Hungry City: The Top 10 Cheap (and Well-Traveled) Places to Eat in 2016
The chef, Myo Lin Thway, works in the diamond district of Manhattan by day. He grew up in the Irrawaddy Delta in Myanmar, one of eight children, and came to New York in 1994 to study mechanical engineering; two years later he started cooking for his church’s annual fund-raiser. It took longer — nearly two decades — before he offered his food at street fairs. (“Burmese are cautious,” he said.) I’m grateful that he did. Open seasonally (currently closed) at the Queens International Night Market, 47-01 111th Street (47th Avenue), Corona, Queens; 917-560-2480.
2. Alimentos Saludables
Some nights Héctor Acosta may be on the jukebox, singing merengue, unless a roaming guitarist stops by to serenade the handful of tables, as a portrait of Pope John Paul II and a statue of baby Jesus look gently on. The awning is draped in twinkle lights, and, behind the counter, Concepcioón Gonzalez is serving some of the best tamales in town.
When Ms. Gonzalez first arrived in Brooklyn from the little town of Tochimilco in Puebla, Mexico, she sold tamales in front of a nearby church. Here she presents them on paper plates, still steaming, their corn-husk swaddling damp. Every bite strikes a lode of mole poblano, salsa verde or salsa roja, marbling the beautifully tender dough, like meat. Most tamales sell out by afternoon, so come early. 5919 Fourth Avenue (60th Street), Sunset Park, Brooklyn; 718-492-1660.
3. BK Jani
Sibte Hassan left Lahore, Pakistan, to study graphic design in New York. But what he found he loved most was to feed — “overfeed,” as he puts it — his friends. Here you feel like one of them, invited to a backyard barbecue that has been quickly shifted indoors because of rain. You eat at picnic tables hemmed in by murals halfway between graffiti and hallucination, without knives or forks, gnawing meat off the bone like the happy animal you are.
Although Mr. Hassan doesn’t shout about it, he gets all the meat (Black Angus beef, New Zealand lamb, Amish chicken) from Pat LaFrieda, pasture raised, hormone-free and certified halal. While it seethes on the grill, he may reward your patience with complimentary lentil soup, a homage to one served at the shrine of a Sufi saint in Lahore, where it is shared with all, believers or no. 276 Knickerbocker Avenue (Willoughby Street), Bushwick, Brooklyn; 347-460-5110.
4. Taste of Samarkand
Perhaps nowhere did I feel so thoroughly elsewhere this year than at this restaurant, run by Rasul Hoshimov, an Uzbek Muslim, and David Abramov, a Bukharan Jew from Tajikistan. Behind an unassuming brick storefront is a bower of a dining room, under a trellis of leaves, with grapes hanging out of reach. Branches frame scenes, painted on sheepskin, of sandstone fortresses and camels along the Silk Road.
The waitresses wear the traditional Uzbek kuilak (a long tunic) and lozim (pants), the trompe l’oeil patterns looking like animal pelts. English is limited and poetic. Every table is abundance itself, laden with flame-licked meat, blistered bread and messy plov: rice seeded with black cumin and littered with barberries. I still remember my first spoonful of a soup under a gorgeous slick of fat, like waking from a long, hard winter. 62-16 Woodhaven Boulevard (62nd Road), Middle Village, Queens; 718-672-2121; tasteofsamarkand.com
5. Violet’s Bake Shoppe
To make Vietnamese banh mi requires careful calculation. At this diminutive bakery, Chris Tang, the chef, makes sure the bread has loft, and a crust ready to fracture; that the meats unite musk and tang, sugar and brine, the universal language of barbecue; that the pâté, house-made, tastes frankly of chicken liver, with no disguise; and that the pickled carrots and daikon sting.
He was born in New York to Chinese immigrants, and worked alongside them at a noodle and dumpling factory in Brooklyn. When he and his wife, Flora Liu, opened the bakery, he focused on Chinese sweets like egg tarts. But he secretly craved Vietnamese banh mi, and he persuaded a family friend of Vietnamese descent to teach him how to make them. Fortunately, the egg tarts remain, both Cantonese (sweeter, shinier) and Portuguese (denser, with cling). 72-36 Austin Street (72nd Road), Forest Hills, Queens; 718-263-3839.
