Eater critic Robert Sietsema runs down his top picks for everyday staples.
Let us now sing the praises of plebeian food — the things you eat cheaply day after day, the food that brings delight to your everyday life in small doses. In this case, the burgers, soups, pizzas, and tacos that constitute our vernacular fare. Here are the five best that I ate in each category, meals and snacks I can still remember as being unexpectedly great.
Hamburger at Joe Jr. — My friend and colleague Nick Solares introduced me to this amazing burger, bursting with juices because it was ground from well-fatted beef that very morning. Yes, the burger is served in a diner, but it’s a thousand times better than any other diner burger you ever ate. 167 3rd Avenue, (212) 473-5150.
Double Bacon Cheeseburger at Perry St — As part of the wonderful three-course $29 lunch special at Jean-Georges and Cedric Vongerichten’s Perry St, you can select among many effete-sounding entrées. Perhaps most commendable is the burger — two patties cooked to crunchiness, plenty of cheese, boutique bacon, iceberg lettuce, something that resembles Thousand Island dressing, and homemade pickles. Zoom! 176 Perry Street, (212) 352-1900.
Cheeseburger at River Styx — No sexy description on the menu draws you to this main course; it was recommended to me by word of mouth. What makes it the best burger of the year? Well, the beef is very coarsely ground, giving it the luxuriance of steak, the cheese applied with a light hand so as not to interfere with the beefy savor, and the bun the most perfect bun ever to grace a burger. 21 Greenpoint Avenue, Brooklyn, (718) 383-8833.
Blues Burger at Emmett’s — Though Emmett’s Chicago-style deep-dish pan pizza falls short of great, the blues burger was an impressive contribution to New York burgerology: an ample patty stuffed with blue cheese, which cascades out when you bite into the thing. The toupee of caramelized onions add the moisture that was lost when the patty was cooked well-done — a necessity for making the melted-cheese phenomenon happen. 50 MacDougal Street, (917) 639-3571.
Adobo Ramen Burger at Lumpia Shack Snackbar — The lengthy name of the place suggests a larger premises than the tiny storefront in Greenwich Village turns out to be, but this unlikely venue recently started peddling a Philippine version — made with pork belly — of Keizo Shimamoto’s ramen burger, and was it ever good! 50 Greenwich Avenue, (917) 475-1621.
Roast Duck and Wonton Soup With Noodles at Big Hing Wong — Old-fashioned Cantonese duck shops are now few and far between in Chinatown, but the wholesome goodness of wonton soup, ramped up with lo mein and crisp-skinned duck in a perfect, fiercely boiled broth is unbeatable. Nothing better to clear the sinuses on a cold day. 300 Grand Street, (212) 925-1662.
Chilate de Pollo at Taqueria Tehuitzingo — For lovers of spicy food, the Mexican soup called chilate de pollo is always a good bet, doubly so at this new and more comfortable incarnation of the popular 10th Avenue hole-in-the-wall Tehuitzingo, where the fiery potage gets loaded down with all sorts of vegetables, adding extra flavor and nourishment absent from many versions of the hearty soup. 578 9th Avenue, (646) 707-3916.
Tamashii Ramen at Tamashii Ramen — No list of top soups would be complete without at least one ramen — the soup success story of the decade. While many ramen mavens think their mission is to wildly innovate, here we go back to basics with the bedrock of the phenomenon: a Tokyo-style shio (sea salt) broth, a couple of beautiful slices of pork, a handful of green onions, and a boiled egg. Nothing could be tastier or more elemental. 2905 Broadway, Queens, (718) 278-5888.
Lao Chicken Soup at Lan Larb Soho — In a city with too little Laotian food, this soup served at a new Thai café came as a revelation: tart from its pungent tamarind broth, benefiting from an unusual protein component of chicken and pickled river fish, and bobbing with golf-ball-size Thai eggplants. Refreshing and complex, the soup suggests an entire cuisine. 227 Centre Street, (646) 895-9264.
