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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Sometimes You Feel Like a Legume: Dinner at Peanut Butter & Co.

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I am a peanut butter freak, and I’ve discovered it’s an ailment that has only gotten worse as I’ve aged. When I was younger I used to be very picky about the quality of the peanut butter I tasted — Ritz Bitz was authentic enough for me, but Lord, the indignity of lowering myself to the artificial flavor of Peanut Butter Captain Crunch. I was a loyal Jif girl, and looked down my nose at other peanut butter brands. And though I’d like to think that my palate has gotten more refined as I’ve gotten older, my love of all things peanut butter has curiously grown by leaps and bounds, breaking free of my previous (mis)conceptions and invading all aspects of my eating (did you know peanut butter tastes great with yogurt? salads? cheese?).

Way back in April of last year I mentioned my desire to visit Peanut Butter & Co., and now I am proud to say I can finally check that item off my NYC food-list. I’d heard about Peanut Butter & Co. years ago, but had never found the time to go downtown and visit their store, nor even try their line of peanut butters that I’ve seen slowly expand through the tri-state area. Thankfully, Laura, my partner in crimes-related-to-pb & j (see our Jam Crawl and our visit to Bantam Bagels), was kind enough to take me to dinner at PB&Co. as a belated holiday present. It was a trip nearly a year in the making, but for a peanut butter devotee such as myself, it was a decidedly necessary pilgrimage to the Valhalla of cream-and-crunchdom.

 

First Impressions:

Peanut Butter & Co. is located in Greenwich Village, just off of Washington Square Park and the hub of NYU. It obviously benefits from being so close to a huge student population, and its menu of sandwiches, cookies, brownies and ice cream seems tailor-made for hungover college kids.

The counter at PB&Co., with the kitchen behind taking up nearly half the cafe's space.

The counter at PB&Co., with the kitchen behind taking up nearly half the cafe’s space.

The photos I had seen of the cafe made it seem like a large space, but standing outside the doors it became clear that it’s a relatively shallow store, with nearly half of the real estate taken up by the kitchen and counter. Entering the cafe, you find the cashier to the left, a small retail section in the back featuring the titular line of peanut butters, merch, baked goods and drinks, and then to your right a collection of tables, seating probably the same amount of people as the average Manhattan Starbucks. The decor is friendly and pared down, the exterior of the store painted bright blue and white, and the inside evoking a classic American kitchen with pastel yellow walls covered in vintage advertisements for peanut and sandwich products.

Vintage ads show the legacy of peanut butter's place in American hearts.

Vintage ads show the legacy of peanut butter’s place in American hearts.

Honestly, I had no idea Marshmallow Fluff came in flavors other than "marshmallow."

Honestly, I had no idea Marshmallow Fluff came in flavors other than “marshmallow.”

The service style is a little odd. There’s no table service (you order at the counter), but they do bring your food straight to your table … sometimes (we had to go up and fetch our own dessert). We also encountered a somewhat strange scenario during our visit — generally, PB&Co. has a faucet at the counter that dispenses regular NYC tap water (since everyone including Barney knows that PB leaves you pretty parched), but it was broken, and therefore covered to prevent anyone trying to use it. This meant that when we asked for tap water, the cashier told us our only option was to buy a bottle of water, citing a violation of NYC health chodes to fill a customer’s glass from a tap behind the counter. Now, granted I don’t know the health code, but you’d think they could have gotten a cooler or filled a pitcher, rather than forcing people to pay and engendering ill will. But then again, it seems to be a bustling place with a steady stream of customers, so perhaps they think they’ll just try to get a few more bucks out of folks until someone really puts up a fight.

 

The Food:

Tempting, but perhaps a bit much for the first visit.

Tempting, but perhaps a bit much for the first visit.

In order to get the most out of the PB&Co. menu, we opted to split two sandwiches and share a dessert, ordering The Elvis, The Heat is On Sandwich, and the Bananarama Sundae to finish up. All of the sandwiches are served with both carrots and PB&Co. brand chips, which helps to fill out the plate a little bit. Not surprisingly, our sandwiches were ready in no time, so we could get down to some serious chewing.

 

The Elvis, perhaps underserved by a lack of bacon.

The Elvis, perhaps underserved by a lack of bacon.

