Nico Walker with his strawberry ice cream. Photo: Lindsay Mound

When asked about his favorite foods, Nico Walker has only one answer: ice cream. During his time in prison, he could buy it at the commissary once a week, and he’d go back and forth between devouring and refusing it, even though the food served to prisoners makes many sick. “Sometimes it’s like your pride fucking with you. Because [eating ice cream] seems like some soft thing to do while you’re in prison,” he says. In 2018, Walker published Cherry, his debut novel based on (though not entirely drawn from) his own experiences enlisting as a medic in the Iraq War — he was later diagnosed with severe PTSD — and his subsequent opioid addiction and bank-robbing spree. Called the “first great novel of the opioid epidemic” by New York Magazine, it was adapted into a film this year by the Russo brothers. Walker is working on another book — “sort of a broader survey of the prison scene,” he says — and this week was in New York with his fiancée, the poet Rachel Rabbit White, where they did eat ice cream.

Wednesday, May 19
This Grub Street Diary be­gins late in the day, upon the 19th of May, 2021: Rachel and I land 5 p.m.–ish @ JFK, and we will get our lug­gage and be on our col­lec­tive way to Brook­lyn. We will be in the city through the 25th, the day I will re­turn to the North­ern Dis­trict of Mis­sis­sip­pi — Mis­sis­sip­pi via Mem­phis, Mem­phis via At­lanta — and she is plan­ning to stay on a day or two be­yond that. She has more say about her­self than I have about my­self when it comes to things like where’s go-able and when, etc. This is on account of how I am on pa­per (fed­er­al su­per­vi­sion). I misbehaved once — grave­ly — what was by now a long time ago. This re­al­ly is nei­ther here nor there, only it means I will need to hit the ground run­ning. I will have been here for a rea­son, and so I must keep notes of the meals I am tak­ing. It is why I am here, ac­tu­al­ly. And I don’t know why that should be. All the same, I wouldn’t like to ­let any­one down.

We have the keys to her ex’s place. I’ve been told this is in East Williamsburg. I will say to Rachel, “Is there an el­e­va­tor?”

And she will say, “Yes.”

Whereupon I will say some­thing to the ef­fect of thank God.

And we pull up at dusk.

Last time that we were here we stayed in a walk-up. So the el­e­va­tor feels appre­ciat­ed this evening. We will leave our lug­gage now. We just each have to do our lit­tle bird­baths, and as we do our lit­tle bird­baths we won­der where this ought to be­gin. “Search restau­rants near me,” she says.

I do it wrong.

I am ­bad at phones.

“Here. I’ll do it,” she says.

She hands me her phone.

I scroll down the dis­play. Does it maybe re­mind you of push­ing a scoot­er when you were a baby: push off and glide, leg work­ing as though it were an oar al­most, in a row­boat or a ca­noe or a gondola. Your leg is like a gon­do­la pole, one with a white, scuffed-up Ked on the busi­ness end of it.


Drag the Ked to brake, and it skips off of the con­crete a few times be­fore dragging enough to where you can stop.

Back up a few steps now, be­cause some­thing’s caught my eye: Don Pan­cho Vil­la.

Which is on Bor­in­quen Place.

If you have ever been along on a lit­tle air­plane trav­e­ling be­fore, and you have not been in some time and maybe for­get what all that ex­act­ly is like, forgive me for telling you now that it has not at all im­proved, not one bit, and not that you’d have ex­pect­ed it to, only I am try­ing to say that, tru­ly, it is worse than it was be­fore. I would not lie to you about some­thing as stu­pid as the air­port: It is as bad as it ever has been, and is worse — noticeably worse — and you like­ly may need to heal when you get to wher­ev­er you will be go­ing some­day.

I do not re­mem­ber if we walked to Don Pan­cho’s. I feel as though we did, how­ever. I know we had hoped to get through the evening cost-ef­fec­tive­ly. Which re­minds me — and I may as well get this out of the way: No, Don Pan­cho’s is not inexpensive.

Oth­er than that, it was ex­cel­lent, more ex­cel­lent than I should ever ex­pect to hope for.

The at­mosphere, as they say, was fes­tive.

Don Pan­cho’s is not any ran­dom-ass-place-to-go-eat type of place, not any place just to shov­el a lit­tle dumb food into a dumb face and then kick rocks. It isn’t like that. Be ready to look alive. Don Pan­cho’s is a place where peo­ple go to have fun. (You re­mem­ber fun, right?)

