A New York Foodie’s Bonafides and Particulars
Hi, I’m Jim. I am a big man, recreational fisherman, home cook in a tiny kitchen in my native New York. I hook it and cook it, buy it and fry it and I know my way around The Big Apple.
My love of food has driven me to explore all corners of this grown-up playground I call home. I want to share with you some of the hidden gems I have discovered in my travels through the neighborhoods of the five boroughs and areas surrounding NYC.
For a New York City home cook, the journey to delicious, restaurant quality food that you can make in your own kitchen starts with taking advantage of the fresh, authentic ingredients available to you in different ethnic enclaves of the five boroughs. You have the planet’s greatest market spread out over the 468.48 square miles of Greater New York City.
New York City is my home. I am a native. The energy is in my blood, the excitement is always there and all the vibrant flavors that make up this insane melting pot of a city are in my DNA. My goal is to take my years of New York experience (with a dash of L.A. and Dublin) and put it on a plate. This is how my journey into understanding New York’s diverse food scene began.
As a kid growing up in Flatbush, the Brooklyn of the early 70’s spoke to me through my nose and my taste buds. Even if you were just walking in your apartment building or passing open windows down Foster Avenue, you were ambushed by rich aromas of the foods of every nation from the tiny kitchens of our diverse neighborhood. Roasting pork, whether flavored with bright Spanish spices, far eastern vegetables in the delectable sauces of China or with the earthy herbs of the Germans, would make my belly growl.
They call Brooklyn the great “melting pot” because all the immigrant groups of 19th and 20th centuries had a place in it. They all brought their spices, their customs and the ways of their cultures and religions
Big pots of “Sunday sauce” served bubbled and simmered in the kitchens of my Italian friends and there was always room at the table. Polish people might have smoked pork chops or kielbasa with a big pile of cabbage with caraway seeds in their rye bread.
Brooklyn expanded my horizons. Exposure to other cultures lets me see different approaches to life. If you are smart, you can adapt some of their wisdom and ways into yours. This includes food and cooking.
The Jewish deli that had amazing hot dogs with thick mustard and pungent sauerkraut by Newkirk Plaza; the beery smelling Irish bar with the misty steam tables feeding corned beef to the day drinkers watching Met or Yankee games; the waft of mellow cheese and zesty Italian sauce married in the oven to create its own advertising coming out of three pizzerias within our walking distance of our apartment building, twenty cents a slice.
Irish food is hearty, but relatively bland in comparison- various preparations of beef or pork, very little fish except for Fridays in Lent, stews, mostly frozen veggies and potatoes were pretty much it. And I don’t like potatoes. Seriously. The only Irish kid I ever knew who felt this way. Maybe a crispy fry or two or a hash brown, but that’s it. I am finicky about little else, but no thank you on the ‘taters.
In between the apartment buildings along the avenues, there were long commercial strips on Flatbush or towards Newkirk Plaza. Each block was different with Irish bars, small German bakeries, Caribbean curry shops, southern fish fry shops, Jewish pickle men, Polish butchers and Greek or Italian fish shops.
I would try anything. Trips out to Coney Island exposed me to Natahan’s, first with their fine hot dogs and then with fried clams and crispy, juicy frogs legs. Then there was Randazzo’s where I first tried a raw clam and fried squid. I was fearless.
Bike riding on Flatbush Avenue one day circa 1972, I saw a sign go up for the first Chinese restaurant I’d ever seen. It became the talk of the neighborhood weeks before it opened. My aunt Marie took us. The red velvet foyer curtains were like the ones at Our Lady of Refuge’s confessionals. The smells were all new. We had the fried rice full of crispy pork and bamboo shoots, butterfly shrimp and the crispy shrimp egg rolls with a splash of soy sauce contained the best vegetables my Irish gob had ever tasted.
Chinese food during the mid-20th century was exotic to American diners that craved new flavors and dishes after decades of tuna surprise and olives in gelatin molds. Immigration laws relaxed in 1965 and chefs who had fled other parts of the world came to New York, bringing their spicy flavors and Sichuan cuisine was one of them.
“From 1965 to 1975, around 20 Sichuan restaurants opened along Broadway,” Schoenfeld says. “The industry exploded; no one had heard of Sichuan food, and then all of a sudden it was everywhere. We entered this golden era of authentic Chinese cooking that went full steam ahead into the 70s. Spicy Sichuan food was exciting. It was hot.” “Ed Schoenfeld’s Chinese Food History of New York” by Jacqueline Raposo
On quiet Sundays after church when I was around 9, my mother started to show me how to cook a few things. I boiled hot dogs, fried bologna, baked English muffin pizzas and worked the toaster. I liked making stuff.
I loved Brooklyn.
At ten I was moved away to Los Angeles, California, heartbroken. I loved being a kid in Brooklyn, with cousins and family nearby. My dad had a dream and some money. I will skip over the his absences, his dalliance with Scientology, his endless drinking and anger. That’s another book.
