Sunday, September 30, 2007

Walter's Hot Dog Stand

937 Palmer Ave., Mamaroneck, NY

In the year 1919, a wonderful ground-breaking delicacy was brought to the burgeoning Westchester town of Mamaroneck, NY. It was …the hot dog.

However, this was no ordinary dog…

The hot dog as most people know it was brought to the states around 1870 by a German immigrant named Charles Feltman who first opened a stand on the boardwalk in Coney Island. In 1916, one of Feltman’s employees, Nathan Handwerker, started his own stand called Nathan’s Famous, which is still one of the better-known hot dog franchises today. Fortunately (or unfortunately if you live outside of NYC) Walter’s is not a franchise. It is a wonderfully quirky ode to the unique and extremely tasty “split” hot dogs that Walter Warrington created almost 100 years ago. The hot dogs (a combination of pork, beef, and veal) are split down the middle and griddled with a “secret sauce” to create a golden brown crust that adds to the perfect “snap” that any good hot dog must have. Walter’s other claim to fame is the “secret” mustard , which tastes like a mixture of sharp brown mustard and sweet pickle relish. It is absolutely delicious and as someone who normally likes everything but the kitchen sink on my hot dog (think Chicago style), I am convinced that this is the only topping you need on a hot dog this good.

Not only is Walter’s hot dog a party in your mouth, it is a great experience—that is, if you don’t mind lines that sometimes reach a block down the street and can take up to an hour to go through. Walter’s is located in a free-standing copper roofed Chinese pagoda that was built in 1928 and was declared a historical landmark in 1991. It really is an event. Bring family and friends and sit at one of Walter’s picnic tables with a basket of curly fries and several hot dogs. That’s what we did.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Gambas al Ajillo

If you have ever been to a Spanish tapas bar, then you surely have tried the famed Gambas al Ajillo. I first encountered this dish many years ago when I was staying in Barcelona. I was young and so enchanted with my first carafe of sangria. I felt impassioned and full of wonder at everything that lay before me, both literally and figuratively. One of those blessed things that lay directly in front of me was my first plate of Gambas al Ajillo. I promptly decided that this would be a dish I would eat the rest of my life. It is simple, but so very powerful. It brings to mind those incredible monosyllabic responses cowboys use to convey everything that needs to be said with just one word.

I first found a recipe for garlic shrimp a year after my Spanish sojourn in the San Francisco Chronicle. I have adapted it slightly, but it has proven to be one of my favorite recipes over the years. It is the kind of recipe that anyone could make, and I literally mean anyone. It is just having the confidence that you could not possibly screw this one up- unless you decide to overcook the shrimp, but why would you? One of the wonderful things about this recipe is the sheer speed with this can be prepared—which is why it is a standby company dish. I have had good luck with frozen shrimp, but the most successful incarnations of this dish are with fresh shrimp. I often buy my shrimp for $2.99 (!) a pound in NYC’s Chinatown. This dish is wonderful with a simple arugula and cucumber salad and most importantly, a loaf of crusty bread to absorb the incredible pan juices. Make sure to have the freshest garlic possible, as it is one of the only ingredients, and you may want to invest in a good sherry for this one—you will use it in your repeat performances of this recipe, I promise!

Adapted from The San Francisco Chronicle


1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
4 large garlic cloves, minced
1 teaspoon red pepper flakes (or to taste)
1 pound small shrimp, shelled
2 tablespoons amontillado (medium-dry) sherry
2 tablespoons lemon juice
1 teaspoon paprika
2-3 tablespoons minced fresh flat leaf Italian parsley
salt and pepper to taste

1 baguette, slightly toasted

Prep Time: 10 minutes
Cook Time: 5 minutes
Yield: 4 servings as a starter/ 2 as main course

Season the shrimp with salt and pepper. In a large sauté pan, heat the oil with the garlic and red pepper flakes for one minute or until garlic begins to sizzle. Add the remaining ingredients and cook over medium heat for two-three minutes until the shrimp turns pink. Remove from the heat and sprinkle with parsley. Serve immediately with a warm baguette.

