Nosh New York
The Food Lover's Guide to New York City's Most Delicious Neighborhoods
By Myra Alperson
St. Martin's Press Copyright © 2003 Myra Alperson
All rights reserved.
PREPARING FOR YOUR FOOD ADVENTURES HOW THIS BOOK WORKS GETTING AROUND
Preparing for Your Food Adventures
One of the pure pleasures of being in New York City is that you don't have to go far for an exotic culinary adventure. If you already love to travel and relish new tastes, sounds, and sights, and have an adventurous palate, you need little more than a MetroCard, an appetite, $15 to $20 (although you can get by with less), a backpack, and super-comfortable walking shoes to set out on a foreign journey close to home. Did I forget to add energy and imagination? (And you already have another useful tool: this book!) This chapter provides some tips to get you going.
On any trip you take using this book, I recommend just a few other items: a compact atlas of New York City (I like the Hagstrom New York Atlas — about $14.95 — which is compact but easy to read), a collapsible umbrella or a poncho that doesn't make you sweat buckets in case of rain, a sun hat in case of glaring sun, and a credit card or an ATM card, just in case you find something extra that you absolutely have to have.
Extra cash comes in handy, of course: in neighborhoods where there are few banks, you may find an ATM in a supermarket or convenience store but you'll have to pay a fee of up to $2.00 for any transaction. And some restaurants in the neighborhoods I've written about take neither credit cards nor personal checks. Some folks also like to bring freezer bags in case they buy perishables.
Oh yes — don't forget your camera!
An Ethnic Cornucopia
The diversity of New York City seems to increase each year. Neighborhoods, especially in Queens, Brooklyn, and the Bronx, continue to embrace newcomers from many lands. And in the past decade, these settlers truly have come to represent all continents (okay, except for Antarctica, unless you visit one of New York's zoos!) and, with them, new flavors and ingredients to discover in their restaurants and markets.
Neighborhoods such as Astoria, Elmhurst, Flushing, and Sunnyside, all in Queens, offer so much within their boundaries that an outsider trying to figure them out can easily experience information overload. So many young people from different countries have come to New York City with their families in recent years that the city's school system has created special programs just for them. One of these, Newcomers High School, was opened several years ago in Long Island City to help acclimate them to the United States and provide the basics for them to make a transition to a regular high school. (More than 100 languages are represented at Newcomers.)
Among the hundreds of business cards I've collected, a few have addresses in their home countries as well as New York. One for an African grocery in East Harlem also has an address in Dakar, Senegal. Another, for a shop in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, which specializes in nuts and dried fruit, has a head office in Lebanon. And a Chinese shop selling Japanese-style sweets and dried snacks lists its counterpart in Hong Kong.
When All This Started
Some folks date the dawn of New York City's ethnic food craze to 1973, when the then-new Ninth Avenue Association in Manhattan organized its first-ever ethnic food fair, scheduled for the third weekend of May. There were rainstorms that weekend, but several thousand people crowded the fair, which stretched over many blocks. (I remember, because I was there!) But in those days such an event was quite a novelty: street fairs of this type and on this scale were unheard of, though we take them for granted now.
And, in those days, that particular neighborhood — Ninth Avenue from about 37th to 57th Streets — was considered by some to be "Wild West" territory. You'd have to remember the bad old days, easily forgotten now, when Times Square was considered a crime zone after dark, when 42nd Street from Broadway to Eighth Avenue was lined with XXX-rated movie theaters. To get to Ninth Avenue it seemed necessary to wade through a considerable discomfort area. Businesses suffered — and that's why locals organized the association in the first place.
Nowadays the Ninth Avenue Street Fair is the mother of street fairs, drawing millions of visitors every May. Ironically, however, many of the exhibitors come from outside the neighborhood because the cost of setting up a booth is, sadly, too expensive for some local merchants, and competition for space is high, too. That's just one indicator of how times have changed. Now surrounded by luxury high-rises, Ninth Avenue (which itself is protected from overbuilding by local preservation regulations) has become a tourist destination, and its restaurants often fill up, especially before matinees at nearby Broadway and off-Broadway theaters.
I began preparing this book about two months after the events of September 11, 2001. It was a time of great mourning in New York City, and many of the small businesses I routinely cover for NoshNews suffered badly. So I've been very grateful to have the opportunity to promote these wonderful markets and eateries in my newsletter, walking tours, and this book.
