The history of New York, like the history of America, is the story of immigrants arriving in search of new lives and lasting success. Inspired by the late Anthony Bourdain, we’re taking a look at the diverse cultures of our home city the same way he always did: through their comfort foods.
The integration of so many different cultures in New York City is a major reason it remains so vibrant and vital in 2018 — or 1918, or 1818. New York’s story has always been an immigrant story, and though the opportunity to “make it” here is priceless, the city is the true beneficiary of the quest. After all, New York is one of the most diverse places on earth and one of the most welcoming to outsiders, a testament to what we learned from the late Anthony Bourdain: exposure to people and practices different from your own will change you for the better — and give you more great things to eat.
You might not be able to travel the world like Bourdain, but if you can find your way to New York you’ll find yourself able to enjoy an astounding variety of global cuisines. It’s motivated us, as tribute to Tony’s casual and irreverent spirit, to take a closer look at the everyday foods that the average NYC resident orders for delivery, or takeout, or grabs from a street cart, corner deli, or lunch counter. They may be of humble origins, but the history of comfort foods in the city tells a fascinating story of how the Big Apple came to look the way it does today.
To completely savor New York’s diversity of cuisine and culture, you’ll need to find your way to Queens, Staten Island, Brooklyn and the Bronx. But since the majority of visitors stay in Manhattan, we’re focusing on the city’s densest borough. This is New York’s immigrant story told through nine of our favorite comfort foods — along with some comfortable hotels that can help you better experience them.
KUNG PAO PASTRAMI
We know, it sounds like a weird choice. But to our taste, kung pao pastrami from Chinatown’s Mission Chinese encapsulates everything about the best food in New York. On one hand, its origins aren’t even in the city, having started with Korean-born chef Danny Bowien in San Francisco. On the other, it takes a food most New Yorkers know only as the quintessential meat over at Katz Deli (itself a story of immigrants) and integrates it with an old Sichuan meal.
In fact, kung pao pastrami was actually served at a bash honoring Katz’s 125th birthday in 2013. And while much thought has gone into analyzing and defining American Chinese food, the frequent conclusion is that it’s completely its own distinct type of Chinese cuisine, taking flavors and styles brought by Chinese immigrants to the States and morphing into something entirely and uniquely American.
That’s not to say that you can’t find more traditional, less “fusion” Chinese food in Chinatown. Nom Wah Tea Parlor has been serving dim sum since 1920, and Peking Duck House has — yes — our favorite peking duck in the city.
THE SQUARE SLICE
Little Italy & Nolita
Nearly concurrent with the wave of Chinese immigration to NYC came a massive influx of Italians in the late 19th century, with fish and cheese markets turning what’s now Little Italy into an ode to the food back home. And while today sitting down for a $30 plate of spaghetti on Mulberry Street is a tourist experience so decried by critics that it’s probably underrated at this point — again, it is a tourist trap, proceed with caution — Little Italy is redeemed by the slice.
Few will dispute that pizza as we know it all started in Naples. Even fewer will dispute that years of evolution have rendered New York pizza unrecognizable to the traditional version. The hot, dripping, greasy, and foldable slice rules public perception, but it’s either the Sicilian (square, fluffy, and domed) or the grandma slice with its origins in Long Island (square, thin, and crispy) that appear in our dreams at night.
BAGELS & LOX
Lower East Side
Although bagels most likely arrived in the Lower East Side along with a wave of Jewish immigrants in the late 19th century, it’s somewhat ironic — given the city’s snobbery about freshness — that bagels may have truly become the phenomenon we know today when Murray Lender, son of a Polish baker, realized he could freeze and ship them to supermarkets around the country.
Luckily, you won’t have to settle for the supermarket version of a New York bagel. And you will find a great bagel no matter where you stay — for this is the New York promise — but you’d do yourself a favor by choosing the Lower East Side. What with Kossar’s (famous for bialys) and Russ & Daughters (unrivaled in the all-important category of lox), you can’t take two steps without falling into a vat of cream cheese. And while not known for bagels, Katz Deli has been paying tribute to all the other Jewish classics since their founding in 1888. If you like your pastrami without the kung pao, this is your spot.
Bonus: Ess-a Bagel is just up the street in Stuytown. And if you’re looking for a way to dive even deeper into the food history of the neighborhood, check out the Tenement Museum’s “Tastings at the Tenement” and “Foods of the Lower East Side” tours.
Nearly 350,000 Greek immigrants found their way to the US in the early years of the 20th century. According to the New York Times, many came with skills that made sense in the world of diners: small business experience as farmers, as well as a familiarity with catering to all the different types of people in the Ottoman Empire. By the 1960s, the classic diner — the greasy spoon open long hours with an even longer menu — had become synonymous with Greek owners (even if the menu items were from all over the globe).
