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New York City's Best Food Pilgrimages

May 24, 2008
New York is a complete city. Whatever your intent, purpose, interest or peccadillo, The Big Apple has your remedy. Manhattan is awash with culture galore, from museums that swallow entire city blocks and require days to navigate, to dark intimate jazz clubs where virtuosos headline in front of small appreciative crowds. Even to lifelong residents with a surfeit of leisure time, there are not enough hours in the day to digest all that New York City has to offer.

Which leads us to our point. With so many distractions and attractions, is there even time to eat in Manhattan? Will you stretch yourself so thin in order to accomplish the impossible and do it all that your appetite will suffer? Will you succumb to hunger in haste and devour inferior fare as you run to score Broadway show tickets?

Many do just that. And shame on them. New York City is a dream destination for food lovers. As such, visitors should plan meals here as they would a trip to the U.N. or Central Park. With careful consideration, in other words. In a city flush with ethnic diversity and grand symbols of culture, architecture and industry, should it come as a shock that food has a place among the pantheon of New York City icons? Sure, the best chefs in the world come to Manhattan to serve their brand of haute cuisine. But for honest-to-goodness street food, soul food and comfort food, New York City is the best. Consider these New York City Food Pilgrimages before you even dare walk around on an empty stomach, clueless and impatient, with Zagat guide in hand.

Murray's Sturgeon Shop

2429 Broadway at 89th Street

New York City is the world capital of delicatessen ideology. Waves of Jewish immigration from Eastern Europe at the turn of the last century brought strange new foods to America - bagels, knishes, smoked fish, pickles, pastrami - and with them, the deli. Long counters with high stools, cushy booths with squeeze bottles of yellow mustard and bottles of vinegar on the tables, large, loud men in stained white aprons with hairy, muscled forearms and cleavers - these are the indelible images of the classic New York City deli. Murray's is certainly one of the best and a must-stop, if for no other reason than their smoked fish. Try the salmon, the sable or the whitefish. Heck, try them all. And get a tuna fish sandwich for the road.

Barney Greengrass

541 Amsterdam Avenue at 86th Street

Erstwhile competitor to Murray's, debate still rages as to who smokes the best salmon. Loyal zealots of Barney Greengrass, "The Sturgeon King", crowd the time warp deli for weekday lunch and weekend brunch to nosh on century-old favorites like eggs and Nova Scotia salmon, schmaltz herring, sablefish platters and chopped liver sandwiches. The atmosphere is electric when the restaurant is full.

Katz's Famous

205 East Houston Street

If New York City were a sandwich, it would be a pastrami on rye. If you have never had the pleasure, the only place to feed your virginal maw is Katz's. Since 1888, the delicatessen has done it old-school, with no concessions to modern shortcuts. The corned beef and brisket are exquisite but the pastrami is why you're here. Have it with a pickle and a seltzer.

Gray's Papaya

402 Sixth Avenue at 8th Street

Of the three Gray's Papaya hotdog emporium outlets, this is by far the best. If you like tube steaks, this is the place for you. Not to be confused with Papaya King, which also offers a decent dog, Gray's Papaya is known for high quality street-vendor-meets-fast-food-joint franks. The "Papaya" refers to the non-alcoholic colada-like fruit drinks sold on the premises. Open 24 hours, you can always count on Gray's to satiate your yen for mystery meat.

Dosa Man Street Vendor

Washington Square Park South and Sullivan Street

Street food in New York City has become a veritable artform in recent years. What was once a long line of pushcarts with dirty water hotdogs and nuts, is now as diverse as the restaurants around them. Thiru Kumar, known with affection as the Dosa Man, is one of the best street food vendors in the city. His fresh, crepe-like dosas harken back to the cuisine of his native Sri Lanka, where his family ran a successful restaurant. Lines are long but the wait is more than worth it for a portable, delicious, cheap meal.

Lombardi's Pizzeria

32 Spring Street

It would be sheer lunacy to come to New York City and not have a slice of pizza. Lombardi's has been around since 1897 and thankfully, has held on to tradition. Smoky-crust, simple, fresh ingredients and homemade sauce are the hallmarks of this institution. If you go, try to grab a spot in the original half of the restaurant, near the open kitchen. Pizza after all, is theater in New York City.

