch place, and with her affinity for Winnie the Pooh in mind, I couldn’t resist checking out Hundred Acres.

The restaurant is down on MacDougal in the West Village, just removed enough from the hustle and bustle of Houston to make it feel like a part of the neighborhood. The forest green facade is made up of a series of French doors that offer open-air dining when the weather is warm enough, although it was still too blustery on the day we visited. Fortunately, even closed the doors provide a lot of natural light, helping the front dining room to feel bright and inviting.

 

Looking back towards the rear dining room, you can see some of the decorations on the walls.

Looking back towards the rear dining room, you can see some of the decorations on the walls.

The woodland theme is carried through to the interior of Hundred Acres, where deep, rich wood paneling leads up to soft green paint on the walls of the dining room. The farmstead home effect continues with the beaten metal columns, pale granite tables, and simple white light fixtures. The bar is decked out from floor to ceiling in white tiles you might find in any home kitchen, and the walls are decorated with framed paintings, photographs, and bookshelves full of wine bottles and other assorted dining paraphernalia. Although Hundred Acres has two dining rooms and seats at the bar, we were lucky to have made a reservation, since there was already a line of people waiting outside when my mother and I arrived. Clearly this place has earned its reputation as a brunch hot spot.

 

The Food:

 

As is very popular in the NY dining scene these days, Hundred Acres features a “market-driven” menu that changes frequently due to the availability of ingredients (the most recent menu I checked features the hot spring commodity, ramps). However, the standard, favorite dishes that I had read about before our brunch were still on the menu, so my mother and I got to test the validity of prior reviews. I really appreciated the input of our waiter, who opened up our meal by highlighting some of the most popular dishes, and his own personal suggestions. Through his guidance, we opted to start with the “Gooey Cinnamon Rolls,” then I ordered the Baked Eggs, while my mom got the Goat Cheese-Sage Bread Pudding.

 

The Gooey Cinnamon Rolls -- dense pockets of cinnamon sugar await you.

The Gooey Cinnamon Rolls — dense pockets of cinnamon sugar await you.

The Gooey Cinnamon Rolls arrived shortly after we put in our order, served in a rounded metal plate. The 3 large rolls were still warm, nestled together and coated with a vanilla glaze. My mother wanted a bit more icing on top, to hew closer to the Cinnabon ideal, but considering the sticky innards, I thought they were plenty gooey (who am I kidding, like I would have complained about more icing). The roll itself was outrageously fluffy, with that almost taffy-like yeasted quality of good challah or brioche, which requires a little extra effort to pull apart. The interior was threaded with cinnamon sugar, eggy and moist, especially at the very core, which everyone knows is the best part of any cinnamon roll. Here the icing and cinnamon sugar collect and soak into the dough, leaving you with a near equal topping-to-bread ratio. How could any self-respecting pastry fan resist? I was very tempted to dive headfirst into the third cinnamon roll, but my mother, generous soul that she is, suggested we take it home to my father. This ended up being a wise strategy, since our entrees were still to come, and turned out to be more than enough food on their own.

 

The messy-looking, but entirely satisfying Baked Eggs.

The messy-looking, but entirely satisfying Baked Eggs.

The first thing that caught my eye when looking at the Hundred Acres menu was the Chilaquiles, since I had so recently experienced a great rendition at El Toro Blanco. But when I asked our waiter about his thoughts on the dish, he steered me towards the Baked Eggs (black beans, grilled poblano chiles, pickled onions, jalapeño peppers, cheddar cheese) instead, saying they were more unconventional. This turned into a brief discussion of what we all look for in a brunch. While there are definitely times that I just want a basic stack of pancakes, most of the time I’d like to have a brunch dish that I couldn’t make easily at home, which makes me reach for the benedicts and huevos rancheros over a simply garden omelet. It turns out he was spot on in this recommendation, because a woman at the table next to us got the Chilaquiles, and while they looked good enough to try on a return trip, I was surprised and delighted by the Baked Eggs. The dish placed in front of me was pretty different from what I had anticipated. The eggs were served in a ceramic casserole, the edges crusted with cheesy black bean sauce on which the eggs themselves floated just below the surface. I thought there would have been more heat from the peppers, but they really just served to add a bit of pop to the creamy beans and rich yolks, helped out by the acidity from the pickled onions. The eggs were perfectly cooked, held together by the crown of cheddar cheese but splitting into orange puddles of luscious yolk when pierced. The only thing I would change about this dish woudl be the addition of some textural variation — something to add a little crunch to the largely soft, soupy mixture. Even something as little as serving it with toast or a grilled tortilla to scoop it up would make the Baked Eggs a little more cohesive to me.

 

Don't be fooled by all the spinach, there's a hunk of decadent Goat Cheese-Sage Bread Pudding underneath it all.

Don’t be fooled by all the spinach, there’s a hunk of decadent Goat Cheese-Sage Bread Pudding underneath it all.

If the Baked Eggs were somewhat unconventional, the Goat Cheese-Sage Bread Pudding (poached eggs, wilted spinach, lemon butter) really goes out on a limb. First of all, it’s a savory bread pudding, which you don’t see very often, and second, as our waiter described, the pudding is used as a the base for an Eggs Benedict. When it arrived on our table, I was relieved to see the portion size was ample without being excessive, because one look at the dish tells you how rich it is. If we’re going to be nit-picky, it’s really a take on Eggs Florentine, since the only thing between the eggs and the bread pudding base was spinach (rather than meat). But I’m not complaining, since I prefer Eggs Florentine anyway, and I’m a sucker for bread pudding in any and all forms. As with my dish, the eggs were perfectly cooked, little poached packages waiting to be opened t0 reveal a gooey liquid yolk and soft, but still firm white exterior. The pudding itself had a nice crust on the top and bottom, and a custardy, chewy interior like great french toast. My mother was wary to order the bread pudding because she’s not a huge sage fan, but thankfully the herb is delicately employed, mostly there to add slight woodsy and peppery notes to keep the pudding on the savory side. This provides a much-needed break from the sweet, fatty lemon butter and goat cheese. Odd as it might be to say, the spinach was also a highlight of the dish, only slightly wilted so it stood up against the eggs and still had a bit of texture. My Popeye-like love of spinach will make me eat it in any form, but it’s a welcome delight to find a version somewhere in between raw and the sad-sack mushy sautéed spinach you find in most Eggs Florentine.

 

Final Thoughts:

Although both of our dishes felt decadent (not to mention eating the Gooey Cinnamon Rolls beforehand), my mother and I agreed that we left Hundred Acres satisfied but not overstuffed, a testament to the thoughtful portion size and quality ingredients.

Overall, Hundred Acres is an inviting, homestyle spot — clean, bright and staffed by a friendly, knowledgeable crew. They offer items to satisfy those looking for American classics, as well as some unique twists on brunch that take advantage of seasonality and an adventurous palate.  I definitely plan on returning for brunch, and maybe dinner as well, since there were plenty of dishes on the menu I’d be game to try. From the decor to the dishes, Hundred Acres makes you feel like you’re in an elevated version of a country inn, sitting down to a meal maybe just a little bit away from the type of place Christopher Robin might call home.

