the grub street diet

Lisa Lucas’s Foolproof Pick-Me-Up Is a Filet-O-Fish

“I probably tricked myself into thinking that it’s the most virtuous thing on the menu.”

Illustration: Margalit Cutler
Illustration: Margalit Cutler

After spending most of the past year in Los Angeles, Lisa Lucas recently returned to New York City, reacquainting herself with a city that’s in the process of bouncing back. Formerly the executive director of the National Book Foundation and now the senior vice-president and publisher of Pantheon and Schocken Books, she has been described as “one of the most impressive people … in all of publishing.” Back in town and working remotely, she’s found solace in her comfort foods and places. “I think a lot of the pandemic has felt like: Airport calories don’t count!” Lucas says. “They won’t give you high cholesterol, they’re not going to impact your health in any way. You wanna eat a Nathan’s hot dog? All is forgiven.” Here, she runs down a week of reunions in Brooklyn, complete with salad pizza and lots of Sauvignon Blanc.

Wednesday, May 5
The big thing is I just moved back home. I got back a few weeks ago, so I’m just settling back into a New York City routine. I was unexpectedly in Los Angeles for 14 months. I went on what was supposed to be a six-day trip and when I landed at LAX — my phone had been off — all of a sudden Tom Hanks has gotten COVID. The NBA had canceled their season. Broadway shuts down, and then the WHO declares a global pandemic, and I’m on the tarmac. So, I ended up building this life in Los Angeles. I had all these established routines where I was cooking all the time and everything was really fixed for so long just because there was limited motion. I get home, and all my routines have totally exploded. There are all these things that you’ve been longing for. A good bagel, a good slice of pizza, whatever random takeout you usually get. I feel like I’m at the weird part of the end of the pandemic, where the memory of my old routines are intersecting with the new ones I established in L.A. And now I’m reconnecting with colleagues and friends and all the food I missed.

I’m horrible at breakfast usually, but I was so much better when I was away because I was getting up super-duper early and working on New York City time. Now I’m back on my old crap, so the best I can do in the morning is a cup of coffee. I was feeling a little bit stressed out and a little bit adrift, like I feel most days, so I walked my behind over to Dunkin’, which I love. I’m a Dunkin’ person. I want to be a Devoción person — I like my pour-over whatever. But you know what? I’m sorry. I’m just not that person. My mom drank Folger’s, and I remember her lipstick-stained mug.

Because I hadn’t been to Dunkin’ in a while, I was like, Well, let’s throw in a sausage, egg, and, cheese on a bagel. And then — because why not? — I also decided we should have some hash browns.

Lunch: I’m doing a new job in a different time zone. I just started in the middle of the pandemic from Los Angeles in January and so, again, that’s a new routine on top of a new routine. Being in New York, I feel like lunch is the big struggle because I’m not grocery shopping and cooking and having leftovers in the same way that I did six months ago. I end up eating baby carrots, pita chips, and whatever else is around in my fridge.

That night I finally redeemed myself and met up with some friends, an editor from another imprint as well as an editor from a different magazine. We decided to go to Roberta’s ’cause I hadn’t seen them in over a year, and I certainly hadn’t thought about Roberta’s in ages. It was the first fun night of being back.

We had plenty of glasses of wine and we got lots of different pizzas — one for each person because they’re actually relatively small but delicious, and I think everyone was still in that moment of, Oh yeah, we should get something vegetarian and get something healthy. There was a meat pizza, a salad pizza, and another sort of vegetarian pizza, and it became very quickly apparent that everybody wanted the meat pizza and didn’t want anything to do with the other ones. But Roberta’s is delicious, and it still felt like Roberta’s!

I haven’t seen these places, and I haven’t seen them change — I was only home a little bit during the pandemic. It goes beyond the ritual of eating. It’s been this exercise in understanding how NYC has changed, how New York does things differently than another city because I just missed it all. I’ve been primarily on the East Coast — in New York or New Jersey — for all of my life. I was not leaving for more space. I did not run off to my country house. I just got stuck somewhere and had some reasons to stay there. But, you know, Roberta’s — one of my dear friends got married there, and I’ve been in that backyard a million times and it was so comforting to see that it was still there and tasted the same.

