I always love a good restaurant recommendation. That’s why I joined the SOMA Eats Local Facebook group, where people from my community gather to discuss the latest and greatest food nearby. Get the lunch menu meatball sandwich, they might say of Arturo’s, the legendary wood-fired pizzeria in Maplewood village. The Maple Leaf Diner has great specials and ample portions, someone might opine. Most days, I log on to Facebook for the explicit purpose to see what people are saying about good eats in my community.
A while back, possibly in January, someone posted about Butter & Jam, a restaurant in downtown Madison known for a delectable brunch. I tucked away a mental note about the place for a future outing with a friend. Fast forward to today, when my friend Carol and I visited Butter & Jam for lunch. And, reader, it was worth the wait.
I wouldn’t call the interior welcoming, although the people who work there are warm. The spare environs with probably bad lighting belies the glorious food that’s churning out of the Butter & Jam kitchen.
We started with beverages from their “cafe” menu (accessible via QR code because this is how restaurants work now): I ordered an iced latte and Carol got a hot caffe mocha. The iced latte was delicious, likely due to the fact that Butter & Jam uses illy coffee and espresso, known for its high-quality, consistent bean blend. Poured into a cavernous mug, Carol’s mocha was delicately decorated with chocolate sauce cross-hatches and foam a mile deep. It was, in a word, gorgeous.
Moving on to the winning food, we ordered the Butter & Jam board: mountains of housemade, fresh-baked miniature buttermilk biscuits, miniature croissants, and quartered (normal-sized) corn muffins surrounded by blended butters — strawberry, blueberry, and cinnamon honey — and three housemade jams — strawberry, peach, and blueberry — all sitting like Hallmark ornaments on a spacious tray. As Carol and I pored over the menu, we noticed that the Butter & Jam board was recommended for “two to four,” which struck me as odd because the difference between two people and four people seems relatively vast — how could this serve up to four people or also be satisfactory for two? Once I dug in, I realized that the board is actually sufficient for two people like Carol and me.
The star of the Butter & Jam board is unquestionably the corn muffin. Supple and — dare I say — moist, the muffin has a vibrant corn flavor with a touch of sweetness. The divine texture makes it the perfect canvas for one of the jams, which were all bursting with colorful fruit flavor. The butters were, on a whole, less impressive to me. While the cinnamon honey butter offered a hearty tang, the strawberry and blueberry butters were a tad too subtle in my opinion. It’s worth noting that the dense and crumbly buttermilk biscuit and flaky croissants were also a notch above. But the corn muffin is the star of this place, and I won’t accept a different opinion on this matter, thank you very much.
Moving on to our entrees, Carol and I both ordered the Mexicano Ensalada (which both of us called the “Mexican salad” for whatever reason). I paired mine with salmon, while I twisted Carol’s arm to get some grilled chicken on hers. I found the salad to be exquisite. The salsa verde dressing — which, if I’m being honest, I didn’t quite understand from the menu description — is a runaway favorite, I’m sure. It’s bright and floral, with a sweet undertone, and totally creamy. Our delightful waitress commented that our salads were the last ones they were making for the day. Not only is there a baby formula shortage happening in America today, but apparently there is also a shortage of this perfect salsa verde. Somebody call The New York Times.
In addition to the completely delicious dressing, the salad boasted a half avocado that was conveniently sliced (although I forked through chunks of it anyway), red onions, and cherry tomatoes tossed with mixed greens and topped with a pile of tortilla chip strips. It was perfect.
I highly recommend Butter & Jam, but it’s important to note that Apple Maps didn’t take me to its actual location, which I somehow intuited toward through an alley that Carol and I were both surprised we didn’t pass by without notice. What I’m trying to say is don’t use Apple Maps to get there.
Butter & Jam also serves dinner, which is certain to be outrageous. After your meal, be sure to stroll around downtown Madison, which is filled-to-the-brim with charming boutiques, like a yarn store and old-timey toy store.
Any New Jersey denizen will tell you that the taylor ham, egg, and cheese sandwich is a delicacy not to mess with. Most bagel shops, delis, and diners keep it simple: a few slices of taylor ham crisped on the flat top, over-hard egg, and American cheese on a kaiser roll. Salt, pepper, and ketchup typically adorn this statewide treasure of a sandwich. As someone who has eaten many taylor ham, egg, and cheese sandwiches in her life, I can confidently say this is usually the optimal way to consume this particular food.
That is, of course, until I ordered one from Valley Street Eatery.
New kid to the block in Maplewood, Valley Street Eatery takes the place of the old Tara’s Deli, an establishment I’m not sure I ever saw anyone enter in my three plus years of living in this community. Valley Street Eatery is a short walk from Memorial Park and the Maplewood train station, making it a great place to pick up lunch for a picnic or a quick bite while waiting for the train. I had heard of Valley Street Eatery from a community group called SOMA Eats (it’s important to note that this Facebook group has quickly become my GOAT group to belong to and makes me use Facebook every day). Word on the street is the owner of Sabatino’s, a widely praised (and deservedly so) pizzeria just a few blocks away from Valley Street Eatery, opened up this new breakfast-and-lunch joint. Intrigued by its pedigree, I decided to give it a try this past week for lunch and then breakfast.
