Like you’ve never had them before.
On Friday you were challenged with trying to Name That Place. I thought the photo hints gave away this 40-plus year old Upper East Side institution. But I was wrong. You were stumped.
And what of that famous burger? Where does it rank on your New York burger meter?
I learned of the demise of Big Nick’s Burger Joint the other day. I knew, of course, that a restaurant of its humble stature would surely be in peril during these distressingly haughty times, still I can’t deny that I was saddened. Here then is a photo tribute to what was surely a beloved institution.
Big Nick’s was a welcome hang out for common folk as well as countless celebrities who left their head shots on whatever spare space that could be found on the small restaurant’s storied walls.
Entering or exiting Big Nick’s required careful footing. Despite the sign, there were often “flames.”
Finally, Big Nick himself was a visible presence and his many credos were scrawled on numerous signs throughout the great restaurant. To disobey one, meant getting on his bad side; a place you did not want to be.
Goodbye to a “good place to eat.”
But you knew that, didn’t you. Where else would your burger be sent from the kitchen to your table via a dumb waiter?
The Old Town has been around a lot longer than David Letterman, whose show helped bring it to recent (the last few decades) prominence.
Call me old-fashioned, as many do, but I guess even a bar/restaurant that has been around since 1892 is not immune to the allure of self promotion at the expense of a quieter, classy exterior.
When you read menus or recipes that claim to be classic American comfort food, meatloaf, hot dogs, hamburgers, fried chicken, turkey with stuffing, mashed potatoes and corn on the cob are the usual suspects. I’m not here to debate what constitutes American comfort food. I am here to report that one of those items usually on the American comfort food list; macaroni and cheese, I recently sampled at a small take-out joint in the South Bronx called Landin Macaroni and Cheese and Pizza. And I can decisively state that what I sampled at Landin, prepared by Mexican chefs, was possibly the most comforting macaroni and cheese I’ve ever had.
At Landin there are nine different macaroni and cheese options that come in three sizes: mini, small, and large. The mini, at $1.50 is the perfect portion if you want to try multiple macaroni and cheeses. And with nine to choose from, you will most certainly want to try more than one. I thought it was my duty to experience the Classic American to see how it might compare to other classic macaroni and cheeses. And it compared superbly. The elbow macaroni was rich with creamy cheddar and American cheese, the top, toasted to a golden brown.
Since Landin was run by the skilled hands of Mexican Americans, that more than justified my choice of the “Mexican” option. The combination of pepper jack and muenster cheese along with a few tiny bits of shredded chicken and chopped spicy jalapeno peppers was a revelation.
Eating two portions of macaroni and cheese, even if they were mini seemed decadent enough for me, but I couldn’t resist taking home the “small,” which was big enough to share with a family of four, of the “bacon,” option, mozzarella and muenster with pieces of chopped salty bacon. Again, Landin did not disappoint.
Oh, and I can’t forget the pastelillos. There they were; glistening under glass; beef, chicken, cheese and spinach. How could I resist? I had a beef and spinach tossed into my bag as well.
The damage was totaled on the cash register. All that creamy, delicious starch came to under $10. You really can’t get more comfortable than that.
Back in 1968, when, according to the imagination of television’s Mad Men creator, Matthew Weiner, groups of Mad men were competing for the Heinz ketchup advertising account, the Sloppy Joe was a staple of my suburban diet. Usually it was made from a wet mix in a can or dehydrated in a little packet. All you had to do was add the can of wet to the ground beef and cook it up. With the dry, you added water and tomato paste. The mess was always served on a hamburger roll. Though pretty much long gone from my menu, the Sloppy Joe taste, slightly sweet, along with the salty ground beef, a touch of acid from the tomatoes, the crunch of onion, the sauce drenching the roll was unique and one I still vividly recall.
I hadn’t thought of the Sloppy Joe until I noticed a recipe for it on the back of a plastic Heinz ketchup bottle. That recipe and the iconic condiment: Heinz ketchup, the account of which was bitterly fought over by the fictional Mad men of Mad Men inspired me to revive that childhood classic knowing very well that childhood taste recall doesn’t always live up to the memory hype. My kids now are about the same age I was when my mother made it a monthly regular in our family’s menu. Would they feel the same way about the Sloppy Joe I did? I couldn’t imagine they wouldn’t, but who knew?