Thursday, May 6
I had another breakfast fail. I think the day got a little bit crazy, and I also failed to make lunch, which is where the Filet–O-Fish comes in. When I was feeling stressed out in L.A., I would sometimes just go to the drive-thru at McDonald’s when I felt like I needed a terrible, but delicious pick-me-up. It’s a little less anonymous here in New York because there aren’t drive-thru’s in the same way, but I shame-DoorDashed a File-O-Fish, a Big Mac, and fries. I’m not proud. Although there was a beautiful article in the New York Times recently about the Filet-O-Fish, so that made me feel like I was not alone.

It’s a perfect sandwich. There’s just the right amount of sauce, there’s the crispiness of the little filet. God knows what it is. It’s probably some horrible fish from the bottom of the ocean that looks like it’s from outer space. I probably tricked myself into thinking that it’s the most virtuous thing on the menu, like, Oh, it’s fish! It’s also fried and on a sugar-filled bun with a giant dollop of mayonnaise-y sauce and a big slice of American cheese. I have to imagine that these people spent billions of dollars science-ing us into thinking that everything they make is delicious. I am but one human palate that has been experimented on for decades — and it worked. 

It was raining, and this was just one of those May days where you want it to be summer but it’s not. I ordered dinner from Kings Co Imperial, one of my favorite spots. I’d been missing their string beans in particular — they’re porky and twice-fried. When I was in L.A., I loved the mapo tofu at this place Pine & Crane. Since I’m back to my old she-doesn’t-cook-as much-as-she-should-self now that I’m back in good old Brooklyn, I decided not to make the Times recipe that everybody loves so much and instead to try Kings Co Imperial’s Ma-Po Tofu. I had a rainy night watching Ted Lasso on my computer and eating takeout from the box. It reminded me of my old life, and that was really lovely.

Friday, May 7
I woke up and had yet another depressing coffee breakfast. I know you’re supposed to do a triple backflip through your day and become an instant miracle if you eat breakfast, but I just cannot be asked.

Actually, I’m lying to you. I had a double-shame breakfast. I had my shame coffee and then I was feeling a little peckish so I walked to the bodega and had a bacon, egg, and cheese. This is on my short list of things that I’m sure are available in other cities but absolutely not a damn thing on all of planet Earth tastes like a New York bodega bacon, egg, and cheese. Salt, pepper, ketchup. Toast the bun. I then felt really, really guilty for not eating any vegetables except for the salad pizza. So I made a friend’s recipe for vegetable soup for lunch, which was actually a real triumph. I put some white beans, some broccoli, some potatoes, carrots, celery, onion, and garlic in a big ’ol pot. I cheated and used a little bit of chicken stock so it was not a purely vegetarian experience, and I think I threw in some zucchini at the end. Afterward, I felt like a decent human being who could show my face in public.

Then I went over to my boss’s deck to be with some of my colleagues, and she ordered food in. We had a really yummy frittata and some sort of grain salad and a great dessert that I can’t remember but I was really happy to have a proper meal. It was so nice to actually see the people that you work with in real life!

After — this was a very social day — I went into the city to meet a friend who owns some bookstores at Lafayette. I ended up having a shrimp cocktail and a glass of Sauvignon Blanc, but it was hilarious because they brought the bottle out and poured it, as one does, and it was the supermarket wine I’ve been drinking literally all year long, Gaspard Touraine. It’s like $14.99 a bottle. And a glass of it at Lafayette cost the same. But you know what? I was grateful to them for pouring me a glass of supermarket wine. This might have been the first time I haven’t resented paying a full bottle price for a glass. I also had a really, really, really, really, really good cherry clafoutis. I’m not usually a dessert person but for whatever reason, it just knocked it out of the park, and I remembered the joy of dessert.

Saturday, May 8
There’s a little Italian coffee shop close to where I live called Lella Alimentari. During the pandemic, they built these enclosed areas where you can sit outside. It’s not the world’s most sophisticated set-up, but it’s in such a good location, and it really is easy-breezy. My friend Erin came over in the morning, early, and we just had a nice sit-down coffee and talked about whatever.