There were all types of peo­ple. There were big fam­i­ly ta­bles with hon­est-to-God, ac­tu­al fam­i­lies at them — I count­ed three generations, it looked like — and they were all hav­ing a good time. They laughed. They smiled at one an­oth­er. All was for­giv­en. Maybe Grand­ma got drunk — charge it to the game.

“Re­mem­ber the time we went to Don Pan­cho’s?” they will say.

Or: “Re­mem­ber we used to go to Don Pan­cho’s?”

That type of thing.

So they were there; and younger peo­ple, too: bona fide youngsters, cas­es of ar­rest­ed de­vel­op­ment, and oth­er mi­cro­cosms, what are in-be­tween stages of those.

And then there were peo­ple there on busi­ness, like Rachel and my­self, and the peo­ple who worked there, and the DJ.

The DJ knew what was re­quired. At 10 p.m. they switched over from Latin dance mu­sic to hip-hop seamlessly. The DJ had a deft hand. The DJ had everyone feel­ing alive.

The drinks were ex­pen­sive; how­ev­er, they were big drinks, and who­ev­er poured them was cool with you get­ting trashed.

Don Pan­cho wants you to know: This could be more than just a restau­rant; this could be a par­ty. It de­pends on each per­son.

We were out­side on the pa­tio, near enough to the build­ing. I was glad to see Don Pan­cho of­fered hookah ser­vice, both with­in and with­out, as well. I would not want to go to a hookah bar, not that I think there is any­thing wrong with them. I do not look down on peo­ple who en­joy them. All I mean to say is it isn’t my thing.

Nev­er­the­less, Rachel and I were both very glad that Don Pan­cho of­fered us a hookah op­tion. Rachel took it to mean that she could vape as she liked from the assortment of Juuls and Puff­bars she in­vari­ably trav­els with and not have to go through all the trou­ble of hid­ing them, faking like she checks her purse a hun­dred times in the course of one din­ner. And I was glad, too, be­cause I had a ready means pro­vid­ed to me whereby I could continue my yearslong demo project on the lungs with­out need­ing to excuse myself, to get up from the table and walk through the restau­rant, step out and stand in the wind, and smoke cig­a­rettes, looking like a flunky. And nev­er just one, which is gross; plus, you may get the glares from passers­by now and then — you know: from the good passersby.

Also, I do mean to quit smok­ing, or at least cut down some.

So, in my de­fense: I did not or­der the frozen co­conut mar­gari­ta. What hap­pened was I or­dered it on the rocks. Aleen, our server, brought it frozen, though. Not necessarily her fault. Maybe the bar­tender got it wrong, or way more like­ly is I talk like a dum­my a lot of times and peo­ple can’t un­der­stand what I’ve said. Prob­a­bly it was the last ver­sion, be­cause all the rest of what we or­dered showed up 110 percent cor­rect. The service was on point. Not too much, not too lit­tle: We were nei­ther rushed nor were we left to wait.

Don Pan­cho’s was lit, and yet all the staff we had deal­ings with — the hostess, the server, the hookah ex­pert — were not on any bull­shit. They were efficient, and not ef­ficient-rude or ef­fi­cient-make-you-un­com­fort­able-like-you’re-be­ing-spied-on — al­though they did pack lit­tle se­cret-ser­vice-type radios and ac­tu­al­ly used them.

Don Pan­cho takes ta­ble ser­vice se­ri­ous­ly.

Don Pan­cho goes A-Team.

Any­way, I did order a coconut margarita, regardless of whether it were frozen or on the rocks. Which to­tal­ly is out of character for me. I did it for you, though, New York Mag­a­zine Read­er, be­cause I want­ed to tell you as much as I could find out in one vis­it to Don Pan­cho Vil­la, to do the legwork for you, and then Rachel showed me up ’cause she said she was going to order one of the baby drinks like I had or­dered, ex­cept she just got a mezcal instead. (And she had de­clined to or­der first, for the record.)

So then I was like, “Yass, and a mezcal too, please, for me. Oh, and a beer.”

And I or­dered La Pis­to­la to start with for food. La Pis­to­la is es­sen­tial­ly a cornucopia (the nonmetaphor­i­cal type) of fried green plan­tains filled with a vis­cous, heavy-whip­ping-cream-based type of deal that a fair amount of cala­mari and shrimp has been mixed into, along with some peppers. Slices of av­o­ca­do are laid on top.