The Elvis (“A grilled peanut butter sandwich, stuffed with bananas and honey”) is offered with an optional addition of bacon, and part of me regrets deciding to go without, because I think it would have added that extra salt and crunch the sandwich needed. The sandwich was very uniform in texture, soft and gooey from being grilled. Now both Laura and I agreed that almost any sandwich improves with grilling, but in this case, because of the melted quality of the peanut butter, it was nearly impossible to tell that we had chosen PB&Co.’s “Crunchtime” crunchy peanut butter, which I had hoped would mix things up a bit in terms of mouthfeel. The flavor was certainly pure and strongly peanutty, and ended up being the dominant note of the sandwich. I have to question the cafe’s definition of “stuffed” here, because both the honey and the banana seemed conservatively applied, getting lost in the melting swirl of the peanut butter. Still, you can’t fault the combination of flavors as a classic, and I thought the peanut butter itself was top notch. There’s just something so delightful and nostalgic about the oozing, gooey drip of peanut making your fingers sticky and forcing you to lick it off like a 5 year old. But Laura and I concurred that The Elvis was very much a sandwich we could have made in our own kitchens (even with PB&Co.’s own product), and gotten more bang for our buck.

 

The Heat is On Sandwich — not quite a Thai dish, but an interesting play on flavors.

The Heat is On Sandwich — not quite a Thai dish, but an interesting play on flavors.

The Heat is On Sandwich (“Spicy peanut butter and chilled grilled chicken, with a little bit of pineapple jam. Like a Thai satay — only better”) was definitely the most interesting dish of our dinner, and I’m glad that Laura convinced me to order this over another meatless option. The title refers to PB&Co.’s spicy variety of the same name, and I was a little nervous about how hot the spread would be. It turned out to have a substantial kick to it, with the inherent sweetness of the peanut butter up front and the cayenne really coming through on the back end. The chicken was firm yet moist, although it mostly served as a vehicle for the peanut butter’s dominating flavor. Similarly, it was hard to discern the pineapple flavor of the jam, although I appreciated the gelatinous texture and the jam’s use as a cooling element against the spicy peanut butter. Although PB&Co. describes it as similar to a Thai sandwich, I found it lacked the soy/umami taste that separates satay sauces from regular melted peanut butter. We got the sandwich on toasted whole wheat bread, and I had hoped that meant the entire sandwich would be grilled (see comment about the benefits of grilling above), but alas, the toaster touched the bread only. This was certainly a more creative and more filling sandwich than The Elvis, and I could see this being a knockout dish if it was first grilled, and then had the pineapple jam applied.

Now before I even comment on our sundae, let’s take a moment to discuss proper ice cream serving etiquette. Ice cream sundaes, if served in a tall glass or high-rimmed bowl, should come with long-handled spoons, preferably metal ones. Otherwise you’re left with an inadequate tool for digging deep to the bottom of the bowl to scoop out lingering hot fudge or an errant chocolate chunk, and risk getting melted ice cream all over your hands in the process of excavation. (This pertains mostly to hard-style ice creams — a soft-serve Carvel sundae, for example, will yield easily to a plastic spoon.)

The visually pleasing, if haphazardly constructed Banarama Sundae.

The visually pleasing, if haphazardly constructed Banarama Sundae.

The Bananarama Sundae (“What a banana split! Three scoops of ice cream, sliced bananas, graham crackers, peanut butter, Marshmallow Fluff, whipped cream and chocolate sauce. Wonderful for sharing, if you are so inclined”) was cutely served in a large mug, but arrived with only flimsy plastic spoons with which to tackle it. This made it difficult to get a bite that involved all of the elements of the dessert, especially considering the middle layer of solid chocolate ice cream. It was aesthetically pleasing, with a large dollop of whipped cream on top, drizzled with chocolate sauce and graham cracker crumbs. Generally the sundae comes with vanilla ice cream, but PB&Co. had sold out of it earlier in the day (a testament to the appeal of their ice cream, since it continues to be frigid in NYC). We opted for chocolate ice cream as the base of the dessert, and I’d actually recommend requesting it over the vanilla if you have the chance. I liked all of the individual components of the sundae, but once you dove in it seemed like the construction wasn’t given proper attention. I’ll admit I’ve become a bit biased about this after experiencing the intense consideration that goes into Big Gay’s Salty Pimp — first sea salt, then dulce de leche in the cone, then ice cream, etc. Here the Bananarama had chunks of graham crackers on the bottom, covered in peanut butter and Fluff, then the ice cream, then the whipped cream, chocolate sauce, and graham cracker crumbs. That meant that you had to struggle to get through the ice cream to reach the crunchy crumbs and gooey Fluff, which over time stiffened up to make things even more difficult. Initially it was super goopy and true-to-name fluffy, but by the end (and trust me, we didn’t dilly-dally, since Laura is as much of a fast-eating food honeybadger as I), everything had started to congeal and required a dedicated application of elbow grease. An easy solution would be to replace the chocolate sauce with hot fudge (frankly, always a good choice), which would have kept the Fluff warmer for longer, and allowed better mixing with the graham crackers and peanut butter sauce. And just like The Elvis, Laura and I felt like there was a serious lack of bananas — why so skimpy on the fruit, PB&Co.? But as a positive, the Bananarama allowed us to sample a variety of the toppings offered, so I’ll be able to make a more strategic order the next time I stop in.

