One of my favorite food moments during this second year of COVID came on a warm summer day in Brooklyn. I was relaxing on a bench on the Coney Island boardwalk, watching a thunderstorm roll in as I ate crisp Uzbek pastries filled with lamb and pumpkin. It was a perfect $10 meal and the ambiance, from the ocean waves to the Russian seaside performers to the dark clouds rolling in, was free.
Make no mistake: I love indoor dining, a practice I resumed in April after receiving my second shot of the Moderna vaccine. The act of eating birria tacos at a good bar while reading the New Yorker is an irreplaceable luxury, a reality that’s all the more true for someone like me who seeks the company of strangers after a long day of solitary work. My dream is that we can continue to spend the winter hanging out inside the city’s restaurants — albeit with a mask on until that first glass of natural wine arrives. That’s not something we should take for granted; recent history has taught us indoor dining is a privilege, not an inalienable right, and one that could go away at a moment’s notice if COVID-19 takes a turn for the worse again.
But regardless of how things shake out, I hope the pandemic has reminded us that there’s a lot more to eating out than in a reservation-heavy space where a staffer takes your three-course order and fetches you another glass of pinot noir every 18 minutes. Indeed, when I look back at 2021, I think less about my time at fine dining institutions, and more about the time I smeared kecap manis onto Singaporean egg sandwiches as flowers bloomed around me in Highbridge Park. This was, I hope, another year when restaurants helped us enjoy more of our city in its full glory, rather than hide us from it.
The Top Three:
Tacos at Taqueria Ramirez
You wait in line. Tania Apolinar takes your order. You wait some more. Chef Giovanni Cervantes pulls a mess of tripe out of the bubbling choricera, torches it, then places it on a lard-slicked corn tortilla. He hands it to you, and you eat it right there, on the spot, or maybe a few seconds later if you step outside. The process is as intimate as at an omakase sushi parlor, and the flavors — the warming longaniza, the slippery innards, the crisp al pastor pork — are no less precise. These are some of the city’s best tacos, period. 94 Franklin Street on Oak Street, Greenpoint
Pirashki at Sofreh Cafe
New York is going through a mini bakery boom of sorts, but Persian pastries are still reasonably rare within the five boroughs. Enter Ali Saboor and Nasim Alikhani of Sofreh fame, who are serving some serious Iranian pirashki in this modern Bushwick space. For a savory version, Saboor stuffs kale, feta, mushrooms, and walnuts into a doughy bun, balancing a tangle of bitter, salty, and umami-rich notes against the sweetness of the roll. For an equally lovely take on an Iranian street snack, the chef takes rounds of fried dough, as yeasty as good zeppoles, and fills them with a faintly sweet rose custard. That dessert pirashki is easily one of the city’s best new doughnuts. 252 Varet Street, near Bogart Street, Bushwick
Vegan Mole at Aldama
The flavors of ash, salt, sugar, fungi, pepitas, sugar, and soil in Aldama’s mole negro appear on your palate like freeform trumpet notes in a Miles Davis ensemble, sometimes seemingly out of nowhere. The inky dish includes no clunky proteins to hide the nuances. Chef Gerardo Alcaraz instead gives us a minimalist $30 sauce — along with a scattering of mushrooms and truffles — on a gray ceramic plate, a preparation that skirts the line between traditional and avant-garde. It is one of the city’s great moles, and unlike most of its counterparts, this one happens to be vegan. 91 South 6th Street, near Berry Street, Williamsburg
Dishes of the Year: the Long List
Gurda kapoora at Dhamaka: Chef Chintan Pandya and restaurateur Roni Mazumdar have long had a way with offal, tasty variety meats that don’t enjoy as much popularity as they should on European-leaning menus. At Dhamaka, the kitchen frequently sells out of gurda kapoora, a generous serving of chile-laced goat testicles (imagine the texture of unpeeled grapes) and kidneys (firmer and funkier). You load the offcuts onto soft pao bread to make an organ sandwich, a blend of meatiness and squishiness that will light up your insides like a glow stick. 119 Delancey St, near Norfolk Street, Lower East Side
Pastries at Bánh by Lauren: The only upside to Lauren Tran serving her pop-up pastry boxes in such limited quantities and with little advance notice is that many of us don’t have to worry about spending $45 on excellent Vietnamese sweets every week. Indeed, her creations are a luxury that one could get hooked on fast: She makes jiggly banh da lon tapioca and rice cakes, fragrant with sweet pandan; chewy banh cam, sesame balls filled with mung bean and coconut; delicate banh chuoi hap, steamed tapioca cake redolent of fresh bananas; and too many other sweets to list. Boxes disappear minutes after a sale is announced.
