Snap, Crackle, POP-UP DINER: Alex Mitow’s All-American Diner

In food and drink and most walks of life, I’ve often found a single, simple truth to be evident: “Spontaneity is Sexy!” And restaurant director and event planner, Alex Mitow has demonstrated this very wisdom to me in the form of his latest endeavor and culinary extravaganza.

Alex Mitow's All-American Diner graced Grand Street from April 17th-19th

Alex Mitow’s All-American Diner graced Grand Street from April 17th-19th

Last week, I am thrilled to say that I attended two nights of Alex Mitow’s All-American Diner: A Pop Up!, Time Out New York’s The Empire Club on Thursday and The Debaucherous Disco Diner Dinner Party on Friday. The hip, young owner of Los Perros Locos, a Colombian hot dog restaurant in the Lower East Side, Alex aimed to turn “a closed down diner into an art, music, and food spectacle,” and I must say, he delivered quite a delicious and eclectic experience.

All-American Beer Can Vase

All-American Beer Can Vase

The very essence of a pop-up entails synthesizing something grand from seemingly out of nowhere. Utilizing the abandoned space of Noah’s Ark Diner on Grand Street, Alex Mitow’s All-American Diner demonstrated the sheer brilliance that can go into engineering a rebirth. With the simple yet effective additions of a disco ball, colored flags, and original New York City themed art, including an impressive Manhattan wall mural by artist Fernando “Ski” Romero, Alex truly conjured a dazzling party scene for patrons of all ages and tastes.

Mural by Fernando "Ski" Romero.

Mural by Fernando “Ski” Romero.

The musical acts also proved to be just as fresh as the décor. On Thursday night, the live entertainment consisted of a winningly over-the-top performance by Sylvana Joyce & The Moment, a band that describes its style as a combination of gypsy rock, soul, and blues. On Friday, we danced the night away to some mixed up pop music by Andrew Andrew, a DJ duo of twin-like doppelgangers.

BITES TO WRITE ABOUT

THE DOGS

On both Thursday and Friday night, we were presented with numerous platters of Tipico Mini Dogs, hot dogs and some colorful condiments naturally being one of Mitow’s specialties from his work at Los Perros Locos. Drizzled with Colombian-styled Salsa Verde with Pineapple and a classical Salsa Rosada (Ketchup + Mayo), then sprinkled with copious helpings of crushed potato chips. The result is an explosion of sweet and savory flavors with a killer crunch between every bite–an absolutely inspired spin on an American classic. I will be sure to try Los Perros Locos when I have the chance–the Mini has already won my heart!

Tipico Mini Dogs - Los Perros Locos Style Who says you can't teach a hot dog Colombian tricks?

Tipico Mini Dogs – Los Perros Locos Style
Who says you can’t teach a hot dog Colombian tricks?

Thursday night came with a variety of gooey, crispy American comfort food courses: Pastrami Swiss Croquettes, The Challah Atcha Boy Grilled Cheese Sandwich, Grandma’s Meatball Sliders, and Fried Calamari.

THURSDAY EXCLUSIVES

The Croquettes made for tiny but tasty starters, slathered in chipotle apple aioli, yet another of Mitow’s ingenious sauce creations that made for an excellent compliment for just about every dish.

Pastrami and Swiss Croquettes

Pastrami and Swiss Croquettes

Alex Mitow’s Grilled Cheese Sandwich, the hilariously named “Challah Atcha Boy” was a welcome veteran of this year’s The Big Cheesy Competition. Classically tender Katz’s pastrami, two types of cheeses, more aioli, and light, peppery peppadew wrapped within fluffy challah made for the most well-rounded and complex grilled cheese I have ever enjoyed in my young life. It is my hope that Mr. Mitow continues to dabble in the creation of sandwiches. This one was a champion!

Alex Mitow's delicious variant of a grilled cheese sandwich, made famous at The Big Cheesy.

Alex Mitow’s delicious variant of a grilled cheese sandwich, made famous at The Big Cheesy.

Grandma's Meatball Slider

Grandma’s Meatball Slider

A smooth yet solid cloud of fresh ricotta cheese with a hunk of simmered veal and pork on top of delicate Hawaiian sweet bread also impressed me.  I adored Alex Mitow’s Grandma’s Meatball Slider simply because it was a safe and traditional yet still excellent choice. The simplicity of the dish’s constituents belied a rich and heavy hitter that didn’t pull any punches in the taste department.

