Best of NYC: Our Critics List Their 10 Favorite Dishes


Robert Sietsema’s Top 10

1. This doesn’t mean I’m forsaking my first love, Katz’s pastrami, but the smoked-meat sandwich at Mile End is denser, redder, and offered in a sandwich that’s just the right size for one person to eat, which means I don’t have to go around looking for someone to share it with me. Spread mustard on it and add a sour pickle, and I’m in culinary nirvana. The cute and cozy premises of this Boerum Hill newcomer is another plus. 97A Hoyt Street, Brooklyn, 718-852-7510

2. A haystack of glistening vegetables sat before me: bright green garlic chives, pungent Chinese celery, carrots, woodsy mushrooms, onions, matchsticks of fried purple taro, and onions, all of it surmounted by the snap, crackle, and pop of crispy lo mein noodles. There wasn’t a smidgen of meat, poultry, or fish anywhere to be found in the Farmer Special at Yee Kee H.K. Style. This unreconstructed empire of crunch at once telegraphs not only the poverty of a Chinese farmer’s life, but also its vegetable bounty—in a way I’ve seen nowhere else but the city’s fifth Chinatown. Did I mention it’s supremely delicious? 1232 Avenue U, Brooklyn, 718-336-2338

3. The restaurant rose like a phoenix after a devastating fire, and the food became better than ever, as if the near-death experience stimulated it to greater efforts. The pan-roasted farm chicken at Annisa from chef Anita Lo’s original menu remains the best thing: a bird—surprisingly plump compared with the desiccated specimens found elsewhere—that has undergone a subdermal stuffing of pig foot, causing the skin to shine like the face of a nervous debutante at her first ball. The bird is scented with white truffles, too, making it hopelessly rich and satisfying. 13 Barrow Street, 212-741-6699

4. One of my favorite things to eat in the world is upma, a South Indian porridge that begins with plain cream of wheat, but then gets mutated like hell by the addition of such things as black mustard seeds, curry leaves, onions, ginger, and pistachios. Imagine my excitement at discovering that upma is incorporated into a dosa at Jersey City’s all-vegetarian, mainly vegan Sapthagiri, with a wrapper made of crushed and fermented moong daal. Woo-hoo! The covering adds a grassy taste to the pesarattu upma, and the whole thing challenges your ideas of what to expect from Indian food. 804 Newark Avenue, Jersey City, New Jersey, 201-533-840

5. It was a brilliant move on the part of chef Daniel Holzman to take an Italian-American classic, the meatball hero, and make slight improvements to it, instead of transforming the fuck out of it so that it was no longer recognizable. He began by selecting really, really good bread, which yields soon after you chomp down, instead of resisting your teeth and squirting the balls out the end. He also used fresh mozzarella instead of the crap you find in most pizza parlors. The meatball hero at the Meatball Shop is memorably delicious, and enough like the original that it would pass as such with most meatball-hero aficionados—including myself. 84 Stanton Street, New York, 212-982-8895

6. It sails in to oohs and aahs around the table, a wiggly yellow dome composed of egg and cornmeal, dotted with shrimp in a refreshingly light gravy. Really, if someone just set the sautéed egg with egg at Northeast Taste Chinese Food before you at a picnic table in the park, you’d have no idea what country it came from. Take one jiggly bite and you won’t be able to stop yourself—it’s a comfort food par excellence. Northeast Taste, by the way, is my favorite of the Yellow Sea restaurants that have lately invaded Flushing’s southern end. 43-18 Main Street, Queens, 718-539-3061

7. Every once in a while, you need to eat something so hot that it blows the top of your head off. So it was with the shrimp pepper soup at Maima’s, the city’s only Liberian restaurant. Sure, the other things are great there—mainly the combinations of such well-kneaded starches as white yam and cassava, paired with rich fish, chicken, and lamb soups. These are relatively spicy, but the pepper soup outdoes them all, brick-red with chilies and bobbing with a clutch of gigundo shrimp—which should be eaten head and all. The crunch distracts you from the spiciness, which then comes charging back at you like a mad bull. 106-47 Guy R. Brewer Boulevard, Queens, 718-206-3538

8. We’ve been bombarded by burgers the past couple of years: big, two-fisted ones, tiny sliders, and ones with odd toppings. April Bloomfield’s lamb burger at the Breslin Bar & Dining Room is different in an utterly refreshing sort of way: The meat is pink and juicy, with a faint barnyard scent that you’d never mistake for beef, and the chef has sense enough to do nothing but put it on a puffy bun and provide cumin mayo alongside, in case you want to send it spinning in a Middle Eastern or a Mexican direction. But the burger is so sweet and juicy that it needs no dressing. 20 W. 29th Street, 212-679-1939

