Gut Instinct

My Brewed Awakening

Note: This story was supposed to run in Our Town Downtown's print edition. It was cut. Alas! Instead, it ran online.

In the beginning, I took a dive. Rather, I took to dives, spending my early twenties wrapped in the stiff embrace of cheap gin and tonics served by bartenders with one foot in the grave, the other itching to kick misbehaving boozers in the can.

Though I’d like to recall this era otherwise, the fact is that I was miserable. I worked a dead-end gig at a porn publisher, cranking out fantasies that’d make my mom blush—especially the mother-son scenarios. I earned just enough to buy the post-work drinks that numbed the pain of writing about the sex I wasn’t having. It was an ugly circle that ensured a steady diet of hangovers and self-loathing.

After summoning the guts to quit, I appraised my life: I liked drinking and I liked writing. Why not combine the two passions? I dragged myself out of bars long enough to pitch magazines, websites and newspapers. Most turned me down. One took a flyer on an unknown writer: the New York Press. Then-editor Jeff Koyen gave me a weekly column on a subject dear to my liver—bars.

From the start, my stories focused on downtown dives such as the Holiday Cocktail Lounge, Welcome to the Johnsons, Blue & Gold Tavern and the dearly departed Village Idiot honky-tonk. They’re the brand of bars where $20 buys a blinding buzz with enough change left for a slice of pizza and a passed-out subway ride home.

But as the years disappeared and both my liver and skin hardened in response to New York, dives lost their filthy luster. I soon understood why $3 mixed drinks were so cheap and that a $6 pitcher of Bud was no bargain. This was quantity-over-quality consumption, a lingering habit from my days attending a public university in Ohio.

Over time, I gravitated less to bottom-shelf Georgi vodka and more to craft beer. I began savoring the flavorful intricacies of crisp Victory Prima Pils, Brooklyn Brewery’s stomach-warming Black Chocolate Stout and Dogfish Head’s nicely bittered 60 Minute IPA.

I sought out bars serving better beers, turning my back on the city’s down-on-their-luck Blarney Stone dives in lieu of new-wave alehouses such as the West Village’s encyclopedic Blind Tiger Ale House and the underground 124 Rabbit Club. In the East Village, I sipped coffee-tinged stouts and hopped-up ales at d.b.a., Standings, Jimmy’s No. 43 and Drop Off Service. On the Upper West Side, I bent elbows at Dive Bar—despite its name, it served dozens of carefully curated craft ales. Pint by pint, I entered a portal into an ever more delicious, carbonated world.

Quickly, craft beer became all-consuming. Work and pleasure became hopelessly, happily mixed. Was I visiting the Hudson River-hugging Chelsea Brewing Company for another assignment or because I craved a fresh pint of the pungently bittered Hop Angel IPA?

“It’s research,” I’d tell my wife, toting home six-packs sourced from the Lower East Side’s cavernous New Beer Distributors and, later, the East Village’s excellent bottle shop Good Beer NYC. “There’s no more space in the fridge,” she’d moan, forcing me to get my beer fix at spots such as the Upper East Side’s Earl’s Beer & Cheese or Rattle N Hum, a good beer refuge in Midtown.

Over time, these beers served as a drinkable lesson plan. I learned to differentiate earthy Fuggles hops from the piney Chinook. I understood how used bourbon barrels transformed humdrum stouts into a snifter-worthy indulgence and how wild yeasts and bacteria created sour beers that hit my sweet spot.

To share this knowledge with inquisitive beer drinkers across the globe, I stepped away from bars and into breweries, interviewing brewers and spelunking deep into the trends driving the craft beer revolution. And drinking. Oh, did I drink. The result of all that aspirin-popping work was my first book, Brewed Awakening, which was just released in November. To celebrate, I think it’s high time I had another beer. I doubt my craft beer curiosity will ever be quenched.

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: 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: 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.

Vote for the original story on the New York Press website!