Crispy Calamari

Crispy Calamari

Our last Thursday plate was the Crispy Calamari, fried in garlic and butter, and seasoned with a lemon-peppadew aioli. By the time it left the kitchen, I was convinced I was full, but found I couldn’t resist the richly flavored batter. Once again, Alex took a lovely classic and dressed it up with one of his impeccable sauces.

Donuts from neighbor The Donut Factory were a sweet surprise for dessert

Donuts from neighbor The Doughnut Plant were a sweet surprise for dessert

FRIDAY EXCLUSIVES

For Friday, Alex focused the dining experience on a more centered lineup with three options, including those yummy hot dogs, consequentially allowing several times more helpings for guests.

By the time I tried the Pink Castle Sliders, I had no doubts of Alex’s abilities with a grill. The addition of the Salsa Rosada once again augmented the flavors of an already strong entree.

Pink Castle Sliders - With a Splash of Salsa Rosada

Pink Castle Sliders – With a Splash of Salsa Rosada

Smothered in cheese and stuffed with seasoned pastrami, I found Alex’s Disco Fries to be the true delicacy of the diner. A gooey outer layer riddled with crispy tidbits and choice cuts of meat transformed a side dish into a mass of sinful decadence. They were a full meal–an experience within themselves and worth every calorie-infused chomp!It wouldn't be a true disco without DISCO FRIES!

It wouldn’t be a true disco without these DISCO FRIES!

Closing Thoughts

Amidst that storm of artificial pink lights and catchy tunes, I’d say that Alex Mitow’s All-American Diner truly exemplified that all-too American value of glitz and glam from grime with all of the delightful excess of a Baz Luhrmann movie or a Cadillac commercial, but none of the shoddy plotting or poor characterization.

For a moment, I was taken out of my hectic New York existence and treated to something wild and fanciful, but gastronomically satisfying as well.

It is this writer’s hope that Mr. Mitow continues hosting and planning these pop-up events in the future. Or at the very least that he continues offering his delicious re-imaginings and recipes.

Food For Ott was grateful to be a part of the craze.

Food For Ott was grateful to be a part of the craze and looks forward to the next one!

The Fiesta’s in the Family

Nothing warms the soul on a chilly February evening like authentic Mexican cuisine, and El Maguey y La Tuna offers diners an especially spicy, tasty respite in these cold times. Named after two desert plants, the agave (known for its use in the production of sweeteners and tequila) and prickly pear (an edible, fruity cactus), El Maguey Y La Tuna has nothing to do with fish and everything to do with the Mexican desert—a world more bountiful than most would imagine.

Portrait of an Agave Plant on the restaurant's wall

Portrait of an Agave Plant on the restaurant’s wall

Located along East Houston, this father-daughter run restaurant has brought an authentic Mexican experience to Manhattan’s Lower East Side for over a decade. Leonides Cortez and his daughter Maria truly know the meaning of a good family meal, and it shows in their cooking, which consists of family recipes handed down through the generations.

Our first course was the cactus salad, a light, fresh palette cleanser with an exceptional cilantro dressing. Zesty and flavorful, I actually asked our server to let me keep it around for the rest of the meal. The cactus came with a firm yet juicy texture that added a refreshing sweetness to the salad.

Cactus Salad with Lettuce, Tomato, Onion. CIlantro dressing not pictured.

Cactus Salad with Lettuce, Tomato, Onion. CIlantro dressing not pictured.

The pancita came for our second course and it was by far one of the most interesting things I’d ever tried—a spicy chili pepper soup with chunks of beef tongue. Our server let us know that pancita is a popular hangover remedy in Mexico and after having a spoonful, I knew exactly what he meant. Between the fiery broth and sinewy, savory beef tongue, the soup made for an intense experience, leaving me alert and awake for the duration of my meal.

Pancita with Cilantro

Pancita with Cilantro

I tried the Enchilada al Maguey for my first entrée and it was easily the highlight of the meal for me. The morsels of tender chicken inside the pleasantly firm and sturdy tortillas were cooked and seasoned flawlessly. Simmered and marinated in one of the restaurant’s specialty mole sauces, I can honestly give it the distinction of the tastiest enchilada I have ever tasted. It’s going to be really hard for me to stomach any Tex-Mex attempts at enchiladas from now on.

Enchiladas Al Maguey

Enchiladas Al Maguey

El Maguey Y La Tuna prides itself on its homemade mole sauces, which are also handmade without the use of a blender or a food processer—something unheard of outside of Mexico. Most Mexican restaurants either import their sauces or take the easy way out with technology. Crafted by the hands of mother and sous-chef, Manuela Cortez, each mole sauce added something extraordinary to the restaurant’s main courses.

