The Underground Gourmet regularly haunts the flea markets in the Garment District, attracted not so much by the prospect of picking up a rare edition of the poems of Lord Dunsany or a monkey-fur jacket as by the edible snips to be had in a reputedly unfoody locality. At first light, I join the dealers, collectors, and other early birds who sip truly good coffee (95 cents) and mumble bargain-basement confidences at the Antique Café (101 West 25th Street; 675-1663), a pint-size establishment with six tables, a cheery Gallic atmosphere, and surprisingly deep culinary pockets.
For breakfast at the cold crack of dawn, warm up with soup (cream of mushroom with sherry, or French onion with Dijon mustard; $3.50 with roll) or a peanut-butter-and-jelly cookie ($1.25), a saucer-size biscuit that fractures into dunkable, ungainsayable fragments. Other home-baked cookies, white-chocolate-cherry, honey-raisin-nut, and chocolate-chunk, are also available (three for $1.75).
For lunch – hungry work, all that searching high and low for claw-footed bathtubs – tuck in to the excellent sandwiches and salads. The modus operandi in the kitchen involves taking a bunch of fresh ingredients and jumbling them up in accordance with the changeable inclinations of the chef. You might find a grilled-chicken salad of mixed field greens sweetened with red and white grapes and pomegranate seeds ($5.25); big, fruity ingots of roasted pumpkin with cranberries, apricots, and raisins ($4.25); smallish poppers with jalapeño and cheese (three for $1.75); and a salad with mushrooms stuffed with black beans and dandelion ($5.25) created that morning by co-proprietor Jon Wolohojian without (he freely confessed) the foggiest notion of how it would turn out. Fine, it transpired, but perhaps not substantial enough to gratify the more voracious customer.
To fill your boots, tackle the grilled-vegetable-and-smoked-Gouda sandwich ($4.95), which crams yellow squash, eggplant, zucchini, green beans, carrots, and broccoli between doorstop slabs of peasant bread smeared with a superb spicy-mustard dressing. Or try the ratatouille-and-goat-cheese sandwich, an appropriately squelchy coming-together of chèvre, mushrooms, onions, tomato, and eggplant ($5.25), or the hearty meat loaf (comes with salad; $5.95).
In case anyone got the wrong idea, Antique Cafe buzzes throughout the week as well as on weekends. Also, parents of small children should note, it has developed a sideline of hosting children’s afternoon parties: You can certainly see how the Cafe’s take on the Rice Krispies treat ($1.45) – marshmallow-bound Krispies bejeweled with bits of Cap’n Crunch, Froot Loops, and Cocoa Puffs – would make 9-year-olds delirious (the Underground Gourmet enjoyed them just a bit himself). Wolohojian said that he and Marcial Cavero opened Antique Cafe last September because they and their pals needed somewhere to have a coffee and a snack while flea-marketeering. Now their pals go flea-marketeering in order to have an excuse for eating at the Cafe.
Antique Cafe is open for breakfast and lunch seven days a week. Monday through Friday 7:30 a.m. to 7:30 p.m., Saturday 7 a.m. to 6 p.m., Sunday 6:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. Cash only.
The seam of rare edibles doesn’t end there, though. Just a few sewing-machine outlets away from the Antique Cafe is the wonderfully inauspicious Milanes (162 West 25th Street; 243-9797). Dwarfed by towering commercial lofts, hidden from view by double-parked trucks, fogged in by the condensation that perpetually mists up its two windowpanes, this Dominican-run coffeehouse-diner will be missed by all – the Underground Gourmet modestly observes – save the most inquisitive or discerning.
With just eight tables and a dozen or so counter seats, Milanes has the magical atmosphere of an unself-conscious success. A terrifically friendly, chattering all-woman team (managed by Grecia Milanes) serves up the food with gusto and smarts, and the décor (pink leatherette and metal chairs; a bouquet of red and pink silk roses on each table) has a distinctively feminine prettiness. Which goes a long way toward civilizing the hulking males who largely make up the clientele: cable guys, Spanish-speaking cops, construction workers covered in dust, the odd FIT student, solitary Latino businessmen. All feed in an appreciative silence that contrasts with the hustle and bustle behind the counter. What brings them here is, in the main, dishes of extreme carnivorousness: tripe soup ($2), goat meat (with French fries or Spanish rice and beans, $5), oxtail (ditto), and meat balls (ditto). The tripe soup (mondongo) is perhaps the most challenging of these offerings: a murky, slightly whiffy red pool stocked with vegetables and floating chunks of cow stomach. These chewy strips of fat – which in texture and appearance are perhaps not entirely dissimilar to strips torn from an old carpet – give the soup an oiliness that, depending on your taste and constitution, is either an unsavory no-no or an unbeatable stiffener against a cold winter’s day.
My boiled goat meat (chivo), served with rice and beans and fried plantain, was properly flaky and entirely satisfactory (leave the cheerless potato-and-avocado salad you may be offered with it). My trio of meatballs were juicy and of a very good consistency, coalescing neatly around vegetable fragments and breaking, when pressurized by a fork, into bite-size pieces: What more could you ask for? Milanes is, in every sense, a real find.
Milanes is open Monday through Saturday 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. Cash only.
There is one spot situated between Milanes and the Antique Cafe so small and secretive it makes these two look like monuments of self-advertisement. Johny’s (124 West 25th Street; 243-6230) is a galley diner operated by John Pilapos – a human whirlwind at the grill – and his proud father, Larry, who rustles up the specials in the kitchen. Larry ran a restaurant at the Milanes site for 22 years before moving into this crevice, and his know-how shines through in the pizza pitas ($2.95 to $4.25, depending on the topping), which come with a terrific homemade tomato sauce seasoned with garlic, basil, onions, lemon juice, and a touch of tomato paste. Also try the daily specials, which include baked chicken and chicken marsala (with bread; beans; rice, mash, or fries; and vegetable or salad; $5.50). This son-and-father joint is the mother of all holes in the wall.
Johny’s serves breakfast and lunch Monday through Friday 7 a.m. to 3 p.m., Saturday 8:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. Cash only.