To Eat in the LBA (Lower Big Apple)

A good friend of ours is planning a one week trip to New York this summer.  While we called it home for 3 years, we would hardly call ourselves New Yorkers.  But since we still travel back to New York at least a few times a year and stay months at a time, we offered to give our friend the low-down.

New York is such a transient city.  It’s like an amusement park of life where you pay a high ticket price to get in (…in the form of rent and long harsh winters), then try to get on as many rides as humanly possible (… in the form of fashion shows, sample sales, and restaurant openings).  But many people begin to get a slight sense of island-fever after a few years and reluctantly admit that it may be time to exit and head back to “reality”.

Some “realities” may be just across the bridge to Brooklyn or Queens, because let’s face it, while New York does have 5 boroughs, a newcomer to the city probably didn’t arrive to the Big Apple in the hopes of landing that perfect apartment in Bushwick.

For others, “reality” may be neighboring New Jersey or Connecticut, which is pretty much just like living in any other suburb the country.  But because of their proximity to Manhattan, it’s like owning an annual pass back into the park.  Still others may head all the way West to the Pacific in search of more green and less concrete.  Others like us, rare as it may be, end up moving to places where there’s even more concrete and bigger crowds – Asia.

As I began to put together a recommended list for our friend who will be spending 10 precious days in the Big Apple, I decided to put the list on this blog so other New Yorkers can potentially share their recommendations with him as well.

But before I share our list, I need to start off with a personal disclaimer.

It seems everyone who lives (or have lived) in NYC can get pretty defensive of his/her own opinions of what the city has to offer, especially when it comes to food.  So I just want to preface our recommendations with the fact that we are not trying to come up with a “best of  New York” list.  Instead this is simply a short collection of personal dining gems that brought us smiles and made us go back again and again – which can be difficult in a city where restaurant openings are common.  Also our recommendations are mainly downtown, since that was our turf when we called the city home.  So free to chime in with your own recommendations elsewhere, I’m sure our buddy can use the help!

We’re also not recommending any Asian themed restaurants.  I mean, our friend is visiting from Hong Kong, so he might not be too excited about the best dimsum or ramen and sushi.  But warning, be prepared to gain a few pounds.  Oh you can afford it… tee hee (evil laugh):

1)  The Clinton Street Baking Co. (Lower East Side) – weekend brunches come with a long-ass wait.  But we lived only a couple blocks away and so we go there for dinner often.  Go for dinner on a weeknight and you’ll have the most wonderful honey glazed fried chicken.  The freshly baked bread that comes with the meal is also to die for.  The crab cakes are also huge and melts in your mouth.  I think Tuesdays they have bottle wine specials, but call before heading over to make sure.

2)  The Orchard (Lower East Side) – we actually raved about this place way back when in our old blog post.  From steak tartar to pulled duck, they make the most scrumptious flatbreads.  And at $13 / $14 each, it’s quite a steal for NYC standards.  Order a few flatbreads to share is ideal.  Our favorite is the braised shortribs flatbread.  Reservations is kind of a must, even during weeknights.  The scene is chill and trendy, and we love the zen-wooden decor.   The place can put you in the most positive zone – something about the energy of the walls perhaps…?  We try to come back here often, but the reservation gods can be tricky.

3)  Spring Street Natural (Soho) – this place is a bit controversial.  It’s not your typical cute New Yorky place in its set-up, the place is too big for New York.  But it is smack conveniently right in between Soho and Nolita, two of the trendiest shopping areas in the City.  If the weather’s great you can grab a seat outside and people watch.  But even if it’s not, it’s a great place for brunch since they serve hearty salads that even carnivores like us gives a big thumbs up.  We also love their fried tempe with peanut sauce, simply delish!  If Molly Sims (who sat next to us) and Lauren Hutton (I stole her sunday paper by mistake) can eat there, it’s New York enough to give it a try.

4) Freeman’s (Nolita) – another great place for brunch.  Hidden in an alleyway in Nolita, it’s a great visit just for the vibe and decor.  I mean how often do you stroll deep into an alley to find a hip restaurant bar complete with cowboy gear and moose head hanging on the wall.  We’ve been there quite a few times but they’ve always been for brunch, where the skillet eggs with bacon and spinach were to die for.  But honestly, we go mainly for the vibe.

