Try something new to appreciate New York's culinary diversity
You wake up one morning and everything seems off. Your breakfast cart just doesn't cut it anymore, that Thai place near the office you love for lunch seems blah, and dinners are a dime a dozen. You try to break out; have a smoothie, an everything bagel for breakfast. You try that new place you've been meaning to get to, the one everyone's raving about that does American classics all grown up with the supposedly amazing fried chicken. You even-gasp!-cook at home.
It's no use. Everything tastes gray.
Everyone reaches this saturation level at some point with New York City food. Trends rise up, flooding the marketplace with kitschy Sino-American fusion, Eastern European haute cuisine or yet another region of Italy, but when the furor starts to ebb, they fade and merge into a homogenous tapestry of "This again?"
When this ennui starts to set in, many people go on vacation. Sure, lots of people spend the time and the money and the effort to plan a vacation-but you live in New York. Walk two blocks off your normal path and you've opened up an entirely new set of possibilities. Look down where you usually look up (or vice versa) and you've revealed a brand-new city.
So here's what you do: you go on a food safari. You're on the lookout for anything different, unexpected, below your radar. Nothing that seems like your sort of place is allowed-no eating anything even remotely similar to your everyday fare. Today, you scrap all of your preferences and routines and start over.
Be a tourist. Go on an adventure. And when you get home tomorrow, you'll have plenty of photos to bore your friends with, a few new favorite meals and a rediscovered respect for the city around you.
Eggs, starches and meat are the building blocks of the morning meal around the world. Breakfast, therefore, is a good opportunity to ease your way into the brave new world you've set for yourself today. Simply playing some tetris with the way the blocks are arranged-longaniza instead of bacon, tortillas instead of toast-is a quick way to knock your worldview sideways and prepare yourself for a day of surprises.
Baby steps: Sizzling sisig at Maharlika (111 First Ave. at Seventh Street). Picture a dish of corned beef hash topped with a fried egg, all crusty edges, meltingly tender meat, starchy potatoes and rich yolk-a riot of textures and flavors deeply ingrained in the cultural imagination. That's much like what sisig is to the Philippines, a nationally beloved dish of stewed, fried meat and whatever else is on hand (onions, peppers, etc.) served on a hot plate topped with a fried egg alongside a bowl of rice. Never mind that the meats here are pork belly and anything that can be gleaned from the pig's head- primarily snout and ear-just focus on the crispy and meaty bits and enjoy.
Full throttle: Sliced pork and preserved egg congee at Congee Bowery (207 Bowery, between Rivington and Spring streets). Like all great breakfasts, this salty-creamy-crunchy combination is also a superlative hangover cure. Rice is simmered overnight until it breaks down into a mild, thick porridge fit for the sickest of sickrooms. Sprinkled on top are shreds of ginger and sliced scallion to add occasional bursts of bright flavor, and connoisseurs swirl in soy sauce to taste.
Any number of meats are available as add-ins to the cauldron, the most traditional of which are sliced pork and preserved egg. The eggs (also known as century eggs or 1,000-year eggs) are actually covered in a mixture of clay and lime and wrapped in straw for anywhere from a couple of weeks to months, during which time they take on the texture of a poorly hard-boiled egg and the color of a particularly spectacular bruise. Their vaguely ammoniac smell (just think of a good Roquefort) is stronger than their salty, creamy bite and, quartered and buried in the congee bowl, they provide a flavor jolt to the mildly meaty pork and soothing rice. They're a love-them-or-hate-them delicacy; those who love them can also stock up in any Asian supermarket (try New York Market, 128 Mott St., between Grand and Hester streets). They're usually found near the regular dairy items, but the bits of straw poking out of the carton are the giveaway you've not picked up a plain old dozen of Eggland's Best.
Sidewalk seating and taco trucks notwithstanding, we spend our time on the streets getting from one place to the next, rarely getting the chance to really take in the tenor of a neighborhood. But this city is full of public spaces, from unwieldy hexagons where side streets converge to beautifully maintained community gardens. Grab some interesting looking dishes from the specialty grocery store you perpetually pass by in favor of the utilitarian Food Emporium or from a hole-in-the-wall lunch counter, walk six blocks in any direction and have yourself a city picnic.
Baby steps: Despaña Foods (410 Broome St., between Lafayette and Centre streets) is the city's most thorough, loving importer of Spanish food for both wholesale and regular Joes. Their retail space at the lower edge of Soho has a sweet café at the rear of the shop, where you could go straight for the pintxos, tapas-like dishes stacked high on rounds of bread. If you do, be sure to get their housemade morcilla, blood sausage, and a croqueta de bacalo, a fried, breaded ball of whipped salt cod, an oddly pleasant starch-on-starch combination when eaten on the requisite bread.
However, more fun would be to pick out a few packages from the ready-to-eat section of the market (try piquillo peppers stuffed with seafood, packed just like the more pedestrian sardines next to them, or confited quail in glass jars, whole birds cooked in their own fat and jarred with peppercorns and herbs), a packet of olive oil tortas, a cheese and some sliced lomo, air-dried pork loin, from the butcher counter and building your own pintxo towers.
Full throttle: When the banh mi craze hit this city hard, Sau Voi Corp. (101 Lafayette St. at Walker Street) became the darling of those in the know-a dingy record shop/lottery ticket counter on the border between Chinatown and Tribeca that also happened to make a contender for the best Vietnamese sandwich in town. Those sandwiches are fantastic, but more exciting are the contents of the refrigerated case behind which they're constructed: rice noodle salads topped with the same French-influenced pork patés and terrines that grace the banh mi, sweet and savory banana leaf-wrapped packets of sticky rice, puddings and pastries.