9. Chef Saul Bolton succeeded single-handedly in changing our attitudes about French charcuterie in the months after The Vanderbilt opened nearly a year ago via such succulent morsels as cumin-laced blood sausage, an assertively flavored North African merguez, duck rillettes so fresh they’re still quacking, and a house-smoked kielbasy more delicate than the ones found in Greenpoint. King of the hill here is the boudin blanc, a creamy, herbal sausage whose pale color belies a megaton of porky flavor, served with a sumptuous cabbage slaw dotted with mustard seeds. 570 Vanderbilt Avenue, Brooklyn, 718-623-0570

10. Momokawa has lain unnoticed for a long time, and if a Japanese friend hadn’t enthusiastically recommended it, I might never have eaten there. There’s no sushi, but the restaurant does offer a wealth of dishes like those served in Kyoto, situated 200 miles west of Tokyo, and once the country’s capital. Included are many obanzai, which are the home-style dishes of that city. The homemade fish cake at this Murray Hill sleeper is stunning—a hamburger-size puck of coarse-textured (almost lumpy) sea-going material, carefully browned on the outside and served with a saucer of vinegary soy sauce. You might never go back to whole fish. 157 East 28th Street, 212-684-7830

Sarah DiGregorio’s Top 10

1. Deer were once plentiful in many parts of India, and the pickled venison at newcomer Tamarind Tribeca is a riff on a classic preparation for preserving the meat. In this version, the fat chops emerge sizzling from the tandoor, utterly tender, their lean minerality enhanced by a marinade of tart pickling spices and yogurt. A sprinkle of roasted chickpea flour lends nuttiness and another level of deliciousness. 99 Hudson Street, 212-775-9000

2. It may not be a bargain, but there’s no denying that Fatty ‘Cue serves some of the most exciting, flavor-bombed food of the year. The restaurant’s signature combination of American barbecue technique and Southeast Asian seasonings finds its apotheosis in the smoked duck with red curry dipping sauce. The bird goes blackened and craggy over the fire—like Napoleons of crisp skin, juicy fat, and dark meat—and is sensational dipped in the aromatic, coconut-enriched sauce. 91 S. Sixth Street, Brooklyn,718-599-3090

3. Bhojan means “home-cooked meal,” and the restaurant’s vegetarian Gujarati thali lives up to its moniker. The stainless-steel platter holds a score of little dishes around its circumference, the middle of the plate occupied by a pile of white rice, an airy puri, and a bit of pickle. One bowl is filled with a thin, white potage of warm, spiced yogurt, a dish typical of the region. It has the consistency of water but a tangy, milky, assertive flavor; it’s best poured over rice and eaten, goopily, with your hands. Another holds a wonderful daal dhokli—lentils swimming with chewy homemade noodles. 102 Lexington Avenue, 212-213-9615

4. At Lan Sheng, a relatively new Sichuan spot on 39th Street, the glory of the menu is the Chongqing braised fish. The dish is named after its native home, a municipality near Sichuan province that Fuchsia Dunlop describes as having a “filthy magnificence.” The preparation is staggeringly generous—a huge, bubbling hot pot of chile oil, Sichuan peppercorns, leeks, Napa cabbage cooked down to silk, and delicate pieces of carp, its flesh stained orange with spice. I wish I could eat it every day. 60 West 39th Street, 212-575-8899

5. The namesake suckling pig at Danny Meyer’s new Roman restaurant, Maialino, looks exactly like a huge sheet of fried dough, bubbly-topped and golden, with only the tiny ribs emerging from one side reminding you of its animal origin. The roast is presented to the table before it gets ferried back to the kitchen to be sliced and plated with potatoes limpid with pork fat. It’s a simple meal—the only discernible seasonings are salt, pepper, and rosemary—yet it’s wonderful, one of the best roast pigs in the city, with lush meat hiding under blowsy white fat and skin so crisp you can hear people crunching it across the room. 2 Lexington Avenue, 212-777-2410

6. These are the days of a pork bun in every pot, but they’re not all created equal. This year, Eddie Huang’s Taiwanese gua bao joint Baohaus gained a following for its outrageously delicious signature steamed snacks. The best of the bunch is the Chairman Bao, which harbors a tender, sticky, thick slab of pork belly, evenly striated with lean and fat. It’s sprinkled with coarse Taiwanese red sugar, crushed peanuts, and pickled vegetable relish, and tucked into a spongy mantou wrapper. 137 Rivington Street, 646-684-3835

