New in NYC: In-N-Out… er… I mean, Fresh-n-Fast burgers

I’m in the process of writing up notes from my two days of pure pork gluttony in Arkansas last week, but need to shoot off this quick dispatch. As an unashamed Southern California boy still in exile in New York, I’m always pining for a taste of home (honestly, half the reason I fly back to LA is for the fish tacos at Tacos Baja Ensenada). I have a routine when I travel to California. My first stop is always In-N-Out and my last stop before heading back to the airport is In-N-Out.

So, I was really taken aback when walking down 23rd street in Manhattan yesterday going to my office when I saw what, at a glance, looked exactly like an In-N-Out Burger (forgive the terrible quality cell-phone pictures):

fresh-n-fast burgers

It’s a new burger joint, just steps away from the uptown 6-train subway stop at 23rd Street. Clearly, they have In-N-Out as their model. Everything was a copy – the menu, the font, the color scheme, the red-striped tiling on the wall, the hyphenated “N” name, even the paper hats of the employees are In-N-Out ripoffs. They even tout the fact that everything is fresh and they don’t have a freezer. The only thing missing was a glass case of t-shirts for sale with pictures of California beaches.

fresh-n-fast menu

Having a blatant In-N-Out rip off in NYC both intrigued and annoyed me. I’d love an In-N-Out burger locally, but I’m not sure how I feel about the obvious copying of the entire In-N-Out restaurant. I did a quick search and it looks like I’m not the only one who has noticed the striking similarities.

So, like any good expat, I decided to give it a try. The first difference is the price. A single burger will set you back $4.24, cheeseburgers are $4.74, fries are $2.60. But more striking is that a double cheeseburger goes north of $7 and a shake is more than $4. Those are Shake Shack prices.

Having eaten literally thousands of In-N-Out burgers in my lifetime, I think I’m a pretty good benchmark.

fresh-n-fast burger

The Fresh-N-Fast burger is actually pretty decent, with a soft pillowy white-bread bun that compacts under the burger, crisp iceberg lettuce, and nice red tomatoes. Fresh-N-Fast burgers also have an In-N-Out-esque thousand island like sauce. But the big difference is the patty. The Fresh-N-Fast patty was bland with little flavor and a slight cardboard-like texture. It may not have been frozen, but it still didn’t have a beefy freshness to it either (where Shake Shack excels). Don’t get me wrong, the burger isn’t terrible. It’s a competent burger, satisfies the urge and can be acquired quickly.

Their fries are slightly thicker than In-N-Outs, but are similarly weak – I’ve never been a fan of In-N-Out’s fries. Fresh-N-Fast’s fries may have been a bit better, but it’s all relative to me.

Frankly, if it didn’t try and rip off In-N-Out so blatantly, I’d probably think much higher of Fresh-N-Fast. But because they explicitly welcome the comparison, I have to declare that they just don’t measure up. And comparing to similarly styled burgers in NYC, I’d still give a big advantage to the Burger Joint at the Parker Meridien followed by the Shake Shack.

All that said, it does have one big leg up on Shake Shack. On a sunny day, you won’t have to wait an hour for your burger. And for those of us who don’t have interns to send down to wait in line for us… that’s a big plus.

Fresh-N-Fast
111 East 23rd Street
New York, NY 10010


The road to the US Open is paved with tacos and kebabs

I’ve had 15 half-written food posts that I’ve been sitting on – some for more than six months. So I’m going to attempt to unclog the bottleneck here with a few of these posts. They won’t be fully fleshed out, take it as you will. First is below.

As I’ve noted before, I’ve been somehow successful in keeping IBM’s sports sponsorship as a small part of my communications beat at IBM. It’s great, doesn’t require a lot of time and allows me to dabble in sports PR and sports social media.

One of our premier sponsorships is the US Open Tennis Championship. Held in Queens, NY at the end of every summer and, it’s one of the quintessential New York cultural experiences. And while the tennis is spectacular, and the work generally successful, what I really get excited about is the excuse it gives me to hunt for tacos in Queens.

So, on my way to work at the Open on one particular day, I decided to get off the 7-Train at 74th St, and eat the rest of my way toward the Tennis Center, snacking on tacos, quesadillas, sopes and kebabs along Roosevelt Ave. Below are some of my notes.

