We had time to kill after our dinner at John’s of Times Square and Mike wanted something for dessert, so we headed towards the Sugar Factory location around the corner. While we didn’t have reservations, we were able to grab a couple of spots at the counter.
The Sugar Factory is a casual restaurant chain with locations in many parts of the country, including two in New York City. They serve burgers, sandwiches and tacos, in addition to alcoholic drinks, but they are best known for their “insane milkshakes.” These combine pastries/cakes and milkshakes in outrageous presentations. Of course, that’s what Mike wanted.
At the recommendation of our waitress, Mike got the Brownie Volcano insane milkshake (“chocolate shake served in a chocolate frosted mug, mini chocolate chips, topped with a chocolate frosted donut, a brownie ice cream bar, chocolate pocky cookies, whipped cream and dark and white chocolate sprinkle mug”). It was, indeed, insane as was it’s price (around $25). I, being a sane person, wasn’t hungry – but I did enjoy the pokey sticks and some of the shake, which was your good, standard chocolate milkshake. Mike liked the whole concoction, though it left him in a sugar coma.
The Sugar Factory Times Square location was pretty cute when we visited. It was obviously decorated for Valentine’s Day, and with the proper photographer, I’m sure it’d be instagramable. That wasn’t our aim, however, as shown by the poor quality of our photos. Our waitress was very kind and attentive, absolutely lovely. I’m not big on chains, but this was a pretty nice experience.
694 8th Ave
New York, NY 10036
New York City is known for many things: cheesecakes, hot dogs and pizza. While I haven’t known many New Yorkers who rave about it, my friends from New Jersey are enamored of the large, thin, flexible slices and they seem to seek it all over the Bay Area (here is a hint, if you do like this style, Bluebird Pizzeria in San Leandro makes a mean NY/New Jersey style pizza). I, however, am not a fan. I love thick pizza, the thicker, the better. My favorite in the Bay Area is Zachary’s, which serves a stuffed pizza, where cheese and dough melt into an incredible combination. Beyond that, I’ll go with Chicago pizza and deep dish pizza. The only pizza I like less than New York pizza are Italian pizzas, with their often paper thin crusts.
Still, we were in New York and we had to have pizza – even though this is probably my husband’s least favorite meal. Alas, I didn’t want to go out of our way to have it, but John’s of Times Square was conveniently located next to the St. James Theater, where we had tickets to see Spamalot (amazing play, btw, totally worth going to).
John’s of Time Square is an offshoot of John’s of Bleeker Street, itself an offshoot of Lombardi’s, New Yorks’s first pizzeria. The Time Square location was opened in 1997 by Madeline Castellotti, the estranged wife of Peter Castelotti, Sr., then owner of the Bleeker St. location. Madeline Castelloti saw the potential on an abandoned church and turned it into a 400 seat restaurant. As the area around Times Square cleaned up in the 2000s, the restaurant took off and it’s now a popular – and affordable – dining location. Peter and Madeline’s children, who inherited the two restaurants, have been in some juicy family drama for the last twelve years, which is still going on and might be worthy of an Amazon Prime miniseries, but none of that is important to the enjoyment of the pizza.
And the pizza is pretty good as far as thin pizza goes. We got it with sausage and mushrooms, one of my favorite combinations, and we fully enjoyed it. The thin crust was pleasantly chewy, the sauce did its job and got out of the way, and the toppings were fresh and tasty. I really had nothing to complain about. If I had to have thin pizza again, I’d definitely go for this one.
As much as I wanted to try New York style pizza, it turns out that the pizza served at John’s of Times Square and many of the older New York pizzerias is not actually New York style. Rather, these are American-Neapolitan pizzas, made in the Neapolitan style but baked in coal rather the wood ovens they use in Naples. New York style pizza, meanwhile, is baked in gas ovens. I wonder if the difference might be on the crust – with the latter being spongier anf more flexible. In any case, we didn’t try it, so I can’t comment on it. John’s didn’t convert me into American-Neapolitan pizza, but it gave it a good try.
In addition to pizzas, John’s of Times Square serves pasta, and they sell their jarred marinara and vodka sauces. Our waitress let us try the marinara sauce and it was very good, it had a bright, fresh flavor. If I was a local, I’d buy it.
