Not every meal in the Big Apple will bring you to the heights of rapture, but the city’s wide range of dining options does allow you to travel to far-flung parts of the globe—at least for the length of a meal.
Russ and Daughters store front. Photo courtesy of Russ and Daughters
LOWER EAST SIDE
Eastern European Jewish Fare
As former New Yorkers, we know that Katz’s Delicatessen on East Houston Street (pronounced House-ton) is the place to go to devour the signature pastrami sandwich. The deli dates to 1888, a heritage that gives them the patience to wait through the pastrami’s 30-day curing process.
Order your sandwich directly from the cutters behind the counter, who kibbitz (Yiddish for “chat”) with customers as they slice merrily away. Ask for the meat “juicy.” Yeah, it’s a bit fattier than the “lean” option, but you didn’t come all this way to count calories. The sandwiches are massive, so you may find that splitting one leaves room for babka (a bread spiraled with chocolate or cinnamon filling) for dessert.
Russ Daughters Poppy seed bagel sandwich with smoked salmon cream cheese tomato onion and caper and a schmear of cream cheese. Photo courtesy of Russ & Daughters
If you’re in the mood for fish, it comes smoked in this neighborhood. The reigning family of smoked fish is Russ & Daughters, located a block west of Katz’s. Founded in 1914, it’s a survivor of a time when staunch New Yorkers would defend their favorite “appetizing store” (which, in keeping kosher, carry fish and dairy as opposed to the meats served in delis) with an ardor usually reserved for the Yankees versus Mets debate.
Unfortunately, most traditional appetizing stores in New York have gone the way of the Brooklyn Dodgers. But the fourth generation of the original Russ family remains, hand-slicing house-smoked salmon, ladling precious caviar and scooping pickled herring filets for you to take home. Or stop by the Russ & Daughters Cafe around the corner for a bagel with cream cheese and lox or a dish of latkes (potato pancakes).
For yet another favorite treat, stop by Yonah Schimmel’s Knish Bakery, open on East Houston Street since 1910. A knish (pronounced k-nish) is the ultimate Eastern European comfort food: mashed potato wrapped in a crispy dough and baked. (Yep, carb overload that’s deeply satisfying!) Savory variations add cabbage, kasha (buckwheat grain) or spinach to the potato mixture. For dessert, enjoy one of Schimmel’s sweet knishes, where the potato is replaced with a sweetened cheese mixture and/or fruit such as cherry or blueberry.
Sidewalk dining at Sylvia's Restaurant in Harlem which has been serving up southern comfort soul food. Photo courtesy of Sylvia's Restaurant
Hailing from South Carolina and known as the “Queen of Soul Food,” Sylvia Woods opened Sylvia’s Restaurant in 1962 on 125th Street, Harlem’s main thoroughfare, to serve up staples such as barbecued ribs, fried chicken and waffles, and sweet potato pie made from original family recipes. Over the decades, Sylvia’s has become a destination for visitors seeking a satisfying soul food meal, including the likes of Diana Ross, Muhammad Ali and President Bill Clinton. The Gospel Brunch on Sundays is a must-do.
New Yorker and former US Marine Corps cook Carl Redding named Amy Ruth’s on West 116th Street after his Alabamian grandmother, who taught him how to cook. Entrees bear the names of such famous customers as President Barack Obama (barbecued chicken) and Today show weatherman Al Roker (boneless short ribs).
For something sweet, head to Lee Lee’s Baked Goods. Southern native Chef Alvin Lee Smalls opened this Harlem mainstay on West 118th Street after moving to New York in the 1960s and encountering rugelach (flaky bite-size pastries with chocolate, apricot or raspberry filling) for the first time. Although rugelach is a traditional Polish Jewish dessert, Smalls perfected his own recipe, which he keeps secret, but based on the taste, we suspect real butter is involved.
Beef noodle soup at Nan Xiang Long Bao-Chinatown in Flushing Queens. Photo by Larissa C Milne
Start your evening with traditional Korean barbecue, a feast of marinated meats chargrilled on your table’s burner. The Beef Platter at Jongro BBQ includes brisket, ribeye and short rib. Sides range from spicy kimchi to sliced jalapeños to clay pot eggs.
Scallion pancake at Nan Xiang Long Bao Flushing Queens. Photo by Larissa C Milne
The menu at BCD Tofu House is similarly carnivore-centric, but as the name implies, a few items like crispy garlic tofu bites and tofu japchae, a glass noodle dish served with stir-fried vegetables, are offered for non-meat eaters.
Combine karaoke and a meal with a visit to Turntable LP Bar & Karaoke, where the retro vinyl booths are surrounded by thousands of record albums and vintage radios. The specialty fare is Korean Fried Chicken (or KFC), served either hot and spicy or with a soy garlic sauce.
Dine at one of these culturally immersive eateries, and you’ll accomplish a neat trick on your next trip to New York: that of being in two places at once.