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FOOD ARCHIVES NYC ARCHIVES The Trencherman

The Trencherman: A Tale of Two Coffee Shops

I’ve long held that there’s an inverse relationship between the quality of coffee and the vibrancy of where it’s served. Caffe Reggio is proof point one. There has never been a better time for high-quality coffee in the South Village. In the pocket bound by Sixth Avenue and Broadway and Macdougal and Houston, the blocks are littered with third-wave espresso bars like Joe Coffee and Think Coffee and Third Rail and Stumptown. From behind the battlements of La Marzocco machines, baristas pull single-origin shots, filling the pre-warmed porcelain demitasses with intricate latte art patterns made with your choice of oat, soy, whole, or skim milk. In a carefully imitated simulacra of Scandinavia or Seattle, one sips the finest shade-grown fair-trade Ethiopian beans $5 can buy.

And yet, there is no worse time for coffeehouses in the Village. To walk past any of the latter day coffee shops is to peek inside the hive farm of capitalism. Man and machine peer at each other as equals, connected like anglerfish, one fueled by the city grid and the other by macchiati. The air is stuffy with email and commerce but bereft of conversation. But a coffeehouse — a true coffeehouse as opposed to a coffee shop, as Nancy Groce, senior folk life specialist at the Library of Congress tells me — is an open space, a place to exchange ideas, to foment movements. Everything from Lloyd’s of London to the French Revolution was planned in a coffeehouse. But where are the revolutions being plotted today? Where is the poetry writ?

Allen Ginsberg (left, with beard) and Gregory Corso (center) at the Five Spot Cafe in 1964.

The ghost of Gregory Corso haunts the small and unsteady marble-topped tables of Caffe Reggio on Macdougal Street. The youngest of the Beats — and the only Greenwich Village native of the lot — sits in the oldest of the coffee shops, grousing from the corner table, beneath a plaster bust of Mozart and the original Pavoni espresso machine from 1927, a stainless-steel colossus from which protrude decorative bronze figures of cherubim riding chimera. He raises his voice, just as he did with Allen Ginsberg, another Reggio habitué, to declaim. But this time it isn’t iambs about radiant brains and apple deaf that spill forth from his spectral maw but invective. “Stop laying your Village nostalgia on me!” the late poet howls, “Drag your mind from the gutter of years gone.”

He’s shouting at me through the years as I search for the coffeehouses of yore, those hotbeds of bad coffee and counterculture, where Dylan and Van Ronk and all the others found their voices, where from the smoke-filled seats, the Voice’s voices of Norman Mailer and Seymour Krim were once raised. But I’m having a hard time hearing them. Most of the old places are long gone, many upcycled to house some NYU function. Others have just fucked off into condos. The Gaslight is a cocktail bar. Cafe Wha? has become just another dive with live music and nachos called Whachos. The original location of Gerde’s Folk City is at least the Hebrew Union College which, as far as these things go, might be a mitzvah.

Clockwise from left: Cafe Wha? circa 1970; A menu for Caffe Reggio from 1959; the same coffeehouse from the street; Joe Coffee at 141 Waverly Place.

It’s hard to hear the ghosts of the past at Reggio anyway. They blast Brahms at maniacally high levels, imbuing all that transpires within its sepia-toned walls, hung heavy with brooding Renaissance paintings, with pathos. All the small tables are occupied. At 10 p.m., cappuccinos predominate, which makes sense, as one of Reggio’s claims to fame is that they served the first cappuccino in America. Though it may be the first, it is far from the best. Leave the microfoam and the rosettes to the bourgeoisie. These are frothy formless things with a dash of cinnamon on top. The best part about them are the ancient orange-and-white cups they come in with Caffe Reggio written on the side. They don’t make burnt ochre like that anymore. 

Caffe Reggio, a Village staple since 1927.

Through the piano chords snatches of conversation can be caught with a well-attuned ear. And it should be, for eavesdropping is rewarded here. An angel-headed skin-and-bones guy has folded his legs criss-cross applesauce and sits opposite a much younger woman. Daughter, lover, student, friend, who knows? They sip their coffees and she tells him of a recent spiritual journey she took with a shaman in Edison, NJ. “Cosmic,” he says. Next to them, a pair of aesthetes, the only two to have braved the Reggio’s savory offerings, drink glasses of Sangiovese, stab penne flecked with pesto — one of the six pastas for $12 on offer — and chat, in French, about a recent cello concerto. The both of them wear shawl-collared sweaters, characters in a literary memoir as yet to be written. I stab into my tiramisu, a sodden square shoved haphazardly into a glass sundae dish. The periphery is thawed, sweet and yielding, but the center is still frozen. I chew on an icy ladyfinger and I hear Corso’s cackle in my ear. “That’s what you get!” he laughs, “for wanting time to stand still!”