Even without the using dry seasonings or the “Manwich” version, the recipe looked simple, as it should be. But once I began preparations, I noticed a potential problem: the recipe called for one and half cups of ketchup plus two tablespoons of brown sugar. The brown sugar combined with the “high fructose corn syrup” already in the ketchup was going to make this a sweet Sloppy Joe. Maybe it was always too sweet and, as a kid with a serious sweet tooth, I just didn’t realize it. Now as an adult with a somewhat mellower sweet tooth, would the Sloppy Joe be too saccharin for my taste? Should I go with my instincts and alter the recipe eliminating either half or all of the brown sugar. I decided not to do anything and if needed, I would do damage control after the fact.
Making the Sloppy Joe really was about as easy as it gets. I followed the directions, cooking the peppers and onions, adding the beef, skimming off the fat, and then pouring in the ketchup, the brown sugar, Worcestershire sauce, salt and pepper and then cooking it on medium heat for about ten minutes until it thickened.
Finally I tasted it. This was most definitely the Sloppy Joe of my memory, yet a very sweet one. I sprinkled in chili powder and added a few drops of hot sauce. That took the sweetness down a few notches, but not enough. The damage could not be undone. It was just too sweet for my tastes. Next time—and there would be a next time—I planned on either eliminating the ketchup altogether and substituting tomato paste with a teaspoon of brown sugar or maybe combining ketchup and tomato paste but nixing the sugar.
But after witnessing both of my boys licking from their fingers what had spilled from their buns, I realized that maybe I was thinking too much of myself. Why should I impose my so-called adult taste on them? Maybe, I thought, I should just leave well enough alone and let them have their own sweet Sloppy Joe memories.
“I don’t know what it is about those Piper’s Kilt burgers, but they are the best,” Eugene crowed at our last get together.
“Better than the Blazer?” Gerry inquired.
“No, not better than the Blazer,” Eugene rescinded. “But still…”
Eugene’s declaration was pretty much lost on all of us with the exception of Gerry, who obviously knew of the establishments in question.
I knew nothing of the Blazer, but was aware of Piper’s Kilt, though not the one Eugene was bragging on, which was in Westchester—and not because of the much heralded burger. The Piper’s Kilt I was familiar with was in the Bronx and I never experienced the burger—or anything else there. I knew of the Bronx Piper’s Kilt because it was a block away from the Kingsbridge Little League field I had become so familiar with last summer and fall. I drove and walked past the place several times during those seasons and took notice of the sign proclaiming the burger being the best in town. Because so many joints make similar assertions, I paid no attention to the claim.
I was however, tempted. Piper’s Kilt looked like the perfect place to escape a few innings with a pint of something cold on tap. Despite the temptation, I never went in. For some reason I thought that sitting in a dark tavern, treating myself to a cold one and relishing a Homer Simpson moment while my kids were out on the field playing might send the wrong message to them.
But now that it was off season, I could no longer use such a lame excuse and after Eugene’s self assured hamburger pronouncement, I believed it was time to put his Piper’s Kilt claim to test. My eating compadres, Zio and Gerry, tagged along to help me assess.
As I often do now when I visit the establishments I wish to chronicle in these pages, I arrived a little early and began taking pictures of the exterior of the restaurant. While I was photographing the sign proclaiming the burger as the best in town, a man in a sport jacket rushed outside and, after telling me he was the owner, asked, a bit defensively, why I was taking the pictures. I mumbled something about how I like to photograph different restaurant signs and send the pictures to my friends. That didn’t seem to satisfy him, so I told him I just like to take pictures of the places I eat and that I heard Piper’s Kilt was good and that I was going to give it a try.
He looked relieved and smiled. “Great, I just was checking. You never know what people do with photos these days on the internet.”
“Yeah, you never know,” I said in agreement.
He offered his hand. “I’m Joe,” he said. I took his hand and introduced myself. “Come say ‘hi’ when your friends get here.”
After I finished with the pictures, I walked in. Joe was at the bar sitting next to another, much older man who was nursing a white wine.
“So are the burgers really that good?” I asked him.
“The best in the city,” Joe said definitively.
“Is it like the other Piper’s Kilts?” I asked. The Piper’s Kilt Eugene raved about was in Eastchester. And I knew there was one other in the Inwood section of Manhattan.
“They do their thing, we do ours,” Joe replied with a sly smile.
“But the burgers are as good?”
“The best in the city,” he again said.
“It’s the grill,” the man at the bar next to Joe and who I was introduced to as the daytime “mixologist,” added.
“Yeah, the grill is like Archie Bunker’s chair,” said Joe. “It’s worn and old, but it’s comfortable. It’s got all his old farts in it.”
I didn’t know what to say. I pictured Archie Bunker’s chair and then tried to remember an “All in the Family” episode where he was farting in his chair.
“What I mean is that the grill is so old, it’s really seasoned. That adds to the flavor of the burgers,” Joe explained.
