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.
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.
“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.”
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.
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.
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 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.