Mr. Kiwi and Mr. Pina

A Maori and a Mexican walk into a bar. Wait a minute. No. That’s just wrong.

Mr. Kiwi and Mr. Pina are actually the names of two different grocery stores. Pina being the Spanish word for pineapple, although I’m missing the ability to put that squiggly line over the N on my politically insensitive keyboard. I forget how you spell it, but it’s called an enye or N Yay! Not to be confused with that easy listening lady from the ’90s. Sail away, sail away, sail away.

These grocery stores are sort of an organic, health food type store, but without the token dreadlocked white guy. They are actually run by Koreans. Interestingly enough, on the West coast, lots of mini marts are run by Korean families. Out in New York, the mini mart is usually referred to as a Bodega. The main proprietors as far as I can tell are Puerto Ricans, Dominicans, and sometimes Middle Easterners. I’m not sure what language Bodega originates from, but I’m pretty sure it means cramped, dirty corner store with unhealthy food and a deli counter.

The enterprising Koreans of New York City have sensed opportunity in the form of gentrification and realized that the yuppies, vegans, and artists that continue to populate Brooklyn are looking for better food shopping opportunities closer to home. Manhattan has a Whole Foods and other indie health food stores, so the Koreans are bringing their version into competition with the Bodegas that are everywhere around here. It’s kind of nice to see. Mr. Pina is newly built in the time since I’ve arrived and located in Williamsburg. I walked by recently and saw it had opened and right up front they were making fresh juices. I picked out some fruits and vegetables for my drink and it was only $3!

There’s another chain of Korean health food stores making their way around Brooklyn and I read an article noting the change that was happening. It almost seemed to be against this progress, siding with the Bodegas. Now, I’m all for the small business owner, but you combine lousy choices, aloof service, and high prices and maybe there’s a few that don’t need to survive from a business standpoint. Cruel? Heartless? I’ve been laid off. We’re all expendable. Create your value.

When I spent a year teaching English in Korea I remember how limited my choices felt when I first arrived. No Mexican food whatsoever. No tortillas. No salsa. No refried beans. Hell, I can’t even get Rosarita refried beans in New York, what’s up with that?

One day a month or so after I had arrived I went into the supermarket that was in the basement of a five story shopping mall, and as I wandered the aisles, I came across something familiar. Cheese. Not a common food item to find in Korea. But what really got me was that it was Tillamook Sharp Cheddar. Tillamook, from my adopted home state! I had visited the factory in the summer and had ice cream as a kid. Everybody does that when they go to Tillamook. As I stared in disbelief, the Korean music that had been playing gave way to something else familiar. Kurt Cobain was singing Come as You Are! What kind of cosmic joke was being played on me at that moment? I was nearly overwhelmed with homesickness for the green and rainy Northwest. The cheese was way too expensive for what I would pay at home, so I left without it.

Eventually, I learned to appreciate what I could find, although my mom bailed me out once or twice with a care package of food. Thanks again mom! But I began to love kim chi, dry roasted seaweed, shrimp chips, Pocky chocolate crunchy sticks, the disgustingly named Gatorade ripoff Pokari Sweat, and the veritable plethora of Korean chewy drinks. Korean chewy drinks you ask? They have pieces of fruit in the bottom of a bottle of juice. Mandarin orange, grapes, kiwis, lychees, peaches. It’s very unsettling to Westerners, and there was always a story of some oblivious rookie teacher who took their first big swig and nearly upchucked at the first indication of floaties in their drink. Remember: Drink then chew. Drink then chew.

Comfort food becomes what you make of it. We all have things that remind us of home, or childhood, and they bring a wonderful familiarity. I was raised to have an adventurous palate, and in my travels have discovered new things that I have incorporated into my list of favorites that bring excitement when I can find them. In New York I still feel that I’m in a foreign land and at times have unfulfilled food cravings, but maybe I’m just a glutton.

Mr. Kiwi is closer to my home and right down the street from my gym, so it’s great for a post workout fresh squeezed veggie fruit drink. It makes me think of Jack Lalanne and his Juice Tiger, and when I’m done I feel ready to tow a rowboat across the East River by the skin of my teeth.

I just wish Mr. Kiwi sold kim chi. It’s not something you want to buy that’s mass marketed and filled with preservatives. You need to find it locally made by the Korean community. They do, however, sell Korean chewy drinks, along with a Japanese product called Chocorooms. The package describes it as a chocolaty cap with a crispy cookie stem. Chocorooms! I once knew a hippy girl that gave me some Chocorooms. They weren’t crispy, but an hour later I was.

In defense of Bodegas, I will say that they have bags of chips for a quarter by this brand called Utz that are pretty good, and a pretzel maker from Pennsylvania, home of all great pretzel makers, called Unique. They make pretzel shells, just the outer crispy part of the pretzel. YES!


I’m Walkin’ Here!!

I was walking around the East Village the other day because I was in search of a new job. I left my interview and cruised down to Houston Street and the whole time I’ve got the music from Midnight Cowboy going through my head. I haven’t seen the movie in years, but it’s such a New York movie, that I’m sure much of it was filmed around that area, it just seemed to have that feel to it. It could also be because I haven’t spent much of my time in Manhattan lately, since I started working in the Park Slope part of Brooklyn.

With Harry Nilsson providing the soundtrack in my head, I was reminded of a time many years ago when I was here for my friend’s wedding, and I believe a few of us were out one night, or maybe it was one day, but I’m pretty sure drinking was involved. So maybe the memory is a little hazy, but the important thing for future generations to remember is that we were crossing the street and a taxi tries to run the crosswalk and one of us, not me, slams his hands on the hood of the car just like Dustin Hoffman and shouts, “Hey, I’m walkin’ here!” Classic.

