232 East 53rd Street, New York NY 10022 (b/n Second and Third; map); 212-207-3339; socialeatz.com
Service: Friendly and attentive, in "Social Eatz" T-shirts
Setting: Long, narrow dining room
Must-Haves: Burgers, tomato soup, desserts
Cost: Not quite meal-sized plates, mostly under $10
Grade: Burgers, A-; Rest of the menu, C+
One could find plenty of cheap shots (cheap shotz?) to take at Social Eatz, the new casual Midtown restaurant from recent Top Chef runner-up Angelo Sosa.
There's the name, which sounds more like a rival to Foodspotting or Groupon than a restaurant. The only explanation offered for it ("We want to build a community for foodies who want to interact with us. Twitter, Facebook, Foursquare—we want to hear from you!") seems a little hard to swallow. It's a restaurant that feels like it was built from a hundred incongruous ideas of a PR team, not the passions or interests of a chef.
But the same could be said (if to a lesser extent) about Angelo Sosa's last project, sandwich shop Xie Xie; billing itself as a "concept," rather than a restaurant, it seemed hell-bent on replication, as Ed Levine wrote in 2009:
When I heard that Xie Xie was a sandwich concept rather than a sandwich shop—complete with a second location already secured--I was worried. Replicable concepts are much more difficult to pull off than they appear, so I really didn't know what to expect from Xie Xie.
Yet we enjoyed just about everything on the menu there; and Social Eatz's Asian interpretation of American comfort food doesn't sound too different from Xie Xie's Asian interpretations of sandwiches. So we were willing to give Sosa the benefit of the doubt. Hey, if "Imperialist Hot Dogs" or "Asian Taco'z" are delicious, we'll go back for them—no matter what they're called.
Unfortunately, we weren't too impressed by what we found. Earlier today, we reported on Social Eatz's burgers; they are, far and away, the best dishes on the menu. While we found some other plates here tasty, some mildly enjoyable, they ultimately struck us as simple and predictable. Despite the lengthy menu descriptions (wings, say, are glazed "in a sauce of tamarind, garlic, shallots, palm sugar and togarashi, a Japanese spice blend of red chili, roasted orange peel and black sesame"; this review could write itself), flavors generally come across the same way: sweet, safe, and generic.
Those Hot Wings ($9), for instance. While they were one of the better starters we tried, with a great exterior crunch, the glaze came across as something sweet, goopy, and only slightly hot; all the vibrant flavors listed in that ingredient list were lost. Crispy Spring Rolls ($7) were food court fare, though heavier on the mushrooms; the exteriors were a bit tough, the duck sauce ("made from calamansi, a citrusy Filipino fruit with a sweet and sour essence") too thick to coat each roll and sweet enough to overwhelm any other taste. Smoked Ribs ($9), described as "slow-cooked to perfection," seemed as if they'd been steamed; unpleasantly soft and with no textural contrast, they weren't improved by a "mesquite-smoked tamarind marinade" and a "pineapple bbq sauce laced with gochujang," flavors that seemed almost absent; we had to strain to taste anything other than the meat at all.
Far better was the Tomato Curry ($5) soup, the best, and most interesting, of the appetizers we tried, creamy in texture and striking a nice balance of sweet, acidic, and spicy; that sort of balance eluded the Chop-Chop Salad With Tangerine Vinaigrette ($7), whose dressing was off-puttingly sweet, with a faint lip-tingle only at the end.
Of the "Specialties'z"—one too many plurals, there?—the Imperialist Hot Dog ($8) was a tasty lunch, if not exactly a hot dog; the chicken sausage was done right with a toasted bun, shredded lettuce and a sweet relish (a case when sweetness does work). It's served with a strange sake-cheese sauce that also came with the fries. (Here, where it's called cheese, it really should've been cheez.) It's a better bet than the Kung Pao Sandwich ($9), too-chewy chicken nubbins in a gloppy sauce that could've been any mediocre satay peanut dip. Like many of the dishes here, it's not bad, per se—I didn't mind eating it. But it's far too sweet (really, it's amazing how many dishes here were so sweet) and not particularly interesting; more than one eater mentioned that the dominant tastes recalled food court fare.
Of the tacos, whose tortillas were poorly heated with no charring or tenderness, we preferred the Korean Beef Taco ($9), with a balanced sweetness, lightened by "bean sprout kimchee," which also added a fresh crunch. It had textural interest that the Chili Kissed Tilapia ($8) lacked: soft fish in a soft puddle of guacamole on a limp tortilla.
The desserts weren't bad, either: a dense, fudgy Chocolate Toffee Brownie ($6) paired well with sesame seeds, though not with a toffee sauce that was melted-candy sweet; the Yuzu Cream Puffs ($6) had a good outside crisp, tender dough, and a nicely tart yuzu cream.
But far and away, the burgers were the best part of our meal. Kenji and I walked in with the team intending for him to review the burgers, me, the rest of the food; I came away grumbling about the bum deal. Those burgers showed excellent technical execution; smart balance of flavor, highlighting good beef with complementary ingredients, not drowning them in sauce—they didn't go wrong from conception to plate. It's a little puzzling that so many dishes here fell so short of that mark.
From the everywhere-branded logo to the something-for-everyone menu, Social Eatz has "replication" written all over it. The shame is that it already seems something like a chain restaurant.
Will Social Eatz succeed? It's hard to tell. In an office-dominated neighborhood, it's easy to imagine people stopping by for a burger or a hot dog. And certain other things on the menu could certainly make a passable lunch. But the prices are those of a restaurant, not a food court, whereas the fare isn't too far off in flavor profile from any Americanized Chinese chain. There's nothing wrong with liking General Tso's chicken—but when "tamarind, garlic, shallots, palm sugar and togarashi, a Japanese spice blend of red chili, roasted orange peel and black sesame" end up tasting like General Tso's chicken, something's not quite right.