She’s Just a Dime Store Cowgirl, but It’s Not All She’ll Ever Be

Kacey Musgraves has experienced a meteoric rise–not just in country music, but contemporary music as we know it. She’s toured with Willie Nelson and Allison Krauss; she’s been to a ton of festivals, exposing her music to new audiences across America; and on her current press tour for Pageant Material, her latest record that dropped last week, she’s hit up the likes of NPR and even Pitchfork has reviewed the singular album.

Before Pageant Material came out, I anticipated a great record–and it’s far better than “great”–but part of me wondered if Musgraves would have enough of her “signature” material to draw from to top Same Trailer Different Park, her beyond-outstanding album that earned her a few Grammys. If she’s been out on the road all this time, would she still have the ability to incisively critique small-town living in the South that made Same Trailer so incredible? The answer is a resounding yes.

The first two songs quell that anxiety. “High Time,” the opening track, sets the musical tone for the entire record: throw-back country sounds like pedal steel, whistling, strings, and even some hand-clapping. The artful lyrics reassure us that she’s back to who she is at the core:

Been missing my roots
I’m getting rid of the flash
Nobody needs a thousand-dollar suit just to take out the trash

“Dime Store Cowgirl,” a standout on the record, chronicles the emblems of success she’s achieved with her trademark wink-wink-nudge-nudge elocution (“I’ve had my picture made with Willie Nelson/Stayed in a hotel with a pool”). Yet the heart of the song reminds us that she’s grounded, despite her achievements, and the bridge punctuates this idea: “I’m happy with what I got, cause what I got is all I need/Just cause it don’t cost a lot, don’t cost a lot, don’t mean it’s cheap.”

Overall, the record is about the human condition–you could probably this say about a lot of music–but there’s something special about Musgraves’ perspective. She takes the platitudes we’ve all come to know (“You can take me out of the country/But you can’t take the country out of me”) and even shares with us some of her own (“Life ain’t always roses and pantyhose”). Some may call this approach simplistic, but I call it brilliant. Musgraves writes lyrics that roll off the tongue and lodge themselves in your brain because they’re made up of completely natural language. They’re rife with detail and imagery and convey big ideas. She’s probably one of the best lyricists out there today.

“Pageant Material” and “This Town” are two examples of Musgraves’ masterful writing and powerful commentary. From the first verse, you may think that “Pageant Material” is a self-deprecating tune about Musgraves’ inability to live up to Southern beauty standards (“I ain’t pageant material”), but it’s actually a critique of the ridiculousness of pageants:

God bless the girls who smile and hug
When they’re called out as a runner up on TV
I wish I could, but I just can’t
Wear a smile when a smile ain’t what I’m feelin’
And who’s to say I’m a 9.5
Or a 4.0 if you don’t even know me

She ends the song with a punch: “I’d rather lose for what I am than win for what I ain’t.” In a way, the title “Pageant Material” refers both to what Musgraves isn’t (the first-level meaning of the song) and the stuff that gave her inspiration to write her critique: literal material about pageants and what they represent to and perpetuate in Southern society.

At face value, “This Town” sounds like a paean to deep South small-town ways–and maybe that’s what it mostly is–but, on the flip side, it reveals Musgraves’ highly evolved point of view:

We finally got a flashing light, they put it in last year
And everybody got real happy when the grocery store got beer

I don’t know many country songwriters today who are able to simultaneously describe something in detail and stand back to critique it. My favorite lyric in the song does just that, as well: “What goes around comes back around by Friday’s football game.”

The thoughtful “Somebody to Love” could have gone by a different title because it isn’t a love song; it gets at that human condition theme that runs through the record. “Die Fun” lends insight into Musgraves’ “live in the moment” mantra. “Family Is Family” is a hilarious and very pointed tune that moves along at a clip (“Family is family, in church or in prison/You get what you get, and you don’t get to pick ’em”). And “Biscuits” feels like a “Follow Your Arrow”/”Trailer Song” redux.

The last song I’ll mention is “Good Ol’ Boys Club,” which some publications have suggested contains a dig at Taylor Swift. I’d like to correct and clear up this misperception. If you listen to any of the lyrics to this song, it’s abundantly clear that it’s about the Country Music Establishment, and even conservative life and politics at large:

I don’t need a membership to validate
The hard work I put in and the dues I paid
Never been to good at just goin’ along
I guess I’ve always kind of been for the underdog

Favors for friends will get you in and get you far
Shouldn’t be about who it is you know
But about how good you are

The irony of the song is its thorough country feel. A slight back beat of the drum, an acoustic guitar that strums along, and a pedal steel cutting up a line behind the vocals.

I think some of these idiot reviewers are latching onto the line “another gear in a big machine don’t sound like fun to me.” Big Machine is Taylor’s record company, but since when is Taylor part of the “good ol’ boys club”? “Big machine” more likely refers to the idea of living up to certain standards to become accepted–in country music and by Southern ideals. Anyway, don’t listen to the haters! Musgraves has admitted there’s a bit of dig embedded within this song, but surely it’s not toward Taylor Swift.

If you liked Same Trailer and Kacey Musgraves’ witty observations, you’ll enjoy Pageant Material. If you’ve never heard of her, you should definitely give this record a listen anyway.

Even better things are on the horizon for Kacey Musgraves. She may feel like she’s a dime store cowgirl, and I do believe she’ll always stick to her roots, but she’ll always be much more than that to me.

Portland Food Tour 2015

I love Portland, Oregon. The people are nice; public transport is pretty good; and the scenery is gorgeous. Some call it Bridgetown–the Willamette River bisects the city–others say it’s the city of roses, referring to the International Rose Test Garden found in Washington Park. However you term Portland, one thing you need to know is that the food is outstanding.

