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How do you shop like a chef? You ferret out the best ingredients at off-the-beaten-path specialty shops and ethnic markets, like Despaña Brand Foods, the Queens importer that spawned a spiffy Soho branch last month. We asked a few kitchen pros to share their secret sources for fresh kaffir limes and elusive pasta shapes that are worth paying retail for.


(Photos: Carina Salvi)  

Despaña Brand Foods
(408 Broome St., nr. Cleveland Pl.; 212-219-5050)
THE VIBE: Spanish-sausage wholesaler meets East Soho high-design charcuterie (above).
WHAT TO LOOK FOR: House-made and imported chorizo, serrano ham, morcilla (blood sausage), mojama (air-cured tuna loin), smoked eel, and a wealth of high-quality, hard-to-find preserved foods. Hand-packed piquillo peppers, chestnuts in syrup, and pickled cardoons are meticulously stacked on marble-lined wooden shelves like rare first-edition books.
WHO YOU MIGHT RUN INTO: Casa Mono chef Andy Nusser on a piquillo run, Bar Carrera’s Frederick Twomey, on a baby- eel hunt, and Wylie Dufresne— a satisfied Despaña shopper “since back at 71 Clinton days”—on the prowl for oils, vinegars, cheeses, boquerones, Marcona almonds, and chorizo.
BONUS SNACKING POINTS: A generous policy regarding the free sausage samples, and the on-site kitchen whips up terrific sandwiches to order—try the Pescador (oil-packed tuna and boquerones dabbed with allioli on a jumbo Sullivan Street Bakery ciabatta).

Trufette (a.k.a. S.O.S. Chefs)
(104 Ave. B, nr. 7th St.; 212-505-5813)
THE VIBE: Give a funky antiques shop a French-Moroccan flair and an industrial concrete floor that can be hosed down nightly, and you’ve got Trufette, the retail arm of Atef Boulaabi’s ten-year-old wholesale business.
WHAT YOU’LL FIND: Apothecary-style drawers full of flavored salts, shelves stocked with cans of escargot, neat displays of argan oil and almond syrup, shelled Iranian pistachios, and boxes of vanilla beans, extracts, pastes, and powders lining the rafters.
WORTH THE SPLURGE: Black truffles can be had for $50 an ounce right now; even more precious saffron and fennel pollen go for $60 per ounce. not-so-local produce: Jumbo white asparagus from France are a harbinger of spring, and mushrooms come from all over. Hen-of-the-woods, according to manager Adam Berkowitz, are best from Japan: “There’s less stem, more flower.”
LOYAL CUSTOMERS: S.O.S. delivers to a network of chefs, who might call just before dinner service, as Pure Food and Wine did one recent Saturday night, with a desperate plea for three bottles of truffle oil. Momofuku’s David Chang is a fan. “We get our mushrooms there,” says Prune’s Gabrielle Hamilton, who’s currently using Trufette’s yellowfoots and honshimeji. “Atef is an incredibly stylish little lady. She’ll throw open the walk-in door, make you smell things, and give you chocolate on the way out.”

Foods of India
(121 Lexington Ave., nr. 28th St.; 212-683-4419)
THE VIBE: Think of it as the Dylan’s Candy Bar of Indian spices, rice, and legumes, minus the chaos.
WHAT TO LOOK FOR: Fresh curry leaves, basmati rice, French green lentils, garam masala (ground or grind-it-yourself), bitter melon, dried limes (loomi), and five or so types of mango chutney.
WHO YOU MIGHT SEE: Kitchen grunts from Gramercy Tavern, Spice Market, and Tamarind, plus Gray Kunz, Michael Romano, and especially Dévi chef-owner Suvir Saran, who prefers Foods of India to nearby Kalustyan’s: “Their spices are fresher, of better quality, and packaged much cleaner than anywhere else in the country. Many Indian friends of mine will buy spices here to take back home.”

DiPalo Dairy
(200 Grand St., at Mott St.; 212-226-1033)
THE VIBE: The quintessential mom-and-pop corner store. But with the perpetual line snaking around the perimeter, good luck browsing the carefully stocked shelves.
WHAT YOU’LL FIND: Boutique pastas, salami and prosciutto, oils, vinegars, breads from local bakeries, and, of course, DiPalo’s claim to fame—cheese. Tasting is compulsory, which is why the line moves so slowly, and why regulars jockey for owner Louis DiPalo’s expert, eternally patient attention.
WHO YOU MIGHT BUMP INTO: Sara Jenkins, chef at Annona on Long Island. “I know I’m gonna get in trouble for saying it, but DiPalo’s is the only place for really good Italian cheese. He brings in the best buffalo mozzarella, the best Tuscan pecorino.”
LINE-WAITING STRATEGY: “I’ll get my number,” says Jenkins, “go across the street to Bánh Mì Saigon Bakery for a sandwich, then go back and get in line.”

Bangkok Center Grocery
(104 Mosco St., nr. Mulberry St.; 212-732-8916)
THE VIBE: A clean, well-lighted repository of Thai foodstuffs and a gathering place for Thai-food fanatics, like one fellow who was buying rarities for his friend’s Thai restaurant in Israel.
WHAT YOU’LL FIND: Fresh kaffir limes and lime leaves, sweet basil, galangal, lemongrass, and refrigerated curry pastes that have reportedly made their way into Daniel Boulud’s kitchen.
CUSTOMER-SERVICE DEPARTMENT: The owner, Nong Premjit, is a one-woman ambassador for her native cuisine. If it were up to her, everyone would cook Thai food at home—preferably with one of her sticky-rice steamers and imported mortar and pestles.
CELEBRITY CHEF SIGHTINGS: Kuma Inn’s King Phojanakong is such a regular, Premjit posted this magazine’s review of his restaurant on the wall. “I pick up bird’s-eye chiles there and Thai apple eggplant,” he says. “They have the real Thai Red Bull, too—it comes in a smoky bottle.”

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