So, back to the sandwich. I’ll admit, at first I was skeptical of Valley Street Eatery’s take on the taylor ham, egg, and cheese sandwich. Their menu noted that it was pressed between brioche bun halves and an adventurous eater could even get a potato rosti (a Swedish version of the latke) on it. This sounds a bit too fancy to me, and maybe they’re trying to do too much, I thought. But, lover of all things taylor ham that I am, I decided to order it. Reader, believe me when I say that the Valley Street Eatery sandwich is the best taylor ham, egg, and cheese I’ve ever had. Yes, ever. That means it beats Hoboken’s well-known O’Bagel’s version and every other sandwich I’ve ever had, including those from New Jersey’s many well-respected diners. So, what puts Valley Street Eatery’s rendition above the rest? It’s the perfect, sumptuous combination of the buttery brioche roll with the just-greasy-enough insides. The potato rosti certainly elevates the sandwich to distinguish itself from any other in the great Garden State, but it also tastes at home in this tried-and-true combination.
When I visited Valley Street Eatery, the nice woman taking my order highly recommended the breakfast burrito, which comes stuffed with scrambled eggs, avocado, onion, peppers, American cheese, and the refined potato rosti. MDP felt it was perhaps too cheesy (likely due to the sheer gooeyness of American cheese), but found it satisfying. I tried a bite and thought it was delicious.
I also snagged an apple turnover, which may be housemade based on what I see in the Valley Street Eatery Instagram account. This pastry felt like a revelation and I encourage commuters to arrive early to get one before they sell out. It was both delicate and flavorful, with an almost croissant-like pastry exterior and not-too-sweet cinnamon-flecked sliced apples within. Valley Street Eatery also has muffins, although the flavor variety may be lacking for some.
On a different day, we ordered lunch: the kale apple salad and cubano sandwich. Both were satisfying.
The kale apple salad is fresh-tasting and hearty. My takeout container came packed with bright-green kale, chunks of honeycrisp apples, toasted walnuts, dried cranberries, and blue cheese crumbles. I added grilled chicken ($5 extra) to round out my dish. I found the balance of ingredients to be superb and particularly liked that they tossed the salad with just-enough of the white balsamic vinaigrette dressing.
MDP’s cubano sandwich looked good and he found it to be satisfying bite, as well. It’s important to note that Valley Street Eatery uses a good hoagie roll as the “case” for their Cuban sandwich, rather than the light, crisp Cuban bread you’ll find at an actual Cuban eatery. MDP felt the bread, which had been pressed, was pretty good but agreed that Cuban bread — such as what you’ll find at La Isla in Hoboken — is preferred. Nonetheless, the actual roasted pork shoulder was tender and meaty, while the sliced ham, Swiss cheese, pickles, and dijonnaise formed a delectable complement.
Aside from what we ordered, they have a handful of other specialty sandwiches, like a portobello mushroom one, a fried chicken sandwich, and a double burger. You’ll also find some deli sandwiches on their menu, like the spicy turkey, roast beef and provolone, and chicken cutlet. On the side, you can try their potato leek soup (always a favorite of mine) and their french fries.
You’ll see a few types of bagged chips and soft drinks near the entrance, so be sure to grab these before you order. If the weather isn’t great for a picnic in the park, you can sit at a table inside Valley Street Eatery. According to their frequently updated Instagram, Valley Street Eatery also has chocolate icebox cake — which just sounds so delicious, doesn’t it? — so be sure to get a slice for dessert.
I hope the word spreads about this awesome new place in our community, so Valley Street Eatery gets the love they deserve!
Valley Street Eatery
503 Valley Street
Open 7 am to 4 pm, Tuesday through Friday; 8 am to 3 pm on Saturday and Sunday; and closed on Monday (as of November 21, 2021).
That sounds familiar, I said to myself as I got out of my car on Saturday, November 13. I had just listened to the entirety of Red (Taylor’s Version) the day prior. The song on the radio was “Message in a Bottle,” a veritable bop from Taylor Swift’s latest album, released on Friday, November 12. I couldn’t believe the radio was already playing a song from the vault, but it’s really no surprise considering the mega promotional tour Taylor is doing to back Red (Taylor’s Version).
Even before Taylor came out with her new rendition of Red, the original recording was destined to go down as one of her best albums ever. I can say that confidently even while acknowledging she has many years left to produce quality tunes. But in Red (Taylor’s Version) (hereafter referred to as Red TV), we have Taylor Swift’s greatest album of all time.
Red TV pairs the 20 tracks that had been previously released as Red (Deluxe Version) with 10 new-ish songs from the “vault,” as she likes to say. I say “new-ish” because “Ronan,” “Better Man,” and “Babe” had all been released in various forms previously. With Red TV, Taylor really does us a solid: she could have released the 10 songs from the vault as its own album and called it a day. The vault songs on their own would be catapulted into the top three albums Taylor had ever produced, by the way. Instead, with the steadfast hands of Jack Antonoff and Aaron Dessner on production, she recorded the entirety of Red (Deluxe Version) as well and gave us categorically improved versions of those tried-and-true songs from a decade ago.
In listening to Red TV, there is nuance both in the backing music and Taylor’s vocals. On “Treacherous,” a delicate ballad, the opening strum of the acoustic guitar sounds more crisp and clear than ever, while Taylor’s vocals follow in a similar vein. Much like the rest of the songs from Red (Deluxe Version), this new rendition of “Treacherous” is far superior to the ham-handed sound of the original recording.
