Having spent a little time in Manhattan in the past, I was keen to visit the places missed off on previous visits. Our group was a good mix of New York old-timers, part-timers and first timers so we spanned a breadth of obvious tourist trips and more cultural visits; a Tenement Museum tour is highly recommended - it was brilliant and informative. The Highline, in January, while brilliantly sunny was windy and freezing. We had almost entire freedom to it though, a stark contrast from the crowds in the summer. Central Park had a fresh blanket of snow, muffling our footsteps.
Grand Central Station is a tourist stalwart and you can see why. Breath-taking architecture in the main hall melded with the modern times in the basement of crowds gathering for a pre-train Shake Shack burger. En route to a walking tour of Harlem, we were lured into the world-famous Oyster Bar.
Everywhere around us diners were tucking into hearty bowls of their famous New England clam chowder, served from tureens on pivots for easy pouring. Sachets of fish-shaped crackers were scattered on the bar to dip into them. On a cold winter's day, they can sometimes sell 550 bowls of it. In anticipation of lunch, I stuck to 3 of the most amusingly-named oysters from a long menu and we were persuaded into ordering a bottle of prosecco, upgrading our glasses.
Obviously in the excitement of it all we missed our walking tour by getting pretty stupidly lost (never let me direct you anywhere). We binned it off and ducked into Sylvia's Restaurant, a 50 year old Harlem institution, self-styled as the 'Queen of Soul Food'. We walked into a surprisingly busy restaurant, given it was 3pm, and promptly discovered we absolutely had to all order a main course each, as were the restaurant rules. Our planned restaurant crawl fizzled out. Warm complimentary cornbread with butter kicked us off and it was really irresistible; slightly sweet, cake-like in texture and with a slight crunch to the top.
There was only one thing in my mind that I absolutely had to order and that is the fried chicken. On the set lunch menu it came with a choice of two sides, so garlicky mashed potato with okra and tomato gumbo were my selects. I love the sliminess of okra, and this certainly didn't disappoint, though it won't win any beauty contests. The chicken was crisp and hot, a salty crust giving way to juicy leg meat. It was a fine example, though I can't say it has beaten any fried chicken I've tried so far. Collard greens stewed with ham was comforting, macaroni cheese was a bit school canteen-style but I liked it, in a nostalgic way. Fried chicken with waffles was served with maple syrup and a pat of butter and was an absolutely monstrous portion. I'd go back for their 'famous Gospel Sunday'.
We visited at a fortuitous time, when other friends also happened to be in the City and on the Friday night we converged into a mass of 8 and descended upon Uncle Boons in East Village. Obviously, given it was Friday night, they were full but happy to call us when we were up so we went next door to Sweet & Vicious to slurp giant frozen margs. By the time we sat down we were more than merry. Do you know what it's like to attempt to order for 8 ravenous people? With a menu that you could quite feasibly fancy all of? No thanks. I relinquished entire control of our ordering to the waiter, who walked us through his selects to a chorus of "YES!"es. Tiny deep-fried quails eggs were minature son-in-law eggs - you know the ones, in a tamarind sauce, perfect for popping in whole.
Tiny little riblets, marinated in shrimp paste and deep fried were attacked with urgent hands and stripped of their flesh. Grilled baby octopus arrived charred and tender, tentacles waving, served with a fresh incandescent green chilli relish. A special of king crab claws arrived with a mild red curry dip; our West Coast Canadian was non-plussed given its ubiquity back home, but we savoured every moment. I wonder how much they cost.
Khao Soi noodles were properly spicy, tempered by coconut milk but still emphatically hot. Not an easy one to share between 8, but by now the team was starting to flag so I could secretly scoff this one. Crunchy salads revived the palates in between dishes, especially the sweetbreads on crispy noodles and various herbs. Pork belly was braised and served in a sour tamarind curry with a body of squid, stuffed with pork and herbs. Me? I started to flag here, and still the food kept coming, and still I kept eating. Finally, the skate over rice noodles (khanom jeen) with wild ginger sauce was the end of our meal, and unfortunately it was a rather limp finish; all a bit bland, floppy and wet. I could have had palate fatigue by then, but others agreed.
I barely managed to fit another beer in after all that, but I have no regrets; the meal was a riot of flavours, spiciness, and inventiveness. Our eyes widened at the bill - $70 a head, with rather a lot of wine - but actually only because it was our most costly meal there. We'd pay that in a heart-beat in London.
I read somewhere (probably here) that Shanghai Cafe Deluxe serve excellent soup dumplings (siu long bao / xiao long bao). Since here in London there's virtually impossible to find a decent one, it was all I could do to stop myself from going every day.
Forget the wontons in spicy sauce. They're lukewarm and doughy. The XLB, however - yes. We ordered two steamers, one of the classic pork, the other pork and crab. My hungover friend couldn't handle the crab version which was a total win for greedy little me. Scoop a little vinegar and ginger into your spoon. Place dumpling carefully in spoon. If you're nervous, bite top off dumpling and slurp. But for maximum gratification? WAIT for it to cool a little, pop the whole thing in and savour that glorious dumpling burst.
