"Can we try Buffalo wings sometime?"
Finally. My youngest child is now a true Upstater.
A kindergartener in public school, it was only a matter of time before he heard about wings and was tempted to try them. He was barely off the school bus when he asked, and then asked again, and asked a subsequent half-dozen times over the next few days.
It was happening. We were going out for his inaugural taste of this quintessential Upstate New York dish. But where do you go to make sure the first bite is a good introduction?
I love the idea of a food court. Part of my college decision came down to the schools with the best cafeterias. There is something so American about being offered a plethora of food options without having to walk too far to explore them.
Sadly, most food courts are depressing. Just look at most malls. It almost gives the term "food court" a biased, bad reputation. Unless -- like me -- you grew up in a magical land shaped by the mythos that is Wegmans and its epic food court, there is little hope when one hears that term.
We have no Wegmans here (yet), but there is light in the dark tunnel of "food courts." Galleria 7, on Troy-Schenectady Road in Latham, is part of it. As is Troy Kitchen, the food court that recently opened in the old Pioneer co-op grocery building on Congress Street in Troy.
As much I love options, I'm basically ruined from trying most things that are offered at the handful of food stalls within Troy Kitchen. Because the Hot Plate, from K-Plate Korean BBQ, is my new go-to.
I have to be honest with you. I don't think there is much more that I could add to this story than this: There is a magical place on the western fringes of Albany proper that serves soft serve ice cream inside a glazed doughnut -- and then rolls the whole thing in sprinkles.
Really? You're still reading? You need more details than that? (sigh) OK, let me share with you that which I have tasted.
And by the way, it's called The Slider, and it is from Kurver Kreme.
You can smell Chester's Smokehouse in Albany before you can see it.
In most circumstances, one should take that as a warning. In this instance, I urge you to proceed with haste. That is, go immediately. Once the intoxicating smell of hardwood smoke draws you in, your eyes are treated to yards-long display of meat and cheese, the beneficiaries of all that smoke.
Of course, if you are a vegetarian, this place might not be for you (that smoked cheese, though...), but for the omnivores among us, the sight of all that meat -- from classic Kielbasa to custom takes on Slim-Jims and jerky -- is enough to have you whimper in pleasure. At least that was my reaction.
Needless to say, once I laid eyes on that pastrami sandwich, the cartoon AH-OOO-GA horn in my mind went off and my jaw went slack.
If ever there were a sandwich, this was it.
That old adage that it's better to have one good friend than many mediocre ones is so true. And thankfully I have not only one good friend, but one that's also willing to eat basically whatever I put him up to.
The truth is, I am lucky to be rich in friendship, I just can't say that all of my friends are willing to tag along on all of my food adventures. My pal Craig, though, is one of them. So when we meet up for our regular lunch dates to talk about beer, history, kids, and whatever else is on our minds, I also know I can drag him along to eat whatever I'm feeling at the moment, as long as it's in downtown Albany (to accommodate work schedules).
Feeling tired of our usual haunts, a cursory search for "lunch, downtown Albany," on Google netted me a little jewel I've never heard of: Trinbago. Next door to Lombardo's On Madison Ave, the internet told me, but admittedly I walked past it twice and then went in the wrong door before realizing where the restaurant was.
What a lucky find it was. Bright, spicy flavors of the Caribbean perked up a dreary mid-March afternoon. The kindness of the staff and owner were enough to put a smile on my face. Paired with a great conversation with an even better friend, Trinbago might end-up being my new go-to lunch spot.
In our college days, my then-roommate Lyndsay and I had exactly two things in common: Our mutual love of certain bands, and our penchant for margaritas. Jose Cuervo (when you are a poor liberal arts student, it's the "fancy tequila"), a jug of neon-green sour mix, and a $15 Target blender were on standby to whip up a frothy, icy, puckery-sweet libation.
Those margaritas were about as authentic to Mexico as our palates would get, but this year we both turn 30. We're more worldly now, with more sophisticated tastes, and the cash to spend on food that doesn't make our mothers hang their heads in shame.
To celebrate Lyndsay's recent milestone birthday, I suggested trying our hand at Mexican once more, but this time at Ama Cocina, just off North Pearl Street in Albany, a neighborhood that peppered our college years in questionable ways. If all else failed, at least the tequila would be better, right?
Do you ever really miss your mom?
I do, especially when I am sick. Growing up, my mom used to make me Campbell's tomato soup with extra saltines, a juice box, and a crunchy peanut butter and jelly sandwich, cut into triangles.
But now I'm the mom, and moms don't get sick days. No one is there to make me a soothing meal when I'm feeling under the weather, but thankfully there is The Breakfast Spot (TBS) in Cohoes, which serves up meals that comfort from the inside.
Having breakfast at TBS feels like a trip back to childhood, though not my childhood; I was born in the 80s, and the decor at TBS feels straight out of a diner from Leave it to Beaver. Nostalgia never hurt the healing process anyway.
Still, the food at TBS alone can cure what ails you. Case in point: Toad in the Hole -- or what TBS refers to as Egg in the Bread.
I recently had dinner with a group of friends -- all but one of us an "outsider" to Albany, growing up elsewhere -- about what it is that makes the city so alluring to us. Why we feel Albany is primed for a resurgence as a modern city where young(ish) people like us can thrive, have families, lay down roots. (And by Albany, what we really meant is both the city and the surrounding area we refer to as the Capital Region.)
Part of the appeal, for us, is the fact that there is just so much to do here. Within a three hour drive, we can experience mountains, lake, ocean, cities, other countries. And in considerably less time, we can be transported to the bucolic countryside for leisurely weekend drives that highlight the agricultural and small-town economies that give the Capital Region much of its charm.
Case in point: Sharon Springs. The town lies on the historic byway of US Route 20 and was once a hotspot for the out-of-towners looking for healing qualities in the town's natural springs. And there are plenty of farms surrounding the tiny town center that offer a plethora agricultural products that city-folk are more than happy to bring home.
Like maple syrup. And really, what's the point of maple syrup if you can't have a good pancake to sop it up with?
The fast-casual concept is the hot ticket in restaurants these days. It is why places like Chipotle, Blaze Pizza, and the upcoming Troy Kitchen continue to flourish across the dining scene. Sitting down and ordering with a server is so old-hat. We Americans are a busy bunch! Give us quality food on the go and don't make us wait too long for it.
But one cuisine that is unrepresented in the local fast-casual marketplace is Italian fare (save for pizza). Is it possible to get a hearty bowl of spaghetti and meatballs with haste?
Bellini's Counter -- the fast-casual offshoot of the local Bellini's Italian restaurant chain -- seems to think so. And they are willing to bet that the food you've come to expect from more formal sit-down restaurants can be had just as easily in this quick-serve format.
I think it's fair to say Bellini's is cashing in on that bet.
Restaurants, for me, are like bad boyfriends. I take them back time and time again, even when they aren't that good for me. Disappointment looms, but sometimes things can change, right?
This bad habit has mostly waned, at least regarding restaurants. I realize anyone can have a bad night, but if a restaurant does me wrong by way of bad service, poor food quality, or lacking atmosphere, chances are good I'm not going back.
A relapse now and then can be good, though.
Case in point: The pickle-brined fried chicken sandwich at 677 Prime in Albany. I'm glad I went back for a second try.
Balancing the annual rite of passage to eat clean and healthy that New Year's resolutions bring with the desire to eat comforting, rich foods during winter's coldest days might be the great dichotomy of modern humanity. At least for Upstaters.
What should one do, for instance, when the temperature dips below freezing (well below), a head cold has taken over, and the desire to indulge and self-soothe with a gluttonous delight contradicts all the abstention from fatty, sweet, and carb-loaded food that winter cuisine is known for?
You order the rice chicken soup from Chontong Thai in Delmar, that's what.
I am a sucker for anything "General Store" related: Cooperstown; Hillsdale; Fort Orange. I patronize them all.
It likely harkens to that great general store that was the hub of village activities in my hometown. It's only a memory now, as the building it was housed in -- the Cox Block, the grand madame situated on the corner of the crossroads -- burned just before Christmas last year. Maybe subtly grasping at nostalgia is the general store draw for me.
So when a friend suggested that we check out the recently-opened Vischer Ferry General Store in the sleepy, historic Clifton Park hamlet, I was all for it.
A modest website suggested little on what I might find there (except for charm and an old-timey feel), so I went in blindly, assured by my friend I could at least have coffee there.
She said nothing of Dutch drinking chocolate. These are the kinds of surprises I can fully get behind.
I love bacon. I'm just not a fan of it on a sandwich. Unless it's a BLT. And in that case, I'm not even really that enthused about the idea of bacon on a sandwich. Next to pancakes, or sliced into lardons in sautéed Brussels sprouts? Heck yes, bacon all day long. Otherwise, meh.
The same holds true for salmon. I like most seafood and fish, but salmon can be a bit boring sometimes. And being the empiricist that I am, past experience sampling salmon burgers or other types of salmon sandwiches have conditioned me to avoid salmon-between-bread at most costs.
But while recently having lunch with my friend Craig (of Albany Ale fame) at Public House 42 in Albany, he insisted I try the salmon BLT -- a sandwich he had enjoyed before and thought I might like -- and try to quell my doubts on the integrity of the menu item.
On some of the oldest real estate in downtown Albany -- Clinton Square -- lies a small piece of France. A French cafe, in fact, that churns out classics of French cuisine, like baguette sandwiches, cafe au lait, and crepes.
A taste of France in this area is nothing new: French fur traders were some of the earliest Europeans in the Albany region. Throughout history, France and America have traded barbs are readily as they've supported each other when Le Merde hits Le Fan; regardless, we've embraced French culture and perhaps appreciate it best through food: Croissant, macarons, boeuf bourguignon, wine. Romantic notions of what France is draw American visitors regularly to the country, though experiencing it first-hand is a mere Gene Kelly-esque pipedream for those of us with wanderlust bigger than our bank accounts.
But thankfully, on the cobblestone promenade just west of the Hudson River, we can find a budget-friendly glimpse of France at The French Press Cafe and Creperie, where we can linger en plein air on wrought iron bistro seating, sip our coffee, and indulge in that wonderful French creation: The crepe.
Everyone together now, on the count of three. Ready?
1...2...3... (Insert sigh of longing here.)
I think I might have been the last person in the Capital Region to understand the appeal and popularity of avocado fries from Slidin' Dirty (which has a location in Troy, along with a roving food truck). I can barely utter the words without someone interrupting with, "Oh my gosh, avocado fries. My favorite." Sometimes they actually drool, too.
And since this column is designed to highlight great food in the Albany area, it would be antithetical not to take a moment to appreciate the avocado fry, an ingenious use of a humble fruit that makes everyone from small children to large, bearded, beer-loving men giddy with delight.
Happenstance is a wonderful thing. You never quite know what life is going to bring your way. If you are lucky, that means many delicious morsels will grace the path (luckier still if you are wise enough to embrace and savor them).
When I went up to Ballston Lake on Friday for a state Department of Agriculture and Markets press conference at Wm. H. Buckley Farm, I was expecting to get some insight on both new stories and story lines I have been following for a while.
I wasn't expecting to eat, let alone taste, some of the most tender and flavorful roast beef I've ever had.
Lately, I've been feeling wanderlusty.
Don't get me wrong -- Upstate New York in fall is a wonderful place to be. I relish and marvel in it every year. But I've also had this desire to uproot myself and go explore a less familiar territory. Maybe it is the change in seasons that has me yearning for a change in my own life, too.
Whatever it is, I've got the travel itch; unfortunately hopping on a plane to some exotic locale is not in the cards for me in the moment. I did the next best thing: Took a day trip to explore unknown towns around me, and tucked into food that would transport me to another place.
Cerulean seas were calling my name. I opted for a piece of baklava instead.
We are killing the American palate.
Or maybe we killed it long ago. In a land of more is more and bigger is better, we've lost an appreciation for small nuances in food that give it true character and speak to the origins of the recipe. Don't give us a classic roasted chicken; instead, give us just the wing, doused in fiery, sticky burnt-orange sauce that masks the chicken itself.
Post-World War II American culture saw the rise of heavily processed foods that oversaturated our palates with salt, sugar, and additives. We've dimmed our abilities to recognize true flavor because of how accustomed we've become to the overload of flavor enhancements pushed upon us by Big Food. Now, if we don't feel kicked in the teeth with astringent, bracing piquancy, we write food off as bland and boring.
