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Eating My Way Through New York: Won’t Break the Bank

The smoked chicken sandwich at Roberta’s.


The iconic New York pizza may be a huge, greasy, foldable slice. But Roberta’s in Brooklyn is where true pizza connoisseurs flock.

At this funky place, you enter this cement fortress of a building through scuffed wooden doors to a alpine-lodge-like dining room crammed with long, wood communal tables.

A bird-eye view of the pizza making.

The dining room at lunch time.

The massive wood-fired pizza oven is to your right. You get a clue as to how much attention they pay to the pizzas here when you see a pie go into the oven. It’s never left alone for long. The cook is regularly rotating it, and lifting it, leaning the edge of the crust toward the flames to kiss it with char before turning it again and again.

We shared the Guanciale & Egg ($16), strewn with tomato, mozzarella, rich pork jowl, and a fried egg with an oozy yolk that burst over the center of the pizza. The crust is light and airy yet still possesses a good amount of chewiness. You can taste the smoke, and the long-fermented flavor of the dough. We didn’t think we would finish all of it. But with pizza this good, it’s impossible to stop.

Spectacular pizza.

You can tell this is not your average pizza joint because it doesn’t just do pizzas well.

Marinated Cucumber Salad ($9) doesn’t sound like much at first. But it arrives, artfully plated in a large white bowl. The large diced cucumbers are ice-cold and super crunchy and quenching. Fennel fronds and Thai basil leaves are showered on top. Garlic and chili add a ton of flavor. I think I detected fish sauce in it for added salty savoriness. Who knew cucumbers could be such stars?

A fine-dining cucumber salad in a pizza joint.

Smoked Chicken Salad ($14) comes shredded and piled high on top of a slab of Roberta’s homemade country-style bread. Perfect tiny cubes of Asian pear are mixed in with the smoky chicken, adding bright, sweet crunchiness. Sumac and togarashi add fruity tang and a hit of spice. A fluff of fresh herbs crowns it all.

What I really appreciated was that this chicken salad was not full of mayo. Instead, the emphasis was on the pure taste of the chicken, with hardly any binder to detract from it.

Just a few steps away is Roberta’s Bakery, where you can get pizza to-go, pick up a loaf of freshly baked bread, or a couple of sticky buns ($3 each) that have a lovely croissant-like texture rather than the leaden, heaviness usually encountered.

Superiority Burger

My husband, aka Meat Boy, is an avowed carnivore, of course.

But even he was excited to try the vegetarian burger at Superiority Burger.

This tiny spot only has a couple of seats inside. You’ll see people sitting on the sidewalk noshing on the burgers, too.

In a slip of a basement location, this vegetarian fast-casual concept has taken New York by storm. It was opened by punk rock drummer and former Del Posto executive pastry chef Books Headley, who’s usually on the premises, his long graying hair tucked under a beanie.

Headley won’t divulge what’s in his $6 burger that’s served with a melting gob of Meunster cheese, iceberg lettuce, pickles and a tomato slice. The only clue is the menu says it contains nuts.

You won’t even miss the meat.

It’s a moderate-sized burger that is an explosion of beefy flavor. I don’t know if it’s charred mushrooms or charred onions or what that gives this patty its sensational, mouthful of umami goodness. I just know it’s incredibly satisfying.

It doesn’t have the texture of a ground meat burger like the Impossible Burger and Beyond Meat burgers (two other famed veggie burgers) do. Instead it’s more squishy, a little like mashed potatoes or mashed beans. But those burgers definitely lack the powerhouse of flavor that this one has.

Even Meat Boy found it delicious, without having to high-tail it out for a real meat burger afterward. Best yet, neither of us felt that weighed down afterward.

Raspberry sorbet atop halva gelato.

So come for the burger. But do stay for the gelato and sorbet ($5), too. After all, Headley knows his way around sweets. His raspberry sorbet tastes intensely of berries, and was probably the smoothest sorbet I’ve ever had, without any of the usual iciness to it. His halva gelato was kissed by rose water and hid tiny pieces of the chewy, nougat-like Middle Eastern confection.