 

Hundred Acres

38 MacDougal St. (between Prince and Houston)

http://hundredacresnyc.com/

Restaurant Week Brunch at El Toro Blanco: Indulgent Mexican Comfort Food

2014-02-23 12.31.29

We now return to our regularly scheduled programming to bring you another NYC restaurant review. Just before Jacob left for his own Birthright trip, we snuck in a few Winter Restaurant Week meals, the first of which was at El Toro Blanco. Although it had been on my list for a while, I was especially drawn to the restaurant because it was one of the only establishments that offered a brunch option for RW, and how can you resist the dual siren call of Mexican brunch and a 3 course prefixe for $25? Plus, we had to make sure Jacob topped off his salsa quota before flying off to the lands of hummus and shawarma. And thanks to El Toro Blanco, he got to indulge in more than enough queso fresco before trading his tortilla for pita.

 

First Impressions:

The main dining space of El Toro Blanco made me think of a 1970s dream "man-cave."

The main dining space of El Toro Blanco made me think of a 1970s dream “man-cave.”

El Toro Blanco is one of those restaurants you’re bound to walk by a million times, since it’s located on 6th Ave, just off of Houston. Sitting on a wide block on the west side of the street, there was a small fenced-off area I assume is for outdoor dining in warmer weather, although on the blustery day we visited, I was happy to be seated inside. The interior of the restaurant is a open and full of light, thanks to the plate glass windows lining the front. There’s a bit of a 1970s living room vibe to the decor — lots of wood paneling, black bricks and orange leather, with some multicolored hanging lanterns and funky art on the wall (ranging from the Mexican flag to multiple paintings of bulls, or “toros”).

 

The main bar, with the small upstairs dining room above it.

The main bar, with the small upstairs dining room above it.

The main bar is directly across from the front door, but there’s another small bar just to the right as you enter, both offering seats for dining as well. When we first arrived at 12:30, the place was pretty empty, but by the end of our brunch it had filled up, with most of the space at the bar taken up by people both eating and drinking. We were led up to a table in the small upstairs section behind the main bar, which gave you a nice view of the dining room below, and was a little quieter until a large group of half-tipsy women took over the banquette tables across from us.

 

Our quiet little hideaway of tables, until the ladies brunch arrived.

Our quiet little hideaway of tables, until the ladies brunch arrived (after these guys left).

Overall the service was friendly if not overly attentive, probably because El Toro Blanco is such a popular spot. It’s clearly a trendy place that has high volume (and likely rowdy) brunches, so it’s no surprise that they’re happy to make suggestions, but hardly hang on your every word like our waiter at Ippudo. I should give credit to our hostess who offered us her advice on the best brunch dishes — we ended up ordering based on her suggestions, and her taste was impeccable.

 

The Food:

While there were a number of appealing drinks on the cocktail menu, Jacob and I opted for a dry brunch (let’s just say there was a raucous wine and cheese going away soiree for him the night before). El Toro Blanco’s Winter Restaurant Week brunch offered three courses for $25, with most of their regular offerings available on the RW menu. Based on our own Mexican brunch preferences, and the enthusiastic reviews from the hostess, Jacob started with the Costillas Empanadas, and I ordered the Oaxaqueño Tamale, a substitution from the main menu since they had run out of the special RW Elote Verde Tamale. For main courses Jacob got the Chilaquiles con Huevos, and I had the Huevos Rancheros Verdes, and for dessert Jacob chose the Cinnamon & Sugar Churros and I went with the Mexican Chocolate Cake. All of the portions were substantial and filling, leaving me very satisfied with the cost-to-plate ratio.

 

My substitue Oaxaquena Tamale -- unanticipated, but delicious.

My substitute  Oaxaqueno Tamale — unanticipated, but delicious.

The Elote Verde Tamale (fresh corn, roasted poblano chile, queso fresco, crema, green chile salsa) had piqued my interest, especially since I don’t have a lot of experience with green salsa. So even though I was disappointed to miss out on it, the Oaxaqueño Tamale (roasted chicken, plantain, red mole, queso cotija, crema) was a more than satisfying substitution. I almost always jump at the chance to have plantains (tostones, I love you), although here they mostly served as a textural element. The hefty, square tamale arrived absolutely slathered in red mole, which gave the entire dish a deep cocoa richness. Between that, the sweetness from the plantains, and the crema and cotija cheese, this was a pretty decadent start to the meal (and a good indication of what was to come). My fork sliced easily through the cornmeal wrapper into the interior of shredded chicken and cheese. I think the Elote Verde might have been a slightly lighter and spicier opening act, but I had no complaints about the deep flavor of its tamale understudy.

 

I mean, how can you go wrong with fried dough, meat and cheese?

The Costillas Empanadas — I mean, how can you go wrong with fried dough, meat and cheese?

Jacob’s Costillas Empanadas (slow roasted short rib, oaxaca cheese, ancho barbecue, crema) were more cleanly plated, two petite pockets of dough with just a small cup of sauce next to them. I can’t count the number of short rib dishes I’ve talked about on this blog, but I’m sure a quick search will give an overly detailed account of my love for this iteration of beef. I’d even venture that it has replaced brisket in the top spot (except for my mom’s Passover version, of course). El Toro Blanco presented another fine rendition of short rib, the meat tender and juicy, combining with the oaxaca cheese to evoke an upscale mexican cheeseburger. The dough shell was fried to golden-brown, crispy on the edges and chewy in the middle, its flavor subtle and mostly just a vehicle for the filling and the bbq dipping sauce, heavy on the smoky umami flavor and with just a bit of a kick from the ancho. While my tamale was good, these were really memorable empanadas, high quality and well worth returning for.

 

The Huevos Rancheros Verdes, a cornucopia of Mexican ingredients.

The Huevos Rancheros Verdes, a veritable cornucopia of Mexican ingredients.

Once we moved beyond the appetizers, the entrees and desserts were all versions of dishes I’d had before, but I was impressed by the precision and care which El Toro Blanco put into their cooking. Turns out I unintentionally ensured my opportunity to have green salsa by orering the Huevos Rancheros Verdes (corn tortillas, ham, refried pinto beans, sunny side up eggs green chile salsa, queso fresco, avocado, pico de gallo). What I like about huevos rancheros is that so many places add small, unconventional touches to their take on the dish, be it the meat or beans used, or even the plating. El Toro Blanco’s version starts with crispy corn tortillas on the bottom, hardy enough to hold up against the onslaught of sauces and cheeses, without being rock hard like a recent rendition I had to stab my way through at another brunch. The base was topped with sunny side up eggs and smothered in beans, green chile salsa, pico de gallo, and queso fresco. I had channeled a bit of Meg Ryan in When Harry Met Sally when ordering, asking to sub the ham for chorizo, but to be honest, I didn’t even really notice the meat, except that it added a little heat and some textural density. Sure, it looks somewhat messy, but if you look closer you can see how everything is actually quite well-executed and composed. The eggs have crispy edges at the rim of the white, with soft domes of yolk just waiting to be broken and flood out onto the dish, the fresh cut tomatoes and onions split the tortillas in contrast to the vivid color of the salsa verde. I’m glad I did get to try El Toro Blanco’s salsa verde, which was bright and tart from the tomatillos, but I think I actually prefer having both red and green salsa on my eggs, like in Huevos Divorciados (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Huevos_divorciados).

