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Leaving the Echo Chamber

January 15, 2015

How did I turn into a cheerleader? Once upon a time I was a massive grump. I mean, look at that face. But recently I feel like I’ve been all about the pom poms.

My hope is that I’m no less critical of restaurants than when I moved out here in 2007. In those early days I was highly suspicious of those who would lift up our better restaurants and try to make an argument for a vibrant food scene.

I suppose there is still a difference between the me of today and the cheerleaders of the past. It’s a small difference, but it’s a meaningful one. I see plenty of bright spots. However, I also still see significant gaps. And not just the lack of an Ethiopian place either. Chef Dominic hit on some of the lapses in the culinary community a while back, and we don’t have to linger on them now. Because, believe it or not, I want to accentuate the positive.

Perhaps you remember a while back I asked for your help in spreading the word about those few great restaurants that exist under the radar? The idea was to try and find non-food-focused audiences with whom to share these businesses.

Earlier this week, I stumbled upon just such a place.

The Times-Union blogs are not always the most friendly corner of the internet. I’ve been the target of quite a few pot shots over there, and that’s fine. I’m a big boy and I can take it. You can’t write critically about places that people love without it coming back and biting you on the ass.

Still, I couldn’t resist taking a stab at the questioned posed by the On the Edge blog. At one point this was the biggest of the TU blogs when it was maintained by Kristi. I have no idea how it ranks in the newspaper’s blog portfolio these days. But it’s clearly less active than in its heyday.

Regardless, when a local pop culture blog asks, “What do you like to eat in the Capital Region?” Well, I’m going to be all over that. Be forewarned, I don’t do short form. My answer was probably a bit longer than anyone expected. Still, I’d like to share it with you in full:

Thanks for taking this on.

First, I have to say that the soup dumplings at Ala Shanghai are not only on par with what you can get in NYC, but the rich broth contained inside those thin wrappers beats most big city versions. It’s a real gem.

La Mexicana makes an incredible carnitas torta and totally solid lengua tacos (the chorizo tacos aren’t half bad either). The very fact that we can get authentic street tacos in the Capital Region is amazing.

Speaking of street food, Parivar has a counter service chaat cafe in the back of the grocery store for paper thin dosas and amazingly fun dishes like dahi puri that quite literally explode in your mouth with flavor.

On the domestic front, one of my favorite things to eat is the deep fried buffalo burger at Swifty’s in Delmar. I order mine rare and topped with the medium-spicy hot sauce. It’s an amazing feat of frying and it lights up all the pleasure centers in my brain.

Ralph’s makes the best mozzarella sticks with melba sauce. I was just reminded of that earlier today. The cheese is nice and salty with a good crisp crust. It’s balanced by a thick, seeded raspberry sauce that brings sweetness and a bit of acidity to the party. No place locally does it better.

Have you tried the tater tot’s from Comfort Kitchen is Saratoga Springs? They are amazing. This isn’t some ironic version of a childhood treat. These are made with love and care from local potatoes, for adults, with a bit of rosemary. It’s potatoes, elevated.

As long as we’re in Saratoga Springs, TC Bakery makes not just fantastic French macarons, but they have these caramelized hazelnuts that knock me out. They bring in a special cultivar called the DuChilly hazelnut and enrobe them in a hard caramel made from their own vanilla sugar.

Of course, the morning pastry classics from Mrs. London can’t be overlooked. I prefer their simple butter croissants to the sugar encrusted almond ones. And their cream scone is just about perfect with a crisp crust and tender crumb.

You know what else has a crisp crust and tender crumb? The cake donuts at Bella Napoli. Their filled yeast raised ones are pretty special too, but the chocolate iced cake donut? Talk about a crisp crust. This one is exceptional.

Brunch at The City Beer Hall. Pulled pork night at The Gastropub. Any cocktail from the Speakeasy. A bowl of noodles and broth at Taiwan Noodle. Wings at The Ruck. Pizza served in the dining room at Marino’s in Schenectady. A sub from one of our many fabulous Italian markets. Any of the rice noodle rolls at Hong Kong bakery. Gourmet grilled cheese sandwiches from The Cheese Traveler. Seriously, I could go on and on.

It’s hard to believe that at one point I had a hard time finding good things to eat in the region. The good things may be a bit spread out. You may need to drive. There may not be parking nearby. You might have to be brave and visit a neighborhood outside your comfort zone.

But I assure you, the rewards are worth it.

Perhaps the most amazing part is that the response was well received. Even my separate diatribe about the population of the Capital Region, it’s relative rank in the U.S., and how the population size of an area is really an irrelevant factor for the existence of a world class restaurant, got positive feedback.

Anyhow, I’m sharing this with you today, not to toot my own horn, But rather, to alert you to an opportunity to get your thoughts on good restaurants out to a non-food audience. Maybe you want to weigh in on the thread. That would be awesome. Or you could simply share the OTE discussion with people in your social media networks.

Perhaps the non food obsessed will be more responsive to recommendations coming within the context of a pop culture blog, than they would be to an esoteric list of unfamiliar places on a small, independent, local food blog.

The goal here isn’t to promote my writing. The goal is to get people to stop eating bad tacos and start eating good ones. The hope is to turn people away from the darkness of Dunkin’ Donuts and into the light of Bella Napoli (or some other excellent independent donut shop). The dream is to get people to leave their houses for pizza made fresh to order, and abandon forever those cardboard steam traps that doom a pizza crust to disaster.

Hopefully you’re willing to lend a click to the effort. Because once people clue in to the fact that food can be better, they’ll start to have less patience for the mediocrity that surrounds them.

I guess that doesn’t sound much like a cheerleader at all. Whew. Very good. Carry on then.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. EPT permalink
    January 15, 2015 7:01 pm

    Well I’ve only been to 2 places you mentioned. Ala Shanghai, which I was very disappointed in. Soup dumplings, in my opinion, sub par, as with the rest of the fare we had. Have you tried them at Red Farm in NYC. Mrs. London has always been great, pastries that can’t be beat. The Cheese Traveler, haven’t had their cooked food but the selection and knowledge is definitely there.

  2. David Nardolillo (DEN) permalink
    January 16, 2015 12:09 pm

    Good list. Nice to see Marino’s on it. If you can resist their pizza on the next trip, try their fried eggplant sandwich.

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