Volume 19 • Issue 4 | June 9 - 15, 2006

Downtown Living

Downtown Express photo by Lorenzo Ciniglio

Zach Zaitzeff in his self-named restaurant in the Financial District.

Finding the tasty meat hidden in the fast food forest

By Jean Marie Hackett

I’m haunted by visions of Marion Nestle. Nestle, a food guru with a Ph.D in molecular biology and a masters in nutrition, is the author of “Food Politics” and “What to Eat.” She’s in the news these days almost as much as Shiloh Nouvel Jolie-Pitt. In interview after interview, I’ve read Nestle’s messages about eating organic dairy products without crazy growth hormones and urging people to “vote with their forks,” as she told News.com. “When you choose organics, you are voting for a planet with fewer pesticides, richer soil and cleaner water supplies — all better in the long run.” Nestle’s food maxims help us amateur eaters navigate the evil black hole full of crap called your local grocery store.

I don’t have any problems in the grocery store. Where I do have problems is my neighborhood, known as the Financial District. Though often billed as the new Tribeca, the culinary options make me wonder how the area received this designation. Where I live, I’m flanked by Pizzeria Uno and McDonald’s. When you don’t want a high priced restaurant meal, what can you eat in the Financial District that isn’t Asian take-out, pizza, no-name deli food, or Burger King? What kind of food is there to vote for here?

So in the spirit of my muse, Marion Nestle, here’s one page out of my own personal guide to eating in the Financial District.

Open three years this July, Zaitzeff is what you should eat in the Financial District. I heard about it from a student at the law school where I work. Upon learning where I lived, he said, “You’re really close to this great burger place that uses all organic meat.” I figured he was mistaken. Surely, the Home of the Whopper hadn’t started serving organic meat. And then one day I found it, across the street from a bright yellow Blimpie storefront.

It doesn’t look like much from the outside. It looks like it’s going to turn out to be just another no-name deli. But from behind the counter, rows of Heinz organic ketchup catch my eye. The tables, numbering only three, are long dining room style tables. I feel as if I’m standing in my mother’s kitchen. Something is different about this place.

Zach Zaitzeff, who owns the place, tells me that the restaurant’s tables have been plucked from family members’ homes to provide seating in the restaurant. He also tells me that when the place first opened, it only had one table. “We originally thought just purely take-out,” Zach said. “We had no idea people lived down here.” (Zaitzeff is now open seven days a week, for breakfast, lunch and dinner). And the painting that spans the entirety of one of Zaitzeff’s walls? Zach painted it. His mother, Amine Zaitzeff, is another constant face at the burger place. I often see her through the window at the place at night, reading the paper. “When we first signed the lease,” Zach admitted, “I didn’t know what we would sell.” But, “mom always cooked a really good burger.”

The Zaitzeff burger is a really good burger. When I ask him why, Zach says, “It’s the beef and the muffin.”

“Muffin?” I ask, as in “English muffin?”

This muffin, I learn, is not English but Portuguese. We “always used them when I was growing up” Zach said. These are the same Portuguese muffins used in Zaitzeff’s tasty French toast. Yes, Zaitzeff sells French toast (it’s yummy) along with oatmeal cooked to order, egg sandwiches, omelets, turkey burgers, veggie burgers and grilled cheese sandwiches. Reuben, another regular face behind the counter at Zaitzeff, adds that the Portuguese muffins are “bigger and sweeter” than their English counterparts.

Perhaps it is that hint of sweetness juxtaposed against the juicy burgers that makes the burgers so good. Or maybe it is the meat. The beef (your choice of sirloin or kobe) is hormone and antibiotic free. Zaitzeff gets its meat from Nebraska’s Morgan’s Ranch, which doesn’t use artificial hormones or subtheraputic antibiotic levels in the feed.

Though not every single item of food in the place is organic, all of the dairy is. Amine Zaitzeff told me, “I won’t compromise on dairy.” Now here’s a burger-hawking lady even Marion Nestle could love. And at a minimum, everything is fresh. “We don’t even have a freezer,” said Zach.

But don’t expect Zaitzeff to start advertising that its burgers are free of hormones and antibiotics and the ketchup is certified organic. You say organic, Zach points out, and you get the “stigma that it’s like tofu and bean sprouts.”

Zaitzeff is at 72 Nassau St. 212-571-7272.

Jean Marie Hackett is a freelance writer livng in the Financial District.


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