Getty Images

Heading to New York City? Looking for places to eat and drink? Don't miss these restaurants. 

By Andy Staples
June 30, 2017

Heading to New York City soon? Trying to figure out the best places to eat? Whether you’re looking for a burger that's even better than a bacon cheeseburger, some whole smoked hog jowl or—of course—some of the best pizza in the city, we’ve got you covered right here with a list of the tastiest destinations to hit while you’re in town.

Breakroom

83 Baxter St, New York, NY 10013  
This review of Breakroom originally appeared May 2, 2016.

If I’m ever arrested in Manhattan, I know where I’m eating when I get bailed out of the jail best known as The Tombs. A short walk from the Manhattan Detention Center—the jail’s official name—stands Breakroom, a tiny burger and taco joint wedged between a couple of Bail Bondsman offices and a nail salon.

This may seem a fairly odd location for a restaurant that does exactly one fancy thing to an otherwise simple burger, but that one inspired touch could brighten the mood of someone who just dropped hundreds (or thousands) they’ll never get back at one of the places on the block to get a friend or relative out of the pokey. Or, perhaps, that one inspired touch will satisfy the law-abiding who just happen to be in the mood for a great burger cooked perfectly and elevated with one addition.

We all love bacon cheeseburgers. Even vegetarians love bacon cheeseburgers. They simply don’t realize it because they’re emotionally crippled by the guilt they feel with regard to their place atop the food chain. It’s OK. It happens. The fact of the matter is most people with functioning taste buds will attest that the bacon cheeseburger is the finest of all burgers.

Well, it turns out there is a burger better than a bacon cheeseburger. This also came as a shock to me, but I couldn’t deny it as I bit into a Breakroom Burger (with an extra patty, of course) last week. The Breakroom Burger can be ordered with bacon, but that particular brand of pork fat isn’t necessary because a Breakroom Burger already comes with crispy pork belly. Pork belly is uncured bacon, and some believe it superior in all cases to its cured cousin. I’m not willing to go that far. Sometimes, the ultra-saltiness that kept bacon edible back in the pre-refrigeration days matches the rest of the meal perfectly. But on a burger seasoned with salt and stacked with a sunny-side-up egg and giant onion rings, that much salt isn’t necessary. So Breakroom offers the same crispy fat without all the sodium chloride. The pork belly stands up to the dripping juice of the burger, but it doesn’t overwhelm the beef as bacon often does.

Breakroom does combine bacon and pork belly in its Breakroom Fries, which actually are tater tots. The cured and uncured pieces of pork team with a runny egg, cheese, onions and jalapeños. It’s what your high school cafeteria would have served had the lunch ladies had imagination and a burning desire for every student to nap through fifth period. Of course, diners who just want more pork belly can order it as a side atop a bed of slaw, lettuce and pickled onions. Or, if they choose, they can order that pork belly in a taco.

But do yourself a favor and make sure you order it on the burger. A block away from a jail, you’ll bite into something that tastes exactly like freedom.

Casa Enrique

5-48 49th Ave, Long Island City, NY 11101 
This review of Casa Enrique originally appeared Dec. 19, 2015

For most of my life, the only menus I saw that featured the word Michelin included selections like P235/60/R18. (Or the iconic 185/65/R14s that I popped several times while driving my 1994 Toyota Corolla.)  I realize Michelin also publishes a guide to the world’s best restaurants, but I always assumed a Michelin star was code for “no way SI’s per diem will cover this.” But last week, my inner cheapskate led me to a spot with one of those sought-after stars and a menu that doesn’t require special financing.

The journey began when I explained my accommodations to Dan Rubenstein of SB Nation. I may outweigh Dan by 100 pounds, but he is every bit my equal in the gustation department. I told Dan that while visiting New York for work, I was staying in Long Island City because—even though it wasn’t my money—I couldn’t justify paying an extra $200 a night to stay in Manhattan. The E, M and R trains did a fine job of getting me where I needed to be, so why waste company funds that I could waste in more delicious ways at a later date? As soon as the words “Long Island City” tumbled from my mouth, Dan’s eyes illuminated. “We have to go to Casa Enrique,” he said.

