New York Eats: La Esquina

Every once in a while you hear about a place that’s so hip you wonder where it attaches to the thigh bone. It’s a place for those who are in-the-know, super-cool, and in possession of other hypthenated adjectives. So when my world-traveling friend L (whom I go to school with in the UK, but also lived in NYC for 3 years), made me a list of must-dos and -eats in the city, I knew she’d be a veritable fount of insider information. She gave me not one, but two gems (the second of which will be detailed in an upcoming post).

The first restaurant is La Esquina, or the Corner. I like to think of it as a Mexican speakeasy. At first glance, this restaurant on the Lower East Side is very obvious to spot: its name is emblazoned in neon lights and a theatre marquee touts the yummies on offer. There’s a walk-up takeaway window and inside is a narrow diner-like seating area to enjoy their tacos, tortas, and other selections. However, the secret is revealed when you approach the bouncer-looking dude standing in front what could be the door to the broom closet. Ask him for a table and he’ll open the door, direct you down the stairs, through (yes, through) the kitchen, and into the dimly lit basement bar and brasserie. Surprise!

It’s a small space and booking is definitely advised. However, the night I ate there we showed up relatively early (7pm) and were lucky to score a table right away. My dining partner was E, a friend from Hong Kong whom I hadn’t seen in two years. There was a lot of catching up to do and it was imperative the food was as great as the gossip. We ordered small plates and sides to share and La Esquina did not disappoint. (On a side note, as it was so dark, I’m sorry the photos are of variable quality. I’ll have to figure out a good setting for “speakeasy”.)

Some of our favorites included the taquitos, which are not the fried version (aka flautas), but literally, little tacos (taking on their “-ito” suffixes nicely). I especially like the pulled pork (front) which were exquisitely juicy and tender. The pepper and pickled onions added a nice tangy crunch as well.

Another highlight were the fried plantains covered with salsa verde and queso fresco. The mild salsa and creamy cheese combined to become almost like guacamole and I devoured each bite thinking this dish was genius.

Last, I’d definitely recommend getting the elote callejero, or grilled corn (pictured at the top). I know everyone raves about the corn at Cafe Habana just a few blocks away, but to be honest, this one had the cotija cheese, the chili powder and the lime – and it tasted just as good! Given that I liked the other dishes here better than those at Cafe Habana, my own too-cool-for-school insider tip is this: If you’ve only got time for one Mexican meal in town, make it at La Esquina.

La Esquina (The Corner)
114 Kenmare Street (between Kenmare and Lafayette)
646-613-7100 (You can book 21 days in advance!)
Cost: ~$35/person

The last of four posts for the Modest Meals: London series on Lauren Olivia and Co.’s Passport blog has now been posted! It’s on my “local”, a gastropub near Notting Hill called The Prince Bonaparte. I love it so much maybe someday I’ll write something more in-depth on this blog…but for now, this write-up will surely give you a taste.

Special thanks to the Lauren Olivia and Co. team for inviting me to write and helping me shape these posts! It’s been a great time.

Modest Meals: Tayyabs

The third of my four posts for Modest Meals: London is now live on Lauren Olivia and Co.’s Passport blog! For those who enjoy ethnic food, you can’t miss Tayyabs!

A couple weeks ago my friend J and I made plans to do the in-vogue thing for New York: brunch! She made a short-list of her favorite brunch spots in the city and lo and behold, the Clinton Street Baking Company was at the top. I’d seen Clinton St. on Yelp, with its 4 stars after more than 1500 reviews and everyone raving as passionately about the pancakes as the 2-hour (!) wait for brunch on the weekends. I guess it’s because word’s gotten out: TimeOut New York named it “Best Breakfast/Brunch” in 2007, and New York Magazine declared it had the “Best Pancakes” in the city 2008. More research unearthed the fact co-owner and chef Neil Kleinberg worked under Rick Moonen, so I was expecting some pretty fantastic cooking. J and I, ever the smart cookies, opted to take advantage of our flexible schedules and brunch on a weekday.