Gut Instinct: Flavor of the Month

Meet He Nan Flavor's fab black bean sauce lo mein noodles. Photo: Flickr/Eating in Translation

"Hon, hon!" I called, summoning my fiancée to my desk. "Come quick!" She dropped her Us Weekly and sauntered over. "What's so important?" she wondered, miffed that I shattered her R&R. "Look!" I said, pointing to the news broadcast on my computer screen: Flushing restaurant Henan Feng Wei had opened an outpost in Manhattan's Chinatown. "Really? You called me over to tell me that?" "It's amazing," I said, smiling wide enough to worry the Joker. "It's… something," she said, returning to celebrity gossip. I know, I know. Most New Yorkers, even the ones who love me most, probably greeted this news—if it even rated on their radar—with the same shoulder-shrugging befuddlement I have when I hear of American Idol also-rans. Each person geeks out differently. And for this hard-core fan of Far East eats, the announcement was groundbreaking.

Over the last decade, New York's most exciting Chinese food has been found in Flushing. In lieu of the lo mein and roast meats that are commonplace in Manhattan's Chinatown, Flushing features fiery Sichuan, sour-spicy Hunan and even the seafaring eats of Qingdao. It's the finest time to dine in Flushing—if you have time to ride the 7 train to its terminus. Sadly, my best intentions of culinary adventuring are stonewalled by the time-crunched reality of Big Apple living. Brooklyn to Flushing is a three-hour round trip I rarely take.

But lately, several Flushing restaurants have undergone a reverse migration. Foremost, Xi'an Famous Foods has long treated diners' taste buds to cumin-flavored lamb sandwiches and cold and spicy liang pi noodles. In late 2009, Xi'an brought its bites to eateries beneath Manhattan Bridge, on St. Marks Place and, coming soon, to Chinatown's Baxter Street. If you stuck a GPS tracker in my knapsack, you'd notice that I now trundle to Chinatown twice a week to order liang pi noodles. It's vegetarian cuisine of the first order, and one of the few meals that brings both my fiancée and myself belly-rumbling delight. "You shouldn't have," she'll say sweetly when I bring her a box of noodles—my foodoriented version of flowers.

Now, joining Xi'an in Manhattan's Chinatown is He Nan Flavor (68B Forsyth St., betw. Grand & Hester Sts., 212-625-8299). Like its Flushing sibling Henan Feng Wei, the restaurant focuses on the regional cookery of China's Henan province, located northwest of Shanghai. The cuisine features plenty of noodles, dumplings and lamb soups, often slicked with Sichuan peppercorns and chili oil (though not as mouth-on-fire as Sichuan food). I first went to He Nan about six weeks ago, sliding into the narrow, bare-bones storefront decorated with Chinatown's trademark rickety tables and fluorescent lighting. The friendly, red-hatted counter lady gave me the once-over.

Perhaps sensing my dumpling lust, she pointed to the sour-vegetable dumpling soup pictured on the wall. I nodded. I gasped upon receiving a steaming tureen bobbing with 15 pork dumplings cocooned in a chewy skin. The tart broth was a pleasing counterpoint to the meaty dumplings, which were best dressed with chili oil. I slurped and chewed till the bowl was as dry as the Mojave Desert.

Then I returned the next night for round two. Accompanied by friends Will and Aaron, I was able to dive deep into the menu. I discovered that the "pancake with pork" was a crisp moon of wheat bread stuffed with cilantro and shredded pig. At $2, it's a lovely lunch for a carnivore. Even better were the hand-pulled noodles floating in a subtle, milky broth alongside tender chunks of brisket. Less successful were the wan, deflated soup dumplings, which lacked the crucial component: a soupy interior. Yet all trespasses were forgotten with the arrival of the "spicy big tray of chicken." It was a cauldron of blood-red chili oil crammed with caraway, anise, Sichuan peppercorns and plenty of potato cubes and bony nuggets of chicken wings and thighs. It was aromatic without being overly incendiary, finger-licking food finer than anything Colonel Sanders ever created. We ate until we were stuffed, then I unbuttoned my pants and ate a bit more. If not for my oily digits, I would've stuck my hand down my jeans and sighed with satisfaction.

Since then, I've kept He Nan in constant rotation, devouring the wide-ribbon noodles wearing a crumbly-pork wig almost weekly. But it's the pancake that fills my clogged heart with glee. "Do you live around here?" the counterwoman recently asked, filling a steaming pancake with soft, hoisin-laced shards of swine. It was my eighth or ninth visit, and I'd reached regular status. "No, I live in Brooklyn," I told her. Her eyes went saucer-wide. "That's a long way for food," she said. "I've traveled farther," I replied.