Muza, in Troy, debunks this conception, proving that traditional foods prepared in simple ways can still pack a punch without walloping us with artifice.
I was recently granted one-way passage on the bridge between "You are the best thing I have ever known" and "I never want to see you again."
That is, I just went through a gut-wrenching break-up. The kind that makes you wake up in a sweat at 3 am, unable to breathe, unable to sleep. Your mind replays the highlight reel of your relationship before quickly delving into the hopelessness of ever feeling happy or alive again.
And you might as well forget about eating; nothing tastes as delicious as the ghosted lips that linger on your mouth. When the desire for satiety arises, it is more likely gin on the rocks you reach for, but instead of sipping, you get lost in running your fingers around the rim of the glass, collecting the beads of condensation with your index finger and rubbing them into oblivion with your thumb.
If not for feeling like nothing, you'd feel nothing at all. And in those moments, you reach for your best friends.
Or in my case, a Girl's Best Friend cookie from Bake For You.
The unofficial last week of summer is upon us -- that time between August and Labor Day, when the calendar says it is time to sharpen our pencils and pull sweaters out of storage, but the weather claims cut-offs, beach towels, and ice cream.
The Capital Region is flush with classic ice cream stands, but few stand out the way Martha's Dandee Creme, just outside of Lake George, does.
Fridays are so overrated.
In our youth, Fridays are the benchmark for excitement and prospects. Pizza lunches, sleepovers, sleeping in... maybe mom will even bring home takeout for dinner.
As adults, Fridays are exhausting. We build up in our heads what Fridays should be, built partially on the ideals and projections we concoct in our younger days. But the obligations and efforts of "functioning adult human" status leaves few of us with much energy to do, well, anything on a Friday night. We might meet up with friends, but we're still so wiped from the week prior that we just mill about in a fog of longing to please just get me into my bed.
Takeout on a Friday is a near necessity as we (and our list of responsibilities) grow.
Driving into Rensselaerville, the small and historic Albany County hamlet in the town of the same name, is like taking a trip back through time. Things move a little slower. The locals speak in less hurried tones.
And just as everything old is new again, the food at the town's public family room -- The Palmer House Café -- adheres to the old habit of using local, seasonal produce and ingredients to craft a meal. Farm-to-table was a way of life for eaters in decades (centuries) past, but today it's one of many options.
The Palmer House's peach blueberry cobbler is just one example of why this option should be priority once again.
There are universal norms when it comes to street foods around the planet: It must be cheap, it must be portable, and it must be filling.
Dosas are the classic Indian-style version of a crepe that hits all these markers. And Parivar -- the Central Avenue Indian supermarket (No, not that one. Or that one. It's the one with the peacock on the sign.) -- serves them up fresh and piping-hot, just like one would get from a vendor's street cart in an alleyway in New Delhi or Mumbai.
But unlike a street cart, Parviar lets the eater indulge from the comfort of indoor seating in a nice air-conditioned café.
It takes a lot of chutzpah to start a hotdog joint in the Capital Region.
We know our hotdogs, especially mini dogs. While other parts of the state have their own spins on hotdogs -- Plattsburgh: Michigans, Syracuse: white hots, New York City: dirty water dogs -- mini dogs are the exclusive claim of the Capital Region. Others try to replicate, but few meet the standards we find here.
And as it is, we already have enough mini dog eateries to keep us well-stocked. From Famous Lunch to Ted's Fish Fry, one doesn't have to look far to find a decent mini dog.
But now there is one more: Pete's Pups, in Rotterdam. And while it may be easy to overlook a new kid in preference for an experienced veteran, this underdog doesn't just bark, it bites with full force, too.
I have heard people say the Capital Region lacks in great food. I'm telling you that statement is false. Great food doesn't have to mean high-end haute cuisine. Not everything must be processed through a sous vide machine and dolloped with foam to be "good."
What we do have here in the Capital Region are some wonderful hidden gems of ethnic, street-inspired eats. We might not get every type of regional cuisine right each time, but we certainly have some shining stars.
And the Ethiopian platter at Umana is one example.
For as long as I can remember (my downtown Albany memory only stretches 11 years back), there has always been an eatery in the One Commerce Plaza building on Washington Avenue, across from the Alfred E. Smith building. But I don't remember anyone going there, or suggesting we stop there when I worked in politics, after a day lobbying at the Capitol.
Even the shiny exterior of the building wasn't enough to draw me inside. The neon-colored sign? Nope, still never went in. It just seemed so non-descript, even as a modern structure placed in the midst of buildings with Grecian columns and centuries-old brick and limestone.
It took me a few years away from that scene -- and a picture on Instagram -- to make me change my stance and give A Better Bite a try.
That photo? Naan pizza.
A moment of confession: I do not like yogurt.
Growing up, I would watch my mother spoon plain, tangy yogurt topped with fresh fruit across her lips as her morning meal. Today I find myself close with someone who revels in the thought of thick Greek yogurt topped with local granola and stewed rhubarb.
I just can't get behind it. For reasons of taste or texture, it weirds me out (and I say this shamefully, as someone who has made a life around food). The same holds true for frozen yogurt. Many friends have prodded me to try frozen yogurt as a means to hop on the yogurt bandwagon, but it all left me underwhelmed and questioning the appeal.
That is, until I reluctantly tried Ayelada's frozen yogurt in Latham.
Like Darth Vader realizing the error of his ways, or Elizabeth Bennett finally conceding to the appeal of Mr. Darcy, I now feel compelled to change my position.
Geez, guys, thanks for telling me about Saati. (*eyeroll*)
How is it that I have lived in the Capital Region nearly eleven years, and Saati has just recently come into my gastronomical consciousness? I'm not sure, but I'm glad it has.
With an extensive menu and convenient location, its popularity shouldn't be questioned: Think about a dish from any variety of deli. Chances are Saati has it. Beef kebabs nestle in next to pastrami sandwiches on the lengthy list of offerings.
Saati's offerings have a Mediterranean and Middle Eastern bent, so that's a good place to start.
They say you can't teach an old dog new tricks, but no one told Ted's Fish Fry that.
Ted's, the culinary mainstay of the Capital Region eating scene, has been pushing out fried seafood for generations. The first restaurant opened in the 1940s and has changed little in the more than 60 years since. If the food wasn't good, it would feel staid and dated. But thankfully, it is good, and stays current and fresh with subtle tweaks to the menu.
Including fish tacos. Thank goodness for fish tacos.
For being such a simple thing, ravioli can be tough to get right.
When I'm not writing and producing media about food, I teach cooking classes. And in one of my most popular classes we make ravioli. There is certain finesse to the art of pasta. The dough and fillings are usually quite minimal in terms of ingredients to make them - usually no more than five ingredients in either - but the way in which it's made is the important part. You must be gentle, yet firm. You must be quick, and also slow.
Lucky for us, we live in a place that has plenty of good pasta. And one of them is Ragonese Imports in Albany, whose take-home ravioli boxes are a standout among the offerings of the area's many Italian import stores.
I'm a little buzzed.
Just moments before I sat down to write this post, I subjected myself to tasting (that is, gobbling down) a selection of Easter-themed candies from Krause's Candy in Colonie.
As I rode the sugar wave, it became clear: Ditch the aisles at Big Box Store for filling holiday baskets, and make haste towards Krause's for your Easter treats.
Though milder weather is apparently on the way, ice cream probably still isn't at the top of your mind.
But, really, any time is a good time for ice cream. And if you need justification, try this one that AOA Mary told me her dad used for wintertime ice cream while she was growing up: Eating food that's roughly the same temperature as the air around you will help offset any unpleasantries that weather or temperature might bring by creating an equilibrium between the temperature of your insides and the temperature of your outsides. (Also: Eating ice cream is, in general, an excellent distraction from what's going around you -- including the cold.)
While we have a bevy of good ice cream places in the Capital Region, Stewart's is perhaps the best known for year-round ice cream availability. But let's not overlook that other great New York State regional dairy, Byrne Dairy, which claims the hearts of Central New Yorkers. (It's the official chocolate milk of the New York State Fair.)
And it has one thing Stewart's doesn't: ice cream sandwiches.
One of the ways different cultures spread beyond their originating communities is through food. And the culture of Eastern European Jews here in the United States is no exception: foods such a bagels, pastrami, and latkes are now enjoyed by a wide range of people across different cultures.
Of course, there's a lot more to the culinary heritage of Eastern European Jews than just bagels and lox. And there are plenty of tasty dishes worth exploring and learning about. Take the knish, for example. The delightful, if perhaps less well-known, deli or street vendor snack is quick, filling, and portable.
And Nibble Inc., in Troy, is turning out some of the better examples of knish in the Capital Region.
I've learned that most good things in life come when you look beyond the expected. It is nice to be pleasantly surprised from time to time.
The same is true for food. Sovrana's has long been my favorite pizza joint in Albany, since my days in Brubacher Hall at Saint Rose. (When I wasn't studying and writing papers at Mahar's, I was doing the same at Sovrana's).
The North Lake Ave shop is a little out-of-the-way, but it's a hidden treasure -- much like the éclair that graces the cold case beneath the pizza counter.
You don't need to go south of the border for a lunchtime taste of Mexico. You just need to go a little south of Central Avenue.
Tortas are a traditional Mexican sandwich often sold on the street during lunch. Using whatever ingredients are on hand, tortas act as a quick, filling lunch that comes cheap, is easy to eat, and offers utility that is only rivaled by flavor.
The tortas -- in various interpretations -- at El Mariachi in Albany don't disappoint when it comes to a fast, hearty lunch that bring a hit of flavor to an otherwise drab, wintery workday.
Fortunately for me, eating pizza has rarely been a case of taking whatever cold slice might be left in the box from the night before. The Capital Region is flush with pizza options, so it comes as no surprise that the first meal of the day be covered by the pizza category.
How do you make pizza suitable for breakfast? You put an egg on it. Some iterations, like the Eggs in Purgatory pizza from More Perecca's, rely on coal-fired crust to support spicy, house-made tomato sauce with a few poached eggs on top. (Sidenote: I'm fairly certain EiP pizza is the perfect hangover cure.)
Others, like the breakfast pizza at Bella Napoli in Latham, forgo the sauce altogether and make the eggs the star of the show.
And even though sauce is my favorite part of the pizza, I'm OK with that.
I went to Schuyler Bakery for the snowflake rolls, but I'll be going back for the Paska bread.
When everyone's favorite Speedo'ed Santa, Jim Larson, told me that the dinner rolls (AKA snowflake rolls, for their pre-bake dusting of flour like freshly fallen snow) at Schuyler Bakery in Watervliet were one of the best things he's eaten in the Capital Region, I knew I had to check them out. What I wasn't expecting was to come home with an assortment of other delights -- like the two other varieties of dinner rolls and a quarter-dozen of the bakeshop's famed glazed donuts.
But I'm glad I did, or else I'd never know how good the Paska bread is.
Friends are great. Friends with surprising, delicious food recommendations are even better.
Thankfully, my friend Braden has that covered. When I found myself near his office in Troy around lunchtime recently, I thought I would see if he was interested in grabbing coffee or lunch. He was Johnny on the spot with his reply: "Caribbean buffet is good if you haven't been there."
First Choice Caribbean in Troy was what he was referring to.
No, I hadn't been there, but it sounded perfect.
Ever have a cheeseburger change your life?
I haven't either -- though I've had plenty of cheeseburgers that remind me why it's good to be alive.
To me, cheeseburgers are prized because they're quick, filling, and relatively inexpensive. It's part of the reason they've lasted through decades, beyond trends.
For all those reasons, it never made much sense to me to have a cheeseburger on the menu of an upscale, top-rated restaurant. Why, when you are going to dine at an eatery that features Artic Char with quinoa, squash puree, Greek yogurt sauce, and pickled black currants -- or beef carpaccio with crispy oysters, fried capers, shaved Parmesan, and truffle emulsion -- would you order a cheeseburger? Facepalm.
If you want a cheeseburger, go somewhere that's going to give you that cheesy, fat-dripping patty of delight that with leave you just a few bucks poorer. (In that situation, Five Guys is my burger of choice.)
But then I ate the cheeseburger at 15 Church in Saratoga Springs, and I had a shift in perspective. I was trapped in a food identity crisis. I'm a thin-patty kind of girl who fell in love with a hockey-puck mound of ground meat. All I thought I loved/hated about a burger was being questioned.
