Gut Instinct : NY Press

Gut Instinct: Roll With It

Note: This is actually my final New York Press column. So long, fair newspaper.

New York is caught in the claws of lobster fever, the latest stop on the city's food trend bus. One minute, folks are frothing over the latest Pat LaFrieda–blend burger. The next, everyone's gone gaga for fried chicken or perhaps pizza with a crust as thin as my patience for dealing with fleeting fads.

As a grub and grog journalist, I'm duty bound to ID trends, then call bullshit the instant restaurants board the bandwagon. Food trucks and meatballs, methinks you've jumped the shark. Let me tell you, covering food trends can be a tedious, ceaseless merry-go-round. New York is unable to appreciate superlative standbys. "New" rules the urban roost, and the city's old roosters barely merit a mention until they're sentenced to the chopping block. May I sing you another Mars Bar requiem? Some cranky mornings, especially when I've nixed my second java jolt, it's tough not to be jaded. My eyes glaze over at the press releases tidal-waving into my inbox, each touting its restaurant's munching merits. During these blue moods, I can barely muster the enthusiasm to pull on pants and hit Lower East Side soba shop Cocoron, or perhaps Kin Shop, the Thai hot spot in the West Village. "Would you like another glass of white whine?" my wife says, throwing my favorite comeback in my face. I know hunting out restaurants and bars is hardly on par with, say, being embedded in Iraq, but it can be tiring. Some days, I crave General Tso's chicken from my local Chinese grease pit or a couple of tacos from Chavella's around the corner from my Prospect Heights apartment. I'm 33; I like the occasional creature comfort.

Or, more appropriately, I like eating the occasional creature, which neatly brings me back to lobster. Though I find picking the boiled sea critter apart as pleasurable as a proctology exam, I do fancy the occasional lobster roll. My favorites are from Red Hook Lobster Pound and Luke's Lobster. They're similar in that they both source Maine crustaceans and offer rolls untainted by that white devil, mayonnaise. Look, mayo is a four-letter word for a reason. Too often, restaurants treat the condiment like spackle or use it as binding agent in gloppy salads—including lobster. If I were king of the caloric universe, I'd blackball the white stuff.

Thus began last week's quest to eat a mayo-free lobster roll in Maine. It was a couple of days after my wedding in Portland, and my newly minted wife and I were decompressing at a lake house. Rain was dumping like cats and dogs, so we put our Corgi-Chihuahua mix Sammy into a car and steered up scenic Route 1 to Wiscasset. It's a tiny town with an outsized rep, thanks to Red's Eats. Each summer, thousands of lobster lovers flock to this food stand about the size of a soccer mom's van. The attraction is what many claim to be Maine's best lobster roll. In a physics-defying feat, Red's cooks shoehorn a full lobster's worth of flesh into each griddled, split-top hot dog bun. To find out if the fat-man-in-a-little-suit routine was any good, my wife and I queued up behind 50-odd people. Did I mention that it was raining?

"This had better be worth getting soaked to my socks," I muttered to my wife, rain splashing down on my red Vans and silver wedding ring alike. Customers inched forward like maple syrup flowing from a tree. Ten minutes became 30, which somersaulted into 45. Moments before my New York patience expired, we reached the cashier.

"Two lobster rolls, please," I ordered, paying the day's market price: $15.75 apiece. Through the window, I watched as a cook took two griddled buns and filled them with massive chunks of red-and-white meat, claws and even a whole tail. They were wrapped in foil and delivered alongside containers of warm drawn butter—no mayo, mind you. "You'll want these too," the cheerful counter lady said, passing me a palmful of wet naps.

We ferried the monstrosities to our car and unwrapped them on the dashboard, where they sat like beached whales. The rolls were too big to chomp, so we plucked out lobster bits and dipped them in the drawn butter. "Ohhhhh," my wife groaned, a sound I had last heard on our wedding night. I mimicked her moans, butter dribbling down my face, lost in a lobster roll reverie that followed me back to New York.

Goodbye, Gut Instinct

The recent death of the New York Press marked the end of Mondays as I've known them. Allow me to explain: I moved to New York City on Halloween weekend 2000, my sights set on, well, nothing. I did not relocate to this town to make it big in journalism. I came here because I was offered a free bedroom in Astoria, Queens. My only other option was moving back home with my parents in Ohio and sharing a bunk bed with my little brother. He sometimes snores.

In the beginning, I kept my journalism degree hidden in a drawer. Instead of trying to earn a living slinging words, I instead temped for fashion companies including Prada and Gucci, for whom I stood statue still in a hallway and informed customers that the elevator was out of service. At the end of my second day as a Gucci statue, my supervisor asked me how I liked the job. "I feel like I'm wasting my college degree," I said, honesty getting in the way of ass kissing. I was not called back for a third day.

In a movie, that would be the wake-up call to properly use my journalism training. In reality, I nabbed another temporary gig as an office assistant at American Baby magazine, where I mailed catalogs and mags to expectant families nationwide. To entertain myself, I took to using the letterhead and writing missives to my friends, congratulating them on their unexpected, but unexpectedly joyful pregnancies.

I lasted two months. That job was followed by a nine-month stint at a porn publishing firm. I did not diddle anyone on camera. Instead, I interviewed adult film stars, reviewed pornos and edited magazines called Hot Chocolate and Cuddles, as well as punched-up boring fantasy stories by crafting lines such as, "She drank enough sperm night to feed Luxembourg for a week" and "I like eating my mom’s pussy better than her homemade apple pie.” Naturally, my parents lied to their friends and relatives about my employment.

