Cafe Dining at El Rey Coffee Bar

It’s been a crazy winter in New York. We’re already into March, yet the snow continues to fall and the temperatures continue to drop. I’m so over the slush and snow, and I can feel the mutual pent up frustration of others around me.

el rey - signage

Which is why I love hanging out at El Rey Coffee Bar & Luncheonette, because for a moment I can trade in the weather-induced anxiety for some laid-back California calm. Everyone here is very friendly, which is impressive, as the tiny cafe usually gets packed, but instead of losing their cool, the staff cheerfully tells you that things will be ok. If space permits, you can find seats in the very back by the small but functional kitchen, where you can watch Chef Gerardo Gonzalez create his wholesome, vegetable-driven small plates. Not surprisingly, he’s also a very nice guy who’s happy to tell you what’s in his green mole sauce (answer: everything under the sun that’s green) or to give you wine pairing recommendations (the sparkly Macabeo white was a good call).

el rey - kale salad with shaved almonds and pickled eggs
kale salad with shaved almonds, almond vinaigrette, lemon zest and pickled eggs
el rey - frittata one
“lost bread” egg frittata with shaved fennel salad and crushed avocado

What brings me back to El Rey repeatedly is the kale salad. With so much kale all over the place, I’m sure the trend for this superfood is probably on the outs, but El Rey’s version is a classic that should persevere when the fad fades. Almond is the key ingredient here that helps to differentiate the kale salad. Many places rely on heavy shavings of parmesan cheese to add depth to kale, but El Rey uses almond shavings instead. It’s an ingenious way of adding some weight to your leafy greens in a more healthful way. The vinaigrette dressing is a great blend of tangy, sour and sweet, adding a nice spring to your salad step. In the am you have the option of adding pickled or poached eggs–I would highly recommend the pickled eggs, if only for their bright pink color.

sesame banana bread and sweet potato bread
sesame banana bread and sweet potato bread

Any coffee bar worth its weight should have a selection of tantalizing baked goods, and El Rey doesn’t disappoint. I tried slices of the sesame banana and the sweet potato bread, both very good, but the sweet potato was divine. It was extremely moist with the right amount of sweet, and with the candied nuts on top, you almost felt like you were eating a slice of pecan pie.

With such a great breakfast and lunch menu, I returned to try out the dinner service, which was introduced just a few weeks ago. The coffee bar is less packed in the evening, as I’m sure not that many people know about the full dinner menu, and also most would prefer a guaranteed seat rather than risking the wait for one of the very few bar stools (I would guess there are roughly 15 spots).

papas bravas in pickled pineapple hot sauce and scallions
papas bravas in pickled pineapple hot sauce and scallions

With dinner, El Rey assumes more of a Baja California vibe. While Latin music plays in the background, Gonzalez starts cranking out funky tapas with flavors that are a little more spirited and in-your-face, and the heat factor really gets turned up. As an example, the sweet and sour papas bravas at first seemed deceptively mild, and the potatoes appeared to be coated in a harmless ketchup-like BBQ sauce. But then gradually the heat built, and I was taken by surprise by the tingling, fiery sensations coating my mouth.

marinated chorizo with orange zest, hazelnut and roasted garlic
marinated chorizo with orange zest, hazelnut and roasted garlic

Similarly, the chorizo was heavily spiced, absent the burning heat. I’m not totally sure what was in the marinade, but I could taste something like cumin and vinegar packed into every part of the chorizo sausage. If you ate the meat by itself, it would have been like eating a slice of pepperoni, which would be intense. Luckily the sweet roasted garlic cloves and the hazelnuts provided balance, as did the focaccia bread, although you could never quite shake off the presence of the marinade.

sardines with carrot top dressing, piquillo peppers, radishes, butter and tostadas
sardines with carrot top dressing, piquillo peppers, radishes, butter and tostadas

I preferred when the flavors were scaled back a little bit, more in tune with the tone set at breakfast and lunch. The sardines on tostada were fantastic–it featured such great textures and a good balance of flavors that were overall refreshing, never veering into salty, fishy territory as sardines tend to do, and not falling back on tons of rich aioli or a heavy poblano to cover things up.

green mole with burrata, burnt onions and za'atar bread
green mole with burrata, burnt onions and za’atar bread

The green mole burrata similarly impressed me with a complexity that still felt bright and clear. You could taste so many of the different herbs that had gone into the mole sauce, yet the multitude of ingredients served to enhance the mild burrata rather than overwhelming it.

