New York City FlavorLog: The Flavors of My Youth
New York City. Manhattan. The city that I grew up in. An ever changing city that grows further and further away from what I knew it to be with every passing year.
I moved away almost two decades ago, but I return once a year to see family, friends and to reconnect with my past; a history I revisit fondly as I can honestly say, without reservation, that I had a charmed childhood during a very interesting period in New York’s history.
I grew up in New York in the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s. Decades where New York still flourished, not from wealth but from the sum of its people, diverse cultures and tastes.
Not that those elements don’t exist anymore, they do, but there just isn’t as much room for them today. Corporate culture and the real estate market have made it near impossible for the everyday flavors and cuisines of the common man to survive.
That being said there are still some institutions thriving, and these staples, these flavors and tastes keep me coming back to New York City because one bite and I am transported to my childhood.
A childhood that I hold so dear to my heart.
Katz’s Delicatessen. There are not many places left like this in New York; or anywhere in the country for that matter.
There should be a UNESCO World Heritage Organization to preserve places like this.
On the corner of E. Houston and Ludlow Street, Katz’s has been at this location since 1917 and it is as popular now as it has ever been.
I have never walked in and it not be absolutely crazed with meat loving, sandwich craving lunatics. God Bless ’em all.
It is an old world, old school, deli, and its charm is in its integrity and unwavering resistance to change – despite the world outside its doors.
There are many reasons to come to Katz’s, but the one that is the most important is the sandwiches.
And my favorite is the one, the only, pastrami on rye.
There are few things less decadent than a pastrami sandwich, which is why I only order them in certain places. If you are going to do something naughty and sinful, do it right. Unfortunately, this one was a little tough, a little too chewy. It happens, even to the best of the best.
Don’t worry Katz’s. You are still tops in my book and I will always come back for more.
GRAY’S PAPAYA HOT DOG
Gray’s Papaya. Oh, you sooth me in the loveliest of ways.
Proust had the Madeleine. I have Gray’s Papaya.
I met Gray’s when I was a mere child and she was but a dollar a dog. I would spend my allowance on her soft buns, those fruity exotic juices and her savory dogs.
Erected in the early 70’s, this establishment is full of eclectic color and life, and dare I say, epitomizes the pulse of Manhattan.
It’s fast, it’s furious and it’s exciting. All walks of life enter through these doors. All classes and creeds, because when everyone knows something is transcendent you have to be a part of it.
It is you, Gray’s, that I look forward to more than all the others when I return to the homeland because you were right by my bus stop to school. I grew up on 73rd and West End Avenue and I only had to walk five minutes to 72nd and Broadway for us to have our little rendezvous. I saw you every day and I ducked into your shop at night. Over the years you haven’t changed. Not one bit. You are my rock and my portal to my childhood.
When I was a kid you could get two dogs with the option of onions or sauerkraut (I always get the kraut and mustard) and a drink of choice (piña colada, banana daiquiri, orange, or their famous papaya) for $1.99. Now it is $4.95, but that’s totally cool. It’s the best five bucks I’ll ever spend.
So, ok, yeah, they have changed in that one regard.
Gray’s, you are not only the best hot dog in Manhattan, you are one of my key motivations for returning.
While I am reminiscing about my old neighborhood there are a few places, and one dish in particular, that I would like to draw your attention to.
When you live somewhere, you can’t eat out all the time.
Well, I guess you could but your wallet and your belly are going to pay the price.
Growing up on the Upper West Side I was extremely spoiled by my grocery shopping options. To call it “grocery shopping” is actually an insult to the establishments I am about to mention because, other than some exceptions in France and Italy, you are not going to find anything better than the Fairway Market, Citerella, and Zabar’s.
The dish that I would like to highlight that can be made by going to any one, or all, of these gourmet grocers is the infamous, the beloved, Smoked Salmon Bagel.
People of all walks of life debate how best to enjoy this wondrous incarnation, but I will tell you how I enjoy mine: onion bagel, toasted until dark brown for crunch; scallion cream cheese (not whipped), spread evenly, generously and throughout; red onion, thinly sliced or chopped depending if I want to add bite or zing to the fish; capers -you got to have capers (but no caper juice); and lots and lots of freshly squeezed lemon.
***My brother likes to squeeze some on each individual bite instead over squirting it over the top at once.
I’m telling you. The salmon bagel is serious business in New York.
Now this sandwich is served everywhere on the island. Some places are amazing, some places not so much, but it is one of those sandwiches that most people know exactly how they want it so you are much better off making it yourself. And if you go to the right grocers you aren’t going to find better ingredients anywhere else anyway.
Here is a list of my favorite places to go and assemble the pieces to mouth watering nirvana.
A once beloved institution offering, undisputedly, the best bagels in the bagel capital of the world, but which is now a Verizon Wireless store.
Good news for us though, Zabar’s bagels were always in the running in the “best bagel” category, and they turn them out fresh and delicious as ever.
Zabar’s has an amazing fish counter, cheese selection, dried and cured meats along with other breads. It’s a specialty store and a really special place.
My one note about Zabar’s is that the guys’ in charge behind the fish counter can be hit or miss. You see, how one slices your smoked fish is just as important as the quality of your smoked fish, and sometimes they cut it too thick. A properly cut slice of smoked salmon should be paper thin and you should be able to see right through it.
