Perhaps a more appropriate title for this week’s post would be Thirsty Thursday. Due to various commitments, our usual crew was unable to gather this Wednesday. I had a particularly busy week at work and was only available to engage in social activity Thursday evening, when I went out for my buddy Marko’s younger brother’s 21st birthday. Twenty-first birthdays are the best, especially when you’re not the one turning 21–numerous free shots at first seem like a gift, but really they’re more like a curse. On my way home I stopped at my favorite late night munchie spot in the city, an unassuming bodega on Flatbush avenue in Brooklyn called 310 Deli and Convenience.
I don’t think it would be possible for me to stress how much I love 24 hour eating establishments. Whether it was the diner on my corner growing up (shout out to Argo–RIP), the Denny’s of my college years, or the all night kebab stand, each one stands up on its own merits. And while the food is usually good, that is not the merit I am referring to. What I am talking about is that no matter the hour, the weather, or the level of inebriation of the customer, places like these will serve you something hot and calorie-heavy. As any one who has shopped at a rapidly depleted pre-hurricane supermarket will tell you, scarcity breeds demand (i.e. canned frank and beans look a lot better when the only other options are spam and spam lite) and the same thing happens with places that serve food for 24 hours. It’s not like you have an endless variety of choice, but you can usually count on a burger and fries, bacon egg and cheese, or something vaguely middle eastern in origin, and it will almost always do the trick–especially if that trick is to provide an abdominal sponge.
In the case of the location of my Thursday night meal (or, more accurately, my Friday morning-five-hours-before-I-have-to-shamefully-show-myself-at-work breakfast), all were available. Where was this golden egg laying goose? In one of the more surprising places imaginable: the way-back of a grimy looking deli with a modest storefront that offered no indication of the riches it offered towards the rear. I realized later that there is a sign indicating “Coffee Shop Open: Breakfast Lunch Dinner” on the window, but I am not going to let facts get in the way of my narrative. The entrance to this store is not a single yard away from the stairway leading to the 7th avenue B/Q subway station, which is exceedingly odd if you ask me–not necessarily the fact of it’s existence in this location, but that it’s the first thing you see when exiting the subway and last thing you see before entering; is this good for business or bad? Are people in too much of a rush to stop by or is it the perfect location for a pre-ride or post-ride snack or drink? Some mysteries will never be answered.
Anyway, in the far back of this deli, adjacent to the beer fridge, there is a lunch counter (a straight-up 1950’s lunch counter) and a simple, open kitchen: a tiny prep area, two deep fryers, a microwave, and a large griddle. The overnight overseer of this domain is a self-effacing cook by the name of Said. He is the man; recognizes all the regulars, friendly to newcomers, but never effusive, just low-key–exuding an air of competence. I sidle up to the counter and ask Said for the usual: chicken cutlet on a roll with bacon, lettuce, tomato, onion, mayo, and a large, extra crispy order of curly fries. It wasn’t necessary to verbalize the order–he knows me too well at this point–rather it was to indicate that I wasn’t going to engage in one of my semi-regular pig out sessions that usually involve multiple fried ‘appetizers’, a hero instead of a roll, extra cheese, and sometimes a fried egg–my arteries breathed a sigh of relief. The food comes quick and Said gets a big tip (my order of fries is so large that the plastic top of the to-go container is hanging on for dear life).
I’ll never forget when I stumbled on to this place late one Friday night a few years ago. It was one of those sweltering August nights where sitting on a subway platform, between the overpowering stench and the immediate perspiration that accompanied even the tiniest movement, is near-agony. After disembarking the subway, in my rush to escape the still underground air, I nearly walked right past it. But being new to the neighborhood–not to mention dry-mouthed and surprisingly peckish despite the heat–I decided to pop in, check out a potentially go-to late night snack spot, and get a bag of chips and a drink. My heart skipped a beat when I opened the door and, after being hit by a wall of bacon scent, saw that at the far back of the deli there was a busy lunch counter catering to a diverse group of customers, many of whom were clutching bottles sheathed in brown bags. Those brown bag clad bottles could only be one thing and at that point I knew I would never to have to risk burning my apartment down in an ill-advised late night spaghetti session, all my moonlight munchie needs could be met by the establishment that lay before me.
The food is almost secondary to the magical allure of this place–its unlikely location and even more unlikely quality and convenience are the salient elements–but the food is quite good in its way. It’s fast and to the point, there is nothing extraneous to distract you from the task at hand: “You want a burger? With lettuce, tomato, onion? Ketchup and mayo? Fries? Regular or curly?” Those questions along with the type of beer you drink while waiting for the food are the extent of decision making that goes into the endeavor. Besides that, all you have to do is sit back and chat with your neighbor (whether that person is a possible vagrant, a fellow debauchee, or an extremely early morning/late night commuter) and wait to be served.
(About Mensday Wednesday: Being located in New York City gives us the opportunity to sample a wide array of food. After all, there are over 20,000 restaurants here and in a huge city, built on the contributions of immigrants, which continues to draw people from every corner of the world, it is statistically probable that there exists a commercial enterprise operating to meet everyone’s taste, as disparate as those tastes may be. There are no set requirements as to where we dine, but a sort of tacit set of rules have emerged: price is important–the final bill should never cause us to wince, ‘international’ cuisine is preferred, and in the event of a debate, byob is the trump card.)
Calder Quinn is a fearless gastronome exploring New York City one restaurant at a time and the eldest son of Lucinda Scala Quinn, Living’s Executive Editorial Director of Food.
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