As hinted above, even more impressive than John’s of Time Square’s pizza is its building. Located in the a converted church amphitheater, John’s features an impressive stained glass ceiling. It wasn’t that much to look at in the early evening, but photos of it during the day are breathtaking. If I were to go again, I’d make sure to hit it during the day.
In addition to the stained glass windows, John’s features a beautiful, huge mural. But the restaurant itself is a very casual affair, no tablecloths here.
There are no reservations, but we were seated promptly when we arrived around 5:30 PM on a February weekday night. A line did start forming later on – but we weren’t rushed to leave. Our waitress as efficient and pleasant, and service as very good. She recommended the right size pizza given our level of hunger.
Magnolia Bakery apparently became famous because of a scene in Sex and the City – an early 2000s show about four single women living in NYC. While I watched the show, I didn’t remember the bakery at all, but it came up repeatedly during my research of what to eat while in New York City.
Magnolia Bakery is particularly famous for its banana pudding. So much so that, at least in the case of the branch at Rockefeller Center, they have a line dedicated for people ordering the banana pudding alone. As you can see, very few people seem to visit the bakery and not order it.
The pudding is prepackaged into ice-cream style cartons, and comes in thee sizes. We had the medium (12 oz, $7.25) the first time, and the large (16 oz, $8.75) in a subsequent visit.
The banana pudding is light, with large chunks of cooked banana. The top is somewhat frothy. It has a strong banana flavor but it’s not as sweet as I feared – though that’s relatively speaking, as cooked bananas are incredibly sweet. I liked it, as far as banana pudding went, but I didn’t love it. Then again, I’m not a huge fan of banana pudding. My husband, who is, was in love with it. He pronounced it “really good” and went back our last night, after an incredible dinner at Kochi, to get more.
So, is the banana pudding worth the hype? I think yes, if you are a banana pudding lover – and no, if banana pudding is not your “go to” dessert.
Magnolia Bakery serves, of course, a plethora of other baked goods. The cupcakes and cheesecake are said to be particularly good. However, we didn’t try anything else.
Magnolia Bakery has 9 locations in NYC, one in West Hollywood and one in Chicago. In addition they have a plethora of locations in Asia and the Middle East.
1240 Avenue of the Americas (at 49th Street)
New York City
Hours of Operation
Sun-Thurs: 8 AM - 10 PM EST
Fri-Sat: 8 AM - 11 PM EST
We had a lot of great food in our trip to New York City, but I wasn’t expecting having so much great French food. Then again, why not? The enormous day population in Manhattan means there is market for all sorts of food, and enough competition so that not-so-great-restaurants probably don’t survive for long.
L’Amie Pierre, a casual eatery serving French pastries for breakfast and salad, soups, sandwiches and quiches for lunch, was located very near our hotel. I’d scoped it out online before the trip, but Mike saw it on the taxi ride from the train station. He was excited to hit it our second morning in NYC, and it proved to be just as good as its reviews.
In all, we ate breakfast there once, and got take out twice more. I didn’t take any photos of the fare, but you know what a croissant looks like. My description will have to suffice my memories.
We can’t say the plain croissants ($4.2) were as good as any we had in Paris – because it’s been too long since our Paris days to actually remember them – but they were the best croissants we’ve had in the US. They were flaky, buttery and soft and everything you want in a croissant. The flavor was on point, and they were delicious with the butter and jam available at the store.
The ham and cheese croissants ($7) were even better – but only when warm. They have a good ratio of ham to cheese, they are not overwhelmingly salty and they were just very tasty when warm. Cold, however, they were just OK.
Perhaps my favorite treat, however, was the baguette with butter and jam ($3.50). The mini baguette also had great flavor and crunch, and the butter was very high quality. The jam is Bonne Maman strawberry preserves, if I recall correctly. They give you a little jar of it. I’m not sure if there was a choice, as Mike was the one who ordered.
The restaurant itself is very casual, with some regular tables, counter space facing the window and other tall tables, that I think are meant to be shared. Their coffee and cappuccinos were good, but not particularly remarkable. You really come here for the pastries – and bread.
149 West 51st Street
New York City
Monday - Friday: 7:00 am - 7:00 pm
Saturday: 09:00 am - 5:00 pm
The halal cart phenomenon continues unabated in NYC, and with good reason.