As days dragged, long and hairy, working as a porn editor wore me to a nub. To numb the reality of nonstop nudity, I took to drinking. Heavily. The job tore my innocence to shreds. Though I stared at balls all day long, I lacked a pair to quit.

Then the World Trade Center tumbled down. My office sat 10 blocks from the disaster. Every workday I smelled acrid air, saw the smoke cloud linger above the city like a coming thunderstorm. More than 3,000 people lost everything in one sad second. I still had my life. Why waste it?

Smut was a stopgap, a delay tactic before barreling into real journalism, not just fantasies about Oedipal-complex teens. Years, you understand, vanish with the ease of sugar swirled in hot tea. Youth is a priceless currency. And success achieved in your tender early 20s is worth double, triple, nay, quintuple that achieved in your third decade. Porn was a slippery slope, dropping its merchants into an inescapable Black Hole of Calcutta that, to my ears, sounded just like an Indian anal-sex escapade.

I had stayed entirely too long at the fair. So, two weeks after the towers said a forced sayonara, I walked into my boss’s office and quit.

"It’s not for me anymore," I explained, as I gathered pens, pencils and papers, leaving XXX videos and magazines buried in my desk. Then I left the building and walked into Chinatown, into the ruined, hopeful city. I kept walking, faster and faster, until I got home, not even stopping to celebrate with a drink.

***

After taking a few weeks off and regaining my sanity, I decided to dive into journalism. To pay the bills, I worked as the world's worst receptionist, pitifully answering phones at corporate firms up and down the isle of Manhattan.

When the phone boards would stop flashing, I'd send ideas to Time Out New York, the New York Observer, the New York Post and, above all, the New York Press. Oh, I so wanted to write for the Press, to share newsprint with Jim Knipfel and Jonathan Ames and all the literary heavyweights that populated the pages.

I pitched the Press for more than two years, collecting a river of rejections. Instead of being discouraged, I looked at each "no" as another opportunity to get an editor to say "yes." Finally, Jeff Koyen said yes. He and Alex Zaitchik had just been installed as editors at the Press, and they were infusing the paper with new blood. I received one assignment, then another, even netting a cover story about the coming influenza apocalypse—well, an interview with my dad, an influenza specialist.

One afternoon, Jeff asked me if I’d like to write a weekly bar column. “Sure,” I replied, my heart beating like a hummingbird’s. My own column! For more than two years, I covered the city’s bar beat. I spent late nights stumbling to downtown-Manhattan dive bars in search of a story or, more likely, another shot, then awoke bright and early every Monday a.m. to recount my adventures. My editors allowed me to grow as a journalist, a storyteller. I cringe while casting eyes at those early, caffeine-crazed words, but within those discourses on drunkenness I was able to gain my writerly confidence. When you’re naked on the page, that’s all you got.

Jeff and Alex eventually departed the Press. I stayed, and when my liver waved the white flag I switching to the restaurant beat. Eventually, I tired of weekly gluttony, and I started writing the short-lived My So-Called Strife column, which focused less on food than my madcap escapades. (One of my favorite tales is about my former cokehead roommate and the world’s greatest cock block. It’s a riveting, wine-soaked read, as is my tale about almost dying at Burning Man.) The essay-driven format died within a year, and I was ready to toss in my New York Press towel. Before I could tender my resignation, my latest in a long line of editors, Jerry Portwood, offered me one more column: Gut Instinct.

By this time, I’d established my journalistic presence in New York. I’d written for every paper and magazine in town, and I proudly paid all my bills with my stories. Yet Gut Instinct, which was a first-person column that focused on my food and drink adventures, was my favorite weekly writing outlet. In the column, I was able to be brash, maudlin, gonzo, thoughtful—anything I wanted, as long as I wasn’t boring.

I loved awaking every Monday morning, pouring myself coal-hued coffee, planting my rump before my computer and clacking out my column. As a journalist, writerly freedom is rare. And I had free reign to prance through the kingdom of subjects and verbs, develop a cast of characters and tell the stories I wanted to tell.

Idylls never endure. For years I watched the paper grow thinner, wondering which issue would be its last. Finally, the media Grim Reaper came calling.

It was an expected closing, but one that still saddened me to marrow. I grew up in New York, lockstep with the Press. The paper’s shutter neatly seals up the last seven years of my life—well, the Mondays, at least. But lo and behold, this does not mean I’m planning on purchasing pants, sobering up and getting a full-time job.

This fall, Sterling Epicure will release my first book, Brewed Awakening, about the global craft beer revolution, and I’ll be toiling on my second tome. You can still find my stories in Imbibe, New York, Time Out New York, Food Republic and plenty of other outlets that, thankfully, keep me eating dollar dumplings. As for future columns, I’ll post news as it develops on my website. I always trust my Gut Instinct.

Gut Instinct: Nom, Nom, Nom

Beside zombie clowns and working a full-time office job, few things frighten me as much as listening to a barber talk.

To me, being confined to a chair with scissors clacking and clippers whirring is a form of temporary imprisonment. It's trusting your life, or at least your looks, to another human being. The arrangement sends my pulse into a frantic foxtrot. My unease is exacerbated by idle chitchat about the weather and whether or not I think the Yankees will win the World Series this year.

