10 More Foods to Try Before You Die - Or Not (Fall 2016)

by Richard Blackman

Three highlights, 6 disappointments and two superb repeat favorites for our visit to the NYC area for Roberta’s pizza, Ivan Ramen ramen, Westville East turkey burgers, Biryani food cart kati rolls, Del Frisco’s onion rings, Nam Pan Asian BBQ, Shmackary’s cookies, Rutts Hutt onion rings, Wafels & Dinges waffles, Katz’s pastrami and Goodmans Corned Beef.

Highlights: Kati Rolls at the midtown Biryani cart, Rutt’s Hutt (near the NJ Meadowlands) for onion rings and everything else, and Shmackary’s cookies.

Two fabulous repeats: Katz’s pastrami (unmatched, as always) and Goodman’s (our third visit) for old fashioned hospitality, all-around excellent food, and terrific corned beef.

Low points: Del Frisco’s $14.50 onion rings, and Wafels & Dinges “crisp” bacon. Everything else was unremarkable. Details below.

It’s 8:30 am Saturday morning and I was able to talk my neighbor George, holding leashes for two frisky dogs, into taking a picture of the four of us before our food trip. It’s a follow-up to our trip to the NYC area last year to try “10 foods to eat in NYC before you die.” Last year’s trip was so enlightening, we wanted to try again with 10 more. Three elementary school friends (from the 1950’s) and I had previously taken trips to review 50+ delis to find the best deli food.

Malcolm notes: Having tried dozens of delis, we have moved into the diversification phase of our food sampling careers. Since this approach opens you up to literally thousands of establishments, we are forced by necessity to resort to one or another of the “best of” lists that seem to have proliferated on the Internet in recent years. You know, one of those “esteemed experts”, or a big “foodie”, cobbles together a list and presents as it like it has the Good Housekeeping seal of approval. We don’t hold ourselves out as experts (well, maybe on delis). But this we can tell you for sure: be skeptical of “best of” lists purporting to have some claim to know good from mediocre or bad, let alone to know "the best".

As we did last year, we rated the foods on a 1 to 10 basis. For me, 10 would mean total agreement that this is a food I want to eat before I die. For Malcolm a 10 represented absolutely the best; 9 -- outstanding and/or somehow unique, very hard to equal; 8 -- very good but you could find other places of similar quality; 6-7 -- acceptable but not worth any special effort; 5 or less -- don’t go. You can see all our ratings here.

1. Our first stop was Roberta’s Pizzeria in Brooklyn for Bee Sting pizza. The pizza had honey (the bee) combined with chili oil (the sting). Roberta’s is in a quiet industrial area of Brooklyn.

We were able to find free parking across the street from the entrance. Actually we had trouble figuring out where the entrance was. It appeared to have as many as three entrances covering a half-block. We first went to what we thought was an entrance to find a crowded small room with a long line, and a big menu written on the wall behind a counter. There were no seats. This turned out to be the carryout area. We walked 100 yards up the block to what looked like a phone booth which was the actual entrance to the restaurant. They told us there was a 45-minute wait (1 pm on Saturday) but we could sit outside in the garden and eat our carryout there. I grabbed a table from among the 20 picnic tables in the pleasant patio area, while the others walked back to the carryout space and ordered the pizza.

It was a regular looking pizza with fresh mozzarella and the pepperoni-like but spicier soprasetta slices. The $17 small but adequate pizza was indeed a combination of sweet and spicy with a very soft, thin and flexible crust. Malcolm liked the sting, but the bee not so much, because he thought the sauce was too sweet. I didn’t like the crust at all (if you call that a crust, it felt soggy) and didn’t like the taste much either, so I rated it a 6.5. The others were more impressed, and they would consider coming back as the soprasetta and mozzarella were quite good. But try the Margherita pizza, not the Bee Sting. Decibel count – a way-too-noisy 82 inside, but a pleasant 68 outside.

