Robert and I spent the second part of our vacation in New York City. New York City has a reputation for being home to just about any type of food or cuisine you can imagine. Although DC had a few surprises, most of it was food we had seen before. In New York, we made a point of seeking out unusual ethnic cuisines and classic New York foods. We wanted to find things we knew we wouldn’t be able to get back home in Seattle.
A visit to New York wouldn’t be complete without sampling some pizza. Though wood oven pizza has recently surged in popularity, if you want classic New York style pizza, you should visit a coal oven pizzeria. There are only a handful of coal oven pizzerias in Manhattan, and most of them are very old. We decided to check out John’s of Bleeker Street, a well-respected pizza joint located in the West Village. John’s has been serving up thin-crust, coal oven pies since 1929. With its well-worn wooden booths and red checkered tablecloths, John’s epitomizes an old-school pizzeria. We split a sausage and green pepper pizza. The toppings were fresh, and the pizza wasn’t overloaded with cheese which we appreciated. The crust–arguably the most important part of any pizza–was crunchy, chewy and slightly smoky. It is a shame that coal ovens are so rare; the subtle difference in flavor was a treat.
Since Seattle doesn’t have any real celebrity chefs, we thought it would be fun to splurge on a dinner at one of Manhattan’s famous restaurants. After a little debate, we finally chose Babbo, Mario Batali’s classic Italian eatery. I’ve always liked Mario’s recipes, and Babbo seemed like a good fit for us–upscale but unpretentious. We started off with an arugula salad and the lamb’s tongue vinaigrette with mushrooms and a poached egg. Lamb’s tongue isn’t something I would normally order, but it was an excellent dish. For our entrees, we tried two pastas: beef cheeks ravioli which was rich & meaty and the rock shrimp & green chili spaghetti which was spicy & briny, if a bit oily. We cleansed our palates with an assortment of gelati (the green apple was amazing!). So, did Babbo live up to the hype? Yes and no. The meal was great, but probably not for the price, especially considering how much other fantastic food we ate elsewhere in New York at a much lower cost.
Have you ever heard of soup dumplings? I hadn’t until I visited New York. Now they are one of my favorite foods. Officially known as Xiao Long Bao–sometimes shortened to XLB’s–these Chinese dumplings are filled with a pork meatball and a savory broth (the “soup”). We went out for soup dumplings twice at Shanghai Café Deluxe, which is widely regarded as having some of the best dumplings in the city. Our waitress could tell we were newbies and graciously showed us how to properly eat the dumplings. You hold the dumpling in a large spoon and nibble a little hole near the top to let the steam escape; then you can either slurp the soup out slowly or wait until it cools and eat the dumpling in one bite. Despite the lesson, I still managed to burn my mouth and spill soup down my shirt. The dumplings were so good, I didn’t even care. At $5 per order, soup dumplings are seriously good cheap eats. Now that I’ve had them, I’m not sure I’ll be able to live without them.
Smoked salmon is ubiquitous in Seattle, but we don’t have great lox and we certainly don’t have a smoked fish emporium like Russ & Daughters. Russ & Daughters has been selling smoked fish delicacies to New York residents since 1914. We headed there early one morning craving the most traditional of all New York breakfasts: bagel and lox. I felt like a kid in a candy store at Russ & Daughters. Smoked sable, pickled herring, chubs, they have it all! For a smoked fish lover like me, the choices were truly overwhelming. The kind gentleman working behind the counter could tell we were tourists, and he patiently walked us through our order. We each opted for plain bagels with cream cheese and their most popular lox: Norwegian Salmon. The lox was unlike any I’d had before. It literally melted in your mouth. The secret is in how they cut it. A perfect cut keeps it from being mushy or chewy. I can’t think of a better way to start the day than with a bagel and lox from Russ & Daughters.
Most Thai restaurants in Seattle feature the same limited menu of overly sweet curries and noodle dishes, completely ignoring all of the amazing regional cuisine that Thailand has to offer. I would love for Seattle to get a really great Thai restaurant that showcases some of Thailand’s less famous dishes and isn’t afraid to use exotic ingredients like fermented shrimp paste. The East Village’s Zabb Elee is a perfect example. Zabb Elee serves Issan cuisine which comes from Northeastern Thailand and borrows heavily from neighboring Laos. Issan dishes tend to be sour, salty and very spicy even by Thai standards. Sugar and coconut milk are used infrequently–you won’t find pad thai or coconut curry on the menu at an Issan restaurant. At Zabb Elee, we ordered one of the green papaya salads (they have seven kinds on the menu!), crispy fried catfish with tamarind sauce, and a side of sticky rice. Everything was good, but I especially loved the green papaya salad. It tasted very fresh and had that perfect balance between salty, sweet, sour and spicy that good Thai dishes strive for (it might have veered a bit heavier toward the spicy, but that’s no problem for me). Portland has Pok Pok, and New York has Zabb Elee–it is time for Seattle to get it’s own standout Thai restaurant.