Note: You may want to double all of the ingredients (except for the shrimp) if you want extra sauce for the bread.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Sripraphai (64-13 39th Ave., Woodside, NY)

I cannot tell you how many times I tried to persuade my friends last summer to make a detour to Woodside on our way back from Rockaway Beach to try the famed Thai restaurant, Sripraphai. Several articles I had read spoke of the explosive flavors, the reasonable prices, and insisted that any Thai food lover must go there as soon as possible. I was delighted when Court suggested that we venture out to Queens to visit the restaurant and go bowling with our friends who live in the area. We made the mistake of driving through horrendous traffic to get to the restaurant (I highly recommend taking the 7 train), but were rewarded with a roomy table and friendly faces waiting for us beneath a looming big screen TV. The surroundings were modern Asian and not too distracting, and are by no means one of the reasons to visit this gem.

Fortunately, we went with seasoned regulars who pointed out their favorite dishes. I had read about the thick coconut Penang curry, but had not heard of the amazing appetizer of fried watercress, squid, shrimp and chicken ($9) that our friend pointed out on the menu. This was one of the best dishes that I have been introduced to in a long while. The small strips of fried watercress perfectly offset the spicy salad of marinated shrimp, squid, and pounded chicken breast. It was lightly dressed in a peanut sauce, with strong flavors of chili and lime. I will admit to a penchant, rather a fixation, on citrus, and the lime in this salad made quite an impression. I wish I had thought to take a picture of this dish, but will definitely not make that mistake on my return trip. The other appetizer that was recommended to us wasthe ground pork with ginger, chili, peanut & lemon juice ($6.50). It is a cold salad, and comes with the added delight of a transparent mushroom that I had never seen before. At first glance we all thought it might be tripe because of its white fibrous texture, but on closer inspection it turned out to be a mushroom that brought to mind the lovely translucent sea corals that I always want to reach out and touch at the aquarium. The mushroom had a mild water-based flavor, and set off the heat from the chili lime pork and red onion quite nicely. I loved both of the starters and think next time I could make a meal out of just that.

We moved on to the entrees and chose just three, and believe me, it took restraint: sautéed drunken noodles with beef, chili & basil leaves ($7), fried whole red snapper with with chili & basil sauce($17.50), and the sautéed mixed veggies in a oyster sauce ($7). The drunken noodles (one of my standbys at Thai restaurants) were very good — not too oily, and the noodles and marinated beef were both very flavorful. The veggies we ordered mostly to offset the heat of all the others dishes, which all had the asterisk marking them as “spicy.” If you want to order these dishes, but are wary of too much heat, you can ask for the more mild version—“medium” was a nice balance of moderate heat. The veggies came with a medley of miniature corn cobs, cauliflower, snow peas,and green bell pepper. It was nice to have something mild to complement the spicy dishes, but I probably would not bother ordering this one next time.

Whenever I eat at an Asian restaurant, particularly Thai or Chinese, I always try and order the fried whole fish. There is something about that dish, regardless of the accompanying sauce, that I am wild about. I love the tender crispiness of the fish skin and the light flaky meat that pulls away from the bone so beautifully (when it is cooked well). So it was odd that of all the dishes, this was my least favorite. However, it was certainly the most beautiful, covered in sliced sweet red peppers, basil, nestled into the garnish of greens beneath it. The fish was flavorful, but had been overcooked by a few precious minutes and was incredibly tough. I kept eating it, hoping that I would find some hidden section of tender flesh, but there was none to be had.

As we were getting geared up for a long night of beer and bowling, we were not interested in too much dessert, but we did walk over to the refrigerator that holds all of the pre-made sweets, and chose a silken coconut custard. It was not too sweet and was incredibly refreshing after our spicy meal. On the way out, I stopped in the prepared food section and grabbed some peanuts covered in brown sugar and sesame seeds, which reminded me of a less saccharine version of my grandmother’s heavenly peanut brittle($1.50). Sadly, it was league night at AMF 34th Ave lanes in Queens (69-10 34th Ave), so we had to make due with shooting pool next door at the Golden Q. That of course means that I will have to venture back to Woodside to bowl and better yet, have another meal at Sripraphai, where I will attempt to learn the secret of the delicious fried watercress salad.

