I finally got around to trying Jacob’s Pickles, the trendy new restaurant in my Upper West Side neighborhood, and I’m here to report that it’s…ok.
Not bad. The food tastes pretty good. The ambiance is nice. Do you sense a lack of enthusiasm?
The place is mobbed at night, so I went in the afternoon and had one of their signature dishes: fried chicken with biscuits and cheesy grits. The chicken was good. The grits were very cheesy. The mushroom gravy poured on top was a half step above Campbell’s Soup cream of mushroom.
And yes, the pickles. You could order 4 for $11. You could order all types of pickles. You could have battered and fried pickles. You could be rushed to Roosevelt Hospital.
I would risk that, for a great meal. But this one was…ok. When I needed the check, no one was around for ten minutes. I looked longingly across the street, at Flor de Mayo, and realized I could have had their pollo a la brasa, which has rated by the New York Times as the best chicken in the city, at half the price. And it would have been twice as good.
But Flor de Mayo is far from trendy. Just great food. The eats at Jacob’s Pickles? It’s…Well, I think you get the picture.
Jacob’s Pickles, 509 Amsterdam Avenue, between 84th-85th Streets.
Is this Page becoming the Food Blog Version of the Sports Illustrated Jinx?
Seems that whenever Sports Illustrated features an athlete on its cover, he immediately breaks a leg or worse.
I hope this page isn’t following a similar path of hexes.
My last food blog was about fabulous Sarge’s deli, probably the only authentic, worthwhile kosher deli beside Katz’s (which is going downhill) left in Manhattan.
Two weeks after I wrote the column Sarge’s burned to the ground in a four alarm fire.
Right before that, I wrote about Tale Thai, a terrific Thai spot on the Upper West Side.
Soon after, Tale Thai was shuttered.
That’s why you haven’t seen any reviews of my favorite restaurants lately. I’ve been traumatized. And I need somewhere to eat.
I’ll give it another try soon. Favorite restaurants beware.
When I was a kid in Brooklyn, I would stroll down Avenue J and have my choice of the best ethnic restaurants on the planet. Yes, everyone remembers their old neighborhood as having “the best” this and that, but when I became an adult I realized this was actually the case.
For example, my old pizza hangout was a dump called Di Fara, where my older friend Lenny would play “Soldier Boy” on the corner jukebox over and over when he was home on leave from the Army until Dom the owner would get disgusted and throw him out. But we thought Dom’s pizza was the best.
What did we punk teenagers know? Obviously a lot. Flash forward to 2012, and hole-in-the-wall Di Fara is rated the #1 pizza in New York City by Zagat’s, with a 26 rating!
Similarly, Golden Deli on Avenue J was the best kosher deli I’ve ever tried by far. Marvin the owner ran a tight ship, and I can still remember when he came out from behind the counter, all 300 pounds of him, effortlessly lifting a nasty, cursing patron from his chair and unceremoniously tossing him onto the curb.
Unfortunately, the Golden Deli (and Marvin) have passed on, and I’ve been searching for a good Jewish deli in vain for years since.
Until I came upon Sarge’s.
Sarge’s Deli is the real deal. Unlike the more famous Carnegie and Stage, which are tourist trap abominations, Sarge’s is an unpretentious, authentic deli that serves great kosher food at reasonable prices. Sarge’s is the only deli in NYC that cures its own corned beef and pastrami on premises, and one delicious bite of either confirms that.
The soups are terrific, and the lunch specials well worth it, where you can get a choice of soup, beverage, two different half sandwiches and Sarge’s incredible, freshly cut french fries for $13. Unlike many delis today that serve only white meat turkey (a sure sign that that don’t prepare it in the restaurant), Sarge’s serves turkey legs with gravy and all the trimmings.
Dinner comes with Sarge’s terrific chopped liver, gratis. The restaurant is open–and delivers–24 hours a day, seven days a week.
If you are looking for an upscale-looking “modern” deli, go elsewhere. But if you want authentic and mouth-watering (even Katz’s has gone downhill lately, and the 2nd Avenue Deli is now a ripoff lost cause), your best (and last) resort is Sarge’s Deli. No, it’s not Marvin’s Golden, but it’s the closest you’re going to get.
(Sarge’s Deli, 548 3rd Avenue, between 36th and 37th Street, open 24/7.)
Location, location, location. While Tale Thai Cuisine seems well situated on the Upper West Side, its mid-block Columbus Avenue spot between W.84th and W.85th Streets has served as the Bermuda triangle of restaurants. I remember at least six in the past decade, some of them pretty decent. They all closed before they were two years old.
