Ten Foods to Try in New York Before You Die--Or Not!

by Richard Blackman

Larry, Richard, and Malcolm

It’s 8:20 am Saturday morning and three elementary school friends (Larry, Malcolm and Gary) and I are on our way to New York in Malcolm’s Highlander to sample 10 foods from a list of “50 foods to eat in NY before you die.” This was after 6 months of debating which 10 of the 50 we would try. We had previously taken trips to 50+ delis in New York, Philadelphia and other places in search of the best corned beef, pastrami and brisket. We needed a change, because not surprisingly some of our cholesterol readings were high.

Larry was feeling a bit under the weather and was concerned that he would have to cancel. This especially concerned him because he had been eating oatmeal all week just to prepare for the less than healthy options on this trip.

We decided to rate the foods on a 1 to 10 basis. For me, 10 would mean total agreement that this is a food I want to eat before I die. For Malcolm a 10 represented absolutely the best; 9 -- outstanding and/or somehow unique, very hard to equal; 8 -- very good but you could find other places of similar quality; 6-7 -- acceptable but not worth any special effort; 5 or less -- don’t go.

1. Our first stop – J.G Melon in Uptown Manhattan for a Cheeseburger at 12:20 pm. When we arrived, Malcolm squeezed his Highlander into a parking space just vacated by a tightly hemmed in Mini-Cooper. Gary took one look at the tiny space, and said, “No way,” but Malcolm is something of a magician in finding and fitting into parking spaces. After a 5-minute wait, the Melon staff squeezed us into a small table for four in the cramped but energetic restaurant. There was a bar on the left, 4 tables on a raised area, and about a dozen tables toward the back. There was already a line out the door as we were seated. The recommendation from the web site that listed the top 50 foods was to order a cheeseburger medium rare. We all voted for medium for the two $11.50 burgers, which we split, along with round potato fries. In less than 10 minutes they brought out two big fat juicy burgers (medium rare – so we’re glad we ordered medium) and a plate of quite tasty and crisp round fries. I was disappointed they only had Dijon mustard and kind of bland pickles for the burgers, but when I put them on the burger, I loved it. It was one of the best I’ve ever had and I rated it a 9.5. However, I haven’t had a hamburger in years—for Gary and me, it’s been mostly turkey burgers—so I may have forgotten just how good cheeseburgers can be. We were all impressed, but the true hamburger connoisseur, Larry, not as much. See Malcolm and Larry’s more detailed comments at the end. The local couple at the table next to us said this was their favorite burger place. We gave the burger a combined score of 33 (out of a possible 40). All of our scores are at the end of the article.

2. After finishing up at Melon at 12:50 pm we drove to our next stop -- White Bear in Flushing/Queens for Wontons in Chili Oil. The area appeared to be a bustling “Chinatown” with tons of people and traffic. White Bear is truly a hole-in-the-wall; 4 feet inside the door is a small counter, menu above, kitchen behind with two crammed folks cooking and taking orders, and 2 tiny tables for four. We ordered the Wontons in chili Sauce (or on the menu, wontons in hot sauce; #6). It was not real hot though. We ordered 16 wontons for $7.75. It was not my type of food but tasty and quite unique. We all wondered where else you could get something like that. Gary rated the wontons a 10. Our combined score was 32. On the way back to the parking lot we stopped in a fascinating and fabulous Japanese bakery named Iris. Gary and Malcolm indulged. I was most impressed with the wedding cake in the shape of a wedding gown (It was selling for $3000. See the picture to the right.)

3. Our next stop was still in Queens for Tacos at Tortilleria Nixtamal. Nixtamal had our favorite and most enjoyable atmosphere of any restaurant on our list. It was decorated with Day of the Dead items on the window while the booths inside were fun and cheery. Everything was accented with appropriate Latin music in the background and charming waitresses. The tacos at $5 a piece were superbly done, soft with fresh ingredients. Larry and I weren’t impressed with the chicken tacos, though Malcolm liked the chicken better than the veggie and Gary was a big fan of the lamb tacos. All in all we decided we’d like to come back to try some of their other items. Our overall rating was 32 with a 9 from Gary.

4. For our final stop in Queens, we headed out to Arepa Lady for Arepa de Choclo. It was a small clean, comfy, mostly empty restaurant (at 3:35 pm) with about 10 tables for four. None of us had any idea what an arepa was before the trip, but after biting into the crepe-like corn cake stuffed with a gooey cheese topped with a sweet condensed milk sauce, I couldn’t help but say “wow”. I broke our rule of not revealing our opinions until after we had all tasted the food. A highlight of the trip for me, I gave the arepa a 10. Overall we gave the two $5 arepas we split a score of 37 – the second highest of the trip. I can’t wait to go back for more.

