After a few spotty years, Chelsea Market, the block long shopping arcade that runs through the old Nabisco Building at 75 Ninth Avenue, seems to have settled in and hit its stride, if you”ll pardon the contradiction. While it is too small to really compare with the Pike Street Market of Seattle of the Reading Market in Philadelphia, it seems to have achieved a similar equilibrium, providing specialty shopping and lunch to New Yorkers and culinary entertainment to throngs of tourists. To those who would dismiss the Chelsea Market as a mere tourist spectacle, I would point out that the Manhattan Fruit Exchange is probably the best fruit and vegetable market in the city, considering its combination of high quality, encyclopedic inventory and reasonable prices, and that the Lobster Place fish market offers a range of seafood that only Citerella and few others can match. (Its prices, however, are pretty high.)
A big part of Chelsea Market”s current vibrancy is provided by several recent additions to its complement of hedgehog food operations. This line-up now offers places dedicated to Australian savory pies, vegan sushi, crepes, fried chicken, tacos, boiled lobster, raw shellfish, grilled cheese sandwiches, Cambodian sandwiches, conventional sushi, and soup. Chelsea Market has a number of worthwhile restaurants with broader agendas, including a fine street-style Thai takeout place, as well as some interesting, single-minded dessert and beverage sellers, but here we limit the discussion to those meeting a narrow definition for hedgehog purveyance.
Let”s briskly list and comment:
Tuck Shop has been in Chelsea Market for some time selling Australian meat pies maybe five inches in diameter. The nice thing about these is that they can really be held and eaten out of hand without a high risk of disaster; they”re sturdy. There”s something appealing if not exactly refined about the woody crust but the fillings are sort of undifferentiated goos, for the most part.
Beyond Sushi offers “sushi” rolls without using conventional sushi rice, its defining characteristic (you ought to know). Instead of white rice, either a kind of black rice or a combination of several varieties of rice, rye and barley grains is rolled around utterly vegetable fillings. I was fully prepared to despise this place with the contempt I always feel for any aspect of veganism, but really, the textures of the mayo roll I had were quite nice and I couldn”t suppress the thought that there was something wholesome about the experience.
Bar Suzette is the creperie in Chelsea Market, one of a growing corps in New York City of late. I think crepes are inherently disappointing, in New York or Paris, for that matter, and did not try theirs. Given the more attractive alternatives available the Market, I probably never will.
Hybird? is Roots drummer Ahmir Questlove”s vanity fried chicken place. The question mark is very relevant, it turns out. Why indeed? The heavy batter coating on the chicken is oddly seasoned and a bit sweet, as well as being very close to burned, as least when I was there. Also strange was the apparent absence of any hot sauce option. I say celebrities, even benign ones like Questlove, should keep their personae out of the food.
Directly across from Hybird? is Los Tacos No. 1, which is the best taco stand I know about in the city right now. While Hybird? appears to be largely ignored by lunch-seekers, Los Tacos always seems to have a line. It offers a range of taco, tostada, quesadilla formats with nicely charred pork and beef fillings, a bit of salad topping and a very nice array of salsas and condiments, the sort of thing that is often conspicuously lacking in New York taquerias. Of particular interest is the paste-like tatemada salsa, made with charred chiles and tomatoes. They have a nice system. You order and pay at the register, then hand your receipt to an individual down the counter who fills your order. The chain of responsibility is never unclear.
The Lobster Place is a complex within the larger complex of the Market, offering several hedgehog operations along with its extensive fish market functions. There is a “boiled lobster by the pound” stand about which nothing mysterious can be seen or said. Boiled lobsters at a reasonable price are served with melted butter, and Japanese tourists experience them in great numbers. There is a raw shellfish bar with a fine selection of very fresh oysters for standing customers only. Prices are reasonable but the selection of condiments offered with the bivalves is not good; no horseradish, only cocktail sauce; the vinaigrette sauce is sweet and distracting. A narrowly seafood-focused sushi bar makes good use of the raw materials close at hand. Everything considered, the Lobster Place is a smart operation that keeps several balls in the air with seeming ease and confidence. It exploits its own resources very effectively.
The Cambodian sandwich shop Num Pang is discussed in the previous entry to this column. It has expanded to several other locations from its original store on E. 12th st in the past year or so. Again, this is a wonderful joint; its versions of banh mi are distinguished from most conventional Vietnamese sandwiches by a luxurious richness that would be foolish to resist.
The oldest hedgehog operation in Chelsea Market is a link in the extensive chain of Hale and Hearty Soup. I suppose it meets the definition of a hedgehog operation by most objective criteria, but there is something about the franchise store nature of it that puts me off, perhaps unfairly. Let others judge for themselves.
