The Struggle of the Slightly-Informed and Writing Resolutions

Mezzetim from Bustan. Really a promise of more food photos if you scroll past all the "thoughts" and "feelings."

Mezzetim from Bustan. Really a promise of more food photos if you scroll past all the “thoughts” and “feelings.”

Wow, it’s been a while since we’ve talked, hasn’t it? Hard to believe I’m actually sitting my butt down and writing a post for Experimental Gastronomy. But believe it, because I’m hoping to make this a regular recurring deal again. As I promised oh so many months ago, my intention is to have this blog evolve, since my own relationship with food has changed since EG’s inception way back in 2013. Food forms the basis of both my professional and academic pursuits, so it seems foolish to imagine that I could continue posting reviews and musings as just a passionate, fairly uninformed reader. However, before I start busting out new vocabulary (bottarga! torchon! and my favorite, chef de partie!), I want to take a step back into my comfort zone, aka, neuroticism, and talk about some of the pseudo-struggles that have come with my new perspective.

 

Maybe it’s because I’m the youngest of four kids, and the only girl, but I’ve never liked to argue. I’d guess that part of that comes from early formative experiences when my older brothers (the youngest of them 6 years my elder), tore apart my arguments for why I deserved a second chocolate chip cookie rather than them. With that background, perhaps it’s no surprise that I tend to default to avoiding confrontation if I’m not armed with a lot of facts and statistics. This might seem counterintuitive, since I was president of the Debate Club in high school, but actually that’s where I was most comfortable — I’d spend the week before each meeting studying up on the topic so I could make a coherent argument for my side.

 

This is actually a large factor for why I chose to go back to school (that, and a deep, abiding love for spiral notebooks). I found myself getting more and more passionate about issues of nutrition and food policy, but reluctant to take a public stand since my knowledge was limited to what I’d read on the Internet. Unlike many people in my generation, I don’t believe that having a Twitter handle means I’m a qualified expert. I’m hoping that with 3 or so years of NYU Food Studies education stuffed into my brain, I might actually be able to give a thorough answer when my friends and family members ask me about heirloom vegetables or GMOs.

 

Which brings me back to a current dilemma: what role does the informed friend or family member play in the lives of those around them? I was asked a number of times over the holidays about my opinions on factory farming, genetic modification, and organic food. In those cases, as with politics and religion, I feel like the best bet is to gently voice my opinions, but admit that I’m only about a hundredth more informed than the questioner at this point, and try to point them to resources with more information.

 

But what if you see someone making food choices in their life that you feel are less healthy, or even harmful? I really wrestle with this — I told people when I started reading more about the American food system and nutrition that I never want to be the obnoxious, preachy person off to the side. I went to high school with too many overly-vocal vegetarians to enter into that headspace. Food is so intensely personal for people, embedded with past experiences both positive and negative, and imbued with cultural resonance that draws the map we all navigate everyday. It’s nearly impossible to fully appreciate someone’s relationship with food without a deep knowledge of their background, and even then, we all have good and bad days. We’re usually witness to just a small sliver of an individual’s food choices — I recently realized that one of my friends only sees me in group settings where I tend to relax my general healthy food regimen — I have to wonder if she thinks I shovel Oreos and Peanut Butter M&Ms into my mouth 24/7, given how I behave around her. And that’s exactly the problem — I’m far from a paragon of Gwyneth Paltrow-esque purity. So who am I to clamber up on a high horse and raise an eyebrow when you pour yourself a glass of Crystal Light or bust open a box of Skinny Cow?

 

Do you only step in if you know there’s conclusive scientific evidence? Do I push for my relatives to buy organic milk to avoid antibiotics in their dairy? Do I become that person that sends around links to NPR articles about salmonella contamination in industrially-farmed chicken? Or is it the same as other taboo topics — in polite company, keep it to yourself? The Victorian version of food advocacy — speak only when spoken to? One of my cousins is a family doctor, and has to put up with us constantly having her check our throats whenever we sniffle slightly. But I’ve never seen her lay down the law on someone as they dive into their fifth helping of brisket during seder (that someone often times being me).

 

Beyond the initial question of whether to pipe up, even when I am directly asked questions about nutrition and the state of food production in America, I find myself being consciously tentative. One my greatest fears is to come off as patronizing, yet I hope someday to make educational media for mass audiences. How can I one day get up on a soapbox if I can’t negotiate the nuances of a conversation with a relative or friend? Does NYU offer a course on that?

 

Like most things in life, I guess it’s just going to be a messy, complex work in progress. In the meantime, let’s switch gears and get into a little food porn to lighten the mood.

 

Here’s a small sampling of deliciousness from the past couple of months:

 

First up, some bites from my very short trip to LA at the beginning of the month, where I reunited with my Gastronomic Life Partner Jacob for a whirlwind tour of old edible favorites and new discoveries.

Cape Cod Squash Rolls from Fishing with Dynamite -- just look at butter sheen!

Cape Cod Squash Rolls from Fishing with Dynamite — just look at butter sheen!

