For the last few years I've been reading about the food at the US Open, so when Bryan Graham, a reporter from SI.com, offered to take me around for a multi-course feast there on opening day to get my impression of the multi-ethnic offerings, I quickly accepted. (I'm still a sucker for food and great tennis.) Christine Tsai, our new web developer, came along to lend her picture-taking expertise as well as her much-needed stomach capacity.
There are almost too many eating options at the Open: Mexican, Japanese, Indian, Carnegie Deli, "Southern Barbecue" (their term, not mine), crepes, Pat LaFreida burgers, pizza, anything one could want, except for one thing: real, authentic, seriously delicious ethnic food from the surrounding neighborhoods. (Check out our guide to great food near the US Open.) I'm not going to dwell on that fact other than to say I sure could have used one of those insanely delicious and cheap $1 Peking duck sandwiches located in the heart of Flushing's Chinatown, not at all far away.
We started with the lightest food we could find, the Japanese food kiosk. We ordered a spicy tuna roll ($10), a shrimp tempura and crab roll ($10), some shumai ($9.50), and some soba noodles with chicken ($11). The sushi and all the Japanese food we tried tasted just like the Japanese take-out food I buy at my local upscale supermarkets. The rice was cold and gummy, the dumplings were warm and gummy, and the mushy noodles were something I imagined college students availing themselves of at the dining hall.
Indian was next. Samosas ($7.50), a chicken kati roll ($8.75), a piece of naan ($2.50), and a lamb combination plate ($10.75) were ours in a matter of seconds. The Indian food kiosk was the least crowded. I guess people still want burgers and pizza and hot dogs when they're at sporting events. Which is a shame, because the Indian food was by far the best and most interesting non-traditional stadium food. Was it as good as the best of the food in nearby Jackson Heights? No, but the chicken kati roll was something I would have been happy eating from a cart in midtown Manhattan, the samosas were relatively grease-free, and the combo plate packed a surprising amount of heat in every bite. Only the naan was a clear skip.
Only at the US Open could you find youself eating a Carnegie Deli pastrami sandwich ($13.50) as an Indian food chaser. It worked for me, what can I tell you? The pastrami sandwich was seriously delicious. Not as big as what they serve at in Manhattan, but plenty big nonetheless, and plenty tasty and juicy as well. Even the turkey in the turkey sandwich ($13.50) was moist, though there was twice as much meat as necessary. Even better than the sandwiches was the Carnegie Deli knish ($5.50), a slightly miniaturized version of the softball-sized one served at the deli. The potato knish at the Carnegie Deli might be my favorite knish anywhere: well-seasoned mashed potatoes drenched in schmaltz encased by a flaky crust. If you only buy one thing to eat at the US Open it should be this knish.
Like great tennis players, we were just getting warmed up.
We moved on to the much trumpeted LaFrieda burger kiosk. I asked for my cheeseburger rare. The friendly fellow who took my order said, "you got it." He then turned around and shouted to the expediter in the kitchen, "I need one cheeseburger." I reminded him that I wanted my burger rare. He said to me, "Don't worry. That's how they all come." Okay, check.
The only problem: my burger ($8.50) was well-done. There were no juices flowing from it when we cut it open for the "autopsy" shot. It was bone-dry. There were hints that the cheeseburger was made of high-quality, LaFreida-sourced meat, but the overcooked patty did nothing for that august meat company's reputation.
I wouldn't order any of the barbecue again. That's for sure. The best thing was a Niman Ranch apple gouda sausage ($9) that came on an awful whole wheat bun with tasty slaw. The brisket ($10) actually had a gorgeous red smoke ring, but each successive bite was a small step backward for stadium barbecue. A pulled pork sandwich ($10) tasted like a sloppy Joe with its cloyingly sweet sauce, and chicken fingers ($9) were so heavily battered they made the soggy waffle fries seem light.
For dessert, we switched back to the Continent; a crepe Suzette ($8.50), made with strawberries, Grand Marnier, sugar, and orange juice, was leathery and tasteless, and another crepe made with Nutella and bananas ($8.50) was only marginally better.
We didn't eat anything from the Mexican kiosk, but we did check outthe Top Chef Masters food area, which looked and felt like a nondescript outdoor cafeteria. A hanger steak panino ($9.50) created by Jonathan Waxman was made on scorched focaccia. Mary Sue Millken's and Susan Feininger's tacos ($10.50) were not representative of the terrific cooks they are, and Carmen Gonzalez's pulled pork sandwich ($9.50) suffered from an excessively sweet barbecue sauce. Gonzalez was there overseeing the food on opening day (and she told Christine the other chefs were there, as well for the first day of food and tennis action only), but I don't think any of the chefs represented there would want to be judged by this food.
See all the dishes in the slideshow above »
So if you don't have the time to hit Flushing's Chinatown or elsewhere in Queens before or after your visit to the US Open, split a pastrami sandwich and a knish while you're there. And if you have a hankering for Indian food and a visit to Jackson Heights is out of the question, have the lamb combo plate or the chicken kati roll.
Note: We missed a couple of spots that sounded promising. Tony and Cathy Mantuano's wine bar small plates were well-received last year. I also wish that I had the time and the stomach room to sample food from the Stonyfield Farms' healthy fast food kiosk.
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