Partly restaurants, partly museums, there are some places that New Yorkers visit both for ambiance and great food. Maybe it’s a last holdout of a lost New York cuisine. Maybe it symbolizes a new cultural trend or wave of immigrants.
Last week I decided to visit a few of these restaurants. I tried to choose places that illustrate the culinary and cultural variety of New York past and present. The kosher restaurant and Italian pastry shop are relics of an East Village that no longer exists. The Cantonese and Indian restaurants are an outgrowth of more recent immigration to New York City. All of these places are beloved by New Yorkers.
July 26, 2005. 7:05 pm. Congee Village. 100 Allen St.
My mother has agreed to join me for this sojourn into New York’s Cantonese underground. The restaurant is located at the intersection of the Lower East Side "bargain district" and Chinatown. The outside of the restaurant is modest; blonde wood slats reveal little of the restaurant within.
The interior is a different story, however. My mother: "Would you look at this place!" Carved and lacquered tree stumps make cozy looking armchairs. Bluish light illuminates the bottles at a bar that looks like a cross between a tiki bar and the "village tavern" set of a Jackie Chan movie.
The dining area is decorated with bamboo along the walls while the ceiling is festooned with plastic leaves and incongruous red Christmas balls. Large Chinese families sit around giant round tables savoring dish after dish. The teenage boys listen to headphones or play handheld video games, oblivious to their grandmothers’ exhortations.
My mom and I sit at a small table, quickly order $4 gin and tonics and start perusing the menu. There is very little over $8. A waiter glides by with a large plate of quivering yellow jelly.
I have my heart set on congee, a gloppy rice porridge flavored with meat, fish or vegetables that is the house specialty. Although the pork stomach congee and the goose intestine with black bean sauce look… if not appealing, then at least intriguing, I eventually choose the chicken with black mushroom congee. I try to prod my mom into the steamed frog or the sea cucumber and goose web with abalone sauce, but she – ever cautious – opts for the beef with Chinese broccoli.
The waitress is visibly impatient as my mom flips through the menu looking for her dish and asks about whether rice is included. But moments later our order of juicy buns arrives, followed quickly by the congee and the beef with broccoli. The congee, still bubbling, is served in a cast iron pan. I ladle some into my bowl and taste it. Perfect! Not too salty, the flavors of the chicken and mushrooms are evident within the starchy porridge. My mother exclaims over her beef. The broccoli is Chinese broccoli, which bears about as much resemblance to the stuff in the supermarket as I do to a cauliflower.
Along with our check we each received a generous wedge of juicy watermelon. On our way out, my mother offered a tip for next time: get the martini. It’s $4 and hard to water down since, as my mom said, "it’s all booze."
100 Allen Street
New York, NY 10002
Take F, J, M or Z to Delancey-Essex Street
July 26, 2005, 8:34 pm, De Robertis Pasticceria & Caffe, First Avenue, Manhattan
I said goodbye to mom and continued down Allen Street until it became First Avenue. I reflected on the hard, lonely life of the Bootsnall.com intern, forced to revisit favorite pastry shops with no company. My mom, though tempted, had opted to stick with her diet.
Finally, I reached my destination. At De Robertis, one is forced to walk a long gauntlet of glass cases, each filled with a more delicious-looking array of pastries than the last. But I pressed on, looking straight ahead. Past the mounds of pignoli cookies. Past the florentines. I knew what I had come for.
I sat at one of the tiny tables in the back and one of the counterpeople sauntered over to take my order: a cannoli, of course. The little menu, normally a bit tight-lipped, felt it necessary to label the cannoli "a traditional favorite" and even include a quote from Phil "The Scooter" Rizzuto extolling the virtues of the de Robertis incarnation.
I only had a moment to gaze at the old mosaic on the walls and the etched glass doors leading to the bathroom before my cannoli arrived on a small plate with a fork. Along with it came a glass of tap water slightly larger than a shot glass, an old country touch.