Zio walked in and I introduced him to Joe and then Gerry followed. The three of us sat at a high, bar table surrounded by pictures of New York Yankees.
We were only a few miles from Yankee Stadium and though there was a “David Wright” burger on the menu, the Yankee options were more plentiful. There was the “Derek Jeter,” the “Robinson Cano” and the “#7; the Mickey Mantle.”
Gerry chose the “Cano,” a burger with Swiss cheese and Canadian bacon. Zio decided on the “Jeter,” bbq sauce and fried onions, while I went with the” #7, the Mickey Mantle:” a burger with cheddar, bacon, and onion rings.
While we waited, Joe graciously sent over beers for Gerry and I while Zio stuck to his usual Coke and lime. The burger platters arrived all with French fries, while the #7 included lettuce and tomato along with the chili and onion rings.
I took a taste of the chili before administering it onto the burger. I didn’t think #7 would have approved. I decided not to harm the burger in any way by the sub par chili. The burger itself, on the other hand, would have made The Mick happy, as it did me. I couldn’t say for sure whether it was the quality of the meat, the way it was cooked to order, or that grill—seasoned most likely by the millions of burgers that had come before mine—that gave it that distinctive burger flavor. And did it really matter what made it so good?
Zio enjoyed his “Jeter” while Gerry had no problems devouring the “Robinson Cano” though still was admittedly partial to the burger at the mysterious “Blazer.”
Thankfully Joe didn’t put me on the spot and ask me if I concurred with him that the Piper’s Kilt burger was the best in the city. I would have had to told him the truth; that it was not. But I would have told him it was real good and without a doubt, the best burger I’ve ever had in the Bronx, if that is any consolation.
Walking out I thought about Joe’s earlier analogy regarding the grill and it was beginning to make more sense to me. The Piper’s Kilt burger evoked the safe and familiar and eating it was probably as much as a comfort to me as Archie Bunker’s chair, which I believe now resides in the Smithsonian Institute, was to him, farts and all. And really, how much more can one ask of a burger than that?
It hides behind a nondescript brick building. Just a simple sign: “S&S Cheese Cake, Inc.” The door was barred. There was another sign near the door that said, “Ring bell.” I rang the bell. The door opened for me.
The front room was dark, dingy but as I walked through, I saw a few cheese cakes in a refrigerator. A man in a coat and watch cap emerged. “Can I help you?” He asked as he tentatively moved toward me.
I asked about the cheese cakes.
“A small is $14. With fruit it’s $17.”
I didn’t need fruit or any other topping. I wanted the cheese cake in its purest form.
He put a small plain cheese cake in a box.
We chatted a bit. The man said his name was Ben.
“Are you the owner?” I asked.
A sly smile formed at the corner of his mouth. He nodded slowly. “I’m one of them.”
He went on to tell me that he was soon going to open a steakhouse next door to the cheese cake factory on 238th Street.
“Any particular type of steakhouse?” I inquired.
“Like Peter Luger’s,” he said with a confident smile.
“Oh, that sounds very good,” I said. “When do you plan to open?”
He gave me that sly mysterious smile again. “I’m not really sure…maybe in a few months.”
He asked what I did. I told him about this website of mine. He showed no recognition, not that I expected any.
“Mimi Sheraton likes us,” he remarked.
“I’ve heard your cheese cake is the best,” I said. “But not from Mimi Sheraton.”
He nodded and flashed the confident smile.
We walked out onto 238th Street together. I told him I would return soon…when the steakhouse opened. He shook my hand and just smiled.
I took the cheese cake home and opened the box. I cut a small slice and took a bite.
I was going to Google Mimi Sheraton, the former New York Times restaurant critic, to see what she had to say about the S&S cheese cake, but really didn’t need to. There was a word that best described how it tasted. I took another bite, savoring it’s creamy, unadulterated essence. At first I couldn’t think what it was and then I looked at the box in which it came in. And the word was right there in front of me.
S&S Cheese Cake Inc.
222 W. 238th Street
Memorable food moments in film have been well documented. One of my favorites occurs in the 1978 masterpiece from filmmaker Les Blank, Always for Pleasure, the documentary about Mardi Gras traditions in New Orleans. In the film there is a particularly memorable scene, at least to me, where New Orleans’ native, singer, Irma Thomas recites her recipe on how she makes her red beans and rice. “First you need a large pot…at least five quarts…”
I’ve seen the film numerous times, but only on video and that scene has always made my mouth water. Now if I ever had the pleasure of viewing Always for Pleasure at a screening where the filmmaker was in attendance and employed his gimmicky, yet sadistically ingenious technique of “Smellaround;” the addition of the actual aroma from a big pot of red beans and rice being cooked within the theater itself, the gurgling from my stomach would probably drown out the dialogue from the screen.
