We’re not unreasonable people. We wouldn’t send you to the ends of the earth (not the earth, maybe, just the R line; it’s the third-to-last stop) without good reason. That reason is spice alchemist Rawia Bishara, whose métier is the cuisine of the Middle East, as her mother cooked it in Nazareth and as Bishara brilliantly reinterprets it. The modest storefront’s display case contains treasures untold, garlic-amped parsley-ringed platters that challenge long-held perceptions about the true nature of things as pedestrian as hummus and baba ghannouj. Eggplant is a means to many sublime, deeply smoky ends. Lamb is chopped and encased in a crunchy kibbeh shell, or braised for hours on the bone. As you savor your meal in a kind of stunned silence, try to discern the individual components of the signature Tanoreen spices that Bishara scatters about like pixie dust.
7704 Third Ave., Bay Ridge, Brooklyn; 718-748-5600
2. Momofuku Noodle Bar
Your average noodle bar might merit two stars on a list like this, if it’s lucky. Momofuku is no ordinary noodle bar. It’s what happens when a young Korean-American chef trains at top New York restaurants like Café Boulud and Craft, soaks up some local culinary culture in Japan, and builds an unassuming nook in the East Village, where he proceeds to cook precisely the type of food he likes to eat. Hence, a third star for the house ramen enriched with succulent Berkshire pork and a barely poached egg. Another for the inventively seasonal menu, which raids the Greenmarket for combinations like tofu-and-cherry-tomato salad with shiso, or kimchee Brussels sprouts. And one more for sourcing artisanal ingredients like Benton’s country ham, which makes its way into southern-style country masa cakes with red-eye gravy. The vibe is rock-and-roll, the service intuitive and agile, and the crowd full of wide-eyed fellow chefs.
163 First Ave.; 212-475-7899
3. Una Pizza Napoletana
How can you give the best pizza in town anything less than five stars, pizza being the backbone of the cheap-eats genre? This is true Neapolitan-style pie at its best—light and fragrant with a delicately puffy, flavorful crust and limited to four classic toppings from which owner-pizzaiolo Anthony Mangieri will never stray. Special requests are anathema to the single-minded Mangieri, whose slogan might well be “the customer is frequently wrong.” Let’s just say you make allowances for genius, and leave it at that.
349 E. 12th St.; 212-477-9950
Is this town big enough for two five-star pizza- makers? Absolutely, when you consider Andrew Feinberg’s charred wood-oven-baked pies topped with environmentally sustainable meatballs fashioned from grass-fed Maine beef. And what other Brooklyn pizza parlor turns out such sparkling hyperseasonal salads, crisp fritti, and inventively conceived, rigorously executed cocktails? Pizza might be the medium, but a Chez Panissean passion for local agriculture and a deep-seated artisanal bent, on display everywhere from the curing room in the basement to the house-made lovage syrup at the bar, is the message.
295 Flatbush Ave., Prospect Heights, Brooklyn; 718-230-0221
Sripraphai has come a long way since its early days as the no-frills holy grail of New York Thai food. Expansions and renovations have brought a beautiful patio out back, replete with burbling fountain and leafy apple tree, and actual (if not Wallpaper-worthy) décor. The takeout menu gives a phonetic spelling (see-pra-pie), and servers ask, unprompted, if you’d like “Thai spicy.” Happily, these new and somewhat self-conscious developments have had no deleterious effects on the food, which is, indeed, Thai spicy, but also multilayered and nearly impossible to stop eating.
64-13 39th Ave., Woodside; 718-899-9599
6. Bouchon Bakery
Despite being plopped down in the mall thruway like a food-court Arby’s, despite the Great Samsung Sign Horror, and despite the critics who say don’t go expecting Per Se at a discount (which is a bit like saying don’t go to Mario Batali’s GelOtto cart expecting Babbo), Thomas Keller’s Bouchon Bakery brings a moderately priced, multi-star boulangerie experience to the Time Warner Center. Like God, Keller is in the details, and from the marble-topped tables set with Christofle flatware to the whimsical pastry concoctions to what might be the world’s finest tuna sandwich, you sense his divine fusspot presence. The service is highly polished. There’s a boffo view of Central Park South, and, unlike chez Arby’s, an air of civilized serenity, one that you wouldn’t expect to find nestled between Aveda and J.Crew. If this is the future of mall food, we’ll take it.
10 Columbus Circle, third fl.; 212-823-9366
7. Tía Pol
New York has plenty of tapas bars (and plenty more that prefer the term “small plates”), but none that match Tía Pol’s cozy warmth, spirited bonhomie, or surreptitiously ambitious kitchen. The regular menu delivers all the characteristic Iberian tidbits—the irresistible patatas bravas, the moist tortilla española—but it’s the specials board that shows chef Alex Raij’s true range. It’s modern, exciting, ultraseasonal cooking, with haute flourishes and eclectic flavors you’d expect to pay twice as much for.
