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Tastes of the town

On a slim budget,delicious pickings around the city are fit for gourmet royalty

Email|Print| Text size + By T. Susan Chang
Globe Correspondent / April 9, 2006

When I was in my 20s, I lived a typical young working person's life in Manhattan -- switching apartments every few years, devoting half my paycheck to rent, walking the length of the city on weekends. It was a good life, and I discovered I had three favorite times of day: breakfast, lunch, and dinner.

Although I came from a family of good cooks and had always eaten well, I was dazzled by the city's culinary variety. Within a five-minute walk of my last apartment in Hell's Kitchen were Ethiopian, Middle Eastern, northern Italian, Thai, Vietnamese, Chinese, Greek, and soul food restaurants. What I could find at the end of a 20-minute walk, or subway ride, beggared the imagination.

I went on regular quests. For a while, it was the best burger, then the best fried chicken. For a ruinously expensive period, I hunted for the best sushi. I used to take visitors on eating tours of the city (figuring they could uncover its other cultural attractions well enough on their own).

Most of my friends were on a pauper's budget, like myself, but that didn't prevent us from dining like kings. We'd hop on the subway, get out at 42d Street, and start eating our way south toward the ethnic enclaves of downtown. Many young people learn to cook during their first days on their own. I did, too, but more importantly, I learned to eat.

In the years since I moved to rural New England, the world of food has changed for me. For one thing, since I no longer lived in the middle of one of the world's great kitchens, I was forced to become a better and more adventurous cook. Still, I would be gripped by bouts of culinary nostalgia, and I learned that some things you cannot duplicate. A home cook with limited time, resources, and only general skills is simply not the same as a professional who steadfastly devotes her days, weeks, and months to making perfect pastrami, bean curd, or pastries.

I started compiling lists of favorite eateries to visit on return trips to New York. And although the revolving door never stops spinning in the restaurant business, many of my most beloved haunts are still there, seven years later. Some were fabled institutions, but many were little more than holes in the wall. If there is any justice, they will still be serving the stuff of food fables when next I return.

In the late 1960s, Korean immigrants began operating small import-export garment and wig shops along West 32d Street (which now is officially known as Korea Way). Today, the shop windows are filled with small leather goods and costume jewelry, and the restaurants have multiplied. On 35th Street, in the shadow of Macy's, you can find fresh homemade tofu, one of the world's original comfort foods, at 1) Cho Dang Gol, 55 West 35th St., (all phone numbers area code 212) 695-8222. Cooks stir the curd in two great vats near the back of the restaurant; its texture is soft and crumbly, with a nutty taste. With a bowl of short-grain rice, vinegared soy sauce, and several free dishes of pan chan (the little appetizers that accompany every meal), you can enjoy a hearty meal for as little as $7.95. Afterward, stop at 2) Han Ah Reum, 25 West 32d St., 695-3283, a massive emporium of hard-to-find Japanese and Korean goods and groceries.

A few broad avenues eastward is the neighborhood known as Murray Hill. The tiny stretch of Lexington Avenue between 27th and 30th streets has been known as Little India for some 20 years, but the name has morphed into Curry Hill. By day, the aroma of cumin and fennel rises from the spice shops and restaurants and over the sari palaces located above them. At night the yellow cabs with Bangladeshi and Pakistani drivers congregate outside Curry in a Hurry and other cheap eateries. One of them, 3) Madras Mahal, 104 Lexington Ave., 684-4010, a South Indian vegetarian establishment, has a wide array of Gujarati specialties. The buffet is generous, and you can get a shatteringly crisp dosa (lentil-rice flour crepe) with filling and accompaniments for $8.95. Afterward, it's only sensible to drop in almost across the street at the renowned spice shop, 4) Kalustyan's, 123 Lexington Ave., 685-3451, for pistachio baklava or any number of freshly made sticky sweets.

Stroll a mile south, past Gramercy Park, and you arrive on the eastern border of New York University territory. Here, wedged between bookshops and vintage clothing shops (and just north of two other food landmarks, Curry Row and Little Ukraine) is East 9th Street. Running diagonally in defiance of the city grid, the street is lined with reasonably priced sushi establishments and the odd karaoke bar. But one of its treasures is 5) Soba-ya, 229 East 9th St., 533-6966, a clean and serenely lighted refuge with a quiet little fountain in the vestibule. At the little booths and scrubbed tables, earthenware bowls overflow with generous portions of fresh buckwheat soba, hot or cold, with pickled vegetables and sweet tofu rolls on the side, for about $10.

One street, one avenue, and a universe away is a tiny red storefront with a battered yellow wooden sign. Hungry students spill out of the waiting area at raucous 6) Caracas Arepa Bar, 91 East 7th St., 228-5062, which somehow squeezes eight tables and a bar into a space seemingly no bigger than a walk-in closet. Areperos dance to salsa in the miniature kitchen, shaping and slapping the corn-flour dough onto a hot griddle, where it puffs into a gilded pocket, a perfect snack when stuffed with cheese and other savory treats. You wash it down with fresh tropical juice (papaya, passionfruit, mango, etc.) and leave only $6 lighter. It's easy to see the place anchoring a neighborhood of its own (in all probability dubbed Little Venezuela) in a few years' time.

