Our list of 99 Essential Restaurants® in Brooklyn includes all kinds of establishments, from fine-dining temples to bakeries to pizzerias to noodle joints. And at 39 of these places, you can eat an entire meal while barely making a dent in your wallet. Here’s your guide to the cheap-eats haunts on our list — 39 Essential Restaurants where you can dine for $10 or less.
Ample Hills Creamery, 623 Vanderbilt Avenue, Brooklyn, 347-240-3926; 305 Nevins Street, Brooklyn, 347-725-4061
Sunday to Thursday noon to 10 p.m., Friday and Saturday noon to 11 p.m
Before husband-and-wife team Brian Smith and Jackie Cuscina opened their Prospect Heights ice cream parlor Ample Hills Creamery, Smith spent months touring ice cream shops around the city and then New Jersey and Long Island, seeking a gap in the market that he could fill. He soon realized that no shop was making ice cream in-house from beginning to end, and that the idea of parlor-as-gathering-place had gone missing from the landscape. He and Cuscina had thrown ice cream socials with homemade ice cream for years, so they were certain they could deliver on that first identified niche. They ramped up to a pushcart and then a storefront and garnered a cult following of frozen-treat lovers from all over the city, who flock to the shop for wacky flavors like Salted Crack Caramel — a gooey blend of salted butter caramel ice cream and nubs of cookie made with saltines — and Gather ‘Round the Campfire, a smoky take on a s’more. That the lines persist even in winter is testament to Smith and Cuscina’s fulfillment of the second part of their goal; they’ve constructed a collective home away from home for their neighbors, who assemble for birthday parties or just after-dinner treats. Ample Hills Creamery has been so successful in its original location that the couple opened a second, much larger establishment in Gowanus in 2014, from which they supply a small fleet of carts and package ice cream in pints for a few local shops.
Ba Xuyên, 4222 Eighth Avenue, Brooklyn, 718-633-6601
For more than a decade, petite Borough Park sandwich shop Ba Xuyên has cobbled together some of the city’s finest bánh mì sandwiches. Walk past heated and refrigerated cases holding appetizers, such as spring rolls and cassava cakes made with silkworms, to the back counter. Unlike Manhattan’s well-regarded Vietnamese sandwich shops, which conceal their work behind closed doors, the cooks here make each sandwich to order in full view of customers. The French-inspired concoction starts with a perfect baguette, chewy and soft with a sturdy crust. Toppings run the gamut — from sardines with chile sauce and butter to dried, shredded chicken to pig products of all stripes: thick slabs of ham, gamy pâté and head cheese, barbecued loin, spongy meatballs. But the key to this shop’s success lies in its proportions; Ba Xuyên loads each sandwich with handfuls of pickled carrots and daikon radish, fresh cucumber spears, and cilantro. Bonus: Vietnamese iced coffee often succumbs to a deluge of condensed milk, but the crew at Ba Xuyên balances the creamy java with an even hand.
Bagel Hole, 400 Seventh Avenue, Brooklyn, 718-788-4014
Like its name, the interior space of Bagel Hole in Brooklyn’s nebulous South Slope neighborhood isn’t immediately appealing. But the namesake product sure is. In fact, it’s one of the best wheels of baked dough in all of Kings County. What makes these bagels so praiseworthy that even New York’s mayor has weighed in? Why, it’s the masterful contrast between crisp shell and chewy interior — the elusive characteristic that transforms pedestrian bread roll into regional delicacy. Getting there requires technical wizardry and uncompromising freshness. Bagel Hole may have opened in 1985, but bagels here are made the old-fashioned way: They’re hand-rolled, they’re boiled before baking, and they are never served more than an hour removed from their time in the oven. You walk in and smell the quality. You see it on the steamed windows. Ten standard varieties are all priced at a buck; raisin and egg bagels warrant a nickel more. Superior specimens demand an exceptional schmear, and Bagel Hole delivers with an assortment of homemade spreads. The lox and lox spread are worthy, but nothing beats the whitefish: gentle washes of brine and umami delivered with a smooth, melt-in-your-mouth texture. Just don’t expect to be pampered. Plowing through a devout and hungry customer base requires unapologetic efficiency. Service can be curt, and you might have to yell out your order. You might note that the place possesses nary an appliance with which to toast your bagel. But as any New Yorker knows, bagels are meant to be enjoyed fresh from the oven.
Bark Hot Dogs, 474 Bergen Street, Brooklyn, 718-789-1939
Enterprising Brooklyn chefs have applied their fine-dining training to all sorts of casual concepts, but not many would deign to take on the lowly hot dog. Joshua Sharkey made upgrading the frank — and by extension American fast food — his mission, opening Bark Hot Dogs in Park Slope in 2009. Sharkey sources his ingredients from local farmers, and his pork-and-beef dogs come from a craft sausage maker upstate. Each link is basted in lard butter, and you can have yours topped with Nueske’s bacon and Grafton cheddar from Vermont, or Angus beef chili, and then dress the thing with everything from Heinz ketchup to habanero hot sauce to locally made sauerkraut and relishes built from scratch. Bark also offers burgers, fries, salads, sides, and chicken wings (organic, of course), plus shakes made with local ice cream and dairy. Can’t do pork? Bark offers all-beef dogs, hold the lard butter. Vegetarian? Get your veggie dog roasted in olive oil, and wash it down with a Sixpoint, which is the only brew that pours on draft. This is junk food for a new generation, one that frets over its carbon footprint and sucks down green juice.
Bien Cuit, 120 Smith Street, Brooklyn, 718-852-0200
Bread isn’t what it used to be. Over the past century and a half, bakers dispensed with freshly milled flour and introduced commercial yeasts, significantly altering the loaves coming out of the oven. Now, though, some bakers are returning to traditional processes, and their bread is better for it. See, for example, Bien Cuit. When chef Zachary Golper opened his Smith Street storefront with his wife, Kate Wheatcroft, in 2011, he was unimpressed with the flour he was sourcing from far away, and quickly found a farm upstate that could provide him with whole grains. While those first locavore loaves were baking, the aroma hit him. The scent of the bread was so breathtaking, it solidified his belief in the superiority of well-milled wheat paired with local yeast. He now uses a slow fermentation process with painstakingly sourced grains, resulting in finished products with less starch and deeper, more nuanced flavors. We, happily, get to eat the results of his experiments. You can’t go wrong with anything coming from this Cobble Hill counter, from the breakfast pastries (arrive early for the almond croissants) to the seasonally changing desserts (like tres leches bûche de Noël). But don’t walk away without the bread, which is some of the best in all of the city. Try the miche, which uses a blend of three rye and three wheat flours and is slowly aged for 68 hours. Or have a sandwich, built with ingredients as carefully sourced as the flour.
