Sunday, October 28, 2018

Bingo and Burritos

If one could create a timeline of one’s life using restaurants and bars as the only measurement, Tortilla Flats would occupy a very happy and specific chunk of my life from the late 1990s into the early 2000s. Perhaps that’s why, amidst all the bad news stories one could share on any given day in late October 2018, the story I chose to group text my family was “Tortilla Flats is closing.”  

 Located since 1983 on Washington Street in the West Village, just a hop, skip and jump from the Meatpacking District, the Standard Hotel, the Whitney, and the beautiful, stylish Santina, Tortilla Flats has begun in recent years to look like an outlier, a relic of another time. The frozen margarita machine kept churning at the bar, the salsa came in small plastic saucers, and the water in tall plastic cups. The booths had old vinyl car bench seats with duct tape to cover up the tears. Then again, I might be getting some details wrong as it’s been a while since I last was there. But when asked to call up memories of Tortilla Flats, in the pre-hotel, pre-museum era, I have no trouble at all.  

 Tortilla Flats managed to be a communal party restaurant, but without being full of jerks. It was intimate without being exclusive. And while not cheap, it was affordable enough to welcome lots of different people. There was no private room, which meant that when bingo started, the whole restaurant played bingo. When the hula hoop contest began, you could either join, watch, or keep eating. The hosts not only showed you to your table but worked double-duty as MCs to keep the party moving and happy. There was tinsel and color and lights. 

For a spell of a few years in the late 90s, my oldest brother gathered his friends and siblings to celebrate his birthday at Tortilla Flats. We’d find a Saturday afternoon in early November, with a chill in the air and the sun just giving out. Some years, we’d sit inside at the long table in the back. Other years, we’d opt for outside hoping the plastic sheet covering the patio would keep us sufficiently warm. If the sheet didn’t do the trick, the margaritas and chili con queso certainly did. We’d start early to avoid the crowds, relishing the freedom of youth with an afternoon buzz and burritos. 

 More recently, within the past few years, I've shared celebratory meals with friends and family at Barbuto, directly across the street from Tortilla Flats. Barbuto is known for its delicious pastas and roast chicken. The chef and owner is Jonathan Waxman. The garage doors open on to the streets on summer evenings. The meals were delicious, the company fantastic. I’ve returned again to Barbuto a few times since. It’s an odd, bittersweet feeling though, like cheating on a friend, by entering the wrong door to the wrong restaurant to meet the very same people I had celebrated with at Tortilla Flats years before. Now Tortilla Flats is leaving and perhaps a more austere restaurant will open in its place. Or another jubilant restaurant, but without the bingo. Or, more likely a bank. Either way, next time I find myself at Barbuto I’m going to order a margarita. While I’m sure it will be delicious, it won’t taste as sweet.

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Don't Let the Girl

 Beets from The Vegetable Grower's Guide

Don't let the girl pare these esculents all over as she does turnips. Don't let her cut off the tops and roots with a careless knife. Tell her to wash them clean, but not to draw blood with even so much as a scratch. And when they are boiling don't let her thrust her fork into them promiscuously to see if they are done; tell her to make her trials on one beet in particular. So shall you garnish your table with a dish beautifully colored as well as toothsome. Peel after boiling, cut into slices, sprinkle with salt and pepper and put on a little piece of butter.

Recipe for "Beets" in Oneida Community Cooking (1873)


Thursday, January 8, 2015

Kaddish for O'Casey's

Photo from The Daily News

O'Casey's Irish Bar and Restaurant, which closed a few weeks ago, was never in the running for a James Beard Award. It's not listed in Zagats, nor will you find it mentioned on Midtown Lunch liked its food and atmosphere but bemoaned the lack of happy hour, and New York Magazine made note of the banker/lawyer contingent among its patrons.