Although Portland isn’t known for one type of cuisine (although locals may tell you it’s a sandwich city all the way), “fresh” and “local” are words that appear on many a menu in this town.

I’m going to take you through the food MDP and I sampled on our trip to Portland. You might want to get a snack before you dive in–this post is certain to make you hungry.

bunk bar water grilled cheese and tomato soup

grilled cheese and tomato soup

Bunk Bar Water ($, 5 stars)
While doing thorough research on which restaurants to try in Portland, I came across Bunk Bar Water. I thought this would be a good place to experience a Portland sandwich, and boy was I right. We went to the place straight from the airport, with our suitcases in tow, and the gentleman behind the bar promptly asked, “Did you get kicked out?” Given the number of vagrants milling about the city, this kind of question wasn’t all that strange. After I smiled and told him that we were visiting from out of town, he took our order and we picked a booth to sit in. A few minutes later, our grilled cheese and tomato soup and pulled pork sandwich arrived. The grilled cheese was made with locally sourced Tillamook cheddar that was melted between two of the best slices of bread I’ve ever had. They were flaky and buttery and extremely delicious. MDP’s pulled pork sandwich was topped with coleslaw and sat upon a light and airy poppyseed bun. I highly recommend!

hopwords urban brewery chicken club

chicken club

Hopworks Urban Brewery ($$, 4 stars)
Located in the middle of nowhere (unless you’re a bowler–in that case, it’s found right across the street from your favorite bowling alley), Hopworks Urban Brewery (HUB) held so much promise and partially lived up to it. In a land filled with breweries, HUB stood out as a true destination bar with ample beers and ciders to choose from, and a decent pub menu. When we walked in, everyone’s eyes–including the servers’–were glued to the big-screen TV dangling from the ceiling showing one of the final NBA games. We sat ourselves and pored over the drink and food menus. I selected a cider from the list, and MDP got one of their house beers (although I don’t remember which one). For dinner, I ordered the chicken club, a fresh-tasting chicken sandwich with delicious avocado, exceptional bacon, and perfect green leaf lettuce all squeezed between a soft pub bun. It was fantastic. MDP chose one of the salads and seemed pleased with it. The reason why HUB only gets four stars was simply because their carrot cake tasted terrible. A new addition to the menu, the carrot cake was topped with ginger-inflected frosting–the competing spice and ginger flavors were too much for me to handle. I also wasn’t crazy about the service there…

A word on service in Portland: It’s nothing like New York. Often, you seat yourself (which is fine!). The servers are generally very friendly and kind, but very slow and laid-back. Of course, not every restaurant is this way, but there seems to be a lack of urgency steeped deep in their culture that undoubtedly finds its way into their service.

screen door glazed breakfast hushpuppies

glazed breakfast hushpuppies

Screen Door ($$, 5 stars!)
As previously mentioned, Portland isn’t necessarily known for a particular cuisine, yet I had the opportunity to sample Southern cooking all around town. Screen Door was one of the best. And it seems the word has gotten out: the cozy place typically has a line snaking around the restaurant and down the road at 8 am on Saturdays (!). It’s that good. A lovely waitress came over to us with a water pitcher and a coffee urn, and poured us some drinks straight away. We started with the glazed breakfast hushpuppies, which were outstanding. Lightly fried, the corn balls had thick chunks of phenomenal bacon and smoked cheddar on the inside, with a side of creole cane syrup that was the perfect accompaniment to the hushpuppies. I ordered the biscuits and gravy with scrambled eggs as my breakfast entree, while MDP got the buttermilk biscuit sliders with cheddar grits on the side. Both dishes were amazing. The biscuits achieved the ideal: simultaneously light and dense, with a fine texture, like the surface of the moon. I enjoyed the gravy for its delicately spiced flavoring. It wasn’t heavy-handed, as many other white gravys can be. This place is a must, if you’re visiting the city.

la cocina vegetable nachos

vegetable nachos

La Cocina ($, 1 star)
You know I hate Yelp. This place perfectly illustrates why. On Yelp, it has 4.5 stars–that’s out of five, as I’ve rated restaurants here. La Cocina serves up some of the worst Mexican food I’ve ever had. Although the photo of nachos I’ve included here may look decent to you, they were just okay. I was optimistic after we finished these nachos, thinking that our entrees (fajitas and a burrito) would be better. Well, they weren’t. The steak fajitas were made with subpar meat, and, while they gave me many tortillas in a cute little tortilla holder, there wasn’t any sour cream, pico de gallo, or guacamole presented to me. The beans and rice are hardly worth noting, if only to caution you to never get them. MDP seemed to like his burrito, which was covered with a mole sauce, certainly to mask the flavor of the carnitas within. If you are accustomed to the nuanced flavors offered by Mexican restaurants such as De Mole in NYC, don’t even bother trying such cuisine in Portland. You’re certain to be disappointed.

rogue fruit salad cider

fruit salad cider

Rogue Distillery & Public House ($$, 5 stars)
Rogue Distillery & Public House, in the Pearl district, offers an array of draft beers and ciders exclusively crafted by Rogue, the brewing company. MDP got a Shan-Tea, which is like a shandy but made with iced tea, instead of lemonade, and Rogue’s very own Dead Guy Ale. I tried the fruit salad cider, which was a bit too fruit-forward for me, but I appreciated the effort. This location also serves food that is decent, so it’s well worth a stop.

