At the Chinese American Bonnie’s, chic patrons might knock back mezcal and vermouth shots while waiting to order char siu McRibs. At the Taiwanese Wenwen, hosts quote serious waits as parties of four sip a single gargantuan Long Island iced tea with flaming limes. Waves of bros in button-downs crowd the Zou Zou’s bar as waiters ferry over $35 dip platters; an expletive-spewing sushi chef hosts nightly all-you-can-drink omakases near Elmhurst; and even the bar at the new Moynihan Station always seems to have a live DJ in case anyone wants to get lit while waiting for the train to Manhasset.
If I had to sum up the year in restaurants so far, part of the answer would be: more and more restaurants adopting party vibes, whether celebratory (“we’ve made it this far”), or perhaps resigned (“the world is on fire”). Restaurants are luring back diners who got used to eating out less with a bit of theatrics, conviviality, and booze. It’s nightly escapism and much-needed forced fun in a work-from-home era when sometimes, the only time some of us get to interact with other people is at a restaurant.
The restaurant as a party, of course, is only part of the story of hospitality in 2022. Hospitality workers nationwide, battered by the pandemic, are still quitting at among the highest rates of the American economy even though their wages are shooting up past pre-pandemic levels. Diners are seeing some of their beloved dishes transform from staples into luxuries as inflation pushes the economy to the brink of recession. And the rise of more omicron subvariants means scores more workers and patrons could very well get infected again.
New York’s positivity rate has shot up past 15 percent as current COVID strains prove adept at evading immunity from previous infections and vaccines; I personally just recovered from my own second bout with the virus. It’s against this backdrop — and against the fragile state of our nation — that the more celebratory ethos popping up in restaurants can feel a touch off. It’s tough to blame operators for showing people a good time — or for packing them in after a profit-draining era of social distancing. Ideally, our city government would hasten their efforts to work up new plans to keep us safe instead of just scrapping old ones. But for now, as I present my favorite dishes of the year so far, it’s hard to shake the notion that getting sick and losing wages appears to be an increasingly permanent reality. Some of the preparations below, accordingly, are best enjoyed not in a boisterous dining room but on a rooftop, in a park, or in one’s own apartment.
Mole tamal from Evelia’s
Evelia Coyotzi, who has said she’s been arrested more than 15 times for street vending, starts selling her tamales most mornings at 4:30 a.m. in Corona. And what tamales they are. I could go on about the grassy salsa verde with chicken or the slippery chicharrón, but the mole tamal is a particular masterpiece. Fragrant masa acts as a delivery mechanism for the potent sauce, whose flavors come in waves: restrained sweetness, astringent bitterness, and glowing heat. Also check out Evelia’s new brick-and-mortar flagship in East Elmhurst. Roosevelt Avenue and Junction Boulevard, Corona
Rowdy Rooster’s bone-in fried chicken
Roni Mazumdar and Chintan Pandya bring the glory of Indian street stall birds to the East Village, the best of which are bone-in nuggets hacked up, fried, and drenched with so much fragrant, flavorful oil, that you keep eating, even though it feels as if you dipped your tongue into hot melted wax laced with chiles. Perhaps one day soon South Asian fried chicken will achieve the ubiquity of excellent Korean, Japanese, and Southern versions throughout the city? 149 First Avenue, near East Ninth Street, East Village
Salatim at Laser Wolf
Michael Solomonov’s rooftop Israeli grill spot serves damn fine skewers, but the stars of the show are really the Manhattan skyline and the salatim. You take a seat, and minutes later a waiter brings over a tasting of vegetables and spreads in tins. There are bright Turkish tomatoes, buttery white beans, pickled pineapples, green tomatoes, rich hummus, and smoky eggplant. Eat with fresh pita while watching the Empire State building glow in the distance. 97 Wythe Avenue, near North 10th Street, Williamsburg
Cacio e pepe at Bonnie’s
