Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Jesus' Taco (1346 Amsterdam Avenue, New York, NY 10027)

It was the name that did it for me.  Once I saw that I had to check the place out, though I have to say I'm tempted to stop reporting on places that don't really stand out.

This place is a little hole-in-the-wall in the southern most part of Harlem.  It has one table in the corner, a few stools at a window ledge bar, and a bit of corny 'southwestern' art.  I was a little thrown off by the selection of burgers and gyros on their menu, but when I realized that it isn't supposed to be authentic Mexican cuisine but Tex-Mex I relaxed; one should expect anything from Texas.  At least the guys behind the counter spoke Spanish.  Well, one of them did anyway, the other was vaguely Asian looking.  At least they weren't selling General Tso's chicken along side the tacos.  Speaking of Tacos, here's how they faired:

The Taco: 3/5
Once I got over the notion that theew would be traditional Mexican tacos, it wasn't all that bad.  The steak was nothing to brag about, somewhat dry and crumbly and bland, but the chicken was quite good; it had a great grilled flavor to it, nicely charred in the way that I like, and reminiscent of the southwest.  Sort of.
It's decent Tex-Mex that comes in a thick flour tortilla and topped with lettuce, cheese, and a bit of sauce.  Basically, they are comparable to the tacos I find in Brooklyn run by the Chinese, but with tastier chicken; not exactly what I would call authentic, but good in a pinch when the need for some sort of taco is calling.  They also have the classic taco-bell style hard shell, what they call Tex-Mex Chili, it's a nice sloppy ground beef with a tangy type of sauce.  Enjoyable for what it is.

 Acoutrement: 2/5
Meh.  That's what I have to say about their sauces.  There is just no excuse for bad sauces, if nothing else you can always go to the store and get a nice bottle of Cholula or Valentino and be done.  Their homemade salsa has no kick and is mostly tomato with some mystery lumps.  Lumps!  Tomato!  We deserve better.  They offered a bottled hot sauce, Trappey's Red Devil Cayenne, which has no hint of cayenne or Satan.  It's mostly vinegar and tastes like Tabasco. 

Value: 3/5
Not expensive, not cheap.  I had three tacos, it was more than enough and the price averages about $2 or $2.50 a taco.

Overall: 3/5
 Not bad, not great.  Maybe the vaguely Asian guy behind the counter was more in charge than I thought.  Final say: avoid the steak, try the ground beef and bring your own salsa.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Dalton's Bar and Grill (611 9th Ave, New York, NY 10036)

I ended up at Dalton's on a fluke and was expecting a typical sports bar experience with big TV's, lots of noise, and mediocre food slathered in grease.  Much of this holds true with addition of a surprising hot dog offering, so I whipped out a pen and paper and started taking notes; here's what I found:

We were seated in their 'outdoor section', a few chairs and tables separated from busy sidewalk by a short vinyl fence.  For New York this is standard, and the weather was nice enough that I was happy for the option.  More importantly, it was a nice way of removing ourselves from the large TV's and general sports bar ambiance.  The food itself was comparable to most sports bars, but it was the extras that caught my eye.  I appreciate a good attention to detail, and this is how it came out in the wash:

The Dog: 3/5
I'm fairly sure the actual meat part was a straight-up ballpark frank.  Not exactly the highest quality dog, but not the worst I've had.  They were grilled, light and fluffy, with a nice crispy outside and toasted buns.  They came topped with relish, tomatoes, kraut, and onions.  That's what brings the rating up to a 3, even if the dog itself isn't the best quality the entire package was pretty good.

Acoutrement: 5/5
This is why I like going out to eat in Manhattan, even the most typical places will have exceptional offerings.  Wasabi Mayo, Honey BBQ sauces, all the standard hot dog toppings; it was a pleasant surprise for your average sports bar.  Though they aren't typically served with the dogs I highly recommend the Wasabi and BBQ sauces, they were rich and flavorful and good for both fries and dog.  The Honey BBQ was especially good and even a bit spicy.  Get a side of both.
Value: 3/5
$10.50 for 2 dogs and a huge side of fries, not bad at all.  Apparently the fries alone are $4 which brings each hot dog to $3.25, not the best value I've seen, but considering all the toppings and sides and everything else, I was pleased.

