Ever since the city locked down to combat the coronavirus, our ability to acquire food from restaurants has been limited. After indoor dining was halted by the city on Monday, March 16, a small proportion of restaurants remained open for carryout and delivery, though that number has significantly increased. While many of my friends opted for delivery, I never liked to use delivery services, not only because they typically take a major share of the profits, but because they endanger the deliverers. Delivery workers wait long intervals to pick up food inside restaurants, careen through sweltering streets dodging traffic, and enter dozens of apartment buildings per day.
Far better, I thought, to pick up the food at the restaurant myself and consume it nearby. That’s a calculated risk I’m willing to take.
As the months passed, open-air restaurants were eventually established. I felt safe in these spaces, not only because they were outside, where opportunities for transmission are fewer, but I took delight in eating in the midst of the city’s hubbub, and these institutions are one of the most visible signs of the pandemic era. Nevertheless, I chose my establishments carefully, picking places where safe distancing was assured.
While I have been doing lots of cooking at home, and buying in farmers markets because I don’t feel safe in crowded supermarkets, I have eaten plenty of great restaurant food in the last four months. Here are the 10 best things I’ve gobbled, in ranked order. This list is offered with overwhelming gratitude for those who have continued to cook and serve during the pandemic. Note that while my usual range extends across the five boroughs and into New Jersey and Long Island, I’m currently limited to those areas I can reach on my bike. Maybe soon I’ll brave the subway again.
10. Fish skins at Dante West Village
Fried chicken skins have gradually become a thing over the last few years. They were popularized in Charleston at Husk a decade ago. But fish skins? Salmon skin has always been popular in Japanese restaurants, and maybe Dante’s recipe is partly inspired by that cuisine. The briny and crunchy fish skins ($10), which dissolve in the mouth, are further flavored with Chinese salted egg yolk, which adds color to the the epidermal heap, and ramps up richness. 551 Hudson Street, at Perry Street, West Village
9. Birria tacos at Chinelos Birria Tacos
Originally from Jalisco, but coming to us via Tijuana and LA, birria is a miraculous, chile-laced stew of goat or beef, the latter more common here. Though the phenomenon is currently limited to places serving birria are regularly appearing. The latest to offer the dish is the Chinelos Birria Tacos van parked near the East River waterfront in Hunters Point, Long Island City. At three tacos for $10, they’re a good deal, the beef filling piquant, profuse, and bright red. The tortillas have been first dipped in meat juices and, upon request, you can get a cup of stew on the side to dip the tacos in as you eat, as is traditional. 48th Avenue and Center Boulevard across from Gantry Plaza State Park, Long Island City
8. Badger flame beet and nectarine salad at Wildair
Wildair has recently reopened with a modest street presence and fascinating all-day menu of sandwiches, salads, and other small dishes. I’m always a sucker for salads featuring fruit in savory dressings, and this is one of the best. The pieces of badger flame beet and nectarines in this salad ($8) are somewhat similar in size and color, but the former is firm and the latter firmer, with an herby savor and a slightly oily texture. Seasonal nirvana! 142 Orchard Street, between Rivington and Delancey streets, Lower East Side
7. Basil chicken at Terra Thai
This Alphabet City Siamese newcomer comes to us via Boulder, Colorado. For now, it offers only five dishes for carryout, all priced around $10 and including sides, which is quite a deal. My favorite, chicken basil, is considered Bangkok street food. The poultry is rendered into well-cooked tendrils, interspersed with sweet peppers and powerfully flavored with the leafy herb and chiles, perfect when dumped into the rice in the adjacent plastic container, which also contains bonus steamed sweet potato and a poached egg. 518 E 6th Street, between avenues A and B, East Village
6. Sopska at Kafana
The dog days of summer are upon us, when you could fry an egg on the blacktop and it doesn’t get cool, even in the evenings. Though there are many dishes I enjoyed one evening sitting literally in the street at Kafana, one of the city’s few Serbian restaurants, the one I remember most is this version of the Balkan salad pronounced “shopska.” Here, some very ripe tomatoes were juxtaposed with cukes and clouds of feta cheese — which didn’t bring rain, but tasted great nonetheless. Oh, the cooling effects of a great salad. 116 Avenue C, between 7th and 8th streets, East Village
5. Chorizo and potato cemita at Tulcingo del Valle
Nothing beats a Pueblan cemita sandwich for big flavors in a small package. In this case ($10.50), the sandwich is loaded with sausage and spuds, but these provide a small proportion of the savor and texture. Additionally, avocado furnishes slipperiness, Oaxacan cheese a dairy richness, and there’s heft and further nourishment from refried beans. But the flavor that stands out most, and distinguishes the cemita from the torta, is papalo, an oblong green leaf that smells like a brush fire, and adds a flavor found almost nowhere else in the city. 665 Tenth Avenue, between 47th and 48th streets, Hell’s Kitchen
4. Jerk chicken at Peppa’s
On a Saturday bike ride through Bedford-Stuyvesant, I couldn’t resist stopping at the newest Peppa’s, just off Nostrand in northern Crown Heights. The chicken (half for $9) was as good and also as inexpensive as I remembered it, potent from its allspice-containing spice rub but also slightly tart from its vinegar dip. The bird retained its spectacular succulence, and damned if I didn’t wish this mini-chain would establish a branch in my neighborhood. Consider also ordering festival, a linear-shaped doughnut this is jerk chicken’s natural accompaniment. 791 Prospect Place, between Nostrand and Rogers avenues, Crown Heights
3. Koong karee at Soothr
Gradually, the amazing flavors of the Thai-Chinese hybrid cuisine that originated in Bangkok have been creeping into the city. The latest is at the East Village’s Soothr, which has what might be called a subspecialty in this collection of recipes. Koong karee ($18) is a dish associated with Yaowarat Road, center of the capital’s Chinatown. Shrimp are immersed in a dense egg sauce, such as you might find in some of NYC’s older Cantonese restaurants. It makes a very rich sauce indeed, especially when further goosed up with curry powder and Chinese celery. 204 East 13th Street, between Second and Third avenues, East Village
2. Smoked pork with smoked bamboo at Happy Hot Hunan
Hunan cuisine makes much of smoked, dried, and pickled ingredients, and this wonderful stir fry ($17.95) emphasizes the smoky part of the equation. The pork belly has been extensively treated by this method, making it taste more like Carolina barbecue than American breakfast bacon; while the bamboo shoots also taste smoky, but in a creamier way, as if the smoking of dairy products were a phenomenon. Pickled red and fresh green chiles add a level of heat rarely found in American barbecue. 969 Amsterdam Avenue, between 107th and 108th streets, Upper West Side
1. Uighur pilaf at Caravan
No dish better symbolizes the Silk Road than this Uighur pilaf ($12.99), known variously as plov, polo, and fried rice on other Central Asian menus. Rice cooked in lamb juices that have been filtered through cheesecloth provides its basis, dotted with the boiled lamb that results from the formation of the broth. Also boiled with the rice are slivered carrots, which provide color and sweetness to the dish, reminding us of the nomadic origins of many dwellers along the Silk Road, where the range of available vegetables in limited. The wonderful yet simple flavors of this elemental dish are further amplified with Asian cumin, almost unbelievably pungent in this context. 200 Water Street, between Fulton and John streets, South Street Seaport