Two Ends of the Reading Rainbow

In food on 11/14/2010 at 1:03 pm

Not all diners are created equal. While the newly renovated Malibu Diner uptown screams glitz and glam, the food is actually below mediocre. We’ve tried it several times now, and we really want to like it because it looks like the prototypical diner, but….sigh.

Yesterday morning, after meandering in the new Pier C Park smack in the Hudson River, we decided to give the Spa Restaurant Coffee Shop another try. It’s an ugly squat brick building between to a gorgeous old hotel-turned condo building and its parking lot.

We were hoping against hope that the food was just a little better than the runny milkshake we sampled the other time. Inside, there are bright orange molded plastic formica booth bench seats on one side to match the equally gaudily-colored walls. It had the right blue-collar feel from the cracked and stained low-slung ceiling tiles that bore down over us.

The other half almost fell off the lopsided barstool. I had to give up my good one. The patrons at the stand alone tables had the light streaming on them like cats sunning themselves. There was only one TV.

The noise level was just about right, a pleasant buzz, and it was almost too busy. There was a steady flow of people ordering take-out breakfast sandwiches. The waitress took down our order: SEC hot and Up SR, meaning sausage egg and cheese sandwich with hot sauce and sunnyside up eggs with sausage and rye toast. She even asked me if I wanted the toast buttered, which I never do, but always forget that I can ask for that option. Greasy soggy bread never tastes good to me, even at a good diner.

Greasy soggy American breakfast, however, is chum to my belly. The above should be so easy to produce, and yet, and yet… There was a secret weapon hidden in these here home fries, chopped almost raw white onion. It brought a tear to my eye.

If you drench anything liberally with Heinz (not Hunt’s) ketchup and/or hot sauce, it should be palatable. But as proven with some non-organic, totally cage-fed diner breakfasts, there’s gotta be the right kitsch on the tiles lining the bar wall, and in the air, to make a place like this somewhere you want to make your home.

This begs the question, why does the other half allow us to eat such anti-granola cuisine? Our diner expert explains:

A: That’s a really good question. It goes against my entire food philosophy. But there’s something about a diner with fast good food and dingy, homey comfort. And I like eggs. Do you notice me getting anything else at a diner?

Q: But the eggs are from the chicken slave trade.

A: I can’t explain it. It’s the exception that proves the rule.

(Photos courtesy Sun’s Organic Garden)

The other half recently discovered this sole oasis of organic-megaly in Manhattan Chinatown. It was a jade place just a wink before. On the south side of Bayard, the stores come and go like the stench in the summertime.

We already have a fantastic tea store in Ten Ren, and their different grades of tea doled out from large golden cans are light years beyond the pre-packaged loose tea they also offer in terms of flavor,  delicacy and depth of taste. So how would an organic tea taste different? (I didn’t know they sprayed pesticides on tea plants).

Our tea expert explains: The organic one is a little bit sweeter, if you are comparing first quality Ti Kuan Yins. The principle of the matter is you don’t want to be ingesting all the pesticides you didn’t know about. They are about the same price, but can you really put a price tag on ethical behavior?

The first time we went, we were looking for a concotion to drink to clear up the other half’s skin. Nothing had worked, not even our super-duper skin aioli! We wanted something straight from the source, no pills. The gentleman working there recommended a concentrated ratio of 1:4 honeysuckle to chrysanthemum flowers, steeped for 10 minutes in simmering water, then kept in the fridge. The other half was game.

After two weeks of drinking a diluted 8oz glass of the brew, at least five times per week, it worked! The other half’s complexion went from angry blotchy to smoothie calm. There are still periodic breakouts, but it’s ten times better than it was before. In addition we use the spent flower mix as a tonic. At first they were just soaked on top of squares of paper towels, but the damp cloths were prone to colorful mold cultures. Now they infuse apple cider vinegar in a jar and the liquid is used as homemade toner.

About a month ago, when we were too lazy to trek to this place to replenish our supply of dried flowers, the other half’s endocrine system came raging back full force and wreaked havoc once again. It’s a bitter beverage, so adding honey to taste is allowed. Honey is good for complexion too.

The second time we visited the shop, a woman, who turned out to be the owner and resource of this homeopathic knowledge, helped us. The store is well-stocked in non-caffeinated items too, as well as other organic dry goods. They also make bubble tea. All they’re lacking is that special organic food store smell of purely processed earth. The sign above the counter transliterates to Sky, Earth, People, Harmony.

This past trip I started chatting her up to see what other tidbits I could glean. Lorna Lai is from Hong Kong, so another plus is she speaks English. The skin remedy is really for internal detoxification, a complete cleanse of impurities. Lorna suggested adding goji berries. Mother always told me they were good for vision. Next batch, I’ll add them, if not just for the natural sweetness they will impart.

I asked Lorna about stocking Chinese herbs. Her face lit up as she started talking about a well-renowned professor at the Pacific College of Oriental Medicine who promised her some recipes. Once she got them, she would order all the ingredients and package them into ready to brew sachets. She also has clientele who have written articles about the anti-cancer properties of green tea, and an Ayurvedic master who gave her recipes for combating fatigue, low energy and immune system deficits, in powdered and whole herb n’ berry forms.

I suggested Lorna expand the store to host lectures and teach classes on holistic medicine. She said she was barely breaking even. Rents on Canal Street run $10K/month. She pays about half as much. I said, what about the mafia protection fees? Initially, she scoffed and said there’s no such thing anymore. Then she related an anecdote where a couple of months ago, she found a sealed paper bag stuffed under her plant stand outside the storefront. When she opened it, she discovered a greasy, moldy whole fish. I guess a decapitated horse’s head would’ve drawn too much attention.

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