Category Archives: Reported

Indigenous Food in the South Bronx

(c) La Morada 2015

Sometimes you eat something that’s blissfully unlike anything you’ve ever had before. For me, the mole blanco at La Morada in the South Bronx was one of those dishes that make you stop, get quiet, taste again, and search your senses, sniffing, almost listening for something, to comprehend the mystery.

Ladled over two huge chicken legs, the thick white sauce made of pine nuts and other items had a surprisingly warm, forceful stir of habaneros underneath the sauce’s slightly sweet blandness, made among other things of cashews, almonds, peanuts, coconut oil, and garlic ($15).

I kept wanting to taste it again and feel that warm, attractive spice calling to me from inside the deceptively homey, rather autumnal and vegetal blanket of mole. (The vegan sauce is made with 10 different kinds of nuts in total.) The dish came with a side of rice and black beans, but not just any beans: it was in fact the most distinctive, fresh-tasting, and well-spiced side dish of black beans I’ve ever had, as though someone actually cared to make the supposedly throwaway sides taste as good as entrées. If you’re from Mexico’s Oaxaca province, source of this restaurant’s cuisine, La Morada’s mole blanco may not be as much of a mystery to you, but then again, it might. The cooking at this inexpensive café run by an activist immigrant family is extraordinary, perhaps the finest Mexican cooking I’ve ever had in New York.

The five adult family members are Mixteca Indians from the overwhelmingly indigenous Oaxaca, whose cooking traditions are almost entirely unrepresented in this city. (Don’t let the name of the offensively bland, hipster chain Oaxaca Taqueria fool you. There’s nothing remotely Oaxacan about its unspiced chicken, pork, and potatoes.) There are six moles on the menu, all made entirely from scratch, a process taking many days. In New York, it’s usually possible to find only a too-sweet chocolate mole poblano.

Most restaurants don’t have a personal motto, but La Morada has one, written in Mixteca on its website and menu: “Kushi Vaa.” According to Yajaira Saavedra, one of the daughters, this means roughly, “We want everyone who eats here to be nourished, and to grow.” Saavedra says the motto reflects a Mixteca spiritual belief that those who cook put their emotional energy and attitudes into the food, and that cooks are therefore responsible to project an intense goodwill into their product. Eating an enchilada of hibiscus flowers and leaves, grilled cactus, and other vegetables, strewn with buttery quesillo cheese and a little tomatillo sauce ($14 with rice and beans), I felt something of that goodwill. The enchilada tasted exceedingly fresh, as if the vegetables had just been picked. (Strangely, a leftover even tasted fresh two days later, in my kitchen.) Perhaps it’s because La Morada sources most of its produce from local community gardens and local immigrant-run farms. Saavedra, a recent CUNY grad in her 20s, says some even provide fruits and vegetables to the restaurant for free, or allow La Morada to plant freely on their land. “Folks help us out as much as they can.” She says they do this in appreciation for the community space for food, activism, and even literature the Saavedras have created in the poorest neighborhood in the city.

(A lending library in the back of La Morada offers a terrific selection mostly in English, from “Bartleby the Scrivener” to W. E. B. De Bois’ “The Souls of Black Folk.”)

But here’s something even more notable than a locavore café in the South Bronx. All of the Saavedras (except the youngest, who was born here) are open about being undocumented, which makes eating here an interesting political experience. The food industry in this country is utterly dependent on the labor of undocumented Mexicans, who staff its most vital positions, from farmworkers and slaughterhouse workers to restaurant cooks, dishwashers, and bussers. Very few of them own restaurants, or can be open about their status. Most are paid ridiculously low wages.

Here, finally, is a restaurant where undocumented Mexicans come out from the back of the joint, own the place, and proudly and feelingly make their own food.

Mother Natalia Mendez is the chef, assisted by her daughter Carolina. On my first visit, an entrée of camarones (shrimp) a la diabla ($15) wearing little “devils’ horns” made of chilies came with a complex sauce of chipotle peppers and herbs that Mendez makes herself. The peppers in the sauce packed delicious fruit and, again, “vegetalness,” along with their smoke and heat. The shrimp themselves were delicate.