 

The Chilaquiles -- don't judge a book by its cover, this guy will hulk smash your hangover.

The Chilaquiles con Huevos — don’t judge a book by its cover, this guy will hulk smash your hangover.

While huevos rancheros is my go-to for Latin brunch, Jacob is a sucker for chilaquiles, so he was just as excited for his entree. El Toro Blanco’s Chilaquiles con Huevos (baked saucy nachos, guajillo salsa, fried eggs, melted mexican cheese, crema, avocado, pico de gallo) had the most interesting presentation of the meal, arriving in a little cast iron pan. One glimpse at the dish and it’s clear why it’s a perfect brunch item — it’s basically nachos + eggs, so plenty of carbs and cheese to sop up hangover ills. Despite the petite plating, this was a deceptively large portion, layer upon layer of chips divided by thick strands of mexican cheese mixed with crema, salsa, and pico de gallo, and then topped with a generous sprinkling of even more cotija, to fully ward off the lactose intolerant. You can’t even see the fried eggs in there, but believe me, the same creamy yolks were hiding in wait to spill out and put the whole dish over the top. While I enjoyed the tastes I had of Jacob’s dish, I found myself more eager to return to my own entree, overwhelmed by the carb and dairy bonanza of his tasty gut-bomb of a dish.

 

The Mexican Chocolate Cake

The Mexican Chocolate Cake with bonus matchstick churros.

It’s lucky that both Jacob and I are freaks of nature with secondary stomachs designed solely for dessert consumption, because after our mountains of cheese and salsa, there was still another course to come. There ended up being a fair amount of overlap between our desserts, each of our dishes highlighting chocolate, dulce de leche, and cinnamon-sugar flavors. My Mexican Chocolate Cake (matchstick churros & dulce de leche ice cream) came with mini churros (bonus!), and ended up being a more refined version of a lava cake. The cake itself was made of a moist crumb of rich chocolate with a hint of chili powder, totally covered in a thick chocolate sauce that made each forkful gooey. The dulce de leche ice cream was sweet without being overpoweringly sugary, and the mini churros gave a bit of a crunchy break to the other soft elements of the plate. Much like my huevos rancheros, this dessert wasn’t groundbreaking, but rather a familiar treat done very well.

 

And their big brothers, the Cinnamon Sugar Churros.

And their big brothers, the Cinnamon Sugar Churros, with addictive chocolate and dulce de leche sauces.

When Jacob’s Cinnamon & Sugar Churros (chocolate & dulce de leche sauces) came to the table, I initially thought he had gotten the short end of the stick (er, churro?), since there were only two pieces in the basket. Fortunately, much like his little pan of chilaquiles, these churros proved to be plenty filling. The two pieces were hefty logs of fried dough doused in cinnamon and sugar, each bite starting with a crisp and crunchy crust that gave way to an airy interior. I think I prefer these to the churros we had at LeChurro, although I may be inviting controversy by unfairly comparing Mexican and Spanish churros. I was largely swayed by the dipping sauces El Toro Blanco served with the churros. I found myself dipping and double dipping into the chocolate and dulce de leche sauces, long after Jacob had finished.

 

Final Thoughts:

It’s always nice to find a solid restaurant to add to your rotation, and I would say my RW brunch at El Toro Blanco earned it a spot. Aside from my tamale, none of the dishes were unknown territory for me, but all of them were well-seasoned and extremely generous in portion size. Sure, their regular menu is pricier than your average Mexican spot, but if the RW service is any indication, you certainly get your money’s worth. I’m looking forward to the opportunity to come back and try the rest of El Toro Blanco’s offerings, especially in the summer, when I can sit outside, sip a cocktail, and then walk all the way home after scaling a mountain of tortilla and cheese.

 

El Toro Blanco

257 Avenue of the Americas (off Houston)

eltoroblanconyc.com

Edible Inquiries: Quiche v. Frittata

quiche-frittata-faceoff

There can be only one. (All credit for awesome art to Jeff Call)

Hello, and welcome to the first post of Edible Inquiries! I know I’ve been MIA for a little bit, but while work and life kept me away from the blog, I’ve been trying to come up with ways to spice up Experimental Gastronomy’s content a bit. So here I am introducing a brand new series — Edible Inquiries, where I take readers’ questions about food and try my best to research the answer. That’s right, I’ll scour the web and bring together questionable sources, in the name of food trivia and the possibility that some of this information might actually be verifiable. Maybe I’ll even crack a book or two. So please feel free to comment on the post, hit me up on facebook (https://www.facebook.com/experimentalgastronomyblog), or tweet me with your random queries (@MaggBo). I’ll still be doing restaurant and Oreo-related reviews, but hopefully Edible Inquiries can become a permanent addition to the roster at EG.

The opening volley came from my friend Stephen, who asked the age-old question — “what is the difference between a quiche and a frittata?”

Well, if we’re judging a book by it’s cover, the simple answer appears to be that a quiche has a crust, while a frittata does not. But don’t be so easily swayed, my friends — a trip into the history of each dish reveals disparities beyond what lies at the bottom of the plate.

Quiche (most notably, Quiche Lorraine) is generally considered a quintessentially French food, but its roots can be traced back to the German word “kuchen,” meaning “cake” (Wise Geek). As the name would imply, Quiche Lorraine originates from the border region of Alsace-Lorraine, which fellow Regents Global History alums will remember has traded hands between Germany and France many times. This frequent exchange of rulers meant that the now French region’s cuisine has major influence from German cooking (for example, it’s not uncommon to find sauerkraut and beer involved in Alsatian dishes) (France Property and Information).

 The first Quiche Lorraine was supposedly concocted in the German medieval kingdom of Lothringen (to be later renamed Lorraine when the French took back the region) (Food Reference). According to some sources, Charles III, Duke of Lorraine in the 16th century, regularly ate the dish, although the first print evidence of it doesn’t appear until the 19th Century, in Linnois’s l’Histoire de Nancy, where it is referred to as a seminal French dish (The French Training Site).

 The Ur-Quiche Lorraine was composed of ingredients that would be at the ready on a typical medieval French farm — eggs, cream, smoked chopped bacon or ham, and a crust made of bread dough (French training site). Eventually the bread dough was replaced by pate brisee (short crust pastry) or the pie crust we encounter today. Other variations like the addition of cheese, onions, and other types of meat came later. The dish crossed the Atlantic thanks to the great Julia Child, assuming its rank in American brunch in the 1970s, although in France it is generally served as an appetizer for lunch or dinner (Wise Geek).