John's Pizza

278 Bleecker Street

A slice at Lombardi's is a great start, but to mark your New York City pizza experience, you have to take the grand tour. Head to John's of Bleecker Street where since 1929 the restaurant has done it the coal-fired brick oven way, just like back home in Napoli. Where it ranks in pizza lore is your call, but we love it just fine.

Patsy's Pizza

2287 First Avenue

Perhaps the best reason to head to East Harlem is to dine at yet another Manhattan pizza institution. Patsy's is as authentic and unspoiled by the hands of time as a pizza joint gets in this city. For over seven decades now people have come here for one reason and one reason only: the crust. Thin, crispy, chewy, ethereal and absolutely authentic, Patsy's crust is a must.

Our look at New York City food institutions rambles on with some recent newcomers to the food scene, more unreal street food and a Brooklyn staple. While unorthodox, as a collective, this list represents the beauty of New York City cuisine. Restaurants that can't possibly exist anywhere else. Restaurants that did it first and still do it better than anyone. Restaurants that broke conceptual ground and set trends. Old and new staples that are worthy of pilgrimage.

With that in mind, let's continue our countdown shall we? To kick it off, we're taking it to the streets again.

53rd and 6th Halal Cart

Again, street food in Manhattan can and should be your panacea for killer hunger. Open at night near the Hilton, business is swift for the Halal meat man at 53rd near 6th. Purists of Halal carts - there are probably more of them in the city than hotdog vendors - like Sammy's over the bridge in Queens but face facts, you're not going there for street food, right? If you are, kudos, but if you decide to limit yourself to Manhattan, this Halal cart is tops. Sure, it's just meat - chicken or lamb - rice and sauce but if so, why do people brave midnight cold in December and line up around the block?

Miss Maude's Spoonbread Too

547 Lenox Avenue

Collards and catfish will forever taste better south of the Mason-Dixon line, but Harlem has a strong soul food spirit as well. Miss Maude's is the embodiment of that tradition. While Sylvia's gets the publicity, the former soul food champ is no longer on top of her game. So head to Miss Maude's for your home cookin' fix. The smothered chicken and pork chops are delicious but the sides are what people rave most about. Order a bunch and save room for the butterscotch ice cream.

Amy Ruth's Home-Style Southern Cuisine

113 West 116th Street

If you have room in your stomach and on your itinerary for another Harlem joint, stop by Amy Ruth's. The restaurant has only been around since 1998 but has the feel of a New York City staple. The food is honest, sincere soul food. Notable Harlem citizens were the inspiration behind many of the signature menu items. Try the Stan Hoffman and Lu Willard - bbq ribs - or the Yasmin Cornelius - waffles with chicken wings. Herb and Elza Boyd's banana pudding is probably the best way to end your meal, with a phone call to your cardiologist soon thereafter.

Momofuku Noodle Bar

171 First Avenue

Ever since David Chang had the idea to open a simple noodle bar in a random part of Manhattan, people have gone mad for the concept. Chang has become a celebrity overnight and Momofuku a mini-industry, with more luxurious digs around town. The noodle bar is worthy of a pilgrimage however, if you can secure a stool at the bar. Go simple and order the Momofuku ramen noodles, pork buns, house pickles and a Brooklyn Pennant Ale. Life is good, no?

Peter Luger Steak House

178 Broadway, near Bedford Avenue, Williamsburg, Brooklyn

Brooklyn is the new restaurant capital of New York City. The secret is out. Some of the best ethnic and haute cuisine can be found in this borough with all the buzz. While we can expound about all the great food Brooklyn has to offer, the one site off Manhattan on our list is a venerable, classic steak house. The steak house of record, to most New York City experts on the subject. Peter Luger is the pioneer, the first and to devout followers, the best. There are many steak houses in Manhattan - steak is trendy again - but if you want the archetypal experience, Peter Luger is it. Order the porterhouse for two or four, creamed spinach, french fries and the cheesecake. Quaff it all down with a big California red and toast your New York City culinary tour in style.
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