Brennan & Carr, 3432 Nostrand Avenue, Brooklyn, 718-646-9559
There’s no greater measure of success than crowds and longevity. Brennan & Carr, Gravesend’s perennial king of dipped sandwiches, boasts both. The low-slung brick building that has served the borough’s hungriest carnivores for more than 75 years looks stuck in time, a better fit amid the farmland that used to surround it than the paved roads that flank it now. A small wooden sign advertises “hot beef sandwiches,” which arrive at your table saturated in a murky jus shimmering with liquid fat. Soggy and leaking, it’s not the prettiest sandwich, but the flavor payoff of concentrated bovine musk more than compensates. Though you’ll inevitably be confronted by a barely held-together kaiser roll, resist the urge to use a knife and fork. Making a mess is part of the plan, as essential to the experience as slurping is to ramen. Eddie Sullivan, whose grandmother was a waitress here in the 1940s, runs the show now. He took over from his father, a retired cop whose fellow boys in blue still stop in for a dose of nostalgia. Most regulars simply sit down and wait for their orders to appear, occasionally placing last-minute requests for cheese fries or cups of Manhattan clam chowder. Look around and you’ll also likely see a Gargiulo burger or two. Credit for this delicacy goes to the Russo brothers of classic Coney Island Italian restaurant Gargiulo’s, who first plunked a helping of roast beef onto their cheeseburgers before dipping them in jus. It was a secret order for nearly 30 years, until Mr. Sullivan decided to share this dastardly mash-up with the public.
Brooklyn Farmacy & Soda Fountain, 513 Henry Street, Brooklyn, 718-522-6260
The Platonic ideal of its 1950s kind, Brooklyn Farmacy & Soda Fountain has been mixing up egg creams in a restored apothecary on Henry Street since 2010. “My brother lived in the building,” says co-owner Gia Giasullo. “And he became fascinated with the long-abandoned space. It was so beautiful, with tin ceilings and penny tiles. The place presented the idea — because soda fountains originated in pharmacies — and it became our dream.” Perched on barstools or gathered around antique tables lined with apothecary drawers (with vintage pill packets still inside), customers young and old listen to the jitterbug and dig into sundaes so over the top and gorgeous it’s almost a shame to eat them. There’s the “Cookie Monster,” bedecked with blue sprinkles and chocolate chip cookies, or the “Mr. Potato Head,” made with peanut butter, caramel sauce, and crushed North Fork potato chips. “We made it as a Father’s Day special, but it’s never been taken off the menu,” Giasullo says of the latter. “My favorite is the ‘Sundae of Broken Dreams,'” she adds. “We created it to use up crushed pretzel logs. They’re such a proud thing, you can’t serve them broken, but the sundae turns them into a celebration.” Sodas are made in-house with small-batch seasonal fruit syrups, mixed to order into nostalgic classics like the “Cherry Lime Rickey.” And egg creams — made with Fox’s U-Bet chocolate syrup, of course, says Giasullo — are a popular choice. “We wanted them to be back in the culinary conversation,” says the owner. “Now we have nine-year-olds ordering them at the counter!”
Café “At Your Mother-in-Law”, 8611 19th Avenue, Brooklyn, 718-234-1940; 3071 Brighton 4th Street, Brooklyn, 718-942-4088
Elza Kan grew up in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, before settling in Brooklyn in 2003 to open her first restaurant, whose Russian signage translates to “At Your Mother-in-Law” (the English signage reads “Eddie Fancy Foods,” a switch from “Elza Fancy Foods” that occurred two years ago, after Kan’s grandson Eddie passed away). Luckily, the Koryo-Saram women (Kan’s family members) who run the show here eschew the stereotype of mothers-in-law — they’re incredibly friendly. The result of a forced migration from Russia under the Stalin regime, Korean-Uzbek food pulls elements from both cuisines to derive flavors at once familiar and unique. Standard Uzbek dishes like plov — a lamb-filled, simmered rice pilaf — and bulbous manti dumplings join a vibrant array of cold and warm Korean salads available by the pound. Go for one of the hye preparations, which marinates eggplant, beef tripe, or chewy, cured chunks of tilapia in chile-spiked vinegar. While you won’t find bibimbap or bulgogi on the menu, salmon and soy soups employ just the right amount of fermented zing. Chicken cooked under a brick doesn’t exactly resemble the kind you find at a rustic trattoria; here it’s served smothered in sweet chile sauce, crisp and reminiscent of the Korean fried birds that took the city by storm a few years ago. Chicken wings get a similar (though saltier) glaze, hidden under a mess of red and green peppers and chopped cilantro. There’s only one dessert, but it’s a doozy: chak-chak, a cake of fried noodles bound with honey that tastes like a subdued funnel cake.
Café Dushanbe, 1788 Sheepshead Bay Road, Brooklyn, 718-676-9404
Among South Brooklyn’s numerous Uzbek restaurants, Sheepshead Bay’s Café Dushanbe stands out for its superlative renditions of native standards like rice pilaf and crusty samsa (dough pockets stuffed with meat or vegetables). It’s also the only place in New York — and one of the few places outside of Central Asia — where you can sample dishes from Tajikistan, the landlocked nation that borders Uzbekistan, China, and Kyrgyzstan. One of its national dishes, qurutob, arrives at the table in a hubcap-size wooden bowl bearing a Matterhorn-shaped mound of braised lamb, sweet peppers, and herbs. Underneath you’ll find a deliciously soggy mess of fatir, a flatbread, which softens in boiled yogurt sauce. Round out your meal with cold salads made from vegetables like radishes and cucumbers tossed with yogurt, or meats including sliced boiled tongue with horseradish and sweet fried onions. Kebabs sizzle away over charcoal, while tabaka chickens served with sour plum sauce fry in cast iron. The kitchen even takes inspiration from French cooking, sautéing shiitake, oyster, and button mushrooms for a side dish and serving beef bourguignon in a thick red-wine gravy. Sop up it and other delectable sauces with puffy Tajik non, a bread that looks like an oversize bialy filled with melted shallots.