A few blocks down Macdougal, another of the old boys is still buzzing. Like Caffe Reggio or Monte’s or Carbone né Rocco’s, Caffe Dante is a holdout from when the Village was Italian, a survivor not just of Corso’s generation but of his parents’ generation, too. After the paesanos cleared out, it too was once filled with the uproar of poets and prophets. And now it is filled again. I’m old enough to remember when Caffe Dante was what it was, an old bakery with a shell-game of desserts. There were like fifteen on the menu but there only seemed to be five ever available. It was a crap shoot but at least it was a place you could sit.

No room for “espresso”: The recently-upgraded Caffe Dante

In 2015, Caffe Dante reopened with new ownership, a new chef and a heavy focus on handmade pasta and artisanal cocktails. Both are superlative. Under the direction of Australian bartender Naren Young, Dante was just named 16th of the 50 Best Bars in the world. The cocktail list is treated with appropriate gravitas. It is handed over by bearded men with tattooed hands atop a heavy brass clipboard. The offerings are appropriately arcane, expensive, and expansive. The food — from a quivering sphere of burrata chaperoned by figs to handmade orecchiette with sausage and broccoli rabe to a garlicky skillet of chicken parm, tranches of breast under a duvet of cheese — is top-notch. The cocktail list favors the negroni, of which there are a dozen variations, including Unlikely Negroni, a negroni with all sorts of far-out shit in it like pineapple shrub, chili, and banana.

Dante, as it is now known, is certain of what it is. It has a purpose and a mission. With that comes both an excellence absent from Reggio and a momentum, too. It is the familiar hustle of commerce, of turns, of running a restaurant. We know this rhythm, recognize it, from all aspects of our life. Time cuts through space, and space feels tight. So we cram into coffee shops to burn through emails and approach the Dantean gates pregnant with expectation and purpose.

Sitting at the bar at Dante, I stare into my quickly draining Old Fashioned and think, you and me both, buddy, you and me both. I bemoan that I’ll never run into Corso or Ginsberg or Dylan, and if I’m sitting next to the next generation’s bards, they ain’t talking to me here. But then I hear voice, not the bartender’s. “How’s that chicken parm?” it asks. It’s a neighbor. His name is Bob. He’s an accountant from Encinitas, California, in town to clear up the estate of his mother-in-law. “It’s pretty good,” I tell him. We talk about mutual funds and real estate for a spell, how houses in Encinitas that look over the sea cost millions more than those that don’t. “People just want to look out into space,” he says. We both gaze at the bottled spirits behind the bar and sit in silence. It isn’t quite poetry but perhaps it’s close enough.

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All Hail the Punjabi Hero at Tastee Curritos!

The chicken achari sub at Tastee Curritos.

Don’t you just love fusion? You fall asleep for a moment, and it leaps up and bites you on the ass. Such was the case with the chicken achari hero at MacDougal Street newcomer Tastee Curritos.

The chile-dotted innards of the chicken achari sub

The idea is pure genius. Most Punjabi chicken curries in Indian restaurants are hobbled by being made with skinless, boneless, and boring breast-meat chicken. But put the same thing in a sandwich, and it turns out to make wonderful filling.

You can get such subs as chicken keema, butter chicken (a/k/a chicken makhani), paneer tikka masala, and Punjabi chole (chick peas), the latter two vegetarian.

FiTR tried the chicken achari and it was fiery and pungent with mixed pickle. At $6, it was almost sharable in size. We also tried a scrambled egg wrap, which at $4 was a great deal. It was tasty, but not as tasty as the chicken achari sub.

Tastee Curritos (snappy name, though sounding more Mexican than Indian) replaces an earlier Indian chip shop, and has retained its signature dish — a masala fries that sprinkles a spice mixture on regular french fries, to great effect.

Tastee Curritos
99 MacDougal Street
917-262-0678

Open at least till 3 a.m., seven days

For the same $6 at Tastee Curritos, you can get any filling in a wrap rather than a sub.

The unda (egg) wrap is only $4.

The only other branch of Tastee Curritos is in Iselin, NJ.

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Sno-Balls Spot Imperial Woodpecker Pops Up Again

Walk by Imperial Woodpecker’s new digs on MacDougal, and you may get a free sample.