When it comes to the eating of feelings, I am the champion. The contents of my refrigerator are direct indicators of my mood. Happy or generally content times manifest as plenty of fresh produce, lean meat, and other aspects of a homemade, well-balanced diet. Other times, you'll find all the things that would make Jenny Craig blush.
One particular crappy day had me hankering for something fried, spicy, and perhaps even a little sweet. How could one better address all those cravings that with fried handpies? And on this day, that came in the form of empanadas at La Empanada Llama.
In one single bite, I could feel my entire day turning around.
There are two types of Italian restaurants in the Capital Region: The eh-talian, and the EYE-talian. The former are the restaurants that serve food more in line with something plucked from the Tuscan hills. The latter are the checkered tablecloth joints where most dishes come slathered in red sauce.
Unless you count D'Raymonds in Loudonville. Then I guess there are three.
D'Raymonds lies somewhere in the middle of the two mentioned above. It embodies the cuisine of red sauce joints with a more upscale vibe. It's Little Italy meets Upper West Side. It's Nonna meets your hot WASPy girlfriend. It's comfort, with class.
No dish on the menu emphasizes this more than the D'Raymonds chicken parmesan.
The nearest Waffle House is 127.94 miles away from Albany. What a shame.
I'm normally not a big proponent of chains, but few places understand the utility and magnificence of a waffle. Waffles are the superior batter-based, carb-loaded breakfast option. Pancakes are great, don't get me wrong, and so is French toast, but neither can be manipulated the way a waffle can.
Many places in the Capital Region serve waffles, but few embrace the true glory of the waffle the way Iron Roost in Ballston Spa does.
Ah, fall. How nice to see you again. I'm looking forward to fully enjoying you with cozy knit sweaters, marled wool socks, nights by the fire, and cheese... lots and lots of cheese.
There's just something about cheese that lends itself to cooler temperatures. Macaroni and cheese. Cheese fondue. Cheese-filled pastries. And did I mention grilled cheese?
The grilled cheese of my youth -- potato bread slathered with mayonnaise on the outside, holding together stringy slices of white American cheese -- is very different from the preferences of my adulthood. Today, artisanal cheese and bread is where it's at for me. And Thankfully there's a place that perfectly merges my autumnal longings with melty, oozing delight.
If you shouldn't judge a book by its cover, neither should you judge a restaurant by the sign in the window.
Sweet Sue's on River Street in Troy has mastered all things sweet and sugary, but savory hasn't been forgotten. From weekend brunch to mostly-from-scratch lunch sandwiches, this "treatery" ignites all five tastes (sweet, salty, sour, bitter, umami), and bridges the sweet-savory divide in ways missing from many other eateries.
At Sweet Sue's for lunch you can have your cake (and eat it, too) -- and not neglect your more substantial savory cravings.
Pulled pork is probably my favorite barbecue offering. Barbecued chicken or ribs were never something I got particularly excited about, though I am a fan of brisket. But there is just something hard not to love about that tough chunk of pork being lovingly rubbed with spices and flavorings, then left to marinate in its own fat and juices in the gentle heat of charred wood and charcoal.
Patience is a virtue, especially in cooking, and nowhere is that more true than with pulled pork. Hours of anticipation lead to fork-tender strands of meat that await a sweet and tangy sauce and two pieces of bread to accompany it.
And the version at Stockyard Bar-B-Q is the perfect example of what pulled pork sandwich should be.
Dare I say that carbs are making a comeback?
Years of low-carb/no-carb diets and increased attention on gluten intolerances have demonized the bread basket, including bagels. But if a recent batch of local bagel shop openings is any indication, bagels might be back in style.
Through bagel booms and busts, though, one place that's remained steadfast is Bagels and Bakes in Rotterdam.
Ah, summer. What could be more quintessentially American summertime than baseball, beer, and moules frites.
Yep, I said it. Moules. Frites.
Okay, so maybe that's a reach. While baseball and drinking beer are endemic to this country, the fancy title for mussels and French fries is a classic Belgian item.
But there is a place where those three elements -- baseball, beer, and moules frites -- coalesce in harmony, and that's Cooperstown, the site of the Baseball Hall of Fame and the hometown of one of the best examples of Belgian beer and food in America: Brewery Ommegang.
My ancestral background is less of a patchwork and more of a woven blanket -- the weave and weft is all the same color with little variation. I can trace my familial heritage almost exclusive to the lush, green landscape of Scotland, Ireland, and Wales. There are a few one-offs here and there, but overall it is a fairly homogenous mix.
One would think I should crave potatoes and boiled meat for my daily meals. Why, then, do I yearn constantly for the cold, exotic salads of the Middle East?
Once you eat at Ali Baba in Troy, you want to keep eating at Ali Baba. And I'll be content to keep eating the meze there.
It is said that the pizza you grow up with is the pizza by which all other pizza will ever be judged -- regardless of how good or bad that childhood pizza was. As a result, pizzas of many types -- and a range of relative merits -- have a special place in the hearts of people.
Sure, that very poofy crust/exceptionally thin crust/sweet sauced/tangy sauced/underbaked/overbaked/whatever pizza might have its flaws, but it's your pizza. And eating it evokes memories.
No matter what type of pizza holds that place in your heart -- and no matter how good (or bad) that pizza is -- there is little doubt the pizza from Kay's will stand up to it favorably.
Simple things can be delicious things. A chicken roasted for an hour with butter and herbs. Tomatoes simmered with garlic and basil until silken. A peanut butter and jelly sandwich. All are simple to prepare, relatively hard to screw-up, and completely tasty.
The breakfast taco at Five Points Grocery in Saratoga fits into this category. It might not look like much, but its simplicity and utility make it a delicious grab-and-go option. Four ingredients -- five, if you include butter -- are all it takes to make this little jewel shine.
I've a bold proclamation to make.
No one in the Capital District is making an authentic banh mi. Not nobody. Not no how.
There are many places that certainly give it the ol' college try, but they all fall short in one way or another. Now, I'm not saying that these eateries should just give up, but maybe they should start rethinking what they are trying to do.
One area restaurant is already doing that, and it might come as a surprise. It's Reel Seafood Co., one of the independently-owned holdouts on Wolf Road in Colonie, and its take on banh mi is something to be admired.
One of the (many) great things about Italian food is that it often looks like the country it came from. The hallmarks of many popular Italian dishes -- tomatoes, basil, cheese, pasta -- are the same red, green, and white that grace the country's flag.
Few nations promote their patriotism in such explicit culinary ways as Italy, a practice carried on by the cooking of many Italian-Americans. The pistachio spumoni at Civitello's in Schenectady is no exception. Layers of green and white with flecks of candy-colored red leave little doubt that a sweet bite of Italy is coming your way.
Fried oysters are a fairly common dish on Capital Region menus. It's not a revolutionary preparation of the shellfish by any means -- fried oysters have been a hallmark of po' boy sandwiches for at least a century, and they've made appearances in many a basket at a fish fry or seaside shack.
However, if done right, variations on the dish can elevate the mere mollusk into something memorable, crave-able, extraordinary.
The fried oyster put forth by Javier's Nuevo Latino Cuisine in Saratoga Springs does just that.
A round of applause for Jeff Janssens, who very capably headed up the Eat This feature over the last year. And now we're happy to welcome Deanna Fox, who's next to occupy this seat at the table.
There are few times when eating soup requires the use of a knife. The French onion soup at The Ginger Man in Albany is one of those instances -- unless you plan to use your fingers to rip at the gooey cheese and broth-soaked toasts that encrust the soup.
I wouldn't blame you for throwing decorum aside and just going for it. This soup -- which is so much more than the typical French onion soup -- is worth it. But, just in case, keep the knife at the ready.
When asked to name the one Capital Region restaurant that I never get tired of, the answer is easy: Ala Shanghai in Latham.
The xiao long bao (soup dumplings) get the most acclaim at Ala Shanghai, and deservedly so. I wouldn't dare suggest that one not order the soup dumplings during a visit there. But I'd like to make a couple of additional suggestions from Ala Shanghai's extensive 12-page menu.
Slow-braised beef short ribs are the perfect dish for a cold winter night. Rich, heavy, filling, they are quintessential comfort food. And with a long, frigid winter that just won't quit, it's a fitting meal for the first week of March.
That said, it isn't terribly hard to make braised short ribs taste good. So for a time I held off on writing about the Midtown Tap & Tea Room's Vanilla Porter Braised Beef Short Ribs, despite how much I enjoyed them when I first tried the dish last summer, thinking I could probably get a comparably tasty version at many other area restaurants.
But a recent bad experience with short ribs at a different restaurant made me reevaluate -- and re-try -- the Tap & Tea Room's version.
Few foods are as satisfying as a classic hamburger. Lately, though, I've been making an effort to eat less red meat.
So even though I'd heard that The Hollow Bar + Kitchen in downtown Albany has a very good beef burger, one featuring a fried egg and habanero ketchup, I was more interested in their tempeh burger, curious to see if I could leave satisfied even after opting for the vegetarian option.
On a recent expedition to Sushi Tei in Guilderland to satisfy a sushi craving, I made an exciting discovery on the restaurant's specials menu: hamachi kama, or yellowtail collar.
This is the part of the fish just behind the head, and while it may sound like something that belongs on an episode of Bizarre Foods (it has, in fact, been featured on the program), there's nothing particularly strange about it. Hamachi kama is really just a piece of grilled fish.
Except it's a remarkably delicious part of the fish, one that's worth seeking out when it's available at Sushi Tei.
There's a lot of exciting stuff happening these days in downtown Troy; from the shops to the restaurants to the bars, it seems like a new business is opening its doors each week. This makes it easy to overlook some of the old stalwarts of the city, places like Famous Lunch that have been turning out good food for decades.
Yet I can't help but approach any place labeled as an institution with a healthy dose of skepticism. At some places, the history and value to the community far exceed the present quality of food.
But Red Front Restaurant on the south side of downtown Troy has built a well-deserved following since opening in 1956 thanks in part to their COB Pizza -- that's "cheese-on-bottom" -- a non-traditional pizza in which the sauce and the bready crust are the stars.
For an area of its size, the Capital Region boasts an impressive array of Chinese restaurants, strong in both quality and diversity. And it's only getting better: Northeast Dumplings House opened just two months ago in Albany and offers not just tasty dumplings made in-house, but small Sichuan delights.
Judging from the lack of traffic there on a recent weekend evening, it seems most are unaware of what this new restaurant is offering. That needs to change.
It's the season for giving and receiving, for eating and imbibing. And sometimes it's best when all those elements of the season are combined.
Even though a tin caramel corn or box of chocolates can be a much-appreciated gift this time of year, I'd like to offer a few alternative suggestions -- including local versions of some classics -- for you to stuff the stockings of loved ones with this year.
And if you don't have any stockings? I like to think these are all items that can be enjoyed, no matter the occasion.
Umana Restaurant and Wine Bar in Albany opened on November 1, the end of a three-year project for owner Dale Davidson. The interior of the space was gutted during that time, and Davidson had some of the furnishings built for the restaurant in Haiti -- tables and chairs were constructed and hand-woven there -- and the walls were hand-painted to create a bright and inviting space.
While this is truly impressive -- and Umana is one of the most striking restaurant spaces in the entire area -- the menu is equally compelling. And the menu item that intrigued me most was the Samosa Trio.
At some point over the past few weeks, I'd venture to say, we officially transitioned into soup weather. With gray skies and chilly winds blowing, there are few things as satisfying as getting out of the cold for a bowl of soup. For me, a large, steaming bowl of pho is the most satisfying soup in these conditions.
This traditional Vietnamese noodle soup can be found in a number of area restaurants, but in my opinion Kim's Restaurant in the Pine Hills neighborhood of Albany is making the best pho in the area.
The Cajun Pork Belly and Crispy Prosciutto Open-Faced Panini from Illium Café in Troy is fatty, rich, heavy food. It packs such a punch that it's liable to knock you out for the rest of the afternoon, if not the entire winter.
Truth be told, a sandwich that features pork belly, prosciutto, a fried egg, hollandaise sauce, a savory bread pudding, and a creamy brie sauce is not something you want to be eating with much regularity. It may also seem, at first glance, to be an exercise in excess.
But once you taste this panini, you can't help but wonder how it was that you never before found all of these ingredients served together on a plate.
As a diner it's hard not to be skeptical of tapas. The term, referring to traditional small plate dishes from Spain, has been co-opted by some American restaurants as a fancy way of saying "appetizers." At other restaurants, you get the feeling that tapas might translate to "tiny portions that cost a lot of money but don't fill you up."