 

Although in America we place our egg dishes on equal footing, the frittata has a comparatively lowly position in its native Italy than its courtly French cousin. According to DeLallo, the frittata is part of “cucina povera,” or humble, home-cooked food. Its name comes from the verb “to fry” or “friggere,” and is basically a kitchen-sink dish used in Italian households to use up leftovers. There’s an Italian phrase ““hai fatto una frittata,” which loosely translates to “you’ve made a mess,” suggesting that accuracy and delicacy are not top priorities when cooking a frittata.

 Since eggs were readily available for most people in Italy, there’s no one particular recipe for the original frittata. Some historians speculate that the earliest omelet-esque dishes may be from the Fertile Crescent, eventually spreading throughout Europe and North Africa (History of the Frittata), although others argue that frittatas predate the French omelet, arriving around the same time as the Spanish tortilla (not to be confused with the Mexican bread, a Spanish tortilla is pretty much the same as a frittata, except built around a filling of sliced potatoes) (Wise Geek). What separates the omelet from the frittata is largely the timing of the mix-in components — in an omelet, the eggs are cooked through, then the additional ingredients are placed in the middle and the omelet is folder over to cover them. In a frittata, the other ingredients are tossed in while the raw eggs are beaten, so they are dispersed throughout the dish. Traditional Italian frittatas contain “Italian sausage or ham, sweet peppers, fontina cheese, garlic, onions, salt, pepper and nutmeg” (Wise Geek). Another major difference is that, like a quiche, the frittata is eventually baked, then cut into individual slices for serving, either hot or cold (Wikipedia).

 So in many ways, the quiche and the frittata are strikingly similar. Both arose from common ingredients found in agrarian European households, both are intended to be sliced and eaten by multiple diners, both are open to plenty of mix-in interpretation, and both require at least some time in the oven. But although the crust may appear to be the defining difference, the true distinction between the two dishes lies in the filling. Quiches must be made out of a custard, which comes from the incorporation of some sort of dairy with eggs (traditionally heavy cream). A true frittata is prepared just with eggs as the base, making it lighter than its decadent French relative (Reluctant Gourmet).

 

Cut to the Chase, Lady!: Quiches are a richer French dish defined by the use of a custard (dairy + egg) base, with an optional crust, while Frittatas are Italian and have just a plain base of eggs. While quiches were served to royalty, Frittatas were a “leftover” meal home cooks threw together.

So there you have it, Stephen. In America, of course, we’ve basically removed all the class connotations with regards to our egg entrees, except the weird implication that quiche is an “unmanly dish” (thanks to the 80s bestseller Real Men Don’t Eat Quiche). Next time you’re looking over a brunch menu, decide if you’re feeling particularly lactose-inclined before ordering. Regardless of what you pick, quiche or frittata, you’re basically eating a piece of history.

Like what you read? Got a question about cooking, dining, food or history? Comment, post or tweet and let me know your thoughts, and I’ll tackle it in another round of Edible Inquiries!

Sources:

Quiche:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Quiche

http://www.france-property-and-information.com/french_food.htm

http://www.foodreference.com/html/artquiche.html

http://www.regions-of-france.com/regions/lorraine/food-gastronomy/quiche-lorraine/

http://www.thefrenchtrainingsite.com/easy-french-recipes-french-facts-about-la-quiche-lorraine/

http://www.wisegeek.org/what-is-quiche.htm

Frittata:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Frittata

http://www.delallo.com/articles/la-frittata-egg-dish-endless-possibilities

http://www.wisegeek.com/what-is-frittata.htm

http://kitchenproject.com/history/Fritatta/index.htm

http://www.reluctantgourmet.com/omelets-frittatas-or-quiche/

Brunch at Etta’s: Come for the Seafood, Stay for the Pie

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Back when I lived in Philadelphia during college, long before I had any idea what a restaurateur was, or that there could be such a thing as a restaurant empire, I knew the name Stephen Starr. I heard locals and upperclassmen talking about his numerous restaurants in Philly, covering cuisines from France (with a personal fave, Parc) to Japan (Pod), Cuba (Alma de Cuba), America (Jones) and beyond. In my four years, I managed to go to a few of his restaurants, but I knew plenty of people who made it a mission to hit the whole list. Since I graduated, Starr’s reach has expanded even further, with new restaurants in Philly, New York, DC, and even a couple in Florida.

The point is this — locally, Starr was a brand name in Philadelphia, and simply mentioning his ownership of a restaurant usually was enough to indicate it was worth trying (even if some were more successful than others). When researching restaurants in Seattle prior to my first trip, I kept coming up against another name that reminded me of Stephen Starr and his local reputation — Tom Douglas. (You could argue that a better model might be Mario Batali, since Douglas started as a chef, but I call nitpicking.)

Douglas owns 10 restaurants in Seattle, most of which are located downtown. According to our waitress, Douglas has received offers to open spots in other cities, but he always jokes that he likes to walk to work. He’s received the James Beard award for Northwest Chef in 1994, written several successful cookbooks, and started lines of spice rubs and soups (apparently sold at Costco).   I’d been hoping to try out one of his establishments my first trip out, but Dan had plenty of food suggestions before we even got to big name brands. Thankfully, we managed to sneak in a brunch at Douglas’s seafood restaurant near Pike Place Market, Etta’s.

 

First Impressions:

A peek into Etta's laid-back, approachable interior.

A peek into Etta’s laid-back, neighborly interior.

Etta’s was the second restaurant opened by Tom Douglas, after his inaugural foray, the Dahlia Lounge (located only a few blocks away). Etta’s immediately gives off a hip, casual tone through its combination of open, comfortable leather booths, warm woods, and beautiful, multicolored glass light fixtures hung throughout the restaurant. The space is split into two dining areas, one side holding the bar with larger booths, and the other filled with mostly tables. Pieces of art line the bright red walls, from portraits to scenes of Pike Place and other Seattle spots. Up by the entrance rests a small stack of Douglas’s cookbooks, and a selection of his “Rubs with Love,” which are for sale at the restaurant, or just next door at the Rub Shack takeout counter.

Note the rainbow of light fixtures hanging from the ceiling.

Note the rainbow of light fixtures hanging from the ceiling.

When I made the reservation the night before, the host had asked if we would mind throwing a chair at the end of a booth to fit everyone, but fortunately when we arrived they had a larger table ready for us. The service was speedy, and our waitress was very kind and happy to answer our myriad questions about the menu and the Douglas mini-empire.

Brightly colored walls and local art help promote a relaxed atmosphere near the bustle of Pike Place.

Brightly colored walls and local art help promote a relaxed atmosphere near the bustle of Pike Place.

 

The Food:

Although it features classic comfort food dishes, like corned beef hash and cinnamon french toast, Etta’s focus is seafood — no surprise with it sitting so close to the bay and Pike Place Market. With this in mind, both of my parents and Dan opted for the Dungeness Crab Eggs Benedict. Leah and I went more land-based: she ordered the Etta’s Breakfast, and I gave into my well-established weakness for Mexican brunch with the Chorizo and Egg Tostadas. And of course, there was dessert. We all shared a piece of the famous Triple Coconut Cream Pie, world-renowned and sold at all of Douglas’s restaurants.