205 Tenth Ave.; 212-675-8805
8. Frankies Spuntino
The two Franks, Queens-bred, French-trained chef-partners who swapped haute cuisine for southern-Italian comfort, may well be the patron saints of cheap eats. For the fresh, veggie-heavy spin on a menu that also showcases a soulful, fork-tender braciola, for their nicely edited, well-priced wine list, and for exporting their laid-back Brooklyn-perfected concept to a tiny annex on the increasingly slick Lower East Side, they get four stars, two per Frankie.
457 Court St., Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn, 718-403-0033; 17 Clinton St., 212-253-2303
9. Red Hook Ballfields
Nowhere else in the city will you find food as cheap and delicious and in such titillating profusion as at this glorious outdoor feedlot. The portable kitchens that materialize around the soccer and baseball fields weekends from late spring through early fall, marked by their blue tarps and billowing plumes of charcoal smoke, all purvey food from Central and South America at the average going rate of $2.50 a plate. There are tacos galore, and great greasy quesadillas. There is seviche from Ecuador and pupusas from El Salvador. Factor in the cost relative to the remarkable quality and freshness of the food, and the makeshift market—a triumph of ingenuity and flavor over remote locale and vending-permits red tape—easily achieves four-star status.
Bay St. bet. Clinton St. and Court St., Red Hook, Brooklyn
10. Spicy & Tasty
Still our go-to pick for vibrantly seasoned Sichuan cuisine, S&T 2.0 (the second, spiffier location of a Flushing favorite) is the perfect place to initiate a novice into the mystical realm of red-chile oil and Sichuan pepper. Clean and comfortable and generally overrun, the place is renowned for its regional classics—flawless dandan noodles, rich twice-cooked pork, and the sweat- inducing ma po dou fu (a.k.a. pockmarked Mother Chen’s bean curd).
39-07 Prince St., Flushing; 718-359-1601
11. Casa Mono
At this most minuscule of Mario Batali’s restaurants (excepting the even tinier Bar Jamón around the corner), Andy Nusser imbues sterling seasonal produce with pungent Spanish flavors. The plates are allegedly small, but, truth be told, they’re quite filling, making the joint a relative bargain. If you’ve never tried coxcombs, this is the place to go, and the vegetables are uniformly stellar, from fall’s caramelized Brussels sprouts to summer’s first corn. Needless to say, the selection of Spanish wines and sherries is staggering, and a convenient excuse to draw out your meal over some final morsels of manchego.
52 Irving Pl.; 212-253-2773
With five stools and a ledge, Lassi is not a restaurant in the true sense, a fact that won’t prevent us from raving about the intricately seasoned, fresh-tasting Indian fare concocted by chef-owner Heather Carlucci-Rodriguez. Her lassis, in flavors from cardamom to coffee, are dependency-inducing. Braised greens pack a pungent vegetal punch. And mains like lamb in pickling spices or roasted pork (a not-so-Indian nod to her Dominican husband) will spoil you for similar dishes anywhere else.
28 Greenwich Ave.; 212-675-2688
13. Degustation Wine & Tasting Bar
The latest project from Team Jewel Bako is an elegant sixteen-seat tasting bar, where the small plates have a modern Spanish spin and a very nice touch, courtesy of chef and Perry St. alum Wesley Genovart. The menu might ring a tapas-bar bell, but nothing, from the Spanish “tortilla” to the roast-beef sandwich, is what you might expect. Dishes range in price from $4 to $16, and every seat in the house has a good view of the open kitchen where Genovart flits about like a prepossessing Iron Chef. Factor in the cost of the free entertainment and call it a four-star bargain.
239 E. 5th St.; 212-979-1012
14. The City Bakery
In a city of insipid—if not downright dangerous—salad bars, City Bakery’s is a thing apart: gorgeously eclectic, culinarily inspired, effortlessly seasonal. When Mother Nature gives us juicy heirloom tomatoes, savory chef Ilene Rosen gives us delicious tomato sandwiches. She also gives us caramelized French toast and a mildly spiced Mexican tortilla soup, among too many other delectable things to mention. And once you’ve had your tofu-skin-and-edamame salad, you can reward yourself with a cup of Maury Rubin’s signature chocolate, hot or cold. Like its pretzel croissant, the City Bakery is a true original.
3 W. 18th St.; 212-366-1414
15. Di Fara Pizza
This is the kind of pizza people think about when they think about New York–style pizza. Old-fashioned slice-joint pizza. The pre–duck-confit-and-Gorgonzola stuff. Nothing else like it in the world. Almost an endangered cuisine. Which is why Di Fara gets a solid four stars (the general dishevelment of the place and lack of any coherent ordering system take it out of five-star contention, although many would argue that that’s part of its charm). Try whatever is available by the slice (the thin-crust Sicilian is a knockout), or order a whole pie. Either way, be prepared to wait among a gaggle of reverent pizza pilgrims, near an overflowing trash can, and under a ceiling fan that always seems to be on the fritz. You won’t be sorry.
