A crowd of roughly 50 patrons queued up near the shiny Birria-Landia truck in Jackson Heights at 6 p.m. on a recent Friday. There, just a block away from Elmhurst Hospital — the epicenter of the fight against the pandemic last spring — cooks sent out drippy, saucy, Tijuana-style tacos for $3 a pop. After 20 minutes of waiting, I fetched my order, crouched down on the sidewalk, and dunked beef fat-griddled tortillas into a spicy, cilantro-studded consomme. My insides warmed up like a radiator.
Still hungry, I biked down Roosevelt Avenue to Todo Rico, for conchas, then to Fama Bakery, for sweet-salty Colombian buñelos. Finally, I hopped on the 7 train and finished things off with a giant mojito and Cuban sandwich from Guantanamera in Hell’s Kitchen, which I consumed in my apartment, on my floor, while watching a lousy made-for-Netflix movie. I fell asleep very happy.
Then, just like on any other morning, I woke up to a more sobering reality, a reality wherein COVID-19 has devastated the restaurant industry and killed nearly 310,000 Americans. I thought about how every venue I visited the night before would remain in jeopardy without (overdue) federal assistance. I wondered: How many people would travel across the city to eat at a celebrated taco truck if the governor issued another stay-at-home order? How many tiny neighborhood bakeries would survive if their clienteles were furloughed again? What would become of my local Cuban spot when patrons switch from dropping by in person to relying on parasitic delivery apps? As things get worse, no one — not even takeout-focused spots — are safe.
December is when I usually put together a list of the year’s top restaurants. I won’t be publishing such a compilation in 2020, as suggesting there are so-called winners during a year fraught with so much economic catastrophe, human suffering, and death is simply outrageous. Still, inasmuch as members of the hospitality industry risked their lives to keep us fed — even though the government should have paid everyone to stay at home — I thought I’d recount some dishes that made this year a little less awful for me, both in an effort to show off these accessible preparations, and to serve as an implicit warning about the imminent cultural and culinary losses our city faces.
Things, indeed, will get worse. Indoor dining shuttered in New York City on Monday, depriving restaurants of what would be their chief source of revenue during normal times. Mayor Bill de Blasio also warned that hospitalization rates are on track to mandate a full closure of outdoor dining, putting the city on track for a repeat of the spring’s devastating shutdown, a policy that would lead to the permanent shuttering of over 1,000 restaurants.
I dearly miss indoor dining in all forms. When it’s safe to go out again, I’ll be among the first to sip strong martinis at a cozy bar while tweeting things I’ll soon regret. In the meantime, COVID-19 reminds me how nice it is to enjoy shorter meals — perhaps a lamb-stuffed empanada or two — in a spacious, grassy patch of the city, a place where one can come and go freely without obligatory purchases. I love how New Yorkers transformed Prospect Park into the city’s finest dining room, a socially distanced communal eating area where friends can enjoy five different dishes from five different restaurants and juxtapose them in ways the chefs never intended.
There’s also something agreable about swinging by a nice venue to pick up a single entree or dessert — without anyone asking whether you’d like a truffled side dish or a $16 Manhattan. Maybe you just want that solo main course because you’re cash-strapped and still want to treat yourself. Maybe you’re struggling with grief and can’t bear the thought of consuming more than a few sips of your favorite soup at the end of a long day. Or maybe you simply want your dinner experience to be a reliably delicious and caloric affair — something to keep your blood sugar up while you stream the Queen’s Gambit — rather than a formal, three-hour, interactive ceremony around which your entire week was planned.
This was a year when many of us spent more time eating restaurant food outside of actual restaurants, a reality that likely won’t change in the coming months as the pandemic continues to worsen. Accordingly, every dish on this list is available for takeout.
Pernil at La Isla Cuchifritos: In the shadow of Lincoln Medical in the South Bronx, this 24/7 Puerto Rican takeout counter keeps locals and destination diners fed with just about every delicious part of the pig. The venue’s pernil, in particular, induces porcine dreams. A cleaver-wielding counter worker hacks up the skin into chewy, bite-sized pieces; the mahogany color and shiny fat let it shimmer like a gemstone. The flesh, like the skin, packs a powerfully porky punch, while little burnt bits squirt out a thimble’s worth of fat as they crunch between your molars. 276 East 149th Street, near Morris Avenue, Mott Haven.
Gumbo at FieldTrip: JJ Johnson has been busy expanding his globally minded fast-casual spot, opening up in Long Island City and, soon, Rockefeller Center. This is outstanding news for gumbo lovers. The chef studs his soup with powerfully oceanic dried shrimp. He throws in firm grains of red rice for nourishing starchiness. He concocts a pink broth that tastes of excellent shellfish. He adds sweet Chinese lap cheong (instead of andouille) to cut the oceanic salts. It is a simultaneous ode to China, Southeast Asia, and the American South. I could eat it every day. 109 Malcolm X Boulevard, near 115th Street, Harlem.
