For more than two years, I’ve been Grantland’s unofficial office foodie.1 Two weeks ago, I traveled to New York City as a part of Grantland’s NBA draft coverage. It was the first time I’d been on a plane since high school, and the first time I’d stepped foot in New York since I was 12. My most memorable meal during that visit was at Bubba Gump in Times Square. I needed to fix that.
If you’re dubious of my bona fides, please refer to my week on the high-fat Lakers diet and my dispatch from the 2014 World Gyoza Eating Championship, where I tied for 12th out of 16 contestants.
New York’s food culture has always intrigued me. It’s a land where cuisines of different cultures and different eras are forced up against one another because of space limits. It’s a far cry from Los Angeles, where the sprawl out of downtown created by the predominant highway system creates cultural enclaves that can go on for miles before even coming close to commingling with one another.
I wanted to try things I couldn’t get back home, like good and affordable slices of pizza or stewed oxtails and callaloo. I also wanted to, once and for all, settle the insecurities within my heart that grew as my cultural purview did: What if In-N-Out isn’t the be-all, end-all of fast-food chains? What if the Chinese food in Flushing is better than the San Gabriel Valley, a region east of L.A. with some of the highest concentrations of Asian residents in the United States, and a place I proudly call home?
In distance and ignorance, I’ve mythologized New York’s culinary landscape for much of my life, tracing the outlines that food documentaries offered. But I never had a chance to experience it for myself, until recently. I made it a side mission to eat as much of New York as I could in six days, given my time constraints. Consider it a salute.
What follows is a partial account of my journey.
They say you make your own destiny. I sure as hell tried. My red-eye flight into JFK was scheduled to land at 5:55 a.m. The Shake Shacks in the airport open at six. That was a conscious decision. But I couldn’t engineer the location of the jetway I’d be walking out of. There are two Shake Shacks in JFK; only one directly faces a gate. I almost cried when I walked out and realized I was at that gate. Taylor Swift could’ve personally serenaded me right there, and the poor lady would be rendered as a footnote in subsequent retellings of my odyssey; I’d still be bragging to my friends about how immediately close I was to a Shake Shack, right out of the tunnel. Pretty sure my lip quivered. I should’ve taken a selfie.
I ordered a double ShackBurger and a coffee shake.2 There was a beautiful dark-brown, almost reddish crust on the patties, which is a must for fast-food-style burgers. The potato bun was everything it was hyped up to be — pliant, springy, and sturdy enough to stand up to two beef patties, which is definitely the move if you care about proportional burger structure.
I’m really bad at describing sweet things, because I’m not really a dessert person. But for a good portion of the meal, I was thinking the shake might’ve been the best thing about Shake Shack.
But my first two bites were disappointing. For all of that crust, the beefy flavor was being held back by a noticeable lack of salt. As I found my way toward the lower half of the burger, I found myself wondering, Am I missing something here? Then it happened, something I’d never experienced before in a burger: It transformed at the very end. The best few bites were my final two. My complaints about the burger disappeared — as all food does, the longer it sits to cool, the more clearly perceptible the salt content. The crustiest part of the patty, the oozy cheese, and the sauce all met at the potato bun’s fulcrum. It was amazing. The next time I order a ShackBurger, I might just gnaw on my fist for a little while to let the burger rest, as though it were a steak cooked medium rare.
Sal and Carmine / Xi’an Famous Foods
In “So Did the Fat Lady,” the controversial Season 4 episode of Louie, Louie and his brother go on a back-to-back restaurant binge. His brother calls it a “bang-bang.” Louie had always been one of my favorite shows, but this scene spoke to me directly. It gave my perverse, borderline masochistic levels of gluttony a tether to the realm of pop culture. Ever since, I’ve been able to make my eating habits somewhat relatable. I use the term “bang-bang” as a crutch to be understood, just like normal people use movie quotes in conversation.