Oth­er than clam chow­der, I don’t nor­mal­ly fool around with mix­ing seafood and dairy, not counting but­ter, of course; so change that to: Usu­al­ly I don’t fuck with fish with milk or cheese or any type of thing like cheese or milk. It doesn’t oc­cur to me as a thing that would be done. Yet I did not hes­i­tate to or­der La Pis­to­la. I trust­ed this dish, sight unseen.

The drinks would be out first, nat­u­ral­ly. I remember complaining to Rachel about the mar­gari­ta be­ing $13. La Pis­to­la was only $24, and some octopi and squid and shrimp had to die for that, and — be­fore we for­get — there was at least one cow they had to go through. I would not dis­count the human and plant suf­fer­ing that went into the tequila, etc., that culminates in a margarita. Like­ly no one died, though; or, say, no lime gave birth and was sep­a­rat­ed from child so as the moth­er’s milk would be siphoned off to be made into creams and but­ters and what else. (And, yes, I do feel irredeemably fucked up when I catch my­self at it: you know, but­ter or cheese or, fuck, a ham­burg­er even — ash­es on my head. I should say that I’ve been a fail­ure vegetarian a num­ber of times — times rang­ing from a few days to a few years — and a fail­ure ve­g­an as well, and, I sup­pose, what I re­mem­ber is be­ing sick as hell try­ing to make it as a ve­g­an for a while. I was messed up.)

I was telling you about a $13 mar­gari­ta. Again: In fair­ness, it was a large drink. It was served in a re­pur­posed Pa­trón bot­tle. Rachel thought the Patrón bot­tle made for a nice touch.

We got some oth­er things. Rachel want­ed an or­der of fries. She had more mezcals. I had a beer. As I said, the DJ switched to hip-hop sometime around 10. The DJ played “Juicy.” Every­body still liked that song. The song has held up. Prob­a­bly because it has nev­er gone any­where. There has nev­er been a night in all the 30 moth­erfuck­ing years, al­most, that it’s been since that song came out — not one — that 100 DJs did­n’t play that song in 100 venues in this city. Not even dur­ing the lockdowns. Peo­ple were at it then, too. And if there are par­ties in Brook­lyn, Christo­pher Wal­lace may well come through. He ap­pears when he’s sum­moned.

Prob­a­bly Brook­lyn has changed some since Christo­pher Wal­lace. I don’t know for sure. I was not there for it. I came through New York a few times a long time ago and played some shows and ate slices and got dopesick, like 10 years ago. I don’t know. I heard some shit about how it had changed way back then, too. It isn’t my place to say.

That’s not to say Christo­pher Wal­lace and I have noth­ing in com­mon. We both re­mem­ber what shit was like be­fore the internet was a thing. We both re­mem­ber the phone with a long cord, the phone that was on the kitchen wall and had a cord that scrunched up, and you’d have to mind that you did not trip over it. There’s a fi­nite num­ber of peo­ple like me and Christo­pher Wal­lace. The last of us will be gone in about half an hour. I’ve talked to some of the oth­ers, and it seems the better part of what’s left of us is fine with whatever so long as it doesn’t take too much more of this time shit.

Thursday, May 20
The din­ner that we had planned, the main event, was planned for this, the sec­ond  evening. We will go to Ernesto’s. We will go to Man­hat­tan for this.

Ernesto’s is a Basque place. Which is to say they specialize in Basque-style cook­ing there. This is their forté: Basque cui­sine.

Ryan Bart­low owns the restaurant. Bart­low is from Chica­go, and Hemingway, the most fa­mous ever writer from Amer­i­ca, per­haps, grew up in near­by Oak Park. The paral­lels be­tween Bart­low and Hem­ing­way did not end there. As young men, both Bart­low and Hem­ing­way went to Spain. Spain was a big deal to Hem­ing­way, see. He would go fish­ing there, take in the bull­fights, take in the civ­il war, get stink-o. Then that war end­ed, and the fas­cists had come out on top. Hem­ing­way had had his mon­ey on the los­ing side, and so he fig­ured — cor­rect­ly, one imag­ines — that he was per­sona non grata as far as the win­ners were concerned. The fas­cists had put a price on his head.

Bart­low’s time in Spain fol­lowed a dif­fer­ent arc, in most ways, al­though a theme was  fun­da­men­tal­ly sim­i­lar: earn­ing their bones.

San Se­bastían is in the Basque au­tonomous area of Spain. It is both autonomous and part of Spain, ap­par­ent­ly, and I do not know enough about how that works to explain it, so we’ll keep mov­ing.

