Category Archives: My Lunch

My Lunch: Chicken and Rice

chicken-and-rice

OK, I admit it… the above picture looks like vomit.

But here’s the thing: it tastes really good and it’s dirt cheap. That’s why I eat it two to three times a week.

Although I’ve written about cart food before, I haven’t sampled much of it. Sure, I’ve had the odd pretzel here and there, and even a hot dog if I’m feeling brave . But that fully prepared stuff? I tend to stay away.

cr-2After a few months at the new NYC job, however, I became bored with deli sandwiches. I craved something more substantial. And yet, my lunch budget wouldn’t allow anything new that spiked above the $5 – $10 range.

Enter: the chicken and rice plate.

For a mere $5, you get a complete meal that’s tasty, filling and not terribly bad for you. Best of all, it’s not as scary as you think.

Here’s what goes into it:

  1. Dirty or yellow rice: well-seasoned and flavorful
  2. A small salad: generally of lettuce and tomato
  3. Chunks of chicken: soaked in a secret-spice marinade and combined on the grill with onions, carrots and peppers
  4. Sauce(s): a creamy, slightly tangy white one and/or a spicy red deal

(For only $1 more, you can get a combo of chicken and doner kebab lamb.)

The two carts I frequent are only a block away from each other, but they each have a distinct take on chicken and rice.

  • On 60th Street, close to Broadway, they give you bigger chunks of shredded chicken, but no choice of rice. This is the one pictured.
  • The 59th Street, between Broadway and Ninth, location has smaller, less tender pieces of chicken, but provides a choice of rice. The red sauce is also a good deal spicier.

Honestly, you can’t go wrong with either of these place, or most of the carts in the city. I’ve found this food to be the absolute best value for a New York City lunch.

Now, if they could only do something about those styrofoam containers…

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My (Midtown) Lunch: El Centro

Another day, another 9th Avenue lunch.

This time it was El Centro, a quirky little Mexican joint on 54th Street in Hell’s Kitchen. My friend from work and I entered around 12:45 on a Tuesday and the place was practically empty. Not usually a good sign for a Manhattan lunch.

The place is pleasant enough in decor. We sat next to a whole wall filled with small aluminum toys jutting out on metal spokes, while our table was uniquely crafted from beer bottle tops arranged under glass. Cool.

The chips and salsa were better than average, which was surprising. The homemade chips were crispy, not greasy, and the salsa was different than any I had tasted before. It was neither chunky nor entirely smooth, but had a somewhat more creamy texture, which coated the chips better than the watery types. It also had a nice spicy flavor.

For the cheapies like us looking for under $10 meals, there’s a decent amount of stuff. Unfortunately, the cheap eats are also the least interesting. My friend got a grilled chicken taco w/ red rice & mole negro, which wasn’t as small as we expected. It included an 8″ homemade corn tortilla topped w/ lettuce, queso blanco, caramelized onion and radish. For those with healthier appetites, one taco may not be enough, but my friend was well satisfied.

As for me, I also ordered a simple dish: the roasted chicken & Monterrey jack quesadilla w/ chipotle chiles & epazote. There was nothing fancy about the preparation; it tasted just as a quesadilla should. Although I could have used a bit more meat, I was satisfied if not wholly impressed.

What makes me want to come back for more, however, is the rest of the menu. The soups (pozoles) and enchiladas both look great, but I really want to try a chilaquile: homemade corn tortilla casserole topped w/ avocado, queso blanco, crema fresca and  pico de gallo. While I couldn’t quite bring myself to order a casserole for lunch during the waning days of summer, I will return to try the pork version of this concoction.

But for now, El Centro gets a big, fat “decent.”

My (Best Midtown) Lunch: Chai Home Kitchen

Today was my second time visiting this small Thai eatery, located at 55th and 8th. In my humble opinion, it delivers on all the qualities needed for a perfect New York lunch:

  • It’s good. Sure, I’ve only had a couple things from their lunch menu, but they’ve both been impressive.
  • It’s fast. Not quite as fast as McDonald’s, but for sit-down service, it’s a breeze.
  • It’s cheap. For $6.95 (pennies in New York lunch terms), you not only get a succulent, filling entree, but a choice of salad, soup or spring roll. Not bad.
  • It’s nice. I love the asymmetrical bowls, the swizzley chop-sticks and the little floating-flower pool in the window.

