“Many a person who could not even think of eating Boeuf Tartare without gagging (unfortunately because it can be made of inexpensive and often highly nutritive cuts of beef) would willingly assault a thick, bloody lukewarm ‘cut off the joint’ and feel himself secure in the tradition of Simpson’s and The Plaza and Dave Chasen’s…and Henry the Eighth’s own dining hall, as far as that goes.”
~ MFK Fisher, How to Cook A Wolf
When did food courts turn into food halls? I’d roughly date it to the opening of Italian market behemoth Eataly in NYC in 2010. An Italian import and partnership with the powerhouse Batali and Bastianich Hospitality Group, the idea that this altar upon which to worship Italian food could be described with the same word as the place suburban teens grab a slice after getting their ears pierced at a kiosk seemed ridiculous.
And maybe it was. I’ve never been to Eataly, having an allergy to food hype, though its staying power suggests that it may be worth a visit. What seems less logical, however, is the use of food hall rather than court to describe a new, worthwhile addition to the generally pathetic food scene around Penn Station in NYC–the Pennsy.
I come through Penn Station on a weekly basis and believe me when I say that the only thing I’ve ever bought to eat there was a protein bar at a Hudson News. Course not, you’re saying, you’re in the middle of Manhattan. Why would you willingly eat in a train station? Hold up there, because to a shocking degree, the neighborhood around Penn Station is pretty poor for good eats. Your best bet is Korean food, though this Serious Eats roundup includes other places as well. If you’re not in the mood for a lengthy sit down meal, Food Gallery 32 (map), a Korean and Asian food “emporium” offers lots of quick options from bao to tofu chigae (though the banchan is pretty skimpy).
The opening of the Pennsy next door to Penn Station and Madison Square Garden has added some more options. I’ve been to the Pennsy twice now, and, both times, ate at The Cinnamon Snail, a vegan place that graduated from a beloved food truck selling vegan donuts to a sandwich-and-donuts cafe. To be honest, after reading Robert Sietsema’s less-than-glowing review, I was concerned, but by the end of my meal, was pleasantly surprised.
First trip, I ordered the Beastmode Burger Deluxe, a seitan, or wheat gluten, patty, on a pretzel bun with some weirdo toppings, including vegan jalapeno mac ‘n cheese, arugula, ancho barbecue sauce and smoked coconut bacon, an amazing vegan bacon substitute that I’d eaten at the Memphis Taproom in Philly on their vegan club sandwich. There are no sides at the Cinnamon Snail, which makes for a little unbalanced meal. When I unwrapped my burger, it was a mess, with too much stuff shoved into it. I was wary, too, of seitan as a patty. Seitan is often boiled and, done improperly (the way I do it every time) it ends up with the mouthfeel of rubber bands, or what veg websites call “zombie brains.” But the seitan patty here had good texture, if not much flavor. All of that was delivered by the toppings, especially the weird combo of mac ‘n cheese and coconut bacon. The cheese added some creaminess and the bacon some crunch. There was too much arugula, though, so I pulled that out and turned it into my own little side salad. Macgyvered that shit for real. After I finished eating it, I thought, “that was pretty good,” but, unexpectedly over the next few days I kept thinking about that damn sandwich. Last night, when my partner and I were back in NYC to see The Hateful Eight in 70mm, I suggested that we walk in arctic cold to Penn Station to have more Cinnamon Snail. Because he’s insane too, he agreed.
With our faces near to frostbitten, we arrived at the Pennsy, which, again, was crowded, but not overly so. He got the beastmode and I switched it up to the Thai Barbecue Tempeh, described thusly:
We checked out the small bar which has a pathetic selection of beers on tap. I only hope the bottle list is where it’s at. Not sure what cocktail pairs well with seitan, we went to check on our order. Done! Definitely quick turnaround.
Overall, I preferred the Beastmode, but this was a reasonably priced (around $9) quick dinner. I couldn’t tell how the tempeh was cooked, but it might have just been steamed. The basil didn’t add much, making the pickled onions and sriracha mayo the flavor providers. When the description says smoked chili roasted peanuts they mean it. There were peanut halves layered onto my sandwich, which was awkward, since their, you know, curves, meant they fell out pretty regularly. I wondered whether a spicy, chunky peanut sauce would add more moistness and keep the crunch with less spillage. The less we say about the spelt bread, the better.
And what about the donuts, you ask? Well, I don’t care for donuts as a rule, but I bought a raspberry cheesecake one for my partner on the first trip. He gave it a solid B.
I wouldn’t be quite so harsh on The Pennsy or The Cinnamon Snail. For convenience sake, they’re definitely in the B+ territory. But don’t expect glamour or glitz. If you go in expecting something a little better than the food court at the fancy mall that you never go to, than you won’t be disappointed.