O'Casey's was never an in spot, but that's precisely why it was such a favorite watering hole among many midtown-based librarians. It was a short walk from the Schwarzman Building on the 42nd Street, the Mid-Manhattan Library on 40th Street, and library offices on 39th Street. The bar served good beers on tap and the waitstaff allowed you to sit at a table without ordering food. But when you did order food—and you always did—it was better than your average pub fare: the mozzerella sticks were well-seasoned and flavorful, the burger was tasty, and the fish and chips were more than commendable.

The restaurant's interior, with its cozy feel and flattering lighting, provided a warmth that the outside world didn't. The silent TV screens meant you could watch the Knicks lose while talking about more important issues. Extra seating both upstairs and downstairs meant never having to wait for a table, and if you were really lucky you might hear the Gin Blossoms over the stereo. If there were a sitcom called Library Life, O'Casey's would be our Monks, or Riff's, or Regal Beagle.

No, it wasn't the best bar in the city, but O'Casey's was a solid, beloved spot for going away parties, work celebrations and travails, holiday mayhem, appreciation lunches, group discussions, one-on-ones, and solo dining. And it will be missed.

Friday, February 15, 2013

Clearing the Lunch Table

Eight months after its opening, Lunch Hour NYC is closing this Sunday. It will be a bittersweet day for me, but it had a healthy run and I'm thankful that I had the opportunity to work with Laura Shapiro to help put this exhibition together.

But as of today, Friday, there are only three more days to see Lunch Hour! Get thee to the Library! To whet your appetite, here are some of my favorite items from the show -- and one that didn't make it in.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

A Child is Born

Happy Birthday, Julia.

Thanks for giving me a childhood of delicious food, cooked with love by my parents from their splattered cookbook bible. 


Chicken Breasts

Spinach or Salmon Souffle

Mustard Chicken

Monday, August 6, 2012

What Vassar Girls Eat

Vassar/Yale Bike Race, 1952. Courtesy of Life Magazine

For those of you who received an incomplete, unedited version of this in your RSS reader -- my apologies. I published (by accident), then perished. Here is the correct version. 

Vassar girls like to eat. I should know - I am one.

But what I eat today is far different from what I ate as an undergrad at Vassar's AC/DC (All Campus Dining Center). For example, Lucky Charms aren't part of my dinner diet anymore. I consume a far greater variety of vegetables now than I did as a co-ed. I don't subsist on starch in 2012 the way I did...quite a few years ago.

Sorry, is this boring you?

It apparently wasn't boring to 19th century readers. Because over a century ago, What Vassar Girls Eat was an article that appeared in at least three different publications over the course of several years. Caramel consumption evidently proved newsworthy.

Here's a rundown of the articles I've uncovered thus far:

Friday, August 3, 2012

Lunch Time

Lunch Hour NYC, the exhibition I wrote about last November on this very blog, is now up and free and open to the public.

My co-curator, Laura Shapiro, and I are incredibly thankful to everyone who made Lunch happen, especially the exhibitions staff at the library and the incredibly talented designers at Pure+Applied. They were tireless in making sure everything looked perfect, but full of humor all the while.

It's been a hectic several weeks, but we're really pleased with the results and the response. Now I'm back to my regularly scheduled duties which include culinary acquisitions, electronic resources, What's on the Menu? (a million dishes strong!), and coming soon: culinary research classes.

But first I wanted to share what is perhaps my favorite image from the show. It also happens to be of one of my favorite foods: doughnuts. I generally don't veer toward chocolate-covered anything, but I will make an exception for this photograph.

It's especially meaningful to me because when Laura and I were going through the Horn & Hardart papers in the library's manuscript division, we found fantastic images of automats throughout the city: street views, interiors, workers, but we never found a single food image. Then, in the very last box, in the very last folder, we uncovered photographs of soups, sandwiches, cakes, ham, and doughnuts. Despite our naturally  reserved nature (not to mention the fact that we were in a quiet reading room), we -- how shall I put this? -- freaked out.

I might've gasped or jumped. Laura definitely put her hands in the air in some sort of celebratory gesture, and  we then proceeded to show the photograph above to every single person in the room, without exception.
They didn't necessarily share our enthusiasm.

So there you have the thrilling story behind a black and white photograph of doughnuts.