A seismic shock worthy of a Kathryn Schulz story rocks the start of Day Four of The Contest: co-leader Daniela Galarza — tied atop the standings with pregame favorite Robert Sietsema at 42 points following Day Three — has tapped out. She explains, "Walked into local grocery store on the verge of tears, ran to cereal aisle, grabbed most colorful box of sugary cereal and plunged my fist into its guts. Spent $50 on (mostly) wholesome groceries. $0 of regret. Going down in flames has never felt so good."
A word in Daniela's defense: Given the intentional lag time on scoring, with the post elucidating the scoring system and the one revealing Day One scoring both published on Eater last Thursday, Daniela didn't know she was a co-leader when she stumbled into that ill-fated grocery store. It's a shame to see her go, but Galarza finishes her run with a bonus +10 for her inspired cereal aisle tap-out. She moves to the Consolation Bracket, where she's now the prohibitive favorite to take home a set of steak knives, barring additional tap-outs.
Daniela's move leaves The Contest with six main players on Day Four, five of them within 18 points of the top. The sixth? That's Jarret Meskin, bringing up the rear with 4 points, a full 22 points behind fifth place. Can Meskin's pizza-for-lunch theme overcome this giant gap? It seems utterly insane to think so, but hope springs as eternal as dollar slice joints in these five boroughs.
Onward to Day Four, where glory waits in the wings, along with the daily +1 awarded to all Eater editors (and our rogue Day Three call-up) who remain active in the game. Let's go.
Eater managing editor Sonia Chopra has spent the first three days of The Contest living in abject fear of contracting scurvy. Lo and behold, she's in the grip of it again at the start of Day Four: "I'm living in daily fear of contracting scurvy," she clarifies.
I promised on Day One that we'd talk about Sonia's scurvy thing. Shall we?
By my close reading of Wikipedia, scurvy does not typically set in until a person has spent one to three months on the open seas deprived of fresh fruit, notably citrus. This suggests that the odds of Sonia coming down with scurvy in the course of a five-day, land-based tournament are low. More importantly, if you know Sonia, you know she's a deeply serious and competitive player. She constructed a detailed spreadsheet of dozens of restaurants of varying cuisines that she's never dined at to help with her Contest decision-making. Which is to say that to think she's "joking" about this scurvy fear requires a leap of imagination I wasn't prepared to make — until I lurked in Vox Media's #the-contest Slack room earlier this week. There, I saw Sonia citing texts from her own mother defending her daughter's obsession: "i thought scurvy was your running gag!!!!" (Moms and gratuitous exclamation points in texts: forever a thing.)
I was prepared to cite the scoring matrix and dock Sonia 15 points for her "stuck in a terrible side plot" scurvy situation. But if Mom Chopra thinks Sonia's obsession is funny (even when it's actually quite worrisome), well, I can't be that heartless. So I'm leaving the scurvy thing here (+/- 0), everyone's gums still healthy and not bleeding, and buying Sonia a ticket on an around-the-world cruise to scratch her scurvy itch once this game's done.
Sonia, like several other players, has been stockpiling leftovers from one day to eat the next. (I'd ban this practice in future versions of The Contest; if money doesn't carry over, food shouldn't either.) No points for whatever leftovers she's got, nor points for her $3 greek salad bought at a random deli. Sonia's description of her Day Four breakfast does contain a charming anecdote set during her childhood years in India, featuring her mother. This might have tallied points if Mom Chopra hadn't already played a big enough role in her daughter's scurvy salvation today. (Sonia: Call your mother already.)
For his Day Four breakfast, Robert Sietsema decides, as any one of us might, to dine on "one of those vegetable tea sandwiches the Brits are famous for." (Legit LOL, +1.) To make this possible, he buys two slices of buttered toast from a deli and a tomato from a fruit vendor, then heads home to consume the two. Fearful of The Contest's rules banning home cooking, Robert does not eat them together, but rather rotationally, bite-by-bite (+1). Oh, and of course he's got a perfect George Costanza quote in his pocket to elucidate the situation (+1). Sietsema! Even his three-point meals are worthy of college credit.