Casa Enrique sits across the East River from dozens of prettier and more expensive Mexican restaurants. But the little place in Queens has something none of those Manhattan Mexican joints do: one bright, shining Michelin star

First, you are ordering a cocktail. The house margarita whets the appetite with fresh lime juice, brown simple syrup and El Jimador tequila, but the better choice may be the Coco-Mojo, a Bacardi mojito mixed with coconut cream. You’ll want to fill up on chips and the trio of fresh salsas, but don’t. Also, limit yourself to a couple of the tacos—either carne asada or pastor. The reason you came is coming next. 

The Mole de Piaxtla from Casa Enrique.
Andy Staples

For your entree, you’re ordering the Molé de Piaxtla ($18). This particular molé sauce is native to the Puebla region of Mexico, and it smothers two pieces of chicken and waits for you to spoon it over your rice. While I realize I’ve written often — usually with regard to barbecue — that a sauce should never be the reason for eating, this is a glaring exception. This sauce is crafted with such great care that it can’t help but be the star. If certain Kansas City barbecue joints who never met a sauce they couldn’t pour liberally decided to drown their meats in this elixir, I wouldn’t criticize them so often.

Casa Enrique’s molé mixes dry peppers, almonds, raisins, plantains, sesame seeds and chocolate into a paste that is at once spicy, bitter, sweet and savory. It makes the chicken and rice delicious, but once those were gone, I found myself sopping up the sauce with the stack of fresh tortillas that were supposed to be for the entire table but wound up getting dunked almost exclusively in my molé.

From now on, I’ll have to consult with Michelin about more than steel-belted radials. If their diners can look past the glitz and pretension and find the beauty in a dark brown sauce, perhaps I should take their advice more often.

Fields Good Chicken

101 Maiden Ln, New York, NY 10038
This review of Fields Good Chicken originally appeared May 1, 2017. 

If you’ve read this space the past few weeks, you know I’ve cheated on my diet a few times for the sake of easily consumable online content. (Pork rind nachos are totally paleo, right?) But for the most part, I have stuck to my plan to get significantly less fat by next football season. I’m trying to do this using the original fad diet — eating fewer calories than I burn each day. In the past few weeks, I’ve enlisted the help of the MyFitnessPal app, which has kept me accountable but also has brought on waves of despair around 2 pm every day when I realize how few calories I have left to eat. But it’s working. As of this writing, I’ve lost 21 pounds since February.

To best manage a caloric limit, I have tried to eat as little sugar and grain as possible. That way, I avoid glycemic rollercoaster and feel just as full with less food. This is quite easy to control at home, where I’ve stocked the place with vegetables and meats. It’s not as easy to control when I have to travel for work.

Most quick-service restaurants don’t serve dishes that contain only meat and vegetables because those are low-profit margin foods. There are salads, but many get drowned in high-calorie dressing. Plus, I don’t always feel like a salad.

I wasn’t worried about this as I headed to New York last week for our live draft show, though. On the walk through lower Manhattan between my hotel and SI’s office, I’d pass Fields Good Chicken. I stumbled upon Fields Good Chicken shortly after our office was moved from midtown to downtown in December of ’15. The concept is similar to Boston Market, but the food tastes much closer to what original Boston Market competitor Kenny Rogers Roasters served. Kenny made better chicken — unlike his competitor, he actually seasoned it — and better sides. But Kenny lost that franchise war, leaving us only with memories and one exceptional Seinfeld episode. The Kenny Rogers Roasters name lives on in Asia, but the chicken no longer resembles the glorious spit-roasted magic the Gambler blessed us with in the 1990s.

Because their advertising touts their local sourcing and their love of whole grains and good fats, I doubt the proprietors of Fields Good Chicken will appreciate me comparing them to KRR, but given the fondness of my memories for Kenny’s cuisine—and every Kenny-Dolly Parton duet—this is one of the highest compliments I can pay.  Plus, they make it easy for me to get roast chicken and vegetables — the perfect combo for my current situation — for lunch and dinner while on the road. So I boarded the plane last week with visions of that juicy, crispy-skinned chicken and roasted brussels sprouts racing through my head.

When I got to Fields, the chicken was as wonderful as I had remembered. My visits there have climbed to double digits, and every piece of chicken has been cooked perfectly. But the sprouts had disappeared from the menu. Those who read this space regularly know my love for sprouts. This was a disturbing development, but the roast broccoli with red wine vinaigrette was almost as good, so I was willing to let it slide.