Café Glechik, 1655 Sheepshead Bay Road, Brooklyn, 718-332-2414
Of the vast and varied dumplings available to diners in this city, vareniki and pelmeni — the doughy product of Russian and Ukrainian kitchens — are among the hardest to get right; perfect specimens are both hearty and delicate. At Café Glechik, the Brighton Beach café Vadim Tesler opened in 1998, the Eastern European dumplings are right, and they crowd every table. Their skins thin, they come stuffed with meats both red and white, and vegetables like cabbage and potatoes. Sometimes they swim in butter, and they’re always served with a sauceboat of sour cream on the side. Even after a dough-pocket-filled meal, save room for dessert iterations filled with sour cherries or sweet cheese. Other menu highlights include holodets, a meat jelly, and hearty soups like green borscht with rice and eggs. Porridge-like kulesh, a millet and potato stew, eats like a cross between oatmeal and mashed potatoes. Heady braises like stuffed cabbage sitting in paprika-tinted butter, or the beef- and prune-studded “Odessa,” fill deep serving platters large enough to share. With so much starch and lip-glossing fat at play, find respite in cups of the homemade fruit punch called compote, a macerated mix of cherries, apples, and pears. Tesler’s grandmother and great-grandmother were popular caterers in his hometown of Odessa. At Glechik he honors his family’s history while carving out a space of his own here in New York.
Cholula Deli, 22 Wyckoff Avenue, Brooklyn, 718-417-0941; Cholulita, 888 Broadway, Brooklyn, 347-435-0813; Cholula Deli Grocery, 1481 Myrtle Avenue, Brooklyn, 718-497-4982
Cholula Deli is the archetypal Bushwick taqueria, or, more accurately, family of taquerias — there are three of them. Angelo Tapia and his family opened the first on Myrtle Avenue more than a decade ago. It started as a grocery selling Mexican ingredients like locally made tortillas, paletas (fruit ice pops), and bundles of cilantro, and it sprouted a taqueria not too long after. Tapia opened the second location on Wyckoff in 2008 and a third on Broadway shortly after that. All of the Cholulas now operate as grocery stores, with deli cases, dry goods, and kitchens turning out classic Mexican: tacos, tortas, huaraches, cemitas, and stews with rice and beans. Pork, in all its guises, is particularly good here — look for it in carne enchilada stained a deep orange, as al pastor with flecks of pineapple, as humble carnitas, and as chorizo perfumed with cinnamon. The Cholulas are true neighborhood institutions, multifaceted hubs to pick up toilet paper and a milky coffee, sit with a plate of guacamole and a book, or treat a cheap date.
The Commodore, 366 Metropolitan Avenue, Brooklyn, 718-218-7632
Five years strong, The Commodore remains a vital hub in food-focused, restaurant-saturated Williamsburg. Cheers is a tired analogy, but it’s a good one for this local drinking hole, which succeeds in shooting past dive-bar aspirations of beer-and-shot combos, drunken flirting, and cheap, greasy food. Stephen Tanner — who did time at other neighborhood staples such as Pies ‘n’ Thighs, Egg, and Diner — puts out a menu that’s an all-hits list. Even if you stray from your regular order for green-chile pozole or seasonal vegetables, disappointment is unlikely. And when you can’t decide between the superlative nachos, the painfully spicy hot fish, the cheeseburger pinned together with a paper drink umbrella, or the fried-chicken platter (three crunchy thighs lashed with black pepper and served with sweet vinegar and buttery biscuits), you may as well order one of each and call in reinforcements — or ask for another round of Schlitz. With maroon banquettes, dark wood paneling, Road House on loop, and a taxidermied fish hanging on one wall, it’s a bit like your crummy uncle Skip’s basement bachelor lair, but with exceedingly better blended piña coladas. Sweet, boozy, crowned with a maraschino cherry, and finished with a long float of amaretto, the drink makes for an excellent dessert that will knock you on your ass.
Defonte’s Sandwich Shop, 379 Columbia Street, Brooklyn, 718-625-8052
A first trip to Defonte’s Sandwich Shop can feel slightly intimidating — here are counter workers with thick Brooklyn accents, working briskly and managing the crowd by slapping an order on the counter and then asking, loudly, if they can help the next person. It’s up to you to determine whether you’re next; your fellow patrons don’t exactly form an orderly line. And most of them seem to have known exactly what they want before they walked through the door: a carton of meatballs for this woman; a hot roast-beef sandwich with fried eggplant for that man. This saves them from reading the menu plus the handwritten items on bits of paper taped around the joint. Many people, you’ll soon notice, are ordering the potato and egg, which piles skilleted bits of both ingredients plus mozzarella between two halves of a hero. You can spot newcomers because they order their sandwiches large — a mistake unless you plan to feed a family or want something to take home. Most neighborhood regulars take their meals to go, but some stand at the counters, taking in old photos of celebrities while mopping their faces with piles of thin napkins. It’s not hard to imagine dockworkers doing something similar decades ago. Defonte’s is a multi-generation family operation. Nick Defonte, an Italian immigrant, paid $100 to buy the business in 1922. Back then it was a longshoreman hangout in Red Hook, a corner storefront that sold basic sundries, where workers would sit and play cards while awaiting a job assignment or to cap off a shift. For today’s regulars, who work in nearby warehouses and at the artisan businesses that now call Red Hook home, Defonte’s offers a glimpse of this neighborhood’s past — and a bite of a once prevalent lunchtime tradition that’s fast disappearing.