The Mole Verde Pork and Chile Relleno in Five Chile Mole proved that El Maguey Y La Tuna deserves the distinction of International House of Mole, a title our server told us the restaurant is in the process of attaining! My bite of boneless pork melted in my mouth, though not before leaving a pleasantly peppery impression from the surrounding mole verde.  The Cortez family has truly mastered the art of crafting these mole sauces as well as pairing them with dishes.

Pork in Mole Verde

Pork in Mole Verde

Another favorite of mine, the Chile Relleno offered another authentic Mexican treat! A roasted chili pepper coated in a light batter and stuffed with fried cheese, El Maguey Y La Tuna’s version comes in a crimson mole sauce made from five different chili peppers. The mild, creamy cheese and red-hot sauce complimented each other well, making for a complex and yummy vegetarian dish.

Chile Relleno with Seven-Chilli Pepper Mole

Chile Relleno with Five-Chilli Pepper Mole

After some decidedly spicy offerings, the restaurant demonstrated an equally satisfying command over sweetness with dessert. I sampled the Mexican Hot Chocolate and Banana Pinata, a fried empanada stuffed with ripe bananas and served with ice cream. El Maguey Y La Tuna uses these adorable mugs for its hot beverages and the rich, dark chocolate made me feel like an Aztec King. Warm and crunchy on the outside but chilled and fruity on the inside, the Banana Pinata rounded out the meal in a big way. El Maguey Y La Tuna really adds an ‘s’ to the desert!

Mexican Hot Chocolate

Mexican Hot Chocolate

Banana Piñata with Ice Cream

Banana Piñata with Ice Cream

Cozy and colorful, El Maguey Y La Tuna conjures the very essence of a pueblo village. Adorned with terra cotta floors and plates and all manner of desert imagery, one really feels like they have left Manhattan after sitting inside. El Maguey Y La Tuna also offers a wide selection of Mexican beers, wines, margaritas, and other specialty drinks. The Jalapeno Margarita and Maria’s Red Sangria are some customer favorites!

Fresh Cantaloupe Margarita

Fresh Cantaloupe Margarita

The experience is both casual and intimate, a popular dining spot for both families and couples. If you’re looking for some tried and true Mexican cuisine and you want the real deal, then El Maguey Y La Tuna is a budget and family friendly hot spot!

El Maguey Y La Tuna

Address: 321 East Houston Street Between Avenue B and Attorney Street

Phone: (212) 473 3919

Website: http://www.elmagueyylatunanyc.com

Lunch from 10:30 AM to 4:00 PM

Dinner from 4:00 PM to 11:00 PM

Yuji Ramen: The Little Test Kitchen That Could

A Little Rant

Ramen, like sushi, is a Japanese dish that has nestled itself into America’s eating consciousness, though this isn’t always a positive thing. Ask a typical American college student what they think of ramen and you might get a groan or a chuckle and maybe a story about “that one week I couldn’t leave my dorm” or an anecdote about the dangers of a high sodium diet. Like several actors’ careers (I’m looking at you Adam Sandler), ramen appears to get by due to its ease of preparation, availability, and overall infamy–people are willing to overlook just how cheap and terrible for their life it might because it’s a familiar, reliable poison. However, I digress. Most of these grievances are reserved for the microwave and instant variants of ramen. Put simply, there is good, gourmet ramen out there, just not at most grocery stores. . . Whole Foods on the Bowery, however, is a game changer!

Revolutionary Ramen

Located in the form of a counter on the second floor of an ordinary-looking Whole Foods, Yuji Ramen is an extraordinary eatery that takes one’s assumptions about ramen and flambes them into sweet, delicious oblivion. Starting off as a Smorgasburg vendor then a Whole Foods-sponsored pop up shop, Yuji’s popularity has earned it a permanent placement upstairs and a large, loyal following. After eating countless bowl upon bowl of noodle-filled Nirvana, I have to say this positive reception is completely deserved.

Most people might doubt that a ramen-based restaurant could succeed in catering to different clients and tastes, but Yuji offers customers two radically different types of ramen.

The “Daily Shoyu” is your typical meat broth-based ramen but comes with the added twist of being different just about every day. Using fresh cuts of meat from the Whole Foods butcher, Yuji ensures a uniquely delicious experience every day of the week. From blue fish to tuna to mussels to pork to turkey, the shoyu is a favorite for carnivores and a delight on a cold winter day.

