A far, gentrified cry from the neighborhood it once was, the Hell’s Kitchen of today is a glossy labyrinth of condominiums and an ever-waning number of low-slung buildings and affordable dining options. Still, the area is teeming with great restaurants catering to all demographics, and with the recent addition of the Gotham West Market — which imports several white-hot chefs and restaurateurs to the far reaches of the neighborhood — migratory trust-funders looking to “explore the possibilities of The West” may soon begin popping up like mustachioed groundhogs with a penchant for Gigondas. For now, let’s celebrate the Hell’s Kitchen we have. Here are our 10 Best.
10. Saigon 9 West, 348 West 47th Street, 212-757-9813
The wild banh mi craze of the late 00’s may have died down, but we can all be thankful for the proliferation of Vietnam’s famous sandwich throughout this city. Every neighborhood deserves a good banh mi shop, and Saigon 9 West does an admirable job filling that niche in Hell’s Kitchen. The abbreviated menu is limited to four kinds of banh mi, including a ham and egg version that makes for one of the better breakfast sandwiches in town. When the weather’s nice, it’s hard to argue with plump summer rolls and smoothies in flavors like jackfruit and avocado.
9. Tulcingo del Valle, 665 Tenth Avenue, 212-262-5510
You’ll find mole done the right way at this restaurant with roots as a humble neighborhood grocery. The kitchen makes several kinds, but the poblano is worth the trip alone; it’s full-bodied and a deep chestnut brown. At lunch, towering cemitas and tortas reign supreme, and fresh juices help quell varying degrees of chili heat. Both dining rooms are sparse, but with daily specials that feature southern Mexican home cooking, there’s not a bad seat in the house.
8. Gotham West Market, 600 Eleventh Avenue, 212-582-7940
While not technically a restaurant, this grand food hall plugged into the ground floor of a monstrous Hell’s Kitchen development houses a bunch of heavy hitting operations. And it’s already received a good deal of praise despite the fact that it’s been open for less than a week. Such buzz is no doubt due to the roster of big name chefs and Brooklyn notables the operators were able to entice; Seamus Mullen, The Cannibal, and Court Street Grocers have all set up shop. Ramen fanatics can even get a taste of Ivan Orkin’s noodles before his spot debuts on Clinton Street. The traditional broths and mazemen are all in top form.
7. Mercato, 352 West 39th Street, 212-643-2000
A piece of Tuscany resides inside the modest confines of this true blue trattoria, like some inter-dimensional rift preyed upon by savvy travel agents. The kitchen is at its best when cooking pasta. Seafood linguine coated in fiery fra diavolo practically bursts with mussels, squid, shrimp, and clams; cavatelli supports gamy, piquant wild boar ragú. Settle in for an evening, sample a few Italian wines, and end your night with a caffè corretto — Sambuca-spiked espresso with a sliver of lemon peel.
6. Taboon, 773 Tenth Avenue, 212-713-0271
The flavors of the Mediterranean merge with those of the Middle East at this cozy restaurant on an industrial stretch of Tenth Avenue. Pillowy focaccia arrives at the table still warm from the oven, great on its own or perfect for dipping into hummus, baba ghanoush or a Middle Eastern cilantro and chili pepper condiment. Prices are high, but the contemporary spin on traditional flavors is a particular highlight, as in a dessert of goat cheese cheesecake with poached figs and quince marmalade.
5. Don Antonio by Starita, 309 West 50th Street, 646-719-1043
A valiant joint effort from Keste’s Roberto Caporuscio and his mentor, Italian pizza titan Antonio Starita, the main reason to visit Don Antonio is for its take on the montanara, a deep fried pizza. The golden brown round receives a topping of smoked buffalo mozzarella and tomatoes before being finished in the wood burning oven. The effect of smoky, milky cheese; fried dough; and sweetly acidic tomatoes is transcendent, the crust superbly crisp. You may be tempted by other items on the menu (many of which are perfectly satisfying), but don’t leave without trying that pie.
4. Danji, 346 West 52nd Street, 212-586-2880
Hooni Kim has come to be something of an ambassador for modern Korean food in New York, and Danji — the chef’s first restaurant — remains a worthy destination for smartly updated Korean cuisine. Spartan décor lets Kim’s bold plates take center stage, and dishes like kimchi bacon spam fried rice (for two) and cheesy rice cakes seem to perfectly encapsulate the izakaya style that the chef intended. Still, his fine dining background is readily apparent in a dish of sablefish poached with peppery daikon radish.
3. Totto Ramen, 464 West 51st Street, 212-581-0051
With a new location a mere block away from the original, Totto proves itself to be a serious player in the ramen game thanks to its velvety paitan ramen, a creamy chicken-based soup cooked in much the same way as traditional pork bone Hakata-style broth. We enjoy the nutty, saline tang of Totto’s miso ramen, which adds a mound of ground pork and koji — a culture essential to the creation of miso — to the mix.
2. Esca, 402 West 43rd Street, 212-564-7272
Think of chef David Pasternack as a burlier, locally-raised Eric Ripert. With Esca, Mario Batali and Joe Bastianich tapped Pasternack to help introduce Italian crudo, a preparation of fish similar to marinated sashimi, to the city. The linguine with clams is superlative, but as is the current state of things, you’ll pay a king’s ransom for the freshest catch. Look out for whole fish specials; the wait staff has its deboning down to a science.
1. Larb Ubol, 480 Ninth Avenue, 212-564-1822
If you experience a bit of culinary déjà vu dining at Larb Ubol, chances are it’s because chef Ratchanee Sumpatboon, formerly of Zabb Elee, has brought her addictive, stinging Isaan fare westward. Diners tuck into crab fried rice, tender pork tossed with sautéed morning glory, and astringent papaya salads amid homespun design accents like colorful plaid patterns and oversize paper umbrellas (leading up to Halloween, a giant paper spider took up the front dining room’s main wall). Best of all are the 10 different variations of larb, a spicy minced meat salad teeming with punchy Thai herbs strewn through piles of shredded grilled catfish, diced mushrooms, chopped duck, pork liver, and more. As temperatures start to drop, there’s hardly a better cure for the chills than a bowl of hot, sour tom zab soup loaded with chunks of pork leg.