Thankfully, neither is true at Boca Bistro in Saratoga Springs. Their tapas menu is extensive and traditional. It's also not hard to fill up on these small plates at a reasonable price. These dishes feature assertive flavors, both from bold spicing and thoughtful showcasing of quality ingredients.
With so many appealing options on the tapas menu at Boca, the hardest part might be deciding where to start. Although the goal of Eat This! is generally to highlight just one dish, in this case I thought it might be most useful to detail a few of my favorites.
I know what you're thinking: "Apple pie? From a farm near Hudson?"
Apple pie is almost always at least good. And the best is inevitably made by your grandmother.
So why am I bothering?
Because I've come across a pie that is excellent in all regards. Every individual element -- the crust, the fruit, the filling -- is worth raving about.
This summer, teaching incoming freshmen at UAlbany, I found my classes populated by a number of students whose families hailed from the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, and other Caribbean countries. In the downtime before class, talk frequently turned to food. These students were living away from the comforts of home, subsisting on a diet of dining hall cuisine. And so they reminisced: about their mothers' cooking, about the little place on the corner back in Queens or Spanish Harlem that made the best food.
Some students discovered the chicken at Mr. Pio Pio on their own, but they wanted more recommendations. Unfortunately, it wasn't until after the summer term ended that I got to check out Casa Dominicana on Central Avenue for one of the dishes my students raved about: mofongo.
And it's not just any mofongo. At Casa Dominicana, while there are several types on the menu, including shrimp and stewed catfish, it was the Mofongo de Chicharron -- mashed plantains with chunks of pork shoulder with crisped skin -- that made me want to proclaim this as a truly deserving Eat This! dish, not just for my former students, but for all Capital Region eaters.
You hear the phrase "koozi sham" and the first thing to come to mind might be a product sold through late-night television infomercials.
In fact, Koozi Sham is a pot pie of sorts, with origins across the Middle East, its size and shape reminiscent of a curling stone -- and, I'd argue, more worth your money than any of those "As Seen on TV" products you might be tempted by.
It's also a rare dish of sorts; I'd never before seen it on the menu at a restaurant until I visited Oasis Mediterranean Café in Albany for the first time. But it's the kind of dish that is satisfying not only due to its size, but because of the complexities of tastes and textures it provides.
At first glance, it may seem like a novelty: cheesecake made by nuns. But to stop there, to nod and smile but not try the cheesecake, would be a mistake.
When it comes to the cheesecake made by the Nuns of New Skete, a group of five nuns living in a monastery in Cambridge, about an hour northeast of Albany, it would be foolish to not take their endeavors seriously. While the neighboring Monks of New Skete support themselves through dog breeding and training programs, the nuns have supported themselves for more than 30 years through baking.
I don't doubt the delectability of all their goods -- but it's the nuns' key lime cheesecake that stands out as a perfect summer treat.
Put your hands together for Jeff Janssens -- AKA the Masticating Monkey -- who will be writing the Eat This feature here at AOA.
I realize I might be starting off on the wrong foot here as the new caretaker of the Eat This! column. In the middle of this hot summer, I'm recommending a stew--a not-particularly photogenic one, at that.
I hope this says something about the oxtail stew at The Dutch Pot in Albany. This is a plate of meaty, saucy goodness that showcases such a satisfying medley of flavors that it's worth seeking out and eating anytime, anywhere.
It's time to complain about the heat.
Man, it's hot this summer. At the very least we were blessed with a long and lovely spring. But who can remember that when it's just been so oppressive recently? Eating is the last thing I want to do when I'm sweating through my shirt.
The good news is that there are a lot of places that get even hotter than the Capital Region in summer, and we can all learn some valuable lessons from how they sustain themselves in the heat. I'll never understand the Szechuan drive to fight fire with fire by stimulating the body's built in cooling system with sweat-inducing spices. The cooling salads of Thailand are much more my speed.
In Bangkok this week, every day promises to reach at least ninety degrees. But you can get duck salad here on Delaware Avenue in Albany either in the air conditioning or on the porch of Sweet Basil. I'm no great lover of salads, but let me tell you why this really hits the spot when it's hot.
The emerging coffee culture in the Capital Region is probably invisible to most. And honestly, it may never grow much beyond the few outposts that currently dot the landscape. New hiqh-quality coffee shops are opening up, long established ones are improving their wares, and passionate baristas are honing their craft.
The espresso at Caffe Vero is old news. You should check out what's happening at Tierra, especially their brewed coffee that's prepared to order in the Chemex. And Uncommon Grounds has been seriously improving their coffee roasting.
But right now -- right now -- when it's hot and humid, hot coffee is the last thing on your mind. Iced coffee is the order of the day. One of the best versions available is from a place that many don't even consider to be a coffee shop. However the New Orleans-style iced coffee at the Lucas Confectionery offers not only a reprieve from the heat, but it is also a blessed relief from all of the terrible iced coffee everywhere.
French fries, baked potato, or mashed? Cole slaw or baked beans? Sweet plantains or tostones?
Side dishes are ubiquitous, but the choices can vary greatly depending on the cuisine. When you find a dish of warmed marinated olives on the menu, the place obviously has a Mediterranean focus. A side of garlic spiked broccoli rabe clearly indicates an Italian influence.
So what does it mean when a restaurant offers a side order of a whole rotisserie chicken?
We've been blessed with a long cool spring, but soon it will get hot. And when it does you will be faced with three choices: sweat, seek air conditioning, or head for the water.
A patch of shade with some cooling breezes coming off the water is one of summer's great pleasures. Waterfront dining options far too often take advantage of the situation and charge outrageous premiums on barely adequate food.
Yet somehow in the Capital Region we've seemed to avoid the worst of that. You can eat on the banks of the Hudson at Dinosaur Bar-B-Que or in sight of the Mohawk at Jumpin' Jacks without being gouged for the view. These places are locally famous. But there is another restaurant nearby that most people probably have never heard about. And it has a nicer view than Dinosaur, uses better meat than Jumpin' Jacks, and is a veritable haven for local and regional food lovers.
Pirates Lakeside Grill is also home to the $5 grassfed burger.
Cheesesteaks might as well grow on trees. Even though we are more than 200 miles north of Philadelphia, this signature dish from the City of Brotherly Love is as ubiquitous in the Capital Region as it is across the country.
And why not? It's a classic combination of beef, sauteed onions, and cheese. Although there are some philistines who don't care for onions and order their cheesesteaks "witout."
But most of these sandwiches -- even though they may look like Philly cheesesteaks, and are called Philly cheesesteaks -- sadly are not Philly cheesesteaks.
There is one critical component that transforms a simple everyday steak sandwich into the classic made famous at joints like Jim's and Pat's and Geno's. And luckily for us, the good people at Latham's Philly Bar and Grill are in on the secret.
Before it was famous, Famous Lunch in Troy was called Quick Lunch when it opened in 1932. And it's still quick today. In the front window hot dogs are plucked off the griddle, topped with mustard, chopped onions, and zippy sauce, and handed to eager customers in mere moments.
Zippy sauce -- for the uninitiated -- is a deeply savory concoction of onions, meat, and spices.
Those in a hurry could surely eat these diminutive three-inch wieners as quickly as they are assembled, although I wouldn't recommend it. Some things in life deserve to be savored. But that doesn't stop people from ordering them by the trayful in quantities of four, six, eight, or more.
Now while it may not be quite as quick, Famous Lunch's decidedly less famous breakfast is a very special treat. Specifically I'm referring to their egg and cheese sandwich on a hard roll with zippy sauce. It's not exactly on the menu, but they are more accommodating than one might imagine.
Some people might contemplate the notion of going to a famous hot dog place and not getting the hot dogs with deep scorn. But are you sure it's the restaurant's hot dogs that made them famous?
Albany is filled with old food. And rightly so, it's an old town. Our fish fry and mini-hot dogs with meat sauce offer widespread examples around the region. But slightly less visible, inside one the city's oldest taverns, there is a remarkably old pizza.
The Orchard Tavern has been making its distinctive style of pizza from scratch for more than 70 years from the recipe of a former proprietor. Much of what is known about the pizza's origins is based on anecdotal evidence. But, since the recipe has remained unchanged for all this time, we can learn a lot about this pizza by understanding how it's made.
To unlock the secrets of The Orchard pizza, you have to start with a visit to their dungeon.
What brings you comfort?
Even when it comes to food, the answer will be different for everyone. For some it will be a taste of home. Others will long for a taste of childhood. The answer could be situational, and refer back to some restorative dish eaten after a traumatic experience.
These foods aren't necessarily exciting. But dishes like biscuits with sausage gravy, fluffy scrambled eggs cooked in bacon fat, and mashed potatoes with gravy share a common heritage. They are all simple enough to be made, more or less from scratch, by the home cook.
So what could be more antithetical to unprocessed homemade food than the beloved tater tot? After all, its original purpose was to help Ore-Ida use waste created from the mass production of frozen french fries. How unlikely that this would turn into the comfort food of today. But there is a sea change surrounding the tater tot around this country. It's being taken back by talented chefs.
Now let me tell you why Comfort Kitchen in Saratoga deserves a top spot among their ranks.
Why do most people go to the Dinosaur Bar-B-Que in Troy? Well if you ask general manager Joe Soldo, he'll tell you it's for the pulled pork. That's the big seller -- followed by ribs and then brisket, with chicken lagging way behind in the rear.
Chicken gets little respect at a barbecue joint.
When I think about barbecue, it conjures up images of long, slow cooking that breaks down the collagen in tougher pieces of meat, renders their fat, and turns them into unctuous smokey masterpieces. But when I hear the words "barbecue chicken" it's hard to picture anything but a dry, flavorless chicken breast slathered in sauce.
Barbecue chicken has a marketing problem. But I'm far from alone in thinking that Dinosaur's chicken is among its best offering. I recently got to sit down with the regional chain's CIA-trained executive chef Jeffrey "Cooter" Coon to find out why it's so good.
Little did I know that this is the chicken that changed his life.
There's nothing new about the New Mt. Pleasant Bakery. This old school bakery in Schenectady's Mont Pleasant neighborhood may not show many signs of life from the street. Their hours are posted on a printed-out piece of paper taped to the door, scratched out and amended with a faded sharpie.
Inside, there's not much to look at these days, either. Yes, there are a few trays of colorful cookies, some donuts, a handful of black and whites, and perhaps a few random pastries. Yet many of the racks are empty, and past adventures in trying their sweets have taught me to avoid them.
But wonder of wonders, miracle of miracles, this very same bakery just so happens to make the best challah in the Capital Region. And it's worth making a special trip during the day on Friday to get it.
I've heard that "Everyone is Irish on St. Patrick's Day." Except I'm not, or at least I haven't been in the past. The fervor that surrounds this holiday was lost on me for most of my life. It took living through several Capital Region winters in a row and the arrival of the Shamrock Shake for the appeal to finally sink in.
After months of cold, snow, bitter winds, chapped skin, and frozen bones, in addition to the tedium of a world whose color scheme has devolved into various shades of grey, anything verdant is worth celebrating.
That, and I suppose people like drinking. But Purim is another drinking holiday and nobody claims that we are all Jewish on Adar 14. I suppose that's just another downside of having a lunar calendar.
Still, any excuse to celebrate a different culture comes with the possibilities of eating something delicious and novel. Except what could one possibly find in the Capital Region that would stand out from the chorus of shepherd's pie and corned beef with cabbage.
Well, have you ever heard of boxty?
Slurpees are the defining product of 7-Elevens around the country. Every now and again I'll miss having easy access to this remarkable frosty beverage that so skillfully rides the line between two phases of matter.
When I first moved to the Capital Region I would have traded all of the Stewart's for even just one 7-Eleven if given the chance. But now, in no small part to Mr. Dave's romanticizing of the shop, I can finally see Stewart's as a cultural anchor of upstate New York. And despite my predilection for organic milk, eggs from free-roaming chickens, and ice cream made without additional gums, thickeners or emulsifying agents, I find myself regularly at my local Stewart's buying milk, eggs, and ice cream.
Amazingly, the reason isn't because Stewart's is convenient. It's because these staples are just really good.
Their maple walnut ice cream would have never even made it onto my radar had it not been for an event from last summer. Hands down, it's my favorite flavor in their case. And now is the perfect time to eat it.
Update October 2013: This place is now closed, replaced by a juice bar.
