the grub street diet

Reporter Mike Isaac Orders Illicit Pizza

“Immediately, the regulars in the bar narked us out.”

Mike Isaac at Fulton Ale House. Photo: Scott Heins
Mike Isaac at Fulton Ale House. Photo: Scott Heins

Mike Isaac’s job as a tech reporter for the New York Times doesn’t afford him a lot of stability, something he finds instead through baking. “Writing is messy, right? And reporting is very messy,” he says. But with baking, he explains, “I get into a zone that feels more like, This is where things can be quieter or calmer.” Isaac got his love of baking and cooking from his father, who passed on his family’s Lebanese recipes, and started insomnia baking during college, and lately, life has been particularly frenetic since Isaac published the definitive Super Pumped: The Battle for Uber. The San Francisco resident was in New York this past week, which meant he didn’t get in his usual quota of baking, but he was able to score a grandma pizza and Shake Shack while in town. Read all about it in this week’s Grub Street Diet.

Saturday, January 11
I woke up at 8:15 a.m. in my apartment in San Francisco with a headache, my dog’s paw on my head, and a looming sense of dread. I was already stressed out.

On Sunday, I had to board a flight to New York for work and a week of evening book events, then jump on planes to Europe for the following two weeks. Gold-plated problems, I know. But the mental calculus around what I needed to do to get there, along with an undercurrent of social anxiety, made my heart race. What do I pack for two weeks in three countries? Do I need a suit? Is my boss going to be mad if I show up to a work dinner wearing Cobain-era flannel? I wandered into my kitchen and started my Grub Street Diet by stress-eating some leftover Oasis-brand baklava before taking the dog for a walk. The honey paired with flaky phyllo dough was briefly comforting.

I had to run a bunch of errands that morning — post office, therapy, CVS — so I already knew what I was going to eat for breakfast: a steaming pair of Starbucks egg-white egg bites.

I have a lot of shame around my egg-bite obsession. They’re egg whites mixed with cheese and red peppers, compressed into two soft pellets roughly the size of a child’s balled fists. They’re jiggly and bulbous and gnarly and I love them.

I type in my usual mobile order from the Starbucks close to my apartment near the Castro District, along with a large iced Americano, my standby drink. By the time I hopped on the Muni train downtown, my ’bites were cold enough to swallow, like some kind of cursed oyster shooter. I sucked them down whole in the subway car, hoping that no one was watching.

I’m opposed to paying 14 bucks for an airport sandwich on principle, so I headed to Trader Joe’s to grab a bunch of snacks for the flight. Among the items: Banana Chocolate Walnut Rxbars that are pretty tasty, an interesting looking snack called “Mochi Crunch Nuggets,” and some banana-flavored protein bites that look like little balls of dog shit. I tuck them in a ziplock bag like I’m preparing a school lunch and stick them in my backpack for the flight to the East Coast tomorrow morning.

Trader Joe’s is like a toy store, really. It’s like: What weird thing that is maybe a slight rip-off of another food item or company has Trader Joe’s produced this week?

I feel like my relationship with food vacillates between sinful splurging and cold utilitarianism. This morning’s diet was clearly the latter, though my partner and I planned to have a nice dinner at a newish place called Beit Rima — “Arabic comfort food” — around the corner from my place. My father is Lebanese-American, and I grew up learning how to make traditional dishes like kibbeh nayeh and baked meat pies, so I’m always looking for good Arab cuisine.

It was sunny in S.F., so to chill out before packing my suitcase, we headed to the Haight for some shopping. We stopped for coffee at Stanza and grabbed another pair of iced Americanos and split a bran muffin.

I spent money on crap I don’t need for three hours. We were hungry after all the walking around, but didn’t want to wait for dinner to eat. So instead of a beautiful mezze plate at 7 p.m., we grabbed two “Detroit Red Top” slices from Tony Gemignani’s Slice House on Haight at 3:30 p.m. and spoiled our appetites. The rest of the night was spent on Netflix and overpacking clothes, with a break for a cup of Yorkshire Gold hot tea and a piece of choco-dipped shortbread from Honolulu Cookie Company.