We arrived on Thursday morning around 10:30 and even then I was told a table for 2 would require a 30-minute wait. However, as we entered I realized why: the place is small, especially for US standards! It’s basically a narrow diner with roughly five tables and a few counter seats, holding a total of 32 occupants. You’d be wise to bring just one of your (myriad) friends. Alternatively, follow an insider tip I heard: Come for dinner, where you can still enjoy their pancakes from the “Breakfast for Dinner” section of the menu. Alternatively, get them for takeaway!

J, a savory brunch fan, ordered the Spanish Scramble, a three-egg scramble with goodies like chorizo and melted monterey jack cheese mixed in, served with a side of hashbrowns and sourdough toast. I, like most people in the diner, ordered the famous pancakes with blueberries and warm maple butter.

I had a bite of the scramble and enjoyed the saltiness of the chorizo, but to be very honest, the pancakes stole the show. Each bite was so fluffy and the just right balance of buttery-creamy goodness. The blueberries added great tartness while the warm maple butter lent a lot moisture to the dish. My only complaint was I found the maple butter to have a slightly cloying, saccharine aftertaste. I’ve read mixed accounts of whether Clinton St. uses Grade A or Grade B maple syrup for their butter (does anyone out there know the truth?); my only guess is on the day I dined, the maple butter was made with Grade B. From what I know, it’s traditionally a bit darker (compared to its Grade A counterpart), with a sweeter, thicker taste and not used for the table as much as Grade A. The richness of the Grade B was a bit much for me.

In any case, it was a great plate of pancakes and I. Ate. Them. All. Dare you not to do the same!

Clinton St. Baking Company
4 Clinton St. (between Houston and Stanton)
New York, New York 10002
Cost: $20/person with tax and tip 

PS: In case you’re inspired to have your own pancake party, check out food blog The Pancake Princess and the Protein Prince! This cute blog features two authors sharing recipes for the baking fiend in you AND the side craving something more substantial. Recent posts include recipes for French-inspired tarte tartin pancakes and pumpkin pancakes – perfect as the weather starts to turn. MMMMMMM.

Hey y’all, the food collabo continues with the second installment of four Modest Meals: London features on the Lauren Olivia and Co. Passport blog. This one features one of my favorite destinations in London, Borough Market! Happy eating!

Hey guys, exciting news! My friend Lauren is co-owner of the new business Lauren Olivia and Co., a company that designs and sells women’s business, travel and lifestyle accessories, inspired by cultures from around the world. Though their website has not yet launched, their recently hatched Passport blog is a must-stop for those with a burning desire to get to know the world. From tutorials on Korean pop music to top food spots in Washington DC suggested by the locals, it’s definitely worth a gander.

Lauren was kind enough to ask me to guest blog, so naturally I wrote about…food! Check out the new Modest Meals: London series for my favorite cheap eats in The Big Smoke. Today’s post is the first of four, and the first of two to focus on London’s markets. Check in over the next few weeks for the next installments. Enjoy!

Hello everyone! After a busy summer, I’ve got a month off before school starts again in London. As a result I’m spending 4 weeks in gluttony in one of the tastiest places in the world: New York City. This city is, to me, filled with bests and worsts. I’d say it’s definitely the best for food diversity – from food carts to five-star, from delis to dim sum, New York has everything your heart desires. If you know where to look, it’s mostly pretty darn authentic, too. The worst part? It’s not cheap. A sit-down dinner including taxes and tip (which, from what I learned, is usually 20%!) will set you back at least $20 a head and that’s probably if you don’t get a drink. (A note: I feel the expectation to tip 20% is ridiculous. I understand wait staff don’t get a high base pay here, but IMHO, if they want 20% from me, they need to EARN it. Some service I’ve encountered here is worse than in London, and there everyone expects something like 12% tip – if at all. Get it together, folks!)