Valentine's Day is for suckers. Going out to a restaurant on February 14 is like going to a nightclub on December 31. It's crowded to the gills and everyone is filled with impossible expectations. Plus, attempting to celebrate the special relationship you share with your lover, by having the exact same meal as the couple at the table next to you, seems misguided at best.
And maybe you find yourself alone in the dreariest part of the winter doldrums.
So, forget Cupid and his stupid little wings for just a moment. Regardless of your feelings about the upcoming holiday, and regardless of your relationship status, do not miss out on the opportunity to indulge in a box of chocolates.
Some of the best chocolate in the region just got a whole lot closer. And after trying a bunch of them, here's a little insight that will help you fill your box.
There's a steady drumbeat for Korean cuisine in the Capital Region, but precious few places to get it.
For the past year I had avoided Mingle because it appeared to be a place that served overpriced versions of Korean comfort food in an upscale setting. And I had my reservations about paying fine dining prices for street food.
January is a time for new beginnings. It's also a good month for deeply comforting, spicy foods that smolder in your mouth and belly. And after a meal of Mingle's dukbokki, I'm happy to report that I was wrong. Really, really wrong. But before you go, you have to know the secret.
The Capital Region has no shortage of great bakeries, each with at least one thing they do better than anyone else around. Many of them have been profiled on AOA, such as:
+ Mrs. London's classic croissants
+ Crisan's fanciful sweet treats.
+ All Good Bakers and their mean grilled cheese.
+ TC Bakery's meticulously-made macarons.
+ Bella Napoli's excellent donuts (just not the glazed ones).
+ Fluffalicious's cupcakes, especially the buttercream part of their cupcakes.
+ Eastern Parkway Price Chopper's flour dusted bialys.
But there is also a great bakery in Troy that makes great croissants, sweets (including macarons), sandwiches, and breads that has gone without praise for far too long. Where's the love for The Placid Baker?
Well, let me tell you what makes their baguette my favorite in the region.
This is not a pizza. A pizza without cheese is like a hat without a crown, which isn't a hat at all but a headband. Henceforth I'll refer to what they call pizza at Tara Kitchen in Schenectady as a flatbread, since no sensible person is going to confuse one for the other.
On the most basic level the flatbreads here are a pita, covered with toppings, slid onto a plate, and cut into quarters. As a pizza it doesn't rate. But it's an intensely satisfying way of delivering the flavors of North Africa. And there is one topping in particular that puts this over the top.
Some people say the Capital Region is a great place with an inferiority complex.
Evidence of this mentality is that residents will declare the best part about living here is that you are only three hours from Boston, Manhattan, and Montreal. Officially, I disagree wholeheartedly with that sentiment. But these are not the only cities that cast a shadow on the affairs of this place.
Out to our west is Buffalo. And given that it is less than a day's drive from our border, there are folks who would have you believe that the state of our chicken wings does not compare favorably.
In fact, there are plenty of places for wings in this area that are great. And after years of research and tasting, I believe the wings from The Ruck should be a source of regional pride.
By the time November rolls around most community supported agriculture programs are closing up shop for the winter. Farmers' markets move indoors. And those who care about eating locally-produced fruits and vegetables get ready to bear the brunt of the next few months of winter storage crops.
And you know, it's not so bad. In fact, winter storage crops are some of the best things we grow in the region. Cabbage, onions, beets, potatoes, turnips, parsnips, rutabaga, carrots, celery root, sweet potatoes, and winter squash are all incredibly versatile. Which is a good. Because these are my new vegetable staples.
But wait. What's that big pile of greenery Migliorelli Farm has on its table? Oh, well they must come from a greenhouse. No? And they aren't hydroponic either. Well how do they do it then, and why is their broccoli rabe so good?
Why don't folks from the suburbs go out to eat in Albany? People are full of excuses. I hear the lack of parking a lot.
Well, Taiwan Noodle has a parking lot, and it is adjacent to the restaurant. So you can get from your car to the restaurant in seconds.
What it doesn't have is a lot of pretense, overpriced food, or people there to see and be seen.
But it does have enough varieties of soup noodles -- sixty by my count -- to keep you warm and satisfied throughout the long, cold Albany winter.
Naturally, you should start at the top of their menu with the stewed beef chuck noodle soup, and let me tell you why.
Sometimes great dishes can be hiding in plain sight. It's just a matter of knowing what to order, and letting a trusted advisor be your guide.
More Perreca's had consistently disappointed me for breakfasts. The ultimate insult was toast made from the bakery's famous bread that was served cold. But that was just the tip of the iceberg. From a questionable frittata, to mushy potatoes, to an egg sandwich served on a quarter loaf of bread with a virtually impenetrable crust, nothing I tried over multiple visits had worked for me. The egg sandwich, when made with one of their generous sausage patties, had been the best of the bunch, just so long as it came unaccompanied by potatoes.
But Deanna from Silly Goose Farm insisted I had it wrong. She was willing to vouch for a dish on their breakfast menu and agreed to accompany me on one last journey to this offshoot of a Schenectady institution.
Not only are the Eggs in Purgatory there delicious, but I cannot imagine a more befitting breakfast for the Electric City in October.
It's fall and we are in apple country. Huzzah! These are the golden months of life in the Capital Region.
While this year's apple crop may have suffered greatly from the mild winter, the early thaw, the spring frosts, hail, and drought, that shouldn't keep you from making the annual pilgrimage to an apple orchard.
There are apple cider donuts, of course -- a glorious treat that are best enjoyed as close to the source as possible. But there are some orchards that also offer other, more unusual, products from apples.
Good fried chicken can change your life.
This is what happened to Ian Michael Hunter when he went south last winter on vacation and sunk his teeth into something crispy, salty, and wonderful. As a new year's resolution he vowed to bring this food to Troy. Ian looked around and saw other fried chicken joints in the Capital Region. He points out, "[In] Troy itself we don't even have a Golden Fried chicken, so I figured it would be a good place for it."
Inspired by the success of The Brown Bag and a love for the restaurant business, Ian scraped together the start-up capital with help from his family and connected with Culinary Institute of America-trained chef and fellow Troy resident Josh Coletto. In July they opened their doors. Since then, The Flying Chicken has been getting a lot of positive attention.
Don't be fooled. This is no ordinary fried chicken place. Even Ian admits that with Josh in the back of the house the food "came out better than I could have imagined."
Recently I visited with Noah Sheetz to meet his friend Josh (both CIA graduates and participants in the Chefs Consortium), try his food, and find out two things:
What is a CIA-trained chef doing at a counter service fried chicken restaurant? And what makes his fried chicken and waffles so damn good?
Say goodbye to cupcakes and bonjour to macarons.
Cupcakes make me crazy. Anyone can throw together a few ingredients in a mixing bowl and turn out a passable cupcake. The same goes for buttercream. Yet people line up to spend outrageous sums on these sweet, fanciful treats. Sure, the better cupcakeries are creative with their flavor combinations and decorations. These are seen as small indulgences. I get it.
But French macarons fill a very similar niche. These light and delicate meringues encase a sweet and creamy filling in creative flavor combinations and vibrant colors. Some are decorated, while others stand unadorned, strikingly beautiful in their simplicity. Except they are only deceptively simple, because to make them well takes a lot of time and care.
These too are small indulgences. The difference is that they are truly a treat.
It has been difficult to find a wide selection of French macarons in the Capital Region. But for the last eight months, TC Bakery -- hidden in plain sight -- has been filling its case daily with impressive versions of the form, trying to bring a bit of Paris to Albany.
Some will say the first day of fall is on Saturday, September 22. And technically they would be correct. Although somehow they have neglected to consider that the last day of summer falls on September 2.
That is the last day Jumpin' Jack's in Scotia is open for the season.
One of the great things about the Capital Region are all of our seasonal food stands. Whether they specialize in burgers, fish fry, soft serve or homemade hard ice cream, each one is a treasure trove of good memories for generations of area residents. But you can't eat someone else's fond recollections.
Not having grown up here, I have none of these sentimental ties binding me to any of our beloved regional institutions. So I consider myself lucky to be able to try each of these places with a fresh perspective. Still, before first heading to Jumpin' Jacks I did my research to find what exactly about this riverside restaurant residents recommended.
As it turns out, there are many people who love Jumpin' Jack's despite the food. True, the fact that a seasonal food stand has such a beautiful riverside location is stunning -- it's great to eat on the banks of the Mohawk River, even when there isn't a water ski show.
But I've got a few words for those who are dissatisfied with Jumpin' Jack's signature burger.
Prejudice is an ugly thing. And I'll be the first to admit that I've got my own set of preconceived notions.
Almost every day in the spring and summer, I'll eat a bowl of granola with yogurt, flax seeds, and some fruit (usually frozen blueberries). The granola is organic, as are the flaxseeds. The yogurt is either organic or local from Cowbella. The blueberries are not organic, but they are wild and the producer employs integrated pest management practices.
The goal with this crazy-sounding regimen is to eat cleaner food. Organic dairy ensures that the cows aren't given subtherapeutic doses of antibiotics in their feed (which in conventional dairies can also contain "poultry litter"). Organic granola is a way to make sure that genetically modified ingredients aren't sneaking into the breakfast bowl, since many supermarket granolas contain some form of corn or soy. Organic flax seeds are just a happy bonus.
But good, clean food doesn't have to be organic. I was reminded of this recently when I finally tried the Maple Crunch Granola from Our Daily Eats, which is based in Albany. Because not only is it delicious, but there is also a compelling argument why you should buy this instead of making your own.
Blah, blah, blah, Bobby Flay, blah, blah.
So yeah, the Ice Cream Man was on cable. There was a "throwdown" and our Greenwich shop prevailed with a sundae made from vanilla ice cream, warm apple topping, whipped cream, gourmet nuts, and a cherry.
If you really want, you can buy one of those for $5.14, but then you would be missing out on what truly makes the Ice Cream Man special: they produce over 300 flavors of homemade hard ice cream. It's an audacious claim, but they make it proudly.
Now granted, they only keep about 30 of the flavors on hand at any given time. Twelve are set in stone. They are the same week in and week out. Up to six flavors can be dedicated to fat-free, sugar-free, soft-serve, yogurt, or sorbet, which might be fine if you are into those kinds of things.
That means every day hundreds of potential flavors are vying for a mere twelve spots on the menu board. After the Tour de Hard Ice Cream it became clearly evident that the Ice Cream Man sets the high bar for homemade ice cream in the region. But the question remained, what hidden delights are lurking on the menu.
To find out, I decided to eat an unreasonable amount of ice cream. Again.
Let's put the name aside for a moment.
What's important to know is that this is the essence of summertime in a glass. Because regardless of what anyone else says, nothing says summer as much as biting into a ripe and juicy peach as the nectar drips down your chin and arm. It's sweeter than the first sweet corn, it's juicier than even the ripest of strawberries, and it's more satisfying than the plumpest tomato. Nobody can be unhappy while eating a perfectly ripe peach.
This latest creation from Harvest Spirits in Valatie has been in the works for about a year, but was released just last week. Officially, it's a peach-flavored brandy, and it is indeed packed with the flavor of whole peaches. Calling it "peach flavored" however really does it a disservice, and actually it's not quite a brandy either. Technically, it's a peach infused applejack. But that too doesn't fully get to the heart of this spirit.
The story of how Peach Jack came into existence begins with an experiment gone awry.
Change is good.
Okay, that's trite. And more importantly it's wrong. We've all seen things change for the worse: beloved institutions close, food quality slips as owners or chefs become complacent, and prices creep up at places that were once a bargain.
In this case change is a double-edged sword, because change has improved the tacos at Bros, but it has also rendered former statements of mine incorrect.
So in addition to eating a taco, I'm also going to have to eat my words.
Could the best chicken dinner in the Capital Region come from inside a plastic box?
Every fiber of my being is telling me not to write this story. There are precious few Nature's Place rotisserie chickens in the case at my local Hannaford to begin with. Often I get the last one or two. Sometimes I have to wait around until the next batch comes out of the oven. So if even just a few people decide to make this a regular part of their Friday night supper, I might find myself in the lurch.
Not all the Hannaford rotisserie chickens are created equal. The Nature's Place birds are special. Occasionally you have to look closely at a label to make sure you are getting the right one. But you can always tell, because the Nature's Place chickens are trussed with a green string.