The Dungeness Crab Eggs Benedict -- when eggs aren't decadent enough, add some shredded crab meat.

The Dungeness Crab Eggs Benedict — when eggs aren’t decadent enough, add some shredded crab meat (and hollandaise, of course).

The Dungeness Crab Eggs Benedict (house english muffin, spinach, crab-butter hollandaise) arrived simply plated and generously doused in hollandaise sauce. The english muffin, along with the rest of the baked goods offered at Etta’s, is sourced from Dahlia Bakery, the takeout offshoot of Dahlia Lounge (Douglas’s reach is far and wide), and you could tell this muffin was freshly made. The bread was plump and chewy, with a crunchy toasted top that held up well against the slathered crab-butter hollandaise. Thick shreds of crab meat poked out from under the egg, and while my mother thought the dungeness lacked flavor, my father and Dan seemed to really like it. For what it’s worth, the small bite I had seemed relatively crab-forward. All three agreed the eggs were well-executed, although I thought the ones on my mother’s plate were a little overdone and lacked my preferred level of yolk runniness.

Leah also seemed to enjoy the eggs in her Etta’s Breakfast (two eggs, ham, steak or bacon, home fries), which she got over medium. Now here there seemed to be some very loose yolks on display. Obviously, as a vegetarian, she opted out of the ham/steak/bacon option, getting a side a fruit instead. The only slip-up at Etta’s came from the homefries. Dan, of exceptionally sensitive palate, immediately detected that the potatoes had been fried in bacon-fat, which we confirmed with our waitress (though it doesn’t say this on the brunch plates descriptions, it is specified on the list of a la carte sides). The waitress was very apologetic, offering to bring Leah more fruit or bread. We all agreed it probably would have been best to comp us Leah’s dish (or the dessert) to make up for the mistake (since Leah was clearly going for a vegetarian option), but at least the staff at Etta’s admitted the error and was properly apologetic. As it happens, the potatoes were pretty tasty, cubed relatively small and with a snappy outer crust and starchy, soft interior.

The Chorizo and Egg Tostadas, one of my favorite dishes of my whole Seattle visit.

The Chorizo and Egg Tostadas, one of my favorite dishes of my whole Seattle visit.

I was a little nervous about foregoing the seafood option at a fish-centric restaurant, but my Chorizo and Egg Tostadas (gabino’s guacamole, roasted tomatillo salsa, cotija) sent me over the moon. I had been tempted by the shrimp and grits, but our waitress steered me to the tostada, explaining her love of the dish, and revealing that it was a much improved reworking of the previously lackluster Huevos Rancheros. Unlike the other brunch items, my dish arrived in a shallow oval bowl, inside of which were two 6-inch fried tortillas, sitting on a layer of mashed black beans, and topped with a scrambled egg/chorizo mix, shredded lettuce, sour cream, guacamole, cotija cheese, and a few sprigs of cilantro. I can’t go on enough about the one-two punch of flavor and textural contrast in this dish — the earthy black beans, the spicy chorizo bolstered by the creamy scrambled eggs, the refreshing lettuce and guacamole, the salt of the cotija and the crunch of the tortilla, it was just a savory, satisfying combination of the best of breakfast and lunch tastes. Boldly spiced and filling, it was an ample portion that stayed with me for the rest of the afternoon (well, the pie helped, too).

Triple Coconut Cream Pie: Say hello to the coconut king.

Triple Coconut Cream Pie: Say hello to the coconut king.

Speaking of, the Triple Coconut Cream Pie (with shaved white chocolate) definitely lived up to its reputation. This was a dessert I had read about on CakeSpy, had seen highlighted on Chase Sapphire commercials featuring the Top Chef Seattle winner, and had discovered endless rave reviews on Yelp and the Internet at-large. My mother and I had actually considered making it for our Jews-do-Christmas-Eve dinner (in fact, we ended up making Pecan Praline Bread Pudding, since the pie at Etta’s was too good to be topped). Now the triple aspect comes from the infusion of coconut throughout each structural element of the pie — there’s coconut in the crust, the pastry cream is half coconut and half cow’s milk, and the topping is coconut whipped cream (along with curls of shaved white chocolate and toasted coconut). As I mentioned before, this item is served at every Tom Douglas restaurant, and once you dig in, it’s clear why. If you’re a fan of coconut, this pie is manna from heaven. You can’t escape the flavor, and the pie itself is just a testament to the craft — a sweet, buttery crust that stands up against the filling, thick, decadent pastry cream strongly tasting of vanilla and coconut and perfectly eggy and custardy, leading you into the fresh whipped cream and the sweetness of the white chocolate. The toasted coconut gives the barest break from the sugar, and is the cherry on top of a beautifully composed dessert, from the delicately piped whipped cream to the stiff custard that clings to your fork like a great pudding. Yup, I bought the hype, I drank the Kool-aid, and where on Earth can I get a slice of this coconut nirvana on the East Coast?

 

Final Thoughts:

They even offer complimentary Swedish Fish at the front -- how can you beat that?

They even offer complimentary Swedish Fish at the front — how can you beat that?

I would definitely recommend a trip to Etta’s the next time you’re in Seattle. Not only does it offer a sampling of the Tom Douglas oeuvre, but you end up in a great location and get a satisfying meal to boot. My only gripe would be the mix-up that occurred with Leah’s dish, which could be easily remedied in the future with a few edits to the menu’s descriptions. I’m hoping I’ll get to try out some more Douglas ventures on my next visits — I’ve heard wonderful things about the Brave Horse Tavern, and Serious Pie (you know I have to see how Seattle pizza compares to NY dough). While Stephen Starr expands his gastronomic galaxy across the East Coast, I think it’s admirable you can’t separate Tom Douglas from Seattle. It makes me feel like I’m getting a taste of the city from a man who truly loves where he lives. I’m sure it’s just as much of a tourist-bid as the stalls in Pike Place, but for an out-of-towner just getting her bearings, I’ll buy into it, hook, line and sinker. Plus, the man just makes a damn fine piece of pie.

 

Etta’s

2020 Western Avenue

Seattle, WA 98121

http://tomdouglas.com/index.php?page=ettas

More is Less: Choice Anxiety at Sembrado

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I’m definitely one of those people at restaurants. The talkers, the incessantly curious, the somewhat (hah) neurotic individuals who need to ask the waiter at least one question before ordering. I try to restrain myself from veering too far into obnoxious territory, but the truth is, my main motivation is curiosity. I may have previously studied the menu online, but when I get to the restaurant, I’d rather know what the staff who have seen the food cooked, and maybe even tasted a dish or two, think. Of course we may not have the same preferences, but the level of the server’s enthusiasm can speak volumes about the overall quality of a dish.