Final Thoughts:

My trip to Peanut Butter & Co.’s cafe was a great holiday present, and I’m grateful to Laura for taking me. Overall, it’s a cute homestyle spot offering familiar and comforting, if somewhat pedestrian fare. I’m happy I visited and sampled the savory menu, but I think if I go back it’ll be when the weather warms up so I can try out some of their other ice cream options (word on the street is that their milkshakes are killer). When it comes down to it, unless I suddenly develop a serious allergy, peanut butter is going to be a big part of my life for the foreseeable future.  For all of the quibbles I have about the food at their cafe, I have to applaud Peanut Butter & Co. for giving peanut butter a proper place in the spotlight, and helping to spread George Washington Carver’s message of brotherhood and legume love.

 

Peanut Butter & Co.

240 Sullivan St. (between 3rd and Bleecker)

http://ilovepeanutbutter.com/sandwichshop

Brief Bites: 5oz Factory

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I’ve never actually been to Wisconsin, but people there seem to have their priorities in order. After all, this is the state that proudly declares itself “America’s Dairyland” on its license plates, and counts a foam wedge of cheese as acceptable haberdashery. Oddly enough, there seems to be a growing faction of Wisconsiners (Wisconsonians? Wisconsonites?) injecting a little Midwest into NYC, from the venerable Michael White to Gabe Stulman’s “Little Wisco” restaurant group. The latest entrant is the more casual sandwich/frozen custard shop 5oz Factory. It doesn’t take a genius to surmise that my interest was peaked by the promise of a grilled cheese and ice cream, so in this edition of Brief Bites, we check out if these cheeseheads live up to their reputation.

 

The Set Up:

The well-appointed but compact interior of 5oz Factory.

The well-appointed but compact interior of 5oz Factory. Note the adorable cow cutout scene in the bottom right window.

5oz Factory is located just northwest of Washington Square Park, and is clearly geared towards NYU students, a few of which Jacob and I saw during our meal. I had anticipated more of a cafe in the style of Wafels and Dinges, but I guess real estate is pretty pricey so near the park. 5oz Factory’s layout is pretty bare bones, mostly a sandwich/custard counter with a couple of tables  and stools lining the front window for dining in (although the staff preps everything as if it were for takeout). The shop’s interior design has a little more spark to it, however, featuring cutouts of cows, warm light wood, pastel colors, and bright mom’s kitchen-esque tiles on the back wall of the custard/sandwich prep space. I especially liked the window into the kitchen, which allows customers to see their “cheese melts” being assembled.

The back of the store features a view of the melt prep in action.

The back of the store features a view of the melt prep in action.

 

The Bites:

 

When we paid a visit, 5oz Factory seemed to be a bit in flux. Posted around the restaurant were signs with changes to the menu, featuring some seasonal additions, as well as some alternate recipes for the sandwiches (since writing, the website has finally updated their menu) The basic categories remained, however: Grilled Cheeses , Market Sides, and Frozen Custard. Jacob and I split the “5oz Factory Melt” and the “Short & Sweet” sandwiches, followed by a 5oz portion of frozen custard with a few toppings.

Our melts arrived snugly wrapped and labeled.

Our melts arrived snugly wrapped and labeled. The identifying stickers were on the bottom, holding the paper shut.

Though our order (both sandwiches and custard, which were placed separately) took a while to arrive, I was happy to see that our melts were well-griddled, dark brown and crusty without veering into burnt territory. They came wrapped in classic deli brown paper, and were taped shut with a sticker that denoted the sandwich’s name. Under the brown paper a layer of tin foil kept them warm, and I was happy to see the gooey, stringy mess of cheese that came from pulling apart the halves.

The 5oz Factory Melt, with the medley of cheeses seeping out from between the layers.

The 5oz Factory Melt, with the medley of cheeses seeping out from between the layers.

