Saturday, August 19, 2006

Deep Fried Friendship with Cheese

There are some people who have "drinking buddies", friends with whom they cannot be around without finding themselves completely drunk within moments of contact, which is why recovering alcoholics try to find a new social scene to break the habit. I, in fact, have a few "smoking buddies" - I instantly crave a cigarette whenever I am with them, talk to them on the phone, or sometimes just think about them. When I was growing up, many of my friends joked that I was their "eating buddy" (which I guess is no surprise since I grew up in an italian household which had not one, but two full sized refrigerators plus a free-standing freezer, all of which were fully stocked at all times). I don't think the feeling was ever mutual since I ate with all of my friends. But looking back, if I were to choose one person to be my own personal, #1 enabler when it comes to food, it would be my good friend, L.

L and I grew up in the same tiny suburb of NYC, so we were aware of each other's existence forever. We became good friends in Middle School and have been pigging out together ever since.

While normal hungry teenagers would pop a frozen pizza in the oven, L and I would fry up a pound of bacon, add it to a bowl of iceberg lettuce and drown it in mayonnaise. We would proceed to eat the entire "salad" while watching the latest antics on "Days of Our Lives" then wash it down with a coke and a bag of potato chips.

At the diner (the reigning social scene in our town from middle school until they banned smoking in restaurants in the early '90s) we flirted with boys over orders of cheese fries with gravy, toasted bagels with melted cheese and bacon, chicken fingers, BLTs with extra mayo, fried zucchini sticks, you name it. If it could be deep fried, smothered in cheese and/or topped with bacon, we would devour it.

Many years have passed since high school and even college. L now lives in Boston and we get together a handful of times per year, if we are lucky. We always tell each other that no matter how much time has passed, when we do get to see each other, it is though nothing has changed. It is true. Even though our lives have taken us on different paths, our conversations are always free and easy. We laugh as hard as we did when we were kids. And we still eat as though we had the metabolisms of twelve year old girls.

The last time she was in NYC, we went to Say Cheese, a restaurant in my neighborhood which boasts it is "home of the grilled cheese sandwich". They offer eleven different variations on the traditional grilled cheese as well as a build your own option. I had lived in Hell's Kitchen for two years and had barely acknowledged its existence. L is in town for twelve hours and somehow all other options are null and void. We fell into our usual porcine pattern, each of us ordering a grilled cheese with plum tomatoes, bacon and garlic mayo on olive bread.

"Mmm... they have curly fries," L says, her nose still buried in the paper menu.

"Do you wanna split a basket?" I ask.

"Yeah," she agrees. "Oh, they have mozzarella sticks, too. I love them." I already know this. L has always had a weak spot for mozzarella sticks.

"OK, do you want to get those instead?" I ask, a bit sad since I am more of a french fry girl, myself, but after all, she is the guest.

"We could get both," she suggests.

"Do you think that is too much?" I ask.

"Yeah, it is kind of gross," she agrees, playing along with the charade. We pretend to weigh our options, though we both know perfectly well that we will end up with a basket of each.

After our hour of intoxicating gluttony, we crawl back to my apartment about to burst. We complain about how full we are, what pigs we are, how gross we are. We will never eat again.

"Yeah, but it was good!" one of us declares.

Our complaints soon turn into praise for the deliciously greasy food that we just inhaled. The grilled cheese was excellent - the garlic mayo of which even we were skeptical was a fantastic accompaniment to the sandwich. The curly fries were wonderfully crisp and golden, not a soggy one in the bunch. The mozzarella sticks some of the best we'd ever had. The breaded shell was crisp and golden like the curly fries, while the cheese inside was dangerously hot and oozed down your chin as you bit into it.

We collapse onto the couch, too exhausted from eating to do anything else. I turn on the television. "Pretty Woman," our high school favorite, is playing on TBS. The movie has only just begun. We squeal at our good fortune and lay paralyzed in front of the tv.

As the movie ends, I get up to answer my ringing cell phone. I quickly switch into professional mode to discuss an upcoming project with a producer. Once I hang up the phone, I return to the Saturday sloth that I have become. I go back into the living room and see L with my binder of take out menus before her.

"Hungry?" she tempts me.

Are you crazy? I think to myself, We just ate a disgusting amount of food two hours ago!

"Really?" I ask, incredulously.

"Yeah, I know, it's sick," she gives me a sheepish smile.

"I'm not really hungry," I tell her, "...but... I could eat."

So we order some burgers - with bacon and cheese, of course.