Other: 3/5
Nothing huge to report in this category.  The staff was friendly and their was some outdoor seating.  For people who like sports, they have more TV's then Best Buy.  Also, they've got a great happy hour that goes until 8pm.

Overall: 3/5
I'll go there again, I'm sure.  The dogs were alright, but the sauces were so freakin' good that I feel them calling to me again. 

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Blockheads Burritos (350 W 50th St Worldwide Plaza - New York, NY)

I had been hearing a lot about this place for a number of weeks so I figured I'd see what all the fuss was about.  I'm just going to throw this out there right now:  Bleh.  Nothing was 'brought to life' from this meal except my food critic wrath. 
I don't get the sock monkey thing.  It's not cute, it's just weird.
 Apparently they specialize in drinks, which makes this a big 'after-work' venue.  And by specialize I mean they are strong, cheap, and plentiful.  They even taste pretty good.  The outdoor seating is also popular,  but the food is a different story.  Before I even dive into the 'taco' issue, let me say that all their food is incredibly salty.  It doesn't have an overwhelmingly salty taste, but you can FEEL it; I took one bite and was dying of thirst the entire meal, and since they don't serve water without a direct request, it feels like a cheap ploy to sell more drinks.  It all makes perfect sense once you realize that the food is rubbish; if they sell more drinks you won't mind that you're basically eating over-priced cardboard.  Let's get to the important things, shall we?

The Taco: 2/5
Seriously, not good.  At first I was curious about the combination of a soft corn tortilla wrapped in a hard shell, it seemed like a combo of the real deal and the Taco Bell version, but I was soon disappointed.  I had three kinds of tacos, shredded beef, pollo, and picadillo (ground beef), one of each type they had to offer.  
Notice how you can't SEE the taco, just a mountain of cheese.
If you're noticing a gaping hole in the menu options that would be the total lack of Carne Asada, which might be forgivable if the rest of the food was tasty, but it's not.  The chicken tastes boiled or simply baked with no marinade.  It's good quality chicken, but the preparation is about as boring as watching golf.  The shredded beef is like a crappy and tasteless version of carne asada, but the picadillo had potential.  If only I could have tasted more of it through the heaping mounds of lettuce and cheese and the double layer of hard and soft shell tortilla.  Get the burrito.

Acoutrement: 1/5
This stuff was just straight out gross, I tried eating the salsas and couldn't bring myself to do it.  First, the salsa they served with chips at the beginning of the meal was basically ketchup.  I think it was a jarred brand on par with Tostitos.  The in-house salsas were even worse.  they were served warm (as in temperature, not spice) and had a sickly/sweet flavor with a texture that reminded me of soggy stewed veggies.  They had a green and red option, both were indigestible.  On the table they offered Tapatio (always a decent option) and that strange brand El Yucateco that I've only seen in New York.  El Yucateco is neon green in color and has an equally chemical flavor.  In general, a big fail.

Value: 1/5
 To be fair, this is just the value of the tacos.  You can get a plate of two tacos (two!) with a bit of beans and rice on the side (not exactly heavy overhead) for $10.  That's ridiculous for tacos.  I wanted a third so I was charged half as much again.  That's a whopping $15 for three tacos and some beans and rice that cost the restaurant ¢.20, I was unimpressed.  The drinks, however, are decently priced for Manhattan, though I will say that the quality of the tequila is about what you pay for.
Other: 3/5
I will grudgingly admit that the outdoor seating is nice.
The drinks are good and go down easy.  I'd try the bulldog, it's a fun combination of corona and margarita, though watch out as it packs a punch.  Also, the place is in a pretty sweet location with a large open patio that feels wonderful in the warmer months.  There's not a lot else to say, though one of my dinner companions did point out the surprisingly large percentage of terribly unattractive people that frequent the place.  Could have just been the day though, we try not to judge; ugly people deserve tacos too.  
Overall Score: 2/5
The only reason this place is not getting a lower score is that I'm sure I'll end up at the establishment again, I'll just be avoiding the tacos.  Honestly, the other food might not be that bad, but if it's tacos you are looking for then run for the hills.  I liked the bulldog quite a bit and I'm sure I'll be back for another eventually, but next time I'll plan on getting a street dog down the road.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Good to go Organics (hot dog stand - SE Corner of Central Park)

I Don't know if I agree with the companies line of rhetoric claiming they combine the features of a food cart and a farmer's food stand, but I do like some variety in my carts and I think the natural/organic variation is a good one.  You can get more information directly from the horse's mouth here: http://www.goodtogoorganics.com/ or you can read on for my take on this place.