In a city that can’t get enough frozen treats in the summer, Imperial Woodpecker was a nearly unique presence on Seventh Avenue South last summer. It shaved New Orleans-style snow cones, deposited them in Chinese carryout cartons, and fielded an outlandish menu of strange, and very artificial, flavors. Organic they were not. Delicious they often were.

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The new location of Imperial Woodpecker on MacDougal Street

But just as we were getting used to it, Imperial Woodpecker mysteriously disappeared , leading us to describe it as a “pop-down.”

Now, the corpse has re-animated, right in the middle of MacDougal’s cheap eats strip just south of the NYU campus, and with an expanded menu.

Fork in the Road picked one of the new flavors, cherimoya, and sampled it. The name refers to a tropical fruit also known as a custard apple. The sno-ball was a very pale green, and the flavor somewhat bubble-gummy. Still, it was refreshing, and we hope to eat our way through more of the new flavors in the future — especially when the temperature soars, and you want something less rich and creamy than ice cream, gelato, or fro-yo.

Prepare for this one to disappear unexpectedly, too.

Imperial Woodpecker
124 MacDougal Street
251-366-7777

The cherimoya sno-ball, served in a Chinese carryout container

Next: The new menu

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The new menu includes several new flavors.

Check out some postings from last year’s glorious Frozen Treat Fortnight

and

Tejal Rao’s Our 10 Best Ice Creams in NYC

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Turkiss Finally Opens on MacDougal, But Can It Replace Yatagan?

Turkiss rocks two twirling doner cylinders, not one.

Yatagan, near the corner of Bleecker and MacDougal, was for over a decade the city’s foremost purveryors of doner kebab, the Turkish mystery meat cooked in a vertical rotisserie, and sliced flamboyantly with a giant sword into a pita or platter. It’s the cousin of Greek gyro and Middle Eastern shawarma.

Turkiss’s doner kebab sandwich

Right in the window of Yatagan, a giant composed cylinder of lamb attracted late-night revelers not only with smell and the sight of roasting meat, but with its sheer size. At $5.50, the price was right, and the pita sandwich was mainly meat.

Newcomer Turkiss replaced Yatagan with another Turkish establishment, which handily keeps the ethnic balance of MacDougal Street alive. The new place has an even more limited menu, featuring felafel, doner kebabs, Anatolian meatballs, and various dips and salads. It boasts two doner kebabs — chicken as well as lamb. You can get either in a pita (or both, as Fork in the Road prefers) for $6.50.

Turkiss’s pita is as fully stuffed as Yatagan’s, but, to this tongue at least, the lamb was less flavorful, and, of the red and white sauces offered (you should ask for both), the red was less spicy than Yatagan’s — in fact, it seemed like pure tomato sauce.

Still, a great late-night nosh, at a bargain price. And a cleaned-up premises. (Open till 1 a.m. weekdays, 4 a.m. weekends)

The slit-open sandwich reveals the contents is about 95 percent meat and poultry. We would have actually preferred a little more roughage.

Turkiss
104 MacDougal Street
646-398-7849

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Slice & Co. Will Soon Feed Pizza to the Drunken Masses on MacDougal Street

MacDougal Street isn’t short on cheap eats — check out Our Man Sietsema’s excellent roundup of bites — but for those seeking a farinaceous fix, a new brick-oven pizza spot is rolling onto the block. Signage for an outpost of Slice & Co. is now up at 95 MacDougal Street.

While there’s no question that the block loves its drunk-food options, it’s a bit of a gamble to set up shop within steps of Percy’s $1 Pizza, which has been deemed the best $1 slice in town. Still, more pizza in Greenwich Village is better than less pizza.

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Lucky 777 Chili Parlor Now Feeding MacDougal Street

Eateries specializing in single foodstuffs are all the rage these days, from the various meatball peddlers to the ever-growing number of grilled-cheese shops. And now comes Lucky 777 Chili (116 MacDougal Street, 212-777-2422), a shop devoted to, yep, different kinds of chili.

According to its website, Lucky 777 Chili Company was established in 2007 in North Salem, New York, and the name refers to the recipe for its original pork chili, made with seven porks (ground meats and sausages), seven sauces, and seven spices.

Located just a few storefronts down from another single-foodstuff eatery, Macaroni Macaroni, this new, neon-lit offshoot on MacDougal offers a turkey chili and a vegetarian chili made with seven different types of beans in addition to the classic pork option. Small cups are $5, while larger bowls are $9, and all the chilis come with unlimited toppings ranging from sour cream to nacho chips to tomatoes.

