Ryley Walker
Course In Fable

Ryley Walker has proven himself a master producer, performer, arranger, interpreter, creator, instrumentalist, improvisor, stylist, mind. He can do it all, and his taste is consistently impeccable. But what he isn't a master of is songwriting. Everything else is there, everything sounds amazing, layered beautifully, played with heart, everything is interesting. But the actual melodies and progressions and words seem to always hit a little flatter than you'd expect. Not that he writes in a way that's simplistic or derivative, but he just seems to be searching and circling to find the song in his work, and finding a whole lot of other cool things, but never actually landing on it.

This is all laid bare in his full album of Dave Matthews Band covers from a couple years ago. Say what you will, of course, about Dave Matthews, but they had songs. When Ryley Walker went full steam into covering and interpreting and rearranging those songs, the results were truly incredible. Better than anything DMB ever released on their own (stripping away all of that band's magniloquent regard of their own material), and easily the best thing that Walker's ever released.

This record is good. I like listening to it. It takes you on a dozen different journeys, and like everything Walker records, there are layers to dig through every time you listen. I just can't wait for the day that he cracks his own cipher and figures out how to write a song. He'll be unstoppable.

Godspeed You! Black Emperor

I won't waste your time telling you how good this new Godspeed album is. It's exactly as good as you want it to be.

But what I will tell you is I think it might be Godspeed's most rock album. Parts of this thing sound like it could be Pink Floyd. In a good way. The best way. Fuck, I just thought about what would happen if GYBE got David Gilmour to sing on an album.

Godspeed You! Black Emperor would kill me and burn my body if they found out I compared them to Pink Floyd.

Bruiser Wolf
Dope Game Stupid

Last week I heard one song from this Bruiser Wolf character ("I'm An Instrument"), and thought it was honestly one of the more unique sounding hip hop songs I've heard in a long time. In fact it's just occurring to me now that it reminds me of The Avalanches "Frank Sinatra" from a few years back, which ironically (or not) featured Danny Brown, who is also featured on "I'm An Instrument," and who runs the label that discovered and signed Bruiser Wolf.

So I heard the song, and had no idea whether I actually liked it. Yeah it was unique and kinda fun, but also a little grating and not particularly deep. I said "well that was interesting," and moved on, with no real interest in diving deeper into Bruiser Wolf.

By the end of that day I had listened to the song 4 more times and bought the whole album. And every other track is almost as interesting as that one.

The Vernon Spring
A Plane Over The Woods

Solo jazz piano that's as profoundly chill as something like Grouper, but with chops.

I think there's an entire ecosystem of quiet piano solo projects floating out there on Spotify and Bandcamp, to fill up late night homework playlists, and otherwise make the artists who recorded them feel like they're making something sublime and heady. Mostly it's just people playing minor chords very slowly and maybe adding a lot of room tone. This, though. This feels different. This guy (I don't think his name is Vernon) can actually play. Of course these references are completely overselling it, but the quick names that come to mind are Bill Evans and Ahmad Jamal. Take the quietest, sleepiest, patientest Evans and Jamal recordings you can imagine, run them through Grouper's 4 track, and maybe let William Basinski accidentally let some of the tapes melt, and you have In The Aeroplane Over The Sea A Plane Over The Woods.

Oh and one track he plays like Alice Coletrane, which is also cool.


OMG I have so many albums to catch up with on this blog! Here's one: Hellrduk by ISGHERURD MORTH. All caps.

Weirdo black metal. I'd almost say "prog black metal" if that was a thing that didn't make me want to choke. But the long and short is this is a band that's ostensibly playing black metal, but is actually willing to go there, and do stuff that most other black metal bands won't—well, actually can't. I wish it was engineered a little better, and I wish the lead singer didn't sound like fucking Gollum. But otherwise it's pretty sweet.

Mare Cognitum
Solar Paroxysm

Mare Cognitum makes great black metal in the same sense that the Foo Fighters make great rock music.

That's the end of this music review. But what I really want to review is Mare Cognitum's logo. Look at the logo. Beautiful. I could look at it all day.

Poison Ruïn
Poison Ruïn

This debut album (or maybe it's a collection of two EPs? Hard to tell what's going on) from Poison Ruïn (fucking killer band name) is fascinating and good. I don't know if I really like it, but still: fascinating and good.

What we have here is ostensibly a punk band (or maybe it's a post punk band? Hard to tell what's going on). They play fast and dirty, the vocalist chants and barks, and it all sounds like it was recorded on two tracks of a 4-track recorder. Lo-fi, ever heard of it? But two things make Poison Ruïn stand out. One is their embrace of what weird music kids regrettably-yet-fittingly call "Dungeon Synth," a cliquey, Reddit-friendly micro-genre that uses dusty, distorted synth tones to recreate the kind of spooky, minor-key, pseudo-Medieval dirge you could imagine hearing in the soundtrack of a straight to VHS Dungeons & Dragons knockoff. Seriously, look it up. There's a shocking amount of Dungeon Synth out there, most of it all sounds exactly the same, but it certainly fits a mood. But Poison Ruïn doesn't lean too heavily into the stuff, mostly saving it for the occasional intro and outro and segue.

