Sometimes adversity causes us to try harder and that’s especially true of the restaurant industry. Despite the continuing pandemic and the recently emerging omicron variant, restaurant workers across the city have continued to persevere and triumph, giving us nourishment and pleasure. In looking back at the past 12 months or so, I can say I’ve enjoyed more great dishes than in any previous year I can remember. Here’s my recap as I travel backwards in time revisiting, in reverse chronological order, the best dishes eaten in 2021.
Pernil at Los Primos: The Bronx is filled with culinary gems rarely written about, but establishments every bit as good as ballyhooed Manhattan and Brooklyn spots often get overlooked. A perfect example is Los Primos, a long running but recently renamed corner Dominican cafe. One may simply gaze rapturously through the corner window at the pristine steam table, where the tub of roast pork is seductively displayed. I don’t really need to describe the hearty meat, its burnished skin, or the lush yellow rice and red beans underneath because one glance at the photo should reveal its excellence. 698 Allerton Avenue, at White Plains Road, Allerton
Tacos al pastor at Antojitos Charly: Jackson Heights can be seen as a series of food obsessions, and my current one are the al pastor tacos at Antojitos Charly. How could I help it? The waffle-stamped cart advertising “the best Mexican food” is in your face the minute you exit the subway station with a slow-twirling spool of pork compounded with spices, the juices cascading down the sides. Once deposited in the tortillas with a few chunks of pineapple, spicy salsa, and some runny guac, there’s nothing better to gobble as you stand on the sidewalk wondering which cart you should visit next. Roosevelt Avenue, between 74th and 75th streets, Jackson Heights
Double smashed burger at Lavender Lake : Every year I eat around 60 burgers, not only out of due diligence, but because I love burgers. This was the best, a double-patty cheeseburger in the currently faddish smashed style. It’s made with sizzling Angus beef inundated with melted American and the more effete white cheddar, but it’s also adorned with pickles somewhere between sweet and savory and caramelized onions. There’s no juicier or more flavorsome burger in Gowanus — and probably in the entire city. 383 Carroll Street, between Bond and Nevins streets, Carroll Gardens
Duck necks at Falansai: Some dishes at great restaurants don’t look like much, let alone Instagram bait. But it’s those dishes that I come back to again and again, sometimes closing my eyes as I eat them, the more to relish their inner beauty. Duck necks are a perfect example — a gnawer’s paradise that will have you avidly extracting the rich, stringy flesh slicked with a dark sweet sauce — and returning to the plate again after you think it’s finished to extract one last morsel of flesh. 112 Harrison Place, at Porter Avenue, Bushwick
Pasticciotti at Court Pastry Shop: Founded 1948 in Cobble Hill, Court Pastry is like a magic passageway to the baked goods of old Naples. Pasticciotti are little pies that once delighted the attendees at saint’s festivals, as indicated by the pastry cross on top. Now we can enjoy them year-round, known in English these days as “crosses.” They’re filled with sweetened ricotta with a texture something like Italian cheesecake, scented with orange peel that reminds us how close Naples is to the citrus groves of the Sorrento Peninsula. 298 Court Street, between Douglass and Degraw streets, Cobble Hill
Fern root noodles at Sanshi Rice Noodle: Quick, what comes to mind when you think of ferns? Delicate fronds trembling in the breeze with the faint smell of wet earth? It’s exactly what Chinese fern root noodles (jue gen fen) taste like. They are best when not overdressed, but with a slight application of spicy and vinegary flavors, which is just what has been done at sleeper Yunnanese Sanshi Noodle House. 118 Second Avenue, at East Seventh Street, East Village
Pork roast at Kuttanadan: Beef, pork, and lots of seafood are the stars of the show at Kuttanadan, which is located on the border of Queens and Long Island and specializes in the food of Kerala on India’s southwest coast. The pork roast is a masala-rubbed dish, its terrain varied with chunks of fresh coconut meat. While it looks like it might be dryish, the dish rests in its rendered fat and every sliver of pork is chewy, pungent, and unforgettable. 248-54 Jericho Turnpike, between Commonwealth Boulevard and 91st Avenue, Floral Park