We decided to sample the famed pork-based chili, because how can you resist seven different kinds of pork? Although Texans will be dismayed to find beans in the chili, we’ve got to say that we enjoyed the savory snack, which was well-seasoned and full of flavor. It was somewhat on the sweet side and maybe not quite as spicy as other chilis out there, but on a blustery afternoon it hit the spot. Looks like someone has Lady Luck on their side.

Lots of neon lights, plus chili
Lots of neon lights, plus chili
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Turkiss to Replace Yatagan on MacDougal Street

Newcomer Turkiss is nearing completion, with a brilliant tile interior and an extensive doner station.

For nearly two decades, Yatagan was the cheap-eats capital of Greenwich Village. Fork in the Road wrote a paean to it in 2008, and even by then it had shown up on several Village Voice Best Of lists over the years.

The specialty of the house was a $5.50 pita sandwich stuffed with more doner kebab (the humongous cylinder of grease-dripping herbed and composed meat that twirled in the window) than the pita could well hold, leading the whole sandwich to rupture and spill its meat, vegetable matter, yogurt, and hot chili paste all over the foil. And you really wouldn’t care, because it was so good.

Sure there was falafel, other kebabs, and eggplant dishes galore, but it was the doner kebab that always brought us back to Yatagan.

When it closed nearly a year ago, we wondered what would replace it in the hurly-burly of the MacDougal Street restaurant scene, which includes 19 restaurants on the block Yatagan occupied, between Bleecker and West 3rd streets. Fork in the Road reported that a restaurant named Turkish Delish had put up a sign, touting itself as “Manhattan’s Cleanest Restaurant,” and taunting us with a menu that included a broader range of Turkic specialties than Yatagan offered, including manti (giant lamb dumplings), and chicken doner kebab, in addition to the usual lamb.

That sign is gone, and work has been proceeding behind barricades. Now the wood is down, and a new facade has been revealed — with the equally awful name of Turkiss. Oh, well. The interior does indeed look like Manhattan’s cleanest restaurant, with gleaming tiles throughout, a long counter, and a bank of doner installations.

Anyway, here’s the Facebook page that’s already up. We’ll be reporting on the opening; stay tuned.

The doner kebab at Yatagan was once irresistible.

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This Week’s Specials: Halloween Treats, Day of the Dead Meals, Mario Batali

And now, a look back at what was on the menu here at Fork in the Road this week.

So that's why they call it MacDougal Street!
So that’s why they call it MacDougal Street!

We revealed Our 10 Best Things to Eat on MacDougal Street.

Drink a Black Eye at Forty Four at the Royalton this Halloween.

Wondering where to eat for Dia de los Muertos? Here are some ideas.

Cooper’s Craft & Kitchen has a pretty mean mac ‘n’ cheese.

Time to sharpen that sweet tooth: Here are the 10 greatest Halloween candies of all time.

Speaking of sweet treats, the Zucker Bakery is turning out tasty rugelach and other goodies.

Brad Thomas Parsons wrote the book on bitters. Literally.

Mario Batali talked up his new cookbook and his new role on daytime TV.

The man in the orange Crocs also shared his recipe for Leg of Lamb in a Clementine Crust.

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Our 10 Best Things to Eat on MacDougal Street in Greenwich Village, 2011

The four-cheese mac-and-cheese at Macaroni Macaroni is engagingly crunchy.

If you haven’t been on the stretch of MacDougal Street between Houston and West 4th in a while, you need to pay a visit. This student haunt and historic refuge of bohos from John Reed to Bob Dylan has lately become the city’s biggest open-air food court, with a whopping 34 dining establishments, most of them on the middle block north of Bleecker. And many of the eats are incredibly cheap, too. So put on your bib and dive in!

10. Four Cheese Mac-and-Cheese at Macaroni Macaroni — This place can’t decide whether it wants to be a pizza parlor or a mac-and-cheese place. No matter, the simpler mac-and-cheese formulations are by far the best, including the one illustrated above, which contains four cheeses (cheddar, muenster, romano, and Velveeta — well, three cheeses, at least). The top is nicely crumbed for extra crunch, and the smallest size makes a nice lunch. 120 MacDougal Street, 212-260-2653

9. Hamburger at Minetta Tavern — There are two hamburgers, of course, at this Keith McNally bar and restaurant formed from the ruins of an ancient Greenwich Village Italian tavern. Go for the Minetta Burger, rather than the more expensive Black Label, and enjoy a bulbous, juicy creation topped with aged cheddar and oodles of caramelized onions. Go early or very late, or it’s difficult to get into this tumultuous space, which looks so quiet and innocent from the outside. 113 MacDougal Street, 212-475-3850

