| DIY Noodles: At ONY, diners design their own bowls of broth.
Chef-owner Siggy Nakanishi used to cook for the Japanese ambassador to the West Indies, which accounts for freaky fusion rolls like spicy tuna with fried banana. But fanciful sushi isn't all you'll find at this brick-walled aerie four stairs removed from the West 4th Street hubbub: There's also the daily roster of off-the-wall specials, every bit as inventive as menu staples like the eel napoleon with fried tofu and mashed pumpkin ($7) and the salmon-mozzarella-and-basil summer roll with a tiny gravy boat of balsamic sauce ($8).
181 W. 4th St., 212-989-5440
Ever wonder how the ingredients that go into a typical banh mi -- crunchy veggies plus all those mysterious pork products -- would work piled on something besides French bread? Between two slices of Wonder bread, say? Not so well, we imagine, texture being half the appeal of this great French-Vietnamese fusion sandwich. That's why we're so enamored of this Sunset Park snack shop's $2.50 "special" banh mi, which has all that wonderfully weird lunch meat plus homemade pâté, pickled carrots, cukes, cilantro, jalapeño, and gobs of thick mayo, all carefully wedged into a superior crusty baguette. Plus, the owner's daughter pours a mean Vietnamese iced coffee, and on weekends, Mom turns out an admirable duck soup.
5424 Eighth Avenue, at 55th Street, Sunset Park, Brooklyn; 718-972-2269
The secret to great Thai food is the artful intermingling of flavors -- hot, sour, salty, sweet. The secret to great tom kha gai -- that restorative chicken-and-coconut-milk soup -- is to cram it with flavor-enhancers like galangal and lemongrass, both of which are underrepresented in New York Thai restaurants. Not at this tin-ceilinged Jackson Heights standby, though, where the same attention to detail is applied to the refreshingly zesty salads (or "yum," $4.25–$9.95) and Thai classics like panang curry ($7.95), tantalizingly redolent of basil and kaffir-lime leaf.
37-68 79th Street, Jackson Heights, Queens, 718-205-5559
Borobudur is worth a trip just to slurp down the sweet Indonesian drinks: There's susu soda gembira (condensed milk, a sweet red syrup, and club soda), which tastes like an Indonesian egg cream; es teh Borobudur, iced tea with a cinnamon-clove bite as sharp as ginger beer; and es teler, an iced Pepto-Bismol–pink concoction made with coconut milk, syrup, basil seeds, and Gummi Bear–size pieces of sugar-palm fruit. The food here is equally intriguing: Don't miss the sensational batagor, crispy-skinned deep-fried tofu with dueling Indonesian-soy and peanut sauces ($4.50); rendang padang, briskety beef in a hot, murky coconut sauce ($8.95); and superb satay ($8.95), that dish being to Indonesian cuisine what the shish kebab is to Turkish. Hot, sweet ginger tea makes a fine finale.
128 East 4th Street, 212-614-9079
Floyd Cardoz channels the home-style Indian food of his childhood in dishes like tandoori leg of lamb marinated in black pepper, cardamom, and ginger ($17).
11 Madison Avenue, at 25th Street; 212-889-0667
The heated competition of Jackson Heights's bustling Indian enclave makes it a compulsory bargain-buffet destination. A couple doors down from the bigger, better-known Jackson Diner, this plucky David undercuts the ballyhooed Goliath by a buck, charging $6.95 (weekday lunch) for its all-you-can-eat feast of golden-battered vegetable pakora, mixed grill, savory goat curry, a surpassingly rich chicken mekhani (the house specialty), and a lineup of vegetables that have been cooked into fragrant, spicy submission. Remember: No doggie bags and no sharing.
37-25 74th Street, Jackson Heights, Queens, 718-651-4187
Kati Roll Company
Somewhere between Lebanese-style shawarma and wrap sandwiches, the rolls at this Greenwich Village single-item specialist make superb (and, at $2–$5 a pop, cheap) street food. Kati means "skewer," which is how most of the flavorful marinated fillings (chicken or beef tikka, paneer-cheese cubes-and-peppers) are cooked before being rolled up in a wok-griddled paratha. Protein-packing unda rolls have a layer of egg cooked onto the paratha, and aloo masala is the spiced potato mixture familiar to fans of dosas, those fermented-rice-flour crêpes that had heretofore cornered the Indian fast-food market.
99 Macdougal Street, 212-420-6517
Neither shabby-cheap nor trendy-chic, Nam claims the sparsely populated Vietnamese-restaurant middle ground: understated Tribeca hip with handsome bamboo-and-wheatgrass décor and an appealing, surprisingly affordable menu (entrées, $11–$16). Rice-paper wrappers are as fresh as the whole shrimp they're stuffed with; stir-fried chopped monkfish on a black-seeded rice cracker is a terrific textural contrast; and the Hanoi-style barbecued pork is delectably charred and speckled, like most everything else, with chopped peanuts. Toasted coconut renders the homey warm banana bread just exotic enough.
110 Reade Street, 212-267-1777
From the noodle pros at Menchanko-Tei comes a joint with a gimmick: The name stands for Original Noodle for You, and the kitchen lets you customize your own steaming cauldron of ramen ($8.75) to your exact specifications. Pick the broth (the murky, rich spicy miso, say) and the toppings, which might include herb-flecked salmon balls, kimchi, fried tofu skin, or raw egg ($1–$2 a pop). If it's too hot for soup, try the soba salad ($7.75) or the sushi, which turns out to be much fresher and tastier than you'd expect from the noodle-parlor premises. And there's probably nothing that isn't improved by a jolt of the yuzu chili sauce.
