Getting COVID at your favorite restaurant
Plus a dinner for Frank Sinatra tribute artists, Chicago landmarks get a fresh look, and the Los Angeles Times 101.
The main thing I learned in December of 2021 is if you want to keep your newsletter weekly, don’t get COVID. A few days after returning to New York from visiting my family in Massachusetts for Thanksgiving, my wife and I both started to feel sick. Then we got worse. On Friday of that week, we tested positive for COVID. I don’t know if it was Omicron, but I like to imagine it was so I can be part of the zeitgeist. Both of us are vaccinated but hadn’t gotten our boosters yet. I was waiting until work slowed down since I figured the booster would knock me out for a day or two. Instead, I missed about two weeks and spent most of it watching extremely gentle Japanese food TV (I can’t recommend Midnight Diner and Samurai Gourmet enough).
The first question everyone asks when you tell them you got COVID is where do you think you got it. My wife and I spent the first few hours after our test results as amateur epidemiologists. There’s no way to be sure, but it seems likely we got it at a dinner with friends at a restaurant in Saugus, Massachusetts. I’m not going to name it, but you know the one. Another friend tested positive after the dinner (several others tested negative). While all of us were vaccinated, that part of Massachusetts is much more conservative and has had some of the highest infection rates in the region. Massachusetts doesn’t require vaccines to enter restaurants, so eating out in general in the Bay State is more dangerous.
The question now is when do we go back? This is one of my favorite restaurants in the world, so “never” isn’t really an option. We were planning to do another group dinner this upcoming week, but that’s not happening. The spring? Maybe outside in the summer? Thinking about it brings a tightness to my chest. When you tell folks you have COVID, you can *feel* the judgement emanating from even the most kind. The question “where did you get it?” seems coded as “what stupid risk did you take?” For some reason, I feel the same judgey feelings about this restaurant. But it’s not the restaurant's fault we got COVID! It’s a risk we knew we were taking when we went out, but probably not as explicitly as we should have. I suppose we could have skipped seeing our friends or not spent time in a place I love, but both us and the restaurant followed federal and state safety guidelines. We can’t all spend the rest of our lives locked inside.
That’s probably one reason the rise in Omicron feels so much scarier and despairing. I think if we all took a hard look in the mirror, a lot of us felt like COVID was something that other people dealt with now. We were vaccinated. We did what we were supposed to. People who hadn’t been careful were the ones who got COVID. It’s not a pretty thing to admit, but it became something that most of us don’t have to think about day-to-day. Obviously there are exceptions, but most of us don’t have someone immunocompromised in our close circle. Now, regardless, we are thinking about it and making day-to-day compromises again. We know a lot more than we did in March 2020, but it’s still scary and, somehow, feels more unfair this time.
I just want to get some crab rangoon with my friends. Is that too much to ask?
Enjoying Snack Cart? Forward this issue to a friend who loves food and tell them to subscribe. While you’re at it, wish them Happy Holidays!
Melissa Clark explores the concept of oysters’ “merroir”. Much like grapes and wine, oysters take on the characteristics of the area where they are grown. Oysters of the same species grown just a few hundred yards apart can taste radically different. I wonder if we’ll ever get to a place where we start growing for certain characteristics.
Article most people sent me in the past few weeks: This bananas review from travel writer Geraldine DeRuiter about her dinner at Bros, a restaurant in Lecce. Even sick, it’s been hard to miss the viral sensations this story generated. While reading it, I didn’t *love* the exuberant, all-caps style of prose, but it’s a great story. Any sympathy towards the restaurant was solidly quashed when the chef in charge responded in an arrogant and condescending manner that somehow also involved horse pictures. I’ve had a few experiences of absolutely terrible meals at supposedly-great restaurants, and frequently there’s a mix of guilt intermingled with the frustration. It’s easy to feel like you, the diner, are the one doing something wrong by not enjoying the meal a place that is famous for being great. In this case, the meal was so absurd the writer seems to have skipped that feeling.