What interests me more, however, is the band's impressive use of chords. And notes. Music, you could say! That sounds stupid of course, but remember when I said up there that Poison Ruïn is a punk band? They very much are. But they're a punk band who's made the important realization that there are 12 notes in the Western chromatic scale. So much punk shit stops at 3. Maybe 4 if you're Green Day (6 if you're Bad Religion). But whoever is writing these riffs is having a damn good time just running up and down their progressions; a fill here, a counter melody there, an extra bass lick now and then, throwing two more ascending major chords up the scale before going back to the root. Playing music. With joy and verve. It's a pleasure just listening to the creativity in some of their riffs—it's fun and it hits hard, occasionally even leaning into the whole "dungeon" thing and sounding almost like a classic NWOBHM band. (There's a whole other aspect of this where I mention that they're from Philadelphia, and how their entire aesthetic, from the guitar heroics to the heavy metal zine cover art, feels umistakingly familiar to fellow Philadelphian band Sheer Mag, but I'd have to research that the really make sense of it. Maybe they share a band member?). In short: Poison Ruïn can play the shit out of whatever it is they play.

The only thing that stops me short of declaring total victory for this band is that barking, yapping vocalist. Everything I just said about their playing, the verve and the vigor and the musicfullness—their singer has none of it. He's just a punk guy being punk and honking like a punk. If there's even the faintest hint of melody in his vocals, I haven't quite yet ascertained it. It's frustrating. But it's not a dealbreaker. Sure I wish he brought more tunes to the party, but he still gives these songs energy and muscle, and I guess that's good enough. Oh also the lo-fi recording: I'm all for it to a degree, but I could go for just a little more fi in their lo.

Still. Poison Ruïn. (Did I mention that band name fucking slays?). There's a huge amount of potential for something here, and I'm excited to see how it pans out.

Pino Palladino and Blake Mills
Notes With Attachments

Sometimes I try to write things on this music and food blog that will describe some music to you, why I like it, maybe some little backstory about it. I don't know, music blog stuff. But in this case I think I'm just going to keep it to myself. Or at least I'll leave it to this: Pino Palladino is incredible, Blake Mills is on the verge of incredibility, and this collaboration between the two of them actually lives up what I imagine could happen when the two of them work together. My biggest complaint is that it's too short.

Go listen to listen to the album and get back to me.

Screaming Trees
Sweet Oblivon

Previously, on Music & Food...

"This is a Polish metal band that plays a sort of grimey doom metal that also happens at times to sound a weird amount like Alice in Chains and Screaming Trees, without being as fun or weird as either. I don't know if I like it? But it has made me want to go listen to Screaming Trees."

Hey, this Screaming Trees album is good! I've never actually sat and listened to this band before, but it absolutely hits an early 90s grunge sweet spot, and you can hear every bit of influence they had on the entire genre after them. Much more listenable than SUNNATA.

Burning in Heaven, Melting on Earth

This is a Polish metal band that plays a sort of grimey doom metal that also happens at times to sound a weird amount like Alice in Chains and Screaming Trees, without being as fun or weird as either. I don't know if I like it? But it has made me want to go listen to Screaming Trees.

This is my review.

Black Nash
Black Nash

I know you're not supposed to describe music by saying "it sounds like this combined with this." It's presumptuous and diminishing.

But Black Nash sounds like a combination of Steve Lacy and Devendra Banhart. Like precisely. Take Lacy's lo-fi minimalist recordings of whip-sharp old school R&B guitar work and pop melodicism, and run it through Devendra Banhart's psychedelic weirdo surrealist crooner filter, and you've got yourself Black Nash.

And damn, it absolutely works. I got this album on a whim during Friday's monthly Bandcamp sale, and on first listen thought maybe it was a bust, but since then I've zipped through it probably 4 times. It's fun and weird but totally vibes, with that Ween-like energy of total technical competency that doesn't take itself seriously. But thankfully, while we're talking comparisons, that's where that particular comparison ends.

A Ranking of Every Metallica Song

My entire life has led me to this.

Originals only, official recordings. No covers, although that could be its own list. Oh and nothing from Lulu, because jesus christ. Stick around afterwards for some thoughts.

Here we go:

1. One
2. Master of Puppets
3. Battery
4. The Unforgiven
5. Dyers Eve
6. Damage Inc.
7. Wherever I May Roam
8. Orion
9. Creeping Death
10. Enter Sandman
11. Bleeding Me
12. Blackened
13. Escape
14. For Whom the Bell Tolls
15. Hero Of The Day
16. My Friend of Misery
17. The Four Horsemen
18. Welcome Home (Sanitarium)
19. Anesthesia (Pulling Teeth)
20. Disposable Heroes
21. Sad But True
22. …And Justice For All
23. Nothing Else Matters
24. Fade to Black
25. Harvester of Sorrow
26. Ride the Lightning
27. The Outlaw Torn
28. To Live Is To Die
29. Leper Messiah
30. Hit The Lights
31. Ain’t My Bitch
32. The God that Failed
33. Frayed Ends of Sanity
34. Until it Sleeps
35. Fight Fire With Fire
36. Fixxxer
37. King Nothing
38. The Thing That Should Not Be
39. The Call of Ktulu
40. No Remorse
41. The Unforgiven II
42. The Shortest Straw
43. Phantom Lord
44. Carpe Diem Baby
45. Fuel
46. The House that Jack Built
47. Eye of the Beholder
48. Spit Out The Bone
49. Whiplash
50. Through The Never
51. The Thorn Within
52. Mama Said
53. Of Wolf and Man
54. Jump In The Fire
55. Where the Wild Things Are
56. The Memory Remains
57. 2 X 4
58. No Leaf Clover
59. Ronnie
60. Poor Twisted Me
61. Low Man’s Lyric
62. Seek & Destroy
63. Metal Militia
64. Cure
65. Motorbreath
66. Struggle Within
67. Don’t Tread on Me
68. Trapped Under Ice
69. Holier Than Thou
70. St. Anger
71. Slither
72. I Disappear
73. Devil’s Dance
74. Dream No More
75. Broken Beaten Scarred
76. Halo On Fire
77. Now That We’re Dead
78. Wasting My Hate
79. All Within My Hands
80. -Human
81. Halo on Fire
82. Cyanide
83. Man Unkind
84. Moth Into The Flame
85. Atlas Rise
86. Dirty Window
87. Better Than You
88. That Was Just Your Life
89. Judas Kiss
90. Attitude
91. End of the Line
92. Hardwired
93. Confusion
94. Lords of Summer
95. Am I Savage?
96. Bad Seed
97. The Unnamed Feeling
98. All Nightmare Long
99. Shoot Me Again
100. My Apocalypse
101. Unforgiven III
102. Some Kind of Monster
103. Frantic
104. Murder One
105. Prince Charming
106. The Day That Never Comes
107. Sweet Amber
108. Purify
109. Here Comes Revenge
110. Suicide & Redemption
111. My World
112. Invisible Kid