Finally, at the minimalist end of the hedgehog spectrum is Lucy”s Whey, a small, artisanal cheese store that offers only one hot prepared item, an elemental grilled cheddar sandwich with two variations. One is sharp cheddar, butter and bread; the other is sharp cheddar, fig spread and bread. The bread is a thin, flatbread loaf of some kind that crisps up beautifully in a sandwich press. It”s very nice.
Hedgehog Foods of NYC: University Place & E. 12th Street Cluster
By Gerry Kagan
At the intersection of University Place and E. 12th Street is a cluster of hedgehog food establishments that almost perfectly represents the hedgehog phenomenon in Manhattan at this particular moment. Literally within a stone’s throw of each other (if a thrown stone could pass through a building) are an old school pizzeria, a falafel stand, a Cambodian sandwich shop, a creperie, a hummus restaurant, a hamburger place, a taqueria, a “tortaria”, a ramen shop and a yakitori operation. This particular location is an ideal habitat for the hedgehog, wedged between NYU and Union Square; lots of students, lots of folks in the market for a quick, inexpensive something to eat. Clearly, there are gaps in the coverage, and one could quibble, as well as nibble around the edges of this assertion, but these ten eateries include hedgehog types that come to us from several eras and several continents and together they form a microcosm of the larger universe of contemporary New York single-food purveyors.
- Stromboli is actually one of the older pizzerias in the City. It has been around since 1966, a perfectly okay representative of New York slice pizza. One might say that the tomato sauce is a bit sugary. Pizzerias are surely the most common of New York hedgehogs, vastly outnumbering whatever category might be in second place. (We’ll hazard a guess further on.) Interestingly, as upscale, artisanal pizzerias have continued to appear in growing numbers, they have been accompanied by a proliferation of down market 99 cent slice pizza joints. Pizza, decades after establishing itself as a staple of New York life, continues to be a dynamic and vital street character.
- University Falafel is on the newer model that builds a falafel sandwich, burrito-style, on rolled up flat bread, and includes such things as pickles as a standard ingredient. Older Lebanese style falafel stands, exemplified by Mamoun’s on MacDougal Street, rely on the more assimilated pocket pita and a simpler plan for assembly. This place is fine even if the falafels themselves are undistinguished, lacking both exterior crispness and interior moistness.
- Num Pang serves a Cambodian variant of banh mi, otherwise known as a Vietnamese sandwich. Banh mi shops are one of the leading new types of hedgehog operations, perhaps the most numerous type of those that were completely unknown ten years ago. Num Pang’s sandwich differs from standard banh mi, often including unusual pickles and very rich meat or fish fillings, rather than the cold cuts that usually are at the core of a Vietnamese sandwich. Num Pang is quite terrific and there is usually a line of people on the sidewalk waiting to place their orders.
- The quintessential Parisian hedgehog food is the crepe. Suddenly, years after the last of several restaurants specializing in crepes in Manhattan seemed to fade away, more than a dozen creperies opened in Lower Manhattan, seemingly at the same time. Among these are several stores of a small chain, Vive La Crepe!, which has four locations, including one on University Place. I have nothing to say about it. Crepes are a lovely idea, delightful to watch being spread thin on their special pan, then peeled, shining and golden, to be folded or filled with savory or sweet toppings. Fifteen seconds later, this pancake loses its delicate quality and becomes gummy, doughy wad. The magic of the crepe is that its magic disappears like magic.
- Another species of hedgehog unknown ten years ago is the hummus restaurant. Although, like the falafel, hummus was borrowed by Israelis from their neighbors and rivals, the idea of basing an entire menu on hummus alone seems to be an Israeli innovation and export. Other Middle Eastern devotees of hummus partner it with a range of other salads (tabouli, baba ghanoush, fava bean salad, lebneh, etc.) collectively, as mezze. In the modern hummus restaurant, however, hummus rules as lord. Some other mezze are permitted, but the focus is on variations of hummus. Nanoosh keeps to this model, featuring a hummus that is almost purely sesame tahini. It lacks the texture and balance that chickpeas ought to contribute to the mix. Neither lemon juice or olive oil seems to be much in evidence, although they can be added at the table. The flat bread that comes with the humus is dry and dull, neither crusty or chewy. A tabouli salad ordered to accompany the hummus was heavily tilted towards bulgar wheat and away from parsley. I prefer them in equilibrium. The tabouli also lacked lemon and olive oil. and gained character solely through the addition of pomegranate seeds, an odd variation in my experience. The seeds added sweetness, a quality that seems irrelevant to a good tablouli salad.
