Otto’s Tacos

Because I so rarely eat them in New York City, I may have not properly expressed to you Brunch with Bearees how much I love tacos. A plate of soft tacos in Southern California is cheaper than the average pint of ice cream in New York City (which reminds me, we should discuss the price of ice cream in New York City) and they’re pretty much a staple in our household. In fact, my most recommended tourist destination in Los Angeles—besides the Getty museums, of course—would be one of the taco places in my hometown. Last spring, my dad and I discovered a place with all the vibes and flavors of home: Otto’s Tacos.

otto's (front)

Luckily for you, Otto’s Tacos has multiple locations in the city, spreading over the East Village, West Village, and Hell’s Kitchen. The one we visited is the one closest to NYU, located at 2nd Avenue between 8th and 9th Streets, and quite easy to find. For everyone else, Otto’s Tacos is a few blocks’ walk from either the 8th Avenue – NYU station on the N, Q, or R trains, or from the Astor Place stop on the 6 train.

otto's (interior)

Boasting an “LA-inspired” energy, Otto’s Tacos serves classic California soft tacos that are definitely reminiscent of some tacos back home. Even the set-up was more casual than other tacos we’ve had, with a cashier for orders, and a separate station for pick-up with the food served on reusable metal trays. We ordered a selection of chicken, carnitas, and carne asada tacos as well as some chips and salsa.

otto's (tacos)

Even more so than I am, my dad is a taco connoisseur and Otto’s Tacos definitely held up to our standards. The tiny tortillas were packed with juicy, flavorful meats and topped with a deliciously spicy salsa, cilantro and onions—no lettuce, no cheese, no sour cream, just like a California soft taco should be. Although the salsa was a tad spicier than I usually choose, it really complemented the savory grease of the meats. Each bite of the each taco was delicious, though I tend to favor the pork and beef tacos as a personal preference. The best part is that the tortillas are handmade on site, and are definitely a job well done. Above all, the tacos were incredibly fresh, and worth the few minutes of waiting.

otto's (tacos + chips)

Comparatively the chips were ordinary, but well-salted and came with a large quantity of salsa verde which was delicious as an appetizer and a side dish. I wouldn’t say that the chips alone are worth the trip, but I also would never turn down a decent helping of chips and salsa.

otto's (bear)

The atmosphere of Otto’s Tacos is certainly hipster-chic via NYU crowd, and the limited seating makes it difficult to snag a table during mealtimes. However, the service is welcoming and friendly, and the small tables are relatively clean. We are sometimes concerned about cross-contamination, especially with cheese and cream, but Otto’s was very friendly and accommodating. (It helps that traditional California soft tacos are usually served without that dairy nonsense.)

While the prices are not as cheap as one of my dad’s favorite taco huts, the tacos are a much more affordable alternative to one of the sit-down cantinas that we’ve visited previously. Another bonus factor is that it’s close to our favorite ice cream place and St. Mark’s Comics, which is a well-stocked gem of a comic shop.

Although we rarely get a chance to rave about our love for tacos on the blog, we’re thankful that Otto’s Tacos gave us the opportunity. The next time we make a stop for an ice cream Sunday, we might have to make it a Taco Sunday as well, because Tuesday always seems so far away when it comes to tacos.

Tommy Bahama

Yes, Tommy Bahama, the outfitter of everyone’s golf-playing, Florida-visiting, Hawaiian-shirt-wearing uncle, has a restaurant! And it’s exactly the kind of place to take your golf-playing, Florida-visiting, Hawaiian-shirt-wearing uncles, as well as business associates, and get some shopping in besides. My family stopped by when they visited New York last spring, and never have we seen such a two-for-one deal, not even that time we went to J. Crew during a summer sale event and they were handing out free snacks and soda. Tommy Bahama has real food, and it’s surprisingly allergy-friendly and surprisingly fun!

tommy bahama (postcard)

The restaurant entrance is on 45th Street and 5th Avenue, and easily accessible from Times Square (1, 2, 3, 7, A, C, E, N, Q, or R trains), Bryant Park or 5th Avenue (both on the 7 train), Rockefeller Center (B, D, F, or M trains ), and Grand Central Station (4, 5, 6, 7, or Metro North trains). Basically, if you can get to the tourist heart of Manhattan, you can find this restaurant.

tommy bahama (downstairs)