Moving from the top of the standings to the bottom, Jarret Meskin grabs a BEC at Downtown Bakery on First Avenue and East 4th. As a relative Eater newcomer, Jarret doesn't know that in the years when Eater worked from an office at Cooper Square, Downtown Bakery served as a frequent go-to for the whole Curbed Networks staff. Place is sneaky good. Plus, nostalgia ftw. +3.
I haven't talked much about bagels in these scoring recaps, but the breaded object has become nearly as much of a Contest crutch as the much-reviled banana. No points have been awarded for bagel consumption this week, and barring some sort of genre-busting move like a bagel-and-caviar combo — Ryan Sutton, your absence from The Contest has never been felt more acutely — none will. I cannot, however, go as far as my Eater co-founder Ben Leventhal demands that I do:
My reasoning here is simple and unassailable: the bagel is the quintessential New York City breakfast snack, especially when as loaded up and quickly scarfed down as Greg Morabito's on this Day Four morn. Can't and won't dock points for that. But won't award them, either: +0.
In the Consolation Bracket, we've got one tiny glimmer of hope. Eater editor-in-chief Amanda Kludt barters down the price on a giant corn muffin with the coffee cart guy across the street from the Eater office. A whole $1.50 of crumbly corn goodness for a mere $1? +1.
Vince Dixon, in fifth place after Day Three with 26 points, announced his theme for Day Four in his breakfast entry: "locally-based international cuisine, supporting the city's local small businesses and melting pot culture" — promising, if vague. Vince didn't score points at breakfast because he consumed only green tea, and he's not scoring at lunch either. Why? Avert eyes: Vince commits a critical Midtown faux pas by procuring an egg kati roll at Kati Junction, an establishment that's an egregious knockoff of its superior nearby neighbor, Kati Roll. (The wacky intellectual property feud between these two places extends all the way down to each outlet's color of choice, but there's really no doubt: #teamkatiroll, #nowandforever.) Equally concerning to Dixon's well-being is the fact that the Department of Health shut down Kati Junction last month for what Eater NY termed "a slew of disgusting violations." Vince is brand new to the Eater team, so I promise I'm going easy on him here by only deducting -5 from his score for this unforced error. Here's to his health.
Meanwhile, downtown, David Yee — second place at start of day, 32 points — strolls into Punjabi Grocery and Deli at the far eastern end of East 1st Street. It's a place he describes as "an old haunt from my LES record store employee days" (mother of all humblebrags, -2). His economic analysis of the restaurant and its plight, though — incorporating real estate developers and South Asian cab drivers — is a +2 tour de force. (The food he acquires, not so much: +0.) But we're not yet done here. Yee knows the Lower East Side and the man knows food, so he doubles down on a second lunch at an absolutely inspired choice: Shopsins. The single mac and cheese pancake he scores is relatively paltry, and at $5, an absolute luxury purchase inside the boundaries of The Contest. But: SHOPSINS GAMBIT, +10, all day, every day, well, at least today. The second lunch leaves David with a buck left to his name heading into dinner tonight.
EXT. Bushwick: "A fact began to itch at my mind as I stared, and that was the realization that in the old-fashioned Puerto Rican world of the cuchifritos, certain pig-bourne ingredients are always much cheaper than anything else." Sietsema, of course, securing his own lunchtime +10 for a blood sausage and pig tongue feast, "one of the most flavorsome meals it has been my privilege to eat all year." Which, coming from Eater's learned critic, you know isn't hyperbole and will likely inspire a menu trend across Manhattan by next week.
Rounding out lunch: Jarret Meskin: 3 slices, $3; judgement day tomorrow for the new Pizza King of New York. Amanda Kludt, in the Consolation Bracket, +2 not for her Midtown street cart fried fish sandwich, but instead for her invocation of New England: "Give me a cold beer and some ocean breezes and we're almost home."
At this late stage of the game, with only four primary meals left, there's a critical overlooked factor that could be the undoing of any active contestant: running afoul of The Contest rules. Should a worst-case scenario of this kind play out, the offending player(s) will be immediately ejected from The Contest, cast down into the Consolation Bracket and a pool of everlasting regret. Now you know.