Forget about hotdogs, for several decades now, the New York City street food par excellence has been halal fare. Originally referring to the types of foods permitted for Muslims – think Kosher but far less strict -, halal carts are understood to serve food of Mediterranean origins, mainly shawarmas and kababs, either served on pita or as part of a rice bowl. Halal carts broke into the NYC street scene in the 1980’s, when Greek carts were still a thing, but really blew up in the 1990’s. By the end of the millennium, there were over 500 halal carts in NYC, and their numbers have only grown since then.
Perhaps the most famous halal cart, and one of the first, is Halal Guys. Over the decades, they have not only expanded throughout the city but nationwide, operating both carts and brick and mortar restaurants. Like many of the current carts, it was operated by Egyptian immigrants. They are famous for their white and red sauces – the former apparently a mint yogurt sauce and the latter apparently shattah, a peppery sauce. -, something which other carts seem to have imitated. In addition to Egyptians, many halal carts are operated by Bangladeshi and Afghan immigrants/refugees, and the menus of their specific carts may reflect these interests.
Getting food from a halal cart was one of my “NYC must do’s” and we were lucky that one of the two halal carts located immediately across the street from our hotel – there were probably a dozen or so within a couple of blocks -, got very good reviews. Thus on our second night in the City, after attending a taping of the Colbert show, we got halal take out at Mama Halal Food and ate it in our hotel.
I went with the lamb gyro ($8.50) and I was very happy. The lamb cubes were impossible tender and flavorful, and after I removed some lettuce, the pita sandwich was well balanced. I had it just with the white sauce. The gyro was perhaps a tad small, but fortunately I wasn’t terribly hungry. I’d definitely order it again if I was in the area.
Mike had the chicken tikka masala bowl ($10.50), with both white and red sauces, and he was very happy with it. I, personally, didn’t think it tasted much like tikka masala, and the red sauce had made it too spicy for my taste, but I appreciated how tender the chicken was. He’d order it again, I wouldn’t.
Drinks were cheap, just $1 for cans, if I recall correctly. There was almost no wait on that cold February Monday night, and service was friendly and efficient. In addition to the W 51st location that we visited, Mama Halal Food has carts at W54st/8Ave, W50st/9Ave and 121st/LibertyAve (Queens).
Mama Halal Food
W 51st St. & 7th Ave.
M-Su 10 AM - 3 AM
Have I been dethroned? Empanada Mama does make a great empanada.
Everyone who knows me, knows that I love to cook. And anyone that knows me well, knows that my specialty are beef empanadas. It’s what I take to potlucks when I’m feeling generous (it’s pretty time consuming to close them) and I’ve been known to even auction them off at charity events. Empanadas – pastry shells filled with meats and/or vegetables and then folded in half into half-moon shapes – are a specialty of Argentina, my home country. I grew up eating them at least once a week, and you can find them in almost every restaurant, café and bakery in Argentina. Indeed, during our last trip my husband managed to find a café where they weren’t in the menu – he just assumed they were so he ordered them – and the waiter just went around the corner to a bakery and picked one up for him.
But empanadas, made with an endless variety of fillings, are eaten, to a greater or lesser extent, throughout Latin America, and South America in particular. They came to the continent with the Spaniards, who are presumed to have inherited them from the Moors – beyond that, we find filled pastries under different names throughout much of the world. And it’s no wonder. Empanadas and their cousins are convenient, as you can eat them on the go without need of silverware, they are relatively cheap, in addition to delicious. Even within Latin American countries, there are a myriad of varieties of empanadas, differing both on the pastry and the fillings used.
It’s thus not surprising that New York City, a town where immigrants and descendants of immigrants from the world over congregate, would have restaurants specializing on empanadas. Empanada Mama is a Colombian restaurant, but among the 40 empanadas they offer, they have flavors from all over the world. While fried corn flour empanadas are most common in Colombia, Empanada Mama’s menu mostly emphasizes fried wheat flour empanadas, though they have a few fried corn flour and baked wheat flour ones. At home, I always bake my empanadas. I don’t have a deep fryer and I do not like deep frying on a pan. In addition, baked empanadas keep longer and you can eat those with meat fillings at room temperature and microwave those with cheese or sweet fillings. But I do believe fried empanadas are tastier, and that’s what I always order at restaurants. At Empanada Mama, they did not disappoint.