The restaurant has two levels: a downstairs bar and cocktail lounge, and an upstairs dining room with a separate bar. The décor is pretty similar to the store, which features a lot of potted plants and patio furniture. The ceilings are very high, and the whole atmosphere was very relaxing and beachy, which is sort of an odd finding in the midst of Manhattan’s tourist bubble.

tommy bahama (upstairs)

The service at Tommy Bahama is pretty spiffy, considering that we had a host to seat us right away, even though it was the middle of a busy workweek for everyone. A great point of interest is that the menu specifically addresses “severe or life-threatening food allergies” and clearly states the kitchen’s willingness to take care of you. Ten points to Tommy Bahama!

tommy bahama (allergy statement)

Our waiter was so friendly, but spoke so fast and with such an affected way of speaking that made it hard for me to understand some of the things he said. While that normally doesn’t bother me, because I also talk fast and am hard to understand, I find it really crucial to be able to communicate with my server when dining out, because I need to know that they understand exactly what I am trying to say about food allergies. That being said, he was very accommodating and we found our conversational footing eventually!

tommy bahama (place setting)

The first thing our waiter recommended was the coconut shrimp appetizer. At first he seemed to think that coconut milk was dairy, but we straightened it out with the kitchen fairly quickly. For those of you who may be allergic to tree nuts including coconuts, Tommy Bahama may not be the place for you. However, I am only allergic to actual dairy—i.e. milk, cheese, butter—so the coconut shrimp sounded exciting.

tommy bahama (menu)

It’s always fun to get an appetizer that I can eat, particularly something crispy! Though I am not always a huge fan of coconut, I am a big fan of these coconut shrimp! They were crispy without being greasy, and surprisingly light for a deep-fried food, somewhat like a proper shrimp tempura. The sauce was a mango-papaya accent, more of a garnish than a dressing, and the pickled coleslaw in the middle was topped with crispy fried wonton skins. I am a big fan of shrimp cocktail as an appetizer, but this coconut shrimp was a like a fancier version.

tommy bahama (coconut shrimp)

For my main meal, I selected the house roasted pork sandwich, on our server’s suggestion. He went back and forth between the kitchen to assess all the ingredients for the sandwich, and even went as far as to call the purveyor for the bread when the kitchen was unable to clarify the ingredients. This above-and-beyond service is what we wish every restaurant was capable of providing!

tommy bahama (sandwich)

I may have said this before, but a good sandwich is everything. The baguette was crusty and loaded with a generous helping of barbecued pork, coleslaw, and crispy onions. The whole combination meant that the sandwich had a lot going for it, in terms of mingling textures and flavors, between the pickled vegetables, the saucy, tender meat, and the delicately fried onions. In fact, the combination itself was its downfall, because the bread was not structured to be able to hold the weight of it all, and combined with the sauce, it became more of a Sloppy Joe than a classy island lunch. The delicious mess deteriorated from a sandwich, to an open-face sandwich, to a fork-and-knife affair, but it was completely worth all the sauce on my face. The fries were the perfect size, and their only fault was that there were not enough on my plate!

tommy bahama (bear)

Overall, Tommy Bahama gave us a surprisingly satisfying lunch, and the casual, chic atmosphere allowed us to linger and savor our food and each other’s company. Value-wise, Tommy Bahama hits business-lunch prices on a lot of their entrees, even salads, but there are some items that are more student-budget friendly, and there is certainly a lot of food on the plates they serve. It’s a fun place to hit when you’re indulging in some hardcore retail therapy on 5th Avenue, even if you just stop at the bar for a few appetizers.

New York, particularly midtown, can be overwhelming, especially when it comes to finding food. We love finding unexpected pockets of delicious, allergy-safe dining, and Tommy Bahama was certainly as surprising as it was pleasant! We’ll be keeping them in mind, for lunch as well as last-minute presents.

Rosa Mexicano

At the height of the holiday season, we find ourselves grateful to you Brunch with Bearees, for reading and eating along with us in the big, big city. We also find ourselves occasionally homesick, and missing the tiny town from whence we came. When we think of home, we think of palm trees, traffic, and most of all, tacos! So this weekend, we’re taking you with us to experience possibly the fanciest tacos we’ve ever had, and hopefully, in doing so, get a little closer to home.

