Obama. Obesity. Burgers. ...I'm just trying to think of things America is known for, and that's all I've got. Whoa, brain, slow down before you think of something good...er.
Oh, I thought of another one: hot dogs.
But I'm not here to talk about hot dogs. Scandinavia has plenty of bun-hugged meat logs; they don't need our version. But what they could use are some good ol' American burgers, something we're skilled at making, as George Motz has documented well in book and documentary Hamburger America. New York City in particular excels in burger-craft. So for my Weegie friends' second full day together in the city, I took them to two of my favorite burger spots.
First was Diner in Williamsburg, not just good for burgers, but for simple, well executed "New American" cuisine made with the freshest local, seasonal ingredients in a charming old diner that feels about half a century past its prime. It's casual, nicely priced, and something about their food is comforting and interesting, as opposed to just plain old comforting (not that there's anything wrong with that), or worse, boring (that, on the other hand, blows). Without specific numbers to back me up, I have the impression that there are many restaurants in this city who use local, seasonal ingredients as their selling point, and while their food may not be bad, many of them are underwhelming. The ingredients may be great, but they're missing just a pinch of thoughtfulness that would elevate them to something more memorable.
Diner has that pinch, and then some. At least, that's how I feel after three visits, a feeling that says, "Man, my belly is so happy. Why the hell don't I eat here more often?" ...No really, my apartment is just a 20-ish minute bus ride away; I have no idea why I don't eat there more often. Damn, let's go back now. Or better yet, when it's not 2 a.m.
Although I love their burger—it was the reason I first visited Diner— when the waitress mentioned a fried fish sandwich ($13) as one of their specials, my brain flushed out all memory of the burger and my love for fried fish sandwiches filled in the gap. That's what a childhood voluntarily filled with Filet-O-Fish sandwiches from McDonald's has done to me. Some part of me is always ready for the combination of fried fish and tartar sauce in a bun.
Of course, this sandwich was a few...hundred steps ahead of the McDonald's version: It featured beer battered fried cod on a squishy brioche bun spread with poblano tartar sauce on one half and topped with coleslaw on the other. I'll admit that the side of thick, golden, salt-specked fries influenced my decision, but I would've ordered the sandwich even if it had merely come with a salad (perhaps with a bit less enthusiasm). The fish had a light, crispy crust and moist, flaky meat, complemented by a toasted and seemingly buttered bun. This world ought to have more sandwiches and burgers featuring buttered and toasted buns.
I had split the sandwich with Lee Anne, along with a beet salad ($10) featuring dainty wedges of roasted red and yellow beets, halved husk tomatoes, crushed toasted pistachios, and a dollop of creamy goat cheese, all dressed in sherry vinegar and olive oil. Simple, but a bit different from a typical beet-and-goat-cheese salad. As far as I can tell, red and yellow beets taste the same, but do make more a more visually arresting salad. Like all the other salads I've had at Diner, it was wholly satisfying because the components came together so well.
We also split a caramel pecan roll ($5) dripping with a deeply buttery caramel sauce that tasted like it would emanate warmth even if it weren't heated up. The pecans were toasted to a featherlight crispiness. I don't remember much about the bready part, but it was a fine edible delivery system for the caramel and pecans.
Less memorable was the raspberry biscuit filled with a hefty splodge of devonshire cream and raspberry jam ($4), but I only tried a small bite so I can't really judge. It was a scone-y biscuit, a bit on the dry side (aided by the cream and jam splodges), not like a flaky butter-filled Southern-style biscuit.
I tried a bite of Kåre's burger to confirm that it was still in my top five. Coarsely ground beef, tinge of funky flavor, juicy....yup, it's still tops.
After brunch we walked over to Blue Bottle to appease the coffee lovers in our group, which was everyone except me and Behnaz. (I only like Vietnamese coffee. Because it tastes like melted coffee ice cream. When drinking straight up coffee my face has the tendency to shrivel up with the disgust of someone who just smelled a noxious fart. Sometimes I'll even let out a little wimper, channeling my inner neglected puppy.) It's a huge, sleek, airy space—formerly a garage—and is mostly taken up by a coffee roasting facility fronted by a minimally decorated coffee bar featuring just one large standing-only communal table.
They brew your coffee in individual drip cups, something I had never seen before at a coffee shop (not that I visit many, but I'll assume it's not that common). They also have five beautifully crafted Japanese slow-drip devices meant for making iced coffee that look more like a product of Victorian-era science fiction, not a need to brew cold coffee. It looks like an excessively complicated device, with the giant glass float-esque bulb on top, and the rope suspension, and the little globe-y thing, and the tiny nozzles leading to graduated flask-y things...well, I'll assume that whatever drips out of it tastes like manna for coffee lovers.