- One cannot easily keep track of the resurgence of interest and activity in the hamburger. The hamburger is the centerpiece, the most characteristic American hedgehog food. Along with the frankfurter, it is the defining hedgehog of prewar America. [There is a way of thinking of the hot dog as the food of baseball and the hamburger as the food of football, with the hamburger surpassing the hot dog in popularity, much as professional football eclipsed major league baseball as the American pastime in the 60s and 70s.] Without anyone taking much note, after decades when the hamburger seemed doomed to franchise chain mediocrity, countless revivalist hamburger joints emerged in New York like so many mushrooms after a storm. Many of them make a point about using better quality, better sourced beef than is offered at Wendy’s, some do not. Stand 4 makes no such claim, but it does a fine hamburger with a good char to its crust.
- It is difficult to be scientific about this, but it seems likely that the most common hedgehog food in NYC after pizza is the taco. And yet, young people can have no idea how recently the presence of Mexicans and things Mexican was a rarity in New York. Well into the 1980’s, there was no visibly Mexican neighborhood in the City and the only place to buy ingredients to make Mexican food was a single store on West 14th Street, Casa Moneo. This absence was a mystery of cosmic proportions but it has been corrected with a vengeance, for which we are all grateful. Dorado Tacos and Quesadillas is of a particular type of taqueria, one pitched towards the general downtown population rather than an immigrant community–but nothing like Taco Bell. The tacos are quite small, built on two unfried tortillas and they feature more colorful and varied fillings than would be in a traditional taco. Interestingly, Dorado offers no salsas other than commercial, bottled hot sauces. Be that as it may, the tacos are lovely, fun and inexpensive, and this place is the best of its kind I’ve found so far.
- Several yards and a world away from Dorado is Tortaria, another representative of the Mexican invasion of New York City. Tortaria is based on its interpretation of the torta, a particular type of Mexican sandwich, and it is a compendium of bad choices and poor execution in that effort. For some reason, Tortaria decided to use a hamburger bun rather the larger, crustier bread that tortas are typically made with. Its fillings are miserable and thin. The fried chicken cutlet in the Milanesa de Polla, probably the best known torta variation, was the thickness of poster board and no more palatable, at least on the occasion I was there. The prices were disturbingly high for oddly small portions of food. Go to Dorado.
- In the contest for the most quickly proliferating type of hedgehog food, ramen must be considered a contender. Ramen has broken out of its East Village Japanese hipster and midtown Japanese businessman confines and is establishing itself in many neighborhoods, following sushi to become a routine dining option for the masses. Ramen Takumi is a fine representative of the ramen shop. Its noodles are particularly good, chewy and springy. The broth is straightforward, not as complex as some places strive to make it. The pork in the bowl I sampled was generously portioned, though perhaps not as intensely flavorful as its counterpart at Momofuku.
- Finally, we come to Bamboo Tori, a good example of the creative energy that characterizes this moment of expanding horizons for hedgehog food. While grilling meat, seafood and vegetables on skewers is a standard technique in many Japanese restaurants, including those that specialize in yakitori, the idea of an inexpensive, quick outlet for Japanese kebabs to the general public is something new in New York. The centerpiece of this place is an automated yakitori grilling machine on display in the storefront window. The skewers rotate through some high tech zone of grilling heat on a conveyor that also dips the skewers in sauce en route. The results are quite good. I was especially impressed by the meatball yakitori. The additional sauces and salad side that comes with a combination of skewers are also nicely done.
Hedgehog Foods of NYC
By Gerry Kagan
The 20th century social philosopher Isaiah Berlin introduced the idea of classifying thinkers and writers into two basic categories. Berlin designated those who know many things “foxes” (Shakespeare and Aristotle) and he characterized those with one defining idea as “hedgehogs” (Dostoyevsky and Plato). (Berlin himself was emphatically a fox.) This metaphor is quite often used in political shorthand, as in, Reagan was a hedgehog (government is the problem); Bill Clinton is a fox. Restaurants too can be divided into these two categories; those that serve a lot of things, like a classic diner, and those that concentrate on essentially one thing, like a taqueria.
Bubby’s is clearly in the den of foxes. Although it has (we like to think) a clear focus, American home and neighborhood cooking, we’re interested in almost every aspect of it, from oysters to oatmeal. But many of the foods we feel most passionately about often find their finest expression in operations dedicated to making one specific dish.
This blog is intended to glorify the hedgehog food providers of New York– stands, shacks, shops, parlors, joints, trucks and carts defined by one idea, and to celebrate the hedgehog foods themselves, those handy, inexpensive, beloved dishes that lend themselves to hedgehog operations.