As I said, I think going organic is a great idea for a food cart.  Good-to-Go has partnered with AppleGate farms, a well known commercial brand that is making a splash in the organic meats world.  I visited this particular cart at nearly 3pm and was surprised to find a line, often a good sign, though in this case it's because the dogs take some time to prepare.  They aren't just boiled dogs pulled out of steaming water, these guys take the time to griddle them up a bit, and will even saute some onions for you if you ask (it's a little extra).  

Joe, the dude behind the counter
I chatted up Joe, the dude behind the counter, and asked for what he would recommend.  They have a somewhat extensive menu for a hot dog stand including 3 kinds of dogs, 2 sausages, and 3 vegetarian options.  They also sell burgers, but I won't get into that.  He actually recommended the chicken sausage with spinach and feta, but I don't do the whole cheese thing (it makes my stomach explosive) and settled for the other sausage (chicken and apple) and a beef dog.  Here's what I discovered.

The Dog: 5/5 (the sausage gets a 2/5)
 So, the difference between the hot dog and the sausage was pretty substantial.  I don't know if it's this particular flavor of sausage instead of the recommended one, or Applegate farms, or if it was overcooked, or what, but the chicken sausage was dry and bland.  I've had delicious store bought chicken sausages before (Like Adele's - review coming, don't worry) but this didn't do it for me.  It was paired with a whole wheat pita for the bun, which is a fun idea but not a good reality.  It gives the dog a strange crumbly/brittle texture and adds to the blandness of flavor, if that's even possible; it's like being extremely mediocre.
The beef hot dog, however, BAM!  Delicious and distinctive, with what I would call an authentic beef flavor.  A firm bite, great snap, and the addition of a potato roll bun was fantastic.  All the flavors balance out very well with none overpowering the others.  My only complaint is that the meat to bun ration is a little skewed in favor of the bun, but that doesn't interfere with the great taste.

Value: 3/5
Not a bad value at all.  I expect most organic versions of common foods to be significantly more expensive, and this isn't.  Hot dogs are $3.50 and sausages (including veggie ones) are $5, only a dollar more than the standard street variety, and I'd say the increase in quality, especially for the hot dog, is significant.  They also have meal deals, which is nice, though they average around $10.

Acoutrement: 4/5
Delicious dog on the left, weird pita thing on the right
I was impressed by their offerings.  As I mentioned before, they actually have a griddle in there, which means they can do grilled onions (extra); a rare treat for street food.  They also have your choice of yellow or spicy mustard, ketchup, relish, kraut (extra), and (my personal favorite) horseradish mustard by Annie's.  They mentioned they might phase that out, so go visit the stand and hoot and holler about it because it's one of the best parts of the experience.  I'd have liked to see the kraut and onions for free and maybe a mayo option, but the horseradish mustard makes up for it.

Other: 5/5
Well, for one it's all organic, which is awesome.  And not just the dogs; just about everything is organic and natural including drinks and potato chips; they've gone all out and I appreciate that sort of integrity in their vision.  Also, the potato buns are wonderful; more hot dog places should offer that.  The addition of vegetarian and non-beef options are worth mentioning as well, few carts offer those choices and it fits with the entire theme.  Well done.

