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Restaurant: NYC Visit (2016)

I went to NYC for a bit, partly for work, partly for pleasure, and mostly to have a reason to not blog for a few days. I spent some time eating food with friends, so I figgered why not capture it here for no one to read? Here are the highlights…

Momofuku Nishi. I had originally thought I’d hit all Momofuku stops in NYC, but only found a few takers among my dinner partners. I asked one of my friends if they wanted to hit Momofuku Ko, but they begged off and suggested Nishi instead. I think they might be vegan, or were scared off by the high price tag of Ko, or both? I knew Nishi had the famous “Impossible Burger” (fake meat that supposedly looks/tastes/mouthfeels like the real thing), so will assume it was their vegetarian leanings. Unfortunately, that burger sells out by lunchtime, so… shoulda gone to Ko, bruh! I had just finished climbing out of an airplane and taxi, so was feeling a bit rushed and unthoughtful — I regret my ordering here. My friend got the similarly celebrated Cacio e Pepe (a dish that swaps in chickpea paste for the Cacio), and I didn’t want to double up on it. In retrospect, I should have gotten another vegetarian dish to share so I could have had more of the CeP. It was pretty good, prolly the best thing on the table. Instead I got an unmemorable noodle dish, and a bone marrow dish that I was embarrassed to eat in front of my friend — just a cow leg sawed in half for the diner to scoop the (admittedly tasty) marrow from. Not a bad start to the trip, but a bit of a letdown.

Katz’s Delicatessen. My wife’s a pescetarian, and a lot of my previous visits have been with vegetarian friends in tow. So I couldn’t resist the opportunity to take myself out to this legendary deli to grab some meat. I’m late to the pastrami game, but have managed to have a bunch of great ones across the country over the past five years. The bizarro ordering system (you wait in line at a cutter, order and get meat cut for a sandwich, etc) threw me off a little — I normally woulda got some coleslaw slopped into my sandwich, and maybe would have given some meat preferences to the cutter, but got nervous. So…part of my experience was hampered by me, I’ll admit it. Still, not the best pastrami sandwich I’ve eaten — I needed it to be more juicy/fatty, and I found it hard to find any pepper/smoke/seasoning. It kinda felt like I just got a corned beef sandwich. Langer’s in L.A. and Kenny & Zuke’s in Portland, you guys still got my vote for best pastrami sandwiches in the world!

Lupa Osteria Romana. Things took off here. A friend gave me a couple of choices to pick from, and I picked this Batali restaurant without much hesitation. It might have been the best place I ate during the trip! I split a bunch of plates with my friend, including a spinach salad with warm (toasted) pancetta, a couple different pastas, some cotorni and a steak. The pastas were the highlight — we ate a Cacio e Pepe that put the fake one from Nishi to shame, super peppery and perfect pasta, as well as an outta sight orecchiette special. The latter was to die for, the homemade little ears in a tomato ragu were a perfect counterpoint to the peppery CeP and salty spinach salad we’d had. We had debated getting the pasta tasting menu, and if I go again, I’ll zero in on that.

Eataly. I had some work stuff to do the next day, and ended up eating at another Batali joint for lunch. I was tempted to grab pasta again, but didn’t want a heavy tummy of pasta to slow me down from work and walking. I wish I had more personal time here, and would love to take my Italian ma here — so many great counters and packaged goods to take in, I could sample for hours. I went with a simple sausage pizza here, and it was okay. I sampled someone else’s piadini and it was actually pretty great. I’ll be back to one of these to do some real damage.

