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NYC Food Aventures: Sugar Factory

A ridiculous milkshake, but that’s the point.

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.

milkshake


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.

Sugar Factory
694 8th Ave
New York, NY 10036
(347) 721-9066

NYC Food Adventures: John’s of Times Square

pizza

Did it convert me to New York style pizza?

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.

John's of Times Square


260 West 44th Street

Manhattan

212.391.7560
​
Sunday - Saturday 11:30AM - 11:30PM

NYC Food Adventures: Mama Halal Food

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.

lamb gyro

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.

chicken tikka masala

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.
NYC
(347) 207-5804
M-Su 10 AM - 3 AM

							

NYC Food Adventures: Empanada Mama

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.

El toro empanada

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.

empanada

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.

sweet empanadas


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

Filippo Berio Tomato & Ricotta Pesto – Review

I came across this product soon after having some complimentary bread with a creamy tomato sauce at some restaurant, probably Buon Appetito in Hayward. My daughter and I really liked it, so when I saw it, I figured I’d give it a try.

I hadn’t tried it until now but it tastes exactly as you would expect from the title/description. It basically taste like pesto, which has been mixed with some ricotta cheese and tomato sauce. The strongest flavor in the mix is the Grana Padano cheese, a cheap cousin to Parmesan, followed by the basil, which stands in the background. The tomato adds quite a bit of intense acidity to the mixture, while the Ricotta somewhat softens it, but can mostly be felt in the soft yet slightly chalky texture.

All in all, I enjoyed it quite a bit on French bread, but the acidity is such that you can’t eat too much of it. Still, it works well as a dip, and you could make interesting canapes with it. The producers also suggest as recommended uses: “Roasting or Basting Proteins and Vegetables, Baked into Bread, Layered with Pasta as Lasagna, Base for Creamy Soup”. I’d note that due to its intense flavor, less is likely to be more on any dinner dish.

Filippo Berio is a brand named after the namesake of the olive oil company he started. In addition to olive oils, they produce and sell balsamic vinegars, pestos and glazes. They seem to be base din Lucca, Italy and the pesto is made in Italy. It sells at my local Safeway supermarket for $6.60 (I bought it on sale 2 months ago for $2.50 and it’s currently on sale for $4).

Primal Kitchen Beef & Mushroom Bowl – Review

I found these frozen bowls at Grocery Outlet, I think for $4. I was impressed by the simple ingredients and “grass fed” beef so I figured I’d give them a try. It was fine, about the quality you expect from frozen food. The beef consists of “patty crumbles”, the mushrooms are limp and the sauce is basic a tomato sauce, a little bit spicy and a little bit undersalted. The dish is in need of a starch, some bread, rice or cornbread would probably compliment it nicely. Of course, they are sold to cater to the “paleo” market, thus their lack of carbs.

I did like that it came in what seems to be a compostable bowl and is covered with wax paper – but I have curve side composting. And the portion was large enough for a light lunch. I just wasn’t sold on the flavor.

Primal Kitchen, which started as a small company but was later acquired by Kraft, sells 3 frozen bowls – the other two are panang curry and chicken pesto. It’s not clear to me if the bowls are in the process of being discontinued, however. The only place I can find that sells them, other than Grocery Outlet, is Thrive Market, where they retail for $9. They used to be $8 at Safeway, but they’re no longer available.

Tapsilog Express in San Leandro offers tasty, quick Filipino silogs

Bay Area Restaurant Reviews

I’m a big fan of Filipino food, a very successful fusion of Asian and Spanish/Latin American cuisine, but we seldom get it because Filipino restaurants don’t really cater to vegetarians or vegans, and one of my daughters is one. So when we were kidless a few nights ago, it was a great opportunity to try one of the local Filipino restaurants. It was a wonderful night, so we figured we’d get take out and eat it in the patio, and Tapsilog Express seemed best suited for an easy take out experience. It was.

Tapsilog Express has some indoor seating, in a pleasant though not particularly alluring room, but it’s mostly a take out place. They have a simplified menu of meat mains served with rice and a fried egg, as well as some appetizers, drinks and a couple of desserts. We got two orders of lumpia, the tosilog and the chorizosilog . I also got the pineapple cooler and flan for dessert. The food came out very quickly, about 10 minutes after ordering.

The lumpia ($7.50 per order) were small, 1 1/2″ pieces, but there was a good amount of them per order (the picture shows two). They were tasty by themselves, which is a good thing as the sweet and sour sauce they came with was overwhelmingly sour and not very tasty. I’d only get these again if I had sauce at home.

Tosilog ($11) is described as Filipino bacon, but it’s more like pork strips marinated in a sweet sauce. It lacks the crispiness of bacon. It was pretty good, though I felt it lacked “umph”. Still, I enjoyed it. I also enjoyed mixing the egg yolk with the rice.

My husband similarly enjoyed his chorizo ($11). It was slightly sweet and very tasty. He’d get it again.

The flan itself was pretty standard, but the caramel sauce was tastier than usual – probably because it was cooked to perfection. I’m a big flan fan and I’d have it again.
I seldom get juices/fountain drinks at restaurants (other than soda), but their pineapple cooler ($3) had good reviews so I decided to give it a try. It was actually very good, a great proportion of pineapple juice to water, so that it had a nice pineapple taste but it wasn’t overwhelmingly sweet or heavy. I’d have it again.
Tapsilog Express
14843 Washington Ave.
San Leandro, California
(510) 878-1232
M-Su 11:30 am – 07:30 pm

Pasquier Macarons – Ooh La la

I’ve finally found a brand of macarons worth the hype

My oldest daughter loves macarons – which really the only reason I ever buy them, or eat them. I’ve tried a few here and there: frozen and fresh ones from the supermarket or specialty stores, gourmet ones from French bakeries, both in the US and in Paris, and I’ve even made them myself – but I never have really gotten the point of them. They usually consist of a too-dry-cookie with an underwhelming filling. I’ve never been impressed, until now.