7. There are all sorts of oyster pancakes—eggy renditions popular in some parts of China and Southeast Asia, and the jiggly, potato-starch Taiwanese versions—but the fried Fujianese oyster pancakes are harder to find, despite the proliferation of Fujianese restaurants. So I was excited to stumble upon Red Apple Fast Food, where not only do they serve the UFO-shaped rice-flour fritters, but they also do them right, stuffed with oysters, scallions, and ground pork, and fried crisp with peanuts embedded in the crust. Grab a wax-paper bag and help yourself to as many oyster cakes as you can eat before they get cold. (They’re best straight from the fryer, and with a dollop of Sriracha.) For only 70 cents each, there’s no better snack in Sunset Park. 4817 Eighth Avenue, Brooklyn, 718-853-8811

8. A good po’boy is no longer hard to find in New York. For one of the best, head over to Cheeky Sandwiches and order the Half-and-Half: That’s half fried shrimp, half fried oysters. While you wait, listen to the sweet sound of cornmeal-battered seafood hitting hot oil. Once fried, it’s tucked into a squishy but resilient white roll with mayo, tart Louisiana-style hot sauce, pickle slices, lettuce, and tomatoes. The seafood is crusty and warm against the cool lettuce and mayo; the hot sauce and pickles give the sandwich a welcome lift. But the fat, minerally oysters and sweet shrimp dominate, as they should. It’s a superior sandwich in a year of excellent sandwiches. 35 Orchard Street

9. Cooking savory proteins in sweet caramel sauce is a common technique in Vietnam, and at Co Ba it results in the clay-pot caramel pork belly, one of the richest, most luscious dishes I’ve eaten in a long time. Chef and restaurateur Steven Duong first marinates the pork belly in fish sauce and pepper, then braises it in young coconut water, and combines it with daikon and tiny quail eggs in a simple caramel sauce. Finally, he simmers it gently for hours until the sauce is reduced to a dark, intensely flavorful sludge and the pork belly is tender and sticky. If you’re sick of pork belly, this is the antidote. 110 Ninth Avenue, 212-414-2700

10. Oddly enough, Laut is actually a good Malaysian restaurant masquerading as a screechy pan-Asian joint. So ignore Usher panting loudly over the speakers and skip over the superfluous sushi and Thai stuff in favor of the curry laksa—a rich coconut-based soup, creamy orange in color, the chile-oil-stippled surface hiding a generous pile of yellow egg noodles underneath. The pungent base of chilies, lemongrass, belacan (fermented shrimp paste), and shallots balances the sweetness of the coconut. Cubes of fried tofu sponge up the broth, while shrimp and half of a boiled egg bob alongside. 15 East 17th Street, 212-206-8989

Rebecca Marx’s Top 10

1. At first glance, the bakalao al pil pil at Txikito is just an unassuming hunk of Basque salt cod, with about the same dimensions and pearlescent hue of a bar of soap. But the simplicity of its presentation makes it that much easier to focus on what’s really important here, which is the way the fish’s buttery flesh (poached in olive oil) yields effortlessly to the fork’s slightest provocation and then slides down the throat, leaving the taste of olive oil and the sea in its wake. Salt cod has been subjected to countless preparations, but rarely has it been rendered so sensually: It’s less sea creature than sex on a plate. 240 9th Avenue, 212-242-4730

2. With his General Tso’s tofu, No. 7 Sub‘s Tyler Kord has done more to promote vegetarianism than PETA could ever dream of. Deep-fried slabs of tofu are layered with julienned carrots, arugula, broccoli mayonnaise, and caramelized onions. The crunchy-creamy tofu is more reminiscent of a controlled substance than soybeans, and it harmonizes beautifully with the sweet onions and silky mayonnaise. It’s all barely contained by a soft, almost ethereal roll that falls somewhere between a hot dog bun and a baguette. Taken together, the ingredients add up to one of the city’s best vegetarian sandwiches—actually, one of its best sandwiches, period. 1188 Broadway, 212-532-1680

3. At a time when chefs are racing to revamp beloved yet unpedigreed childhood classics, Bouchon Bakery‘s take on the Nutter Butter still occupies a class of its own. Two peanut butter cookies the diameter of a CD enclose a prodigious serving of butter, peanut butter, and confectioner’s sugar that’s been whipped together to satiny perfection. The cookies straddle the crisp-chewy divide and are embedded with oats and peanuts that lend an appealing, salty crunch. The whole thing is less sandwich cookie than a portal to long-suppressed memories of what it was like to believe the world was a good and just place. 10 Columbus Circle, 212-823-9366

