New York University was my second top choice for college during my high school years.
I might have been a NYU student. Heck, I might have become a proud New Yorker— living in a Brooklyn apartment with four other college students, spending an hour each day in the subway, strutting past the New York Times building every week to gaze wistfully at my dream career field, eating a quick lunch at Washington Square Park.
That is, if money wasn’t the problem. I got accepted to NYU, but the financial package offered to me stunk. Plus, I got into my then first choice, Northwestern, so that is that.
Things didn’t work out at all the way I planned my life, but I wouldn’t change it for anything else. I’m proud to be a Trojan, and if I hadn’t been hospitalized, taken a three-year break from college and applied to USC, I would never have met Marilyn and Tracy.
So here I was, back in NYU territory. I recognized some purple sweatshirts and fresh-faced bikers as NYU students and I felt a bit of warm twinge of affection towards them. I guess I still view NYU as the alma mater-that-almost-was. Either way, it felt nice to be here again, almost 7 years after my first visit as a prospective undergraduate student.
Anyway. We were still obviously tourists, because we got a bit lost in Chinatown.
The Chinatown in Manhattan isn’t at all like Los Angeles’ couple-block-length tourist destination. It’s boisterous and large enough for you to feel a little lost (well, for us three Angeleno tourists anyway).
But honestly, we allowed ourselves to get lost, because the sight was just so colorful and full of personality.
The roasted ducks hanging full-body and full-frontal…
If I were a NYU student I just know I’ll be doing most of my produce-shopping here in Chinatown. The prices are so cheap!
And I so miss Chinese vegetables…The only Chinese vegetable available within my vicinity in L.A. is bokchoy. But there are so many wonderful Chinese vegetables here that I’ve forgotten I used to love.
And I took that picture above because I have no idea what he’s doing with the empty plastic containers? Recycling? To refill with water?
And then we walked and walked way out of the route we had planned to Chelsea Market. But somehow, God must have been on Marilyn’s side because we ended up 0.1 mile away from Xi’an Famous Foods, a restaurant that Marilyn had marked as “MUST FREAKING VISIT!”
Xi’an Famous Foods is an acclaimed Chinese eatery in New York City that specializes in Xi’an-style noodles, a regional Chinese cuisine from a province west of China. Xi’an dishes are spicy, sour and dominantly halal; unfortunately it is often sidestepped by more popular Hunan and Cantonese cuisines.
I’ve never been to Xi’an, but I’ve heard from my Advanced Chinese classmates that it’s a gorgeous and historically-rich city in the Shaanxi province of China. Apparently it’s also a refuge for a huge Muslim ethnic minority population thus lamb is the dominant source of protein here in Xi’an.
That’s why Marilyn was desperate to try this place. The girl loves lamb. She probably dreams of lamb every night.
However, we couldn’t exactly sit in because it was more a take-out place. You order, wait a few minutes, and tuck home a steaming plastic container filled with spicy lamb noodles.
While Marilyn oohed and aahed over her bowl of precious noodles, a Chinese man nearby eyed the noodles (you can’t exactly ignore the pungent smell of gamy meat and greasy, sour broth). I thought at first he might lecture us for eating outside food at McDonald’s, but then he flashed us a knowing grin that said, “Dude, I get it. That’s so much better than a Big Mac.”
And about the noodles. It was slightly too lamb-y for me, but the soup was the kind of sinus-clearing liquid that shoots up into your brain like a jolt of cumin-peppered caffeine. Unfortunately, spicy + greasy broth = throat inflammation for me. I felt my throat immediately chafing up after a few slurps.
After that, we met up with Tracy’s college friend, Suraj, an interaction designer working at HUGE, a digital agency.
We asked Suraj to walk us to his favorite falafel place, and he led us to Mamoun’s, a self-professed “oldest and best falafel restaurant in New York.”
Mamoun’s been doling out great, fresh-fried falafels since 1971 in Greenwich Village (home of NYU!). There are a couple more branches in New Jersey, but this is the original branch.
I just realized that many food businesses in Manhattan doesn’t offer much sit-in options. And they still gain fame and do really well.
Like Mamoun’s. It’s basically a tented food stand, really. You walk (more like squeeze) in and you probably already know what you want to order without looking up into the menu board above the counter. There’s a lone fan swirling across a dim light, sending drafts of aromatic deep-fried oils and slow-roasted meat into your nostrils.
I got the pita sandwich with falafel and baba ghanoush (ganouj?). Tracy and Suraj got the same. Marilyn had her cumin lamb noodles. We decided to eat the NYU way—at Washington Square Park.
It was dark, so pictures are fuzzy, but it almost felt like dining under candlelight. The weather was gorgeous—warm yet breezy spring weather.
The gang (minus Marilyn who was taking the picture) with “the best falafel in New York.”
It was super good! The falafel was fresh, gritty, coarse with wonderful and interesting textures with a distinct young chickpea taste.
After our quick and casual dinner, we walked out to meet a dear friend of mine, Alda. But on the way, we got distracted.
We smelled it first. Potatoes. Deep-fried in vats of oil. Belgian-style.
Pommes Frites!!!! It so happened that it was on our list, we didn’t expect to just walk into it. So obviously we had to pop in, although all of us were kind of feeling stuffed. But how can you say no to Belgian fries with loads of colorful mayonnaise-based dips?
I’ve been here—coincidentally with Alda—before, but the last time I was here I only got to try bites of samples because I didn’t have three companions who were just as much in the mood for fried potato sticks as I was.
