La Isla Restaurant (Downtown)

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.

la isla restaurant papa rellena

Papa Rellena

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.

la isla restaurant hoboken omelette manchego

Omelette

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.

la isla restaurant hoboken croqueta preparada

Croqueta Preparada

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.

La Isla Restaurant
104 Washington Street (near 1st Street)
Hoboken

Take the PATH to Hoboken and walk a few blocks. Or, take the 126 to Washington and 2nd.

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Matt & Meera

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.

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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.

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Madras chicken

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.

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Paneer makhni

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 & Garnacha

“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

guacamole and chips chela garnacha

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

intrincadas chela garnacha

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.

Tortas

torta chela garnacha

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.

Calle Ocho

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

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

calle ocho 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

calle ocho gallitos

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.

Calle Ocho
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.

Cemitas El Tigre

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.

cemitas el tigre fried chicken cemitas

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.

cemitas el tigre onion rings

onion rings

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.

cemitas el tigre cilantro-lime rice and black beans

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.

Shorty’s

When I worked in Flatiron, I visited just about every decent restaurant in the neighborhood. I can tell you where to get the best lunch special in New York City (Chote Nawab, obviously) and where to find the best Korean buffet (Woorijip, hands down). I can even tell you what the most optimal conditions are for snagging a ShackBurger in Madison Square Park, wait-free (when it’s raining, duh!). But, until this morning, I couldn’t tell you where to find a Taylor Ham, egg, and cheese sandwich on a fresh-baked bun in all of the big apple. All this time, pork roll was right around the corner — and I had no idea.

The self-proclaimed purveyor of “NYC’s only authentic cheesesteak,” Shorty’s prides itself on serving up South Philly cuisine (at South Philly prices). I had been talking to MDP about heading over to Hoboken to get a Taylor Ham sandwich some Saturday morning, and, per usual, he got down to scouring the internet for the ever-elusive-outside-of-New-Jersey tried and true Taylor Ham, egg, and cheese sandwich. He found Shorty’s, so we gave it a go today. If you too are searching for the beloved Taylor Ham, put Shorty’s at the top of your brunch list.

When we got to the spot at five to 11, a sandwich board listing the Philly standards — roast pork, Italian fries, fresh-baked Philly bread, and, of course, cheeseteaks — greeted us, so we went inside. “Give us about five minutes,” called out the bartender, and we slid through the door as quickly as we had entered. Leaking air conditioners sprayed down on us for a good five until we decided it was okay to head back inside at 11:01.

The Flatiron space is narrow and deep, with a bar running the length of the restaurant. Shorty’s offers just about every bourbon — even Blanton’s, which isn’t your run-of-the-mill Maker’s Mark — and a diverse selection of beers on tap. We sat at a high table that faced roughly five TVs and pored over the menu that doubled as a placemat. I appreciated the efficiency, which felt more New York City than Philadelphia.

I had been planning to order the pork roll, egg, and American cheese on a roll since early last week. After much deliberation, MDP landed on the roast pork with provolone, and we opted for the Italian fries to share.

Italian fries

shorty's italian fries

italian fries

Let’s start with the fries. Crisp and crusty, they were covered with Italian seasoning — whatever that means/probably oregano — and Romano cheese. I found them to be quite delicious and even verging on addictive, as the placemat/menu/restaurant storyboard suggests. I highly recommend these fries!

Roast pork with cheese

shorty's roast pork with cheese

roast pork with cheese

Okay, so I was skeptical about the roast pork at first. Honestly, I don’t understand what it is. When I think about “roast pork,” I see something like a pork roast in my mind’s eye, but maybe I have it mixed up. I suppose, being from central/north Jersey, I’m not too familiar with some of the nuances of Philadelphia cuisine, including this particular sandwich.

MDP said he had tried it a couple of times, but he owned up to being something less than an expert on it. “Here, why don’t you try it,” he said, gesturing with the sandwich. “No, it’s okay,” I said, shaking my head. But then I went ahead and took a bite.

It was amaaaaazing. So tender, so flavorful. The texture of the bun was perfect, and the melted provolone brought the entire sandwich experience together. I highly recommend this sandwich at Shorty’s.

Fresh-baked Philadelphia bread

As a side note, I should mention that Shorty’s ships their bread directly from Philadelphia. It sounds like they get the dough from the city of brotherly love and bake it on the NYC premises. I could be wrong, but, given Turnpike traffic and the prohibitive cost of Amtrak, I can’t imagine it’s literally fresh-baked from Philly.

Pork roll, egg, and American cheese

shorty's pork roll taylor ham egg and cheese

pork roll, egg, and cheese

As you know, I’m a fan of Taylor Ham. It is this blog’s namesake and only brings back fond memories of sitting at the Mark Twain Diner from age 4 until well into my college years. So, I had high hopes for the pork roll, egg, and American cheese sandwich at Shorty’s.

I was surprised when I received a foil-covered sub-shaped sandwich. Shouldn’t Taylor Ham exclusively be on a kaiser roll? But then I bit into the fresh “hoagie” roll. And I realized this must be what heaven is like.

The compact feel of the sandwich delighted the senses. Though the pork roll was cut on the thicker side, it was delicious. I’m kind of down on eggs lately, but I liked them in this sandwich. As you can see, they were somewhere between scrambled and fried. And the melted cheese was a nice touch. I gobbled the whole thing down in about five minutes. And at $5, the sandwich couldn’t have had more value. Be aware that the Taylor Ham sandwich is only available at breakfast or brunch.

Head to Shorty’s for brunch, lunch, dinner, drinks, sports — whatever! You’ll enjoy it no matter the reason you’re there. With four locations around the city, you have your pick at your convenience. But do try the Taylor Ham if you’ve never had it. Eating Taylor Ham in New York City is like seeing a dog walking on its hind legs while juggling — a very rare thing. Take advantage; go to Shorty’s.

Shorty’s
66 Madison Avenue (near 27th Street)
Flatiron, New York
Check the website for other locations!
Take the 6 to 28th Street and Park Avenue South, or N/R to 28th Street and Broadway.

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.