Our latest installment of Quick Bites brings us to St. Marks Place for Taiwanese-inspired fast food.
The restaurants and storefronts of St. Marks Place have almost completely changed since the days when I was young and drunk and roaming these parts looking to fill my belly with anything that wasn't more beer. Not that I mourn the changes, really: I'm not the nostalgic type, and if kids today are more interested in 'gramming a crazy dessert at Spot than wolfing a random slice or falafel, who am I to say we did youth better?
Besides, the energy of the street, especially between Third and Second Avenues, remains pretty much the same, with hustlers and rubes, old-timers, students, and suburban gawkers all clogging the sidewalk looking for a cheap thrill or an easy mark. Plus the food on the strip is a whole lot better now. For example, the brand-new Cheers Cut, which just opened near Gem Spa and sells one of the largest single pieces of fried chicken I've ever seen.
The St. Marks Cheers Cut is the first Manhattan location of the "Taiwanese-inspired" fast-food mini-chain (there are two already in Queens), and it looks and operates as you would expect: order from the photo-driven menu at the counter, find a seat at one of the generic-looking tables and wait for your number to be called. The lighting is bright, the service brisk, the clientele young and loud and laughing.
The Cheers Cut menu is dominated by fried food and large beverages, and the thing to get is their signature creation, the Ninja Crispy Chicken. Described correctly as "XL," this is a massive slab of fried bird breast that, thanks in part to its "ultra low" cooking temperature, emerges from the oil astonishingly tender and juicy. The coating has a bit of crunch, and a secret-sauce marinade infuses the meat with an almost overwhelming amount of flavor. There's dipping sauce involved here too—the Chili one is most intense, with the Thai Sweet and Sour close behind. It's all enormously satisfying if you're in the right mood and/or wasted.
The Fried Giant Squid offers a meal that's almost as memorable—dig those long, fat tentacles!—and skillfully prepared, though it doesn't quite pack the punch of the chicken. Which is not necessarily a bad thing; if you're dining with people who don't mind sharing, the smart move is to get one of each. The Fried Diced Beef is also worth considering. I had these chunks of battered cow on a bed of extremely salty French Fries, and the combination hit all the right spots. Another solid side was the Minced Meat Rice, a huge portion of sticky grains with a lively beef sauce.
Not everything at Cheers Cut is good, though. The Fried Chicken Wings were bland and distressingly bloody, and had to be thrown away. The Grapefruit Green Tea, which comes in a quart-sized plastic container with what appears to be an entire piece of fruit floating around inside, is bitter and weird. The better beverage is the shockingly sweet Mango Calpis Soda, though this is possibly a better hangover-cure than dinner drink.
St. Marks and environs could always use another good, cheap, drunk-food spot, so if you're still out there on the prowl for that sort thing, add Cheers Cut to your list. And NYC fried food completists will definitely want to make a special trip for that Ninja Chicken.
Cheers Cut is located at 36 St. Marks Place between Third and Second Avenues, and is open every day from 12:00 noon to 12:00 midnight (646-559-0943; cheerscut.com)