Eating NYC 1.2: Ramen, pizza, lobster rolls & fish sauce micheladas
In my last post, I discussed the cheaper eats in New York City. This time, I continue the NYC gastronomical tour by talking about some of the additional places at which I dined, the not-so-cheap but also the not-so-expensive (I’m saving that for part 3 of this NYC series). Basically, these are the in-betweeners, the delicious, the memorable.
Ever since I’d gone to Japan and tasted what real ramen is supposed to taste like, I’ve been on an eternal hunt for a close imitation this side of the Pacific. There is a place in L.A. that I find pretty yummy and close to what I’ve had in Japan. But I’ve never had ramen East Coast style, so of course, I had to pop that cherry.
The first place on my list was Ippudo in the East Village. This ramen joint is notorious for table wait times of two hours plus. But the nice thing is you can put your name and number on the list, amble on over to Sake Bar Decibel, and throw back a few bottles while awaiting the coveted text message from the Ippudo hostess saying your table is ready. And that’s exactly what we did the two times I went. I’m a purist a lot of the time when it comes to food, so I always like to try the classic of anything, especially when it’s my first visit. I found the classic pork ramen at Ippudo to be incredibly savory but not oily; since ramen broth is made by cooking pork bones for several hours, it can sometimes taste too fatty. (For almost all noodle soups, the clearer the broth, the superior the quality and taste.) You can add extra toppings like an onsen (hot springs) egg or extra pork. The pork buns are also worth trying: slightly spicy pork belly nestled inside a steamed bun with extra crisp veggies to cut the fat. I took Frank here one night, and he agreed the ramen was even better than the bowl he’d had at Momofuku Noodle Bar though he’s not nearly of ramen connoisseur status either.
Another ramen joint Pauline took me to is Totto Ramen in Hell’s Kitchen. Here the diners were more exclusively Asian, and being near Midtown, there was not much in the way of nearby libation locations. We ended up standing outside the little restaurant and peering through the iron gate at the lucky noodle slurpers like beggar children. Totto is mostly known for its chicken based ramen broth, a lighter option than the pork version. Perfect hangover cure.
Were these places worth the wait? I’d say because you can pass time at a nearby bar while waiting for Ippudo, yes. As for Totto, that’s a toss-up—they really need to hand out sake to all those huddled in the streets waiting for a table. Then maybe I can say yes.
My cousin, Pauline, lives in Chelsea, and so where better to spend an afternoon than at Chelsea Market, home to the Food Network? The Lobster Place in Chelsea Market has a spread of fresh sashimi and sushi pre-wrapped for easy buy-and-go-eat; a selection of raw oysters which they’ll shuck for you for a small fee; whole lobster steamed for you on the spot and served with butter sauce. Of course, I had to try everything: a sashimi package with salmon (my favorite), tuna, and white tuna; Montauk pearl and Kumamoto oysters on the half shell with just a little squeeze of lemon; and a whole steamed lobster for $13/lb. It’s hard to find seats at Chelsea Market because it’s always crowded, but we managed to hover around a countertop bar inside the Lobster Place, and seats eventually opened up.
There’s been a surplus of lobster this year, but the lobster rolls at Luke’s Lobster were still expensive at $17 a roll (and they’re not large rolls either). Regardless, I had to try them as all the lobster rolls I’d had in the past were just mediocre. Not that I’m a lobster roll connoisseur, but the ones at Luke’s were by far the best I’ve had. I know I don’t have much to compare them to, but the chunks of lobster meat were not overdressed in mayo which tends to be, in my opinion, the downfall of many rolls. I wanted to eat another one, but I couldn’t get myself to justify spending $34 on a dinner that wasn’t too filling. So I passed on getting a second roll and instead filled my tummy up with a punch bowl of champagne next door at The Bourgeois Pig.
Another night, Pauline and I met up some friends for Filipino food. Now the only Filipino food I’d ever had in my life were at the homes of all my Filipino friends. Every holiday party had the dining table covered with mounds of pancit and pyramids of lumpia. Weeknight dinners consisted of pork or chicken adobo and rice or oxtail soup. So when we arrived at Maharlika, I was surprised to find a slightly upscale restaurant complete with a specialty cocktail menu. There was a drink called Rizal’s Ruin on the cocktail list which contains San Miguel Pale Pilsen; lime juice; and something called Maharlika’s BMX which inevitably is something brewed in-house and contains Filipino fish sauce. “Christine,you have to get this drink—you got the thing tattooed on you for crying out loud!” Pauline said. So, of course, I had to. (My new tattoo I’d gotten to commemorate my MasterChef experience includes a school of anchovies to represent fish sauce.) The cocktail was delightfully awesome—one of the most creative and delicious cocktails I’d had in a long while. I guess you can say I’m a fish sauce lover through and through.
We ordered fried chicken skins for appetizers, and they come with a vinegar-based dipping sauce. Pauline, my friend Chef Dang, and I split the Kare Kare (peanut butter braised oxtail with long beans, bok choy, and eggplant – $20); Pampangan style sizzling sisig (pig ears, nose, and belly cooked three ways—boiled, grilled, and sautéed—with garlic rice – $16); and the Filipino chicken ’n waffles (FIlipino style fried chicken with purple yam waffles and anchovy garlic chive butter – $17). The oxtail was very good but a little embarrassing to gnaw on in public, especially when neighboring patrons recognized me. I really enjoyed the chicken ’n waffles—that anchovy butter was amazing. (Yes, I know, I am obsessed with anchovies.) Maharlika is definitely not your homegrown Filipino joint; they’ve dressed up humble peasant food, and for once, I really enjoyed it.
Okay, so last but not least, PIZZA! One of my favorite foods in the world is pizza. And I love, love, love the New York thin crust. When it comes to pizza, I am also a purist in philosophy—I like nothing but cheese, tomato sauce, and maybe basil on my pizza. When in New York, who better to ask where to get best NY pizza than MC3Frank who is an Italian Long Islander. He took me to…drumroll, please…Di Fara Pizza on Avenue J in Brooklyn. The pizzeria opens at 1 PM on Sundays, and Frank made me show up at 12:30. We were the first ones there, but within minutes, a queue began to form. The stories Frank tells about Di Fara’s owner are hilarious, and I won’t be able to do them justice here, but basically, there is one old man who makes all the pizzas at Di Fara. He shuffles back and forth between the 1000°F smoking oven and the counter, pouring olive oil out of a garden watering can to make his special crust. According to Frank, his tomatoes are imported from Naples, and he slices fresh mozzarella only when needed. The best thing is he doesn’t let anyone else make the pizzas, and so when he has a doctor’s appointment, he hangs a cardboard sign on his door closing up shop. I’m sure part of Di Fara’s charm is the legendary pizza man, but the pies are seriously good in and of themselves. We ordered one round pie and one Sicilian pie, burning a hole in our pockets $60 deep. The round pie had the classic thin crust while the Sicilian pie had the crunchier, textured crust. Both had fresh toppings of your usual mozzarella, tomatoes, and basil. I can easily say this is some of the best pizza I’ve ever had. Thanks, Frankie, you do know what you’re talking about after all. (I kid; we break each other’s balls all the time.) Next time you’re in Brooklyn or even Manhattan (it’s worth a trek), come to Di Fara, but come early. Cash only.
And that’s it for my second segment of New York eats. Stay tuned for part 3 which will detail my experience at Momofuku Ssam Bar and Eleven Madison Park (my first 3-Michelin star restaurant experience ever). Till then, happy eating!