I wasn’t expecting to find a queer-friendly place in the South Bronx, but I did. On a recent visit, Karen and I were not the only visibly queer diners in the place; another group with funky haircuts and a gender backspace say that queer aspect was being hugged goodbye by Mendez and Yajaira. In an interview, the latter said, “The trans community is vitally involved in the immigration movement right now. We are very connected to anyone who is pro-gay rights and pro-LGBTQ, and besides, we understand that all struggles are interconnected.” According to Yajaira, “Lots of trans folks are being detained unjustly right now” by immigration authorities. She and Marco, who both came to this country as very young children, are highly active in the Dreamers movement (young undocumented Mexican-Americans who came here as children and are fighting for legal status and other benefits available to citizens, such as education benefits). Marco, a friendly, bespectacled, twentysomething poet and painter who is the restaurant’s main waiter, committed civil disobedience two years ago by returning to Mexico and then openly reentering this country as an undocumented person. He served three weeks in a detention center in Florida. Says Yajaira, “My mother has a rule now: only one of us is allowed to get arrested at any given time.”

After Marco and Yajaira became very public about their status, Mendez and father Antonio Saavedra followed their children out of the immigration closet.

I took a dessert home from my last dinner at La Morada, tres leches cake, the wildly popular Mexican dessert made of cake soaked in heavy cream, evaporated milk, and condensed milk, and topped with coconut and whipped cream. It was luxurious and light at once, with a custardy bottom and a slight hint of vanilla and rum, and again, far more fresh-tasting than other versions I’ve had in this city. Some have tasted heavy and dead, but this was lively.

The restaurant is painted purple and decorated with a Bosch-like anti-globalization poster and many of Marco’s paintings, including one of Michael Brown’s family. If you search your Spanish dictionary, you may conclude La Morada was named from the word for purple, but it actually comes from a Bible verse Antonio thought had special resonance for immigrants, Yajaira says: “In the house of my Father, there are many dwelling places.…As I told you, I am going to prepare a place for you.” Thankfully, La Morada has become a dwelling place for many.

La Morada, 308 Willis Avenue near 140th Street, open daily 9 AM-9:30 PM except Sundays. (The restaurant may resume Sunday hours in the next several months.) The restaurant is wheelchair accessible, but the bathroom is narrow and lacks a handrail. Reservations accepted but not necessary.

This was originally published in Gay City News on October 30, 2015. You can view it here.

The Politics of Whole Foods

whole foods tomatoes

How do you live in New York City on $12 an hour or less? How can you buy organic food on even a middle-class income here? How can you afford meat that doesn’t come from E. coli- laden feedlots where the animals have no room to lie down or move? How can you eat food that’s good for you and the planet without taking on (even more) debt?

These are the burning questions for anyone thinking about the politics of food in New York right now. (Here’s one more: how will the organic revolution help the 1.4 million New Yorkers who currently depend on soup kitchens and food banks?) All of these questions come into play in the politics of Whole Foods, a “green mission” corporation so contradictory I had to write about it twice.

Last time, if you’ll remember, we were considering Whole Foods’ flagship store in Brooklyn, made of tastefully reclaimed bricks and wood but sitting on the banks of the Gowanus Canal, which seethes with PCBs, mercury, and pathogens. Activists had opposed the store’s siting on the grounds that it would fail to absorb dangerously polluted runoff from the channel, which floods regularly. They also said that the megastore would gentrify the neighborhood (leading to luxury condos that will make the canal even more flood-prone), and substitute low-paying Whole Foods jobs for the high-paying manufacturing jobs the neighborhood was previously zoned for.

The last two predictions have already happened. (On the first point, environmental science suggests that the wetlands restoration locals were calling for would have provided much better protection for Brooklyn residents.) Still, Whole Foods is there now, and I myself, sadly, have bought barbecued organic turkey legs there. I’ve even enjoyed the beautiful roofdeck/restaurant/bar, a half-indoor, half-outdoor space where sufficiently well-groomed-looking people can sit for hours and take in the view even if they haven’t purchased anything. The question for part two of this column is, is Whole Foods – not just this store, but the entire corporation and its 412 stores around the country – good for the world or bad, beyond my personal convenience and enjoyment?

