Tuesday, October 11, 2011

NYC Wedding Guest Guide on the Cheap: Eating in the Big Apple

If there is one communal pasttime of New Yorkers (aside from complaining), it's eating.  I've learned that one of the best ways to get to know someone is to ask them about food, since everyone has strong opinions about what's new, what's best, what's next and what's over.  New York offers some pretty incredible dining options, from the $295 prix-fixe dinner at Per Se (where Bradley Cooper & J. Lo were recently spotted on a date), to the secret bar accessible through a phone booth inside a hot dog joint.  While it's easy to find restaurants that will set you back over $100 a person, there are just as many great and affordable options, you just have to know where to look. 

My first suggestion to anyone looking for an unforgettable meal at a digestable price is to tap into the well of high quality, authentic ethnic culinary experiences that will redefine what pizza or naan or moo shu pork can and should be (and no, the world's largest Olive Garden in Times Square does not count). 

Here's a short list of foods and restaurants not to be missed for fun, ethnic meals you can't find just anywhere (most certainly not in an Applebee's).

blame battleofthebanhmi.com for wanting to eat your computer screen
Banh Mi (the Vietnamese version of a hoagie-meets-barbeque)
For any barbeque lovers, an original pork banh mi sandwich (pronounced "buhn me") is an absolute must.  Like any memorable food, there are of course variations, but the bones of this addicting sandwich is a meat (usually slow cooked pork or pork roll, but many places also offer chicken or vegetarian versions), warm and crackly baguette dressed with mayo and pate, topped with cool cilantro, daikon and usually a pickled vegetable of some ilk, like shredded carrots, that helps offset the heat of sriracha or some other hot sauce variation.  If Miss Saigon and Jimmy Dean made a love child in the sixties, they would have named him Banh Mi Dean. 

The most popular spots for your next fix are Nicky's, which has a Manhattan and Brooklyn outpost, and Banh Mi Saigon Bakery in Little Italy. 

Is that Michael Cera? (nymag.com)
If the only pizzaiolo, or pizza maker, you know is Papa John's, then please do me a favor and have a freaking slice of pie in New York.  Yes, it's called pie, and no, it doesn't come with cheesy dipping sauce for your crust.  I'm sure you'll see Grimaldi's in all the tour books, but skip it.  It's not that their pizza isn't good, but it's not good enough to wait two hours for (this may be the first time I've ended a sentence with a preposition ever, but I'm feeling saucy).  Instead, try Lucali in Brooklyn (duh), which holds the humble recognition of being THE (second) BEST PIZZA IN ALL OF AMERICA.  No big deal.  Insider tip, if you want to look like a local, fold your slice in half.  That's how we do. 

Soup Dumplings
Forget the soup nazi, New York is all about the soup dumplings, and if you want to feel like an insider, you simply must make room for these culinary curiosities during your trip.  What, you ask, is a soup dumpling?  First, imagine a tender, juicy, little pillow of pork (a meatball minus the "Italian" parts).  Your little baby pork meatball needs to feel protected & nurtured, so it's encased in a dumpling, where it lives, safe and warm, surrounded by hot, brothy soup.  Yes.  A meatball inside soup inside a dumpling.  I'm blowing your mind right now.  I once saw a television special explaining how they pulled off this mysterious and impressive feat, but I'm not spilling the beans.  It will remain buried deep in my soul right next to my one and only magic trick where I can make a quarter have two heads. 

Soup dumplings sound and weird, but I swear they are a culinary portal into the matrix, promising to blow open a door in your brain through which you can see heaven.  Two years ago my nephews came up from Virginia for a visit.  I took them to Joe's Shanghai for dumplings.  By the end of dinner (and two more orders of dumplings), they had hatched a pretty legitimate plan to ship bulk quantities of dumplings back to Virginia for personal consumption and resale.  They were eight and fifteen at the time. 

Honorable Mentions
Here are some other foods and ideas to consider.  Bagels (go here).  Indian (go here or to the lunch buffet here).  Korean bi bim bop and bulgogi (go here).

The other option is to pull the old Costco classic - samples, suckah!  Hit up the Chelsea Market for free handouts from the food vendors, followed by a walk on the High Line, or visit Mario Batali & Lydia Bastianich's Italian food court mecca, Eataly (which also recently opened an Italian beer garden on the roof.  Did I just hear you grab your coat and keys?  Meet you there in twenty). 

Here are some other sites to help you eat your way through New York without spending a fortune. 

New York Magazine's Annual Cheap Eats Guide for 2011
New York Magazine's Where Chefs Eat Cheap article
Urban Spoon's iPhone app

Tomorrow I'll be posting a top 20 list of "normally priced" restaurants to consider for your trip in case mere mention of the options above are giving you heartburn or nightmares of IBS episodes.

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