What's the first place you should eat at during your inaugural trip to New York City after taking a red-eye flight from Los Angeles, then stumbling around Bed-Stuy in the wee hours of the morning until crashing on your friend's floor around 6 a.m and waking up a few hours later in an uncomfortable daze because your internal clock is still three hours behind and floors are not comfortable sleeping surfaces, unless the floor is made of mattress?
Shopsin's, the infamous eatery with a menu [PDF] of Biblical proportions (well, for what can fit on two sides of one long sheet of paper—it makes great use of tight kerning) featuring dishes that seem to have been influenced by brain-altering substances, limited opening hours, limited seating (tucked in the northeast corner of Essex Street Market), a set of rules (the main one being no groups larger than four), and the master of it all—the seemingly disgruntled, foul-mouthed chef/proprietor (and cookbook author), Kenny Shopsin. From what I've observed, Kenny is a nice guy...unless you're a dick. So don't be a dick. (I really wish I had kept more track of Kenny-isms I've heard over the years—the best stuff has come out while eating there with Ed Levine since Ed and Kenny are friends, which means Kenny can repeatedly insult him and it's okay because it's out of love. All I remember is losing count of the number of f-bombs dropped in three minutes of being in Kenny's presence, and the time that Ed brought me to Shopsin's for my birthday; when Kenny found out I wanted to eat there for my birthday, he asked something along the lines of, "Is she stupid?" And then I ate this skillet combo and all was right with the world, aside from my digestive system.)
So. My opening paragraph was not about an imaginary Angeleno. My friend James visited New York City for the first time a few weeks ago for a quick "fit as much stuff as possible into a fun three-day weekend because after that I'll have to immediately go back to the drudgery of work" trip. Considering the stresses of travel he endured, he was a good sport when it came to me dragging his jetlagged body around the city. But maybe it was the magical Shopsin's sliders that started him on the right foot.
Hooyes. The sliders, three mini cheeseburgers with grilled onions stuck to one another by way of conjoined Martin's potato rolls, are the best sliders I've ever had. The simplest things tend to be the tastiest: juicy, seasoned patty smothered in molten meat crevice-filling cheese topped with a layer of tender onions on a pillowy soft bun.
Lee Anne and her also-from-out-of-town-friend Melody joined us and shared two dishes. First, a half order of blueberry ricotta pancakes, light, fluffy pancakes dotted with blueberries and hidden pockets of oozing ricotta. I generally find pancakes boring, but these are ones I'd want to eat again.
Second was the French toast bacon sandwich topped with a fried egg. I think. I can't find it on the menu, but it must be on there somewhere. There's no way that combination could be bad.
And then...my dish. A most epic dish appropriately called the S.O.S. The menu describes it as "eggs, grits, creamed corned beef, hot sandwich," leading us to believe it would be one of those dishes consisting of two pieces of bread filled with a layer of something non-bready that someone with opposable thumbs could pick up. But we were a bit off.
Ta-da. It's a mound of grits on top of a slice of bread—wonderfully resilient, slightly spongy potato bread—topped with another slice of bread, with plenty of scrambled egg and corned beef chunklets throughout, all in a pool of some sort of savory cream sauce. Holy fugnut.
Stare into the heart of the beast. Stare.
Of course, I didn't tackle this on my own. Everyone lent some fork pokage to the grit-egg-corned beef-bread vat. And it was a pretty glorious vat. No part of me could imagine eating even half of the bowl, but the forkfuls I did eat were comforting combinations of...all that stuff. All that goo. In a multi-savory-smushy bite. It's one of those "only at Shopsin's" sort of dishes. I wouldn't order it again, but I'm glad I tried it at least once.
This is my victorious "YEAH WE ATE IT" pose.
And as though our dishes weren't life-shortening enough, we paired them with...milkshakes! The toasted marshmallow milkshake wasn't as thick as I would've preferred, but the flavor was balanced and the toasted marshmallows were just the right amount of burnt, so I won't complain too much. I shared the mallow shake with Melody, while James and Lee Anne shared the Guinness mlkshake. It tasted like...beer and ice cream. If you like Guinness and ice cream, you'll love this milkshake. There's no skimping on the booze, even before noon.
If you wanna eat at Shopsin's on Saturday, it's best to get there as early as you can. We got there around 11 a.m. and didn't have to wait too long, but by the time noon rolls around that's probably a different story.
Roaming Around the Lower East Side and Such
Next on our fooding tour was my favorite candy shop convenient located just a few blocks away, Economy Candy. But what's up with the American-ized version of Kinokonoyama? IT'S SUPPOSED TO LOOK LIKE THIS, all playful and colorful and stuff. Chocorooms, go poop yourself.
We also stopped by Victor Osborne where Lee Anne is currently working as an apprentice. Knowing the care that goes into their hats, I bought one for myself (based on everyone's agreement that it was a boppy hat). The only hat I shall ever buy.
And we couldn't leave the Lower East Side without stopping into Doughnut Plant, home of my favorite cake doughnuts in the city. Yeast doughnuts, less so—I find their version too chewy. But the cake doughnuts are mostly lovely light things. Just be prepared to pay atypical doughnut prices ($2.50 and up) since they're not...typical doughnuts.
The creme brulee doughnut, for example. It's a diminutive yeast doughnut nugget filled with thick vanilla custard and coated in a thin candy shell. As much as I love custard, fried dough, and melted recrystallized sugar, this doesn't do it for me. The sticky candy shell gets in the way of...everything else, which hit a good balance of sweet goo with not too sweet dough. I'd rather just eat a custard-filled doughnut sans shell.