At home in Southern California, I eat tacos roughly once a week. In New York, it’s just not as easy to celebrate #TacoTuesday (and Wednesday and Thursday and Friday and Saturday and Sunday and Monday). The Brunch with Bear team has gotten to eat some truly wonderful food, but tacos are sadly still not a regular occurrence. So when we scheduled a family dinner, I jumped at the chance to eat tacos—really expensive, fancy tacos at Rosa Mexicano.

rosa mexicano (restaurant)

I first went to Rosa Mexicano with my family for a birthday dinner, way back in sophomore year when this whole allergy thing was still breaking. There are multiple New York locations, including one in Union Square. Union Square is very popular, and I imagine the other locations would be as well, so definitely call ahead to make reservations and make sure to get there early if you can’t make reservations. We went at a particularly crowded Friday night and it was difficult to get a table.

rosa mexicano (cliff divers wall)

The Union Square location is the one we are blogging about today, and is located on 18th Street between 5th Avenue and Broadway. The closest subway stops are the 18th Street stop on the 1 train, the 14th Street stop on the 1, 2, 3, F, M, N, Q, and R trains, or the 23rd Street stop on the 6, N, or R trains. Being right in Union Square, it’s situated just perfectly for a shopping trip at Strand Bookstore and dessert at Chloe’s Soft Serve Fruit Company!

rosa mexicano (chandelier)

The hostess that seated us was not our favorite person (re: made us wait forever and did not give us very thorough info) but the waiters themselves were all charm and competence. Our waiter seemed to understand the allergy situation immediately and was comfortable taking care of the details, even for a very large party. Although at home my usual is a pile of carne asada, I opted for the carnitas this time, just to try something new.

rosa mexicano (menu)

Rosa Mexicano has a vibe that’s part upscale-business-formal and part exotic-vacation-with-cliff-divers, so while the menu is pretty authentic and partially en Español, the presentation of the food is very American gourmet. The pork itself was perfectly tender and shredded to a good size, and it was fun to try the trio of salsas that came with my meal. I found the idea of pineapple in tacos a little weird, but I know grilled fruit is a fancy thing nowadays, so I just kept it on the side. We also ordered sides of rice and beans for the table, and while the rice was pretty mediocre, the beans were excellent. The black beans were very salty and refried in a way that was hearty rather than greasy. The rice was simply white rice with some spices, rather than Spanish rice, which I found to be disappointing.

rosa mexicano (food)

As I said before, Rosa Mexicano is terribly overpriced, especially since in my hometown you can get a plate of tacos for less than six dollars. However, it is a beautiful cavernous restaurant that definitely turns tacos into an elegant event in a way that a Styrofoam container and a can of Coke just can’t do. The clientele seemed to be mostly families, a few dinner dates, and a few business dates. If you have a special occasion, or a lot of cash to blow on tacos, Rosa Mexicano is a great family-friendly and allergy-friendly place to spend some time catching up and laughing together!

rosa mexicano (bear)

I get homesick a lot in New York, and as the holidays approach, it’s easy to miss my hometown and my sunshine. A big part of that homesickness is missing familiar food and familiar faces and on the rare and exciting occasion that the two come together, it’s delicious!

Nom Wah Tea Parlor

Now that Thanksgiving has come and gone, the season of gratitude, compassion, and friendship has officially commenced! The Brunch with Bear team loves nothing more than togetherness and teatime, and as many friends and family flock from afar to join you during the holiday season, we encourage you to take them on a very Bear-y adventure!

Since we enjoyed teatime so much last time, we are going out again for traditional Chinese tea—dim sum! Because there are so many different places to get dim sum in New York Chinatown, we went searching for a place that had a little more history and intrigue than the average seafood palace. A little bit of research led us to Nom Wah Tea Parlor, allegedly the first dim sum house in New York, and a very famous old bakery and teahouse.

nom wah tea parlor (storefront)

Nom Wah Tea Parlor has been operating since 1920, when the lower part of New York, and especially Chinatown, was just a gritty, crime-filled pile of buildings. Located just at the bend of Doyers Street, Nom Wah now thrives in the heart of Manhattan Chinatown after a colorful history as a family-owned business. The closest subway station to Nom Wah, as any place in Chinatown, is at Canal Street on the N, Q, R, J, Z, and 6 trains. You can also walk from Grand Street on the B or D trains, and if you’re coming from Brooklyn, the East Broadway station on the F train.

nom wah tea parlor (restaurant)

Nom Wah Tea Parlor looks nothing like a typical Chinese dim sum house. In fact, I was explaining a typical dim sum house to one of my friends before we went out, because she had never experienced dim sum before. Once we got to Nom Wah, however, it became clear that everything I had said was pretty much a lie. It was quiet, it was clean, there were no crowds taking numbers and no carts with piles of steamed buns on them. Gone were the pink table cloths and the plastic-covered chairs, and gone was the onslaught of people yelling things—likely friendly and inviting things—in Cantonese.