While Empanada Mama serves other dishes in addition to empanadas – their nachos and arepas were tempting – we were there to eat empanadas, so we stuck to those. We weren’t terribly hungry after that morning’s breakfast at La Grande Boucherie, so we shared three savory empanadas and two sweet ones.
The El Toro empanada (braised oxtail with Jamaican pepper, chipotle, red wine, onion, carrot, thyme, and maduros – $4.80) was probably my favorite. It had the intensity of flavor I like to find in empanadas, without being particularly spicy. I’d definitely order it again.
Mike wanted to try a traditional Colombian empanada (albeit with a wheat shell), so he went for the Shredded Beef empanada (slow-cooked beef marinated in traditional Colombian spices with onion – $4.80). He was quite happy with it. He claims he still prefers the flavor of my empanadas, but he really liked the texture of the shredded beef. I’m now thinking perhaps I should try making a ropa vieja empanada and see how that works.
My memories of the Cuban empanada (slow-roasted pork and ham with Mozzarella cheese and a touch of sofrito sauce – $4.50) are less vivid, but I do remember liking it quite a bit. The picture I took of it, however, came out very blurry, so I’m not posting it.
I’m a huge fan of cheese and fruits together – pineapple is one of my favorite toppings for pizza, and I love the cheese-and-plum soufflé empanadas at El Ladrillo, in my home city of La Plata -, so I was intrigued by both the Romeo & Juliet empanada (guava & Mozzarella cheese – $4.50) and the Caramel & Cheese Empanada ($4.50). I finally decided on the latter, and I was happy to confirm my suspicions that it would be a wonderful combination. The caramel was really dulce de leche, and it went great with the light flavored, slightly salty Mozzarella cheese. Whenever I’ve tried to make empanadas with Mozzarella, the cheese has been swallowed by the pastry and they’ve ended up hollow. Here, however, the cheese was fully present. I’m not sure if this was because of the type of pastry dough they used, because they were fried, rather than baked, or simply because the dulce de leche did something to prevent the dough from absorbing the cheese. Hoping it’s the latter, I’m going to try making them. I’ll report later on how they worked.
Mike ordered the Belgian (chocolate) & Banana Empanada ($4.50) and he wasn’t as pleased. The dark chocolate was just too intense, and I don’t think chocolate works that well with empanada pastry. Of everything we ordered that day, it’s the one thing we wouldn’t get again. While the empanadas themselves were the traditional size, they were almost overfilled, so two empanadas should satisfy a typical appetite.
We visited the Hell Kitchen’s branch of Empanada Mama, but they have three other locations in Manhattan – all open 24 hours, so no matter when you get the munchies, you’ll be able to get one. While some of the locations seem like take out spots, the Hell Kitchen restaurant offers ample seating in the back and waiter service. Their menus are, annoyingly, online through a QR code, but they do have printed menus if you ask for them. Service was friendly and efficient, and while the restaurant lacks much of an ambiance, it’s comfortable enough. If we ever go back to NYC, I’d be happy to hit Empanada Mama again.
Empanada Mama 765 9th Ave, New York City, NY 10010 (212) 698-9008
La Grande Boucherie had the fortune of being located about half way between our hotel and the Museum of Modern Art, the first stop in our NYC itinerary. I usually don’t eat breakfast – and that Monday morning was no exception – but I figured my husband might want something solid before tackling the museum. Given how long we spent checking out the exhibits, this was a good call.
La Grande Boucherie serves breakfast, weekend brunch, lunch and dinner in an attractive art nouveau setting that immediately made me feel as if I was in the NYC of yore. The stained glass ceilings were gorgeous, as were the ceramic floors, the central bar was impressive and while the dining rooms, located at both sides of the bar, were more austere, they made me feel very much at home. The Paris, New York City and Buenos Aires of the early 20th century were, perhaps, more similar than not.
Perhaps the prettiest room in the restaurant is its outdoors, covered patio, open to a pedestrian passageway – “6 1/2 Avenue”- that connects W 53rd from W54th streets. That patio is filled with potted plants – you can see them on the bar mirror in the picture above – and was quite enticing, though closed that cold February morning.