This started two weeks ago when I did my once-per-decade dive into St. Anger to try to once and for all figure it out. There's a big long stupid writeup about it a few posts down if you care, but I hope you don't care too much. The main takeaway from that listen is that almost every track on that weird fucking album had something interesting in it—even if that interesting thing was in service to an awful song. It got me in a state of thinking about Metallica, which is something that happens to me sometimes. I then spent the last two weeks doing a deep, deep dive into every album, especially their newest ones, which, like St. Anger, I never really investigated thoroughly enough to form any strong opinions about. Going back and forth from the old stuff to the new stuff to the middle stuff and back, I actually started seeing it as a whole body of work, rather than a walled-off series of eras. I even started liking the "new" stuff more than I ever did? Inasmuch as anyone is actually able to "like" it.

Then I remembered I have a music blog. So here we are. Here's some important thoughts:

Surprised how quickly it got difficult. 1 and 2 are "One" and "Master", no questions asked. I've looked at a lot of other lists that websites have put together, and many of them have "One" lower, but as far as I'm concerned, it's still the best thing the band ever did, and one of my most beloved pieces of music by anyone ever. And then "Master," many sites' #1 choice, is obviously a perfect piece of heavy metal. It's untouchable and inarguable. But then immediately at #3, I wasn't sure what felt right. On a personal level, I almost went with "Dyers Eve," but after listening through to my favorites multiple times, I just felt like it doesn't have the objective strengths of something like "Battery." Again, most lists I read put "Damage Inc." higher, even on top, but I think "Battery" is a much stronger composition.

The first real place that some fuckin hesher longhair might scoff at this is with "The Unforgiven." When I was just kinda mind-compiling this list before actually writing anything down or even listening too deeply, I don't think I considered this song so high. Yet when I went through the Black Album, it really stuck out and I couldn't ignore that it's truly been a favorite of mine ever since I was a kid. And not that I'm trying to sequence this list in any way, but 1–3 are pretty heavy thrash, and it just felt like one of their mid-tempos or ballads needed high placement. "Unforgiven" felt very right, even more than "Nothing Else Matters" or "Fade to Black" (the former of which, I must admit even as a snob, is better than the latter).

"Orion" in the top 10. I think this has been a favorite of true-heads forever, but I always thought of it as "just one of the instrumentals." Like, it's okay I guess, and with that little bass lick in the middle, but I never really canonized it growing up in the same way I did their "real" songs. It's only been in recent years of my adult life that I've gone back to it and realized how absolutely perfect of a piece it is, and that maybe there was something to all that Cliff Burton worship after all. It rules.

"Bleeding Me" introduces Load all the way at #11. I've long been a staunch defender of Load for literal decades now. I won't waste your time with my essay here, but I think it is a good and sometimes great album, despite being a point of mockery with certain sects of metal dudes. I don't think any list I saw online had anything from that album anywhere in the top 20, and even then it's often "Hero of the Day" or "Until It Sleeps" that sneak in. But I think "Bleeding Me" is a beautiful piece of work, and I almost wish I could've snuck it into the top 10. But there's no way I'm moving "Orion" or "Roam" or fucking "Enter Sandman" for it.

Fuck you, I'm going with "Escape." James Hetfield has publicly hated "Escape" for three decades. Fans have long dismissed it as absolute filler on an otherwise killer album. I too would almost always skip it to get to "Creeping Death" on my Discman. But about 6 or 7 years ago, I was listening to Lightning in my car, and "Escape" came on and something clicked. "Escape" rules, you guys. Yes it does stand out from their work at the time for its simplicity—no tricky riffs, no complex interludes, an easy bopping mid-up-tempo, a power metal singalong melody for the chorus. It's almost their first pop song? It's stuck with me ever since that listen, and I truly think it's one of their best pure, simple compositions. It's #13 and you can fight me behind the gas station.