Saturday, September 1, 2007

Burgers at The Spotted Pig

314 W. 11th Street

Ah, The Spotted Pig. I have now been there four times and I still have yet to order anything other than their famous Roquefort cheeseburger. On dark nights solace comes to me as a vision of Guinness pints and a blue cheeseburger. I particularly begin to daydream about a visit to the Spotted Pig when there is a hint of chill in the air—as there was the day my boyfriend and I decided to go there at the end of a visit to the Natural History museum. After laying below the belly of the great blue whale, listening to the lulling sounds of penguins making their way across Artic tundra, I was keen on nestling into the warm nook of the downstairs bar. Oddly enough, I find that I much prefer to sit at the bar area of almost every restaurant I go to. Either to be closer in proximity to Court, or to hear a good friend that much better—I love the intimacy of bar seats and the added attraction of watching all of the action. The action at The Spotted Pig is low-key—tattooed bartenders pouring drink after drink with agility to the motley crowd of regulars, tourists, foodies, and hipsters.

I have been reading about the wonders of April Bloomfield's gastropub fare for a couple years now, but somehow much of the menu rarely beckons to me. It could be that even the salads are $13-15, which seems a bit steep to me compared with the giant $15 burger that, with the towering mound of shoestring fries, is a wonderful deal. It could be that after a Guinness or an Old Speckled Hen (another favorite beer of mine) that the burger just seems "right". Although, I have to admit that last time the Prosciutto & Ricotta Tart($15) sounded quite tempting.

One of my favorite visits was on the coldest night of the year and I specifically went there craving the warmth of the pub and a belly full of meat and beer. We arrived around 5:45 and most of the seats around the downstairs bar were already taken, but we managed to score a nook next to three feisty, Manhattan-drinking, older ladies. It was a tight squeeze, but I somehow thought that this would just add to the warmth that I was desperately craving after the bitterly cold walk from the subway. Unfortunately, we had not anticipated the brutally cold draft that came from people opening the door next to the stairs and we pretty much froze the entire night. Court suggested that we move, but I stubbornly insisted on staying at the bar. And ultimately, I am glad I did—as it is where he noticed one of the final contestants on season two of Top Chef. It was Sam, the tall, taciturn chef from New York, presumably there with his girlfriend. My boyfriend was dying to ask Sam if he “purposely sabotaged Marcel’s efforts by forgetting his fish” in the last episode, but I persuaded him to leave him in peace.

As per usual, we decided to order the cheeseburger medium rare and were delighted with it, though I have to admit I am always tempted to ask for a slice of red onion (and maybe a tomato when it is in season). The burgers that we have had there have consistently been cooked medium rare, and the shoestrings fries are delicious, if a bit bothersome to actually eat. They are so thin that they actually slip through my fingers and get stuck in the ketchup. The one time we did venture away from solely ordering the burger off the main menu, we started out with an order of the devils on horseback ($7), which is the amusing name for an appetizer of grilled figs wrapped in smoky bacon. The dish was rich and sumptuous—the fat figs absolutely bursting with flavor, and the bacon, a lovely salty companion. The figs seem to have been brushed with balsamic vinegar, which was a nice counterpoint to the overwhelming richness of the other flavors.

We also tried the ginger cake with spiced whipped cream, and it was utterly delectable—the cake was moist, light and gingery, and the whipped cream was the perfect - thick, and not too sweet. Our bartender recommended that I have it with the mulled wine, but to be honest I am a cheap date and was done after two Guinnesses. I kept remarking that I smelled the distinct aroma of cinnamon rolls baking somewhere, when Court pointed out that we were sitting in front of the mulling wine slow cooker. No wonder so many people order the stuff.

Hopefully, I will return to the Pig soon, and perhaps this time in warmer weather. I am already planning to make a special trip at lunch to try their Cubano Sandwich with Arugula Salad.