The 5oz Factory Melt (Cheddar, Swiss, Gruyere & Colby on Homestyle Brioche) is the straight-forward grilled cheese you’d largely expect it to be. I loved the combination of cheeses, the sweet nuttiness of the Gruyere standing out amongst the milder Swiss and Colby, and pleasantly intermingling with the salty sharpness of the Cheddar. While I thought the brioche was the perfect vehicle for our second sandwich, here I felt like the thick-sliced bread muscled in on the cheese. I was raised on thinner-style grilled cheese sandwiches, however, so it may just be a matter of personal preference. My perfect grilled cheese lets the sandwich filling shine, so I’d rather have a slimmer Pullman slice as the bookends to my melt.

 

The Short and Sweet --a rare instance of my enjoying pickles.

The Short and Sweet –a rare instance of my enjoying pickles.

While the 5oz Factory Melt was a solid, if slightly pedestrian dish, the shop’s sandwich-making skills really shined with the Short & Sweet (Horseradish Chive Havarti, Swiss, Roasted Mushrooms & Cornichons, Sprecher’s Black Bavarian Beer Braised Short Ribs on Brioche). I’ve waxed rhapsodic many a time about my newfound love of short ribs, and the meat showcased here had clearly been braised to juicy tenderness. What made this melt more successful than the basic grilled cheese was the strategic mixing of textures and flavors, from the shredded, moist short ribs with a hint of sweetness from the beer braise, to the earthy mushrooms and briny cornichons still giving a little crunch, to the gooey mess of the cheese, featuring herby spice from the Havarti and a smoother underlying Swiss. This may seem like a lot of disparate elements fighting for attention, but the sandwich was well constructed, so the dominant meat and cheese factors were highlighted by the other components. As I mentioned above, I was a big fan of the use of brioche in this melt. In this case you need the thick and toasted pieces to hold together the messy innards. (Examining the menu further, it seems that 5oz Factory offers only brioche, trenchers, and gluten-free bread for their melts, so of those options, brioche seems like the most obvious choice for both of our sandwiches.)

 

Our foray into 5oz Factory's frozen custard, piled high with stellar whipped cream.

Our foray into 5oz Factory’s frozen custard, piled high with stellar whipped cream.

Like Shake Shack, 5oz Factory offers their frozen custard in three forms: plain with optional toppings, spun into a shake, or blended with said toppings as a concrete (or “Moozy Muddle”). Looking over the Moozy Muddle menu, Jacob and I struggled to come to an accord about our desired toppings. The truth is, we have different priorities when it comes to ice cream-style desserts — Jacob wants a more straightforward, smoother product with an emphasis on the dairy, while I’ve always been a fan of as many mix-ins as possible (my McFlurry of choice features both M&Ms and Oreos, natch). We finally decided to forego the preset items and have a basic sundae. Aside from the standard chocolate and vanilla custard, 5oz Factory cycles through seasonal flavors, such as espresso, caramel, and peppermint. We opted for a swirl of vanilla and chocolate custard, topped with Ghiradelli chocolate sauce, caramel, and Organic Valley unsweetened whipped cream. Our server also tossed a few custom-made cowhead-shaped gummies on top.

A closer look at those cute cow gummies.

A closer look at those cute cow gummies.

Now as I mentioned in my review of the Shake Shack fries, Jacob is a connoisseur of the Shack menu, and a huge fan of their frozen custard. I, on the other hand, hold Rita’s to be the epitome of commercial custard. Rita’s tends to be slightly sweeter and thicker than Shake Shack’s offering, and I think I liked 5oz Factory’s custard more than Jacob because of this. The vanilla and chocolate flavor was stronger than the Shack’s more subtle taste, and I loved the texture of the custard, which verged on the chewiness of New England ice cream (no seriously, that’s a thing: http://sweets.seriouseats.com/2012/09/herrells-ice-cream-steves-boston-massachusetts-flavors.html). Surprisingly, the most memorable aspect of our dessert was the whipped cream. My unrepentant adoration of Reddi-whip generally sets a pretty low bar for me in terms of whipped cream flavor, but I could honestly discern a difference in quality by using the organic milk. Even though Organic Valley is sold in supermarkets and hardly straight off the farm, I could taste a real freshness in the cream, and you can tell from the picture that it looked more like homemade whipped cream than the kind squirted out the can and straight into your mouth at 3 in the morning (what? we all have our low moments).