First, let’s talk about its major claim to fame – making organic food more available. Food activist and fermentation revivalist Sandor Katz, who is probably the most prominent LGBT voice in the food movement, says, “Whole Foods has gotten big through a strategy of swallowing up all the small local and regional natural food stores. Sourcing supposedly ‘organic’ produce and meat at the scale they’re doing it results in food that has much lower nutritional value and that is produced and distributed at a great cost to the environment.” For example, says the former ACT UP/New York member, “If you’re trying to raise pastured animals, there’s a limit to what scale you can do it at. If you have 5000 cows, you can’t actually give them access to pasture.” So your “grass-fed” burgers and “free-range” eggs may not be exactly that, depending on where you buy them. No matter what nice labels products are given, says Katz, “environmentally sound practices are far easier to do on a small scale.” Notably, Whole Foods’ product sourcing results in meat and produce being trucked for many hundreds or thousands of miles, leading to a far higher carbon output than farmers markets or food co-ops.

Katz’s first concern is echoed by nutrition scientist Marion Nestle, one of the doyennes of food activism in America: “Big Organic [the big agribusinesses that have become major players in organic farming] always tries to add more pesticides to what is allowed under the ‘Certified Organic’ label.” Fruit and vegetables can, in fact, be certified organic but still contain some pesticides, Nestle says, and Big Organic is always pushing to allow more and more harmful chemicals to be allowed under the designation. Still, she says, “There was no place to get that kind of food in my neighborhood until Whole Foods came to New York. They have high quality food for people who can afford it.”

That category most definitely does not apply to Whole Foods’ workers. Ryan Faulkner, who worked at the store in San Francisco for two years and was an activist in the IWW’s union drive there in 2014, says that neither he nor his fellow employees could ever afford to shop there, despite their 20% employee discount. “As a cashier, I was making $12 an hour – the checks were like jokes.” Even after Faulkner went on to work receiving in the regional distribution center, his wages only went up to $15.23. It wasn’t possible for employees to live on those wages inside the city limits, and many commuted two hours or more from outside the city to work. The other major grievance was computer-driven scheduling, which changed all workers’ schedules wildly week to week, “which made it impossible if you were going to school, or if you had kids,” Faulkner says. “The people with kids would just get in impossible situations. They would never know if they could pick their kids up.” In fact, Rhiannon Broschat, a Chicago employee, was fired for staying home with her child when schools were closed because of the polar vortex last year, and Trish Kahle, another Chicago worker, was fired when she was injured in a bicycle accident but couldn’t bring in a doctor’s note to account for her absences because she couldn’t afford a visit to the doctor.

Worse, workers were pressured to work so much overtime and for so many days on end that, Faulkner says, accidents in the warehouse were common. “The least you ever worked was 12 hour days, and it was frequently 16. I saw one guy cut off a couple of his toes in the machinery. There was so much blood on the floor, but they just gave him a little award for working every day straight for a month.” As in many companies today, Whole Foods has preferred to have fewer employees working many more hours than to have to hire more staffers, which would result in higher costs overall. “They would threaten your job if you didn’t work 16 hours, and they put a lot of pressure on you to come in on your days off. I once passed out in the freezer from exhaustion.” If the chickens the store sold were treated in this way, Whole Foods co-CEO John Mackey would likely protest. Whole Foods did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

If you’re wondering why Trish Kahle couldn’t see a doctor, take a good look at Whole Foods’ employee health insurance, where the individual deductible, Faulkner said, was $4500 after the Affordable Care Act went into effect. (Employees at other locations have cited deductibles ranging from $3500 to $5000.) As a result, according to Faulkner and other workers, very few employees opt to use the coverage. (Whole Foods does offer health savings accounts to workers, and those who been at the company 10 years or more can opt for a better insurance plan with a lower deductible.)

In June, the New York City Department of Consumer Affairs announced that Whole Foods had been routinely overcharging its customers at all locations in the city. “New Yorkers who shop at Whole Foods have a good chance of being overcharged,” the Department of Consumer Affairs’ Abigail Lootens told GCN. In DCA’s investigation, 80 different types of prepackaged goods (from baked goods to nuts to meat, cheese, and seafood) were found to have packages with wildly overstated weights. The lowest was an $.80 overcharge for a package of pecan panko, and the highest was an overcharge of $14.84 for a pack of coconut shrimp.