"Spit Out the Bone"? WTF? Before this exercise, I couldn't even have told you which of the 3 "newest" albums "Spit Out The Bone" was on. Magnetic and Hardwired in particular were just a blur in my mind. But part of this whole thing was just to be able to dig in to those two albums to make some more sense of them, actually hear the songs as songs rather than just passing them off as late-era old-men-trying-to-find-that-old-flame bullshit. I ended up being more impressed with both of these albums than I was before, but I was fully awestruck by the final track on Hardwired, "Spit Out The Bone." I think in previous (rare) listens, I barely even got to the last track, or was otherwise so exhausted or bored that it didn't even register. But when I finally gave it my attention... holy shit "Spit Out The Bone" is great! It fucking thrashes! It's got hooks! It's got riffs! I don't want to say it's like "old Metallica" again, but it's the absolute closest they've gotten since Justice. And the fact that it landed as high as #39, ahead of a handful of tracks from Justice and Lightning, is mind-blowing to me. I didn't think they had it in them. But it also pisses me off, because if they did have this in them, why did they save it all for this one track??

"Carpe Diem Baby" is actually good? I know, weird. ReLoad is almost entirely filler, very little killer. And over the years I've melded all that filler into one lump of forgettable nothing in my mind. But going back and doing deep listening for this exercise, I'll be damned if "Carpe Diem Baby" isn't actually one of the best tracks on that album. Stupid title aside, it's a good tune, good melodies, weird cool harmonies, groovy riffs. I think the stupid title is maybe what made me pass it off this whole time.

How does each album fare? Interestingly enough, ranking by the average placement of each album's songs, the rankings more or less align with my head-canon of which albums are the best-slash-favorite, with maybe a little surprise or two.

If you held a gun to my head over the years, I would've told you Justice is my favorite Metallica album. The numbers say otherwise, and I'm okay with that. "Favorite" and "best" are maybe two different things. There's no denying the greatness of Puppets. My biggest surprise here is how well Lightning fares. Honestly, in my heart, I'd put both Black and Load (I know, right?) above it. But I think when it comes to ranking these things song-by-song, there's just so little chaff on Lightning to weigh it down. "Trapped Under Ice" is the closest we get, whereas Black and Load both have 3 or 4 (or 5) tracks that place so low that they pull the averages down. But if this was a desert island situation, honestly, I'd keep Black before I keep Lightning. Heresy, I know.

The bottom half of the list is less surprising. St. Anger stinks. There's no denying it. But I'm a little shocked how close it came to Death Magnetic, only about 2 points separate them! And yet I can barely sit and listen to St. Anger without bashing my head against a wall, while Magnetic, especially after hearing it multiple times throughout this little exercise, has grown damn-near enjoyable to me.

Here's a chart to visualize the dominance of Puppets and Justice.

What I did here, see, is to block out each album on the list (in chronological order), stretched from their first appearance on the list to the last. I was just curious to see how often the worst song on one album places higher than the best song on another. As you can see, Puppets and Justice far outpace anything from St. Anger and Magnetic, as does Kill, Lightning, and Black. This would almost be the case with Hardwired too, if it wasn't for that pesky and shockingly good track "Spit Out The Bone," which placed much higher than anything else on any of those albums, and sort of skewed the results of this exercise. That song placed just one spot after Justice's "Eye of the Beholder." An earlier edit of the list actually had "Spit" beating "Eye," but I did one last listen and decided that just wasn't the case.

The other flukey thing here is the title track of "St. Anger," which I placed farther up than it might deserve, keeping it from being shut out by Load. As it looks, it just barely got beat by Black. I still don't know how exactly I feel about placing this song so high—as I feel about a lot of that album, it's fucking weird, and has some moments that make me want to chuck my headphones out a window. But it also has some ferocious momentum and energy, and some cool weird vocal shit (there's a theme here) and interesting call backs to some of their very early work. It's interesting. Does it deserve to be at #70? I wrote the list so I guess it does.

The Listenability Horizon

Something that impressed me is that, considering how long this band has been around, and for how intensely mockable much of that career has been, when I look at the full list of songs, there are many more that I enjoy listening to than not. The point at which this break happens is right there at #86, "Dirty Window," still somehow the third best song from St. Anger. Anything above "Dirty Window" I'll gladly sit and give a spin and bob my head and make secret little metal horns with my fingers. Everything below becomes a chore. A little math tells me this that break happens at the 78th percentile of the list! I'd say that's pretty good! If you were to ask me before this list, I would've guessed something closer to 50%. Still sad how much of the new albums find themselves below that threshold though. I'd say this is maybe because I'm underrating these Magnetic songs in particular, but I think it might actually be that St. Anger is slowly and unexpectedly impressing it self onto me. Like maybe it's actually a little good and weird and cool? Maybe?

I should note also that "All Within My Hands," the only other song from St. Anger above the Listenability Horizon, is there almost out of a grudging respect rather than any actual enjoyment I get out of the track. It's a fucking weird song. Easily the weirdest thing they've ever done (Lulu not withstanding), practically "experimental" as far as these things go. Is it fun to listen to? No. But out of sheer respect for committing it to tape and keeping it in the cut, I placed it higher on the list than it probably actually deserves.

And funny to see how so much of Hardwired juuuuuuust squeaks its way on the listenable side of the line. And that plays out in reality—a whole lot of that album is just interesting enough to keep my attention. But just barely.

One more thing stands out from this graph. Lookie here:

Song placements on the list generally cluster pretty cleanly from album to album. But I noticed two large gaps, where the distance between the worst (and best) song on an album is much wider than most other gaps. The songs in question are "Trapped Under Ice" from Lightning, and (here we go again) "Spit Out The Bone" from Hardwired. Both are crazy outliers on their respective albums. In the case of "Trapped," it's also an outlier in my own opinion. I hate that song. Never liked it. Don't know why, most lists place it pretty high, some people think it's one of their better pure thrash tracks. Whatever, I think it stinks and I always have. And its low placement really drags down Lightning's average. Funny because my high opinion of "Escape" goes a long way to even it out. As for "Spit Out The Bone," look—it's 3 minutes too long, but when it's humming, it actually kinda rules. Far and away better than anything else on Hardwired.