Ryan Bart­low ar­rived in San Se­bastián. He was a young man want­i­ng to learn all he could about the art of cook­ing. He got on at a place called Akelarre. Akelarre has three stars from the Miche­lin peo­ple, is what I’m told, and I don’t doubt that enough to both­er check­ing. Akelarre is also the Basque word for the witch­es’ sabbath. That is according to Wiki­pedia. I’ll assume we can take their word for it, al­though most time I would not.

I di­gress.

Also, I don’t know what I’m do­ing. I con­sult­ed one of the chefs there. His name is Josh. Let’s just ask Josh, be­cause he isn’t a nov­el­ist (what­ev­er that means) and we don’t have all day: “Ernesto’s is a trib­ute to his time there and the cui­sine we do is very au­then­ti­cal­ly Basque with a lot of Cata­lan and French in­flu­ences as well. We opened to the pub­lic Jan­uary 2020 af­ter three years of plan­ning and con­struc­tion. I’ve been talk­ing with Ryan about this place since 2016.”

There you have it.

And Rachel and I went with her friends, Emi­ly and Paul and Oys­ter. Everything was wonderful. It is a beautiful restaurant. You could have a beautiful time.

Rachel had the trout.

You’ve nev­er seen such per­fect trout.
I swear to you.

Here’s more: I’ve worked in some restau­rants in my day, cook­ing. I was okay at some things — and most­ly not.

I don’t mean to talk about my­self, though. I am mere­ly establishing my credentials to speak on some­thing: Most restau­rants don’t make their own desserts. They buy them, mark them up, and sell them to you.

I asked Josh — whose gov­ern­ment name is Joshua At­wood — about the desserts. He said Ernesto’s does its own desserts.

It came up be­cause we or­dered dessert. I am not a big ordering-dessert-at-a-restaurant per­son. It’s just, Sam had made it seem like a good idea. (Sam was our server.) And then what about this investigation? I saw the choco­late cake came with a scoop of strawber­ry ice cream.

I am an ice-cream junkie.

I have a fucked-up stom­ach and so I eat a lot of ice cream some­times to fix that — to cool it down, you see — and if I could be one fla­vor of ice cream, I’d be strawber­ry.

When I was talk­ing with Josh the chef, I said to him, “That ice cream was out of con­trol. It had lit­tle straw­ber­ry seeds in it, like some­body ac­tu­al­ly got some fuck­ing strawber­ries and made the ice cream from scratch.”

“We make that here,” he said.

“No shit?”

“Man, every­thing is from scratch.”

When he said this he waved his hand in front of him, flat-parallel with the ground, so I knew he was telling the truth.

“Who makes the ice cream?”

“The pas­try chef.”

“What’s his name? I have to put this in the thing.”

“Quen­cy Tra­ore.”

Friday, May 27
I’ve talked too long. We have to wrap this up.

Rachel and I went to oth­er places.

We went to Moun­tain Province Espres­so Bar.

She want­ed me to try this brioche they have.

They had an­oth­er eggy-type thing, which had grat­ed cas­sa­va, co­conut milk, and co­conut cream as part of it, and a type of glaze that’s done by toast­ing con­densed milk.

You can get a Mar­tinel­li’s apple juice there, too.

It’s a sort of mini-gro­cery.

We still had lots of time left in New York, and Rachel and I, we both would agree, are at our hap­pi­est when we are in New York, to­geth­er.

I hope.

We still were full from Ernesto’s the night be­fore and so the brioche held us down and so we would go to the dive bars rather than eat.

We went to Lady Jay’s.

We met Sean Thor Con­roe there. He wrote the book Fuc­cboi.

It’ll be com­ing out soon.

If you fol­low books, you’ll hear about it.

Af­ter all the bull­shit in the past year, it was nice be­ing in a bar in New York City, albeit out­side, al­beit the bar closed ear­ly.


The old nor­mal.

Give me the old nor­mal.

There were a num­ber of us there. Some I knew well, some not so well, some not at all.

Nor­mal things.

We’re nor­mal peo­ple.

We like peo­ple stuff.

We want to live again.

At Lady Jay’s the bar­tenders are cool.

Peo­ple are cool.

We like cool peo­ple.

It was good.

Mar­ti­na comes around the pa­tio and checks on the ta­bles.

On our way out, Rachel said to Mar­ti­na, “You look like my friend in Australia. She’s a mod­el.”

Saturday, May 22
We dropped in at Pizzette one day. They do a good piz­za.

We had the margheri­ta.

We had the prosciutto-arugu­la.