In standard social settings, it's easy to flee inane chatter. Sure is hot outside, isn't it? Yes, yes it is. Now I must be off to do that…thing. In a barber chair, you're unable to escape conversation. Sure, chatty Cathys like my wife love spending time at a salon—girl talk!—but New York is a loud, maddening metropolis. Peace and quiet are rarely in stock. That's why I get my hair cut in Manhattan's Chinatown, where the barbers barely speak a lick of English.

Over on crooked Doyers Street (colorfully dubbed "Bloody Angle" because gangs once bided their bloodthirsty time there, waiting for rivals to round the bend), barbershops line the curvaceous block. Though they appear indistinguishable, trial and error has led me to settle on Hip Kee Beauty Salon (10 Doyers St., betw. Pell St. & Bowery, 212-587-3305). "Haircut?" the barbers call out as I enter the rectangular room festooned with photos of folically immaculate Chinese men and women. "Not too short," I tell the barber. He nods. Our conversation ends. The haircut begins. After my hair is hacked off, the barber straight-razors my sideburns and scrapes my hirsute neck till it's as smooth as gelato.

For almost seven years I've been getting my hair cut at Hip Kee. During that time, I never ventured across the narrow street to Nom Wah Tea Parlor (13 Doyers St., betw. Pell St. & Bowery, 212-962-6047). It's Chinatown's oldest dim sum salon, slinging dumplings, pastries and steamed buns since 1920. Given my dumpling addiction, it's surprising that I've avoided Nom's potstickers. But I had my routine, hitting dollar-dumpling shacks such as Prosperity Dumplings (46 Eldridge St., betw. Canal & Hester Sts., 212-343- 0683) or A-Wah (5 Catherine St., betw. Division St. & Broadway, 212-925-8308), home to crisp, clay-pot rice topped with mushrooms and an egg—bibimbap by way of China.

Not dining at Nom Wah was an oversight. Yet I recently saw the restaurant in a new light, thanks to news that Wilson Tang, the nephew of longtime owner Wally Tang, had taken over. Instead of slashing and burning decades of history, creating a shiny tourist temple, Wilson merely gave Nom Wah a facelift. Grease and dust, be gone! Lights were brightened, tables made less rickety, the kitchen modernized. The result was a restaurant with one foot in 1956 and the other in 2011. It was a timeless eatery that it was high time to visit.

The opportunity arrived via email. Fellow writer and cheap eats fan Craig Nelson invited me to Nom Wah to celebrate the release of his Chinatown Chow Down app, which decodes the neighborhood's restaurants. "Complimentary dim sum and $2 beer," his invite read. Free dumplings and cheap booze? I booked it to Doyers Street, eager to kill two birds with one stone: a haircut, then Nom Wah.

Per usual, the barbers at Hip Kee did right by me and my unruly locks were tamed. To do the same for my appetite, I crossed the block and popped my Nom Wah cherry. I filled my plate with a sampling of plump har gow, shrimp-porkmushroom siu mai, oyster sauce-slicked greens and deep-fried, salt-and-pepper spare ribs. I sat at a table topped with a redand-white checkerboard tablecloth, pulled on my Taiwan-brand lager beer—forgettable but frigid and refreshing—and nibbled my dumplings tentatively, then ravenously.

I've dined on my fair share of dim sum, but these handmade nibbles were a 180 from the wan, soggy eats typically doled out from carts by ancient women. These dumplings were fat, juicy and flavorful, not even requiring a soy sauce shower. The thin-sliced pork was salty and crunchy, a potentially winning salvo in the ceaseless war against hangovers. And the lightly blanched greens were bright and snappy, a pleasing workout for my incisors and molars. Much like waiting 'til I went to college to make the beast with two backs, I thought to myself, Why did I wait so long to experience such pleasure?

I ran my hands through my buzzed hair, hoping it'd regrow soon to give me another reason to return to Doyers Street.

Read—and vote for—the original story at the New York Press website.

Gut Instinct: Love to Eat

Photo: Lauren Silberman. P.S. That's the actual light-up dance floor at Bubba's Sulky Lounge.

Barring a last-minute change of heart featuring a mad dash from the altar and into the backseat of a fast car bound westward, by the time you read this column I'll be wed.

"About time," I'm sure my mother is whispering under her breath. Of her three children, I'm the first to get hitched. She's waited 33 long, patient years to celebrate an offspring's nuptials or a grandchild. Since no baby Bernsteins are coming down the chute in 2011, I'm sure she savored our wedding like sweet nectar from a ripe summertime peach.

The food simile is apt, if a wee bit forced, given grub's importance in my life. For me, I awake each morning excited about what new foodstuffs and beverages will cross my maw that day. The quest for novel flavors guides my waking hours. It leads me to far-flung lands like Flushing to devour Fu Run's Muslim lamb chop, a plate-dwarfing slab of ribs that's marinated, braised, fried crisp and encased in cumin seeds, crushed chilies and black and white sesame seeds. Or I'm off to the Lower East Side's New Beer Distributors, where I spend hours rooting around shelves to unearth gems such as Lagunitas' A Little Sumpin' Sumpin', a wheat-y ale bursting with juicy, bitter hops. One bite, one sip and my faith in mankind is rekindled.

My wife—it'll take many moons to acclimate myself to typing that four-letter word—understands how food is tied to my happiness. It's one of many reasons we're marrying, though her affinity for my Kardashian-like rear end also ranks high. Thus, for our wedding we wanted a memorable meal. "How much do they want to charge?" I kept remarking as we perused Brooklyn catering companies' estimates. To them, $100 a person was a steal. Look, I love my friends, family and newly minted family, but I'm a penny-scrounging journalist; I can't recall when I last dropped a C-note for dining. And now we'd have to spend that much for 120 people? The mere thought gave me the shakes, sending me scurrying for my bottle of cheap, calming Evan Williams bourbon—my best friend during wedding planning.