Empanadas at Claudy’s Kitchen and Salento: Just as sandwiches helped my colleague Robert Sietsema get through the pandemic, empanadas were often my go-to for everyday nourishment during COVID. Claudy’s Kitchen, a Peruvian spot in Fieldston, makes some of the best versions of these hand pies, using wonton-thin wrappers to encase fillings like dried Spanish chorizo with soft potatoes. Further south in Washington Heights, a panaderia and cafe known as Salento serves a fine Colombian empanada, stuffing yellow masa shells with juicy shredded chicken and potatoes. Be sure not to overlook the pandebono cheese bread. Claudy’s is at 59-81 Broadway, near West 242nd Street, Fieldston; Salento is at 2112 Amsterdam Avenue, at West 165th Street, Washington Heights
Cucumber mussel salad at Dame: Patricia Howard and chef Ed Szymanski regularly serve what’s easily one of the city’s best and most innovative new seafood dishes: a salad. Szymanski takes hunks of marinated cucumbers, as shiny as polished gemstones, and places them over a pool of green dill oil and brown mussel emulsion. He tosses in a few smoked mussels, too. The brilliance is that the shellfish only plays a supporting role; the predominant flavors are those of cool, refreshing cukes. The bivalves are simply here to add background notes of salt, funk, and umami. 87 MacDougal Street near Bleecker Street, Greenwich Village
Plov at Tashkent Supermarket: New York has scores of great places to eat plov, the regal rice pilaf of Uzbekistan. What sets Tashkent Supermarket apart, however, is the sheer variety and pricing of the rice. Patrons circling the hot buffets might encounter schmaltzy chicken plov, slicked with aromatic poultry fat, as well as polychromatic Afghan plov, teeming with yellow rice, black rice, and pink pomegranate seeds. Meanwhile, over at the separate plov station, cooks stand behind giant kazans, spooning fork tender slabs of lamb and beef over piles of sugary carrots and broth-infused rice. Prices start at just $8 per pound. 713 Brighton Beach Avenue at Coney Island Avenue, Brighton Beach
Mushroom sloppy at Fat Choy: Justin Lee, the chef behind one of the city’s top new vegan spots, has created one of New York’s top new sandwiches. Lee braises shiitakes in porcini stock and adds a bit of smoked tofu for good measure. He then takes that ragu and piles it onto a squishy sesame bun for a smoky, bitter, warming, meaty-but-meat-free riff on the traditional sloppy joe. 250 Broome Street near Ludlow Street, Lower East Side
Falansai fish ssam: Most tasting menus make things luxurious and easy for patrons. Falansai’s Eric Tran, by contrast, likes to make diners work a bit more, with offal-y, off-the-beaten-track preparations. Case in point is the fish three ways: a head, collar, and belly, grilled and brushed with fish sauce caramel. Diners must navigate all the bony nooks and crannies before placing the sweet, gelatinous flesh into lettuce wraps for munching. 112 Harrison Place, at Porter Avenue, Bushwick
Roti john at Native Noodles: Amy Pryke deserves credit for using Native Noodles to highlight one of the world’s great sandwiches, the Singaporean specialty known as the roti john. Pryke sautees cumin-spiked ground beef on a flattop with onions and garlic, pours an egg mixture over the meat, then places a toasted baguette over it all to soak up the creamy mixture. When ready, everything gets snatched up into the hero, which is finished with a good measure of chile mayo. The result is a squishy, beefy, drippy Southeast Asian treat that deserves as much citywide representation as the classic bodega-style egg sandwich. 2129 Amsterdam Avenue, near West 166th Street, Washington Heights
Bean and cheese tacos at Yellow Rose: Cooks at Yellow Rose take a judicious smear of refried Rancho Gordo beans, as rich as brownie batter, and paint it onto a warm, flaky flour tortilla. They finish it with a crown of shredded cheddar, a breed of cheese that packs the intense dairy tang of good kefir. And there you have it: one of the city’s top tacos, a three-ingredient masterpiece by chef Dave Rizo and partner Krystiana Rizo. 102 Third Avenue, near 13th Street, East Village
Burrata slice at L’Industrie: The local slice renaissance continues, with compelling pizzaiolos around town finding affordable ways to bring airy crusts and creative toppings to more New Yorkers. Massimo Laveglia’s newly expanded L’Industrie in Williamsburg does particularly compelling work on this front, especially with regard to his burrata slice: a light pizza that contrasts warm tomatoes with cool, milky cheese. Summer is far off, but when it returns, the naturally chilling and restorative properties of that slice will come in as handy as a pocket fan. 254 South 2nd Street, near Havemeyer Street, Williamsburg
Morcilla at 188 Bakery Cuchifritos: When one thinks of New York’s great charcuterie traditions, it’s important not to overlook this bouncy breed of morcilla, sold at the city’s dwindling Puerto Rican lunch counters. Jose Coto unquestionably makes one of the great versions at 188 Bakery Cuchifritos, stuffing his blood sausage with rice and deep-frying it until it flaunts a snappy, hot dog-style bite. The interior isn’t so much funky as it is creamy and grassy, thanks to a proper injection of cilantro. Pair it with a cold beer. 158 East 188th Street, near Grand Concourse, Fordham Heights