Sal and Carmine Pizza and Xi’an Famous Foods are next-door neighbors on Broadway, near 103rd St. on the Upper West Side. Sal and Carmine is a beloved institution, opened by two brothers in 1959. Today, it’s helmed by Sal’s grandson Luciano, who maintains the curmudgeonly attitude of his forefathers. The plain slice was amazing — salt bombs from the aged mozzarella coaxed and defused by a lightly sweet sauce. I should’ve gotten two, but panicked and ordered a sausage slice, which also looked good, but threw off what was such a harmonious balance. I ate the sausage slice first. After my coffee shake, the plain slice might’ve been the closest thing to a dessert I had all trip long.
Immediately after, I walked into the UWS outpost of Xi’an Famous Foods, an unlikely NYC empire that started in a basement-level food stall serving Shaanxi cuisine out in Flushing, Queens. I got the spicy cumin lamb noodles. Lamb and cumin are soulmates; it’s really hard to go wrong. The knife-cut and rustic noodles are thick, imprecise ribbons of dough. They stick together, and are often too unmanageable for the small and thin to-go chopsticks that you’re given. The noodles up top are cooked close to al dente. The noodles at the bottom of the dog pile are softer, due to the trapping of heat. Because of how quickly the noodles change in texture, there are signs in the restaurant that practically beg you to eat the noodles immediately. I couldn’t imagine stomaching this same dish to go.
Freda’s Caribbean & Soul Cuisine
The Double Windsor
Some nights aren’t really about the food, but the amount of Schaefers and cheap whiskey shots you’re putting down. Still, the food at The Commodore exceeded expectations. I had a very respectable fried chicken sandwich with impeccable structural integrity. It was a dark bar, and I only faintly traced the outline of the sandwich during the night, but not once did it fall apart when I picked it up.
The Spotted Pig
The Spotted Pig burger is one of the most aggressive burgers I’ve ever eaten. It has only three components: a half-pound burger patty of short rib, brisket, sirloin, and beef suet3 from legendary meat purveyor Pat LaFrieda; Roquefort blue cheese; and a sturdy brioche bun with a signature crosshatch design. No substitutions. This is a burger with a Michelin star, conceptualized by a James Beard award winner. You know exactly what you’re getting yourself into when you step into the thunderdome. It’s like paying $22 to get pretzeled by Ronda Rousey: Even if you’re not into pain (or blue cheese), you hope there’s something profound in being taken down by the best.
The hard fat found around beef kidneys that gives the burger an unbelievable richness.
Yeah, the Roquefort is overbearingly tangy at first. But the shock wears off. As it mellows, the beefiness of the burger surges, blanketed by a vaguely nutty Roquefort presence. It’s a burger that rewards your endurance. The move is to let the Roquefort cheese melt a little, and then drizzle the excess over the fries. It evens out the flavor ratio a bit. Don’t worry. There’s plenty of blue cheese.
The fries are brilliant, not because of how they taste, but how you must eat them: in handfuls. The strings of fried starch poke out in different directions; either you take multiple bites, or you open your mouth extra wide to fit them all. You look silly, but so does the Australian magnate sitting next to you. It’s the great equalizer. And you keep eating them because eventually you realize it’s kind of fun. At the bottom of the haystack, you’ll find paper-thin garlic chips hidden in the crevasses, and if you’re like me, it’ll be your favorite part of the meal.
At least until the ricotta gnudi comes out.
This was, hands down, the best thing I ate in New York all week. Petals of Brussels sprouts are arranged like succulents in the front yard. The tips are singed black, amplifying its bittersweet profile on the flavor quadrant, allowing the bits of lightly smoked pancetta to round out the slightly bitter bite with a comforting hit of umami. It’s a lighter, surprisingly delicate flavor combination; the crisp, airy crust completed the magic carpet ride.
I sat alone, next to a couple on an early evening date. They ordered two pizzas, neither of which was the Brussels sprouts pie. They didn’t finish their meal, and seemed envious of how much I was enjoying mine. I hope they make the right decision next time.
Assorted Meals in Flushing, Queens
If you live in a part of America with a prominent Chinatown, you’ve probably noticed something recently: There is an overwhelming obsession with soup dumplings (xiao long bao), perhaps attributed to Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations episode set in Shanghai, or possibly because of the ship-in-a-bottle magic of creating a food item that has a full-bodied soup encased in a paper-thin membrane. As best I could tell, there were no formal xiao long bao at Tianjin Dumpling House, but that didn’t prevent my order of 12 lamb and summer squash dumplings (for $6) from erupting with a rich but subtle broth upon first bite. They were good, on par with some of my favorite dumpling places back home.