 

The Last Licks:

I couldn’t tell you how closely 5oz Factory hews to the authentic Wisconsin experience, but I certainly appreciated the Midwestern charm of its offerings. It’s unfortunate that New York features such a high number of sandwich, grilled cheese, and frozen dessert purveyors, so you really have to offer a standout product to stick out of the crowd, and relying on home state pride doesn’t automatically guarantee superior quality. I’m not sure I’d recommend the shop as a destination spot for those farther afield in the city, but if you’re hanging around the NYU hub, 5oz Factory is a strong option for filling and hearty sandwiches and desserts. It’d probably be pretty nice to grab a custard in the summer and sit in the park, actually. Is 5oz Factory the next Melt Shop? Probably not. But I’d say that purely on the basis of dairy-use, they do their Cheesehead brethren proud.

 

5oz Factory

24 W. 8th St (between 5th and MacDougal)

http://5ozfactory.com/

 

Brief Bites: Bantam Bagels

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I’ll just come out and say it: I’m a bagel snob. I don’t think I ate a Thomas’ Bagel until I was in college, and was stunned at the measly, barely-risen dough that sat comfortably in the palm of my hand. Where were the yeasty, chewy hulks of carbohydrates of my youth? The lump of cinnamon raisin dough with a solid schmear of cream cheese my father had so lovingly quartered and wrapped up for my lunches? Those staples of the kiddush luncheons after Sunday school, mini bagels piled high and awaiting the tiny, grape juice-stained hands of ravenous pre-bar-mitzvot?

What I’m saying is, I’ve got high standards when it comes to bagels. However, as explored before, I have a serious weakness for food innovation, especially those involving miniaturization and fusion. So when I read that the folks at Bantam Bagels were taking the jelly-filled munchkin approach to bagel dough, I knew I’d have to check them out in person.

The Set Up:

Bantam Bagels is a relative newcomer to the single-dish segment of the New York food scene (this is the city, after all, that has stores solely dedicated to Rice Krispy treats, meatballs, mac & cheese, and rice pudding). The shop is located on Bleecker Street, just down the block from Murray’s Cheese Bar, and the similarly unilaterally-focused Risotteria. It’s an area that has always brimmed with restaurant and bar options, but as of late seems to be undergoing a bit of a real estate revival, with Bantam, London Candy Company, and Sugar and Plumm all opening within a few weeks of each other. It’s understandable, given all the foot traffic that moves through there, from tourists checking out the Greenwich/West Village neighborhoods to students and NY natives popping into venues like the Peculier Pub or Le Poisson Rouge for shows and specials.

Considering their petite product, perhaps the store is actually appropriately sized.

Considering their petite product, perhaps the store is actually appropriately sized.

However, access to such prime levels of foot traffic may come at a cost. Unlike the relatively luxurious cafe space of Wafels & Dinges, Bantam Bagels is a purely take-away operation, the retail area of the shop barely holding the small line of people in front of us as we entered. Peering back beyond the counter, it’s clear that the bulk of the space is taken up by the kitchen, with room up front for only a small cooler for drinks, shelves for display bantams, and a counter by the window if you want to eat standing inside. The small shop is decked out in the red and black motif of the Bantam Bagels logo, the only real decoration coming from the branded merchandise placed high above the server on the right hand side of the store. Bantam’s only a few weeks old, having opened in early September, so they may still be developing their aesthetic beyond their menu items.

The Bites:

What Bantam lacks in space, it makes up for in variety -- myriad mini bagel balls on display.

What Bantam lacks in space, it makes up for in variety — myriad mini bagel balls on display.

The idea behind Bantam Bagels is to miniaturize and invert the traditional bagel-spread structure. As donut holes are to the donut, bantams are to the classical bagel. The balls are made of different types of dough and stuffed with a variety of corresponding fillings, from the familiar Plain Bantam (“plain bagel filled with plain cream cheese, butter, or peanut butter”) to the more experimental Summerberry Shortcake (“freshly picked blueberry bagel filled with sweet strawberry cream cheese”). A single bantam  will run you $1.35, but it’s a better deal to sample a variety of flavors by getting one of the exponentially larger orders of 3, 6, or 12 (they go up to an order of 40 bantams before you get into catering territory, but small as they are, even a diehard bagel-eater might struggle to house 40 of these guys).

Even more flavors -- bit of a bagel bonanza!

Even more flavors — just imagine taking 40 of these bad boys down.

Laura was gracious enough to be my intrepid companion for the day, so we decided to split an order of 12, attempting to run the gamut of savory and sweet. We ended up ordering the “Bantam of the Month,” which for September was The Bleecker Street, as well as the Everything Bantam, the Grandma Jojo, the Hot Pretzel, the French Toast, and the Boxed Lunch.

Our order neatly packaged and ready to be torn into.

Our order, neatly packaged and ready to be torn into.