Now comes Tale, a really good, reasonably priced and beautiful looking Thai restaurant. Hope they make it, because I really like the shrimp/pork dumplings, the spicy, seared tuna salad, and most of the other tasty appetizers. The drunken noodles are an excellent main dish, served with chicken, pork, duck or mixed vegetables, just spicy enough and a bargain at $9 to $11 a generous serving.
The three course lunch specials are an incredible bargain, with soup, an extensive choice of appetizer plus main dish for under $10. The servers are friendly and efficient, and there is never a line. Which is both good and bad. Yeah, you can get in–but will it be there the next time you visit?
(addendum: The answer is no. Tale has shut down. The Bermuda Triangle location strikes again!)
- People may break into tears the first time they experience Big Nick’s, the one-of-a-kind Upper West Side neighborhood institution, and it’s 50-50 whether they’ll be tears of horror or joy.
- This place is the all-time dive–Guy Fieri should be ashamed of himself for missing it.
The time warp feel of the tight quarters, shabby decor with old school B list actors beaming down on you from the walls and a few oddly placed tables all contribute to its weird ambiance.
- Meanwhile, the menu is just slightly shorter than War and Peace. How can they cook all that food in that tiny excuse for a kitchen up front? The menu ranges from huge, tasty burgers (40 varieties, including an ostrich burger) to pizza (30 varieties) to challah french toast to stuffed grape leaves to mussels marinara to tenderloin steak to to fried clams parmigiana to a giant spinach pie.
- The soups range from a hearty chicken, pasta and fresh vegetables ($3.50) to an ambitious, deluxe seafood boulliabaisse ($15.30).
- I usually order the Potato and Pot Roast Melt on a Hero, which includes pot roast “au jus”, seasoned waffle fries (yes, on the sandwich), fried onions, green peppers, mushrooms and gruyere cheese packed on a toasted garlic hero. Delicious.
- You can wash that down with an egg cream or Dr. Brown’s soda, and finish off with a banana split, warm pecan pie, baklava or a jumbo black and white cookie.
Big Nicks is open 23 (not 24) hours a day, with indoor or outdoor seating. It’s an only-in-New York experience, and you’ve got to try it at least once. Just don’t say you weren’t warned.
- 2175 Broadway, off West 77th Street.
Chopped–Lunch Lady Episode:
Chopped is my favorite Food Network show, despite the fact that too many of the guest chefs have arrogant, ”I deserve to win because I am superior” attitudes. This certainly wasn’t the case with the four wonderful women on the “Lunch Lady” Thanksgiving episode.
Supposedly on the show to promote childhood healthy eating, they exposed a more important issue: childhood hunger. About 25% of American children go hungry each day, a fact virtually ignored by politicians often debating about how to screw these poor kids even further.
But I digress. The four competitors were as un-glam and down to earth as could be, all working class, each of whom could clearly benefit from the $10,000 prize given to the winner. But they genuinely and selflessly supported each other throughout the show, putting the narcissistic chefs who too often dominate Chopped to shame.
They also were surprisingly inventive cooks, and it didn’t seem condescending at all when one of the judges said “you aren’t simply lunch ladies, you’re true chefs.”Knowing that most of the children in her school get little or literally nothing to eat over the weekend, one of the lunch ladies slips food into their backpacks each Friday so they won’t go hungry.
The episode was extremely moving and truly captured the spirit of Thanksgiving. Congratulations to The Food Network for airing it, and above all to lunch ladies for renewing hope in the human race.The episode will be repeated all Thanksgiving week. Don’t miss it.
Real Cheap Eats:
- New York Magazine recently ran its “Cheap Eats” issue. Were these articles written by real New Yorkers? Most of these places and dishes are overpriced and underwhelming. (Memo to NY Mag: a $18-$20 meal is not “cheap eats” to most New Yorkers).
- Here are two real–and delicious–”cheap eats” meals:
- 1) Cuban Roast Ham and Moro Rice; La Caridad, Broadway and 78th Street. Succulent pork in natural juices and fresh garlic. Amazing! (Saturday and Sunday only, all day);
- 2) Spring Roll and Banh Mi Sandwich; Bao Noodles, 2nd Avenue between 22nd and 23rd Street. Other tasty Vietnamese appetizers and main dishes are also available, but this combo is my favorite. (11:30 a.m to 4p.m. weekdays) A ten dollar bill will do it for both.
- Aquagrill is an unpretentious, laid back seafood restaurant that serves the freshest fish in town. Not cheap, but worth the splurge (figure about $100 for two without drinks).
- The basket of fresh baked breads, including a wonderful onion foccacia, and the complimentary salmon tartare alert you immediately that you’re in for a great dining experience.
- The Billi bi mussel soup is extraordinary. If they only served this creamy, astounding appetizer and nothing else, I’d still visit regularly. Even if you’re not a big mussel fan, this is well worth trying.
