As Irene and I, and our friends Eli and Weena were leaving the Museum of Modern Art, we ran into a blockade of people by 53rd street. No, they weren’t waiting in line to go into the museum. No, they weren’t holding a protest. No, they weren’t having a street-side social, doing an Improv Everywhere skit, or forming a flash mob. No, they were waiting in line for the “chicken and rice” on the 53rd and 6th street Halal Cart! I’ve never seen so many people waiting in queue for street food before. While there were other Halal food vendors around the same block that had no line (and seemingly no customer, despite being open), people would rather wait 10-15 minutes in this line for the food. What was so special about this Cart? We asked a random guy in the long line.
“You’ve NEVER heard of this place?! This place is pretty famous! These guys are THE BEST!” He said. “I’m from Canada and every time I come to New York, I always make sure to eat here!”
We decided to give it a try and walked all the way to the back of the line. Ever since being in New York, I’ve tried several different Halal carts, and they are all really good. But it turns out the 53rd and 6th St. Halal Cart is extra good, with its juicy, tender chicken, fresh rice, and garlic sauce to die for. I have to admit, it was pretty good quality food, and lots of it for cheap, especially for a food cart.
It’s places like these that make me love the food culture in New York. While there is no dearth of great Michelin-rated restaurants in the city, there are also great street food and hole-in-the-wall places that locals love that embody the soul of the city, and to get a span of the culinary culture that the city has to offer, it’s important for any visitor to try these places as well.
Another great thing about New York is you can find people from all over the world here. A visit to New York is a visit to the rest of the world. Ethnic neighborhoods like Chinatown, Koreatown, Jackson Heights (Indian/Pakistani), Flushing (“Little Taipei”), Bay Ridge (“Little Palestine”), or Washington Heights (Dominican) offer the most authentic foods you can find from outside the countries which they represent. I love exploring the foods of different cultures, and New York is a great place to do that.
As a side note, if you’re an upcoming AUC student about to go to St. Maarten, I’d recommend trying the local foods of the island as well. The AUC school cafeteria is a great place to start, where the lunch ladies cook up some mean Caribbean-style curry goat, oxtail, and Johny Cakes. Check out my Restaurant Review Page for more info!
Anyway, back to New York, here are some awesome foods Irene and I have found thus far:
Being Taiwanese-American and deprived of Taiwanese foods (since I grew up in rural Georgia), I knew I had to visit Flushing, Queens, to try some awesome Taiwanese and Chinese food. Flushing was once known as “Little Taipei” for its large population of Taiwanese people, but recently has had an influx of people from different parts of mainland China. Nevertheless, Flushing is still the place to go to find some decent, authentic Taiwanese food. At the New World Mall food court in Flushing, you can find a diverse range of Taiwanese and Chinese foods. And despite being in a food court, they are pretty good. There was a place in the food court that had live lobsters and fish in a tank. You can choose a lobster and they’ll cook it up for you for $12! I can’t believe you can find something like this in a food court. I ordered the soft shell crab cooked with ginger and scallions for only $8.25. Amazing food for a great price! I also got a cold mung bean noodles with spicy chili oil, a dish native to Szechuan. It looks innocent from afar, but the chili oil hits the spot. The drink I’m holding in this picture is Bubble Milk Tea (or Pearl Milk Tea), one of the more well-known cultural exports from Taiwan. Kung Fu Tea in the New World Mall makes some awesome, creamy Bubble Milk Tea!
At the New World Mall, Irene and I also got some awesome Taiwanese street food, just like how they do it back in the motherland… Fried Stinky Tofu and Oyster Omelette! The Stinky Tofu is fermented and almost has the consistency of good, stinky cheese. For beginners, the most tolerable way to get it is fried, served with hot sauce and pickled cabbage (like in this picture). For the pros, you can get it steamed or boiled in a soup for the full stink factor. Obviously, it tastes better than it smells. Oyster Omelette is another popular Taiwanese street dish made from eggs, oysters, and tapioca flour, giving it its gooey, sticky consistency, unlike your typical western omelette.
I found this really popular place in the Flushing Mall food court (different from New World Mall) that had Taiwanese-style steak! The Flushing Mall is almost a dead mall, and probably lost its popularity after the opening of the much newer New World Mall, but this Taiwanese steak place still brings in the customers, and lots of it too (and probably most of the mall’s customers!). Lots of Taiwanese families come here to have a good steak dinner in a casual setting at an awesome price. Like most Taiwanese steak entrees, it came with an egg and numerous side dishes, like green tea, noodles, and salad. They marinated and cooked the steak with some sort of black pepper gravy, soy bean sprouts, and onions, and it was sizzling off the platter!
Easily overlooked from the street, Pocha 32 is a hidden gem in Korea town. When we finally found it, this little place was jam packed with people. Most people come here for a late night serving of Budae Jigae, a spicy, brothy boiling cauldron of everything that is both good and bad for you: spam, hot dog, beef, noodle, boe-tie pasta, kimchi, cilantro, cheese, tofu, rice cake… It was easily the best Korean jigae (stew) I’ve had before. We also got a whole squid stuffed with pork, sizzling off the plate! Another amazing dish. Highly recommended.
