Looking very much like a prison entrance, the door to Penn Station beckons.
Let’s face it, Penn Station is never going to be a foodie destination. The hallways are too thronged, the smells too rancid, the eateries too narrow, with tables too filthy. Yet in this great dung heap of a railway terminal there are jewels to be found. We focused on things that are small, cheap, and easy to eat while walking rapidly.
What about this place? Doesn’t look too promising …
Some of these things might be classified as snacks, while others constitute full meals. All cost less than you’d expect to pay in a place where the consumer is squeezed — quite literally, in fact — as throngs that might double as football hooligans press forward trying to figure out what track their train is going to land on. Who invented this crazy system anyway?
The sheer number of restaurants, bars, and cafés astonishes: 20 on the Amtrak level, one in the New Jersey Transit quadrant, and a whopping 38 opportunities to dine on the Long Island Rail Road level. Below is our ranked list of the very best stuff we found to eat. A surprising proportion of the victuals are vegetarian or even vegan, and these have been marked as such — though healthfulness was not really a primary consideration.
10. Pretzel Dog at Aunt Annie’s — Occupying stalls and kiosks, there must be five of these places on both main levels of the station, specializing in pretzel dough repurposed in strange ways. The pretzel dog (which looks kinda like a mutant pig foot) is classy — smeared with mustard, it could compete with any corn dog in town. Amtrak & LIRR levels
9. Peanut Butter and Jelly Sandwich at Chickpea — This might seem like a plain choice for a list of this sort, but it’s unlikely that your mother could make a better PB&J: fresh whole-wheat bread, smooth peanut butter, and grape jelly, with no recourse to anything fancy. At $2.50, the price is right for a grab-and-go. Vegan, LIRR level
8. Cheddar & Bacon Gourmet Fries at Charley’s Grilled Subs — For $2.79, the quantity of real crumbled bacon alone is amazing, and the skin-on fries better than they ought to be in a grease pit like this. What you think of the bright yellow “cheese food product” is up to you, but we consider it fundamentally lubricating, and expect the massive trans fats it contains to be eventually exonerated by nutritionists. LIRR level
7. Green Tea Vegetable Roll at Penn Sushi — You don’t want to diddle with raw fish in a lower-end sushi emporium (even though it looks pretty good here). Penn Sushi offers such an appealing collection of vegetarian rolls, you don’t have to worry about the freshness or sustainability of the fish. The green tea roll ($5) comes with a schmear of green-tea paste, which adds a subtle flavor (though we suspect it’s really there mainly for its alleged antioxidant properties). Vegan, Amtrak level
6. Steak Hard-Shell Taco at Moe’s Southwest Grill — Though it doesn’t look it, this mini Manhattan franchise towers way above Taco Bell, aiming just below Dos Toros in quality. Brushed with spicy green tomatillo sauce, the steak tidbits are tasty, the curls of mild cheddar abundant, and the hot sauce hot enough for nearly anyone in this exemplary hard-shell taco. Amtrak and LIRR levels
5. Everything Flagel at Zaro’s Bread Basket — Zaro’s is a decent chain bakery, much better than Hot & Crusty (the name suggests a prostitute with venereal disease). Looking like a piece of pulled-up pavement, the flagel — a flattened bagel — is one of Zaro’s proudest productions. Toasted, split, and smeared with butter, its savory appeal is undeniable ($2.25). Vegetarian, Amtrak level
4. Minestrone at Chickpea — This local chain dabbles in too many forms of “healthy” food, spreading itself way too thin. The soups, however, are exemplary, including this minestrone, which has quantitatively more vegetables and noodles than broth. Dredging, identifying, and counting its components can be half the fun. Vegan, Amtrak and LIRR levels
3. Fresh Mozzarella on Herbed Focaccia at Le Bon Café — At only $3.50, this filling sandwich offers features usually found only in more expensive models — including pickled peppers, sun-dried tomatoes soaked in olive oil, pesto, and fresh basil. But the cheese remains the center of attention — bouncy, moist, disarmingly white, and tasting like it was made earlier in the day in Granny’s kitchen. Vegetarian, LIRR level
2. Curried Goat at Island Dine — In the midst of all the franchise crap, who’d expect an authentic Jamaican eatery, flogging patties, rice ‘n’ peas, fried plantains, steamed cabbage, and a handful of main courses? At $6, this feed is the most expensive in our rundown, but also nearly the best, and the okra that comes as one of your side options knocks it over the fence. LIRR level
1. Grandma Slice at Rosa’s Pizza — Pizza has ever been the city’s cheapest and most portable meal, and there are a dozen places at Penn Station to get a slice to take with you on the train. Most of them suck, but Rosa’s is an actual pizzeria, as if whisked by some rough magic from the far side of Brooklyn. The grandma pie utilizes fresh mozzarella; a zippy tomato sauce, which is mainly on top of the cheese, upside-down-Sicilian style; and a mouth-zapping strew of raw garlic further enlivens this unexpectedly great treat ($3). Vegetarian, LIRR level
The masses will be fed!