If you’re looking for recommendations, you could do worse than the Pad Sea Eiw, a perfect noodly blend of salty and sweet. It’s my new obsession.

My Lunch: The Gloriously Simple, No-Chew Hamburger

There’s something to be said for a no-frills, un-supersized, plain ol’ hamburger.

And that’s exactly what they serve to perfection at P.J. Clarke’s, an old fashioned eatery with a straight-ahead style.

Being the cheapo that I am, I ordered a plain hamburger (sans blue cheese, as opposed to the picture) when a friend invited me out to lunch at the restaurant’s Lincoln Center location. It’s unfortunate that the nostalgia doesn’t apply to the prices, because the burger was the only thing on the menu under $10.

When the waiter brought it to the table, on a small plate with nothing but a pickle to accompany it, I could only stare in disbelief. How would I be satiated by such a miniature serving of meat?

Well, I’m an official convert: size DOESN’T matter.

I bit through this succulent masterpiece like it was butter. The burger was moist and juicy, and in its unadorned state, exuded a recognizable beef flavor that often gets overshadowed by meaningless toppings. Somehow, despite looking as if it would fall apart, the paddy stayed together beautifully… that is, until I finished it five minutes later.

Now THAT is one tasty burger.

My Lunch: Rosa Mexicano (updated)

(Jennifer S. Altman for The New York Times)

I’m not sure what it has to do with Mexican food, but I love this wall-sized piece of modern art that greets you when entering the Rosa Mexicano near Lincoln Center.

On the other hand, I’m also not sure what to make of Rosa Mexicano’s cuisine, which I did not love, despite my usual passion for south of the border fare.

The special occasion (and for these lunch prices, it has to be an occasion) was my first week of work, and my boss was nice enough to take me out to a welcome lunch. Rosa was just up the street, and even though I had only been in the office for a few short days, I was already dying to try it.

We were seated outside and immediately ordered the fresh guacamole. While it wasn’t prepared table-side (is this service reserved for dinner patrons only?), the chunky green stuff was delicious; proof that when it comes to anything avocado, fresher is always better.

Having had a late breakfast and after scarfing down a bit too much of the guacamole, my eyes automatically went to the salads. I settled on the Ensalada con Atun: avocado leaf-crusted seared rare tuna served on a crispy black bean tostada over jicama, mango and cabbage slaw with papaya-habanero salsa.

Sounds great, doesn’t it? Unfortunately, it wasn’t my cup of tea.

I definitely expected the tuna to be rare, but the pieces that were served were completely raw. Still not a problem, except this wasn’t a sushi restaurant and the fish had zero flavor. The rest of the dish, however, was flavor overload. There was spice coming from every direction, but no sweet or salty flavors to balance it out. The acidity of the slaw was overwhelming, and I ended up eating around most of the fancy stuff.

Maybe it’s my fault for ordering a salad at a Mexican restaurant, even one that wears its nouveau-ness on its sleeve. Next time, I will return to the tried-and-true and order something with at least one of the following: slow-cooked meat, cheese or a tortilla.

After all, everyone deserves a second chance in America. Even a successful Mexican mini-chain location that’s probably doing well enough without one.

UPDATE – 8/18/08

Well, that second chance came sooner than I thought. I stuck with the plan and ordered the Mexican Club Torta: a pressed sandwich filled with ham, grilled chicken, bacon, avocado and chihuahua cheese with a black bean-chipotle spread and served with sweet potato fries.

It had everything that the salad didn’t: lots of meat, lots of flavor and lots of itself. Even though I still think it’s over-priced, Rosa Mexicano definitely redeemed itself today.

I will return.

My (Worst) Lunch: Particle Chicken Sandwich

I should have known not to eat lunch at a bookstore.

But being new to the area where I now work (the Lincoln Center district of New York City), I was not quite sure where to grab a quick, cheap sandwich. I had already exhausted the few delis near my office, and I was craving something warm and toasty.

What’s a hungry, poor man to do?

I turned into the local Barnes & Noble, thinking that their cafe probably had something that would at least fill my belly. Little did I know, however, that lurking in this mild-mannered, big box media store was an evil piece of food unfit for consumption: the “Herb Grilled Chicken on Focaccia.”