Overall Score: 4/5
I think this is a great idea for a stand and they've got a solid beginning.  Right now I'd say they offer perhaps a few too many choices and could be a little choosier with what it is they are offering and focus their product a little more.  A beef sausage would be a great option.  BUT, the hot dog is tasty and the quality is high.  Definitely check it out and give them your feedback, they are a new company and open to making things better.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Las Delicias (22928 Lyons Avenue - Newhall, CA)

This gem of a place, hidden in a northern suburb of LA County, is one of my most frequented and favorite spots.  I don't just mean taco or hot dog places, or even restaurants, I mean most frequented spots, period.  When I lived in Santa Clarita I visited Las Delicias more frequently than I took a shower, it's that good (comments from the peanut gallery about my personal hygiene will be ignored).  The shop itself is nestled in the corner of a small strip mall about one block away from the entirely hispanic part of Newhall, CA, the staff is quite friendly and speaks little to no English; another sure sign of a taqueria's quality.

They have more than tacos of course, including a lunch buffet (that disappointingly does not include tacos), and breakfast, but the late night tacos are the real treat.  After a certain hour they only take cash, no longer charge tax, limit the menu to a few kinds of tacos, and charge $1 a piece.  
If you gesticulate wildly or speak enough Spanish to ask, they will occasionally condescend to make you a vegetarian taco with avocado and beans, but get there early as the beans don't last all night, and when they are out, they are out.

Ratings time:

The Item: 5/5
There are certain tacos in this world that make your very soul weep.  I still remember the first time I bit into a delicious carne asada taco dripping with delight from both ends of the tortilla, I felt a happiness I haven't experienced since middle school when the first days of spring hit and girls are suddenly wearing shorts again.  Think I'm exaggerating?  Try a bite, you'll become one of the many converts that frequent the place after midnight in the middle of the week.  And don't assume those tears are coming from the habañero salsa, they are tears of joy.  I went home and told my roommate about it and he said "it's just full of lipids, that's what gives meat flavor."  I looked at him dumfounded.  I told him straight up, "It wasn't lipids, these tacos were injected with rapture, smothered with good, and sprinkled with bits of kittens and rainbows."  Lipids my left foot.  Bah.  And that's just the carne asada.  The others are good too, just not quite as nice, though people like them.  Randomly, they don't have a pollo option late night.

Value: 4/5 
Dollar tacos in the late night, you can't beat it.  The only thing is that for some reason I rarely spend less that $10 when I go there.  Often this is because they are so damn good I have to eat at least half-a-dozen, and I'm usually spotting a taco or two to first time friends I'm looking to hook onto the place, but it's also because the tacos are a little on the smaller side.  That or they sprinkle them with crack.

Acoutrement: 5/5
Four different homemade salsas, cilantro, onions, grilled peppers, beans, and other...stuff.  Most of what I listed is always there, sometimes there are extras.  Occasionally they have this weird chili like mixture of left over meat products (ground beef, ham, bacon, etc.) mixed with beans, I think it's from the lunch buffet.  If you let it cool all the oil and fat congeals, but good lord it is delicious.  I personally recommend the orange salsa, it's habeñero based and worth killing for.  As a side note, the al pastor tacos also come with a slice of fresh pineapple; not only is that cool, but you should watch them deftly flick a piece of the pineapple spit with the tip off a knife and have it land directly in the middle of your taco.

Other: 3/5 
There are a couple of important things to mention in this section, the first is that Las Delicias in open until 2am.  Most nights anyway.  If it's dead or they've run out of food they'll close earlier, but if you've got a late night hankering for tacos and you're stranded in the Santa Clarita Valley, head here.  Also, they have probably some of the worst music I've ever heard in a Mexican restaurant.  It ranges the gamut of cheesy pop, to Ranchero, to repetitive electronic Latin dance beats.  There is one song in particular that has a regular high pitched beeping squeel that persists throughout the entire tune for a good 5 minutes, and they play this in the restaurant all the time.  I think it's the song they play when they want to clear out the gringos; if their tacos weren't so damn good it'd probably work.  The glaring florescent lights and late night college students do nothing for the atmosphere either.  They do, however, deliver. 

Final Score: 5/5 
Was there any doubt after my description of the tacos?  Ignore the crappy music and lack of alcohol, just go to this place and eat until you pop, then go back and get some more.  You'll thank me later.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Nathan's Famous Hot Dogs (1310 Surf Avenue Brooklyn, NY - Coney Island)

Definitely one of the most established and hyped hot-dog places in New York with branches all over the city.  Of course, to do a proper review I had see where it all started. 

