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Where to Find Sephardic Jewish Food in NYC and Its Suburbs

Eater's senior critic lists his favorite Sephardic dishes in and around New York City

According to a 2012 head count, of the 1.1 million Jews living in New York City, around 90 percent would be classified as Ashkenazim; that is, those whose ancestors came from Central and Eastern Europe, mostly arriving in the 19th and 20th centuries. The balance are Sephardim, principally of North African, Middle Eastern, and Central Asian descent. Many trace their lineage to Portugal and Spain, where their forbears were expelled by the Inquisition beginning in the late 15th century. Sephardic history in New York City goes back to the earliest days: a boatload of Portuguese-Jewish immigrants arrived from Brazil in 1654 when the city was the Dutch colony of New Amsterdam. Sephardic cemeteries are still found near Chatham Square and in Greenwich Village and Chelsea.

While the Central and Eastern European Jews brought along a familiar menu that has since become intimately associated with the city’s foodways — things like blintzes, bagels, pastrami sandwiches, matzo ball soup, knishes, lox, babkas, and cheesecake — the far-flung Sephardic Jews maintained a diet associated with their respective homelands, tweaked for their religious practices, cultural preferences, and the influence of all the countries that they traversed as they travelled. Take a peek at Claudia Roden’s The Book of Jewish Food (1996) or Sephardic Cooking (1992) by Copeland Marks if you want to get an idea of the vastness of Sephardic cuisine.

Beginning in biblical times, some Jewish tribes were native to the Middle East, including Turkey and Persia, and points east; today they are also referred to as Sephardim, and the two groups are considered one. Jews in this category have settled as far east as India and China. New York City’s Sephardim (some of whom, like the Bukharan Jews of Uzbekistan, arrived recently) settled in places like Midwood, Brooklyn; Rego Park, Queens; and Great Neck, Long Island. Here are 16 restaurants, grocery stores, and bakeries where you can find Sephardic food. Lamb-fat kebabs, mango hot sauce, and the parabolic crackers called noni toki, anyone?

Note: We have used the most common transliterated spellings for Sephardic dishes; menu spellings may vary. [K] indicates kosher status. The nations of origin are listed in alphabetical order.


CHINESE

Dish: lagman

Arzu: There are only two Xinjiang restaurants in the city, representing the food of China’s westernmost autonomous territory, sandwiched between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, not far from Uzbekistan and Afghanistan. An ancient Jewish presence has lingered there along the Silk Road, with a Turkic menu different from that of the Uzbeks by being a shade more Chinese. Thus the pumpkin dumplings called manti at this long-running Rego Park spot are as thin-skinned as soup dumplings, while the lagman is made with homemade noodles similar to hand-pulled examples found in Chinatown. Kebabs, lamb plov (pilaf), pickles, and root-vegetable salads round out the menu. [K] 101-05 Queens Blvd, Queens, (718) 830-3335

ETHIOPIAN

Dish: malawach

Tsion Café: The chef of this Harlem restaurant, Beejhy Barhany, is a member of the community known as Beta Israel, born in Ethiopia but emigrated to Israel in the last few decades, and the menu shows it. Half of the dishes such as doro tibs, the fava beans called ful (pronounced "fool"), the fermented bread injera, and the vegetarian combo are distinctively Ethiopian. Other choices, such as malawach (a multi-layered pancake) and shakshuka, constitute typical Sephardic Israeli fare. As a bow to the Ashkenazim, bagels with cream cheese, and a smoked salmon salad are also served. 763 St. Nicholas Ave, (212) 234-2070

INDIAN

Dish: Cornish hen with chiles

Dawat: Three major Hebraic communities established themselves over the centuries in Cochin, Mumbai, and Kolkata, India. While no restaurant concentrates wholly on their food, a few restaurants offer examples of Sephardic Indian food. Cookbook author and actor Madhur Jaffrey is chef consultant at Dawat, an elegant Midtown restaurant where a single Sephardic dish is attributed to the Cochin Jews of Kerala: a stew of Cornish hen with hot green chiles. It’s well worth ordering. 210 E 58th St, (212) 355-7555.