But I digress. We are interested in food here, delicious morsels of food that stick to your memory as much as to your gut, and naturally I’ve found a few of those meals in New York. I thought I’d start my New York Eats series with one of the best meals in my life. Seriously.

It was thanks to my high school buddy, S, whom I hadn’t seen in four or five years, at least. We’d decided to catch up in his neighborhood of Queens. I asked him what he would eat if he were to move out of the area tomorrow and he immediately replied “We should go out to Flushing.” Turns out, for those of us not from NY, Flushing is like the true Chinatown/Korea Town of New York City. Stepping out onto Main and Roosevelt was like flashing back to Hong Kong for me, with storefronts covered in neon Chinese signs, boba shops, and masses and masses of Asian people. S took me to have Korean BBQ at Han Joo and oh man, was it amazing. I’ve since read that before this place did BBQ, they were specialists in naeng myun, or cold, thin Korean noodles. One day I will perhaps go back and try the naeng myun, but after my meal last week, I’d be hard-pressed to veer from the BBQ.

From what I can tell Han Joo specializes in pork, which is in spades on their menu (hurray!). There’s a minimum of two orders per table if you do the BBQ, so we ordered the thin-sliced pork and garlic pork. I wanted to try the bibimbap as well but S, who’d been there once before, looked at me and said, “We’re also getting lots of small plates and stuff; I think this is enough.” I, who’d been thinking of the puny banchans in Hong Kong, wasn’t expecting a lot, but as the newbie at the table, deferred to him.

Well. It was a wise choice. Immediately after we ordered, no less than nine plates of banchan came out, from kimchi with blue crab to seafood pancakes to pickled sliced daikon, great to eat on its own or wrapped into the BBQ.

Just as we started nibbling, they brought out the grill – a super-heated slab of crystal, which was perched at a 45-degree angle, allowing the pork grease to flow into an empty container. I thought the slab was brilliant, not least of which because it seemed to make my clothes smell less BBQ-ed at the end of the night, and no meat pieces got burnt. The slices of piggy perfection came next, which our server expertly cooked for us.

She later added more kimchi to the grill and since the slab was angled, the kimchi became progressively more flavored as more pork juices flowed down – genius!

We got the traditional dipping oil, bean paste, fresh lettuce, and kkaennip, or Korean perilla (my favorite) for wrapping, along with a fresh dish of scallion salad to add to the filling.

I made my first one with the thin pork and the first bite delivered a trifecta via taste and texture: crunch and freshness from the lettuce, salty and savory juices from the pork and sauces, and a hit of sweetness from the ssamjang.

About a quarter into the meal, we also got a stone pot with bubbling steamed egg, or gyeran jjim. It reminded me of a Chinese egg dish my mom used to make – wonder if it came first from China or Korea, or developed in tandem in these neighboring countries. It was another nice touch to our meal, but it just added to what was, by then, an embarrassment of food for just two people.

But, S and I had no shame – how could we when the food was THAT good? We tucked in and demolished nearly all of it, save some banchan and a couple spoonfuls of gyeran jjim. Another bonus arrived at the end of the meal: complimentary dessert in the shape of small Korean yogurt bottles. A creamy, delicious way to balance the spicy and savory meal – and if the yogurt is like the Yakult I know, it’s supposed to aid digestion as well. An apt end, as I had no idea how I was ever going to eat again…but seriously, the meal was so worth it.

A week later, I am still thinking about Han Joo. I want to take my boyfriend there. I want to take my friends there. I want to take everyone I’ve ever cared about in my life there (provided they eat meat). Honestly, if you love Korean BBQ, if you love meat, or if you love food in general, you have not lived until you’ve tried this BBQ.

Han Joo
46-10 149th Pl. (between 41st and Barclay)
Flushing, New York 11355
Cost: $25/person with tax and tip (no drinks)