"How about we look outside Brooklyn?" my wife suggested. "We could do the wedding in Portland, Maine." I'd been so focused on Kings County that I never considered leaving our great, expensive metropolis. We spent a day researching the coastal city, finding an idyllic spot overlooking the scenic Casco Bay. I called Portland's parks department to inquire about rental. "Sure!" a friendly bureaucrat named Vicki brightly replied. "I'll send over the paperwork and it's all yours!"

That's all it took? NYC bureaucracy has so hardened me that I've forgotten how pleasant government officials can be outside the byzantine Big Apple. My wife and I signed the paperwork, then turned our attention to the party venue: Bubba's Sulky Lounge. Outfitted with two light-up dance floors, a Wild West saloon, a lunchbox collection, taxidermied critters and rooms decorated like a barbershop, post office and a soda fountain, Bubba's is like a drunken flea market come to life. It's one of my favorite bars ever. "I can't think of anywhere else I'd like to spend the night with you," my wife said, winning me over again.

I called Bubba's. "We'd love to have you!" the manager replied. "You can have the bar all night." Really? I do love New York, but a man could get accustomed to transactions being simple. Space secured, my wife and I moved on to the meal. This was a potential minefield. She's a salad-eating vegetarian who occasionally dabbles in seafood. I like my fiery ethnic eats and tons of meat. But we find a common culinary ground in New Orleans. During our annual pilgrimages to Louisiana, we devour po' boys with impunity, drain Bloody Marys finished with spicy pickled green beans and chomp endless bags of Zapp's crunchy potato chips.

As luck would have it—and there's always a little luck in love—the N'awlins-style Po' Boys & Pickles eatery had recently opened. We traveled north to try the fare. It brought back memories of biking through the Big Easy, of hot nights, cold Abita beer, afternoons spent slurping oysters and hungover mornings gnawing leftover muffalettas. The food was perfect. So was its cost. We discussed a menu. I wanted fried pickles. And red beans and rice. And hot biscuits. She desired a salad, one with beets and goat cheese.

"Whatever you want, hon," I said, utilizing the phrase that will hopefully keep us contented for the greater part of the next half-century.

Read—and vote for—the original column at the New York Press website.

Gut Instinct: In a Peculiar State

As a native Ohioan, I'm a sworn enemy of all things Michigan. For those not reared in the Midwest this may seem like a quaint hate, a petty provincial battle played out in parts of the country where people say "pop" instead of "soda."

That's a monstrously mistaken assumption. The odium is real, and its birthplace is the college football field. Every fall, the Ohio State Buckeyes combat the University of Michigan Wolverines in a high-stakes gridiron battle. While the game can get downright nasty, it's nothing compared to the airing of drunken, bareknuckled grievances between the respective squads' fans. The animosity is akin to the bile that Yankees fans feel toward the Boston Red Sox, and there ain't a olive branch big enough to effect peace.

But could grub and grog bridge the yawning divide? In recent years, I've found my Michigan stance softening thanks to its uprising of excellent breweries such as Bell's, Dark Horse and Jolly Pumpkin, but on the food front, I've ingested little sustenance from Michigan, a state shaped like four fingers and a thumb. That changed last week at the James Beard House, when I dined on fare from Novi, Mich.'s Toasted Oak Grill & Market. It's understandable if neither city nor restaurant dings your bell.

A primer: Novi is a western suburb of Detroit, far removed from the Motor City's destruction porn. Toasted Oak traffics in locally sourced meats—venison, trout, chicken—vegetables and cheeses, including offerings from the world-beating Zingerman's deli, all served under toque Steven Grostick's "I Cook Michigan" mantra. "I'm a nut job when it comes to Michigan," says the bearded, affable chef. His is a noble, buzzword-packed endeavor, one that in lesser hands would be driven into a trendy dumpster. But with more than 15 years of cooking experience, the Michigan-bred Grostick's got the chops, having stewarded award-winning restaurants across the state.

For the James Beard dinner, Grostick filled a van with kitchen staff and Michigan ingredients and wheeled his feast to the Big Apple. The kitchen crew had prepped for days, so when I arrived at the James Beard House—a West Village brownstone that had once housed the eponymous dean of American cooking—the appetizers were departing from the kitchen at a dizzying clip. I started with a skewered short rib braised in Faygo root beer, an indigenous Detroit beverage. The yielding meat packs a subtle sweetness, a flavor matched by a Manhattan made by infusing New Holland whiskey with tart cherries harvested in state. (Fun fact: Michigan produces most of America's tart cherries!)

After finishing my Manhattan, feeling a boozy flush not fit for summertime heat, I switched to the light, citrus-noted Majestic wheat ale from North Peak. It's a quenching refresher, a contrast to the smoky, house-made hot dogs painted with venison chili and mustard. It's called a Coney, but the Michigan-born wiener has nothing to do with the island except, perhaps, a nod to the hot dog's beachy birthplace. I had three Coneys in lieu of the chicken liver and duck pté—puréed organs are not always a party in my mouth.