tasty n alder burrata with watermelon radishes

burrata with watermelon radishes

Tasty n Alder ($$, 5 stars)
It’s hard for me to assess whether Tasty n Alder or Irving Street Kitchen (later in this post) has better food. They’re both outstanding restaurants. Tasty n Alder has a New York feel: it has the modern clean aesthetic and serves up small plates. We began our culinary journey with the chocolate potato doughnut with creme anglaise–very good. Next, they brought us the Korean fried chicken, which came with short-grain rice, kimchi, pickled cucumbers, a sunny-side up egg on top, and a boiled egg chopped up and sprinkled around the dish. This was fantastic–the chicken was drenched in a gochujang sauce to spice it up and I adored the pickled cucumbers (although MDP wasn’t crazy about the kimchi). Then, they brought us the fried egg and cheddar biscuit with house made bacon–fantastic!! I thought this was the best part of the meal. We also sampled the burrata with watermelon radishes, which was too pretty, too rare, and too delicious to not show you.

voodoo doughnuts

voodoo doughnuts

Voodoo Doughnut ($, 3 stars)
“Sure, you can go to Voodoo Doughnut if you want Fruit Loops on your doughnut,” commented one of our waitresses in Portland. We had mentioned that we were thinking about going to the much-heralded tourist trap of a bakery, and she wasn’t impressed. Now I understand why. We waited for about 30 minutes under the surprisingly hot sun. When we got to the front of the line, I quickly decided I’d get a french cruller with chocolate icing. MDP wanted the Arnold Palmer doughnut, and I thought we’d throw in the Portland Cream for good measure. They were all so incredibly sweet that I wanted to throw up for, like, five hours after I tried them. (No, I didn’t eat all of the doughnuts myself!) MDP seemed to enjoy them, and maybe you would, too, but I wouldn’t recommend this place: it’s not that cool and the doughnuts, old-style as they may be, are not the best I’ve ever had.

full sail brewing company session beers

session beers

Full Sail Brewing Company ($, 5 stars)
If you happen to travel east to the Columbia Gorge, keep going until you get to Hood River and then stop in at the Full Sail Brewing Company. Take a tour of their facility–which seems impressive!–or head straight to the pub for an appetizer or two and a couple of authentic Oregon brews. Their main offerings are Session beers, which I’ve had on the East Coast if you can believe it. I enjoyed the one I had, whose style escapes me, and MDP liked his. We also got the spinach and artichoke dip that actually came with more pita than we needed–a rare situation. And, if it’s a beautiful day, you’ll be able to watch the kite surfers do their thing on the expansive Columbia River. It’s well worth a visit!

contrary biscuits

biscuits

Contrary ($, 5 stars)
This small, family-owned coffee shop across the street from Portland State University serves Stumptown coffee, which is some of the best you can get. In addition to the outstandingly smooth latte I ordered, we got some biscuits for breakfast. They were crumbly and filled with delicious cheeses and vegetables (and bacon, in one instance). If you visit Portland, try to find a hotel that’s centrally located, such as in the downtown area where Contrary is found.

A note on Portland food trucks: Food trucks, or food stands really since they’re not on wheels, are very popular in the city. But, based on my experience, I wouldn’t “waste” a meal at one of them unless you’re desperate for food or you’ve run out of money. We went to a handful, including one of the supposed best, and I wasn’t impressed at all. The food trucks outside my work building in midtown are far better, in fact.

irving street kitchen marinated hanger steak

marinated hanger steak

Irving Street Kitchen ($$$, Five stars!)
Wow is this place outstanding. Maybe I liked it because it reminds me of New York. Or maybe it’s just because the food is so damn good. Either way, Irving Street Kitchen offers some of the best food I’ve ever had. We started the meal with local wines and a cheese plate. First of all, the cheeses–a blue cheese and a cheddar–were completely delicious. As if the cheeses themselves weren’t the best ever, the chef went a step further, putting house made crackers that boasted a nuanced flavor and delicately crafted jams on the side. Amazing! A server also brought over some of the best bread ever, from Ken’s Bakery in Portland. Wow! For entrees, MDP got the fried chicken while I ordered the marinated hanger steak. The chicken was good, but not as flavorful as others I’ve had. But the steak–it was so tender and juicy. The asparagus that lay underneath the meat was thin and crisp, and the few onion rings they provided were fantastic. We didn’t stop there. We also ordered the chocolate cherry tart with matcha ice cream (not my favorite) and chocolate cherry curd. The curd stole the show in this dish–so creamy and rich with flavor. You’ll have to go here if you ever visit Portland. But make a reservation, if you can. They only have a few tables set aside for walk-ins.

Portland has some of the best food I’ve ever had outside of New York. Much better than San Francisco, in fact! It’s a beautiful city with a lot to offer and I hope you visit some time.

Upland

I’m surprised I’ve never been to Upland before. For one, it’s the type of place I categorically love: clean, quasi-modern aesthetic with luxurious green leather booths and jars of fermenting lemons lining the walls. There’s something very charming about the interior, although the facade itself won’t tell you much about what’s inside. But, the other perplexing part of today being my first and only visit to Upland is simply that I worked down the street from it for three years.

Upland’s namesake comes from the California town that “laid the groundwork” for chef Justin Smillie’s love of cooking. Wherever Upland is, whatever it may have in store for discerning palates, I’m extremely pleased that chef Smillie brought his talents and affinity for California cooking to Flatiron, NYC. When I tell you this place is awesome, I surely hope you believe me.

