Monday, December 3, 2012

Patron Mexican Grill

I've been avoiding this tackily branded establishment for a while now. They seemed to pop-up over night, and in locations all over the west side, distracting from the usual jumble of sleek foodie restaurants and gaudy Asian fusion that generally peppers mid-town along 9th avenue.  I'd further avoided Patron  (be warned of the link, the music about to come from your speakers is trite and annoying) because of the unexpectedly high prices for:

a.) Mexican Food, and 
b.) What seems to be a pre-fabricated local chain.

 Even in NY, I don't expect most places that offer a $5 Margarita to charge more than $2.50 for a taco, especially since there is still at least once place in the Lower East Side that offers dollar tacos (on tuesdays only. If you order a beer. Review coming soon).

Anyway, I eventually caved because they were offering a groupon for half off dinner for two, so I grabbed by beau and made her eat tacos with me.  Here's what we found:

The Taco: 4/5

I hate to say it, but the darn thing was pretty good. There is a pattern to ordering tacos in NY, and Patron fits itpretty well.  If you're at a trendy restaurant feel safe ordering the steak, if it's a hole-in-the-wall taco joint stick with Carnitas, Chorizo, Lengua, etc. In general, avoid the chicken. Patron's prices are higher, but it's because they offer tacos with things like nicely marinated and grilled skirt steak. It almost misses the taco experience since it's more like having a nice steak that happens to be wrapped in a corn tortilla, but they save it with a proper marinade and the right sort of toppings. To their credit, their tortillas are handmade and quite good - a quintessential part of the authentic experience often missed in NY. The meat was stellar. Grilled like a steak and chopped after so it may be cooked to order. Tender and delicious. The Carnitas were exceptional and mixed with some sort of sweet fruit (mango? Pineapple?) or perhaps marinated in the right fruit juices that made it a unique treat. If you go with a friend order one of each and split them, you'll be happy you did.

Acoutrement: 2/5
There were sauces, I'm sure of that because I have pictures. They apparently weren't worthy of note taking. I will say that when meat is that good, there is no reason to cover it up with sauces unless they are exquisite. I'd not call them that, I'd call them forgettable, which is too bad because I'm usually a sucker for mysterious looking dark orange sauces. I did enjoy the addition of avocado, that always helps and the side of beans and rice makes it a full meal, but they definitely lacked in the salsa category.

Value: 2/5
Regardless of how much I actually enjoyed the food when it got to my mouth, the price of the place has kept me from going again, which makes me think the final cost/experience ratio is lacking. I was charged $17 for 4 tacos that, while tasty and filling, still comes out to over $4 a taco, and homey don't play that. Go with a groupon or if you plan on balancing your bill with the $5 margaritas.

Other: 2/5
$5 margaritas are noteworthy, though not exceptional, the service was slow, ambiance loud, and the other food offerings were uncomfortably priced for Mexican cuisine. I do need to mention the Avocado fries. Remember when Burger King came out with Chicken Fries? This is disappointingly nothing like that. Avocado fries are a sort of deep fried ice cream, substituting the traditionally delicious dairy product for avocado. This had a ton of potential to be crispy and delicious and cool, but it was overly bready and doughy and....well, just not what one might hope for. So don't be tempted! They sound like a good idea, but if good sounds were delicious, there'd be no such thing as a starving musician.

In the end, the tacos were a much better experience than I was expecting but the price/atmosphere/service dragged this rating down pretty far. If your friends are looking for a bar experience and you are looking for tacos (and don't mind shelling out for them) go to Patron, otherwise I'd check some of the earlier blog posts for decent tacos in the $2.50 range.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Crif Dogs

After everything I'd heard about this place, I was expecting something a bit more....grand. Most of the other major dog places in the city have bright and huge signage, multiple locations, and are, well, ABOVE ground. When I walked down the stoop into this punkish underbelly of the lower east side I realized that its understated nature IS the appeal of the spot. 

 Crif Dogs opened in 2001, and it retains the gritty feel of an older lower east side even while the neighborhood becomes more and more overcome by the encroaching hipster culture and the pretentious denizens of NYU. Crif dogs comfortably nestles in an area filled with pipe shops, tattoo parlors, edgy thrift stores; when I walked down the stoop into the semi-underground shop and saw the video game machines dating back from the 80's (Double-dragon anyone?),  I knew I had found a true hipster heaven. My only hope was that, like so many fads, there was some sort of fabulous underlay that caused all this hype in the first place. 