As an evolution of the medium, Bantam Bagels does succeed in evoking the texture of a classic NY bagel. The small size (roughly the same as Dunkin Donuts munchkin) allows for even baking, creating a crisp crust that gives way to the chewy dough center. Although both Laura and I had expected the bantams to be slightly larger, closer to the Doughseed at Doughnut Plant, we agreed that the proportion of dough to filling was perfect, preventing the unfortunate cream-cheese with a side of bagel over-schmearing you occasionally receive from unmotivated deli staff. I would say the bantams are optimally two-bite treats, in order to properly savor the interplay of filling and dough.

As we paid for our box, the cashier cautioned that we should bite into the bantam at the spot where the small dollop of filling pokes through, so as to prevent the ball from collapsing and spilling filling all over you. Laura and I managed to get through our order without any major spread situations, however, the Bantam employee neglected to mention the danger of the powdered sugar on the French Toast bantam, which ended up coating every piece of our clothing that it touched.

Breakdown by bantam -- duos starting from top left: Everything, Boxed Lunch, French Toast, Grandma Jojo, Hot Pretzel, and the Bleecker Street.

Breakdown by bantam — duos starting from top left: Everything, Boxed Lunch, French Toast, Grandma Jojo, Hot Pretzel, and the Bleecker Street.

Speaking of which, let’s dive into our Bantam selection. The French Toast (“cinnamon-nutmeg egg bagel filled with buttery maple syrup cream cheese”) was overpowered by the sweetness of the spread and the large amount of powdered sugar. The spices of the bagel dough were lost amongst the stronger flavors of the filling, and both Laura and I agreed it lacked the eggy-moistness that typifies real french toast.

The Everything Bantam (“everything bagel filled with plain cream cheese”) was solid, if predictable. If you’re unsure of Bantam’s take on the bagel physiognomy, try this out to get a good sense of the spread-to-bagel proportions. Bantam has a good, springy dough, a well-measured portion of spices to evoke the “everything bagel” taste, and your familiar type of Philadelphia cream cheese.

As a hardcore fan of both peanut butter and jam-filled things, Laura had been very excited to get the Boxed Lunch (“plain bagel topped with crushed, roasted peanuts and filled with peanut butter and sweet strawberry jam”). I was also very intrigued by this particular bantam, since it veered the closest to dessert of our order. Unfortunately, the reality of the Boxed Lunch could not meet our lofty expectations. The peanut topping didn’t provide much of a textural contrast, and like the French Toast bantam, the plain bagel exterior was no match for the sugary insides. Laura and I felt like we’d just be better off getting a plain PB&J on sliced bread, since the bagel aspect added no real discernible advantage.

Ultimately, both Laura and I agreed that the more savory bantams were more successful. We appreciated the simplicity of the Hot Pretzel (“pretzel bagel topped with sea salt crystals, filled with dijon and sharp cheddar cream cheese”), which nailed the snappy outer layer of a soft pretzel and had a filling that reminded me of the beer cheese dip that accompanied our monster pretzel at Reichenbach. The Bleecker Street (“pizza dough bagel topped with a thin slice of pepperoni and filled with marinara mozzarella cream cheese”) was a little more divisive, although the issue was more with my personal dislike of pepperoni than the bantam’s flavor profile.

I can’t say I tasted much of a difference in the bagel dough between the Bleecker and the Grandma Jojo (“Italian spiced bagel topped with a thinly sliced, marinated tomato and filled with fresh basil pesto cream cheese”), but the pesto-tomato combination made this bantam the winner of the bunch. Both the Bleecker and the Grandma Jojo summoned up some solid nostalgic longings for pizza bagels, and stood apart from their bagel roots in the best way. Their fillings had the base richness of cream cheese that was subtly highlighted by herbs and spices, and worked harmoniously alongside the dough and toppings.

The Last Licks:

While Laura and I were a bit disappointed with the sweeter half of our Bantam Bagels order, overall I think the concept has some merit. It really depends on your expectations going in — if you’re looking to experiment and try some wacky takes on bagel flavor combinations, be bold and go for the oddball bantams like the olive-and-feta infused Athena or the Cookies and Milk. It was fun to take a leap, and I thought the bantams stretching furthest from the flavor norm were the most memorable. I’m hoping that they’ll continue to explore some of the more exotic culinary strains — I’ll come back to Bantam if they go into Indian or East Asian territories, or maybe some south of the border flair. For the moment, however, I think I’ll stick to buying full-size bagels at my usual bakery. Bantam Bagels should be commended for finding a way to make a NY mainstay into something new, but for this native they need to push the envelope more to move from a novelty to a necessity.