The fork is unnecessary to eat a cannoli slightly larger than one’s finger. I hypothesize that the fork is provided so that patrons may perform the "fork test" to see if the cannoli shell shatters on fork impact (this is good) or is too soggy to do so, having been filled too long ago (this is bad). The cannoli passed the fork test, but failed the test of the true connoisseur: it had been pre-filled, not filled upon order. De Robertis does a brisk enough business in cannolis, however, that I think that freshness and shell crispiness is largely unaffected.
As I was wiping the powdered sugar from my hands after my last bite, my boyfriend arrived – with flowers! – and the telltale look of someone who wants a bit of cannoli. But, alas, the cannoli was no more.
De Robertis Pasticceria & Caffe
176 First Avenue
New York, NY 10009
Take the L to 1st Avenue
July 27, 2005, 5:32 pm, B&H Dairy, Second Avenue, Manhattan
Just as I entered B&H the sky opened up. From my perch at the counter, I could see people running for cover and trash blowing in the wind. I calmly shifted my focus to the stacks of pillowy challah and the vat of steaming pink borsht. Yes, B&H, the ancient dairy counterpoint to the venerable Second Avenue Deli, is a fine place to be in the rain.
I perused the menu, though it’s not strictly necessary as the rotating weekly specials and permanent menu items are listed on the wall above the counter. I chose the borsht and 4 steamed pierogies: 2 cheese, 2 potato. The counterpeople speak to you half in Spanish and half in English. They are arrogantly aware of the quality of the food, but not impolite about it.
As I sopped up borsht with challah, all kinds of people filtered in. A lone screenwriter banged at the keyboard of his laptop while his poached eggs grew cold beside him. Two young men carrying guitars discussed the finer points of BLTs on challah versus regular bread. An old man wearing a threadbare three-piece suit and an unkempt beard hunched over vegetable soup with the ubiquitous challah accompaniment.
Where else but New York could a kosher restaurant be staffed entirely by Mexicans and packed to the gills with writers, musicians and assorted eccentric characters, none of whom are likely to keep kosher? From my seat, I can see into the kitchen where pale challah is rising in dark loaf pans. The pans are angular and tarnished in way that only very old pans are. They were probably here at the beginning, when the neighborhood was full of people who kept kosher. Silent witnesses.
127 Second Avenue
New York, NY 10003
Take the F to Second Avenue
July 28, 2005, 6:05pm, Jackson Diner, Jackson Heights, Queens
Like many New Yorkers, my trip to the Jackson Diner marked my first foray into Jackson Heights. It’s a cliché to say that when we stepped off the subway we were transported to a south Asian bazaar, but the neighborhood most certainly felt foreign to Manhattan. The Jackson Diner is on a small street lined with jewelry and sari stores. I’d never much thought of wearing a gold necklace heavier than I am, but seeing all of the glittering jewelry in those windows made me reconsider.
My sister was kind enough to travel to Queens with me. When we arrived the huge, colorful space was almost deserted. Through the smoked glass windows we could see the bustling market street. The waiter immediately presented us with a menu listing most of the usual dishes found at Indian restaurants and a selection of beers. We each got a Kingfisher and chose some chat as an appetizer. I think of chat as the Indian version of nachos: normally crispy bread or noodles are combined with a number of other ingredients, like chutney, and eaten in big messy forkfuls. We decided on the chicken tikka masala and the dal makhani for entrees. By now, the restaurant was filling with people.
The truth is, our food tasted like the standard Indian fare. That isn’t to say it was bad! I think, however, that when people wax poetic about the Jackson Diner, they’re really singing the praises of Jackson Heights itself. It was invigorating to walk through a neighborhood so unlike any I’d ever visited. And any trip to Queens makes one stop and wonder at living in a city with people from so many different places. Going to the restroom, I held the door for a woman in traditional African dress and threaded my way past tables of Chinese families.
37-47 74th Street
Jackson Heights, NY 11372
Take the E, F, G or R to Roosevelt Avenue, or the 7 to 74th Street