How to Chowhound
From the introduction to "The Eclectic Gourmet's Guide to NYC"
published in 1997.
New York is both the greatest and the worst city in the world. While the negatives are apparent with a mere glance, the treasure, by contrast, is largely hidden and not easily sniffed out. Many New Yorkers are propelled into questing for this Great Secret Treasure by a primal drive toward self-preservation. They instinctively sense that Fun City--with its callousness, intolerance and greed--can erode the spirit of even the most wide-eyed idealist, but that there's another New York which can provide a powerful antidote: a New York where a shack in an abandoned lot near the airport may be home to cosmically delicious ribs, a New York where an otherwise soulless midtown block might hide a sumptuous basement sashimi oasis. A New York that feeds you so well that you'll feel like screaming, where you can take a subway ride to ethnic dining experiences so authentic and transportive that you'll return home feeling as if you've just come back from vacation.
We've all eaten meals so unexpectedly wonderful that we realize we've been settling for less for way too long. The great thing about Gotham is that here one need never settle for less. Invest some time and energy, and you'll always find an extraordinary alternative squirreled away somewhere for whatever grail you crave.
This is a collection of just such edible treasures, the good places, ranging from full-service meals to quick bites (true food lovers seek to maximize their gustatory gratification whether sitting down to foie gras or munching a scrambled egg sandwich on their way to work). Much of this choice chow is served in hidden locales; kitchens cooking for a circle of appreciative, discerning regulars, who build business via word-of-mouth rather than fat advertising budgets and fancy publicists. None of the establishments in this book were discovered via press releases; they've all been ferreted out through dedicated chowhounding. Some are worlds above the competition, others simply do a thing or two a few notches better. Though most offer outstanding value, not all are inexpensive; different sorts of pleasures are available at different price ranges. But each place--in its own way--is a hot ticket to the secret deliciousness that lurks all around us.
Manhattanites, in their haughty sophistication, have long blanched at the idea of traveling to other boroughs. "Archie Bunker lives in Queens," a Manhattancentric friend once sniffed at me. Well, Archie eats a lot better than she does. And the secret's out; even the most bouroughpobic snobs are beginning to acknowledge that Queens and Brooklyn are foodie wonderlands.
While the city's showcase haute joints are, as always, clustered in central Manhattan, kitchens seeking merely to feed people really well rather than make a splash are more easily found away from the spotlight (and high rent). Though there are finds to be found there, the prime real estate from Soho to the Upper East and West sides will never compete in sheer lushness of alternative food choices with, say, Jackson Heights, Queens (perhaps the world's most diverse neighborhood) or Williamsburgh, Brooklyn (where Puerto Rican, Jewish, Italian, Mexican, and vegetarian styles are hybridizing into a glorious hodgepodge).
Those holdouts who'd sooner walk over shards of glass than endure a thirty minute R train trip for a Moroccan meal in Brooklyn can indeed stay home and enjoy the cuisine in Manhattan--if they don't mind eating alongside fellow infidel tourists in what might as well be the Epcot Morocco Pavilion. For those who crave the Real Thing, the subway is a magic carpet ride.
As word spreads about the satisfactions of interborough culinary adventuring, the handful of outerborough places touted by the mainstream media are starting to find themselves filled with a reverse "bridge-and-tunnel" crowd of hungry Manhattanites. As one might expect, such spots are hardly cutting-edge. Much better are the more undiscovered, less self-conscious locales. This book presents the cream of the crop, each worth a special trip
The vast majority of diners want to order what they feel like eating, rather than what the kitchen does best. Restaurateurs understand this, and sometimes load their menus with every possible dish customers might crave--though these items may be far from the kitchens' fortes. So even though Tin Do (see review) offers chow mein*, don't fall for it. It's a tourist choice, and will taste mediocre or worse. You wouldn't request steak in a diner even if it was on the menu; it's likewise useful to acquire ordering savvy for other, less familiar sorts of restaurants.
The trick is to consider menus as puzzles, with the goal being discovery of the Best Stuff. Waiters may or may not prove helpful (some may not know food, others may steer you toward expensive items or ones they mistakenly think you'll like), and with practice you can learn to detect the gleam in the eye that indicates that a person is earnestly passionate about eating well. If the waiter's unhelpful, look out for more enthusiastic staffers who you might be able to question on the sly. Don't be afraid to point at plates that look promising, or to take a walk toward the kitchen to see whether anything is on open display. Take notes (takeout menus come in handy for this) so that you can remember what you've tried. Most crucial of all, take in stride dishes that fail to please; this is about exploration and short term pleasure often must be set aside for the greater good of menu mastery. When visiting the following reviewed spots, let the recommended "house specialties" guide you until you've honed your skills.
