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 fifth installment and here’s last week’s edition.
Ever since the first Senegalese restaurant appeared in Harlem in the early ’80s, I have been trying to keep up with West African restaurants in the city — and falling behind. I estimate there are now 70 or so. But when I got a tip about Dùndú just south of Grand Central, I had to pay an immediate visit. When I got there I found this newish Nigerian place was fully in the fast-casual mode with no seating whatsoever, offering the usual full meals to be assembled from a list of categories. There was no fufu, pepper soup, or egusi, alas. So I was initially a little disappointed.
When I got busy and put a bunch of small items together, the dish sang to me. I got a double portion of jollof rice that was bright red and tasted fresh, then topped it with goat stew (“the protein”) that was a little too plain. But no matter: When I added the steamed bean cakes called moin moin and a pungent spinach dish called efo riro — then squirted the whole thing with thick and spicy din din sauce — the dish was what I was looking for. I wolfed down every morsel — while balancing the box on a nearby building windowsill — as office workers rushed past. Cost with tip: $21. 140 E. 41st Street, between Lexington and Third avenues, Midtown East
Where to find chicken fried steak
One of the things I miss most about Texas — where I spent my high school and college years — are the chicken fried steaks. These involve a tough cut of supermarket meat pounded thin, thickly breaded like fried chicken, and eventually flooded in floury white gravy and served with mashed potatoes. While you can get credible Tex Mex here at places like El Cantinero, Javelina, and Yellow Rose, it’s hard to find a decent chicken fried steak.
Sometimes you get a CFS that looks okay, but when you cut into it, the insides are ground beef — making it a chicken fried hamburger. Other times the gravy isn’t right, either too dark or too dependent on meat juices — yes, I know that makes it better from a chef’s perspective, but in this case, we don’t care what a chef thinks.
When I want a real chicken fried steak I go straight to Cowgirl, as I did this last Sunday. It used to be called Cowgirl Hall of Fame an homage to a West Texas museum that celebrated the American cowgirl, filled with saddles, barbed wire, and pictures of Dale Evans and Patsy Cline, but eventually it reduced its name to simply Cowgirl. It was founded in 1989, when Greenwich Village was filled with theme restaurants run by the same loose group of restaurateurs that included Sugar Reef (Jamaican), Gulf Coast (Louisiana), Tortilla Flats (Mexican) and Cottonwood Café (Texan).
Order the restaurant’s legendary black-eyed pea salsa, shot with green chiles and vinegar, and served with hot tortilla chips straight out of the fat. This sets the stage for the oohs and aahs as the chicken fried steak ($23) arrives with an excess of gravy and plenty of mashed potatoes. Nirvana! The steamed green broccoli introduces a moral struggle to the plate between culinary good and evil, and I bet you eat it last. 519 Hudson Street, near West 10th Street, Greenwich Village
A Chelsea Market hack
No doubt Chelsea Market — a series of former Nabisco factories — is one of the city’s best food courts, with dozens of worthwhile choices, including tacos, handmade noodles, steamed lobsters, and Israeli sandwiches. But let’s face it: Who would dare to set foot in its dark and meandering hallways these days? The place is so tourist-beset you can’t even make more than a few steps progress per minute, surrounded by yammering yahoos who pause to gawk at everything, and then comment upon it at length.
Well, here’s an approach that works. Go in the morning around 9 a.m. or 10 a.m., when the place is open, navigable, and when many eateries are already operating, especially bakeries, coffee concessions, and other places that serve breakfast. Just this morning I was delighted to find Los Taco No. 1’s burrito cart fully operational, with a four-item list of its wonderful breakfast burritos (now $6 each), perhaps a little larger than they used to be.
I picked machaca, a form of dried beef found in Northern Mexico and the southwestern U.S. states, especially New Mexico (where I most recently enjoyed it in Albuquerque), Arizona, and West Texas. It is slightly salty and rich in beefy flavor, and readily turns into shreds. In this burrito, it joins eggs, potatoes, and, god bless me, pickled green chiles, in a flour tortilla turned translucent through a rub of grease, as is done with tacos canasta in northwestern Mexico. Really quite an excellent breakfast, as you do a little mall walking before the crowds arrive. 75 Ninth Avenue, near West 15th Street, Chelsea