- Aquagrill has a well-deserved reputation as an oyster-lovers paradise, with over 20 varieties. If you’re a novice, this is a great place to learn the difference between East Coast and West Coast oysters__all fresh, delicious and shucked right at the bar up front.
- You can’t go wrong with any of the simply grilled fish entrees, but I usually go for the seared diver scallops with crabmeat risotto. As with the Billi Bi soup, those who don’t care for scallops have second thoughts after sampling this terrific dish.
- For lunch or brunch, I recommend the grilled rare yellowfin tuna sandwich on Ciabetti bread with arugula, avocado, grilled onions and a side of fries. Well worth the $12.50 tab.
- The hostess and servers are friendly and professional. The only downside is the tables are packed a little too close together, but don’t let that stop you. You’ll forget about that as soon as you get your first course.
- But don’t come with anyone who isn’t a seafood lover. I did and regretted it immediately. This person rejected my suggestion of the Billi bi soup because it was too “weird”, ordered the clam chowder and a hamburger, then proclaimed the place overrated. Aagh!But for the rest of us, there is no better seafood restaurant in Manhattan.Aquagrill: 210 Spring Street/6th Avenue, on the edge of Soho
Chirpin’ Chicken: Good n’ PlentyEast Side, West Side…If you’re looking for tasty, healthy, cheap and quick chicken in Manhattan, there’s one great place to go: Chirpin’ Chicken. Ok, actually two: Chirpin’ East and Chirpin’ West.
The superior Chirpin’ Chicken is on the West Side of Manhattan, at Amsterdam and 77th. The original was a dump across the street, but after the owner’s daughter won the lottery, a much more appealing, triple-the-size location opened directly across the way at 355 Amsterdam.
I go at least once a week, and so, it seems, do half the people on the Upper West Side. While trendy Shake Shack gets all the publicity (there’s one a block away) and even larger mobs, I think that place is overrated. Yes I know, heresy, but if I can’t get my burger medium rare, plump and made to order, I don’t want it.
But untrendy Chirpin’ Chicken is the real deal. Moist and succulent on the inside and nicely charred and seasoned on the outside, the half chicken meal for $9.99 is most popular. I usually order the quarter chicken, quarter ribs, side dish (superior roasted potatoes) and a salad (with caesar dressing): a huge dish for the moderate price of $11.29. They also throw in a free side of home made pita bread and a delicious tomato salsa dipping sauce.
The place is open from 10 a.m. until 2 a.m. Try to go off hours if you’d like to find a table. Or better yet, don’t go at all. When I order in (I’m a half mile away), the food seems to arrive at my door, fresh and hot, about two minutes after I get off the phone. I don’t know how they do it either.
West Side: 355 Amsterdam (77th); East Side: (a hole in the wall but the same chicken–almost) 1260 Lexington (85th-84th).
For the holidays, everyone will be bringing special pies and elaborate cakes to their dinners with family and friends. What can you bring that will make you stand out?
1) Two Little Red Hens’ Brooklyn Blackout Cupcakes: When I was a kid in Brooklyn, I would salivate when I saw the distinctive Ebinger’s Bakery box, hoping it contained its one-of-a-kind blackout cake–the best cake I’ve eaten to this day. The Two Little Red Hens locations in Manhattan and Brooklyn have copied this exclusive Ebinger’s formula with its Brooklyn Blackout Cupcakes.
The cupcakes offer incredibly moist chocolate wrapped around a delicious pudding center. Its hard to capture in words how mind-blowingly great it tastes. The price might blow your mind as well ($4 each), but its worth getting them for these special occasions. (1652 2nd Avenue, Manhattan; 1112 8th Avenue, Brooklyn)
Levian’s Chocolate Chip Cookies: The lone Levian’s outlet on Manhattan’s West 74th Street offers this astounding cookie for the same astounding price–$4. Yes, it’s ridiculous, but it weighs so much it can serve double duty as a barbell to tone up as you carry it home.
This is a cookie that you will either love or hate. It’s more like a piece of cake, but I think it’s delicious, and the long lines indicate I’m not alone. (167 West 74th Street)
Zabar’s Chocolate Croissants: Yeah, it’s not as unique as the two above-mentioned desserts, but it ranks up there with the best in New York, at about half the price. For $1.75 each, you can be a sport and bring a few. Make sure to put them in the microwave for about 10-15 seconds, then stand back for the heaping platters of praise you will receive. (Broadway and 80th Street, Manhattan)
Off the Asian Path:
When most people think of Asian food, they think Chinese, Japanese or Thai. But there are three excellent, reasonably-priced restaurants in the city (actually a heck of a lot more, but these are my three favorites) that offer unique varieties of Asian-style food that will goose your palate while being gentle on your wallet:
1) Fusha: The most upscale of the three, Fusha offers “contemporary Asian” choices. Appetizers include broiled miso black cod with grilled red pepper, eggplant and green curry ($13). The “Almost Japanese” section of the menu offers a spicy tuna tortilla ($12) as well as a “tapas sampler”, which includes edamane salad, seas scallop cerviche, salmon carpaccio and kinchi topshell clam, for all of $10.