Chicken from Fields Good Chicken in NYC.
Andy Staples

I left Fields and began walking down Maiden Lane toward our office on Liberty Street. Suddenly, a familiar smell flooded my nostrils. It smelled just like the roasting chicken I had just left behind at Fields. I looked to my right. In a window, birds spun around on a rotisserie. Only a block away, someone had started another rotisserie chicken war. Now I needed to figure out which one was the Kenny’s and which one was the Boston Market.

The new place is called Hen Pen, and its menu is set up similarly to Fields Good Chicken. Diners can mix chicken and vegetables and/or grains in a bowl or order chicken with veggies or  grains on the side. Hen Pen also serves sandwiches, turkey meatballs and porchetta, but since my dietary requirements hadn’t changed, I opted for pure chicken and veggies. When I saw the Brussels sprouts with just the tiniest hint of bacon, I hummed the first few bars of Lady to myself. I tossed in some beets for good measure.

On two visits Hen Pen’s chicken was just as good as the chicken at Fields. The sprouts weren’t as good as the ones Fields used to serve, but since they existed as a menu item, they took the side dish prize. The beets were good, but I love sprouts and bacon. On visit No. 2, I simply doubled down on them.

Hen Pen is Kenny Rogers Roasters in this analogy, and I fear that it will suffer the same fate as the original*. The good news? Fields is what Boston Market should be. So if Fields Good Chicken ever goes national, all of us who routinely seek meat and vegetables served across a counter in less than five minutes will be the lucky ones.

If Fields brings back the sprouts, we’ll be even luckier.

*UPDATE: I was more correct than I could have possibly imagined. Hen Pen closed days after this was originally published.

Lucali 

575 Henry St, Brooklyn, NY 11231 
This review of Lucali originally appeared Dec. 28, 2015. 

When discussing Alabama freshman receiver Calvin Ridley on Sunday, offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin used the term “playground player.” That isn’t someone who plays an organized in an unorganized fashion. In Kiffin’s recruiting lexicon, the playground player is the athlete your 10-year-old self would reflexively select first when picking teams on the playground. What does this have to do with food? Read on.

If you’ve read this space for a while, you know my palate isn’t nearly as refined when it comes to pizza as it is for barbecue. But I can tell a playground player pizza when I taste it. It takes but one bite at Lucali to understand that this particular mix of dough, sauce cheese, meat and vegetables is the culinary equivalent of a five-star recruit.

A bite probably isn’t even necessary. The dinner-only hours (6 p.m. to 11 p.m. except Tuesdays) offer the first clue. The pay system (cash only) offers the second.  The aroma of pies cooking in a brick oven seasoned by thousands of pies that came before offers the third. By the time a glance at the menu reveals fresh garlic and basil come free on every pie, it should be obvious that this pizza is special.

Pizza from Lucali in Brooklyn.
Andy Staples

I made my second visit to Lucali a few weeks ago. I had learned the first time that a taste of that thin-but-still-slightly-chewy crust mixed with that fresh sauce only cranks up the craving for more, so I ordered two pepperoni pies—one for myself and one for my friend. He protested, but I assured him the pizza would all be gone and we would leave Carroll Gardens happy. Not long after, only a few shards of basil remained.

Lucali offers plenty of toppings, but anything beyond pepperoni, basil and garlic might be overkill. That combination ventures awfully close to pizza perfection. Lucali manages to make a thin crust that gets neither greasy nor crunchy. On the edges, the dough bubbles into a soft pillow that tastes best with just a hint of sauce clinging to it. If not for the cheese and toppings, the crust might float off the table. That’s why one pie never feels like enough.

If all the pizza houses of New York were choosing teams on the playground, one of the captains would pick Lucali. And that captain’s team would dominate.

Mission Chinese

171 E. Broadway, New York, NY 10002 
This review of Mission Chinese originally appeared May 16, 2016.

My server pointed out the flames next to a few select dishes on the menu. These, she said, will make your mouth tingle. Sure, I thought. Everyone says that before plopping down a dish that falls right next to Tabasco sauce on the Scoville scale. No, she insisted. Your mouth will tingle.

Despite her warnings, I planned to try a trio of flame-notated dishes at Mission Chinese. The restaurant, which started in San Francisco and opened a New York outpost on the Lower East Side, is famous for its use of Sichuan peppers, which do not set the mouth ablaze so much as leave it quivering. I intended to try the thrice-cooked bacon and rice cakes, the chongqing chicken wings and the kung pao pastrami. This would have been a mistake.