Bantam Bagels

283 Bleecker Street (between Jones St and 7th Ave South)

http://www.bantambagels.com

Brief Bites: Wafels and Dinges Cafe

2013-08-24 22.09.30

(Welcome to the inaugural edition of Brief Bites, in which I attempt to highlight one or two dishes and keep my word count to slightly less than Dostoevsky-levels. We’ll see how it goes.)

My best friend in 3rd grade was a girl named Kathlien, who had moved to Larchmont from Belgium a few years before we met. At that point, I couldn’t have pointed  Belgium out to you on a map, let alone tell you what Belgians ate, but Kathlien and I shared a common love of boxball, Barbies, and eating as many Girl Scout cookies as we sold, so I was basically a shining example of youthful multiculturalism. Eventually her parents’ careers took the family back to Ghent, and Kathlien and I grew up and apart. Perhaps my early brush with Belgian culture left me predisposed to view the country positively, but even now I can’t help but view Belgium with a kind of reverence. After all, this is the nation that lays claim to my favorite kind of beer (Belgian strong ales like Delirium Tremens), amazing waffles, delicious cookies (Biscoff), Godiva chocolate, and freaking french fries. Oh yeah, and they have some neat art and stuff, too (Rubens’ Prometheus Bound, anyone?).

So while this seemingly Willy-Wonka-wonderland of my favorite foods lies far across the vast Atlantic, the best I can do for now is sampling a bit of Belgian bravura at the new brick and mortar location of Wafels and Dinges, down at the bottom of the East Village on 2nd and Avenue B.

 

The Set Up:

A very official plaque establishing Wafels and Dinges as missionaries of the gospel of Belgian desserts.

A very official plaque establishing Wafels and Dinges as missionaries of the gospel of Belgian desserts.

Wafels and Dinges, known for besting Bobby Flay in a Waffle (er, wafel?) Throwdown (the victorious wafel is now on the menu), and for tempting the hearts and stomachs of many a drunken NYU student with their truck parked almost nightly near Astor Place, has been roving NY for over half a decade in cart and truck form. Their first permanent store opened last month, conveniently just a few steps away from the owner Thomas DeGeest’s East Village apartment. The sizable cafe occupies the corner of the block, and the open and airy space features the same tongue-in-cheek whimsy of their portable locations (such as a plaque on the front wall declaring this the “Belgian Ministry of Culinary Affairs: Department of Wafels”). The outer walls are basically all windows that can be opened up to the air, and the interior is decorated in an industrial style that mimics the look of the food trucks — yellow and black painted metal, unfinished steel, antique waffle irons hanging along the walls. A glass-enclosed kitchen/bar area occupies the front half of the store, with a collection of tables and chairs in the back. We happened to visit at the tail end of National Waffle Day (too late to catch the crowning of Mr. and Mrs. Wafel, alas), but the cafe was still decked out in plenty of cute blackboard drawings and taped-up artwork proclaiming wafel devotion. Aside from their food and drink offerings, the Wafels and Dinges cafe sells merchandise and house-endorsed items like speculoos spread, maple syrup, cookies and imported Belgian products.

The inside of the cafe is decked out in the familiar colors of the W&D trucks and carts.

The inside of the cafe is decked out in the familiar colors of the W&D trucks and carts. Note the glass-enclosed kitchen/bar area, where you can watch some wafelcraft in action.

Vibrant displays of dinge devotion next to the Mr. and Mrs. Waffle scorecard.

Vibrant displays of dinge devotion next to the Mr. and Mrs. Waffle scorecard.

 

The Bites:

The Wafels and Dinges cafe offers the same menu as found on their trucks, along with the shakes and sundaes, espresso drinks, and some savory wafels that are exclusive to the store (like the 2nd Street Salmon Special, which is like a bagel and lox platter, only on a waffle). Jacob and I decided to get a wafel (in honor of the holiday), and a milkshake to take advantage of the location’s offerings.

The variety of wafels -- Brussels on top, then Liege, then mini wafelini, and the Quarte and Stroopwafels on the bottom row.

The variety of wafels — Brussels on top, then Liege, then mini wafelini, and the Quarte and Stroopwafels on the bottom row.

 

We selected the Liege Wafel with Nutella and sliced bananas. Wafels and Dinges offers two main types of waffles: the Brussels waffle, which looks more like the familiar dining hall/IHOP model and is rectangular and airy, and the Liege waffle, which is thicker, less uniform in shape, chewier and denser (kinda like if Eggo waffles were artisanally-crafted). After selecting your wafel type, you then get to pick what kind of “dinges”, or toppings (ranging from dulce de leche to plain butter to walnuts), you’d like on your wafel — the first for free, and the rest come at an additional cost.