Okay, just one last chart:

Just about sums it all up huh? (Actually while we're here, I just want to mention that "The Unforgiven II" is a way, way, better song than it has any right to be. A fucking sequel to a song that literally puts a "II" in the title, and then has the gall to use the phrase "You're unforgiven too" in the lyrics? Fuck you! But I'll be damned, it's a totally solid song and genuinely works as a sequel to the original. I don't know of any other instance in popular music that this has actually happened before or since. The third one, though, is garbage.)

That doesn't actually sum it all up. This does. My ultimate takeaway from this whole thing isn't particularly earth-shaking: Metallica is a good band. Wow, right? But seriously, I've been listening to so fucking much of this stuff for the last week—I've been listening to so fucking much of this stuff for my whole life, really—and at no point have I started to see any cracks. On the contrary, the stuff that I assumed was nothing but cracks has proven itself much more competent than I gave it credit for! Yes, all my old critiques of their newer records still apply: they're trying way too hard to impress everybody who "doubted" them, they're throwing around way too many intros and transitions and tricky time signature breaks and adding too many bridges and outros, it's all way too much. Too many notes. But when they fucking chill out and jam, and most importantly land on actual melody (melody, as stupid as it sounds, has truly been Metallica's sharpest weapon since the 80s; for all the emphasis on speed and aggression and heaviness in this stupid genre, this band has always outdone their peers in the simple ability to write a good song), they can still put together some amazing moments! And they're pushing 60!

As for the old stuff, there's truly not much else to add, other than an unceasing admiration for all of it. Those classic albums are every bit as good as everyone has been making them for decades. There's no "um actually" to be found. Nobody can argue their way out of Master of Puppets, you know? It's undeniable. Quintessential. People can try to argue out of The Black Album, but at some point they need to just give in. Listen to that thing. Dud songs aside, the killer is killer, and it sounds like the greatest heavy music ever engineered. I'm even getting the sense in recent years that Load is starting to get some amount of respect that it has long deserved. Doing this stupid deep listen into all this stuff hasn't spoiled any of these old records.

Ok so I guess is the part where I restate my hypothesis and bring it to a close or something. But I'm not going to because I just learned that Rob Trujillo has now been Metallica's bass player for longer than Cliff Burton and Jason Newstead combined. This fun fact has shaken me to the core, and means I'm far too old to waste any more time writing this longform analysis of a 40 year old band. Yikes.

Join me next year when I will rank every Grateful Dead live bootleg.

Chip CityQueens

I was out near Long Island City the other day and wanted a cookie, so I did what anyone in my position would do and I searched "cookies" in Google Maps. This place called Chip City came up, and I eventually found it, a tiny little storefront on the first floor of some new development mixed-use building. Basically just a little bakery case with just 4 trays of cookies, maybe they had a coffee machine and a fridge of milk or something, a cash register, one employee, and that was that.

What I didn't know until just now is that Chip City (as far as I can tell?) primarily markets itself as a home-delivery cookie dough company. Direct-to-consumer, disrupting the cookie dough industry, all that. I bet they've at least discussed sponsoring a podcast. But this just happened to be one little local outlet—possibly even connected to their main kitchen? Who knows.

Anyway their cookies are oddly massive—thick like a muffin top or a dang scone or something. But I gotta say, they were good! I worried they'd be either overcooked on the outside or overly dense on the inside, but no, they were go good consistency all around! Just absolutely way too huge, especially since I (oops) bought 4 of them. Two chocolate chip, one s'mores, and one peanut butter & jelly. How have I never had a PB&J cookie before? Seems so obvious! I'll go ahead and say the s'mores was the best, and maybe chocolate chip, followed by the PB&J. But they were all good!

They won't exist beyond 2021.

Mom's MomoQueens

Some day in the moderately-near future, I'll be able to sit down and construct my Best Momos list. Mom's will be on this list. Not very high, but it'll be on there.

Xing Fu TangQueens
Brown sugar boba milk

Back around Christmas time, I was walking through Flushing and noticed a new-looking storefront with a line bursting out of the door and around the corner. (I mean, social distancing and all, maybe it wasn't that long a line, but still). Passing by, it at first appeared by be just a fancy boba tea shop, but right by the window was a steaming wok full of this rich black goo that a worker was stir frying and slopping up into cups. And the people leaving had the most absolutely luscious looking marbled drinks in their hands, and someone had an equally luscious looking ice cream sundae! I didn't look up what was going on here, but clearly it was some sort of phenomenon.

Fast forward to last week, we're back in Flushing (see Maxi's Noodle, below. Excellent). After eating, I remember the black goo place from December, and we set off trying to find it. Sure enough, still lined up outside, it's Xing Fu Tang.

As it turns out, Xing Fu Tang is a very popular—and seemingly somewhat new—Taiwanese chain. This Queens location is their very first in the US, and clearly the word had quickly reached the Taiwanese and Hongkonger populations of Flushing. I quickly learned the black goo is slightly less mysterious that I imagined—Xing Fu Tang is ostensibly a boba tea shop, but their specialty is this brown sugar boba milk. In one corner of their kitchen, they have a special built machine that molds little spheres of brown sugar, mixed with tapioca bubbles, which are then all stir fried in a hot wok, creating that luscious goo. The goo then gets ladled into a glass, ice is added, then milk and tea, then they pour a latte-style foam over the top, and a dusting of a sugar concoction. As if this wasn't already way too much, they then bring in a butane kitchen torch and run it over the top of the drink, crème brûlée style. The whole process is impressively hands-on for a tea shop, there's a large staff of people behind the counter running drinks through the numbers. Oh, and for $10 more, you can top your drink in gold leaf. Not even kidding.