Dish: vegetable cutlets

Haldi: This Curry Hill restaurant concentrates on the food of Kolkata, the former Calcutta. A sprinkling of items reflect the cuisine of the Baghdadi Jews who arrived there over the last three centuries, including the "vegetable cutlet" (red fritters of beets and potatoes), chicken makmura (raisin-dotted chicken meatballs in a cashew sauce), and bamia khuta, a dish of lamb and okra that will strike you as very Middle Eastern. 102 Lexington Ave, (212) 213-9615

IRANIAN

Dish: lamb kebab

Colbeh: This elegant Midtown spot offers wall-hugging banquettes overtopped with dramatically lit branches in a décor scheme that an Iranian friend described as "totally Tehran." The menu offers kosher Persian food that runs from flame-grilled kebabs (pick lamb or bone-in baby chicken) and green rice to ghormeh sabzi (fresh herbs, beef, and kidney bean stew) and gheimeh (a stew of beef and yellow split peas topped with fried potatoes). Most meals begin with a gratis serving of tahdig, the crisp rice from the bottom of the pan. [K] 32 W 39th St, (917) 722-3781

Dish: tahdig

Shiraz: One of four Persian-Jewish restaurants in Great Neck and vicinity (a 20-minute ride by express train from Penn Station), Shiraz is named after an ancient city in Iran. The dining room is expansive and sumptuous in a 1950s sort of way, and outdoor seating is available. Kebabs are grilled over charcoal (pick lamb ribs for maximum smokiness), there’s a choice of perfectly cooked basmati rices, and tahdig is served free as a starter. Even the introductory pickle plate is a delight. Skip the very European desserts. [K] 770 Middle Neck Rd, Great Neck, LI, (516) 487-6666

Right photo: sangak

Shop Delight: An exhaustively stocked kosher supermarket, Shop Delight carries Ashkenazic and Sephardic groceries, and makes many of its specialties on the premises. One fixture that stands out is an oven with a rotating platform covered with pebbles, used to make the ancient Persian bread sangak, which is nearly three feet in length and covered with white and black sesame seeds. Persian-Jewish dishes available at the deli include kashke bademjan (an eggplant and walnut dip), tahchin (a rice-and-chicken casserole), and all sorts of ready-to-cook kebabs. [K] 4 Welwyn Rd, Great Neck, LI, (516) 466-1300

ISRAELI

Dish: falafel

Azuri Café: In perpetual contention for best falafel in the city, this tiny remote café with a grumpy chef has been around forever as a Hell’s Kitchen fixture. The falafels are fried to order, ensconced in a pita with hummus, pickles, and a slathering of Yemenite sauces: zhug (fenugreek) and amba (mango). Other Sephardic fare includes shakshuka (poached eggs in red chile sauce), shawarma and other kebabs, and bourekas — delightful little hand pies stuffed with spinach or potato. Wash everything down with Turkish coffee. [K] 465 W 51st St, (212) 262-2920

Dish: pomegranate chicken

Bar Bolonat: Chef Einat Admony offers a creative perspective on Sephardic dishes from North Africa and the Middle East at Bar Bolonat, plus some fanciful notions of her own. The pita salad called fattoush contains arugula, tomatoes, cucumber, and avocado, and comes dressed with a mint vinaigrette; while the beef-stuffed cracked wheat shells called kibbeh are enlivened with a preserved-lemon yogurt. Perhaps most unique is a Yemenite curry featuring shrimp. Admony’s other restaurants, Balaboosta and Taim (don’t miss the egg-and-eggplant sabich sandwich at the latter) offer further Sephardic delicacies. 611 Hudson St, (212) 390-1545

Dish: shakshuka

Dizengoff: This spinoff of a Philadelphia restaurant in Chelsea Market offers a choice of toppings (fava beans, tahini, or lamb stew are examples) for a particularly light and delicious take on hummus. Also on the menu are Israeli salads called salatim that vary according to the whim of chef Emily Seaman, and, mornings only, shakshuka, a dish associated with Sephardic Morocco. 75 9th Ave, (646) 833-7097