I write about service a lot on Experimental Gastronomy because I think it’s a crucial part of the dining experience. It’s part of the difference between a vending machine or a fast food drive-through and an actual restaurant where you interface with real people. That’s not to say that I expect white napkin service everywhere I go — sometimes a friendly smile from a coffee shop employee is all I need. But the best experiences are those where you feel like you’re in good hands, especially in unfamiliar territory, like our helpful waiter at Tamarind, or the extremely accommodating and generous staff at Barbuto. I bring this up because of a recent meal I had at Sembrado, one of the many new taquerias popping up in the East Village. Sembrado has a lot going for it, from location to the high pedigree of the chefs behind it. Despite all this, I found myself underwhelmed by dinner there, a bit at sea when facing down the menu. The food had a lot of potential, and to be fair, I might have just hit a bad shift. But at the end of our dinner, Jacob and I felt there was something missing, some pep or spark to elevate the meal, the lack of an unspoken element that might just have been a personal touch.

First Impressions:

Nice contrast of masculine mahogany and the groovy mural in the back.

Nice contrast of masculine mahogany and the groovy mural in the back.

Sembrado is a new taqueria from Danny Mena, previously of Hecho en Dumbo (where I once ate a great dinner), and featuring ice cream sundaes from Fany Gerson of summertime favorite La Newyorkina. Tacos seem to be the new hip food trend in the City, with shops popping up seemingly everyday (Tres Carnes, Otto’s, Mission Cantina, Taquitoria, to name just a few). Just a few blocks from Stuy Town, Sembrado has a rustic aesthetic, riding the line between industrial and hipster chic with some deliberately placed decorative flares, seen most clearly in the contrast of the exposed brick walls and back wall mural that seemed to be a psychedelic take on a fractal.

Overall, the space is pretty tight, dominated mostly by the bar/kitchen, the remaining area filled with two and four tops. Jacob and I stopped by after seeing a matinee at the Public Theater, so we came in at an off-time, 5pm on a Saturday afternoon. There were a few people at the bar, but we were the only people dining at that time.

Food:

The dinner menu at Sembrado, reminiscent of AYCE sushi menus.

The dinner menu at Sembrado, reminiscent of AYCE sushi menus.

After seating us and bringing around tap water, our waiter handed us the menus — long pieces of paper lined with boxes for you to mark (how many of each taco you want, if you want cheese added). Our waiter explained that the menu was typical of the items you’d find at any taqueria around Mexico City (slightly gussied up, of course — or at least hopefully so with New York City pricing). That meant traditionally-sized tacos that should be tackled with the strategic ordering of a variety of small plates.

Since we were eating during happy hour, we opted for the slightly discounted guacamole ($2 off dinner price), then started down the list of appetizers, tacos, and other assorted dishes. We ended up with the Tacos Al Pastor, Bistec, Pollo, Hongos, and Pescado del Dia a la Mexicana, along with the Bistec and Nopal Costras. And because through rain, sleet, hail or snow we order ice cream, Jacob and I split one of Ms. Gerson’s El Sundaes to finish out our meal.

The guacamole, with freshly fried chips.

The guacamole, with freshly fried chips.

The guacamole arrived in a small bowl framed by homemade tortilla “chips,” which upon the further arrival of our tacos, were revealed to be the house tortillas fried to a crisp. Because of this, the chips were very fresh, although because they were uncut, I felt the chip-to-dip ratio was uneven, requiring us to eventually ask for a refill. There was a deceptively ample amount of guacamole in the bowl, which I had initially viewed as skimpy for the normal $9 price tag. However, it was one of my favorite parts of our meal (I’m sure partially because I am an avocado fiend). This recipe was smooth, pebbled with tiny chunks of avocado, and though there were no tomatoes in it, it had a strong bite from the onions and cilantro. Jacob and I had a nice moment with our waiter, lamenting those unfortunate souls for whom cilantro tastes disgustingly soapy. When used liberally in a dish like this, cilantro really just brightens all the underlying flavors.

Topping options -- three salsas and a bowl of fresh onions and peppers.

Topping options — three salsas and a bowl of fresh onions and peppers.

In advance of our tacos, our waiter brought out a funky vessel holding four different condiments — three types of salsa and a mix of freshly chopped red onions and peppers. The salsas varied in heat and smokiness. One of them was made with a bit of beer, which lent a subtle malted flavor. My favorite was the really smoky salsa (top right in the photo), which reminded me of barbecue sauce, but Jacob preferred the milder beer-infused one on the bottom left. Unfortunately, this is where the trouble starts. When we were served these condiments, and then our tacos soon after, there was no instruction or suggestion of how to pair the two. Given the myriad combinations given five tacos and four condiments, a poor East Coast Jewish gal like me didn’t even know where to start. I ended up mainly dipping my chips into the salsas, because I didn’t want to ruin my experience by dousing a taco in the wrong sauce.

Our smorgasbord of tacos, clockwise from top left: Pollo, Al Pastor, Hongos, and Bistec.

Our smorgasbord of tacos, clockwise from top left: Pollo, Al Pastor, Hongos, and Bistec.

Because of this, I ate my tacos largely in their natural state, with just a bit of lime juice squeezed on top. For all of the varieties, the consistency of the tortillas was excellent — fresh, pliant and chewy, serving as an stable vehicle without distracting from the fillings. As for those, well, some were more successful than others. My least favorite was the Bistec (all natural flatiron steak), which arrived chopped and fully cooked, flying solo in its tortilla. The meat was a little on the dry side, and while I like steak as much as the next person (perhaps more, considering my ecstasy at Peter Luger), I much preferred the Bistec in Costra form, with the fat and salt of the cheese to contrast with it. The Pollo (all natural free range chicken breast) fared slightly better, the small chunks of meat juicier and flavored with a nice marinade. I would have preferred a little more char on the chicken, but perhaps my dissatisfaction was due to my own neglect of the salsas near me — a little smoky salsa might have elevated the chicken or steak. The Hongos (grilled portobello mushroom with epazote) was also served relatively plain, although the addition of epazote (a Central American herb) gave it another layer of flavor. Of course my love of mushrooms is a given at this point, and portobellos are a top tier variety for me (don’t get me started on Hen of the Woods #mushroomnerd), so it’s not that shocking that of the unadorned tacos, the Hongos would win out.

Pescado del Dia taco -- flying solo, but packing more of a flavor punch.

Pescado del Dia a la Mexicana taco — flying solo, but packing more of a flavor punch.

Both the Taco Al Pastor (spit grilled marinated pork, onions and cilantro) and the Pescado del Dia a la Mexicana (grilled market fish — fluke that day — in a classic Mexican salsa of chile serrano, tomato and onion) had a little more complexity in their preparation, and I thought this made them the best of the bunch. I’ve always avoided ordering tacos al pastor before because I mostly avoid pork, but I’m glad I tried it at Sembrado, since it ended up being my favorite taco. It seemed as though you could taste the long, steady spit-roasting of the meat, which was juicy and had a smoky, almost mole-ish flavor. (Wikipedia research reveals that the rotisserie style of cooking was likely introduced to Mexico by Lebanese immigrants at the turn of the 20th century).  The fluke tasted the freshest of all the tacos, especially when the acidity of the tomatoes and the heat of the jalapenos hit my palate. Again, the addition of toppings here really filled out the profile of the taco, making it more memorable than the plainer steak and chicken.