Had I been with a large group and sampling from each plate, ordering this trio would have been ideal. A bite of this. A bite of that. A few bites of something less numbing in between to cleanse the palate. The place serves dishes family-style, but I was a family of one on this particular Wednesday. On my own, such an order would have been a disaster. Fortunately, an item on the next page of the menu rescued me from my own spicy hubris. 

WHOLE SMOKED HOG JOWL.

That’s what the menu said. Underneath were some words about something called Cloud Bread and some spices, but I couldn’t get past the first part. I had not had pork jowl before, but I had heard it rivaled pork belly and bacon. I do not take such claims lightly, so I needed to taste for myself. I reduced my spicy order to just the thrice-cooked bacon and requested the pig’s double — triple? quadruple? — chin. My server had another warning now. You’re going to need a box for the leftovers. I chuckled. She clearly didn’t understand my appetite for the best parts of the pig.

The pork jowl from Mission Chinese.
Andy Staples

All her advice turned out 100 percent correct. The bacon was savory and smoky, but after a few seconds those peppers had my tongue and mouth jangling. While this may sound unpleasant, it’s actually quite thrilling. The peppers don’t overwhelm like habaneros or Ghost chiles. They effectively set off a tuning fork in the mouth, leaving it buzzing but not ablaze. It’s easy to understand why continuing to eat them would leave the mouth numb, but Mission Chinese includes the slippery, chewy rice cakes to absorb some of the heat. Had I dared eat all three hot dishes, my mouth would have been numb. I wouldn’t have been able to enjoy most of the meal, and it would have been my own fault for not ordering properly.

Fortunately, the eleventh-hour switch to hog jowl eliminated that issue. It is better than pork belly or bacon. If you read this space two weeks ago, you know I favor the uncured (pork belly) over the cured (bacon). The jowl is a silkier version of the belly. It delivers maximum savory in each bite. At Mission Chinese, a crispy crust adds just enough texture to a meat that otherwise melts on the tongue. The Cloud Bread, a large, soft pillow of carbs that looks like a pita injected with helium, can be torn apart and wrapped around the thick slices for one of the world’s most decadent sandwiches.

My server wasn’t kidding about the need for a box. The chunks of jowl are like pork plutonium. It only takes a little to satisfy even the heartiest appetite. Jowl’s humble cousin bacon can commingle with breakfast and burgers regularly. The richness of the jowl befits a once-a-year treat. Or maybe twice a year. I still want to try that kung pao pastrami, and I’m going to need something to soothe my tingling tongue.

Motorino

349 E. 12th St., #A, New York, NY 10003 
This review of Motorino originally appeared Dec. 22, 2014. 

One of the people I dined with earlier this month is Dan Rubenstein, who works for SB Nation, lives in New York and eats on camera while picking college football games terribly. Dan said Motorino’s East Village location might serve the best pizza in Manhattan.

Based on that last sentence, you’re probably expecting a Hot Pizza Take here. But you’re not going to get one. If someone tells me a place serves the best brisket in Texas or the best pulled pork sandwich in Georgia, I’m going in expecting to have highly flammable opinions when I finish eating. That simply isn’t the case for me with pizza. My palate isn’t refined enough.

I ate chain pizza for all of my childhood. Then, in college, I ate a lot of truly awful, cardboard-and-cheese pizza because I could get a large delivered for $4 including tip. (If I was feeling particularly flush, I sprung for pepperoni.) So my pizza education was lacking. That’s why I typically refrain from best-pizza arguments. 

I also refrain from best-pizza-style arguments. I don’t care where you grew up. New York-style pizza is delicious. Chicago-style pizza is also delicious. There can be no argument between these two types of pizza because they are not even the same food item. One is thin and floppy and foldable, while the other requires roughly seven pounds of butter and an hour to cook. Both are exquisite for entirely different reasons. A pie from John’s and a pie from Lou Malnati’s have nothing in common but a flour-based carbohydrate base, melted cheese, tomato sauce and meat and/or vegetables. Do you know what also combines a flour-based carbohydrate base, melted cheese, tomato sauce and meat and/or vegetables? A quesadilla. So quit arguing and eat your pizza.