Charcuterie? That I can support. For the seated dinner's first course, we were served a Michigan-shaped cutting board topped with parchment-thin slices of Toscano salami, duck ham and a pork-andbeef hunter's sausage snuggled up to sweetcorn chutney. Even better were the lightly pickled beets served with butter lettuce and a maple-orange vinaigrette that's like the marriage of Florida and Vermont. It was a vegetarian breather before the coming carnivorous onslaught. First up was the Great Frickin' Chicken: the roasted breast of a four-week-old fowl, its crispy ballotine thigh—that is, de-boned—and asparagus as green as the day is long. "The chicken was just slaughtered last week," Grostick told the crowd later, no small measure of pride in his voice.

I finished every fowl bite, a moment of avarice that haunted me with the arrival of the second main course, porchetta. Rounds of pork tenderloin were stuffed with house-hewn kielbasa, then enrobed in apple wood-smoked bacon—a swine-based rebuttal to the turducken. I valiantly ate half my meat before oinking out. Too soon, dessert came in the form of strawberryrhubarb pie and a milkshake made with vanilla bean ice cream. I could only muster several childhood-transporting bites and slurps before I bowed out, a sated blimp. Michigan, as much as it pains me to admit, had won me over. But there's one more order of business before I could give Grostrick my approving stamp.

"Are you a Michigan fan?" I asked Grostrick, penguin-waddling to the stairwell. "Michigan State," he said, breaking into a broad, unrivaled smile.

Gut Instinct: No Man's Island

"You're not wearing your flesh-colored bathing suit," my fiancée told me last Sunday morn.

"It's my birthday!" I said. She shook her head and narrowed her eyes as if my words were the noonday sun, a look I'll have plenty of time to get used to over the ensuing, oh, 40 or 50 years. "Just because you're turning 33 doesn't mean that you should look like you're nude. You blend into the sand." Dear readers, that's the point of wearing a scandalously short swimsuit the approximate color of a Caucasian.

Besides, with my bachelor party and the alarming number of go-go bars I've stumbled into in recent weeks—on accident, of course—nudity is my new norm. Why not pretend to wear my birthday suit on my birthday?

As it so often does, common sense prevailed. I tucked myself into my red checkered trunks and we alighted for Rockaway Beach, the site of my sandy shindig. This was a drastic departure from years past. For the last decade, I've celebrated growing closer to death by camping out at Coney Island. The goal was gorging on gallons of Coors Light, plump Nathan's wieners and top-notch tortas such as meaty, overloaded specimens sold at Alex Deli (1418 Mermaid Ave., betw. Stillwell Ave. & 15th St., 718-265-0675). After getting good and knackered, I'd let the Cyclone clatter me across its tracks till I was dizzy with glee, then pass out in a sweaty, contented, lobster-red heap on the subway home. All in all, it was a swell annual tradition.

Coney was always rough around the edges, but it had a shabby, plucky dignity—a scallywag with a fresh shave and a pressed, frayed suit. Yet as the years passed and my body slowly began to fall apart, so, too, did the amusement district. Thor Equities bought great swaths of Coney and razed the gritty grandeur, filling the empty lots with half-assed flea markets and bland, whirling rides better suited for a second-rate Six Flags. Like setting your oven to the "clean" cycle, Coney was effectively sanitized. "But Josh, there's still Ruby's and Cha Cha's," you say. True, but they've only been granted a stay of execution. At season's end they'll be killed off, victims of misguided progress. Call me morbid, but I don't like spending my time hanging out on death row.

Thus, this year I relocated my bash to Rockaway Beach. For lovers of sand, crashing surf, good eats and getting good and drunk, this is pretty much paradise. Rockaway Taco serves one of the finest fish tacos this side of San Diego, and Connolly's Bar (155 Beach 95th St., betw. Shore Front Parkway & Rockaway

Beach Blvd., 718-474-2374) pours potent frozen piña coladas topped with a cherry and a floater of rum. Sweetening the deal, this year the Rockaway Taco team has curated a crew of boardwalk vendors featuring the likes of Caracas Arepa Bar, Blue Bottle and Motorboat and the Big Banana, which serves deep-fried sea creatures and frozen, chocolate-dipped bananas.

"I want Rockaway Taco!" my sweetheart told me not long after she arrived at the beach. Her obsession with the shack's fish tacos borders on the fanatical, like a convert to a culinary cult. "Hon, the lines are too long," I told her. Thanks to The New York Times' endless slobbering over the Rockaways, it's nigh on impossible to nab a taco in less than 45 minutes during the weekend. "I want them, and I'm starving."

Oh, no. A famished fiancée is the worst kind of fiancée. When hunger strikes, she turns stark raving mad—a calorie-deprived Jekyll and Hyde act. "Baby, it's my birthday," I said, gesturing to the crowd of people drinking Miller High Life as if it never went out of style. "I can't leave." "You can send someone to get you food," she said, once more proving her marriage-worthy merit. A friend was sent via bicycle to the Caracas Arepa stand (Beach 106th Street at the Boardwalk, 718-474-1709) for several of the namesake corn cakes that are split and stuffed with a mélange of meats, veggies, beans and cheese. In two shakes of a lamb's tail, we received fat, palm-size arepas bulging with soft cheese, avocado slices and plenty of fried plantains. The sandwich was fatty and salty, crunchy and creamy—a symphony of scrumptious contrasts that, dare I say it, knocked the socks off a Nathan's hot dog.

"To new traditions," I said, opening a can of High Life and drinking in the day.

Read—and vote for—the original c0lumn at the New York Press website.

Gut Instinct: So Long, and Thanks for All the Tits

It was not my intention to visit another bar that required me to insert dollar bills into the crevices of comely, tattooed lasses. But such are the peccadilloes one commits while answering a thorny question: How would you spend your last night in New York?