It was raining, and the best I could do afterward was a bodega sandwich and a bowl of vegetable soup for lunch. I had my traditional chicken cutlet. No tomatoes. I hate raw tomatoes with my entire soul. I would rather lick the subway floor than eat a raw tomato. It’s the texture. It’s the taste. It’s the slime. And people will tell you “Oh! You don’t like tomatoes but you haven’t had a garden-fresh summer blah, blah, blah.” Yes, in fact, I have. And no, in fact, I do not like them. They’re almost worse when they’re extra flavorful.

I’m moving soon, so I’m in this weird limbo that messes up your grocery game because you think, I don’t know, should I stock the house normally? Probably not. But of course you should. It’s psychotic to think you can only go grocery shopping three months out. I’m a crazy person going through too much change, but I just can’t convince myself that I should reboot the kitchen in a normal way because I’m going to a new apartment on June 1. This is irrational pandemic thinking, but it is what it is.

During my last few weeks in Los Angeles and my first few weeks here, there’s no routine left for me. I’m also still in that place of needing a lot of comfort from the food that I eat. That’s how it felt all pandemic long, and I feel like I should schedule a physical just to make sure I haven’t forever destroyed myself with all the comfort food. Anyway, I ate this bodega sandwich, and it was good.

A poet friend came over with a bunch of beautiful peonies and we went back to Lella Alimentari when there was a break in the rain. And we had more coffees. Fueled by caffeine, always.

I just grazed at night. I made myself a cup of tea and had enough leftovers from all of the food adventures of the day that I did the thing you can only do when you live alone and nobody’s watching. I ate variety of things that have no relationship to one another, whilst wearing the most ridiculous outfit on planet earth, and called it a day.

Sunday, May 10
I met up with my friend Marlon and his partner Nick and we went to Gertie in Williamsburg, which is also really fun because the publishing group I work at also publishes cookbooks. One of my colleagues had given me Gertie’s pastry-chef Melissa Weller’s book, A Good Bake, which is a really good one. I baked from it a lot when I was in L.A. One thing I had been desperately craving was a good bagel with lox and a shmear. They had that. I had also been craving a decent matzo-ball soup — there actually are some good delis in L.A. where you can get a bowl, but they were all across town from me, and I was really missing the matzo-ball experience. So even though it was like 10 a.m., I got a big bowl of matzo-ball soup, a bagel with lox, and a mimosa, and I was like, Oh wow, brunch! I forgot about brunch! 

I went home for a little bit and then to a little Japanese store in my neighborhood called The 3rd Floor. She makes these amazing rice balls and miso soup and various coffees and teas and sells a lot of Japanese snack foods.

In the evening, my friend Toby brought some roadies in little koozies and we headed out over to two taco places. It was a totally rainy night, but I was pretty committed to eating tacos. First, we went for birria at Nene’s. I had never dipped the taco into the consommé, which was delicious. Then we headed over to Bushwick and went to another place called Taqueria al Pastor that had, I guess they’re called volcánes. I had a carne-asada taco that had cheese on it, and it was this flat delicious thing. I absolutely went hard. I’m not saying we have better tacos here, I’m just saying that I was not unhappy.

There’s a place in my neighborhood called Cozy Royale, which is a restaurant and bar opened by the guys who run my local — everybody is going to know exactly where I live, this is the worst — butcher shop. The shop has been around for a long time, they’re great and they have a little grocery in there and have amazing taste. They do lots of chilis and prepared foods and sauces, so it’s really cool that they opened up a restaurant. We just had a drink. Me, a glass of wine. I’m always a Sauvignon Blanc person but this was a really funky one — a very unfiltered natural Sauv Blanc. I had forgotten about the natural-wine vibe in New York, and it’s funny because I used to be really into it in 2004. There’s a book, Kermit Lynch’s Adventures on the Wine Route, and I just happened to read it many years ago without any sense there would be an enormous natural-wine scene that would be taken for granted many years later.

An important part of my ritual is that I have a regular bar where I like to go read. I’m there almost every day. There’s a big backyard at my favorite bar which I refuse to name. They’ve known me for years. They open at 4 o’clock and they have Wi-Fi and a burger that I am down with. I usually pop over any time I have a hole in my eating schedule and read manuscripts and proposals and have a burger and a glass of Sauvignon Blanc. Wine. Don’t say Sauvignon Blanc three times, people are going to think I’m such an asshole.

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