Somehow they wrap the bacon and make it crispy.  How? HOW?!
The Dog: 4/5

In the end, it's just a bunch of mystery beef and pork bits, but it's still pretty tasty. They have a couple of different options, the 'snappy all-beef frankfurter' which is basically an NY Coney Island type dog, and the 'Crif Dog' which is a handmade pork and beef mix.  I personally like the all-beef version better, but I appreciate their daring do and the Crif Dog is quite good as well.  The only reason is doesn't get a 5 is because Kobe-Beef dogs exist in this world, and there has to be room left for the best.  All in all, a tasty, snappy, quintessential type dog.

Acoutrement: 6/5
These sorts of toppings will get you hung in parts of Europe
Look, I know this isn't a real score, but any place that offers sour cream, pineapple, scallions (all together mind you), or bagel seeds (something else I'm pretty sure isn't real) than you get extra credit types of points. Crif Dogs has a substantial menu, considering they basically just serve hot dogs, and it's all because of the different combinations of toppings. Cream cheese, you can get a cream cheese dog. It's almost offensive in its boundary breaking.

Value: 4/5
A basic dog will run you less than $3, many of the toppings can be had for free, and the more exotic combinations don't add up to more than $5. That's only a touch more expensive than a Nathan's Famous, but you get real toppings and don't have to swim through a deluge of tourists. In addition, they have value packs that are mysterious assortments of food not divulged on the menu. I'm saving that for a future adventure.
Also, Spy Hunter.  Man I love that joystick.

Other: 5/5
Tater Tots.  Need I say more?  They also have a secret speakeasy in the evenings that can be accessed through the phone booth.  It's called Please Don't Tell. Oops.


Not gonna lie, I've already been there multiple times. If I could drag my ass to the lower east side more often, I'd likely be there weekly, it's that good. I've also brought friends, cousins, and girlfriends to check it out. You should too. And then you should take me. And then I'll take you. And then we'll just go together as buddies one more time. Yup.
You see the joy in his eyes?  You want this.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Agave (Ashland, Oregon)

If you have any sense, I won’t be able to convince you that the tacos at Agave are anything other than mediocre. But once, under the influence of oxytocin and a little alcohol, I ate tacos there that can only be described as transcendent. I objected to the aesthetics of them--the repackaging of Mexican food as self-consciously healthful and mild--yet I could not deny the sheer pleasure of biting into one. There are advantages to Mexico as discovered by yuppies over Mexico as imported nostalgically over the border by immigrants. For one, the meat was cooked perfectly, meltingly, rather than grilled or fried to a crisp. Wait, sorry, that’s the only thing. But that went a long way, and everything else was good. The salsa, while it lacked heat, had the sharp and sweet flavors of cilantro and fresh tomatoes of the non-insipid variety. The tortillas were at once crisp and soft, not stale, damp, and falling apart.

I didn’t think about any of this then--I was too surprised at how thoroughly I enjoyed it. I had scoffed at this place every time I passed its signage that proudly displays a plant as if it’s a revelation. Imagine if it had been named “Cabbage”. Though perhaps it should have been. There’s plenty of cabbage on the menu, and the only agave for sale is in the form of tequila. You may need it, if their sunny attempts to transport you to Mexico fail and you’re forced to face the food under the garish grey light of these latitudes in winter.

These transcendent tacos, they are only known by one other person, the same who I lunched with. It was pushing our luck to go back to Agave after sharing such gustatory delight there. It is to the cook’s credit that the tacos deluded us into thinking that they emanated from some ontic stability, to which we could return at our leisure. We did. The tacos literally fell apart in my hands, despite their wet innards being quarantined by two tortillas. The tortillas had come out of a bag, probably one that was at least two days old. The moldy aftertaste came from precisely that. The foundation on which tacos are built had sloughed onto our plates. What was left?

First we denied anything was amiss. Then we balked, and, finally, we rationalized. That first halcyon visit, we had come at around four when hardly anyone had been here (this second time it was 1pm). The cook must have had the time to take real care with the food, and probably there had been a different cook. Maybe they normally use fresh tortillas, but ran out today. Yes, yes, the lunchtime rush, the cook, that must be it. The experience, no, it was real, surely.