After dwelling in NYC for more than a decade, my friend Aaron and his wife were pulling up their tent stake and planting it in Denver. This news filled me with the sort of sadness best dulled by drinking cheap bourbon. Upon sobering up, I placed my emotions back inside the bottle and grabbed my rose-colored glasses. This was a positive change, a chance to start anew, perhaps purchase an affordable home and, more importantly, never again listen to an 8 a.m. subway preacher.

The night before his departure arrived. "Is anything on your New York bucket list?" I asked him, trying to figure out a going-away game plan. "I've done everything I want to do in New York," he said, understanding an important NYC truth: You'll never do everything in this town. And there's always something better happening elsewhere. I thought for a minute. "How about we eat tortas at the top of Sunset Park?" I suggested. Aaron's eyes lit up like the night sky on the Fourth of July. "Perfect," he said, as we set sail to Puebla Mini Market (3908 5th Ave., betw. 39th & 40th Sts., Brooklyn, 718-435-3326). Inside the workaday convenience store slinging phone cards and cigarettes sits a grill slinging New York's finest crunchy, overloaded tortas. Puebla offers more than 30 zany combinations, such as the hot dog–bacon-egg Española doble and the cheesy, deep-fried chile relleno. "It's your last night in town. You should go big," I said, pointing at the picture advertising the torta de la casa. The house special comes stacked with four kinds of swine: spicy carne enchilada, chewy bacon, crisp carnitas and salty ham. It's a meaty Mount Everest that every carnivore should summit at least once.

We brought our bad-idea sandwiches to the park. As the name suggests, Sunset Park offers stunning views of New York Harbor and the Manhattan skyline. "Not so bad," Aaron said, chomping his torta as the sun slunk into New Jersey. Slowly, the city lights twinkled to life. "If only the town were always so peaceful," he said, clandestinely cracking tall boys of cheap 'n' tasty Narragansett Lager. We toasted and tossed back beers, then headed down the hill to Melody Lanes (461 37th St., betw. 4th & 5th Aves., Brooklyn, 718- 832-2695).

The lure here is the barroom, a carpeted, glass-encased shoebox lorded over by Peter Napolitano. He's a treasure, an old-school character clad in a tuxedo shirt, cummerbund, suspenders, red bow tie, combed-back silver hair and the wire-rimmed glasses favored by the Williamsburg set. "Bernstein!" he said, remembering me from my last visit a few years back. I ordered a 10-buck pitcher of Bud. He delivered it along with his whirling-dervish discourse on the nature of existence, peppered with references to Hemingway and Nietzsche and the sound of crashing pins. "I doubt you're going to find that in Denver," I told Aaron as we pulled ourselves away from Napolitano's magnetic "one-man play that I live."

"I do believe you're correct," he said, laughing. He glanced at his watch. It was around 10. Normally on a weeknight we'd be home by now, relaxing in pajamas. We'd make plans to meet up later for another pint, another conversation. But there were no more tomorrows. By this time the next night, he'd be on a highway somewhere in the dark, starry Midwest. The future was certain. The rest of our night wasn't. "Let's get another beer," I said. I steered us to Freddy's for bitter pints of Smuttynose IPA, before stumbling down the block to Korzo for a pitcher of cloudy, refreshing Kelso Carroll Garden Wit. It tipped our scales to tipsy. Time ticked past midnight. "I should really be getting to bed," Aaron said, his eyes like peppermint swirls. "One more round," I said, delaying the inevitable. "Lucky 13!" On uneven legs we arrived at the heavy metal haunt, where slasher flicks splatter across the TV and Busch beer costs a buck till 9 nightly. We bee-lined to the bar, so focused on acquiring Busch that it took a few minutes to register that a different kind was also on offer. Atop the bar, tattooed gals were go-go dancing in scanty lingerie, writhing on a stripper pole in a manner designed to separate men from their dollar bills.

"I think we can stay for a couple rounds," I told Aaron, ordering several beers and another hour of friendship.

Gut Instinct: Go on, Make My Malay

Eat me. Photo: Flickr/Michael McDonough

It's a torrid Upper West Side Tuesday night, and shoppers are bustling to Fairway and Zabar's, stocking up on cheese, veggies and coronary-causing kosher meat. I haven't trekked here for brisket. Instead, I'm outside of Fatty Crab (2170 Broadway, betw. W. 76th & W. 77th Sts., www.fattycrab.com), a Malaysian-inspired restaurant, awaiting Singapore gourmand K.F. Seetoh. We're scheduled to meet at 7:15, but he's running late. This gives me time to unspool his tale.

Over the last 15 years, the exphotographer has become one of the biggest culinary cheerleaders of Singapore, a 250-square-mile city-state located off the Malay Peninsula's southern tip. Influenced by Chinese, Indian and Malaysian cooking traditions, Singaporean cuisine is a Southeast Asian melting pot. Armies of hawkers and restaurants dole out noodle stir-fries, curries containing fish heads and crabs swaddled in incendiary chili sauce.

Fifty years ago, 20,000-plus street carts roamed Singapore. They were a delicious nuisance, but "the government couldn't get rid of them because they fed the nation," Seetoh, 48, says. "Street food flavors are in our DNA." Instead, the hawkers were relocated inside football field-size food halls that house 150 to 200 vendors—street food with a governmentapproved stamp. These days, there's no shortage of superb food in Singapore. Finding it? That was the rub. To remedy that, Seetoh started the Makansutra, a guidebook organized by dishes rated by chopsticks, not stars. Tonight, Seetoh and I are touring several Malaysian eateries. Would any earn his coveted threechopsticks rating, aka "die die must try"?