357 Sixth Avenue, 212-414-8429
This is the sweetest little spot you'd never expect to find in midtown, with heartfelt Vietnamese home cooking in a cozy coffee-shop setting. When Tudor City nail-salon owner and chef Lan "Nancy" Tran decided to get into the restaurant business, she enlisted practically the whole Lan Tran clan -- her sister's fiancé, her aunt from California, a great uncle or two. The family pride shows in dishes like bo xao chua, sautéed strips of beef with red peppers and onions on a mound of watercress ($10), and subtly spicy dark-meat chicken with lemongrass and chilies over rice ($6). Pho fiends might quibble that the soup doesn't include all those optional add-ins like beef tendon and "navel," but the broth is delicious, redolent of star anise and clove. And even if it weren't, there's such a friendly vibe here, you'd come back anyway.
249 East 45th Street, 212-922-9411
Rai Rai Ken
If you're nearsighted and have the option, wear contact lenses to this narrow fourteen-stool ramen bar. Otherwise -- especially in winter -- the fragrant heat pouring off soup cauldrons large enough to impress Macbeth's witches will seriously steam up your eyeglasses. Then all your senses won't be able to fully appreciate the tremendous bowls of ramen noodles in flavorful broths chock-full of various delicacies, like fish cakes, roast pork, bamboo shoots, and crispy garlic. There are also a few appetizers, including expertly fried gyoza, or Japanese potstickers, on the tiny menu, and from May to September, when the windows aren't completely fogged over, a couple of cold noodle dishes nearly as delicious as the soups (all noodles, $6.95–$8.30).
214 East 10th Street, 212-477-7030
The newest branch of a burgeoning Thai chainlet challenges the conventional wisdom that the authenticity of an ethnic restaurant can be measured by its grubbiness (the more worn the Formica, the better the food). The deft kitchen here overcomes a strikingly mod décor, a persistent electro soundtrack, and fancified presentations to turn out well-seasoned, extremely tasty versions of classics like sweet-and-sour crispy-duck salad with a flurry of peanuts ($6); panang beef curry flecked with aromatic lime leaves ($9); soft, wide rice noodles in an addictive black-bean sauce ($8); and a roster of fresh-seafood specials.
60 University Place, 212-982-3758
The name says it all at this spartan but clean, bright, and accommodating Sichuan restaurant a few blocks removed from Flushing's Main Street fray. There are no better adjectives to describe the red chili oil that characterizes this cuisine and ignites springy ma-la noodles, pork wontons, and dumplings ($2.50–$3.95). Standards like twice-sautéed pork ($8.95) and tea-smoked duck ($10.95) are salty, succulent, and spectacularly flavorful. Even the tea, often a watery washout elsewhere, impresses: Finish your pot over a dessert of flaky red-bean pastries while an intense card game rages in the back room.
133-43 Roosevelt Avenue, Flushing
, Queens, 718-939-7788
Why trek to Queens for Thai food when it can be had on almost any Manhattan corner, you ask? The answer reveals itself with one bite of this unassuming Thai kitchen's spectacularly seasoned, expertly balanced, unflinchingly spiced larb ($6), panang curry ($7), or fried-catfish salad ($10.50). Don't be fooled by the utter lack of frills -- this is mecca for anyone who relishes clean, sharp flavors and can live without such trifles as ambience or a liquor license. The boxy room fills up fast, but there's a dining room downstairs and a rose-bordered garden out back, and once you've devoured dinner, you can peruse the dessert display case, savor a Thai iced coffee, and plan your inevitable return visit.
64-13 39th Avenue, Woodside, 718-899-9599
The menu at this New Age noodle parlor should employ quotation marks to let you know when the kitchen's being cute. The slick "chicken linguine" seems more Tokyo than Tuscany ($9), and the "tower of wontons" reveals itself to be a stack of fried wonton skins, a single tender shrimp tucked between each pair of layers ($7). Everything's light, impeccably fresh, and full of flavor, especially the citrusy green-papaya salad ($7) and the fluffy, delicious peanut sauce that makes the mushroom rolls a compulsory order ($6).
349 East 12th Street, 212-614-0155
Like motorists looking for a highway diner with a bottleneck of big-bellied truckers, most Chinatown wanderers seeking a good Shanghai supper follow the long lines to New Green Bo or Shanghai Cuisine. Directly across the street from the former, though, and a soup dumpling's toss from the latter, year-old Yeah Shanghai Deluxe outdoes both with terrific service, a talented kitchen, beautifully presented dishes, and, of the three, the coolest name. Plus -- for now, at least -- no lines. You'll be guided by your waiter to the soup dumplings (No. 21, $5.95), the de rigueur Shanghai-joint appetizer, but they're just one example of the kitchen's dexterity with dumplings (check out the meticulous stuffing and crimping going on at the front window). Fried or steamed, stuffed with pork or, as a special, springy snow-pea tips, the dumplings alone are worth the detour. But once you're there, it would be a pity to miss the crispy turnip pastries flecked with bits of salty ham ($3.25), the multilayered tofu-skin mock duck ($4.50), or the luscious, tender, eminently fatty pork shoulder glazed with a red honey-soy sauce and surrounded by a ring of baby bok choy ($10.95). Yeah, baby!
65 Bayard Street, 212-566-4884