All hail our Liege, Lord of the nutella and bananas (nothing like a bad feudalism joke).

All hail our Liege, Lord of the Nutella and bananas (everyone loves a bad feudalism joke, right?).

I’ve actually never had the Brussels wafel, since the Liege is just so good. Unsurprisingly, this classic W&D menu item lived up to expectations — just as satisfying as the first one I ordered from the truck. Really, you can’t go wrong with a killer combo like chocolate and bananas. The contrast of the cold, freshly sliced bananas against the warmer smooth Nutella, and the chewy, slightly caramelized wafel made each bite a complex mishmash of temperature and texture. The only improvement would have come from warming the wafel more, or serving it fresh from the iron. Wafels and Dinges makes the wafels in batches that can sit out for a bit, depending on how busy the cafe is. The quality of the wafel is still superb even at room temperature, with strong vanilla and brown sugar flavors present in the batter, but had it arrived piping hot, the Nutella would have melted a bit and helped to bring the dish together more firmly.

Shake creation in action.

Shake creation in action.

We opted to go full-on Belgian for the milkshake, choosing the Spekuloos Shake, which features  W&D’s homemade Spekuloos ice cream mixed with crushed speculoos cookies. It’s served in a glass coated with speculoos spread, and topped with whipped cream, more cookie crumbles and a sprig of mint). For the uninitiated, spekuloos (or speculoos) are a type of spiced Belgian cookies that are traditionally made for the Feast of St. Nicholas around Christmastime, but are today more commonly served on Delta flights, in the form of complimentary packets of Biscoff cookies. Frequently light in color and oval-shaped, speculoos cookies have a similar flavor to gingerbread, but without the earthy intensity of cloves. The rise of the Nutella-like Biscoff spread (speculoos cookies crushed to a peanut butter consistency) has pushed the cookies more into the mainstream spotlight, to the point that Trader Joe’s sells its own version, in both cookie and spread form.

The Spekuloos Shake: an onslaught of sugary spice.

The Spekuloos Shake: an comely onslaught of sugary spice.

This shake is a triple punch of speculoos spice, so you’d better be a serious proponent of cookie butter allure if you opt to order it. Since we were splitting the shake, I didn’t find it too overwhelming, but if it were my sole dessert, I might have found it ultimately a little too one-note. Don’t get me wrong, I love me some Biscoff, and the ingredients were all top notch — the fresh creamy ice cream, the sweet spread, and the thick whipped cream — but it was a bit of a sugar bomb. Both Jacob and I felt that the drink was a bit too thin, more milky than truly slurp-able, like a great milkshake should be (at least, if you’re a Fribble lover like me). While I’m not opposed to the idea of speculoos-flavored milk, I think a mix-in or two would have simultaneously made the shake more interesting to drink, and broken up the intensity of the cookie flavoring. Wafels and Dinges actually offers another shake with Spekuloos ice cream and fresh strawberries, and I think having chunks of fruit in the milkshake would better allow the ice cream’s distinct flavor to shine. The mint garnish was also a source of confusion. Visually appealing, the bright green leaves certainly popped against the beige shake and white whipped cream, but once you started actually drinking, the mint seemed a bit out of place — what are you supposed to do with it? Chew small bites in between sips? Maybe it’s a consequence of watching too many episodes of Chopped, but I don’t see the point of inedible garnishes. Especially because I think a mint-speculoos shake sounds like a delicious and more refreshing dessert than the original version we had.

 

The Last Licks:

All in all, the Wafels and Dinges cafe is definitely a destination worth traveling for. Rather than scouring the city for the trucks or carts, you can find all the dessert delights you want at this new location, served daily with a solid dose of whimsy, even when it’s not National Waffle Day. While the milkshake didn’t blow us out of the water, the wafels are consistently superior to any other contenders I’ve encountered, and I’ll be back to try out their savory varieties, and maybe a sundae (the Speculoos Split with caramelized bananas is calling to me). Our server even remembered our names as Jacob and I headed out into the night, thanking us for stopping by, and making me wish I lived just a bit closer and could become a W&D regular. It may not be the most authentic Belgian experience, but until I find myself in Bruges, I’ll think fondly of Kathlien and her home country’s amazing cuisine as I take an extended tour through the Wafels and Dinges menu.

 

Wafels and Dinges

209 East 2nd Street (corner of Avenue B)

http://www.wafelsanddinges.com