 

Right after I landed at LAX, we drove over to Manhattan Beach. My colleague Elena had basically insisted we visit Fishing with Dynamite, an elevated take on the seafood shack that had blown Elena away. Jacob and I were overwhelmed by the hospitality of the place — we ended up speaking to both the chef de cuisine and the sous chef over the course of our meal. One of the highlights was the Chef David’s Mom’s Cape Cod Squash Rolls, a sublimely simple dish, which was simultaneously unusual and nostalgic. Served with aromatic rosemary butter, the rolls came in a tiny cast iron skillet, shiny on top and tender, tinted slightly orange from the squash. I could have made a meal of this vegetal take on Parker House Rolls, but it was only the beginning of a smorgasbord of seafood and produce. I’m really hoping I can go back for dinner the next time I make it out west.

 

Just one portion of the extensive selection at Huckleberry Bakery & Cafe.

Just one small portion of the extensive selection at Huckleberry Bakery & Cafe.

Immediately after lunch, we went for dessert at Huckleberry Bakery & Cafe in Santa Monica. I spent a good five minutes hemming and hawing over what to get out of the display case that was brimming with baked beauties. Ultimately, Jacob and I settled on the Buckwheat Apple Cake and the Chocolate Pudding.

Buckwheat Apple Cake and Chocolate Pudding from Huckleberry -- one side nutty and crumbly, the other rich and smooth.

Buckwheat Apple Cake and Chocolate Pudding from Huckleberry: one side nutty and crumbly, the other rich and smooth.

I really enjoyed the nuttiness that came from the buckwheat cake. I’d love to start baking with alternative flours this year, since it seems like they’re much more readily available than before. And the chocolate pudding? Decadent, rich, deeply dark chocolate plus homemade whipped cream? I don’t think I really have to say anything more.

 

Photographic evidence of the myth, the legend ... the Pizookie from BJ's.

Photographic evidence of the myth, the legend … the Pizookie from BJ’s.

My last LA pick is not from a hot-new-spot, does not feature any sort of kale, and is not a taco (although I did have an awesome sampler from Guisado’s while I was there). After hearing Jacob go on about it for years, I finally tried the fabled Pizookie from BJ’s Restaurant & Brewhouse. Faced with an expanded menu that touted an Oreo, Salted Caramel, or Triple Chocolate iteration, I opted for the original. I’ve gotta have a baseline, you know? For the similarly uninitiated, a Pizookie is a giant chocolate chip cookie baked in a cake tin, and topped with a scoop of vanilla ice cream. Imagine all your grocery store cookie cake dreams, warmed up and topped with your favorite substance on earth. So yeah, it was worth it.

 

Petite Shell's entrant into the chocolate rugelach game.

Petite Shell‘s entrant into the chocolate rugelach game.

Moving back to NY, we’re rounding out the round-up with some Jew-y foods. First is the Chocolate-Hazelnut Rugelach from brand-new bakery Petite Shell on the UES. Matt and I went there to check out their line-up of unusual rugelach flavors, which ranged from the trendy Dulce de Leche to the downright strange White Chocolate–Granny Smith Apple. But I wanted to focus on the Chocolate-Hazelnut, since that runs in direct competition to EG favorite Breads Bakery (Petite Shell also offers a babka, but I haven’t had the chance to check it out yet). So how does it stack up? Pretty close, but I think Breads edges a victory out. The Nutella-esque filling from Petite Shell was sweeter than Breads, and I missed the stronger cocoa notes of the first rugelach to open my eyes to the format’s potential. Petite Shell also fell down on service, but it was the first weekend they were open, so they may shape up in time.

 

The Bustan Shakshuka: worth a trip, especially on a wintry weekend morning.

The Bustan Shakshuka: worth a trip, especially on a wintry weekend morning.

Last but not least, we finally have another entrant to my NYC shakshuka talent competition, this time from the UWS’s Bustan. I went there for brunch with a couple of college friends and was blown away by the freshly baked flatbread (ain’t no pita in this joint). Bustan has an extensive brunch menu featuring sweet and savory dishes, and offers 6, count ‘em, 6 variations on shakshuka. I went with the classic, which featured perfectly runny yolks, a peppery and bright tomato sauce, and stewed bell peppers and onions. I’d still recommend Zizi Limona for the die-hard shakshuka fan, but Bustan gets close to the mark. Especially with that amazing flatbread hot out of the oven and slicked with oil.

 

I’ll end on the note of salivation-inducing carbs, as per usual. Here’s my promise to you — I’m not gonna let this blog linger. I can’t promise I’ll be consistent, or that this won’t end up as a place sometimes filled with the existential crises of a Food Studies student, but at least there will be new content. And as always, if you follow me on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram, you’ll pretty much get just food photos, without all the annoying thoughts and context to accompany them. Stay tuned and stay hungry.

Bustan
487 Amsterdam Avenue
http://www.bustannyc.com

BJ’s Brewhouse and Restaurant
http://www.bjsrestaurants.com

Fishing with Dynamite
1148 Manhattan Avenue
Manhattan Beach, CA
http://www.eatfwd.com/

Huckleberry Bakery & Cafe
1014 Wilshire Boulevard
Santa Monica, CA
http://www.huckleberrycafe.com/

Petite Shell
1269 Lexington Ave

 

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/

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/