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An Ode To The Usual
Hotspots are cool but do you have a soft spot that knows your order?
I don't know where the hotspots are, so please don't ask me. I'm not that person. But I am the person who knows the person who has been to that new sushi place in Williamsburg. We're pals. She can name-drop all the buzzy, up-and-coming chefs working downtown, and I can't.
I'd call her a “foodie” if the term weren't so infantilizing. She’s a culinary explorer – a gastronaut – and I’m her occasional sidekick. Don’t get me wrong, I have skills, too. They’re just different.
She is one of those effortlessly cool types with excellent taste – a person who’s permanently clued into what's new. And going to dinner with her is always fun. The restaurants we eat at are quirky or straight-up fancy, the menus are either clever or challenging, and the whole experience, from the service to the final bite, is exciting, almost theatrical. Sometimes, I even take pictures of my food, which is shocking because I never take pictures of my food. These restaurants hum with creativity and curious patrons. Eye-popping amuse-bouches? Savory aspics? Deconstructed key lime pies? Yes, three times.
It can be exhausting, too, at least for a natural-born Hobbit like me. Sometimes, I don't want to go on an adventure, I want to eat something yummy nearby. Something safe. Savory aspics? I'm not always in the mood for lobster meat suspended in Jell-O.
The most important emotional supports in my life are my dog, therapist, and sandwich guy. He gets me.
I am not the person who knows where the hotspots are, but I do know where to get delicious soup dumplings five minutes from my apartment. When I walk in, the hosts greet me with a smile. They know what I want – the usual. Pork dumplings to start. They're served shortly after I sit. This place is like the famous bar in Cheers where everyone knows your name, only the servers are slinging baskets full of steaming xiaolongbao instead of beers.
I'm the type of person with soft spots for local restaurants like extended family, where I don't have to think very hard and can relax. I'm the master of quick bites right around the corner. I would never wear sweatpants out to eat, but I know a place where it wouldn't matter if I did.
My friend respects the skills I've honed over the years. And I do have skills. First, I don't scroll Instagram looking for what to eat. I don't read the blogs. I'm on the street. I have a knack for sizing up restaurants by the menus they display in the window.
I am always polite. Whenever I discover a new-to-me greasy spoon or Indian cuisine hole-in-the-wall that serves solid food with friendly service at a reasonable price, I tip generously and mention how much I enjoyed my visit on the way out. And then, over the next few months, I do it all over again. Every gourmet should be reading what Pete Wells is writing, but they should also know where to get a satisfying burger made the way they like (in my case: extra mayo, pickles, tomatoes, no lettuce, oh God, no lettuce.)
To be a regular is to have a relationship with the people preparing and serving your food. It is an honest relationship built on mutual respect and trust. I have eaten terrible food at spotless restaurants where I have been made to feel like my existence annoyed the staff. Going out can be risky! So, I have a handful of places that are my home away from home and also, thanks for asking, close to home.
I am not lazy, nor am I cheap. I am driven by a desire to live an uncomplicated life whenever I get the chance, and that means I take the time to get to know the people I'm doing business with.
My neighborhood taco truck makes carne asada tacos that are cheap, tasty, and basic. Street food is simple, and these tacos are just that: fresh tortillas, steak marinated in lime and spices, onions, cilantro, and, my addition, a generous glug of Valentina Salsa Picante. Perfecto.
The woman in charge of the truck sometimes sees me coming. We joke as she bags my precious tacos. I could eat at that taco truck for the rest of my life, and I'm going to try.
This place is like the famous bar in Cheers where everyone knows your name, only the servers are slinging baskets full of steaming xiaolongbao instead of beers.
I also know a nearby Italian joint that serves the platonic ideal of spaghetti and meatballs. I have never even been a fan of spaghetti and meatballs. This restaurant serves other pasta dishes, a few elegant ones, too. The cook knows what he's doing and doesn't need to impress anyone. But his marinara? Heavenly. The meatballs? Fill my coffin with them.
The bodega at the end of the block makes an incredible turkey and provolone with hot peppers, lettuce, tomato, oil, and extra vinegar. I don't even have to speak to the sandwich guy behind the counter. I nod, and five minutes later, I get a "Here ya go, boss" or "See ya next time, John." The most important emotional supports in my life are my dog, therapist, and sandwich guy. He gets me.
My friend and I are an odd couple, that's for sure. She has her finger on the proverbial pulse, and my local diner knows I like coleslaw with my scrambled instead of home fries. Hard to obtain reservations are cool but does your sandwich guy know your first name? The other week, I needed a recommendation. Some family members were visiting, and there were some picky teens involved. Hard to impress. My discerning friend was there for me. The Thai restaurant she suggested was perfect: the vibe was relaxed, and the food was both comforting and inventive. The kids loved it. I was declared hip, or based or whatever they say now, and I am definitely not any of those things. This past weekend, though, my friend was in my neighborhood, and I said we should meet up and eat some pasta. We even met at my favorite dining time: five o'clock. I am an early bird, she is a nighthawk, and that's another essay.