New York has the greatest intersection of cultures in the world, and nowhere is this more obvious than our food. Each group of immigrants has brought their own recipes and traditions, which over time have gained appreciation across the city as beloved “New York” food. Here are some of the biggest classics.
The secret to New York’s champion pizza lies in the local water used to make the dough. Great pizza is about crust with the most balanced crispy-to-chewy ratio, a sweet-but-savory tomato sauce, and mozzarella cheese baked to stringy perfection. Fold your pizza to pass as a real New Yorker. Eat a slice where pizza in America all began, at Lombardi’s in Little Italy. For a less conventional slice, go to Krispy Pizza in Brooklyn for the Grandma Pizza, which is a kind of square pie (called Sicilian). My grandma never made pizza, but I’m grateful that someone’s did because it tastes like love and basil.
2. Bagel and Lox
The story of how Bagel met Lox is mystery. Lox, or “laks” as it is called in Yiddish, is thinly sliced cured salmon, and was widely consumed by Jewish immigrants. Iterations of the bagel traveled all the way from China by way of Italy, and the rest is history. Add silky cream cheese along with capers and onions for a little zing to your chewy bagel, and there you have one of New York’s most classic breakfasts. Yet not all bagels here are created equal. Don’t waste your time and money on a stale bagel from the corner store that has more flies than patrons; the best bagel and lox is at Zabar’s on Manhattan’s Upper West Side.
Those vendors on the streets don’t just sell boiled hot dogs made from who-knows-what. They also sell knishes, a savory pie of boiled potato cocooned and baked in a blanket of dough. It is a traditional food of Russians and Eastern Europeans Jews, and now New York City hot dog vendors. Add mustard for some tangy spice. For a more traditional pastry-like knish, go to Yonah Shimmel’s. Note: If you’re on the go, it can be great to patronize a street vendor. Just remember: leave the dog, take the knish.
4. Hot Dog
If you simply must try a street vendor hot dog, fine. After all, hot dogs have been a street food staple in New York since the 1860s thanks to German immigrants. If you really want to feel like you are tasting history, then the best hot dog is at Nathan’s Famous in Coney Island. Established in 1916, Nathan’s legendary dogs have had loyal customers in famous New Yorkers like Al Capone and even President Roosevelt, who had them sent to the British royal in 1939. Crispy on the outside, juicy on the inside, they pair perfectly with the seaside milieu of Coney Island.
5. Jamaican Beef Patty
Every kid who grew up in New York City public schools knew that school lunches were not for eating. The exception was the Jamaican beef patty. Days when the cafeteria served the Jamaican beef patty felt like winning the jackpot. But as are all school lunches, ultimately it was a sad imitation of a truly delicious work of culinary art. Go to Kingston Tropical Bakery in the Bronx for the real deal: a pillow-crust of ground beef whose pepper seasonings pack heat.
6. The Reuben Sandwich
What could be a better homage to New York’s history as a melting pot than the Reuben sandwich? New York immigrant cultures are united here: Irish corned beef topped with a warm, gooey medley of Swiss cheese, German sauerkraut, and Russian dressing, bound by two grilled or toasted slices of Jewish rye. Invented in 1914 on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, it is now a staple in diners and delis throughout New York. Katz’ Deli, however, is the only place that hand carves their melt-in-your-mouth corned beef.
7. Chicken and Waffles
There’s a reason Southerners don’t claim Chicken and Waffles as their own — because that credit goes to New York City. During the Harlem Renaissance, the popular jazz club Wells’ Restaurant combined the two into a fluid dinner-or-breakfast meal for patrons in the early a.m., when the club was at its busiest. Wells’ is long gone, but you can head to the 24-hour Amy Ruth’s in Harlem for a fluffy buttermilk waffle and richly battered fried chicken, perfect if you like your sweet-and-savory with a peppery kick.
8. Egg Cream
As a Sunday afternoon ritual in my house, my mom and I would drink homemade egg creams, which have nothing to do with eggs or cream. An egg cream is a wholesome drink of fizzy chocolate. Egg creams are hard to mess up: just pour a glass of milk, stir in chocolate syrup and add seltzer. Still, if you prefer to entrust your egg cream to a professional, go to the 24-hour hole in the wall GEM Spa, or really, any decent diner.
9. Black and White Cookie
Few non-New Yorkers can handle the dizzying sweetness of a black and white, which is a cookie-shaped mound of cake batter coated with vanilla and chocolate frosting. Always select freshly baked ones from bakeries, not delis, because they get stale easily. For gooey frosting, go to William Greenberg; if you prefer the more traditional hard, candy-like frosting, the best is at Glasers. Whichever you choose, saving half for later is advisable: if the uncharacteristically bold vanilla and lingering-after-each-bite chocolate don’t kill your sweet craving, the cake batter will.