While I’ll avoid any definitive proclamations with regard to Motorino, I can attest that it is some of the tastiest pizza I have eaten. The dough is tad chewier than most of what I’ve eaten in New York in the past, but there is an excellent reason for this. Motorino’s oven gets hotter than the blazes of hell. So the dough needs to be a little thicker so it doesn’t get burned to a crisp. What arrives at the table is a slightly heftier pie with a touch of char on the outside and a pillowy inside.

It is upon this canvas that Motorino applies some inspired topping combinations. At this moment, I would like to thank [former] SI.com college football editor Ben Glicksman for his horrible timing and the MTA for an unfortunate, terribly inconvenient shutdown that allowed me to decide which topping combination was my favorite.

How did this happen? It began in SI’s offices at about 4 p.m. on Dec. 11. Ben and I were singing the praises of the model of relative efficiency that is the New York City subway system. This, of course, was a terrible mistake. We should not have mocked the subway gods.

We agreed that Ben, who still had work to do because all he does is work, would meet up with us at Motorino at 6:30. The appointed time came and went. No Ben. No text. No call. No nothing. At about 6:45, the waiter began getting antsy, so we ordered. I chose the Soppressata Piccante, which features spicy soppressata, garlic, chili flakes and pecorino. So did everyone else at the table. The soppressata packed a huge wallop, but the tomato sauce, garlic and chewy crust took off the edge and left an ideal mix of sweet, spicy and carbalicious in each bite. This seemed tough to top. When we finished, we realized we still had more time because Ben still hadn’t shown. Finally, my phone rang. Ben had just emerged like a mole person somewhere in lower Manhattan. He would explain fully when he arrived.

So we ordered Ben a soppresseta pie and figured, since we were going to hang around a few more minutes, we should split another variety. Though our seven-year-old selves probably would have wretched at the thought, we landed on the Brussels sprouts pie. As I wrote last week, sprouts have come a long way since they were a sitcom writer’s idea of a hilariously disgusting food. Soak them in oil and mix them in with some fatty meat, and they’re darn near perfect. At Motorino, they are soaked in extra virgin olive oil, mixed with smoked pancetta and strewn about that heavenly crust. The soppressata was great. This was even better.

Finally, as the last bits of sprout disappeared, Ben arrived to a steaming pie of his own. He had been trapped in a subway car for 90 minutes thanks to a Murphy’s Law evening for the MTA . Fortunately, he had that crust and that soppressata waiting at the end of the tunnel. Within 30 seconds, he was smiling. So while I’m not prepared to declare Motorino the best pizza in Manhattan, I am fully prepared to declare that it’s worth spending an hour and a half trapped underground for—and that ain’t bad.

Otto's Tacos

141 2nd Ave, New York, NY 10003 
This review of Otto's Tacos originally appeared Feb. 8, 2016 

I still can’t understand why some company hasn’t turned a street taco joint into the next sweeping-the-nation fast casual chain. Torchy’s Tacos seems to be the best candidate, but so far its only expansion outside Texas has been to Colorado. We love good tacos in flyover country as well, but for most of us, our exposure is limited to great one-off spots and mini-chains in bigger cities or in smaller cities in taco-centric states such as Texas, Arizona and California.

That’s why I take advantage when an excellent taco opportunity is nearby. Last week, I had to go to New York to shoot our National Signing Day spectacular in conjunction with Scout.com. After a day spent planning the show, editor Ben Glicksman and I craved folded food. So we headed to the original Otto’s Tacos location—there are now three—in the East Village. There, we met the Gorgon.

Edith Hamilton’s Mythology described Gorgons like this: “And they are three, the Gorgons, each with wings/ And snaky hair most horrible to mortals/Whom no man shall behold and draw again/The breath of life…” The most famous (and only mortal) among them was Medusa, whose glance could turn a man to stone. Perseus defeated Medusa by looking only at her reflection in his shield.

No such protective measures were necessary when viewing Otto’s Gorgon. Unlike its namesake, it is a thing of heavenly beauty. The Gorgon began as an off-menu secret for those in the know, but it now sits proudly on the menu alongside the more standard street taco offerings. What makes the Gorgon special? Instead of a thin tortilla, it starts with a thick, fresh-made masa pillow that gets fried so that it turns into the corn equivalent of a funnel cake. This gets loaded down with your choice of meat—I selected carne asada—guacamole, serrano cream, cilantro and onions. Depending on how long the tortilla was cooked, it may or may not fold. This definitely will not matter. You will be equally satisfied eating it with your hands or with a fork. 

