Many of my best dining experiences never make it to the page: If an eating establishment doesn’t merit a first look, dish of the week, is it still good?, 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 twelfth installment and here’s the last edition.
Like pilgrims traveling to a shrine hoping for a miracle, I wander the streets of the city in search of an In-N-Out. So do many others, if the reports of sightings can be believed. The other day while descending from the M train at the Marcy Avenue stop, I spotted what I thought was the familiar red and yellow logo. But when I arrived in front of the sign at 197 Havemeyer Street beneath the approach to the BQE from the Williamsburg Bridge, I realized that it read Halal-N-Out. Was it an In-N-Out knockoff, I wondered?
The corner fast-food location boasts a gleaming interior with counter seating, but no tables; a jovial pair of employees waved and beckoned me in. Its principal offering is spicy chicken sandwiches, but hamburgers are an important component of the menu, along with halal truck offerings like lamb kebabs and falafel over rice, as well as Philly cheesesteaks and fish sandwiches. I stepped inside and ordered the $6 cheeseburger.
The guy asked me to enumerate exactly what I wanted on the burger. I said everything, and watched as he piled on lettuce, tomato, raw onions, and thick pickles — which turned out to be sweet pickles, in emulation of some of the city’s premium burgers. The patty was big and the cheese white American, and the liberally applied condiments were ketchup and mayo. The thing tasted great.
I had to try the spicy chicken (zinger) sandwich, too. It featured two giant chicken tenders that had powdered cayenne in the breading, and there was some chipotle mayo in addition to a similar range of toppings. The zinger ($9) was better than the burger, with just the right amount of heat. In fact, it ranks among the city’s best fried chicken sandwiches. One of three locations. 197 Havemeyer Street, near South Fourth Street, Williamsburg
More Midtown Sichuan
Sichuan food continues its wonderful invasion of Midtown, and I can barely keep up with it. A couple of days ago, I visited Peppercorn Station, a jocular name for an establishment poised between fast-casual and formal. Down a ramp in a space lined with whitewashed brick and little decoration, there is waiter service, but a very casual feeling about the place, and food arrives quickly. The menu includes lots of modern Sichuan fare at somewhat elevated prices in the $30 to $40 range, but there are also small plates and soups a little over $10 that are complete meals in themselves.
I knew I was on the right track when the waiter tried to talk me out of everything I ordered. I started with sliced pork belly with garlic chile sauce ($13) and the waiter said, “that’s cold, and the pork is like raw bacon.” When it arrived, I realized it was a version of the celebrated pork belly dish that caused a sensation at Sichuan Mountain House: thin-sliced boiled belly in strips hung along with cucumber over what looked like a clothesline. Only here the cuke was tucked inside thicker strips of belly and there was a whole lot more of it than at SMH. As an app, it would easily satisfy three.
Next came hot and sour glass noodles ($12). “Those noodles are made with sweet potatoes,” the waiter warned. The soup was amazing, a deep red broth with yellow highlights garnished with sprouts, toasted soybeans, and baby bok choi. The slippery noodles were hard to eat , but this is a lunch I would get again and again.
Third up was another soup I ordered because of its apparent luxuriance — crab meat noodles ($18). “That’s too fishy,” the waiter opined. It was an arresting shade of orange, shot with shreds of crab meat and colored with crab roe. It wasn’t really a soup but a soupy casserole, gelatinous from the roe, and the noodles were something like spaghetti. Would I get it again? Not sure, but it was nothing short of astonishing in this plainish walk-down room in Midtown. What a choice for tourists and office workers! Unsurprisingly, there’s another branch in Jersey City. 66 W. 39th Street, near Sixth Sixth Avenue, Bryant Park
A Sweet Cats Cafe
I will literally go into any eatery if it looks interesting, and that was the case last weekend with Sweet Cats Café on Union Turnpike in Hillcrest. The place doubles as a salesroom for pastel-colored stuffed animals, which populate a series of vending machines along one wall, arranged according to color. I think all the animals may have been cats, but it was impossible to tell. The patrons were mainly mothers and daughters.
The specialty was crepe cakes, multi-layered and irresistible in a variety of fruity permutations. We ordered mango and it was tart and really, really good. There were also bubble teas, milk teas, macarons, puddings, Belgian waffles, and slushes — an incredibly long menu for such a small place.
To fortify diners before diving into the sweet stuff, there were a handful of savory offerings, most involving packaged ramen noodles in a broth made from the package powder. We enjoyed the one featuring a hot dog and a fried egg ($7). It was every bit as tasty as we’d hoped, and the hot dog, though somewhat repulsive looking, had an appealing smoky savor and grainy texture. There is apparently another branch in Flushing. 168-17 Union Turnpike, near 169th Street, Hillcrest