Now, I'll admit that it doesn't look like much sitting in its little plastic prison, especially the ones that are a day old and chilled in the cold case -- but these are actually the very best specimens. It sounds a bit odd, and I don't blame you for being suspicious. However, this chicken exists in the fortuitous intersection of quality, convenience, sustainability, taste and value.
The bialy is dead. Long live the bialy.
Maybe you've read Mimi Sheraton's The Bialy Eaters, in which the food writer travels the world in search of an authentic Bialystocker kuchen. There is actually a town in Poland called Bialystock, and at one point in time it was filled with Jews and bakeries that would churn out these hot, yeasty rolls which have only a passing similarity to bagels in that they are round.
From Ms. Sheraton's research, in the old country these were light and pillowy on the outside, with a crisp compressed center, which was filled with onions, poppy seeds, and bread crumbs. They were dusted with flour, baked in a wood or coal-fired oven, and came out with a thin, burnished brown crust.
After searching the world over, starting at Kossar's in New York City, and traveling to Poland, Israel, France and Argentina she came to a sad conclusion: One cannot find a Bialystocker kuchen like the ones made in that famous village before World War II. Most of the Jews from Bialystock were killed or driven into exile, and with them went the bialy.
That's not to say there aren't some delicious bialys around the world which come close. Oddly, the Capital Region was never mentioned in her book. However, if Mimi Sheraton ever made it out to the Price Chopper on Eastern Parkway, I think she would be quite pleased.
Consider the oyster. Those are not my words but the title of a book by M.F.K. Fisher on this polarizing bivalve mollusk. And there has indeed been a lot of consideration paid to these slippery specimens, as trying to describe how they taste is like trying to catch the wind in your hands.
Despite its distance from oyster beds, Albany has a long tradition of oyster eating, as revealed in this article William Kennedy wrote for Esquire on Jack's Oyster House over 25 years ago.
It's hard to imagine that the oyster, a modern fixture of high-end dining, used to be an inexpensive staple of the working class. What a pity that those days are long gone. But in cities like New Orleans you can still pick up a 100-pound sack of them for $50. And even in Watervliet you can still walk into a local fast food joint and get an order of fried oysters in a paper basket with a plain hotdog bun on the side.
Now, May isn't conventionally considered to be oyster season -- but at Ted's oyster season has just begun.
Barbecue. Just the very act of reading the word creates an instant impression in your mind. But that image varies dramatically based on your background and where you are from. Almost none of them are wrong, except perhaps the one that involves burgers sizzling over charcoal for a summertime cookout. That's grilling. And Chinese barbecued pork may have once seen smoke, but now its brilliant red patina is the byproduct of nothing more than food coloring.
For me, barbecue involves slow cooking with a little bit of heat and a lot of smoke. And we are blessed to have plenty of places in the region that will transform tough and fatty cuts of meat into tender and succulent delights using this time honored technique.
And while all of these joints have a wide variety of offerings on their menu, there is generally one or two things that they do best. At Capital Q in Albany, one of these things is their South Carolina pulled pork sandwich.
Some will tell you the secret to great pulled pork is the sauce, others say the rub, while still others claim it's the smoke.
At Capital Q, none of that matters, because on this sandwich they ace all three -- and then some.
The forbidden fruit is twice as sweet.
Some of you may know that currently we are in the midst of Passover. And that means for those who are observing the holiday, the classic croissant at Mrs. London's is entirely off limits.
But it sure is gorgeous isn't it.
Regardless of if you can wait until the holiday is over or not, this amazing amalgamation of flour and butter can be found at what some have postulated is the "most fabulous bakeshop" in America. Their ability to achieve such stunning results on this classic French pastry is just one reason why Mrs. London's gets my vote for the best bakery in the Capital Region.
Still, I'm amazed at how many people stare blankly at me when I tell them about a place up in Saratoga Springs called Mrs. London's. Many have never heard of it, and others have just never been. Unless you suffer from Celiac disease or have severe gluten intolerance, this is totally inexcusable.
It's sad what passes for a croissant these days, and it's great to find one bakery that is holding the line.
Consider me converted.
Upon arriving to the area, my family was struck by the many varieties of local honey available at farm stands and farmers' markets. Part of eating local was enjoying these naturally sweet products.
Except there was a problem: granulation.
Really, it's not a problem. It's more of a nuisance. Because all honey eventually granulates, and it can be easily fixed by placing the jar in a pot of warm water until the crystals dissolve. But who wants to do that?
So we fell off the wagon and found some reasonably tasty supermarket honey. But recently all has not been well in bee-land. There have been all kinds of problems going on from colony collapse disorder to reports of fraudulent and contaminated honey being brought into the United States.
That, in addition to the rising price of supermarket honey and the very vocal fan base of local beekeeper Lloyd Spear led me to his stall at the Schenectady Greenmarket earlier this year. We've been buying Lloyd's honey ever since.
Recently when picking up a donation of honey he was making to the Jewish Food Festival, I had a chance to chat with him and find out what makes his stuff so good.
There are a lot of reasons to love Ala Shanghai. The authentic Shanghainese restaurant in Latham not only serves traditional regional foods, they also have a changing seasonal menu. Their upcoming spring/summer menu is currently in development and promises to include some modern takes on classic dishes that are popular in China today.
This makes me giddy.
For the neophyte who may not be quite ready to step up to cold jellyfish salad or sea cucumber with triple delights, the Ala Shanghai menu also has a dim sum section. However, the dim sum most of us know and love is Cantonese. Shanghainese food stems from a different culinary tradition, which makes the dim sum at Ala Shanghai a familiar experience with some exciting surprises.
Here are a few notable items from Ala Shanghai's dim sum menu that you would expect to find where the Yangtze meets the East China Sea, not where the Hudson meets the Mohawk.
If you've been looking for great donuts, this is where they've been hiding.
But for other yeast-raised or non-cider cake donuts, Bella Napoli in Troy is the place. And the pinnacle of their craft is realized in the Boston cream.
These are not the newfangled big city donuts you may have been reading about. I could easily imagine how a hand-crafted pastry cream made with local farm-fresh eggs, pure heavy cream and mounds of real vanilla beans could take this donut to extraordinary heights.
But these are the donuts of the past, the classic Northeastern style of donuts that inspired places like Dunkin' to take up the mantle of donutdom and spread it to the masses. These are the donuts that are hard to find anymore, and we are very lucky to have them in our midst. Because Bella Napoli has been making donuts before the hot pastry chefs of today were in short pants. And they know how to do it right.
Let me tell you what that means.
Today the temperature in Montego Bay, Jamaica is expected to get up into the low 80a. Jamaica is a warm place, but I can't say I have ever been. The closest I generally come to the island is sipping Wray & Nephew overproof rum mixed with coconut water while listening to Harry Belafonte.
Refreshing rum drinks aren't exactly on the top of my list in the middle of February. But warming, lusty, and sensuous stews are just what I need to take some of the chill out of an Albany winter (even a relatively mild one).
How this hot and steamy cooking technique rose to prominence on a tropical island is beyond me. Yet things like jerk chicken, oxtail stew, and curry goat are classic Jamaican dishes. So is their lesser-known cousin, brown stew.
All of these and more are available at Orchids, a tiny restaurant on the edge of Rotterdam. But you may only have two weeks to get there before Rosemarie Colman takes her cooking to a new Schenectady location. Her new digs may be nicer, but there is something quite charming about eating this great food at a gas station.
Update: Details on the full Tour de Egg Sandwich are now available at fUSSYlittleBLOG.
All egg sandwiches are not created equal.
And I'm not even talking about different forms of egg sandwiches that can be enjoyed all around the country. Like in Philly where they scramble the egg and put it on an Amoroso hoagie roll. Or in New Jersey it comes with Taylor ham and saltpepperketchup. In New Mexico you will find scrambled eggs in the form of a burrito stuffed with green chile. Here, we put flattened fried-eggs and American cheese on a grilled hard roll, which I've recently discovered is decidedly not hard.
In the Capital Region almost every diner, deli, convenience store, bakery, and cherished institution produces a version of this sandwich. So, to better understand what makes our egg and cheese so special, I recently went on a Tour de Egg Sandwich along with 17 other likeminded eaters.
The competition among the five places was close. Very close. In the Tour de Egg Sandwich voting, Jack's Diner in Albany edged out McCarroll's in Delmar by a nose, with Famous Lunch in Troy nipping at their heels.
So what sets this diner apart?
The hardest part about eating chilaquiles is pronouncing chilaquiles.
Say it with me, as I say it out loud: chee-lah-KEE-lehs.
Very good, I knew you could do it.
Now practice it at home and don't drop that last "l." Then come this weekend, it will be time to take a trip to Schenectady near the Rotterdam line.
Yes, Schenectady, for yet another surprisingly delicious Mexican treat. Unlike at some ethnic restaurants, at The Point Café you can't just point at this dish on the menu or order by number -- because their chilaquiles are not on the menu. But don't let that stop you from one of the most soul satisfying breakfasts in the region.
So what exactly is this marvelous dish? And why is it so good?
Every delicious morsel selected for Eat This! over the course of the past year is truly special. I love each of these 23 foods like I love my children. How could I possibly pick a favorite?
Well, I'll tell you: with a single-elimination blind draw bracket.
Here's how it works: 14 items go head to head in round one, with nine getting a bye to round two. The list of contenders was randomized by random.org and that order determined the initial placement of the foodstuffs.
I agonized over each match-up. Some decisions were harder than others. And it kills me that there are amazing dishes that have to get eliminated in the first round. They deserve a more dignified fate.
What follows is a blow-by-blow of the showdown, with my one favorite thing from the past year left standing.
Sandwiched between the Westfalianschinken and Lachschinken is possibly Albany's most popular locally-made ham. And for something that is sliced so thin, it really is a mouthful.
It's a lot easier to say once you learn that sometimes one impossibly long word is simply three words squeezed together. In this case it's Schwarz (Black), Wälder (from the word for Forest), and Schinken (ham). From there, if you take it slowly, the pronunciation is straightforward.
Recently I chatted with Glen Eggelhoefer, who owns Rolf's Pork Store with his brother Edgar and sister Rita. He helped me make sense of the many German hams and wursts at their store in Albany, and explained why his products are so damned good.
Arriving at Oakland International Airport, the first thing I used to do was head to one of the taco trucks near International Boulevard. There are a lot of things I miss about living in Northern California, and the humble street taco tops the list.
Up until recently it's been unrealistic to expect a decent taco in the Capital Region. I know some people like Bros, and when the only choices were Bombers and Bros, Bros won handily. But the texture of their soft corn tortilla is just off, and you can't have a good taco when the tortilla is wrong.
After all, a taco is merely two small corn tortillas, with a little bit of well-seasoned meat, topped with onions and cilantro. Salsa verde or salsa rojo can be squeezed on top. On the side should be a wedge of lime and a few slices of radish, but ideally there will be pickled carrots and jalapeno peppers as well. From a taco truck out West, this could set you back a whopping $1.50.
The tacos at La Mexicana Grocery in Schenectady will cost you an extra fifty cents, but you get to eat them inside, on a real plate, with table service, all while watching Mexican TV or listening the jukebox filled with Mexican tunes.
There are six different tacos to choose from, including the one that stole my heart.
Clifton Park is full of secrets. To the outsider, it may seem like a vast wasteland of chain restaurants and suburban sprawl. However, tucked out of sight, just a few minutes west of the Northway in the hamlet of Jonesville is a little restaurant with incredible pancakes. But unless you are a townie, you might not have heard about them.
That is, unless you have happened to stumble upon the comments of a woman who goes by the handle Kerosena. She seems to be on a mission to single-handedly bring these pancakes out of the shadows and into the light of day.
Her tales of these mythical pancakes got me thinking about a trip up to Exit 10. But when I found out they use only real New York maple syrup, I grabbed my keys and was on my way to the Jonesville Store.
As it turns out, their use of local maple syrup was just one of many delightful surprises.
The grilled cheese revolution is here.
Count this as one of the fastest trends to start in a big metropolitan center and arrive at our doorstep in Albany. The most specific accounting I found on the subject claims to have identified the very day grilled cheese took the great leap from ordinary to extraordinary. That day was April 13, 2008, in New York City. Though it may have been even earlier than that, since the Annual Grilled Cheese Invitational had been underway in Los Angeles many years before.
Regardless, today our nation is speckled with grilled cheese food trucks from coast to coast, many of which are offering very sophisticated takes on this classic childhood favorite. Some are relying upon artisanal local, seasonal and organic ingredients, while others are challenging the very notion of what a grilled cheese sandwich can be.
