Among the world’s great sandwiches without a serious New York City presence, the roti john, like the one chef Amy Pryke serves at Native Noodles in Washington Heights, surely ranks near the top.
As one of the apocryphal origin stories of the dish goes, an Englishman in the late 1960s asked a Malay hawker in Singapore for a hamburger. The hawker didn’t have any burgers, so instead he fried together a concoction of minced mutton, eggs, and onions and pressed it into a baguette. And thus the roti john was supposedly born, a sandwich that Singaporeans often consume for breakfast. “John,” it should be noted, is a Southeast Asian slang term for a white man, as Pryke explains in John Wang’s cookbook anthology, The World Eats Here. And here at Native Noodles, a fine Singaporean spot near New York-Presbyterian hospital, the roti john is exceedingly delicious.
Pryke used to sling noodles at the currently closed Queens Night Market in Flushing, but the small scope of the operation made it tough to serve a roti john, which ideally should be made to order. The chef sautees cumin-laced beef on a flattop with caramelized onions and garlic, adds the eggs, and then places a toasted baguette on top of it all, allowing the bread to soak up much of the creamy mixture. She then flips the sandwich, drizzles it with chile ketchup, cuts the baguette into four snack-sized pieces, and places it in a to-go container. Cost: $9.50.
One should consume the sandwich immediately, while the wobbly textures are at their prime. The eggy bath imparts the baguette with a texture that’s more squishy than crisp, while the omelet is almost custardlike in its creaminess. The charred meat, in turn, boasts a salty, Shake-Shack-level beefiness, and the chile ketchup checks all the greasy, oozy, carby flavors with a kick of mild spice and sweetness. I like to think that one day the roti john will be as common as an egg on a roll or a chopped cheese sandwich, an affordable staple one can order at delis and bodegas throughout the city. But for now, it can reliably be found at this tiny takeout-focused spot with just 11 seats.
Thanks to the semi-open kitchen, the entire space often smells of coconut.
New York City boasts a bustling Southeast Asian restaurant scene, but Singaporean food — a melting pot of Chinese, Indian, Peranakan, Thai, Malay, and colonial British influences — doesn’t benefit from too much representation. The months-old Native Noodles, along with Laut Singapura in Gramercy and other venues, helps address that gap, adapting classics from the small city-state to meet the demands of takeout fare. To wit: You won’t encounter steaming piles of chile crab here, but rather small mantou buns with ramekins of sweet crustacean dipping sauce.
Native Noodles should also help with the dearth of Southeast Asian cuisine in Upper Manhattan, something Pryke was acutely aware of while studying at Columbia Business School in Morningside Heights. On that note, Pryke is frank about the fact that she has adapted some of her preparations for an audience that might not be familiar with Singaporean fare. During a phone call, she brings up the example of cereal shrimp: The dish typically involves frying shell-on prawns in butter with curry leaves. Pryke instead substitutes chicken for the shrimp because she feels the result would be less “intimidating.” As an aside: I’m neither a businessperson nor a chef, but I’d say all New Yorkers could use more tasty shrimp shells in their lives.
Pryke, a former management consultant who pursued her graduate studies with the aim of opening a restaurant, worked at fast-casual spots on her days off, including Made Nice, the Eleven Madison Park group’s former lunch spot, as well as Daily Provisions, the Danny Meyer takeout shop renowned for its crullers. Native Noodles employs the fast-casual ethos as well; diners order from a tight menu of 12 or so dishes, pay, and then grab their seats inside as a team of three cooks prepares everything to order.
The chef says she’s hoping to expand her menu when the kitchen team gets up to speed, perhaps offering a nasi lemak, the classic mix of coconut rice, fried anchovies, hard-boiled egg, and spicy sambal, as well as Hainanese chicken, a poached poultry dish famous for its bouncy skin and fat-slicked rice grains.
For now, Pryke focuses her offerings on snacks, noodles, and that spectacular roti john sandwich. Here’s a quick rundown of a few dishes sampled recently:
Crab buns ($8): Fried mantou buns with a chile crab dipping sauce. Each fritter is golden brown and distinctly crisp; the oily exterior seems to shatter like an eggshell, while the inside is soft and fluffy. The crab dip counteracts the wonderfully unctuous mantou with a delicate maritime tang and a dose of sweetness.
Wonton noodles ($12): Ultra-thin egg noodles tossed with sliced pork and wontons. The char siu swine imparts a savory, sugary chew, while the fried dumplings encase softly cooked shrimp with a pleasantly oceanic flavor. Underneath those toppings are the noodles themselves, both creamy and stretchy and no thicker than angel hair, with a pork fat sheen that adds extra umami.
Laksa ($12.50): Yellow curry over rice noodles. Pryke does a bang-up job with this Singapore-Malay classic, using a thick gravy rather than a typical broth to keep things from getting too soupy for takeout. The curry conveys bright flavors of galangal, coconut milk, and the high-tide aroma of dried shrimp. Soft, faintly toothsome rice noodles act as a neutral counterpoint to the heady, briny sauce.
Waffles ($6): Freshly made waffles with intensely fragrant and eggy coconut jam. A fluffy and perfumed breakfast snack.
You can see where things are going now. I’m rating the roti john and all of the above dishes as a BUY, and I’ll be back to sample more menu items as they debut. The dining room is open, but for those who aren’t yet eating indoors, consider walking over to Highbridge Park next door. Sit on the steps overlooking the basketball courts, and enjoy your noodles while reveling in the nearby trees in bloom.
Buy, Sell, Hold is a column from Eater New York’s chief critic Ryan Sutton where he looks at a dish or item and decides whether you should you buy it, sell it (just don’t try it at all), or hold (give it some time before trying).