Our smiling waitress brought over a complimentary bottle of sparkling water to us and handed us a few brunch menus. That Upland labels the menus with the current month speaks to its reliance on seasonal cooking–something I admire. Yet, chef Smillie doesn’t go overboard with his consultation of the seasons: there are dishes you’ll actually want to eat and seem “normal.”

upland pastry basket

pastry basket

We started with the pastry basket, which is chock full of sweet and savory treats. The lemon poppyseed muffin, grapefruit poundcake, baguette, and cheddar and bacon (!) scone were true standouts. It’s no error here that I’ve named the majority of what came in the pastry basket–everything was that good. MDP even commented that the grapefruit poundcake had just the right amount of lemon flair, unlike some confections we had recently sampled.

upland eggs in hell

eggs in hell

MDP opted for a dish called “eggs in hell” that tasted very fresh and enticing. The eggs were runny–not my cup of tea–but he was unfazed and gobbled them up. The sauce was rife with fresno chiles, oregano, and truly spectacular tomato. Grilled bread came on the side, the perfect accompaniment for sopping up the delicious tomato goodness.

upland cheeseburger

upland cheeseburger

I’ve been building up to the moment when I would tell you about this burger I had at Upland. Here’s the spoiler: it was one of the best I’ve ever had. New York magazine tipped me off to this gem, and boy am I glad they did. It’s like a Big Mac but oh so much better. Two cheese-topped patties sat upon a fantastic sesame roll whose crust was crisp and yet the body of the bun was soft. And true to California cooking, chef Smillie put delicately sliced avocado slivers on the burger. I didn’t even have to ask. I was in heaven. The combination of flavors–the unique peppers, the ideal bun, the perfect amount of grease, I could go on–made this a memorable dining experience. At $20, the burger costs a pretty penny but is well worth the fee, ounce for ounce. And the matchstick fries that come with the burger are plenty, offering enough bite to be satisfying.

Our lovely waitress asked if we’d like dessert at the end of the meal, but I was already so stuffed we had to decline. But, given my love for both the ambiance and food, I’m sure MDP and I will return to try dinner one night.

Now, be aware that the burger is only served for brunch and lunch. So plan accordingly.

Upland
345 Park Avenue South (at 26th Street)
Flatiron, New York
Take the 6 to 28th Street and walk south a few blocks.

The Queens Kickshaw

The lighting was dim as we entered The Queens Kickshaw located on Broadway, just off Steinway, in Astoria this morning. I didn’t see a hostess, but the barista was quick to welcome us: “What can I get started for you?” I declined a coffee and asked if we could sit down for brunch. She encouraged us to grab a table of our choosing, so we walked past the coffee bar and sat at one in the back. We arrived just after they opened and the restaurant was largely empty. Thirty minutes later, that would all change.

the queens kickshaw egg and cheese sandwich

egg and cheese sandwich

An industrial vibe emanates from the walls–adorned by lamps as light fixtures–and the steely furniture of The Queens Kickshaw. Yet, the place feels pleasant. A waitress with a sangfroid air dropped off a few menus and a compendium of drinks and placed two wide-mouth glasses of water on our table. Colin Meloy’s unmistakable tin-can voice, with his crisp elocution of lyrics on Picaresque, blared from the speakers as we pored over the brunch menu. After just five minutes of sitting there, I exclaimed to MDP, “I really like it here.”

Ambiance aside, the food is top notch, too. They offer a selection of egg dishes and french toast, but what you really want to focus on are the dishes under “The Classics” section. There you’ll find The Queens Kickshaw’s bread and butter. Two varieties of their famous grilled cheese and a decadent macaroni and cheese option, made with three types of fromage, caramelized onions, and the unique addition of green beans, make the cut for brunch.

MDP selected the egg and cheese sandwich and I ordered the gouda grilled cheese. Topped with a cheese crisp, the egg and cheese sandwich features ricotta, rather than your run-of-the-mill American or cheddar cheese, as the eponymous “cheese” stuffed between two luxurious slices of brioche. It comes with thyme and maple hot sauce on it. I found it to be quite delectable.

the queens kickshaw gouda grilled cheese

gouda grilled cheese

The obvious star of the show was the gouda grilled cheese, though. Featuring black bean hummus, guava jam, and pickled jalapenos, this singular rendition of the tried-and-true grilled cheese sandwich was like nothing I’d ever tried. The combination of the creamy hummus, sweet and tart jam and spiciness of the jalapenos–all piled on the same soft brioche used for the egg and cheese sandwich–culminated in a truly awesome savory experience. A mixed greens salad with a jalapeno dressing accompanies the dish, carrying the hot flavor of the sandwich forward.

I had noticed that chocolate pudding was on the menu, so I ordered that once we were finished with our entrees. Made with Mast Brothers Madagascar chocolate, the pudding was extraordinary. Handmade whipped cream topped the delightful dessert, with flaky pastry (called by the fancy name “feuilletine”) covering the cream. It was simple, yet divine.

the queens kickshaw chocolate pudding

chocolate pudding

While we waited for our food, I watched people come and go, picking up coffees from the front, as light poured through the expansive storefront window. People leaned against the wall near the door, and the illumination, in contrast to the dark of the interior, made their silhouettes appear other-worldly. I snapped a few photos to remember the early-morning experience.

There’s something special about The Queens Kickshaw. I encourage you to try their brunch, and, really, to go any time, for any meal. Their cider list is particularly impressive, with bottles from all over the world filling the menu. The Queens Kickshaw proprietors like cider so much that they recently opened a bar dedicated to the drink on the Lower East Side, called Wassail. I bet that’s good, too!

The Queens Kickshaw
40-17 Broadway (near Steinway)
Astoria, New York
Take the M/R to Steinway and walk a few blocks.

V Street (Philadelphia)

Tell me about the time you had some of the best food you’ve ever eaten. Consider the nuances, the flavors, and the textures. Think about its provenance: is it the type of all American fare offered by drive-in spots on lonely highways? Or is it extra-U.S. in origin, from lands far, far away? And, finally, does it have meat? I’m guessing your knee-jerk response to the last question is “yes.” But that’s because you’ve never been to V Street, the self-proclaimed vegan street food bar, in Philadelphia.

v street togarashi fries

togarashi fries

A sophisticated threesome led me to V Street, tucked away on 19th Street in the Rittenhouse neighborhood. As we walked through the restaurant’s double doors, one of My Lady Dining Partners (MLDPs) commented that it felt like we were entering someone’s apartment. The level of hospitality shown by V Street staff makes you feel like you’ve landed in a friend’s home, so I suppose the unusual entrance is well-suited for this fantastic spot.