8. Vegetarian Platter at Mamoun’s Falafel — This beloved dining stall was the first to bring falafel sandwiches to the metropolitan area, founded as the first branch of a New Haven, Connecticut, establishment in 1971. And budget dining in the city has never been the same. Our favorite meal here is the vegetarian platter, which allows a choice of three dishes, served with a tahini-dressed salad and pair of warm pitas. 119 MacDougal Street, 212-674-8685

Mamoun’s — Village cheap-eats stalwart since 1971

7. Sicilian Slice at Artichoke Pizza — We’ve already extolled the wonderful Sicilian slice at Artichoke Basille pizzeria, which now has several branches in downtown Manhattan. The square slice is glossed with olive oil, deploys great cheese and a sprightly tomato sauce, and is much better-tasting than the vaunted artichoke slice, which seems to be drowning in what might as well be canned cream of artichoke soup. 111 MacDougal Street, 646-278-6100

6. Masala French Fries at Chipsy — As with Pommes Frites in the East Village, the fried potato fingers are twice-fried in the Belgian manner, but, somehow, here they seem less greasy, and the potato inside has a finer texture. Skip the charge-added sauces, and have these french fries sprinkled with Indian masala powder, and you’ll have one of the city’s great cross-cultural snacks. 99 MacDougal Street, 212-244-7799

5. Spicy Brisket Bahn Mi at Saigon Shack — Brisket on a banh mi may sound like an odd idea, but it works perfectly at this combination bar, pho shop, and sandwich parlor. The meat has been long and lovingly stewed, much of the fat left intact for richness, and the usual pickled and shredded vegetables added, along with jalapeños at your discretion. It’s as if Katz’s Deli were located in Ho Chi Minh City. 114 MacDougal Street, 212-228-0588

4. Malai Chicken Roll at Thelewala — The explosion of places serving Indian urban street snacks has been a boon to the New York habit of walking and eating at the same time (and sometimes talking simultaneously on the cell phone, too). Thelewala cooks up the street food of Calcutta, and it’s no Black Hole — the Malai chicken roll is a splendid wrap-up of flatbread, pulled poultry, fried eggs, spices, and purple onions, and you won’t go away hungry. 112 MacDougal Street, 212-614-9100

3. Yellowtail and Avocado Crudo at Mermaid Oyster Bar — The most recent branch of the East Village Mermaid franchise comes alive at happy hour, when East Coast oysters cost just $1 apiece, and there are all sorts of drink specials, too. But what we enjoyed most was a yellowtail crudo: boxcars of raw fish interspersed with perfectly ripe avocado, for a terrain by turns squishy, briny, slippery, and firm. 79 MacDougal Street, 212-260-0100

2. Lamb Shawarma Sandwich at King Falafel — Though the late lamented Yatagan is gone from the block between Bleecker and West 3rd Street, the chevron of delicious greasy meat has been hoisted by King Falafel. The potentate twirls a shawarma cylinder of chewy lamb fragments (no composed meat here), cut with a generous hand into a bulging pita with roughage, tahini, and — at your request — a blistering hot sauce. 119 MacDougal Street, 212-674-8685

King Falafel also offers some impressive pastries.

1. Mallawah Press Toast at Creperie — This branch of the yellow-awninged chainlet inherited the brief menu of a previous place specializing in Israeli “press toast” — a flaky flatbread wrapped around a variety of ingredients, which is then pressed into groovy oblivion in a hot sandwich press. The mallawah features sliced egg, sharp olives, Swiss cheese, hot pepper sauce, and zaatar seasoning, and it’s a wonderful hammer blow to the tongue. 112 MacDougal Street, 212-253-6705

This unprepossessing premises offers our number-one thing to eat on MacDougal Street.

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Tomorrow: Our 10 Best Things to Eat on MacDougal Street

The Naked Cowboy: You’ll love his cheap bivalves at Mermaid Oyster Bar — but will that establishment make our top 10?

You may think of the three-block stretch of MacDougal between Washington Square and Houston as the recondite refuge of aging beats, hippies, and chess players, along with NYU students trolling for cheap beer. But over the last couple of years, this amazing stretch has filled up with excellent dining establishments, where the food is also often cheap.

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In fact, it now provides one of the greatest concentrations of good eats in the five boros, constituting a sort of open-air food court not unlike that of a North African bazaar in its color and vivacity.

So please, join us tomorrow bright and early for our guide to this supreme cheap-eats neighborhood.

Mermaid Oyster Bar offers $1 oysters during happy hour, in this case Naked Cowboys from Blue Island Shellfish Farms.