The awakening that California gave me, as far as food is concerned was a profound revelation. As me and my brother Kevin explored the neighborhood near Echo Park, everywhere I looked there was fruit growing- oranges, kumquots, loquats, grapes, grapefruit, lemons, limes, Chinese apples (a.k.a. pomegranates), pears, walnuts, melons, quince and pears.
Most people would offer you some if they saw you looking or wouldn’t mind if you grabbed a few. They were such nice people in California with everyone saying “hi”. It took a while to let my New York defenses down, but soon it was “far out”.
My first chili dog in California and my first taco happened on the same day. The spicy beef chili on a perfectly cooked giant dog was tasty, but the beef and bean taco from a truck on Sunset Boulevard with the fresh, juicy tomato and crisp lettuce with the taco sauced floored my taste buds. And the green, mushy deliciousness of avocado with a little hot sauce, oh man!
Even the school lunch burritos were good, with the little packet of taco sauce. It was something I began to look forward to each week. My new Mexican friends that lived down the steep hill on Fargo Street* showed me how to grill tortillas on the stove top without burning down the house. I had my first quesadilla when I added a slice of cheese to the affair and never knew it.
*Fargo Street in Echo park – which at 33% gradient is the 2nd steepest paved road in the United States (* at least according to our bible – The Complete Guide to Climbing – By Bike).
The supermarkets in L.A. were massive and an adventure for a kid used to the smaller specialty stores in Brooklyn. As a kid, you could make a few bucks returning carts for store stamps and helping people with there bags for tips. Between Kevin and I we could make around $15 for groceries on a Saturday if we hustled hard.
We were in L.A. for two years, and left my father there. California was no picnic for us. My best memories were of all the new foods I discovered.
In the summer of 1975, the year of “Jaws”, we moved back to Brooklyn for a couple of months. We stayed at my Grandparents in East Flatbush when we first got back. It was great being back in Brooklyn. Grandma and I loved the Mets and would watch games on WOR Channel 9 and I would help her some in the kitchen.
Sometimes I would walk with her a few blocks to the brand new Pathmark that opened up behind the Entenmanns bakery outlet store on Farragut Road. This was a real supermarket, like California had. Grandma always let me get something special like piss clams or pickled herring.
Later that summer, we moved to Staten Island.
Staten Island is a little like Brooklyn, but with more room and less people. We lived in a house, not an apartment building. There were plenty of pizzerias, delis, pork stores and three supermarkets within walking distance of our Castleton Corners home. There were even more Italians in Staten Island than Brooklyn, or so it seemed.
Growing up in Brooklyn and Staten Island, I have learned to love Italian food. I have found some of the most amazing pork stores, salumerias and delis all over the city, but few are as solid as the ones I found on Staten Island. Fazzino’s Deli on Manor Road had a wide variety of cold cuts and salads along with an antipasta made from the cold cut ends and some veggies with a little oil & vinegar that makes my mouth water today. A & C Superette would open across the street in the 80’s with three times the space and product. On Fridays I would get the cold cut order for the weekend- two lbs of Boars Head ham, a pound of bologna, a pound of turkey, a pound of American cheese and a half of either liverwurst or Genoa salami. Add a pound each of macaroni and potato salad. Then maybe some rice balls, eggplant, marinated mushrooms or pepper shooters.
The great wave of European immigration in the late 19th and early 20th centuries brought more than four million Italians to America. It was one of the greatest mass emigrations in world history, and many settled in Staten Island. Following the opening of the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge in 1964, the island experienced another great influx of Italian immigrants, this time from the other boroughs of New York City. Half of my friends growing up were Italian.
We did a lot of fishing and I learned how to work a sharp fillet knife. We began to fish and crab all over New York and New Jersey and visited all the great markets in the various fishing towns. I asked questions and learned recipes from Portuguese, Filipino, Greek and Italian fish mongers. The common theme was keep it on the simple side and don’t over cook the seafood. My seafood game improved drastically.
My Mom went back to work in “the City” when I was 14 and the shopping duties fell to me. I swear that lugging those shopping bags home from the A&P or Waldbaums helped build my shoulders during those formative years. There was usually a twenty dollar bill left under the jewelry box. This is how I learned to make dinner for six.
Tuesday night was pizza because Al’s Pizzeria down on Jewett Avenue and Victory Boulevard did two large pizzas for $8. I would buy a pack of Italian sausage and cook it at home to add on. The very first Subway sandwich shop in NYC was right up the block on Victory Boulevard. In 1978 a roast beef foot long was $2.04 tax included.
Fridays were for Chinese food from Sing Bo up the street. I had begun to go to Chinatown and Sing Bo was as good as any of the restaurant on Mott Street. On the other weeknights, I cooked.
At first, hot dogs, burgers, steaks and English muffin pizzas. That got boring. Steak and gravy with mushrooms, pasta and jar sauce, sloppy joes, Banquet fried chicken in a box and ribs were easy crowd pleasers.
There was fish stick & Jamaican beef patty night that was well liked by most. The first taco night was full of wonder and excitement. Two taco kits and four pounds of cooked ground beef and a pound of grated cheddar later, we had a hit on our hands.
