By Alex Distefano
By Scott Snowden
By Anna Merlan
By Steve Almond
By Jena Ardell
By Jon Campbell
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Tessa Stuart
It's easy to be cynical about nutrition. After all, the rules keep changing on us. Not long ago butter was the devil, and we were told to eat oily, foul-tasting margarine to preserve the old ticker. Now it turns out that the marge we were wiping on our Wonder was loaded with trans fats, which will kill you as surely as drinking a glass of Gowanus Canal water. Known more properly as trans fatty acids or hydrogenated fats, trans fats are liquid vegetable oils like corn, canola, or soy that have been combined with hydrogen under pressure, resulting in deathly solid white fat, used ubiquitously in cookies, chips, cakes, candies, microwave popcorn (thanks, Orville Redenbacher!), and myriad other snack products. Naturally, the government is not forcing manufacturers to reveal trans fats on product labels until 2006. Take your time, guys. Trans fats are hiding in those chicken nuggets too, and in zillions of other overprocessed fast foods. Want to know what trans fat looks like? Open a can of Crisco. It sure makes good pie crusts, though.
Until recently, we were warned to avoid lard as the world's most cantankerous fat. Now, it turns out that lard has half the saturated fat of butter, so when it comes to chasing the chimera of healthfulness, pick lard. Unfortunately, the only place I can think of where you can eat pure lard, aside from a few Brighton Beach delis, is OTTO (1 Fifth Avenue, 212-995-9559), where Mario Batalinot himself a particularly healthy specimenhas bravely swaddled one of his delectable cracker crust pizzas with lardo, the mellow-tasting cured lard beloved of northern Italians. Of course, if you're lucky, the local cuchifrito stand is frying its pork morsels in lard rather than butter or Crisco. I can personally attest to the fact that the delectable pork cracklings stacked in the window at East Harlem's CUCHIFRITOS FRITURAS (168 East 116th Street, no phone) have been fried in pure lard, which render the thick pieces of skin a crisper and richer cousin of Styrofoam. And I mean that in a good way.
East Harlem might even be called the Land of Lard, because radiating outward from the cuchifrito stand are dozens of institutions that never forsook lard, even in the ignorant darkness of the Lardless Days. Looking like a Japanese lady's fan, only made of layered pork, lard, and skin, the chicharrones de cerdo at SABOR BORINQUEÑO (158 East 119th Street, 212-534-9400) are not only beauteous, they're delicious too. The delicate ribs are cut against the bias and serve as a staging platform for the miraculous meat fan. The lard itself has been fried in lardit's what the French call a confit. Indeed, there's no doubt lard is the perfect frying medium. In American Fried, Calvin Trillin quotes Kansas City barbecue god Arthur Bryant on the subject of french fries: "I get fresh potatoes and cook them in pure lard. . . . Pure lard is expensive, but if you want to do a job, you do a job."
Let's face it. Grease is good. The city has never gone through a worse era of bad food than the low-fat mania of the 1980s, still vestigially represented in the marketplace by awful products like TASTI D-LITE. And our butcher shops have never recovered, either. Ever try to make a burger out of low-fat ground beef? It turns out crumbly and flavorless. And when you buy a brisket to barbecue, you've got to grab the butcher's arm before he trims off all the fat. (My apologies to lady butchers. By the way, have you ever seen one?) Indeed, you can't have barbecue without plenty of fat, which is the reason most local barbecues are abysmal. Still, you would think low fat is synonymous with virtue if you gaze at labels while wandering through GRISTEDES. The dairy case, in particular, is crammed with low-fat and no-fat products, and they taste like crap.
The low-fat '80s gave way to the no-carb '90s, and I can't tell you with what astonishment I observed the obese tucking into giant, yawning plates of greasy bacon and eggs but denying themselves the single darkling slice of buttered toast (or lard-topped, if you will) that would have made the meal palatable. Atkins and South Beach tendencies are still over-represented on restaurant menus, and restaurateurs are gleefully dispensing with the conventional bread basket at dining venues all over town, often because their customers piously refused to touch the stuff while pigging out on gigantic apps and entrées. Hey folks, bread is the staff of life! At the new Italian restaurant GUSTO (60 Greenwich Avenue, 212-924-8000), for example, your meal begins with anchovy-rubbed red radishes, with nary a bread basket in sight. I want my carbs!