While some of the cakes are labeled, imported from bakeries in the Vietnamese enclave of Sunset Park in Brooklyn, most everything else is not. Fly blind and point out a few things that look interesting-everything is ridiculously cheap (most items in the case hover around $2), so even if you aim for a wide margin of error and over-order, you'd be hard-pressed to break the bank here.
You may, at some point in the day, find yourself flagging. Exploration is hard work, and the temptation to throw in the towel at the next Starbucks may grow too strong to resist. To keep up your strength, a sugar rush is just the thing to carry you through to the next adventure.
Baby steps: Most of the candy at Sockerbit (89 Christopher St., between Seventh Avenue and Bleecker Street), neatly arrayed in gleaming white tiers along one wall of the shop, is simply delicious, sour gummies, chocolates and lollipops in every shape and size. Everything is clearly, charmingly labeled, with its Swedish name and a line or two of description underneath each bin. The Swedish apparently wrote the book on chocolate coating, and here you can find everything from marshmallows to muesli dipped in milk, dark or white chocolate.
Gorge yourself on treats like these but branch out, too, to their wide range of licorice-based confections. Northern Europe shares an affinity for the strong, black stuff, and it can be found in an astonishing array of shapes, textures and salt levels. Yes, salt. Before people were putting pretzels in chocolate bars and salting caramels, Scandinavian and Dutch licorice makers were engaged in a game of salty-sweet chicken, pushing their wares to the brink of mutually assured sodium overdose.
Here at Sockerbit, the most dangerous is Turkish flaska, presented with the taunting label "Scandinavian challenge." A salt-coated licorice-flavored hard candy is filled with dose of salmiak powder, a variety of licorice that assaults the tongue with an intense salty-sour sensation with none of the attendant mouth-puckering. Try it, but keep some gummy bears on hand to chase the taste.
Full throttle: Lining the walls of Aji Ichiban (37 Mott St. at Pell Street) are packaged salty snacks, a vast array of flavored nori, rice crackers and chips. The breakout star is the kanikko, Japanese baby crabs, dried, candied and spiced. The little guys are completely edible, though the first time you pop an entire crab in your mouth you will definitely have the fleeting thought that you're doing it wrong. Once you get past that you realize they're delicious-they make a great bar snack-and you can pretend you're a giant as you toss handfuls of crustaceans into your mouth.
In the store's bulk bins are candies, many of which have helpful icons on their wrappers to indicate their flavor, alongside dried fruits, meats and fishes. Sample dishes are set out for everything, so while you wonder at the concept of "pork floss," dare yourself to try at least a couple of the more arcane fruits. Salted plums may not be to your taste but spiced tamarind might be right up your alley. There's only one way to find out.
The Far West Village has a large contingent of Caribbean/South American restaurants, unexpected for the rest of the neighborhood's twee Sex and the City tourist reputation. Just a few blocks past the Marc Jacobs and Magnolia Bakery set, where people live peacefully, are a string of tastes of home. To a city that only recently discovered that Mexican food was more than just tacos, the southern half of our hemisphere remains an almost total mystery-a shame, because the shifting colonial influences from country to country are a thrill to trace in the flavors, meats and techniques of their cuisines.
Baby steps: With its strong Portuguese and African influences, the fare at Brazilian Casa (79 Bedford St. at Commerce Street) looks vaguely European, vaguely Southern and altogether baffling. Top on the list there is feijoada, the workingman's-supper-turned-national-treasure that stews up beans with whatever meats are available, long-cooked and served with white rice and collard greens. As in most working-class specialties, the meats traditionally available were generally of the off-cut variety, which means that while every recipe is unique, feijoada must be made with some combination of salt pork, pig ears, belly, trotters and tails.
Alongside this should be ordered any of the yucca preparations, but especially the farofa, toasted yucca flour with bacon. The powered root is not meant to be eaten alone (though the texturally adventurous might enjoy a forkful or two to really appreciate its slightly sweet starchiness, here tempered by smoky, rich bacon) but rather sprinkled over stews or soups to add heft. We're working hard, remember-we need to build our strength.
Full throttle: Lima's Taste (122 Christopher St. at Bedford Street) is a raucous, gothic introduction to Peru by way of ceviches, grilled meats and, most importantly, pisco, the national beverage they promise will make you "the best drunk you can be." Pisco, a strong grape brandy similar to Italian grappa, is mixed with lime juice, simple syrup and egg whites to create a suspiciously drinkable cocktail.
After a couple, you won't bat an eye at the salchipapas, French fries topped with sliced hot dogs, or beef heart anticuchos, grilled and served with a vibrantly hot sauce of cilantro, garlic and peppers. Heart is, after all, just another muscle-while slightly stronger in flavor than steak, the texture is remarkably similar, if more tender. The smokiness of the grill and the bite of the sauce turn the entire flavor profile of the dish up to 11, until you're convinced all beef tastes this beefy-or maybe that's the pisco talking.
And if midnight rolls around and you're still hungry for more, head to Kenka (25 St. Mark's Place, between Second and Third avenues), a late-night Japanese izakaya that gets louder and more animated as the shochu and cheap pitchers of Sapporo flow. The décor is anime-chic at its best, and the everything-but-the-kitchen-sink menu dives deep into the core of Japan's love of the absurd. Stay traditional with the natto, fermented soybeans with an earthy, funky flavor that form a sticky, stringy mass to be pulled apart with your chopsticks to the delight and horror of those around you. Your safari complete, close the night with something your inner 8-year-old wouldn't blanch at-make-it-yourself cotton candy fresh off the restaurant's own machine. You've earned it.
Century eggs might look inedible, but a taste reveals a wonderfully salty, creamy bite. At Congee Bowery, they are served with sliced pork and rice porridge.
Photos by George Denison
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