5) Cafe Gitane (on Mott Street) (Nolita) – ok, this place might just be my personal favorite restaurant in the city – and that’s a huge claim.  Maybe it’s because it’s the first restaurant we went to when we first moved to NYC.  Actually it was the first restaurant we stepped into right off our redeye from L.A.  So it holds a special place in our hearts.  But emotions can only feed you so much when your stomach is growling.  I absolutely love their Moroccan Couscous with fresh bell peppers, pine nuts, eggplant.  I always get mine with sausages because organic chicken is for sissies. 🙂  The crowd is quintessentially gorgeous.  Models (both male and females) galore.  I’d suggest going on the weekdays when you get the real vibe, since the place is full of hangover-recovering yuppies on weekends.

6) Boka (Bonchon Chicken) (East Village) – ok, I know our buddy is a recovering vegetarian who prefers tea over soda and orders salad at a gourmet burger joint, and I pray that someone who reads this can sympathize with that and give him some recommendations along those lines.  But c’mon you know us, when we eat… we EAT.  After we tried Boka’s Bonchon Chicken, no other fried chicken compares.  Sure it’s deep fried, and sure it’s dipped in rich sweet garlic or spicy glazed sauce before they fry it, the result is fried chicken heaven.  A MUST try at least once.  And I dare you to have an espresso martini to wash it all down.

7)  Dumont (Williamsburg, Brooklyn) – ok I know Brookyn is not Manhattan, but Williamsburg is probably as close to Manhattan as you can get across the river, so I’m recommending this one.  It helps that this was right next to our place during our last year stay in New York.  Which means we’ve been back enough times to know their food is consistently great.  The “Dumac & Cheese” is sinfully rich and their burgers are stacked tall and oh so juicy.  Another must have are their short ribs!  Finger licking good!!  Since you’ll be there in the summer, ask for a table in the patio.  Even if there’s a wait, the experience is totally worth it!

8 ) Il Corallo Trattoria (Soho) – when you see two “$” signs followed by four stars – you know you’ve hit gold.  A friend turned us onto this no frills Italian restaurant for the best deal in town if you’re looking for fresh pasta at an incredibly reasonable price.  With $9.95 lunch specials (still this price last time we visited) that include soup or salad and a large bowl pasta, it’s an amazing steal.  And it’s right between Soho and West Village, so a perfect lunch stop between your shopping stints at Jack Spade and Marc Jacobs.  And it’s not just cheap, it’s GOOD.  The pastas are so fresh and piping hot when served, it’s like you’re eating at an Italian congee shop – it may not look too impressive but it’s oh so comforting.

9)  Mercadito Cantina (East Village, but not to be confused with Mercadito across the street which is a more formal restaurant… very good but more expensive) – When we were in New York for a few months last fall we stayed at a sublet in Styvesant Town right off 14th Street.  One rainy night we were starving so we roamed down into East Village, where there are restaurants abound.  A sign that screamed “$19.95 All You Can Eat Taco Mondays” naturally caught our hungry eyes.  While “all-you-can-eat” is a concept common in Asia, it’s hard to find similar places in New York and sounded way too good to be true.  So we ventured in – led by our tastebuds.  We ordered 2 of everything that was on the menu and went back for seconds and thirds (ahem… the tacos were bite sized).  My favorites were the Estilo Baja (battered shrimp) and Al Pastor (grilled red snapper).  Although since it’s all you can stomach, definitely try each and every one.  But do call ahead and make sure the deal is still around.

The best part about New York is exploration.  Menupages is our restaurant bible since they feature full menus and pricing.  Opentable can be your own personal reservation concierge.  You can also check New York Magazine or food blog Eater but I’d be aware of ‘trend-driven’ restaurant openings.

New York is very hype-oriented and most times the prices don’t justify the hype.  It’s the ‘shiny object’ syndrome induced by PR firms to attract tourists and newcomers.  One week cupcakes are “in” and another week it’s “ramen” and “sausages”.  Hell there’s even a “bao” trend…  So be careful since you end up be paying for a trend that’s conjured up versus for the quality of the food that’s actually on your plate.  Sometimes it’s the tried and true that’s the safest bet and is most reflective of a city’s true personality.


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