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A Seven-Course, Seven-Stop Manhattan Meal

By Ellen Ryan
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, February 18, 2009

"I Got Your Atkins Right Here!" says one sign. "Low Fat F%&#@ That," reads another. Only in New York City: rice pudding with attitude.

Rice to Riches (37 Spring St., 212-274-0008, http://www.ricetoriches.com) is one of more than half a dozen "single cuisine" spots in or around Greenwich Village, mini-restaurants that specialize in one food, aggressively, sometimes in endless variations.

Inside, Rice to Riches is bright, painted in creamy greens, ivories and oranges, its tiny tables overseen by tinier spotlights. You order at the counter from 17 year-round flavors and 15 others that rotate by season. Just reading the names could hold up the constant line: Take Me to Tiramisu, Sex Drugs and Rocky Road, Fluent in French Toast, I'll Take Eggnog for $200 Alex. And then there are 10 toppings.

Another sign: "All Calories Consumed Here Are Yours to Keep." Subtle this place ain't.

My friend Marilyn Matarrese and I stumbled on this place one night last year; like most newbies, we ordered the solo size, $6 for eight ounces. Insiders choose larger sizes to share, up to the 80-ounce Moby ($40). The Sumo (40 ounces, $22.50) is the only one that ships.

But is it good? You bet. In its six years in business, Rice to Riches has sold more than 12 million ounces of rice pudding. The place has won raves from reviewers as far away as Australia.

I was fascinated. When Marilyn mentioned a few other one-food eateries, I wondered: Could these be combined to make a seven-course meal? Could we walk off the calories in between? I recruited Marilyn and another New York native, Dennis Murphy of the District's Takoma neighborhood, to find out.

First stop: BB Sandwich Bar (120 W. Third St., 212-473-7500), a sliver of a spot in the West Village. Slogan: "The best damn cheese steak. Period." Choices: chicken or beef. The beef sandwich boasts a poppy seed kaiser roll, marinated Spanish onions, 4 1/2 ounces of prime Angus rib-eye, white American cheese and a tomatoey sauce for $5.

"Good complementary flavors," says Dennis, licking his lips. "Exceptional bun," Marilyn says between bites.

Former restaurateur Gary Thompson opened BB in early 2002 to sellout crowds. Danny Tong and a partner bought the place and the recipe and added the chicken option -- plus Tonnie's Minis, a cupcake business that sublets a counter a few feet to the right. I buy a red velvet for the road because we're off to . . .

Second stop: Beard Papa's, a Japanese import selling fresh-filled cream puffs and little else. The West Village branch (5 Carmine St., 212-255-4675, http://www.muginohousa.com) has no seats, just a counter, a few small ovens and two puff-filling machines. Choose your flavor (strawberry for me, $2.15) and watch as the server stuffs a puff with custard and fresh whipped cream.

Between the cream and the fact that this is a choux pastry shell inside a mini pie crust, I stop at one. Many people don't: There are six- and 12-piece boxes. One puff has 220 calories, 120 of them from fat. Good thing we're on foot.

Third stop: Peanut Butter & Co. Sandwich Shop (240 Sullivan St., 212-677-3995, http://www.ilovepeanutbutter.com), which offers dozens of options, all but a handful for peanut-butter devotees. The 16 sandwiches -- on white, wheat or vegan black, crusts removed on request -- include the simple PB with jam, Marshmallow Fluff or Nutella; the Elvis (with bananas and honey; bacon $1 extra); and the Heat Is On (with grilled chicken, pineapple and spices).

My enormous, delicious Peanut Butter Cup (with Nutella, $6) comes cut in half on a blue plate with small bags of carrot sticks and potato chips. Chips are perfect for scooping up blobs of PB&N on the plate; naturally, they taste great together.

We grin at nostalgia-inducing posters for Sunbeam bread and Skippy. Show tunes can't drown out the crowd. Dennis and I are squeezed and jostled at one of the 10 tables; good thing Marilyn's buying up jars of flavored peanut butter to take home.

There are 10 dessert choices here, but I'm already concerned about nutritional meltdown.

Fourth stop: Rice to Riches. Dennis hasn't been yet, and its location about 11 blocks southeast makes the colorful stroll down Bleecker and Mulberry streets as worthwhile as the yummy reward.

We return north toward Broadway -- where Marilyn, an actress, is headed for work -- and make a slight detour to another Beard Papa's (740 Broadway, 212-353-8888). "For research purposes," I tell Dennis. Lo and behold, this location is three times the size, and the fancier neighborhood means cakes, pie slices, breads and crepes in addition to cream puffs.

Fifth stop: Pommes Frites (123 Second Ave., 212-674-1234, http://www.pommesfrites.ws), which serves not French fries but "authentic Belgian fries," in the East Village. It's another sliver of a shop, with three minuscule tables and four counter seats in back.

Owner Suzanne Levinson, backpacking through Europe in the late 1980s, discovered "the most amazing eating sensation that I had ever taken part in": twice-fried Belgian potato slices. Home in New York, she experimented with the recipe, asked the Small Business Administration for help, left her job and opened Pommes Frites in January 1997.

Since then she says she has served well over a million paper cones of hot fries (regular, $4.50). She seems likely to equal that today, with a line out the door. Twenty-five dipping sauces include pomegranate teriyaki mayo, Irish curry and barbecue. There's also poutine (fries with Canadian cheddar and chicken gravy). Would the Belgians approve?

Sixth stop: Dumpling Man (100 St. Mark's Pl., 212-505-2121, http://www.dumplingman.com). Like Pommes Frites, this East Village hole in the wall packs them in for one thing -- in this case, northern Chinese pot stickers. Lucas Lin, a Taiwanese immigrant, opened the shop because the dumplings hereabouts weren't up to his standards.

These are up to ours. The veggie variety (90 cents) consists of soft tofu, smoked tofu and shiitake mushrooms. Mmm. The chef reportedly spent a year perfecting his shrimp dumpling (99 cents), and it shows. Other varieties are pork, chicken, mustard green/tofu/mushroom, "cassava crepe," banana/pine nut/goji berry, and "sweetie pie," with pumpkin-pie mix, raisins, honey, goji berries and condensed milk.

Those last ones seem an acquired taste, and we've become more discriminating (read: full). Besides, it's more fun to stop chewing and just watch from the dim back counter as two women make more dumplings by the trayful.

Our multi-course moving meal is almost at an end. All day I've been anticipating our final destination . . .

Seventh stop: S'mac, short for Sarita's Macaroni & Cheese (345 E. 12th St., 212-358-7912, http://www.smacnyc.com). Its wide window glows orange in the darkness; there are orange plastic chairs, brick and yellow walls and a counter sign reading "Ease your lactose intolerance! Fast-acting lactaid pills 75ยข each."

I order a small Garden Lite, Dennis the Mediterranean ($7.25 each) -- after dithering over 4 Cheese, Napoletana and more. We finally snag a table next to exposed brick before individual iron skillets arrive, piping hot on wooden trays. We breathe in, dig in and . . .

Dennis picks at the dish. I collapse on the table. "Dinner" is worth the wait, but we've been chowing all day, and our feet ache. Thank goodness for leftovers boxes, piled nearby.

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