Inside New York City’s best food cultures
With more than 8 million people in New York City, you’d expect some great chow and some culinary diversity – and that’s exactly what you get. The city manages to bring dishes from all over the world and make them its own. Here’s our rundown of New York’s best fare – and, please, don’t forget to tip your waiter.
The New York cheesecake began in 1921 with Leo Lindemann, whose Lindy’s in Midtown first served a cake that blended cream cheese and regular cream with a splash of vanilla on a cookie crust. It became a sensation. Variations use graham crackers for their crust, swirl in flavorings like mandarin or lemon, or replace cream cheese with cottage cheese. Today, New York cheesecake appears not only on menus across the city, but as a benchmark dessert around the world. Try a slice at Junior’s – which is in three locations across the city, so you can walk off a slice on your way to the next one.
‘You gotta eat more already!’ These NYC institutions do Jewish comfort food so right. Most of the dishes have their roots in Eastern Europe, but today they seem to taste quintessentially New York. If you’re eating in, have the matzo ball soup or the heaving pastrami on rye, usually served with a crunchy pickle. In a hurry? Grab a bagel with cream cheese. Try the 2nd Ave Deli (now with locations on East 33rd and First Avenue at East 75th) for Jewish classics.
The taco truck, which has long been at the core of Los Angeles street food, has become a regular visitor to New York streetscapes. The selection of toppings usually runs the gamut, ranging from carnitas and beef cheek to al pastor to fish (and tofu for the vegetarians). If you want to sit down to a meal, head to Brooklyn for some of the city’s best taquerías, including Calaca in Bed-Stuy, and Tacos El Bronco in Sunset Park.
The classic dog was first brought to New York in the 1800s by German Charles Feltman, who ran the first pushcart along the Coney Island seashore. Today, almost every neighborhood has a vendor on the corner. Get a dog slicked with mustard and ketchup for the perfect, if inelegant snack you can eat with one hand. For the classic style, try Nathan’s Famous – opened by an employee from Feltman’s original stall – or Crif Dogs. Or for something fancier, head to Sons of Thunder for the Slaw Dog or to Greenpoint in Brooklyn for the hot dog at beer haven Tørst.
Soul food was born in the Deep South and brought to New York by the African Americans who created it. Soul food joints can be found in Harlem, Brooklyn and the Bronx – the decor’s usually low-key, but plates are piled high. Southern fried chicken, country fried steak and cracklin’ feature on many menus, with sides of collard greens, mac and cheese, and corn bread. Head to Sylvia’s in Harlem or Peaches Hothouse in Brooklyn for a soul food taste.
Just off Herald Square, Koreatown is a small culinary stretch that brightens up 32nd Street with karaoke and all-night barbecue restaurants. New Yorkers love a bit of gogi gui (Korean barbecue), which involves a small grill in the middle of the table, ready to cook up marinated beef, thick-cut pork or vegetables with chili paste. For the real deal without the crowds, head to the clandestine Jongro on West 32nd Street.
New York City is home to the largest Chinese population of any city outside Asia. Many of those people hail from Fujian, so try a classic Fujian dish like ‘Buddha jumps over the wall’, which is a variation on shark fin soup with sea cucumber, abalone and rice. If that’s not to your liking, there are plenty of options for bubble tea and kung po chicken in the winding streets south of Canal that make up New York’s Chinatown. Try Great New York Noodle Town on Bowery for a sure win.
Oh boy, does the pizza debate (thin crust vs. deep dish) get the food lovers going. Chicago loves its deep pizza pies but, in the Big Apple, the thinness of the crust is a source of civic pride. Plus, a thinner base means speedier cooking for the city that never sleeps. The preferred snack option is the long, triangular slice (you’ll need to develop a certain dexterity to stop it flopping onto your chest like a relaxed bow-tie) topped with basics like mozzarella and pepperoni. Patsy’s Pizzeria in East Harlem is one of the city’s original pizza joints, frequented by members of the Rat Pack who swore by its slices. Nowadays, Roberta’s in Brooklyn is one of the main temples at which pizza lovers worship.
You’ll find Little Italy just next door to Chinatown. There are creamy cannoli and fresh ravioli in the traditional delis on Mulberry Street, or you can pull up a chair at Tuscan-inspired I Sodi (known to serve fresh watermelon at the end of service in summer). For a more modern take, Lilia in Williamsburg is a hotspot worth the arduous wait you’ll need to endure for a table.
One of the biggest ethnic communities in New York runs from Fifth Avenue to the Harlem River, finishing just about at 96th Street – the area that has come to be known as El Barrio or Spanish Harlem. After WWII, La Marqueta (the market) was at the center of the Puerto Rican community, selling everything from tropical fruits to religious icons and a good serve of cocina criolla (Creole cuisine specific to Puerto Rico). Though the market has dwindled in recent years, local government efforts – which include a food business incubator – are attempting to restore it to its former glory. For some soul-stirring Dominican cuisine in the neighborhood, stop by Sandy Restaurant, a no-frills lunch-room-style locale at the heart of the barrio, or nearby Taco Mix, which serves up some of the best al pastor tacos in NYC.
New Yorkers sure love their donuts – so much so that it’s increasingly becoming an art form in the city. Brooklyn-born Dough Doughnuts has made the fluffy, yeasty variety its signature (with creative toppings like dulce de leche, toasted coconut, hibiscus and horchata) while Doughnut Plant has ventured into square donuts, filled with delightful combos like peanut butter and blackberry jam. For more manageable bites, Doughnuttery in Chelsea Market specializes in miniature versions of the classic fritter.