You’re going to like what we ordered (because I certainly did): we basically got the entire menu. Using discretion, we avoided some of the less exciting small dishes, such as the market greens and spicy chaat salad. But, we opted for the other two small plates and all of the large plates listed on the menu du jour. Oh, yeah, and we got both desserts (more on them later). (V Street changes up the menu every so often, but the dishes we tried were definitely representative of the magically delicious food they serve.)

Okay, so, here we go.

The server brought out all the dishes in quick succession and placed them on our rapidly diminishing table surface.

v street chilled kung pao noodles

chilled kung pao noodles

The togarashi fries and chilled kung pao noodles–both small plates–were probably my favorites. The heavily spiced fries feature scallions and cilantro, but the real star of the show is the gochujang mayo. Whoa, gochujang mayo! For the uninitiated, gochujang is an amaaaaazing spicy paste used in Korean cuisine, which you may be familiar with if you’ve ever had bibimbap. I’m sort of speechless about these fries, but even more so about the cold noodles. The perfectly cooked noodles are slathered with a delicious peanut sauce, with bits of charred broccoli mixed throughout. Everyone at the table was like “these noodles!” and rendered basically speechless, as I am now thinking about how incredible these two dishes were.

The large plates were also very good, and my favorite among them was definitely the blackened tofu taco salad, which seemed to be less favored by my company. I think it was the uniquely charred tofu that did it for me. I also enjoyed the accompanying smoked black beans, crunchy tortilla, and creamy avocado. The most innovative dish we ordered was easily the Korean fried tempeh reuben that turns the classic sandwich on its head. It has kimchee kraut and sriracha thousand island dressing (!). If you go to V Street and order this dish, you will never ever feel okay ordering a reuben anywhere else–it could never compare.

v street blackened tofu taco salad

blackened tofu taco salad

I couldn’t tell what everyone else liked best because whenever someone asked what one of the dishes was, the common response was, “I don’t know, but it’s good!”

We had to get dessert, obviously, because we clearly hadn’t eaten enough already. So, V Street has soft serve and a churro ice cream sandwich on offer. The flavors for both change on a regular basis. We were fortunate enough to be there when they had Mexican chocolate soft serve, which has a tequila topping sprinkled over it–yum! The churro ice cream sandwich that day had a tropical blend sorbet squeezed in between two halves for a sweet yet tangy treat to finish our meal.

You should know that V Street also serves up fascinating beverages, such as interesting iced teas and lemonades (with trees in them [???]), as well as a selection of rotating cocktails that will keep you on your toes.

v street churro ice cream sandwich

churro ice cream sandwich

All said, V Street’s laser-like focus on the adventurous and original keeps their customers coming back for more. And it makes New Yorkers like me wish I lived in Philadelphia. Yeah, it’s that good.

Philadelphia is awesome, by the way, so you should visit whenever you get the chance. Here’s a list of fun things to do in the city of brotherly love over the next few months. When you do make it down there, go to V Street–you won’t be sorry you did!

V Street
126 S. 19th Street
Rittenhouse, Philadelphia
I have no idea how to get there. Grab a friend, use your GPS, and get walking. I swear it’s not far from 30th Street station, but it may be a trip worthy of a cab.

Butcher Bar

It’s the end of March and, here in New York, it’s actually snowing. Whatever happened to “in like a lion, out like a lamb”? While the weather may be distressing, the meal I ate this morning certainly was not. If you’re looking for a unique answer to “where can we go to brunch?” in Queens, Butcher Bar is it.

butcher bar burnt ends and scrambled eggs

burnt ends and scrambled eggs

This borough has been experiencing a sharp influx of hipsters. Brooklyn transplants have been making their way across the county line to settle in Astoria, Long Island City, and, now, my dear Sunnyside. Butcher Bar is precisely designed for the newcomers. It’s an organic, sustainable barbecue joint with a quaint, yet plain interior. I’ve never been to the proper South, but I imagine this is the type of place you’d find in Austin, TX. These new Queens-bound millennial types enjoy this kind of thing, and I can guess that Butcher Bar has capitalized on their sensibilities.

That’s not a bad thing, of course–especially when the quality of meat and dining experience feels unparalleled to anywhere else in the neighborhood.

This morning, MDP and I wanted something different for brunch and decided to take the subway to Astoria. Butcher Bar is just a few blocks away from the N/Q 30th Avenue stop, so we hiked through the falling snow to find the lauded restaurant (it has a four-star rating on Yelp, which is pretty good considering that people love to complain on this site).

butcher bar brisket hash

brisket hash

Butcher Bar only recently began to serve brunch. Their menu is chocked full of egg dishes, with the occasional pancake item making an appearance. But the real star of the menu is the meat. Butcher Bar only sells the finest grass-fed meat, and the sheer quality of their cut selections is readily apparent in their offerings.

MDP opted for the brisket hash, while I ordered the burnt ends with scrambled eggs. Both dishes were incredible and accompanied by a complimentary alcoholic beverage of our choice (sangria, cocktail, beer). Let’s start with the brisket hash, which features diced potatoes and peppers with–you guessed it–brisket mixed in. It’s covered with a white gravy and an egg on top. MDP seemed to enjoy it, and I had a taste and agree that it was top notch. My burnt ends were phenomenal. They were silky, smooth, and very flavorful. The burnt ends were situated atop scrambled eggs with a layer of cheese, to my delight. Expertly cooked potatoes and mixed greens also came with our selections.