1424 Ave. J, Midwood, Brooklyn; 718-258-1367
Blame ’ino for the Great Panini Proliferation that took the city (and country) by storm several years ago. The trendsetting nook of a wine bar is every bit as good as the day it brought Italian-style grilled ham-and-cheese to these receptive shores. The competition has gotten stiffer, but no one can match the crustless finesse of its tuna-and-olive tramezzino, the piquant balance of a sun-dried-tomato-and-walnut-pesto bruschetta, or the brunch perfection known as truffled egg toast. An ample wine list and good espresso complete the experience, which never fails to satisfy.
21 Bedford St.; 212-989-5769
17. Shake Shack
Is it worth waiting in line all afternoon like a Russian peasant? Is it worth dashing the summer intern’s hopes for a meaningful career experience and sending her out to do your bidding? And, more relevant to the discussion, is it worth its No. 17 position on this list? The answer is yes, yes, and yes. The simple reason being the glory that is the Shack Burger. The hot dogs aren’t bad either, and if you like ice cream, the frozen-custard express line is usually short.
Madison Square Park, southeast corner nr. 23rd St.; 212-889-6600
18. Al di Là
For all the praise the pasta gets at this Park Slope Venetian sensation, the entrées might be even better. If pork ribs are on special, pounce. The house-made gelati are wonderful, too. But unless you don’t mind waiting, come very early or very late—or resign yourself to passing the time over a few glasses at the wine bar next door.
248 Fifth Ave., Park Slope, Brooklyn; 718-783-4565
19. Fatty Crab
Located just around the corner from his pricey, attitudinal 5 Ninth, this friendly Malaysian hash house is where Zak Pelaccio does penance for making the Faustian move from Williamsburg’s cheap and quirky Chickenbone Cafe to the hellish leper colony known as the meatpacking district. It’s loud, it’s crowded, and unless you score a seat at the bar, you’ll be shoveled into a back-breakingly hard antique wooden chair. But everything—from the deep-fried hunks of “fatty duck” to the man-versus-beast slopfest that is the Chili Crab—shows that Pelaccio hasn’t made any concessions to timid meatpacking-district palates.
643 Hudson St.; 212-352-3590
With its adrenaline-fueled bustle and sophistication on a shoestring, Lupa is the embodiment of a hip New York restaurant for people who love to eat. It’s also Babbo’s baby Roman-osteria brother, of course, and shares its culinary DNA. House-cured meats and fish, terrific seasonal contorni, and simple but satisfying pastas are the backbone of a solidly four-star menu that also dips into familiar Batali territory like tripe and sweetbreads.
170 Thompson St.; 212-982-5089
21. Kuma Inn
It’s a relief to escape the yammering hyenas and bar monkeys of Ludlow Street and ascend a steep staircase to Kuma Inn, a tiny Pan-Asian tapas joint where chef-owner King Phojanakong seamlessly fuses the cooking of his Filipino mother and his Thai father with his own classic French training. The simplest things are some of the most delicious, like a pungent Chinese sausage served with zesty Thai-chile sauce, and an exceedingly satisfying garlic fried rice. The Asian citrus fruit kalamansi makes frequent inspired appearances, especially in a semi-frozen tart that could give Key lime an inferiority complex.
113 Ludlow St., second fl.; 212-353-8866
Considering its location (Industria Superstudio) and its resulting clientele, this breezy West Village boîte needn’t take its food so seriously. Happily, it does, as evidenced by rustic bean soups, fresh seasonal salads, and the impeccably sourced beef, poultry, and whole fish that issue from the wood-burning oven. It can get awfully loud and the service can be a bit scattered, but no one seems to mind. If you do, come at lunch, when the setting is almost serene.
775 Washington St.; 212-924-9700
23. Room 4 Dessert
Is a $12 dessert cheap? Maybe not, when it’s punctuating an elaborate meal at some temple of gastronomy. But here, at this uniquely entertaining and festive dessert bar, where it encompasses a four-part tasting and can serve as the centerpiece of a night out, we’d call it a good deal. Pastry provocateur Will Goldfarb experiments with texture (foams, gelées) and flavor (tomato and vanilla, “Lucky Charms”), sending out sweets that are sometimes literally lighter than air.
17 Cleveland Pl.; 212-941-5405
24. Otto Enoteca Pizzeria
Mario Batali’s most casual Italian restaurant is part buzzing wine bar, part glorified pizzeria, with an always appealing selection of fresh salads and smartly seasoned vegetable antipasti that arrive in small ceramic bowls on a snappy tray. True, we pine for the fritti Molto yanked from the menu to make room for the pasta people clamored for, but the pizza is indeed delish—thin-crusted, creatively topped, and cooked, ever so controversially among the Pizza Police, on a griddle. The gelati creations are sophisticated grown-up sundaes, anchoring this fun neighborhood hangout firmly in four-star territory.
1 Fifth Ave.; 212-995-9559