I will say her new rendition of “22” lacks something for me, which may be the sheer vim we heard in her original recording: the sound of a 22-year-old singing about the glory of being 22. On its whole, Red TV paints a picture of a tragic love affair with an inward-looking, unavailable lover (rumored to be Jake Gyllenhaal), and I hadn’t previously pieced together that Taylor exalts turning 22 because her 21st birthday was such a disaster given her lover’s callous disregard.
Another thread I hadn’t worked out from listening to Red (Deluxe Version) but now see clearly is the shame and embarrassment Taylor felt from not being “seen” by her lover. Specifically, he didn’t think she was funny. This is an exceptional revelation—and Taylor knows it—because she is obviously hilarious. Her dry wit as evidenced by late-night talk show interviews, her quirky videos and commentary about her cats, and her live-performance banter is obvious to anyone who follows her. I’m flummoxed—but not at all surprised—by the irony of someone who carries a “fuck the patriarchy” keychain finding himself unable to believe a funny woman is funny. Just something to consider.
One last overarching observation: Taylor has said herself that Red TV has “like 14 genres” of music on it, which I think is a fair assessment. Through listening to this masterpiece of an album, I’ve realized that she doesn’t once use her “triumphant key change” on any song. You’ll recall “Love Story” and “Mr. Perfectly Fine” featuring a sudden key change in the last chorus of the song. While this type of key change is clearly a remnant from her country roots, her specific use of it has represented a turning point in the narrative, one where the protagonist (she) has finally arrived. Taylor brings out the triumphant key change on “Betty” on folklore but there’s no sign of it on any Red TV song. Perhaps this intentional omission of a familiar device is because there is no triumph in a love lost, the central theme of Red TV.
Let’s turn to the 10 stellar songs from the vault that Taylor gifted us with Red TV.
In the Rolling Stone review of Red TV, the writer argues that one or two of the album’s songs presage the narrative approach Taylor took on folklore, but I’d say that her penchant for detail and story-telling has been evident in her music from the start and is, to use a phrase, “burning red” across Red TV (“Stay Stay Stay,” “The Lucky One,” “All Too Well,” and “Starlight” are just a few examples). Taylor recorded “Ronan,” a biographical song about a four-year-old boy who dies from cancer, for a fundraiser and her gift for textured detail in songwriting is on full display. As a mother of an infant daughter, this song just hits differently for me now. I can’t help but sob from the very first stanza. Her ability to translate the human experience—one she hasn’t lived herself—is unparalleled here.
For whatever reason, Taylor originally gave “Better Man” to Lady A (lol at them stealing that name for their band, you may know them as Lady Antebellum) and not-so-secretly I think I prefer that version. In Taylor’s rendition, the slowed-down song features more flair and nuance within lines. Realizing “Better Man” is a Red era song really gave it new meaning for me.
Boy do I love “Nothing New,” and honestly I can’t believe she withheld this song from us for so long. But I’m kind of happy she did because we got Phoebe Bridgers singing on it. This simple, moody, and perfect song about the revelations of growing older and more familiar to those around her features some of the most profound lines Taylor has written. Chief among them is, “How can a person know everything at 18 but nothing at 22?” Can you believe Taylor produced that line at such a young age? Such profound wisdom rarely comes to a songwriter in their entire career much less at the beginning of it.
Sugarland originally recorded “Babe,” and I definitely prefer Taylor’s version. She sounds great and this somehow upbeat take on a melancholy topic could be a single.
As soon as I hear the first bars of “Message in a Bottle,” I can’t help but dance. This is the boppiest bop on all of Red TV; yes, I’m looking at you “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together.” It’s crazy to me her team didn’t put this song on the original album because it could have easily been the lead single. Fast forward to 2021 and it is, I guess!
All of the vault songs on Red TV are top-notch, but this particular stretch of songs is probably the strongest. Next we have “I Bet You Think About Me,” sung with country singer Chris Stapleton. The hefty country tune draws a sharp-as-a-knife contrast between the worlds of Taylor and her lover who she paints to be an elitist (“Mr. Superior”). Her takedown of him is vicious yet I can’t stop singing along. My favorite part of the song is the outro where she goes in strong, using the literary device synecdoche when she sings, “I bet you think about me in your house with your organic shoes and your million-dollar couch” to represent the whole of the hollow poseur she sings about. I also love that she acknowledges he probably thinks “oh my God, she’s insane, she wrote a song about me” – LOL of all LOLs.
Across her ouevre, Taylor has declared 2 am as her hour of inspiration (“Last Kiss” and “I Wish You Would” are two examples), yet on “I Bet You Think About Me” and later on “Forever Winter,” she assigns 3 am as the hour to observe other characters in her songs. Something about the wee hours of the morning gets her.
“Forever Winter” is so well-written and definitely a bop, but it’s a sad story about someone who’s contemplating suicide. I hear The Beatles in this song.
“Run” is another duet with Ed Sheeran, purported to be the first song they wrote together. It’s melodic and delicate and puts their beautiful intertwining harmonies on full display. Somehow I’m reminded of a recent Harry Styles song when I listen to this one.
I think “The Very First Night” also has single potential. Instead of recalling the emotionally painful part of their love affair, this song focuses on the happy moments Taylor owes to the relationship she had with him. This one has country-pop crossover—the hallmark of Red—written all over it.