If you're an adventurous cook, you will fall in love with many of the places you'll read about here once you visit them in person. A great way to take advantage is to have recipes in mind before you go. This book has a few, but you may want to stock up on more. An outstanding source for ethnic cookbooks is Kitchen Arts & Letters (1435 Lexington Avenue at 94th Street, 212-876-5550), the granddaddy of cookbook stores. If you can't find the book you think you want here, Nach Waxman and his staff will help you figure out what it is and then make sure you get it. The global food market Kalustyan's (123 Lexington Avenue between 28th and 29th Streets, 212-6853888; fax 212-683-8458) has dozens of cookbooks with recipes from around the world and ingredients to make many of them at home. I have also found many recipe sources on line and have mentioned some in this book.
Visiting the Neighborhoods: Bridging Language and Culture
I think it's important for us to make our trips with an open mind and an open heart. In visiting new neighborhoods, you may encounter cultural gulfs similar to those you may have experienced traveling in other countries. While these tours are hardly the equivalent of a Himalayan trek or an eco-tour of the Amazon, you will find some neighborhoods where stores have few signs in English and where few people speak English and are not prepared to accommodate your questions. For example, you might ask for more information about a particular item on a menu, and although the menu itself has been translated into English, you'll find that no one can explain what that item is. This can be frustrating, but it's also one of the more unique aspects of life in New York City.
It's important to remember, as well, that some of the neighborhoods I've written about are not geared up for tourists — and that's essentially what we are when we venture into them! These markets and eateries have been created to meet the needs of the local population, including many relatively recent immigrants, who seek out comfort zones where they can eat familiar food and speak their language — and not to attract intrepid food mavens like us!
Almost all of our families were part of this dynamic immigrant cycle at one time. Looking from the outside, we may wonder why the restaurants and markets aren't more welcoming to outsiders. At times you may even feel as though you're being regarded with suspicion — I have felt this myself. But with patience and respect, we can use these visits to gain more knowledge about our New York neighbors and, hopefully, begin to break down barriers.
Each time I prepare an issue of the NoshNews newsletter, I try to read up on whatever neighborhood I'm visiting so that I'm not walking into totally unknown territory. For some neighborhoods you can find Web sites that will provide good background material. (I've appended Web sites, when I've found them, for each neighborhood chapter and/or side trip.) A bibliography of recommended books is also included.
A very good overall resource for neighborhood background information is New York City's own Web site, which includes a section called "City Life." The URL is http://home.nyc.gov/portal/index.jsp?pageID=nyc_citylife&catID=803. (I wish I could include an instant link in this book!)
About the Food
Although you may think you know Chinese, Mexican, Indian, and other cuisines from restaurants you've visited close to home, you're bound to find ingredients, flavorings, and combinations that are totally new when you explore the neighborhoods described in this book. Part of the challenge of getting to know these neighborhoods is to be open (through sign language if necessary) and to have good will to be able to bridge gaps that may often seem unbridgeable. This guide will help, but it's inevitable that we will all encounter some challenges in understanding some of these new cuisines from time to time. (One woman who often participates in NoshWalks has suggested that I put together a glossary explaining all the foods I've seen. This is an interesting but daunting project, beyond the scope of this book, although we have developed a list.)
One of the best examples is a visit to Manhattan's Chinatown. This well-known area south of Canal Street and west of the Bowery has comfortably accommodated tourists for decades while continuing to feed throngs of Chinese families seeking the food they're familiar with. Here, especially in the better-equipped restaurants, you will find waiters happy to answer your questions and fulfill your particular needs.
But if you follow the famous Mott Street all the way south and then cross where it intersects with Chatham Square (you will see a statue of Lin Ze Xu, known for his role in ending drug trafficking in China), you will find yourself on East Broadway — and in another world. This is still Chinatown, but not the one you thought you knew. Here, in the heart of the Fujianese section of Chinatown, few people speak English, and you will see few tourists. Be adventurous — I confess to having been terribly daunted by this area of Chinatown when I began exploring. But it's now the area that I most love to visit because it just throbs with energy and has so much to experience, especially in the area under the Manhattan Bridge where, as I was writing this book, a whole new cluster of markets opened to accommodate this rapidly expanding community.
In these markets, I have seen unfamiliar fruits, greens, and seafood that I am eager to learn more about. And I would like to know more about the interesting-looking snacks that I see street vendors selling. I think I will need to find a Chinese guide to help me navigate this terrain, since I do not speak any Chinese dialect and am unable to ask even the most basic questions about some of the foods I've seen.
As you return to Mott Street from this area, you may well experience culture shock. It's as though you've just come back to the land of the familiar.
From time to time I get queries from vegetarians about how useful my tours would be for them. The reality is that some neighborhoods will pose a challenge for people seeking a full-blown vegetarian meal and menu.