The result is truly one of the most beautiful looking fast food items I've ever seen. The impossibly dark inkiness of the sugar goo sits on the bottom and marbles up with the white of the milk, topped off by a lightly golden torched foam. Truly, I've seen plenty of similar things from bubble tea shops and the Starbucks of the world, but something in the visual chemistry of what Xing Fu Tang makes is absolutely tantalizing. You see that photo up there, right?

The best part, somehow, remarkably, unbelievably: it tastes just as good. This is an amazing drink. You'd expect it to either be too rich, or too sweet, or possibly burnt or bitter, but it's none of these things. It's a perfectly balanced experience. Like casually drinking a crème brûlée. Rich and sweet, yes, but not overly so; the two of us shared a single drink, but I easily could've finished one on my own. Then you have the hot sugar mixture and the cold milk and ice playing off each other from sip to sip, and of course the bubbles making themselves known now and then.

Oof. I'm telling you. You can probably find brown sugar boba at various bubble tea shops around, but this Xing Fu Tang is doing something on its own level. There's nothing like it. I posted a comment afterwards on Instagram, and I still believe it: Five years from now there will be a Xing Fu Tang in every metropolis in America, and I'll probably be fucking sick of them by then. But you heard it here first!

OMG they also do ice cream sundaes. Absolutely can't wait for ice cream sundae weather.

Maxi's NoodleQueens
Lo mein with beef stew and dumplings

Hong Kong style noodles are the noodles for me. I've decided. The Hong Kong version of lo mein, in particular, I'm realizing is right to the heart of what I want out of this sort of thing—thinner, almost vermicelli style noodles, sitting and basting in stock (but not swimming as a soup), salty and not too sloppy, and topped with a couple hunks of meat.

Maxi's in Flushing does Hong Kong style noodles (probably one of about two dozen places in Flushing that does Hong Kong noodles really), and with the beef stew on top for an extra dollar—don't get too excited about the spicy pork—they're probably as good as you'll find anywhere.

Sushi FellaQueens

There's a Polish guy in my neighborhood operating an underground sushi takeout business out of his apartment while the restaurant he apprentices for—under the leadership of one of the Jiro Dreams of Sushi masters—is closed for the pandemic. You text him, he asks you how many people will be eating and when you can pick it up, you go to the corner outside his apartment building and he brings it down for you, you ask how to pay and he says "You can Venmo me tomorrow, or later this week, it doesn't matter. Please just enjoy your sushi." You can tell this man truly loves sushi. And emojis. Especially sushi emojis.

It might be the best sushi I've ever had.

Untitled al pastor taco cartQueens
Al pastor tacos

I can now finally be a guy who says the best al pastor he's ever had is from an anonymous taco cart under the 7 train.


Oh you've never heard of fuschka? The popular Bengali street snack? Oh, well, that's funny because I live a few blocks away from the first and second fuschka carts in America, so I don't know I mean it's not even that exciting for me anymore. Yeah it's fucking delicious and exploding with flavor and somehow light as a cloud, but when you live so close to the best fuschka in the western hemisphere, I guess you kinda just forget it's even there. Anyway, you probably don't have any in your town anyway, so don't worry about it y'know? I guess I'll take you to Fuskahouse (lol, no it's not "Fuchkahouse", everyone knows that) or Tong (it was the first one but actually all the locals eat at the other cart anyway) next time you're in the big city to visit.

La Gran Uruguaya BakeryQueens

I've posted once or twice already about the depressing state of donuts this neighborhood. You just would think that Queens would be a donut borough, right? Just seems like it has donut energy. But outside of Dunkin, there's hardly any places to get them, and the two that should've been home runs—the vintage diner Alpha Donuts and this other new little shop called Go Nuts Donuts—were both deeply and insultingly disappointing. Now I'm realizing I didn't write about Go Nuts Donuts, but don't worry about it. They were basically ring-shaped cupcakes. One was actually good, but it wasn't even a dang donut!

Enter La Gran Uruguaya.

This hit me fully out of the blue, a sucker punch from behind while I was tying my shoes. This neighborhood is heavily Colombian and Colombian-adjacent, and what I've learned being here is that South Americans love their bakeries. There are so many around here. I walk by 6 or 7 between my place and the train, just one after another. But they mostly make South American pastries, sometimes French style stuff, sometimes Italian style stuff. It's often less sweet that our usual American bullshit, flakier, more breadlike, layer cakes that lean into fruits and cream rather than mounds of chocolate and frosting. Some of it is wonderful, of course, but my point is these aren't donut bakeries, that's not what they do.

I'd been to La Gran Uruguaya once before, had some quality sweets, the names of which I've totally forgotten—little croissant-like cookies with a caramel filling. It's a big place, with tons of options, as well as a menu of Uruguayan entrees, and usually soccer playing up on a TV. Anyway I popped in the other morning to see if they might have some pan de Jamón (basically ham and cheese croissants) for a quick breakfast bite. But there on the top rack, was a single tray of sugar-coated donuts. They didn't frosted or sprinkled, they didn't have Bavarian cream, they didn't have blueberry glazed or powdered sugar donut holes, just this one little try of plain looking sugared raised donuts. But they looked good, and I figured there's no way they could be worse than my recent Alpha experience. So I skipped the jamón and got the donut.