Last but certainly not least is “All Too Well (10 Minute Version),” which is being called Taylor’s “magnum opus.” There are a lot of reasons why that’s the prevailing sentiment about this one, and it’s evident Taylor is most proud of this song, and this specific version of the song, judging by her repeated performances of it (as well as the short film she directed which portrays on screen the vivid imagery deeply embedded in the lyrics). She said that “All Too Well” was her favorite song from this album, and despite never being a single or a song that had a video, it became regarded as her best song of all time by fans.
I’m impressed and amazed by the level of detail and cinematic quality she imbues into the new stanzas of this song. Yet I feel it’s slightly meandering, where the original “All Too Well” had a very clear narrative structure: exposition where the premise of their relationship is established; a climax where the love disintegrates (“Maybe we got lost in translation / Maybe I asked for too much / But maybe this thing was a masterpiece ‘til you tore it all up … And you call me up again just to break me like a promise / So casually cruel in the name of being honest / I’m a crumpled up piece of paper lying here / ‘Cause I remember it all, all, all too well”); and a clear denouement that’s evident in the pared-back instrumentals and lyrics focusing on picking up the pieces. In contrast, the 10-minute version walks deeper into the abyss of pain and torture her lover inflicted on her.
One of the greatest joys of listening to the “Taylor’s Version” albums so far is seeing Taylor’s songwriting process up close and personal. It’s clear she’s fascinated by certain phrases and wants to articulate them in her work. For example, on “Mr. Perfectly Fine” from Fearless (Taylor’s Version), we get her first use of “casually cruel,” which is such a sharp observation that would later make its home in “All Too Well.” On the 10-minute version of “All Too Well,” we hear her invoke Shakespeare’s “all’s well that ends well” (“They say that all’s well that ends well / But I’m in a new hell every time you double-cross my mind”). She would later bring this idea back in “Lover” but in a more positive light (“All’s well that ends well to end up with you”).
Across her albums, Taylor has called on her relationship with her dad (“The Best Day,” “Mine,” and “cardigan,” among others), but it’s on this 10-minute version of “All Too Well” that we get his voice: “But then he watched me watch the front door, willing you to come / And he said, ‘It’s supposed to be fun, turning 21.’” I find it interesting that Taylor chooses to bring her father into the song, rather than her mom, with whom she has a strong and deep relationship. This feels intentional as a means to illustrate the power grab her lover forged by winning over her father—and everything that goes with that—early in their relationship.
Some of Taylor’s greatest lyrics occur across this song. Among my favorites is
And then there’s the final verse, which is radiant in its brilliance:
Red TV is an incredible feat of songwriting and I’m so glad Taylor gave it to us.
They say that, in New York City, the only constant is change. While that may be true, my view is that the only constant is the better the restaurant, the smaller the space. This maxim bears out in the new kid to the East Village, The Dip.
Nestled between residential properties, The Dip asks its potential patrons to dip their bodies downward and into the literal hole in the wall that is this restaurant.
I’m being generous when I say the space can accommodate seven guests at once, maybe eight, if they’re malnourished. And there aren’t any tables, it’s all counter space and you’ll be lucky if you can snag a backless stool in a game of musical stools as customers enter and leave The Dip.
Their spare decor reflects the spare menu. There are five sandwiches to choose from, including a french dip, a buttermilk fried chicken sandwich, and grilled cheese. You can order a French onion soup, fries, coleslaw, and/or some kind of salad for a side. As there’s no alcohol here, you’ll have to be satisfied with San Pellegrino or a Coke product.
All of this is fine because, small and spare as it may be, The Dip delivers big flavors.
buttermilk fried chicken sandwich
MDP ordered the buttermilk fried chicken sandwich, which is enough for two people to feast on because there appears to be two chicken breasts crammed between the brioche bun halves. Cherry peppers and coleslaw adorn the sandwich, with a smear of mayo to do it justice. When I asked MDP how the sandwich is, he mumbled between bites very good so I’ll take that to mean the sandwich is, in fact, excellent.
french dip sandwich
I ordered the item to get at The Dip: the french dip sandwich. Delectable shaved steak rests aplenty on a toasted garlic bread roll, with gruyere and cherry peppers to round out the flavors. But the magic is in the deliciously salty au jus and thick, creamy horseradish on the side. Heaven on a foil wrapper.
fries and coleslaw
We also ordered fries and coleslaw, which were nice addenda to an outstanding meal. The fries rival those of McDonald’s, but are far superior due to their just-right saltiness and crisp exterior. I found the coleslaw to taste fresh and feature just enough mayo without feeling too heavy.
While The Dip’s food is outstanding, it feels like they’re working out the kinks with fulfilling orders as of yet. The hipster-esque dude sitting next to me complained about being “here 15 minutes before [us] and they got their chicken first” to his model girlfriend. She demurred to comment on his chicken situation and went on to regale him about her eyebrow threading ritual as she stood beside him. In the end, he received his chicken sandwich a few minutes after we received our food and heartily consumed the fried chicken itself, but not the bun. Some kind of keto adaptation, I imagine.
Anyway, if you do attempt The Dip, visit on a nice day when you can take your food to go and eat at a nearby park or bench. A table is optimal if you order the french dip, so you have ample ability to, well, dip.
58 Saint Marks Place (Between First and Second Aves.)
New York, NY Take the N to 8th Street or the 6 to Astor Place. Walk east.
Downtown Hoboken is home to several foodie luminaries: the renowned Carlo’s Bakery, Empanada Cafe, Rita’s (!!!), Charritos, and other local gourmand favorites. La Isla Restaurant is at the top of my list, after sampling their breakfast this morning. The funny thing is, most people would walk right by La Isla, given its low-brow neighbors (Cluck-U Chicken is nearby), and the washed out “Restaurant / Cafeteria” sign hung above its door.