In addition to the mains, we got the creamy macaroni and cheese as a side dish. I found the simplicity of the dish to be satisfactory, but MDP wasn’t as impressed by it. The pasta was drenched in a delicious cheese sauce, and paprika was sprinkled on top.

butcher bar creamy macaroni and cheese

creamy macaroni and cheese

At the end of our meal, the lovely waitress asked if we’d like a piece of apple cake on the house. I enthusiastically said yes, and she brought us a sliver of the cake. It featured a drizzle of caramel on top, and the rare apple piece inside the cake. Despite the lackluster showing of fruit, I found the crust to be thick and authentic tasting. I was pleased with this addition to our meal.

I’d say that the value of brunch at Butcher Bar is amazing. Although the burnt ends with eggs plate cost $18 or so, it came with 10 – 15 pieces of meat and the plate was filled to the brim with food. The cocktail I ordered would have been $10 a la carte, and I quite enjoyed it. Plus, let’s not forget the apple cake that was a surprising finish.

Even if you’re not a Queens dweller, I’d suggest making the trip to Butcher Bar for brunch or even dinner. If they can serve up masterfully crafted dishes for the Saturday-Sunday morning set, I’m confident in their ability to do this during the evening, as well.

Butcher Bar
37-10 30th Avenue (between 37th and 38th streets)
Astoria, NY
Take the N/Q to 30th Avenue and walk north several blocks. It’s on the east side of the street.

Dirt Candy

As you know, I’m not a vegetarian. I tried that when I was in college and failed miserably. And that was before I became a burger aficionado. I remember scooping chick peas into a bowl then covering them with Italian dressing at the dining hall. Obviously, this mode of eating would never be sustainable. If I could eat at Dirt Candy every day, I’d happily be a vegetarian forever more.

dirt candy hush puppies

hush puppies

Situated down on Allen Street on the Lower East Side, Dirt Candy serves upscale vegetarian cuisine that is categorically artful. The spacious restaurant exudes a clean aesthetic, with a minimally designed interior and many right angles. The New York Times recently wrote a laudatory review of the place, so it’s nearly impossible to get a reservation these days. But don’t be deterred! Dirt Candy has a counter that overlooks skilled chefs creating masterpieces, which ends up being a more entertaining experience than sitting among the plebs.

Now, let’s get to what I ate.

My Lady Dining Partner (MLDP) and I sampled an array of menu items to get the full experience of Dirt Candy.

dirt candy broccoli dogs

broccoli dogs

After taking our order, a waiter brought over a small dish with bread bursting from it, much like muffins explode from the pan to form the exquisite tops. The breads were multicolored, and each portion tasted different, with the red conjuring beets and the green resembling chard or spinach. They were accompanied by a garlicky butter, which was fantastic. From the get-go, I knew this was going to be an incredible dining experience.

We began our meal in earnest with the jalapeno hush puppies, which were served with maple butter. In a word – YUM! MLDP observed that the hush puppies were more like corn fritters, but that’s not a knock against them. They were fried deliciousness, and served in ample portions, so do try this so-called “snack” when you go (and I’m sure you’ll go after reading this review).

dirt candy brussels sprouts tacos

brussels sprouts tacos

For our entrees, we opted for the broccoli dogs (two per order) and brussels sprouts tacos. Wow, both were amazing. The broccoli dogs sat upon housemade buns and were topped with a broccoli kraut, laced with mustard barbecue sauce. On the side, they gave us a generous portion of kale chips that tasted like sweet and sour pickles, and a small slaw made with microgreens. The dish was amazing.

But, the real stars of the show were the tacos. Charred brussels sprouts were laid upon a piping hot stone, and what seemed to be Bibb lettuce leaves took the place of your typical taco shells. I’ve never had brussels sprouts like this in my entire life. Their roasted exteriors were perfect yet belied a tender inside that delights the palate. A delicious guacamole, tortilla strips, a spicy and textured mole, and other fixings were alongside the main parts of the dish. This is billed as a dish to share, but I’d advise you to share everything you get at Dirt Candy so you can try many options.

dirt candy carrot meringue pie

carrot meringue pie

For dessert – and we had to get dessert given how amazing the other food was – we tried the carrot meringue pie with sour cream ice cream. OMG, this was AWESOME. The carrot filling was dense and flavorful, while the meringue that topped the carrot was expertly applied and toasted. I enjoyed the carrot crust, as well. I could take or leave the sour cream ice cream, but it was a nice complement to the carrot flavoring.

We got a second dessert from Babycakes, right around the corner, but, honestly, who’s counting?

So, in short, you have to go to Dirt Candy. Take this advice from the burger queen.

Dirt Candy
86 Allen Street (between Grand and Broome streets)
Lower East Side, New York
Take the B/D to Grand Street and walk a few blocks, or the F/M/Z to Delancey Street and walk a few blocks.

Sleater-Kinney at Terminal 5

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The venue was dark when the band entered from stage right. The energy at Terminal 5 was rising, and I could feel it seeping through the floorboards of the second tier where MDP and I were standing. One spectator commented that more than 1,000 people must have been present for the second night of a sold-out two-night appearance by the band that vanished into thin air eight years ago.

Sleater-Kinney is easily one of my favorite bands. Two guitars and a drum set comprise this trio, which could be one of the more unique aspects of the band if they weren’t also so exceptional in so many other ways. I once read that they tune the lower E of their guitars to C sharp, which, as a burgeoning guitar player, simply blows my mind. Don’t the chords sound different? I wondered, trying to comprehend how it must be writing with such a different sound.

Their feminist roots in the riot grrrl movement of the ’90s runs through their tunes, but their lyrics are much more sophisticated and thinkworthy than your run-of-the-mill Bikini Kill. And, of course, this is not an insult to BK as much as it’s a compliment to SK.