It looked pretty harmless, sitting there wrapped pretty in cellophane and waiting for a suitor. It came with some sort of cheese and a roasted red pepper dressing, but they were besides the point. I simply wanted to rip into a nice chicken breast sandwich.

What I got – following the interminable wait for the sandwich to finish grilling – was pure, unadulterated mush. The round paddy in the middle did not come from a chicken… or at least a chicken from this planet. It did not even pretend to have the consistency of meat.

In tasted like something concocted in a lab, far from anything resembling a farm, and assembled by scientists who must have played a cruel joke on the new guy by giving him the task of inventing a type of chicken that doesn’t in fact “taste like chicken.”

After reading my fellow blogger’s article on “particle chicken,” I knew what I had come face to face with: a homogenized mass of reprocessed chicken pieces. After that first horrifying bite, I suppressed my gag reflex and proceeded to remove the “chicken” from my sandwich. I forced myself to eat the remaining grilled cheese sandwich because, well… I was still hungry.

The experience was so bad, I might even stop reading books just out of spite.

Something fishy

Let’s ignore the fact that it’s been more than a month since the wife and I returned from the Florida Keys. When I look at these pictures, I’m already back there.

We had a ton of great food during our time on the islands and as you might expect, most of it was happily swimming along less than 24 hours previous.

The Island Fish Company

Just down the street from our vacation rental was an awesome little place unimaginatively named the Island Fish Co. We were treated to a great little table on the water (bayside) and basked in the quintessential Keys meal.

I had one of the specials: freshly caught hogfish with tomato, asparagus and a tangy bechamel sauce (pictured above). Even more delicious was my wife’s fish-of-the-day choice: simply prepared grilled mako shark (to your right).

Both came with yellow rice and mixed veggies. Both were perfectly prepared. And both were so tasty that I forgot to mention our appetizer: crab cakes.

While I didn’t get a good picture of them, I can still remember every moist, flavorful morsel. You’d think I’d never had a good crab cake before. And I would probably admit you’re right.

I don’t count myself as a crab cake connoisseur, mostly because I’ve had some dry, tasteless cakes in my time. But this one appetizer saved the whole dish for me. I will be having crab cakes again, but only near a coast.

Southernmost Beach Cafe

A few days later, we found ourselves in the land of beach bums, wild roosters and drunk tourists: Key West.

Right next to the Southernmost House (where we met up with friends and lounged by the pool for a day – highly recommended), is the Southernmost Hotel. And part of the Southernmost Hotel is the Southernmost Beach Cafe.

There’s nothing like a fresh fish sandwich. And when you’re in the Keys in the spring and summer, there’s a good chance that the fish in the middle is mahi (a.k.a. mahi-mahi and dolphin).

The Cafe grilled the fish simply, slapped it down on a fresh bun slathered with a mayo-based pink spread, and added some perfectly crisp fries. You can’t get much better than that.

My wife, however, would beg to differ. Although she ordered the same fish, it was placed in a more healthy environment – among the greens of a fresh salad.

Among the ingredients in attendance were apples, grapes, croutons, a tangy vinaigrette and plenty of lightly fried mahi goodness. It was one of the few lunches where we were simultaneously satisfied by our own food and jealous of each other’s.

Good stuff.

Kelly’s Caribbean Bar, Restaurant and Brewery

Maybe it was post-sunset ennui or the less-than-diligent service. Or maybe it was just too difficult to follow the perfect lunch. Whatever this issue, Kelly’s Caribbean just didn’t strike the right chord.

One excuse I can’t use was the “dining room.” Set among beautiful flora and fauna, the outdoor garden dining area was an amazing way to eat al fresco.

We started with shrimp cocktail, mostly as an excuse to try the famously well-advertised Key West “pinks.” They certainly were enormous, but unfortunately, fairly tasteless. They were also too chewy, leaving my wife to deny her third shrimp. Not a great sign.

To combat fish fatigue, I went with jerk chicken (darkly photographed below). Although it came with a tasty mango chunk sauce, the dish was only decent. My wife also ordered a chicken dish, although I can’t remember a thing about it. Also not a great sign.

The food may have been forgettable, but the interminable wait for the check (after only one cup of coffee and one slice of key lime pie) was the stuff of legend. We beat a hasty exit shortly after finding the waitress gabbing it up on a cell phone near the kitchen.

We were done with Key West. And it, apparently, was done with us.