Jalapeno makdous at Tanoreen: Most Palestinian cooks prepare makdous by marinating stuffed eggplants in olive oil and vinegar, a process that yields delicious snacks to be enjoyed throughout the wintertime. Tanoreen makes a fine eggplant makdous, but chef Rawia Bishara also does something a bit different, filling jalapeno peppers with walnuts and red peppers, a hat tip to the Mexican cooks who have long helped run her kitchen. The result is a bracingly tart, spicy, and crunchy vegetable, a reimagining of Levantine food through a Southwestern lens. 7523 Third Avenue, at 76th Street, Bay Ridge
Ham and cheese sandwich at Ghaya: The French have a long and celebrated history of ham sandwiches with their croque-madame and jambon beurre, but Ghaya Oliveira does something spectacularly different at her namesake bakery in Long Island City. The Tunisian-born chef stacks emmentaler and ham in alternating layers to create a handsome pink-and-white terrine, which she stuffs into a croissant. The final product, brushed with brown butter and a frico-like garnish of more cheese, is equal parts sweet pork, crunchy viennoiserie, and funky fromage. 26-28 Jackson Avenue, near Queens Plaza South, Long Island City
Lodi’s flauto al cioccolato: Ignacio Mattos and baker Louis Volle have given the city what might be its most innovative and unusual pain au chocolat in quite some time. Rather than present patrons with a typically flattish rectangular viennoiserie, the Lodi team has changed up the format by creating a long and lofty ribbed rod. It’s not so much a study in pillowy, croissant-like pastry as it is an expression of firm, geometric, exterior crunch. And with an interior that boasts a hint of stretchiness and with three slabs of dark chocolate hiding inside its core, Mattos and Volle have essentially created something that looks and tastes like a pastry candy bar. 1 Rockefeller Plaza at West 49th Street, Midtown
Gorgonzola strip at Carne Mare: For those who appreciate the natural blue cheese overtones of a dry-aged steak, take note: Chef Andrew Carmellini and crew age their wagyu strips inside a crust of literal blue cheese — Gorgonzola, to be precise. The process creates a funk that’s not necessarily stronger than that of a typical steakhouse affair, but the aroma stays with you just a touch longer, even as the cut’s assertive beefiness shines through unabated. This is one of the city’s great steaks. 89 South Street at Pier 17, Seaport District
Zaab fried chicken at Three Roosters: The Three Roosters team have made this Thai-style fried chicken a vital addition to the city’s crispy poultry scene, ranking alongside craggy Southern birds and airy Korean wings. Cooks fry up boneless breast or thigh meat to a level of crunch that recalls a delicate, freshly made chicharron. They place the meat over sticky rice and douse it with powdery zaab seasoning, which cuts through the fat with a sweet-sour punch in the style of Pixy Stix. On the side is a bowl of broth packing an ultra-concentrated chickeny punch. 792 Ninth Avenue, near West 53rd Street, Hell’s Kitchen
Wau’s salt and pepper coconut: The newest restaurant by Salil Mehta (Laut, Laut Singapura) serves a variety of classic Southeast Asian dishes, but it also sells something a bit less common: vegan calamari. Cooks fry up delicate slices of young coconut, which takes on the soft, neutral texture of tender squid — minus the bounciness, and with a lingering tropical aroma. And while most domestic calamari is considered sustainable, Mehta’s dish functions as a compelling and aromatic fish-free substitute. 434 Amsterdam Avenue at West 81st Street, Upper West Side
Brown stew chicken at Jasmine’s Caribbean: Jasmine Gerald and chef Basil Jones (late of Footprints Cafe) opened this small Caribbean spot on Restaurant Row in the Theater District last November, slinging escovitch fish, jerk wings, saltfish and ackee, and a stunner of a brown stew chicken. The slow-cooked meat shines with a glossy soy-sugar sauce that practically screams with notes of garlic and allspice; the tender flesh yields when barely tapped with a fork. New York doesn’t suffer from a short supply of this staple, but to find such an estimable version in the Theater District — not really a part of Manhattan known for its Jamaican or Trinidadian food — is a true boon. 371 West 46th Street, near Ninth Avenue, Hell’s Kitchen
King crab at Le Sia: Zac Zhang and company closed down their East Village restaurant during the depths of the pandemic, but the Hell’s Kitchen location remains open, serving spicy Chinese-Cajun shellfish boils to the West Side. When I moved back to Manhattan after a year of commuting from Oyster Bay, Long Island, I ordered Le Sia’s king crab legs to numb the loneliness of my first night at a new apartment. I devoured the sweet shellfish standing up, sipping cold beer while splattering chile sauce all over my counter. It was a meal that, to me, announced that New York City was again a place to call home.