I went to bed at midnight, thinking that agreeing to publish a week of my diet on the internet might not have been the best idea.

Sunday, January 12
At 4:15 a.m. I woke up for my flight, cursing myself in the dark for not going to bed earlier. I bought an iced Americano from Peet’s the night before to save in the fridge, knowing how bad I’d need it.

I usually eat shitty when I’m on the road, so I’m glad I bought mostly healthy stuff from Trader Joe’s for the plane. But at the airport, I was thrown a curveball: After flying nonstop for my book tour last year, I got upgraded to first class for free. Hell yeah. (Also, apparently no one likes to fly the 7 a.m. SFO to Newark leg on a Sunday morning but me.)

First class came with a free breakfast, which meant my healthy snack-pack plan was out the window. I hit the “fuck it” button and opted for the pulled-pork breakfast bowl instead of the egg-white omelet. It actually wasn’t bad: Eggs, pork, black beans, cheese, and salsa that I’m not mad at. (My mom, who is Mexican-American, would probably have a different opinion.) I have no idea if was organic or all grown in some lab, but, washed down with a few cups of coffee, it hit the spot. I did push aside the roll with butter and went for the side of muesli with cranberries, yogurt, and a sprig of mint to convince myself that healthy eating wasn’t totally farkakte this Sunday.

Got to my hotel and unpacked my stuff. Lay down listening to a podcast while I ate a 60-calorie “Chomp” turkey stick that I’d gotten at Trader Joe’s. Like a Slim Jim, but somehow worse.

At 7 p.m., I hopped on the C and headed to a bar in Bed-Stuy to meet friends. The place is called the Fulton Ale House, and I had a nice conversation with the bartender, who was totally cool while most other customers yelled at the Packers game on TV. “We serve food here, but I’m cool with you guys bringing in outside food,” the bartender said. “As long as it doesn’t compete with the pizza you can buy from me.”

Things went south 30 minutes later as one of my friends ordered a pizza from Brooklyn Pizza Crew. Immediately, the regulars in the bar narked us out, and the formerly friendly bartender got mad and yelled at us. All of my friends immediately blamed me. I tried to smooth things over so we didn’t get thrown out. It kind of worked.

We split a grandma pie, and it was nuts. Garlic, pepperoni, basil, in a large baked square of crispy crust. I ate two slices, and all of my pals made fun of me while I got my portrait taken. I rode the C back to my hotel at 11 p.m., wondering why I agreed to do this.

Monday, January 13
I hit snooze on the alarm seven times because of jet lag and woke up later than I wanted to, which always happens when I fly to New York. I preordered a pair of egg bites from the Starbucks on 52nd and Seventh before I’d even gotten out of bed to go to the bathroom. I walked over and picked up an iced Americano and a bottle of lime seltzer water as well. I was disappointed when I saw the ’bites; instead of round and fluffy, they were scorched, brown, and caramelized to form an unpleasant outer shell. I ate them anyway.

Monday and Tuesday were less hectic, so I spent most of the day in my hotel writing a draft of a feature I’d been avoiding. I’m still stressed because I need to plan for two interviews I’m conducting onstage at conferences in Munich and Switzerland, and I have zero clue what I’m talking about. That never stopped me before though. I lied to myself that I’ll promise to eat better in Germany.

I quit smoking five years ago, but picked up a loosie at a nearby bodega to calm my nerves; weirdly, I can have one every few months without wanting another. I eyed the Shake Shack on the corner and, despite my best intentions, I knew it was what I would eat for dinner.

I got a single Shack Burger with no tomato. I keep it pretty simple. Sometimes I get fries. Their fries are way better than In-N-Out’s, which are terrible.

Tuesday, January 14
Egg bites again from the nearby Starbucks. What is wrong with me? Why do I eat this shit? This has to be some level of latent self-destruction I’ve just accepted. At least they weren’t scorched this morning.