I love the little hot dog man

 Half the appeal of Nathan's is the location. Coney Island feels about as far away from Manhattan as possible, with open space, a beach, boardwalk, carnival, freak sideshow, the whole shebang.  Actually, in many ways it reminded me of being Santa Cruz, CA, but without the hula-hoop twirling hippies.  
For the sake of tact, I cut out the ambulance to the left.
The clientele at Nathan's was remarkably broad; everyone seems to buy into the hype and just about all demographics are represented.  There were a fair number of tourists, both from in town and out of town.  I heard a bit of French and Italian being spoken, along with the more regular Spanish and a surprising smattering of what I thought was Russian.  There were also a good spread of crazies and derelicts without whom no seaside carnival would be complete. What came as a surprise to me, though, was the shear number of people at the place. Even more surprising, the presence of an ambulance and EMTs loading up a middle-aged Nathan's customer on a stretcher did nothing to stop the hoards from getting their share of tubular meat. My brother-in-law also has an emergency room story about eating a hot dog at Nathan's; apparently he is not alone.  
Despite the apparent health hazards the crowd wasn't deterred, and a small barrier like a trip to the ER wasn't going to stop me from trying the most famous hot dog in NY.  Besides, according to my television the nurses in emergency rooms are as spicy as andouille sausage.

The Item: 4/5
 Good! Surprisingly good! The dogs have a bold flavors and a great snap, quintessentially hotdog like. They slightly toast the buns on the same griddle as the dogs, which is a nice perk, but if you get toppings it will soak right through and make the bun soggy. The hotdogs are thin, and the toppings are thick, a ratio I'm not usually fond of, but the flavor cuts through well. I even detected a hint of spice, though it may be the onion/pepper combo of toppings. I also tried a corn dog which was....ordinary. Too much corn, not enough dog, which is too bad since the dogs are pretty tasty.
Acoutrement: 3/5
Observe the hot dog shaped grease stain on the lid.  Delicious.
This is sort of the thing at Nathan's, they have lots of topping options, though I wouldn't say they are anything particularly fancy.  You've got a standard ketchup/mustard/onions/kraut (no relish or mayo) or you can get a themed dog with chili, bacon & cheese, or peppers & onions. I tried the peppers & onions and the chili. The chili was tasty as well but has much more flavor to it than the dogs so you're basically just trading one for the other. I recommend getting it on the side and enjoying is separately. The onions and peppers were soggy, but the flavor was good and distinct.

Value: 2/5
Here lies the heart of most complaints about Nathan's, the price.  I agree, $3.50 is too damn much for a hotdog. It's not a sausage or organic or anything special, it's just a thin, but tasty, hotdog; what you're really paying for is the experience of being there and the hype.  I got three dogs and a drink, and dropped about $15. I'd recommend getting a kids meal, it comes with a dog, fries and a drink for $5.99, not bad.

Other: 4/5
So far the record is 68 hot dogs. Yum.
A couple things of note here: The location, for one.  Coney island is lovely and a great place to get away from the city.  I thoroughly enjoyed eating my meal with ocean views.   Also, their drinks are varied and original. They have the usual soda and beer, but they also have a homemade lemonade and orangeade that were awesome. Definitely try the orangeade, it's like homemade Slice.
What put the 'other' category into the 4 range instead of a 3, however, was the annual hot dog eating contest Nathan's sponsors. This level of street meat cultural contribution cannot go unrecognized. The next contest will be held at Nathan's flagship store in Coney Island on July 4th, 2011. I'm going. (update: I went, it was the kind of horror akin to watching a slow motion train hurtling towards a cliff and wondering if the brakes will work in time. Everyone should go once).

Overall Score: 4/5
Despite the above-average price and all the hype, I completely enjoyed my experience at Nathan's.  The dogs were good, the atmosphere was nice, the drinks are plentiful, and the beach is lovely.  I'm sure I'll go back again, just be sure to chew thoroughly so you don't end up in the hospital too.