Thursday, June 14, 2012

Lower East Side Street Food: Newcomers and Desserts

This is the second part of New York Food Journal's review of street food on the Lower East Side. The first post covered the foods of Jewish and Chinese immigrants. This post focuses on newer and yuppier additions to the neighborhood, including desserts.

Newcomers
Taleggio, fontina, crimini and shitake mushroom grilled cheese at Little Muenster, Wings at Pok Pok Wing
The Lower East Side is also home to a slew of newer and decidedly fancier street food. Little Muenster, which specializes in "super fancy grilled cheese," and Pok Pok Wing, the triumphant east coast wing shop of Portland's Andy Ricker, are two of the most representative of the newer arrivals.

Little Muenster does sell some "super fancy grilled cheeses" but virtually all of them use copious amounts of an unfancy ingredient: butter. Butter was the strongest flavor in a mushroom grilled cheese ostensibly containing taleggio and fontina cheeses with crimini and shitake mushrooms. It did come with pretty good sweet potato chips, and was presented in a fun wooden tray.

Little Muenster also offers a grilled cheese with White American singles, tomato, and bacon for those who desire something less fancy - though at $7.25 it comes in at a fancy price (The other grilled cheeses are $8.75 or $9.25). These butter bombs are best late night and after several drinks; fortunately, Little Muenster is open late - till 1 am on Fridays and 4 am on Saturdays. It is also not a bad place to introduce kids, already accustomed to grilled cheese, to new flavors.

The Pok Pok papaya salad
Pok Pok has taken New York by storm. It was recently featured in a fawning New York Times article calling chef Ricker a "Thai-cooking superstar" despite not being Thai himself. Pok Pok Wing took over the Baohaos space where another attention-garnering chef, Eddie Huang, made excellent Taiwanese street food called Baos. (Baohaus has relocated to the East Village).

Pok Pok Wing offers a flavor of what the more expansive restaurant in Brooklyn serves. Here, there are essentially just 2 items on the menu: The wings and a spicy green papaya salad (called Pok Pok, hence the name) served with or without pork and coconut rice. The wings are the star - marinated in ample amounts of fish sauce and garlic and then deep fried - they are a unique and highly successful fusion of American and Thai cuisine. The wings are served whole - wings and drum sticks attached - and the caremelized combination of fish sauce, garlic, and chilis is certainly addictive (even if somewhat expensive - $12.49 for 6 wings). Interestingly, the wings I had at Pok Pok Brooklyn came out better than the ones I sampled here, but perhaps that was an anomoly or because this was the 10th street food establishment I visited that day and was already quite full.
Pomegranate Drinking Vinegar

The Pok Pok papaya salad with long beans and tomatoes combines sweet (palm sugar), salty (fish sauce), sour (lime juice), spicy (thai chilis), and savory (garlic) ingredients in a seemingly simple way. It is carefully prepared to order in a mortar and pestle and the result is a step above those papaya salads found at most Thai restaurants, though it pales in comparison to the wings.

Drinking vinegars are offered as an unusual beverage choice. A pamegranate one had a definite tang of vinegar but retained the sweetness of the fruit - it was mixed with soda water to essentially make a vinegary soda. Not bad, but I wasn't clamoring for more.

Update: Pok Pok Wing has closed and has re-opened as a Phat Thai shop. But you can still find the wings at Pok Pok Ny, Chef Ricker's main restaurant in Brooklyn.

Desserts
Blueberry and Dulce de Leche doughnuts at Doughnut Plant, their display of doughnuts, espresso at D'Espresso, Gelato at Il Laboratorio del Gelato 

The Lower East Side has some of the best street food desserts in the city. Doughnut Plant, which now also as a Flatiron location, serves the best doughnuts I've ever had. They originally became popular with their crème brûlée doughnut - a yeast doughnut (no hole) filled with excellent crème brûlée cream. The hardened sugar that is typically on the top of a crème brûlée is instead glazed and hardened on the outisde of the doughnut. It's awesome.

Crème brûlée and strawberry cake doughnuts
But my favorite are actually the cake doughnuts. Smaller in size and more typical in shape to the doughnuts we are used to, these are Doughnut Plant's best offerings. A dulce de leche was sublime, a perfect fluffy cake with a sweet encasement. Blueberry and strawberry varieties are also excellent, with bold, bright, fresh fruit flavors. Any trip to the Lower East Side must find a way to Doughnut Plant.

For a relaxing interlude between street food excursions, sip an excellent espresso at D'Espresso. It appears to be a standard coffee bar, but the coffee rises above most others in the area. They also have some nice touches, like the availability of simple syrup for iced drinks, as regular sugar just cannot dissolve in an iced coffee no matter how hard I stir. The croissants and gelato are competent as well.

But the gelato cannot beat the offerings at Il Laboratorio del Gelato. This bohemith gelato factory (er, Laboratorio) turns out some 250 different flavors, including some unusual ones like cajeta or tarragon. An acacia honey flavor stood out on the day I was there and was really excellent - it reminded me of the best gelatos in Italy. A maple walnut one was also great with an intense flavor of maple syrup. Espresso tastes deeply of fresh-ground coffee beans. They limit guest to 2 tastings so you have to be judicious while you decide what to order. Take a pint home with you on the way out.

If you'd prefer cupcakes to gelato, try sugar Sweet sunshine (with appropriate titular emphasis on "Sweet"). This cozy bakery, from Magnolia and Buttercup alumni, has a small but notable selection of cupcakes. Many like their red velvet cupcake, but I really like the pistachio as well as a lemon cupcake with delectable lemon buttercream. The frostings are the bakery's forte. They also have a few pies, cookies, and other offerings but the cupcakes are the real draw. Good coffee too.


View LES New Street Food and Desserts in a larger map

Little Muenster: 100 Stanton Street, New York, NY 10002; (212) 203-7197; littlemuenster.com
Little Muenster on Urbanspoon

Pok Pok Wing: 137 Rivington Street, New York, NY 10002; (212) 477-1299; pokpokwing.com
Pok Pok Wing on Urbanspoon

Doughnut Plant: 379 Grand Street, New York, 10002, (212) 505-3700; doughnutplant.com
Doughnut Plant on Urbanspoon

D'Espresso: 100 Stanton St, New York, NY 10002 (yes, oddly the same address as Little Meunster - they're actually next door); (212) 982-7030, despresso.com
D'Espresso Espresso Bar on Urbanspoon

Il Laboratorio del Gelato: 188 Ludlow Street, New York, NY 10002; (212) 343-9922;
laboratoriodelgelato.com
Il Laboratorio Del Gelato on Urbanspoon

sugar Sweet sunshine: 126 Rivington Street, New York, NY 10002; (212) 995-1960;
sugarsweetsunshine.com
Sugar Sweet Sunshine on Urbanspoon

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