Today, Greek food has largely transformed from the classic diner stereotype to a plethora of glossy, upscale restaurants serving more traditional fare, but the highly-rated Waverly Restaurant in the West Village preserves the tradition, as does the nearby Washington Square Diner and delightfully minimal La Bonbonniere. The best part about the classic diner is that you can stroll onto the street at three in the morning and instantly find yourself paralyzed by the decision of whether to order an omelette, a milkshake, or a plate of spaghetti.
Welcome to New York, the world is yours.
A play on the nearby neighborhood name Murray Hill, the area of lower Lexington is dubbed “Curry Hill” thanks to the cluster of South Asian restaurants. According to Eater, Curry in a Hurry was one of the first Indian restaurants on that strip of Lexington when it opened in 1975, and a later influx of immigrants in more recent years, primarily from South India, has led to an explosion of new options.
Nowadays, Dhaba tops most lists, and reviewers at the New York Times beg you not to get something so conventional as “chicken masala” from a menu with over 125 dishes. That leads us to an instructive anecdote about how a British Member of Parliament once attempted to codify an origin story dating that very same dish to a restaurant in Glasgow — not anywhere in India. Maybe that’s a good reminder about the food here in New York, too. Dishes are often ladled onto your plate from a melting plot.
As the Japanese economy took off in the 1980s, Japanese businessmen immigrated to Midtown Manhattan, and young people moved to the East Village. The food scene inevitably followed, with sushi bars and izakayas popping up to feed the new residents’ nostalgia. Before long, the village was pioneering the city’s infatuation with ramen, and it’s still full of our favorite go-to spots — and the city’s still very much infatuated.
Rai Rai Ken has old roots in the neighborhood, and mimics Tokyo’s small ramen shops, but Misoya and Ippudo are beloved as well. Meanwhile, David Chang’s impressive Momofuku Noodle Bar has been described, delightfully, as “the ramen equivalent of going to Disney World.”
And we’d be remiss not to set you up for success if, like most, you find yourself stumbling back home in this bar-packed neighborhood. If you do, stop by takeout stand Yonekichi for a Japanese-style burger.
KOREAN FRIED CHICKEN
The little strip of street in Midtown called Korea Way was named in 1995, a good 20 years after the area was given new life by Korean business owners in the late ’70s. Koreatown itself isn’t much larger. You could easily miss it if you don’t walk right down 32nd between Fifth and Broadway, but it’s so surrounded by Korean BBQ and late-night karaoke that when you do find it, you’ll know it. Miss Korea BBQ or Kang Ho Dong Baekjeong are top choices for a sit down meal, but our personal choice is to inhale Korean fried chicken wings from a cardboard box.
We recommend South-Korean chain Bonchon chicken for the typical, Korean-style, twice-fried sin that began taking over New York around the mid 2000s. Typically, KFC (Korean fried, not Kentucky) has adapted to the States just the same as New York’s other favorites.
In this case, American chickens are generally too huge for chefs to fry whole as they do in Korea, so New York restaurants serve mainly wings and drumsticks.
HALAL CHICKEN & RICE
The exact genesis of the halal carts dotting the streets is a matter of speculation, but as it’s one of the city’s newer phenomenons, it’s also easier to speculate. The famous Halal Guys — still a force from their cart at 53rd and Sixth, in addition to expanded brick-and-mortar locations across the country — say they used to sell hot dogs before pivoting to halal food to satisfy an increase of Muslim cab drivers in the early ’90s who wanted a fast meal. Others contend that halal carts took inspiration from Greek gyro vendors, and that the famous white sauce now drizzled over chicken and rice is inspired by tzatziki.
Most agree that Egyptian and South Asian immigrants led the charge in the ’80s and ’90s, and now places like Rafiqi’s dot the city. While Rafiqi’s and the Halal Guys have franchised, others like Trini Paki Boys and Sammy’s Halal Cart remain (almost) one-off gems of the “only in New York” variety. For now.
Hell’s Kitchen is not usually known as Thai Town, but we heard the phrase at least once and we’re running with it. Thai food in America has a fascinating history, like how the Thai government actually made a conscious effort to increase the number of Thai restaurants worldwide in the early aughts, to the extent that they “conducted market research on local tastes around the world.”
Clearly, it worked. You can read all about it in depth, but suffice to say that although there are only about 300,000 Thai-Americans in the US, there are around 5,300 Thai restaurants (ten times the ratio of Mexican-Americans to Mexican restaurants).
These days in Hell’s Kitchen you can taste those numbers yourself, and they taste great. The crab and pork with stir fried noodles at Pure Thai Cookhouse is a favorite, but there’s no shortage of options: Wondee Siam, Larb Ubol, Pam Real Thai Food, Der Krung, Zoob Zib Thai, etc, etc.
To the extent that you can be overwhelmed by delicious food, we’re sorry to overwhelm you.