The tiny Cuban restaurant has garnered many accolades over the years, which are all proudly displayed near the entrance. Its interior couldn’t be more than 20 x 10, and that’s a generous estimate. A long counter sits just beyond a refrigerator case when you walk in, and seats about 16. Several tables for four line the opposite wall, from entrance to rear, leaving a fraction of a walkway for servers and customers to navigate. Customers are encouraged to “sit wherever you like” even if you’re a party of two; during busy hours, I imagine the counter is the best you can do.
I had considered trying La Isla several times before today, but watching Triple-D on the Food Network gave me that extra push required to head over to 1st and Washington. And what an experience it was.
We started our meal with drinks. I ordered the “Cubaccino,” which is a cappuccino with a cinnamon flair and whipped cream on top, while MDP opted for a standard tea. Simple enough, and pleasing nonetheless.
To kick off our meal, we ordered Papa Rellena, which is the dish I saw on the TV. Are you sitting down? You need to be sitting down for me to explain what this is. OK. It’s basically a fried mashed potato ball with delicately seasoned ground beef in the middle. Right, a fried mashed potato ball. You read correctly. Could anything be as divine, I think not. Its exterior is fried just enough, to give it a mild crunch as you take your first bite. Then, the silky texture of the mashed potatoes prepares your palate for the ground beef, which is savory and robust in flavor. No wonder Guy Fieri went nuts for this one. You can order it with salsa, which we should have done–no doubt, we’ll return and get this fried ball of deliciousness again.
Famous food aside, everything else turned out spot on, as well. I got the chorizo, manchego, and onion omelette, with home fries and toasted Cuban bread. While the omelette was pretty good, the star of this entree was the Cuban bread. I cannot overstate how exceptional this bread is. Its crisp texture gives it bite, but its slender form factor leaves you wanting more instead of feeling overstuffed. Totally brilliant. I liked the home fries, and I found the true manchego flavor to be apparent in the omelette. Sometimes the cheese gets overpowered by other ingredients in this type of dish, but that wasn’t an issue here.
MDP got the Croqueta Preparada sandwich. It featured smoked ham, Swiss cheese, pickles, garlic “mojo,” and a surprise potato croquette creation all squeezed between Cuban bread on a griddle press. Looked great, but I’m no fan of ham, despite the name of this blog, so I passed. MDP kept saying,”This is really good.” This means it was.
Even if you think Cuban isn’t your thing, La Isla will charm you with its phenomenal food.
And, if you’re closer to uptown Hoboken, stop by the sibling restaurant, also called La Isla, there.
I remember the first time I saw the Old 97’s live. It must have been around 2009, 2010, down at South Street Seaport for some god-awful summer festival. Usually, the acts they get are subpar to subzero, but I was impressed by the Old 97’s. Following the show, the first song I downloaded was “Question,” a saccharine story of engagement. As the owner of many Rhett Miller solo and Old 97’s albums, I now know “Question” was more a “Rhett Miller” song than an “Old 97’s” song. If you’ve studied Rhett and the band as I have, you know what I mean.
Their new album, Graveyard Whistling, came out late last week, and it’s worth a listen if not a purchase. Anyone who loves Too Far to Care, a 1997 release that plays like a greatest hits album, will fall in love with Graveyard Whistling from the very first note.
Old 97’s, Brooklyn, 2016
The album kicks off with a shimmering cymbal and a Texan guitar’s narrative in “I Don’t Wanna Die in This Town.” Rhett Miller’s vocals layer in, a perfect timber, “How did I get here? / Where was I headed? / You know I can’t recall.” At the chorus, the song picks up with a giddy-up drum beat, staccato and brief, as the song hurtles toward the next stanza, omitting the drums altogether: “I’ll entertain you / But I can’t save you / Although I’m doing the best I can / I’m just a singer in a rock ‘n roll band.” I’ll pause for a moment on this note. (No pun intended.) The Old 97’s are frequently cited as the darling of alt-country, but I don’t get it. Sure, I can hear country-inflected guitar solos and the drum beat–albeit played faster–of a many country song before. But this is a rock ‘n roll band. Listen to the singer.
While we’re here, I’ll note that most of the songs are written by the Old 97’s, but a few feature additional contributors. “Bad Luck Charm,” track two, is one of them. Co-written by Caitlin Rose–daughter of the legendary Liz Rose, aka co-writer of “White Horse” by the beloved Lady Swift–“Bad Luck Charm” focuses yet again on Rhett’s outsider/underdog status. He sings in the chorus, “If you cross your fingers, you can hang me on your arm / Baby I’m a bad luck charm.” This isn’t new material. That less-than status permeates his music. Think of “Four Leaf Clover” (“I’m still a drunk, I’m still a loser / Living in a lousy neighborhood”) or even “Wish the Worst” (“I guess I’m a loser, but I like being miserable / Swimming in sin”). He’s either a cynic or he doesn’t own a mirror. Could be both. I digress.
It’s challenging to select just a few standout hits, when I truly love so many of the tracks on Graveyard Whistling. The album’s namesake crops up in “Irish Whiskey Pretty Girls” in which Rhett sings, “I never was good at talkin’ / Graveyard whistlin’s more my thing / I got 96 tears and only one wedding ring.” This song takes up the “99 Problems” idea from Jay-Z with a twist and sets it to a fast beat and a fiddle on the backdrop: “I got 99 problems to be thankful for / But a half a clue ain’t one.”
