The Hungover Gourmet

 

Eating Out the Deuce:
Remembrances of Meals Past

by Bill Landis and Michelle Clifford

Sleep, food and shelter are the three necessities to sustain life. In the tiny sphere of Times Square, food took a back seat to drugs, sex or entertainment. Part of what gave Times Square its hyper throbbing surreal quality was that its self-medicated population refused a meal schedule.

At its height in the mid-1980s, the cuisine of Times Square was as eccentric, inexpensively produced and varied as the exploitation movies it played host to. Times Square was a sea of neon extending from 42nd to 50th Streets, from 6th Avenue to 9th Avenues. When Mr. Sleazoid worked in the Bryant Theater boxoffice on 42nd Street between 6th and Broadway, there were three choices for lunch before him. The old standard Popeye's fried chicken was greasier, saltier and a notch below Colonel Sanders. A storefront luncheonette specialized in daily specials like a life-sustaining Salisbury steak with rice and beans for around $4. Like a Clint Eastwood western, it had no name and was a few dollars more to discourage creeps from entering it. The most inexpensive and peculiar of all was the China Gate take-out, which offered a white Styrofoam box of stomach challenging rib-tips for only $1.95. The dish was intended as an after high munchie but served as lunch for many a local troublemaker.

If you skipped a block west to the Deuce – 42nd Street between 7th and 8th Avenues – for some grindhouse cinematic fare, you were also confronted by the Times Square approach to beef. On the south side of the Deuce next to the Liberty Theater was Westernberger, offering slim greaseburgers priced at $1.50. Well- worn stools lined a filthy countertop. The first level of grime came from the cheap newsprint ink of constant spreadouts of tabloids like the New York Post and Daily News, the second from unwashed hands, topped off by money and crack bottles sliding across the counter. Across the street towards 8th Avenue was the weakest link in the Tad's Steakhouse chain. Tad's had a western motif neon sign outside and looked like a bordello mixed with a Sears' catalog on the interior, with ripped red velveteen seating. Tad's was a NYC faux steakhouse offering a hideous cardboard textured steak and a baked potato side dish for around $6. Tad's always smelled like dirty shoes were in the oven; the steaks were pre-cooked frozen objects that were endlessly reheated. Fear was a factor in Tad's Steaks; even tourists didn't go in it, and they usually walked in anywhere not knowing any better. Tad's major clientele consisted of male hustlers and their johns who wanted to inspect their purchase's johnson in the men's room and then have a little get-to-know-you price negotiation snack. Tad's had been a haunt since World War II and bobbed up in gay guidebooks. A hustler ordering the most expensive item from a trick was his way of asserting his worth.

Pity the unknowing tourist who was lured by the poster of the blonde lady, smiling, with a Gyro about to be bitten into that wanders into the omnipresent Gyro shops wanting Greek fast food. Gyros were ubiquitous, notably next door to the Show Palace male dancer joint on 8th Avenue and 43rd Street and around the corner, near the violent, psychotic Harem porn theater on 42nd and 8th. This stretch, housing a subway exit with an arcade, was one of the most dangerous, flotsam-filled points in New York City. The vile Gyro mystery meat claimed to be processed lamb but likely was a mixture of lamb, goat and remains.

If you were on the corner of 42nd and 8th opposite the Port Authority, you could always walk over three blocks to 39th Street and 9th Avenue to Great Wall for something edible. No one knew if Great Wall was an actual chain or if it was a simplified Chinese expression on par with "happy go lucky." The broccoli chicken lunch special for $3.95 was perfect, with just the right garlic sauce. It never made you sick or gave you a stomachache, especially considering the pocket of hell it was in. This street was one of the Deuce's main battle zones of crack near the Port Authority bus terminal. Sometimes a thought would cross the marquee of a crackhead's mind for something to eat and they'd be fishing in their shoe or counting pennies seemingly pulled out of their ass with filthy hands in fingerless gloves for a fifty cent chicken wing. Taking lunch there was a high point of Mrs. Sleazoid's day. Many a time she enjoyed a floorshow of the cook threatening an unruly patron claiming they paid for something they never bought, as Great Wall had a pay up front policy. Like a kung fu movie, the Oriental cook would squeeze one eye shut, pick up the ladel of scalding oil and say slowly, "You no pay. You want some of THIS?" That always shut them up quick.