The breakfast menu at La Grande Boucherie was, surprisingly, brief. It included several egg dishes, a few sandwiches and a nice variety of coffees, teas and breakfast cocktails, but not very many sweet dishes. It was just as well, as I wasn’t particularly hungry. I enjoyed a couple of pretty average cappuccinos ($6) and an also pretty-average almond croissant ($6), while my husband had the omelette au jambon & gruyère ($30)
The omelet was definitely not as fluffy as we had expected based on the reviews – but it was just as good. It turns out that gruyere and good quality ham make a huge difference as far as taste goes. My husband thoroughly enjoyed it. The potatoes were OK, good but nothing to write home about.
Service was competent and friendly. In all, we enjoyed out time there.
La Grande Boucherie
145 W 53rd St.
New York City
+1 (212) 510 7714
Monday – Friday 08:00 AM - 12:00 AM
Saturday – Sunday 10:00 AM - 12:00 AM
I love cheesecake. My guess is that most people who have tried cheesecake, love cheesecake. But I was a relatively late convert to cheesecake. My first real experience with it did not come until after college. Before, I had been reluctant to try it. In my childhood, my mother made a frozen ricotta cake which I wasn’t terribly fond of, so when Sara Lee frozen cheesecakes hit the Argentine market, I’m going to guess around 1980, the time of a cheap dollar and lots of imports, I refused to even try them. I loved the Sara Lee strawberry shortcake (no longer produced), but the idea of cheesecake seemed, to me, to be an abomination. After that, cheesecake just went into my long last of things I knew I wouldn’t like, so I didn’t.
It wasn’t until I was doing my junior-cum-senior year abroad in Egypt that my interest in cheesecake was awoken. It was all because of Lola, another foreign student at the American University in Cairo who would quickly become my best friend. She craved cheesecake. She talked about it incessantly. So much so, that we spent a fair amount of time looking for cheesecakes in Cairo – never to be found. So when we returned, I had to try it. I actually can’t remember the first time I did, but soon enough I became, like practically everyone else, a cheesecake aficionado. Over the years and decades, I have eaten and baked many a cheesecake. To be honest, most of them taste pretty close to each other. They are made with sweetened Philadelphia-style cream cheese, flour, sugar and eggs. Variations come on the crust – graham cracker is traditional, but I’ve preferred it with vanilla wafers -, and on the toppings. These can be anything: chocolate, fruit, caramel, peanut butter; you name it. But, I keep going back to plain New York cheesecake. Sometimes simpler is better.
It should thus not be surprising that for my first stop in New York City, I chose Junior’s for dinner. Among the myriad of restaurants and bakeries serving cheesecake in NYC, the two most often mentioned as having the best cheesecake in town (and therefore, the world) are Junior’s and Eileen’s Special Cheesecake. Junior’s, which started as a coffee shop-style restaurant in Brooklyn back in 1950, has since opened two other locations in Manhattan (and one in Connecticut), one of which was just a couple of shorts blocks away from our hotel.
There was no wait to be seated, on that Sunday evening in February – but Junior’s offers an online waitlist for those times when it’s busy. The 49th St. & Broadway location where we dined looks like an old-fashioned coffee shop; there are booths, tables and lots of waiters buzzing around. The immense menu has everything you’d expect in a restaurant of that kind and more: burgers, soups and salads, lots of different sandwiches – including four different Reubens -, seafood prepared in a myriad of ways, roasted or fried seafood and meats, BBQ (?!) and a couple of odes to its Eastern European cultural origins: Hungarian beef goulash and Romanian steak. In addition to a myriad of cheesecakes, Junior’s serves other desserts, ice cream sodas, malts and shakes. If you are looking for that 1950’s diner-style experience from so many Hollywood movies, you’ll find it here. Most of the crowd were foreign tourists, however, judged by the myriad of mostly European languages we heard spoke and the location near Times Square.
We weren’t particularly hungry, however – I’d brought us a sandwich to share in the plane – so we decided to split a pastrami burger ($23) and two slices of cheesecake. The burger was impressive as far as size went, but not particularly great. It wasn’t as juicy or flavorful as I’d had hoped for. The pastrami itself was very tasty, the slices were fairly thick and had a pleasant smoky flavor. Ordering a pastrami sandwich might be a better call here. The burger was served with steak fries and onion rings, which were remarkably under-seasoned. Their ranch dressing was superb, however.