Tacqueria Coatzingo. 7605 Roosevelt Ave, Queens, NY

Photo courtesy of Yelp

I have been to Tacqueria Coatzingo a few times before, but my last visit had been at least three years ago. I recently started a query on Chowhound for the latest in spit-roasted tacos al pastor. Coatzingo rose to the top of that discussion, so I decided to start my crawl there. As one of the few places that roasts their al pastor on a spit, Coatzingo automatically gets bonus points.

The tacos al pastor at Coatzingo are very good. Deeply flavorful pork, marinated in adobo, then roasted on a vertical spit giving it a nice char. Generous portions topped with onions, cilantro and avocado salsa (this is the thin, ubiquitious Mexican salsa de aguacate, not the common chunky American guacamole). A good, solid taco al pastor.

Taco cart @ 74th and Roosevelt, Queens

Unfortunately I didn’t take a picture and can’t remember the exact name, but this cart on the south side of Roosevelt, right at the 74th street intersection and below 7 Station puts out very good tacos al pastor. In fact, they are about as good as any non spit-roasted tacos al pastor can be. Huge portions of flavorful pork, served with chunks of pineapple, onions, cilantro and salsa de aguacate. I actually preferred the flavor of the adobo marinade to Coatzingo’s tacos al pastor, but Coatzingo’s cooking method (i.e. spit) gives it an edge. Regardless, this was a good, fat, tasty taco.

Kebab King 7301 37th St. (73rd & Broadway)

Kebab King is near legendary amongst Indian and Pakistani circles. It’s a 24-hour Pakistani restaurant that has a reputation for serving some of the best, authentic Pakistani food around. I caught Kebab King at the right time – during Ramadan – which ensured small lines during daylight hours. There are probably some better places with nicer settings, but Kebab King (the Queens location, not Manhattan) holds up to any of them.

Since I was on the move, I stuck to mobile food – kebabs: Lamb, beef and chicken to be exact. All three were of similar style, consisting of meat ground with spices, herbs, marinated (I think) in yogurt and chiles, then shaped around a skewer and cooked over a live fire. I didn’t see a lot of taste variance between the three kebabs, but all were good so I didn’t complain. (Note: subsequent conversations with Kebab King patrons and friends pointed me to other parts of the menu, like the tandoori fish, beef nihari, chicken biryani and szechuan goat. Some I’ve sampled since, some I haven’t. Stay tuned for another report just on Kebab King).

Tacos Guichos Cart – Roosevelt & 84th

tacos guicho - queens

Taking a break from the al pastor tacos I’d been sampling, I grabbed a carnitas taco from the Tacos Guichos cart at Roosevelt and 89th. While I do love tacos al pastor, carnitas (good ones, that is) probably rank at the very top of my taco food chain. Well, just under the angelic baja fish taco. This was a great carnitas taco: tender, mildly caramelized, super rich pork, overflowing the two tortillas on which its served. Garnished with onions, cilantro and salsa, it’s was a beautiful marriage making a glutton of anyone who eats it.

Random taco stand at 99th and Roosevelt

taco cart 99th and roosevelt

Along Roosevelt Avenue, you’ll find any number of taco stands that sell fresh quesadillas. This particular cart had no name anywhere to be found. It sits on a lonely corner at 99th and Roosevelt on the NE side of the intersection. If, for some forsaken reason, you haven’t had a real Mexican quesadilla, it’s well worth the $2-$3 treat. Almost always made with fresh masa, they consist of large corn tortillas, pressed to about a 10-inch diameter, then cooked on a hot, dry griddle and filled with any number of ingredients.

quesadillas on roosevelt ave

My choice for today was huitlacoche. An ingredient not all that common in this part of the country. Inky black and earthy in flavor, huitlacoche is my favorite quesadilla filling. At this unnamed taco stand, they are done very well. Huitlacoche mixed with onions, chiles and cheese. When cooked, huitlacoche almost melts, giving the quesadilla a rich creaminess that makes it a near perfect treat.

