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Eaters' Journal: Barano, Oiji, Emmy Squared, Mr. Donahue's, and More

Field notes from Eater editors — and one friend of Eater — about recent meals around New York City

Sao Mai: One of the best Vietnamese restaurants in town isn’t in any of our Chinatowns, nor is it located in the tiny Vietnamese communities of Jersey City or Jerome Avenue in the Bronx. Unexpectedly, it’s in the East Village, though the prices are way below what you might expect to pay there. I’ve been eating pho at Sao Mai for three or four years now, and directing others to do so. Pho, the rice-noodle soup that constitutes the national dish of Vietnam, is simpler there, with fewer kinds of beef and a smaller catalog of add-ins, but that’s a good thing. Pho started out simple near Hanoi around a century ago. Also great are the over-rice dishes called com dia. Pick lemongrass chicken or the pork chops, and ask them to put a fried egg on top. — Robert Sietsema

Mighty Quinn's (Delivery) — I got back late after a cross-country flight that capped two weeks of travel, so I wanted something easy and not too carb-y. This, for some reason, led my brain to Mighty Quinn's, New York's premiere smoked meat mini-chain, summoned via Caviar while I was still en route to my apartment on the A train. Most remarkable was how indistinguishable the pulled pork and the burnt ends were from each other in terms of both texture and flavor, despite purporting to be distinct cuts from wholly different species of animals. This was not the grim product of Dr. Moreau's Island of Frankenmeat, but perhaps the inevitable result of a rapidly expanding operation forced into producing an ever-more generic—sorry, "consistent"—meat product at the mercy of that perpetually restless god known as Scale. And just how few favors can a barbecue franchise do for itself by indiscriminately slathering everything in that amazingly persistent American phantasm of "barbecue" sauce—vague, unrooted, and altogether too-sweet—which haunts so many of this country's purveyors of smoked flesh?

Anyway, the blandness of this meat, from a chain that purports to "source the best quality ingredients we can" like the "best, all-natural meats and poultry," made me realize how easy it will be to get people, especially the masses who haven't developed a taste for, like, steak cut from an Mesozoic-era heirloom cow that has been dry-aged for three millennia and so tastes like rotten carrots stuffed in Stephen Curry's jockstrap (but in that good way!!!!!), to adapt to mostly consuming engineered plant-derived proteins as the environmental—and, more importantly, the economic—reasons to stop eating meat begin pile up in the coming decades.

Oh! The sweet potato mush was totally delicious, the kind of thing I would look forward to eating when the forces of evolution, post-Soylent, proceed to strip the teeth from the gums of our descendants. — Matt Buchanan

Barano: It's the new Williamsburg stunner. I know Lilia's supposed to be the hot shit, but the location's beautiful-bordering-on-cinematic, and the dining room's warm, perfect, great acoustics, tables don't feel smashed together. Service was stunningly on-point for a bustling dining room on second night of a hard open, warm, friendly, overachieving, thoroughly versed in both the menu and the wine list, which has some very great, very reasonable selections (notably: no hard stuff yet, liquor license is pending, something our server was—yes—charmingly apologetic for). As for the goods: The bread service is absurdly wonderful, some of the best in the city right now—think delivery-style flat breadsticks, gone fully haute, fresh out of the oven, served with an incredible homemade pesto and red sauce. We did the meatballs (three well-sized pieces an order with dollop of ricotta, juicy and perfect), the zucchini flower salad (wonderfully weird combo of fried pieces and greens), the spaghetti alla vongole (decent-sized order, discerningly sauced, perfectly-sized if not surprisingly large bivalves), a side of asparagus (wrapped in prosciutto, which we could've done without—it was overkill, the stalks and the orange marmalade they were in would've been fine on their own) and the Calabrese pizza (spicy, medium-thin, has plenty of bite and flavor, and of course, comes with those shears you've seen in photos). The cut-your-own-slice style of pizza eating, which you have every right to be skeptical of as kitsch schtick, actually turned out to be pretty useful in portioning out things correctly. Finished it off with their cannollo, a small cannoli that my date proclaimed the best cannoli she's ever had. Not being one myself, I definitely can't speak to the pathology of said cannoli-eater, but for a dessert, I'd agree, it was pretty goddamn excellent. Also, we ended up in a green cab where the driver was once a frequent customer of the Parkside Diner in Corona. He regaled us with stories of Fat Tony Rabito.

Anyway, Barano is the new Lilia (or whatever), all hail South Williamsburg's new Italian stronghold and new go-to summer date spot. I'm all in, strong buy.— Foster Kamer, executive editor at Mental Floss.