MOROCCAN

Photo: salads

Café Mogador: Founded in 1983 in the East Village, an expanded version of this Moroccan-Israeli restaurant opened in Williamsburg four years ago, with two dining rooms and a covered backyard, engagingly decorated with historic photos of North Africa. Go right for the tajines — braised meats and poultry cooked with preserved lemon and green olives, spicy cilantro paste, or apricots and prunes. Don’t neglect the small and piquant appetizing dishes of beets, carrots, olives, and fried eggplant with tahini, which are central to Moroccan Sephardic cuisine. 133 Wythe Ave, Brooklyn, (718) 486-9222

SPANISH AND PORTUGUESE

Photo: Sardines

La Vara: The objective of this ambitious tapas bar from chefs Alexandra Raij and Eder Montero is the evocation (if not recreation) of Jewish and Muslim fare in Spain and Portugal prior to the Inquisition. Authentic or not, the food hits the spot, from the spice-dusted fried chickpeas to the lamb meatballs in yogurt to the artichokes in anchovy aioli — which will remind you of the Roman classic, carciofi alla giudia ("artichokes in the Jewish style"). 268 Clinton St, Brooklyn, (718) 422-0065

SYRIAN

Dish: spicy ground beef "cigars"

David’s Restaurant: This old-time diner in Brooklyn’s Ocean Parkway neighborhood strives to recreate everyday Sephardic specialties from several Middle Eastern nations, though the predominant note is Syrian. The excellent kebabs are cooked over charcoal, the shakshuka is appropriately fiery, and the cracked wheat salad called bazergan makes the perfect pita dip. Also don’t miss the Yemenite soup — a brick-red beef short rib soup favored by the Jews of Yemen. [K] 539 Kings Hwy, Brooklyn, (718) 998-8600.

Dish: ma’amoul, basbousa

Mansoura: Anchor of the Sephardic neighborhood that runs along Kings Highway and named after a city is Egypt, Mansoura’s pastries have their roots in Syria, Egypt, and Morocco. Baked in round sheets, the baklava is unforgettable, as is the basbousa (a semolina cake) and maamoul (a pistachio-stuffed cookie flavored with orange water). Newspaper clippings plastered on one wall tell the bakery’s story, and the staff couldn’t be friendlier. [K] 515 Kings Hwy, Brooklyn, (718) 645-7977

UZBEK

Dish: assorted kebabs

Cheburechnaya: This Rego Park restaurant popular with Central Asian families represents the cooking of the Bukharan Jews, who came to what is now Uzbekistan in the 14th century from Persia, and some still speak a dialect of Farsi. Unique dishes include noni toki, a giant parabolic cracker something like a matzo; green plov, a pilaf native to the city of Samarkand; lamb samsa, a seed-sprinkled pastry with cabbage, onion, and meat inside; and chebureki, the gossamer fried turnovers filled with pumpkin, cabbage, potato, or veal that lend the restaurant its name. [K] 92-09 63rd Dr, Queens, (718) 897-9080

Dishes: manti and pumpkin samsa

Nargis Café: The food at this Sheepshead Bay stalwart represents the Jewish community of Tashkent, Uzbekistan, but you’ll see lots of Russian food on the menu, too. Uzbek highlights include the humongous lamb dumplings called manti browned in a skillet rather than boiled; khonim — steamed pasta served with potatoes and onions; a very hearty, scallion-heaped plov (the national dish of rice and lamb); and something called Tashkent salad, which turns out to be shredded lamb and daikon in a thick mayonnaise — much better tasting than it sounds. Best kebabs: ground-lamb lulya, and yogurt-marinated chicken. Sidewalk seating out front. 2818 Coney Island Ave, Brooklyn, (718) 872-7888

Top photo by Paul Crispin Quitoriano. All others by Robert Sietsema

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