My exploration of Staten Island and ventures into downtown Manhattan began to open my eyes and excite my taste buds.
I love Chinatown in NYC. All three of them- Sunset Park in Brooklyn, Flushing in Queens and the original in downtown Manhattan. I started coming to Manhattan’s Chinatown as a teenager.
My high school friends and I started coming into “The City” on weekends and summer days, under the harbor from Brooklyn and over it by ferry from Staten Island. We’d grab a hot dog on the ferry, they were pretty good back then, or a dirty water Sabrett from a cart on lower Broadway for a quarter.’
We went to Modells for sneakers or cheap tee shirts and to the schlock job lot stores that used to dot Murray and Warren Streets west of Broadway.
Many times a walk up to Chinatown for lunch was suggested. You knew you could eat a great meal for not much more than McDonalds. The dumplings, the jasmine tea, the spicy dishes- the choice was easy for me. Even the windows were exciting.
Wo Hop was the go to place at first. Some of the kids we knew came with their parents on weekends and they had other places to recommend. Some us began to find new places a little off the beaten path eastward, under the bridge by East Broadway.
Some dim sum carts avoided us because they didn’t want us to try anything off putting. I assured the waiter we wanted the real deal. The floor manager signaled for another group of carts to come over to our table. A torrent of chicken feet, more exotic dumplings, brains, lamb skewers and so much more appeared on small plates before us.
Throughout college I continued to come to Chinatown and became introduced to Asian markets and street food spots in NYC Chinatown. Here the adventurous home cook can stock up spices, sauces, teas, various spring roll skins and pillowy bao rolls. Fresh, low cost vegetables and exotic fruits for seasonal dishes. I counted six different types of mushrooms on a recent visit. I took a year of Mandarin at Brooklyn College and can still speak a couple of phrases that get a smile or two at restaurants and shops.
One night, I surprised my family with shrimp egg foo young with perfect, velvety brown gravy made from scratch. They couldn’t believe I made it from scratch. Chinatown also offered inexpensive seafood options like tiger shrimp, crab claws, lobster, cod and scallops. I also incorporated the pre-cooked duck and roast pork into other dishes.
Sushi came in the scene in the 80’s and that was another taste and texture revelation. Fresh, clean, light and nutritious, as a fisherman sushi spoke to me.
I started to understand the value of recipes and how to adapt and tweak them. Recipes from the Sunday New York Times began to come to life in our humble kitchen. The night I made chicken cordon bleu the first time, I sent a piece up to Grandma and Grandpa to try and they loved it. Rere came down for a piece, too. I followed the recipe and got a great melt on the cheese and it almost looked like the picture in the Times.
When my best friend Mike Schwed and I moved into a cool studio on the top floor (with roof access) of a walk up East Seventh Street between 1st and 2nd Avenues, we might as well landed in Europe. We were one of the few Americans in a nearly all Polish building. The smoky aroma of different varieties of pork roasting, the pungent kick of sauerkraut and the sweet smell of sizzling onions waiting for the pierogis, bring me back to those halcyon days in the East Village.
Little India and Little Poland peacefully coexist side by side on the same block between East 6th and East 7th Streets. A couple of short blocks west of there in a Japanese section that you might miss if you don’t know where to look. Model types travel up a small elevator on 9th Street to the Sunrise Market for the latest beauty products. Venture east and you will find Puerto Rican and Dominican bodegas where pernil and oxtail are ladled over arroz amarillo for a very fair price considering you will get two meals out of it.
Every day you would hear Polish, Russian, Spanish, Ukrainian, German, Yiddish, and Spanish spoken in a range regional accent. Chinese and other Asian languages were there too. They had their own stores and restaurants, too. All around us there was amazing, authentic and inexpensive food options. Exploring the avenues and side streets of the East Village for new finds was always a great way to spend a sunny afternoon. It still is.
I’ve seen the city change around me through the years, the East Village has too, but it still has an élan and eccentricity that makes it a magic place. There are still plenty of great restaurants and drinking establishments that make this area special to old timers and newcomers alike. For every hot new place in the East Village is a neighborhood anchor that continues to bring its unique flavor to the neighborhood.
I can take the N train to Astoria for Greek specialties and fresh seafood markets, the 7 to exotic perfumed curries found in Jackson Heights in Queens, to the secret favorites in all three Chinatowns (BK, Manhattan and Queens), the fish hawkers in Sheepshead Bay and the Irish delicacies and delights of Woodside Queens, the 7 train through South and Central American enclaves, rich with spirit and flavor.
I can find the best authentic Dominican food in Washington Heights, taken trips deep into genuine Staten Island Italian pork store abundanza and enjoyed a quiet cup of coffee at 6 a.m. before boarding the Ocean Eagle for a day of fishing out of Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn, ending the day with a seafood feast at Randazzo’s.
I challenge you to taste New York like a New Yorker!
The city is your oyster Take a Metrocard voyage of discovery!