New Yorkers are finally eating out again like in the Before Times — and have been for a few months following this spring’s CDC guidance stating that vaccinated folks can dine indoors safely without a mask. That means scores of restaurants are back at full capacity and often packed with happy revelers. Bar dining, the best form of dining, is back too, after a long state-imposed hiatus. Outdoor dining areas, in turn, continue to make New York feel just a bit more like Europe, with throngs of patrons giving energy and life to city streets. Accordingly, this felt like a good time to get back to a longstanding Eater tradition: documenting the best eating of the year, so far.
But even though we diners are excited to be back at our favorite neighborhood spots, many service industry workers and owners still face serious headwinds. Gov. Andrew Cuomo unexpectedly ended takeout cocktails, a blow to struggling restaurants. Roughly 65 percent of statewide restaurants that applied for the $28.6 billion Restaurant Revitalization Fund were completely shut out. Large segments of the city’s adult population — particularly Black folks — remain unvaccinated, a particular concern as the highly contagious Delta variant spreads. And restaurants continue to experience difficulties with staffing, as shell-shocked employees consider whether to return to the industry in the first place.
One hopes eating out over the next year won’t be so much about getting back to normal as it is about diners being more aware of the (involuntary) sacrifices that so many folks make to keep us fed and happy. That said, these are the dishes that have made me quite happy since January.
Pastelon Mahshi at Migrant Kitchen
In traditional Palestinian cuisine, cooks painstakingly hollow out zucchini and stuff them with lamb to make mahshi. In New York, however, the Middle Eastern-Latin sensibilities of the Migrant Kitchen result in a slightly more Dominican-leaning dish. Chef-owner Nasser Jaber and co-chef Dan Dorado deep-fry a plantain, split it lengthwise, fill the starchy fruit with ground lamb, and drizzle cool labneh on top. Each bite balances tropical sugars with salty bits of charred meat. Perhaps more than any other dish I’ve tried this year, the mahshi reminded me of how much I missed the whimsy of creative cooking. Note: Migrant Kitchen currently operates as a stall at the Time Out Market in Brooklyn; the pastelon will return in the fall when the Lincoln Center location opens. 55 Water Street, near Main Street, Dumbo.
Oysters at Tong
Tong, the small-plates Thai spot in Bushwick, marked my return to indoor dining, and my first dish there centered around something I had missed while dining at home: fresh oysters. Most folks like their oysters neat, in order to enjoy nothing but the natural liqueur of the bivalve, but I’ve long preferred jazzing them up a bit, something chefs Chetkangwan Thipruetree and Sunisa Nitmai do quite well. The chefs top the oysters with lemongrass, chile jam, mint leaf, and shallot. The result is a raw oyster that’s more chewy than slurpable, letting you enjoy all the briny goodness with bits of heat, grassiness, and sweetness to balance things out. 321 Starr Street, near Cypress Avenue, Bushwick.
Gurda kapoora at Dhamaka
Roni Mazumdar and chef Chintan Pandya, the force behind Adda and Rahi, easily have one of the restaurants of the year on their hands with Dhamaka, whose menu is dedicated to showing off regional dishes not frequently seen in local Indian restaurants. So much of what I tried was spectacular, but the gurda kapoora is the type of dish that continually pops up in my daydreams; the goat testicles (as soft as tofu) and kidneys (a bit firmer) convey a restrained level of grassy funk — just a bit muskier than a smear of chevre — while acting as a conveyance mechanism for painfully fiery chiles. You mop up this meaty goodness with pillowy pao bread and then wait for the spices to make your insides glow. 119 Delancey Street, near Norfolk Street, Lower East Side.
Doughnuts at Wildair
Banoffee doughnuts. Tiramisu doughnuts. Butterfinger doughnuts. Chef Fabián von Hauske Valtierra, who runs a trio of small restaurants with his chef-partner Jeremiah Stone, sells out of these whimsical treats within minutes of putting them online every day. I like to think the initial fervor was because folks missed the wonders of composed desserts, but as restaurants have returned to full force, the chef’s doughnuts are still selling out quickly. The reason is simple: They are excellent and inimitable treats. My favorite is the creme brulee, which allows the diner to whack the top of the doughnut a few times to crack through the sugar-torched exterior — and surprisingly savory pastry shell — before scooping out the vanilla cream within. 142 Orchard Street, near Rivington, Lower East Side.
Bean and cheese tacos at Yellow Rose
Co-owners Krystiana Rizo and chef Dave Rizo have themselves a heck of a Texas restaurant in the East Village, blending Mexican and San Antonio sensibilities with modern, plant-forward fare — and some serious carne guisada. The bean tacos, however, are in a class of their own. Dave smears a layer of refried beans over a flour tortilla that is, at once, as thin as a sheet of construction paper yet flaky as a good paratha. Then comes a cheddar garnish that conveys the type of concentrated dairy tang one might expect from a condensed milk dessert. Add a bit of hot sauce and you have yourself one of the city’s best tacos. 102 Third Avenue, near 13th Street, East Village.
Carrot tostada at Xilonen
Chef Alan Delgado has left Xilonen, but it would be a shame to overlook his winter tostada, a takeout-friendly dish that boasts the visuals of a modernist Christmas ornament. Purple or orange carrots sit above a vibrant puree of the same vegetable, a silky medium that helps keep things in place atop a tostada. Yes, the interplay of earthy sugars, fiery salsa, creamy puree, and crisp masa is wonderful, but the dish is just as much a visual triumph, something to behold in a pandemic era where so many delivery dinners arrive looking like a teenager’s disheveled room (Note: Xilonen’s tostada is currently made with avocado) 905 Lorimer Street at Nassau Avenue, Greenpoint.