The Costras, like the mutant child of a quesadilla and a tostada -- Bistec on the left, Nopal on the right.

The Costras, like the mutant child of a quesadilla and a tostada — Bistec on the left, Nopal on the right.

If I’m being honest, I think I prefer the slightly more casual menu at Oaxaca Taqueria. Without a bit of a tour guide on how to experience more authentic Mexican cuisine, I’d rather have the decisions already made for me with established combinations. So at Sembrado, I found myself enjoying the Costras (crisp caramelized cheese atop flour tortilla) more than the tacos. The Costras, which were pretty much open-faced quesadillas, just seemed more fully realized as a dish. Plus, who doesn’t like caramelized cheese? As I mentioned earlier, the Bistec shone a lot brighter in Costra form, its funky umami serving as a nice base for the cheese. But I especially liked the Nopal (grilled cactus pad), an ingredient that I’d seen before on menus but never tried. Like the fish taco, you could taste how fresh the nopales were, and I liked the way the vegetal flavor cut through the richness of the cheese.

We dabbled with getting a few more items, since all of these servings were palm-sized and split between two people, served as a relatively light dinner. No surprise, we quickly tossed aside any notions of further nutrition in favor of diving headfirst into a giant sundae. El Sundae has its own paper menu full of potential add-ons. You select vanilla, strawberry, or horchata ice cream as your base, select your preferred toppings, elect a salsa (Mexican hot fudge or goats milk caramel), choose si or no on whipped cream, and decide if you’ll shell out the extra $3 to make it a brownie sundae. Alas, Sembrado was out of vanilla on our visit, so we ordered the horchata ice cream, topped with Nueces Garapinadas (piloncillo candied pecans) and Chocolate (Mexican chocolate bits), covered in both “salsas”, whipped cream, and heck yeah we’re having the brownies.

The physically imposing El Sundae.

The physically imposing El Sundae.

Well, the sundae we were served was pretty good, but there were a few stumbling blocks. I’ve only had horchata in its traditional form a few times, and found it to be like watered down rice pudding, but as a thick and creamy ice cream, it was a solid substitute for the vanilla, and a not too sweet base for the rest of the sugar-overloaded components. I’ll take whipped cream in any form from udder to pressurized Reddi-Whip can, so I was more than happy to chow down on that. As for our salsas? Well, the hot fudge was nowhere to be found, but the caramel sauce was sweet and syrupy. Much like with my dessert at Blue Duck Tavern, I’m not sure how one discerns goats milk caramel from plain ol’ cows milk, but I really enjoyed Sembrado’s version when combined with the candied pecans. In fact, the nuts and Mexican chocolate bits were very helpful in providing a bit of textural contrast, since much like the hot fudge, our brownies were mysteriously absent. I’m sure my vascular system was relieved to be saved that extra peak of blood sugar, and in the end we weren’t charged for them, but I was a little disappointed to miss out on what could have been a tremendous brownie sundae.

Final Thoughts:

There’s a concept in psychology called “choice anxiety,” which posits that though we think we want as many options as possible, in truth, people quickly get overwhelmed by having to make too many decisions. It’s similar to the Millenial “FOMO,” or “fear of missing out” — presented with a long list of choices, we often just opt out all together. We may think all-encompassing personal agency is the most satisfying route, but what we’re actually looking for is limited power, a dip in a pool just deep enough to let us kick a bit without fear of sinking.

I couldn’t help but think about choice anxiety after my dinner at Sembrado. Overall, it was a good, but not great meal, successful in some elements but a letdown in others. I can’t place all the blame on the service, either. Our waiter was friendly if a little removed from the situation, but I think part of the problem comes from the space Sembrado occupies on the casual/fine dining ladder. It seems to be riding a sort of middle ground — a little too expensive to be the kind of neighborhood taco joint that revels in its oil and fried fat content, but clearly trying to be more casual than the elevated Latin cuisine experiences I’ve had at Hecho en Dumbo or La Esquina. For the relatively uninitiated taco consumer, Sembrado’s menu can be overwhelming, prompting numerous questions — how many tacos should I get? What’s a good combination of tacos? Should I get cheese on some? All? None? I’m not saying Sembrado should abandon their check-off menus in favor of the hegemony of an executive chef’s tasting menu (I actually rather like the paper menus), but they might benefit from the addition of a section outlining some suggested combos. Creating a starting point for your diners gives them somewhere to jump off of, and admits that not everybody may be as in the know about authentic Mexico City tacos. Maybe I’m in the minority for wanting to learn while trying new foods, but for us curious culinary enthusiasts, Sembrado would stand out more if it were willing to teach.

Sembrado

432 E. 13th Street

http://sembradonyc.com/

Snackshots Providence: Off the Beaten Path

That’s right, we’re on the road again! This past weekend I hightailed it up to Providence, RI, to visit my college roommate Megan, who is currently attending Brown for grad school. Jacob split the cost of gas with me in order to visit his friend Sophie, a student at the Brown/Trinity Rep MFA program and see her in a show.

Shockingly, most of the trip was spent making home-cooked food, but I thought I’d share some roadtrip highlights and the culinary efforts of Megan’s cohort. I suppose the lesson to be learned from all of this is that regardless of the amount of restaurants or shops I go to, I still measure my life in terms of the edible punctuation that pepper my days.

I usually take the bus when traveling, but my parents were generous enough to let me borrow the car for this trip north. Halfway up our portion of 95, hunger pangs called, and seeking to avoid Denny’s or McDonalds, we stumbled upon a local gem in Westbrook, CT — Cristy’s Family Restaurant.

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Living in Manhattan, it’s easy to forget that these kinds of places exist — the simple, American diner-style fare, kept alive by a steady stream of regulars. The restaurant was unassuming, with a small cafe area out front (featuring a new espresso/coffee counter), and the bar and dining room  to the right, adorned with dark wood and red pleather booths.

Old-fashioned aesthetic with a classic menu to boot.

Old-fashioned aesthetic with a classic menu to boot.

The menu featured your usual diner fare, from all-day breakfast to deli sandwiches and entrees of the hearty American meatloaf genre. But it was clear that Cristy’s is proud of their pancake-skills, with a fully separate menu touting 40 different varieties. We half-heartedly made an attempt at a healthy dinner by splitting a mushroom, avocado and cheddar omelet, but Jacob and I quickly decided that we needed to check these legendary pancakes out. On the recommendation of our waitress we ordered the seasonal Pumpkin-Apple pancake and the Banana Crunch pancake.

Our hefty omelet, literally smothered in a slice of cheese.

Our hefty omelet, literally smothered in a slice of cheese.

Our omelet was fairly standard, if nothing revelatory. The truth is that I’ll eat mushrooms and avocado under most circumstances, so I was perfectly satisfied. The only thing that was strange was the extra slice of American cheese the cook placed on top of the omelet. The cheese wasn’t of good enough quality (yes, I’m a cheese snob) to add anything to the dish except textural density. There was already cheese inside of the omelet, so the extraneous slice ended up just weighing the fluffy eggs down.