Momofuku Ssam Bar. I’m skipping ahead here, I ate at some pretty unremarkable places during work hours — a fake Chipotle, a hotel restaurant, prolly something else I forgot. I was excited to hit Ssam Bar in part because I wanted to try their spicy pork sausage and rice cakes while the memory of their replication at In Situ was fresh in my memory. A lot of splitting here with friends, so we took in a bunch of things. We started with some heirloom tomatoes and plums in a dashi sauce that was pretty solid. Heavy on the plums, but I wanted to tip the bowl up to my soup strainer and chug the remaining dashi broth when we were done. Followed that up with a platter of thinly sliced ham (okay), a jar of housemade kimchi (fire, both in taste and quality, I ate most of this jar), a superb pork belly bun (maybe the best pork bun I’ve ever had?) and then a feast of the sausage and rice cakes. And? I gotta give the dish to In Situ! The Ssam Bar rendition felt like the impostor — overly spicy, missing some of the subtle fermented flavors, not enough veggies, and just what felt like a heavy-handed take on their own dish. I dream about the In Situ dish, but this one just had me shrugging my shoulders a bit.

Momofuku Milk Bar. Only counting this since my original intention was to go big at Momofuku this trip, and this got pushed in as a result. I was a bit too full from dinner at Ssam Bar to really do this right, and the line and cramped quarters kept me honest as well. I took a slice of Crack Pie back to my hotel room to eat later, and skipped some of the other sweets. There was something a little decadent about lying in bed and eating that slice of Crack Pie with my hands — so much butter and cream and sugar and yummy made even better by pajamas and the faint glow of the TV. It also felt a little pathetic and fat.

Joe’s Shanghai. I ate here alone, but probably should have found a friend to join me. Single dining basically limited me to the soup dumplings here (I didn’t want to waste food, and 8 soup dumplings is a lot of food already), and while they were good, it was also a bit too gross to just fill my belly with all that pork fat. This place is known for their xiao long bao, but they’re not that clearly marked on the menu — I saw a couple people literally holding up photos of the dumplings from Yelp reviews up to the menu to try and find them. I also saw a douchey guy dadsplaining to his family about how great the soup dumplings were, and then when they arrived at his table I enjoyed watching him not know how to eat them — he scooped one up and took a big chomp, splashing hot greasy broth all over his stupid face! These dumplings were the biggest soup dumplings I’ve ever had, which sounds good on paper but in practice means a couple negatives. The dumpling wrapper was a little too thick for me, it has to be to hold the weight of the heavy contents. People lifted these out of the baskets with tongs, which was the first sign of how thick the wrapper would be. And the “soup” in a dumpling is mostly just like pork fat and gelatin, right? Eating an entire basket of that just felt a little gross to me, I really felt like a greasy fat guy afterward. Still, pretty good, they would have been great if I had been able to cut them with some vegetables or another dish.

Chinatown Ice Cream Factory. This was one of the oldest food recommendations I can remember someone making to me about NYC, and I was only able to get to it 20+ years and 10+ visits later. It was right around the corner from Joe’s, so I waddled my porky stink over there afterward. I sampled some Durian ice cream (not bad!), and really was torn between some of my favorite asian dessert flavors. Egg custard tart? Black sesame? Pandan? Almond cookie? Red bean? Ginger? I probably could’ve been the Ugly American for a bit and sampled them all…but I played it safe and grabbed some black sesame instead. Solid pick, great sesame flavor throughout with a ton of crunchy seeds as well. I ate about 1/3 of the scoop before throwing it out, I was just too filled with soup broth at that point.

I also had a bunch of great cocktails all over the city, but, I think we’re done here. Good trip! Good eats!

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10th Record: Billo’s Caracas Boys “Fin De Año”

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Ah, finally getting into some real records now, even if this is an odd inclusion! For those following my “Every 10 Records” listening and documenting of my vinyl collection, it’s gotten a bit sluggish due to some early run-ins with bad pressings and bad music. I was happy to see my finger landing on Billo’s as I counted to my 80th LP, and for a split second I thought about pulling a different album by Billo’s just to make it a little less weird. Most of my collection is filed alphabetically first, then chronologically within the artist’s discography, but I knew that there’s so little info on any of these particular records that any chronological arrangement I’d done was likely made up of guesswork. Still, I kept things honest and pulled this out to listen.