Dough, 448 Lafayette Avenue, Brooklyn, 347-533-7544
How good can a doughnut be? March yourself into Dough to find out, and enjoy a few moments of slack-jawed incomprehension as you chew a yeasty, salty-sweet dulce de leche, or a seasonal treat like bittersweet chocolate with Earl Grey or a doughnut coated in tart, blood-orange frosting. Sweets maven Fany Gerson — whose wildly popular La Newyorkina vends the Mexican frozen pops called paletas — launched Dough at the Brooklyn Flea after months of experimenting with her recipe. She sold her sticky breakfast pastries to a line that would grow every week until she finally landed a small storefront in a quiet section of Bedford-Stuyvesant in 2010. From there she disburses a dozen or so glazed and filled doughnuts at a time — some of them new experiments inspired by whatever global flavor Gerson has recently become fixated on, and all of them baked and finished throughout the day — plus doughnut holes and French-press coffee. In the summer you can occasionally find kids mowing down doughnut sundaes outside the front door, and you should join them: The only thing better than these doughnuts is these doughnuts with ice cream. Dough recently sprouted a satellite location in Manhattan, but it’s worth making the trek to this remote outpost where it all began. Regulars include longtime Bed-Stuy residents, who buy by the dozen and make it as far as the door, if they’re lucky, before digging into the box.
Emily’s Pork Store, 426 Graham Avenue, Brooklyn, 718-383-7216
Walk into Emily’s Pork Store in the historically Italian neighborhood of East Williamsburg, and you’re likely to find owner Gennaro “Jerry” Aliperti playing butcher, sandwich composer, and jokester to customers and friends. Emily’s is a true locals’ place — Aliperti says about 85 percent of his business comes from regulars. This is a specialty store from another time, and it remains committed to old traditions and high standards. Aliperti’s uncle Frank opened the shop in 1974, naming it after his wife. When Aliperti began working here at age thirteen, his first job was stocking the wooden shelves with canned Italian products. He soon learned to make sausages and to butcher. This is still a neighborhood meeting place, and you’ll hear lightning-fast Italian spoken as you scan a menu that has changed very little over 41 years. Here’s a helpful hint: Emily’s makes the best Italian sandwiches in Brooklyn. Choose one of two bread selections — both made by Aliperti’s cousin at Napoli Bakery just down the street on Metropolitan Avenue — from a center shelf and hand it to Aliperti. Regulars do this as soon as they enter the shop, and they always choose (correctly) the crusty French-style baguette over the thicker sub-style roll. Skip the rudimentary sandwich board and take a few minutes to peruse the specialty cheeses and meats. Once you’ve ogled the soppressata, mortadella, prosciutto cotto, and wine-soaked umbriaco, get Aliperti’s seasoned opinion on what’s best and just go for it. Perhaps it’s the house-made salami, ham, and provolone with fresh roasted sweet peppers, or the sliced rare roast beef, made fresh daily, with jus and marinated peppers. Or you might like some fresh roast pork and maybe a little bresaola (top round that has been salted and dried) with Jerry’s homemade mozzarella. Everything is sliced to order, and everything is priced far below the New York mean.
Ferdinando’s Focacceria, 151 Union Street, Brooklyn, 718-855-1545
Inhale the same scent of warm bread and sweet garlic that locals have been enjoying inside Ferdinando’s Focacceria for more than 110 years. “Nothing’s changed,” says Francesco (“call me Frank, everyone does”) Buffa. “You make the food. People like the food. Why would you change?” The restaurant is seriously old-school, with brown walls covered in black-and-white photos, Sinatra on loop, and red sauce. It’s determinedly not fancy. Buffa has been in charge for almost half a century. “My father-in-law taught me the recipes,” he says. “Everything comes under my nose.” Hearty sandwiches made with freshly baked bread entice a lunchtime crowd, while at dinner those in the know order melt-in-the-mouth meatballs, arancina blanketed in sweet tomato sauce, and a range of exceptional Sicilian specialties. Don’t miss the panelle, a fried chickpea pastry served with fresh ricotta, or the freshly made burrata, the perfect partner to smoky grilled eggplant. Pasta con sarde is a house favorite made with sardines, wild fennel, pine nuts, raisins, and a saffron sauce. Wine is “red or white. Imported. What do you like? I’ll get you a glass,” says Buffa. Save room if you can for a house-made cannoli — among the best in the city. This is a meal almost outside time, generous and warm, served the way it always has been, with passion and pride.
Fort Defiance (breakfast and lunch), 365 Van Brunt Street, Brooklyn, 347-453-6672
If you haven’t spent time in the dockside community of Red Hook, Fort Defiance is an excellent place to begin your acquaintance with the neighborhood. Here locals gather for coffee and breakfast sandwiches in the morning, and cocktails and burgers at night. It’s like an old café or diner where you’d see the same faces day after day — only made current with thoughtful dishes, careful sourcing, and excellent drinks. The staff and crowd give a nice overview of what this neighborhood is like: close-knit, friendly, and more laid-back than the rest of New York. Writer and bartender St. John Frizell opened Fort Defiance in 2009, rolling out an eatery that was part bar, part café, and open all day, every day. He brought in eggs and produce from Pennsylvania, and he picked up his meat and bread from a local butcher and baker. Dishes are straightforward, especially at breakfast and lunch, when you can choose from classics like huevos rancheros, a turkey club, and a cult-favorite muffuletta, a tribute to the time Frizell spent in New Orleans. At night you’re likely to find a skirt steak, a whole roasted fish, and, scattered through salads and appetizers, seasonal vegetables — unless you come on Thursday’s “Tiki Night,” or on Monday, which is burger night. (The former features specially priced Polynesian food and drinks while the latter flaunts a fat, ground-chuck patty topped with grilled onions and Gruyère if you’d like, or bacon and eggs.) Any time after 3 p.m., follow the crowd’s lead and begin with some oysters and at least one of Frizell’s cocktails. He makes an excellent martini (and breakfast martini, if you like to booze before noon), a perfect Irish coffee, and a number of original creations well worth sipping. In 2012 Fort Defiance was nearly wiped off the map by Hurricane Sandy. Faced with feet of water in its dining room, a lesser establishment would have folded. But Frizell was so determined to return to feeding the neighborhood that, with help from the community, he rebuilt in a month. Fort Defiance is nothing if not a labor of love.