Daily Shoyu with Blue and Lamb

Daily Shoyu with Bluefish and Lamb

The second type of ramen is the “mazeman” a newer variant that is made without broth and cooked by an open flame. Using a profusion of savory oils, fresh ingredients that alternate between crunchy and gooey, and perfectly firm and textured noodles, Yuji’s mazeman is a refined kind of ramen that one might liken to an al-dente pasta dish. Instead of your standard pork or chicken, Yuji brings customers original and dazzling concoctions like Smokey Bacon and Poached Egg with Kale or Salmon and Cheese. Spicy Tuna and Uni Miso (Sea Urchin) also have their own mazeman on the menu. For vegetarians, there’s also a Miso Roasted Vegetable mazeman, though I admit I have never sampled it because of my love for the meat and seafood selections.

Smokey Bacon and Poached Egg Mazeman on the left, Uni Miso cooked in Sake on the right.

Smokey Bacon and Poached Egg Mazeman on the left, Uni Miso cooked in Sake on the right.

At roughly $9 a pop, Yuji’s prices are reasonable for an up and coming business, and certainly for the quality of the ramen you get. I typically find that one Shoyu leaves me stuffed. However, when it comes to the mazeman, I usually try to make room for two–they’re just THAT yummy. For $12 you can get the combo with cold barley tea and pickled vegetables on the side. Starting this year, Yuji is offering a small selection of desserts.  Additionally, every month, Yuji offers a full seven-course Omakase (Chef’s Choice) Dinner. I plan on sampling it and presenting my findings later this year.

If you like creamy things, meat or fish, or noodles of any kind, then I highly recommend you give Yuji a visit soon–you’ll probably run into me sometime!

Yuji Ramen

Address: 95 E. Houston Street, 2nd floor. 

Phone Number: 212-420-1320, extension. 281

Website: http://yujiramen.com

Open all week from 11 AM to 9:30 PM.

Artistic Rendering of Yuji's Mazeman Selection

Artistic Rendering of Yuji’s Mazeman Selection

Masq Makes Mardi Gras a Manhattan Occasion

New Orleans might be almost 1500 miles away from Manhattan, but husband and wife duo George and Nora Chaprastian change reality into a Mardi Gras parade at Masq, a New American and New Orleans-inspired restaurant that livens up Midtown East. Named after the lively masquerades associated with Louisiana’s capital, Masq whisks diners away from the hustle and bustle of its Manhattan location. With a dazzling array of colorful Christmas lights, beautifully haunting Italian masks, and luxurious vintage furniture, it really brings the ball to its diners.

Executive Chef Marc Getzelman directs Masq’s food and pastries as well as its wine, always making sure to complement each of his dishes with an appropriate drink. We were treated to a feast of New American appetizers and New Orleans classics, each crafted with meticulous precision and impeccable style like the rest of Masq’s dining experience.

The Macaroni and Cheese Croquettes with Bacon and Jalapeno were an all-around great way to start our meal. I found the tangerine-hued remoulade sauce quite courteous. It added a moderate amount of tanginess that did not interfere with the more delicate flavors in the macaroni and cheese. With a pescatarian diner in our presence, Chef Marc was more than happy to accommodate our table with a bacon-free version.

Mac 'N' Cheese Croquette with Bacon, Cheddar, and Jalapeño. Served with Spicy Remoulade Sauce

Mac ‘N’ Cheese Croquette with Bacon, Cheddar, and Jalapeño. Served with Spicy Remoulade Sauce

Our second bite came in the form of the Prosciutto Fig Flatbread–a highlight of the evening for me as it managed to be light, savory, sweet, and filling all at once. Hefty portions of prosciutto, swirls of sweet goat cheese, and summery arugula leaves enhanced the thin, crunchy slices. In terms of texture and flavor, I found it to be a perfectly balanced treat and won’t hesitate to order it again. Chef Marc mentioned to us that flatbread has always been a part of Masq’s repertoire, but that the prosciutto-decked variant started off as a special that ascended to the main menu based on popular demand. I wholeheartedly support that motion. Chef Marc and the Chaprastians reassured us that they are always open to customer feedback and that the evolution of the menu is part of what makes Masq a great restaurant.

Prosciutto Fig Flatbread with Goat Cheese and Arugula

Prosciutto Fig Flatbread with Goat Cheese and Arugula

The third and final appetizer was the Asian Marinated Salmon. Normally I find myself a tad skeptical of things labelled “Asian” on any menu, but Masq’s Honey Garlic Soy Sauce assuaged my doubts and has my approval. The addition of honey to a well-executed soy garlic sauce created a new innovation in sweet and sour for this salmon. Perfectly marinated to a dark crisp on the outside and served over a bed of fresh greens, Masq’s salmon dresses to impress.

