Comedian and New Yorker by-way-of-Ohio Dave Hill recently released his first book Tasteful Nudes, and we at Food Republic had the chance to sit down with him at Jacques Torres in SoHo for chocolate cookies and cappuccino. We discovered that not only is he a generally funny dude, an incredible dresser, able to shred on the guitar with a number of his musical side projects and a published author, but the guy has some serious opinions on Mexican food, food chains with TV commercials and hanging out in the West Village.
You’re from Ohio, right?
So what are some delicacies from Cleveland? What do you want to eat when you go home?
Well, it’s funny, I never had any ethnic food… Is that what it’s called? Is that what you call Mexican food and stuff? It used to be called that right? But I never had anything like that until I was old enough to drive. We were just a big Irish Catholic family, chicken breasts and whatever, we just ate boring food. And then when I could drive, I was like, “Well, I could go…” Cleveland actually has better Mexican food than New York.
Really? Them’s fightin’ words.
Without question. New York has horrible Mexican food. It’s the only thing that’s wrong – well, there’s lots wrong with the City – but literally the only thing where I’m like, “This is not the best place for this.” Where would you say is good?
I like Taqueria y Fonda uptown on Amsterdam, Taco Mix on 116th near 2nd Ave and for high end I like Centrico.
I think the taco truck on 14th and 8th is better than everywhere. You know the truck? That’s the one I usually go to, usually hammered.
It’s good drunk food.
Cleveland is good for Mexican. And there is good Cambodian.
Really? I don’t think I’ve ever had Cambodian food.
It’s kind of like a better version of Vietnamese food.
What do you have against Vietnamese food?
I LOVE Vietnamese food. I’m just saying Cambodian food dials it in better, in my opinion.
As a kid, what was the place your family would go for a special occasion?
Well, this is the thing, I wasn’t fancy-born, I mean we were fine, we weren’t poor or anything, but I always wanted to go to like Denny’s or Red Lobster. Basically if the place had a commercial, I was like, “This must be a good restaurant.” I really thought that as a kid. So I would go, “Dad can’t we go to like Ponderosa, Red Lobster…?” And my dad was like, “No.” And we never went to ANY of these places. But I was like, “Why can’t we go to the best restaurant in town? Red Lobster? It is clearly the best.” Occasionally we would go to like a nice cloth napkin kind of place, but I was like, “OK whatever…”
It’s not Red Lobster.
So what’d you think when you finally got to try Red Lobster?
I had the Red Lobster [for the first time] like five years ago, maybe longer actually, in Times Square with some friends. And this is the thing, I hate in New York when people that do ironic dining. Like Olive Garden and stuff. I’ve actually been to Olive Garden once in Ohio and it was much better than I expected. You go to any of these places here, like Applebees or whatever, I’ve done that unironically. So this guy wanted to go there [to Red Lobster] and I was like, “OK.” And it’s so expensive! You can go pretty much anywhere and have a much better meal. It did not deliver on any level. Even the kitsch factor, which was the one I the least interested in, because I hate ironic dining and that stuff. I’m from Cleveland. I hate in New York places that are like Welcome to the Johnson’s, and it’s supposed to be like a shitty basement.
It’s like they MADE it look that way.
And yeah, they went out of their way to do it. Cause I’m from Cleveland and like this is real and that’s actually where I go meet my friends in a real place that’s not kidding. So it seems silly to me.
I have to say I was waiting for a great Cleveland, down home specialty from you, and you come back with, “We have great Mexican food.”
Well, there is that kind of thing too. There are very specific places I go. Like there’s a sandwich place I like — and I’m not really a sandwich person — Grum’s. It’s been there since the ’70s, maybe earlier, and they have the best sandwiches in America.
What do you recommend there?
I would get the Grum. It’s got like hot peppers and ham and salami. It’s basically like a really good sandwich. I get like extra hot peppers, so do that. And then Cleveland pizza is really good. It’s like a different food than New York pizza, and different from Chicago, it’s kind of like its own thing.
More like a St Louis style?
Probably, but I don’t know what that is.
It’s a very thin crust, and instead of mozzarella it has a cheese combo called Provel (Swiss, provolone, white cheddar).
We’re not crazy people. Umm, it’s just smaller. You would eat like a shitload of it. In Cleveland it would be unheard of to say, “I’ll have a slice of pizza.” In Cleveland you get a pizza and you eat half of it, at least.
And there’s a Chinese place, and this goes back to when I started driving, we would go to this place, me and my closest friends, so much in fact that if two of us were out and couldn’t find the others – because this was pre-cell phone days – we would drive by the Chinese food place to see if they were just hanging out in there. Because we would just hang out at this place — it’s called Richie Chan’s. It was just this couple and when we started going there they had like a baby, and now the kid is probably married and stuff, but in my mind he’s still a baby.
So is it classic American-style Chinese food?
…If you know what to order off the menu?
Yeah, if you go in there, it’s all Chinese people with stuff that’s not on the menu. So I actually asked this Chinese girl where she would recommend and one of the places was Richie Chan’s, which was my first Chinese food ever. And I go in there and still get the really American stuff, ’cause I actually like both. I like traditional, but I love total greasy American Chinese too. It’s kind of whatever I’m in the mood for. And I go there and they still know my order from when I was 16. It’s this thing called “Golden Fingers” — it’s like fried chicken fingers that are fried in this weird way and there’s tons of that Sriracha sauce. So I go in there and they’re always like, “Golden Fingers, chicken wings, pork fried rice!” They know from like years and years ago.
See, that’s the info I was looking for.
So there’s that, and this place Luchita’s we used to go after hockey practice. We could drink there when we were teenagers. Not anymore. They’ve cleaned up their act. But it was the best; it’s still my favorite Mexican food. It’s probably a bit of nostalgia, but it’s the only salsa… Well, my friend married a Mexican girl, literally, she was like 19, now they’re divorced, and she made salsa and it was like this. The only other place in America that has it, where it’s just like very simple tomatoes, jalapeños, cilantro and onion and it’s very not chunky. I mean, I like a nice, chunky salsa but I get so mad. You can’t go to the grocery store in New York from like a D’Agostino’s up, you can’t get salsa that’s not like either Chi Chi’s or something, or like corn and mango. Fuck that. No one wants that in their salsa. You had a pretty good thing, and then you had to go and ruin it with those things.
And in Cleveland we do have Michael Symon. I like his restaurants. There’s Lola, and Lolita, whatever he does is really good. Oh, he has a place called the B Spot that’s perfect, not far from my dad’s house. It’s like tons of great beer and crazy ass hamburgers. You know like burgers with like pulled pork piled on top of it. They make their own ketchup and then they have like regular Heinz.
That’s key. Sometimes places that make their own ketchup are really snobby about it, “Oh we don’t serve Heinz” and sometimes the housemade stuff sucks.
Well, their housemade ketchup is really good. But my nephew who was like 9 or 8 at the time, it was a shock to the system. He put it on his hamburger and was like, “This isn’t Heinz” and threw up. It was psychological; he couldn’t process it.
How did the staff react to your nephew throwing up at the table?
I don’t think they noticed it. My brother dealt with it. Hit reset, got a new hamburger, new ketchup. It was all fine.