Tortilleria Nixtamal, 104-05 47th Ave, Queens, NY

Ok, so it’s not really on the way, and I’ve been going to Tortilleria Nixtamal regularly now for about seven months, but I still had to stop by on my walk over to the tennis center. I’ll spare more details for a full post (which also has been partially written for 6+ months now) but I ordered the fish tacos. Made with fresh skate that’s lightly pan fried, they are somewhat non traditional, but still very good. These are single-tortilla tacos that come three to an order (as do all of their tacos). The pictures here are from a visit about 6 months ago.

IMG00116-20090408-1309 IMG00117-20090408-1312

As I mentioned, much more (belatedly) on Tortilleria Nixtamal in the very near future, but as a preview, I’ll leave you with this picture, taken outside of Nixtamal. Care to guess what it’s for? A hint… lard. Lots and lots of lard…

outdoor carnitas vat at tortilleria nixtamal


A Chau Deli in NYC closing

Sadly, it looks like A Chau Deli in NYC’s Chinatown, is closing it’s doors due to high rent. A Chau has been my reliable banh mi provider for a few years now, so this is a big bummer for me. Luckily Baoguette is only a few blocks from work, but even still, this isn’t a positive improvement for the state of the banh mi in NYC.

I think it’s time for an all out banh mi showdown in NYC. First I’ve got to write up my Westchester Empanada report though…


Everything I learned about social media, I learned from tacos

If you know me, you know one thing. I love food. I really love food. And tacos are generally the focus of my unhealthy food preoccupation. Almost a decade ago I moved to the East coast and out of sheer self preservation, I started what has become a never ending quest to find the perfect taco.

Now that my day job is centered around social media at IBM, I’m realizing the  process of searching for, learning about and sharing great tacos has given me better training in the dynamics of social media than anything else I could have done. 

Following are some lessons I’ve learned about communities and social media, all thanks to the humble taco.

  1. Go where the communities are already congregated on the topic. When I really want to have a conversation about where to find the best food, I don’t start them on this blog. I ALWAYS go to Chowhound.com first. (and trust me, the thousands of contributions I’ve made there over the past eight years are a testament to spending WAY too much time in community efforts).  While my blog might attract a few people (me, my wife, my mom, etc.), thousands are already congregated on Chowhound talking about where to find the best food. My goal is to find great food. My blog isn’t where that happens. I write my blog merely as a means to aggregate my random contributions online, but for real insight, I go to where the community already exists, where the conversations are already lively and the information sharing is the most helpful.
    Lesson: If you build it doesn’t mean they will come. Someone else has likely already built it. Go there first.
  2. Want value? Add value. The quality of what you get from a community is directly correlated to the value of your contributions into the community. This is self explanatory, but suffice to say that the quality of taco recommendations I got increased the more I gave recommendations to the community. Building a level of trust and credibility is paramount to affecting other people’s behavior – including what they offer you, and what they do as a result of what you offer them.
    Lesson: If you want to win friends and influence people, you’ve got to add value to the community. And “value” is defined by the community, not you.
  3. Listen, learn, follow. The great thing about communities is that you are never the smartest or most informed person in the community (if you are, I’d question either your community or your humility). Of all the great tacos I’ve found in NYC, Westchester or Fairfield counties over the past eight years, I’ve rarely been the first to discover them. Usually, someone else has already been there and reported about it. Those tips are often hard to find but through carefully listening, then following those tips, I’ve found some GREAT tacos. Listening preceded finding great tacos. Plus, I was able to see some of the dumb mistakes members made that alienated the rest of the community. Taking a listening-first approach helped me avoid many of those mistakes.
    Lesson: Listen first and you’ll learn things you didn’t even know you were there to learn about. You’ll also understand the explicit and implicit behavioral rules of the community.
  4. Closed loop. I’ve found the more I close the feedback loop, the more valuable feedback I end up getting. Finding tacos requires a lot of probing, asking and discovering. As I’ve taken people’s recommendations to try a certain taqueria, reporting back on those experiences often generates more discussion than the original query. Plus, it has the added benefit of assuring community members their contributions are considered and valued.
    Lesson: Companies would do well to create a more closed feedback loop, illustrating how community contributions are having an effect.
  5. It’s a long-term commitment. If I’d measured the value of the tacos I ate as a direct result of my participation in food communities after the first few months, I’m not sure I would have stuck around any longer. But, I took a long-term view – let’s be honest, food is a lifelong effort – and stuck to it. Over time, I found incredible value from the community (i.e., I eat better now than ever before).
    Lesson: Community focused efforts by companies are often short term in nature. And even when the mission is long term, if the measurements are short term, momentum quickly fades and companies drop their efforts.
  6. It’s not just about blogging. Blogging might be the poster child of Web 2.0, but blogs have not been that helpful in helping me find great tacos. Frankly, the best tools I’ve found in discovering food has been old-school message boards. That’s what chowhound originally was, and, in reality, still is. But that’s where people can share the most information and communities can get the best contribution. After all, forums are the original wiki.
    Lesson: Companies often take a myopic view with social media and focus on the Web 2.0 tool du jour. But sometimes the best solutions are the most boring. Find what works given the intent of the mission.
  7. Avoid any place that sells “hard shell tacos”. OK, I’m not sure how this relates, but let’s be honest, Taco Bell sucks and if you eat there, what you do with anything else in your life really won’t matter that much.
    Lesson: Got some great food tips? Share them.

