These chicken chile guajillo enchiladas at Downtown Bakery are every bit as good — and spicy — as they look.
The East Village may be the city’s most eclectic and rewarding dining destination, though this aspect of the neighborhood is sometimes eclipsed by its bars and cocktail lounges. You can dine cheap or you can go upscale — the chief challenge of this new ranking was to identify places that fall all along the continuum of price, but still represent great value and superior taste. Compare it with our 2010 list.
10. Downtown Bakery — This former Italian bakery turned Mexican over a decade ago, supplementing its torpedo-shaped breads and sweet rolls with pan dulce and antojitos (tacos, enchiladas, burritos, etc.). Gradually the menu expanded, the baked goods faded away, and what we now have is one of the best and cheapest Mexican restaurants in town. 69 First Avenue, 212-254-1757
9. Dirt Candy — A valentine to vegetarians, this strictly no-flesh spot turns out startlingly good assemblages of veggies in architectural platings that feature little splashes of brilliant color and well-spaced geometric elements. Why no one did this before is the big question. The only downside is the name. 430 East 9th Street, 212-228-7732
8. Back Forty — The sophomore project of Peter Hoffman — New York’s early answer to Alice Waters — strikes all the expected local and sustainable notes, with a meatiness added that’s absent from, say, Chez Panisse. The Sunday night pig roasts have become legendary. 190 Avenue B, 212-388-1990
7. Zabb Elee — Those who despaired of real Isaan Thai food ever arriving in the East Village were thrilled by the appearance of this offshoot of a favorite Jackson Heights café. And those who like their food mouth-searingly spicy were also mightily pleased. 75 Second Avenue, 212-505-9533
6. Vandaag — The Northern European and Scandinavian menu of this distro (“Dutch bistro”?) came as a surprise when the place opened, and so did its cocktail menu centered on genever, the antecedent of gin. But who can argue with bitterballen — a compact oxtail sphere crumb-coated and deep-fried? 103 Second Avenue, 212-253-0470
5. South Brooklyn Pizza — While effete pizza parlors are concocting tiny, expensive, and semi-burned pies in the style of Naples, this tiny stall — barely a restaurant — emulates Dom DeMarco, the pizza king of Brooklyn, making a superior version of the neighborhood pie, with extra oil, extra herbs, a shockingly good tomato sauce, and a last-minute sprinkle of Parmesan. 122 First Avenue, 212-533-2879
4. Il Buco Alimentari and Vineria — This recent spin-off of the long-running Il Buco is so superior to its sire that one is stuck with all sorts of genealogical questions. The offspring might have been shipped stone by stone from Tuscany, the dishes simple and olive-oil-soaked, tasting of the sun on endless fields of sunflowers, grapes, and gnarled olive trees, including the fried bunny shown above. 53 Great Jones Street, 212-837-2622
3. Ramen Misoya — Really, when this place hit town near the corner of St. Marks and Second Avenue, most pedestrians just scratched their heads — until the place filled up with Japanese expats, and we all realized something special was going on. The menu is based on regional variations of miso, and there’s always a wild-card special or two. And yes, this place is better overall than Ippudo, and cheaper, too. 129 Second Avenue, 212-677-4825
2. Momofuku Ssäm Bar — Despite its strange turn in the direction of duck, many of the old lovable standbys remain intact: the fatty pork buns smeared with hoisin, the whole pork shoulder mobbed with raw oysters, and country hams in multiple variations. But the duck, too, deserves praise, served in invented formats that might just catch on elsewhere. And did I mention the desserts? 207 Second Avenue, 212-254-3500
1. Prune — This tiny jewel of a dried or stewed fruit remains the E.V.’s most distinguished restaurant, as its chef became famous, published, and philandered. The menu is always a surprise, with a discreet sprinkling of seemingly random ingredients that harmonize much better than you’d ever imagine, and always a dish or two to delight. Go at lunch, when you can actually find a seat. 54 East 1st Street, 212-677-6221
Marrow bones with toast is a Prune classic.
Note: Goat Town, Porsena, and Porchetta were not considered for this list, because I’m friends with the chefs. Other than those, all restaurants from the north side of Houston to the south side of 14th Street, and from Lafayette/Fourth Avenue to the East River, were considered for this piece.
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