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

Gut Instinct: Bye-Bye, Beer Buddy

My search: "sad drunk." The result? A six-year-old girl. Internet, you scare me.

"I'm going to read you something," my fiancée says, pulling her computer close to her peepers.

"For men going through a midlife crisis, one of the top complaints is the lack of close friends."

"I think I'm about 15 years away from a midlife crisis," I reply. "It's not like I have a hankering to buy a cherry-red Porsche and go clubbing to hit on cocktail waitresses— yet." She rolls her eyes, knowing an emotional dodge when she sees one. "You know what I mean," she says, clicking on an episode of The Biggest Loser.

As always, she's right. Lately, I've felt as unmoored as a dinghy drifting to sea. My misty-eyed state is due to the dispersal of my friends. Nearly 11 years ago, I arrived in New York City armed with colleagues and conspirators. Together, we took Downtown by drunken storm, spending countless nights at Welcome to the Johnson's, Holiday Cocktail Lounge, Blue and Gold—basically, anywhere 10 bucks bought at least three drinks. But those days of happy hours bleeding into bleary-eyed 4 a.m. weeknights are long gone.

Partly this is due to my coming connubial bliss. A key component of going to a party or a club is the possibility of landing in someone else's pants. When you're in a committed relationship, there's no need to have one last drink, possibly allowing you to be suave enough to score a sweetheart. For me, barhopping till the wee hours is a waste, like going deer hunting when your freezer is filled with enough meat to last a lifetime. Yet marriage only partly explains my dwindling barfly days. Simply put, I have fewer friends eager to get schnookered. The last five years has seen a steady departure of my closest and dearest comrades. They've decamped to San Francisco to teach theater, to L.A. to act, to Texas to raise a boy, to Seattle for work.

So imagine my mixed bag of emotions when my friend Aaron revealed his big news. "We're moving to Denver at the end of June," he said. His wife had scored a life-changing teaching job. It was an offer too good to pass up. "That's terrific," I said, sincerely pleased. In this town, days and months disappear with the ease of a film dissolve. Blink and your twenties are gone. Blink again, and you're staring down your forties. Making it in New York City is tough. A bigger challenge is making it out of New York. I was thrilled that Aaron and his wife had an escape pod. I was also bummed beyond belief: I'd be losing my closest biking and drinking buddy. Once or twice a week, since we were college freshmen, Aaron and I have met up for a pint or four. Our routine would soon be wrecked. But there was still time to leave with a bang.

"Let's go to Drop Off Service," I suggested last week. Aaron's eyes lit up like a winning slot machine. That's because the laundromat-turned-Alphabet-City bar has, quite possibly, Downtown's most divine deal. Till 8 nightly, 20-oz. pints of quality craft beer cost $3. We commandeered a corner booth and a couple towering glasses of grassy, malty McNeill's Extra Special Bitter Ale and agreeable Greenport Harbor Ale. After a few quenching gulps, alcohol greased the wheels of conversation. I acknowledged the elephant in the room. "It's not going to be the same without you in New York," I said. "Who's going to listen to me complain?" "There's always the phone," he said. "Not the same." Sharing beers in person creates a conversational intimacy. Slowly getting drunk while talking on the telephone? That's depressing. We cycled back to the topic of departure. For many New Yorkers, the idea of leaving the national capital of culture and commerce is unfathomable. Once you've climbed to the top of this lofty, hectic perch, most towns look downright quaint. Thing is, big-city life takes its toll, hardening you like slow-drying cement. Novelty becomes daily drudgery. In this crushing city of 8 million, drinks and dialogue with friends are crucial to retaining sanity, an outlet to the irritations that New York piles on you like manure.

"Another round?" Aaron asked, gathering up our empty glasses.

"Of course," I said, eager to share another beer and the words it'd bring. "I don't have anywhere to go."

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

Gut Instinct: Let's Be Frank

Mmm...spaghetti.

I bashed my apartment's buzzer in staccato blasts, releasing a sound as shrill as a school bell.

My fiancée leaned outside our third-floor window, her increasingly long blonde locks dangling like Rapunzel's once did. "Did you lose your keys?" she asked. I heard our dog, Sammy, yelping like an aardvark. The buzzer's precise pitch drives him into high-pitched hysterics.