2. We headed for the lower east side in Manhattan for Shio Ramen at Ivan Ramen. None of us were sure exactly what that was, but it sounded good in the reviews. A small, trendy (hip?) restaurant with about 20 tables, it was much too loud for us (87 decibels). We couldn’t help notice that we were at least 30 years older than any of the other patrons. Being unfamiliar with anything on the menu, we started to ask the young hostess, “Can we just get…….” when she interrupted us, and gruffly responded, “Ask your server,” and walked off. Thankfully our young waiter was courteous and helpful. We ordered the recommended “Shio Ramen” and Malcolm insisted we try something else, so we also ordered the “Triple Pork, Triple Garlic, Mazemen” at $16. They were soupy noodle dishes with a bunch of stuff in it. We all thought the Shio Ramen was okay, but salty. I didn’t see the point of why anyone would order this and rated it a 5. We did like the flavor of the Triple Garlic that included crispy bacon-like pieces, but again wouldn’t feel the need to return. I ranked the latter a 7.5. We didn’t finish either of the dishes. The whole experience fell well short of expectations. Shio Ramen, so not!

3. On to Westville East for turkey burgers. Malcolm and Larry are big beef burger fans, but Gary and I are mostly into the supposedly healthier turkey burgers, so we talked the others into trying what was rated as one of the best turkey burgers in the area. Westville East is another small trendy restaurant with a host of healthy food items on the menu, including lots of good-looking vegetarian entries. Westville offered about 10 small tables, all occupied, so we found seating at the counter. The $13 “cast iron turkey burgers” (we ordered two to split) were “hand-made at the restaurant,” said the counter guy. Two minutes after we ordered, they brought out the burgers. Yes, they were handmade he said, but made earlier and partially cooked. They finished up the cooking on a hot grill. As turkey burger fans, Gary and I were especially disappointed. It appeared to be a fairly tasteless white-meat only burger on an English muffin. It tasted fine, but I wouldn’t order it again. Neither would any of the others. Gary thought the burger appeared to be a nearly solid turkey breast rather than the ground turkey to which he’s accustomed. Larry thought it would be okay if you added plenty of cheese, mustard, mayo, tomato, and lettuce. Malcolm wondered why you would order this if you wanted a burger. I’ve had lots of turkey burgers that I’ve enjoyed more. The french fries were okay. I would go back to Westville, but for the salads, not for the burgers. I rated my burger a 7.

At this point, after three disappointing food stops, we wondered who are these people rating foods on the internet. They’re probably a lot younger than us.

We drove to midtown at around 4 pm, where we once again found lots of empty parking meter spaces on 52nd Ave between 5th and 6th Ave. Not cheap, but plentiful.

4. For our fourth stop we walked to the Biryani food cart for Kati rolls on 46th and 6th Ave. None of us had ever had a Kati roll, nor did we know much about them except that they are Indian cuisine. While waiting to order, we all struggled to figure out the menu printed on the side of the truck. The super friendly cart-guy was glad to help out. The rolls seemed ridiculously cheap at $6 for two, so we ordered two vegetable rolls and two chicken rolls. A highlight of the trip, the rolls had a bunch of very tasty insides wrapped in a light pastry. We found a nearby bench to sit on while we ate. We all loved the rolls and I gave my veggy roll a 9 and the chicken roll an 8.5. Larry thought his might have been a little greasy, but otherwise he enjoyed it. Gary thought they were both excellent, but largely tasted the same. It was our first non-disappointing entry of the trip.

5. For taste number five, we walked to Del Friscos for the much anticipated $14.50 onion rings. Colossal looking with great reviews, the pictures on the internet reminded me of Burke’s of Baltimore rings, which Esquire magazine once named “one of the top 100 reasons to be alive.” We were thus willing to spend what we considered an outrageous amount of money for an order of onion rings. We ordered from the bar at the upscale fancy restaurant (most entrees $40 and up), and took the rings to a small table outside. Yes, they were big, yes there were 7 beautiful large batter-coated whole onions. And yes they were completely tasteless. A giant disappointment. The batter was crispy (though too thick) and the quality of the onions looked excellent. But what a waste of money because the onions were tasteless and mushy. Not only that, if I eat something that’s bad for you (onion rings are particularly bad), it should taste good. None of us would order these again, even if the price were reasonable. I rated them a 5.5.