We are lucky here in Albany. Our newfangled grilled cheese sandwich is a bit more civilized than one from a truck that roams around the city. You can eat inside, at a table, and upon an actual porcelain plate. Plus you don't have to follow All Good Bakers on Twitter or Facebook to know where they are going to be.
But there are still a few quirks. You didn't think it was going to be easy, did you?
Everyone loves pupusas.
Okay, maybe not the lactose-intolerant
or the gluten-free set. But if you can eat the component ingredients, which primarily involve cheese and cornmeal, it's a no-brainer. It's like a Salvadoran grilled cheese sandwich. Or perhaps you would like to think of it as a quesadilla pocket. I always likened it to an arepa with a more fine-grained cornmeal exterior.
But it's not just cheese. Pupusas come in a variety of flavors. You can get them with pork, beans or loroco, as well. Never had loroco? Well, you will.
Brush up on a few Spanish phrases, and get yourself down to Schenectady, pronto.
There is a storm coming for Friendly's. After seventy-five years of fattening up little children on hamburgers, fried chicken strips, grilled cheese sandwiches, french fries, milkshakes, ice cream sundaes that look like clowns, slices of watermelon sherbet rolls that look like watermelon, and a full menu of other sticky, chewy, frozen confections, this restaurant beloved by our region's children may file for bankruptcy.
All indications are that the 500 locations will remain open during the proceedings. But the ultimate future of the business is uncertain. So get in there now while you still have the chance. Update: Friendly's filed for bankruptcy, and six Capital Region locations are closing (nine are staying open).
Why should you do that? Especially if you neither have kids nor do you have any nostalgic memories of time spent there as a kid? Three words: Buffalo chicken sliders.
And if those three words don't convince you, I've got three reasons why they are even better than they sound.
Did you know that we had the largest sheep dairy in the United States fewer than 25 miles outside of Albany? And did you know that they make some of the finest sheep milk cheeses around?
I first learned about Old Chatham Sheepherding Company many years ago from an article in Saveur magazine on the splendor of their flock, the magnificence of their restaurant, and the comforts of their inn. It was a dream to eventually travel to their farm in northern Columbia County for dinner, but sadly all the other arms of the enterprise were shuttered before I could make the trip. Honestly, it's one of the great regrets of my life.
But it's September, and that means it's time to eat local. So I'm putting my regret aside -- with one of Old Chatham's newest offerings.
You aren't off the hook from eating local this month just because Irene blew through the region. Yes, she brought with her devastating rains that wiped out many local farms. Schoharie County was especially hard hit, and there are a couple a benefits later this month to raise money in support of the Schoharie County Community Action Program.
Still, all the news out of Schoharie County isn't bad. Cowbella made it through. When Gail Peake and Shannon Mason's ancestors established the Danforth Jersey Farm almost 200 years and seven generations ago, they chose a safe site. That means despite the floods we can all still enjoy their butters and nonfat yogurts produced under the Cowbella label.
Consider yourself lucky, because these ladies are doing it right.
Fish fry is different from fried fish. If you grew up in the Capital Region, you would already know this. But there are countless transplants who come here from far and wide. Many of these people gaze upon our regional specialty with surprise and confusion.
Fried fish is simply a battered and fried filet of fish. Our fish fry is a foot-long thin piece of fried breaded fish, unceremoniously sitting in a plain white hotdog bun.
While most of the world is fish fry poor, we are lucky to have several restaurants around the area dedicated to this dish. Each is special in its own way and each has its dedicated followers. In many ways they remind me of the clam shacks around New England. They are casual places to enjoy tasty fried seafood on a warm summer's day.
But as opposed to the New England clam shacks, Capital Region fish fry is mostly a four-season affair. That is, except at Gene's in East Greenbush
Rensselaer, which is only open in the spring and summer. And if you want a last taste of summer, you've got precious little time to get there.
People around here go nuts over soft serve ice cream. They do. And in the spring, when the seasonal ice cream stands open, everyone flocks to their favorite place for what they insist is the creamiest soft serve in the region.
Soft serve has its place. There is a certain satisfaction of being handed an improbably tall cone, with a beautiful symmetrical swirl, brought to a point on top. And then there is the challenge and delight of attempting to finish the whole thing before it melts.
But soft serve is not what makes The Snowman in Lansingburgh special, although that's not to say it too doesn't have its fans. The proprietor will readily tell you that it just comes from a mix, like everyone else's. Still as I have learned, this fact does not mean all soft serve tastes the same.
What makes The Snowman special is their homemade hard ice cream. And what makes The Snowman very special is that there you can get a Boston Shake, which allows you to enjoy it two ways.
The clock is ticking.
Before you know it summer will be over, people will start gravitating back to the indoors, and all the undergraduates will return to the area's colleges and universities. That means over the next few weeks, some of the establishments that are generally reserved for our seasonal student population are a lot less, shall we say, boisterous.
When was the last time you checked out the deck at Sutter's Mill & Mining Co. in Albany?
It's huge. But it's not its size that's remarkable. It's the mature trees that are bursting through the surface of the deck to provide patrons with remarkable coverage of cool shade. And while I may choose to eat my meals elsewhere, little is better on a hot summer day than sitting in the shade with a cool beer and some crisp fries.
For that, Sutter's is a gold mine. Not only do they have Ommegang's Rare Vos on tap, served in a proper glass, but they also make Brew City Fries to go with it.
This is a town where pizza loyalties run deep.
For some, they've been going to The Fountain since they were a kid, and to these folks that is the very definition of pizza, no others need apply. Depending on the neighborhood you grew up in, The Fountain could be replaced by The Orchard, Smitty's, The Purple Pub, DeFazio's, Popes, Ralph's, etcetera.
Others have come here from downstate, and are continually frustrated that nothing they try even comes close to the pizza heaven they've left behind. Luckily, I don't think we host a major population of displaced Chicagoans or New Havenites. Nor do we have a lot of people hankering for the Old Forge pizza they remember growing up in Pennsylvania.
So with all of these considerations, how can I possibly put one slice above all the rest? Especially when it failed to win the Tournament of Pizza (in which it competed three times)? Well, there are several reasons. But there is one thing that clearly sets Pizza King apart from the rest of the pack, and that is focus.
As much as anything else, dim sum is an eating style. Regrettably, it's one that is not readily available here. Sure, you can order some of the dishes at a few of our local Chinese restaurants. But without the benefit of rolling dim sum carts it is difficult to replicate the slow, leisurely pace of spending the morning with your friends and family over copious amounts of tea punctuated with tasty things to eat.
And even at those restaurants that do serve dim sum, one of my favorite treats has been elusive: The Baked BBQ Pork Bun.
The steamed barbecue pork bun is a staple of dim sum menus, and it's fine in all of its white and billowy glory. But as good as it is, this puffball doesn't hold a candle to its richer, more golden, baked cousin. For these, you will need to head to the Hong Kong Bakery, which is now inside the Asian Supermarket on Central Avenue.
And if you are lucky, you might just happen to spy a warm tray of them fresh from the oven lurking behind the counter.
Before I can tell you about one of my favorite breakfasts in the Capital Region, I have to make a confession.
I've never been to Dan's Place Two drunk. Ever. Not at two o'clock in the morning, nor at four. In fact, I've never been to this diner in any other state than with clear eyes and a full heart.
And, still, this is great.
I do understand that this diner in Albany, affectionately known as Dirty Dan's, is well loved by the after-hours set. And rightfully so. Their Emmy-Bull Burger is legendary, with its monstrous proportions of protein and grease. For those who are unfamiliar with this force of nature, it's a half pound of ground beef with bacon, cheese, mayonnaise, lettuce, tomato, mayonnaise and a fried egg.
In comparison, their breakfasts seem like health food. But one thing that makes the burger so damn good is exactly what elevates their breakfast sausage to an entirely different level.
The weather is warming up, let's have soup.
No, seriously. I can't be the only one who has been stricken with a spring cold. And when you get sick, there is nothing better than soup.
There are two paths you can take when trying to eat your way out of a head cold. You can attack your ailment and try to make it flee your system with wave upon wave of fiery delights; pouring additional chili oil into a lip-numbingly spicy bowl of hot and sour soup has served me well on many occasions.
Alternatively, you can opt for something soothing. Thankfully, one of the world's most soothing and comforting soups is available at a little Japanese restaurant in Guilderland.
And the tanuki udon at Sushi Tei isn't just good for those who are under the weather; it's just plain good.
Is there a season for the Capital Region's unique style of mini-hot dogs?
This is our street food. It's the region's answer to the taco. Something that's intensely flavorful, can be consumed in a few bites while standing up, and costs mere pennies. It may be difficult to find them from a street vendor, but they can be found throughout the region both at seasonal ice cream stands and long established restaurants dedicated to the form.
Gus's is the rare institution that firmly falls into the latter, but from the outside the place could easily be mistaken for the former. It's a small red shed by the side of the road set beside a large number of picnic tables.
Regardless of whether there's a season for our mini-hot dogs, it is definitely the season for Gus's. Except the best thing on the menu isn't the hot dog.
Just follow the signs.
Garden Bistro 24 in Colonie sets itself apart from other local restaurants in a lot of ways. Not having a freezer is just one. And while I might miss ice cream, I appreciate the commitment to a tightly constructed menu based on fresh ingredients.
The menu does not try to be all things to all people. There is no Chicken Parmesan. This is the place to go when you know exactly what you want for dinner, and what you want is a simple and unpretentious meal of steak frites.
Locals have been coming to Bob & Ron's for generations. Transplants, not so much.
I am continually amazed at how many people I encounter who are unfamiliar with the concept of fish fry. Not simply fried fish, but the very special local incarnation that starts with a hot dog bun and ends with chili sauce. Nestled in the middle is a very narrow foot-long piece of crispy deep-fried fish.
At Bob & Ron's the fish fry gets top billing. However it's their clams, that seem to be no more than an also-ran on Bob & Ron's iconic neon sign, which steal the show.
Officially, you can no longer say there isn't a good place to go for espresso in the Capital Region. Because in November, Caffé Vero opened its doors on Lark Street, and these people take espresso seriously.
Well, before opening the Albany location they sent a sample of their water to a lab in California to learn how well suited it was for making espresso. As it turns out the water in Albany is pretty good. This meant they only needed to install a filter that removes dissolved solids and chlorine.
That along with at least a dozen other invisible steps is what goes into producing some of the richest most delicious espresso based drinks in the Capital Region. But it is their version of a macchiato that is really the ideal showcase for the best espresso in Albany.
Clearly there is something deeply flawed with the people involved with the Hudson-Chatham winery. Not only because they're making wine from grapes grown just an hour outside of Albany in the heart of apple country -- but they are making wines nobody has ever heard of.
Whatever they are afflicted with must be contagious, because I think that's a great idea.
This is not a sandwich.
Let's be clear, the entire purpose of a sandwich is to be held in the hand so that it can be eaten with relative ease and tidiness. Please allow me to assure you that any attempt to do this with the eggplant sandwich at Peter Pause is a recipe for disaster.
This sandwich requires a knife and fork. It may also require a fair bit of advanced planning, because while Peter Pause is for everybody, they don't make it easy for people outside of Schenectady to enjoy this regional treasure.
Sometimes it's the simple things that are the most difficult to do well. Take the glazed donut, for example.
A bakery cannot hide an inferior glazed donut under mounds of cinnamon sugar. A dry one cannot be kept tender and moist by being stuffed with filling. Off flavors cannot be masked with chocolate or maple icing. The glazed donut stands almost naked, enrobed in just a gossamer veil of sugar.
As unlikely as it may seem, you can experience an admirable version of this classic at a place called The Cookie Factory in Troy.
We're very happy to be pulling one of our favorite features -- Eat This! -- back off the shelf. It's been too long. And we're delighted that Daniel B will be writing it for us (as you may have heard, Daniel B is very particular about food -- fussy, even). Eat This! will be popping up on every other Tuesday.
Street food is challenging to eat in the winter. It's cold outside. Which is just another
reason why Parivar Spices & Food is so great. They have brought Indian street-food indoors, to a few tables in the back of a grocery store.
Here they serve chaat, which are traditionally snacks. But these are snacks that eat like a meal. If you have never tried chaat before, you need to get your mouth around Dahi Puri.
We're big fans of variety at AOA, which is one of the reasons we like tapas so much. The idea of lots of little plates, filled with lots of different flavors, kind of makes dinner more of a party.