Meanwhile, we were busy with the wait staff, maintaining our own delusion, or maybe the restaurant’s, I’m really not sure any more. How is everything? Oh, good--no, delicious! The performance of enthusiasm that flares up in the friction between professionally doting waiters and polite customers can get a bit scary. The line between cheeriness and violence feels thin. The same unnaturally widened eyes could belong to someone yelling “good, I’m glad you like it!” at you or to someone stabbing you with a chef’s knife. I’m grateful whenever the fervor dies down.

Then came the flan. It more or less broke my mind. It came with a purple orchid, which my companion optimistically took as a personal gift from our waitress. If the flan was a part of this gift, it was the most mixed signal I’ve ever received. Of course, as it is with mixed signals, I wasn’t sure what part of it came from myself. Settling a slightly warm chunk of creamy custard onto my tongue with a spoon, I was given a wave of nausea. Whence? The texture was lovely, the flavor was at once strong caramel and smooth milk, and it was sweet but not overpoweringly sweet. I put another morsel in my mouth, and felt instantly gravitated toward the floor. It was perfect, yet I was not inhaling it, I was choking it down. I wanted to throw it back up, yet I ate my entire share of it. Our waitress glowingly asked us “how is the flan?” I must have looked stunned and indecisive, like a squirrel getting run down by a car. Thankfully, my companion swooped in to say “bliss”. I wasn’t sure if this was intended for our dessert or for the girl who served it to us, who seemed satisfied with the answer and went on her merry way.

I hardly remember the bill, or even going out the door. Eating there had sunk me deep into an epistemological crisis.


The Taco: 3/5 (Some of the time, if you're sufficiently deluded, it goes beyond taconess to become something equally beautiful, the rest of the time it's a mediocre taco.)

Accoutrement: 1/5 (There are no salsas--only that which is already in the taco.)

Value: 2/5 ($2.75 a taco at the very cheapest, and just down the road better tacos can be had for $1.50.)

Overall: 2.5/5

Saturday, January 7, 2012

King Gray's Papaya Dog

Here is a strange phenomenon: apparently people in the city have simultaneous insatiable cravings for 'healthy' exotic smoothy type drinks and inexpensive hot dogs. Come to think of it, I often feel a craving for the succulent savory flavor of tube-meat after eating a well balanced and nutritious meal, so maybe it's not all that strange.
Well, Are You?  ARE YOU?!

Anyway, there are a whole bunch of places in the city that fit this bill and, to the untrained eye, they may all seem exactly the same, especially since their names consist of a similar combination of the word 'Papaya' (for the featured smoothie drink) and some qualifier.  As it is right now the three most visible are:

1. Papaya King
2. Gray's Papaya
3. Papaya Dog

You can see where confusion might occur.  While the hot dog itself is basically the same damn thing at any of the locations, there are some important difference that I'll share with you here. 


This is the original smoothie/hot dog place, located in a posh neighborhood on the upper east side.  Actually, it was originally located in a Polish neighborhood, and all they really wanted was to serve fruit drinks, but the eastern European working class denizens of the time demanded the delicate flavor of griddle-fried meat sticks, so they added hot dogs to the menu.

 The Tradition continues today as they still serve a bizarre blend of salty meats and 'healthy' drinks.  Of all the varieties in the city, Papaya King has the most diverse collection of hot dogs and toppings as well as the most variety in drinks, smoothies, and fresh squeezed juices.  They're also the only one to expand outside of NY, having opened a location in Hollywood.

Like so many other tales of innovation and greatness, this one too has enough drama to keep it interesting.  In 1973 one of the partners of Papaya King broke off from the mother ship and created...

Even more than it's parent hotdoggery, Gray's Papaya has arguably made the biggest splash in the healthy drink/hotdog combo world.  It's made appearances in movies, television, and even politics (mostly famously endorsing President Obama during his presidential campaign).  They have the most streamlined menu of all the different dog/fruit places offering a simple selection of smoothies and hot dogs to eat, no sausages, no chicken fingers, no nothin'.  I'd also say they're the nastiest of the places (at least, the upper west side location) and the most overpriced, but I guess that's the cost of eating trendy.  Finally, there is:

Perhaps it's my inherent soft spot for the underdog (pun intended), but of all the locations mentioned, this is the one I frequent the most.  

