Emica’s metropolis – a culinary tour of New York

My oh my. Ole Blue Eyes had it right about New York when he said if you could make it there, you could make it anywhere. London is a global city, but New York is a metropolis. They say you can tell a tourist from a New Yorker because the visitor spends half their time craning their necks upwards at the enormously tall buildings, while the locals are blase about living in a modernist architect’s model come to life. I am definitely in the provincial gawker category. New York is so tall! And wide. And busy. Looking at old photos in the wonderful, compact Museum of New York City, you can see that the skyline hasn’t changed a huge deal since the late 30s (with two notable exceptions of course), which must have made the scale of the city all the more impressive to country rubes when the Empire State, Chrysler, Rockefeller etc were first built.

It’s a topic that’s been exhaustively explored in books and film, but it remains true that New York is the great immigrant city. I was surprised by how Hispanic culture has a very strong presence in the city, naively thinking that because of the Mexico-American West connection, there wouldn’t be much of a Hispanic population in New York. But it was the brilliant and fascinating Tenement Museum in the Lower East Side that really brought home to me just how integral immigration and the immigrant experience is to the life and character of New York.

Visits to the museum are based on a number of themed tours where the immigrant past of the area is explored. As our guide explained (herself of Italian background), the area had previously been known as Kleine Deutschland and was almost wholly German speaking prior to 1880; the decades after this, into the early 20th century, saw huge numbers of Jewish immigrants fleeing the pogroms of Russia and other parts of central and eastern Europe. After that the area became home to the Sicilians, the Puerto Ricans and the Chinese in the 1970. At one point, a quarter of New York’s population was Irish and very large numbers of African Americans moved from the South, settling in Harlem. Describing how these waves of new Americans managed to deal with the sweatshop conditions where large families lived and worked in three or four rooms in these tenement slums, our museum guide made the point that they had nothing to go back to; working out how to survive and thrive in the new country was the only option. The caricature of New York as a hustler city seemed at least partly true, with a very active, pushy street life and people by turns aggressively rude and exceptionally kind and friendly. Without going overboard on the basis of one week’s holiday, it struck me that this character is perhaps a cultural by-product of New York’s eternally arriving population and their determined drive to make it.

And of course, one of the great things about immigration is the food traditions that come with the new residents. From the Jewish side of NYC’s population, Katz’s Delicatessan almost doesn’t need an introduction, so well know is it from When Harry Met Sally. Internet debate rages about whether Katz’s is the real thing or over hyped or whether other delis are more authentic and/or better. I dunno, but the pastrami and pickle sandwich I had was amazingly, meltingly delicious. I’d never had proper pastrami and it doesn’t even begin to compare to that wafer thin prepacked sliced stuff from supermarkets. They’re also famous for own-brand soda. I think that should be infamous because The Man had Cel-Ray, a celery flavour soft drink which tasted like mineral salts crossed with Lucozade; I had a root beer that tasted like cough syrup filtered through the collective footy socks of both grand final teams. Disgusting.

London doesn’t have much of a Hispanic population and American friends moan about lack of proper Mexican food. We had an amazing lunch at a tacqueria (taco joint) in the back of a Mexican grocery in the Hell’s Kitchen area. It had a dozen stools at a counter which offered 5 kinds of hot sauce and, like so many restaurants of the newly arrived, ordering in English was hit and miss, it was cheap and damn delicious. I particularly liked my taco of corn fungus but the slow cooked goat quesadilla was awesome.

Chinatown and Little Italy are next to each other and we were a bit dubious about eating in either, figuring there’s an inverse relationship between the amount of marketing guff giving an area an “identity” and the quality of the cooking. A good review sent us to Chinatown and the New Yeah Shangai Deluxe. With a name like that, how could anyone say no?! Unfortunately, it had disappeared since the review, so we crossed the road to another place where the scallion (spring onion) pancake was raved about. Not sure why it was such a feature as was a bit dull, but The Man’s slow cooked beef with greens and noodles was beautiful. He complained that it was a bit too real, with gristly bits and bony bits but I think that’s picking holes; the beef was melting and the broth beautifully spiced with star anise. I had fine noodles in chicken broth with a pork stuffed poached spring roll and stuffed deep fried tofu, which was good – chickeny in the right way – but not a patch on the beef broth.

Harlem is an iconic area and, apparently, more white people have moved in but it didn’t seem that way to us on a mid week lunch time. Sitting at the counter of Fishers of Men, the only white girl in this Southern style fry-house, I definitely felt I stood out but was made to feel very welcome. Fishers of Men is a hole in the wall hotdog and fried fish outfit.

Established by a deeply religious family, the Ten Commandments are printed on the wall and evangelical FM radio plays the Word of the Lord over the PA. It’s not just a hokey cliche though, because the fried catfish is damn good. Four generous fillets in a light, seasoned batter were sandwiched between white sliced, with mayonnaise and some kind of house made chilli sauce. We added collard greens, a Southern speciality which we discovered were something like silver beet with shredded ham hock, and was both smokey and pleasantly bitter. Unfortunately my coleslaw was made with that sweet industrial mayonnaise but was commendably crunchy and obviously freshly made.

