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Down in the Valley With Robert Sietsema

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What conditions are necessary for the creation of a great food neighborhood? Lots of storefronts, some not all that expensive; and a mixture of nationalities, including ones that pay excessive attention to the food they eat. When you stumble on one of these neighborhoods, just walking down the street can be cause for excitement. The northern Manhattan Valley is such a region, and it appears to be on the culinary upswing.

Wedged into the northeastern corner of the Upper West Side, the Manhattan Valley is a working-class neighborhood named after Manhattan Avenue, which begins in a dale and then traces an uphill course from 100th Street to the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, which looms on the northern border like some medieval fortress.

Below are some great, off-price places to eat within an area of roughly 12 blocks along Columbus and Amsterdam Avenues between 106th and 110th. Some are new, some are old, but all are worth patronizing. When you visit, you'll find many more worthwhile restaurants and carryouts.


New Young Fish Market (a/k/a Amsterdam Avenue Fish, 975 Amsterdam Avenue, 212-932-3595) pairs a very nice over-ice fish store with a fried-fish carryout operation that provides an overstuffed whiting sandwich for only $3.50, slathered with plenty of chunky tartar sauce. But check the handwritten signs above the fry-o-lators for specials, recently including a wonderful Dominican sopa de pescado, a thick soup generous with its seafood, garlic, and cilantro. A curving counter provides a few seats in the middle of all the action.


Down in Greenwich Village and in other Manhattan locales such as Curry Hill and Midtown, diners are already familiar with the kati roll and its ilk, representing citified fast food from India. You won't see this menu of hand-held, roti-rolled treats in too many other neighborhoods, but Manhattan Valley boasts its own: Bombay Frankie Roti Roll (994 Amsterdam Avenue, 212-666-1500). The fillings run from poultry to paneer, and there are plenty of vegetarian and vegan options. Apart from that, there's nothing very unusual about these assemblages: a simple well-spiced filling of one or two ingredients gobbed with your choice of chutneys, twirled inside a whole-wheat roti warmed on the griddle. And you can add an egg to anything.


Just north of the border lies the Hungarian Pastry Shop (1030 Amsterdam Avenue, 212-866-4230), a longtime magnet to Columbia students and an institution that has been a literary hang since the early '60s, with the book jackets on the walls to prove it. The Viennese-style pastries may not be the best specimens you've come across, but I'm sure you can find at least one to love. For me it's the cheese strudel, swaddled in phyllo rather than puff pastry, suggesting the ethnicity of the owners.


Taqueria y Fonda la Mexicana (968 Amsterdam Avenue, 212-531-0383) is a serviceable south-of-the-border taqueria with a cheery table out on the sidewalk. In addition to its menu of breakfasts, meal-size soups, and such main courses as the fiery camarones a la diabla (from Guerrero) and chiles relleno (from Puebla), plus a handful of Dominican dishes, another utility of this place lies in its unreconstructed list of tacos featuring organ meats: silky beef tongue, crunchy pig ear, and squishy beef tripe.


You may be one of those people who think there's no good pho in town, but you owe it to yourself to try the version at Saiguette (930 Columbus Avenue, 212-866-6888), a Vietnamese carryout with a small lunch counter that allows unobstructed views of a bustling Manhattan Valley crossroads. The main specialty is banh mi sandwiches, which can be doctrinaire or unusual. From the unusual side, the one made with chicken thighs is impressive, and what other dish delivers so much dark-meat chicken all in one place?


The block of Columbus between 106th and 107th boasts three South Asian refectories, seemingly aimed at car-service drivers. The best of a very good lot is Curry King (942 Columbus Avenue, 646-669-7826), a 24-hour Pakistani café serving halal meat, with a surprising parity between meat-bearing and vegetarian dishes. There are snacks galore, too, including samosas, various poultry and ground-meat kebabs, and milk-based sweets. The service is kindly, and the seating more comfortable than it needs to be. And there's no shortage of goat and lamb, if you're into those critters.

As an added advantage, all these places are just steps away from the lushest and most obscure part of Central Park, where a Revolutionary-era fort and waterfall await your picnicking pleasure.

— Robert Sietsema
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New Young Fish Market

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Pairs a very nice over-ice fish store with a fried-fish carryout operation.

Roti Roll

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A solid kati roll joint.

The Hungarian Pastry Shop

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Viennese-style pastries at a local institution.

Taqueria Y Fonda

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Go for the organ meat tacos.


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Get the pho or the chicken thigh banh mi sandwiche.

Curry King

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A 24-hour Pakistani café serving halal meat, with a surprising parity between meat-bearing and vegetarian dishes.

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