Irene and I went to visit Little Italy, once a bustling Italian neighborhood but is now declining. Nevertheless, it still has some good Italian restaurants, although a lot of it caters to tourists. After yelping for places to eat, we settled for a cute little pizza place called L’asso. It was the first time I tried fresh Buffalo mozzarella… super tasty and fresh. The other pizza we got had apples, asparagus, and truffle oil on it.
For dessert, the Olive Oil Gelato made my day. It was herby, sweet, and good, and it was fascinating to be able to try a familiar flavor used in a completely surprising way. The other scoop is Salted Caramel Gelato, complete with real sea salt granules.
St. Mark’s Place
For Irene’s birthday, our friends Kwasi and Vincenza took us out to a great Japanese restaurant called Yakiniku, located in St. Mark’s Place, a neighborhood that has lots of hipsters, NYU students, and great Japanese restaurants. Being traditional, they required restaurant guests to take off their shoes before entering the restaurant, and they provided special slippers for the bathroom. It’s a traditional grill-it-yourself place with marinated meats. The raw beef tongue sushi caught my eye on the menu so I had to get it. The raw beef tongue was chewy and chewy, and shall I say, chewy? I wasn’t a big fan of it, but it was an adventurous try nevertheless.
Also in St. Mark’s Place, we went to try Xi’an Famous Foods. I first heard about this place from Andrew Zimmern’s Bizarre Foods as well as Anthony Bourdain. They’re most famous for their hand-made noodles, which are some of the chewiest, yummiest that I’ve ever had. They serve Western Chinese Cuisine (food from Western China, a region with influences from the Silk Road and Middle East, hence their use of lamb, cumin and other spices not often seen in Cantonese, Peking, and other Eastern Chinese cuisines). We got two different kinds of noodle dishes as well as a lamb head salad (yes, it really does have different parts of the lamb’s head). Really good food.
Upper West Side
When you’re in New York, you gotta get a New York hot dog. Gray’s Papaya is a local favorite. You can get 2 loaded hot dogs plus a papaya drink for less than 5 bucks. Amazing! In my opinion, the hot dog is alright, but the drinks they had are pretty good. Somehow in NYC, it’s common to see hot dog places that also have papaya juice, as if they go together.
Absolute Bagel is arguably the best place in the city to get bagels. It’s a small place, but it is always packed, and the lines are often out the door. Indeed, these bagels are worth getting in line for… chewy, crispy, and freshly made. They also make their own cream cheese, which is creamy and fluffy, and comes in all different flavors. I got smoked salmon salad with my everything bagel… that stuff is amazing.
Lower East Side
I first heard about Doughnut Plant from one of my AUC classmates. Apparently, it’s considered one of the best donut shops in the country. I usually stay away from doughnuts because of its calorie count, but for this place, I made an exception to try it. The doughnuts are priced on the more expensive side, costing up to $3 or more on a single donut, but for the uniqueness and variety that you can get, it is worth trying. Irene and I got the creme brulee, carrot cake, and peanut butter and jelly donuts, and they are all very good. Our favorite was the creme brulee donut because the top of the donut is glazed with the crispy caramelized sugar coating you find on creme brulee, and inside is stuffed with creme brulee. The carrot cake donut is stuffed with cream cheese icing.
The Bronx has a large population of not just African Americans, but also Africans, and so rotating here in the Bronx, I’ve also had the opportunity to try Ghanaian food at Bognan International Corp (yes, that’s the name of the restaurant) just right around the corner from the hospital. Everything I’ve had so far at this restaurant is really good. I especially like the Okra Stew with Fufu, which is made by pounding cassava and yams and mixing it with water until it gets a dough-like consistency. People tear off pieces of the fufu and dip it in the stew to eat it. It is chewy, doughy, and very filling. I was hooked the first time I had it. Since they traditionally eat it with the hands, the restaurant gave us a big bowl of water to rinse our hands in.
A lot of Ghanaian food is really spicy, and so to “rinse down” the spice from the food I got, I ordered a ginger drink, which is made by the restaurant. Turns out it didn’t help. This drink by itself is spicy… it’s made from ginger, sugar, and black pepper!! Nevertheless, it was really good, and wakes you up.
There’s a lot of nice, big, fancy Chinese restaurants in Chinatown, but I tend to like to go to the small, jam-packed, hole-in-the-wall places, and Prosperity Dumplings is exactly this. Located on a side street in Chinatown, This place is almost as small as a big walk-in-closet, but they got 6-7 cooks in the back just working away at lightening speed to make the dumplings from scratch, from rolling dough, to stuffing them, to boiling them in the big boiler. It’s no wonder this place has people lined up all the way out the door and into the streets, blocking sidewalk traffic. Their dumplings are indeed very good, freshly made, home made, and cheap! You can get 10 dumplings for only $2 and it’s filling!
Lesson of the Day:
To understand a place isn’t just to know where things are, but also experience how people live and discover what people eat, whether from one’s own culture or from others. By being adventurous, you may find something that you really like, and have another reason to appreciate the world we’re in.