After Blue Bottle, Morten, Kåre, and Behnaz took a stroll across the Williamsburg Bridge, Lee Anne and Chris walked back to our apartment, and I...took the bus back home because I'm the laziest of us all.
For dinner, I met up with the Weegies at Shake Shack, my favorite burger joint in the city. Kåre had tried it during his last visit, but it was Morten and Behnaz's first time and I was worried it wouldn't live up to their high expectations.
But it did. Phew. The signature Shackburger, topped with a vibrant lettuce leaf, a thin slice of tomato, gooey American cheese, and Thousand Island-y Shack Sauce, featured a juicy, well seasoned patty in perfect (and I don't like to say perfect unless I really mean it) combination with its toppings and squishy potato bun. If you're really hungry you can get a double Shackburger, but I think two patties throws off the meat-to-other-stuff ratio. You're better off just getting two Shackburgers.
I also tried the custard flavor of the day, figs and honey. Oddly, it had a faint goat cheese flavor. I wouldn't say it was bad, but unless "figs + honey = goat cheese" is common knowledge, I don't think anyone would expect it. I doubt it was Shake Shack's intention. Anyhoo, doesn't really matter since that flavor isn't on their current menu, which changes monthly.
For dessert #2, we shared a box of macarons from Madeleine Patisserie just a few blocks west on 23rd Street. I had only tried their macarons once a few years ago—their excessive lumpiness and sweetness earned them the shun of failure. Thankfully, their macarons have drastically improved over the years, resulting in macarons that were smooth, moist enough, nicely filled, and not too sweet.
We ended the night at the recently opened upscale Italian grocery megastore and food court Eataly just a block away from Madison Square Park. I hadn't been there before, figuring it was mobbed most of the time...which it still was on that Sunday night, but we were able to roam the store without much injurious smacking into other customers, most of whom were more interested in eating at the sections offering wood-fired pizza, pasta, wine, and crudo instead of shopping for groceries. Morten gleefully gravitated towards the cured meats section for some San Daniele prosciutto, much better than what we had eaten at Otto the night before. If you're a lover of all Italian foodstuffs, you'll be as smitten with Eataly as Morten was. He was smittened out.
Day 3: Pho Grand
The following night we met up with Colin at Pho Grand in Chinatown for dinner. On retrospect I should've suggested a different restaurant—New York City isn't known for having good traditional Vietnamese food and I had only eaten at Pho Grand once before—but I had a craving that I thought Pho Grand could fulfill.
And it did, for the most part. We started with rolls: goi cuon, room temerapture rice paper rolls filled with shrimp, rice noodles, and fresh herbs, and cha gio, my preferred log of Vietnamese goodness because it's meaty and deep fried. There's still a place for raw lettuce and herbs though: Wrap the fried rolls in lettuce and herbs before dipping them in nuoc mam pha. I love 'em.
As someone who drinks coffee almost never, I'm fond of Vietnamese iced coffee (cafe sua da) for its generous use of condensed milk. It's a wonder why condensed milk isn't offered as a standard coffee additive, like creamer and sugar. Granted, the sugary goo masks much of the coffee's flavor that most people are probably after... ...yeah whatever. The coffee comes freshly brewed from a little drip filter over a cup already filled with a bit of condensed milk. Pour it in the tall ice-filled glass, and booyaaaa, it's iced.
I ordered banh hoi thit heo nuong for my main dish, strips of sweet grilled pork that you wrap in lettuce leaves and these sort of tangled superfine rice noodle mats topped with crushed peanuts and chopped peanuts, along with whatever fresh herbs and pickles you like—my dish came with way more cucumber, Thai basil, massive lettuce leaves, and pickled onion, daikon, and carrot than I could use in one sitting—then dip in nuoc mam pha. You get sweet, meaty, tangy, crunchy, and nutty in every bite, perfumed with basil. If you don't find this combination alluring, you need to get out of my house. [points to virtual door]
Morten and Kåre ordered pho, which was fine but not better than what they could get in Norway. Noooo I faaaaailed.
The best part of the dinner was talking to Colin though, not so much eating. When I describe Colin to people who haven't met him I usually start with, "He's sort of crazy." Good crazy. His conversation and facial expressions are predictably unpredictable, often frenetic, tapping into cerebral crevices and nuggets most people either don't use or don't have, nor understand. I mean, I don't get any of his videos, but I appreciate that they exist, once the nightmares wear off.
I don't remember much of the conversation we had, aside from his description of the Street Fighter arcade—that is, an arcade that only has Street Fighter games—he wants to open in Brooklyn (an idea that has since been shelved), and our struggle to remember what a construction vehicle that lifts dirt is called. I have no idea how the latter bit came into fruition, but the discussion lasted much longer than it should've and burned more brain cells than necessary. The answer is, I think, a loader. And there's another lame mystery I can add to my list of defeats.