I preferred the seasonal cream cheese goo-filled glazed carrot cake doughnut. ...Yeah, I just described it. Tastes like a tender, fairly light carrot cake with little pockets of frosting. The only thing I'd change is the glaze—it's sweet enough without it.
But if you can only get one doughnut during your visit, get the tres leches. Just. Do it.
After doing a little shopping by myself at Uniqlo...
I met up with James and his friend Dinh to roam around aimlessly. We walked through a street fair on Mulberry Street where we spotted this AWESOME HAPPY PEANUT SIGN. THAT PEANUT IS SO HAPPY. Almost makes me want to wear a red sash that reads, "HUMANS" to boost my morale.
We also stopped into Toy Tokyo where I bought Greg this awesome birthday present: a Makoto-chan tape measure that you pull out from the perfectly formed poop mound on his head. THE POOP. I love you, Japan. You are weird.
At some point I passed out at Kathy's apartment while James and Dinh did more roaming. Thank you, Kathy, for lending me your bed.
...Then it was time for dinner.
I love Otto even if they tend to have long waits for dinner. This was the night I found out that when they say your wait is 45 minutes for a party of five, they might mean 30 minutes, but if you're not all there after 30 minutes because you thought it would be 45 minutes you might have to wait another 30 minutes. Or something. Overall, the wait was rather long, but that's not going to prevent me from going back.
Lee Anne, Melody, James, Dinh, and I started with six of the antipasti. I recommend getting all five seafood dishes if you have enough eaters since each one is $8, but all five is only $21. And they're all good: cuttlefish with acetini (pickles); octopus with celery and lovage; anchovies with ginormous breadcrumbs; shrimp, chickpeas, and chiles; and mussels, peperonata, and mint. Most people seem to like the mussels the most, but my favorites are the octopus and anchovies. We also got the summer corn and fregola (round little pasta nubbins), my favorite seasonal vegetable dish. You get a good portion for only $4.
We also shared an order of prosciutto, but since I'm not a prosciutto lover (it's not just prosciutto; it's any cured ham...don't hate me) I only ate a smidge of it. Lee Anne looked like she was going to pass out from deliciousness, if that's any indication of how good it was.
For my main I went with the pasta alla norma, penne pasta topped with tomato sauce, roasted eggplant slivers, basil, and plops of buffalo ricotta. Mix it all together and boooooya, everything is coated in a creamy tomato sauce. I was trying to decide between getting this or the rigatoni with sausage and escarole, and after trying the pasta alla norma for the second time in my life, I'd say the rigatoni is the way to go. Sausage adds that special something...I think it's the touch of meat. But I'd say all the pastas are worth trying...
Except for the taccozette with spicy cauliflower, which, unless I went on an off day the time I tried it (in mid-July), was easily the least appealing dish I had ever eaten at Otto, and perhaps the most memorably "I don't feel like this has any reason to exist" dishes I've had anywhere in a while. It was just. Blah. Don't do it. I generally love Otto's pastas because they're cooked to a smidge below al dente and are accompanied by a suitable amount of sauce and goo, but the taccozette tasted overly garlicked and cheesed with the additional blow of being mixed with discordant cauliflower mush. Perhaps it changed in the past few months, but I wouldn't risk trying it to find out.
ANYWAY, didn't mean to get off on that negative tangent. No matter what happens at Otto (argument, crying, knife fight, etc.), all can be redeemed by the gelato, which I call the best in the city because it's hard for me to believe anyone can make it better. We shared a cup of olive oil, hazelnut stracciatella, and salted caramel. The salt-sprinkled oil olive has an advantage over the other gelatos for incorporating the power of olive squeezings, thus making it a tad richer. There's a reason people love this gelato flavor so much; it tastes like sweet, creamy olive oil, and that means it might be life changingly awesome, depending on how much you enjoy olive oil. The hazelnut stracciatella gave a feeling of warm nuttiness that I only detect in a few gelatos—it seems like less of a taste on the tongue, more of a smell or ephemeral feeling in the back of my head that's somehow strong and fleeting at the same time. The salted caramel has a similar feeling, but instead of nutty warmth, it gives off a salty, bitter tinge. When the flavors come in waves, you know it's good. GELATO = MAGIC, GUYS.
For a seasonal dessert, we also shared the sweet corn and blueberries made of scoops of sweet corn gelato and nectarine sorbet topped with blueberry compote and zabaglione cream on top of polenta cake. I prefer to eat the gelatos on their own, but it's a good combination. Cake + gelato + fruit + cream = win. Pastry chef Meredith Kurtzman shops at the farmers' market for her produce, so you know its fresh. Although I see this dish on the online menu, I don't see corn or nectarine listed under the gelato/sorbet category; I assume this dessert its on its way out to make way for new seasonal stuff.
After that, it was time to GO HOME. ...But whereas I went to sleep, James went out with Dinh to roam Midtown into the wee hours of the morning, involving a visit to the famous halal cart on 53rd and 6th. Hell, I've never even done that and I've been living here for years. James made good use of his limited time in New York City. You can read more about it on his blog.
That Time I Got My Ass Kicked by Otto
Eating a Lot at Otto is Awesome
Tristan Week: Day 4 (Bloggers Unite Over Chocolate Covered S'mores and Giant Pancakes)
Blue Ribbon Bakery, Thanksgiving, and Shopsins