I do highlight vegetarian eateries when I find them, and many neighborhood bakeries also sell vegetarian snacks and appetizers. While it's true that some cuisines are heavy on meat — Latin American most immediately comes to mind — you will be surprised at the wide range of vegetarian side dishes and salads you can order to create a delicious, satisfying meal. So if you happen to stumble on a Brazilian churruscarria in Astoria or an Argentinian steak house in Jackson Heights, be creative. Salads of hearts of palm or Peruvian potato dishes can be combined with other sides — a pasta at the Argentinian place, or an avocado salad at the Peruvian one — to create a satisfying meal. I've described vegetarian options like these where I've found them.
Vegetarian cooks will find that produce markets in several neighborhoods outside of Manhattan offer outstanding quality and perhaps a greater variety of fruits, vegetables, cheeses, and various meat alternatives for a fraction of what you would pay in the costlier neighborhoods of Manhattan or Brooklyn, or in suburban areas, where access to a wide variety of fresh produce may be more limited. In Astoria, Queens, for example, I've seen at least four different types of dandelion greens. You'll be humbled by the varieties of eggplant, peppers, and tomatoes found in the produce stands in the famous indoor market in Belmont, Bronx; and in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn, whose shoppers are among the fussiest I've observed, you will find fresh fruit year-round at costs that more than make up for whatever parking fees or subway fares you paid to get there. (I once found a box of South African clementines in July for $2.99. Try to beat that!) In Middle Eastern shops (Bay Ridge and Atlantic Avenues in Brooklyn; and the Steinway Street area of Astoria, Queens) and in Turkish markets (Brighton Beach; Sunnyside, Queens; and Sunset Park, Brooklyn) you will find a daunting and satisfying selection of nuts, spices, and dried fruits that are likely to please vegetarian palates.
New York City has benefited immensely from the nationwide greenmarket movement, which brings locally grown produce to urban and suburban dwellers. Greenmarkets thrive in a number of the neighborhoods I've profiled in this book and play a particularly important role in areas where quality produce at good prices may be in short supply.
Although I do not routinely focus on greenmarkets here, you can find out whether your visit to a particular neighborhood coincides with a greenmarket day by consulting these two Web sites, which list the location and schedule for markets around New York City: the Council on the Environment, www.cenyc.org/HTMLGM/maingm.htm; and the Farmers Market Federation of New York, www.nyfarmersmarket.com/metro.html.
As this book was being written, the City of New York enacted legislation to ban smoking in all city restaurants and bars. In some ethnic neighborhoods smoking is a fact of life and culture, so it will be interesting to see how this legislation affects these areas. (I am particularly curious to see what will happen in the Egyptian communities in Astoria, Queens, and Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, where smoking water pipes is an entrenched tradition.) I cannot at this time guarantee a smoke-free environment in many places; I've commented on this in some of the neighborhoods I've covered.
How This Book Works
As you'll see, the book is divided into sections by boroughs and then by neighborhoods. The larger, more self-contained neighborhoods have complete chapters. Mass-transit directions are included for all neighborhoods; driving directions are included for most. In some cases, I've also recommended which neighborhoods make good daylong journeys and which you can combine with others.
In general, the book excludes neighborhoods that are difficult to reach by mass transit in order to make the journeys as easy as possible. I also find that certain areas such as Northern Boulevard in Queens (which covers key areas of Woodside and Jackson Heights) that have interesting shops or restaurants but are car-oriented simply don't offer much neighborhood ambiance. You'll find a few exceptions, including Northern Boulevard in Flushing, which is more incorporated into the neighborhood.
In some cases, you will need to take both a subway and a bus to reach the destinations, but the transport is easy and if you follow the directions you won't have any problem figuring out where to go. (I cannot, however, assure you that subway or bus numbers or routes won't change, so you might want to consult a current transit map before you go.)
For each borough, you'll find side trips to neighborhoods that are intriguing but not large or significant enough to merit a full chapter. These neighborhoods include Elmhurst in Queens; Morris Park in the Bronx; and West Harlem in Manhattan, which is part of a larger chapter covering Harlem as a whole (By contrast, East Harlem merits its own chapter.)
You may be surprised at some of the neighborhoods designated as side trips. The sprawling Washington Heights neighborhood in upper Manhattan covers a large geographic area but it lacks both variety and a critical mass of quality markets and eateries. So I've created two Washington Heights side trips. The first focuses on a stretch of Broadway in Washington Heights that has several good markets and interesting restaurants within a very-walkable twelve blocks. The other goes to a section of Washington Heights known as Hudson Heights (a designation invented by real estate agents), located near the Cloisters Museum. Within this geographic enclave are several fine markets and interesting places to eat that merit a visit. The Cloisters and Fort Tryon Park become part of the experience. (Continues...)
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