The cheesecakes, fortunately, were much better. I just loved their “famous No1 original cheesecake,” aka New York cheesecake ($9/slice). It was light and very creamy, and most importantly, had a very different flavor from most cheesecakes. It tasted like it was made from some type of farmer’s cheese, it had a more savory, aged? flavor and was less sweet that most cheesecakes I’ve had. Perhaps they use neufchatel, the French cheese American cream cheese is set to imitate? I don’t think I would have liked it as a kid, but as an older adult, it hit the spot. The cheesecake is made with a thin sponge cake crust, rather than a graham cracker one, which improves the whole experience. In all, I was quite happy and considered bringing one back with me. However, that might have been a disaster and Junior’s ships them country-wide, so I might order one for Thanksgiving or another holiday meal. I think I will also try to recreate it, and I’ll blog about my tries when the time comes.
The “brownie explosion cheesecake” slice ($9.25) we ordered was much less successful. I was envisioning a cheesecake with little pieces of brownie baked in, but instead it consisted of two layers of brownie with some cheesecake in the middle. The brownie was good, but very dense, and too rich a dessert for this stage in my life. Plus, flavor wise, the brownie overwhelmed the cheesecake.
Service was good but hurried. The experience in general was quite positive. I’d go back.
I had Safeway’s Signature Cafe Jambalaya soup today and it was pretty good. It’s basically a thick tomato-based broth with sausage slices, cubed chicken and rice. There is supposedly bacon and uncured ham, but it’s not really distinguishable.
The soup is quite good and it has a fair amount of umami. It is, however, a bit spicier than I would have preferred. The only problem is the sausage: it really lacks flavor. I’m not sure why they chose such a mild sausage, but it really could be improved. Still, it’s good enough to be worth keeping in your fridge for an improvised lunch or dinner. Unopened, it lasts about 6 weeks in the fridge.
I should note, however, that it’s *extremely* caloric. A single cup/8 oz of soup has 270 calories and no one, ever, in the history of humanity, has ever been filled up by a single cup of soup. A 24-oz container currently costs $8, when not on sale.
In the “battle” between Safeway’s and Panera’s Tomato Bisque, Panera is the clear winner.
I have never been a fan of soup – ramen excluded -, but I became fond of Panera’s creamy tomato soup during the pandemic. It’s warm, creamy and hearty – and most importantly, not too acidic – and feels just like a hug. In retrospect, it’s not a surprise that I would like it. It’s really just a thinner version of pasta sauce, and we all know that pasta is just a vehicle for sauce.
During the pandemic, when I still had kids at home (insert empty nest tears here), we usually got the soup as part of a family feast – my vegetarian daughter didn’t really like the sandwiches, but she did enjoy the soup. Later, I found out that they also sell the soup at the supermarket, it’s almost as good, and at $12 for 32 oz, it’s considerably cheaper than at the store (unless you are ordering a family feast). The store-bought soup is also vegetarian and, as I mentioned, quite tasty. Here are the ingredients: Tomatoes, Water, Heavy Cream, Onions, Contains 2% or Less of: Butter (Cream, Salt), Sugar, Salt, Spices, Corn Starch, Extra Virgin Olive Oil, Nisin Preparation and Garlic.
This week, Panera tomato soup wasn’t available at Safeway, so I decided to get their Signature Cafe Tomato Basil Bisque instead. It looks very much like Panera’s and, truth be told, it doesn’t taste that differently. It’s a bit spicier – something I don’t really like -, and seems to have less umami than Panera’s, but it’s also very comforting and good. What it is not is vegetarian. The soup contains chicken base and chicken broth.
Safeway’s soup also uses tomato paste instead of tomatoes, as well as a variety of other ingredients to, I presume, enhance the flavor. That, I imagine, is the purpose of the chicken base and broth. It’s thus interesting that it’s not as tasty as Panera’s far simpler one. For just $2 less for a 32 oz container, it makes little sense to buy the Safeway Signature Cafe brand, unless the Panera brand is out of stock, or they change it.
Here are the ingredients for the Signature Cafe tomato soup: