Thursday, May 27, 2010

A Quirky Food Tour in the East Village

There's nothing like a forecast of 87 degrees to ring in a Manhattan restaurant crawl. "Restaurant crawl?" you ask, "Not bar crawl?" Well, at a recent East Village tasting event, there was ample emphasis on the eating part. From gourmet mac'n'cheese to savory caramel macaroons and fiery Vietnamese sandwiches, the event showcased some of the best examples of typical village quirk. And that's certainly saying something, because anyone who's ever tucked into that hush-hush bar , hidden inside a hot dog restaurant behind the doors of a telephone booth can tell you this: the East Village itself is defined by quirk. So getting a chance to sample miniature versions of, well, just about everything, was the perfect treat on a sweltering weekend afternoon.

Kicking off the tour: S'Mac (345 E. 12th)

If you are American, or ever heard of America, you or someone you know has eaten macaroni and cheese. What's amazing about this product is that even the boxed, mass-produced Kraft version is actually pretty good, only so far as comfort food goes anyway. Which is to say that S'Mac has set itself a world apart with its Four-Cheese Mac'n'Cheese: al dente pasta baked in a lusciously rich and creamy cheese sauce, with a roof of firm, and slightly chewy cheddar, the varying kinds of texture that play war games in your mouth, and explode with flavor.

Next up: The Village Pourhouse (64 3rd Ave)

I assure you, this stop on the tour was more about the scene at the bar than what the bartender was pouring. After suffering through a pint of Bud Lite in a delightfully breezy open-air pub, I took a look around. Across the bar, a trio donning sombreros and faux mustaches, celebrating Saturday in anticipation of Cinco de Mayo. Next to my table, a group of eight or so identically-dressed Where's Waldo fans drinking and posing. Of course they were. Only in the Village.

And now, a tasting: Baoguette (37 St Mark's)

"Can I be in your picture?" the homeless man asked me. "No," I said, somewhat abruptly, because I'd just imbibed the liquid attitude that is Bud Lite. "But what about me?" asked another man, standing to my right, not looking very much like the chef he claimed to be. Cheerful in that humble sort of way, he hinted that he was the boss at Baoguette, and invited me inside.

And sure enough...

Sure enough, he was the boss, and while I waited for my "Sloppy Bao", which was graded "Very Spicy" out of four categories of pain, Chef Huang offered me sweet, creamy Pandan soft-serve. True to his claim, the bao was hot as hell. But its heat was cut with the tart sweetness of slivers of raw, young mango. On a freshly baked "baoguette", the sandwich of marinated minced beef couldn't have gone better - with a dark wheat beer, poured by an Aussie with an excellently coiffed weave - at Jimmy's 43, my next stop.

Pit stop: Jimmy's 43 (43 E. 7th St.)

The perfectly-coiffed Aussie bartender recommended a wheat beer with such authority that I gave in to my hesitation. Normally, wheat beer is just so yeasty and so hoppy; in my mind, it's lightweight material. But not this wheat. This wheat was brown and nutty, marrying the edginess of pecan with the softness of a shandy. It served the bao well, and I quaffed alongside the coiffed.

Next up: Luke's Lobster (93 E. 7th St.)

I don't know about you, but there's just something about white toast. Which is odd, because there's just nothing about untoasted white bread. Nothing - at all. But back to white toast, which usually sits in the background of a good sandwich, smirking smugly that it can't help but be noticed.

And so it was...

And so it was noticed, even in the company of lobster so tender that an entire restaurant of tasting revelers were completely silent, save the orgasmic exclamations of those of us eating: "Oh. My. God. That was so worth the wait!" Toasted white bread, mayo, tender lobster, an option for cocktail sauce. A simple sandwich, done just right.

Winding down: La Lucha (147 Ave. A)

It's a little bit difficult to focus on the food in front of you when there are scary S&M masks on the wall. What to do?

Face your fears, of course and wear a scary S&M mask while eating an open-faced taco. So that's what I did while sampling a vegetarian taco stuffed with cactus (looks and tastes like a sticky, gummy version of a snow pea) and a pork taco laced with pickled red onion.

Finally, dessert: Chikalicious (204 E. 10th)

Chikalicious has something of a cult following. I know this because I have walked past its two restaurants (which happen to be in such proximity to each other that they share a block) as early as 4PM, or as late as 11PM, and there is almost always a line of desperate sugar addicts waiting to get their gourmet fix. I mean, it's like seeing a line snaking outside of two Starbuck's on the same block. Oh wait, that happens all the time. Anyway, on offer that day for The Dealist's ticketholders were cupcakes and macaroons. If I may, I'll skip over the cupcakes (they were as good as cupcakes always are, especially red velvet ones), and move right onto the thing that will change your life: the salted-caramel macaroon. Never have I ever tasted such a waltz of sweet and savory, nor have I experienced the struggle to keep my cool between layers of crispy exterior giving way to silken caramel interior. It is possible that my life heretofore will be referred to as "B.C.", "Before Chikalicious", and "A.D.", "After Dessert". If you haven't sampled one of their salted-caramel macaroons, you haven't lived.

The End...
And that was where my tour ended. Although I hadn't even made it to every restaurant and bar on the tour's list, I'd done my best. Full and happy, I rang in the coming summer season in the quirkiest neighborhood of the best city on the planet.