The Gorgon from Otto's is immensely satisfying.
Andy Staples

The regular tacos at Otto’s are excellent. The carnitas version I ordered was stuffed with moist, tender pork and drizzled with tasty tomatillo salsa. The masa fries—deep-fried cornmeal stick—were ideal for dipping in the various salsas. And the rice and beans are most certainly cooked with love (AKA pork fat). Still, the star is the Gorgon. The juicy carne asada came spilling out with each bite, but I still had plenty to blend with the spicy cream and the soft masa base. Those with normal appetites need not order past the Gorgon. You’ll be full, and you’ll be happy. And when you can do that for $8.50 in New York, you have accomplished something as legendary as slaying a snake-haired monster.

Parm

248 Mulberry St., New York, NY 10012 
This review of Parm originally appeared Dec. 15, 2014

One Wednesday night in New York, I finally got the chance to venture south of the Empire State Building. We wanted Italian, but we didn’t want the stodgy appetizer-pasta-main course dinner that takes three hours and usually costs a small fortune. So we found our way to Parm in SoHo. Parm specializes in chicken parm and eggplant parm sandwiches. It has a few other excellent items on the menu, but it doesn’t stretch itself too far. It makes its featured dish perfectly and hopes that will keep diners coming back. And it will.

The chicken parm sandwich from the aptly named Parm.
Andy Staples

The calamari is excellent— though not always available. But even if you’re denied squid, you can whet your appetite with a three-item flight of veggies. Like everything else in the place, the Buffalo cucumbers have a self-explanatory name. They are crisp, fresh cucumbers kissed with Buffalo wing sauce. The charred broccoli is crispy and has the almost meaty quality that so many grilled vegetables take on. The Brussels sprouts also come charred, but they’re also covered in shaved parmesan cheese. This noble vegetable was the butt of jokes for decades because cooks failed to use their imaginations. Thanks to places such as Parm, sprouts finally get the praise they deserve.

But the reason people go to Parm is right in the name. I ordered a chicken parm sandwich on a sweet semolina roll and a meatball hero on Italian bread. The meatball sandwich was good, but The Meatball Shop, another NYC mini-chain, makes a better one. Afterward, I wished I’d ordered two chicken parm sandwiches. Lightly breaded, expertly fried and thick enough for a serious bite, the chicken is smothered in mozzarella and sits atop a dollop of simple, glorious red sauce. To tweak it a little, order a side of meat gravy (similar to Bolognese sauce) and either dip the sandwich or sprinkle on the gravy before each bite. But the sandwich needs no help. It stands on its own as the centerpiece of a great meal.

Paulie Gee's

60 Greenpoint Ave, Brooklyn, NY 11222
This review of Paulie Gee's originally appeared May 25, 2015. 

At Paulie Gee’s, a wood-oven pizza joint in Brooklyn’s Greenpoint neighborhood, the most popular pie is the Hellboy. Like most of the spicy pies at most of the wood-oven places in the city, the heat comes from Sopressata. Unlike the other places, additional heat comes from honey. Yes, honey.

Paulie Gee’s drizzles Mike's Hot Honey on each pie. This combination of extreme sweetness and spice should not work, but it does. While the crust doesn’t quite match up to the crust at Motorino in Greenwich Village or Antico in Atlanta, the heat of the meat and the chiles in the honey mix with the honey’s natural sweetness to create a wave of contrasting flavors that leaves everyone at the table craving more. Which is why when three of us polished off one Hellboy and two other pies (the Hometown Brisket and the Greenpointer with prosciutto) that didn’t hold a candle to the Hellboy, we ordered another Hellboy. We should have just ordered four Hellboys from the start.

Pig Bleecker

​155 Bleecker St, New York, NY
This review of Pig Bleecker originally appeared May 22, 2017.

I knew it would be too much food, but I ordered it anyway. The idea of chicken (cold) smoked first and (hot) fried second appealed too much to taste buds trained to love the smoked and the fried. Smoked then fried? I needed to taste that, even if the dish only came as a whole chicken covered in crispy waffles. So much comfort food seemed bound to cause discomfort, but I had to know how this concoction tasted.