I don't know where Papaya Dog came from, I don't think it has such a sordid past as Gray's Papaya, it's probably just a regular old knock-off, but it's cheap, has a melted cheese topping for hot dogs, and offers a whole bunch of other great crappy foods like fries and hamburgers and even vegetarian options, which, indigestible as they are, at least go with the whole theme of the healthy smoothies.  Let's get to the ratings, shall we?

The Dog: 3/5 (4/5 for the sausages)
Honestly, they really are all about the same, and quite similar to Nathan's Coney Island dog.  I know hot dog connoisseurs around the city are freaking out as they read this and I'm probably losing tons of street cred by saying so, but it's basically true.  They're long and thin and salty as hell, but they beat the pants of a dirty water dog from your typical street vendor.  Papaya King and Papaya Dog both offer a sausage dog as well, which is basically the same damn thing just fatter and fits in the bun better, which I like.  The bun-to-dog ratio is very important.  (Ok, the sausage at Papaya Dog is inferior to that of Papaya King, but Papaya Dog is two blocks from my house, so I'm biased). 
5/5 Papaya King                        4/5 Papaya Dog                      1/5 - Gray's Papaya              This, ladies and gentlemen, is where it really starts to matter, so pay close attention.  In a world where most hot dogs are basically the same phallic shaped bit of deliciousness, sometimes it's the toppings that make all the difference.  Here Papaya King wins out.

 I haven't given a 5/5 in this category yet, but I'm doing it because they've provided an option I've never seen before: eggs.  They offer what I've always looked for, a genuine breakfast hot dog.  They also offer fries on their dogs, crunchy onion, chili, cheese, the whole nine yards.  Except mayo, only Papaya Dog seems to offer that, which for me is a necessity to fully enjoy the dog experience.  Papaya Dog doesn't offer quite as much exotic variety as it's Kingly older brother, but it has plenty of topping variety including chile and cheese, onions, and all the standards.
And then there's Gray's Papaya, silly place that it is.  Only Ketchup and Mustard.  Oh, and onion.  They may also have Kraut.  Totally inadequate.  For being such a famous place you'd think they'd offer some decent options, but perhaps there is a certain elegance in simplicity.  If you're into that sort of thing.  Me, I like toppings, hence the low rating.

4/5 (Papaya King and Papaya Dog), 
3/5 (Gray's Papaya)
All these different spots have basically the same special, a combination of dogs, usually two frankfurters, with a drink (sometimes fries thrown in) for around $5.  It's really not bad at all, though by comparison to the others, Gray's Papaya falls short.  Papaya King is a touch more expensive, but I do have to admit that the quality is better.  They also have the best variety of combination options.  Papaya Dog has a number of good combo options and is the cheapest, though the lower quality of the sausage is a bit of a bummer.  Frankfurters are basically the same though, and they're combo comes with fries.  Gray's, however, is the same as Papaya Dog, but a dollar more with no fries.  Generally, a big lose.

Other: 4/5 (Papaya King, Papaya Dog) 2/5 (Gray's papaya)
Papaya King just offers lots of cool stuff, including fresh squeezed juice, which is great.  Papaya Dog offers all your basic fast food items, sans pizza, but the variety makes it easier to cajole your mom, girlfriend, coworker, etc. to go there with you since there's something for everyone.  Gray's only offers dogs and smoothies, which they all offer.  It's a cool extra for a hotdog place, but in comparison they are way behind.

Papaya King 5/5 
Papaya Dog 4/5
Gray's papaya 2/5

 When it's all said and done, you can't beat the king; they've got options, class, and history on their side.  If you happen to be in the neighborhood then definitely check it out.  Papaya Dog gets a 4 because I go there all the time and the value is really quite outstanding.  The atmosphere sucks and I wouldn't use it as a date spot, but in a pinch it's great.  Gray's is also decent in a pinch but I always feel a little ripped off.  I'm bummed by the lack of topping and other options and that extra dollar feels like a hefty expense for what you get.  So, now you know.  Choose wisely.