Wednesday, March 30, 2011

If you can eat it there, you probably can't eat it anywhere (else)

It's funny to me that New York City seems to have a universal and symbolic appeal, while people have their own very individual experiences are relationship with the city. How can one place be summed up with all of the vastly different neighborhoods, cultures and landmarks? Having a "New York State of Mind" could mean everything from dreaming about Broadway to listening to a hipster rap group on the Lower East Side to stroller-pushing in Park Slope. And more. Oh, so much more.

I lived in Manhattan for the better part of four years while I studied at NYU. Of course, I had a preconceived notion of what life in the city would be like, and it is an understatement to say I was enthusiastically planning a lifelong love affair with the Big Apple. While in the end I decided to to just casually date NY and marry Mr. Nice Guy Minnesota (we're very happy together), a recent trip back to my not-so-old stomping grounds gave me a chance to hit up my favorite parts of the city again. And in true Emily fashion...there is a food theme.

I think the only time I've ever turned down macaroni and cheese was the day after I watched my friend borf it up, propellor-style, on the tire swing in first grade. My carb-n-cheese world expanded with the introduction of S'MAC. Located on 12th between 1st and 2nd, this little orange haven provides several types of delectable mac and cheesies. My favorite is the cheeseburger mac, but if you're feeling even more adventurous, they create regionally-inspired variations like French and Cajun. You can get pretty fancy. Also, it comes in an individual skillet so you can fully appreciate the delicious baked taste. Feeling like a snack? Try the Nosh size. One size up is Mega Munch, which is the perfect amount to say "I'm never going to finish this" and then actually finish it. It's okay, we all do it. Mmm cheese....!!!

Frozen yogurt is everywhere. You're probably within 100 feet of fro-yo right now and you don't even realize it. A lot of it is awful and will send you flailing for the tender embrace of ice cream, but some of it is great - and made even better with delicious toppings. Pinkberry purveyors starting popping up in NY my sophomore year, and a large cup of the good stuff sometimes even became a meal replacement for me and my ladyfriends (we all make choices). On this recent trip, I discovered they have expanded their flavors to include chocolate, lychee, green tea and pomegranate, adding to their standard original (still my favorite). Toppings available include fresh fruit, nuts, granola, chocolate shavings - all pretty expected - but they also add enticing and unique options like Fruity Pebbles and Cap'n Crunch to the mix. It may be simple, but it makes for an excellent snack or dessert...or, if it's been one of those days, a suitable lunch.

Rice pudding has come a long way from Kozy Shack in your grandma's fridge. This dessert locale in SoHo is my dad's favorite treat spot in the city, and it's definitely one of my top places to indulge. Sure, you could just stick with original rice pudding, but with flavors like rocky road, almond, raspberry and dulce de leche...why would you? The decor is funky and sassy (although I don't need their big signs to remind me that I'm not in "diet country"), and you get to walk away with not only a ridiculously large portion of rice pudding, but a unique plastic container and spoon. I knew my former roommate and I would have a good year together when, upon moving in, I discovered she contributed about seven of these Rice to Riches spoons to our silverware drawer.

Despite everything you know about me, I actually don't really encourage the regular consumption of street food. While I have many friends who eat halal food daily from a cart or sink their teeth into hot dogs from a vendor, I've never been too keen on eating from a contraption that unfolded on the sidewalk that morning. My exception, however, is a big one: Nuts 4 Nuts. There are many times when I have followed the smell of honey-roasted goodness, avoiding near-misses with cabs and pedestrians and keeping an eye on the horizon for that familiar orange umbrella that will lead me to the lil' nut cart below. Okay, so I boycotted for awhile when the price went up from $1 to $1.50 (now you're going to make me dig for quarters??), but that didn't last long. A great mid-day snack, the little bag is best when warm and fresh.

I pride myself on happy hour knowledge of my favorite Minneapolis spots. I sort of thought that a truly good happy hour (at least one involving real food) didn't exist in New York, like coupons and Perkins. That is, until I discovered Cafetasia. With two locations, I still prefer the one on the NYU "campus", although it can get very busy. This Thai restaurant already has a great menu, but, between noon and 7pm EVERY DAY, you can get...wait for it...a tiny appetizer (try gyoza), a meal (love the chicken pad thai) and a drink (including a draught Stella!) for $10. Ten dollars. And despite the deal, you're not sitting under fluorescent lights looking at a picture menu in a hard plastic booth. The atmosphere is trendy, hip, dark and with candles (a true indication that something classy is going on). Seven happy hours of Thai goodness per day. I wish the whole establishment could fit in my carry-on back to Mpls.

Sure, there is a trusty Starbucks on every corner, but for truly good, organic and delicious coffee, plus a warm atmosphere, Think is the place to go. With a few locations in Greenwich Village and one near Union Square, you can find an alternative when there's no seating available (which happens somewhat frequently). If you do find a chair to camp out in for awhile, it's a great place to people-watch and sip a Spanish latte (espresso, milk and a shot of sweetened condensed milk - yum!). Aside from being a traditional, environmentally-aware coffee shop, Think quite literally sells the best bagels I've ever had in my life ever EVER. However, they are guaranteed to be sold out by 10am. This fact alone propelled me out of bed to make it early classes on many a winter morning.

New York is chock-full of bakeries, and while I know that many are absolutely fantastic, there is only one Levain. This super-small, basement bakery is snuggled in the Upper West Side and while I love their's all about the cookies. They keep it simple with four flavors - chocolate chip walnut (fave), chocolate chocolate chip, dark chocolate peanut butter and oatmeal raisin. For $4 each, it's everything you ever loved about a cookie. Crunchy/chewy outside, warm and soft middle that's just close enough to doughy to make it perfect. My friends and I have a tradition of buying a carton of milk to share at the next door deli and then heading to nearby Central Park to enjoy our cookies and milk while mocking first dates in rowboats. To each his own. It's so much cookie, you might not finish it all at once, but remembering late at night that you have leftover cookie morsels is an excellent experience.

No, I'm not going to talk about cupcakes, because I'm over them. Everyone sells their own versions now that are pretty much the same, and I don't find it cute anymore. BUT navigating the Village's nonsensical street "grid" is totally worth it for what I believe Magnolia does best: banana pudding. It's actually more like banana-infused whipped cream with chunks of banana and Nilla wafers to add some texture, and like two teaspoons of pure joy and a pinch of uncontrollable happiness. You could accuse me of exaggerating, but then I'd know you've never had this dessert-of-gods and should just shut your pudding hole. Required refrigeration is the only thing that has stopped me from stuffing my purse full and bringing it all back home.

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