Ajisen Ramen

As promised, the Brunch with Bear team is warming up your winter, one bowl of ramen at a time! This time around, we bring you to Ajisen Ramen, an international group of ramen houses. Following a little excursion relating to the Empire State Building back in the fall, a friend and I agreed to go to dinner and we walked past Ajisen Ramen, enticed by the idea of warm soup noodles.

ajisen (logo)

Ajisen, according to their website, was established in 1968 in Japan, and has since branched out around the world to many countries, including China and the United States. Their distinct logo of a little girl holding a bowl of ramen is visible across the country, from my homeland of Southern California to their location in Midtown Manhattan.

ajisen (restaurant)

This particular branch is located in the middle of the flower markets on 28th Street between 6th and 7th Avenues. The shop is a short walk away from the 28th Street stops on the 1, 6, N, and R trains, and near the local attractions of Herald Square and the Flatiron Building. Easy to stop in and grab a cheap, warm bite!

ajisen (toppings)

Unless you’ve seen it elsewhere before, Ajisen doesn’t look like an international chain at first sight. The little plastic sushi plates in the window and worn furniture suggest more of a neighborhood feel, like A-12, rather than the expected cut-and-paste look of a franchise. The table was set with chopsticks and a little trio of chili oil, furikake (the special seaweed salt seasoning), and soy sauce, suggesting that the restaurant anticipated customers familiar with eating ramen.

ajisen (menu)

Our waitress was friendly and brought our water out very quickly. The best part was that the menu clearly stated, “Please notify us of any food allergies.” I ordered the original Ajisen ramen, which had a very basic pork-bone broth with classic toppings of roast pork, egg, seaweed, bean sprouts, and scallion. For those uninitiated, this bowl of ramen is probably the most typical set of ingredients, and a great introduction to ramen!

ajisen (ramen)

The broth was creamy but the waitress assured me that there was absolutely no dairy in the ramen, just a creamy look due to the rich pork bone origins of the broth. While I generally prefer the clear shoyu style of ramen, this pork broth was very flavorful and salty, and gave the ramen a fuller flavor. It was greasy but in a comforting, I’m-finally-getting-to-eat-this-enormous-taco way. I also love the addition of the soft-boiled egg and the seaweed—even though they are common ingredients in ramen, they seemed to go well with the greasy pork soup.

ajisen (bear)

Ajisen was similarly priced to other ramen adventures but very well-priced for Midtown eateries, where even a drink at Starbucks could cost you your favorite beret. As I’ve mentioned before, ramen is a comfort food to me, and one that is best shared with friends. I enjoyed sharing a meal at Ajisen and look forward to perhaps seeing a few of its other international locations in the not-too-distant future!

Peking Duck House

Gung hay fat choy! Soon approaching is the Chinese New Year, one of the largest and longest holidays in the Chinese culture. This year will bring us into the Year of the Ram, one of the twelve animals on the Chinese Zodiac. For the uninitiated, Chinese New Year changes every year because it is on the lunar calendar, and this year, the celebration begins on February 19.

While there are varying degrees of tradition, the basics include cleaning and wearing new clothes, to get rid of bad luck and make room for good luck in the new year! The more traditional parts of Chinese New Year include ceremonies, parades, and ancient customs, but the fun parts of Chinese New Year include firecrackers, red envelopes with cash for the children, and lots of food for everyone!