Last night, on February 27, the band took the stage and played through their catalog, album by album, speeding up certain songs and adding flourishes here and there in time-honored Sleater-Kinney standards, such as “Words + Guitar” and “One Beat,” a song that contains some of my favorite lyrics EVER:

Should I come outside and run your cars?
Should I run your rockets to the stars?
Could you invent a world for me?
I need to hear a symphony
If I’m to run the future,
You’ve got to let the old world go, oh oh

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More known for her appearances on Portlandia these days than for her guitar playing, Carrie Brownstein danced across the stage, kicking her long, lanky legs up toward the ceiling as she ripped through lines that only expert guitarists could dream of playing. Corin Tucker belted out number after number with her unique voice, penetrating even the most insulating ear plugs worn by novice SK attendees. And Janet Weiss, on the drums, back up vocals and harmonica, kept the beat plugging along with adroit playing.

The crowd was filled with three types of people, as far as I could tell: the long-suffering Sleater-Kinney fans who have been behind them since their noteworthy album Call the Doctor dropped (I’m in this group); the newbies who know No Cities to Love, their new record, with a sound that demonstrates the nearly 10 years of music that’s occurred since the band last wrote together; and the people who like Portlandia.

Although she’s the most famous band member today, Carrie didn’t ham it up by making funny remarks here and there. She kept it low-key and largely allowed Corin to speak to and rev up the crowd.

Their experience as seasoned musicians shone through on just about every song. Carrie’s masterful guitar lines exploded on songs like “Youth Decay,” which was way more uptempo than the album rendition, and “Dig Me Out” with its clarion call of punk-infused indie rock. Corin’s voice reverberated to the highest tiers of the massive venue, and sounded gorgeous on classic tracks like “Good Things,” a fan favorite.

I was reminded of the brilliance of their songwriting when Carrie began singing “Entertain” off their 2006 album The Woods:

So you wanna be en-en-tertained?
Please look away, don’t look away
We’re not here ’cause we want to entertain
Go away, don’t go away

In this song, Sleater-Kinney cuts right through to the heart of the matter when it comes to fame–could it be about their struggle with becoming a renowned rock band? Or even Carrie’s place on Rolling Stone’s list of “most underrated guitarists of all time”? Could be both these things, but they’re also talking more generally about society on a whole. That’s what I mean about Sleater-Kinney’s sophisticated lyrics–they’re incisive, bold, and brilliant. And don’t even get me started on the aural aesthetic of this song: Carrie’s muted, round articulation of the lyrics paired with Corin’s fiery vocals, and a militant drumbeat banging in the background plus the intricate guitar lines–it’s all spectacular!

The show was one of the best I’ve been to in a long time, but the band only played an hour-long set, which surprised me. I guess the ladies of Sleater-Kinney know how to end on a high note, leaving their fans from all walks of life “always wanting more,” as they sing in “I Wanna Be Yr Joey Ramone.”

So, you thought I only wrote about Taylor Swift and food on this blog. And I understand why you’d get that impression, given the header and the name. But, as stated in Taylor Ham’s tagline, this blog is about all kinds of music.

Below is a taste of what happened at the show. Enjoy!

Dumplings & Things

Xi’an Famous Foods is probably my favorite Chinese restaurant ever. This seems to be the widely held sentiment among New Yorkers (and please God let Xi’an be a secret kept from tourists — for now anyway). At the Xi’an near my workplace, the line is typically out the door and down the block. Sure, it’s a hole-in-the-wall space, but the demand for high-quality Chinese foods has reached a fever pitch since Xi’an came on the scene in full force a few years ago.

There’s a Xi’an in Flushing, and I’ve even gone there with MDP for take-out to bring back to our home 30 minutes away — that’s how good Xi’an is.

dumplings & things pork and chive dumplings

pork and chive dumplings

But, now I don’t have to travel to Flushing for authentic noodles and dumplings because Dumplings & Things (see menu here) has opened up shop in Sunnyside. Yesterday was the opening day, and I’m fairly certain it will be the first and last time I ever actually eat there. The hungry crowds are coming, and I suspect they’re looking for Xi’an-level deliciousness. They’ll certainly find it at Dumplings & Things.

I wouldn’t call Dumplings & Things a chain, but there’s definitely another outpost in the Park Slope area of Brooklyn, which has garnered rave reviews. It’s no wonder. Dumplings & Things serves up delectable Chinese (and sometimes Korean) fare for affordable prices — think $3.50 for a plate of five dumplings. Yeah, that cheap.

MDP and I were dead-set on sampling a wide variety of Dumpling & Things’ offerings, so we went about scanning the menu and choosing a food from just about every category: dumplings, noodles, baos, rice platters (we’ll try next time), and appetizers.

dumplings & things melt in your mouth pork belly noodles

melt in your mouth pork belly noodles

So, let’s start with the dumplings. We opted for the pork and chive (steamed) type. The filling was nearly bursting from the tightly wrapped skins, which goes to show the value you get when you order dumplings from this amazing place. And they weren’t just plump — they were delicious, too. Unlike some pork and chive dumplings that are typically “chive” in name only, these had a distinctly chive flavor that made the entire experience of biting into each dumpling feel fresh and clean.

We had to get noodles, and Dumplings & Things has a nice selection on their menu. You can either get your dish with rice or “regular” noodles (which, I think, are either ramen or la mien), and with broth if you choose. We got the braised beef noodles and melt in your mouth pork belly ones. Wow, both were just out of this world. While Xi’an’s wide hand-pulled noodles are pretty impressive, Dumplings & Things’ noodles are also up there on my list. They, like the dumplings, were bursting with flavor. Our respective meats were beautifully flavored and heaped aplenty on the top of our noodles, which cost a mere $6.50 and came out in a giant traditional bowl.

dumplings & things braised beef bao

braised beef bao

MDP wanted to try a bao, so he ordered the braised beef one. It’s two baos per order, so I was in luck. I bit into the bao, with sliced cucumber and carrot, as well as crushed peanuts on top, and was blown away. One of the best restaurants in Sunnyside, Salt & Fat, used to serve unique pork belly baos. I think Dumplings & Things is giving them a run for their money in the bao department.