It’s kin­da half like an Ital­ian piz­za, half like a New York–style one. It’s good. Not es­pe­cial­ly cost­ly eith­er.

The Pizzette burg­er is also recommended.

They’ll sell you pitch­ers of cock­tails, too.

Rachel said, “Ap­er­ol spritz.”

I said, “what’s that?”

She told me.

Ap­er­ol spritz is good.

We had two pitch­ers and were a bit drunk, just not drunk — the way it should be, of  an afternoon.

Sunday, May 23
We went to the Commodore on Sunday. Everybody had spicy chicken sandwiches and I had a Trailways cocktail, sub gin for vodka.


Monday, May 24
Spicy food kills me.

The next day, I had a stomachache and I didn’t want to eat and was hun­gry. I need­ed a sand­wich that was for­giv­ing.

White bread, may­oey, tur­key, cheese — that type of thing was what I need­ed. Rachel said, “Lie down and I’ll go.”

She came back with ex­act­ly the thing.

Re­spect to the J.C. Deli.

Enough. It’s time to go.

I was think­ing about the an­i­mals we ate.

I was a veg­e­tar­i­an for al­most five years once — the long­est stretch I had ever done that.

The thing about eat­ing an­i­mals: It isn’t right. Not much is right, though.

All the things in your life — and, of those, you might count on one hand the num­ber  of them that tru­ly were.

We are peo­ple and live fucked-up lives of­ten, and those of us that do know it. If that’s you, then you know you don’t for­get. It is no ex­cuse.

I just want to say some­thing about cooks.

Cooks, chefs (what­ev­er): they are the great artists.

They don’t make a deal out of things.

They make com­fort and nour­ish­ment out of death.

Thank a cook to­day.

Say to the cook, I get it.

God will­ing, one day you won’t see the day you can­not have food. God willing, it’ll be a giv­en.

We have had a bad time late­ly.

We have a bad time for all the lies.

Food is a lie.

So is death.

Thanks to the cook.

The cook takes an ugly lie and makes a pretty lie out of it.

I’d like to be a ve­g­an. Perhaps.

Just I may fall apart.

There is a rule on this planet: Everything lives at the ex­pense of some­thing else.

Tuesday, May 25
I had the tripe at Ernesto’s the other day.

The tripe was good.

Tripe is cow stom­ach.

I was dopesick once and ate sweet­breads.

That was the only thing I kept down the whole ten days.

This was a while ago, and yet I re­mem­ber it exactly, be­cause it means something. In Eu­rope they used to eat lots of an­i­mal or­gans when they could. Think: kid­ney pie.

The organs have the best nour­ish­ment in them.

The peo­ple used to prefer them since they were help­ful.

This was be­fore Walgreens, be­fore vi­t­a­mins.

They did not grow a lot of fruit and stuff.

No one knew about cabbage hav­ing vi­t­a­min C in it then.

This was pre–Cap­tain Cook.

Cap­tain Cook was a good sailor.

He cured scurvy.

Cabb­age had vi­t­a­min C in it.

You could pre­serve it with vine­gar.

The cab­bage would last the voy­age.

The sailors did not die.

Cap­tain Cook had a ge­nius for cer­tain things; name­ly: sail­ing and diet stuff.

Cap­tain Cook had a ge­nius for things.

He also was pushy.

He died.

He died kind of like Mag­el­lan did, from being overly pushy.

There is one more thing.

Joshua At­wood wrote to me about how to make a good tripe dish:

Ca­llos de Joan. Named af­ter the guy who showed Ryan how to make the tripe while he was at Ake­larre. He’s a Cata­lan chef, and the style of the dish is the Madrid style of cook­ing tripe, where the stew is thickened with a roux. We boil the tripe in water for three hours to purge it. Then cook it down with calf’s feet, pig’s feet, smoked ham hocks, an onion stud­ded with cloves, some leeks, car­rots, gar­lic, and herbs for eight hours.

Af­ter that, we pull all the meat and ten­dons from the calf’s and pig’s feet, cut the tripe up, and set aside. Then we take all the ja­mon iberi­co and dried chori­zo scraps we have ly­ing around the kitchen and sweat them down with onions and gar­lic. Then make a roux with all the fat ren­dered out of the dried meats. We then add all the gelati­nous cook­ing liq­uid to the roux along with pi­men­ton to make a thick rich and spicy sauce and add all the tripe and meat bits to it. A sta­ple on our constantly changing menu be­cause we love it so much.

I leave it with you now, in part­ing.

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