"I can't reach my keys," I said, my knees wobbly from three beers too many. "They're blocked by pasta." "Pasta?" "Pasta. I have so much pasta. Please come down and let me in." She slid the window shut and slunk downstairs as excitedly as a condemned prisoner off to greet the firing squad. She unbolted the door. I passed her 10 pounds of gnocchi, 10 pounds of cavatelli with sausage and 5 pounds apiece of olives and wedges of salty Parmesan cheese. "And there's desserts, too!" I slurred, displaying ricotta cheesecake and a chocolate tart.

"Where did this come from?" she asked, incredulous. From her arched eyebrows, I knew she assumed I sourced the food via dubious means. After all, last week I brought her 36 containers of Greek yogurt lifted from this very newspaper's bike show. "I didn't steal it," I said, trying to look innocent despite my shirt's marinara stain. "Well, what happened?" "It's a long story," I said.

After months of writerly toil, my book on the global craft beer revolution, Brewed Awakening, will hit bookstores, Kindles, Nooks and iPads this fall. This is a freaking relief. Yet the book's arrival heralds glad-handing promotional work for which I'm ill-suited. I'm most comfortable in my apartment, pants-less, crafting crotchety proclamations and puns from the comfort of my new desk chair. (God bless extra lumbar support!) When I wear jeans and meet the world face to face, I lose a little verve. It's like some bastardized version of Samson's hair.

My first round of promotions brought me to the backyard of Brooklyn Italian standout Frankies 457. My publishing company was holding a dinner for its booksellers. These are the tireless men and women who canvass the globe, convincing shops such as Barnes & Noble and Urban Outfitters to stock my tome. An inspired sales force is as critical to a book's success as the content. Thus, my role in the eve's dog and pony show: lead a brew tasting for the attendees, convincing them that I put the fun in functional beer drunk.

No one makes antiperspirant strong enough for such a situation. Steeling my cowardly lion heart with a calming nip of Rittenhouse Rye, I selected three innovative craft beers. Like a preacher taking to the pulpit, I strode to a podium above the crowd and began preaching the good-beer gospel. I sang hosannas of the prickly, thirst-quenching Pretty Things Jack D'Or saison. I held forth on Lagunitas Hop Stoopid, a sweetly potent double IPA. "It smells a bit like a marijuana farm," I explained, inhaling the dank bouquet. Finally came Great Divide Yeti, a huge stout with notes of coffee and cocoa. "It's a monstrous beer," I explained, leaving no pun unturned.

The crowd drank in my words as quickly as they drank the beer. I drank faster. As I answered booksellers' questions ("A saison was originally brewed to slake Belgian farmhands' thirst," I explained), I took small, steady sips of beer from a glass that, thanks to the attentive waitresses, never went dry. Like Chinese water torture, the effects soon accumulated. By the time I sat down to dine on cavatelli with spicy Faicco's sausage, my head felt like a merry-go-round. The carbohydrates and carnivorous pleasures could not reverse damage done, and continually inflicted.

"Have another beer," my dining companions insisted. I could not refuse. As a beer expert, you're expected to consume too much. To do otherwise would be like Takeru Kobayashi coming to a Fourth of July BBQ and only eating one Nathan's hot dog. So I drank Hop Stoopid till I resembled the IPA's name. Luckily, the liquid onslaught was cut short by the clock: At 9:30 p.m., the booksellers boarded a bus bound for Manhattan. I gathered my woozy dignity and belongings and headed for the door.

"Josh, would you like to take the leftovers home?" the manager asked, pointing to the towers of boxed pasta, cheese and desserts. Three beers earlier, I would've begged off, not wanting to seem like a greedy, greedy gumdrop. But I'd had enough beer to activate my inner cheapskate. That was enough food to feed me for weeks, with sweets to appease my chocolate-mad fiancée.

"Don't mind if I do," I said, filling two shopping bags with food and not one drop of shame.

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

Gut Instinct: Choke Job

A creamy, creamy Artichoke pie. Photo: Manger La Ville.