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

The Delivery Challenge

Like most New Yorkers, Husband and I enjoy eating out but much prefer ordering in. The past five years of marriage has turned us into the proverbial "old married couple" for whom a fun Thursday night consists of eating take out as we watch our latest DVD rental, as opposed to drinks downtown at a trendy lounge with the masses.

We had recently dined at El Centro, the newest Mexican restaurant in our neighborhood, and loved the food. I grabbed the delivery menu on our way out and declared that the next week we would put El Centro to our ultimate test - delivery.

What is so difficult about delivery? Well, for one thing, Husband and I are challenged because neither of us work standard 9 to 5 jobs, so we tend to eat at unconventional hours, with dinner usually around 10pm or later. It is not always easy to find a place that delivers that late. El Centro easily passed that test when I saw that they deliver until 11pm every night of the week!

The next hurdle is, of course, how well the food itself travels. It is easy for food to be tasty when it has been freshly prepared in the kitchen and only sits around for 5 minutes or so before reaching the customer at the table. However, take that short 5 minute trip and increase it to 25 minutes or however long it takes to get the customer's home and a whole other set of factors come into play.

First of all, there is the cooling of the food, so sometimes it is lukewarm upon delivery. More importantly, there is the fact that the food is more or less continuing to cook as it travels, as the heat and steam are locked into an airtight container, which is usually the reason that foods which are meant to be crispy, such as french fries, often arrive soggy and lifeless. And finally, there is the aggravation factor - the general risk of becoming incredibly annoyed when your food arrives far later than expected or the order was messed up, but you did not realize it until the delivery guy has long gone.

We both ordered Burro Oaxaqueno, a burrito filled with grilled skirt steak, guacamole, monterey jack cheese, red rice and black beans. Husband had ordered it the night that we ate at the restaurant and it was sublime. We also splurged on an order of chips and guacamole and a side of plantains. The food arrived promptly and with no errors. Another point for El Centro.

The burritos are a work of genius. Every component is well thought out and executed perfectly. The flour tortilla is homemade, and lightly pan fried. I am more accustomed to the steaming of the tortilla, which can sometimes produce less than stellar results as oversteaming often causes the tortilla to be overly chewy or gluey in consistency. The frying eliminates this problem altogether while also providing a slight crispiness to the dish, without being too crunchy. The frying also gives the burrito a bit more structure so it can withstand the aforementioned steaming-while-traveling danger. But the icing on the cake is that they taste good. Whoever makes these fantastic tortillas obviously puts time into it, considering them as a way to compliment the dish as opposed to simply edible wrapping paper.

The steak is packed with flavor from the marinade and is perfectly charred with a whisper of smokiness that tantalizes your mouth; the warm recognition of comfort food spreads through your chest like a bear hug.

The saltiness of the rice and bean combination is the perfect accent for the savory flavor of the meat. The beans themselves are a work of wonder. They are firm yet tender, so that when your teeth breaks their skin it is almost as if they burst in your mouth. They are not drowning in a soupy mess that bleeds onto the plate, but have just the right amount of moisture to them.

This dignified burrito is not oozing with cheese. In fact, at first you may forget that there is even supposed to be cheese in there. But once you dive into the heart of the burrito, you get a taste of cheesy goodness to add to the symphony of flavors.

"Oh my God," Husband purrs as he eats, "This burrito is just as good room temperature as it is hot!"

Moments later he announces that it is the best steak burrito he has ever had. I try to agree with him, but my mouth is full.

We move on to the plantains. They, like the burrito, seem to have a touch of class to them while still remaining true to their simple roots. I love plantains, but they can easily be too sweet for my taste, drenched in a puddle of syrup. I was happy to see that there was not an ounce of syrup lining the container. The plantains were dry, yet perfectly carmelized on the outside so that the very edges were crisp. They were not overripe, and therefore not mushy.

The only disappointment of the evening was the guacamole, which was under seasoned and in my opinion, the avacadoes were not mashed enough. I tend to like my guacamole on the chunky side, but the chunks have to be manageable. These were monstrous. It was disappointing, but really, not terribly upsetting. It isn't as though the guacamole was inedible, just a bit uninspired.

All in all, the meal was a great success. El Centro passed the delivery test with honors. Husband and I consumed everything (even the guacamole), leaving nothing for our sad, little kitty who watched us with huge, hopeful eyes as we ravaged our food.

The next night we were faced with the inevitable question of what to have for dinner.

Would you believe that we actually ordered the same meal again? Well, as gluttonous as it sounds, it is true (OK, everything but the guacamole). And this time we agreed that we would not start the movie until we had completely finished our meal. Never again will we allow ourselves to be distracted from such a divine experience as El Centro.