Yassa at Teranga: Pierre Thiam’s Senegalese roast chicken with sweet onions and lime confit is a wonderful dish by itself, but it’s also the dish that makes me miss indoor dining the most. I remember sitting inside the Africa Center in February, dabbing shito — a shellfish condiment whose sweet funk recalls XO sauce — over my jollof fonio, while looking out over a quiet Central Park North and its glowing, old-world street lamps. 1280 Fifth Avenue, near Central Park North, Harlem.
Tacos at Birria-Landia: José and Jesús Moreno’s Tijuana-style tacos are among the most enjoyable and technically astute I’ve sampled this year. They dip corn tortillas in beef fat, griddle them, then stuff them with chile-braised beef. The flavors are crystal clear: earthy corn, sweet onions, fragrant cilantro, and spicy, fall-apart beef. If you have a few extra dollars, buy a cup of spicy consomme for dunking and sipping. 77-99 Roosevelt Avenue, near 78th Street, Jackson Heights.
Bigotes rellenos at Todo Rico: Shelves upon shelves of fresh Mexican pastries line an entire wall at this Jackson Heights newcomer. While cycling past the space recently, I hopped inside for a few quick treats, including an excellent bigote relleno. Bakers fill a forearm-sized baton of dough with excellent cajeta, which fortifies the bread with rich sugars and aromas of goat’s milk caramel. It’s essentially a pastry for two. 76-17 Roosevelt Avenue, near 77th Street, Jackson Heights.
Doughnuts at Colombia Fama Bakery: One of my unscientific pastry theories is that Colombian doughnuts and their ilk are the world’s best doughnuts. For primary evidence, I’d send you to Masa in Bogata, helmed by Mariana Villegas, late of Cosme. Alas, since travel is tough in the era of COVID-19, I’d suggest dropping by Fama in Woodside. The classic doughnut is as big as an electric scooter tire, with a delicate yeastiness and a dusting of sugar so light one could almost call it a savory dish. The bunuelo, in turn, is everything it should be, a starchier roll that pops with the tang of cheese and a hint of sweetness. 61-17 Roosevelt Avenue, near 61st Street, Woodside.
Picante de pollo at Bolivian Llama Party: Alex, Patrick, and David Oropeza, three brothers who work as chefs, entrepreneurs, and, apparently, carpenters, were literally building their outdoor dining setup as I ate my way through this stunner of an Andean chicken dish. In South America, picante de pollo is usually simmered. Here in Sunnyside, the brothers instead sear the bird and paint it brown with a classic chile-garlic sauce, basil, and a few very nontraditional anchovies and capers for umami. It works wonderfully as tasty, everyday nourishment, but the chicken also packs the type of aromas, bitterness, mouthfeel, and heat that one would expect from some fancy tasting-menu spot. 44-14 48th Avenue, Sunnyside, near 45th Street, Sunnyside.
Noodle soup at Chongqing Xiao Mian: As regional styles of Chinese noodles proliferate throughout the city, Chongqing-style xiao mian — stark white noodles in a broth the color of a fire engine — remain a relative rarity. This Hell’s Kitchen mainstay, whose name doubles as the signature dish, is here to correct for that imbalance, serving up a spicy, salty, tongue-numbing noodle soup that makes for a fine late breakfast. I like to go here when I’m craving noodles but want something lighter than, say, a bowl of tonkotsu ramen or a plate of pappardelle. 796 Ninth Avenue, near 53rd Street, Hell’s Kitchen.
Bandeja paisa at Empanada Mama: This hefty Colombian platter is the type of thing one might eat before pulling a double, something that feels all the more common as 2020 continues to careen off the rails. The one-plate meal, a combination of African, Spanish, and Indigenous influences, includes grilled skirt steak, silky black beans, smoky chorizo, white rice, fat slices of chicharron, elegant fans of avocado, a fried egg, and toasty arepas. One can find the bandeja at scores of South American cafes, but for anyone burning the midnight oil in Midtown West, Empanada Mama by Socrates Nanas is really your only option. 765 Ninth Avenue, near 51st Street, Hell’s Kitchen.
Plov at Farida: Deep-pocketed gourmands often have a lot to say about the complex perfume of white truffle risotto. Allow me to submit that Farida’s Uzbek plov is no less majestic in its ethereal aromas. Farida Gabbassova-Ricciardelli, who runs the venue along with her husband, chef Umitjon Kamolov, cooks up firm grains of rice that are heavily scented with the grassy tang of fatty, roasted lamb and the sweet kick of sugary carrots. It’s a perfect meal in itself, though consider throwing in a few skewers of lamb ribs to amp up the agrarian fragrance (and fattiness) factor even further. 498 Ninth Avenue, near 38th Street, Hell’s Kitchen.
Bolo bao at Milu: An impossibly crispy duck (for $15.50) from an ex-Eleven Madison Park sous might be the chief draw here, but damn, chef Connie Chung makes a heck of a pineapple bun, a delicacy that’s in short supply outside of the city’s Chinatowns. Pineapple buns, of course, rarely contain actual pineapple; the name generally refers to the craggy, concha-like sugar crust. Chung takes things more literally here, stuffing the soft milk bread with a dose of custard and a few dabs of pineapple curd, lending a whisper of tropical fruit acidity to the creation. Pair with Hong Kong-style milk tea. 333 Park Avenue South, near 25th Street, Flatiron.