Journalist Tracie McMillan, who has covered the economics of Whole Foods extensively for Slate and the Food and Environment Reporting Network, says the systematic overcharging may be a result of “Whole Foods as a company having a culture of, ‘They’ll pay it! It’s fine!’ ” But as economist Richard Wolff suggests, many of us are taking on further debt – for things exactly like overpriced coconut shrimp – in order to keep up with a lifestyle we imagine “normal” people can pay for.

Longtime New York State environmental activist Laura Haight says, “The bottom line is, Whole Foods is a big business. They don’t care about us.”

This is a companion piece to “Desire in Whole Foods,” and appeared in slightly different form in Gay City News, October 1, 2015.

Desire in Whole Foods

whole foods berry pie

I wanted to not be moved. I wanted to have no feelings. But there, it had happened: Whole Foods Brooklyn excited me. “Take the orange juice taste test,” sang a man in the fruit and vegetables section, proffering tiny free samples of special Whole Foods orange juice. “What are the different categories?” I asked, imagining satsuma, Jaffa, blood, bitter Sevilla – worlds of “heirloom” orange juices Whole Foods had squeezed and gotten ready for me to sample and compare, one by one. But the choices were only organic and nonorganic. I liked the nonorganic better, which bothered me. Still, it was free OJ, and handed me by the most cheery little man.

Not far from the cups of juice was a large glass globe full of reddish-yellow grapes free to all comers, like the guy who used to kneel with his mouth open in the basement of the Mineshaft. A woman grabbed one grape and pricked it between her teeth, then another. I didn’t actually like that kind of grape, but the giant glass globe offering them to everyone strangely touched me. (You mean I can have as many as I want? Right now? Without paying for them?) All sorts of people stepped up to the glass globe and reached inside for the promise of sweetness like a pill. Because I didn’t take a grape, I now needed some other sort of free food immediately; I proceeded to the southwest side of the store, the side with the bakery, where free samples of chickpea crostini, pear chutney with crackers, tiny delicious chocolate-and-cream cakes had offered on my first visit.

No such luck. My initial visit, soon after the store’s opening late in 2013, had been full of gratis cheese, soups, even two sampling stations for free Sixpoint beer! I went to both of the latter, one of them twice; I managed to get a nice buzz on and have my appetite slaked without spending a cent. Of course, all this largess had made me want to spend, and soon.

In the gem-colored juicing section, with beautiful plastic bottles and dixie-cup samples colored all the colors of the rainbow, there were free samples of a purple blend called Immunity Blast with beet, carrot, ginger, turmeric, cayenne, and spirulina. It tasted deep and spicy yet refreshing, like a beer. I don’t even believe in juicing. Yet I sucked it down. On another visit, Karen and I had downed cup after cup of mango juice and tangy Green Maca Blend samples, in an orgy of something-for-nothing fressing. Immediately after that, we’d spent about $75.

I found myself going crazy with desire in the meat section, with its seven kinds of “humane” fresh sausages laid out for purchase, garlic and herb chicken, sweet Italian pork, “Buffalo” and chorizo, all gleaming. There was a rack of lamb with its beautiful little bones looking like legs thrust in the air, a large, thick, grassfed steak far more succulent-looking than the kinds Karen and I always get, bone-in short ribs! I wanted everything, walking around the city-block-long store in a kind of hypnotic glaze: Cute dishtowels from Etsy, with grapes on them! Men’s cologne from Herban Cowboy! Macarons! It was clear that a master designer had been at work here, in fact an entire team of master food stylists, fruit-layout artists, coffee-bar sculptors, label-designers, and aisle-molders, because I have never wanted to buy and consume things as much as I did at Whole Foods Gowanus.

(In fact, the store employs four full-time visual artists, food stylists, and marketers, as well as several freelance firms and art directors who work at the regional level.)

Whole Foods has described its 56,000 square foot Gowanus store as a national flagship, and coming upon it from surreally quiet Third Avenue one afternoon last week, it was easy to see why. The company has constructed this market to rise on the banks of the fetid Gowanus canal like a palace of pro-environmentalism, a garden of morally righteous and sensually fulfilling delights. Next to the green-tinged canal, named a Superfund site in 2010 by the EPA and found by scientists to contain PCBs, cholera, dysentery, and even gonorrhea, Whole Foods has built beautiful paths with wooden benches, umbrella-covered tables, and gorgeous plantings of black-eyed susans, red-and-yellow lilies, and marigolds. There is a canister with Whole Foods- supplied dog-poop bags, although I wouldn’t let my dog eat anything onto which the Gowanus had overflowed in a storm. (The waters of the Gowanus have also been found to be radioactive.) On the Whole Foods side of the bank, there was also a large black barbecue smoker, looking like something out of a restored Colonial village. Even on a 90-degree day, that smoker was going, and the big, 18th-century-looking oven and its smell were an immediately effective visual and olfactory advertisement. Though I hadn’t on other visits, when I’d entered from the Third Street side, now I badly wanted to eat animal flesh cooked in that big artisanal thing.