Fried chicken at Three Roosters
As very good fried chicken dishes continue to pop up around the city, the Three Roosters variety manages to stand out for two reasons. First, its cooking technique results in a bird that simultaneously carries some of lightness of a Korean-style wing with the crunchy density of a Southern American fry. Second, the kitchen showers its birds with zabb dust, a Thai seasoning whose sweet-salty-tart overtones channel all the bliss of childhood Pixy Stix. The powder helps cut through all the richness of the fowl. 792 Ninth Avenue, near 53rd Street, Hell’s Kitchen.
All the plov at Tashkent Supermarket
New York suffers from no shortage of plov, the regal rice pilaf that’s the pride of Uzbek cuisine. One can find great versions at Nargis in Sheepshead Bay, Taam Tov in the Diamond District, Farida in Hell’s Kitchen, and at too many other venues to list. But what makes Tashkent Supermarket in Brighton Beach so special is the sheer variety of plovs they offer. Chicken plov packs a schmatlzy punch. Afghan plov boasts bright-yellow grains scented with cardamom; shriveled-up pomegranate seeds add a dose of sourness. And then there’s the more traditional lamb plov, served fresh from a giant kazan. The rice soaks up a dark, garlicky bouillon, while heady, mutton-y fat slicks each grain; shards of carrots and plump raisins add necessary sweetness. 713 Brighton Beach Avenue, near Coney Island Avenue, Brighton Beach.
Chorizo empanada at Claudy’s Kitchen
Near the end of the 1 subway line in the Bronx, chef Claudia Berroa serves an ethereal take on Peruvian empanadas, rolling the dough so thinly the hand pies could almost qualify as dim sum at Tim Ho Wan. The ultra-porky chicharron empanada is a good place to start, but also consider the chorizo variety, made with the dried Spanish sausage (versus a more crumbly one), to impart the accompanying potatoes with a wicked level of sweet, paprika-style smokiness. 5918 Broadway, near 242nd Street, Fieldston.
Roti John at Native Noodles
I sincerely hope that one day the Roti John achieves the ubiquity of a Reuben or roast beef. Until then, Singapore native Amy Pryke will have to draw crowds to Native Noodles with this delicacy. A cook griddles cumin-laced beef on a flattop, adds a scrambled-egg mixture, throws a baguette on top to absorb all the steamy juices, then folds up everything into a sandwich with chile ketchup. The squishy result, cut into four snack-sized slices, recalls a charred Shake Shack-style hamburger crossed with a deli-style BEC on a roll. Cost: Just $9.50. 2129 Amsterdam Avenue, near 166th Street, Washington Heights.
Sloppy joe at Fat Choy
The sloppy joe is one of America’s great yet often-overlooked sandwiches. Chef Justin Lee, accordingly, thrusts that creation back into the limelight at Fat Choy — albeit without the use of meat. Lee whips together a ragu of shiitakes and smoked tofu that he braises in porcini stock; he then tosses all that savory goodness on a chewy handmade roll that’s essentially a cross between a Chinese sesame bun and an English muffin. The result is an earthy, umami-rich, five spice-laced sandwich with just a bit of cilantro for freshness. 250 Broome Street, near Ludlow Street, Lower East Side.
Spicy chicken at the Food Sermon
Rawlston Williams doesn’t grill his chicken over aromatic pimento wood at the Food Sermon, but he still manages to infuse the thighs with the powerful flavors of good jerk. The fowl, seared on a flattop, packs powerfully pungent notes of garlic, thyme, and culantro, followed by a warming rush that recalls black pepper and allspice. At the same time, a tongue-stinging heat from chiles builds to serious levels. Williams doesn’t call it jerk, but anyone who cares about jerk in New York would be remiss not to try this adaptation. 141 Flushing Avenue, near Vanderbilt Avenue, Brooklyn Navy Yard.
Breakfast burritos at Ursula
Eric See started making Hatch chile burritos at his now-closed Awkward Scone after customers from New Mexico started requesting them; now folks form seriously long queues for the speciality here at Ursula in Crown Heights. They are extremely good breakfast burritos with piquant green chiles mingling with red ones that act like a mini-furnace in your esophagus. See stuffs his creations with fluffy eggs, pork-free refried beans, local chorizo, and most importantly, hash browns that impart a massively savory crunch. The kitchen also lets a little cheese seep out of the flour tortillas as they griddle, a process that gives parts of the exterior a frico-like crispness. 724 Sterling Place, near Bedford Avenue, Crown Heights.
Mushroom pie at Washington Squares; burrata slice at L’industrie
The pivot to pizza was one of the hallmarks of how select local restaurants adapted to the pandemic. Dan Kluger’s Washington Squares, in turn, ranked near the top of those efforts — and still does. The pop-up, located within the chef’s Loring Place restaurant, sends out the type of airy square pies that one might expect from a more experienced bakery. My favorite is Kluger’s mushroom pie, which sports a slightly sweet chile crisp to balance out the fungi earthiness. Also, note that Loring place has its own grandma pie for dine-in. 21 West Eighth Street, near Fifth Avenue, Greenwich Village.
Massimo Laveglia didn’t pivot to pizza during the pandemic; his L’industrie is already a few years old, but he doubled down on his efforts this spring, expanding his space and debuting a small indoor dining area — an affordable place to escape from the July heat. Laveglia’s triangle slices, a blend of New York and Roman sensibilities, are perfect for summer eating; they’re so light it’s almost as if you inhale them. Best of all might be the burrata, which contrasts warm tomato sauce with cool, creamy cheese over a paper-thin crust. 254 South 2nd Street, near Havemeyer, Williamsburg.
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