And what about eggs, those damnable repositories for the most fearsome fat of all, cholesterol? Of course, it will probably turn out that the body manufactures just as much cholesterol as it wants, responding to factors such as stressand the culinary disappointment of eating meals with no cholesterol. And it may just turn out that the health (and financial) benefits of eating eggs far outstrip the negative effects of the cholesterol, which might not even be absorbable by the bloodstream. Most beneficially, eggs are packed with protein, vitamins, and minerals, and it was recently reported that free-range eggsif you can get your hands on themhave half the cholesterol of caged ones.
So eggs are back again, and with a vengeance. There's a new place in Williamsburg called EGG (135 North 5th Street, Brooklyn, 718-302-5151), which uses organic eggs from Columbia County, presumably lower in cholesterol than non-organic eggs. But who knows for sure? The federal government is more interested in coddling giant food manufacturers and helping them disguise unhealthiness than in inspecting and certifying organic or free-range status. But while Egg only serves eggs till noon (hot dogs take over afterward), other places serve organic eggs throughout the day. CURLY'S VEGETARIAN LUNCH (328 East 14th Street, 212-598-9998) offers a belt-busting three-organic-egg all-day breakfast, and you can goose it up with a side of tofu bacon that is surprisingly tasty. But hey, real bacon is good for you too. For more elaborate egg dishes, seek out Fort Greene's ICI (246 DeKalb Avenue, Brooklyn, 718-789-2778), where your choice of certified organic eggs runs to old-fashioned concoctions like shirred eggs (cooked in a baking dish with cheese, Virginia ham, and collards) and wiggly poached eggs deposited on stone-ground grits swimming in stewed tomatoes. Other places serving organic eggs include ORGANIC HARVEST CAFÉ (253 East 53rd Street, 212-421-6444), JOSIE'S (300 Amsterdam Avenue, 212-769-1212), PARK LUNCHEONETTE (334 Driggs Avenue, Brooklyn, 718-383-3571), and CUP DINER & BAR(35-01 36th Street, Astoria, Queens, 718-937-2322).
Mexican cafés run by real Mexicans know that eggs are not just for breakfast anymore, and the range of choices at places like Red Hook's EL HUIPIL (116A Sullivan Street, Brooklyn, 718-855-4548) includes huevos à la Mexicana (scrambled with tomatoes, onions, and jalapeños), huevos con chorizo (with crumbled sausage), and huevos con nopales y rajas (with cactus and roasted peppers). A similarly broad selection is available at SAN FRANCISCO DE ASIS (1779 Lexington Avenue, 212-427-4440), TULCINGO DEL VALLE (665 Tenth Avenue, 212-262-5173), and VIVA MEXICO (3913 Fifth Avenue, Brooklyn, 718-853-0707).
Of course, seafood in general, and fish in particular, have maintained an aura of sanctimonious healthfulness, partly because fish contains varying amounts of omega-3 fatty acids. These long-chain organic acids with an even number of carbon atoms are close chemical cousins of the dreaded trans fats, but omega-3 fatty acids are believed to lower blood cholesterol. Other sources of these magical compoundsor at least alpha-linolenic acid, which may convert to omega-3 in the human bodyinclude flaxseed, canola oil, walnuts, tofu, and hemp seeds, so you'd better stop cleaning your stash so carefully. The current mania for fish is reflected at expensive midtown seafood spots like AVRA, GRAND CENTRAL OYSTER BAR, and ESTIATORIO MILOS, but you can get a much better deal on local fish at Egyptian outer-borough and Jersey seafood spots, including BAHRY FISH MARKET (484 Bay Ridge Avenue, Brooklyn, 718-680-8135), where whole fish are displayed on ice in the front window and the baba is lip-smackingly laced with pickle juice. At SABRY'S (24-25 Steinway Street, Astoria, Queens, 718-721-9010), you can dispel the salutary effects of omega-3 in one of the nearby hookah parlors; MORGAN SEAFOOD (2801 Kennedy Boulevard, Jersey City, New Jersey, 201-792-2400), a few blocks south of the Journal Square PATH stop, is long on Alexandrian atmosphere.