Tim Ho Wan

It’s known as the world’s cheapest Michelin-starred restaurant. Tim Ho Wan, the Hong Kong-based dim sum restaurant only has two locations in the United States — Honolulu, and Manhattan, within walking distance of NYU.

The basement spot is not huge, and is always bustling. So go on an off-hour to avoid the lines.

Steamed dumplings Chiu-Chow-style, shrimp and chives dumplings, and har gow.

The service is friendly and attentive. The food is stellar. You can taste the freshness from the first bite. The dumpling skins here are thin and nearly transparent. The dumplings, themselves, are filled bountifully.

And the prices? Incredibly reasonable, with dumpling staples such as har gow and siu mai going for $4.50 per order.

A different rendition of pork buns.

The baked bbq pork buns ($4.95 for three) are quite distinctive here. They are pale looking and have a crisp, biscuit-like texture on the outside. Inside, they swell with chunks of Chinese barbecued pork.

Now, if only they’d open one in the Bay Area.

Xi’an Famous Foods

I’ve been wanting to try Xi’an Famous Foods ever since Anthony Bourdain touted it as one of his favorites on his travel food show.

It’s even easier now that the fast-casual spot specializing in Northern Chinese has 11 locations in New York.

This is as no-frills as it comes. You order at the counter, then pick up your food that’s served on paper plates, to enjoy at a bare wooden table, where you have to get your own utensils and napkins.

Hand-ripped noodles tossed with spicy cumin lamb.

Those same noodles, but with mild oxtail.

Some of the dishes can be quite spicy, but you always have the option of ordering any of them “mild.”

This place is known for its hand-ripped noodles. They’re wide and chewy, sort of like chow fun noodles. They are also very long, which makes eating them with plastic forks or chopsticks a little challenging, especially when they are covered in splash-able red chili pepper sauce.

But it’s worth the effort for dishes such as Spicy Cumin Lamb Hand-Ripped Noodles ($9.69). The tangle of thinly sliced lamb is full of earthy cumin flavor. There’s big hit of heat from the chilies that builds and builds the more you eat. You press on, eating bite after bite, because it’s too addictive to stop.

The Stewed Oxtail Hand-Ripped Noodles ($10.61) is even harder to eat, as the oxtail meat is still on the bones. You’ll have to resort to using your fingers to attack this dish.

Lamb dumplings.

Spicy and Sour Lamb Dumplings (six for $8.13) are big and rustic, and swimming in a pool of chili oil sauce tinged with vinegar. It’s easy to get hooked on its aggressive flavors. But just be careful if you are wearing a white shirt.

Yakitori Totto

I felt a little like I was in my own episode of “Midnight Diner” when eating at Yakitori Totto.

If you haven’t yet watched the Netflix original series, which focuses on characters that visit a small one-man-operated Tokyo diner when it opens at midnight, you should. It is absolutely charming and quirky.

You might walk right past this hole-in-the-wall.

The guys behind the counter at this yakitori place.

That’s because my husband and I ate at this yakitori joint around midnight — an hour we’d normally be fast asleep. But hey, when in New York…

This late-night hole-in-the-wall is another Bourdain favorite. You find it by walking up a narrow, steep flight of stairs. The slender restaurant has only a few tables, plus seats right up against the glassed-in kitchen with a bird’s eye view of the grills for the yakitori.

You order by the skewer. The Momo (chicken thigh, $3.50 each) is simply grilled and sprinkled with Himalayan pink sea salt. You’d be hard pressed to taste more flavorful chicken anywhere. It’s tender, juicy, and full of smoky flavor.

Negi pan.

The Negi Pan ($4 each) is a big skewer of pork, glazed with ponzu and showered with thinly sliced scallions. So simple, and so sublime.

The only disappointment was the Kawa ($3.50) or chicken skin. I wish more of the fat had been rendered because it wasn’t very crisp, especially compared to versions I’ve had elsewhere such as at Miminashi in Napa.

House-made cold tofu.

Tuna sashimi ($10).

Much better was the Yakumi Zara Tofu ($8), a large serving of cold, soft house-made tofu, served broken in chunks like icebergs in a bamboo basket. Scallions, sesame seeds, bonito flakes and grated ginger come alongside, so you can garnish as you like. The tofu was as fresh as it gets with a lovely creaminess.