No trip to Times Square was complete without a visit to Nathan's Famous Hot Dogs. Nathan's had originated in Coney Island but had a bastion on the well trampled block on 43rd Street and Broadway, right next to a subway entrance, creepy joke shop and the Globe adult theater. The smell of coagulating mustard and exhaust from traffic socked you in the face. Of course, there were the aforementioned hot dogs – the same as the brand name now sold in supermarkets – along with hamburgers and rings of grease known as fries or onion rings. The potato or onion was there for the grease to cling to. The downstairs "waitress service" section offered deli sandwiches if you dared to sit by the toilet, which played hotel to bag people derelicts and streetwalkers in PMS delirium. Nathan's unique contribution to the culinary universe, however, was its broiled lobster roll – a concoction of mayonnaise and crabmeat with a dash of lobster quickly heated in a pizza oven. Not as cheap as you'd think, either, at around $3 a pop, as you'd need two or three to fill up on.

You had to hoof it a couple of minutes from Nathan's for the next stop on the feeding chain. Walking north from Nathan's, Broadway turns into 7th Avenue at a fork in the road at Duffy Square on 47th Street. This sub-section of Times Square was so known for its shat upon statue of a Father Duffy that stood above the touristy TKTS center for half-price Broadway shows. The corner of 48th and 7th was home to the shoebox-sized Doll adult theater and was a magnet for three card monte gangs. As with everywhere, you had a McDonald's, probably the worst one in the city. It was so rough you wouldn't be surprised to find a dead baby left in a shopping bag under a table. The other culinary offerings were slim pickins for such a tourist mecca: paper thin Boar's Head pastrami sandwiches from a deli, a thoroughly nauseating cheap Chinese lunch special from Peking Express, which thoughtfully offered a dollar off to the Doll Theater's patrons. However, Flame Steaks across the street offered a decent steak and potato lunch, much more palatable than Tad's Steaks.

An avenue block away were 8th Avenue's assorted fleshpots, peep scumporiums, and adult theaters named after Greek gods of love like the Eros, Adonis and Venus. Over by the Venus Theater on 45th Street and 8th Avenue stood a 24 hour Smiler's Deli, and you had to be really starving, have an off internal clock or in a hurry to brave the plastic container of seafood salad, which could weigh in for $2 and change if you wished. Just make sure the tray was full, otherwise you would be doubled over in pain, digging your nails in the tabletop and crying for an adult diaper. Across the street from the Venus was the cheapest sit-down eating experience – a nameless Korean grocery with kitchen tables in the back where you could snack on chicken wings for fifty cents each washed down by a fifty-cent can of grape or orange soda. Solitary drug addicts grimly munching on a crispy wing and hustlers with full plates deep in conversation permeated the ambiance of this wing joint. Up on the corner of 49th Street and 8th Avenue was a walk-in counter barbeque joint, where everyone sitting or nodding on the stools had an outstanding warrant for some petty crime. Pretty decent sides of ribs, though, in the $6-10 range.

When it came down to cases, if you were a regular Times Square denizen you knew to treat it like Mexico and not eat in it. For a decent meal you'd skip out of the Deuce proper over to 9th Avenue, crossing the border into Hell's Kitchen, an old school Hispanic drug ghetto. Between the dealers were some of the best eating experiences in the Times Square area. Captain Kim's on 46th and 9th was a refreshing step up from your usual Oriental fried fish joint. Its fried fish sandwich had a sprightlier batter and less grease than others. Captain Kim's offered a fish joint first – fried calamari, a heaping, really satisfying batch of it. In the thick of the action on 48th and 9th was Juaita's, a terrific Spanish eatery with both counter and waitress service, or you could take it to go in a metal tin with a cardboard lid. Soups thick with chicken, potatoes and spices served as appetizers; main courses like pernil (roast pork) with black beans and rice, or roast chicken were scrumptious feasts straight from mammasita's kitchen. The brisk turnover and experienced staff at Juanita's also made the food really reliable and always fresh. The face of Times Square has changed drastically over the years into a Disneyfied mall, but you'll still find Juanita's there today under another moniker in the same location.

No typical night for a Deuce denizen would be complete without topping it off with a little something sweet. Always to be found at the densest drug dealing corner on 9th Avenue stood an aged Popi with a homemade wooden shaved ice cart. Emptied rum bottles contained thick Karo syrup mixed with a Kool-Aid type flavor – grape, orange, Pina Colada. Popi would take a dirty rag off to shave you a Dixie cup of ice. The flavored shaved ice was the bastion of hardcore needle freaks and hyper little kids, making for a peculiar queue.

– Bill Landis and Michelle Clifford are the publishers of Sleazoid Express and Meta-Sex.
Their book, Sleazoid Express: A Mind-Twisting Tour Through the Grindhouse Cinema of Times Square is available from amazon.com. Check out my interview with Bill and Michelle at Exploitation Retrospect On-Line.



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