Sunday, September 24, 2017

My take on the Times Union / Upstate Magazine 50 Essential Restaurants

The Times Union has put out the inaugural issue of Upstate Magazine - in which it features a list of, "50 Essential Restaurants" in the Capital District. By this point, it seems that most people seem to agree that these sorts of lists are always flawed, no matter they are compiled.

Everything is so relative. Where you are, where you have been. It's actually kind of interesting to compare lists like these when they are put together by people who live or grew up in Albany vs Troy vs Latham vs Clifton Park and so on.

What I find interesting - which probably isn't the right word - is the use of the word essential.  What exactly does that mean? Of the essence? So what does that mean? "the intrinsic nature or indispensable quality of something, especially something abstract, that determines its character". Reading into this has kind of shifted my thoughts a bit on what this list means, or rather - what it should mean. And I am not sure how effective Upstate Magazines list is. So I made my own.

This isn't a list of the best restaurants. This isn't a list of my favorite restaurants - which is a decidedly different thing than 'best'. This is a list of places that provide an example of what food culture is in the Capital District. It is this place, in this moment. It is reflective of where I grew up, where I have lived, where I have worked, where I have gone to school. The people I have known, my interests culturally. I have been to every place on this list - and while I don't love them all, they all serve a purpose. There are places that I enjoy that are not on here and places I'm not particularly in love with that are. These are all cemented in my life in the Capital District in one way or another - and to me, they are all essential.

In no particular order:

Ala Shanghai - Like it or not, they really brought soup dumplings into the mainstream in this area. Sometimes good, often times not. But always worth a shot.
Shining Rainbow - Go with someone who speaks Mandarin, and be thankful you did.
Plum Blossom - Great shitty Chinese place if you are dining in and admiring its dining room. Don't leave without ordering classic Chinese Restaurant cocktails from its bar.
Mings Wok - Absolutely nothing separates this from any other Chinese Take Out - but its the one I've ordered from maybe more than any other. I'm particularly fond of their Chicken Fried Rice with lots of extra 'spicy'.
Celadon Thai - Arguably the best Thai in the area, although everyone seems to find one closest to where they live or work and latches onto it as a favorite. It is a pretty standard gringo Thai menu, with everything you might expect and nothing you wouldn't. It's just all done rather nicely.
Sushi Tei - Not unlike Yoshi Sushi in Latham, the sushi here can be great. But it isn't always. What I gravitate towards is the homey Japanese stuff lurking around on the menu. Things like the Age Dashi Tofu, Nabeyaki Udon, and Katsu-Don. It's probably worth mentioning this is not affiliated with any other Sushi Tei in the Capital District.
Vans Vietnamese / Saigon Springs - I'd typically say these two are interchangeable because of the nearly identical menus, however, most recent visits to Van's tell me it's worth driving north for Saigon Springs. I almost always get grilled pork over rice and then douse it with the nuoc cham. 
Oaxaquena Triqui - Still the new kid on the block, but worthy of mention because of the relative scarcity of 'real' Mexican food in the Capital District. Like La Mexicana, its hit or miss...but you can finally try the fairly mild cricket taco you have always wanted.
La Mexicana - Maybe the most hit or miss restaurant on this list. We have narrowed it down to only going on Sunday's - which seems to be prep day? or when the good cooks are working? I dont know. I haven't tried the menudo - something I would reserve for places known for their menudo, that is unless you enjoy eating shit flavored soup. I almost always get a tlayuda because its essentially a bit of everything. I've had legitimately great tlayudas and ones so bad I couldn't finish it (if you know me, this is a VERY rare occurrence). FYI - Don't fall for the so-called "al pastor".
El Mariachi - A real Albany institution. Going here is almost always a painful experience because of the awful service, but you can't beat a warm night on the patio with some queso and a pitcher of margaritas. The poblano soup too, if you're fancy. 
Karavalli - When they first opened (the Latham location), this place was fairly mind-blowing for my Shalimar palate. It was great for a long time and only began to suffer in quality when they opened additional locations. I go maybe once a year at this point and always wish it was better. Still the only place locally that I know you can get lasooni gobi - one of my favorites. The weird tamarind appetizer is also worth getting.
Tara Kitchen Um...its good? Sit in front so you can watch them cook the tagines.
Ali Baba - Get the lavash and go big or go home. Try the Iskender Kabob, it's good enough I haven't really tried much else. The celery root salad and carrot salad are both really good too. We always take some home with us.
Mamoun's Falafel - It ain't that good and it ain't that bad. Used to be where you would go to get some good vegetarian food when you couldn't stand the thought of going into Shades of Green. 
Yono's - OG fancy pants chef. You can wax on about all he has done for the community and the food scene, but I sure won't.
Pecks Arcade - Well I worked here for 2.5 years or so, so it's hard for me to have any credibility here, but I'll leave it at this. It's where you go when you want intense food with bold flavors, made by people who are obsessed with food, served by people obsessed with service, who all work for people obsessed with all things hospitality.
Cafe Capriccio - Ultimate fancy pants Italian with quite a legacy. Old man teaches young men how to cook and they go off and cook good food. Sit in the bar area. Get the squid ink. Get the eggplant. Hope there is live music and it will be magic.  
Dans Place Two/Dirty Dans - Bring cash, practice your good manners, and do not under any circumstances swear. Best greasy spoon in upstate NY and a perfect place to go after a rough night in the student ghetto. 
Cafe Madison - One of the few places in the Capital District with a true signature item - and one that is actually good. Get the oatmeal raspberry pancakes. I have never been drunker than I have been at this restaurant.
Duncan's Dairy Bar - They make a lot of the shit here - which frankly I never believe most diners that say, 'bakery on premises'. Fucking seasonal - unbeknownst to me - which resulted in me going to the truly, truly awful Country View Diner. 
Bob's Diner - This is a truly trashy diner. And it's great. Always open. This is where we went to smoke cigarettes and eat cheap fried food in high school. Pretty much only get the breakfast. 
City Beer Hall - This is what you get when there is a good chef in the kitchen at a bar. Skip the free pizza. No matter how drunk you are.  
Bombers Burrito Bar - I remember getting food here before punk shows at Valentines. Fake chicken burrito forever. It was never good, but it was awesome. Then the bar came and ruined everything. I still go every few years and get the tofu fries. 
The Orchard Tavern - This is where you go for family pizza in Albany. Its counterpart in Troy would be Red Front or Testo's - although the pizza is a whole different beast. Daniel Berman will wax on about the importance of Tavern Pies at any opportunity, so if you want to know more have a look over there. 
Ralphs Tavern - Another tavern, though it's on the outskirts of Albany. In fact, I'm pretty sure it is in Colonie. People get food other than pizza here, but I don't know about that. Lots of people gush about their mozzarella sticks, which are good - but not nearly as good as Scubbers.
Scubbers - Go for mozzarella sticks with raspberry. Get wings if you want passable wings. Skip everything else. Scubbers used to be in Newton Plaza, and my parents would order takeout from them every Thursday night after putting us kids to bed. Five year old me caught wind of this and would 'wake up' every Thursday night after they got back with the food and I would get a mozzarella stick.
Graney's - Pizza fries are worth trying but they will ruin your life later. The bar food here is surprisingly good, the crowd not so much - a mix of jocks and ACP(HS) brats.
The Ruck - I remember when this place wasn't popular. I used to get trashed here and eat an inhuman amount of wings. Now you have to exercise some caution to avoid all sorts of crowds - RPI ass holes, beer snob ass holes, Troy ass holes, and so on. The wings are REALLY good, and if it's not crowded it can be fun to belly up and bullshit with whoever is bartending.
Esperanto's - I'll admit, I occasionally get a dough girl and maybe dough cousin when I'm sober. The conventional wisdom is to get blackout drunk on Caroline St and sober up with some dough boys. They are good.
Teds Fish Fry - I love everything about this place. I always went to the Latham one and all the other locations feel like imposters to me. Figure out your order before you get to the cashier. Study their lingo. Burgers with the works are great. Fish fry with tartar or chili are both great, but I love how they drown the thing with tartar. Onion rings and fries are both great (add your own salt), but they do not survive a trip even to the car - so it's best to eat them immediately.
Famous Lunch - I prefer the breakfast here to the hot dogs, which are no better and no worse than Gus's, which is where I go for those hot dogs. You will probably feel uncomfortable, or like an outsider the first few times here, but that's OK. It's also impossibly cheap.
Gus's - The hot dogs are what they are. Get them with the works. The sauce is bitter and weird, but you'll grow to love it. The sausage burger is good. I like eating inside. Admire the paper plates stapled to the wall. Someday, my plate will be up there.
Mac's Drive-In - You know...I like this place. It's your typical drive-in food. Nothings going to change your life. The fries are hand cut and pretty good for the Capital District. They have daily food specials - some sell out by lunchtime. They're all a good value. The ice cream is also pretty good - and made in-house. If you're in Watervliet...you don't really have a lot of choices.
Cardona's Market - Get some great subs and eat a bunch of samples while you're waiting for them to be made. I'm pretty sure they make everything - or buy it from someone who does. Some people say Andy's is better, but Cardona's was my first. 
Roma's Market - Solid subs. No difference between the two locations. Get olives if you're a boss & don't break your tooth. 
Lyle's Hoagies - A place that really understands the bread-to-filling ratio on a sub. My standard was roast beef + provolone + Russian dressing. Double meat, double cheese. 
Gershon's - Are there any other Jewish style deli's in the Capital District? This place has been around forever
The Submaker - Cheeseburger sub with bacon and mayo. Textural bliss. This place is awesome.
Lombardo's - Old school fancy pants Italian, Albany style.
Lo Porto's - Old school fancy pants Italian, Troy style
Perecca's - Skip the tomato pie, which is quite good - but better across the street at Civitello's, and get any sandwiches they have. Roasted reds & Fontina is my favorite. Mufaletta is great too.
Civitello's - GET THE TOMATO PIE. Get whatever ice they have. Get a Salami Sandwich if you're hungry. Eat there. I could cry, remembering how perfect this place is.
Bella Napoli - Your run of the mill shitty Italian bakery. But you cannot live in the Capital District and never go here. The doughnuts are actually really good if they're fresh. 
Mrs. Londons - A legit great french bakery. One of my mentors in Chicago - who is a World Pastry Champion, James Beard award winner, honestly one of the worlds great pastry chefs excitedly asked me if I had ever been to Mrs. Londons after finding out where I was from.
DeFazzio's - The pizza, unfortunately, is kind of hit or miss now. But when it's good, its the best you can get in the Capital District. 
Red Front - Its hard to imagine a place I love more than Red Front, and if you're no stranger to this blog - you already know that. Get a pizza. Get a pitcher of beer. Eat there. Hope that its busy.
Testo's - Like Red Fronts uglier twin.
I Love Pizza - The OG pizza slice. Everyone has a story - good and bad - about this place. Not the best corner in Troy. Get a 2 liter, a fresh pepperoni pizza, shave some garlic on it while it's still hot and have a pizza party
The BearsThe Bears is to restaurants what David Lynch is to film. 
HattiesNot many places in the Capital District with a reputation like Hatties. The chicken really is very good - though I probably wouldn't stray too far from it.