Fortunately—or rather unfortunately—the pair that sat next to me at the bar at New York’s Pig Bleecker needed some comforting. One had been passed over for a promotion she’d expected to get. Her co-worker had taken her out to blow off steam. They were meeting more friends later, but the occasion called for alcohol immediately. They only came for a few drinks, but I needed help and conscripted them into my saturated fat brigade.

A fried chicken dinner needs to be shared. Whether from a paper bucket or from a bowl that perfectly matches the decor, it is a social experience. The ritual of you-get-a-leg-I-get-a-thigh soothes. It satisfies. And when the chicken is smoked first? Wow.

The chicken from Pig Bleecker is peak comfort food.
Andy Staples

At first bite, the smoke isn’t apparent. The crispy, juicy skin crackles like the skin of any good bespoke fried chicken. The smoke peeks through just after the teeth sink into the meat. As the juices flow, they deliver the usual savory blast of grease. Then the smoke hits. The signature flavor of the pit marries the signature flavor of the fryer, and the union is blessed. Put a bite of waffle underneath and a few drops of the house hot sauce (think an angrier Cholula) on top and every care disappears. Follow that with a bite of cheesy grits, and day-to-day problems simply melt away. 

Even before that beautiful chicken arrived, Pig Bleecker had already removed the edge from the day. I had ordered the Pigs in Parker House Rolls appetizer with some trepidation, because Pigs in a Blanket almost always let me down. The puff pastry that surrounds the average blanketed pig gets too crispy, and what seems like the ultimate finger food in theory turns into a crunchy mess in practice. But the pieces of Parker House Rolls used by Pig Bleecker stand up to heat and meat better than puff pastry. If the puff pastry is Linus’s threadbare blanket, the rolls are a luxurious down comforter in a suite at the Ritz Carlton. This was yet another reason why I knew the chicken dish would be too much for me; once I tasted one pig in his blanket, I devoured the rest on the plate.

Fortunately, I did save some of my pecan candied bacon appetizer for my new friends. But even though bacon makes everything better, the real comfort came from that chicken. 

Randolph Beer

343 Broome St, New York, NY 100013
This review of Randolph Beer originally appeared July 5, 2016. 

Late last week, I posted a few photos of dishes from my culinary adventures from the past few months to see which one should be covered in more detail in this section. First, we’ll go through the runners-up.

The pizza at Fat Clemenza’s in Destin, Fla.

The blueberry danish pancakes from Snooze in Phoenix.

The Cochinita Pibil from Barrio Cafe in Phoenix.

While the above choices were formidable, the photo that activated the most salivary glands was a shot of the macaroni and cheese from Randolph Beer. This place, located in NoLIta, serves burgers, sandwiches and small plates alongside a lovingly curated collection of craft beers. After visiting in May, I can offer this advice: Skip the burger, which is just fine, and double down on the small plates. Unless you go on an epic binge, you and your friends probably will get out for about $50 each, which is a bargain in that neighborhood for a full belly and a buzz.

That particular mac and cheese featured a creamy (but not soupy) blend of cheese, noodles thick enough to stand up to all that flavor and a pile of bacon lardons on top. If you read my old Heaven Is A Buffet blog, you know that the first commandment is this: There is nothing on earth that can’t be improved by adding a few slabs of bacon. This is especially true when those slabs are crumbled and then mixed in with cheese and noodles and eaten between swigs of a coconut caramel chocolate brown ale called Dirty Little Freak

There is nothing on earth that can't be improved by bacon, and this goes for the mac and cheese from Randolph Beer as well.
Andy Staples

The other must-order at Randolph Beer is the Evil Sprouts. After two generations spent as a cheap sitcom punchline, Brussels sprouts have enjoyed a renaissance. I avoided them for years because of their reputation, but after finally trying them it became obvious that sprouts are delicious as long as they’re cooked with something other than simple steam. The Evil Sprouts are cooked with maple syrup and balsamic vinegar and mixed with those same bacon lardons that topped the mac and cheese. The result is something far too delicious to be a vegetable dish. Of course, the additional ingredients also negate the health benefits of the sprouts. Since the dishes at Randolph Beer exist mostly to soak up said beer, the primary concern isn’t calorie counting.

Since you aren’t counting calories, throw in a pretzel or two for the table to go with your mac and cheese and sprouts. Each pretzel is about the size of the average human head, and it comes piping hot with horseradish mustard and sauerkraut served alongside for dipping. Or you could just dip it into your glass of Dirty Little Freak. It can be your dirty little secret.