4. While sausages and goulash predominate at Café Katja, equally satisfying sustenance can be found in the tiny Austrian restaurant’s herring salad. The cool flesh of the fish, which is pickled in-house, is chopped into fat pieces, swaddled in sour cream and dill, piled onto a bed of thinly sliced new potatoes, and crowned with a little clump of pickled purple onions. The whole thing is wonderfully fatty, in a rich-in-omega-3s kind of way, given nuance and clarity by the clean pop of the dill and onions. Served with a few wedges of thick, chewy rye toast, it’s not only a salad but a paean to the humble beauty of a criminally underrated fish. 79 Orchard Street, 212-219-9545

5. The ruthlessly hot summer of 2010 spawned many an ice cream sandwich, but almost none so wonderful as the strawberry-gingersnap ice cream sandwich found at the Little Buddy Biscuit Company. It’s distinguished, simply, by perfect ice cream–cookie alchemy. The sweet-spicy cookies, pebbled with chunks of crystallized ginger, are chewy but soft enough to prevent ice cream from squirting out with each bite. The strawberry ice cream, from Jane’s, in Kingston, New York, tastes like fresh cream and real fruit. Best of all, the South Slope bakery has somehow figured out how to freeze the sandwich so that both ice cream and cookie thaw at the same speed, making it both a dessert and a miracle. 635 Fifth Avenue, Brooklyn, 718-369-6355

6. Given all the hype accompanying Ben Sargent’s not-so-secret lobster roll delivery service, it’s easy to forget what made people get worked up about the Underground Lobster Pound in the first place. Until, that is, you eat one of the lobster rolls. Sargent, a/k/a Dr. Claw, gets all of the details exactly right: He butters and toasts his Pepperidge Farm bun and then does nothing but cram it full with crustacean, season it with Old Bay, and anoint it with a bit of Hellmann’s. The freckled meat is impeccably fresh, the bun shines with butter, and the whole thing is so wonderful that it may make you forget that you’re not on a stretch of Maine coastline, but in Greenpoint. 917-667-2152, Brooklyn

7. Gabrielle Hamilton’s cold spicy eggplant at Prune illustrates one of her great strengths as a chef, which is to get the hell out of the way and let the ingredients do the talking. Here, the nightshade is engaged in deep conversation with nuggets of fried salt cod and a lone hard-boiled egg. Piled onto a long plank of flatbread, the eggplant speaks of cool, silken pulp; the fish answers with savory crunch; and the eggs just go along for the ride, happy to mediate between the two. The flatbread does its part, too, providing an able vehicle for getting it all into your mouth. 54 East First Street, 212-677-6221

8. Though Mimi’s Hummus is known primarily for the magic it works on chickpeas, it also serves a kickass rendition of shakshuka, the Moroccan tomato stew with sunny-side-up eggs. At Mimi’s, it’s served in a scorching-hot cast-iron skillet, which makes the stew bubble and hiss mellifluously as you attempt to get it in your mouth. The tomato stew is spicy and fragrant with cinnamon, and the egg yolks are liquid sunshine. Mashed together and sopped up with pieces of fluffy pita, the whole thing renders the invention of eggs Benedict completely irrelevant. Plus, it’s served with a cold cucumber and tomato salad—just the thing to put out the fire. 1209 Cortelyou Road, Brooklyn,718-284-4444

9. Saganaki is another way of saying “baked or fried cheese,” which is another way of saying “inherently delicious.” At Astoria’s Agnanti Meze, the saganaki are about the size of softballs and come three to a plate, surprisingly wrapped in phyllo dough, making them one of the city’s most unapologetic gutbombs. But their brawniness belies a surprising delicacy: The dough falls away in crisp, buttery flakes, revealing an oozing core of wonderfully salty, bracingly fresh cheese. It tastes of happiness and weight gain, and is a testament to the enduring powers of hot, protein-stuffed carbohydrates. 19-06 Ditmars Boulevard, Queens, 718-545-4554

10. Sometimes the most memorable dishes are the simplest. But while Fort Defiance‘s deviled eggs may be short on menu descriptors, they’re certainly not lacking in thoughtful preparation. In addition to using the usual mayo, chef Bobby Duncan whips his yolks with Greek yogurt, which makes them even creamier and bestows a subtle tang. They’re further adulterated with Old Bay, lemon juice, and cayenne pepper, and then showered with cured mustard seeds. The crunch of the seeds provides invigorating contrast to the silky yolks, which rise from their whites like billowing storm clouds. All told, they’re eggs worth selling your soul for. 365 Van Brunt Street, Brooklyn, 347-453-6672