Being in the East Village, I wanted to stop by some iconic New York eating institutions, Russ and Daughters, and Katz’s Deli. As you probably are aware, New York real estate is very expensive. I saw an Anthony Bourdain show titled Disappearing Manhattan, which was dedicated to the places established in bygone eras that still remain today. The thing is, there aren’t very many of them. Anthony lamented the lost dive bars he used to frequent and talked of anachronistic restaurants and butchers that were still around for one big reason:  They owned the property they were on. Otherwise, greedy landlords raise the rent when the lease expires and drive unique businesses away, leaving room for bland chain stores, and corporations with deep pockets. That’s what happened to the famous music venue CBGB. Someone who probably already had more money than most of us will ever see owned the land and wanted more money. And now where CBGB once stood is a mutherfuckin’ Chase Bank. I went by and it broke my heart to see.

I made it to CBGB once back in the ’90s for a night of shitty punk bands, where The Ramones, Blondie, The Talking Heads, and Patti Smith had once played. I made out with an Australian girl in the rain outside some nearby bar later, so I’m going to call the night a success. As for 2012, I realized I better not wait before I missed out on these other classic places, I had to see them for myself. I stopped at Russ and Daughter’s to pick up some very tasty lox, their specialty but passed on the skimpy bagels, because I have found a better source. I then went to Katz’s for a $17 pastrami sandwich that was really good, but cost $17!!!

So I know what you’re thinking, big deal.

But you’ll never guess who I ran into?

Okay I didn’t actually meet him, but his picture was above my table, and Katz’s is big and full of pictures, so this was kind of random.

Call it kismet.

Waaaaah Wah Wah Wah Wah.  Wah-Wah Wah, Wah Wah Wah.   Waaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaah

Who 2: Respect My Authoritah

Back to food, because I think about food alot, and there’s a little issue I have with regional variations. This becomes why I need something to give me some reassurance that I will generally think things are okay, such as Swedes in IKEA. Now I don’t want to go all Yelp on everybody and start personally dissing individual restaurants, because Yelpers generally tend to be spiteful and when one wrong thing happens, they give a place a horrible review. That being said, I went to a local place in Williamsburg that specializes in, oh, I don’t know what you call it, maybe, Redneck food? It’s fried – chicken, catfish, french fries. The place is always packed with hipsters, which probably is why I want to hate it, but even more so, it was really expensive considering it was just fried redneck food.

So here I am, I finally got a job, and I’ve been working my ass off. Literally. I’ve hardly had time to eat and I’ve been having food dreams and been waking up delirious in a drool pool craving pounds upon pounds of french fries. Now I’ve hardly eaten fries in the last few months because A: They’re terrible for you, and B: If I’m gonna indulge, they better be really fucking good. I was a fry cook many years ago, and I hand sliced ginormous Idaho potatoes with a press that left them about a half inch square and deep fried them golden brown, then put some Paul Prudhomme Cajun seasoning on them. Now those were good fries. This place I tried Friday night for takeout, their fries were scrawny and soggy. It came with two small pieces of catfish, mediocre cornbread, and coleslaw that came in a little cup usually reserved for ketchup, which by the way, they didn’t give me for my fries, nor did they provide me with utensils. This was all for the low, low price of fifteen dollars. I will not be directly naming the place here, but PAT, I’m not giving you a thumbs down, I’m giving you the finger.

Back to those regional differences, there’s certain things that are just the best in some places. For instance, the New York Bagel. It is Epic! Massive, fluffy, chewy, and delicious. Now I understand why they traditionally don’t toast them, they’re just so good fresh. I’ve loved bagels for years, but I always had to toast them. I’ve been staying up the street from a place where they’re so good, I just buy one for a dollar and eat it while I walk down the street.

On the other hand, California Mexican food is way superior. Yes there are Mexican people in New York. But the Puerto Ricans, Hondurans, Dominicans, and Cubans have disrupted the mix to a point where some places are kind of a general latin type food place. I’ve had some decent tacos around, but I still haven’t found a classic place like the Golden Donut in Torrance. It was a bakery open at 6am that served 75 cent tacos after 11. Awesome.

What’s really been bugging me however is my coffee. Specifically how everyone wants to force me to put milk, or cream in my coffee. They never fill the thing to the top because it’s that “room for cream”. Guess what? I don’t want that cream. That’s why I drink good coffee. I don’t need to mask the taste with something else. That’s like going into a bar and ordering a Hennessy and coke. What’s the point? You’re ordering cognac and covering it up with a kid’s drink. That’s a rookie maneuver. If you order the good stuff, drink it straight. Otherwise, save some money and get brandy, or well whiskey. Don’t ever try and be a big shot and order nice liquor and then put it in with a hundred fruity flavors or some sugary cover up, it’s a waste.

So back to my coffee. My coworker goes on a coffee run and I order an Americano. That’s a shot or two of espresso and hot water. Made fresh, great coffee flavor. He comes back, I take I sip, and I nearly go ballistic. I’ve been working on two hours sleep. I want to enjoy some caffeine. And this tastes like some 3 day old truck stop coffee loaded with milk. We’re in the middle of a meeting so I try and stay cool, but I am going nuts thinking what part of “Americano, NO cream.” did he not understand. Is this some kind of New York thing? Later a guy told me he was selling pre-made coffee to stores, a terrible idea I think. But he says it’s for people on the go. Milk and sugar already included. I asked what about without? He said “You’re in the minority, cuz you’re outta luck, bub.”

Am I people? Am I the lone person on this planet who enjoys black coffee? Or is it an American thing? All that cream and sugar is why we’re becoming so fat. I can’t stand the thought of it. It’s like putting ketchup on your hot dog or mayo on your hamburger. NOOOOOOOOOOOOOO. Two great tastes that don’t go great together. Hell, they aren’t even two great tastes.