Asian Marinated Salmon -  Served in Honey Garlic Soy Sauce with Mixed Greens

Asian Marinated Salmon – Served in Honey Garlic Soy Sauce with Mixed Greens

Each of the New American appetizers impressed me. I would’ve been happy to eat a meal solely composed of the Flatbread and the Salmon. They were the kind of dishes that embody a summer picnic for me—a welcome respite from a cold winter evening. However, it was the Louisiana-style cuisine that really warmed my palette that night with jazzy seafood entrees that definitely warrant a taste whether you’ve been to New Orleans or not.

Served on a sweet Hawaiian roll, Masq’s Shrimp Po’ Boy tastes decidedly rich despite its namesake—a welcome change! Succulent yet crunchy shrimp dusted off with pure chili powder on the most luscious of buns made for a winning sandwich. With the powder on the side, I could happily adjust the amount of kick in the sandwich to my liking.

Shrimp Po' Boy on Sweet Hawaiian Roll with Coleslaw

Shrimp Po’ Boy on Sweet Hawaiian Roll with Coleslaw

Masq gave us a classic Jambalaya for its final course.  Now, Jambalaya is one of the first dishes that comes to mind when one thinks of Cajun food. A rice, seafood, and meat dish punctuated with plenty of punch, I’ve come to think of it as the spicy, younger sister of Paella, the dish’s Spanish predecessor and a personal favorite. As a supertaster, I found myself a little hesitant to try the Jambalaya at first. True to tradition, the rice dish brought an intense, fiery flavor that emanated primarily from the peppery Andouille sausage. However, Masq presented a more nuanced incarnation, cooling their Jambalaya’s heat with the addition of fresh, cool goat cheese that balanced out the overall spiciness of the dish and provided a rich, creamy counterpoint. These little tweaks really allow Masq to stand out from their competition as it very much retains the authenticity of Louisiana’s cuisine without steamrolling the experience onto less spice-savvy diners.

Masq's Jambalaya consists of Cajun Spiced Chicken, Andouille Sausage, Shrimp, and Goat Cheese. Make sure to mix the goat cheese!

Masq’s Jambalaya consists of Cajun Spiced Chicken, Andouille Sausage, Shrimp, and Goat Cheese. Make sure to mix that goat cheese!

For dessert, we were treated to Sabayon, a deliquescent egg custard topped with fresh whipped cream and a quartet of berries. Elegantly served in a champagne glass, the Sabayon gave us a soothing and refreshing finish to a sizzling dinner with strawberry, blackberry, raspberry, and blueberry adding vivid colors and aromas to an already fluffy dessert. Once more, I enjoyed a sweet taste of summer!

Sabayon with Raspberry, Strawberry, Blackberry, Blueberry (not pictured here), and Whipped Cream

Sabayon with Raspberry, Strawberry, Blackberry, Blueberry (not pictured here), and Whipped Cream

Aside from its delectable food offerings, Masq has a lovely horseshoe shaped bar with full service and a massive assortment of wine and liquor selections. However, for me, Masq’s main attraction lies in its private party lounge. The Red Room is simply a work of opulence with red velvet curtains and furniture, Persian rugs, fanciful sconces, and beautifully-crafted vintage decor. Whether you’re looking for a reasonably priced bite to eat, a break from your regular Manhattan routine, or a space for your next party, Masq has something for every New Yorker or out of towner looking for an authentic dining experience.

From 8 to 11 pm on Thursday nights, Masq brings in live music to enhance the party vibe.  When the season comes, Chef Marc also promises crawfish on the menu.

From 8 to 11 pm on Thursday nights, Masq brings in live music to enhance the party vibe. When the season comes, Chef Marc also promises crawfish on the menu.

The Red Room seats 45 and makes an ideal location for your next party!

The Red Room seats 45 and makes an ideal location for your next party!

Masq

Address: 306 East 49th Street (Between First & Second Avenues)

New York, NY 100017

Website: www.masqny.com

Phone: (212) 644-8294

Hours

Lunch: 11:30 AM to 4:00 PM, Monday to Friday.

Dinner:  4:00 PM  to 10:00 PM, Monday to Wednesday. 4:00 PM  to 1:00 AM, Thursday to Saturday.

Happy Hour runs from 4 PM to 8 PM from Monday to Friday  (1/2-price on specialty cocktails and select global wines by the glass).

Closed on Sundays.

Masq’s Lunch Menu

Masq’s Dinner Menu