Indonesian food is something the city has never had enough of, with its peanut-sauced brochettes, shrimp crackers, beef stewed in coconut milk, and wonderful compressed rice cakes called lontong. The archipelago exhibits perhaps a dozen distinct cuisines associated with different islands, and we have yet to fully realize its culinary riches. That said, there are always a handful of Indonesian restaurants to be found, especially in Elmhurst, Queens. Just north of the picturesque Long Island Rail Road viaduct just east of Broadway, Whitney Avenue has long been a hotbed.
Sky Café opened up there not long ago, a real Indonesian warung — a small family owned restaurant specializing in everyday food, often selling groceries as well. The gado gado (above) is spectacular: a composed salad of lettuce, cabbage, tempeh, and boiled egg furnished with a spicy peanut dressing creamy with coconut milk. If you haven’t tried lontong (one of Southeast Asia’s most interesting rice-delivery systems), give lontong sayur a try, a thick soup flavored with anchovies and fried shallots, with some bonus beef rendang in its depths. Most one-plate meals run $7 or $8, a real bargain. 8620 Whitney Ave, Queens, 718-651-9759
Jersey City’s Grove Street, in spite of rampant gentrification, continues to be a great place to grab a cheap bite. Just across the street from the old city hall, Shah Taj is an exceptional Pakistani restaurant, selling curries on a steam table, but also vending milk-based sweets from a glass display case, many decorated with edible silver foil to catch your eye. The room is spacious and comfortable, and offers views of bustling Grove Street — if you sit long enough, some of your Jersey City pals will certainly pass by.
There’s a nifty $7.99 all-you-can-eat lunch buffet on weekdays, but the regular menu is inexpensive, too: any two dishes from the steam table (in our case, chicken achari and the gluey goat foot stew called paya) over abundant rice, either plain or pilaf, will set you back only $8. There’s plenty of snacking potential, too. Vegetable samosas are a dollar apiece, and spicy ground meat chapli kebabs are $2.50; you can assemble a fine meal from just snacks. And the food is fierier than in many Indian restaurants. Steps from the PATH at the Grove Street station. 287 Grove St, Jersey City, NJ, 201-435-4900
The appearance of a hand-pulled noodle joint right on Broadway in Harlem’s Sugar Hill came as a surprise to nearly everyone. And this was no normal Lanzhou-style noodle spot run by Fujianese immigrants — The Handpulled Noodle had a decidedly hipster vibe, but the prices were only slightly elevated above what you might expect in Chinatown. The noodles tend to be thicker and perhaps not quite as skillfully made, yet they’re completely satisfying and come in very assertive broths and stir fries, with some fusion-y stuff going on. Sometimes the noodles seem to be emulating the Xi’an Famous Foods chain.
Old Beijing Bolognese is reminiscent of dan dan mian, a toss of ground meat, slivered cucumbers, and noodles described as lagman, an Uzbeki specialty. Dapanji evokes a Xi’an-style red braise, served with large, coarse fettuccine. You certainly get your money’s worth of starch and protein. Snacks such as scallion pancakes and potsticker dumplings are also well worth ordering. Let’s call The Hand Pulled Noodle a tiny place in an unexpected locale with a wacky menu, but one worth experiencing. 3600 Broadway, (917) 262-0213