Four & Twenty Blackbirds, 439 Third Avenue, Brooklyn, 718-499-2917
Sisters Emily and Melissa Elsen opened Four & Twenty Blackbirds five years ago (at the height of the cupcake era, you might recall) with one clear goal: to fill the gap in this city’s pie offerings. Their aim was to create delicious handmade pastries with fresh, seasonal fruit, just like Grandma used to make. Specifically, their grandma: The sisters were born into a restaurant family, and growing up they’d watch their grandmother roll out crusts. In 2010 the Elsens made their debut in the nascent arts community in Gowanus, giving the neighborhood a place to meet, work, or relax over a slice of pie and a cup of locally roasted coffee. As for that pie, the sisters don’t strive to reinvent the wheel, preferring to concentrate on combining classic flavors that complement one another. The menu changes according to what’s around, save for some mainstays offered all the time: salted caramel apple, salty honey, and black bottom oat, a poor man’s pecan variation with oats and a dark-chocolate ganache. The Blackbirds formula drew a legion of fans, and the operation has grown substantially — the sisters now run a full-service café and coffee shop, Pie at the Library, inside the Brooklyn Public Library.
Glady’s, 788 Franklin Avenue, Brooklyn, 718-622-0249
Although he made a name for himself with his roving Morris Grilled Cheese truck and its highbrow sandwiches, Michael Jacober wanted to do something special for a brick-and-mortar restaurant. Pivoting from the original New American sandwich-heavy menu he started with, the Per Se vet rebooted, ditching the things-between-bread formula that had worked so well in the past. Inspired by his historically Caribbean neighborhood, he now serves West Indian food in a cheerful, aquamarine dining room. The area is gentrifying, and the remade Glady’s along with it, but Jacober and his team have taken pains to represent the cuisine in earnest, and the community has responded with zeal. The kitchen imports fresh green wood from Jamaica to slow-cook sumptuous jerk pork and smoky chicken, both priced under $10 and fit for sharing. Lobster’s a worthy splurge thanks to the hearth it’s cooked in. Pepper shrimp come bathed in piquant oil, and smoked sausage eats almost as voluptuously as rich goat curry. Sides clock in at $3 for plates like lacquered sweet plantains, rice and peas, and oblong cornbread fritters called festivals. Drinks maven Shannon Mustipher has assembled a rum selection that’s one of the best in the borough, if not the city. Even with available reserve pours like Samaroli Caribbean rum, the frozen drinks steal the show. They come in flavors like “Dark ‘N’ Stormy” or the seasonal “Mauby Toddy,” a chilly take on a winter warmer with allspice-infused bourbon and mauby bark, a bitter Caribbean root. In offering elevated comfort food to Caribbean expats at affordable prices, Jacober and Glady’s honor the neighborhood. They deserve no less from us.
Hand-Pull Noodle and Dumpling House, 7201 18th Avenue, Brooklyn, 718-232-6191
Historically, Bensonhurst was known for its large population of first- and second-generation Italian immigrants. But like the rest of the borough (and city of New York), the only constant is that it’s always in flux. The area is now home to multifarious ethnic communities as well as stalwarts of the old guard, a mix that lends itself to excellent diversity in dining options. For proof, head to 18th Avenue, where you’ll find a hodgepodge assortment of Chinese and Italian eateries and shops. Among them — and just a few doors down from a 40-year-old ravioli shop — sits Hand Pull Noodle and Dumpling House, an ideal example of the neighborhood’s new Fujian roots. Since 2008 the unassuming automat has been stretching and stuffing dough for a steady following of adoring crowds. Its namesake items are some of the best around. Dumplings, steamed or fried, are chock-full of fragrant pork; noodles are pulled thin, then stir-fried or served in aromatic broth. Flavor combinations of the latter run from an Americanized spicy buffalo wing to a traditional combo of beef, beef tendon, tripe, pork chop, and egg.
The Islands, 803 Washington Avenue, Brooklyn, 718-398-3575
Since lifelong friends Shawn Letchford and Marilyn Reid opened The Islands, a cabana-size Caribbean restaurant on the border of two Heights (Crown and Prospect) in 2001, they’ve seen the restaurant’s narrow storefront mobbed with customers. This is mostly a take-out affair, but come early or stick around long enough, and you might just snag a seat in the snug lofted dining area, where you’ll share space with West Indian expats, neighbors, and savvy jerk-heads. Diners spoon Reid and Letchford’s rich, murky jerk sauce, thick with allspice and chile heat, over chicken, tender leg of lamb, shrimp, and soft, pliant roti. The meats carry a whisper of smoky char; the flatbread perfumes all four tables with brine thanks to a grind of reconstituted salt cod in the dough. Another popular order finds prawns smothered in a heavy coconut “calypso” cream sauce. No matter what you ask for, supplement your meal with green bananas and dumplings and thick bricks of macaroni and cheese. Quench your thirst with homemade sorrel, a magenta elixir made from hibiscus, or bring something a little stronger — this little oasis is graciously BYOB.
Karczma, 136 Greenpoint Avenue, Brooklyn, 718-349-1744
Located on a wide busy street in the ever-changing Greenpoint, Karczma represents a mix of the old and new segments of this neighborhood. The menu reflects the predilections of the area’s long-entrenched Polish population and the restaurant has the feel of a place that has been here forever. But it actually opened in 2007, when Urszula and Slawek Letowski teamed with chef Krzysztof Drzewiecki, a former Nobu line cook who hails from Poznan, Poland. Karczma’s wooden decor and waitresses in Polish folk dresses lend an Epcot-like sheen to the space, but beneath the wagon-wheel chandeliers, you’ll find some of the best authentic Polish food in town: standards like crisp, hubcap-size potato pancakes; stuffed cabbage topped with tomato sauce; and, every few weeks, more obscure offerings like sauerkraut soup and fried veal liver with apples and onions. Order a Polish beer with your meal and, if you’re lucky, take in some live music — a touch that, like the excellent service, makes this place even more lovable.
Kashkar Cafe, 1141 Brighton Beach Avenue, Brooklyn, 718-743-3832
You can thank owner Khasiyat Sabitova — whose family emigrated to New York from China by way of Uzbekistan in the 1960s — for introducing the United States to Uyghur cuisine. The boldly spiced food comes from the Turkic people whose ancestors settled across Central Asia, primarily in Xinjiang, China, an autonomous area that borders Russia and Afghanistan. Noodles and lamb, cooked in numerous ways (and often together) feature heavily at Sabitova’s Kashkar Cafe in Brighton Beach, perfumed with spices like cumin, peppercorns, and garlic. The menu splits its offerings between Uyghur and Uzbek fare, offering platters of thin-skinned dumplings called manty and juicy kebabs skewered onto steel rapiers. Acquaint yourself with lagman noodles, stir-fried with onions and peppers or served in a gamy broth with carrots. Hand pulling yields a pudgy, uneven pasta with feisty chew. Sip locally made Chersi sodas, virgin Russian bubbly that comes in flavors like bubblegum and tarragon. The restaurant’s bright-orange signage stands out on its South Brooklyn thoroughfare, and inside, colorful woven curtains and hanging beads spruce up an otherwise understated room. Despite this and the occasional music video blasting on TV, service takes on a personal tone. You’re reminded that above all, this is a family restaurant.
