We’re going to the game. The Knicks. He’s flying. He gave away Broadway tickets for the Knicks. Being me, I want to know where we can eat. How serious can we be with a toss-up (excuse me, whatever they call it) at 7:30? How about a picnic from Fairway… crusty bread, fabulous cheese, a good Burgundy? He is exasperated. “It’s a basketball game, not a cruise on the QE2.”
The taxi lunges and brakes like a Waring blender in the traffic snarl of 34th Street, finally wiggling to the curb and coughing us into teeming humanity. “We have an hour,” I say. He gazes across the street – Seventh Avenue near 33rd and 34th, a swirl of neon promises – Desolation Row. He’s game. I don’t call him the Road Food Warrior for nothing.
Just like that, we seem to have landed in what is the equivalent of Le Cirque on this fast-food turf: J.J. Applebaum’s Deli (431 Seventh Avenue, near 34th Street; 563-6200), with real table service. So the waiter’s not exactly Sirio, but he’s smooth. “I want a sandwich,” I murmur, scanning the three-foot scroll of menu puns ($4.75 to $9.25). “Katz Meow.” “Son of a Botch.”
“Heartburn Hotel,” the waiter declares with certainty. “And to drink?” I hesitate. “Soda?” he says. Then “Cream soda.” I nod. “Diet cream soda,” he corrects himself. Amazing. He’s right again.
Applebaum’s is not the Carnegie. But then, even the Carnegie is not what is used to be. Still, the skyscraper of hot pastrami, corned beef, Swiss cheese, and cole slaw just fits into a fully stretched mouth, and it’s satisfying, better than murky chopped liver on a poppy-seed roll. I ask for zucchini latkes (what hath assimilation wrought?), but I get potato – he’s read my mind again, no doubt. Love these pickles and the health slaw, an amuse-geuele on the table, definitely worth a detour.
Am I getting easier, or would I always be drawn by the food in the window two doors down at Chinatown Express (427 Seventh Avenue, near 34th street; 563-3559)? Too bad everything is labeled. In the blink of an eye, our order is assembled on a red tray, and we wander toward the back room, small and bright with red Formica. At the risk of losing credibility, I’m recommending the Szechuan chicken and peanuts served with fried rice, not bad at all. Skip the hot dragon noodles. Shredded beef in a crackling chow-chow cup (like a fried taco dish) is candied but strangely pleasing ($3.33). And if you got mugged on the way here, you could fill up on two sesame-studded drumsticks for the $1.39 you might find in your pockets.
When the customers on Seventh Avenue look better than the food, I get nervous, and the display at Gyro II (423 Seventh Avenue, near 33rd Street; 239-0646) – you’ve probably seen that boneless haunch on a spit – is not very Dean & Deluca.
Well, tucked into a soft pita with lettuce, tomato, red onion, and a tangy dressing (“What do you want?” they ask; “Everything,” I reply), a gyro ($3.65) is junk-food heaven. I love the souvlaki ($3.65), too, overcooked beef-and-lamb chunks similarly decked out. Beware of Greek fries, like linoleum disks. Take salty skin-on crinkle fries instead.
Now Sbarro (159 West 33rd Street, 502-5-26) cries out to me, its window filled with plump calzone and pizzas in that familiar orangey glow. Sbarro is to dough what Buccellati is to silver and gold. That’s not my discovery. The joint is crowded, the line a bit slow as orders for pizza, whole or by the slice, go into the oven and a team of servers dish up pasta.
We settle downstairs in a vast high school gym with orange, green, and white banners overhead and a view of the subway through glass. A shower of red-hot pepper flakes does help the tasteless slog of ziti, and my double-crusted pizza with prosciutto and cheese could be crisper. But the pepperoni roll ($3.29) is supernal, beyond junk food, sausage and cheese oozing orange fat down my wrist from their wonderful bready wrap. The night will not be a total loss even if the Knicks flub up.
Tonight, the Rangers are at home in the Garden, and the crowd at Beefsteak Charlie’s seems hungrier for violence than for the salad bar of “all the shrimp you an eat” with dinner. They stand at the bar in red-white-and-blue Rangers sweatshirts and warm-ups, arms flailing, fingers punctuating, lips curling, making me wish Margaret Mead were still here to interpret. We decide to move on to Toots Shor (233 West 33rd Street, 279-8150). Toots, the World’s Greatest Saloonkeeper, is gone, alas. And so is the maitre d’. But a kindly waiter gives us a small booth, and a pretty fair Caesar salad ($14.95) split for two keeps us going while the kitchen dawdles. Mummified chicken, pale and dry, and shrimp – not rubbery, hooray, but soft and floury on listless rice – might have given Toots a giggle, especially with entrées an aggressive $17.95 for chopped steak to $25.95 for prime ribs or steak.