Rhett Miller, Portland, OR, 2015
If I had to pick two favorites, “All Who Wander” and “She Hates Everybody” may top the list, although “Jesus Loves You” is up there, too. The Old 97’s have been tourin’ talk shows playing “All Who Wander,” and it’s no wonder. It’s a moody, quiet, and sentimental tune with a catchy chorus: “All who wander are not lost / Just me / Just me / Signals and wires both get crossed / Remember back when you got lost with me.” Here’s Rhett once again positioning himself as second to the rest, as being “lost.” In “She Hates Everybody,” Rhett sings about a girl who’s a “misanthrope”–that he and his co-writers were able to work this word into a song deserves all the stars, in my opinion. It’s a clever tune about someone I know (maybe me, but who’s counting: “It was so hard to win her heart / It’s hard as a rock except for one little part.”). “Jesus Loves You” feels like a song by Alex Battles (“Jesus Wore Flip Flops”), my favorite local songwriter. Neither song necessarily undermines Jesus, but both consider the similarities (and differences) man has to the Son of God. In the Old 97’s song, Rhett sings, “You can talk to him all night / But I’m right here / He makes wine from water / But I just bought you a beer.” In another stanza, the song goes, “I’m not discountin’ the sermon on the mount an’ / Oh when I was little you know they dunked me in the fountain.” Very funny.
Rhett’s voice sounds better than ever across the entire album. His penchant for vibrato is on full display, and his ability to transform his voice from mellow crooning to an impassioned expression within just a few lines continues to impress. The band isn’t too shabby either. Ken’s guitar playing is fantastic, while Philip on drums and Murry on bass (and his own song, “Nobody”–very good) are excellent.
In my opinion, Graveyard Whistling is the best Old 97’s album in 10 years. I liked Most Messed Up, and The Grand Theatre (Volume 1 and Volume 2) albums were pretty good. These three albums had a handful of good songs apiece, but Graveyard Whistling is solid from beginning to end. And, when I put my Old 97’s music on shuffle, the new Graveyard Whistling songs fit right in alongside “Doreen” and “Barrier Reef.”
If you haven’t caught the band on TV yet, have a listen to the new album. Even just a minute or so will convince you this one’s worth buying.
Hoboken is kind of like New York City, except smaller. At just about one square mile, the birthplace of baseball and Frank Sinatra has an “uptown,” a “midtown,” and a “downtown,” just like the Big Apple across the Hudson. It has a main artery — Washington Street — like Broadway, and finding a parking spot is just as challenging.
One of the things I like best about Hoboken is the availability of many different types of cuisine, just like New York. But where New York City has a lot of duds among the diamonds in the rough, Hoboken has a smaller sample size, making it easier to find what you like and what you don’t. More often than not, you like what you come across.
Last night, MDP and I went to Matt & Meera, an Indian restaurant on Washington Street. I had been looking for a good Indian restaurant for some time. When we walked by Matt & Meera on New Year’s Eve, we vowed to try it, without knowing we’d end up there the following evening.
There’s something about frogs that Matt & Meera holds dear. Don’t worry, they aren’t on the menu, but they figure prominently on the restaurant’s website and frog figurines make for unique decorations within the darkly lit space.
Potato and pea samosa
Frog love notwithstanding, the food is, in short, phenomenal. We started with the potato and pea samosa, which was accompanied by a mint chutney and a tomato-based chutney. The samosa was perfectly fried, with a crisp exterior that, when punctured, lay bare to a plethora of delicious potato filling. But the mint chutney is the real star of this dish. Packing the heat yet ending with a cool sensation, the condiment paired perfectly with the samosa. Highly recommend this dish.
For entrees, we sampled two of their “classic dishes” from the back of the menu, and an order of garlic naan, which was supple and garlicky and warm.
MDP had the madras chicken, which featured a nuanced flavor of mixed spices, coconut, and a lingering heat that wasn’t overpowering. The madras chicken was delicious. If you like spicy food but want to actually taste something, this dish is for you.
I ordered the paneer makhni. Diced paneer sits in a bath of creamy tomato sauce, with a slight spiciness that delights the palette. The sauce was more tomato than cream, unlike the butter paneer I’ve had elsewhere, which emphasizes the cream in “creamy.” I cherished each bite of garlic naan with paneer makhni as though it were my last. This is a great vegetarian option, if you aren’t into meat.
Aside from these dishes, Matt & Meera has a host of other delectable foods on their menu, including kati rolls (one of my favorite foods ever) and naan pizza. I encourage you to sample their innovative menu next time you’re in the Mile Square City.
Matt & Meera
618 Washington St. (between 6th and 7th streets)
Hoboken, NJ If you’re traveling from New York City, take the PATH to Hoboken and walk about seven blocks on Washington. Take the 126 to 6th Street.
“Chela’s [sic] are usually short, but mighty,” says Urban Dictionary, which may or may not be the right place to find out more about Mexican beer. Although, I suppose UD’s definition applies to Chela & Garnacha, a small, but mighty Mexican eatery on 36th Avenue in Astoria. Food truck enthusiasts likely know or know of the Mexican Blvd. Food Truck — well, Chela & Garnacha is the brick-and-mortar manifestation of Mexican Blvd. It may not have wheels, but it packs plenty of punch.
