August 23, 2010 | BITE: My Journal

Night Eats at Xiao Ye

Cool Yout’ cluster outside waiting for a call to table at Xiao Ye. Photo: Steven Richter

        An $18 taxi hop from the Upper West Side and we’ve fallen off the edge of the Earth into the full tornado of millennial pop chow. We are braving Lower East Side no-reservation turf because our young friend Cheryl Tan ( and much-ballyhooed Baohaus creator Eddie Huang were on a panel together and he’s agreed to keep a table free for us at 8:30 in his newish pocketsize canteen Xiao Ye. We coolly claim our four backless cube perches without alerting the raucous cluster waiting on the sidewalk.

Top left fried chicken, Hainan chicken below, Everything But the Dog. Photo: Steven Richter

        I never got to taste his Taiwanese buns at his celebrated carry-away on Rivington but one can’t browse pop New York eats on the internet long without hitting raves for his Taiwanese fried chicken. “Trade My Daughter for Fried Chicken,” it says on the menu. It might tickle your funny bone.  It might not. The smile on my face fades when I discover how dry this fry is, like wood shavings on chunks of white meat.  Some have complained of racist stereotyping in “Concubine Cucumber,” “Buddha Sex Cabbage,” and “Dumpling-Faced Killah.” Such in-your-face mischief contrasts with the politically correct footnote at the bottom of the menu signifying “all-natural, antibiotic free, hormone free, Pat LaFrieda meats.”

Fabulous “Poontang Potstickers;” “Brick Sit on Wall Tofu” below. Photo: Steven Richter

        Actually “Poontang Potstickers” happen to be wonderfully savory elongated dumplings with an open end, caramelized on one side. Delicious is the point for me. And the colored noodles of Silly String on one wall and family photos opposite the bar are harmless penny-pinching décor.
       Surely $12 cocktails help pay the rent here. Sip two to blur the pain in your derriere from sitting too long on that wooden cube. I like Chino (ginger-infused margarita) or a rich Milk Skywalker (Johnnie Black, Irish Cream, soy milk, black tea and tapioca pearls) better than a watery yet harsh Mr. Pink (watermelon-infused Shochu with mint and citrus). Alas, all that joy juice in a full house has folks screaming. The noise is unbearable. Steven gets up between dishes to take a walk.

Princeton bean paste noodles is my favorite dish. Snow peas are tough. Photo: Steven Richter

        “Help U Poo Poo Greens” may be unsettling as table-talk but I’m more offended that the snow pea leaves stir fried with garlic are coarse and chewy, not the delicate early sprouts I would hope for at $10.  But I like the big fresh cubes of fried tofu dusted with ground peanut and drizzled with sweet chile sauce listed as “Brick Sit on Wall Tofu.”

Fans crowd the narrow space, numbing bottoms on wooden cubes. Photo: Steven Richter

        “Mom’s Cold Noodles” with cucumber slivers in Sichuan peppercorns and chile oil are just plain boring.  And “Everything but the Dog Meat Platter” – long cooked pork rib, pork belly and oxtail - served in a doggy bowl for $28 is disappointing too.  But the Road Food Warrior and I love the “Princeton Review Bean Paste Noodle,” a Taiwanese classic with wonderfully firm noodles, Duroc pork, salty bean paste and cucumber.  Luscious cool cuts of wondrously poached bird with minced ginger, scallions and a mild house chile sauce win our votes for “Big Trouble in Hainan Chicken,” though I prefer my chicken rice more potent and greasy.

Chef Eddie Huang takes a break from the kitchen to greet pals. Photo: Steven Richter

        The young chef stops by to welcome Tiger Cheryl and gauge our happiness. We’re cagey.  He’s responded to early yelps defensively: It’s too early. The kitchen is too small. He needs more equipment. He’s rightly concerned he could alienate his fans and lose that claque pacing the sidewalk.

Steven exits to escape the noise. I snap the sweet shaved ice mountain. Photo: Gael Greene

        I am curious about “Taiwanese Flat Booty Cake” - pancakes stuffed with “made-from-scratch spicy lychee condensed milk sauce” with crushed peanut, lychees and whipped cream on top, but I’m outvoted. We settle for shaved ice with chunks of fresh mango and strawberries and a top knot of mango pudding both refreshing and picture-perfect for my first published photograph.

