By Sherry Chen
On March 25, 2014, The Village Voice hosted its Choice Eats tasting event and opened the doors of Basketball City @ Pier 36 to ravenous gluttons everywhere. The huge event space was converted into a Noah's Ark of food, housing every kind of cuisine imaginable, and a deluge of hungry people flooded the venue from all corners of the city.
You would be hard-pressed to find a food event with more choice and variety than this one. With so many options conveniently under one roof, Choice Eats certainly encourages adventurous risk-taking from its guests. Perhaps on a normal night out you wouldn't order a rabbit taco by choice, but here you really have nothing to lose in taking that chance. If you like it, great, and if not, you can quickly move on to something else.
The most challenging thing for me was the goat and tripe soup from Buka, a Nigerian restaurant based in Brooklyn. A lot of restaurants try to soften the blow of eating offal by mincing it up finely or heavily seasoning it to mask the intense flavors. The pieces of tripe in this soup were pretty big, intimidating and unattractive. Luckily, the dish tasted a lot better than it looked. The broth, which was flavored with habanero peppers, had a great peppery kick to it, and a lot of great flavors were extracted from the goat meat.
Other dishes that kept me on my toes included the bright Hmong-style smoked catfish from Yunnan Kitchen in the LES, which almost felt like it had been marinaded in herbs laced with ammonia, and the larb from Larb Ubol, a Hell's Kitchen restaurant specializing in Northeastern Thai cuisine, in which the minced meat salad was definitely an acquired taste.
The Siberian dumplings from Bear, a restaurant in Long Island City, drew me in with its intense-sounding name but, really, the Russian dumplings had a lot in common with its omnipresent, thick-skinned neighbors from China. I wasn't sure what to expect from the visually arresting Georgian food from Oda House, and the extremely green prasis pkhali balls of boiled leeks and walnuts made me skeptical, but they were surprisingly good and refined in flavor.
The best thing about taking your palate on an adventure is the journey back home. After frontloading the more novel tastings I reverted back to the crowd-pleasers and, not surprisingly, these were my favorite food samples at Choice Eats. Here's a quick recap of the restaurants that ranked near the top:
Best in Show goes to the black sesame ramen noodles from Tabata Noodle in Hell's Kitchen. The extremely dense and savory broth, more gravy than soup, was a master class in umami flavor maximization, and the tasty, minced pork was a delightful and decadent accent to the dish.
Other favorites included the delicious braciole tortelli from Manhattan-based Rubirosa, a mouth-watering nugget filled with rich meat covered in a creamy veneer of salty melted cheese; the sweet and tender braised short ribs from El Almacen in Brooklyn, which certainly had me swooning at first bite; and the pastrami and vinegar coleslaw from John Brown Smokehouse which had a similar effect.
The ratio of savory to sweet items is a bit skewed at this event so you have to be strategic and leave some room in your stomach for desserts. Otherwise you miss out on the amazingly moist and mind-blowingly good red velvet cake from Carlo's Bakery in Hoboken, or the unassuming but delicately creamy and tender napoleon from Cafe Glechik. The cedar creamsicle from Brooklyn ice cream parlor Oddfellows wins in my book for being a thinking man's dessert; using actual cedar wood to flavor the cream added interesting complexity to a familiar treat.
As you can imagine, with so many restaurants to choose from, it's an extremely difficult feat to be able to try everything. Plus the long lines that formed later in the evening made that goal even more challenging — my efforts to get a crab roll from Luke's Lobster were unsuccessful. But for food this good, it was definitely worth the wait. Like Noah's flood, with every storm, there is a rainbow, and for me, that came in the form of a very rewarding food coma.
For more background info about this year's Choice Eats event, check out Q+A with Rosemary Jorda, Event Director for Choice Eats.
Sherry Chen is a New York City-based food writer with a passion for delicious, locally-sourced meals. You can read about her food adventures at www.gabandgobble.com.