Something else that is missing in Seattle are Halal carts. Halal carts are everywhere in Manhattan. Originally catering to hungry cab drivers, New York’s Halal carts are now extremely popular with midtown workers, tourists and late night drunks. After working up an appetite fighting the crowds at Moma, we decided to grab lunch from the Famous Halal Guys at 53rd and 6th. We split their combo platter which is comprised of turmeric rice, chopped lettuce, diced grilled chicken, gyro lamb, and pitas. This is generously drizzled with their signature white sauce and a spicy red sauce. The food was oily but delicious! The combination of cooling, tangy white sauce and hot sauce really made this dish for me. There is nothing fancy or complicated about this food. It is comforting, tasty and cheap–exactly what food from a street cart should be. Food trucks are relatively new in Seattle so perhaps it is just a matter of time before we get our first Halal Cart. One can only hope.
After falling in love with the gua bao at Chino’s, I couldn’t pass up an opportunity to try the famous pork belly buns at Momofuku. David Chang, chef and mastermind of the ever expanding Momofuku empire, has been credited with bringing pork belly buns to the forefront. Pork belly buns are showing up everywhere these days, but Chang’s are still rated among the best. We headed out for dinner at Momofuku Ssam Bar, a casual, bustling eatery featuring modern twists on Asian cuisine. Momofuku’s cocktail menu had some interesting choices. I was immediately drawn to the McKenzie Shrub made with rye, cocchi americano, pomegranate, and coconut vinegar. I love any cocktail that contains vinegar. We split an order of the pork belly buns and a seasonal pickle & kimchi platter. The pork buns lived up to the hype without question. They were fatty, salty, rich and delicious. Some restaurants go too light on the meat. Not so at Momofuku. These buns were stuffed with giant slabs of roasted pork belly and adorned simply with cucumbers, scallions and a touch of hoisin sauce. Between the pork belly buns, the unusual pickles, and the intriguing cocktail specials, Momofuku Ssam Bar is my kind of restaurant.
The most exotic food we ate in New York was at Xi’an Famous Foods. Xi’an is an ancient city in central China with its own unique cuisine. Noodles and dumplings dominate Xi’an cuisine. Due to the large Hui community, Muslim food is also common. In some ways, it is a blend of Chinese and Middle Eastern food. Xi’an Famous Foods is most well-known for their exotic lamb face salad. Not a fan of face, I chose a somewhat tamer order of cumin lamb hand-ripped noodles. Cumin isn’t a spice normally associated with Chinese cuisine, and my noodles were indeed strangely reminiscent of Mexican food. The springy, spongy hand-ripped noodles made an ideal base for the spicy, flavorful lamb. Robert ordered the spicy and tingly lamb leg salad. Emphasis on the tingly. This dish contains so much Sichuan peppercorn that it almost has a menthol flavor. If I wasn’t already familiar with the mouth numbing qualities of Sichuan peppercorns, I might have thought we were poisoned. I liked the mix of flavors in this dish but thought it could have been improved by adding more vegetables and maybe some noodles. It was a bit too heavy on the meat. Still, when you’re paying $7 a pop for such exotic foods, there isn’t much to complain about.
It might be famous and touristy but Katz’s Delicatessen is also damn good! Your first visit to Katz’s can be disorienting. Over the last 124 years, a ritual for ordering has been established. Grab a meal ticket upon entry, wait in a line to order your sandwich, tip your sandwich maker a buck, and he’ll offer a delicious slice of deli meat for you to nibble on while he finishes making your sandwich. Grab a table and then sit back and enjoy one of the best sandwiches in the city. There are many sandwiches on the menu, but we were here for one thing: the famous pastrami on rye. Robert ordered a whole sandwich, and I chose a half sandwich with a bowl of matzo ball soup. It was undeniably great. The pastrami was succulent and peppery. Sandwiches at Katz’s are piled ridiculously high with meat–they are impossible to eat politely so don’t even try. A common complaint is that there aren’t any good New York style delis on the West Coast, and I think I get it now. There certainly isn’t anything like Katz’s.
I thought Seattle had the market cornered when it comes to unusual ice cream flavors, whether it’s salted licorice ice cream from Molly Moon’s or the Elysian Stout ice cream at Bluebird. I was pleased to discover that New York has its own collection of wacky ice creams. At Momofuku Milk Bar, I couldn’t resist trying the cereal milk soft serve. Remember when you were a kid and you would drink the leftover milk at the bottom of your bowl of cereal bowl because it tasted so good? That’s the concept behind this dessert. They make it by steeping milk with caramelized corn flakes, straining it and then turning it into soft serve. This is served in cones and topped with additional corn flakes. It was milky, sweet and a bit salty. It’s a comforting dessert that reminds you of childhood. At Big Gay Ice Cream, cones come in suggestive shapes and are named things like Salty Pimp. I tried the choinkwich, an ice cream sandwich made of chocolate ice cream sandwiched between two chocolate cookies that have been smeared with bacon marmalade. The bacon layer was thin but added just the perfect hint of salty, smoky flavor–a nice pairing with the rich chocolate cookies. I may need to pick up a jar of bacon jam from Skillet so I can make my own choinkwiches this summer.
I had high hopes for the food in New York, and I am happy to say that it exceeded those expectations. One of the greatest pleasures in traveling is getting to sample foods you can’t back home. Unfortunately, when you fall in love with these foods, it can make coming home that much harder!