shaved cauliflower with chickpea vinaigrette, white sesame and poached egg
shaved cauliflower with chickpea vinaigrette, white sesame and poached egg
the breaking of the egg yolk
the breaking of the egg yolk

The shaved cauliflower was probably the lightest and most wholesome small plate of the night, but that didn’t mean it was boring. The thin slices of raw cauliflower were coated in a bright vinaigrette, which again exhibited the distinctive qualities of sweet, sour and tangy. Cauliflower’s cruciferous qualities naturally provided the dish with a lot of fibrous bulk, but the poached egg softened the edges so that things didn’t feel too raw and crudite-like, and it felt like a proper appetizer.

After dinner is over, I would suggest that you take a short walk to Morgenstern’s, an ice cream shop  whose owner is a partner at El Rey Coffee Bar. Even though it’s freezing out, the ice cream here is so good that it’s worth the trip. The raw milk in particular is outstanding–I’ve never had a vanilla flavor feel so creamy, rich and genuinely pure. They also offer ice cream breakfasts, which is an intriguing thought, and whether you take them up on it or not, a meal at El Rey or Morgenstern’s is always worth the gamble.

El Rey Coffee Bar & Luncheonette
100 Stanton St (between Orchard and Ludlow St)
New York, NY 10002
(212) 260-3950

Morgenstern’s Finest Ice Cream
2 Rivington St (between Bowery and Chrystie St)
New York, NY 10002
(212) 209-7684

Whimsical Balkan Brunch at Saro Bistro

Here’s something you don’t see everyday–a restaurant specializing in Balkan food, a “cuisine of the long lost empires!” The only Balkan I know is the Balkan crisis, and that certainly doesn’t have any positive associations with it. The long lost empires tagline didn’t help either. Is this stuff that aristocrats like Anna Karenina would have eaten? Which would be…again, I don’t know. Caviar and vodka? All I know is that she killed herself–clearly the food wasn’t worth living for.

When the server at Saro Bistro in the Lower East Side described the food here as such, I was a little apprehensive. The word Balkan as I indicated isn’t exactly a warm and fuzzy one. I was expecting some very bare bones meat-and-potatoes type dishes to come my way, but the mood and atmosphere of Saro Bistro indicated otherwise, which put me at a little more ease. How could such a charming and whimsical place with pretty walls and lights serve anything dark and sad? This is a place where Eastern European hipsters brunch, you can’t please this clientele with cabbage and boiled meat. Again, I have had no exposure to Balkan cuisine, but cabbage and boiled meat is kind of what I imagined it to be.

saro interior_gubstreet
saro bistro interior, courtesy of

Luckily the food did live up to its surroundings. I wasn’t totally wrong about the meat and potatoes theme here. The dishes are definitely hearty and homey in nature–there’s even a humble “peasant breakfast” option on the menu–but Saro provides some modern updates to the traditional cuisine so that everything is bright and balanced.

Brunch started off with a plate of Saro’s doughnuts–nice, small sugary bites that prepared the palate for the savory dishes that would follow.

saro bistro - saro's doughnuts
saro’s doughnuts

How could you not order something Balkan at a Balkan restaurant? To check the box on this, we ordered the prebranac, a traditional and unique dish that serves two eggs on top of baked beans and sausage. A hash of legumes and meat initially sounds dense and a bit overbearing, but the lemon zest and parsley helped to lighten the flavors. There’s nothing more satisfying than swirling around soft ribbons of egg yolk into a chunky terrain of seasoned pork and chubby beans, and it’s even better when you sop everything up with some bread. My first foray into Balkan cuisine was a success.

saro bistro - prebranac 5 hour baked beans
prebranac – two eggs on top of beans and spicy sausage

We also ordered the saro’s crab cakes benedict, which obviously isn’t the most traditional dish, but it came highly recommended by the server. The crab cakes were well seasoned, and the ratio of meat to bread crumbs was just right. I liked how the hollandaise was a little smokey, which was an interesting take on the normally tangy and lemony sauce, and which lent the crab cakes with extra flavor.