Pigging out can be good for you.
photo: Tamara Rosenblum
A new way to enjoy fish, and one that provides regularity-restoring roughage in the bargain, is Baja, California, fish tacos, which have developed into a major food fad here over the last few months. (I, for one, am willing to consider them among the healthiest of meals.) PAMPANO, the upscale Mexican joint partly owned by Plácido Domingo, does a wonderful fish taco at its fast-food stall called POMPANO TAQUERIA (Crystal Palace food court, 805 Third Avenue, 212-751-4545), sided with piquant and freshly made sauces that may be slathered ad libitum. The guacamole is well worth ordering too, as much for the size of the order as for its creamy, cool taste. Good fish tacos are to be had at LA ESQUINA (106 Kenmare Street, 212-646-1333), a lean-to near the old police headquarters on Centre Street that grills its fillet in plain view before tucking it into a soft corn tortilla.
MERCADITO (179 Avenue B, 212-529-6490; 100 Seventh Avenue, 212-647-0830), too, does a mean fish taco, and so does the newly opened TACO CHULO (318 Grand Street, Brooklyn, 718-302-2485), mincing the fish and tossing it with fresh herbs. The latter placecreated by former employees of Angelica Kitchenhas distinguished itself from other upscale taquerias by offering a plethora of vegetarian choices on its taco-centric menu, and concocts one of the city's only versions of the Tex-Mex classic chile con queso. However, it takes the recipe slightly upscale by deploying Velveeta instead of the usual mystery cheese food product, then stirring in the canned Rotel chiles. You can bet there are plenty of trans fats in the Velveeta, thoughif you're taking this pep talk seriously. Miniaturized tacos in the style of Mexico City's taquerias can be acquired at the STANTON SOCIAL (99 Stanton Street, 212-995-0099), where three-to-a-plate fish taquitos are heaped with mango salsa, making a satisfying appetizer. Award for best fish tacos, though, goes to newcomer CENTRICO (211 West Broadway, 212-431-0700), in the old Layla space in Tribeca, where the pair of swordfish taquitos comes heaped with a finely diced cucumber-and-mango salsa and microgreens.
It's obvious enough which foods are good for you, even with the patchwork of truths and half-truths and outright falsehoods we've been fed. Who can argue with the healthiness of the hummus at HUMMUS PLACE (109 St. Marks Place, 212-529-9198; 99 MacDougal Street, 212-533-3089) or CHICKPEA (23 Third Avenue, 212-254-9500) or the baba ghanoush at SALUTE (63-42 108th Street, Rego Park, Queens, 718-275-6860), a Bukharan diner in Rego Park formerly known as Salut? Americanization proceeds apace. Or the eggplant dip at MEZE (6601 13th Avenue, Brooklyn, 718-234-MEZE), a chunky mélange of dark and light parts dressed mainly with lemon and olive oil? Dippered with warm, torn pitas right out of the oven, what could be more healthy?
Or a cool bowl of purple-onion-laced Peruvian shrimp ceviche from LA POLLADA DE LAURA (102-03 Northern Boulevard, East Elmhurst, Queens, 718-426-7818), or an equally good snack of fish crudo from Long Island sources dressed with fruity olive oil and a fresh herb or two from ESCA(402 West 43rd Street, 212-564-7272), or even an Uruguayan-style bife de chorizo steak done rare and sided with fried yuca from LA ESQUINA CRIOLLA (94-67 Corona Avenue, Corona, Queens, 718-699-5579), or a pasta done al cartoccio ("in a bag") at ROBERTO'S(603 Crescent Avenue, Bronx, 718-733-9503), dotted with porcini mushrooms and shared among friends. I think it will turn out that the trick to healthy living is to vary your dining habits as much as possible, free-ranging over New York's culinary landscape like so many barnyard chickens and bravely, without apologies, eating pretty much what you like. But maybe in slightly smaller quantities . . .