As we rapidly approach the Year of the Ram, you may be busy vacuuming your house, stealing packages of red envelopes from Cathay Bank, and making plans to celebrate with your family. Of course, even if you are not Chinese, Chinese New Year is still a fun holiday and a great excuse to eat Chinese food! Chinese New Year is just a few weeks away, and amidst the ice and snow will emerge a new year, full of promise, prosperity, and hopefully Peking duck!

peking duck (menu)

One of the most well-known Chinese cuisines is the incredible delicacy of Peking duck, a specialty of the northern capital, Peking. Today, Peking is better known as Beijing, but the duck remains just as famous and just as delicious! In Manhattan, one of the best places to get Peking duck is the posh Peking Duck House in Chinatown.

peking duck (restaurant)

Located on Mott Street, the Peking Duck House is just south of Bayard Street and a short walk from any of the Canal Street stops on the 1, 6, A, C, E, N, Q, R, J, or Z trains. The Peking Duck House has undergone a series of recent renovations that set it apart from the other restaurants in Chinatown, giving it an air of elegance and ambience that is more welcoming to its patrons who find Chinatown’s traditional atmosphere to be unsettling or uncomfortable.

peking duck (duck)

The wait for a table can vary, so be prepared to stand against the wall and marvel at the skill of the chef as he carves the duck with the largest knife that I have seen outside of my grandmother’s kitchen. There is a larger downstairs seating area, so if possible, try to get a table in that roomier section.

peking duck (food)

Obviously the attraction is the Peking duck, sliced so thin that it’s mostly the crispy skin, and just a hint of the juicy dark meat. The traditional way to eat it is with a pancake, which looks a lot like a tortilla, slathered with hoisin sauce, and topped with green onions and cucumbers. Like tacos or crêpes, it is a difficult food to eat in an attractive and orderly manner, but it is very delicious and readily savored.

peking duck (plate)

The Peking Duck House has a full menu in addition to the famous duck, but we do not picture it here because we prefer to focus solely on the duck, which, for the Brunch with Bear team, is the main attraction of the menu. However, we can attest that the chefs maintain the same high quality of the duck across all their dishes.

peking duck (bear)

The Peking Duck House caters to a large non-Chinese clientele, and such service may be reflected in the dining experience, especially for those of you that are unfamiliar or uncomfortable with the neighborhood, and make it easier to order some other dishes. However, we should note that it is possible to find high quality authentic Chinese food at many other restaurants, and so we choose to only focus on the famous Peking duck as it is the Peking Duck House’s specialty!

peking duck (menu inside)

Peking duck, as an imperial delicacy, is rather expensive, and best saved for special occasions, such as Chinese New Year. For those of you who are trying it for the first time, don’t be shy to ask questions because the restaurant is very proud of its signature dish! If you are celebrating the new year, be sure to order a plate of noodles as well, a symbol of a long and healthy life and traditional new year food.

As the Year of the Ram comes near, we look forward to a year of new possibilities and adventures. For our part, we may attempt a dragon dance, a new restaurant or two, and of course, as much Peking duck as we can get. For the rest of you, we hope that the new year means trying Peking duck for the first time!

A-12 Sushi & Ramen

Cold in New York yet? We’ve been in hibernation mode since mid-November for that reason exactly! (Also, you know, finals.) As we head into the deep freeze, the Brunch with Bear team is back with some warm food, starting with a bowl of hot ramen from A-12 Sushi & Ramen!

Earlier this year, I was wandering around the Lower East Side looking for the Ivan Ramen flagship restaurant. Bogged down with shopping bags and a Bear on a hot summer day, I was looking forward to going back to an air-conditioned couch in my cousin’s apartment with a bowl of delicious ramen. Upon entering Ivan, I was informed that they did not do take-out—which totally poked holes into my plan for a perfect evening!

A-12 (menu)

And so I wandered as I wallowed until I stumbled over A-12 Sushi & Ramen, a tiny hole-in-the-wall kind of Japanese restaurant, which had only a loud group of women at one of its larger corner tables and a very friendly waitstaff. Within minutes they were putting together an order of shoyu ramen and gyoza, and letting me soak in their air-conditioned restaurant. Decorated with lanterns and maneki-neko cat figurines, A-12 was welcoming and clean.