Wouldn’t you know it, most of the meats served in the store’s rooftop restaurant and prepared foods section are made in that outdoor publicity symbol. The verdict: the actual meat in “Carolina gold BBQ” pork ribs was good, though its sauce was cloyingly sweet. Something surprising and welcome happened when I tried to suck the marrow from a small pig bone: the bone was soft and delicious enough that I actually ate it along with the candylike marrow, which nutritionists say is perfectly safe to do as long as there are no sharp pieces and nothing hard enough to choke on. A smoked chicken salad sandwich on buttered, griddled bread was exactly what I wanted to eat on a rooftop bar in the summer with a beer (though Karen, who ordered it, found it much too mayonnaise-y and buttery). On another visit, pulled turkey meat and Kansas City chicken legs from the prepared foods table had a lovely, smoky flavor, but were dry.

Vegetables prepared in the smoker, however, were hideous. So-called smoked ratatouille from the prepared foods table (green and yellow squash and eggplant, mostly) both looked and tasted muddled, even muddy, and the only reason to confront more of its squishy texture was obedience to Michael Pollan. The entire hot side of the prepared foods section, in fact, looked unappetizing and overheated, with meats, rice dishes and vegetables all appearing entirely in colors of brown and yellow, along with an occasional dark green. (It looked like a lot of the food I used to eat growing up in the 70s in Brooklyn.)

At the side of the steam table, on framed photos along the walls, on inventively painted posters throughout the store, was one message: how much Whole Foods had done for Brooklyn and the world by creating this store.

Next time: Part Two: Whole Foods’ environmental claims, “Brooklynitude,” and the politics of a beautiful rooftop bar and community space.

Whole Foods Gowanus, 214 3rd Street, Brooklyn. The grocery and its restrooms are wheelchair-accessible.

This piece appeared in slightly different form in Gay City News, August 6, 2015.

Malaysian Curry Beckoning Me Like Pie

Credit: Eating in Translation, Dave Cook

Credit: Eating in Translation, Dave Cook

This is my review of Laut, a Malaysian-Singaporean-Thai restaurant in  New York’s Union Square, from Gay City News.

As it came to our table, the tiny bowl of curry dip was preceded by its smell, a mix of coconut, cinnamon, turmeric, and a small amount of chili that literally turned my head, like a cartoon character following the aroma of pie. The curry dip accompanied our appetizer of roti canai ($7.50), a Malaysian bread that looked like a South Asian dosa but was softer and doughier. It is difficult to convey how the slightly sweet, aromatic curry sauce attracted my mouth over and over, or how fine it was to stick that bread in it. The dish was simple, delicious and enormous, a perfect appetizer for two hungry people drinking beer, and the first sign that Laut was better than it looked.

I’m dubious of restaurants that serve more than one Asian cuisine – it usually means they don’t do any of them well. But my wife and I were in Union Square after a stress-inducing visit to the accountant, and it was dinnertime. Very little food nearby was both appealing and cheap enough, or, if it was, had no relaxing seating on which to stretch our weary bones. (I’m calling you out, Num Pang Sandwich Shop and Republic – being delicious isn’t enough when people have had a hectic day!) Suddenly, there was Laut looming before us on 17th Street and Fifth Avenue, proudly announcing it served “Malaysian, Singaporean, and Thai cuisine.” It wasn’t very expensive, at least by Manhattan standards.