Sauteed spicy holy basil and minced pork at Nuaa Table: You wouldn’t know it by looking at the picture, but this dish highlights licorice-like basil, almost as a main ingredient, and it’s hot as hell with two kinds of chiles, including the small but incendiary bird’s eye variety. The savory and slightly sweet pork, coarsely ground, actually has a mellowing effect, and the fried egg gushing yellow is not only tasty, but beautiful to look at, like the sun rising over a rugged rocky landscape. 638 Bergen Street, at Vanderbilt Avenue, Prospect Heights
Chicken tabaka at Gulchatay: Chicken tabaka is a Georgian dish where the chicken is splayed and flattened with some bones removed like they also do it in Tuscany. It’s like the Caucasus Mountains answer to American fried chicken. Overflowing with garlic, the dish has been long adopted by Russian restaurants, where it is sometimes facetiously known as “road kill chicken.” At Gulchatay — a Central Asian restaurant in Homecrest, Brooklyn — a wonderful version of chicken tabaka is produced with crisp skin and enough garlic to make you woozy. 1915 Avenue U, between East 19th Street and Ocean Avenue, Homecrest
Goan shrimp curry at Indian Table: Cobble Hill’s Indian Table is the city’s second Goan restaurant, though the menu strays to other states in southern India. This dish first knocks your eyes out with its bright orange color, but one bite and you’ll appreciate the extreme subtlety of the coconut-laced sauce, tasting of its complex masala with shrimp that retain their bouncy and light texture — a sure sign that it’s been cooked for just the perfect amount of time. 234 Court Street, between Baltic and Kane streets, Cobble Hill
Potato croquette sando at Curry Mania (May 13): Served on slices of white bread with the crusts cut off in perfect alignment, Japanese sandos are a mini-fad for the perfectly uniform sandwiches that can look like they come off an assembly line, but they also deliver big flavor with their deep-fried fillings here. My favorite featured potatoes on white bread at this pop-up in ramen bar Kitakata, which became just another pandemic casualty. But these wonderful sandwiches remain on the menu at Katana Kitten (try the mortadella) and Evil Katsu (where portobello katsu is almost as good as potatoes).
Barbacoa at La Estancia De La Espiga: La Espiga has been around in an off-the-beaten-track corner of Corona since 1998, serving southern Mexican specialties to a crowd for whom the low-slung dining room and open prep areas form a sort of second home. Barbacoa made with lamb or goat is a weekend special that’s dense, chile-slicked, and dripping with delicious juices. It’s available by the pound with tortillas made in the window, or in an an all-you-can-eat feast for a whole table of diners, who chatter happily as they eat. 42-11 102nd Street, between 42nd and 43rd avenues, Corona
Caldo chipilin at Ix: This was a favorite among several meal-sized soup sampled at the Guatemalan brunch spot Ix, located on a bucolic block just east of Prospect Park. Chipilin (known in English by the hilarious name of “longbeak rattlebox”) has an agreeable slippery quality somewhat like okra, which fortifies a broth based on chicken, and increases its verdancy. Finally, shrimp bob around in the soup, adding clean and oceanic flavor. 43 Lincoln Road, between Flatbush and Ocean avenues, Prospect Lefferts Gardens
Kreyol chicken at Rebel: At Lower East Side newcomer Rebel, there’s a chicken fricassee bathed in a spicy red sauce that flings off notes of garlic, thyme, and citrus — owing at least part of its flavoring scheme as much to West Africa as to France. The bird is tender as all get out, and comes accompanied by colored black by djon-djon mushrooms and twice-fried woody plantains that deliver a welcome crunch and prove perfect for dipping in the sauce. 29 Clinton Street, at Stanton Street, Lower East Side
Butterscotch pudding at Portale: Even more than chocolate pudding, I love butterscotch pudding, and the one I had just after New Year’s at Portale was among the most memorable examples of a lifetime. Firmer than most, the pudding has a buttery and salty taste, and the micro-dice of green apples as well as the crushed nuts and whipped cream put it over the top. Feeling obliged to share it around the table was the hardest part. 126 West 18th Street, between Sixth and Seventh avenues, Chelsea