Around 7:45, Seetoh arrives wearing a flowered short-sleeve shirt. He snaps pictures of Fatty Crab, then shakes my hand. "Let's get this party started," he says. We take to a corner booth. Menus are delivered. I defer the ordering to Seeoth. "We'll start with the classics," he says. "Let's see how the food matches up."

First up is wonton mee, a tangle of thin, crispy yellow noodles awash in chicken broth alongside shrimp-and-pork wontons. He takes a pic, the first of dozens tonight. "I'm a multisensory storyteller. I talk about food through stories in a way that connects to people," says Seetoh. He samples. "I don't mind that the chef used crispy noodles, but a good crispy noodle should be like eating potato chips," he says. "And the broth is a bit salty—Malaysia looks bad here," he says.

Roasted chicken wings fare better.

They're crunchy and sticky, redolent of chili and fennel, but "they're cooked so much better in Singapore," he says, disappointed. He's mystified by nasi lemak, a chicken curry plated with coconut rice and a slow-poached egg. The dish is comforting, he says, "but there's usually a hard-boiled egg. And the curry is too polite, too Jewish." By contrast, the lamb rendang is a cauldron of gamey fire paired with a fat, greasy roti—essentially, a pancake. "The roti should be crispier and thinner," he opines. He's equally horrified by the chili crab, a Dungeness half-submerged in Hades-hued liquid. The sauce is too sweet, too vinegary, he says, and "they shouldn't leave all this gunk in here." He points to the viscera, which recalls sinus discharge. Nonetheless, Seetoh appreciate the crab's freshness, as well as the whole grilled fish cooked in chili-ginger sauce. "It's so fresh," he said, chopsticking up buttery, snow-white flesh. We reduce it to its skeleton, then cab it to Chinatown's long-running Nyonya (199 Grand St., betw. Mott & Mulberry Sts., 212-334-3669).

"My friends told me not to go here," Seetoh confides. "They recommended Taste Good, in Elmhurst." Yet Seetoh can't pass judgment till the food passes his lips. We sit and sip tea. Again, I allow Seetoh to order. Again, we request enough food to feed an orphanage. Again, disappointment. "This is too chewy and not very fluffy," he says of the roti canai paired with curry. He deems the fresh shrimp-and-turnip popiah spring rolls flavorless, lackluster. Seetoh favors the pasembur's crunchy shrimp fritters, but "the sauce is too sweet." The wonton mee's soft noodles are cooked "just right," though the wontons are one note: "A good wonton should have crunch, with jicama," he says. He pushes the dish aside. "This gets my vote," he says, tearing into the poached Hainanese chicken served atop rice intensified with chicken stock. He snags a second piece.

I do not. I'm full, ready for bed and a stomach pump. Not Seetoh. He's off to the Ace Hotel's The Breslin to dine on steak and swine. And tomorrow, he's headed to Peter Luger for a proper porterhouse—no more Malaysian food. "When I come to the United States, I crave a good hamburger or steak," he says.

Read—and vote for—the original article on the New York Press website.

Gut Instinct: No Country for Old Cuisinarts

Behold! The almighty Cuisinart!

When I was a newly minted teenager, wrestling with unruly hairs in unfamiliar places, my mother gave me a gift that would steer the direction of my culinary life.

"Josh," she said, "they had an amazing sale at Kroger"—our local southwestern-Ohio grocer. "I bought you a Cuisinart food processor." Like one of Barker's Beauties from The Price Is Right, she enthusiastically showed off the multipurpose food processor packing sharp chopping implements. I was blindsided by silence. Why'd she buy me a Cuisinart? We already owned one, which I used to blend stir-fry sauces composed of soy sauce, ginger, garlic and a splash of sesame oil.

Instead of saying "thank you," I wondered why. "It's not for now," she said. "It's for when you go to college." At the time, I was still navigating the uncertain waters of middle school. I was more concerned with my first kiss, a moment that would have to wait till I was nearly 16, seated in a powder-blue Toyota Tercel while Taco Bell nachos congealed in my lap. Higher education was a distant thought, a barely comprehensible land filled with the sex-crazed characters and caricatures that populated the Revenge of the Nerds and Porky's flicks I covertly watched. "Don't worry," my mom said, summoning my dad to escort the Cuisinart to the attic, "you'll be happy you have it when the time comes."

Years disappeared. I learned to shave those unruly hairs. I learned to kiss. I learned to slurp beer. I was accepted to Ohio University, where I majored in journalism with a minor in binge drinking. To kick off my junior year, I moved into my first apartment with two friends, one of whom became chronically depressed and, to cheer himself up, bought two ferrets that burrowed inside his bed's box springs and defecated almost daily. But I'll save that hygienic nightmare and the phrase "feces mountain" for another tale. For now, you need to know that I finally uncrated my Cuisinart. It was a mechanical marvel. With it I created hummus, curry paste, fresh tomato sauce, pesto—the rich agricultural bounty of southeastern Ohio meant that nearly any blended foodstuff was within my grasp. "You were right about the Cuisinart," I told my mom, a tough sentence for me mutter. I hate being wrong. Moreover, I hate admitting to my mistakes. But more often than not, mothers know best.