I was ignorant of the fact that Singaporean and Malaysian cooking are inherently very similar anyway, and that both share influences from Thai cuisine as well. More unpardonable is that I was also ignorant of these countries’ geography. Half of Malaysia sits on the same peninsula as South Thailand, and the island of Singapore immediately abuts Malaysia’s shore. The word Laut means “sea,” and Malaysia is bordered by five different seas that connect it to the rest of Southeast and South Asia. All of these countries, including Indonesia (and India, and even China if you want to go that far north on the map), share some food traditions and blend them and reformulate them. I’ve had “sambal” (a tangy chili sauce in several variations) from Sri Lanka, but here was my Laut waitress serving me an authentically Malaysian sambal with squid, my entrée ($15).

One of the Malaysian versions of sambal is made with shrimp paste crushed with chilies ( *belacan* ), and came, in this instance, with okra, string beans, bell peppers, onions, and that squid, in amazingly soft and delicate cylindrical segments. It was the nicest squid I’ve ever had in my mouth, and delicious in the very hot and slightly funky sauce.

My wife had the curry laksa with vegetables ($12). Yes, laksa, the Malay-Singaporean-Indonesian soup that snotty but occasionally adorable butch Lisa Fernandes cooked on Top Chef. (Fangirls, she has opened a food truck in the city called Sweet Chili that alternately parks in Dumbo, in the Wall Street area, and in Chelsea.) Yes, among my many weaknesses is that I can be strongly influenced by Top Chef. The reverence with which Fernandes, Anthony Bourdain and other chefs on the show had spoken of this complex, spicy soup had made me always want to have it. Laut’s version was profound and homey, its broth thick with coconut cream, lemongrass, galangal, and chili paste, and almost too spicy for me to eat. The laksa was studded with noodles, carrots, string beans, cucumber, Vietnamese mint, fish balls and fried tofu, and Karen adored it. I myself found it addictive as a leftover the next day.

Laut’s setting isn’t fancy, but there are beautiful murals on its brick walls, including an elaborate one with a squid, a bird, and a large land animal turning into flowers and other objects in the midst of a psychedelic bright blue sea. Still, the plasticated paper dinner menus are banged up and even a little funky, and the bathroom plumbing is not perfect. Service is excellent even when the place is full to the gills, as it often is for lunch and dinner. The only time I had poor service was when I came for a very late lunch and found the lone waitress too occupied with her table of dining friends to be at all attentive to me, the only other diner in the place.

But I’d rather have this food than be at a yuppie showcase. At a second meal, we had the “crispy and spicy anchovies with peanuts” and little rounds of green chile ($6), described as “must-have Malaysian style beer snacks.” Blisteringly hot, salty, and sweet from the caramelization on the peanuts, they were indeed ideal snacks with or without beer, and I’ve found myself craving them almost every day since. The translucent fried anchovies were like Lilliputian, salty noodles in the mix.

For the rest of the review, click here.


lump crab littleneck

Review of Brooklyn seafood restaurant Littleneck, by me in Gay City News:

Some gay men refer to women’s bodies as “fish” or “sushi,” and as a foodie, part of me is shocked that they don’t mean it as a compliment. To me, sushi, in the form of naked, unadorned salmon, tuna or shrimp surrounding vinegared rice and a dab of wasabi, is one of the sexiest foods there is. Lobster, oysters, clams, and scallops are even sexier, with a combination of bracingness, sweetness, salt and the teeniest little bit of funk or oddity that all good sex should have.

I thought about this recently while eating the extraordinary “full belly Ipswich clam roll” at Littleneck, which tasted oceanic. I intend the word in all its meanings here: Freud used “oceanic” when he was talking about religious feeling, which he related to the newborn’s sense that there was a limitless supply of milk available for it, and that it was absolutely at one with its mother. That is how I felt eating that clam roll, one of the few fried foods I am willing to eat on a regular basis (because it’s just so damn worth it). I admit I love cheap, random clam rolls, too, but this was a costly ($17), superlative clam roll, utterly fresh, and tasting clean and frisky at once. (It comes with homemade tartar sauce and two kinds of pickles.)

Littleneck, in Gowanus, Brooklyn, is a great date restaurant, with a smart, queer-friendly staff and an attractive room full of nautical gear. There are a lot of sailors’ ropes, a beautiful, tiny mirror inserted in a porthole, a waggish lamp with Captain Ahab as its base. I usually don’t like the decorating style known as Shabby Chic (why do rich people think it’s pretty not to repaint or fix things?) but Littleneck made me reconsider this reflex. There are white-enameled metal tables that suggest the ’50s, and white, not-fully-painted wooden chairs and hutches that suggest a dilapidated beach shack somehow made elegant. Edison bulbs, a punk-rock mirror over the bar partly smeared with black paint, and flowers on every table round things out.