As cacio e pepe continues to clone itself ad absurdum throughout the city, Calvin Eng does something a bit different. The chef tosses fat bucatini in a sizzling hot wok with not just pecorino but with MSG and fermented tofu. It is pasta pretending to be dry-aged steak, a wallop of salt, umami, and funk all meant to overwhelm the palate — until you take a sip of a strong martini (just be sure to skip the MSG version). 398 Manhattan Avenue, near Frost Street, Williamsburg
Sundaes at Mel’s
Sundaes might normally be simple, delicious diner fare, but pastry chef Georgia Wodder whips up more nuanced treats. If that sounds like a bookish explanation for a lighthearted summer delight, just try the mascarpone gelato with shaved tricolore cookies, and you’ll understand how technical pastry subtleties go hand in hand with uncomplicated, childlike deliciousness. 85 Tenth Avenue, near West 16th Street, Chelsea
Curry oxtail pie at Cuts & Slices
Randy McLaren’s Caribbean-themed pizza parlor is a welcome and rare counterpoint to a citywide pizza scene that remains overwhelmingly Italian-leaning. Best of all might be McLaren’s green curry oxtail slice, laden with so much gelatinous beef and slicked with so many fragrant spices and onions it’s as if someone decided to paint the pizza in army camouflage. 93 Howard Street, at Halsey Street, Bed-Stuy
Anticuchos at Kausa
For further proof that Hell’s Kitchen remains one of the city’s top hubs of South American fare, do the following: Drop by the Peruvian Kausa on Ninth Avenue, order a platter of anticuchos, and appreciate the salty, irony, smoky taste of expertly grilled beef hearts. Consume with beer. 745 Ninth Avenue, near West 50th Street, Hell’s Kitchen
Tuna roll at Mari
As New York sushi chefs continue to serve absurd quantities of bluefin tuna, chef Sungchul Shim takes a more innovative approach at Mari, slowly confiting more sustainable bigeye tuna in garlic oil, adding gochujang, and topping the whole thing with crunchy potatoes. Some might recognize it as an haute riff on kimbap, but it’s also a heck of a spicy temaki tuna roll. 679 Ninth Avenue, near West 47th Street, Hell’s Kitchen
Celtuce at Wenwen
To cool down on a hot Brooklyn night, order a small cup of chef Eric Sze’s celtuce. Each bite of the crisp lettuce provides a satisfying crunch, a proper chill, and a numbing sensation, thanks to a dose of Sichuan peppercorns. 1025 Manhattan Avenue, near Green Street, Greenpoint
Cheesecake at Zou Zou’s
Chef Madeline Sperling and chef de cuisine Juliana Latif take this rich New York staple and turn it into something so nimble and textured one could eat it for breakfast. There’s at least as much strawberry-dusted kataifi and phyllo as there is cheese, a perfect ratio of crunch to cream and unquestionably one of the city’s great cheesecakes. 385 Ninth Avenue (best entrance off of West 31st Street), Manhattan West
Pepper soup at Dept of Culture
Ayo Balogun’s oba eja tutu, as it’s known, is a master class in the use of heat. The clean, clear, cilantro-laced soup, infused with rodo peppers and fortified with slabs of pink snapper, belies the throat-warming fireball that hits you seconds later. 327 Nostrand Avenue, near Quincy Street, Bed-Stuy
Caviar with dill at Joomak Banjum
So many chefs either leave caviar alone or pair it with something rich and saline like butter or crab. Chef Jiho Kim has something else in mind entirely, spooning golden osetra over a fragrant dill mousse. One could call it a smart deconstruction of a sweet dill pickle, but like so many other sweet-savory things, it’s just plain tasty. 312 Fifth Avenue, near West 32nd Street, Midtown
Kubdari at Chama Mama
Georgia’s mountainous Svaneti region is responsible for the glorious creation that is kubdari, a leavened bread shaped like a pizza and stuffed with an aromatic mix of beef, pork, garlic, onion, and chiles. I’ve been to Chama Mama before but somehow never encountered this particular delicacy — until I ordered it as delivery during my COVID infection and quarantine last week, and then again a few days later. And while I’m looking forward to sampling it at Chama Mama sometime soon, it’s quite a nice feeling when a New York restaurant can evoke a sense of joy and surprise when we, as New Yorkers, can’t necessarily get to the restaurant itself. 373 Amsterdam Avenue, near West 78th Street, Upper West Side