6. We walked 5 minutes down the street for our next taste, a Num Pang pulled pork sandwich, an Asian style BBQ sandwich. However, at 2 minutes to 6, although the door to the restaurant was open (medium size with about 20 tables), it looked closed with chairs on top of the tables. I walked in while the others waited outside the deserted restaurant and the young woman cleaning behind the counter, yelled out, “we’re closed.” (They close at 6). I then asked, “could we just get a sandwich.” She said, “no, everything is packed up.” I explained to her that we had driven up all the way from Maryland just for her BBQ sandwiches. She relented and said she could give us the sandwiches to take out. So I dragged the others in and we ordered two of the signature sandwiches to eat outside (again). The sandwiches, served on a thick crusty cylindrical-shaped roll, topped with a white sauce and cucumber were quite tasty. However, we all felt that we’d prefer American BBQ. I rated the sandwich a 7.5

We had some time before our Broadway show of choice, Something Rotten. We had purchased “discount” tickets earlier in the week for the bargain price of $100 apiece. However, you can’t beat the 3rd row center. We all loved the show. We had to bypass our normal “pass-the-time” spot on the bleachers above the TKTS booth because it was closed temporarily. According to a policeman, they were expecting some kind of demonstration, so it was closed temporarily.

7. We walked down 45th street and asked a guy on the street where we could get a good chocolate chip cookie. He told us to keep on going down the street to Schmackary’s. We knew it had to be good advice when we saw the 25 or so people in the line outside the small bakery. I went for the large cranberry/oat special and the rest of the boys went for the chocolate chip. It hadn’t been on our list, but we would certainly recommend it. Most people were walking out with large boxes of cookies. I rated my cookie a 9.

8. After the show, we headed out to Clifton New Jersey’s Rutt’s Hutt(near the Meadowlands and established in 1928) for reasonably priced onion rings. The area was deserted at midnight (as was the restaurant), but a big Rutt’s Hutt sign lit up the area. Rutt’s Hutt is a cavernous, old-fashioned, rustic restaurant with seating for over a hundred. There were no other patrons. We were greeted by Angela, a wonderful, endearing and enthusiastic waitress. She was lots of fun. She mentioned that a couple hours ago the restaurant was packed. “You have to try the Rippers,” she pleaded. Rippers are their deep-fried hot dogs. Rutt’s has five different styles of rippers, ranging from the In-and-Out, which just gets dipped in oil, to the Cremator, which is self-explanatory. Since they are “home of the Ripper” we felt we had to order two, a bargain at $2.20 each, along with the rings ($2.85) for an order nearly as large as large as Del Friscos. While we were at it we threw in cole slaw and potato salad to the order. Everything Angela brought out was a highlight. The onion rings were outstanding, and the best I’ve had since Burke’s and I rated them a 9.5. They were medium-sized rings with a light crispy and tasty crust, and a highlight of my trip. The Rippers – which we ordered plain (vs loading with lots of toppings) were excellent (8.5 for me). The potato salad was also excellent and the cole slaw was good. Our drink of choice, soda water was also first-rate. As we were finishing up, praising everything to Angela, she opined that we had to try the bread pudding and rice pudding since those were restaurant specials. We said no thanks, we were full. Hearing all of our restaurant praise, Gus, the enlightened and dedicated owner came out and brought us orders of the bread pudding and rice pudding—on the house. It was a kind surprise, and we felt then we had to at least taste them. They were both probably the best of either I’ve ever eaten. We finished them off in no time. We followed this with a long talk with Gus, who was just delightful to talk with. He’s been working there since he was 13 and clearly loves his work. Everybody should visit Rutt’s Hutt at least once, not just for the food but for the experience. We’d go lots more if we lived in the area, but definitely plan to return. We weren’t surprised to learn that most of their customers are long-time regulars. They take cash only. Angela tied Jennifer (Goodmans restaurant) as one of best-all-time waitresses we’ve had on our 9 food-tasting trips to visit 60 NYC restaurants. Gus comes in right behind Don Parkin (Goodmans) for most delightful and dedicated owner.