You just can’t resist. This place is the bomb. Total hole-in-the-wall, with just a couple guys shaking excess oil from the fresh-fried potatoes, pushing out dips from various containers for hungry customers. And appropriately, it is open till late at night because Belgian fries has just got to be the perfect hangover cure.
I really like the intimate atmosphere of Pommes Frites. It’s got this tavern-like feel with the warm wood pillars and wooden benches and tables.
Unsurprisingly, the place was packed with customers, most of them young and hip.
One of the many great things about Pommes Frites is that the fries are fried on the spot.
Just look at that. Well, actually, I think they double-fry their potatoes. So when they fry to order, they are technically re-frying the potatoes.
The first time they fry it is just to get rid of the rawness of the potatoes. The second time, however, it’s to get that perfect crispness on the outside while the insides stay velvety and tender.
I love the Pommes Frites guys. They are just so nice, and they don’t sniff at you for asking for samples. Or yell at you for sticking a camera in their face. I suppose they were used to obnoxious bloggers like me.
And you kind of have to ask for samples, because Pommes Frites offer a dizzying variety of dips. Everything sounds so good and you just can’t decide!
We finally pinpointed to the three dips we wanted. I chose the Peanut Satay Mayo, Tracy chose the Pomegranate Teriyaki Mayo and Marilyn chose the Smoked Eggplant Mayo.
And here’s our cone of wonderful, beautiful Belgian fries!!
Look! There’s actually holes drilled into the table so that you can comfortably nestle your cone of fries. Smart.
YUM… This is one of the things I would happily die eating. As you can see, it is just barely seasoned. I hate overly-salted fries (ahem, McDonald’s). Too salty fries just dries up my tongue like sandpaper.
But these were perfect. Don’t skip Pommes Frites if you’re around the area!
Okay, time to march to St. Mark’s Place. It was night, so I didn’t really get to breathe in the scenery as much, but apparently St. Mark’s Place is a popular hang-out place for hipsters. It’s got this cool, young Bohemian vibe to it, but its history goes a long way.
But I’m not going to pretend I know anything more than that, so if you ever do visit, check out this interesting article on that neighborhood.
We were here for two reasons: I wanted to meet my friend Alda, and Tracy…just can’t end the night in NYC without guzzling some booze. We once again asked Suraj to direct us, and he guided us to McSorley’s Old Ale House.
This Irish pub has been around since 1854, opened by a John McSorley who fled the Potato Blight by immigrating to New York. As you can guess, this dim saloon is seeped in history and tradition.
It’s even the subject of several art and literature like plays and poems, including “Sitting at McSorley’s” by e.e. cummings. e.e. cummings wrote about this place!!! And I was standing right in the middle of it, washing my greasy hands in its bathroom and chugging down beer!
I don’t even know what the colors of the walls are, because each inch has been nailed with framed antiquated pictures, newspaper clippings and magazine articles.
I let Tracy do the honors of selecting the beers for us, but I didn’t really need to because the only options were: light or dark. No schmancy fancy cocktails here, just good old-fashioned Irish ales.
I had the light beer, and it was good. It had a nice foam. That’s all I can remember because mostly, I was concentrating on trying to catch up with Alda. Too bad my voice by then was gone for good and all I could do was hiss and rasp. Eek.
Two flights of beer wasn’t enough for my buddy Tracy. We decided to hit up one last bar, this time a completely different one from McSorley’s.
Three words: Please Don’t Tell. Or pdt as it is more likely whispered.
If you can’t tell already, it’s a speakeasy. There’s no sign, there’s no grand entrance with canopies, there’s not even a freaking entrance, really. At least, not the traditional kind…
The entrance is a hot dog shop called Crif Dogs (which serves awesome hot dogs, I’ve heard, so I’ll make sure to visit next time). And from then on, you’ll need to find your way to a telephone booth. But if you’re observant (or if you’ve Googled beforehand), you’ll wonder why there’s a telephone booth compartment inside a hot dog joint, and you’ll notice the trail of people walking…
…and then not coming out at all. She’s disappeared into thin air.
What is this?! Superman really exists?
The telephone booth is really just for show. It’s the tunnel to a secret (not anymore, ha!) speakeasy bar, and there’s really no way to enter except to call their number, again and again and again until they finally accept and take your reservation. And once you got your reservation, you saunter into the booth, ring random numbers into the old-fashioned telephone, and then hope to God someone opens up the door and lets you in.
Some people wait two years before they get to step foot into this ridiculously exclusive bar. We got in that very night. No reservations, no nail-biting calls, no tearful waits and begging. To now I really have no idea what happened.
And that’s all I’ll say about this bar. I didn’t want to be paparazzi at a place like this, especially when the man at the door was nice and generous enough to let us in while shutting out many others. I only took one shot:
And then what happened at pdt, stays at pdt.
I will say this one thing though. As we were leaving the bar, a gorgeous blonde with a Russian accent approached us with her boyfriend. With the weight of desperation in her voice, she asked us how the heck we got in when she’s been calling for four months straight.
What can we say? We were just damn lucky. The angel was on our side.
So that’s how our first day in NYC ended. With a glorious, freaking bang.
Here’s a list of all the places we hit up:
- Russ & Daughters
- Katz Deli
- Il Laboratorio del Gelato
- Dunkin Donuts
- Cafe Habana
- The Little Cupcake Bakeshop
- Caffe Roma
- Xi’an Famous Foods
- McDonald’s (to pee and eat lamb noodles)
- Mamoun’s Falafel Restaurant
- Pommes Frites
- McSorley’s Old Ale House
- Please Don’t Tell
I’d say it was a very fine day, indeed.
Question of the Day: Do you think exclusive speakeasy bars like Please Don’t Tell is worth the hype?