Every city has its “don’t-miss” dishes that serve to define it, and New York is no exception. In fact, we have more than any other, especially on the affordable end. Following are 10 dishes that one must try to fully understand the contemporary cheap eats foodscape here. If nothing else, they show how many nationalities and cultural groups have contributed to the city’s cuisine.
For every dish, a single source in suggested. This is exceedingly arbitrary, but each of these evocations are guaranteed very good.
Priced at a dollar or two apiece, doubles are one of the most tasty, nourishing, and cheap dishes around. One is a snack; two is a meal. A doubles consists of a pair of puffy flatbreads loosely laid around a chickpea curry, which is then garnished with two sauces: one sweet, the other fiery.
A & A Bake & Doubles, 481 Nostrand Ave., between Fulton and Macon streets, Bedford-Stuyvesant
The frank is a slender beef sausage first brought here by German immigrants, and introduced as beach food at Coney Island. From there it went to carts, sporting events, and small fast food establishments. No better place to get one than our only remaining Lower East Side German-Jewish delicatessen, where frankfurters sizzle in the window and the proper condiments remain grainy mustard and sauerkraut.
Katz’s Delicatessen, 205 E. Houston St., at the corner of Ludlow Street, Lower East Side
Fried chicken (African-American)
New York City’s most fundamental style of fried chicken was brought to the city by African-Americans in the 1920s from the American South, principally Georgia and the Carolinas. Their method involved a light dusting of seasoned flour and frying in cast iron skillets till crispness was achieved. Harlem, Fort Greene, Bedford-Stuyvesant, and southeastern Queens are famous for this kind of chicken.
Charles Pan Fried Chicken, 2461 Frederick Douglass Blvd., between 131st and 132nd streets, Harlem
Slice of pizza (Italian)
Neighborhood pizzerias, or places with stacked ovens, spread across every neighborhood in the 1950s and 1960s, allowing the pies to be baked and reheated at a variety of temperatures, spawning a new era of pizza making. Like hatchlings learning to follow their mother, New Yorkers generally bond with the first neighborhood slice they try, and then cherish it forever.
Espresso Pizzeria, 9403 Fifth Ave., at 94th Street, Bay Ridge
This geometrically distinguished hand pie, eaten all over India and other parts of the South Asian subcontinent, comes stuffed with potatoes and peas, or with ground meat or poultry. Any way you look at it, a samosa dipped in raita, green cilantro and mint chutney, or brown sweet tamarind sauce is a wonderful snack, while two or three represent an entire meal.
Al Naimat, 37-03 74th St., between Roosevelt and 37th avenues, Jackson Heights
Arepa (Venezuelan and Colombian)
Only over the last decade have arepas become a prominent fast food option here, in the East Village, Washington Heights and Inwood, and all over Queens. The name refers to a corn cake that is often split and stuffed with chicken and avocado salad, black beans and cheese, roast pork, and more.
Cachapas y Mas, 107 Dyckman St., between Post and Nagle avenues, Inwood
Clam chowder (Yankee)
Here we divvy our dish into two subcategories: Do you want white or red clam chowder? White is of Yankee origin, originally English with strong Native-American and French influences. Especially popular in New England, the creamy version is often flavored with bacon and onions, and thickened with potatoes and cream.
Grand Central Oyster Bar, Grand Central Terminal, Lower Level, 89 E. 42nd St., at Park Avenue, Grand Central
The red version is often called Manhattan clam chowder, but probably originated in Brooklyn among Italian-Americans from Sicily and Apulia, or so its pungent seasoning and tomato base might suggest. Whichever chowder you choose, the sharp taste of clams are in the forefront.
Randazzo’s Clam Bar, 2017 Emmons Ave., between Ocean Avenue and East 21st Street, Sheepshead Bay
Falafel sandwich (Middle Eastern)
The falafel sandwich was popularized among students, hippies, and bohemians in the 1970s, and from that point there was no stopping it. Now innumerable renditions are available, in wraps or bowls, on platters, or in the traditional pocket pita sandwich. Refuge for vegetarians, but also delightful to meat eaters, it is composed of ground and extensively seasoned chickpeas fried into a ball.
Mamoun’s, 119 MacDougal St., between Minetta Lane and West 3rd Street, Greenwich Village
Char siu bao (Chinese)
Puffy, chewy, and steamed, stark white bao are shaped like a flattened ball, sometimes with a pucker on top. Take a bite and out oozes a red pork filling. Some like it sweeter, some like it more savory, but everyone agrees that bigger is better. The bao’s origin is Cantonese, and the leavening is provided by both yeast and baking powder, accounting for the unique texture.
Hop Shing, 9 Chatham Sq., between Doyers and Mott streets, Chinatown
This portable meal wrapped in a corn husk (or occasionally, in a banana leaf) is usually not the province of taquerias, except on weekends. During the week, it is often sold by the people who make them out of shopping carts planted near transportation centers. A good place to look is the Port Authority or near the corner of 145th Street and Broadway. Or buy from a cart that follows a predictable schedule, as does this one.
Tamale cart, in front of Myrtle/Wyckoff subway station, at Myrtle and Wyckoff avenues, Bushwick