I’ll never forget one of my own experiences like this (I’ve had a few). My family was dining at Arzak in San Sebastian and the dinner was a cavalcade of rudeness, confusion, and nonsense. The highlight was a course served on tablet computers showing crackling flames (to better highlight the grilled pigeon!). One tablet had a cracked screen. Inexplicably, part-way through eating the roast bird off the screen, my tablet started showing waves. When I asked the waitress about it she said, “oh yeah it does that, sometimes we serve fish”.
It’s a real choice to publish a profile about someone’s scandal almost 18 months after the scandal. Anyway, I’m excited to relive the glory days of May 2020 and the Allison Roman / Chrissy Tiegan beef that derailed Roman’s career (except for her books and video sponsorships and making more money than ever from a newsletter). Writer Lauren Collins has been profiling her pretty much since then, and follows how Roman adapted through the pandemic. I always felt that Roman got a bit of the short end of the stick in that feud, though it sorta seems clear that even now she is unwilling to accept her level of fame and the scrutiny that comes with it. She’s going to keep stepping in it. However you can’t argue that she’s not an open book. The profile contains a number of eye-popping quotes and moments.
I don’t know that anything has brought me as much joy recently as this story of an annual dinner of Frank Sinatra tribute singers (not impersonators, apparently) at Patsy’s on the Upper West Side. Writer Bruce Handy does an amazing job tenderly sharing the varied backstories of all these men. Inexplicably, the story has a photo of Tony Danza, who was at the restaurant that night I guess?
Substack made a significant investment in food writing, announcing 10-12 new newsletters. It’s interesting that their top tier name, Ruth Reichl, is only “in residency” for a month, which is… how many newsletters exactly? I wonder if those one year mega-checks might not be working out as well as they had hoped. I also found it funny that a few days after highlighting all their new (presumably paid up-front) food writers, they posted a big roundup of all the current food writers on the platform. I sensed some “oh crap right we forgot about our home-grown talent”. My invitation to both posts must have blown off the porch.
Snack Cart Axiom #7: If you write a very long history of a beloved Chinese-American staple, I WILL LINK TO IT. In this case, Miranda Brown digs into the unexpected history behind Chop Suey. I thought I knew the history of this dish, but it turns out I just knew the urban legend. Brown relates how Chop Suey wasn’t the name for trash food Chinese immigrants made for nearby Americans. It’s actually a Chinese offal-based haute cuisine dish that was adapted for American palates.
Los Angeles Times columnist Gustavo Arellano covers a lawsuit between a local Las Vegas restaurant and its neighboring fast casual salad establishment. The lawsuit hinges on if the “Viva Mexico” salad offered by the chain counts as Mexican food and therefore violates the terms of the real estate lease prohibiting no other Mexican restaurants in the area. Arellano finds other examples of courts determining what is, or isn’t, Mexican food. This was a great read.
Last year I noticed the tiny liquor store near my parents’ house on Cape Cod stocked Liquid Death canned water in the cooler. I remembered when we all made fun of it online and started ironically picking up a can now and then. And then… not ironically (it’s delightful to crack open a cool can of water on the drive home). Little did I know that the online joke is actually growing like gangbusters.
Vox publishes a very Vox-y explainer by Matthew Hayek and Jan Dutkiewicz about fake meat. The thrust of it: imitation meats are much, much better for the environment than traditional meats and those arguing the opposite are muddying the water.
The story goes that Pepsi was one of the first American companies to operate in the Soviet Union. This included one deal for almost 20 naval warships, which briefly gave the soda maker the 7th largest attack fleet in the world. Foreign Policy dives into this urban legend (mostly false) and tells the true story of Pepsi’s real role in opening up the Soviet Union to trade while also subsidizing Richard Nixon’s political career.
There are a million stories about supply chain issues hitting food prices, but none that scare me this much: fried chicken outages are plaguing Japan. This is a big deal in a country where fried chicken is a treasured holiday tradition.
Through much of the pandemic, essential workers were really considered expendable workers. None moreso than in the meat packing and food processing industries. Alice Driver in the New York Review of Books dives deep into the story of workers' pandemic experiences.