5. Our next stop was at 53rd and 6th Ave in Manhattan where Malcolm, as always, easily found a parking space for our visit to Halal Guys for Lamb over Rice. On previous visits to New York we had seen lines as long as several hundred people at this food cart, which offered giant tins of rice, lamb, lettuce and yogurt sauce for $7.25. We split two after waiting in line only 10 minutes. Note that they no longer advertise the food as “lamb” over rice, but instead as “gyro” over rice. They claim it’s the same meat they’ve always had, but a “lamb board”, said it didn’t fully qualify as lamb, so they can’t call it lamb. We walked over to the Hilton Hotel across the street which was much more hospitable than the sidewalk outside in the cold at 6 pm. Malcolm, Gary and I were disappointed and not impressed, but Larry loved it and rated the dish a 9. Combined score 27. We all agreed though, it was a bargain.

We next headed over to the top of the steps at TKTS, one of our favorite spots and just hung out for 30 minutes. We then walked a few blocks to see “Trip of Love” an off-broadway 60’s musical review. The music was great (it was our era), the dancing was fine, the choreography and settings were hokey. We all enjoyed the show, but wouldn’t necessarily recommend it to others. After the show we drove to Secaucus and arrived at our hotel at 11 pm. We had discussed whether to stop for a late-night snack in Manhattan, but decided to add an unplanned stop for pancakes in the morning, so we needed an early bedtime.

6. At 7:50 am we headed out for breakfast at Absolute Bagels on the Upper West Side. At our 8:15 arrival, there were about 20 people in line ahead of us and out the door. It’s a small shop with tons of bagels behind long counters and about 6 or 7 small tables. Two of us ordered a dozen bagels to take home, but also bagels with cream cheese for our “tasting”. I also ate half a cream cheese and lox bagel. Three of us were especially impressed with scores of one 9.5 and two 9s. Larry was unimpressed and only offered a 6, for a combined score of 34. I’m still debating whether I prefer these bagels over Essa Bagels on 3rd Ave. It’s close.

We drove to Katz’s for pastrami and Clinton Street Baking Company for pancakes on the Lower East Side. We parked by Katz’s (lots of spaces), and walked the 4 blocks over to Clinton. We expected to get lots of take-home from Katz’s and we thought pancakes (a last minute addition to or plan) would be a better first stop. We arrived at 9:30 am at Clinton, however, the hostess told us there would be a 45-minute wait. She took my phone number to text us when they’d have a table. She noticed my “301” area code (from Maryland), and said she was from Bethesda, Maryland. It turned out she went to Walt Whitman high, where we all went. It was a big high-five moment. Not only that, but she was friends with Malcolm’s daughter. That was neat. During our 45 minute wait, we decided to walk back to Katz’s, eat our pastrami sandwiches, and then return to Clinton for pancakes.

7. Pastrami Sandwich at Katz’s Deli. Pastrami at Katz’s has been a MUST on all of our trips. We sat down at a table at the not-yet-crowded deli and ordered two pastrami sandwiches to split. They were of course, mouth-watering as always, but we all felt a tad bit drier than usual. Hence the lower score from Larry. When Malcolm and Gary ordered take-home at the counter, that pastrami was perfect. The lesson – always order at the counter to take back to the table, vs getting waiter service. Gary and Malcolm took home a pound of pastrami and Larry a case of their excellent seltzer water. Combined score 38 with three 10’s and Larry’s 8.

Before heading to Katz’s I ran over to Yonah Shimmel for “famous” Knishes They were outstanding – I would compare them to the best I’ve ever had at Zaftigs in the Boston area

8. We barely made it back in time for our table, which they were holding for 10 minutes after they texted, for Pancakes at Clinton Street Baking Company. It’s a typical-looking restaurant bustling with about 20 tables and booths that are somewhat cramped. As we were seated, folks coming into the restaurant were told they would have a two hourwait. We ordered two of their featured blueberry pancakes items at $14 (3 per order) for us to split. The write-up we saw about this restaurant raved about the warm butter/maple syrup topping. The pancakes were excellent – light and fluffy; blueberries inside with a blueberry compote on the top. However, I’ve had tastier ones and Gary (who orders exclusively blueberry pancakes for breakfast in restaurants) was especially unimpressed. For Larry, another pancake lover in the group, they rated a 10, his only 10 of the trip. The rest of us were disappointed with the maple syrup/butter topping. Combined score: 32.

9. We headed to Brooklyn at 11 am for Square Pizza at L&B Spumoni Gardens. It was a small pizza parlor, long counter and a couple tables in back and a bunch outside next to a bigger restaurant (which opened at noon). We ordered four slices of their deep dish “square pizza,” ($2.75 per slice) without toppings along with a slice of their regular round pizza for comparison’s sake. This was another of our big disappointments of the trip, especially given the high recommendations and write-up. This was the only stop where we all agreed and L&B received our lowest score of the trip with three 5’s and one 6 for a combined score of 21. As Larry noted, “They should stick to spumoni”.