I got turned onto Billo’s Caracas Boys by chance a few years ago — I was chatting with a friend about what we were listening to at work, and he’d been churning through a few YouTube albums and had landed on Billo’s as a result. He dug it, and I quickly did as well! I made a point of grabbing a few LPs by Billo’s on eBay (this was before I knew about better record marketplaces), but they were really pretty hard to come by. “Fin De Año” is actually one of the LPs that pops up most frequently, surprisingly enough, so it made itself onto my shelves very quickly.

I can’t find much online about Billo’s Caracas Boys or their discography. Yet they were super prolific and most of their stuff is available on streaming services. But I’d like to learn more since their sound is a good mix of several things. The bandleader was born in the Dominican Republic, got famous in Venezuela and ended up in pre-Castro Cuba for a bit before returning to Venezuela. That transiency across Latin America shows up in the songs — there’s a lot of merengue for sure, but I feel like I see salsa/cumbia/rhumba/and flamenco dancing through the orchestra as well. The music is heavier on the pop than the rhythms, so maybe that’s why it feels a bit more universal. Regardless, I love listening to it even if it’s not quite as forceful as some other latin dance records.

What makes this record a bit odd is that it really is an “end of the year” record, as the title states! To non-Spanish speakers, that’s probably meaningless until you get to songs like “Cascabel” — a Spanish language “Jingle Bells.” Still, I played this record while my family was doing their thing and no one seemed to notice — my son danced a bit to some of the songs, but to my chagrin no one had any Christmas tunes lodged in their head. There are better Billo’s albums in my collection, we’ll see when I get to them in this game…

Discogs link
Vinyl: VG- (pretty worn, no skips or pops but surface noise throughout)
Cover: VG-

 

10th Record: Chuck Berry “Johnny B Goode”

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Hmph. I’m getting a bit frustrated with this 10th Record project. Does my collection just suck? Do I need to do more digging and purchasing, inflate my collection a bit more to make sure that there’s more outta sight records to support endeavors like this?

I’ll combine my origin story on this with my write-up. I had pretty much overlooked Chuck Berry for most of my life; I thought I knew his songs, I knew covers of his songs, and I’d heard combinations of those two float in and out of commercials and movies in perpetuity. I didn’t really feel like there was much to explore there until I worked at a record shop where a co-worker frequently put on Berry’s “The Great 28” compilation, and I was able to push past those immediate hits and get into the juicier stuff. I loved the raw rock and roll sound and the great songwriting, there were so many great songs to discover. As I got deeper into the Beatles/Kinks/Rolling Stones catalogs, the Berry songs would keep bubbling up, helping me pay attention to not only those songs but the other covers that would fill in the gaps on those early LPs. While I’d buy my own copy of, say, a Larry Williams compilation inspired by those listens, I never got “The Great 28” since it was basically always around when I needed it.

Flashing forward many years later, when I pulled out my turntable and decided to rediscover music through a more intimate listening, I made a quick list of albums I knew I still needed to get in order to really make that listening sparkle. That list, sadly soon abandoned, had “The Great 28” on it, for sure. It wasn’t too long after that I saw a friend posting some records he was dumping, and seeing this record in the batch I was happy to get at least partially towards having some quality Chuck Berry in my collection. I wasn’t being very mindful at that point, and didn’t really scrutinize what was coming into my shelves. Oops!

Another 10th Record, and another record marred by fake stereo! This one’s pretty difficult to listen to, there’s so much echo that it sounds like Chuck Berry is recording in the shower (har-har) and the top and bottom ranges are just absolutely missing any definition. There’s just a big blur of bass and drum mess and no real guitar energy to speak of. I still haven’t replaced it with a better Chuck Berry album, but I’m sure I’ll find one soon.