Kristen Hawley in Eater writes about an unexpected benefit of outdoor dining: it’s much more kid-friendly. I’ve noticed the same thing about the rise in breweries, which tend to have more outdoor space and less drama about kids running around. Both of which make it easier for parents to go out.
The Boston Globe’s Spotlight team, partnering with the Portland Press Herald, has a massive feature on Maine’s lobster fishing industry. Part One focuses on the fishing community of Vinalhaven, Maine, a community squarely in the cross hairs of climate change. Warming waters have decimated the lobster grounds in Southern New England states over the past 20 years, but they’ve made them even better in Maine. Lobstermen are pulling in record catches, but at the same time the climate is still changing and the good times will come to an end eventually as ideal lobster conditions move further north. But many in the community are resistant to change. This is a great story even if you don’t live in New England.
LA Christmas means tamales. Here’s the best places to go.
The Los Angeles Times editorializes on behalf of food vendors. While the city has created a license program for vendors, they’ve made the requirements so complicated, expensive, and onerous that only 200 have managed to get licenses. The city needs to make it simpler. I worry about similar problems as cities plan for the future of outdoor dining.
The best thing I read this week: Karen Stabiner, writing in The Counter, dives deep into the struggles on Rose Avenue in Venice. This is probably the best thing I’ve ever read about the homelessness problem affecting America’s cities. She speaks with restaurant owners, local residents, elected officials, and the unhoused.
So THIS is where the Los Angeles Times restaurant team has been: Preparing the annual 101 list. Bill Addison removes the rankings, which I think make the list a lot less fun to read. Reading through the list, I the few places I recognized really made me feel that it’s been almost a decade since I lived in LA :-(. Addison also engages the rest of the Times food staff and notable LA writers to contribute. Donovan X Ramsey visits a tasting menu highlighting early enslaved chefs, Esther Tang profiles a nonprofit advocating for indiginous restaurant workers, and Carolina Miranda writes about an entrepreneur building a better tamale cart.
Mexican singer Vicente Fernández passed away last week, and L.A. Taco tells you where you can eat like the legend around town. He loudly proclaimed his love of Carne en Su Jugo, a dish from his native Jalisco. The stew of tomatillos and flank steak is less common in Los Angeles, but there are a few places to find it.
The Taco team also profiles Medan Kitchen, a new pop-up SGV restaurant that is the brain child of 76-year-old Indonesian immigrant Siu Chen. I loved this quote from Chen: “I couldn’t stand to watch any more Netflix.. I was 75 when I decided. It was now or never.”
The Globe touches on what we’ve seen elsewhere: restaurant workers are increasingly on the front lines of a second horrible pandemic winter, struggling with rising positive cases as well as insane diner behavior.
Chick-Fil-A is coming to the Hub. Long-time Bostonians will remember when former mayor Tom Menino banned the chain (or just wrote a mean letter?) for their then-opposition to gay marriage.
While many Massachusetts staple fishes like Cod or lobster are collapsing, some are wondering if we can popularize more plentiful dogfish or skate to create new cash crops for the industry.
Boston Magazine’s Jolyon Helterman reviews Contessa. He loves the upscaled Italian-American standards that built the Major Food Group an empire. He also includes the single best description of Carbone I’ve ever read, “...made its reputation on the one-two punch of exceptional food and what I’ll call strategic velvet-ropery”. (3.5 stars).
I love my friend Gary Dzen’s random profiles of insane brewers from around New England. This week he profiles Tod Mott and his famous stout, Mott the Lesser. The beer sounds delicious, and Mott’s beard is everything you want it to be.
Deva First visits Open Hearth Gatherings, which is part pop-up, part food event. It brings diners to a farm to not just eat a farm-fresh meal, but help with the preparation and farm tasks leading up to it. In one of First’s visits, this included slaughtering and processing chicken that the group then cooked and ate. That’s a lot! But it is probably something everyone who eats meat should do at least once. This is the most interesting and innovative meal I’ve heard of in a long time and I’d love to go.
