2019 is shaping up to be one of the best years ever for tasty and interesting food, and one filled with many new approaches to opening a restaurant. While storefront rents continue to soar, eateries continue to pop up in unexpected places, cannily exploiting locations and arrangements rarely seen before.
And food courts keep multiplying. Years ago, we would have never expected to see so many, or the offerings to be so diverse. At the same time, the formula continues to evolve whereby potential restaurant operators move from pop-ups to Smorgasburg stalls to food court counters to storefront establishments, then on to mini-chains, often in underutilized spaces.
As midyear approaches, I’ve already stumbled on gems in all five boroughs and New Jersey, and am preparing for my annual foray into the Catskills and the Hudson Valley. Here is a loose, retrospective journal of what I’ve most enjoyed so far this year.
Lower East Side’s tiny cafe boom
A sprawling neighborhood with many quirky corners and gerrymandered storefronts, the Lower East Side’s restaurant collection continues to evolve. While riding up the splendid bike lane on Allen Street, I can’t help stopping at Joey Bats (129 Allen St.), a micro café that peddles the flaky custard pies called pasteis de nata and little else, as the Portuguese flag flaps outside. What better example could there be of the kind of specialization that new establishments have indulged in lately?
Equally delightful is Factory Tamal (34 Ludlow St), using a manufacturing metaphor to describe its micro-focus. It moved not long ago from a small space on Essex Street to another small space on Ludlow, illustrating how tiny establishments must be prepared to hopscotch from one real estate situation to another, while the original space remains empty. Don’t miss the budget breakfast sandwich of a runny egg on brioche with sausage, tomato, and gruyere, in addition to the exemplary tamales.
Lower East Side Chinese restaurants have also micro-focused. Occupying a very shallow storefront proximate to the fly-by-night intercity bus stations that dot the neighborhood, Jiang Xin Fan Tuan (38 Allen St) specializes in fan tuan. These purple sticky-rice rolls wrapped in dried seaweed are stuffed with multiple ingredients, with the main one being chicken, eel, or bacon, among other proteins. Over-rice dishes are just as good.
14th and 23rd Streets
Once chock full of discount storefronts and commercial offices, restaurants have upped their presence on these two crosstown thoroughfares lately. On the West Side, Chama Mama (149 W. 14th St.) has joined two other downtown Georgian restaurants, peddling the wildly popular flatbread with handles filled with molten cheese and a wobbly egg called adjaruli khachapuri. The difference between it and the other two is that Chama Mama has a jazzy modern build-out, including a windowed kitchen with the clay oven right in the window, and an inspired list of Georgian wines, many of which are not overly sweet.
The East Side has kept pace with Albanian newcomer Dua Kafe (520 E. 14th St.), in an impossibly narrow space. The menu is concise, and includes the expected flaky pies known as byreks; and qebapa, little skinless sausages mired in a sauce something like yogurt. The walls are plastered with pictures of famous people with Albanian roots, including Mother Teresa, John Belushi, and Regis Philbin.
Meanwhile, our ever expanding empire of spit-turned meats that includes gyro, doner, and shawarma has been embraced by 23rd Street. There find Fle Fle (254 Eighth Ave.), a nominally Russian joint in what must be an expensive corner storefront that concentrates on grab and go shawarma and other Middle Eastern delights, many with a vegetarian flair. Not an inch of space is wasted. Further east, Memo Shish Kebab (100 W. 23rd St.), a Midwood-based Turkish restaurant, has opened a corner Flatiron location with all the breads, dips, and kebabs one might hope for in kebab spot. Other satisfying and inexpensive gyro joints have opened on Houston Street, downtown Brooklyn, and near the Barclays Center, and more will surely follow.
Long Island City and Astoria
In the first months of this year, I proved again to myself that there’s no better neighborhood for a food crawl that these two conjoined areas with an indeterminate border between them. The city had its first major barbecue opening in a while with Mothership Meat Company (27-20 40th Ave., Long Island City), where the brisket and the beef shoulder are the standouts so far, almost overshadowed by a wonderful outdoor garden and admirable list of small batch beers.
