Ultra-creamy New York cheesecake may be the world’s richest dessert.
Hotbed of culinary fusion, NYC is not only a repository of cuisines from around the globe, but the place where many important dishes originated, if not by pure invention, then as uniquely compelling adaptations of things that flew in from elsewhere. Here are the city’s most important, and best-tasting, gastronomic inventions.
10. Cheesecake — This creamy, calorific dessert has been made in America since colonial times — in fact, Martha Washington recorded three cheesecake recipes in her personal cookbook — but these were usually whipped up with fresh curds, something like Italian cheesecake. The invention of the Jewish style of cheesecake depended upon two factors — the discovery of cream cheese (which occurred in the Catskills sometime in the 1870s; it later, rather absurdly, became associated with Philadelphia), and the presence of Jewish immigrants in New York City. Founded in 1950 in Downtown Brooklyn, Junior’s quickly became a famous purveyor of cheesecakes, and theirs remains the best. Junior’s, 386 Flatbush Avenue Extension, Brooklyn, 718-852-5257
9. Lobster Newberg — Ship’s captain Ben Wenberg brought a recipe for cooking lobster he’d supposedly discovered on one of his voyages to Delmonico’s in 1876, and showed it to owner Charles Delmonico. It was immediately incorporated into the menu as Lobster Wenberg, but when the proprietor and captain got into a fistfight later in the year, Delmonico changed the name of the dish to Lobster Newberg by reversing the first three letters of Wenberg (the dish is now often misspelled “Newburg”). This luscious concoction features multiple crustaceans swimming in cream, cognac, sherry, and cayenne pepper — which may indicate where Wenberg had been sailing to when he discovered the recipe (New Orleans). Delmonico’s, 56 Beaver Street, 212-509-1144
8. General Tso’s Chicken — OK, this dish frequently sucks, but you can’t deny its astonishing influence. The stir-fry of breaded chicken tidbits mired in a thick sweet sauce with a few extraneous toasted chilies is the most famous Chinese dish to have been invented in this country. It was named after 19th-century military strategist General Tso Tsung-tang, who, like Chairman Mao, was associated with the province of Hunan. The dish was first mentioned in The New York Times in 1977, and appears to have been formulated by chef Peng Jia at Peng’s, an upscale Midtown Chinese restaurant typical of the time, but he may have been inspired by an earlier dish called General Chin’s chicken that had appeared in the late ’60s during a Hunan craze in New York City. Chinese Musician, 151 Greenpoint Avenue, Brooklyn, 718-383-2413
General Chin’s chicken may have been the forerunner of General Tso, seen here as made at the Cottage (33 Irving Place, 212-505-8600).
7. Eggs Benedict — This epic dish has defined brunch for many decades, an agglomeration of poached ova and Canadian bacon on an English muffin splooged with a very French hollandaise sauce (only in New York!). It was the creation of the legendary Oscar of the Waldorf — who also invented the velvet rope as a crow control device — and first served at the Waldorf Hotel in the 1890s, supposedly with a shaved truffle on top. Since the hollandaise is often the iffiest part of the concoction, I recommend going to a French restaurant to enjoy the dish — or somewhere where the sauce is not just curdled yellow goo. Tartine, 253 West 11th Street, 212-229-2611
6. Fried Chicken and Waffles — What seems like an irrational juxtaposition of two venerable dishes (African-American bird, Dutch pastry) is actually quintessentially New Yawk. It was invented in Harlem at Wells’ Restaurant in the 1940s. Apparently, the jazz club and restaurants was busiest at 2 a.m., when the choice of whether to eat late supper or early breakfast was resolved by this combination, which makes complete sense only at that hour. But the appeal of the dish continues even though Wells’ is long gone, a brilliant marriage of sweet and savory. The biggest problem today is the waffles, which are often made from an artificially flavored mix. Stray fact: Thomas Jefferson may have brought the first waffle iron to the United States from Europe in the 1790s. Doug E.’s Fresh Chicken and Waffles, 2245 Adam Clayton Powell Boulevard, 212-368-4371
5. Manhattan Clam Chowder — The original name for Manhattan Clam Chowder was apparently Coney Island Clam Chowder, and it appears to be an Italian-American invention. Go to the sainted Randazzo’s in Sheepshead Bay and it certainly seems so, the rich red broth rife with rubbery but flavorful bivalves in an entirely Sicilian sort of way. But sample the product at the Grand Central Oyster Bar and it tastes positively Creole, with its minced onions and green peppers. You really don’t have to choose; you can eat it both places. Randazzo’s Clam Bar, 2017 Emmons Avenue, Brooklyn, 718-615-0010; Oyster Bar, Grand Central, 89 East 42nd Street, 212-490-6650
Once there were a dozen clam bars in Sheepshead Bay; now there’s only one.
