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Judge Vardigan from New York Redux

Judge Vardigan in New York, May 2003

My New York City report of 2000 recalls the fresh-faced days of the Füd Court, when fame and renown and inevitable decline were but hastily sketched daydreams and nightmares. Now all three of them have been written, directed, and run out their box office stays. We're now entering The Great Return. Don't call it a comeback. Well, okay, call it that if you want. No one's telling me to knock you out.

And so I returned to New York with a serious füd agenda, determined to put the suckers in fear. Or at least do some good eating.

Katz's Delicatessen
205 E. Houston St.

Katz's was the last of the big three New York delis on my list, as I'd visited 2nd Ave. and Carnegie on previous trips. Atmosphere-wise, Katz's is the most chaotic and touristy. There's a confusing two-line system in which you order your food in one line, then eat it, and then get in the other long line to pay on the way out, assuming you've hung on to your ticket with the price scrawled on it. I prefer the climate at 2nd Ave., where it felt like there were some regulars, where I saw people see people they knew and go over to shake their hands and ask how the soup was that day.

But there's charm in the bustle at Katz's too. Circular signs dangle from the ceiling reading, "Send a salami to your boy in the Army." There are wood walls covered with famous people pictures. I sat under Furio from the Sopranos, which is amusing only because days later I saw the real breathing version of him in a bar.

Pastram!But why am I talking about all this when there is pastrami to talk about?

Goes for $10.50 and comes with a plate of pickles. Look at it! This pastrami is so succulent, fatty, and thick that I couldn't finish the second half. It just overwhelmed me. It's a different ballgame here, this pastrami. At other places, even at 2nd Ave., the pastrami seems kind of pressed, with fat ribbons looking more like what you see in bacon. Not here. It's all right in your face in thick, greasy slabs. It's not overly spiced like a lot of pastrami. They drop a few nice "end pieces" in there, coated in a peppery rub, but in general they are content to shove the unadorned meat argument in your face, and it's pretty goddamn convincing.

After Katz's I headed in a pastrami haze for the even Lower East Side, where I looked around and around for a coffee shop to read the Times in. The Lower East Side streets alternate grimy joints with places that belong in Soho. I couldn't find a grimy coffee shop so instead wound up at a Soho-y one at Ludlow and Rivington. $3.50 for a latte and it was one of those places that doesn't sell regular coffee. There were a bunch of little pillows against the window that you were supposed to sit on but I didn't find them very comfortable and had to keep adjusting. Opposite the window seats were these chairs that looked like pommel horses. I don't know how you'd go about sitting on them, but I hoped a gymnast would run in any moment and perform a nice vault off one. There were some hipped out kids in there who didn't seem to have jobs unless looking hip was their job. They had the air of hungover leisure about them. Any attempt at hipness on my part ended when I opened up the sports page. If I knew the name of the place I'd tell you not to go there.

EmpireEmpire Diner
W. 22nd St. and 10th Ave.

The price you pay for a landmark - $10.50 for a two-item omelet. But how can you pass it up after seeing it in the opening montage of "Manhattan"? I stumbled upon it while jogging along the Chelsea Pier. In honor of Woody Allen I shot the picture in black and white. Although duly warned by my gracious hostess Jennifer, I was still enraged by the omelet price and opted instead for the $6.50 BLT, which she correctly identified as the only reasonable item on the menu. It came with a side salad of beets. I sat at the counter and read the Times. Not a bad little diner sitting. If you're in the area, stop in for a coffee at the counter and think of how good Woody is.


Corner Bistro
331 W. 4th St., corner of Jane and 8th Ave.