6. Mumbai Xpress
Hina Shah was a home cook until family and friends insisted she share her gift with the world. In this spartan dining room, she pays homage to the chaatwallahs of Chowpatty Beach and Breach Candy in Mumbai, India, where she grew up. Chaat is India’s seemingly limitless genre of snacks, alchemies of sour-sweet, tart and smoky, cooling and incendiary, creamy and crackling. In their truest form they are slapped together with brisk fingers by the roadside, forged on hot plates and handed over wrapped in newsprint or jumbled on a leaf.
Ms. Shah’s presentations are neater but no less fervid. And even eaten at a table, a snack can feel like a small act of defiance: a refusal to abide by mealtimes or settle for a dutiful progression of flavors and textures, when you can have them all at once. 256-05 Hillside Avenue (256th Street), Floral Park, Queens; 718-470-0059; mumbai-xpress.com
7. Sons of Thunder
This was one of the first places in New York devoted to poke, a raw fish salad once rarely found outside of Hawaii and now ubiquitous, if not always true to its origins. Here it’s made the way I remember it from my childhood in Honolulu, where the best version is sold at Tamura’s, a liquor store, and served at get-togethers as a pupu (snack), still in its plastic tub.
Generous cubes of fresh ahi and salmon are glossed with shoyu and sesame oil or daubed with chile aioli. Instead of offering just fish heaped on rice, each bowl is nearly overgrown with mesclun greens and seaweed salad, tempering the lushness. The chefs, James and John Kim, are brothers from Queens whose grandparents immigrated to Hawaii from South Korea. The surfboard on the wall is James’s, and the pictures in the dining room, by the legendary surf photographer Brian Bielmann, could have come from his dreams. 204 East 38th Street (Third Avenue), Murray Hill; 646-863-2212; sonsofthunder.com
8. Woodside Cafe
The sign says “Italian, American, Nepali, Indian Food,” but the only dish that betrays a European inspiration is a plate of momos — mammoth Himalayan dumplings — in a tomato cream sauce with the kick of tikka masala. The chef, Purushotam Khadgi, ran an Italian-Nepalese restaurant in his native Kathmandu and made pizzas when the cafe first opened; now, instead, there is chatamari, a rice-flour crepe under mashed black-eyed peas and potatoes, crumbled meat and an egg, barely set.
The room is dim, with saffron walls and burgundy banquettes; masks of Hindu deities keep vigil. Every detail is transporting: rice beaten into confetti, a sheen of mustard oil on roasted soybeans and deep-fried whiting meant to be eaten whole, with tiny, brittle harps of bone. 64-23 Broadway (65th Street), Woodside, Queens; 347-642-3445; woodsidecafe.com
9. El Molcajete
At this Mexican restaurant, set in the shadow of an elevated train in the Bronx, tacos don’t flop; they come twisted at one end so they look like overloaded ice cream cones, mouths wide and heavy with meat. All the great, deep animal cuts are here, like cabeza (beef cheek and jowl) and suadero, taken from near the udder and rivaling pork belly in richness, as lush as a peach at peak.
Each taco is $3, and each is munificent. You might not manage more than two. Meanwhile, the menu goes on forever, with patiently tended stews, unexpected heat lurking in a goat consommé and cubes of jellied pig’s foot, cold, and then liquid on the tongue. The margaritas burn. English is understood, if not always reciprocated. The staff would answer no questions for my review; all I know is what I tasted, a history written in chile and lime. 1506-08 Westchester Avenue (Elder Avenue), Soundview, the Bronx; 917-688-1433.
10. The Grain Bar at Great Northern Food Hall
It’s not clear whether Claus Meyer — a founder of the Copenhagen restaurant Noma and a trailblazer for the New Nordic culinary movement — came to America to conquer it or save it. His Great Northern Food Hall is a pristine galaxy of stands and counters, appointed with white oak and Arne Jacobsen chairs, set in a less-trafficked cavern of Grand Central Terminal like a diorama of a distant, wiser culture.
The creed here is: Respect good ingredients. Take time to enjoy them. Feel kinship with the people around you. Could anything be more alien to the harried New Yorker? If Mr. Meyer can persuade us, the secret may be ollebrod, a medieval porridge of rye bread soaked in beer and simmered into mush, which I spied him stirring one morning at the Grain Bar as if he had nothing more important to do. It’s served cold under a knoll of milk foam, crunchy tarragon sugar and caramelized rye bread, with sour sea buckthorn berries, like ancient shrunken suns, ready to pop. Grand Central Terminal, 89 East 42nd Street, Midtown East; 646-568-4020; greatnorthernfood.com
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