There’s a recipe in my repertoire that I only make in times of emotional extremity, sort of like how Rachel Samstat makes mashed potatoes when she’s heartbroken. I forget about it for years, but when I need it, it comes through for me.
I learned to make this dish a billion years ago, when I was in college and working at the Wai? Café in the East Village. Did you ever eat at Wai? Café or, likelier, order takeout from them? Probably not, because no one ever ate there and the bulk of their delivery orders were sent to the nearby hospitals further north. The food was, and I say this with love, reliably mediocre, which is a restaurant genre I respect more and more as it functionally disappears from NYC. The restaurant itself was tiny, and almost no one ever ate there. There was a whole back dining room that was primarily used as a break room by the delivery guys. In the front dining room, there would occasionally be a table of regulars who came by post-AA meeting to drink a lot of black coffee and maybe order one entrée to share. Sometimes couples would come there on a date and, we could tell, immediately regret it. It was basically a ghost kitchen avant la lettre. The most I ever made in tips after a shift there was $30. But since I was still in college my rent was heavily subsidized by my parents (privilege alert!), so all I needed money for was to feed and clothe myself, both of which I did extremely cheaply and badly. The bulk of my diet, and certainly the only healthy or delicious meals I ate during that time, was comprised of my shift meals from Wai? Café.
The menu at Wai? was a sort of 80s-90s vibe, with some Asian/East Village touches. What I mean by this: you could order an iceberg salad with carrot-ginger dressing, soba noodles with asparagus, chicken Milanese, or pasta primavera. The restaurant owners were Chinese and the kitchen staff was Chinese and Dominican. The pastas were finished in a wok and the entrees were dipped in a fryer. As is customary when you work at a restaurant, I spent my first few shift meals systematically working my way through the menu until I hit on the menu item that I would order every shift for the rest of the time that I worked there. I don’t remember what they called it!! Probably something fake fancy like “pasta alla (something).” Anyway, here is how to make it.
You’ll need: a pound of spaghetti, a pint of heavy cream, grated parmesan, sundried tomatoes (NOT oil-packed), red pepper flakes or similar, garlic, salt and pepper.
Now, put the pasta water on to boil. Then, mince the garlic and chop the tomatoes into bite-sized pieces. In your largest flat-bottomed pan, fry the garlic + tomatoes + red pepper flakes in a little olive oil. Season as you go. Then, add the pint of heavy cream, turn the heat to low, and let it reduce slowly til the pasta is cooked. When you’ve drained the pasta, add the parmesan (handfuls) to the sauce. If it gets too gloopy, thin it w some reserved pasta water that I forgot to tell you to reserve. Add the pasta, keep it on the heat a sec to marry everything, and serve with more cheese.
This dish is definitely not an everyday thing, not because it’s “unhealthy” but because it’s kind of objectively disgusting. Sundried tomatoes? But for me, it evokes all the memories of that time and the feeling of being young, ravenous and then easily satisfied.
Working at Wai? was probably the best service job I ever had, even though I didn’t make any money. The manager was nice, and he never hit on me. The owners were intense and feverishly hardworking, but they never forgot to give me an envelope of lucky money on Chinese New Year. I enjoyed taking delivery orders on the phone and eventually got to know some of the delivery regulars by their orders, especially the woman who called most nights to order two bottles of red wine and a slice of Mississippi Mud pie. (The desserts were shipped in from some restaurant supplier and definitely sat in the case for too long, but she didn’t seem to mind.) When I quit, it was to work at a worse job at a worse restaurant where I was treated sleazily and never formed any memories of any specific menu item, but I made a normal amount of tips per shift, which was important because I was about to graduate and get kicked off the parental teat. I hope I left Wai? on good terms, but since I’ve never left a job on good terms, that’s probably too much to hope for.
I made this pasta last week because, as you have probably guessed, I am lightly losing my mind around the situation of Keith’s Raffi book being published at the same time that we are looking for a new apartment. It feels like too much is happening too fast in my life, and I would love to Russian Doll myself back to my 2002 East Village for just one day. Since I can’t do that, I’ll just have to make this pasta again tonight.