This place is Magistrate Tavee material through and through: burger, fries, Coke. That's pretty much all they have, and the acclaimed Bistro Burger is the most expensive thing on the menu at five bucks. Arty was unfazed by the shocking line that ran straight through from the entrance to the back. This is how you wait for your table, you stand there in line with eaters on one side and the bar on the other. I suppose it's social that way, but we didn't talk to anyone. Makes for good people watching I guess, and famous people often eat there. I don't know if they stand in the line though. The burger was top-notch, and the fries -- this is almost too sinful to utter -- the fries tasted faintly of bacon. I don't know if they sprinkle bacon drippings in the fry grease or what, but that's what they tasted like, and it was revelatory.

F&B güdt food
269 W. 23rd St., near 8th Ave.

My grand hostess Jennifer brought me here, informing me beforehand that it was "the worst." She was talking about ambience mainly, and about how hard and shamelessly they try to lure you in with promises of "great european street food." (everything lowercase, of course.)

The interior was indeed terrifying, bright and blue, various shades of blue. Then I almost fell down when I saw this sign:

Oh man! The umlauted "u"! And in this place, this place that can barely claim to be serving füd at all. Here is one of the things they offer: "healthy dog: smoked tofu hot dog, hummus, grated carrot and black olives"


That's just not güdt!

We ordered a couple of the veggie dogs (not that one) and sprinted out as fast as possible. In fairness, the bite I had of one was not bad. But there was something offensive about their smell, and their very presence in the apartment, so I got out of there. When I returned a while later I didn't smell them anymore, and I didn't see the bag or anything. I asked, "What happened to those fake hot dogs?"
" I had to get rid of them," said Jennifer.
" Wow."
" I literally had to remove them from the apartment."
" I understand."
And so they were banished and capital letters and proper hot dogs were restored in our lives.

Red Gray's SignGray's Papaya
402 6th Ave., at 8th St.

After seeing Gray's featured on PBS's "The Hot Dog Show" alongside its uptown counterpart Papaya King, I wanted to visit them both and do a comparison. This seemed even more important after the fake hot dog trauma. Unfortunately I only made it to Gray's, but I'm lucky I even made it there, as I just bumped into it one day wandering around the Village. $2.45 gets you a dog and a cup of papaya juice. The dogs are on the slim side but they're all quality, with that real snap when you bite in. I enjoyed the juice, which comes out of a big whirling machine and has a froth that reminded me a bit of the sacred Orange Julius.

L'Annam Vietnamese Cuisine
121 University Place, at 13th St.

It's hard to beat some of the great San Francisco Vietnamese place's we've Courted over the years, but L'Annam gave it a shot. I had the large beef pho, a steal at $5.25. While it was no New Loi's, it was pretty damn good. I dined there with Adam Wolf Bassine and Jennifer Hope Stein, pictured here with me at the bar afterwards.


KumGangSan Korean Restaurant
49 W. 32nd St., at Broadway

To close my trip in grand eating style, I dined gluttonously at KumGangSan with Adam the Wolf and Magistrate Tavee. Turns out I had been here once before but under much more awkward conditions, and we had ordered poorly. Not this time.

It's a wild, overrun place with multiple floors and a piano player perched on a fake rock outcropping. The food is over the top too. Just look here at the wild array of side dishes you get with just about any entrée. I don't know what some of them were, but I tried nearly all of them and most were good. One you'll recognize for sure is the kimchi, and they'll bring you more if you're only comfortable eating that.

GrillageWe had a multitude of things, but I'd like to focus on the table grill. You can see why. Yeah, that's lobster in there!

We splurged on the Seafood Combination ($26.95), which has lobster, squid, octopus, giant shrimp, scallops, and red clams. For good measure we added the Bul Go Ki, thinly sliced marinated rib eye steak, represented in the right half of the photo. There are also vegetables to thrown on. You can feel free to grill the stuff on your own, but the waitress or waiter will also tend to it and check up and tell you when it seems done. We ate until we burst and everything was incredible. Grilling at the table lends the whole meal a level of excitement and comraderie. We also had some kind of pancake thing that Arty loves, and look now, here's ole Arty eating one.

Don't look so glum, Arty, I'll be back next spring!

Judge Vardigan







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