The quest for the perfect croissant is a fine way to start a Sunday morning. Count yourself lucky if you find yourself in the West Village, whose night life gets shuttered away for the day, its faint air of expensive seediness replaced by coffee and tea shops, specialty butchers, and little cafes. One cup of coffee will probably supply you with the fortitude to face Claude, the redoubtable owner of 7) Patisserie Claude, 187 West 4th St., 255-5911). Over the course of his many years in the Village, Claude has squandered a fortune in Gallic charm on his enchanting, butter-kissed traditional pastries, leaving none for himself. If you can resist the glistening brioches and the gold-flaked croissants ($1.50 to $2.50), sample the individual-sized apricot tarts, which can reduce a soul to tears. Or you could wander a few blocks to SoHo, where the 8) Balthazar Bakery, 80 Spring St., 965-1785, offers croissants nearly as tempting -- at a higher price, but with a smile. Be sure to pick up a loaf of chocolate bread ($8) to devour on the trip home.

The great Jewish delis still preside here, more than 100 years after the first Eastern European immigrants made their livelihoods in the emerging garment industry. Proceeding east along Houston Street, the neighborhood begins with the 9) Yonah Schimmel Knish Bakery, 137 East Houston St., 477-2858, a worn storefront that has somehow endured since 1910. Next is 10) Russ & Daughters, 179 East Houston St., 475-4880, the ''appetizing" store with glistening lox, chopped liver, and egg salads; for $4.45 you can get a bagel heaped with the best whitefish salad in the city. But no experience of the Lower East Side can be judged truly authentic without a visit to 11) Katz's Delicatessen, 206 East Houston St., 254-2246, established in 1888 and one very good reason to spend $12.45 on a sandwich. Line up at the door for a ticket, wait at one of the five pastrami cutters' lines, sample a slice, as it melts in your mouth, struggle and fail to come up with a suggestion for improvement, indicate a preference for mustard and/or pickles, ask the drinks man for a celery soda, and take your tray to one of the battered tables under the antique signs (''Send a salami to your boy in the Army!"). Somewhere in the process your ticket gets marked up with arcane hieroglyphics; no matter what, you must not lose your ticket. I don't know what happens if you do, but trust me: It's not worth failing to experience the best pastrami in New York.

Ten minutes south is Chinatown -- older, more crowded, and in every imaginable way less kosher than its neighbor to the north. As in other cities, New York's Chinatown grew up with its Little Italy, in time expanding to swallow all but a few trattorias and salumerias. You can easily get lost in the clutter and press of the crooked streets (feng shui-ed 150 years ago to foil ghosts, who fly in straight lines). Near the eastern edge is Bayard Street, packed with Vietnamese restaurants, but also home to 12) Shanghai Cuisine, 89 Bayard St., 732-8988, home of the best soup dumplings -- thin-skinned, redolent of pork and crab, dangerously brimming with steaming broth ($5.95 for a half-dozen). Just a few blocks up is the grungy old 13) Mei Lai Wah tea house, 64 Bayard St., 226-9186, packed with seniors who surely have not left their seats at the counter in 20 years. If you can fight your way past them and get the attention of the equally aged, monolingual waiters, you can go home with a box of steamed or baked roast pork buns (75 cents each), possibly the best of their kind.

For the dull period between meals, Canal Street is a shopper's paradise. The big old Chinatown stores there, deeply discounted and heaped floor to ceiling with merchandise, still hold their own against the discount gold jewelry stores on every side. Head for 14) Kam Man Food Products, 200 Canal St., 571-0330, the place to get tea paraphernalia, kitchen utensils, and any number of obscure canned and bottled condiments. At 15) Pearl River Department Store, 477 Broadway, 431-4770, 800-878-2446, now relocated to tourist territory just north of Canal, visitors are dazzled with brocades by the yard, pajamas, and enough traditional knickknacks to perplex and occupy the whole extended family.

You may still have enough left to splurge on one slightly more expensive dinner. Of two standouts, 16) Pearl Oyster Bar, 18 Cornelia St., 691-8211, serves a justly famous lobster roll -- lush chunks of crustacean on a crisp buttered roll for $22, with shoestring fries (and make a stop at 17) Faicco's Pork Store, 260 Bleecker St., 243-1974,for some impeccable prosciutto and mortadella for tomorrow's lunch). The other standout, 18) Gavroche, 212 West 14th St., 647-8553, a cozy and thoroughly French bistro, has a memorable steak frites -- crisp, golden-brown fries a centimeter thick, served with juicy hanger steak in a velvety red wine sauce ($17.50).

What's more, you are only two blocks away from 19) Chelsea Market, 75 9th Ave., 243-6005, a vast interior bazaar of gourmet and kitchenware stores where anyone who cannot stop thinking about food for more than a few moments at a time can be entertained for hours.

Contact T. Susan Chang, a freelance writer in Leverett, at suppersong@yahoo.com.

Take the tour yourself:
Photo Gallery FOOD: Chinatown
Photo Gallery FOOD: Koreatown
Photo Gallery FOOD: Teany
Photo Gallery FOOD: Curry Hill
Photo Gallery FOOD: Little Tokyo

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