Language and other Cross-Cultural Obstacles
Many ethnic restaurants take incredible pains to guide outsiders and put them at ease, but some of the most authentic are less service-oriented, more no-nonsense. They cook serious undiluted fare for freshly-arrived compatriots at prices new immigrants can afford, and forgo the niceties. While such places don't go out of their way to attract non-native business, they don't mind serving self-sufficient outsiders, so long as we don't expect them to act as tour guides to their cuisines. There's work to be done and mouths to feed; taking time to extract orders from confused strangers breaks up the rhythm, especially when--as is often the case--the staff is insecure about English skills.
Seasoned chowhounds learn to fit smoothly into the groove and relish the chameleonic pleasures of cross-cultural consumption, but novices are advised to start out with more user-friendly places (as reflected by the "friendliness" ratings). If you do find yourself warily received in unfamiliar eateries, bear in mind that the frosty reception invariably stems not from hostility but from the hesitancy of overworked waiters to endure those linguistic and cultural struggles from which their restaurants otherwise stand as refuge.
Ugly American Tourists
The most common mistake in ethnic dining is failure to suspend expectations. There are those who indignantly demand faster service in Caribbean, Latin American, and African establishments (tropical cultures are more relaxed, and pace matches), plead for unsweetened mint tea in Moroccan cafes (not-unbelievably-sweet Moroccan tea is simply not Moroccan tea), fume at Italian busboys who won't bring the coffee with dessert (coffee's always served last and alone in southern Europe), and send back Szechuan dishes because they're too oily (oiliness is an inseparable aspect of the cuisine). Such have got it all wrong, and they miss so much. They forget that the mission of expat eateries is to zealously preserve traditions from back home--that's what we LIKE about them! To demand that these proud bastions tone down the spice, hurry up with the soup, and speak English for god's sake is deeply insulting, and many would rather struggle along with a small clientele than fill to the rafters with imperious gringos.
Only in New York can you enjoy the pure, undiluted, headily transportive tastes of such a myriad of foreign lands. Open yourself to the experience, adopting the same mindset you would while traveling abroad...because, for all intents and purposes, you are abroad!
But is it clean there?
A few people are skittish about patronizing small, lesser known venues, fearing that hygiene standards might not be up to par. Quite the contrary; the kindly Taiwanese restaurateur serving her own community, a Dominican short order cook who greets the same customers day after day, an Egyptian grandmother in business not just to pay the bills, but because she genuinely cares that families get a delicious healthy meal...these are not places that give pause.
That said, dining out is never without risk. Food handling mishaps can occur anywhere; neither price nor fame are factors, so you can't buy your way out of risk. To improve the odds, look for sincere people whose cooking makes you feel good. The caring that goes into serving such food will likely be reflected in everything they do.
But is it safe there?
Nowhere in New York City--in any big city--is safe. And neither is any nabe totally dangerous, either. Contrary to some expectations, one needn't shield oneself from hails of bullets outside the falsely-perceived safety zone of mid-Manhattan. The standard urban cautions apply: be on guard always, look like you know where you're going, and don't go alone if you can help it. The good news, though, is that restaurants--wherever they may be located--are among the safest of havens. Unless you're a Mafia don, and thus have an inordinately greater chance of being snuffed over your stracciatella, you've got nothing to worry about when you bear fork in hand.
Guarantee of Dissatisfaction
It took much passionate investigation to track down the Big Apple's rarest, tastiest, and most evocative restaurants and determine the best things to order in them all. Herculean efforts were expended in checking and rechecking to ensure timely, fresh observations. Nonetheless, if you faithfully visit every establishent reviewed in these pages you'll have some mediocre--even bad--meals. Each passing day since research was completed has introduced uncertainty; chef changes, general decline, and plain old off days are all part of the deal with dining out. So rather than curse me and chuck this tome down the nearest storm drain after a disappointing dinner, just remember: a restaurant is an ever-changing, organic thing, and the only judgement that's guaranteed timely is the one you have of your own meal as you eat it. If you'll allow me to be your guide, though, you'll make out far, far better than you would on your own in this town of a jillion bites, and that's a promise.
Those with Internet access can maximize their odds of supping success by heading to www.chowhound.com/egnyc for up-to-the-minute information and a chance to offer feedback to the author and compare notes with other readers.