I’m sitting on a long Island Railroad train heading for New York City, behind me a crazy cat lady is telling the conductor that it’s” Take your cat to work day” …I didn’t get that memo. But it doesn’t matter to me because I am on vacation and this is my first in three years. So I’m heading into the city to get out of dodge for a while and having not been here since April, I’m rather looking forward to just loafing and sitting and watching the working world go by me. I am armed with Hemingway’s “The Sun Also Rises” and a laundry list of places to eat and drink, but to be honest I’m back on austerity so it’ll have to be cheap. I spent 225 bucks on my car repairs and after 11 years and many upgrades my old desktop computer just gave up. I was forced to buy a reconditioned laptop. It’s got 4 gig of memory and a great processor, but I don’t like it much as a writing tool. I’m used to my old setup so part of the next ten days will be spent setting up my desk and introducing the laptop to my peripheral devices. This has set me back over 500 bucks so my dreams of three star dinning are out the window.
But at least I’m out of the rat race for ten days and my garden is in full swing with veggies growing and war being waged organically on pests and a big barbecue is planned for the 4th with everyone bringing food and drink so life is good. Recently I saw an episode of Andrew Zimmern’s” Bizarre Foods” which actually has him working in restaurants trying to work a shift like he used to in the old days. He goes to Xian’s Famous Noodles in Chinatown and works the busy lunch and dinner shift. Here they make every dish of noodles by hand and after brief instruction he is stretching and slapping the noodles on the counter like a pro. Each dish of noodles is made with a delicious combo of meat or veg in a sauce and the most popular is the Spicy Cumin Lamb Noodles. During the episode his friend and fellow Food Network Star Adam Richman stops by to have a bowl and declares it to be fantastic. I’ve read that Anthony Bourdain has also declared that Xian’s is among the best in New York, so at just 7 bucks a bowl-for me to day-it’s all about the noodle.
Recently, I was looking at Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations website and found that he is writing for a HBO show called “Treme”, I don’t have HBO but he is also contributing to a new culinary quarterly called “Lucky Peach”, this is the baby of David Chang the legendary owner of Momofuku in New York, the home of possibly the best Ramen noodles in the western world as well as three other restaurants. This magazine is available only through McSorleys on the web and this first issue is devoted to Ramen noodles. There are articles by Anthony Bourdain and original artwork and recipes and maps of Japan showing how Ramen is made in different provinces. It’s an off-beat unconventional magazine and owning a subscription makes me feel like I’ve joined some secret society, known only to a few who have the password and secret handshake. I am today entering the complex world of the noodle, a humble Buddha-like food product so important to so many.
So I get topside and head for my first destination which is another food network episode memory, again to the Lower East Side where many simple good things seem to have been invented, up to and including the donuts at Doughnut Plant, a little shop where hand-made jellies and sauces go over hand-made batches of donuts. It’s a place that’s a little smaller than my house where chef/owner Mark Isreal has come a long way. He has made the doughnut a work of art and they even sell t-shirts for tourists to show off back home! This is a small Jewish enclave on the outskirts of Chinatown on Grand St next to Kossars Bialy and a kosher bakery. But when you come to this small shop, it’s all about two things. The Peanut Butter and Jelly doughnut and the even more venerated Creme Brulee doughnut, so I sit down on the window ledge after a family from Nebraska leaves and tuck into my PB&J, this is a square doughnut that has a square hole in the center with grape jelly running all through it. The outside is covered in a peanut butter sauce, it’s good but I really should have milk with this rather than bad utility coffee. But the Creme Brulee doughnut is another matter. This is good, I mean blackout good, this doughnut is made with creme Brulee filling and the outside is actually got the hard toasted sugar just like the classic French dessert! This reminds me how much I need to learn how to make the French dessert myself from scratch, yet another chapter in my cooking pursuits.
There is much going on today in the city, for some reason Elizabeth St is closed with police barricades. They are moved by officers to let sporty black police edition Dodge Chargers through however, and down the block men in suits and white shirted officers stand around for what…I don’t know. But I later learn it was an accident of some sorts. I walk on and get a text message from mom, she wonders if The Golden Dragon is still open in Chinatown. This was a place where she and her girlfriends would have lunch back in the day. I have no way of tracking this down myself but with additional texts from my brother, I use my map to go to 51 Division St but find it’s not there, I actually go to two more addresses but I come up empty handed. It would have been cool to find it still open but that was back in the fifties, most places don’t last that long. It was a good effort though and it made me hungry. So I decided to double back to my noodle lunch destination. The fascinating thing about being here is how much you feel like an outsider in your own country. You are literally the one in one hundred who doesn’t look or talk like everybody else. The streets are mobbed with people shopping, talking and bustling about. Many are laden with bags of food, unfamiliar greens thrust up from shopping bags, others are heavy with fish, large eyes staring through plastic that were only hours before searching for food in the sea. The streets are lined with vendors selling all manner of colorful hats and shirts, battery operated toys, fans and those ceramic cats with writing on their bellies…I wonder what that’s about? I find Xian’s easily and go into the crowded space and wait my turn. This is not the same location that was used on TV but the food is the same, I am however disappointed that I won’t be seeing my hand=pulled noodles made today. I place my order and go sit in the back and wait for my number to be called, the orders are made in a downstairs kitchen and come up on a dumbwaiter. My number is called and I go up and get my tray and choose my weapon of choice-chopsticks. I tuck into my spicy cumin lamb noodles with gusto, this is a whole other level of good! The noodles are soft and yielding at first but then become chewy, and the chopped lamb with onion and cucumber and scallion swimming in an fiery orange sauce. This is savory and hot, evil and good. It’s too bad the A/C is blowing so cold, I rush to eat my food before it is chilled down. My lips are burning as I slurp down the last of my dish and I really wish I could try another but that would be gluttony so I clean up my tray and head out into the warm summer day. I decide to head back to the Doughnut Plant to get some Creme Brulee’s for the family, it’s a long walk but that’s okay. I make my way back in the growing heat of the late afternoon to Penn Station, zig-zagging to keep to the shaded side of the street, like they do in Provence. Soon I find myself in the growing crowds entering the station proper and the coolness wraps you as you descend. The long walk was tiring but at least I burnt some of todays calories off, this beats the heck out of standing at that hot counter! I grab a cold water and go down for my train, relaxed and happy.
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