As opposed to using English muffins, Saro serves the poached eggs on top of lepinja, a homemade Yugoslavian flatbread that looks like a baguette but with a much softer crust. I actually thought the dish needed a stiffer bread to absorb all the moisture from the cream and egg yolk, because the lepinja disintegrated into a sad, soggy state. Taking a fresh piece of lepinja from the bread bowl and dipping it into the sauce yielded much more successful results.

saro bistro - saro's crab cakes benedict
saro’s crab cakes benedict
saro bistro - satarash
satarash – two eggs baked on top of a chunky pepper relish

Much like its homeland, Saro Bistro is a bit out of the way in the Lower East Side, residing on a section of Norfolk St that gets little foot traffic. The location is both a blessing and a curse. It’s a bit of a trek to get out there, but that also weeds out a lot of brunch competition, so it’s possible to get a table as a walk-in during early brunch service. But the trip is worth it–Balkan cuisine is a very under-the-radar category that should get more recognition. The Michelin Guide certainly agrees and included Saro Bistro in its guide of recommended restaurants. Now it’s up to others to catch on.

Saro Bistro
102 Norfolk Street
New York, NY 10002
(212) 505-7276

Getting Crazy with Hot Dogs and Bloggers at Los Perros Locos

When I went backpacking through Amsterdam in college, I remember one night when I was totally mesmerized by a psychedelic McDonald’s sign. The neon, fluorescent lights kept fading in and out, and I remember thinking to myself how enticing and mind-altering that must have been to people completely stoned out of their minds. A pretty clever and targeted marketing ploy by McDonald’s to get people to come down from a high with a greasy Big Mac.

courtesy of
courtesy of

Los Perros Locos, a hot dog joint in the Lower East Side, has a similar psychedelic aesthetic that would definitely appeal to the stoned, drunk late-night crowd. The hot pink neon sign is like a visual GPS tracking device directing stumbling revelers towards the Holy Grail of late night munchies–over-the-top, Colombian-style hot dogs.

Los Perros Locos - counter
step right up to the counter
Los Perros Locos - interior
the bright, neon visuals–like kandinsky on crack. didn’t need the vibrant filter for this one

Although our Meetup group is not “Hungover in NYC,” I still thought it would be fun to network with other sober food bloggers in the New York area over some flamboyant hot dogs. I personally planned this social event because I didn’t think there were enough food bloggers in my social circle. I suppose we tend to associate with people who are in close proximity to us, and unfortunately creative blogger types weren’t really prevalent at my financial services company. Or maybe they were, but we had to be so buttoned up and formal that this wasn’t really something we would share with other colleagues. The Los Perros Locos tasting event definitely achieved my goal of broadening my network with interesting food bloggers—I feel like I met some fun people I would reach out to in the future to exchange blogging ideas or attend other food events with.

Why did I choose Los Perros Locos as the venue? I first heard of the restaurant at a Brooklyn Tech Meetup event featuring food startups, where owner Alex Mitow was one of the speakers. His enthusiasm for social media and his recognition of its influential role in food startup marketing really resonated with me. It was amusing to see how Geoff Bartakovics, the CEO of Tasting Table and the featured speaker at the event, directly took issue with Alex’s view that Yelp and other crowd-sourced reviews were the wave of the future and that elite food criticism was dead. Seeing as how I always reference Yelp or Chowhound for restaurant ideas, you can probably tell who I ultimately sided with in this debate. You can access the video of the lively meetup event here.

I knew Alex would be receptive to food bloggers, and I knew food bloggers would love inventive food creations, so I thought Los Perros Locos as a venue would be the perfect place. Alex and his staff were very accommodating and brought out each one of the dogs on the menu for us bloggers to try.

I have to admit, when I first saw the hot dogs, I was a little scared. These was so much going on in the hot dog—I’ve never seen so much crushed chips, mayo and sauce piled atop of anything in my life. But when I took the plunge and tried the dog, I was pleased by how good the overload was. It’s sort of like dipping your toe into cold ocean water and thinking that you’ll freeze to death if you go all in, but once you do it you feel like it’s the greatest thing ever.

Los Perros Locos - pablo escobar
the pablo escobar, the scarface of hot dogs
Los Perros Locos - Amerro-Perro
the amerro-perro – this frito-laced, chili dog has a lot of bite

You would think that the hot dog would taste really greasy and heavy, but surprisingly this wasn’t the case. Somehow all the toppings are in a precarious flavor equilibrium. My personal favorite was the Pablo Escobar, a hot dog with just the right notes of salty, savory and sweet. Pablo Escobar is the name of a notorious Colombian drug lord, and this white and powdery hot dog definitely looks like something straight out of the scenes of Scarface. The mayo balances out the saltiness of the sausage with its creamy, savory flavors, and the crushed chips provide a satisfying, crunchy texture. The sweetness of the pineapple salsa was key in cutting across the heavier flavors and preventing an overdose of salt and cream. I also loved the Chimi-Churi-Chori since I’m a fan of savory foods with a little bit of heat.