Meanwhile, Astoria continually reinvents itself as far as food goes. It begins with a bedrock of fantastic Greek restaurants that don’t go away, then lays on a solid stratum of ramen-ya, and an entire street of hot brunch spots. Middle Eastern and Brazilian restaurants continue to thrive, along with a growing Mexican component, as well old guard pizzerias, several of which have been taken over by Mexican restaurateurs and now also sell tacos.
A couple of recent surprises include Compton’s (30-02 14th St, Astoria), a hip-hop themed shop in an obscure corner of the neighborhood that turns out elaborate sandwiches, including what may be the city’s most complicated breakfast sandwich; and Cafe Boulis (30-15 31st Ave., Astoria), a Greek restaurant and bakery that turns out expert spanakopita, but also makes fresh to order loukoumades, a fried dough pastry with honey. When was the last time you had a doughnut hot out of the fat, now that Krispy Kreme has all but disappeared from the landscape, at least until the new one opens?
Jersey City and Staten Island
The list of burgeoning food neighborhoods goes on and on. India Square in Jersey City’s Journal Square now boasts 30 Indian restaurants, of which six are devoted exclusively to biryani. Hyderabadi dum biryani is the most common form, and Darbar Biryani (769 Newark Ave, Jersey City) does some of the neighborhood’s best. Meanwhile, places to snack like Minar Kebab (771 Newark Ave, Jersey City), a concession in the front of a halal meat market, continue to proliferate. Nothing better than touring the nabe while eating a grilled lamb kebab wrapped in a paper-thin pita.
Over in Staten Island, a phenomenon seems to be occurring that has long been a fixture of the dining scene in Havana. West African restaurants have difficulty hanging on in Staten Island. Accordingly, these establishments have been going underground and opening in the living rooms of talented home cooks and caterers. I recently ate in a private home in the Clifton neighborhood that had been outfitted like a small restaurant with a few tables and chairs. There, I enjoyed a wonderful meal of chicken-dotted sweet potato greens over polished rice. Unfortunately, I can’t tell you the exact location, because these sorts of home restaurants (and there must be many more) are not strictly legal.
Here, There, and Everywhere
The cuisine of the Chinese province of Xinjiang recently hit us like a ton of bricks in the East Village at Jiang Diner (309 E. 5th St), an informal space where lamb ribs are king, either roasted or boiled, and the legendary “big tray chicken” is also on the concise bill of fare. Not to be left out, Flushing has its own Xinjiang joint, too, in Friendship BBQ (36-22 Union St., Flushing), which specializes in dainty, cumin-dusted kebabs in dozens of permutations. It attracts a very young crowd. Flushing also continues to fill with upscale Sichuan restaurants of very high quality, and Sunset Park’s Chinatown seems headed in a similar direction.
Guatemalan food is one of the city’s latest culinary delights as immigrants continue to reach New York City. Where once you may have looked for their restaurants in Corona, Jamaica, or Bensonhurst, new cafes have been appearing in Sunset Park. Following the practice of Mexican grocers, these mini-restaurants are appearing in the backs of bodegas. One that recently delighted me with its food is Karen Deli (6116 5th Ave., Sunset Park), where you can enjoy leaf-wrapped tamales, hearty beef stews, and pacayas — date palm flowers that get battered and fried.
Finally, upscale Indian restaurants with a very modern point of view have been appearing in several Manhattan and Brooklyn neighborhoods. One of the newest examples is GupShup (115 E. 18th St.), meaning something like “idle gossip.” At this soaring space with Mumbai glitz, Indian classics are transformed and new dishes invented. A table of friends and I were recently blow away by a biryani featuring with an entire rack of lamb poised on top, and soft shell crab 65, a dish from Chennai which usually uses chicken. Consider taking your visiting friends from out of town here, rather than a Broadway show.