My early pizza education was doughy and disturbing. I cut my teeth on school-lunch cardboard rectangles crowned by pepperoni cubes, greasy deep-dish Pizza Hut pies and Papa John's floppy slices that I dunked in nuclear-yellow garlic butter. Further torturing my developing taste buds, my family's freezer was filled with heresies such as pizza bagels and frozen pies bought for a buck.

"What I wouldn't give for a slice of New York pizza," my mom would often say, her eyes looking toward her northeast hometown, far from the culinary wastelands of suburban Ohio. I'd nod in sympathy, if miscomprehension. To me, Pizza Hut was the cheesy pinnacle. It's hard to miss food you've never had.

But upon planting my flag in New York City, I began a pizza re-education that'd impress Chairman Mao. From DiFara's to Lombardi's, from buck-a-slice joints in Hell's Kitchen to each and every Ray's pizzeria, I soon understood my mom's longing for crunchy, pinkie-skinny pizza. Top a triangular slice with crushed red pepper, fold it in half and I had a low-cost lunch. Or dinner. Or the last, late-night line of defense to prevent a skull-hammering hangover.

From the safe perch of age and hindsight, I now consider my Pizza Hut days as misguided as the time I dyed my hair with household bleach. We learn from mistakes. We grow wiser and smarter. Yet a few weeks ago, I stupidly agreed to dine with my cheapskate friend Matt at Artichoke Basille's Pizza. "I have a Groupon. We get a large pie and four beers," he said, whispering words that appealed to my penny-pinching heart. "You're paying, right?" "Brother, I already paid." Bingo.

Ever since buddies Francis Garcia and Sal Basille opened their first pizzeria on East 14th Street in early 2008, Artichoke mania has gripped New York. The fervor has been fueled by the namesake artichoke slice, which is capped with a mess of mozzarella, pecorino Romano, spinach, artichoke hearts and cream sauce. To me, that sounds as appealing as an espresso enema. But I also have peculiar tastes, including spooning numbing chili-pepper sauce from a jar as if it were Ben & Jerry's ice cream. Who am I to judge?

Matt's Groupon was for the first sitdown branch of the rapidly expanding Artichoke chainlet (the third location is in the West Village), located on 10th Avenue and West 17th Street, within spitting distance of the High Line. We arrived at the Chelsea location at 6:45 p.m. on April 14. Hordes thronged the sidewalk surrounding Artichoke, as if Justin Bieber were performing inside.

"Matt, when does the Groupon coupon expire?" I asked. "Tomorrow," he said. Goddamn it, we were in the grips of Groupon Fever, a particularly irritating modern disease: So driven are customers to use their dining discount before it expires that they'll gladly queue for an hour or two. I despise waiting to dine. There are too many terrific restaurants in this town to ever waste time in line, tapping toes and fingering iPhones.

"Do you really want to wait?" I asked Matt. "I want to use my Groupon," he said, twirling his mustache petulantly. So we waited. Twenty minutes dissolved into 40, which soon sludged into an hour. As my stomached growled, I watched as sheep-like diners ordered identical meals: large pies, with four golden beers. Few deviated. It was a restaurateur's nightmare—endless packs of pinchfist customers. I was pleased to see Artichoke packed, but why take a monetary bath to fill seats?

I gained more insight into Artichoke's Groupon deal when we finally sat to sup. We ordered our gratis pints of Coors Light and an artichoke pie. Soon, so very soon, it arrived on a metal pedestal like the king of a gooey kingdom. "Are we supposed to cut this or dip carrots into it?" I asked Matt, pointing at the gloppy swirl that passed for the topping. For this cheese-and–tomato sauce purist, the pie was pure heresy. "Just shut up and eat," he said. I tried. Lord, did I try. But it tasted akin to fire-singed concrete topped with Bloomberg-rich alfredo sauce. I felt like a Civil War soldier given a piece of cold hardtack and two choices: munch or starve.

I chose to eat. Though the meal was free, my poor stomach soon paid a hefty price.

Read—and vote for—the original New York Press column at the paper's website!

Gut Instinct: For the Birds

One day, I'll own a car just like this.

My last car died an overheated death in December 1999, not long after I drove to Mexico during a hurricane. In my haste to make hay home, I pushed my Nissan Stanza (charitably speaking, a tan box with sliding doors) to the breaking point, damaging the engine's pistons beyond repair—well, the meager funds of a college student.