Needing a swift jolt of Irish coffee, we cross 33rd street to Charley O’s (9 Pennsylvania Plaza, 594-5401). Miraculously, our walk restores the lust for dinner. We claim a U-shaped booth in the bar with hockey on every TV screen and a fraternity party in full bluster. It’s definitely boys’ night out, with just a scrimp of savvy dolls, so lively I almost don’t mind that the onion soup is tepid, the fried calamari taste thrice-fried, and desserts (Heathbar crunch pie and “caramel apple granny”) could be molded in clay (entrées $15.95 to $24.95). The mixed grill isn't bad, and the burger ($9.50) is good enough to wrap up and present to a homeless woman perched on a fire hydrant surrounded by bags of scavenged treasure.
I check out the “free fixins” for burgers – tomatoes, iceberg lettuce, lettuce, and lettuce – in the dining room above the stall shared by Roy Rogers and Del Taco (401 Seventh Avenue, at 32nd Street). There’s no hope for this burger, and the fries are humble and plain, but the view from the counter overlooking the street and the Garden is glorious. “If this were the River Café, we’d be fighting for this seat,” I gloat. As for Roy’s battered-and-fried breast of chicken with mayonnaise, tomato and iceberg ($2.69) – I can’t stop eating it. Even the soft, perfect roll that looks machine-extruded evokes happy, Wonder-bread reveries.
Sunday night, we’re back at the same window (a garden of garbage behind us), watching the circus crowd swarm out of the Garden, nibbling Del Taco’s beef-burrito platter. It tastes like the classified rolled and stuffed. Taco salad is equally dispirited, but given my junk-food fever, I could probably fuel on the nachos ($1.49) – especially doctored with “el scorcher “ salsa from the forlorn condiments bar. Service is authentically mañana. A hostess in wrinkled whites wipes her nose, and the counter is so sticky, I rest my hand on it and almost get stuck.
I couldn’t persuade the cagey Road Food Warrior to eat sushi on Desolation Row, but tonight’s pals are brave as we climb one flight to Sushi King (425 Seventh Avenue, near 33rd Street; 967-2293). Well, it’s spotless, with sit-down service, worth the trudge for tempura – we get three big shrimp and vegetables in spiny cracklings of batter – at $7.95.
Wendy’s (433 Seventh Avenue, near 34th Street; 594-6623) is almost like Middle America except that the faces are very New York. The porter never stops cleaning, practically mopping our feet (That’s not a complaint.) The woman who takes our order is patient and pleasant. In seconds, we’re tucking into a really good taco salad (meat, firm kidney beans, tomato, grated Cheddar, chips in a bag; $2.99). The big baked potato is not quite first-rate, but with bright al dente broccoli, cheese, and minced something that could well be bacon on top, it’s a fine dinner for $2.75. And the crumbed-and-fried chicken fillet here ($2.99) with mayonnaise, tomato and lettuce, is just as good as Roy Roger’s, maybe better.
All my gourmandlich instincts told me Felipe Rojas-Lombardi’s Ballroom (253 West 28th Street, 244-3005) would be the best serious pit stop before the Garden… a short, fast, potentially aerobic hike to the game after a feast of tapas.
Claim a stool at the bar, with its hanging braids of garlic, aged hams, and bird in full plumage. A guitarist plays, and smiling Mashud greets you like a long-lost cousin with a gift of splendid olives and pickled caper fruit. Taste Serrano ham, red beans and snails, or clams escabeche with onion and peas while you wait for the kitchen to cook up the classic nibbles of Spain ($4.50 to $8.50) – perfect fried calamares and frogs’ legs, peasanty brandade of cod, meaty sautéed shiitake, a juicy quail split and grilled, and – if your timing is blessed – fresh suckling pig. Don’t stop to think when the pig emerges, it’s usually gone in less than twelve minutes.
My Knicks-fan chum, a season-ticket holder and Gyro II habitué, insists you can’t mix metaphors, and nobody he knows would ever eat upscale before toss-ups and face-offs. Well, thank Heaven I’m here to guide you. Ask Gael, and Miss Piggy always answers.