I graduated from college. My Cuisinart followed me to my Astoria apartment, where cockroaches infested my espresso machine and I drank decomposing legs, antennas and compound eyes. Yet the bugs left my Cuisinart unmolested. Next I brought the tool to my Brooklyn abode. Here, it outlasted multiple start-and-stop romances and more than a dozen roommates. Outside of a car, it's strange to think of a machine as a constant in your life. We inhabit a disposable society in which shinier gadgets and gewgaws appear every year, as certain as the gathering wrinkles on my forehead. Our computers and phones only cycle through several seasons before they're destined for a dumpster.

Not my Cuisinart. It accompanied me through thick and thin, smoothing out any rough stuff that passed through its path. Surprisingly, faithfulness meant nothing to my fiancé. "I'm putting a new Cuisinart on our wedding registry," she told me last month. Since I find shopping as relaxing as a proctology exam, I tasked her to pick out new pots, pans and forks to replace our dinged kitchenware. But I had no designs on ditching my Cuisinart. "It still works great!" I said, bringing the machine into our bedroom. "The plastic is yellow and stained," she pointed out. "Character. That's called character."

America is no country for old Cuisinarts. Last week, the UPS man delivered a brand-new replacement, one that's part of the "brushed metal series"— whatever that means. We placed the newfangled contraption atop the counter. Then I was enlisted with eliminating our outdated redundancy. Murdering it seemed cruel, a mercy kill despite a strong heartbeat. Tearing off a length of red duct tape, I affixed a sign to the machine. Still works great, it read. Bedbug free, I added, in case anyone feared bloodsuckers lurking beneath the blade. I brought the machine outside my front gate and left it there, the sign flapping in the summer breeze. When I returned downstairs an hour later the Cuisinart had vanished, living to chop another day.

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Gut Instinct: Papa's Knows Best

Papa's Tomato Pies, the pride of Trenton, New Jersey. Dubious signage, delicious food. Photo: Flickr/gopf2222

After an exhausting weekend spent exploring the power of whiskey and one-dollar bills during my Philadelphia bachelor party, the last thing I wanted to do was spend Sunday afternoon shoving my face into a hot, oozy pie.

"I think we need to get you a tomato pie," my friend Will said, knee-steering our car from the City of Brotherly Love at a speed that Indianapolis 500 aficionados would appreciate. "It's what you eat in Trenton, New Jersey." He grabbed his BlackBerry and clacked a query into Google. The results unfurled instantly. Phone calls were made as Will rocketed down the interstate. "Are you open?" he inquired of Papa's Tomato Pies. A pause. "Beautiful," Will said in his honeyed lawyer voice, ordering a large pie. "We'll be there in 15 minutes to pick it up." He killed the call. Then he sped up, Trenton's skyline approaching as quickly as a camera's zoom lens.

Perhaps I should pause to explain. A tomato pie is not a savory summertime treat. It's pizza. Then again, it's pizza in reverse. To create a Trenton tomato pie, the ripe red berries of the nightshade family are crushed, not turned into sauce. A thin crust is topped with olive oil and a smattering of cheese, and then the chunky tomatoes and a finishing oily drizzle. Finally, the pie is cooked till it's as crunchy as a Saltine cracker.

In Trenton, the major practitioners are De Lorenzo's and Papa's Tomato Pies (804 Chambers St., at Roebling Ave., papastomatopies.com). Since it was Father's Day, it was only fitting that we chose this paternal restaurant, opened by founder Joe Papa in 1912. Nearly a century later, Papa's is America's oldest family-owned pizza restaurant (a distinction that separates it from Lombardi's Pizza, which was founded in 1905). Today, Papa's looked every one of its 99 years. A vacant adjoining storefront had a taped-on arrow pointing to a door to the right, which was outfitted with a stained glass "P." Yellowing tape held together the awning, featuring a cartoony, mustachioed Italian chef.

Looks can be deceiving. Inside, vintage lights hung from the ceiling over wooden booths, and the walls were covered with photo collages of contented customers. We walked to the cash register and seized our pie, eager to return to the road. "Are you sure you don't want to eat here?" asked Nick Azzaro, the family's third generation of pizza makers, who runs the restaurant with son Dominic. "What's the rush?" I wanted to explain my hangover, how my head felt as it were filled with fighting feral squirrels. In short, I wanted to be in bed. "Sure, let's eat it here," Will said, before I could protest. The box was whisked to the kitchen. We slid into a booth. The pie was placed before us on a round metal sheet. The circular feast was a mosaic of vibrant red and blistered white, the edges cooked as dark as a Caribbean tan. I bit my slice. The crust crunched as if it were a kettle-cooked chip, the textural tomatoes' natural sweetness singing louder than the creamy mozzarella—a contrast to the average New York slice, where the sauce often plays second fiddle to cheese.

Azzaro, who looked a bit like Harvey Keitel wearing Christopher Lloyd's Back to the Future hair, abandoned the kitchen to observe. "What do you think?" he asked. Singular. Delicious. A different kind of pie altogether. Azzaro took the accolades in smiling stride. Then we came back with our question: What's the difference between a tomato pie and a pizza? It's a matter of cost, Azzaro explained. Used to be, every Trenton establishment slinging tomato pies had a vertical neon sign that announced the specialty. Then neon grew more expensive. Since sign makers charged by the letter, cost-conscious owners opted for the more succinct "pizza."

To me, there's still a distinction between a pizza and a pie. In lieu of pillowy dough, a cheesy blanket and a bedspread of zingy tomato, you have purer expression of its ingredients. The result is a regional delicacy good enough to make you—or was that me?—forget about a hammering hangover.

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