Let’s discuss the hedgehog foods that are available in New York and their shared characteristics. First, a hedgehog food is generally (but there are exceptions…) directed at a clientele that knows it well and that has a well defined set of expectations for it. Since this is New York, these clientele groups are typically ethnically based; and “American”, in this context, is just another ethnic group made up natives and of all those assimilated enough to have a liking for American foods. Hedgehog foods tend to be inexpensive and quickly served and consumed. A large number of them can be broadly considered sandwiches of some kind, foods that are at least theoretically hand-held and can be eaten standing or while the eater is in motion. Hot dogs, hamburgers, tacos, burritos, falafels, banh mi, arepas, Jamaican meat patties, empanadas, doner kebabs and even pizza are part of this super continent of hedgehog foods. The great exceptions to the sandwich model in New York are Asian hedgehog foods, dumplings and noodle soups, clearly because East Asians are mostly bereft of bread. (Vietnamese sandwiches (banh mi) are an exception to the exception, thanks to French colonialism and the imperial baguette.) Another significant group of non-sandwich hedgehog places are chicken joints of one sort or another, rotisserie chicken, fried chicken, Korean fried chicken, hot wings.
Every region of the country, probably every region of the world, has its own set of hedgehog foods and their single-minded purveyors. American examples that are not available in New York include spiedies, kebab-like chunks of marinated, grilled meat that are served on the bread used to grab them off their skewers. A couple of spiedies stands are found in Binghamton, NY and almost nowhere else. All-you-can-eat fried catfish parlors are scattered across the South. Cincinnati has chili parlors that serve a particular style of Greek or Macedonian inspired chili, usually combined with spaghetti, grated cheese and minced onion. Chicago and cities of the southwest have birria or birrieria places, which specialize in goat tacos. Certainly hundreds and perhaps thousands of hedgehog dishes are prepared around the world by tiny operations in the street and markets and holes in walls. The vast majority of these foods remain local phenomena but some are exported, usually by emigrant populations, initially for their own consumption, then for the locals as well. Some few, like pizza, tacos, ramen and hamburgers have spread across the globe without the aid of local immigrant customer bases.
It is our observation that we are witnessing the flowering of a golden age of hedgehog foods, at least in New York City. A detailed survey of Lower Manhattan would reveal that dozens of hedgehog food outlets have opened for business in recent months and that the pace of expansion is accelerating. Dozens of neo-hamburger-joints and dozens of creperies and swarms of hand pulled noodle shops and Vietnamese sandwich places have lately materialized. This phenomenon is energized by two factors. One is the still growing intensity and confidence of New York’s immigrant populations. The remaking of the City that began with the new, non-discriminatory immigration law of 1965 has steadily gained momentum as Latin Americans, East and South Asians have established neighborhoods and visibly projected their cultures. The other factor doesn’t really have a name but is partially expressed by the terms “Brooklyn culinary movement” and “artisanal food”. The idea of creating foods using organic/local/farm raised ingredients and either innovative or antique processing (or some combination of the two) has given rise to many hipster outlets based on a single re-invented food.
Let’s start this column with an intentionally incomplete list of NY hedgehog foods paired, almost randomly, with one of their providers. [These places are not being nominated as the best, or even a particularly good, purveyor of its particular food, just one that fits the definition we’re using.]
A couple of qualifications:
1) We are not including desserts or beverages–ice cream, donuts, coffee, juices, etc., in this celebration/survey. Let’s stay with savory hedgehog foods. And, 2) admittedly, there’s a lot of grey area between foxes and hedgehogs, and most hedgehogs serve a few things outside their specialization. So, there’s a bit of subjectivity involved in deciding whether a given place is sufficiently Ahab-like to belong in this column.
Hot dog/Grey’s Papaya, Upper West Side
Hamburger/DuMont Burger, Williamsburg
Taco/Dos Toros Taqueria, Union Square
Felafel/Taim, West Village
Pizza/Numero 28, Soho
Jamaican meat pattie/Christie’s, Prospect Heights
Empanada/Empanadas Bar NYC, East Village
Kati roll/Kati Roll Company, West Village
Pastrami sandwich/David’s Brisket House, Bed-Stuy
Ramen/Ippudo, East Village
Banh mi/Nicky’s Vietnamese Sandwich, Downtown Brooklyn
Cambodian sandwich/Num Pang, West Village
Kebabs/Bereket, Lower East Side
Arepa/Caracas to Go, East Village
Hero sandwich/Defonte’s, Red Hook
Hand pulled noodle soup/Lam Zhou, Chinatown
Belgian (French) fries/Pommes Frites, East Village
Sausage stuffed baguette/Dogmatic, Flatiron District
Fried chicken/Dirty Bird to Go, West Village
Yunnanese noodle soup/Yun Nan Flavour Snack, Sunset Park
Roman-style roasted pork/Porchetta, East Village
Meatballs/The Meatball Shop, Lower East Side
Steak/Peter Luger. Williamsburg
Hot wings/Atomic Wings, Hell’s Kitchen
Australian meat pies/Tuck Shop, Chelsea
Korean soft tofu soup/So Kong Dong (seriously), Fort Lee, NJ
Grilled cheese sandwich/Little Muenster, East Village
We would like your participation in filling out this list. What other foods in Greater New York that are offered by single-minded producers?
What are your nominations for the best purveyor in each category?