When we sat down, we each ordered beers: XX (Dos Equis) for me and a Negra Modelo for MDP. We noticed rice and beans were not on the menu (“isn’t that odd” we each shared aloud), and proceeded to order two appetizers and one torta apiece.
All in all, the food and service are very good at Chela & Garnacha. Here’s a closer look at what we got.
Guacamole and Chips
At $8, you get a lot of guacamole and it doesn’t disappoint. The guacamole was thick and flavorful, while the chips were crisp and fresh. I recommend getting this dish or at least the salsa and chips, so that you have the opportunity to experience Chela & Garnacha’s delicious, housemade chips.
Intrincadas de Flor de Calabaza
I had never formally ordered intrincadas at a restaurant, but I’ve had delightful masa patties, fried to perfection, many moons ago. The word — intrincadas — alone may bring to mind trickery or deceitful machinations. But the delicious food it represents suggests otherwise.
Lightly fried zucchini blossoms sit upon a stack of guacamole, sour cream, and chipotle adobo (we’ll come back to this gem of a flavor later), with the crispy masa patties forming the foundation. The combination of elements was exquisite – the smooth guacamole contrasted with the sharp spiciness of the chipotle adobo, and the sour cream neutralized the overall flavor, in a good way. I loved the masa patties for their simplicity and well-executed purpose of supporting the toppings.
You must try these if you visit Chela & Garnacha. They also offer chicken-topped intrincadas.
I’ve written about tortas before — I am a fan of the sandwich. Often delivered on a Portuguese roll, I ask, “What can go wrong?” At Chela & Garnacha, the answer is “nothing,” because their chock-full-of-deliciousness sandwiches hit the mark.
MDP opted for the adobo torta, which is stuffed with the standard flavors of a torta (guacamole, cheese, lettuce, tomato, sour cream, and more) plus slow-roasted pork loin. It looked amazing, as MDP gobbled it up in no time (I couldn’t get a bite in). I chose the bistec en pasilla torta, with top round marinated steak in a “drunken beer” and Pasilla sauce. For both, our waitress asked us whether we’d like chipotle adobo or jalapenos on the sandwiches. We hadn’t tried the amazing intrincadas doused in chipotle adobo yet but my intuition told me the chipotle was the way to go.
We were so correct. The chipotle adobo sauce at Chela & Garnacha is outrageously good. It’s silky and strong, and spicy without setting your tongue on fire — that is, you can taste the nuances of the sauce very well despite the heat. It was an incredible addition to my torta.
I loved the Portuguese roll our tortas sat upon, and the steak was very good in my version. I highly recommend, although I get the sense many folks like the tacos.
You do you.
Chela & Garnacha is a great place to go on a Friday night, to tip back Mexican beer ($4 during Happy Hour) and sample fine renditions of tried-and-true favorites.
Chela & Garnacha
33-09 36th Avenue
Astoria, New York Take the N/Q to 36th Avenue and walk a few blocks.
There’s no problem a little sangria can’t solve, and sangria is Calle Ocho’s answer to all of life’s challenges. The subway’s running late? Some homeless guy stole your last cigarette? DSW is closed? The moment you walk into Calle Ocho and name your (first) sangria selection, all of your issues melt away.
I’m not sure where Calle Ocho — Eighth Street — is, considering the restaurant calls the Upper West Side (and, specifically, The Excelsior Hotel) its home. Provenance aside, Calle Ocho is where to go for brunch — plain and simple.
One of the things I like best about Calle Ocho is its surreptitious bottomless brunch. That’s right — you order an entree and get all the sangria you want. Calle Ocho makes you read between the lines just a tad to know that you can order glass after glass (after glass), and won’t wind up with an $84+ bar bill tacked to the end of your tab.
So what about this infamous sangria?
Calle Ocho Sangria
It’s bold, it’s fruity, it’s delicious — and, not to put too fine a point on it, it’s free. The Latin restaurant serves up eight varieties, four each of red and white. MDP and I tried three of the eight: Tropical, Spanish Harlem, and Fresas.
Let’s start with Fresas and work backwards. Designed with raspberry vodka as its base, the Fresas sangria is almost too fruity and sweet for my taste. MDP termed it “just like what red sangria tastes like,” which is true. I chose Fresas as my second glass, and ended up with a headache about an hour later. Coincidence? I think not.
MDP opted for the Spanish Harlem variety, which packs a punch with dark rum and cinnamon as the forward flavors. I enjoyed this one immensely, and so did MDP.
My first glass was of the Tropical white, and I was very pleased with this selection. It has three fruits — orange, mango, and pineapple — with a light rum mixer. Occasionally, I got a bit of mango in the straw, but it was an overall delightful drinking experience.
Amazing Bread Basket
On the way to Calle Ocho, I considered asking for a bread basket — thinking, of course, there would be a fee involved with receiving a robust, multifaceted bread basket such as what Calle Ocho offers. I was wrong — it’s completely complimentary.
The highlight of the bread basket was definitely the pandebono, which are little round rolls made with Yuca flour at Calle Ocho. Pandebono can be made with other flours, and usually have cheese as an ingredient. No typical butter should be served with such delicious little breads, so Calle Ocho provides a strawberry whipped butter, seemingly made with real strawberries. It’s slightly sweet and more than satisfying.
The Actual Food
On the brunch menu, you’ll find a list of beautiful dishes, such as eggs benedict and omelettes, all inflected with a Latin flair. If you’re with a friend, however, I implore you to order the gallitos.