This cheap reissue was put out by Pickwick, so the kid who grew up listening to Pickwick children’s  (Mr. Pickwick!) and cheap reissue albums definitely felt my sore ears soothed a teeny bit by that little fragment of nostalgia. Otherwise, this should go in a garbage bin.

Discogs link
Vinyl: VG+
Cover: VG+

10th Record: The Beatles “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band”

FullSizeRender-6I admit that this endeavor seems a lot less fun if the old, forgotten records I’m digging out are widely celebrated releases from some of the most recognized bands of all time … I’m assuming that once we get through the “Bea-” section, we’ll get back to more esoterica and discovery. In the meantime?

I think this was my first Beatles album. It was definitely among the first 4 CDs I got when I got my first CD player, and this LP is from around the same time, maybe a year or so later. I overplayed this album since those were the days when I had less options to throw on, and as a result I just never really put it on today or even celebrate it mentally the way I would, say, “Pet Sounds” or “Revolver.” When I do, I’m always pretty happy to hang out with an old friend; there’s nothing new or clever I’m going to be able to say about this album, so I’ll keep it brief. This is the first US mono release, and it’s in pretty good shape. No visual marks or scratches, but it’s gotten a lot of plays — plenty of surface noise in the quiet spots, occasional pops but overall a really great sounding record! Done?

Origin story: I found this at a thrift store near my childhood house. It was much easier to thrift shop records back then, I always found pretty good stuff without even trying to hard. I found my first Ramones record at the same shop, “Revolver,” Parliament…a wide range of cool stuff that would feel like a huge score if you came across it in a thrift bin today. It makes me a little surprised that the record is in such good shape (especially since I can’t imagine teenage Fredoluv took great care of his records either) all these years later.

Discogs link
Vinyl: VG/VG+ (visually pretty tight, but on play it sounds more VG)
Cover: G+ (splitting, discoloring, staining, etc. A fun time was had by all!)

10th Record: Beach Boys “Carl & the Passions: So Tough”

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I was right about hitting the Beach Boys again, and I guess it sorta ties into things from the last entry as well.

I love the Beach Boys and for sure go deeper into their catalog than casual fans (for me, up to “Surf’s Up” (1971) and then a smattering of Brian’s solo material), but I’ve never gotten into the stuff they did in the 70s. That’s obviously this record, released just a year after “Surf’s Up,” but I don’t think I even own some of the other records from that decade that hardcore fans might celebrate. I have this one, not because I’m a fan but…because Reprise weirdly decided to package this release with a pressing of “Pet Sounds” as well! It’s considered one of the best sounding versions of “PS,” especially if you’re not able/willing to drop a couple hundred bucks on a 90s vinyl remastering. Cheaper, I think, than the 80s green label reissues I mentioned in the last post — I’m not sure I’ve grabbed a “PS” in that series.

Anyway, I was fine with hearing this record and excited to be able to sneak in a listen of such a lifelong friend. Still, I held my nose as I dropped “Carl & the Passions” on the table … I just don’t get into the “rock” sound they were chasing, and even the two Brian Wilson contributions here aren’t that great (and marred by some bad Mike Love stuff as well). I gutted through it but admit I was washing dishes and tidying up while it played. I did sit down for some “Pet Sounds,” though, and tried to give that much more attention.

Hmm…my copy sounds okay, but it’s still not feeling very punchy. There’s something weird going on with the sound, and I’m not enough of even an armchair audiophile to guess what it is — some compression at the top end, maybe? I think I got very spoiled by the great digital releases of this album (and other Beach Boys albums), and it’s hard for me to find that same feeling and dynamic range in these half-ass vinyl pressings. It still sounds pretty good, a casual listener would never even notice anything; I was just hoping to have my socks blown off. Maybe by the time we spin through this section again (approximately 200 spins from now?) I’ll have that expensive DCC vinyl (or at least the 80s green label)! Either way, I doubt I’ll get this nerdy about most of the stuff I hear in the meantime…

Discogs Link
Vinyl: NM-
Cover: VG (a little ringwear)