10. We drove to our last stop in Brooklyn (we were no longer hungry at this point, but we had to finish our mission), for Brisket at Hometown BBQ. It is a spacious country western type restaurant with plain rustic tables and chairs. It was much too noisy for me, with loud music and poor acoustics. We stood in a short line (which became much longer in no time) to order from a limited menu. You stand in a line to order and carry your food to a table. We ordered one order of brisket for $14 and two ribs. The brisket was especially tender, but not particularly tasty. You needed either the “squishy” sweet & tangy sauce or the hot and sweet. Most of us were not impressed. I had much better in Kansas City and as I mentioned in a Facebook post, I like my wife’s brisket better. Combined score 27.5.

We made a quick stop for corned beef take-out for me (my favorite place for corned beef) at the former David’s Brisket House on 5th Ave (now called My Brisket House—one cousin split with the cousin who owns David’s Brisket on Nostrand Ave), and then got back on the road headed for home.

Conclusions: Gary concluded that unlike our 5 deli trips, where we largely agreed about the best and worst delis, there was more disagreement on this trip. Part of our disagreement may be due to our individual preferences about the particular foods we sampled. For example, if Gary was not particularly fond of tacos, or had them rarely, he might find it difficult to give the tacos a 10, no matter how great they were. Next year I think we’ll be up for a new 10, or more likely 9 plus Katz’s.

Comments from Malcolm and Larry:

JG Melon – the burger was quite tasty and juicy. Medium gets you on the rare side of medium so beware when ordering if you like things more medium than rare. The potato “fries” were full-bodied potato rounds, light and not greasy. Pickles were quite average. All in all, a good cheeseburger.

Beef was very tasty, but burger was too thick. Where was the lettuce and tomato? The fries were just the right degree of crisp, and not too greasy.

White bear – This opitimizes “hole in the wall” but if you like unadulterated Chinese, try the steamed wontons with hot sauce (#6 on the menu). They were light, delicate and the pork filling was subtly flavored. No doubt there are other choices for true Chinese food aficionados but this place is a little gem. Do not be put off by its appearance.

Good pork and vegetable filling, but too greasy. For dumplings advertised on the menu as hot, they were quite mild.

Nixtamal Tortillaria – The Halloween décor was a pleasant surprise as well as the bright red and yellow motif. The tortilla had a nice, corny, flavor and the roasted chicken filling was robust; overall the atmosphere was friendly and it’s a great place to eat but the food alone was merely good, not memorable.Great neighborhood restaurant setting.

Beautiful presentation for the taco. But the chicken was dry, and not tasty enough.

Arepas - this is a deviation from the norm. Cheese chocolo crepes with condensed milk topping was unique. Thick griddle-heated corn tortilla is rich in flavor and the cheese filling was a sublime combination of sweet and salt. Definitely worth a try.

arepe con queso -- sweet dessert crepe with cheese filling. Good mix of sweet and salt.

Halal food truck – good value, acceptable food but unfortunately the hype about the “Halal guys” is not justified. I would guess that the quality and taste of this food is comparable to any number of other similar food trucks. It is not worth a long wait in line. We did not try other trucks but I am fairly confident that you can find decent street food at a comparable price elsewhere. We had the “gyro”-type lamb over rice with salad. I would suggest trying a kebab instead.Delicious mix of meat rice and lettuce with yogurt sauce. Great food cart food, great value.

Absolute Bagel – if you live in DC, you probably don’t know a great bagel. Absolute’s has that special combination of texture, body and flavor.

Good bagels, but not special. Slightly doughy.

Katz’s - Pastrami - What else can I say? It’s simply the best. Note to the true afficionados: Order a hot pastrami sandwich AT THE COUNTER and take it to a table. This is better than taking table service and waiting for the sandwich because in that brief interlude between the time the sandwich is made and the time it is brought to your table, it may dry out just a bit. This really is a 10.

The meat in the sandwich delivered to the table was somewhat dry. Too bad. Katz usually has the best pastrami.

Clinton Bakeshop – we were told to order the blueberry pancakes with the “out of this world” maple butter. The pancakes were wonderfully fluffy, but for this reviewer, the maple butter and the blueberry compote topping were simply too sweet and overwhelmed the pancakes. Order them plain and add your own butter and syrup and you should not be disappointed.

Best pancakes I ever had. Great even without the blueberry compote or the maple butter.

L&B Spumoni

We took a considerable amount of time to get to this place and picked it because of its reputation, but we were sadly disappointed. They offer both standard and deep-dish options. The sauce was ordinary and crust of the standard version was very pedestrian, reminding me of something you would get in a convenience store. The deep-dish version was ok but nothing memorable.

Big disappointment. They should stick to spumoni.

Hometown Barbecue – we were focused on the brisket here and it did not disappoint this writer – thick cut, flavorful. Brisket presents a conundrum. It is frequently too dry and requires some kind of sauce; on the other hand, our crew has always graded this and other deli meats based on a sauce-free serving. While the thick cut helped keep the meat moist, it nonetheless tended to the dry side, and the tangy hot sauce offered here enhanced the overall quality significantly. The meat is tasty but dry. Served on craft paper. You need to add plenty of sauce.