M Shanghai Bistro & Garden, 292 Grand Street, Brooklyn, 718-384-9300
There was once a time, before Williamsburg was Williamsburg (hell, before Williamsburg was Bushwick), when the neighborhood had few condominiums, even fewer brunch patios, and nary a baby stroller. If you wanted a truly transcendent meal, you had your choice of maybe two or three restaurants. And if you were smart, you chose M Shanghai Bistro & Garden. Flash forward to the present, and M’s (as it’s known to locals) should still be near the top of your Williamsburg dining checklist. Opened and still operated by May Liu as an homage to her grandmother’s Shanghainese cooking, M’s has cultivated a cultlike following. Classic dishes — salt-and-pepper shrimp, kung pao chicken, the thickest lo mein noodles you’ll ever see — continue to inspire good-natured debate among Liu’s devoted clientele. Typically, these arguments over which entrée is best will occur over a second (or third) order of juicy pork buns, for this is a dish upon which most diners can find common ground: Few people who have called Williamsburg home will admit to trying a better soup dumpling than Liu’s.
Moldova, 1827 Coney Island Avenue, Brooklyn, 718-998-2827
Between Romania and Ukraine lies Moldova, a modest, landlocked Eastern European republic with a knack for winemaking — and a few thousand expats who live in NYC. For those curious about his home country’s cuisine, Radu Panfil created Moldova, the restaurant, which he opened in the summer of 2012 on Coney Island Avenue in Midwood. Though his intention was to build a “casa mare” — a kind of grand banquet hall or meeting room — for Moldovans to celebrate their culture and history while indulging in rib-sticking Balkan fare, the rest of the city took notice. Indigenous mamaliga, a cornmeal porridge that forms the base of several starchy small plates and side dishes, alone justifies the trip. Boiled, formed into orbs, and fried, the fritters hide chunks of soft bacon and feta cheese. Start with cold cuts and house-made pickles — lusciously tender veal tongue takes a proper lashing from horseradish sauce — then turn your attention to grilled mititei pork sausages covered in sautéed peas and onions. Main courses are hefty and include crisp chunks of fried pork neck, whole grilled trout, and rabbit smothered in white gravy. End your meal with sour-cherry crepes or baba neagra, a burnt sour-milk cake flavored with sour cherries.
Nathan’s Famous, 1310 Surf Avenue, Brooklyn, 800-628-4267
“Nathan Handwerker” may sound like the name of a very specific kind of entertainer, but this particular Polish expat introduced New York to the joy of wieners (wait) in 1916, when he and wife Ida launched Coney Island landmark Nathan’s Famous. Remarkably, the restaurant stayed in the hands of the Handwerker family until 1996, after which it became an international fast food chain with a world-renowned eating competition. You’ll still find the least diluted version of the brand in Brooklyn, and nearly a century and millions of hot dogs later, the iconic stand serves as a benchmark for processed-meat cookery. The all-beef hot dogs break apart with an aurally pleasing snap thanks to natural casings, and you can have yours slathered in chili, cheese, or peppers and onions. The fryers yield golden-brown corn dogs and stubby wedges of browned, crinkle-cut fries. The flagship’s post-Sandy rebuild included the addition of a raw bar — an initial feature of the restaurant that was axed in the 1950s, we’ll have you know — so you can now celebrate summer with the briny pop of clams to go with your tube steak. That makes for a seriously fab surf-and-turf with inimitable New York terroir.
Ocean View Cafe, 290 Brighton Beach Avenue, Brooklyn, 718-332-1900
Ocean View Café is a longtime Brighton Beach mainstay, a corner kitchen that revels in its breezy, greasy-spoon milieu. Except here you find dishes like a caesar salad topped with meaty swatches of smoked eel — a logical aquatic bedfellow for the anchovies in the recipe’s signature dressing. Hearty and homey Eastern European standards — beef stroganoff, stuffed cabbage, veal rack submerged in mahogany gravy — reign supreme. Top-notch borscht, the Ukrainian version green with sorrel, the Russian rendition red with beets and served cold in warm weather, join pelmeni and vareniki, paunchy dumplings filled with ground meats, potato, or sour cherries. Sip cups of the fruit punch known as compote, or swig neon-green tarragon soda that tastes of anise. In contrast to the melting pot of pan-Soviet cuisines on the main menu, desserts look to Italy, with offerings like tiramisu and tartufo and crêpes and cakes to round out the assortment. Ocean View has a relaxed vibe; TVs buzz in the background, mixing with catchy pop songs to form a media-fueled white noise. In summer, expect the occasional long wait: Although owner Nicholai Ivanov’s modest respite doesn’t boast actual ocean views, the crowds still find their way to his tables from Brighton Beach a few blocks away.
OddFellows Ice Cream Co., 175 Kent Avenue, Brooklyn, 347-599-0556
Sam Mason’s post-wd~50 career has seen the former pastry chef delving into savory territory at Tailor before decamping to Brooklyn to own a bar, start a badass mayonnaise company, and, now, scoop adventurous ice cream flavors for the people. Mason’s balance of playfulness and edge sure hasn’t blunted — at OddFellows Ice Cream Co. he doles out a mix of scoop shop classics and daring flavor profiles. Butterscotch takes a hit from earthy, salty, fermented miso bolstered by chunks of sweet cherries. A sweet-and-savory master, Mason stocks his cold cases with an ever-changing roster of ten flavors — ice creams like miso cherry, extra-virgin olive oil, milk chocolate with pretzels and peanut butter, and manchego-pineapple-thyme ice cream, not to mention raspberry pink peppercorn sorbet. Listed on the menu under specials you can find caramelized-onion ice cream covered in sea salt, and raisin caramel with walnut topping. The chef gets similarly whimsical with the shop’s sundaes (caramel corn, anyone?). In a nod to soda jerks of old, staffers wear snazzy aprons and paper caps — though even the vintage duds feel fresh when the person wearing them is handing over a scoop of creamy, frozen foie gras.