Now I’m hungry.


In search of banh mi greatness in NYC

Ever since I spent considerable time in the heavily Vietnamese sections of Sydney, Australia, I’ve been infatuated with the natural fusion of French-Vietnamese food. As missionaries, in the morning we’d head out of the flat and the first thing we’d do is find a Vietnamese bakery for the best croissants or ham and cheese croissants in the city. They were amazing.

For some reason, however, I don’t remember eating many banh mi sandwiches, which are, in my estimation, the pinnacle of all east-west fusion foods: a warm, crusty baguette filled with fresh vegetables – usually pickled daikon, julienned carrots, cucumber, onion and cilantro – and a number of possible choices for meat – from vietnamese meatballs or roast pork to pate or fish balls. At worst, the sandwiches are a great break from the standard lunch fare. At best, they are one of the most satisfying foods on earth. All hyperbole intended.

It wasn’t until I moved to New York City that I really got sucked into the world of the banh mi sandwich.

Over the years, I’ve been trying to find the best banh mi in the city. After many a lunch in Chinatown scouting lots of possibilities, here are my top three:

  1. A Chau Deli
    82 Mulberry St,
    New York, NY
    (212) 766-3332


    I stumbled on A Chau more than two years ago. It’s on the edge of Chinatown on Mulberry street a little south of Canal. It’s a tiny shop that sells little more than six different varieties of bahn mi sandwiches. Great crusty bread, spicy sliced jalapeños and a perfect salty-sweet sauce makes these my favorites. Banh mi sandwiches run around $4, depending on the choice of meat.

  2. Saigon Banh Mi Sandwich
    369 Broome St.
    New York, NY
    (212) 219-8341


    Frankly, I really don’t know the proper name of this place. It’s either Saigon Sandwich, Banh Mi, or, as Google Maps calls it, Banh Mi So #1. Whatever the case, this is another great banh mi deli-style restaurant in the north section of Little Italy, just shy of SoHo. Like A Chau, there are no tables. The banh mi sandwiches there are excellent. I think the bread at A Chau is slightly better, but the sandwiches here are excellent, as long as you get them fresh. They premake a lot of them, so try to get ones freshly made. Banh mi sandwiches run around $4.
  3. Bao’s Noodles
    391 2nd Ave.
    New York, NY
    (212) 725-7770

    Bao’s is a restaurant of a different ilk than the others. First, it’s in Murray Hill, near the corner of 23rd and 2st. Second, it’s a proper restaurant, serving Banh Mi, Pho and other Vietnamese fare. And third, it’s clearly aware of it’s non-Chinatown surroundings, offering a more typical midscale Manhattan restaurant feel, while serving good Vietnamese mildly tailored for an American palate. The banh mi sandwiches are very good, though not quite as authentic. Nevertheless, the sandwiches are still excellent. My favorite, the grilled chicken banh mi (marinated, grilled chicken thighs), runs around $6.95. And while I’d prefer the option of having daikon and jalapeños on the sandwich, the fact that it’s close to work and would be perfectly suitable for any non adventurous eater too, it scores highly.

So, those are my top three. What are yours?


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