The bites and two iced Americanos make up my breakfast and lunch. I had two events, plus writing in between, so I was too frazzled to go find a proper meal. Instead, I headed to Bryant Park for a meeting with a source. I got a cappuccino from Blue Bottle off 40th Street, but skipped the pastry case and felt good about it.

I recorded a podcast nearby, then had an evening event where I had to talk for an hour instead of eating. I drank at least two bottles of water and had to wait till I got back to the hotel to find some food. It was raining as I came out of the building, so I found shelter in a Pret near Bryant Park and left with a ham and cheese baguette and a bottle of water. I spent the rest of the afternoon writing and editing a piece over my baguette, before I headed to another event I had to speak at, and bailed on a dinner I was supposed to go to with friends.

Wednesday, January 15
I woke up and tried to preorder egg bites for the fourth day in a row, but tragedy struck — the Starbucks I’d been going to was totally out of bites.

It fucked up my entire morning. I needed to get ready for a TV appearance that was in an hour, so I didn’t have time to wander the streets of midtown in search of egg bites. I grabbed a cinnamon-raisin bagel from a street cart outside my hotel, ate half of it on the street, and hopped in a cab to the studio. Some days I appreciate the adrenaline rush of constant movement while traveling; this was not one of them.

I downed a fistful of crudités in the green room (yellow bell peppers, no ranch) while the makeup artist powdered my bald head. The interview went quick, and fortunately there was a Starbucks next to the studio. I mobile-ordered my beloved bites and an iced Americano, and the warm sense of satisfaction washed over me as I saw how many gold stars I’ve earned in the Starbucks app during this trip. I think there was some sort of egg-bite bonus-stars promo this week. Jackpot.

Headed back to the hotel for five hours of reporting, phone calls, writing, and email-scheduling headaches for a trip to Germany then Switzerland that I would leave for in less than 24 hours. Do they accept euros in Zurich? What the hell is a Swiss franc? I hope they serve egg bites in Deutschland.

I ate nothing for four hours except a slice of Domino’s left over at the journalism-school book event where I spoke. Everyone was lovely, though I’m ready to get back to eating real food soon.

Thursday, January 16
It was a travel day, which meant a last-minute packing scramble. Headed for breakfast at Pondicheri. Got rained on, but it was worth it — I ordered an amazing omelet with curried lamb and kale on the side, which made me feel bad about spending the week eating egg bites instead of exploring more New York restaurants while I was here. (I lived here for a few years, but got my dog shortly after moving to New York, which basically meant becoming a stay-at-home puppy dad for about a year while she grew up. I don’t regret it, though I could have eaten better.)

Headed to the airport at noon, but my airline didn’t open check-in for a few hours, so I was stuck outside of security with too much luggage. I hit up Dunkin’ for an iced coffee with milk and sat in the terminal to wait.

Boarded the plane at 6 p.m. The first leg of my trip to Europe was a six-hour flight to Dublin that landed at 4 a.m. I downed the canapés (something with shrimp?) and ate something that looked like a beef and potatoes pot roast, but smaller and more airplane-y. It was actually pretty good.

During my two-hour layover in Dublin, I plowed through two soda-bread scones with a slice of Irish cheddar. They were good enough that I briefly consider moving to Europe.

I had two espressos before boarding my final flight to Munich. Two hours later, I landed in Munich, snowy and beautiful. I was punch-drunk on time-zone fatigue and wandered over to the hotel bar at Roomers, the place I was staying. I ate the most amazing steak tartare I’ve ever had, and decided I do, indeed, want to move to Europe. The Germans were nice to me, the confused American who speaks only English, and I took a walk around the München city center before eventually wandering back to my hotel to pass out.

On my walk, I started to chill out. Giant snowflakes began to fall and cover the ground as I arrived at another decision: I wouldn’t look for any more Starbucks egg bites while abroad.

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Reporter Mike Isaac’s Grub Street Diet