I’m pleased to say that Pasquier makes the best macarons that I’ve ever had and that they are easily available and not too expensive (as far as macarons go, these are very expensive pastries to begin with). The cookies are moist while still having a bit of crunch, and the flavors of both the cookie and the filling are explosive. They are just delicious.

The macarons come in six flavors: vanilla, pistachio, caramel, raspberry, lemon and chocolate, and I can’t say I have a favorite (OK, maybe pistachio, but maybe lemon). They all hit the right spot, albeit with a tiny bit too much sweetness. They are tiny, I’d say the size of a silver dollar if I remembered just how big those were. But if you can resist not emptying the box, you do get a lot of flavor for your buck. They are made in France, they are refrigerated and you must consume them within 2 days of opening the box. I don’t think you’ll have trouble.


I found them at Grocery Outlet for $5 for a box of 12 (5.6 oz total), but they also seem to be available at Sprouts and Good Eggs for $7-8 and at Target for $11.

Malabar Restaurant Review – Santa Cruz

My first visit to a Sri Lankan restaurant.

We were in Santa Cruz visiting our college-student, and I decided to check out Malabar for the simple reason that I couldn’t ever recall having had Sri Lankan food. That turned out to not be true, I did cook Ceylonese food a couple of decades ago as part of my international food project, but I don’t think I’ve ever been to an actual Sri Lankan restaurant.

Malabar’s menu is pretty short – though that may be as a result of the COVID pandemic and the current labor shortage (they’re hiring, btw) -, and features a few dishes from India and Malaysia/Singapore, in addition to Sri Lankan ones. Mains tend to average about $20. The restaurant seems to have a nice, if generic, dining room but also has a couple of tables on the sidewalk, and that’s where we ate.

We started by sharing an appetizer of vegetable roti ($9.50). This was similar to a stuffed dosa, with a filling made from leeks, potatoes and cabbage. It was pretty tasty, even if the curry sauce it came with was not as delicious as the yellow curries you often get with rotis at Thai restaurants. It also came with a spicy tomato sauce that carried a lot of heat.

For our mains, my daughter had the mixed vegetable curry (“Mixed vegetables in a Sri Lankan style coconut curry”, $17.50) and I had the Sri Lankan Yellow Curry ($19.50). Both dishes turned out to be the same yellow curry. While my daughter’s was served with large pieces of broccoli, carrots, peppers, cabbage and kale, mine had a snapper filet as the base (you can substitute for chicken or salmon at an extra cost). Unlike other curries I’ve had in the US, the filet was served whole, rather than in chunks. The curry itself was very thin (a feature it shared with the Ceylonese curry I made myself), with a pretty mild flavor. It was tasty but it lacked both the consistency and layers of flavor you get in a Thai curry, for example. Perhaps it’s best to see it as a curry soup. I’m not 100% sure that it worked that well with the snapper, but it was a pleasant enough dish to eat, even if not one I’d rush to order again. My daughter felt pretty much the same. Both dishes were served with rice, which seemed like a medium grain type, a little on the sticky side. I don’t know that I loved it.

My husband ordered the Devil Lanka with snapper ($21.50), a dish consisting of fish cooked with “cardamom, cinnamon, clove, Anaheim papers, cucumber, pineapple, curry leaves, carrots, tomato, red onion” and “served in a sweet sour and spicy tomato sauce”. He was quite happy with his dish. It wasn’t like anything he’d had before, and he liked the flavors.

Service was very good, our servers were very attentive and friendly. They do ask you to use your phone to scan a QR code to look at the menu (which is also posted outside), but when I mentioned that I didn’t have a smart phone, they brought us a paper menu. My daughter who did have a smart phone with her felt looking at the menu on the small phone screen was very difficult, so she used the paper one instead.

In all we had a very nice time, the street wasn’t very busy (though there was a fair amount of people coming in and out of the restaurant, it’s obviously popular for take out) and we felt safe eating there.

I didn't take any pictures, however (that lack of smart phone and all).

Malabar Restaurant
514 Front St
Santa Cruz, CA
(831) 201 4438
T-Th 5pm - 9:00 pm, F 5pm - 9:30 pm, Sa-Su 12 pm - 2:30 pm and  5pm - 9:30 pm



Safeway Sub Sandwich Review

It’s a great deal when it’s on sale

The Safeway sub, with a bread knife and fork for size comparison.

Every Friday, Safeway supermarket has a bunch of items on sale for $5. Usually this includes a couple of items from their deli, and more often than not, it includes their “Signature Cafe All American Sub,” which is normally $10. This 14″+, 2lb sandwich includes ham, cured turkey, white American cheese and romaine lettuce. The ingredient list says it also has beef, mayo and mustard, but these never seem to make an appearance in my sandwiches. Adding the latter two improves the experience. The sandwich could probably also used more cheese, there really isn’t enough to cover all the meat.

Despite these shortcomings, it’s a damn good sandwich. For $5, it’s an excellent sandwich. It provides enough food for easily 3-4 meals and it actually keeps fairly well in the fridge for 2-3 days.

The bread is usually on the hard side, but the sub I got today was in a soft roll, which I prefer.

All in all, this is one of the best deals at Safeway. Look for it on Fridays.