I was bummed when my critic’s lifestyle came to a screeching halt around the middle of March. Having spent the previous 30 years wolfing down a spectacular range of restaurant food, I quailed at the prospect of undergoing three home-cooked meals a day. Worse than that, I’d come to love dishes I knew would be difficult to recreate in my own shoebox of a kitchen — or even to acquire the ingredients for.
An editor suggested administering self-therapy by writing an article about the things I missed most, so I dived right in. A dosa with crisp edges and a spicy potato filling, of course, and a slice from a favorite neighborhood pizzeria, gooey with cheese. Three crisp patties of shrimp egg foo young with brown gravy, and a Senegalese chicken mafe with peanut sauce and polished rice. And let’s not forget a Thai green papaya salad, the smell of fish sauce and lime climbing up my nostrils. These and other pages from a vast catalog of international dishes had made our city the world’s best place to eat.
But safety concerns and citywide orders pushed most restaurants to temporarily close, and beyond that, the pandemic has led to ingredient shortages and cash-strapped customers who suddenly lack the means to buy restaurant meals.
Nevertheless, I determined to make the best of a bad situation by seeking out favorite dishes at restaurants still offering takeout, traveling as far from my neighborhood by hiking and biking as stamina permitted.
What did I want most? Regressing to childhood, I craved a pair of hot dogs, New York style. I quickly sought out frankfurter counters near my tenement in the West Village, including a couple of convenient places near Washington Square and in Chelsea with Papaya in their names. Both were closed up tight, mail piling up behind their pull-down gates.
But then I received a tip that Gray’s Papaya at 72nd and Broadway had reopened, and hastened uptown, pedals churning, to fulfill my wish. I found the sides of the familiar yellow corner flung open and tape marks applied to the sidewalk. I lined up with the other fidgeting customers, and soon plunged into the shallow storefront, now transformed with plexiglass panels and an air of solemnity.
I selected the three hot dog special ($9.95), which included the chalky papaya beverage that is the cryptic liquid accoutrement of such places, and was thrilled to find that the deal entailed an extra bonus dog. I split the bounty with a friend.
God were they good. The franks were deep pink, with a pop like a child’s cap pistol when bitten into. I ate two — one with mustard and the other with mustard and kraut. The kraut usually turns the bun soggy, so I always eat one without it to preserve the integrity of the bun. But wait a minute! These buns seemed different. They were better than the old ones, like bakery buns, still flaunting flour dust on their flanks. Even Joey Chestnut couldn’t bear to ball these up and dip them in water.
It was at this point I realized something that made me more excited for future forays: The current pandemic had somehow made the weenies taste better. Whether this was due to my having to put more effort into getting them, or because nearly everything else about eating had become more dire, I didn’t yet know.
I next craved katsudon, a Japanese pork cutlet mired in a scallion omelet, so that the flavors of grease, green onion, and a sweet dark sauce trickled down into the rice below. This plebeian dish is often taken for granted, even though a lot of effort goes into sourcing just the right fatty cutlets.
I despaired of finding a restaurant that served it, though. Sure, I could now get good sushi at Umami on Greenwich Avenue or Citarella on Sixth Avenue, but fried cutlets were not part of their repertoires. And Katsu-hama, with the best heirloom cutlets in town, remained shuttered. But news of reopenings travels fast, and just a few days later, I heard that a casual Japanese lunch counter near Union Square had finally swung open its doors.
Ennju had long been a favorite pit stop, coupled with a Friday visit to the Greenmarket. Like many newly reopened restaurants, it loomed darkly and somewhat forbiddingly before me, most of its lights out. A staffer just inside the door was making sushi, not frenetically as of yore, but slowly crafting it so as not to make too much. The usual lunch deluge had now been reduced to a trickle. Another employee stood behind the cash register further inside, while a cook peered through the round kitchen window, perhaps glad to have a customer.
Nevertheless, when I’d brought my katsudon ($13) into Union Square Park, it glinted through the clear plastic cover in a most inviting way. The cutlet was crisp and greasy, the omelet pungent with scallions, and the rice so delectable that I pushed part of the pork aside to eat the rice first. Once again, the dish tasted better than it ever had before, as I sat nervously on the park bench.
Another impression that struck like a bolt of lightning was that eating had become a furtive activity. Every bite is attended by fear that some misadventure might occur, such as a passing pedestrian sneezing in your direction. This feeling is akin to clinical paranoia, and it never leaves you. And let’s also mention the fear that germs may be transmitted through carryout packaging, even though that’s unlikely, and the unhappy impression that restaurant employees are now fearful of their customers.
Not all my adventures were so successful, either, as most places maintain limited menus and travel times diminish food quality. I was dying for a masala dosa, but afraid to board the PATH to get one from Jersey City’s India Square. I rode up to Curry Hill instead, hoping that Curry in a Hurry would still be selling them. It turned out they weren’t, concentrating on tandooris and curries instead. But Pongal was suddenly open, one of the old kosher vegetarian restaurants dating to the last century.
I ordered a mysore masala dosa ($12.95) and carried it to Madison Square, where I carefully unwrapped my package and noted its contents: a container of the spicy lentil soup called sambar, peanut and coconut chutneys, a separate tub containing the potato filling, and a foil-lined bag that held the giant pancake.
The bag inauspiciously had “Barbeque” written across the front. But the sambar was some of the best I’d ever tasted, a bit oily and spicy as hell, while the all-important pancake turned out to be limp from the steaming it had gotten inside the bag during its six-block ride. Oh, well. Some things travel much better than others, I learned. Next time, I’ll order one of Pongal’s excellent thalis.
In the ensuing week, I pursued several other dishes on my list with great success. A slice of spinach pizza ($4) from Stella’s in Chelsea was now made with fresh spinach leaves interspersed with gobs of clean tasting ricotta, as garlic loomed in the background. Soon thereafter I received the exciting news that Just Pho, on the street that runs south of Penn Station, had swung open a window on the street. The beef pho in the Hanoi style ($12.75, including a $2.25 bonus for picking it up yourself) was as good as ever, simple and flavorful.
I could feel the muscles in my legs strengthening and began attempting longer rides. My further objectives included visiting Williamsburg and checking out a couple of Middle Eastern favorites, a Jewish deli, and a barbecue pit, and after that a sojourn to Yu Kitchen, probably my favorite Chinese restaurant in the city, located miles uphill from my apartment at 101st and Broadway.
Still, with new restaurants opening every day, it wouldn’t be long until I’m able to get most, if not all, of the favorite New York City dishes on my list. This prospect is what has kept me going the last few weeks.