Nick Kindelsparger dives into Hot Chi Chicken & Cones. While hot chicken restaurants are increasingly a dime a dozen, Kindelsparger notices subtle ways that the Middle Eastern owners and Mexican chef have integrated their background into the menu. The story also touches on the history – this restaurant is located in the building that used to house Harold’s #55, a South Side fried chicken mainstay for decades. No pressure.
I have never seen a restaurant so effectively ethered in a completely neutral-sounding headline. Beautiful.
Kindlesparger reviews two Chicago institutions that have both had recent face lifts. The Wieners Circle, an iconic hot dog stand famous for Chicago-style dogs and late-night drunken insults, recently reopened with expanded outdoor seating and a full bar. It still makes a great dog, and Kindlesparger digs into the complicated dynamics of a place where customers and staff are expected to insult each other. Ed Debevic, a campy and gimmicky diner that recently reopened, is getting back some of the old magic (even if the food isn’t really the point). I really, really like reviews of places like this. Not all the time, but it’s good to check in with institutions or tourist traps. They are part of the city too.
Chicago Magazine tells us the ten current hottest restaurants, but there isn’t a lot of meat here (content-wise).
I will continue to (unsuccessfully) insist that cider is the drink of the future in America. Chicago Reader profiles Overgrown Orchard in Gary, Indiana, which is making cider that resembles wine more than anything you’d buy at a farmstand.
Eli Tea Bar is a new alcohol-free social space (read, bar) in Andersonville. The place has hundreds of loose leaf teas and multiple kinds of tea on tap. This Chicago Reader story by Tony Peregrin begins with Eli Tea Bar, but goes on to highlight more zero-alcohol options at places around the city. I’d love to see more spaces integrate tea and coffee as non-alcoholic alternatives.
More and more restaurants are closing as a result of rising Omicron case counts. The Times talks with owners and workers about what they are thinking, and worrying about, going into the winter.
Eater publishes a wonderful essay by a restaurant worker who is now a vaccine bouncer. Even in places where you don’t have crazy people protesting or storming the door, it’s still an absurdly frustrating job.
Young people are flocking to old-school, high-end Manhattan bars like Bemelmans or the King Cole Bar. I wonder how much this is just post-pandemic tourism vs. people who might go twice. Those idiot 20-somethings can’t appreciate Bemelmans the way I, an idiot 30-something, do.
Brooklyn magazine visits Bonnie’s, the much-hyped new Cantonese restaurant in Williamsburg. Scott Lynch says it lives up to the hype, so get your reservation now. Then again, I just saw on Instagram they are going take-out only, so…. Fuck.
While places like Keens are starting to get more crowded, New York has an entire class of classic steakhouses. Ryan Sutton highlights Gallaghers, where the prime rib is worth ordering ahead. If you didn’t, the clams casino are also great.
I don’t know what to think about this Pete Wells review of Shion 69 Leonard Street. Wells does a lot of menu listing, which I hate. But he enriches each dish description with facts about sushi history, sushi technique, or chef Shion Uino. I learned a lot! It’s only near the end where he talks about the staggering price tag. It feels like there is something unsustainable here, but then again maybe not.
The New York dining scene is still processing the rise of vegan or vegetarian menus. Pete Wells does some light subtweeting in the intro of his review of Crown Height’s Aunts et Uncles. The all-day cafe and restaurant specializes in vegetarian alternatives to Caribbean specialties. The place looks great and Wells links to an AMAZING T-shirt they sell. Someone get it for me for Christmas.
Wells also visits Cha Kee, a bright spot in the struggling Manhattan Chinatown. The menu has some bright spots and some ideas that don’t quite hit, but Wells praises a place that fit squarely as a part of Chinatown vs generic downtown New York.
Jaya Saxena writes about dealing with the complicated feelings of grief that come from a favorite restaurant closing during COVID. My wife and I delayed our wedding from 2020 to 2021 and one of the shittiest tasks was updating our wedding website’s “places we love page” to remove all the places that had closed.
Out of Context J. Gold of the week
You will, in fact, end up eating a lot of starch: the vada lentil doughnuts; the steamed fermented-rice capsules called iddly; the enormous fermented-rice pancakes called utthapam, which almost resemble deep-dish pizza when you get them topped with vegetables and cheese. Link