One of the best donuts I've had in this city! Seriously! Like not the best (Peter Pan, I got you), but I'll happily say top 4 or 5 (there were a few good Dough and Donut Plant experiences mixed in there too, and one surprisingly satisfying Dunkin). This was practically perfect donut. A little bit of bite and chew out the outside, soft as a damn cloud on the inside. Everything you'd want from a donut! I'm not the biggest fan of sugared-style, and it didn't hit me with a full-on dopamine rush like the Peter Pan donut did, but hell, this is just about a perfect donut. From a Uruguayan bakery that seemingly doesn't give a shit about donuts!

Which maybe has something to do with it—they're not pumping out a thousand of these things every morning, so they can actually take care and make them right. I actually went back a few days later, and they had no donuts at all. So casual about their donut mastery!

So I'm feeling better about this situation now. I have a donut place. For the most part. But I still want a donut place, y'know?

Alpha DonutsQueens

I can't describe to you how disappointing this donut was. Queens is a donut desert, and the beautifully charmingly historic Alpha Donuts was my best and only hope for a good donut "nearby" (4 train stops). It was the saddest, dryest, un-sprinkledest donut I've ever eaten, and I'm completely heartbroken.

Louie's PizzeriaQueens
Grandma style pizza

Louie's Pizzeria advertises themselves with an Albanian double eagle, and the guy who seemingly owns the place likes to wear tee shirts with assault rifles all over them, and one of those creepy grayscale American flag masks. It sits right across from the hospital that was once ground zero for pandemic deaths worldwide, and there are literally a dozen pizza places in the 10 minute walk between my apartment and there. And yet I want to keep giving them my business, because their grandma slice is legitimately some of the best pizza I've had in this pizza town. The motherfucker behind the counter would probably slap you and call you a cuck if he heard you describe it as "Detroit style," but, like, it kinda is. A little thinner though. It's at least closer to Detroit style than the usual "grandma style" slices you get elsewhere around here, in that it has a buttery caramelized crust with all the nooks and crannies, and a rich sauce and browned cheese. It's not as good as Prince's or Paulie G's as far as "Detroit" pizza goes (please don't dox me!), but it's intensely satisfying.

As a side note, I haven't really been able to explore the pizza of Queens yet. From my brief research and general scuttlebutt, it seems Queens isn't really as pizza-rich as Brooklyn or Manhattan. At least as far as prestige goes, there's no "famous" Queens pizza joint that you just have to try. Louie's is actually one that comes up on most lists, so it's possible this might be as good as it gets (and convenient that we moved just 10 blocks away from it). I can't say either way, but if it is the best this place has to offer, I guess I'd be okay with that.

Steve's Favorite Food of 2020Queens
A List

Boy what a year, huh? Okay, let's get on with it.

1. Caleta 111 (Queens) - Ceviche
2. Its-It (San Francisco) - Ice cream sandwiches
3. Emily (Manhattan) - Emily burger
4. Talula’s (Asbury Park) - Pepperoni honey pizza
5. F&F Pizza (Brooklyn) - Sausage sage and brown butter pizza
6. Phayul (Queens) - Hot sauce
7. Peter Pan Donuts (Brooklyn) - Donut
8. Arepa Lady (Queens) - Arepa de choclo
9. Randazzo Pizza (Brooklyn) - Chorizo pizza
10. Tung Tung (Brooklyn) - Char siu
11. Pastrami Queen (Manhattan) - Pastrami sandwich
12. Ugly Baby (Brooklyn) - Kang prik
13. Korzo (Brooklyn) - Korzo Burger
14. Hassan Halal Meat & Grocery (Brooklyn) - Kebab
15. Nan Xiang Xiao Long Bao (Queens) - Potherb mustard salad
16. Regina’s Grocery (Manhattan) - Meatball sandwich
17. Thaan (Queens) - Various Thai things
18. Original American Chicken (Queens) - grilled chicken and rice
19. Los Tacos No. 1 (Manhattan) - Tacos
20. SriPraPhai (Queens) - Duck curry

Arepa LadyQueens
Arepa de choclo

Arepa Lady began in lower case, "the arepa lady" who became a sensation running an arepa cart around Queens a few years ago. But then recently her two sons decided to capitalize the operation (get it??), and now it's Arepa Lady, a full-on brick and mortar restaurant in Jackson Heights, literally one block away from my new place. I don't know if they're the best arepas in the neighborhood, because there are so many arepa options around here, but I'm perfectly comfortable putting them at #1 on the arepa de choclo alone. Get it with chicharron, and you're basically eating super-powered Colombian pancakes and bacon. Everything else here is good too of course, but the de choclo is the winner. This is actually the first case where I've actually lived so close to a legit amazing restaurant, and we're trying hard not to just eat it every week. Maybe tonight though?

Amdo KitchenQueens

I had to look up the fact that this momo truck is called "Amdo Kitchen." As far as I'm concerned it's just "that momo truck outisde of Phayul with the Golden Momo Award advertisement on the side." As I said in the Phayul post (scroll down a few why don'tcha?), this little corner of Jackson Heights is swarming with momo trucks and carts. This is one of them. But they won a Golden Momo award, so of course I'm gonna eat at this one!