Los Perros Locos - salchipapas
this isn’t your grandmother’s salchipapas

One of the standouts of the night was not a hot dog, but the salchipapas waffle fries. Salchipapas is a Latin American snack food that consists of pan-fried sausages and French fries, served with different condiments like ketchup, mayonnaise, mustard or chili. Fork in the Road did a very eye-opening visual comparison of traditional salchipapas to the ones served at Los Perros Locos to demonstrate just how over-the-top the latter is. Los Perros Locos takes things to the extreme by dressing up its waffle fries with marble potatoes, chorizo, fried bacon, chicharones, and the best ingredient of all, quail egg, topped generously with a ketchup and mayo sauce blend and salsa verde. This was a literal interpretation of a gut-bomb, but I was fine getting caught up in the explosion.

Hot dogs have always been a part of the New York food tradition, and it’s astounding how many different iterations are being introduced. You have the old guard like Gray’s Papaya and Nathan’s on one end of the spectrum, and then Crif Dog broke some ground with its inventive creations. Los Perros Locos and Japadog are keeping the rebellious streak alive, adding some colorful entries to the hot dog canon. A Los Perros Locos dog is a decadent treat that you should probably eat sparingly, but I might be singing a different tune once Saturday rolls around and a late night bender brings me back to the hypnotic neon pink sign.

Los Perros Locos
201 Allen St.
New York, NY 10002
(212) 473-1200

The Fat Radish, Part Deux: Sunday Supper

It’s no secret that I’m a total sucker for the shabby chic, farm-to-table aesthetic at Fat Radish. I made a mental note to come back after enjoying my brunch earlier this year. TravelZoo’s amazing $69 dinner deal for two at the restaurant was the perfect excuse to relive the charms of this rustic culinary oasis in the LES.

The Sunday supper crowd is very different from the brunch clientele. All the hipster girls disappeared and were replaced by their parents. Some even came with their parents for dinner. I rather liked the more intimate, homey vibe at the Sunday supper service.

A plate of fresh radishes arrives at every table before the start of the meal. The plump radishes looked like they were plucked straight from a summer garden and pretty much tasted like so, only minimally dressed in an olive marinade with hints of horseradish. I’m not big on raw root vegetables so I didn’t particularly enjoy this complimentary offering. Luckily we had much more success with the other appetizers. After much debate on whether we should get salad or spring pot pie, we ultimately settled on the caesar kale salad and the peeky toe crab gratin.

complimentary radish plate
complimentary radish plate

Fat Radish’s caesar kale salad is one of my new favorites in the city, up there with the kale salad from Northern Spy Food and the caesar salad from The Redhead. I appreciated how the kale leaves had been tenderized beforehand, and how the light, creamy caesar dressing was evenly coated over everything. The boiled eggs were perfectly cooked, slightly underdone so that the yolk could be mixed in to add some thick, rich flavors. The peeky toe crab gratin was also a crowd pleaser. The generous chunks of crab meat were coated lightly with breadcrumbs and seasoned with the slightest hint of cheese. It’s hard to dislike crab cake, and basically this was crab cake on top of the best slice of crunchy toast. My only complaint with the crab gratin was that it was a little dry, making it hard to spread along the bread’s surface.

peeky toe crab gratin
peeky toe crab gratin
kale caesar salad
kale caesar salad

Fat Radish hit it out of the park with its appetizers so the entrees had a hard act to follow, but for the most part they delivered. The sable, a white filet fish equivalent to sea bass in taste, was perfectly cooked with a golden sear along the filet. The accompanying side of tat soi, an Asian vegetable similar to bok choy in appearance, provided an interesting peppery flavor that I didn’t know green vegetables could provide, while the quinoa balanced out the richness of the fish with its neutral, nutty taste. The pork chop, on the other hand, was a bit of a hit-and-miss. The edges of the meat, which were covered adequately in the marinade, were extremely tasty, while the meat toward the center was disappointingly bland. The side of creamed spinach that came with the pork chop was a lighter and healthier take on those overly heavy renditions you see at steakhouses, resembling more of a pureed pesto, which I loved. The couscous was perfectly fine but not more than that; I think a heartier side like roasted potatoes might have made more sense.