Unfortunately the men behind the counter sometimes don’t follow the rules.
Fairway Market. You have my fish vote. This is where you go to get smoked salmon cut right every time. They have basically the same smoked salmon options as Zabar’s but, most importantly, they have Scottish Smoked Salmon; which is my cut of choice though Irish Smoked Salmon is pretty money too.
Fairway is a more of a traditional “grocer” than Zabar’s. At Fairway you can do more of your produce and everyday shopping, which leads me to my last but not least favorite store on the Upper West Side, Citerella.
Citeralla. Along Broadway sandwiched in between Zabar’s and Fairway rests this little gem.
They have an amazing selection of seafood, prime meats and their deli counter is the best in the city as far as I am concerned.
What they do or where they go to get their roast beef or French ham, I do not know, but it’s the best I’ve ever tasted. There is no Boar’s Head here people; this is artisan sandwich meat at its finest.
On this trip I was encouraged by my mother and brother to trust them and skip getting the scallion cream cheese at Fairway or Zabar’s. Instead I was to get the scallion cheese at the West End Superette on the corner of 72nd and West End, as they were emphatic that it exceeded both Zabar’s and Fairway in flavor, texture and creaminess.
I must say… it was very fine scallion cream cheese indeed. The flavor of the green onion soaked deep into the smear. It was really a marinated cream cheese, not just some green onion mixed in.
In mentioning the West End Superette I must delve into the topic of flavor to cost ratio.
This is one of my obsessions.
How to find great tasting meals at the lowest cost possible because, let’s face it, only one percent of the population can afford not to consider cost. With that, I bring you the Kaiser Roll and all that can be done with it at any one of hundreds of mini-grocers and superettes in the city.
A Kaiser Roll, originally a Austrian creation, is simply a bread roll. Soft and spongy on the inside, firm on the outside.
Its genius is in its ability to soak in the juices and flavors of whatever you choose to put in it; the bread either amplifying or simply complimenting your sandwich material.
I have two favorites: bacon, egg and cheese on a Kaiser for breakfast. (Note: For some reason when ordering New Yorkers always say, “On a Kaiser.” Instead of, “In a Kaiser.”)
And, tuna fish on a Kaiser for lunch.
Both of these sandwiches will run you about five bucks. Other than Gray’s Papaya, you won’t find a better deal in the city and, unlike Gray’s, you can find these just about anywhere and they are eerily similar everywhere you go.
Seriously, it’s the same kind of tuna fish salad everywhere you go.
Its texture is almost like a paste. It’s quite good. (Another Note: Order it without produce, that way they stuff it with more tuna… industry secret.)
Still on the topic of cheap eats… You can’t go to New York City and not grab a slice of pizza. Italian Americans, especially Italian Americans in New York City, make pizza by the slice better than anyone in the world. The average slice you can get ducking into the ubiquitous pizza shop is better than just about anywhere else in the country.
I am not covering Pizzerias in this FlavorLog, meaning restaurants that only serve whole pies.
I am not covering Neopolitan pizza establishments, which is its own category altogether as well. I am just talking about grabbing a slice to-go. I am talking about places that look like this…
When looking for a quality slice of pizza emblematic of NYC avoid anyone offering .99 cent slices.
They will suck.
The signs of an authentic by-the-slice pizza joint are as follows:
1. Look for a well used and smoky oven. Like this…
2. Look for a guy dressed similar to, if not exactly like, the gentleman below who is tossing his pizza dough like a master.
In the end you will get something that looks like this…
We all have our favorite toppings, but the sign of a quality slice of pizza is that the simple flavors are so good it stands on its own.
I want to close this FlavorLog on a somewhat serious note.
I want to conclude with the demise of the NYC Diner.
Diner food is a world and a culture that I cherish. It is a blend of many different cultures and the epitome of working class food. They once were everywhere in New York and now the diner business is dying. The real estate value in New York being far too expensive for places offering meals under ten dollars to exist.
I cannot impress upon you enough the importance of diners on the island of Manhattan.
What you pass by as something trivial, is not. This is where the working people of the city and the outer boroughs come to eat, to be with friends and family and have been doing so for over a century – because it is inexpensive.
I am all for artisan this and latte that but not at the cost of the other simple pleasures that are just as valuable, if not more so.
I mean where the hell else am I going to get this…
This is not just any breakfast plate.
This is the classic American breakfast plate, and sausages like these (plump, juicy and deep fried) can only be found in diners; more specifically, only in diners in Manhattan.
I mean, these breakfast sausages are an intense FlavorBoner.
I know it may seem silly to some of you but, trust me; it’s not silly to a lot of people who have grown up on this very food, lived with it and looked forward to it their entire lives.
Next time you are visiting Manhattan, or if it is your first trip, do yourself and these businesses a favor by giving them your love. Believe me; New York will love you back.
I know I will.
***Honorable Mention: DUBLIN HOUSE
Dublin House. You are the last OG Irish Pub on the Upper West Side. Luckily there are a few of you left scattered about the island, but this is the last one left in my old neighborhood.
You are my first and last drink in Manhattan always, I love you.