Good momos. Better than Phayul's. Hot sauce wasn't nearly as good. Now if I could get Phayul's hot sauce with this truck's momos...

Lamb chops, thenthuk, momos

According to sources my new neighborhood has the largest population Tibetan and Nepali people outside of Asia. I can think of one or two Tibetan or Nepali restaurants in the entirety of the Twin Cities, but on one block of one street a quick walk from here, there are at least 6. Not to mention all the momo trucks that linger around the area. I mean the topic of Jackson Heights' mind-bogglingly diverse food options is a whole thing that I can barely even wrap my head around, but the sheer density of Himalayan restaurants alone is a topic in itself.

Of all these spots, Phayul seems to be the one that grabs the most acclaim from people (although if we're judging purely on curb appeal, I'd have to say Himalayan Yak is the king. How can you ignore a place called Himalayan Yak?) It was a while ago that we ate here, so I can't get into too much detail, other than the fact that it was pretty good. But! The real highlight of meal was the hot sauce. Which isn't to minimize the quality of the lamb chops and momos and thenthuk—remember me just saying they were pretty good? But the two hot sauces that came with the momos were both out of this world. Truly some of the best hot sauce I've ever had. No idea what was in either of them, but they were rich and flavorful without losing any heat, and complimented every dish absolutely perfectly. I was gobsmacked; didn't even know that Tibetan cuisine included hot sauce.

There's a certain category of food rating where something can be so good I don't even want to eat it again in fear that it will disappoint me next time, and I think Phayul's hot sauce falls into this category. Their lamb chops and momos? Sure, I'll eat em again.

Original American ChickenQueens
Grilled chicken, rice, veggies

There's still hope for this country, and this chicken is proof.

Emoji BurgerQueens

The nearest burger place to my new apartment is called Emoji Burger. Their burgers are named after emojis. And as you can see, they brand the 😜 guy right there into the top of the bun. It would be embarrassing if it wasn't so delicious.

It doesn't beat Andrew's Luncheonette, which was probably my previous favorite burger in town, but it was startlingly close.

Nan Xiang Xiao Long BaoQueens
Xiao long bao, potherb mustard salad

It wasn't part of the plan, but our first indoor dining experience in I don't even want to look up how many months came at a dumpling joint in Flushing.

I wish I could explain the essence of Flushing to you, but you should really see it for yourself. When you're in Chinatown, you look around and it still feels like you're in old Manhattan—just Chinatown Manhattan. But Flushing, you get off the 7 train, walk up the stairs, and you'll think you're in Hong Kong or something. The buildings are newer, the signage is bigger and brighter, everything is a little more fresh, in that sort of post-war, malls-stacked-on-malls kind of way.

An added wrinkle is that you're starting to see what you can only really call gentrification, except it's Asian-American gentrification rather than your standard white yuppie type. New ugly glass condo buildings, dotted with trendy restaurants and clubs and tea shops, mom and pop places seemingly being replaced by overseas chains. It's a little dizzying—you want to gripe about it, but at least it's not all gastro-breweries and Whole Foods.

So in one of these new ugly glass condo buildings, is Nan Xiang, which has been in the neighborhood for years, and just moved locations from its little hole in the wall to this shiny new 2nd floor patio. So I guess it's not all chains. Anyway Nan Xiang has long been known for their soup dumplings (xiao long bao), and after stopping by our new place in Jackson Heights to get the keys, we decided to venture to Flushing for dinner. Their patio was totally swamped, but we decided to brave the inside anyway. (Side note: There's an entire essay that could be written about the way the Chinese and larger Asian community in New York City has dealt with the pandemic. The short version: Much better than the rest of us. So we actually felt more comfortable eating in this place than, say, The Kettle Black down in Bay Ridge. Anyway).

The dumplings were great! Very great! I've somehow never been fully satisfied by a soup dumpling—even thought they're supposed to be the greatest morsels ever created—but these might actually have been the best I've ever eaten. So the hype is warranted. But the other dish that somehow blew me away was this salad that we ordered on the side, made with potherb mustard greens, tofu, and red peppers. I've never had a salad quite like it, and the flavor combination was wonderful! Cool and crisp and light, a perfect side dish for a meal like this.

We also got some noodles, but they were lame, so let's not talk about that. Dumplings, yes! Salad, yes! Flushing, yes!

Caleta 111Queens
Ceviche, chaufa, tamale

Caleta 111 is a little sliver of a Peruvian ceviche place in a little nothing Queens neighborhood underneath the elevated J tracks, and I had one of the best damn meals in a long time there.

I don't know anything about ceviche, and I honestly was a little tepid about going there to begin with. But it had been on our radar for a long time, and we happened to be close to this weird corner of Queens for the first time in a long time, so what the heck. But yeah. It was incredible, top to bottom. The ceviche, the chaufa (that Peruvian/Chinese fried rice, kinda like Chimborazo's, but sorry Chimborazo, this place has you beat), and even the pork tamale was better than most pork tamales I've ever had. Honestly the liquid that the ceviche sits in was so good I had to pick up the bowl and slurp up the last of it like I was a kid who just finished my Lucky Charms.

I'd say it's in the top 5 meals I've eaten here. Maybe top 3. Top 2? (Sorry, can't get it up to 1... those Olmsted scallops aren't likely to step aside for anybody.)

Tarim Uyghur CuisineQueens
Lamb kabob, noodles

Queens is the kind of place where you can get Uyghur food in a mall food court and that's just totally normal. And that Uyghur food involves a lamb kabob served to you on a sword.