198B Orchard Street between Houston and Rivington. 212 777 7733. Tuesday, Wednesday and Sunday 6 to 11 pm. Thursday, Friday and Saturday till 2 am.


Conquering Burger Fears

Five Napkin fans fill the sidewalk tables on Broadwayat 84th. Photo: Steven Richter

        It took six months before I could screw up my courage to go back to 5 Napkin Burger after the hideous burger I had in February, the week it opened a seedling of itself on the Upper West Side.  Now it’s a sultry Saturday night in August. The Road Food Warrior and I have been abandoned in the simmering city by beach-hugging friends and we’re debating where to eat.  I suggest six months is long enough – we owe a second chance to one of our burger favorites.

All the charming details of the Ninth Avenue post are repeated here. Photo: Steven Richter

        I’ve been sending friends and readers to Five Napkin Burger on Ninth Avenue and 44th since it opened.  I have stood there, miserable, waiting long beyond my 20 minute limit for a table when my appestat was set for that outrageously greasy hunk of cow.

        The Upper West Side advent stirred a positively religious fervor. The faithful hovered outside the day the door finally opened. I scarcely gave the place a chance to season the griddle just days later.  Someone at the door, recognizing me, slipped our foursome in ahead of the restless standees.

       “Rare, but not blue,” I said. The waiter didn’t want to take the order.

       “Rare is blue,” he said. ”You want medium rare.”

        I had never asked for medium rare in my life. Well, yes, maybe for a pork chop.
       “Just tell the kitchen ‘rare,’” I insisted.  “I’m sure it will be all right.”'

On our first visit, exuberant hosts saluted me with bacon galore. Photo: Steven Richter

        Our friends’ medium rare burgers were medium rare as expected (not rare as the waiter had promised) but our rare burgers – rather aggressively piled high with five strips of bacon, droit de critique - were grey on the outside, not seared or caramelized at all, and raw on the inside, I took a bite.  I could not eat it.

       Now we’re back. Recognized again, I confess, summoned to our own booth, just the two of us. I try to chase the memory of that awful taste from my mind as I study the menu. A generous $14.50 entrée of macaroni and cheese that I order as a starter is a nice distraction.  I agree it’s awfully soupy, and I would prefer a crust of toasted crumbs and parmesan on top instead of these clumsy croutons but the balance of cheddar, gruyere and parmesan is perfect and I love shells even more than classic elbows.

The mac’n’cheese is soupy but smartly balanced and I love those shells. Photo: Steven Richter

        On a whim the two of us divide a double tuna roll. “Why would anyone order sushi at a burger   joint?” Steven asks. Good question. I won’t again. Heeding my own advice – eat onion rings while they’re hot – these are on target, impeccably fried, crumbed coating clinging like spandex. Steven cuts the cheddar bacon burger in half and shows me the thinnest shell of caramelized sear, decidedly rare, no exaggeration of bacon, just a sensible two strips. One bite, definitely hot. It is what I would expect a $15.95 Five Napkin burger to be. Grease up to my wrist and down to my chin. I ask for another napkin.

The essential Five Napkin Burger triumphs, but not that listless hot dog. Photo: Steven Richter

        Attempting to eat like four although we’re only two, I have ordered the 8 oz. Kobe beef “Footlong” hot dog. It comes “New York style” with sweet and sour onions and peppers or house style with mustard, sharp cheddar, relish, tomatoes, onions and pickled jalapenos. I order one with sauerkraut braised in beer. Neither the dog nor the kraut has any pizzazz. A big swath of Dijon mustard helps, but Kobe dogs fade in the memory of the spicy 18” sausage Steven shared at Brooklyn Diner a few weeks earlier.

I can’t resist brownie sundae even with its excess of froth hiding the sauce. Photo: Steven Richter

        The shakes and floats are tempting but I consistently go for the house’s espresso brownie sundae – shoveling the whipped cream to the saucer. I consider most whipped cream not worth the calories. You need the long-handled spoon to reach the espresso caramel at the bottom. Why don’t they spoon more on top? Imagine what it must be like living with a restaurant critic. It’s fun and fattening and you get to be uncontrollably critical yourself.  Steven will tell you.

2315 Broadway corner of 84th Street. 212 333 4488. Monday through Friday11:30 am to midnight. Saturday and Sunday 11 am to midnight. Saturday and Sunday brunch 11 am to 4 pm


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