The menu indicates it serves two, and, at first, I was skeptical. Is it really going to be enough for me and MDP? We ordered the plantains, as well, as back up, if the gallitos proved to be a too-small portion for our appetites.
Well, the gallitos platter was enormous. A giant serving dish held mini dishes filled with scrambled eggs, chorizo, home fries, condiments, and mini tortillas to wrap everything up in. It was amazing.
If you know me at all, you know I love to build tiny breakfast sandwiches at every chance I get. I stole a forkful of the chorizo and spooned some eggs onto my tortilla, with a bit of guacamole, sour cream, and salsa inside. I proceeded to methodically spoon-and-fold such taco-like creations for about 30 minutes, silently building and eating, building and eating, until all ingredients were gone.
I was in heaven.
The sweet and green plantains were very good, as well. I particularly enjoyed the green plantains, which were in patty form and not sweet at all. They were delicious.
If you end up opting for a different dish, I recommend avoiding the home fries as a side. For $8, you’re not getting much more than an expensive version of your local diner’s breakfast potato fare. They were flavorless, and an unimpressive part of the overall incredible gallitos dish.
I can’t say enough good things about Calle Ocho. The ambiance is pleasant and inviting, although the dining room’s acoustics do not make for extremely intimate conversation.
Do make a reservation, but don’t expect to get one for this upcoming weekend. I made a reservation in mid-February and got a table for two …. for yesterday, March 12.
I’d like to try their dinner menu, too, but I suspect it’s the brunch that is the big draw at this fine restaurant. Happy brunching.
45 W. 81st Street (between Columbus Avenue and Central Park West), in The Excelsior Hotel
Upper West Side, New York Take the 1 to 79th Street and either take the 79th Street crosstown bus or walk a few avenues over to Columbus. Head up to 81st Street. I recommend this route over the closer subway stop (B/C Museum of Natural History) because the B does not run on the weekend, and, if you know anything about New York, you know the C is more elusive than Moby Dick.
Every time I read an article about a new Mexican restaurant, commenters – who by nature are more opinionated than they should be – always say New York City is void of any decent tacos, burritos, and guacamole. Honestly, I don’t know who these people are or how they know that not one good Mexican restaurant exists in this great city of ours, but, nonetheless, the sentiment holds.
Case in point is Cemitas El Tigre, Woodside’s latest addition. A popular New York City blog wrote about the new Mexican establishment, and, as if on cue, commenters began blasting the city’s food scene – and the restaurant, although I’m fairly certain said commenters haven’t even be to Woodside, never mind Cemitas El Tigre.
I get it. Cemitas El Tigre’s provenance is not a story of authenticity, of an immigrant family clawing their way to the top of a city unkind to restaurant purveyors. The owner is called Danny Lyu, and he once peddled his special Mexican sandwiches in a Whole Foods and at Smorgasburg, both in Brooklyn. So, the restaurant is neither authentically Queens nor authentically Mexican.
fried chicken cemitas
That aside, I thought the place was okay. MDP and I went at 6 pm, thinking it would be packed with early adopters. Inside the narrow space, the brief menu, scrawled in white on a black chalkboard, sat upon a wall. Staff were all smiles, brimming with friendliness and proffering paper menus in case the board proved unsatisfactory. The too-loud music blaring over the restaurant’s speakers made communicating our order a challenge. The cashier plucked a number at random, handed it to us, and we took our seats near the door, which was ajar with cold air seeping through the crack all night.
Ten minutes passed, and our food arrived. MDP and I both ordered cemitas, which, for the uninitiated, are sandwiches stuffed with fresh ingredients in the tradition of street food from Puebla, Mexico. I opted for the fried chicken cemitas, while MDP got the carnitas variety.
He wasn’t impressed, but I was. The crisp roll held the contents perfectly, all 10 layers of them. In addition to the fried chicken in mine, I tasted smashed avocado, black beans, Oaxaca cheese, chipotle puree, and other delectable items. I found the hint of hotness from the chipotle puree to be the best takeaway from the sandwich’s flavors combination.
In addition to the sandwiches, we ordered onion rings, which came with a vat of ketchup, as well as cilantro-lime rice and black beans.
The onion rings are crispy, crunchy, and fried deliciousness. We asked for the dill ranch dip that accompanies them (for an added fee), but our cashier didn’t comply with this request. Ketchup was a fine stand-in, however.
The rice and beans are sold separately, and I would encourage you to embrace the option of not ordering the rice. MDP expressed an interesting sentiment regarding the rice: it tasted like Rice-a-Roni, or a similarly manufactured, too-salty, and fake-flavored rice dish.
The beans made up for the rice, but not by much. They were cooked and creamy, with bits of cilantro sprinkled on top, but not entirely impressive.
cilantro-lime rice and black beans
Cemitas El Tigre offers burritos, tacos, and milk shakes, none of which we tried. And I’m not certain we’ll be back to sample them.
If you’re in Woodside, you might visit Cemitas El Tigre, but I’d recommend de Mole instead. It’s just a few doors down, on 45th Street and 48th Avenue, and they serve up some of the best Mexican food I’ve ever had – despite what commenters might think. Haters gonna hate!
Cemitas El Tigre
45-14 48th Avenue (between 45th and 46th streets)
Woodside, NY Take the 7 train to 46th Street, walk south several blocks to 48th Avenue.