Rosie's

29 E. 2nd St, New York, NY 10003
This review of Rosie's originally appeared May 25, 2015.

Pork ribs, pineapple, almonds and raisins. That looks like a shopping list, not a stew recipe. But at Rosie’s in New York’s East Village neighborhood, those ingredients share the same bowl. Others may disagree, but sometimes seemingly disparate ingredients mingle to create magic. Fat from the ribs gives the guiso de puerco some heft—thankfully, Rosie’s does not insult its customers by calling this a “broth bowl”—while the fruit flavors lift it out of heavy, rib-sticking territory. It tastes like a stew people would eat in a place where it’s hot all the time. Like Mexico.

As someone who lives in a place where it stays hot most of the time, a soup or stew that can be served throughout a yearlong summer is a godsend. I would fill a pool with the stock from this dish and dive in*. We don’t have to steel ourselves against the cold in Florida, but we also enjoy stew like everyone else. Rosie’s probably won’t sell much guiso de puerco in the winter, but come summer, when the warm breeze wafts through the place’s wide-open layout, it should fly out of the kitchen.

*But first, I would eat some of Rosie’s Tacos Al Pastor. Order twice as many of these and zero of the Carne Asada, which isn’t worth your tastebuds’ time. Also, follow your swim through the guiso de puerco with chile chocolate ice cream.

The Smith

956 2nd Ave, New York, NY 10022
This review of The Smith originally appeared Dec. 15, 2014. 

Those of us who don’t live in New York but have to come to the city for work often find ourselves in a quandary. The island of Manhattan is a culinary playground, but the particular area of Manhattan (Midtown) that houses most corporate headquarters and centralized, event-hosting hotels is chock-a-block with either pricy steakhouses or the same chains we have at home. (Or the same pricy steakhouse chains we have at home.) So a group of us sportswriters were thrilled last year when, while looking for something within walking distance of the Waldorf-Astoria (where coaches and ADs congregate for National Football Foundation festivities), we stumbled upon The Smith. The Smith is itself a mini-chain—it also has locations in the East Village and Lincoln Center— but for about the same price as some of the more boring outposts in the land of tourists and business travelers, it has much better food. That’s why we made a return visit last week.

Start with the bacon-wrapped apricots, which combine savory, sweet and tart into an explosive, bite-sized package. Also, make sure to go on Monday. Monday is lamb shank day, and little excites the Id more than a giant hunk of juicy, tender meat on the bone. For those who enjoy such things, The Smith also makes the tastiest Manhattan I’ve had in Manhattan.

Xi'an Famous Foods

Various locations throughout NYC
This review of Xi'an Famous Foods originally appeared Feb. 15, 2016. 

It’s time those of us in Flyover Country had better options than Panda Express and our local purveyors of General Tso’s Chicken. China is a massive country. Its cuisine can’t be accurately represented by one type of restaurant. Xi’an Famous Foods brought the cuisine of Xi’an—a city that served as an imperial capital and one end of the Silk Road—to diners in New York. The place started in a mall food court in Queens in 2005, but tales of spicy lamb and hand-ripped noodles drew crowds. Since, Xi’an Famous Foods has added six Manhattan locations, a Brooklyn location and another Queens location.

I tasted those magic noodles for the first time in December at the midtown location. They commingle with thick slices of lamb or beef in a spicy, oily broth. The depth of flavor would shock diners lulled by the blandness of their hometown Chinese takeout place, but they’d quickly recover and begin sucking down noodles. The biggest issue with a large-scale expansion of Xi’an is that the best dishes (the noodle dishes) come with a disclaimer. At the front of the store and on the website, diners are warned that waiting to eat their noodles can have disastrous consequences:

Food tastes best when fresh from the kitchen. When hot noodles cool down, they get bloated, mushy, and oily. If you must take your noodles to go, please at least try the noodles in the store or right out of the to-go containers when it's handed to you, so you can get the best possible Xi'an Famous Foods experience.

This obviously would be an issue with any expansion outside the five boroughs. But careful selection of location—near college campuses or large office buildings with big lunch crowds—would produce diners willing and able to eat their noodles on site or nearby. Besides, after one taste of the cumin-spiced lamb, no one is going to want to wait until they get back to their desk to eat.

You May Like