We begin tonight in Sunset Park, a Cheap Eats wonderland that's been underexploited in this game since David Yee's lunchtime taco run on Day Two. Sietsema's there on Night Four, and would you believe that an entirely new establishment draws him in? It features cuisine from Guilin, China, an up-and-coming foodie hotspot "known for its twin pagodas, the Sun and the Moon." (This guy! +1.) The three dishes Sietsema orders — cold rice noodles, a Cantonese veggie stir fry over rice, and a bowl of cured pork and rice noodles — sound absolutely delicious, and cost a total of $16.50.
$16.50? The Contest rules, line one: "Every player must spend no more than $10/day before tax and tip." Sietsema's dinner entry, line one: "I went with a couple of friends to Sunset Park's Chinatown..." His math, at the end of his dinner entry: "Total tab: $16.50, divided by three, $5.50."
I get what he's doing here; splitting meals with fellow Contest contestants has been one of Sonia Chopra's key strategies all week long. In fact, it's a move so obviously superior to dining alone that I'd wager we'll see a slew of Survivor-style meal-sharing alliances if The Contest gets renewed for a second season. The necessary check on the splitting of meals, to my mind, comes from the fact that two starved contestants will always perfectly divide their combined fare, leaving no wiggle room for interpretation of portion size.
That's not what's happening in Sunset Park. Robert is splitting three dishes with two non-players, a move that feels outside the spirit of the competition. But does it constitute a breaking of The Contest rules?
After much reflection during a recent trip to the bathroom, I am ruling that it does not. However, I am suggesting that the Rules Committee consider this case in the off-season and act to prohibit the splitting of meals with any non-Contest participants during future games. Here and now, though, I'm ruling this Sietsema Sunset Park dinner void: +/-0.
Sonia's self-inflicted wound tonight is less egregious, but perhaps more bizarre. In a meal split with Jarret Meskin, Sonia goes taco crazy at Mission Cantina on the Lower East Side. Solid move. Except that Sonia's theme for the week includes a clearly stated goal to only dine at restaurants she's never eaten at before, and, well, check out the footnote she appends to her summary of tonight's dinner: "I have in fact been to Mission Cantina in the past, but the restaurant changes conceptually often enough that it feels like a different place every time I go, so for the purposes of #thecontest I'm considering it new." For the purposes of deliciousness, +5 to both Chopra and Meskin. But will this possible infidelity hurt Sonia in Day Five's scoring of each player's week-long themes? (One ray of redemption: Sonia spends a perfect $10 on the day, good for a bonus +1. And Jarret, look at you! A move out of the East Village all the way down to the Lower East Side. Good for you, +1.)
Elsewhere tonight, Vince pieces together an enviable +5 three-course meal: a loaded Vietnamese-inspired hot dog from the Asiadog stand in Herald Square; a $1 beansprout soup from surprise Contest Koreatown favorite Woorjiip; and a craftily-secured 60-cent green apple from a street fruit vendor. That final fruit negotiation closes Vince out at a perfect $10 spend on Day Four and the resulting bonus +1 that accompanies it.
In Williamsburg, David Yee dines on shitty pizza that comes free with a beer purchase at Alligator Lounge (+0). He then uses nine-tenths of his remaining dollar on three Dunkin' Donuts Munchkins that he combines with a free cereal milk ice cream sample procured from Momofuku Milk Bar to create a set of truly inspired streetside profiteroles (+5 Munchkin bonus, +2 streetside profiterole bonus).
By his own admission, Yee's got ten cents left in his pocket at the end of Day Four — a tiny silver disc that's the only thing separating him from racking up the bonus point given to players when they achieve a perfect $10 daily spend.
Will the final outcome of The Contest turn on a dime? We'll soon find out. Day Five beckons. Do join us.
THE CONTEST STANDINGS AFTER DAY FOUR
Robert Sietsema 56
David Yee 50
Sonia Chopra 36
Greg Morabito 30
Vince Dixon 28
Jarret Meskin 14
Daniela Galarza 52
Amanda Kludt 27
Hillary Dixler 13
Devra Ferst 10
Helen Rosner 6
Kat Odell 5