"If you want to go anywhere that's decent to eat in New York City, you, like, have to wait in line for two hours for it. ANYWHERE GOOD is the same." This whinge came from the guy who lived in our Air BnB apartment who moped around looking so haughtily miserable all the time we renamed him Sad Sack and suppressed giggles at his eye-rolling dourness. "Oh yeaaaah and Mission Chinese? Get there at 5pm or forget it."
It was Monday. Our flight was imminent, and Mission Chinese was closed for the day. Our solution? Breakfast at Mission Cantina, the Mexican outpost. I'll still continually kick myself that I didn't try the kung pao pastrami, but the Vietnamese breakfast at Mission Cantina - I know, it's confusing... Vietnamese breakfast? At the Mexican place? - was pretty excellent.
We flung open the door to the restaurant and came face-to-face with none other than Danny Bowien, the chef and co-founder of the Missions. I was a bit star-struck. We were led to a table and left to order from a hearty menu. I wish I'd had a stronger appetite, but well, we were on Day Four of a hefty trip. Otherwise I'd have smashed that heritage steak tartare at 9am but instead plumped for the duck porridge, their Vietnamese style of congee. Before our meals, we were given a couple of complimentary eggs, fried till the whites were crisp and drizzled with Maggi sauce. Prawn crackers were perfect to dip into, and midway through mouthfuls of egg I wondered why they'd only given us two between the three of us.
Oops. Greedy me. Mine already came with one. The congee was warming and smooth, slightly sticky and studded with shreds of duck. Peanuts and pickled vegetables were provided to season each mouthful. The prawn toast was actually half a baguette smeared sparingly - it was a little greasy and soon became too rich, though. A salted plum soda was incredibly refreshing; I'm replicating it as soon as I get my hands on them plums.
My friends both went for the chicken pho 'Hanoi style'. I'm not sure what that constitutes (YES I DO! Recipe is here), but it came in a vat big enough to bathe in. The usual star anise-scent was largely absent here, instead focused on a bright clean broth, plenty of noodles and poached chicken. The accompanying chilli sauce was mandatory. No one managed to finish their bowls. Make sure you use the loo - it is awesome.
Fortified, we headed back out to the freezing sleet. 10 minutes later, we ducked into a nail salon. SOOO New York dahlink (my first mani-pedi in all of my 28 years).
Bodily grooming sorted, we headed back out for the whipping wind and driving rain. Thoughts soon turned to lunch, and happily Empellon Al Pastor was nearby. It was the sort of place I wish we'd gone to for a night out, rather than a Monday lunchtime; it had that feeling of yes-you'll-definitely-get-hammered-on-tequila-here. I looked longingly at the drinks list - Loaded Micheladas! - goddamnit. We remained on good behaviour and tackled the taco menu instead.
Al pastor - that is, pork cooked on a spit with pineapple - is their namesake, so that had to be tried. It did not disappoint; tender, juicy spiced pork with a wafer of barbecued pineapple on a floppy, fresh corn taco. Tacos needn't be better than this.
Just in case they were, I tried a tripe, beef tongue and bacon taco which was good, if a bit indistinguishable of the animal parts. Nopales (that's cactus), arbol chile and queso fresco (pictured above) was light and welcome relief from the rich meats. The sides are decent (and massive) too - we tried the braised kale and the drunken beans, both heavily spiked with meat. This is drinking food. We should have got our drink on.
Our last day. A mild sense of alarm had set in. We hadn't had any proper barbecue. No Fette Sau's. No Hill Country. It was last chance saloon and nothing was standing in our way.
Mighty Quinn's was entirely different to how I expected it to be. I had imagined some sort of basement, perhaps some filament lightbulbs, slinging bourbon, at least some cocktails for god's sake. I think I've been in London too long. What it was was an airy restaurant, a lively and pleasant service counter, plenty of tables and importantly, no queue. In your FACE, Sad Sack!
The menu is simple. Choose your meat by sandwich, naked or weight, choose a side if you wish, and choose your pickles.
Obviously it was essential for me to have all the pickles. They were bright and perky, still retaining a rainbow of colour. Vinegared or mayo coleslaw was also offered - obviously vinegared - it was just a shame that all the pickles, the slaw and our incredible broccoli salad (dressed with buttermilk - these Americans KNOW salad) was all fridge cold. Slightly hurting the teeth kind of cold.
Beef brisket (above), pulled pork and spare ribs were our selects and I think I won - they all had good flavour, but I find pulled pork a little one-note and the brisket could have been more tender. Barbecue and hot sauces on the table were crucial accompaniments for both the meat and the fries.
Thus concludes another New York Marathon. This handy spreadsheet might help you out on your trip - please do let me know if it did as it has been compiled over several years, so it's nice to hear.