sable with tat soi and red quinoa
sable with tat soi and red quinoa
heritage pork chop with creamed spinach and cous cous
heritage pork chop with creamed spinach and cous cous

It’s pretty rare for a restaurant to execute its dinner dishes at a level comparable to its brunch dishes. For example, my go-to place for morning pancakes is never my go-to place for evening chicken. But The Fat Radish is one of those exceptions where I would seriously consider the restaurant for both meals. The restaurant is a bit out of the way, in the extreme east part of the Lower East Side, but it’s definitely more than just a neighborhood spot and worth the trip. The owners are expanding their concept to the Upper East Side, so stay tuned for a location that might be more transit friendly!

The Fat Radish
17 Orchard Street
New York, NY 10002
(212) 300-4053

Mission Chinese Food Fail: What is the Big Deal?

mission chinese interiorI really don’t get it–why all the love for Mission Chinese Food? Of all the not-Asian-but-inspired-by-Asian restaurants opened by Asian hipsters in the past year, this is the worst. I should have known better. I’ve been to the original in San Francisco and came away pretty underwhelmed even then, so why should the one in Manhattan be any different? But the deafening buzz for the new Manhattan location was hard to ignore. Every blog I read extolled the food here, claiming that New York was even better than SF. The New York Times wrote, “Mr. Bowien does to Chinese food what Led Zeppelin did to the blues.” Ok, this is some pretty high praise. Maybe I’m the dumb one missing out, maybe I should get over myself and go through the rigmarole of a two-hour wait to see how things have changed at the new and amazingly improved Mission Chinese Food.

Ugh, turns out my instinct was right all along. On a Friday, we stopped by at 6 pm and put our names down for a table for two. We were told that our table would be ready by 8 or 8:30. This actually worked out perfectly, since we had plans to have happy hour drinks with some friends in the area in between then. At 8, we received a call that the table was ready, although actual seating took place at around 8:30. So far so good–the hostess managed wait expectations extremely well. Our seats were actually at a communal table, where we were shoulder-to-shoulder with our neighbors. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, especially if your dining companions are inebriated and friendly and offer you a taste of their wine, and it’s consistent with the spirit of the restaurant’s loud, hip-hop downtown vibe. But if you want some peace and quiet, this is not the right place for you. Hint–don’t bring your elderly parents here. 

We ordered the highly lauded salt cod fried rice (Frank Bruni deemed them “unmissable as Momo pork buns”), chongqing chicken wings (voted one of the best chicken wings by Food and Wine) and a special cold tsukumen ramen with fresh Santa Barbara urchin, wasabi, trout roe and bacon consommé. Are these food critics on crack? The salt cod fried rice was extremely dry and lacked any flavor. I tasted no cod whatsoever, and while the Chinese sausage provided the dish with some nice salty and savory flavor, it almost served more as a garnish as opposed to a well-integrated ingredient. Like if I threw together some day old rice, scallions, cilantro and Chinese sausage, I probably could recreate what was served that night, and that is sad. There is no way this is even in the same league as David Chang’s pork buns.

salt cod fried rice
salt cod fried rice

The chongqing chicken wings–way too hot. To be fair, there were two fire symbols next to the dish on the menu, indicating the intensity of the heat, and I do recall the food being very hot in SF. But wow, after tasting some cumin and sugar, my mouth went numb from the explosive chili peppers. The spices used on the chicken reminded me of a cheap and stale Asian poultry spice blend that you get at a 99 Ranch Market. I wouldn’t eat these even if they weren’t hot, so why would I put myself through the torture of eating a painfully spicy version? Needless to say, I stopped at one wing.

chongqing chicken wings
chongqing chicken wings

The tsukumen was pretty forgettable. I love all things uni but I couldn’t really taste it in this dish. The watery broth tasted like the liquid that preserves canned seafood, and there just wasn’t any chemistry between the consommé, wasabi and turnip that harmoniously unified the components into a delicious broth.

special tsukumen with Santa Barbara uni and trout roe
special tsukumen ramen with Santa Barbara urchin and trout roe

So–guess I checked this off my list. Mission Chinese Food is 0 for 2 in my book. Not a chance that I’ll try to improve that average with another visit.