Lunch is a bargain, with steamed flounder with black bean sauce my particular favorite. It is served with miso soup, salad and shrimp shumai for $9.95. (311 Amsterdam and 75th)
2) Bao Noodles: This Second Avenue gem offers such Vietnamese-style dishes as eggplant with shrimp ($9.95) and delicious, non-greasy spring rolls on rice vermicelli ($8.95). The place also offers great Banh Mi sandwiches, with a choice of chicken, pork ($5.95) or shrimp ($6.95) The baguettes come with cucumber, daikon, cilentro and mayo–and will knock you out! (391 Second Avenue, 22nd-23rd)
3) Flor de Mayo: I’ve never had a bad meal in this place. The Chinese-Peruvian icon offers the best rotisserie chicken (“pollo de la brasca”) in the city, according the NY Times and everyone who has eaten it. All the lunches are a steal and include soup and salad. I’d also try the “Peruvian Special” Tallarin Saltado (sliced steak sauteed with tomatoes and onions mixed in with noodles) or the “Hong Kong Special” Chow Har Kew (breaded fresh jumbo shrimp sauteed with fresh garden vegetables over yellow rice). (484 Amsterdam Avenue, 83/84th Street)
Restaurants of the Week:
When I visit Chinatown, I keep it limited to two great destinations:
Great New York Noodletown, and New Wonton Garden.
Just the names make me smile (although I can do without the word “Great” that Noodletown added a while back–I’ll be the judge of that!)
And I don’t care that David Bouley once listed Noodletown as the place he visits when he wants a great, simple meal, or that David Cheng is also a frequent visitor. I care about the eats.
Frankly, the place is a dump. Non-existent decor, indifferent waiters, and you may be planted at a huge round table of strangers. But it’s the food, stupid!
And wow, is it great. The incredible wonton soup with roast pork or roast duck (a huge bowl for $5.95-6.95), the succulent roasted meats, the spicy beef chow fon and, if you feeel like splurging, the pepper shrimp (one of the pricier dishes at $13.95).
Meanwhile, New Wonton Garden is a relatively recent find. Less crowded than “Noodletown”, with waiters decked out in incongruous Hawaiian shirts, the place specializes in__wait for it__great wontons (and dumplings).
The beef stew with noodles and wontons, with soup on the side ($7.95) is one of the tastiest bargains in New York City.
So if you’re looking for ambiance, or a traditional egg roll/spare rib/chow mein meal, by all means avoid these two joints. But if delicious, incredibly cheap food is your goal, you can’t do better.
Great New York Noodletown: 28 1/2 Bowery (corner of Bayard Street)
New Wonton Garden: 79 Mulberry Street
Restaurant Review: Carmine’s
I’m going to start with a controversial choice: Carmine’s restaurant.
Yeah, I know. Just reading the name makes one a) salivate, b) scream with horror, or c) both.
Those who have never visited Carmine’s (I’m talking about the original Upper West Side location, not the midtown tourist trap) may wonder: Why would a southern Italian restaurant that serves tasty, huge portions of reasonably priced food make one run for the hills?
Let us count the ways: The mobs. The noise level. The Jersey Shore ambiance. The two hour wait. The maddening, “Happy Birthday” serenades every 10 seconds.
These sad realities have turned off locals for years, even those who long for the landmark restaurant’s pizza bread, their zuppa de clams, their superior chicken marsala and pastas.
But it doesn’t have to be that way…
THE QUESTION: How to get the heavenly food Carmine’s offers without going through the living hell Carmine’s offers (especially on weekend nights)?
THE ANSWER: Go on Saturday afternoon, between noon and 3 p.m.
For about $10 to $13, you can get a great meal, with enough leftovers to provide you with another great meal or two at home (make sure to order from the luncheon menu).
And it’s QUIET.
And there’s NO WAIT.
And the clientele AREN’T DRESSED IN SWEATS AND SINGING HAPPY BIRTHDAY DRUNK AND OFF KEY.
It’s a totally different experience. A pleasant one. You can even hear your luncheon partner!
Just do me one favor. Don’t tell too many people about this. I’d hate to have the ecstasy of “Carmine’s Day” turn into the agony of “Carmine’s Night.”
2450 Broadway (90th-91st Street)