Ivan Ramen Slurp Shop

If you’ve watched the Netflix series “Chef’s Table,” you’re probably familiar with Ivan Orkin, the self-professed “Jewish guy from Long Island,” who went to Japan to study ramen and ended up establishing one of the premier ramen shops in Tokyo — no easy feat for a foreigner in a land that takes tradition seriously.

In 2012, he returned to New York to open Ivan Ramen Slurp Shop in 2013, then Ivan Ramen shortly afterward.

The decor at Ivan Ramen Slurp Shop.

The Slurp Shop is inside the Gotham West Market, a tightly-packed gourmet food hall. Get in line to order, then hopefully, snag a seat once your food is ready.

The Meal Deal lets you add a steamed bun to your order of ramen for just $1 more, which is a bargain. Otherwise, an a la carte order of steamed buns is $9 for two.

Try the griddled shrimp one. It’s like the filling of shrimp toast, but stuffed inside a pillowy steamed clamshell bun. It’s crisp on the outside and full of chopped shrimp.

Griddled shrimp steamed bun.

The Tokyo Shio Ramen ($14) is a bowl of home-made, supple, toothsome rye noodles floating in a delicious broth that has a purity of dashi and chicken flavors without feeling heavy and greasy. The pork belly is succulent, and the soft egg sports a sunburst orange yolk.

Shio ramen.

It’s a fabulous bowl of comfort that doesn’t have to rely on a heap of fat to provide deliciousness.

Russ & Daughters Cafe

After a red-eye flight, there’s no better place to enjoy a first meal in New York than at Russ & Daughters Cafe.

After all, nothing says “welcome to New York” like a plate of bagels and lox. And few do it better than this institution.

The fun artwork at Russ & Daughters Cafe.

At the diner-like cafe, almost every table orders at least one “board.” It’s a wooden plank arrayed with your choice of bagel or bialy, smoked fish, and fixings.

I opted for the Shtetl ($18), which included smoked sable, goat cream cheese, tomato, onion and capers with my choice of an everything bagel.

The sable was silky and rich. The goat cream cheese, which tasted like a cross between goat cheese and cream cheese, was a more tart, more grassy change of pace.

The smoked sablefish board.

The Lower Sunny Side.

My husband enjoyed The Lower Sunny Side ($16), a plate of sunny side up eggs, smoked salmon, and two potato latkes that were super crunchy and tasted almost like giant tater tots.

Feltman’s Kitchen

My husband is a sucker for a good hot dog. And I am a sucker for a good story.

We found both at Feltman’s Kitchen, which many tout as the best hot dog in New York City.

It is named for German immigrant butcher Charles Feltman, who is credited with inventing the hot dog on a bun.

Step right up to the window to order.

There are holes-in-the-wall establishments. This takes it to another level, as it’s really just a sliding window out on the sidewalk. Proprietor Michael Quinn rents this pint-sized kitchen space behind it that’s part of a bar, where if it’s not busy, you can take a seat afterward and enjoy a beverage with your dog.

Nitrate-free and filler-free, this is a big dog — made of beef, sea salt, and garlic seasoning, all encased in a lamb casing, rather than a more common collagen one that’s cheaper. The result is a dog with great snap and flavor.

A hot dog to remember.

It comes on a griddled, soft potato bun with sharp yellow cider mustard, raw onions, and a huge heap of sauerkraut.

But don’t even think about asking for ketchup.

“No ketchup!” says Quinn. “This is the fillet mignon of hot dogs.”

It is everything you want in a hot dog. I’ve had some gourmet hot dogs that taste more like sausage, with a denser texture. I believe a hot dog should have an old-fashioned baloney-meat-like consistency. This one does. Plus a true beef flavor. It’s a taste of nostalgia made even better.

If Quinn is not busy, he’ll regale you with hot dog factoids, and even show you photos of  Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest legend Takeru Kobayashi happily enjoying the hot dog here on a visit to Feltman’s.

A story and a meal — for $5. Just try to top that.

More: Eating My Way Through New York: Sweets and Snacks

And: Eating My Way Through New York: Chef-Tastic