Caldo de Pata at Ecuatoriana — The tonsoku broth used in some of our best ramen (Ippudo’s among them) is justifiably celebrated, but when you substitute cow for pig, the broth gets even gooier and gluier. Such is the case with the cow foot soup at this Hamilton Heights Ecuadorian cafe, in which big wads of colloidal foot flesh — it’s supposedly good for your complexion — is heavily scented with garlic and cilantro, making a soup that’s delicious but somewhat challenging to eat. 1685 Amsterdam Avenue, (212) 491-4626.
Sicilian Slice at Giovanni’s — This old-guard Woodside pizzeria has recently become half-Mexican, and the Mexican fare (especially the breakfasts) are quite good, but the older pizza menu remains in place, and the Sicilian slice offered thereon is one of the best slices I tried all year — and I tried lots. The ample crust has just enough oil in it, the cheese of fine quality for a neighborhood pizzeria, and the sauce herby without being overly so. The slice handily fulfills the purpose of such a square: to pleasingly furnish an entire meal at a discount price. 45-59 47th Street, Queens, (718) 609-1630.
Margherita Pizza at Juliana’s — When Grimaldi’s moved next door not too long ago, Patsy Grimaldi opened a new pizzeria with the old coal oven and redubbed the place Juliana’s. And the pies that began flying therefrom are every bit as good as those of the other, more-ancient coal-oven pizzerias in town. 19 Old Fulton Street, Brooklyn, (718) 596-6700.
Plain Cheese Slice at Joe’s — Yeah, Joe cloned himself last year up on 14th Street, and the plain cheese slice remains a paragon of its type at both places — of the humble neighborhood variety, with a nice sauce slightly on the sweet side, good cheese, and most important of all a perfect crust. Pizza is a type of bread, after all. 7 Carmine Street, (212) 366-1182.
Guido Brooklyn Pizza at Houdini Kitchen Laboratory — A pie with crumbled Italian sausage and broccoli rabe — a distinctly Apulian pairing — is a great idea, nowhere carried out better than in Queens, at this nutsy pizzeria in a former brewery just across the border from Bushwick in Ridgewood. Will this be the hipster successor to Roberta’s? 1563 Decatur Street, Queens, (718) 456-3770.
Plain Cheese Slice at Koronet — How come nobody thought of it before? Pump the slice full of steroids and voila! A single Neapolitan slice at this Morningside institution favored by Columbia students swells in size and becomes an entire meal. 15 inches long from crust to tip, this beauty takes at least five minutes to eat, and it is delicious. 2848 Broadway, (212) 222-1566.
Suadero from Taqueria Izucar — Best taco of the year was found in Bushwick right on busy Myrtle Avenue. The suadero (veal brisket) was tender and mild, oozing fat like good barbecue, and garnished with the Pueblan standard toppings of cilantro and chopped raw onions. I can still taste it. Spoon on the green salsa! 1503 Myrtle Avenue, Brooklyn, (718) 456-0569.
Fish Tempura at Empellon Taqueria — While Empellon Al Pastor hogged the spotlight, Stupak was perfecting his taco game at the Empellon Taqueria, his earliest Mexican outpost in the West Village. Using a Japanese batter, he came as close to the iconic fish taco of Baja the city has seen before. 230 West 4th Street, (212) 367-0999.
Two Taco Combination Platter at El Cantinero — Before supposedly more authentic Mexican food arrived, and before we had celebrity chefs diddling with the recipes, we had Tex-Mex, of which few examples still exist (apart from the ubiquitous Taco Bell). At old-timer El Cantinero, the tortillas are of the hard-shell variety, the filling is seasoned ground beef, and the results are delectable. 86 University Place, (212) 255-9378.
Carnitas Picaditas at El Atoradero — A bevy of ladies of various nationalities under the direction of Lina Chavez boil pork tidbits in a huge cauldron like a scene from Macbeth, and the outcome is worth traveling up to the Bronx for — unless you already happen to be living in the Bronx. 800 East 149th Street, Bronx, (718) 292-7949.
Adobada at Los Tacos No. 1 — Livening up the dining landscape of the Chelsea Market considerably, Los Tacos is a Tijuana-style taco stand specializing in adobada tacos — and you might be excused for mistaking them for al pastor, because the pork is cut from a revolving cylinder and a shard of pineapple or two are placed on top. 75 9th Avenue, (212) 256-0343.