9. After an extra hour’s sleep (end of daylight savings time) at the Marriott Courtyard Secaucus, we headed to lower Manhattan for Wafels and Dinges. Alas, we arrived at 8:30 am and they weren’t yet open – despite the hours reported on their website. So we walked to Katz’s for a non-traditional pastrami sandwich breakfast. There, we split two pastrami sandwiches and a hot dog. We knew from previous trips to order at the counter and bring the food to our table rather than get waiter service—better quality that way. Malcolm gave a big tip to our pastrami-cutter at the counter, so we could be assured of getting the best of the best. We did. All rated the pastrami a 10, as is often the case. The hot dog also received an impressive 9. On the way out, Larry ordered a case of their super seltzer water, and Malcolm and I split a case. Malcolm ordered pastrami to take home.

10. After dropping off the take-home treats at the car, we walked back to the Wafels and Dinges café for waffles for our second breakfast. They have food trucks all around the city, but this is their only sit-down restaurant. It’s a small place with a bunch of tables around a cooking area in the middle. The decibel level was 78 at quiet times, but much higher when they were using their various machines, including a blow-torch. They had only two people working and everything seemed to take forever. Waffles are the main item and have lots of different topping options. I ordered mine with whipped cream, Gary got his with strawberries, and Larry/Malcolm had syrup. Gary and I decided we needed to split what their menu called “crisp” bacon. The waffles were okay, not light, a bit too sweet but tasty. Mine reminded me of a doughnut. I wouldn’t go back although my wife loves the waffles she’s purchased at the food trucks. The bacon… inedible. It wasn’t close to crispy. I took mine back and asked the server to cook it some more. She put a blow torch to them to continue the cooking process (yes, that’s how she cooked them in the first place). This time they were soggy, inedible and burnt. We didn’t bother to eat it. I rated my waffle a 6.

11. Our final stop was in Berkely Heights, New Jersey at Goodman's Restaurant for corned beef. Goodmans has a diverse menu of traditional deli and American dishes. The owner, Don Parkin, the waitress, Jennifer, and the restaurant have been among our favorites in the past, so we felt we had to make a return visit. They of course didn’t disappoint and as always, we’d highly recommend Goodmans. Don felt that his corned beef wasn’t up to par that day, but we all loved it. We were joined by Barbara Rybolt, a local newspaper reporter (now blogger). Below is an excerpt from her article:

“The men opted to order two corned beef on rye sandwiches, a cheeseburger, French fries, onion rings, cole slaw, some tuna fish and red potato salad. That was their first order. They shared the two corned beef sandwiches and the cheeseburger as well as the side orders. When they finished those, they ordered bread pudding, rice pudding and a hot dog -- one of Goodman's special dogs, which they split.” Her full article is here.

Everything at Goodmans was excellent. Next to the corned beef, the tuna fish was a highlight. I need to call Don and ask for the recipe. Gary loved the onion rings and bread pudding. Just as important as the consistently excellent food, it is just such a pleasure eating at Goodmans because of the homestyle atmosphere. As we were eating, we noticed Don walking around talking to patrons at most of the tables. He has high standards, works too many hours, is dedicated to perfection, and makes his customers feel totally at home. Jennifer, our waitress, as mentioned earlier is one of our all-time favorites and has been there for years.

At 2:30 pm, we headed for home. The planned stop in Trenton, for yet another pizza, would have to wait till next year.