A couple of blocks over is a guy who cooks an assortment of skewered meats over charcoal on the sidewalk. It seemed popular. Action Bronson had himself about five the other day. Before I placed my order,4 I saw a man park his car in the middle of the street, walk out with his enormous bulldog, and order eight skewers to go. He had blocked an already narrow passageway. Minutes later, a city bus attempted to pass through. The bus was stuck, and its position meant that Main Street was also jammed. This guy was holding up traffic on multiple busy intersections for eight skewers. How was I not going to order at least two?
Two sticks of chicken hearts; I wanted one of chicken gizzards, but he was out.
I had a bagel because I felt obligated to eat a bagel during my trip. And then I got so many texts telling me I had done it wrong and should have gotten one of the best bagels. Look, this bagel was pretty good! It was a better bagel than any I’ve had in L.A! That’s totally good enough for me! I’m sure Russ and/or his daughters make a fine unsweetened doughnut, but I don’t know if I care enough. Eating a transcendent bagel would only make me think there are wild exceptions to the overall quality of bagels, which is dumb, since this is one of the few everyman foods in New York, isn’t it? I think I’ll pass. It’s time I lump bagels with baseball in a category of things I didn’t grow up with, and thus do not personally understand as culturally significant. Leave me alone.
Highlights: Beef rib (best I’ve ever had), smoked lamb belly, whiskey sour pickles, and this man:
Lowlights: Brisket, baked beans with burnt ends, not having the courage to ask if I could sit in the chair.
It’s 3:24 in the morning, and I’m about to have my last meal in New York. I’m at Corner Bistro, a neighborhood pub tucked behind several crisscrossed intersections in the West Village. I was told by no less than three people over the course of my trip that this is the best place for a burger in New York City. It smells of the rain pouring outside, with notes of bathroom odor. You’re greeted to bits of napkins and/or toilet paper on the floor as you walk in, kind of like empty peanut shells at a Cracker Barrel or Texas Roadhouse. I already kind of love it. It is full of loud, drunk tourists who flirt at the bar by saying things like, “Hey. Hey, are you a tourist?” After a particularly frustrating moment with an Ivy Sack model, who inexplicably starts singing “You can have whatever you like,” the barkeep whispers to his coworker. “So close, so close.” He’s loud enough for me to hear at the bar.
There is an old man standing near the counter, straight out of an Ellis Island PBS documentary, singing in Spanish, saying short phrases in English, Spanish, Italian, and French, on shuffle. He’s almost done with his beer. I wonder how many he’s had. The ales on draft are from McSorley’s, and reasonably priced just the same. My burger comes out. Shit. It is dry. I realized that the bartender taking my order never asked how I wanted it cooked, and I’d had a few too many beers and way too many self-concocted Campari ginger ales throughout the day to be proactive about it. The patty is a thick puck when it goes into the broiler and emerges, ostensibly, as a dense spheroid unfit for the generic bun it sits on. It looked like a newborn in garb meant for 6-month-olds. To shift the proportions in the burger’s favor, I left all the accoutrements in, but after a few bites, I took the lettuce and tomato out and ate them separately. I left the raw onion slices in. The burger had a deep char and so did the bun; it needed some sulfur to go with that carbon.
Qualitatively, it was one of the worst burgers I’d eaten in a while, but it was at least halfway my fault, and self-loathing is as savory a sauce as hunger. Half-awake with the clock nearing four, and my cab ride to JFK only two hours in the future, I don’t know if I would have wanted anything else. I text a new friend about my experience, about how the individual components were undeniably awful, and how, despite everything, it coalesced into something charming, something perfect. I blanched, worried that it sounded like I was explaining New York to someone who’d lived here for more than a decade.
Her reply, one minute later: “That is the only way to eat a Corner Bistro burger. You’re having the authentic experience.”