A-12 (counter)

A-12 is located on Clinton Street between Stanton and Rivington Streets, and easily accessible from the Essex Street stop on the M train. It’s also close to Babycakes, so I was able to get a cookie sandwich and a couple doughnuts to save for dessert! For those of you who live in the neighborhood, A-12 advertises free delivery, and they are conveniently on Seamless.

A-12 (near babycakes)

The chef put together my meal fairly quickly, but the real challenge with takeout is whether or not it stays warm until your final destination. Luckily, A-12 passed the test! The dumplings, the soup, the noodles, etc. were still hot by the time I had made it back to the Upper East Side, poured my drink, and selected my Netflix show for the night.

A-12 (food)

The noodles were a little bit softer than al dente as they ought to be and packaged in a cute portable soup bowl, instead of the typical plastic quart container. The clear, salty shoyu soup was in a separate container, so I could control the amount of soup, and also so the noodles didn’t get soggy! I thought the pork was surprisingly delicate and not at all fatty, as it often is in smaller ramen houses, and the addition of a soft-boiled egg is always the key to a good bowl of ramen. The dumplings were packaged in a rectangular package so they didn’t go flying around. I even counted an extra dumpling in my tray. Thanks, nice waiter who took my order!

A-12 (bear)

A-12 may be your generic neighborhood Japanese restaurant, but they were incredibly friendly, understanding about food allergies, and their food was delicious and reasonably priced. Bear and I were comfortably full after slurping down our meal during a particularly tense episode of Chuck. Though I can’t see myself making the trek down to the Lower East Side just to get takeout from A-12, I can definitely see myself returning should I find myself wandering and hungry in their neighborhood again!

Mòle

For a girl hailing from Southern California, New York is a pretty big change. The winters are colder and snowier—the winters actually exist—the public transportation is more compact and coherent, and good tacos are increasingly harder to find. At home, the closest place to get tacos is probably less than a mile in any direction, but the taco scene in Morningside Heights is generally lacking. (Obviously the Brunch with Bear team has its work cut out for them.)

And so, after a history of blogging about Italian restaurants, noodle soup, and ice cream, and as winter approaches quickly, we finally bring you to Mòle, a fabulous restaurant with fabulous tacos. As I’ve said before, my family loves to eat, and we decided to bid farewell to a delicious summer with a delicious meal.

Mòle is located on 2nd Avenue, between 89th and 90th Streets, most easily accessible from the 86th Street station on the 4, 5, and 6 trains. What looks like another unassuming Upper East Side eatery is a warm and aromatic haven full of hustle, bustle, and large portions.

mòle (bar)

The restaurant itself is impossibly loud and crowded, but excellent for people watching. Over the course of our meal, we observed several first—possibly blind—dates, which, of course, gives Mòle points for entertainment. A particularly crowded Thursday summer evening meant that we waited about fifteen minutes for a table, which was situated farther back in the restaurant.

mòle (restaurant)

Mòle has an extensive bar and an extensive menu, which is a little more expensive than your average SoCal taco shack. The waiter assured me that they were very used to food allergies, and double-checked in the kitchen just in case. He said he would make sure no cheese or other contaminants made it near my plate! So I went with the classic steak tacos, a personal favorite, and sat back to enjoy the music-filled, lime-scented atmosphere.

mòle (food)

The plates took their time getting to the table, so I would caution the rushed diner that Mòle is a place for a leisurely, lingering meal. And if you’re a slow eater or a big talker, factor in extra time, because the plates are practically overflowing. While the menu suggests that each taco plate has two tacos, the double tortillas and excessive amount of steak became four incredible filling tacos. Add the limes—rarer in NYC, thanks to the Great Lime Shortage—and the Spanish rice and the beans and the spicy-but-not-too-spicy salsa and you have a taco plate that approaches perfection.

mòle (bear)

The meal was not only massive, but also messy. As I mentioned before, there were several dates and maybe-dates around us, but I would not personally recommend a taco extravaganza for making first impressions. We attacked our meals with the kind of zeal that results in silence, save for chewing and swallowing—maybe not even chewing for some of us. Tacos are unique in that the sauces can drip from either end of the taco, as well as through the holes that you’ve inadvertently poked with your attempt to build the perfect bite, so it’s a finger-food, family affair kind of situation. Of course, if you must, forks are provided.

