Sunday at 4pm on WNET/Thirteen, Gourmet magazine’s Diary of a Foodie explores the best global fast food—from a tripe sandwich vendor in Florence, to a wanton noodle shop in Hong Kong. So we asked Ruth Reichl, editor in chief of Gourmet, and executive producer of Diary of a Foodie, about her favorite fast food in New York, around the world, and at home.
Where are your favorite fast food places in New York?
Well, I’m a huge fan of Gray’s Papaya; it’s one of my really guilty treats. I think you kind of have to be a New Yorker to like the papaya drink, but I even like that. I love the crispness of the bun with the hot dog; I just think it’s in perfect proportion. I take it with onion sauce and mustard. I can eat a ridiculous number of them.
There are lots of places around my office in Times Square, so there’s a halal curried chicken cart at 43rd Street and 6th Avenue. I get white rice, the curried chicken with vegetables and extra red sauce, no white sauce.
There’s also a little Indian cab driver steam table place called Minar [138 W.46th St]. I like their dosa—there’s a really hot one that I like. Before they fill it with potatoes, they put a lot of red peppers inside.
And I wouldn’t exactly call it fast food, but I love Momofuku Ssam Bar. I would eat there every meal if I could. I can’t resist the pork buns, and in summer, the corn with bacon and miso butter. He does this thing with rice sticks and pork that’s great and I love the whipped tofu with uni. And I love the ssam; I really like everything there. It’s like once you’ve had the greatest hits you never have room for anything new.
At Grand Sichuan—you know, they have tons of them all over the city—they have this dish of chile peppers with fermented black beans that I am completely addicted to. It’s just jalapeños sautéed with fermented black beans and garlic, and you eat it over rice. It’s listed under Mao’s favorite foods on the menu. It’s completely addictive and wonderful.
But, you know, I just love this kind of eating.
What do you love about it?
If you live a reservation life, it’s really nice to just go eat when you want, when you’re hungry. And a lot of these places we’re talking about are umami-blessed—the flavors are just really intense.
I really do love eating at those food carts. There’s something so wonderful about walking by and having the aroma capture you. And people have this thing about “Oh my god are they sanitary?” You know, these cooks are standing out in front of the same building for years. The one I told you about has been in the same spot since I was working at the New York Times. I don’t think they’re poisoning people! And these are real people cooking food for you, from their hands to yours. It’s the same thing with sushi—you’re sitting there and taking it from their hands.
And what about fast food worldwide, any places that come to mind?
Well, this is my ideal, and I don’t know why no one is doing this in New York: In Palermo, you can get the single most perfect tuna sandwich on face of Earth. The guy has fresh rolls and cans of tuna packed in oil and he drizzles oil on the bread then he puts tuna on with fresh tomatoes and lettuce. This incredible old man makes it and gives it to you. It is so incredibly delicious, you can’t believe it. The only thing you can do after you eat one is to eat another.
And I love that tripe cart in Florence that we have on the show.
Singapore has some of the best fast food on the face of the earth. At the Oxford Circus hawker center, there’s a guy who makes something called carrot cake (they call daikon “carrot”). He sautés it with lots of other stuff, and makes a cake out of it that’s completely wonderful. All the food at the Oxford hawker center is great.
And in the Bangkok market there are people who sell black sticky rice with mango and coconut, which is so wonderful. The colors of the black rice and the mango is so beautiful. It’s the perfect dessert.
What are the best ingredients for fast food at home?
Well, I always have a refrigerator filled with all kinds of Chinese and Thai chile paste and garlic and fermented black bean paste and oyster sauce. And I always have rice noodles, and some ground frozen pork in freezer. In 10 minutes you can put together a very satisfying Asian noodle thing with those ingredients. Or, vegetables sautéed with oyster sauce, that’s an instant delicious meal.
I also always have frozen homemade chicken stock, eggs and Parmesan cheese, and then you’ve got instant stracciatella. You know, in a pinch there’s nothing better than Parmesan cheese. Noodles, butter, Parmesan. And eggs, as long as you have an egg, you have dinner.