Instead, the film motivated me to make red beans and rice according to Irma Thomas’s recipe. I was able to find a copy of the recipe in a 1986 book called Totally Hot! The Ultimate Hot Pepper Cookbook, by Michael Goodwin, Charles Perry, and Naomi Wise (Dolphin Doubleday). The recipe, adapted by Les Blank from Irma Thomas’ recipe is much more complicated than what she recited in the film. Hers was brief and simple. I made Les Blank’s recipe from the book. The result, however, for whatever reason, was a slight disappointment.
Since then I’ve tweaked the recipe borrowing much from it, including an enormous amount of garlic. Irma Thomas suggested using a half head. Blank, who made another masterpiece in 1980, Garlic is as Good as Ten Mothers, centered around the Gilroy Garlic Festival in California, so we know where he stands on the benefits of the “stinking rose,” calls for a full head.
For what I made, I used probably three quarters of a head of garlic, In Blank’s recipe, a smoked ham hock is called for and that is what I used when I made his recipe. Thomas, in the movie suggests using “seasoning meat of your choice.” My choice for this batch of red beans was Andouille sausage. Also instead of using a big pot on the stove, I switched to a crock pot hoping the consistent, low temperature would produce better results. Beyond those changes, I’ve left much of the other red beans and rice basics intact.
So here, for your Fat Tuesday pleasure is the Neck Bones rendition of Irma Thomas’s version combined with Les Blank’s Always for Pleasure red beans and rice.
2 cups of dried red beans (one pound bag)
6 cups of water
1 lb of Andouille sausage (any other garlicky smoked sausage will work too), sliced.
2 medium onions (about 2 cups worth) chopped
1 green bell pepper, chopped
2 ribs of celery, chopped
6 tablespoons of minced garlic (or just mince a head—depending on the size of the head)
1 tablespoon of creole seasoning*
½ teaspoon salt
Cooked white rice
Green onions, a.k.a scallions for garnish
*If you don’t have creole seasoning, you can add ½ tablespoon each of black pepper and cayenne pepper or more cayenne than black, depending on your spice preference.
If you are a reader of Fried Neck Bones…and Some Home Fries you know I prefer the easy to the difficult when it comes to my own cooking. Following that philosophy, I rarely use dried beans going the lazy route with canned beans as a substitute. For this recipe, however, I think dried beans are best because of the very long cooking time involved. So soak the beans in water at room temperature overnight and then pour off whatever water remains and rinse them again in cold water.
Put the beans in a crock pot or slow cooker and cover with the water.
Quickly sauté the sausage to cook off a bit of the fat. You don’t need to do this; you can just throw in the sausage and the excess fat will just add more flavor of the beans, But if you want to limit your fat intake somewhat, either sauté it and drain with a slotted spoon, or boil it briefly first and then add to the crock pot.
Cook the onions, celery, and bell pepper for about three minutes in the grease from the sausage and then, again with a slotted spoon, add it all to the crock pot.
Toss in the minced garlic and the Creole seasoning.
Turn the crock pot on low and cook for about eight hours until the beans are so soft they meld with the cooking liquid giving it all a creamy consistency.
Serve over cooked white rice and sprinkle with chopped green onions.
Enjoy with a cold beer or maybe borrowing from another Fat Tuesday celebration, this one in Brazil, with a cold caipirinha, the recipe for the cocktail can be found here A Lime Cut Three Ways: The First Cut .
And for more pleasure while you eat and drink on this Fat Tuesday, below is the trailer for Always for Pleasure:
Early on, when I first started this site, I wrote a paean titled La Pavoni Love Call to an old espresso maker I had that was called La Pavoni. That espresso maker sputtered out its last brew soon after I wrote the piece and was replaced by another La Pavoni, this one very efficient, but just not as vocal. Since then I’ve neglected my espresso and coffee love on this site until recently when I posted Rooftop Iced Coffee. I hope now to include coffee into the Fried Neck Bones…and Some Home Fries repertoire under this newly formed category, The Caffeine Chronicles beginning here with a photo salute to one of the few remaining Twin Donut spots in New York.
Does “Plus” mean that fresh made soups and oatmeal are available along with coffee and donuts? I didn’t ask.
Now that’s a counter where a person can really enjoy coffee and a doughnut.
I’m not sure that the coffee at Twin Donut was the “world’s best.”
But any caffeine deficiencies were easily overcome by the addition of the vanilla marble doughnut that accompanied the coffee.
Twin Donut Plus