The casual butch style made me feel at home, but the charm of the place made evenings there magical. One night when I visited, The Clash was playing at a gentle volume; another night, it was the Rolling Stones (less wonderful to me, but it did suit the overall aesthetic). In fact, the two polite and welcoming owners, who also serve as some of the waitstaff and bartenders, are punk musicians who had never worked in the food business before. Their generally good taste in music is another swell reason to visit (at Littleneck’s tiny sister location in Greenpoint, the extraordinary country singer Buck Owens was on the sound system one lunchtime).

A smallish lobster roll ($18) had me gasping in pleasure, with the sweetest, freshest crustacean meat in recent memory. Normally I’d be annoyed by the small size, but the lobster went straight to my brain’s pleasure centers, and I couldn’t care less. A grilled romaine salad was served in one huge paleo hunk, like a Fred Flintstone-size bone made of delicious charred vegetation ($13). It came with a strongly garlic flavored dressing (I silently applauded) and substantial chunks of bacon. My partner, Karen, insisted on attacking my plate.

For the rest of the review, click here.

First Impressions of Talde

I don’t want to tell you about Talde being hot, or about how annoying its chef, Dale Talde, was on Top Chef. What I want to tell you is what eating at Talde was like in spite of that, or, better yet, having nothing whatever to do with that.

I went for brunch even though I had no one to go with me, because dishes like “pretzel pork chive dumplings” and “lobster buns with chile mayo” prickled the pleasure centers in my brain as soon as I heard of them, and wouldn’t stop prickling them. My wife was busy having brunch out herself with a friend, and I wanted something fancy, special, and delicious, too, to compensate for not having been invited.

I was surprised that in this case, hotness did not mean superciliousness, and I was welcomed with warmth even though I was a woman dining alone who did not want to sit at the bar. Also that Talde was so good that it made me want to communicate minutely about every aspect of the food I could, as though it were a piece of poetry or a weird white flower growing on the moon.

Talde is an Asian-American restaurant (that’s what its owners call it) in Park Slope, Brooklyn, New York. I ate the bacon pad Thai, which is an oyster-and-bacon pad Thai at dinner, and was stirred to a degree that bordered on emotion by its sour, complicated, enlivening flavors. With fat chunks of bacon, it tasted of lime, of fish funk from the great sauce called nam pla, of salt, and an almost indescribable tanginess. I wanted more fat and even more of that funky fishiness – probably the addition of oysters at dinner helps it. There were some peanuts, but I wanted more, and some more minced herbs for contrast. Even so, I loved it so much that its peculiar sour mix of flavors has stayed with me a month later. I ate the entire bowl, even though it was huge and mostly noodles.

One more thing: Talde’s cappuccino. I got it because they only had Americano, cappuccino and latte, and for me cappuccino is the least offensive of the three. (I prefer coffee, and I need it at brunch.) Usually cappuccino at restaurants that do not specialize in outrageously-good coffee is terrible. This cappuccino was, strangely, the best I’ve ever had.

It was strong and buzzy enough to hold up to all that milk, it did not taste like a would-be coffee dessert or coffee for weaklings. It was bracing, yet a little fruity – coffee, with a dose of steamed milk, the way they do it in Spain.

(c) Donna Minkowitz 2012

Mile End Sandwich

So sad to go to Mile End Sandwich last week — the new Manhattan offshoot of the delicious (and ultra-hip) Montréal Jewish deli in Brooklyn — and have there be no seating there whatsoever. THERE WERE NO CHAIRS THERE. We were supposed to take our voluptuous but ridiculously expensive sandwiches and cram them down our digestive cavities in the time we could muster standing at a long ugly beige “standing table.” The standing table made the experience of eating comfortable only for a maximum of five minutes. Clearly, the intent was for us to fress down our food and get out of there as soon as possible, freeing up the space for a new cohort of suckers.