Mòle was the perfect environment for eavesdropping and bonding, all over a great meal with great service. As I mentioned, the taco plates are slightly more expensive than I would expect, but then again, the portions are slightly larger than I would expect. Definitely the kind of meal that keeps giving—as in tomorrow’s lunch. While Manhattan may never compare to the taco scene of Southern California, Mòle is an oasis of tacos in a taco-less desert.

Vanessa’s Dumpling House

Whether you’re suffering boredom on a Saturday night or starvation due to study sessions, the one food that makes all icky feelings go away is dumplings. One restless summer evening, I was stuck in the loop of lounging in front of the air-conditioning and Netflix, when a friend suggested that we get something to eat. Bear does need to get out more, I thought. And so a simple proposition turned into a magical adventure into the land of Vanessa’s Dumpling House, where good food and low prices combine into the quintessential dumpling experience.

vanessa's (entrance)

Vanessa’s Dumpling House has three locations, two of which are in Manhattan and the remaining one is in Brooklyn. We visited the Chinatown location, on Eldridge Street between Broome and Grand Streets. It’s a short walk from the Grand Street station on the B and D trains, as well as the Delancey Street station on the F train, and the Essex Street station on the J, M, and Z trains.

vanessa's (counter)

Vanessa’s Dumpling House is small, but bustling—as you would expect a good dumpling house to be. The establishment is long and narrow and not quite large enough for the crowd that was there. One side has the counter and the kitchen and the other side is lined with tables.

vanessa's (ordering menu)

A large menu looms over the ordering counter, but most customers seemed to already know what they want. I asked about the ingredients, and they said no problem, no dairy or peanuts in my food. I couldn’t decide between wonton noodle soup and roast pork noodle soup, but the woman taking my order said no problem, I can combine them and add a can of orange soda for only six dollars! After several posh dinners and overpriced brunches in the past, Bear and I are always happy to save money on a great meal.

It was basically impossible to snag a table on this particular summer weekend night, but it was warm enough to find a closed storefront nearby to eat. People around us seemed unfazed, something that suggests that this happens often. This would be a good time to start carrying around my own collapsible folding chair.

vanessa's (food)

Now that the weather is getting brisker, I don’t know if I would still spend my meal outside, but that hot soup really warms you up fast. The main problem of eating on the sidewalk was that the picture quality was very poor. I assure you, it looked like normal noodle soup. (Note: The conversation during the meal largely focused on the poor food photography of this blog, so we will be making every effort to improve with our limited technology. This post admittedly has the worst photography of recent adventures.)

vanessa's (bear)

I had an enormous serving of soup and every bit of it was delicious. The roast pork was not cut into small enough pieces to make the eating of it dainty, but when you’re sitting with a teddy bear and wrestling a plastic container with chopsticks on the sidewalk of Chinatown while your friend laughs on in mockery, eating prettily will not help you very much. The greens were particularly tender, which is crucial to a good noodle soup, especially in contrast to the thick pork and crunchy bean sprouts. The wontons were so freshly cooked that I burnt my tongue on every one of them (it was worth it).

vanessa's (dessert from babycakes)

On top of all the deliciousness, Vanessa’s Dumpling House is just a few short blocks away from Babycakes NYC, where a cookie sandwich—the dumpling of desserts—polished off a wonderful meal!

The nights are getting longer and colder as we approach the heart of autumn, a season during which dumplings are increasingly essential as the temperatures drop. As budgets also drop, Vanessa’s is a great place to pick up those crucial dumplings and soup at a wallet-friendly price! All you need to bring is a bear and a chair!