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Around the World in 7 NYC Dishes

By Natalie Beauregard

May 20, 2022

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The original Russ & Daughters shop on East Houston Street in the Lower East Side, established in 1914.

Courtesy of Russ & Daughters

The original Russ & Daughters shop on East Houston Street in the Lower East Side, established in 1914.

New York City’s diverse food scene offers a world of flavors without ever having to get on a plane.

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With its thousands of restaurants and ever-changing roster of recent openings, there’s always something new to taste in New York City. But one of the most exciting and enduring parts of the city’s food scene is its wide array of international cuisines, ranging from perfectly executed Chinese soup dumplings to classic American chicken and waffles. Below, we’ve rounded up a handful of essential foods to eat in New York and where to try them for the truest sense of NYC dining. 

Tender soup dumplings at Joe’s Shanghai
New York has an obsession with xiao long bao, or soup dumplings, which originated in 19th-century Shanghai. One of the city’s go-to institutions is Joe’s Shanghai, which launched in Flushing, Queens, in 1994 and became so popular that it opened a second location in Manhattan’s Chinatown the next year. To this day, locals and tourists alike crowd both spaces for a taste of the handmade dumplings filled with hot, meaty broth, which are rolled and steamed to order. Featuring a thin skin made from flour and water, they come in two flavors: pork meat and crab with pork meat. The best way to dig in is to bite off a small piece of the wrapper, drip the broth onto your spoon, slurp it when it’s slightly cooler, and then eat the rest of the dumpling, including the tasty morsel of meat inside.

Perfect pizza at Lucali
New York City may have its own way of doing pizza these days, but the pie’s roots are Italian through and through. There are so many worthy options—from Di Fara and Totonno’s to Joe’s Pizza and Roberta’s— that it’s nearly impossible to name the best pizza place in the city, but Lucali is one of the top contenders. At the Brooklyn pizza institution, which opened in 2006 in Carroll Gardens, chef Mark Iacono does everything the old-fashioned way, hand-kneading his dough and leaving it to proof for 24 hours. He then tops his pies with house-marinated tomatoes and bakes everything in a wood oven to create his signature thin, crispy crust. 

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There’s only one pizza on the menu, a large pie with basil, but you can customize it with toppings like pepperoni, mushrooms, and lightly marinated artichokes, or pair it with one of Lucali’s stellar calzones. It’ll be even more rewarding than expected after the usual two- to three-hour wait for a seat in the small, candlelit dining room. Pro tip: Get in line at 4 p.m. to add your name to the list, and then hit a wine shop and an ATM (it’s BYOB and cash only).

Legendary pierogies at Veselka
What started as a newsstand with soup and sandwiches is now a New York institution for late-night comfort food. Opened in 1954 in the heart of the East Village, Veselka still sits on the same corner today, serving its homey Ukrainian cooking 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Over the years, countless New Yorkers, including New York University students and families with Ukrainian roots, have gathered here for the pierogi dumplings, made fresh in house at four or eight to an order. Available boiled or fried, they come in classic meat, potato, cheese, and sauerkraut-mushroom versions as well as untraditional arugula with goat cheese, short rib, and bacon-egg-and-cheese varieties. Whichever you choose, pile on some sour cream and caramelized onions before you tuck in.

Momos and more at Nepali Bhanchha Ghar, Potala, Maharaja Sweets, and Mustang Thakali Kitchen
Jackson Heights’s Little India is increasingly known as Himalayan Heights for the influx of Nepalese and Tibetans. It’s easy to try a smattering of flavors from the Indian subcontinent with some progressive dining in this walkable Queens neighborhood. Compare the silky-skinned, spicy Nepalese chicken momos at Nepali Bhanchha Ghar to the pouchy hand-shaped beef- or greens-filled Tibetan versions next door at Potala, decorated with images of Tibet’s holiest palace. For Indian sweets, try the delicate confections called mithai at Maharaja Sweets. For something truly unusual, order yhosi (steamed buckwheat) with curries and chutney or sukuti (jerky) with pumpkin “gravy” at Mustang Thakali Kitchen, representing the rugged mountain cuisine of Nepal.—Anya von Bremzen

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American soul food at Melba’s Restaurant
If you think Sylvia is the only name in Harlem soul food, talk to passionate fans of Melba’s. Melba Wilson learned her craft at Sylvia’s (and other New York venues like Rosa Mexicana and the Tribeca Grill). Her high-energy restaurant is known for “neo-soul food,” a tasty sort of comfort food for modern eaters. At Melba’s, the standard dish of chicken and waffles is as American as it gets—and it’s fine-tuned here as fried chicken plated with eggnog waffles and topped with a sweet dollop of strawberry butter (the dish won a Food Network competition against Bobby Flay). Melba’s updated favorites include fried catfish with chipotle mayo and short ribs braised in red wine. There’s even a green salad on the menu at this soul food restaurant. —Khalid Salaam 

Bagel with cream cheese smoked salmon at Russ & Daughters
There are few foods more New York in their essence than a bagel with cream cheese and smoked salmon. It’s a tradition that began in Jewish appetizing spots (or purveyors of dairy and smoked fish), which proliferated on the Lower East Side in the early 1900s and established Jewish food as part of New York dining culture. Today, you can get a bagel with cream cheese and smoked salmon at just about every bagel shop in the city, but the best one is still found at appetizing legend Russ & Daughters, which opened in 1914 and has remained a favorite through four generations of family ownership. 

For its famous version, Russ & Daughters makes its own bagels at its very own Jewish bakery in Brooklyn, and baked in traditional New York style: not too big, not too doughy or sweet with a burnished chewy crust, all-natural cream cheese from a California dairy (which has a slightly tangier flavor), and your choice of seven different kinds of smoked salmon (get the melt-in-your-mouth Gaspe Nova). There’s always a line here, especially on weekend mornings and Jewish holidays, and there’s no seating save for a small bench outside. But every inconvenience is worth it for this definitive American classic.

Cuban sandwiches and roasted chicken at Margon
Hidden amid the skyscrapers and white tablecloth restaurants of Midtown, the no-frills, cafeteria-style lunch spot Margon opened in 1970 and remains one of the city’s best places for Cuban food—and what the bustling restaurant lacks in service, it more than makes up for in flavor. One of the most ordered items on the menu is the classic Cuban sandwich, composed of roasted pork, salami, ham, and Swiss cheese—all rolled into a satisfyingly crispy grilled bun that’s been slathered with mayo and garlic. For something even heartier—if you can imagine that—try the chicken fricassee, a perfectly roasted quarter chicken that’s simmered in a white wine garlic sauce. Order it with a side of plantains, and you’ll keep your hunger at bay for the rest of the day.—Jennifer Flowers  

>>Next: AFAR’s New York City Travel Guide

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