Some of the country’s finest New England clam chowder is found at the Grand Central Oyster Bar.
America can be justifiably proud of its national menu, reflecting contributions that began with the Native Americans, expanding and intertwining with the favorite foods of successive waves of immigrants. And our cuisine will continue to evolve as new dishes are introduced and we modify them for American terroir. And at some future Fourth of July picnic, it might become customary to sit down to a meal of chicken tandoori, or Senegalese cheb, or turkey mole poblano.
Looking at our list of American culinary commonplaces, you’ll see contributions from West Africans, Chinese, and Sicilians, with each dish budged in one direction or another by other groups, once it was introduced to the cuisine and had a chance to flourish. And the land’s bounty enriched and diversified even the simplest recipe from abroad. No country on earth — except perhaps China — has food as varied and delicious as our own, and July Fourth weekend always ends up being a celebration of that food.
Here, without further ado, are Our 10 Best Classic American Dishes — plus a suggestion as to where you can get a great rendition of each.
10. Bagel With Cream Cheese and Lox — The bagel was brought to the U.S. in the late 19th century by Polish Jews. About the same time dairymen in Chester, New York, invented cream cheese, an unaged cheese made according to French methods, with a curious texture and lower fat content. The lox was first brought here by Scandinavians, but was quickly adopted by Jews seeking to find a substitute for the kind of preserved fish they’d enjoyed in Eastern Europe. Put these elements together and you have a miracle of American culinary fusion. Murray’s Bagels, 500 Sixth Avenue, 212-462-2830
9. Mac and Cheese — In choice of pasta shape and cheeses, here is a dish that instantly reflects the culinary preferences of its maker. Ur-versions originated in the Caribbean, the U.K., and various spots in mainland Europe, so that nearly every Western country has its own verions of pasta-plus-cheese. Our American model is most closely based on the Southern soul-food style. Hence we recommend you try the version at Red Rooster. Covered with a bread-crumb crust, and using multiple cheeses, it’s one of the most scrumptious ones we’ve ever tasted. 310 Malcolm X Boulevard, 212-792-9001
8. Barbecued Pork Ribs — Using slow-smoking to turn fatty meats into barbecue arose spontaneously several places in 19th-century America: In the Carolinas and Georgia by pig farmers, who often smoked a whole pig at once; In northern Kentucky, where Dutch sheepherders tenderized the oldest animals by smoking them; and in Central Texas, where German shopkeepers smoked meats as they had done back in the old country in order to prepare excess freshly butchered meat for sale to ranchers and farmhands who wanted fast food. In all three traditions, pork ribs are central, the smoke-ringed common denominator of American barbecue. Hill Country Barbecue Market, 30 West 26th Street, 212-255-4544
7. Shrimp Egg Foo Yung — EFY represents one of the pinnacles of Chinese-American cooking: a magnificent puck of onions and sprouts mixed with shrimp, fried in an egg batter, smothered in brown gravy, and served over an abundance of rice cooked to creaminess. The dish may have originated as an oyster omelet in Fujian or Formosa, but was then transmitted to the town of Placerville, a California gold-mining town, where it became known as Hangtown Fry. So popular was it, that multiple version went all over the country, substituting other meats and vegetables for oysters. Farfetched? But delicious. King Food Chen, 489 Amsterdam Avenue, 212-799-8467
6. Succotash — Succotash is one of the foremost of many culinary gifts bestowed on our national cuisine by the Native Americans. The mix of fresh vegetables can vary, but almost always includes seasonal things like corn and lima beans. The version at Mitchell’s Soul Food varies, too, nor is it always available, but it’s one of the city’s finest — a side dish so diverting you’ll forget about the main dish, or, for vegetarians, one of the best main courses of the season. Call ahead to determine availability. 617 Vanderbilt Avenue, Brooklyn, 718-789-3212
5. Fried Catfish — Native to Southern creeks, muddy-tasting catfish was an African-American staple, brought to New York in the great northern migration beginning in the 1920s. Now most catfish is farm-raised, but still tastes superb when crisply fried and served with tartar sauce and hot sauce, or tendered between two slices of bread with the same condiments. The version at Pies ‘N’ Thighs is that café’s finest dish, accompanied by coleslaw, biscuits, and dill pickles. Nothing better. 166 South 4th Street, Brooklyn, 347-529-6090
4. Pizza — Delightful in its austerity, the slice purchased right from the oven at Patsy’s Pizzeria — one of the city’s first — dramatically shows the effect of the hot-burning coal oven, necessitating a thin crust, modest amount of crushed tomatoes, and the richest-tasting mozzarella imaginable. 2287 First Avenue, 212-534-9783
3. New England Clam Chowder — Bivalves played an important part in both Native American and settler life along our country’s Eastern Seaboard, so much so that Canarsie Indian settlements were built upon vast beds of oyster shells. The clam, too, holds a special place in the hearts of New Yorkers. We’re so fond of them, we often eat clams raw with just a squeeze of lemon, squish, squish. But their most perfect use, swimming in cream with cubed potatoes, is in what came to be known as New England clam chowder. Oyster Bar at Grand Central, 89 East 42nd Street, 212-490-6650
2. Hamburger — The hamburger originated in Hamburg, where it was a whole lot smaller. Here, it was first sold to homesick German sailors at Lower West Side docks in Manhattan — the bun came later. What was once a dockside snack has spawned an entire industry, and become so popular even vegetarians eat them in meat-free form. The burger at Northeast Kingdom comes on a brioche bun and sided with tater tots and a Brooklyn-made pickle. 18 Wyckoff Avenue, Brooklyn, 718-386-3864
1. Fried Chicken — The exact origin of this greatest of American dishes is hotly debated — whether it originated in southern Europe, or in North Africa — but it was carried to the coast of West Africa by Portuguese mariners (who also brought tempura to Japan at about the same time), and from thence to the New World in slave ships. It is now the cornerstone of American cooking, one of the best tests of a cook, and a dish much-copied around the world. Yafa Deli cooks up a batch periodically all day, dusted only with a small amount of flour to give the skin superior color and crispness — the same recipe carried to New York from the Carolinas nearly a century ago. 907 Fulton Street, Brooklyn, 718-789-8630