Peppa’s Jerk Chicken, 738 Flatbush Avenue, Brooklyn, 646-683-6012
Two decades ago Gavin “Peppa” Hussey introduced jerk to central Brooklyn as part of a two-man operation called Danny and Pepper, run from a stall adjoining a Flatbush Avenue fishmonger. When the pair parted ways ten years ago, Hussey moved down the street to peddle his smoky wares at Peppa’s Jerk Chicken, which since has become a social hub. (The crowded takeout joint is festooned with flyers and postcards advertising local dance parties.) The kitchen bathes birds in vinegar before coating them in a heady array of spices including ginger, cinnamon, allspice, and scotch bonnet peppers. Those mouth-tingling chiles pervade the chicken’s dry rub and a pungent, netherworldly sauce that doesn’t let up on the heat. The flow of customers likewise rarely abates; the spice-craving hordes congregate late into the night, clamoring for jerk chicken, escovitch fish, and goat and shrimp curries. Ignore your roti yearnings in favor of festivals, cylinders of fried dough that do a fine job soaking up Hussey’s marvelous sauce. After the pepper pummeling, douse your taste buds in homemade lemonade or a bottle of tropical juice, available in flavors like soursop and sorrel.
Peter Pan Donut & Pastry Shop, 727 Manhattan Avenue, Brooklyn, 718-389-3676
Peter Pan Donut & Pastry Shop was established in the then predominantly Polish neighborhood of Greenpoint more than six decades ago, when the Dodgers still called Brooklyn home. It would be hard to fathom the shop existing anywhere else in the city. It’s a neighborhood spot that locals hold dear, a place that new residents go as a rite of passage, and a tasty destination for those not lucky enough to live close by. Here owners Christos and Donna Siafakas, along with their son Peter, turn out about twenty flavors of doughnuts using recipes handed down from the original owners. The varieties are unfussy and run the gamut from sour cream to chocolate to cake and sugar to toasted coconut. The best seller is the red velvet doughnut, fashioned after the classic Southern cake. “When it gets a little warmer outside, we slice them open and fill ’em with cherry amaretto ice cream,” Donna Siafakas tells the Voice. “They’re really good.” Indeed they are. Peter Pan also serves a fine egg sandwich on a fresh-baked bagel or poppy seed roll, not to mention filled éclairs, cinnamon buns, and crullers. People come as much for the atmosphere as for the food, posting up on stools at the S-shape counter with a newspaper while staffers dressed in I Love Lucy-esque green-and-pink dresses serve them coffee and pastries. Hit the place at 10:30 a.m. if you want to see the gathering of regulars. (A morning trip also ensures that your favorite doughnut flavor won’t have run out.)
Puebla Mini Market, 39-08 Fifth Avenue, Brooklyn, 718-435-3326
Most of Sunset Park’s Mexican restaurants line Fifth Avenue south of the park, but Puebla Mini Market is a jump north. You’ll know you’re in the right place when you see the huge sign attached to the building, which conveniently tells you exactly what you should order: TORTAS. Don Pepe is the mastermind behind the varieties of Mexican sandwich here; his creations number 40 (and counting). All tortas start with beans, avocado, tomato, and onion, and the ingredients pile up from there. Somewhat untraditionally, the cooks load the sandwiches onto a type of panini press; the double-sided heat condenses the creations into well-toasted packages. For all of their layers, these tortas are surprisingly tidy, striated and dense as tectonic plates. The juice counter at the front specializes in various healthful blends of fruits and vegetables. You might need the juiced beet, celery, and pineapple para la depresión that comes with polishing off an entire torta by yourself.
Robicelli’s, 9009 Fifth Avenue, Brooklyn, 917-509-6048
In 2008 Allison and Matt Robicelli began selling what they call their “working-class pastries” at the DeKalb Market and other outlets throughout NYC. They garnered a passionate following, and soon it came time for them to open a storefront of their own. And so the South Brooklyn natives picked an address in their lifelong neighborhood, Bay Ridge. Thanks to their sophisticated twists on ubiquitous desserts, Robicelli’s draws a regular audience not just from its own neighborhood, but of the many New Yorkers willing to brave the R train, plus pastry hounds from New Jersey and Connecticut, too. They come in droves for whimsical desserts like Nutelasagna, a combination of pasta, cannoli cream, Nutella, roasted hazelnuts, and chopped chocolate with toasted Italian meringue on top. The couple’s following may range far and wide, but the Robicellis’ real ambition is to foster community and create something similar to gathering places they loved while they were growing up. At Robicelli’s, it’s not uncommon to see young parents wiping frosting off their kids’ faces, bus drivers eating banana pudding pie, and old ladies snacking on scones. Rich pastries aren’t exclusionary, after all.
Rocco’s Italian Cafeteria, 6408 Fort Hamilton Parkway, Brooklyn, 718-833-2109
“Just like Mama used to make” is one of those idioms people abuse, but at this Dyker Heights seafood-centric Italian restaurant, Mom practically wrote the recipe book. One week after opening Rocco’s Italian Cafeteria, owner Rocco Bruno faced a nightmare obstacle when his chef unexpectedly quit. His mother stepped in and schooled the kitchen crew, and the rest is history — nearly twenty years of it. Crunchy, greaseless, and sliced into thick rings, the squid earns its place on the neon sign that runs along the top of the restaurant’s façade. Dip the pieces into herb-rich marinara or a similar version amped up with chile peppers. A long steam table of antipasti stretches across the length of the dining room. Shuffle down the line and make your decision fast. When things get busy, ordering with a sense of purpose might just get you an extra scoop of marinated octopus salad. Choosing from the rest of the Southern Italian menu yields a treasure trove of red-sauce classics with sides to match, in particular the flawless vegetable sautés. Make a beeline for the restaurant on Fridays, when the cooks transform whole squid into edible taxidermy, stuffing them with seasoned breadcrumbs.