I consigned my car to a junkyard and, not long after, relocated from Ohio to this fair metropolis. Here I needed no automobile. Subways and buses served my transportation needs and transformed my life. Untethered from car keys, I could have one or, let's be honest, five more drinks. I indulged in bad ideas till sunrise, when I would wobble to the train on custard legs, my head as scrambled as the eggs that'd soothe my stomach the following morn. Mass transportation meant my youth was wasted.

But it's been years since I've witnessed sunrise through beer-reddened eyes. I'm climbing the creaky ladder up my thirties. I'm engaged. I have a dog. I'm a somewhat domesticated creature, creating fewer wilder stories such as this tale: When I was 23 and trying to quit smoking, I became addicted to toothpicks soaked in tea tree oil. Sucking on one approximated inhaling smoke, soothing my detoxing system. One terribly intoxicated evening, likely after some open bar serving Sparks, I boarded the subway with buddies. At our stop, I lurched from my seat and dropped the toothpicks. "Noooooooooo!" I screamed, as distraught as a dad who just watched zombies devour his daughter. I lunged for my sticks, but my friends pulled me from the train. In my nicotine rage, I head-butted the subway car's seemingly shatterproof window. It shattered.

I could use this anecdote to illustrate the perceived invincibility of youth, or maybe how I'm hardheaded. "That's for certain," my fiancée chimes in, peeved that I won't replace the yellowed food processor I've owned since I was 14 (thanks, Mom!). The more salient point: I'm no longer head-butting subway cars. My dearth of after-dark shenanigans means I'm not as reliant on mass transit. I've softened my anti-car stance, discovering the freedom and independence that four wheels permit. Driving an automobile means one need not stand crotch-to-crotch with a stranger while listening to an ear-splitting mariachi band.

As it happens, my pal Matt was looking for friends with whom to share his station wagon. "Let's do it!" my fiancée said. "We can go antiquing or hiking!" I paused.

Hiking and antiquing fill me with the same dread that accompanies a proctology exam. "Maybe we can use the car to explore some great restaurants upstate?" I suggested. Sold. Last Sunday morn, we cruised north to Peekskill, located an hour from the city. Like so many Hudson River towns, a declining manufacturing base battered Peekskill. By the 1990s, the stately downtown was becoming a ghost town. But an influx of artists and Hispanic immigrants have reversed Peekskill's decline, and last year the town welcomed a bona fide destination restaurant, the Birdsall House (970 Main St., 914-930- 1880; birdsallhouse.net).

Named after an area hotel frequented by George Washington, Birdsall is the brainstorm of John Sharp and Tim Reinke, a co-owner of Blind Tiger Ale House. Like that Greenwich Village standout, the '50s-flavored Birdsall centers on craft beer, with 20 taps pouring local and national standouts such as Captain Lawrence and Stone. Sip 'em at the room-spanning mahogany bar, or take a booth bathed in skylight sun. "Let's sit in the sunlight," my fiancée said, basking in rays like a lazy cat. I found contentment in the menu: Chez Panisse vet Matt Hutchins devised a locally sourced, Southern-leaning, rib-sticking bill of fare filled with house-made charcuterie, Hudson Valley cheeses, sustainably raised burgers, hubcap-size buttermilk pancakes and maple-bacon ice cream. I settled on the Reuben, while my fiancée opted for polenta freighted with oyster mushrooms, a poached duck egg and chunks of blue cheese.

"Going for the make-out special, eh?" I said. Since each brunch comes with booze, I ordered Captain Lawrence's medium-bodied Fresh Chester Pale Ale; she finagled a bloody Mary. Its pickled carrot curbed her appetite till our repast's photo-worthy arrival. The polenta featured the prettiest poached egg I'd ever seen, covered in a translucent white cloak and boasting a thick 'n' runny interior. Served on crisp rye bread, my Reuben was a plate-dwarfing giant freighted with house-cured corned beef, braised cabbage and New York cheddar, along with zippy Cajun rémoulade—Ireland with a bayou detour. I devoured every tender, salty nib of beef and mopped up drippings with skin-on fries. It was a sandwich worthy of a road trip.

"But before we drive home," I told my fiancée, patting my belly, "let's take a walk."

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