DIY dandan at Very Fresh: Chef Victor Huang’s take-home noodles, which you boil in water yourself before tossing with a numbing-spicy-sweet ragu of pork, easily count as my favorite local dandan. The key is the noodles themselves, which boast a firm, bouncy, qq-style snap, while also exhibiting the softness necessary to absorb the spiced meat sauce. 409 West 15th Street, near Ninth Avenue, Chelsea.
Panettone from Bread & Salt: COVID-19 means I’ve not been able to use my office as a regular departure point to Bread & Salt in Jersey City, which ranks with neighboring Razza as one of the tri-state area’s two best pizzerias. A nice consolation prize, however, is Bread & Salt’s (out-of-stock) panettone Milanese, which, at $65 (with shipping), is the most money I have ever spent on bread. But what bread it is. Rick Easton does a naturally leavened panettone, enriching the soft crumb with French butter and studding the loaf — which looks like one of those teetering boulders from a Road Runner cartoon — with plump raisins and candied cubes of orange. Each order is sizable enough to serve as breakfast for one for a full week. Online orders taken here.
Crispy top fried rice from Silver Apricot: I’ll have more to say about Simone Tong’s Chinese and American small-plates place later next year, but for now, let me say this: Order the fried rice. Tong crisps up the grains and serves them with larou, a Chinese five-spice bacon, in a ring mold-shaped terrine, a Chinese five-spice bacon. The kokuho rice was no less crunchy following a 30-minute bike ride back to Hell’s Kitchen; every bite exhibited an audible, Rice Krispies crunch. And those tiny bits of bacon perfumed the $16 treat with a profound bass note of sweetness and umami. 20 Cornelia Street, near Bleecker, West Village.
Tomato pizza at Momofuku Ko: The best pizza I sampled this year was a takeout pie from chef Sean Gray and Su Wong Ruiz’s two-Michelin-starred tasting-menu spot, one of the crown jewels of David Chang’s global empire. The burnished whole-wheat crust packs the dense chew of a New Haven-style pie and the pungent tomato tang one might expect from the finest sundried fruit. Sliced capicola adds salt, but really, you’re here for the bread and Crayola-red tomatoes — the chunky Stanislaus 7/11 brand, which Ko fortifies with honey, garlic, chiles, and, for extra zing, red wine vinegar. No, $28 isn’t cheap for a pie, but it easily feeds two, and the product highlights how tasting spots can become more useful neighborhood institutions when they offer takeout. 8 Extra Place at East 1st Street, East Village.
Stuffed cabbage at Thai Diner: Chefs Ann Redding and Matt Danzer have always had fun experimenting with traditional preparations. At their Thai-American diner, they replace the minced meat in a laab salad with fried chicken, but they push the envelope even further with this fusion of Eastern European and Southeast Asian sensibilities. The chefs riff on Ukrainian-style cabbage rolls, but swap the classic mushroom gravy for a galangal-laced tom khaa sauce, which adds an aromatic, coconut-y richness. To me, the dish functions as yet another example about how expressions of nostalgia don’t have to be stuck in the past, and about how innovation and refinement don’t have to come at the expense of classic notions of comfort. 186 Mott Street at Kenmare Street, Nolita.
Dan tat at Harper’s Bread House: I haven’t tried enough egg tarts around the city to be able to declare one or another the best, but whenever folks ask for my recommendation, I send them to Edward Chau’s bakery. For about a buck, you get a golden, warm, jiggly serving of custard in a soft pastry shell. If only these masterful creations were as available throughout the city as second-rate, $4 croissants. 271 Grand Street at Forsyth Street, Chinatown.
Tlayuditas at For All Things Good: I ate this tlayudita alone, outside, as light rain started to fall during a gray day in Bed-Stuy; it warmed up my GI tract by just the right degree. Matt Diaz loads his crisp and round tortillas with enough toppings to make a platter of nachos blush, and yet the flavors remain in balance. Gobs of queso Oaxaqueño, smears of earthy black beans, scatterings of maitake mushrooms, and ultra-nutty salsa macha all commingle to form a milky, nutty, earthy snack. 343 Franklin Avenue, near Greene Avenue, Bed-Stuy.
Lamb empanadas at Ursula: Word has it that Eric See’s green chile-laced ode to New Mexico makes a serious burrito. I’ll do my best to try it the next time I can force myself to visit the Crown Heights restaurant before noon, when burrito sales halt. In the meantime, I’m smitten enough with Ursula’s lamb empanadas. See stuffs his creations with heady ground meat, apricots, potatoes, and red chile, resulting in a hand pie that checks its savory elements with a touch of sweetness. The rich pastry shell, in turn, ensures that this empanada is less of a snack and more of a meal. 724 Sterling Place, near Bedford Avenue, Crown Heights.
Disclosure: David Chang is producing shows for Hulu in partnership with Vox Media Studios, part of Eater’s parent company, Vox Media. No Eater staff member is involved in the production of those shows, and this does not impact coverage on Eater.