SCRATCHbread, 1069 Bedford Avenue, Brooklyn, 917-803-5773
In 2009, Matthew Tilden began trading bread for workspace in a pizza shop, which allowed him to start slinging loaves to some of the best businesses across the city. He didn’t have an endgame, but he knew he wanted to build a brand. His goal was simple: Make great product in a fun, hospitable environment. At that he has succeeded. Since 2010 SCRATCHbread, his (newly expanded) Bed-Stuy storefront, has churned out an array of wood-oven-baked goods, sandwiches, flatbreads, and grits, plus a large board of build-your-own options. Our advice is to resist the temptation to customize and instead let Tilden take care of business. His grits are like a cross-cultural experience: Soft eggs sit atop a creamy pile of the Southern staple, kale basil pesto and smoked-almond romesco add a fresh element, and crisp bacon finishes it off. On the rare occasions on which he’s run out of the ground corn, he has nearly seen revolts. “I was never a baker,” Tilden insists. “I’ve been a savory chef my whole career. I don’t even like sugar, believe it or not. I just like to make bread and pastry.” That’s plenty good enough for us.
Tacos Matamoros, 4508 Fifth Avenue, Brooklyn, 718-871-7627
It’s impossible to talk about the Mexican culinary scene of Sunset Park without mentioning Tacos Matamoros, one of the longstanding fixtures of Fifth Avenue. The restaurant is a neighborhood stalwart large enough to accommodate families celebrating quinceañeras, and it holds a liquor license for those for whom margaritas are essential. The menu is ample, with pages of offerings that include antojitos, tacos of every stripe, surf-and-turf platters, guacamole, and flan. The food is crowd-pleasing, a fact that’s evident in the glee that spills over from nearby tables. It’s also the only place in the neighborhood where you can get both a coctel de camarón and a cocktail and dine while perusing the bootleg DVDs and long-stemmed roses hawked by roving sellers. Three years ago Matamoros opened a smaller second location several blocks south on Fifth.
Taqueria Izucar, 1503 Myrtle Avenue, Brooklyn, 718-456-0569
Most closets are bigger than Taqueria Izucar, one of the best taquerias in Brooklyn — if not the entire five boroughs. Suadero is the game here: It’s a cut similar to brisket, marinated with vinegar, garlic, and oregano, then braised until tender and finally crisped on the flattop and double-wrapped in tiny tortillas with a smattering of onion and cilantro. Taqueria Izucar is unpredictable. Sometimes there’s al pastor spinning on the tromo top, sometimes not. Occasionally the kitchen decides to brew up tepache, the fermented beverage made from pineapple husks. And not infrequently the storefront is closed when you need a taco most. Taqueria Izucar rolls on its own time. But when you do pick up one of those coaster-size tortillas exhaling steam, the suadero hot with a striking minerality and the salsas bright and spicy with green and red chiles, everything else is forgotten.
Tom’s Restaurant, 782 Washington Avenue, Brooklyn, 718-636-9738
A Prospect Heights institution since 1936 and owned by members of the same family since the 1940s, Tom’s Restaurant is part diner, part interactive museum exhibit. It’s decorated with stained glass, faux flowers, and American flags. Find an archetypal chocolate egg cream, made in five easy steps with milk, seltzer, and chocolate syrup (always Fox’s U-Bet) stirred with vigor and topped with whipped cream. Long lines form during primetime brunching hours, but the waitstaff will reward your patience with gratis orange slices, sips of coffee, and breakfast meats. Jim Kokotas (nephew of Gus Vlahavas, the devoted owner who worked in the restaurant from age nine up until his death in November 2014) has run the show since 2009, expanding the business to include a branch on the Coney Island boardwalk. In recent years the menu has swelled to fit the neighborhood’s changing demographic, with specials like sweet potato latkes and spicy chicken or beef burritos. Tom’s remains a community restaurant at heart, sustaining multiple generations of families on mammoth platters of meat loaf with eggs and potato hash, and fluffy lemon-ricotta pancakes rife with citrus tang and served with a trio of flavored butters.
Toné Café, 265 Neptune Avenue, Brooklyn, 718-332-8082
All hail the khachapuri, Georgia’s cheesy, yeasty gift to the world. Its four-ingredient dough is shaped into numerous forms and stuffed to remarkable effect with cheese, eggs, and butter. Since 1997 Toné Café (originally known as Georgian Bread) has produced incomparable versions of this gut-bomb: one a flattened, pie-shaped concoction; the other molded into the shape of a boat and filled with bubbling farmer cheese gratin. For years the vase-shape toné oven was cared for and tended to by a grizzled man named Badri, whose elongated loaves of shoti flatbread were as crusty as the best French baguettes. He has since retired, and the new owners have entrusted Lasha Chikhladze to carry the flour-covered torch. The breads form the basis of enthralling Georgian meals featuring sumptuous kebabs grilled over charcoal, or khinkali, fat dumplings filled with a mixture of beef and pork. With everything made to order, expect to wait. You will be rewarded with Georgian home cooking and the best Georgian bread in Brooklyn. The dairy and meat onslaught notwithstanding, vegans can dig into pkhali: minced vegetable salads stirred with ground walnuts, cilantro, and pomegranate seeds (the spinach version is a standout). Mashed beans get a similar spice mixture for lobio, which the kitchen serves on its own as a side dish or stuffed inside khachapuri.
Tortilleria Mexicana Los Hermanos, 271 Starr Street, Brooklyn, 718-456-3422
In an area once dubbed the Tortilla Triangle for the quantity of tortillerias in operation, Tortilleria Mexicana Los Hermanos is the most hospitable. The low-slung warehouse on Starr Street is a model for growth — the tortilla factory initially churned out hot corn disks for the neighborhood, and then the Lazaro family started hawking tacos from a cart out in front. That operation eventually became implanted in a corner of the factory, and then turned into a health-department-certified sit-down establishment. The tortilleria still produces thousands of tortillas a day, permeating the block with a warm, toasted-corn fragrance. Place your order at the counter, then take a seat inside the restaurant, where Mexican families dine next to the hungover, tattooed creative class and the occasional Manhattanite who makes the trip on Anthony Bourdain’s word. Los Hermanos offers tacos, huaraches, and tostadas, and you can choose your favorite filling or topping. We like the cecina (salted beef), and the chorizo, which the kitchen cooks up with cubes of potato. Most plates come clobbered with shredded lettuce, cold tomatoes, and sour cream, but you can request that your tacos skip the trip through the salad bar. The tortillas are, of course, always fresh. Buy a package before heading home.