A cheap eats smackdown: New York vs. Washington

December 20, 2011

NEW YORK — As we sit in a booth at Maialino in the Gramercy Park Hotel, devouring a roast-pork-and-fried-egg sandwich good enough to heal the sick, two of Ed Levine’s staffers start dishing about their boss’s myopia in selecting his favorite haunts for “Serious Eats: A Comprehensive Guide to Making & Eating Delicious Food Wherever You Are.” Apparently, Levine wanted to lard a category or two in Serious Eats’ debut book with New York City restaurants, which could have instantly undercut the national scope of the project.

Neither national editor Erin Zimmer nor New York editor Carey Jones are looking to start a fight with their boss at our breakfast table. They’re essentially teasing a guy who has been scouring the deepest recesses of New York for good eats, serious or otherwise, long before either of these transplanted Cali­fornians smelled their first bag of rotting garbage on the streets of Manhattan. (My first cheap shot, and I’m just in the second paragraph!)

See the full results of the cheap eats smackdown.


Ed Levine makes a careful study of the Pattison Avenue sandwich from Taylor Gourmet. It features roast pork, broccoli rabe and sharp provolone cheese on a classic Italian sesame seed sub roll. (Michael S. Williamson/WASHINGTON POST)

In a way, Zimmer and Jones are showing off their management skills. Despite their youth — Zimmer is 26 and Jones 25 — they’re proving they can counsel one of the most singularly focused minds in food writing, the author of “New York Eats,” the contributor of numerous articles to the New York Times (my fave: his look into the dark underbelly of Gotham’s bagel world) and the founder in December 2006 of SeriousEats.com. These editors have learned how to take a big bite out of Levine’s Big Apple bias. And all Levine can do in return is laugh at his employees’ chutzpah. He knows they’re right. He’s a homer all the way.

This is exactly what I was afraid of when my own boss and I devised our little project, a riff on Serious Eats’ new book, in which the site’s editors and writers combed the country for the best burgers, sandwiches, breakfasts, bakeries and the like. We decided to do what no city in its right mind should ever attempt: We decided to go toe to toe with Levine’s beloved New York City. Could Washington’s best eateries and dishes stand up to those found in the five boroughs? And if they did, would Levine even admit it? Could he be an impartial critic?

Perhaps due to my own prejudice — I imagine that New Yorkers view the rest of the country like Baryshnikov must view “Dancing With the Stars”— I figured it’d be virtually impossible for Levine to deem any dish, let alone an entire establishment, better than a parallel found in New York. But I also figured that Washingtonians, by dint of our long-standing inferiority complex with our northern neighbor, tend to fawn over too many dishes placed under our noses in Manhattan, as if the City That Never Sleeps also never makes a mistake. Neither position would be helpful in this smackdown.

To be fair, I have to say that Levine is my kind of eater. When he finds something he likes, he likes it with every quivering molecule of his being. That dish, that restaurant, becomes his friend for life. He is not afraid to gush, and he’s not afraid to criticize. Now 59, Levine came of age before irony was cool, and his opinions and thoughts often reflect that. His honesty can be startling, as many of his generation intend their sincerity to be: a slap to those in power who lied over and over again. Levine can even say something like, “We want to tell the stories of all the people who populate the food culture and tell the stories of all the delicious foods we encounter,” and you don’t immediately cringe.

It’s hard to dislike Ed Levine.

When Levine showed up in Washington for the first half of our eating odyssey, I quickly learned two things about him. First off, he’s no food snob. He embraced the short-order Mid-Atlantic, gentrified soul-food vibe of Market Lunch as we dug into our disposable plates of breakfast food along the communal counter at Eastern Market. “It’s one of those places that you want to be good,” he confides. “It plain feels right.”

The other thing I learned is that Levine doesn’t drink coffee or alcohol. He never developed much taste for them, which I imagine has frustrated more than one chef and/or sommelier during Levine’s nearly two decades of tasting food for a living. It certainly frustrated my attempt to take him to one of Washington’s best coffee shops. I ordered a hand-pour at Peregrine Espresso on Capitol Hill. Levine ordered a hot chocolate, which the clerk behind the register had the guts to call “world renowned.” Levine found it so sweet he chucked it in the trash outside the shop’s door.

More often than not, Levine proved generous toward the dishes/restaurants that The Post’s Food section picked as our city’s representatives in this seven-category challenge. Only once did he find himself on unfamiliar turf, during the late morning, when we stopped for street food at the Fojol Bros. of Benethiopia, that rolling carnival of Ethiopian finger foods. Levine made the mistake of grabbing a pair of sporks for our meals, a rookie move for which I taunted him as if he were a Red Sox fan in Yankee Stadium. He knew as soon as he picked up the utensils that he was busted.

He admitted that he probably hadn’t sampled Ethiopian food, a staple around Washington, in about 20 years. “It’s messy,” Levine noted about Benethiopia’s stews, “but really good street food.”

Levine was more than a passive participant in our D.C. adventure. When the timing for our planned stopover at Palena Cafe proved too tight for Levine’s comfort — he really wanted to catch the 6 p.m. train back to New York — he hatched a plan that chef Frank Ruta’s team embraced without batting an eye. Levine suggested I call them, anonymously, and see if they could prepare two cheeseburgers to go around 5 p.m., a good 30 minutes before the cafe opened. Levine’s reaction to Ruta’s patty was as satisfying as the truffled cheeseburger itself.

“That’s seriously delicious,” he said after I told him his first two reactions were unprintable in a curse-free zone like The Post. “That’s certainly the best hamburger I’ve had in this town.”

Several days later, my similarly hectic spin through New York’s best cheap eats had a completely different flavor, in large part because some of the dishes weren’t so cheap. We dropped more than $100 on breakfast at Danny Meyer’s Maialino; granted, it was for four people, because both Jones and Zimmer (the latter a Georgetown graduate and a friend of mine) dined with us. Later in the day, three of us spent $29 on gelato alone at Otto, Mario Batali’s enoteca and pizzeria. “Cheap” is a relative term in New York.

I gave Levine a small cushion in the burger category, which we agreed should be capped at $12 (a Machiavellian ploy on my part since I knew the exact price of Palena’s offering). I suggested that Levine could select a burger that was up to $2 more expensive, since one source pegged New York’s cost of living at about 14 percent higher than Washington’s, but Levine exploited my offer by picking a $16 burger on the lunch menu at Prime Meats in Brooklyn. The same half-pound certified Black Angus burger was even pricier ($18) at dinner, when we sampled it. Levine justified the cost because it came with hand-cut fries, which are available only as a side at Palena Cafe for $7.

That haggling over price struck me as one of the primal differences between Washingtonians and New Yorkers: Washingtonians will look for any angle that might give them an advantage in a side-by-side comparison with Gotham. New Yorkers just don’t sweat the details that much. They know they’re good at every price point. Which is why when Levine submitted his grades (on a scale of 0 to 100) on the food we’d sampled in both cities, I was shocked (and tickled) to see him cast aside his New York bias — in one category.

See the full results of the cheap eats smackdown.

Tim Carman serves as the full-time writer for the Post's Food section and as the $20 Diner for the Weekend section, a double duty that requires ingesting more calories than a draft horse.
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