Oiji — I've been a consistent fan of Oiji—yes for the honey butter chips—but also for the restaurant's modern Korean comfort food as a whole. I went back last night to check out some new dishes and cocktails, and let me tell you, Oiji is better than ever. In addition to a more developed and sophisticated beverage program—with the likes of milk punch, German cider, and a whole slew of unsung fermented Korean drinks—there's a handful of great new menu additions, and some killer dishes that I haven't tried in the past. Fried morel mushroom salad? Sold. The most ethereally light fried dark meat chicken pounded flat (seriously, it tastes like a chicken potato chip in the best possible way)? Yes, please. Also, don't miss the seafood bisque with the sizzling rice crackers that melt into a sticky mess. Addictive. — Kat Odell

Gulluoglu Baklava Cafe/Nix: I'm not proud of this, but the other day in the midst of a misguided attempt to cut out sugar, I may have caved and searched online for "baklava nyc." My quest led me to Gulluoglu Baklava Cafe (!), a perfectly named Turkish spot on the corner of 52nd Street and 2nd Ave. It was a hike from our Bryant Park office on a recent rainy day, but it was worth it: Great baklava of all sorts (try the sour cherry), plus additional sweet and savory pastries and a full menu that also has salads, sandwiches, and strong coffee served in lovely cups. I'll be going back.

Speaking of return trips, I've been to Nix twice now and both times the food was pretty fantastic. Some tips: Don't miss the amazing fry bread, the tandoor bread with eggplant, or the carrots. Get wine. Sit in the back, past the bar, instead of one of the weird seats at the front.Sonia Chopra

La Shuk: There are too damn few North African restaurants in town, and those that exist frequently offer a limited menu, severed of the region’s haute cuisine, serving dishes more recognizable as Middle Eastern. Such is partly the case with La Shuk, an airy place in the Way-Upper East Side around 101st Street and Lex. A few tables are pushed onto the sidewalk, and big windows open on the dining room. The bill of fare offers some nifty deals on flatbread dips and other apps, which may be had at the bargain price of three for $15. That and a bottle of rose could make a fine light supper for two.

On the other hand, then you’d miss the shakshuka (poached eggs with green sauce, served with olive-dotted hummus and a salad), b’stilla (a flaky chicken pie topped with cinnamon and sugar), and the so-called Marrakesh tajine. Though it doesn’t come in a tajine, it includes a generous half roast chicken with typical spices. The food at La Shuk can be wonderful; if only the menu were more ambitious! Robert Sietsema

Red Hook Lobster Pound Kiosk: I had a clam fried clam sandwich at the Red Hook Lobster Pound concession at Mad. Sq. Eats that was utterly superb. I must confess that I eat fried clams even when they are pretty bad, like the prefab ones I reported on at Randazzo’s last week, or the ones that White Castle packages in greasy little boxes. But I wouldn’t inflict those on others. The RHLB version, on the other hand, you should eat immediately. It rivals those I have enjoyed in New England seafood shacks. The clams are fresh, breaded moments before frying, and served on a buttery split top bun. The breading is as light as tempura and aside from contributing a prodigious crunchiness, it gets out of the way, leaving the briny flavor of the clams to come to the fore. I should mention that it costs $10. — Solares

Mr. Donahue’s — It’s hard to not fall in love with this restaurant. Every little detail seems lovingly picked out, without looking like a rehash of a trending Pinterest board. The lacy placemats, the cursive logo, the thick napkins with a single, illustrated flower printed on top — it’s all stuff that could very easily make the restaurant feel like a stuffy, flea market-bound attic but instead makes it feel warm and homey and feminine.

The food similarly arrives in the homiest way possible: one meat entree with two sides, on a segmented plate. It is hearty and familiar and somehow also not boring. We ordered Swedish-American meatballs and chicken fried pork cheek, which were both delicious, but the spicy crab imperial side dish is the must-get. As far as I’m concerned, the only downside to the restaurant is the size. With such few seats, it’s sadly not a place you can feel confident about just stopping in at on a whim. Serena Dai

Emmy Squared — The fluffy, sauce-on-top pizza exceeded my high expectations. I got the Roni Supreme, which was studded with curls of crispy pepperoni — irresistible stuff. When I was there for lunch, the room was two thirds full. One of the tables had a bunch of moms and their adult daughters who were knocking back wine after some group exercise class. It's not my favorite space — it feels a bit rigid to me — but I still think this is a great addition to the neighborhood. Greg Morabito

Top photo: Barano

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