nom wah tea parlor (menu)

Instead, Nom Wah is styled like an adorable old diner, with signed photos of glamorous old celebrities decorating the wall, and actual menus! Because our crowd was primarily vegetarian, I had been worried about finding meat-free options, considering how most of the time you have no idea what you’re eating at dim sum. Instead, we had a beautiful menu with pictures of each item and listings in both Chinese and English. We checked off our selections on a sheet of paper, like ordering at a sushi restaurant or playing Clue, and the food was delivered to our table directly after being freshly prepared in the kitchen!

nom wah tea parlor (checklist menu)

Nom Wah, like most dim sum houses, is very reasonably priced and the food is very fresh and well-made. We went at an off-peak hour on a Friday, but I imagine that the regular clientele is a mix of regular neighborhood folk looking for their customary bakery items and New York newbies who are afraid of Chinese food but anxious to try it.

nom wah tea parlor (bear)

While I actually enjoy exposing my non-Chinese friends to the horrors and wonders of a proper Hong-Kong-style dim sum experience—“It’s fun! Just eat it! It’s good!” “NO!”—it was really refreshing and relaxing to approach the traditional teatime as just another regular brunch. Although many people would prefer traditional dim sum with all the carts and the crowds and the Cantonese yelling, Nom Wah was a wonderfully proper and reserved experience, especially for a group of people who had little-to-no experience with dim sum ever before. If you’re dying to take your resistant friend to dim sum, give this beautiful historic tea parlor a whirl! You will not be disappointed.

By the Way Bakery

As you know very well by now, I believe everyone should have the comfort of their favorite bakery in NYC. As the temperatures get colder and the holidays get closer, the joy of baked goods can only get sweeter. (Heh.) Since coming to the Big Apple, we have found some beautiful bakeries and today we are taking you to visit yet another gem: By the Way Bakery!

by the way bakery (storefront)

Describing themselves as an “old-fashioned bakery,” By the Way Bakery is located on the Upper West Side, and therefore more accessible than some of our more obscure favorites downtown. Located on Broadway just off the corner of 90th Street, By the Way Bakery is just a quick walk from local attractions such as the American Museum of National History and the Westside Community Garden. The closest subway station would be the 86th Street stop on the 1, B, or C trains.

by the way bakery (samples)

The best thing about By the Way Bakery, besides the fact that it’s a dairy-free bakery that is easy to get to, is that they give free samples! The day I was there, they had some adorable crumbly almond cookies and some lemon poppyseed cake. Usually when I walk into a bakery, I stand at the counter for about ten minutes being amazed, and it was much more natural for me to munch on free samples and say things like, “Hmmm, yeah, lemon,” than to stand and stare like a robot.

by the way bakery (menu)

The bakery is small in the front, but the whole kitchen set-up is pretty visible and you can see lots of new treats coming on trays, which adds to the excitement. Everything on their chalkboard menu is well-lettered and legible, and the various baked goods are displayed to their advantage in glass cases. By the Way Bakery is not as sugary and cutesy as Babycakes or Sugar and Plumm, so they have things like tea cakes rather than cupcakes. Much as I love cupcakes, teatime is my favorite kind of snacktime so tea cakes are just perfect!

by the way bakery (cake display)

I had, as always, a lot of trouble deciding what to get as there were so many yummy options. By the Way Bakery is on the expensive side, as many upscale and special-diet boutique bakeries are, so I limited myself to one small item, plus as many free samples as I could get away with eating. They had adorable miniature tea cakes, perfectly sized for a Bear, and in a variety of flavors. I settled for the pear plum mini cake, which was adorable and delicious.

by the way bakery (plum pear teacake)

We took our snack to the park to enjoy, and it was as yummy as it was beautiful. I love both pears and plums, and they are both extremely underappreciated fruits as far as the dessert industry goes. The piece of plum folded into the top of the mini cake gave it a beautiful and rich color accent, and the cinnamon crumbles on the top reminded me of cinnamon toast—a cult classic—with a little sugary texture. All in all, the perfect snack for a lovely warm spring afternoon.

by the way bakery (bear in park)

Bear loves warm snacks on a sunny afternoon, and is always happy to find something perfectly sweet and golden brown as he is. We so enjoyed our excursion to By the Way Bakery, and can’t wait to return for more!