Every holiday I have a food Mecca that I have to visit. For NYC it was Momofuku Ssam Bar. It sort of crept into my consciousness, although the post by Melbourne Gastronome prompted me into action. David Chang opened the first of the Momofuku family, the noodle bar in the East Village, in 2003 and the ssam bar opened in 2006. I believe ssam means wrapped food in Korean and the original intention of the ssam bar was an Asian burrito cafeteria style place. As this profile from a few years ago outlines, that idea didn’t really work out and a more structured approach was introduced to the restaurant when it failed to take off. Certainly, the only remnant of the burrito bar idea we could see when we went for Friday dinner – and again for lunch on Saturday – was the pared back utilitarian decor and the pork belly buns.

Whatever teething troubles that may have beset Ssam, they’re certainly long vanquished. We got there around 8.30 on a Friday and had a lengthy, but not unpleasant wait with gaggles of would be diners in the adjoining Milk Bar, which serves cake, cookies, beer, ice cream and pork buns. To their credit, the restaurant staff keep an eye on you, offer you drinks and remember you’re waiting to eat. Our pork buns were truly delicious. A flat pita shaped bread of the same fluffy consistency as steamed pork buns at yum cha is served open, wrapped around two generous slabs of soft pork belly, smeared with hoisin and topped with spring onion and coriander. We came back the next day for more of these little guys. Yum.

It makes sense to describe Momofuku as fusion, but actually it’s almost beyond categorisation because, although its influences draw from around the world, it’s not pretentious, cheffy or up itself. I say this now because alongside the pork buns we had a plate of Arkensas ham with butter and crusty bread and a plate of the most zingily interesting pickles – included were kimchi, carrot, cauliflower, mushroom and, best of all, rhubarb.

The food wasn’t without a few bum notes. My air dried beef with various accoutrements and hot stock poured over was incredibly salty and for afters we had one of the compost cookies. These are something of a trademark and they’re OK; I may sound a bit pernickity, but they suffer from the wrong proportion of butter and sugar to dry ingredients, which Dr SO so accurately identified in this post. However, all was forgiven because of the cereal milk soft serve – it really does taste like the milk after you’ve eaten all the nutri grain and The Man asked for it to be rolled in salted corn flakes. This is what good, modern, interesting and thoughtful food looks like.

So far in this epic post most of the eating has been a global tour of NYC’s various populations, but we ate a lot of ‘American’ food as well. A juicy burger with American cheese (basically plastic cheese slices) at Williamsburger in, you guessed it, Williamsburg Brooklyn overlooking the impressive derelict sugar refinery. A stack of pancakes with a jug of syrup and sausage at Big Daddy’s Diner; I was on a sugar high after that! And the most amazing donuts at The Donut Plant in the Lower East Side.

A combination of nosiness (me) and friendliness (the nice New Yorker) meant we got chatting with a fella sitting next to us at the Hester Street artisan market, where for breakfast we ate Vietnamese baguettes filled with lemongrass, coriander and pork meatballs and fruity Mexican style icy poles from La Newyorkina. He recommended the Donut Plant, round the corner – a fine piece of synchronicity because we were just about to head across the river to Brooklyn in search of donut excellence. I didn’t know this at the time, but the Donut Plant was the first in a wave of donut visionaries reimagining the donut and recreating it as a viable pastry, not some kind of aerated styrofoam police officers’ snack. For our first round The Man had a square blackberry jam donut and I had a hole-less creme brulee version, which had sweet eggy custard in the middle and a crackly glaze on top. It is one of the yummiest things I’ve ever eaten. For the second round I had chocolate – chocolate glaze, chocolate cake and chocolate ganache inside; The Man had the healthy carrot cake option. And, exemplifying New York’s tension between bad-ass attitude and helpful friendliness, the previously surly super cool server unexpectedly gave me a fifth donut, their famous tres leches flavour with some kind of creamy deliciousness inside.

6 comments ↓

#1 Reemski on 28.06.10 at 10:32 pm

I LOVED the Tenement Museum. One of the highlights of my trip. Shame you didn’t also get to Ellis Island as the migration museum there is also outstanding.
I stayed literally next door to Momofoku Ssam bar when it sold Ssams: basically a Korean burrito. Delicious.
I so want to go back to New York. I definitely left my heart there.

#2 Emica's New Zealand Grandma on 29.06.10 at 7:55 am

Wow! Sounds – & looks great. I wonder how many calories you both consumed? You are a born travel/food writer. Descriptions are wonderful. Was in NY years ago, but did not experience such culinary delights. Look forward to more on future travels.

#3 Lisa @bakebikeblog on 29.06.10 at 8:44 am

WOW oh WOW! I would love to visit New York and this post makes me want to go even more!

#4 tracy on 29.06.10 at 9:19 am

Yummers! This is like the dishcrawls we do on dishcrawl.com! Thx for the tasties!

#5 Cristy on 30.06.10 at 1:57 pm

Great post Emica. It made me so hungry, especially for donuts and pancakes.

I have seen a few great write-ups on the Tenement Museum lately and wish it had been around when I used to visit NY. It sounds fascinating.

#6 Dr Sister Outlaw on 13.07.10 at 9:22 pm

Nom nom nom nom … I ate collard greens in a soul food diner in Savannah, Georgia. They are so good, esp with candied yam. But in New York I had the best sushi of my life. The most memorable food was in the famous delis (Zabars’ crab cakes!) and eating bagels, of course. And a pretzel in Central Park. Those rich European traditions really add value to New York food, along with an adventurousness drawn from further afield and even Asia, which you’ve captured so well.

Your post is lush!

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