This is a tale of abject gluttony, of drunken mistakes, and of greasy fingers. It a tale that I am somewhat ashamed to share but have come to terms with as part of my culinary life, which has had its fair share of regrettable moments.
This is the tale of knish cutlet.
To help explain the genesis of the monstrosity you see above, travel back in time with me to New York City in the fall of 2008.
I had recently moved to an apartment on the hinterlands of Chinatown and Little Italy—a two-block no-man’s zone of nothingness wedged between the neighborhoods. One guy in our building tried to circulate the name “Chitaly” to invigorate its real-estate appeal, but the name never popped off.
By most accounts, it was a great location, right by the Canal Street subway hub and walkable to most places I’d want to go. The one downfall was that it was a wasteland for late-night grub. Unless I wanted to sit at a table in Wo Hop eating lo mein by myself—not unheard of, but also not ideal—my move when trashed was to walk up to Broome Street and hit the bodega connected to an NYU dorm there. I liked that I could blend in with the college kids buying condoms they’d never use, and frankly, it was the only real option past midnight.
For me, the bodega chicken cutlet sandwich is up there with the sidewalk slice and the dirty-water dog as an essential New York street food.
At that time in my life, I used to paint the town rouge quite a bit (read: drink heavily with some dudes I knew in college). I can’t really get down like that anymore, but I guess then I still had my youthful energy intact (read: I didn’t have any real need to wake up before 11am, other than getting my dog-walking business off the ground and writing blog posts about student-debt relief).
Point being, I found myself at this bodega regularly.
Another thing to know about me: Since moving to NYC in 2006, I had developed a serious taste for the chicken-cutlet sandwich. This snack wasn’t really even on my radar growing up in D.C. and Connecticut, but I must have eaten hundreds of them during my first couple of years in New York. For me, the bodega chicken cutlet sandwich is up there with the sidewalk slice and the dirty-water dog as an essential New York street food.
And so it was that one night, after a few too many cheeky tequilas, I stumbled into the bodega at about 3am with chicken cutlet on the mind. I ordered it like I always did: “Chicken cutlet on a Kaiser roll, with American cheese, lettuce, tomato, and mayo.”
“No rolls,” the guy behind the counter said.
“Um…what?” I might have said. Who knows. I was mullered.
“No rolls. Just bread,” he said, pointing to some crappy white slices in the display case.
Even in my drunken state, I knew that shit wasn’t popping. That bread would stand no chance against the greasy cutlet, no chance at all.
My eyes wandered desperately. I saw Boar’s Head meats, pallid chicken salad, forlorn veggie burger patties. And, then, out of the corner of my gaze, a pile of fried knish.
“Ok. Can you put it in between two knish, then?” I asked the man.
This all went down long before the Double Down was even a glimmer in the Colonel’s eye.
This being New York City, he didn’t ask any questions, he just did it—nuked the knish, whipped up the chicken cutlet with cheese and mayo, then wrapped up the ridiculously stacked creation in tin foil and invented a completely fair price for it.
I took it out to sidewalk and started eating in a way that suggested someone might come take the food away from me if I didn’t finish it as quickly as possible.
It was insanely satisfying. The knish at this spot had a crispy outer layer—not like those so soggy, flaccid ones you get on the street—and it maintained its integrity despite the precariousness of the whole structure. The potato filling oozed with each bite of cutlet, bringing to mind fried chicken and mashed potatoes—but in handheld form.
Needless to say, this would not be my last fling with the knish cutlet. On many drunken nights, I returned to the trough to stuff my face with its delights. Sometimes, when I was really feeling like “fuck it,” I would nibble away one side of the knish, then plunge strips of the chicken cutlet into the middle of the parcel so that it became a sort of Jewish-American hot pocket. It ruled.
So there you have it: The story of the knish cutlet. The truth behind my most shameful bodega habits. Like so many great/disgusting foodstuffs, this one was born from limited resources—with no bread available on that fateful evening, the knish had no choice but to rise to its new calling. (And bear in mind that this all went down long before the Double Down was even a glimmer in the Colonel’s eye. Just saying.)
To be honest, I have never had a knish cutlet while sober, and I don’t really want to. Like making out with unsavory women and listening to Lil’ Jon records, it just seems unnecessary—it’s so great drunk, why even risk seeing how it holds up under the scrutiny of clearheadedness?
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