Some of my best experiences eating food never make it to the page: If a dining establishment doesn’t merit a first look, dish of the week, point on a map, or paragraph in a feature story, it often disappears. Those fleeting encounters with restaurants are often the most enjoyable. Accordingly, I resolved to keep an informal diary reflecting my unvarnished daily experiences. Here’s the second installment and here’s last week’s debut.
There’s nothing more satisfying than walking down an unfamiliar street and finding a place that looks really promising. Such was the case as I was heading north on Cropsey Avenue in Coney Island toward the Park View Diner. Just as I was about to ford Coney Island Creek, among the auto body shops, car washes, and sheet-metal fabricators in Woody Guthrie’s old neighborhood, I chanced to pass a narrow storefront with the beguiling name of Pal’s Hero Shop. The goofy lettering adjacent to a graphic of a sandwich and a steaming mug of hot coffee looked like it was from the ’60s or ’70s.
Once inside, the place was pleasantly decrepit: with a grill area on the side, and what might have been car-wash employees, some still wearing their slickers, relaxing at a row of tables. Three counter guys dashed back and forth frying bacon, eggs, and french fries. A steam table held roast chickens, a pasta or two, and a tub of tomato sauce with one lonely meatball. Several different menus plastered at eye level offered contradictory signals of what exactly I ought to order.
One of the cooks was putting a huge mound of french fries on a paper plate, then slices of cheese on top, and finally a runny fried egg. Another was tucking french fries into the bun of a Philly cheesesteak. Clearly, french fries are a thing at Pal’s.
Then I saw the menu of triple-decker club sandwiches, with pastrami and corned beef listed at the end. Why not? When one of the guys handed my sandwich over the counter, I noted it featured three slices of toasted white bread layered thick with hot pastrami and corned beef and finished with the requisite lettuce, tomato, and mayo.
While I’m not one to eat pastrami or corned beef with mayo, let alone the two styles of meat on the same sandwich, these sandwiches were fastidiously cut into quarters like it was tea-party fare —and looked delicious. Did I mention french fries had been scattered over the top? Every bite was heavenly, especially those incorporating sandwich and fries at the same time. I paid $13 for the plate and considered that a good deal given the detailed preparation along with the quantity and quality of the ingredients.
As I sat devouring my club, I noticed that the most common order was a corned beef hero, made with a pink brisket pulled from a water bath, and not heated up — as my pastrami was — on the flat top. That corned beef hero is what I’ll order next time I find myself passing Pal’s. 3081 Cropsey Avenue, between Neptune Avenue and Hart Place, Coney Island
The debut of the dessert bagel
I’m not sure exactly where I stand where bagels are concerned. Yes, I sometimes side with the traditionalists, who prefer regular-size bagels of the most normal and historic sort. That means plain, poppy, sesame, garlic, and maybe cinnamon raisin, with even the everything bagel seeming a little freakish. And yet when I go into one of the city’s innovative bagel shops, I’ve got to admit I’m tempted.
Moreover, as the assembler of Eater NY’s bagel map, I feel compelled to try varieties like chocolate chip (couldn’t really taste the chocolate) and blueberry (meh!) when I find them. But I suffered a lapse in judgment when I stepped into Lots O Bagels in Astoria. Before me was spread not only a bumper crop of unusual bagels, but also a much broader spectrum of cream cheeses than usual. I went crazy and chose a rainbow bagel, noting it had been invented at the dawn of the Instagram Age.
And then I did the unthinkable, and had it spread with strawberry cream cheese, which proved sickeningly sweet and artificial tasting. The result was visually scary, and the flavor like swallowing a handful of half-chewed gumballs. But I think I may have inadvertently invented something new – the dessert bagel. 30-05 Broadway, near 30th Street, Astoria
When mashed potatoes are better than fries
I’ve been going to a lot of diners lately, for an upcoming assignment, and you may not believe this, but I’ve grown tired of the french fries that come with every hamburger, club sandwich, Philly cheesesteak, and bowl of chili I’ve eaten. On impulse this week I asked that mashed potatoes be substituted for fries at Star on 18, an ancient railroad-car diner in far western Chelsea, known not long ago by its less glitzy name of Corfu Diner.
The waiter didn’t blink when I made the request, and five minutes later, the spuds arrived in a separate bowl with a small plastic cup of brown gravy on the side (I hadn’t even been thinking of gravy). As I stuck my spoon into the off-white mass, and took an exploratory nibble, I realized they were the fantastic — wonderfully smooth and lumpy at the same time, buttery without being overly so. The gravy knocked the mashed potatoes into orbit with its meaty and salty essence. And I resolved to order them again next time I get a diner burger or sandwich. 128 10th Avenue, at 18th Street, West Chelsea