The Pumpkin-Apple Pancake -- pumpkin batter with a molten apple core.

The Pumpkin-Apple Pancake — pumpkin batter with a molten apple core.

The Banana Crunch pancake dwarfed Jacob's fist.

The Banana Crunch pancake dwarfed Jacob’s fist.

But enough chit-chat — let’s talk pancakes. When our plates arrived it was clear that these were not your average short stack. These bad boys were massive, nearly the size of a dinner plate and generously coated with powdered sugar. I was surprised by the construction of the Pumpkin-Apple, which was composed of a pumpkin batter and sliced apple filling. When ordering I had pictured a traditional pancake speckled with apple chunks and pockets of pumpkin puree, but this pancake was surprisingly apple-forward. I found that the pumpkin was very mild, almost lost among the sweetness of the apple interior. Perhaps if pumpkin puree had been incorporated into the filling as well as in the batter, it would have been more noticeable. Not to say I didn’t enjoy the dish — both pancakes were expertly cooked, without any burnt or overly dry spots. Between the two, I preferred the Banana Crunch, which was filled with sliced bananas and a (shockingly) crunchy granola. I really liked the interaction between the brown sugar of the granola and the banana, even if I had to admit I was basically having bananas foster masquerading as a breakfast food.

All told, our bill came to less than $15, another eye-opening shocker for NYC natives, and another strong reason for my recommendation. If you’re traveling through Connecticut on I-95, I’d definitely suggest foregoing the endless Dunkin Donuts and instead taking a walk in some Westbrookian shoes at Cristy’s. The staff was friendly, the prices were stellar, and the pancakes were out of this world.

Eventually we made it up to Providence, and Saturday morning Megan took me over to one of her new favorite brunch spots, Olga’s Cup and Saucer.

Inside Olga's, which has a bakery/coffee bar area as well as indoor and outdoor dining.

Inside Olga’s, which has a bakery/coffee bar area as well as indoor and outdoor dining.

Olga’s was absolutely adorable, the kind of brightly painted and happily staffed coffee bar and restaurant that you know is going to make for a good brunch experience. It actually reminded me a lot of Macrina Bakery in Seattle, with slightly more emphasis on a full restaurant menu. The weather was surprisingly mild and dry for Providence in the fall, so we scored a seat on the outdoor patio. Following Megan’s lead, I opted for the Tostada (which was a layered take on Huevos Rancheros, as far I could tell).

The Tostada at Olga's Cup and Saucer, a layered breakfast lasagna of tortilla, salsa and beans.

The Tostada at Olga’s Cup and Saucer, a layered breakfast lasagna of tortilla, eggs, salsa and beans.

The Tostada was composed of eggs, stewed black beans, and fresh pico de gallo layered between toasted tortillas, and came with breakfast sweet and normal potatoes. I asked for my eggs to be cooked over easy, and they arrived with yolks still soft and loose, spilling out and intermingling with the beans and juices from the salsa. The Tostada had all of the Latin flavors I love in Huevos Rancheros, with crispness from the shredded lettuce and a sprinkling of cilantro. I was also impressed by the dish Megan’s friend David ordered — Poached Eggs on Homemade Scallion-Cheddar Scones. The “scones” were basically biscuits, and the small taste I had made me regret not snagging some of the baked goods on display near the front door of Olga’s.

Finally got to have my Baingan Bhartha, after trying a new eggplant curry at Tamarind.

Finally got to have my Baingan Bhartha, after trying a new eggplant curry at Tamarind.

Garlic-onion Naan -- deadly for your breath, delightful for your stomach.

Garlic-onion Naan — deadly for your breath, delightful for your stomach.

We spent most of the weekend shuttling from Megan’s apartment to her friends’ around the corner, who happen to live above an Indian restaurant called Taste of India. It didn’t take much effort to convince me to have Indian for dinner on Saturday night, and I finally got to have the Baingan Bhartha that I was craving during my dinner at Tamarind. The food was pretty tasty, although I’ll admit that I’ve been slightly ruined by the experience I had at Tamarind. I think it’ll be a few more regular Indian meals before I forget how wonderful the curries and lamb chops were. However, the proprietors of Taste of India score points for taking care of their tenants — we got free vegetable pakoras for being part of the in-crowd (aka, for Megan’s friends paying rent on time).

The reason we were so centrally located for the weekend (aside from the ease of geography), was because Megan’s friend Justin was celebrating his birthday. His girlfriend Lauren had organized a game night on Saturday and breakfast brunch the next day, so the remaining food adventures of my trip are based around Justin’s apartment. First off, Megan and I baked a red velvet cake for the game night. Back in our halcyon college days, Megan and I had attempted to make a red velvet cake, which ended up measuring only about an inch in height (though it did taste quite good). Thankfully, our baking skills have come a ways since then, and Justin’s cake was significantly more respectable in dimension.

The naked red velvet cake.

The naked red velvet cake.

Festively frosted for Justin.

Festively frosted for Justin.

Along with organizing and cooking most of brunch, Lauren had also bought a number of craft beers to accompany our vigorous board-gaming (ain’t no birthday like a board game birthday). First up was the Brooklyn Brewery Silver Anniversary Lager, celebrating the brewery’s 25 years in business. I’m usually somewhat lukewarm on Brooklyn Brewery, but I actually really enjoyed this lager. My beer palate is fairly inexperienced, but I tasted some citrus notes, some woodsy hoppiness, and a little toasted quality.

Brooklyn Brewery Silver Anniversary lager.

Brooklyn Brewery Silver Anniversary lager.

Brunch on Sunday was pretty impressive, incorporating lots of bacon, eggs, french toast (with a berry compote and creme fraiche), fruit salad and the obligatory mimosas.

Damn, Lauren, way to bring the brunch.

Damn, Lauren, way to bring the brunch.

I manned the french toast station and succeeded in not burning the challah to pieces, but Lauren’s egg-bake was pretty much the highlight the meal, featuring eggs, bacon, peppers, onions, and a whole mess of cheese. To top it all off, she even got all the brunchees to wear plaid shirts in Justin’s honor (aka to make fun of him for his mono-patterned wardrobe of plaid and jeans).  By the end of the weekend, I had come to the conclusion that Lauren needs to plan everyone’s birthdays. Or at least just mine. Clearly Megan’s friends know how to do birthdays right.

It was a great roadtrip, slightly more homestyle than I initially anticipated, but I actually appreciated the break from the NY food scene. It was nice to cook a meal with friends, to try some out of the way spots, and visit Megan’s favorite local restaurants. I spend so much time running around New York trying to check off items on my endless lists, I found it really refreshing to have the sort of wake up call that there is some stellar food happening outside the Five Boroughs, from roadside diners to personal kitchens. It makes me want to bust out a map and take this show on the road on a national eating tour, but until I have the time and the money for that, I guess I’ll concentrate on the northern third of the I-95 corridor. After all, Jacob hasn’t been to Friendly’s yet, and what kind of sad excuse of a life is one without the beauty of Fribbles?