The need to put a little more party in our dinner sent us to Cella Bistro in Schenectady.
We had fun sampling a whole bunch of good stuff from their tapas menu, but the things we keep thinking about, the comfort food that has joined the list of yummy things we want someone to make us on cold winter nights, are the goat cheese and potato spring rolls.
When we first heard that Larry Sombke had launched a line of southwestern-inspired sauces, we were like, "Wait... the gardening guy?"
Yep, it was the locally-based gardening guru himself. And it turns out he knows how to make some tasty sauce.
Now that the Capital Region has not one, but two Chipotles, we figured we'd share our favorite thing to get when we eat there.
I'm kind of a sucker for fall flavors, be it apple, sweet potato or pumpkin.
So when I spotted this pumpkin pie ice cream from Adirondack Creamery the other day, I felt obligated to try it.
Move over Peanut Butter Pandemonium. Step aside Fireworks. Thanks, but no thanks, vanilla.
We have a new (sadly, temporary) favorite flavor of Stewart's ice cream.
We've eaten many tasty things at New World Bistro Bar since it opened in Albany earlier this year -- and here's one of the things we keep coming back to.
One of our favorite places to get breakfast is Tool's in Delmar. Everything about the place seems a little anachronistic -- the food, the decor, the prices. It's like it exists in a bubble where 1989 never ended. And it's great.
For the most part, if you want a little grab-and-go sushi in the Capital Region -- something you can pick up from a deli case on the run -- you're stuck with supermarket fare. Sure, that will do in a pinch, but we have yet to find a local supermarket roll that can take us off to that wonderful land of buttery freshness, salty tang, and softly sweetened rice that is true sushi yum.
the sushi and sashimi rolls at EATS Gourmet Marketplace in Stuyvesant Plaza are a step in the right direction.
There is virtually nothing good for you on the menu at Hattie's.
Alright, we'll give you the rice and beans -- but other than that there is pretty much nothing good for you on the menu. Even the vegetables are fried.
But Hattie's isn't a place you go if you want a salad. For some folks it's the place to go when they want southern fried chicken, home made hush puppies, dumplings or fried okra. For us, it's the place to go for rich, creamy, artery-clogging-good macaroni and cheese.
You can buy a pie at pretty much any supermarket these days -- either the bake-from-frozen variety or the strangely identical ones that hang out around the market's bakery section.
Some of these pies are OK, but in our experience they always kind of taste a little fake. And that probably shouldn't be surprising -- these pies aren't so much baked goods as they are the product of an industrial process.
Thankfully, it is possible to still buy a real pie. And Yonder Farms in Colonie is one of our favorite places to get one.
We're big fans of the cheese here at AOA. Cheddar, stilton, brie, a good chevre-- we really can't get enough of the stuff. Ask the staff cardiologist.
But if we had to choose our cheese of choice -- the one cheese we could have if (heaven forfend) we could only have one -- it would be the spreadable horseradish cheese at The Ginger Man.
It's cold. The holidays are over. There's ice and slush everywhere you look. And did we mention it's cold?
So last night we went in search of the antidote to our post-holiday deep freeze funk. And we found it--asparagus soup at the Lark Street Wine Bar and Bistro. Actually, any soup from the Lark Street Wine Bar and Bistro will work, but asparagus with white truffle oil is our favorite.
And here's why.
Yes, we admit it, we've got a little love affair going on with Crisan. ( And yes, we have the love handles to prove it.) It started with a little $1 gelato, then moved on to the Kiss Me phase. Now, we're ready to spend the winter sipping tiny cups of spiced drinking chocolate.
No, not hot cocoa.
We recently walked into Aperitivo Bistro in Schenectady and it smelled warm and a little sweet -- like someone was making s'mores.
Whatever that was, we wanted it.
This should really be called "eat this right now!"
Your tomato days are quickly running out. Before they're gone, be sure to get a couple of BLTs in. And if one of them comes from Lakeside Farms, you won't be sorry.
Yes, we admit it, we've been spending too much at Crisan these days. The call of the $1 gelato is too strong to resist.
And of course, while we're there, why not sample a little pastry to go with? (Did we mention our lack of discipline?)
Well, we think we've found a favorite. It's a tiny little chocolate number that's as sweet as its name.
One of the fun things about going to the farmers' market is that you're never quite sure what you're going to find. Sometimes that means disappointment (all the tomatoes are gone!), but more often it means pleasant suprises.
A few years back we came across one of those little surprises at the Little Seed Gardens stand at the Troy market. They were selling pea shoots. Pea shoots? What's a pea shoot? So we tried some. And we're glad we did.
Breakfast is supposed to be the most important meal of the day, right? Well, a meal of that stature certainly deserves something substantial and tasty.
So, basically, you have a responsibility to eat the raspberry oatmeal pancakes at Cafe Madison.
As the story goes, Keith and Marjan Beebe met in 1989 while she was visiting from the Netherlands. They fell in love, got married, and started a life together in Kinderhook. That's all pretty great for them. But it's been a good thing for the rest of us, too.
No, really. We've actually counted them.
Somewhere along the line raisin bread went the wrong way and ended up at this overly sweet, gooey place, all swirls of cinnamon and sugar. And there's nothing wrong with that exactly -- but when you want a good piece of toast it's just not the thing. Thankfully, the Rock Hill Bakehouse has avoided this wrong turn.
OK, we're not martini connoisseurs . We've been known to order them shaken, not stirred, straight up with a twist just because we've heard it before. But we're also not fond of sticky fruity drinks with lots of juice and umbrellas in them. If you like a summer drink that's dry and cool with just a hint of citrus and a few bubbles, you may just find your new favorite cocktail at DeJohn's on Lark Street.
That's where we found ours.
Perhaps it was the happy little pigs beckoning to us from the window of The Troy Pork Store that brought us into the 85 year old shop at 4th and Ferry streets (someone clearly hasn't told those pigs what goes on there), but it's the frankfurters inside that will bring us back.
Dear Dish and Dirt:
Thank you very much for pointing us in the direction of the parmesan cookies at Spill'n the Beans in Troy. They are, in a word, delightful.
When is the last time you had a hot fudge sundae? Not an ice cream cone or a single scoop (regardless of how large), but an honest-to-goodness hot fudge sundae.
Once we've grown up, how often do we indulge our inner kid with thick, warm, molten, chocolatey, silky hot fudge sauce over our ice cream?
We say indulgence is a beautiful thing. And we've found a gourmet hot fudge sauce made right here in the Capital Region that will make your outer grown up willing to splurge on your inner kid.
We don't think we ever would have put together the words "duck" and "panino." But we're sure glad that someone did.
In America, French fries have been relegated to sidekick -- the Robin to the cheeseburger's Batman. Would you like fries with that? As if a good French fry can't be a reason to visit a restaurant. The fries at Ravenous in Saratoga Springs refuse to take a back seat.
But please, don't call them French fries.
The sign in the window was so simple: "Try our lemon ice... it's refreshing!" It also turned out to be absolutely true. The Italian ice at Civitello's is both lemony and refreshing.
Cheesecake can be a tricky thing for the mindful eater. It's a moment of indulgent bliss at its best, but the stuff is never going to be confused with health food. So if you're going to indulge, the bang better be worth the caloric buck.
And we're happy to report that the cheesecake at Cheesecake Machismo is a wise way to spend all those saved up calories.
Let it be known: we have had Stacy's Mom. And Stacy's Mom has got it goin' on.
Some of the best Italian bread you'll ever eat can be found on Arthur Avenue
in The Bronx. But if you're not up for the road trip, make your way over to
Perreca's in Schenectady's Little Italy. It's not quite Arthur Avenue, but it's really good
We know, we know, we know... it's just wrong. The idea of a buffalo chicken rangoon sounds like some kind of joke. It's fusion food taken to its trashiest -- though probably inevitable -- end. It's the appetizer of the geography of nowhere.
But if this wrong, we may have to give extended reconsideration to being right.
There are some foods that are, by their nature, kind of low-key. No matter what you do, they're probably never going to wow you. And that's OK, because there are times when a plate of something that's just kind of nice is exactly what you want.
So we mean it as a compliment when we say that the pierogi at Muza Diner in Troy are very nice.
Yeah, it seems like everybody has gelato now. It's the new ice cream. And hazelnut is the new chocolate. But the hazelnut gelato at A Cone of Our Own in downtown Albany isn't just any gelato -- it's a small revelation perched on the tip of a tiny plastic spoon.
We have to admit that we didn't see this coming, either. But it's true: The Cheesecake Factory has good guacamole. In fact, it's probably some of the best you'll find around here.
In a hole-in-the-wall on Caroline Street in Saratoga, between The T&L and Desperate
Annie's, lies the best damn hot pocket you've ever had. Real golden brown pizza dough-- crunchy outside, just the right amount of chewy inside -- stuffed with grilled chicken breast, cream cheese, cheddar cheese, Colby cheese (yay cheese!) and a secret mix of spices. The doughboy is just about the best thing you can eat for only three bucks.
People can be very particular about pizza. One person's pretty-good pie can be another's poor excuse for a slice. But even in the world of pizza, there should be some things we can all agree upon. So, let's start with something that shouldn't even arouse an argument: the pizza at Defazio's in Troy is some excellent pie.
One of the things that had been missing from the local food scene was a walk-in, hit-me-with-a-good-taco kind of place. But lucky for us, Bros Tacos has started to fill that spot nicely over the past year.
There's a wide range of quality when it comes to hummus. On one end there's smooth, creamy, get-me-some-more-pita satisfying. And on the other, there's "hmm, tastes like... chickpeas and some other stuff... ground together." Lucky for us, the hummus at the Hidden Cafe in Delmar is a paragon of the first category.
OK, we're not Bloody Mary connoisseurs or anything, but we know what we like. And we like the Bloody Marys at Cafe Madison.
Don't ask the bartenders. They won't share the secret to this tomatoey/peppery concoction. They will tell you they start with a basic Bloody Mary mix, but then they have a little fun with it.
What we like most about this particular tomatoey/peppery concoction is the consistency. It's thicker than your typical Bloody Mary, with just the right amount of horseradish, pepper, lemon and, of course, vodka. Not too spicy -- but spicy enough.
Sip one on a Sunday morning and you may find yourself in some powerful company. We're not naming names, but apparently at least one very tan Albany celeb is a fan.
It's soup weather. Oh boy, is it soup weather. Like cheesy, gooey baked onion soup weather. The kind they serve at the Olde Bryan Inn in Saratoga Springs. Ask any Spa City native where to get the best baked onion soup and they'll send you to the O.B.I.
Owner Louis Maggiore says if there's a secret to this soup's cheesy, oniony goodness, it's this: simple is good. "It's soup," he says, "not brain surgery."
First, they use real butter (we didn't say it was healthy). Then they take enough time to properly caramelize the Spanish onions, add a little sherry to the stock and give it time to cook off. They add a piece of hard garlic bread and finish it off with a blend of swiss and provolone cheese.
But heads up: if you order it as an appetizer you're not likely to get to dessert. It's pretty filling. We think it goes best in a soup and salad combination. You know, so the vegetables can counteract the butter. Right?
Sure, you say you've had hot chocolate before. But have you really? Not that powdered, watered down syrupy stuff with faux whip cream. We mean REAL hot chocolate. The hot chocolate at Mrs. London's in Saratoga Springs will absolutely spoil you for any other. Why? Two things: whole milk and real French chocolate (milk shmilk, it's the chocolate part that does it). They melt high quality French chocolate into warm milk. It's like drinking a cup of rich, warm liquid happiness. Top it off with their famous whip cream made with real vanilla bean or drink it straight if you're a chocolate purist. Here's a warning though, if you're tempted to sample one of their desserts along with it, you may want to think twice... or at least share. Mrs. London's hot chocolate is pretty rich. It's kind of a dessert on it's own. Then again, you could always take a little something home...
Five Guys is like the anti-chain. Sure, they have outlets in 18 states, but the restaurants are stripped down, almost minimalist in an upstart, small business kind of way: some simple red and white tile, an open food prep area behind the stainless steel order counter, and a herd of utilitarian tables and chairs. There's no crazy junk on the walls. There are no clowns or cartoon characters. And there's definitely no Sierra Ranch Smoked Gouda Border Chicken (for a limited time only!) -- the menu could fit on an index card. Their mission statement is just as simple: "We are in the business of selling burgers."
And they're good at that.