4. Hamburger — The first hamburgers were reportedly served along the city’s Lower West Side docks in the 1820s to German sailors homesick for the port they came from — Hamburg, on the North Sea. These ground-meat pucks (it is not recorded whether they were first made with beef or pork) were served naked, but at some point in the years that followed, a bun was applied, making the hamburger as we know it an American phenomenon. In fact, when I first arrived in the city, old-timers still referred to them as “hamburgs” — and you can still hear that term today. We live in an explosion of hamburger love, so I’ve chosen an old-fashioned one to showcase: no brisket, foie gras, brioche bun, or exotic cheeses. JG Melon, 1291 Third Avenue, 212-744-0585
3. Pastrami and Corned Beef Sandwich — Those who arrive in New York City for the first time are often happily directed to Katz’s Deli, founded in 1888 and dating to the German (and German-Jewish) heyday of the Lower East Side. The multiplicity of beef brisket presentations is amazing in itself, but load up a sandwich of smoky pastrami and briny brisket on rye or a club roll and experience cured-meat nirvana. The pickles are free (choose a combo of half-sour, sour, and pickled green tomatoes), and you don’t need anything else except for a can of Cel-Ray soda. (That means skip the limp, greasy fries. Believe me, you don’t need the calories.) Katz’s Deli, 205 East Houston Street, 212-254-2246
2. Coal-Oven Pizza — New Yorkers have been inundated with pretentious pizza parlors that trace their pedigree to Naples (if you’re ever visited, it looks an awful lot like Brooklyn). But the pizza as we and the world know it and love it — the lush, multi-person, shareable pie — was invented in New York at Lombardi’s. Go to one of the city’s original coal-oven parlors (Patsy’s, John’s, Totonno Pizzeria Napolitano) to experience the Gotham invention in all its glory. The 200 degrees hotter these ovens burn when compared with wood makes a big difference in the texture of the crust. Don’t, whatever you do, go to the franchise locations spun off by any of these places — the product is inferior in every way. John’s Pizzeria, 278 Bleecker Street, 212-243-1680
The coal-oven pie at John’s, with sausage that comes from Faicco’s, just down Bleecker Street
1. Hot Dog — The hot dog arrived in Coney Island from either Vienna (hence, wiener) or Frankfurt (hence, frankfurter), and immediately caught on. Sold from carts, and later a storefront, by Feltman’s German Gardens, the all-beef “tube steak,” as it was facetiously called, went from popular to wildly popular when Polish-Jewish immigrant and Feltman’s employee Nathan Handwerker took the hot dog in hand and popularized it to the world. In the modern era — and partly due to hard times — the weiner has become more desirable than ever, with Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest at the center of its contemporary popularity. The natural-skinned, all-beef frank is still the city standard, while most of the country suffers through inferior, puffy, mystery-meat “ballpark” franks pulled from the refrigerator case of the supermarket. Miraculously, you can still get them whence they first disembarked. Nathan’s Famous, 1310 Surf Avenue, Brooklyn, 718-946-2705
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