I wanted to try the garlicky cucumber salad, to compare it to Xi’an’s version, so we got that, too. It was good — not great, like Xi’an’s — but MDP figured out that, if we doused the cucumber pieces in soy sauce, the dish would taste better. It did. Somehow the soy sauce brought out the garlic flavor more intensely, and I was a happy clam.

dumplings & things garlicky cucumber salad

garlicky cucumber salad

All this food cost about $29. Twenty-nine dollars! The seating arrangement inside is fairly utilitarian, with simple stools and small tables for patrons to dine at. It’s no sit-down and order through a waitress place, either, so snag a table before you put in your order at the counter. Getting your food could take upwards of 20 minutes because I think Dumplings & Things has a few kinks to iron out in the kitchen process yet, so grab a gourmet ginger ale and sit tight.

I highly recommend Dumplings & Things. If you’ve been looking for your local Xi’an, this is it.

Dumplings & Things
45-26 46th Street (between Queens Blvd. and Greenpoint Ave.)
Sunnyside, NY
Take the 7 train to 46th Street. Walk south for one block. It will be on your right.

Ruby’s

There’s something very special about Australia. I don’t say this only because a dear friend of mine hails from the land down under. And it’s not their divine accents, either, or Foster’s in the giant can, which is, apparently, an American thing and not how it’s actually served in Australia. I simply love their slang. “Dunny” for bathroom and “chat to you” instead of “chat with you” as a mode of conveying a brief, but intimate talk with someone. But, now I’ve found something else to love about Australia: their take on the hamburger. A thoroughly American dish, the hamburger is something I take very seriously here in NYC, and have a lot of opinions on what matters when it comes to crafting the perfect one. I’ll tell you something: Ruby’s, an adorable Australian cafe in NoLita, has hit the nail right on the head when it comes to serving up a delicious burger.

Bronte burger at Ruby's

bronte burger

I selected Ruby’s out of an array of choices Yelp offered me yesterday morning. I was looking for a good burger somewhere in the vicinity of MDP’s workplace, and came across the little Aussie place on Mulberry Street. In general, people seemed to favor the “Bronte” burger in the reviews, which left me feeling wary as I do not trust devotees of any restaurant on Yelp. One reviewer complained about the poor service at Ruby’s–after 10 p.m. one night. Anyone who thinks they’re going to get good service at a restaurant past 8 p.m. any night is out of their mind, in my humble opinion.

So, I hopped the N train and shuttled down to Prince Street, where I detrained and ambled over to Mulberry. Walking down any street in NoLita/SoHo is a treat, since the cute shops and boutiques take exacting care in articulating their brand in the great wide windows facing the sidewalk. Nestled among a Kiehl’s outlet and obscure clothing stores, Ruby’s sits close to Spring Street. Its welcoming exterior draws you in, and they even have several seats in the foyer for hungry “breakie” (as they call breakfast) patrons to use while waiting for a table in the tiny space.

fried chicken burger at Ruby's

fried chicken burger

The dinner menu is spare, with no appetizers to speak of, and short lists of pastas, salads and burgers to sample. In typical fashion, I ordered the Bronte burger with avocado, and felt very grateful that the fine chefs at Ruby’s elect to thinly slice the great green fruit before placing it on the sandwich. Often, adding the avocado is an afterthought, so it usually comes out in huge chunks or in halves, bulging out from under the bun. The Bronte burger comes with “premium” ground beef (which it clearly is, at first bite), tomato, lettuce, sweet chili, cheese and mayo, all compactly situated on a ciabatta roll. The combination of flavors left me speechless. I have to say, Ruby’s Bronte creation is one of the best burgers I’ve ever had. Re-read the last sentence carefully and take into consideration the gravity of this statement.

MDP opted for the fried chicken burger, which has a misleading name. I wasn’t sure what to expect, honestly, but what came out was a hefty breast of buttermilk fried chicken on a sesame roll, with some coleslaw dripping off the sides. It was perfect, and I highly recommend this dish if you’re not into burgers.

Now, as for the fries that can optionally accompany the burgers: they are saturated in truffle oil and chopped parsley (I think?), and deliver a satisfying flavor. Although I ate all of the fries that were served to me, I felt the repetition of the truffle flavor overwhelmed my taste buds. But, for the truffle fanatic, this is the side to get.

salted caramel pots de creme at Ruby's

salted caramel pots de creme

Like the other menus, the dessert list is rather minimal, but I implore you–do get the salted caramel pots de creme. MDP observed that the split pea color of the substance seemed undesirable, but, after one bite, I was completely sold on their fine dessert. First, the buttery caramel sings as you savor its flavor. Second, the “salted” in the salted caramel description is not in name only; the dish actually has a salty taste, but not in a bad way. I loved this dessert, and suggest you order it when you (inevitably, after reading this review) go to Ruby’s.

You must try this place, and, though the space is small, don’t worry about having a large group–they have a table for six in the back corner. Aside from the fact that they sat our party of two at a table for four (which, as I’ve said before, signals an uncanny level of hospitality), another thing I like about Ruby’s is the authentically Australian waitstaff, who are attentive, cheerful and charming.

If you’re not yet an Aussie fan, you will be after trying Ruby’s.

Ruby’s

219 Mulberry Street (between Prince and Spring streets)

NoLita/SoHo, New York

Take the N to Prince and walk along Prince to Mulberry, turn right and walk toward Spring. Or, take the 6 to Spring Street, walk toward Mulberry, turn left and you’ve arrived!

P.S. Below is what my view was of Times Square last night around 6 p.m. I know what you’re thinking: where’s Grover?

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