Indeed I felt exactly like a factory-farmed cow, making money for the Mile End empire at the maximum rate per time spent at the trough. My tongue sandwich on pumpernickel was really tasty but tiny, and it certainly didn’t make up for the feeling that the owners didn’t care one bit about my comfort or my sense of being welcome and at ease. It reminded me of eating at the Momofuku Ssam Bar, where David Chang deliberately installed wooden boxes to sit on that were as uncomfortable as possible, and polluted all the vegetable dishes with a soupçon of meat to assert his contempt for the vegetarians who had hoped to be able to eat at his restaurant.

Or of once, when I was having dinner at Rosewater in Park Slope and I asked the waitress if they could please leave a certain side dish off the entrée because I knew it would play havoc with my acid reflux. The waitress furrowed her brow. “Chef really doesn’t like being asked to change things.”

I like food. It’s true. A lot. So much that I am willing to spend a crazy portion of my 99% income paying for fancy, delightful, hormone-free stuff. But I am not willing to eat at restaurants that ignore the original meaning of the word: to restore, to make feel at home. It’s called the hospitality industry because proprietors are supposed to make us feel like we’ve been given hospitality, as though we were guests at somebody’s house.

Chefs, even really good chefs, are not rock stars. They are there to serve us, in exchange for our hard-earned dollars. They are there, at the most basic level, to care for us. Despite the less-than-stellar seating at Mile End Brooklyn — most the seats don’t have back support, but a significant minority of them do — I have always felt cared for there. The servers are warm and welcoming. And there are seats to sit in. At Mile End Manhattan, I felt like just another critter to stuff with silage to advance the bottom line.


(c) Donna Minkowitz 2012

Lust on the Corner of South Third


Lust on the Corner of South Third

I wrote this piece around 1988, when Williamsburg was a very different place.

Dark hair, sexy, with an arrogant face like a dyke or a thief, harder chin and hotter eyes than any other woman in decaying Williamsburg. White, with jagged short black hair. Are you a lesbian? One of the most beautiful heads, mouths and jawlines I have seen, here in this wasteland. On Lorimer Street all the women look beaten. Quickly scan the legs, which come out tan and hairless out of light blue shorts. Shaving seldom means everything. I know thousands — but how could I miss so much? Even from far away this one looks sick, every thirty seconds like she’s hit in the face, a slap of confusion, or nausea, or loss. Like a stick across the eyes. She’s tall, and stoops a little. As she passes close to me I feel attraction and pity at the same time, I want to fuck her and to give her aspirins, water, toast. “Sweetheart,” she says, and my heart’s racing, my hips take on warm speed, “do you have fifteen cents for a little juice?” Juice — You bet I want to give you juice, I want to give you mango, guava, apple — I say “Sorry” because I am and “NO” in as loud a voice as I can, I step back. I think she wants me to fish in my pockets so she can step in, step closer and — my instincts say to move. My karate teacher said to always follow my instincts.

Did she have a knife in her pockets or was that just the knife of her face, I was expecting peril but a different peril. Do they really resemble each other? Genet sees a murderer and moans. I don’t, I want a different lover, a different loving — Not this smack in the guts — Not wide nausea filling all the throats on Lorimer — Was her pain as sexy as her rocky jaw, why did my heart move to her fists? I know one hundred reasons women should be tough as rocks. The same: the reasons why I want to open for an avalanche.

(c) Donna Minkowitz 2012

Happy Birthday, Occupy Wall Street

Photo: david_shankbone's photostream

Mayor Bloomberg just made a ridiculous remark about the 10,000 or more folks who rallied with Occupy Wall Street yesterday, including me. He said in his radio address that we were just “a bunch of unions,” not the “real” Occupy Wall Street folks, so therefore the enormous size, power and hope of the march should not be credited to the Occupy movement.

That is absurd. I love unions, and Zuccotti Park protesters, and students, and old people, and nurses, and homeless people, and nannies, and feminists, and writers, and all sorts of folks who just lost their jobs and houses.  And we were all there yesterday. All of us were, and are, Occupy Wall Street.

“The 99%” is the most hopeful — and brilliant — concept I have ever encountered in American politics.   We don’t have to be set against each other to accomplish radical change — the opposite is what is true.

Bless the Y (poem)

Photo: Kenny Holston 21

Bless the women’s locker room where I refresh myself with moisturizer on all
    my limbs my chest my back my feet,
where I lie completely long and stretched in the sauna
warm loose big myself in myself, Continue reading